Sunday, December 31, 2017

500 wealthiest people collectively gained another $1 trillion in 2017

According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the rich are getting  much, much richer -- even before the tax cuts.

The Index reported that the world's 500 wealthiest people -- with Amazon's Jeff Bezos at the top of the list -- added over four times as much wealth as they gained last year.   Bezos himself ended up with $34.2 billion more, increasing his total to $100 billion net worth.

The collective wealth of the 500 on the Bloomberg Index is more than the gross domestic product of Japan or of Germany or of France and the U.K. combined.  Experts are predicting that 2018 will be even better for super-rich folks:  a real “boom time for billionaires," with individual wealth reaching an all time high.

These are the people who really really needed those tax cuts, huh?


About that Trump interview with the NYT

It was rare for a reporter, like Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, to snag a 30 minute, sit-down interview with President Trump.   So it was certainly worth taking.

But here's the thing about any interview with our truth-challenged president.  You have to sort out what to believe and how to take the obvious falsehoods.   We know that a lot of Trump's lies simply stem from his narcissistic need to be seen as the best, to be most admired, to have the most accomplishments.

But Ezra Klein ( suggests that at times its hard to tell whether Trump is lying or delusional.  Klein adds:   "The president of the United States is not well.   That is an uncomfortable thing to say, but it is an even worse thing to ignore."

For the moment, let's take the lying in the Times interview as just that:  lying.  Let's save for later the speculation about what it means:   political tactic?  not knowing fact from fiction?  breakdown in cognitive function?

Lying as a political tactic is getting a little old, isn't it?    The Washington Post has counted 24 false or misleading claims that Trump made in that 30 minute interview.   They range from Trump's claim that "It's been proven that there is no collusion," misquoting Sen. Diane Feinstein as having said "there is no collusion" with Russia.   In fact, Feinstein was responding to Jake Tapper's question on CNN as to whether she had "seen any evidence that this dirt [on Clinton] were ever given to the Trump campaign."    Her answer:  "Not yet."

Trump transforms "not yet" into:   'It's been proven that there is no collusion.'

Another false claim:  "I'm the one that saved coal.  I'm the one that created jobs.  You know West Virginia is doing fantastically now."   But, as the Post correctly states:  WV's increased domestic product is due to increased prices of both coal and natural gas, which fluctuate with the global markets -- and over which the president has virtually no control.   Fact checkers had previously given this lie a "Four Pinocchios" rating, but he keeps on saying it.

He also claims that, in the Alabama Republican primary, his endorsement brought Luther Strange's support "up 20 points."  Not true;   in fact, it made little difference.  Strange lost to Roy Moore by a margin  that was greater than the polls had suggested at the time of Trump's endorsement.

Another lie in the interview is Trump's claim that the "witch hunt" for collusion with Russia has strengthened his base.   That is factually untrue.   He has lost support -- and the decline is the steepest in the states that voted most strongly to elect him.  If that's not his base, what is?

A basic question is:   Does Trump know that he is lying?   Or does he actually believe what he is saying?    He has the capacity to select and distort a sentence to change the whole meaning of a paragraph.   But does he then believe that distortion?   Maybe.   Or maybe even he doesn't know. 

Ezra Klein, however, is raising a more serious question.  Is this a character flaw?   Or cognitive dysfunction?   Or . . ?  One of my colleagues, famous for his pithy explanations of complex mental functions, used to say that a hallmark of psychosis is the unshakable belief that your own thoughts are true.   [Note:  this was years ago, the colleague is no longer living, and this was not said in reference to Donald Trump.]

Trump may not dwell full time in that swamp, but he has a tendency to create his own reality -- and then to cling tenaciously to easily disproved facts.   The list grows longer with each new day.

My point, for now, is that Donald J. Trump is not fit to serve as president, regardless of what word we use to describe the status of his mental functioning. 


Saturday, December 30, 2017

Trump claims he can do whatever he wants with the Justice Department

In an impromptu, sit-down interview with the New York Times' Michael Schmidt at his Mar-a-Lago Grill Room during lunch hour, President Donald Trump made one of the most alarming statements of his presidency.

I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department, . . .  He added -- perhaps because this was said in the context of the Mueller investigation -- ". . . But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.” [referring to the Russian interference in our election].

Of course, he's right in a sense.   He has hiring and firing powers of the Attorney General who is the cabinet member in charge of the Justice Department and is the chief law enforcement officer in our federal government.  And Trump is his boss.

But by long-standing custom and agreement -- at least since Nixon's Watergate -- it is considered appropriate and only right that the president give the Justice Department a wide berth of independence.   The president must remain uninvolved in all investigations;  and it would be unthinkable for him to interfere when he himself might be under scrutiny.  That could be obstruction of justice -- a high crime.

The remedy, of course, if he violates that unwritten agreement egregiously, would be impeachment, which the Constitution grants to Congress as the remedy for "high crimes and misdemeanors" by the president.

But such a bald-faced and untempered statement is pure Donald Trump:    boldly assert his power -- and never mind the niceties of protocol, tradition, or plain political good sense.

Let's see how his lawyers and handlers walk this one back.   Will John Dowd claim that he wrote it for Trump?   Will Jay Sekulow go on tv and claim that we didn't hear what we heard?   Will Ty Cobb try to spin it as really being a means of cooperating with Mueller?  Will Kellyanne Conway invent a new form of verbal contortion -- as she parodies SNL's Kate McKinnon doing a parody of her own verbal gymnasticw?   Will Gen. Kelly just shrug and mutter, "I can't control what the president says."?


Friday, December 29, 2017

Election results: one down, one to go.

Alabama:  State election officials met on Thursday afternoon and promptly certified the election of Democrat Doug Jones as United States Senator to replace the acting senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to temporarily fill the seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions became Attorney General in the Trump Administration.   Jones will be sworn in Jan. 3rd, narrowing the Republican majority to 51-49.

The official count gave Jones a 21,924 vote advantage over Roy Moore, who had refused to concede defeat and even filed a last-ditch, legal challenge, claiming a variety of accusations of "widespread voter fraud" that he said should be investigated before the certification.

According to a CNN report by Chris Cillizza, "Moore's primary complaint seemed to revolve around increased black turnout in the election. Why that would be somehow fraudulent wasn't detailed in the complaint. And John Merrill, Alabama's secretary of state, dismissed a number of the specific issues raised by Moore as either misleading or simply false.  A judge denied Moore's delay request Thursday morning. And then came the official certification," signed by the governor, the attorney general, and the secretary of state.

But it was not for lack of Moore's trying a Hail Mary pass. Besides the "too many blacks voting" charge,  the complaint wanted an investigation of the cars with out of state licence plates at polling places.  And a vague statement that "voter fraud experts" from across the country say this was a fraudulent election.

No one denies -- nor is it illegal -- that the Democratic National Party helped the Jones campaign in its ground game of getting out the vote.   Hence the increased black voting and the out of state car licenses.   Other charges seems to stem from nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors and articles in Breitbart News.

It's over now -- although Moore may not think so.   To him, this was a crusade in which he "stood up for God and the Constitution."   How can you lose?   Even if you once molested some teen age girls?    Moore seems to think that he had a divine right to win this election.

But he did lose, fair and square.  It is now official.   Alabama has a Democratic senator, at least for the four years remaining in the Sessions term,

Virginia:   The election in Virginia for governor and members of their legislative bodies has been over for almost eight weeks, but the control of the House of Delegates is still undecided.

Republicans had had an easy majority that gave them long-standing control of the House, but they also came under the Democratic wave that elected a Democratic governor, despite Trump's having campaigned for the Republican candidate, the popular Ed Gillespie.   And a whole slew of Democrats flipped seats to blue in the House of Delegates.

Why the long delay?  First, a number of the races were so close that recounts were required.  When they were finally completed -- except for two -- that majority had dwindled down -- not just to one seat -- but to a single contested vote in one district that will decide which party controls the House.

If that single vote is read one way, Democrat's gain control.   If it is read the other way, the 94th district vote will be tied at 11,608 to 11,608 -- because the ballot would be discarded, not counted for the other side.   If that is the result, the law specifies a method of resolution:  the name of each candidate will be placed in a film canister (remember those from 35 mm film?) and one canister will be drawn blindly from a container.   Note that this is the way of deciding a tie in a district vote -- not in an overall tie to see who controls the House.  If the House has an equal number of delegates, they have to share power and administration.

Here's how it came to this.  The voting method is by paper ballot.  Voters use a pencil to fill in a circle next to the candidate's name.  On the ballot in question, the voter had filled in the circle by both names -- a Republican and a Democrat -- and then had drawn a single line through the filled-in circle next to the Democrat's name.

In the initial count, the Democrat lost in this district by 10 votes.    A routine recount then declared the Democrat won by one vote -- with that contested vote being the crucial deciding vote.  If the vote was invalid and not counted, the Democrat wins by one vote.   If it is counted, the vote is tied and will be decided by a drawing, as described above. 

A three judge panel was asked to rule on the contested vote.   They deliberated for two hours and finally ruled that it should be counted for the Republican -- the one without the line drawn through.   They were also influenced by the fact that this voter chose Republican candidates in other statewide races.   Democrats say this is wrong, because it is an improperly marked ballot and should be discarded.   They are considering further legal options for appeal.

I agree that the judges made a wrong decision.  A ballot marked like this, by most voting regulations, would be considered invalid.   And the argument about the voter choosing Republicans in other races ignores that Roy Moore is not just another Republican.    There was widespread split -- just look at the fact that he lost in a deeply Republican state.   That indicates that many people split their vote -- for other Republicans but against Moore.

That's where it stands.    If this doesn't make Virginia complicated enough, there's another district with a problem.   In the 28th district, where the Republican leads by 82 votes, Democrats are calling for a new election because at least 147 ballots were given out to the wrong districts.

So, Virginia, stay tuned.   With an 82 vote lead, this other district is unlikely to flip, even if they do vote again.   But in the 94th, if the Democrat wins, it means the House of Delegates will have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and will have to work out some power-sharing arrangement.

Someone said -- and it's true -- democracy is messy.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Dec. 28th. The world is sort of on track

With regard to the news I usually write about -- politics, civil rights and social justice issues -- there's not been much news these past few days.

There are two election stories hanging out there that I will write later today and have up for tomorrow AM.   One is about Roy Moore making a last minute challenge, a claim of "voter fraud" in the Alabama senate race.    That will be resolved one way or another this afternoon when the election commission meets to certify the election.

And the control of the Virginia House of Delegates is still not settled.   It's an amazing story of recounts, tied results, complicated by one single, potentially tie-breaking decision as to whether that particular ballot is valid.   Check back after midnight for the latest on these two stories.


PS:   Enjoy the holiday.    Has Donald Trump really decreased his tweeting?   Or is the media reporting it less?   Or has it lost its capacity to incite?    Like the old country music song title:  "Does the Spearmint lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?"   I never actually heard the song but have remembered the title for some 50 years.

Monday, December 25, 2017


ShrinkRap will be taking a holiday.    Check back on December 28th.

And to each -- according to your own special way of being with those you love and celebrating the mysteries and faiths of this life -- my best wishes for peace throughout the world.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sally Yates: "Who Are We As a Country?"

Sally Q. Yates first came to public awareness when Obama's Attorney General Loretta Lynch resigned as the Obama administration's term came to an end.   Yates was a career justice department attorney who was highly regarded both by her professional colleagues and by the administration within which she served.   She was the natural one to serve in the acting AG role until the new president's appointee was confirmed.

But Salley Yates soon collided with President Trump.   When she let him know that she would not defend in court his travel ban, he fired her and appointed another acting AG who said he would defend the executive order.

Sally Yates then testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2017 about her warning the White House attorney, Don McGahn, about Flynn's vulnerability to being compromised by the Russians because he had lied and they knew it.    Salley Yates was a stunning witness, because of her clarity, her preciseness, and her earnest devotion to the rule of law.   She seemed integrity personified.

She has now written an essay, published on December 19, 2017 in USA Today titled:  "Who Are We As A Country?   Time to Decide?"   It is a must-read, so I take the opportunity to reprint it here.

*     *     *     *     *

"Over the course of our nation’s history, we have faced inflection points — times when we had to decide who we are as a country and what we stand for. Now is such a time. Beyond policy disagreements and partisan gamesmanship, there is something much more fundamental hanging in the balance. Will we remain faithful to our country’s core values?

"Our founding documents set forth the values that make us who we are, or at least who we aspire to be. I say aspire to be because we haven’t always lived up to our founding ideals — even at the time of our founding. When the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were being enslaved by their fellow Americans.

"Not so long ago, all across the Jim Crow South, our country’s definition was defiled by lynchings, the systematic disenfranchisement of African-American voters, and the burning of freedom riders’ buses. And still today, we have yet to realize fully our nation’s promise of equal justice.

"But while we have too often fallen short, we have remained dedicated to our defining principles in our resolve to form a more perfect union. These principles have remained if not fully who we are, at least who we seek to be.

"Despite our differences, we as Americans have long held a shared vision of what our country means and what values we expect our leaders to embrace. Today, our continued commitment to these unifying principles is needed more than ever.
What are the values that unite us? You don’t have to look much further than the Preamble to our Constitution, just 52 words, to find them: 
We the people of the United States” (we are a democratic republic, not a dictatorship) “in order to form a more perfect union” (we are a work in progress dedicated to a noble pursuit) “establish justice” (we revere justice as the cornerstone of our democracy) “insure domestic tranquility” (we prize unity and peace, not divisiveness and discord), “provide for the common defense” (we should never give any foreign adversary reason to question our solidarity) “promote the general welfare” (we care about one another; compassion and decency matter) “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (we have a responsibility to protect not just our own generation, but future ones as well).
"Our forefathers packed a lot into that single sentence. Our Bill of Rights is similarly succinct in guaranteeing individual liberties — rights that we have come to take for granted but without vigilance can erode and slip away, such as freedom of speech (our right to protest and be heard); freedom of religion (the essential separation between how one worships and the power of the state); and freedom of the press (a democratic institution essential to informing the public and holding our leaders accountable).

"Our shared values include another essential principle, and that’s the rule of law — the promise that the law applies equally to everyone, that no person is above it, and that all are entitled to its protection. This concept of equal protection recognizes that our country’s strength comes from honoring, not weaponizing, the diversity that springs from being a nation of Native Americans and immigrants of different races, religions and nationalities.

"The rule of law depends not only on things that are written down, but also on important traditions and norms, such as apolitical law enforcement. That’s why Democratic and Republican administrations alike, at least since Watergate, have honored that the rule of law requires a strict separation between the Justice Department and the White House on criminal cases and investigations. This wall of separation is what ensures the public can have confidence that the criminal process is not being used as a sword to go after one’s political enemies or as a shield to protect those in power. It’s what separates us from an autocracy.

"And there is something else that separates us from an autocracy, and that’s truth. There is such a thing as objective truth. We can debate policies and issues, and we should. But those debates must be based on common facts rather than raw appeals to emotion and fear through polarizing rhetoric and fabrications.

"Not only is there such a thing as objective truth, failing to tell the truth matters. We can’t control whether our public servants lie to us. But we can control whether we hold them accountable for those lies or whether, in either a state of exhaustion or to protect our own political objectives, we look the other way and normalize an indifference to truth.

"We are not living in ordinary times, and it is not enough for us to admire our nation’s core values from afar. Our country’s history is littered with individuals and factions who have tried to exploit our imperfections, but it is more powerfully marked by those whose vigilance toward a more perfect union has prevailed.

"So stand up. Speak out. Our country needs all of us to raise our collective voices in support of our democratic ideals and institutions. That is what we stand for. That is who we are. And with a shared commitment to our founding principles, that is who we will remain."
*     *     *     *     *

How does "Sally Yates for President" sound?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Our impulsive Imp in Chief

Sometimes he does act more like an imp than a commander.   A couple of days ago, writing about the Republicans passing their tax cut scam, I wrote that there was discussion of having the president wait until January to sign the tax bill.

Here's why that might be a good idea (for them).   If he signs it in December, it immediately triggers a requirement to cut spending to offset the decrease in revenue.   If he waits until January, that requirement does not trigger until January of 2019, which gives the Republicans an extra 12 months to figure out how to do it with less devastating effects.

Unsaid, but probably the main factor behind Republican closed doors:   politics.   If he signs it now, what little temporary tax cuts the middle income people will get, will be overshadowed by all the news of popular spending programs being slashed -- right in the middle of the midterm elections, when every member of the House is up for re-election and a number of senators as well.

However, if he waited just 10 days, it would be 2018 and they could maybe slide through the election cycle on "tax cuts" without those annoying cuts to popular programs until 2019.

So what does Donald Trump do?    Here's how he described it himself.   "You know I was listening to the news this morning, and they were saying:   'I wonder if he'll keep his promise to sign a tax cut bill by Christmas.'    So I said to myself, 'I have to keep my promise.   And I called downstairs and told them to get the bill ready.  I have to sign it now."

And that's exactly what he did.

Never mind what all his advisers might have told him.  Never mind the formal signing ceremony planned for when Congress is back in town.  Never mind what Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan might think.  The little imp has to have his way.  And his way is what will make him popular on Fox News.

Of course, as a Democrat, this does not distress me -- at least not as far as the political problem he may have caused for his party.    Let them lose every seat, and I'll cheer like crazy.

But what it says about the president's lack of capacity to consider more than one factor at the time, no matter how weighty the issue -- that scares the bejeebers out of me.


Friday, December 22, 2017

U.N. rebukes Trump for Jerusalem move

President Trump, as we well know by now, announced the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and said we would begin preparations to move our embassy there.   This set off worldwide outrage, even among our allies.

Then it was brought up at the United Nations Security Council, where every other member of that body voted against the U.S. position.   Because of the peculiar set-up of that body, any of the five permanent members can veto a resolution.   And that's what the U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley did -- killed the otherwise unanimous opposition to our position with a veto.

The General Assembly of all U.N. member nations then took up a resolution to condemn the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.  Without the possibility of a veto in the General Assembly, the non-binding resolution to condemn was approved by a vote of 128 to 9.   Voting for it -- condemning our resolution -- were our allies the United Kingdom and France.   Thirty-five countries abstained, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

Trump's argument that he is merely recognizing the reality -- that Jerusalem is in effect actually the capital -- is absurd.   Yes, there is some practical truth in that, but that's not the point.

It is powerfully symbolic, as well as almost unanimously agreed, that the status of Jerusalem would be part of the peace process negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the idea being that Jerusalem would be the capital of both -- with Israel having control of West Jerusalem and Palestine control of East Jerusalem.

Trump, in effect, made a preemptive strike that probably destroyed any chance of a peace process going forward, at least as long as he is president.   The Palestinians promptly said that they would no longer talk with the U.S. concerning peace negotiations.   They no longer consider us an honest broker.

With Trump as president, they are correct.    Who controls Jerusalem is not just about Jerusalem.   Saying that it is Israel's capital, period, is like dealing Israel all the aces in the deck, when they already hold the winning hand.  Taking an even-handed position about the capital would be an indicator that we would look out for Palestinians' interests and not just Israelis' interests.

Trump did the opposite.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Tax bill passed and sent to Trump

Republicans finally approved their massive scam of a tax code revision that transfers wealth from the middle in order to give tax cuts to corporations and to the very wealthy.   They had to detour the bill back to the House to vote again on several things that had to be changed because they violated Senate rules for what can be in a tax bill.   Supposedly now it passes the parliamentarian's scrutiny -- even if it does not meet the smell test of the American people.

Here's some of what it does, as reported by the Washington Post:
1.  Permanently cuts the corporate tax from 35% to 21%.

2.  Temporarily cuts individual household taxes by token amounts which will expire in seven years.  After that a large part of the middle class would then be paying more.   [Does that sound like "bait and switch" to you, too?]    A Republican suggestion that future Congresses can fix that rings rather hollow.

3  Trump could sign the bill now, but they're considering waiting until January, which would avoid triggering the "pay-as-you-go" law that requires spending cuts to Medicare and other programs if the bill adds to the deficit.  [Which it will to the tune of over $1 trillion, according to multiple tax analysts.]   Signing it in January will give more time to gather support for a waiver to the spending cuts requirement.

4.  Republicans are defiant in insisting that the tax cuts will lead to increased growth and thus more tax revenue -- despite nearly universal estimates from non-partisan economic analysts that it will not happen.

5.  They also insist that businesses will put the money saved in taxes into hiring more workers and into higher wages.   They also claim that lower corporate taxes will lure many corporations back to the U.S., with greater manufacturing locally and more competition with foreign goods.
     This is despite the fact that, when asked, many CEOs say that they will use the money to buy back stock and to boost shareholder's dividends.  In other words, the savings would go to investors, not workers.  Others do say that they will hire more -- but it is far from a majority who say the latter.

6.  Even if it does stimulate some growth, almost no one -- except the most partisan proponents of the bill -- claims that the deficit will not increase, at least some.  The most respected analytic agencies, like the Tax Policy Center, put that figure at $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion.

7.   The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that, in 2018, taxpayers earning less than $25,000 -- the ones most likely to spend it -- will get a tax cut of $60.   Those earning between $49,000 and $80,000 would get an average cut of about $900.   Those earning more than $733,000 would get an average cut of $51,000.  Over the ten years this covers, that's over half a million dollars saved.

8.  The bill also raises the threshhold for estate taxes, so that a couple can pass on up to $22 million in assets without any taxes.  And it eliminates the alternate minimum tax, which had required rich people to pay some tax, even if loopholes gave them enough exemptions to owe none.

9.  It also eliminates the Individual Mandate on the Affordable Care Act, which is the main incentive to get young and health people to buy health insurance.   The effect is expected to raise premiums, yet again, by at least 10% and thus price more people out of the market, thus destabilizing the exchanges and resulting in another 13 million without insurance.  This of course is the Republicans' motive.   President Trump is already tweeting that he has effectively repealed Obamacare.

10.  Mitch McConnell supposedly promised Sen. Susan Collins that there would be something to offset this -- but then of course it didn't wind up in the final version, because the House wouldn't have approved it.   She voted for it anyway, despite being scammed by her own party.

That's just one example of the side "deals" to gain votes.    They bought Sen. Murkowski's vote by approving drilling for oil in the Arctic tundra -- an unnecessary and devastating environmental destruction.  And then there is the very special deal that benefits real estate developers, like Sen. Bob Corker, who came on board.   Guess what other big real estate developer will personally benefit (by the millions) -- but who claims the opposite, that the bill is going to cost him a ton of money.

Who knows what all else they'll find that did and didn't make it into the bill, when people finally have a chance to read a bill that is this important -- but got passed without a single hearing -- not one single hearing -- not one -- to hear from experts or opponents with points to make.

Here's how MSNBC's Chris Matthews described the bill the Republicans passed:  "The largest transplant of money in the history of the Republic.   Trillions of dollars shoved up to the top, the joint where most of it already sits."

Translation:   It was the billionaire donors that demanded this.   They put out the word:   give us our tax cuts, or no more campaign contributions.

Here's something else these Republicans left town for the holidays without accomplishing -- renewing the CHIP program that provides health care for millions of children whose families fall between Medicaid eligibility and ability to afford private insurance.

If the Democrats can't make use of all this to defeat Republicans in the 2018 elections, then we're doing something very wrong.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

FBI told Trump that Russia would try to infiltrate campaign. Instead of reporting contacts, team Trump welcomed them.

NBC News has reported that, soon after becoming the Republican nominee in July 2016, Donald Trump was warned by the FBI that foreign adversaries, including Russia, "would likely try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign."    NBC has multiple sources familiar with the matter who have confirmed the facts.

Hillary Clinton received a similar briefing, which was given in the form of a high-level counter-intelligence briefing by senior FBI officials.   They emphasized that this is a standard part of helping to educate presidential candidates and their top aides.    Officials said that the candidates were urged to report any suspicious overtures to the FBI.

Trump's first such briefing was on August 17, 2016.  He was specifically warned at that session about "potential espionage threats from Russia," according to two former officials familiar with the sessions.

A source close to the White House said they are maintaining that at the time Trump was unaware of the contacts between his campaign and the Russians;  and it's unclear whether the warning to Trump was passed on to other campaign officials.

Of course, we know now that by this time there had been multiple contacts, including the infamous meeting in Trump Tower with the Russian lawyer and her entourage, peddling dirt on Clinton.   Sessions had had meetings with the Russian ambassador, and campaign manager Paul Manafort was a two-way train to both Ukraine and Russia.   If Trump hired him as campaign manager and didn't vet him enough to know that, then that alone disqualifies him from being president.

Of course we now know -- and our counterintelligence officials knew at the time of the August briefing -- that there had already been at least seven contacts which our surveillance teams were beginning to monitor.   The fact that Trump did not mention any of these during the briefing must have raised questions in the minds of the briefers, who knew about the meetings that Trump wasn't telling them.

I'm just now remembering, when that first briefing was reported contemporaneously in the media, that Trump was accompanied by Chris Christie and Mike Flynn.  It was reported that Flynn became very testy and demanding in the meeting and that Christie had tried to calm him down.   I remember concluding that Flynn should not be made National Security Adviser.  It all makes sense now.   Flynn already knew he was guilty of colluding and was being defensive.   There is no public evidence that Trump reported any of this to the FBI.    Whether he knew, at that time, is an open question.   But Flynn certainly knew what he had done.

This may not be a smoking gun -- but it is one more piece of a big puzzle that adds to the column of behavior by the Trump campaign consistent with guilty knowledge that they were at least playing with fire -- and perhaps it was far more than that.

At the very least, it shows a lack of curiosity and a lack of concern.    But it could also be explained by the fact that it was not news to them and that they, in fact, welcomed the Russians as "helpers," rather than as adversaries.

Every little bit of additional culpability that comes out now about Trump and his team may convince one more person not to believe the false narratives being proliferated by Fox News and Breitbart and talk radio -- their false claims about the "deep state" establishment, that Mueller is dangerously biased against Trump, and that the whole investigation is the most corrupt witch hunt every propagated against a sitting president.  That's the defensive story they're trying to sell -- so they must know there's a lot of truth they have to try to smother.

I'm willing to let Trump have his blessed superlatives -- let him say that it's the greatest witch hunt ever -- if only we can get rid of him from the office of president and commander-in-chief.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Trump credited with "Lie of the Year":

The nonpartisan PolitiFact service that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution uses to check on the factual basis of statements made by politicians and government employees chooses an annual "Lie of the Year."

For 2017 the dubious honor goes to President Donald J. Trump.  In PolitiFact's own words:
"Trump continually asserts that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election is fake news, a hoax or a made-up story, even though there is widespread, bipartisan evidence to the contrary.
"When the nation's commander-in-chief refuses to acknowledge a threat to U.S. democracy, it makes it all the more difficult to address the problem.  For this reason, we name Trump's claim that the Russia interference is a hoax as our Lie of the Year for 2017."
This same presidential lie was also chosen by PolitiFact's readers as their choice for "Lie of the Year."

Trump so badly wanted to be Time magazine Person of the Year.  He even went so far as to tweet out the false info that Time had contacted him to say they wanted to name him, but that he had turned it down because he didn't have time for the photo shoot they required.    A spokesperson for Time said that's not the way they operate, and that the president's statement was false.

Does he not know that we will know that he's lying when he makes up something like that?    Perhaps there's a tiny segment of his base who will believe anything he says.   But they're not enough to re-elect him.   And how long will it take them to notice that, with this tax bill, he has completely abandoned any pretense of populism and being for the working man -- and bringing back the coal jobs.  That was all part of his bunkum con game.


PS:   In case you missed it, Time's Persons of the Year choice was the "#MeToo" movement of women coming forward to accuse men who have sexually harassed or abused them.  How ironic that Trump claimed that he was Time's first choice, which would mean their first choice was one of the perpetrators who their second choice was honored for exposing.    You really can't make up this stuff.  It has to be true;  it's too weird for fiction.

Monday, December 18, 2017

"The Real Russia Scandal"-- Bret Stephens

Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev

Bret Stephens is a regular op-ed columnist for the New York Times, writing from a conservative point of view.   His latest subject is the curious reversal of Mike Flynn's position on Russia and what that has to do with Donald Trump.

Stephens quotes from a 2016 book co-authored by Michael Flynn and Michael Ledeen, in which they state that "there is no reason to believe that Putin would welcome cooperation with us;  quite the contrary, in fact. . . .  [Russia and Iran are] the two most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance;  and . . . [Putin's deep intention is to] pursue the war against us."

And yet, by the end of 2016, Flynn was Donald Trump's designated National Security Adviser, courting the Russian ambassador with hints of lifting sanctions against Russia after Trump's inauguration.

Stephens suggests two factors to explain this shift:  "some combination of financial motives -- at least $65,000 in payments by Russian-linked companies -- and political ones -- a new master in the person of Donald Trump, who took precisely the same gauzy view of Russia that Flynn had rejected in his book."

But what were Trump's motives?    That is the more important question that has engaged journalists Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Phillip Rucker of the Washington Post, who give "a stunning description of the president's curious uncuriousness" about the Russians' interference in our election.   They follow this with "a catalog of all the many ways [Trump] sought to appease the Russian dictator.

Stephens postulate five possible explanations for Trump's attitude toward Russia and Putin:
1.  He is infatuated with authoritarians,  at least those who flatter him;  and Putin knows exactly how to do it.
2.  He is neurotically obsessed with proving that he actually won the election on his own.
3.  He is ideologically sympathetic to Putinism.
4.  He's stupid.
5.  He's vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Stephens concludes:   "each explanation is compatible with all the others.  For my part, I choose all of the above -- the first four parts being demonstrable while the last is logical.   But let's have that conversation at another time.   There's no need to obsess about electoral collusion when the real issue is moral capitulation."

*     *     *     *     *
And I would add that all five are compatible with what we are seeing now in the Republicans' frenzy to discredit Bob Mueller and his investigation -- which is a sure sign that the noose is tightening around the president -- and they are afraid they will be forced to act to impeach him.    Or else, go down in an even more ignominious defeat in November 2018 than they are already set for.

Of course, their immediate purpose is to shut down the investigations before Flynn can spill all the dirt on Trump.   But, folks, Flynn has already talked.  Mueller is no fool.   He already knows what Flynn knows.

Yes, there will be more.   But he's also already spent two days interviewing Hope Hicks, Trump's closest and most trusted aide.   And Priebus, Spicer, McGahn, and Kushner.

We thought that the books and tv specials and movies about the Richard Nixon scandal were great drama.   Trump may get his wish to be the "greatest" at something.   How about "the greatest fall from power?"


PS:   Look at that photo again -- the gleam in Putin's eye.   I don't think that's a flash of admiration.   To me, it's a look of triumph that says:   "You just fell into my trap.  I own you, you stupid fool!"

Semi-correction: re CDC's "no no words"

Regarding the post below about the CDC being told by the HHS not to use certain words in their budget requests, a former federal official suggested that it was not a ban on using the words in scientific publications.   Rather it was more like a recommended strategy to get funding requests accepted.   Whether the reference was to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which controls the CDC budget, or to Congress who would decide on the budget -- was not clear.

Whichever, it is a sad commentary about the Luddites in charge of our government.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Gag order on the CDC -- "7 no-no words"

The Washington Post reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has, for the first time in anyone's memory, issued a list of words and phrases that the Trump administration has prohibited from use in any official documents that will be used in preparing next years budget requests.

Here is the forbidden list:  "vulnerable," "entitlement," "diversity," transgender," "fetus," "evidence-based," and "science-based."

In some cases, alternatives were suggested.   For example, instead of "science-based," they suggest:  "CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes."  That last phrase is code for the creationists, "religious freedom" (aka freedom to discriminate) proponents, anti-vaccine zealots, and other dubious ideas that reflect religious belief or junk science.

One person attending the presentation said the reaction in the room was "incredulous," . . . "are you kidding?"    The presenter informed them that she was merely "relaying the message."

In the first place, there was no mention of the issues that have actually caused the most trouble during the Trump administration's first year:  sexual orientation, gender identify, and abortion rights.   And how will they ask for funds for continued research into birth defects caused by the Zika virus without using the word "fetus"?

The CDC is part of the Department of Health and Human Services;  and this attitude seems to come at least from that level, given that the HHS website has removed any references to gay, lesbian, and transgender -- for example, no longer collecting statistics on numbers of LGBT individuals, nor providing information about services available to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and related diseases among individuals and their families.

The massive CDC programs have a budget of about $7 billion and more than 12,000 employees working across the nation and around the world on issues like food and water safety, heart disease and cancer, and infectious disease outbreak prevention.   Usually it has strong bipartisan support, although there was a politically motivated ban, during the Bush II administration, against any research on gun violence as a public health problem.

But even that pales in comparison to this word censorship.   Maybe the CDC/ HHS folks are the good guys who know there are some right-wing kooks in Congress that would torpedo their budget if the wrong words set them off.

But what kind of world have we become when our elected lawmakers can't be told that some recommendation is "based on scientific evidence?"

We progressives like to point to the lack of any major legislation passed by the Trump administration as a measure of its failure.   We're fooling ourselves that they are ineffective.    They are accomplishing a quiet but major upheaval in what they are undoing and destroying.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Trump losing favor among Fox watchers

Jonah Goldberg, a Fox News contributor and also a once "Never Trump-er," has written a column about Trump's slide in the polls, even among Fox watchers.  He quotes poll numbers from Suffolk University/USA Today in June, October, and this week:

Trump's favorable rating among people who trust Fox News the most:
   June             90%
   October        74%
   December    58%

That is dramatic !

Blue wave could overtake Ted Cruz too

NBC political analyst Jason Johnson drew the parallel between Roy Moore and Ted Cruz -- not accusing Cruz of sexual misconduct but of both being difficult people for fellow elected officials to deal with.   Johnson said:

"Look, everybody dislikes Ted Cruz because he's a know-it-all and he's obnoxious.   Roy Moore is like Ted Cruz with a Bible."   Johnson is not the only one to see the link.   Former San Antonio mayor and former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro tweeted out this message following Doug Jones' stunning win on Tuesday night:
   "Be afraid, Ted Cruz.  Be very afraid."

So what's this about?  has some stats:
   1.  "Donald Trump won Alabama by 28 points.  He won Texas by only 9 points.

   2.  "Trump's approval rating in this week's Alabama exit polls was 48%.   In Texas, it's 45% - and Cruz's approval rating among Texans is even worse -- 38%.

3.  "Jones was a first-time candidate, while Cruz's opponent [Beto O'Rourke] is a popular congressman who is already running neck and neck in the polls and keeping pace with Cruz in fundraising."

The MoveOn memo continues:
"Even before Tuesday, Texas Republicans were worried about Cruz's re-election.   Last month, Governor Greg Abbott's top adviser sent a memo to top donors worrying about a "blue wave" that could sweep away Texas Republicans who usually win easily.

"If they were worried before, they should be in full-on panic mode now. . . . Cruz has been called the most hated man in the Senate.  A lot of Republicans still haven't forgiven him for not endorsing Trump at the Republican National Convention.   And he shares Roy Moore's extremist views on just about every issue.

"If we can win back the Senate, it will cripple the Trump Republican agenda.  And replacing Ted Cruz with a progressive like Beto O'Rourke would make it all the sweeter."

With the Alabama seat flipping, Democrats need to flip only two more senate seats.   Good prospects are Jeff Flake (Arizona) and Dean Heller (Nevada),  Then there's Bob Corker, whose retirement leaves an open seat.   John McCain is not up for reelection, but his health may force him out.

Some are now saying that the senate is a toss-up for 2018.   It should be easier, but the oddities of who is up for re-election make this a terrible year for Democrats who have many more seats to defend than do Republicans.

But that was a powerful blue wave that swept over Alabama.   It wasn't just Roy Moore's scandal and ineptitude.   It was also Trump and the Republican Party itself.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Two Trump appointees blocked by Judiciary Committee as unqualified

Two of President Trump's nominees for life-time, federal judge appointments have been blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee.   The reason?   They were both deemed unqualified.

Initially, the American Bar Association's vetting committee had given them both a "not qualified" rating.   One is the man I wrote about before who has practiced law for only three years and has never tried a case in court.   It later turned out that he had not disclosed the fact that he is married to the chief of staff for President Trump's chief White House Lawyer, Don McGahan.

The other one has a rather checkered past, having conducted a blog that extolled the "first KKK," supposedly one that had a good purpose before they turned bad.  There were other unsavory factors like this, which didn't seem to have any offsetting strengths as a legal scholar or a judicial expert.

Does the Trump administration not vet these people?   Or do they just not care, as long as they can pass the test to vote the Trump way?   I think that field day is over.  After Alabama, the declining approval ratings, the infighting, and the Mueller investigation -- things are going from bad to worse.   And some of the senators are not willing to keep playing the Trump game.


The battle over trans military recruits

One of the Obama administration's later accomplishments in its last year in office was the lifting of the ban on transgender people serving in the military services.   So, of course, ideology aside, President Trump would be compulsively driven to overturn the overturn of the ban -- i.e., he issued an executive order reinstating the ban.

It was almost comic in that Trump's first "order" was actually a tweet.  And it was months before he got around to actually issuing the executive order.   In the meantime, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs responded to questions about their ignoring it by saying something to the effect of:    'a tweet is not an order.'

Then, when the formal order finally came, the Secretary of Defense Gen. Mattis sort of slow-walked it, saying that they would need some time to do an assessment and give the president their best recommendations on the matter.   You see, the military had already dealt with whatever resistance they initially had -- and they were really fine -- based on their own experience -- with accepting transgender troops.

 Someone sued the government over Trump's ban.   Two federal courts have already ruled against it, and [here's what's new] on Monday a federal court in Seattle refused the government's request to place a stay on the execution of the ban, while the lawsuit goes forward to an appeals court.   Refusing to put a stay on an order being appealed usually indicates that the judge doesn't think the appeal would likely win in the end.

Just to be clear, because of all the double negatives:   Obama lifted the ban on trans in the military.   What's being litigated is Trump's attempt to reinstate the ban.   Two courts have so far said No to Trump, and a third court said No to a temporary ban while it's being appealed.   The score thus far:   Trans troops and Obama 3;   Trump and ban 0.

A Pentagon spokesman then promptly announced that it would honor the January 1st date specified for accepting new transgender recruits, even while appeals go forward.  This is a big win -- and another defeat for Trump's efforts to rev up his base.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Trump on Moore's defeat: "I was right!"

Donald Trump never admits to being wrong . . . about anything.   Having gone all out for Roy Moore in the senate race against Democrat Doug Jones, how was he going to handle another defeat that shows he has little political clout?   Here's how.  It came in a pre-dawn tweet.

"I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election. I was right!  Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!"

Duh.   From the wording, this quote has to be from the Republican Primary, when he was supporting Luther Strange against Roy Moore.    If Trump said that when he was supporting Moore as the Republican nominee in the General Election, why would he have said "in the General Election"?  And why would he have lent his presidential clout to backing someone he knew "couldn't win"?

Trump just can't say "My candidate lost."   But he backed Strange in the Primary, and lost.   He backed Moore in the General, and lost.  And he had previously backed Ed Gillespie for governor of Virginia;   Gillespie lost.

Loser.  Sad.   [irony intended].


PS:  This is all part of the same psychodynamic that leads Trump to have (or to be) the greatest, biggest, or even the worst . . . of everything.  He's even tried out the line, regarding Mueller's investigation:   "It's the 'greatest' witch hunt against a sitting president in history."

Tillerson "ready to talk with North Korea without preconditions"

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has set a new tone in saying the US is ready to begin exploratory talks with North Korea "without preconditions"  -- except for one:  talks would begin "only after a period of quiet" without any new nuclear or missile tests from North Korea.

This is a marked shift from President Trump's beligerent tone and rhetoric, in which he denounced and demeaned the North Korean leader and vowed to completely destroy his country if they attacked us.  And they would have to commit to full disarmament before diplomatic talks could begin.

Whether Trump has changed, or whether this is "bad cop/good cop" strategy, or whether Tillerson is going rogue without the president -- remains to be seen.

But, what a relief it feels.   That at least there is one important voice in this matter that seems to value talking, diplomacy, and negotiations.

I like Tillerson's laid back style.   Here's what he said:  "We are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk.  We are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions.   Let's just meet . . .  It's not realistic to say we are only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your programThey have too much invested in it. . . .  Let's just meet and . . . talk about the weather . . . or whether it's going to be a square table or a round table if that's what you're excited about."

Tillerson did add that full disarmament is the ultimate goal and that containment is not workable with North Korea, because they would sell off their nuclear weapons to raise money for their impoverished economy.   Tillerson has been having talks  with China on long range plans to handle these and other matters with North Korea.


PS:   A spokesman for the White House National Security Council told Reuters:  "Given North Korea's most recent missile test, clearly right now is not the time" to open talks.  So are Tillerson and the White House just not communicating?   Or is this good cop/bad cop tactics?

I'm not sure they are really far apart.   Tillerson says there would have to be "a period of quiet" before talks begin;  and he didn't specify how long that had to be.   So they could patch this up if they choose.   Or, if Trump wants to use it as an excuse to fire Tillerson -- we all, the whole world, will be the losers.    Tillerson's not my first choice for Sec. of State;   but he sure comes in ahead of Donald Trump.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A stunning win for Doug Jones in Alabama

It was a nail-biter kind of evening watching Steve Kornacki, with his magic digital board of election returns, calling the Alabama race for U.S. senator on MSNBC.    Guest and former New York Times editor Howell Raines speaking from his home in Alabama, said watching Steve was like watching the broadcast sportscaster of an Alabama Crimson Tide football game.  Yes, it was that exciting.

Jones took an early lead but was soon overtaken by Roy Moore, as the rural counties began to come in.   Then as returns from the college towns and then the big cities began to trickle in, Jones edged up -- until finally, with 98% reporting -- Jones took the lead with a margin of about 11,000.    When it became apparent that the still outstanding vote totals were in the urban areas of Jones' strength, the networks called the race for Doug Jones.

Throughout the evening, Kornacki's number-crunching showed Moore under-performing his own last statewide race which he only narrowly won.  This was true throughout the state.

Moore has a loyal following for whom he could do no wrong.   They see him as "a fine Christian man" who would not do what he is accused of doing by women who were teenagers when he allegedly dated or sexually assaulted them.  He has denied it.   His base say they are lying.

Many other Republicans "held their nose" and voted for him anyway;  because, for them, it was better to send a child molester than a Democrat to represent Alabama in the US Senate.   That vote for Supreme Court justices and anti-abortion legislation overrides anything else, for them.

This was an exciting result of a campaign by a good man running against a man who was unqualified to serve in congress, even if the women's accusations were not true.  (And I believe they are true.)

Moore was twice removed from his elected position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to obey a federal court decision -- where he put his own religious beliefs above the US Constitution and Supreme Court.  The first time was about separation of church and state, having to do with his Ten Commandments monument he defiantrly had installed in the Supreme Court building.   The other had to do with instructing the county clerks not to obey the US Supreme Court -- i.e., not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the Court's landmark ruling that recognized gay marriage.  He claimed at the time that the US Supreme Court did not superceed the Alabama state laws.

The losers?    Roy Moore, of course.   Steve Bannon, who is largely responsible for getting Moore the Republican nomination and has promised to remake congress by "primary-ing" any Republicans who are not loyal to Donald Trump.   And then Donald Trump, who endorsed Moore, campaigned for him, and recorded a robo call.   It was a stinging repudiation of the president, who won the state by 28% just one year ago.

The winners?    Doug Jones ran a campaign where they did everything right.   Few people thought he could win, but he did it right, helped by the scandal that apparently did hurt Moore.   Beyond that, the campaign tone was right, the message was good -- especially where a progressive Democrat was running for an office that had not elected a Democrat in 25 years in one of the reddest states that Trump won by  26   28 points just a year ago,

The turnout was the key, especially in the African-American community, which initially was not that energized.   The campaign won them over, and they turned out in bigger numbers than they did for Hillary Clinton.    The national party also played it right -- giving behind the scenes help and funneling money -- but not having a very visible presence in the state.   Alabama strategists know that their people don't like to be told what to do by "outsiders."

Jones' win reduces the political balance in the Senate to 51 to 49, although Mitch McConnell has already declared that Luther Strange, the temporary senator, will remain in office until the new term begins in January.   Which means that they will still have that vote for the tax bill they plan to vote on before the Christmas break.    That's probably legal, because the election vote has to be certified by an election commission before he can be seated, and Republicans are in charge of that, although some special elections have led to the winner being seating the next day.

This election also excites the Democrats with a can-do conviction that they can win again.   We have become so beaten down in spirit by the constant flood of Trumpism, the daily drumbeat of some disaster he has done or said or provoked.  Hey, we won in ALABAMA.   If we can win there, nothing is beyond trying.

And just for the sheer joy of winning again.   Of good and right triumphing over the lies and hypocrisy, and of stopping the destruction of the norms of our civic life.

Congratulations to Doug Jones, a good man who can make Alabamians proud again.