Owning the Problem

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

President John F. Kennedy (3-13-1962)

If you’re more upset by an athlete kneeling on a sports field than a police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck until he dies, then you are the problem.

Brian Klaas

This week’s featured post is “The Three Stories of George Floyd“.

This week everybody was talking about George Floyd

The featured post is already too long, but a lot of stuff didn’t get included.

A low point in a week of low points was Trump’s tweets about the demonstrations around the White House and the Secret Service response. First, he just flat-out lied about D. C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) “who is always looking for money & help, wouldn’t let the D.C. Police get involved.” D. C. police did in fact protect the White House.

[The Secret Service] let the “protesters” scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard – didn’t know what hit them. The front line was replaced with fresh agents, like magic. Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action. “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and good practice.”

You can just hear the glee in his imagining the protesters being “really badly hurt”. I also sincerely doubt that the young Secret Service agents were chomping at the bit to go hurt protesters, the way Trump makes it sound.

Some of the pleas that black local officials made for peace and an end to the destruction were really moving. Here’s Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Trump’s tweet that

The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.

is based on nothing. Designating a terrorist organization is a legal act based on legislation. There is no legislation that covers domestic groups. His claim that Antifa is promoting the riots is also pretty much vacuous. It’s possible, but Trump has presented no evidence, and he has a history of making Antifa into a general-purpose boogie man.

Finally, it’s not even clear that Antifa is an organization. There are small local groups that use the label, and they share certain ideas and texts and tactics. (The main idea is that fascists are violent, and they need to be met with violence. The subtext is that the police cannot be trusted to protect progressives from fascists.) But it’s not like there’s a Pope of Antifa somewhere sending out orders. Talking about Antifa as an organization is like talking about jazz or yoga as an organization.

Remember: During World War II, Americans were all anti-fascists.

An amazing column in the Washington Post yesterday. A daughter from the family that owns Gandhi Mahal in Minneapolis reports overhearing her father’s reaction to their restaurant burning down: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail.”

The protests and the violence and the fires will stop once we’re rid of this system that oppresses, and maims, and kills people like George Floyd. So let it burn.

Somebody drove a truck through a bunch of protesters on a bridge in Minneapolis yesterday. The details are still vague.

and 100,000 Covid-19 deaths

Well, not everybody was talking about this death milestone. The President of the United States had nothing to say on the topic.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, said something very moving and appropriate. He posted a 2:21-minute video on Twitter in which he marked the 100,000th death and sympathized with those who have lost loved ones.

I can promise you from experience, the day will come when the memory of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.

The video is only briefly political, and does not mention the President’s name.

It’s made all the worse by knowing that this is a fateful milestone we should have never reached, that it could have been avoided. According to a study done by Columbia University, if the administration had acted just one week earlier to implement social distancing and do what it had to do, just one week sooner, as many as 36,000 of these deaths might have been averted.

Biden also does not center his message on himself. That “from experience” is the only allusion to his own losses, particularly his first wife and baby daughter dying in a traffic accident in 1972.

OK, so where are we: Currently at 106K deaths, up from 99K last week. The 7K increase is down from the 8K increase last week.

Desperate for a scapegoat, Trump ended US membership in the World Health Organization Friday.

The Supreme Court denied a California church’s request to throw out the state’s emergency rule that houses of worship only open at 25% of the ordinary building capacity. It was a 5-4 ruling with Justice Roberts siding with the Court’s four liberals. Justice Kavanaugh wrote a dissent for himself and Justices Gorsuch and Thomas.

The established law in such cases was explained well by Vox’ Ian Millhiser:

The general rule when a state is accused of abridging “religious liberty” is that churches and other religious institutions may be subjected to the same laws as everyone else, but they cannot be singled out for inferior treatment. Churches must comply with the fire code, follow most labor laws, obey the criminal law, and so forth. As the Supreme Court explained in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), people of faith must still obey “neutral” state laws of “general applicability.”

Roberts and Kavanaugh disagree about which secular institutions are comparable to a church. Roberts writes:

Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.

Kavanaugh wants to clump churches with different kinds of institutions.

The basic constitutional problem is that comparable secular businesses are not subject to a 25% occupancy cap, including factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries.

You now know was much as I do, and you can make up your own mind, but I think Kavanaugh is just being ridiculous. A church resembles a movie theater much more than a pet grooming shop.

and Michael Flynn

Summaries and partial transcripts of the Flynn/Kislyak conversations have been released. These are the conversations that Flynn lied about to the FBI. And the transcripts make that lie crystal clear: He told the FBI he didn’t discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador, when he really did.

Marcy Wheeler (who writes the blog EmptyWheel) assesses:

They’re utterly damning. … [F]rom the very start of this Administration, Flynn willingly set up the relationship with Russia such that Russia and Trump’s Administration were allied against Democrats — and anyone else who believed it was wrong for Russia to tamper in our election.

and Twitter

Tuesday, Twitter attached a fact-check warning to a Trump tweet that was full of misinformation about vote-by-mail. This was long overdue. In fact, if Twitter applied the same standards to Trump that it applies to everyone else, his account would have been closed long ago.

Trump’s tweet was still there. He had not been censored in any way. But he claimed — in a tweet — that he had been.

Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election. If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!

And he spread more threatening disinformation.

Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.

As he so often does — see the bit about Antifa above — he’s making threats based on powers he doesn’t have.

But he attempted to follow through with an executive order that is itself full of misinformation. It talks about online platforms that “censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike”. (Again, his tweet is still there. He was fact-checked, not silenced.) And it calls on the FCC to “clarify” the laws that don’t hold online platforms responsible for what users post there.

Lawfare comments:

The key language of Section 230—“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”—leaves no ambiguity to enable FCC rulemaking or FCC action at all. Nor does language about good-faith removals limit this provision in any way. Rather, the statute simply lays out a standard for courts to review intermediary liability claims. Plus, even if the FCC could rewrite Section 230, that would not stop the Trump tweet fact-check—Twitter still enjoys First Amendment protection for what it says on its own platform. Regarding the FTC, the order wrongly interprets platforms’ merely aspirational guidelines on openness as mandatory promises; no one seriously believes that Twitter is totally neutral toward all content, no matter how horrible.

But the likelihood that the order won’t withstand judicial scrutiny misses the point. The threat of the order itself, even as wrong as it is, does exactly the damage Trump wants to do: It pressures companies into giving his content preferential treatment.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told Fox News that he disagreed with what Twitter was doing.

I believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.

Two Australian satire sites then posted headlines with false info about Zuckerberg. The Shovel posted “Mark Zuckerberg — dead at 36 — Says Social Media Sites Should Not Fact-Check Posts”. And The Chaser posted “Social media sites shouldn’t fact-check posts” says child molester Mark Zuckerberg, then followed with “Child molesters sue The Chaser after being compared to Mark Zuckerberg“.

Twitter did nothing about another Trump disinformation campaign.

In the annals of Trump’s many scurrilous slanders, this one stands out: He keeps pushing a conspiracy theory that accuses MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough of murder. A Scarborough congressional staffer, Lori Kaye Klausutis, died in the office 2001. She “died when she suffered a heart condition that caused her to fall and hit her head on a desk”. Scarborough “was 800 miles away at the time and the police ruled her death an accident.”

The woman’s husband, Timothy Klausutis, wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. He quoted three Trump tweets, and then made a request:

Please delete these tweets.

I’m a research engineer and not a lawyer, but I’ve reviewed all of Twitter’s rules and terms of service. The President’s tweet that suggests that Lori was murdered — without evidence (and contrary to the official autopsy) — is a violation of Twitter’s community rules and terms of service. An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.

… I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain. … My wife deserves better.

But Twitter has not removed the tweets or banished Trump. When reporters asked Trump about the tweets Tuesday in the Rose Garden, he substituted his own imaginings about the family for the husband’s expressed wishes:

I’m sure that, ultimately, they want to get to the bottom of it and it’s a very serious situation. As you know, there’s no statute of limitations. So, [reopening the investigation] would be a very good, very good thing to do.

As usual, Trump has no new evidence that challenges the conclusions of the original investigation. He’s just stirring up trouble for Scarborough, who he views as an enemy. Tim Klausutis and the rest of the dead woman’s family are just collateral damage.

A handful of Republicans in Congress have denounced this unscrupulous attack on one of their own, but the great majority have remained silent. There seems to be literally nothing Trump could do that would result in widespread criticism from his party, much less any substantive discipline.

The WaPo’s Brian Klaas calls the intransigence of Trump cultists “the Fifth Avenue problem” and comments:

American democracy is badly broken if few people change their minds about a president who falsely accuses someone of murder or boasts about his TV ratings while 100,000 Americans lose their lives and nearly 40 million lose their jobs. And that says as much about the dysfunctional state of our country as it does about Trump.

and you also might be interested in …

SpaceX successfully launched two astronauts into space and then docked their vehicle with the International Space Station.

The National Hockey League has a plan for going straight to playoffs and crowning a champion in early autumn: 24 teams would play in two hub cities. The cities, the dates, and the final decision about whether this will happen at all are still pending.

Some for-profit colleges run a scam where students are conned into maxxing out their student loans, but are left without the marketable credentials or skills the college’s pitch promised. Fraudulent colleges find veterans particularly attractive because of their GI benefits.

The Obama administration made rules that forgave these student loans, but the Trump administration rolled those rules back. Congress passed a bill re-establishing the Obama rules, but Trump just vetoed it writing:

[The bill] sought to reimpose an Obama-era regulation that defined education fraud so broadly that it threatened to paralyze the nation’s system of higher education.

Unsurprising, I guess, that the founder of Trump University would have so much sympathy with education fraudsters.

Mitch Daniels was the Republican governor of Indiana before Mike Pence, and is now president of Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. Last Monday, he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about why Purdue will reopen its campus in the fall.

I have too much to say about this, which I hope to get to next week. The gist of his argument is that most Purdue students are young and young people mostly don’t die from the virus, so “failing to reopen Purdue University this fall would be an unacceptable breach of duty”.

In other words, he’s using the magic of averages to make the victims of his policy — older students, janitors, secretaries, professors — go away. I can imagine a sound and anguished weighing of risks and benefits that concluded with opening Purdue. But this isn’t it, and the president of an institution of higher learning should be ashamed to give his students such a shoddy example.

The Lincoln Project is a group of never-Trump Republicans who have been making anti-Trump TV ads. This week they branched out and started going after Mitch McConnell as well.

and let’s close with something squirrely

Mark Rober apparently is something of a YouTube sensation, with 11.8 million subscribers, but I hadn’t heard of him before this video. He started out trying to protect his bird feeder from squirrels, but as they foiled one device after another, he came to have first a grudging admiration for their persistence and athleticism, and then a real fascination with them. At 20 minutes, his “Building the Perfect Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder” video is longer than my usual closing, but well worth it.

And while we’re talking squirrels, Christopher Moore’s new novel Shakespeare for Squirrels is an amusing way to pass the time while sheltering at home. This is the third Moore novel to follow King Lear’s former fool, Pocket of Dog Snogging upon Ouze. Pocket was introduced in Foole, which retold King Lear in a way that made Pocket the hero. He then moved on to The Serpent of Venice, and now shows up in the timeless Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Three Stories of George Floyd

The George Floyd story is really three separate stories: how he died, how he fits into the larger story of police brutality against black people, and the demonstrations and riots that have happened around the country since his killing.

His death. The first story is the most difficult to watch, but the easiest to tell: Last Monday in Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck “for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurring after Floyd was unresponsive”.

We know the timing that exactly because a bystander uploaded a video to Facebook. It shows Floyd repeatedly complaining that he can’t breathe, and then becoming motionless while bystanders plead with police to “check his pulse” and ask the policeman who was keeping the growing crowd away “You going to let him kill that man in front of you?”. Chauvin doesn’t get off Floyd’s neck until an ambulance has arrived and a stretcher is ready to receive his (possibly already lifeless) body.

The police account, from a few hours before the video went viral, tells none of that. The New York Times summarizes:

Minneapolis police said they were investigating an accusation of forgery on Monday night in the southern part of the city. They confronted a man who was sitting on the top of a blue car. The police said the suspect had “physically resisted officers” as he was placed in handcuffs. He appeared to be “suffering medical distress,” according to the police statement released on Monday night after an ambulance was called to the scene.

That account is true, as far as it goes. Floyd was being arrested on a complaint that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a local grocery. NBC reconstructed the arrest from a number of video sources. At times Floyd struggled with the police arresting him, but he presented no weapons and was always greatly outnumbered. (According to the criminal complaint against Chauvin, the struggle you can barely make out in the NBC video is Floyd resisting being put in the squad car.) At no point did he seem to be getting away. When Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck, Floyd was already handcuffed.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey commented:

The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on. And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.

The four police officers involved in the incident were fired on Tuesday. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. [1] According to the local Star Tribune, he is the first white police officer in Minnesota to be charged in the death of a black civilian.

The other officers have not been charged with anything, but the county attorney says they are under investigation and charges are expected. Local Channel 9 speculated on what those charges might be:

The most serious charge the other three fired officers could face is aiding and abetting the murder. “That could be giving him a tool or weapon, it could be keeping people away from interfering with that was going on,” Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, told FOX 9.

Friday, a Washington Post editorial expressed dissatisfaction with the official response:

Minneapolis’s own police have done little to suggest they can earn the trust of the community they are sworn to serve. They have not released body-cam footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, nor apologized for the specious statement they published about the incident, which elided the fact that Mr. Chauvin’s knee choked Mr. Floyd. The head of the city’s police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, said “now is not the time to rush to judgment” on Mr. Chauvin or the other officers at the scene, who did nothing to interfere as Mr. Floyd begged for his life.

Racism and American police. Excessive violence against black people accused of crimes is a very old story in America. By various accounts, thousands of blacks were lynched between the Civil War and the 1930s, often on little more than a false accusation. By definition, a lynching is an extra-judicial killing, but local law enforcement officers commonly either participated or looked the other way. (For example, the local sheriff was identified as a conspirator in the Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights activists in 1964.) I don’t know any estimate of the number of African Americans who have died in police custody since the end of slavery. Such killings were easily attributed to the suspect resisting arrest, attempting to escape, or committing suicide in prison.

For most of my lifetime, whites have regarded police brutality against black people as a they-said/they-said story. Blacks almost universally complained that police treated them more harshly than whites, and statistics showed that blacks were arrested, charged, and convicted far more often. But police said that blacks committed more crimes and were more likely to have a bad attitude towards police. Most white people never saw police arresting or otherwise accosting blacks, so the problem was easy to deny, ignore, or minimize.

The advent of ubiquitous video has changed all that. In recent years, the whole world has seen police choke Eric Garner to death while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes, shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead for playing with a toy gun, shoot Walter Scott in the back while he was running away from an officer who had stopped him for having a bad brake light, and many similar incidents.

Those videos made us see other incidents differently, even if the actual death was off-camera: John Crawford III was shot dead in a WalMart for carrying a toy gun he was thinking of buying. Stephon Clark was shot dead in his grandmother’s back yard when police mistook his cellphone for a gun. Philandro Castille was riding with his girl friend and her four-year-old daughter when a policeman stopped the car. Castille informed the officer that he had a legal gun in the car, and the officer shot him dead. Freddie Gray died from a “rough ride” that police gave him back to the station after arresting him for carrying a knife.

The great majority of these incidents — even the ones caught on video — resulted in no jail time for the police involved. No one was indicted for Garner, Rice, Crawford, or Clark’s deaths. The officer who killed Castille was acquitted. Gray’s death resulted in a mistrial, some acquittals, and dropped charges. Walter Scott’s killer was convicted on federal charges, eventually, after his trial on a state murder charge ended in a hung jury.

Police have also tended to look the other way when white civilians kill blacks. Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman as he returned to his father’s fiance’s house after buying Skittles at a convenience store. Rather than treating the shooting as a crime, police returned the shooter’s gun and sent him home. Massive protests pushed local authorities to indict the shooter eventually, but he was acquitted.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the American justice system doesn’t regard the killing of a black person as a big deal. The anti-brutality movement is called Black Lives Matter in response to the apparent reality that they don’t. [2]

Recent events. By the time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, outrage had already been building for some while.

In late February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Brunswick, Georgia by two white men (a retired police detective and his son) while he was out jogging. The killers told police they suspected him in some local burglaries. For months the police took no action and the case got no attention in the press. But in early May, a video of the incident (which police seem to have known about all along) went viral. It showed Arbery being chased down and shot by three men in two trucks. It looked a lot more like a lynching that the resisting-citizen’s-arrest story the killers told.

Within two days of the video’s release, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had gotten involved and arrested the two men in the lead truck. The third man, who videoed from the second truck, was arrested later.

How, the nation wondered, could police have sat on this video for months without making an arrest? If the video hadn’t leaked, would the killers have gotten away with it?

Another recent case generating outrage: Breonna Taylor, a Louisville EMT. Plain-clothes police with a no-knock warrant burst into her home (her boyfriend claims without identifying themselves as police), setting off a gun battle in which Taylor was killed and her boyfriend wounded. The warrant was to look for drugs, which they did not find. The boyfriend’s story — that he thought he was defending against a home invasion by armed criminals — seems pretty credible.

Echoes of Ferguson. Before we get into this week’s demonstrations and riots, I want to talk about the last time something like this happened.

In 2014, after the Michael Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, demonstrations erupted and sometimes turned violent. I commented at the time on the coverage from Fox News and other conservative media, which framed the community reaction as a great mystery: Most of these people never knew Michael Brown and had no idea whether the police were telling the truth or not about his killing. What riled them up so much that they had to go break windows or burn down a store?

If you came to the Ferguson story with that question in mind, racist stereotypes provided an obvious answer, which Fox didn’t need to spell out (though some right-wing voices did): The Brown shooting was just an excuse for young black men to indulge their inherently lawless nature.

I addressed this “mystery” in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“, a piece that I think holds up pretty well after nearly six years. What Fox did wrong was present the Brown shooting as a one-off event, when the real story was the ongoing predatory behavior of the Ferguson police towards the black community. [3]

The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence. … So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect? …

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

This week’s responses. That’s the context to keep in mind as you think about the sometimes-violent demonstrations that we’ve seen around the country since Floyd’s killing. It isn’t that thousands of people have suddenly decided to care about a guy they’d never heard of a week ago, and it’s not that lawless animals have been turned loose. The anger being expressed in these demonstrations, by both peaceful and violent demonstrators, is largely personal anger. George Floyd symbolizes that anger, but it’s much bigger than him.

Very large numbers of black people have had their own bad experiences with police, incidents where they felt humiliated or threatened or disrespected. (One young man in Ferguson schooled a condescending Fox News reporter: “We go through this shit every day.“) And for the most part they have had no recourse; no one who had the power to demand justice would take their complaint seriously.

So when they see the tape of Chauvin killing Floyd, their response isn’t, “Oh my God, can you believe that?” but “There! Look at that! That’s how they are!” Not “I can’t believe stuff like that happens in America” but “Finally somebody got the goods on them.” [4]

And at the same time, there’s the fear that even with this kind of evidence, nothing will change. Maybe Chauvin will be tried and maybe he’ll even be convicted, but maybe he’ll get off somehow, as so many others have. Maybe the other cops have been fired, but probably somebody — maybe even Minneapolis again — will hire them and put them back on the street. Or maybe they’ll be the rare cops to pay some kind of price for their racism, but the racist policing system as a whole will rumble on.

There is no reason for the demonstrators to have faith that something else will happen, that America finally gets it now. That’s why they’re on the street.

For comparison, think about school shootings. Again and again — Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland — an event is so shocking that it rises above the usual platitudes. And for a moment you think: “Now. Now something will change, because things like just can’t go on.”

But they do go on. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes there’s some incremental change in how we sell or track guns. But before too long there’s a new shooting, one even more horrible than the last one. And we go through it all again. Remember how that feels?

Riots. What we saw rising through the week and then reaching a crescendo over the weekend was a pattern of peaceful demonstrations by day and violence by night — not just in Minneapolis, but in cities across the country.

I don’t know how to cover the destruction, or even how to grasp it. A news network may show you a store being looted or a police station being burned, but are all the stores being looted? Is the whole city burning? The destruction seems widespread, but I don’t know how to get a handle on it.

I think it’s important, though, that riots not become the story. The original injustice — both specifically in the Floyd case and generally in the racial bias of our law enforcement — needs to be the story. Yes, the riots need to stop. Yes, people who use the cover of the chaos to commit crimes should be arrested and punished. And we need to take a hard look at crowd-control policing to see whether its tactics set off people who might otherwise disperse on their own. But just returning to the status quo is not a solution, because before long there will be another George Floyd, and then it will happen all over again.

I think it’s important to remember that peaceful protest was tried and it failed. Remember Colin Kaepernick? What he was protesting when he knelt during the national anthem was precisely the racist nature of policing in America. The main result of Kaepernick’s protest was to end his NFL career, largely because Trump wouldn’t let up. LeBron James reminded us of this by posting this photo with the comment “This is why”

When you suppress peaceful protest against legitimate injustices, and punish the people who do it, you make violent protest inevitable.

And I don’t want to hear the platitude that violence never changes anything. In fact it does, and I think we’re seeing that now. The riots are sending white America the message that this can’t go on. It could have heard that message when Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.” It could have understood that message when football players knelt. But it refused. Now the message is being sent with fire and broken glass.

This can’t go on.

The agitators. Finally, there’s the mystery of the Umbrella Man, and an indeterminate number of others like him. A white man dressed in black, hiding his face behind a gas mask and an umbrella, got the Minneapolis riots started by calmly and methodically smashing the windows of an AutoZone with a hammer. He then walked away. He does not seem to be either a protester or a looter; he’s just there to catalyze the transition from protest to riot.

There are many similar stories of mysterious people, many of them white, who perform some initial act of violence and then vanish. Sometimes they arrive in trucks with no license plates.

So far, a lot more is being said about these mystery men than anyone actually knows. Some say they’re white supremacists trying to set off the race war that their rhetoric says is coming. Trump says Antifa is behind it. [5] A number of protesters in Minneapolis suspect undercover police of agitating the violence to discredit the peaceful protests. (In the Umbrella Man video, bystanders keep asking “Are you a cop?”)

Any of those stories might have been false originally, and then become true. If you’re an isolated white supremacist or a left-wing anarchist, and you hear a false report that people like you are trying to turn the protests into riots, maybe you go out and do it without orders from anyone.

All those explanations need to weighed against the need of local officials to deny that their own constituents are so disillusioned that they’re ready to start burning stuff down. Blaming it all on “outsiders” is an easy out for them.

My advice: Pay attention to actual cases and the observations of specific witnesses, but don’t take anybody’s conclusions seriously yet.

[1] A local TV station summarizes what Chauvin was and wasn’t charged with.

A person commits third-degree murder when the person does not intend to kill another person but does so by acting recklessly, or “without regard for human life.”

It can lead to as many as 25 years in prison. The manslaughter charge carries a sentence up to 10 years, and is easier to prove.

A person commits second-degree manslaughter when their negligence causes another person’s death. Manslaughter only requires the person to create “an unreasonable risk,” while third-degree murder requires the person to act “without regard for human life.”

The more serious charge of second-degree murder would require establishing that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, and first degree would mean that he planned the killing.

So it depends on what Derek Chauvin was thinking. If he walked into the situation thinking “I’m going to kill that guy”, it’s first degree. If in the moment he realizes “I’m killing this guy” and continues, that’s second degree. If he just thinks “Eh, if he dies he dies”, that’s third degree. If he should have known that Floyd’s life was at risk, it’s manslaughter even if he didn’t know.

In my personal opinion, the Floyd killing is second-degree murder. But if I wanted to give myself the best chance to win in court, I’d do what the prosecutor has done. I’m not sure I could prove to a jury that the thought “I’m killing this guy” went through Derek Chauvin mind (though being surrounded by people yelling “You’re killing him” should have given him a clue). Proving that Chauvin acted recklessly and should have known Floyd might die seems much easier.

[2] That’s why the response “all lives matter” is so off-base. If all lives really did matter, there would be no need to assert that black lives matter.

[3] That behavior was laid out in detail months later in a Justice Department report. One key quote:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

In other words, the police went into the community looking for things to fine people for, not to protect life or maintain order. The racial attitude of the police was characterized by things like this:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

[4] The Trump administration is still in denial about this. Sunday on CNN, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien rehashed the full a-few-bad-apples story.

No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism. I think 99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans and many of them are African-American, Hispanic, Asian. They’re working in the toughest neighborhoods, they got the hardest jobs to do in this country. … There are some bad cops that are racist, there are cops that maybe don’t have the right training,. There are some that are just bad cops and they need to be rooted out because there’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name.

What the administration sees is a PR problem, not a race problem. The thing to fix is not black people getting killed, but police getting “a terrible name”.

A lot of people on social media are sharing this Chris Rock quote:

Some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like … pilots. Ya know, American Airlines can’t be like, “Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.”

[5] Over the years, Trump has said a lot of nonsense about Antifa, which is not even an actual organization so much as a collection of local groups who share some ideas and tactics. The general idea is that fascists are violent, so anti-fascists need to be prepared to match their violence. But Trump needs a left-wing group to distract from white supremacist violence, so Antifa is it.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Here’s where we’ve gotten to: The coronavirus epidemic in the United States officially passed the 100,000-death mark this week, and that’s not the lead story.

George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police last Monday, and by the weekend local protests had turned into nationwide riots. There’s a lot to untangle here, and I’m going to do my best. In my mind, this is really three, or maybe four, stories knotted together. First, there’s what happened to Floyd: what the police did when, who’s been charged with what, and so on. Second, there’s the long, sorry history of racist policing in America, and why this is a festering wound that almost every black American feels the pain of. Then there’s the story of angry protests turning into riots, with local officials (many of them black) struggling to calm things down while the President almost gleefully makes them worse.

Finally, and this fourth story I don’t know enough about to discuss intelligently yet, is the extensive anecdotal evidence that something sinister is going on behind the scenes, that agitators — many of them white — are doing their best to catalyze violence out of an already tense situation. Many people are speculating about who these bad actors are: white nationalists hoping to start the race war they’re always talking about, antifa anarchists, undercover police trying to discredit the protests — but nobody really knows. It could be Putin’s “little green men” for all I know. So far, all the sweeping statements made about this look irresponsible to me, and I’ll try not to muddy things up worse.

Everybody has their own particular ax to grind in discussing a complicated situation like this, and here’s mine: Racist policing was the issue that Colin Kaepernick was kneeling about before football games, and the main result of that peaceful protest was that he got drummed out of the NFL. When you suppress peaceful protests of longstanding injustices, you can’t really be shocked when violent protests break out.

So anyway, I’m planning a long article broken into sections to try to cover all those bases. That should be out by 10 or 11 EDT, and I haven’t picked a title yet.

Stuff that was happening before our cities started to burn seems like ancient history now, but it isn’t, and in a few days it will seem important again. So the weekly summary will discuss news about the pandemic, including the 100,000th American death. (And who knows how many people caught Covid-19 during the demonstrations and riots this week?) Also: Trump’s attempt to strike back at Twitter for fact-checking him, his heartless abuse of a woman’s death to make trouble for Joe Scarborough, the SpaceX launch, and release of the Flynn/Kislyak transcripts. And we’ll close this week with video of an attempt to protect a backyard birdfeeder from squirrels that turned into something much more. It’s hard to predict when that will appear, but let’s say before 1.

Death and Meaning

Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.

– Archibald MacLeish, “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak

There are no featured posts this week.

This week everybody was talking about Memorial Day

It takes on a somewhat different meaning this year, as the official total of coronavirus deaths approaches 100,000 Americans. (The actual total is almost certainly much higher.) The New York Times created a haunting graphic in an attempt to capture the scope of the loss.

Traditionally, Memorial Day honors those who have died serving our country in the military. (And the NYT’s Elliot Ackerman reminds us of the number of veterans dying from the coronavirus.) But the current crisis reminds us that the military is not the only place where people risk their lives to defend the rest of us. Right now, healthcare workers are on the front lines, but I can’t find any up-to-date estimate of the number who have died. Business Insider profiled six of them a few weeks ago.

To a lesser extent, many hundreds of thousands of people are taking on risk for the rest of us. As a 60-something whose 60-something wife has multiple risk factors, I try to remain aware of all the people I send into the world in my place: the InstaCart shopper who gets my groceries; the Amazon workers who make packages appear on my porch; the meat packers, field workers, truck drivers, and others up and down the supply chain. Our system makes most of these people invisible to us, but we should never forget them. If they get sick, it is not just their problem; we bear responsibility also.

Like soldiers, some of those risk-bearing people have intentionally sought out the mission of defending us, while others faced a situation with no other acceptable options. The pandemic has highlighted a division in our society that we usually ignore: Some of us can choose to stay safe, while others don’t have those choices.

Memorial Day is also the traditional beginning of summer. Beaches are open in most states that have them. And it should be relatively safe to use them, as long as you can keep your distance from other people. Two problems to watch out for: choke points leaving the parking lot and public restrooms.

Restrooms are going to be a problem in a lot of back-to-normal plans.

and the virus

Nationwide, the numbers continue to improve. As I write this, the US death total is 99,396, up from around 91K last week. That increase of 8K or so is lower than the increases of 10K and 13K the previous two weeks. The deaths-per-day graph the Washington Post updates shows US deaths peaking in mid-April at over 2,000 per day, then trending downward to about 1,200 a day now.

But those national numbers hide an evolving story of how the epidemic is shifting. The big drops are happening in the previous hotspots around New York City, while totals are rising in many other parts of the country. Like the latest fashions or slang, coronavirus is showing up late in rural America, but it’s getting there. TPM describes the case numbers for the non-New-York states as a plateau.

Imperial College of London reports on the state-by-state outlook for the virus. The key variable the report considers is the “reproduction number”. In other words: On average, how many new people does each infected person infect? Since all cases eventually resolve (via recovery or death), a reproduction number of less than 1 indicates that the number of infections will decline, but greater than one predicts growth.

Our results suggest that while the US has substantially reduced its reproduction numbers in all states, there is little evidence that the epidemic is under control in the majority of states. Without changes in behaviour that result in reduced transmission, or interventions such as increased testing that limit transmission, new infections of COVID-19 are likely to persist, and, in the majority of states, grow

The report shows an epidemic in transition. Most of the states with the highest number of cases and deaths (New York, for example) have gotten the reproduction number below 1. Meanwhile, states not hit as hard so far (like Texas) have the highest reproduction numbers.

New York, New Jersey, and the other hard-hit states got their reproduction number down via “changes in behaviour”: hand-washing, wearing masks, and staying indoors. But the states where the virus is growing are also relaxing their behavioral restrictions. The next few weeks will answer a key question: Will the virus “run its course” in Texas the same way it did in New York? Or will it keep spreading until Texas implements the same kind of measures New York did?

One result of Trump’s divisive manipulations is that mask-wearing has become a political issue rather than a non-partisan matter of public health. Refusal to wear a mask has become an act of “vice signaling” in right-wing circles.

these people are proud to say that their passing discomfort is more important than the lives of others, or of others’ loved ones. They are vice-signaling to get accolades from their conservative peers, who think that it is the height of morality not to care about other people at all.

North Dakota’s Republican Governor Doug Burgum could barely get his words out as he pleaded with Dakotans to

just skip this thing that other parts of the nation are going through, where they’re creating a divide, whether it’s ideological or political or something around mask versus no-mask. … I would ask people to try to dial up their empathy and understanding. If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support. They might be doing it because they’ve got a five-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their lives.

… I would love to see our state, as part of being North Dakota smart, also be North Dakota kind.

Apparently, some Republicans still think of “North Dakota nice” as a a virtue, and believe that virtue isn’t just for losers. In my opinion, they need to realize that their style of Republicanism has lost out, and they’re now in the wrong party.

and its effect on the economy

Georgia was the first state to start reopening its non-essential businesses, beginning on April 24. Observers on one side predicted a spike in infections and deaths, while those on the other pictured a quick economic recovery. So far, reality is not working out in either of those ways. Imperial College’s estimates of Georgia virus-reproduction rate look like this:

Both the 50% and the 95% confidence intervals stretch across the R=1 line, so the virus might be either spreading or retreating. There might be a slight upward trend since April 24, but it’s not clear.

Similarly, the Georgia economy is not showing a rapid recovery. To start with, Georgians are still spending a lot of time at home. The amount of time outside the home has increased somewhat since April 24, but it’s nowhere near its pre-pandemic levels.

Steve Rattner writes:

Consumer spending in Georgia has tracked the national average even more closely. It fell sharply from mid-March until it hit bottom about a month later, at more than 30% below early January levels. Coincidentally or not, the nadir of spending coincided almost exactly with the first of the $1,200 stimulus checks going out. From there, spending has been slowly recovering but is still down about 15% in both Georgia and the country as a whole. Other, even more recent data (like OpenTable restaurant reservations) show a similar picture. … Notwithstanding its short shutdown and early reopening, the falloff in job listings in Georgia has been identical to the national decline, down more than 36%. Other statistics, like new claims for unemployment insurance, paint an even grimmer picture of the employment situation in Georgia.

The gist is that while Georgia has relaxed its restrictions on business, it still hasn’t convinced consumers that it’s safe to come out. That’s keeping both infection rates and job growth in check.

The Payroll Protection Plan passed by Congress at the beginning of the lockdown may not keep about half the nation’s small businesses from closing. The PPP was

tailored to what the crisis looked liked when shutdowns first took place in the olden times of March 2020, when it seemed that business closures would be a short-term blip and everyone might be able to get back to normal by summer. … For loans made under the program to be fully forgiven, an employer must maintain pre-crisis employment levels. Now it’s clear many businesses will permanently shift to smaller staffing levels to remain viable, such as restaurants operating at partial capacity.

The biggest reopening question is still one of the most uncertain: Will schools open in the fall? And if so, how will they adjust to the infection risk?

Colleges and universities are a bit ahead of K-12 schools in announcing decisions, but many of them are still on the fence as well.  Here’s a rundown of what we know so far.

and churches

I wonder if other people are having the same response I’m having to a lot of what Trump says these days: His pronouncements are becoming so divorced from reality that they’re not even worth getting upset over.

That was how I felt Friday about his insistence that houses of worship are “essential”, and his threat to “override” state orders that don’t allow them to open “right now this weekend”. Trump has no authority to override state orders, and in fact the weekend passed without any action on his part. (In his defense, the criticism Trump took for going golfing Sunday morning was unfair. The President practices the same faith as Snow White’s stepmother, and attended services in front of his favorite mirror before teeing off.)

But anyway, ignoring Trump’s role in the discussion, is opening churches a good idea? No.

Church services commonly share a number of factors that make them dangerous during an epidemic: large numbers of people indoors for an extended period, the temptation to touch other people or stand close to them, and singing, which projects virus-laden particles much further than ordinary breathing. (Six feet is not nearly enough social distance if people are singing.) A number of local outbreaks have been traced to Sunday services, funerals, and even choir practices.

Massachusetts started allowing churches to reopen (at 40% capacity) last Monday, but my Unitarian Universalist church in Bedford has no plans to do so anytime soon. (UUs don’t believe that our religion exempts us from epidemiology.) Social-media chatter among my fellow parishioners was universally negative about Governor Baker’s decision. Holding services over Zoom may be a poor substitute for being together, but if staying apart is how we can best take care of each other, that’s what we should do.

I wouldn’t want to belong to a church where people didn’t feel that way.

Trump and Attorney General Barr have made a lot of noise about First Amendment issues. (Now they believe in separation of church and state.) But constitutional issues only arise if churches are treated differently from other organizations that pose a comparable risk to public health. Church buildings have long been subject to zoning rules, building codes, and maximum occupancy limits. Quarantine rules should be no different.

Trump cited the injustice of liquor stores being open when churches are not, but that’s just silly. When hundreds of people start singing together in liquor stores, his argument will begin to make sense. (If you know of such a liquor store, please leave a comment. Testify!)

and Mike Pompeo

In any other administration, he’d have resigned or been fired by now.

In this administration, the inspector general investigating him got fired at his request. It’s hard to say exactly why he was fired, because three different Pompeo scandals were brewing on three different scales: one is personal, one is related to abusing his office for political gain, and one involves abuse of emergency powers to circumvent the will of Congress.

Walk the dog. The simplest scandal is the personal one. Pompeo reportedly used a State Department staffer to “walk his dog, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations for Pompeo and his wife, among other personal errands”.

This kind of abuse has become just the way things work in the Trump administration. Trump himself doesn’t even pretend to be upset by it.

I have you telling me about dog walking, washing dishes and you know what, I’d rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes because maybe his wife isn’t there or his kids aren’t

This gets back to a basic failure in Trump’s thinking: He has never understood the difference between himself and his office. He thinks the powers and perks of his office belong to him as a person, and there makes no separation between their legitimate and illegitimate use. Here, he has extended that vision to Pompeo: If you work for the Secretary of State, you work for Mike Pompeo personally. There’s no distinction.

BTW: It shouldn’t matter, but the dog is adorable.

Madison dinners. Since taking over the State Department in 2018, Pompeo and his wife have hosted about two dozen “Madison Dinners” on the taxpayers’ dime, to the tune of “several hundred dollars per plate”. NBC News estimates the total cost of the dinners running “into the six figures”.

State Department officials involved in the dinners said they had raised concerns internally that the events were essentially using federal resources to cultivate a donor and supporter base for Pompeo’s political ambitions — complete with extensive contact information that gets sent back to Susan Pompeo’s personal email address.

Guests include billionaire conservative donors, media figures (skewed “heavily toward conservative TV personalities, with 39 percent of them from Fox News”), members of Congress (all Republicans), lobbyists, and celebrities like country singer Reba McEntire and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Pompeo has also been criticized for his frequent trips back to Kansas paid for by the State Department. Kansas is not noted for its extensive foreign policy significance, but Mitch McConnell wants Pompeo to run for the Senate there.

Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration has long faced bipartisan pushback in Congress against its pro-Saudi positions. One way this manifested was in congressional resistance to selling arms for the Saudis to use in their bloody war in Yemen. Almost exactly a year ago, Trump pushed an arms sale through by declaring an emergency. This exploited a loophole in the Arms Control Act.

“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement. “There is no new ’emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there. This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress.”

It was particularly odd that the entire $8 billion sale was considered an emergency, including weapons that were not even built yet. Pompeo went against the advice he had been getting from career State Department diplomats, but

“They seemed to have a game plan and it had to be justified,” said a State Department official who told CNN they had communicated what happened to the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General during an interview late last year, as part of the watchdog’s investigation into Pompeo’s move to fast track the sale.

“The attitude was very Trumpian,” the official added.

Pompeo’s demand meant State Department officials had to reverse engineer the situation to provide the justification for a decision which was made in an aggressive and unconventional manner, the sources said.

The fired inspector general was known to be looking into this sale. Pompeo had refused to meet with the IG for an interview, but agreed to answer written questions.

Wired spells out just how completely Pompeo has changed his tune since leaving Congress to take over the CIA and then the State Department. In Congress, he believed that Congress had a responsibility to watchdog the Obama administration. But now he thwarts congressional oversight at every turn.

and Hong Kong

The coronavirus pandemic interrupted a series of confrontations between Hong Kong democracy protesters and the Beijing-supported government. In April, several leaders of the democracy movement were arrested.

The Chinese National People’s Congress began meeting on Friday.

Beijing’s 3,000-member rubber-stamp legislature is poised to usher in controversial “national security” legislation that would ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion in the former British colony.

There’s mounting fear that Beijing would use the new laws to subvert semi-autonomous Hong Kong’s remaining rights, which include freedom of speech and assembly, and the city’s independent judiciary. If that happens, it would be a death knell for the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that officially guarantees Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy until 2047.

The Trump administration “strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal“, but Trump’s record supporting Hong Kong has been spotty. (He once described the democracy protests as “riots“, echoing Chinese government propaganda.)

The administration’s China policy has been all over the map. Trump has alternately flattered President Xi and talked about getting tough with China. It’s never been clear whether he was taking national-security issues with China seriously, or just using them for leverage in a trade deal. Recently he’s been attacking China to divert attention from his own failure to respond to the coronavirus crisis, and trying to tie presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden to China.

Whatever he ends up doing or saying about Hong Kong will probably have more to do with those factors than with Hong Kong itself. Xi will undoubtedly read it that way and respond accordingly.

and Joe Biden

Joe Biden appeared on CNBC Friday morning and answered questions from their hosts. You might think that being a sister of MSNBC would prejudice them in Biden’s favor, but CNBC is the business network in the NBC stable, so its programming is pitched towards investors who lean more conservative. It’s more of a Tory conservatism than Tea Party conservatism, a little like “The Economist”.

So it was a polite interview (the hosts were never aggressive or hostile with him) but also a challenging one. Biden was asked difficult questions (with occasional follow-ups) about taxes, China, healthcare, energy, re-opening the economy, and what kind of further stimulus or support the economy might need. (He wasn’t asked about issues unrelated to investments, like the Tara Reade accusation or who his running mate will be.)

Nothing in the interview surprised me from a policy standpoint. For example, he repeated the healthcare position he has held for some while: He doesn’t support Medicare for All, but he does want to expand ObamaCare and give it a Medicare-like public option. He thinks the government’s fiscal response to the current economic crisis should be aimed at Main Street rather than Wall Street.

Realizing I wasn’t going to hear policy changes, I started trying to evaluate Biden’s mental processes, since Trump wants to make that an issue. The main thing I noticed was that Biden’s mind — unlike Trump’s — seems flexible. He can shift contexts and subjects when necessary, but he can also stay on a subject when that’s appropriate. He doesn’t blather — as Trump often does — to hide the fact that he can’t place what the questioner is asking. (This is speculation, but I believe that a lot of Trump’s insults happen when he has talked himself into a corner and doesn’t know how to finish whatever he started to say. Insulting the questioner interrupts the conversation and sets it on a new path.)

Late in the interview Biden starts to miss words, creating sentences that look bad in the transcript. (At one point he talks about “a system nationwide that can transmit coal and wind across the country”, which doesn’t make sense. I suspect he’s talking about long-distance load-balancing on the electrical grid, to compensate for the unpredictability of wind and solar production. But the subject goes by too fast to be sure.)

This is a kind of mental glitch I’m familiar with, because my father had fairly severe aphasia as he got older: He didn’t have any trouble thinking, but it became increasingly difficult for him to find the right words to express his thoughts. (One telling example: Dad needed to buy something to complete a household project, but he couldn’t tell me the name of the store he wanted to go to or what street it was on. So we just started driving, and he told me to turn here and turn there. He guided me straight to a paint store, got the thing he wanted, and went home to finish the project. His mind was perfectly clear and never wandered; he just couldn’t communicate what he was thinking.)

Biden’s word-loss problems aren’t nearly as bad as Dad’s were, but they seem similar. To me, it sounds like he quickly revises sentences in his head when he realizes he’s not coming up with a word he wants. As a result, he often interrupts himself, and occasionally the sentence he says is some unfortunate combination of the original and the revised sentence.

What I don’t see is any evidence of an impairment in his thinking process. To the extent that there’s a problem at all, it’s in his words, not in his thoughts.

Biden also did a long interview with Stephen Colbert.

I suppose I have to mention Biden’s flip comment on the Breakfast Club radio show that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

I think the best take on that statement came from The Root’s Michael Harriot: Biden proved once again that he’s a white man in America. The facial expression I read into Harriot’s article is an eye-roll, not shock or horror.

Like most Biden “gaffes”, it’s clear what he meant, and there’s an accurate thought back there that he should have expressed better: He doesn’t understand why a black voter should have trouble picking between Barack Obama’s vice president and a guy who thinks white supremacists are “very fine people”. Neither do I.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza put Biden’s statement into perspective by pointing out that Trump says or tweets something that bad or worse literally every day, and supported his claim by finding eight more outrageous Trump comments from the previous 48 hours.

and you also might be interested in …

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker writes an NYT op-ed “Don’t Bail Out the States“.

Workers and small businesses need help more than government bureaucracies.

In Walker’s universe, people who get their paychecks from governments — i.e.,  teachers, firemen, police, EMTs, and the people who fill potholes and keep the traffic lights working — they’re not “workers”, they’re “bureaucrats”. All the scrambling the governors have been doing to get masks for nurses and ventilators for critical patients in the ICU — that’s “bureaucracy”.

And here’s an interesting retelling of history:

federal funding is likely to diminish over time, creating further holes in state budgets. Shortfalls created by the disappearance of federal stimulus funds was a primary reason for the budget crisis that many state governments faced after the last recession.

That was kind of the point: delaying state budget crises until after the recession, rather than forcing states to lay off thousands and thousands of workers (yes, they are workers) at the same time everybody else was laying off workers.

And if the pandemic has shown anything, it’s that when a deadly crisis hits, somebody has to be able to do what needs doing without checking with the accountants first. At the moment, the only entity that has that power is the federal government; states eventually have to balance their budgets. But Walker recommends we give that option up too.

Even without bailing out state governments, federal spending levels are unsustainable. It is exactly why we need a balanced-budget amendment to force politicians in Washington — in both parties — to get serious about balancing the federal budget.

If Walker worries about the deficit, he must have been really horrified when the Trump tax cut was passed, blowing $1.9 trillion hole in the country’s 10-year budget projection. Well, no. He liked that. Running a deficit to support executive bonuses and stock buy-backs — that’s just great. It’s only running a deficit to save lives that bothers him.

You can expect to see lots more of this deficit hypocrisy after Biden takes office in January.

Finally, Walker never answers the question his proposals raise: Who should we let die of the virus rather than borrow money to treat them? Who should we let go without food or shelter, so that they can die in our streets?

The Trump administration has used the coronavirus emergency to make its border policies even more cruel than they already were.

Historically, young migrants who showed up at the border without adult guardians were provided with shelter, education, medical care and a lengthy administrative process that allowed them to make a case for staying in the United States. Those who were eventually deported were sent home only after arrangements had been made to assure they had a safe place to return to.

That process appears to have been abruptly thrown out under President Trump’s latest border decrees. Some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families.

Grist looks at how much the lockdown has decreased carbon emissions, both worldwide and in the US. The drop is significant, but maybe not as large as you might have hoped.

A new analysis in the science journal Nature Climate Change … found that the world is on track for the biggest emissions drop since World War II, or maybe even the biggest drop in history, depending on how long global lockdowns stay in place. (The study estimates that by the end of the year emissions could decline anywhere between 2 to 13 percent overall, depending on the nature and duration of governments’ lockdown policies.) During the peak of global lockdowns in early April, average daily emissions decreased by 17 percent compared to the 2019 average, hitting their lowest point since 2006. Nearly half of those emissions were from “surface transport,” like car rides.

In a 2018 report, the IPCC called for much steeper reductions by 2030 and 2050.

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.

The lesson I draw from this is that we can’t get there just by cutting back. We need big changes to how major systems work, not just restraint in how much we use them.

Binyamin Appelbaum wrote an article on homelessness whose title says it all: “America’s Cities Could House Everyone If They Chose To“.

Homelessness is often blamed on mental illness or drug addiction or some other individual failing. But while those problems might be contributing causes in specific cases, the main cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing.

 According to one analysis, a $100 increase in the average monthly rent in a large metro area is associated with a 15 percent increase in homelessness. Consider a simple comparison: In 2018, eight out of every 10,000 Michigan residents were homeless. In California, it was 33 per 10,000. In New York, it was 46 per 10,000.

Other countries do better with a different approach.

Countries confronting homelessness with greater success than the United States, including Finland and Japan, begin by treating housing as a human right. In the United States, by contrast, politicians decry the problem but aim for more modest goals. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise to New York last December “to end long-term street homelessness as we know it” is a classic of the genre; most homeless people in the city live in shelters, not on the street.

Rather than blaming homelessness on psychological or substance-abuse problems, we should begin treating the other problems by getting people off the streets. Other countries do this, as do some veterans programs here.

This is cheaper than leaving people to remain homeless and then intervening intermittently. One study found that in the two years after a person entered supportive housing in New York, he or she spent on average 83 fewer days in shelters, 28 fewer days in psychiatric hospitals and four fewer days in prison.

The first painting I ever loved was probably a cliche. Now I understand why it moved me so.” This beautiful piece of introspection and reminiscence by Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott doesn’t connect to any current news story, but read it anyway. At the time — when he was 10 or 12 — he didn’t care who painted the scene of an old French town or when it was painted. In adulthood he can’t find his old poster or identify the painting. And if he did, what then?

I want to see it as I was then, not as I am now. I want to see it with the eyes that needed it.

This is one of the lessons grief teaches us, the futility of that desire to possess the world as it once was, even if art keeps trying to tell us the opposite: that the old place is just there, round the bend in the road, and it’s always waiting for you.

and let’s close with some stress reduction … maybe

With so much stress in our lives these days, we could all use some relief. Though, this Dalek relaxation tape is maybe not the way to get there.

You might have better luck with a different mantra.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s been one of those kind of weeks: A lot of things deserve a little of your attention, but nothing jumped out at me as demanding a long article. So there will be an extra-large helping of notes in the weekly summary, but no featured post — unless one of the notes unexpectedly expands as I get into it.

Some of what to expect in the summary: reflections on a Memorial Day where the people risking their lives to defend us are mostly not in the military; states continue to reopen, even though virus cases are still rising in about half of them; Georgia, the leader in reopening, is proving nobody’s point so far; reopening churches at this stage is a bad idea; the Mike Pompeo scandal; China’s Hong Kong crackdown; my assessment of Joe Biden’s mental acuity; Scott Walker re-emerges as a deficit scold; and a few other things.

I’ll try to get that out by about noon, eastern time.


It’s always interesting to me to see how much patience some people have with the pain and suffering of other people.

– Speaker Nancy Pelosi (5-15-2020)

It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die.

– Jonathan Ashbach, “Is Social Distancing Saving LIves or Ruining Them?
The Federalist (3-23-2020)

This week’s featured post is “Trump Has No Endgame“.

This week everybody was weighing economic risks against health risks

Current total: 91K dead. That’s up about 10K from last week, representing a slow decline. The two weeks before both had 13K increases. We’ll see what happens going forward as states relax their anti-virus restrictions in some well-considered and poorly-considered ways.

Probably the worst reopening situation is in Wisconsin, where the Supreme Court abruptly threw out the state’s stay-at-home order. The leaders of the state’s heavily gerrymandered legislature (Democrats get more votes from the people, but Republicans get more seats in the legislature) won even more than they asked for: They had asked for the ruling to be stayed for six days so that they could work out a plan with the governor. Instead, the Court just ended the order immediately.

Reading the judges’ opinions is sobering. The majority opinion is an unlikely reading of the law, in which the stay-at-home order is technically a “rule” and not an order, so it should have gone through the emergency rule-making process. The dissenting opinion by Rebecca Frank Dallet shreds that opinion, pointing out that

The emergency rulemaking process set forth in Wis. Stat. §227.24 includes 11-13 steps which the briefing indicates takes a minimum of 18 and a maximum of 49 days.

when the law empowering the Department of Health Services to respond to epidemics uses the word “immediate”. She goes through the history of such orders, going back to the 1918 flu, and finds nothing resembling the “rule-making” the majority sees here.

As opposed to legal analysis, the concurring judges wrote polemics about tyranny and freedom, and made comparisons to the Japanese internment of World War II.

The result is dangerous chaos:

For weeks, Republicans had argued that their lawsuit against the order was needed simply so the legislature could have some say in the reopening plan. … But now it appears their plan all along was to thwart any plan. Now that they’ve been granted a seat at the table, Republicans have set the table on fire and thrown it out the window. …

The ruling leaves Wisconsin without any statewide rule or guidance in place for businesses, citizens and local governments. After the decision, Republicans said they didn’t see any need for any new rules, instead turning the state into a patchwork of local COVID-19 regulations, stretched throughout nearly 2,000 counties, cities, villages and towns.

Bars in various parts of the state opened immediately, producing scenes of no social distancing like the one below.

I was surprised to see this report from my home town, Quincy, Illinois: A bar — I’ve never been inside, but I’ve walked past it many times — defied the state’s stay-at-home order and opened for a day, producing similar scenes of folks standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar. The owner is a woman with oxygen tubes in her nose.

The top British medical journal “The Lancet” posted a rare political editorial about the importance of a strong CDC that is able to lead global efforts to fight pandemics. Final paragraph:

The Trump administration’s further erosion of the CDC will harm global cooperation in science and public health, as it is trying to do by defunding WHO. A strong CDC is needed to respond to public health threats, both domestic and international, and to help prevent the next inevitable pandemic. Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.

The economy-versus-public-health dichotomy we so often hear from the administration and see in the media is a frustrating misframing of the situation. Even though I am liberal — and so presumably pro-health and anti-economy — I would like nothing better than to hear some clever ideas to safely re-open the businesses that I frequented before the crisis. I want to go to restaurants, get my hair cut, attend baseball games, and hang around in coffee shops as much as any conservative. I just don’t want to kill people to do it.

What I’d really like to see is a Mythbusters approach to coronavirus risk. The TV show Mythbusters, if you remember, used to regularly do extremely dangerous things: They blew up a cement mixer, dropped a car from a helicopter, and demonstrated how defective water heaters might blast up through a house’s roof. But the ethos of the show wasn’t to flaunt danger and cheat death, it was to understand risk, analyze it, and find ways to protect against it. One of the show’s operating principles was: Anything can be made safe with enough precautions.

So Adam and Jamie never told each other that it wasn’t risky to blow up a cement mixer; they just figured out a safe way to do it. And after they had a safety plan that worked, they had the courage to carry it out.

But on the right these days, we hear a lot of talk about “courage” and not “living in fear” of the virus — usually from people who reject even easy safety measures like wearing masks or maintaining social distance. But what they’re promoting isn’t courage at all, it’s a combination of denial and self-centeredness. Most people don’t die of the virus, so we should tell ourselves that we’ll be in the lucky majority. Millions of other people might not be, but that’s just their bad luck. It couldn’t possibly happen to us, and that’s all that matters.

For example, here’s Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin:

I’m not denying what a nasty disease COVID-19 can be, and how it’s obviously devastating to somewhere between 1 and 3.4 percent of the population. But that means 97 to 99 percent will get through this and develop immunities and will be able to move beyond this. But we don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It’s a risk we accept so we can move about. We don’t shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu … getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population (and) I think probably far less.

In other words, he’s OK with the possibility that more than 11 million Americans (that’s what 3.4% works out to; his lower estimate of 1% is about 3 1/3 million) might die horrible deaths, not to mention the millions of others who will survive but suffer long-term damage.

The Republican Party describes itself as “pro-life”, but clearly it isn’t. That claim should never again go unchallenged.

Speaking of clever ideas for safely reopening, here’s how a German cafe enforces social distancing: Customers wear pool noodles on their heads.

There’s no reason (other than Trump’s divisiveness) that safety measures ever had to become a political issue. Yes, pool noodles are goofy, but what’s wrong with looking a little goofy to protect each other from a deadly disease? Looking silly together could be a bonding experience, like karaoke.

But Trump cultists don’t see it that way. In Indiana, a 7-11 clerk was scalded with hot coffee and beaten for telling a customer to wear a mask. In California, two men broke the arm of a Target employee. In Texas, armed men defended a hair salon that had illegally re-opened. The NYT reports:

In at least a half dozen cases around [Texas] in recent days, frustrated small-business owners have turned to heavily armed, militia-style protesters like Mr. Archibald’s group to serve as reopening security squads.

Michigan State professor Matt Grossman explains:

The public doesn’t polarize on its own. It polarizes when political leaders and different parties send different messages. That is happening more in the U.S. than in other countries.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Jess McIntosh, host of the “Signal Boost” show on Sirius XM’s Progress channel, makes a good point. It’s probably not completely true, but I’ll bet it’s mostly true.

It’s not about “reopening the economy.” People aren’t protesting for the right to BE waitresses and hairdressers, they’re fighting for the right to HAVE them. This is about white people demanding service.

Eric Trump accuses Democratic governors of banning large-crowd gatherings just to hurt Trump’s re-election campaign.

After November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen. They’re trying to deprive [President Trump] of his greatest asset, which is … that he can go out there and draw massive crowds.

You can see where this is going, right? Very soon now, Trumpist governors will have to sign off on stadium-sized gatherings, regardless of the very real health risk to their citizens. And Trump cultists will have to attend to prove how committed they are. Because the virus is all a Democratic hoax, and 90K Americans (and many more by November) aren’t really dead.

and corruption

Last week I had a special post to catalog the Trump administration corruption that had come to light during that week. But corruption is just how this administration operates, so each week produces new corruption stories. This week Trump fired another inspector general — his fourth in the last few months. This one was the State Department IG, Steve Linick.

Representative Eliot L. Engel and Senator Bob Menendez, from the House and Senate committees that oversee the State Department, wrote to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows:

Reports indicate that Secretary Pompeo personally made the recommendation to fire Mr. Linick, and it is our understanding that he did so because the Inspector General had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself. Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation.

Their letter does not discuss the substance of the investigation, but the New York Times fills that in:

a Democratic aide said that Mr. Linick had been looking into whether Mr. Pompeo improperly used a political appointee at the State Department to perform personal tasks for him and his wife. … Since starting his current job in April 2018, Mr. Pompeo has come under growing public scrutiny for what critics say is his use of the State Department’s resources for personal endeavors. Mr. Menendez has called for Mr. Pompeo to explain how he can justify frequent trips to Kansas, his adopted home state, using State Department funds and aircraft. He has brought his wife, Susan Pompeo, on many trips abroad, telling others she is a “force multiplier” for him. And CNN reported last year that congressional officials were looking at potential misuse of diplomatic security personnel for personal errands.

Former Moderna executive Moncef Slaoui is leading the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, which is supposed to deliver large quantities of a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2020. He also

still holds over 156,000 Moderna stock options, worth over $10 million at the company’s current stock price, creating a potential conflict of interest if the company’s vaccine is the first to be proven effective.

Moderna announced encouraging Phase 1 results on its vaccine candidate today. But there’s still a long way to go.

The WaPo’s Pulitzer-winning David Fahrenthold is back at it: The US government has paid for more than 1,600 nights at Trump-owned hotels and clubs since Trump took office. Federal records show at least $970,000 of government money has been paid to Trump’s company.

Eric Trump has previously claimed that the Trump Organization gives the government a good rate “like fifty bucks”. This seems not to be true.

But in the 1,600 room rentals examined by The Post, there were no examples of a rate that low. Instead, the lowest room rate was $141.66 per night, for each of the rooms in a four-room cottage in Bedminster. The highest rate was $650 per night for rooms at Mar-a-Lago.

This practice is not just shady, it might also be unconstitutional. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution says:

The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.

The foreign money going into Trump’s businesses is also an issue, since the Constitution also forbids any federal official from receiving “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without the consent of Congress.

Lawsuits based on those constitutional principles have had trouble getting traction in the courts, but Thursday a federal appeals court ruled that a suit filed by Maryland and the District of Columbia could go forward.

and Ahmaud Arbery

I should have mentioned this case last week. By now you probably know about it. Two white men in trucks chased down a black jogger and killed him, claiming that he resembled a suspect in a string of local burglaries.

That happened back in February, and the local police interviewed the whites and pretty much accepted their story. A video of the moments leading up to the shooting was posted by a local radio station and went viral. Only then were the shooters arrested.

All the basic themes of the black-lives-matter movement are here: A black man was assumed to be dangerous and killed. Police didn’t seem to care until a public outcry made them care.

That second part is the key point. Whites sometimes kill blacks and blacks sometimes kill whites; that’s not the major issue. The point is that when whites kill blacks, often the police aren’t interested.

and the Reade accusation

PBS Newshour tried to talk to 200 or so people who were on Joe Biden’s Senate or White House staff at one time or another, and they managed to get in touch with 74 of them, including 64 women, to see what they thought about Tara Reade’s accusation of sexual assault and digital penetration.

The staffers corroborate some of the superficial details of Reade’s account: She did work in Biden’s Senate office. She was let go. Where she says she was assaulted is a real place. The errand she says she was on (taking Biden’s gym bag to him at the Capitol gym) is a credible thing someone in her position might have been asked to do. A supervisor (not Biden) did reprimand her for dressing inappropriately.

And no one, of course, claims to know for a fact that the assault didn’t happen or couldn’t have happened, (though many volunteered that they believe the claim is false).

But that’s about where the corroboration stops.

None of the people interviewed said that they had experienced sexual harassment, assault or misconduct by Biden. All said they never heard any rumors or allegations of Biden engaging in sexual misconduct, until the recent assault allegation made by Tara Reade.

… Female staffers who spent countless hours with Biden, including in one-on-one settings, like his small private office in the U.S. Capitol, known as a “hideaway,” said he never made passes at them or behaved in other ways that suggested sexual impropriety.

… “I traveled with him all over the world, all over the country. I was alone with him all the time,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a former Senate and White House aide. “Never, ever, ever did I feel uncomfortable.”

… “You got to know which senators you didn’t want to be on an elevator alone with,” said Liz Tankersley, who was Biden’s legislative director from 1985 to 1993. “No one ever said Joe Biden was one of them.”

A few of the details of Reade’s account were challenged: As a Senate staffer, she would not have been asked to serve drinks at a fund-raiser.

“Never would have happened,” said Melissa Lefko, who was a staff assistant in Biden’s office during the time Reade was there. “We all knew there was a very hard line there.”

The site of the alleged assault would have made it “a brazen attack in an area with a high risk of being seen” by lobbyists, staff, and even tourists.

In response to last week’s summary post, pro-Bernie commenters put forward the theory that the media delayed covering Reade’s sexual assault accusation until it was too late for the issue to help Sanders get the nomination. As best I can tell, though, the timing of the story was due to Reade, not the media. The Newshour story says explicitly: “Reade did not publicly accuse Biden of sexual assault until March of this year.” (The South Carolina primary, which turned the race in Biden’s favor, happened February 29.) Also, pro-Bernie media outlets existed and could have picked up the story, if it had been out there.

The Washington Post’s never-Trump conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin debunks the “If you believed Christine Blasey Ford, you have to believe Tara Reade” fallacy.

and you also might be interested in …

The House passed an additional $3 trillion stimulus plan, the HEROES act. It includes direct payments to states, more money for individuals, and a variety of other provisions. Republicans are dead set against it, so it’s unlikely to pass the Senate.

But it does put the ball in Mitch McConnell’s court. Lots of states — and not just blue states — are facing big budget shortfalls. And the virus is still picking up momentum in places like Arizona.

Trump’s latest conspiracy theory, “ObamaGate”, is one he couldn’t even explain himself when a reporter asked what crime it alleged. Vox’ Sean Illing explains it as an example of “flooding the zone with shit”.

The goal of zone-flooding is simple: introduce bullshit stories into the information bloodstream, sit back while the media feverishly covers them (from all sides), and then exploit the chaos that results from the subsequent fog of disinformation.

It’s an approach that thrives on conventional journalistic norms around objectivity and fairness. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, a sharp observer of this process, explained it well in a recent piece. His point, like mine, is that reporting on deliberately misleading stories in ostensibly objective ways serves only to reward the bad-faith actors spreading the nonsense in the first place.

Mikel Jowllett, who I am not cool enough to have heard of before, is the front man of Airborne Toxic Event and author of the just-released memoir Hollywood Park. He tweets:

The President is tested every day. Every single person he comes into contact with is also tested. If anyone tests positive, they are immediately quarantined and their contacts are tested. See? He DOES understand how to stop the virus. He just doesn’t give a shit about YOU.

Try to imagine what it would be like to have been at sea by yourself for the past three months.

and let’s close with something both old and new

Denis Shiryaev has come up with impressive techniques for bringing very old film back to life. Here, he produces remarkably crisp and colorized images of Paris in the 1890s.

Trump Has No Endgame

Stop stressing yourself trying to anticipate the masterstroke in his nefarious plan.

Both in the mainstream media and among my social-media friends, I see people who ought to know better switching back and forth between two divergent and contradictory images of Donald Trump: the Magical Thinker and the Master Planner. Recognizing that the president is a magical thinker makes them despair over how our country will deal with the current crisis. But at the same time they have nightmares about the master planner who will find a cunning way to stay in power.

In everything else, Trump is the Dunning-Kruger poster child. But when the subject changes to the election, or to everything that happens between the election and the inauguration of a new president, they suddenly see him as the genius he claims to be. An evil genius, perhaps — a Lex Luthor or a Victor von Doom — but a genius all the same.

Magical Thinker. When we’re talking about practical governing or attempting to solve the problems of the nation, it seems obvious that Trump indulges in magical thinking: He believes he can make the world be what he wants it to be just by insisting that it already is. What he wants to happen will happen, because he says so: The virus will go away “like a miracle”. It’s no worse than the ordinary flu. Anybody who wants a test gets a test. We lead the world in testing. There is no shortage of PPE for hospital workers. The country is ready to reopen, and when it does, the economy will come zooming back. Everyone should be grateful to him for the great job he’s been doing.

His magical thinking is made even worse by his childlike inability to consider the future. His entire focus is on looking good right now, even if it will hurt him in the long run. During February and early March, for example, his happy talk about the virus seemed to be aimed at keeping the stock market high, because that was the core of his re-election pitch: The market is high, unemployment is low; I promised a great economy and I delivered.

There was never any chance he could keep that scam going until November, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. If the market stayed high today, that gave him a talking point today, and improved his poll numbers today. November was November’s problem.

His daily coronavirus briefings (which he continued until wiser heads made him stop) were full of short-term image-building that could never hold up over time. The hospitals have plenty of masks and ventilators, no matter what they say. And Trump is a genius who has genius ideas nobody else thinks of: Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug. Bleach can kill virus inside the body.

It’s obvious now that it was always in Trump’s best interest to do a good job fighting the virus. Imagine if he had sounded the alarm early and started emergency preparations back in January and February (as the disease experts inside the government were pleading for him to do). The death total would be lower by tens of thousands and the economy really might be in a position to reopen. What if the US anti-virus efforts were one of the world’s success stories rather than the cautionary tale of neglect and incompetence it is now?

He could have benefited from the we’re-all-in-this-together wave that has boosted the approval numbers of Democratic and Republican governors alike, even in the states that have the highest death totals. If he had met the crisis head-on and given the American people straight talk combined with the steady reassurance of realistic hope (like Andrew Cuomo did in New York), Covid-19 might have been the tailwind that pushed an otherwise unpopular president across the finish line to re-election.

But that strategy would have required a months-long time horizon, which he doesn’t have. He’d have needed to sacrifice the immediate satisfaction of bragging about how wonderful he is and what a perfect economy he has made. He just couldn’t do it.

He still can’t. With another month or so of lockdown, combined with a well-funded, well-organized national test-and-trace program and some realistic guidelines for gradual reopening, the worst of the crisis might yet be in the rear-view mirror by Election Day. But pushing the states to relax restrictions while the virus is still spreading is the same short-term magical thinking all over again. It feels good right now to tell upbeat stories about restaurants and barber shops reopening, and to imagine schools and baseball stadiums opening soon. But how will that look in the fall, when people start voting?

By November, another few weeks of boredom and struggle in May and June would be long forgotten. But a pandemic that in November is still killing thousands of Americans (but not thousands of Germans or Koreans or Canadians) every week will be hard to wish away.

Master Planner. When it comes to politics, though, many people who otherwise see Trump’s cognitive, intellectual, and psychological shortcomings imagine the existence of a Master Plan that ultimately makes it all work in his favor. If he seems to be charging towards a cliff, that can only mean that he has a parachute, or that a military helicopter is waiting to pluck him out of the air.

I mean, he couldn’t just be stupid or delusional, could he? He couldn’t possibly imagine that the cliff will go away because he wants it to, or that he will sprout wings and fly when he gets there? That would be as crazy as … well, all the other stuff he’s done.

But from this point of view, he’s not blundering his way through the virus fight; he wants the virus to be raging in November so that he can use it to suppress the vote. Or maybe he plans to declare martial law and cancel the election. Even if he loses the election, he must have a plan for that too.

Heather Cox Richardson, who usually strikes me as very level-headed, sees an ominous portent in Trump’s “ObamaGate” maneuvers.

It suggests that the Trump administration really is contemplating legal action against F.B.I. officials who were investigating the attack on the 2016 election. This is unprecedented. More, though, it suggests that the Trump administration does not anticipate a Democratic presidency following this one, since it could expect any precedent it now sets to be used against its own people. That it is willing to weaponize intelligence information from a previous administration suggests it is not concerned that the next administration will weaponize intelligence information against Trump officials. That confidence concerns me.

Gee. Inventing a talking point that helps him today creates a scenario where it all backfires somewhere down the road. Who could imagine Trump doing such a thing?

Apply the model of Trump that we see validated every day in every other part of his administration: He doesn’t “anticipate a Democratic presidency” because he doesn’t anticipate anything. Imagine being a Trump aide and raising the question “What are we going to do if Biden beats you?” Do you think you’d get an answer? Would you expect him to tell you to assemble a team and construct a Biden-beats-me contingency plan? Or would he just take your head off and replace you with somebody who doesn’t ask questions like that?

We need a plan even if he doesn’t have one. Trump never looks ahead, but once he gets into a bad situation he looks around. He isn’t bound by moral scruples or political norms or even the law. All options are on the table.

So I expect him to keep denying his poor prospects for re-election until at least mid-October. In the same way that Hitler in 1945 kept promising “miracle weapons” — like the V-2 rocket or jet fighter planes — that would turn the war around, Trump will always have some reason to project success: a last-minute vaccine announcement, a surprise uptick in the economy (or maybe just forcing the Labor Department to publish fake numbers), war with Iran, or a final ad blitz that will destroy Biden once and for all.

As the election approaches, though, it will eventually dawn on him that he’s really losing. As in the Reagan/Carter race of 1980, the voters who make up their minds at the last minute will ask themselves whether this president deserves another term, and they’ll say no. At that point — and not a second before — he will ask, “How can I stop this?” How can I stop people from voting? How can I discredit the vote count? How can I steal votes in the Electoral College? Can the Senate or the Supreme Court declare me the winner even though I lost? Can I just refuse to leave?

At that point, he’ll thrash like a fish in a net. But whatever he does won’t be well prepared or well planned. A military coup is a bit more complicated than just calling the Pentagon and ordering them to keep you in power. Politicians and bureaucrats and judges who cooperated with you when you seemed invincible may decide they don’t want to go to jail for you now that you’re on your way out. And those bands of overweight yahoos with AR-15s may be willing to get violent on his say-so, but who will they shoot and what will they accomplish? All that would require a plan, and there is no plan.

Democrats should not get complacent going down the stretch, because at the last minute Trump will be ready to try anything. But he won’t suddenly become a master strategist.

He’ll thrash and he’ll bluster and he’ll try crazy things. But like most things he tries, they won’t be well thought out. And like most things he tries, they won’t work.

The Monday Morning Teaser

After I focused on corruption last week, I thought I might be able to ignore it for a while. But no such luck. This week we saw another inspector general get fired to protect another Trump crony. And a guy with Big Pharma stock options is running the “warpspeed” vaccine effort. And David Fahrenthold revealed that the federal government has spent nearly a million dollars on Trump properties.

But the featured post is something I’ve been putting off week-to-week for some while now, because there was always something more immediate to pay attention to. I keep noticing otherwise sensible people (who usually appear to understand Trump’s cognitive and psychological limitations) raising their blood pressure fretting about the Master Plan that is going to keep him in power. I mean, it may look like he’s blundering his way towards November — making the virus worse, screwing up the reopening of the economy, letting the elderly voters who put him in office realize just how little he values their lives, and so on — but it’s all part of an ingenious scheme to steal the election or declare martial law or something.

I don’t think so. So the featured post this week is “Trump Has No Endgame”. The impatient spoiled child you see trying to make the virus go away by shutting his eyes and holding his breath until he turns blue — that’s the only Trump there is. He doesn’t turn into Lex Luthor or Victor von Doom as soon as the subject changes to his re-election. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about weird things happening later on, when he finally realizes that the electorate is going to vote (or already has voted) to throw him out. We have to be ready for the poorly planned tantrum he’ll throw then. But his screw-ups in the meantime are real screw-ups; they aren’t steps leading up to some final fiendish maneuver.

I expect that piece to appear around 10 EDT. The weekly summary has the new corruption stuff to cover, the debate over easing anti-virus restrictions, Ahmaud Arbery, and some other things. That should be out around noon.

New Villains

The Justice Department’s new position isn’t that Mr. Flynn didn’t lie — that couldn’t be its position, because he did lie, and he admitted in federal court that he lied. Instead, the new filing argues that it was wrong for the F.B.I. to interview him in the first place. Look carefully at who the villain becomes in that narrative: not Mr. Flynn for lying, but the F.B.I. for asking the questions to which he lied in response.

– Neal K. Katyal and Joshua A. Geltzer
The Appalling Damage of Dropping the Michael Flynn Case

This week’s featured posts are “What’s Up With the Stock Market?” and “This Week in Corruption“.

This week everybody was talking about the virus

As I said last week, the curve seems to have flattened, but isn’t going down. Nationally, we now have about 81K deaths, up 13K from the 68K we had last Monday, and another 13K from the 55K the week before that. The numbers jump up and down a lot from one day to the next, but they average out to a little less than 2,000 deaths a day.

The worrisome thing is that the flatness seems to be hiding two different trends going in opposite directions. Deaths in the New York City area are headed down, while deaths in the rest of the country are headed up. Given the way exponential growth works, I would expect the rising trend to eventually overwhelm the falling trend. It would not surprise me if deaths overall started trending back up in the coming week.

The CDC prepared guidelines for businesses planning to reopen safely, but the White House shelved them.

The document, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was researched and written to help faith leaders, business owners, educators and state and local officials as they begin to reopen. It included detailed “decision trees,” or flow charts aimed at helping local leaders navigate the difficult decision of whether to reopen or remain closed.

And that seems to have been their mistake: The official Trump spin is that reopening is NOT a “difficult decision”. You just do it. If the CDC guidelines made reopening seem like a process that requires forethought and accommodation, it couldn’t go out. And if any node in the decision tree said “stay closed”, that’s anathema.

Trump began by insisting the coronavirus wasn’t serious and wouldn’t be a problem in the US. Then he had to acknowledge that people were dying, but kept moving the goalposts so that any death total could be claimed as a success.

Apparently that’s not working either, so the new strategy is to insist that the death totals are wrong. By November, he will be telling people that their loved ones are not dead, and dismissing those who insist otherwise as “Trump haters” who are only mourning to make him look bad.

The virus is penetrating the White House inner circle. In the last few days, it has shown up in a presidential valet, the VP’s press secretary, and Ivanka’s personal assistant. Pence press secretary Katie Miller also happens to be the wife of the white nationalist White House adviser Stephen Miller (who was once described by an “outside White House adviser” as “Waffen-SS“.) Eleven Secret Service agents are infected.

The White House response to this problem is that Trump, Pence, and the people who come into regular contact with them are tested every day. Apparently, that’s what it takes to make an crowded office building safe. Don’t you wish you worked with someone important, so that your building could be made safe too? Vox considers the “Trump double standard” on testing.

“The notion that everyone needs to be tested is simply nonsensical,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during Wednesday’s press briefing, in response to a question from NBC’s Peter Alexander about why all Americans can’t get tested like the president before they go back to work.

Before you go back to work, read this article about what we know about the risks and how to avoid them.

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf makes an anti-lockdown argument that is still wrong, but at least makes its assumptions transparent.

If we knew that a broadly effective COVID-19 treatment was imminent, or that a working vaccine was months away, minimizing infections through social distancing until that moment would be the right course. At the other extreme, if we will never have an effective treatment or vaccine and most everyone will get infected eventually, then the costs of social distancing are untenable.

The we-will-all-get-it-eventually assumption, if you make a conservative .5% estimate of the fatality rate, implies that at least 1.6 million Americans will die. But, you know, if millions of deaths are inevitable, we might as well get them over with.

Here’s what’s wrong with that: Other countries look to be avoiding that scenario. New Zealand, for example, seems to have a shot at eliminating the virus. Iceland has also seen a drastic plunge in new cases. In both countries, they’re doing the work our government has avoided: huge amounts of testing and contact tracing. It’s not rocket science, it’s just hard.

It would also cost a lot. But imagine if we took a JFK-esque “pay any price, bear any burden” approach to this crisis, rather than just accept more than million deaths.

In contrast, Jay Rosen sums up where we’re headed now:

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible … [T]he plan is to default on public problem solving, and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default. To succeed this will require one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history, the execution of which will, I think, consume the president’s re-election campaign.

Talking about Katie Miller, Trump questioned the test result:

This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily right. The tests are perfect, but something can happen between the test, where it’s good, and then something happens and all of  a sudden. She was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason she tested positive.

His first response to bad news is always denial. The idea that this is how infectious diseases work — one day you don’t have it and the next day you do — doesn’t seem to register with him.

Huffington Post reports that Friday 20 Republican congresspeople met with Trump at the White House. No one wore masks (but the media) and social distance was not observed. CNN has a similar story about Trump meeting with military leaders.

Trump demonstrating how much smaller than Abraham Lincoln he is.

And now he’s saying that the virus will “go away without a vaccine“.

and birth control

The Supreme Court is considering another case where a religious organization objects to ObamaCare’s birth-control mandate.

I know it sounds bad to be sued by the Little Sisters of the Poor, but in this case the Sisters are just wrong. Worse than that, they’re being jerks about it.

For [religious] nonprofits, the Obama administration enacted rules providing a work-around to accommodate employers’ religious objections. The workaround was that an employer was to notify the government, or the insurance company, or the plan administrator, that, for religious reasons, it would not be providing birth-control coverage to its employees. Then, the insurance company could provide free birth-control options to individual employees separately from the employer’s plan.

But some religiously affiliated groups still objected, saying the work-around was not good enough, and sued. They contended that signing an opt-out form amounted to authorizing the use of their plan for birth control.

In other words, they’re being passive aggressive about this; any concession at all is too much for them, so the world just has to work around that.

There is a very simple principle that would avoid all these cases (including the horribly-decided Hobby Lobby case): What employees do with their health insurance is not the employer’s business. The Little Sisters are not providing their employees with birth control, they’re providing health insurance. If employees choose to use that health insurance to get birth control, that’s not the Sisters’ business — just like it’s not their business if employees use their paychecks to buy birth control.

but I wrote about corruption and the stock market

Check out the two featured posts. “What’s Up With the Stock Market?” tries to explain how the stock market can diverge so extremely from the economy. “This Week in Corruption” discusses the Michael Flynn fix, Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint, and the upcoming Supreme Court case testing Trump’s claim of “absolute immunity”.

and you also might be interested in …

Six Harbors Brewing Company on Long Island has adjusted to the lockdown by delivering beer to customers’ doors, using two beer hounds to do it. Golden retrievers Barley and Buddy do not actually carry the beer themselves — the cans around their necks are empty. But deliveries are up since the dogs have been coming along.

Vox’ Laura McGann relates her history of investigating Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden. When she talked to Reade in April 2019 about her original charge (“This is not a story about sexual misconduct; it is a story about abuse of power. It is a story about when a member of Congress allows staff to threaten or belittle or bully on their behalf unchecked to maintain power rather than modify the behavior.”), “I wanted to break this story. Badly.” But McGann couldn’t assemble the kind of corroboration she felt the story needed (“Reporters who’ve succeeded in forcing powerful men to be held to account relied on an incredible amount of reporting to do it.”) in time to beat other reporters Reade was talking to.

In March 2020, Reade upped the stakes, charging sexual assault including digital penetration. And McGann was back on the story. People who knew Reade at the time (1993) said she had told them about the assault at the time. They were, however, the same people who had corroborated her no-sexual-assault claim a year before. And she referenced an official complaint no one can find.

If Reade had told a consistent story and shared all of her corroborating sources with reporters, if those sources had told a consistent story, if the Union piece had shaken loose other cases like hers, or if there were “smoking gun” evidence in Biden’s papers, her account might have been reported on differently in mainstream media a year ago. It is not fair to an individual survivor that their claims require an extraordinary level of confirmation, but it’s what reporters have found is necessary for their stories to hold up to public scrutiny and successfully hold powerful men accountable. So we are here.

… All of this leaves me where no reporter wants to be: mired in the miasma of uncertainty. I wanted to believe Reade when she first came to me, and I worked hard to find the evidence to make certain others would believe her, too. I couldn’t find it. None of that means Reade is lying, but it leaves us in the limbo of Me Too: a story that may be true but that we can’t prove.

Sabrina Orah Mark studies and writes about fairy tales. But this lovely piece of writing pulls a fairy tale theme into our current quarantine experience. Too often, we identify with fairy tale princesses and heroes, who can live happily ever after if only they can do three impossible tasks. So we look around for our own impossible tasks, hoping that we will deserve happiness if we accomplish them.

Back on April 21, somebody posted a link on Facebook to a story about plans for the Republican Convention. And I made this comment:

I have a fantasy that some prankster hijacks the convention soundtrack, and Trump takes the stage to the strains of “Live and Let Die”.

Well, Trump was touring a mask-making factory in Arizona Tuesday, and guess what happened?

RIP, LIttle Richard.

Baseball comes back to South Korea, but without fans. The stands of Happy Dream Ballpark in Incheon contain placards of fans rather than actual people. The games are televised, and some show up in the middle of the night on ESPN.

and let’s close with something musical

The Phoenix Chamber Choir stays home, but comes together to do a quarantine version of Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”.

Also worth your time: On April 16 Cyril Ryan posted her brother Dermot’s quarantine version of the Irish folk ballad Lanigan’s Ball.

This Week in Corruption

Even by the standards of a historically corrupt administration, this week stood out.

Corruption is an ongoing story in the Trump administration, dating way back to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns or distance himself from his business empire. The Trump International Hotel, whose building is rented from the federal government, places Trump in the position of being both the renter and the landlord. His cabinet has been riddled with scandal and conflicts of interest. His impeachment by the House was essentially a corruption story, as he tried to extort a personal favor from Ukraine in exchange for doing his duty as president. And as the Senate considered his fate, he raised millions of dollars to re-elect the Republican senators standing in judgement over him.

This week, though, at least three serious corruption stories were current at the same time:

  • The Justice Department dropped its prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
  • The recently-deposed director of BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) filed a whistleblower complaint alleging “cronyism” and political pressure to ignore the scientific merit of proposals — including (but not exclusively) proposals related to the current pandemic.
  • Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear Trump’s claim of “temporary absolute immunity” that shields him and his business empire and business associates from any form of investigation.

But at the same time we can’t lose sight of the constant low-level corruption we’ve gotten used to. Like this tweet, in which Trump uses the same Twitter account in which he sometimes announces major government policy changes or personnel moves to promote the re-opening of his Los Angeles golf club. Or putting a crony in charge of the Post Office, which he has long been trying to pressure into raising rates on Amazon, as a way to strike back at Jeff Bezos for owning the Washington Post, which Trump feels mistreats him. Stuff like that happens almost every week.

Flynn. For months we’ve been expecting Trump to pardon Michael Flynn, his first National Security Adviser, who lasted only two weeks in the job before resigning; he had lied to Vice President Pence and to the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn pleaded guilty to the charge, and also acknowledged being an unregistered foreign agent while he was working as an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. (Flynn famously led a chant of “Lock her up!” at the Republican Convention.) He later sought to withdraw his guilty plea and attack the Mueller investigation that indicted him. The judge had not yet ruled on that motion.

Pardoning Flynn would tie up one of the remaining loose ends in Trump’s obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe. But now Trump may not have to commit that particular impeachable offense, because Attorney General Bill Barr is trying to accomplish the same thing: Thursday the Justice Department has asked the judge to drop the indictment of Flynn, despite his guilty plea. Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal and fellow Georgetown law professor Joshua Geltzer write:

The Justice Department’s new position isn’t that Mr. Flynn didn’t lie — that couldn’t be its position, because he did lie, and he admitted in federal court that he lied. Instead, the new filing argues that it was wrong for the F.B.I. to interview him in the first place. Look carefully at who the villain becomes in that narrative: not Mr. Flynn for lying, but the F.B.I. for asking the questions to which he lied in response.

Barr’s move is worse than a pardon, as Jeffrey Toobin explains in the New Yorker:

A pardon would have been outrageous but within Presidential prerogative. Instead, the Justice Department manufactured a phony pretext to pretend that Flynn’s guilty plea was illegitimate.

The pretext is based on the recently released documents concerning the FBI’s preparation for the interview in which Flynn lied, which it claims shows the agents planning to entrap Flynn. Further, it claims that the investigation under which Flynn was interviewed — the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — had already concluded. The closing communication had been written, but not yet approved.

Consequently, the Justice Department motion holds

Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements that were not “material” to any investigation.

This contention was disputed in the NYT Sunday by Mary McCord, who had been acting assistant attorney general for national security at the time. The Justice Department’s motion is in part based on an interview with her. She claims it has “twisted my words”.

But the report of my interview is no support for Mr. Barr’s dismissal of the Flynn case. It does not suggest that the F.B.I. had no counterintelligence reason for investigating Mr. Flynn. It does not suggest that the F.B.I.’s interview of Mr. Flynn — which led to the false-statements charge — was unlawful or unjustified. It does not support that Mr. Flynn’s false statements were not material. And it does not support the Justice Department’s assertion that the continued prosecution of the case against Mr. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to knowingly making material false statements to the FBI, “would not serve the interests of justice.”

Trying to dismiss the Flynn indictment echoes Barr’s previous corrupt move: his interference a few months ago in the sentencing of another obstruction-of-justice loose end, Roger Stone. (Interim US attorney for D.C. Timothy Shea signed off on both.)

The case was thrown into disarray last week when Attorney General William P. Barr overruled a sentencing recommendation by four career prosecutors, who then quit the case in protest. Mr. Barr said he decided on his own that the prosecutors’ request for a prison term of seven to nine years was too harsh. But his move coincided with Mr. Trump’s public complaints about the prosecutors’ recommendation and elicited widespread criticism that he had bent to the president’s will.

Similarly here, lead prosecutor Brandon Van Grack withdrew from the case Thursday, apparently so that he would not have to submit the request to withdraw Flynn’s indictment.

What happens next in the Flynn case is not clear. It’s up to the judge whether or not to accept Barr’s motion to dismiss, but ultimately what else can he do? If he allows Flynn to withdraw his guilty plea, then there would have to be a trial. But he can’t force the Justice Department to mount a prosecution.

The judge could hold a hearing on the dismissal motion, including asking Van Grack why he withdrew rather than present it. That might embarrass the government, but wouldn’t convict Flynn. He could dismiss the indictment “without prejudice”, which could allow a Biden Justice Department to pursue the case next year. Barr is asking for a dismissal “with prejudice”, which would prevent any future Justice Department from restarting the case.

Meanwhile, both Trump and Barr are hinting that reprisals are coming against the people who investigated the Trump/Russia connection. Barr said:

I mean, it’s not going to be the end of it. We’re going to get to the bottom of what happened. … We also are seeing if there are people who violated the law and should be brought to justice, and that’s what we have our eye on

and Trump said:

I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks. This is just one piece of a very dishonest puzzle. … [Flynn] was targeted in order to try and take down a president. I hope a big price is going to be paid. A big price should be paid. … It’s treason.

Now, Trump says a lot of things that never go anywhere, they just sound good to him in the moment. But he could also be planning some kind of show trial against someone like James Comey.

I’ll give the last word to Steven Hall, the retired CIA Chief of Russian Operations:

I’m no lawyer, so I won’t comment on Flynn from that perspective. But I was an intel officer, and I can tell you there are serious counterintelligence issues. Flynn should never have a clearance again.

And another thing: I’ve met with many foreign intel chiefs, most of whom at one point or another expressed admiration for American rule of law. Some begrudgingly. It’s going to be much harder now to make the case for that, and as a result, the US has been weakened.

Dr. Bright’s complaint. The part of Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint that got headlines was the conflict over hydroxychloroquine that seems to have been the immediate cause of Bright losing his directorship. But the complaint is worth reading in full as a horror story. The part that I found most agonizing happened in January, as Bright tried to get his superiors (Trump political appointees) interested in procuring more N-95 masks.

Secretary Azar and Dr. Kadlec responded with surprise at Dr. Bright’s dire predictions and urgency, and asserted that the United States would be able to contain the virus and keep it out of the United States. Secretary Azar further indicated that the CDC would look at the issue of travel bans to keep the virus contained. Dr. Bright responded that virus “might already be here. We just don’t have the tests to know one way or the other.” Dr. Bright’s comments were met with skepticism and were clearly not welcome. … As a result of the critical concerns raised by Dr. Bright in the January 23, 2020, meeting with Secretary Azar, HHS leadership excluded him from the next COVID-19 meeting, even though the agenda listed Dr. Bright as a participant.

He had similar frustrations over Covid-19 tests, swabs, reagents, syringes, and just about everything else that we now wish the government had prepared better. But the administration had bet all its chips on keeping the virus out of the country, and didn’t want to draw attention to the possibility that it might get in.

There is, of course, nothing inherently corrupt about lack of foresight and bad decisions, even if those bad decisions get many people killed or infect healthcare workers with a deadly virus. But Bright also tells a series of stories in which some drug company employs John Cherici as a consultant, and then Clerici deals directly with Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Kadlec, who puts pressure on BARDA to ignore the recommendations of its scientists.

from approximately the spring of 2017 through the date of his involuntary removal as Director of BARDA, HHS leadership pressured Dr. Bright and BARDA to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism. Dr. Bright repeatedly clashed with Dr. Kadlec and other HHS leaders about the outsized role played by John Clerici, an industry consultant to pharmaceutical companies with a longstanding connection to Dr. Kadlec, in the award of government contracts.

Bright’s complaint does not explain exactly what the deal with hydroxychloroquine was: Did somebody stand to make a lot of money, or was Trump’s prestige the thing at stake? (Bright may not know.) But for whatever reason, Bright was under pressure to sign off on a protocol that would make hydroxychloroquine “available for the treatment of COVID-19 outside a hospital setting and without close physician supervision” — despite the lack of scientific evidence of the drug’s effectiveness and concerns about its safety.

Absolute immunity. Remember Stormy Daniels? That whole scandal seems almost quaint now, being about nothing more serious than illicit sex and campaign finance laws. No deaths, no undermining of US foreign policy or the rule of law, no hundreds of millions of dollars, no Russians choosing our president for us. But Michael Cohen is in jail, in part because his pay-off of Daniels on Trump’s behalf constituted an illegal campaign contribution.

An issue that was never resolved in Cohen’s trial is whether the Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen for those illegal campaign contributions, and how it reported those expenses on its tax filings. The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a county official, appears to be investigating whether any New York state laws were violated. In the course of his investigation, he subpoenaed eight years of Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns. The subpoena was issued not to Trump, but to his accountants.

Trump has sued to block that subpoena, arguing not only that he is personally immune from indictment under state as well as federal laws, but that he cannot be investigated either. Law professors Claire O. Finkelstein and Richard W. Painter explain in the New York Times:

Mr. Trump claims that a president has “temporary absolute immunity,” meaning he cannot be criminally investigated while in office. Indeed, in oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, his lawyers said that if the president were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, he could not be investigated or indicted until after he left office.

Apparently, this immunity also extends to any underlings at the Trump Organization who might have fudged the business records, as well as to his accountants.

Finkelstein and Painter do a pretty good job laying out how Trump’s claims contradict what the Supreme Court held in the Nixon tapes case and in the Paul Jones case. George Conway (Kellyanne’s husband) wrote of the briefs in the Paula Jones case. He explains that while a President may have a variety of immunities when he is acting in his official capacity, what he does as a private individual — like pay off troublesome porn stars before taking office — is not protected.

The law seems clear, so the corruption question moves to the Supreme Court, which begins hearing the case tomorrow: Will its five partisan Republican justices enforce the law against a Republican president? Or will they find some way to twist the law to give him what he wants? If they do, Finkelstein and Painter warn, the Republic is in real trouble.

If the justices endorse this extreme view, they will make it impossible to hold this president, and all future presidents, answerable in courts for their actions.

Conway seems confident that the Court will “teach the lesson” that the President is not above the law. But even if it doesn’t, I’m not that worried about future presidents, at least not if they’re Democrats. The five Republican justices are perfectly capable of reversing themselves once a Democrat takes office.