Free to Dominate, Free to Control

Roosevelt’s four freedoms were the building blocks of a humane society — a social democratic aspiration for egalitarians then and now. These Republican freedoms are also building blocks not of a humane society but of a rigid and hierarchical one, in which you can either dominate or be dominated.

– Jamelle Bouie, “The Four Freedoms, according to Republicans

This week’s featured posts are “Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations” and “How I Evaluate Sources“.

But if you only read one essay this week, it should be the Jamelle Bouie column quoted above. He looks at the agenda that is passing in red-state legislatures and synthesizes four Republican “freedoms”:

  • Freedom to control, manifested in state control of women’s uteruses,
  • Freedom to exploit, represented by the rollback of child labor laws,
  • Freedom to censor, exemplified by book banning and preventing schools and universities from teaching about systemic racism and other forms of oppression,
  • Freedom to menace, demonstrated by laws allowing guns to be carried anywhere, openly or under concealment, and used whenever the bearer feels threatened.

More about this below.

This week everybody was talking about the debt ceiling

It’s hard to know what to say. In some sense, it’s the most important thing happening. But whatever negotiations are or aren’t happening between President Biden and Speaker McCarthy are behind closed doors, so we don’t really know anything.

It’s also hard to guess what the negotiating positions would mean, even if we knew them. Democrats are worrying that Biden will give away the store and get nothing back other than a promise not to blow up the world economy until next spring.

Americans of either party should worry about whether McCarthy can make a deal at all. Maybe anything he agrees to will be framed by Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz as a RINO sell-out, and lead to McCarthy losing his speakership rather than to a deal.

And finally, does Biden have a Plan B? Could he circumvent the debt ceiling via the 14th Amendment? Or by citing the contradiction between the debt-ceiling and that appropriation bills Congress has passed? Or by minting a platinum coin or selling consol bonds?

There are reasons to worry that this partisan Supreme Court will nix those options, independent of what the laws actually say. (Though I don’t see any grounds for objecting to consol bonds or less radical high-interest bonds that would sell above par.)

But all the Plan Bs sound gimmicky, and like an expansion of executive power. Biden will be in better political shape to invoke one if he can argue that he has been driven to his last resort; he did in fact did offer deep concessions that Republicans did not accept, and came to the conclusion that no deal with McCarthy was possible.

So if Biden offers concessions, is he giving away the store or setting up a deft counter-move? There’s no way to know.

and the red states’ continued decline into oppression and authoritarianism

Thursday morning, The New York Times greeted me with these headlines:

Just another day in red America. Remember when the GOP was supposed to be about Freedom? Each of those three bills is Big Government telling people how to live their lives.

Other headlines I saw this week:

  • School librarians face a new penalty in the banned-book wars: Prison. “One example is an Arkansas measure that says school and public librarians, as well as teachers, can be imprisoned for up to six years or fined $10,000 if they distribute obscene or harmful texts. It takes effect Aug. 1.” The terms obscene and harmful are, of course, undefined. So a prudent librarian will steer clear of any book that any judge might object to — or if the librarian wants to avoid a court case altogether, avoiding any book that any parent might object to.
  • School Can Force Trans Girl to Dress as Boy for Graduation, Judge Rules. “A federal judge ruled late Friday evening that the Harrison County [Mississippi] School District can prohibit a 17-year-old transgender girl from attending her graduation Saturday unless she dresses in attire designated for boys” Tim Miller‘s summary: “The government preventing parents from seeing their child graduate unless they wear state mandated pants.”
  • The Short Life of Baby Milo. Deborah Dorbert knew for three months that the fetus she was carrying had no chance to live, because it lacked essential organs. But Florida’s abortion ban forced her to complete the doomed pregnancy. Her son was born and lived 99 minutes.
  • The staggering fine print of Texas and Florida’s new anti-trans bills. “Chriss laid out a scenario in which [the new Florida law] would apply: A family is living in California, which doesn’t have a ban on gender-affirming care. A parent contesting custody of their child could take them on vacation to Disney World in Orlando, go to the nearby Orange County courthouse, and ask the judge to take emergency jurisdiction over the custody case because the other parent is planning to help the child get puberty blockers.”

The outrageous attacks on personal freedom and parental rights are coming so fast that I’m sure I missed a few.

but here’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you

Namely, how I assess unfamiliar sources.

and you also might be interested in …

Wednesday, House Republicans refused to vote on a motion to remove George Santos from Congress.

Dahlia Lithwick asks an important question: What if reporters covered the Supreme Court the way they cover every other branch of government?

Her point, in short, is that reporters on the Supreme Court beat act as if they are covering the Law itself, not a public institution made up of nine immensely powerful human beings.

[T]he longstanding tradition of covering the cases rather than the Justices meant that, with few exceptions, there have not been a lot of folks in the SCOTUS press corps on the Clarence/Ginni Thomas beat; almost nobody on the Dobbs leak beat; and, aside from routinely reporting the fact of plummeting polling numbers, few court insiders on the “legitimacy beat.” With the notable exception of Politico’s Josh Gerstein, who co-reported the Dobbs leak last year, virtually all of the scoops about Clarence Thomas’ ethical breaches, Leonard Leo’s golden spigot, the rich donor to Supreme Court Historical Society pipeline, Ginni Thomas’ election disruption efforts and the catastrophic leak investigation all came from enterprising investigative reporters, political reporters and “outsiders” at Politico, Pro Publica, and the New York Times.

… But it’s not just that we mostly settle for covering the cases. We further let the cases set the agenda for what we consider “justice.” If the nine Justices decide to revisit affirmative action, and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and federal preemption around labor disputes, we’ll then devote a year to debating both sides of these legal issues—regardless of the fact that they were supposed to be long settled. As long as the court thought it was a good time to breathe life into the Major Questions Doctrine or the Independent State Legislature Theory, we have considered the questions of that theory seriously, despite its manifest unseriousness. And once the Supreme Court started to invent its own facts—as it did in the Coach Kennedy case last term, the affirmative action cases this term, and of course 303 Creative, the refusal of service to same sex couples case, also this term—it began to matter urgently that the press would still routinely be covering “cases” as usual, even though these cases included wholly imaginary “facts”—or, as in 303 Creative, no facts at all. Repeating manufactured narratives with which the court will eventually manufacture legal doctrine serves the Court’s interest. The problem is that it does not serve the interests of the public, and that’s who journalists are supposed to be writing for.

The headline from Noelle Dunphy’s $10 million lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani was her accusation that he boasted about selling pardons for $2 million each.

[Giuliani] also asked Ms. Dunphy if she knew anyone in need of a pardon, telling her that he was selling pardons for $2 million, which he and President Trump would split. He told Ms. Dunphy that she could refer individuals seeking pardons to him, so long as they did not go through “the normal channels” of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, because correspondence going to that office would be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

But when you read the 70-page complaint, that is far from the worst of it. (Even if she can support that claim, he could counter that he was just talking big to impress her.) The complaint makes sickening reading. It paints Dunphy as a vulnerable woman coming out of an abusive relationship. Giuliani lures her by promising a huge salary ($1 million per year) and that he will represent her against her abuser. He then starts his own abusive sexual relationship with her, comes up with excuses to “defer” the vast majority of her pay, strings her along without a formal employment agreement for two years, and then fires her without paying the salary or fulfilling any of his other promises.

She claims to have recorded many of their conversations (including one where he gives her permission to record their conversations), and that (because her job including managing his email) she has his email files, including emails from long before her employment.

And if you’re wondering how Giuliani’s judgment could be that bad, Dunphy has a ready explanation: He was drunk almost the entire time he employed her.

If any of that is true, Giuliani should just find the $10 million and not let this go to court.

Giuliani faces another lawsuit, a defamation suit filed by two Georgia poll workers whom Giuliani baselessly accused of election fraud. Friday, the judge ordered Giuliani to provide a detailed accounting of his net worth, which is never a good sign.

My Pillow founder Mike Lindell isn’t just delusional about the 2020 election, he also doesn’t pay his bets. (I looked for a word that packs the same punch as “welsher” without demeaning any ethnic group, but I didn’t find one.) In 2021, Lindell was claiming he had computer data proving that the Chinese had interfered in the 2020 election, and he seemed to back up his claim by offering a $5 million Prove-Mike-Wrong challenge. But now that he has lost that challenge, he won’t pay up.

Cyber-detective Robert Zeidman quickly did prove Mike wrong.

Coming to this conclusion this apparently wasn’t all that hard. Some of the data, Zeidman recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, looked like someone had simply typed random numbers; another data set had been created just days before the contest, not before the 2020 election, which was pretty obvious given that creation dates on the files had not been altered.

Lindell is not a computer expert himself, so one likely explanation is that he was conned by fraudsters who sold him the “proof” he wanted to believe existed. Marks often get emotionally invested in the con they’ve fallen for, and typically are the last people to grasp what has happened. Successful businessmen like Lindell can be perfect targets for conmen, because they really, really don’t want to believe they are suckers.

The rules of his contest stipulated binding arbitration on claims, and the arbitration panel selected by a Lindell company ruled in Zeidman’s favor in April. But Lindell is still refusing to pay, so this week Zeidman took his case to federal court.

Zeidman may have to get in line to collect, though, because Lindell is also being sued by Dominion Voting Systems for his lies about their role in the 2020 election. One reason Fox News had to settle with Dominion for $787 million was that Tucker Carlson gave Lindell an uncritical platform to spew his baseless allegations.

David Roberts links to AP’s “2024 Republican hopefuls rush to defend Marine who put NYC subway rider in fatal chokehold” and then comments:

I wonder how much evidence will have to accumulate before “objective” reporters are allowed to take note of the *pattern* of rapidly rising support for vigilante violence on the right. And then they could go a step further and connect the rising support for vigilante violence with the relentless push to get more guns into circulation. And then they could go eve[n] further and connect the support for vigilante violence & the push for more guns with the declining demographics that make winning via democratic means increasingly difficult.

The Washington Post asked people attending a gun show why they wanted guns. Nearly all the answers contained the word protection.

[O]ver and over, people told me they needed their guns to keep themselves safe. Safe from what? Most couldn’t answer; they simply had a feeling that the world had become a more dangerous place. … Republican leaders, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, have resisted calls for increased gun regulation after shooting deaths, arguing that the root problem is mental illness. But the paranoia that fuels gun-buying has come to seem like a mental health issue in its own right.

The New Yorker visits the Gathering of Thought Criminals, a New York salon for those who “simply feel persecuted for holding unpopular opinions”. Apparently, if you profess ideas that most people deem objectionable, and they dare to object, then you’ve been “cancelled” and are entitled to sympathy.

Meanwhile, Florida parents who want their child to receive gender-affirming care can now have that child taken away. Is there a salon for them somewhere?

Jim Brown died Thursday night at the age of 87. He was arguably the greatest running back in NFL history. In 2010, NFL Network ranked him #2 on a list of the greatest NFL players ever, behind only Jerry Rice. (At that time, Tom Brady had only three of his seven Super Bowl wins, and was ranked #21.)

Brown also had social significance as a key member of the second generation of Black athletes in the national spotlight. The first generation, led by Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, had mostly kept their heads down, avoided making waves, and let their performance do the talking. The second generation, led by Brown, Bill Russell, and (a few years later) Muhammad Ali, could be more outspoken, and were frequently portrayed in the media as troublemakers.

Today, the NFL is a quarterback’s league and runners only rarely make headlines. But in Brown’s era, the NFL was a runner’s league, and he was the best anyone had ever seen. Here are some highlights. (Copyright issues aren’t letting me embed the video.)

and let’s close with something from down under

Normally, I pick a closing to be amusing and not at all political. This one does involve a political issue, but I’m hoping it’s amusing enough to get by. Australia, the video claims, has all kinds of deadly dangers. But at least it doesn’t have AR-15s.

How I evaluate sources

I want to keep challenging my biases by reading posts I disagree with.
But I also don’t want to waste my time on nonsense or propaganda.

This week, one of my social-media friends posted a link from a blog I’d never heard of. This particular article claimed Russia is winning its war against Ukraine, and criticized a Western leader for claiming that Russia would lose a war against all of NATO. These observations seemed unlikely to me, but I try not to write blogs off just because I disagree with them. (That’s a good way to trap yourself in an ideological silo.) So I asked myself: What is this blog? Is it a reliable source?

These questions come up all the time, and by now I have a fairly standard technique for answering them. After I finished my assessment — I eventually decided it wasn’t a reliable source — I realized I’d never described the technique to Sift readers. Arguably, the technique is more valuable than the conclusions I draw with it.

The first step is obvious: Read the article in question. If, in addition to the parts I initially disagreed with, it references long-debunked claims and conspiracy theories without acknowledging the arguments that have been made against them, I feel comfortable trashing the article without wasting any more of my time. For example, if you say that voting machines stole the 2020 election from Trump, you need to explain all the states where hand recounts came to the same totals, within the usual error bands of recounts. If you have a believable explanation of that — I can’t imagine what it could be right now, but never mind — I might pay attention.

But suppose the article isn’t that obviously bad. This particular one wasn’t: Its assessment of the Ukraine War was attributed to Polish generals I didn’t recognize. So maybe the author is plugged in to sources I don’t know about, and maybe those sources know something.

So the next step is to look at the front page of the blog or news source. A Japanese proverb says: “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” The other articles the source is promoting are the “friends” of the article I’m evaluating. If a bunch of them are obviously nonsense, it’s not a big leap to assume the article I’m assessing is nonsense too.

The day I was looking at it, this blog was still just barely making the cut. (Today it might not. It’s full of glowing assessments of the Durham report, buying into the idea that the whole Trump/Russia thing was a hoax. More about that topic in today’s other featured post.) It had a bunch of other articles about Ukraine being in trouble, which could be legit if the article I was assessing was legit.

The final step is to look back in time. In general, well-constructed propaganda can look pretty good in the moment, but it usually doesn’t age well. The same is true of delusional points of view. In the moment, people can convince themselves of all kinds of things and be pretty persuasive about it.

The Iraq invasion is a good example. Back in 2002-2003, it was far from obvious what a stupid idea this was. Maybe Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction. Maybe the Bush administration really did know things we didn’t. Maybe Iraq was eager for democracy, and even if not, Saddam was such an awful ruler that getting rid of him would create a lot of room for improvement. When Saddam’s army collapsed so quickly, a lot of people wondered why we hadn’t invaded a long time ago. Sure, some contemporary observers saw the folly from the beginning, but a lot didn’t, and not all of them were stupid or crazy.

With twenty years of hindsight, though, hardly anybody defends the invasion any more. Time tends to clear the fog that blinds us to contemporary events.

A simpler and more recent example: A lot of pundits predicted last year (after the Dobbs decision) that voters would forget about abortion by the time the fall elections rolled around. At the time, that claim was hard to assess, but now we can clearly see that it was wrong.

So anyway, if today’s front page is hard to assess, look back six months or a year. That might be easier.

But when you do that, be careful. Because simply finding something the source got wrong isn’t discrediting in itself. We all get stuff wrong, so you will find an excuse to write the source off, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re trying to make an honest assessment, though, the process is a little more complicated. Finding a mistake is just the first step.

The point isn’t just to find things the source got wrong, but to see how they responded as events went some other way. What I hope to find is a reaction like Paul Krugman’s: In 2021, Krugman was wrong about the risks of inflation, and then he was slow to recognize how big a problem inflation was becoming. (If you’re looking for an excuse to write Paul off, there it is.) But that mistake bothered him as much as it bothered anyone else. He has written several columns since trying to figure out what led him astray.

In early 2021 there was an intense debate among economists about the likely consequences of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion package enacted by a new Democratic president and a (barely) Democratic Congress. Some warned that the package would be dangerously inflationary; others were fairly relaxed. I was Team Relaxed. As it turned out, of course, that was a very bad call.

But what, exactly, did I get wrong?

The Ukraine War itself is a good topic to examine, because at the beginning, just about everybody expected Ukraine’s defenses to collapse in a few weeks. A credible military blog might have made that mistake, but then they should have spent the summer reevaluating. It’s possible that by now they might have come back around to the idea that Ukraine will lose (or not). But if they’ve been holding steady on the Ukraine-is-about-to-collapse narrative all year, they’re not credible.

So Krugman is the gold standard, but I’ll give a silver medal to anybody whose mistake made them realize they don’t understand the subject they got wrong, and who subsequently shifted their attention elsewhere. Or maybe they reevaluated and downgraded the sources they got their wrong opinion from.

So, for example, picture a Republican who took Trump’s claims of election fraud seriously at first, but then stopped repeating them when no supporting evidence emerged. They may not ever have acknowledged their mistake in so many words, but they’ve taken steps not to keep doing it, i.e., not just blindly repeating whatever Trump says any more. I’m not going to write that source off forever. On the other hand, if they’re still pushing that stolen-election nonsense today, they’re not worth my time.

So anyway, when I looked back on the past record of the blog in question, I found claims that Trump was framed in both his impeachments, the FBI framed Michael Flynn, the Russians didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, Covid was exaggerated by the Deep State, Dominion voting machines stole the 2020 election from Trump, it was Seth Rich (and not the Russians) who leaked the Clinton campaign emails, Russia has been winning the Ukraine War from the very beginning, and many others.

In short, it was down-the-line pro-Russia pro-Trump stuff, with no acknowledgment that any of those claims hadn’t panned out. So I’m not taking the new claims seriously either.

So that’s the technique: Read the article, then look at the front page, then look back until you find a mistake and see how they handled it.

Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations

The two questions I had at the beginning remain unanswered.

Around the time Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and Robert Mueller was being appointed special counsel, I formulated the two simple questions I hoped Mueller would answer:

Through all the investigations that followed, including the two-volume Mueller Report, the five-volume report of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, and the just-released 300-page report of the Durham investigation of the investigators, those two questions remain unanswered: Why all the connections? Why all the lies?

Those questions continue to be the lens through which I view this topic and assess the various reports, which otherwise might drown a reader in disorganized and distracting details.

Obstruction. Mueller and the Senate at least helped us understand why they couldn’t provide answers: Trump obstructed their investigations. Volume 2 of the Mueller report examined ten acts that might be charged as obstruction of justice, and concluded that the predicates for an indictment of Trump existed in seven of them. Mueller’s report is dense and legalistic, but a more readable narration of the obstruction is in Andrew Weissman’s book Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller investigation.

Based on those reports, here’s how I describe what happened: Russia interfered in the 2016 election in two ways, by attempting to influence voters directly via fake posts and fake news articles distributed through social media, and by hacking DNC and Clinton campaign emails, which were given to WikiLeaks to release any time the news cycle was trending in Clinton’s favor (like after Trump’s grab-them-by-the-pussy tape went viral). The social media campaign may have been targeted via internal Trump campaign polling data, which showed the best areas and demographic groups to try to influence.

Both Mueller and the Senate made clear that this Russian interference really happened, and that the Trump campaign knew about it and welcomed it. Neither presented proof that the Trump campaign conspired directly in the crimes the Russians carried out. So no one in the campaign could be charged with planning the DNC hack or directing the Russian social media campaign. But neither report “exonerated” Trump, as he has so often claimed.

The Trump campaign was linked to the two Russian efforts through two men:

Both Manafort and Stone were convicted of crimes not directly related to Russia, and were offered plea deals to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Stone refused outright, while Manafort appeared to agree, but then lied to investigators. After losing the 2020 election but before leaving office, Trump rewarded both men’s loyalty by pardoning them.

Nothing suspicious about that. Nothing at all.

Distraction. The main thrust of the Durham investigation was that the FBI should not have tried so hard to answer my two questions. Durham pursued every manner of conspiracy theory about the FBI’s alleged bias against Trump, and came up with virtually nothing, beyond some leaked straw that Trump and Fox News could regularly spin into political and ratings gold: For years, Trump’s followers were encouraged and entertained by reports that Durham was blowing the lid off “the crime of the century“, and hints that James Comey, Hillary Clinton, and other high-ranking officials from the Obama administration would go to jail.

In fact, Durham came up with very little. An FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to altering an email to support a request to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide. (Something I wonder: If you did an in-depth investigation of any FBI investigation, would you find similar fudging?) For this crime-of-the-century he was sentenced to probation. Durham took two other cases to trial with little evidence — he charged Steele dossier source Igor Danchenko and Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussman with lying to the FBI — and was rebuffed when unanimous juries quickly found both defendants not guilty.

Despite the not-guilty verdicts, Durham’s report repeats his discredited assertions, excusing his failure to produce compelling evidence by attacking the jurors:

[J]uries can bring strongly held views to the courtroom in criminal trials involving political subject matters, and those views can, in turn, affect the likelihood of obtaining a conviction, separate and apart from the strength of the actual evidence and despite a court’s best efforts to empanel a fair and impartial jury.

This is a truly incredible statement, given the unanimous not-guilty verdicts. If a jury simply refused to convict, we might imagine one or two holdouts whose anti-Trump bias made them impossible to convince. But every juror in two trials brought “strongly held [anti-Trump] views to the courtroom”? Really?

Nonetheless, it’s important not to get lost in the weeds of the Durham investigation, because distraction was its entire reason to exist. Why did Trump’s people lie about their connections to Russia? Durham has nothing to say about that question, beyond arguing that it should never have been asked in the first place.

Speculation. In the absence of definitive evidence, we are left to speculate. The most obvious answers to my two questions are:

  • Trump officials had so many contacts with Russia because they were participating in an illegal conspiracy.
  • They lied about those contacts to cover up that conspiracy.

Due to Trump’s obstruction (and Durham’s complete lack of interest in the questions) those speculations can’t be supported or refuted by clear evidence. But it’s worth noting that these are the only credible answers ever proposed. Despite voluminous comments intended to obstruct, obfuscate, distract, and intimidate, Trump and his people have never offered an alternative explanation.

The Monday Morning Teaser

So here we are, watching closed doors while Biden and McCarthy negotiate behind those doors over how much ransom Biden will pay to avoid a global economic catastrophe. It’s the kind of news situation I hate: I obviously have to cover it, but I don’t actually know anything I can tell you.

So there’s that. There’s another round of authoritarian legislation being passed in red states. House Republicans are protecting George Santos, who is under indictment. Rudy Giuliani had a bad week. It looks like Georgia’s Trump indictment will drop in August. Ukraine will get F-16s.

But the featured posts aren’t about any of that. John Durham’s long-awaited report trying to discredit the Trump/Russia investigations came out, marking the end of one of the biggest wastes of time and money in Department of Justice history. It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the Durham investigation, because its whole point was to distract us from the reality of the Trump/Russia scandal. So doing an involved critique of Durham’s report is just taking the bait.

Instead, I went back to the original questions I wanted the Mueller investigation to answer, and notice that they’re still unanswered: Why did the 2016 Trump campaign have so many contacts with Russians? And why, when Trump’s people were asked about their Russian connections, did almost all of them lie? After all this time, we can speculate, but we still don’t know. That post “Summing Up at the End of the Trump/Russia Investigations”, is more-or-less done and should post soon.

The second featured post isn’t really about the news at all. It’s a meta post about a topic that keeps coming up for me, and probably comes up for you too: how to evaluate the sources you run across on social media.

As you might expect, I run into this question fairly often, and have developed a standard technique for answering it, which I’ve never shared in so many words. “How I evaluate sources” should post before 10 EDT.

The weekly summary has the debt ceiling and all that other stuff to cover. I’ll try to get it out by noon.

No Time for Truth

We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.

Jake Tapper, hosting the wrap-up of Trump’s CNN town hall

This week’s featured posts are “Why the Carroll verdict might matter” and “Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence“.

This week everybody was talking about the border

Title 42 was always a pretext. At a time when Trump was denying the seriousness of the Covid epidemic, his administration invoked a public-health law from 1944 as an excuse to stop migrants from legally seeking asylum in the United States.

At the same time, our system for processing asylum seekers is swamped, and Congress has refused to fix it. So the Biden administration, believing it had no better option, continued the policy until Thursday night, when the government’s declaration of a Covid emergency officially lapsed.

Ending the policy resulted in a surge of people crossing the border from Mexico, though apparently not quite as large a surge as had been expected. Resources to deal with migrants have been strained, particularly in border communities like El Paso, but also in Northern cities like New York or Chicago, where migrants often end up while they wait for their asylum cases to be adjudicated.

and George Santos

George Santos leaped into the headlines after being elected to Congress in 2022, because his entire biography was almost comically false. Now he’s been indicted for a variety of crimes. One charge is that he created a false campaign PAC and got people to donate to it, then used the money for personal purposes. Another is that he falsely claimed unemployment payments while making a six-figure salary.

The indictment had the same comical quality as most Santos news. Reading it, you have to wonder why he thought he could get away with any of this.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy is refusing to ask Santos to resign from Congress, because he represents a swing district in New York that could easily go for a Democrat in a special election.

If you’re not following North Carolina Rep. Jeff Jackson, you should be. He blogs and posts a video on Twitter every week, describing what’s going on in Congress in a very down-to-Earth way. Here’s what he says about the Santos situation:

Normally, if one of your co-workers gets arrested for a bunch of felonies related to their job, they don’t get to just come back to the office the next day. But he did, and it was really weird.

and the Carroll verdict

A jury in New York federal court found Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation. It awarded his accuser E. Jean Carroll, $5 million in damages. I discuss the implications of that verdict in one of the featured posts.

Trump’s attempt to spin the verdict focused on two things: The jury did not rule that Carroll had proved Trump raped her, and “you can’t get a fair trial” in New York City.

As he did with Russian collusion in the Mueller report, Trump is claiming vindication when in reality there just wasn’t enough evidence to condemn him. The jury did not say Trump hadn’t raped Carroll, just that she hadn’t proved it. The sexual assault was enough to invoke the damage claim, so I imagine there was not a big effort to reach unanimity on the rape claim.

The verdict makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the evidence presented. On the Access Hollywood tape, Trump confessed to a pattern of sexual assault — grabbing women “by the pussy” — but didn’t confess to rape. And the two witnesses who described being attacked by Trump told about attacks that were interrupted. So the rape claim was a purer he-said/she-said case, while sexual assault had more support.

Still, as I talk about in the featured post, being guilty of sexual assault is nothing to brag about.

Trump is appealing to federal appellate court. (The case was already in the federal court system, because the two parties were from different states.) But an appeal is not an automatic do-over. He’ll have to convince the appellate court that the original judge’s rulings were illegal in some way.

and CNN’s Trump town hall

The day after being found liable for sexual assault and defamation, Trump appeared on CNN with an audience of New Hampshire voters who had been pre-selected to be favorable to him. I discuss that in one of the featured posts.

For the most part, Republicans haven’t been willing to go after Trump, despite all the material lying around in plain sight. But Liz Cheney narrates this anti-Trump ad.

and you also might be interested in …

The Ukrainian spring offensive may be starting, as Ukrainian forces gain territory around Bakhmut. But so far it’s slow going.

The House Oversight Committee released a 65-page memo about its investigations of the Biden family, which so far have been a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The House GOP accused Joe Biden and his family on Wednesday of engaging in business with foreign entities—but were unable to provide any actual evidence linking the president to any wrongdoing.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer released a 65-page memo detailing a sprawling investigation into Biden and some of his relatives, particularly his son Hunter Biden. Nowhere in the massive document was there a specific allegation of a crime committed by Biden or any of his relatives. During a press conference explaining the investigation, Comer was asked if he had evidence directly linking Biden to corruption. The Kentucky Republican hemmed and hawed but ultimately admitted he didn’t.

[As a commenter pointed out below, I have confused two cases: Daniel Penny is the guy who killed Jordan Neely in New York. Daniel Perry is the guy in Texas who killed a protester during a Black Lives Matter protest. Both cases are discussed in Jamelle Bouie’s NYT column Tuesday.]

Conservatives are defending Daniel Penny (the guy who killed homeless man Jordan Neely on the New York subway) as a “Good Samaritan”. (Examples: Ron DeSantis, National Police Association.)

It’s one more example of making the Bible say whatever you want. Anyone who knows and respects the Bible ought to respond similarly to David Roberts:

No way to exaggerate how fucked up and dystopian it is that the reactionaries are transmuting the parable of the Good Samaritan from “he helps the person having problems” to “he kills the person having problems but who’s making everyone else uncomfortable.”

Penny has been charged with manslaughter. Here’s the background on the story.

At this point there’s no way to quantify what race might have had to do with this incident and people’s reactions to it. (Neely was Black, Penny is White.) But if anybody is wondering what “Black Lives Matter” is supposed to mean, this is it: OK, Neely was creating an incident on the subway, though he had not actually attacked anybody. There’s an argument to be made for someone stepping in to restrain Neely until some authority takes charge of the situation. But restraining Neely with a chokehold until he dies is only a “solution” if Neely’s life doesn’t matter.

Maybe Neely being Black had nothing to do with why his life didn’t matter. Maybe it was because his behavior was outside normal subway behavior, or some other reason. But if Neely’s life did matter to Perry, he’d have handled the situation differently.

Turkey had an election yesterday. President Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, has been accused of instituting one-man rule. But it looks like Turkey is not so far gone towards autocracy that he can’t be voted out.

The upshot seems to be that no one got a majority of the vote, so Erdogan will face a runoff later this month.

A sidebar to the Turkish election is Twitter giving in to the Erdogan government’s demands to censor opposition tweets.

In response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today.

Elon Musk defended the decision by making a lesser-evil argument:

The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales answered that question:

What Wikipedia did: we stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won. This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan.

And Matt Binder points out:

Twitter used to routinely challenge Turkey’s takedown requests. Erdogan actually had Twitter banned in Turkey in 2014 for refusing to comply. (the courts later ended the ban.) but that was on the “censorship” version of Twitter, not this new “free speech” one

I’ll add this: An authoritarian government can always use its power to manipulate lesser-evil thinking. No matter what it wants you to do, it can make something worse happen if you refuse.

And maybe it’s just a coincidence that another Musk company, SpaceX, has a business relationship with Erdogan’s government.

Are you conservative? Do you think America has gotten too “woke” to be livable? Good news: Russia wants you!

In general, Grist is a good source for environmental news. Here’s an interesting article about green steel, i.e., steel produced without fossil fuels.

Relating to the normalization issues discussed above: Joe Biden should not debate unless and until a more legitimate challenger emerges. Currently, only RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson have announced their candidacy. RFK Jr., in particular, is someone who should not be normalized. He is an endless font of anti-vax misinformation, from his vaccines-cause-autism days to more recent lies about Covid vaccines. He shamelessly repeats stuff that has been authoritatively debunked, and keeps misquoting scientists after they’ve asked him to stop. Watch SkepChick’s RFK Jr. takedown.

In general, sitting presidents running for re-election don’t participate in debates. There’s an argument for Biden breaking that tradition in order to challenge the perception that age has addled him. And I could see that if it meant sharing a stage with candidates of stature, like say, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom, or maybe Elizabeth Warren. But he shouldn’t give a platform to RFK Jr at all, and I don’t see what he gains by debating Williamson.

From the MAGA translation of the New Testament:

and let’s close with something adorable

An animal rescue shelter found Nibi when she was a week old. She’s never seen another beaver, but she seems to know how to build dams.

Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence

In search of ratings, CNN is enabling the next Trump coup.

Wednesday, CNN aired a townhall meeting in which an audience of New Hampshire Trump supporters got to address questions to their hero/demigod. The outcome was easily predictable: Trump spewed one lie after another, while he ignored and insulted the “nasty” woman the network had assigned to moderate. Meanwhile, the crowd cheered.

Disinformation. In the post-event discussion, Jake Tapper summed up:

We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he told.

In a nutshell, that’s why fact-checking fails against a determined liar who is not shamed by having his lies exposed: Outrageous falsehoods can be entertaining, but reasserting the truth is boring. If he just keeps going, who’s going to stick around to hear you correct it all? And even if some do, the bell can’t be unrung; the people who heard the lie can’t unhear it. (For what it’s worth, you can read fact-checks of the evening here, here, and here.)

So the net result of the evening was to promote disinformation. People who watched are probably less well informed now than before they tuned in. When it scheduled the town hall, CNN had to know that would happen.

The justification given by CNN boss Chris Licht was that the broadcast “made a lot of news”, which he described as “our job”. “America was served very well.”

I’ll let The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols answer that one:

To be clear, I am not taking issue with CNN offering Trump time on the network. Trump is far and away the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Neither CNN nor any other network can refuse to cover him; as I’ve said, it would be a disservice to let him spread his toxic slurry out of the public eye. But “covering” Trump does not mean packing an audience with supporters and then setting the resolutely misogynist Trump against a young female reporter in a situation that practically could have been designed by the Trump campaign itself.

January 6. But I want to focus on something else about the event: Trump doubled down on his endorsement of the violence on January 6.

It started right away, when moderator Kaitlin Collins asked if (should he become president again) he intended to pardon those convicted of crimes committed during the January 6 riot. Trump admitted that he might not pardon all of them, because “a couple of them, probably, they got out of control”. But most of them did “nothing”, and are “living in Hell” now.

They’re policemen, and they’re firemen, and they’re soldiers, and they’re carpenters and electricians and they’re great people. Many of them are just great people.

The rioters were prosecuted for specific crimes (including assaulting policemen), and a jury of their peers unanimously found them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But that doesn’t matter because

In Washington, D.C., you cannot get a fair trial, you cannot. Just like in New York City, you can’t get a fair trial either.

He doesn’t explain why that is, but apparently he believes you can just write off any verdict from a DC or NYC jury. Maybe those people don’t count as Americans, or even as people. He doesn’t say.

Collins zeroed in on the Proud Boys, who were just convicted (again: unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, by a jury) of seditious conspiracy. Think about what that means: Seditious conspiracy is one step short of treason. They didn’t just throw a tantrum because their candidate lost the election; they actively conspired against the United States of America. But Trump might be OK with that.

I don’t know. I’ll have to look at their case.

He described January 6 as a “beautiful day” and said that his supporters “had love in their hearts”. When Collins pointed out his supporters injured 140 police officers, Trump offered no sympathy, but instead focused on one of the rioters, Ashli Babbitt, who was killed while trying to break down the only remaining door protecting members of Congress from the violent mob.

There was no reason to shoot her at blank range. Cold, blank range, they shot her. And she was a good person. She was a patriot.

She was shot by a “thug”, i.e. Lt. Michael Byrd, a Black police officer with 28 years of experience, who has been hounded by Trump’s supporters ever since.

For Byrd, who is Black, the incident turned his life upside down. He has been in hiding for months after he received a flood of death threats and racist attacks that started when his name leaked onto right-wing websites.

Months later, Byrd was interviewed by Lester Holt and had the audacity to defend his actions. Trump characterized this as “he went on television to brag about the fact that he killed her.” (You can watch the interview and judge for yourself.)

In short, Trump paints a picture of January 6 in which the rioters are the heroes and the police are the villains.

But what about his own vice president, Mike Pence? The mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence”, and his Secret Service protectors, fearing for their lives, made good-bye calls to loved ones. But Trump knows better:

I don’t think he was in any danger.

And he owes Pence no apology

because he did something wrong. He should have put the votes back to the state legislatures and I think we would have had a different outcome. I really do.

Pence deserved to be threatened, in other words, because he refused to play his part in the overthrow of American democracy.

How democracy survived Trump’s first term. In other reporting this week, Rolling Stone revealed some of Trump’s plans for his second administration: He wants to bring back Michael Flynn, who advocated declaring martial law to hang onto power. Also Jeffrey Clark, who pushed for the Justice Department to lie to the State of Georgia about “various irregularities in the 2020 election” to justify the legislature replacing the legitimate members of the Electoral College with Trump supporters.

Both efforts were blocked by people within the government who were still loyal to the Constitution.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Trump’s attempt to hang on to the presidency after losing the election by 7 million votes: Plots to overturn the election didn’t end because Trump decided he wouldn’t go that far. They ended when people inside his administration refused to participate.

We still have no idea how far Trump himself was willing to go to stay in power.

What we do know is that he wants his second administration to pick up where the first one left off. His first administration began with appointees who were typical conservative Republicans, like Jeff Sessions and John Kelly. They saw the world through right-wing lenses, but they were loyal to America as they understood it.

As the term went on, more and more of those people were kicked out in favor of people who were loyal to Trump first and America a distant second. Trump’s coup attempt failed because he hadn’t completed his purge of American loyalists.

What becomes clear as you listen to Trump is that he understands that mistake now. So his second term will begin with the appointment of true Trumpists to all major positions. When it comes time to throttle democracy again, no one will say no to him.

What are we normalizing? CNN’s critics talk about the problem of “normalizing” Trump, i.e. of treating him as we would any other front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination.

Different people use that term for different reasons, because Trump is abnormal in all sorts of ways. No impeached president, much less the only president to be impeached twice, has ever been nominated again. No candidate for the presidency has ever brushed off a jury verdict holding him liable for sexual assault. It’s been a century since a candidate ran for the presidency while under indictment or in prison. No major American politician of any sort has kept up such a steady stream of lies. No presidential candidate since George Wallace has been so blatantly racist.

Those — and many others — are plausible reasons to refuse to give Trump a platform, much less construct such a favorable platform as CNN offered Trump. But they all pale before the most serious reason to treat him differently: He’s running to finish his coup.

The debate about whether to end democracy cannot be treated as a normal democratic issue. We can’t have a “reasonable” discussion about whether an attempt to overturn an election by violence is or isn’t legitimate.

Trump has very recently threatened to unleash political violence again. He warned of “death and destruction” if he were indicted, and mocked pleas for his supporters to stay peaceful.


Does anyone doubt that he will incite violence again, if he thinks it will help him regain the White House in 2024?

That’s the kind of “issue” that should never be normalized. No candidate of any party should be given a platform to make promises to past violent supporters, and to offer implicit concessions to people who do violence for him in the future.

That needs to be a red line. Wednesday, CNN crossed it.

Why the Carroll verdict might matter

Immediately after a jury in a New York federal court found that Donald Trump had sexually assaulted and then defamed E. Jean Carroll, two reactions popped up everywhere:

  • The verdict constitutes personal vindication for Carroll and vicarious vindication for any woman who has ever felt powerless after being mistreated by a man. While there’s still a long way to go, men — even powerful men — no longer have complete impunity.
  • Politically, it will mean nothing. Members of Trump’s personality cult will double- and triple-down on his “witch hunt” and “persecution by the Deep State” narratives.

That first response seems obviously true to me. But I want to call the second into question. Politically, this might matter, even to people deep inside the right-wing echo chamber. But you’ll only see the effects if you know where to look.

A jury verdict is different. First, let’s talk about why the verdict should matter: As of now, the conclusion that Trump sexually assaulted Carroll and then aggressively lied about it “with actual malice” isn’t just an accusation liberals toss around on Facebook or discuss on left-leaning MSNBC shows. It’s not coming from a blue-state prosecutor looking for votes. It’s the verdict of a jury.

Think about what that means: If you sit nine ordinary people down, impress on them that they have a serious job to do, and then make them consider the evidence in detail, they will unanimously conclude that Carroll’s accusations against Trump are true.

That’s something that never happens on social media or within the information bubbles of either side. In those settings, you can’t make people listen to anything they don’t want to hear. You can’t put together a detailed argument without being pulled down the what-about-Hunter-Biden or it’s-all-a-witch-hunt rabbit holes. If someone answers an accusation with a biting-but-vacuous remark, a Trump-favoring host can end the discussion there, as if there were no conceivable counter-response.

But that’s not how things work in court. In court, the jury had to focus on this case, rather than something Bill Clinton did or didn’t get away with. Both sides had a chance to produce evidence and arguments at whatever length they felt necessary. Jurors had to evaluate witnesses as individual people — not with a general brush-off like “women lie all the time”, but here are Carroll, the two friends she told about the attack, and two other women who say Trump attacked them in similar ways. Listen to their voices, look them in the eye — is this particular woman lying to you right now?

The jury — all six men and three women of them — decided those women were telling the truth, and that Trump (who could have testified in person but didn’t, and was present only through a taped deposition) was lying.

That’s hard to brush off. It should matter. But will it?

Digging in deeper. People who think it won’t point to two reactions: First, Trump’s rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination aren’t jumping on it. Asa Hutchinson said “The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump.” But he was the exception. Mike Pence (who styles himself as a defender of Christian moral values) characterized Trump’s sexual assault as “just one more story focusing on my former running mate that I know is a great fascination to members of the national media, but I just don’t think is where the American people are focused.”

In other words: Sure, Trump violently attacked a woman — probably several women — and then lied about it, but shit happens. No big deal. Do you know what eggs cost these days?

And second, consider Trump’s indictment in Manhattan for falsifying business records, which caused his most ardent supporters to dig in deeper. Trump voters from Sarah Longwell’s focus groups said things like this:

When I convened a group of GOP voters the day after Trump’s indictment, their assessment was nearly unanimous: “It’s a complete distraction and it’s a waste of time.” “It’s being blown out of proportion.” “Just ridiculous and a terrible direction for us to go.”

We asked one group whether they had donated to Trump before the indictment. Only three out of nine had, but after the indictment, all nine said they would. None said another indictment or arrest would change their minds. And none thought Trump should drop out.

“As far as a mug shot goes, he’s going to market the hell out of that,” said Chris, a two-time Trump voter from Illinois, imagining a future arrest. “Every one of us is going to buy one of those shirts.” Most hands went up when I asked who would buy one.

How conservatives change their minds. I know what Democrats and Lincoln-Project Republicans would like to see: former Trump voters being confronted by the Carroll verdict and announcing that it has changed their minds. “I used to believe X about Trump, but now that I’ve heard this I have to believe Y.”

Almost no one is saying that, so commentators think the verdict makes no difference.

But that’s not how conservatives change their minds. On the Right, humility is a sign of weakness. (Jesus must have been misquoted about the meek.) So you never admit you were wrong and you never apologize.

And yet, conservative opinions do change occasionally. Sometimes they even reverse.

Think about George W. Bush. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, conservatives were ready to put him on Mount Rushmore. But by 2010 they were complaining that he had never really been a conservative at all. Or Ronald Reagan. For decades after he left office, Reagan was the defining Republican, and his core principles — including an expansive view of American power and free trade — were the core principles of the party. Now, “globalism” and “free trade” are dirty words, and Reagan hardly ever comes up as an example to emulate.

And yet, there was never a come-to-Jesus moment when conservatives repented their previous views and pledged to go a different way. Instead, a conservative sea change happens like this: People who used to be zealots for a particular view go silent for a while. And when they start talking again, they have the opposite view, which they put forward as if they had always believed it.

Segregation. That’s what happened with Jim Crow. From the 1950s through the 1970s, White Evangelicals were staunch opponents of civil rights. Jerry Falwell, for example, responded to the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate public schools like this:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. … The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

In the 1960s, he railed against Martin Luther King:

In a 1964 sermon, “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell attacked King as a Communist subversive. After questioning “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations,” Falwell declared, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

The true origin of the Religious Right as a political force was not Roe v Wade, as they will tell you now, but the government’s denial of tax-exempt status to the segregated religious schools that had sprung up to offer White parents an all-White option for their children’s education.

Today, however, you will hear none of that from the vast majority of Evangelical preachers. Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons have vanished from his online archives. MLK is revered as an advocate of color-blindness. No one talks about segregated academies any more.

But you will search in vain to find a turning point. There never was a Jeremiah who called out White Evangelical segregationism and convinced the movement to change its ways. Do you know when the Southern Baptist Convention repented for its support of slavery? Not 1866, but 1995, long after all the slave-owners and slave-traders were dead.

Where to look. So if you’re expecting the scales to fall from right-wing eyes, for MAGA followers to suddenly start looking at the evidence and say, “Hey, I was wrong about Trump”, you’re expecting something that never happens. That’s not how conservatives change their minds.

What could happen, though, is that people who have been loud Trump supporters might start talking about other things. Maybe people who have been traveling the country to attend Trump rallies (as if they were Grateful Dead concerts) will realize they have other things to do. Without much fanfare, their Trump flags might come down. (Not because anyone changed their minds about him, of course, but because they got some other flag that they need to find a place for.) And then, some months hence, they will never have been Trump supporters — just as they were never George W. Bush supporters, their fathers never yelled obscenities at Black children integrating the schools, their grandfathers never participated in lynchings, and their more distant ancestors never owned slaves.

“I always knew there was something off about that guy,” they will tell you.

I’m not guaranteeing that such things are happening, but they could be. It is true that Trump’s crowds are shrinking (and have been for a while). Despite all the hoopla, ratings on his CNN town hall were high (3.3 million viewers), but not off the charts. (Joe Biden’s CNN town hall in 2020 had 3.4 million.)

So if you’re wondering about whether your MAGA cousin is reevaluating Trump, don’t ask him. Just listen for the silence.

The Monday Morning Teaser

One measure of how busy a week has been is how distant Tuesday’s news seems by the next Monday. Last Tuesday is when the E. Jean Carroll verdict was announced: The jury refused to say definitively that Trump had raped Carroll, but it did rule that he sexually assaulted her and then maliciously lied about her when she went public.

Seems like a while ago, doesn’t it?

Immediately after the verdict, this conventional wisdom seemed to be everywhere: Satisfying as it is to see that Trump’s lies don’t fly in a court of law, the verdict won’t actually mean anything politically. If anything, Trump’s personality cult will just double down on the Deep-State-persecution narrative and support him more than ever.

In this week’s first featured post, I’m going to challenge that view. The Carroll verdict might matter, even to dyed-in-the-wool Trumpists. But if you’re waiting for one of them to announce their re-evaluation of Trump on television, you’ll wait in vain. That’s not how sea changes happen on the Right. But they do happen sometimes. So in “Why the Carroll Verdict Might Matter”, I’ll describe how conservatives actually change their minds, and what you should be listening for. That’s ready to go and should be out shortly.

The second featured post concerns the Trump town hall that CNN aired Wednesday. I’ll let other people correct all the lies Trump told and lament how he mistreated the “nasty” moderator. (It’s amazing how many Trump lines sound like they could come from Gollum. Somebody needs to redub Trump clips with Gollum’s voice.) In “Normalizing Trump normalizes political violence” I’ll focus on his unapologetic embrace of January 6. Can we really debate a violent attempt to overturn an election as if it were an ordinary political issue? That should be out between 10 and 11 EDT.

The weekly summary will cover the end of Title 42 on the southern border, the start of Ukraine’s spring offensive, Turkey’s election, Elon bending his knee to Erdogan’s demands for censorship, and a few other things. That should appear sometime around noon.

What They Rule

What we’re really talking about is this plan to capture the U.S. Supreme Court, to install people on it who are sure things. Not to choose people because they have reputations for being fair (or we think they might be fair), but because the people who are at the decision-making table — Leonard Leo, who chose the judges that Trump chose from — believes that they will be sure votes. … We are seeing this revolution that Leonard Leo has put in place. It is one that the American people didn’t ask for, didn’t give consent to, weren’t informed that this is why these judges were chosen. In fact, they were said to be judges who were “rule of law judges”. … Their definition of “rule of law” is not the same as most people’s, which is following precedent, respecting those rules. Instead, their definition of “rule of law” appears to be to change the law to be what they rule.

Lisa Graves, interviewed by Dahlia Lithwick

This week’s featured post is “Does the US have a spending problem?

This week everybody was talking about the debt ceiling

When House Republicans began threatening a debt-ceiling showdown shortly after winning a majority last November, most commentators (and most voters who were paying attention) assumed it would lead to the usual dance: a lot of posturing leading up to the deadline (which might come as early as June 1), then a temporary increase to give negotiations more time, and then a deal seconds before the extra time ran out.

As the date of the catastrophe gets closer, more and more people are warning that we could really go over the cliff this time.

This week’s featured post is the third in my debt-ceiling series.

Speculation about ways to circumvent the debt ceiling is getting more serious. Lawrence Tribe explains why he believes the debt ceiling is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment:

The right question is whether Congress — after passing the spending bills that created these debts in the first place — can invoke an arbitrary dollar limit to force the president and his administration to do its bidding.

There is only one right answer to that question, and it is no.

And Eric Levitz describes how consol bonds get around the debt ceiling:

In simple terms, a consol bond is one that never matures. A normal bond commits a borrower to paying back the principal on their loan plus interest at a set date. A consol bond, by contrast, requires the borrower to make annual interest payments forever but does not require them to pay off the loan’s full value at any particular point in time.

This is handy since the legislation establishing the U.S. debt limit defines the federal debt as the amount of principal that the government is obligated to repay. Thus, while a normal U.S. Treasury bond increases the national debt as defined by the debt ceiling, a consol bond does not. If the government borrows money via bonds that have no principal — only interest-payment obligations — then it can continue funding its operations indefinitely, even in the absence of a debt-ceiling hike.

A less extreme version could resemble a traditional bond but take advantage of the same loophole: Suppose a bond had a principle of $1,000, but paid $100 a year in interest? The Treasury could sell it for a lot more than $1,000, but it would only count $1,000 towards the debt limit.

and we’re still finding out more about Clarence Thomas’ corruption

Two new Thomas scandals broke this week: Harlan Crow (the billionaire who we already knew takes the Thomases on annual vacations that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for them to replicate on their own) paid the private-school tuition of Thomas’ grandnephew, whom Thomas was “raising as a son”.

And Leonard Leo (who is at the center of a network of dark-money groups whose purpose is to make our courts more conservative) directed groups he influences to pay at least $100K to Thomas’ wife’s consulting firm. Leo’s instructions say nothing about work to be done, but just to “give” Ginni Thomas money, with “no mention of Ginni, of course”.

Vox is keeping a running count of the revelations. Another good summary comes from New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz, who also sums up the problem they outline:

In a world where low-level civil servants get nervous about letting friends buy them lunch, it is not easy to explain why it is totally fine for a man entrusted with enormous, democratically unaccountable power to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts from partisan political activists, let alone fail to disclose them.

Chris Hayes did a good job covering the Thomas scandals on his Friday show. His opening block reviewed the new developments and raised the question: “Just how much money has secretly flowed from right-wing donors and interests into the household of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?” His conclusion is that we just don’t know, but that it’s clearly quite a lot.

A later block of that show felt validating to me personally. Last week, I presented my theory of what Crow has been doing: He is Thomas’ “minder”, and the point of showering Thomas with expensive favors is not to “buy his vote on any particular case”, but to “give him something to lose if he should start seeing the charms of liberal philosophy” — as previous Republican-appointed justices like David Souter and John Paul Stevens had.

That interpretation seemed obvious to me, so I was wondering why I wasn’t hearing it from other commentators. Well, Friday Chris made precisely that case. So did Levitz:

The claim that none of these payments actually influenced Thomas’s jurisprudence seems plausible. Thomas was a reactionary long before he met Harlan Crow. It is possible that Crow’s largesse was motivated by a desire to insure against the risk of Thomas converting to liberalism à la David Souter.

Senator Whitehouse tells the Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas’ acceptance of luxurious unreported vacations has a precedent: Justice Scalia took more than 70 free vacations at expensive resorts, and declared none of them.

If you want to dig deeper into the dark-money network that is pushing the courts to the right in ways that undermine democracy, listen to the “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaires” episode of Dahlia Lithwick’s Amicus podcast. That’s where the quote at the top of the page comes from.

and the case(s) against Trump

Closing arguments are happening today in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against Trump. The case, which hangs on whether Trump raped Carroll in the 1990s, will then go to the jury.

The Trump team mounted no defense, while Carroll not only described the rape under oath, but presented supporting evidence:

  • Two women testified that Carroll told them about the rape soon after it happened.
  • Two other women testified that Trump attacked them in similar fashion.
  • The jury saw the Access Hollywood tape from 2003 in which Trump bragged about assaulting women.
  • The jury also saw a Trump deposition from October. In the course of that testimony, Trump said that Carroll was “not my type”, but also mistook a photo of Carroll for his second wife, Marla Maples. (He also told Carroll’s lesbian lawyer that she wasn’t his type either. The lawyer was unfailingly polite during questioning, but I would have loved to hear her say, “With all due respect, you’re a fat old man. Nobody cares whether they’re your type.”)

The weakness of Carroll’s case is that

  • No third person saw the rape happen.
  • Carroll can’t say when it happened any more precisely than late 1995 or early 1996.

The standard of proof in a civil case is more-likely-than-not. So while I can imagine deciding that Carroll hasn’t proved her case beyond a reasonable doubt, given the vagueness of the timeframe, it’s hard for me to see how Trump’s non-defense can seem more likely than what Carroll has presented. (Trump’s lawyer is portraying the whole case as a conspiracy of Trump-hating women. But the judge will undoubtedly remind jurors that what either lawyer says is not evidence.) The defense has to be hoping that the jury contains at least one die-hard Trump cultist.

Whichever way it goes, we’re likely to get a verdict this week. It will be the first time a jury has ruled on Trump’s behavior.

If Joe Biden gave a deposition like Trump’s, Fox News would be replaying it 24/7 as evidence of dementia. Trump not only misidentified his second wife Marla Maples in a photo, but also says he can’t remember whether his affair with her started before or after his divorce from Ivana. In fact that affair was headline news at the time.

But nobody worries about that second thing being dementia, because we all — even his supporters — assume he’s lying under oath.

Ditto for his previous written responses to Robert Mueller’s questions. His answer to almost every question was that he didn’t remember.

Four members of the Proud Boys, including their former leader Enrique Tarrio, were convicted of seditious conspiracy Thursday. This is the third trial in which the Justice Department has gotten seditious conspiracy convictions against people involved in January 6. (Two previous trials convicted members of the Oath Keepers, including their founder Stewart Rhodes.)

Tarrio was convicted despite spending January 6 in Baltimore. He is the first person to be convicted of conspiring to organize the attack without directly participating in it. This suggests that DoJ is finally moving up the chain, and could eventually get to Trump.

Collectively, the three trials demonstrate that DoJ has gotten good at proving that there indeed was a seditious conspiracy on January 6. The question now is just: Who were the conspirators?

None of the convicted conspirators have been sentenced yet, but the DoJ just made its sentencing recommendation for Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes: 25 years in prison. We’ll see if the judge agrees. Meanwhile, a man convicted of attacking police with a chair and bear spray was sentenced to 14 years, the most any January 6 defendant has received so far. Prosecutors had asked for 24 years.

Sentences like that increase pressure on conspirators to flip on someone higher up the chain.

Speaking of flipping, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that at least eight of the 16 fake electors Trump lined up to cast Georgia’s electoral votes for him (in spite of the fact that he lost the state to Joe Biden) have accepted immunity deals from Fulton County DA Fani Willis.

It’s not immediately clear what they’re going to testify to or who they’re going to testify against, but it is an indication that Willis will be seeking indictments against people higher in the fake-elector conspiracy. Willis has already warned local officials to be ready for indictments to come down (with possible violent responses from protesters) during the July 11 to September 1 grand jury term.

She hasn’t said whether she plans to indict Trump, but it’s hard to see why indictments against John Eastman or Rudy Giuliani would provoke violence.

and you also might be interested in …

King Charles III was crowned in England Saturday. I’m not sure why anybody cares about this, but a lot of people seem to.

President Biden did not attend, because no American president has ever attended an English coronation. (No offense, but kings just aren’t our thing.) He was represented by the First Lady.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center gives a 62% chance of El Nino developing by July. If so, that will likely mean record global temperatures.

My somewhat oversimplified understanding of El Nino and the climate is that the temperature measurements we usually see are air temperatures, but global warming also affects the oceans. El Nino releases ocean heat into the air.

Jordan Neely was a homeless man acting weird on the New York subway, until someone killed him. Everyone knows who did it, but the killer hasn’t been arrested or charged with anything. Some people regard him as a hero.

To me, this is the urban version of shooting a stranger who rings your doorbell. These days, everyone who exhibits unexpected behavior seems like a threat, and many seem to believe that potentially deadly force is a reasonable response, especially if the object of your fear fits into some easily dehumanized category.

Ted Cruz has a challenger in 2024: Congressman Colin Allred, who faced an interesting choice when he graduated from college. Allred hadn’t been drafted by the NFL, but he had gotten into law school. He took the risky path and went to an NFL training camp anyway. He made the squad, and had a four-year career as a Tennessee Titans linebacker. Then he returned to the law.

I wonder if Allred has read Josh Hawley’s book on manliness yet.

Ted is already rattled. His fund-raising text against Allred used a picture of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg instead of Allred. (Those Black people — they all look alike. Right?)

Another mass shooting in Texas and once again Republican officials are calling for prayer. They need to read the Book of Amos, which quotes God saying this:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In other words: “It pisses me off when you expect me to fix problems you caused and refuse to work on.”

Early indications can be misleading, but the mall shooter looks like a right-wing extremist.

Governor Abbott repeats the other popular meaningless response to our gun-violence problem:

The long-term solution here is to address the mental-health issue.

But of course he’s been cutting mental-health funding. Because he doesn’t actually care about mental health; he just wants to shift attention away from gun control.

This is a popular rhetorical tactic on the Right: minimize one problem by comparing it to another, when in fact you don’t want to address either one.

So if you want to talk about how many unarmed people of color are killed by police, they’ll ask why nobody on the Left cares about the much more serious problem of black-on-black crime. But their interest in black-on-black crime goes away as soon as you stop talking about the police. Or they’ll ask why we’re sending money to Ukraine when there are homeless veterans here in the US. “OK, then,” you say, “let’s do something about homeless veterans.” Never mind. They only cared about the veterans to argue against aiding Ukraine.

Who in 1967 suspected that the unknown young Cat Stevens was writing an anthem for the 2020s, “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun“?

Also in Texas: A car plowed into a crowd of people outside a shelter serving migrants and homeless people in Brownsville, while the driver shouted anti-migrant obscenities. Seven dead, ten injured.

Deborah Fallows borrows her husband’s Substack blog to tell her story of long Covid.

Brexit was the UK’s version of Trump’s America First policy: The rest of the world has been taking advantage of us and we’re going to put a stop to it.

Well, it’s now pretty clear that was a huge mistake, and the British economy is in bad shape.

and let’s close with something retro

The next big thing in transportation might be a ship with sails. Not big cloth ones like the old clipper ships, but huge vertical wings. Cargo ships may never against be completely wind-powered, but what if wind assistance could cut fuel use by 30% or so?

Does the US have a spending problem?

Compared to other countries, no. But if you think the US should be “exceptional” and that climate change is a hoax, maybe.

As House Republicans get closer and closer to forcing a debt-ceiling crisis that could result in the United States defaulting on commitments it has already written into law, American citizens need to raise their understanding of how all this works. Previously, I’ve written two posts on this theme: The first explained what the debt ceiling is and why we shouldn’t have one at all. (Only the US and Denmark have debt ceilings, and Denmark doesn’t play chicken with theirs. No other country inflicts these kinds of fiscal crises on itself.) The second looked at the history of the US national debt and how it accumulated.

Now it’s time to address the main argument House Republicans are making to justify playing chicken with an economic catastrophe: Sure, the US defaulting on its commitments would be bad, but it’s worse to do nothing, because our ever-increasing spending and debt is pushing us towards an even greater catastrophe.

In other words, a self-inflicted debt-ceiling crisis is the lesser evil. Steve Moore, the Club for Growth founder that Trump tried to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board, puts it like this:

The nation’s good credit standing in the global capital markets isn’t imperiled by not passing a debt ceiling. The much-bigger danger is that Congress does extend the debt ceiling, but without any reforms in the way Congress grossly overspends.

The first part of that claim is obvious nonsense: Not passing a debt ceiling certainly does imperil the US standing in credit markets. But let’s examine the second claim: Not just that the government spends more money than some people would like, but that doing so is pushing us towards a national catastrophe.

Spending. It’s a matter of simple fact that government spending and debt have gone up considerably — both in absolute terms and as a percentage of our annual GDP — in the late Trump years and since Biden took office. Basically, the Covid pandemic both cut revenue and required enormous government spending to avoid great public suffering while the private sector was largely shut down. The necessity of that deficit spending was a bipartisan conclusion; it happened under both Trump and Biden and was supported in Congress by members of both parties.

(Notice that the extreme right of the graph above is a projection to 2050, not something that has already happened.)

That increase in the debt built on a previous run-up during the Great Recession that started in 2007. Again, the stimulus spending and tax-cutting was bipartisan; it began under Bush and continued under Obama.

But looking forward, the US faces challenges that the two parties see differently. Democrats want the government to spend money on them, while Republicans don’t.

  • Democrats see climate change as a problem that requires a major restructuring of the economy, moving away from fossil fuels and towards energy from sustainable sources. However, climate change is a classic externality — a real cost that falls neither on the producer nor the consumer of fossil fuels — so the market will not make this shift without government intervention. Republicans deny that climate change is a problem.
  • Democrats want to shift healthcare — nearly 1/7th of the economy — from the private sector to the public sector. Medicare began this shift in the 1960s. ObamaCare continued it, and progressives like Bernie Sanders would like to complete it. Republicans would like to stop this shift, if not roll it back.

Abstract debates about “spending” are really about these two issues, plus the perennial question of how good a safety net the US should provide for its poor: Is it enough to keep people from starving in the streets, or should the government guarantee every American a decent life, whether they can find a job or not?

It’s worth noting that the other big government expenditure — defense — is largely bipartisan. In general, progressive Democrats would like to spend less on defense and MAGA Republicans more, but neither party has a consensus for major changes in our military posture in the world.

The politics of spending. The bill House Republicans recently passed reflected these priorities: It agreed to raise the debt ceiling for about a year (at which point we’d go through the same ordeal again), in exchange for

  • capping “discretionary spending” — basically everything but Social Security and Medicare — at FY 2022 levels and letting them increase by only 1% per year.
  • rolling back provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act to subsidize sustainable energy, while increasing production of fossil fuels

plus a few other things. The discretionary spending cap isn’t across-the-board, but also doesn’t specify the cuts. This allows Republicans to dodge when Democrats say they’ve voted to cut some popular program like veterans’ benefits. And of course, every program that gets exempted from the cuts means that deeper cuts will be needed elsewhere.

The White House has been attacking Republicans for proposing cuts to veterans’ care. Republicans in House leadership have responded that no cuts are intended. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised he will protect the military from reductions, though the bill as written does not exclude them. And Kay Granger, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said border security remains a top priority.

This is a feature of our politics that I’ve noted before: The American people don’t really understand where government spending goes, so they support spending cuts in the abstract, while rejecting any specific list of significant cuts.

The two parties maneuver around that phenomenon: Republicans support vague spending “caps” that don’t specifically cut anything in particular, while Democrats try to pin them down. Do they want to cut defense? Veterans benefits? Health care? Education? No, of course not. They just want to cut “spending”.

Is government spending a problem? For Republicans, this is an article of faith, but it’s really not obvious. For example, look at Wikipedia’s list of countries by government spending as a percentage of GDP. (The US total accounts not just for federal spending, but state and local as well.)

As of 2022, the US was not an outlier in either direction, spending about 38% of GDP via government. That’s less that most comparable countries: the UK (45%), Germany (50%), Canada (41%), and France (58%) for example. But it’s also more than Switzerland (34%) and Israel (37%), and almost exactly the same as Australia.

And while government spending has been generally rising over the decades — it was less than 20% of GDP a century ago — the increase doesn’t look precipitous or out of control.

In short, if you argue that the US has a spending problem, what you’re implicitly saying is that we shouldn’t be like other nations. If you regard Germany or France as cautionary tales, then we need to cut spending before we wind up like them. On the other hand, if you envy countries like Denmark (49%), the Netherlands (45%), and Finland (54%) — Finland regularly comes out on top of polls about public happiness — then you can only shake your head at this “out-of-control spending” talk.

The ledger has two sides. So while the “spending problem” is debatable, it is obvious that the national debt is growing. Intuitively this seems bad (though I’ll push discussing how bad it really is off to a later post). But jumping immediately from a debt problem to a spending problem is sleight-of-hand. Spending 38% of GDP (or 50% or even more) through the public sector doesn’t necessarily create debt if we’re willing to pay taxes at that level.

Our debt problem (from the same Wikipedia list) comes from the fact that we’re only paying 33% of GDP in taxes. This is not high by comparison with other countries. South Korea pays 27% and Ireland 23%, but just about every other country we might compare ourselves to pays more: Germany 47%, Canada 41%, the United Kingdom 39%, and so on.

So it’s disingenuous to frame the debt as a national crisis, but take taxes off the table. In particular, the Trump tax cuts went mainly to corporations and the very rich, while adding trillions to the debt over a ten-year period. Most spending cuts are unpopular in themselves, but they’re particularly unpopular when you pair them with tax cuts, as in “We have to kick your cousin off Medicaid so that billionaires can keep the tax cuts Trump gave them.”

The private sector isn’t magic. Much of the debate about government spending is really about whether some necessary expense winds up in the public or private sector. We could, for example, cut government spending overnight just by closing all the public schools. Kids would still need to be educated, and most middle-class-and-above families would find some way to send their own kids to private schools (maybe with help from grandparents). Taxes could go down, but private expenses would go up.

Ditto for Social Security. We could end it an save everybody taxes. But you’d also have to worry about whether your parents or grandparents were starving, and maybe they’d have to move in with you.

All our highways could be toll roads run by private corporations. Taxes could go down, but you’d have to pay tolls.

The point I’m making here is that nothing magic happens when we move an expenditure from the public to the private sector or vice versa. Somebody still has to teach the kids, take care of the sick, and pave the highways. You don’t necessarily save anything just by paying those people out of a different piggy bank.

That observation is going to be important the next time we consider expanding national health care. Conservatives are going to freak out about the massive increase in government spending. “OMG! We can’t afford this!” But if the net effect is that taxes replace health-insurance premiums, we can. That’s the main reason government spending (and taxation) is higher in places like France and Germany: They’re buying stuff through the public sector that we buy through the private sector. People still wind up paying doctors and nurses to take care of them, but the money traverses a different route.

Spending and democracy. Finally, we need to recognize that the current situation results largely from what the American people want: The particular programs the government spends money are popular, while taxes are unpopular. The current spending and taxing levels were passed by the Congress the people elected.

The point of using the debt ceiling as a hostage-taking tactic is to circumvent democracy. Yes, the people did narrowly elect a House Republican majority in 2022, but Republican candidates ran on issues that have largely vanished from the House Republican agenda, like crime. They certainly did not run on a list of spending cuts, and in fact they still have not produced such a list, because they know it would be unpopular.

The American people have also elected a Democratic Senate majority and a Democratic President. (Both of those happened in spite of structural factors that allow Republicans to win without representing a majority of voters, like the small-state bias in the Senate and the Electoral College.) The Republican House should not get to control the agenda simply because they are apparently willing to push the economy’s self-destruct button unless they get their way.

So what should happen? The debt ceiling should play no role, and Congress should work out a budget for next year, adjusting both the taxing and spending sides of the ledger. Republicans should have a bigger say in the next budget than the last one, because they won the House majority. But both parties should publish their budget priorities and see how the American people like them.

So is there a spending problem? Not really. Not by international standards and not compared to what the people want. What the government spends money on may or may not be what you want it to spend money on. But that’s why we have elections.