Saturday, February 18, 2017

Senate IntelCom has urgent meeting with Comey

Friday afternoon began a recess for Congress, and that usually means a mad dash to the airport by members of Congress who are eager to get home.   That is what makes this Friday afternoon meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee so significant.   Nothing was announced about it except that it was to be "about Russia," plus the fact that FBI Director James Comey was observed going into the room.

In addition, senators were especially tight-lipped with the press when they left the meeting three hours later, some even refusing to acknowledge that Comey had been there.   So speculation is rife that something's up with the FBI's investigation into Russia's hacking and influence in our election. Some new evidence?  We don't know, but it's unlikely they would have scheduled a routine update session on Friday afternoon of a recess weekend.


President Trump's limited attention span

President Obama used to have dinner with his family in the East Wing, then settle down in a quiet place to read his briefing books and other background reading until midnight or after.

Knowing what we know about President Trump's limited attention span, we didn't expect him to follow Obama's pattern.   But, according to some staff who know, it's worse than we thought.

Trump does not read briefing books.   He asks for his daily briefing to be reduced to a one page digest, with bullet points, but no more than nine per page.   That means, if there is a tenth important thing for him to know, it has to wait for the next day, I suppose.

Trump fills his unscheduled time watching cable news and Saturday Night Live -- and internet, Breitbart-type rantings.   Then he blasts out his thoughts on Twitter, sometimes just repeating what he's heard on any of these sites.

Personally, I feel very uncomfortable knowing our president and commander-in-chief puts our vital interests and national security at risk by responding publicly, to his millions of followers, with random, unvetted rantings of zealots and charlatans that he seems to give as much credence to as he does to the carefully vetted information from our intelligence experts.

That would explain why he still insists, without evidence, that voter fraud kept him from winning the popular vote.  And his too-brief briefing books page, which cannot include background on major issues, would explain why he had to pause, during his phone call with Putin, to ask his aides what the New START Treaty is, even though it is a major agreement between us and Russia for mutually reducing our nuclear warheads.  He didn't know -- for all his closeness with Putin.

You have to expect that a new president may not be up to speed on everything.   But combine that with a new president who does not read and will not sit still long enough to be briefed adequately.   It's really going to show as he has more contact with foreign leaders -- and even press conferences.   As happened Wednesday, when a reporter asked him if he was going to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus.  He obviously did not know what she was talking about.  


Friday, February 17, 2017

Trump holds a press conference -- which HuffPost called "A 77 minute meltdown."

President Trump held a press conference Thursday afternoon, which started with about 20 minutes of bashing the media, bragging about his accomplishments so far, and  denying reports of chaos in his administration.   He made the astonishing statement that his administration "is running like a fine-tuned machine."

This despite the fact that his National Security Adviser has just been forced to resign, relations between his campaign and Russian security officials are being investigated by the FBI and CIA, and one of his cabinet nominees has just been forced to withdraw rather than being rejected with Republican votes in the Senate.

Trump began his remarks with this:  "I'm making this presentation directly to the American people with the media present . . . because many of our nation's reporters and folks will not tell you the truth . . ."

He blamed the media for recent actions by Russia in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, saying:   "The false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia."    He also falsely claimed that he won by the most electoral votes since Reagan.

When a reporter corrected him and asked why the American people should believe him when he cites inaccurate facts, he said, "I was given that information.   I don't know.  I was just given it.  We had a very, very big margin."   [Fact check:   Both George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama got more electoral votes.]

Sounds like chaos to me.


"The Madness of King Donald" -- Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, has a PhD from Oxford and is author of several books.  He is a highly regarded political commentator.   He writes occasional articles like this one, "The Madness of King Donald" for  New York magazine.   Here are some excerpts from one section of that article.

*   *   *   *   *

". . . . all politicians lie. . . .  [but] Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality. . . .  They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse . . . .

"How are we to respond to a president who . . . declared that the 'murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in . . . 47 years,' when, of course, despite some recent, troubling spikes in some cities, it’s . . .  half what it was in 1980?

"None of this, moreover, is ever corrected.  No error is ever admitted.  Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie — along with an ad hominem attack.

"Here is what we [journalists] are supposed to do: rebut every single lie.  Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups . . . . Do not allow them to move on to another question.

"An interview with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists. . . .

"Then there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. . . .  [If anyone else behaved this way] . . . here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe;   he’s delusional. . . . .

"I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

"There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness. . ."

*   *   *   *   *

That's what Andrew Sullivan thinks.   So do I.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

"What is going on with Trump and Russia?" by AJC's Jay Bookman

Several days ago, before we knew as much as we know now about the extent of Trump's involvement in Gen. Flynn's "deal" with Russia concerning sanctions, Atlanta Journal-Constitution's star staff columnist Jay Bookman wrote an excellent piece about Trump and Russia.    Those basic questions haven't been answered.  Bookman summarized the Flynn deal, and then wrote:

*     *     *     *     *

". . . . Think about that: Russia helps Trump get elected, a conclusion that is backed by professionals at all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. When Russia then gets punished for its attack on our system, a top Trump associate reaches out to undermine that punishment. Together, Russian leaders and Trump associates secretly coordinate a response, which President-elect Trump then publicly celebrates.

"But wait, it gets worse. When news broke back in December that Flynn had had as many as five conversations with the Russian ambassador in a single day, Flynn lied, point-blank, to the American people about the nature and content of those conversations. He claimed that the topic of sanctions had never been mentioned and that the sole purpose of the calls had been to set up post-inaugural contacts. . . .  

"And of course, this hasn’t happened in isolation. It is a continuation of a damning pattern of behavior in which the Russians help Trump and Trump helps the Russians. In an interview just last week, when Bill O’Reilly of Fox News pointed out to Trump that his buddy Putin is a cold killer whose political opponents are poisoned, shot, beaten to death or vanish into thin air, Trump brushed it all aside.

“'Lot of killers,' Trump said. 'We’ve got a lot of killers. Boy, you think our country’s so innocent? You think our country’s so innocent?'

"Trump was then asked about Russia’s continued military assault on neighboring Ukraine, and once again he sounded more like a Kremlin mouthpiece than a president of the United States. He echoed Moscow’s denial that Russia had any control over the forces that are attacking Ukraine. . . .

"It is bizarre to propose a moral equivalence between the far-from-perfect actions of the United States and the murderous, thuggish predations of Putin and his KGB kleptocracy.

"It is bizarre to watch Trump pick fights with the leaders of Australia, Mexico, Germany and France, among others, yet find it impossible to say a critical word about the likes of Putin.

"It is bizarre that Russia could have meddled in our election and pay almost no price for it.

"And it is certainly bizarre to watch Republican leaders in Washington avert their eyes and pretend not to see."

*     *     *     *     *

That was published by Bookman in the AJC five days ago.   Things have become more blatant, more alarming, and still puzzling since then.   Are Republican leaders any closer to stepping up to do something about it?    Already, impeachable offenses could be charged.   What is their threshold?


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Urgent question: What did the president know? And when did he know it?--- ) ) ) ) Echoes of Nixon.

  photo:  Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
SALLY  YATES. at the time, Acting Attorney General

When a house is on fire, there are often heroes . . . and sometimes vermin trying to escape the flames.  Sally Yates is one of the heroes.   Perhaps the only one in this sorry tale about National Security Adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn and his secret deal with the Russians -- which has now been exposed and set the White House on fire.

It's now a blazing, roaring inferno because we've just learned that President Trump has known about this for weeks and had done nothing -- wanting, in the words of Press Secretary Sean Spicer to let Gen. Flynn have his "due process."   Probably not too wise a choice of words, given that "due process" is what you do when someone is charged with a crime.   Now the question is:   Did the president know before Acting AG Sally Yates told the White House counsel at the end of January?   Was he in on it from the beginning?

Every bit of news that comes out is worse than the day before.   Now we learn that the president has known and didn't think there was anything wrong with Flynn negotiating with the Russians, only that he deceived VP Pence.

Flynn's deal seems pretty clearly to have consisted of this:   On December 29th, 2016, President Obama announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats and other sanctions in retaliation for the proven Russian interference in our electoral process.

On that same day, as well as the day before, there were several calls between Gen. Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.   We know this now because our intelligence services were monitoring the ambassador's phone.

The next day, December 30th, Vladimir Putin made it known that Russia would not retaliate for the sanctions.  Instead he bemoaned the effect on the children of ambassadors who will have to be moving back to Russia during Christmas holidays -- and he warmly and generously invited the children of American ambassadors in Moscow to come to the Kremlin for their Christmas celebration.

Flynn vigorously denied that the calls had anything to do with the sanctions -- even though it's unbelievable that the cold-blooded, former KGB officer Putin, whose stock in trade is tit for tat retaliation, would have responded in this way -- unless it was somehow to his advantage.    So the circumstantial evidence is glaringly against Flynn's denial.

We now know that Flynn did discuss the sanctions with Kislyak because our intelligence people have been examining the recordings made of the conversations.  The Washington Post broke the story, citing nine different present or former intelligence officials who had provided information about it.

They say that Flynn advised the Russians not to retaliate because things will be different after Trump is inaugurated.    At that point, in just over a month Trump would be president.

So Flynn looks guilty of violating all kinds of laws and protocols and traditions of "one government at the time."   It's actually illegal what he did, because he was a private citizen and had no authority to negotiate with foreign governments.

But then we ask:   What did Trump know and when did he know it?   Here's where Sally Yates comes in.   It was revealed yesterday that in "late January" -- after the inauguration but before she was fired on January 30th --  Yates informed the White House Counselor Donald McGahn about Flynn's conversations and the content about the sanctions.

So what did McGahn do with this information?   The lack of White House action might suggest that he sat on it.   Or it might also suggest that nothing was done because it was not news to them.   Knowing Trump now as we do, it's plausible to me that Trump conceived of this himself and ordered Flynn to call the ambassador.   Or at least that he was in on the deal.   Why would he not be, given that he does not think it was wrong?

And now Spicer has acknowledged that the president has known about it siince late January -- that means that McGahn did tell him about it immediately.  He also insists that the president had no problem with what Flynn did in talking with the Russians;  it was that he lied about it to Vice President Pence.   Spicer says the problem is not one of breaking the law but of breaking trust.

Well, in truth -- our truth, even if not Trump's truth -- it is a matter of law.   In fact, it has a name:   Logan's Law, which forbids any private citizen from doing exactly what Flynn did -- negotiating with a foreign government.   Why?   Because it undermines -- as it did here -- the actions and the authority of the legitimate U.S. government at the time.

Trump respects no boundaries -- whether it's boundaries between our three branches of government or whether it's a woman's body.    So he just assumed, because he had been elected president, he was already the legitimate president;  and he could do what he wanted.   It doesn't work that way.   We have to have one government at the time.

Here's the thing.   If Sally Yates had not done what she did, we the public still  might not know;  and the Trump administration would have gotten away with this, and would continue to try to create the imperial presidency that Trump thinks it is.

That's why Sally Yates is twice a hero -- once for defying Trump and not defending his bad immigration ban, and now for being a whistle-blower on the deal with Russia with its vast implications.

This Flynn deal is small in and of itself.  In fact, it's a good thing that Russia did not retaliate.   But having it exposed is a 1piece of some much larger puzzles:  (1)  Trump's relationship with Russia;  and (2)  Trump's view of boundaries in our system of checks and balances and his view of what powers he has and doesn't have.

Howard Fineman, distinguished columnist for the Huffington Post, points to the echoes of Nixon and his downfall.   He says that "there is a widespread sense of a White House in deep, perhaps cataclysmic, trouble."

The present conflagration over the Flynn affair doesn't even touch the surface of the deeper problem:   Our president and his senior staff seem unconcerned in the least that Russia effectively used internet hacking to influence our electoral process, ie, our very sovereignty.   Do they not care?    Are they under the sway of Russia?   Are we to become a Russian puppet?

Or . . . are we seeing -- with heroes like Sally Yates, and the as yet unnamed intelligence sources, and some courageous journalists -- our creaky old democratic systems of checks and balances starting to function again?     


PS:   A late breaking story last night, reported by the New York Times, says that "phone records and intercepted calls show that members of . . . Trump's . . . campaign . . . had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials."

This means the Trump campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence during the time they were hacking emails of the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Breaking News: DoJ warned White House about Flynn's vulnerability to blackmail by Russia

The Washington Post reported late Monday that in early January, Acting Attorney General Sally Yeats told the President's legal adviser that the Russians had evidence that Flynn had talked with the Russian ambassador about sanctions before the inauguration.  The point was that this made Flynn potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. because it was illegal for him to have done that as a civilian.  The CIA Director and the Direction of National   Intelligencve shared Yates' concern about Flynn.

As far as can be discerned at this time, the White House did nothing about it.   Pence was obviously surprised when he learned that Flynn had lied to him.   So did the White House counsel tell Trump?   If so, then this implicates Trump in doing nothing.

In a side issue, it was also revealed Monday that a top Flynn aide was denied the security clearance he needed for the job and that the CIA Director had approved the denial.  Is this in-fighting (CIA against Flynn?) or was there a good individual reason for the denial?   No answer to that one yet.


PS:  Late night update:   Gen. Flynn has resigned.  In his letter he acknowledges no wrong-doing except "inadvertently giving Vice President Pence incomplete information about my phone calls with the Russian ambassador."

Meryl Streep responds to Trump's insult

photo from Variety

Meryl Streep spoke at a Human Rights Campaign last Saturday night and, in a sense, continued her public dialogue with President, which she began (without naming him) at the Golden Globe Awards.   She speaks eloquently for diversity, inclusiveness, and equal rights for all.

For the HRC, she gave a resounding defense of LGBTQ freedoms, saying that Trump's election emperils those rights, along with women's rights.

"We’re not going to go back to the bad old days of ignorance and oppression and hiding who we are.  If you think people got mad when they thought the government was coming after their guns, wait until they come and try to take away our happiness,” Streep said.   The crowd rose in a standing ovation lasting two full minutes.

"We owe it to the people who have died for our rights, and who have died before they even got their own.”

Then Streep, who was receiving the HRC Ally for Equality Award, also found a positive note:  “If we live through this precarious moment, if [Trump’s] catastrophic instinct to retaliate doesn’t lead us to nuclear winter, we will have much to thank our current leader for.  He will have woken us up to how fragile freedom is.”

*     *     *
Happy Valentine's Day to you, Meryl.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Damage control backfires because . . . TV anchors are beginning to challenge Trump's lies

It was an interesting Sunday morning on the news talk shows.   Stephen Miller was the chosen one sent from the White House to try to explain President Trump's positions on a number of hot issues.   He was booked on four different programs.   And it did not go well for him.

George Stephanopoulis asked him about Trump's bringing up voter fraud again this week, insisting that he would have won New Hampshire except for the "thousands" of illegal voters who came across the border.   Stephanopoulis asked Miller what the evidence for that was.

Like Trump, he insisted that "It's very real, it's very serious. . . .  I’m prepared to go on any show, anywhere, any time and repeat it and say the president of the United States is correct, 100 percent.”    After trying four times to get Miller to produce evidence, and only getting assertions that voter fraud "is a fact,"  Stephanopoulis finally ended by saying:  You have provided zero evidence of the president’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if 3 to 5 million illegal immigrants hadn’t voted, zero evidence for either one of those claims.  Thanks a lot for joining us this morning.”

Then on to NBC’s “Meet the Press.”   Moderator Chuck Todd asked about the reports that Gen. Flynn, Trump's National Security Adviser, had had contact with the Russian government during the transition and may have subtly negotiated their reaction to the sanctions.  Todd asked whether the president still had confidence in Flynn.  Miller said he didn't know.  “It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind. . . .  My colleagues in the White House didn't give me anything to say.”

George Stephanopoulis had asked a similar question about Flynn and got a similar answer, which led him to ask:  "Then why are you coming on the show if you can't answer the questions about the White House?"

In his Sunday morning tv outing, Miller also echoed Trump's attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the judicial branch, following the 9th Circuit Appeals court decision on his immigration ban.    Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, reportedly help to write the executive order on the ban.  He told CBS News' John Dickerson that it was "crazy" for judges to rule on the constitutionality of laws;  and, on Fox News, he said that it was “a judicial usurpation of the power” by "unelected" judges.

Well, that certainly sounds like Trump.   Are you surprised that, shortly after, Trump sent out this tweet?  "Congratulations Stephen Miller- on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!"

In a New York Times article, "Turmoil at the National Security Council, From the Top Down," there was this sentence:  "Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump's Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them."    This was not a satirical article;  there's nothing funny in it.   It's about the dysfunctional National Security Council with Gen. Flynn as the Director.  Chaos begets chaos.

Wow!   This is what we've come to?


Our Con-mander in Chief

You may have already seen this Facebook post.   It's zooming around the internet.   But just in case you missed this from Ben Mallicote, here it is:

"You voted for Trump because Clinton was going  to be in Wall Street's pocket.  Trump wants to repeal Dodd-Frank and eliminate the Fiduciary Rule, letting Wall Street return to its pre-2008 ways.

"You voted for Trump because of Clinton's emails.  The Trump administration is running its own private email server.

"You voted for Trump because of Clinton's role in Benghazi.  Trump ordered the Yemen raid without adequate intel, and tweeted about "FAKE NEWS" while Americans died as a result of his carelessness.

"You voted for Trump because Clinton didn't care about 'the little guy.'  Trump's cabinet is full of billionaires, and he [wants to take away] your health insurance so he could give them a multi-million-dollar tax break.

"You voted for Trump because he was going to build a wall and Mexico was going to pay for it.   American consumers will pay for the wall via import tariffs.

"You voted for Trump because Clinton was going to get us into a war.   Trump has provoked our enemies, alienated our allies, and given ISIS a dedcade's worth of recruiting materials.

"You voted for Trump because Clinton didn't have the stamina to do the job.  Trump hung up on the Australian Prime Minister during a 5 pm phone call because 'it was at the end of a long day and he was tired and fatigue was setting in.'

"You voted for Trump because foreign leaders wouldn't 'respect' Clinton.   Foreign leaders, both friendly and hostile, are openly mocking Trump.

"You voted for Trump because Clinton lies and 'he tells it like it is.'   Trump and his administration lie with a regularity and brazenness that can only be described as shocking.

"Let's be honest about what really happened.

"The reality is that you voted for Trump because you got conned.  Trump is a grifter and the American people were the mark.  Now that you know the score, quit insisting the con-man is on your side."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Another product eliminating need for human labor

This new product, made possible by new technology, at least performs a useful task -- unlike my scornful favorite example of completely unnecessary digital ingenuity:   the "smart mattress" that tells you how well you slept last night.   This one folds and sorts laundry.

Made by a start-up company in Tokyo, it is a refrigerator-sized piece of furniture.   There is a large drawer at the bottom in which you place the newly laundered clothes.   Press a button and robots, programmed to recognize different categories of clothing, will then fold each item, sort them into types of clothing, and neatly stack them in the appropriate shelf in the upper part of the cabinet.

I wouldn't want one, because I hate to have to learn how to operate new devices .   But then I'm an old fossil of a troglodyte.   A busy person might find it quite useful and time-saving.   However, the price seems a bit steep at $2,700.   But it will come down in time and probably become standard in upscale homes.

So what are people going to do when robots have taken over not only all the jobs but also the household duties?   It's a serious question.   Unless we're going to find some secret source of wealth that will pay people not to work, then there's going to be a problem:  If all human jobs are eliminated by robots, how will people have enough money to afford all the gadgets that make them obsolete?


Time for some good news for a change

Enough of Trump and the screeching overload of bad decisions, extremely badly carried out.  At least for a day, let's look at some good things that are happening.

1.  Top of the list should be recognition of the people who organized the women's marches and all the people -- women, men, and children -- who participated beyond even the most optimistic expectations. 

2.  Equally important to what happened that first weekend is the continued spirit of protest and holding leaders accountable that seems to have taken hold among people who care about the direction of our country, as well as the Democrats in Congress.  Perhaps things have to get really bad for us to realize that we can't just depend on someone else to fix it;   it's going to take us all to oppose the autocrat that our system has put in power.   I think the American people have realized that things are really that bad.

3.  Even a group of prominent Republicans (Jim Baker, George Shulz, Henry Paulson and other leaders in industry and politics) is formulating a plan for what they're calling "A Conservative Approach to Climate Change."   Their plan would focus on a carbon tax designed to raise the cost of fossil fuels and bring down consumption.    On Wednesday, Baker presented the plan to several of Trump's staff, including VP Pence, Jared Kushner, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council.   Baker said he thought they would take a look at it.  Despite Trump's political statements, there may be support, including Secretary of State Max Tillerson who, as head of Exxon/Mobile, had begun planning for climate change and supported a carbon tax.

4.   President Jimmy Carter has converted one of his peanut fields in Plains, GA to a solar farm, with rows and rows of solar panels.   It generates enough energy to supply half of the electricity used by the city of Plains.   Georgia is becoming one of the leading states in the solar energy field.   There is a company a few miles from my hometown of Sandersville that manufactures solar panels.

5.  Speaking of solar energy as an industry, it is one of the leading  job producers and actually is clamoring for workers, according to an AJC headline.  One out of every 50 jobs created last year was in solar energy, which now employs 250,000 workers, an increase of 25% between 2015 and 2016.  These are well-paying, family-sustaining jobs with low barriers to entry and a median wage for a solar installation job of $26 an hour.  Now if we could just get the unemployed coal workers and the solar energy jobs together in the same place.

6.  The United Talent Agency that represents some of Hollywood's biggest stars, has announced that it will cancel its Oscar party this year, and instead will contribute $250,000 to the ACLU and the International Resuce Committee that supports refugees.   This is being done because of their support for immigrants and in protest of President Trump's immigration ban.  Hollywood stars are among the most vocal opponents to Trump's policies, e.g.  Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globe awards, and Viola Davis at the SAG awards.

7.  In a full-page Washington Post ad on Wednesday, over 500 evangelical pastors and church leaders signed a letter that expressed their disapproval of President Trump's ban on immigration.   The letter emphasizes the role that local churches have played in resettling refugees in their communities.  It's good to see these evangelicals pastors speak out for Jesus' social teachings rather than saying it's God's plan to have Trump be our president.

Along with these pastors are the people who have welcomed refugees and helped create welcoming communities for them.   So this is not just about evangelical pastors but about the good, loving people, who work for the humane treatment of others as the true religious expression.   I've been puzzled for years now about why we haven't seen the liberal, social activist churches get involved in these issues like they did in the civil rights struggle years.