Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Does Trump know what it means to "vet" a nominee?

Does Donald Trump know what it means to vet someone he's nominating to run an important part of government, or to be a federal judge?

Vetting someone for government office means scrutinizing their record for everything imaginable:  job history, financial irregularities, conflicts of interest, overseas travel, qualifications for the job, political affiliations, personal relationships, behavior that might cause a scandal or simply reflect badly on the administration.

From the nominations Trump has made it appears that either:  (1) he has no concept of even considering someone's qualifications or appropriateness for the job;  or (2) he perversely appoints foxes to guard henhouses.

In support of #1 is the high percentage of his nominees who have had to withdraw as there is more scrutiny of their finances or prior activities that raise public objections.  Not because they are deemed to be unqualified or have conflicts of interests with the mission of the position.   Those don't seem to matter to Trump.

This latest withdrawal will be the 12th Trump actual nominee to do so.  That doesn't include names that were floated and dropped before an announced nomination.  Twelve is not an unusually high number -- except when you consider that Trump has made relatively few nominations so far (about one-third of ones important enough to require confirmation by the Senate).

I'm leaning toward #2, because he has in fact made a few good appointments -- and thanks be for those few, like Gen. Kelly, Gen. Maddis, and Gen. McMaster.  And at least Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch has a good legal mind, even if his conservative mind-set is much further to the right than we want.

And Tillerson at least seems to want to be a good Secretary of State but is operating with a scandalously reduced staff.   For example, we still don't have an ambassador in South Korea, as important as that post is right now.   And they seemed to have just eliminated the whole level of Deputy Secretaries, usually the crucial diplomats with vital knowledge of and relationships with counterparts in the region or country that they oversee.

And then there are all the others.  For example, picking Scott Pruit to run the EPA, when his main claim to fame was that, as Oklahoma's Attorney General and as a climate change denier, he had sued the EPA fourteen times challenging its regulations.   Or Tom Price to run Health and Human Services, when his notoriety came from his working to defeat the Affordable Care Act and his scandal-level, inside-trading in med company stocks.   We got rid of him, not because of his conflicts of interest but because he loved chartered jet travel too much.

And then there were the two really really bad choices, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, neither of whom must have had any vetting at all.  They both had so many red flags if you wanted to see them.   They came in from the campaign -- and brought Russia and money woes with them.

The behavior in office of all these men (as well as others like DeVos, Zinka, Mnuchin, Ross, and Perry) could well have been predicted by vetting, and even by what was publicly known about some of them.

Which brings us to Trump's latest nominee, Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) to be Trump's "drug czar," meaning Director of the Office of Drug Control Policy.  He was awaiting Senate confirmation when the Washington Post and "60 Minutes" both ran investigative stories about his past that should have disqualified him for any such post.   Marino had led a successful effort to pass legislation in the House that made it harder for law enforcement to prosecute opioid manufacturers.   As described by the Post:

"A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation's major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills."

Trump was asked to respond to that, in reference to Marino's nomination;  and, as he's done so many times, he pretended not to know about this and said he would look into it.   Two days later Marino withdrew his name from consideration.

But it's not that the Trump people didn't know.   Marino's name had been floated -- by them -- back in the spring as a possible nominee to head the whole Drug Enforcement Administration.   Marino's legislative tilt toward drug makers was known at the time, and after public airing he withdrew from that nomination, citing an illness in his family.   When his name came up again for this new position, a former person holding the office said, "I was shocked . . . it's all part of public record."

Trump really wanted to give Marino a good job.   "He was an early supporter of mine. . . He's a great guy."   But we'll look into the report, he said.   You see, it's never until there is public scrutiny that can't be denied that Trump seems to care about such things.   Whenever he can get away with putting foxes in henhouses, he will do so -- except when it comes to national security, it seems.   We can be grateful that he has respect for "my generals," at least.

Trump's priorities seem to go in something like this order:  (1)  loyalty, rewarding supporters;  (2)  political payoffs and campaign promises;  (3)  getting rid of anything that Obama did;  (4) conservative policy advancement;  (5)  what's good for the American people;  (6)  qualification for the job -- or not;  doesn't much matter.

Ralph

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Political scientists discuss the future of democracy

Vox.com's Sean Illing reported on a very important conference held at Yale last week, where a group of top political scientists discussed the state of democracy in America.   According to Illing, ". . . nearly everyone agreed [that] American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts -- socially, culturally, and economically."

And yet, no one thought that we are near the end or that it's too late to solve the problems.   At least, so far, our governing systems of checks and balances are holding.    Still, there was a sense that "alarm bells are ringing."

One professor of politics (at both Harvard and Princeton) said "Democracies die because of deliberate decisions made by human beings. . . . [People in power] become disconnected from the citizenry. . . .  They push policies that benefit themselves and harm the broader population.   Do that long enough . . . and you'll cultivate an angry, divided society that pulls apart at the seams."'

But -- I want to ask the good professor -- isn't that exactly where we are?

Adam Przeworski, a democratic theorist at New York University, said that "democracies thrive so long as people believe they can improve their lot in life."  This basic belief has been 'an essential ingredient of Western civilization during the past 200 years.'"

But Illing also points out that "fewer and fewer Americans believe this is true" -- i.e. that they can improve their lives.   This is due to wage stagnation, growing inequalities, automation, and a shrinking labor market.   "Americans are deeply pessimistic about the future."   In 1970, 90% of 30 year olds in American were better off than their parents at the same age.  In 2012, only 50% were.   "Numbers like this cause people to lose faith in the system.  What you get is a spike in extremism and a retreat from the political center.   This leads to declines in voter turnout and, consequently, more opportunities for fringe parties and candidates."

Beyond polarization, Przeworski suggested that "something more profound is going on."   He believes that American democracy isn't collapsing so much as deteriorating.  "Our divisions are not merely political but have deep roots in society.  The system has become too rigged and too unfair, and most people have no real faith in it."

This includes basic components of democracy like commitment to rule of law, a free press, the separation of powers, and to the basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.   Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard calls these "the soft guardrails of democracy."   Research has shown that Americans "are not as committed to these norms as you might expect."

It goes all the way to the top.  Our current president has little knowledge of what our Constitution mandates and what rights it guarantees.   He bangs the drums for building up our military power, but is unconcerned that our collective security agencies have determined that Russia really did hack into our electoral system -- and we fully expect them to do it again in our next election.   Instead of caring about that, Trump set up a phony commission to investigate the virtually non-existing "voter fraud," led by the nation's zealot-in-chief Kris Kobach, who has made a career as Kansas's Attorney General, trying to suppress minority voting and opposing immigration.

Many of us think that Trump and some of his administration would really like to just ignore -- or better yet, do away with -- all this messy democracy stuff.  Just let our wannabe-king decide everything and order it to be done, his way.

But, back to facts.  In a survey cited at the conference, 18% of Americans agreed that a military-led government would be a "fairly good" idea.

Harvard's Daniel Ziblatt identified two "master norms" of a democracy:  (1) mutual toleration, meaning we accept the basic legitimacy of our opponents:  and (2) institutional forbearance, meaning politicians responsibly wield the power of the institutions they're elected to control.   He says we are "failing miserably" on #1, and we're hardly better on #2.  Ziblatt continues:

"Most obviously, there's Donald Trump, who has dispensed with one democratic norm after another.   He's fired an FBI director in order to undercut an investigation into his campaign's possible collusion with Moscow;  and he has . . .  regularly attacked the free press and refused to divest himself of his business interests.

"The Republican Party, with few exceptions, has tolerated these violations in the hope that they might advance their agenda.   But it's about a lot more than Republicans capitulating to Trump."   He mentions the unprecedented blocking of Obama's nomination of a Supreme Court nominee and endangering the nation's credit rating by shutting down the government to try to defeat Obamacare.   He sums up:  "American democracy is increasingly less anchored by norms and traditions -- and history suggests that's a sign of democratic decay."

Duke University professor of economics and politics, Timur Kuran, argues a somewhat different point.   He says:  "the real danger isn't that we no longer trust the government but that we no longer trust each other."

He says we are divided into separate "intolerant communities," where each defines itself by opposition to the other.   "They live in different worlds, desire different things, and share almost nothing in common.  One group, which he calls "identitarian" activists "concerned with issues like racial/gender equality;  the other group he calls the "nativist" coalition made up of people suspicious of immigration and cultural change.

Kuran continues:  "The practical consequence of this is a politics marred by tribalism.  Worse, because the fault lines run so deep, every political contest becomes an intractable existential drama, with each side convinced the other is not just wrong but a mortal enemy."

Again, some statistics:  In 1960, 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats objected to the idea of their children marrying across political lines.   In 2010, it's 46% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats.    Pew Research studies show something similar in their finding that in 2014, 36% of Republicans and Republican leaners say that Democratic policies "threaten the nation."  And 27% of Democrats say the same thing about Republicans.  Pew says that those numbers have doubled since 1994.  And "it's not merely that we disagree about issues;  it's that we believe the other side is a grievous threat to the republic."

Illing ends his report on this conference of political scientists on a pessimistic note:   "Something has cracked.  Citizens have lost faith in the system.   The social compact is broken.  So now we're left to stew in our racial and cultural resentments, which paved the way for a demagogue like Trump.

"Bottom line:  I was already pretty cynical about the trajectory of American democracy when I arrived at the conference, and I left feeling justified in that cynicism.   Our problems are deep and broad and stretch back decades, and the people who study democracy closest can only tell us what's wrong.  They can't tell us what ought to be done."

*     *     *
Well, yes, that is a real downer.   But it mirrors what I feel these days.

I do know one thing:   Donald Trump may not have created this, but he definitely makes it worse -- because he revels in the adoration of even this small base of angry, unthinking, right-wing people who want someone to stoke their anger and to promise them easy solutions.   Trump is just the demagogue for that job.  But I don't know what's going to happen when that small band of "lock her up" shouters realize that he can't (and never intended to) come though for them.

My best hope is that Robert Mueller's investigation will reveal some things so bad (money laundering, criminal financial dealings with oligharchs with mob connections, as well as obvious obstruction of justice), that Republicans in congress cannot not impeach him.    But . . . what then?

Ralph


Monday, October 16, 2017

No, Harvey. No excuses for sexual assault

Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein has been credibly accused by multiple actresses and models of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and even rape when they were young aspirants and he was the big man with power over careers.

This has been going on for decades and was apparently a pretty open secret that nobody really talked about -- because he was so powerful and could make or break careers.  He also apparently used legal threats and pressure to silence victims.    But there are several instances where comedians or presenters at the Oscars would make jokes about it.   So there's also the problem of why was it tolerated?

Harvey has now been fired by the company that bears his name and that he co-founded with his brother.   Several of the board members resigned when the news came out;  the four remaining board members, including his brother, voted to terminate his association with the company.

And Harvey's reaction?   It took less than a few hours for him to start saying he "needed help" and talking about therapy to help him overcome this problem.   No, Harvey, you don't get off that easy.    You can't -- after decades of treating women this way and pretending that it's normal for powerful men to have their way with women -- then suddenly seek sympathy by calling it a "problem" and you look forward to getting help and "being given a second chance."  Why hadn't you sought therapy during the last thirty years?

No, for three decades you play the predator-as-normative in this environment, rely on your  power to squelch or buy off accusers -- and then, when finally exposed . . .  it's you who is the pitiful victim of "a problem" who merits a "second chance?"    I don't think so.

We need more sincere evidence of contrition;  convince us that you really see what you did and got away with -- and reveled in getting away with.   And then you serve some long penance to prove your sincere remorse.  Then the industry may give you a second chance, because you are a very talented man who has produced some really good movies.  And you've also done a lot of good with your money going to progressive causes.

But none of that gives you the right to use vulnerable young women for your selfish, invasive demands.   Exactly how much have you done to try to make up for the damage you did -- other than to buy and intimidate them into silence -- before you were exposed by some very brave women and some courageous, persistent journalists?   True contrition, penance, and second chances require more than suddenly becoming an advocate of therapy for your "problem" -- after money and high-paid lawyers can no longer buy your way out of scandal and possible criminal charges.

You can't manipulate your way back by playing the "therapy card."   I speak as a retired member of the therapeutic community.   You have the right to a good therapist who will try to help you look at what you have done and why, in the overall context of your life -- and work to resolve that.  It requires work -- on your part;  it will take years, and real success depends largely on how genuinely you delve into yourself.   It isn't something you can just purchase and wave like a flag.

Ralph

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A bit of light in our world of darkness

In 2014 Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peach Prize.   She was 17.

Her father ran a school for girls in an area of Pakistan that was largely under the control of the conservative Taliban.  When she was only 11, Malala began her activism with a speech she gave to the press club titled "How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education."

In 2009, at age 12, she began writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban, which issued an edict forbidding the education of girls.  They subsequently destroyed over 100 schools for girls.   Malala was becoming more widely known as a high-profile advocate for girls education.  In 2011 she was awarded the National Youth Peace Prize.

All of this put her on the Taliban's hit list.   On October 8, 2012 when she was 15, a Taliban gunman entered the school bus she rode, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head and neck.

She was severely wounded but survived, with expert medical treatment in England, where she and her family moved and currently live.   The Taliban's attempt to silence her, and her heroic courage to continue advocating for the education of girls in Pakistan, made headlines around the world.   She was invited to speak at the United Nations and was runner-up for Time's Person of the Year -- at 16.    She has met with President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.

In the face of continued threats from the Taliban, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2014.

This fall Malala, the girl who was shot for speaking up against the Taliban's attempt to suppress the education of girls, began her undergraduate studies at Oxford University.   Like other students, she is embarking on a great educational adventure at perhaps the most prestigious university in the world, where she plans to concentrate on philosophy, economics, and political science.

But now, at the ripe old age of 20, she already is a Nobel Peace Laureate, along with Albert Schweitzer, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.

Ralph

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Cries for help from White House staff

Michael Gerson was President George W. Bush's speechwriter and is now an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.   He wrote this.

"It is no longer possible to safely ignore the leaked cries for help coming from within the administration.  They reveal a president raging against enemies, obsessed by slights, deeply uninformed and incurious, unable to focus, and subject to destructive whims."

This was, I presume, written after General Kelly, the Chief of Staff, held a press conference today to deny rumors that he was about to resign or being fired.  He said the following about his job:

"It is the hardest job I've ever had.  It's also the most important job I've ever had.   It's not the best job I've ever had," and then explained that, as he has said many times before, being a marine sergeant was the best job he's ever had.   He is now a retired four-star general.

President Trump later told the press, as he praised Gen. Kelly:   "He said it's the best job he's ever had."   He said this to the same people who had heard for themselves what Kelly had said in the press meeting.  Trump doesn't seem to know that people know that he is lying.

The question is:   Is this just another of Trump's lies?    Or does it represent how he automatically distorts what he hears into what he wants to hear, and doesn't even know that he does it?   Kelly clearly said:  "It's not the best job I've ever had."

Either way, Trump has zero credibility -- and both our allies and our enemies know it.  Only he seems not to know it.

Max Boot, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on MSNBC Thursday night:  "The #1 threat to our security . . . is the Commander in Chief.  The man in the Oval Office is the greatest threat that we face."

Ralph

Maybe it's time to stop "containing" Trump and just get him out office.

Much has been said in the past week about relying on "the generals'" and Sec. Tillerson's efforts to "contain" the president from going completely off the rails.

Maybe it's time to consider, rather than containing him, that we just get rid of him.   I'm afraid he will break everything, if we wait too long.

Look at all he's broken just this week -- or at least tried to break.    The Affordable Care Act, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the rescue mission in Puerto Rico, the nuclear disarmament treaty, the fragile stand-off with North Korea.

Meanwhile, he's condoning his EPA Director's slashing most regulations designed to save our planet.   His "voter fraud" tzar is finding ever more ways to suppress minority voting.  His Attorney General is gutting civil rights, voting rights, racial justice, prison reform -- and that's all before breakfast.    And, if Trump could, he would have taken control of the first amendment right to free speech and would have revoked broadcast licenses for CNN and MSNBC, the networks that dare to tell the truth about him.  And now he's going to address a convention of the rabidly anti-LGBT Family Research Council.

His decision to gut the ACA and stop subsidy payments is opposed by a super-majority of Americans.  According to a Kaiser Research poll, 71% think he should be doing everything he can to make the ACA work, while only 21% agree with the sabotage strategy.   That's more than a third less than his base of supporters.

And he thinks these people will blame Democrats?   No,  Trump now owns any failure of Obamacare.

Ralph

Friday, October 13, 2017

President Trump now in a dangerous phase: unhinged and vindictive

Over the past few days, insiders have followed Sen. Bob Corker's frank lead in speaking candidly about his concerns about the president's fitness (White House has become "an adult day-care" facility) and about the danger of his tweets "leading us into World War III."

While most senators don't speak with equal candor as can Sen. Corker, who is not running for reelection, it is widely acknowledged that many say the same things in private.

In addition, leaks are coming from multiple inside sources, speaking about the president's rages and tantrums and, as Corker also says, viewing the trio of Sec. of State Tillerson, Sec. of Defense Maddis, and Chief of Staff Kelly as working together to contain the president's impulses and to keep our nation from sinking into chaos.

But here is what's not being contained:   Trump has been, and continues, to be on a mission to undo every single thing that Barack Obama accomplished.   It's as though Trump's campaign to convince people Obama was not a native-born citizen, and therefore not a legitimate president, has been taken up again in the form of trying to erase every trace of this successful and admired president.

So now we have a president who not only is seen as dangerous in possibly starting a nuclear war with North Korea and unleashing Iran's quest for its own bomb.   We also have an increasingly unhinged and vindictive president working daily to undermine and tear down our progressive gains here at home.   Consider these:

1.  Any Obama policy that can be undone, he's going after it with executive orders to undo environmental regulations, reduce spending for any safety-net assistance, and ease any regulatory burdens on businesses and banks.  Oil in flowing in the Dakota Access pipeline.   More immigrants are being arrested.  He has reversed the military's willing implementation of Obama's directive on transgender troops, even though military leaders are opposed to that reversal.  He encourages his cabinet secretaries to reverse policies on national parks, oil drilling in the Arctic, fuel economy regulations, energy policies ("we're bringing back coal").   And so much more.

2.  Another example of Trump's obsession with erasing anything connected with Obama -- but this one deserves its own separate paragraph.   Just yesterday, he signed an executive order that will further unsettle the insurance markets for the Affordable Care Act.   This will allow insurers to offer cheap, relatively useless policies across state lines through group associations.    These won't have to meet the same minimum coverage requirements, so they can be sold as cheap policies.  Healthy young people will sign up for these, leaving only the sickest to use the exchange-regulated policies.  That, of course, will drive up premium prices.   It's a tactic to try to destroy Obamacare, pure and simple -- not to help people.

3.  Republican Sen. Bob Sasse has just questioned Trump's increasingly pointed attacks on the media as a failure to defend the Constitution's guarantee of free speech.  This relates to Trump's tweeted threat to take away NBC's broadcast license because of unfavorable coverage of him.  The president does not have that power over FCC licensing, fortunately.  But the attack on a free press -- and not for the first time -- is deeply unsettling.


4.  In a public speech, Trump praised the man (Jeffrey Lord) who was fired by CNN after he had tweeted a Nazi salute.  Trump called him "the great Jeffrey Lord."     Also, it's pretty well established that Trump is the one who sent VP Pence flying cross country on Sunday afternoon, just so he could walk out of the football game when players knelt during the national anthem.  An expensive stunt, adding a cross-country Air Force Two round trip for a two minute programmed stunt, proved by the fact that they told the press bus not to park but just to stand by ready to go.

5.  Trump goes out of his way to undermine any diplomatic efforts of his Secretary of State to deescalate tensions with North Korea.    While Tillerson was still in China working on a back channel with the North Koreans, and tweeted out that fact, Trump retaliated by tweeting that Tillerson was "wasting his time" talking because "it won't work."   Then added, "We'll do what we have to do."   Since then he has rattled the sabers even more by coyly announcing that "this is the calm before the storm," and then refusing to say what he meant.   This was followed up by having two Air Force bombers fly across the Korean peninsula.

6.  Even the Chinese are fed up, putting out a statement asking Trump to tone down his rhetoric.

7.  On the other side of the world, Trump is also playing fast and loose with another potential nuclear conflagration by vowing to pull out of the Iran deal -- which even some Republicans who opposed it at the time now want to keep -- because it is working.  But Trump insists that Iran is not living up to it (experts all say they are).    One report out yesterday says that the Trump advisers have worked out a plan with Congress whereby Trump will refuse to recertify Iran's cooperation (which he has to do every 90 days);  but he will also not recommend that Congress put sanctions back on Iran, thus punting the final decision:   as long as Congress does not renew sanctions, it is likely not to kill it. That allows Trump to stick to his refusal without blowing things up, leaving it to Congress to save us and our place in world leadership.

Why is Trump so opposed to certifying Iran's conforming to the agreement?  Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says it's more for domestic than international reasons.   "He doesn't want to certify that any piece of the Obama strategy is working."

But, think about it.   This is what we have come to?   Having to appease the Commander-in-Chief by such subterfuge and obfuscation?  He would blow up such a delicate and almost impossibly achieved agreement rather than give Obama any credit!   Apparently.

And this hasn't even touched on the disaster that is Trump's position on aid to Puerto Rico.  It is shameful, unAmerican, and inhumane.   There are inhabited areas of the island that rescue efforts have still not been able to get to in the three weeks since the hurricane hit.   Roads are impassable, and apparently there are not enough local helicopters to meet the needs -- and Trump keeps insisting that it's up to local governments to distribute the relief supplies.   And heaping praise on himself for "what a fantastic job I have done.  So much work!"

Yet 40% of the population still does not have safe drinking water.   They're beginning to have deaths from bacteria one tends to get from drinking water from contaminated streams.   They're drinking stream water because that's all they have in some areas.   It is unimaginable that this would be accepted in Houston or Florida.  Yes, Puerto Rico's situation was much worse before the hurricane hit.   But this is a U.S. territory, and they are American citizens.

And yet Trump unabashedly claims that his relief efforts have been amazing and that progress is wonderful.  And now he's turning even more negative, tweeting out that "our FEMA people and military troops can't stay in Puerto Rico forever."

My contempt for this president overfloweth.

Ralph