What Matters

Right matters. And the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.

Adam Schiff

This week’s featured post is “Can Bankers Become Allies Against Climate Change?

This week everybody was talking about the impeachment trial in the Senate


Tuesday was taken up with procedural votes that all went along party lines: Republicans rejected motions to call witnesses or subpoena documents prior to hearing the lawyers’ arguments. Another vote will be taken this week, and is expected to also hew close to party lines.

All through the week, Republican senators kept saying that they were hearing nothing new. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand responded:

To my Republican colleagues who’ve complained that there’s no new evidence in this impeachment trial: You voted more than ten times to block relevant witnesses and evidence. Don’t bury your head in the sand and then complain that it’s dark.

The House managers presented the case against Trump Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Adam Schiff was the lead voice, and he was brilliant. His 2 1/2 hour opening statement Wednesday pulled the various pieces of the argument together in a compelling way. His 48-minute closing statement Friday pre-buted the arguments Trump’s lawyers will make this week.

That no-new-evidence stance got a lot harder to justify yesterday, when leaks about John Bolton’s book appeared in the NYT. I can see why Trump doesn’t want him to testify.

President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.

The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies.

We’ve also seen a cover letter showing that Bolton sent the White House a copy of his manuscript on December 30. So presumably Trump’s lawyers know what’s in it. That raises another question about whether they have intentionally lied during the Senate trial.

Will any of this make any difference to GOP senators? I’m starting to doubt it. More and more it looks like seemingly independent senators like Collins or Murkowski or Romney are still puppets of McConnell, who is a puppet of Trump (who is a puppet of Putin).

To the extent that it makes any sense at all, Trump’s defense is basically the same one a clever mob boss would use: He worked by implication rather than by making explicit deals. Trump’s phone call was “perfect” because he got his point across without telling Zelensky something like: “Here’s the deal: I deliver the aid you need to defend your country from Russia, and you announce that you’re investigating Joe Biden.” Instead, Trump segued from Zelensky’s mention of Javelin missiles to “I need you to do us a favor, though” and then talked about investigations. The quid pro quo was implicit, so it’s OK. (And in case Zelensky was dense, Trump representatives like Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker and Rudy Giuliani had previously explained the explicit quid pro quo to Zelensky’s people.)

It’s like when the mob boss says, “That’s such a lovely daughter you’ve got. I’m sure you worry a lot about the kinds of things that can happen to girls these days.” and then goes on to say what he wants the father to do for him. Because he never says, “I’m threatening you. Do what I say or your daughter gets hurt.” it’s a perfect conversation. At least in TrumpWorld.

Finally, somebody makes the obvious counter-argument to Trump defenders’ claim that impeachment is disenfranchising the voters who elected Trump. Frank Bruni:

If Republican leaders were really so invested in a government that didn’t diverge from voters’ desires, more of them would be questioning the Electoral College. Because of it, the country has a president, Trump, who received about three million fewer votes than his opponent.

Impeachment-and-removal is a constitutional process for getting rid of a corrupt president. Yes, it partially reverses the 2016 election. (It’s far from a complete reversal, because Mike Pence, not Hillary Clinton, becomes the next president.) And so it partially undoes the votes of the 63 million people who voted for Trump. But the Electoral College, another constitutional process, already completely undid the votes of 66 million Clinton voters. Trump’s people were fine with that disenfranchisement.

The strangest “defense” of Trump came from Lindsey Graham:

All I can tell you is from the president’s point of view, he did nothing wrong in his mind

That’s not a claim of innocence, it’s an insanity plea. I’m not exaggerating. One of the original statements of the insanity defense is known as the M’Naghten Rule:

to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.

Isn’t that more or less word-for-word what Graham is claiming?

More support for the insanity defense: Wednesday, Trump tweeted or retweeted 142 times, a new record. Consider what that means: If you were online for 14 hours and tweeted something every six minutes, you’d still only get to 140. I think the guy needs to get a real job.

A Trump tweet from Sunday morning: “Shifty Adam Schiff … has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” A bit of translation is in order: In Trumpspeak, “our Country” means “me”.

So if you’re violent Trumpist like the El Paso shooter, you have your marching orders. The term for this is “stochastic terrorism“.

Last week I pointed out that the White House’s closing arguments had become more and more about intimidation. Thursday, CBS News tweeted:

A @POTUS confidant tells CBS News that GOP senators were warned: “vote against the president & your head will be on a pike.”

But what other argument do they have? It’s not like they can tell senators to do the right thing.

GOP senators are denying that the warning ever took place. I can imagine that the “@POTUS confidant” was speaking figuratively rather than relaying an exact quote.

Are there any bigger snowflakes than Republican senators? They were outraged that Jerry Nadler called their cover-up a cover-up. They were outraged when Adam Schiff referred to the CBS report about the “head on a pike” threat. (But so far they have expressed no outrage about Trump’s implicit threat of violence against Schiff.) It’s all distraction; they’d rather talk about their outrage than about what the president did, or how abjectly they’re bowing down to him.

More new evidence: A short video of a dinner in 2018 where Lev Parnas told Trump that he needed to get rid of Ambassador Yovanovich, and Trump said, “Get rid of her.” The importance of the video isn’t so much that Trump wanted Yovanovich out — presidents can have the ambassadors they want. (This is part of a 90-minute audio.)

The significance is twofold: First, Trump was lying when he said he didn’t know Parnas. This isn’t just a photo op, it’s a dinner conversation with a significant policy discussion. (Parnas’ attorney says he has other recordings of conversations with Trump.) Second, it’s not clear who Trump is telling to get rid of Yovanovich. If it’s Lev Parnas, that’s really weird, because Parnas is just a guy working with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.

and the new virus from China

Coronaviruses are common, and normally cause things like colds. But a new strain of coronavirus has appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where it has caused pneumonia symptoms in thousands of people, leading to 80 deaths so far. Comparisons are being made to the SARS virus, which killed nearly 800 people in 2002-2003. Isolated cases of the new virus have been found in other countries, including five so far in the US. All five had traveled here from Wuhan, so thusfar there is no example of somebody catching the virus in the US.

China is taking this very seriously: Wuhan has been quarantined. At last count, the quarantine affected 50 million people, making it the largest quarantine in history.

One of the things I learned reading The Great Influenza (about the 1918-1920 Spanish flu epidemic) was that there is no libertarian answer to plague. Still, public health experts have considerable skepticism about the authoritarian approach China is taking. Somebody has to make public-health decisions and enforce them, but they only work if the public cooperates; that depends on a level of trust between leaders and citizens that is often lacking in authoritarian states.

and Mike Pompeo

Mike Pompeo’s interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, and her description of its aftermath, speaks volumes about this administration’s attitudes towards the press and the public. The interview is 9 1/2 minutes long, with an extra 1 1/2 minutes of Kelly describing what happened next. [Listen.]

The first topic is Iran. Pompeo repeats a number of common Trump administration lies about what Obama’s Iran nuclear deal did and how well Iran was complying with it. Kelly points out that since Trump pulled out of the deal, there are no longer any constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. She asks how the administration plans to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Pompeo stonewalls.

KELLY: My question again: How do you stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

POMPEO: We’ll stop them.

KELLY: How? Sanctions?

POMPEO: We’ll stop them. The President made it very clear. The opening sentence in his remarks said that we will never permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon. The coalition that we’ve built out, the economic, military, and diplomatic deterrence that we have put in place will deliver that outcome.

Then Kelly shifts to Ukraine, and in particular to whether Pompeo adequately stood up for Ambassador Yovanovich, who was targeted by Rudy Giuliani’s smear campaign, and then removed suddenly without explanation. Kelly is a tough but fair interviewer here, refusing to let Pompeo mischaracterize her question as based on “unnamed sources”, and referencing precisely the testimony she’s referring to. Pompeo again stonewalls (“I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team” with no specifics.), and then abruptly cuts off the interview.

Kelly describes to he All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro what happened next:

You heard me thank the Secretary. He did not reply. He leaned in, glared at me, and then turned and with his aides left the room. Moments later, the same staffer who had stopped the interview re-appeared, asked me to come with her — just me, no recorder, though she did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed. I was taken to the Secretary’s private living room, where he was waiting, and he shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted. He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” He used the F-word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes. He called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said, “People will hear about this.” And then he turned and said he had things to do, and I thanked him again for his time and left.

So asking tough questions gets a reporter yelled and cursed at. I assume the beatings won’t start until the second term. (I’m being a little flip there, but not much. How out of character would it be?)

Afterwards, Pompeo claimed:

NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice. First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record.

At least one of those claims was a lie. In an email exchange with Pompeo’s press aide Katie Martin, Kelly refused to limit her questions to Iran, as the aide had suggested.

Kelly responded, “I am indeed just back from Tehran and plan to start there. Also Ukraine. And who knows what the news gods will serve up overnight. I never agree to take anything off the table.”

Martin replied, “Totally understand you want to ask other topics but just hoping . . . we can stick to that topic for a healthy portion of the interview .

Pompeo went on to imply, while leaving himself room to deny it later, that Kelly pointed to Bangladesh. In addition to probably being a lie as well, what’s with that test anyway? It’s obviously a planned thing, because how many people keep blank world maps handy? And incidentally, how many countries does he think Trump could find on a blank map?

Former Ukraine Ambassador Bill Taylor (who you may remember from his testimony in the impeachment hearings) answered Pompeo’s “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” by explaining why we should.

Russia is fighting a hybrid war against Ukraine, Europe and the United States. This war has many components: armed military aggression, energy supply, cyber attacks, disinformation and election interference. On each of these battlegrounds, Ukraine is the front line.

and you also might be interested in …

Retired basketball star Kobe Bryant, star of five championship-winning teams, died yesterday in a helicopter crash. He was 41.

Trump’s trip to Davos cost over $4 million, plus another couple million for Air Force One.

The number of US service members reporting concussions or traumatic brain injuries from the Iranian missile attack two weeks ago is now up to 34. Immediately after the attack, Trump announced: “no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”

As we all know, the Great Leader can never be wrong. So he has stuck by that assessment, dismissing the injuries as “headaches”.

I’ve noted on several occasions that in the last several years American life expectancy has been negatively affected by so-called “deaths of despair“: premature deaths due to suicide, drug overdoses, or the long-term effects of substance abuse.

A new study claims that we can do something to mitigate that problem: raise the minimum wage.

Using data from all 50 American states and the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2015, the authors estimate that a $1 increase in the minimum wage is associated with a 3.5% decline in the suicide rate among adults aged 18 to 64 with a high-school education or less. This may sound small, but the numbers add up. The authors reckon that a $1 increase would have prevented 27,550 suicides in the 25 years covered by the study; a $2 increase would have prevented 57,000.

I have to make the standard correlation-is-not-causality disclaimer. Maybe it’s not the minimum wage per se that produces the effect. It’s possible that the connection is more roundabout. For example, maybe high-minimum-wage states are mostly blue states that have fewer guns. (Guns make suicide attempts much more effective, and so raise the suicide rate.) Or maybe they have better mental health services.

Even if you’re not into basketball, you might find this NYT sports-medicine article interesting. Zion Williamson is 19 years old, stands 6-6, weighs 284 pounds, and is an incredible leaper. When he jumps, he puts more pressure on the floor (and hence on his body, in a Newtonian equal-and-opposite reaction) than any athlete previously tested. In college last year, he once changed directions with so much force that his sneaker exploded.

Two things result from that jumping and cutting ability in a man his size: (1) He was the #1 choice in last spring’s NBA draft, is widely projected to be the next great pro basketball star, and (2) he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee during the pre-season, so he only played his first NBA game this week.

The article centers on two questions: Is Williamson’s knee just doomed to break down under the unprecedented stress, or can he still have a long career if he strengthens supportive tissues and learns to jump and land with better stress-distributing technique? And more generally, does premature specialization — playing nothing but basketball from an early age, rather than the usual seasonal round of sports — lead to greater injury risk in adulthood?

Hardly anybody noticed when, just before Christmas, ICE changed its standards to allow harsher treatment of detained immigrants. This week, Texas Observer noticed:

ICE broadened the reasons a detainee can be placed in solitary confinement and removed language preventing officers from using “hog-tying, fetal restraints, [and] tight restraints.” The agency also extinguished requirements for new facilities to have outdoor recreation areas and provisions guaranteeing that nonprofit organizations have access to the detention centers. There were also significant revisions to protocols in the case of serious injury, illness, or death, such as allowing guards to notify ICE “as soon as practicable” (as opposed to immediately) that a detainee needs to be transferred to a hospital and removing any mention of how to proceed if a detainee dies during the transfer. …

The new guidelines apply to as many as 140 facilities across the United States, including as many as 18 in Texas. The standards primarily apply to local jails and prisons that have contracted with ICE to rent beds to hold immigrants alongside other inmates. … Under the new weaker standards, chances are that local jails and prisons will have an easier time passing inspections and keeping their lucrative contracts with ICE in place.

But the new standards may just codify bad behavior that ICE was allowing anyway.

Although ICE conducts annual inspections in most detention centers, even those that repeatedly violate the standards are given a pass. Among the most egregious examples is Alabama’s Etowah County Detention Center, deemed one of the worst in the country, where the sheriff personally pocketed $400,000 meant to buy food for detainees while roughly 300 of them were served barely edible food. Despite the fact that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties called for ICE to stop detaining immigrants at Etowah, a contract remains in place.

This is the end result of the Trump administration’s dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants. (He seldom mentions immigrants without talking about “invasions“, or about criminal gangs, who are “animals” that “infest” our country.) We tolerate inhumane treatment because we’ve stopped seeing the victims as fully human.

Good article in Grist about plant-based meat. It has a lot of potential, but so far it’s mostly a curiosity. In order to have a serious impact on the climate, production will have to scale up a lot. And the people in the best position to produce on that scale, ironically, are the established meat-processing companies.

Right now, the best results are in replacing burgers or chicken nuggets. Imitating steak is much harder.

and let’s close with something amusing

Some signs at airports tell us more than we want to know.

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  • painedumonde  On January 27, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    Your lead cartoon reminds me of this from the BBC: https://youtu.be/hzV4t9r7Lho

  • JOHN MCCLAIN  On February 1, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    The other problem with Graham’s defense is while you might be will to forgive someone for doing something they didn’t realize was wrong, if they don’t admit it was wrong in retrospect, you can’t really trust them going forward.

  • Frank Ackerman  On February 2, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    “Trump (who is a puppet of Putin)” – seems to me to not only be out of line, but does not further our goal of attempting to understand what’s happening. Difficult to see how the ultra-egomaniacal Trump could be anyone’s puppet. Maybe another word would serve your purpose better. Several of Trump’s policies and actions are playing into Putin’s agenda, but they also serve Trump’s agenda. A thoughtful analysis of the Putin/Trump relationship would be helpful.

  • Frank Ackerman  On February 2, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    Doug – any chance you could supply a link to Schiff’s impeachment trial remarks?

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