Defending the Constitution

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on March 4.

We call upon our Republican colleagues to join us to defend the Constitution.

– Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
joint statement on President Trump declaring a national emergency

This week’s featured posts are “A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic” and “I See Color“.

This week everybody was talking about the “national emergency”

I covered this in one of the featured posts. I left out a link to the proclamation itself, so here it is.


Before getting around to declaring the emergency, (There is no emergency, so what’s the hurry?) Trump talked about trade with China, demonstrating that he has no idea how international trade works.

We have been losing, on average, $375 billion a year with China. A lot of people think it is $506 billion. Some people think it is much more than that.

He doesn’t seem to know that this is not a guessing game; his own government actually keeps track of foreign trade. The US trade deficit with China in goods in 2018 was $382 billion. In services, we run a trade surplus with China — $38.5 billion in 2017 (I haven’t found a 2018 figure)  — so the total trade deficit in 2018 was probably less than $350 billion.

The only person who says $500 billion or more is Trump himself. He has been saying it since 2015 and it has repeatedly been pointed out to him that this is wrong.

The more subtle but more important error in his statement is that we aren’t “losing” that $350 billion. We’re spending money and getting stuff for it.

“A bilateral balance doesn’t really tell you anything about what the economy is doing,” said Scott Lincicome, an adjunct fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, “just like my bilateral deficit with my grocery store doesn’t tell you anything about whether I’m in debt.”

Trump continued:

We’re gonna be leveling the playing field. The tariffs are hurting China very badly. They don’t want them and frankly if we can make the deal, it would be my honor to remove them. But otherwise, we are having very many billions of dollars pouring into our Treasury; we have never had that before with China.

He also doesn’t understand how tariffs work. China doesn’t pay the tariffs; American importers do, and they pass the cost on to their customers. So if you bought anything made in China this year, you paid a tariff. The Chinese paid nothing.


Military Times asked 900 active-duty troops to rate a variety of threats. Each bar in this graph represents the percentage of troops who described the threat as either “significant” or “very significant”. Both “immigration” and “Mexico” ranked way down the threat list.


The conservative National Review has taken a very strong stand on the abuse of executive power:

Because executive power is awesome, and intended to be that way, certain abuses of it can be discouraged only by the credible threat that Congress will remove the president from power — or, if discouragement fails, can be remediated only by the president’s actual removal. That is why Madison believed that the inclusion of impeachment in Congress’s arsenal was “indispensible” to preserving the Constitution’s framework of liberty vouchsafed by divided power.

Of course, it took that stand in 2014, when the “executive overreach” in question was Obama’s decision to tell 5 million undocumented immigrants that he was not going to get around to deporting them. To it’s credit, NR isn’t happy about Trump’s seizure of power, but I haven’t noticed them talking about impeachment.

and anti-Semitism

Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, got herself in trouble by tweeting six words. Glenn Greenwald had just tweeted:

GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.

Omar responded:

It’s all about the Benjamins baby

If you’re not tuned in to the history of anti-Semitism, you might not get why this is anti-Semitic. If the issue under discussion were, say, guns or drugs, there would be nothing particularly out-of-bounds about tweeting “It’s all about the Benjamins” as a way of saying that McCarthy had been bought by the NRA or Big Pharma. But what makes it different when the subject is Israel is the long history (going back to the Rothschilds and even further) of conspiracy theories about Jewish money controlling events from behind the scenes.

Most recently, the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh was motivated by the belief (widely held on the right-wing fringe) that Jews are plotting to dilute the US’s white majority by encouraging caravans of illegal Hispanic immigrants to come up from Central America. George Soros is supposedly financing the caravans. Soros himself was a target of the MAGA Bomber in October, who shared a social-media meme showing Soros at the top of the “Controlled False Opposition”.

So it’s playing with fire to imply without evidence that Jewish money has bought Kevin McCarthy, because irresponsible accusations like that have resulted in people getting killed, not just in Eastern Europe during the pogroms, but recently here in America. (If terrorists were attacking NRA conventions, I’d be more careful about how I talked about them, too. I wouldn’t stop disagreeing with them, but I’d be careful not to seem to endorse the violence.)

Omar apologized. Some Jewish writers, like David Perry, want to accept that apology and move on:

too often, my would-be allies against injustice on the left can easily stumble into anti-Semitic tropes and only sometimes realize quickly enough to reverse course. The most recent example happened on Twitter when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose district in Minneapolis surrounds me as I write in my office, made a flippant tweet about Israeli money buying off Congress. She clearly meant it as a comment on the power of lobbyists, but it inadvertently invoked long-standing tropes of wealthy Jewish cabals exerting influence. The ensuing political firestorm revealed just how hard it is to maintain solidarity in the face of the oppressive forces that want to divide and conquer. The solution is this: Listen. Believe people when they reach out to you in good faith. Ignore bad-faith hypocrites. Apologize if necessary. Then we can move forward together.

But then there are the “bad-faith hypocrites” like Trump, who said Omar should resign. Or Mike Pence and Kevin McCarthy, who want Democrats to take away Ilhan’s committee assignments, as Republicans did to Steve King after a lifetime of racist comments.

CNN’s Jake Tapper did a great job of demonstrating that hypocrisy.

There is nothing that this White House finds more offensive than a politician feeding into stereotypes about Jews, Jewish money, and controlling politicians, which is what Congresswoman Omar is accused of having done.

But instead of a clip of Omar doing this — there isn’t one, she just tweeted those six words — what rolled instead was Trump talking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015:

You’re not going to support me, even though you know I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. … You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. … You want to control your own politicians.

Tapper then apologized for showing the wrong clip, and began a mock struggle with his “rogue” control room. As Tapper kept asking for the Omar tape, what he got instead was

  • A Trump tweet showing Hillary Clinton on a backdrop of money, with “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” printed on a large red Star of David.
  • Trump lecturing the press that “very fine people” were “on both sides” of the marches in Charlottesville, where right-wing extremists chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
  • A Kevin McCarthy tweet: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg” [three Jewish billionaires] “to BUY this election!”

He could have kept going by showing the 2016 Trump campaign’s final ad, which The Guardian characterized like this:

The film features lurid shots of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve interspersed with images of three prominent Jewish people: Janet Yellen, who chairs the Federal Reserve, the progressive financier George Soros and the Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

“The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” Trump is heard saying in the advert. “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

Instead, Tapper apologized and went to commercial, saying “We seem to be having some issues here sorting out which anti-Semitic tropes are offensive and which ones are not.”


I understand the arguments for and against boycotting Israel (or perhaps just products made in the occupied territories) over the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. For: The situation is frequently compared to apartheid in South Africa, where a boycott played a significant role in putting pressure on the white government. Against: Of all the countries that violate human rights in one way or another, Israel is being picked out because of anti-Semitism.

But I don’t understand why one side or the other of that debate should be illegal.

and Amazon

After that long public process about siting a second headquarters, Amazon has now changed its mind about building it in New York. Progressive politicians had begun to challenge the $3 billion in tax incentives that drew Amazon to New York.

There’s a broader conversation to be had about corporations playing communities off against each other. I’m sure Amazon will get the deal it’s looking for somewhere else. But should it?

Usually this issue comes up in the context of sports, when a city feels like it has to invest hundreds of millions in a sweetheart stadium deal in order to attract or keep a team. This is a situation where some federal rules might benefit everyone: Even the cities that “win” these competitions often wind up as losers.

and you also might be interested in …

It looks like Bernie is running again.


Let’s review: Kamala Harris isn’t black enough, Kirsten Gillibrand is so out of touch that she doesn’t know how to eat fried chicken, Elizabeth Warren should never have told anybody about her Native American ancestor, and Amy Klobuchar is a bad boss.

Isn’t that weird? For every woman who runs for president, there’s some story that blocks out consideration of what she wants to do.


I think the video rolling out Mark Kelly’s campaign for the Arizona Senate seat that’s up in 2020 is one of the best political pieces I’ve ever seen. Kelly has been a Navy pilot in Desert Storm, an astronaut, and the husband of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived being shot in the head by a mass shooter. The video is a fabulous mix of themes: service, heritage, heroism, risk, family. He may be a man running against a woman (Martha McSally, who lost her race to Kyrsten Sinema, but got appointed to fill out John McCain’s term), but he’s a man who has supported his wife through a difficult recovery. I think that’s going to count for something.

To me, the most heart-breaking exchange is when Mark is sitting on a couch with Gabby, who apparently is still challenged to put together long sentences. “Do you remember when you entered Congress for the first time?” “Yes, so exciting.” “It was exciting. You know, I thought then that I had the risky job.”


Former FBI Director Andy McCabe isn’t an unbiased source, but his account of the days after James Comey was fired is worth a look. I’ll probably read his book when it comes out in a few weeks.


Cartoonist Jen Sorensen responds to Tom Brokaw’s suggestion (since apologized for) that “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation”.


Politicians put religion to the strangest uses. Wyoming recently came close to repealing the death penalty. The repeal bill passed the House and was unanimously approved by the appropriate Senate committee, only to lose 12-18 on the floor of the Senate. One senator explained her No vote like this:

Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, argued that without the death penalty, Jesus Christ would not have been able to die to absolve the sins of mankind, and therefore capital punishment should be maintained.

“The greatest man who ever lived died via the death penalty for you and me,” she said. “I’m grateful to him for our future hope because of this. Governments were instituted to execute justice. If it wasn’t for Jesus dying via the death penalty, we would all have no hope.”

That’s what she learned from the story of Jesus.


What kind of woman has a late-term abortion, which the far right calls a “partial-birth” abortion? This kind.

In December 2014, I had an abortion at 29 weeks, after my first baby was diagnosed with a brain abnormality called lissencephaly. The early diagnosis—lissencephaly is sometimes not diagnosed until after birth—meant her case was severe and her prognosis was grim: We could expect her to live for two to six years while suffering from frequent respiratory infections and intermittently choking on her own saliva. Her cognitive development would be arrested or even reversed by painful seizures. She might have been able to smile socially and/or track motion with her eyes, but maybe not. Eventually, one of the bouts of pneumonia or choking episodes or complications from one of the surgeries needed to sustain basic life functions would have killed her.

The author, Margot Finn, eventually got involved with a support group for women who have gone through late-term abortions. None of them fit the anti-abortion stereotype of an irresponsible woman who just whimsically decided to kill her baby after procrastinating for six months.

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how incurious some pro-life people seem to be about the reasons people seek abortions. In response to the version of my story I posted recently on Facebook, I’ve had people confidently claim that no one’s talking about people like me, that what I did was between me and my doctor. They say they’re talking about people who “just change their minds” at 24-plus weeks of pregnancy about whether they want the presumably healthy fetus cresting today’s fulcrum of “viability” inside them.

Oh, those people. Has anyone ever met one?

and let’s close with some stupidity

Some would-be hi-tech thieves in Silicon Valley stole a shipment of GPS tracking devices. Within hours, police had tracked the devices, some of which were in the thieves’ storage locker and the rest in their car. The storage locker also contained other stolen property, as well as some drugs.

And that’s not all they did wrong.

Before making off with about $18,000 worth of the devices, the thieves grabbed a beer out of the fridge and cut themselves in the process, leaving fingerprints and blood evidence.

Clearly these guys need to spend time in prison, where they can meet more accomplished thieves and begin to educate themselves in their chosen profession.

I See Color

Five reasons whites shouldn’t colorblind themselves.


Tuesday night, CNN (for reasons I still don’t understand) decided to devote an hour of evening air time to billionaire Howard Schultz (a.k.a. Daddy Starbucks) answering questions in a town hall format. While answering a question about a racial incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Schultz said this:

As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a statement like that, or how to respond to it. It’s far from the first time I’ve heard another white person (it’s always a white person) say that he or she “doesn’t see color”. Typically, people who make this statement think they’re saying something virtuous — that they’re not prejudiced against non-whites, that they try to see each person as an individual rather than through the lens of a racial stereotype, or that they treat people of all races the same. If you question them, you’re likely to hear the famous Martin Luther King quote:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

By “not seeing color”, then, a white person is trying to live Dr. King’s dream: I’m not judging your children by the color of their skin; in fact, I’m not even noticing it.

So what’s wrong with that? Many of the people who say they don’t see color really do mean well — though some don’t; we’ll get to that — so I think they deserve a clear and honest answer.

1. It’s probably not literally true. I’ve occasionally been surprised to find out that someone I’ve known for a while has Jewish ancestry, or was born in another country and speaks English as a second language, or was brought up in a family very much richer or poorer than mine. Apparently, I really don’t “see” those things, at least not all the time. But I’ve never, ever been surprised to discover that somebody is black. I’ve never, ever had anyone say to me, “Did you realize Marcus is black? I never noticed before.”

I know that mixed-race people are sometimes hard to classify. So “Do you think of yourself as black?” can be a meaningful question. But even then I have usually spotted the uncertainty. Because I see color. I believe just about everybody does.

So “I don’t see color” has an element of willfulness to it. At best, it’s not about perception, it’s about habits of thought. Probably the more literal statement would be, “I don’t think about race.” Or maybe: “I try not to think about race.”

But even when we try not to take race into account, we often do. I try not to be prejudiced or to act in any way that promotes bigotry. But I also score badly on the implicit racism test. Like most people, I see color even when I think I don’t.

2. That’s not how dreams work. But what about the dream of a colorblind society? I mean, the one where people might notice each other’s skin color in the literal sense I just talked about, but it just doesn’t matter, because all people are judged “by the content of their character”. Race might still be part of your heritage, but in the here and now, it would only matter to the extent you want it to.

A lot of white identities are like that now. I come from German stock, while somebody else might have Polish ancestors. Germans and Poles have been at each other’s throats for centuries, but in America today none of that matters any more. Maybe we’ll trade mock-hostile barbs when Germany plays Poland in the World Cup. Maybe your grandmother taught you how to prepare kielbasa while mine taught me schnitzel. (Actually she didn’t, unfortunately.) But in all the ways that count, the ones that might re-ignite the conflicts of our ancestors, neither of us cares.

We can imagine a society where race is like that. “Your people came over from Africa? That’s interesting. Have you traced what part?” But when employers are deciding whether to hire you, police are deciding whether to arrest you (or just shoot you), or Starbucks managers are deciding whether to call 911, your race wouldn’t play any role. The percentage of the population that is in poverty or in prison or in management or prematurely in the grave wouldn’t depend on race in anything but a round-off-error sort of way.

Is that a worthy dream? I believe it is.

But I’m not trying to pretend it’s true now, because dreams don’t work that way.

If you dream about being a billionaire like Howard Schultz, the way to get there isn’t to start living like a billionaire in all the ways you can. Quite the opposite: Every time you go to the kind of restaurant a billionaire might frequent — or as close to one as your credit cards will allow — you get a little farther away from actual wealth.

I dream of a society where all people have access to health care, but I don’t bring that day closer by pretending that they already do. I dream of a world where refugees aren’t desperate to get into the United States, because their home countries are doing fine and they have lots of other good places to live. But having that dream doesn’t make me any less callous when I ignore those refugees.

I dream of a world where everyone is honest, and I can leave my laptop sitting unattended on my table at Starbucks when I go off to the bathroom. But I never do that, because dreams don’t work that way.

A colorblind teacher in a white neighborhood school would see the new black kid being picked on and think, “I wonder what that’s about.” A colorblind warden would be oblivious to the racially segregated gangs in his prison.

In American society today, race matters. You can’t deal with that reality unless you see it.

3. Having a choice about whether or not you’ll notice race today is an element of white privilege. As I write this sentence, I’m sitting in the breakfast area of a La Quinta somewhere in Maryland. A couple of hotel employees are responsible for keeping the coffee urns full and the steam tables stocked with scrambled eggs and sausages. None of them are in my line of sight right now, and I realize I don’t know what race they are. To that extent, at least, I’ve been colorblind this morning.

I can do that, because whether they’re white or black or something else, they’re here to serve me.

Similarly, when Howard Schultz sits down with a stack of resumes, thinking about who Starbucks’ next CFO should be, he can decide to ignore race if he wants to. (But given that Philadelphia incident and the bad publicity that came with it, he probably shouldn’t. Some highly visible black face would do Starbucks some good right now.)

But think about what happened to John Crawford III. He was shopping in a Wal-Mart near Dayton, Ohio, when he picked a pellet gun off a shelf and began carrying it with him while he shopped (and talked on the phone). A white customer saw him and called 911, telling police that a black man was waving a gun around at Wal-Mart. (He wasn’t.) A few minutes later, a white policeman barked orders at a very confused Crawford, and then shot him dead when he didn’t respond fast enough, because the cop believed Crawford “was about to” raise the gun. (The officer wasn’t charged with any crime, kept his job, and went back to full field duty after the investigation was complete.)

Now imagine that you’re a black parent trying to raise a son. What will you tell him that Crawford did wrong there? What do you want your boy to do differently if he’s in a similar situation? I think you warn him that Crawford didn’t see color that day. He didn’t think: “There are white people in this store who expect black men to be dangerous.” He didn’t notice when white police walked into the store, and immediately assume they might be looking for him.

The white people in the Wal-Mart could choose to be colorblind if they wanted (though the guy who called 911 clearly wasn’t). John Crawford III couldn’t get away with making that choice.

Of course, you also tell your black son about Martin’s Dream. But you’re very careful to teach him not to lose sight of the difference between the Dream and the Reality. Confusing the two could get him killed.

4. Colorblind whites make bad allies. Think about the teacher and the warden I mentioned above. Racism is real in America, and you’re not going to be much use in mitigating it if you refuse to see it.

Most racism in America today tries not to draw attention to itself. It often pretends to be something else, and has a semi-plausible explanation of its actions. If you’re not paying close attention, you might not see through that explanation.

For example, during the Obama administration, the First Family was often faulted for doing things that white First Families had done without drawing criticism. Barack was photographed putting his feet up on a historic desk. Family vacations cost the taxpayers a lot of money because of the entourage that had to come along. The White House Christmas card didn’t display any religious themes. The White House is equipped and staffed to provide a posh lifestyle, as it has for decades.

Lots of people objected to this stuff without consciously thinking about race. It wasn’t that the Obamas were black, it’s that they were living wastefully or disrespecting some important American value. But somehow that disrespect didn’t register in the same way when the president was white.

In order to notice that kind of thing and address it appropriately, you need to see color. You need to be sensitive to the idea that racism constantly lurks in the background of American society, even when the foreground looks fine.

A lot of today’s racism is baked into the system, and doesn’t depend on any individual’s prejudice. The pipeline that sends black children to mostly segregated schools, funds those schools inadequately, criminalizes discipline, and channels students in the direction of prison — it operates with or without the racism of any particular teacher or principal or policeman or judge. If they all suddenly became colorblind, the system would continue to function.

5. Idealizing colorblindness gives cover to people who invoke it in bad faith. Trump has often claimed to be “the least racist person” — the least racist person you’ve met, ever interviewed, and so on. He has made that claim while trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, building a wall to keep out Hispanics, saying that neo-Nazis are “very fine people”, and pushing the baseless theory that the first black president wasn’t really an American.

He gets away with that, at least among certain segments of the electorate, because he doesn’t explicitly invoke color. This is a constant theme in conservative circles: If I don’t explicitly mention color, I’m not racist. On paper, the law has explicitly been colorblind since the 1960s. So racism effectively ended then — except for the affirmative action programs that disadvantage whites. Non-whites are still much poorer than whites, and are under-represented in elite schools, corporate boardrooms, and high-paying professions, while over-represented in prisons and poverty programs. But any attempt to remedy those problems can’t be colorblind, so they get tarred as “reverse racism”.

 

I’ll give the last word to Khalil Gibran Muhammad author of The Condemnation of Blackness,

If we’re going to do something differently in the 21st century than what was done in the 20th century, it’s going to take a whole lot more white people in everyday experiences to be anti-racist and to stand up for racial justice.

Not non-racist, anti-racist. And you can’t fight what you can’t see.

A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic

Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency that he said would allow him to start building his wall by redirecting funds Congress has appropriated for other purposes. The speculation-to-action ratio has been particularly high since then, with political and legal experts giving conflicting views of what will happen next. Let me see if I can boil it down without adding to the confusion.

1. The declaration was made in bad faith. There is no national emergency on the southern border. Trump admitted as much: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this.”

As I explained two weeks ago (under the sub-head “and national emergencies”), the point of the national emergency process is to allow the President to respond to events that unfold too fast for Congress to take action. Whatever you think about the issues of immigration and smuggling on the Mexican border, they have been playing out over decades, and are less serious now than they have been at other times.

Congress has had plenty of time to consider appropriating money to build a wall, and has decided not to do it.

With no honest case to be made for either a national emergency or for circumventing Congress to build a wall, Trump once again gave a speech full of lies.

2. This is unlike any previous emergency declaration. As Trump rightly pointed out, presidents have declared national emergencies before (59 times since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, according to Fox News’ Chris Wallace). But a national emergency declaration has never been used as a partisan weapon before. Wallace challenged Trump advisor Stephen Miller to “point to a single instance when the president asked Congress for money, Congress refused to give him that money and the president then invoked national emergency powers to get the money”. Miller could not answer.

A national emergency declaration has never been challenged in Congress or the courts before, but that’s because previous presidents have used them in uncontroversial ways, not because Trump is being specially persecuted by his opponents.

3. The money will be taken from more worthy projects. USA Today lists the sources.

$3.6 billion will come from a military construction fund, and White House officials admitted that “they did not yet know which military constructions might be cancelled or delayed by the move.” Military Times lists some possibilities:

a new vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, drydock repairs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, F-35 hangar improvements at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, ongoing hospital construction at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and new family housing builds in South Korea, Italy and Wisconsin.

Also: a middle school on an Army base in Kentucky. Lindsey Graham explained that “It’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border.”

Another $2.5 billion will come from a Defense Department drug-interdiction program. So presumably it will be easier now to get drugs into the country by boat or plane. Trump’s bogus wall, which will do little to affect drug traffic, will squeeze out programs that actually catch drug smugglers.

4. Congress still has a chance to weigh in, but there’s a catch. As originally passed in 1976, the National Emergencies Act allowed what is known as a legislative veto: Congress could override the President’s declaration if both houses agreed to do so. This is, in fact, likely to happen. The Democratic House will pass a resolution against the emergency fairly easily, and the Republican Senate will probably follow suit. (In order to do so, all 47 Democrats and 4 Republicans will have to agree. Mitch McConnell can’t prevent the resolution from coming to the floor, and it can’t be filibustered.)

However, in 1983 the Supreme Court (in regard to a different law entirely) found legislative vetoes to be unconstitutional. As laid out in the Constitution, Congress passes laws and the President has an option to veto them. Congress can delegate its power to the President (as it did in the National Emergencies Act), but it can’t switch places with the President and give itself veto power over his decisions.

As a result, Congress can still undo the President’s declaration, but it requires a joint resolution, which is then subject to a presidential veto. A two-thirds majority of each house would then be necessary to override the President’s veto. This is currently considered unlikely, because not enough Republicans are willing to go against Trump.

So the most likely scenario goes like this: Congress passes a joint resolution against the emergency, the President vetoes it, and Congress fails to override the veto.

5. Then it’s up to the courts. Congress will sue on the grounds that its power of the purse has been usurped. States along the border will sue. Property owners whose land will be seized will sue. Some of those suits have already been filed. (Congress’ suit will probably wait until after its attempt to override the emergency declaration fails.) Then the courts will have to decide whether Trump’s emergency is legitimate.

Whatever conclusion you want to hear, I can point you to an expert who predicts it. Vox assembled 11 experts, and their responses amounted to: Judges shouldn’t OK this, but there’s just enough justification that they can if they want to.

The point of view most generous to Trump is that Congress screwed up when it passed the National Emergencies Act, so its power-of-the-purse is delegated, even if it shouldn’t be. The law doesn’t define “emergency”, but trusts the president not to abuse his power to declare one. Who knew we’d eventually have an untrustworthy president?

Some judges will feel that it’s not their job to second-guess Trump on this. That’s more-or-less how the Muslim Ban case came out. After the administration revised its first two obviously-unconstitutional Muslim bans, the third one passed muster — not because the 5-4 Supreme Court majority agreed with the bigoted pile of bullshit Trump used to justify it, but because five justices deferred to the president’s judgment and declined to examine the details.

As with the Muslim ban, this case hangs on the question of bad faith: How transparently faithless does the President have to be before a judge is obligated to notice?

The problem I have with the Congress-screwed-up view is that the original version of the law didn’t delegate this much power, because Congress retained the ability to override illegitimate emergencies. Now the President only needs one-third of one house to support him. So the Supreme Court changed something significant in the law when it rejected legislative vetoes.

So I would be tempted to make the same kind of argument that conservatives have made against the Affordable Care Act: The National Emergencies Act is a coherent whole, and you can’t invalidate the legislative veto while leaving the delegation-of-power intact. I haven’t heard anyone make that argument, so there must be some reason not to (aside from the fact that all of the currently active national emergencies become invalid, which might not be a bad thing).

6. And the people. This is something worth getting into the streets about. MoveOn has protests planned today, and no doubt there will be others soon.

If you live in a state or district represented by a Republican, you need to challenge your representative to defend the Republic. The expectation that Congress can’t override a veto is based on the idea that most Republicans will stand by Trump’s seizure of power. But if they hear from enough voters, they won’t.

7. Once again, conservatives in Congress and in the courts  will face a challenge: Will they support Trump, even at the expense of what was once considered a core conservative principle? Over the last several decades, much hot air has been blown about defending “the Constitution” and “the vision of the Founding Fathers”. It goes virtually without saying that neither the Constitution nor the Founders ever envisioned or endorsed a process like this: Congress refuses to fund a presidential project, the president seizes the money, both houses vote to condemn that seizure, but it goes through anyway.

Any congressional Republican who refuses to override Trump’s emergency declaration or his subsequent veto can never again claim to be a defender of the Constitution, and should never again be allowed to invoke the Founding Fathers without hearing about this betrayal of their vision. Any judge who allows this travesty to play out can likewise never in good conscience claim to be an “originalist” or “strict constructionist” rather than a partisan judicial activist.

8. There are hardly any core conservative principles left. Republican respect for the Constitution has been suspect at least since Mitch McConnell ignored President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. The GOP’s claim on the Constitution further eroded when the Party decided to ignore the Emoluments Clause and let Trump profit from what are essentially bribes by foreign governments and the governments of the states. But it’s also worth considering the other conservative principles that have already fallen since Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee.

Republicans once claimed to care about the federal deficit, but they have allowed Trump to blow up the federal balance sheet in a completely unprecedented fashion. The record Bush/Obama deficit of FY2009 was a response to an economic catastrophe, but Trump’s deficits are approaching those levels in the late stages of an economic expansion, when the federal budget should be in its best shape. (President Clinton had a surplus during a comparable period.) The next recession, which is due to hit soon, will send deficits into territory never before seen.

Republicans once championed a global system of free trade, but now they stand for tariffs, presidential bullying of American corporations, and one-on-one negotiations with each country.

Republicans once were the advocates for rural America, but now Republican trade policies hit farmers harder than anyone.

Republicans claim their opposition to undocumented immigration stems from a belief in the rule of law, but they support Trump in violating our laws by refusing to let refugees turn themselves in at the border and ask for asylum.

Republicans once claimed to be the party of patriotism and freedom, and promoted Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”. Now they stand behind a president who is totally subservient to a Russian dictator, who shows no respect to the world’s other democracies, and instead expresses admiration and envy for brutal autocrats like China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, and the Philippines’ Duterte.

Republicans once styled themselves as the party of traditional family values, and (particularly during the Clinton administration) talked endlessly about the importance of a president’s character. Now they make excuses for Trump’s infidelity, corruption, sexual assaults, and shameless lying.

What ground is left for Republicans to stand on, other than bigotry against Hispanics, making the rich richer, and a naked desire to wield power?

The Monday Morning Teaser

The long-awaited constitutional crisis looks like it might finally be here. Trump’s specious declaration of a national emergency threatens to reverse Congress’ decision not to fund his wall. If this stands, the Republic will be fundamentally changed.

Power has been gradually shifting from the legislative to the executive branch of government since the New Deal, but the one power Congress has retained is the power of the purse. If presidents can now declare a national emergency on any pretext, and redirect money Congress has appropriated for other purposes, then the power of the purse is now a shared power, and Congress has been greatly diminished.

I’ll discuss this in more detail in “One Fishy Emergency”, which should be out soon. That will be followed by a less timely piece, “I See Color”, which is my response to Howard Schultz’ claim that “I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.” That should be out around 10 EST.

The weekly summary will collect some further odds and ends around Trump’s bizarre national-emergency speech, then discuss Rep. Omar’s apology for raising an old anti-Semitic trope (and the bad-faith denunciations of her from people who routinely do far worse), a first-person account of a late-term abortion, Mark Kelly’s amazing campaign-rollout video, Amazon backing out of New York, and a few other things, before closing with a story about one of the most poorly conceived crimes ever. Probably that’s out before noon.

Fictions

The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.

– Donald Trump, 2019 State of the Union

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

Every day he designs a false threat, steps in to the nonexistent battlefield, and declares himself victorious to a group of now emotionally dependent human beings, whose internal story and well-being depends on him winning. That’s the only way their world makes sense anymore, it is the only outcome they can conceive of.

– John Pavlovitz, “The Cult of Trump

There was no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Virginia

Last week’s featured post “Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness” looks better now than it did at the time. When I wrote

I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough pure people to form a majority.

I didn’t know that the entire Democratic leadership of Virginia state government would soon find itself embroiled in scandal and facing calls to resign. (Also some Republicans. And then the virus spread to Mississippi.) Forget about forming a majority. In Virginia, it may not be possible to find enough pure people to staff a government.

My point (that Democrats need to define a forgiveness process for past incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia) was improved on by Rev. William Barber (famous for leading the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina): Forgiveness has to begin with repentance. Repentance, for Barber, means more than just a verbal apology; it means taking action to restore the balance.

Whether we are talking about Northam or President Trump — Democrats or Republicans — restitution that addresses systemic harm must be the fruit of true repentance.

If Northam, or any politician who has worn blackface, used the n-word or voted for the agenda of white supremacy, wants to repent, the first question they must ask is “How are the people who have been harmed by my actions asking to change the policies and practices of our society?” In political life, this means committing to expand voting rights, stand with immigrant neighbors, and provide health care and living wages for all people. In Virginia, it means stopping the environmental racism of the pipeline and natural gas compressor station Dominion Energy intends to build in Union Hill, a neighborhood founded by emancipated slaves and other free African Americans.

Barber made one important point very clearly: It does no good to force out people who did racist things years ago, if their power will then pass to people who are sponsoring racist policies today.

we cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy. If anyone wants to call for the governor’s resignation, they should also call for the resignation of anyone who has supported racist voter suppression or policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color.

Barber’s article doesn’t revisit the 2017 gubernatorial election, but it’s worth thinking about. Northam was a candidate with a decades-old racist secret. But the Republican candidate in the race (Ed Gillespie) ran a race-baiting campaign, focused on raising fears about “sanctuary cities” (of which Virginia has none) and defending Confederate monuments (of which it has many).


While we’re talking about Confederate monuments, Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent long article “The Costs of the Confederacy“.

A century and a half after the Civil War, American taxpayers are still helping to sustain the defeated Rebels’ racist doctrine, the Lost Cause. First advanced in 1866 by a Confederate partisan named Edward Pollard, it maintains that the Confederacy was based on a noble ideal, the Civil War was not about slavery, and slavery was benign.

The authors traveled all over the South, and found lots of tax-supported Lost Cause propaganda.

We went on many tours of the homes of the Confederacy’s staunchest ideologues, and without exception we were told that the owners were good and the slaves were happy.

At the home of Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, a question about his slaves (otherwise barely mentioned) elicited a quote (from a Depression-era oral history of slavery) from a slave about how proud he was to work for “Marse Robert Toombs”.

A more revealing, well-documented story is that of Garland H. White, an enslaved man who escaped Toombs’ ownership just before the Civil War and fled to Ontario. After the war erupted he heroically risked his freedom to join the United States Colored Troops. He served as an Army chaplain and traveled to recruit African-American soldiers. We found no mention at the Toombs memorial of White’s experience. In fact, we know of no monument to White in all of Georgia.

And that’s a point I wish got more attention: In addition to well-celebrated figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the South had real Civil War heroes like White, people who risked their lives for freedom rather than for slavery. Their monuments are nowhere.

and the possibility of another government shutdown

The deadline is Friday. This weekend the negotiators started sounding pessimistic. But a lot can happen in a week.

and Jeff Bezos vs. the National Enquirer

I’m wondering who at the National Enquirer said: “Let’s threaten the richest man in the world. That always works out well.”

At the moment, the Bezos/AMI story is great gossip, with nude selfies and claims of extortion and so on. It could turn into much more if some of Bezos’ accusations and implications turn out to be true.

Because deep down, we’re all still in middle school.

Let’s recap: The Enquirer ran a story on January 9 about Bezos’ extramarital affair, the day after Bezos and his wife MacKezie announced that they were getting a divorce. I haven’t heard whether the prospect of the story played any role in the timing or the fact of the divorce. The Enquirer story included “intimate texts” between Bezos and his mistress.

Bezos decided he wanted to know how the Enquirer got those texts, and what motivated them to go after him to begin with, so he hired investigators. You can hire a lot of investigators if you’re worth $100 billion.

In particular, Bezos wanted know if the motive was political. He owns The Washington Post, which makes him an enemy of AMI CEO David Pecker’s friend Donald Trump, and of the Saudi government, with whom AMI is seeking a lucrative alliance. The Post has been relentless about exposing Trump’s lying and corruption, and it refuses to let the Saudi government get away with murdering one of its journalists, Jamaal Khashoggi.

That implication of a political motive apparently unhinged Pecker. According to Bezos’ blog post on the subject, Pecker’s people made Bezos “an offer I couldn’t refuse”. (This is a Godfather reference.) Bezos should stop investigating and instead release a statement that his people “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” And in exchange, AMI wouldn’t release the texts and photos they had of him, including a naked selfie and revealing photos of his mistress.

Bezos instead decided to make the whole email exchange public and dare AMI to do its worst. (As Bobby Axelrod says on the TV show Billions: “What’s the use of having fuck-you money if you never say ‘Fuck you.’?”) Since going public, Bezos has picked up support from other people who claim to have been threatened by AMI.

And there’s another problem:

Federal prosecutors on Friday began looking into the accusation to see if American Media’s alleged conduct might violate the company’s agreement to cooperate with a government investigation of Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. If so, it could expose American Media and Enquirer Publisher David J. Pecker to prosecution for campaign-finance violations related to the McDougal payoff.

So it’s Amazon’s founder vs. the National Enquirer, with the possibility that the story might spill over and implicate Trump or the Saudi government. Pass the popcorn.

and the State of the Union

Usually, I treat the State of the Union as major news. For presidents of both parties, I’ve been known to do a featured article attempting to read between the lines. But this is another way in which this administration is different: Trump’s speeches are just not that serious, not even the SOTU. (Stacey Abrams’ Democratic response is here.) He says things that he thinks will sound good, but there is unlikely to be any follow-through.

Like all Trump speeches, this one was full of lies and misleading statements. It slandered undocumented immigrants, using the same propaganda techniques Hitler pioneered on the Jews. (Specifically: Highlighting crimes by the targeted group as if they were somehow different than other crimes. I’m sure someone could compile an list of crimes by German-Americans — people like Trump and me — that is just as horrifying as Trump’s litany of crimes by undocumented immigrants.) He segued directly from Iranian threats against Israel to the 11 Jews murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as if the murderer had been a Muslim motivated by Iranian propaganda rather than a white supremacist who blamed Jews for the migrant caravans that Trump had been rabble-rousing about.

To the extent that the speech laid out an agenda, it’s hard to take that agenda seriously. Once again, for example, he called for an infrastructure plan.

I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future.

He said something similar last year (“Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.”), and delivered a poorly-thought-out proposal that his own party shelved.

The next major priority for me, and for all of us, should be to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs — and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.

But of course, the main threat to people with pre-existing conditions has been Trump himself, and his eagerness to undo ObamaCare without caring what replaces it.

I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients. We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down.

In any previous administration, that would mean that he had a piece of legislation drafted and ready to go. I sincerely doubt that Trump does. He has stated his good intentions, so now it’s up to somebody else to craft a plan that manifests them, which he will feel no obligation to support.

I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.

So far, his policy has been the exact opposite: Not only has he demanded substantial reductions in legal immigration, but he has also tried to expel people who came here legally under the Temporary Protected Status program, and has been violating American laws and treaties by refusing to let refugees legally request asylum at the border. So is this new love of legal immigration an about-face, or did he just say something that sounded good in the moment, which we’ll never hear about again? I’ll bet on the latter.

The one statement in the speech I take seriously is this one:

If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!

In other words, if Congress starts getting serious about oversight on this historically corrupt administration, Trump is going to take it personally. Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, who continued to work with Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans while they investigated him constantly — because that was his job — Trump intends to hold the country hostage. If Congress passes legislation that would benefit America, Trump reserves the right not to sign it out of personal pique.


Democrats immediately called his bluff on that. A variety of House committees are gearing up for investigations of Trump’s foreign business activities, possible violations of the Constitution’s emolument clause, family separations at the Mexican border, and other issues. But Democrats are planning to proceed methodically.

“We’re going to do our homework first,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), whose panel is scheduled to receive testimony from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross next month. “What [Republicans] would do is, they would go out and make headlines a week or two before the hearing and then look for some facts to prove the headlines. We’re not doing that.”

The difference, IMO, is that Republicans investigating the Obama administration suspected there was nothing to find, so their biggest bang would be in the insinuations they could make as hearings were looming. But Democrats investigating Trump believe the corruption and illegal activity is really there. The payoff will come when they find it.


That said, I watched a small amount of Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s six hours of testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and saw clips of the “highlights” of the rest it. I don’t think the hearing reflected well on anybody. Whitaker was needlessly rude and argumentative, and the members of the committee were needlessly aggressive and accusatory.

The main thing was to ask Whitaker a small list of questions and get his answers on the record. So here’s the content of the whole six hours: He denies telling Trump or other “senior White House officials” anything he learned about the Mueller investigation. He says he hasn’t interfered in Mueller’s investigation. He refused to say whether or not he thinks the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt”.

I think it’s important that investigating House Democrats project an image of calm determination: They won’t be stopped, but they’re in this for the good of the nation rather than to get on TV. Trump needs to tell his base a story of Us Against Them, while Democrats need the story to be Truth Will Out. The Whitaker hearing turned into Us Against Them, so in that sense I don’t think it was a good start.

and abortion

So Louisiana has passed an anti-abortion law that requires doctors in clinics that provide abortions to get admitting privileges in a local hospital. That may look reasonable at first glance, but I explained why it’s not when Alabama had a similar law challenged in 2014.

The history of violence against abortionists in Alabama, and the continuing harassment and intimidation of doctors and their patients, makes it unsafe for an abortion-clinic doctor to live in large parts of Alabama. In the three clinics likely to close, most doctors have their primary practice and residence elsewhere. (One doctor drives to the clinic from another state, using a diverse series of rentals cars rather than his own car, in hopes that he won’t be spotted by potential assassins.) That lack of local presence makes them ineligible for admitting privileges at local hospitals. The clinics could stay open if they could recruit new doctors who live and practice nearby, but that is impossible because they would not be safe.

So in passing this provision, the Alabama legislature was, in essence, conspiring with violent terrorists. Clinics would be shut down by the confluence between the law and predictable outside-the-law violence. That wasn’t some unfortunate but unforeseen side effect; that was the point.

Eventually, a Texas version of the law reached the Supreme Court, where it was struck down. (Justice Breyer wrote the 5-4 majority opinion. The provision did not confer “medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access”.) Courts are supposed to respect precedent rather than continuing to re-examine the same arguments, so that should have been the end of such laws.

It wasn’t. Louisiana passed its own admitting-privileges law, which is expected to make two of the three abortion clinics in Louisiana close. Anti-abortion activist judges refused to cite the binding precedent and illegitimately pushed the case up the line, figuring that with Kavanaugh replacing Kennedy, maybe the balance of power on the Court had changed. They were right about Kavanaugh, but Chief Justice Roberts cast the deciding vote to block enforcement of the Louisiana law until the Court can rule on its constitutionality.

When Susan Collins blessed Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Court, she took at face value his pledge to respect precedents like Roe v Wade. Charles Pierce explains how that is playing out.

[Kavanaugh’s] dissent relies on, along other things, the transparently phony notion that Louisiana officials will be judicious in using the law they’ve already passed. He writes:

…the State’s regulation provides that there will be a 45-day regulatory transition period before the new law is applied. The State represents, moreover, that Louisiana “will not move aggressively to enforce the challenged law” during the transition period.

You’d have to be as big a sap as Susan Collins is to believe that one. It’s impossible that even Kavanaugh believes it. What the defenders of the right to choose feared—and of which they still remain wary—is that upholding the Louisiana law will send a clear message to state judges that the federal system will not defend its own rulings. Thus would Roe v. Wade essentially die from a thousand cuts.

I’ll pull out another piece of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

during the 45-day transition period, both the doctors and the relevant hospitals could act expeditiously and in good faith to reach a definitive conclusion about whether those three doctors can obtain admitting privileges.

Kavanaugh trusts the good faith of anti-abortion forces, when bad faith is the whole point of this law. That’s what we can expect from Kavanaugh. Maybe he won’t seek to reverse Roe immediately, but in every case that comes before him, he will concoct some reason not to enforce it quite yet.

but ultimately, the Green New Deal might turn out to be the most important thing that happened this week

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released a proposed nonbinding congressional resolution calling for a Green New Deal.

It’s hard to know how to think about this. On the one hand, no one expects this plan for a “ten-year national mobilization” to be carried out as written. It may not even be possible, even if the country and its government had the political will to do so. (For example: “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers” in ten years.)

In addition to the call for massive infrastructure spending to create an environmentally sustainable economy (that anything calling itself a “Green New Deal” would have to have), it also includes (in the words of New York magazine’s Eric Levitz) “damn near every item on progressives’ policy wish list”: national health care, union rights, racial justice, and so on.

So if your definition of a “serious proposal” includes an expectation that it might become law sometime soon and succeed in achieving its stated goals, this is not a serious proposal. There’s no negotiation with Mitch McConnell that starts here and winds up anywhere. (Mitch wouldn’t even agree to massive infrastructure spending on roads and bridges when the leader of his own party called for it.) And even if Democrats win all the open Senate seats on 2020, it’s still not going to happen, because there’s the whole question of possibility.

Maybe that bothers you, or maybe see the Green New Deal serving another purpose. Slate’s Mike Pesca is bothered.

Well, call me a tired old watchdog, or fuddy-duddy fact finder—I do not assess policies through the lens of the charismatic and compelling Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the perfect distillation of the Trumpian, big swing, mega-MAGA hashtag, nonconstrained by literalism, post–reality-to-accuracy politics age. I tend to judge ideas by considering the opinions of experts who know more than I do. And when it comes to the Green New Deal, almost none of these people think that the United States can achieve its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

… Perhaps I am naïve when it comes to the way the world works, and I should realize that knowingly unrealistic, which is to say dishonest, goals and proposals that will not work are the best ways to steer us to a better future. Instead, I worry that having impossible goals might dissuade the public and discredit those proposing them.

Levitz, though, sees something else, “so long as you take the Green New Deal seriously, but not literally.”

AOC’s decision to append a wide variety of progressive goals — each with its own influential constituency — to her climate plan is tactically sound: If the entire Democratic agenda is rebranded as the “Green New Deal,” a future Democratic government will be less likely to ignore the central importance of climate sustainability to all of its other policy goals; which is to say, a future Democratic government will be less likely to de-prioritize preventing ecological catastrophe.

… As a mechanism for raising expectations for what qualifies as a progressive climate policy — and increasing the probability that Congress passes such a policy within the next decade — the Green New Deal is politically realistic. As a blueprint for a climate bill that is both legislatively viable, and commensurate with the scale of the ecological threat humanity faces, it is not.

But neither is anything else. … There is simply no way to mount a realistic response to climate change without changing political reality. And for now, the Green New Deal is the most realistic plan we’ve got for doing the latter.


Whether you’re a fan of AOC or think she gets too much attention already, her lightning-round exploration of government ethics limits is brilliant and deserves wider distribution.

and you also might be interested in …

If you ever doubted that the conservative version of “religious freedom” only applies to Christians, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court just made it clear. Thursday, the Court voted 5-4 (on party lines, a phrase we didn’t used to use for Supreme Court votes) to allow Alabama to execute a Muslim prisoner without honoring his request to have an imam present. The prison employs a Christian chaplain.

The chaplain kneels and prays with inmates who seek pastoral care, the officials said. After considering Mr. Ray’s request, prison officials agreed to exclude the chaplain. But they said allowing the imam to be present raised unacceptable safety concerns.

Justice Kagan’s dissent summarizes the problem:

Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam,Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.


While we’re talking about religion and the law, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (where the Supreme Court sided with the baker against the gay couple that wanted a wedding cake) was decided on such narrow grounds that it didn’t really settle the underlying issues: How do anti-discrimination laws interface with a business-owner’s freedoms of speech and religion? So now new cases are rising through the system.


Two completely different views of what’s going on in Venezuela: It’s about restoring democracy. It’s about preserving white supremacy.


As people start completing their tax returns, many of them are realizing that the Trump Tax Cut didn’t do much for them. Some are actually paying more tax, due to changes in deductions. And even people who are paying less tax in total are being surprised that they owe money rather than have a refund coming. That’s because withholding guidelines were changed, possibly with the intent to make the tax cut temporarily look bigger than it actually was.


Finland ran an experiment in giving people a guaranteed basic income. The government picked 2,000 unemployed Finns at random and promised them $635 a month for two years, no strings attached. Find a job, don’t find a job, you get to keep the money.

How you view the results depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full person or not. The GBI turned out to have no effect on whether or not people got jobs. So it didn’t turn their lives around, but it also didn’t encourage idleness. The recipients became slightly more entrepreneurial, and they reported feeling much less stressed.


OK, I admit that “Trump supporter says something stupid” isn’t news any more. I think we see way too much coverage of stuff like that already. But this

Candace Owens … is one of the president’s best-known black supporters. The 29-year-old activist and social media aficionado regularly appears on Fox News imploring black Americans to leave the Democratic Party. … At a December event in London, Owens said:

“I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism.’ I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want, so when you think about whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. … He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.”

So basically, as long as Hitler just wanted to annihilate the Jews in Germany, that was “okay, fine”. He didn’t get out of line until he started to go after the Jews in Poland and Holland. National death camps good; international death camps bad.

Back in May, Trump tweeted:

Candace Owens of Turning Point USA is having a big impact on politics in our Country. She represents an ever expanding group of very smart “thinkers,” and it is wonderful to watch and hear the dialogue going on…so good for our Country!


And “Trump is a hypocrite” isn’t exactly news either, but this story similarly takes things to a new level. The Washington Post describes “a long-running pipeline of illegal workers” between Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey and the village of Santa Teresa de Cajon in Costa Rica.

Over the years, the network from Costa Rica to Bedminster expanded as workers recruited friends and relatives, some flying to the United States on tourist visas and others paying smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the U.S.-Mexico border, former employees said. New hires needed little more than a crudely printed phony green card and a fake Social Security number to land a job, they said.

Why did the Trump Organization do this? In a word, money.

There was also seeding, watering, mowing, building the sand traps and driving bulldozers, mini-excavators and loaders — all while they earned about $10 an hour or less, they said. Around that time, a licensed heavy equipment operator in central New Jersey would have received an average of $51 to $55 per hour in wages and benefits, according to union officials at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 in the nearby town of Springfield.


In The Atlantic, Richard Parker explains why Trump’s wall will never be built: The people who own that land now have enough clout to protect it from being taken by the federal government.

There will be no “concrete structure from sea to sea,” as the president once pledged. Taking this land would constitute an assault on private property and require a veritable army of lawyers, who, I can assure you, are no match for the state’s powerful border barons.


Elizabeth Warren officially announced her candidacy, during a week when the Native American issue refused to die. I’m sad about that. To me, Warren is the most authentic candidate in the race. She went into politics because she felt that the big banks and corporations were rigging the system against ordinary people, so that the path she had taken from the working class to the professional class was now much, much harder to travel. That’s what her career has been about ever since.

I have to agree with Matt Yglesias’ take:

Warren would like to have a debate about economic policy with Trump. Trump would like everyone to fall back on racial identity instead. You, as a citizen or a journalist or whatever else you are, are allowed to choose whether or not to take the bait on his provocations.


Amy Klobuchar is in the race. My impression is that Klobuchar is the Democrats’ most likeable candidate other than maybe Biden. She’s also the candidate I would feel most confident of in a race against Trump. She radiates a Midwestern decency that I think Trump would have a hard time countering.

But I recall another Minnesota candidate, Republican Tim Pawlenty. It’s hard to remember now, but at the beginning of the 2012 cycle, a lot of pundits were projecting Pawlenty as the candidate the party would ultimately settle on, because he was the one who would be most acceptable to all the major Republican factions.

The problem with that strategy was that Pawlenty turned out to be nobody’s first choice, so he was out of the race before a single vote was cast. That’s going to be Klobuchar’s challenge: How is she going to become people’s first choice, rather than just somebody they like?

If you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it any more, other candidates will express that anger better for you. But if you’re tired of being angry all the time and you long for a politics that’s more than the Outrage of the Day, you might want to look at Amy. (Or Cory Booker.)

and let’s close with something topical

The Dunning-Kruger song from The Incompetence Opera.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week had a number of stories that need a few paragraphs of explanation, but which didn’t inspire me to write a longer piece. So my current plan is not to have a featured post this week. Instead, the weekly summary will be extra long. It’s possible some note from the summary will grow in the telling, so that I’ll pull it out into its own article, but so far that’s not happening.

Anyway, I project the summary coming out about 11 EST.

Emergency Measures

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.

US Constitution, Article I, Section 9

QUESTION: So you don’t need congressional approval to build the wall?

TRUMP: No, we can use — absolutely. We can call a national emergency because of the security of our country, absolutely. No, we can do it. I haven’t done it. I may do it. I may do it, but we could call a national emergency and build it very quickly.

press conference January 4

This week’s featured posts are “Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration” and “Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness“.

This week everybody was talking about the budget negotiations

But nobody was saying anything terribly insightful about them. The government is funded through February 15, so the conference committee has until then to make a deal. Maybe they’ll succeed and maybe they won’t. But whatever deal does or doesn’t happen, it won’t be negotiated in public. The way these things usually go is that there appears to be no deal until suddenly there is one. Speculation is always titillating, but we’re in a phase where we just have to wait and see.

and the weather

How cold was it? In Chicago, transit crews were setting the train tracks on fire to keep them from freezing over.

Of course, people who don’t understand the science raised the usual question: How can there be global warming if it’s so cold out?

The answer (from Science Alert) is that there’s been a weird airflow pattern, not that the planet as a whole is actually colder than usual. The North Pole was having a heat wave, relatively speaking, after sending much of its cold air south. (It’s like when you stand in front of an open refrigerator door. You’re not eliminating warmth, you’re just reshuffling it.)

A condensed version of Science Alert’s explanation: Melting ice in the Arctic is causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat. This lowers the temperature differential between the Pole and lower latitudes. Ordinarily, the polar vortex is a high-altitude “river of wind” that is more-or-less circular around the Pole. But the lower temperature differential slows that river down and makes its course more erratic. So occasionally it dips south, carrying polar cold into lower latitudes.

So yes, strange as it sounds, this week’s record cold across the northern and eastern US was in fact evidence of global warming. (This kind of weather will probably happen more often as climate change continues.) And even as the weather was far colder than usual where I live, it was still warmer than usual when you look at the whole Earth.

and Governor Northam

One of this week’s featured posts compares Northam to past Democratic figures like Robert Byrd and George Wallace, both of whom were allowed a measure of redemption.

But a second issue concerns double standards for Democrats and Republicans. Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel had to resign last week because of blackface photos: He wore blackface to make fun of victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That case didn’t arouse my sympathy. So am I applying different standards to Republicans?

The answer is: Yes I am, and I don’t apologize for it.

Here’s why: Questions of racism get raised by standard Republican positions on issues that come up every day. When you denounce “amnesty” for the undocumented, are you concerned about the rule of law, or are you really thinking that there are already too many brown people in the US? (I mean, why can’t we have more immigration from Norway?) Is it an unfortunate coincidence that your anti-voter-fraud measures suppress the black and Hispanic vote, or is that the point? Are you really supporting your local police, or do you just not care when officers kill young black men? Do you think the government spends too much, or just that it spends too much on people who don’t look like you?

When a politician’s positions on current issues already raise questions about racism, then evidence of racism in his or her past ought to have increased significance.

and national emergencies

The concept of a national emergency is simple: Congress moves more slowly than the Executive Branch. Recognizing that, Congress pre-authorizes the President to take timely actions in situations that are moving too fast for a congressional response.

A national emergency formalizes what President Lincoln did at the beginning of the Civil War: take immediate necessary actions and ask Congress for its approval some other time. (From Lincoln’s message to a special session of Congress assembled on July 4, 1861: “It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government.”)

I haven’t read the national emergency laws, so I can’t say for sure what they do or don’t allow. But I do know this: What Trump is proposing (to declare a national emergency so that he can build his Wall without the approval of Congress) invalidates the whole justification of national emergencies.

The situation at the border is largely unchanged since Trump took office, except for humanitarian problems he has caused himself by mistreating refugees. (He could solve those problems without declaring an emergency, just by reversing his own policies.) Events are not moving too fast for Congress to react. In fact, Congress has acted; it just hasn’t done what Trump wanted.

To declare an emergency under these circumstances would be an authoritarian act, an abuse of power that could well be impeachable. The President would not be getting out in front of Congress, he would be circumventing Congress.

He would also be defying the will of the American people. Trump is a minority president, elected with 46% of the vote, nearly 3 million fewer votes than his main opponent. He has remained unpopular throughout his administration; his approval rating has never hit 50%. More recently, Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives with 53% of the vote. It is Pelosi, not Trump, who has a popular mandate.

and Venezuela

I confess to not paying a lot of attention to South America over the years, so I’ve been looking for background articles that can help me make sense of the current crisis. The BBC has a fairly good one, which I’ll summarize:

Venezuela has a lot of oil, and the potential to be a fairly prosperous country. But in the 1990s it had massive inequality. It sounds like the usual Latin American thing, but moreso: A few families controlled everything and a lot of people were desperate. The new oil wealth just made that worse.

Democracy and inequality on this scale can only coexist for so long, and so Hugo Chávez got elected president as a socialist in 1999. A lot of his reforms were poorly thought out and backfired on the general economy. (The BBC article mentions his price controls, which pushed a lot of the controlled items onto the black market.) But he also spent oil money on programs that improved health care, literacy, and quality of life among the poor. He remained popular for most of his era in power — he died as president in 2013 — but at the same time had very powerful enemies among the upper classes. He consolidated power and became a virtual dictator.

Things started to get really bad late in his administration, when the global price of oil collapsed. The oil revenues had put a blanket over a lot of unsustainable policies, which started to unravel. By now, the country is a mess. About 3 million of the country’s 32 million people have left. US intelligence services estimate that another 2 million refugees will leave soon.

Chávez was succeeded by the current president, Nicolás Maduro, who has not managed to turn things around. He was re-elected last May to a 6-year term that started a few weeks ago. His re-election, though, was rigged, so the opposition says the presidency is vacant now. The Venezuelan Constitution says that when the presidency is vacant, it falls to the head of the Assembly, who is Juan Guaidó. Guaidó has declared himself acting president, which Maduro disputes.

The United States, the EU, and most of Latin America recognizes Guaidó as president. Maduro has the support of Russia, China, and a few other countries. So far the Venezuelan military is sticking with Maduro.

The immediate problem is that legitimacy has broken down. Nobody has a clear claim to be in charge. The Maduro government is clearly not good for the country, but would a Guaidó government be better? A Venezuelan might wish for things to go back to normal, but when was that exactly? In Latin America, “normal” is often a desperate condition for the lower classes.

That’s why the suggestion that American troops might get involved is so worrisome. It’s not that the Maduro government deserves to survive, but that we could easily wind up fighting to help plutocrats keep the common people down. In Tuesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, Senator Marco Rubio listed the misdeeds of the Venezuelan government and raised the question:

Is it not in the national interest of the United States of America that the Maduro regime fall?

Senator Angus King of Maine responded with caution:

[Senator Rubio] listed refugee flows, human rights abuses, and corruption. There are lots of countries in the world that meet that description, and our right or responsibility to generate regime change in a situation like that, I think, is a slippery slope. I have some real caution about what our vital interests are, and whether it’s our right or responsibility to take action to try to change the government of another sovereign country. That same description would have led us into a much more active involvement in Syria, for example, five or six years ago.


An additional problem from the US perspective is that Venezuela has taken on symbolic meaning for American conservatives: It’s a cautionary tale illustrating why you should never elect socialists. Whenever an American progressive proposes Medicare for All, a conservative will start talking about Venezuela, as if no other country in the world had universal health care, and as if American progressives look to Venezuela as a model rather than Denmark or Sweden or Canada, which were the top three countries in US News’ 2018 best-quality-of-life ratings.

Venezuela’s symbolic significance makes it harder to see what is actually happening there.

but maybe we shouldn’t have been talking about Howard Schultz

OK, he’s rich and he wants to be president. But so far, as best I can tell, he doesn’t have a base or a signature issue or a poll showing that any measurable number of people would vote for him. So I can’t figure out why his potential candidacy is worth all this attention. Why is he getting so much free media?

The Schultz media rollout has been eye-popping, with the billionaire sitting down for interviews with not only 60 Minutes, but CBS This Morning, CNBC, Goop, the New York Times, ABC’s The View, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and NPR’s Morning Edition.

and you also might be interested in …

Cory Booker has joined the 2020 race.


Last Monday, a Trump tweet endorsed the “Biblical Literacy” legislation that has been proposed in a number of states, including Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas already have such laws. The point is to require public schools to offer elective courses that teach about the Bible.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State comments on its blog:

To be clear, the classes are not per se unconstitutional. But Bible classes must be taught in accordance with constitutional requirements set out by courts. These courses must be taught in a nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of biblical accounts. The courses should not be taught from the perspective that the Bible is a literal historical record, and such courses must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of scholarly interpretations.

In other words, you can teach that the Gospel of John says Jesus rose from the dead. But you can’t teach “Jesus rose from the dead” as a historical fact, citing John as your authority. The same thing applies to any other religion. Students should learn what Muslims believe about the origin of the Quran: The Archangel Gabriel recited it to Muhammad. But that’s different from teaching them that this recitation actually happened.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with a high school class reading the Book of Job or the Song of Solomon and discussing them the same way they would discuss The Odyssey or any other ancient text. (Though probably most high schools would consider Song of Solomon too racy.)

It’s not that hard a distinction to understand, if you want to understand it. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian fundamentalists would rather not understand it or observe it.

Texas passed one of these bills in 2009, and the resulting classes offered in many districts have been very problematic. Six years ago, Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, surveyed courses in 60 districts around the state. Only 11 districts, Chancey found, were “especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound” approach. The other 49, he found, “were a mixed bag, some were terrible.” Chancey singled out 21 districts as offering “especially egregious” instruction. According to Chancey’s research, public school students in these courses were taught that “the Bible is written under God’s direction and inspiration,” Christians will at some point be “raptured,” and that the Founding Fathers formed our country on the principles of the Holy Bible. (Kentucky passed one of these laws as well and has had similar problems.)

In fact, a properly taught Biblical Literacy course would probably horrify the very people who are pushing to create such courses, because it would teach students that over the centuries the Bible has been read and interpreted many different ways. Whatever your pastor told you is not the only way to think about it.

What Project Blitz and other backers of Biblical Literacy courses want instead is to have the government endorse their particular theology, and to force non-believers to pay taxes that promote fundamentalist Christian views. That has been illegal at least since my friend Ellery Schempp (he’s still alive and belongs to my church) won his Supreme Court case in 1963.


The first priority of House Democrats, H.R. 1, is a bill to curb corruption and make it easier to vote. Among other things, it would make Election Day a national holiday, so that workers would have an easier time making it to the polls. It would also expand early voting, require the president and vice president to publish the last 10 years of their tax returns, force SuperPACs to reveal where their money comes from, make government contractors report their political contributions, provide federal matching funds to encourage small donations to political campaigns, make voter registration an opt-out system rather than an opt-in system, reduce gerrymandering, and do many other things to make elections a truer gauge of the will of the People.

Mitch McConnell, of course, is against it and will not bring it to the floor of the Senate after it passes the House. The bill, he says, is a “power grab“. And he’s right, it is. It is an attempt to grab power for the American people. McConnell’s GOP, which represents a minority of the American people but a majority of the super-rich, would have some of its power taken away. GQ’s Luke Darby has it right:

What McConnell calls a “power grab” is common practice in most functioning democracies. But building and maintaining a functioning democracy has never been his priority.

Meanwhile, Texas is steaming ahead on suppressing the votes of non-whites.


Trevor Noah: The black community has been saying for years that the police have too much power to wreck people’s lives, and Trump has paid no attention. But now the President is outraged when that power is used against his henchmen, as when Roger Stone was hauled to jail in a predawn raid on his home.

These guys are genuinely shocked when the police use the same force on them that they’ve been using on so many other people in the country, unchecked.


I put off writing this article for so long that now David Brin has written it. Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek don’t have anything to do with present-day conservatism. The current free-market-worship really has no philosophy behind it. It’s pure superstition.


Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill is cutting the big internet companies out of her life and chronicling what changes. This week it’s Google, and it affects a lot more things than you’d think.


Texas Secretary of State David Whitley has been circulating “a list of 95,000 registered voters who were matched with people flagged by the Texas Department of Public Safety as being noncitizens … 58,000 of whom have voted in TX elections”. The Atlantic explains why you shouldn’t take this claim seriously, even if Trump does.

Several years ago I looked at a similar claim about dead people voting in South Carolina. The state attorney general was claiming that his computer search showed that 900 dead people had voted. His claim fit the right-wing narrative, so he made the talk-radio circuit and got interviewed on Fox News.

As soon as the election boards started investigating his list, though, the whole thing unraveled. It turned out there were a bunch of legitimate ways a name might end up on that list, from mistaken identity to clerical error to having a heart attack two seconds after you dropped your absentee ballot into the mailbox. Eventually the state police got pulled into the investigation, and when they were done the number of unexplained cases was down to three, with no clear evidence of election fraud even for those three.

Something similar will happen here.


Here’s a dam good metaphor.


Last Monday, Sarah Sanders held the first White House briefing in more than a month, and CNN decided not to cover it live. MSNBC stopped routinely airing live White House briefings in November. Both networks send reporters and camera, but then let their editors decide what was newsworthy.

This is part of the media’s evolving strategy for dealing with a White House whose communications include more disinformation than information. Finally, news networks are realizing that they are not obligated to give the White House a open channel to lie to the American people. That doesn’t serve the country and doesn’t serve their viewers.

That gradual evolution started early on, when a lot of news hosts stopped inviting Kellyanne Conway for interviews, since it is virtually impossible to get any useful information out of her. A few weeks ago, CNN’s Chris Cuomo had Conway on, and Don Lemon shook his head sadly as he and Cuomo had their nightly handoff conversation. I agreed with Lemon: The Cuomo/Conway fencing match was entertaining for people who are into that kind of thing, but no one learned anything from it.

The people who parrot Trump’s fake-news denunciations of CNN saw hypocrisy here: CNN criticized the White House for not have briefings, and then didn’t cover the one they had. But I don’t buy it. What journalists are asking for is the kind of news briefings they got during every other administration of the television era: A chance to ask the press secretary questions and get answers that may be slanted, but were mostly reliable. Previous press secretaries often didn’t know answers to questions, but made a good-faith effort to get them. Sanders offers fake briefings that are full of outright lies, and if she doesn’t know the answer to a question, that’s the end of it; she’s not going to put any effort into finding out.


Meanwhile, I’m trying not to get too excited about Sarah Sanders saying that God wanted Trump to be president. Her interview with CBN is one of those shiny objects that is supposed to distract us from Trump’s disastrous shutdown and the increasing likelihood that he’s a Russian asset. But I do have to point out that God denied Sanders’ claim on Facebook.

What? You don’t think that’s the real God? Maybe not, but I think whoever owns that Facebook page has as much right to speak for God as Sarah Sanders does.

and let’s close with something for the birds

About 10,000 people in a mountainous part of Turkey speak “bird language“, a whistle-based system of communication.

Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness

Friday, a 35-year-old yearbook photo of Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam exploded across the internet. The picture shows two men, one in blackface and the other wearing a KKK hood, on Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, where he was a student. Northam apologized for the photo, without saying which of the figures was him. Later, he said neither was, but that he had worn blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest around the same time.

Immediately, there were calls for him to resign the governorship he won in 2017. By the weekend, they were coming from all the major Virginia Democrats, including Senators Kaine and Warner. So far, Northam has refused to resign, but he still may.

I admit to being torn about this. My initial reaction wasn’t that this was a resign-immediately offense. But being so out of step with most other Democrats makes me acutely aware of the limitations of my point of view. This is a moment where I am very conscious of being white. The photo wasn’t intended to offend me, so it’s easy for me to say, “It was a long time ago. Let’s accept his apology and move on.”

I’m also conscious of being old. I remember Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who served in the Senate from 1959 until his death in 2010. Byrd was a member of the Democratic leadership in the Senate: majority leader from 1987-1989, and President pro Tempore of the Senate (next in line for the presidency after the Speaker of the House) from 2003-2007. In short, he was not some shameful figure the Democratic Party hid in the attic.

Byrd hadn’t just taken a photo dressed up as KKK (or next to somebody dressed up as KKK). In his youth, he actually was KKK.

In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to create a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Sophia, West Virginia.

How was that possible? Well, he changed.

In his last autobiography, Byrd explained that he was a KKK member because he “was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.” Byrd also said in 2005, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”

When he died, civil-rights hero Congressman John Lewis wrote a tribute calling Byrd “a true statesman“.

Not so long ago, change of that magnitude could be accepted. Late in his career, even famous segregationist George Wallace changed.

In the late 1970s, Wallace announced that he was a born-again Christian and apologized to black civil rights leaders for his past actions as a segregationist. He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. In 1979, Wallace said of his stand in the schoolhouse door: “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.” He publicly asked for forgiveness from blacks.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Wallace hadn’t changed at all: Maybe he had been an opportunist as a segregationist, and he was still an opportunist when he asked for forgiveness. The difference may not have been anything that happened in Wallace’s conscience, but the fact that by the late 1970s blacks were voting in large numbers. I don’t think we’ll ever really know.

And perhaps the people who accepted these sorts of conversions were also simply being pragmatic: In the Alabama and West Virginia of the late 20th century, just about every white person had some kind of racist past. A party that was too pure to reclaim them would give up any possibility of being a majority.

Maybe we’re past all that now. Maybe we can throw out all the whites who have any racism in their past, and still hope for a majority. Maybe we can also throw out all the men who have ever done anything sexist, and all the straights who have a history of homophobia. Maybe America has changed so much that a party of people who don’t need any forgiveness can be a majority now.

But I have to confess, I have my doubts about that.

I worry that we’re playing into Trump’s hands when we drum Ralph Northam out of the Democratic Party. As I interpret it, Trump’s message to wavering whites and men and straights goes something like this:

You’re never going to be pure enough to satisfy the liberals. So you might as well wear your MAGA hat and fly your Confederate flag, because no matter what you do, there’s never going to be a place for you on the other side.

I’m open to the idea that Ralph Northam can’t be governor any more. Virginians seem to be saying that, and ultimately it’s their decision. I also like the idea that there’s a clear difference between the parties: Democrats would never let a man become president who brags about his sexual assaults while claiming that his accusers are too unattractive to be worth assaulting.

But as we watch Northam leave the public stage, as I suspect he will, I hope that doesn’t end the discussion. We need to think hard about where the limits of forgiveness are and how one seeks it.

Because I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough pure people to form a majority.

Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration

Trump was angry that his intelligence chiefs had contradicted him on TV, until he convinced himself that it just hadn’t happened.


This week a bizarre drama played out. On Tuesday, the chiefs of the major intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, and NGA, along with their overseer, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats) appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing that was televised live and accompanied by a 42-page report. The chiefs were all careful not to draw this conclusion in so many words, but the inescapable message of their testimony was that the world they see bears little resemblance to the one President Trump tweets about.

In the world where the intelligence chiefs live, the major threats the US faces come from Russia and China, who “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s”. The security of our elections is a major vulnerability, and other hostile countries are learning from Russia’s interference in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing and isn’t likely to. ISIS hasn’t been eliminated. Iran hasn’t violated the nuclear agreement President Obama negotiated. And (as the NYT noted) the threat Trump shut down the government to oppose barely registers.

Notably missing in the written review was evidence that would support building a wall on the southwestern border; the first mention of Mexico and drug cartels was published nearly halfway through the report — following a range of more pressing threats.

The senators on the committee — including Chairman Richard Burr and other well-known Republicans like Marco Rubio — likewise seemed uninterested the so-called “national emergency” on our southern border. Each member of the committee had five minutes for questions. None asked the intelligence chiefs to comment on the need for a border wall.

Trump reacted with anger and belittlement on Wednesday, tweeting that the intelligence chiefs were “extremely passive and naive” and “wrong”; he  suggested that they “should go back to school“. His reaction raised a question that I don’t think has ever been answered: If Trump’s superior knowledge isn’t coming from the intelligence services, where does it come from? Does he just know, like an oracle, or does he have access to some more reliable source, like maybe Fox & Friends.

But by Thursday, it was all good again: Trump was now comfortable in the knowledge that the testimony we all saw didn’t really happen.

Just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team in the Oval Office who told me that what they said on Tuesday at the Senate Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement on Iran, ISIS, North Korea, etc. Their testimony was distorted [by the] press. I would suggest you read the COMPLETE testimony from Tuesday. A false narrative is so bad for our Country. I value our intelligence community. Happily, we had a very good meeting, and we are all on the same page!

Think about how backwards this all is. If any of the intelligence chiefs actually had been misquoted or taken out of context by the media, you might expect the complaint to come from them, or perhaps from their agency’s spokesperson. Such a statement might point to a quote in the media, and then give a more accurate or more complete quote from the hearing’s transcript. Or if the quote had been accurate and the chief had simply misspoken, the agency could make a clearer statement of its actual assessment.

None of that happened. Instead, Trump simply announced that there had been no contradiction, blamed the media, and claimed without evidence that “the COMPLETE testimony” backed him up. He knows, of course, that no one in his base (and few people in general) will watch two-and-a-half hours of video to check up on him. To the MAGA-hatters, the incident is just another Trump-said/media-said conflict. The ultimate truth about it is unknowable, so they will take Trump at his word.

But if you do want to take Trump’s advice and watch the whole testimony, you can do it here or here. I have, and so has Vox’ Alex Ward, who characterized Trump’s tweet as a lie and summarized the major places where Tuesday’s testimony contradicted him. Even more damaging that the verbal testimony is the accompanying report, prepared under DNI Coats’ byline. You might imagine that even the director of an intelligence agency might mess up an answer to an unanticipated question. But written reports are drawn up carefully, weighing each word and phrase. Here are a few quotes (with the original emphasis):

On North Korea:

Pyongyang has not conducted any nuclear-capable missile or nuclear tests in more than a year, has declared its support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and has reversibly dismantled portions of its WMD infrastructure. However, we continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions. North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival, according to official statements and regime-controlled media.

In his oral testimony, Director General Robert Ashley of the DIA said: “The capabilities and threats that existed a year ago are still there.” This directly contradicted Trump’s tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Iran:

We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.

ISIS:

ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses. The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities,such as media production and external operations. ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States. … ISIS remains a terrorist and insurgent threat and will seek to exploit Sunni grievances with Baghdad and societal instability to eventually regain Iraqi territory against Iraqi security forces that are stretched thin.

Climate change:

Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution

Iraq:

Iraq is facing an increasingly disenchanted public. The underlying political and economic factors that facilitated the rise of ISIS persist, and Iraqi Shia militias’ attempts to further entrench their role in the state increase the threat to US personnel.

I’ll give the last word to Alex Ward:

As president, Trump has every right to make foreign policy decisions as he sees fit, and he’s not required to listen to what the US intelligence community tells him. Intelligence is meant to help him and his advisers make the smartest, best-informed decisions possible based on the facts. If Trump chooses to completely disregard those facts and make foreign policy decisions based solely on his gut instincts, that’s his prerogative.

But that doesn’t support his claim that the media willfully mischaracterized what his top spies said. What the intelligence community effectively showed, knowingly or not, is that Trump’s foreign policy isn’t based in reality. Trump’s scapegoating the media, in this case, won’t change that.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The news that I found most amazing this week was the drama of the intelligence chiefs. Tuesday, the heads of the major US intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and directly contradicted many statements by their boss, President Trump. Wednesday, Trump angrily tweeted about how “naive” and “wrong” they were. But by Thursday he was happy again, having convinced himself that the media made up the whole conflict. The hearing had been televised live and the video is still available online, but never mind that. Who are you going to believe: Trump or your lying eyes?

I’ll discuss that in the featured post “Another Week in the Post-Truth Administration”. It should be out shortly.

The weekly summary covers the budget negotiations (mainly by urging you to ignore what everyone else is saying about them), this week’s extreme weather, Governor Northam’s photo, what national emergency declarations are really for, Venezuela, and a few other things. Then I’ll close with video about a strange whistle-language that is still used in the mountains of Turkey. That should be out before noon.