Category Archives: Weekly summaries

Each week, a short post that links to the other posts of the week.


No Sift next week. The next new posts will appear February 24.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

– Abraham Lincoln
2nd Inaugural Address (3-4-1865)

As everybody knows, my family, our great country, and your President, have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people. They have done everything possible to destroy us, and by so doing, very badly hurt our nation. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they put themselves far ahead of our great country.

– Donald Trump
at the National Prayer Breakfast (2-6-2020)

This week’s featured post is “Let’s Talk Each Other Down“. Think of it as a counterweight to all the depressing or panic-worthy stuff in this summary.

This week everybody was talking about Iowa and New Hampshire

OK, Iowa was a mess. But there’s a reliable paper trail, so there’s good reason to believe the result. Tomorrow is the New Hampshire primary, which I am amazed to discover I have not covered at all. I have not been to a single candidate event this year, despite living just over the border in Massachusetts.

To a large extent that’s because the main thing that matters to me is electing Not Trump. I have likes and opinions, but I’m all-in for whoever gets the nomination. Anyway, here’s one comment about each major contender:

  • Biden’s fourth-place finish in Iowa was a huge disappointment, and he doesn’t look to be running well in NH either. He’s counting on his black support to get him back in the race in South Carolina. I’ll bet Kamala Harris is kicking herself for getting out, because there is no obvious inheritor of Biden’s black support if he fails.
  • Bloomberg is running such an unorthodox campaign that it’s hard to know whether his strategy is working or not. But he gets Trump’s goat better than any other candidate, and that has to count for something.
  • Buttigieg was the biggest beneficiary of Iowa. Sanders won the popular vote, but Buttigieg was the big surprise and wound up with the most delegates. His NH polls shot up afterwards, largely, I think, because his Iowa performance gave people who already like him a reason to take his candidacy seriously. (Likeability is one of those nebulous concepts that is easy to abuse and hides a bunch of prejudices. But for what it’s worth, Pete is the candidate I feel the most affection for. That doesn’t necessarily mean I plan to vote for him, though.) It’s hard to tell whether this week’s debate blunted his momentum or not.
  • Klobuchar is the tortoise in this race. She also got on the map in Iowa, and is probably the second choice of a lot of Biden’s white supporters. She’s polling near zero in South Carolina, though, so she needs to do well in New Hampshire to stay in the race.
  • Sanders got more first-round votes than any other candidate in Iowa, but his case for beating Trump didn’t do so well. The theory of how Sanders wins in November is that (even though he may lose some voters in the center) he raises turnout by inspiring a lot of new voters to come to the polls. But turnout in Iowa was not much different from 2016, and much lower than 2008, when Obama really did inspire people. He needs a win in NH, but he also needs to win the right way, with a big turnout.
  • Warren is the president I would appoint, if the Universe would grant me that power. She’s got to be disappointed in her distant third-place finish in Iowa, and recent polls have her running third in NH as well. She was briefly the front-runner last fall, but it’s hard to see where her break-out state is.

Josh Marshall makes a prediction of how Trump will smear Bernie, should he become the front-runner. He also pre-debunks the smear.

and the final impeachment trial result

The biggest surprise of the Senate vote was that Trump’s acquittal wasn’t a party-line vote, and that the lone defector was a Republican, not a Democrat. After lots of speculation that Joe Manchin or some other red-state Democrat would find a way to excuse Trump, the Democrats held firm, and Mitt Romney found his conscience.

I’ve been a bit appalled at how uncharitable many of my social media friends have been, trying to see Romney’s choice as some kind of 2024 calculation. That seems really unlikely to me. Mitt is smart enough to realize that no matter how badly Trump blows up, nobody is going to get the 2024 Republican nomination by being anti-Trump. Assuming Trump even bothers to observe the term-limit rule — I mean, the Constitution is just a piece of paper — the next Republican nominee is either a Trump successor (Pence? Ivanka? Don Jr.?) or somebody who has stayed conveniently off the national stage (like Paul Ryan or a governor).

I think Mitt is at a point in his career where he sees History staring him in the face, and doesn’t want to be remembered as Trump’s accomplice. I’m amazed that more late-in-their-careers Republicans haven’t looked at things that way. Lamar Alexander, for example, has just guaranteed that none of the things he’s proud of will be remembered. The headline of his obituary will be that he shut down the witnesses to Trump’s crimes.

Mitt’s vote has provided contrast for the cowardice of the other Republican senators. We can hope other Republicans will be emboldened to take a stand as well.

and reprisals against those involved in Trump’s impeachment

The Washington Post put President Clinton’s and President Trump’s post-acquittal speeches side-by-side. They could not be more different. Clinton was short, contrite, and tried to put conflict behind him. (“I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.”)

Trump, by contrast, was long-winded and dishonest, and took no responsibility for the acts that started this whole national trauma.

Trump repeatedly called Democrats involved in the impeachment “evil,” “corrupt” and “vicious and mean.” He railed against the Russian investigation, former FBI director James B. Comey, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, adding, “It was all bullshit.”

He seemed poised for revenge, and soon began to take it. Donald Jr. made the threat explicit:

Allow me a moment to thank—and this may be a bit of a surprise—Adam Schiff. Were it not for his crack investigation skills, @realDonaldTrump might have had a tougher time unearthing who all needed to be fired. Thanks, Adam!

After the show trial, the purge. Ambassador Gordon Sondland lost his job, as did Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman at the National Security Council. Somewhat stranger, Vindman’s brother Yevgeny was also fired from his job as an NSC lawyer. But that also fits the Stalinist pattern: Once you’ve been judged to be an Enemy of the People, your relatives are also suspect. That’s probably why Mitt Romney’s niece, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, has been so quick to declare her fealty to the regime.

Joshua Geltzer and Ryan Goodman comment on the Just Security blog:

Some have suggested that the outcry sparked by Friday’s reprisals was overblown. After all, any president is, on some level, entitled to surround himself at the White House and be represented overseas by those he trusts. But the question raised by Friday’s purge is: trusts to do what? And that’s where these actions raise serious concerns for American democracy: because Trump increasingly wants an executive branch that’ll serve not the United States of America but Donald J. Trump personally.

Trump was punishing key witnesses for doing precisely what the United States Congress swore them in to do: explain what they’d seen and heard.

… [E]xploitation of America’s diplomatic, military, and law enforcement mechanisms was the very usurpation of power that got Trump impeached in the first place. At the heart of the Ukraine extortion scheme was Trump and his personal lawyer’s appropriation of those mechanisms for political benefit and to the detriment of the country’s national security interests. Having survived impeachment, Trump now seeks to accelerate the redirection of America’s instruments of power into his own instruments of power.

Trump is not the only Republican engaged in post-impeachment reprisals. During the trial, Senator Rand Paul on numerous occasions named someone he claimed was the whistleblower whose complaint started the Ukraine investigation.

Friday, Tom Mueller (author of the book Crisis of Conscience about the history of whistleblowing) wrote a complaint to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, explaining how Senator Paul’s behavior violated the law.

Senator Paul’s actions constituted a retaliatory outing of a government witness—which is criminal conduct. Federal criminal law prohibits the obstruction of justice, and provides that “[w]hoever knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any Federal offense, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”

Paul’s outing of the whistleblower occurred not just on the floor of the Senate (where it might be constitutionally protected) but also outside the Senate and on Twitter.

If Senator Paul goes unpunished, this will be the kind of weakening of the law typical of the descent towards fascism. In the late stages of fascism, criticism of the Leader is punished by the State directly. But in earlier stages, critics simply lose the protection of the laws and can be attacked by followers of the Leader without consequence. When the Brownshirts come to beat them up, the police watch and do nothing.

Speaking of brownshirts: Immediately after Romney’s guilty vote, CPAC chair Matt Schlapp disinvited him from the flagship conservative convention. Yesterday, Schlapp said “I would actually be afraid for his physical safety” if he showed up.

and the State of the Union

The State of the Union address was Tuesday. Trump stayed on script, but the script was full of lies and exaggerations.

At the end of the State of the Union address, Nancy Pelosi very decisively ripped up Trump’s speech. For some reason, this display of disrespect resounded across right-wing media, as if this were most uncivil thing to happen in months. I agree with Trae Crowder, a.k.a. the Liberal Redneck:

The level of disrespect she showed by, like, ripping up the president’s speech at the State of the Union like that — it’s nowhere near disrespectful enough. … This is the most disrespectful motherfucker on Planet Earth.

Medals of Freedom are essentially lifetime achievement awards that presidents give to people who make Americans proud. Usually that means other Americans, but sometimes a medal goes to a foreigner (Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking) who just makes us proud to be human.

Presidents have complete discretion to pick whoever they want, and for the most part they’ve done a good job. Over the years MoF awards have gone to authors like John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Andrew Wyeth, musicians like Count Basie and Bob Dylan, and businessmen like Henry Ford II and IBM-founder Tom Watson. Computer-programming pioneer Grace Hopper got one, and so did photographer Ansel Adams. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel got one for being the conscience of the world.

In baseball’s Hall of Fame not everyone is Babe Ruth, and the same thing happens with Medals of Freedom. They’ve also gone to people who were famous and deserving of respect but not legendary, like actor Tom Hanks, Western-genre author Louis L’Amour, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. It happens. Presidents have their own idiosyncratic tastes. Some awards looked fine at the time, but shameful in retrospect, like President Bush giving one to Bill Cosby in 2002.

Well, Tuesday during the State of the Union address, President Trump awarded one to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has been a purveyor of hate and lies for more than 30 years. Who can forget his branding of Georgetown student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” for the unpardonable sin of defending ObamaCare’s contraception mandate?

So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

Feel proud yet? How about when he accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease? Or when he made up a series of “facts” in order to falsely blame measles outbreaks on immigrant children? Or his addiction to prescription drugs, which resulted in a settlement with the State of Florida to get them to drop charges for doctor shopping?

Politifact has looked into 42 of Limbaugh’s controversial statements, and found zero of them to be entirely true. Thirty-five were rated Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire.

In short, if I were Sidney Poitier or Buzz Aldrin or some other living recipient of the Medal, I’d be looking at that award with considerably less pride than I did a week ago.

Not all of Trump’s awardees have cheapened the Medal. (I thought NBA legends Bob Cousy and Jerry West were worthy choices.) But a number of them look like deliberate attempts to debase the award: ethically challenged Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese; Arthur Laffer, creator of the discredited “Laffer Curve” theory that tax cuts increase revenue; and Miriam Adelson, wife of GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

This is some of the hidden damage Trump is doing to America. Even if we get rid of him in November, it will take a while to recover the value of things he has desecrated.

and you also might be interested in …

David Fahrenthold has found yet another way that Trump is profiteering off the presidency: He’s making the Secret Service stay at his properties, and then overcharging them.

President Trump’s company charges the Secret Service for the rooms agents use while protecting him at his luxury properties — billing U.S. taxpayers at rates as high as $650 per night, according to federal records and people who have seen receipts. …

“If my father travels, they stay at our properties for free — meaning, like, cost for housekeeping,” Trump’s son Eric said in a Yahoo Finance interview last year.

Are you surprised to learn that’s a lie? However, the really scandalous part of the story is the extent to which Trump has kept the public in the dark about his self-dealing.

The Secret Service is required to tell Congress twice a year about what it spends to protect Trump at his properties. But since 2016, it has only filed two of the required six reports, according to congressional offices. The reasons, according to Secret Service officials: key personnel left and nobody picked up the job. Even in those two reports, the lines for Bedminster and Mar-a-Lago were blank.

As I said above about Rand Paul, this is how fascism starts: Not with new laws, but with refusing to enforce the old laws.

A somewhat technical but worth-reading NYT article about Instex, a device Germany, France, and Britain set up to avoid US sanctions on countries and businesses that trade with Iran. It’s not working, but the lengths the US is going to in order to keep it from working is a lesson in how hard it is to be an independent US ally these days. Either you give up sovereignty and let Trump write your foreign policy, or the full economic fury of the United States will be unleashed on you. Sooner or later, our former allies will realize they need to work with China to balance our power.

China’s National Health Commission announced the 97 people died of coronavirus yesterday, more than any previous daily total. That brought the overall Chinese death toll to 908.

and let’s close with an inside joke

In order to understand this, you need to know the stories of my people.

Decadent Superfluities

The proper procedure, the gathering of evidence — these things mean nothing, not anymore. Not since Hitler. He cuts through these decadent superfluities and shows us that the conclusion is everything, Gunther. You of all people should understand this. The important thing in concluding a case successfully is actually concluding it.

– SS General Johann Rattenhuber,
as fictionalized in Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr

Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?

— Senator Mitch McConnell,
discussing investigations of President Clinton, 2-12-1998

This week’s featured posts are “If Obama …” and “Jared’s Plan for Mideast Peace“.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

Friday, the Senate voted not to hear any witnesses or subpoena any documents. The vote was 51-49, with Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and all 47 Democrats voting to hold a real trial. The other 51 Republicans voted to join Trump’s obstruction conspiracy.

it was predictable (I predicted it Tuesday on Facebook) that the number of Republican crossovers would be either two or many. If a third Republican voted to hear witnesses the motion would still have failed, but then all 50 Republicans voting against a real trial would be personally responsible. (“You, Cory Gardner, could have made the difference and let the American people hear what John Bolton had to say, but you joined the cover-up instead.”) If exactly four voted with the Democrats, each of them would be held personally responsible by Trump’s base. Nobody wanted that kind of responsibility, so it had to be two or many.

As it is, the only surprising thing was that the Senate didn’t go straight into an acquittal vote Friday by the dark of night. Instead, Senators will get the opportunity to make speeches explaining their positions before voting to acquit Trump on Wednesday.

I intend the quote at the top of the page as a comment on the Republican approach to this trial: The conclusion was fore-ordained, and nothing mattered other than getting there. Don’t think about the evidence, don’t try to find out what happened, don’t concern yourself with the good of the country — just get to the conclusion, because that’s all that counts. It’s fundamentally a fascist approach to justice, so I think the Nazi comparisons are appropriate.

Mitt Romney’s vote to call witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial had immediate consequences: It got him explicitly uninvited from CPAC 2020, the flagship convention of what used to be the conservative movement. Not even his niece would defend him. If she did, maybe she’d become an Enemy of the People too.

Romney’s expulsion just underlines something that should be obvious anyway: Today’s “conservative” movement is no longer about conservative principles, or any principles at all. It’s a cult of personality centered on Donald Trump. Romney’s vote didn’t subvert conservatism in any way, but it did inconvenience the Great Orange Führer. So Mitt is excommunicated.

Alan Dershowitz’s opinion that Trump’s misdeeds are not impeachable represents a complete reversal of the opinion he held during the Clinton impeachment. But he explains the difference like this:

[Then] I simply accepted the academic consensus on an issue that was not on the front burner at the time. But because this impeachment directly raises the issue of whether criminal behavior is required, I have gone back and read all the relevant historical material as nonpartisan academics should always do and have now concluded that the framers did intend to limit the criteria for impeachment to criminal type acts akin to treason, bribery, and they certainly did not intend to extend it to vague and open-ended and non-criminal accusations such as abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Tuesday, Josh Marshall pulled no punches in his assessment:

To put it baldly, if it’s a topic and area of study you know nothing about and after a few weeks of cramming you decide that basically everyone who’s studied the question is wrong, there’s a very small chance you’ve rapidly come upon a great insight and a very great likelihood you’re an ignorant and self-regarding asshole.

Then, in the Q&A period Wednesday, Dershowitz went completely off the rails:

[I]f a hypothetical president of the United States said to a hypothetical leader of a foreign country, “unless you build a hotel with my name on it, and unless you give me a million dollar kickback, I will withhold the funds.” That’s an easy case. That’s purely corrupt and in the purely private interest.

But a complex middle case is, “I want to be elected. I think I’m a great president. I think I’m the greatest president there ever was. If I’m not elected the national interest will suffer greatly.” That cannot be impeachable.

A lot of people misrepresented this doctrine as saying that the president can do anything to get elected, and it’s OK. Bad as it is, it doesn’t quite go that far. A better explanation is here.

and Jared’s Mideast “Peace” plan

I originally just wanted a quick note about this, but it got out of hand and became its own post.

and the Iowa caucus

It’s tonight, and I have no idea who will win. Bernie Sanders seems to have the late momentum, but the polling is really tight. The RCP polling average has Sanders at 24.2%, Biden 20.2%, Buttigieg 16.4%, Warren 15.6%, and Klobuchar 8.6%.

and Brexit finally happened

It became official in London Friday night at 11, which was midnight in Brussels. The United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union. There is still a lot to work out: an UK/EU trade agreement, trade arrangements with other countries that are used to dealing with the UK as part of the EU, whether Scotland will seek independence and rejoin the EU, and so forth. But at least the uncertainty is over and the adjustment can begin. I’m reminded of a quote from the South African author Alan Paton:

Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.

and the Coronavirus is still spreading

The latest numbers say that 361 Chinese have died from the virus. That already makes it deadlier than the 2002 SARS outbreak, which killed 349 people in mainland China. There are more than 17,000 confirmed cases.

Large parts of the Chinese economy have shut down in response to the virus, and it’s anybody’s guess how big a hit the world economy will take. Lots of manufactured goods contain some part that is made in China and nowhere else, so it’s hard to say how far the ripple effects will go. And if your company sells products in China, your financial plan may take a hit.

you also might be interested in …

This week three news stories made Trump’s border wall look a little less “impenetrable” than advertised. Wednesday, a section of it blew down in a windstorm. (We knew that coyotes were helping migrants sneak across the border, but now it looks like the Big Bad Wolf has gotten involved as well.) Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the wall is vulnerable to flash floods, and so it will need flood gates that will have to be left open for months at a time. Also on Thursday, US officials announced the discovery of a tunnel under the border; it’s 70 feet underground and goes for nearly a mile.

Previous articles have noted how easy it is to saw through the wall or climb over it.

I’m not sure how I missed this Vox video “Why Obvious Lies Make Great Propaganda” when it came out in August, 2018. It examines the “Firehose of Falsehoods” propaganda technique, which was pioneered by Putin before it was adopted by Trump.

Unlike most propaganda, the lies in the firehose aren’t intended to be credible. The point is not to convince people that your lies are true, but to demonstrate that reality has no power to control what you say. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce everything to a struggle: There is no True or False, only Our Side vs. Their Side.

A justice of the peace in Waco has been refusing to perform same-sex marriages, despite being the only marriage-performing JP in town. When the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct gave her an official warning, she sued. She is seeking $100K in damages. The state attorney general is refusing to defend the Commission in court, claiming that this is a “religious liberty” issue.

Once again, “religious liberty” being used as a code-word for Christian special rights. Imagine, for comparison, that a devout Hindu health inspector refused to sign any permits to open restaurants that serve beef. It’s absurd to think the Texas AG would stand up for his non-Christian religious liberty. “Religious liberty” is for conservative Christians, not for anybody else.

My position: I think public officials should either do their jobs, implement reasonable workarounds that are invisible to the public they serve, or find new jobs. No citizen should ever go to a public office, only to be told that they can’t be served because some official’s “religious liberty” allows him or her to discriminate against that citizen.

The Trump administration rolled back Obama’s restriction on the use of land mines because … . I got nothing; it just looks like evil for the sake of evil.

Well, I don’t exactly have nothing, I have an attack of paranoia: What if this is a prelude to mining the southern border? I haven’t heard anybody in the administration threaten to do this, so my fear is based on nothing right now.

In spite of an $28 billion dollar federal bailout, farm bankruptcies were higher in 2019 than in any year since 2011.

Six more countries have been added to Trump’s travel ban, including Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

Every week I could do a bunch of Trump-is-stupid stories, but I don’t think they serve much purpose. Occasionally, though, one is actually funny.

So after the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl last night — in a great game, BTW — Trump tweeted congratulations for how well they “represented the Great State of Kansas”. (The tweet was later removed.) The problem: Kansas City straddles the Kansas/Missouri border, and the Chiefs play on the Missouri side.

Recalling Trump’s hurricane-threatening-Alabama fiasco, somebody on Facebook came up with a Sharpie solution.


and let’s close with something backwards (or not)

Weird Al’s song of palindromes: “Bob“.

What Matters

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

Adam Schiff

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the new virus from China

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

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

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

and Mike Pompeo

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

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

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

POMPEO: We’ll stop them.

KELLY: How? Sanctions?

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

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

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

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

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

Afterwards, Pompeo claimed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let’s close with something amusing

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

Pestilence and Cure

If I see Trump as a pestilence, I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

– Charles Blow “To Beat Trump, Put Ideals Before Ideas

This week’s featured post is “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)“.

This week everybody was talking about the impeachment trial

House impeachment managers head over to the Senate.

So it’s official now. The House delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate on Wednesday. Thursday, the senators took an oath to render “impartial justice”. The substance of the trial will start tomorrow.

Fairly soon, the Senate will have to vote on the key question of whether to hear witnesses. Trump blocked the most important witnesses from testifying before the House, but would have a harder time blocking them from the Senate, if the Senate chooses to subpoena them. Mitch McConnell is against witnesses, because the less the public learns about this case, the better for Trump.

How this vote will go is still not clear. All 47 Democrats will probably want to hear witnesses. USA Today picks out Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Lamar Alexander as the most likely Republicans to vote for witnesses. I’d love to hear how other Republicans facing tough re-elections — Cory Gardner of Colorado comes to mind — will try to spin this. They have to realize that stuff is going to come out anyway. (John Bolton is writing a book, after all.) How will a decision to participate in Trump’s cover-up look when it does?

It’s striking how much of the closing message of Trump’s defenders is just simple intimidation. Here’s Rand Paul’s threat to Republican incumbents who might be thinking of taking their oath seriously:

Paul says if four or more of his GOP colleagues join with Democrats to entertain new witness testimony, he will make the Senate vote on subpoenaing the president’s preferred witnesses, including Hunter Biden and the whistleblower who revealed the Ukraine scandal — polarizing picks who moderate Republicans aren’t eager to call. So he has a simple message for his party: end the trial before witnesses are called.

“If you vote against Hunter Biden, you’re voting to lose your election, basically. Seriously. That’s what it is,” Paul said during an interview in his office on Wednesday. “If you don’t want to vote and you think you’re going to have to vote against Hunter Biden, you should just vote against witnesses, period.”

And Marc Thiessen warns that Hunter Biden could just be the beginning of a parade of witnesses that would lead to the former Vice President himself.

Biden has been shaky under mild questioning during the debates. How would he fare under the withering pressure of legal cross-examination? If he stumbled, or appeared confused, it could expose to voters how old and frail he really is at the very moment they are going to the polls to decide their party’s presidential nominee. Do Democrats really want to put Biden through that, especially since they know that the president is going to be acquitted?

And for what? Democrats have no idea what Bolton will say under oath. His testimony may be exculpatory for the president, in which case they will have opened the Pandora’s box of witness testimony for nothing. So, call your witnesses, Sen. Schumer. They may very well pose a greater danger to Biden’s presidential prospects than they do to Donald Trump.

Trump’s defenders can’t credibly argue that he’s innocent, so this is what they’re left with: Do what we say and nobody gets hurt. [BTW: I think the Biden-is-shaky point is off-base. Biden has a lifelong stuttering problem, which can make it hard for him to answer quickly, as you have to do in a debate. As a witness, he could take a moment to compose his answers.]

and the new evidence

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I get suspicious when a bad guy suddenly switches sides and starts telling us exactly what we want to hear. Lev Parnas is under indictment, so it would make sense for him to tell this stuff to his prosecutors to get a plea deal. But it’s not clear what advantage he gets from putting it all out there in public. So I’m listening closely to what Parnas is saying, looking at the corroborating documents he’s providing, and wondering where the trap is.

Nonetheless, I think Tom Malinowski has got it right:

GOP Senators are entitled to be skeptical of Parnas, since he wasn’t under oath. They’re not entitled to be skeptical while refusing to call sworn witnesses who could corroborate or refute him.

That point makes sense across the board. Again and again, Republicans have complained about the evidence House Democrats assembled: The witnesses weren’t always in the center of the action they were describing, few of them talked to Trump directly, and so on. Those are all reasonable things to complain about in the abstract. But it’s unreasonable to complain about those issues when you have the power to resolve them, but you’re refusing to do so.

Another major development this week was that a GAO report came out, saying that Trump’s freezing of the Ukraine aid violated the Impoundment Control Act. So much for the “no laws were broken” defense.

So who is Parnas anyway? He’s a crony of Rudy Giuliani who was working the Ukraine side of Trump’s get-Biden scheme. He did a long interview with Rachel Maddow that broadcast this week, and he’s provided a bunch of text messages and other relevant documents to the House impeachment investigators. Pieces of the Maddow interview are available online, but I haven’t found a complete video or transcript of it yet.

The Hill boils it down to five big points:

  • Trump was ready to withhold all aid from Ukraine if they didn’t announce a Biden investigation.
  • Bill Barr “had to have known everything”.
  • Trump knew exactly what was going on.
  • When Mike Pence cancelled his trip to the Ukraine president’s inauguration, that was part of the pressure campaign.
  • The effort to pressure Ukraine was never about corruption; it was about Biden.

In addition, I was struck by how clear Parnas makes it that Giuliani was operating as Trump’s personal attorney, not as a government official. So far, none of Trump’s defenders has been able to explain why (if this whole scheme was legit) it had to be done outside ordinary channels. To me, the off-the-books nature of things looks like consciousness of guilt.

Why, for example, couldn’t Trump just fire or transfer Ambassador Yovanovitch because he wanted to? Why did she have to be smeared and followed and threatened first?

Another thing that’s striking me: For a long time there, Rudy Giuliani just couldn’t shut up. He was all over TV saying all kinds of crazy things. Since Parnas started talking though, where has Rudy been?

Ben Rhodes asks a more general question:

Can you imagine how many corrupt grifters there are like Parnas circling around Trump’s foreign policy? On Saudi, UAE, Venezuela, China, Russia?

and the Democratic debate

The featured post was inspired by watching Tuesday’s debate, but doesn’t actually say that much about it. Here’s the transcript.

The debate in Des Moines was much like the previous debates, with the difference that there were only six candidates. That meant that each got to speak often enough that I never forgot who was up there. So while the previous debates looked like cattle calls, this one looked like a collection of possible nominees (with the possible exception of Steyer, who I still can’t take seriously). That had to work to the benefit of Amy Klobuchar, who trails the clump of Iowa front-runners (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren), but looked like she belonged in that group.

Any of the front-running four is polling close enough to the top to win, especially considering how bizarre the caucus process is. So I don’t understand how soft all the other candidates were with Biden. Biden is the leader in almost every national poll. He could win Iowa, and if he does, that victory could be the beginning of the bandwagon that he rides to the nomination. This debate was the last chance to take him down before the caucus, so I don’t understand why nobody tried to exploit that opportunity.

So while Biden wasn’t all that sharp in the debate — he almost never is — to me he came off as the winner, because his opponents missed another opportunity to knock him down.

The NYT endorsement came out this morning: a split decision between Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

The whole Bernie-and-Elizabeth spat has got to be the dumbest story in this debate. Warren claims Sanders told her that a woman couldn’t beat Trump; Sanders denies saying that. It was a one-on-one conversation, so there’s no tie-breaking witness. I have two reactions:

  • So what if he did? Lots of people — most of them women — have told me in private conversations that (after watching what Hillary went through) they doubt that a woman can beat Trump. If Sanders were arguing publicly that people should vote for him rather than Warren because women aren’t electable, that would be terrible, because he’d be trying to cash in on the public’s sexism. But in private it’s a completely legitimate point of strategy for two politicians to discuss. So I think this whole thing should never have become an issue and CNN shouldn’t have asked about it. If Warren is responsible for raising the issue (and she may not have been), she shouldn’t have.
  • I thought Bernie’s response in the debate (“as a matter of fact, I didn’t say it”) was unskillful, because he turned the disagreement into a somebody-must-be-lying issue. I agree with GoodNewsRoundup on Daily Kos, that people can remember conversations differently without either party lying about what was said. So Bernie could have answered: “That’s not what I believe, so I can’t imagine that I would have said something like that. But apparently something I did say gave Elizabeth that impression, so I wish I had caught that misunderstanding at the time.” From there he could have segued into the rest of his answer: “If any of the women on this stage or any of the men on this stage win the nomination … I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are elected in order to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of our country.”

and you also might be interested in …

I’m not all that interested in the British royal family, so I’ve mostly ignored the Harry-and-Meghan-move-to-Canada story. However, BuzzFeed did some interesting research into what might have motivated the move: The article pairs 20 Meghan stories in the British press with directly comparable stories about her sister-in-law Kate Middleton. Again and again, something that was covered positively or indulgently for Kate and William was covered negatively for Meghan and Harry.

Here’s the transcript of a rally Trump held in Wisconsin on Tuesday. It’s common to read isn’t-that-outrageous articles based on specific quotes from Trump rallies. But what strikes me about this rally isn’t any particular part; it’s the impact of reading the whole thing.

If your Dad or Grandpa were this incoherent, the family would need to have a conference and make some decisions. You wouldn’t want him living on his own any more, and probably you’d want someone with him whenever he went out.

BTW, he still says Mexico is going to pay for the wall. “It’s all worked out. Mexico’s paying.” Sad.

The claim that no Americans were injured in the Iranian missile attack on January 8 … let’s just say it wasn’t completely accurate.

and let’s close with something that will blow you away

You might think that since the Netherlands is so flat, Dutch bicycle races wouldn’t be that arduous. However, there is one very Dutch obstacle: the wind. Every year on some very windy day they hold the Dutch Headwind Cycling Championships: 8.5 kilometers straight into a wind that gusted up to 127 kilometers an hour, riding a standard upright single-speed bicycle.

Since I don’t speak Dutch, most of the YouTube postings on the event are unintelligible to me. But Global Cycling News covered it like this, with one word of commentary: “Nutters.”

Ascribed Meanings

There is always a temptation to ascribe a deep, unspoken strategy to Trump’s improvised approach to politics—to find order in the chaos, a signal in the noise. But all of the available evidence suggests that there is no plan at all, that Trump is a deeply incompetent liar who has no idea what he is doing and no respect for the few people around him who do. If there is war with Iran, it will be because of Trump’s incompetence and lies; if there is not, it will be in spite of these things. Coverage that attempts to find the hidden meaning behind his actions only obscures what’s really happening.

– Alex Shephard “What the Media is Getting Wrong about Soleimani’s Killing
The New Republic 1-7-2020

This week’s featured post is a review of how every president since FDR has talked about war: “Remember Normal Presidents?

This week everybody was talking about Iran

This week’s news has been dominated by the multiple incoherent stories the Trump administration has been telling about the killing of Soleimani.

One thing just about everybody in this country agrees on is that Soleimani was a bad guy. (Though Trump lies about this: “The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy“. If anybody has heard a single major voice in either the media or the Democratic leadership imply such a thing, mention it in the comments. I don’t know of any.) However, he was an Iranian official carrying out Iranian policy. Blaming him personally for every attack Iran has supported seems misguided. He was a replaceable individual who has been replaced; the Quds Force has a new commander, who presumably is following the same policy directives.

There has been much back-and-forth about whether Soleimani was killed to prevent an “imminent” attack, or just because he was evil. It’s important to understand why this point keeps coming up, because Trump keeps trying to have it both ways: He claims that an attack was imminent, but if challenged too hard backs off tobut it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

If Soleimani’s assassination wasn’t intended to break up an attack that was in progress and about to happen — and it’s hard to see how that could be; I mean, Soleimani wasn’t going to drive a truck bomb himself — then it’s arguable that Trump had no legal authority to order it. If, instead, he just decided that Soleimani was a bad guy and Iran had been getting away with too much, he should have sought authorization from Congress. “his horrible past” is an argument that Trump could have offered to Congress, but it’s not a justification now.

At the very least, Trump had an obligation to inform the Gang of Eight that the attack was happening.

This disrespect for Congress is why Republican Senator Mike Lee blew his stack after the classified briefing of the Senate by the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the heads of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs.

He also fumed that officials refused to acknowledge any “hypothetical” situations in which they would come to Congress for authorization for future military hostilities against Iran.

It’s fairly apparent that the administration is just making up the “imminent attack” argument, and dodging the legal authority issue. The briefing showed profound arrogance; the briefers walked away after 75 minutes with questions unanswered.

Trump himself has been lying outrageously, for example claiming that Soleimani was planning attacks on four US embassies. Apparently, though, the Secretary of Defense knew nothing about this, and the embassies in question were never notified that they faced an imminent threat.

When no one was killed in Iran’s reprisal strike against the Iraqi base where the Soleimani attack originated, many Trumpists declared the exchange a “win” for the US: We killed a major person on their side and they killed nobody on our side.

Ben Rhodes demonstrates how an adult looks at this: according to the results, not the body count.

Iran abandoned nuclear deal limits. Iraq wants us out. Counter ISIS mission is suspended. We don’t know what asymmetric attacks could come from Iran. Yet I see Trump supporters celebrating a “win”. What are we winning?

Is there any way in which Americans or our allies are safer now than before the assassination? Was some strategic purpose achieved?

Nobody really knows whether Iran intended to kill Americans or not in its missile strike. Of course Iran would say that the result was intended.

Iraq’s parliament voted unanimously that the prime minister should ask our 5200 troops to leave the country, and apparently the PM has asked Secretary of State Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to negotiate the withdrawal. But we’re not going to do that. Here’s how a State Department spokesperson put it:

Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners. At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.

That makes us sound more like an occupying power than an ally. Any Iraqi militia that kills American troops can now claim that it is repelling invaders.

The Trump administration is also making economic threats against our “ally” Iraq if it insists on our troops leaving:

The Trump administration this week warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if Baghdad expels American troops from the region, Iraqi officials told The Wall Street Journal.

One of the week’s weirder stories was about a letter that somehow got shared with the Iraqi military.

The document in question was an unsigned draft of a memo from the US Command in Baghdad notifying the Iraqi government that some US forces in the country would be repositioned. It also seemed to suggest a removal of American forces from the country, prompting an immediate wave of questions, particularly after US officials in Baghdad said the letter was authentic but could not confirm whether it indicated a troop withdrawal.

You need to be a comedian, like Trevor Noah, to respond to this appropriately.

These people control nuclear weapons and they can’t even handle Microsoft Outlook.

If you want to put it all in perspective, again, it helps to be a comedian. Like Seth Meyers.

One of the points in the featured post is that Trump is not even trying to talk to the people who didn’t vote for him. That point was also made by Anderson Cooper in a Ridiculist segment about the 301 days that have passed since the last White House press briefing.

If you’re wondering “Who’s Stephanie Grisham?” you’re probably not a regular Fox News viewer, because that channel is seemingly the one place she feels safe enough to regularly appear.

… If a president were to escalate the potential danger to U.S. interests overseas by killing a high-ranking Iranian general, you might think the White House press secretary would head to the podium to keep the country and the world abreast of what’s going on, to try to fill in some gaps between the President’s Twitter threats. But that doesn’t happen any more.

Remember CJ on The West Wing? Imagine her going most of a year without filling the podium in the briefing room.

and impeachment

Nancy Pelosi says the articles of impeachment will go to the Senate soon, probably this week. The debate has begun about what, if anything, was accomplished by the delay. In my mind, it was important to put at least a little distance between the House and Senate processes, so that even low-information voters realize that the Senate isn’t going to hear any witnesses of its own, even though it could. If the case could still be pending when Trump gives his State of the Union address on February 4, that would be a bonus.

and Iowa

The Iowa caucuses are February 3, or three weeks from today. (Yes, they happen on a Monday. Every time.) The last Democratic debate before the caucuses happens tomorrow. Only six candidates qualified: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Steyer, and Warren.

The RCP polling average shows the top four bunched up. Sanders 21.3%, Buttigieg 21.0, Biden 17.7, Warren 17.0. Because the caucus process yields a much lower turnout than a primary would, and because there are complex rules about minor candidates’ supporters switching their votes, polls often do a bad job of predicting the outcome. So it would not really be an upset if any of those four won.

I would say that the front-runner is whoever the other candidates decide to attack in the debate. And if either Steyer or Klobuchar decides to go kamikaze and relentlessly attack one of the top four, that candidate probably won’t win. I’m not predicting that, but the possibility demonstrates how unpredictable the process is at this point.

and you also might be interested in …

The planet continues to heat up:

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) announces today that 2019 was the fifth in a series of exceptionally warm years and the second warmest year globally ever recorded.

Maybe the secret to getting infrequent voters to the polls is to have their friends ask them.

5G will arrive in 2020, but it won’t live up to the hype.

Australia is still on fire.

The cancer death rate is down 29% between 1991 and 2017, with a 2.2% drop in 2017, the most recent year where statistics are available. Lung cancer accounts for much of the decline; researchers credit decreased smoking, as well as improvements in treatment.

I hate tie every story to Trump, but he has a way of inserting himself, sort of like Rhupert the Ostrich photobombing classic paintings. In this case, Trump took credit for the long-term trend whose most recent data is from the same year he took office: “A lot of good news coming out of this Administration.”

The justification for holding asylum seekers in concentration camps is that they won’t show up for their hearings, and instead will just vanish into the general immigrant population. At a rally last January, Trump claimed that only 2% show up “And those people, you almost don’t want, because they cannot be very smart.”

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University presents the actual numbers:

With rare exception, asylum seekers whose cases were decided in FY 2019 also showed up for every court hearing. This was true even though four out of five immigrants were not detained or had been previously released from ICE custody. In fact, among non-detained asylum seekers, 99 out of 100 (98.7%) attended all their court hearings.

Conservative rhetoric lauds local control and disparages rule by distant politicians and bureaucrats — except when localities want to protect the environment or gay rights or something. In Florida, Coral Gables outlawed plastic bags at stores and styrofoam containers at restaurants — and lost a lawsuit from a trade organization representing the big retail chains. State law doesn’t allow “regulation of the use of sale of polystyrene products by local governments.” Take that, small government.

Republicans are the party of big corporations, not local control. When WalMart can get what it wants from the state legislature, why let city councils screw that up?

Remember the whole pseudo-scandal about the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One?

A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results, and current and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.

That’s a similar result to the State Department’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. So if you decided not to vote for Hillary because you figured there had to be fire somewhere under all that smoke — no, there wasn’t. You were conned.

Media Matters’ Matt Gertz traces the Uranium One story back to its source: Clinton Cash, a hit job written by Peter Schweitzer and pushed by Steve Bannon. A subsequent Schweitzer book, Secret Empires, is a source of much of the bogus reporting about Hunter Biden. Gertz comments on Schweitzer’s new book, Profiles in Corruption, which reportedly will target not just Biden but also “Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.”

Journalists should consider this final and inevitable collapse of Schweizer’s bogus claims as they decide whether and how to cover his forthcoming book, which will reportedly target the purported corruption of several Democratic presidential candidates.

and let’s close with something wild and woolly

I never thought of wool as a medium for animation, but I guess it is.


No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.

Executive Order 12333 (1981)

Of course you realize, this means war.

Bugs Bunny

This week’s featured post is “Is It War Yet?

This week everybody was talking about conflict with Iran

Many aspects of the situation are covered in the featured post.

Here are a couple of things I didn’t get around to mentioning: A key feature of both Iraq wars is that we had allies, like Bush’s famous “coalition of the willing”. But we’re pretty much without allies here. There are three main reasons for this:

On the war crimes issue, Chris Hayes points out that it shouldn’t surprise anybody.

The President of the United States ran on a pro-war-crimes platform, explicitly. He likes war crimes and thinks they are good. He’s been very clear about this.

and 2020

Ever since the Electoral College put Trump in office, the number 2020 has taken on mythic significance. It’s the time of hope, of dread, of comeuppance, of the opportunity to escape from this national nightmare, and so on.

Now, suddenly, it’s a year. It’s a number we write on our checks. Seeing “2020” staring back at us from our calendars is like hearing the conductor announce that the train has stopped in Narnia or Mordor.

Who thought we’d actually get here?

So now that we’ve arrived in this portentous year, it’s time to take stock of the presidential race. The Iowa caucuses are less than a month away now, and things happen quickly after that. By the time California votes on March 3, some candidate might have the Democratic nomination in the bag.

At the moment that candidate looks like Joe Biden, though there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Individual polls have been volatile, but the most striking thing about the long-term trends has been how steady they are. On January 1, 2019, the RealClearPolitics polling average for Democratic candidates nationwide had Biden at 27.0%, Sanders at 17.0, and Beto O’Rourke at around 9%.

As of yesterday, the RCP averages were Biden 29.4%, Sanders 19.4%, Warren 14.8%, Buttigieg 7.9%, Bloomberg 5.8% and nobody else over 5%.

The main development of 2019 was that a lot of minor candidates got eliminated: Beto is long gone, and so are Kamala Harris and Julian Castro. In fact, the only candidate of color left in the race is Cory Booker, who the RCP has at 2.3%. A bunch of interchangeable white male moderates entered the race hoping to emerge as Biden faltered, but none of them got anywhere. Some have dropped out and some are still in the race, but I have trouble remembering which is which. (I watched Senator Bennet get interviewed by Chris Hayes a week or so ago, and my wife asked “Who is that guy?” Currently, Bloomberg and Klobuchar are the moderate-establishment hopes if something happens to Biden.) Warren and Buttigieg have gained, though Warren’s boom may be over; she briefly led the pack in October before falling back to third.

The most notable developments in the Democratic race during 2019 were the ones that could have happened, but didn’t: Some candidate of color could have broken out, challenging Biden’s hold over the black vote the way that Obama challenged Clinton in 2008. Or Biden might have taken off and become the inevitable nominee by now.

As was true a year ago, the Democratic electorate is divided between moderates and progressives. They represent not just two governing philosophies, but two approaches to beating Trump: Moderates hope to win the way that Democrats took the House in 2018, by flipping educated suburbanites who used to vote Republican. Progressives hope to win by exciting young voters and poor voters whose non-appearance at the polls was the main difference between Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016.

That argument is ongoing, and no candidate has managed to bridge the gap the way Obama did in 2008. So the most serious question in the race right now is whether (since there appears to be no compromise candidate) Democrats can stay united after one side wins and the other loses. My opinion: Either a moderate or a progressive can beat Trump if the party unites behind him or her. But neither can if the losing side demonizes the nominee to the point that a significant number of their voters stay home in November. Whether you see yourself as moderate or progressive, I urge you to keep that in mind whenever you’re tempted to pass on dubious information about candidates in the other faction.

On the other side of the electorate, not much has happened to Trump’s approval rating. On January 1, 2019, 52.2% of the country disapproved of Trump’s job performance. The most recent number is 52.3%. (It’s too soon to tell whether the growing conflict with Iran will affect it one way or the other.)

and Australia’s wildfires

It’s hard to grasp the extent of the fires Australia has been having since September, but Interesting Engineering provides some comparisons. The area affected by smoke, if moved to the US, would stretch from San Diego to Minneapolis. The burnt area is roughly the size of Belgium, or just a little smaller than Ireland.

Canberra’s 340 rating on the air quality index is double that of famously polluted Beijing. The Parliament House looks like this:

Australia is in many ways a microcosm of the rest of the world. It is suffering from climate change, but refusing to do anything about it. Volunteer firefighter Jennifer Mills writes:

Sadly, the fires are also an illustration of the principle that while a nation might share the same facts, its people can still refuse to share a reality. [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison likes to note that Australia produces just 1.3 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, and we have regularly sided with other big, fossil fuel-dependent nations to stymie global climate negotiations. At December’s climate talks in Madrid, we came under fire for attempting to fiddle with the books to hide increased emissions. Australia is not just dragging its feet on climate change; it is actively making things worse. Internationally, there is a sense that we are getting what we deserve.

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Three were killed and two more injured in an attack on an American military base in Kenya. The attack was attributed to al Shabab, a Islamist group associated with al Qaeda. It’s a Sunni group and Iran is Shia, so there’s probably no connection to the Soleimani assassination.

Trump may have blocked congressional subpoenas, but a number of impeachment-related emails have been revealed through the Freedom of Information Act. Just Security obtained a number of emails that show Pentagon officials worrying about the legality of withholding military aid that Congress had authorized for Ukraine. OMB’s Mike Duffy cited “Clear direction from POTUS” as the reason to hold up the aid.

Duffy is one of the witnesses Democrats would like to call in Trump’s impeachment trial, but Mitch McConnell doesn’t want any witnesses to testify.

The Washington Post collects reactions from people who watched the movie Cats while on drugs. (The reactions of people not on drugs are almost universally negative.)

It was unclear, on balance, whether getting high made “Cats” better, or much, much worse. Certainly, it seemed to raise the emotional stakes.

When Vladimir Putin faced the two-term limit on Russia’s presidency, he backed a stooge who would name him prime minister. Trumpists seem to be picturing something similar.

In a poll of 2024 possibilities, 40% of Republicans picked Mike Pence, but Donald Jr. and Ivanka were second and fourth, between them garnering 45%. Nikki Haley was third at 26%.

and let’s close with a drink that is out of this world

The Yoda-rita.


Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

– George Orwell

This week’s featured posts are “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline” and “Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today“.

This week there was nothing much to say about impeachment

The House has passed articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without sending them to the Senate. So officially, nothing happened this week.

Nancy Pelosi wants to get a commitment from Mitch McConnell that the Senate will hold a real trial, with witnesses, including the big ones the House wasn’t able to get to testify: Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton. McConnell knows that more (and more impressive) testimony will only make it harder for Republican senators (especially the ones facing tough re-election fights in 2020) to ignore the facts and vote to acquit their party’s president. So he’d like to make this process go away with as few headlines as possible.

Pelosi only has two pieces of leverage: She can delay by not delivering the articles, and the public agrees with her about witnesses. She needs four Republican senators to surrender to some combination of public opinion and their consciences. I’m not predicting that, but it’s within the realm of possibility.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she was “disturbed” by McConnell’s willingness to work hand-in-glove with the White House on impeachment. But whether her disturbance translates into any actual votes — either on process or substance — remains to be seen. Other Republican senators have either been full-throated Trump partisans or have stayed quiet.

The one substantive development in the impeachment case tightened the timeline of Trump’s Ukraine shakedown:

About 90 minutes after President Trump held a controversial telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in July, the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon to suspend all military aid that Congress had allocated to Ukraine, according to emails released by the Pentagon late Friday.

but there were two acts of religious violence

Five were wounded in a knife attack during a Hanukkah celebration in the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York. Presumably the motive has something to do with anti-Semitism, but there’s been no official statement.

Three people, including the attacker, were killed in a shooting at a church in White Settlement, Texas. Two members of the church’s security team shot the gunman. It’s easy to guess both the pro-gun and anti-gun versions of this story: “Thank God somebody at the church had a gun to stop the attack.” and “That’s how gun-crazy our culture has gotten: Our churches are like the OK Corral.”

and I’m still trying to figure out “religious liberty”

I’ve often been critical of the way the Christian Right has co-opted the concept of “religious liberty”. (Going back to my 2013 article “Religious Freedom means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“).

Decades ago, the principle of religious liberty prevented the abuse of religious minorities by the more powerful religions. (You can’t, for example, require employees to work on Saturday as a way to avoid hiring Jews. You can’t ban new steeples in order to keep a Mormon temple out of your town.) Now “religious liberty” means that the majority religion is free to throw its weight around, which is more-or-less the opposite of what it used to mean.

But that’s my jaundiced outsider’s view. So it’s worthwhile to consider the insider’s view that conservative WaPo columnist Hugh Hewitt presents in “Evangelicals should thank Trump for protecting their religious liberty“. Hewitt uses six Supreme Court cases since 2014 to “illustrate the stakes” of what he sees as the liberal assault on religious liberty.

Looking at Hewitt’s list, though, I don’t see embattled Christians just trying to practice their faith. I see the religious right’s aggression against the rest of us:

  • Hobby Lobby, where the Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s Christian beliefs trump the right of employees to make their own healthcare choices.
  • Greece v Galloway, which established a town council’s right to begin its meetings with sectarian prayers. (My take in that week’s summary: “If you’re in the majority and you want to lord it over the minority, the Court thinks you should dot your i‘s and cross your t‘s first, but otherwise, go ahead.”)
  • Trinity Lutheran v Comer, which allows public money to be spent on religious institutions.
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop, where the issue is whether Christian businesses can violate discrimination laws.
  • Becerra. Crisis pregnancy centers run by religious groups don’t have to tell women about the state services available to them, and unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers don’t have tell anyone that they’re unlicensed.
  • American Legion. Public money can be spent to maintain Christian religious symbols.

One thing I have never seen in these religious-right cases is a clear explanation of how the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of “religious liberty” protects anyone other than conservative Christians. In general, phrasing rights in terms of religion implies that religious people have special rights that don’t apply to people with secular motivations.

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Trump retweeted an apparent outing of the whistleblower Friday night. This appears to be a violation of the law protecting whistleblowers, but it’s Trump. What’s new about him breaking the law?

The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is making a push into what was formerly rebel-held territory in the northwestern Idlib region. The Washington Post says 250,000 people have fled in just the last two weeks.

Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs Democracy (which I reviewed in UU World) draws a lesson from the growing extremism of the Hindu nationalist Modi government in India: authoritarian populist regimes get worse in their second terms.

As we’ve seen in countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, populist leaders are at first hamstrung in their ability to concentrate power in their own hands. Many key institutions, including courts and electoral commissions, are still dominated by independent-minded professionals who do not owe their appointment to the new regime. Media outlets are still able and willing to report on scandals, forcing the government to tread somewhat carefully.

Once these governments win reelection, these constraints begin to fall away. As the independent-minded judges and civil servants depart, populist leaders feel emboldened to pursue their illiberal dreams.

Saudi Arabia has finished accounting for the murder of Virginia resident and WaPo contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Five people were sentenced to death, but justice stayed far away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered the murder.

The claim by the Saudi prosecutors, who report directly to the royal court, that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in a “spur of the moment” decision defies all the evidence that points to a premeditated extrajudicial assassination — the bone saw the assailants brought along, the gruesome chitchat taped by Turkish intelligence, the Khashoggi look-alike who was filmed walking out of the consulate after the killing.

When Trump claims that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and get away with it, you have to remember that some of his biggest allies on the world stage literally do such things.

Trump’s pardon of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher looks worse and worse the more we find out. The NYT got hold of videos of the testimony from Gallagher’s fellow SEALs.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.

Local newspapers are getting thinner across the country, and many areas have essentially no local news coverage. In many towns, something calling itself a local paper survives, but it is owned by a distant conglomerate with little local presence.

I have to wonder if we’ll soon see an uptick in small-government corruption, or if maybe it’s already happening but going unreported. It’s easy to get away something if nobody’s covering town councils and other public bodies. And in cities with just one major news source (i.e., most of them) the publisher may just be one more party who needs to be cut in on the deal.

Climate change in a nutshell: 2019 is going to be Alaska’s warmest year on record, but it’s ending with a dangerous cold snap. Temperatures of -60 F and colder have been recorded.

and let’s close with something cute

It’s a week (and a decade) that calls for puppy pictures. I have a particular weakness for huskies, but the link includes many breeds.

Clear Failures

We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful, and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.

James Dobbins, former special envoy to Afghanistan

This week’s featured post is “The Evangelical Deal with the Devil“.

If you were wondering what I was up to last week, I talked at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Billerica, MA about the humanistic holiday that has built up around Christian Christmas.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment strategy

The House approved two articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without delivering the articles to the Senate. This temporarily freezes the process in a state where the public agrees with Democrats on the next step.

Majority Leader McConnell has expressed his preference for a minimal trial in the Senate: no witnesses, just introduce the record from the House, have closing arguments, and go straight to debate on the vote. Presumably, the vote would happen quickly, and Trump would be acquitted.

Democrats (and most of the American people) understand that Trump has prevented key witnesses from testifying, but would have a harder time blocking them if the Senate subpoenaed them. For example, the best witness to Trump’s role in blocking military aid to Ukraine is clearly Mick Mulvaney, who was simultaneously White House chief of staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget. The best witness to the policy discussion within the White House is then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. If there are any doubts about how things happened, why not ask them?

I think it’s safe to assume that Trump (and McConnell) don’t want Mulvaney or Bolton to be asked, because they’ll have to either perjure himself or reinforce the evidence of Trump’s guilt. If (on the other hand) they were happily waiting to exonerate Trump, Republicans would have every reason to want them to testify.

Delaying the process at this point may have little effect in the long run, but it does make clear to the American people who wants to get to the bottom of things and who doesn’t.

It’s possible that four Republican senators can be persuaded to vote with the Democrats to have an actual trial. It’s still a long shot that four out of the 53 Republican senators would decide to take their responsibilities seriously rather than obey Trump, but it’s possible.

The abuse-of-power article passed 237-190-1, and obstruction-of-Congress 236-191-1. No Republicans voted to impeach. Two Democrats (Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — who has announced that he’s switching parties — and Collin Peterson of Minnesota) voted against the Abuse article and a third (Jared Golden of Maine) against Obstruction.

Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard voted Present on both counts, explaining it on her campaign website like this:

I come before you to make a stand for the center, to appeal to all of you to bridge our differences and stand up for the American people. My vote today is a vote for much needed reconciliation and hope that together we can heal our country.

Personally, I don’t see how letting Trump get away with attempting to cheat in the 2020 election is “standing up for the American people.” When the question is whether the president is above the law, and when he acknowledges no wrongdoing and apologizes for nothing, I don’t see a way to bridge that difference. Either you grant him permission to commit more crimes or you don’t.

Gabbard’s vote gave weight to a speculation Hillary Clinton made in October, that the Russians had “their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians.”

Speaking of the Russians, Vladimir Putin takes Trump’s side in the impeachment debate, and Trump thinks it boosts his case to point to Putin’s support.

A number of conservative voices have unexpectedly come out in favor of removing Trump: Christianity Today, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, American Conservative’s Daniel Larison.

Michele Goldberg identified an ailment I can identify with: democracy grief.

The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression.

When I examine those feelings in myself, it’s not about democracy per se. It’s more related to something I have believed in, perhaps naively, all my life: the power of truth. The most dispiriting thing about watching the impeachment hearings has been to realize just how little it matters that Trump actually did the things he’s accused of. Republicans have enough votes to acquit, and they don’t care.

and trade

Months after Trump started taking credit for a Phase One trade deal with China, a deal actually exists. The US has cancelled tariffs scheduled to start December 15, and rolled back some other tariffs. The Chinese have pledged to buy more American farm products. The major goals the trade war supposedly was seeking — progress on intellectual property rights, for example, — have been kicked down the road to a future Phase Two agreement.

Trump (of course) is claiming victory, but so are Chinese hardliners.

In essence, a year and a half into the trade war, China seems to have hit on a winning strategy: Stay tough and let the Trump administration negotiate with itself.

“The nationalists, the people urging President Xi Jinping to dig in his heels and not concede much, have carried the day,” said George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Center. “I don’t see this as a win for market liberals.”

Frequent Trump critic (and Nobel Prize winner) Paul Krugman proclaims Trump the loser of this trade war.

On one side, our allies have learned not to trust us. … On the other side, our rivals have learned not to fear us. Like the North Koreans, who flattered Trump but kept on building nukes, the Chinese have taken Trump’s measure. They now know that he talks loudly but carries a small stick, and backs down when confronted in ways that might hurt him politically.

but we should all pay more attention to the Afghanistan Papers

It’s a coincidence that I just wrote an article about “The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions“, but the themes of that article couldn’t have been better illustrated than they were by the revelations about the Afghanistan War that the Washington Post started publishing the same day.

The Post articles are based on a “Lessons Learned” project undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The Post won a three-year legal battle to get the 2000-pages of reports released to the public, and supplemented the material with its own reporting. The Post summarizes its conclusions:

  • Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war in Afghanistan.

  • U.S. and allied officials admitted the mission had no clear strategy and poorly defined objectives.

  • Many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan.

  • The United States wasted vast sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan and bred corruption in the process.

In particular, I want to call your attention to two aspects of the series: First, the Post article on the lack of strategy.

In the beginning, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: to destroy al-Qaeda, topple the Taliban and prevent a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Within six months, the United States had largely accomplished what it set out to do. The leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were dead, captured or in hiding. But then the U.S. government committed a fundamental mistake it would repeat again and again over the next 17 years, according to a cache of government documents obtained by The Washington Post. In hundreds of confidential interviews that constitute a secret history of the war, U.S. and allied officials admitted they veered off in directions that had little to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11. By expanding the original mission, they said they adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand. …

Diplomats and military commanders acknowledged they struggled to answer simple questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? How will we know when we have won?

Second, the unwillingness to tell a complex story of limited successes and larger failures that led to a consistent misleading of the American people across three administrations.

It’s worth considering what that more complex story might have sounded like, and how unlikely it is that the American public as it is could have accepted it.

Imagine if, six months or so into the war, we had declared partial victory for getting Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and sending Osama bin Laden into hiding. Imagine further that we had begun negotiating a settlement (in an honest coordination with Pakistan) that would have given the Taliban a role governing the country in exchange for verifiable assurances that Al Qaeda would not be allowed back in.

Whatever administration negotiated such a deal would have had a hard time defending it. Al Qaeda is an international group that attacked us and the Taliban is an indigenous Afghan group that we could only keep out by continuing to fight a long-term civil war (more intensely than we have been). Pakistan would help us against Al Qaeda, while protecting the Taliban against us. But both groups represent “radical Islam” and neither hold values consistent with ours.

But we could probably have worked out a way to live with one and get rid of the other.

and corporate surveillance

The NYT and the WaPo independently had scoops on the extent of the surveillance we have all put ourselves under by using current technology.

The NYT’s Privacy Project acquired a datafile of 50 billion location pings from 12 million smartphones, and demonstrated some of the things that could be done with such data.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.

The data comes from a “data location company” that buys data from apps on your phone that collect location information. Such companies are essentially unregulated.

The companies that collect all this information on your movements justify their business on the basis of three claims: People consent to be tracked, the data is anonymous and the data is secure. None of those claims hold up, based on the file we’ve obtained and our review of company practices.

For example, the companies refuse to attach personally identifying information (like your name) to your data. But if a smartphone regularly makes the trip from your home to your workplace, who else could it possibly belong to? And yes, you did click a box that allowed a Weather app or a restaurant-review app to access your location, but you probably assumed these apps would only access your location when they needed it to answer your questions, not that they would track you wherever you go.

Such a track can be very revealing.

One person, plucked from the data in Los Angeles nearly at random, was found traveling to and from roadside motels multiple times, for visits of only a few hours each time.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post pulled apart the computers in a 2017 Chevy Volt to find out what General Motors knows about its customers.

On a recent drive, a 2017 Chevrolet collected my precise location. It stored my phone’s ID and the people I called. It judged my acceleration and braking style, beaming back reports to its maker General Motors over an always-on Internet connection. … Many [cars] copy over personal data as soon as you plug in a smartphone.

The reporter’s hacking was necessary, because GM doesn’t tell owners what data it’s collecting on them, much less allow them to see it.

When I buy a car, I assume the data I produce is owned by me — or at least is controlled by me. Many automakers do not. They act like how and where we drive, also known as telematics, isn’t personal information.

When you sell your car, the information about you the car has stored goes with the car, unless you figure out how to delete it.

For a broader view, Mason also extracted the data from a Chevrolet infotainment computer that I bought used on eBay for $375. It contained enough data to reconstruct the Upstate New York travels and relationships of a total stranger. We know he or she frequently called someone listed as “Sweetie,” whose photo we also have. We could see the exact Gulf station where they bought gas, the restaurant where they ate (called Taste China) and the unique identifiers for their Samsung Galaxy Note phones.

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An uplifting story from the world of sports: Recently retired NBA star Dwayne Wade (best known as the Miami Heat star who created a multiple-championship team by convincing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him) supports his trans child.

I’ve watched my son, from Day 1, become into who she now eventually has come into. For me it’s all about, nothing changes with my love. Nothing changes with my responsibilities. Only thing I got to do now is get smarter and educate myself more. And that’s my job.

I had to look myself in the mirror when my son at the time was 3 years old and me and my wife started having conversations about us noticing that he wasn’t on the boy vibe that [older brother] Zaire was on. I had to look myself in the mirror and say: “What if your son comes home and tells you he’s gay? What are you going to do? How are you going to be? How are you going to act? It ain’t about him. He knows who he is. It’s about you. Who are you?”

I’m doing what every parent has to do. Once you bring kids into this world, you become unselfish. It’s my job to be their role model, to be their voice in my kids’ lives, to let them know you can conquer the world. So go and be your amazing self, and we’re going to sit back and just love you.

The Hallmark Channel backed down on banning the lesbian-wedding-themed ad from the wedding-planning site Zola. Afterwards, GLAAD looked into the One Million Moms organization that pressured Hallmark, and found that it’s more like One Mom.

and let’s close with something cold

It’s a cliche to call music “cool”, but ice drumming on Lake Baikal surely qualifies.

Perks of the Office

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear December 23.

The question presented by the set of facts enumerated in this report may be as simple as that posed by the President and his chief of staff’s brazenness: is the remedy of impeachment warranted for a president who would use the power of his office to coerce foreign interference in a U.S. election, or is that now a mere perk of the office that Americans must simply “get over”?

– Adam Schiff,
preface to The Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report

This week’s featured posts are “Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?” and “The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions“.

This week everybody was talking about articles of impeachment

The Schiff quote above is the key question in this impeachment, and I would follow it with two other questions:

  • If soliciting or coercing foreign interference is just what presidents do now, how will we ever again have a fair election?
  • If Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme was wrong but not impeachable, as some Republicans suggest, what is the proper response that will keep Trump (and future presidents) from continuing to commit such offenses?

Two major reports came out this week: The House Intelligence Committee summarized the findings of its hearings regarding Trump’s Ukraine scheme, and the House Judiciary Committee reported on “Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment“.

The Judiciary Committee heard from four legal scholars Wednesday, three called by the Democrats and one by the Republicans.

The Republican witness, Jonathan Turley (who you may have seen over the years on CNN), was also a witness during the Clinton impeachment hearings, where he said the exact opposite of what he’s saying now. In 1998, he saw the danger of letting things go:

If you decide that certain acts do not rise to impeachable offenses, you will expand the space for executive conduct.

In 2014, when Obama was president, Turley listed five “myths” about impeachment, one of which was:

An impeachable offense must involve a violation of criminal law.

Now, though,

I’m concerned about lowering impeachment standard to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.

and he argues that the evidence against Trump doesn’t exactly fit the statutory elements for criminal bribery. (The other three witnesses said that it did.) So the need for a violation of criminal law isn’t a myth when a Republican is president.

Further hearings are happening as I write this, and I’m not trying to keep up.

Digby sums up the current anti-impeachment argument:

So basically the GOP position is that you can’t have an impeachment without examining all the relevant evidence and since Trump has denied all requests for that relevant evidence there can be no impeachment.

Fox News raises a point that I think they read entirely backwards.

While Democrats may use impeachment as an anti-Trump talking point on the campaign trail, candidates — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Michael Bennet, D-Col. — could end up spending valuable days of the primary season torn between their campaigns and a Senate trial should Trump actually be impeached.

An impeachment trial at that stage of the game would put the senators at a disadvantage, while candidates such as South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be free to continue their efforts.

I think senators who are currently not polling in the top tier, like Booker or Klobuchar, could get far more traction out of a compelling pro-impeachment speech on the Senate floor than they could from a campaign event in Sioux City or Manchester. Conversely, who’s going to pay attention to Buttigieg or Bloomberg when there’s an impeachment trial on CNN?

BTW, I’m getting really tired of hearing pundits make the point that Democratic presidential candidates don’t talk much about impeachment in their campaign speeches. Why would they? One way or  the other, it should be all over before anyone votes in a primary. These candidates should be discussing their plans for 2021 and beyond, and leaving impeachment to Congress.

and the NATO summit

Trump came home early after a video of other NATO leaders laughing about him went viral. Biden capitalized with an ad about how the world is laughing at Trump, concluding with “We need a leader the world respects”.

The incident and Trump’s reaction gave me an idea that I hope catches on. Like a lot of people, I’ve been saying for a while that we need to be out on the streets holding pro-impeachment demonstrations. There should be a continuous impeachment vigil outside the White House.

But here’s the idea: It shouldn’t be an angry, chanting and sign-waving kind of demonstration. It should be comedy marathon. Every night, one or more of the country’s top comedians should be standing on a soap box outside the White House telling Trump jokes. Any time Trump opens a window in the White House, he should be able to hear people laughing.

and Confederate symbols

Nikki Haley told interviewer Glenn Beck that the Confederate flag represented “service, sacrifice, and heritage” until the Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof hijacked it for white supremacy. Former RNC Chair Michael Steele recalled “The black people who were terrorized & lynched in its name” and concluded that “Roof didn’t hijack the meaning of that flag, he inherited it.

The Washington Post points out that

Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. Many of them disappeared after the Civil War. When they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history. … These symbols were not widely used after the Civil War but were reintroduced in the middle of the 20th century by white Southerners to fight against civil rights for African Americans.

Wake Forest and Garner, North Carolina have cancelled their annual Christmas parades, for fear that the participation of pro-Confederate groups would lead to protests and counter-protests. Of course, each side blames the other for ruining a popular children’s event with politics. I sympathize with town officials, who were in a tough place legally: Banning particular points of view from a public parade is very tricky legally, as is banning protests of those views.

The University of North Carolina solved its “Silent Sam” problem, but not in a way that made anybody happy. Silent Sam is a statue of a Confederate soldier that stood at an entrance to the UNC campus for over a century until students tore it down last year.

The University settled a lawsuit filed by Sons of Confederate Veterans (who made a controversial claim to own the statue, based on the theory that removing the statue violated the conditions under which United Daughters of the Confederacy donated it to the University). The settlement agrees that SCV now owns Sam, and UNC is contributing $2.5 million to a fund to transport the statue and build it a new home.

The University’s legal position was complicated by a 2015 North Carolina law that prohibits removal of historical monuments from public property. The law was passed after the Charleston Church massacre led to calls to remove Confederate monuments.

UNC’s anti-racist groups are glad that Sam will not be coming back to intimidate black students as they enter campus, but are outraged that the University is contributing to a neo-Confederate group.

[Assistant professor William] Sturkey said he came to UNC in 2013 because he felt it was the best place in the country to study the history of the South. In recent years, he said, he has repeatedly asked the university to endow a professorship in the Department of History for a specialist in the history of slavery, in part to research the university’s own connections to slavery.

Each time, he said, he has been told UNC couldn’t afford to fund such an endowment, which Sturkey said would cost about half the amount that has been pledged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans through the Silent Sam settlement.

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If you’re worried that the House can’t legislate because it’s so obsessed with impeachment, consider this: Friday it passed a law to restore the parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court voided in 2013.

In the Shelby case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. The measure passed on Friday was an attempt to do just that.

Specifically, it would update the parameters used to determine which states and territories need to seek approval for electoral procedures, requiring public notice for voting changes and expanding access for Native American and Alaska Native voters.

Two points are worth noting:

  • Protecting voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue, but no longer is. The previous extension of the Act, in 2006, passed the House 390-33 and the Senate 98-0. This time the VRA passed the House 228-187, with only one Republican voting for it.
  • Like hundreds of other bills passed by what Trump calls “the do-nothing Democrats”, the VRA is expected to die in the Senate without being brought to a vote. So the point isn’t that Republicans have a different vision of how to protect voting rights, which McConnell & Company could write into a Senate version of the bill and send back to the House. Instead, Republicans in Congress are happy with the efforts of many red states to make it as hard as possible to vote, and want the federal government to leave them alone.

Waitman Wade Beorn explains why avoiding war crimes is a good idea. (Hard to believe that point needs defending, but under the current administration it does.) Using both his own combat experiences and examples from his training, he argues that “Abiding by the law of war has both ethical and pragmatic value.” He quotes his first squadron commander: “the laws of warfare are designed not only to protect civilians, but also to minimize the risk of moral injury to troops.”

“Moral injury” is an abstract way of saying that you don’t have to wake up at night seeing the faces of the family you massacred because you shot first and thought later.

Katie Hill, the California congresswoman who was pushed out of public life by a revenge-porn scandal, wrote a very moving account of how close she came to suicide, and why she didn’t do it.

This makes me wonder: Men who go through scandals seem to benefit from an unofficial statute of limitations. (Louis CK is on his comeback tour. Woody Allen is still making movies. Eliot Spitzer had a post-scandal media career and even ran for office again.) Could the same thing possibly work for victims of sex scandals?

I mean, after some interval, could Ms. Hill run for office again? Would the media respond to her revenge-porn pictures as old news? I hesitate to urge someone to display more courage than I would probably have, but someone someday should try this, just to raise the issue.

An important article in YES! magazine about a former white supremacist who works to help others deradicalize. She focuses not on the philosophical points of ideology, but on the emotional needs that white supremacy satisfies.

In every case she’s ever encountered, Martinez said, she’s been able to identify some type of unhealed trauma. Sometimes it’s extreme, as in the case of a young woman interviewed for this story who was repeatedly raped as a child by her grandfather—and then, once in the movement, raped again by a White nationalist boyfriend … Sometimes the trauma is less extreme, but there are always fundamental and unmet needs, Martinez says: the need to love and be loved, to speak and be heard, and to be a part of something greater than yourself. Deradicalization involves identifying the trauma, and finding new resources, behaviors and networks outside extremist groups to meet those needs.

Too often, we think of people doing things because they believe things. Often it’s the reverse: They believe things that justify doing the things they feel compelled to do. If you are filled with fear, you find a paranoid worldview that justifies that fear. If you’re filled with anger, you adopt a worldview that justifies that anger. Such people don’t need to hear facts that debunk their beliefs; they need to learn healthier ways to deal with fear and anger.

The NYT reports that hundreds of Hong Kong protesters have fled to Taiwan, where their visas are renewable month-to-month. Meanwhile, the demonstrations continue: Hundreds of thousands of protesters were on the streets yesterday.

North Korea is back to testing rockets, in preparation for a “Christmas gift” for the US, which analysts suspect could be a satellite launch. Trump tweeted this response:

Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States

(Oval Office soundtrack: “Don’t Give Up on Us, Baby“.) I’ve been a skeptic about the Trump/Kim relationship from the beginning. It has always seemed like one of those movie-star romances that the PR departments liked to dream up back in Hollywood’s big-studio era.

The United Kingdom has an election Thursday. Boris Johnson hopes to get a majority behind his Brexit plan. Ben Judah writes in the Washington Post: “Russia has already won Britain’s election“.

There are (at least) two distinct kinds of bigotry. The most egregious is outright hate: Kill them all, send them back where they came from, and so on. Trump is insulated against being accused of this kind of anti-Semitism by his some-of-my-best-sons-in-law-are-Jewish defense.

The second kind of bigotry may not be overtly hostile, but it pushes the stereotypes that dehumanize the victimized group. That’s what Trump was doing when he spoke to the Israeli American Council Saturday.

A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me — you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax.

In other words, Jews are rich, ruthless businessmen who only care about money. Goebbels couldn’t have said it better.

The Bloomberg campaign will be a test of what money can do in presidential politics. A typical candidate raises enough money to compete in the early small states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — hoping that strong showings there will bring in more contributions that allow the campaign to continue nationwide.

Bloomberg is spending near-limitless amounts of his own money, so the early-state strategy doesn’t apply.

Jim Brown makes a strong case for raising pensions for NFL players who played before the million-dollar-contract era. It would cost a very tiny percentage of the revenue the league generates today.

The minister of a Methodist church in California posts a lengthy annotation of the church’s nativity scene, which shows the Holy Family separated in cages, as they might well have been if New Testament Egypt had been like America today.

In the Claremont United Methodist Church nativity scene this Christmas, the Holy Family takes the place of the thousands of nameless families separated at our borders. Inside the church, you will see this same family reunited, the Holy Family together, in a nativity that joins the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all.”

I’m reminded of a stage production of The Odyssey I saw a few years ago: When Odysseus washes up on the island of the Phaeacians, he gets gets detained with all the illegal immigrants who have been streaming in since the fall of Troy.

and let’s close with a job well done

At Boise State, home of the famous blue football field, they’ve trained a dog to retrieve the tee after kickoffs.

Primary Takeaway

Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

This week’s featured post is “What Does Trump’s Inner Party Believe?

This week everybody was still talking about impeachment

Last Monday, a federal court ordered former White House Counsel Don McGahn to obey a congressional subpoena. The subpoena in question wasn’t part of the recent Ukraine hearings in the Intelligence Committee, but an earlier follow-up to the Mueller Report, in which McGahn’s testimony could be key in establishing an obstruction of justice charge against Trump.

The judge’s opinion was sweeping, and would seem relevant to Ukraine-related subpoenas as well. If any Trump officials were looking for permission to ignore Trump’s order, this would be it. But it has no direct legal impact on them.

It will also have no immediate effect on McGahn. The Department of Justice is appealing the ruling.

The House Intelligence Committee will discuss its Ukraine report tomorrow. The report goes to the Judiciary Committee, which will compose articles of impeachment.

Trump had a decision to make about the Judiciary hearings that begin on Wednesday: He was offered the chance to have his own lawyers participate, but decided not to. The lack of participation was a major objection Trump supporters made to the Intelligence Committee hearings, but a letter from the White House counsel continues to hold that the impeachment process is unfair.

It is hard for me to imagine Trump agreeing to any process of critical inquiry into his actions. His sense of victimization is axiomatic; if he is being criticized, it is unfair.

While purporting to be outraged by Hunter Biden cashing in on his father’s name, the Republican National Committee spent $100K to make Donald Trump Jr.’s book a bestseller.

Last week I mentioned the Fox & Friends phone interview where Trump repeated his absurd claims about Ukraine and the DNC server. The WaPo fact checker found four “whoppers” within ten sentences:

Ukraine does not have the server, the FBI did not need physical possession to investigate, CrowdStrike was not founded by a Ukrainian, and it is not a Ukrainian company. It is dismaying that despite all of the evidence assembled by his top aides, Trump keeps repeating debunked theories and inaccurate claims that he first raised more than two years ago.

There are some days when we wish we were not limited to just Four Pinocchios.

Trump supporters can’t talk about impeachment without using the term “witch hunt”. Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem, knows a thing or two about real witch hunts.

By definition you do not qualify as the victim of a witch hunt if you are the most powerful man on the planet. You do, however, incite a witch hunt when you spew malignant allegations and reckless insinuations, when you broadcast a fictitious narrative, attack those who resist it and charge your critics with a shadowy, sinister plot to destroy you. (Witness intimidation can sound strangely like a witchcraft accusation. Did someone really tweet that everything a middle-aged woman touched during her diplomatic career tended to sour?)

And she calls on Republicans to heed the example of Thomas Brattle, who turned the tide against the Salem trials.

You can walk gutlessly into history behind a deluded man, holding tight to a ridiculous narrative. Or you can follow the lead of Thomas Brattle, in which case someone will be extolling your heroism 327 years from now.

BTW, I didn’t do a full family history, but don’t believe Stacy is related to Rep. Adam Schiff. At the very least, she is not his wife or daughter.

and Thanksgiving

The weather was kind of dicey in New York on Thurday, which made low-flying balloons a hazard.

During his surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, Trump said he had restarted talks with the Taliban that had blown up in September. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government seem to know what he’s talking about. But it sounded good, so he said it.

Now there’s a War on Thanksgiving. A single Huffington Post article suggesting that environmentally conscious people might want to shrink the carbon footprint of their holiday meal (mainly by locally sourcing their ingredients, emphasizing more vegetarian dishes, and wasting less food) led to multiple Fox News segments claiming that liberals want to “cancel Thanksgiving”.

By Tuesday night Trump was chiming in, telling his cultists that liberals want to call the holiday something else. I still haven’t figured out what the left-wing name for Thanksgiving is supposed to be, but I’m sure right-wingers will tell me if I watch Fox long enough.

Here’s my liberal view: A holiday that emphasizes gratitude seems like a good idea — though whether or not that holiday needs a religious basis is debatable — and Thanksgiving seems like a good name for it. It’s up to you to decide what you’re thankful for or who you should thank for it, but a national gratitude holiday is a good thing.

While I didn’t notice any liberals calling for Thanksgiving to be cancelled, I did see many articles this year about how we should stop repeating the First Thanksgiving myth. Author David Silverman recounts the myth like this:

The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

He also mentions the more subtle myth that “history doesn’t begin for Native people until Europeans arrive”. I occasionally still run into this misconception in my own thoughts. A few years ago I was at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, looking at an exhibit that explained the migrations of various Southwestern tribes. I had always pictured the tribes as fixed in their locations until European colonists started jostling them around, so the idea that they had an actual pre-Columbian history — different eras when different tribes held sway over different regions — was new to me. Realizing that I had never had that simple thought before was embarrassing.

and the Democratic presidential race

Governor Steve Bullock of Montana dropped out of the Democratic presidential race. The theory of his candidacy was that an outside-Washington moderate who had been successful in a red state would appeal to Democrats whose top priority was to beat Trump. No one seems to be able to make that model work.

Former congressman and Navy admiral Joe Sestak — another moderate outsider — also dropped out.

I keep seeing people on social media saying “The polls must be wrong; I don’t know anybody who’s for Biden.” CNN’s Harry Enten has an answer for that:

Biden’s polling in the low 60s with black voters 45 years and older. He’s got a 50 point lead on the field with them. This is a group that has stuck with him all year. If you don’t get Biden’s appeal, you probably need to talk a lot more with this group.

and unrest in foreign countries

The ongoing demonstrations in Iraq have led to the resignation of the prime minister. “Some 400 people have been killed since protests began in Baghdad and other cities at the start of October.”

I’m not sure why, but the Trump administration is again withholding military aid from a country in distress. This time it’s $100 million for Lebanon. Once again, Russia appears to benefit.

Foreign Policy has an interesting article about the Hong Kong district council elections last week, which were an overwhelming symbolic victory for the pro-democracy protesters. Apparently the Chinese media was so convinced by its own propaganda about a “silent majority” opposed to the protests that they had already written their stories about the electorate’s rebuke to the protesters, leaving space to fill in the numbers when they became available.

What caused such an enormous misjudgment? The biggest single problem is this: The people in charge of manipulating Hong Kong public opinion for the CCP are also the people charged with reporting on their own success.

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A lot of my Facebook friends linked to this article about an outrageous anti-abortion bill in Ohio. Yeah, it’s insane. But I have a rule about these things (which I stole from David Wong at Cracked): Don’t get excited about a bill just because somebody “introduced” it in some legislature. There are just too many state legislators introducing too many crazy bills; you’ll live in perpetual outrage.

This bill was sent to the Criminal Justice committee on November 18. If it comes back out of the committee and still mandates surgical procedures that don’t exist, that might be worth your attention. It probably won’t.

My quick summary of the Trump economy: The economic expansion that started under Obama has been artificially extended by running up debt. This short-term strategy increases the likelihood of serious problems whenever a recession does finally arrive.

Usually we think about the federal deficit, but the Washington Post observes:

In recent weeks, the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund and major institutional investors such as BlackRock and American Funds all have sounded the alarm about the mounting corporate obligations.

WaPo blames the problem on low interest rates, saying “rates have never been this low for this long”. The large amount of corporate debt might not be a problem if the money were being invested wisely, but the article notes that

the weakest firms have accounted for most of the growth and are increasingly using debt for “financial risk-taking,” such as investor payouts and Wall Street dealmaking, rather than new plants and equipment, according to the IMF.

The structural risk posed by large amounts of debt, as we saw in the real-estate bubble that brought on the Great Recession, is that bankruptcies can cascade: When a borrower can’t repay, the lender may become insolvent too, triggering a chain reaction.

Before Colin Kaepernick, there were the Black 14. In 1969, the 14 black players on the University of Wyoming football team met with their coach to discuss wearing a black armband during an upcoming game with BYU to protest racism. The coach kicked them all off the team. Fifty years later the university brought them back.

Gregory Downs (author of After Appomattox, whose central points are discussed in this article), has an interesting suggestion: Rather than talk about “the Civil War”, maybe we should call it “the Second American Revolution”.

To see the 1870s United States as a Second American Republic operating under a Second Constitution created by a Second American Revolution asks Americans to abandon their dreams of continuity and to develop a new, more vulnerable set of national understandings and also a new sense of the nation’s possibilities. Thinking through the implications of the Second American Revolution might lead us to see the First Founders as less successful and less consequential than celebrators and critics have imagined. As architects of a country that failed, the First American Republic, the First Founders might shimmer as warnings or ideals but not as guides. Americans might have to shed the sense that the Founders possess answers to our current predicaments or blame for our situation.

Whale corpses that wash up on shore turn out to be full of plastic. It’s hard to tell if that’s what killed them or not, and we have no idea how much plastic is in whales that don’t wash up, or in smaller ocean creatures that decay before anybody can examine them.

My annual dose of humility: the NYT’s 100 Notable Books of the Year list. This year I’ve read five, which is more than my usual two: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power, Fall by Neal Stephenson, The Institute by Stephen King, and The Nickel Boys by Colin Whitehead.

The Nickel Boys, I will point out, has one of the great opening lines: “Even in death, the boys were trouble.”

I would have added Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer to the list. I haven’t finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, yet, but it also seems like a worthy novel. (If you have a 2019 book to add, leave a comment.)

CBS reports:

Caliburn International, a corporation with billions of dollars in government contracts, has scrapped plans to host a holiday party at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.

Some of those contracts involve “holding unaccompanied migrant children in government custody”. Former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly is on Caliburn’s board. Somebody apparently decided that the appearance of corruption in this party was a little too obvious.

Cartoonist Damian Alexander relates an interesting point about his upbringing: It was OK for girls to admire male characters in fiction or history, but not for boys to admire female characters. A girl might want to be like Spider-Man, but it was weird if a boy wanted to be like Wonder Woman. Alexander comments: “Not allowing boys to look up to and aspire to be like women leads them to believe women are unworthy of admiration.”

I remember the same thing, and I wonder if American childhood has significantly changed.

and let’s close with a series of unfortunate misunderstandings

When you ask a PhotoShop expert for help, make sure you’re clear about what you really want.