Saturday, January 14, 2017

Taking the weekend off

Friends -- I came back from two days out of town and away from the news.   It was overwhelming to read all that's happened in such a short time on the political stage.

So, instead of trying to comment on it all, I'm just going to take the weekend off -- and try to get some perspective.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Obama's Farewell Address: "Yes, we did!"

In his moving farewell address on Tuesday night, President Obama took as his primary subject "the state of our democracy."   He emphasized that democracy is not a system that works by itself;  it requires us to make it work.  And that, first of all, necessitates "a basic sense of solidarity . . . [because] we’re all in this together . . . we rise or fall as one."

To succeed, a democracy also requires a wide participation of its citizens, not just at the ballot box but in our respect for the equal value of all of us and "a sense that everyone has economic opportunity."    There are challenges that are testing our democracy, Obama said:  "A shrinking worldgrowing inequalitydemographic change and the specter of terrorism."

The president then took a few victory laps, reminding us of what had been accomplished:
*     *     *
"If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history;  if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11;  if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens;  if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. . . ."

"And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again. The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said and I mean it ― if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

"But for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal. While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind . . . that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics. 

"But there are no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.

"And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need;  to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now, and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible."

*     *     *
That was only the first part of his speech.   He talked about other threats to our democracy:   racial inequality and tensions as a dividing force when justice does not seem equal.   He touched on other big issues like economic inequality, climate change, the threat of terrorism, as well as the need to rebuild our democratic institutions and our participation in the democratic process.

No summary of a good speech can capture the poignance of the moment -- especially for those of us who remember what we felt when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in the same place in Chicago eight years ago.

I was filled with gratitude to this remarkable man and his family who have served us with a clarity of vision and a dignity that made us proud.   He and his family only enhanced the quality of the White House and its traditions, marking what's best in the American people.

It was very hard, watching Barack and Michelle and their daughters, not to think about the comparison of what is coming. . .


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Trying to keep up with all that's happening in Washington

It's a very busy time in Washington.  An inauguration coming up in eight days.   A farewell address by the president.   Hearings on cabinet nominees, with three top ones (for AG, State and Defense) all taking positions different from some of Trump's own positions.  Revelations about Russians hacking the Democrats.   Allegations that Russians have some compromising information on Trump that could be used to blackmail him.   Republicans back-tracking on repeal of Obamacare.   Trump's plans for (non)divestiture of business, which fail to do any of the five things a group of ethic and legal experts said would be required.   And a few other things as well.

The hottest news is that the group of intelligence chiefs included, in their appendix to the classified report to the president and president-elect, a top-classified memo about allegations that the Russians have compromising information on Donald Trump that concerns both his business/financial affairs and also some personal behavior.   The report also claims that an intermediary with the Trump campaign had been in touch with the Russians throughout the campaign.

The intelligence chiefs say that they have not been able to independently verify the reports concerning Trump and the Russians but that they have investigated and believe the source to be credible.   This person was later identified as a former British government spy, who has a vast network of connections throughout Europe, and who now operates as a private investigative consultant.   The "intermediary" has been identified as Paul Manafort, who was Trump's second campaign manager who left under a cloud that involved his connections with Russia.

CNN, the New York Times and The Hill newspapers have reported this much.   Various other, less cautious publications like Politico, Daily Beast, Daily Kos and others have reported much more detail and speculations, including:  (1)  that the Trump campaign itself was involved in the hacking of the Democrats and cooperated with the Russians on it; (2)  that the Russians, with Putin's approval, had tried for five years to cultivate Trump as someone who could be useful to them;  and to that end they had sought to lure him into business deals or sexual situations that would give them the power to threaten to blackmail him.

More:   (3)  Other reporting sources of varying reliability have claimed that Trump did not succumb to the faux business deals they tried to entice him with, but that the Russians do claim to have compromising videos of him with prostitutes that could be damaging.   (4)  It's also alleged that the Trump team has been fully aware of the Russians role in hacking -- and received a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin during the campaign.  (5)  It's further alleged, but not proven, that the Trump team itself had moles within the Clinton campaign, as well as its own hackers, and that they and the Russians had a conspiracy that involved clandestine meetings and shared information.   According to this source, Trump's team kept the Russians informed about the Russian oligarchs and their families living in the U.S.

I do not know if any of these latter allegations are true.  Trump has now acknowledged that Russia did the hacking;   but, as to any of his own involvement, he angrily denies it and calls it a witchhunt to discredit him.  But the allegations do fit with some of the puzzling comments Trump has made, such as claiming that he knew more than our own intelligence agencies did about what the Russians were doing, that he had "other sources" of intelligence.  It also helps to explain Trump's attempt to discredit and diminish our own intelligence agencies.

Another allegation that makes sense is that all of this focus, during the campaign and now, on Trump's connections with Russia may have also been useful to him in distracting attention away from his even more problematic business dealings and debts in China, which have rarely been mentioned.

Here's the bottom line, at this point:   We've probably only scraped the surface thus far.   We know there is something there, perhaps a lot.   We may be about to inaugurate as president a man who has been actively helped to win that position through the help of a foreign power that would like to control the U.S. -- a man who he is either cozy with, or one who could be controlled by, that foreign power through blackmail.

In other words:   It may all be much worse than we ever dreamed.   Not just a mutual admiration between Trump and Putin, but a much darker, clandestine relationship.  And it's too late to do anything about it, because we don't know the facts for sure.   Of course, it's not too late for Trump to resign . . . and give us the nightmare of Pence's ultra-conservativism instead of the nightmare of Trump's chaos.    


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Some things we heard from Sen. Sessions in Day 1 of his confirmation hearing for Attorney General

Senator Jeff Sessions took some heat from Democrats in the first day of his confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump's Attorney General.   Here are some things we learned from him.

1.   He says that it's his name, plus the fact that he's from South Alabama, that make people assume that he's racist.   You see, his name is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III -- sounds like he just stepped out of the pages of Gone With the Wind, doesn't it?   But, in fact, there are a few more things than his name and home town that suggest racism.

2.   He approved of the Supreme Court's decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act.   He says that law is "intrusive," because it does not apply to all states.   That's not exactly true.   The basic voting rights apply to all states.   The special requirements to get DOJ clearance to change any of their voting procedures is limited to certain states -- those that have proved in the past that, if not watched, they will enact racially unfair laws and practices.  And that is exactly what a number of states have done since the laws was gutted by SCOTUS.

3.  Sessions has a record of blocking judicial appointments of African-Americans for federal judge appointments.   In 1985 as an Alabama prosecutor, he tried unsuccessfully to convict black civil rights activists of fraud, including a Martin Luther King, Jr. aide.

4.  In 1986, his nomination to be a federal judge was denied confirmation by the senate because of several instances in which he had displayed racial bias in things he had done and said.    He now says that he did not do any of those things and that he simply had not prepared well for his hearings.   But the charges stuck as credible.   They included witnesses who had heard him refer to a black attorney as "boy;" suggest that a white lawyer with black clients was a "race traitor," and claim that civil rights groups were "un-American" and trying to "force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them."

5.  Senator Feinstein (D-CA) raised a broader concern.   As reported by Michael McAuliff for the Huffington Post, Feinstein opposes Sessions' confirmation because of his siding with Trump in barring all Muslims from entry into the U.S.    Also because he voted against banning torture;  because he opposes Roe v. Wade;   because he twice opposed humane immigration laws affecting families;  because he voted against three bipartisan immigration bills.

6.  In addition Sessions voted against the Matthew Shepard hate crimes law.   He opposes the concept of "hate crimes," saying hate crimes are "thought crimes."  He has also said he saw no evidence of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Matthew Shepard's mother wrote an open letter, stating that Sessions' nomination is antithetical to the bipartisan effort to stop hate.   She wrote:   "My son was not killed by 'thoughts' or because his murderers said hateful things.   My son was brutally beaten . . . and left to die in freezing temperature because he was gay.  Senator Sessions’ repeated efforts to diminish the life-changing acts of violence covered by the Hate Crimes Prevention Act horrified me then, as a parent who knows the true cost of hate, and it terrifies me today to see that this same person is now being nominated as the country’s highest authority to represent justice and equal protection under the law for all Americans."

7.  Sen. Feinstein pointed out that Sessions' past actions reflect an outlook that he will bring to the job of enforcing laws for a president whose election has caused widespread alarm at some of these same proposals.    Sessions countered by saying that he can, and will, enforce laws that he had once opposed as a senator.

Like Justice Antonin Scalia, who thought his judicial decisions were not at all affected by his own emotions or biases, Sen. Sessions is naive to think that he can be unaffected by his biases.

Yes, perhaps he can make a conscious decision to enforce laws he opposes;  perhaps he might even appoint a strong civil rights activists to head that division.   But there will be times -- some of the most important times -- when the AG is called upon to make the final call on a controversial decision -- about whether, for example, to open a federal investigation into racial bias in a police department in Ferguson, MO.

We need to have someone whose true sensibilities are for equality and justice for all.   I do not want an unapologetic and unrepentant Beauregard making those delicate calls -- especially with a president who will be tweeting and exerting pressure in the other direction on just such important decisions.

Sessions said that he would be able to stand up to a president -- but what is there in his prior life and actions that suggests he actually would?  Especially when he really agrees with that president?  This is one place that we need to consider who someone is, not just what he says he can do.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The dangerous power of President Trump's tweets

[Background and quotes from a Washington Post article by Phillip Rucker and Danielle Paquette.]

One day last week, President-elect Donald Trump fired off an early morning tweet to his 18.9 million Twitter followers:  “General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers-tax free across border. Make in U.S.A. or pay big border tax!”   Some 18,000 recipients retweeted it to others, multiplying the president-elect's slap at General Motors.

What of it, you ask?   Well, for starters, Google searches for information about GM spiked by 200%.    By the stock market's closing bell that afternoon, GM stock had fallen -- despite the fact that Trump's claim was false.

GM executives rushed to save their reputation, issuing a statement:  "All Chevrolet Cruze sedans sold in the U.S. are built in GM’s assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio.”  It's true that their plant in Mexico makes a Cruze SUV, but it is sold primarily in European markets with only 2% sold in the U.S.

A few days later, Trump did it again, this time firing off a tweet scolding the House Republicans for trying to gut the independent ethics office, which added impetus to their quickly reversing that decision.   The result was a good thing;   what I'm addressing now is Trump's twitter method of communicating and the dangerous power he has.

Then there was his tweet promoting his inauguration singer Jackie Evancho, which was followed by a big jump in sales of her latest album.  And then he taunted his replacement on "The Apprentice," Arnold Schwarzenegger, for the show's poor ratings.   Another attack on another car maker for wanting to build a plant in Mexico, which prompted action from Toyoto.

Rucker and Paquette concluded:

"Prolific, indiscriminate and often deceptive tweeting has been a central part of Trump’s public identity for years, well before he ran for president. He long ago mastered the medium to promote his brand, deflect unwanted attention and settle scores.

"During the campaign, Trump used Twitter to insult his adversaries and punch at people he thought had slighted him . . . .  But now, two weeks before being sworn in as president, Trump’s megaphone . . . has consequences that go far beyond a 'there-he-goes-again' dismissal. He is about to be the president, moving markets and taking action.

"On Saturday, Trump used Twitter to argue again that Russia’s hacking during last year’s presidential campaign had no bearing on his victory, despite a report from U.S. intelligence agencies concluding that the Russian strategy was to boost Trump’s chances. . . . 

"Trump’s communications approach has left corporate executives, celebrities, politicians, foreign diplomats and national security brass apprehensive about what he might pop off about — and when. . . . . "

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, [boasted that] “Donald Trump’s Twitter account is the greatest bully pulpit that has ever existed . . . .  In 140 characters, he can change the direction of a Fortune 100 company, he can notify world leaders and he can also notify government agencies that business as usual is over. . . ."

Think of it !!   A president Trump firing off a 140 character message and "changing the direction of a Fortune 100 company" -- or perhaps starting a war.

Blind to the danger he poses, Trump prefers to brag about the quality of his twitter writing.  He claims that people call him "the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter."

What a revolting, immature. frightening -- and maybe very perversely effective -- form of government by intimidation.   There seems no way and no one to stop him, short of impeachment.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Problems with Trump presidency already evident

During the campaign, many people said, and said it often, that Donald Trump was not fit to be president.   That opinion sometimes began with some specific thing he had done or said -- but it usually distilled down to the fact that he lacked the temperament, the experience, and the humility necessary to admit that you don't know everything and that you will listen to and learn from experts.

So, we're still a week and a few days from the inauguration, and here are some of the problems that are already evident:

1.  Trump refuses to abide by the rules and traditions of the presidency.   It began with his refusing to release his tax returns during the campaign.   It continues with his slithery plans and broken promises of when he will explain how he will avoid conflicts of interest.    It seems there is no way they can be avoided.   We don't even know what we don't know about who he owes money to (perhaps oligarchs in Russia connected with Putin).

2.  His cabinet appointees, apparently with transition team approval, are acting as if they have the same privilege as the president, not to reveal all of their business affairs in a vetting process.   Hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week for seven of them, most of whom have not completed the vetting.   Some have not even completely filled out the necessary paperwork filings.    Senate Republicans don't seem to care.

3.  Trump's overall attitude seems to be that he knows more than the experts.   That seems to be his internal rationalization for doing things his way, even when that violates all rules and traditions, to say nothing of common sense.   He thinks he knows more than our spy and counterintelligence agencies, whose report about hacking he refuses to accept.  During the campaign, he boasted that "I know more than the generals," referring to those in charge of the Middle East military operations.

He has shown public disdain for the CIA and the FBI and talks about restructuring the national security apparatus -- and he's not even in office yet, with zero prior experience with such matters.   Given two opinions about Russia's involvement in our electoral process, Trump chose -- publicly, on Twitter -- to say he believes Julian Assange of Wikileaks over the unanimous conclusion of several U.S. intelligence agencies.

4.  His statements about his briefing with the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA on Friday were at odds with what is actually in the joint report released Friday evening by those groups.   He tweeted out that it says that the Russians' hacking absolutely did not change the outcome of the election.   And he focused on the fact that no tampering with ballot counting was found.

That is a false reading:   the report says clearly and repeatedly that Russia's actions undoubtedly had a big effect on the electorate (especially the propaganda and fake news put out by Russian-paid internet trolls during the campaign).   But they make it very clear that their investigation "did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election."

Saying that "we did not make an assessment" of X, only says that we do not have the data to say one way or another;  it does not declare, as Trump does, that the hacking "absolutely did not change X."

What he fails to understand, or perhaps selectively talks about to his advantage, is that messing with the balloting is not the only way to influence an election.   The Russians did not try to change the way people voted;   they tried to change what people believed about Hillary Clinton to discourage them from going to the polls.   They obviously did the latter, with all their fake news put on the internet, picked up and amplified by the Trump campaign rhetoric and by the chants at his rallies.    The Russians played him -- or colluded with him, perhaps both.    I'll write more about the actual report findings in another post.

5.  From the beginning Trump has pooh-poohed the idea that Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC and Clinton's campaign manager.   Now that it's been proven and he can't so confidently cast doubt on that fact, he says that it was the Democrats' "incompetence," and their own fault for getting hacked.   He seems completely blase about the Russian trying to influence our election so blatantly, brushing it aside with comments like:   "It would be good for us to work with the Russians."   Does he have any idea why relations with Russia are strained?   It's not just that we don't want to work with them.   It's their repeated violation of values and international laws that we hold inviolable.   He wants to just wipe the slate clean, ignore their military aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, their hostility to NATO, their threats to the Balkan statea -- as if none of it ever happened.

What is so shocking is that, when shown evidence that Russians did actually try to influence our election, our president-elect seems unconcerned with that fact.  He'd rather maintain his buddy-buddy pose with a strong-man dictator.   We need to know just how financially dependent Trump is on financiers in Russia with close ties to Putin.   How will that affect our foreign policy and our relationship with Russia?

6.  He has praised Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, as a stronger leader than our own President Barack Obama.   He completely ignores the tradition of partisan politics stopping at the water's edge.   He seems not to realize, or to care, what effect this has on our international relations.

7.   While we're on the subject of his public comments (aka Twitter), there's the problem of his continuing to blast out these brain farts (sorry, but only crude language can capture what they are) that can affect the stock prices of a corporation, or the popularity of an entertainer, or the reputation of public figures.   It was just reported days ago that he still answers his own telephone, without knowing who is calling him.    This is not presidential behavior.   It's not just that we want more decorum;  it is dangerous for the stability of our nation for its president to speak to the public without a filter.   Since he has none within himself, he should let an adviser advise him on what he puts out.   Instead, one of his advisers has said that he definitely will continue tweeting after he becomes president.   It's the way he likes to communicate directly with the people -- i.e., he bypasses journalists, who might fact-check him.

The fact is that Donald Trump is not as smart as he thinks, and he certainly is not as knowledgeable about everything a president touches or speaks about.   Kellyanne Conway is doing a valiant job (though it diminishes her every day) of trying to explain -- or at least modify -- what he means.   In trying to describe how difficult Kellyanne's job is, Rachel Maddow says she is "a puppet without a hand" -- because she often has to go public without actually knowing what Trump means, or how to defend him.

Trump needs someone to clean up after him;   but he now needs someone to caution him and help him frame what he says -- BEFORE HE SAYS IT.    That's the big problem.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

A modest proposal to solve two big problems

Let's face it.    Republicans now have control of the White House and both houses of congress, and could also soon have control of the Supreme Court.   But the truth is, they're in the position of the dog having finally caught the bicycle it's been chasing -- they don't know how to run the damn thing.    And, more than that even, their ideas are totally out of touch with the American people.   On top of that, we have a president who knows nothing about governing.   This seems like a formula for chaos -- or an opportunity for Democrats to take advantage of.

So here's a modest proposal for slicing through that chaos and getting things going -- our way.   There are two parts to my proposal:

1.  Republicans have painted themselves into the proverbial corner by taking as their slogan "Repeal Obamacare."    But they have nothing to replace it with that would work half as well, and some of them know it.   So they wind up either failing on their defining issue -- or else doing serious damage to 20 million peoples' lives and to their own political future.

Solution:  Don't change Obamacare;   just say you did -- i.e., leave the program in place but change it's name and claim that you "repealed Obamacare."   Maybe even make a few small improvements, which the Democrats could go along with.   President Obama said almost as much in an interview this week:   he doesn't care what you call it;   just don't mess it up, for the good of the people.   People will eventually know the truth.

2.  Mitch McConnell looked ridiculous, being all peeved about the prospect that Democrats would block the Republican nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat that they stole from the Democrats.   Mitch said "the American people won't stand for it."

But they did -- when McConnell refused to let Obama's nominee even be considered.   So why not again?   Let's make them own that they did the same thing -- and then offer this compromise.   Because to leave the seat open would hurt the court and the people, badly.

Solution:  Convince President Trump to re-nominate Judge Merrick Garland.   After all, Obama did the honorable thing, in the last year of his presidency, by choosing a highly qualified, mainstream judge who should have been acceptable to the Republicans, if they weren't playing politics.   They wouldn't get any Democratic opposition.  And, since Garland has already prepared for the confirmation hearings, it should sail through in record time.   Then SCOTUS can start functioning fully again.

Yes, you say, but these are gimicky.   Shouldn't we force the Republicans to eat a couple of plates of crow before we let them off the hook?    I'd love to see that, but we have to face the fact that we could use the power of obstruction, but that makes us as bad as they were.    Do we want to win or to preserve health care and have a functioning SCOTUS?   Seems to me the combination of these two solutions is a good compromise -- each side gives up something and gets something.   It could be a good start on working together.    Trump might just go for it.