Right Matters

This is America. This is the country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served. And here, right matters.

– Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (11-19-2019)

[Gordon Sondland] was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.

– Fiona Hill (11-21-2019)

This week’s featured post is “An Impeachment Hearing Wrap-Up“.

This week everybody was talking about the impeachment hearings

I’ve pulled my impeachment notes out into the featured post.

In a related matter, the Washington Post appears to have gotten an early look at the Justice Department Inspector General’s report on the origins of the Mueller investigation. It finds that one low-level FBI lawyer acted improperly, but that “political bias did not taint top officials running the FBI investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016”.

The lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, altered a email that was used to support renewal of the FISA warrant to surveil the former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. But even without that email, the report concludes, the application had sufficient legal and factual basis.

An earlier IG report on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation found “no evidence that the conclusions by the prosecutors were affected by bias.”

The report generally rebuts accusations of a political conspiracy among senior law enforcement officials against the Trump campaign to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton while also knocking the bureau for procedural shortcomings in the FBI, the officials said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Barr is running a criminal investigation into much of the same material.

but the latest developments are making me paranoid

OK, the latest developments in the dig-up-dirt-on-Biden story are starting to make me paranoid. Unsavory people are suddenly providing evidence that helps the good guys, and telling stories that are tempting to believe. It feels like a trap.

In this morning’s NYT, Vladimir Putin’s favorite Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash, is saying that Rudy Giuliani’s now-indicted associates (Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman) made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. (See Rachel Maddow’s recent book Blowout for a long write-up on Firtash.) Firtash was encouraged to hire two Trump-connected lawyers (Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova) who could help with his case in the US. (The US is trying to extradite him on bribery charges. He is currently living in Austria, where he is out on bail from local charges.) Part of the $1.2 million he paid them would finance the effort to find dirt on Biden in Ukraine.

Mr. Parnas’s lawyer, Joseph A. Bondy, confirmed that account and added that his client had met with Mr. Firtash at Mr. Giuliani’s direction and encouraged the oligarch to help in the hunt for compromising information [about the Bidens] “as part of any potential resolution to his extradition matter.”

… In the [NYT] interview, Mr. Firtash said he had no information about the Bidens and had not financed the search for it. “Without my will and desire,” he said, “I was sucked into this internal U.S. fight.”

The same article claims Giuliani’s people tried to pressure another Ukrainian oligarch with US legal problems (Ihor Kolomoisky). This one is anti-Russian and refused to cooperate. Firtash also denies cooperating with the get-Biden conspiracy, but …

After Ms. Toensing and Mr. diGenova came on board, confidential documents from Mr. Firtash’s case file began to find their way into articles by John Solomon, a conservative reporter whom Mr. Giuliani has acknowledged using to advance his claims about the Bidens. Mr. Solomon is also a client of Ms. Toensing.

Those documents are the ones Giuliani kept waving around on TV.

Lev Parnas has also been implicating Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Maybe Firtash and Parnas are rats jumping off of a sinking ship, but I’m also reminded of the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [spoilers]. That classic John le Carré Cold War novel follows a British intelligence operation to frame an East German official, who had been getting too close to exposing the British spy in East German intelligence. At the same time, though, other Brits scatter bread crumbs that the Communists can follow to blow up the operation. After the operation is blown, the target’s East German critics look like tools of the West, and any future suspicion of him can be written off as part of the British conspiracy against him. The supposed target, of course, is the actual British spy, who has been protected by this convoluted operation that appeared to frame him.

Remember Putin’s KGB training, and apply that Cold War plot as a template: Wouldn’t it be marvelous for Trump if Democrats jumped on this new Firtash/Parnas information, which then turned out to be fabricated? That would feed Trump’s “hoax” and “witch hunt” narrative, and (in the public mind) invalidate much of the true evidence against him.

So I’m following the new developments in an isn’t-that-interesting way. But nobody should trust these people, or go out on a limb based on anything they say. Right now, Democrats are siding with patriots like Lt. Colonel Vindman. I’d hate to see a career criminal like Lev Parnas become the resistance’s new poster boy.

Meanwhile, the Democrats had a debate

My impression of the debate of ten Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday was that nothing drastically changed. No top-tier candidate had a major gaffe. No lower-tier candidate had a breakout moment.

On a lesser scale, I thought Joe Biden looked old. He often stumbled over his words — not in a disturbing I-don’t-know-where-I-am way, but in an I’m-having-trouble-making-the-right-words-come-out way. For example, at one point he said he had been endorsed by the “only” African-American woman who had been elected to the Senate — apparently forgetting about Kamala Harris, who was standing right there — when he meant the “first” African-American woman, a correction he made immediately when challenged.

Watching Cory Booker, I wondered why he isn’t an top-tier candidate. But I’ve wondered that in previous debates too. His candidacy didn’t see a boost then, so it probably won’t now either.

No one was the focus of attack, which tells me that the candidates aren’t sure who the front-runner is. Biden is still comfortably ahead in national polls, but Pete Buttigieg (who is fourth nationally) has taken the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. Elizabeth Warren, who briefly moved ahead of Biden nationally in early October, also sometimes looks like the front-runner. All three took a little flack, but the other candidates didn’t gang up in the way I would expect if one of them were considered the person to beat.

I don’t recall anyone directly attacking the other top-tier candidate, Bernie Sanders. That may reflect Nicole Hemmer‘s point that “Pretty much everyone has made up their mind about him.” At the moment, the other candidates aren’t afraid of him winning, but they also see no point in pissing off his supporters.

Having the debate in Georgia moved more attentionto the black vote (hence Biden’s unfortunate claim). I thought Charles Blow‘s post-debate analysis made a lot of sense: In the Deep South particularly, the attitude of the black electorate is changing:

Those voters may be less excited by a national revolution because they are living through a very real revolution on the ground. They are feeling their power in cities and increasingly in statewide races. But in presidential elections, their voices are drowned out on the state level — other than Barack Obama winning North Carolina in 2008, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried my Deep South states since the 1990s.

As such, until that changes, voting in presidential elections can feel mostly symbolic for blacks in the South. The Democratic candidate won’t carry their state. If that person wins the presidency, it will be because of people in faraway places.

But during the primaries, those Southern black voters have a chance to make their voices heard, to reward loyalty and fidelity, to support the candidates they feel they know and to spurn those they feel they don’t.

Big plans mean less and can ring hollow. … Black people in the South are experiencing a surge of real power and the ability to enact real change. Democratic candidates have to talk to them like the people they are: strong and pushing, not weak and begging.

The main criticism of Buttigieg has been his lack of experience. I still believe what I said when John McCain tried to use that issue against Barack Obama in 2008:

The danger of making experience your central issue and claiming that your opponent is “not ready to lead” (but you are) is this: When you finally debate your “unqualified” opponent, the difference needs to be apparent. If the other guy looks equally well prepared, he wins.

Ditto here: The inexperience claim against Buttigieg will work only if he displays the classic flaws of inexperience, by saying or doing things that are hot-headed, naive, or immature in some other way. His lack of a traditional resume makes him vulnerable, but the attacks won’t stick unless he gives them something to stick to.

I believe something similar about the age issue for Biden, Sanders, and Warren. It’s a problem when Sanders has a heart attack or Biden looks confused, but so far Warren hasn’t given the age issue a hook to hang on.

On the other hand (and related to Charles Blow’s point), Buttigieg lacks history with major voting blocks, and that’s why his black support is currently undetectable in polls. I can imagine a Southern black voter saying “You’re here when you need us. Where were you when we needed you?” By contrast, Georgians remember Biden and Warren campaigning for Stacey Abrams in 2018, and Bernie Sanders endorsing her in the primary.

Timothy Egan puts his finger on a point that we’re all a little afraid to talk about. In a column where he envisions Biden beating Trump a year from now, he says:

Most Democrats came to see that it would do nothing for their cause to gain another million progressives on the coasts if they still lost 80,000 people in the old industrial heartland.

American democracy is flawed in some important and predictable ways, and that’s how Trump became president despite Hillary Clinton getting 2.8 million more votes.

It’s wrong that not all votes count the same, but they don’t. And it’s totally understandable that blue-state voters (and I am one now that I’ve moved to Massachusetts) resent the purple-state elitism of candidates like Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, whose main message is “I can appeal to the right voters.”

But that’s the real state of affairs in America today: There are right voters and wrong voters. Nobody wants to admit that or talk about it. But there it is.

That said, it shouldn’t become an excuse for making a fetish of white working class voters and ignoring people of color. The 2020 general election may well hinge on black turnout in Milwaukee, or the Hispanic vote in Arizona. The only recent Democratic presidential candidate to carry Indiana was Barack Obama, not some lunchpail-carrying white guy.

and Israel had some news

This week saw two significant developments regarding Israel: Thursday, Israel’s attorney general announced that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be indicted.  Monday, the Trump administration reversed previous US policy on the legality of Israeli settlements in the territories gained in the 1967 war.

The charges against Netanyahu reportedly will be bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. In the most serious charge, he traded regulatory favors to a news organization in exchange for favorable coverage. Under Israeli law, any government minister other than the prime minister has to resign when indicted, but the PM only has to resign if convicted.

Netanyahu is still PM, for now. Israel has now failed to form a new government despite holding two elections. In the most recent one, Netanyahu’s Likud Party finished a close second to Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz. But neither party had a majority in the Knesset, or could assemble a majority coalition of other parties. A third election will likely be held in a few months.

Netanyahu’s defensive rhetoric should sound familiar: The cases against him are all a “witch hunt”, and an “attempted coup”.

Secretary of State Pompeo announced a week ago that the United States no longer regards Israeli settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan as illegal, reversing a State Department legal opinion from 1978. Vox has a good article on the issue.

The case for claiming the settlements are illegal rests on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which says “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Israel disputes the interpretation that it is an occupying power, claiming that the right of Jews to live in these territories is rooted in the League of Nations’ 1922 Mandate for Palestine.

In any case, it’s hard for me to see how this policy change promotes some ultimate vision of peace in the region, unless that vision involves either pushing Palestinians out of the territories entirely, or herding them into economically non-viable reservations, as the US did to its unwanted native population. East Jerusalem would be an example of a place where Palestinians are being slowly pushed out, and Gaza an example of them being penned in.

and you also might be interested in …

Hong Kong held district-council elections, the only real bit of democracy in their system. Usually, these elections revolve around mundane issues like traffic and parks and trash, because the administration that runs the city as a whole isn’t elected by the broad electorate.

But in the middle of the citywide crisis caused by pro-democracy demonstrations, the elections took on a symbolic meaning well beyond the legal duties of the offices being filled. And the result was a stunning endorsement of the demonstrators. Turnout was at record levels, and pro-democracy candidates got 80% of the council seats.

Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer is the latest casualty in Trump’s defense of war criminals. Trump intervened in the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who had been acquitted of premeditated murder in the stabbing death of a 12-year-old ISIS prisoner, but was “convicted of bringing discredit to the armed services after posing next to a dead ISIS fighter’s body, which is against regulations.” Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion, but the Navy still intended to hold a disciplinary hearing that could take away Gallagher’s SEAL trident.

This angered Trump, who tweeted about it. Sunday Defense Secretary Esper fired Spencer, claiming that Spencer had gone around him in attempting to negotiate directly with the White House.

Spencer released a letter acknowledging his firing, and shooting back.

The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and again. … Unfortunately, it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me.

Trump’s betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies and attempt to play games with military support for Ukraine is rocking US alliances around the world. The Washington Post discusses the impact on South Korea, where Trump wants to quintuple the contributions the Koreans make towards the cost of maintaining US troops there.

The Post offers the orthodox foreign-policy argument that “a forward defense position in Asia pays for itself, in security”. I could imagine a reasonable debate about that point, not just in Asia but in all countries where American troops or American commitments are supposedly helping keep the peace: When are we heading off problems that would otherwise cause us bigger trouble later, and when are we getting drawn into conflicts we could safely ignore?

But that conversation should involve some alternate theory of American security, a Trump Doctrine that has much more detail than “America First”, and is much broader than a case-by-case debate about whether NATO or South Korea or Israel is taking advantage of us.

Sadly, though, no one in the Trump administration (least of all Trump himself) thinks on a grand-strategy level, or is capable of leading the kind of national discussion we need if we’re going to make a fundamental change in our foreign policy.

Fracking wastewater spills in North Dakota have resulted in rivers with high levels of radioactive contamination and heavy metals.

The NFL scheduled a behind-closed doors workout for blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick, ostensibly so that scouts from various teams could see if his skills have diminished during his involuntary three-year exile from the league. The Nation’s David Zirin reports:

Roger Goodell and the NFL tried to bend Kaepernick to their will this week. They scheduled him for a tryout with only three days’ notice. They insisted he come to Atlanta and work with a coach not of his choosing at the Falcons’ headquarters. They told him that it would be on a Saturday, when coaches and top scouts are busy either preparing for Sunday games or analyzing college contests. They did not tell him who the receivers he would work with would be. They wanted him to sign a “non-standard injury waiver” that would have prevented Kaepernick from suing the league for collusion in the future. Most egregiously, they insisted that the workout not be open to the press. Roger Goodell wanted all the positive public relations for “ending the collusion” against Kaepernick and none of the transparency.

Kaepernick wasn’t having it.

He showed up in Atlanta and refused to work out at the Falcons facility under the watchful eye of an NFL chosen coach. He instead went to a high school an hour away with his own receivers. He kept it open to the press, several of whom live-streamed the workout over social media, preventing the NFL from spinning the event as if he no longer had the goods.

… Now that the spectacle in Atlanta is over, we are actually back where we started. Everyone knows that Kaepernick has the ability to play. Everyone knows that he is only being kept out for political and PR reasons. The question will be whether there is one team that is willing to put their team’s success over their political prejudices. This is where we have been for three years, and this is where we remain.

The NFL has found a place for numerous wife-beaters, child abusers, sexual assaulters, and felons of other varieties. But what Kaepernick did — respectfully kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color — is apparently unforgivable.

It’s the kind of story that happens all the time, but doesn’t usually make the New York Times: a local hardware store is closing. This one is on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan and is owned and operated by Russian immigrant Naum Feygin. Like many such stores it’s a victim of online competition and high rents.

We tell ourselves this shift in the economy is all about efficiency, but the reporter claims not.

[Mr. Feygin’s hardware store] is cheaper and faster than ordering from Amazon and offers expert advice that reduces the risk of buying the wrong thing. It is all too easy on Amazon, for example, to buy halogen bulbs that don’t fit your lamp base; Mr. Feygin has spared me many such headaches. And the store’s small size [600 square feet] is a virtue: Unlike at Home Depot, you can be in and out in 10 minutes.

… Competition from Amazon and a rent increase might seem like distinct phenomena, but they are two sides of the same coin. Both reflect the transformative consolidation and centralization of the American economy since the 1990s, which have made the economy less open to individual entrepreneurship. Amazon represents the increasing monopolization of retail; the high rents are a symptom of the enormous concentration of wealth in a handful of coastal cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington.

Both phenomena contribute to the same regrettable outcome: In today’s economy, returns on investment have shifted away from the individuals like Mr. Feygin who take personal risks. Instead, wealth is being routed to large middlemen, national monopolies, property owners and shareholders.

Feygin once hoped his son would take over the business, but his son is more in tune with the era: He works for a hedge fund

and let’s close with something that sounds like a tall tale

The Greek historian Herodotus was famous for believing outrageous stories told to him on his travels. (My favorite explains the Persian king’s massive tribute from India with a story about ants the size of dogs who dig up golden anthills. Apparently that was easier for his audience to swallow than the sheer size of India.) Marco Polo was similarly gullible at times, though some of his most outrageous stories about the Far East turned out to be true. (He claimed that some cities in China were too large for the surrounding forests to provide enough wood for fuel, so the Chinese had learned to “burn rocks”. He was talking about coal.)

So anyway, this story sounds like a traveler’s tall tale, but  it seems to be true: In the Nepalese Himalayas lives a species of honeybees that are more than an inch long. They build nests five feet across under cliffs and on rock faces. A nest can contain well over 100 pounds of honey. And here’s the best part: Because the bees feast on poisonous plants, the honey is hallucinogenic.

That makes it worth taking outrageous risks to acquire, as the Gurung “honey hunter” tribe has done since time out of mind.

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  • HAT  On November 25, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    It’s not just “now.” There have “always” been “right voters” and “wrong voters” when it comes to winning presidential elections. I distinctly recall sitting in political science class in 1982 and having our professor explain why “the black vote” didn’t win presidential elections: not a big enough factor in enough of the right states to affect the electoral college. As I recall, he’d validated his model with data on elections at least back to the 30s.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On November 26, 2019 at 11:32 am

    Maybe Booker isn’t having a break-out moment because it is so painfully obvious that he is bought and paid for by corporate interests, and after taking as little a $250,000 dollars from pharmaceutical companies he single-handedly killed Sander’s bill that would have allowed Americans to buy drugs at the substantially lower Canadian prices? In other words he is corrupt beyond imagining?

    • Anonymous  On December 1, 2019 at 12:50 pm

      Perhaps you would be interested in the American Anti-Corruption Act:

      Corporate money is one of the things that it addresses (also gerrymandering, voting rights, and a few other things).

      A good short video about those issues:

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