Monday, March 19, 2018

Former CIA Chief Brennan slams Trump

Andrew McCabe was the Acting Director of the FBI during the time between President Trump's firing of James Comey and the confirmation of his replacement, Christopher Wray.  Since then, McCabe has been FBI Deputy Director.  He has had a long, distinguished career at the FBI that spans more than 20 years -- and he was set to retire yesterday.

However, he ran afoul of Trump, and Republicans accused him of improperly disclosing information about the Clinton investigation and then lying about it to investigators.  McCabe has strongly denied doing anything improper, saying that it is part of the Deputy Director's job to give helpful information to the media, and he did not cross any lines of confidentiality.

Trump and Congressional Republicans have painted him as the epicenter of all that they say is wrong with the FBI, part of a cabal out to get the Trump administration, even though McCabe is himself a life-long, registered Republican.

Trump pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire McCabe.  Instead, Sessions referred the matter to the Justice Department's Inspector General.  The IG issued its report last Wednesday, saying that McCabe did handle the Clinton matter inappropriately and recommended his firing.   I don't know the details, so I can't make an independent judgment on that finding.

What I do know is that the handling of McCabe's firing was highly inappropriate, even cruel.   Here's what transpired.   The decision was up to Sessions.   McCabe had already announced he was retiring, and his last day was to be March 18th -- the first day that he would be eligible for a full pension for his years of service.

Sessions waited until 10 pm on Friday the 16th -- then he fired McCabe, some 26 hours before he would be eligible to get his full pension.

Here was Trump's very unpresidential reaction (by Twitter, of course):
   "Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI.  A great day for Democracy.  Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy.  He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI."

McCabe has written a response that is both forceful and, by Trump standards, measured and professional.   He essentially says that this is part of an effort to discredit him and the FBI and to undermine the Mueller investigation, because McCabe would have been a witness as to what Comey told him at the time of Trump's attempt to get him to end the Flint investigation, which led to Comey's firing -- i.e., McCabe would be a witness in the obstruction of justice case against Trump.

McCabe also kept detailed notes, like Comey, of any individual meetings he had with Trump.  CNN reports that Mueller already has McCabe's notes about those conversations.

According to reporting by The Hill, Former Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the firing:  "Analyze the McCabe firing on two levels:  the substance and the timing.  We don't know enough about the substance yet,  The timing appears cruel and a cave that compromised DOJ independence to please an increasingly erratic President who should have played no role here.  This is dangerous." -- Eric Holder.

And then, THIS . . . from former CIA Director John Brennan, addressing Trump.
   "When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.  You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America.   America will triumph over you."

This is so blunt and condemning that I even doubted whether it was authentic, from Brennan himself.   But it has been reported by both HuffPost and Reuter's;   and Brennan has been very critical of Trump in the past, especially about his attacks on the FBI and CIA.   Earlier this month, Brennan said there was "deep deep worry and concern" about the safety of America under the Trump administration.

WOW.    True . . . but WOW!!!


PS:  Several congressmen have offered McCabe temporary jobs in their offices so that he could fulfill finish his federal employment time to be eligible for his full retirement (one or two days).

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Let's take a break

It has been another head-spinning week of political news.   Today was no exception.   But, more than trying to capture some of it for this post, I think we need to take a breather for the weekend.

So, I invite you to check back on Monday.   If you must have some chaos to keep from going into withdrawal, I suggest you look at the interview that Chris Hayes did on MSNBC Friday night with Russian-born, American citizen Felix Sater, a man of many hats who may or may not have been Trump's contact with Russian oligarchs and Russian Mafia.   Or he may have been working for the CIA.   It's hard to know.

Check out the podcast at:


Friday, March 16, 2018

The loss of Stephen Hawking

It's fitting to quote the British newspaper, The Guardian, on the death of one of its most revered citizens, Stephen Hawking, about whom they wrote:

"Stephen Hawking was a brilliant, complex man and scientist.  Diagnosed at 21 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he had been expected to live a few more years.  Hawking last another 55.   He made his name as a young Cambridge cosmologist with breakthroughs as awesome as anything religion offersproving that big bang theory must hold true and elucidating the link between gravity and quantum mechanics.  From his wheelchair, Hawking's mind roamed the multiverses.  It was his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time, about the advances in cosmology, that made him a pop icon.  It kindled Hawking's showmanship:  when asked what his book was about, he replied 'the mind of God.' . . . "

Zeroing in on Trump and Russia

Things are coalescing here, folks, on the Trump-Russia nexus.

1.  Prime Minister Theresa May has expelled a large number of Russians from the U.K., -- and taken other measures as well -- in retaliation for the Putin regime's using an extremely toxic nerve gas on a Russian exile/former spy and his daughter, now living in the U.K., which also seriously injured a British police officer and endangered other citizens.   This is a specific toxin that only the Russians make and possess.
   The European Union, NATO and other allies have joined in condemnation of Russia, like good allies do.   Like the U.K. did immediately when we were attacked on 9/11, and in fact as they did in supplying us with some of the intelligence that helped prove that Russia hacked into our election process.
   But Trump had remained virtually silent.   His silence is consistent with the "see no evil" attitude toward Putin from the beginning.
   Today, the Treasury Department announced the imposition of sanctions on a number of Russians -- but it's mostly just what Congress authorized by a near-unanimous vote last year.   Trump had let the deadline for imposing the sanctions go by without doing anything.
   He did finally yesterday give a weak acknowledgement that maybe Russia did the nerve gas attack in the U.K.   But he had already sent the message he wanted to send.

2.  It was also reported yesterday by the New York Times that Robert Mueller had issued supboenas to the Trump Organization for business records involving Russia.   This is the red line that Trump had said, in the past, that would be a step too far, hinting that it could lead to his getting rid of Mueller.
   Ty Cobb, one of Trump's White House lawyers, spoke with MSNBC's Ari Melber about their response to the subpoena and said that they would "do the right thing" about complying.

3.  Also yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI released a public warning that Russian hackers have now penetrated into the computer networks that control some of our nation's power plants, both nuclear and conventional.   Their initial hacking of the administrative networks of these plants occurred in 2015-16 at the same time of their attacks on our political systems.
   But now they've been able to get into the systems that control the operations of the power machinery itself, which means they can shut them down or cause sabotage.  So far, they have not acted, but they are there and could do so at any time.    Our government has definitely identified them as Russian hackers.
   The problem in fixing this, as explained by the New York Times reporter who broke the story, is that these are mostly private companies that have old or very unsophisticated software programs.   So our government can't just simply go in and fix things.   This warning is to make them aware;  some did not know they had been hacked.

4.   This all comes just days after the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee issued its partisan "status report" and abruptly and unilaterally shut down the investigation.   That has been the goal of its chairman, Devin Nunes, all along, who has been acting solely to protect Donald Trump and not in the best interests of the American people.
   And Paul Ryan has enabled Nunes' and the Republicans' hyper-partisan destruction of the previously highly effective intelligence oversight committee.  Even when the FBI Deputy Director went to Ryan to ask him to intervene when Nunes wanted to release his earlier report, which the FBI had given strong warning about the classified material in it, Ryan sided with Nunes.  It's all been to protect Trump.

5.  The Democrats on this same committee have issued their own status report, which is quite, quite different.   Among a long list of questions and people that need to be pursued, or questioned further, they have hinted at some things that they know that had not been previously revealed.  Their status report contains this statement:
   "The committee has learned that candidate Trump's private business was actively negotiating a business deal in Moscow with a sanctioned Russian bank during the election period."   At the same time, of course, candidate Trump was vociferously denying on the campaign trail that he had any business deals in Russia or with Russians, including no debt to Russians.'  It is a crime to do business with a sanctioned bank -- and, if it's a foreign national, it may also violate campaign finance laws.

This is a crucial point in this investigation.   If Trump is going to try to get rid of Mueller and shut it down, this is probably the point at which he would do it.  He's on a roll of pushing people out (Tillerson and others to come, he says);  he has said that he's tired of "being reined in," and getting into his business affairs before the campaign would be the red line.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Multiple news stories

1.   Rex Tillerson has been fired from his position as Secretary of State and will be replaced (if confirmed by the Senate) by current CIA Director Mike Pompao.   The main reason seems to be that Pompao is more attuned to Trump, both in policy and in "chemistry."   Pompao will be succeeded as CIA Director by his deputy, Gina Haspel, a 30 year career CIA officer.   If she is confirmed, she will be the first woman CIA Director.   Objections will be raised over her having presided over an "enhanced interrogation" site during the Bush administration.   Defenders say that she was carrying out orders and was only doing what was considered legal by the President at the time.

2.  Another White House staffer was also fired on Tuesday.   John McEntee has been Trump's personal assistant since his election, but he's one of the WH staff whose security clearance has been held up.    Suddenly on Tuesday, he was forcefully ousted from the WH, without even being allowed to get his belongings.  Claims are that he is under investigation for "serious financial crimes."  It was later revealed by knowing sources that McEntee has a gambling addiction.    Just one more example of the serious failure of this White House to do even cursory vetting of WH staff.

3 Democrat Conor Lamb has apparently won the special election in Pennsylvania's District 18.   His lead is 627 votes, which does not trigger an automatic recount, but the losing candidate can request one.   This is a massive reversal in a district that Trump won by 20 points just 16 months ago, and where Trump campaigned for the Republican a few days before the election.   Lamb is 33 years old, a former Marine and a prosecutor;  he will be among the more conservative Democrats having announced his opposition to Nancy Pelosi for another term as Democratic House leader.   He's also described as a conservative Democrat who is "pro-union and pro-gun, backs bipartisan deals for fixing Obamacare and the nation's infrastructure, wants more job training and less college debt, and says he's pro-fracking but pro-environment, too."  It also makes him a smart politician, given the district he was running in.   His win certainly revs up the "blue wave" enthusiasm for the November election.

4.  President Trump flew to California where he inspected a series of prototype sections vying to be the design for Trump's "Wall," which he still insists will be built, despite congress's continuing lack of funding for it.   Another purpose of the trip was a fund-raising dinner in a private home, where the entry price was said to be $35,000 per person.    Yes, Trump is building a war chest, already, for his 2020 campaign.

5.  Trump's choice to replace chief economics adviser Gary Cohn is Larry Kudlow, who has experience working both in the Reagen White House and on Wall Street but is better known as a television personality and economic analyst on CNBC.   He has been an informal adviser to Trump during the campaign and since.    What's a bit odd is that supposedly a main reason Cohn left was his difference with the president over imposing tariffs -- and Kudlow is himself a proponent of free trade and opposed to generalized tariffs.   But, as we see time and again, Trump seems less concerned with policy differences and more with personal chemistry (which is also code for not being too blunt in challenges to the president).   Trump supposedly admires Kudlow because he looks and speaks well on television.   Advice to Kudlow:   Yes, but don't be too good.   Trump doesn't like to be overshadowed.

6.  Heather Nauert, who one year ago was a co-host of "Fox and Friends," one of Trump's favorite TV shows, was appointed in April 2017 to be spokesperson for the State Department.  Two days ago, Steve Goldstein was dismissed from his position as State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs for putting out a notice about Rex Tillerson's firing that was contradictory and unflattering to President Trump.    Ms. Nauert has been named to replace Goldstein temporarily as Acting Undersecretary, making her the fourth highest ranked person in the State Department.    From "Fox and Friends" to #4 at State in less than a year!!!   Pretty remarkable -- except that it's Trump and a "Fox and Friends" flatterer.

7.  Yesterday, March 14, was the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida.    Students had organized an 17 minute walk-out in memory of the 17 people who died in the attack.    But it was not just at the Stoneman Douglas High School.   They were joined by students in schools all over the U.S. and even in some foreign countries.    In recent years, we've been impressed by the power of women in organized protest.  Now we're seeing the power of these organized, determined, smart, articulate teenagers -- future leaders in the making.    Wait until we see what they accomplish with the March 24th Washington, DC march and counter-parts everywhere.

The students have three demands they're making of lawmakers:
   1.  Ban assault weapons
   2.  Require universal background checks before gun sales
   3.  Pass a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior.

They're also committing themselves to help get out the votes -- and to vote themselves as they become 18.   Many of them will run for office in the future.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Why America is changing on guns - #2art

This is a continuation of yesterday's post, and this article is about the effective activist campaign launched by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida -- and how they can be so knowledgeable and articulate.   It's a profile of their remarkable teacher, Jeffrey Foster, for the popular advanced placement course on U.S. Government and Politics.

Splinter News, a print division of Univision, reported on an interview that I will excerpt below.   The Splinter article is by Jorge Rivas.

*     *     *
Stoneman Douglas High school senior Emma Gonzalez spoke before a crowd of thousands at a vigil in memory of the students who had died in the shooting massacre at their school -- only three days before.

"After she delivered her speech, Gonzalez was so confident in front of news cameras that conspiracy theorists quickly accused her of being a crisis actor.  Critics questioned how a high school senior could have such tight talking points.  Rumors spread on YouTube and Twitter that the Stoneman Douglas students like her who were making repeat appearances on cable news networks were actually 30 year old pawns of gun-control advocates. . . .

"But it turns out that Stoneman Douglas students being scrutinized are just teens with really good teachers at a school with resources.  They are a testament to what public schools can produce if students have support at home and in well-funded schools.

"Many of the high-profile Stoneman Douglas seniors are in the same [Advanced Placement] United States Government and Politics program this year,  helmed by Jeff Foster, who helped create the AP government curriculum for the entire Broward County Public Schools system.

"Foster is going on 20 years teaching AP government classes.  He worked in finance for a few years before his mother suggested he try substitute teaching.  He fell in love with it and went on to get his masters in education. . . .

"When [classes begin again] he's going to also start teaching geography.  Like his other colleagues, Foster has volunteered to absorb a period left behind by a teacher who was killed. . . .

"On the day of the shooting, Foster taught the AP Gov students about special interest groups, like the NAACP, American Medical Association, and the National Rifle Association.  His lesson plan that day included a discussion about the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, with emphasis on how every politician comes out after a tragedy to say the right thing about changing gun regulation.   The students learned how the NRA goes to work as soon as news reporters and the public move on to the next story.

"'That's not the NRA's fault;  that's our fault,' Foster says.  'We lost attention and that's why interest groups run the country.  If it's not the NRA then it's another group.'

"Foster teaches AP Government all day.  It's the only subject he teaches.  He had taught this particular special interest lesson four times [that day] by the time the gunman started shooting.

"The following day the students were scheduled to have a test on the special interest chapter.   The exam was supposed to include a free response question asking students what techniques the NRA used to be successful.  The students were supposed to discuss how the NRA used mass mobilization, campaign contributions, and litigation to push their agenda forward. . . . 

"Emma Gonzalez had already taken Foster's lesson by the time the shooting happened.  So did fellow student David Hogg, who has made multiple appearances on cable news networks. . . .

"These students are clear-eyed, media-ready, and sophisticated, often rejecting the premise of interview questions or entirely reframing them.   Foster says it's not surprising to him which kids are getting repeated interview requests and continue to speak publicly.  He's seen these same students shine in his classroom debating controversial issues like gun control, abortion, and Colin Kaepernick.  Foster says he stirs the discussion to both sides.  When students don't bring up counter-arguments, he brings them up himself. . . . 

"'It's unfortunate not all schools are funded the way we are.   We have a lot of resources at our school,' Foster says.   [The school serves an area where both economic and educational levels of the families are higher than average.]  Only about 24% of the student at [this] school are considered economically disadvantaged [compared to some schools in the district as high as 89%]. . . .  About 40% of the senior class takes the AP Government class. . . . 

"Foster helped organize a field trip of about 100 student to [the state capital] to meet with legislators. . . .  Some critics have accused Foster of pushing the Communist Manifesto. . . .  [But] he's not even a bleeding hear Bernie bro.  He's a registered Republican who voted for Hillary Clinton. . . .

"Foster thinks the students are running on adrenaline.  He wants to prepare [them] to be emotionally ready for when and if the media attention goes away.  And he hopes the students can continue to stay positive and not crash or move into depression.  He wants his students to leave class and vote, run for office, or join a special interest group for an issue they care about.

"'You can't bitch,' he tells his students, 'if you don't participate.'"

*     *     *
There are many lessons in this article.   First is how good quality public education can be when you have the combination of affluent, educated families, school resources to offer such courses, and the ability to hire and retain talented teachers, like Jeff Foster.    Second, is the corollary:   so many of our public schools lack all of those factors -- the sad fact of the inequality in our public schools.

But that's a problem to solve another day.   The involvement of these prepared students as activists to bring about change has already shown some results in the gun control law just passed by the Florida legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott (neither of which was pro-gun control before).   The bill doesn't ban semi-automatic rifles, but it does raise the purchase age from 18 to 21;  it bans the sale of bump stocks;  it imposes a three day waiting period on rifle purchases;  and it allows school personnel to be armed.

It's a start.   As one of the students said:   "It's baby steps."

And then there's the March 24th March on Washington (and everywhere) for Gun Safety that was initiated by these students.   Great teacher, great kids.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Why America is changing on guns - #1

There are two articles of interest about the more enduring movement in response to the recent mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida.    We've now gone well past the usual time when apathy sets in, as nothing is done to change things.   

The first article, by Michael Hobbes of HuffPost, focuses on how change in the private business sector has been part of this.   He approaches it from a business analysis perspective.

"Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, and Kroger announced they would no longer sell firearms to kids under 21.   REI [sports retailer] cut one of its suppliers for failing to produce a 'clear plan of action' on guns.   BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, said it was considering 'gun-free investment funds.'   Delta ended its discount program for NRA members.  Others, from car rental companies to oil companies, severed connections from them too.

"Takes on corporate Americas's newfound social conscience have ranged [widely] from optimistic . . . to galactic. . . .  But they're all missing the point. . . .  the reality is that this latest wave of progress on gun control says less about these companies' feelings about AR-15s and more about what public pressure can -- and cannot -- achieve.

"Companies are taking a stand because they think it's good business."

The author goes on to explain that those who have responded will not lose much from lost gun sales, because gun sales are a small part, or none at all, of their overall inventory -- unlike the relatively small gun shop or firearms dealer.

Contrast this with protests that demand that companies make fundamental changes in aspects of their business-- like asking Walmart to stop selling clothes made in third-world sweatshops.   Back to Hobbes:

"The progress of the past few weeks doesn't mean these companies have become enlightened -- it means they sense a shift in consumers and are rushing to 

capitalize on it.  Three-quarters of Americans say they want stricter gun laws (that's a 7% increase in the past few weeks). . . .

"The second thing to know about the post-Parkland corporate calculation is that boycotts aren't about sales -- they're about generating media coverage [and fear of damage to their reputation, which impacts the ability to recruit talented workers, which was such a factor in the North Carolina and Indiana trans bathroom controversies and what led Georgia's governor to veto a similar bill.]

"It's a useful way to think about consumer pressure:   Not as pointless or perfect,  visionary or futile, but simply as a form of regulation.   Government . . . regulation -- is binding, but it's also painfully slow . . . and susceptible to capture by lobbyists and the weaknesses of our electoral system.

"Private regulation -- boycotts, shareholder advocacy, shouting on Twitter -- is more responsive, but it's inconsistent, unpredictable and only works when it fits a  narrative that resonates with the media and the public.

"In other words, the past few weeks show that what's moving left isn't the corporations.   It's the country."

*      *     *
It turns out that reporting both articles will result in an overly long post, so I'll save the other one for tomorrow.

It's about the remarkable young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL,  their unusually mature and articulate activism, and their remarkable government teacher who is responsible for their good education on the subject of government and politics -- how they all work.

The school may have been ill-prepared to stop an active shooter -- but at least some student leaders were extremely well-prepared to take up the fight to get something done about gun laws -- including a planned March  for Gun Safety in Washington and around the country, on March 24