Monday, July 9, 2018

Welcome to All

The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions.

- George Washington (1783)

This week's featured post is "'America First!' means China wins." I've been working on this piece for a few weeks and I'm pleased with it. Take a look.

This week everybody was talking about the next Supreme Court nominee

who is supposed to be announced in a prime-time extravaganza tonight. (Don't watch. It only encourages him.) It's tempting to speculate about who Trump will name, but it seems silly when we'll know so soon. It's not like any of the names being discussed are significantly better than the others.

What kind of opposition the nominee will face is another question. Politico asks the question "Will Susan Collins Get Snookered Again?", which kind of answers itself. The article explains what a senator with Collins' professed beliefs could do if she had some iron in her spine.

Here’s how she can get what she wants: partner with red-state Democratic senators, and anyone else who’s willing, and jointly announce that they will not vote for any nominee who isn’t the result of bipartisan consultation, in advance.

Trump would have to scrap his vaunted judges list, which Collins has criticized as too heavily influenced by the conservative Federalist Society. Either he nominates a ninth justice who will hold the center, or it’s a 4-4 court until the president relents.

It's a fun scenario to think about, but it's not going to happen because of the whole iron-in-the-spine thing. (An aside: I happened to be in Portland Friday, when I ran in to Collins' Democratic challenger, Zak Ringelstein, who was standing on the Congress Street sidewalk shaking hands. I know nothing about him, but he looks like an energetic young guy.)

and the swamp

Scott Pruitt has finally resigned.

In an administration where the President's company benefits from massive foreign-government investments, the President owes hundreds of millions to foreign banks, and the President's daughter and her husband make tens of millions while being presidential advisors (at least some of it due to concessions from the Chinese), it is still possible to go too far. That's good to know.

Pruitt was the most blatantly corrupt member of Trump's cabinet. He openly took valuable favors from lobbyists and granted them favors, apparently in return. He treated the EPA staff as his personal assistants and wasted millions of public dollars on himself. He is the subject of 13 ethical or legal investigations. He covered up his cozy relationships with polluting-industry lobbyists by "scrubbing" his published schedule to remove questionable meetings, which violates government transparency laws. He demoted or reassigned underlings who raised questions about any of this.

Most of this illegal and unethical activity has been public for a long time, but Trump didn't seem to care. Pruitt was doing what Trump and many Trumpists wanted: re-orienting the EPA to protect polluters from the law rather than using the law to protect the environment from polluters. His corruption was an acceptable part of that package. (Pruitt's deputy, a former vice president of the Washington Coal Club and lobbyist for energy companies, will continue his work.)

In his resignation letter to Trump, Pruitt admitted nothing and apologized for nothing, citing only "unrelenting attacks" on himself and his family that have "taken a sizable toll on all of us". Obsequious to the end, Pruitt closed his letter with the kind of flattery that used to be anathema within the American government, but is all too common in this administration, where expressions of praise and personal thanks to the president are expected from both cabinet secretaries and religious leaders.

My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God's providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

For contrast, look at Hillary Clinton's resignation letter as Secretary of State and the statement Eric Holder made when he resigned as Attorney General. Both cited the good work of the people they had managed. (Pruitt's letter reads as if he had worked alone.) They thanked President Obama for the opportunity to serve the country, not Obama personally. Holder referred to Obama as "my friend", not as a superior being or an instrument of God's plan.

That attitude towards government service -- that equal citizens work together for the country rather than under a divine-right King who "leads" the People and "makes decisions for" the People rather than serving them -- is an American thing, not a partisan thing. Look at Donald Rumsfeld's resignation letter as President Bush's Secretary of Defense. He compliments Bush's leadership and wishes him well, but his good feelings are primarily directed outward, not upward towards the Great Man:

It has been the highest honor of my long life to have been able to serve our country at such a critical time in our history and to have had the privilege of working so closely with the truly amazing young men and women in uniform.

That's what Americans sound like. Let's not forget.

and trade war

Trump's trade war with the rest of the world (China, Europe, Canada) had mostly been a lot of bluster until this week.

The United States just after midnight on Friday made good on its threat to impose sweeping tariffs on Beijing, putting a 25 percent border tax on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods imported to the US. China responded with $34 billion of tariffs of its own on its imports from America.

It's been two weeks now since Harley Davidson announced it was moving some of its production to Thailand to avoid European Union tariffs that were imposed in response to Trump's tariffs on European steel and aluminum. Competing manufacturer Polaris may do the same.

One of the most worrisome things about the trade war is that it's not clear what would end it. Getting-tough-on-trade seems to be its own goal. What concessions does Trump want before he will call it off? No one seems to know.

Meanwhile, most of the pain is being felt in parts of the country that supported Trump in 2016. US soybean prices have approached 10-year lows, prompting calls for a farm bail-out. Mexico has already started buying more grain from South America. Reuters examines a Missouri county that sees both sides: Its aluminum smelter plans to re-open, but its farmers are worried.

and immigration

For some reason the Trump administration can't seem to reunite the families it broke up, in spite of an approaching court deadline to do so. Washington's Governor Jay Inslee put it in terms anybody should be able to understand: "I’ve seen coat check windows operate with a better system."

A federal court in San Diego has issued an order that

gives the government until Tuesday to reunify children younger than 5 with their parents, and until July 26 for older children.

The government has asked for more time in general. Friday, the judge said no, but acknowledged that he might agree to a looser deadline in specific cases, if some special factor made that reasonable.

The government still doesn't seem to grasp that it has done something horrible and needs to make it right. For example, HHS wants to be let off the hook for finding parents who have already been deported and getting their children back to them, because that would be hard. A further revelation came from Gov. Inslee, who tweeted:

My office recently learned the shocking revelation from that reunification could mean placing a separated child with ANY long-term sponsor — regardless of whether it’s their parents, other family in the US, family back in their home country or in long-term foster care.

Having been careless about taking the kids away, the government now wants to be extra-careful about giving them back. It's insisting on DNA tests to match parents and children. What will happen to adopted children or step-children is anybody's guess, and it's not clear what the government will do with this highly personal information going forward.

One fact bears repeating every time this story is discussed: Coming the the United States to seek asylum is not illegal. Our laws obligate us to give asylum-seekers a fair hearing, and there is no justification for treating them like criminals. The question isn't whether they will obey our laws, but whether we will.

Conservatives like to pretend that their problem is only with illegal immigration, but that doesn't explain the behavior of this administration. Friday, AP reported:

Some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged. ... The service members affected by the recent discharges all enlisted in recent years under a special program aimed at bringing medical specialists and fluent speakers of 44 sought-after languages into the military. The idea, according to the Defense Department, was to “recognize their contribution and sacrifice.”

Instead, the Trump administration has abruptly raised the standards on background checks, which either the soldiers fail (because "they have relatives abroad") or the soldiers get discharged because the checks can't be completed in a timely fashion.

Also, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service is going after immigrants who are already citizens. A task force is trying to identify people who may have lied on their applications for citizenship, even if it happened decades ago. The New Yorker's Masha Gessen describes what that can mean:

Back in 1989, I had to make a decision about whether to lie on my citizenship application. At the time, immigration law banned “aliens afflicted with sexual deviation,” among others suffering from “psychopathic personality,” from entry to the United States. I had come to this country as a fourteen-year-old, in 1981, but I had been aware of my “sexual deviation” at the time, and this technically meant that I should not have entered the country. I decided to append a letter to my citizenship application, informing the Immigration and Naturalization Service that I was homosexual but that I disagreed with the exclusion and would be willing to discuss the matter in court. ...

My application was granted without my having to fight for it in court. I hadn’t thought about my naturalization for years, but I find myself thinking about it now, thankful for the near-accident of not having lied on my application.

Gessen thinks twice, and realizes that she might have to lie if she were doing her paperwork today.

Question 26 on the green-card application, for example, reads, “Have you EVER committed a crime of any kind (even if you were not arrested, cited, charged with, or tried for that crime)?” (Emphasis in the original.) The question does not specify whether it refers to a crime under current U.S. law or the laws of the country in which the crime might have been committed. In the Soviet Union of my youth, it was illegal to possess foreign currency or to spend the night anywhere you were not registered to live. In more than seventy countries, same-sex sexual activity is still illegal. On closer inspection, just about every naturalized citizen might look like an outlaw, or a liar.

It seems more and more obvious that the primary goal of Trump's immigration policy across-the-board is to delay the day when whites become a minority in the US. Talk about jobs or crime or security risks is just a smokescreen.

and the continuing discussion of civility

Here's one contribution.

And Katha Pollitt at The Nation points out that the owner of the Red Hen Restaurant just gave the wrong reason for refusing service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Instead of basing her objection on the discomfort of her LGBT staffers, she should simply have said serving Sanders was against her religion. She could have quoted Psalm 101:7: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.”

"Religion," Pollitt observes, "gives you freedom of speech denied to your opponents." At least if you're Christian.

Claiming that religion gives you the right to harm your fellow Americans probably works best if you are Christian. Only Christians get to impose their religion on others. A Hindu wouldn’t get very far with a lawsuit to shut down the beef industry.

And if you want to be uncivil, it helps to be conservative.

No matter how vulgar, gross, threatening, cruel, illegal, and insane the right becomes, it’s always the left that is warned against piping up too loudly and in the wrong way. It’s like the old Jewish joke: Three Jews stand before a firing squad. Each is offered a blindfold. The first Jew takes a blindfold. The second Jew takes a blindfold. The third Jew refuses the blindfold. The second Jew elbows him and says, “Moshe, take a blindfold—don’t make trouble.”

but I noticed the Republican trip to Russia

Something very odd happened this week: A delegation of seven Republican senators and one Republican House member visited Russia over the Fourth of July break, hoping to talk to Putin. Putin was too busy to fit them into his schedule, so they met with their counterparts in the Russian Duma.

There's some disagreement about the topics of discussion and the emphasis. Senator Richard Shelby sounded conciliatory, almost deferential.

“I’m not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth,” Shelby told Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. “I’m saying that we should all strive for a better relationship.”

In other words: Let's forget all about the fact that you've been waging an information war against us and our allies, and just move on from here. It's hard to imagine a weaker message. It's like a bullied junior high kid saying "I'm willing to overlook that you've been stealing my lunch money. Let's both strive for a better relationship."

The Russians certainly didn't seem impressed.

Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov, on the other hand, said he had met with many American lawmakers in years past and that this meeting “was one of the easiest ones in my life.” The question of election interference, he said, was resolved quickly because “the question was raised in a general form. One shouldn’t interfere in elections — well, we don’t interfere.”

A few of the Republicans have tried to portray their message as much more stern. Senator Kennedy of Louisiansa

described the meetings as “damn frank, very, very, very frank, no holds barred.”

“I asked our friends in Russia not to interfere in our elections this year,” Kennedy said. “I asked them to exit Ukraine and allow Ukraine to self-determine. I asked for the same thing in Crimea. I asked for their help in bringing peace to Syria. And I asked them not to allow Iran to gain a foothold in Syria."

I think it's telling that Kennedy described himself as "asking our friends" rather than demanding that enemies stop attacking us. Senator Moran of Kansas told NPR:

There is no way that a Russian official, the people that we met with, could come away from those meetings without believing that we sincerely believe [election meddling] happened. We believe we have the proof that it happened, and that if anything is going to improve, it involves stopping what's occurred to date.

But whatever was said, coming as a partisan group was very unusual, and that by itself sent a weak message. (By coincidence, I just finished reading John McCain's recent book The Restless Wave. He tells many stories of being on foreign trips with Democratic senators like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton. Traveling in bipartisan groups is the norm. Partisan groups larger than two or three senators are almost unheard of.) In December, Republican Senators Johnson of Wisconsin and Barrasso of Wyoming cancelled a trip to Russia when the Russians refused to give a visa to Democratic Senator Shaheen of New Hampshire. That sent a powerful message that Americans stand together, and that Russia can't exploit our partisan differences.

This trip sent the opposite message: Republicans are willing to seek their own relationship with Russia, independent of the national interest.

Of course, the Republican senators' trip is just a prelude to the Trump/Putin summit in Helsinki next Monday, when the two leaders will meet with no one present but their interpreters. Meeting without advisors present is also very unusual, especially for a president who has so little foreign-policy experience and such sketchy knowledge of the issues between the two countries. They spoke privately once before, last summer at a G-20 dinner in Germany, where no other Americans were involved and only Putin's interpreter was used.

There's been a lot of speculation about why they would meet this way, but I have an interpretation that explains everything: Putin is giving Trump his annual performance review.

and you also might be interested in ...

Trump is still working to sabotage ObamaCare. And he still has no plans to replace it with anything.

As we celebrated the 4th of July, a record low percentage of Americans reported that they are proud of their country.

In May, the White House released "President Donald J. Trump’s Blueprint To Lower Drug Prices". So far, the drug industry isn't cooperating.

The across-the-board increases cast doubt on whether Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar can pressure manufacturers to voluntarily drop prices without the threat of specific consequences.

One of the mysteries I've been studying in recent months is how Evangelicals manage to keep supporting Trump in spite of (1) his personal life contradicting all their standards of good character, and (2) his policies contradicting all the teachings of Jesus. Useful input on this question comes from John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

Fea argues that Evangelical support for Trump arises from projecting a religious narrative onto American history: The US is a Christian nation with a divinely appointed destiny.

Ever since the founding of the republic, a significant number of Americans have supposed that the United States is exceptional because it has a special place in God’s unfolding plan for the world. Since the early 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by Puritans, evangelicals have relished in their perceived status as God’s new Israel—His chosen people. America, they argued, is in a covenant relationship with God.

Like much of the Evangelical worldview, this idea is totally non-Biblical. (You'd have to do some serious stretching of the text to find some mention of America in the Bible.) It's also false history. But Evangelicals have found their own pseudo-historians (David Barton being the most prominent) to promote the belief that the Founders intended to create the new Israel.

So why don't real historians dispel all this nonsense?

We do.

We have.

But countering bad history with good history is not as easy as it sounds. David Barton and his fellow Christian nationalist purveyors of the past are well-funded by Christian conservatives who know that the views of the past they are peddling serve their political agenda. Barton has demonized Christian intellectuals and historians as sheep in wolves’ clothing. They may call themselves Christians on Sunday morning, but, according to Barton, their “world view” has been shaped by the secular universities where they earned their Ph.Ds. Thanks to Barton, many conservative evangelicals do not trust academic and professional historians—even academic and professional historians with whom they share a pew on Sunday mornings.

If you read the comments on Fea's article, you'll fine abuse from several Evangelical commenters. All of which proves Carl Sagan's point:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

No matter how low my opinion of this administration drops, I still get surprised sometimes: The Trump delegation at the World Health Organization strong-armed several small nations out of sponsoring a resolution to encourage breast-feeding.

Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes. Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.

... The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced. ... Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico and the United States.

You know who finally stepped up to submit the resolution? Russia. For whatever reason, Trump never threatens Russia. (It would probably hurt his performance review.) So they get to be the good guys in this story.

and let's close with something speculative

Inquiring minds want to know: Did Mary Poppins go to Hogwarts?

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Wrong Week

I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

- Lloyd Bridges, Airplane! (1980)

This week's featured posts are "Minority Rule Snowballs" and "Giving up is a prerogative of privilege."

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

Not only did the Court end it's spring term with a number of disappointing decisions -- I listed them in the previous post -- but we also got an additional piece of bad news: Justice Kennedy is retiring, giving Trump an opportunity to appoint his replacement while Republicans still control the Senate.

In general, Kennedy has been part of the Court's conservative majority, as he was on several decisions this week. But in the past he has also sided with the liberals on a number of key social-issue decisions: most notably the series of cases leading to the Obergfell decision, which affirmed a same-sex couple's right to marry, but also upholding Roe v Wade, which keeps Congress or the states from outlawing abortion altogether.

As the Court stands now, Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas are doctrinaire far-right extremists, particularly on social issues. They routinely award special rights to Christians, and have only a hazy notion of the separation of church and state. (Thomas believes that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment only prevents the federal government from establishing a religion. If Texas wanted to declare itself a Baptist state or Utah wanted to establish Mormonism, he'd be fine with that. I'm not exaggerating.)

If Trump appoints another Gorsuch to the Court, then Chief Justice Roberts becomes the fifth-and-deciding conservative vote. Roberts also has a conservative voting record, but is cagier than the other three: He seldom writes a ringing opinion that enunciates some new conservative principle, but instead has a way of seeming to re-affirm a previous decision while actually gutting it. (In 2012, for example, his vote upheld the constitutionality of ObamaCare, but did so by destroying the Commerce Clause justification Congress had in mind when it passed the law. He invented a much narrower constitutional basis for ObamaCare, which is now under fire in a new case. Similarly, he upheld the Voting Rights Act while destroying the main mechanism for enforcing it.)

So on social-issue cases -- gay rights, civil rights, abortion, etc. -- the typical decision will be a ringing piece of conservative rhetoric representing Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas, and the new guy, and then a more reasonable-sounding concurrence by Roberts that comes to the same conclusion on this particular case in a less sweeping way.

On economic issues, it won't even be close: Roberts is an economic royalist; he's for anything that increases corporate power, the influence of the 1%, or the voting power of the white Christian conservative bloc. Kennedy may have written the Citizens United opinion, but it was Roberts who maneuvered the case into position. Roberts is consistently anti-union and anti-consumer. He'll support voter suppression and gerrymandering, as long as it has a fig leaf of alternative explanation.

I try not to speculate much on this blog, because I think way too much of the media's "news" coverage is devoted to speculation about things that may never happen, rather than reports about what is happening. But I can't resist here: In picking Gorsuch, Trump followed conservative orthodoxy. Gorsuch had appropriate experience and looked the part, so he might also have been appointed by President Rubio or President Cruz. I think in his second pick, Trump will want to make the point to Evangelicals that nobody else would have done this for them. That's why they should be loyal to him personally rather than the GOP generally. So this one is going to be off the wall. If Roy Moore didn't have that teen-age girl baggage, he'd be perfect.

Reportedly, Trump is using a candidate list created by Leonard Leo, until recently a vice president of the Federalist Society, an organization of right-wing lawyers. Trump has reportedly said he won't ask candidates about specific issues like Roe v Wade, but that doesn't reassure me for three reasons:

  • Undoubtedly Leo already has asked about Roe, and a judge who wasn't sufficiently committed to overturning it wouldn't be on the list. So Trump doesn't need to ask; he already knows.
  • Trump lies and has no self-control. The fact that he says he won't ask about something doesn't mean much.
  • What really worries me is that Trump will ask for "loyalty", as he did with James Comey. The Court may soon have to rule on questions like whether Trump can be subpoenaed, how far civil suits against him can go, and whether he can either pardon himself or pardon fellow members of a criminal conspiracy. I don't want him negotiating a favorable ruling with judges as a condition of appointment.

Democrats currently have 49 senators. If they hold together against Trump's nominee and John McCain's health doesn't allow him to attend, then only one Republican needs to cross over to block the nomination. Susan Collins said Sunday that she “would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade.” But as we saw in the tax-cut debate, Collins looks for reasons to go along, not reasons to resist. She happily settles for empty promises about tomorrow in exchange for a real vote today. So if the nominee says s/he hasn't promised Trump anything about Roe, and professes a false open-mindedness in committee hearings, I'm sure Collins will be satisfied. When the Court finally overturns Roe she will tut-tut her disapproval, never admitting that she did nothing when she had the chance to prevent it.

and immigration

The government is still keeping about 2,000 immigrant children away from their parents. When the Trump administration took them, apparently it didn't make any plan for how to return them. A judge has given them 30 days, and it's not clear if they'll meet that deadline.

OK, it's official now: The Trump administration wants to replace family separation with family detention.

In federal court Friday night, Trump’s Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, filed an announcement that it is now keeping families in detention “during the pendency of” their immigration cases. That could easily mean months of detention (or longer) for some asylum-seekers — or, alternatively, a form of “assembly-line justice” that moves families’ cases through too quickly to allow for real due process.

The whole we-have-to-enforce-the-law chorus is ignoring an important point: The law says we grant asylum to people who face persecution in their home countries. If the Trump administration sends them home without a hearing or rams them through a kangaroo court, it is breaking the law. The rule of law means that laws don't just apply to the powerless, they apply to the government too.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended protest rallies around the county Saturday, the largest being in Chicago, Washington, and New York. In little Nashua, NH, I was at a rally with about 400 others.

A slogan at many of this weekend's protest rallies was "Abolish ICE". Trump interprets this as an anarchic slogan that calls for no policing of the border and predicts "Next it will be all police." Actually, the proposal is quite a bit more sensible than that, as Alt. U.S. Press Secretary explains in a tweet storm:

Let’s talk about : What it is and what it means. Does this mean getting rid of all border enforcement, or “open borders”? NO. ICE is an interior enforcement agency. They don’t guard the border. Who suggested abolishing ICE? ICE Special Investigators & Special Agents.

ICE consists of two portions with two differing missions. ICE HSI consists of trained investigators who handle highly significant drug tracking, child pornography, and other highly important translational law enforcement. And ICE ERO. ICE ERO does interior enforcement: Arresting people at courthouses, including domestic violence victims, and their places of work. Over 200 people have died in their custody. ICE routinely reallocates resources away from the important work of ICE HSI to ERO.

... ICE HSI and ICE ERO should be immediate separated within DHS, and ERO should be entirely restructured. In the interim, a more established agency such as FBI should manage both of the functions of both ICE HSI and ICE ERO.

and primaries

Progressive candidates did well in Democratic primaries Tuesday. Three in particular, in very different circumstances:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, who was part of the Democratic House leadership. The race drew comparisons to Dave Brat beating Eric Cantor in 2014. Ocasio-Cortez is in New York's 14th district, which is very blue. She seems very likely to hold the seat.

Ben Jealous won the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland. The incumbent Republican, Larry Hogan, is very popular even though Maryland is a blue state. The conventional wisdom is that Jealous will lose, but that a centrist Democrat would have lost too.

Dana Balter defeated a candidate backed by the Democratic establishment in NY-24. This is precisely the kind of district Democrats need to win if they're going to take the House: carried by Hillary Clinton but represented by a Republican. So this is a real test of the electability of progressives.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted:

A major point of my campaign: in the safest blue seats in America, we should have leaders swinging for the most ambitious ideas possible for working-class Americans. You’re largely not going to get gutsy risk-taking from swing-district seats.

This makes perfect sense to me. It's the flip side of Doug Jones running on middle-of-the-road ideas in Alabama and Joe Manchin having some conservative positions in West Virginia.

and a new kind of mass shooting

Thursday, a gunman rampaged through the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, killing four editors and a member of the advertising staff. Police charged Jarod Ramos, who was captured at the scene and had previously lost a defamation suit against the newspaper. Ramos is an MS-13 gang member Muslim jihadist angry white guy with a gun. His defamation suit was in regard to a story about his harassment of a former classmate whom he had re-contacted on Facebook.

If I had to pick out one class of people to watch closely for violence, it would be men who have had harassment/domestic violence issues with women. To me, they seem way more dangerous -- to the general public, and not just to the women in their lives -- than any group defined by race, religion, or country of origin.

Have you ever read one of Carl Hiaasen's Florida novels? Carl's brother Rob, apparently a first-class journalist in his own right, was one of the victims.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted:

A violent attack on innocent journalists doing their job is an attack on every American.

Apparently, the White House only endorses Twitter attacks on innocent journalists doing their job, such as:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing , , , , ) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!

It's a good thing the American People know not to take this "enemy" stuff literally. That Trump, what a kidder!

and you also might be interested in ...

NBC News quotes five anonymous intelligence officers as saying that North Korea is in fact increasing its production of weapons-grade nuclear material.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months. ... While the North Koreans have stopped missile and nuclear tests, "there's no evidence that they are decreasing stockpiles, or that they have stopped their production," said one U.S. official briefed on the latest intelligence. "There is absolutely unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the U.S."

The scenario that has most worried me since the Trump/Kim summit was announced is that Kim will take advantage of Trump's tendency to exaggerate his accomplishments and his inability to admit mistakes. Having already taken a victory lap for getting Kim to talk about denuclearization (which North Korea has pledged many times before), Trump will be strongly tempted to deny or explain away any evidence that diminishes his premature claims of historic progress.

Puerto Rico appears to have drawn a conclusion from the federal government's botching of Hurricane Maria recovery: It needs to be a state.

Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R) filed a bill on Wednesday that would pave the way for the island to become a state no later than January 2021. The measure is co-sponsored by 21 Republicans and 14 Democrats and fulfills the promises of González-Colón and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who campaigned on a statehood platform and said statehood is a civil rights issue for Puerto Ricans.

I did a calculation as part of my article on minority rule: Puerto Rico has about the same population as Alaska, the Dakotas, Vermont, and Wyoming put together. Puerto Ricans are already American citizens, but they have no voting representatives in Congress. Does anybody doubt that if the island were populated by English-speaking white people, it would have been a state a long time ago?

There's an ongoing debate about civility, which somehow is supposed to apply to everyone but Trump. I should say more about this eventually, but for now I'll settle for this:

We're at the stage of "just say shit and hope your base repeats it". White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says the federal budget deficit is "is coming down, and it's coming down rapidly." This contradicts figures from the administration itself:

The White House's Office of Management and Budget says the deficit is rising from $665 billion in 2017 to $832 billion in 2018, and will approach $1 trillion annually in 2019.

We're at the point in the economic cycle when classic Keynesian theory says the government should be running a surplus, not building towards one of the highest deficits in history. When the next recession hits -- and one always does, eventually -- tax receipts will fall, automatic payments like unemployment compensation will rise, and the economy will need a stimulus. If you start from a baseline of a trillion-dollar deficit, you might suddenly be looking at $2 trillion or $3 trillion.

and let's close with something amusing

I can't decide whether this is cute or cruel, but I can't help laughing at how dogs react to seeing their humans disappear.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Naming the Crisis

The important thing to understand is that the atrocities our nation is now committing at the border don’t represent an overreaction or poorly implemented response to some actual problem that needs solving. There is no immigration crisis; there is no crisis of immigrant crime. No, the real crisis is an upsurge in hatred — unreasoning hatred that bears no relationship to anything the victims have done.

- Paul Krugman "Return of the Blood Libel" (6-21-2018)

This week's featured posts are "Family Separations: Should we be horrified, relieved, or just confused?" and "You can't compromise with bullshit".

This week everybody was still talking about immigration

At times it was hard to remember that anything else was going on. On the other hand, when your country starts talking about opening concentration camps, maybe that deserves some public attention. Jesse Hawken pointed out how the national conversation has evolved since the 2016 campaign:

2016: "Come on, you're talking like Trump's going to put people in concentration camps"

2018: "First of all, I think it's offensive that you refer to them as 'concentration camps'"

Anyway, the "Family Separations" post deals directly with the immigration issue, and "You can't compromise with bullshit" was largely inspired by it.

and two cracks in the Republican wall

All along, the question facing anti-Trump Republicans has been: "Yes, but are you going to do anything?" So far, their responses have mostly been disappointing: A few congressional Republicans will tut-tut a little, and then back Trump when their votes are needed, including backing him in his effort to discredit the Mueller investigation. During the election, conservative columnists groused about their situation, but most ultimately called for an anti-Hillary vote, even if they couldn't bring themselves to endorse Trump.

But this week, two well-known anti-Trump Republicans, George Will and Steve Schmidt, both renounced their party and called for voters to elect Democrats this fall.

In an article titled "Vote against the GOP this November", veteran Washington Post columnist George Will castigated the Republican majorities in Congress for failing to put any checks on President Trump.

The congressional Republican caucuses must be substantially reduced. So substantially that their remnants, reduced to minorities, will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.

In particular, he denounced Paul Ryan, who has "traded his political soul for ... a tax cut. ... Ryan and many other Republicans have become the president’s poodles."

Schmidt, manager of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, withdrew "my membership in the Republican Party. It is fully the party of Trump."  In a lengthy tweet-storm, he called for Democratic majorities in Congress.

Our country is in trouble. Our politics are badly broken. The first step to a season of renewal in our land is the absolute and utter repudiation of Trump and his vile enablers in the 2018 election by electing Democratic majorities. I do not say this as an advocate of a progressive agenda. I say it as someone who retains belief in DEMOCRACY and decency.

The current scandal of separating refugee families seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

[President Reagan] would be ashamed of McConnell and Ryan and all the rest while this corrupt government establishes internment camps for babies. Every one of these complicit leaders will carry this shame through history. ... Today the GOP has become a danger to our democracy and values. This Independent voter will be aligned with the only party left in America that stands for what is right and decent and remains fidelitous to our Republic, objective truth, the rule of law and our Allies. That party is the Democratic Party.

I doubt that either man has a large following in today's Republican Party. Their statements are important, though, as cover for long-time Republican voters who see no place for themselves in the corrupt and heartless Party of Trump, but still aren't comfortable voting for Democrats. They need to understand that they will never get back the Republican Party they have loved unless Trump and his "poodles" lose.

I've seen a few reactions like "It took you long enough" or blaming Schmidt for putting us on this road by elevating Sarah Palin, and so on. None of that is false, but this isn't the way to greet defectors. The more defectors, the better. Pressure should be on the most anti-Trump Republican who hasn't called for a Democratic victory yet, not on the one who just did.

The leaders of Republican Majority for Choice also announced that they were leaving the party. This is a little less shocking, because it is so overdue. Susan Bevan and Susan Cullman seem to be the last people to realize that the GOP has no place for pro-choice activists.

but I got something wrong last week

Last week I falsely attributed a white supremacist quote by Richard Spencer to White House Advisor Stephen Miller. It was an honest, sloppy mistake: The Vanity Fair article I linked to was about Miller, but it quoted Spencer, attributing the quote to "he". I was reading too quickly and thought "he" referred to Miller, which it obviously didn't on closer examination. (No fault to VF.) Thanks to commenter Mark Flaherty for catching the misattribution. I removed the quote as soon as I realized my error.

and you also might be interested in ...

Turkey, our NATO ally, took another step towards authoritarianism. President Erdogan won Sunday's election, in spite of some polls that indicated he might be in trouble. So far, I'm not seeing accusations of fraud.

As I've been predicting, Republicans are responding to the budget deficit their tax cut created by calling for cuts in Medicare. They want you to pay more for medical care when you get old, so that rich people and multinational corporations and Donald Trump can pay lower taxes. It's a more-or-less direct transfer of wealth from you to them.

Josh Marshall's critique of Trump's negotiating style is worth a read. Basically, he is building on a point made several other places, including the NYT and the Calculated Risk economics blog: You have to negotiate differently when you're going to face the same players in future deals. In one-time deals, like on a used-car lot, you can get an advantage through bluffing, lying, and threats (like the threat to walk away). But situations where you are bound to the other party in some way (union/management, or any firm with its major clients and suppliers) call for a whole different toolkit, because you're not just trying to grind the other party into the dust, you need to build trust, and work towards mutually beneficial agreements that continue into the future.

If you’re going to be dealing with the same players again and again, using threats or bad faith to make a one-sided deal really isn’t necessarily in your longterm interest. Because you’re going to have to deal with that cheated player again.

When we deal with allies like Canada or Germany, or even with rivals like China or Russia, the point isn't to make a one-time "great deal" and walk away with the profit. Because unless we conquer the world, we'll have to keep going back to these same players and making new deals.

The Washington Post's editorial board points out something else about Trump's international trade negotiations: You can't fight a trade war against the whole world at the same time.

The U.S. position regarding China would be stronger if Beijing faced a united front that also included Europe, Japan, Mexico and Canada. As it is, Mr. Trump is threatening them with large tariffs as well, driving them to explore closer relations with Beijing.

and let's close with something spiritual

I think I've linked to this meditation video before, but repetition is part of any good spiritual practice. This seems like a particularly good week for this practice.

Monday, June 18, 2018


The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking.  ... “The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”

-- Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic

"Fuck you, bitch, make me a sandwich" is the unofficial motto that rides sidecar to "Make America Great Again."

- Amanda Marcotte, Troll Nation

This week's featured posts are "The corporate tax cut will never trickle down." and "Is Trumpism a new religion?"

This week everybody was talking about separating immigrant families

Any discussion of this issue has to fight through the Trump administration's disinformation campaign, which simultaneously brags about what it's doing, denies that it's doing it, justifies it by quoting the Bible, and blames Democrats for it.

Vox and The New York Times do a good job summarizing what's going on.

Between October 1, 2017 and May 31, 2018, at least 2,700 children have been split from their parents. 1,995 of them were separated over the last six weeks of that window — April 18 to May 31 — indicating that at present, an average of 45 children are being taken from their parents each day.

The facts are just complex enough to allow Trump's fans to fool themselves about the level of villainy being perpetrated.

  • When people are caught crossing the border without authorization, they have the right to claim that they are seeking asylum to avoid persecution in their home country. If they do, they can't just be sent back without a hearing.
  • The courts that hear these cases are overwhelmed, so it takes months for an asylum case to be heard.
  • If border-crossers are not charged with a crime, they are held in immigration detention, where families are kept together. If they are charged with a crime, parents go to jail and the government takes custody of their children.
  • Court rulings limit how long people can be detained without a hearing, so many asylum-seekers have been released until their hearings, sometimes with an ankle bracelet. Not all show up for their hearings, and become undocumented immigrants.
  • Previous administrations did not charge asylum-seekers with a crime (unless some other crime was involved, like smuggling). They also typically held families (even those not claiming asylum) in immigration detention rather than send parents to jail, precisely to avoid the situation we're seeing now.
  • The Trump administration has instituted a policy of pursuing criminal charges against anyone who crosses the border without going through an official entry point. The crime (improper entry) is a misdemeanor with a maximum jail time of six months for a first offense. NYT: "Unlike Mr. Obama’s administration, Mr. Trump’s is treating all people who have crossed the border without authorization as subject to criminal prosecution, even if they tell the officer apprehending them that they are seeking asylum based on fear of returning to their home country, and whether or not they have their children in tow."
  • The government already had responsibility for children who show up at the border unaccompanied. (A wave of such children created an issue during the Obama administration.) The new children are entering a system already over-burdened. The Washington Post reports: "As of Thursday, 11,432 migrant children are in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, up from 9,000 at the beginning of May."

Numerous reports are coming out about the facilities where the children are being held. It's pretty horrifying, but I can't blame HHS too much for that: If somebody dropped a couple thousand extra children on me, I'd have trouble arranging for their care too. The blame should rest higher up the chain.

Like many Trump administration policies -- particularly those involving presidential advisor Stephen Miller, who has no qualifications for government office beyond his white supremacist views ("America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.") and would not have been hired by any previous administration -- the family separation policy was poorly planned. There appears to be no system for reuniting the families, either in this country (after asylum is granted) or in their country of origin (after deportation). In many cases, the parent is deported while the child remains in government custody.

Trump has said pretty clearly what the breaking-up-families policy is about: It's hostage-taking. He claims to hate the policy. But Democrats hate it more, because they have more empathy. So they should give in to his demands. It's basically the same argument he's made about DACA: He doesn't want to deport the Dreamers, but he will if Democrats won't pay his price.

You have to wonder how far he can push this kind of thuggery before even his supporters recognize what he's doing. Suppose he starts taking immigrants out and having them shot until he gets his wall. It won't be his fault, it will be the Democrats' fault, because they won't give him what he wants.

and about North Korea

Here's how the Trump/Kim summit shakes out: Kim agreed to somewhat less than North Korea has agreed to in past documents. In exchange he got a huge propaganda victory: His flag was displayed as an equal of the American flag, and the President of the United States stood next to him and flattered him. Kim also got the very real concession of Trump canceling our military exercises with the South Koreans.

Imagine being a dissatisfied North Korean and hearing Trump say this:

His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor. ... I think that he really wants to do a great job for North Korea. ... And, he wants to do the right thing.

And human rights? It's all relative.

“He’s a tough guy, it’s a tough country,” he told Fox News host Bret Baier Wednesday. Trump went on to praise Kim for taking over the country at such a young age calling him a “very smart guy” and a “great negotiator.” “I think we understand each other,” Trump added.

When Baier pressed Trump, protesting that Kim has done many “bad things,” the President was unmoved. “So have a lot of other people,” he said, before moving on to praise himself for his performance at the United States-North Korea summit this week.

In fact, Trump envies Kim:

He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.

In this hyper-partisan era, I find it useful to run a what-if-the-parties-were-reversed thought experiment: What if the exact same things were happening, but all the Republicans were Democrats and vice versa? Sometimes the experiment makes no sense, because you can't really imagine the opposite party playing its role: I can't picture President Hillary Clinton defending the Charlottesville Nazis, for example.

But the North Korea negotiation is a good place to run that experiment: What if President Hillary Clinton met Kim Jong Un without preconditions, signed a vacuous joint statement, flattered him effusively, gave a concession by cancelling military exercises with South Korea, and then came home claiming "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea."?

I think I'd be saying about what I'm saying now: Talking is better than not talking, so I'd give Clinton credit for that. But I'd be skeptical that anything real had been accomplished, and disturbed that the President of the United States had given Kim the propaganda victory of appearing together as a equal and being praised. The one-sided concession would bother me, and the no-longer-a-threat claim would seem unfounded. I think I'd be more inclined to imagine that something was going on behind the scenes, because I would trust Clinton's intelligence and experience more than I trust Trump. But I'd still find the whole event worrisome and disturbing.

For Democrats in Congress, I think the difference would be between speaking up and keeping silent. But those who commented would say something close to what they're saying now.

Republican statements, however, would bear no resemblance to what they're saying now. They'd be talking about treason.

and voter suppression

I only skimmed the Supreme Court decision on Ohio's method for purging its voter-registration rolls. But that was enough to convince me that I would have a hard time figuring out which side of the 5-4 decision was legally right. States are allowed to purge their voter rolls under the National Voter Registration Act, but the NVRA also restricts how they can do it.

Here's what Ohio did: If someone didn't vote for two years, the state sent them a mailing to find out if they'd moved. If the pre-addressed postage-paid response card didn't come back, and if the person didn't vote for another four years, they'd be removed from the rolls.

The NVRA says voters can't be removed from the rolls just for failing to vote. Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Alito says the non-voting together with the card is a sufficient justification. Writing for the four liberal justices, Justice Breyer says it isn't.

In general, I trust Breyer more than Alito. (Alito's Hobby Lobby decision was horrible and seemed disingenuous at every turn.) And I know what I wish the law said. But without a lot more study, I can't tell you how this should have come out.

Given that the Court has decided, I hope Ohio fixes this by referendum. Undoubtedly, lots of names are on the voter-registration rolls that shouldn't be, but every study shows that this leads to very few illegal votes. (I'm planning to move this summer; I'll bet my names stays on the rolls for years. But that doesn't mean I plan to come back here and vote.) On the other hand, voter-registration purges invariably result in thousands of legal voters being turned away.

Even if the process Ohio used does satisfy the NVRA, it makes a lot less sense now than it did when the NVRA was passed. All of us get far more junk mail than legitimate mail, and we invariably throw out some mail we ought to open. It's predictable that lots of legitimate voters won't return the card.

and the Trump Foundation

It's weird that the Clinton Foundation got so much critical attention during the campaign, when the Trump Foundation was clearly the sleazier enterprise.

Thursday, the New York Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit against the Trump family and the Trump Foundation (which is incorporated in New York). According to the NYT, the suit "seeks to dissolve the foundation and bar President Trump and three of his children from serving on nonprofit organizations", or at least "nonprofits based in New York or that operate in New York for one year, which would have the effect of barring them from a wide range of groups based in other states."

The lawsuit claims that the Foundation has no employees and its board has not met since 1999. (New York state law requires at least annual meetings.) President Trump alone decides all grants and signs all checks. The Foundation's accounts are managed by the same office that oversees all the other Trump Organization entities.

The sole criteria that the accounting staff used to determine whether to issue a check from the Foundation, rather than another entity in the Trump Organization or Mr. Trump personally, was the tax-exempt status of the intended recipient; no one made any inquiry into the purpose of the payment.

On several occasions listed in the lawsuit, the Foundation made payments that were clearly Trump's personal responsibility. For example, in 2007 when his Mar-a-Lago club had a legal dispute with the Town of Palm Beach about the height and location of its flagpoles, the negotiated settlement included Trump contributing $100,000 to the Fisher House Foundation, a charity that benefits veterans. But Trump did not make this payment; the Foundation did. The lawsuit includes a photocopy of Trump's handwritten note to the accounting staff: "DJT Foundation $100,000 to Fisher House (settlement of flag issue in Palm Beach)". Trump reimbursed the Foundation in 2017, after he knew the issue was under investigation.

A longer-term and more complex abuse happened during the presidential campaign. Trump boycotted an Iowa debate (because Megyn Kelly would be a moderator) and held a parallel event to raise money for veterans' charities. The money raised was channeled through the Trump Foundation, but the Trump campaign was in charge from beginning to end: It "planned, organized, financed, and directed" the event; the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" was displayed on the podium; the charities receiving the money were chosen by the campaign and were often located in states that had upcoming primaries; much of the money raised was distributed during campaign events (with Trump presenting a giant check).

Mr. Trump's wrongful use of the Foundation to benefit his Campaign was willful and knowing. Mr. Trump was aware of the prohibition on political activities and the requirement of restrictions on related-party transactions. Among other things, he repeatedly signed, under penalties of perjury, IRS Forms 990 in which he attested that the Foundation did not engage in transactions with interested parties, and that the Foundation did not carry out political activity. Mr. Trump also signed, again under penalty of perjury, the Foundation's Certificate of Incorporation, in which he certified that the Foundation would not use its assets for the benefit of its directors or officers, and that it would not intervene in "any political campaign on behalf of any candidate."

The New York attorney general's office has made referrals to the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, which could take further action. Another NYT article quoted Jenny Johnson Ware, a criminal tax attorney in Chicago: “People have gone to prison for stuff like this, and if I were representing someone with facts like this, assuming the facts described in this petition are true, I would be very worried about an indictment."

and the inspector general's report on the FBI

I didn't even skim the Justice Department's 500-page report on the FBI's Clinton email investigation. Here are Vox' four takeaways:

  • The investigative decisions in the Clinton email case seemed to be made on the merits.

  • Some FBI officials expressed anti-Trump opinions in private messages.

  • The IG wonders whether Strzok may have pursued the Trump-Russia probe more vigorously than new Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop due to political bias. (But in the end that worked to Trump's advantage. Since the Weiner emails were all duplicates, the sooner the public knew that the better for Clinton.)

  • The IG sharply criticizes Comey for deviating from policy and procedure in his statements about the Clinton case.

The idea that this report somehow de-legitimizes the Mueller investigation seems to be more Trumpian bullshit.

and you also might be interested in ...

The $81 billion merger between ATT and Time Warner was completed shortly after a federal court rejected the Justice Department's attempt to block it on Tuesday.

As best I can tell, this is one of those bad-guys-against-worse-guys stories, so it's hard to know how to feel about it. In general, I dislike media mergers, because the media is concentrated enough already. But the Justice Department's effort to block the merger appears to be Trump's attempt to punish CNN, which is part of Time Warner. (The government was fine with Sinclair Broadcasting buying Tribune Media -- requiring only that Sinclair not wind up owning two TV stations in the same city -- because Sinclair slants even more towards Trump than Fox News does.)

So if the Justice Department had been trying to block the merger as part of some larger effort to step up antitrust enforcement, I'd be with them. But the message seems to be "You can get bigger, but only if we like your news coverage." That strikes me as seriously dangerous to American democracy, so I'm glad they didn't get away with it.

Some very bogus arguments have been made claiming that the Mueller investigation is unconstitutional. Here, they're taken apart by George Conway -- Kellyanne's husband.

and let's close with something funny

It's been a while since I've linked to Bad Lip Reading. Here's their NBA clip.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Dividends on Putin's Investment

For anyone who asks why Putin helped Trump get elected, take a look at this G-7 Summit.

-- Ben Rhodes

This week's featured posts are "Who won the Masterpiece Cakeshop case?" and "Thoughts on Depression Sparked by Anthony Bourdain's Suicide". This morning, bad news broke on a voting rights case. I'll have to cover that next week.

This week everybody was talking about summit meetings

For the G-7 meeting in Quebec, Trump arrived late and left early, skipping sessions on trivialities like climate change. After leaving, he tweeted a denunciation of the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and instructed the remaining US representatives not to sign the meeting-concluding joint communique that he had previously agreed to. (That is so Trump: For all his apparent bluster, he can't handle face-to-face confrontation. He'll leave and then tweet something nasty from the road.)

Trump described the US as "the piggy bank that everybody's robbing", and threatened to cut off trade with the other G-7 countries entirely:

It’s going to stop. Or we’ll stop trading with them. And that’s a very profitable answer, if we have to do it.

There is so much wrong with this. First, remember who we're talking about here. These are our most trusted allies: Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. If we want to solve any of our real trade problems (like getting China to respect our intellectual property), we'll need them on our side.

And second, Trump continues to display a child's understanding of international trade: If the US has a trade deficit with a country, he imagines that cutting off trade with them results in a "profit", as if everything stays the same except that we now have back all the money we would have spent in the other country.

As economists will happily explain to you, this is pre-Adam-Smith economics, a long-debunked theory known as mercantilism. A more likely outcome than "profit" is that the world economy (and ours) simply shrink. Matt Ygelsias explains, using the example of oil:

According to [the theory espoused by Trump's economic advisors], if the United States made it illegal to import oil, thus wiping $180 billion off the trade deficit, our GDP would rise by $180 billion. With labor constituting 44 percent of GDP, that would mean about $80 billion worth of higher wages for American workers. So why doesn’t Congress take this simple, easy step to boost growth and create jobs?

Well, because it’s ridiculous.

What would actually happen is that gasoline would become much more expensive, consumers would need to cut back spending on non-gasoline items, businesses would face a higher cost structure, and the overall economy would slow down with inflation-adjusted incomes falling.

Third, Trump has no power to cut off trade with other countries, and Congress isn't going to give it to him. Foreign leaders know that he's just blustering. To re-purpose a John Kelly insult: Empty barrels make the most noise.

John McCain tried to mitigate the damage:

To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.

And Paul Krugman said what we're all thinking:

He didn’t put America first; Russia first would be a better description. And he didn’t demand drastic policy changes from our allies; he demanded that they stop doing bad things they aren’t doing. This wasn’t a tough stance on behalf of American interests, it was a declaration of ignorance and policy insanity.

... Was there any strategy behind Trump’s behavior? Well, it was pretty much exactly what he would have done if he really is Putin’s puppet: yelling at friendly nations about sins they aren’t committing won’t bring back American jobs, but it’s exactly what someone who does want to break up the Western alliance would like to see.

BTW: Trump's proposal to let Putin back into the G-7 isn't just servile, it makes no sense (as Krugman points out): The G-7 is an economic forum of democratic countries. Russia is an autocracy and its economy is tiny; it never belonged in this group. If the G-7 wants to expand, Brazil and India are much better candidates. And if nobody cares about democracy any more, China should be there.

In a different column, Krugman points out something important: The more Trump insults other democratic countries and acts like he has the whip hand over them, the less those countries' leaders can offer him.

Real countries have real politics; they have pride; and their electorates really, really don’t like Trump. This means that even if their leaders might want to make concessions, their voters probably won’t allow it.

You can see this most clearly in Mexico: Trump is poison in Mexico. Any leader who refused to stand up to him would be committing political suicide.

Trump's tough talk, then, is purely for the consumption of his base. If he were really trying to negotiate something that would help American workers, he'd "speak softly and carry a big stick" when he dealt with other democratic leaders.

Trump is also spreading joy and happiness in Germany, where his new ambassador has said that he wants to "empower other conservatives throughout Europe". Diplomats typically do not visibly interfere in the politics of their host countries. The ambassador doubled down in the face of criticism: "I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority - those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump." In Germany, the "elites" include Angela Merkel and her government.

Trump is on to Singapore, where he is scheduled to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un tomorrow morning.

and immigrant children

Since May 7, the Trump administration has been routinely separating children from their parents when they arrive at our southern border. Vox has a good article describing what's new about this and what isn't. The big thing that's new is that we're not even trying to claim that we're doing this for the children's own good. The policy is purely punitive; it's meant to discourage people from coming to America without a visa.

It's worth pointing out that people who come here seeking asylum are not breaking the law if they present themselves at an official border crossing. Trump has characterized our asylum laws, which require some kind of due process for asylum seekers, as a "loophole".

To me, it's the government that seems to be taking advantage of loopholes.

and about cake

I cover the legal side of the Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop decision in a featured post.

I wanted that article to have a tone that is opinionated, but not abrasive. But here I want to get more argumentative: I think the media as a whole, and liberals in particular, have been way too soft on special-rights-seeking people who claim to be motivated by Christianity. We've been way too willing to grant their claims that their actions have something to do with Jesus, and are motivated by sincere religious faith rather than simple bigotry.

I want to assert a few things:

  • Wedding cakes do not have, and have never had, religious significance in the Christian tradition. For the wedding at Cana, Jesus did not turn water into cake. Or into flowers or photographs or catering. It is ridiculous to treat cakes for same-sex wedding receptions as if they were communion wafers for a Satanic black mass. (Gorsuch really does invoke a comparison to "sacramental bread".)
  • From the beginning of the Republic, civil marriage has been a separate institution from religious marriage. If your Christian religion says that people the state regards as married are not married in the eyes of God, you have the freedom to believe and proclaim that view. But you don't get to decide whether or not they're married in the eyes of the state, because that has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion. And if a couple wants to hold a party to celebrate becoming married in the eyes of the state, that also has nothing to do with Christianity or any other religion.
  • In the Bible, marriage is not "between one man and one woman". Often it's between one man and several women. Example: Jacob and Leah and Rachel and their two handmaidens. If you don't support that kind of marriage today, then you don't believe in "Biblical" marriage. You also don't believe that an unchanging institution of marriage was established by God once and forever. (Justice Kennedy quotes the baker: "God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman." The baker should tell that to whoever wrote Genesis.)
  • Most of the self-described Christians who refuse to serve same-sex couples are not acting out of sincere religious conviction; they're acting out of spite. Their side lost the same-sex marriage debate, they're pissed about it, and they want to take it out on somebody. There is nothing Christ-like about this set of motives. The New Testament does not record any examples of Jesus being a sore loser.

and healthcare

If you're an insurance company that doesn't want to cover people with pre-existing conditions, the Trump administration has your back.

Led by Texas, twenty Republican-dominated states are participating in a lawsuit asserting that the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act (i.e., ObamaCare) will become unconstitutional in 2019, when the tax penalty that enforces it goes away. (That was part of last year's big tax cut bill.) That may sound harmless -- who cares if the courts eliminate something that was unpopular to begin with and isn't going to be enforced any more anyway? -- but there's a kicker: The suit claims that the whole ACA is inseparable from the individual mandate, so it all has to be struck down, including the popular parts like the guarantee of insurance to people with pre-existing conditions.

In other words: If you're a cancer survivor (like my wife), or have something else in your medical history that makes you a bad risk, you may not be able to get health insurance at all, and if you do it will be exorbitantly expensive.

This suit has been considered a long shot, but its shot got a little less long Thursday when the Justice Department announced that it won't defend the case in court. (Typically, the Justice Department defends the constitutionality of laws when they are challenged. But on rare occasions, an administration decides that a law is indefensible. That's what's happening here and what happened when the Obama Justice Department refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.) Democratic-controlled states like California are expected to step into the breech and lead the defense.

The brief filed by the Justice Department doesn't agree with Texas that the whole ACA is unconstitutional, but it does agree that two other parts of the ACA are inseparable from the individual mandate and so have to be struck down: guaranteed issue (insurance companies that offer coverage in an area have to offer it to everybody) and community rating (which says that all individuals of the same age in the same community have to be offered the same rate). Those are exactly the parts that protect people with pre-existing conditions.

It's worth pointing out the reason we're in this situation: Back in 2012, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that Congress did not have the power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to require individuals to buy health insurance. This would have sunk the ACA then and there, but Justice Roberts reinterpreted the individual mandate as a tax. That allowed him to flip and vote for the constitutionality of the ACA, which survived 5-4.

But here's the interesting part: The idea that an individual mandate exceeded the range of the Commerce Clause was invented from whole cloth to create a pretext for striking down the ACA. Until it became part of the ACA, the mandate -- which was originally the brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s -- had never been considered constitutionally questionable.

So one conservative long-shot legal argument leads to another, and the upshot is that millions of Americans may lose their health insurance.

and leaks

The LA Times reports:

The former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to federal investigators probing a leak of information involving a former campaign aide to President Trump.

In the course of the investigation, the government seized several years worth of emails belonging to the staffer's girlfriend, who is a New York Times reporter. The case is making journalists nervous about how far the government is now willing to go to track down leaks.

and the NFL

Last Monday, the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were disinvited from the White House visit scheduled for the next day, because not enough of them were going to show up to suit Trump. Instead he held a patriotic rally that seems to have been attended mainly by White House staffers and interns. During the ceremony, Trump appeared not to know the words to "God Bless America".

Trump has decided that portraying black football players as unpatriotic is a winning issue for him, so he's going to keep doing it. This has got to be a disappointment to the NFL owners, who changed their policy specifically to try to mollify the President. Under the new rules, players can stay in the locker room during the national anthem if they want, but if they come onto the field they have to stand at attention. Kneeling -- no matter how silently and respectfully it is done -- will result in a fine for the team, which may decide to pass that fine on to the player.

But Trump is not having that. "No escaping to locker rooms" he tweeted. Previously he had said:

You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.

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Anybody who decided that it didn't matter whether Trump or Clinton won the presidency should take a look at the EPA. The headlines are all about Scott Pruitt's flagrant corruption, but the real damage is deeper. Thursday, the NYT described a change in how the EPA will evaluate possibly toxic or carcinogenic chemicals:

the E.P.A. has in most cases decided to exclude from its calculations any potential exposure caused by the substances’ presence in the air, the ground or water, according to more than 1,500 pages of documents released last week by the agency.

Instead, the agency will focus on possible harm caused by direct contact with a chemical in the workplace or elsewhere. The approach means that the improper disposal of chemicals — leading to the contamination of drinking water, for instance — will often not be a factor in deciding whether to restrict or ban them.

The big winner here is the chemical industry. The big losers are anybody who breathes air or drinks water and was hoping not to get cancer.

Here's an unforgettable exchange from Wednesday's Anderson Cooper 360:

Former Fox News military analyst Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters (retired): As a former military officer of the United States, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And I saw, in my view, Fox -- particularly their prime time hosts -- attacking our constitutional order, the rule of law, the Justice Department, the FBI, Robert Mueller, and (oh, by the way) the intelligence agencies. And they're doing it for ratings and profit, and they're doing it knowingly -- in my view, doing a grave, grave disservice to our country.

Anderson Cooper: Do you think, some of the hosts in prime time, do they believe the stuff they're saying about the Deep State, what they're saying about the Department of Justice, about the FBI?

Lt. Colonel Peters: I suspect Sean Hannity really believes it. The others are smarter. They know what they're doing.

When somebody from the White House says some awful thing, it's hard to know whether to take the bait. If we ignore it, we normalize it. ("Oh yeah, public officials say shit like that. It's no big deal.") If we pay attention, we've let ourselves be distracted from the ongoing destruction of the environment, the decay of the rule of law, the plight of the Puerto Ricans, the alienation of America's allies, the mistreatment of families who come here looking for asylum under our laws, the opening of a misguided trade war, and lots of other more immediately consequential stuff.

But OK, Rudy Giuliani, I'm taking the bait this time.

In Israel, Giuliani went on to criticize Daniels’ credibility and allegation she had an affair with Trump because she is a porn star. “Look at his three wives. Beautiful women. Classy women. Women of great substance. Stormy Daniels?” Giuliani said while shaking his head. “I’m sorry I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who has great respect for herself as a woman and as a person and isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.” ...

On Thursday, Giuliani was asked to explain his comments. “So the point I made about her industry is, it's an industry in which you sell looks at your body for money. That's demeaning to women, the way I was brought up and the way I always believed the feminist movement has,” Giuliani said.

During the campaign, I objected to Trump critics trying to make an issue of Melania's nude photos, because they're irrelevant to how America is governed and "because I believe all of us have the right to display or not display our bodies as we see fit". But if the president's lawyer is going to claim there's some difference-of-kind between Melania and Stormy Daniels because Daniels sells looks at her body for money, I have to call him on it. (And point out that Trump himself has appeared in three porn films, though he was clothed at the time.)

And as for who is credible, based on their previous actions, let me point out a few things Stormy Daniels hasn't done:

  1. created a fake university that defrauded its students;
  2. molested more than a dozen women;
  3. laundered money for Russian oligarchs;
  4. lied to the American people several times each day.

So if it comes down Trump's word against a porn star's, I'll believe the porn star.

and let's close with something fun

"Happy as a dog in a ball crawl" needs to become a standard English phrase.