Not All Appearances are Deceiving

No Sift the next two weeks. New articles will appear May 28.

The bottom line — which will remain true no matter how much the Kochs spend trying to convince you otherwise — is that what looks like a big giveaway to wealthy investors is, in fact, a big giveaway to wealthy investors.

– Paul Krugman “Apple and the Fruits of Tax Cuts” (5-3-2018)

This week’s featured post is “Speaking in Code: two phrases that no longer mean what they used to“.

This week everybody was talking about lies

From the beginning I have resisted paying too much attention to the Stormy Daniels story — or publishing pictures of her in low-cut tops — because to the extent that it’s about sex I just don’t care. People who cared about Bill Clinton’s affairs should have to explain why they don’t care about Trump’s. But I don’t care about either one.

Increasingly, though, the Stormy story has come to exemplify other disturbing features of Trump and his administration: financial corner-cutting, and an approach towards lying that doesn’t even seek deceive so much as destroy the idea of a knowable truth.

This week, Rudy Giulani began giving interviews in his role as Trump’s new lawyer. He soon offered a new story of Trump’s role in the $130K hush money Daniels was given by Michael Cohen, and then a new story after that, only to have Trump say that Giuliani didn’t have his facts straight. By Sunday’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Giuliani was treating the simplest questions as deep philosophical mysteries. When did Trump know about the payment? Apparently the question is unfathomable.

It could have been recently, it could have been awhile back. Those are the facts that we’re still working on and that, you know, may be in a little bit of dispute. This is more rumor than anything else.

Remember: Giuliani is not a reporter dealing with a hostile source; he’s a lawyer representing a client.

In general, it’s getting harder and harder to get a straight story from anybody in the administration about much of anything. Vox compiled a timeline of the different things we’ve been told about the Daniels payoff: It didn’t happen (January 12); Cohen paid it using his own money (February 13); Trump knew nothing about it (April 5); Cohen was representing Trump when he made the payment (April 26); Trump repaid Cohen (May 2). Since then we’ve heard that Trump repaid Cohen, but by paying a $35K monthly retainer without knowing what it was for. Or maybe he did know.

The latest version suggests that Cohen might have been running a deniable slush fund for the Trump campaign.

What never seems to happen, though, is that a person with knowledge walks us through the story from beginning to end, and takes responsibility for that story hanging together for the long haul.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended previously telling the press corps that Trump didn’t know about the payment by saying “We’re giving you the best information that we’re going to have. Obviously the press team’s not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements, at a given moment, on a variety of topics. But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have.” Translation: Trump lied to her too.

My growing impression is that in TrumpWorld the concepts of truth and lie are meaningless. We are all told whatever will best placate us at the moment, by people who may not know any more than we do. If at some future moment we become agitated again, we’ll be told something else.

Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky compared what Trump told the NRA Friday to what he told the Parkland families soon after the shooting.

If he’s in front of families, he might say something in support of common sense gun reform. But then when he’s at the NRA, he’ll say something to get a big cheer.

Vox’ Dara Lind recalls numerous moments when the press reported that Trump was considering some action — changing his legal team, firing Rex Tillerson, firing H. R. McMaster — Trump vociferously denounced the report as fake news, and then shortly thereafter he did the thing he had denied considering.

With their actions, Trump and his White House have forfeited the right to have any influence on which stories about the president should or should not be believed. If they have no scruples about when and about what to lie, the only responsible alternative is to assume, always, that their statements have no relationship whatsoever to the truth.

Then we get to the strange story of Trump’s former doctor, Harold Bornstein, the one who signed a letter claiming that “If elected, Mr Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

He now tells us that Trump dictated that letter himself, and that Bornstein just signed it.

A few weeks after the inauguration, Bornstein claims, Trump sent a lawyer and his bodyguard to his office to take Trump’s medical records by force, in what he characterized as a “raid” and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called “standard operating procedure“. The BBC quotes Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bio-ethics at NYU:

In the US, medical records are joint property. They do belong to the patient who can have a copy, but the doctor keeps one too because if an issue comes up about malpractice, they have to have the record. You can’t just come in and take away everything.

The big question we’re left with is: Do we actually know anything trustworthy about Trump’s health? The report from his White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, also included an unprofessional level of flattery. (“He has incredibly good genes. … If he had a healthier diet over the last 20 years he might live to be 200”.) Jackson was then rewarded with a cabinet nomination, though he later had to withdraw.

and impeachment

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote an op-ed in the NYT Friday urging Democrats not to “take the bait” on impeachment. He points out that impeachment is both a legal and a political process, and requires both a legal and a political justification:

while that political standard cannot be easily or uniformly defined, I think in the present context it means the following: Was the president’s conduct so incompatible with the office he holds that Democratic and Republican members of Congress can make the case to their constituents that they were obligated to remove him? … This is a very high bar, and it should be.

If I were a Democrat running for Congress, I’d be talking about checks and balances rather than speculating about impeachment. The problem with the Republican Congress is that it doesn’t want to know what Trump did or is doing. It tolerates Trump’s blatant attempts to influence the Justice Department. It winks and nods at the various ways Trump is making money off the presidency. The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation — now concluded — was more interested in harassing whistleblowers and intimidating investigators than in finding out whether anyone in the Trump campaign committed treason, or if Putin has some illicit hold on Trump himself.

At the same time, the evidence publicly available at this moment is more smoke than fire. It raises questions but does not by itself constitute proof of high crimes and misdemeanors, the constitutional standard for impeachment. The Mueller investigation may or may not have such evidence; that remains to be seen. But any Democrat who says, “Vote for me and I’ll vote to impeach Trump” is going too far.

With regard to Trump, my recommended message would be: “Trump is not trustworthy, so we need a Democratic Congress to keep an eye on him and to make sure he fulfills his constitutional responsibility to faithfully execute the laws. We’ll insist that he produce his tax returns, as every other recent president has. We’ll investigate whether he’s violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. We’ll protect the Mueller investigation from improper interference until it can produce a full report.”

“Will that lead to impeachment? That will depend on facts we don’t know yet. But if you ever want to know the facts, you have to elect a Democratic Congress, because Republicans have proved already that they are more loyal to Trump than they are to America. A Republican Congress will continue to cover for him and make excuses for him, rather than be the kind of watchdog the Founders intended Congress to be.”

and the role of parties in primaries

At the end of April, The Intercept published an article about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official Democratic group responsible for winning House elections. It is chaired by Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, who ranks just behind Nancy Pelosi among House Democrats.

The article centers on a tape of Hoyer trying to convince a progressive candidate to drop out of the race, clearing the primary for a moderate Democrat that Hoyer believes has a better chance to win the general election.

The article itself has a tone that suggests there is something illegitimate about this kind of pre-primary interference, that the national party ought to stay neutral and let the local voters decide for themselves. Some of the social media discussion this article provoked made that case more explicitly: The national party shouldn’t be trying to “rig the primaries” by helping one candidate over another.

The contrary viewpoint was expressed by author Elaine Kamarck in Thursday’s NYT. In her view, national parties in America are far less controlling than those in other democratic countries, and are already virtually abdicating their responsibility.

This is not to say that there is no role for primaries. But the pendulum between the party’s leaders choosing its candidates and primary voters choosing them has swung so far in the direction of the voters that even the smallest, most modest efforts to intervene in nomination races are deemed illegitimate.

Personally, I have trouble getting excited about this issue for a simple reason: If Steny Hoyer and a little money can stop you, then you’re not the revolutionary grass-roots candidate you claim to be. Look at what has happened on the Republican side: Trump-style populists like Roy Moore have repeatedly routed the more mainstream candidates Mitch McConnell tries to pre-select, to the point that it’s not clear whether Mitch’s endorsement helps more than it hurts.

Speaking of primaries and parties, Republicans are facing some strange dynamics.

Tomorrow is the West Virginia primary, where establishment Republicans are increasingly worried that coal baron Don Blankenship will win the Republican nomination for the Senate.

Blankenship’s corner-cutting on safety regulations was the primary cause of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 people in 2010. Blankenship escaped conviction on the biggest charges against him and spent a mere one year in prison, so he’s ready for the Senate.

The Onion has it about right:

I’m Don Blankenship, and I’m proud to say that my vision and leadership created countless new job opportunities in the fields of search and rescue, emergency surgery, funeral services, and many more. From trauma specialists and morticians all the way down to the manufacturers of vigil candles, gravestones, and sympathy cards, I’m committed to putting West Virginians to work. I’ve even created 29 new coal mining jobs. Can Mitch McConnell say the same?

In California, Diane Feinstein may end up running against an explicit anti-Semite.

Aghast at the possibility of being represented by a Senate candidate whose platform calls for “limiting representation of Jews in the government” and making it U.S. policy that the Holocaust “is a Jewish war atrocity propaganda hoax that never happened,” California Republican leaders were quick to denounce Little.

“Mr. Little has never been an active member of our party. I do not know Mr. Little and I am not familiar with his positions,” Matt Fleming, a California Republican Party spokesman, said in a statement. “But in the strongest terms possible, we condemn anti-Semitism and any other form of religious bigotry, just as we do with racism, sexism or anything else that can be construed as a hateful point of view.”

Should they be rigging the primary like that?

but you should read this hard-to-pigeonhole article

The Spy Who Came Home” in The New Yorker. Patrick Skinner was a CIA operative in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then he came home to be a beat cop in Savannah.

“We write these strategic white papers, saying things like ‘Get the local Sunni population on our side,’ ” Skinner said. “Cool. Got it. But, then, if I say, ‘Get the people who live at Thirty-eighth and Bulloch on our side,’ you realize, man, that’s fucking hard—and it’s just a city block. It sounds so stupid when you apply the rhetoric over here. Who’s the leader of the white community in Live Oak neighborhood? Or the poor community?” Skinner shook his head. “ ‘Leader of the Iraqi community.’ What the fuck does that mean?”

“We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” he told me. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.”

and you also might be interested in …

The videos coming out of Hawaii are amazing.

The deadline for re-affirming the Iran nuclear deal is Saturday. In the Boston Globe, Harvard Kennedy School professor Matthew Bunn offers suggestions for building new agreements on top of the existing one, but presents this warning about simply walking away from the existing agreement.

if Trump walks out of the deal on May 12, the United States will be isolated. Few others will join the US sanctions, diluting the pressure that could be brought to bear on Iran. And in Iran’s internal debates, the advocates for engagement with the West would be discredited, probably making any new or better deal impossible for years to come. Iran would be freed from the deal’s nuclear limits and could begin building up its capability to produce nuclear bomb material. That could leave Trump with few choices between accepting an Iran on the edge of nuclear weapons or launching yet another war in the Middle East.

The NYT warns that verifying compliance of any North Korean nuclear deal will be even harder than verifying the Iran deal.

The nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA director will reach the Senate floor soon. The nomination is controversial because of the still-not-fully-explained role she played in torturing detainees and/or covering up that torture. Here’s how Trump is framing that:

My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror.

Think about that: She’s under fire because of suspicion that she broke the law against torture, putting the US in violation of the Convention Against Torture that President Reagan signed and the Senate ratified. But in Trump’s book, breaking the law is fine if you break it over the heads of the right people.

The Krugman quote at the top concerns Apple’s announcement that it will buy back $100 billion of its own stock. This will benefit Apple’s shareholders, but do virtually nothing to create jobs or grow the US economy.

This is turning out to be typical of how corporations are spending the windfall they got from the Trump tax cut. The political hype was that companies with big offshore profits would now bring that money back to the US to build new factories, hire more workers, and pay them higher wages. Several companies made happy headlines by announcing $1000 worker bonuses immediately after the tax bill passed. But such actions represent only a tiny fraction of the corporate tax-cut windfall.

Unemployment went below 4% last month, a number not seen since the end of the Clinton administration. Basically, the unimpressive but steady job growth that started under Obama has continued under Trump. Unemployment peaked at over 10% in October, 2009, and has been headed down since then. Looking at the Fed’s graph, it’s hard to spot the Obama/Trump changeover.

Iowa just passed a law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That threshold is usually crossed at around 6 weeks, when many women do not even realize they are pregnant. So for most practical purposes abortion will have been banned in Iowa when the law takes effect on July 1.

Abortion-rights groups will ask courts to block the bill, but that seems to be the point: generating a legal case that will give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reverse Roe v Wade.

Liberals are often urged not to poke the bear with proposals that are unlikely to become law, but will validate conservative fears: sweeping gun bans, for example. For some reason, conservatives don’t operate under the same restrictions.

The NYT’s conservative columnist Bret Stephens makes the case for the US continuing as the world policeman.

The world learned on Sept. 1, 1939, where the mentality of every-country-for-itself leads. Our willful and politically wounded president is leading us there again. A warning to countries that have relied too long and lazily on the promises of Pax Americana: The policeman has checked out. You’re on your own again.

One standard feature of conservative health-care plans (at least for the conservatives who even bother to have a plan any more) is high-deductible insurance. The idea is that Americans will be less wasteful with their use of the healthcare system if they have what Paul Ryan calls “skin in the game”.

High deductibles do decrease Americans’ use of healthcare. However, sometimes the result is that people who need care forego it.

Women who had just learned they had breast cancer were more likely to delay getting care if their deductibles were high, the study showed. A review of several years of medical claims exposed a pattern: Women confronting such immediate expenses put off getting diagnostic imaging and biopsies, postponing treatment.

And they delayed beginning chemotherapy by an average of seven months, said Dr. J. Frank Wharam, a Harvard researcher and one of the authors of the study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The NYT article gives anecdotes of patients facing financial choices, but doesn’t say whether the study documented the effect of income. I have to suspect that the delayed or neglected care centered mainly on poorer households.

While high-deductible plans are meant to encourage people to think twice about whether a test or treatment is necessary and if it can be done at a lower price, “it’s also frankly to impede their use of these services,” said Dr. Peter Bach, the director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Shortly after he took office, Trump issued a drain-the-swamp executive order that was supposed to prevent people who leave the administration from going straight into lobbying. ProPublica studied how well that is working. It looks like there are ways around the order, but that it’s not totally useless either. Somebody who took Trump at his word will likely be disappointed, but since I thought the executive order was complete BS, I’m surprised in a mildly pleasant way.

Jared Kushner is still fixing errors in his financial disclosure forms.

and let’s close with a song parody

No, not one of mine this time. It’s “Confounds the Science” to the tune of “Sounds of Silence”.

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  • Roger Owen Green  On May 7, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    THREE WEEKS? Fortunately, no news is planned for the rest of May.

    • weeklysift  On May 8, 2018 at 8:51 am

      I’ve secured promises from all the newsmakers that they will behave themselves.

  • TRPChicago  On May 7, 2018 at 1:02 pm

    “Those are the facts we’re still working on.” What Giuliani means, I think, is that “we” don’t know what “the facts” are — and have no good way of finding out — until the Cohen files are released for us to view, analyze, parse. Then, we will either endorse them if they favor Trump or deny, bully down and obfuscate them further if they don’t.

  • Rick  On May 7, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    RE Not All Appearances Are Deceiving – I particularly liked your take on the Steny Hoyer as Democratic enforcer issue, as I had just come from a discussion about this among several friends, and was trying to understand why they thought this was anything new.

    I did notice what I believe is an omission of a key word in this article, though. You write: “If Steny Hoyer and a little money can stop you, then you’re the revolutionary grass-roots candidate you claim to be.”

    Did you mean: “If Steny Hoyer and a little money can stop you, then you’re NOT the revolutionary grass-roots candidate you claim to be.” ?

  • Jay Spears Music  On May 7, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    “If Steny Hoyer and a little money can stop you, then you’re the revolutionary grass-roots candidate you claim to be.” … then you’re NOT the revolutionary candidate…?

  • Michael Wells  On May 7, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    I agree with your conclusion that Democrats should not be calling for impeachment but not for the reasons you cite. There is plenty of “fire” showing that members of the Trump campaign met and worked with agents of Russia on a number of issues. Whether or not one believes this rises to the level of the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is irrelevant. Democrats need to get control of at least one branch of Congress from the 2018 elections in order to prevent irreparable harm to our form of government. If Mueller is still special counsel, then they can protect his investigation. If not, they can can move forward with their own. To believe that there is only “smoke” is to believe in a remarkable series of coincidences regarding Trump and his minions.

    • weeklysift  On May 7, 2018 at 9:27 pm

      I don’t think we’re disagreeing here. I’m just saying that if all I ever found out was what I already know, I don’t see how I could vote for impeachment. Personally, I believe there is a lot more to know, but I don’t know it yet. Perhaps Mueller does.

  • Larry Benjamin  On May 8, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    I’m sure there are some true believers among the Iowa legislators who are behind the fetal heartbeat bill, but for most of them, this is nothing more than a signal to their base that they’re at least making an attempt to address this issue. Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirmed Roe in setting the line at fetal viability, and six weeks is obviously well before that.

    Dan Fisher, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma, is promising to simply ignore the law and once elected, begin prosecuting doctors who provide abortions and women who have them. While this has about as much chance for success as a vegan governor prosecuting butcher shops, these antics do resonate with the base, and show that the candidate is committed.

  • Deweyan  On May 8, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    I agree with you on impeachment — pursuing impeachment would be a mistake for Democrats (perhaps unless Trump does something so heinous that even his supporters turn against him). Impeachment proceedings would play right into the Trump supporters’ persecution complex and just drive more of them to the polls. The GOP has harnessed fear and anger to generate power, so anything that gives their supporters more to be angry about really only makes them stronger. They’ll still be angry at an obstructionist House that aggressively investigates the Administration and blocks as much of Trump’s actions as possible, but that’s nothing compared to the anger a direct assault on Trump’s victory would generate.

    Trump needs to be trounced in an election. That’s the only way to answer his supporters. Of course, I suspect that if it looked like he was going to be trounced he’d drop out of the race (and find a way to blame Obama).

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 8, 2018 at 9:38 pm

      My only concern is that there are so many liberals literally drooling with joy at the thought of the Democrats taking control of Congress and immediately starting impeachment procedures on their first day, that if this doesn’t happen, you’re going to hear a lot of people complaining about “sellouts” and “the system” and “it doesn’t make any difference which party is in power, they’re both the same.”

      It’s important to remind people that impeachment isn’t supposed to be a do-over for an election that didn’t go your way.

  • marg  On May 14, 2018 at 8:43 am

    It now seems that every agreement, arrangement, negotiated settlement, or treaty is to be called a “deal.” This is a dangerous and sloppy linguist development. It reflects and normalizes a competitive, gotcha strategy. Diplomacy is not business. Can you imagine the “Paris Climate Deal?” The “Deal of Versailles?”

    • Larry Benjamin  On May 14, 2018 at 8:52 am

      I don’t like sloppy language either, but the JCPOA is somewhat informal in that the Iranians were not required to sign it. So it has the force of a statement saying “if you do this, we will do that.”

      I don’t like referring to the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare,” either. And I can’t stand it when people refer to the Lifeline service, started under Ronald Reagan, as “Obamaphones.” But this seems to be the trend, to come up with catchy nicknames.

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