Saturday, May 27, 2017

French Open Predictions

The French Open begins tomorrow as the players take to the red clay of Roland Garros to contest the second Grand Slam of the year. There are two distinctly different takes on this tournament, depending on whether you are talking about the men's or women's draw.

On the men's side, most people are saying they should just hand the trophy to Rafa Nadal tomorrow and make the rest of the matches over the next two weeks exhibitions. Nadal has been virtually unbeatable on the clay leading up to this tournament and there is every reason to expect him to walk away with his incredible tenth French Open title. Rafa himself is probably the only person standing in the way of the title, either through injury or just a horrible day.

In addition, there are not many guys you can point to that could challenge Nadal. Dominic Thiem has given Rafa his only loss of the clay court season, playing high risk tennis and not allowing Nadal to drive him off the baseline. But Thiem's high energy, high risk game may not allow him to get far enough to meet Nadal. The other threat is Stan Wawrinka who won this tournament in 2015. Stan has not had a great season but he always manages to lift his game for the majors. Novak Djokovic, last year's winner to complete his career Grand Slam, has basically lost it this year and hiring Agassi as his coach will not be able to fix all that is wrong for Novak. Nick Krygios possibly has the game to threaten Nadal but is fighting injury, the death of his grandfather, and his usual emotional issues. And Andy Murray just can't move well enough on clay to compete.

It's a totally different world on the women's side where, with Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka both out on maternity leave and Maria Sharapova not qualifying because of her drug suspension, it is as wide open as any major tournament in the Open era. What makes this tournament even harder to predict is that many of the women with the best form coming into the event are nursing injuries. And all of them have shown they are beatable on any given day. Last year's number one Angie Kerber has had a dreadful season and last year's defending champion, Garbine Muguruza, has been erratic and is nursing a neck injury. Simona Halep has had a good clay court season but is nursing an ankle injury. Aggie Radwanska has the potential to go deep in this tournament but maybe not enough to get to the finals. Others that deserve mention are the indomitable Dominika Cibulkova, Elina Svitolina who has risen all the way to #6 in the world this year, local hero Kristina Mladenovic, and the ever youthful Svetlana Kuznetsova. Take your pick from any of those and another dozen or so that I haven't even mentioned. It will all make for an exciting and interesting tournament.

Predictions

Nadal beats Wawrinka to win his 10th French Open title.

Halep beats Cibulkova; but your guess is as good as mine.



Natural Weekends - Local Birds

When the crabapple tree was in full bloom a few weeks ago, these birds spent hours in there feasting. Perhaps someone can leave a comment telling us their name.



Here is the master (making a sexist assumption based on that classic tuft) of his domain:






The Contours Of Collusion Come Clearer

Another three bombshells landed last night and all three of them were clearly directed at slumlord Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, top adviser, and go-to guy on just about everything. And with these new revelations, the contours of collusion, both before and after the election, become that much clearer and the investigation creeps as close as you can get to President Trump without reaching him directly. Yet.

Earlier in the day, reports surfaced that Trump was thinking not only about a staff shake-up but also about creating a "war room" to fight the burgeoning Russia scandal. The interesting thing about the war room was that it was to be headed by Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner. That seemed like a problem because Priebus has been implicated in the cover-up and Kushner has lied about his own contacts with the Russians. In fact, (and I can't believe I'm actually writing this), the only apparently "clean" one of the three, so far, (and more on that later), is Bannon.

But Kushner's involvement in the war room and even his ability to continue to work in the White House became even more dubious when the first bombshell from the Washington Post landed last night. That story says that, in a secret early December meeting between Russian Ambassador Kislyak, Flynn, and Kushner, Kushner proposed the idea of creating a secret back channel to Moscow, presumably Putin, and to do so by using Russia's secure communications systems either at the Russian Embassy or Consulate. Also discussed was using a third party in a foreign country as a conduit.

US intelligence picked up these details of the meeting when Kislyak reported his shock at Kushner's suggestion about using secure Russian communications when he reported back to Moscow. For Russian security services, having an American come into and use their secure facilities was problematic, to say the least.

In addition, we do know that a third party meeting was eventually set up between the Trump campaign and the Russians in early January, about ten days before Trump officially became President. The Trump transition had the crown prince of Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also fly in and meet secretly with them in early December. It had already been agreed that Flynn or Kushner would be too high profile for such a foreign meeting. Instead, it appears that Erik Prince, brother of now Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, met with a representative of Putin in the Seychelles, a meeting set up by the UAE.

The White House, for what its worth, has denied that the discussions in the secret meeting with the crown prince touched on any planning for the meeting in the Seychelles. They claim that the UAE was trying to influence Russian to withdraw its support for Iran, especially its actions in Syria, in return for an easing of US sanctions. Similarly, the New York Times reported last night that the desire to create a secret back channel to the Russians using secure Russian communications was so that Flynn could get a detailed briefing on Syria from Russian intelligence.

Neither of these explanations make any sense. Very simply, all Kushner and Flynn had to do was wait until inauguration and then they were free to talk to the Russians about anything and everything that they envisioned doing. And Flynn would be far more likely to get at least some honest details on Russian Syrian strategy if he could also offer some details on current US deployments and strategies in that country, something he would be totally privy to once Trump was inaugurated. In addition, if their stated reason was true, why did both Flynn and Kushner try to hide the existence of the meeting and the lie about its contents. And why did the White House deny any links to the Seychelles meeting.

The third bomb that dropped was also a direct hit on Kushner. This was a story from Reuters that claimed that Kushner had at least three other unreported contacts with the Russians, both during and after the campaign. Two of those contacts occurred between April and November of last year. These contacts by Kushner are part of the 18 undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians that Reuters previously reported on. And as one of the Reuters reporters who wrote the story ominously said on Maddow last night, "these are the undisclosed contacts that we know about", certainly implying their may be others out there.

But here's the real kicker in the Reuters piece: "FBI investigators are examining whether Russians suggested to Kushner or other Trump aides that relaxing economic sanctions would allow Russian banks to offer financing to people with ties to Trump, said the current U.S. law enforcement official". In that vein it is worth noting that Kushner also met with the Putin-appointed head of the Russian-owned bank, Vnesheconombank, in early December. That bank is currently under US sanctions. Interesting.

As David Frum points out, Bloomberg has reported that early 2017 was going to be a crucial time for Kushner Companies. The fees at its flagship, but money-losing, property at 666 Fifth Avenue were set to start increasing rapidly in 2017. Those fees continue to escalate until the loans are paid off. In addition, in December of 2017, the interest rate on the outstanding loans will also more than double. This accounts for the Kushners' ethically challenged and ultimately failed attempt to get the Chinese-backed Anbang Insurance to invest in the building and why the Kushner Companies are traveling around China trying to basically sell access to Trump in order to also round up investors for the building. In a declining, NYC real estate market, the Kushner Companies existence could very well be threatened.

The final bombshell, but actually the second one of the evening, and this one less directed at Jared Kushner directly and more at the Trump campaign in general, was the report that the Senate Intelligence Committee is requesting the Trump campaign produce all documents, emails, and phone record that are Russia-related going back to June 2015. As the Trump campaign has repeatedly said they had no interaction with the Russians, this shouldn't be hard to do. On the other hand, we know that claim is false and it will be interesting to see the volume of material that this request brings to the surface.  But this is certainly a clear indication that the Trump campaign is now coming under serious scrutiny.

Jared Kushner is now in serious legal trouble. He has lied about his repeated contacts with the Russians on his security clearance. That is punishable by up to five years in prison. The frequency and frankly bizarre nature of his meetings makes it impossible to treat this as an oversight. No one is going to forget a meeting where you ask the Russian ambassador to help you use secure Russian communications so you can talk directly to Putin. And, as Malcom Nance and others have pointed out, this kind of request is quite possibly a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. It certainly requires that Kushner's security clearance be pulled immediately. It is doubtful, however, that Trump will cut loose a member of the family and his most trusted adviser. That alone may create a confrontation with either the law or, perhaps finally, the Congress.

The obvious elephant in the room right now, (and there have been plenty of them in this investigation), is what were all those 18 unreported contacts that we currently know of are all about. Kate Brannen over at Newsweek has an interesting theory. I have already written about how the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica may have illegally influenced the Brexit vote. Well, all that same detail of data was available to Kushner and Bannon in the Trump campaign. Kushner and Cambridge Analytica have both bragged about their microtargeting capabilities in the 2016 election. And Steve Bannon was the Mercer-installed head of Cambridge Analytica.

The Newsweek article quotes BBC reporter Paul Wood who puts it all together:

"'This is a three-headed operation,' said one former official, setting out the case, based on the intelligence: First, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated 'bots', then on Russia’s English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing US 'news' sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media. Thirdly, Russia downloads the online voter rolls. The voter rolls are said to fit into this because of 'microtargeting'. Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters.'You are stealing the stuff and pushing it back into the US body politic,' said the former official, 'you know where to target that stuff when you’re pushing it back.' This would take co-operation with the Trump campaign, it is claimed."

And Kushner and Bannon would have been at the heart of the microtargeting operation. And we also now know that the Russians spent far more heavily than we initially imagined on ads and planted stories using microtargeted information to disengage and suppress key Democratic voters. As Senate Intelligence Committee member Mark Warner asks, "I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware really raises some questions. I think that’s a worthwhile area of inquiry. How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?" The request for Trump campaign documents may just be the first step to getting that answer.

To speculate myself, might the success of Kushner's enabling of Russian microtargeting in order to get Trump actually elected make Trump believe that Kushner could do just about anything. It certainly is one possible explanation for Trump's giving unparalleled power to Kushner and believing the Jared alone can bring peace in the Middle East.

As I've said before, Flynn, Manafort, and Trump were all quite comfortable taking Russian money and they all knew at some level what the Russians wanted out of the Trump campaign. They didn't need any direct instructions, but that also doesn't mean they didn't get them. And that level of familiarity would certainly make Kushner comfortable with colluding with the Russians to influence the election. Remember, the Trump campaign was largely unfunded and the plan was to rely on the RNC for most of the campaign groundwork. In reality, it appears that the bulk of the spending for the Trump campaign actually came from the Russians. That then leads us down a whole different path of inquiry into violations of federal election law and perhaps just might make the Supreme Court rethink its Citizens United decision. But that's a discussion for another day.

The three stories from yesterday create a final link between the Russian hacking of the election, the collusion of the Trump campaign, and the financial crimes of selling access and even policies for personal gain. The outlines are now clear. We are just waiting for more devastating details.





Friday, May 26, 2017

May Faces Real Possibility Of Hung Parliament As Lead Collapses

As we saw in the most recent US election, national polls do not necessarily translate into electoral victory, even when the polls rightly predict who will get the most votes nationally. But the latest polls out of the UK sure have to be troubling for Theresa May and the Conservatives.

The latest composite poll from BritainElects shows that the Conservative lead over Labour has shrunk to 13 points, 46% to 33%. But Labour has increased its position markedly in the last week or so and, in fact, the latest YouGuv poll actually shows that lead shrinking to a mere 5%. More importantly, in that YouGuv poll, the combination of Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, and Greens total 52% to the combination of Conservative and UKIP of just 47%, implying the very real possibility of a hung Parliament.

The turning point in the campaign was the release of the Conservative and Labour manifestos. Labour's was seen as far more reasonable than something coming from Jeremy Corbyn, but the Conservative manifesto was universally disliked. The so-called "dementia tax" has suppressed Tory support among its key base of older voters, even after the attempted reversal of the policy. In addition, Theresa May has shown herself to be incapable of comprehensibly defending the policies in the manifestos, repeatedly dodging questions and fobbing the details off to be worked out in Parliament. She has taken the same tack for months in regard to the Brexit negotiations.

It is still too early to see how the Manchester bombing will effect the race as May is seen far more favorably on terrorism than Corbyn. The YouGuv poll is one of the first after that tragedy which is why the resulting is slightly surprising. But the trend is clearly currently moving swiftly against the Conservatives. Part of this is probably a firming of support among Labour voters but a lot of it is the budding realization that Theresa May is quite possibly just not up to the job.

SNP leader Sturgeon has floated the idea of the SNP, Labour, and Liberal Democrats banding together as a progressive bulwark against the Conservatives and UKIP. This would most certainly make an odd triumvirate as the SNP and LibDems are opposed to Brexit while Labour technically supports it. Labour has already vetoed Sturgeon's idea and the Liberal Democrats have clearly stated they will not enter a coalition with Labour.

But the Liberal Democrats may once again be asked to make a fateful choice as they may be the party who will actually choose the next Prime Minister. Hopefully, they will remember their last disastrous choice to form a government with Cameron.

For Conservatives and Theresa May, the decision to call the snap election is looking like a disaster. There is still time to right the ship and they can perhaps once again hope that the polls are wrong like they were in 2015 and with Brexit. But it currently looks like the best result the Tories will get, assuming it is not a hung Parliament, is a majority that is actually smaller than what they had coming into the election. That result would be another indicator that, despite all her talk of being a "strong leader", May herself is far from it and will have real difficulty getting a good deal for the UK in the Brexit negotiations where the EU has all the power.


Recap Of NHL Stanley Cup Conference Finals

The NHL's Stanley Cup Conference Finals wrapped up last night when Pittsburgh defeated Ottawa in one of the all-time great Game 7s, with Chris Kunitz scoring the series winner in double overtime. Out in the West, Nashville kept its incredible playoff run going with an almost routine win over the Anaheim Ducks in six games. Here's a quick recap of each series.

Eastern Conference
Pittsburgh Penguins v. Ottawa Senators - Result: Pittsburgh in 7; Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5.
The Penguins were the clear favorite coming into this series but, as I've said before, Ottawa has seemingly being succeeding with smoke and mirrors all season long. After the Senators picked up an overtime winner in Game 1 against a tired Penguins team coming off their Game 7 win against Washington, followed by the Senators 5-1 drubbing in another flat effort from the Penguins in Game 3, it looked like Ottawa may have been in the driver's seat. But the Penguins won a tight, hard-fought Game 4 on a late goal by Phil Kessel to even the series at 2. The Senators responded with a totally flat game of their own, losing 7-0 in Pittsburgh and it looked like the series was over. Game 6 was again largely dominated by the Penguins but Craig Anderson was spectacular and Ottawa's almost rope-a-dope strategy allowed them to rally from the early deficit and hold on for a 2-1 win, forcing Game 7.

And it was a classic. I think there was just one whistle in the first 10 or 11 minutes of the game, as the teams went up and down the ice. But, by the end of the first, the Penguins started to dominate, spending long stretches controlling the puck in the Senators zone but the Sens' defense mostly kept them to the outside, limiting any great chances. And when Kunitz put the Penguins up 1-0 in the second, it looked like lights out. For about 20 seconds, until Erik Karlsson took one of his patented end-to-end rushes and set up Mark Stone with a delicate and delightful pass who beat Murray top-shelf, short side to tie it. In the third, the pattern repeated itself with the Senators seemingly hanging on for dear life and Anderson bailing them out when they did give up good scoring opportunities. When the refs made a horrendous interference call on Phaneuf, helped by an Olympic-worthy dive by Phil Kessel, on what was on icing call anyway and the Penguins scored on the power play with just 8 minutes left, again it looked all over for the Senators. It didn't help when Phil Kessel was hit by a deflected pass and went down with the Senators controlling the puck in the Pittsburgh slot and the refs blew the play dead because they though Kessel was seriously hurt. But nothing daunts this year's Senators and another blast from the point from Karlsson rang off the post, then the back of Murray, and was deposited in the net by Ryan Dzingel to tie the game with just over 5 minutes left.

The first overtime basically repeated the start of the game, with both teams not holding back and going up and down the ice, trading chances and really going for the win. Pittsburgh, though continued to dominate and it seemed only a matter of time before they would win it. And sure enough, they did when Crosby set up Kunitz in the high slot and he put the puck over the stick side shoulder of a screened Anderson to send Pittsburgh to the finals.

It was a classic series but you always had the feeling that Pittsburgh was somehow in control. But Anderson was spectacular, registering, I believe, over 40 saves in each of the last two games. And Karlsson was again magnificent despite being noticeably limited by the two stress fractures in his ankle. Every time the Senators fell behind, in this series and series before, he put the team on his shoulders and got them back in the game. The Penguins were the Penguins. Dominant and, for the most part relentless, just throwing wave after wave at the Senators. As I've said, it always felt like it was only a matter of time before they won. It's a credit to the Senators that it took until the second overtime of Game 7 for that to happen.

Western Conference
Anaheim Ducks v. Nashville Predators - Result: Nashville in 6; Prediction: Anaheim in 6.
Like the Penguins coming off their Game 7 win against the Capitals, the Ducks were also coming off their Game 7 win against the Oilers and it showed in a pretty lackluster effort in Game 1. Even so, they were able to force overtime with a third period goal before James Neal won it for the Predators in overtime. The Ducks easily leveled the series in Game 2 as Pekka Rinne had his worst game of the playoffs by far. And the Ducks again looked in good shape in Game 3 taking a 1-0 lead into the third which they immediately gave up a few minutes into the final period. Roman Josi then scored late for the Preds and the Ducks began to look very vulnerable. They may have generated lots of zone time but could not get the puck past Pekka Rinne. In a must win Game 4, the Ducks again took a lead into the third period, this time 2-0, and again blew it, giving up two goals in the last seven minutes, including Forsberg's tying goal with just 35 seconds left. But Corey Perry bailed the Ducks out with his overtime winner.

With the series tied 2-2, the goaltenders took over and it was not a pretty match up. Pekka Rinne was more than spectacular in Game 6, single handedly stealing that game for the Predators 3-1. And in the must-win Game 6 for Anaheim, James Reimer, filling in for the injured John Gibson, gave up four goals on 16 shots at one point in the game, while Rinne was barring the door at the other end as the Preds closed out the series 6-3.

The Ducks were let down by their young defense and poor goaltending. And while Reimer, who came in for Gibson after the first period in Game 5, was not solely to blame for all the goals as there were two empty-netters and some glaring defensive breakdowns, an .864 save percentage in the time he played will just not cut it, especially in the playoffs. Just ask the Washington Capitals. In addition, the inability to hold on to third period leads and the lack of scoring from Kessler and Cogliano really hurt them. Of course, that lack of scoring was largely due to the superb play of Rinne who was simply unbeatable throughout most of the series and whose puck-handling behind the net kept the Ducks from being able to wear out the Predator defense. In addition, the Predators defense were always an offensive factor and Filip Forsberg came up huge in the series, scoring five goals, with three points in the deciding Games 5 and 6.

To my mind, regardless of what happens in the finals, there are only two players in the running for playoff MVP and they are Rinne and Karlsson. Both men were clearly the best player on the ice, not only for their own team but often among both teams. Rinne was impeccable (sorry, I couldn't resist again) and Karlsson just carried his team whenever they were down.

The Finals start on Monday and I will be back with my predictions (which have not been worth much in the last two rounds) later in the weekend.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

First Confirmed Case Of Collusion Between Russians And Republicans

I have pointed out in previous posts that the Russians did more than hack our election to help Donald Trump. They hacked the election to help the Republican party, up and down the ballot. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell were certainly well aware of Russia's efforts at least to help Trump but were perfectly content to sit silently by and take advantage of those efforts.

Today, we have the first definitive example of the Russians colluding with a Republican operative in order to influence a specific election. And it was not the presidential election but a contested House seat in Florida. According to a report the Wall Street Journal, a Republican political operative in Florida, Aaron Nevins, sent a message to Russian hacker Guccifer 2.0 requesting data on voter turnout and election strategy related to Florida elections hacked from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Committee. That request was honored and Nevins received 2.5 gigabytes of information from the Russian hacker that included details on not only congressional races in Florida but also in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Texas. Nevins then posted some of that data as well as his analysis of it on his pseudonymous blog.

Nevins described the data he received as "Basically if this was a war, this is the map to where all the troops are deployed...This is probably worth millions of dollars." He apparently shared this information with some other Florida journalists.

According to Anthony Bustamante, a campaign consultant for at that time Republican House aspirant Brian Mast, "I did adjust some voting targets based on some data I saw from the leaks", changing the focus of his advertising and email strategy. That claim has been refuted by Mast's office. But the fact is that Mast flipped a Democratic-held seat in November.

In addition, Russian hackers then forwarded Nevins' blog post to Roger Stone, an adviser to the Trump campaign. Stone denies that he forwarded that information to anyone else. I don't have the explicit denial from Stone, but the Journal's report says that Stone "didn’t share any hacked material from it with anyone." That does not rule out the possibility Stone passed on the link to the blog to other people.

It was already known that Russian hackers had posted hacked Democratic documents that targeted contested congressional races in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina. And we also know that Ryan and McConnell refused Democratic requests to not use this illegally obtained material in the election. We also know that certain Republican campaigns used the hacked data to help them in the election.

Today's news, however, is the first time we have a direct confirmation of a Republican operative colluding with the Russians to actually receive information that was apparently used to defeat a Democratic congressional candidate. And Mr. Nevins perfectly sums up the current Republican party's hostile attitude to democracy itself in its quest for power, saying, "If your interests align, never shut any doors in politics." Treason is acceptable as long as Republicans win.


Meadows Shocked AHCA Would Price Those With Pre-Existing Conditions Out Of Market

This is absolutely mind-blowing. Mark Meadows, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, and driver to make the AHCA even more cruel and inhuman than its original version, apparently never realized that the plan would force millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions to get priced out of the health insurance market.

Incredibly, Meadows cheered the CBO score yesterday when it first came out. But when reporters asked about the higher premiums that people with pre-existing conditions would be charged under the state waivers of community rating and essential health benefits that Meadows himself championed, he replied, "Well, that's not what I read".

Which makes you wonder if he read the bill at all or even took any time to understand its implications other than the fact it would take over $1 trillion out of health care, pass the majority of those savings on to rich people and corporations with a massive tax cut, and leave only $119 billion in deficit reduction.

When he was given the passage in the CBO report concerning pre-existing conditions, he was taken aback and mentioned the possibility of revisiting the funding of the AHCA's high risk pools. Whereupon, Meadows broke down, saying, "Listen, I lost my sister to breast cancer. I lost my dad to lung cancer. If anybody is sensitive to preexisting conditions, it’s me. I’m not going to make a political decision today that affects somebody’s sister or father because I wouldn’t do it to myself. In the end, we’ve got to make sure there’s enough funding there to handle preexisting conditions and drive down premiums. And if we can’t do those three things, then we will have failed."

I'll let him in on a little secret. Without the three-legged stool of requiring insurance coverage, community rating and essential benefits, and premium support, he will fail. With those, he can succeed and all it will take is a few tweaks to Obamacare.

Either Meadows is a great actor, or one of the dumbest people in Congress (and that's a pretty high bar these days), or so caught up in the right-wing think tank and media bubble that spouts continual lies that he believes everything thing he hears. It is hard to imagine that someone with this much power and who has had eight years to study the issue could be so incredibly, seemingly willfully, ignorant of the cruelty and devastation of his proposals. It is a perfect example of how removed from reality much of the Republican House caucus has become.

Gianforte's Lie About His Assault Is Just As Bad As The Assault Itself

As bad as Greg Gianforte's criminal assault of a reporter for merely asking a question at a public event was, the statement put out by his campaign after the attack is perhaps even worse and the perfect metaphor for the Republican party writ large. That statement was a bold-faced, provable lie and the campaign knew it when they put it out. But the gist was clear, that Gianforte's behavior was OK because of who the victim was.

Gianforte's assault is part of the continuing attack on the First Amendment rights of the free press that has been an undercurrent of GOP politics for decades but has recently come out in the open under the Trump administration. In West Virginia, a reporter was arrested simply for asking a question of Tom Price in the public space in the West Virginia Capitol. In addition, another reporter was stalked, manhandled, and kept from asking questions by security guards at an FCC press conference. And that is on top of Trump's continually prohibiting the US press from attending some his public events, most particularly his meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak where even the Russian press was allowed.

More disturbing, to me at least, was the statement that Gianforte's campaign put out in the immediate aftermath of the event:
The campaign absolutely knew that virtually every sentence in this statement would be proven to be a lie. There were multiple witnesses to event who subsequently gave statements to police that showed that Jacobs was not being aggressive, that the interview was taking place at a public event, that Gianforte attacked Jacobs without provocation, body-slammed him, and then started punching Jacobs while Jacobs was on the ground with Gianforte on top of him.

But for Gianforte, the lie was just a convenient vehicle to promote the less than subtle message to his voters that Jacobs, as a member of the liberal press, deserved what Gianforte gave him. And it did so knowing that their tribal supporters, with some help from a large segment of the media, would never call them on its brazen lies.

This is the same mentality that allows the GOP to lie about covering pre-existing conditions and forcing over 20 million Americans to lose health insurance in order to give the rich and business a $1 trillion tax cut. For their base, those 20 million don't deserve health care to begin with. It allows Tom Price to say that people with disabilities, on welfare, or with pre-existing conditions are less deserving than his base of taxpayers. It allows Trump to try and institute an unconstitutional Muslim ban (which was just upheld by 4th Circuit as such) because they are not deserving. It allows Ben Carson to call poverty a "state of mind". It allows Fox News to perpetuate continual lies such as the Seth Rich murder fabrication. And it allows current members of the House to blame this on "tension" created by the "left" and who will welcome Gianforte into their caucus with open arms if he wins.

It reflects a party that refuses to represent all their constituents and instead only represents the empowerment of their party and the minority of Americans that make up its base. It reflects a party that has lost total interest in any semblance of democracy and is only interested in the maintenance and expression of its own power.

As Details Emerge, The 2016 Election Becomes More And More Incredible

Historians will look back at the 2016 election and wonder just how it all went so wrong. They will marvel at the fact that the dominant issue in the coverage of the campaign was a red-herring scandal about whether there was improper handling of totally banal emails by one candidate while the government knew that at least two of the top advisers to the other candidate were subject to manipulation by the Russians but hid that fact from the American voter. They will be equally confounded that the Russians were also able to successfully run an operation that ended up with the Director of the FBI intervening in the election on the side of the candidate, who the Director knew had advisers that were being influenced by the Russians, in a way never before seen in American history. Yet that is what happened.

Yesterday, we learned that intelligence agencies collected recorded conversation by top Russian officials discussing how they could use their influence with both then Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and top Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn to sway the attitudes and opinions of Trump himself. It was information like this that caused CIA Director Brennan to refer the matter to the FBI for a counter-espionage investigation.

Manafort, in particular, had a long history with the Russians due to his decade-long period as adviser for the Russians and their candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, in Ukraine. For that duty, he was paid millions not only by Yanukovych but presumably by the Russians as well. His selection as campaign manager was one of the more interesting developments early on in the campaign as he had no history or particular skill-set for US domestic politics for well over a decade. On the other hand, he made perfect sense for the Russians. And, as is made clear by the limited financial history we know about him, Manafort always made sure he got paid. Since he was ostensibly working for Trump for free, the open question is who exactly was paying him.

Flynn, as well, was getting directly paid by the Russians. So far, reports have shown that Flynn received over $65,000 in direct payments from Russian-backed firms in 2015 alone, the largest portion of which was for a trip to Moscow to speak at the Kremlin propaganda arm, RT, and attend its gala dinner with a seat right next to Vladimir Putin.

As Malcolm Nance said last night on MSNBC, it seems as though Russian officials were almost treating Flynn and Manafort as controlled intelligence assets. Manafort's getting the RNC platform changed on Crimea could well be proof of that direct influence. And, as Brennan pointed out in his testimony yesterday, "Frequently, individuals who go along that treasonous path do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be too late." This statement could well apply to both Flynn and Manafort.

In addition, we also learned yesterday that part of the reason that James Comey felt obligated to hold the press conference in violation of DOJ procedures where he lambasted Clinton for her "extremely careless" handling of emails was because of a document created by the Russians cited an email claiming that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had compromised herself in the investigation. The document, which was somehow provided to the FBI as a purported Russian intelligence analysis, claimed that the Russians had intercepted an email from the DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to a member of the George Soros' funded Open Society Foundation claiming that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had informed a member of the Clinton campaign that she would not let the Clinton email investigation go too far.

This document, along with Bill Clinton's meeting with Lynch on the tarmac in Arizona, led Comey to believe that Lynch could not be trusted in the email investigation and prompted his unprecedented press conference.

It turns out, however, that not long after that press conference, the FBI determined that this document was a forgery and Comey had himself become a victim of the Russian hacking of our election. But it also highlights Comey's initial reaction about everything seemingly associated with Democrats and that is that they are always trying to hide something. Rather than waiting for the full analysis of this document which eventually showed it was forged, he was inclined to believe it and acted on it. And rather than waiting to do a full analysis of the Abedin emails, he again believed it was "new information" when it turned out they were all duplicates.

As I detailed in a prior post, the coordination between the members of what became the Trump campaign and Russian interests existed long before the campaign even started. Trump had been getting his financing from Russian money for well over a decade. Manafort had essentially been on the Russian payroll for about that long as well. Flynn was a more recent addition, getting paid by Russian after he was fired by Obama as DNI. They all knew that whatever could do to please the Russians would just keep the money rolling in. They didn't really need direct instructions. But that doesn't mean that they didn't get them.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Donald Trump Is A National Security Nightmare

Donald Trump is a national security nightmare. He treats classified secrets as nuggets to be shared with others he is trying to impress, creating danger for the United States and its allies.

First, there was his divulging the existence of an Israeli spy within the top hierarchy of ISIS to the Russians. This effectively neutered the effectiveness of one of the most important sources of intelligence the West has about ISIS, not to mention infuriating our allies and making it less likely that they will continue to share critical intelligence with us.

Then, the administration released the name of the Manchester bomber, completely ignoring the Brits' request to have him remain anonymous in order to further their investigation. That investigation has apparently uncovered a terrorist cell but the early identification of the bomber may have both hindered the investigation or allowed other members of the cell to escape. In the wake of the Israeli spy revelation and now this, you can bet British intelligence will be far more careful in dealing with the Trump administration going forward.

Then, Trump had a phone call with Philippine President Duterte where he not only praised Duterte's extra-judicial killings of supposed drug dealers but also revealed that two US nuclear submarines were stationed off the North Korean coast. The US never divulges the location of its submarines and giving their location provides vital intelligence for other countries to ensure or test the accuracy of their anti-submarine technology. The Chinese, for instance, are probably delighted to have this piece of intelligence.

All this, in just a couple of weeks. And you can be sure there are other secrets Trump has divulged that we don't know about. We only learned about the nuclear sub on because the Philippine's provided a readout of the call. There was nothing from the Trump administration.

How long are the Republicans going to put our country and our allies in danger by enabling this man, who is clearly unfit to be President, to remain in office. Are tax cuts really worth the risk?

Surprise! Uber May Have Engaged In Massive Wage Theft In NYC

Does Uber management spend each and every day thinking about how it can rip more people off and create even more bad publicity for the company? It certainly appears so. Today's Uber revelation was that the company was deducting its commission based on the full fare, which includes taxes and fees, rather than the lower cost of the ride only, essentially bilking tens of millions in commissions from drivers in New York City over the last few years.

Uber has agreed to pay these drivers back with interest. But the revelation raises even more troubling questions for Uber about who actually pays for those sales taxes and fees. In New York, those taxes and fees can be pretty hefty, with a 9% sales tax and a 2.5% fee to cover workers' compensation and other benefits. These fees are supposed to be paid by the passenger, essentially as an addition to the fare and then passed on to the state. But Uber is apparently deducting these taxes and fees from the drivers' pay, essentially making the drivers pay the tax. Uber's response is that the taxes and fees are included in the fare, using the example of selling a slice of pizza for $1 that includes the sales tax.

Unfortunately, Uber's receipts for drivers show that this is not the case. Out of state trips in New York, which are frequent in New York City, are not charged sales tax by the state. Uber, however, charges the same fare regardless of whether the destination is in-state or out of state, implying that sales tax is not included in the fare.

If, as it appears, Uber is making the drivers pay these taxes and fees, then it is a clear case of wage theft. A driver advocacy group in New York is already making that claim. Estimates are that the wage theft could amount to more than $200 million and, if the case is proved, the drivers could receive double the compensation.

I have written many times about Uber's continual criminal and ethical breaches. Does any one doubt that wage theft and avoiding its share of taxes is not typical of Uber's approach to business? And this case in New York raises the question of what happens in other jurisdictions where government levies taxes and fees. If Uber was willing to flout the law in New York, one of its most important markets, you can be sure they are doing that in other localities that are far less influential and important.

It really is time to RICO this serial criminal enterprise called Uber into oblivion.


Trump Has Already Moved To His Last Line Of Defense

It looks like Donald Trump has already reached the last line of defense with regard to collusion with the Russians and obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, the evidence against Trump and his campaign just keeps growing day by day.

Yesterday, it was revealed Trump made another two attempts to obstruct Comey's FBI inquiry. Shortly after Comey revealed that there was an ongoing investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion in late March, Trump contacted both Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and director of the National Security Agency Mike Rogers and asked them to publicly deny that there was any evidence of collusion. Both declined the President's "request".  In addition, Trump's senior advisers asked senior intelligence officials about the possibility of getting them to intervene with Comey to shut his investigation down.

This marks the sixth specific attempt that Trump has made to stymie Comey's investigation since he became President only four months ago. There was the dinner where Trump asked for Comey's loyalty and the private meeting where Trump asked Comey to "let this go". Both those meetings came immediately after the White House had received information about the expanding status of the Russian investigation, the first after the Sally Yates meeting and the second after Comey's announcement that collusion was part of the investigation. Then there was the actual firing of Yates and Comey. I could also add the attempt by Priebus to get Burr and Nunes, the heads of the intelligence committees, to push back on the story as well. And those are just the ones we currently know about.

In addition, we also heard from former CIA head John Brennan yesterday who testified that he saw intelligence last summer that "revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign". That intelligence was troubling enough for him to refer the matter to the FBI for a counter-intelligence investigation. That is, in fact, how Comey's investigation came to be.

This is an incredibly important revelation. Brennan is an experienced Washington insider with years in intelligence. He saw a pattern of conduct and contacts that was recognizable to him and disturbing enough to recommend a counter-intelligence operation by the FBI. This information must have been pretty compelling because Brennan would certainly realize just how explosive asking the FBI to begin an investigation of a presidential campaign a mere few months before the election would be. It would not be a step that Brennan would take lightly and without real consideration. Now, as we saw in the run-up to the Iraq war, intelligence is not real evidence in a legal sense and Brennan made that point repeatedly under Republican questioning. But it is evidence of a possibility.

Which brings us back to Trump's request to Coats and Rogers to publicly state there was no evidence of collusion. Based on what Brennan knew and what Coats and Rogers would now know in their current capacity, Trump was asking them to make a false statement. There was clearly enough evidence of possible collusion to convice Brennan and added to that is the Russian dossier, which has had numerous elements of it corroborated, and the remarkable synergy between Russian interests, timely WikiLeaks revelations, targeted Russian fake news, and the talking points and strategies of the Trump campaign.

In addition, Brennan's alert to the FBI makes it clear that possible collusion was part of the FBI investigation of the Russian hacking of the election from the very beginning. In September, the Obama administration was so concerned that it provided an intelligence briefing to the gang of eight in Congress, which would have included McConnell and Ryan. The purpose of that meeting was to get a bipartisan statement condemning the Russian hacking. McConnell specifically refused, saying the evidence was suspect and Ryan apparently dutifully went along. It seems entirely reasonable to think that the possibility that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia was part of that briefing. After all, Harry Reid pressed Brennan to release the damaging information he had about Russian hacking that the American people deserved to know just a few weeks later. If Reid knew about the possible collusion, then it goes to reason that Ryan and McConnell did as well. And they stonewalled and covered up for Trump.

But by far the most telling line of questioning of Brennan came from Republican water-boy Trey Gowdy who kept on pressing Brennan not on whether there was evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, as other Republicans had done, but whether there was any evidence of collusion by Trump himself. Brennan, as he had done repeatedly, answered that he collected intelligence and left it up to the FBI to determine what was evidence. But the emphasis by Gowdy solely on Trump himself shows us where we are going.

This line of questioning indicates that we have already reached the last line of defense for Trump. He himself began this defense in his press conference last week when he said, "There is no collusion - certainly myself and my campaign - but I can always speak for myself and the Russians - zero." I believe this will be the basis of Trump's defense going forward. Essentially he is saying that he himself did not collude with the Russians but had no idea or responsibility if members of his campaign were. Since he truly believed there was no collusion with Russia since he himself did not engage in it, then there can be no obstruction of justice because there was no intent to deceive. It's a small needle to thread, but that is already where Trump is at.

Rachel Maddow asked an interesting question last night. She pointed out that there is the collusion investigation and the investigation into financial crimes. They are part of the same investigation but she is unclear how they fit together. I think the answer is pretty clear. I don't think anyone in the Trump campaign really believed they would win. Flynn was in it to influence Trump to spout Russian propaganda and to keep the money flowing from his Russian and Turkish paymasters. Bannon and Conway were simply hired help for the Mercers and were happy to take their money. Manafort, like Flynn, could continue to keep his Russian money coming in. And Trump and Kushner could keep those "investments" coming from Russia too. As long as they questioned the relevance of NATO, attacked the integrity of the election, and weakened Hillary Clinton, the money would keep rolling in. Best of all, they would all still be powerful voices in the Republican party after the election, meaning that every one of their grifts could keep on giving.

The worst thing for everyone, except the Russians, was for Trump to actually win. Manafort was already in trouble, Flynn is fired and disgraced and facing years in jail, and Conway has utterly disgraced herself having to defend Trump's narcissistic, predatory behavior. Trump and Kushner now have all their businesses being examined with a fine-tooth comb. McConnell and Ryan started the cover-up last September. Trump enlisted his top White House aides to engage Burr and Nunes in continuing that cover-up. Sessions un-recused himself to help create a cover story for Comey's firing. Trump himself has tried to enlist Coats and Rogers in the cover-up and he has fired Yates and Comey when their investigations showed progress. In addition, there are the veiled threats against Yates and Comey and the message to Flynn to stay strong. The obstruction of justice is widespread and comprehensive at this point.

And now Trump is going to throw every one of his co-conspirators overboard with a strategy that absolves only himself. The real question is which one of his co-conspirators will turn against him first.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Citigroup Is This Week's Wall Street Corporate Criminal

Citigroup has agreed to pay nearly a $100 million fine for massive violations in its Banamex USA subsidiary with regard to its (lack of) anti-money laundering monitoring. Banamex USA "admitted to criminal violations by willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering" program. But, of course, by admitting to these criminal violations and paying this fine, Citigroup not only avoided criminal charges by the government but also receive a non-prosecution agreement. It's a nice racket, isn't it.

The Banamex USA subsidiary was part of Citigroup's purchase of the large Mexican bank Banamex and focused primarily on remittances between the US and Mexico. With that purchase came a number of significant problems. In 2015, the chairman of Banamex was forced to "retire" after a wave of revelations about shoddy and illegal practices at the bank. The bank was defrauded of $400 million by a shady oil outfit and bank employees were also implicated in taking bribes and kickbacks. The problems at Banamex eventually led to the uncovering of the money laundering issues in the US subsidiary that was the subject of this enormous fine.

The lifeblood of any anti-money laundering operation is a simple system to track unusual movements of cash. Certain thresholds of activity are automatically flagged as well as activity that is outside the normal pattern of an account's history. These transactions need to be investigated in order to determine whether a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) needs to be filed with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a bureau of the United States Department of the Treasury.

In a five year period between 2007 and 2012, Banamex systems flagged over 18,000 transactions that needed to be reviewed to determine if a SAR should be filed. But the bank conducted only 10 investigations that resulted in just six SAR reports being filed. One of the more egregious examples was an account involved in 1,400 transactions from 950 individual senders from over 40 states. Does that perhaps sound like a drug operation to you? According to Citigroup, no investigation was necessary and no SAR report was filed.

Part of the problem at Banamex USA was that there were only two employees in the whole anti-money laundering department. There was no possible way for those two people to investigate the over 3,500 flagged activities that occurred each year. And, as usual, when employees raised the problem of insufficient oversight, they were ignored by management.

The Banamex purchase was a winner for Citigroup as it was able to profit handsomely from the post-NAFTA growth in the Mexican economy and its burgeoning middle class. The fine will merely be considered the cost of doing business. It will not inhibit Citigroup from engaging in more criminal activity going forward. This is the first big financial industry case settled by the Sessions' Justice Department and it signals that the big Wall Street banks will still be allowed to get away with just about anything.

Quick Hits

Quick Hits is a segment that highlights a couple of stories that aren't quite enough for a post of their own.

  • A President's budget proposal is usually more of a political document than an actual spending plan. And the Trump budget will be vastly different from what actually eventually gets passed in Congress. But most Presidents don't usually propose budgets that target their own base of support. Of course, it will also hurt the poor and minorities even harder than most. Whether that's enough to make Trump's white working class voters grin and bear the pain they will endure remains to be seen. But Democrats should be able to club this budget to death with its enormous tax breaks for the top 1% at the expense of everyone else, especially Trump voters.

  • There has been recent chatter about California adopting its own single payer plan. A new analysis shows that to do so would require about $50 billion to $100 billion in additional revenue. Considering California's entire budget is $200 billion that seems like a tall order. A similar situation happened with Vermont's attempt at single payer. There it was determined that it would cost about $2 billion which was nearly as large as the state's entire budget. In order to pay for that, it was estimated that there would have to be an across-the-board income tax increase of nearly 12%. I know that makes it a political non-starter in this country these days. But I will just note that I currently pay about 12% of my income for my current health insurance. So, for me at least, it would be a wash. For others, of course, an increase like that would be devastating. For a different group, however, an increase like that would just put a minor crimp in their lifestyle. As Atrios says again and again, if we want nice stuff, we may just have to pay a little more to get it.

  • I've noticed a real sea change in the MSNBC coverage today and I'm not sure it's not also percolating throughout the mainstream media. The coverage keeps harping on the fact that it is now clear that there were multiple and concerning contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians throughout the election. Intelligence officials knew about these problematic contacts, but the American voter by and large went to the polls without that important knowledge. And the media is wondering why that happened, while leaving the question largely unanswered and ignoring their own obsession with "emails". And, of course, never mentioning the interference of James Comey. But it seems that the media is starting to lay the groundwork for the revelation that there was collusion. The intelligence community knew about it, and yet the American voter was kept in the dark. All of this is colored by the fact that no one, the intelligence agencies, the Obama administration, and the media ever expected Trump to win so it was always kind of a moot subject.




Uber Has An Interesting Way Of Treating Its "Partners"

Uber spends almost as much time getting deserved bad press as Donald Trump these days, and that is not a good place to be. Today's Uber atrocity is the company's plan to compete with their own Uber drivers, or "partners" as Uber euphemistically calls them, in Kenya by offering a lower cost solution.

In the highly competitive market of Nairobi, Uber is facing stiff competition from other similar providers like Taxify and Little Cab. Because of that competition, Uber is offering a new service that will offer even cheaper Uber rides in cars that are older and in worse condition than the current Uber rules allow. Of course, this cheaper alternative totally undercuts their existing drivers.

But it is actually worse than just offering a service that competes with its own existing drivers. Many of the Uber drivers in Kenya got involved because Uber sponsored its drivers with certain earnings history to get auto loans. In essence, these drivers need to maintain their Uber earnings until that loan is paid off in order to keep their car, and therefore their livelihood, which usually takes about three years.

So Uber has actually encouraged their drivers to take out these car loans and is now sabotaging those drivers' ability to pay off that loan. But that's pretty much the way Uber always treats its "partners". Just ask Pittsburgh.

Theresa May Be Blowing It

Theresa May is blowing it. When she called the snap election back in mid-April, polls showed that the Conservatives had a large double digit lead over Labour and were expected to gain over 80 seats in Parliament.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the election. First, Labour's manifesto showed it to be full of sensible proposals to help working Britons and not the crazed ramblings of a far left loony as Jeremy Corbyn is mostly depicted in the British media. The highlights of the plan include a childcare proposal, increased funding for the NHS, an increase in the carer's allowance, and a renewed commitment to education. All this was paid for by an increase in taxes on higher earners and a tax on the financial industry.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives were relying on Theresa May's impersonation of a strong leader to carry them to victory. That was always suspect but it was compounded when their own manifesto scrapped free school lunches and replaced them with lighter breakfasts but also introduced what became labeled as the "dementia tax". This new tax was designed to replace the already unpopular cap on lifetime care that was supposed to go into effect in 2020. Instead, it removed the cap but instituted an expanded threshold at which means testing would kick in to include the value of a person's property. For many requiring long-term care, such as dementia, this would mean that the government would seize their property after they died in order to offset the cost of their care, leaving no inheritance for the patient's children. Thus the "dementia tax".

This tax was so unpopular that May had to publicly reverse course. But even that was a disaster as the new plan simply put a cap on the amount the government could recoup after death. All this meant, though, is that relatively poorer patients would lose all their property while richer ones would have more to leave their children. And her explanation for this new plan was shaky at best and has exposed the myth of her "strong" leadership possibly more than her (mis)handling of the Brexit negotiations.

All this has meant that Labour has cut the Tory lead in the polls in half, to just nine points. Among 25 to 49 year olds, 15% are more likely to vote for Labour than before the election was called. Corbyn himself has seen has seen his positivity rating climb into the plus territory for the first time. At present, it looks possible that the Conservative gains in Parliament may fall below 20 seats. Corbyn may in fact get a greater share of the vote than Ed Milliband did in 2015. And, right now, it seems that Labour still has all the momentum. It remains to be seen whether the terrorist attack in Manchester last night will change that.

In addition, it is becoming increasingly apparent that May's constant repetition of her "strong" leadership actually covers for her weakness and evasiveness. In addition, there may finally be a realization among some in the electorate of just how weak the UK's negotiating position is when it comes to Brexit. And May's breezy platitudes about the great deal she will cut with the Europeans is beginning to ring hollow.

The Conservatives are still favored to win the election and increase their margin in Parliament. But it looks increasing likely that will not be because of the total collapse of the Labour party. The Tories have enormous structural advantages at the moment, with the collapse of Liberal Democrats after their disastrous decision to form a government with Cameron, the decimation of Labour in Scotland in favor the SNP, and the co-opting of the nationalist agenda of UKIP. 

Despite all these advantages, it appears that the more people see of May and the Conservative agenda, the more they don't like either. The idea behind the snap election was to give the Conservatives an enormous majority in Parliament and perhaps decimate the Labour party in the same way Conservatives demolished the Liberal Democrats in 2015. Instead, it appears that the Tories will only slightly increase their margin in Parliament, if that, and Labour will actually improve its standing, despite still losing seats. May, on the other hand, will emerge even weaker than before.

Monday, May 22, 2017

New GOP Healthcare Plan Is To Kill The ACA By Stealth, Blame Democrats

It is looking more and more likely that the Republican plan for repealing Obamacare is no longer using the vehicle of the AHCA but to kill the ACA by stealth and then try to blame the Democrats in 2018.

There seems to be no urgency in the Senate to move on their version of the AHCA and it is quite possible that it may be impossible to get anything close to what House Republicans and the Freedom Caucus will accept through the Senate even under budget reconciliation. As I noted in an earlier post, the Senate has only until June 15 to pass their version of the AHCA so that it is part of the 2017 budget and effects the 2018 budget baseline. After that date, it must become part of the 2018 budget. Without that lower 2018 budget baseline, it becomes more difficult to pass permanent tax cuts that won't have to expire after the ten year window. But you get no sense from the Senate that McConnell is even trying to make that date. In fact, you get the opposite impression, that the Senate is in no hurry to act on the AHCA at all, if ever.

Meanwhile, we also learned that Paul Ryan has not even sent the AHCA over to the Senate for consideration. Because Ryan rammed the AHCA through the House without waiting for a CBO score, it was unclear if the bill actually reduced the deficit. If in fact the CBO score showed the AHCA increased the deficit by more than $2 billion and Ryan had already sent the bill over the Senate, the whole process would have to begin all over again in the House. There would have to be a new budget resolution and another vote on another revised AHCA that would reduce the deficit. By not sending the bill over to the Senate, Ryan allows the House to just tweak the AHCA to address the deficit problem if the CBO score expected to be released this week does not show the savings required. But even that would require House Republicans to vote yet again on yet another version of the AHCA but this time there would be another CBO score that could possible be even worse than the first.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump keeps threatening to stop paying the CSRs to insurance companies. CSRs are essentially subsidies paid directly to the insurers in order to reduce insurance premiums. They have been the subject of a lawsuit initiated by House Republicans since Obamacare became reality. The Trump administration had already asked for a 90 day delay in the continuation of the lawsuit when it came into office because of its intention to repeal and replace Obamacare. That 90 day delay is set to expire and the administration is once again asking for another 90 days.

The lack of urgency in the Senate, the uncertainty of the AHCA in the House, and Trump's waffling on paying the CSRs all create incredible uncertainty for health insurers looking to whether and how they will participate in the AHCA in 2018. And the law requires that the insurers make those decisions by a June 19th deadline. Republicans have made it clear that the deadline will come and go without any more certainty than they probably have now. That means that the default assumption will be that Trump will not pay the CSRs and insurers will have to raise premiums across the board by anywhere from 20%-25% to make up for that or simply exit the market completely. In essence, the general uncertainty and, in particular, the chaos surrounding the CSRs could very well create a collapse in the insurance markets in certain areas and certainly will result in increased premiums.

This, in fact, seems to be the Republican plan, to create so much uncertainty that they force insurers to make the fallacy that Obamacare is imploding a reality. It sets the GOP up for the 2018 election. House Republicans can point to their AHCA vote to please the base. GOP Senators can claim they did not enact the AHCA as passed by the House, satisfying their broader state-wide bases. And Obamacare would be collapsing, just as the Republicans always predicted. And they will put the blame squarely on the Democrats. It is up to the Democrats to lay this future out right now in order to inoculate themselves for 2018 and put the blame on Trump and the Republicans for any problems with the ACA next year. There is no time to waste.

Pittsburgh Finally Realizes How Uber Works

Here's a shocker. Uber has not lived up to its commitments to the city of Pittsburgh. It was less than a year ago the Uber selected that Pennsylvania city as a test site for its driverless car program. But the promises that Uber made to the city of Pittsburgh in order to become that test site remain largely undelivered.

Uber promised to hire people from the local community as part of its autonomous vehicle testing. But residents were just instructed to go to Uber's general jobs website and no one from the community in which the test track is located has been hired. Uber promised that rides in autonomous vehicles in the city would be free of charge, but went ahead and charged for them anyway. But the most important promise that Uber made was to help the city reform its public transportation system. To that end, Pittsburgh was relying on Uber's financial support to get a $50 million federal grant. Uber, however, withdrew support for the grant.

To be fair, Uber's Advanced Technology Center has helped revive an old steel district in the city and the company claims it has created nearly 700 jobs in the city. Unfortunately, the most lucrative of those jobs comes from Uber poaching the talent from Carnegie Mellon University, annoying officials there.

When the mayor of Pittsburgh welcomed Uber to his city, he did not get any of these commitments in writing. Instead, he relied on his personal relationship with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. So it is easy to say that the mayor was naïve and didn't properly protect the interests of the city. But that's probably a bit too simplistic. Because there can be little doubt that if the mayor had asked for these commitments in writing, Uber would have found some other city that had the same attitude as Pittsburgh instead and gone there. Uber will never pay for what it can steal.

As the mayor said, "When it came to what Uber and what Travis Kalanick wanted, Pittsburgh delivered. But when it came to our vision of how this industry could enhance people, planet and place, that message fell on deaf ears." Maybe without realizing it himself, the mayor perfectly explained Uber's business model - profit off of other people's work that they refuse to pay for.