Monday, May 29, 2017

Drips of Intolerance

The question for this Court, distilled to its essential form, is whether the Constitution remains "a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace." And if so, whether it protects Plaintiffs' right to challenge an Executive Order that in text speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.

-- Chief Judge Roger Gregory, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, 5-25-2017

This week's featured post is "On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire."

This week everybody was talking about Jared Kushner

Last Monday, it had just come out that the FBI was interested in one of Trump's senior advisers, and a lot of people who didn't know anything for sure were speculating that it would be Jared. Whoever it turned out to be, the significance of the report was that the Russia problem didn't just concern people who used to work for Trump, like Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, but also someone who was still playing a major role in the Trump administration.

Well, it is Jared, and the story is stranger than any speculation I had run into:

Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Monitoring by American intelligence services, that is. This does not seem to be illegal (although omitting the meeting with the Russian ambassador from his security-clearance application is illegal), but it raises all sorts of questions: He was already talking to the Russian ambassador face-to-face; who in the Kremlin did he want to talk to and about what? Why seek to hide those messages from the Americans?

Words like espionage are being thrown around by people who don't use that term lightly. Some speculate that the inexperienced Kushner simply didn't understand what he was suggesting. But he went to the meeting with Flynn, who would have understood it. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza sums up:

We still don’t have a crime in this case, but there is an awful lot of coverup.

The NYT puts a different slant on this story:

the idea was to have Mr. Flynn speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues.

Though why that conversation required dodging American intelligence isn't clear. Another cryptic part of the NYT article says this:

And less than two weeks later, the idea was dropped when Mr. Trump announced that Rex W. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil who had worked closely with Russian officials on energy deals, was his choice to become secretary of state.

My working model of Kushner resembles in part my working model of Trump, and maybe reflects my own class prejudice: I imagine that being born at the top of a real estate empire convinced Jared that he's a lot smarter than he actually is, and shielded him from the criticism he needed if he was going to form an accurate view of his place in the world.

That model is supported by someone who actually knows Kushner: Elizabeth Spiers, who edited New York Observer for him.

I don’t even know how to quantify Kushner’s expertise, anyway. Yes, he ran the company — which he inherited, not uncommon in New York’s dynastic, insular real estate world. But he was sure he had the goods. When I worked for him, I didn’t think he had a realistic view of his own capabilities since, like his father-in-law, he seemed to view his wealth and its concomitant accoutrements as rewards for his personal success in business, and not something he would have had in any case. To me, he appeared to view his position and net worth as the products of an essentially meritocratic process.

It's not hard to imagine such a person getting in over his head, and being manipulated by well-trained operatives like Ambassador Kislyak and General Flynn.

If you'd ever wondered why Putin would prefer Trump to Clinton, Trump's meeting with our European allies in Brussels made it clear. In Brussels, Trump continued to work on Putin's agenda, insulting our European allies

According to a report in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, many EU officials were appalled by how little the Americans appeared to know about trade policy. The guests from Washington seemed not to be aware that EU member states only negotiate trade treaties as a bloc. According to the paper, Trump's chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, claimed during meetings, for example, that different customs tariffs are in place between the U.S. and Germany than between the U.S. and Belgium.

and undermining NATO. Trump's advisers had led everyone to believe that his speech would finally unequivocally endorse the center of the treaty defining the alliance: Article 5, the one the obligates all the NATO countries to come to one another's defense. He didn't. Instead he continued to peddle a fiction from his campaign: that most NATO countries "owe money" either to the United States or to the alliance. They don't.

Josh Marshall:

Whether Vladimir Putin has something on Donald Trump or somehow has him in his pay hardly matters. If he doesn’t, he apparently doesn’t need to do since Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own.

Matt Yglesias:

To undermine NATO in this way has, of course, been a core goal of Russian (and, earlier, Soviet) foreign policy as long as NATO has existed. And through all the ups and downs of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, Russia has never scored a success on that front as striking as Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency and his continued refusal to affirm that the United States will defend its allies. Why exactly Trump won’t do that remains a mystery, but the conduct itself is striking — in some ways all the more so because it involves Trump overruling the professional opinion of his own aides in favor of a different, more Russia-friendly line.

Here we see a photo of three NATO leaders and what appears to be a cardboard cut-out of Trump.

and the budget

Matt Yglesias:

Budgets are important as statements of values. One clear headline value of the Trump budget is an overwhelming preference for cutting taxes on high-income families over providing food, medical care, housing assistance, and other support to low-income families.

Stranger than that, though, is that the whole thing seems to be based on an obvious double-counting error of something that maybe shouldn't even have been counted once. Trump's unspecified tax cuts are supposed to pay for themselves by generating revenue from economic growth -- a dubious proposition already. But that increased growth is used again to increase revenue beyond what the current system would produce. The mistake is sizeable: $2 trillion over ten years.

and health care

The CBO analysis of the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill that the House passed came in. The previous version of the bill would increase the number of uninsured people by 24 million in ten years. The version the House passed (without waiting for the CBO analysis) gets that number down to 23 million.

Senate Republicans claim they're going to do something different, but they have the same underlying problem that the House did: Republicans have made more promises than they can deliver on. 23 million extra uninsured people is the price of delivering on all the Republicans other promises: cutting taxes, reducing the deficit, giving insurance companies more freedom, and so on.

I don't doubt that the Senate can lower that number, but to do so it will have to turn its back on promises the House fulfilled. I still don't see a compromise that gets enough votes to pass in both chambers.

and two court decisions

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration's appeal to lift a lower court's injunction against its Muslim Ban. It wasn't close: 10-3.

The entire issue is whether you take the President at his word: Trump's executive order (which Chief Judge Roger Gregory abbreviated EO-2, to distinguish it from the first version, EO-1, which Trump withdrew after the 9th Circuit ruled against it) is what judges call "facially neutral". Its text says nothing about Muslims or religion; it's all about national security.

However, if you read EO-2 in the context of EO-1 and in the context of Trump's campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the country "until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on", it's easy to make the case that EO-2 is all about religious discrimination. That's how Gregory's majority opinion views it.

Based on this evidence, we find that Plaintiffs have more than plausibly alleged that EO-2’s stated national security interest was provided in bad faith, as a pretext for its religious purpose. ...

EO-2 cannot be divorced from the cohesive narrative linking it to the animus that inspired it. In light of this, we find that the reasonable observer would likely conclude that EO-2’s primary purpose is to exclude persons from the United States on the basis of their religious beliefs.

From here, it goes to the Supreme Court.

Right now, the administration claims this isn't a Muslim ban at all, and that the resemblance to what he promised on the campaign trail is just coincidental. But does anyone doubt Trump's tune will change the instant the Supreme Court says it's constitutional? Within a week, he'll hold a rally somewhere and say, "I promised you a Muslim ban, and I delivered."

Critics of the decision argue that the judges are playing politics. But I think they should be forced to answer the question the judges had to address: Do you believe the executive order was made in good faith, and not as an attempt to limit Muslim immigration simply because they are Muslims?

Clarence Thomas was the deciding vote on the liberal side of a racial gerrymandering case: The Supreme Court rejected two congressional districts in North Carolina. His concurring opinion is very brief, so it's not entirely clear what he's thinking.

There are other gerrymandering cases to be decided before the Court goes on its summer break, so I'll save more detailed comments until they come in.

and you might also be interested in

Remember how Trump was going to sort-of comply with the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by tracking how much of his business' profits came from foreign governments and voluntarily donating that much to the Treasury? Well, never mind. Rather than produce a transparent, auditable plan for calculating foreign-government profit, the Trump Organization sent Congress a glitzy eight-page brochure describing a process full of holes.

The short version: If they get checks that say "Government of Russia" or "Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kuwait", they'll keep track of the amounts and assume that the net profit rate on that property applies to that payment. (This blows off the distinction between average profit and marginal profit, and allows them to do bookkeeping tricks with depreciation.) But the TO considers it "impractical" to track foreign-government payments more subtle than that.

So, for example, if the Russian Embassy decides to throw its Christmas Party at the Trump International Hotel in Washington (pictured below), the profit on that revenue would count as foreign-government income, unless the hotel can find enough depreciation to declare a paper loss that year. But if one of Putin's billionaire buddies throws a Christmas Party and happens to invite the ambassador and everybody from the Russian Embassy, that wouldn't count.

Reading the brochure, you have to keep reminding yourself that we're talking about violating Article I, Section 9 of the effing Constitution. That clause says that foreign-government money can't be accepted in the first place "without the consent of Congress", which Trump has not even sought. Obeying the Constitution is often inconvenient, but convenience has never been the standard.

I continue to refuse to go after Melania (for anything other that profiteering off the presidency). This week's Melania story was about her wearing a very expensive jacket. But I defended Hillary Clinton wearing a somewhat less expensive (but still very pricey) jacket during the campaign, and I extend that defense to Melania: We pay way too much attention to the clothes and hair and shoes of women in public life. If they err on the side of frugality, they're frumpy. If they err on the side of expense, they're Marie Antoinette. Men face no comparable choice.

I've been following the problems Kansas has had after the Brownback tax cuts. Sunday, the WaPo looked at Oklahoma, where a combination of tax cuts and a decline in oil revenues has the state cutting back on -- what else? -- education: four-day weeks, 49th in teacher pay, big class sizes, etc.

The year's best feminist protest was at the Texas State Capitol:

The special election for the House seat in Montana had what is starting to feel like a familiar result: The Republicans held onto the seat by less that they ordinarily would have. Assaulting a reporter on election eve appeared to make no difference. Some Republicans actually liked it.

Despite last week's rumor, Joe Lieberman won't be the new FBI director.

Cultural appropriation is when somebody from a dominant culture tries to acquire fame and fortune (or just look cool) by using stuff created by a dominated culture. (I've written about it before.) Sometimes it's done with respect and a share-the-wealth attitude. (Paul Simon didn't just steal the South African sound, he toured with and helped popularize authentic South African bands.) Sometimes it's annoying and disrespectful, but relatively harmless (like Anglos who have no idea what Cinqo de Mayo commemorates "celebrating" by drinking too much tequila). And sometimes it results in a significant injustice, like Elvis becoming a musical icon while the black pioneers he imitated couldn't get radio time.

Crystal Contreras uses a local controversy about a Anglo-owned burrito shop to make a very good point: Cultural appropriation is mostly an effect of injustice. It happens because a dominance relationship already exists. Beating it back may be emotionally satisfying, but doesn't do much to solve the underlying problem.

It's just that cultural appropriation is not what caused these inequalities in the first place, and it's just one arm of a much larger system that makes it so POCs are not seen as experts on our own cultures.

Instead, I'm more interested in confronting the entire apparatus in place that make it so the dude who fell in love with Mexico on spring break is able to open a tamale bar in the ultra-gentrified Hipsterfuck Chill District, while the woman from Mexico has to risk arrest to sell tamales out of a cooler in front of the grocery store.

Her piece doesn't claim to be the final word on the subject, but it's a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.

and let's close with an old song updated

Paul Simon and Stephen Colbert redo "Feelin' Groovy" for 2017.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Greatest Danger

Our greatest danger is not from the grossly wicked around us, but from the unreflecting multitude who are borne along as a stream by foreign impulse, and bear us along with them.

- William Ellery Channing, "Self Culture" (1838)

This week's featured posts are "What is impeachment for?" where I try to keep myself honest by going back to first principles rather than just tailoring a case against Trump, and "Step Around the Benghazi Trap", which urges Democrats not to make the same kind of cognitive errors Republicans have made.

A shorter version of a Sift post from March just got published in UU World as "Reframing the healthcare conversation". They added a truly kick-ass illustration. Man, do I wish I could draw.

This week everybody was talking about Special Counsel Robert Mueller

We now have a special counsel to investigate Trump and Russia. I didn't see that coming. Of course, I haven't predicted much of what has happened these last two weeks.

Interesting and very positive article about Mueller in Politico. It describes him as "America’s straightest arrow".

“His gift is that he’s decisive without being impulsive,” Comey told me several years back, recalling his years working alongside Mueller. “He’ll sit, listen, ask questions and make a decision. I didn’t realize at the time how rare that is in Washington.”

The question everyone has been asking after Mueller's appointment is: How independent can he be? The answer is in a column Neal Katyal wrote in The Washington Post. Katyal was involved in writing the rules for special counsels back in 1999.

The short version is that Trump could still fire Mueller or impede his investigation in various ways, but every interference with the special counsel's investigation would have to be reported to leaders of both parties in Congress, who could make that information public.

The regulations provide that Mueller can “be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General” (again, Rosenstein here, because Sessions is recused) and only for “good cause.” The president, therefore, would have to direct Rosenstein to fire Mueller — or, somewhat more extravagantly, Trump could order the special-counsel regulations repealed and then fire Mueller himself. Either of those actions was unthinkable to us back in 1999, for we understood that President Richard Nixon’s attempt in this regard ultimately led to his downfall. At the same time, after Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey this month, many things once thought beyond the realm of possibility look less so now.

Ultimately, every democracy lives or dies by the same principle: The public has to have expectations of integrity, and has to punish leaders who are visibly dishonest. If the people become so cynical that they believe all politicians are dishonest, so we might as well tolerate this particular slimeball doing these particular slimy things, then democracy slides away.

For those of you who think a special counsel should be completely immune to outside interference, I have two words: Spanish Inquisition.

There's no totally satisfactory answer to the question of a government investigating itself. If an investigative body has total independence, it effectively becomes a fourth branch of government that isn't checked or balanced by the other three.

I keep reading that Trump is about to appoint U.S. attorneys to replace the ones he fired over two months ago, and there are rumors about who is or isn't in the running for certain districts. But I haven't found any actual appointments. (Try googling "new u.s. attorney appointed".) To me, this suggests that the point was to get rid of the old USAs, not to make room for people Trump wanted to appoint.

The persistent rumor is that axing all the U.S. attorneys was just cover for getting rid of one troublesome one: Preet Bharara in New York, who was zeroing in on the insider trading of HHS Secretary Tom Price.

A new administration typically replaces the U.S. attorneys appointed by the previous administration, but usually they stay on until their replacements are confirmed. The exception was President Clinton, who also asked for a mass resignation when he took office in 1993 -- and was also rumored to be doing it to shut down one investigation, that of powerful Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. But didn't work out that way: Clinton appointee Eric Holder indicted Rostenkowski in 1994. He went to jail.

Sleep well, Secretary Price.

Trump's approval rating (as aggregated by Nate Silver) shows gradual erosion rather than sudden collapse.

and the Russia leak

I have a theory that would make a great movie: Some coven of feminist witches has cursed Trump to live out all the negative scenarios he conjured up for Hillary.

Seth Meyers played this clip from Trump's campaign:

If Hillary Clinton were elected, she would be under protracted criminal investigation likely followed by the trial of a sitting president. The investigation will last for years, nothing will get done, government will grind to a halt and our country will continue to suffer.

and commented: "It’s amazing ― the only thing he got wrong was the president’s name."

So now Trump leaks highly classified information directly to the Russian ambassador -- royally pissing off the Israelis, who gathered the information and don't want the Iranians to guess how they got it -- and we have to remember what he said about Clinton and classified information:

This is not just extreme carelessness with classified material, which is still totally disqualifying. This is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct.

and Trump's tour of the world capitals of monotheism

His speech in Riyadh also fits my witches-curse theory. During the campaign, he called out Hillary's "weakness":

We cannot let this evil continue. Nor can we let the hateful ideology of radical Islam … be allowed to reside or spread within our country. Just can’t do it. We will not defeat it with closed eyes or silent voices. Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country.

But now he's the one who can't say that name: "radical Islamic terrorism". Instead his speech talks about "Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires". The difference between Islamic and Islamist is like the difference between real and realistic: If terrorism is Islamic, then it is a true representation of the faith of Muhammad, but if it is only Islamist, then it has been constructed to resemble Islam, but may not actually be Islam.

During the campaign, he said "Islam hates us." But now he says:

This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.

Honestly, that part sounds a lot like Obama.

Two things are different from Obama: (1) He's taking the Sunni side in the Sunni/Shia struggle to dominate the Muslim world. His speech to the Sunni Saudis included an all-out rhetorical attack on Shiite Iran. Obama was trying to stay out of that.

(2) He signed a huge arms deal with the Saudis that Obama had balked on.

Back in September, the Obama administration approved a more than $115 billion arms deal with the Saudis. But as the death toll and reports of human rights violations in the Saudi-led war on Yemen began to rise dramatically, the Obama administration nixed the sale of the precision-guided munitions it had originally agreed to put in the deal to try to coerce the Saudis into curbing those atrocities.

Now those munitions are back in the Trump arms package — which speaks volumes about this administration.

In fact, the entire deal paints a vivid picture of the Trump administration — an administration that is willing to bend over backwards to make deals with important friends, that doesn’t let human rights concerns get in the way of doing business, and where personal relationships with those closest to the president can prove highly lucrative.

This fits with the rhetoric he's using. If we and the Saudis are united in "a battle between Good and Evil", then our side is Good by definition. So we don't have to prove our goodness by, say, avoiding war crimes. That weakling Obama thought America's goodness was open to judgment, and so wasn't always willing to stick by our friends when they did horrible things. Trump will.

I oppose allowing Trump to re-enter the country until Congress "can figure out what the hell is going on" with him.

and you might also be interested in ...

A James Fallows tweetstorm explains why CNN is wrong to feature knee-jerk Trump loyalists like Jeffrey Lord:

Genuine, serious, ongoing, borderline-Fox-like harm to journalism/public life for CNN to keep featuring Lord & the Trumpkins. Why? Since they are guaranteed *never* to criticize anything Trump says or does, and *always* to say HRC/Obama/Dems were worse, and in fact are cast in that role, sit-com style, they embody the idea that politics is ONLY about tribal loyalty.

You pick your team; you stay with it thick or thin, as you would in a real war or a Game of Thrones war or a Mafia war. You wage this combat as if there is no such thing as “reasonable criticism” of your side, or “in fairness, we must credit” for the other. While of course democratic politics *depends* on people recognizing, and changing minds, based on actual ideas, arguments, interests.

CNN should have more actual *conservatives* on air, with actual progressives, but fewer tribal loyalists, who embody idea that all political differences are tribal and THEREFORE INSOLUBLE.

In a fabulous stunt, someone projected messages above the entrance to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Trump is currently facing a lawsuit filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that alleges he is violating the clause by accepting payments from foreign states through his hotel.

Sometimes words like fascist get thrown around too lightly. And then you run into Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who seems to have been appointed as Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security (which does not require Senate confirmation).

During a December 2015 segment of his show, The People's Sheriff, on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze radio network, Clarke suggested that any person who posts pro-terrorist sentiments on social media be arrested, deprived of the constitutional protection against unlawful imprisonment (known as habeas corpus), and sent to Guantanamo Bay indefinitely. He estimated the number of people who could be imprisoned under his proposal could reach 1 million.

Clarke is popular on the Right primarily because, being black, he gives cover to white racists to quote the stuff he says about Black Lives Matter. (You know: "I'm just repeating what that black guy said.")

Clarke’s understanding of domestic terrorism runs far beyond radical jihadists. He has predicted that Black Lives Matter will “join forces with ISIS,” and on multiple occasions described the group as a terror organization. The protesters do not “care about black lives. They care about their own radical ideology of terrorism: anarchy.” Clarke insists Black Lives Matter “needs to be crushed.”

BLM is illegitimate, in his view, because the police are doing just fine. Especially his police.

Clarke’s ironfisted beliefs about criminal justice can be explained in part by his own career. He oversees a prison that is notoriously brutal. Four people have died of mistreatment and torture in his custody. One newborn baby died while its mother was shackled during childbirth; another prisoner died of dehydration, after the water in his cell was shut off for seven days. In 2013, one of his deputies ran a traffic light and T-boned the car of a civilian driver, who was badly injured. Clarke’s department charged the driver, who was actually sober, with drunk driving in order to cover up its own culpability.

Roger Ailes died. As the Nixon political operative who created Fox News, Ailes is a central figure in the transformation of the American news landscape into what it is today. He's an interesting example if you want to debate the Great Man theory of history. Maybe the world would be vastly different (and better) if he had never lived. Or maybe the changes he wrought were inevitable; conservative talk radio already existed before Fox News, and somehow that mindset would have arrived on TV anyway.

I'll give Joy Reid the last word on this:

Ailes built an empire by creating a fantasy world for white, conservative men, where women are agreeable sex objects and [people of color] are predators.

Speaking of sexual harassers, Bill O'Reilly might be back on TV sooner than anybody thought. Several conservative media groups see themselves as the next Fox News, and hiring O'Reilly might be just what it takes to launch them into the big time.

Of course, the protest groups behind the advertising boycott that prompted Fox News to oust Mr. O’Reilly would certainly have something to say about any move to bring him back to television. As the National Organization for Women president, Terry O’Neill, said to me, “Any network that hires him, what they’re doing is sending a message to women: ‘We don’t care about sexual harassment.’”

But there's a flip side: They'd also be saying to men "We don't care about sexual harassment." And the men who would respond positively to that might be just the audience they're looking for.

The Onion trolls Republican hypocrisy on Trump:

“Frankly, we need an independent counsel to look into why I continue to do absolutely nothing in the face of mounting evidence against this reckless, unethical, and potentially compromised White House,” said McCain, passionately arguing that his disturbing pattern of inaction in regards to the Trump administration raises “deeply troubling questions” about his own motivations. “Without a thorough inquiry empowered to go wherever the facts may lead, I’m afraid we’ll never get to the bottom of why my opposition to this madness amounts to little more than the mildest of criticisms on Meet The Press. The fact that I essentially rubber-stamp this president’s agenda despite a reputation for integrity and independence simply doesn’t add up, and the time has come to find out once and for all what’s really going on with me.”

For reasons that escape me, Joe Lieberman is rumored to be the front-runner for FBI director.

and let's close with something mysterious

That glowing orb Trump was touching with the Saudi king and the Egyptian president -- was it the Globe of Peace? a palantir? a device for communicating with the Kree Supreme Intelligence?

I love the expression on King Salman's face. Caption contest: What is he about to say?

The scene turns out to look even stranger in the uncropped photo.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Pitch President

Whoever touches pitch will be defiled, and whoever associates with a proud man will become like him.

- Sirach 13:1

Until two days ago, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, had an enviable reputation as a straight-shooting law-enforcement official respected by members of both parties. Then he decided that he was willing to help President Trump tamper with an investigation into his presidential campaign. Now Rosenstein’s reputation is permanently damaged, as it deserves to be. In that damage is a lesson for other subordinates and allies of Trump.

- David Leonhart, "Rod Rosenstein Fails His Ethics Test"
The New York Times, May 10

This week's featured post is "Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?"

This week everybody was talking about Jim Comey and the Russia investigation

I cover one aspect of this in the featured post. Initially, Trump spokespeople claimed Comey wasn't fired because of the investigation, but then Trump more-or-less said he was. That's obstruction of justice, which was an impeachable offense when Congress thought Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon might be doing it. This Congress, though, doesn't seem inclined to defend our system of government against a president of its own party.

This is a good time to review exactly what there is to investigate. Obstruction of justice is a fourth question which arose during investigation of these original three:

  • How can we prevent Russia (or other powers) from interfering in future elections the way Russia interfered in 2016? This is the plainly bipartisan part of the investigation. Republicans and Democrats alike should worry about hostile foreign powers having a thumb on the scale of our elections.
  • Was Putin simply an outside force acting for his own interests, or was the Trump campaign cooperating with its Russian allies? This is where the bizarrely dense network of connections between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives -- and the Trump people's repeated lying about meetings with Russians -- becomes relevant. It's not a crime to know somebody or even talk to them, but why lie about it?
  • Beyond any natural affinity between Trump and Putin, do they have some deal that Trump is now obligated to complete? This is the nightmare scenario, the Manchurian Candidate come to life. So far, I haven't heard or seen anything that makes this seem likely, but it doesn't have to be likely to be scary. Anything that points in this direction needs to be thoroughly checked out. In particular: Does Putin have something on Trump? This is why the Trump Organization's long-standing relationships with Russian oligarchs need to be investigated.

Trump and his defenders argue that there is (as yet) no publicly available evidence proving anything about the second or third questions, so there's "no there there". But here is a minimal list of things that need to be done before the investigation can be over.

  • Every Trump associate who has lied about meeting with Russians or about an ongoing relationship with Russians -- so far I count Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, and Carter Page, at a minimum -- must testify in public under oath, and give an account of both the substance of their interactions and why they lied.
  • The Trump administration needs to give a credible account of how they vetted Michael Flynn, why they hired him, and why they sat on evidence against him (letting him continue in the highly sensitive position of National Security Adviser) until that evidence leaked to the press. Would they ever have fired him if not for the leaks?
  • Paul Manafort needs to come clean about how much he was paid by Russia, Russian puppet governments like the former regime in Ukraine, and Russian oligarchs closely associated with Putin. What did he do for them? When, if ever, did his relationship with them end? In particular, was he still working for them when he was managing Trump's campaign?
  • Similar questions for Michael Flynn.
  • During the campaign, how did Roger Stone know that something concerning John Podesta was about to come out? Did the Trump campaign get other heads-up alerts before Russia/WikiLeaks released new material hacked from the Democrats?
  • The public needs to know how much money has passed back and forth between Russian oligarchs and the Trump Organization, Trump himself, and members of the Trump family over the last 20 years or so. Did all transactions happen at market rates?
  • Is there some reason why the firing of Jim Comey was not the obstruction of justice it appears to be? If it was, should Trump be impeached for it?

In the course of covering those six issues, other issues are likely to arise as well. Those must also be pursued to their conclusion.

but we should all be paying more attention to Trump's voter suppression task force

Thursday, Trump signed an executive order creating a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. It is chaired by Vice President Pence, and vice-chaired by Kris Kobach, who has a long history of drumming up phony voter-fraud issues to justify voter-suppression tactics.

Ever since he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, Trump has been soothing his wounded ego with the fantasy that "millions" of illegal votes were cast. And unlike any other demographic group, all of the illegal voters picked Clinton.

In fact, it's much more likely that Trump owes his Electoral College victory to voter suppression. The Nation reports:

A new study by Priorities USA, shared exclusively with The Nation, shows that strict voter-ID laws, in Wisconsin and other states, led to a significant reduction in voter turnout in 2016, with a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters. Wisconsin’s voter-ID law reduced turnout by 200,000 votes, according to the new analysis. Donald Trump won the state by only 22,748 votes.

Voter suppression was also an issue in Republican-controlled swing states like North Carolina and Florida. In other words: If all the legal voters who wanted to vote had succeeded in doing so, Trump might not be president.

So voter suppression -- making it harder to vote in hopes that many people won't jump through all the hoops -- is close to this president's heart. The excuse for voter suppression is voter fraud, the belief that large numbers of votes are cast illegally, either by people who shouldn't be voting at all (like noncitizens) or by people who vote multiple times by either registering in many places or by impersonating someone else.

Study after study shows that voter fraud is a negligible phenomenon: It happens, but the numbers nationwide are tiny, far smaller than the number of legitimate voters who are discouraged or turned away by laws that make voting harder.

Nate Silver tells the full story of the report that is the basis for Trump's claim that "millions" of noncitizens voted illegally in the 2016 election. It's a fascinating narrative about an obscure kind of statistical error and the perverse ways that scientific research gets lodged in the public mind and influences public policy. In other words: Silver's article is way too long and wonky for most people to read all the way through, so it's not going to change the public debate.

Which is sort of the point. Understanding what really happens requires patience and an ability to deal with ambiguity. It's much more satisfying to respond to a clickbait headline like "Millions of Immigrants Vote Illegally!" and forward it to all your friends.

The statistical error in this case happens when you're studying a small subset of people in a larger survey: The legitimate responses can get swamped by erroneous responses from the larger group. So some small percentage of citizen voters will check the wrong box on the citizen/noncitizen question, but because the number of citizen voters is so much larger, that small percentage can still swamp the actual sample of noncitizen voters.

Luks, Schaffner and Ansolabehere [i.e., researchers critiquing the original paper] found evidence that, in this case, small was still significant. In particular, they noted multiple cases of people who marked themselves as citizens in 2010 but, on the 2012 edition of the survey, marked themselves as noncitizens, and vice versa. Moreover, this rate of error that we do know exists between 2010 and 2012 — just 0.1 percent — turned out, by itself, to be enough to account for all the noncitizen voters in Richman and Chattha’s 2010 sample. In other words, there might not have been any noncitizen voters that year.

I like to illustrate statistical concepts with sports examples, so here's an analogy: no-hitters in baseball. A no-hitter (a game where the opposition gets no hits) is a great pitching achievement, so we think of it as something a great pitcher might do. But there is also a lot of luck involved; no-hitters typically include a number of near-hits that are saved by some great fielding play or because a well-hit ball happens to go right at somebody. So there are two ways to get a no-hitter: You can be really, really good, or you can be an ordinary pitcher who for one night gets really, really lucky. An ordinary pitcher is unlikely to get that lucky, but because there are so many more ordinary pitchers than great ones, in fact fewer no-hitters are thrown by all-time greats (like Sandy Koufax) than by folks who are otherwise lost to history (like Bo Belinsky). An unlikely occurrence in a large group can still happen more often than a likely occurrence in a small group.

The takeaway should be that noncitizens do sometimes register and vote; there are anecdotal reports, usually featuring immigrants who don't understand voting laws and don't realize they're doing anything wrong. But the number of noncitizen voters nationwide is more likely to be measured in dozens than in millions.

Another bogus argument supporting the voter fraud myth is that voter registration rolls have millions of errors: People who die or move aren't promptly taken off the rolls, so in theory someone could cast votes under those registrations.

But like every other kind of voter fraud, there's no evidence that this is actually happening in more than a handful of cases. I examined a typical dead-people-are-voting story in "The Myth of the Zombie Voter": A computer search turned up hundreds of "dead voters" in South Carolina in the 2010 election, leading to many alarming headlines and garnering face-time on national TV for the South Carolina attorney general who initiated the search. But when election boards and the state police got involved, they found innocent explanations (like clerical errors or similar names) for all but three of those votes, and doubted that even those three were fraudulent. No one was prosecuted.

As for living people with multiple registrations, one of them is Trump's daughter Tiffany. Steve Bannon was registered in both New York and Florida. It can easily happen without any intent to commit voter fraud, and if people were actually voting in more than one place, that would be a matter of public record. (Who you vote for is secret, but the fact that you voted is public.) So this kind of fraud would be easy to prove, and yet nobody is proving it. You have to wonder why.

Samantha Bee discusses a kind of voter suppression that happens in plain sight: In a few states like Florida, anyone convicted of a felony loses voting rights permanently. When you hear that, you might picture murderers and rapists and not feel too bad about them not voting. But when you realize we're talking about 10% of the whole voting-age population and 1/4th of voting-age blacks, you realize "felons" must include more than just Trump's "bad hombres". "You might lose your right to vote over something as simple as driving with a suspended license."

In country with mass incarceration, particularly mass incarceration of black men, this makes for a serious distortion of democracy.

Two former felons are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to change the law, restoring felon voting rights after they complete their sentences and any subsequent probations. If you're a Florida voter, sign their petition.

and whatever is going on at the Census Bureau

You might think that the Census Bureau has a boring job: Every ten years, it tries to count everyone in America. But in a large country where people move around so much, and so many are suspicious of why somebody from the government is asking them questions, it turns out to be quite difficult.

What's more, the answers matter. They determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress; how federal money is distributed to care for the poor, the elderly, military veterans, the disabled, etc; whether people from various ethnic or religious groups manage to vote in the numbers you'd ordinarily expect; and so on.

There's currently a leadership crisis at the Census Bureau: Its director just quit, with rumors that his boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, was unhappy with his work. There's also currently no deputy director, and the Commerce under-secretary who is supposed to sit between the bureau and Ross hasn't been appointed.

The Bureau is also between a rock and a hard place: Congress wants to cut its funding, but also disapproves of using cheaper statistical methods to cut costs, rather than sending people out to talk to everybody. There is also a partisan divide: Conservatives don't like that the census collects so much data on ethnic subgroups like blacks or Hispanics, representing us as "a nation of groups" as National Review puts it.

If the census winds up poorly led and underfunded, the groups most likely to be undercounted are the poor and young adults, particularly people who are temporarily or permanently sleeping on somebody else's couch. That will have consequences.

and you might also be interested in

Republican word-guru Frank Luntz shows a real lack of understanding of Mothers Day, tweeting:

Twitter 2017: Where even gets turned into partisan politics

Leah Greenberg parodies his attitude:

"If only women could shut up and let us honor them without actually talking about the issues that affect their lives"

A little history: Mothers Day was originally about politics. It was Mothers Day for Peace, and was intended to give voice to the women who lost sons in the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe wrote:

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Speaking of peace, the Pentagon is pushing to expand the Afghan War effort again. Trump will hear their recommendations this week.

During the campaign, one of the most insightful articles about Trump was David Roberts' "The question of what Trump 'really believes' has no answer". Friday, he followed up with "We overanalyze Trump: He is what he appears to be".

[B]ecause we are relentless pattern seekers, we are constantly developing theories of people, seeking to explain what they do through reference to their beliefs and plans.

This has badly misled us with Trump. Much of the dialogue around him, the journalism and analysis, even the statements of his own surrogates, amounts to a desperate attempt to construct a Theory of Trump, to explain what he does and says through some story about his long-term goals and beliefs.

We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him. It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next.

But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there? What if our attempts to explain Trump have failed not because we haven’t hit on the right one, but because we are, theory-of-mind-wise, overinterpreting the text?

In short, what if Trump is exactly as he appears: a hopeless narcissist with the attention span of a fruit fly, unable to maintain consistent beliefs or commitments from moment to moment, acting on base instinct, entirely situationally, to bolster his terrifyingly fragile ego.

We’re not really prepared to deal with that.

As New Orleans continues to fight over its Confederate monuments, University of Richmond philosopher Gary Shapiro writes a thoughtful column about the statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue, and the ambiguity about whether they are monuments or memorials.

If they are monuments, then Richmond is celebrating the Confederacy and the slavery-based society it was created to preserve. If Richmond no longer feels like celebrating that society, the monuments should be removed.

But if they are memorials, then removing them would deny Richmond's past. However,

Much could be added: plaques concerning the war itself, disputes over slavery, Richmond’s and Virginia’s roles in the Confederacy, Reconstruction (and its abrupt termination following the 1876 election deal), African-American disenfranchisement, the blatant racism surrounding the statues’ planning and dedication.

New statues (like, say, Nat Turner or John Brown) might be erected to remember Virginians who fought against slavery or the extension of white supremacy in 20th-century Jim Crow laws.

What Shapiro rejects is the position of those who defend Monument Avenue as it stands:

The contested works, originally built in a monumental spirit, are now defended as memorials. The figures honored cannot be acknowledged as predecessors who inspired Jim Crow, but as reminders of an old conflict, a fallen capital and hazily articulated ideas about “states’ rights.”

Richmond, Shapiro believes, should not be trying to forget or hide its history as the capital of the Confederacy. But contemporary citizens -- including black citizens, who are now the majority -- deserve a voice in how that history should be remembered.

and let's close with something off the wall

What do you get if you cross Star Wars with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? This!

Monday, May 8, 2017

If Only

Nobody dies because they don't have access to health care.

- Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho)

This week's featured posts are "Climate of Propaganda" and "Much Ado About Religious Liberty".

This week everybody was talking about the French election

The centrist globalist, Emmanuel Macron, won a decisive victory over neo-fascist Marine Le Pen. Following up the Dutch election in March, where a similar neo-fascist did much worse than expected, I wonder if Josh Marshall is right: "Perhaps Trump victory saved Europe." I don't think other countries look at our right-wing populist leader and say, "We should have one of those here."

As they did in the U.S., Russian intelligence operatives favored the right-wing candidate by various means, including promoting fake news stories and hacking the Macron campaign's computers.

and ObamaCare repeal

To my great surprise, House Republicans passed a bill, 217-213, with all Democrats voting no. It looks like a very bad bill, which is probably why they passed it before the Congressional Budget Office had a chance to analyze it. That analysis will probably come out next week, and then we'll know just how many millions of people have to lose their insurance so that the rich can get another tax cut.

Trump and the House Republicans staged a celebration in the Rose Garden, as if something major had already been achieved just by moving the bill on to the Senate. (Did you ever see so many aging white guys in suits? If you study the photo really hard, you can find a woman on the lower right. I haven't spotted any non-whites.)

What mainly seems to have been accomplished, though, is shifting the blame in case of failure: Conservative House Republicans can go back to their districts and say "We fulfilled our promise to repeal ObamaCare. It's not our fault the Senate killed it." Republicans from moderate districts, though, are left holding the bag: They're responsible for the bill they voted for, whether it becomes law or not.

That's why The Cook Political Report immediately shifted its projection on 20 congressional races, judging that conditions in all of them have gotten more favorable for Democrats.

Republicans' 217-213 passage of the American Health Care Act on Thursday guarantees Democrats will have at least one major on-the-record vote to exploit in the next elections. Although it's the first of potentially many explosive votes, House Republicans' willingness to spend political capital on a proposal that garnered the support of just 17 percent of the public in a March Quinnipiac poll is consistent with past scenarios that have generated a midterm wave.

... Of the 23 Republicans sitting in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, 14 voted for the repeal and replace measure. ... [S]everal of the 20 Republicans who voted against AHCA could end up being blamed anyway, much as 17 of the 30 Democrats who took a pass on the ACA and then ran for reelection ended up losing in 2010. For others, tough votes could make the prospect of retirement more appealing.

Emphasizing the point a little: The bill passed the House because Republican "moderates" caved to the Freedom Caucus, as they so often do. The number who caved were exactly as many as were needed to pass the bill, plus one. More might have surrendered their principles had their votes been necessary.

Remember this whenever you're tempted to vote for your local Republican candidates because (individually) they sound like reasonable people. Maybe they are, but that doesn't mean they have the courage to stand up to their party's majority, which is not at all reasonable.

Indications are that Senate Republicans will want to do something different. I wouldn't be surprised if they also passed something that repealed ObamaCare, even if it is very different from what the House passed. And that's when things start to get real: Can the House and Senate compromise on a bill that they can both pass?

I remain skeptical. From a certain point of view, having two irreconcilable bills is the best possible solution: Nothing actually changes, so no victims will haunt Republican candidates in 2018. And each house can say that it did its job, while the other one was unreasonable.

Here are 50 organizations opposing TrumpCare: AARP, AMA, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, and 47 others.

and Trump's empty "religious liberty" executive order

I covered this in one of the featured posts.

but it's worth considering whether ObamaCare saves lives

The quote at the top of the page raises an interesting issue. Do Americans die for lack of health insurance, or did they prior to ObamaCare?

Anecdotally, the answer is clearly Yes. It's not hard at all to find accounts by people who believe their dead loved ones could have been saved by better insurance, or people saying "ObamaCare saved my life."

In a common-sense discussion, the answer is also clearly Yes. Republicans will tell you about emergency rooms, and how nobody who needs emergency help is turned away. And that's true, as far as it goes. But life-saving health care is more than just emergency care. Where you'd expect to see universal health insurance save lives is by identifying common chronic problems like high blood pressure, ones that don't have the kind of obvious symptoms that would motivate you to go to an ER. If you're getting regular check-ups, your doctor spots that stuff early and gets it under control. Years later, you don't have a stroke.

Statistically, the question is trickier. A lot of pre-ObamaCare statistics indicated that Americans suffered from a lack of health care. MinnPost wrote in 2012:

The United States has a higher rate of “amenable deaths” — deaths that could have been avoided if individuals had received timely and effective medical care — than France, Germany or the U.K, according to a new study published online Wednesday in the journal Health Affairs.

The study also found that most of the Americans who are dying as a result of this higher rate are under the age of 65. In other words, people who are not eligible for Medicare. In France, Germany, and the U.K., affordable, universal health-care coverage is available to everybody, regardless of age.

More recently, a study looked at the effect of RomneyCare in Massachusetts and concluded that covering 830 more people results in one less death each year. These kinds of stats are responsible for most of the articles about the tens of thousands of people who will die from TrumpCare.

However, RomneyCare expanded private insurance coverage, and most of ObamaCare's effect comes from expanding Medicaid, so that they're not precisely comparable. And an experiment in Oregon on expanding Medicaid didn't show a major effect. It concluded:

This randomized, controlled study showed that Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years, but it did increase use of health care services, raise rates of diabetes detection and management, lower rates of depression, and reduce financial strain.

Possibly a longer-term experiment would show a life-saving effect, but that's more guesswork than science.

So: Pre-ObamaCare America had lots and lots of unnecessary deaths, so the people who say it was "the best healthcare system in the world" are full of it. It's not scientifically provable that ObamaCare is fixing that problem, but repealing it and throwing millions of people out of the health insurance system won't fix it either.

In short, there's room to criticize ObamaCare. But doing so still leaves you with a question: How do we get American health care up to the level of, say, France?

and you may also be interested in

The Russia investigation is still perking along. James Comey testified again, and Sally Yates testifies today. (Comey's explanation of why it was appropriate to discuss the Clinton investigation right before the election but not the Trump investigation still doesn't satisfy me. Nate Silver concludes that his decision probably swayed the election.)

At times it may look like nothing is happening, but we gray-haired folks recall that Watergate was like this too. The mills grind slowly. The Watergate break-in happened in July of 1972, and Nixon resigned in August of 1974.

The Wikipedia people are getting into daily journalism. It will be based on subscriptions rather than ads.

Josh Marshall wasn't intending to talk about WikiTribune, but his comments are relevant: Because the costs of digital publishing are so low, there will always be a glut of online news outlets chasing a finite pool of ad dollars. The golden age of American journalism worked because one or two newspapers in each major city monopolized the local ad market. That model isn't coming back.

Another model that doesn't work any more: the regional shopping mall. I'm trying to guess when the next recession will start and why, because we're getting close to the normal life span of an economic expansion (6-8 years, usually). A collapse of retail jobs could be the spark.

New Orleans is still arguing about whether to remove some of its Confederate statues. I don't mind so much the ones in parks, but to me all the Confederate soldiers outside of city halls and court houses look like white sentinels warning blacks not to come here for justice or to register to vote. Also, I'd like to see statues of the Southerners whose Civil War experiences seem much more heroic to me: slaves who escaped to join the Union Army, and came back to free their fellow slaves. Where are their monuments?

The Atlantic points out an unsurprising coincidence:

A timeline of the genesis of the Confederate sites shows two notable spikes. One comes around the turn of the 20th century, just after Plessy v. Ferguson, and just as many Southern states were establishing repressive race laws. The second runs from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s—the peak of the civil-rights movement. In other words, the erection of Confederate monuments has been a way to perform cultural resistance to black equality.

and let's close with an amusing image

Monday, May 1, 2017

100 Days of Stuff

Every report on [Trump's] 'flip-flopping' suffers by the implication that he had some sort of position in the first place. Nope. He said stuff.

- Jay Rosen

This week's featured post is "Why cutting rich people's taxes doesn't create jobs".

This week everybody was still talking about Trump's 100 Days

Matt Yglesias disputes the conventional wisdom that Trump's first hundred days have been a failure. It all depends on what you think he's trying to achieve. If he's trying to make a lot of money, he's doing very well.

It's certainly true that Paul Ryan’s speakership of the House is failing, arguable that Mitch McConnell’s tenure as majority leader of the Senate is failing, and indisputably true that the Koch brothers’ drive to infuse hardcore libertarian ideological zeal into the GOP is failing.

But Trump isn’t failing. He and his family appear to be making money hand over fist. It's a spectacle the likes of which we've never seen in the United States, and while it may end in disaster for the Trumps someday, for now it shows no real sign of failure.

He goes on to outline the ways Trump is known to be profiting from his presidency, right down to the $35,000 the Secret Service has spent renting golf carts from Trump's Mar-a-Lago club so that they can follow him around the golf course.
The Jay Rosen tweetstorm I pulled the opening quote from is a good summary of the problems the press has faced in these hundred days.
Forced to choose between inventing a language for a presidency without precedent and distorting the picture by relying on normal terms, newswriters have frequently chosen inaccuracy by means of a received language, even though they know there's nothing normal here.
So they've referred to a one-page memo as a "tax plan" for lack of anything else to call it. And they speculate about the success or failure of Trump's "foreign policy" when it's not clear he has any policies. To say that he faces a "steep learning curve" assumes that he is learning, or even trying to learn.
The Guardian's Lawrence Douglas expresses my view on Trump's first hundred days: The institutions of American democracy held up under the initial assault. That doesn't mean the danger is over, but it is a good time to take note of
  • our own accomplishments as protesters,
  • the independence of our judges,
  • the good work done by our embattled journalists,
  • and the commitment of government employees to the missions of their organizations rather than the whims of a flighty new president.
Finally, some credit must go to Trump himself.
In his sheer incompetence and inconstancy, Trump has emerged as our best bulwark against Trump. ... [His] very craving for adulation, the need to chalk up successes, the deep, even cynical, pragmatism also predicted that Trump would have no stomach for Bannon’s reign of terror. The banishing of Bannon from the innermost precincts of power can only be viewed as a good.

Along those same lines, I recently devoted a couple hours to watching Leni Riefenstahl's classic of Nazi propaganda, The Triumph of the Will, which was released in 1935, near the beginning of the Nazi regime. One of the things I learned is that Hitler was much better at this kind of thing than Trump has been. Hitler channeled the German people's pride, and reflected it back to them. In the scenes we see, he wastes no time telling Germans how great he is; other people do that. Hitler accepts the crowd's adulation and tells them how great Germany is, how great the German people are.

Trump's make-America-great-again campaign theme played to many of those same emotions. Like 1930s Germany (but to a lesser degree), a large chunk of the American public feels humiliated by the course of recent decades, and longs to feel national pride again. But Trump is too weak and too needy to get his ego out of the way and just make himself a mirror for the nation's self-admiration. Even when he's surrounded by adoring fans, he has to keep talking about himself and his own wonderfulness.

So Trump has character flaws that keep him from achieving the full authoritarian potential of the moment. Thank God for that.

Quantifying the unquantifiable: The WaPo fact-checkers have identified 488 false or misleading statements made by President Trump, or just under five per day.
the pace and volume of the president’s misstatements means that we cannot possibly keep up. The president’s speeches and interviews are so chock full of false and misleading claims that The Fact Checker often must resort to roundups that offer a brief summary of the facts that the president has gotten wrong.

I've long been a fan of cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Here's an instructive graphic from him.

and his self-serving one-page tax "plan"

Remember back when that black guy was president and the size of the federal debt was an existential threat to the country? Deficits were going to turn us into Greece or something?

Oh, never mind. Let's cut taxes.

Describing a single-page memo as a "tax plan" is a bit of a stretch, but the administration wanted to get a proposal in under the 100-day window, and this was the best it could do. For example, it suggests lowering the number of tax brackets from seven to three (10%, 25%, and 35%), but doesn't specify the income ranges those brackets apply to. So there's no way to know exactly what the effect will be on any particular person's taxes, like yours.

One person who clearly will pay less tax, though, is Donald Trump. He claims the opposite, because of course he would claim that. (I no longer think of Trump's falsehoods as lies. I think he simply says whatever sounds good, and any positive or negative correlation with reality is purely incidental.) And no one can conclusively prove otherwise, because he won't release his tax returns. But everything we know about the Trump Organization matches up well with the cuts he's proposing on things like pass-through corporations.

He proposes eliminating most tax deductions, but keeping the deduction on mortgage interest. This also has self-serving benefits: Without that deduction, the price the Trump Organization could charge for the condos it has for sale would drop considerably.

Plus, we have two pages of Trump taxes from 2005.

That return also implied that without the alternative minimum tax, which Trump wants to repeal, he would have paid less than 3.5 percent of his income in federal income taxes. Cutting the pass-through rate while repealing the AMT would probably reduce his tax burden to roughly half that level. Instead of paying $38 million, he could've paid less than $3 million.
So if we apply his proposal retroactively to his 2005 taxes, Trump would pay less than a tenth of what he paid before, and save himself $35 million.

Has any previous president ever proposed legislation that would make himself richer at the rate of $35 million a year? I doubt it.

One reason we're talking about a one-page memo rather than an actual piece of legislation Congress might vote on is that Trump has yet to appoint the person responsible for writing that bill.
For 470 of 556 key positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump has yet to announce a nominee at all, according to a tracker maintained by the Partnership for Public Service and Washington Post. In nearly half the cases where he has announced a nominee, the White House hasn't formally sent the nominations to the Senate, awaiting clearance from the Office of Government Ethics and an FBI background check.
One of those 470 empty slots is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy.
I may argue with his arithmetic, but I'll give CNBC's Jake Novak credit for saying openly what other conservatives believe silently:
Unless Social Security, Medicare, and defense are significantly reformed and cut, not even a 100-percent tax increase will get us out of debt. And the myth that the public will not tolerate changes and cuts to those programs at all is just that -- a myth.
So our budget problem, according to Novak, isn't that so many billionaires and giant corporations pay zero tax; or that the ones that do often pay a lower rate than secretaries; our problem is that not enough old people are eating cat food or dying in the street.

And for the sake of argument, let's say he's right: Suppose that in the long run we really do have to cut entitlement programs. That's no excuse for ignoring the revenue side of the equation: We'd have to cut entitlements less if the rich were paying more tax.

and Obama getting paid to speak

In September, Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at a conference on health care sponsored by Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald. He'll receive a $400,000 speaking fee.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, liberals could really use a saint about now, and Obama would make a good one. I would love it if he spent the rest of his life living humbly, saying wise things, and inspiring a new generation of social justice warriors.

On the other hand, I'm always skeptical when we raise standards just in time for them to apply to the black guy. Ex-presidents command large fees on the speaking circuit, and have done so at least since Ronald Reagan's $2 million tour of Japan. They also sell a lot of books (that goes back to Ulysses S. Grant) and make big bucks that way. Most of them haven't really needed the money (Grant did), so foregoing these big paydays doesn't seem like that much to ask. But why start with Obama?

Any big cash conduit could be used for bribery, so we ought to stay alert for that. But while $400K would be a huge amount of money to all but the richest Americans, it seems to be the going rate for the small number of speakers who have Obama's level of star power. (BTW: This was also my opinion of Hillary Clinton's speeches. Getting her on your speaking list put your conference or lecture series on the map. That was worth the price to a lot of organizations, without any assumption that they'd get favorable treatment in some future administration.)

One way conservatives like to tie liberals in knots is by building purity traps. Isn't it hypocritical that Al Gore has a big home that uses a lot of electricity, or that Bill McKibben flies, or that Warren Buffett tries to minimize his company's tax bill, or that all of us who claim to care about the homeless aren't living in cardboard boxes ourselves?

We need to stop cooperating with this kind of stuff. There is no limit to how pure you could possibly be, and no one who lives inside an unjust system can be entirely untainted by that injustice. If Obama decides to go for sainthood, I'll cheer him on. But I think that should be his decision.

but I wish I understood the infighting among Democrats and other liberals

The most important issue I haven't been writing about is the continuing struggle between so-called "establishment" Democrats (who mostly supported Hillary in the primaries) and so-called "progressives" (who mostly supported Bernie). I haven't written about it for a very specific reason: I don't understand it, and I don't want to compound the ambient cluelessness by adding my voice to it.

At a point in our political history where anyone to the left of John Kasich ought to be uniting to protect American democratic traditions against Trump, an incredible amount of vitriol is going back and forth between people who are all some distance from that line.

From the Left, Cornell West is writing:

Even as we forge a united front against Trump’s neofascist efforts, we must admit the Democratic party has failed us and we have to move on. Where? To what? When brother Nick Brana, a former Bernie campaign staffer, told me about the emerging progressive populist or social democratic party – the People’s party – that builds on the ruins of a dying Democratic party and creates new constituencies in this moment of transition and liquidation, I said count me in.
Bernie himself is on a muddled "unity tour" with newly elected DNC chair Tom Perez, in which he denies being a Democrat.

Meanwhile, Bernie is facing criticism for supporting a candidate who's squishy on abortion rights, and for not bridging the gap that kept blacks and Hispanics from supporting him in 2016.

With the diverse Democratic base in the southern states being a major reason why Sanders lost, you’d think that his movement would make a major effort to reach out to Black voters and find a way to meet them on the issues that they care about.

Nope. Instead, we are seeing a doubling down on a focus of the white working class and hostility to identity politics.

I'm hoping to understand all this better and write something useful about it before long. But here's where I'm starting: Everybody is talking about "the Democratic Party" is if it were a much more solid entity than it really is. The Democratic Party is nothing more or less than the sum total of the people who vote in Democratic primaries. If a unified movement of people -- whether from the left or the center (or even from the far right, if they could somehow manage it) -- can win those primaries, then the party is theirs.

That's the test: Run candidates. Turn people out to vote for them. And if you lose, don't blame other factions for running their own candidates and turning out people to vote for them. That's just how democracy works.

and you might also be interested in

Congress has a deal to keep the government open for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends September 30. It will be voted on this week.

If you've read any John le Carré Cold War spy novels, you're familiar with the subtle ways intelligence agencies set each other up: Leak this document, let that defector escape to tell some particular story, arrest somebody who otherwise would be in a position to debunk that story, and so on. One side leaves a trail of bread crumbs that they know someone on the other side will follow to a predictable result, which he will then believe because of the effort he had to invest to put all the pieces together.

In "Pathology of a Fake News Story", Leon Derczynski claims those tactics are now being used on journalists and even on ordinary people who try to get to the bottom of things.

Imagine this. You’re an educated person with a bit of time, and you visit the doctor with a long-standing non-threatening complaint. They suggest a medicine you’ve tried before, or perhaps you’d like to try a new one. Prudently, you check out the suggested drug. You read a few articles about it, but they look like the typical marketing literature. You find four or five academic papers on the drug; most of the trials look good, with a benefit in the majority of cases. There’s one that’s inconclusive, but it’s in a less major journal, with a small sample size. You then go and check out a few review sites; most of the reviews are positive — the drug’s no panacea, but it’s better. A few of the reviews are very negative, but seem to be from people who are a little bit crazy, not using the drug right, have many other conditions, and so on. So you conclude, it looks legitimate; none of the stories look controlled, and everywhere you look, you see what you’d expect to see from a decent drug. Except it’s not. Everything you’ve read — all the end-user comments, all the peer-reviewed articles, are shills, put there by the pharma corporation to make their drug look good, and make it look good in a way that “smells” legitimate.

This astroturfing practice is well-studied; Sharyl Attkisson has a talk on it that’s worth checking out. The central idea is to place stories, evidence and so on in the locations that a knowledgeable, [skeptical] person would search, and give them the imperfections and angle that we all expect to see in genuine evidence.

The next step seems kind of clear: if you want to control the media, you can do so by astroturfing for journalists. Where will they look? What does good, genuine evidence look like for them?

The implications of this seem terribly nihilistic to me. The future looks like a place where, no matter how careful you are, you can't believe anything about anything, because a disinformation AI might always be one step ahead of you. How can I be sure that Leon Derczynski even exists? How can you be sure that I do?
To no one's great surprise, there still is no ObamaCare repeal coming out of the House.

The New York Times needs to accept that there's no way to include a far-right columnist in its stable without becoming a conduit for disinformation. That was the lesson from Bret Stephens first NYT column "Climate of Complete Certainty", which fits nicely into the fossil-fuel industry's doubt-raising agenda on climate change: Don't just sponsor outright denial, also put reasonable-sounding people out there to raise enough doubt to prevent action.

The column is full of strawman arguments against radical environmentalists who are pushing scare scenarios beyond the scientific evidence. But strangely, Stephens offers no specific examples. He raises the stereotype; that's enough.

For a more detailed response, see Brian Kahn.

and let's close with some cartoons

Polish cartoonist Paweł Kuczyński creates many striking images, like this one: