Category Archives: Weekly summaries

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


As we drove past the rows of white grave markers, in the gravity of the moment, I had a deep sense of the importance of the presidency and a love of our country. In that moment, I also thought of all the attacks we’d already suffered as a family, and about all the sacrifices we’d have to make to help my father succeed – voluntarily giving up a huge chunk of our business and all international deals to avoid the appearance that we were ‘profiting off of the office.’ … Frankly, it was a big sacrifice, costing us millions and millions of dollars annually. Of course, we didn’t get any credit whatsoever from the mainstream media, which now does not surprise me at all.

– Donald Trump Jr.
Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us


As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich.

– Mark Twain, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated” (1900)


There is no featured post this week, but plenty of news to process.

This week everybody was talking about the off-year elections

Going into Tuesday night, every pundit had two narratives ready.

  • The anti-Trump blue wave of 2018 is still rolling.
  • Impeachment has rallied the Trump base and turned moderates away from Democrats.

The results picked out the first story: Democrat Andy Beshear won the Kentucky governorship over the incumbent Matt Bevin. Democrats took control of both houses of the Virginia legislature. And while Republicans held on to the governorship in Mississippi, the margin (52%-47%) was hardly encouraging for Republicans, given that Trump won the state in 2016 58%-40%.

The deeper story was that both sides were energized. 1.4 million votes were cast in the Kentucky race, compared to less than a million in 2015. Bevin got nearly 200K more votes than in 2015, when he won by a comfortable margin; it just wasn’t enough.

Also, the two parties’ geographical bases of support are shifting. 538 summarizes:

Rural areas got redder, and urban and suburban ones got bluer — and not only in Virginia. Even for centrist Democrats like Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Jim Hood, the old, pre-Trump Democratic coalition has been replaced by one that increasingly relies on suburban voters to make up for losses among rural whites.

The Kentucky race didn’t settle the Democrats’ progressive/moderate argument about how to win elections. Progressives argue that you win by energizing the base to get a big turnout, while moderates say you shouldn’t turn off the changing suburban voters, who could easily go back to voting Republican or just stay home.

Beshear’s performance Tuesday, like Doug Jones’ win in Alabama in 2017, showed that Democrats can win in red states if they do both. Beshear got a huge turnout in urban Democratic strongholds, but he also won the suburbs.

It also helps if your opponent is toxic, as Bevin and Roy Moore both were. Even as Beshear was beating Bevin, Republicans were winning the other statewide offices. It’s not clear what that says about Amy McGrath’s chances of beating Mitch McConnell next year.

Bevin has refused to concede, citing unspecified “irregularities” that could account for Beshear’s 5,000-vote margin. That has led to speculation that he could get the Republican legislature to overturn the election.

Think what a huge step towards might-makes-right that would be. Republicans have moved in this direction before: North Carolina’s and Wisconsin’s gerrymandered Republican legislatures both tried to diminish the power of the governorship after a Democrat won the office. But no state has simply refused to let the voters elect a Democrat.

Fortunately, it appears that Kentucky’s Republican legislators aren’t interested in that kind of power grab — particularly for Bevin, whom many of them didn’t like anyway. The Week reports:

“The best thing to do, the right thing to do, is for Gov. Bevin to concede the election today so we can move on,” Rep. Jason Nemes (R) told the Herald Leader. “There’s nothing wrong with checking the math,” added Rep. Adam Koenig (R), but “unless there is a mountain of clear, unambiguous evidence, then he should let it go.”

Kentucky could be a preview of the national situation a year from now: If Trump loses, he almost certainly will blame his loss on fraud, whether any evidence supports that conclusion or not. (That’s how he has explained Clinton’s 2.8 million vote margin in the 2016 popular vote.) Then the question will be what levers he can push to hold onto office, and whether other elected Republicans or Trump-appointed judges will support him if he does.

and impeachment

If you’re not watching Chris Hayes on Friday nights, you’re missing out. Hayes has been doing his show in front of a live audience on Fridays, and the format works really well. This Friday’s opening piece was Hayes’ response to Trump’s “read the transcript” mantra, which Hayes and I both believe he is putting forward cynically. Trump knows that his voters will not in fact read the transcript, but will conclude that he wouldn’t invite them to read it if his claim that it is “perfect” weren’t true. (One way to tell Trump’s supporters are not reading the transcript is that only 40% of Republicans say that Trump mentioned the Bidens in the call, when anyone who has read the transcript would know that he did.)

Hayes says “Yes, read the transcript”, and walks the audience through what the transcript says.

Public impeachment hearings will start Wednesday, when the House Intelligence Committee will hear testimony from Bill Taylor and George Kent. Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, whose dismissal is a key part of the story, will testify Friday.

This week the committee also released transcripts of several of the closed-door depositions: Colonel Vindman, Fiona Hill, George Kent, Bill Taylor, Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker. The depositions were each hours long and altogether the transcripts run over 2500 pages. I haven’t attempted to read them, and will wait for public hearings to pick out the highlights.

In the meantime, it’s important to remember the sequence of events:

Friday night on CNN, David Gergen said the exact words I’d been thinking: Trump’s defense is basically a “Catch-22” that plays hearsay off against executive privilege: If a witness in the impeachment probe didn’t talk to Trump face-to-face, then his or her knowledge of the Ukraine extortion plot can be written off as hearsay. But people who did talk with Trump face-to-face can’t testify because of executive privilege.

In particular, all the testimony released so far points to three people: Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo, and Rudy Giuliani. Each claimed to speak for Trump and was very explicit in detailing (in front of witnesses who have testified under oath) the plot’s quid-pro-quo: releasing the money Congress had appropriated to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression in exchange for investigations into Biden and into the Ukraine-framed-Russia conspiracy theory of 2016 election interference.

It is hard to imagine any or all of these men cooking up the extortion plot without Trump’s approval, but they are the ones who had the most direct contact with the President. So the obvious thing to do is ask them: Were you free-lancing or were you following the President’s orders? But Trump won’t let them testify because of executive privilege.

In my mind, the whole notion of reasonable doubt goes out the window when the defendant creates the doubt by withholding evidence and blocking testimony.

Lindsey Graham is trying out the next line of Trump defense, which is to simply refuse to think about the evidence of his crimes: “I’ve written the whole process off,” he said. “I think this is a bunch of B.S.”

The Republican strategy for the public hearings seems to be to turn them into a circus. Among the witnesses they want are Hunter Biden and the whistleblower, as well as a DNC staffer who is supposedly involved in the 2016 Ukrainian interference conspiracy theory, and Nellie Ohr, who had something to do with the Steele dossier.

Other than the whistleblower, none of these people have any light to shine on the question before the committee: whether or not President Trump abused the power of his office to extort partisan political help out of the Ukrainian government. It’s totally crazy that Hunter Biden and Nellie Ohr should have to testify, but not Mulvaney or Pompeo.

The focus on the whistleblower is also misguided and wrong. Exposing his identity strikes at the heart of the whistleblower protection laws. The main purpose of exposing him would be to intimidate other government officials who might blow the whistle on Trump’s crimes. At this point, the claims in the whistleblower complaint have been substantiated by testimony under oath from other officials, so it’s not clear what the whistleblower could add.

Here’s an analogy: Somebody pulls the fire alarm in a big office building. The building is evacuated, the fire department comes, and a real fire is discovered and put out. Afterward, investigators look at how the fire started, how it spread, and what can be done to prevent similar fires in the future. But a second set of investigators cares nothing about those questions. Instead, their efforts are focused on figuring out who pulled the alarm.

Committee Chair Adam Schiff has veto power over witnesses, and is going to use it:

This inquiry is not, and will not serve … as a vehicle to undertake the same sham investigations into the Bidens or 2016 that the President pressed Ukraine to conduct for his personal political benefit, or to facilitate the President’s effort to threaten, intimidate, and retaliate against the whistleblower who courageously raised the initial alarm

Schiff’s refusal will lead to a new round of process complaints from Republicans. The Devin Nunes letter listing witnesses already complains “You directed witnesses called by Democrats not to answer Republican questions.” I believe he is referring to questions intended to identify the whistleblower.

Steve Benen makes essentially the same argument I made a few weeks ago: Removing Trump can’t wait for the next election, because the whole issue here is that Trump will abuse his power in order to cheat in that election.

When this is all over, there needs to be legislation codifying a bunch of stuff that was taken for granted in all previous administrations: about Congress’ oversight powers, the responsibility of members of the executive branch to testify, and so forth. In addition, there needs to be a streamlined process for courts to adjudicate disputes over these issues, so that a president can’t simply use the courts to delay, as Trump is doing.

but what about censure?

The WaPo’s conservative columnist Marc Thiessen proposes that Democrats try to censure Trump instead of impeach him. (A censure resolution would be a moral condemnation, but would not result in removal from office or any other substantive penalties. Moreover, a House censure resolution could be ignored by the Senate.)

Thiessen argues that since the Senate is not going to remove Trump from office anyway, impeachment is really just a fancy kind of censure, and he offers the possibility that a censure resolution might gain Republican support:

A bipartisan censure vote would ultimately be more damaging to Trump than impeachment along party lines. The impeachment inquiry is energizing Trump voters, who believe Democrats are trying to invalidate their votes by removing Trump from office. Censure would take away that argument. It would be dispiriting to Trump’s base, especially if some Republicans joined Democrats in voting to rebuke the president. Trump would be furious at a bipartisan vote of censure.

That may sound reasonable, but we’ve seen this game before. When the Affordable Care Act was being debated, “moderate” Republicans would often hint that they might support it if it were watered down: if the public option were removed (it eventually was), or if it also included conservative features like tort reform (it never did). However, those Republican moderates never made a genuine counter-proposal, i.e., “Here’s an amended version of the ACA that I would vote for.” In the end, none of them did vote for the ACA, but we were left with the myth that somehow Democrats had been unreasonable and had passed up genuine compromise opportunities.

I fear the same thing here: Democrats retreat to censure in an effort to get Republican votes, and Republicans still don’t vote for it.

Here’s how I think the process should work: Democrats believe that Trump’s crimes are impeachable and that removal from office is the appropriate response, so that’s what they should propose. If Republicans believe the proper response is censure, they should propose that. In other words, if Republicans want to compose a censure resolution, introduce it (with a list of sponsors) in either the House or Senate, and try to persuade Democrats to vote for it instead of impeachment, they should go right ahead. But absent some legitimate counter-proposal from Republicans — one they would advocate in public and not just hint at — Democrats should continue doing what they believe is right.

If a Republican censure resolution existed, then its pluses and minuses could be discussed: Is the wording strong enough? Could it pass overwhelmingly? Would the Senate pass it too? Would such a public condemnation deter Trump and future presidents from committing similar crimes in the future? And so on. But until some number of Republicans in Congress are willing to clearly say, “Here is how we want to condemn the President’s actions”, there’s nothing to talk about.

and other Trump-related news

A New York state judge ruled that Trump must pay $2 million to a consortium of non-profits to resolve a lawsuit charging him with misusing the Trump Foundation for personal gain. The judge’s ruling sharply criticized the January, 2016 event Trump scheduled to conflict with the Republican debate he was boycotting. The event was billed as a Trump Foundation fund-raiser for veterans’ groups, but the Foundation allowed the Trump campaign to distribute the money in campaign events.

Mr. Trump’s fiduciary duty breaches included allowing his campaign to orchestrate the Fundraiser, allowing his campaign, instead of the Foundation, to direct distribution of the Funds, and using the Fundraiser and distribution of the Funds to further Mr. Trump’s political campaign.

Trump isn’t pursuing an appeal.

It marked an extraordinary moment: The president of the United States acknowledged in a court filing that he had failed to follow basic laws about how charities should be governed. Previously, Trump had insisted the charity was run properly and the suit was a partisan sham.

This scandal points to the same character flaw we see in the Ukraine scandal and throughout the Trump administration: He is incapable of distinguishing between himself and the roles he has taken on. He sees whatever power he has as his own, to do with as he likes, rather than as part of a role that includes responsibilities and restrictions.

The $2 million reminds me of the $25 million he had to pay to settle his Trump University fraud. Defrauding donors, defrauding students … what’s a guy gotta do to go to jail around here?

The Roger Stone trial started, which means that we might finally find out what all those redactions in the Mueller Report were about. Mother Jones summarizes the government’s case against Stone, and Rolling Stone discusses Steve Bannon’s testimony. And there’s this Dylan-parody meme.

Beppe Severgnini gives a European perspective on Trump’s decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies. Another wave of Syrian refugees will result, he fears, and Europe (not America) will have to deal with them. “[W]e felt betrayed. No warning, no consultation. Trust has been shattered.”

The anonymous Trump official who wrote a controversial op-ed a year ago has a book coming out a week from tomorrow. It’s called A Warning, and to a large extent it contradicts the message of last year’s op-ed. That article assured the public that the administration was full of people who would control Trump’s venal or insane impulses, and thwart his ability to do illegal or destructive things.

This book — if the excerpts we’ve seen so far are typical — argues that those people (the “Steady State”, the author calls them) are failing, and that things will get much worse if the voters give Trump a second term.

Nikki Haley’s book With All Due Respect is coming out tomorrow. In it, she tells of Rex Tillerson and John Kelly confiding in her that they were intentionally undermining the president in order to “save the country”. Maybe one of them is Anonymous.

You may have heard that the Trump campaign is so desperate for black supporters that it has begun photoshopping its hats onto black people. Snopes tones that accusation down a little: The fake photo doesn’t come from the official Trump campaign, but does appear in an advertisement for the hat on the Conservative News Daily web site. The hat is not an official piece of Trump-campaign merchandise and is being marketed by someone else.

So the photo is an attempt to scam conservatives, who are often targeted for scams (and have been for years) because of their well-known gullibility. But it’s not an official Trump scam.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: The founder of Students for Trump just pleaded guilty to a $46K fraud scheme. The 23-year-old posed as a lawyer with 15 years experience, and charged for online legal advice.

and Mike Bloomberg (and the Democratic presidential race)

I have two contradictory opinions about the number of candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination. On one hand, I want everybody who thinks they have the right message or ability or experience to run. I don’t want any Democratic voters looking at somebody on the sidelines and thinking “If only …”. A lot of Democrats did that with Hillary Clinton in 2004 and Elizabeth Warren in 2016. Let’s not do it again.

On the other hand, I’m tired of seeing ten or more candidates on the debate stage, or still running even though they can’t meet the debate-stage requirements. John Delaney, Steve Bullock, Tulsi Gabbard, and a bunch of other people whose names I can’t even think of right now — aren’t you just wasting everybody’s time, including your own?

So anyway, it looks like we might be getting a new entry: Mike Bloomberg. And part of me says: Why not? He served three terms as mayor of New York City, which has a bigger population than most states (way more than Steve Bullock’s Montana). He’s at least ten times richer than Trump, and got there by starting new businesses rather than being a scam artist. He’s got a national profile for gun control and some other issues. Why not?

But I’m very skeptical that he’s going to shake up the race. The beltway narrative is that he’ll compete with Joe Biden for the moderate vote, but I think that’s a misperception of Biden’s support, which is not fundamentally ideological. Biden represents a return to normalcy. The elect-Biden fantasy is that then the adults will be back in charge, the Twitter circus will be over, and we can pretend this whole Trump thing never happened. Bloomberg doesn’t offer that same comfort.

Also, the Biden moderate-lane narrative, the one that has him challenged not just by Bloomberg, but also by Mayor Pete and maybe Amy Klobuchar, ignores the racial component of Biden’s appeal. At the moment, here’s the most likely scenario: Warren, Sanders, or Buttigieg wins in Iowa, Warren or Sanders wins in New Hampshire, and then the black voters of South Carolina save Biden’s bacon by coming through for him. Then we head into the big-state primaries with two or three viable candidates: Biden, the Iowa winner, and the New Hampshire winner.

The black vote is what saved Hillary Clinton’s candidacy after Sanders’ New Hampshire wipe-out in 2016, and so far it’s lining up the same way for Biden. An Economist/YouGov poll that is otherwise quite favorable to Warren — she trails Biden 26%-25% — shows Biden getting 47% of the black vote, with Warren at 17% and Sanders at 14%. Kamala Harris is at 7%, Julian Castro 5%, and Cory Booker 3%. Buttigieg and Klobuchar clock in at zero.

Bloomberg is Mayor Stop-and-Frisk. He’s going nowhere with blacks. If there were a sudden boomlet for Harris or Booker, that would threaten Biden’s path to victory way more than Bloomberg does. But so far I see no sign of it.

After I wrote the previous note, the first Bloomberg-inclusive polls came out, showing him with single-digits of support.

Exactly why Biden has so much black support is an interesting question in its own right. Generalizations about large demographic groups should never be taken too seriously, since there will usually be gobs and gobs of exceptions. But let me toss out this theory: In general, the black electorate is wary and pragmatic. Falling in love with a candidate is seen as a luxury privileged people have. Blacks (especially older blacks) are used to the idea that the candidate they would fall in love with probably has no chance. They also distrust bright new faces and big promises, because they’ve seen their people get conned again and again. So they look for a candidate who can win and has a longstanding relationship with them. Right now, that’s Biden.

That can change. In the 2008 cycle, blacks were wary of supporting Barrack Obama against their longstanding ally Hillary Clinton. Eventually they did support him in a big way, but only after Obama’s performance in Iowa proved that white people would vote for him too. They loved Obama, but they weren’t going to do a charge-of-the-light-brigade for him, just like they’re not doing one now for Harris or Booker.

Elizabeth Warren has made an interesting tactical decision: She’s not going tit-for-tat against all the other candidates who are attacking her and her healthcare plan.

Warren aides said they’re not adopting a pacifist posture; they expect that some attacks will require a response. Rather, they say they’re adapting to the modern media environment where responding to everything can distract from more important tasks and muddle their message.

It’s too soon to tell whether this works, but I understand the impulse behind it: Next fall, Trump wants the national debate to be a food fight rather than a discussion of where the country is going or should go. The Democratic nominee will have to figure out how to deal with his constant name-calling and lies without just getting into a shouting match. The approach that worked against gentlemanly candidates like George Bush the First or Mitt Romney may play into Trump’s hands.

meanwhile, it’s Veterans’ Day

It used to be Armistice Day, marking the 11/11/1918 end of the shooting in World War I, then known only as “the Great War”.

Veterans’ Day, like Memorial Day on the other side of the calendar, can be a tricky holiday for liberals to celebrate. We have opposed many of our country’s recent wars. (And not-so-recent wars. Twain’s “Battle Hymn” protested the war in the Philippines. The Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” lamented the Mexican-American War of 1848.) We would like to see a less militarized country and culture. We think our government overspends on weapons and puts too many of our soldiers in danger overseas. Too often, national security is used as an excuse for restricting citizens’ rights and increasing government surveillance.

None of that, though, should turn us against the individual men and women who have stepped up to accept the risks of defending our country and its allies, and who have fulfilled their commitments honorably, often at dire cost to themselves and their families. If you’re not a pacifist (and I’m not) you’re consciously or unconsciously counting on someone to train for war and be ready to meet violence with violence. Particularly if we don’t take on that job ourselves (and I haven’t), we owe some gratitude to the people who do.

The soldier is the most visible symbol of militarism, but we must be careful not to let symbolism blind us to soldiers’ humanity. Soldiers didn’t send themselves to Vietnam or Iraq; our leaders sent them there. Soldiers don’t steal their pay or their equipment from schools and poor families who need help; it is politicians who set those priorities and distribute the nation’s resources. (Many soldiers come from those poor families, and see military service as the only viable ticket out of poverty for themselves and their children.) Again and again, voters have endorsed those choices.

The members of our armed forces have put their lives in the hands of our nation’s leaders, and ultimately in our hands. Veterans’ Day is a time to remember the costs of military service, and to rededicate ourselves to making sure that the nation does not abuse the trust that these men and women have placed in it.

and you also might be interested in …

Deciding which streaming TV services you want has gotten complicated over the past few years, and is about to get significantly more complicated. The Washington Post breaks it down.

Finally, the future I was promised is starting to arrive: an all-electric air taxi.

and let’s close with something stunning

SkyPixel has a contest for the best aerial photographs. The Verge has picked its favorites, including this image of Hong Kong that has been warped to make the sky a small circle of light surrounded by skyscrapers.

Ethical Means

The ninth rule of the ethics of means and ends is that any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. 

– Saul Alinsky,Rules for Radicals

This week’s featured posts are “Why Impeachment is Necessary” and “Religious Freedom for Loganists!

You also might be interested in the talk I gave to the Unitarian Church of Quincy last week. It’s called “The Spirit of Democracy” and is more Sift-like than my typical sermon. I’m looking at the question of what is making our democracy vulnerable to the attack of authoritarian populism.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

As I mention in the featured post, the most damning evidence against Trump is still his own words: “I would like you to do us a favor, though”, in response to President Zelensky’s request for Javelin missiles. The corruption here is clear: Trump wants Zelensky to boost his re-election campaign in exchange for Trump releasing money that Congress had already appropriated. In short, Trump was exchanging public money for private benefit, which is virtually the definition of corruption.

The parade of witnesses we’ve seen the last two weeks mainly provides context for those words: Trump had instructed his people to hold up the money, Zelensky already knew Trump was holding up the money, and he already knew what Trump wanted. So it wasn’t necessary to spell out the quid pro quo in explicit detail on the phone. It’s like in Mafia trials: The boss saying “It’s time for you to do the thing we talked about” qualifies as ordering a murder, if other evidence establishes that murder is “the thing we talked about”.

All that testimony happened behind closed doors, as is entirely appropriate for this phase of the investigation. Early phases of an investigation shouldn’t be public, so that witnesses don’t influence each other. Republicans tried to make a big deal out of this perfectly ordinary process by comparing it to the Nixon and Clinton impeachment hearings, which started out in public. However, both of those investigations were preceded by a special counsel investigation of the same events, in which testimony was taken behind closed doors. The right comparison here would be if one of the impeachment counts comes from the obstruction-of-justice evidence collected by the Mueller investigation; the House can go right into open hearings about that, because the preliminary investigation has already happened.

Thursday, the House approved a resolution outlining how the process will go from here. (Lawfare has a detailed explanation.) Transcripts of the closed-door testimony will become public, probably starting this week, with possible redactions to protect classified or otherwise sensitive information. Public hearings will begin soon; Nancy Pelosi has said “this month“.

The White House had claimed that the lack of a formal resolution made the previous hearings illegitimate, and used that as an excuse to refuse to cooperate. Now that there has been a formal resolution, they’re still not cooperating. Who could have guessed?

John Bolton may or may not testify Thursday.

An appeals court has agreed with the lower court that Trump’s accountants have to turn his tax returns over to prosecutors in New York. The court dodged Trump’s claims of “absolute immunity” from all legal process — which the lower court characterized as “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values” — by noting that the subpoena applied to an accounting firm, not to the White House or Trump himself.

Inevitably, this is going to wind up in the Supreme Court, where we will find out whether Trump has managed to corrupt that court or not.

NPR has a collection of key public documents in the impeachment inquiry, which are mainly transcripts of opening statements that witnesses have made available voluntarily: Catherine Croft, Gordon Sondland, Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, Bill Taylor,

Vindman says that the rough transcript of the Ukraine call is inaccurate, and that his attempts to use the usual correction process were rebuffed.

Who moved the transcript of Trump’s Ukraine call to the ultra-secret computer system? Apparently, John Eisenberg of the White House Counsel’s office. That action undermines Trump’s claim that the call was “perfect”, because it seems his own staff knew it needed to be hidden. Eisenberg was supposed to testify today, but didn’t show up.

Republicans have been struggling to find ways to defend Trump. The only viable path of defense — other than just he’s-my-guy-I-don’t-care-what-he-did — is something Trump himself would fight: an admission that what he did was wrong, but that it wasn’t that bad and he has learned his lesson and won’t do anything like that again. The American people can be forgiving, but it’s hard to forgive somebody who insists he’s never done anything wrong.

Josh Marshall‘s assessment of Sondland:

Sondland stands out here as neither ethical or moral enough to see that this plot was wrong and limit his involvement accordingly nor experienced enough at being evil to lie about it effectively.

Meanwhile, Trump appeared twice before unscreened crowds — something he almost never does — and was soundly booed both times. The first was at Game 5 of the World Series, and the second at a UFC fight at Madison Square Garden.

Various Trumpist commentators have criticized the rudeness and disrespect the crowds showed.  “They should hold those fans accountable,” Frank Luntz said on Fox News. I will repeat what I’ve said before: What standard of conduct does Trump uphold that would justify such a condemnation? When Trump accepts some kind of behavioral standard, I am willing to treat him according to that standard. But the idea that there are rules for how I should treat him, but none for how he treats everybody else — that’s not acceptable.

Joe Keohane’s review of Aaron James’ book Assholes: A Theory, summarized James’ definition like this:

James’s asshole has a sense of ironclad entitlement. He’s superior, immune to your complaints, though he insists you listen to his. He’s reflective, but only to the extent that it allows him to morally justify his behavior.

That’s Trump to a T.

and California wildfires

The fires near Los Angeles are mostly under control now. Ditto for the Kincade fire in the wine country.

and the economy

The economy is growing at a significant but not very exciting pace: 1.9%, or about what it was averaging during Obama’s second term. If you drill down into that number a little, you see how the promises made to justify Trump’s tax cut have come up empty: The consumer is propping up the economy, while business investment falls. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs continue to vanish, and major coal companies are still going out of business.

The October jobs report told a similar story: It came in with more jobs than expected, but the rate of job growth has slowed.

and the Democratic presidential candidates

Elizabeth Warren answered the challenge to explain how she’d pay for Medicare for All without raising middle-class taxes. Like all such plans, it relies on assumptions that you may or may not believe, and no president is going to get exactly the plan she or he proposes. Ezra Klein goes into detail.

What is clear is that she took the challenge seriously, as Paul Krugman explains. This isn’t like Paul Ryan’s “magic asterisk” of unspecified spending cuts that somehow would lead to balanced budgets in the distant future.

Joe Biden changed his mind, and will now have a super-PAC that donors can give unlimited amounts of money to. I really can’t see how this is a good idea.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg are the leaders in contributions and number of contributors. Biden still has a substantial lead in the polls. All the other candidates seem to be struggling.

Tim Ryan and Beto O’Rourke have withdrawn from the race.

and you also might be interested in …

The new Brexit deadline is January 31. On December 12, the UK will elect a new Parliament.

Vox explains what net neutrality has to do with the streaming-service wars: Streaming plans (like HBO Max) that are owned by distribution giants (like AT&T) may be more affordable than plans (like NetFlix or Disney+) that have to work out deals with the ISPs.

Car companies are picking sides: Ford, Honda, BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen are voluntarily agreeing to meet California’s mileage and emission standards, which are a bit lower than the standards the Obama administration had laid out, but are considerably higher than the standards the Trump administration has replaced them with. GM, Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, and Fiat Chrysler are going with the Trump standards.

Toyota’s decision is particularly disappointing, as Prius owners are among the most ecologically-minded car buyers. I have a Honda hybrid, which has been a good car. When I look for a new car next summer, I was planning to compare Toyotas, but now I don’t think I will.

Katie Hill’s situation demonstrates that male privilege is still a thing in politics. OK, the California congresswoman had a messy divorce and an affair with a staffer who doesn’t seem to be complaining about it. (Congressmen who fit that description or worse, line up over there.) But she had to resign because intimate texts and photos wound up on RedState and the Daily Mail. She claims the material came from her ex-husband’s “cyber exploitation”.

As attorneys who work day-in and day-out for individuals suffering the hell of intimate partner and sexual violence — online and offline — we have something important to say: Hill’s allegations cannot be reduced to “revenge porn.” It was far more insidious than that. We attribute it to a perfect storm of three things: 1) an alleged abusive ex, 2) a far-right media apparatus that enabled and amplified misogyny, and 3) a society gleefully receptive to the sexual humiliation of a young woman who dared be powerful.

Hill’s farewell speech to the House is worth reading. She mentions that she resigned not because of what has already come out but because of “hundreds more photos and text messages that they would release bit by bit until they broke me down to nothing”.

The forces of revenge by a bitter jealous man, cyber exploitation and sexual shaming that target our gender and a large segment of society that fears and hates powerful women have combined to push a young woman out of power and say that she doesn’t belong here. Yet a man who brags about his sexual predation, who has had dozens of women come forward to accuse him of sexual assault, who pushes policies that are uniquely harmful to women and who has filled the courts with judges who proudly rule to deprive women of the most fundamental right to control their own bodies, sits in the highest office of the land.

So today, as my last vote, I voted on impeachment proceedings. Not just because of corruption, obstruction of justice or gross misconduct, but because of the deepest abuse of power, including the abuse of power over women.

Slate’s legal reporter Dahlia Lithwick, whose opinion on key court cases I have often quoted, has written a powerful essay explaining why she can’t bring herself to cover the Supreme Court now that Brett Kavanaugh is on it. It’s a meditation on how “getting over it” so often means making peace with the fact that an injustice is beyond correction now. The powerful get forgiven in hope that maybe they won’t be quite so vindictive against those who tried to hold them accountable. And the powerless just have to suck it up one more time.

I haven’t been inside the Supreme Court since Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed. I’ve been waiting, chiefly in the hope that at some point I would get over it, as I am meant to do for the good of the courts, and the team, and the ineffable someday fifth vote which may occasionally come in exchange for enough bonhomie and good grace. There isn’t a lot of power in my failing to show up to do my job, but there is a teaspoon of power in refusing to normalize that which was simply wrong, and which continues to be wrong. I don’t judge other reporters for continuing to go, and I understand the ways in which justices, judges, law professors, and clerks must operate in a world where this case is closed. Sometimes I tell myself that my new beat is justice, as opposed to the Supreme Court. And my new beat now seems to make it impossible to cover the old one.

As you might have guessed, Trump’s wall isn’t all that he makes it out to be. Smugglers have been sawing through sections of it with a $100 saw. It’s the age-old problem: When you invest your resources in a fixed defense, your opponents know what they have to work around. Eventually they figure out how.

and let’s close with something calming

I don’t think I’ve seen quite enough puppy pictures yet. Here’s a gallery of them.

Do What’s Right

No Sift next week. The next new posts will appear on November 4.

I have had the privilege and the honor of working with a lot of presidents. And I didn’t always agree with them. But I always believed that they were men of principle, that they were trying to do what was right by the country. They didn’t always get it right, but they were trying to do what was right. I don’t see that in this president.

– retired Admiral William H. McRaven
former commander of the U.S. Special Forces Operations Command

This week’s featured posts are “A Liberal View of Intervention” and “The Leader or the Law?“.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

One of the featured posts looks at Trump’s defense strategy, which I see as a pure power play: Forget the law, forget the facts, forget the Constitution — are you with me or against me?

This week’s testimony to the impeachment inquiry didn’t have a standout moment, but a parade of foreign-service officers put a lot of detail into the picture: Trump didn’t just get a wild idea during a phone call and say something he shouldn’t. There was a months-long program to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrats, and a clear intention to withhold military aid until they did. Anybody who wasn’t down with that program (like recalled Ambassador Marie Yovanovich) was pushed out.

On Fox News, John Yoo made the absurd point that the framers of the Constitution “would never have wanted an impeachment within a year of an election”. I’ve discussed this objection before, but Eric Columbus sums up the counter-argument very succinctly.

Any caution about not impeaching too close to an election makes no sense where the impeachable conduct is aimed at subverting that election.

Also worth pointing out: Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial before the Senate was in March of 1868, only eight months before a presidential election.

Thursday, retired Admiral William McRaven, famous as the architect of the Bin Laden raid, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “Our Republic is under Attack from the President“.

We are not the most powerful nation in the world because of our aircraft carriers, our economy, or our seat at the United Nations Security Council. We are the most powerful nation in the world because we try to be the good guys. We are the most powerful nation in the world because our ideals of universal freedom and equality have been backed up by our belief that we were champions of justice, the protectors of the less fortunate. … President Trump seems to believe that these qualities are unimportant or show weakness. He is wrong. These are the virtues that have sustained this nation for the past 243 years. … And if this president doesn’t understand their importance, if this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.

But if you are a Fox News viewer, you probably don’t know about this. Friday and Sunday mornings I searched for “McRaven” on the Fox News web site and turned up no articles since September 20.

More reason to believe that you’ll strike corruption in TrumpWorld anywhere you drill: Months ago, Michael Cohen claimed that Trump manipulated reports on the value of his properties, estimating high when he was looking for loans and low when he was paying taxes. This week, a new Pro Publica report fleshed that out.

For instance, Trump told the lender that he took in twice as much rent from one building as he reported to tax authorities during the same year, 2017. … A dozen real estate professionals told ProPublica they saw no clear explanation for multiple inconsistencies in the documents. The discrepancies are “versions of fraud,” said Nancy Wallace, a professor of finance and real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. “This kind of stuff is not OK.”

This is how they found out:

ProPublica obtained the property tax documents using New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The documents were public because Trump appealed his property tax bill for the buildings every year for nine years in a row, the extent of the available records. We compared the tax records with loan records that became public when Trump’s lender, Ladder Capital, sold the debt on his properties as part of mortgage-backed securities.

Josh Marshall raises another corruption question: When you see how much trouble Trump was willing to go to to get illicit favors out of Ukraine, you have to wonder what he has gotten from far more pliable countries like the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

Trump’s willingness has always been a given. That of crooked oligarchies looking for advantage is equally so. The question has been the acquiescence, if not necessarily the connivance, of high level advisors. That is clear now too.

In other words, there is every reason to think, the very strong likelihood that Donald Trump’s corruption and lawlessness has already infected relationships with numerous countries abroad. It’s now just a matter of finding out the details.

Wednesday afternoon at Trump’s press conference with Italian President Mattarella, the translator’s face expressed how a lot of us feel when we listen to him.

and Syria

In one of the featured posts, I take a step back and seek some consistency in my own positions. I oppose Trump’s running out on the Kurds. But I also want to limit America’s military interventions. How do those fit together?

Along the way, I look at the situation of the Kurds, and Mitch McConnell’s restatement of the post-World-War-II, pro-intervention foreign policy consensus.

Lapdog Lindsey Graham is back in his kennel. He now thinks Trump’s Syria policy can lead to “some historic solutions in Syria that have eluded us for years”. Whatever he said last week has gone down the memory hole.

Wednesday, Trump was supposed to present his Syria policy to a bipartisan collection of skeptical leaders from Congress, where the House had just voted to condemn it 354-60. The meeting quickly fell apart, with Democratic leaders walking out to report Trump’s “meltdown” into shouting insults at Nancy Pelosi.

Trump countered by claiming Pelosi had a meltdown — sort of like in the 2016 debate when Trump cleverly responded to Clinton’s accusation that he was Putin’s puppet by saying “No. You’re the puppet.” (Trump must have been a hell of a debater in second grade.)

Trump decided to back up his case by posting this historic picture, which otherwise we would never have seen.

Apparently Trump believed that it made Pelosi look “unhinged”. But just about everyone else thinks it makes her look badass. Pelosi herself is using the picture as her Twitter cover photo. If you look closely at the men (they’re all men) on Trump’s side of the table, most of them look ashamed, particularly General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs, who sits to Trump’s right.

After Trump is finally gone, however that happens, somebody should turn this image into a oil painting and hang it in the Capitol.

BTW, this example points to a factor that makes me hopeful about removing Trump from office, despite the obstacles: Trump has bamboozled himself, as propagandists often do, and that will cause him to make mistakes — like imagining that this photo is a good look for him and a bad look for Pelosi.

I have treated with skepticism all Republican or conservative voices who have denounced Trump, wondering if they will nonetheless find some excuse to vote to re-elect him in 2020. Many of them knew what Trump was in 2016. (But her emails!)

Anyway, David Brooks is saying no to that, at least for now. He’s rooting for a moderate Democrat to win the nomination, but eventually comes around to this conclusion:

And yet, if it comes to Trump vs. Warren in a general election, the only plausible choice is to support Warren. … Politics is downstream from morality and culture. Warren represents a policy wrong turn, in my view, but policies can be argued about and reversed. Trump represents a much more important and fundamental threat — to the norms, values, standards and soul of this country.

He leaned the same way in his last column before the 2016 election.

Many of us disagree strongly with many Clinton policies. But any sensible person can distinguish between an effective operating officer and a whirling disaster who is only about himself.

But in that column he didn’t come out and say explicitly that he would vote for Hillary, or that other conservatives should.

and the Democratic debate

I’m ashamed to admit how little attention I’ve given this. It’s startling how the action in American politics has shifted to Congress and the courts recently, and away from the campaign trail.

You can watch the whole thing starting here.

and Brexit

For a moment it looked like this might all work out. Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he had reached a Brexit deal with the EU. The deal is complicated, but essentially leaves Northern Ireland running by EU rules on trade.

In practice, that meant that, rather than putting a border on the island of Ireland, Britain would have to put one in the Irish Sea, and impose regulatory and customs checks for items passing from Britain into Northern Ireland.

Johnson’s allies representing Northern Ireland might not like that, but it was the best he could do.

Parliament was supposed to vote on the deal Saturday, but then things got interesting: Parliament decided to put off a final vote on the Brexit deal until after it passed all the implementing legislation. The point of that, as I get it, was to make sure that no last-minute stunt could throw the country into a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Anyway, that meant that an October 18 deadline passed, requiring Johnson to request an extension from the EU. He did, but also told them he didn’t mean it. It’s not clear what they’re going to do about it. The BBC has a flow chart that explains all the possibilities.

and you also might be interested in …

Elijah Cummings died Thursday. He was 68 and had been in poor health for some time.

The State Department’s official investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server concluded in September and its unclassified report was released this week.

While there were some instances of classified information being inappropriately introduced into an unclassified system in furtherance of expedience, by and large, ‘the individuals interviewed were aware of security policies and did their best to implement them in their operations. … There was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information. [italics added]

Well, I’m glad nobody made a big deal out it, then. [BTW, I will take credit now for having gotten this issue right at the time in “About Those Emails“.]

The details of Trump’s “tremendous” trade deal with China are already starting to unravel. The markets apparently don’t take seriously Trump’s claim that the Chinese have agreed to buy $40 or $50 billion of American agricultural products. The price of soybeans hasn’t budged.

It’s bad enough that US immigration officials are continuing to separate children from their parents. But it turns out that in some cases the separation may be permanent: Some states are letting Americans adopt children whose parents have been deported.

An important addition to the abortion discussion is “I Had a Late-Term Abortion. I Am Not a Monster.” by

I ended my child’s life. At 23 weeks and six days into my pregnancy, I had a “late term” abortion. When people ask, “How could you?” I reply that allowing her to live would have been a fate worse than death. Her diagnosis was not fatal, not incompatible with the bare mechanics of a living body. But it was incompatible with a fulfilling life. … I know I made the best choice for my child. I do not regret it, and I will not hide it.

It is important to tell the stories of actual late-term abortions, because they almost never match the vicious portraits painted by the anti-abortion movement. More typically, late-term abortions are morally serious decisions made with great care and anguish.

The point of Werking-Yip’s essay isn’t that of course you would have done the same thing, but that you probably have no idea what it’s like to face such a decision.

You might swear up and down that you could never make the choice I did, but you never know for sure until the time comes.

What makes the abortion question so difficult to discuss is that it’s actually two questions:

  • What should be done?
  • Who should decide what to do?

Pro-life advocates focus on the first question, and their answer is that abortions should not be done, no matter the circumstances. Having come to that conclusion, they want the government to decide once and for all: no abortions.

Pro-choice advocates focus on the second question, and say that pregnant women should decide what happens to their pregnancies, in consultation with the people they trust and rely on: spouses, families, friends, doctors, religious advisors. They reject a one-size-fits-all government decision.

That’s why the two sides talk past each other: They’re answering different questions.

A Sandy Hook father won a defamation suit against an author whose book claims the father faked his son’s death as part of a government plot to impose gun control. The jury awarded him $450,000. Similar defamation suits against Alex Jones are still pending.

Responding to Attorney General Barr’s speech blaming all societal problems on secularism, never-Trump Republican columnist Jennifer Rubin lists the issues that she never wants to hear Trump Republicans lecture about again:

  • moral values. “If one spends years tolerating, supporting and defending a president whose character is lower than any president in modern memory, one loses the right to wag his finger.”
  • the rule of law. “As with morality, no more Federalist Society lectures on limited government and constitutional conservatism, please.”
  • foreign policy. “I never want to hear that Republicans are the strong-on-defense and pro-democracy party. Ever.”
  • deficits.

Years ago, Nike ran an ad campaign for Air Jordans with the slogan “It’s got to be the shoes.” It was intentionally ridiculous, because anyone could see that the difference between Michael Jordan and the rest of us wasn’t his shoes. But Nike’s new running shoes have people raising that issue seriously, and oversight organizations are wondering whether they should be banned from competitions.

and let’s close with puppies

I’m guessing we could all use some puppies about now.

American Rope

The saying “never get into a well with an American rope” is gaining currency. The impact will be long-lasting.

Brett McGurk
former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL

This week’s featured posts are “Backstabbing the Kurds is Just Trump Being Trump” and “The Ukraine Story Runs Deeper Than We Thought“.

This week everybody was talking about the chaos in Syria

I covered the unsurprising nature of Trump’s faithlessness to the Syrian Kurds in one of the featured posts. Max Boot makes some of the same points, and then asks: “Are you happy now, Trump supporters? Is all this worth a corporate tax cut?”

Now let’s talk about what’s happening on the ground.

After being deserted by their American allies, the Kurds in northern Syria cut a deal with the Assad regime to protect them from the Turkish invasion.

Syrian state media said units from President Bashar al-Assad’s army were moving north to “confront Turkish aggression on Syrian territory”. Unconfirmed reports said the deal between the Kurds and the regime would be extended to apply to the whole of north-east Syria. …

The deal is likely to be a bitter end to five years of semi-autonomy for Kurdish groups in north-east Syria, forced by Ankara’s offensive on the area. Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring started on Wednesday after Donald Trump’s announcement that US forces would withdraw from the region.

The Russia-brokered deal gives Assad control over a large chunk of the country that had been independent, but it’s hard to blame the Kurds for making it. Assad wants to be their dictator, but Turkey might be planning an ethnic cleansing.

No one knows what happens next. Maybe Turkey and Syria will fight a war. Maybe there will be a quick ceasefire, brokered by Russia — with the US more or less irrelevant. Maybe we’ll get our 1000 troops out of Syria without losing any of them, or maybe we won’t.

One thing is certain: No one in the US government looked this far ahead. Trump certainly didn’t, and his decision to OK Turkey’s invasion surprised everybody else.

As so often is the case when Trump does something that doesn’t seem to make sense, it will benefit Putin. Was that the plan, or just a happy accident?

Initially, American troops were just pulling back to let Turkey establish a buffer zone, but now that the Kurds are with Assad, there’s no real role for the US any more. So Trump has announced that all American troops will leave Syria.

How they’ll get out is still an issue, but I’m sure the Pentagon will come up with something. Defense Secretary Esper said yesterday:

We have American forces likely caught between two opposing, advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation. I spoke with the President last night, after discussions with the rest of the national security team, and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.

This points out an issue that isn’t getting nearly enough coverage: We know that Trump made his decision to greenlight Turkey’s invasion during a phone call with Turkish President Erdoğan, and that the entire defense and diplomacy establishment was blindsided by it. This means that the experts weren’t consulted in the decision-making process, but Trump supporters can (with some justification) point to past US mistakes as evidence that expert-approved decisions aren’t always that great anyway.

But here’s the side of the story that’s getting missed: It isn’t just the decision-making process that got cut short, it was the planning process too. There’s a crisis going on, and the whole US government is out there with no plan. The troops don’t know how they’re pulling out. Nobody has thought about the inevitable refugee crisis. Our other allies in Syria (like France) don’t know what they’re supposed to do with their people. (And don’t think they won’t remember this the next time we ask them to join a coalition.) Our ambassadors to allied countries don’t know how to answer the questions they’re getting. Nobody seems to have thought about how to secure the ISIS prisoners the Kurds were holding. And so on.

The Washington Post reports:

“This is total chaos,” a senior administration official said at midday, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the confusing situation in Syria.

Although “the Turks gave guarantees to us” that U.S. forces would not be harmed, the official said, Syrian militias allied with them “are running up and down roads, ambushing and attacking vehicles,” putting American ­forces — as well as civilians — in danger even as they withdraw. The militias, known as the Free Syrian Army, “are crazy and not reliable.”

If you believe in Trump’s intuition — I don’t, but some people do — you might be comfortable with him ignoring the normal policy-making apparatus and just going with his gut. But there still needs to be an implementation process, or else your evacuation plan might just be to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Here’s something somebody should have thought of in advance:

[O]ver the weekend, State and Energy Department officials were quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons that the United States had long stored, under American control, at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 250 miles from the Syrian border, according to two American officials.

Those weapons, one senior official said, were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages. To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago.

and impeachment

The NYT examines the public statements of Republican senators and finds 0 supporting an impeachment inquiry, 15 who have “expressed concerns or say they have questions”, and 38 who support Trump unequivocally.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent Congress a defiant letter, claiming the House’s impeachment inquiry is unconstitutional. (The Constitution is actually silent about the impeachment process, saying only that “The House of Representatives … shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”) Consequently, the White House pledges to stonewall.

Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it. Because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the Executive Branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers, you have left the President no choice. Consistent with the duties of the President of the United States, and in particular his obligation to preserve the rights of future occupants of his office, President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.

The WaPo annotates that letter. I’ll add an annotation of my own: If it’s up to the President to decide whether an impeachment process is legitimate or not, then we’ve already lost the separation of powers.

One major claim of the letter is that Trump should receive all the due-process privileges of a criminal defendant at a trial: The right to have lawyers present, cross-examine witnesses, call his own witnesses, present evidence, and so on. As the annotations point out, this is the wrong point in the process for that: An impeachment inquiry in the House is like a grand jury investigation, not like a trial. The people under investigation have no official role in a grand-jury investigation. But if the House passes articles of impeachment, then the Senate (presumably) will hold a trial where Trump will have all these due-process rights.

In the Balkinization legal blog, Gerard Magliocca offers a novel interpretation of the White House counsel’s letter:

If an impeachment proceeding in the House can be unconstitutional as the President claims, then why can’t he say the same about the Senate trial? When the Senate trial begins … the President is bound to whine that he is being treated unfairly or that the Chief Justice is treating him unfairly. When, then, should he accept a guilty verdict from this “kangaroo court?” He can just say that the trial was unconstitutional and that he should remain in office. Maybe one object of the White House Counsel’s letter is to establish a predicate for that action.

At one point this week, Trump hinted that he might cooperate “if the rules are fair“. I was amazed by the number of media outlets that took this statement seriously: When has Trump ever admitted that he was being treated fairly? (He thinks it’s not fair that he hasn’t gotten a Nobel Peace Prize yet.)  If the House calls witnesses who say things Trump doesn’t like, that will be unfair in his eyes, because he deserves to have people say only good things about him.

From Ambassador Yovanovitch’s opening statement to the House Intelligence and Oversight Committees:

Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within. State Department leadership, with Congress, needs to take action now to defend this great institution, and its thousands of loyal and effective employees. We need to rebuild diplomacy as the first resort to advance America’s interests and the frontline of America’s defense. I fear that not doing so will harm our nation’s interest, perhaps irreparably.

That harm will come not just through the inevitable and continuing resignation and loss of many of this nation’s most loyal and talented public servants. It also will come when those diplomats who soldier on and do their best to represent our nation face partners abroad who question whether the ambassador truly speaks for the President and can be counted upon as a reliable partner. The harm will come when private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good. The harm will come when bad actors in countries beyond Ukraine see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system. In such circumstances, the only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia, that spread chaos and attack the institutions and norms that the U.S. helped create and which we have benefited from for the last 75 years.

Yovanovitch’s testimony was important not just for what she said. (We don’t know most of what she said.) It was also important because it happened at all. The State Department tried to stop her from testifying, and she ignored them. All the other subpoenaed government officials have to look at that and re-examine their options.

Next up: Trump’s former Russia advisor, Fiona Hill, who I believe is testifying right now behind closed doors. She left the administration just days before the Trump/Zelensky phone call, and is expected to describe the pressure to get rid of Yovanovitch, among other things.

Ms. Hill took her objections to the treatment of Ms. Yovanovitch, who was targeted by Mr. Giuliani and conservative media outlets, to John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, as well as others. Mr. Bolton shared her concerns, according to the person, and was upset at Mr. Giuliani’s activities, which she viewed as essentially co-opting American foreign policy toward Ukraine.

Tomorrow: Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU who somehow wound up overseeing much of the Ukraine scheme. No one is too sure what Sondland is going to say: He’s a Trump donor rather than a career foreign-service guy, but he may not be willing to go down with the ship.

An appeals court says Trump’s accountants have to turn his tax returns over to the House Oversight Committee.

and the trade war

Friday afternoon, I felt like I was watching news reports from two different universes. CNBC was showing delayed video from the Oval Office, where President Trump was announcing a big trade deal with China. As I listened, though, the “deal” seemed more and more ephemeral: It’s a deal in principle, whose actual text isn’t worked out yet. Given how trade diplomacy goes, that could mean it all evaporates, the way that Trump’s agreement to denuclearize North Korea evaporated.

The video dragged on and on with no analysis from CNBC’s experts, so I flipped to MSNBC and CNN, neither of which was talking about it at all. On one channel it was breaking news worth interrupting regular coverage for a considerable length of time. On two others, it wasn’t worth mentioning.

So anyway, the markets seem unthrilled this morning. Here’s some analysis from The Street’s “Real Money” blog:

If Trump claims this to be a “substantial” deal … I am not sure if Trump has any adjectives to use if ever an actual deal were to be signed, [and] one wonders what a real deal would sound like. After all the fuss about the thirteenth round of U.S./China trade talks on October 9, all that came out was the U.S. has agreed to postpone an increase of tariffs from 25% to 30% on $250 billion worth of Chinese imported goods, and that China would purchase between $40 billion and $50 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products.

The hard pressing, game changing issues that Trump always beat his chest about, like Intellectual Property Theft and Technology Transfers, were not even discussed or finalized. The market cheered that tariffs were postponed, but let’s not forget 25% tariffs are still in place. There is no truce and China and U.S. companies are still being penalized. We all know how many times Trump has decided to throw a random curve ball at China days after any negotiation, only to shock the market once again.

and you also might be interested in …

So there’s another Democratic presidential debate tomorrow. It’s the first one since the Ukraine story broke and impeachment became an immediate possibility. It’s also the first one since Bernie Sanders’ heart attack, since Republicans started smearing Joe Biden on a daily basis, and since Elizabeth Warren started topping the polls.

With the way that Syria and impeachment have sucked up attention, I find myself looking at the other candidates in the race and asking, “Are you still running?” I can’t remember the last time I had a thought about Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar.

I will warn Warren supporters not to get too carried away by the recent polls. To me, Biden’s candidacy in some ways resembles Mitt Romney’s in 2012. Several times during the primary campaign, some other candidate briefly passed Romney in the polls before falling back.

Warren continues to be interesting. She was asked what she would to say to someone who believes marriage is between one man and one woman, and her answer went viral:

I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that, and I will say, then just marry one woman. … Assuming you can find one.

Conservatives (like Marco Rubio) took offense, but it’s hard to feel sorry for them, given how mild that put-down was. They can dish out the hostility, but they’re such snowflakes when the slightest disapproval is turned back on them.

Warren also showed some mettle in going after Facebook. Facebook has allowed Trump to post anti-Biden ads that have been rejected by most networks because they make provably false claims about his “corruption” in Ukraine. Biden has protested, but Facebook replied that “when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact checkers”.

Warren decided to take this one step farther than just a protest. Instead, she boomeranged their policy back at them, running an ad headlined:

Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election

That claim isn’t true, and the text of the ad admitted as much. But then it got to the real point:

But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.

So Mark, how do you like when people use your platform to lie about you?

There was another attempt to gin up an anti-Warren scandal. This time the claim is that she “lied” about being fired from her teaching job when she got pregnant. The evidence for this is that at different times she has emphasized different aspects of the story. The school district records just show that she quit.

If the goal was to smear Warren as a liar, it has backfired spectacularly. All over the country, women have spoken out to say yeah, this is how pregnancy discrimination works. There’s not a paper trail. There is plausible deniability, and there is the shame and fear that comes with losing a job. And back when Warren was pregnant, firing pregnant teachers was standard practice across the country – it was unusual to not be let go if you were having a baby.

There’s going to be a lot of this. I expect some new pseudo-scandal every week or two until Warren either becomes president or falls in the polls.

Brexit is steaming toward another deadline. There’s an EU summit on Thursday and Friday. Saturday is Parliament’s deadline for Prime Minister Johnson to either submit the deal he has negotiated with with the EU, or to ask the EU for another extension. If neither a deal nor an extension is worked out, the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on October 31.

Poland had a chance to reverse its slide towards authoritarianism, but decided not to. It looks like the ruling Law and Justice Party increased its majority slightly. Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs. Democracy, comments:

As the example of many other populist governments, from nearby Hungary to faraway Venezuela, show, it is often in their second term in office that populist leaders manage to take full control, intimidating critics and eliminating rival power centers. In this election, the chances of the opposition were already somewhat restricted by a deeply hostile media environment. With the government now holding enough power to institute further anti-democratic reforms, it is likely that it will become ever harder for the opposition to do its work.

and let’s close with something bouncy

I know Sift closings are usually non-political, but I couldn’t resist this one. Here’s a bouncy song about impeachment from Jonathan Coulton and CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight”.

Morally Centered People

I hear this, too, from my Republican Senate colleagues. There is a belief that there is a group in every corner of the government that is out to get Trump. There really are morally centered people who find him deeply distasteful, and it is required of them to raise questions of corruption if they see it. The Trump Administration sees that as a conspiracy.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)

This week’s featured post is “More Answers to Impeachment Objections“.

This week everybody was still talking about impeachment

I focused on that in the featured post. Other new developments are that a second whistleblower is emerging. I suspect we’re about to see a flood: If you’re not objecting to what Trump did, then you’re part of the cover-up.

It’s not immediately related to impeachment, but a federal judge just turned down Trump’s attempt to block a grand jury from subpoenaing his tax returns. The judge said Trump’s claim that a president has “”absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind” is “an overreach of executive power”.

I think we’re going to find out just how partisan this Supreme Court is. The law is clear, but what they’re going to rule isn’t.

Secretary of State Pompeo has not complied with a subpoena from the House.

Something I’ve been wrestling with for months is when a bad president should be impeached and when the voters should just refuse to re-elect him. Nancy Pelosi has come to more-or-less the same conclusion I have: Elections are the way to correct bad policies or to reprimand a president’s character.

If you think he’s a coward on protecting children from gun violence, and you think he’s cruel for not protecting ‘dreamers,’ if you think he is in denial on climate change, take that up in the election. That has nothing to do with what we are doing here. If you think his vocabulary and his behavior and his immorality and his indecency are personally offensive, take it up in the election.

Impeachment, on the other hand, is for abuses of power that endanger the Republic, especially the ones that damage the integrity of the election itself.

No Republicans in Congress have shown real spine yet, but some of them are creating space where a spine might go someday. Mitt Romney is the most obvious. He thinks that it’s “wrong and appalling” for Trump to ask the Chinese to investigate Joe Biden, but he hasn’t said that anything should be done about it. Likewise Susan Collins and Ben Sasse.

Trump has been tweeting that Romney should be “impeached”, apparently not realizing that impeachment is not a thing for senators. There’s also no way for voters to recall a senator. (New presidents really ought to get an introductory lecture on the Constitution.)

and Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theory

Trump’s attempt to get bogus Biden corruption investigations going is getting all the attention, but he’s been asking for another investigation as well: into Ukraine’s role in 2016. (BTW: I don’t think Trump cares that the investigations of Biden won’t find anything. Clinton was never found to have done anything wrong during Benghazi, but the investigations helped create a fog of uncertainty around her. It would be enough to have a bunch of headlines saying “Ukraine opens investigation into Biden corruption charges”.)

You seldom see the Ukraine theory spelled out in detail, because it is in fact a long series of conspiracy theories rolled into one: The DNC computers were never hacked by Russia, but instead DNC staffer Seth Rich leaked the emails and was murdered for it. Then Ukraine and the Clinton campaign conspired to fake the evidence of Russian hacking, and all the US intelligence services (and a number of foreign intelligence services as well) were either fooled by this evidence or were in on the plot. All the predicates of the Mueller investigation were planted or manipulated in some way. Ukraine also framed Paul Manafort, and Mueller tried to use that frame to pressure Manafort to invent evidence against Trump and Russia.

It goes on.

What Trump seems to be hoping for out of the investigations is wiggle room that will allow him to pardon Paul Manafort and relax the sanctions against Russia.

If you want to get more fully read in to this cesspool of speculation and invention, here are some links.
Trump, Giuliani, and Manafort: The Ukraine Scheme

How a Fringe Theory about Ukraine Took Root in the White House

and abortion

In 2015, the Supreme Court threw out a Texas law that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. (When you state it like that, the provision sounds reasonable, but the point is that it’s easy to pressure hospitals to deny such privileges. That’s a roundabout way to keep abortion clinics out of a region.) Now Louisiana has a similar law. In the ordinary practice of law, courts would just apply the Texas ruling to Louisiana and that would be that.

Instead, the Court is going to hear the Louisiana case this term. Nothing has changed in the law, but the vacancy created when Justice Scalia died has been filled by Justice Gorsuch (and not Merrick Garland), while Justice Kennedy has been replaced by Justice Kavanaugh. So the Court may have changed its mind, and “activist judges” may be ready to ignore precedent. Roe v Wade may be in trouble.

People in Maine need to remember: We have Susan Collins to thank for Justice Kavanaugh.

and the Democrats

The Trump-Ukraine scandal is taking up all the attention the public has for politics, which is a problem for Democratic presidential candidates, particularly the ones who are trailing in the polls and need a break-out moment.

The whole thing is unfairly bad for Biden, simply because Trump keeps smearing him. The mainstream news outlets have been pretty good about reminding the public that there is no evidence for Trump’s claims, but the simple repetition is bound to take a toll. After 2016, a lot of Democrats are understandably skittish about nominating a candidate whose rectitude we will need to defend.

The problem is: that’s everybody. Biden isn’t being smeared because there’s something uniquely slimy about him. He’s being smeared because he’s the candidate Trump is most afraid of. If the Democrats nominate someone else, that person will face smears too. No one is so perfect that Trump can’t lie about him or her.

Elizabeth Warren’s recent rise in the polls has brought a smear her way as well. The same guy who tried to gin up false sexual harassment claims against Robert Mueller now says that Warren had sex with a 24-year-old Marine.

Warren responded with humor, tweeting a double entendre connecting her University of Houston degree to a slang term for older women who date younger men. (“Go Cougars!“) In general, her fans laughed with her in a you-go-girl way.

In 2016, a lot of Bernie Sanders fans objected when I wrote that Bernie had never been targeted by the right-wing smear machine, but this is the kind of thing I meant. Right-wingers may refer to Bernie as a crazy Socialist, but he hasn’t faced some complete invention. And Warren hasn’t faced her last one yet, either. No one is so perfect that Trump can’t lie about them.

Sanders had a heart attack Tuesday night. He spent two and a half days in the hospital, had stents inserted into a blocked coronary artery, and says he’s “feeling so much better” and is eager to “get back to work”.

Lots of men have heart attacks and go on to have many more productive years, but this incident is not good for Sanders’ campaign. It feeds the argument that he is too old for the presidency, and comes at a time when his rival for the progressive vote, Elizabeth Warren, is starting to break out in the polls.

Sanders plans to participate in the debate a week from tomorrow.

The NYT ran a piece yesterday on Kamala Harris’ changing strategy — namely, deciding to contest Iowa rather than focusing on later primaries in South Carolina and then California.

But in my view, Harris’ problems run deeper than how she deploys her campaign assets: I don’t know a clear one-line summary of why she’s running in the first place. Biden represents a return to the path America was on before Trump. Sanders and Warren have a bold progressive agenda. Buttigieg is the non-Washington outsider with Midwestern common sense. But what is Harris?

I’m reminded of Marco Rubio in 2016. Demographically, he was exactly what the Republican Party needed: a young, handsome, conservative Latino. But there was never a convincing story about what a Rubio presidency would mean for the country.

but I read a book this week

Samantha Power turns out to be an engaging writer. Her autobiography The Education of an Idealist combines policy with interesting characters — some in her family, some in the Obama administration, and some in the UN.

The main philosophical theme that runs through the book is the relationship between power and principle. You can do a lot of good in the world if you manage to get into the room where decisions are being made. But if you compromise too many of your principles to stay in a position of power, you become just another cog in the system of global injustice.

Early in Power’s career, she’s a free-lance journalist covering the genocide in Bosnia at considerable personal risk. She resents the government officials she sees zipping by in their armored limos, who could do so much to end this genocide if they just would. The whole point of her journalism was to make Bosnia harder for officials to ignore.

Years later, she’s in the Obama administration when Assad is killing large numbers of his own Syrian people, creating the refugee crisis that then destabilized much of Europe. Obama isn’t doing as much to stop Assad as she wants. What to do?

The book doesn’t provide an easy answer, and she isn’t smug that she got the balance right.

The book also has a lot of sparkling personal stories. During Obama’s 2008 campaign, she met and then married Cass Sunstein, who is famous in his own right. During Obama’s first term, the two of them are like West Wing characters — working long days, eating takeout in their offices, and so on.

In Obama’s second term, Sunstein goes back to teaching and Power becomes UN Ambassador. That means her official residence is now the huge, posh penthouse apartment of the Waldorf Astoria, with its full staff of servants. There are many amusing culture-shock stories, since neither Power nor Sunstein had ever lived that way before.

My favorite is when she finds herself on a ladder, collecting the ping-pong balls that have accumulated in the chandelier of the apartment’s Great Room, where an official event is going to be held soon. The balls got there because she had been pitching them to her eight-year-old son, who hit them with a whiffle bat. She thinks: “Somehow I can’t see Adlai Stevenson doing this.”

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According to a new book by University of California Professors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

For the first time on record, the 400 wealthiest Americans last year paid a lower total tax rate — spanning federal, state and local taxes — than any other income group, according to newly released data.

It didn’t used to be like this.

The overall tax rate on the richest 400 households last year was only 23 percent, meaning that their combined tax payments equaled less than one quarter of their total income. This overall rate was 70 percent in 1950 and 47 percent in 1980.

We appear to be turning on an ally: the Kurds in northern Syria. Turkey has been warning that it plans to send troops into northern Syria, and now Trump is pulling back American troops who otherwise would be in the way.

In a major shift in United States military policy in Syria, the White House said on Sunday that President Trump had given his endorsement for a Turkish military operation that would sweep away American-backed Kurdish forces near the border in Syria.

Turkey reportedly plans to establish a buffer zone in Syria, and repatriate Syrian refugees into it.

The Kurds have been major allies in the battle against ISIS, and are holding a number of ISIS prisoners. What will happen to them is anyone’s guess.

Brett McGurk, who was the special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat the ISIS until he resigned last December shortly after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s decision (slightly relaxed since) to withdraw all US troops from Syria, said:

This looks to be another reckless decision made without deliberation or consultation following a call with a foreign leader. The White House statement bears no relation to facts on the ground. If implemented, it will significantly increase risk to our personnel, as well as hasten ISIS’s resurgence.

Having just read the Power book, I worry about genocide. The Syrian refugees that Turkey settles in their buffer zone will be people that no one cares about. What will happen to them?

Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) resigned from Congress prior to pleading guilty in an insider-trading case. He was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s candidacy. And he took at least one page from Trump’s book, denouncing the charges against him (to which he now pleads guilty) as “fake news“.

North Korea says the Trump administration has been misleading the public about their nuclear negotiations, which have broken down.

Meanwhile, missile tests have resumed. North Korea recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

About a hundred people have died in anti-government protests in Iraq.

The protests began last Tuesday, starting small and driven by social media with calls for an end to corruption and a new commitment to kick-start Iraq’s moribund economy. The gatherings have mushroomed into large demonstrations of thousands calling for the downfall of the government in an intentional echo of the 2011 Arab Spring protests that brought down leaders in several Middle East countries.

Remember how much grief Obama took for not doing more to back democracy protesters in Iran? Trump has agreed to say nothing about the Hong Kong protests to keep trade talks with China moving.

and let’s close with something portentous

Let’s hope there’s some symbolic significance in this collection of falling dominoes.

Be Not Afraid

I have learned that if you are truthful, people respond, even if they don’t agree with you. We have to find our truth and not be afraid to be straight with people.

– Barack Obama (2005)
quoted in The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

This week’s featured post is “Answers to Impeachment Objections“. It covers arguments about impeachment. Developments in the impeachment story are covered below.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

The action on impeachment is happening in the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Adam Schiff (who Trump is accusing of treason). The next step seems to be to interview the whistleblower behind closed doors, hopefully without revealing his or her identity. (Good luck with that. Trump stooge Devin Nunes will be in the room.)

I don’t believe a specific date for that hearing has been set yet, but Schiff promises it “very soon”.

The important thing to understand about the whistleblower complaint is that it is a roadmap for investigation. Trump wants to paint it as a he-said/she-said dispute between him and an anonymous person, but that’s not the point. The WB will be asked where he got his information, and then Schiff’s committee will seek testimony from those people and subpoena the supporting documents. By the time an article of impeachment is written, the support for it will probably barely mention the WB.

We’ve already seen this happen with the Ukraine phone call. The WB described the call very accurately, but that doesn’t really matter any more, because we have the White House transcript of it. Lawfare calls the conversation “self-impeaching”.

The major revelation that still needs support is that the White House tried to hide the Ukraine transcript in a hyper-secure computer system meant for something else entirely. If true, this points to consciousness of wrongdoing, and raises the question of what other presidential transcripts may have been hidden away for similar reasons.

CBS has independently verified that “the transcript was moved to the computer system at the direction of National Security Council attorneys”. CNN has discovered that Trump’s calls with Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were also removed from the usual record-keeping system, though it didn’t find out whether it was on the same system as the Ukraine call.

It’s worth considering what these politically damaging calls imply: The foreign leaders on the other side have something to hold over Trump’s head. Imagine if one of Trump’s conversations with Putin is as damaging to him as the conversation with Zelensky. Putin can threaten to release that any time he wants. That gives him leverage over Trump.

Trump asked Ukraine’s Zelensky for two “favors”, one about dirt on Biden, and then other about “Crowdstrike”. This concerns a conspiracy theory that comes from Russia, in which the real villain of the 2016 election mischief is Ukraine.

Trump’s original Homeland Security Adviser, Thomas Bossert, explains that Trump has been repeatedly briefed on the evidence that the Crowdstrike/Ukraine theory is bogus, but he can’t let go of it.

“It is completely debunked,” Mr. Bossert said of the Ukraine theory on ABC. Speaking with George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Bossert blamed Mr. Giuliani for filling the president’s head with misinformation. “I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again, and for clarity here, George, let me just again repeat that it has no validity.”

Bossert doesn’t draw this conclusion, but his version of events doesn’t make Trump sound like a very rational person.

By my count, Trump tweeted 23 times yesterday about some conversation between Ed Henry and Mark Levin, claiming that Levin “mopped the floor” with Henry’s criticism of Trump. That’s a measure of how inhinged he has gotten, and hard he had to search to find something positive on the Sunday talk shows.

Meanwhile on Fox News, Chris Wallace was interviewing the White House’s Prince of Darkness, Stephen Miller. Wallace teed up what should have been a perfect question for Miller, if there was the slightest validity to his message. “How specifically did the Bidens break the law in Ukraine?” He couldn’t give a straight answer.

Somebody should tell Trump that witness intimidation is a crime. Thursday he told the US Mission to the UN that the White House officials who gave the whistleblower his information were “close to a spy”.

You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.

In other words, he implied they should be executed. The House Intelligence Committee is going to want them to testify, and the President is threatening them with death.

No doubt if one of his violent followers does kill a witness, Trump will say that this was a joke. CNN’s David Gergen doesn’t see it that way.

One minor detail of the Trump/Zelensky conversation gives support to the theory that Trump’s properties are avenues for foreign bribery. Zelensky makes sure to mention that he stayed at Trump Tower the last time he was in New York. It’s clear that he believes one way to butter up Trump is to point out that you’ve paid him money.

Whether or not it’s actually true that patrons of Trump properties get a better deal from the White House, it’s clear that’s what foreign leaders believe.

and Greta

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke to the UN last Monday. Her speech was short and you can read the transcript.

The point of her speech, as I read it, is to call the current generation of decision-makers to account for what it’s doing to her generation and generations to come. She puts a face on a nightmare that should haunt all of us: When people look back on us in 100 years, won’t they curse us for what we did and failed to do?

Almost more interesting that what Greta said herself were the unhinged responses she evoked from the Right. Dinesh D’Souza compared her role in the climate campaign to the Nazis’ use of “Nordic white girls with braids” in their propaganda. (Putting children in cages in border concentration camps doesn’t remind D’Souza of the Nazis, but Greta does.) Sebastian Gorka OTOH, was reminded the Communists rather than the Nazis:

This performance by @GretaThunberg is disturbingly redolent of a victim of a Maoist “re-education” camp. The adults who brainwashed this autist child should be brought up on child abuse charges.

Laura Ingraham referenced Stephen King’s horror story Children of the Corn, in which children kill adults. Because we grown-ups are the victims here.

Greta’s Asperger’s syndrome also drew fire on Fox News’ from Michael Knowles, who mischaracterized it as mental illness.

The climate hysteria movement is not about science. If it were about science it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international Left.

The absurdity here is nearly overwhelming. Scientists have been trying to warn the world about climate change for 30 years or more, but have not been listened to by people exactly like Michael Knowles. You can’t ignore the scientists for decades, and then criticize Greta for not being a scientist. The debate is not even about science any more, because the science has been long settled. It’s about morality now, about our selfishness and our ability to ignore our responsibility to future generations. That’s why a child’s jeremiad is so effective.

Justin Murphy brought sex into the discussion, because what else ever comes to mind when a 16-year-old girl is involved?

Not even being provocative but if you think Greta Thunberg has the maturity to guide global policy-making then you cannot object to Jeffrey Epstein paying 16-year-olds for sex.

Yep, if they’re old enough to have opinions about the hellish future we’re making for them, they’re old enough to be prostitutes. How can you argue with that logic?

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Israel still doesn’t have a new government, nearly two weeks after an election gave 33 seats to the Blue and White Party, 31 to Likud, and scattered the rest among other parties. 61 votes are necessary to form a Knesset majority. Likud’s incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given the first opportunity to form a government, but that doesn’t seem to be working out. If he gives back the mandate, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz will get a chance. If he fails as well, a third round of elections may be necessary.

In Sunday’s NYT, Micah Goodman summarized the problem like this: The two-state peace plan favored by the Left leaves Israelis feeling unsafe against attacks from the newly independent territories, which they imagine being similar to Gaza. The one-state plan favored by the Right (in which Israel annexes such large chunks of the occupied territories that a Palestinian state ceases to be feasible) produces a country without a clear ethnic majority (even though Israeli Jews would still dominate the electorate) like Lebanon.

Rejecting both views, Goodman calls for “shrinking the conflict” rather than trying to solve it. That seems to mean leaving things as they are while making the Israeli occupation less onerous to the Palestinians.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of references in social media to a Salon article from June: “There is hard data that a centrist Democrat would be a losing candidate“. The article is by Keith Spencer, who states a provocative thesis:

the Democratic Party that is wantonly ignoring mounds of social science data that suggests that promoting centrist candidates is a bad, losing strategy when it comes to winning elections.

I feel an obligation to rebut this, not because the conclusion is necessarily wrong, but because it misrepresents the paper it relies on. The “mountains of data” Spencer refers to are in a paper by economist Thomas Piketty, who is famous for Capital in the 21st Century. The paper is called “Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right“. It’s an academic paper that is a bit of a tough read, clocking in (with appendices) at 180 pages.

Unfortunately, if you actually read Piketty’s paper, it’s about something else entirely. Spencer’s Salon article looks like a pure flight of fancy. Let me tell you what the paper is actually about:

Piketty presents data to show that educational and economic elites used to be united in the conservative parties of class-based political systems. But in recent decades educational elites have turned left and economic elites have stayed right. So whereas the Left used to be centered in the working class and the Right in the upper class, now there’s an upper-class split, with the intellectual upper class leading the Left and the financial upper class leading the Right. That’s quite possibly why the working class feels neglected.

Piketty is trying to figure out whether that trend will stabilize, or whether there’s a longer transition going on that will reunify each class in a globalist/nativist split. In that vision, the upper class will coalesce in an internationalist party that champions immigration, free trade, and cross-cultural equality, while the working class will form a Trumpist party that is nativist, religious, and socially conservative.

Spencer makes much of one line in Piketty’s paper, which he misinterprets:

Without a strong and convincing egalitarian-internationalist platform, it is inherently difficult to unite low-education, low-income voters from all origins within the same party.

An egalitarian-internationalist platform would be one that convinces domestic lower-income classes that migration and globalization work in their favor rather than against them. Piketty does not suggest what such a platform would be, or even assert that such a platform is possible. (Maybe there is no way to make migration and globalization work for the domestic lower class.) He certainly doesn’t relate that platform to the current centrist/progressive split in the US Democratic Party.

The “hard data” is historical post-election polling from France, the UK, and the US that demonstrates the gradual separation of the financial elite from the educational elite. It’s doesn’t purport to have predictive value about the prospects centrist Democratic candidates.

and let’s close with some historical context on the climate

XKCD provides a response to the people who say “The climate is always changing.”

Legitimacy and Authority

Democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. But the premise of Trumpist populism is that the legitimacy and authority of government is conditional on agreement with the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens — a group mainly composed of white, Christian conservatives.

– Will Wilkinson, “Why an Assault Weapon Ban Hits Such a Nerve with Many Conservatives

This week’s featured post is “He’s not going to stop on his own“.

This week everybody was talking about a new impeachable offense

Trump isn’t allowing us to see any details, but it sure looks like he tried to strong-arm Ukraine’s president into digging up dirt on Joe Biden. That’s the subject of the featured post, which also raises the question: If the line Trump isn’t allowed to cross isn’t here, then where is it?

and responding to the attack on Saudi Arabia

Only in the Trump administration does the possibility of a new and bigger war in the Middle East get pushed off the front pages in a few days.

The nine days since the drone-and-missile attack on oil-production facilities in Saudi Arabia have been a lesson in why the United States needs a foreign policy and foreign-policy professionals who specialize in particular regions.

Let us assume for the moment that Iran was behind the attack. (The administration and the Saudi government say it was, but I don’t see why I should trust either of them, given their past lies. The Saudi government has put forward ridiculous explanations of the Khashoggi murder, and Trump’s lies number in the thousands. But I also don’t see who else would have done this.) The US is then left with a wide choice of responses, from issuing a strongly worded statement to raining nuclear annihilation on the Iranians, and everything in between. Each possibility needs to be examined from a variety of viewpoints: Could the response be carried out successfully? What might Iran do then? What would the Saudis think? What would other countries counting on US protection think? How would our response affect the political situation inside Iran? What would the rest of the world think? and so on.

Who’s going to do all that analysis? Trump? I doubt it.

The reason we’re here now is that Trump’s worldview has a flaw typical of people who glory in their own power: He imagines that when he acts, his adversaries will have no options other than to give him what he wants. (We’ve seen this in the trade war with China: He’ll raise tariffs, and China will just have to give in.) And so with Iran: He walked away from Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and imposed harsh sanctions, imagining that the Iranians would have no recourse other than to give him a better deal than Obama got.

This is a different recourse.

Trump may well imagine that some kind of military counterattack on Iran will be similarly unanswerable. We’ll bomb comparable oil facilities of theirs, or take out some part of their military infrastructure, or hit something else they value — and they’ll just have to take it. Like he tweeted shortly after taking office: “I will make our Military so big, powerful & strong that no one will mess with us.” How’s that working out?

One thing is predictable: Iran will not try to slug it out with us, hitting back at us in the same way that we hit them. If this gets into a tit-for-tat exchange, the Iranian moves will likely continue to widen the conflict into areas Trump has not considered.

US troops are being sent to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The deployment is said to be “defensive”.

One argument is not going to fly with the American people: that we should defend Saudi Arabia because they’re great customers who “pay cash“. President Bush always denied that we invaded Iraq for the oil, rightly understanding that such a transactional view of war cheapens the lives of our soldiers. But Trump goes right there:

This is something that’s much different than other Presidents would mention, Jon. But the fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something. They’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.

If war-for-oil is bad, how much worse is it to imagine that your son or sister or other loved one might be dodging bullets purely for money?

And then we have to ask: Whose money?

With Trump refusing to release his tax returns and obstructing any investigation of his finances, we have no idea how much Saudi money he has taken or is still taking. Vox mentions a few of the things we do know:

The manager of Trump’s hotel in New York credited a timely stay by members of the Saudi Crown Prince’s entourage (though not the prince himself) with lifting revenue there by 13 percent in one quarter last year. Lobbying disclosures showed that Saudi lobbyists spent $260,000 at Trump’s hotel in DC back in December 2016 during the transition. Separately, the Kingdom itself spent $190,273 at Trump’s hotel in early 2017.

But the truth is that nobody really has any idea how much money Trump gets from the Saudis or other Persian Gulf regimes. He owns a golf club in Dubai but its membership roster isn’t public information any more than the membership list at any of Trump’s other clubs is public knowledge.

The fact about the crown prince’s entourage’s visit to Trump’s hotel in New York happens to have leaked to the Washington Post, but we don’t know what kind of hotel stays haven’t leaked.

In fact, we know next to nothing at all about Trump’s financial relationships with anyone, other than that Trump refuses to do any kind of meaningful disclosure and shows no interest in avoiding either the appearance or the reality of impropriety.

In particular, we have no way of knowing whether those payments are ordinary market-rate fee-for-service transactions, or whether they are just cover for bribes.

We do know that Trump has been very solicitous of the Saudis, their horrific war in Yemen, and their murderous crown prince. He’s issued five vetoes since taking office; four of them have something to do with Saudi Arabia.

and the Climate Strike

Protestors around the world demanded action on climate change Friday. Demonstrations estimated at over 100,000 people happened in a number of cities from New York to Berlin to Melbourne. Worldwide, as many as 4 million people may have participated.

and a back-to-school video

The Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, a group founded by parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, released a video that brings the school-shooting problem into focus. Without advocating for any particular political outcome — neither a bill in Congress nor candidates who can stand up to the NRA — the video uses back-to-school products to contrast the hopes parents have for the new school year with the terrifying situations their children may actually face.

and Elizabeth Warren’s rise

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders started far ahead of her, but Warren has consistently chugged along. The RealClearPolitics polling average has her pulling ahead of Sanders nationally (19.8% to 16.6%), though still well behind Biden (30.2%). Two of the three most recent Iowa polls have her leading Biden as well.

You may not have noticed, but Mayor DeBlasio has pulled out of the presidential race. He didn’t qualify for the third debate and wasn’t likely to be in the fourth one either.

and Israel

It’s still not clear who will lead the next government in Israel. Netanyahu’s Likud party got out-voted; it has only 31 Knesset seats compared to Blue and White’s 33. But it takes 61 votes to form a ruling coalition, so some intense politicking is going on. Netanyahu has looked dead before and come back, so it’s too soon to count him out.

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Since the Clean Air Act of 1970, California has had the power to set stricter standards for auto emissions and fuel economy than the federal standards. Recently the state has tried to use that power to unite automakers behind standards closer to the Obama standards than the much lower standards the Trump administration has proposed.

Wednesday Trump tweeted that California’s standard-setting power has been revoked. A legal battle is likely to ensue.

On the same day, he said that his EPA is going to cite San Francisco for its homelessness problem.

Trump said the issue was an environmental one because “tremendous pollution”, including syringes used by homeless addicts to inject drugs, was flowing into the Pacific Ocean from Bay Area cities.

This seems to be more about Trump’s war with California than any concern with either the homeless or the environment. He provided no evidence to support the claims about syringes.

California does have a significant homelessness problem, caused by the combination of high rents and good weather. Living rough is a bit easier in Los Angeles than in Chicago.

Ben Carson is getting flack for his anti-trans comments. He claims to have heard complaints about “big hairy men” coming into women’s shelters claiming to be women. This is a common religious-right trope — that accepting transfolk enables men to get into bathrooms and other places where they can abuse women — but it seems to be more fantasy than reality.

This is a phenomenon I’ve talked about before with regard to guns. Right-wing policy is often based on responding to dark fantasies rather than to real events.

The new wall design, he says, “can’t be climbed.” Trump knows this because he had “20 mountain climbers … some of them champions” try to climb a prototype. Strangely, though, no one in the US mountain climbing community has ever heard of this test. Meanwhile, some Mexicans ran their own tests.

Abortions are down, from 16.9 per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 2011 to 13.5 in 2017. That’s “the lowest rate recorded since abortion was legalized in 1973”. The reason seems to be better contraception rather than increased restrictions on abortion.

If abortions were down because abortions are harder to get, you’d expect to see the difference mainly in the most restrictive states, and you’d also expect to see an increase in births. But the decline was across the board, and births went down as well as abortions.

The report is tentative about drawing conclusions about causes, but suggests that one possible explanation is an increase in “long-acting reversible contraceptive methods” like intrauterine devices and implants. One reason for that might be ObamaCare; such methods are more expensive, but are covered by ObamaCare policies.

The Pentagon has spent more than $184K at Trump’s Turnberry Resort in Scotland since 2017.

Is it wrong to laugh at this? I mean, it’s disturbing and alarming, but … seriously?

When the Rev. Dan Reehil, a Catholic priest, ordered the removal of all Harry Potter books from the parish school’s library, the St. Edward community demanded an explanation. Father Reehil responded by email, noting that he had “consulted several exorcists, both in the United States and in Rome,” and had been assured that the “curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

Like many people who either have or know children, I’ve read big chunks of Harry Potter out loud. It seems like I would have noticed the evil spirits.

Obama ended junk health insurance, but Trump brought it back. An article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek tells the story of Marisia and David Diaz, who thought they were insured until David had a heart attack. They wound up owing a quarter of a million dollars for his treatment and surgery.

Come November, the rules on junk insurance will loosen even further, and boiler-room operations are gearing up to push more junk insurance on unsuspecting Americans.

and let’s close with some global cooperation

Robbie Robertson leads musicians around the world in playing “The Weight”.

Contrasts and Comparisons

Dozens are killed every year on skateboards. Thousands injured. Hey Beto! Heck yes, we’re going to take your SKATEBOARD!

Governor Mike Huckabee

My daughter didn’t hide in a fucking closet for 3 hours because someone was hunting and murdering her classmates with a skateboard. Asshole.

Barry Schapiro, MD

This week’s featured post is “The Democratic Healthcare Debate“.

This week everybody was talking about the attack on Saudi Arabia

Until Saturday, many of us foolishly imagined that the US could monopolize weaponized-drone technology for a while longer. But both drones and the weapons someone might put on them are comparatively cheap, and the science of them is far simpler than, say, nukes. Proliferation is inevitable.

Saturday, drones attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, at least temporarily knocking out about half of its oil production, or about 5% of the world total. Oil prices spiked by about 20% Monday morning, but settled back to about a 10% gain.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who Saudi Arabia is fighting in the Yemeni civil war, claimed responsibility for the attack. The Houthis are allied with Iran, and are known to use drones. The maximum range of Houthi drones is just barely long enough to put the attacked oil fields within reach. Nonetheless, the US is blaming Iran for the attacks.

A day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attack on Saudi oil facilities and argued there is “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,” a senior administration official briefed CNN on information to back up Pompeo’s claims. Pompeo did not provide evidence, but the official pointed to satellite imagery provided to CNN showing the oil facilities were struck from the northwest, suggesting an attack from Iraq or Iran, among other information.

Iranian forces have a presence in Iraq. Iran denies attacking the Saudis, either from its own territory or from Iraq. Max Boot sees no reason to believe Pompeo’s claims “given how often the administration has lied about even minor matters”, but independently assesses that the Houthis “lack the sophistication to carry out such a surgical strike without a lot of help from their allies in Tehran”.

President Trump is threatening a military response against Iran, pending verification from the Saudis that Iran was responsible. Tensions between the US and Iran have been elevated ever since Trump pulled the US out of the agreement to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Matt Yglesias points out one of the problems Trump will have selling a war, if he decides to launch one: In addition to being president, “he also runs an opaque network of LLCs and does no financial disclosure, so we have no way of knowing how many cash payments he receives from the Saudi government.

and the Democratic debate

[video, transcript]

This is the first debate that put all the major candidates on one stage. To me, that had the subtle effect of making single-digit candidates seem stronger. Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke all had moments that sounded presidential.

I’d be surprised if the debate changed much at the top of the polls: Biden continues not to be the sharpest tool in the box, but he had no disqualifying gaffes and none of the attacks wounded him much. I could imagine that Warren stole some support from Sanders, but the effect was probably small, if it happened at all. (A 538/Ipsos poll more or less matches my intuition.)

I thought Castro’s “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” attack on Biden was unfair. The two of them were having a misunderstanding about the difference between “buying in” to Biden’s public option for healthcare and “opting in” rather than being enrolled automatically. Biden was clearly not forgetting what he had just said.

Beto’s most controversial moment was the strong position he took on assault rifles: As he has stated before, he supports not just banning new sales, but a mandatory buy-back of existing weapons.

Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.

I’ve spent the week in the upper South (North Carolina and Tennessee), where I heard several people tremble at the audacity of that, as if assault-weapon supporters were the majority of the country. This analogy has been made by many people before me, but often Democrats sound like victims of domestic abuse who are afraid that someone will set off their abuser. We worry that Beto’s threat will rile up AR-15 owners, and ignore the people who might be inspired to vote by the thought that somebody is finally going to get serious about mass shootings.

In a Republican debate, it would be no surprise at all to hear some candidate take extreme positions far more unpopular than Beto’s, say, that abortion should be criminalized, or that all 11 million undocumented immigrants should be rounded up and deported. No one worries that they will set off liberals; setting off liberals is considered a virtue in a Republican, not a vice.

In the discussion of mass incarceration, Biden’s statement that “no one should be in jail for a non-violent crime” is just wrong. Consider Bernie Madoff, for example. For that matter, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen never pointed a gun at anybody, but instead fulfilled the Godfather adage “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” And if Trump obstructed justice — as the Mueller Report strongly indicates — he should go to jail.

It’s true that too many Americans are in jail, many of them for things that aren’t all that serious. But violent/non-violent is the wrong place to draw the line. More non-violent white-collar criminals should be in jail, but far fewer non-violent drug users.

Interesting poll from YouGov: They ran a ranked-choice poll, in which people listed their second, third, and fourth choices. Interestingly, Warren beat Biden in the ultimate face-off, even though Biden held a 33%-29% lead in the first round.

The poll suggests that Biden might be vulnerable in the later primaries, as the field starts to narrow. At the same time, though, we shouldn’t read too much into it for a number of reasons:

  • It’s just one poll, and different polls have diverged from each other quite a bit so far.
  • No state other than Maine currently does ranked-choice voting, so the poll doesn’t directly mimic any major primary.
  • Ranked-choice polling is in its infancy, so we don’t know yet how well it predicts people’s actual second and third choices. I might support Candidate A and imagine that B is my second choice, but if A drops out I might suddenly see the charms of C.

Another interesting polling quirk about Warren: She polls far better among people who care a lot about politics than among less involved people. This is true particularly in comparison to Bernie, who leads her substantially among those who are alienated from politics.

There are two obvious ways to interpret this: Either it’s a real division in the progressive electorate that will continue through the primaries, or support for Bernie over Warren depends largely on name recognition; as people get more information, they drift from Bernie to Warren.

Nate Silver favors the later interpretation, describing the political junkies who back Warren as “early adopters”.

and John Bolton

John Bolton, Mr. Walrus Moustache himself, is out as Trump’s national security advisor. Fired, quit — it depends on who you talk to. Incompatible differences. (It would be ironic if Bolton gets his long-desired war with Iran only after leaving the administration.)

Here’s a sign of the times: I agree with the Washington Post’s negative assessment of Bolton’s tenure as NSA (“chaos, dysfunction, and no meaningful accomplishments”), and yet I worry that he’s gone. I’m struggling to come up with an example of Trump getting rid of an official and replacing him with someone better. (OK: his second NSA, H. R. McMaster, was better than his first, Michael Flynn, who was being paid by foreign countries and should be going to jail soon. We can only hope that Trump NSAs are like Star Trek movies, where the even-numbered ones are superior.)

John Gans comments in the NYT:

Mr. Bolton’s singular achievement was to dismantle a foreign-policymaking structure that had until then kept the president from running foreign policy by the seat of his pants. Mr. Bolton persuaded Mr. Trump he didn’t need the National Security Council to make decisions; it is no surprise that the president eventually felt confident deciding he did not need a national security adviser, either. Whether Mr. Trump names a replacement for Mr. Bolton does not matter: No one is going to convince the president he needs a system now, let alone the one that existed for 70 years.

The underlying problem here is that Trump doesn’t really want a national security advisor, and doesn’t respect the expertise that the National Security Council represents. The official role of the NSA is to chair the NSC. The job entails listening to the government’s top military and intelligence people, summarizing their diverse points of view fairly, and presenting that summary to the President. (The WaPo’s version: “to oversee a disciplined policymaking process that includes the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies”.) The ideal NSA is often described as an “honest broker” pulling together the collective wisdom of the country’s foreign policy establishment.

Trump doesn’t want any of that. He has no interest in a “disciplined policymaking process”. He doesn’t care what the national-security experts have to say about what is going on in the world and what the US should do about it. He wants to be told that the world is exactly the way he thinks it is, and that his instincts for handling it are brilliant. Bolton was a terrible NSA, but at least he would occasionally disagree with Trump or tell him things he didn’t want to hear.

Ezra Klein sees the upside:

the best thing about Donald Trump is that he seems instinctually skeptical of going to war. His hiring of Bolton was a strike against that. His firing of Bolton is a rare bright spot in his presidency.

While Amanda Marcotte is balancing her negativism:

We need a German word for the confused emotions of seeing someone get what they deserve, while also hating the person who dished it out.

And Daniel Summers replies:

Let’s just hope there’s enough pox for both houses.

and you also might be interested in …

These days the really badass people in American politics are Democratic women. It started two years ago with fighter-pilot Amy McGrath, who is currently running for the Senate against Mitch McConnell.

And now Valerie Plame is raising the bar.

NYT reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly didn’t drop the Brett Kavanaugh investigation after his confirmation vote. Yesterday the Times published an excerpt from their upcoming book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh. The excerpt concerns the accusation that didn’t get investigated, that “a freshman named Brett Kavanaugh pulled down his pants and thrust his penis at” Debbie Ramirez during a Yale party. If the NYT paywall has you stymied, Vox summarizes.

Josh Marshall heard the same thing I did in Kavanaugh’s testimony to the Judiciary Committee: He obviously lied about minor incidents mentioned in his high school yearbook.

There was no ambiguity. He was being scrutinized for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court and he was perfectly willing to lie under oath. The conduct was less egregious than the assault allegations. But the unambiguous evidence of willful and malicious deception was clarifying.

North Carolina is one of several states where gerrymandering maintains an entrenched Republican majority in the legislature against the will of the voters.

North Carolina has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, both in congressional districts and state legislative ones. Democratic state legislators won a majority of the popular vote in 2018 but Republicans held control of both chambers.

Wednesday, the state’s Republican legislators found a new way to spit in the face of democracy. The legislature is currently in a budget battle with Democratic Governor Roy Cooper (who did get more votes than his opponent).

Since late June, the state has been stuck in a legislative impasse; Cooper vetoed a two-year budget bill, arguing it underpaid teachers, awarded unnecessary giveaways to corporations and failed to include a Medicaid expansion.

Republicans previously had a veto-proof majority in the legislature, but their 2018 loss at the ballot box at least clipped that part of their power. Wednesday, however, they came up with a new trick: After telling Democrats that no votes would be held on the September 11 anniversary, they waited for Democrats to attend a commemoration ceremony and then voted to override Cooper’s veto.

The veto override still has to pass the Senate, where it will need either one Democratic vote or some new trick.

Michelle Goldberg reviews the sequel to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She notes the difference between a dystopia envisioned in the 1980s and the kind of dystopia we’re moving towards today: We used to worry about tyrannies that tightly controlled information, and hoped that the truth would set us free. Today the truth sits in a garbage heap of misinformation. It’s free for the taking, if you could only recognize it.

Speaking of how tyranny works today

Mr. Trump is openly hinting that CNN should be sold off in an effort to modify its coverage to something more of his liking. This is an increasingly common tactic among authoritarian leaders: no need to shutter a TV station, just find a friendly businessman or oligarch to buy it. Ask President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Viktor Orban of Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey how it is done.

More came out about #SharpieGate and the political pressure that produced that embarrassing Trump-over-science statement from NOAA. The NYT reported that

The Secretary of Commerce threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, according to three people familiar with the discussion.

According to the Washington Post, the impetus came straight from Trump:

President Trump told his staff that the nation’s leading weather forecasting agency needed to correct a statement that contradicted a tweet the president had sent wrongly claiming that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama, senior administration officials said.

That led White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to call Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to tell him to fix the issue, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the issue.

This is not unusual. Trump regularly instructs government employees to cover up his mistakes or manufacture evidence for his lies.

Of all Trump’s crimes and abuses, I think it’s corruption that will ultimately bring him down. About the report from last week that US military planes have increasingly been using the obscure Scottish airport nearest Trump’s Turnberry resort (something he claimed to know nothing about):

documents obtained from Scottish government agencies show that the Trump Organization, and Mr. Trump himself, played a direct role in setting up an arrangement between the Turnberry resort and officials at Glasgow Prestwick Airport.

The government records, released through Scottish Freedom of Information law, show that the Trump organization, starting in 2014, entered a partnership with the airport to try to increase private and commercial air traffic to the region.

Mike Pence’s political action committee has spent $224K at Trump properties. His brother, Rep. Greg Pence, has spent $45K. The Daily Beast reports:

The spending by the Pence brothers reflects a broader trend taking place throughout the Republican Party, where officials are doling out campaign cash to properties and businesses associated with the president.

A decade ago, the major grift in conservative politics was to accumulate a list of gullible donors so that you could sell them miracle drugs the government has suppressed, or preparations for the coming collapse of civilization, or get-rich-quick multi-level marketing schemes. But it’s all more organized and much simpler now: Contribute money so that we can give it to Trump.

And while we’re talking about conservative grift, consider Jerry Falwell Jr.

The general insanity of open carry laws was demonstrated a week ago Saturday when a man with an assault weapon strolled through the popular farmer’s market in Alexandria, Virginia. This was a “freedom walk” organized by Right to Bear Arms Richmond.

I’ve been to that farmer’s market. It’s a bring-your-kids-and-dogs kind of event that is wholesome, upbeat … and would make an ideal site for a mass shooting, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m sure the guy flashing his weapon felt very free, and that everyone else felt much less free. You have to wonder how many people saw the “freedom walker” and just went home.

Alexandria police were informed by R2BA-R ahead of time, and received complaints during the event, but there was nothing they could do. By Virginia law, such people aren’t doing anything wrong until they start shooting.

If you’re a prospective mass shooter these days, you don’t have to do so much of your own scouting and planning. Second Amendment activists will do it for you.

and let’s close with something natural

It’s easy to take a great nature photograph. Just go to a beautiful place and look up.

Limits to Wealth

I get it that in America, there are gonna be people who are richer and people who are not so rich. And the rich are gonna own more shoes, and they’re gonna own more cars, and they may even own more houses. But they shouldn’t own more of our democracy.

Elizabeth Warren

This week’s featured post is “Looking for President GoodClimate“.

This week everybody was talking about political chaos in the UK

(I was going to say “anarchy in the UK”, but I was afraid you had to be my age to recognize the Sex Pistols reference.)

The signature virtue of a parliamentary system is supposed to be that the government’s top executive, the prime minister, by definition has a majority in parliament. That avoids the kind of gridlock or constitutional crises that America’s presidential system is prone to.

Boris Johnson, however, has lost most of the votes in parliament since he became prime minister, including a big one on a bill that orders him to ask the EU for an extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline if a deal with the EU hasn’t been reached by October 19. That bill has been approved by the Queen and is an official law now.

21 members of Johnson’s Conservative Party voted against him on the bill, whose main purpose is to avoid the no-deal Brexit that Johnson seemed to be maneuvering toward. Johnson ejected them from the Party, so he now doesn’t have a ruling majority. Ordinarily, that would result in a vote of no-confidence and a new prime minister or maybe even a new election, but for a variety of reasons Johnson’s opponents don’t want either of those right now. So he’s sailing along without a majority behind him.

It doesn’t actually matter at the moment, because Parliament is now suspended until October 14, a controversial move Johnson made to try to limit Parliament’s ability to tie his hands.

The Washington Post outlines Johnson’s four options:

  • Negotiate a deal with the EU. This seems unlikely, since talks have more-or-less broken down. The biggest hang-up is the Irish border, as I discussed last week. Johnson met with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, but “Varadkar said at a Monday morning news conference that Johnson had yet to give him any solid proposals.” There’s a reason for that: The kind of Brexit Johnson wants is incompatible with the Good Friday Accords that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland.
  • Do what Parliament asked him to do: request another delay. This would be humiliating, and Johnson has said he would “never” do it. But, like Trump, Johnson says a lot of things, and they don’t all mean what they appear to mean.
  • Resign. His replacement would probably delay Brexit, but Johnson could then run against that move and maybe win.
  • Go to jail. Sure, Parliament passed a law, but how serious is that anyway? Johnson could not ask Brussels for an extension, be cited for contempt of Parliament, and go to jail. But October 31 would arrive and a no-deal Brexit would go through.

One lesson here echoes the US’s recent troubles: Democracy depends on traditions and norms as much as constitutional provisions, because there are always anti-democratic options that aren’t taken because you just don’t do that. The system keeps going because everyone wants the system to keep going. If a country loses that, things fall apart.

and the CNN climate townhalls

Wednesday, CNN devoted seven hours of its schedule to asking ten Democratic candidates questions about climate change. I discuss my reaction in the featured post.

and another week’s worth of malfeasance

Previous administrations have all danced this dance with the media:

  1. The president says something false or ridiculous. (They all do, sooner or later. Human beings are like that.)
  2. The media points out the mistake.
  3. Either the president or his spokespeople acknowledge the mistake.
  4. The media moves on.

Again and again, President Trump has refused to dance: He is congenitally incapable of admitting a mistake, or of tolerating one of his people admitting he made a mistake. Instead, he repeats the false claim, has subordinates lie to support the false claim, and gets mad that the media refuses to move on.

After he loudly warned of the dangers of a caravan of migrants in 2018, administration officials cited a terrorism arrest statistic that was proven false. When Trump said he had ready a middle-class tax cut plan before the midterm elections, though nothing had been discussed, officials scrambled to craft a plan. When Trump fumed that the size of his inaugural crowd was reported to be smaller than his predecessor’s, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was forced to defend the false claim. And even when Trump mistakenly tweeted the nonsensical word “covfefe” late one night, the president, instead of owning up to a typo or errant message, later sent Spicer to declare, “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

It got comical this week, as Trump refused to admit that his warning of Alabama being threatened by Hurricane Dorian was, at best, based on outdated information. In order to prove his point, he showed the press a NOAA map that he had crudely altered with a Sharpie, an action that is actually illegal.

As predictable and true-to-type as this series of events was, I find it disturbing. Fortunately, Hurricane Dorian was a problem that the lower-level processes of government were able to handle, so the comedy going on in the White House did little real harm. But what if Trump ever faces a Cuban-Missile-Crisis-level challenge? Will the president and his staff focus on the reality of the situation? Or will they spend all their time arguing that whatever the president did leading up to this situation wasn’t a mistake, even if it was?

This week we got two more examples of an ongoing scandal: the way that Trump uses the power of the presidency to enrich himself. The self-dealing started with his 2016 campaign, which had its offices in Trump Tower and paid rent accordingly. (This is still going on. If you’ve ever contributed to Trump’s campaign, a chunk of your money wound up in his pocket.)

After he became the nominee and then president, Republican Party events shifted to Trump properties, so that he could profit from them too. (If you’ve donated to a Republican congressional candidate, possibly some of that money has also wound up in Trump’s pocket.) The Trump International Hotel in D.C. has become the place for favor-seekers — both foreign and domestic — to hang out.

Last week we found out that Attorney General Barr is spending $30K of his own money to host a holiday party at the Trump International, essentially kicking back a sizeable chunk of his salary to his boss.

That all may be unsavory, but at least it’s private money. However, it is becoming more and more common for taxpayer money to also flow to Trump. Whenever he plays golf at Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster, for example, his entourage has to get rooms at his resort, and his security detail needs to rent golf carts to follow him around. When he meets foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago, or if he succeeds in hosting the 2020 G7 at his Doral resort, public money flows to him.

One new instance of taxpayer money going to Trump was Vice President Pence’s stay at the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, Ireland. He was in Ireland as part of an official visit, but his meetings with Irish officials were in Dublin, 181 miles away on the other side of the Emerald Isle.

Trump has suggested before that Cabinet officials and advisers stay at his properties while they are traveling. He himself has spent 289 days of his presidency at a Trump property, according to a CNN tally.

Trump himself stayed there on a previous visit, at a $3.6 million cost to the taxpayers.

One excuse frequently given is that Trump’s properties are more convenient for a security entourage, but Secret Service veterans say no.

A second incident that raises suspicion of corruption is Politico’s report that military flights have been refueling at the obscure Prestwick Airport in Scotland — the one closest to Trump’s Turnberry resort. Politico identified one occasion where a C-17 taking supplies from the US to Kuwait refueled at Prestwick and its crew stayed overnight at Turnberry. It seems likely this has happened many times, because the military ran up an $11 million fuel bill at Prestwick.

Typically, such flights refuel at US military bases. (There was one nearby in England.) Fuel is cheaper there, and housing is already paid for. But the president makes no money out of that arrangement.

The House Oversight Committee is investigating these stop-overs, and the Pentagon seems to be stonewalling.

“The Defense Department has not produced a single document in this investigation,” said a senior Democratic aide on the oversight panel. “The committee will be forced to consider alternative steps if the Pentagon does not begin complying voluntarily in the coming days.”

Here’s how far the Trump administration is willing to go to make climate change worse, and how the traditional independence of the Justice Department has been compromised. In the Barr DoJ, advancing the president’s political agenda is a higher priority than enforcing the law, as established by this: The four auto companies who agreed with California’s fuel-economy standards (51 mpg by 2026) rather than Trump’s lower ones (37 mpg) are now under antitrust investigation.

The NYT calls this “a cruel parody of antitrust enforcement“, and says:

The investigation is particularly striking because the department has shown little interest in preventing corporations from engaging in actual anticompetitive behavior. This summer, for example, the department blessed T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, a deal likely to harm mobile phone consumers and workers, and to impede innovation.

If the Justice Department wants to get serious about antitrust enforcement, there are plenty of places to get started. This investigation is an embarrassment.

and you also might be interested in …

The next Democratic debates are Thursday. The requirements were set higher this time, so only ten candidates qualified and they’ll all appear on the same stage. They’re the five I would have chosen myself: Biden, Warren, and Sanders, obviously. Harris and Buttigieg being the most likely to break into that top tier. Then Beto, Klobuchar, Booker, and Castro, all of whom bring resume and substance you’d expect of a major candidate. Of the outsider upstarts, only the most interesting, Andrew Yang. Marianne Williamson and Tom Steyer didn’t qualify.

All the white guys running to the right missed the cut: Hickenlooper, Bennet, Bullock, Ryan, Moulton, and Delaney won’t be there. Also missing this time around will be Gabbard, Gillibrand, De Blasio, and Inslee.

Hickenlooper, Moulton, Gillibrand, and Inslee have dropped out. The other non-qualifiers should give that some serious thought.

Talks with the Taliban have broken down, just as talks with the North Koreans have broken down, and talks with China won’t resume until next month. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration can complete a deal.

The Afghan government, which so far has been excluded from the talks, was pleased.

Wednesday we got the full list of Pentagon projects that won’t happen because Trump took the money to build the southern border wall.

The Defense Department intends to ask for new money to refund these projects in next year’s budget, but Democrats are reluctant to appropriate money twice.

Recall how we got here: Congress refused to fund the border wall in last year’s budget, even after Trump shut down the government for 35 days. Instead, he declared a state of emergency — despite the fact that the only emergency on the border is the one he made — and used emergency powers to move money around. Congress voted to revoke the state of emergency, but Trump vetoed that resolution and there weren’t enough votes to override his veto.

Mitch McConnell, whose state is losing a new school for Fort Campbell, blamed Democrats.

We would not be in this situation if Democrats were serious about protecting our homeland and worked with us to provide the funding needed to secure our borders during our appropriations process

One fact is being left out the public discussion: Money for the wall was negotiable, if Trump had been willing to give the Democrats something they wanted, say, a resolution of the DACA situation. (The deal Trump offered didn’t resolve DACA, but included just a temporary reprieve from deportation.) But Trump didn’t want a negotiated settlement; he wanted a victory.

Here’s the Biden electability argument in a nutshell: A poll by the Marquette University Law School has Biden beating Trump in Wisconsin by 9 points. Sanders beats Trump by only four points. Harris and Warren are tied with Trump.

The clearest path to beating Trump in 2020 is for Democrats to flip back Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Wisconsin is widely seen as the most difficult to win back, so the election could hinge on it.

and let’s close with some misunderstandings

A misheard song lyric is known as a mondegreen, a word which itself comes from a misheard lyric. Here’s a collection of mondegreens.

Better or Worse

At its best, the practice of politics is about taking steps that support people in daily life — or tearing down obstacles that get in their way. Much of the confusion and complication of ideological battles might be washed away if we held our focus on the lives that will be made better, or worse, by political decisions, rather than on the theoretical elegance of the policies or the character of the politicians themselves.

– Pete Buttigieg, Shortest Way Home

There is no featured post this week. But I’m trying out a new format for an extra-long weekly summary: a topic list at the top.

1. Cruelty, short-sightedness, and corruption. One week’s worth of administration activity.

2. Hurricane Dorian. Category 5 storms don’t seem all that rare any more.

3. More shootings. The wait-three-weeks strategy for avoiding action on gun control won’t work unless we can go three weeks without a shooting.

4. Brexit. Boris Johnson is setting the UK up for a no-deal Brexit, and Parliament will have a hard time stopping him.

5. James Comey. The FBI inspector general’s report is too boring to read, so anybody can say whatever they want about it.

6. A court ruling. An appeals court ruling on legislative prayer is yet another example of the fundamental flaw of originalism.

7. Other short notes. Hong Kong, trade war, Mayor Pete’s book. Democratic debate on the 12th.

8. A heart-warming closing. A dolphin asks a diver for help.

This week everybody was talking about cruelty, short-sightedness, and corruption

Some weeks, it seems like the Trump administration is trying to do as much damage as possible in its remaining two years. Here are some examples from just this week:

  • The EPA wants to allow more methane leaks at wells and pipelines. Methane is such a potent greenhouse gas that if too much leaks into the atmosphere during the production and transportation processes, natural gas can be worse for the climate than coal. The EPA’s move to roll back anti-methane-leak regulations undermines the strategy of using natural gas as a better-but-not-perfect bridge fuel while we develop more climate-friendly sources. That’s why even industry giants like Shell, Exxon, and BP support the Obama regulations the EPA wants to abandon.
  • Alaska’s Tongass National Forest may soon be open for logging. It’s one of the last wild places on Earth, and about 40% of the West Coast’s wild salmon spawns there.
  • Sick immigrants are being sent home to die. Every year, about 1000 immigrants facing deportation orders ask to stay in the US because they’re receiving medical care that isn’t available in their home countries. Many of them are children and many of the conditions are life-threatening. The Trump administration is canceling this “deferred action” program and has sent letters giving sick people 33 days to leave the country.
  • Not all children of Americans serving overseas will be citizens. Usually, when American parents have a child while they’re out of the country, that child is automatically a US citizen. The law makes an exception for Americans who had lived in the US less than five years before they left the country, but there’s always been an exception to the exception: If the reason you left the US was for the military or other government service, your kid is a citizen. But that exception-to-the-exception is being rolled back. “Who possibly thought this was a good idea?” asks an immigration lawyer.
  • Attorney General Barr is kicking back to the President. Barr has booked the Trump International Hotel in D.C. for a 200-person holiday party that he will pay for personally, at a cost upwards of $30K. (Barr’s Justice Department is also defending Trump against lawsuits claiming that foreign spending at the hotel is an unconstitutional emolument.) Kickbacks are a classic form of corruption: The political boss doles out jobs and contracts from the public treasury, and the people who get them give a chunk of the money back to the Boss. This is Tammany Hall stuff.
  • Trump is steering the next G7 to his struggling resort. Another classic form of corruption is for a public official to steer public contracts towards his allies in the business community. When the Boss owns the business himself, it eliminates the middleman. The US is scheduled to host the 2020 G7 meeting, and holding it at the Trump Doral Resort has many advantages — for Trump. It will draw a lot of foreign money (i.e. unconstitutional emoluments) to his property, give it lots of free publicity, and increase its prestige. Whatever advantages it has for the US or the G7 are much less clear.
  • Building the wall is more important than obeying the law. Reportedly, Trump has told his underlings to get his border wall built before the 2020 elections, and ignore laws that protect the environment and defend private property. He says he will pardon them. The White House did not deny that he said this, but claimed that he was joking.

Stay tuned. I’m sure there will be new outrages next week.

and a hurricane

As usual, I’m not going to try to compete with CNN and the Weather Channel on hurricane coverage. Dorian hit the Bahamas as a category-5 storm last night. The current prediction has it heading up Florida’s Atlantic coast towards Georgia and the Carolinas. Where or whether it will make landfall in the US is still uncertain.

This is the fourth consecutive year with a category-5 Atlantic hurricane.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell aroused a furor with a since-deleted tweet rooting for Dorian to hit Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. (Dorian has turned north since then.) I generally disapprove of wishing harm on people, but I see her point here: Trump is so self-centered that nothing less than a personal loss will make him take climate change seriously.

and more shootings

Studies have shown that the public clamor to do something about gun violence tends to die down about three weeks after some horrific shooting. So that’s been the gun lobby’s strategy: stall for three weeks until public attention moves on.

But now we’re running into the limits of that strategy: It only works if the country can go longer than three weeks between shootings. Saturday’s mass shooting in Texas (on the highway connecting Midland and Odessa) came four weeks after the August 3 mass shooting in El Paso and August 4 mass shooting in Dayton. Those two were about a week after the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting.

The Texas shooting knocked Friday night’s high-school shooting in Alabama out of the news. At least six teens were shot at a football game, but nobody died.

Will something happen this time? Governor Gregg Abbott says “I’m tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas. The status quo is unacceptable.” But does that mean he’ll actually do anything? (Texas actually loosened its gun laws, effective yesterday.) Promising action that never arrives — as Trump did after Dayton/El Paso — has become part of the delay-three-weeks playbook.

Congress returns from recess next week. Two very reasonable background-check bills have passed the House already, but Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on them. There has been talk about a red-flag law or the renewal of the assault weapon ban that lapsed during the Bush administration. But will anything happen?

A California workplace has an expert come in to instruct the staff on what to do if there’s an active shooter. The expert is Kayley, a girl who has had to learn all this in school.

and the countdown to a no-deal Brexit

One extreme (but very unlikely) solution to the Brexit problem is the Celtic Union shown on the map: England could go its own way while Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall stay in the EU.

An only slightly less radical path is the one Prime Minister Boris Johnson (a.k.a. the Trump of England) is maneuvering towards: The UK busts out of the EU on October 31 with no deal.

The sticking point in getting a deal with the EU is what to do with Northern Ireland: The whole point of Brexit (at least in the minds of its major supporters) is to have hard borders, so that the UK can reclaim control over the people and products that come into the country from  other EU nations. But the soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is at the center of the Good Friday Accords that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The EU has taken a hard line against a hard Irish border, because it feels an obligation to represent the interests of the country that is staying in the union: Ireland.

Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have a very nuanced counter-offer: Fuck the Irish.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. Johnson is currently saying the exact opposite  — that there won’t immediately be new border checks in Northern Ireland. But he won’t say what there will be, and ultimately there’s no way to achieve his Brexit goals without a border that checks passports and collects tariffs. So the real message is more like: “Trust us. We wouldn’t fuck the Irish, would we?” Like the American Trump, though, Johnson is not particularly trustworthy.

The previous Tory government of Theresa May spent three years trying to deny the intractability of this problem. So May finally recognized her predicament and got out the only way she could: by resigning. Her successor has a different way out: Don’t let Parliament get in the way, so that a no-deal Brexit can just happen on October 31 whether Parliament likes it or not. The Economist describes the situation like this:

This week opposition parties agreed that, when the Commons returned on September 3rd, they would try to hijack its agenda to pass a law calling for another extension of the Brexit deadline. But a day later Mr Johnson trumped them by announcing a long suspension of Parliament, from September 11th to October 14th, when a Queen’s Speech will start a new session. … At almost five weeks, it will be Parliament’s longest suspension before a Queen’s Speech since 1945.

That leaves two weeks for Parliament to do something to avert a no-deal Brexit. But that’s the rub: It would have to do something: revoke the UK’s request to leave the EU, form a new government … . And that’s been the problem from the beginning: Brexit has always been just a vague idea; as soon as you zero in on an actual scenario, support goes away.

David Allen Green writes in the WaPo:

What will linger either way is the deep sense of wrongness, of the government attempting to unfairly (if not unlawfully) game the constitution so as to prevent legitimate checks and balances. This will not end well, whatever happens.

Basically, Johnson’s maneuver takes a we-made-a-mistake situation and turns it into a somebody-screwed-us situation.

What’s so bad about no deal? The UK is an island nation, so naturally a lot of necessities are imported. Roughly half of the UK’s foreign trade is with the EU. No one is proposing to cut off that trade, but suddenly it will have to find new legal channels. Businesses in the EU will still want to export to the UK (and vice versa), but they won’t know how to do it while new standards and practices are worked out. Ports and crossings that were designed for an open border will suddenly have to start checking passports and collecting tariffs, which will lead to considerable delays.

Likely problems were listed in a government document that leaked a few weeks ago.

In addition to the immediate chaos, a number of political consequences are likely within the UK: Scotland decided against independence in 2014, but Scots also voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. So the independence issue will rise again, particularly if a chaotic no-deal Brexit happens without Scottish MPs having a chance to vote against it.

And then there’s Northern Ireland, where the Troubles are already starting to rumble again.

and James Comey

The FBI Inspector General released its report on James Comey’s handling of the memos documenting his interactions with President Trump. I’ll warn you: This is a mind-numbingly boring document. And that’s unfortunate, because it means that most people will rely on someone else to read it for them. That, in turn, means that most people will only hear the spin allowed into their usual news bubbles.

(Something similar happened with regard to the State Department inspector general’s report about Hillary Clinton’s emails, as I reported at the time.)

Let me summarize the general shape of story here, which I think everyone agrees on: While he was FBI director, Comey wrote memos after meetings with President Trump. At the time, he had classification authority over those memos, all but two of which he decided were entirely unclassified. The ones that he judged to include classified information, he handled correctly.

Just before Comey was to testify before Congress (i.e., after he was fired), a group at the FBI reviewed the then-unclassified memos and decided that six words of one and a paragraph of another should be classified at the lowest level, Confidential. The newly classified parts were moments when President Trump had been talking about foreign countries and leaders, and the FBI group reasoned that revealing those statements might cause embarrassment to the US, because some of the countries or leaders might feel slighted. [My opinion: This is a judgment call people might legitimately disagree on, and in any case, it isn’t a big deal.]

After leaving the FBI, Comey kept the memos he believed to be unclassified. He gave one to a friend in order to get its contents leaked to the media. (The newly classified parts weren’t leaked, but the friend saw the six classified words: names of countries.) He also gave his lawyers copies of the memos he retained, so they also saw the newly classified information. In any case, none of the classified information got out.

We found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any of the classified information contained in any of the Memos to members of the media.

Comey treated the retained memos as personal property rather than as government property that should be returned to the FBI. The IG finds fault with him for this, because Comey wrote the memos while he was FBI Director, and they concerned conversations he wouldn’t have had if he weren’t FBI Director.

That’s the whole story told in the report.

So what should we make of this? I suspect the IG is technically correct about the ownership of the memos. But let’s consider just how minor a technicality this is: Suppose Comey had returned the memos when he left the FBI (as the IG said he should), and then (as a private citizen) had gone to his computer and written down his memories of his conversations with Trump as best he could remember them at that time, leaving out any statements that might be classified. That document would be his personal property — similar to the my-days-in-the-White-House memoirs that get published all the time. Even if it contained all the unclassified information that was in the FBI memos, showing it to his lawyers or leaking it to the media would be unobjectionable.

Anyway, this is the situation that Rep. Peter King (R-NY) described on Fox News (in a clip Trump retweeted) as:

One of the most disgraceful examples of an abuse of power by a government official…when you read this report…this is a systematic effort to go after Candidate Trump, President Elect-Trump, and President Trump….you could virtually call this an attempted coup.

He can say stuff like this in complete confidence that the people listening to him won’t read the report, which says nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, Josh Marshall makes the opposite case: Comey was a whistleblower, not a leaker:

Comey was not simply within his rights but had an affirmative obligation to bring this information to light. Critically, he had no reason to believe that the others in the existing chain of command weren’t compromised by Trump’s corruption and efforts to end the investigation. Indeed, what we have subsequently learned gives every reason to believe they were compromised. The only reason this isn’t obvious is that we’ve had Trump’s denials, lying and gaslighting in our collective heads for the last two plus years.

Full disclosure: There’s a “Comey is my homey” t-shirt, which I suppose I could wear without too much exaggeration. We were at the University of Chicago at the same time: I finished my Ph.D. in math in 1984, and he got his law degree in 1985. I don’t remember running into him.

but I paid attention to a court ruling

A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and OK’d the practice of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which bars non-theists from acting as “guest chaplains” and leading the opening prayer.

Granted, this is not the most important thing that happened these last two weeks. Atheism, humanism, and the various forms of religion-without-God will carry on in Pennsylvania, and it’s not even that big a blow to the separation of church and state (though it doesn’t help). But I bring it up as an additional example of something I discussed in my recent Second Amendment article: how the world can change out from under a practice or text, so that it is honestly not clear how best to carry forward some legal tradition.

The strongest argument for why opening prayers are not themselves banned by the First Amendment (as a government “establishment of religion”) goes back to the First Congress. The appeals court majority opinion (written by Judge Thomas Ambro) says:

Twice the Supreme Court has drawn on early congressional practice to uphold legislative prayer. It emphasized that Congress approved the draft of the First Amendment in the same week it established paid congressional chaplains to provide opening prayers.

However, the First Congress did not write down and vote on a policy that applied to all times and places. So it’s left to us to interpret the arguments they were having and extrapolate from them. One thing they didn’t do was insist that the opening prayer satisfy some particular orthodoxy. Ambro summarizes:

[O]ne might wonder whether a religious minister can accommodate the spiritual needs of a “secular agnostic” member of the Pennsylvania House. Or, for that matter, can a Catholic priest in the U.S. Senate accommodate the spiritual needs of Chuck Schumer, or a Jewish rabbi those of Mitt Romney? These questions are as old as the Republic, but they have been settled since the Founding. In the Continental Congress, John Jay and John Rutledge opposed legislative prayer on the theory that the delegates were “so divided in religious sentiments” that they “could not join in the same act of worship.” The two future Chief Justices could not see what an Episcopalian minister could possibly offer a Presbyterian or Congregationalist lawmaker. Their view lost out, however, when Samuel Adams countered that “he was no bigot” and would gladly “hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue,” no matter his denomination.

So we are left with the question of how far such ecumenism should stretch. In the First Congress, a Christian minister of any denomination could count as “a gentleman of piety and virtue”, and that was as far as the principle needed to go. (Congress wouldn’t have its first Jewish members until 1845, and I’m not sure when a woman first offered the opening prayer.) But how far should this traditional acceptance of pluralism stretch today, when religious diversity is so much greater?

Judge Ambro extends acceptance to all theists — and to Buddhists, for reasons that don’t entirely make sense — but no further.

Legislative prayer has historically served many purposes, both secular and religious. Because only theistic prayer can achieve them all, the historical tradition supports the House’s choice to restrict prayer to theistic invocations.

Judge Felipe Restrepo, on the other hand, is horrified that his colleague has just ruled on what prayer is and what purposes it serves, “which, in my view, are precisely the type of questions that the Establishment Clause forbids the government—including courts—from answering”. His dissenting opinion interprets the opening-prayer tradition differently:

Purposeful exclusion of adherents of certain religions or persons who hold certain religious beliefs has never been countenanced in the history of legislative prayer in the United States, and, therefore, viewed in the proper context, the Pennsylvania House’s guest-chaplain policy does not fit “within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures” because it purposefully excludes persons from serving as guest chaplains solely on the basis of their religions and religious beliefs.

I’m not attempting to resolve the judges’ disagreement — a job for the Supreme Court — but only to call attention to a more general point, which is the fundamental flaw at the heart of originalism: We can hope to understand what previous generations thought about their world. But when the world changes, we can’t hold a séance and ask how they want us to respond to our world.

and you also might be interested in …

Chinese police are getting increasingly violent against the Hong Kong protests. But the large-scale demonstrations have been going on for 12 weeks and show no signs of stopping. Vox has a good what-is-this-about article.

The NYT’s Roger Cohen seems to be making a pro-Trump point in “Trump Has China Policy About Right“, but he’s actually saying the same thing I’ve been saying: China is our main global competitor, it has been playing by it’s own rules, and it’s high time we confronted them about that. But at the same time, Trump is doing this in a very stupid way: chaotically and without allies.

Cohen’s assessment of “about right” involves grossly lowering his standards, as so many pundits do when they assess Trump. Trump “flails” and is “erratic”. His attempt to order American businesses out of China is “a trademark Trump grotesquerie”. Somehow that adds up to “about right”.

The next Democratic presidential debates are set for September 12, and stricter requirements have brought the roster down to 10 candidates, who will all be on stage at the same time: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren, and Yang.

As you might guess from the quote at the top, I read Pete Buttigieg’s autobiography Shortest Way Home this week. If you enjoy listening to Mayor Pete talk (I do), you’ll enjoy his book. It’s engaging, thoughtful, and at times funny.

One funny moment is when he’s filling out paperwork for the Navy Reserve. Buttigieg asks an officer for advice on the question “Are you considered a key employee in your civilian workplace?” The officer explains that it’s for first-responders and the like. Pete still doesn’t know how to answer. “Who do you work for?” the officer asks. Pete says he works for the city. “Can anyone else do your job?” Not exactly, Pete answers. “So what are you, the mayor or something?”

It turns out that no, from the Navy’s point of view the mayor is not a “key employee”.

Later, a different officer asks Pete how his employer is handling his deployment, and Pete says they’ve been wonderful about it. The officer says there’s an award he can put them in for. When he finds out Pete works for local government, the officer says that’s perfect, because politicians love getting awards like that.

I also enjoyed watching him mix together his various worlds of experience: bringing his management consultant background into city government, observing like a mayor the Kabul government’s successes and failures in providing local services under difficult conditions, and so on. (One unstated theme of the book is that for a young guy, he’s done a lot of different things.)

One amusing example is when he brings the military concept of “training age” into dating. If you’ve just start to learn about something, your “training age” is young, even if your physical age is much older. Well, Pete took a long time admitting he was gay, and then even longer before he came out publicly. So when he starts to date (after 30), he admits that with respect to dating, his training age is “practically zero”.

and let’s close with something heart-warming

It’s always chancy to imagine what another species is thinking, but in this video it sure looks like a dolphin comes to a diver for help, patiently and trustfully endures having a hook removed from its flesh and fishing line untangled from its flipper, and then swims off.