Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fineman on "Why the Right Hasn't Left"

Howard Fineman is a wise, experienced political commentator who writes for HuffPost.   His latest incisive piece is titled "Why the Right Hasn't Left," meaning why are the Republicans sticking with Trump "despite his rude, bullying personality, administrative incompetence and penchant for hiring former big shots from Goldman Sachs?"

Fineman says that, from their point of view, Trump's regime, "no matter how chaotic or personality-based, is the best chance they have ever had to push their fiercely tribal and anti-government agenda."

Fineman is not talking so much about major, signature legislation or advancing a doctrine.   What Trump's chaos provides is "unprecedented room to maneuver in the executive and judicial branches."    Room and distracting cover to undo all those regulations, climate initiatives, maybe even sneak in changes in voting regulations that favor conservative voters.  As Trump's resident alt-right Svengali, Steve Bannon, puts it:  "Political chaos is the perfect environment in which they can deconstruct the administrative state."

Fineman expects the Republicans to "press ahead without interference," on:

1.  "Nominating young, aggressively conservative judges . .

2.  "Dismantling the structures of business regulation as much as they can . . .

3.  "Removing civil rights-based procedural protections built up over the years to guard against racism, overzealous prosecutions and incarceration.

4.  "Undermining the role of science and environmental concerns in the oversight of energy, manufacturing and transportation industries.

5.  "Clamping down administratively on immigration . . . [and] abolish the idea that immigrants have any kind of moral purchase on the American conscience.

6.  "Restricting, if not strangling, hard-won protections for voting rights . . ."

Fineman then says that Trump is on pace to more than double the number of federal judges nominated by any president in his first year, that he has essentially outsourced the choices for nomination to the conservative Federalist Society.  "The new judges . . . will be called on to accept -- or reject -- the wholesale dismantling of government regulation or to consider legal challenges from the outside," he says.

"This is the unglamorous and largely unseen part of what the hard right sees as a war for the soul of America.   Trump has little interest in the details, and in any case is otherwise occupied with the theatrics of his presidency."

Fineman concludes:  "But people such as Sessions care.  They cared before Trump arrived and will care after he is gone:  about ripping whatever wire they can out of the dashboard.  This is their time, and they are not going to let a little thing like a president bother them."

I think Fineman is right.   Protests and rallies and phone calls may galvanize public rejection of their big legislation like health care or tax reform.   But it's all these myriad, small dismantlings of what has been achieved that are already sailing under the radar.

And Trump has put people in charge -- Sessions at Justice, Price at Health, Mnuchin at Treasury, Tillerson at State, Ross at Commerce, DeVox at Education, and Pruit at EPA -- who are dedicated to decimating their parts of the "administrative state." 

Much of it is happening in the Justice Department.  Trump may think that Sessions' job is only to protect him;   but Sessions knows, and is pressing his advantage, to turn back sharply on the hard won civil rights, criminal justice, and voting rights.    So I'm not surprised that Sessions swallowed his pride and did not resign when the president excoriated and humiliated him in his New York Times interview.   No, Sessions has a lot more work to get done . . . before he's done.

Think how hard it's going to be to reinstate those regulations.   And Pence may not be any better at this level of "war for the soul of America."


Friday, July 21, 2017

Late news breaking Thursday night

About 8:30 last night, I finished writing the overly long blog about Trump's explosive interview with the New York Times, and went to watch the Rachel Maddow news show.

And then all the news breaks started breaking.   As an alternate to staying up all night to analyze these things, I'll just list them.  We'll be following them along and have much more to say.  If you want to read a lot about Trump's interview, it's below.

1.  The New York Times reported that the Trump legal team is trying to undermine and curtail the Mueller investigative team, claiming multiple conflicts of interest. They're also charging that Mueller is far exceeding his mandate in the investigation.  This is the result of Mueller getting deep into Trump's financial world.

2.  There is indication that Mueller's investigation is looking into several areas of Trump's past financial dealings that involve Russians, including the 2008 sale of a luxury estate in Palm Beach, FL that Trump bought two years earlier for $50 million and then sold to a Russian oligarch for twice the amount -- without either of them ever living in the mansion.   This smacks of money laundering, a common practice of the Russian oligarchs.   They are also looking into his financial dealings connected with the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in 2013, and the financing and sale of condo units in Trump Soho tower in New York, which also involved a lot of Russian money.   They have subpoened records from Deutchebank that has been Trump's largest source of loans in recent years when no New York bank would lend him money.   He supposedly has a very large debt to them currently.   The subpoena will compel copies of Trump's financial records that the bank has.  Deutchebank recently had to pay a huge fine for money laundering.

3.  There is also new and damaging financial information about Paul Manafort coming out, including the fact that he was apparently in serious financial debt to a Ukrainian oligarch over some money laundering scheme that went sour at the beginning of 2016 -- a few months before he became chairman of the Trump Campaign.   And about the same time, the Ukrainian oligarch stopped trying to collect the $17 million that Manafort supposedly owed him.   Any connection with that and the Trump campaign?

4,  The Washington Post reported this news break:   Trump has asked his lawyers to look into his authority to issue pardons -- to his staff, his family, and even to himself.   In another development, the spokesman for Trump's legal team for the Russia investigation, Mark Corallo, has resigned.   Additionally, the head of the Trump legal team handling Russia, Mark Kasowitz has announced he is cutting back on his involvement.   Trump has recently hired at least two other, high profile lawyers who are more adept in this world of Washington politics.

Not exactly a slow news night.  Here's the obvious question underlying all this, including Trump's anger at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself:    Why all this, unless Trump has a lot to hide?   An awful lot that could potentially send him and some family members to jail.


Trump's NYT interview full of untruths -- and threats.

How to put this delicately?   Our president is unreliable, untrustworthy, untruthful, and unpredictable.   As the first six months of his presidency came to an end yesterday, he faces perhaps the most critical moment yet for his presidency:  the looming showdown over his Russian connections, especially the financial connections, which is what he seems most upset about.  We know that he is very closely associated with foreign nationals who engage in money laundering, and there are questions about his own involvement in that illegal activity.

So what does he do?    Gives an interview to the New York Times which, along with the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC, Mr. Trump repeatedly demonizes as "fake news."   Why?   What is the message in his choice of media outlet?   One possibility is that he meant the message to be for his liberal detractors -- and the investigators including Mueller -- rather than his devotees.

Nick Visser of HuffPost collected some "wild claims" Trump made in what Vitter calls his "bizarre interview" with the Times.   These include "shocking statements" about "his administration's ties to Russia, ongoing investigations into collusion with a foreign government, and his waning happiness with senior officials in the White House."

1.  Trump says he would not have appointed Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General if he'd known Sessions would recuse himself from having anything to do with the Russia-connection investigation.

The way he talks about it, he obviously feels that Sessions not only betrayed him but that it makes no sense for him to have accepted a job that he was going to recuse himself from -- as though the Russia investigation is the only thing the AG does.   Trump's concept of the AG's job seems to be simply to protect him from investigations.   As we always see in everything with Trump, it's all about him.

Does this sound a bit like a dictator's view of Justice?  The first duty of the job is to serve and protect the president.   As Trump said, "Frankly, I think [it] is very unfair to the president.   How do you take a job and then recuse yourself?"

Translation:  'I gave you this good job in my cabinet, and you were supposed to protect me from the legal sleuths.  And then the first thing you do is recuse yourself from that very investigation.   What use are you?'

Well, as Sessions explained at the time, overseeing the investigators who are handling the Russia probe is only a very small part of the job.   He has thousands of other things to take care of.    In addition, as pointed out by the former head of the government ethics office, Walter Schaub, it was necessary for Sessions to recuse, because he might very well be called to testify in the investigation because of his own meetings with the Russian ambassador, which he failed to mention.

The day after Trump's statement of disappointment in him, Sessions issued a statement saying that he had no plans to resign and would remain AG "as long as it's appropriate."    Trump did not actually ask for his resignation, but many inside observers said it was clearly that.

Sessions may be considering the fact that Trump does not understand the concept of independence of the Justice Department.  But I'm sure they've had this conversation before, and Sessions may prefer to force Trump to fire him -- which would only add evidence for obstruction of justice charges.   It's hard to know where Sessions stands on this now.  Trump should be careful about making an enemy of him;  he could be called as a witness in an impeachment investigation.

2.   That Trump does not understand the working of his own government -- or that he intends to continue defying it -- was also evident in his comments about Special Counselor Robert Mueller.   First, he said that a special prosecutor is not warranted and the Mueller should never have been appointed.   Second, he claims that Mueller and his staff have have tons of conflicts of interest.  He added that there are "many other conflicts that I haven't said, but I will at some point."    That sounds like a typical Trump made-up tease and dodge, like "Comey better hope there are not tapes."

The big issue here is Trump's intense anger that led him to make an implied threat to Mueller not to get into his business finances-- but only what has to do with Russia, which Trump claims is the limit of the investigation.   Going beyond that would cross a red line, he agreed.  The implication was that would be cause for firing Mueller.   A threat?    Headlines the next day stated that Mueller is already getting into the Trump family business finances.

Of course Trump is completely wrong on this.   Mueller's charge is to investigate the Russian interference in our election, the possible collusion of the Trump campaign, and to follow wherever the investigation findings lead.

3.  Trump downplayed the important of his previously undisclosed private chat with Vladimir Putin during a dinner at the summit meeting in Germany.   Trump left his place at the table, went to sit by Putin, and the two carried on a conversation (with only Putin's interpreter with them) for about an hour, according to observers.

Trump told the Times it was just to say hello and exchange pleasantries;  and, he said, it lasted only 15 minutes.  He did add that they talked "about adoption," which quite openly means talk about lifting sanctions against Russia (related to the Magnitsky Act that Putin desperately wants to get the US to lift because it is hurting his oligarch friends).   But who knows what they talked about?   There's nothing but Trump's word for it -- and we know how reliable that is.

There's nothing unusual about one world leader have a quiet private chat with another world leader.  That's one advantage of these summit meetings.  A lot gets done this way.   The point here is that we do not trust what will "get done" between Putin and Trump. -- especially when they talk without any other US official involved, or even a US translator.

Here's one possibility.   It was revealed just two days ago that the US would no longer support the anti-Assad, moderate rebel groups fighting in Syria.    This has always been problematic because, although we opposed Assad, it was hard to know the real loyalties of these myriad groups and where our aid would wind up.   On the other hand, this could also be seen as falling in line with Putin on Syria, since Putin supports Assad -- one of our major disagreements about the Syrian conflict.

4.  Trump accused Comey of trying to use the "unverified dossier" material to gain leverage against him in their January 6th meeting.  This is the material collected by a former British MI-6 agent that contains potentially damaging information (if correct) about Trump.   Comey has said in his sworn testimony that he felt he needed to let Trump know what was "out there" before it might wind up in the media, even though it might prove not to be true.   However, some aspects of it have since been verified.   Trump apparently concluded, however, that Comey's motive was only to threaten and gain leverage over him to keep his job.

We should remember that mind-set when we consider whether Trump's comments about Mueller crossing a red line should be regarded as a threat.
5.  Trump's comments about the Deputy Attorney General are even more bizarre and indicate his distorted view of the role of the Justice Department vis a vis the president.   They also indicate prejudice and his obsession with personal loyalty in its staff.  Here's what he said about Rod Rosenstein.

Quoting himself speaking to Sessions:  "I said, 'Who's your deputy?   So his deputy he hardly knew, and that's Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore.  There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any.  So, he's from Baltimore."

Now the truth is that Rod Rosenstein, who happens to be from Philadelphia and lived in Bethesda, MD when he was appointed U.S. Attorney for Delaware.  He is widely considered the epitome of the "professional, competent, ethical, and fair-minded prosecutor."  The senate vote on his confirmation was 94 to 6.   When Trump used a memo he had asked Rosenstein to write (about his assessment of Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation) as the reason for firing Comey, Rosenstein threatened to resign.   So Trump knows that he is not someone who is going to roll over for him.

So what and to whom was Trump's message in this strange, and strangely placed, interview?    My reading is that it comes from Trump's anger and frustration, and he wanted to say to those he considers his enemies (the "elite" media, the establishment politicians and pundits):  "Fuck You.   I'm the president, and these people are supposed to serve me and protect me, not investigate ME."  And, oh yes, the threat to Mueller that he really, really wants to fire him.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Separating what is wrong about Islam -- and what is right about Muslims.

Ali Rizvi, born in Pakistan into a "moderate to liberal Muslim family," has also lived in Saudi Arabia and Libya, giving him experience of three different Muslim cultures that helped him differentiate Islam as a religion from the diverse cultures of Muslim people.   This experience has led him to say:  "The left is wrong on Islam.  The right is wrong on Muslims."

Rizvi, a writer and a physician, now lives in Canada.  He was interviewed (by Sean Illing for about his new book, The Atheist Muslim.  Illing writes:

"Rizvi’s book is partly a plea for secularism and partly a defense of Islam as a culture. It’s also an internal challenge to Islam as a body of doctrines. Rizvi speaks directly to agnostics, atheists, and humanists living in the Muslim world, enjoining them to embrace secular culture without abandoning their Muslim identity."

Rizvi clarifies that this is not just about Islam as religion but "the Muslim experience," which he says is more personal and has more to do with identity than with ideology.  He says that, especially in the United States, it's difficult to keep any argument from devolving into a left-right division.   Both sides, he says, are really missing the mark.

Rizvi:  "They were both conflating 'Islam' the ideology and 'Muslim' the identity.  Islam is a religion;  it's a set of beliefs, a bunch of ideas in a book.  It's not human.  Muslims are real, living, breathing people, and to me, there's a big difference between criticizing ideas and demonizing human beings. . . . 

"Neither side was making that distinction.  On the left, people were saying that if you have any criticism against Islam, then you were a bigot against all Muslims.  On the right, it was like, there are a lot of problematic things in Islamic scripture, so everyone who is Muslim must be banned . . .  [They] weren't making that distinction between challenging ideas, which have historically moved societies forward, and demonizing human beings, which only rips societies apart. . . .

"That's what this book is about.  It's about making that distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity, and explores how we can have an honest conversation about ideas and beliefs without descending into bigotry against those who might challenge or hold them."

Rizvi further draws a dynamic distinction:  culture is always evolving, but religion tends to dogmatize culture and arrest its development.  Although identifying himself as atheist, he says that he retains some of the cultural elements of his religion -- as do many secular Jews and Christians, who no longer believe in those religious tenets.

Sean Illing said that he approached this interview with some trepidation because, as a liberal, he recognizes how so many in the left feel obliged "to beat back the bigotry on the right" toward Islam.  So liberals are hesitant to criticize some elements of the historical religious teachings lest they seem unsupportive of Muslims as people.

Rizvi responded to this by saying:  "When Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson say something that's homophobic or misogynistic, people on the left descend on them like a ton of bricks.  They're very comfortable with criticizing and satirizing fundamentalist Christianity.  But when it comes to Islam, which has many of the same homophobic and misogynistic teachings, they throw their hands up, back off, and say, whoa, hold on, we must respect their religion and culture."  

Rizvi says that he understands the liberal impulse to protect the rights of minorities;  but he also points out how this is "very frustrating to our liberal counterparts in Muslim-majority countries, who are fighting fundamentalist Islam the same way that liberals here fight fundamentalist Christianity, and they're even risking their lives for it.  Many have died for it.  Yet they hear their liberal counterparts in the West calling their ideas "Islamophobic."  This is a devastating double standard for them."

Those on the right, Rizvi says, see all Muslims as the same, which fails to recognize the millions of people in the Muslim world "who are atheist or agnostic but must publicly identify as Muslim or they'd be disowned, ostracized, or even killed by their families and governments."  Unfortunately this attitude extends to the right-wing's Islamophobia, most evident in Trump's first attempted Muslim ban.

To the question of whether Islam is a religion of war or a religion of peace, Rizvi says it is neither

"It's just a religion. . . . Sure, the scriptures . . . have inspired a lot of people to do good things, but they have also inspired a lot of people to do bad things as well.   Look at it this way. . . .  Almost all of my Jewish friends eat bacon.   Now does that mean that Judaism is suddenly okay with bacon?

"This is the difference between religion and people. . . .  When I say that most Muslims I know are very peaceful and law-abiding, that they wouldn't dream of violence, that doesn't erase all of the violence and the calls for martyrdom and jihad and holy war against disbelievers in Islamic scripture. . . .  The hard truth is there is a lot of violence endorsed in the Quran, and there are other terrible things, as there are in the Old Testament.   But there are more people in the world -- even if it's a minority of Muslims -- who take their scripture seriously.   It's dishonest to say that violent Muslim groups like ISIS are being un-Islamic."

Then there follows a discussion between Illing and Rizvi about other factors that go into determining pathways of violence, including geopolitical and socioeconomic conditions.   They agree on how difficult it is to ascribe weight to the various factors.

Rizvi:  "We have had a lot of discussion about the US foreign policy and how that has caused problems in the Muslim world, but we somehow shy away from talking about the equally important religious, doctrinal basis for these terrorist acts.   We shouldn't deny that either.  I'm convinced that one of the main reasons we haven't resolved this problem is that we are afraid to make the complete diagnosis.

By "complete diagnosis," Rizvi refers to a broad understanding of the religious ideology but also the historical, social and economic conditions, geopolitical changes, psychological traumas -- and the psychological appeal of fundamentalism and of belonging to a group, as an antidote to all those other factors for the young people to whom it appeals.  Ignoring any of these for simplistic answers will ultimately fail.

Rizvi:  "The way we think about this is strange. We try really, really hard to dance around it. When someone tells us they did something for political reasons, we accept it easily. 'Sure, they did it for politics.'  When someone says,  ' I did this for money,'  we believe them.  Even when people say, 'I played Doom, the video game . . . we take it at face value and have all these cultural conversations about the role of video games . . . in violence.

"But when people say, 'I'm doing this in the name of Allah,' and quote verse 8:12, which says, 'Strike the disbelievers upon the neck and strike from them every finger tip,' and we see them doing exactly what those words say, we look at that and go, 'No, no, it's got to be politics. It’s got to be for money. Let's see what video games they were playing.'

"That's the only thing I have a problem with. I acknowledge the other causes. I have explored them in my book. Yes, there are political grievances, and there are foreign policy grievances. We never deny those. So why do we deny that religion itself, the scripture itself, can drive these atrocities?"

Rizvi is not, repeat not, taking the same position of those who simplistically attribute it all to a "violent religion."  Far from it.   But he is saying:  religion is a factor -- and we should not shy away from it.  But keep it in perspective.

Another factor explored in Rizvi's book and discussed in the interview with Illing is the appeal of fundamentalism and belonging to a group for many young men who are disillusioned and otherwise hopeless about their future.   These are the ones who are ripe for recruitment, the "wandering souls," who respond to the appeal of a structured system, a set of beliefs, an identify -- and they often make a commitment without understanding it fully as a religion or ideology.

But Rizvi, never settling for easy answers, says that for him the more interesting question is:  "Why is Islam, why is this particular religion, so appealing to them?  Why do people prone to violence find Islam so appealing for their purpose?"

There's much more.   It's provocative and enlightening.   I intend to read the book.  For anyone who would like to understand more, it's:  The Atheist Muslim:  A Journey From Religion to Reason, by Ali Rizvi, St. Martin's Press, 2016.  As an atheist Muslim scientist and medical doctor living in North America in the post-9/11 world, Rizvi sought to find a way to criticize extreme Islam without demonizing his entire people


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Made in America" Week -- Trumps flunk

Seeking some "change the subject" distraction, the Trump administration came up with the idea of theme weeks.   This week is "Made in America" week, meant to feature and promote products made in this country.

That's a fine idea.   But, embarrassingly, the Trump family can't be featured.   Most of the Donald Trump clothing line and the Ivanka Trump accessories line are made in China and other not-America places.

GOP Congress just can't do health care.

The House snuck through a bill that nobody had time to read and sent it to the Senate.   Now, after working behind closed doors, the third Senate attempt has just got shot down -- by their own people.

Yes, it's partly because they can't reconcile the Paul Rand conservative wing with the Susan Collins moderates.   But it's more than that.  It's the Republican ideology that I wrote about on Sunday, July 14th to explain why they can't craft a health care plan that works.   It's incompatible with their ideology.

Now, Mitch McConnell's latest plan took just a few hours to be blackballed by three women senators:   Collins, Murkowski, and Caputo.

Writing for latest New York magazine's "Daily Intelligenser," Jonathan Chait begins with a quote from a conservative discussing the 2009 financial crisis, who said:  "Maybe it was a good thing we weren't in power then -- because our principles don't allow us to respond to a crisis like this."

Well, now let's add health care as another thing their principles don't allow them to do.   Did they know that?     All these eight years they've been promising to "repeal Obamacare" as though it was the devil incarnate?   No wonder all that bluster was not backed up by any semblance of a workable plan.

Chait continues:  "The cohesion Republicans possessed in opposition disintegrated once they had power, because their ideology left them unable to pass legislation that was not cruel, horrific, and repugnant to their own constituents."

In promising "great health care at a tiny fraction of the cost," candidate Trump, Chait says, was merely sounding the "more carefully hedged promises his party had made for years.

"In truth, it was never possible to reconcile public standards for a humane health-care system with conservative ideology.  In a pure market system, access to medical care will be unaffordable for a huge share of the public.   Giving them access to quality care means mobilizing government power to redistribute resources, either through direct tax and transfers or through regulations that raise costs for the healthy and lower them for the sick.  Obamacare uses both methods, and both are utterly repugnant and unacceptable to movement conservatives. .. .

"In no other country would a conservative party develop a plan for health care that every major industry stakeholder calls completely unworkable.  [i.e. Cruz's amendment to eliminate minimum coverage and pre-existing conditions requirements].  Any attempt to resolve the contradiction between public demands and conservative ideology has led the party to finesse it instead. . . .

"The Trump administration might lash out at Obamacare by continuing to sabotage its functioning markets.  They will find, however, that sabotaging the insurance exchanges will create millions of victims right away, as opposed to the luxury of delaying the pain until after the elections."

And Chait concludes with this:  "The power to destroy remains within the Republican party's capacity.  The power to translate its ideological principles into practical government is utterly beyond its reach,"

So much wisdom and understanding emerging -- just the conversation we should have had during the 2016 campaign.   Instead, we had Trump mania.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Trump's "Voter Fraud" Commission

Even though Donald J. Trump won the electoral college vote and was sworn in as President of the United States six months ago, he is still rankled by the idea that he did not win the popular vote.

Unable to accept that fact, a few weeks ago he tried to do something to prove what has become his fixed belief, often stated, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because of the "millions of illegal voters."  He has never cited any evidence.  He has none.  But he heard it said by alt-right sources, and it clicked with his paranoia and his craven need to remove any doubt about his winning.

That's our president, folks.   And now he's in position to do something.   So he appointed a commission to look into the states voter registration rolls and voting procedures.   He made VP Mike Pence Chair of the commission, but that's clearly a figure-head appointment.   The real bulldog is Co-Chair Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and candidate for governor.   Kobach has national notoriety (or fame, depending on your politics) for his fierce, mean-spirited battles against illegal immigration and against voter fraud.  He calls himself "the ACLU's worst nightmare."   In fact, the ACLU has sued him four times for overly restrictive policies, since he became Kansas' Secretary of State in 2010.

Kobach has repeatedly been shot down by the courts, which only burnishes his image among the right-wing, Trump-supporting conservative base.  Kobach's first initiative for this commission was to write to all fifty Secretaries of State (or the equivalent offices that handle voter registration) asking for information about every person listed on their voter registration rolls, including which party they voted for in recent elections, email addresses, social security numbers, and criminal records.

This produced a tremendous backlash, fueled by suspicions of the motives and uses which the Trump administration intended such sensitive information.  There were concerns about voters' privacy, as well as concerns that it would lead to more restrictive laws to suppress the vote among minorities.   At latest count, 48 of 50 states have said they will not comply, at least not fully, with the request.

At the same time, there is also great frustration that Trump is focusing on the wrong problem.  Voter impersonation and duplicate voting, which is what they really mean when they talk about "voter fraud," have repeatedly proved to be practically non-existent.  Yet Trump seems totally unconcerned about the very real problem of suppression of minority voting, whether by restrictive voting laws, petty regulations, gerrymandering, or outright intimidation.

It's unclear what the commission's next move is, given this resistance from the states.  Several lawsuits by privacy and civil liberties groups have essentially put their work on hold.   But NBC News' Dartunorro Clark has just reported what is news to me, and maybe to most folks, including the president.

Clark's report introduces Shane Hamlin, the executive director of a non-profit group, the Election Registration Information Center (ERIC).  Hamlin says, "There's no reason to re-invent the wheel when we're already here . . . and we do it very well."  ERIC is a voluntary, non-partisan group, currently made up of 20 states and the D.C., that shares voter data "to root our possible fraud, ensure more accurate voter rolls and encourage registration."   They do it in a highly responsible, secure, ethical manner.

Hamlin says he was stunned when he saw the Trump commission letter because of the poor planning, lack of concern for privacy, and the general lax attitude toward security.   [In fact, as an aside, the commission has already demonstrated just this point by posting online the protest comments made to the commission from individuals.   They posted them without removing emails addresses, phone numbers, and in a few cases, social security numbers.

In contrast, Hamlin says ERIC was put together by a core group of technology, data, and privacy experts along with state election officials.  They spent more than three years "building intricate and extensive security protocols, agreements and methodologies before it was officially launched in 2012."

Hamlin sees no evidence of any such frameworks being in place by the Trump commission.   Instead, their first step seems to have been asking states to turn over millions of voter files with no safeguards to protect privacy.    David Becker, another elections expert who was part of the ERIC team, says of the Trump project:  "Every chance they had, they went the wrong way.  This is a textbook study on how not to use data."

ERIC takes great care to "anonymize" data before it is shared in order to prevent compromise of personal information.   Sensitive data is encrypted into code if it needs to be transmitted, and they have layers of protection against hacking.  Hamlin says that "raw data is never stored in a central location or shared publicly, contrary to what the Trump panel said it planned to do."  They would gather data on every voter in the United States -- in one place -- just begging Russia to hack into it with disastrous results.

ERIC's main activity and reason for being is to assist states in keeping their voter rolls up to date.  They have access to drivers licenses and voter registrations in participating states, as well as social security records of deaths, and national change of address information.

Some participating states are also using data from ERIC in a positive way to reach out to eligible voters who are not registered, such as someone who has recently moved into the state.

It seems that Trump's ill-conceived, paranoia-driven effort is yet another example of amateurish flailing about without forethought or expertise.   A wise administration would have talked to experts, found out about and learned from a program like ERIC, and put someone in charge who cares about doing it right.

Instead, Donald Trump knew the answer he wanted, and he chose the man who would be most likely to give him that answer.  Kobach seems just as obsessed with his own (warped) beliefs as does Trump.   So never mind using a credible process to get the right answer.

It's time to junk the whole mess that was looking in the wrong place, using the wrong methods, to come up with the wrong answer to a non-existing problem.  But that's the Trump world we now inhabit.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Why Don Jr's meeting changes everything

If you only listen to what they say, Team Trump is still calling all the Russia stuff "fake news" and pooh-poohing the idea that Don, Jr.'s meeting was anything out of the ordinary.   "Everybody does opposition research" -- that's all it is, they (desperately) proclaim.

But, as we are learning, don't listen to what they say;  watch what they do.   The amount of "lawyering up" (love that term) is breathtaking.   The president himself has now hired a fifth attorney to his legal team -- and that's in addition to the White House Counsel's office, which handles official presidential legal work and has over 30 lawyers.

Vice President Pence got himself one of those high-priced, Washington-insider type attorneys, as did Jared Kushner.   Now we learn from campaign disclosure forms that the 2020 Trump campaign paid $50,000 on June 27, 2017 as a retainer for an attorney for Trump, Jr.  Yet the New York Times expose story did not run until July 8th.

This is significant on more than one count.  (1)  The lawyer was retained before the New York Times first release, on July 8th, of its expose reporting of the meeting.   (2)  Trump, Sr. has insisted that he knew nothing about the meeting until 2 days before it became public, i.e. July 6th even though his campaign paid Jr.'s lawyer on June 27th.   Trump's reputation as a micromanager suggests he would not have let something like a $50,000 legal fee slip by without knowing what it was for.

So this little factoid about Trump, Jr.'s legal fee payment just puts in bold and in Italics the question:   "Who knew what, and when did they know it?"

Ezra Klein, writing on the meaning of this meeting ( website), recalls pundit Elizabeth Drew's comment that "Watergate was a time of low comedy and high fear."   Klein goes on to say that "The farce of the story distracts from its horror, and so we take refuge.  Twitter is never funnier than when a new Trump-Russia story breaks."   Klein continues:

"And yet . . .  This isn't a scandal as we are used to thinking about it.   This isn't an embarrassment, or a gaffe.   This is a security breach.  It calls into question whether America's foreign policy is being driven by the favors President Donald Trump owes Vladimir Putin for his political help or, perhaps worse, whether it's being driven by the fear that Putin will release far more damning material if Trump crosses him.

"This is a story that makes clear nothing the current White House says can be trusted. . . These are acts that cast doubt on the basic patriotism of the current White House . . ."

"This is a story that reminds us that the last election was often dominated, and perhaps decided, by a crime -- Russia's theft of Democratic emails . . .  And it refocuses our attention on the fact that Trump fired the director of the FBI in an attempt to end the investigation into that crime."

Klein then says that, until now, many people ascribed it all to "bumbling and idiocy and coincidence.   But that won't hold any more.  Trump, Jr.  knew exactly what was being offered -- information damaging to Hillary Clinton being offered by a foreign power.

And, if Trump, Jr. and brother-in-law Jared Kushner were too politically naive to get it, Paul Manafort was certainly not -- and Manafort saw the email and sat in the meeting.

Klein points out what many others have observed.  The email from the intermediary --which clearly referred to the information being offered as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump" -- elicited no surprise in the Trump camp.   Excitement, perhaps, on what they might be getting.   But no one seemed surprised (in the accounts we have) that Russia was trying to help get Trump elected.

The obvious conclusion is that this is not the first time this was discussed.  In Klein's words:  "The alliance is already credible enough, and already serious enough, that they take the email without further vetting or discussion."  Klein continues:

"Did Donald Trump himself know?  It would be remarkable if he didn't.  It would mean his son and his son-in-law and his campaign manager had tried to collude with the Russians -- endangering his campaign and giving a foreign government blackmail material over his presidency -- without telling him. . . .

"But if Donald Trump knew, then it means he knew what he was firing James Comey to hide.  Then it is clearly obstruction of justice.

"Even if . . . [he] did not know, consider all the damning evidence here:  We know that his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager at least tried to work with a semi-hostile foreign power to win the election.   We know the foreign power conducted a large-scale and successful cyber-espionage effort against the Democratic Party.  We know that Trump continues to treat Russia unusually gently -- palling around with Vladimir Putin even as he undercuts NATO and weakens the Western alliance.

"And so we are faced with a crisis that leaves vast swaths of American politics stained.  The election is tainted.   The White House is tainted.  Our foreign policy is tainted.  If impeachment seems impossible, it is only because we believe that Republicans in Congress would sooner protect a criminal administration than risk their legislative agenda to uphold the rule of law -- which is all to say, Congress is tainted, too.

"The actors in this drama are often comic, pathetic, and incompetent.  But the damage they have done, and are doing, is almost beyond imagining.  As often as this looks like farce, we should not forget it's a tragedy."

Thank you, Ezra Klein, for that clarity about our evolving national tragedy.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why Republicans can't craft a health bill

How many versions of health care reform have Republicans tried -- and failed?    Here's why they are unable to craft anything that will work, over and beyond their internal division of moderate-conservative disagreements.

Obamacare is based on several irreplaceable principles.  It's not just a plan someone thought up;  it evolved over years of work, months of negotiations, and hundreds of hours of meetings -- finding solutions to the anticipated problems.  A plan has to include them all to work properly.

Even so, one of them was taken away by the Supreme Court when it ruled unconstitutional the part of the plan that penalized states for not expanding Medicaid as part of the plan.   Consequently, many states opted not to, which has hurt the effectiveness of Obamacare by reducing the number of people covered.

Fortunately, it has managed to survive and now is stabilizing, in spite of the sabotage Republicans have inflicted on it.  (See ShrinkRap 7/15)  Indeed, Trump still threatens to withhold the subsidies, leaving insurers in limbo and not knowing what to they need to charge.

Republicans don't accept those principles, so they try to write a plan without them or that short-changes them.  Then they turn the plan into a tax cut program, mostly for the wealthy.  So that's why they can't make it work.

Here are those principles:

1.  The basic principle of insurance:  spreading the risk for mutual benefit.  In order to accomplish this, you need broad (ideally universal) coverage that includes young and healthy individuals, spreading the risk among people who will use it a lot and people who will never need it, or at least people who may not need it until many years later.   This is the way premiums can be kept down overall.  Otherwise, only people who need it a lot (sicker people) will sign up, which makes the premiums skyrocket.
     In order to get such broad coverage, there has to be some inducement, like a penaltyfor not participating.  Or else you can do it by actually making it a program covering everyone and paid for by taxes.  That would raise taxes (anathema to Republicans), but the extra tax would be more than offset by having no insurance premium to pay for.  It's the most efficient way.   It's called universal coverage.   Politically, the Democrats knew they couldn't get that passed, so they settled for the penalty, which has not been popular -- but is necessary, for the plan to work.   Republicans want to eliminate the penalty.

2.  Health care is considered a right of all citizens.   We're gradually, as a society, coming to accept that.   Many Republicans do not agree, however.   This is crucial when it comes to how premiums are calculated for individuals.
     Pricing of premiums cannot be based on individual risk.   If so, young healthy people would pay very low rates;  but sicker and older patients would have to pay rates that most could not afford.  And young people will some day be old people -- then they'll not be able to afford what was so cheap when they didn't need it.
     Then you get premiums going up for people who use the insurance;  and they can't afford it when they need it most;  or, worse, the insurance company cancels your policy.   That defeats the whole purpose of insurance.   Yet, if premiums are too high, young healthy people will not buy it.
     So there has to be a compromise, the best probably being a small increase based on age;  but not too much or you price out the older people who need it most.   Also, it cannot exclude people with pre-existing conditions -- for the reasons given above.  If health care is a right, you don't lose that right because you've been sick.   But that's what happens when insurance excludes coverage for  those who your have been sick before.

3.  Government assistance for those who cannot afford it.   In Obamacare, this comes in the form of subsidies for those who fall between Medicaid and a certain income level.   Republicans hate having the government set up another "entitlement," as they disapprovingly call it.   Instead, they're offering a little help as tax credits, which don't do much for those who don't even pay taxes.   And Trump may even just decide to stop paying the subsidies, thus further sabotaging what is working.

So this doesn't cover all the details, but in big principles, this is what Obamacare does, and what it requires.   Unless we could just skip on over and adopt universal, single payer -- or a Medicare-for-All plan.   I think all of this controversy has educated the public, and the American people have moved significantly closer to accepting universal health care.    But the politicians have to go through another step of failure before we can get to that better plan.

Republican politicians have been promising for eight years that they would "repeal Obamacare," which they have turned into the devil incarnate.   So they can't just give up and accept what they have demonized.  They're stymied by their own rhetoric.

As to the three basic principles:  (1)  Republicans more or less accept the principle of insurance, sharing the risk;  but they'd rather have the government minimally involved.  And avoid, if possible, having to provide help for those who can't afford it.   (2)  Health care as a right for everyone -- that's not acceptable to many, perhaps most, Republicans.  Remember though:  Republicans in the past have advocated for very liberal health care plans.   Obamacare was largely based on Mitt Romney's plan when he was Massachusetts' governor,   (3)  Government assistance to needy people is tough for Republicans to accept.  They want to weasel out by turning it into block grants for states -- and avoid the guilt of seeming stingy.   Or turn it into a private sector plan that gets it out of government hands.    Just not more "safety net" programs that "encourage dependency."

But they can't plan something that works that isn't Obamacare.   So, I repeat my suggestion, which nobody seems to be considering.   Make the small changes that Obamacare needs to make it work better -- and let the Republicans change the name to something else.  Then you can say  they "repealed and replaced Obamacare."   How about calling it the "Affordable Care Act II"?  Or something neutral, like "Healthy America."

Just don't ruin it.   I think we'd even be willing to let them claim credit for a better working plan (we all know the history), if they just don't ruin what is proving to be a very good thing.