To Investigate or Not?

At a certain point you’re either for an independent and impartial investigation, or you’re not.

– Ambassador Nikki Haley (4-10-2018)
She was talking about Russia’s approach to Syria’s chemical weapons.
What did you think she was talking about?

This week I have a lot of featured posts that are shorter than usual: “‘Make a Deal’: My Contribution to the Trump/Mueller Musical“, “Can I Stop Writing About Paul Ryan Now?“, and “My taxes are half what I’d pay if I just made wages“.

This week everybody was talking about Syria

A little over a week ago, the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma was hit with a chemical-weapons attack. Suspicion immediately fell on the Assad government, which has done stuff like this before. Assad’s ally Russia vetoed a US resolution in the UN Security Council that would establish a commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the attack.

Early Saturday morning (local time), the US, UK, and France launched missile strikes against what they described as chemical-weapons facilities in Syria. The point, apparently, was not to move the balance-of-power in Syria’s civil war, which Assad (with help from Russia and Iran) is winning. The point was to punish Assad for breaking the international convention against chemical weapons. The attacks were over in a few hours, but the coalition is ready to strike again if Assad uses chemical weapons again. At the moment, Russia appears unlikely to counter-attack.

There are a bunch of issues to unravel here, and I don’t have all the answers.

  • Did Assad use chemical weapons? Russia says no, but their credibility with me is not very high right now. In the US a number of voices — mainly on the right but also a few on the left — are skeptical. But none of the alternative stories — fraud, false flag operation — make a lot of sense. I think the Trump administration wishes the whole Middle East would go away, so I don’t see a motive to fake an attack.
  • Will missile strikes deter future chemical weapons use, or is there some better way? I totally agree with the idea that chemical weapon attacks shouldn’t be tolerated. But is this really the most effective response? Obama threatened an attack, and then tried to negotiate Assad’s weapons away (with Russia as guarantor). That didn’t work. Trump punished Assad with a missile strike last year, and that didn’t work. Why do we think incrementally more punishment is going to work now? Both presidents — Fareed Zakaria points out how similar they are on this issue — tried to calibrate their responses perfectly, so that Assad is deterred, but we don’t wind up more deeply involved in Syria. Is that even possible? I don’t have a better idea, but I have to wonder if we’re working within the wrong frame. Or maybe this attack is more for our own satisfaction — we did something! — than to accomplish a real purpose.
  • Is Trump wagging the dog? As a steadfast Trump critic, I don’t think so. Or if that is what he intended — to divert attention from the Mueller investigation and other scandals — it’s not working. In the absence of further strikes, headlines are already shifting back to Comey’s book and what the feds got by raiding Michael Cohen. (Trump didn’t even manage to distract himself for long.) And if this turns into a longer bombing campaign, Trump’s base will hate it as much or more than I do. They like chest-thumping, but not endless wars with no obvious goal.
  • Do we have some strategy in Syria, or are we just reacting to events as they happen? Compare to Russia: If Russians ask why their government is involved in Syria, they can get some simple answers: to secure an air and naval base in the Mediterranean; to support an allied government that’s fighting Islamic terrorism; to prevent the United States imposing its will on the region; to show the world that Russia is a player again on the international stage. As an American, I can’t think of any similar answers for our involvement. We’re usually just told that worse things would happen if we disengaged.
  • Are attacks like this even legal? The Constitution assigns the war-making power to Congress, which hasn’t passed any substantive authorization since right after 9-11 and just before the Iraq invasion. It’s hard to claim that either of those applies here, since Saddam is long dead and Assad had no connection to 9-11. So Congress is AWOL. It could write a new authorization for intervention in places like Syria, or it could object to presidential overreach. But it’s doing neither. It should at least debate a resolution. Constitutional checks and balances only work when the branches of government compete for influence. When one branch decides it just doesn’t want to be blamed for whatever happens next, the whole system falls apart.

Trump’s announcement of the attack on Syria was the first time I can recall him calling out Russia specifically. Not sure what it means: The WaPo also reports today on how angry Trump was when he realized he was expelling more Russian diplomats than our European allies were.

Thomas Friedman worries about a different aspect of the chaos in Syria: Iran and Israel are starting to shoot at each other. Prior to the US/French/British missile raid, this week the Israelis hit an Iranian base in Syria. They claim it was because an Iranian drone flew from that base in February with the intention of attacking Israel. The claim is hard to evaluate, because the drone was shot down before it could do any damage.

Israel and Iran are now a hair-trigger away from going to the next level — and if that happens, the U.S. and Russia may find it difficult to stay out.

and Paul Ryan

I never get used to the way big stories collide during the Trump Era. It’s like a play whose actors keep stepping on each other’s lines. Wednesday, the Speaker of the House announced his retirement, and it was a one-day wonder.

That’s because Thursday evening the first excerpts of James Comey’s new book appeared, and rumors came out of the White House that Trump was about to fire Rod Rosenstein to rein in the Mueller investigation. Friday we found out that the raid on Michael Cohen’s office may have netted tapes of his conversations with Trump, and then in the evening Trump went on TV to announce an attack on Syria. Oh, and he pardoned the guy who obstructed justice and lied to investigators to protect Dick Cheney during the Valerie Plame scandal, apparently just to remind everybody that obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators are pardonable offenses. (Wink, wink.)

But let’s go back to Wednesday: The Speaker of the House is retiring in January. He’s the second Speaker to walk away from the job in the last three years. That didn’t used to happen. Sam Rayburn lasted for 17 years, and Tip O’Neil for nearly a decade. O’Neil was 74 when he retired and Rayburn died in office at 79. Ryan is 48 and Boehner was 65 when he retired.

Lots of people have a theory about why. I’ve paid a lot of attention to Ryan over the last six or seven years, so I offer my take in one of the featured posts.

and Michael Cohen

The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson thinks the raid on Michael Cohen’s office marks “the end stages of the Trump Presidency”.

This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth. I know dozens of reporters and other investigators who have studied Donald Trump and his business and political ties. Some have been skeptical of the idea that President Trump himself knowingly colluded with Russian officials. It seems not at all Trumpian to participate in a complex plan with a long-term, uncertain payoff. Collusion is an imprecise word, but it does seem close to certain that his son Donald, Jr., and several people who worked for him colluded with people close to the Kremlin; it is up to prosecutors and then the courts to figure out if this was illegal or merely deceitful. We may have a hard time finding out what President Trump himself knew and approved.

However, I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality.

Michael Cohen is right in the middle of all that, and has been for decades. Another New Yorker article sums up:

Cohen was directly involved in the Trump Organization’s pursuit of international deals in the years leading up to Trump’s Presidential campaign. During this period, the Trump Organization did business with corrupt politicians, sanctions violators, and money launderers. A key question, which carries significant legal ramifications, is how much the company knew about these partners’ records and reputations. Michael Cohen can answer this question.

He apparently taped phone calls, possibly with Trump or his children. He could be facing jail for his role in the Stormy Daniels pay-off, and possibly other similar incidents. If so, he might have reason to testify against Trump about anything else he knows — testimony that would be admissible if his advice had been used to plan a crime.

Trump and Cohen are claiming that the information seized by the US attorney for the Southern District of New York (not Robert Mueller; this is the job that Chuck Rhodes has on the TV show Billions) is protected by attorney-client privilege and so is inadmissible in court. Right now, the judge does not seem to be buying that claim, but it’s interesting to consider what happens if evidence of criminality is ruled inadmissible, but somehow gets out anyway: Will we tolerate having a criminal president if the evidence proving his criminality can’t be used in court? Would an impeachment hearing in Congress be bound by those rules?

but I took a closer look at my taxes

After I got done with my taxes (within a few days of the deadline, as usual), I refigured what they’d be if I had the same income, but got it all in the form of wages rather than as more investment income than wages. The answer: “My taxes are half what they’d be if I just made wages“. If you’re expecting me to defend the tax system that gives me that kind of advantage, don’t.

BTW, Elizabeth Warren has a bill that would have the IRS send you a tax return, which you could either accept or answer by filing your own. Other countries do this already.

and you also might be interested in …

James Comey’s book appears in stores tomorrow.

The graph below is a little hard to parse, but it captures some really interesting and important information. The full explanation is at Vox.

The authors (Max Roser and Stefan Thewissen) are trying to capture the notion of “inclusive growth”. In other words, an economy that grows without increasing inequality. What they’re plotting is the inflation-adjusted income that puts you at the 90th percentile versus the inflation-adjusted income that puts you in the 10th percentile. Countries higher up the scale have less equality. If your economy grows equally for everybody, your path should be diagonal. More upward slopes indicate increasing inequality, while more horizontal slopes indicate decreasing inequality. The paths start with the data from 1979.

Two things are striking: Early in the Thatcher years, the UK’s path goes straight up, as virtually all the growth goes to the wealthy. And the US’s path is unlike all the other countries’: We’re zig-zagging upwards as our inequality increases over the long term.

The point to learn from the US path is that our inequality problem is unique. You can’t blame it on some global cause like technology or globalization. We’ve been doing something different in this country since roughly the time of Ronald Reagan, and it’s not good.

There’s one thing I’d like to add to their study: As has been pointed out numerous times, things only get more out of hand in the US if you look at the 99th percentile or the 99.9th percentile. I’m curious how the graphs would change if those percentiles were looked at rather than the 90th.

Just another day under the most openly corrupt administration of my lifetime:

An Austin lawyer who dropped the state of Texas’ investigation of Trump University in 2010 may get a lifetime post as a federal judge.

Trump made the payoff nomination Tuesday. It’s up to the Senate now.

“Drain the swamp,” he says.

and let’s close with something fascinating

Bats actually don’t fly like birds. They’re doing something different with their wings.

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  • eganvarley  On April 17, 2018 at 5:13 am

    I can’t believe you don’t have pre-filled tax return documents in US.
    Here in France I just had to connect to the website of French equivalent of the IRS ( I was able to verify my pre-filled tax return document and sign it in less than 5 minutes.
    Your system look like a terrible mess…

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