Lessons Learned

[Jared] Kushner will [apply] the lessons he learned from being born rich and marrying the right person.

Simon Maloy

This week’s experiment in multiple shorter posts: “The Future Goes to Jared” points to Jared Kushner as a paradigm for success in the Second Gilded Age, “Freedom (Comcast’s) vs. Rights (Yours)” elaborates a freedom vs. rights theme I raised in 2015, and “Can We Get Real About Opioids?“.

This week everybody was talking about Mike Flynn

Trump’s former national security adviser shopped for an immunity deal and apparently hasn’t gotten one. The Wall Street Journal article that broke this story is behind their paywall, but some independent confirmation is at NBC.

Two possibilities: The first is that Flynn’s testimony could illuminate the entire network of Trump/Russia connections and bring down Trump himself. That notion was clearly in Josh Marshall’s mind:

You only get immunity if you deliver someone else higher up the ladder. And there’s only one person higher up the ladder.

The other is that Flynn is maneuvering. He faces a long list of legal problems, so maybe he wants to wriggle out without giving much in return. Alex Whiting at Just Security analyzes:

If he had something good, Flynn and his lawyer would approach the prosecutors quietly, go through the proffer process in confidence, and reach a deal. Why? Because prosecutors have an interest in keeping their investigation secret, and Flynn’s lawyer knows that. The last thing Flynn’s lawyer would do if he thought he had the goods would be to go public, because that would potentially compromise the criminal inquiry and would certainly irritate the prosecutors, the very people Flynn’s lawyer would be trying to win over.

I suspect that Flynn’s lawyer is really targeting Congress. He is hoping that one of the Congressional committees will take the bait and grant him immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Either way, two conclusions seem obvious: Flynn believes that by the time this is all over, somebody will want to prosecute him for something, and he’s not trusting Trump to pardon him. (That’s  probably a good idea given the way Sean Spicer has been pretending Flynn was never a major player.)

This flashes me back to something Senate Watergate Committee Chair Sam Ervin wrote:

As we contemplate the motives that inspired [the] misdeeds [of Nixon’s lieutenants], we acquire a new awareness of the significance of Cardinal Wolsey’s poignant lament: “Had I but serv’d my God with half the zeal I serv’d my King, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.”

(The content of the Wolsey quote is historical, but the phrasing comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.)

and Devin Nunes

The information that Devin Nunes brought to the White House on March 22 — that the Trump transition team had been inadvertently caught up in surveillance targeted at others, so Trump’s Obama-wiretapped-me tweet might have had some tangential basis — appears to have come from the White House to begin with. The New York Times identifies Nunes’ sources as Ezra Cohen-Watnick from the National Security Council and Michael Ellis from the White House Counsel’s office. The Washington Post adds a third source, NSC lawyer John Eisenberg.

None of them are the “whistleblowers” Nunes has been claiming, unless, as Josh Marshall adds, “we now consider people disseminating information from the White House on the President’s behalf ‘whistleblowers’.”

The obvious question: Why do White House staffers need to sneak information to the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, so that he can brief the President about it and talk about it (obliquely) to the press? Adam Schiff, the committee’s leading Democrat, asks:

This looks nothing like a whistleblower case. And again, I think the White House needs to answer: Is this instead a case where they wished to effectively launder information through our committee to avoid the true source of the information?

Vox summarizes:

Put more bluntly: Members of the Trump White House selectively leaked classified intelligence that doesn’t actually support their boss’s claim to a credulous congressman who uncritically parroted the information in a press conference just hours later.

Nunes kinda-sorta denied this, calling the reports “mostly wrong” and filled with “innuendo”.

Currently, the House investigation is completely shut down, without even behind-closed-doors committee meetings. By participating in what appears to be a White House info-laundering maneuver, Nunes has lost credibility as a leader of the investigation.

Pulitzer-winning journalist Bart Gellman explains a little about how secret surveillance reports work, and then raises this question:

If events took place as just described, then what exactly were Trump’s appointees doing? I am not talking only about the political chore of ginning up (ostensible) support for the president’s baseless claims about illegal surveillance by President Obama. I mean this: why would a White House lawyer and the top White House intelligence adviser be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place? Why would they go on to ask that the names be unmasked? There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?

Meanwhile, compared to its House equivalent, the Senate Intelligence Committee looks like a happy family. Republican Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have been presenting a united front and pledging to “get to the bottom of this”.

For weeks, Josh Marshall has been talking about the “gravity” of the Trump/Russia scandal — not in the sense of it being gravely serious (which it also is), but in the sense that people who get close to it keep getting pulled in. Why is Nunes sacrificing his reputation like this? Why did Jeff Sessions feel the need to lie to the Senate about his contacts with the Russians?

Astronomers can’t see black holes directly. They map them by their event horizon and their effect on nearby stars and stellar matter. We can’t see yet what’s at the center of the Trump/Russia black hole. But we can tell a lot about its magnitude by the scope of the event horizon and the degree of its gravitational pull, which is immense.

and the Gorsuch nomination

DecisionDeskHQ counts 41 Democrats against. That puts the ball in McConnell’s court: accept defeat or eliminate the filibuster?

and disarray in Congress

Republicans are continuing to promise that they’ll come up with an ObamaCare replacement plan they can pass through Congress. Trump described this goal as “an easy one” that is going to happen “quickly”. He also attacked the House Freedom Caucus for opposing the AHCA, and Paul Ryan warned them that if they couldn’t come together Trump might cut a deal with Democrats instead.

I’m discounting all of that. Two things sunk the AHCA: Republicans have no consensus view of the government’s proper role in healthcare, and the ideas that appeal to near-majority chunks of their caucus are deeply unpopular with the country. Neither can be fixed by reworking the details of a bill.

An analogy: When I’m good and truly stuck as a writer, invariably the problem turns out to be that my focus is too narrow to see the whole problem. I’m trying to find just the right word when the paragraph doesn’t make sense, or I’m trying to clarify the presentation of an argument that — if it were perfectly clear — would have an obvious hole in it. When I’m stuck like that, my worst enemy is the thought that I’m almost there. I get unstuck by admitting that I’m nowhere near where I want to be, which allows me to back up and look at what’s wrong with the bigger picture.

Republicans are still telling themselves that they’re almost there on healthcare. As long as they keep doing that, they’ll stay stuck. And the working-with-Democrats idea never includes any suggestions about what Democrats might want. That marks it as a fantasy.

They might run into the same problem on tax reform. The Koch brothers are advertising against Trump’s border-adjustment tax. In the same way that the Republican position on healthcare has been defined by opposition to ObamaCare rather than any positive vision, their position on taxes has always been “less”. They have no consensus on what should be taxed and how much.

They may not even prevent a government shutdown. Currently, the government is funded through April 28, and the clock is already ticking on the next basket of money. The WaPo identifies funding the Great Wall of Mexico as a possible issue, and New York points to defunding Planned Parenthood and/or ObamaCare.

and rolling back regulations that fight climate change

Tuesday, Trump issued a “Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth“, which rolls back Obama’s anti-climate-change executive orders. (Civics lesson: This is why you want to pass laws rather than just issue executive orders. Undoing a law is much harder.)

There have been two reactions to this:

  • Doom. Obama’s orders were already half-measures, and now we’re not even doing that much.
  • Shrug. Coal is dead for reasons that Trump can’t change, and the renewable energy boom will continue.

The most sophisticated reaction I’ve seen is Brad Plumer’s at Vox:

the first step in thinking about the road ahead for climate policy under Trump is understanding why federal action was so significant — and then figuring out what’s still possible if Trump rolls it back.

So Trump hasn’t stopped progress against climate change cold, but it’s still a real blow.

How can we know whether God exists? I take a hint from The New Yorker‘s David Owens:

Somewhat tantalizingly, it wouldn’t take much of a sea-level rise or storm surge to inundate the entire place, since [Mar-a-Lago’s] sweeping lawns, like most of the rest of southern Florida, lie just a few feet above high tide.

but deep beneath the headlines, the tectonic plates of culture keep shifting

In 2015, I coined a maxim that I should repeat more often: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.

The FX series Billions now has a gender-non-binary character. “Hello sir, my name is Taylor. My pronouns are they, theirs, and them.” Taylor isn’t a boy pretending to be a girl, or a girl who wants to be a boy, or someone who feels out of place in their body. Taylor’s social persona is not gender-specific. Within the universe of the show, the question “Is Taylor male or female?” has no answer.

After a few episodes, I’m surprised how easy it is to let that question go. The trip from bewilderment to “Why did I think that was a big deal?” is surprising short.

BBC’s “The Social” has an enlightening video on non-binary identity. Here’s another interesting testimony.

and you might also be interested in

One of the weirder projects out there: FOIA the Dead. When an obituary appears in the NYT, FOIA the Dead sends an automated Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for whatever files it has on that person, then posts what it gets, if anything. Privacy rules prevent the FBI from releasing the files of living people without some good reason, but looser rules apply to the dead. So, for example, we can now know what the FBI had (not much) on journalist Morley Safer or Kennedy-assassination conspiracy-theorist Mark Lane.

White Democrats and white Republicans disagree more than ever on the sources of racial inequality.

Trump is now more unpopular than Obama ever was. The head-shaking thing is that his problems are entirely self-inflicted. The economy is fine. No new wars, major terrorist attacks, or natural disasters. We haven’t even begun to speculate about whether something might be “Trump’s Katrina“.

If not for Russia and the Trump family’s profiteering on the presidency, HHS Secretary Tom Price would be a front-page scandal. ProPublica reports:

On the same day the stockbroker for then-Georgia Congressman Tom Price bought him up to $90,000 of stock in six pharmaceutical companies last year, Price arranged to call a top U.S. health official, seeking to scuttle a controversial rule that could have hurt the firms’ profits and driven down their share prices, records obtained by ProPublica show.

The Kansas experiment in conservative economics continues to produce negative results: According to figures from the Fed, Kansas now has the worst economic growth in the nation. Meanwhile, the Republican legislature finally voted to expand Medicaid, and Governor Brownback vetoed it.

Thursday, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced a shift in U.S. policy towards Syria: We’re no longer going to “focus on getting Assad out”. In other words: We move closer to Russia’s position and away from our NATO allies.

North Carolina is repealing and replacing its controversial bathroom bill. But the replacement retains a lot of bad stuff. Like the original, it makes a mockery of conservative rhetoric about local control by banning any city from protecting LGBT rights.

A similar mockery: Iowa just nullified any local attempt to raise the minimum wage. Five Iowa counties had voted to establish a wage higher than the federal minimum of $7.25, and in one it had already taken effect.

and let’s close with another adaptation of a classic

Last week I posted “Donnie in the Room“, my retelling of the TrumpCare saga in the style of “Casey at the Bat”. This week, Sandi and Richard Riccardi do “The Boy from Mar-a-Lago“.

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  • Jeff Rosenberg  On April 3, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    The graph on white attitudes towards blacks is fascinating — in particular the shift post 2008. Is this some sort of backlash to a combination of the Bush (as in W.) disastrous years followed by the election of Obama and his relative success. Talk about putting cognitive dissonance in your face!

    And, it should be noted that the original cigarette advertisements (e.g., see New Yorker) emphasized the health benefits of smoking.

  • Larry Benjamin  On April 3, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    I haven’t seen “Billions,” but I’m reminded of the “Androgynous Pat” character on SNL, where the running joke was people trying to figure out if the character was male or female without coming out and asking. For example, when the character gets a haircut, the price is $15 for men and $18 for women; Pat gives the barber a $20 and says “keep the change.”

  • Rick Strong  On April 3, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    I’ve read another model (can’t remember where, sorry) that might explain both Flynn’s and Trump’s behavior – i.e. Trump unaccountably praising the idea of Flynn getting immunity. In this model, Flynn is the designated fall guy; once he has immunity, he can cop to anything, including anything that Trump (or others) may have done, and he will become, in effect, a scapegoat in the original sense, in that he will take the sins of the White House upon himself and be driven into the desert.

  • Chuck LaBerge  On April 3, 2017 at 7:40 pm

    On NPR last week, I heard interviews where both Republican and Democratic Senators lamented the fact that the “nuclear option” would reduce the Senate. So here’s a compromise, where both sides don’t get what they really want. Democrats realize that Gorsuch will be confirmed, so a filibuster will just impose problems on future nominations. But Democrats are correctly upset with the abysmal treatment of Garland. So: 1) Democrats offer no filibuster to Garland 2) Republicans change the Senate Rules to a) require any future SCOTUS nominee have a hearing within 120 days and a vote within 150 days and b) to make changing this SCOTUS rule subject to a super majority (like 2/3). Democrats get a conservative judge who doesn’t change the current court that much, and assurance that a future President won’t have the clock run out. They aren’t going to stop Gorsuch, so they might as well get something for it.

    • Chuck LaBerge  On April 3, 2017 at 7:42 pm

      Duh. In point 1) I clearly meant Gorsuch, not Garland. Sorry.

      • telzeyamberdon  On April 4, 2017 at 8:34 pm

        Yeah, there’s no way to go back in and fix a typo. Frustratin’!

    • weeklysift  On April 3, 2017 at 9:02 pm

      The problem is that every new Senate is its own master. it would be very hard to make the 2/3rds rule stick, if the majority in a future Senate didn’t want to be bound by it.

  • telzeyamberdon  On April 4, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    Kansas now has the worst economic growth in the nation? Really? I thought that was my own home state of Connecticut. We’re blue, but we’re being run by rich “old money” white politicians out of Fairfield county who, despite being theoretically “Democrats”, are as happy as any conservative with the status remaining as quo as possible; i.e., them on top and in the money, who cares about anyone else. If you send a note of complaint to one of them that perhaps we should be investing in our 50 year old infrastructure or revving up an e-economy, sandwiched as we are between Boston and NYC powerhouses, you will get back a cut-and-paste tl;dnr about how gosh-durned hard they’re working to bring back all those wonderful high-paying factory jobs that high-tailed it overseas more than 20 years ago (hint: never gonna happen.)

    One scary thing to note about Connecticut is that, except for several big cities that just barely carried the day for HRC (than you, appalled ethnic voters), large swathes of used-to-be-middle-class, now poor-and-frightened whites voted Trump overwhelmingly. Pre-election suburban neighborhoods showed Vote Trump/Pence signs for miles and miles. The post-election graphic of CT looked like an red state with tiny pockets of blue.


  • By Where It Ends | The Weekly Sift on April 10, 2017 at 11:37 am

    […] I explained last week, the effort to revive ObamaCare repeal is going nowhere. Congress is taking its April recess with […]

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