Saturday, July 1, 2017

Trump's Election Integrity Commission, aka "Voter Suppression Commission"

During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed there would be wide-spread voter fraud.  Even after he won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by over 2 million, he pushed the voting fraud rumor of busloads of Democrats being brought in to vote in New Hampshire.  He became obsessed with explaining why he didn't also win the popular vote, and the reason he settled on was "voter fraud."  If not for all those illegal voters, he would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral college, he said.

There is no evidence to back that up.   Trump has offered none, and the Federal Election Commission has no evidence nor any reason to suspect fraud.

Nevertheless, in May, President Trump set up a White House Election Integrity Commission.   Chaired by VP Mike Pense, the Vice Chair and executive director is Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, notorious for his hard-line views on immigration and voting restrictions, and for advocating a Muslim registry.   He has lost on court cases brought by the ACLU, yet he remains an influential adviser to other conservative states obsessed with voter fraud.

The commission has yet to hold it's first meeting, but it has already alarmed many voting rights activists by a request from Kobach to the 50 states for detailed data about registered voters, including names, party registration, voting records, criminal records, and 4-digit social security numbers.   Over 20 Secretaries of State (including Pence's Indiana and even Kobach's own Kansas) say they will not comply -- some being candid in saying it's because the request seems "politically motivated."  Some will furnish data, but only what is publicly available already.   Virginia Gov. Terry McCauliff said, "At best this commission was set up as a pretext to validate Donald Trump's alternative election facts, and at worst is a tool to commit large-scale voter suppression."

If all that were not bad enough, Trump has now made another appointment to the commission that raises alarms, Hans von Spakovsky, who was said by election law expert and law professor Rick Hasen to be "responsible for making an obsession with voter fraud a focus of the Republican Party."

He was in George W. Bush's Justice Department where he had influence in the Civil Rights Division.   At that time, certain states had to submit any change in voter laws for approval.   In the case of a new Georgia law, which four of five reviewing lawyers recommended rejecting, von Spakovsky secretly influenced the fifth lawyer to his own point of view -- and his dissenting memo eventually became the basis of the department's decision to authorize the law (reported by Sam Levine, according to an article in The Nation).

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said this:   "There are few people who have worked harder to push voter suppression efforts than von Spakovsky.  He was one of the key drivers of the politicization of the Justice Department's civil rights work during the Bush administration. . . .  His appointment makes clear that the Election Integrity Commission is a vehicle intended to promote and advance policies that restrict access to the ballot box."  Other critics fear the commissions' reports will be used to bolster new, restrictive voting laws.

But, of course, that is exactly what Trump, Kobach and their ilk want.

Sam Levine, who wrote the report I'm following here from HuffPost, says further, "Von Spakovsky's presence on the commission also raises concerns about the credibility of the final report it will issue.  The Nation reported that when he was at the FEC, von Spakovsky pushed to have the wording changed in . . . [a report]" that undermined the strong support for the summary statement that "There is widespread but no unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud."  Von Spakovsky wanted to change it to say, "There is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud."

These are the kind of behind-the-scenes taints that will affect our democracy long after Trump is gone -- but they don't make the front pages to compete with stories about what Trump's latest tweet said to insult the appearance of a female tv anchor who criticized him.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Trump's businesses -- connections to foreign money-laundering?

Paul Blumenthal, writing for HuffPost,  tackles the complex world of Trump real estate investments and the many laws he has seemed to violate.    Blumenthal first covers Trump's many business partners -- and potential partners -- in Indonesia, India, Azerbaijan, Brazil, and Georgia, who were under investigation for money laundering, bribery, and corruption.

Trump did not go through with all of these deals that he explored with them, and he especially became somewhat more circumspect once he began running for president.  Here's one example, as described by Blumenthal:

"The Trump Organization spent a lot of time promoting the future Trump Tower in Baku, Azerebaijan before canceling the deal in December 2016.   The deal involved licensing the president's [Trump's] name to an Azerbaijani development company run by Anar  Mammadov, the son of  that country's president.   A 2017 report in the New Yorker revealed suspicions that the tower benefited from investment that appeared to be part of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard money laundering scheme. . . .

"The deal . . . only became untenable once Trump faced the added scrutiny that comes with being the president of the United States.

"But Trump is no stranger to the same kind of investigations, lawsuits, and accusations of money laundering or other wrongdoing that his former and current business partners face.   Trump's businesses have paid large fines and settlements for fraud and money laundering, although he has rarely admitted guilt."

Blumenthal cites Trump's settlement with the Treasury Department for $477,000 in 1998 and a $10 million fine in 2015 for violations having to do with money-laundering at his Taj Mahal casino.

He also had deals to finance the Trump Soho Hotel and Condos with the Bayrock Group, an investment firm with ties to organized crime and money laundering.  There were also allegations that a Kazakh billionaire, accused of stealing money from a Kazakh city's treasury, laundered the money "through luxury condo purchases at Trump Soho and the Fort Lauderdale Trump property," according to Blumenthal's research.

Shruti Shah, an expert in due diligence for the anti-corruption nonprofit Coalition for Integrity, told HuffPost that some of these deals were especially troubling "because the business partners are closely associated with government officials. . . [and he explained that]  . . .  the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act forbids U.S. firms from providing benefit to a foreign government official as part of a business deal, even if they claim they were unaware they provided such a benefit."

Shah also said that "Doing adequate due-diligence would have revealed these issues."

Now I cannot independently say that any of these Trump business deals, if tried in court, would result in convictions for Trump himself.   But there's a lot of smoke, and it does seem, at the very least, he has operated in the murky grey areas of suspicious international money-laundering.   And who needs a way to clean up corrupt money more than all those Russian oligarchs? -- especially the ones to whom Putin gave away the Russian people's natural resources and monopolies?

And Trump was always in need of money to finance his next project, or to bail him out of debt on his last failing project.   So paying him triple market value for a multi-million dollar estate on the beach, for example, would be a good way to launder some of that Russian, corrupt money.   Or buying a whole bunch of condos in the Trump Soho Hotel and Condos for way more than they were worth.

Follow the money-trail.  It leads to Russia . . . .


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Odds and ends

1.  A Pew Research Center survey in 37 nations asked about U.S. favorability.  They found that our national reputation rating has dropped from 64% at the end of Obama's administration to 49% in these early days of the Trump administration. Among Mexicans we've slid from 66% to 30%;  in Canada, from 65% to 43%;  in Germany, from 57% to 35%.

When asked specifically about favorables for Trump himself, they found only 22% who had confidence that he would do the right thing in world affairs, compared to 64% for Obama and 42% for Angela Merkel.

Trump's lowest personal ratings were in Mexico and Spain, with 7% each.  His highest ratings were Russia's 53% and Israel's 56%.   Overall, 75% of respondents described Trump as "arrogant," 65% called him "intolerant," and 62% said he was "dangerous."   However, 55% still called him a "strong leader."

2.  News analysts seemed aghast that the FBI had spent 10 hours, spread over 5 meetings, interviewing former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.   Reporters claimed this was the most extensive questioning of anyone associated with the Trump campaign concerning a Russian connection.   Page denied any wrong doing or that he was a go-between for the campaign.

My reaction to the lengthy interviews was to chuckle.   I've seen several frustrating attempts by MSNBC host Chris Hayes trying to get Carter Page to answer one simple question with a plain answer.   This man has perfected the art of obfuscation, non-answers, and endless qualifications.   "I will only say that, if I ever did meet with [X person] it would not have occurred anywhere except in Cleveland, perhaps, if I did.  But I'm not saying I did."   So I'm not surprised they went round and round for 10 hours.  I'm betting that he never gave a simple, straight answer to one single question.   And all the while, he has a smirk on his face.    The whole thing adds up to the impression that he's guilty, even if he's not.

3.  What a big deal they're making of the fact that Amazon is going to buy Whole Foods -- and apply Amazon's vaunted delivery service to the grocery buying process.   Something new!!!   The way of the future!!!

Heck, we did this 70 years ago in my father's small grocery store in the small town I grew up in.   We had what would now be one antique telephone -- the kind that had a small round base, with a 12 inch upright post with the mouthpiece atop it.  The receiver was a separate piece that you held up to your ear, connected to the base by a wire.  You pick up the receiver, wait for "Central" (the operator) to ask "Number, please?"   Then she plugs in your line to the switchboard's slot for the number you want to call.   Telephone numbers at that time, in small towns, were two digits, sometimes three.  I still remember my grandparents' number:  49.

Ladies would call in their grocery orders.  We would fill them, and then a young delivery boy would get on one of two bicycles we owned, put the sacks of groceries in the extra large basket over the front wheel, and pedal over to Mrs. So and So's back door, go in and put the bags down on her kitchen table.

When I got old enough to handle the big bikes, I did deliveries myself on Saturdays and summer time.   I liked it, because it got me outside, instead of the confines of the small store.   The only problem was having to deliver to Mrs. Woodall.   First, she served midday dinner for paying guests;  so her orders were extra large.   But the worst thing was that she had a big dog who always growled menacingly at me, as I raced through the backyard loaded down with big sacks of groceries, hoping Rufus didn't break his leash and bite me.    The concept of tipping hadn't yet caught on in Sandersville in the 1940's.  It was just part of the service we provided.

Who knew that some day, delivering groceries would be the biggest business news story of the day in the New York Times?  Of course, ours was not quite the high tech system Amazon will devise, with apps, smart phones, automated filling of orders and drone deliveries.   Now there's a good title:   "Replaced by a Drone."


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What happened to "win-win"?

Nitsuh Abebe, in a major essay in the June 25th issue of The New York Times Magazine, explores the current absence in our political life of the concept of win-win, a solution to a problem in which all parties benefit.   Surely, if any issue deserved that approach, it would be health care.  If both sides could have come together in a win-win situation to make the easy adjustments that would have improved the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), it would have been the rational and the humane thing to do.

Instead, our politics has sunk to the crass level of "pure winning," and Republicans had to have their "win."   After trying, and failing, dozens of times to repeal Obamacare while Obama still held the veto pen, now was their chance, with control of both houses of Congress and the White House.

As Abebe writes, we have a climate now where "all promises of balance and mutual gain are actually humiliating traps, set by exploitative people still snickering in secret over how easily you fell for the last one.  And so we have barreled instead into the realm of pure 'winning,' where there is no such harmony of interest.  Either exert your power or slink home ashamed."

Remember when Mitch McConnell declared, on day one of the Obama administration, that their first agenda item would be to ensure that Obama was a one-term president.   And his passage of the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote must have felt like a humiliation -- one that McConnell and his other Republican leaders have been determined to avenge ever since.

But, even controlling the White House and Congress, they can't do it.  Here's where Abebe's article is especially relevant.  He writes that winning is "often used in contexts that are not competitions."  Stop and think about that.   Why should providing health care for our people be a competition between representatives of the people themselves?   Do we send our representatives to Washington to fight?

It's long bothered me how often the word "fight" comes up in political rhetoric, in both parties, used by both men and women.   "If you vote for me, I will fight for you every day."  The word rings in my ears as much in the voices of Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton as it does in the voices of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.   Why?

Abebe writes:  "One obvious drawback of this [scoring points] mind-set -- a gut-level inclination toward the hyperbolic exercise of power -- is that it makes winning purely about imposing your will on reality, rather than, say, reaching an outcome that's actually desirable or defensible. . . ."

Obama knew this.   He preferred to get solutions with broad support.  That's how we got the Iran nuclear agreement.   Compare that to Donald Trump's rhetoric about "winning."   "We don't win anymore.   But we're going to start winning.  We going to win so much you'll get tired of winning."   Any purpose is secondary -- just winning for the sake of being a winner.

And he scorned and demeaned Obama as "weak" because he was not basically a fighter.   Trump thinks of himself as a "deal maker," meaning imposing his power or his tricksterism on the other to win, win, win.   Right now, he's edging us dangerously toward a ground war in Syria.   And he seems itching for a fight with Iran.

Winning should be a measure of accomplishing something for the good of the people, not scoring points.  At least we have a short breathing spell, now that McConnell doesn't have enough votes to pass the senate health bill.  He announced late Tuesday that he will delay the vote on the Senate bill until after the July 4th recess.  He hopes to be able to twists arms, "bribe" senators with money from his $2 billion slush fund for pet projects the hold-out senators favor.   It also gives more time for people to actually learn what this terrible piece of legislation would actually do -- starting with reducing the number covered by it by 22 million people by 2026.

Can you imagine the fantasy that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump would come to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and say:   "Look folks, we can't do this the way we wanted to.   So let's work together.  Let's see how we can improve the Affordable Care Act so that it works better for the American people.

Now what would be so hard about that?


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

SCOTUS gives Trump a partial win on his (revised) travel ban

The Supreme Court handed down a decision on the Trump administration's appeal to restore its ban on travel from six countries.   So what does the decision mean?

To review:   Trump's first travel ban that created such airport chaos a few months back was blocked by two different appellate courts.   So they withdrew that version and rewrote a second version, based on some of the criticisms of the court.

Lawsuits were filed to put a stay on the new version, and two more appellate court decisions blocked this version too.   So the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

The decision yesterday was on whether to lift the stay, which the lower courts had imposed, pending the decision on the constitutionality of the ban itself.   Arguments on that will be heard by SCOTUS in October.

The decision was 6 to 3 to partially lift the ban in the meantime.   The four liberal justices, plus Roberts and Kennedy were the majority for a partial lifting of the ban.   Thomas, Alito, and Korsuch wanted to lift the stay completely, pending the hearing -- i.e. to allow the full ban to take effect now.

So, what exactly will this do?   The government will now be able to bar citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the US for a period of 90 days (120 days for refugees) -- unless they already have a valid visa.  The court further said that visas should be issued to those who have a "bona fide relationship" with a person or organization in the US.   This means people visiting family, students coming to school in the US, or someone with a job,   About the only ones who will be barred are tourists -- or, possibly, terrorists.   But what about an academic coming for a conference?   A businessman coming to negotiate a deal?

The written decision also prodded the Trump administration to get on with doing the evaluation of the vetting process, which was supposedly the reason for asking for the temporary ban in the first place.   It further suggested that -- given that they originally asked for 90 days to accomplish that -- it's quite likely that, by the time of the court hearing in October, the whole matter of the temporary ban will be moot.

One problem with this, as pointed out by the dissent written by Justice Thomas, is that what counts as a bona fide relationship is likely to be disputed and lead to multiple lawsuits to settle the question.   This is even more likely when it comes to refugees.   They are less likely to have established relationships or jobs in this country.   And the decision specifically ruled out the sponsoring refugee agency as filling that requirement.

This constitutes some vindication for President Trump, although the real ruling will come after the substantive hearing in October.   That isn't stopping Trump from trumpeting his victory.  However, the lawyer who argued the case before the 9th circuit appeals court saw it differently.  He said that the court's exemption of those with visas and those with a bona fide connection really takes care of the ones they were mostly concerned about in the appeal.   So he saw it as a positive outcome.

Remember, however, that this is all about a temporary, 90/120 day delay.  The real decision in this case has to do with the constitutionality of setting up the ban to start with.   The question is whether it was based on religious discrimination.

In writing this, I relied for information on a Washington Post article by Matt Zopotosky and one on by Dara Lind.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Catching up on the weekend's outrages

We don't even get a rest on the weekends anymore.    Donald Trump makes news every day during the week;  and then his aides and surrogates go on the Sunday morning talk shows and make more outrageous statements.   Here is a sampling.

1.  A large percentage of Trump voters get their news only from Fox News.  So, as reported on, 'There's a real chance Trump voters won't understand anything about [the health care bill] until it's too late."    It seems that on Fox News, the rule about the Senate bill is not to talk about it.  Reporter Jeff Guo then ran through a list of their news shows to prove the point.   Both Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson barely mentioned it.

Carlson did have as a guest HHS Secretary Tom Price, who described the bill as offering "greater choices" for patients -- and then they both turned to citing what they saw as wrong about Obamacare.   There was no discussion about what the Senate bill actually does.

The roundtable discussion show, "The Five," did spend 10 minutes on the Senate bill -- or, rather, not on the substance of the bill itself, but the politics of whether it will pass.  And to blame the Democrats for "refusing to cooperate in drafting the bill."   Yes, you got it.   They're talking about the secret bill that Mitch McConnell didn't even let his fellow Republicans know about;  even some of the 13 white men who were supposedly writing the bill in secret, didn't seem to know what was in it.

2.  White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway (better known as the blond woman who spins the news by talking so fast, and telling so many lies, that it's hard to keep up with what she's saying) -- was on the Sunday morning talk shows.   Spinning like a top.   She said that taking Medicaid away from able-bodied adults is no big deal, because they can just go out and get jobs that provide health insurance.

Now the facts are a  little different.  The "able-bodied adults" that she's talking about -- i.e. non-elderly adults who don't qualify for disability -- 59% of them already have jobs.   The problem is that most are low-paying, temporary, or part-time and don't include health insurance.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine followed Conway on "This Week With George Stephanopolis."   Sen. Collins, always polite, said:  "I respectfully disagree with her analysis."    Sen. Collins is one of the more moderate senators who might vote against the bill, although she has not yet said more than that she "has concerns" about it.

3.  USA Today printed an opinion piece from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the mastermind behind the "behind closed doors" plan to force a vote on a bill that neither the public nor the senators have time to understand.   He begins with the outrageous statement that "Democrats imposed Obamacare on our country." 

Compare the year-long, open process of crafting the bill, the scores of hearings, the  more than 100 amendments from Republican senators adopted into the bill, and the many many hours of debate before it was passed.    The fact that no Republican voted for it does not mean the process was done covertly, as McConnell claims and as he is now trying to do with his bill.

His essay tries to portray Republicans and their process as trying to find consensus on what they and the Democrats agree on, including this:  "We also agree on the need to strengthen Medicaid."   He concludes by saying:  "It's time to act because Obamacare is a direct attack on the middle class, and American families deserve better than its failing status quo.  They deserve better care.   That's just what we're going to continue to work to bring them."

To anyone who has followed this process even minimally (excluding Fox News viewers who have not heard the truth), this is outrageous in its deviousness and untruths.   In his plan, reductions in Medicaid are estimated to be about $800 billion over 10 years;   almost exactly the amount of tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, that are projected in the Republican plan.

And that's just a sample of the weekend's outrages -- on one subject.  I didn't even mention the Russia investigation and Trump's bald-faced inconsistencies.  On the one hand, he denies that Russia had anything to do with the hacking;  on the other, he blames Obama for not having retaliated against Russia last year when he found out about the hacking.   And, if you have three hands, there's another "other hand."   Trump is resisting Congress's attempt to pass a bill imposing more sanctions on Russia and -- most importantly -- making it harder for the president to reduce the sanctions without congressional approval.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Our Fake Democracy" -- Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote what I think is an essential commentary on the current state of our "fake democracy."   Here are excerpts.

". . . . For the United States, the biggest institutional lie of the moment is that we have a government of the people, responding to majority will.  On almost every single concern, Congress . . . is going against what most of the country wants. And Congress is doing this because there will be no consequences.

"We have a fake democracy, growing less responsive and less representative by the day.

"The biggest example of this is the monstrosity of a health care bill, which a cartel of Republicans finally allowed us to peek at on Thursday. . . .  a radical overhaul of one-sixth of the economy, something that touches every American, comes too late to make our voices heard.

"Crafted in total darkness, the bill may pass by a slim majority of people who have not read it. Inevitably, with something that deprives upward of 23 million Americans of health care, people will die because of this bill. . . .

"It would be understandable if Republicans were doing this because it’s what most Americans want them to do. But it’s not. Only about 25 percent of Americans approved of a similar version of this bill, the one passed by the House. . . .

"Why would the people’s representatives choose to hurt their own people? The answer is further evidence of our failed democracy. About 75 million Americans depend on Medicaid. This bill will make their lives more miserable and perilous in order to give the top 2 percent of wealthiest Americans a tax cut.

"And where are the 75 million now? . . .  The sad fact is, the poor don’t vote. Up to 80 percent of low earners do not show up at the polls. . . .  So, little surprise that Republicans are also working to make it even harder for the poor to vote. . . . 

"The symptoms of democratic collapse . . . cry for immediate action. . . .   The United States, once known for our American Dream, now has the lowest class mobility of any Western democracy . . . .

"What is Congress doing? Nothing on wages. Nothing on college tuition. And the health care bill will most surely force many people to choose between buying groceries and being able to visit a doctor.

"Our fake democracy reveals itself daily. Less than a third of Americans support President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In a truly representative government, you would see the other two-thirds, the common-sense majority, howling from the halls of Congress.

"Most Americans are also against building a wall along the Mexican border. They would prefer putting taxpayers’ billions into roads, bridges, schools and airports. But the wall remains a key part of President Trump’s agenda.

"Trump is president, of course, despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million people. Almost 60 percent of the public is against him now. In a parliamentary system, he’d be thrown out in a no-confidence vote. In our system, he’s primed to change life for every citizen, against the wishes of a majority of Americans. Try calling that a democracy while keeping a straight face."

But it's not just the president.   Republicans control both houses of congress.   And gerrymandering, voter suppression, and big money control Congress.   Egan fails to mention the effect of Big Money in our elections.   Campaign finance reform hasn't been mentioned since the election.

The weak spot in their power right now is the Senate.    They can afford to lose only two votes on a partisan divided vote, like the health care bill.   Surely there are three senators with spine enough to stand up and say No.   Right now, five are saying they can't vote for it as is.   But some of them will cave in to party pressure.   We only need three.   Who?