Monday, July 30, 2018

Not Happening

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. The next new articles will appear on August 13.
It's all working out. Just remember: What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.
- Donald Trump (7-24-2018)
The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
George Orwell, 1984
There's no featured post this week.

This week everybody was still talking about Helsinki

because we still don't know what Trump and Putin agreed to in the their private two-hour meeting. And by "we", I apparently also mean the rest of the US government. Wednesday, Secretary of State Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [3-hour C-SPAN video and transcripts here.] Whenever he was asked what Trump may have promised Putin, he instead told the committee what American policy was and claimed it had not changed. USA Today summarized:
no matter how often they asked – and they asked again and again – Pompeo dodged. “Presidents are entitled to have private meetings,” he said. Pompeo did say that U.S. policy toward Russia has not changed as a result of the meeting and that "no commitment" was made to ease U.S. sanctions. Beyond that, details of the secret meeting remain mostly secret.
I did not watch the entire hearing, but the clips I have watched did not convince me that Secretary Pompeo himself knows what Trump and Putin discussed. Certainly CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel (who is responsible for US military operations in Syria as well as Iraq and Afghanistan) doesn't know. CNN reported:
"The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is ready for practical implementation of the agreements reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in the sphere of international security achieved at the Helsinki summit," Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday. The Russian military "is ready to intensify contacts with the US colleagues in the General Staff and other available channels to discuss the extension of the START treaty, cooperation in Syria, as well as other issues of ensuring military security," Konashenkov said.
That "cooperation in Syria" would be with Votel, but he knew nothing about it when ABC interviewed him.
Votel stressed he has not received any guidance from the White House about the Helsinki talks and had only seen press reports about the proposed joint plan to return Syrian refugees. ... Cooperation between [US and Russian] militaries to help return the Syrian refugees is not possible under current law. Since 2014, the U.S. military has been prohibited from cooperating with their Russian counterparts in any capacity after Congress passed legislation prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. ... “I've watched some of the things that Russia has done,” said Votel. “It does give me some pause here. These are not things that give me great confidence that just by stepping over into the next level of coordination that things are going to be fine,” he added. “It's Russia. Let’s not forget that.”
Secretary of Defense Mattis also seemed to be in the dark:
We will not be doing anything additional until the secretary of state and the president have further figured out at what point we are going to start work alongside our allies with Russia in the future. That has not happened yet.
Votel's ABC interview earned him a condemnation from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
With his statements, General Votel not only discredited the official position of his supreme commander-in-chief, but also exacerbated the illegality under international law and US law of the military presence of American servicemen in Syria,
Any other White House would slap that back, maybe by publicly telling the Russian Defense Ministry to worry about its own generals rather than ours. But not this White House. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be to doubt your own understanding of your orders, and then to be left hanging by your president. All the American troops serving in Syria must be wondering whether they (or their commander) understand their current mission.

and families still separated

The administration missed its court-ordered deadline to reunite the migrant families it tore apart. It claimed it made the deadline, but only by reclassifying all the families it wasn't reuniting as "ineligible". The government is still holding 711 children, 431 of them because their parents have already been deported. It seems to regard deported parents as somebody else's problem. For some of the other children, the adult they crossed the border with wasn't a parent, and the government refuses to turn kids over to grandparents or aunts or other relatives, even if those were the caretakers they were taken away from. Some other parents failed a criminal background check, which might mean something as simple as that they disturbed the peace 20 years ago. (In general, rather than restore the family it wrecked, the government seems to be using the same standards it would apply to prospective foster parents.) Others "voluntarily" gave up their right to get their children back, though the ACLU disputes this:
In some cases, the parents said the forms were not explained to them and that they felt pressured to sign. Some were not provided translation in their native languages and had no idea what they had signed. One said he was told that signing the form was the only way to prevent his daughter from being sent back to Guatemala.
The Washington Post describes the bureaucratic failures that have made reunification so hard, even for "eligible" families. The short version is that the government has no official designation for Children We Kidnapped, so the kids have been classified differently by each organization that gets hold of them, often lumping them in with children who arrived at the border without parents.
Customs and Border Protection databases had categories for “family units,” and “unaccompanied alien children” who arrive without parents. They did not have a distinct classification for more than 2,600 children who had been taken from their families and placed in government shelters. So agents came up with a new term: “deleted family units.” But when they sent that information to the refugee office at the Department of Health and Human Services, which was told to facilitate the reunifications, the office’s database did not have a column for families with that designation.
"Deleted family units" lines up with this week's Orwellian theme. Here's what deleted family units look like:
Apparently, the government is making no effort to find or contact the deported parents.
Government lawyers, according to the Times, will not allow parents to return to the U.S. to claim their children, but they have also stipulated that parents must be found and vetted before their children can go back home. And yet they are doing nothing, at present, to ensure that those parents can be found—or vetted.
The judge who ordered reunification is not happy about these shenanigans, but has not yet held the government in contempt. (Personally, I would like to see Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen jailed until the last child is returned. I think she'd soon discover that this situation is simpler and more urgent than she had previously thought.) The case resumes Friday. It's hard to come to any other conclusion than that the Trump administration is intentionally trying to cause as much pain as possible, to punish Mexicans and Central Americans for trying to come here (even legally, as applicants for asylum). It's important for Americans to wrap their minds around the sheer malevolence here: Our government kidnapped these children from their parents, and is dragging its feet as the courts try to make it give the children back. This has gone way beyond politics or policy debates: It's capital-E Evil.

Meanwhile, the administration continues to come up with ways to make legal immigrants understand how unwelcome they are: It is about to rescind a program that allows spouses of H-1B visa-holders to work in this country. According to The Guardian, "Many are high-skilled workers who sacrificed their careers when their spouses were offered the chance to pursue a career in the US." Can't have that, can we?

After seeming to accept McConnell and Ryan's strategy for next year's appropriation bills on Wednesday, by Sunday Trump was back to threatening a government shutdown this fall unless Democrats capitulate on everything having to do with immigration, including funding the wall that he is still failing to get Mexico to pay for.

and trade

Trump's meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was weirdly reminiscent of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un. Here's the pattern:
  1. Trump ramps up tensions and creates a crisis atmosphere.
  2. He meets with a foreign leader and agrees on a vague statement of principles whose details are left to be worked out by future negotiations.
  3. He declares victory: The crisis has been solved to the advantage of the United States.
After his meeting with Kim, Trump tweeted:
everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.
After talking to Juncker, he tweeted:
A breakthrough has been quickly made that nobody thought possible!
And then he announced in Iowa:
We just opened up Europe for you farmers. You have just gotten yourself one big market.
In each case, though, he has made an agreement to negotiate rather than an agreement on substantial issues. The Economist described what came out of the meeting as a "truce" in which Trump backed down from the tariffs he had been about to impose on European cars and Europe held back on its retaliatory tariffs.
The two sides agreed to work together towards “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.” Trade barriers in services, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical products and soyabeans are on the chopping block, too. Pundits were quick to point out that Mr Trump had, in fact, secured talks to negotiate something that looks remarkably similar to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an accord put on ice when he became president. Such a deal might be possible, but it is a lot more remote than Mr Trump’s jubilation suggests.
In other words, Trump might have gotten back to where Obama was when he left office. In their joint press conference, Trump made Europe's commitments sound very immediate and definite:
And the European Union is going to start, almost immediately, to buy a lot of soybeans — they’re a tremendous market — buy a lot of soybeans from our farmers in the Midwest, primarily. ... The European Union wants to import more liquefied natural gas — LNG — from the United States, and they’re going to be a very, very big buyer.
But Juncker sounded less definite:
We’ve decided to strengthen our cooperation on energy. The EU will build more terminals to import liquefied natural gas from the U.S. This is also a message for others. We agreed to establish a dialogue on standards. As far as agriculture is concerned, the European Union can import more soybeans from the U.S., and it will be done.
Building terminals takes years, and how much LNG Europe buys then depends on market forces. (By the time it arrives in Europe, American gas that has been fracked, liquefied, and shipped in refrigerated tankers is far more expensive than Russian gas that arrives by pipeline.) Also, 93% of American soybeans are genetically modified. The EU recently allowed the sale of some GMO soybeans, but products made from them must be strictly labeled and consumers may avoid them. So Juncker's "more" may not be much more.

Meanwhile, the administration will provide $12 billion in subsidies to farmers who continue to be hurt by his trade war. In spite of this week's focus on Europe, the main damage has been in trade with China, which is now buying record quantities of soybeans and wheat from Russia. #MRGA

Friday morning, the US got the first tangible benefit of the North Korea negotiations: The North Koreans delivered what are believed to be the remains of 55 Americans who died in the Korean War. (On June 23, Trump falsely claimed that the remains of 200 Americans had already been returned.)

and the economy

The numbers are out on second-quarter (April through June) GDP, and at first glance they look really good: The economy grew at an annualized rate of 4.1%. As you can see from the graph, 4.1% growth is better than most quarters, but not unprecedented. (It was higher for two consecutive quarters in 2014, when I don't recall anybody talking about how fabulous the Obama economy was.)
If you want a more detailed analysis, I recommend what Jared Bernstein wrote in The Washington Post. A few important points from him:
  • Year-over-year growth, i.e., how much bigger the economy is than it was a year ago, adjusted for inflation, is 2.8%, which is good but not extraordinary.
  • Growth in the second quarter was boosted by one-time factors, like businesses trying to import or export before tariffs kick in.
  • The effects of the Trump tax cut are showing up, but not where they're supposed to: The economy is getting a push from the sheer size of the federal deficit, but not so much from the business investment that the tax cut was supposed to ignite.
  • Wages are still not keeping pace with overall growth.
Paul Krugman offers a somewhat wonkier explanation of the same phenomena: Capacity utilization went up from an already-high level, which is what you'd expect from a deficit-fueled expansion. That's not sustainable: Sustainable growth expands the economy's capacity by investing in new capacity. That was what the big corporate tax cut was supposed to do, but so far isn't doing.

About those tax cuts: It turns out that when you slash corporate tax rates, revenue goes down and deficits go up! Who would have guessed?
Also, the data is still sketchy, but wages might be going down. Weren't they supposed to go up as the corporate windfall trickled down to employees? Maybe corporate executives figured out that they could just keep the money for themselves and their shareholders.

Trump may deny it (and his son might outright lie about it), but Obama left him an economy that was humming along pretty well. Steve Benen talks jobs:
Consider this quote from the president's remarks earlier today: "Everywhere we look, we are seeing the effects of the American economic miracle. We have added 3.7 million new jobs since the election, a number that is unthinkable if you go back to the campaign. Nobody would have said it. Nobody would have even in an optimistic way projected it." Reality isn't that complicated. In the 17 full months since Trump took office -- February 2017 to June 2018 -- the U.S. economy created 3.22 million jobs. What's wrong with that? Nothing. It's a perfectly good number. But it's not a "miracle." In the 17 full months before Trump took office -- September 2015 to January 2017 -- the U.S. economy created 3.54 million jobs.

and Trump's multiplying legal problems

For months there's been speculation about whether Trump's long-time fixer Michael Cohen was going to flip and testify against him. No one knows yet what federal investigators (from the U. S. Attorney's office of the Southern District of New York, not from Bob Mueller) have on Cohen that would make him want to deal. But when they got a federal judge to sign off on a wide-ranging search warrant for Cohen's office, home, and hotel room, they had to convince the judge that evidence of some particular crime was likely to be found in those places.

We still don't know what crime they alleged, or if the search produced evidence of it. But federal searches of lawyer's offices are rare, and this one was likely to (and did) lead to a hail of political criticism from the President and his supporters. So it's reasonable to assume that the feds already had the makings of a good case against Cohen when they knocked on his door.

Since then, both sides seem to have been waiting to see what developed. It took weeks for the court to decide what of the material seized from Cohen (most of it, as it turned out) was free from lawyer/client privilege and so available for investigators' inspection. And since we're talking about millions of documents, it has taken more weeks for SDNY to figure out what it has. Until actual charges are on the table, it's still premature for Cohen and federal prosecutors to discuss trading what Cohen knows about Donald Trump for leniency in his own case.

Recently, though, stuff Cohen knows has been leaking out. (It's not clear from whom or why. Prosecutors would want to keep their case secret for as long as they can. If Cohen is doing it, he's hurting his trade value as a witness. But why would Trump's people leak information that reflects badly on him? Rachel Maddow proposes that the Trump side wants to degrade Cohen's value, and also to get a head start on spinning the bad news for the President's base. That seems strange, but all the explanations seem strange.)

Last week we got a tape in which Cohen and Trump discuss acquiring Karen McDougal's story (of her affair with Trump) from The National Enquirer (so that they can make sure it doesn't come out before the election). Personally, I was revolted by how this tape drove more significant news out of the headlines, so I didn't cover it here last week, though I'm sure you heard about it. (It's weird that evidence that the President lied about both his affair with a Playboy model and about paying her off isn't significant to me any more -- anything remotely similar would have sunk Obama -- but that's where we are. We know Trump has illicit sexual affairs and lies about them. We know he pays women to keep quiet. Nothing new.)

But this week we got a claim which, if true, is devastating:
Michael Cohen is reportedly ready to tell prosecutors that Donald Trump was aware of a June 2016 meeting between top campaign officials and Russians at Trump Tower before it occurred.
Not only would that mean that Don Jr. lied to Congress, but it could implicate the President himself. Fortune quotes a former federal prosecutor:
If Trump knew in advance that the Russians had stolen information, and understood its importance, that puts him at risk, in legal jeopardy, of being part of the conspiracy that the Russians have been charged with to defraud the U.S.
Of course, then, that leads to a who-do-you-believe question. So everybody in TrumpWorld is now trying to denigrate Cohen. Rudy Giuliani (who in May had called Cohen "an honest, honorable lawyer") now says Cohen has "lied all his life".

 There's something almost humorous here: After previously telling us the opposite, Trump's lawyer is now telling us that Trump hires lawyers who lie a lot. So what do you believe after hearing that? It's like the famous Cretan paradox from freshman logic class.

Paul Manafort's trial starts tomorrow.

Wednesday, a federal judge in Maryland ruled on what the Constitution means by "emoluments", and took an expansive view:
The text of both (Foreign and Domestic Emoluments) Clauses strongly indicates that the broader meaning of 'emolument' advanced by Plaintiffs was meant to apply. As Plaintiffs point out, the Foreign Clause bans, without Congressional approval, 'any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.' Use of such expansive modifiers significantly undermines the President's argument that this Clause was meant to prohibit only payment for official services rendered in an employment-type relationship.
Consequently, a lawsuit can go forward, charging that the Trump International Hotel (which many foreign officials stay at, hoping to curry favor with the President), violates the Emoluments Clause.

One of the striking things about the Trump/Cohen tape released last week is how Sopranos-like the conversation sounds, with Cohen using euphemisms like "our friend David" and making other oblique references. But one person is mentioned by name: Allen Weisselberg the longtime CFO of the Trump Organization. Now Weisselberg is facing a subpoena.

There's now an official effort in the House to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which would be a step towards shutting down the Mueller investigation. It doesn't seem likely to go anywhere at this point, but it is an indication of just how far off the rails House Republicans have gone, and why it is important for the country that Democrats win the House in November. The center of the effort is the so-called Freedom Caucus, which maybe should change its name to the Autocracy Caucus, as its main purpose seems to be to raise the President above the law. You can find the 7-page Articles of Impeachment here. Briefly, the five articles amount to this:
  • Rosenstein is derelict is his duties because he hasn't appointed a special counsel to investigate the investigation of Trump, and hasn't recused himself from the investigation of (falsely) alleged improprieties in the FISA warrant against Carter Page.
  • He has refused to provide the House Intelligence Committee all the documents they have requested for their own investigation of the investigators (which they almost certainly would then turn over to people in the White House who might be subjects of that investigation).
  • He redacted too much information from the documents he did provide (which makes them mostly useless to Trump as he tries to obstruct the Mueller investigation).
  • He hasn't provided an unredacted classified memo detailing the full authorization of the Mueller investigation.
  • He oversaw FISA surveillance of members of the Trump campaign (which was authorized by four Republican-appointed judges).
These actions constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors", though the articles do not tell us exactly which laws they break. After Speaker Ryan refused to get on board with this effort, the sponsors went to Plan B: hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress Actions of Congress like this are not themselves actionable in court (and shouldn't be). But it's plainly part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice. wrote:
Every House Republican will face a momentous choice -- perhaps the vote of their careers. They will have to decide if they stand for the rule of law or if they support a cover-up to prevent the American people from knowing whether President Trump's campaign participated in Russia's illegal attack on our elections and our democracy.
An idea I've seen several times on social media recently: When you go to vote in November, remember that D stands for Democrat and R stands for Russia.

More and more, Trump supporters are preparing themselves to stand by their man, even it turns out that he lied about everything and conspired with the Russians. Rep. Darrell Issa is already saying that's just politics:
Well, if he’s proven to have not told the whole truth about the fact that campaigns look for dirt and that if someone offers it you listen to them, nobody is going to be surprised. There are some things in politics that you just take for granted.

and the environment

There are a lot of heat waves and wildfires going on right now. And while the media is covering those events, it isn't connecting them to the larger story of global warming. New York Magazine's David Wallace-Wells reflects on that in "How Did the End of the World Become Old News?"
In other words, it has been a month of historic, even unprecedented, climate horrors. But you may not have noticed, if you are anything but the most discriminating consumer of news. The major networks aired 127 segments on the unprecedented July heat wave, Media Matters usefully tabulated, and only one so much as mentioned climate change.
He challenges the widely held view that climate change is "a ratings killer".
When you think about it, this would be a very strange choice for a producer or an editor concerned about boring or losing his or her audience — it would mean leaving aside the far more dramatic story of the total transformation of the planet’s climate system, and the immediate and all-encompassing threat posed by climate change to the way we live on Earth, to tell the pretty mundane story of some really hot days in the region.
Instead, Wallace-Wells believes that media outlets are self-censoring for fear of bad-faith right-wing charges of "media bias".

Los Angeles Water and Power wants to add a backwards pumping system to Hoover Dam. That would allow it to act as a giant battery to even out the surges of wind and solar power. When it's windy and sunny, sustainable electricity could be used to pump water back into Lake Mead. When it's not, the dam could generate more power by releasing more water. Like everything connected with dams, there are environmental issues to assess and work out, and somebody will have to get the pro-fossil-fuel federal government on board. But it's an interesting proposal.

Ocean Cleanup has tested a smaller version of its design. It's essentially a big broom to sweep up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The first system is supposed to launch in September. Here's how it's supposed to work:

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ThinkProgress reports:
Fox & Friends on Tuesday featured an interview with Daily Caller associate editor Virginia Kruta about her experience attending an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally in St. Louis that could have been mistaken for satire.
Democratic Socialist Occasio-Cortez went deep into Trump country (i.e., Kansas) to hold a rally that was well attended and enthusiastic. It demonstrated that while socialists may not be the majority in the rural heartland, socialist ideas still appeal to a large number of people. Kruta went to the rally and was horrified by how non-horrifying it was.
Kruta told hosts that both Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic candidate for whom she was stumping, Cori Bush, “talk about things that everybody wants, especially if you’re a parent — they talk about education for your kids, health care for your kids. Things that you want. ... If you’re not really paying attention to how they’re going to pay for it, or the rest of that, it’s easy to fall into that trap and say, ‘my kids deserve this, and maybe the government should be responsible for helping me with that.'”
Yes, even good Christian white middle-American parents could be seduced into thinking that their kids deserve healthcare and education, or that people who work full-time should make enough to live on. That's how insidious the Socialist Menace is.

The NYT:
Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence ... ensured “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants” no matter their religion, race or sex.
But a new "basic law" (the Israeli equivalent of a constitutional amendment) defines Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people". Critics see this as a move away from democracy. Max Fisher writes:
Growing numbers see their country as facing a choice between being Jewish first or democratic first. And for many on the political right, the choice is identity first.
I've focused on Fisher's response because of my resolution to treat Israel as I would any other country, rather than judging it by unique standards, either higher or lower than the ones that would apply anywhere. Fisher points out that Israel is simply facing a sharper version of a conflict that many nations (including the United States) are struggling with:
when a majority demographic group believes it could become a minority, members of that group often become less supportive of democracy, preferring a strong ruler and harsh social controls
David Frum has pointed out something similar happening here:
If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

I'm puzzling over why anybody would read Sean Spicer's new book. I stopped watching his briefings because I wasn't getting any trustworthy information from him. Similarly, if I found something interesting in his book, could I believe it?

and let's close with something funny but not funny

Weird questions people ask gay couples.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Recipe for Failure

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. President, you tweeted this morning that it's U.S. foolishness, stupidity and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in U.S. relations with Russia. Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you -- what would you consider them -- that they are responsible for?

TRUMP: Yes I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. We should've had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we're all to blame.

- Trump-Putin press conference,
Helsinki (7-16-2018)

The Obama Administration's strategy of unconditional engagement with America's enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure.

- "Barack Obama's Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower"
The Heritage Foundation (6-2-2009)

This week's featured posts are "What changed in Helsinki" and "On Bullshifting".

This week everybody was talking about Helsinki

The fallout from Trump's secret conversation with Putin and the press conference the followed has dominated the week. I discussed it in "What changed in Helsinki". The short version of that post is that theories of Trump's subordination to Putin may have seemed far-fetched eight days ago, but they no longer do.

Here's a development that I remember somebody predicting, but can't pinpoint who it was: There's a pattern in Trump's reaction to accusations. The first stage is simple denial: "It didn't happen." The second is goalpost-shifting: "Technically it happened, but it wasn't a big deal." Then comes defiance: "I did it. So what?" [These quotation marks are demonstrative; I'm not referring to specific Trump statements.]

Some Trump followers are already at Stage 3 with respect to Russia: If he did conspire with Russia to win the election, they're fine with it.

Post-Helsinki, never-Trump Republicans are getting more vocal. Friday Max Boot proclaimed the ultimate heresy: "How I miss Barack Obama."

It can be depressing to think about our current predicament under a president whose loyalty to America is suspect but whose racism and xenophobia are undoubted. However, Obama’s speech [honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth] gave me a glimmer of optimism — and not only because he cited Mandela’s “example of persistence and of hope.” He reminds me that just 18 months ago — can you believe it was so recently? — we had a president with whom I could disagree without ever doubting his fitness to lead.

and a Russian spy's relationship with the NRA

It was reported back in January that the FBI was investigating whether money from Putin ally Alexander Torshin had been funneled through the National Rifle Association to be spent promoting Donald Trump's campaign for president. Torshin is a member of Russia's parliament and a deputy governor of the Russian central bank. The NRA spent $30 million on Trump in 2016, three times what it spent on Mitt Romney in 2012. If any of that money came from Torshin (or worse, from the Russian central bank), that would be illegal. Torshin has been under sanction by the Treasury Department since April.

Sunday, Russian national Maria Butina was arrested in the District of Columbia for acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation, working for Torshin. The Justice Department announced the arrest Monday, shortly after the Trump/Putin summit in Helsinki.

So far, it's hard to tell how important this is. Butina certainly met a lot of important people in Republican politics (in both the NRA and in religious-right circles, which overlap to a bizarre degree). The FBI affidavit that supports the indictment describes a plan to connect those people to influential people in the Putin government. But it's hard to tell how insidious this was. The charge is that she did not register as a foreign agent. So if somebody who had registered as a lobbyist for Russia had done the same thing, would that have been illegal? Did the Americans who helped her do anything illegal? Not clear yet. We'll have to see where this goes.

and a FISA warrant application

Remember the Nunes memo? Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote the memo to make the case that there was something wrong with the FISA warrants that collected the intelligence that got the Trump/Russia investigation started. Supposedly this blew the whistle on the whole anti-Trump conspiracy inside the Deep State, and meant that the entire Mueller investigation was invalid, because it was what lawyers call "fruit of the poison tree".

As I and a lot of other people pointed out at the time, once the memo got declassified and released, it obviously didn't live up to what Republicans had been saying about it. (Sean Hannity claimed it showed "the entire basis for the Russia investigation was based on lies that were bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and her campaign.")

The Nunes memo itself had a lot of internal inconsistencies, and obvious gaps between its claims and its evidence. But still, a big chunk of the controversy between it and a competing Democratic memo boiled down to a he-said/she-said: Both relied on a classified source, the applications for the FISA warrants, and they made conflicting claims about those applications that the general public couldn't check.

Well, now we can. A heavily redacted version of the FISA applications has been released under a Freedom of Information Act request. And guess what? The Nunes memo was complete crap, often making totally false claims about what FISA applications contain. A tweetstorm by Pwn All the Things goes through it in detail, picking out Nunes statements about the documents that are directly contradicted by the documents themselves.

It's honestly kind of amazing that *every single one* of the assertions about inadequacies about the FISA application by Nunes are just directly refuted by the FISA application. Utterly dishonest in its entirety.

Lawfare's David Kris is less polemic (and seems to have gone through the new documents in less detail), but notes that now "the Nunes memo looks even worse" than he originally judged it to be. And he points out that the four different judges who approved the warrants were all Republican appointees: one by Reagan, on by Bush the First and two by Bush the Second.

On the flip side, it's fascinating to watch the contortions conservative Byron York has to go through to claim that the Nunes memo is "almost entirely accurate". He takes a tree-level view, going paragraph by paragraph, and ignores the forest. The overall purpose of the memo, to prove that there was something unsavory about surveilling Carter Page, and that the Mueller probe has consequently been delegitimized, has been discredited. York makes no attempt to claim otherwise.

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Hate to say "I told you so", but North Korean denuclearization turns out to be harder than Trump thought.

At some point a manipulative ploy is just too obvious. Trump is catching flak for kowtowing to a foreign leader, so what does he want to talk about? Unpatriotic black athletes. California Democrat Eric Swalwell decided not to put up with it.

This should be a standard response whenever Trump goes after the NFL players in the future: Colin Kaepernick doesn't need a lesson in patriotism from Putin's poodle.

The EPA is proposing major changes to the Endangered Species Act. After declaring victory in the War on Poverty last week, I guess we're also going to declare that we've saved all the endangered species now.

In addition to what you see on TV, The Daily Show web site posts additional clips, like extended versions of interviews and so on. I found this one particularly insightful. On Monday's show, host Trevor Noah had joked about how black people around the world considered France's victory in the World Cup to be an African victory, because so much of the French team has African roots.

Wednesday, he read and responded to the letter he got from the French ambassador, who called him out for questioning the Frenchness of the black players, as French nativists do. Trevor's response is brilliant, I think, and points out how much of what gets interpreted as a double-standard on race (i.e., why black rappers can say "nigger" and I can't) aren't double standards at all. French nativists, Noah says, are putting a wall between themselves and French blacks: "I'm really French and you're not." Noah, on the other hand, is claiming what he shares with them: "I'm African and so are you." Noah is allowing the soccer players to be both French and African; nativists and the French ambassador are insisting it's one or the other.

Mansplaining explained in a flow chart:

I will quibble at one point: Some people are just know-it-alls, and unnecessarily explain stuff to everybody who doesn't tell them to shut up. Apparent mansplaining may just be a symptom of this larger dysfunction.

Former Politico editor Garrett Graff speculates that the Russians will switch sides in this year's midterms and help the Democrats this time. As much as I might wish Republicans would believe this (and start protecting America's democratic infrastructure for their own good), I don't buy it.

Since its founding, Politico has been the home of false-equivalence both-sides-do-it journalism, in which the two parties are nothing more than teams with different-colored jerseys. Politico sees no essential difference between Republicans and Democrats, so Graff supposes that Russia doesn't either. The Russians' real goal, in Graff's view, is "Weakening the West, and exploiting the seams and divisions of the West’s open democracies to undermine our legitimacy and moral standing." Throwing one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats will create two years of strife and gridlock, so Russia should be all for it.

But Graff's analysis ignores something important: Putin has a brand. Internationally, his message is that a nation has to defend its essential and traditional identity against globalist homogenization, and that (in an age of mass migration, racial mixing, and transnational media) neither democracy nor capitalism can do that. So in one country after another, he allies with racist, nationalist, traditionalist, and autocratic forces: the anti-immigrant pro-Brexit side in Britain, the National Front in France, AfD in Germany, 5 Star in Italy, Orban in Hungary. Within Russia, his brand is not just pro-ethnic-Russian, but also pro-Russian-Orthodox-Christianity; he is the restorer of traditional Russian moral values, like homophobia.

Whether Putin believes this stuff himself or not isn't clear. But as a well-trained KGB man, he understands the power of ideology. He's not going to blur his brand by helping Democrats.

"Vladimir Putin’s goal," Graff writes, "isn’t—and never was—to help the Republican Party, at least in the long run." In the most literal sense, that's probably true: Putin is rooting for himself, and not for any particular American team.

But the two major American parties are not just teams. One of them has a brand that is entirely congruent with Putin's. It is pro-white, nationalist, and xenophobic. It promotes traditional Christian rules and prejudices. It stands foursquare against democracy, regarding recent immigrants as unworthy of citizenship and embracing voter suppression, gerrymandering, and unlimited campaign spending in order to delay indefinitely the day when the white Christian minority loses its dominance.

That's the GOP. It's Putin's party for a reason.

and let's close with something amazing

We need a break from seriousness. Here's Dude Perfect doing incredible things with ping-pong balls. They don't say how many attempts they needed to get these tricks right, but I don't care.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Those Left Out

Brett Kavanaugh is an incredibly nice guy. That's the point. The entire point of Brett Kavanaugh is that he is extraordinarily generous to the people around him. It's all the people who aren't around him that are cut out of the bargain.

- Ian Millhiser

This week's featured posts are "Trump doesn't want skilled immigrants either", and "What kind of justice would Brett Kavanaugh be?".

This week everybody was talking about Brett Kavanaugh

who I discussed in one of the featured posts.

and the new indictment from the Mueller investigation

In contradiction to the pleading by Trump partisans that Mueller wrap things up quickly, his investigation continues to produce results at a consistent pace. Friday, Mueller's D.C. grand jury issued an indictment against 12 members of Russian military intelligence, the GRU. The indictment describes in some detail exactly how and when these specific Russians hacked into computers at the DNC, the DCCC, and the Clinton campaign, and then distributed information they stole. The account flies in the face of President Trump's repeated denials that anyone actually knows who did the hacking, as when he suggested the hack might be due to "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

It was Russians, and not just any old Russians. It was the Russian military. This was information warfare.

The Trump administration is still resisting that message. Even after the indictments came out, with a full recitation of how Russian military intelligence did what they did, White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters referred to "the alleged hacking". And although the indictments had not yet been released, Trump had already been briefed on them when he said this Friday at a press conference in the UK:

I think we are being hurt very badly by the, I would call it the witch hunt, I would call it the rigged witch hunt. I think that really hurts our country and really hurts our relationship with Russia. I think we would have a chance to have a very good relationship with Russia and a very good relationship with President Putin.

He also blamed the Democrats for getting hacked and blamed Obama. He has still never blamed Putin.

The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration. Why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?

(Vice President Biden has claimed that Obama tried to get leaders of both parties to make a strong bipartisan statement before the election, but Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused, leaving Obama with the choice between soft-pedaling the Russian interference and appearing to be trying to sway the election himself by creating a fake partisan issue.)

The official White House response to the indictments was not to be outraged at Russia or to stand up for the United States, but to defend itself:

Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.

Imagine, for example, President Bush taking a similar stand after 9-11: worrying mainly about whether his administration could be blamed for something and regretting the impact of the incident on his relationship with Osama bin Laden.

Russia, of course, is not going to extradict these people -- and President Trump isn't going to demand they do so -- so they will never stand trial. So the main impact of the indictment is to get a collection of facts into the public record. Unlike, say, the Starr investigation of President Clinton or the many Republican congressional investigations of Benghazi or Hillary Clinton's emails, Mueller's team doesn't leak. So far, indictments have been its primary avenue for communicating with the public.

No Americans were subjects of this indictment, but the text contained hints that Americans were involved and may possibly be indicted later. People are speculating, but I'm content to wait and see.

There is a tantalizing coincidence in the indictment. On July 27, 2016, Trump said in the press conference:

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing.

It's possible that somebody in Russia responded to that suggestion. The indictment says:

The Conspirators spearphished individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign throughout the summer of 2016. For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton's personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.

For a long time now I've been thinking of Trump's election as a perfect storm of things going wrong: Russian meddling, Comey's announcements, Hillary running a bad campaign, and so on. But what if at least two of those factors are connected?

On her Empty Wheel blog, Marcy Wheeler has been calling attention to one key detail in the indictment:

I have been saying forever that the easiest way to steal the election would be to steal Hillary’s analytics. The indictment reveals that,

In or around September 2016, the Conspirators also successfully gained access to DNC computers hosted on a third-party cloud-computing service. These computers contained test applications related to the DNC’s analytics. After conducting reconnaissance, the Conspirators gathered data by creating backups, or “snapshots,” of the DNC’s cloud-based systems using the cloud provider’s own technology.

The indictment is silent about what happened to this stolen analytics data.

She retweeted Jonathon Rubin's explanation of what could be done with that data:

What they could have done is used her analytics to figure out how they could target ads to fuck with turnout in a way where her model wouldn’t detect what was happening—an adversarial example attack in machine learning parlance. To expand a bit: you could run scenarios against her data to find situations where it would return the same results for different input. Brute-force detect edge cases where her model would fail. Like where to run ads in Wisconsin so that her model wouldn’t see support softening.

and Trump in Europe

Today he's in Helsinki reporting in to his GRU handler meeting with Russian President Putin. The administration has not explained the purpose of this meeting, though many speculate it has something to do with pulling US troops out of Syria and abandoning that country to the Putin-supported Assad regime.

For Putin, the purpose is obvious, even if he gets no freebies from Trump

All [Putin] really needs to make his meeting with Mr. Trump a success is for it to take place without any major friction — providing a symbolic end to Western efforts to isolate Russia over its actions against Ukraine in 2014, its meddling in the United States election in 2016 and other examples of what the United States Treasury Department has described as Russia’s “malign activity” around the world.

“If Trump says, ‘Let bygones be bygones because we have a world to run,’ that is essentially what Moscow needs from this,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst in Moscow.

Before meeting Putin, Trump spent the NATO meetings in Brussels attacking our allies. Germany, he claimed is "totally controlled by Russia" because it gets much of its energy from Russia. He demanded that the other NATO leaders commit to increasing their defense spending faster than previously agreed to. CBS News reports Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group saying:

"Trump was very frustrated; he wasn't getting commitments from other leaders to spend more. Many of them said, 'Well, we have to ask our parliaments. We have a process; we can't just tell you we're going to spend more, we have a legal process.' Trump turns around to the Turkish president, Recep Erdogan, and says, 'Except for Erdogan over here. He does things the right way,' and then actually fist-bumps the Turkish president."

"The right way", of course, is to be a dictator.

Andrew Sullivan suspects that Trump may have unintentionally widened the sliver of a chance that Britain might undo Brexit. His basic thesis is that Trump has emboldened the "hard Brexit" crowd, which means that there may no longer be a Parliamentary majority behind Prime Minister May's "soft Brexit" proposal -- or any other Brexit proposal. And that means that when time runs out in nine months, Britain faces a crash exit instead: Connections with the EU end abruptly with no negotiated agreement to replace them.

Among the immediate doomsday possibilities the government itself is worried about in a crash exit are the effective, immediate collapse of the port of Dover — grinding trade to a halt — and the dispatch of thousands of electricity generators on barges in the Irish Sea to keep Northern Ireland’s lights on, because the province’s ability to share a single electricity market with the whole island of Ireland would end with an E.U. exit. Northern Ireland itself could explode in sectarian violence again if a hard border is erected between north and south, as it would have to be. Scotland would move toward independence. Critical shortages of food, fuel, and medicine would open up within two weeks, by the government’s own estimation. The military would have to be deployed to ensure transportation of essentials. Stocks and the pound would plummet. A steep recession at home, and maybe also abroad, could follow. It would be one of the most harmful things a democratic country ever did to itself, or to its neighbors.

With that disaster staring them in the face, Britain might decide to redo the referendum.

For a break over the weekend -- destroying the western alliance is hard work, after all -- Trump went to his golf resort in Scotland, turning the trip into what Norman Eisen at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington calls "an infomercial for his properties" -- sponsored by the American taxpayer. Taxpayer money also goes directly into his pocket, as Secret Service agents and other members of his entourage are obliged to rent rooms from him.

Here we see the Angry Baby Trump balloon flying over the Winston Churchill statue in London's Parliament Square. Trump said he felt "unwelcome" and avoided London. If we fly some balloons in the US, do you think maybe he'll decide not to come back?

and families still separated

In every way possible, the Trump administration has been dragging its feet to delay giving back the children it stole. A federal judge is pushing them, but they are moving as slowly as they can.

Imagine how this would look if it were happening to you: You get arrested for some misdemeanor offense, like speeding or disturbing the peace or shoplifting some small item. (Crossing the border without a visa is a misdemeanor.) You might not even be guilty. (Some of the separated families did not try to sneak across, but presented themselves at an entry port and requested asylum. This is not illegal. Others tried to request asylum legally, but were left waiting on the border for days, until they gave up and crossed the border anyway.) But government has a new policy of zero tolerance for whatever it is you are supposed to have done, so you are imprisoned and denied bail.

Because you can't take care of your kids while you're in jail, the government takes custody of them and doesn't tell you where they are. When a court orders the government to give your kids back to you, the government demands that you prove you are really your kids' parent, and says that it can't give the kids back until it completes an investigation into your fitness as a parent. When the President is asked about your situation, he does not respond directly, but says only that people shouldn't do whatever it is you are supposed to have done, even if you didn't do it.

The people responsible for this, from Trump on down, are monsters. I can't think of any other way to describe them. Any moral person would resign rather than carry out these orders.

Jesuit Priest James Martin takes a Christian look at refugees and immigrants.

and Peter Strzok

The House Judiciary and Oversight Committees held a joint session Thursday in which the Republican majority presented the villain of their Russia-Witch-Hunt fantasy: FBI counter-intelligence agent Peter Strzok.

Hours and hours of this hearing were shown on TV. I can't guess how it played for the country as a whole. Switching back and forth between Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity Thursday night was like looking at two different worlds. Hannity showed long stretches of Republican congressman making speeches against Strzok, and clipped off his answers. Rachel focused on Strzok's answers, particularly the ones that made the questioners look ridiculous.

The one piece of useful information I gleaned from this hearing was Strzok's explanation for his infamous "No he won't. We'll stop it" text message to his paramour Lisa Page, who had been worried about Trump becoming president. His explanation is the one I had guessed: Strzok says the "we" in the text is the American people, not the FBI in general or some Strzok/Page deep-state cabal within the FBI. He added some context.

In terms of the texts that 'we will stop it,' you need to understand that was written late at night, off-the-cuff, and it was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero, and my presumption, based on that horrible, disgusting behavior that the American population would not elect somebody demonstrating that behavior to be President of the United States

In general, the debate over Strzok is similar to the one over Christopher Steele, author of the famous Steele dossier. In each case, someone with a long history in counter-intelligence against the Russians expressed alarm about the prospect of a Trump presidency and played a role in starting the Trump/Russia investigation. Two radically different explanatory scenarios have been put forward, one by Trump loyalists and the other by Strzok and Steele themselves.

  • Trump scenario. Steele and Strzok were hostile to Trump for some mysterious reason, and that hostility led them to try to derail his candidacy by dreaming up a Trump/Russia conspiracy theory. If their invention of the conspiracy theory were ever exposed, it would wreck the credibility each had spent an entire career building, but that risk was worth it in order to satisfy their irrational hunger to destroy Donald Trump. For some other mysterious reason, though, each failed to publicize the invented conspiracy before the election, when it might have prevented Trump's victory. Neither has any current role in the Mueller investigation, which pursues Trump for some third mysterious reason.
  • Strzok/Steele scenario. Two experts on Russian intelligence activities saw very real signs of Russian influence on the Trump campaign and of a Russian effort to get Trump elected. Each was freaked out by the possibility that an American president might take office while indebted to Russia or even under Russian control. In their professional roles, they began pushing for a broader investigation, while personally they hoped Trump would lose the election.

To me it's obvious that the second scenario fits the known facts and makes sense, while the first one doesn't.

But there's a more important point: None of it matters. Sooner or later, Bob Mueller will issue a report. That report will either find wrongdoing or it won't. The evidence it provides will either prove those points or not. At that point, how the investigation started will be irrelevant.

and Jim Jordan

So far Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans are standing by Jim Jordan, in spite of the allegations against him.

About half a dozen former Ohio State wrestlers say Jordan had to have known young men were complaining about being fondled by the team doctor in the 1990s, when Jordan was an assistant coach.

His defenses amount to (1) the wrestlers are lying, and (2) it's a deep state conspiracy.

and you also might be interested in ...

Remember the Bundy militia yahoos who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon? They were protesting the five-year sentences in the Hammond arson case, in which Dwight and Steven Hammond (father and son) set fires on federal land, apparently to cover up evidence of illegal deer hunting.

Well, Trump pardoned the Hammonds Tuesday. This administration has zero tolerance for refugees seeking asylum, and justifies that stance by invoking crime and terrorism. But people who have connections to actual terrorists, terrorists who attacked a federal government facility and held it by force of arms, they're OK.

NYT article on student debt: Debt per student is leveling off, but probably because students can't borrow any more. Parental debt is still growing, and there's evidence that students are scaling back their educational ambitions because of cost.

The War on Poverty is over and we won! At least that's what a new report from Trump's Council of Economic Advisors says.

Between 1961 and 2016, consumption-based poverty fell from 30 percent to 3 percent, amounting to a 90 percent decline (and it fell by 77 percent since 1980). This likely even understates the reduction in material hardship as it omits the consumption-value of increased public expenditure on healthcare and education for the poor. Based on historical standards of material wellbeing and the terms of engagement, our War on Poverty is largely over and a success

The key phrase here is consumption-based poverty. Typically we measure poverty by income, but even if your income crashes (because, say, you lost your job and can't find another one), your spending may stay at a non-poverty level for a while if you have savings, material goods you can sell, relatives willing to subsidize you, or a credit card that isn't maxed out yet.

Of course, there are still people who need Food Stamps, Medicaid, and various other government programs, but that's because welfare makes them lazy.

Today, many non-disabled working-age adults do not regularly work, particularly those living in low-income households. Such non-working adults may miss important pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits for themselves and their households, and can become reliant on welfare programs.

You might wonder how many of these unemployed adults are lying on the couch smoking dope and how many are chasing toddlers, but the report-writers aren't curious about stuff like that. And they have a solution: Put work requirements on all the assistance programs that don't already have them, like Food Stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid.

A question you always have to ask about plans like this is: "What happens the next time the economy crashes?" as it always does eventually. At precisely the moment when lots of people lose their incomes and jobs are scarce, the government says we can't help you unless you are working. Then you may become homeless and undernourished while you go off your meds, none of which is going to help you land one of those scarce jobs.

and let's close with some vicarious satisfaction

James Veitch responds to a common email scam, and keeps the exchange going until the scammers can't take it any more.

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?