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Extortion Tactics Have No Place in American Democracy

From the beginning, the government of the United States has been founded on compromise. The Constitutional Convention created the House to give big states their due power and the Senate to protect the small states. Slave states wanted their representation in Congress to reflect their whole population, slave and free, while free states wanted representation determined only by free residents. They settled on counting 3/5 of the slave population.

Through the early 19th century, a series of compromises held the Union together: You can have Missouri as a state if we can have Maine. We’ll start a Bank of the United States, but with a charter that will need to be renewed. (It wasn’t.) Henry Clay was known as the Great Compromiser. It was a compliment, not an insult.

That pattern continued into the 20th century: Your district wants a bridge, mine wants a dam; let’s do both. Urban liberals want to fund food stamps, while rural conservatives want farm subsidies; let’s combine them into one bill.

That’s how American democracy is supposed to work: Different parts of the country may be rivals, but they’re not enemies, so win/win solutions are possible. Along the way, we discover things that just about everybody wants: safety from invaders and criminals, not letting poor people die in the streets, security in old age, good schools, effective responses to epidemics, and so on. So you fund the things that everybody wants, and you make deals on the rest. If I want your support for something you don’t care about, I’ll offer to support something you do care about too.

But something changed in American politics after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and it got worse after the Tea Party wave of 2010: Republicans began to adopt extortion tactics. Rather than offer quid pro quo deals to Democrats, they began packaging demands and threats: If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll do something that nobody wants. I’ll shut down the government, I’ll run us into the debt ceiling. I’ll sabotage the nation’s credit rating. Coast Guard families will be going to food banks. The FBI won’t be able to pay its informants. Air travel, going to the national parks, or even just eating food will get riskier. Then you’ll see how serious I am and understand that you have to give me what I want.

Gingrich ultimately changed his stripes; he and President Clinton worked out any number of compromises, as President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil had a decade before. They controlled spending at the same time that they raised taxes, and guess what happened? The deficit went away.

But extortion tactics were never officially renounced, and over the last decade Republicans have gone back to considering them a legitimate option. To get ObamaCare passed, President Obama needed a House majority and 60 votes in the Senate. But Republicans tried to extort a Democratic Senate and President into repeal as soon as they controlled only one house of Congress. (It’s worthwhile to try to picture the reverse situation, because it’s so hard to imagine: Picture Obama taking office in 2009 and threatening to leave our troops in Iraq stranded and unsupplied unless Congress passed his health care plan.)

And now President Trump (who was elected with 46% of the vote and has never had an approval rating over 50%) is trying to extort funding for his unpopular wall.

Partisan extortionists usually try to cloud the issue, but the difference between extortion tactics and ordinary politics is not at all hard to see. Extortion arguments have a don’t-make-me-do-this quality similar to kidnappers’ ransom demands. It isn’t that anybody wants the government shut down, it’s that one side is willing to do it to get what it wants. It’s also not hard to tell which side is extorting: Look at the issue in question and ask yourself who wants it. During the recent shutdown, the central issue was the Wall, and Trump wanted it. He wasn’t willing to make a positive offer to Democrats, so instead he threatened them with a government shutdown. The media’s popular two-sides-bickering narrative wasn’t remotely accurate: Trump was extorting, and Pelosi was resisting extortion.

Democracy can’t go on like this forever. Eventually, some leader will get elected on an openly anti-democratic platform, arguing that our constitutional system is too cumbersome to work any more. Once he gets into office, he’ll provoke an extortion crisis as a way of proving his point: How can we support a system of government that allows stuff like this to happen? Are we willing to stand by while the country falls apart, or do we want the leader to declare a national emergency, abolish Congress, and make things work again?

The way out of that scenario is for the public to re-establish the norm that extortion is not legitimate. The right way to make change is to assemble a majority, and any leader who offers a short-cut around that process — even to get something we think we want — deserves our scorn.

The End of the Shutdown

Friday night, Trump released his 800,000 hostages without getting anything for them. Zero. He signed exactly the same deal that was on the table back in December: Keep the government funded at its previous level for a few weeks while an immigration/border-security compromise gets negotiated.

The fact that it came out that way is extremely important. Giving him anything, even just the “pro-rated down payment on the Wall” he had demanded on Thursday, would invite regular government shutdowns for the rest of his term. Every time some budget bill needed to be signed, Trump could say, “No. I want more or I’ll shut down the government again.”

By holding the line until things really started to get bad, Speaker Pelosi stood by the important principle of not paying ransom. If Trump wants something from the Democrats, he can offer them something positive in exchange. (That’s how politics is supposed to work in America.) But he’s not going to get concessions just by threatening to hurt people or hurt the country.

Why now? If the same deal has been available since Day Zero, why did it happen on Day 35? There were two precipitating causes: the test votes the Senate held on Thursday, which showed Republican unity beginning to crack, and the 82-minute ground stop Friday morning at New York’s LaGuardia Airport due to air traffic controllers not coming in to keep working without pay, which caused delays that rippled across the country. This was widely interpreted (correctly, I think) as a warning sign from a system about to break down.

The Senate voted on two proposals Thursday, and neither got the 60 votes necessary to proceed. But Trump’s preferred outcome ($5.7 for the Wall, plus other restrictions on immigration and asylum) got 50 votes, with one Democratic crossover (Joe Manchin of West Virginia), while the Democrats’ proposal (open the government temporarily without additional provisions) got 52 votes, with six Republican crossovers: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Mitt Romney (Utah). (And at least a few of the Republicans who stuck by Trump were not happy.) According to the Washington Post, this outcome surprised Trump, because Jared Kushner had assured him that Democrats were about to start defecting.

But pointing to the Senate as a cause just shifts the question to another level: Why Day 35? Why did Mitch McConnell finally allow the Senate to vote on something, and why did Republican senators start to break ranks?

The LaGuardia ground stop was part of a nationwide pattern: As government workers faced losing a second paycheck, warning lights were flashing and systems were beginning to fail.

The FBI Agents Association put out a report listing the effects the shutdown was having on law enforcement. Perhaps the most egregious example: The FBI agents investigating the MS-13 gang (that Trump so often features in his anti-immigrant speeches demanding a wall) were unable to pay a translator to communicate with their informants. The Commandant of the Coast Guard tweeted:

I find it unacceptable that @USCG members must rely on food pantries & donations to get through day-to-day life.

What made this growing pressure worse for Republicans was the repeated insensitivity and tone-deafness expressed by plutocratic Trump administration officials, who are clueless about the half the country that lives paycheck-to-paycheck. Chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow described federal employees forced to choose between working without pay and losing their jobs as “volunteers”. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross couldn’t understand why federal workers would go to food banks when they could take out loans. And Trump himself spun Ross’ comment into a fantasy about compassionate grocers who “know the people, they been dealing with them for years, and they work along.” Perhaps extrapolating from his own experience owing hundreds of millions to Deutsche Bank, he claimed that banks too would “work along” with missed mortgage payments.

As a result, polls were turning against Republicans. Trump’s approval rating dropped from 42.2% at the beginning of the shutdown to 39.3% by the end. Polls consistently showed that the public blamed either Trump or congressional Republicans for the shutdown, and believed that getting Trump’s Wall funded was not worth shutting down the government.

Now what? The spending bill just lasts for three weeks, at which point the whole standoff could start again. In an effort to claim he hadn’t lost to Pelosi, Trump threatened as much:

This was in no way a concession. It was taking care of millions of people who were getting badly hurt by the Shutdown with the understanding that in 21 days, if no deal is done, it’s off to the races!

But it’s hard to see Republicans in Congress standing by him for another shutdown. Mitch McConnell didn’t want this shutdown and certainly doesn’t want another one. (He is fond of saying, “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”) And ultimately, he holds the high card over Trump: If he works out a deal with Democrats and Trump vetoes it, McConnell could sway enough Republicans to override that veto. The thought of 2/3rds of the Senate voting against him on anything should be terrifying to a president who could well face impeachment before the end of his term.

So what will happen in the next three weeks? Ezra Klein lays out four possibilities:

  1. A grand bargain on immigration takes the issue off the table for the near future.
  2. Pelosi, Schumer, and McConnell reach no deal and the government shuts down again.
  3. No immigration/wall deal, but there’s no shutdown, and Trump seeks to build his Wall without Congress by declaring a national emergency.
  4. No immigration/wall deal, but no national emergency.

I foresee a lesser bargain, similar to what Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin have already worked out: Democrats have already signaled that they’re willing to offer more money for border security, but they think the Great Wall of Trump is a stupid waste. (Not that it matters, but reality is on their side here; the Wall is a stupid waste. Republicans know this, which is why they didn’t fund it when they had the majority in both houses.) A number of Republicans (including even Trump, at times) have said they don’t want to deport the DACA people, whose cause gets a lot of sympathy from Americans in general.

The question is how much funding for how much DACA protection. Here, I think the failure of the shutdown pushes the needle towards Democrats. This is what I picture:

  • DACA recipients get permanent legal status, with a path to citizenship left vague. Democrats can promise to eventually get them citizenship, while Republicans can deny this will ever happen.
  • Border security gets the $5.7 billion Trump was asking for, but mostly for technology at ports of entry and more immigration judges.
  • Rules for legal immigration change a bit, but Congress reaffirms support for the United States’ treaty obligations under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Trump has been ignoring.
  • Some small number of additional barriers on the border are authorized, which Democrats will be able to claim is not Trump’s Wall, but Republicans can claim is a step toward Trump’s Wall.

Finally, I hope Democrats insist that a study be done to produce something that until now has never existed: an actual design for a sea-to-sea border wall, with a realistic cost estimate and expert estimates of its effects on illegal immigration, drug smuggling, violent crime, and the environment. The era of wild claims has to end.

Trump may or may not try to build his wall without Congress by declaring a national emergency, but I doubt it will get him anywhere. (Truman wasn’t able to seize the steel industry, and that was during wartime.) Whatever he wants that declaration to accomplish will be tied up in court for the rest of his term. The point of declaring a national emergency, I believe, is mainly to con Trump’s base into thinking that he didn’t really lose.

While I don’t think it will be effective in building a wall, declaring a bogus emergency breaks another norm that protects democracy. Down the road, it could cost us dearly: A leader’s abuse of emergency powers is a common way for democracies to become autocracies.

The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released this statement:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.

My Wife’s Expensive Cancer Drug

We’ve seen the good and bad sides of the American drug and insurance industries.


In 1996, my wife Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had already spread to nearby lymph nodes, so the possibility that she would die (as her mother had just a few years before) was very real. We hit the cancer with everything the 1990s medical arsenal had to offer, on the theory that we would really only get one shot at it: If it came back, she’d probably die from it.

In 2003, it looked like it had come back. Or at least something was growing in the space between Deb’s stomach and liver. If it wasn’t a recurrence of the breast cancer, it was probably stomach or liver cancer, each of which was its own death sentence. A biopsy didn’t yield any definite results, and the tumor quickly grew to about the size of a soccer ball by the time a surgeon took it out. (It took 54 staples to close the incision.) I tried to stay as hopeful as I could, but deep down I was expecting her to die in a year or two.

The soccer ball turned out to be a gastro-intestinal stromal tumor (GIST), which only a year or two before would have been yet another death sentence. GISTs were impervious to standard turn-of-the-millennium chemotherapy, and they nearly always came back after surgery.

Fortunately for us, though, there was a new drug. Gleevec had been developed for treating leukemia, but it turned out to work on certain kinds of GISTs also, or at least the trials looked good. The short-term statistics were excellent, and the anecdotal reports were full of miracle stories where tumors just went away overnight. Long term … who knew? But long-term problems were things we could worry about in the long term. Deb’s oncologist Roger Lange (who we loved and she eventually outlived) said, “It looks like you haven’t used up your nine lives yet.”

That was the last we’ve seen of GISTs. For nearly 16 years, she’s been taking Gleevec or a generic equivalent. There are side effects (mainly a general loss of energy that exaggerates the effects of normal aging), but she can live with them. Literally.

So three cheers for modern drugs and the pharmaceutical industry that makes them! They save lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if that were the whole story? But in America, medical stories are never just about medicine. They’re also about money.

What’s your life worth to you? The economic aspect of Gleevec has always been controversial. It is made by Novartis, a private company whose purpose isn’t to save lives, but to make money for its shareholders. The drug presumably cost a lot to develop and has a small market, but for that small number of people it is literally the difference between life and death. So they should be willing to pay a lot of money, right?

That was the thinking when Novartis launched Gleevec in 2001, charging a hefty $26,400 per patient per year for the drug, a price that was then estimated to recoup development costs in two years, with profits accruing thereafter. And then something strange happened: The price kept increasing, year by year, even though alternative drugs began to hit the market. In fact, the alternatives seemed to draw Gleevec’s price upward: New drugs were introduced at even higher prices, so why shouldn’t Gleevec cost more too?

The result was that when its patent on Gleevec expired in 2015, Novartis was charging $120,000 per patient per year. (As I bounce from one reference article to the next, the prices quoted don’t line up exactly. I’m not sure why. All the articles I link to agree on the general direction of prices.) The original price was already profitable, but the increased price made Gleevec a blockbuster drug that brought in $4.7 billion a year.

Patents and generics. Outrageous as it sounds, from an investor’s point of view that’s how the system is supposed to work. Medical research is hard and costly, and a lot of it doesn’t yield any marketable products. So each successful drug has to pay not just for its own development costs, but also for all the once-similarly-promising drugs that failed. It’s precisely because blockbuster drugs can earn so much money that companies invest the resources to develop them. So I can claim that Gleevec shouldn’t cost this much, but if it didn’t, maybe it wouldn’t have been developed to begin with. And maybe Deb would be dead by now.

So OK: Big profits are a necessary evil that produces a greater good. At least that’s the theory.

If you develop a drug, you can get a patent on it that lasts 20 years from when you submitted the patent application. Typically you submit well before the drug comes to market, so you end up with 15 years or so of a monopoly on a marketable drug. As a monopolist, you can charge pretty much what you want. And if your drug is uniquely applicable to certain desperate patients, they’ll pay it if they can.

But eventually your patent runs out, and then your drug is just a chemical that any good chemical company should be able to synthesize, producing what is known as a generic drug. Generics still have to go through trials to prove that they work more-or-less as well as the original, but that process is nowhere near as risky, costly, or time-consuming as what the innovating company had to do: A generic-drug company begins with the knowledge that something like this works, and has a drug it can reverse engineer. So it’s an engineering problem, not a medical research problem.

In Gleevec’s case, the generic is known as imatinib mesylate. By now a number of companies make it, so you might expect the magic of market competition to take hold.

In the case of Lipitor (the anti-cholesterol drug that is the the drug industry’s all-time revenue champion), prices dropped about 80% after the patent expired. An even better example is aspirin: a 500 tablet bottle will cost you about $9, unless it’s on sale. Aspirin is so well understood and is produced by so many companies that the retail price is getting close to the cost of production. But a particularly bad example is insulin: It’s been around for a century or so, but lately its price has been skyrocketing. The Washington Post Magazine reports:

In the past decade alone, U.S. insulin list prices have tripled, according to an analysis of data from IBM Watson Health. In 1996, when Eli Lilly debuted its Humalog brand of insulin, the list price of a 10-milliliter vial was $21. The price of the same vial is now $275.

… The global insulin market is dominated by three companies: Eli Lilly, the French company Sanofi and the Danish firm Novo Nordisk. All three have raised list prices to similar levels. According to IBM Watson Health data, Sanofi’s popular insulin brand Lantus was $35 a vial when it was introduced in 2001; it’s now $270. Novo Nordisk’s Novolog was priced at $40 in 2001, and as of July 2018, it’s $289.

The insulin-producing companies don’t even have the excuse of a small market: About 7 million Americans need insulin.

Gleevec has been more like insulin than aspirin: The generic drug companies haven’t really tried to undercut Novartis’ price. When the first generic hit the market, Gleevec was going for about $9,000 a month; the generic was priced at $8,000. Additional generic manufacturers entering the market didn’t increase that gap much.

At least, that’s what happened in the United States. In 2016, a doctor predicted:

Today, health care is globalized, and there are more than 18 generic imatinib versions available worldwide, including 3 in Canada. Generic imatinib is sold at $8,800/year in Canada and at about $400/year in India. The cost to manufacture a 1-year supply of 400-mg imatinib tablets is $159. Two years from now, the price of generic imatinib in the United States (or purchased from abroad) will be significantly lower, hopefully less than $1,000/year.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the price has remained in the $90K-$120K range.

If you’re surprised that a generic whose annual per-patient cost of production is $159 would sell for close to $100,000, you’re not thinking like an oligopolist. Sure, you could sell imatinib mesylate for $200 a year, but why would you? People are paying $8,000 a month. Why rock that boat?

At the moment 20 states, led by Connecticut, are suing a number of generic drug makers, accusing them of price-fixing. Imatinib mesylate was not named in the original suit, but the general practices described apply to a lot of drugs. Connecticut’s assistant attorney general Joseph Nielsen describes the generic drug industry as “most likely the largest cartel in the history of the United States“.

Insurance and Medicare. If you’ve been doing the math — between $30K and $120K a year for 16 years — you must be wondering what kind of plutocrats Deb and I must be (or at least must have been when all this started) that we’re not bankrupt yet. But in fact, for most of that time very little of that cost passed through to us. Deb worked at a company that had very good insurance. And when she retired, we were allowed to keep that insurance as long as we paid our own premiums.

So in the same way that I have to be thankful to the pharmaceutical industry, I also have to be thankful to the insurance industry. Over the years, they have spent a whole lot more money on us that we spent on them.

(I have, of course, wondered what happens to GIST survivors who don’t have good insurance. The effect of the drug is invisible — the evidence that it’s working is that nothing happens — so I can imagine the temptation to just stop taking it rather than bankrupt your family.)

Unfortunately, though, Deb’s company’s insurance only carried her until age 65, when she was expected to sign up for Medicare. That happened in October (though for reasons not worth getting into, she didn’t need to worry about it until the new coverage year started this month). But OK, Medicare has Part D, which covers prescription drugs. So we’ll be OK, right?

Signing up for Part D involves choosing among a bunch of plans that are underwritten by private insurance companies. Wikipedia describes the situation like this:

Because each plan can design their formulary and tier levels, drugs appearing on Tier 2 in one plan may be on Tier 3 in another plan. Co-pays may vary across plans. Some plans have no deductibles and the coinsurance for the most expensive drugs varies widely.

In short, if you expect to need an expensive drug, you need to do your research before you pick a plan. What if you’re old and never used the internet much, or just kind of confused in your thinking? Well, you might be out of luck.

But Deb is computer savvy and diligent, so she searched the various companies’ online pricing tools until she found a plan that quoted a good price on generic Gleevec:

Ignoring the details of the various $300-something monthly charges, the annual cost was estimated at $4069.55. Not cheap, but well below the what-is-your-life-worth level, and for some reason significantly cheaper than other plans from the same company.

Estimates are not promises. She did that research in November, when decisions for the 2019 coverage year had to be made. So imagine our surprise when she went to fill her first monthly imatinib prescription in January, and discovered that it cost $2,881.07!

Your first thought, like ours, might be that something drastic had happened to the imatinib market between November and January. But no: At the same time that SilverScript was charging us $2,881.07, their pricing tool was still showing prospective customers that the price would be $348.06.

Hours spent on the phone with a wide range of SilverScript employees yielded her nothing: Yes, there was a factor-of-8 gap between the pricing estimate (which they were still showing on their web site) and the price they were actually charging us. And no, this isn’t like Wal-Mart, where they usually honor the price they display, even if it’s a mistake. (And is it a mistake? They don’t seem to be in any hurry to correct it. Maybe it’s intentional deception.) The letter we got from the grievance department says:

Please note that copays are estimates only. We are unable to provide exact copays until such time as the prescription is processed.

And if they’re quoting you one price at the exact same moment that they’re charging a drastically higher price to someone just like you, that’s just the way it goes. Maybe you should pick a different insurance company next year, based on their (possibly inaccurate) pricing information.

What happens after next month? The people who weren’t still quoting the $348.06 price were telling Deb that $2881.07 was what we could expect going forward, or maybe even something higher. So we were looking at an annual cost in the neighborhood of $30,000.

Think about what that would mean: After generics, after insurance, we’d be paying the full price that Novartis originally charged for Gleevec.

But hey, what’s your life worth?

Fortunately, though, it turned out that the SilverScript people who were quoting those prices didn’t know what they were talking about either. (Again, though, I have to wonder what is a mistake and what is intentional. If the low-price information was intended to get us to commit to their program for 2019, maybe the high-price information was intended to make Deb reconsider whether she really wanted to keep taking this drug. Because the ideal health-insurance customer is somebody who pays premiums but doesn’t use services.) Or at least that’s how it appears right now.

For some reason, nobody at SilverScript mentioned the Medicare Donut Hole. (A Blue Cross person explained it when Deb was researching whether she could switch to another Part D plan after the year started.) Follow the link if you want a more complete explanation, but what it means for us is that after we spend $5,100, we hit the catastrophic coverage phase, where the insurance starts to cover 90% of the drug’s cost. If that’s really how things play out (we’re not fully believing anything we read at this point), our annual costs will wind up being something like what the SilverScript web site was predicting for the plans we didn’t choose: Around $10,000 rather than $4,000 or $30,000.

It’s weird: After you’ve spent a week or so wondering where you’re going to come up with an extra $30,000 each year, $10,000 sounds pretty good. It’s not pocket change, but we can afford it. It beats going off the drug and finding out for sure whether it is still necessary.

The lessons I draw. There are ambiguous lessons to learn from our experience. On the one hand, thanks to drug research and health insurance, Deb is alive and we’re not bankrupt. The most important stuff has turned out well, at least so far.

But on the other hand, it seems obvious to me that this system is full of waste and corruption. Novartis should never have been able to charge such a high price for Gleevec, and there was absolutely no reason why the generic drug companies should have been able to share in those windfall profits. In theory, once patents expire the free market will drive prices down. But in the real world that doesn’t happen. Instead, a few companies divide the pie among themselves. They know they have a good thing going, and they aren’t going to ruin it by undercutting each other’s prices.

The market will never fix this, so government needs to get involved.

And why exactly is health insurance still in the private sector rather than being part of the government? The justification I usually hear is that the profit motive will produce better customer service and more efficient delivery of services. I don’t see anything in our personal experience to support that notion. To me, it looks like companies are motivated to lie to us, and none of the insurance people we have dealt with seem to be oriented towards the mission of helping people and saving lives.

When Deb was dealing with the SilverScript grievance people, she reported that they appeared to be following a script rather than trying to understand her case. Nobody seemed to grasp the idea that they were participating in a bait-and-switch fraud, or to be particularly upset if they were. Listening to her account of the conversations, I found myself wishing she had asked, “In your job dealing with grievances, have you ever actually helped anybody?” That question wouldn’t have improved our outcome in any way, but I’d just like to know.

Personally, I’d rather take my chances with government bureaucrats. People in the government may be insulated from market forces, but often they identify with the mission of their office. For example, I recently had to change my drivers’ license from New Hampshire to Massachusetts. I ran into all sorts of unexpected bureaucratic problems; for some reason, none of my documents were the exact ones the system was looking for. Through it all, though, the clerk I was dealing with did her best to guide me through the labyrinth. In her mind, she was there to help people.

That’s not the impression Deb got from SilverScript. The company isn’t trying to provide healthcare or help its customers find ways to pay for it; it’s trying to make as much money off of them as it can. The grievance department isn’t there to respond to customers’ legitimate grievances, it’s there to mollify and divert people who have been conned by the company’s deceptive practices. The individuals who work there are probably no worse than the rest of us, so they can’t identify with that mission. Instead, they sink into their scripts.

My bottom-line conclusion is that the profit motive is not serving us in health care. There has to be a better way.

Are powerful women likable?

OK, a lot of people found Hillary Clinton hard to like. But three more women gained the spotlight this week, and guess what? They’re unlikable too. Maybe there’s a problem here we need to look at.


Maybe there really was some unique I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it thing about Hillary Clinton that put people off. Sure, she was whip-smart, had a boatload of executive and legislative experience, could stand up to 11 hours of hostile questioning, and had put forward an impressive collection of policies she wanted to implement if she got elected, but … you know. There was just something about her that made voters uncomfortable.

Maybe it was her voice, or her hair, or the way she dressed. She was just too … something. If that many people had said that many bad things about her over the years, there must have been some fire under all that smoke, right? And behind closed doors, she was supposed to have a temper. I know, John McCain’s temper was part of his charm — he was fiery and passionate sometimes, you know — but Hillary’s temper was so … we can’t say bitchy any more, can we? But you know what I mean. It was different.

OK, let’s give people a mulligan for Hillary. And let’s give another mulligan to the people who couldn’t possibly be racist, but some ineffable something about Barack Obama just felt wrong to them. He just wasn’t like the rest of us — not because he was black, of course. Lots of people are black. But … you know. And if he claimed to be an American-born Christian, didn’t that seem kind of fishy somehow? How could we trust somebody like … well, like that, whatever “that” means.

Honestly, I’m starting to get my own ideas about what sounds fishy here, but let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s talk about now. Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three of them have been making news lately, and they’ve all been running into unusual levels of hostility. Each of them, in her own way, has some indescribable quality that raises a lot of people’s ire.

What could it possibly be?

It’s not incompetence. Nancy Pelosi is the most talented legislator of our time. She has no real competition for that title.

When she was Speaker before, the House got stuff done. Appropriations bills got passed on time. She not only saved ObamaCare, but passed a bunch of Obama’s other progressive proposals (most of which died in the Senate).

As soon as the Democrats lost their majority in the House, everybody suddenly realized that the Speakership is a hard job. Even if you lead a partisan majority, holding it together well enough to pass an agenda takes real skill. John Boehner couldn’t do it. Paul Ryan couldn’t go it. Again and again, they would fail to get a proposal to the floor, or miscount votes and see a bill fail unexpectedly. (To this day, a Republican healthcare bill with positive content hasn’t even been drafted, much less voted on or passed.) Deals they thought they had negotiated fell apart at the last minute. Boehner just barely avoided pushing the United States into a self-inflicted financial disaster.

The Speakership is hard, unless you do it backwards and in heels like Pelosi does. Then it looks easy.

When LBJ and Sam Rayburn were the masters of Congress, their skills were appreciated even by many who disagreed with their goals. Phrases like “wheeler-dealer” and “arm-twister” got used with a certain amount of admiration. But it’s hard to imagine applying descriptors like that to a woman. Instead, she (and not Chuck Schumer) was the villain of GOP campaign ads across the country. Her own party seriously discussed not letting her be Speaker again if they regained the majority. (Schumer, meanwhile, lost seats in the Senate and was not challenged.)

It’s not inauthenticity. One complaint about Hillary Clinton was that she just wanted to be president and didn’t stand for anything. But Elizabeth Warren’s political career has a definite theme: Capitalism needs to be regulated to keep big corporations from running over ordinary people.

After the crash of 2008, Warren left a cushy position at Harvard Law School and entered public life because she wanted to protect consumers from the predations of the big banks. She ran for the Senate in 2012 because Republican opposition in the Senate made it impossible to get the job she had wanted: head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (whose creation she had overseen). In the Senate, she has been a leading voice against the concentration of corporate power.

She has the working-class biography to back up her sympathies with ordinary people. Rather than being tracked for high positions early in life (like, say, Brett Kavanaugh), she came from a working-class family and her career developed slowly: She left college to get married, then followed her husband as his career took him to Houston and New Jersey. She finished a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and  taught public-school children with learning disabilities. She interrupted that career to be an at-home mother, then later went back to school in law. She started out doing legal services from her home, then started teaching, and rose in academic ranks as an expert in laws related to bankruptcy. Eventually she got to the top of the academic heap: tenure at Harvard.

When Clinton, a centrist woman, seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there was a groundswell among progressives for Warren to challenge her. Only after she refused to run did Bernie Sanders get into the race and lead progressive Democrats.

So announcing her presidential candidacy for the 2020 nomination raises one obvious question of substance: Just how much regulation does capitalism need? If you’d rather talk politics, you still have a number of interesting questions to choose from: Can she recover the support of the progressives who turned to Sanders in 2016? Can the Sanders/Warren wing of the party win this time? Can she get more support from blacks and centrists than Bernie got in 2016? And so on.

Instead, Politico raised this question:

How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Politically, it’s hard to see much resemblance between Warren and Clinton, except for this: Both of them are women who saw their unfavorability ratings spike when they started to look like serious candidates. Clinton herself explained it this way:

It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up.

It’s not a lack of passion and vitality. Another criticism of Clinton (which sometimes also gets said about Warren, though I don’t understand why) was that she seemed cold. But if you want a politician who is the opposite of cold, I’ve got one for you: new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But strangely, she also has been a target of public ire.

Since upsetting a member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary and then winning his seat in the general election, Ocasio-Cortez has been targeted both for being too poor and for not being as poor as she’s supposed to be. Predictably, the too-rich criticism was based on her clothes: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

When Paul Ryan came to Congress, he was a “young gun”; his youth was evidence of how extraordinary he must be, to get so far so fast. But AOC’s youth just points to her being a lightweight, because there’s no female equivalent of a “young gun”.

This week, we learned of a new AOC outrage: She and her friends made a dance video in college. Unlike, say, Melania Trump or Scott Brown, she kept her clothes on, but still the video is supposed to be embarrassing for some reason. My main reaction is that this video is a trivial thing that shouldn’t evoke anything more than a trivial response; mine is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with (assuming away the time-travel problem). But you can judge for yourself.

Somehow, though, conservatives looked at that video and saw something scandalous. I think this tells us more about them than about AOC. As Paul Krugman put it: “The mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad.”

If just being young and nonwhite were the problem, that would be one thing. But in the context of Clinton, Pelosi, and Warren, we see that being older and white doesn’t protect a woman either. The specifics of a woman’s life and character may shape how she gets disparaged, but her unique characteristics are not why she gets disparaged.

People are starting to notice. Robby Mook may have exaggerated a little about the reaction to Warren’s announcement video, but he wasn’t exactly making this up, either.

Last 24 hours shows Trump’s 2020 path to victory:
-Dem candidate releases video that explains her background, values, vision and policies
-it never mentions Trump;
-Trump responds with childish insult;
-Media only covers insult.
All process, all on Trump’s terms. No Dem message.

Maybe Trump and the press will do that with every Democratic candidate. But I also think it works better, and the media is more complicit, against women.

Peter Beinart, I think, has this right: The facts that an article cites about Warren may be true, but still contribute to a false narrative.

Mentioning the right’s attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her “very liberal record” and the controversy surrounding her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her, and many Americans don’t like her very much. But that equation is misleading. …

There’s nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate. The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender’s role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren’s unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them.

… Journalists shouldn’t ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren’s comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than they judge their male competitors. Unless journalists name that unfairness, they risk perpetuating it.

“I would have voted for the woman who isn’t running.” As the 2020 campaign proceeds, other women are likely to emerge as serious candidates. (Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, perhaps.) We can hope that the sheer multiplicity of targets will disperse the misogynistic fire. But here’s a wild guess on my part: Whichever one is polling last will get the most favorable coverage. In 2004, when she wasn’t running, many voices pined for Hillary Clinton, only to turn against her in 2008 and 2016, when she was actually on the ballot. Likewise in 2016, people who were voting against Clinton often claimed they could have supported Warren, if only she had run. But where are they now?

The Republican Party has a similar dynamic around blacks. At some point in the process, there’s a boomlet for a black candidate like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, or Ben Carson. But these waves always fade before any votes get cast. Having given cover to people who will never actually vote for a black, the candidacies have served their purpose.

We can’t let that happen in 2020. “I would have voted for a woman” isn’t an excuse any more. Do or don’t, but what you would have done in some alternate reality doesn’t matter.

For the most part, this kind of prejudice is structural and unconscious. “Woman politician” has become a category in people’s heads; it seems natural to treat them differently than male politicians, as if a political office changes when a woman holds it. (There has been a similar phenomenon in sports: For a long time “black quarterback” seemed to be a category of its own. Any new black quarterback would invariably draw comparisons to previous black quarterbacks, and be judged accordingly. Cam Newton came into the NFL as a tall, strong quarterback with speed and a powerful arm, but somehow John Elway was never the comparison that popped into commentators’ minds.)

As Pelosi’s speakership, Ocasio-Cortez’ congressional service, and the 2020 campaign continue, we’re going to have to monitor this constantly, both in the media and in our own minds.

The Story that Really Mattered This Year

Will American democracy survive the Trump presidency? The jury is still out on that, but things are looking up.


Ever since the Electoral College named Donald Trump president, news (some of his making and some not) has been coming at us like water from a fire hose — indictments, injunctions, special election upsets, gaffes, natural disasters, high-ranking people getting fired or resigning under pressure, insults to our allies, mass shootings, lies, government shutdowns, outrages against common decency (like ripping kids from their parents and putting them in cages), or the spectacle of an American president repeating the propaganda of foreign autocrats like Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin.

All year, as I write my weekly summaries of the news, I’ve been complaining about it. (Tiresomely, I’ve decided, having just reviewed a year’s worth of Monday Morning teasers.) There is too much to process. Week after week, developments that might have been the Story of the Year in any other administration — the wide-ranging corruption of Scott Pruitt, say — nearly slip my mind. “Oh yeah,” I remind myself. “That happened too.” We get worn out by it. How many cabinet or top White House posts are vacant now due to scandal or protest or insufficient toadying? I’ve lost track.

But since November 6, 2016, one story has stood above all the others. Day-to-day, and even week-to-week, it was easy to lose sight of, but it was always there, sometimes in the background of whatever stories were getting attention. The unanswered question: Will American democracy get through this?

In recent years, authoritarian populism like Trump’s has been corrupting democracies around the world, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the original rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s. (I’ve been trying to cover that in the abstract, by reviewing books like How Democracies Die and The Road to Unfreedom. Recent posts have also been influenced by Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, though I haven’t gotten around to writing about that book explicitly yet.) Trumpists claim that “fascism” is an unfair exaggeration, but the key components are there:

  • idealization of a vague past whose restoration would make the country “great again”;
  • assault on the institutions that try to establish a common basis of truth: science, the courts, experts within academia or the government, and the press;
  • elevation of a leader whose word and power replaces those sources of truth;
  • constant lying by that leader, to the point that lies become loyalty tests and expressions of power: How ridiculous a statement, or how self-contradictory a series of statements, will followers repeat with conviction?
  • identity politics focused not on the powerless and oppressed, but on the powerful and favored, with constant emphasis given to the grievances (some real, but most imagined) of whites, of men, of Christians, of the native-born, of the wealthy, and of all those who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their privileged places in the world;
  • glorification of the leader’s decisiveness, and his unwillingness to be bound by convention, propriety, morality, his own word, or even the Constitution.

And yet, this is America. We have the rule of law and a Constitution that has stood the test of time. We have long traditions of independent courts, independent law enforcement, and a free press. Could we really go the way of failed democracies like Russia and Turkey and Hungary?

It was a real question at the end of 2016, and it still hasn’t been decisively answered. That’s a good thing: At the end of 2016, there was reason to fear that it might be decisively answered by now.

2017. To me, the big story of 2017 was that Trumpian fascism did not prove to be popular.

It might have. Trump took office in the middle of an economic upturn that Obama had never been given credit for, and at a time of relative peace. He had a compliant Congress that would repeat his talking points, harass those who challenged him, refuse to investigate obvious corruption, and pass tax cuts and spending increases without worrying about the resulting budget deficits.

He had chosen his victims and scapegoats well: Muslims, immigrants of color, and refugees. Would the rest of the American people care if they suffered, or be energized by the sheer cruelty of it all? If police were once again unleashed to hassle (or occasionally even kill in cold blood) the non-white poor with no oversight or repercussions, would white Christian citizens react with horror, or gratitude? Would Americans care about the planetary environment they handed off to their children and grandchildren, or would they be happy to ignore all that in an fossil-fuel-burning orgy of après moi le déluge?

On Inauguration Day, none of that was clear, and even it hindsight it was a disturbingly close call: About 40% of the public has welcomed Trumpism, to the point that no development or revelation can move them. It could have been 50% or more.

2018. But even if Americans would tell pollsters they disapproved, would they vote? Or would they be confused or bamboozled or discouraged by dark fantasies of invading caravans? Could Democrats once again be played off against each other, so that they failed to unite behind any less-than-perfect candidate? Could anti-Trump women be cowed by the enraged male privilege of Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham? (Herodotus tells how similar tactics put down a Scythian slave revolt. The slaves repulsed an initial assault by their masters, who then came up with the following plan: “Now therefore to me it seems good that we leave spears and bows and that each one take his horse-whip and so go up close to them: for so long as they saw us with arms in our hands, they thought themselves equal to us and of equal birth; but when they shall see that we have whips instead of arms, they will perceive that they are our slaves, and having acknowledged this they will not await our onset.” Just so, Kavanaugh’s foaming outrage replaced any attempt at contrition, compassion, or fact-based defense: Now you’ve made Daddy angry.)

In retrospect, all that might seem absurd. But a year ago it did not, at least to me. Certainly there were red states where things played out that way and incumbent Democratic senators lost, sometimes by large margins.

And even if a majority wanted to vote against Trump’s party, would it be enough to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering? In Georgia, suppression of the black vote worked, and a white Republican secretary of state oversaw his own elevation to the governorship. Gerrymandering also did its job: A record-setting Democratic popular vote (nationally, a nearly 10 million vote margin, or 8.6%) resulted in a mere 235-199 House majority, smaller than the 241-194 majority that a far narrower Republican margin (1.4 million votes, or 1.1%) produced in 2016.

What if? Imagine if 2018 had come out otherwise. What if the electorate, or at least enough of the electorate to maintain unified Republican control of Congress, had endorsed what they’ve seen these last two years? What if Democrats had won the national House popular vote by only 5% or so, and it hadn’t been enough to gain control?

Then the gloves would be off. Any restraint wary Republicans had exercised on Trump would vanish. Fire Bob Mueller and purge non-Trumpists from the FBI. Finish gutting the Voting Rights Act, so that elections can become mere formalities, like the empty rituals of a faith no one really believes any more. Round up immigrants en masse and drop them on the other side of the Wall without hearings. Openly defy any courts that say all this is forbidden by laws or treaties or the Constitution. Why not? Who’s going to stop it?

Laws can say whatever they want, but if no one is motivated or empowered to enforce them, what do they matter? That’s the essence of Putinesque fascism. Revoke freedom of the press? Why bother, when troublesome reporters can simply be killed and the murders will forever remain unsolved? Why bother, when persistently annoying networks and newspapers can be bankrupted and bought out by your cronies? Disband opposing political parties? Why go to all that trouble, when their backers can be convicted of corruption, and their candidates can be killed or induced to leave the country?

That’s the track we would be moving down, if voters hadn’t come out in large enough numbers to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. We could still wind up on that track. But it’s a lot less likely now.

What the House can do. By itself, of course, the House can’t end this crisis of democracy. It can’t pass laws by itself, and the executive branch is still in charge of enforcing them. Even the impeachment process requires a Senate supermajority.

But the House can guarantee that any further subversion of democracy happens in full public view. If the new Attorney General suppresses the Mueller Report, the House can subpoena it. It can draw attention to the Trump family’s violation of the Constitution’s Emolument Clause, as well as the rampant corruption on the lower levels of this administration. Public hearings can bring to light the human rights abuses and violations of law happening on our southern border, and make administration officials respond with something more than doubletalk.

The executive branch, particularly at its lower levels, is still full of people who are committed to the missions of their departments and agencies. (This is the kernel of truth behind all those “Deep State” conspiracy theories.) People at the EPA still want to protect the environment, in spite of the instructions they receive from the top. People in the Justice Department still want to enforce the laws. People at the State Department still believe in diplomacy and treaties and international law. People at the CIA still want American policy to be based on facts. People at the Pentagon still resist seeing America dominated by Putin or other foreign leaders, no matter what kompromat they have on the president or how much revenue they generate for The Trump Organization.

At times, all those people can feel alone and surrounded. Why resist? Why not go along or take an early retirement and let the administration do whatever it wants? The election told them they are not alone, that the country is resisting as well. And the House can give them a bastion of support, as well as a place to tell their stories to the resisting majority. If a crisis comes, and they start receiving drastic unconstitutional orders, they are much less likely to carry them out, now that they know that the electorate and at least one branch of government is behind them.

What’s more, the 2018 election puts the question to Republicans who have to run in 2020: The American Republic might be in trouble, but it hasn’t failed yet. You still have to face the voters, and so does Trump. Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond this administration, to the party you will have to rebuild after Trump is gone.

It’s not over yet. As we saw in the aftermath of the election, not everyone got the voters’ message or was willing to accept it. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican leaders in the legislature have insulated themselves against the electorate through gerrymandering, so that large majorities voting for Democratic control were unable to achieve it. The statewide offices can’t be gerrymandered, but Democrats who win them can be disempowered. And so, to that extent, democracy is thwarted.

It’s not just Trump. There is a rising anti-democratic spirit in the Republican Party as a whole, which David Frum summed up like this:

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

The myth of massive voter fraud has no evidence behind it, but conservatives believe it because it provides an excuse to ignore unfavorable election results. If there is a conservative coup someday, it will be justified by a claim that an election was stolen and they only lost due to fake votes.

Republicans still control the White House and the Senate. Attempting to take them back in 2020, Democrats will again run a hazardous gauntlet: Can we stay united? Can we convince reluctant voters to turn out? Can we ignore disinformation and manufactured crises? Can we overcome the electoral-college advantage that has given popular-vote-losing Republicans the presidency twice in the last five elections? Can we win by margins that convince Republicans to drop their flirtation with fascism?

What the midterm elections gave American democracy was a chance to survive, not a final victory.

The damage done. Even a massive 2020 victory won’t automatically set everything right again. The flood of Trump/McConnell judges will be making absurd rulings and blocking progressive change for decades to come. It will be a very long time before America’s traditional allies regard us as trustworthy partners again. The tax-cut giveaway to corporations and the rich will be hard to reverse.

Worse, the time we have lost in fighting climate change can’t be reclaimed. The carbon emitted can’t be recaptured. The wells dug, power plants constructed, and pipelines built will be long-term features of our energy landscape.

But worst of all, I think, is the long-term damage done to democracy itself. One-third of the electorate now buys into a worldview that blames its problems on Muslims and Mexicans, distrusts any attempt to establish objective truth, and won’t believe any vote that doesn’t come out in its favor. Standards of decency and truthfulness will be hard to restore. Partisan, ethnic, racial, and class divides have deepened. Even if we somehow manage to restore trustworthiness to government, will the American people trust it? There will be times of crisis in the future, when Americans will need to unite behind their leaders and move forward in together. It will be difficult, even if in the meantime we have managed to elect wise and honest people.

This election was a major step, but there are many steps to come before we are out of the woods.

Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions

As the government shuts down after Trump blew up a bipartisan compromise, The New Republic raises a question: What is the Democratic position on immigration, and is the lack of any clear position a problem?

To a certain extent this is the kind of problem propaganda always causes: When propagandists build an artificial crisis out of more mundane problems, opponents are usually stuck without a crisis-sized solution. The classic example of this is the blood libel: What solution could Europe’s “good” Jews propose to the problem of Jews whose recipe for Passover matzos required the blood of Christian children? How could they address an issue that existed only in the minds of anti-Semites?

The whole point of a manufactured crisis is to make common-sense solutions seem inadequate. We have to build a wall for the same reason we had to invade Iraq: Manageable issues have been puffed up into an existential threat that only some grand project can address.

People sneaking into our country do create a few problems, but the “border crisis” Trump keeps talking about is mostly in his mind and the minds of his followers. The wave of drugs and crime spilling into our country from Mexico is 99% fantasy. There is the occasional criminal among the undocumented, just as there are criminals among any large group of people. Some drugs are carried across the border by undocumented human “mules”, but the great majority arrives by mail, by ship, by air, or in the luggage of citizen travelers. If a complete shutdown of the border were possible, that portion of drug trafficking would shift to other avenues without any significant effect on the availability of drugs in your town.

Similarly, the Wall is a solution that only works in fantasy. (The whole purpose of “Build the Wall!” was to make Trump’s crowds cheer. That’s as far as he has ever thought it out.) Perfectly securing the border — which the Wall won’t do — wouldn’t even end illegal immigration: About half of the undocumented immigrants come in legally as tourists or on business, and then stay after their visas run out. Short of closing down foreign travel completely (and bankrupting Disney World), you won’t solve that problem.

Since it exists only in fantasy, though, Trump’s Wall can do anything. (I am reminded of the cartoon domes people used to illustrate Reagan’s fantasy missile-defense plan.) Its steel slats will have 9-inch gaps, but drug packages (or skinny children) won’t be able to pass between them. “Drones & Technology are just bells and whistles” compared to the advanced Bronze Age thinking that a wall represents.

Some Democrats imagine that giving Trump his wall will at least shut him up, but that won’t work any better than the Wall itself: As Jim Wright points out in some detail, a wall through a remote area is easily circumvented. (“All you need to defeat it is a ladder and some quiet time.” A shovel might work too.) So unless the Wall is actively manned and monitored for its full 2000-mile length, it will be useless. In other words, once it’s built the new issue will be that Democrats aren’t willing to fully fund the maintenance and monitoring of the Wall — which they won’t, because (like the Wall itself) that will be a stupid waste of money.

So what’s to be done? The biggest security problem related to undocumented immigrants isn’t anything they do themselves, but the mere fact that they’re outside the system and don’t dare claim its protection. So many of them might not testify to crimes they see, send their kids to school, get inoculated against epidemics, or insist on the rights that we want to enforce in all American workplaces. They are natural prey, so they attract predators. That hurts us all.

So the first priority should be to get them some kind of legal status. Deport the criminals among them. (I mean real criminals, not pillars of their communities who were arrested once thirty years ago.) Send back recent arrivals who have no legitimate asylum claim. Fund enough courts and judges to process the backlog on asylum claims that might be real. (That’s been our treaty obligation since 1951, by the way.) And finally, recognize that some people, however they arrived, have built a life here and are pulling their weight. So make them pay a fine or something and grant them legal residence.

Next, figure out why they keep coming. In particular, why are Guatemala and Honduras such hellholes that people are willing to walk thousands of miles to escape them? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to do some nation-building there rather than deal with their refugee caravans? (Again, you need to ignore some propaganda. The great majority of the world’s population prefers to stay home, if that’s a viable option. The caravans are people escaping from real dangers, not being drawn here by the magnet of American welfare programs.)

To the extent that people are coming here to work, make legal work permits easier to get and crack down on employers of undocumented workers.

And yes, patrol the border. But do it efficiently, with those “bells and whistles” Trump shrugs off, recognizing that no one — not the Chinese, not the Soviets, not the Nazis — has ever completely shut down a 2000-mile border. Border protection won’t be impenetrable — neither would Trump’s Wall — but the point should be to keep the undocumented immigration problem down to manageable proportions.

In short, address the non-crisis with a lot of little improvements. That approach may not be bold or grand or sexy, but it makes sense. Trump’s Wall doesn’t.

Is this any way to run a superpower?

It’s not crazy to want U.S. troops to come home from Syria and Afghanistan. It is crazy for a superpower’s global strategy to shift from one tweet to the next.


When I heard that Trump had tweeted the withdrawal of America’s 2,000 troops from Syria, and then heard reports that he would soon pull half of our 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan, my initial reaction was: “What’s wrong with that?”

I’m not a pacifist, but I judge an American intervention in a foreign war by a few simple criteria.

  1. Are we fighting on the right side?
  2. Do our soldiers have a clear mission with an achievable goal?
  3. Are the resources we’re committing sufficient to achieve that goal?
  4. Do Congress and the American people believe that the goal is worth the cost, and understand the risks involved?

Weighing Syria and Afghanistan. The Syria commitment could pass that test only as long as the goal was narrowly defined: to make ISIS a stateless state again by driving it out of all its territory. Given the nature of ISIS, which is as much an idea as a caliphate, that probably won’t kill it. But it should make it less of a focal point for global Muslim discontent.

What’s more, the strategy laid out by President Obama was working: ISIS had lost the majority of its territory by the end of the Obama administration, and Trump more or less continued what Obama had been doing, until now ISIS has been driven back to a few small enclaves. (The claim that we had not been beating ISIS under Obama but started “winning” under Trump is the usual Trumpian bullshit.) If those enclaves were about to fall, then it was time to think about declaring victory and getting out.

The longer we stay in Syria, though, the more secondary goals the mission picks up. We’re supporting rebels against the brutal Assad government that Iran and Russia back. We’re protecting the Kurdish forces (who have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS) from attack by Turkey (which has its own Kurdish region and fears Kurdish nationalism).

Those might be fine things to wish for, but they don’t fare well against my criteria. In particular, if we’re going to be players in the Syrian civil war, we’ll need a lot more than 2,000 soldiers. I don’t think the American people are ready to back that kind of commitment, and I don’t see how it is supposed to end.

Our Afghan commitment is harder to justify. Originally, we sent forces to Afghanistan in response to 9-11. The goal, which had close to universal support from the public at the time, was to capture or kill the people who attacked us and establish an Afghan government that wouldn’t let Al Qaeda operate freely within its borders. But 17 years later, Bin Laden is long dead and our effort to stand up an effective pro-American government in Kabul has failed. It’s hard to estimate a troop level that could truly pacify the country — Obama couldn’t do it with 100,000 — but whatever it is, the American people aren’t willing to underwrite it.

So yes, we should be trying to disengage. But here’s an idea the Master of the Deal might want to consider: Couldn’t we negotiate some concessions from the people who want to see our forces gone? Why just make an announcement and start pulling out?

And here’s my real problem with Trump’s decision: Disengagement requires a plan just as much as engagement does. Maybe I have things to do and I’m sick of standing here plugging a hole in this dike with my finger. But predictable things will happen if I pull my finger out, and how do I intend to respond when they do?

ISIS isn’t defeated yet. The premise of Trump’s Syria tweet was clear:

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

But as he so often does, Trump is claiming credit for something that hasn’t happened yet. (Despite his claims, North Korea isn’t denuclearized yet either, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future. And the trade deal with China he announced still hasn’t been worked out.) ISIS still controls a small amount of territory, it still has fighting forces, and it has squirreled away a considerable amount of money to fund future operations.

So the job isn’t done, but the US withdrawal will begin immediately. (Although Sunday’s tweet described the pullout as “slow & highly coordinated”.) Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this in a subsequent contradictory tweet that also happens to be false. (Russia loves that we’re leaving Syria.)

Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.

So the first predictable thing that might happen is that ISIS stages a comeback and starts gaining territory again. What’s the plan for that scenario? Accept it? Send our troops back in? Ask our Russian friends or our buddy Bashar al-Assad to handle it for us? (No, wait! Turkey will do it, according to last night’s tweet. Turkish troops going deeper into Syria, which they used to rule back in the Ottoman days, where they might come into conflict with Assad, Hezbollah, and Russian forces … what could possibly go wrong? “We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”)

What’s the new mission in Afghanistan? I can’t find any explanation for the 7,000 figure: What is the mission of the 7,000 that will remain, and why do they no longer need the help of the 7,000 who are leaving? My intuition says that there is no new mission. “Pull out half of them” just comes from Trump’s gut, and isn’t based on anything.

What about the Kurds? The reason American casualties in Syria have been so low is that Kurdish militias are doing most of the actual fighting against ISIS.

The Kurds and their Syrian allies paid a severe price: They have suffered about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded since 2014. Over that same period, the United States lost only three soldiers in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.

Trump seems not to know these facts. “Time for someone else to fight,” he tweeted, as if Americans were battling ISIS alone.

Turkey is worried about Kurdish militias operating in its own territory, which it sees as terrorism. According to AP, a December 14 phone conversation between Trump and Turkish autocrat Erdogan sparked the withdrawal decision.

Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two U.S. officials and a Turkish official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.

The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

The obvious implication is that if Erdogan wants to attack the people we’ve been relying on to push ISIS back, he should just have at it. We’ll get out of his way.

Erdogan isn’t the only one likely to attack after we leave. To the Assad government, the Kurds are just one more set of rebels. What if the Kurdish region of Syria (green on the map) collapses and our former allies start getting slaughtered? What are the implications of that in other conflicts where the US wants to find local allies?

Sometimes, superpowers have to make such betrayals. We left a number of Vietnamese allies in the lurch when we exited the Vietnam War, but few Americans would want us still to be fighting there. I just wish I could believe Trump (or anyone involved in his decision process) had thought these questions out and was making these decisions strategically.

What generals and diplomats are for. There’s a way that major policy changes are supposed to happen: The National Security Council meets and the various departments involved weigh in: Pentagon people talk about military implications, State Department people anticipate how our allies will react, and regional experts from the intelligence services outline the most likely scenarios. They all make their recommendations and then the President announces a decision. The advisors whose advice wasn’t taken then try to talk him out of it. If the President stands firm, though, they have to yield.

Next, all the principals return to their departments with the message: This is where we’re going; make plans. The plans go back to the NSC, where they get accepted or rejected. (Sometimes the President has to say one more time, “No, I really meant it. This plan doesn’t do what I asked for.”) Allies get consulted. Political types design a messaging strategy to explain the new policy to the American people as well as the rest of the world. Then, when all the ducks are in a row, an announcement is made and the whole government moves in unison. If things are working well, our allies move with us.

There’s a reason for doing things that way: A global superpower is much bigger than the kind of family business Trump is used to running. There’s more to know and more to figure out. (As an analogy, consider the different medical specialists who might get together before a particularly complicated surgery. It’s not just a question of where to cut, but whether last week’s infection is under control, whether the patient’s heart will stand the stress, how the patient tolerates anesthesia, what kind of recovery plan is needed, and dozens of other considerations.) The various departments are in the meeting not just to protect their turf, but because they represent different kinds of expertise. You consult with the generals and diplomats because that’s what they’re there for. They know stuff.

Hardly any of the usual process seems to have happened in this case. The only advisor Trump seems to have listened to before making his decision is Erdogan, a foreign autocrat. (He’s also the former client of Michael Flynn, for what that’s worth.) The messaging strategy was for Trump to write a tweet; everybody else had to adjust on the fly.

The result is that most of the interested parties, both within our government and among our allies, were taken by surprise. As they carry out the withdrawal, no one involved can possibly have confidence that all the relevant factors were considered and all the risks foreseen.

Mattis and McGurk. Two major officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, resigned in protest. Historian Michael Beschloss claims no defense secretary has ever done this before.

Mattis’ resignation letter explains his decision in terms of worldview. In Mattis’ world, American power depends on its alliances, but Trump sees our allies as parasites.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships…. [W]e must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.

Mattis mentions Russia and China as examples of the kind of “malign actors and strategic competitors” that we and our allies need “common defense” against, because they “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

I can’t help believing, though, that it’s as much Trump’s process as his policy that makes it impossible for Mattis to keep working with him. If a decision as important as withdrawing from a war can be made off the cuff while talking to a foreign dictator (Turkey may not be a threat as large as Russia or China, but it also a country run on an “authoritarian model”.), by a President who doesn’t read memos or listen to briefings, then it’s not clear what role there is for people who know things.

Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard

The legal jeopardy of Donald Trump, a.k.a. Individual-1, is the kind of story that our news media doesn’t cover very well. It’s not that they don’t give time to it; they do, every night, on every news channel other than Fox (which sometimes decides that a controversial nativity scene is more important, or that we still haven’t looked hard enough at the emails of a private citizen named Hillary Something-or-other).

The problem is that investigations move at a different speed than “news”. “News” is something happening right now that we didn’t know about yesterday. It’s what’s new since the last time you tuned in.

Investigations, on the other hand, play out over months or even years. Any given day might produce one or two new pieces of information, but it’s just a coincidence if today’s “news” happens to be what most deserves your attention. More often, an investigation plays out like a game of postal chess — a sport that will never have a TV contract.

What we’ve been seeing develop over that last several months, move by move, is the gradual encirclement of the GOP King. There are, by now, multiple investigations by multiple prosecutors, pursuing sketchy or suspicious or blatantly illegal behavior by (as Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter David Fahrenthold puts it) “nearly every organization [Trump] has led in the past decade.”

It’s kind of hard to keep track of them all without a program. And when a new detail appears, it can be difficult to file it properly in your mind: Which investigation is this exactly? Of what alleged wrong-doing? And which stage is that particular investigation at? Is it speculation about something that looks fishy? Or was probable cause established some while ago? Is it ready for indictments? Trials? Sentencing?

Trump, of course, is counting on you getting confused. So, for example, when a campaign finance charge starts to look indictable (or indictable for anybody who isn’t President), he will claim that this clears him of any conspiracy with Russia — despite the fact that those investigations are being pursued by two different sets of federal prosecutors.

So let’s start just by listing all the investigations, in no particular order:

  • Russia. We know Russia did a variety of things to help elect Trump; it’s highly likely that Russian interference made the difference. (In an election that close, just about any factor that helped Trump probably made the difference.) Russians hacked Democratic computers and leaked the results, propagated anti-Hillary fake news through social media, and so on. Simultaneously, Trump was calling for an end to sanctions against Russia, weakening the Republican platform’s support for Ukraine, and negotiating to build a highly profitable Trump Tower Moscow. Maybe Trump was just the unwitting beneficiary of Russian favors, and has had his own reasons for pursuing pro-Russia policies. But if those dots are connected, it’s treason.
  • The inauguration. Practically since it happened, people have been wondering how the Trump Inaugural Committee could possibly have spent $107 million. (Obama put on a bigger show for half the money.) Thursday, the The Wall Street Journal reported that there is a criminal investigation into (1) what happened to all the money, (2) whether some of it illegally came from foreign sources, and (3) whether donors received any government favors in exchange.
  • Paying off women. Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal were paid six-figure sums not to tell their stories of affairs with Trump. That in itself is not illegal, but if it was done for the purpose of helping Trump get elected, and if the money wasn’t mentioned in official reports of campaign contributions and expenses, that’s a crime. And were payoffs made to other women we don’t know about yet?
  • Emoluments. The Trump Organization continues to get revenue from foreign sources, including foreign governments. Does that violate the Emolument Clause of the Constitution? And does it account for Trump’s unwillingness to criticize emolument-paying countries like Saudi Arabia?
  • The NRA. Did the Trump campaign illegally coordinate with the NRA, which spent $30 million supporting him? And did the NRA get any of that money from Russia? And what is confessed Russian agent Maria Butina saying to prosecutors in her cooperation agreement?
  • The Trump Foundation. Trump’s foundation appears not to be a real foundation at all: It has no staff, no policy for making grants, and a board that didn’t meet for 18 years. It makes payments that benefit Trump’s businesses, and let itself become an arm of his election campaign. New York State is suing to shut it down.
  • Obstruction of justice. Obstruction is a second-order felony: a crime that you commit to cover up other crimes. Sometimes the obstruction is so successful that the original crime can’t ever be prosecuted. But you can still be convicted of what you did to cover up whatever-that-other-thing-was. The most obvious obstruction case against Trump involves the Russia investigation, but we may yet see obstruction of other investigations as well.

Wired breaks these seven areas down further and counts 17 investigations.

Now that you know the layout, let’s take a closer look.

Russia. Anything you hear about the Russia investigation proceeds on two tracks: what we know from what has been publicly reported and what Robert Mueller knows.

The two are very different, because (unlike recent investigations against Clintons), Mueller’s team doesn’t leak. This is noteworthy. Ken Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton leaked constantly. And during the anti-Hillary investigations into Benghazi and her famous email server — neither of which turned up anything worth taking to court — we were bombarded with salacious stories that eventually had to be walked back. Information from inside the investigation would get filtered through Republican staffers in Congress and then wind up in a distorted form on the front pages.

That’s not happening here, and the result is that we’re not sure what Mueller has until we see a court document like an indictment, a guilty plea, or a sentencing memo. That gives Republicans room to imagine that Mueller doesn’t really have much, while letting Democrats imagine that the crushing blow will fall any minute. The investigation could be about to wrap up or could go on for another year or two.

What we do know is that something in the Trump/Russia relationship was worth lying about. The Washington Post has totaled up 14 different Trump associates who were in contact with Russians during the campaign or transition. Across the board, those people lied about it. Mike Flynn and George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump Jr., and Michael Cohen lied to Congress. Trump himself has lied constantly to the public.

Republicans are often frustrated by how quickly Trump critics jump to the treason explanation, but there’s a simple reason they do: Trump defenders have not produced any coherent explanation for the wall of lies. If not treason, what?

Also, there must be some reason why Trump wants to de-legitimize or shut down the investigation: why he has resisted testifying, why he kept faulting Jeff Sessions for failing to “protect” him, why the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee worked so hard to throw mud on investigators and seemed not to want to know what Russia did to interfere with our election. The Deep-State-witch-hunt explanation might work on InfoWars, but it’s just not credible outside the Trump bubble. Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, and Jim Comey were all Republicans when this started. If you work at it, you can imagine that they all suddenly found a new Republican administration so threatening that they had to throw away spotless reputations they’d spent their entire lives developing. But why?

That’s the ground, the reason to be suspicious. The figure is the following possible conspiracy, which so far we just see the outlines of: Trump was compromised by a long history of business interactions with Russian oligarchs, possibly involving money laundering through his real estate empire. At the start of the campaign (and continuing through the Republican Convention), he was negotiating what would have been one of the biggest deals of his career: Trump Tower Moscow, which couldn’t have been built without Putin’s personal approval.

From the beginning of his campaign, Trump advocated a more lenient policy towards Russia. In particular, he wanted to do away with the economic sanctions imposed after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. (Rex Tillerson came to the Secretary of State job from Exxon, which was set to exploit Russian oil resources worth hundreds of billions.) Presumably, that’s what Michael Flynn was discussing in those conversations with Russian officials he lied to the FBI about.

Since taking office, Trump has been unusually solicitous of Putin, most notably in the infamous Helsinki press conference, where he sided with Putin against the American intelligence community.

The Trump campaign appeared to get advance knowledge of the Democratic emails Russia hacked and then passed through WikiLeaks. Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi appear to have been the connection between the campaign and WikiLeaks. Trump publicly asked Russia to look for Clinton’s missing emails, and they did.

What we don’t know (but Mueller might) is whether this pattern is a fortuitous convergence of interests between Trump and Putin, or a quid-pro-quo arrangement.

The Inauguration. At the moment, all we really know about this topic is that SDNY has opened a criminal investigation. The WSJ says the investigation is in its “early stages”. Pro Publica raises the possibility that a big chunk of the inaugural money eventually made its way to Trump, by way of over-market rates charged to the Inaugural Committee by Trump’s Washington hotel. (That’s the same hotel the emoluments suit is about.)

Paying off women. The case that is moving fastest and looks closest to being proved is the campaign-finance case about paying off Daniels and McDougal. Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday, partly for his role in these payments and partly for lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance felonies and says he committed them under Trump’s direction. A third member of the conspiracy, American Media Inc. (AMI), publishers of National Enquirer, negotiated an non-prosecution agreement with the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) in which it confessed its role.

As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election. AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Trump asked AMI CEO David Pecker “What can you do to help my campaign?”

Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.

NBC News confirmed Thursday that Trump was in the room at the August, 2015 meeting when the plan for National Enquirer to squash negative stories about Trump was agreed to.

Michael Cohen paid $130K to Stormy Daniels out of his own pocket, routing the money through a shell corporation. He was repaid $420K by The Trump Organization through a retainer agreement for “legal services”. The difference in figures raises the question of whether Cohen was also being repaid for similar payments that haven’t become public yet. Vox comments:

So Trump’s company certainly appears to have been heavily involved in these illegal payoffs — which raises the question of whether the company itself will be charged.

Trump’s defense rests on two shaky notions: The payments weren’t part of the campaign, but were made for personal reasons (so Melania wouldn’t find out, say). And he trusted Cohen as his lawyer not to get him involved in anything illegal. But everyone else in the picture seems clear about this being part of the Trump campaign and Trump knowing about it at the time. Plus, the long string of lies and elaborate methods used to cover up the transaction points to Trump’s awareness that he was breaking the law. People don’t lie to hide their innocence, they lie to hide their guilt.

If he weren’t president, he’d be on trial right now, and he’d probably be convicted.

Emoluments. It’s an old-fashioned word whose meaning is suddenly relevant again. The Constitution says:

no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

It hasn’t been relevant because no previous president was simultaneously carrying on a business that had foreign customers. But Trump has retained his ownership stake in The Trump Organization, which carries on business around the world, including with kings, princes, and foreign states.

What makes this a legal mess is that the Constitution doesn’t say who is supposed to police emoluments or what penalties should be assessed for violations. (Until now, a simple “don’t do that” has been sufficient.) So despite the fact that Trump is clearly violating the Constitution, it’s not clear who is in a position to do anything about it, short of impeachment.

Trump’s position is that he is policing himself: The Trump Organization makes voluntary contributions to the Treasury equivalent to its own estimates of its profits from foreign governments. There are two problems with this: First, it’s a trust-me arrangement; no other branch of government is receiving reports that it can audit. Further, Trump is interpreting emolument to mean only the profit he makes; profit being an infinitely flexible concept in the real estate business, which the Trump family has abused for decades.

Maryland and the District of Columbia are suing on behalf of merchants that compete with the Trump International Hotel in D.C. (One legal hurdle is establishing standing to sue. Simply being a citizen trying to enforce the Constitution is not enough.) They contend that emoluments are payments, not profits, and the judge seems to agree with them.

So far the suit has survived all of Trump’s attempts to have it thrown out. It has reached the discovery phase, which means that the plaintiffs can subpoena Trump Organization records, giving them a view into the company that no outsider has had before. Trump’s lawyers are trying to slow this down, but they will ultimately lose. What happens next depends on what the subpoenas turn up.

This investigation is likely not criminal, but is that rare situation where something non-criminal could be impeachable, because impeachment might be the only tool available for enforcing the Constitution.

The NRA. So far we know a lot more questions than answers. The NRA did spend $30 million boosting Trump, which is way more than they’d ever spent on a presidential election before. There was a Russian intelligence operation dedicated to using the NRA to exert influence on the Republican Party.

Like the Trump campaign, the NRA faces questions about to what extent it knowingly cooperated with Russia. In addition, Mother Jones and The Trace are reporting illegal coordination between the NRA’s pro-Trump spending and the Trump campaign itself. It’s not publicly known yet whether Mueller or any other prosecutor is investigating this.

The Foundation. One characteristic that defines Trump’s psychology is projection: If he accuses his enemies of something, chances are he’s doing it himself.

During the campaign, he constantly bashed the Clinton Foundation, which is a legit non-profit that doesn’t appear to have done anything wrong. At worst, the family foundation was a way for the Clintons to keep the band together between campaigns; people they wanted to hang onto could get jobs (doing actual work) at the Clinton Foundation. But no one has come up with examples of money passing from the Foundation to the Clintons, and none of the attempts to hang a pay-for-play label on the Foundation ever held water.

Quite the opposite is true of the Trump Foundation.

[New York] Attorney General Barbara Underwood said the Donald J. Trump Foundation “was a shell corporation that functioned as a checkbook from which the business entity known as the Trump Organization made payments.”

Just before the Iowa caucuses, the Trump Foundation was illegally taken over by the Trump campaign.

campaign officials were controlling the timing of donations ahead of the election. It’s not illegal for an individual to make donations during an election, but it is against the law for political campaigns to coordinate un-reported political expenditures.

… The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the foundation’s failure to make good on promised donations led to this investigation, reports that Trump ordered the foundation’s executive director Allen Weisselberg to fly to Iowa with checkbook in hand so that he could make donations to local groups immediately. Trump gave out at least five $100,000 grants to local groups in the lead-up to the caucuses, which he won in a shock victory that helped propel him to the Republican party nomination.

Trump tried to have the suit thrown out, claiming he couldn’t be sued while in office. But a judge didn’t buy that. Here’s what’s at stake.

The attorney general’s office, led by Barbara Underwood, is seeking to dissolve the Trump Foundation and wants $2.8 million in restitution, plus additional penalties. The office is also seeking to ban Trump from serving as a director of any New York nonprofit for 10 years and to prohibit the other board members, the Trump children, from serving for one year.

But it might not end there. The NYAG has referred the case for criminal investigation by the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, though it’s unknown whether those offices are doing anything with it. The interesting point here is if there is criminal activity, the Trump children might be involved. They can be indicted, even if their father is president.

Obstruction of justice. This is the investigation where the public perception and the legal reality seem furthest apart, at least to me. Trump has successfully popularized the notion that obstruction requires a “smocking gun“. White-collar crime is supposed to be something that happens behind closed doors, so the public believes that making a case requires looking behind those closed doors.

In those terms, the case is mainly a he-said/he-said between Trump and James Comey, who has testified that Trump tried to influence his investigation of Michael Flynn in particular and the Russia conspiracy in general. Trump’s firing of Comey (and then telling Russian officials that Comey’s firing had relieved the pressure of the Russia investigation) looks a lot like obstruction, if you believe that Comey isn’t just making stuff up.

What the public is largely missing is that Trump’s obstruction of the Russia investigation is happening in plain sight. Over Twitter, he tries to intimidate potentially hostile witnesses out of testifying and dangle pardons in front of friendly witnesses. He has publicly urged the attorney general to squash the investigation, and has conspired with Republican congressmen to ruin the careers of the FBI agents who started the investigation.

The fact that he is totally brazen about it doesn’t mean that it’s legal. (I might walk into a grocery and brazenly start eating an apple. It wouldn’t look like shoplifting, but it would be.) Trump claims he is just “fighting back” against the investigation. But when the President or his administration is a potential target of investigation, and he uses the power of his office to “fight back”, that IS obstruction of justice. As ThinkProgress puts it:

Suffice it to say there is no “fighting back” exception to obstruction of justice charges, which were part of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

The issues we need to be thinking about (and not thinking about). At the moment, despite Trump’s “fighting back”, the special prosecutor, the SDNY, and the New York attorney general are actively pursuing their investigations. Once Democrats take over the House in January, Congress will be a backstop for those investigations. (If, say, Trump’s new attorney general would try to suppress Mueller’s report, the House could still subpoena it.) So more and more, it looks like the truth will come out.

At that point, both Trump and the country will have to decide what to do about it. Trump may launch a wave of pardons, including the legally suspect move of pardoning himself. The administration may defy subpoenas, and defy court orders to enforce subpoenas. Democrats will have to decide whether to pursue impeachment. Republicans will face the question of how much illegality they want to defend. Ordinary citizens will need to decide when to take to the streets, or whether to launch tactics that have never been necessary in America before, like a general strike.

One question will be in the background of all our decisions: Addressing the issue of Trump’s (possible) crimes will be disruptive in the short term. If they turn out to be something short of treason, some will say that the disruption isn’t worth it. But looking to the long term, do we dare allow the precedent that presidential crimes can be ignored? If we establish that boundary, between tolerable and intolerable presidential wrongdoing, how might future presidents push it further?

A lot of those questions will hang on timing: If investigations drag out until an election is looming, maybe the decision should be left to the voters.

All in all, I think these questions point to a more useful focus for your attention than trying to guess what some witness might be saying behind closed doors, or when some new indictment might appear: What are you willing to tolerate? And what will you be willing to do if intolerable things are being ignored?

Why All the Bush Nostalgia?

It’s not President G. H. W. Bush himself that I miss. It’s an era of public trust in a shared reality.


It was weird, wasn’t it? Watching and listening to all that nostalgia for George H. W. Bush and his presidency?

I know, this is what we do when somebody dies: We retell his story to display him in the best possible light. We did it with John McCain just a few months ago. We do it all the time.

But even so, wasn’t it a little extreme? Bush, after all, was never particularly beloved when he was active. He only made it to the presidency by hanging on to Ronald Reagan’s coattails, and he always gets second billing when people recall the Reagan-Bush Era. He served only one term. When he stood for re-election in 1992, he was challenged in his own party by Pat Buchanan (the ancestor of today’s American First xenophobes), and got only 37% of the general election vote (the worst incumbent performance since Taft in 1912).

The Soviet Union fell on his watch, but hardly anyone believed then or now that he caused it. (It’s equally absurd to claim that Reagan caused it, but that’s a different argument.) The accomplishments he was lauded for at the time look worse in light of subsequent events. His greatest triumph, putting together the coalition that won the Gulf War, (which temporarily zoomed his approval rating up to 90%) turned out to be the prelude to his son’s disastrous Iraq invasion. His $100 billion bailout of the bankrupt savings and loans became a model for the much bigger and less popular bailout of the big banks after the real estate bubble of 2008. His pardons of the key figures in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal are precedents that I’m sure Trump’s people are studying. He is also remembered for his “No new taxes” lie, the racist Willie Horton ad, and the appointment of Clarence Thomas.

So what was all the nostalgia about? A number of writers have tried to explain it, some more convincingly than others.

The Un-Trump. It’s not like Bush left his eulogists nothing to work with. In many ways he was an admirable guy: After enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday, he flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He went on to live a life of public service: as a congressman, diplomat, Director of the CIA, vice president, and then president.

He was a family man, married once and for life to Barbara, with whom he raised another president as well as a governor. His personal demeanor was friendly and gentlemanly. One word nearly everybody uses to describe him is decent.

Those qualities led to the first and most obvious theory: That praising Bush the First was a backhanded way of criticizing the current president, who so obvious lacks all those virtues.

Bush could be testy, but was never cruel. He was intelligent, courteous, careful in his speech, and distinguished. His patrician upbringing and overall success in life gave him a secure ego, so he could respect expertise, let someone else be the smartest man in the room, and take seriously the findings of scientists. In the light of the current crises of democracy and the environment, even a liberal like me can look back at Bush and think “If only we still had Republicans like that.”

The last of his kind. But more than the man himself, there is something about his era that we would like to have back. But exactly what it is isn’t so easy to put your finger on.

In “The Last True Republican Presidentrecites a litany of “lasts”. Bush was the last president who

  • was shaped by the distinctive culture of the New England WASP upper class
  • came from the so-called “Greatest Generation” that was forged in the fires of depression and world war
  • was alive during World War II
  • fought in any war at all
  • represented Eastern establishment values of prudence, pragmatism, tolerance, measured judgment, and internationalism
  • got more than 53% of the vote (in 1988)
  • was a moderate Republican
  • had significant experience in foreign policy
  • seriously believed in the Republican Party’s legacy of fiscal conservatism

Legitimacy. That list points in two directions that two other writers pulled apart: Peter Beinart called attention to Bush as “the last person to occupy the Oval Office whose opponents saw him as a fully legitimate president.”

That’s because in the contemporary United States, presidential legitimacy stems from three sources. The first source is democracy. Although America’s system of choosing presidents has many undemocratic features, many Americans associate presidential legitimacy with winning a majority of the vote. The second source is background. Throughout American history, America’s presidents have generally looked a certain way. They’ve been white, male, (mostly) Protestant, and often associated with legitimating institutions such as the military, elite universities, or previous high office. Americans are more likely to question the legitimacy of presidents who deviate from those traditions. The third source is behavioral. Presidents can lose legitimacy if they violate established norms of personal or professional conduct.

George H. W. Bush was the last president who could not be impugned on any of these fronts.

Bill Clinton never got 50% of the vote (because he ran in three-way races with a Republican and independent Ross Perot), and was characterized as a “draft dodger” who would be incapable of commanding respect as commander-in-chief. George W. Bush was installed in office by the Supreme Court after he lost the popular vote. (Though Bush’s re-election campaign got 50.7% in 2004.) And Barack Obama may have won handily twice, but his race made him unacceptable to a large number of white Americans (who sought out bizarre theories like Birtherism to justify their rejection in terms that weren’t explicitly racist). Donald Trump not only lost the popular vote by a wide margin, but since taking office his actions have been anything but “presidential”. (Just to pick one example out of many, it’s impossible to imagine GHWB publicly distorting an Democratic congressman’s name into “little Adam Schitt“.)

Whether you liked Bush-41 or not, he was the president and everyone knew it. That didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but after a quarter century without that kind of universally accepted legitimacy, we miss it.

The WASP aristocracy. Ross Douthat picked up on Bush’s WASPiness: The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, he claims, may not have been fair or representative of America, but it simply did a better job than our current “meritocratic” leadership class. He describes

Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

The new ruling class, Douthat claims, is as “self-replicating” as the old one, but since they have fooled themselves into believing they earned their places at the top of the pyramid, they have less of a sense of responsibility towards those beneath them. (Chris Hayes makes this point better and at some length in The Twilight of the Elites.)

Douthat goes on to claim (and this is where he goes off the rails in my opinion) that we need an aristocracy, and that the current one needs to gain self-consciousness and become “a ruling class [that] acknowledge[s] itself for what it really is, and act[s] accordingly”.

Fareed Zakaria, who knows he would have no place in a WASP-dominated world, lauds the old establishment’s “modesty, humility and public-spiritedness”, noting how many of the powerful men on the Titanic let women and children board the lifeboats.

The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured.

In my terms, they felt like the owned the country. Today’s CEOs and political leaders are just renting America — and seem likely to trash it before their lease is up. Zakaria calls on today’s upper crust to recognize how much accident and luck is involved in their ascendancy and “live by one simple old-fashioned, universal idea — rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.”

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that. But even so, I don’t want the WASP aristocracy back. There’s got to be something else.

Shared reality. Strangely, the moment when I finally started to feel like I understood Bush nostalgia was when I listened to a discussion that didn’t mention Bush at all: Chris Hayes’ conversation with environmental writer David Roberts on his Why Is This Happening? podcast.

What they talked about instead was what Roberts has called the “epistemic crisis” in the US. In other words, due largely to right-wing propaganda that shapes the worldview of about 1/3 of the population, we have lost our ability to form a public reality.

Roberts, who was a graduate student in philosophy before turning to journalism, found himself wandering back into epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies how we know things) because of what he was seeing in his coverage of climate change: The science is clear, the problem is urgent, and the solution (drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels) is obvious, but nothing happens because it no longer seems possible to turn scientific truth into the kind of public knowledge that produces political action.

Instead, people who live inside the right-wing bubble are told that the scientific community is corrupt. (Trump responded to a recent government report on climate change by saying that climate scientists have a “political agenda“, and Trump supporter Rick Santorum expanded on that comment by saying that “A lot of these scientists are driven by the money they receive.” If climate change weren’t real, he says, they’d be unemployed.) Similarly, they are told that fact-checkers at the major news-gathering organizations produce “fake news” and academic research is left-wing propaganda. (The Washington Post Magazine recently featured a profile of a leading voice in the pro-Confederate movement. The fact that academic historians uniformly disagree with his version of the Civil War does not bother him in the slightest. “A lot of people think if you have half the alphabet after your name, you’re automatically right on everything,” he says.) When every economic model showed that the Trump tax cut would balloon the deficit, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin simply asserted that it would cut the deficit, as if one opinion were no better than the other.

“Call it 30% of Americans,” Roberts estimates, “have basically hived off from mainstream institutions of knowledge creation and knowledge verification, and have created their own hermetically sealed world.”

To me, this is the basis of the other Bush nostalgia explanations. President Obama won clear majorities twice, but acceptance of his legitimacy couldn’t penetrate the conservative bubble. The WASP aristocracy was able to accept and promote a public version of reality that today’s leaders either can’t or don’t want to deal with. As a result, Bush had go back on his “no new taxes” pledge because reality and consistency with his other values demanded it: He was against deficits, and taxes have to be part of any realistic deficit-reduction plan. So he proved faithless to conservative orthodoxy, but faithful to reality. He couldn’t simply assert that the deficit would go away because he wanted it to. (Trump, on the other hand, is talking about “paying down debt“, but also about more tax cuts, not cutting Social Security or Medicare, and raising defense spending.)

That’s the big difference between politics in the Bush Era and today: 25-30 years ago, political debates took place inside an arena of shared reality. You could have your own opinions, but you couldn’t have your own facts. Now, if you’re a conservative Republican, you can. Reality is whatever the Leader says it is.

That common reality is what I miss. Not the Bush administration, not the WASP aristocracy, and not even George H. W. himself, no matter how great a guy he may have been. I miss a sense that I live in the same world with all my fellow citizens, that facts about that world can be determined by trusted institutions committed to objectivity, and that ultimately all our opinions and predictions will all be judged according to what really happens.