Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Remaining Questions

Mr. Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash. The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of “Trump Incorporated” attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets.

– former CIA Director John Brennan (8-16-2018)

This week’s featured post is “The Drift Towards Autocracy Continues“.

This week everybody was talking about security clearances

In the featured post, I discuss Trump’s revoking of John Brennan’s clearance as one more example of his autocratic tendencies: He thinks presidential powers aren’t tethered to any presidential responsibilities, and are just his to use as he pleases.

Something else worth mentioning is that when Rob Porter was facing credible accusations of beating his ex-wives, Sarah Sanders claimed that the White House had nothing to do with security clearances.

and Aretha Franklin

a.k.a. the Queen of Soul, who died Thursday at the age of 76. In tribute, I offer this clip from The Blues Brothers.

and the continuing sabotage of ObamaCare

Wednesday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar had a WaPo column that makes it sound like Trump’s latest effort to sabotage ObamaCare is a great thing for middle-class Americans.

Americans will once again be able to buy what is known as short-term, limited-duration insurance for up to a year, assuming their state allows it. These plans are free from most Obamacare regulations, allowing them to cost between 50 and 80 percent less.

In other words, they’re junk insurance. Suppose you buy such a policy for a year. If you break your leg, fine, you’re covered. If you get cancer, though, you’re covered until the end of the policy, and which point the company wants nothing more to do with you. Or if your leg-break is complicated, requiring a series of surgeries and some rehab that lasts longer than the policy, forget about it.

In the meantime, these short-term junk policies will appeal to healthy people who don’t expect to get sick. Drawing them out of the risk pool will raise rates for people who want real insurance.

The proper goal of American health policy should be simple: If you need care, you will get it, and you won’t be forced into bankruptcy. This is a step away from that goal, not toward it.

and Trump administration epistemology

“Truth,” Rudy Giuliani told us this week, “isn’t truth.”

“This is going to become a bad meme,” Chuck Todd presciently warned.

Now is a good time to remind everybody of the concept of the “reverse cargo cult”. Hans Howe explains:

In a regular cargo cult, you have people who see an airstrip, and the cargo drops, so they build one out of straw, hoping for the same outcome. They don’t know the difference between a straw airstrip and a real one, they just want the cargo.

In a reverse cargo cult, you have people who see an airstrip, and the cargo drops, so they build one out of straw. But there’s a twist:

When they build the straw airstrip, it isn’t because they are hoping for the same outcome. They know the difference, and know that because their airstrip is made of straw, it certainly won’t yield any cargo, but it serves another purpose. They don’t lie to the rubes and tell them that an airstrip made of straw will bring them cargo. That’s an easy lie to dismantle. Instead, what they do is make it clear that the airstrip is made of straw, and doesn’t work, but then tell you that the other guy’s airstrip doesn’t work either. They tell you that no airstrips yield cargo. The whole idea of cargo is a lie, and those fools, with their fancy airstrip made out of wood, concrete, and metal is just as wasteful and silly as one made of straw.

In Putin’s Russia, democracy is the cargo and elections are the airstrips. Russian elections are bogus, but that just proves that all elections are bogus. The US and all those other countries don’t really have democracy either.

In Trump’s America, truth is the cargo, and public statements are the airstrips. There’s no point claiming any more that Trump tells the truth; it’s just too obvious that he doesn’t. If he testifies to Mueller, of course he will lie. But that just proves that everyone lies, and no statements contain truth.

So it’s totally unreasonable to put Trump under oath and expect truth, because there is no truth.

but you might wonder what’s going on with Turkey

In addition to all the other trade wars Trump is fighting, we now have one with Turkey. Trade with Turkey is too small to make much difference in terms of jobs or the trade deficit, but Evangelicals have made a cause out of an American pastor the Turkish government has arrested. The result is an economic crisis in Turkey that could spill over into European banks or other emerging market countries.

and you also might be interested in …

We’re waiting for a verdict in the Manafort trial. I’m concerned that it’s taking so long; the evidence seems pretty clear. Vox’ Emily Stewart just thinks the jury is being methodical: There are a lot of charges.

Meanwhile, Trump has been doing his best to influence the jury, which has not been sequestered. Any Trump supporters on the jury must know what their marching orders are: not guilty.

Rick Perlstein explains the history of “voter fraud” as an argument for discouraging minority voters.

James Corden’s musical version of the hoped-for Mueller report says that Trump is the “law defying, truth denying, dirty lying, Russian spying, absolutely horrifying worst”.

Dinesh D’Souza’s new propaganda movie is bound to restart the bogus talking point that the Democrats are the real racist party. (Somehow, Nazis and white supremacists never seem to get that memo, and keep supporting Trump.) If you find yourself in an argument about this, I already collected the research you’ll need a few years ago in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“.

The even-shorter version is that the Democrats were the white-racist party at least until FDR. By 1948, racists had began to feel unwelcome among the Democrats, which is why Strom Thurmond ran for president against Truman as a Dixiecrat. Between then and 1980, racists had no clear home in either party, and kept flirting with the idea of running their own candidates, like George Wallace in 1968.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 began inviting racists into the Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan sealed the deal in 1980 when he launched his post-convention campaign with a dog-whistle-laden speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from the site of the Mississippi Burning murders. Since then, the GOP has been the preferred party for white racists.

But the article needs this update: The Republican Party of 2012 still kept its racists in the closet and signaled to them with dog whistles. But in the Trump Era, racists have taken a central position in the party’s base.

PBS’ “Hot Mess” series about climate change has some clear, non-intimidating introductory videos that might get through to people still in denial about the problem. Here’s one:

Meanwhile, the Trump administration wants to let states set their own regulations for CO2 emissions from power plants. States that produce a lot of coal presumably will have lax standards, as if the rest of the planet were unaffected by their decisions.

The regulations look like a big win for the companies that used to employ William L. Wehrum, who is now the top air-pollution official at the EPA. #DrainTheSwamp

Pennsylvania’s attorney general released a grand jury report on clergy sex abuse.

Over a period of 70 years, Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abused thousands of children while bishops ran a systemic cover-up campaign, according to the state attorney general.

If you wonder where the “abolish ICE” sentiment comes from, read this story: ICE agents arrest a man at a gas station, leaving his wife to drive herself to the hospital to have their baby. Would it be so hard for ICE to drive the couple to the hospital, to sit with the man until his family is safe, and THEN to arrest him?

The problem with ICE is a pervasive lack of human decency. “Illegals” have been dehumanized to the point that the humane and compassionate responses that we owe to all human beings can be withheld from them. (If you want to see examples of this kind of dehumanization, read the comments on the article.)

You know where this story fits? In a flashback where a terrorist explains why he owes no compassion to his victims. “The day I was born …” he begins.

Much news-network time was taken up this week by speculation on whether or not there’s a tape where Trump says the n-word. Count me among the people who don’t see what difference it would make. If you don’t already know that Trump is a racist, I don’t know why an n-word tape would change your mind. I mean, we already have a tape of him confessing to sexually assaulting women, but his supporters still don’t believe the women who accuse him.

Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is an attempt to change the rules corporations work under. There’s a lot going on here that I need more time to unpack.

Tracey Ullman has been playing with the notion of Melania being a Russian robot for a while now. In this episode, the bot needs a reboot.

So Kris Kobach is now the Republican nominee for governor of Kansas. There are few politicians I have less respect for. His signature issue, voter fraud, which he has been riding for years, is bogus, and he has to know it’s bogus.

He chaired a presidential commission tasked with finding evidence of such fraud, and he didn’t find it. The commission disbanded without issuing a report. But he’s still talking about voter fraud as if it were a well established fact.

Denmark’s response to Fox Business Network’s hit piece is awesome. Just about every aspect of Denmark that FBN’s Trish Regan attacked is actually something that Denmark does better than the US.

Apparently the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is in financial trouble, which is a huge shame. I realize that most of you have no occasion to pass through Springfield, Illinois. But I do, since it’s on the road to my home town, so I’ve toured the museum. It’s a very worthwhile afternoon, and if the museum were on the Mall in D.C., I think everyone would go there.

I get where NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo was coming from when he responded to Trump’s MAGA slogan by saying that America “was never that great”. In other words, if you pick any particular date for “again” to refer to, something pretty awful was happening in America: slavery or Native American genocide or civil war or child labor or the Great Depression or second-class citizenship for women or Jim Crow or Japanese internment or whatever. There is no magic moment that we should want to roll the clock back to.

But I wish he hadn’t put it the way he did, because it’s also true that there has always been something great about America. Even as it was winking at slavery, the Constitution institutionalized rights for white men in a way that could eventually extend to others. Even as America was cramming the Irish, Italians, and Jews into squalid urban ghettos, it was also letting them build a base for breaking out of those ghettos. It promoted science and invention. It created an engine for producing wealth on a previously unheard-of scale, and eventually let that wealth spread out into a large middle class. With its allies, it defended the world from Nazism and held Soviet Communism in check until it fell of its own weight. All superpowers have a degree of arrogance, but compared to historical norms, I believe we have ruled our sphere of influence with a comparatively light hand.

So I find plenty to be proud of in American history, even if there is no Golden Age I would want to return to. My greatest worry is that if we follow Russia, Hungary, and Poland down the authoritarian/nationalist path, we may someday have cause to look back on the Obama years that way. No one would have said so at the time, but that’s how Golden Ages typically are.

and let’s close with a baby otter

Otters may have evolved to swim, but that doesn’t mean they take to water naturally. Mom has to drag the young ones in and force them under.

The drift towards autocracy continues

In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.

For a lot of reasons, it’s hard to make a victim out of John Brennan.

  • The ex-CIA chief is well known, outspoken, and has lots of influential friends.
  • Government service generally has a nice retirement program, and I suspect MSNBC pays its contributors decently, so he’s probably doing OK financially.
  • The privileges he lost when Trump took away his security clearance are ones that the rest of us get along fine without. Clearances typically lapse after people leave the jobs that require them, but high-ranking intelligence officers like Brennan are an exception to that general rule.
  • Losing his clearance probably does not even inconvenience him much. Brennan says that he’s not currently accessing any classified information. He has been available if the CIA wants to consult with him about anything, but he hasn’t sought briefings from them about current situations.
  • Far from being silenced by Trump’s action, Brennan’s point of view is getting a lot of attention these days. Rachel Maddow did an extended interview with Brennan Friday night, and he had a column in The New York Times on Thursday.

So you might be wondering why you should care about Brennan’s clearance, especially at a time when the Trump administration is carrying out much more egregious injustices. For example, hundreds of the children separated from their parents at the border are still in government custody, including 24 who are younger than 5. The children Trump is damaging and the parents who worry about them are much better targets for your sympathy than John Brennan. Why should you care about him?

Bipartisan protest. Let’s start by noting that a lot of people do care, including many who are not reflexively against everything Trump does. Retired Admiral William McRaven (who headed the Special Operations Command when it planned and carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and who has not taken any public political stands until now) published an open letter in The Washington Post, telling Trump that

I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.

Twelve other retired intelligence officials, including six CIA chiefs going back to William Webster from the Reagan administration, signed a statement of protest:

we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. … We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.

Three others (including Robert Gates, who was not only CIA Chief under Bush the First, but also Secretary of Defense under Bush the Second and Obama) added their names later. An additional 60 CIA officers issued their own statement:

Our signatures below do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them. What they do represent, however, is our firm belief that the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.

So is this really a big deal, or is the Deep State just closing ranks around one of its own?

Presidential power. It’s really a big deal, for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are specific to the intelligence community, but the more general issue is that Trump is redefining presidential power in a way that is moving us ever closer to a Putin-style autocracy. He has been pushing in that direction almost from the moment he took office, but this is a major new step.

During the last two years, a number of books have come out about how a republic can degrade into an autocracy. Studying the ominous examples of Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Poland, we see that none of them had a revolution or a coup, and all of them still have elections and parliaments and many other trappings of democracy. Nonetheless, in each of them the essence of republican government is either entirely gone or significantly diminished. How does that happen?

The answer is through the erosion of norms, those underlying principles so basic that constitutions don’t even mention them, or the common-sense practices that enforce those principles. Norms are not written laws and cannot be enforced by courts. They are largely unarticulated traditions that are enforced politically, through public outrage.

Since he took office, Donald Trump has broken a lot of norms. That’s a fancy way of saying that he doesn’t act the way we expect presidents to act. His insult-laden tweet storms, his intertwining of public and private business, his lack of financial transparency, his lack of shame when he denies some obvious fact or contradicts today what he said yesterday (or even a few minutes ago) — it’s all either brand new or on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

But how much of it matters? Breaking a norm might just be a change in personal style, or even a breath of fresh air. Or it might be dangerous. How do we tell the difference?

Here’s a norm that is key to separating a republic from an autocracy: In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.

Revoking John Brennan’s security clearance is the clearest example yet of Trump’s autocratic view of executive power. Presidents have power over security clearances because they are responsible for safeguarding the nation’s secrets. But Brennan, and the other government or ex-government officials whose clearances Trump threatens to revoke next, have not even been accused of endangering classified information. Trump is just taking a swing at people he sees as his enemies.

In other words, he’s treating his power over clearances as a personal prerogative, rather than as a public trust that must account for.

It’s not the only power he’s been using that way.

Pardons. The Constitution grants the president the pardon power (except in cases of treason) and says nothing about how to use it. But traditions going back to Federalist #74 explain its purpose: to correct injustice and show mercy.

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.

In other recent administrations, there has been a process that starts with the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. You apply, the Pardon Attorney studies your case, and recommendations wind their way up to the president, who makes the final decision.

Trump, by contrast, views pardons as Get Out of Jail Free cards that he carries in his pocket. There was nothing unjust or cruel in the criminal convictions of Joe Arpaio or Dinesh D’Souza. Arpaio willfully violated a court order, and D’Souza funneled campaign contributions through straw donors. Arpaio was facing at most six months in prison and D’Souza got no prison time at all.

Both were pardoned because they were political allies of the President. Arpaio appeared at Trump campaign rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and spoke at the Republican Convention. D’Souza is paying Trump back for his generosity with a new film that equates Trump with Lincoln and the Democrats with Nazis.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney seems to have played no role in either decision. Trump just wanted to pardon these guys, so he did. He routinely tosses around thoughts of pardoning other people (like Martha Stewart) with no process and for no particular reason. (Possibly Trump thinks pardoning Stewart would strike a blow against James Comey, who prosecuted her.)

Law enforcement. Trump has frequently put forward the point of view that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be working for him rather than for the United States. Again and again Trump has faulted Sessions for failing to “protect” him from the Russia investigation. Again and again he has complained that the Justice Department should be investigating his enemies, not his friends. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told The New York Times.

The most obvious example of Trump doing “what I want” with the Justice Department was the firing of FBI Director James Comey. FBI Directors have 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from political interference. The only other time an FBI Director has been fired was when President Clinton fired William Sessions in 1993. That FBI director had “stubbornly refused to resign despite Justice Department ethics findings that he abused his office”.

The Justice Department report found, among other things, that [William] Sessions had engaged in a sham transaction to avoid paying taxes on his use of an FBI limousine to take him to and from work, that he had billed the government for a security fence around his home that provided no security and that he had arranged business trips to places where he could meet with relatives.

Comey had been accused of misjudgments, but no ethical lapses. He seems to have be fired for his role in the Russia investigation.

Tariffs and Immigration. During the Kennedy administration, the Trade Expansion Act granted the President power to impose tariffs on products “being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten or impair the national security”. Before Trump used it to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum, that power had been dormant since 1982. You could sort of imagine how it might apply to imports from rival powers like China or Russia: What if our ability to build fighter jets depended on getting aluminum from Russia? But Trump put tariffs on Canadian aluminum as well. Seriously? It threatens national security if we become dependent on Canadian aluminum?

Well, no, and Trump has admitted as much in a tweet: “Our Tariffs are in response to [Canada’s] of 270% on dairy!” The dairy industry, I will point out, does not have national-security significance. But the law has given Trump a power, so he uses it as he pleases.

The Muslim Ban is another example. During the campaign, Trump announced:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

Imposing a religious test on people entering the country is completely unconstitutional, and the first two versions of his Muslim Ban were overturned by the courts. But the administration studied to determine how much of a Muslim Ban could be shoe-horned into presidential powers that existed for other reasons. The Supreme Court, to its shame, has let them get away with this. Lawfare’s Susan Hennessy comments:

The President of the United States expresses in his own words that he is motivated by racial and religious animus — so he says, “I am enacting this immigration policy because I want to prevent Muslims from entering the country”. He says that clear as day. He says it multiple times. And then, the Department of Justice offers a different reason for that. They say, “No. This is within the President’s appropriate authority regarding immigration. This has a real security rationale.” And then the President again and again, even after those filings, not only does not disavow his statements, but makes them again and reaffirms them.

[The issue is] whether or not the Court, which traditionally extends deference to the executive branch says, “Well, we’re going to believe what you say. We’re going to examine the facial representation that you’re making about why you’re doing this.”, whether or not they’re allowed to look beyond the pure formal actions, at what the President is saying. So what the Court decided was: No, they are going to continue to extend traditional national security deference to the Executive, even in the face of blatant, open contradiction by the Executive himself.

And so that case really is an example of elevating legal formalism above the plain facts. And that is something where Trump really has been able to quite strategically and shrewdly play institutional commitments to these deeper principles against the very institutions themselves. It’s allowed him to get away with things — and get away with things really brazenly and openly — that I think even three years ago we would have said was impossible.

Security clearances. The security clearance process exists for a reason: to determine who is or isn’t likely to protect classified information.

At various times in a previous career, I held Secret and Top Secret clearances (which have lapsed; I currently have no clearances and don’t need or want any). To get those clearances, I submitted ID information, told the government where I’d lived, listed references of people who knew me there, and gave dates and reasons for every time I’d left the United States. I answered questions about my finances and what drugs I’d used. The themes of the investigations were easy to trace: Am I who I claim to be? Am I generally a responsible person? Am I vulnerable to foreign influence or blackmail?

No one ever asked me who I voted for or whether I supported the current administration. (I got my first clearance during the Reagan administration, which I did not support.) Whether I believed in the American system of government was deemed important, but whether I agreed with the current president wasn’t.

That’s how we do things in America.

But that’s not how Trump does things. The president sits at the top of the executive branch, and consequently he is the ultimate arbiter of every executive process, including the clearance process. So he has the power to grant and revoke security clearances.

I know of no case where any previous president has gotten directly involved in these decisions, but I can imagine how it might become necessary. (In case of a military coup attempt, for example, the president might need to freeze the conspirators out of the government without taking the time to go through any formal process.)

None of the circumstances I can imagine, though, apply to the Brennan situation: No one questions his loyalty to the United States or his discretion in protecting classified information. He is not involved in any emergency that requires quick action, or in some unique circumstance that the ordinary clearance-reviewing processes can’t handle. He’s just somebody the President doesn’t like.

Trump himself explained removing Brennan’s clearance to the Wall Street Journal like this:

I call [the Trump/Russia investigation] the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.

“These people” include everyone else involved in launching the investigation: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Susan Rice, and Sally Yates. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders read a presidential statement saying that their clearances are being reviewed as well.

Trump doesn’t like being investigated, and he has power over security clearances, so he’s using that power to strike back at the people he blames for the investigation. This is not some cynical interpretation of Trump’s actions; it’s what he and his people are openly saying. (If you want a cynical interpretation, Rachel Maddow has one: Trump’s targets aren’t just the people who started the investigation, they are also potential witnesses in an impeachment hearing. Without clearances, they will be unable to review their own files from the relevant period before testifying, and so will be less effective witnesses against Trump.)

George W. Bush’s CIA Director Michael Hayden, who also finds himself on Trump’s enemies list, draws an obvious conclusion:

The White House just messaged the entire American intelligence community if you stand up and say things that upset the president or with which he disagrees, he will punish you. And that is a horrible message to be sending to folks who are there to tell you objective truth.

Just as the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court averted their eyes from the improper history of the Muslim Ban, Republicans in Congress are finding excuses to support Trump now. Senator Orrin Hatch, for example, responded by saying “I’m surprised it took him so long. Brennan has not been a friend of the administration at all.” But Hatch knows that under no previous president has being “a friend of the administration” been a factor in whether or not you held a clearance. Until Trump, it would have been scandalous to suggest that it should be.

And Rep. Jim Jordan of the House Autocracy Freedom Caucus fully embraces Trump’s autocratic view of clearances:

I don’t even see frankly why there is a debate. If the commander in chief of the United States thinks these people should have their clearance revoked, I don’t see why they should have their clearance.

No process, no criteria — security clearances are just a matter of the president’s personal whim, and are not related to any presidential responsibility.

Where this goes. It’s easy to go wild on slippery-slope arguments. (That’s what the NRA does with gun control. Any restrictions on assault rifles will inevitably lead to complete public disarmament, leaving us all at the mercy of armed police and criminals.) At the same time, sometimes there are slippery slopes, and each concession you make puts you in a worse position to fight future concessions. Principles make good lines in the sand: Once you start accepting violations of the principles, you lose your most easily defended positions.

The abstract principle here is that presidential powers are not personal prerogatives, they are tied to presidential responsibilities. In this case, the president’s power over security clearances is tied to his responsibility for securing the governments’ secrets. Any security-clearance decision that can’t be justified in those terms is illegitimate, even if it is technically legal.

If we lose this principle, if Trump is allowed not just to occasionally rationalize his way around it, but to openly deny it and pay no price, then I honestly don’t know where this slide towards autocracy stops. Looking at the way Republicans like Hatch and Jordan are defending Trump, and the many other Republicans (like Paul Ryan) who are dodging the question of his autocratic inclinations, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s vision:

Make no mistake: if Republicans hold both houses of Congress this November, Trump will go full authoritarian, abusing institutions like the I.R.S., trying to jail opponents and journalists on, er, trumped-up charges, and more — and he’ll do it with full support from his party.

Some examples of Trump’s autocracy are complicated. This one isn’t. If Republicans won’t stand up to Trump here, where does it stop?

The Monday Morning Teaser

For the last few days, the media has been focusing on the right story — Trump revoking John Brennan’s security clearance — but has been missing what’s really worrisome about it: An overarching theme of Trump’s actions has been to break the link between presidential powers and presidential responsibilities. That link is the key difference between the chief executive of a republic and an autocrat.

I’ll go into that theme in much more detail in the featured post, but here’s how it applies to Brennan: Presidents have power over security clearances because they bear responsibility for safeguarding the nation’s secrets. But Trump isn’t even trying to claim that Brennan has compromised classified information; he’s just striking back at people who were involved in launching the Russia investigation.

In other words, he’s treating his power over clearances as if it belongs to him personally, rather than as a trust that he holds and must account for. It’s similar to the way he has treated his pardon power and several other presidential powers. Many people talk abstractly about the “norms” of American democracy, and how the erosion of them threatens the Republic. This is a very specific and clear example.

That post should appear around 9 EDT. The weekly summary needs to cover a lot of stuff: the Manafort trial, Aretha Franklin, the continuing sabotage of ObamaCare, Warren’s vision of accountable capitalism, Turkey, and several other topics. I also ran into a lot of great amusing videos this week. I’ll link to Denmark’s sharp response to Fox Business Network, Tracey Ullman’s “MelaniaBot” series, and James Corden’s fantasy about Mueller announcing his Trump indictment. That should be out between noon and 1.

Massive Changes

In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically, in some ways, the country has changed.  … It’s clear that we need a reset on the entire issue of immigration, illegal and legal.

– Laura Ingraham,
The Ingraham Angle on Fox News (8-8-2018)

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

– Benjamin Franklin,
Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” (1751)

This week’s featured post is “Anti-immigrant rhetoric is an insult to your ancestors“.

This week everybody was talking about corruption

The Russia investigation gets all the headlines, but the widespread corruption of the Trump administration goes way beyond whatever accounts for his abject subservience to Vladimir Putin. Reason — a magazine that is more libertarian than liberal — calls the roll of Trump-administration crimes and cons. (They did the basic research, but I’ve summarized, inserted links, added a couple of people, and injected a little of my own commentary.)

  • Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is currently on trial for tax fraud and bank fraud. His assistant campaign manager Rick Gates (who stayed with the campaign after Manafort had to leave, and who went on to have a position on the Trump Inaugural Committee) has testified against him, saying that they committed crimes together.
  • Rep. Chris Collins, an early Trump supporter, was indicted Wednesday for insider trading. He’s on the board of a foreign biotech company whose products are overseen by the committee Collins served on until this week. But that turns out to be legal for some unimaginable reason. What’s not legal is that as a board member he got an email saying that a major drug trial had failed, and then he immediately called his son, resulting in the whole family (other than Collins himself) saving hundreds of thousands by dumping stock before the news became public. Prosecutors have the email, the record of the call, and records of the stock sales by numerous relatives, but Collins calls the charges “meritless” and at first was going ahead with his re-election campaign. By Saturday he had backed down, though, denying his Democratic opponent the chance to run on the Nixonesque slogan: “I am not a crook.”
  • Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and Gates pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to investigators. If I were Hillary Clinton, I would find it hard to resist attending Flynn’s sentencing hearing so that I could lead a chant of “Lock him up!”
  • Andrew Puzder withdrew as a nominee for Secretary of Labor after it came out that he had employed an undocumented immigrant and an ex-wife had accused him of violent abuse.
  • White House secretary Rob Porter similarly had to resign after two ex-wives accused him of abuse, including one who backed up her story with a black-eye photo.
  • Long-time Trump fixer Michael Cohen is waiting to see if he’ll be indicted by the Southern District of New York. He seems to be working on the assumption that he will be and has been floating various tidbits of what he might have to trade prosecutors. It’s still not clear whether the pay-offs he engineered to Trump mistresses Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal were unreported campaign expenses, or if he met with a Putin ally in Prague, as the Steele dossier claims he did.
  • Former HHS Secretary Tom Price is also unindicted, but had to resign after running up big travel bills and sticking the taxpayer with them. He’s long been ethically suspect because, like Collins, when he was in Congress he traded stocks in an industry his committee oversaw. (The NYT says a third of the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have traded biotech, pharmaceutical and medical device stocks.)
  • After examining a long list of similar accusations from multiple sources, Forbes concludes that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have stolen as much as $123 million during his investing career.
  • Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is the subject of so many investigations that it’s hard to say which one brought him down.
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may be the luckiest guy in Washington. In any other administration, his long list of scandals would be front-page news. Instead, it’s like “Ryan Who?”
  • Trump himself reached a settlement to pay $25 million to the Trump University students he defrauded. The series of ever-more-expensive courses was supposed to teach them how Trump makes money, which (in a way) it did.
  • Pro Publica reports that the Veterans Administration (the second largest department in the government), is being overseen by a secret shadow council of Mar-a-Lago members. This is the clearest example of why Chris Hayes has dubbed Mar-a-Lago “the de facto bribery palace“: If you want to have access to the president, you pay him $200K to join Mar-a-Lago or $300K to join his Bedminster golf club. If your organization (or the foreign government you represent) wants to get in good with Trump, it can put money in his pocket by holding events at his clubs or at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
  • Don Jr. appears to have lied to Congress, and probably also violated laws against political campaigns seeking help from foreign governments.

At least for the moment, while Robert Mueller is hanging on to whatever evidence he has assembled in the Russia probe, the Russian connection seems not to be affecting the voters much. But the Trump administration’s ubiquitous corruption does seem to be breaking through. “Drain the Swamp” has become an issue that favors Democrats.

and Alex Jones

Just about all the social media giants kicked conspiracy theory mega-star Alex Jones off their systems this week. Apple, Facebook, and YouTube (but not Twitter, for some reason) decided they’d had enough of his hate speech — most famously his persecution of the Sandy Hook parents, who he has repeatedly claimed are “crisis actors” who didn’t really lose their kids in a mass shooting.

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. First off, Jones is pond scum. Even if an injustice is happening here, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Second, it’s not a First Amendment issue, because the First Amendment only applies to the government. Nobody is fining Jones or putting him in jail for his rants; the social media giants are private companies that have no obligation to provide Jones with a platform.

But that’s where it starts to get tricky. A lot of The Weekly Sift’s traffic passes through Facebook. (A lot more did a few years ago, before they changed their algorithms to make it harder for posts to go viral.) What if they decided they didn’t like me? What if all the social media companies got together and decided they don’t like socialists or libertarians or people who promote Esperanto? What if saying something bad about the president — either Trump or some future Democrat — could get you banned? That wouldn’t exactly silence anybody, but it would tip the national conversation. Should a handful of commercial companies have that kind of power?

The Jones case caused a lot of people to recall the Martin Niemöller quote “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. … ” Over at World News Daily, another conservative site that promotes a lot of conspiracy theories, they made that comparison seriously:

So, first the Digital Cartel came for Alex Jones. Who will be next? I don’t know, but I don’t plan to find myself in the position in which Martin Niemöller found himself in Nazi Germany.

So did The Deplorable Climate Science Blog, which pushes its own global-conspiracy-of-climate-scientists theory of climate change:

Make no mistake about it. The evil empire has declared war on America.

But a lot of other people found the analogy ridiculous, like Denizcan Grimes:

First they came for Alex Jones, and I did not speak out because fuck that guy.

Or Alex Griswold:

First they came for Infowars, and I didn’t say anything because I didn’t like Infowars. Then they never came for me because I never accused grieving parents of murdered children of being crisis actors.

Or John Fugelsang:

First they came for Alex Jones & Infowars – but I wasn’t a race-baiting transphobic conspiracy cultist who claims murdered children in Newtown are hoaxes and admitted in court that I’m just an entertainer who makes shit up, so I said nothing.

Or Patrick Tomlinson:

First they came for Alex Jones, and I said nothing because the entire point of that poem was a warning against letting fascist assholes like him have a voice in the first place.

and Nancy Pelosi

It’s getting to be a thing among Democratic House candidates facing close elections: They say they won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. Republican House candidates, OTOH, love to attach Pelosi to their Democratic opponents like an anchor.

So should Pelosi announce she won’t run for Speaker? It’s a tough question for a bunch of reasons.

First, Pelosi was a very effective Speaker during the first two years of the Obama administration. She got a bunch of good stuff through the House that then failed in the Senate, like a cap-and-trade bill to fight global warming, for example. When Democrats unexpectedly lost their filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, it was largely Pelosi’s maneuvering that made ObamaCare a law.

A more progressive Speaker would not have produced more progressive legislation — just more division in the caucus and more bills that would have died in the Senate. If Democrats do get the majority back this fall, there’s every reason to believe that Pelosi will once again be effective at keeping the Democratic caucus together and pushing Democrats from purple districts to take a few risks they might otherwise back away from.

When you get outside of Congress, though, she hasn’t been a good national spokesman for the party. As Speaker in an era with a Republican president and a Republican Senate (which I think we’ll still have next year), she would be the top-ranking Democrat in the country, and I don’t think she’ll be good at that.

And then you reach the same dilemma that we had with Hillary Clinton: A lot of what makes her so easy to demonize is that she’s a woman. Republicans have put a lot of energy into demonizing her, and it has worked. But I hate to give in to that: We can’t let Republicans choose our leaders for us. At some point we have to stand up to demonization and defeat it. If you think that the next Democratic leader — especially the next female Democratic leader — will somehow escape demonization, you’re kidding yourself.

Even so, I find myself hoping Pelosi steps down. In the short term, that would improve Democrats’ prospects in the fall elections. And I’m not sure how much of a long term American democracy has if Trump is allowed to rule for two more years without congressional oversight.

and Charlottesville

People marked the anniversary of the Charlottesville Unite-the-Right rally in a variety of ways. Jonathan Capehart reviewed a year’s worth of Trump’s race-baiting pronouncements.

Trump himself tweeted a message that some pundits saw as conciliatory:

The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division. We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!

But the tweet is full of dog whistles that white supremacists will read differently than the rest of us. “all forms of racism” means that he is also condemning racism against whites, as if that were a thing. “all acts of violence” reinforces his “both sides” rhetoric of a year ago. “come together as a nation” means that white supremacists are part of the mainstream now, and the rest of us just have to tolerate them.

Why can’t he condemn white supremacists specifically, even when marking the anniversary of a murder one them committed? He certainly has no problem condemning Black Lives Matter by name. If BLM protesters and Antifa demonstators do something he doesn’t like, he doesn’t condemn “all forms” of whatever, he calls them out. But he can’t do that with white supremacists, because they’re a key part of his base.

So no, I’m not going to “come together” with Nazis or take their claims of anti-white racism seriously. I refuse to accept an even-handed view that puts Nazi and anti-Nazi demonstrators on the same level.

and you also might be interested in …

Speaking of calling out black people by name, Trump went after basketball star LeBron James.

Consider the context: James had just welcomed the first class to the I Promise school in his hometown, Akron Ohio. It’s  a school for at-risk kids, and gets a lot of its funding from James’ foundation.

At the I Promise school, tuition is free for all students, who were randomly selected among all Akron public school students between one to two years behind their peers in reading. Students get free uniforms, free meals and snacks during the school day, and free transportation to school. Every kid also gets a free bicycle and helmet, as James has said that having access to his own set of wheels gave him a way to escape from dangerous parts of his neighborhood and the freedom to explore during his childhood. And in a nod to the realities of the way schoolwork gets done in the digital age, every kid gets a free Chromebook, too.

In other words, James is a multi-millionaire who remembers where he came from, and who is trying to help people who are like him, but lack his all-world athletic talent. Any other president would give him a shout-out.

But with some nudging from CNN’s Don Lemon, James softly criticized Trump, saying that Trump

has kinda used sport to kinda divide us, and that’s something I can’t relate to, because I know that sport was the first time I ever was around someone white. And I got an opportunity to see them and learn about them and they got an opportunity to learn about me. And we became very good friends, and I was like “Oh wow, this is all because of sports.” And sports has never been something that divides people, it’s always been something that brings someone together.

Racism, he said, has “always been there”

But I think the president in charge now has given people … they don’t care now. They throw it in your face now.

Trump didn’t answer those criticisms but couldn’t ignore them, so he struck back with insults:

Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!

“I like Mike” refers to Michael Jordan, and is a way of saying that LeBron is only the second best player in basketball history. The tweet could hardly be a better example of “using sports to kinda divide us”.

All I can say is that you should watch the Lemon/James interview, and then listen to one of Trump’s incoherent and mistake-filled rants, and decide for yourself which of these men is truly smart.

Trump is back to another of his favorite bits of race-baiting: attacking NFL players who kneel to protest racial injustice. Seriously: the guy who can’t stand up to Putin is lecturing NFL players about patriotism. It’s not the state of Colin Kaepernick’s patriotism that worries me.

This morning the NYT editorial board assembled a compelling collection of graphs and charts to make a point that gets a little clearer all the time: The Trump tax cut is doing great things for stockholders and executives, but nothing at all for workers.

Inflation-adjusted wages are dropping, capital investment and productivity have been unaffected, and the federal deficit is skyrocketing (to the point that in a few years the record Bush/Obama deficit of FY 2009 will be the baseline). But the stock market is near a record, so it’s all good.

If you ever argue with somebody about voter fraud, chances are that they will tell you about “evidence” they have seen: something obviously not right that must be the result of fraud. Invariably, though, the fraud is by the people who constructed the claim of fraud. I took apart one example of this back in 2013 in “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“, but it’s a whack-a-mole process. Republicans are extremely gullible on this issue; it’s easy for fraudsters to gin up BS that they will believe and pass on to their friends.

Here’s another example, referring to the recent special election in Ohio’s 12th congressional district. First the accusation tweet:

Voter fraud is real: 170 Voters in Ohio Race ‘Over 116 Years Old,’ World’s Oldest Person Is 115

How much more obvious can fraud get? Well, Sean Imbroglio takes the time to figure out what’s really going on, and finds something even more amazing: According to the official database, which is available for inspection by the public, a bunch of those voters are actually 218 years old! Their birth years are listed as 1800!

So I called the Franklin BOE and guess what? isn’t overrun with immortal vampires or Napoleonic-era alchemists. Board of Elections confirmed 1800 means they registered under the old system which didn’t collect birthdates, and haven’t updated their registrations since.

Imbroglio goes on to google a bunch of the 218-year-olds, and finds out that they are real people who live in the district and actually have more reasonable ages. But in the time it took him to do that, probably five other voter-fraud conspiracy theories got launched. (If you follow the tweet-thread, it’s instructive to watch Proud Conservative argue with Imbroglio. He really, really wants to believe that voter fraud has been found and documented.)

Having investigated half a dozen or so of these stories over the years, I’ve come to a conclusion: Examples of rampant voter fraud are all like this. Something perfectly ordinary creates an anomaly that conspiracy theorists can trumpet without bothering to look for more mundane explanations.

I didn’t think Omarosa was worth paying attention to when she worked in the White House, and I don’t see any reason to change my mind now that she’s pushing a book about her White House experiences. Ping me if she releases any of the Trump tapes she claims exist.

Here’s the sad thing about Omarosa’s book, Sean Spicer’s book, and all the Trump-administration-insider books that will ever come out: In order to work for Trump to begin with, you had to be either dishonest or ridiculously gullible. Either way, I won’t believe your book unless you have proof.

Back in the 19th century, somebody remarked that watching the heavily manipulated wheat market at the Chicago Board of Trade was like watching men wrestling under a blanket; you could tell when something was happening, but not see what it was.

I feel that way when I hear about Trump negotiating an interview with Robert Mueller. There’s so much we don’t know. Trump’s people claim he is eager to talk to Mueller, but that his lawyers want to insist on prior conditions that Mueller so far has not agreed to. Is that true, or is Trump like the guy who complains about his friends holding him back from a bar fight he doesn’t really want any part of?

From Mueller’s side: Does he need Trump’s testimony to complete his report, or is he simply offering the president the courtesy of allowing him to tell his side of the story? If negotiations with Trump fail, as I think they will, does he then insist with a subpoena, or does he shrug and go on?

Trump’s lawyers claim they’re worried about a “perjury trap”, as if some mysterious prosecutor magic tricks witnesses into lying. But if Trump has done nothing wrong, as he claims, then he has a foolproof strategy against perjury: don’t lie.

The perjury problem, I think, arises because Trump is actually guilty of something, maybe many things. If he could be sure exactly what Mueller knows, then he could concoct a lie that fits within those bounds. But because he doesn’t know — and that’s why his allies in Congress keep demanding the Justice Department produce more and more documents — then he risks telling a lie Mueller can disprove. That’s the “perjury trap”.

The only real perjury trap I can imagine is the situation Bill Clinton found himself in: You want to cover up something (like an affair with an intern) that is legal but politically embarrassing. Finding an excuse to ask the question under oath is a way for your enemies to turn your political problem into a legal problem. But I don’t see anything like that here.

The trade war with China continues: The latest round of Chinese retaliatory tariffs have been announced and will take effect on August 23.

and let’s close with something cute

What could be cuter than a baby elephant who enjoys a bath?

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is an insult to your ancestors

An anti-immigrant cartoon from 1904. Could those be your people coming over or through the wall?

Dirty, dangerous, diseased, stealing our jobs, and arriving in waves too large to assimilate: Unless your immigrant ancestors were on the Mayflower, they suffered the same abuse.

Wednesday night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham led off her show by quoting Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about how the country has changed since the 90s, making fun of her for a while, and then launching into this white-supremacist rant:

In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically, in some ways, the country has changed. Now, much of this is related to both illegal, and in some cases legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.

From there she went into a Trump-like cherry-picking of crimes committed by immigrants [1], before coming around again to Ocasio-Cortez and the ultimate threat:

This is exactly what socialists like Ocasio-Cortez want: eventually diluting and overwhelming your vote with the votes of others, who aren’t (let’s face it) too big on Adam Smith and The Federalist Papers. … It’s clear that we need a reset on the entire issue of immigration, illegal and legal.

That segment drew cheers from white supremacists around the country, who recognize their own rhetoric when you repeat it back to them: White Americans are being overwhelming by darker immigrants who will never assimilate, but will instead remake America in their own image. [2]

The timelessness of xenophobia. But there’s a strange thing about that rhetoric: It’s been part of American discourse forever. And most of us here today — including most of the white supremacists — are descended from those darker immigrants who supposedly would never assimilate.

America has always had conflicted feelings about its immigrants. On the one hand, we take pride in being “a nation of immigrants”, a place where people come to be free and find opportunity. When Neil Diamond sang “Everywhere around the world, they’re coming to America” in 1980, that message was celebratory, not ominous. Every well-established ethnic group (except blacks and Native Americans, whose histories are unique, and who even after all these centuries have never completely been accepted as “real” Americans) tells similarly heroic stories about its first generation — people who arrived here with nothing, worked hard, and prospered.

And yet, each new ethnic group faces the same hostile tropes. Unless you arrived on the Mayflower, the white people who were here already probably had the same bad things to say about you and your ilk: You were dirty and carried disease. You brought nothing with you and had little to offer. You ate different food, spoke a different language (or your English was bad and marred by an impenetrable  accent), had different customs, and worshiped at a different church. Your skin (even if your ethnic group is considered white now) was a different shade. Your people brought crime. Having grown up under a different system of government, you were not well suited to American traditions of democracy. You were arriving in numbers too large to absorb, and the prospect of your people assimilating to American ways seemed slight.

Ben Franklin and the Germanization threat. Today, few ethnic groups are as uncontroversial or as seamlessly integrated into the American landscape as mine: Germans. In the 2000 census, we constituted 17% of the population. That makes us the largest group of whites, outnumbering the Irish and English, and puts our numbers about on a par with Hispanics.

My ancestors started coming here in the 1840s, and people who meet me probably don’t even think about Germany; I’m just another white American. I don’t know how to cook any uniquely German dishes. I can barely decipher written German and don’t speak it at all. My European vacation fantasies center on London, not Berlin.

And yet, as Annalisa Merelli pointed out last year on Quartz, if you go back far enough, German immigrants faced the same accusations that Mexican or Muslim immigrants hear today. Ben Franklin in particular worried that Pennsylvania might soon be overrun by them.

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Complexion? Weren’t Germans white, like the English? Apparently not, or at least not yet.

Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted.

I don’t know my ancestry well enough to tell you whether I’m Saxon, but if Swedes and Russians are “swarthy”, I doubt I pass muster.

Remember how Trump warned that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.“? Ben didn’t believe any country did.

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation.

So think about how that worked out. Ben was proved right, mostly: Those stupid Germans did overrun large parts of his colony, becoming the Pennsylvania Dutch. [3] They polluted English Quaker cuisine with their buttery pies and pastries, and marred the countryside with the demonic hex signs on their barns. You yourself may make potato salad in the German fashion, without even realizing that you are betraying authentic American traditions.

That ridiculous train of thought is why, when I watch well-assimilated whites (the kind of people who think of themselves as “real Americans”) denounce the new immigrants, I play a little game with myself: How long ago, I wonder, were similar charges leveled against their ancestors? How few words to you have to change to turn their attacks into diatribes against their own people?

The Irish, Italians, and other Catholics. Take John Kelly, who said that today’s immigrants aren’t “people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.”

They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from — fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English.

The Boston Globe traced Kelly’s great-grandparents: Seven immigrants out of eight. Three from Ireland, four from Italy. Great-grandmother Mary Connelly probably came from Clifden in County Galway, a small town surrounded by farmland. John DeMarco, a fruit peddler,

still didn’t speak English after more than a decade in the country. His wife Crescenza, Kelly’s great-grandmother, lived in the United States for more than 30 years without learning the language.

When Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich tell us that Muslim immigrants will be bad citizens because Islam is incompatible with American values, I wonder if they realize how closely their rhetoric matches what was said against their own religion (Catholicism) just a few generations ago. In 2010, Gingrich warned:

America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.

How far is that from what Protestant minister (and best-selling author) Norman Vincent Peale said about the prospect of electing a Catholic president in 1960? “Our American culture is at stake,” he worried.

The Founders saw Catholicism as “popery”, a dangerous authoritarian system utterly at odds with the values of the American Republic. Future Chief Justice John Jay (co-author of those same Federalist Papers that Ingraham — another Catholic — worries new immigrants “aren’t too big on”) wrote to the British people on behalf of the Continental Congress, protesting against the toleration of Catholicism in Quebec:

Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion through every part of the world.

Hannity has called Islamic law, sharia, “the antithesis of our Constitutional republic”. John Adams held similar opinions about the canon law of the Catholic Church’s “Romish clergy”:

All these opinions they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity, and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge. Thus was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to [the Pope], and his subordinate tyrants.

I can hardly wait to hear Rudy Giuliani repeat Trump’s rhetoric about Hispanic crime and MS-13, since it is almost a word-for-word reprise of 20th-century denunciations of Italians and the Mafia.

The elasticity of Americanism. At every point in our history, the idea of American has stretched far enough to include past waves of immigrants, while still balking at the more recent ones. At every point, there has been a clear line between Them and Us, and every time the issues seemed totally different than what we had seen before: Once we were an English culture, then a Northern European culture, then a more generally European one (with a possible debt to Africa for jazz and a few other things), and now even that is open to challenge. Once we were a Protestant country, then a Christian country, then Judeo-Christian.

Who knows where this is headed? A few decades from now Muslims may have assimilated, while rising oceans bring waves of immigrants from the vast Indian subcontinent. Maybe then we’ll be a monotheistic or Abrahamic country, and include Muslims in a larger Americanism that still must stand fast against Hindu paganism. Maybe we’ll start to recognize Spanish and Portuguese as European languages and accept Hispanics and Latinos as allies against the new threat, whatever it is.

We have always worried about the newcomers. We’ve always thought there were too many of them, and we usually haven’t treated them well for a generation or two. But eventually we adjust to each other, and the assimilation goes both ways. (The Latinos for Trump leader who warned against a future with “taco trucks on every corner” probably doesn’t even notice that there are already pizza places on every corner. I doubt George Washington ever ate a pizza, or even knew what a pizza was.) America always changes. It changes noticeably from one decade to the next, and pretty extremely with each new generation.

It always has. If your ancestors had wanted to keep living exactly the same way their ancestors did, they probably would have stayed in the Old Country. From the English and Germans to the Guatemalans and Somalians, immigration has always given America a bias towards the New. And that has worked well for us, century after century.

In the end, elasticity has been the most enduring trait of American culture. Massive demographic change is as American as apple pie — which has this tasty Pennsylvania Dutch variant.

[1] This rhetorical trick is in the toolbox of all bigots: Take a common human failing, focus only on how it occurs inside your target group, and then propose solving the problem by discriminating against the people you hate anyway.

I first noticed this back in the late 70s, when anti-gay crusaders argued that gays shouldn’t be allowed to be teachers, and cited cases where gay teachers had sex with their students — as if that were some special gay problem unrelated to all the straight teachers who have sex with their students.

This time, the common failing is crime: Any large-enough group of people is going to have criminals in it. So of course there are criminal undocumented immigrants and horror stories about their crimes, none of which would have happened if only we’d cracked down on all undocumented immigrants a long time ago.

Such arguments can sound very convincing until you imagine one aimed at you. For example, there are probably enough people named Doug in the US to include some murderers and rapists. What if somebody like Ingraham devoted an entire show to telling totally true stories of Doug-committed crimes and the horrible suffering endured by their — I mean our — innocent victims? All that pain could have been avoided if only the law had let police lock up all the Dougs a long time ago.

[2] After seeing the huge backlash her comments had leashed, Ingraham led off the next night’s show by denying that “massive demographic changes” have anything to do with race. Instead, she claimed to have talked about “secure borders” and “families who have suffered the tragic results of illegal immigration”, as if she had never mentioned legal immigrants (and their votes) at all.

This is the dance the Party of Trump does these days: They’re not Nazis, they just re-tweet them and tell America what fine people Nazis are. The day when whites become a minority in America is an approaching apocalypse, but that’s because of “Adam Smith and The Federalist Papers” or something, not race. Republicans are not anti-black or anti-brown, they’re pro-white, like Rep. Steve King who asked: “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

[3] Dutch in this case doesn’t have anything to do with Holland. It derives from Deutsch, meaning German.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m back from from a week playing tour guide in Chicago for some of my friends. We hit all the highlights: studied our reflections in the Bean, looked down on the Calder sculpture from the top of the Willis Tower, saw the Cubs win an afternoon game at Wrigley Field, ate deep-dish pizza and hot dogs with more stuff on them than meat in them, and so on.

Strange thing about having been away for two weeks: I don’t feel like months of news has happened. The world certainly didn’t stand still. The Manafort trial started, votes were cast in primaries and one congressional special election, the Nazis returned to Charlottesville like swallows to Capistrano, a new inside-the-Trump-White-House book came out, Alex Jones got booted from most of the major social-media platforms, Trump went back to race-baiting the NFL players, etc. But none of it leaves me with the how-will-I-ever-keep-up feeling that I’ve had since November, 2016.

I wonder if that means Trump has jumped the shark. Or maybe just that I had a vacation.

Anyway, Laura Ingraham’s mainstreaming of white-supremacist rhetoric and an article in Quartz about Ben Franklin’s anti-German-immigrant rantings got me reflecting on the timelessness of xenophobia in America. Very often it comes full circle: Today’s xenophobes repeat the same stuff that was said about their people not so long ago, particularly the claim that they could never possibly assimilate into America. (Laura is Catholic. One of her complaints about today’s immigrants is that they’re “not too big on The Federalist Papers“. But if you are big on The Federalist Papers, you know that one of its authors, John Jay, was notoriously bigoted against Catholics, whose authoritarian religion would make it impossible for them to assimilate into our Protestant Republic.) A bunch of stuff like that gets pulled together into “Anti-immigrant rhetoric is an insult to your ancestors”, which should be out soon.

It’s possible that something else from the weekly summary will get spun off into its own article, but I haven’t made that decision yet. Look for the summary by noon, and any spin-off before then.

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.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I started a vacation yesterday, but I’m avoiding canceling two consecutive Sifts by putting out a weekly summary (but no featured post) this morning. (I’m writing this from the breakfast room of a Best Western in Pennsylvania, and I’ve got Cubs tickets for Friday.) I’m going to try to have the summary out by 10 EDT.

As usual in the Trump Era, a lot is going on:

  • Across the government and the country, Americans continue to wonder what Trump promised Putin in their private meeting two weeks ago. Secretary of State Pompeo tried to convince the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they know everything they need to know, but instead raised doubts about how much he knows himself.
  • The government tried to claim that it met a court deadline to reunite the migrant families it separated, but it did so by classifying the parents who hadn’t gotten their kids back as “ineligible”. The judge doesn’t seem to be buying it.
  • Trump prematurely announced that he has resolved the trade war he started with Europe. The 2nd quarter GDP numbers look good, but come with a major asterisk.
  • Trump is also facing increasing legal pressure on a variety of fronts: Michael Cohen seems to be flipping against him, Paul Manafort’s trial is starting, a lawsuit challenging his receipt of unconstitutional emoluments cleared a major hurdle, and his long-time CFO got a subpoena. Meanwhile, his supporters are trying to impeach Rod Rosenstein and starting to say “So what if he did collude with the Russians?”

I’ll try to flesh all that out, plus a few other things (like some interesting environmental developments), before closing with a funny-not-funny video about the questions gay couples get asked.

Recipe for Failure

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. President, you tweeted this morning that it’s U.S. foolishness, stupidity and the Mueller probe that is responsible for the decline in U.S. relations with Russia. Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you — what would you consider them — that they are responsible for?

TRUMP: Yes I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame.

Trump-Putin press conference,
Helsinki (7-16-2018)

The Obama Administration’s strategy of unconditional engagement with America’s enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure.

– “Barack Obama’s Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower
The Heritage Foundation (6-2-2009)

This week’s featured posts are “What changed in Helsinki” and “On Bullshifting“.

This week everybody was talking about Helsinki

The fallout from Trump’s secret conversation with Putin and the press conference the followed has dominated the week. I discussed it in “What changed in Helsinki“. The short version of that post is that theories of Trump’s subordination to Putin may have seemed far-fetched eight days ago, but they no longer do.

Here’s a development that I remember somebody predicting, but can’t pinpoint who it was: There’s a pattern in Trump’s reaction to accusations. The first stage is simple denial: “It didn’t happen.” The second is goalpost-shifting: “Technically it happened, but it wasn’t a big deal.” Then comes defiance: “I did it. So what?” [These quotation marks are demonstrative; I’m not referring to specific Trump statements.]

Some Trump followers are already at Stage 3 with respect to Russia: If he did conspire with Russia to win the election, they’re fine with it.

Post-Helsinki, never-Trump Republicans are getting more vocal. Friday Max Boot proclaimed the ultimate heresy: “How I miss Barack Obama.”

It can be depressing to think about our current predicament under a president whose loyalty to America is suspect but whose racism and xenophobia are undoubted. However, Obama’s speech [honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth] gave me a glimmer of optimism — and not only because he cited Mandela’s “example of persistence and of hope.” He reminds me that just 18 months ago — can you believe it was so recently? — we had a president with whom I could disagree without ever doubting his fitness to lead.

and a Russian spy’s relationship with the NRA

It was reported back in January that the FBI was investigating whether money from Putin ally Alexander Torshin had been funneled through the National Rifle Association to be spent promoting Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Torshin is a member of Russia’s parliament and a deputy governor of the Russian central bank. The NRA spent $30 million on Trump in 2016, three times what it spent on Mitt Romney in 2012. If any of that money came from Torshin (or worse, from the Russian central bank), that would be illegal. Torshin has been under sanction by the Treasury Department since April.

Sunday, Russian national Maria Butina was arrested in the District of Columbia for acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation, working for Torshin. The Justice Department announced the arrest Monday, shortly after the Trump/Putin summit in Helsinki.

So far, it’s hard to tell how important this is. Butina certainly met a lot of important people in Republican politics (in both the NRA and in religious-right circles, which overlap to a bizarre degree). The FBI affidavit that supports the indictment describes a plan to connect those people to influential people in the Putin government. But it’s hard to tell how insidious this was. The charge is that she did not register as a foreign agent. So if somebody who had registered as a lobbyist for Russia had done the same thing, would that have been illegal? Did the Americans who helped her do anything illegal? Not clear yet. We’ll have to see where this goes.

and a FISA warrant application

Remember the Nunes memo? Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote the memo to make the case that there was something wrong with the FISA warrants that collected the intelligence that got the Trump/Russia investigation started. Supposedly this blew the whistle on the whole anti-Trump conspiracy inside the Deep State, and meant that the entire Mueller investigation was invalid, because it was what lawyers call “fruit of the poison tree”.

As I and a lot of other people pointed out at the time, once the memo got declassified and released, it obviously didn’t live up to what Republicans had been saying about it. (Sean Hannity claimed it showed “the entire basis for the Russia investigation was based on lies that were bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and her campaign.”)

The Nunes memo itself had a lot of internal inconsistencies, and obvious gaps between its claims and its evidence. But still, a big chunk of the controversy between it and a competing Democratic memo boiled down to a he-said/she-said: Both relied on a classified source, the applications for the FISA warrants, and they made conflicting claims about those applications that the general public couldn’t check.

Well, now we can. A heavily redacted version of the FISA applications has been released under a Freedom of Information Act request. And guess what? The Nunes memo was complete crap, often making totally false claims about what FISA applications contain. A tweetstorm by Pwn All the Things goes through it in detail, picking out Nunes statements about the documents that are directly contradicted by the documents themselves.

It’s honestly kind of amazing that *every single one* of the assertions about inadequacies about the FISA application by Nunes are just directly refuted by the FISA application. Utterly dishonest in its entirety.

Lawfare’s David Kris is less polemic (and seems to have gone through the new documents in less detail), but notes that now “the Nunes memo looks even worse” than he originally judged it to be. And he points out that the four different judges who approved the warrants were all Republican appointees: one by Reagan, on by Bush the First and two by Bush the Second.

On the flip side, it’s fascinating to watch the contortions conservative Byron York has to go through to claim that the Nunes memo is “almost entirely accurate“. He takes a tree-level view, going paragraph by paragraph, and ignores the forest. The overall purpose of the memo, to prove that there was something unsavory about surveilling Carter Page, and that the Mueller probe has consequently been delegitimized, has been discredited. York makes no attempt to claim otherwise.

and you also might be interested in …

Hate to say “I told you so“, but North Korean denuclearization turns out to be harder than Trump thought.

At some point a manipulative ploy is just too obvious. Trump is catching flak for kowtowing to a foreign leader, so what does he want to talk about? Unpatriotic black athletes. California Democrat Eric Swalwell decided not to put up with it.

This should be a standard response whenever Trump goes after the NFL players in the future: Colin Kaepernick doesn’t need a lesson in patriotism from Putin’s poodle.

The EPA is proposing major changes to the Endangered Species Act. After declaring victory in the War on Poverty last week, I guess we’re also going to declare that we’ve saved all the endangered species now.

In addition to what you see on TV, The Daily Show web site posts additional clips, like extended versions of interviews and so on. I found this one particularly insightful. On Monday’s show, host Trevor Noah had joked about how black people around the world considered France’s victory in the World Cup to be an African victory, because so much of the French team has African roots.

Wednesday, he read and responded to the letter he got from the French ambassador, who called him out for questioning the Frenchness of the black players, as French nativists do. Trevor’s response is brilliant, I think, and points out how much of what gets interpreted as a double-standard on race (i.e., why black rappers can say “nigger” and I can’t) aren’t double standards at all. French nativists, Noah says, are putting a wall between themselves and French blacks: “I’m really French and you’re not.” Noah, on the other hand, is claiming what he shares with them: “I’m African and so are you.” Noah is allowing the soccer players to be both French and African; nativists and the French ambassador are insisting it’s one or the other.

Mansplaining explained in a flow chart:

I will quibble at one point: Some people are just know-it-alls, and unnecessarily explain stuff to everybody who doesn’t tell them to shut up. Apparent mansplaining may just be a symptom of this larger dysfunction.

Former Politico editor Garrett Graff speculates that the Russians will switch sides in this year’s midterms and help the Democrats this time. As much as I might wish Republicans would believe this (and start protecting America’s democratic infrastructure for their own good), I don’t buy it.

Since its founding, Politico has been the home of false-equivalence both-sides-do-it journalism, in which the two parties are nothing more than teams with different-colored jerseys. Politico sees no essential difference between Republicans and Democrats, so Graff supposes that Russia doesn’t either. The Russians’ real goal, in Graff’s view, is “Weakening the West, and exploiting the seams and divisions of the West’s open democracies to undermine our legitimacy and moral standing.” Throwing one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats will create two years of strife and gridlock, so Russia should be all for it.

But Graff’s analysis ignores something important: Putin has a brand. Internationally, his message is that a nation has to defend its essential and traditional identity against globalist homogenization, and that (in an age of mass migration, racial mixing, and transnational media) neither democracy nor capitalism can do that. So in one country after another, he allies with racist, nationalist, traditionalist, and autocratic forces: the anti-immigrant pro-Brexit side in Britain, the National Front in France, AfD in Germany, 5 Star in Italy, Orban in Hungary. Within Russia, his brand is not just pro-ethnic-Russian, but also pro-Russian-Orthodox-Christianity; he is the restorer of traditional Russian moral values, like homophobia.

Whether Putin believes this stuff himself or not isn’t clear. But as a well-trained KGB man, he understands the power of ideology. He’s not going to blur his brand by helping Democrats.

“Vladimir Putin’s goal,” Graff writes, “isn’t—and never was—to help the Republican Party, at least in the long run.” In the most literal sense, that’s probably true: Putin is rooting for himself, and not for any particular American team.

But the two major American parties are not just teams. One of them has a brand that is entirely congruent with Putin’s. It is pro-white, nationalist, and xenophobic. It promotes traditional Christian rules and prejudices. It stands foursquare against democracy, regarding recent immigrants as unworthy of citizenship and embracing voter suppression, gerrymandering, and unlimited campaign spending in order to delay indefinitely the day when the white Christian minority loses its dominance.

That’s the GOP. It’s Putin’s party for a reason.

and let’s close with something amazing

We need a break from seriousness. Here’s Dude Perfect doing incredible things with ping-pong balls. They don’t say how many attempts they needed to get these tricks right, but I don’t care.

What changed in Helsinki

Questions that sounded paranoid a week ago now have to be taken seriously: Is the President betraying the country?

It’s a very odd experience to watch your worst-case scenario play out. It isn’t that you never imagined anything this bad. (Many of us did, that’s what a worst-case scenario is.) But imagining is not the same as expecting. You can still feel shocked and surprised, even as you tell yourself that you should have seen this coming.

What we saw last Monday in Helsinki was an American president completely in thrall to a Russian autocrat.

The Helsinki news conference. It was more than just one statement that might have been a slip of the tongue or a senior moment.

The single event that got the most attention was when Trump was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election that made him president. He weighed the conclusions of the entire US intelligence establishment (singling out his own Director of National Intelligence by name) against the unsupported word of Vladimir Putin, and favored Putin.

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. [1]

[All quotes are from the Washington Post transcript.]

But it isn’t just that Trump has a blind spot about the 2016 election or wants to squelch any suspicions about the legitimacy of his presidency. Putting election-meddling aside, John King listed all the other things Trump decided not to make a big deal out of: Putin’s proxy war against Ukraine (including the direct annexation of Crimea into Russia), the nerve-agent attacks in the United Kingdom, and shooting down the MH-17 airliner. Also, he allowed Putin to pose as a humanitarian interested in helping the Syrian people, when Russia’s ruthless intervention in Syria is a primary cause of their suffering.

He had plenty of opportunities to confront Putin. Asked whether he held Russia “at all accountable for anything in particular”, Trump identified nothing Putin has done wrong and blamed “both countries” for the difficult state of US/Russian relations.

I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame. [2]

He couldn’t tell us enough about how reasonable Putin was being. A Putin proposal that the Senate denounced 98-0 was “an incredible offer”. [3]

Trump keeps endorsing Putin’s worldview. Even after he left Putin’s charismatic presence, the effect continued. Julia Ioffe described it best in The Washington Post: “Vladimir Putin has his own version of reality. And President Trump believes it.”

For example, when Tucker Carlson asked Trump “Why should my son go to [NATO’s newest member] Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Trump replied with a mysterious view that he surely did not get from his own national security team:

I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.

Seriously? The rest of the Balkan countries are trembling in fear over the aggression of Montenegro? And this strange notion is worth mentioning rather than Russia’s attempt to foment a coup. Everybody’s best guess is that Putin is the source of Trump’s view of Montenegro, which he repeats as fact. Ioffe explains where that kind of gullibility goes:

If America is at fault for everything that’s gone wrong in its relationship with Russia, as Trump seems to agree, then why do we impose sanctions on Russian officials and companies? This has been Russia’s position all along.

Secrets kept from us, not from Russia. And then we come to the strangest thing of all: The two hours Trump spent with Putin without any Americans present other than a translator. [4] Days later, DNI Coats told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he had no idea what was said. The rest of the government seems not to know either, though the Russians have been claiming that various agreements were made. [5]

For example, Putin claims he discussed with Trump a plan for a referendum to decide whether rebellious parts of eastern Ukraine will join Russia.

Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday.

Presumably, this would be similar to the referendum in Crimea, and once you accept the one you’d have no basis for refusing to accept the other, or for maintaining any sanctions that were imposed in response.

During Mitchell’s interview with Coats, the White House announced that Putin was being invited to the White House in the fall. Coats was clearly dumbfounded by this.

The White House then portrayed Coats as having “gone rogue“. But more and more it looks like Trump has gone rogue from the rest of the government, even the parts he appointed himself. [6]

The changing landscape. Here’s the main thing that has changed this week: Eight days ago, the view that Trump was actively working for Russia’s interests was a fringe position. Responsible journalists and pundits try not get ahead of the established facts and hate to be seen as alarmists, so they were actively minimizing the implications of what we’ve been seeing. Writing two weeks ago, Jonathan Chait expressed this view in an evocative metaphor:

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not much farther.

He went on to wonder “What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?” and to boldly outline what a worst-case scenario would look like: Trump visits Moscow in 1987, and from that point forward is drawn ever deeper into a Russian orbit, relying on Russian money to save his business empire in the 1990s, and taking a favorable view of Russia into his presidential campaign from the beginning.

Each of Trump’s apparent pro-Russia moves left room for some alternative explanation: He was just bragging when he revealed sensitive intelligence the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office. His ego won’t let him admit he needed illicit help to win the presidency. He admires “strong” autocrats and has a distaste for the compromises democratic leaders have to make. Hiring a Putin operative like Manafort to be his campaign chair was just a coincidence. And so on. But at some point, the individual sky-is-not-falling explanations collectively require more gullibility than the One Big Explanation.

Two weeks ago, that assertion was daring. It no longer is.

[1] More than a day later, after a firestorm of criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats — even Newt Gingrich and some Fox News hosts were unhappy — Trump tried to walk this back, saying that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would”.

As unlikely as this claim seems, give Trump the benefit of the doubt for a moment and edit the quote to match his after-the-fact intention: Does it make any significant difference? Now maybe you can interpret him as leaning towards US intelligence over Putin, but it’s still a he-said/she-said thing. US intelligence just “thinks” it’s Russia; it’s not like they know anything. The main thrust of Trump’s statement remains the same: There’s really no way to choose between them, so why make a big deal out of it?

And even as Trump was throwing a bone to Coats and the rest of his national-security team, allowing the possibility that collectively they might be somewhat more trustworthy than Putin, he also undercut that message by indicating that he still doesn’t believe what they’re telling him:

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that meddling took place,” Trump told reporters in brief remarks before a meeting with members of Congress. Yet he immediately contradicted both his own statement and that community’s findings, saying, “Could have been other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”

The consensus of American intelligence agencies, Trump’s own top advisors, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate Intelligence Committees, is that it was Russia, not that it “could have been other people”. Trump still wouldn’t admit that.

By Sunday, he was back to full denial.

So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!

[2] This might be a good place to mention how much heat President Obama took for his so-called “apology tour”. The Heritage Foundation published a report on it.

The Obama Administration’s strategy of unconditional engagement with America’s enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure.

The “apologies” in question are statements like “We have not been perfect.” and “We went off course.” I’m not sure what less he could have said about the Bush administration’s policy of torturing people, but Heritage judged that such statements “humiliated a superpower”.

[3] Putin proposed to let Robert Mueller come to Russia to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted for hacking Democrats’ computers, in exchange for his own people getting similar privileges with Americans named in some tax-evasion conspiracy theory centered on Bill Browder (the guy who spearheaded the fight for the Magnitsky Act).

When Russia sent the full list of people it wanted to interrogate, it included former US Ambassador Mike McFaul. The entire US foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, was horrified. Still, Trump considered this incredible offer for an entire day before saying no. Even in rejecting it, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the offer had been “made in sincerity by President Putin.”

[4] Democrats in Congress have proposed subpoenaing the translator to find out what was said, but Republicans have blocked them. My own feeling is that this is precisely the kind of thing that executive privilege ought to cover. I picture Obama, or some future president I like, trying to have a private conversation with a foreign leader without the suspicious circumstances of this meeting. Would I want the other party to be able to force the translator to testify? Worse, would I want our president to rely on the other country’s translator precisely to keep the conversation private?

Still, it should be up to the administration to claim executive privilege. Congress should go ahead with the subpoena.

[5] Susan Glasser wrote in The New Yorker:

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

This morning, finally, Trump tweeted.

I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries.

Trump blamed the “Corrupt Media” for spreading the idea that Putin got concessions from him. In fact, though, the media was just reporting what Putin and his government have been saying. Trump should blame Putin for the misunderstanding, if it was a misunderstanding. But that would mean contradicting Putin, which Trump can’t do.

[6] Trump’s chosen FBI director, Christopher Wray, told NBC’s Lester Holt:

I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt. I think it’s a professional investigation conducted by a man that I’ve known to be a straight shooter in all my interactions with him.

Undersecretary of Defense John Rood said “Russia is the larger near term threat” than even China. Saturday, the Associated Press gave us the inside scoop on Trump’s would/wouldn’t walkback.

Vice President Mike Pence, national security advisor John Bolton and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly stood united in the West Wing on Tuesday in their contention that Trump had some cleanup to do. They brought with them words of alarm from Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, as well as from a host of congressional leaders and supporters of the president for whom Trump’s public praise of Putin proved to be a bridge too far.