Saturday, May 20, 2017

Natural Weekends - Back To The San Diego Zoo

To Collude With Russia, Trump Went To Jared

Well, another day, another four bombshells. And this time one of them went off in the very heart of Trump's presidency.

First, the New York Times reported that Trump himself boasted about firing Comey in his meeting with the Russians to which the US press was barred and which had been requested by Vladimir Putin himself. Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Kislyak "I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off...I’m not under investigation." That is yet another admission by the President that his firing of Comey was obstruction of justice.

The Times story quoted a source within the administration who read from a document summarizing the meeting in question. That itself raises some questions because the White House had refused to release a transcript of the meeting when it was reported that Trump had also compromised one of the most highly classified secrets that US intelligence has. That intelligence was provided by a third country, apparently Israel, and was not supposed to be shared with other governments, and certainly not Russia. Trump described to the Russians a plot by ISIS, thereby possibly unmasking one of the most valuable agents inside ISIS.

Russia, however, said it had tapes or a transcript of the meeting and would be happy to provide them. The Times story, although quoting an American official, did not indicate the source of the document that official was reading from.

The third big story yesterday came from McClatchy who reported that the Russia investigation now includes looking into a White House cover-up and possible obstruction of justice. While this is hardly a surprising development, the fact that an anonymous Justice Department official confirmed this expansion of the investigation is important. Based on Trump's own statements, it would be hard to imagine that the investigation would not, at some point, have to focus on obstruction of justice not only by the White House but possibly others no longer working for Trump.

Later in the evening, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced it will have James Comey himself come before them in open testimony sometime after Memorial Day. That will be riveting television as Comey is likely to outline the many times he felt pressure from the White House and contradict Trump's blanket denials about conversations where Trump asked Comey to back off the investigation of Flynn or to put out a statement saying Trump himself was not being investigated.

But the second story of the afternoon was the real bombshell. In it, the Washington Post reports that a current senior adviser to Trump had become a person of interest in the Russian investigation. The senior adviser was not named and it is unclear just how many officials are covered by that label. But it certainly must include Bannon, possibly Miller, Sessions, Kushner, Pence, and Priebus. It certainly must have made for an awkward flight with all of them on the same flight to Riyadh.

Whether the person of interest is part of the investigation into collusion or improper financial dealings or a cover-up is unclear at this time. And it expands the probe beyond the original suspects of Flynn, Manafort, Stone, and Page and brings into the current White House. This is devastating for Trump's defense because the usual statement that the people being investigated were merely fringe players in his campaign is no longer acceptable, if it ever really was for Manafort and Flynn especially.

While my initial thought that the person of interest might be Bannon or Miller, unconfirmed reporting suggests it may be Jared Kushner. If that is the case, it would be logical to think his involvement probably is associated with improper financial dealings. We do know that Kushner had lied about his own contacts with Russian Ambassador Kislyak and has had dealing with a Putin-controlled Russian bank in the past. But the Independent is reporting that the investigation into Kushner focuses on actual collusion with Russia during the campaign.

If the Independent's report is true, and it is receiving some corroboration from other news outlets, it really could be the death of the Trump presidency. It would be hard to imagine that Trump could somehow claim ignorance of his own son-in-law and most trusted adviser colluding with the Russians during the campaign. And it would certainly explain Trump's many attempt to obstruct the inquiry.

None of this, the expansion of the inquiry into obstruction of justice, the coming testimony of Comey, and the reality that a current adviser has become a target, is good news for the President. The noose around Trump gets tighter and tighter.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Impunity Of The Rich

How and why does Donald Trump think he can get away with stiffing contractors, swindle almost everyone, refuse to release his taxes, and lie about virtually everything? Because he's rich and he's gotten away with it his entire career.

While Trump's comment about his ability to sexually assault women and get away with it because he is famous also has some truth to it, it is also because he is rich. There have been many occasions over the course of his career where prosecutors had ample opportunity to indict Trump but remarkably decided not to. I wonder why...

But it is not just Trump. Take the case of Leon Cooperman, the head of the hedge fund Omega Advisers. Cooperman was caught insider trading based on his knowledge of the inner working of Atlas Pipeline Partners as a large shareholder of that company. As a result of that insider trading, Omega Advisers pocketed $4 million in profits.

When the charges came out, Cooperman protested his innocence an pledged to fight tooth and nail to reclaim his "reputation". Sound familiar? Now, barely eight months later, Cooperman has settled with the government, agreeing to pay just under $5 million in penalties while not admitting any wrongdoing and being able to continue to work in the securities industry. This is not even a slap on the wrist as the fine barely covers the illegal profits. Sound familiar?

This is equivalent to robbing someone's house, getting caught, but then being allowed to go free because you return all the stuff you stole. But you never hear about a case like that. I wonder what the difference could be...

And if you believe Mr. Cooperman's stellar reputation means that he never engaged in illegal insider trading besides this one incident, I believe Mr. Cooperman has a bridge to sell you.

Yes, I know insider trading cases are especially hard to prove under current law. But that's just because current law is biased toward protecting those insider traders, requiring a determination of intent rather than just a result. The laws, of course, could be strengthened. And the legal status of a corporation allows these criminals to engage in unlawful activity under the protection of that corporate legal blanket, subject primarily to only civil penalties.

There is a reason the rich act with impunity. They get away with it. And isn't that almost the definition of kleptocracy.

House May Have To Vote Again On AHCA Even Before Senate Acts

So perhaps the Republicans didn't really pass the AHCA after all. In yet another stunning development and indicative of the disarray and the raw abuse of power in the Republican party, apparently Paul Ryan has not yet sent the AHCA over to the Senate for consideration. Ryan has held onto the bill because it is possible that the CBO score, which is expected to come out next Wednesday, will require the House to actually vote again on the bill.

If Ryan had sent the bill over to the Senate for consideration and the CBO score of the revised AHCA plan came in with savings less than $2 billion, it would mean that Republicans would literally have to start all over, passing a new budget resolution and then passing the AHCA again. By not sending the bill over, Ryan can call a new vote to simply modify the AHCA to get within the CBO limit.

The AHCA originally showed about $150 billion in savings so there should have been plenty of leeway for the GOP. But last minute amendments clearly reduced that buffer. And if, as Republicans claim, the cheaper insurance that provides scant real coverage that the AHCA allows result in a surge of new enrollees who will receive tax credits, then that could add untold billions to the cost of the AHCA and eliminate virtually all the savings from the AHCA. If so, House Republicans would have to start all over with another version of the AHCA, Trumpcare 4.0.

Of course, this kind of highlights the reason to wait for a CBO score when you are passing legislation that effects nearly 20% of the US economy. As Louise Slaughter notes, "Every school child knows that when you pass a bill in the House, you send it to the Senate. You don’t hide it in a drawer somewhere for two weeks, while you wait for information that you should have had before you passed it." But not with the current Republican party which has totally abandoned democratic and governing norms.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if the CBO score does not show the required savings and Ryan forces House Republicans to vote yet again for the incredibly unpopular and cruel AHCA. House members have been getting an earful from their constituents about the plan and the CBO score of the plan is likely to be even uglier than the first version, if you can imagine that. That will again reignite the furor against the AHCA just as the GOP is forced to vote on it again.

In addition, the AHCA passed with just a two vote margin. Jason Chaffetz plans to resign from Congress at the end of June and the special elections in Georgia and Montana will be held on June 20th and May 25th respectively. A Democratic win in just one of those two special elections plus Chaffetz' resignation would erase that two vote margin. That would imply that Ryan would have to move rather quickly to amend the AHCA and get it passed again before he loses his margin to move the bill.

With the Russia investigation moving over to a special counsel in the form of Robert Mueller, it will now probably drop off the radar to some extent. But that will allow the focus to just shift to the CBO score coming out next week and the appalling nature of the AHCA. Democrats will be happy with that shift as the AHCA is far more unpopular than even Donald Trump and it will probably be the focus of the 2018 elections.

One Day Of News Illustrates Trump's Attack On Our Democracy

Frankly, I'm exhausted. The daily, nightly, hourly avalanche of shattering revelations about the oligarchic kleptocracy epitomized by the corruption, illegality, and autocratic tendencies of the Trump administration and aided, abetted and enabled by a Republican party that has lost any interest in defending our democracy and instead simply desires raw political power in pursuit of transferring wealth upward has left me simply worn out. Just in one day, yesterday, there were over half a dozen stories that highlight the above and deserve a post of their own. But it's just too exhausting and before I even get through one or two posts, the next round of attacks on our democracy will come blasting across the airways. So here are some quick hits on yesterday's items.
  • Trump campaign had at least 18 contacts with Russians in the last few months before the election. The campaign had previously not disclosed the extent of these contacts and other campaigns have said this number of contacts is unusually high. Part of the purpose of these contacts was to create a backchannel between Trump and the Russians that would work outside of the normal national security apparatus. That backchannel became more important after Trump was elected and focused on lifting sanctions on Russia in return for cooperation on ISIS and containing China. Conclusion: Just more evidence of collusion with the Russians and the fact that Trump, his campaign, and his transition were attempting to subvert that official US position with regard to sanctions on Russia established by the then-current President Obama.

  • On April 25th, in the middle of the multiple investigations into the Trump campaign and specifically Michael Flynn, who at that time was seeking immunity from congressional committees in return for testifying,, Trump sent a message to Flynn to "stay strong". Conclusion: More evidence of Trump's witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

  • Rod Rosenstein admits to Senate committee that he knew Comey was going to be fired and willingly wrote the memo that was used as a pretext for his firing. That pretext was shown to be exactly that when Trump admitted he was firing Comey because of the "Russia thing" and his belief that Comey was not focusing on leaks. So Rosenstein knew that his memo was merely a justification for a decision that had already been made and willingly went along with it. That decision was to fire the man leading the investigation into Trump and his campaign. Conclusion: Rosenstein willingly abetted the President's obstruction of justice. Additional Conclusion: Anyone who Trump deals with will have their reputations badly tarnished.

  • Turkish President Erdogan orders the thugs who guard him to go out and beat up protesters in front of the Turkish embassy in Washington. There is additional video showing Erdogan giving an order to his guards who immediately go out and join the fray. Erdogan then emerged from his car to watch the melee. Yes, this happened in the United States of America. And the Trump administration was virtually silent about it, with no condemnation from either the State Department or from Trump. Trump has already shown his disdain for protesters, encouraging his supporters to attack them at rallies. Conclusion: Trump is comfortable with autocrats, will let them act with impunity inside the US, probably secretly desires to be able to do what Erdogan did, and attacks the democratic principle of free speech and free assembly.

  • I have often wondered why the health insurers were so silent about the AHCA as it was making its way through the House. Once it passed the House, however, all of sudden health insurers had a lot to say about how it should be changed in the Senate. Now we know why. Apparently, Seema Vera, Trump's head of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, tried to blackmail health insurers by telling them that Trump would continue to pay the CSRs, essentially subsidies paid directly to insurers, in return for backing the AHCA in the House. Please let that sink in. A top Trump administration official is blackmailing insurance companies and for purely partisan political reasons. Of course, the threat really made no sense if it was meant literally because it essentially said that Trump will take away your subsidies if you don't support the bill to eliminate those subsidies. But the real point of the threat was simply to get Trump a "win" and get the AHCA passed in the House. And it worked as health insurers had virtual radio silence during the AHCA debate. Conclusion: Corruption in pursuit of Trump's personal agenda is the norm in this administration from top to bottom.

  • Jared Kushner personally intervenes to reduce the price of a missile system for Saudi Arabia. In the middle of negotiating a broader arms sale agreement to Saudi Arabia, Jared Kushner called the CEO of Lockheed, the maker of the anti-missile system, and asked her to reduce the price. The inappropriateness of this is self-evident. I wonder what the South Koreans, our supposed ally, are thinking. Trump is demanding that they pay the full price for the very same anti-missile system that was installed largely against the wishes of the South Koreans. Why aren't they getting the discount. Perhaps, that may be because the Trump Organization is desperately trying to expand its presence in the Middle East or that the Kushner family is desperately trying to raise money to save its failed office building in New York or that the Trump family has trademarks pending in Saudi Arabia. In addition, imagine the outcry we would have heard from Republicans about interfering in the free hand of commerce if Obama had done this. Lastly, this doesn't sound like America First. Not only is a US company going to get less money than it should but it is also going to be just another "bad trade deal" simply because we didn't maximize value. Conclusion: Never underestimate the ad-hoc decision making of this administration with no thought to other potential ramifications; never underestimate the hypocrisy of this administration and the Republican party; and never allow any decision that this administration makes not to be viewed through a lens of potential corruption.
Potential treason, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice by the President, attacks on the free press and the right to free assembly, and corruption at all levels of the administration all indicate how our democracy is under attack. It's just one day in the Trump administration.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

More Evidence Pence Knew About Flynn's Foreign Entanglements And Did Nothing

As the threat of impeachment grows, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Mike Pence is almost as badly tainted as Trump when it comes to the Russian investigation, especially in regard to Mike Flynn.

Today's report in the NY Times that Flynn told White House Counsel Don McGahn that he was under investigation for secretly being paid as a lobbyist for Turkey all the way back on January 4th. Pence was the supposed head of the Trump transition and it is hard to imagine that he was not made aware of Flynn's problems by McGahn.

In addition, McClatchy reports that Flynn asked the Obama administration to delay a plan to support the Syrian Kurds in their attempt to retake Raqqa from ISIS. That action by Flynn came after he had notified McGahn about being under investigation and before Trump was sworn in as President. Turkey opposes the creation of a Kurdish state and does everything it can to diminish Kurdish power. Scuttling this plan was clearly in Turkey's interest. It must be said, however, that Trump finally did approve this plan weeks later.

It also stretches credulity that Pence was not informed by McGahn of Sally Yates' warning that not only had Flynn probably broken the law in his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak, but that he had lied about those conversations, possibly even to the FBI.

What the Times report makes clear is that Pence knew Flynn had been acting as an agent of a foreign power even before Trump's inauguration. And he also probably knew that Flynn had violated the law in his discussions with the Russians and had lied about it either to Pence himself or, quite possibly, the FBI. Yet none of that knowledge seemed to effect Pence. For his entire tenure, despite knowing Flynn's contacts and entanglements with foreign governments, Pence went along with Trump in allowing Flynn to remain in his post as NSA, the man with access to the most sensitive intelligence the US has.

The rot in this administration runs to its core and stains virtually everyone in this administration.

Audio Tape Makes Ryan, McCarthy Virtually Complicit In Russian Hacking

In an earlier post, I noted that the current narrative is that Russia intervened in our election to elect Donald Trump. That is actually misleading. There is more than ample evidence that the Russians intervened in our election to help Republicans, not just Trump, get elected.

If the Russians were focused simply on electing Trump, there was no reason for them to hack the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). But, if they wanted to ensure as many Republicans got elected to Congress, then hacking the DCCC made sense. And, assuming the Russians believed that Hillary would win the election as did virtually everyone else, that would also make strategic sense.

As I wrote, "House races in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina were targeted by hackers with much of the attacks being based on data stolen from the DCCC. These attacks were hardly random as they targeted some of the races that were supposed to be the most competitive in the fall election. The details released contained the DCCC's blunt assessment of the Democratic candidates' weaknesses and also revealed their election strategies."

The fact that hackers were able to target specific House races points to some kind of in-depth knowledge of local American politics. Whether that speaks to Russian attention to detail or some kind of coordination with sources inside the US is an open question.

What is now not in question is that the top Republican House leadership was well aware that the Russians had hacked the election for their benefit all the way back in June of 2016. Yet, they not only willingly used that stolen material in their campaigns but they also refused to condemn Trump when he floated the idea that the Russians were not necessarily behind the hack. And, in addition, the very same leadership had suspicions that Trump was being funded by the Russians.

The Washington Post has released a transcript of an audio recording where House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says, "There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump...Swear to God." McCarthy now claims it was all a joke. But the entire transcript and the lies that the Paul Ryan and McCarthy told the Post about these conversations belie that excuse.

Here is the relevant part of the transcript:

McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.
McCarthy: laughs
Ryan: The Russian’s hacked the DNC…
McHenry: …to get oppo…
Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?
McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.
Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?!
Ryan: This is how we know we’re a real family here. 
Scalise: That’s how you know that we’re tight.
Ryan: What’s said in the family stays in the family.

Whether or not you believe McCarthy was joking, as @mattyglesias notes, the transcript makes clear that McCarthy and Ryan both understood that the DNC was hacked by the Russians for Trump's benefit. Yet, throughout the campaign, those leaders refused to strongly push back against Trump when he refused to acknowledge the Russian link to the hacking, claiming it could be anybody, even a 14 year old sitting on the couch.

In addition, when the Post contacted Ryan and McCarthy without telling him they had an audiotape, both Ryan and McCarthy denied the conversation took place. Upon being told that the Post had an audiotape, both Ryan and McCarthy then took the tack that it was all a joke. Kind of like the claim that Trump was only joking when he asked Comey to "let it go" when it came to the Flynn investigation.

Lastly, Democratic leaders asked Ryan and the GOP leader of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to not use any information gleaned from the hack of the DNC and DCCC. Those pleas were ignored and the information was used not only in the Presidential campaign but also in the most competitive House races in the country.

Let's be clear, the Russians hacked the election to benefit Republicans, not just Trump. And the House Republican leadership knew that was happening and was quite happy to let it redound to their benefit. They were silently complicit with the Russians in subverting our democracy. The rot in the Republican party runs to its core.

Mueller's Appointment May Give GOP Breathing Room But Agenda Still In Trouble

The appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel by Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein is not only a welcome development for the country but also takes enormous pressure off Republicans in Congress. The question is whether the various investigating committees in the House and Senate will either shut down or slow-walk their current investigations even more than they have been, basically claiming not to want to interfere with Mueller's investigation. I suspect that is their preferred approach.

That does not mean that there will still not be earth-shattering revelations like what we have seen for the last few weeks. The press is incredibly focused on all aspects surrounding the Russia investigation and their reporting will not stop. And Republicans in Congress will still have to react to each and every one of these new reports, even if just to say that they are leaving it all in the good hands of Robert Mueller.

In addition, the question about what to do with James Comey and his contemporaneous memos needs to be resolved. Multiple committees have subpoenaed those memos and multiple committees want to hear directly from Comey in either open hearings or closed. Comey, quite naturally, has already indicated he would only speak in an open hearing. It is doubtful that the committees would shut down this line of inquiry at this point because it would again look like it was abetting a cover-up at least for the short term until Mueller finishes his job. On the other hand, letting Comey testify in direct contradiction of Trump's statements just ratchets up impeachment pressure on Republicans. Mueller may save them by asking Congress not to interview Comey as he is a potential witness in his inquiry.

And it is quite possible that Mueller's appointment will give the GOP just enough breathing space to actually work on their destructive agenda. But, despite that potential respite, the calendar is working against the GOP. It is clear that whatever their own version of the AHCA will be, it will need to pass under the arcane rules of budget reconciliation. That means that it must get done by June 15, less than month away. Unless McConnell tries to do what Ryan did in the House, which is far more difficult to pull off in the Senate, there is no way that the Senate can pass a bill by that date. That means that it will have to be taken up again in the fall as part of the 2018 budget.

That delay creates a problem for the GOP's tax cut plan. They were counting on the reduced budget baseline that would have been created by the passage of the AHCA in 2017 in order to fuel even more tax cuts for the rich in 2018. Without that reduced baseline, the likelihood increases that the GOP tax plan will not be any kind of comprehensive reform but an unfunded lowering of the corporate and highest individual tax rate. But the tax plan and the Senate's version of the AHCA will all be part of the massive budget battle looming this fall. And raising the debt ceiling, which will require Democratic support, will also have to be dealt with around the same time.

In the very short term, any respite from Trump's Russian problems will just allow focus to shift back to the cruelty and awfulness of the AHCA. We have yet to hear the CBO score on the revised AHCA and it is expected next week. I would expect the numbers to be even worse than its original scoring, if you can imagine that's possible. Additionally, insurers have a June 19 final deadline for signing up for the Obamacare exchanges in 2018. Since there will be no Senate bill, insurers will at least have definitive knowledge about the lay of the land for 2018. But beyond that, it is total uncertainty. And, as we heard from Republicans constantly during the Obama years, business hates uncertainty. It will be up to Democrats to make sure the GOP owns the rate hikes that are bound to come in 2018 because of the uncertainty Republicans have created.

In the end, while Mueller's appointment may take some of the heat off of Republicans in Congress, their agenda is pretty well stalled until the fall when the next battle over health care and tax cuts will reach a fever pitch. And it is impossible to know what other disasters Trump will create between now and then that will further distract the GOP.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

EU's Highest Court Affirms Rule That Makes Brexit Negotations Harder For May

The European Union's highest court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, has affirmed the rule that all 28 members of the EU will have to individually sign off on whatever Brexit deal the UK and the EU agree on, if they ever do. While this was always the expectation, there is no doubt that requiring all the individual member states' national and regional parliaments, 38 in all, to approve the deal will make the Brexit negotiations more difficult and more lengthy and increases the likelihood that no deal will be completed before the two year deadline.

This ruling obviously strengthens the hands of the individual states. Ireland will have important input into the status of Northern Ireland. Spain will have important input into the status of Gibraltar. And it will probably strengthen the movements in Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and Scotland to remain in the EU. And it makes it even more difficult for a Theresa May to quickly conclude a broad, far-reaching revised trading agreement with the EU in a negotiation where the EU clearly has the upper hand.

Even among May's pro-Brexit compatriots there is an increasing realization that the two year deadline may be impossible to meet. If that were to happen, UK trade would fall under WTO rules and estimates are those new rules would cut UK GDP by 5% to 10% over the next decade and a half.

Meanwhile, London's financial district continues to slowly bleed as more and more firms begin shifting lines of business and employees to the continent, with plans to shift over 9,000 jobs even before the Brexit negotiating deadline.

As I've said before, Theresa May will probably have an even stronger hand domestically after the upcoming election. But that will mean nothing because the EU holds all the cards when it comes to the Brexit negotiations.

Health Insurance Oligopoly Bilks Billions From Medicare Advantage

One out of every three lucky Americans already on Medicare use private insurance to provide their coverage under a plan called Medicare Advantage. This was just another part of the perennial push to allow private companies to essentially skim from the monetary stream of social benefits like Social Security and Medicare. And, to be fair, the Medicare Advantage program has largely been considered a success.

But a whistle-blower, Benjamin Poehling, at the UnitedHealth Group is charging that the health insurers involved in the program "have been systematically bilking Medicare Advantage for years, reaping billions of taxpayer dollars from the program by gaming the payment system." As you might expect, Medicare pays these insurers base on the health of the patients. The sicker the patient, the more money that Medicare would reimburse the insurance companies. According to Poehling, employees at these health insurers would scan patients' health records and look for ways to either increase the severity of the diagnoses or link certain diagnoses with other health issues the patient might have, thereby increasing the Medicare Advantage payout. According to some estimates, these Medicare Advantage overpayments to health insurers amount to over $10 billion per year. Medicare Advantage has been in place for 15 years.

Poehling's complaint includes an email from his superior which states, "You mentioned vasculatory disease opportunities, screening opportunities, etc., with huge $ opportunities. Let’s turn on the gas!" Bonuses at UnitedHealth were based on hitting specific revenue targets and had nothing to do with improved health outcomes for patients.

Currently, the Justice Department is also investigating four other Medicare Advantage insurers, Aetna, Humana, Health Net and Cigna’s Bravo Health for similar overpayment programs. The remarkable thing is that analysts have been complaining about these health insurers' practices for over a decade now. A study by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that there were over $14 billion in overpayments in 2013 alone. Incredibly, no real effort was made to recover that money, primarily because of pressure from those very same health insurers.

I can hear my libertarian and conservative friends saying that is what you get with government programs and wasteful government incentives. Wrong! This is what you get when allow the profit motive to drive the provision of the basic human need for health care. The kleptocratic oligopoly in the health insurance industry screams for the solution of a public option, not more privatization.

GOP Caught Between Trump-Loving Base And A Dangerous, Corrupt President

In the aftermath of yesterday's shocking revelation that James Comey has written contemporaneous memos of his conversations with Trump, one of which describes Trump as asking Comey to "let this [his investigation of NSA Flynn] go", a clear obstruction of justice, Republicans have largely gone dark, either refusing to speak or curtly saying they want more information.

Putting aside congressional Republicans' obligation to fulfill their constitutional duties and actually exercise their responsibilities as a co-equal branch in the government, or the obligation to defend the United States from a foreign threat, or the simple call of patriotism, Republicans are now boxed in politically as well. As Joy Reid pointed out on the Last Word last night, Republicans face the choice of abandoning President Trump and losing their base in the 2018 election or continuing to enable this disastrous President in order to try and pass their massively unpopular agenda and forever be stained by history. The former guarantees a 2018 electoral wipeout. The latter, assuming they can actually pass the AHCA and tax cuts plus help from extreme gerrymandering, may allow enough of them to survive that election.

So far, congressional Republicans have chosen the latter approach. Reid points out that so much of the GOP base now lives inside the right-wing media bubble which believes the Russian investigation is a hoax and the intelligence community and the bureaucracy is sabotaging Trump because he wants to "drain the swamp". The unreal world inhabited by the pro-Trump base makes it impossible for congressional Republicans to act on the most obvious solution. Replacing Trump with Mike Pence eliminates all the "drama" and puts in place a man who is used to working in Congress to actually pass legislation. With Pence as President, the GOP agenda would have a much greater chance of being enacted than continuing to enable Trump. But, because of the base, the GOP is paralyzed.

In fact, doing nothing may create the worst of both worlds. Republicans continue to enable Trump and he keeps moving from one disaster to another. Because of Trump's continual chaos and the relentless resistance of those opposed to the GOP agenda, the AHCA and tax cuts never get passed. Pence, who is already tainted with his involvement in Trump's lies, becomes even more compromised going forward. And they end up heading into 2018 with a massively unpopular President, a damaged Vice President, and no results to offer their rabid base, who will wonder what giving the GOP total power actually accomplished. They will have lost their base and the rest of the electorate and will go down in history as enablers of one of the most dangerous and corrupt Presidents in modern history.

And one last point that is often overlooked in the focus on Trump's connections with the Russians is that Republicans in Congress were also aided by the Russian hacking and knowingly used material stolen by the Russians to advance their campaigns. According to the NY Times, House races in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina were targeted by hackers with much of the attacks being based on data stolen from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). These attacks were hardly random as they targeted some of the races that were supposed to be the most competitive in the fall election. The details released contained the DCCC's blunt assessment of the Democratic candidates' weaknesses and also revealed their election strategies. This kind of in-depth knowledge of House races raises the possibility, if not probability, that some sort of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians to direct the hackers to focus on these hotly contested House seats eventually won by Republicans. The head of the DCCC wrote to his counterpart at the NRCC and Nancy Pelosi also wrote to Paul Ryan imploring them not to use this stolen material. As the head of the DCCC wrote, "Put simply, if this action continues, the N.R.C.C. will be complicit in aiding the Russian government in its effort to influence American elections." Neither Democrat even received a response and stolen documents ended up in being used in the fall campaign in multiple elections.

So, besides the political bind that Republicans find themselves in, caught between a Trump-loving base and a dangerous and corrupt President, there is also a certain reluctance among congressional Republicans to pursue the Russian investigation simply because some of them were complicit in the attack on our democracy. The Russians did not intervene in our election to get Trump elected, they intervened to get Republicans elected. We should never lose sight of that.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Case Against Donald Trump

It is pretty clear that Donald Trump should be impeached. While I personally think it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to have Trump remain in power as long as possible before 2018, it has become absolutely self-evident that Trump must be ousted simply for the sake of our country, our safety, and our future. The following is a round-up of what the articles of impeachment could include. I'm sure I have forgotten or omitted important items, so please feel free to let me know what those omissions would be.

  • Sharing the absolutely highest classified US intelligence with the Russians in a meeting in which the US press was denied access. That information was provided by a third nation under the agreement it would remain secret. Trump's disclosure puts further intelligence sharing with our government at risk as well as the actual asset who provided the information, endangering the security and safety of the United States and the willingness of our allies to share intelligence with us.
  • Colluding with the Russians to influence the 2016 election and subvert our democratic process. This evidence includes Trump's own request that the Russians hack Hillary Clinton. It also includes reports of numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians and reports that European intelligence agencies have surveillance proving collusion.
  • Allowing National Security Adviser to have access to all US intelligence for a full 18 days after being informed that he was compromised by the Russians.
  • Trump associates both before and after the campaign have engaged in multiple contacts with the Russians and have lied about those contacts.
  • Trump associates both before and after the election were being paid by Russian interests.
  • Trump's National Security Adviser was reported by then current Attorney General Sally Yates to have engaged in behavior that was possibly criminal, implying that he may have provided confidential intelligence to the Russians.
Obstruction of Justice
  • Firing FBI Director James Comey specifically because he was investigating Trump's and his administration's Russian connections.
  • Demanding loyalty from the FBI Director who is investigating Trump's and his administration's Russian connections.
  • Asking the FBI Director to shut down the investigation of NSA Michael Flynn.
  • Firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she reported her investigation had shown NSA Flynn had engaged in potentially criminal behavior in his contacts with the Russians and then lied about it, potentially lying about it to the FBI.
  • Intimidating witnesses, including Sally Yates and James Comey.
  • Intimidation of the judiciary, including threatening to break up the Ninth Circuit in anticipation of that court hearing the Muslim ban case and criticizing the individual judges who ruled against that ban and Trump's executive order on so-called sanctuary cities.
  • Conspiring with David Nunes to derail Sally Yates' testimony.
  • Firing US Attorney Preet Bharara who was looking into possible use of Trump' real estate deals as a vehicle for Russian money-laundering.
Violations of the Emoluments Clause
  • Refusing to divest his ownership interest from the Trump Organization, allowing foreign interests and/or governments to ingratiate themselves with Trump every time they use one of his properties. Other, more circumstantial evidence, is the provision of trademarks or permits for Trump projects in foreign countries after meetings with Trump and/or his family.
Using the Office of the President for Personal Enrichment
  • Trump's near constant use of his personal properties at Trump Tower and in Florida and New Jersey amount to the abuse of the "domestic emoluments clause" which prohibits the President from receiving additional compensation beyond his salary.
  • Using government officials and agencies to promote his and his family's business, such as having the State Department promote Mar-a-Lago as a vacation destination and promote Ivanka Trump's book.
  • Allowing his family to serve as White House advisers and sit in with foreign leaders when those family members have business interests in those countries.
Abuse of Power And/Or Violation of the Oath of Office
  • This could include any or all of the above charges. For example, one might not agree that any of the specific charges amount to treason, but at the same time one could also argue that Trump has failed to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and/or the national security of the United States.
  • Similarly, one could also argue that Trump's lack of understanding and/or lack of respect for the three co-equal branches of government indicate a similar abuse of power.
While not covered by the impeachment process, there are also plenty of grounds for removing Trump under the provisions of the 25th Amendement.

Unfit to Serve
  • Trump has shown himself to be mentally unfit to serve as President of the United States. He does not seem to understand the US Constitution, nor does he understand that the President is not the CEO of the country, but is head of just one co-equal branch of the government.
  • Trump is unable to absorb briefing materials or extensive briefings themselves, leaving him exposed to the illustrated by the Russian leak.
  • Trump has made numerous statements that are literally incomprehensible. Examples are his discussion of health insurance, aircraft carriers, much of his interview with the Economist, his invention of the phrase "prime the pump", and a whole raft of other incidents that call Trump's mental capabilities into question.
  • Trump is not only a compulsive liar but, on those occasions when he does tell the truth, he seems almost unaware at how damaging those admissions could be not only to Trump himself but also the people who work for him. 
The case against Donald Trump is clear and compelling at this point. The only remaining question is whether the country can find around thirty patriots among House Republicans to act. Right now, even after the revelation that Trump clearly obstructed justice by asking Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation, it appears those patriots do not exist.

As Paul Ziegler so passionately and yet eloquently put it at the Tom MacArthur town hall, "What is it going to take, congressman? What is it going to take for you and your fellow Republicans to open your eyes and realize what's going on? We need an independent prosecutor. We need a bipartisan select committee to investigate this. When are you going to open your eyes? We all see it ... You don't see it? When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?" So far, the answer is never.

How We Got Here

Can we just recap how we have gotten to where we are today. The President is currently a potential target in a counter-espionage investigation involving conspiring with a foreign enemy, Russia, to subvert the democratic process in the 2016 election. That President was possibly negotiating with that same enemy to subvert the stated US policy about sanctions on Russia implemented by then President Obama. Major advisers in the Trump campaign like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner have lied about their contacts with the Russians and at least two of those advisers were actually being paid by Russian interests. When presented with clear evidence that his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was compromised by the Russians and had probably lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russians by the acting Attorney General, the President not only fires the AG but also conspires with the head of the House Intelligence Committee to prevent the AG from testifying about her warnings. The President then keeps the NSA in his position where he has access to the most important intelligence secrets of our country for 18 days until Flynn's actions are revealed in the press.

The President then fires the head of the agency running the counter-espionage investigation, explicitly naming that investigation as a rationale for his firing. At the same time it is revealed that there is an ongoing investigation into whether the President had been engaged in money laundering for Russian oligarchs and others using his various casino and real estate projects. The very next day, the President meets with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador in a White House meeting closed to the US press but attended by the official Russian new agency TASS. The meeting was at the request of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The Russian Ambassador was the most important Russian contact that the President's senior campaign advisers lied about and he was not mentioned in the White House statement of the meeting until pictures from TASS were released showing him there. In addition, in that same meeting, the President provides details to the Russians about a plot based on intelligence gathered by an important ally, Israel, that the US was not authorized to share and had the highest security classification in American intelligence. Using those details, it is feared that Russia could "backtrack" the details to determine the source of that intelligence, putting the source at extreme risk. In addition, the President's leak has made Israel and other foreign allies reluctant to continue to share critical intelligence with the United States.

What was also interesting about that White House meeting is what was not discussed. There was no confronting the Russian Foreign Minister over evidence the Russians interfered in the 2016 election.
Nor was there any discussion of similar interference in the recent Dutch and French elections. Nor was there any condemnation of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine and their continued effort to destabilize that country. Nor was their any discussion of Russia's efforts to prop up Assad in Syria, while attacking the democratic Syrian resistance and actually protecting ISIS.

If someone had drafted a book or movie proposal like this, it would probably be rejected. But it is the reality of President Trump. One of the most ridiculous tropes coming from the talking heads these days is that the President is losing credibility that he will need when there is a real, not self inflicted, crisis. Let's get real. Trump has absolutely no credibility left. And he has had virtually every one of his advisers go out and lie for him, and then undercut them. He has now destroyed the credibility of virtually every senior adviser.

The newer trope is that Trump needs a change in his staff in order to get the White House under control. That ignores the true nature of the problem, which is Trump himself. It is not that Trump is being especially badly served by his advisers. It is that Trump can not take advice, especially critical advice, and is incapable of taking the time and effort to understand the details and complexities of various issues that is actually required to be a President.

It is also clear that the Republican party will do nothing about this. In any other world, impeachment hearings would already be getting underway. But not with the current extremist and power hungry Republican party. In the past, it would be time for a Walter Cronkite moment, where a respected independent voice would say "this will not stand". Unfortunately, that person no longer exists. I'm increasingly thinking our democracy is doomed.

The Predictable Arc Of The Trump Scandal

The first four months of the Trump presidency have shown a pretty predictable arc to the weekly, if not daily, Trump scandal. There are really four distinct phases: outright denial, non-denial denial, blame the messenger, and admit the truth. We see these phases quite clearly, but in an extraordinarily compacted 12 hour span, in the reaction to the Washington Post story that Trump leaked the most top-secret intelligence to the Russians in a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador which the American media was barred from attending but in which TASS, the official Russian news agency, received access.

The first response was the outright denial. Dina Powell, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy, said quite clearly, "This story is false. The President only discussed the common threats that both countries faced."

About 30 minutes later, NSA H.R. McMaster came out in front of the White House and issued the non-denial denial. McMaster said, "The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember it being the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen." Of course, the Washington Post article never claimed the President discussed sources and methods. It did, however, report that the President discussed details of an ISIS plot based on intelligence provided by a Middle Eastern ally under the assumption that it would be treated confidentially and as highly classified.

That was followed by the blame the messenger defense that was picked up by the Republican right wing media outlets. Breitbart highlighted that defense with its headline, "Deep State Leaks Highly Classified Info To Washington Post To Smear President Trump". Jesse Waters on Fox News took a similar tack, tweeting, "If you're a disloyal person, you sing to @washingtonpost. If you're a loyal person, you take it to your superior."

Then, less than twelve hours later, this morning we finally got the "I'm the President and I can legally do what I want" defense, essentially admitting the truth of the Washington Post report. Trump tweeted, "As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism." And now McMaster has just come out and defended the President's actions were "wholly appropriate", while admitting that the President has the right to reveal whatever information he wants.

Finally, the reactions of Republicans in Congress are also largely predictable and summed up by Mitch McConnell's comments, "I read the Washington Post story and I read General McMasters' response, which tends to refute the story, rebut the story. I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus of our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare." Trump was right during the campaign that he could murder someone in cold blood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Republicans in Congress will do nothing to rein in Trump in pursuit of their agenda to provide tax cuts to the rich, roll back regulations for their corporate overlords, and strip away the social safety net from the American people.

Trump Advisers Treat Him Exactly The Same Way The GOP Treats Its Voters

One of the bigger stories yesterday before the Washington Post's bombshell report that Donald Trump virtually committed treason by releasing classified information providing by a foreign government under the promise of secrecy to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador was a Politico report that detailed how Trump's aides manage the information he receives. Sometimes that involved showing Trump flattering stories from the internet. Other times, Trump gets presented with false stories or internet hoaxes in order to either get his attention or persuade Trump to take a particular position.

According the Politico, "White House and former campaign aides have tried to make sure Trump’s media diet includes regular doses of praise and positive stories to keep his mood up — a tactic honed by staff during the campaign to keep him from tweeting angrily." In addition, "A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda." The article cites Trump's hastily rolled out, one page tax "plan" as being prompted by an editorial in the New York Times co-written by four economic advisers to the Trump campaign recommending that Trump put out a proposal for tax cuts "with urgency" that Trump was shown by one of his advisers.

More troubling is the story that K.T. McFarland actually presented Trump with two Time magazine covers, one from the 1970s warning of a coming Ice Age and one from 2008 talking about the dangers of global warming. The only problem was that the magazine cover from the 1970s was a fake. Incredibly, a White House official actually defended McFarland's actions, claiming the cover was "fake but accurate".

But, in many ways, Trump's advisers are treating Trump exactly the way that Republican party and its media organs have treated their voters for decades. Besides the usual puff pieces and the acceptance and flattery of clearly flawed candidates, there is the avalanche of lies. Tax cuts increase government revenue, Newt Gingrich is a forward thinking leader, Obama is not an American, illegal immigrants are flooding the country, crime is at an all-time high, and on and on. Now Republicans are just outright lying about what is in the AHCA, denying that it will effect people with pre-existing conditions and that millions of people will lose coverage.

What K.T. McFarland did to Trump is merely a continuation of a decades long trend in Republican strategy.

Monday, May 15, 2017

US Billionaire's Interference In Brexit Campaign Has Relevance For Russian Hacking of US Election

Ever since it became clear that the Russians were interfering in our US elections, I have wondered what role they might have played in the Brexit referendum. After all, there is ample evidence that the Russians were working on the US election concurrently to the Brexit referendum and a vote to "leave" would nicely dovetail with the Kremlin's policy to weaken the EU and NATO as evidenced by their subsequent interference in the Dutch and French elections.

There have long been rumors that UKIP has received funding from the Russians. This would not be surprising as the Kremlin has monetarily supported European far right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, Northern League in Italy, and France's Front National, which, it has been documented, received nearly $10 million in loans from Russian-backed banks. The suspicion about UKIP was further increased when MEPs from those above-mentioned parties voted against an EU measure that would require greater transparency of donations to EU parties that came from outside the EU. That suspicion was further compounded when Nigel Farage's successor at UKIP, Diane James, declared that Vladimir Putin was one of her three political heroes, along with Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill. I'm pretty sure the latter two would be horrified to be put in the same company of the former.

But no evidence has ever surfaced confirming those suspicions. Similarly, no real evidence has surfaced showing any sustained Russian interference in the Brexit vote. A report from the House of Commons' Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) described a denial of service attack on the site to register for the Brexit referendum just about an hour and a half before deadline. That attack possible prevented thousands of Britons from being able to participate in the referendum. The report states that "Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear." But it did not definitively name Russia or China as the culprit, merely concluding that "PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference."

Now, however, the Guardian is reporting that the most impactful "foreign interference" may not have come from Russia at all but, incredibly, from the United States. The story indicates that there was collusion between the two leave campaigns, Vote Leave and Leave.EU. That collusion would be illegal under UK law and was facilitated by funding and research provided by Robert Mercer, the American billionaire who has funded Steven Bannon and Breitbart and provided the much needed monetary support for the Donald Trump campaign.

Leave.EU and Vote Leave had two vocal leaders, both charlatans and rank opportunists, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, respectively. Farage, as leader of UKIP, saw the Brexit referendum as validating and strengthening the power of his party. Johnson was simply and cynically positioning himself to succeed David Cameron. Both have admitted the did not expect their Brexit campaign to succeed.

These two campaigns may have had the same stated goal, but the voter targets of each were vastly different. Leave.EU focused on UKIP members and the disenchanted working class Labour voters whose defections had become the source of their electoral power, especially in the North. Vote Leave focused on more middle class voters in middle England, emphasizing immigration, EU restrictions, and the lie that 350 million pounds a week could be saved by leaving the EU and invested in the NHS.

UK law prohibits two campaigns from working in concert without jointly declaring their expenditures. This comports more generally with British law restricting campaign spending and prohibits circumvention of that law by financing allied straw campaigns. According to the Guardian, Leave.EU hired the research firm Cambridge Analytica to help with its campaign. Cambridge Analytica also worked with the Trump campaign and has promoted its unique capabilities in using "big data" to identify political preferences of huge numbers of individuals who then could be almost individually targeted by political campaigns. Vote Leave, on the other hand, used the research firm Aggregate IQ. That was an interesting choice because Aggregate IQ was a Canadian company with just 10 employees. Yet by far the biggest expenditure of Vote Leave campaign went to the work done by Aggregate IQ.

The Guardian's investigation showed that both Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ are essentially controlled by the American billionaire Robert Mercer and that the two companies were in fact sharing their databases during the Brexit campaign. At the time of the Brexit referendum, Steve Bannon was nominally head of Cambridge Analytica. In fact, Aggregate IQ's intellectual property exclusively belonged to SCL Elections, essentially a holding company that created Cambridge Analytica under Mercer's ownership. In addition, Mercer, apparently provided Cambridge Analytica's services gratis to UKIP and Leave.EU, a potential violation of UK law in that it avoided camping spending limits and the foreign funding of campaigns.

Vote Leave also apparently funded other supposedly independent media campaigns such as BeLeave and Veterans for Britain which also used Aggregate IQ data to target social media campaigns, again another break of UK law on campaign spending.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety and the connections are admittedly complex. But it makes clear that there was a degree of coordination, whether witting or unwitting among their principals, between Leave.EU and Vote Leave and that the nexus of that coordination was data and political targeting run by firms controlled by Robert Mercer and whose services may have been provided for free. All this is pretty clearly in violation of UK law. As MP Steven Kinnock states, "There are so many issues. Thousands of pounds of work apparently unaccounted for. Evidence of coordination between multiple campaigns. Multiple breaches of data protection. And this question of foreign influence, of a foreign billionaire buying influence in a British election, goes right to the heart of our entire democratic process."

The revelation of this kind of interference in the Brexit campaign from Robert Mercer actually raises more questions about Russian interference in the US election. Nigel Farage has called the Brexit campaign a "petri dish" for the tactics used in the Trump campaign.  According to Farage, "We shared a lot of information because what they were trying to do and what we were trying to do had massive parallels." Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, were enormous funders and supporters of Trump and were the reason Steve Bannon ended up as Trump's campaign manager. It now appears that they were also engaged in a massive effort to illegally influence the Brexit campaign.

It does not take a large logical leap to think that it is possible, if not probable, that a significant part of the Trump campaign's collusion with the Russians actually involved the passing of Cambridge Analytica data to the Russians so that they could sophisticatedly target distinct US voters with a massive disinformation campaign. Having illegally and successfully succeeded with Brexit, it is not beyond belief that the Mercers would essentially "use" the Russian cyber capabilities to illegally and successfully get Donald Trump elected President.

Frelinghuysen Letter Highlights GOP Collusion With Business To Suppress Democratic Rights

The intellectual and ethical challenges epitomized by Donald Trump are actually more reflective of similar rot at the core of the Republican party, which has virtually abandoned any policy position other than tax cuts, in pursuit of raw political power in order to service its overlords among business and the super-rich.

Rodney Frelinghuysen is a vulnerable House Republican who is head of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In the aftermath of Trump's election, a true grass roots group call NJ 11th for Change began to pressure Frelinghuysen to at least hold a town hall, something he had not done in four years. Frelinghuysen ignored them. In response, the group started holding town halls without Frelinghuysen's participation and constantly protesting outside his office.

With the introduction of the original version of the AHCA, the group increased the pressure on Frelinghuysen and he eventually came out against the bill, a pretty shocking move by a member of the House leadership, that signaled the bill was sunk. But, apparently that was just posturing, because Frelinghuysen did eventually vote the modified AHCA that is actually worse than the original and passed the House. Frelinghuysen was rumored to have his chairmanship pulled unless he voted for the bill.

All this strengthened NJ 11th for Change even further and Frelinghuysen eventually held two telephone town halls but has still refused to actually face his constituents. But that doesn't stop him from complaining about his constituents and NJ 11th for Change in particular, saying, "For people who have jammed our lines and made it difficult for us to meet our constituent needs, it would be nice for you to back off. I’m not suggesting people don’t have a right to speak and let their views be known, but some of this is highly orchestrated and it’s unfortunate." Of course, they probably wouldn't be jamming his phone lines if he actually had the courage to face his constituents in a forum where the could make their views known.

But Frelinghuysen has actually gone further in trying to stifle NJ 11th for Change from expressing their democratic rights. In a fundraising letter to the chairman of a local bank in his district, Frelinguysen wrote, "But let’s be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security". By the word "local", Frelinghuysen put a handwritten asterisk that was referenced at the bottom of the letter with additional handwritten note saying, "P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!" And Frelinghuysen attached a news article that quoted a member of NJ 11th for Change.

The "ringleader" Frelinghuysen was referencing was Saily Avelenda who was a Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at the bank. Avelenda was subsequently called in by her superiors and asked to "explain" herself. Eventually she felt pressured enough that she resigned from the bank.

It is hard to overstate how egregious Frelinghuysen's actions are. As Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee whose decisions effect virtually all aspects of the US economy, he writes a fundraising letter where he specifically targets an employee of the company he is soliciting money from as an opponent, and that employee feels threatened enough by her employers that she resigns.

In many ways, Frelinghuysen's actions are similar to the state of North Dakota conspiring with Energy Transfer Partners, the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline, to quash protests against DAPL. This highly unethical, if not illegal, behavior is utterly consistent with a Republican party that colludes with powerful business interests to prohibit their opponents from exercising their democratic rights.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Senate Republicans Look To Pack Federal Judiciary

Having denied Merrick Garland his seat on the Supreme Court by refusing to carry out their constitutional duties and installing Neil Gorsuch in Garland's place by destroying another governing norm by eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, Senate Republicans and Donald Trump are now intent on remaking the federal judiciary in the image of the extremist and radical Federalist Society. There at over 120 vacancies on the federal bench, largely because of foot-dragging by Republicans during Obama's presidency and the GOP is determined to fill them.

Trump has just decimated numerous more governing norms norm with his nomination of ten judges for the federal bench on the very day he fired James Comey. He did so without going through the normal American Bar Association vetting or consulting with the Senators whose home states the judge will cover, breaking a Senate tradition in place for a century. In many of those states, Senators have set up state judicial committees that vet and recommend a slate of candidates for nomination. This process attempts to ensure that whoever moves on to the federal bench will be well-known and well-respected in the districts that they will cover. By doing so, it also helps ensure the federal judiciary will be independent and have some degree of bipartisan support.

The norm of consultation with home state Senators actually rests upon another governing norm in the Senate, something called the blue slip process. This norm required a Senator to sign a blue slip giving their approval to any federal judge covering their state. Republicans, of course, abused this process under President Obama. Marco Rubio, for example, recommended a nominee whom Obama then nominated to the federal bench. Whereupon Rubio delayed providing his blue slip approval for months while he "reviewed" her qualifications. But the most egregious example comes from Republican Senator Thom Tillis who managed to keep a spot on the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina open for over a decade by refusing to provide his blue slip.

In bypassing consultation with Senators, Trump has raised the fear among Democrats that Republicans will destroy another Senate norm and eliminate the blue slip process. That decision is technically the responsibility of the Judiciary Chairman who is Chuck Grassley, but it is hard to imagine him making that decision without the approval of McConnell and the Republican caucus. Because Democrats eliminated the filibuster for federal judges other than the Supreme Court (which McConnell just eliminated) in order to finally be able to move on Obama's nominees, they have no way to stop these Republican appointees other than through the blue slip process. The only tool Democrats would have left would be to force a full debate on each and every nominee and use up valuable Senate floor time, thereby slowing down other parts of the GOP agenda.

There is already pressure from some Republican Senators to eliminate the blue slip. Tom Cotton has said, "We can’t allow Democratic senators to continue obstructing this president’s agenda,. If they are just arbitrarily not returning blue slips, we have to consider changing that tradition." Grassley, however, seems inclined to pretend to keep the system in place while reserving the right to do away with it whenever he wants, saying, "The blue slip is still the policy, but remember, there’s always been exceptions."

One of the exceptions in the past has been that the nominee could move forward as long as one of the two Senators from a state provides a blue slip. But one of Trump's nominations covered Minnesota, represented by two Democratic Senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. The fact they were not consulted in the selection certainly leaves the impression that the GOP is inclined to eliminate the blue slip process. To do so would just be a continuation of the destruction of the democratic and governing norms of this country that the Republicans have been waging for two decades and that Donald Trump has moved into hyperdrive.

Natural Weekends - Osprey

The ospreys returned to the creek around their usual time in late March but have successfully avoided my camera since then. Until last week.