The Lost

No Sift next week. The next posts will appear on May 20.

And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.

– James Comey, “How Trump Co-Opts Leaders Like Bill Barr

This week’s featured post is “What should ‘electable’ mean?“. If you happen to be near Quincy, Illinois (my hometown) next Sunday, I’ll be speaking at the Unitarian church at 10:45.

This week everybody was talking about Bill Barr, Robert Mueller, and Congress

Trump is now saying that Mueller should not testify to the House Judiciary Committee. May 15 had been put forward as a date for Mueller to appear, but no definite agreement had been made.

It’s not clear to me how much power Trump has to stop Mueller’s testimony, or whether he is officially invoking that power or just blathering. Mueller is still a DoJ employee, so Trump could order him not to testify. But Mueller has been expected to leave his job soon, now that his investigation has wrapped up. Once he is a private citizen, it would be up to him whether to testify, though he may still honor executive privilege claims that seem legitimate to him. Mueller himself hasn’t commented yet.

This is another example of incoherence in Trump’s message. He claims Mueller has “totally exonerated” him. If that’s the case, he should want Mueller testifying in public as much as he can.

Tuesday it came out that Barr had received a letter from Mueller protesting Barr’s characterization of the report and requesting that the summaries contained in the report itself be released, which Barr decided not to do. In his subsequent testimony to Congress, Barr was asked whether Mueller agreed with his summary, and his answer gave no indication that there was any friction between them. The exact statement of the question and answer leave me thinking that it couldn’t be prosecuted as lying to Congress, but I agree with Senator Leahy: “”Mr. Barr, I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too.”

Barr testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee the next day, and the hearing was contentious. He was clearly playing his role as Trump’s defender rather than attorney general. He made hair-splitting distinctions (like the difference between “firing” Mueller and “having a special counsel removed for conflict” even though the conflicts were bogus). When asked whether the White House would claim executive privilege, Barr’s answer talked about what “we” would do, not what the White House would do.

He put forward a bizarre explanation of why Trump did not obstruct justice, which Jonathan Chait summarized as “It’s not obstruction if the obstruction works.” He made a big deal about the lack of an underlying crime, which is not a factor in the definition of obstruction.

Barr then refused to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, and has ignored a subpoena for the unredacted Mueller Report. The Judiciary Committee is threatening to find him in contempt, though it’s not clear how they would enforce any penalties. Chair Jerry Nadler:

The choice is simple: We can stand up to this president in defense of the country and the Constitution we love, or we can let the moment pass us by.

Bill Barr’s complete embrace of Trumpism and rejection of traditional Justice Department standards of independence and the rule of law has provoked a lot of discussion about what happens to people when they join the Trump administration. Jim Comey, who has been in Trump’s orbit before being ejected from it, thinks he knows.

Trump’s corruption of those around him starts with behavior Comey has experienced first-hand.

It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence. … Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it — this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room.

Then his expectations and peer pressure push you to flatter him in public.

From the private circle of assent, it moves to public displays of personal fealty at places like cabinet meetings. While the entire world is watching, you do what everyone else around the table does — you talk about how amazing the leader is and what an honor it is to be associated with him.

Then you stop defending the institutions you’re responsible for.

Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear — things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. Yet you are silent.

You become convinced that if you weren’t in your current position, things would be much worse.

you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now.

By the end, you have convinced yourself that you must hold onto your job, no matter what it takes to do so.

You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values. And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.

and foreign policy

China: For some while we’ve been hearing that a trade deal with China was near. Then yesterday Trump tweeted:

For 10 months, China has been paying Tariffs to the USA of 25% on 50 Billion Dollars of High Tech, and 10% on 200 Billion Dollars of other goods. … The 10% will go up to 25% on Friday.

Stock markets around the world started plunging. Chinese officials “had been scheduled to arrive Wednesday for what was shaping up to be the final round of negotiations”, but now they’re not sure when or whether to come.

North Korea: Increasingly, it looks like the Trump/Kim summits have accomplished nothing beyond raising Kim Jong Un’s stature at home. This weekend, North Korea fired “multiple projectiles” towards Japan in what appears to be some kind of weapons-system test.

Trump has claimed that his diplomacy with Kim was getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, tweeting at one point that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Saturday’s launch comes weeks after North Korea announced it had conducted a test launch of a “new-type tactical guided weapon” that was personally overseen by Kim.

The North Korean leader declared a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing last year, but satellite imagery reported in recent months has shown continuing nuclear activity at the country’s plants.

Venezuela: An attempted coup to unseat Venezuelan President Maduro failed this week.

The NYT has an interesting article about how coups work, and why this one didn’t. It reminded me of the high-school-party problem: The cool kids will come only if they think the other cool kids are coming. Nobody wants to be on the losing side, so a coup gets the support of the various power brokers only if they think the other power brokers are in.

A weird addendum to the whole event came after Trump talked on the phone to Putin. Trump came out of the call claiming that Putin “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.” WaPo’s Aaron Blake points out that Secretary of State Pompeo is saying the exact opposite: He characterized the Russian (and allied Cuban) presence in Venezuela as “an invasion”.

It’s yet another example of Trump talking to Putin and then repeating Putin’s propaganda, even when it undercuts his own administration.

but here are two article you might like that have nothing to do with Trump or politics

InVerse reports what happens when researchers hook monkeys up to an AI image generator, looking to home in on images that provoke the most neural stimulation. The maximally stimulating images are vaguely dream-like: They have realistic elements (that resemble, say, faces) but are also oddly wrong.

Don’t miss Guinevere Turner’s “My Childhood in a Cult” in the April 29 New Yorker. Turner grew up in the Lyman Family, a little-known cult that is still around.

What makes her account unique is that she didn’t experience two of the standard elements in the typical I-left-a-cult story: She wasn’t recruited and didn’t escape. Her mother joined the Family when she was pregnant with Guinevere, and (although mother and child had little to do with each other inside the cult), she was thrown out at age 11 when her mother left. She went back for a visit before starting college at 18, thought about staying, but then didn’t.

That allows her to give a remarkably balanced view of life in the Lyman Family. She sees the absurdity (Lyman’s central tenet was that spaceships would come to take him and his followers to Venus) and the ugliness (cult leaders sometimes chose 13-year-old girls to be their wives). But she also has good memories of living in a close-knit community.

In the back yard of our Los Angeles compound, the adults built a wooden pyramid, big enough to hold about twenty kids, small stilts raising it a few feet off the ground. The smell of blooming jasmine surrounded us as we climbed into it at night, sat cross-legged in a circle, and sang one note all together. We would do this for hours. There were skylights in the ceiling, and we stared up at the stars as we sang. I loved those moments, holding on to the note until I thought my lungs would burst, then taking a deep breath and starting again. It felt as if we were one being

and you also might be interested in …

I’m having a hard time figuring out whether the Trump/Schumer/Pelosi agreement to pursue an infrastructure plan actually means anything. I suspect it doesn’t.

Senate Republicans are cold to the idea, so Trump would have to do some serious arm-twisting to make legislation happen. His own chief of staff is also against it, which suggests that Trump was just free-lancing here and has no plan beyond the initial headline.

The shooter at the Poway synagogue belongs to a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, an off-shoot that finds mainstream Presbyterianism too liberal. Apparently his manifesto (which I have not read) is full of “not only invective against Jews and racial minorities but also cogent Christian theology he heard in the pews.

If we were talking about a mosque rather than an evangelical Christian church, we’d be hearing claims that the young man had been “radicalized” by his religious institution, or that someone at the church must have known what he was planning, but didn’t report it. But no one is going to suggest that the government should “watch and study” OPC churches, or that some of them may have to be shut down. That because we have freedom of religion in America — at least for Christians.

Another good jobs report pushes down the unemployment rate. This looks good for Trump, but it’s important to put it in the right context: Trump is continuing a trend that started in Obama’s first term.

Paul Krugman’s “The Trouble With Joe and Bernie” makes a good point: Neither candidate seems prepared for what would obviously happen after they got elected.

No matter how many friends he has made across the aisle in Congress, Biden is not going to get Republicans to negotiate bipartisan solutions. Obama tried that and it didn’t work.

what Sanders appears to believe is that he can convince voters not just to support progressive policies, but to support sweeping policy changes that would try to fix things most people don’t consider broken.

That, after all, is what his Medicare for All push, which would eliminate private insurance, amounts to. He is saying to the 180 million Americans who currently have private insurance, many of whom are satisfied with their coverage: “I’m going to take away the insurance you have and replace it with a government program. Also, you’re going to pay a lot more in taxes. But trust me, the program will be better than what you have now, and the new taxes will be less than you currently pay in premiums.”

Could those claims be true? Yes. Will voters believe them? Probably not.

I’m always amused when somebody presents an example they think obviously favors their point, when to me it obviously doesn’t. Electoral College defender Dan McLaughlin poses this hypothetical:

R candidate wins 48 states by identical 54-46 margins, D wins CA, NY & DC by 75-25 margins, D wins national popular vote. Who should win?

And my answer is: The candidate who gets the most votes. I don’t see why votes should count less if they clump together in a few states. Americans are Americans, no matter what state they live in.

Rachel Held Evans, a liberal Christian writer that I have quoted several times on this blog, died this week at age 37.

Remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when a problem with an offshore drilling platform caused 4.9 million barrels of crude oil to pour into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of months? Afterward, new rules were put into effect to prevent something like that from happening again. This week the Trump administration is expected to roll back a bunch of those rules. Oil companies will be grateful.

When Stephen Moore was nominated for the board of the Federal Reserve, I wondered if Senate Republicans could go that far. I mean, it’s one thing to appoint know-nothing yahoos to manage things Republicans don’t care about, like education or public housing. But the Fed controls money. Surely, I suggested, there are still some standards when we’re talking about money.

Well, apparently so. Moore’s nomination was withdrawn Thursday afternoon after a number of Republican senators expressed their doubts about supporting him. This follows fellow know-nothing Herman Cain withdrawing from consideration for the Fed board two weeks ago.

For years, anti-gay Christians have piously talked about loving the sinner while hating the sin. Now a Methodist confirmation class has flipped the script on their denomination, whose General Conference strengthened its prohibitions against gay clergy and raised the penalties for performing same-sex marriages.

The eight 13-14-year-olds making up the confirmation class at First United Methodist Church in Omaha read a letter to the congregation expressing great love for their church, but declining to participate in the denomination’s immorality by becoming members.

We have spent the year learning about our faith and clarifying our beliefs. Most of us started the confirmation year assuming that we would join the church at the end. But with the action of the General Conference in February, we are disappointed about the direction the United Methodist denomination is heading. We are concerned that if we join at this time, we will be sending a message that we approve of this decision. We want to be clear that, while we love our congregation, we believe that the United Methodist policies on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage are immoral.

and let’s close by fixing a common mistake

If you celebrated Cinco de Mayo yesterday, you probably did it wrong.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Deborah  On May 6, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    Not only is the jobs increase a continuation of the economic recovery that began in the Obama years, but the more recent, long-delayed wage increases are explained in this NYT article without mention of anything the Trump administration has done:

  • Cathy Strasser  On May 7, 2019 at 11:30 am

    Deborah, I was just about to quote the same article but you beat me to it. Good work!

  • Dale Moses  On May 7, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    The idea that Barr had any integrity for Trump to absorb is ludicrous.

    But he cant be that dumb, can he? He knows what he did before the election, when he wasnt in Trumps orbit. He knows what Barr did for Reagan long before anyone could potentially be in Trumps orbit. He knows that Barr wasnt in Trumps orbit when Barr wrote the op ed that got him his job at Justice; the one where he said that the investigation should be shut down.

    No, Comey is trying to rehabilitate the rest of the Republican Party here. “Its not Republicans”, he argues “we would be good if it wasnt for Trump!” Bull

  • Frank Ackerman  On May 8, 2019 at 3:06 pm

    Is this Barr’s argument:

    Situation: A claim is made that Mr. X might be involved in a illegal activity.

    Response: A law enforcement agency judges that the claim has sufficient merit to warrant an investigation.

    Mr. X: Tries various ways to thwart this investigation.

    Result: After a through investigation the law enforcement agency concludes that there is not sufficient legal evidence to charge Mr. X with involvement in an illegal activity.

    Mr. X: Since the agency investigation did not result in charging me with an illegal activity, my attempts to thwart the investigation do not count as obstruction of justice.

    Any good satirists here? Sounds like an Alice in Wonderland scenario to me.

    In a reply to an April 22 piece I asserted that the Trump opposition is playing against a really cagy opponent, and needs to stop reacting emotionally and to really look at the Trumpsters strategy and how it might be thwarted. How should we characterize this particular backwards logic strategy? It’s bizarre, but haven’t we seen it before?

  • Anonymous  On May 8, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Re: “Where Does Aluminum come from”

    This seems like a good opportunity to remind people about

  • frankackerman0617  On May 18, 2019 at 1:12 pm

    Regarding “Who Owns The World”

    I agree completely with the points you make here, but I find your presentation incomplete in some aspects.

    You first discuss the concept of private property as it applies to natural resources. You focus on the U.S., but in our now global civilization I think your arguments apply to the whole world. But then why limit the concept of common inheritance to homo sapiens? As the current custodians of planet earth, homo sapiens have a moral obligation to share the planet’s resources with all life forms.

    Your presentation does not address conservatives emphasis on the role of individual initiative and responsibility in increasing the common inheritance. I think this concept is important in determining how to share our common inheritance. This concept is not needed in your social justice argument, but it is very important in working the problem of justly distributing our common inheritance. Just distribution is a really hard problem, which you leave to be addressed “another day”. But the difficulty in addressing this problem is, I think, one of the factors that leads some to go overboard over “private property”.

    On a side point –
    Certainly we want to live in a world where compassion and charity are important, but it seems to me that in a more just world the need for organized charity would be greatly diminished.

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