Monday, March 20, 2017

The Shelter of America

It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St. Patrick and his legacy. He, too, was an immigrant. And even though he is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland, for many people around the globe, he is also the symbol of — indeed, the patron of — immigrants.

Here in America, in your great country, 35 million people claim Irish heritage, and the Irish have contributed to the economic, social, political, and cultural life of this great country over the last 200 years. Ireland came to America because, deprived of liberty, deprived of opportunity, of safety, of even food itself, the Irish believed.

And four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans. We lived the words of John F. Kennedy long before he uttered them: We asked not what America can do for us, but what we could do for America. And we still do.

- Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny
Friday, at the White House, standing next to Donald Trump

This week's featured post is "Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked". Next Sunday at 11 a.m. I'll be speaking at First Parish in Billerica on the topic "The Born-Again Unitarian Universalist". But I'm not canceling next week's Sift. I plan to put out a weekly summary without a featured post.

This week had too much news

You kind of expect a flurry of news when a new administration takes office, but we're two months in, and it's not dying down. This week and next both include way too much for the average American to keep track of:

Got all that? I probably left something important out. (Oh, there are a bunch of stories about how Trump is enriching himself through the presidency and special interests are doing business with him to curry favor, if you care about things like that.)

I'm reminded of the late 80s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. One afternoon I heard a radio announcer say, without the slightest touch of irony, "In other news, today the Parliament of the Ukraine declared its complete independence."

Friday, Rachel Maddow had another way of bringing this point home: She covered a juicy Navy bribery scandal that includes "prostitutes, $2,000 bottles of wine, fancy cigars, and lavish meals", but can't break through to the front pages because there's too much else going on.

Everybody was talking about the Trump budget

Politics is all fun and games until you have to start writing down numbers and adding them up. Until then, you can fantasize about "massive" tax cuts, eliminating the national debt, big job-creating infrastructure projects, better and cheaper healthcare for everybody, taking better care of our veterans, an impervious border wall, more coal-mining jobs, and all the rest. I mean, why not? Nobody's paying for anything yet, and each promise exists in its own universe, independent of all the others.

It's like when college students pile into a car and head to their favorite restaurant. During the drive, they can picture the piles of great food they're going to order. Only after the waitress distributes menus do they have to ask each other: "Does anybody have any money?"

As I said above, Trump's budget does nothing about the deficit. During the campaign, he considered our $20 trillion national debt to be threat to national survival, but now not so much.

The overall shape of the deficit looks like this: Obama inherited a large deficit from Bush, increased it to deal with the Great Recession, and then shrank it until 2015, when it started to grow again. You may or may not consider the debt to be a serious problem. (I think it's a symptom of problems rather than a problem in itself.) But you can't seriously claim it's an existential crisis that magically goes away as soon as a Republican takes office.

So far, the increased defense spending doesn't come with any new strategy, and nobody's too sure exactly what the money will be spent on. It's as if dollars could go out and defend the country without manifesting as equipment or soldiers.

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering just how much the U.S. already spends on its military. This chart comes from 2015.

Of those seven countries, four are our allies: Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, and Japan. India is more-or-less neutral towards us, and only China and Russia are rivals or potential enemies.

As for the cuts, it's going to take a while to work out exactly who will be hurt by them. At this stage, we're mostly seeing totals that will go to various departments and program offices, and can't be sure exactly how those cuts will be distributed. But what the administration is admitting to is outrageous enough. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said:

Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward. We're not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.

On after-school food aid to poor children:

About after-school programs generally: They're supposed to be educational programs, right? That's what they're supposed to do; they're supposed to help kids who don't get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that. No demonstrable evidence they're actually helping results, they're helping kids do better in school.

On the one hand, there's just the hypocrisy angle here: When did the Trump administration become evidence-based? What evidence is there that increased defense spending will make us safer, or that charter schools improve education, or that anything else they want to spend money on works?

But then there's just the disconnect from any sense of morality. What are we doing here? Feeding poor kids stuff that is reasonably nutritious and not very expensive. What's the downside of that? At worst, maybe we're also feeding some not-as-poor kids whose parents could afford to feed them without our help. Does that seriously bother anybody? As Mother Jones points out, there's plenty of general research connecting nutrition to performance. If we don't have specific proof that this particular program is boosting grades -- and I'm just taking Mulvaney's word here -- how big a problem is that? If at-risk kids are getting fed, isn't that result enough?


In general, the Trump budget points out something I've been harping on for years: Conservatives portray the federal government as this sinkhole that your money flows into without doing anyone any good. But when they start trying to cut the budget -- and we're not even talking about the kinds of cuts that would be needed to balance the budget or start paying down the debt -- they can't do it without taking away people's food and healthcare.


The budget continues the pattern of the ObamaCare replacement bill: Trump screwing the people who elected him. I wonder how the voters of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin feel about the 97% cut in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or what West Virginians think about eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission. If you're old and trying to stay in your home, you may suffer from elimination of the Community Block Grant program, which (among other things) helps fund Meals on Wheels.

Transportation to rural areas is going to be hit: The budget cuts the Essential Air Service program that keeps rural airports open. My hometown of Quincy, Illinois (which voted 3-to-1 for Trump) sits at the very end of a twice-a-day Amtrak route to Chicago; I've got to wonder if that will survive.

I've also got to wonder how the rural areas that Trump called "forgotten" are going to attract new employers if they become more isolated. Imagine being a small-town mayor making a pitch to a major corporation. How do you spin losing your airport and rail connection?

The New Republic thinks Trump voters won't care about his betrayal of their interests. We'll see.


It's not just climate change: The government is cutting back on scientific research across the board.


"Who's going to pay for the Wall?" Trump used to ask his crowds, who would yell back "Mexico!" The whole time he was probably thinking: "You are, suckers."

and blocking the Muslim ban again

I covered this in the featured post.

and the CBO's devastating report on TrumpCare

Ezra Klein discusses not just what the CBO said, but what Paul Ryan then replied. His own summary: "The more help you need, the less help you get."

and the President's unhinged ranting

I've been trying to ignore Trump's claim that Obama had wiretapped him. It's not that I'm unwilling to believe anything bad about Obama, but I need some bit of evidence first, and Trump's tweets are not evidence. I think the mainstream media is way too easily distracted by Trump's ridiculous tweets.

But he is the president, and he stuck with his accusation, so Congress felt obligated to check it out. Wednesday, Devan Nunes, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee stated his conclusion:

Are you going to take the tweets literally? And if you are, then clearly the president was wrong.

The next day, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a joint statement:

Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.

This is noteworthy, because it's the first indication that some Republicans in Congress hold their duty to the country higher than their loyalty to the President. May this hopeful sign blossom and bear fruit.

Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer compounded the problem by expanding the accusation to include GCHQ, the United Kingdom's equivalent of the NSA. This, he said, quoting Fox News' Andrew Napolitano, is why there might be "no American fingerprints" on the taps. GCHQ rejected this as "utterly ridiculous". Rick Ledgett, second in command at the NSA called it "arrant nonsense" and told the BBC: "Of course they wouldn't do it. It would be epically stupid." Not even Fox News would stand by the claim. Fox anchor Shepard Smith reported:

Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano's commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way. Full stop.

A British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported:

Intelligence sources had earlier told The Telegraph that both Mr Spicer and General McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, have apologised over the claims. "The apology came direct from them," a source said.

And New York Daily News added:

James Slack, [Prime Minister Theresa] May’s spokesman, said Friday that the White House has promised not to repeat the line. He added that the British government told the U.S. the claim was “ridiculous” and should be ignored.

But Spicer subsequently denied there had been any apology, saying "I don't think we regret anything." Trump himself denied any responsibility for the claim:

We said nothing. All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. You shouldn't be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.

Think about what this means: Trump is denying that either he or his spokespeople have any responsibility to know what they're talking about, or to verify that what they claim is true.

For me, then, this story has turned a corner. It is no longer about anything Obama did or did not do. It's about our President's mental condition, and whether anything he says can be relied on. I agree with Josh Marshall:

If someone says aliens landed in their backyard and has a similar lack of any evidence whatsoever, we call that person a liar or a crazy person. We say it's not true. Full stop.

I find myself thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy spoke to the American people, to our allies, and to the rest of the world, telling them that because of intelligence sources not publicly available, he had come to certain conclusions and was taking action that could lead to nuclear war. Many Americans were frightened by that speech, but I imagine few thought, "He's making all that up."

If Trump were to make a similar speech today, about, say, North Korea, how could we not wonder if he was making it all up? How could our allies not wonder? That inherent lack of credibility in the White House makes us all less safe.

but the best news of the week came from Europe

In the Netherlands, many thought Geert Wilders would continue the nationalist/xenophobic winning streak of Brexit/Trump. But it didn't work out that way. Current Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party won 33 seats in the Dutch Parliament, with Wilders' party second with only 20 seats.

Wilders' positions are actually quite a bit more extreme than Trump's were here. He wants to ban the Quran, close mosques, and completely stop immigration from Muslim countries.

Iowa's white supremacist Congressman Steve King is a fan. He tweeted:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

This is nothing new for King, who keeps a Confederate flag on his desk and has made other outrageous racial comments in the past. Not so long ago, such statements would have made him a pariah, but not in today's Republican Party.


Angela Merkel was in town this week for an awkward meeting with Trump. Afterwards he tweeted:

Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!

As The Washington Post points out, this is nonsense. There is no proposal for Germany or any other country to pay protection money to the United States, and Germany has never agreed to such a thing.

and you might also be interested in

The quote at the top comes from this video of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the White House. How is it that the leader of Ireland understands American values so much better than the leader of America?


Vox tells you way more about CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the rules that make gas mileage on new cars keep going up) than you probably wanted to know. Very short version: Obama set high fuel-economy standards and Trump wants to lower them, but Obama's standards are pretty well locked in until 2022. The 2022-2025 standards would be easier to lower, but even that gets really complicated because there are three entities involved: the EPA, the Department of Transportation, and the State of California, which has a waiver that allows it to create its own standards (which other states could adopt) if the federal ones seem too lax. Trump could try to cancel California's waiver, but that is an arcane process of its own.

and let's close with something meta

The Venn diagram of Venn diagrams.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Basic Goals

The GOP's real problem, in terms of passing legislation, isn't that the party can't agree on specifics, or that legislators need to bargain their way toward a compromise that gives everyone something they want. It's that they don't agree on, or in some cases even have, basic goals when it comes to health policy.

- Peter Sunderman, Reason.com

This week's featured post is "Poor People Need BETTER Heath Insurance than the Rest of Us, Not Worse."

This week everybody was talking about TrumpCare

So there finally is a TrumpCare bill. Unfortunately, the promised unicorns and fairy princesses are not in it.

The Congressional Budget Office analysis is supposed to come out today, and it is widely expected to show that many millions of people will lose their coverage. Millions of others who continue to have "health insurance" of some sort will find that it costs them more and doesn't cover as much as an ObamaCare policy did.

I could spend my entire weekly word budget telling you what's wrong with this bill, but other people already have. Not only don't liberals like it, but neither do conservatives, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance companies, neutral experts, the AARP, or just about anybody else. If you're rich, your taxes will go down. If you're young, healthy, and middle-class, your net insurance costs (after government subsidies and tax credits) will probably be lower than under ObamaCare. But if you're anybody else, you're going to be worse off.

The people who will be hurt the most are -- wait for it -- the Trump base: rural working-class people nearing retirement. They join the long list of folks who have trusted Trump and gotten screwed: banks and investors who loaned him money, contractors who worked on his projects, Trump U students, and people who lost down-payments on Trump Tower Tampa condos that never got built, just to name the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

It's all summed up in a great graphic from the NYT's Upshot blog. The people who lose the most voted for Trump over Clinton 58%-39%.

It will be interesting to see if these voters face reality and admit what has happened. During the Clinton impeachment, I remember saying that Bill had never lied to me about anything I cared about. (I never cared whether he had sex with "that woman".) I imagine many Trump voters feel the same way about their guy: Sure, he lied about the size of his inaugural crowd, and releasing his tax returns, and maybe some other stuff, but they never cared about any of that.

This, they should care about. But will they?


Ezra Klein does a good job of analyzing how the bill got to be so bad.

The biggest problem this bill has, the more I read it, is that it's not clear why it exists, what it's trying to achieve, what it makes better. In reality, what I think we're seeing here is that Republicans have lost sight of what they were trying to achieve in the first place. They are trying so desperately to come up with something that would allow them to say they've repealed and replaced ObamaCare, that they've let repeal and replace become not just a political slogan, but a goal.

Criticizing ObamaCare has been easy these last eight years, particularly if you make things up (like Death Panels). But forming a consensus view of the government's proper role in healthcare, and figuring out how to translate that vision into a piece of legislation -- that's hard. So for eight years, Republicans have been skipping that part. And now it shows.

"It says our health insurance is being replaced by a series of tweets calling us losers."

So the message going out to congressional Republicans now isn't "This is good, and here's how you explain its goodness to your constituents." It's "This is what we might be able to pass, and if we can't pass something we're all screwed." No one is enthusiastic about this bill (other than the billionaires with their tax cut), but Ryan, Trump, et al are counting on desperation to make even the most recalcitrant Republicans hold their noses and stay in line.

That could work, but here's the most likely failure path: Conservatives in the House force the bill to be even more draconian, so that when it reaches the Senate, Republicans from blue or purple states have enough cover to vote against it. The bill's margin for error is slight: Since it offers no concessions to liberal values, congressional Democrats are likely to remain united against it. So 21 Republican defections in the House or 3 in the Senate are enough to sink it.


I doubt they will, but this would be a good time for Democrats to propose the changes they would like to see in ObamaCare. Such a bill wouldn't pass, of course, but it would put a stake in the ground for 2018.

Here's a thought: The various legitimate problems ObamaCare is having -- like regions where only one or two insurers offer policies, so it's easy for them to raise premiums -- couldn't all that be fixed by sticking a public option back into the program? You could even set it up so that a public option would only be triggered in places with insufficient competition.

and the revised Muslim ban

A week ago, Trump signed an executive order replacing his Muslim ban, which had been blocked by the courts. The Guardian summarizes what is the same and different, and lets you read the 23-page text if you're so inclined.

In general, the revised ban is more orderly than the original, and won't produce the same kind of drama:

  • It stops new visas from being issued to people from six (not seven) Muslim-majority countries, but honors existing visas. So the conflicts happen in distant offices, not in American airports where demonstrators can congregate.
  • Green-card holders are unaffected this time, so people who already have perfectly legal jobs and lives in America will be able to cross the border.
  • Iraq isn't one of the listed countries any more, so victims won't include people who worked with our soldiers there.
  • It takes effect on March 16, rather than immediately when published, so the federal employees who have to enforce it will have time to figure out how it works rather than getting briefed quickly in the middle of the night.

So the rough edges are gone, but the essence is the same: It's still a Muslim ban. And that's going to make for an interesting court case, because it will hang on how willing judges are to examine the intent behind the order. The administration will argue that the order's specific provisions fall within the legal powers of the president, and the ban's opponents will have to argue that its intent and effect is to discriminate based on religion.

Trump campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the country, which would be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. His first order was an poor attempt to disguise the Muslim ban, and the second order smooths out problems in the first. But the original purpose is still there. His supporters can claim that this is just a small subset of Muslim countries, but the intent from the beginning has been to establish a precedent that can be expanded: If a six-country ban is OK, what about nine? Fifteen?

The non-religious justifications for the order have always been paper-thin. But intent is always a difficult thing to establish, and it will take guts for a court to say openly that the President of the United States is bullshitting. A judge would always rather find a procedural flaw, as judges did with the original ban. But Hawaii has set the ball rolling by filing suit. claiming that a Muslim ban is a Muslim ban.


The central issue for the Trump base has always been nostalgia for an America clearly dominated by straight white Christians. That's why they want a wall and that's why they want a Muslim ban. If there were no terrorist threat, they would still want a Muslim ban.

Tweeting in support of the xenophobic, anti-Muslim candidate in the upcoming Dutch elections, Iowa Congressman Steven King wrote:

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can't restore our civilisation with somebody else's babies.

and the U.S. Attorney firings

Friday, Attorney General Sessions asked for the resignations of all the U.S. attorneys who were held over from the Obama administration, including one that Trump had specifically said could stay on. In some circles this is being covered as if it were scandalous, but at this point it's not quite at that level. U.S. attorneys are political appointees, and usually do get replaced by a new administration. The Clinton administration replaced all 92 at once in 1993, but usually a number of them stick around to handle ongoing cases before they resign. About half of the Obama USAs were already gone, and the Trump administration had seemed content to let them drift out at their own pace. (No one, for example, has yet been nominated for the jobs of any of the 46 just asked to resign.) So the abrupt change of course is a cause for speculation, but is not in itself extraordinary.

and corruption

Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone admitted to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, which is believed to be responsible for hacking the DNC emails and "is believed by the U.S. intelligence community to be a cover identity for Russian intelligence operatives." Stone described the contact as "innocuous".


The lies continue to unravel. This week, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn retroactively filed as a foreign agent, having received more than half a million dollars to represent the government of Turkey while he was advising the Trump campaign. Worse, the transition team that OK'd Flynn's appointment had been told about this possibility both by Flynn's lawyers and by Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Vice President Pence was the head of the transition team, and yet he told Fox News' Brett Baier Thursday "Hearing that story today was the first I had heard of it." That can't be true, and yet (like Attorney General Sessions' lie to the Senate) he volunteered it without being asked.

Where did that money from Turkey go? Some of it paid a retainer to the retired FBI agent who started one of the Clinton-scandal stories three weeks before the election. Why Turkey would care about torpedoing Hillary Clinton's campaign is still a mystery.

and you might also be interested in

Courts seem increasingly inclined to strike down gerrymandering plans. Friday, federal judges ruled that Texas' map illegally discriminates against Hispanics. This follows a similar ruling in January concerning Wisconsin.

The WaPo published two maps that illustrate one way congressional districts could be simpler and more natural.


The economy continues on its recent path of good-not-spectacuar growth, adding 235K jobs in February. The unemployment rate returned to the 4.7% low it hit in December.

When asked about Candidate Trump's claims that Obama's low unemployment numbers were "phony" and "fiction", Sean Spicer replied:

I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.

Both Spicer and the roomful of reporters laughed, because the President tacitly admitting that he has repeatedly lied is so hilarious.

Mike the Mad Biologist commented on the constant lying that so many now just accept as a normal feature of the Trump administration:

What happens in a crisis where people need to trust Il Trumpe? Suppose a nasty strain of influenza were to hit or some other immediate public health crisis were to occur? If he says, you need to do X, will people trust him? While politicians have always stretched the truth, Trump’s lies are constant and ongoing. How could we possibly believe what he is saying?

And SNL made a similar point in its alien-invasion sketch.


I thought I covered this when it happened, but Google says otherwise: In mid-February, the Washington Supreme Court considered the appeal of a self-described Christian florist who was sued for refusing to sell flower arrangements for a same-sex wedding, and ruled 9-0 against the florist. The ruling is a good lesson on where the law currently stands on these so-called "religious freedom" cases, i.e., the ones where someone is claiming religion as a legitimate basis for discrimination.

Cases like these revolve around two claims: (1) The refused service constitutes "speech" of some sort, and so this refusal to speak is protected by the First Amendment. (2) The discrimination is not against gays per se; it's against their action in attempting to get married.

On the first, the Court wrote:

The Supreme Court has protected conduct as speech if two conditions are met: "[(1)] [a]n intent to convey a particularized message was present, and [(2)] in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it."

So it's not enough that in the florist's own mind her refusal was intended to avoid making a statement she didn't believe. The Court was not convinced that people who saw the floral arrangements would interpret them as the florist's endorsement of same-sex marriage.

On the second, it ruled that "some conduct is so linked to a particular group of people that targeting it can readily be interpreted as an attempt to disfavor that group", and quoted a Supreme Court opinion that "[a] tax on wearing yarmulkes is a tax on Jews".


The latest right-wing conspiracy theory is that leaks, protests, and other opposition to Trump is being organized by an Obama-led "shadow government".

My response to this idea is like the response economist John Maynard Keynes had during the Depression to the notion of an international bankers' conspiracy: "If only there were one."

and let's close with some folk art

Some people stack wood, but others make an art out of it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Worrying about Progress

If you’re worried that technological progress will lead to mass unemployment — and especially if you think this process is already underway — you should be very interested in what the Federal Reserve does.

Timothy Lee

This week's featured post is "Jobs, Income, and the Future": Technologists worry that robots are going to make most humans unemployable, and economists scoff at that worry. Who's right?

I was in Florida last week, where I spoke to the Unitarian Universalists of Lakewood Ranch. This group is only a year-or-so old, so I raised the question "Why Be a Congregation?"

This week everybody was talking about Russia again

It's hard to restate the situation more succinctly than Paul Begala:

So:
1 Russia hacked Dems
2 Leaks were timed to aid Trump
3 Trump aides had contact w/Russians
4 They lied about contacts

Nope. Nothing here

So far, we have a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting a quid-pro-quo relationship between the Trump campaign and the Putin government, but nothing that rises to the level of proof. For some reason, though, Trump's people all start obfuscating, misdirecting, and lying whenever the subject comes up, and his allies in Congress really, really don't want to investigate it.

That's the mystery. Disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had to resign when it came out that he lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador (and got Vice President Pence to lie for him). And this week we found out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied during his confirmation hearings about meeting the Russian ambassador. These are serious matters: Lying to the FBI (Flynn) and to Congress (Sessions) are both crimes. (I'm waiting for Republicans to start chanting "Lock them up!", but so far there are no charges, and Sessions continues to be our top law-enforcement officer.) So why take those risks unless there's something serious worth hiding?

I have to agree with Josh Marshall:

[B]ig, big scandals work like this. People who don't even appear to be that close to the action keep getting pulled under for what seem like needless deceptions. The answer is usually that the stuff at the center of the scandal is so big that it requires concealment, even about things distant from the main action, things that it would seem much better and less damaging simply to admit.

He also makes an interesting point about cover-ups:

We've all heard the old saw: It's never the crime, it's the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they're in. We think the 'cover up' is worse than the crime because it's actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn't. So it's a good bet.


Another Trump campaign person changed his story about how the Republican platform plank on Ukraine was softened in Russia's favor. At the time he claimed Trump and then-campaign-manager Paul Manafort weren't involved, but now he says they were.


Marshall makes his best attempt at an "innocent explanation" of what we know about Trump and Russia: Basically, Trump went through a period in the 90s where the only investment capital he could raise came from Russian oligarchs, and given his what's-good-for-Trump-is-good-period narcissism, he came to share an oligarch's worldview: Putin good, sanctions against Russia bad, and so on. Putin recognized the value Trump could have for him, and did his best to put Trump in the White House.


The administration's response to the Sessions revelation, instantly picked up by Fox News and individual Trump fans commenting via social media, was that Democrats have also met with the high Russian officials, as if that were the problem. Chuck Schumer pointed out the lameness of this retort by volunteering to testify under oath about his 2003 encounter with Putin, and daring Trump and his people to do the same about their meetings.

The second response is to throw out a bright shiny object to distract everyone: Trump's so-far baseless claim that President Obama wiretapped him in Trump Tower. Not only has he not explained why we should believe this, he hasn't even said why he believes it.

Notice the response he never gets close to: If there really were no story here, he could score a lot of points with a defiant, bring-it-on attitude towards an investigation.


The Washington Post gets a legal opinion about Sessions' false testimony to Congress:

Under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Sections 1001 and 1621, perjury before Congress is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. To prove that offense, a prosecutor would have to establish that Sessions’s answer was false, that he knew it was false when made and that the subject matter of the answer was “material” to the congressional inquiry in which he was testifying. Those elements all appear to be present.


From Vox:

and Trump's speech to Congress

It's kind of amazing how low the bar is for this guy. He reads a speech off a teleprompter that doesn't sound totally crazy -- but does misrepresent a number of material facts -- and pundits are thrilled. It's as if I got arrested for indecent exposure, but because I keep my pants zipped in court, the jury decides I must be a changed man.


NPR's reporters do a good job of annotating the text:

President Trump very slowly and emphatically used the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the threat facing the nation. It is a term he used constantly during his presidential campaign. By repeating it Tuesday, he may be rebuking his own national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who reportedly told his National Security Council staff last week that the term may not help efforts to enlist the support of Muslim allies in the fight against ISIS because ISIS terrorism is actually “un-Islamic.” Former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama shared McMaster’s view.

"Radical Islamic terrorism" plays well among Trump's base, and in this administration domestic politics will always come before national security.

The reason the phrase is bad framing should be obvious if you translate it to Christianity, or some other religion you feel more sympathy for. If you're a Christian, "radical Christianity" sounds like it ought to be a good thing. (For that matter, if you're a humanist, "radical humanism" sounds pretty good.)

ISIS and other jihadist groups argue that they practice the "real" Islam, and that all the more liberal or pro-Western Muslims are compromisers who bend the true word of Allah to the worldly powers. If we call their ideology "radical Islam", we're validating their claim, and helping them recruit young Muslims.


Another important annotation:

although Trump has cited the danger of attacks by people traveling from the countries affected by his travel restrictions, all the lethal attacks by radicalized Muslims in the U.S. since 2001 have been carried out by U.S. citizens or people who were in the country lawfully.


From the speech:

I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims.  The office is called VOICE –- Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement.  We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.

One of the common techniques of bigotry is to treat misdeeds by the targeted group as somehow special, and so stereotype the group by those behaviors. So, for example, terrorism by Muslims is different than terrorism by Christians, sexual abuse of students by gay teachers is different than abuse by straight teachers, and so on. Here, Trump is continuing to build on the theme of his convention speech last summer, that undocumented immigrants present some special crime threat.

The reality is that any large-enough group of people will include criminals. If we separated out all the Americans named Donald, I'm sure we'd find that some are rapists, some are killers, and some (I assume) are good people. That separation would promote the (probably unfair) impression that people named Donald are somehow unsavory.

This is yet another fascist resonance in the Trump administration. Andrea Pitzer tells Amy Goodman:

Back in Nazi Germany there was ... a Nazi paper called Der Stürmer, and they had a department called "Letter Box," and readers were invited to send in stories of supposed Jewish crimes. And Der Stürmer would publish them, and they would include some pretty horrific graphic illustrations of these crimes, as well. And there was even a sort of a lite version of it, if you will, racism lite, in which the Neues Volk, which was more like a Look or a Life magazine, which normally highlighted beautiful Aryan families and their beautiful homes, would run a feature like "The Criminal Jew," and they would show photos of "Jewish-looking," as they called it, people who represented different kinds of crimes that one ought to watch out for from Jews.

But having said that, I need to balance with this quote from "Godwin's President" by Chris Ladd:

Trump is not Hitler. Hitler was someone else’s sin, someone else’s dragon unleashed. Trump is what Hitler represents, the embodiment of our nightmares, a living vision of a nation at her lowest, darkest, and most suicidally dangerous. Darkness that we once confined in our collective national basement we’ve now loosed on the world.

America's shadow is not necessarily as dark as Depression-era Germany's shadow.

but I decided to think about things other than Trump

The featured post looks at the long-term issue of the future of work and income. Ordinary macroeconomic policy should be enough to maintain more-or-less full employment for now, but eventually we're going to need some kind of basic income program. Making that work will be a social problem, not just an economic problem.


Ross Douthat makes a conservative case for (admittedly limited) reparations to descendants of slaves. He offers this concession as part of a deal to end affirmative action.


Occasionally you'll see lists purporting to be large numbers of scientists who don't believe in climate change. The sheer number of names is supposed to prove that climate change is still a hotly contested scientific issue.

In The Guardian, John Abraham (who actually does research on how to monitor the climate) takes a closer look at one such a list of 300 names. He finds what you always find: The people listed are "scientists" only in the weakest and most general sense. They have degrees or jobs that are somehow related to science or technology, but no particular expertise in climate research.

Within the community of actual climate-science experts, it is a settled fact that the Earth is getting warmer and that burning fossil fuels is an important cause.


Sam Brownback's Kansas tax experiment might be on its last legs. In February, the Republican-controlled legislature voted for a large tax increase, which Brownback vetoed. The House managed a 2/3rds majority to override the veto, but the override fell two votes short in the Senate. So, for now, no tax increase.

However, that veto does not solve the underlying problem: Absent a tax increase, Kansas faces a major budget shortfall. And that situation got worse Thursday when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the current spending plan falls short of the legislature's responsibility under Article 6 of the state constitution to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."


In the UK, the Churches Conservation Trust owns a lot of abandoned churches, many of them centuries old. Rather than just let them sit there, the CCT has begun promoting "champing" -- camping out in old abandoned churches. They provide beds and electric candles, though their ad says nothing about the possible ghost problem.


I spent my week off in Florida, where I happened to attend a lecture by Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. I learned something simple about 9-11, which I was amazed I hadn't heard in the previous 15 years: an answer to the question "Why were so many of the 9-11 hijackers Saudis?"

Haykel's answer: because Bin Laden picked them that way. He did that for two reasons: (1) At the time it was easier for Saudis to get visas than people from other Muslim countries. (2) He wanted to drive a wedge into the U.S./Saudi alliance.


Also while in Florida, I got to see a sandhill-crane chick for the first time. The adult sandhills are absolutely fearless in the face of humans, and see no reason not to claim a new suburban development as their territory. While out for walks near the friends' house where I was staying, I would occasionally turn my head and find myself a few feet from a sandhill giving me an eye-to-eye stare, and showing not the slightest hint of alarm.

But they're a bit more reclusive during hatchling season, so it was only on my last day before heading home that I caught a glimpse of this youngster, a straw-colored fluffball not all that different from chicken hatchlings, albeit with a longer neck.

chick4

and you might also be interested in

As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence conducted public business over a private email account, and got hacked. Chris Hayes commented:

This is going to be a very bitter pill for all those voters for whom server management was their top issue.

I could fill the Sift every week with hypocrisy stories like this, where issues that were considered vital to the survival of the Republic before Trump took office now seem not to matter. In a few weeks, Trump will most likely produce a budget that the CBO will analyze as having a big deficit, and we'll see whether Tea Partiers are alarmed by that or not. I predict not. All that 2010 rhetoric about going the way of Greece will be left unplugged.

To me, such examples just underline what does matter, which I spelled out two weeks ago: identity politics. The Trump base voter is nostalgic for an America where white Christians are dominant, where genders and gender roles are clearly defined, and where languages other than English are heard only inside certain big-city ghettos. All other issues are tactical; positions on them can turn on a dime.

For example, this is why terrorism by Muslims is a huge deal, but terrorism by white racists is not. Terrorism is a tactical issue; the core issues are about identity: race, language, religion, and gender roles.


One point of building the Keystone XL Pipeline was that it was going to use American steel. "Going to put a lot of workers, a lot of steelworkers, back to work," Trump said. But that was then, this is now.


One of the more ominous things that happened these last two weeks was when Customs and Border Protection agents boarded a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York and demanded to see everyone's ID. The Atlantic's Garrett Epps can find no legal justification for this, and pledges to refuse to present his documents if he winds up in this situation.


The EPA is undoing Obama's standards for vehicle emissions and gas mileage. Because climate change is a myth, so why do anything to try to mitigate it?


The EU Parliament voted to drop the United States from its visa waiver program. Immediately, this does nothing, because the actual decision would be made by the European Commission. But it is a step in the direction of requiring Americans to get a visa before visiting Europe.

I read this as a shot across the bow: Inside the US, we discuss our immigration and trade policies in a one-sided way, as if we can treat other countries however we want and they'll just accept it. But if we disrespect or disadvantage foreign visitors, immigrants, and products, American visitors, immigrants, and products will be disrespected and disadvantaged in return.


Tuesday, Attorney General Sessions announced a policy change: The Justice Department will no longer be "dictating to local police how to do their jobs, or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court".

In other words, there will be no future investigations like the ones Obama's DoJ did into Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago police. So the next time there is a police killing like Michael Brown or Freddie Gray or Laquan McDonald, the fix will be in from the beginning. Local police can run a cover-up instead of an investigation, and not worry about anyone looking over their shoulders.

Conservatives often ask why it's necessary to have a Black Lives Matter movement, or why it's not sufficient to affirm that "all lives matter". It's because to people like Jeff Sessions, the lives of young black men like Brown or Gray or McDonald don't matter. If police want to kill them, it's no big deal.


A local pastor gives his account of taking his 11-year-old daughter to Trump's rally in Melbourne, Florida on February 18. He seems not to have been a Trump supporter, but wanted his daughter to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see the President of the United States in person.

I'm trying to separate how I actually feel about this man and his campaignisms. I know why people voted for him; I know why people voted against his opponent. But, at the end of the day, what I felt from his leadership in this experience was actually horrifying. There was palpable fear in the room. There was thick anger and vengeance. He was counting on it. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it would not have taken very much for him to have called this group of people into some kind of riotous reaction.

Now, not everyone in the room was a part of the angry mob mentality – I looked around the room and saw many people who could quite easily be folks from my neighborhood, folks from my church, folks who were planning to go grab a bite to eat at Cracker Barrel afterwards. Folks who truly wanted to see America "great." The people who support the Republican Party want to see some needed changes in the government – the people that were there for that reason, are by and large good folks. But those are not the people the President was inciting – they are not the people he was leading. He was rallying the angry, vigilant ones.

and let's close with something sadly amusing

Patrick Stewart and Stephen Colbert star in "Waiting for Godot's Obamacare Replacement".

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Chaos President

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on February 27

Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate, and he’d be a chaos president.

- Jeb Bush, 12-15-2015

This week's featured post is "The Peril of Potemkin Democracy". It's my attempt to put the Trump threat in perspective. If you happen to be near the Lakewood Ranch development outside of Sarasota, Florida next Sunday, I'll be speaking to the Unitarian Universalist fellowship there.

This week everybody was talking about the Flynn firing

National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned under pressure last Monday night "following reports that he misled senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the nature of talks he held with the Russian ambassador in December before he took office." It was later revealed that Trump had known about Flynn's situation for weeks. What appears to have caused Flynn's resignation/firing was that The Washington Post revealed to the public what Trump already knew.
The role of leaks from the intelligence community in Flynn's ouster led to several cautionary articles about the unseemliness of this misuse of America's spying apparatus. Eli Lake wrote:
In normal times, the idea that U.S. officials entrusted with our most sensitive secrets would selectively disclose them to undermine the White House would alarm those worried about creeping authoritarianism. Imagine if intercepts of a call between Obama's incoming national security adviser and Iran's foreign minister leaked to the press before the nuclear negotiations began? The howls of indignation would be deafening.
I judge the Flynn leaks on the same scale I use for any whistle-blowing leak: (1) Does the public-interest value of the information outweigh the inappropriateness of the source? (2) Did the leakers try to go through appropriate channels first? Here, the answers seem to be yes. Josh Marshall:
you can't really have any serious discussion of this question without recognizing that while these are extraordinary and in most cases unacceptable remedies, we are in an extraordinary situation. A hostile foreign power used its intelligence services to commit statutory crimes in the United States with the aim and quite possibly the effect of changing the outcome of a national election. The beneficiary's aides and advisors were in what appears to have been active and ongoing communication with agents of that foreign power when this campaign to manipulate our elections was going on. The President has numerous financial dealings with people in and around Russia: but most of the most basic information about his finances, financials dealings and more, he refuses to disclose. The beneficiary, the President, has routinely and consistently made floridly glowing comments about the leader of the hostile foreign power and in a few specific cases taken specific actions which shift US policy to assist his country. This is not a normal situation. Even what we know is all but incomprehensible and the issue is what we don't know. ... The things that are being leaked are specific facts that are highly newsworthy and highly disturbing. They're not stories of sexual peccadillos or things that are politically damaging but not fundamentally relevant to the work of government.
David Frum asks:
If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers. What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public?

The Trump administration has two leak problems: One set of leaks comes from what is sometimes called the "Deep State": career professionals who staff the government and have an independent sense of what their mission is. These include, for example, the leaks that seem to come from inside the intelligence agencies, like the ones that brought down Flynn. I don't doubt that as the Trump anti-environmental policies start to take effect, we'll see a similar wave of leaks from inside the EPA or NOAA. If you signed up with OSHA because you felt committed to keeping American workers safe, you're likely not to be a happy camper when, say, you get instructed to ignore evidence of real danger. But a completely different source of leaks is the Trump White House itself, which seems to have divided into factions faster than any White House since John Adams had to contend with both Thomas Jefferson as his vice president and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. A lot of the news articles we've seen about Trump's behavior in the White House or his phone calls to foreign leaders most likely came from Trump's own people. The leader of one faction within the White House is Steve Bannon, whose previous job was running the right-wing Breitbart News. So it's a reasonable speculation that Breitbart is now the voice of the Bannon White House faction. Vox analyzes one particular Breitbart article based on "sources close to the president": It improbably blames Chief of Staff (and rival faction leader) Reince Preibus for the problems of the Bannon-written anti-Muslim executive order (which is currently not in effect, pending a court challenge), and says that Preibus' job is in danger. Preibus doesn't have a similar Pravda to do his bidding, so we don't have a comparable response from his faction.

and Trump's escalating war on the media

Back in January, Steve Bannon told The New York Times that the media was "the opposition party", an opinion that Trump later echoed. This week Trump escalated with a tweet that called the NYT, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC "the FAKE NEWS media" and "the enemy of the American people". This flashed me back to an interview Rachel Maddow did with NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel shortly after the election. She asked for his observations of how authoritarian governments take over democracies.
If you start to hear the word “traitor” being used a lot about the opposition, that’s a red flag. If those criticisms escalate to “cancer”, that’s an even worse sign. So I think we should be listening for things like that.
It seems to me that "enemy of the American people" is a similarly bad sign.
Interesting response by CNN's Don Lemon when a Trump supporter claimed his segment on the cost of protecting the Trump family was "fake news". Lemon first defined fake news ("a story to intentionally deceive someone") and explained why this story did not fit that definition. Then he admonished his panelist to stop calling stories "fake" just because he didn't like them. (His actual point seemed to be that the story wasn't newsworthy, which is a different thing entirely.) When the panelist went back to the "fake news" talking point, Lemon cut off the segment. "Thanks everyone. Thanks for watching. Have a great weekend." I'm not sure whether this is the right answer, but the media can't go on debating obviously bogus points as if they were legitimate. That just plays into the hands of the Trumpists.
MSNBC's Morning Joe has stopped booking Kellyanne Conway. Co-host Mika Brzezinski explained: "Every time I've ever seen her on television, something’s askew, off or incorrect." And Joe Scarborough claimed she doesn't know what she's talking about: "She's just saying things, just to get in front of the TV set and prove her relevance because behind the scenes — behind the scenes, she's not in these meetings." The point of interviewing administration officials is to get information for your audience. But if the level of disinformation gets too high, it's not worth it. After listening to Conway, you often have a worse idea of what's going on than you did before.

and ObamaCare replacement is still going nowhere

For years, Republicans have kept announcing that they'll reveal a "plan" to replace ObamaCare soon. When the promised meeting happens, though, what they present is a collection of ideas -- health savings accounts, tax credits, high-risk pools -- that presumably will someday make up a plan. But there is never anything detailed enough that either the CBO could determine what it will cost or that you could look at and figure out whether or not you'll be covered. The latest event in this series happened Thursday. Vox's Andrew Prokop explains what the hold-up is: five big issues that Republicans still disagree on.
Any plan to replace ObamaCare is probably also going to drastically restructure Medicaid.

but we should start paying more attention to John McCain

Like the rest of congressional Republicans, McCain has so far done little to stand up to Trump. For example, he has voted to approve all Trump's cabinet nominees. However, he seems to be establishing the rhetorical base to justify taking Trump on in some way. Friday, he gave a biting speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, arguing that the very idea of "the West" is in danger. He did not name Trump as the threat, but the implication was clear.
The next panel asks us to consider whether the West will survive. In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year. If ever there were a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now.
The threat he identifies is not conquest from the outside; he does not paint a picture of losing a global war against Islam, for example. It is corruption from within, as the principles that define the West are allowed to erode.
From the ashes of the most awful calamity in human history [i.e., World War II] was born what we call the West — a new, and different, and better kind of world order … one based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence. Indeed, the entire idea of the West is that it open to any person or any nation that honors and upholds these values.

... What would [the post-war] generation say if they saw our world today? I fear that much about it would be all-too-familiar to them, and they would be alarmed by it.

They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism.

They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims.

They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.

They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.

That's a reference to Trump's widely condemned defense of Vladimir Putin in an interview with Bill O'Reilly. When O'Reilly challenged Trump's statement that he respected Putin by pointing out that "he's a killer", Trump responded: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West, that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without.

That's a reference both to Brexit (which Trump applauded) and to Trump's criticisms of NATO and the EU. When McCain says "this is what our adversaries want", he seems to be talking more about Putin than about ISIS (neither of which is named).

By itself, such a speech means nothing. McCain could still be planning to maintain a rhetorical independence from Trump without doing anything substantive to get in his way. But I'm beginning to think he has something else in mind. If he doesn't, he's starting to paint himself into a corner.

and you might also be interested in

The winner of this year's World Press Photo Contest is "The Face of Hatred". Put yourself in the shoes of Burhan Ozbilici, the Associated Press photographer who snapped this photo. Mevlut Mert Altintas has just assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, and is still standing there with the gun in his right hand. Your immediate reaction is not to run in terror or drop to the ground or stand there paralyzed, but to take his picture. Sometimes I look at award-winning photos and think that they're just luck. Somebody happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that's the difference between them and me. Not this time.
If you live in states that have a Democratic senator up for re-election in 2018, you've probably seen this ad for confirming Judge Gorsuch. As far as I know, this kind of politicization of a Court nomination is unprecedented (except for the same organization's ads against Merrick Garland last year; I haven't found any totals for that campaign, but they spent at least $200K in West Virginia alone). Someone should check the graves of Founding Fathers for signs of rolling; the system set up by the Constitution was intended to insulate the judiciary from politics as much as is possible in a system where power ultimately comes from the People. The ad is part of a $10 million campaign by Judicial Crisis Network. If you're wondering where that money comes from, good luck finding out. SourceWatch says:
JCN is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. JCN does not disclose its funders, but all of its reported revenue in 2012 and 2013 (its most recently available tax filings) came from large contributions of more than $10,000, and contributions of more than $1 million providing more than 80 percent of JCN's total revenue in both years.
So whoever is funding this, they're very, very rich and think that writing a check for $1 million or more to maintain the Supreme Court's conservative majority is a good investment. You can bet they're not doing this because they expect Trump's nominee to stick up for the little guy.
Quincy Larson at Free Code Camp explains why you should avoid leaving the country with your smartphone or laptop: Border control officials can refuse to let you into a country unless you give up the password to your devices, at which point they're free to vacuum up all your personal data. The U.S. might do it to a U.S. citizen before letting them come back. That's already started happening.

On January 30th, Sidd Bikkannavar, a US-born scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flew back to Houston, Texas from Santiago, Chile.

On his way through through the airport, Customs and Border Patrol agents pulled him aside. They searched him, then detained him in a room with a bunch of other people sleeping in cots. They eventually returned and said they’d release him if he told them the password to unlock his phone.

Bikkannavar explained that the phone belonged to NASA and had sensitive information on it, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He eventually yielded and unlocked his phone. The agents left with his phone. Half an hour later, they returned, handed him his phone, and released him.

Larson has recommendations:

When you travel internationally, you should leave your mobile phone and laptop at home. You can rent phones at most international airports that include data plans.

If you have family overseas, you can buy a second phone and laptop and leave them there at their home.

If you’re an employer, you can create a policy that your employees are not to bring devices with them during international travel. You can then issue them “loaner” laptops and phones once they enter the country.

Of course, you might say to yourself: "I don't need to take those kinds of precautions, because nothing about me should make border agents suspicious. I'm white, Christian, native-born, and look just like a normal American." Bookmark that thought, and retrieve it the next time you feel offended because somebody has called you "privileged".

and let's close with an invitation to creativity

You can generate your own photos of Trump executive orders. screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-10-52-17-am

Monday, February 13, 2017

Protest that Endures

Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone's individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

-- Wendell Berry

This week's featured posts are "Your Sift-Archive Review for the Trump Era" and "White House, Inc.".

This week everybody was talking about the appeals court ruling

which went against the Trump administration and its prototype Muslim ban, which I discussed in detail last week. This was a 3-0 ruling that included agreement from Bush appointee Richard Clifton. The judges wrote a unified per curiam opinion rather than the usual practice of one judge writing a majority opinion with dissents and concurrences from the other judges. This seemed intended to emphasize that they were of one mind.

This was the state of play going in: Trump had signed an executive order; the states of Washington and Minnesota had sued; a federal judge in Seattle had issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing the most odious parts of the order from taking effect until the his court could have a full hearing and make a definitive ruling. The administration then asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the TRO. That request is what got turned down Thursday, so the executive order continues to be blocked for the time being.

Despite the occasional flamboyant writer like the late Justice Scalia, judges tend to be circumspect in their language. They usually write in a stone-faced style, so if you catch an occasional frown sneaking into the prose, you can surmise that they're probably royally pissed off. The appellate court's 29-page ruling is full of frowns.

Charlie Savage's summary in the NYT is pretty concise and seems accurate. The biggest frown in the text is the judges' response to the Trump argument that his order is "unreviewable" by the courts.

There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.

The most serious problem in the order was its treatment of legal permanent residents. The administration argued that the White House counsel had interpreted the order so that it no longer applied in these cases. The judges weren't inclined towards trust:

[I]n light of the government’s shifting interpretations of the executive order, we cannot say that the current interpretation by White House counsel, even if authoritative and binding, will persist past the immediate stage of these proceedings.

And finally, the judges seemed put off by the administration's arrogant assumption that its unreviewability argument would fly, so further support for its position was unnecessary.

Despite the district court’s and our own repeated invitations to explain the urgent need for the executive order to be placed immediately into effect, the government submitted no evidence to rebut the states’ argument

During questioning, Clifton sometimes seemed skeptical that the order was motivated by hostility against Muslims, or that it should be viewed as a watered-down version of the "Muslim ban" Trump campaigned on. The ruling made no judgment on that point, presumably to maintain unanimity.

The next stop is the Supreme Court, which still has only 8 justices. A 4-4 tie would leave the appellate court ruling in place.

Trump could easily improve his legal position by rescinding the order and re-issuing a more carefully constructed one. He's talking about doing that, but he is also never going to admit that the original order was a mistake. So it will be interesting to see how he squares that.


The ban gets all the headlines, but Trump is cracking down in a lot of other ways. The CBC reports this story about a Canadian citizen from a Montreal suburb, who was attempting to drive to Burlington, Vermont with two of her children and an adult cousin. They all had Canadian passports, but were turned back after a four-hour delay at the border. Her crime? She is a hijab-wearing Muslim born in Morocco (which is not one of the seven countries covered by the ban). The border patrol asked questions about her religion and attitudes towards President Trump and his policies. The two adults were required to  surrender the passwords to their phones, and then denied entry when the phones contained videos of Arabic prayer services.

"I felt humiliated, treated as if I was less than nothing. It's as if I wasn't Canadian," Alaoui told CBC News in an interview Wednesday.

She now has to decide whether she wants to risk a similar experience over spring break, when she had planned to visit her parents in Chicago.

The L.A. Times reports that Trump's January 25 executive order "Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States" (which is really about deportation of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose little or no threat to public safety) goes way beyond targeting the "bad hombres" he liked to talk about in his rallies.

Up to 8 million people in the country illegally could be considered priorities for deportation, according to calculations by the Los Angeles Times. They were based on interviews with experts who studied the order and two internal documents that signal immigration officials are taking an expansive view of Trump’s directive.

Far from targeting only “bad hombres,” as Trump has said repeatedly, his new order allows immigration agents to detain nearly anyone they come in contact with who has crossed the border illegally. People could be booked into custody for using food stamps or if their child receives free school lunches.

Anyone charged with a crime can be deported, without that charge ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. So local police can deport undocumented people just by arresting them on a bogus charge and notifying ICE. It's hard to believe that this kind of arbitrary power won't be abused.

and White House, Inc.

This note got so long that I broke it out into a separate post.


A nostalgic add-on for people my age and older: Remember how scandalous it was when Jimmy Carter's ne'er-do-well brother used his sudden notoriety as an unreconstructed good-ole-boy to launch Billy Beer?

Simpler times.

and the silencing/spotlighting of Elizabeth Warren

In the Senate debate over Jeff Sessions' nomination to be Attorney General -- he was approved -- Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the little-used Rule 19 against Elizabeth Warren. On a party-line vote, the Senate determined that Warren was improperly impugning the character of a fellow senator (which Sessions still was), and so she was banned from speaking for the rest of the Sessions debate.

The immediate result was the reverse of everything McConnell appeared to be trying to accomplish: Warren got a wave of positive publicity, the anti-Sessions Coretta Scott King letter she was reading to the Senate got far more attention than it otherwise would have, and McConnell's justification has become an iconic example of patriarchal arrogance: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

But there's something strange about this whole incident. It's odd that McConnell, ordinarily a cautious and canny politician, would make a move that backfired so badly, so quickly. And as many people have noted, McConnell then stayed silent when male Democrats continued reading the King letter. What did he think he was trying to accomplish?

We got a hint from a comment Trump made in a private meeting with Democratic senators: "Pocahontas is now the face of your party." That presents a weird possibility: Maybe McConnell was intentionally building Warren up:

"It's to Republicans’ benefit to elevate her as the voice for the Democratic Party, particularly heading into 2018," said GOP Strategist Brian Walsh, referring to the upcoming midterm elections in which Democrats will be defending seats in 10 states that Trump won. "Her views being taken as the mainstream of current Democratic thought would put her red state colleagues in a difficult situation."

Trump's invocation of his Pocahontas smear suggests that he foresees a 2020 repeat of the 2016 strategy, with Warren in the Clinton role: Over a period of years, gin up a bunch of bogus issues about a Democratic woman, then hope for an I-can't-vote-for-her reaction from otherwise wavering Republicans. So targeting Warren early and often would have a dual purpose: It would build up her negatives among Republican voters, while making Democrats more determined to nominate her.


Amanda Marcotte gives an alternative interpretation of what made the Coretta Scott King letter so threatening:

That letter angers Republicans, because in the years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there’s been a conservative effort to remake King in their own image. Warren’s attempt to read the letter by King’s widow into the record served as an embarrassing reminder that King’s politics had nothing in common with modern conservatism.

Call it the “dead progressive” problem. Conservatives love a dead progressive hero, because they can claim that person as one of their own without any bother about the person fighting back. In some cases, the right has tried to weaponize these dead progressives, claiming that they would simply be appalled at how far the still-breathing have supposedly gone off the rails and become too radical. The Kings are just two prominent victims of this rhetorical gambit.

but we should be paying more attention to the Flynn scandal

Thursday night, The Washington Post opened a new chapter in the Putin/Trump story: After the election, but while Obama was still president, Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn appears to have interfered in foreign policy. Apparently he reassured the Russians that the moves Obama was taking to punish Russia for interfering in the U.S. elections would be reconsidered after Trump took office.

Previously, Flynn had denied that his conversations with the Russian ambassador had mentioned any sanctions, and Vice President Pence had backed him up on national TV. Now the WaPo claims to have "nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls" who say otherwise.

All of those officials said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.

Flynn himself is now backing off of his blanket denial, and Trump and Pence are not commenting. If the scandal doesn't die down, the likely outcome is that Flynn will take the fall: He just went rogue, reassured the Russians on his own authority, and then lied to Pence about it.

But a far more disturbing possibility ought to be investigated: What if Flynn wasn't going rogue? What if the Trump campaign had an ongoing, long-standing relationship with Russia, and there was always some explicit quid-pro-quo promised in exchange for Russia's hacking of the Democrats? If true, that starts to sound like an impeachable offense.

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Some idiot in the College Republicans club of Central Michigan University thought it would be clever to distribute a Hitler-themed Valentine card, I guess because the Holocaust is so hilarious.

I'm not going to claim that this represents some universal-but-hidden anti-Semitism at the heart of the GOP, or even among CMU Republicans. Probably most Republicans find this card as repulsive as I do. But I think Romney-and-McCain Republicans need to connect this dot with the Heil-Trump Nazi video, the KKK endorsement, Milo Yiannopoulos, and a bunch of similar dots: There's a certain kind of racist asshole who feels very comfortable in your party these days. Whether they represent the majority or not, shouldn't that worry you?

BTW, this is the proper context in which to consider Trump's Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation, which somehow managed not to mention Jews. It was a wink to Holocaust deniers, Nazis, and other anti-Semites, who have become an important Trump constituency.


Now that Megyn Kelly has left Fox News, it's good to see that her replacement, Tucker Carlson, is holding the Trump administration to the highest possible standards. Say what you will about Steve Bannon, he's better than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!

I'm bemused by how qualified these categories are: used chemical weapons on Kurds, mass executions of Christians. It's as if Carlson wants to be covered in case Bannon unleashes chemical weapons on the Dutch or orders mass executions of Rastafarians.


The second SNL appearance of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer is just as funny as the first. And Alec Baldwin's imitation of Trump got a rare compliment: A newspaper in the Dominican Republic published Baldwin's picture, apparently thinking it was Trump.


Thursday, in a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump reaffirmed the United States' "One China policy" which formally recognizes Taiwan as a province of China while simultaneously supporting the island's practical independence. Prior to his inauguration, Trump had spoken on the phone to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen -- something no president or president-elect had done in decades -- and later said that the U.S. should insist on concessions from China in exchange for continuing to recognize One China.

In the world of U.S./China diplomacy, every little nod and adjective is interpreted as portentous, so China-watchers have been buzzing about whether Thursday's "reversal" is a defeat for Trump, or convinces China that he is a "paper tiger".

My interpretation is that Trump says a lot of crap, and very little of it actually means anything. So if either Xi or Tsai attach any importance to those calls, they're fooling themselves. This lack of seriousness will come back to bite Trump eventually. Someday he'll have to blow something up in order to get China's attention, because by then everyone will be ignoring his words and symbolic actions.

From the beginning of his campaign until this moment, Trump has done his best to surround himself with a fog. (For example, the normal budget process would have him submitting an FY 2018 budget this month, and still no one has the faintest idea what to expect. He has raised expectations about tax cuts, an ObamaCare replacement, a big infrastructure project, increased military spending, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and balancing the budget. What in all that is real, and what is just smoke?) When you're a slippery businessman hoping to cheat everyone you deal with, a fog like that is useful. But you don't hold together coalitions and alliances that way, or get the long-term cooperation you sometimes need from rival powers like China.


Speaking of the soon-to-be-unveiled budget, this is a worthwhile graphic to keep in mind. (It seems to come from the CBO by way of Senator Ron Johnson, but I pulled it off Rand Paul's Facebook page.)

It's a good snapshot to keep bookmarked, because it points out what people really are proposing when they say they want substantial cuts in government spending. (In other words, you can't balance the budget by cutting foreign aid and the National Endowment for the Arts.) Most of the things people talk about cutting are down in the All Other category, and probably would be invisible if they were called out separately. The red bars are non-discretionary, i.e., entitlements and other payments mandated by law.


The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has always considered liberal political correctness a bigger problem than I do: Most of the examples of "political correctness run wild" that I hear about either didn't happen exactly the way the complaint claims, or is nothing more than the dominant culture being forced to give respect to people and points of view it used to happily ignore.

But OK, let's grant for the sake of argument the conservative criticism that political correctness has this chilling effect on the national conversation that makes it much harder to discuss important issues. Is Trump actually undoing such political correctness, or just turning it around to serve conservative purposes?

Friedersdorf makes a good argument for the latter. Trump's conservative political correctness, for example, makes it impossible to talk about white supremacist terrorism, or right-wing terrorism of any kind. He can't criticize Vladimir Putin.

Trump displays all the flaws attributed to “Social Justice Warriors”—thin skinned, quick to take offense, a bullying presence on Twitter, aggressively disdainful of comedy that pokes fun at him, delighting in firing people—just without any attachment to social justice. On matters as grave as counterterrorism and as inconsequential as the size of crowds, Trump is more contemptuous of the truth, and as driven by what is politically correct, than any president of recent years. That shouldn’t bother those who only complained about political correctness as a cover for bigotry. But everyone who complained on principle, knowing a country cannot thrive when disconnected from reality, should demand better.

and let's close with an attempt to learn from failure

Cards Against Humanity analyzes "Why Our Super Bowl Ad Failed". Strangely, 30 seconds of the camera silently staring at a potato failed to build the brand.