Pestilence and Cure

If I see Trump as a pestilence, I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

– Charles Blow “To Beat Trump, Put Ideals Before Ideas
1-15-2020

This week’s featured post is “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)“.

This week everybody was talking about the impeachment trial

House impeachment managers head over to the Senate.

So it’s official now. The House delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate on Wednesday. Thursday, the senators took an oath to render “impartial justice”. The substance of the trial will start tomorrow.

Fairly soon, the Senate will have to vote on the key question of whether to hear witnesses. Trump blocked the most important witnesses from testifying before the House, but would have a harder time blocking them from the Senate, if the Senate chooses to subpoena them. Mitch McConnell is against witnesses, because the less the public learns about this case, the better for Trump.

How this vote will go is still not clear. All 47 Democrats will probably want to hear witnesses. USA Today picks out Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Lamar Alexander as the most likely Republicans to vote for witnesses. I’d love to hear how other Republicans facing tough re-elections — Cory Gardner of Colorado comes to mind — will try to spin this. They have to realize that stuff is going to come out anyway. (John Bolton is writing a book, after all.) How will a decision to participate in Trump’s cover-up look when it does?


It’s striking how much of the closing message of Trump’s defenders is just simple intimidation. Here’s Rand Paul’s threat to Republican incumbents who might be thinking of taking their oath seriously:

Paul says if four or more of his GOP colleagues join with Democrats to entertain new witness testimony, he will make the Senate vote on subpoenaing the president’s preferred witnesses, including Hunter Biden and the whistleblower who revealed the Ukraine scandal — polarizing picks who moderate Republicans aren’t eager to call. So he has a simple message for his party: end the trial before witnesses are called.

“If you vote against Hunter Biden, you’re voting to lose your election, basically. Seriously. That’s what it is,” Paul said during an interview in his office on Wednesday. “If you don’t want to vote and you think you’re going to have to vote against Hunter Biden, you should just vote against witnesses, period.”

And Marc Thiessen warns that Hunter Biden could just be the beginning of a parade of witnesses that would lead to the former Vice President himself.

Biden has been shaky under mild questioning during the debates. How would he fare under the withering pressure of legal cross-examination? If he stumbled, or appeared confused, it could expose to voters how old and frail he really is at the very moment they are going to the polls to decide their party’s presidential nominee. Do Democrats really want to put Biden through that, especially since they know that the president is going to be acquitted?

And for what? Democrats have no idea what Bolton will say under oath. His testimony may be exculpatory for the president, in which case they will have opened the Pandora’s box of witness testimony for nothing. So, call your witnesses, Sen. Schumer. They may very well pose a greater danger to Biden’s presidential prospects than they do to Donald Trump.

Trump’s defenders can’t credibly argue that he’s innocent, so this is what they’re left with: Do what we say and nobody gets hurt. [BTW: I think the Biden-is-shaky point is off-base. Biden has a lifelong stuttering problem, which can make it hard for him to answer quickly, as you have to do in a debate. As a witness, he could take a moment to compose his answers.]

and the new evidence

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I get suspicious when a bad guy suddenly switches sides and starts telling us exactly what we want to hear. Lev Parnas is under indictment, so it would make sense for him to tell this stuff to his prosecutors to get a plea deal. But it’s not clear what advantage he gets from putting it all out there in public. So I’m listening closely to what Parnas is saying, looking at the corroborating documents he’s providing, and wondering where the trap is.

Nonetheless, I think Tom Malinowski has got it right:

GOP Senators are entitled to be skeptical of Parnas, since he wasn’t under oath. They’re not entitled to be skeptical while refusing to call sworn witnesses who could corroborate or refute him.

That point makes sense across the board. Again and again, Republicans have complained about the evidence House Democrats assembled: The witnesses weren’t always in the center of the action they were describing, few of them talked to Trump directly, and so on. Those are all reasonable things to complain about in the abstract. But it’s unreasonable to complain about those issues when you have the power to resolve them, but you’re refusing to do so.


Another major development this week was that a GAO report came out, saying that Trump’s freezing of the Ukraine aid violated the Impoundment Control Act. So much for the “no laws were broken” defense.


So who is Parnas anyway? He’s a crony of Rudy Giuliani who was working the Ukraine side of Trump’s get-Biden scheme. He did a long interview with Rachel Maddow that broadcast this week, and he’s provided a bunch of text messages and other relevant documents to the House impeachment investigators. Pieces of the Maddow interview are available online, but I haven’t found a complete video or transcript of it yet.

The Hill boils it down to five big points:

  • Trump was ready to withhold all aid from Ukraine if they didn’t announce a Biden investigation.
  • Bill Barr “had to have known everything”.
  • Trump knew exactly what was going on.
  • When Mike Pence cancelled his trip to the Ukraine president’s inauguration, that was part of the pressure campaign.
  • The effort to pressure Ukraine was never about corruption; it was about Biden.

In addition, I was struck by how clear Parnas makes it that Giuliani was operating as Trump’s personal attorney, not as a government official. So far, none of Trump’s defenders has been able to explain why (if this whole scheme was legit) it had to be done outside ordinary channels. To me, the off-the-books nature of things looks like consciousness of guilt.

Why, for example, couldn’t Trump just fire or transfer Ambassador Yovanovitch because he wanted to? Why did she have to be smeared and followed and threatened first?


Another thing that’s striking me: For a long time there, Rudy Giuliani just couldn’t shut up. He was all over TV saying all kinds of crazy things. Since Parnas started talking though, where has Rudy been?


Ben Rhodes asks a more general question:

Can you imagine how many corrupt grifters there are like Parnas circling around Trump’s foreign policy? On Saudi, UAE, Venezuela, China, Russia?

and the Democratic debate

The featured post was inspired by watching Tuesday’s debate, but doesn’t actually say that much about it. Here’s the transcript.

The debate in Des Moines was much like the previous debates, with the difference that there were only six candidates. That meant that each got to speak often enough that I never forgot who was up there. So while the previous debates looked like cattle calls, this one looked like a collection of possible nominees (with the possible exception of Steyer, who I still can’t take seriously). That had to work to the benefit of Amy Klobuchar, who trails the clump of Iowa front-runners (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren), but looked like she belonged in that group.

Any of the front-running four is polling close enough to the top to win, especially considering how bizarre the caucus process is. So I don’t understand how soft all the other candidates were with Biden. Biden is the leader in almost every national poll. He could win Iowa, and if he does, that victory could be the beginning of the bandwagon that he rides to the nomination. This debate was the last chance to take him down before the caucus, so I don’t understand why nobody tried to exploit that opportunity.

So while Biden wasn’t all that sharp in the debate — he almost never is — to me he came off as the winner, because his opponents missed another opportunity to knock him down.


The NYT endorsement came out this morning: a split decision between Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.


The whole Bernie-and-Elizabeth spat has got to be the dumbest story in this debate. Warren claims Sanders told her that a woman couldn’t beat Trump; Sanders denies saying that. It was a one-on-one conversation, so there’s no tie-breaking witness. I have two reactions:

  • So what if he did? Lots of people — most of them women — have told me in private conversations that (after watching what Hillary went through) they doubt that a woman can beat Trump. If Sanders were arguing publicly that people should vote for him rather than Warren because women aren’t electable, that would be terrible, because he’d be trying to cash in on the public’s sexism. But in private it’s a completely legitimate point of strategy for two politicians to discuss. So I think this whole thing should never have become an issue and CNN shouldn’t have asked about it. If Warren is responsible for raising the issue (and she may not have been), she shouldn’t have.
  • I thought Bernie’s response in the debate (“as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it”) was unskillful, because he turned the disagreement into a somebody-must-be-lying issue. I agree with GoodNewsRoundup on Daily Kos, that people can remember conversations differently without either party lying about what was said. So Bernie could have answered: “That’s not what I believe, so I can’t imagine that I would have said something like that. But apparently something I did say gave Elizabeth that impression, so I wish I had caught that misunderstanding at the time.” From there he could have segued into the rest of his answer: “If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination … I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.”

and you also might be interested in …

I’m not all that interested in the British royal family, so I’ve mostly ignored the Harry-and-Meghan-move-to-Canada story. However, BuzzFeed did some interesting research into what might have motivated the move: The article pairs 20 Meghan stories in the British press with directly comparable stories about her sister-in-law Kate Middleton. Again and again, something that was covered positively or indulgently for Kate and William was covered negatively for Meghan and Harry.


Here’s the transcript of a rally Trump held in Wisconsin on Tuesday. It’s common to read isn’t-that-outrageous articles based on specific quotes from Trump rallies. But what strikes me about this rally isn’t any particular part; it’s the impact of reading the whole thing.

If your Dad or Grandpa were this incoherent, the family would need to have a conference and make some decisions. You wouldn’t want him living on his own any more, and probably you’d want someone with him whenever he went out.

BTW, he still says Mexico is going to pay for the wall. “It’s all worked out. Mexico’s paying.” Sad.



The claim that no Americans were injured in the Iranian missile attack on January 8 … let’s just say it wasn’t completely accurate.

and let’s close with something that will blow you away

You might think that since the Netherlands is so flat, Dutch bicycle races wouldn’t be that arduous. However, there is one very Dutch obstacle: the wind. Every year on some very windy day they hold the Dutch Headwind Cycling Championships: 8.5 kilometers straight into a wind that gusted up to 127 kilometers an hour, riding a standard upright single-speed bicycle.

Since I don’t speak Dutch, most of the YouTube postings on the event are unintelligible to me. But Global Cycling News covered it like this, with one word of commentary: “Nutters.”

Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)

By focusing attention on comparatively minor policy differences, the debates are obscuring a broad Democratic consensus that voters need to hear about.


Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend when the Democratic candidate for Congress came through the nearly empty restaurant, shaking the few hands available. After she left, our young waitress came to the table, and I could tell that she had a question unrelated to food. I expected her to ask whether we knew anything about the candidate, but her actual question was much more basic: “Do you know anything about Congress? Is it, like, important?”

That encounter taught me a lesson I have not forgotten: People who pay attention to politics often talk about “low-information voters”, but most of us have no idea just how low-information they are.

Back in 2004, Chris Hayes learned similar lessons from the undecided voters he canvassed in Wisconsin.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn’t name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The “issue” is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It’s what makes up the subheadings on a candidate’s website, it’s what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it’s what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it’s what we always complain we don’t see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. … The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Year after year, elections come out they way they do because people like my waitress or Hayes’ undecideds vote one way or the other or stay home. Those decisions are made on a much simpler level than we usually imagine, and the arguments we find so convincing often miss their targets completely. If such voters are persuaded, it is more likely because of our earnestness or our tone or something we said in the first ten seconds. Or maybe we inadvertently convinced them to vote against our candidate for some similarly tangential reason.

That’s what I was thinking Tuesday as I watched the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus, which will happen February 3. Debates draw out differences, and when candidates share basic goals and values, their differences are often deep in the details of policy. Those policy distinctions — like Medicare for All vs. Medicare for All Who Want It vs. adding a Medicare-like public option to ObamaCare — mean nothing to most low-information voters.

Worse, the squabbling over programmatic details hides the candidates’ vast areas of agreement. The New York Times, justifying its decision to endorse both progressive Elizabeth Warren and moderate Amy Klobuchar this morning, wrote:

The Democratic primary contest is often portrayed as a tussle between moderates and progressives. To some extent that’s true. But when we spent significant time with the leading candidates, the similarity of their platforms on fundamental issues became striking.

I believe that those points of consensus should be the central message of the campaign against Trump. That consensus is the best definition of what it means to be a Democrat, and is a better predictor of what the next Democratic administration will accomplish than any particular candidate’s program — even the winner’s. (In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan had an insurance mandate and Barack Obama’s didn’t. But when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, it had a mandate. So if you voted for Obama over Clinton to avoid a mandate, you failed in your purpose.)

Political wonks are always tempted to dive down into the weeds of policy and argue why Candidate X’s plan is superior to Candidate Y’s. And I understand how those differences can seem terribly significant when you are in the throes of a primary campaign. But I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to be doing when we get rare moments of national attention, as we did Tuesday. What the public needs to hear are the principles that unify Democrats and set them against the current administration, not the fine details of policy that differentiate one Democrat from another.

Charles Blow made a similar point Wednesday morning:

Trump has laid out his vision for America: It is the racial Hunger Games. … The Democratic candidates, too, would be well warned to stick to a vision — a diametrically opposite and dynamically animating vision that will activate and energize the targets of Trump’s aggressions.

If I see Trump as a pestilence I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

Here’s where I stand: If Candidate A’s policies are analytically superior, but Candidate B is the more convincing proponent of the Democratic consensus, I want to vote for B. That’s the difference I’d like to see the debates showcase. That’s not “electability” as it is commonly discussed; it’s who we should want as our spokesperson.

What do I think is in the Democratic consensus? I thought you’d never ask.

1. If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.

If you showed this statement to the 20-odd candidates who have run for the Democratic nomination in this cycle, I firmly believe they would all agree with it.

Their differences are all about how to get there: What is the most efficient way to deliver that much healthcare? How would the country pay for it? What’s the most politically expedient path forward?

Bernie Sanders wants to get there in one fell swoop, with a government insurance plan that eliminates private insurance and is paid for by taxes. Most of the other candidates on the debate stage (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) don’t believe they could pass such a plan, so they want to take a smaller step in the same direction by building on ObamaCare. (Once the public sees how that works and develops confidence in it, take another step.) Elizabeth Warren is somewhere between, proposing a Bernie-like program with a phase-in period.

That’s what they’ve been arguing about. Trump, on the other hand, has sabotaged ObamaCare, tried to repeal it in Congress, and is still backing a lawsuit that would declare it unconstitutional. Despite a lot of rhetoric about “replacing” ObamaCare, he has never released a plan for doing so. The upshot is that if he succeeds in his aims, tens of millions of people will lose health coverage.

2. We can and should do much more to slow down climate change.

President Obama did a number of things to slow down climate change, but Trump has undone almost all of them: Obama joined the Paris Climate Accord; Trump withdrew from it. Obama substantially raised fuel economy standards for cars and trucks; Trump initially froze them at the old levels, then agreed to a minor increase. Trump reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from plants that generate electricity. Trump’s plan to roll back standards on methane emissions is too radical even for some oil companies.

All the Democratic candidates want to do more than Obama did, not less. They disagree about how much more and how fast it can happen.

None of the candidates denies or tries to minimize the significance of the scientific consensus on climate change: It is real. We already are seeing the effects. It is caused primarily by the carbon emissions that happen when we burn fossil fuels. It will reach catastrophic levels if the world does not substantially reduce its carbon emissions.

3. If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.

Trump has reason to crow about the unemployment rate, which is very low right now. (Whether low unemployment is due to any policy of his, or is just the continuation of trends that started under Obama — that’s another debate.) But a lot of the people who have jobs are still not making a wage they can live on.

The federal minimum wage is still $7.25, the same as it was in 2009. The purchasing power (after inflation) of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. (The value of 1968’s $1.60 wage is $12.00 today.) In none of the 50 states is a two-bedroom apartment affordable on a full-time minimum wage.

President Obama tried to raise minimum wage to $9, but couldn’t get Republicans in Congress to go along. All Democratic candidates want a much greater increase. Both Bernie Sanders (the most liberal Democratic candidate) and Joe Biden (one of the least liberal) are calling for $15.

Democrats across the board want to create jobs paying good wages by repairing our country’s roads and bridges, modernizing the electrical grid, and shifting to renewable energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change.

4. The burden of taxes should fall primarily on those best able to bear it.

The benefits of the Trump tax cut went almost entirely to large corporations and the very rich. Despite the promises he often made during the 2016 campaign and repeated early in his administration, the new tax rules particularly favor people like him. In fact, many of the tax breaks that the law preserves or extends seem to be targeted precisely at benefiting Trump himself or his family. (That’s one reason he doesn’t want you to see his tax returns.)

This is part of a long-term trend that has lowered the tax rates paid by the super-rich.

(Sometimes you’ll see an article claiming that the very rich carry more of the tax burden than they used to, but these claims are deceptive: The very rich have seen their incomes go up many times faster than the rest of us. They get a much bigger piece of the pie than they used to, but while their share of the tax burden has gone up somewhat, it has not gone up proportionately.)

Corporations are also carrying a much smaller tax burden than they did in decades past. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy lists 60 corporations that among them made nearly $80 billion in profits, but paid no taxes in 2018 under Trump’s new law.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit (which Republicans thought was an existential crisis when Obama was president, but have since forgotten about) has nearly doubled under Trump — from $665 billion in FY 2017 to a projected $1.1 trillion next year. This comes at a time in the economic cycle when the deficit ought to be going down, because it will rise even further when the next recession comes.

All the major Democratic candidates would reverse most of the Trump tax cuts, and all call for shifting more of the tax burden back to the rich. Elizabeth Warren is the most vocal about this, calling for a 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million. The rest don’t go quite that far, but all  agree that the rich should pay more.

5. If you want to develop your talents through education, money shouldn’t stand in your way.

States used to put big money into their university systems, but they no longer do. As a result, college of any kind has become unreasonably expensive — far more expensive than it was a generation ago. (Until 1970, the University of California charged California residents zero tuition.)

As a result, too many of our young people face a terrible choice: Give up on developing their talents after high school, or take on debts that they may never be able to pay off. Or their parents face the choice: See their children stuck in dead-end jobs, or take all the money they had hoped to retire on and hand it to a university.

Wasted talent isn’t just a personal tragedy, it’s a loss for all of us. If our young people don’t learn 21st-century skills, American businesses will have a harder time finding good people, foreign companies won’t want to open branches here, our economy as a whole will be less prosperous, and the professionals we have to deal with in our personal lives (doctors, accountants, dentists, teachers, etc.) won’t be the best people. There is also a more subtle cost: the loss of the American dream. When only the rich can afford to send their children to college, the upper classes become entrenched; where you are born is where you will stay.

Democratic candidates have a variety of plans to do something about this: Some want to make public colleges free for everyone, or maybe just free for people whose parents aren’t rich. Some want to forgive all student debt, or only part of it. As with healthcare, the difference isn’t in the general principle, it’s in how to bring it about and who will pay for it.

The Trump administration’s priorities are diametrically opposed: They are constantly looking for ways to cut back on student aid or student loans, or to make them harder to pay off. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has consistently shown more interest in for-profit colleges that rip students off than in the students being victimized.

6. America should be a positive example to the rest of the world. When international cooperation is necessary to solve global problems, our country should lead.

We’ve fallen a long way from the “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan used to brag about. These days, if you’re a third-world dictator and you want to torture people or channel government money into your own pocket or use your law enforcement agencies to investigate people who cross you or accuse the press of being “the enemy of the people” or claim a phony emergency to grab power from your legislature, you just point to the United States and quote its president. It’s fine. All the best countries are doing it.

We’re now a country none of the other countries trust, because our word means nothing. Imagine how shocked our loyal allies in Canada were when we raised tariffs because we considered Canada a risk to our national security. Or talk to the Kurds, if you can still find any.

Historically, America has been an idealistic nation. Since World War II, it has led the community of nations towards higher standards of human rights and a freer exchange of ideas and people. The US has been key in setting up regional alliances for mutual security, with NATO being the shining example.

Today, the world faces many problems that no nation can solve on its own; most significantly, climate change, but also terrorism, nuclear proliferation, floods of refugees fleeing wars or climate-change-related catastrophes, and several others. But the Trump administration has chosen to step back from world leadership with a go-it-alone policy. Given our military power and central role in the world economy, no other nation can take our place.

Democrats want the US to be a good citizen of the community of nations, and to rally the nations of the world to confront the unique challenges of this century.

7. Every American should be encouraged to vote, and all votes should count equally.

For the last decade or so, Republicans all over the country have been putting obstacles in the way of people who want to vote, particularly if they are poor, black, HIspanic, or in school. Even if such people do manage to vote, gerrymandering can concentrate them in a small number of districts so that they wind up with fewer representatives in Congress or state legislatures. You can see the result in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans maintain power no matter how the people vote. (In 2018, 54% of Wisconsinites voted for Democratic candidates for the state assembly, but those candidates won only 36% of the seats.)

The first bill Democrats passed when they got control of the House of Representatives last year was House Resolution 1 of 2019: The For the People Act. That law would end gerrymandering, extend voting rights, and set up a program to limit the power of large donors to political campaigns. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

Ultimately, Democrats would also like to get rid of the Electoral College — which allowed Donald Trump to become president even though Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes.

8. All Americans should be equal before the law, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, or any other characteristic that isn’t relevant to the purposes of the law. All citizens should be treated with equal respect by law enforcement.

“Liberty and justice for all” is a key part of our national identity, but we haven’t been doing a good job of delivering it. Race makes a difference at every level of our justice system: Black neighborhoods are more heavily policed, leading to more arrests. Arrested blacks are more likely to be charged with crimes; charged blacks are more likely to be convicted; convicted blacks on average get longer sentences. The result is that a substantial portion of the black male population is in jail. (Laws preventing felons from voting, even after they leave prison, are a major way that minorities are prevented from exercising political power proportionate to their numbers.)

Far too often, black men and women die in encounters with police without ever reaching the justice system.

These problems existed long before Donald Trump took office. But as with climate change, the Obama administration was trying to do something about them, and the Trump administration has undone all that progress. In particular, Trump’s Justice Department has all but stopped oversight of racism in local police departments. Trump himself has actively encouraged police to physically abuse suspects.

Any Democratic candidate for president would get back on the Obama/Holder track of trying to reduce the racism in law enforcement and the legal system.

9. As much as possible, politics should be insulated from the corrupting influence of concentrated wealth.

Briefly, controlling campaign finance looked like a bipartisan issue. Republican Senator John McCain made it a central plank of his first presidential campaign in 2000, and he teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to produce the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002.

But Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have subsequently declared unconstitutional just about any substantive limits on political spending. One of the few remaining options for controlling big-money politics is disclosure (i.e., letting the public know who is financing political ads, rather than letting big-money interests hide behind shell organizations with vacuous names like “Concerned Citizens Against …”), but the Republican Senate has blocked any such legislation.

This is one of the clearest differences between the parties: Republicans want big-money donors to have as much power as possible, while Democrats want to limit the power of money in general, and (to the extent that those limitations prove impractical) enhance the power of small donors.

10. The basic constitutional covenant is still necessary and should be respected: majority rule that respects minority rights, three branches of government that check and balance each other, and an appropriate balance between the public good and individual freedom.

For years, preserving or restoring the Constitution has played a major role in Republican rhetoric, but President Trump has made a mockery of all that. This is one of the major issues in his impeachment, and should be a major issue in the 2020 campaign as well.

The Constitution assigns Congress the “power of the purse”, which means that no money can be spent without Congress’ approval. But when Congress refused to fund Trump’s border wall last year, even after a lengthy government shutdown, he declared a phony “state of emergency” and seized the money from other programs. He also illegally held up money that Congress had appropriated to aid Ukraine.

Congress has a constitutional duty to keep oversight over the executive branch, but Trump has routinely refused to provide subpoenaed documents and witnesses, arguing in court that he has “absolute immunity” against any investigations whatsoever. His legal arguments are absurd, but will serve to delay things in the courts long enough to keep the public from finding out what he’s been doing until after the election.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but he committed an act of war against Iran without consulting Congress.

Again and again, Trump has shown that he admires dictators: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and many others. (The New Yorker’s satirical Borowitz Report says “Ayatollah Mystified That He is the Only Dictator Trump Dislikes“.) That’s because he wants to be one.

In spite of decades of Republican rhetoric, Democrats are now the party that stands for the Constitution.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Of course the big news this week centered on impeachment: The trial in the Senate formally started, we got a bunch of new evidence from Lev Parnas (who I still don’t trust), and the Government Accounting Office officially stated that Trump’s hold on the Ukraine aid was illegal.

What I decided to write about this week, though, was inspired by the Democratic debate on Tuesday — not any particular point made in the debate itself, but the general impression it left: If you were a low-information voter who happened to tune into this event, you would probably not grasp just how many things Democrats agree on, and how sharply that consensus differs from what the Trump administration and Republicans across the country are trying to do. By emphasizing differences, the debate format creates the false impression that the various Democratic candidates represent wildly different points of view.

So I decided to counter that with a piece I’m calling “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)”. That should be out, let’s say, around 10 EST.

The weekly summary will cover the impeachment developments, what the Democrats actually did debate about, and a few other things, before closing with an extremely odd Dutch bicycle race. That should appear sometime after noon.

Ascribed Meanings

There is always a temptation to ascribe a deep, unspoken strategy to Trump’s improvised approach to politics—to find order in the chaos, a signal in the noise. But all of the available evidence suggests that there is no plan at all, that Trump is a deeply incompetent liar who has no idea what he is doing and no respect for the few people around him who do. If there is war with Iran, it will be because of Trump’s incompetence and lies; if there is not, it will be in spite of these things. Coverage that attempts to find the hidden meaning behind his actions only obscures what’s really happening.

– Alex Shephard “What the Media is Getting Wrong about Soleimani’s Killing
The New Republic 1-7-2020

This week’s featured post is a review of how every president since FDR has talked about war: “Remember Normal Presidents?

This week everybody was talking about Iran

This week’s news has been dominated by the multiple incoherent stories the Trump administration has been telling about the killing of Soleimani.

One thing just about everybody in this country agrees on is that Soleimani was a bad guy. (Though Trump lies about this: “The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy“. If anybody has heard a single major voice in either the media or the Democratic leadership imply such a thing, mention it in the comments. I don’t know of any.) However, he was an Iranian official carrying out Iranian policy. Blaming him personally for every attack Iran has supported seems misguided. He was a replaceable individual who has been replaced; the Quds Force has a new commander, who presumably is following the same policy directives.


There has been much back-and-forth about whether Soleimani was killed to prevent an “imminent” attack, or just because he was evil. It’s important to understand why this point keeps coming up, because Trump keeps trying to have it both ways: He claims that an attack was imminent, but if challenged too hard backs off tobut it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

If Soleimani’s assassination wasn’t intended to break up an attack that was in progress and about to happen — and it’s hard to see how that could be; I mean, Soleimani wasn’t going to drive a truck bomb himself — then it’s arguable that Trump had no legal authority to order it. If, instead, he just decided that Soleimani was a bad guy and Iran had been getting away with too much, he should have sought authorization from Congress. “his horrible past” is an argument that Trump could have offered to Congress, but it’s not a justification now.

At the very least, Trump had an obligation to inform the Gang of Eight that the attack was happening.

This disrespect for Congress is why Republican Senator Mike Lee blew his stack after the classified briefing of the Senate by the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the heads of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs.

He also fumed that officials refused to acknowledge any “hypothetical” situations in which they would come to Congress for authorization for future military hostilities against Iran.

It’s fairly apparent that the administration is just making up the “imminent attack” argument, and dodging the legal authority issue. The briefing showed profound arrogance; the briefers walked away after 75 minutes with questions unanswered.

Trump himself has been lying outrageously, for example claiming that Soleimani was planning attacks on four US embassies. Apparently, though, the Secretary of Defense knew nothing about this, and the embassies in question were never notified that they faced an imminent threat.


When no one was killed in Iran’s reprisal strike against the Iraqi base where the Soleimani attack originated, many Trumpists declared the exchange a “win” for the US: We killed a major person on their side and they killed nobody on our side.

Ben Rhodes demonstrates how an adult looks at this: according to the results, not the body count.

Iran abandoned nuclear deal limits. Iraq wants us out. Counter ISIS mission is suspended. We don’t know what asymmetric attacks could come from Iran. Yet I see Trump supporters celebrating a “win”. What are we winning?

Is there any way in which Americans or our allies are safer now than before the assassination? Was some strategic purpose achieved?


Nobody really knows whether Iran intended to kill Americans or not in its missile strike. Of course Iran would say that the result was intended.


Iraq’s parliament voted unanimously that the prime minister should ask our 5200 troops to leave the country, and apparently the PM has asked Secretary of State Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to negotiate the withdrawal. But we’re not going to do that. Here’s how a State Department spokesperson put it:

Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners. At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.

That makes us sound more like an occupying power than an ally. Any Iraqi militia that kills American troops can now claim that it is repelling invaders.

The Trump administration is also making economic threats against our “ally” Iraq if it insists on our troops leaving:

The Trump administration this week warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if Baghdad expels American troops from the region, Iraqi officials told The Wall Street Journal.


One of the week’s weirder stories was about a letter that somehow got shared with the Iraqi military.

The document in question was an unsigned draft of a memo from the US Command in Baghdad notifying the Iraqi government that some US forces in the country would be repositioned. It also seemed to suggest a removal of American forces from the country, prompting an immediate wave of questions, particularly after US officials in Baghdad said the letter was authentic but could not confirm whether it indicated a troop withdrawal.

You need to be a comedian, like Trevor Noah, to respond to this appropriately.

These people control nuclear weapons and they can’t even handle Microsoft Outlook.


If you want to put it all in perspective, again, it helps to be a comedian. Like Seth Meyers.


One of the points in the featured post is that Trump is not even trying to talk to the people who didn’t vote for him. That point was also made by Anderson Cooper in a Ridiculist segment about the 301 days that have passed since the last White House press briefing.

If you’re wondering “Who’s Stephanie Grisham?” you’re probably not a regular Fox News viewer, because that channel is seemingly the one place she feels safe enough to regularly appear.

… If a president were to escalate the potential danger to U.S. interests overseas by killing a high-ranking Iranian general, you might think the White House press secretary would head to the podium to keep the country and the world abreast of what’s going on, to try to fill in some gaps between the President’s Twitter threats. But that doesn’t happen any more.

Remember CJ on The West Wing? Imagine her going most of a year without filling the podium in the briefing room.

and impeachment

Nancy Pelosi says the articles of impeachment will go to the Senate soon, probably this week. The debate has begun about what, if anything, was accomplished by the delay. In my mind, it was important to put at least a little distance between the House and Senate processes, so that even low-information voters realize that the Senate isn’t going to hear any witnesses of its own, even though it could. If the case could still be pending when Trump gives his State of the Union address on February 4, that would be a bonus.

and Iowa

The Iowa caucuses are February 3, or three weeks from today. (Yes, they happen on a Monday. Every time.) The last Democratic debate before the caucuses happens tomorrow. Only six candidates qualified: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Steyer, and Warren.

The RCP polling average shows the top four bunched up. Sanders 21.3%, Buttigieg 21.0, Biden 17.7, Warren 17.0. Because the caucus process yields a much lower turnout than a primary would, and because there are complex rules about minor candidates’ supporters switching their votes, polls often do a bad job of predicting the outcome. So it would not really be an upset if any of those four won.

I would say that the front-runner is whoever the other candidates decide to attack in the debate. And if either Steyer or Klobuchar decides to go kamikaze and relentlessly attack one of the top four, that candidate probably won’t win. I’m not predicting that, but the possibility demonstrates how unpredictable the process is at this point.

and you also might be interested in …

The planet continues to heat up:

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) announces today that 2019 was the fifth in a series of exceptionally warm years and the second warmest year globally ever recorded.


Maybe the secret to getting infrequent voters to the polls is to have their friends ask them.


5G will arrive in 2020, but it won’t live up to the hype.


Australia is still on fire.


The cancer death rate is down 29% between 1991 and 2017, with a 2.2% drop in 2017, the most recent year where statistics are available. Lung cancer accounts for much of the decline; researchers credit decreased smoking, as well as improvements in treatment.

I hate tie every story to Trump, but he has a way of inserting himself, sort of like Rhupert the Ostrich photobombing classic paintings. In this case, Trump took credit for the long-term trend whose most recent data is from the same year he took office: “A lot of good news coming out of this Administration.”


The justification for holding asylum seekers in concentration camps is that they won’t show up for their hearings, and instead will just vanish into the general immigrant population. At a rally last January, Trump claimed that only 2% show up “And those people, you almost don’t want, because they cannot be very smart.”

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University presents the actual numbers:

With rare exception, asylum seekers whose cases were decided in FY 2019 also showed up for every court hearing. This was true even though four out of five immigrants were not detained or had been previously released from ICE custody. In fact, among non-detained asylum seekers, 99 out of 100 (98.7%) attended all their court hearings.


Conservative rhetoric lauds local control and disparages rule by distant politicians and bureaucrats — except when localities want to protect the environment or gay rights or something. In Florida, Coral Gables outlawed plastic bags at stores and styrofoam containers at restaurants — and lost a lawsuit from a trade organization representing the big retail chains. State law doesn’t allow “regulation of the use of sale of polystyrene products by local governments.” Take that, small government.

Republicans are the party of big corporations, not local control. When WalMart can get what it wants from the state legislature, why let city councils screw that up?


Remember the whole pseudo-scandal about the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One?

A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results, and current and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.

That’s a similar result to the State Department’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. So if you decided not to vote for Hillary because you figured there had to be fire somewhere under all that smoke — no, there wasn’t. You were conned.

Media Matters’ Matt Gertz traces the Uranium One story back to its source: Clinton Cash, a hit job written by Peter Schweitzer and pushed by Steve Bannon. A subsequent Schweitzer book, Secret Empires, is a source of much of the bogus reporting about Hunter Biden. Gertz comments on Schweitzer’s new book, Profiles in Corruption, which reportedly will target not just Biden but also “Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.”

Journalists should consider this final and inevitable collapse of Schweizer’s bogus claims as they decide whether and how to cover his forthcoming book, which will reportedly target the purported corruption of several Democratic presidential candidates.

and let’s close with something wild and woolly

I never thought of wool as a medium for animation, but I guess it is.

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.


It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Like a lot of the media, I struggle with how to avoid normalizing Trump’s behavior. He’s been behaving this way consistently for three years, so on that time scale whatever he’s doing today is normal; it’s what we’ve come to expect from him. And yet, I think it’s important never to lose sight of just how abnormal Trump’s behavior is: Presidents do not act this way, and we hope they will never act this way again after he leaves office.

His recent behavior regarding Iran — not just the Soleimani assassination itself, but the way he and his administration have presented it — has been extremely unpresidential: self-aggrandizing, partisan, and disrespectful to Congress, to our allies, to the previous administration, and to any American who was not part of the 46% who voted for him. But after three years of similar behavior, how can I express the abnormality of it all?

This week I decided to take a history tour to remind us all what “presidential” has meant until now. I went back to FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor, and looked at the subsequent history of presidents talking to the nation about major military moves: JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech, Eisenhower announcing the Korean armistice, George W. Bush telling us that our Air Force had started bombing Afghanistan, Barack Obama announcing that Osama bin Laden was dead, and several others. (I found examples from every modern president but Ford.) Those speeches all demonstrate a particular tone that defines “presidential” and exemplify an attitude that we have come to expect from our leaders.

Until now. Trump is such an abrupt departure from the established pattern that the differences stand out immediately. (LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin speech, for example, was just a few months before the 1964 election, but Johnson is this non-partisan: “Just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.” Imagine Trump reaching out for support to some Democratic leader, and mentioning that fact to the public.) When we call him “unpresidential”, it’s not just an insult; it’s an objective observation.

Anyway, that post — currently titled “Remember Normal Presidents?” — should be out around 11 EST. The weekly summary, which will cover the more immediate Iran news, impeachment, tomorrow’s Democratic debate, and a number of other things before closing with some amazing wool-based animation, should be out between noon and 1.

Realizations

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.

Executive Order 12333 (1981)

Of course you realize, this means war.

Bugs Bunny

This week’s featured post is “Is It War Yet?

This week everybody was talking about conflict with Iran

Many aspects of the situation are covered in the featured post.

Here are a couple of things I didn’t get around to mentioning: A key feature of both Iraq wars is that we had allies, like Bush’s famous “coalition of the willing”. But we’re pretty much without allies here. There are three main reasons for this:

On the war crimes issue, Chris Hayes points out that it shouldn’t surprise anybody.

The President of the United States ran on a pro-war-crimes platform, explicitly. He likes war crimes and thinks they are good. He’s been very clear about this.

and 2020

Ever since the Electoral College put Trump in office, the number 2020 has taken on mythic significance. It’s the time of hope, of dread, of comeuppance, of the opportunity to escape from this national nightmare, and so on.

Now, suddenly, it’s a year. It’s a number we write on our checks. Seeing “2020” staring back at us from our calendars is like hearing the conductor announce that the train has stopped in Narnia or Mordor.

Who thought we’d actually get here?

So now that we’ve arrived in this portentous year, it’s time to take stock of the presidential race. The Iowa caucuses are less than a month away now, and things happen quickly after that. By the time California votes on March 3, some candidate might have the Democratic nomination in the bag.

At the moment that candidate looks like Joe Biden, though there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Individual polls have been volatile, but the most striking thing about the long-term trends has been how steady they are. On January 1, 2019, the RealClearPolitics polling average for Democratic candidates nationwide had Biden at 27.0%, Sanders at 17.0, and Beto O’Rourke at around 9%.

As of yesterday, the RCP averages were Biden 29.4%, Sanders 19.4%, Warren 14.8%, Buttigieg 7.9%, Bloomberg 5.8% and nobody else over 5%.

The main development of 2019 was that a lot of minor candidates got eliminated: Beto is long gone, and so are Kamala Harris and Julian Castro. In fact, the only candidate of color left in the race is Cory Booker, who the RCP has at 2.3%. A bunch of interchangeable white male moderates entered the race hoping to emerge as Biden faltered, but none of them got anywhere. Some have dropped out and some are still in the race, but I have trouble remembering which is which. (I watched Senator Bennet get interviewed by Chris Hayes a week or so ago, and my wife asked “Who is that guy?” Currently, Bloomberg and Klobuchar are the moderate-establishment hopes if something happens to Biden.) Warren and Buttigieg have gained, though Warren’s boom may be over; she briefly led the pack in October before falling back to third.

The most notable developments in the Democratic race during 2019 were the ones that could have happened, but didn’t: Some candidate of color could have broken out, challenging Biden’s hold over the black vote the way that Obama challenged Clinton in 2008. Or Biden might have taken off and become the inevitable nominee by now.

As was true a year ago, the Democratic electorate is divided between moderates and progressives. They represent not just two governing philosophies, but two approaches to beating Trump: Moderates hope to win the way that Democrats took the House in 2018, by flipping educated suburbanites who used to vote Republican. Progressives hope to win by exciting young voters and poor voters whose non-appearance at the polls was the main difference between Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016.

That argument is ongoing, and no candidate has managed to bridge the gap the way Obama did in 2008. So the most serious question in the race right now is whether (since there appears to be no compromise candidate) Democrats can stay united after one side wins and the other loses. My opinion: Either a moderate or a progressive can beat Trump if the party unites behind him or her. But neither can if the losing side demonizes the nominee to the point that a significant number of their voters stay home in November. Whether you see yourself as moderate or progressive, I urge you to keep that in mind whenever you’re tempted to pass on dubious information about candidates in the other faction.

On the other side of the electorate, not much has happened to Trump’s approval rating. On January 1, 2019, 52.2% of the country disapproved of Trump’s job performance. The most recent number is 52.3%. (It’s too soon to tell whether the growing conflict with Iran will affect it one way or the other.)

and Australia’s wildfires

It’s hard to grasp the extent of the fires Australia has been having since September, but Interesting Engineering provides some comparisons. The area affected by smoke, if moved to the US, would stretch from San Diego to Minneapolis. The burnt area is roughly the size of Belgium, or just a little smaller than Ireland.

Canberra’s 340 rating on the air quality index is double that of famously polluted Beijing. The Parliament House looks like this:

Australia is in many ways a microcosm of the rest of the world. It is suffering from climate change, but refusing to do anything about it. Volunteer firefighter Jennifer Mills writes:

Sadly, the fires are also an illustration of the principle that while a nation might share the same facts, its people can still refuse to share a reality. [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison likes to note that Australia produces just 1.3 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, and we have regularly sided with other big, fossil fuel-dependent nations to stymie global climate negotiations. At December’s climate talks in Madrid, we came under fire for attempting to fiddle with the books to hide increased emissions. Australia is not just dragging its feet on climate change; it is actively making things worse. Internationally, there is a sense that we are getting what we deserve.

and you also might be interested in …

Three were killed and two more injured in an attack on an American military base in Kenya. The attack was attributed to al Shabab, a Islamist group associated with al Qaeda. It’s a Sunni group and Iran is Shia, so there’s probably no connection to the Soleimani assassination.


Trump may have blocked congressional subpoenas, but a number of impeachment-related emails have been revealed through the Freedom of Information Act. Just Security obtained a number of emails that show Pentagon officials worrying about the legality of withholding military aid that Congress had authorized for Ukraine. OMB’s Mike Duffy cited “Clear direction from POTUS” as the reason to hold up the aid.

Duffy is one of the witnesses Democrats would like to call in Trump’s impeachment trial, but Mitch McConnell doesn’t want any witnesses to testify.


The Washington Post collects reactions from people who watched the movie Cats while on drugs. (The reactions of people not on drugs are almost universally negative.)

It was unclear, on balance, whether getting high made “Cats” better, or much, much worse. Certainly, it seemed to raise the emotional stakes.


When Vladimir Putin faced the two-term limit on Russia’s presidency, he backed a stooge who would name him prime minister. Trumpists seem to be picturing something similar.

In a poll of 2024 possibilities, 40% of Republicans picked Mike Pence, but Donald Jr. and Ivanka were second and fourth, between them garnering 45%. Nikki Haley was third at 26%.

and let’s close with a drink that is out of this world

The Yoda-rita.

Is It War Yet?

As conflict with Iran escalates, what a luxury a trustworthy president would be.


In the early morning hours Friday (local time), a US drone attack killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Soleimani was in a convoy leaving the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the body that oversees Iraq’s myriad militia factions, was also killed in the strike.

Escalating US/Iran conflict. Soleimani’s assassination takes place in the middle of a tangled mess: Iran/US relations have been in a state of increasing conflict since May, 2018, when President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement the Obama administration had negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program, replacing it with a campaign of “maximum pressure” to force more concessions from the Iranians. So far, those concessions have not materialized. Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on its nuclear programs. In the NYT’s words, the decision “re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago”.

More immediately, a rocket attack near Kirkuk by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia killed an American contractor a week ago; the US retaliated with an airstrike on a militia base that killed 25; and pro-Iranian protesters then mobbed the US embassy in Baghdad. So now we’ve killed a major figure in the Iranian military, together with an Iraqi militia leader.

Iraq. Iraq also has been in political turmoil: Massive protests that began in October have resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who nonetheless remains in office because Iraq’s political leaders haven’t been able to settle on a replacement. So while he retains the formal powers of his office, his ability to lead the country is questionable.

The protests against the Iraqi government (which are not related to the protests at the US embassy) had been seeking an end to corruption and foreign influence, including both Iranian and US influence. In response to Friday’s drone attack (which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “an outrageous breach to Iraqi sovereignty“), the Iraqi parliament passed a bill instructing the government to ask the United States to withdraw all military forces from Iraq. Time described this vote as “symbolic” because “it sets no timetable for withdrawal and is subject to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.”

The Washington Post points out that the legal basis for an American presence in Iraq is not that solid. Most deployments are defined by a formal Status of Forces agreement, but this one isn’t.

“The current U.S. military presence is based of an exchange of letters at the executive level,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the US Institute of Peace who previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

So the Prime Minister could revoke that agreement “with the stroke of a pen”.

President Trump sounded more like an occupier than an ally when he responded Sunday night.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters. … Mr Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to depart on an unfriendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It’s like he thinks he holds the mortgage on Iraq and is threatening to repossess.

Dubious justifications. The administration claims that Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces (almost certainly true) and that his death short-circuited those plans (highly unlikely). Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Soleimani’s death “saved American lives”.

The problem I have with that statement is that Trump and Pompeo have spent the last three years lying to us about more-or-less everything. This is a moment when Americans need to be able to trust their leaders, and we just can’t; these leaders have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

For example, Vice President Pence’s attempt to link Soleimani to 9/11 is just a lie. Some of the 9/11 perpetrators traveled through Iran on their way to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence Iran knew what they were up to, and nothing that connects their passage to Soleimani personally.

The Washington Post gives reasons to doubt Pompeo as well:

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.

Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, discounts claims that Soleimani’s death cripples Iran’s ability to strike US targets.

The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, indicates a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard. …

In my 10 years in Iran researching the Revolutionary Guards and their depiction in Iranian media, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership [developed during the Iran/Iraq War]: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.

Slighting Congress, insulting Democrats. And then there’s the US side of the mess: Unlike major military actions by previous administrations, this one happened without official notice to the Gang of Eight in Congress. (That’s the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, minority leaders of both houses, and the chair and ranking opposition member of the intelligence committees in both houses.) Apparently, some Republicans members of Congress knew about the attack in advance, but no Democrats.

Trump added insult to injury by retweeting Dinesh D’Souza: “Neither were the Iranians [given advance notice], and for pretty much the same reason.” Democrats in the Gang of Eight have done nothing to deserve such an accusation of disloyalty; there is no example of them leaking or otherwise misusing prior knowledge of an American strike.

The administration complied with the letter of the War Powers Act by officially notifying Congress on Saturday. Whatever justification the classified memo gave, Nancy Pelosi was not impressed:

This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran. The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.

Iranian reaction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh retaliation“, and The Atlantic lists a number of options:

all-out conflict by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world.

Others have suggested cyber attacks.

Whatever retaliation Iran chooses is likely to be very popular with the Iranians people. Huge and angry crowds showed up when Soleimani’s body was returned to Tehran.

Strategy? Members of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported the assassination by pointing out that Soleimani was undeniably a bad guy from the US point of view: He masterminded numerous operations that killed Americans.

So far I’ve mostly been summarizing facts, but now I’ll state an opinion: One thing we should have learned from the Bush administration’s War on Terror is that simply killing bad guys is not a viable strategy. Are we going to kill all the bad guys in the world? As Seth Moulton (coincidentally, my congressman) put it: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create.”

I don’t want to claim more expertise than I have, so I’m not making any predictions. (Some pundits even see this assassination as a possible prelude to negotiations. But the Brookings’ Institution’s Suzanne Maloney says “Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.”) What I want to emphasize, though, is the uncertainty: Trump has sharply escalated the simmering conflict with Iran. If Iran escalates further, what happens? How far is he prepared to go? [1]

I wish I believed that people who understand Iran far better than I do had thought all this through, and had a larger strategy. That strategy might eventually go to hell, as our plan for the Iraq invasion did, but at least it would have a chance. [2]

I don’t see how I can have even that amount of confidence, though. Trump himself is anything but a strategic thinker, and he seems to have stopped listening to anyone else. Chances are excellent that killing Soleimani just sounded good in the moment, and that he didn’t think more than a few hours ahead.

That’s certainly what the NYT’s account of the administration’s decision process implies:

In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. …

After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

It’s entirely possible that no one but Trump thought this was a good idea.

American law. Then there are the legal issues. At what point does action against Iran bring the War Powers Act into play? Whatever you might think of the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003, each was preceded by a thoughtful debate in Congress. So far there was been nothing of the sort regarding Iran. We seem headed towards a scenario where Congressional debate (if we have one at all) will take place while the war is ongoing.

Also: Assassinations of foreign leaders were banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1975 and revised by President Reagan in 1981. The 1981 order is unequivocal:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination

When the Obama administration was going after Osama bin Laden, it tried to make a distinction between assassinations and “targeted killings”. That distinction looked suspect at the time, and looks even worse now that it’s being applied to top officials of foreign governments. If killing Soleimani wasn’t an assassination, it’s hard to imagine what the assassination ban would cover.

Partisan politics. Finally, there’s the wag-the-dog interpretation: Maybe the attack was never intended to be an effective response to Iran; perhaps it’s entirely about distracting the public from Trump’s pending impeachment trial, and kicking off his 2020 campaign. The “othering” of congressional Democrats (treating them as equivalent to or sympathetic with the Iranians) fits that interpretation.

“This your first reelection campaign, kid?”

It would be nice to believe that the wag-the-dog hypothesis just stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals like me imagine the worst and then assign those motives to Trump, when in fact no American president would risk a major war just for domestic political advantage. But again, how can I have that confidence, given the behavior we’ve seen so far? Isn’t Trump’s willingness to sacrifice the public good for personal benefit exactly what he’s been impeached for? Can anyone give a countervailing example of Trump foregoing personal advantage to do the right thing for the nation?

Projection. One argument in favor of wag-the-dog is that Trump accused President Obama of planning to do it.

In order to get elected, will start a war with Iran.

As CNN’s John Avlon observed in September:

Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.

In other words, Trump regularly accuses his opponents of things that he does himself, or that he would do in their place. His most-repeated insults are ones that apply more accurately to himself than to his opponents:

The rest of the top five insults [after “fake”]? “Failed” (or “failing”), which he has applied on 205 occasions, mostly to the Times. “Dishonest” (or “dishonesty”), used 149 times. (Some observers will no doubt consider it ironic that Trump has referred to 35 other entities as dishonest.) Then “weak,” used 94 times, followed by “lying” or “liar,” which he has used 68 times.

So it’s not much of a stretch to reach this conclusion: If he thought wagging the dog in Iran made sense for Obama’s re-election in 2012, quite likely he has considered it for his own reelection in 2020. Maybe he sees it as a bonus for something he’d do anyway, or maybe it’s his prime motive.


[1] Saturday, Trump tweeted about a list of 52 Iranian targets “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” that the US could strike if Iran retaliates for Friday’s assassination. Those sites have not be identified (and, given Trump’s history, I have to wonder if the list even exists), but intentionally attacking cultural sites is a violation of international law.

Sunday night he doubled down on that threat, saying

They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

Contradicting the President, Secretary of State Pompeo said Sunday that “We’ll behave lawfully.” Who should we believe?

[2] The importance of strategy is illustrated by this quote from George Kennan’s 1951 classic American Diplomacy.

Both [world] wars were fought, really, with a view to changing Germany. … Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe … in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it’s pretty hard to discern.

A similar point could be made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the overthrow of the Shah, America saw a powerful Sunni Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran’s Shia theocracy. We have since fought two wars to remake Iraq, and ostensibly won them both. And now here we are, with no regional counterweight to Iran.

If we now fight a war with Iran, what objective will we be hoping to achieve? If we win, how will Americans of 2030 be better off?

The Monday Morning Teaser

Never a dull moment. I had thought the turn of the New Year would provide a good opportunity to reset the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, which I’ve been trying not to obsess over. (Whoever the Democrats nominate, I will vote for him or her against Trump, whom I regard as a threat to the survival of American democracy. I also expect that a Democratic administration, whoever heads it, will run into the limits of Congress. So, unlike many of this blog’s commenters, I don’t expect life under a Biden administration to be all that different from life under a Sanders administration or an any-other-Democrat administration. But any of them would be a huge relief after Trump.)

Or maybe there’d be new developments in the impeachment story, which I’ve also been trying (less successfully) to avoid obsessing over. (And new revelations have added a few bricks to the case against Trump.)

But no. Suddenly the prospect of war with Iran is front and center, and it’s hard to think about anything else. The story tends to fragment; as soon as you pick up one piece, you realize there’s another piece you need to consider: What’s going on between the US and Iran? Or between the US and Iraq? Or the administration and Congress? Or the administration and the law? Or within the administration itself? Maybe we should be worrying about what Iranian cultural sites might be on Trump’s list of 52 targets, or maybe we should question whether such a list even exists anywhere but in Trump’s imagination. Maybe the life-and-death reality of the situation is just a sideshow, and the real motive is to boost Trump’s 2020 campaign. Or not.

Anyway, this week’s featured post “Is it War Yet?” (which should be out soon) will try to sort all that out, to the extent that such a project is possible given the overall confusion and possible dishonesty.

The weekly summary will say a little about the state of the 2020 presidential race and impeachment, as well as the Australian wildfires and a few other things, before closing with the cutest mixed drink I’ve seen in a long time. That should be out before noon.

Trends

Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

– George Orwell

This week’s featured posts are “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline” and “Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today“.

This week there was nothing much to say about impeachment

The House has passed articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without sending them to the Senate. So officially, nothing happened this week.

Nancy Pelosi wants to get a commitment from Mitch McConnell that the Senate will hold a real trial, with witnesses, including the big ones the House wasn’t able to get to testify: Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton. McConnell knows that more (and more impressive) testimony will only make it harder for Republican senators (especially the ones facing tough re-election fights in 2020) to ignore the facts and vote to acquit their party’s president. So he’d like to make this process go away with as few headlines as possible.

Pelosi only has two pieces of leverage: She can delay by not delivering the articles, and the public agrees with her about witnesses. She needs four Republican senators to surrender to some combination of public opinion and their consciences. I’m not predicting that, but it’s within the realm of possibility.


Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she was “disturbed” by McConnell’s willingness to work hand-in-glove with the White House on impeachment. But whether her disturbance translates into any actual votes — either on process or substance — remains to be seen. Other Republican senators have either been full-throated Trump partisans or have stayed quiet.


The one substantive development in the impeachment case tightened the timeline of Trump’s Ukraine shakedown:

About 90 minutes after President Trump held a controversial telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in July, the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon to suspend all military aid that Congress had allocated to Ukraine, according to emails released by the Pentagon late Friday.

but there were two acts of religious violence

Five were wounded in a knife attack during a Hanukkah celebration in the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York. Presumably the motive has something to do with anti-Semitism, but there’s been no official statement.

Three people, including the attacker, were killed in a shooting at a church in White Settlement, Texas. Two members of the church’s security team shot the gunman. It’s easy to guess both the pro-gun and anti-gun versions of this story: “Thank God somebody at the church had a gun to stop the attack.” and “That’s how gun-crazy our culture has gotten: Our churches are like the OK Corral.”

and I’m still trying to figure out “religious liberty”

I’ve often been critical of the way the Christian Right has co-opted the concept of “religious liberty”. (Going back to my 2013 article “Religious Freedom means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“).

Decades ago, the principle of religious liberty prevented the abuse of religious minorities by the more powerful religions. (You can’t, for example, require employees to work on Saturday as a way to avoid hiring Jews. You can’t ban new steeples in order to keep a Mormon temple out of your town.) Now “religious liberty” means that the majority religion is free to throw its weight around, which is more-or-less the opposite of what it used to mean.

But that’s my jaundiced outsider’s view. So it’s worthwhile to consider the insider’s view that conservative WaPo columnist Hugh Hewitt presents in “Evangelicals should thank Trump for protecting their religious liberty“. Hewitt uses six Supreme Court cases since 2014 to “illustrate the stakes” of what he sees as the liberal assault on religious liberty.

Looking at Hewitt’s list, though, I don’t see embattled Christians just trying to practice their faith. I see the religious right’s aggression against the rest of us:

  • Hobby Lobby, where the Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s Christian beliefs trump the right of employees to make their own healthcare choices.
  • Greece v Galloway, which established a town council’s right to begin its meetings with sectarian prayers. (My take in that week’s summary: “If you’re in the majority and you want to lord it over the minority, the Court thinks you should dot your i‘s and cross your t‘s first, but otherwise, go ahead.”)
  • Trinity Lutheran v Comer, which allows public money to be spent on religious institutions.
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop, where the issue is whether Christian businesses can violate discrimination laws.
  • Becerra. Crisis pregnancy centers run by religious groups don’t have to tell women about the state services available to them, and unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers don’t have tell anyone that they’re unlicensed.
  • American Legion. Public money can be spent to maintain Christian religious symbols.

One thing I have never seen in these religious-right cases is a clear explanation of how the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of “religious liberty” protects anyone other than conservative Christians. In general, phrasing rights in terms of religion implies that religious people have special rights that don’t apply to people with secular motivations.

and you also might be interested in …

Trump retweeted an apparent outing of the whistleblower Friday night. This appears to be a violation of the law protecting whistleblowers, but it’s Trump. What’s new about him breaking the law?


The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is making a push into what was formerly rebel-held territory in the northwestern Idlib region. The Washington Post says 250,000 people have fled in just the last two weeks.


Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs Democracy (which I reviewed in UU World) draws a lesson from the growing extremism of the Hindu nationalist Modi government in India: authoritarian populist regimes get worse in their second terms.

As we’ve seen in countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, populist leaders are at first hamstrung in their ability to concentrate power in their own hands. Many key institutions, including courts and electoral commissions, are still dominated by independent-minded professionals who do not owe their appointment to the new regime. Media outlets are still able and willing to report on scandals, forcing the government to tread somewhat carefully.

Once these governments win reelection, these constraints begin to fall away. As the independent-minded judges and civil servants depart, populist leaders feel emboldened to pursue their illiberal dreams.


Saudi Arabia has finished accounting for the murder of Virginia resident and WaPo contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Five people were sentenced to death, but justice stayed far away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered the murder.

The claim by the Saudi prosecutors, who report directly to the royal court, that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in a “spur of the moment” decision defies all the evidence that points to a premeditated extrajudicial assassination — the bone saw the assailants brought along, the gruesome chitchat taped by Turkish intelligence, the Khashoggi look-alike who was filmed walking out of the consulate after the killing.

When Trump claims that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and get away with it, you have to remember that some of his biggest allies on the world stage literally do such things.


Trump’s pardon of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher looks worse and worse the more we find out. The NYT got hold of videos of the testimony from Gallagher’s fellow SEALs.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.


Local newspapers are getting thinner across the country, and many areas have essentially no local news coverage. In many towns, something calling itself a local paper survives, but it is owned by a distant conglomerate with little local presence.

I have to wonder if we’ll soon see an uptick in small-government corruption, or if maybe it’s already happening but going unreported. It’s easy to get away something if nobody’s covering town councils and other public bodies. And in cities with just one major news source (i.e., most of them) the publisher may just be one more party who needs to be cut in on the deal.


Climate change in a nutshell: 2019 is going to be Alaska’s warmest year on record, but it’s ending with a dangerous cold snap. Temperatures of -60 F and colder have been recorded.

and let’s close with something cute

It’s a week (and a decade) that calls for puppy pictures. I have a particular weakness for huskies, but the link includes many breeds.