Not Happening

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. The next new articles will appear on August 13.

It’s all working out. Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.

– Donald Trump (7-24-2018)

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

George Orwell, 1984

There’s no featured post this week.

This week everybody was still talking about Helsinki

because we still don’t know what Trump and Putin agreed to in their private two-hour meeting. And by “we”, I apparently also mean the rest of the US government.

Wednesday, Secretary of State Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [3-hour C-SPAN video and transcripts here.] Whenever he was asked what Trump may have promised Putin, he instead told the committee what American policy was and claimed it had not changed. USA Today summarized:

no matter how often they asked – and they asked again and again – Pompeo dodged. “Presidents are entitled to have private meetings,” he said. Pompeo did say that U.S. policy toward Russia has not changed as a result of the meeting and that “no commitment” was made to ease U.S. sanctions. Beyond that, details of the secret meeting remain mostly secret.

I did not watch the entire hearing, but the clips I have watched did not convince me that Secretary Pompeo himself knows what Trump and Putin discussed. Certainly CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel (who is responsible for US military operations in Syria as well as Iraq and Afghanistan) doesn’t know. CNN reported:

“The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is ready for practical implementation of the agreements reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in the sphere of international security achieved at the Helsinki summit,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday. The Russian military “is ready to intensify contacts with the US colleagues in the General Staff and other available channels to discuss the extension of the START treaty, cooperation in Syria, as well as other issues of ensuring military security,” Konashenkov said.

That “cooperation in Syria” would be with Votel, but he  knew nothing about it when ABC interviewed him.

Votel stressed he has not received any guidance from the White House about the Helsinki talks and had only seen press reports about the proposed joint plan to return Syrian refugees. … Cooperation between [US and Russian] militaries to help return the Syrian refugees is not possible under current law. Since 2014, the U.S. military has been prohibited from cooperating with their Russian counterparts in any capacity after Congress passed legislation prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

… “I’ve watched some of the things that Russia has done,” said Votel. “It does give me some pause here. These are not things that give me great confidence that just by stepping over into the next level of coordination that things are going to be fine,” he added. “It’s Russia. Let’s not forget that.”

Secretary of Defense Mattis also seemed to be in the dark:

We will not be doing anything additional until the secretary of state and the president have further figured out at what point we are going to start work alongside our allies with Russia in the future. That has not happened yet.

Votel’s ABC interview earned him a condemnation from the Russian Ministry of Defense.

With his statements, General Votel not only discredited the official position of his supreme commander-in-chief, but also exacerbated the illegality under international law and US law of the military presence of American servicemen in Syria,

Any other White House would slap that back, maybe by publicly telling the Russian Defense Ministry to worry about its own generals rather than ours. But not this White House. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be to doubt your own understanding of your orders, and then to be left hanging by your president. All the American troops serving in Syria must be wondering whether they (or their commander) understand their current mission.

and families still separated

The administration missed its court-ordered deadline to reunite the migrant families it tore apart. It claimed it made the deadline, but only by reclassifying all the families it wasn’t reuniting as “ineligible”. The government is still holding 711 children, 431 of them because their parents have already been deported. It seems to regard deported parents as somebody else’s problem.

For some of the other children, the adult they crossed the border with wasn’t a parent, and the government refuses to turn kids over to grandparents or aunts or other relatives, even if those were the caretakers they were taken away from. Some other parents failed a criminal background check, which might mean something as simple as that they disturbed the peace 20 years ago. (In general, rather than restore the family it wrecked, the government seems to be using the same standards it would apply to prospective foster parents.) Others “voluntarily” gave up their right to get their children back, though the ACLU disputes this:

In some cases, the parents said the forms were not explained to them and that they felt pressured to sign. Some were not provided translation in their native languages and had no idea what they had signed. One said he was told that signing the form was the only way to prevent his daughter from being sent back to Guatemala.

The Washington Post describes the bureaucratic failures that have made reunification so hard, even for “eligible” families. The short version is that the government has no official designation for Children We Kidnapped, so the kids have been classified differently by each organization that gets hold of them, often lumping them in with children who arrived at the border without parents.

Customs and Border Protection databases had categories for “family units,” and “unaccompanied alien children” who arrive without parents. They did not have a distinct classification for more than 2,600 children who had been taken from their families and placed in government shelters.

So agents came up with a new term: “deleted family units.”

But when they sent that information to the refugee office at the Department of Health and Human Services, which was told to facilitate the reunifications, the office’s database did not have a column for families with that designation.

“Deleted family units” lines up with this week’s Orwellian theme. Here’s what deleted family units look like:

Apparently, the government is making no effort to find or contact the deported parents.

Government lawyers, according to the Times, will not allow parents to return to the U.S. to claim their children, but they have also stipulated that parents must be found and vetted before their children can go back home. And yet they are doing nothing, at present, to ensure that those parents can be found—or vetted.

The judge who ordered reunification is not happy about these shenanigans, but has not yet held the government in contempt. (Personally, I would like to see Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen jailed until the last child is returned. I think she’d soon discover that this situation is simpler and more urgent than she had previously thought.) The case resumes Friday.

It’s hard to come to any other conclusion than that the Trump administration is intentionally trying to cause as much pain as possible, to punish Mexicans and Central Americans for trying to come here (even legally, as applicants for asylum). It’s important for Americans to wrap their minds around the sheer malevolence here: Our government kidnapped these children from their parents, and is dragging its feet as the courts try to make it give the children back.

This has gone way beyond politics or policy debates: It’s capital-E Evil.

Meanwhile, the administration continues to come up with ways to make legal immigrants understand how unwelcome they are: It is about to rescind a program that allows spouses of H-1B visa-holders to work in this country. According to The Guardian, “Many are high-skilled workers who sacrificed their careers when their spouses were offered the chance to pursue a career in the US.” Can’t have that, can we?

After seeming to accept McConnell and Ryan’s strategy for next year’s appropriation bills on Wednesday, by Sunday Trump was back to threatening a government shutdown this fall unless Democrats capitulate on everything having to do with immigration, including funding the wall that he is still failing to get Mexico to pay for.

and trade

Trump’s meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was weirdly reminiscent of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un. Here’s the pattern:

  1. Trump ramps up tensions and creates a crisis atmosphere.
  2. He meets with a foreign leader and agrees on a vague statement of principles whose details are left to be worked out by future negotiations.
  3. He declares victory: The crisis has been solved to the advantage of the United States.

After his meeting with Kim, Trump tweeted:

everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.

After talking to Juncker, he tweeted:

A breakthrough has been quickly made that nobody thought possible!

And then he announced in Iowa:

We just opened up Europe for you farmers. You have just gotten yourself one big market.

In each case, though, he has made an agreement to negotiate rather than an agreement on substantial issues. The Economist described what came out of the meeting as a “truce” in which Trump backed down from the tariffs he had been about to impose on European cars and Europe held back on its retaliatory tariffs.

The two sides agreed to work together towards “zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.” Trade barriers in services, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical products and soyabeans are on the chopping block, too. Pundits were quick to point out that Mr Trump had, in fact, secured talks to negotiate something that looks remarkably similar to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an accord put on ice when he became president. Such a deal might be possible, but it is a lot more remote than Mr Trump’s jubilation suggests.

In other words, Trump might have gotten back to where Obama was when he left office.

In their joint press conference, Trump made Europe’s commitments sound very immediate and definite:

And the European Union is going to start, almost immediately, to buy a lot of soybeans — they’re a tremendous market — buy a lot of soybeans from our farmers in the Midwest, primarily. … The European Union wants to import more liquefied natural gas — LNG — from the United States, and they’re going to be a very, very big buyer.

But Juncker sounded less definite:

We’ve decided to strengthen our cooperation on energy. The EU will build more terminals to import liquefied natural gas from the U.S. This is also a message for others. We agreed to establish a dialogue on standards. As far as agriculture is concerned, the European Union can import more soybeans from the U.S., and it will be done.

Building terminals takes years, and how much LNG Europe buys then depends on market forces. (By the time it arrives in Europe, American gas that has been fracked, liquefied, and shipped in refrigerated tankers is far more expensive than Russian gas that arrives by pipeline.) Also, 93% of American soybeans are genetically modified. The EU recently allowed the sale of some GMO soybeans, but products made from them must be strictly labeled and consumers may avoid them. So Juncker’s “more” may not be much more.

Meanwhile, the administration will provide $12 billion in subsidies to farmers who continue to be hurt by his trade war. In spite of this week’s focus on Europe, the main damage has been in trade with China, which is now buying record quantities of soybeans and wheat from Russia. #MRGA

Friday morning, the US got the first tangible benefit of the North Korea negotiations: The North Koreans delivered what are believed to be the remains of 55 Americans who died in the Korean War. (On June 23, Trump falsely claimed that the remains of 200 Americans had already been returned.)

and the economy

The numbers are out on second-quarter (April through June) GDP, and at first glance they look really good: The economy grew at an annualized rate of 4.1%.

As you can see from the graph, 4.1% growth is better than most quarters, but not unprecedented. (It was higher for two consecutive quarters in 2014, when I don’t recall anybody talking about how fabulous the Obama economy was.)

If you want a more detailed analysis, I recommend what Jared Bernstein wrote in The Washington Post. A few important points from him:

  • Year-over-year growth, i.e., how much bigger the economy is than it was a year ago, adjusted for inflation, is 2.8%, which is good but not extraordinary.
  • Growth in the second quarter was boosted by one-time factors, like businesses trying to import or export before tariffs kick in.
  • The effects of the Trump tax cut are showing up, but not where they’re supposed to: The economy is getting a push from the sheer size of the federal deficit, but not so much from the business investment that the tax cut was supposed to ignite.
  • Wages are still not keeping pace with overall growth.

Paul Krugman offers a somewhat wonkier explanation of the same phenomena: Capacity utilization went up from an already-high level, which is what you’d expect from a deficit-fueled expansion. That’s not sustainable: Sustainable growth expands the economy’s capacity by investing in new capacity. That was what the big corporate tax cut was supposed to do, but so far isn’t doing.

About those tax cuts: It turns out that when you slash corporate tax rates, revenue goes down and deficits go up! Who would have guessed?

Also, the data is still sketchy, but wages might be going down. Weren’t they supposed to go up as the corporate windfall trickled down to employees? Maybe corporate executives figured out that they could just keep the money for themselves and their shareholders.

Trump may deny it (and his son might outright lie about it), but Obama left him an economy that was humming along pretty well. Steve Benen talks jobs:

Consider this quote from the president’s remarks earlier today: “Everywhere we look, we are seeing the effects of the American economic miracle. We have added 3.7 million new jobs since the election, a number that is unthinkable if you go back to the campaign. Nobody would have said it. Nobody would have even in an optimistic way projected it.”

Reality isn’t that complicated. In the 17 full months since Trump took office — February 2017 to June 2018 — the U.S. economy created 3.22 million jobs. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It’s a perfectly good number. But it’s not a “miracle.” In the 17 full months before Trump took office — September 2015 to January 2017 — the U.S. economy created 3.54 million jobs.

and Trump’s multiplying legal problems

For months there’s been speculation about whether Trump’s long-time fixer Michael Cohen was going to flip and testify against him. No one knows yet what federal investigators (from the U. S. Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York, not from Bob Mueller) have on Cohen that would make him want to deal. But when they got a federal judge to sign off on a wide-ranging search warrant for Cohen’s office, home, and hotel room, they had to convince the judge that evidence of some particular crime was likely to be found in those places.

We still don’t know what crime they alleged, or if the search produced evidence of it. But federal searches of lawyer’s offices are rare, and this one was likely to (and did) lead to a hail of political criticism from the President and his supporters. So it’s reasonable to assume that the feds already had the makings of a good case against Cohen when they knocked on his door.

Since then, both sides seem to have been waiting to see what developed. It took weeks for the court to decide what of the material seized from Cohen (most of it, as it turned out) was free from lawyer/client privilege and so available for investigators’ inspection. And since we’re talking about millions of documents, it has taken more weeks for SDNY to figure out what it has. Until actual charges are on the table, it’s still premature for Cohen and federal prosecutors to discuss trading what Cohen knows about Donald Trump for leniency in his own case.

Recently, though, stuff Cohen knows has been leaking out. (It’s not clear from whom or why. Prosecutors would want to keep their case secret for as long as they can. If Cohen is doing it, he’s hurting his trade value as a witness. But why would Trump’s people leak information that reflects badly on him? Rachel Maddow proposes that the Trump side wants to degrade Cohen’s value, and also to get a head start on spinning the bad news for the President’s base. That seems strange, but all the explanations seem strange.)

Last week we got a tape in which Cohen and Trump discuss acquiring Karen McDougal’s story (of her affair with Trump) from The National Enquirer (so that they can make sure it doesn’t come out before the election). Personally, I was revolted by how this tape drove more significant news out of the headlines, so I didn’t cover it here last week, though I’m sure you heard about it. (It’s weird that evidence that the President lied about both his affair with a Playboy model and about paying her off isn’t significant to me any more — anything remotely similar would have sunk Obama — but that’s where we are. We know Trump has illicit sexual affairs and lies about them. We know he pays women to keep quiet. Nothing new.)

But this week we got a claim which, if true, is devastating:

Michael Cohen is reportedly ready to tell prosecutors that Donald Trump was aware of a June 2016 meeting between top campaign officials and Russians at Trump Tower before it occurred.

Not only would that mean that Don Jr. lied to Congress, but it could implicate the President himself. Fortune quotes a former federal prosecutor:

If Trump knew in advance that the Russians had stolen information, and understood its importance, that puts him at risk, in legal jeopardy, of being part of the conspiracy that the Russians have been charged with to defraud the U.S.

Of course, then, that leads to a who-do-you-believe question. So everybody in TrumpWorld is now trying to denigrate Cohen. Rudy Giuliani (who in May had called Cohen “an honest, honorable lawyer”) now says Cohen has “lied all his life”.

There’s something almost humorous here: After previously telling us the opposite, Trump’s lawyer is now telling us that Trump hires lawyers who lie a lot. So what do you believe after hearing that? It’s like the famous Cretan paradox from freshman logic class.

Paul Manafort’s trial starts tomorrow.

Wednesday, a federal judge in Maryland ruled on what the Constitution means by “emoluments”, and took an expansive view:

The text of both (Foreign and Domestic Emoluments) Clauses strongly indicates that the broader meaning of ’emolument’ advanced by Plaintiffs was meant to apply. As Plaintiffs point out, the Foreign Clause bans, without Congressional approval, ‘any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.’ Use of such expansive modifiers significantly undermines the President’s argument that this Clause was meant to prohibit only payment for official services rendered in an employment-type relationship.

Consequently, a lawsuit can go forward, charging that the Trump International Hotel (which many foreign officials stay at, hoping to curry favor with the President), violates the Emoluments Clause.

One of the striking things about the Trump/Cohen tape released last week is how Sopranos-like the conversation sounds, with Cohen using euphemisms like “our friend David” and making other oblique references. But one person is mentioned by name: Allen Weisselberg the longtime CFO of the Trump Organization. Now Weisselberg is facing a subpoena.

There’s now an official effort in the House to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which would be a step towards shutting down the Mueller investigation. It doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere at this point, but it is an indication of just how far off the rails House Republicans have gone, and why it is important for the country that Democrats win the House in November. The center of the effort is the so-called Freedom Caucus, which maybe should change its name to the Autocracy Caucus, as its main purpose seems to be to raise the President above the law.

You can find the 7-page Articles of Impeachment here. Briefly, the five articles amount to this:

  • Rosenstein is derelict is his duties because he hasn’t appointed a special counsel to investigate the investigation of Trump, and hasn’t recused himself from the investigation of (falsely) alleged improprieties in the FISA warrant against Carter Page.
  • He has refused to provide the House Intelligence Committee all the documents they have requested for their own investigation of the investigators (which they almost certainly would then turn over to people in the White House who might be subjects of that investigation).
  • He redacted too much information from the documents he did provide (which makes them mostly useless to Trump as he tries to obstruct the Mueller investigation).
  • He hasn’t provided an unredacted classified memo detailing the full authorization of the Mueller investigation.
  • He oversaw FISA surveillance of members of the Trump campaign (which was authorized by four Republican-appointed judges).

These actions constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors”, though the articles do not tell us exactly which laws they break.

After Speaker Ryan refused to get on board with this effort, the sponsors went to Plan B: hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress

Actions of Congress like this are not themselves actionable in court (and shouldn’t be). But it’s plainly part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice. wrote:

Every House Republican will face a momentous choice — perhaps the vote of their careers. They will have to decide if they stand for the rule of law or if they support a cover-up to prevent the American people from knowing whether President Trump’s campaign participated in Russia’s illegal attack on our elections and our democracy.

An idea I’ve seen several times on social media recently: When you go to vote in November, remember that D stands for Democrat and R stands for Russia.

More and more, Trump supporters are preparing themselves to stand by their man, even it turns out that he lied about everything and conspired with the Russians. Rep. Darrell Issa is already saying that’s just politics:

Well, if he’s proven to have not told the whole truth about the fact that campaigns look for dirt and that if someone offers it you listen to them, nobody is going to be surprised. There are some things in politics that you just take for granted.

and the environment

There are a lot of heat waves and wildfires going on right now. And while the media is covering those events, it isn’t connecting them to the larger story of global warming. New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells reflects on that in “How Did the End of the World Become Old News?

In other words, it has been a month of historic, even unprecedented, climate horrors. But you may not have noticed, if you are anything but the most discriminating consumer of news. The major networks aired 127 segments on the unprecedented July heat wave, Media Matters usefully tabulated, and only one so much as mentioned climate change.

He challenges the widely held view that climate change is “a ratings killer”.

When you think about it, this would be a very strange choice for a producer or an editor concerned about boring or losing his or her audience — it would mean leaving aside the far more dramatic story of the total transformation of the planet’s climate system, and the immediate and all-encompassing threat posed by climate change to the way we live on Earth, to tell the pretty mundane story of some really hot days in the region.

Instead, Wallace-Wells believes that media outlets are self-censoring for fear of bad-faith right-wing charges of “media bias”.

Los Angeles Water and Power wants to add a backwards pumping system to Hoover Dam. That would allow it to act as a giant battery to even out the surges of wind and solar power. When it’s windy and sunny, sustainable electricity could be used to pump water back into Lake Mead. When it’s not, the dam could generate more power by releasing more water.

Like everything connected with dams, there are environmental issues to assess and work out, and somebody will have to get the pro-fossil-fuel federal government on board. But it’s an interesting proposal.

Ocean Cleanup has tested a smaller version of its design. It’s essentially a big broom to sweep up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The first system is supposed to launch in September. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

and you also might be interested in …

ThinkProgress reports:

Fox & Friends on Tuesday featured an interview with Daily Caller associate editor Virginia Kruta about her experience attending an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally in St. Louis that could have been mistaken for satire.

Democratic Socialist Occasio-Cortez went deep into Trump country (i.e., Kansas) to hold a rally that was well attended and enthusiastic. It demonstrated that while socialists may not be the majority in the rural heartland, socialist ideas still appeal to a large number of people.

Kruta went to the rally and was horrified by how non-horrifying it was.

Kruta told hosts that both Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic candidate for whom she was stumping, Cori Bush, “talk about things that everybody wants, especially if you’re a parent — they talk about education for your kids, health care for your kids. Things that you want. … If you’re not really paying attention to how they’re going to pay for it, or the rest of that, it’s easy to fall into that trap and say, ‘my kids deserve this, and maybe the government should be responsible for helping me with that.’”

Yes, even good Christian white middle-American parents could be seduced into thinking that their kids deserve healthcare and education, or that people who work full-time should make enough to live on. That’s how insidious the Socialist Menace is.

The NYT:

Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence … ensured “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants” no matter their religion, race or sex.

But a new “basic law” (the Israeli equivalent of a constitutional amendment) defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”. Critics see this as a move away from democracy.

Max Fisher writes:

Growing numbers see their country as facing a choice between being Jewish first or democratic first. And for many on the political right, the choice is identity first.

I’ve focused on Fisher’s response because of my resolution to treat Israel as I would any other country, rather than judging it by unique standards, either higher or lower than the ones that would apply anywhere. Fisher points out that Israel is simply facing a sharper version of a conflict that many nations (including the United States) are struggling with:

when a majority demographic group believes it could become a minority, members of that group often become less supportive of democracy, preferring a strong ruler and harsh social controls

David Frum has pointed out something similar happening here:

If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

I’m puzzling over why anybody would read Sean Spicer’s new book. I stopped watching his briefings because I wasn’t getting any trustworthy information from him. Similarly, if I found something interesting in his book, could I believe it?

and let’s close with something funny but not funny

Weird questions people ask gay couples.

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  • reverendsax  On July 30, 2018 at 11:00 am

    I think to summarize, we have thrown international relations in diplomacy, trade, and migration into turmoil; we are moving toward bankruptcy of the US, climate change is a chicken come home to roost, and miscellaneous shit.

  • Jeff R.  On July 30, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    I just returned from Europe where I visited the Museum of the Resistance in Amsterdam ( ). It was all too timely. The museum’s focus is on the decisions the Dutch made in response to the Nazi occupation at a micro level. How did people respond to various actions by the Nazis (e.g., releasing Dutch POWs, requiring detailed identification cards with fingerprints, photos, and prominent “J”s if Jewish…). It seemed to me there were inflection points that could lead to both individuals making the decision to join the resistance but also the people as a whole to respond with mass protests. I’m beginning to wonder if there are such inflection points for us as a people. Is anything, any action “un-American?” I pray the mid-terms can be our D-Day.

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