Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Trump at the UN -- a mixed result

Did President Trump embarrass us at the U.N.?    Yes.   Not so much with childish tweets (at least not yet;  that may yet come) but with his arrogant, America First bombast.   With his bare-knuckled tone and saber-rattling content, he portrayed a grim world with only hostility and ineffective diplomacy.  It was just short of a call to arms.

Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom  told the BBC that "It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience."   U.S. response was mixed.   Mitt Romney tweeted that it "gave a strong and needed challenge" to confront global problems.   But Democratic Senator Ed Markey of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee denounced Trump's speech:   "He engages in escalatory language that only induces further paranoia in Kim."
Trump began his criticism of the U.N. itself on Monday in discussions about reorganizing the bureaucracy, but with a less combative stance, offering to help fix the problems.   He also had numerous private talks with other world leaders.

Then came this major address to the General Assembly on Tuesday.  Denouncing North Korea and Iran, being very critical of China, Venezuela, and Cuba --- and, of course, not a negative word about Russia.  HuffPost headlined its article about the speech:  "Loose Cannon Lectures the World."

His most shocking statement was about North Korea.   "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."

Loud, startled murmurs filled the hall, as Trump went on to refer to Kim directly:  "Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime."  A junior member of the North Korean delegation was seated in the front row.  As of this writing, North Korea has not responded.

Trump was reading carefully from his prepared script, which took no note of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres' appeal, minutes before, for "statesmanship" and not war.

Trump did also call for unity of nations to isolate the Kim government until it ceases its "hostile" behavior.  But that nod toward a non-military solution was lost in the startling language of "totally destroy."

Trump apparently thinks tough talk will intimidate Kim.  I am not the only one who thinks it's exactly the opposite.   Kim's deep-seated obsession with becoming a nuclear power has to do with power and pride, of course;   but even more with survival.   Kim seems to actually believe that the U.S. wants to destroy his regime (not without good reason).   So Trump's bluster only increases Kim's determination,

Trump moved on to Iran, calling it "an economically depleted rogue state" that exports violence.  He took aim at their nuclear ambitions and regional meddling.  He said the 2015 nuclear deal was "an embarrassment" and hinted that he may not recertify the agreement when the next report is due.   He has certainly in the past talked about pulling out of the deal, but he did not make that explicit here.

As reported by Reuters' Steve Holland and Jeff Mason, the speech also sought to define the America First vision for the U.S. foreign policy.   It includes, as summarized by Holland and Mason, "downgrading global bureaucracies, basing alliances on shared interests, and steering Washington away from nation-building exercises abroad."

Trump also told the 193 nation body that "the United States does not seek to impose its will on other nations and will respect other countries' sovereignty. . . .  I will defend America's interests above all else," Trump said. "But in fulfilling our obligations to other nations we also realize it's in everyone's interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure."

Well, that's a little bit reassuring . . . maybe.   The embarrassing thing is -- it needed to be said.  If only we could hope he meant it.  The United States does not have a good track record for respecting other nations' sovereignty.

Turning to Venezuela, he called the collapsing of democratic institutions and their economy "completely unacceptable" and said "the United States cannot stand by and watch."  He did not specify what actions, if any, he was considering.   Will he respect Venezuela's sovereignty?   Is there a way to help, where the government itself is the problem -- if the government does not request our help?   Think about Turkey, as well.

Venezuela objected to Trump's threats, saying it would resist any U.S. actions, "even military invasion."     Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said of Trump:  "He came to the house of peace and promoted war and the destruction of certain countries." 

Besides his shocking tone and language, Trump's statement about his foreign policy and his plans and threats toward other countries do not add up to a coherent vision.   I am horrified at what is happening in Venezuela, in the Middle East, in some African countries, in North Korea, in Myanmar.   And what we did by invading Iraq.

But what is the answer to when it is appropriate to decide to interfere in another country's sovereignty?   How do you balance that against coming to the aid of oppressed people?    I don't have the answers.    Donald Trump showed us that he does not either.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Will Trump embarrass us at the UN ? . . . . Of course he will.

The United Nations is back in session in New York, and President Trump will follow the usual practice of the U.S. President addressing the General Assembly.   He's already there having many small meetings, group meetings.   His big public moment is today, Tuesday.

No doubt he will read a carefully vetted teleprompter script -- and, hopefully, keep any ad libs to a minimum.   But can they please confiscate his twitter phone?


GOP going to try once more to kill ACA

It's never safe to relax about the Republicans trying to repeal Obamacare.   Persistent, aren't they?   What was it . . . 60-some times they voted to do it when Obama was still president and would have vetoed it?

Then they failed by one vote before their August recess, and we thought that was it.   But now they're back with one last hope for a hurrah.   Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) have introduced a bill that would essentially replace most of the Affordable Care Act with block grants to the states, leaving it up to the states to decide how to use it for their citizens.

Because Graham and Cassidy are generally among the more reasonable Republicans in the senate, most people (including me) assumed that their bill would also be more reasonable.    But it is not.  In many ways, it is far more drastic than what the senate already rejected.  For example, a state could decide to eliminate the pre-existing protection.   Any premium subsidies would also be up to the states;  the federal subsidies would end.

There are two problems with this procedurally.   In order to pass it with a simple majority -- the 51 votes they needed, and failed, to get in August -- they have to complete it and get the House's approval by September 30th when the fiscal year ends and the new fiscal budget goes into effect.  That's because, as part of the budget reconciliation, it is not subject to the senate filibuster.  And there's no way they can pass the bill if it takes 60 votes in the Senate, which it would on October 1st.

Then the Congressional Budget Office has just informed them that they will need two to three weeks to complete the scoring of the bill to see how many people will be lose coverage and what the cost will be.   They have just 12 days.

They can, of course, vote to pass it without the CBO scoring.   The House rushed its bill through passage without a CBO score.   But it would also be without having had any committee discussion or public comment.  And then it could be rushed to a floor vote in the senate with less than two (2) minutes debate.   I don't believe Sen. Collins for one would vote for that.

Chris Hayes explained why such limited debate.  It's part of the budget bill, which had a certain amount of time for discussion.  They've already used up all but the last 90 seconds allotted to discuss the budget bill.

So, assuming that everyone votes the same way they did on the last bill, it would fail by one vote.   Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are thought to be reliable no votes again.   But John McCain's vote is said to be uncertain this time.  Ron Paul voted yes before but has already said he will oppose this one -- because it leaves "too much of Obamacare in place."   I'm not sure what he's referring to.

The lobbying and arm-twisting will be fierce.   All kinds of deals will be offered.   Block grants are generally appealing to the more conservative members, but I think they all voted for the previous bill.   So that may not pick up any votes.  But it's too close for comfort.

And, by the way, the concern about Sen. Menendez won't apply here.  His trial is currently ongoing and expected to last for weeks.   So there's no chance for him to be convicted, resolve the question of whether he gets booted from the senate, and then a replacement sworn in.

Never a dull moment.  Call your senators.   Demand a defeat of this abomination that would throw more people off health care than the other bills, because it has the worst of each previous plan, all rolled up into one.


Monday, September 18, 2017

"Building a wall" was just talk, according to Trump's long-term executive VP

Barbara Res is a former Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization.  She worked for Trump for 18 years, including overseeing the construction of Trump Tower.   She was a guest on Ari Melber's "The Beat" on Friday night.

According to Ms. Res, Trump often spun big plans, which he knew would never be realized.   "He likes to tell people what they want to hear," she said.   In answer to Ari's question, she scoffed at the idea that Trump ever seriously meant to build a wall.  "It's ridiculous," she said.  And then added: "Way too expensive, not necessary.   No way."

To be clear, this is her opinionhaving worked closely with Trump as he planned and built, and sometimes promised what he knew would never be built. She has no specific insider knowledge about "the wall" as strategy.  But it seems clear: Barbara Res knows Donald Trump . . . all too well.

Trevor Noah challenges Steve Bannon's claim that America was built by "it's citizens," not immigrants.

Steve Bannon, as he has proclaimed, is "going to war" against the establishment "from the outside," i.e., back at his perch atop Breitbart News in control of a major, alt-right propaganda outlet.

Charlie Rose broadcast an interview with Bannon on his "60 Minutes" show last Sunday night, in which Bannon proclaimed, among other things, that "America was built by its citizens."

Bannon accused Rose of pushing "leftist propaganda" when he pointed out that everyone in the U.S., except perhaps Native Americans, are really immigrants.

Trevor Noah took on the Bannon argument on his "Daily Show," revealing that his producers had hired a professional genealogist to explore Bannon's own ancestral history.   Here's what they found:   "Bannon's great-great-grandfather . . . arrived in the U.S. from Ireland by the 1850s when America's borders were so open that Irishmen could just walk into the country with no passport, no visas, no background check of any kind."

So, Noah pointed out, "Bannon's great grandfather [the immigrant's son] was a Dreamer . . . and his great grandson is a fucking nightmare."

And what about the African-Americans who, as slaves, were the backbone and muscle of the Southern economy and, actually, helped build the White House itself?   Bannon apparently discounts their forced "contribution" to building this country.

I suggest that, the next time someone asks you to explain "white privilege," you might use Steve Bannon's attitude as an example.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trump had to be talked out of firing Sessions over his recusal back in May

New York Times reporters Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman have been doing terrific investigative journalism on Trump and his campaign.  This week they have revealed what sources have told them about an Oval Office meeting in May, in which President Trump "unleashed a string of insults" on his Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing investigation of Russia's interference in our election process and whether there was any collusion from the Trump campaign.

Now, let's take note that Sessions really had no choice and was told so by advisers.  Had he not recused, with his history of having lied about his own meetings with the Russian ambassador, it would have become an ethics case on top of all else.  But, to Trump, it meant only that Sessions was disloyal to him and that, as he put it at one point, that his administration had "lost control of the investigation."  He saw the role of the AG as being to protect him from, apparently, even his own crimes.

The Times article is based on interviews with seven "administration officials and others" with knowledge of interactions between Trump and Sessions since that time.

Present in the meeting were Trump, VP Pence, AG Sessions, U.S. Counsel Don McGahan and others.   During the meeting, McGahan took a phone call from Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who was informing him that he had decided to appoint Bob Mueller as special counsel to take over the investigation, following Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, who had been conducting it.

We had known, of course, that Trump had fired Comey in order to try to stop this very investigation, among other stated reasons.   So, upon hearing in the May meeting that, rather than stop the investigation, it now was to be led by the man who would be at the top of any list for integrity and expertise -- Trump was furious.   And he aimed that fury straight at Sessions.

According to this account, Trump accused Sessions of "disloyalty," saying that it was Sessions fault "that we're in this situation," that appointing him as AG was one of the worst decisions he had made, and calling Sessions an "idiot."   Further, he said that Sessions should resign.   Emotionally shaken and "ashen," Sessions said he would resign and left the office.   That night he submitted his letter of resignation.

But Trump's advisers Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon finally prevailed on Trump not to accept the resignation, arguing that it would only sow more chaos in the administration and turn Republicans in Congress against him, given the relationships Sessions had built up there over his decades as a senator.

Trump ultimately contained his anger and declined to accept Sessions' resignation.  But he has continued to take swipes at Sessions, to thwart him and contradict him in public.   So that's the inside story, apparently, of what we only saw bits and pieces of from the outside.   There was no secret that Trump had been both surprised and unhappy when Sessions had recused himself some time before.  And Trump made that comment about how it was "unfair to the president" and that, had he known Pence was going to recuse, as he did shortly after taking office, he would never have appointed him.

So, let's look at what this means.   What is new in what we now know is primarily the degree of Trump's fury on finding out he was going to face investigation after all.  In essence, he thought he had jumped out of the frying pan by firing Comey, and now he finds out he had jumped directly into the fire.   And it's his own fault.  Regardless of what will be found in the investigation, it was his firing of Comey that led directly to the appointment of Mueller -- who, by the way, is more formidable than Comey by a good bit.

This all smacks of the behavior of a man who knows he's guilty and who is desperate and running out of tricks to derail his own downfall.

Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without some new assumption becoming clear about where the investigation is going.   Not so much from leaks but from simply observing who is being listed or called upon to supply information or to be interviewed by the investigative team.

What we are learning is that Mueller is already reaching into the White House staff.   Six people have been listed as people he wants to interview:   Reince Preibus, Sean Spicer, Hope Hicks, plus three others who are less publicly known but who were likely in positions know what was going on.

Mueller is obviously looking at the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer.  One of the Russians in that meeting has already been interviewed.   Don, Jr. has been interviewed by the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Mueller is also looking at the crafting of the letter about the content of that meeting, which Trump himself reportedly dictated.  He's looking into the Comey firing, the Sessions "resignation" -- and the inside discussions about all of that.

In addition, Mike Flynn's son, who was also his chief of staff in his business during the time Flynn was National Security Adviser, is now listed as a "subject" of the investigation.   He must have known about his father's business dealings with these foreign governments.  As I remember from the transition period, when he misrepresented himself as actually being on the White House transition staff, there was talk about that not being possible because he couldn't get a security clearance.

What a tangled pile of linguini.   If anyone can figure it all out, Bob Mueller is the one.   Donald Trump has reason to be frightened.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Trump's HHS still sabotaging Obamacare

The New York Times reporters Audrey Carlsen and Haeyoun Park exposed the ways in which the Trump administration continues to sabotage the Affordable Care Act in addition to the obvious political fight over its future.
"The Trump administration said in August that it would slash spending on advertising and promotion for the Affordable Care Act, but it has already been waging a multipronged campaign against it.
"Despite several failed efforts by Republican lawmakers to repeal it, the Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land.  But the Department of Health and Human Services -- an agency with a legal responsibility to administer the law -- has used taxpayer dollars to oppose it.
"Legal experts say that while it is common for a new administration to reinterpret an existing law, it is unusual to take steps to undermine it.  Here are three ways the health department has campaigned against Obamacare."
The uncertainty of whether the plan would be repealed -- as well as the reduced participation resulting from slashed budget for advertising and promotion - leave insurance companies unable to estimate their costs for the coming year.  So they jack up premiums to avoid losing money.  So Republicans saying costs are out of control -- and then sabotaging its success -- becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is a Republican strategy to try to make Obamacare fail, which they've been predicting ever since it became law.   Here are some other ways in which Team Trump is sabotaging the health care plan, as reported by the authors.

1.  "Redirecting Promotional Funding."  Instead of using its outreach budget to promote the ACA, the department made YouTube videos critical of the law.    The videos were testimonials of people who said they had been "burdened" by it.  One of them told reporters that he felt he was being pushed to "take a harder line against Obamacare."   The preponderance of negative reports in the department videos did not match the independent polls,

2.  "Attacking the Law."  The department targeted the ACA with a marketing campaign as Republicans in Congress tried to repeal the legislation.   During the period Congress was deliberating the law, Secretary of HHS Tom Price "sent out on Twitter 48 infographics advocating against" the program it is supposed to administer.  In addition, "the Trump administration ended $25 million worth of contracts that help people sign up for coverage."

3.  "Deleting Information Online.   The department removed useful guidelines for consumers about the ACA from its website."  Much of the information that the Obama administration had put online to help consumers learn about he ACA and how to obtain coverage is now gone, some of the basic links the very night of the inauguration.  It also erased positive personal stories about benefits people had received.

The authors conclude with a comment from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that said:   "It's these kinds of actions -- pulling back on outreach and enrollment, disseminating negative propaganda about the existing law -- those are the things that make the market implode."

And yet -- in spite of their best efforts, and in spite of lack of cooperation by a number of Republican governors in red states, and despite SCOTUS taking out one of the elements that made it work -- despite all that, Obamacare still lives.  And now a bipartisan group from the health committee in Congress is working to fix some of the problems that will make it work better, thanks to the leadership of Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murphy.


PS:  On Tuesday this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his "Medicare for All" bill in the Senate.  In writing about this, Matthew Yglesias wrote on that "By destabilizing ACA marketplaces, Donald Trump is leaving Democrats nowhere to go but left."   And he's still doing it, as described above.  Yglesias' point is that this commits Democrats to going the route of an all-government program, including phasing out the employer-based health insurance.   If instead Republicans had helped to improved Obamacare, the long-range solution could have developed in the direction of a private-insurance-based system, or at least some sort of a hybrid plan.    I'm not arguing that an all-government program is bad, but some people would.   The point is:  it's a more radical change than one involving private insurance.

PS#2:  In less than 2 weeks, insurance companies must lock in their premium rates for the coming year.  And Donald Trump still refuses to say whether he will continue paying subsidies to help make coverage affordable.   The insurers say, quite frankly, that it's this uncertainty that impels them to raise rates.   Meanwhile, the large insurance company Anthem has agreed to provide coverage in any county in the country.  So this eliminates the problem of places with no available exchange policies.