Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thank you, Barack and Michelle Obama

Nicholas Kamm, Getty Images

Scott Olson via Getty Images

Nicholas Kamm, Getty Images

Amanda Lucidon/White House Photo

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbia via Getty

YES,  WE  DID  !

"Farewell - Jan. 20, 2017": -- image of departing former President Barack Obama by former White House Photographer, Pete Souza.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Looking for a few encouraging signs on this Inauguration Day.

I've been trying to come up with a few hopeful signs to balance off the gloom and doom feelings about Donald Trump becoming our president.   But I keep getting bombarded by news items like this:

1.  Outgoing National Security Adviser Susan Rice says that the Trump National Security Team is so far behind in getting organized that most of them don't yet have security clearance.   So they can't fully brief them before they have to take over.   They're having to give them unclassified briefings as an interim.

The NSA director and his team are supposed to be the ones that bring together all the information from CIA, FBI, NSA, State Dept. and others and give the president a daily summary of what he needs to know.    From what she says, they are not ready to take over.  And of course this will not be unknown to our enemies, who could take advantage of this lack of preparation.

2.  It's not news, but each day of new hearings on Trump's cabinet secretary nominees confirms what we have known:   that a significant number of them will be in charge of an agency that they would really like to gut . . .  if not outright abolish.

3.  Trump's massive budget cutting plans, among other things, will include privatizing PBS -- and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

So the bad news goes from risking our basic security from terrorists and war-mongers, at one end, to cutting what enriches the quality of life at the other.    Is there anything on the hopeful axis to provide even a smidgen of balance?

The only encouraging thing I see is that, in their Senate hearings, a significant number of his important cabinet choices have expressed opposition to some of Trump's more outrageous statements and plans.    For example:   Tillerson at State, Mattis at Defense, and Haley as U.N. ambassador all regard Russia as an adversary that we must be on guard against.    Trump, at least publicly, has not reacted to what they have said in their testimony.

So it gives me a little more hope that some of his cabinet will stand up to him and give him advice that might differ from his preconceptions and from the advice he has been getting from Gen. Michael Flynn, his National Security Adviser and former foreign affairs adviser during the campaign.    Gen. Flynn is the loose canon in the lot,  with his conspiracy theories, his links to Russia, and his outrageous loose talk.   In that way, he's probably worse than Trump himself, and he's supposed to be the one who pulls everyone's ideas together and gives a reasoned, calm assessment to the president.

Here's what the hearings have revealed about some of the nominees' positions:

1.  Gen. James Mattis (Sec. of Defense) differs sharply on Russia, saying that it is "one of the top threats to American-led world order."   He also strongly supports NATO and the Iran Nuclear Agreement.   He also has said that he has no intentions of reversing the Obama administration's decisions on social issues in the military.

2.  Rep. Mike Pompeo (Director of CIA) says he will continue to pursue investigating Russia's involvement in our election and "pursue the facts wherever they lead us."   He also emphatically declared that he would not resume the use of torture in interrogations and, if ordered by Trump to do so, he would not comply.

3.  Rex Tillerson (Sec. of State) also took a relatively hard line on Russia, supports our role in NATO, and he said that he is opposed to any general ban on Muslims entering our country.  

4.  Gen. John Kelly (Homeland Security) says a physical barrier on our border (i.e., a wall) will not fix the immigration problem.  He will probably prefer to beef up technology to check identities and monitor crossings.

5.  Rep. Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) opposes a Muslim registry.    He also gives the impression of being a straight-forward follower of the law with deep respect for the law.   The valid complaints against him stem from past times when his racist bias affected some of his decisions and his language.   But its unlikely that he would go along with any attempt by Trump to circumvent the law to punish enemies, for example.

6.  Nikki Haley (Ambassador to the United Nations) has differed with Trump on a number of issues that are important, first and foremost, on his opposition to the U.N. as an institution.  She also joins several other nominees in differing with him on Russia, NATO, and his proposed ban on Muslims.  In response to a question about differing on so many issues with the president, she pointed out that he has already changed some of his views because of discussions with people he has appointed.   (He did reconsider his view that torture worked after Gen. Mattis told him that it doesn't.)   Haley generally took a positive view, based on the fact that he did appoint people who differ with him and the likelihood that he will listen to them.

Do these differences with Mr. Trump, and in some cases with his National Security Adviser Gen. Flynn, indicate that Trump is choosing a cabinet that will present him with different views that will then get hashed out in discussions of input from all views?     Or will it be a situation (as we have feared) that he will adopt the view of the last one to talk with him -- in most cases that being his NSA?   The former would be good;   the latter very bad.

There are some bad choices in these cabinet picks (a Treasury Secretary who manifests some of the worst abuses of Wall Street, an EPA Secretary who minimizes human causes of climate change, a Labor Secretary who opposes workers rights and unions, and Education Secretary whose entire focus seems to be doing away with public schools, even while she claims to be passionate about finding solutions to failing public schools).   But Gen. Flynn seems in a class by himself;  and, since the NSA is not subject to Senate confirmation, he has not been questioned and vetted.   With him my objections are not the policy differences but that he is too much like Trump himself and seems to encourage his worst instincts instead of being a moderating influence who helps him focus and reason.

Well, whatever will be . . . it all starts at noon today.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

FBI, CIA, NSA and others began investigating Russia for tampering with our election in spring 2016

McKlatchey reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon have reported that "The FBI and five other law enforcement and intelligence agencies have collaborated for months in an investigation into Russian attempts to influence the November election, including whether money from the Kremlin covertly aided President-elect Donald Trump."

Involved along with the FBI were the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, and the Director of National Intelligence.  One question is whether Kremlin money may have been used covertly to help Trump, according to two sources.  Not overt campaign contributions, however, but more likely something like giving money to intermediaries who would pass it along to hackers.

These investigations were ongoing long before the FBI obtained the information from the former British spy, which was made available to President Obama, President-elect Trump, and the leaders of Congress less than two weeks ago.

Mr. Trump has tweeted the following:  "Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING."

Nevertheless, according to the McKlatchy news story, "the U.S. intelligence agencies have been unanimous in blaming Russia for the hacking of Democrats’ computers but also have concluded that the leaking and dissemination of thousands of emails of top Democrats . . . were done to help Trump win."   They also, however, said that they did not make an assessment of the effect on the outcome of the election.   They did not, as Republicans have claimed, say that it did not affect it, only that they did not attempt to determine that.

However, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday's "Meet the Press" that she believes Russia's tactics did alter the election results.   The Senate Intelligence Committee has now opened an investigation of its own into Russia’s involvement and will have subpoena power.

The former British M16 spy, Christopher Steele, who investigated this, met with an FBI official last June;  and by early December Sen. John McCain gave FBI Director James Comey a copy of a 35 page compilation of Steele's reports, which were published by BuzzFeed with a caveat that there were obvious errors and that the evidence had not been corroborated.

This is the problem when anything less than fully corroborated news is made public.   The errors are used by those hurt by the report to dismiss any truth in the report at all.  Thus, President-elect Trump and President Vladimir Putin have both dismissed the whole thing as "fake news," and accused Obama administration officials as trying to undermine Trumps legitimacy.

However, the BBC has reported independently that the FBI obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to examine bank records and other evidence of money transfers related to Russia.   Others with knowledge have said that such warrants are not issued unless there is evidence of probable cause that it is likely to produce evidence incriminating a foreign power or its agent.

Given that the Stelle reports did not meet that standard, and if in fact they have obtained a FISA warrant, it indicates that additional evidence exists beyond what has been made public thus far.  That is an important fact to keep in mind.

Rather than showing concern over a foreign power influencing our electoral process, Donald Trump has continued to tweet out his lack of concern, such as:  "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only "stupid" people, or fools, would think that it is bad!"  On another occasion, he said:  “When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!”

We have Trump's obvious admiration for Putin, calling him a stronger leader than Obama.  His comments all along have been to play down any worry, even any reason to investigate.  We have the multiple people in the Trump organization, including his National Security Adviser, his former campaign manager, and his nominee for Secretary of State -- all with strong ties to Russia.   Why did NSA Michael Flynn call the Russian ambassador five times on the day that Obama announced the sanctions against Russia for the hacking?

Why -- with all this -- does Trump only want to shut down any concerns about his ties to Russia?    Even if there is nothing there, no connections at all -- why would a president-elect not at least try to explain the seemingly obvious connections and reassure the American people, rather than just sweeping it under the rug?   Unless there's something to hide.

As he tries to imply, this lack of concern may simply signal a strategy of reaching out to Putin with the hope of establishing a new direction in U.S.-Russian relations.   On the other hand, it could be that all the suspicions about Trump and Russia are true -- and that we are about to inaugurate as president someone who either has been bought, brain-washed, or compromised by a foreign adversary.

And what t


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

From Obama's farewell address

"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."

Listen up, Trump.    Bringing back those jobs is a promise you can't fulfill.  Think up something else to make American great again.


Catching up on Trump and Russia: What is known? What is suspected but not proved?

Last week there was so much news happening so fast that being out of town and away from news for two days left me hopelessly trying to make a coherent summary.    In just those few days, we had:

   (1) Trump's totally inadequate plan for how he would avoid conflicts of interest in his business, which the chief of the independent Ethics Commission called weak and unacceptable.  Trump of course used twitter to fire back insults at him.  
   (2)  Confirmation hearings on a number of cabinet nominees, with serious questions about most of them;
   (3)  Our spy agencies' report on possible Russian compromising information (i.e. blackmail material) on Trump, who of course used twitter to imply that our security heads were acting like Nazis.
   (4)  Obama's farewell address;
   (5)  Complete GOP chaos about Obamacare:   to repeal without replacement or not?  Trump says no;  Ryan says yes.  The people are saying NO.
   (6)  Trump's first press conference since election, which did not go well at all.   Trump yelled at the CNN reporter and refused to let him ask a question because CNN ran the spy story.

That's a partial list.   It still feels overwhelming to get my head around, to put it all into a reader-friendly-length post.    And then I discovered that Lincoln Mitchell had done just that kind of summary about the Trump-Russia connection -- with the concise clarity that I strive for;  so I'm going to borrow/steal what he wrote on the Huffington Post  to update us at least on that one issue:

*   *   *   *   *
"The saga of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seems to get more complex and less clear each week. The latest chapter included a dossier gathered by a British intelligence veteran at the behest of Trump’s political opponents, first from within the GOP, and then from interests associated with the Clinton campaign. The dossier included allegations that Russia had been cultivating Trump for years, of business ties between Trump and Russia, and of Trump’s sexual misconduct while in Russia for business in 2013. There is no proof that these allegations are true, but they have taken most discussions of Trump’s relationship with Russia in a new direction.

"One of the challenges of probing the Trump-Putin relationship is that there are so many components to it with varying degrees of relevance and gravity. For example, Trump campaigned on a platform that included a less confrontational relationship with Russia. On its own this is a perfectly legitimate, if in the eyes of many misguided, political position and one that should be debated among the American people and our legislature. Trump also may, or may not, have business relationships with Russia that are of interest to the American people and that might inform his positions on Russia and might leave him vulnerable to conflicts of interest. We know that for quite a while during the campaign, Trump’s most senior adviser was a man with strong ties to pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine. Again, this alone is not necessarily a problem, but given Trump’s possible other ties to Russia, is troubling. According to the DNI report from earlier this year, it also seems that the Russian government preferred Trump to his opponent Hillary Clinton and that the Russian television network RT has made a lot of stories critical of Clinton and of the US more broadly. This seems to be a bizarre and irrelevant point, that while probably true should not cause a crisis in our democracy. According to that same DNI report, Russia illegally gained access to DNC emails and was involved in leaking those to the press during the 2016 election as a deliberate, and ultimately successful effort to damage Hillary Clinton.

"There is clearly a lot of pieces to Trump’s relationship with Russia. The first question facing anybody trying to figure all this out is what is important and what is not. Much of what is now taking up the Trump-Russia bandwidth is not pertinent or significant and should not be treated as such. RT is a Kremlin mouthpiece that doesn’t like the US and likes Trump. While that may be unfortunate it is hardly an existential crisis for democracy. Trump may have engaged in sexual shenanigans while in Moscow. That may be interesting, if true, but should not break a presidency. Trump doesn’t support the mainstream hawkish view on Russia and its near abroad. Again, on its own that is simply policy position that should be discussed and debated like any other.

"Some of the most important issues in the Trump Russia mess are in danger of being lost in waters now muddied by unproven stories about prostitutes, less than plausible assertions that Trump is some kind of semi-sleeper agent and what amounts to little more than kvetching by the DNI about RT. The first of these is that Trump benefited from a Russian effort to swing the election, not by having their state run media support him, but through Russia breaking into the DNC emails and leaking damaging information about Hilary Clinton. The second is that there is reason to believe, not least because of Donald Trump’s steady refusal to dispel concern by releasing his tax records, that the Trump Organization has a financial relationship with Russia that will lead to conflicts of interest once he becomes president. Moreover, these potential conflicts of interest may drive US policy towards Russia. These are the two issues that raise deep concerns for the country and that any congress, regardless of party, that understood its role in our system of checks and balances as central to our democracy, would have begun investigating already.

"Over the course of the campaign and the transition period, we have learned that one of Trump’s favorite political tactics is essentially “hey, look at that shiny object over there.” He ran for president by deflecting attention from a bad story to a new one every few days, or hours. That is what we are saying more specifically with regards to Russia. It is important to keep the focus on what we know is important, how Putin helped him win and what Trump’s business interests and relationships are in Russia. Unless we do that, Trump will continue to get away with just pointing to the next shiny Russian object."

*   *   *   *   *
When even our serious, liberal news media spend so much time/space on the shiny objects and the titillating innuendos, the serious problems -- the ones that we know are true -- will get pushed to the back burner.   And it takes only a day of two of repeatedly being pushed back by one more bright object before the true story is completely off any burner and growing cold.

The problem is, as we are learning, that we do not have much regulation on the president of the United States.   Legal requirements that cabinet officers and senior staff must adhere to are not mandatory for the president.    Apparently the Founders took the position that, because they are elected by the people, presidents are granted a great deal of trust by the people that must not be abridged by our laws.   And by tradition most presidents have voluntarily followed what is required of the people who work for them, in terms of disclosure, divestiture, etc.    But Nixon, and now Trump, have proved that not all who get elected are this trustworthy.

On the other hand,  to even run for president, we require a person to be at least 35 and a "natural born" citizen.   Why could we not also require financial disclosure relevant to possible conflict of interests?  -- in my view, far more important than whether someone is 35 instead of 34.   The disclosure could be arranged so as to preserve privacy.   You could appoint a high level, bipartisan, expert panel to review the disclosure and render an opinion and advice.   It could be reviewed by a confidential judicial panel -- as they have for approving some exceptions to surveillance of citizens.    Otherwise, we only have impeachment -- and that can come only after something has already gone badly wrong.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

When you can't believe what a U.S. president says

The world has a problem, folks.   In just three more days, the most powerful nation in the world will have a president whose words cannot be considered reliable.   Now, I don't mean that all of the U.S. presidents have always strictly told the truth.   Sometimes, it seems, the delicate and sensitive nature of geo-politics necessitates fudging the truth a bit.   But that's a strategic matter;  it's done intentionally, and there are good reasons for it.

I'm talking about something different.   Columnist Leonard Pitts put his finger on it in a recent essay about what Donald Trump's chief "explainer," Kellyanne Conway, said.   In a CNN appearance, asked about a recent twitter dispute in which Trump said he didn't say what there is ample video footage of him saying, Conway said:
"Why don't you believe him? . . .  Why is everything taken at face value? . . . You can't give him the benefit of the doubt on this, and he's telling you what was in his heart?   You always want to go by what's come out of his mouth rather than look at what's in his heart."
All right.   Let's stipulate that Kellyanne Conway has a very tough job:   trying to clean up after Donald Trump's tweets and, generally, trying to convince people that he doesn't really mean what he says -- despite the fact that he often then comes back and says that, yes, what he said was in fact what he meant.

This is not the Bush-type inarticulateness;  these are not just misunderstandings or, to use a Bush-ism, "misunderestimating" him.    These are clear, black-white reversals.   He mocks a disabled reporter on video;   then insists that he did not do it.    Clear-cut denials that he did what he did, said what he said -- despite forensic-level evidence that he did or said the very thing he's denying.  Pitts expounds on the implications:
"So it's funny, but frankly also chilling, to see Conway scurrying around at this late date, . . . asking America . . .  Don't go by what comes out of his mouth? . . . Seriously?
"She does know this man is about to be president, right?  She realizes, doesn't she, that a president's words can incite revolution?   That they can move the stock market?  That they can get people killed? 
"Yet this woman thinks the problem with Trump's diarrheal mouth is the fact that we listen to it.  In other words, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.   Is that to be the message our ambassadors give our foreign friends -- and foes -- for the next four years?"
That's not going to work, folks.    But don't blame Conway.   She's just trying desperately to do the impossible job she's hired to do.

The problem here is that too many of the American people did believe what came out of his mouth, and they liked what they heard -- in part because he expressed what was in their hearts.

But that was a very dark, angry, paranoid, conspiracy-driven, vicious, and sometimes violent message -- along with strong-man promises to change all of that, make things work, Make America Great Again.    Even then, Clinton got almost 3 million more votes than he did;  and, but for the vagaries of the Electoral College, she would be the one getting sworn into office on Friday.

So, perhaps Kellyanne Conway isn't talking just about what Trump said in his latest twitter rant -- but about all those promises he made at his campaign rallies -- yes, those that got him elected.   What's going to happen when his rally buds realize he lied to them?   That he can't -- just by saying he will -- change all that?  What's going to happen when the leaders of our allies confront him about the things he has said about NATO, about trade, about the Paris climate agreement?

Who ya gonna' believe?   What if you can't believe the President of the United States?   If that turns out to be true, then he's not likely, for very long, to be considered the leader of the free world.   Nor will the U.S. continue to be the leader of the world . . . free or not.


Monday, January 16, 2017

What to do about Trump's inauguration: Boycott? Quietly ignore? Attend -- quietly? or ostentatiously?

As with most important controversies, it boils down to a clash of two principles or two values.   In deciding whether to attend Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States, those two principles are:

1.  Peaceful transfer of power.   The inauguration -- the swearing-in ceremony, attended by political and civic leaders -- is an important symbol and indication of the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.    Along with our elections, it is one of the most important quasi-sacred events in a democracy.  The support of former opponents by their attendance says to all that we respect the outcome of the election and acknowledge that this person being inaugurated is the legitimate leader of the country for the designated term.

Following this principle, all former presidents will attend, except Pres. George H. W. Bush, whose age and health are sufficient reasons for him not to attend a prolonged outdoor event in January.   This means that Bill and Hillary Clinton will be on the VIP platform.

It is expected that most members of Congress and important office-holders in the bureaucracy will attend.   But, breaking with that tradition, a number of them have announced that they will not be attending, which brings us to the other conflicting principle.

2.  Respect for the office of the president.  Attendance at the inauguration also indicates a respect for the office of the president, even when one may not respect the particular individual elected.  But one puts aside past fights, insults, and hurts to show respect for the highest office and for our democracy.

What to do then, when that lack of respect goes so deep;   when the grievances have been so character-driven, not just by partisan disagreements?   That is the problem this year.   While respecting the office in the abstract, many people feel that this president-elect has befouled the office already before he begins.

There is such opposition to Donald Trump as a man who lies, cheats, manipulates, scams, and stiffs people who have done work for him and not gotten paid.   He has repeatedly used tax and business law loopholes to his advantages, no matter who else it hurt.   Having declared bankruptcy six or seven times, and some times profiting from it personally while ruining others, he does not personify the character qualities that we want in our president.

Instead, we have a vulgar,  loud-mouthed bully, whose example has already encouraged bullying among middle school children in the country.    His treatment of women, his disdain for minorities, including desperate refugees, his arrogance and obvious narcissism, his recklessness and ignorance of what a president needs to know -- all make it difficult to feel good about acknowledging him as our 45th president.

What to do?   Every person will have to decide for themselves.    Hardest of all must have been for Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote by almost 3 million more votes cast;  and who, but for our antiquated electoral college system, would be the one being sworn in as president.

On top of that, we now have evidence that the Russian government hacked into her campaign's emails and leaked contents to Wikileaks, who subsequently published them.  We now know that the Russian's intent, initially, was to defeat Clinton;    but eventually the Russians were actually trying to help Trump win.   Putin had a personal vendetta against Clinton, blaming her as Secretary of State, for fomenting the political unrest that almost defeated him (Putin) in his presidential re-election in 2011.  But, once Trump was the nominee, Putin apparently saw him as someone who could be manipulated and therefore a useful asset for Russia.

How much this affected the final outcome is impossible to say.    But there is no doubt that it was one of several factors operating in the last months of the election, any one of which could have made the difference in several critical states that were close.

Beyond the effect on the electoral process itself, however, many people do not feel that Trump is fit to be president on broader grounds:   temperament, knowledge, judgment.   The thought of him representing the United States in international summit meetings is an embarrassment.  The thought of a man of his temperament and judgment being in charge of our nuclear arsenal is horrifying.    The disrespect he has shown for women and minorities and immigrants.   There are dozens of different reasons that people have for not wanting to celebrate Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th United States President.

I am one of them.   I am a little less fearful of calamity than I was a month ago, because some of his cabinet choices have testified that they disagree with some of his most extreme -- and dangerous -- policy statements;   and several of the key appointees (Sec. of Defense, Sec. of State, Head of CIA) have all pledged that they could stand up to the president where they see him about to violate laws or do something dangerous.

But being just "a little less fearful of calamity" is not much comfort about the future.   I'm afraid we've lost the Supreme Court to a hard right majority for the next two or three decades.  This could include over-turning Roe v Wade, upholding unbridled money in politics, doing nothing to repair the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and doing nothing to protect transgender individuals.

Besides all of these reasons for not wanting to "attend" the inauguration (via TV in my case), I just don't think I could stomach the tawdry aesthetics that I expect from a Donald Trump extravaganza.   The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the high-kicking Rockefeller Center Rockettes are good Middle Americana, I suppose.   But don't be surprised if that's as high-class as it gets.

We can't expect an inaugural poem written for the occasion and delivered by a Maya Angelou (Obama 2009) or  one by the young Hispanic, gay, immigrant poet Richard Blanco (Obama 2013) -- or the original elegant performers, Robert Frost and Pablo Casals (Kennedy 1961).   Or the epitome of soul, Aretha Franklin (Obama 2009) or of pop, Beyonce (Obama 2013).   No, attendees are more likely to be given a taste of  Duck Dynasty, TV evangelism, and NASCAR on the Mall.

I'll pass.