Category Archives: Weekly summaries

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


The President ‘s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.

The Mueller Report

This week’s featured posts are “Yes, Obstruction” and “Is Impeachment the Right Answer?“.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

I discussed that in the featured posts. Here I’ll talk about the issues surrounding the report.

First, reading the report makes it clear that Attorney General Barr has been misrepresenting the it, both in his four-page summary and in the press conference [video, transcript] he held just before releasing his redacted version of the Report. The benefit of the doubt I granted him four weeks ago was undeserved.

Barr began his summary of the report (that reporters and the country still had not seen) with an actual partial-sentence quote, that the

investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

But the full sentence is a little less favorable to Trump:

Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

Imagine if the AG had selected the other part of this sentence to emphasize: “the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts”.

A bit later, the Report explains what “did not establish” means:

while the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.

But Barr pretended “did not establish” meant that the opposite was established, and he spun “evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges” into “no evidence”.

But thanks to the Special Counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign – or the knowing assistance of any other Americans for that matter.

He repeated some version of Trump’s “no collusion” mantra four times, in spite of the fact that Mueller rejected that term.

All along (there are numerous examples given in the Report itself), Trump has been complaining that Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, did not “protect” him. In other words, he expected the attorney general to be his lawyer, not the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. Barr has clearly taken this to heart; his performance would have been appropriate for the President’s personal lawyer.

The basic structure of the press conference was bizarre. Typically, when the Justice Department holds a press conference to announce the release of a report, reporters have gotten advance copies of the report “under embargo”, meaning that they can’t talk about it until the release time. That makes meaningful questions possible. This time, no one could see the report until more than an hour later, so questions could only be shots in the dark.

Also, Justice Department press conferences typically center on the people who did the work. But Bob Mueller was nowhere to be found.

Stephen Colbert summed up what Barr was doing with this analogy: “Officer, before I open the trunk of this car, I’d like to first give a short speech about what you’re about to smell.”

Former FBI counter-intelligence agent Asha Rangappa explains the Russian disinformation tactic of “reflexive control”, and how it relates to Trump’s manipulation of the legally meaningless word collusion.

“collusion” is now the same as “conspiracy,” and without proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the latter, the former doesn’t exist.

He warns that we’re being similarly manipulated now by the word spying, which Trump often says and Barr used in his congressional testimony.

One winner from the Mueller Report: the news media. A lot of those stories that Trump called “fake news” turn out to be true. (Biggest example: Trump asked Don McGahn to fire Mueller. At the time, Trump characterized the newspaper report as “A typical New York Times fake story.”) Those anonymous sources quoted by the New York Times and Washington Post usually turned out to be real people who said the same thing under oath.

Trump, on the other hand, has been a font of fake news. His “total and complete exoneration” was just the latest. And conspiracy theories that got a lot of play on Fox News (like the claim that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was the actual source of the WikiLeaks material) were debunked by Mueller.

What Ross Douthat sees in the Mueller Report is “the same general portrait” as Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury:

Donald Trump as an amoral incompetent surrounded by grifters, misfits and his own overpromoted children, who is saved from self-destruction by advisers who sometimes decline to follow orders, and saved from high crimes in part by incompetence and weakness.

If you look at the report, be sure to check out Appendix C, which consists of Trump’s written answers to questions posed by the investigation. The word that best describes this testimony is slippery. Trump offers little information beyond what he knows is available to the Special Counsel from other sources, and makes no claims specific enough to be contradicted by other witnesses. In general, he just doesn’t remember.

If he’s not being slippery, the other possibility is senile dementia. I’d like to ask Mike Pence if he has read Appendix C, and if it made him consider invoking the 25th Amendment.

This is how a 30-year career at the Justice Department ends for Rod Rosenstein, who stood behind Barr unblinking and expressionless. Three weeks ago I wrote:

If Rod Rosenstein really does agree with Barr’s conclusion, I’d like to hear him say so himself, rather than let Barr put words in his mouth.

Thursday, Rosenstein looked like somebody whose daughter is being held in an undisclosed location pending his good behavior. Once again, Barr made claims in his name, but Rosenstein never spoke. Twitter noticed.

Barr’s redactions also drew some humorous comment.

and this musical spoof from Jimmy Fallon:

I’m glad we got this settled:

President Donald Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders pushed back Friday against allegations that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report exposed a culture of lying at the White House.

Sanders says there is no culture of lying at the White House, and why would she lie about that?

She’s under fire because the Mueller Report exposed this blatant lying, which she had to own up to under oath:

In the afternoon of May 10, 2017, deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders spoke to the President about his decision to fire Comey and then spoke to reporters in a televised press conference. Sanders told reporters that the President, the Department of Justice, and bipartisan members of Congress had lost confidence in Comey, ” [a]nd most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director. Accordingly, the President accepted the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General to remove James Comey from his position.” In response to questions from reporters , Sanders said that Rosenstein decided “on his own” to review Comey’s performance and that Rosenstein decided “on his own” to come to the President on Monday, May 8 to express his concerns about Comey. When a reporter indicated that the “vast majority” of FBI agents supported Comey, Sanders said , “Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things.” Following the press conference, Sanders spoke to the President, who told her she did a good job and did not point out any inaccuracies in her comments. Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from “countless members of the FBI” was a “slip of the tongue.” She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made “in the heat of the moment” that was not founded on anything.

Typically, White House press secretaries correct their honest “slips of the tongue”. (WWCJD?) But that’s too high a standard for this White House.

Mitt Romney was the first major Republican to criticize Trump after reading the Mueller Report, tweeting:

I am sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President. I am also appalled that, among other things, fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia — including information that had been illegally obtained; that none of them acted to inform American law enforcement; and that the campaign chairman was actively promoting Russian interests in Ukraine.

Republican leaders fall into three basic groups:

  • gung-ho Trumpers (Mike Huckabee, for example, or Jim Jordan) who shout down any criticism of him, no matter how justified.
  • cowards (too numerous to name) or corrupt bargainers (Mitch McConnell) who recognize the damage Trump is doing to America, but avert their eyes and keep their heads down in hopes of surviving into the post-Trump era.
  • hand-wringers who want credit for their high moral principles, even though they are unwilling to take any action on them. (Susan Collins)

Mitt is hand-wringing here. That’s better than keeping his head down or actively collaborating, so it marks progress of a sort. I wish more Republicans would speak out like this, even if they don’t intend to do anything either. But I can’t get too excited about it. If Mitt starts demanding change and either calls for impeachment or supports a primary challenge to Trump, let me know.

and the Sri Lanka Easter bombings

Suicide attacks killed nearly 300 people in Sri Lanka yesterday. Three Christian churches and three major hotels were bombed. An Islamic terrorist group is suspected, and the government has arrested 24 people.

and Notre Dame

The iconic Paris cathedral burned last Monday. The spire fell, but the two towers, with their famous stained glass rose windows, survived.

Tragedies typically bring people together in a sense of loss and grief. So I found it bizarre how many folks tried to make this event divisive. When art, architecture, and historic relics are lost, we are all the poorer for it. OK, maybe there have been other losses that should have evoked a similar response, but didn’t. Maybe rich donors ponied up quickly for this, when they have no money for other worthy projects. I don’t care. Losses like this are emotional, and emotions can’t be weighed and measured like that.

I also have no patience with the folks who want to see some special providence in the fact that the disaster wasn’t worse, or that some particular object was saved. It would have taken only a smidgen of godly power to site somebody with a fire extinguisher in the right place when the whole thing started, but God seems not to work that way. The fact that shit happens, but that humanity survives somehow nonetheless, neither raises nor lowers the odds on the existence of a higher power.

I’m reminded of this exchange on Game of Thrones.

Jon Snow: What kind of God would do something like that?

Melisandre: The one we’ve got.

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Everybody else is running for president, so why not my congressman, Seth Moulton? I just moved to this district in the fall, though, so I can’t claim to have any special insight. Moulton is the 19th Democratic candidate. Joe Biden, the current front-runner in most polls, is expected to become the 20th on Wednesday.

Noah Smith explains in two graphs why you shouldn’t read too much into polls about specific issues: A poll that phrases the issue differently might get a different result, and a large number of people might reject the inevitable consequence of something they support.

For example: whites who think we spend too little on “assistance to the poor” change their minds when you call it “welfare”.

And Americans favor eliminating “health insurance premiums”, but not eliminating “private health insurance companies”.

While we’re talking about redactions …

Two examples of how religion is favored in America, and those who consider themselves non-religious are discriminated against.

Friday, an appeals court ruled that the House chaplain doesn’t have to allow atheist guest chaplains to deliver the invocation. The judge wrote:

House counsel represented to this court that the House interprets its rules to require ‘a religious invocation’.

Atheists, by definition, can’t be religious. (Of course, this interpretation will go out the window the next time it’s convenient to claim that atheism is just another religion.)

Second: Lawsuits that try to enforce the wall between church and state sometimes leave the names of the plaintiffs out of the public record for their own safety. A law that just passed the Missouri House will make this illegal, but just for church-and-state suits. In other words, if you represent a Christian majority that is imposing its will on the public square, you have the right to know exactly who is challenging you, in case you want to threaten or intimidate them. Other defendants in other suits don’t have that right, because they’re not the Christian majority.

and let’s close with something incongruous

Sesame Street invades HBO. First WestWorld,

and then Game of Thrones.


At long last, it is Spring. All around us, the ancient miracle is happening once again. The season of Death is behind us, and new life is springing up. You have an invitation to join that renewal, but the Earth will not wait for you. So don’t delay until the yeast has raised the dough; make your bread without it. Have your walking stick ready; it’s time to go. The stone has been rolled away and the path to the light is open.

Are you coming? It’s too late to wish you could be replanted somewhere else, because it’s time to sprout. Here. Now. It’s Easter.

– from my 2013 sermon “Struggling With Easter

This week’s featured post is “Buttigieg vs. Pence“. You also might want to look at the church service the quote above is from. I’ve never liked Easter services, but that year I volunteered to lead a service in my hometown without realizing that date was Easter. With some trepidation, I accepted the challenge and did an all-spring-holidays-at-once service. I’m happy with how it came out. If you don’t care for Easter services either, check it out.

This week everybody was wondering whether the administration will obey the law

This was a question that united a number of news stories: the purge at DHS, Mnuchin’s refusal to let the House Ways and Means chair see Trump’s tax returns, the plan to dump detained immigrants in sanctuary cities, and whether Trump offered a pardon to the Custom and Borders Protection Commissioner to induce him to ignore laws about applicants for asylum.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned last Monday, just in time for me to mention it in last week’s summary. Tuesday, Acting Deputy Secretary Clare Grady was also forced out, leaving the Department in the hands of the next-in-line, Kevin McAleenan.

Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles was ousted, and at least two officials have been named as possibly heading out the door: US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Francis Cissna and Office of the General Counsel’s John Mitnick.

On April 5, Trump withdrew his nomination of Ron Vitiello to lead ICE, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher direction”. Vitiello was already the acting head of ICE.

Thursday, a Washington Post scoop began to flesh out what a “tougher” head of ICE might do.

The White House believed it could punish Democrats — including Pelosi — by busing ICE detainees into their districts before their release, according to two DHS whistleblowers who independently reported the busing plan to Congress. … Homeland Security officials said the sanctuary city request was unnerving, and it underscores the political pressure Trump and Miller have put on ICE and other DHS agencies at a time when the president is furious about the biggest border surge in more than a decade.

“It was basically an idea that Miller wanted that nobody else wanted to carry out,” said one congressional investigator who has spoken to one of the whistleblowers. “What happened here is that Stephen Miller called people at ICE, said if they’re going to cut funding, you’ve got to make sure you’re releasing people in Pelosi’s district and other congressional districts.”

… “It was retaliation, to show [Democrats in Congress], ‘Your lack of cooperation has impacts,’ ” said one of the DHS officials, summarizing the rationale. “I think they thought it would put pressure on those communities to understand, I guess, a different perspective on why you need more immigration money for detention beds.”

Administration sources initially described this as a “nonstory”, but then Trump himself verified it.

Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities

CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin:

These are human beings, and treat treat them like a form of plague that you want to impose on your enemies is really grotesque.

This fits into the larger context of the Trump administration breaking down barriers between politics and law enforcement. Little by little, we are losing the democratic ideal that political appointees set priorities and make policy, while the government’s career professionals are mission-driven and carry out their jobs apolitically. Instead, Trump is moving us toward the authoritarian model where everything is political.

Masha Gessen makes a good point: This is one of those stories that is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know how to respond. Merely pointing out the illegality of using government resources to punish uncooperative congresspeople yields a point that shouldn’t be yielded: These immigrants are not a plague. They don’t bring crime and drugs and disease as Trump keeps claiming.

The response Gessen favors is similar to the one given by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan:

Here’s a message to President Trump: Seattle is not afraid of immigrants and refugees. … This president believes that immigrants and refugees burden our country and burden cities like ours. But he could not be more wrong. In Seattle, we know that our immigrant and refugee communities make our city a stronger, more vibrant place. … So if this president wants to send immigrants and refugees to Seattle and other welcoming cities, let me be clear: We will do what we have always done, and we will be stronger for it. And it will only strengthen our commitment to fighting for the dignity of every person. We will not allow any administration to use the power of America to destroy the promise of America.

I think it’s important to keep telling immigrants’ stories, because they’re so antithetical to the image Trump is trying to sell us. Mother Jones tells about Ansly Damus, a Haitian who legally sought asylum in the US, and has been held like a prisoner for two years.

Friday, the New York Times added:

President Trump last week privately urged Kevin McAleenan, the border enforcement official he was about to name as acting secretary of homeland security, to close the southwestern border to migrants despite having just said publicly that he was delaying a decision on the step for a year, according to three people briefed about the conversation.

It was not clear what Mr. Trump meant by his request or his additional comment to Mr. McAleenan that he would pardon him if he encountered any legal problems as a result of taking the action.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal requested six years of Trump’s tax returns last week. The law authorizing him to make this request is clear: It instructs the IRS to deliver the documents.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is delaying, while not admitting that he intends to disobey the law. Instead, he pretends that there is some kind of legitimate legal issue here.

Mnuchin, who has consulted with the White House and Department of Justice about Trump’s tax returns, said earlier this week that Neal’s request raised concerns about the scope of the committee’s authority, privacy protections for U.S. taxpayers and the legislative purpose of lawmakers in seeking the documents.

Think about what Mnuchin is putting forward here: that the executive branch has the right to judge the “legislative purpose” of the legislative branch. In other words, Congress is not really an equal branch of government.

Sarah Sanders to Fox News’ Chris Wallace:

Frankly, Chris, I don’t think Congress — particularly not this group of congressmen and women — are smart enough to look through the thousands of pages that I would assume that President Trump’s taxes will be,” Sanders said. “My guess is most of them don’t do their own taxes, and I certainly don’t trust them to look through the decades of success that the president has and determine anything.

It’s laughable that Trump can question the intelligence of Chairman Neal.

and a black hole

or at least a picture of where one ought to be.

and the Israeli elections

Netanyahu will be prime minister for another term. Israel will impose its will on Palestine, and keep pushing until there’s another intifada. I continue to believe that ultimately this situation is headed towards an ethnic cleansing.

and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had been inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London for the last seven years, until Thursday, when British police arrested him after Ecuador stopped granting asylum.

His arrest raises a bunch of issues about freedom of the press that I haven’t unraveled yet — like “What’s the difference between journalism and espionage?” — so for now I’ll just link to a CNN article that points to the complexity.

and Brexit

There’s a new deadline: Halloween. It’s still not clear what will be different then.

Channel 4 commentator Jon Snow (not the Game of Thrones guy) touched off an uproar while he was covering a rally outside the Prime Minister’s residence by angry pro-Brexit protesters. “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place,” he said.

Why, wondered Myriam François in The Guardian, would white people be upset to be identified as white people?

First, white people are not used to being marked out by race. Despite habitually racialising others, we generally don’t take well to being racialised ourselves. Acknowledging our “whiteness” means accepting that our worldview isn’t universal nor objective. It is a white perspective, forged by a particular experience. The “facts of whiteness”, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, make many white people uncomfortable.

It’s telling that Snow’s remark has sparked more outrage than the fact that a rally held in a city with 40% black and minority-ethnic population was almost entirely white. Far-right extremist Tommy Robinson addressed crowds in Parliament Square and somehow this doesn’t raise questions about race? If we weren’t so intent on ringfencing white people from any introspection, white people themselves might legitimately ask why the leave campaign has attracted so many racists and so few people of colour.

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If Attorney General Barr has been telling the truth, his redacted version of the Mueller report should come out this week. (Thursday, possibly.) Trump has gotten nearly a month to shape a “no collusion, no obstruction” narrative, which his base will probably continue to believe even if the report says something different.

The Trump tweet linking Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and 9-11 is not worth discussing in itself. The speech Omar’s one line was lifted from was making the point that Muslims are not collectively guilty for 9-11, so attacking their civil liberties was unjustified. Trump’s tweet essentially makes the point that Muslims are collectively guilty for 9-11. I think we all (in one way or another) resemble people who have done bad things, so any support for the idea of collective guilt should threaten all of us.

What is worth discussing is the role Trump is playing in what has come to be called “stochastic terrorism“. Omar reports that her death threats have skyrocketed since Trump’s tweet, and Nancy Pelosi has asked the House Sergeant-at-Arms to pay special attention to Omar’s security, noting that Trump’s “hateful and inflammatory rhetoric creates real danger”.

Trump himself is not threatening to kill Omar, and he is not conspiring with any particular assassin. But he knows full well the kind of people who are out there, and how they might react to what he says.

It took about a month for New Zealand to change its gun laws after the horrific March 15 mosque shootings. The Prime Minister got behind a bill to ban military-style assault weapons, and Parliament passed it 119-1 on Wednesday.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been raising the question of whether Republicans would allow Trump to fill the Federal Reserve Board of Governors with stooges like Stephen Moore and Herman Cain. I mean, it’s one thing to let know-nothings take charge of education or public housing or the environment, but this is money we’re talking about. Billionaires and multinational corporations are counting on money to continue having meaning, so you’d think Republicans in Congress would want to keep the likes of Moore and Cain from screwing around with it.

It turns out they do. Four Republican senators — Cramer, Romeny, Murkowski, and Gardner — have come out against Cain’s nomination, which pretty much dooms it. Stephen Moore still might get the job.

Politico’s account of Trump’s visit to Mount Vernon sounds like something from The Onion.

“If [George Washington] was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The tour was for visiting French President Emmanuel Macron, who was more into it than Trump.

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

I suspect if you picked a subject at random, Macron would be more knowledgeable about it than Trump.

I’m looking forward to a book that comes out this week: A Lot of People Are Saying by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum. It talks about conspiracy theories, and about a subtly different concept: conspiracism.

In an interview with Vox, Rosenblum explains the distinction: Conspiracy theories are attempts to explain something, and often to re-explain randomness by imposing a cause-and-effect structure on it, however unlikely. In my view, Kennedy assassination theories are the archetypes: It seemed inconceivable that a lone loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could bring down a popular president, so bigger explanations were invented.

Conspiracism, though, is “conspiracy without the theory”. There are no dots to connect, just a bald assertion that somebody you don’t like is up to something.

For example, Trump’s claim that elections are rigged to favor Democrats (and hence that he’d have won the popular vote without the millions of illegal Hillary votes) is not an actual conspiracy theory, because he offers no explanation of how this could have happened. It’s not at all like a Kennedy-assassination theory, where the theorists can drown you in detail.

It would be great if white people would listen to black people’s explanations of privilege, but for a lot of whites that’s just never going to happen. So there’s a need for articles like this one by white NBA player Kyle Korver, where a white guy suddenly gets it.

By the way, there have been several books lately that belie the stereotype of the dumb jock. For example, look at Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett or The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and what matters in the end.

I’ve got to plug an explanation of the current Supreme Court gerrymandering cases co-authored by my nephew Mike Stephens, a recently-minted lawyer.

and let’s close with some low-tech high-tech

One of the problems with renewable energy sources like wind and solar power is how to regulate the flow: the times when you need the most power may not be the times when the most power is being generated. A lot of work has gone into designing batteries, but a conceptually simpler idea may work better: stacking concrete blocks. When you have more power than you need, you build the tower higher. When you need more power than you have, you let a block fall, generating power as it goes.

Another company is working on a similar notion, but instead of building a tower, it raises and lowers weights inside a deep mine shaft.

Alarm Bells

It is deeply alarming that the Trump administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking.

Nancy Pelosi

There is no featured post this week. This summary is all I’m posting.

This week everybody was talking about the cover up

I’m ready to start describing the slow-walking of the Mueller Report as a cover-up. The Mueller Report has been done for more than two weeks, and all the public or Congress has seen is a four-page summary that we now have reason to believe is inaccurate.

During the investigation the Mueller team was famous for not leaking. They published indictments and made motions in court that became part of the public record. Beyond that, our information came second-hand, from the witnesses they interviewed, from lawyers for potential targets of the investigation, and from watching who came or left the courtroom.

This week they began to leak. It started with a New York Times article on Wednesday:

Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

The Washington Post confirmed via their own sources that the investigators were unhappy with Barr’s conclusion that the President had not obstructed justice.

[M]embers of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant. “It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

Barr originally said that his redacted version would be available by mid-April “if not sooner”. That’s in the next week or so. Assuming he follows through, we’ll see then whether the redactions are insubstantial enough to be worth a what-were-you-worried about response, or so extensive as to be one big fuck-you to Congress and the public.

In either case, Congress needs to know what Mueller found out, and not just what Trump’s hand-picked protector deigns to tell them.

In a similar story about Congress’ oversight duty, Democrats are also trying to get Trump’s tax returns.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) Wednesday evening sent IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig a request for six-years worth of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Neal made the request under a part of section 6103 of the federal tax code that states that the Treasury Secretary “shall furnish” tax returns to the chairmen of Congress’s tax committees upon written request, so long as the documents are viewed in a closed session.

According to Maddowblog’s Steve Benen, section 6103 was put in the tax code in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, which centered on President Harding’s Treasury secretary. Up until then, only the President had the power to examine tax returns, but Teapot Dome brought up the possibility that the President might be politically motivated not to investigate his own administration. So the appropriate committee chairs in the House and Senate were also given the power.

Since this is the Trump administration, the fact that the law is clear doesn’t mean it will be followed, at least not without a fight. (Chief of Staff Mulvaney pledges that Democrats will “never” see Trump’s taxes.) Republicans in Congress seem likely, once again, to back Trump in his attempt to subvert Congress’ legal power.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Thursday that courts have ruled that congressional requests for information need to have legitimate legislative purposes, and Democrats have fallen short on that front.

The administration routinely rejects courts looking into whether its own actions have legitimate purposes, arguing instead that the judicial branch owes deference to the executive branch’s judgments. (This came up, for example, in the Muslim ban case, where Trump’s claims about national security were clearly specious. It will likely come up again in the lawsuits of his border-wall national emergency, which is similarly based on nonsense.)

Section 6103 hasn’t been invoked since Watergate, because Trump is the first post-Watergate presidential candidate to keep his tax returns secret. It’s illuminating to watch both sides spin this dearth of examples. Fox News describes this as “the first such demand for a sitting president’s tax information in 45 years” while Benen notes that “no administration has ever denied a lawmaker access to tax returns under this law”.

A subsequent Fox News article links to the first one to back up its clearly false claim that the Democrats have made an “unprecedented demand“. Again, the only unprecedented thing here (at least in the post-Watergate era) is that the President’s tax returns are not already public. The last time a president’s returns weren’t public (i.e., Nixon), Congress received them under Section 6103.

My guess: Not even this Supreme Court can ignore such a clear statement of law. The main question is how long Trump’s legal challenges can delay the matter.

and Joe Biden’s touching problem

Biden still hasn’t announced his candidacy, but it’s looking more and more like a foregone conclusion that he will. This week he put out an I-get-it video to respond to the accusations of inappropriate touching. It wasn’t exactly an apology, but he acknowledged that standards of propriety have changed and promised “I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.” That started an is-that-good-enough debate that got more intense after he joked about having permission to hug a child.

One problem Democrats are having dealing with situations like this is that abuse-of-women is often framed as a where-to-draw-the-line problem. But like many problems, abuse is a continuum that ranges from the annoying to the criminal.

What Biden has been accused of doing is down in the second-lowest row. (Accusations against Trump and Brett Kavanaugh are much higher up.) Biden denies having bad intentions, and so far no one has claimed otherwise. But it’s still not OK. Doing what Biden did creates opportunities for people who want to do worse.

We’re also struggling over how to forgive inappropriate behavior, and how one should seek forgiveness. I think a lot of people in privileged groups — not just men, but also whites, straights, cis-gender, and so forth — share a partly-but-not-entirely-irrational fear of being exiled to Siberia for violating (through obliviousness rather than malice) some norm we’d never heard of before. (That fear hit close to home recently. I’m a contributing editor for UU World magazine. In the current issue, one of the other contributing editors published an article that a number of transgender and gender-nonbinary people found offensive, and for which the magazine has apologized. It was disturbingly easy for me to imagine winding up in a similar situation myself.)

I found this how-to-respond graphic helpful.

I wasn’t planning to support Biden in the primaries anyway, though I’ll happily vote for him over Trump if he is the nominee, and I’m not inclined to trash him unnecessarily. To me, this flap is not so damaging in itself, but putting a weight on Biden’s negative pan raises the question: What are the positives that we’re counting on to outweigh this?

Biden arrived at the Senate in 1973 as a 30-year-old whiz kid. He came of age politically in an era shaped by Reagan’s annihilation of Carter in 1980 and Mondale in 1984, Dukakis’ landslide loss in 1988, the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and Bill Clinton’s successful rightward shift in 1996. During that time liberals became timid, and felt that they needed some signature conservative issues and sound bites to prove that they weren’t crazy McGovernites.

All that stuff will return to haunt him in the coming months, making him look inauthentic. He’s not really inauthentic, or at least no more than anybody else. He’s just a politician of his time and place. But this is a different time, and once the campaign gets rolling I think candidates who don’t have to answer for the 1980s and 1990s will have an advantage over him.

and Brexit

Brexit is one of those strange situations where every conceivable outcome is accompanied by a rational and coherent explanation of why it can’t happen. But something will have to happen, at least eventually.

Friday is the latest deadline for that Something, but no one knows what it is yet, so Prime Minister May is seeking an extension to June 30. (What will change by then is unclear.) This would mean that the UK participates in European Parliament elections in May. All 27 of the other EU nations would have to agree to the extension. If not, the disaster of a no-deal Brexit could happen as early as Friday.

The biggest obstacle to implementing any form of Brexit is the Good Friday Agreement that ended the so-called “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The GFA requires a soft border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which remains in the EU). But control of the border (to keep out immigrants not just from Syria, but also from <gasp> Poland) is what Brexit was all about in the first place. If job-stealing Poles or terrorist Muslims can walk in from Ireland, Brexiteers ask, what was the point? On the other hand, no one wants the Troubles back.

The New Yorker has a clear explanation of all the possible resolutions of Brexit’s Irish-border problem, and why each of them is opposed by some veto-wielding party.

I have a tangential personal connection to the Troubles. In 1985, I attended an IEEE information-theory conference at the Metropole Hotel in the English seaside resort of Brighton. (Claude Shannon spoke, and, though clearly aging, was still dexterous enough to juggle oranges.) The original announcement had sited the conference at the Grand Hotel, but that was before the IRA blew it up. (During a break in the conference, I walked past the rubble.) It was like I had a reservation on the Titanic’s second voyage.

I am told that brexit has become a verb: to announce that you’re leaving and then not go. So you might call your sitter and say: “I thought we’d be home from this party by now, but Bob has been brexiting for nearly an hour.”

and the border

Kirstjen Nielsen resigned as Homeland Security secretary yesterday, just days after Trump withdrew his nominee for head of ICE because he wants someone “tougher”. The NYT news article on her resignation says that Nielsen repeatedly made Trump angry by telling him what the law said. Reportedly, he felt “lectured to”. The partner NYT editorial says:

The president grew impatient with Ms. Nielsen’s insistence that federal law and international obligations limited her actions.

Nielsen’s career should be a lesson for anyone thinking of working in the Trump administration. Her reputation is ruined: For the rest of her life, she will be the woman who put children in cages. And she leaves not with the President’s gratitude and the support of his base, but taking the blame for the failure of his harsh policies to stop migrants from coming to our border.

This is what Trump does: He uses up whatever credibility people can bring to his organization, until the only value they have left is to be sacrificed as scapegoats.

On the subject of mistreatment of migrant children, the government Friday estimated it would take two years to identify all the children it took from their parents. Think about how long two years is for a child.

Trump had been making a lot of noise about closing the border with Mexico, and then suddenly backed down. I assume somebody finally explained to him what “closing the border” actually means. (Maybe that was one of the “lectures” that got Nielsen ousted.) It would disrupt trade and tourism in both directions, interrupt supply chains for factories on both sides of the border, and do nothing to stop either those who are trying to cross the border illegally, or those who are planning to turn themselves in and claim asylum.

Before his retreat, Trump had been expected to announce the border closing when he went to the Calexico Friday. He was there to dedicate what an official plaque calls “the first section of President Trump’s border wall.” It actually isn’t.

A fence had existed at the spot for decades. … [T]he Border Patrol had identified this section as a priority for replacement in 2009, during President Barack Obama’s administration.

In fact, no new sections of border fencing have been built during Trump’s administration.

While at Calexico, Trump repeated a popular bit of white nationalist rhetoric, saying “Our country is full.” SNL’s Michael Che had already answered that last week: “How can America run out of space? We’ve still got two Dakotas.”

The Mexican Wall play/counterplay so far: Congress denied Trump’s budget request for money to build more of the wall, so Trump declared a national emergency that he claims allows him to seize the money from other programs, so Congress passed a bipartisan resolution rescinding the emergency, so Trump vetoed that resolution, so Congress tried to override his veto and failed.

Next move: House Democrats are going to court., joining the states that have already filed suit.

but I read a book

I continue my quest to understand Trump’s base voters, but I’m starting to lose hope. A few weeks ago I told you about Timothy Carney’s Alienated America. The key insight there is that the original Trump supporters, the ones who were with him in the primaries and helped him take the Republican Party away from the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios, were people who were doing relatively well in communities that were doing badly. Yes, they were angry, but not so much on their own behalf. They were angry because they saw their towns and their families crumbling around them.

That explained why they might take a flier on an untried candidate who promised to shake things up, but not why they would stick by him while he did nothing to help their communities, choosing instead to enrich himself, increase government corruption, and give big tax breaks to his fellow billionaires. (There’s a reason why he doesn’t want you to see his taxes, people.)

This week I read Robert Wurthnow’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. Wurthnow is a Princeton sociologist, and believes that when you don’t understand people, you should go out and talk to them.

That makes sense up to the point where you realize that what they’re telling you is bullshit. So, for example, rural Americans claim they were incensed by the deficits that Obama ran up, but they are strangely unmoved by Trump’s large deficits. They claim they have to be anti-abortion and anti-gay because of their religion and how much they value their religious communities. But many of them left the Christian denominations they were born into when those churches got soft on abortion and gays. (It’s like what Bush did in the Iraq War: He always followed the advice of his generals, but he’d fire generals until he got one that gave him the advice he wanted.)

In short, listening to the nonsense they say isn’t helping me understand them.

and you also might be interested in …

If you’re a regular Sift reader, you’ve heard most of these ideas before, but this video from Represent.US puts them together effectively.

Israel has elections tomorrow. Benjamin Netanyahu is going for his fifth term as prime minister, and is promising to unilaterally annex chunks of the occupied territories if he wins. The peace process has been going nowhere for many years now, but such a move pretty announces Israel’s intention to impose its will on the Palestinians.

Israel’s attorney general has announced its intention to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, but the charges have not been filed yet. The polls are close.

Josh Marshall raises a good point: Trump often talks to American Jews as if they were expatriate Israelis. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday, Trump referred to Netanyahu as “your prime minister”. In October, when Trump visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (site of the mass shooting), he met the Israeli ambassador at the front gate — as if the synagogue were a piece of Israel inside the US.

This kind of othering is a classic anti-Semitic tactic, and is consistent with the way that many white ethno-nationalists support Israel: as the true home of all Jews, even the ones who think they’ve made a home here.

I know what you’ve all been thinking: “I wish the government would stop doing all those invasive inspections and leave the pork industry alone.” Well, our populist government has heard you and is responding to the public demand for privatized meat inspection.

The Trump administration plans to shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry as early as May, cutting the number of federal inspectors by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees. Under the proposed new inspection system, the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork would be shared with plant employees, whose training would be at the discretion of plant owners. There would be no limits on slaughter-line speeds.

Back when Trump started saying “Make America Great Again”, many of us wondered what time period the “again” referred to. Now we know: the era of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Jill Filipovic wrote in the NYT about age and the female politician:

They are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious.

I don’t entirely follow her point about Kirsten Gillibrand, who at 52 and in her second Senate term is youngish and newish for a presidential candidate, but not strikingly so. Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, at 69

finds herself put in the same “old” category as Mr. Sanders and Joe Biden, even though both men are nearly a decade older than she is. Men who are more or less the same age as Ms. Warren — Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), Jay Inslee (68) — are not lumped in with the white-hairs.

In 2016 I wrote about the stereotypes that portray a man’s deficiencies as virtues: the charming rogue, the wheeler-dealer, and so on. Filipovic points to another one that Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke are taking advantage of: the fresh face, the new kid on the block. JFK, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama — there’s a well-established pattern of a man coming from nowhere and jumping the line to the top job. Young Paul Ryan hit Congress as a young gun or a whiz kid; I haven’t heard those phrases used to describe AOC.

My can-you-believe-this story last week was Stephen Moore being nominated to the Federal Reserve Board. This week’s is that Trump is getting ready to nominate Herman Cain. The point isn’t to change the economic philosophy of the Fed, it’s to fill the Board with Trump loyalists who will pump the economy full of cheap money to get him re-elected in 2020. (Cain would also join the fairly large contingent of people in the administration who have been accused of harassing women.)

That’s the pattern with several of the recent Trump appointees: Bill Barr in the Justice Department and Charles Rettig and Michael Desmond at IRS. They’ve been appointed to serve Trump, not to serve the country.

The next time somebody tries to tell you that both parties are the same, remember Thursday’s vote in the House to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. It passed 263-158. The No votes were 157 Republicans and 1 Democrat. The bill faces challenges in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Here’s the main point of contention:

Under current federal law, only people convicted of domestic violence offenses against spouses or family members can lose their gun rights. The [new version of the] VAWA would add people convicted of abusing their dating partners, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” It would also prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses from owning or buying firearms, as well as abusers subject to temporary protective orders.

That provision is too much for the NRA, and so for the Republicans the NRA controls. The gun rights of stalkers and abusers should be protected, even if that means more women will die.

A study comparing abused women who survived with those killed by their abuser found that 51 percent of women who were killed had a gun in the house. By contrast, only 16 percent of women who survived lived in homes with guns.

Even if you don’t care about women, there’s still good reason to support adding this provision to the VAWA: When you look at mass shooters and ask “How could we have known what he would do?”, one strong clue is a history of domestic violence. Keeping guns out of the hands of abusers would probably save a lot of men’s lives too.

After some legislative shenanigans on Mitch McConnell’s part, Congress passed a resolution invoking the War Powers Act to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Trump is expected to veto it.

Trump’s constant lying got renewed attention Wednesday after he uncorked a slew of them in 24 hours, including a ridiculous one (that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer) and a transparent and pointless one (that his father was born in Germany when he was actually born in New York). Anderson Cooper debunked a bunch of Trump lies in one segment. Social media just had fun with it all.

Sportswriter Rick Reilly claims to have played golf with Trump. This is from his article “Whatever Trump is Playing, it isn’t Golf“, which looks like an abstract of his new book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

If Trump will cheat to win $20 from his friends, is it that much further to believe he’d cheat to lower his taxes, win an election, sway an investigation?

Yet another lie: Puerto Rico has not received $91 billion in hurricane relief aid.

and let’s close with something to envy

Helsinki’s new Oodi library.

Upon entering Oodi, an enforced hush does not descend. Nor are there any bookshelves in sight, but on the first floor – a large, fluid space – there is a cinema, a multi-purpose hall and a restaurant. The second floor, called the “attic”, is entirely dedicated to skills development. Here the public can use 3D printers and sewing machines, or borrow musical equipment and rock out in specially modified studios. There is even a kitchen and socialising area, which can be hired for a small fee, where the librarians hope birthday parties will take place, perhaps followed by a spot of karaoke. Staff roam the site ready to help the public use the resources available. …

“We believe,” [Helsinki’s executive director of culture Tommi] Laitio expounds, “that everyone deserves to have free access to not only knowledge, but also our shared culture, spaces that are beautiful, and to dignity.” Central to Oodi’s concept, he explains, is bringing a wide range of people together under one roof. “A lot of emphasis has been put on how we make sure that this building is safe and welcoming to homeless people [or] to CEOs with a couple of hours to spare … We need to make sure that people believe that we can live together, and I don’t think €100m for that feeling is a lot of money.”

Be Best

Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal.

George Conway

This week’s featured post is “Mueller By Gaslight“.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

which none of us have been allowed to read. So the advantage at this point goes to people who are comfortable making bold claims about things they know nothing about. Has there ever been a situation so tailor-made for Donald Trump?

In the featured post, I realize that I can’t wait until I know what I’m talking about, because then Trump and his people own the field, a position that they have been abusing mightily this last week. So I say what I can.

In general, I find myself agreeing with Matt Yglesias:

I continue to be confused as to why republicans are working so hard to suppress the contents of a report that exonerates Trump and utterly discredits Dems + the media.

and ObamaCare

After spending a bunch of the mid-term campaign denying that they wanted to take health insurance away from people with pre-existing conditions, the Trump administration is back to trying to take health insurance away from people with pre-existing conditions.

This week, his Justice Department filed a legal brief arguing that a judge should find Obamacare unconstitutional — a decision that would turn the insurance markets back into the Wild West and eliminate Medicaid coverage for millions of Americans. By at least one estimate, a full repeal could cost 20 million Americans their health care coverage.

But rather than deal with that reality, the Trump administration retreated into fantasy.

President Donald Trump has insisted his party “will become ‘The Party of Healthcare!’” and said things like, “if the Supreme Court rules that Obamacare is out, we will have a plan that’s far better than Obamacare.”

He’s been talking about this mysterious plan since his campaign, and during that time no single detail of it has ever leaked out. I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s because there are no details to leak. Trump has never in his entire life had two consecutive thoughts about healthcare.

The basic outline of the plan Republicans want goes like this:

  • It covers everybody.
  • It doesn’t force healthy people to pay for sick people’s coverage.
  • It costs less money.
  • It provides better care.
  • It doesn’t raise taxes.
  • It doesn’t lower the profits of drug companies, insurance companies, or hospitals

There is no such plan, but as long as you don’t nail down any details, you don’t have to admit that.

and the border

In the latest manufactured crisis, Trump is threatening to close the border with Mexico this week (cutting off trade worth $612 billion last year) because of “the mother of all caravans“, which the Mexican interior secretary says is forming in Honduras. (Honduras knows nothing about it, and immigration activists call the story a hoax.)

I recommend reading this morning’s Washington Post article on this, which captures the atmosphere of surrealism. Both Trump and Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney say closing the border is a real threat. “I’m not playing games,” Trump said Friday. On a Sunday interview show, Mulvaney said that only “something dramatic” could persuade Trump not to close the border. However,

Administration officials have offered no details about the president’s intentions, and border control officials have received no instructions to prepare for a shutdown, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. Implementing such an order would require time to notify Congress and labor unions representing Border Patrol agents and customs officers, the official said.

A Pentagon spokesman said the military, which has about 5,300 troops in the border region, has not received such orders either.

It’s not clear that Trump has any idea what “closing the border” even means. Factories on both sides of the border will close for lack of parts, just to name one consequence. You also might want to stock up on avocados.

Even if the mother of all caravans were forming, it would constitute a conspiracy to do something legal: ask for asylum in the United States. Trump actually admits this is legal, but does it in his usual backhanded way:

“We have the most laughed-at immigration laws of anywhere in the world,” Mr. Trump said to reporters as he and [resigning SBA Director Linda] McMahon sat in the ornate front room of the club. “They’re the Democrats’ laws, and I got stuck with them.”

The implication here is that the laws of the United States can be separated into Democratic and Republican laws, and that Trump’s oath to “faithfully execute the laws” doesn’t apply to Democratic laws. I can only imagine the heads that would have exploded if President Obama had ever made such a claim.

Another part of Trump’s threat is to cancel assistance to the countries the refugees come from: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. (A Fox News chyron proclaimed “Trump cuts aid to three Mexican countries“.) As anyone should be able to imagine, cutting aid to these countries will make conditions worse there, and motivate more people to try to leave for the United States.

I can’t decide whether that plan is stupid or diabolical. Maybe Trump understands that cutting aid will produce more refugees for him to demonize.

The House failed to override Trump’s veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to revoke the state of emergency Trump proclaimed in order to build his wall. Only 14 Republicans were willing to defend Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.

USA Today reports that there is indeed a surge of immigrants coming across the southern border: about 100,000 in March, “the highest monthly total in over a decade”.

Think about that: “over a decade” probably puts us in the Bush administration, when some people were concerned about immigration, but hardly anybody thought it constituted an emergency. We have seen these kinds of numbers before, and dealt with them without attacking the constitutional separation of powers.

Around 90 percent of those – or 90,000 – crossed the border between legal ports of entry. The vast majority of those crossing between ports of entry turn themselves into Border Patrol agents, seeking asylum.

Turning yourself in and requesting asylum is the appropriate legal process. So this is not an “invasion” or a wave of criminal activity. The article makes one more observation: Trump’s Wall would be useless to stop asylum-seekers, because in many places it will sit back from the actual border.

A wall would go up on levees about a mile from the winding Rio Grande, which is the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants will just have to cross the river to be in U.S. territory and seek asylum, [McAllen Mayor Jim Darling] said.

and the administration’s proposed budget

If you were looking for something to watch on TV and came across a movie that IMDB told you was about billionaire politicians conspiring to kill the Special Olympics, you’d know right away that this was not high drama. No serious director would allow his or her villains to be so cartoonish.

But that’s the movie we were living in for a few days this week. The proposed Trump budget cut the Department of Education budget by $7 billion, and achieved $18 million of that total by zeroing out the federal contribution to the Special Olympics. That’s just the highlight of broad cuts in special education generally.

To defend those cuts to Congress, Trump sent out yet another billionaire, Education Secretary Betsy Devos. For reasons I can’t put my finger on, DeVos always makes me think of Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter movies. Apparently I’m not the only one to see the resemblance; this photo-pairing is going around on social media.

But Rep. Mark Pocan wasn’t having it. His largely futile effort to get any kind of straight answer out of DeVos is worth watching.

After considerable public outcry, Trump announced that Special Olympics wouldn’t be cut. (But the broader cuts to special education and education in general stand.) DeVos (whose budget request has defunded Special Olympics three years in a row) then issued this statement:

I am pleased and grateful the President and I see eye-to-eye on this issue and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant. This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.

Which raises the question: Who did she fight behind the scenes with? If it’s not her, then who is the mysterious Special-Olympics-hating villain within the Trump administration?

Similarly, Trump promised a crowd of his supporters in Michigan that he will get full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration program, which his budget proposes to cut by 90%.

Trump also called for decimating funds for the program in 2017 and 2018, but funding was saved both years by Congress, which would likely do so in the next budget as well. President Barack Obama supported funding for the program each year since it was established in 2010. Yet Trump tried to portray himself at the Midwestern rally as the savior of the program.

It’s not new that politicians promise to back some program and then end up cutting it later. But I can’t recall a situation — let alone so many situations simultaneously — where a politician promised to defend something at the exact same time that he was in the process of slashing it. We’ve never seen this kind of disinformation campaign in America before.

and you also might be interested in …

When I first heard the idea that Joe Biden might run for president in this cycle, I prepared myself for a Me-Too moment. Not because I think Biden is unusually suspect in this area, but just because he’s a man from an era with different standards of behavior. I doubted that he had grabbed anybody by the pussy, as certain other politicians of his generation have bragged about doing, but I found it hard to believe he hadn’t patted somebody’s butt in the wrong way at some time or another.

So Friday, Lucy Flores published her account of a rally in 2014 when Biden was supporting her run for lieutenant governor of Nevada. As the speakers are lining up to go on stage, Biden is standing behind her. He puts his hands on her shoulders and kisses the back of her head.

To me that sounds more grandfatherly than predatory — a sort of “Go get ’em, girl” encouragement — but I wasn’t there, and either way it’s not appropriate either for 2014 or for today. Flores says she found the experience “demeaning and disrespectful”, which is entirely her judgment to make.

I doubt this is the last we’ll hear of this kind of thing. Whether he intends disrespect or not, Biden tends to be touchy-feely in a way that used to be accepted, but isn’t any more. That problem interacts badly with at least one of his other problems: the resentment some women still feel about his treatment of Anita Hill when he was chairing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I continue to think that this presidential cycle will take many twists and turns before it gets wherever it’s going. Being on top of the polls right now counts for very little.

According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who identify their religious tradition as “no religion” is now 23.1%, or slightly larger than either Evangelical Christians or Catholics. And yet, do you ever hear pundits speculate about how people of no religion might react to some public issue?

I think it’s important to understand that the so-called Nones are not necessarily agnostics or atheists. They may have spiritual intuitions or practices. They may pray to someone or something. And they might admire religious leaders like Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. They just don’t identify with any of the publicly recognized faiths. I suspect many would agree with what Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man.

My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.

The relative stability of Catholicism masks a lot of churn, I think. If we just looked at native-born Americans, the Catholic line in the graph might fall off the way that the mainline Christian line does. But a constant inflow of Catholic immigrants hides that decline.

While we’re looking at graphs, here’s one that has me shaking my head. Americans are having less sex. Partly that’s caused by the population getting older. But another major factor is the unusual number of celibate 20-somethings.

In particular, since 2009 celibacy has been disproportionately rising among young men.

The article cites three possible factors:

  • The percentage of young men in the workforce has declined, and unemployed men have a hard time attracting partners.
  • A lot of 20-something men are living with their parents, which is just not an attractive situation.
  • “There are a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago. Streaming video, social media, console games, everything else.”

I’m not buying the first explanation, because the graph doesn’t seem to follow the economy. The third factor strikes me as weak. I mean, TV has improved in recent decades, but it’s not that good. (A social media post I can’t find now reproduces the graph above, draws an arrow at the turning point and captions it “Fallout 3 released”.) Living with parents … maybe. (I mean, there are still cars.) I don’t feel like the article has really gotten to the bottom of this mystery.

Conservatives have started to notice that their beliefs don’t track with the Bible. Solution? Re-translate the Bible to make it fit.

OK, we’ve gotten used to the idea that Trump appoints ignorant and incompetent people to high office. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the Betsy DeVos clip I referenced above.) For the most part, Republicans have been OK with that, because large chunks of the government don’t matter to them. So if Ben Carson knows zip about public housing, well, who cares about public housing anyway? Scott Pruitt and his successor Andrew Wheeler aren’t interested in protecting the environment, but from a Republican point of view that’s just fine.

In two years, Trump nominated more judges rated “unqualified” by the ABA than the last four presidents put together; but conservative judges don’t need to know the law, they just need who they’re for and against: for the rich, corporations, and fundamentalist Christians, against workers, the poor, non-whites who want to vote, and LGBTQ people. You don’t need to go to Harvard Law to learn that.

But now we’re seeing that obliviousness challenged. Trump has nominated Stephen Moore to a position that even Republicans have to think matters: the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.

Moore is not an economist; he is a booster. His career includes neither major academic posts nor practical experience in banking. Instead, he has lived entirely inside the world of right-wing policy think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Club for Growth, and so on. He promotes the snake-oil notion that taxes should always be lower, and that cutting tax rates will produce more revenue because of the growth that the lower rates will stimulate. That claim flies in the face of all evidence, but boosters don’t face either peer review or angry stockholders, so they can be wrong again and again without consequences.

The Fed, on the other hand, is one of the most consequential institutions our system has: It defines what money means. What money is and why it has value is one of the High Mysteries of Economics, and the Fed Board of Governors is the priesthood whose rituals manage that mystery. Is the Republican Senate really willing to let somebody like Stephen Moore screw around with that?

The session in which the Pennsylvania legislature would swear in its first Muslim woman began with prayer: State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz mentioned Jesus 13 times, including “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord”. She also thanked God that President Trump “stands by Israel”.

A reporter spoke to her afterward and tweeted:

“That’s how I pray everyday.” When asked to respond to Dems calling for an apology she says “Oh no, I don’t apologize ever for praying”

In case you’re ever in a position to open some public meeting, I want to point out the difference between an invocation and a prayer. An invocation calls people together, reminds them of the values they share, and challenges them to put aside ego as they take up their public responsibilities. For example:

We gather together here today intent on doing good work.

We seek to represent fairly and well, those who have given us this task. May our efforts be blessed with insight, guided by understanding and wisdom.

We seek to serve with respect for all. May our personal faiths give us strength to act honestly and well in all matters before us.

On the other hand, a public prayer is a moment when believers in a particular god collectively address that god. The more sectarian your prayer is, the greater its expression of your group’s supremacy. “We own this room,” it announces.

And so, ironically, even as Borowicz was supporting Israel, she was telling Pennsylvania’s Jewish legislators that they don’t really belong. What was objectionable in her prayer wasn’t the Christianity, it was the expression of Christian supremacy in the legislature.

The original Brexit deadline passed on Friday, but Parliament still doesn’t have a plan. The deadline has been pushed off to April 12.

A new Banksy was unveiled in time to mark the occasion:

and let’s close with an unusual sporting event

This year’s ACC Tournament Baby Race featured an amazing comeback.

Very Fine Terrorists

In Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating there are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.

Charlottesville, VA Police Chief RaShall Brackney
announcing the arrest of a teen who threatened an “ethnic cleansing”
at Charlottesville High School

This week’s featured posts are “A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report” and “Confronting Season-Change Denial“.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

It’s done, but you don’t get to read any of it yet, beyond Attorney General Barr’s four-page summary. It’s easy to get caught up in speculation, which I tried to keep to a minimum in the featured post.

and the 2020 Democrats

Remember: At this point four years ago, the Republican front-runners were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and people argued over whether dark horses like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz might overtake them. Trump wouldn’t come down the escalator talking about Mexican rapists until June, and most self-appointed prognosticators weren’t taking his candidacy seriously until he won New Hampshire the next February. (I’ve got nothing to brag about in that regard.) There was even a Ben Carson boom in November, 2015 (a point still 8 months in the future for this cycle) when he briefly passed Trump in the polling averages.

So take all this with a grain of salt, but right now polls say Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the front-runners, with Biden maybe a nose ahead. There’s also buzz about Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke. Maybe that’s meaningful, but maybe it isn’t. Most of the candidates are people that the public has barely heard of. And even if you do know about Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, you may not have put much serious thought yet into imagining any of them as president.

My personal guess, for what it’s worth, is that both Biden and Sanders are vulnerable. I don’t have any idea who comes out of this scrum, but if you offered me the Field against Biden and Sanders, I’d take the Field.

Biden’s support is largely nostalgia for Obama, and Biden isn’t Obama. That will quickly become clear when his official campaign starts. And Bernie’s popularity has long been exaggerated, first by his underdog status against Clinton, and then by regret after Clinton lost. Campaigning as a co-frontrunner will be a completely different experience for him. That fact is already showing up in his favorable/unfavorable numbers, which are starting to look like any other candidate’s.

One theme I see developing in the early stump speeches is the contrast between values and policies. Elizabeth Warren has been very policy-heavy, with proposals like breaking up the big tech companies and changing the way capitalism works in this country. Bernie Sanders also has a very specific list of policies — Medicare for All and free college being the foremost — and his followers are using them to test whether other candidates are progressive or not. (Since the policies come from Bernie’s list, ultimately he’s going to be the only candidate who qualifies as a progressive.)

But it’s an interesting question how many voters care about such specific proposals, and how many write them off as undeliverable promises. At the other extreme, Beto O’Rourke talks mainly about progressive values — like taking care of sick people and helping young people get the education they need — while dodging questions on specific proposals. Talking about values can be more inspiring than explaining the details of your legislation, but I think voters also need some assurance that the values aren’t empty: Maybe you don’t go deeply into the details, but we need some assurance that you have done your wonkish homework and could get into that if anybody wanted to hear it.

538 pours cold water over those what-voters-want-in-a-candidate surveys.

The reality is that what voters say they value doesn’t appear to match which candidates they support. … Indeed, what voters say they value can change depending on which way the political winds are blowing. To see this, we need only go back to the last presidential primary. In March 2015 — the same point in the 2016 cycle as we are in now for the 2020 cycle — 57 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters told the Pew Research Center that it was more important for a candidate to have experience and a proven record than new ideas and a different approach. Only 36 percent preferred a candidate with a fresh approach. But when Pew asked the same question just six months later, the results were reversed: 65 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners preferred new ideas and a different approach, while 29 percent said experience and a proven record were more important.

I have to admit: When first I heard that a 37-year-old gay mayor of a medium-sized city (South Bend, Indiana) wanted to run for president, I decided this news was not worth my further attention.

But maybe it is. There seems to be a minor (so far) Pete Buttigieg boomlet underway. He’s made some well-received appearances on TV, and this interview in Esquire hits all the right notes. Suddenly he’s polling in double digits in Iowa.

By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Jim and Deb Fallows’ book Our Towns, where they visit a bunch of small and medium-sized American cities that are doing something right. One of their underlying themes is that while national politics is polarized and log-jammed, local politics actually works in a lot of places. They suggest that mayor may be the best job in politics right now, because you have a chance to carry out your vision and do things that produce positive change in your constituents’ lives. So it makes sense that a mayor would project a nice balance of principles and practicality.

One of the impressive things in this clip from The View is how easily and naturally he talks about his Christian religion. Unlike Trump, he clearly knows something about that religion. He lays claim to the Bible’s progressive views on helping the poor, while neither pandering to fellow Christians nor casting non-Christians as the enemy.

and the electoral college

One of Elizabeth Warren’s many policy proposals is to get rid of the Electoral College, as she suggested at her recent CNN townhall meeting in Jackson, Mississippi.

My view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means: Get rid of the Electoral College.

When you consider that two of the last five presidential elections have been won by the popular-vote loser, and that those presidents (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016) have been pretty horrible, the Electoral College is hard to defend.

But it’s been interesting to watch Republicans try. The EC gives small states disproportionate weight, which in general shifts power in the direction of rural areas, which tend to be more white and more Republican than the country as a whole. (All of those statements are generalities that have specific exceptions. Texas is a big conservative state, while Vermont is a small liberal state. Rhode Island is a small state whose electorate is overwhelmingly urban.)

Mark Thiessen writes:

The purpose of the electoral college is to protect us from what James Madison called the “tyranny of the majority.” Each state gets to cast electoral votes equal to the combined number of its U.S. representatives (determined by population) and its senators (two regardless of population). The goal was to make sure even the smallest states have a say in electing the president and prevent those with large, big-city populations from dictating to the less populous rural ones.

This is totally fake history. Madison and the Founders did worry about the tyranny of the majority, but their solution was to put limits on what government could do, by precisely enumerating the government’s powers and by adding a Bill of Rights that protects individuals. Also, the largest state at the time was Virginia, which was dominated by its rural plantations rather than its big cities.

The Electoral College was about something else entirely, and doesn’t work anything like the way the Founders envisioned. They intended electors to run on their own reputations as men (yes, men) of wisdom, not on their prior support of specific candidates. The EC would then make a judgment entirely separate from the voters. And since the Founders didn’t believe in political parties, probably the electors wouldn’t be organized enough to give anyone a majority vote (except in cases where the choice was obvious, like George Washington). So in most cycles they’d end up being a nominating body for the House of Representatives, which would make the final choice. In short, the Founder’s fear wasn’t about the tyranny of the majority, it was about the ignorance of the rabble — a point present-day Trumpists should probably stay away from.

So the present effect of the EC has little to do with the Founders’ vision, and has instead evolved into a simple boost for rural white voters, whose votes have more weight than those of urban people of color. Defending that system involves arguing that rural whites deserve a weightier vote. Thiessen does that like this:

Thanks to the electoral college, Democrats have no choice but to try to win at least some of those voters back if they want to win the presidency. But if we got rid of the electoral college, Democrats could write off voters in “fly-over” country and focus on turning out large numbers of their supporters in big cities and populous liberal states such as New York and California. Unburdened by the need to moderate their platform to appeal to centrist voters, they would be free to pursue full socialism without constraint.

In other words, rural white voters deserve a weightier vote because they are more sensible than urban people of color, who might get hoodwinked into electing socialists. That’s what this argument boils down to.

and you also might be interested in …

In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shooting, it took New Zealand less than a week to ban military-style weapons.

“In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country,” said [Prime Minister Jacinda] Ardern.

Wednesday an anonymous post on 4chan (a favorite discussion site for white supremacists) “threatened an ethnic cleansing in the form of a shooting at the poster’s school, telling white students at CHS to stay home”. By Friday, Charlottesville, VA police had arrested a 17-year-old who isn’t a Charlottesville High student. Charlottesville schools had been shut down for two days.

An arrest was also made Friday in response to a threat against nearby Albemarle High School. That threat appeared on Thursday. The two arrested teens don’t seem to have conspired, but whether or not the Albemarle threat was inspired by the Charlottesville threat is still being investigated.

From Associated Press:

The Alabama Senate has approved a bill to abolish judge-signed marriage licenses as some conservative probate judges continue to object to giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples. … A few Alabama probate judges for years have refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone so they do not have to give them to gay couples.

To me, this issue underlines the fact that “conscience” is a special right reserved for Christians. Any government officials who imposed their sincerely held non-Christian beliefs on the public would soon find themselves unemployed.

Picture it: Your county’s chief health inspector believes that his Jain religion forbids his participation in the killing of animals. So he refuses to approve any meat-serving restaurants. How long does he keep his job?

We’re #19! We’re #19!

The new World Happiness Report is out. The happiest country in the world is still Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. (I detect a correlation between socialism and happiness. MAHA!) The US is 19th, between Belgium and the Czech Republic. According to the FAQ:

The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the [Gallup World Poll]. This is called the Cantril ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale.

The report then interprets the extent to which a country’s happiness depends on six factors (which the report calls “sub-bars”): “GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption”. Some news sources (the Washington Post, for example) erroneously report that the rankings are “based” on these factors, but the FAQ explicitly says that’s not true.

The sub-bars have no impact on the total score reported for each country, but instead are just a way of explaining for each country the implications of the model estimated in Table 2.1. People often ask why some countries rank higher than others – the sub-bars (including the residuals, which show what is not explained) are an attempt to provide an answer to that question.

As I’ve said many times, when you rant at length about whatever dumb or crazy or offensive thing President Class Clown just said, you’re playing his game. So I’ll just briefly note something that got a lot of attention this week: He can’t seem to stop dissing John McCain, whose death prevents him from responding.

People are talking about this as a bad-taste or low-character thing, but it strikes me as a sign of mental instability. I think lots of us occasionally find ourselves arguing  with the dead people who live on in our heads. But when you start defending your side of that argument out loud, in front of living people who don’t hear those voices, it’s a sign you need help.

I’m not just making a cute jibe; I’m serious. Stuff like this is why I think even Republicans should be worried about Trump continuing in office. He’s been lucky so far, in that he hasn’t faced a challenge on the scale of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But if something like that comes up, are you really confident he won’t snap completely?

and let’s close with something illuminating

A fascinating presentation of population data — historical and projected — about the world’s largest cities. from 1950-2035. A similar video goes from 1500 to the present.


We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

The Manifesto of Brenton Tarrant
explaining why he killed 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand

Last month, more than 76,000 illegal migrants arrived at our border. We’re on track for a million illegal aliens to rush our borders. People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

President Trump,
explaining his decision to veto the bipartisan Congressional resolution
terminating the state of emergency he declared in order to build his wall

This week’s featured post is “Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes“.

This week everybody was talking about white supremacist terrorism

50 people were killed and another 41 injured in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. One man has been charged with murder, and two other suspects have also been arrested.

The suspect, Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed 17 minutes of the massacre on Facebook, and had previously published a manifesto on 8chan. I look at the manifesto in the featured post.

Josh Marshall echoes my feelings about how Trump responded:

He gave a generic condemnation of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand and then proceeded to give a meandering speech about foreign “invasion”, i.e., immigrants “rushing our border”, calling them “murderers and killers”. In other words, moments after denouncing the massacre he went on with a lie-laden screed much of which was indistinguishable from the attacker’s manifesto.

and the college admissions scandal

As so often happens when some illegal plot is uncovered, it turns out that the bigger scandal is what people do legally every day.

As it stands now, well-to-do families can game the college admission process in a lot of ways, and there’s no consensus about where to draw the line. Of course parents who can afford it move to the upscale school district that will give their kids the most advantages. From there, families with money can spend it on courses that will pull up SAT scores, producing an additional advantage over students too poor too afford such courses, as well as those too poor even to retake the test. At an elite high school, you can make the varsity team in sports that inner-city public-school kids may never have heard of, like water polo or lacrosse. Ivy League schools have teams in such sports, so you might get recruited as an athlete, increasing your chances further.

Maybe Mom or Dad is a good writer who can coach you on writing a convincing college-application essay, or maybe they’ll get frustrated with you and just write it themselves. They can even hire a consultant to design your whole high school career, so that your resume will look good to Ivy League schools. Activities originally envisioned as opportunities to find yourself — sports, theater, music, student government, community service — instead teach you to manufacture a persona that will be attractive to those who will judge you. Or your wealthy parents can help you fake that career, bribing teachers and coaches to back up your story, or paying proctors to look the other way when a smarter kid takes a test for you.

Those last things are illegal, but you crossed the line into unfair a long time ago. But where, exactly? What’s cheating, and what’s just doing right by your child? How are you going to feel as a parent if you challenge your sons or daughters to make it on their own, and then you see less deserving kids vault over them?

One corrosive idea in the background of all this is that getting onto the right track is more important than learning the virtues that a meritocratic system is supposed to nurture and reward. Getting degrees is more important than developing talents. High test scores matter more than the knowledge the tests are supposed to measure. Education is not a thing of value in itself, it’s a gate to get through any way you can.

and  the first significant Republican rebellion against Trump

The Senate took two moves to oppose Trump this week.

Thursday, 12 Republicans crossed over to vote with the Democrats on the resolution to terminate Trump’s national emergency declaration. The emergency is still in effect though, because Trump vetoed the resolution. There weren’t enough votes in either house to overturn a veto, so now the issue is up to the courts.

This issue gave senators a clear choice between supporting Trump and defending Congress’ constitutional power to control spending. The 41 Republicans who supported Trump should be reminded of this every time they try to pose as defenders of the Constitution. That ship has sailed and they chose not to be on it.

One interesting fact about who sided with Trump against the Constitution: Republicans who are up for re-election in 2020. Among that group, only Susan Collins voted for the resolution. Thom Tillis of North Carolina had a particularly bizarre performance: He had explained in the Washington Post why his principles required him to vote for the resolution, and then he voted against it. I guess we know what his principles are worth now.

Wednesday, the Senate voted 54-46 to end US aid for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The resolution is virtually identical to one passed by the House in February, so some Yemen resolution should soon be headed to the White House, where Trump is expected to veto it. The Senate had previously passed a Yemen resolution in December, when Republicans still controlled the House; then-Speaker Paul Ryan refused to let the House vote on it.

The resolution invokes the War Powers Act of 1973, which puts a time limit on conflicts not approved by Congress. In the unlikely event that Congress could override Trump’s expected veto, there would undoubtedly be a battle in court over the constitutionality of the WPA, which both Congress and the White House have danced around since 1973. Presidents of both parties have held that the WPA intrudes on the President’s constitutional power as commander-in-chief, while supporters of the WPA have held that it reclaims Congress’ constitutional power to declare war. (Significantly, the WPA itself was passed over President Nixon’s veto.)

The Yemeni War started in 2015, when Houthi rebels deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been trying to restore him to power ever since, while the rebels are believed to be armed by Iran (though both the Houthis and Iran deny this). Since the Obama administration, the US has provided logistic and intelligence support for the Saudi forces, but US troops have not been involved in the fighting.

Increasingly, the Yemeni War is seen as a humanitarian disaster. National Interest sums it up:

Four years later, the Saudis have failed to disgorge the Houthis from the capital city or make significant inroads in the country. The deaths from direct violence and the Saudi bombing campaign are inconclusive but are estimated at over 50,000 people. Before the intervention, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East and had to import over 90 percent of its food supplies. A Saudi naval blockade along its coasts has led to a man-made famine with up to fourteen million people on the brink of starvation. The lack of nutrition and the destruction of health- and water-related infrastructure due to the bombing has led to the largest outbreak of cholera in modern history, with 10,000 new cases a week. It is the worst humanitarian crisis happening in the world.

Saudi Arabia has become a source of conflict between Trump and Senate Republicans. The Trump administration has identified itself with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), a friend and possible financial patron of Jared Kushner, and Trump himself has accepted MBS’ improbable claim of innocence in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In December, the Senate passed a resolution condemning MBS’ role in the murder.

The killing of Khashoggi now appears to be part of a much larger scheme to silence critics of MBS.

and gun control

The Connecticut Supreme Court rejected a lot of the claims that parents of Newtown massacre victims raised against the company that manufactured the weapon, but it left one tantalizing avenue open: wrongful marketing. The claim is that Remington advertised the Bushmaster rifle in a way that encouraged its illegal use.

The case is still far from won, but it does get to go to the discovery phase. That means plaintiffs can look at the Remington emails and internal memos concerning the Bushmaster’s marketing, which might be very embarrassing for the company.

and you also might be interested in …

Beto is in, Sherrod Brown is out. Now we’re mainly waiting on Joe Biden’s decision to complete the field. (I refuse to devote serious attention to this race until we have a complete field.) Beto’s first campaign event was in Keokuk, Iowa, the next town up the river from Quincy, Illinois, where I grew up. So I watched the video wondering, “Why haven’t I ever been to that coffee shop?”

One way to defuse criticism about lack of experience is ignore it and to do your job at a high level. In Congress, that means Investing time in researching the issues, so you can ask questions that are smart and pointed rather than just showy. Here, second-term Rep. Nanette Barragan of California nails Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about the Trump administration’s illegal policy of turning away migrants seeking asylum.

And here, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York grills Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about where the idea of adding a citizenship question to the census actually comes from. (This clip was posted by the conservative Daily Caller, so the title seems critical of AOC. But I’m using it because it includes her full questioning of Ross, rather than just the highlights.)

Peter Beinart notes a dog that hasn’t been barking: Most Democrats running for President did not invoke God in their announcement speeches. This is a change from a few cycles ago, when such speeches routinely ended with “God bless America” or some other religious phrase.

A second interesting point: Not long ago, political rhetoric in both parties had an ecumenical slant, with worship of God portrayed as something that united Americans, even if Americans pictured God in divergent ways. Now, at least on the left, religion is more likely to be mentioned as a source of divisions we need to overcome.

Meanwhile, rhetoric on the right has become increasingly sectarian. Republicans uphold Christianity while denouncing Islam (something George W. Bush pointedly refused to do after 9-11: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”). On the extreme right, blatant anti-Semitism is common. And while Trump himself on occasion denounces anti-Semitism in general, he has refused to recognize or criticize anti-Semites in his base (like the neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville), and used anti-Semitic tropes himself in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Remember how Barack Obama hinted that his supporters might riot if he lost? Me neither, because it never happened.

Trump, however, did just that this week:

I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.

The New York attorney general’s office isn’t letting go of the Trump Foundation scandal. New York wants Trump to pay $5.6 million “in restitution for spending money from his charitable foundation on business and political purposes”.

and let’s close with something

My favorite performers of anachronistic music do the Pinky and the Brain theme in an early-20th-century nightclub style.

With Compassion

You wanted to separate children and families, and you wanted to do it with compassion?

Rep. Nanette Barragán,
questioning Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

This week’s featured posts are “Where is Congress’ Center on Climate Change?” and “The Balloon Pops on Trump’s Economic Promises“.

This week everybody was talking about investigations

Last week’s Michael Cohen testimony was just the overture. This week House Democrats started the hard work of investigating the many irregularities of the Trump administration. The NYT runs down the various avenues of investigation.

  • Judiciary Committee (chaired by Jerry Nadler): obstruction of justice and abuse of power.
  • Oversight Committee (Elijah Cummings): hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal, and Trump’s over-ruling of the ordinary security clearance process to get clearances for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
  • Intelligence Committee (Adam Schiff): Russian interference in US elections, as well as undue influence over Trump wielded by Saudi Arabia or other nations.
  • Ways and Means (Richard Neal): Trump’s tax returns.
  • Foreign Affairs (Eliot Engel) (in concert with Intelligence and Oversight): the meetings Trump had with Vladimir Putin with no other Americans present.

Nadel announced a sweeping document request this week, sending letters out to 81 people or entities. However, this set of requests was not as onerous as it might otherwise sound: The Judiciary Committee has started by requesting documents that have already been turned over either to Mueller’s investigation or someone else.

Republicans, who investigated Benghazi eight times and would probably launch a ninth if Hillary Clinton seemed likely to run again, objected to Democrats’ overreach, obstructionism, and waste of time.

Various pearl-clutching folks worry about a public backlash against investigating Trump, similar to the backlash against the Bill Clinton impeachment. But I think that only happens if the investigations are perceived to be making a big deal about nothing, as Republicans often did when Obama was president. It looks to me like there’s so much Something to investigate that Democrats won’t get around to investigating Nothing for a long, long time.

In addition to the investigations focused on Trump himself and the Trump Organization, there are also hearings about the administration’s policies. Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified before the House Homeland Security Committee about the general situation on the Mexican border, and in particular about the zero-tolerance policy that has separated immigrant children from their parents. (Full C-SPAN video here.)

Chair Bennie Thompson of Mississippi led off by citing the numerous false statements the president has made to justify his national emergency declaration, and said:

Today, the secretary can choose whether to be complicit in this administration’s misinformation campaign or she can correct the record.

Nielsen tried to do neither; she acknowledged facts (the number of people trying to cross illegally is down substantially since 2000, the great majority of drug smuggling comes through ports of entry rather than across the unwalled parts of the border) without admitting that she was contradicting the President.

Questioned about kids in cages, she got semantic about the definition of a cage. And the kids weren’t kids, they were UACs (unaccompanied minors). I’ll let WBUR’s Steve Almond sum up:

Her performance was among the most chilling spectacles of the Trump era. … What stood out was Nielsen’s robotic manner, her sheer bureaucratic heartlessness. …

Over and over again, legislators asked Nielsen to reckon with the effects of tearing young children away from their parents. Nielsen responded with the kind of bureaucratic doublespeak more commonly associated with fascist regimes — a rhetoric intended to eliminate the moral problem of her own conduct by dehumanizing the children her agency routinely traumatizes.

and Paul Manafort

Trump’s former campaign chairman was sentenced to 47 months in prison, drastically less than the sentencing guidelines (19-24 years, essentially a life sentence for a man about to turn 70) for the crimes he was convicted of. The best response I saw is in a New Yorker cartoon. A couple is in their living room and Trump is on the TV. “On the other hand,” the wife is saying, “four years can seem like a life sentence.”

This sentence results from only one of Manafort’s two trials, the one in Virginia where the judge has consistently seemed sympathetic to him. He still hasn’t been sentenced for his convictions in D.C. The Virginia sentence covers the eight felonies he was convicted of there: five counts of filing false tax returns, two counts of bank fraud (i.e., getting bank loans under false pretenses), and one count of failing to disclose a foreign bank account. According to reports, only one holdout juror prevented his conviction in ten more crimes. The Washington Post described the eight felonies in everyday English:

At a trial last year, Manafort was found guilty of hiding millions he made lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians in overseas bank accounts, then falsifying his finances to get loans when his patrons lost power.

The comparatively light sentence raises three issues:

  • In general, courts treat white-collar criminals with more leniency than street criminals. Manafort is an example of the adage Mario Puzo put into the mouth of Don Corleone in The Godfather: “One lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” The lawyer will also go to prison for less time. There are a variety of reasons for this: The white-collar criminal has better lawyers, so the government is usually happy just to get a conviction. Also, judges identify more with educated suit-wearing criminals than with lower-class muggers or burglars. Judges find it harsh to put an educated professional in prison, which they see as an appropriate place for low-lifes.
  • The judge at times expressed resentment with what the prosecution was trying to do: convict Manafort of crimes that had nothing to do with Trump or Russia, in order to put pressure on him to talk about Trump and Russia. This is a common enough tactic in organized-crime cases, but Judge T. S. Ellis didn’t like it here. Manafort wasn’t being prosecuted for being close to Trump, but if he hadn’t been at the center of the Trump/Russia scandal, investigators probably wouldn’t have devoted enough resources to his case to prove his crimes, so he probably would have gotten away with all this. You have to wonder how many similar crooks are walking around free. Does that make you feel like Manafort is being treated unfairly, or not?
  • Beyond simple class affinity, Ellis seemed to have a bizarre personal identification with Manafort, crediting testimony that he has been “a good friend” and “a generous person”, and absurdly concluding that Manafort has “lived an otherwise blameless life”. (A person who had lived an otherwise blameless life wouldn’t be awaiting sentence for a different set of felonies in another jurisdiction.) In response, The Atlantic laid out how Manafort’s career has revolved around enabling bad people to do bad things. Even when he wasn’t breaking the law, he was happy to be paid in blood money from the tobacco industry; from Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; from apartheid-funded Angolan generalissimo Jonas Savimbi; and from Putin’s client in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In short, Manafort is a dyed-in-the-wool villain. Villains may also have friends, and if they sometimes distribute their dubious profits more generously than people whose money comes from honest work, that doesn’t disprove their villainy.

Ellis is a Reagan appointee. It seems sad that we have to mention the political affiliations of judges, but that’s the point our legal system has reached. I don’t know how to explain this sentence without invoking political bias.

This week, Manafort faces another sentencing hearing in the District of Columbia, where he has pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy against the United States. Judge Amy Berman Jackson (an Obama appointee) has shown him far less sympathy. This is also where his cooperation agreement blew up because he continued lying to prosecutors and may have spied on them for Trump.

Also, Bloomberg reports that New York state is ready to file charges against Manafort if President Trump pardons him for his federal crimes.

At the state level, [New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.] is preparing an array of criminal charges. While their full extent isn’t clear, they would include evasion of New York taxes and violations of state laws requiring companies to keep accurate books and records, according to one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the investigation is confidential.

While we’re on this topic, I’m seeing all sorts of speculation about when the Mueller report will come out and what it will say. What if it has some smoking-gun evidence against Trump? What if it doesn’t? What if Trump has AG Barr try to suppress it? I just want to remind everybody: Speculation can be fun, but it doesn’t really matter. Mueller will produce something eventually. The House majority will figure out a way to see the significant parts of it. It will say what it says. At that moment, all the TV-hours and column-inches of speculation will instantly become irrelevant.

So if speculation is a fun game you play with your friends, go ahead. But if it’s making you nuts, you can stop. Reality can take care of itself.

A piece that skirts the edge of speculation, but has value anyway, is Quinta Jurecic’s in yesterday’s NYT. The headline “Will There Be Smoking Guns in the Mueller Report” teases speculation, but the value of the article is in organizing our thoughts about what questions still need answers.

and economic reports

I cover them in one of the featured posts.

and you also might be interested in …

Arizona Senator Martha McSally revealed that when she was in the Air Force, she had been raped by a superior officer. McSally retired as a colonel in 2014.

She joins another Republican senator, Joni Ernst, who said in January that she had been raped in college, and that her husband had assaulted her. Their divorce was finalized in January.

I wish I’d gotten to edit the New Yorker’s article about Fox News: It mixes really alarming stuff with the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect.

The most alarming thing is that Fox had the Stormy Daniels story before the election, and decided not to run it because “Rupert wants Donald Trump to win.” It’s also alarming the way that Fox has merged with the administration, so that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s leading who. Did the Fox & Friends hosts get an idea from Trump, or did Trump get it from them?

Similarly, people go from Fox to the administration and back, with no clear change of loyalties. It’s all one big operation. “It’s the closest we’ve come to having state TV,” says the University of Virginia’s Nicole Hemmer.

Trump has taken over Fox the way he’s taken over the Republican Party: Both used to represent American conservatism, but there’s really no room in either any more for an anti-Trump conservatism. Reagan conservatism — free trade, pro-NATO, pro-immigration, willing to compromise — is pretty much dead.

Speaking of the Fox/Trump pipeline, former Fox executive Bill Shine is out as White House communications director.

The administration is trying to hassle reporters who tell the American people what’s actually going on at the border.

Customs and Border Protection has compiled a list of 59 mostly American reporters, attorneys and activists who are to be stopped for questioning by border agents when crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at San Diego-area checkpoints, and agents have questioned or arrested at least 21 of them, according to documents obtained by NBC station KNSD-TV and interviews with people on the list.

Looks like the Trump/Kim romance has hit a rough patch. North Korea is preparing a new missile launch.

The collapse of a chain of for-profit colleges that leaves 26,000 students in the lurch illustrates the whole problem with for-profit colleges: They have no mission to educate. Rather than a duty to the students, they have a duty to make money for their stockholders.

The easiest way to extract profit from students who dream about having a college degree is to manipulate government programs: Sell the students a fantasy, get them to max out their student loan potential, and give them as inexpensive an education as will keep the scam going. If and when the whole thing goes belly-up, the scammers keep their profits and the kids are still on the hook for loans.

The wrinkle in this particular collapse is that the collapsing entity is technically non-profit: The Dream Center is a spin-off of a Los Angeles megachurch. It acquired the for-profit Education Management Corporation in 2017 in a transaction the Trump administration approved despite the church’s complete lack of experience in higher education. The original press release said:

As part of the acquisition, the Dream Center Foundation will be converting the EDMC schools into not-for-profit institutions with the intent of investing a percentage of revenue into humanitarian and charitable programs supported by the Dream Center Foundation in Los Angeles and throughout the United States.

In other words: profit by another name. The colleges would be cash cows for other Dream Center programs.

Dream Center showed little inclination to curb the tactics that got Education Management in trouble, like misleading students about their employment prospects. The executives it installed cultivated a high-pressure culture in which profit surpassed all other concerns, according to a report filed last year by Thomas J. Perrelli, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the schools’ compliance with their state settlements.

The students are left with nothing. They won’t get the degrees they were working for. Their credits probably won’t be accepted by any accredited institution. And they still owe on their loans for previous semesters, though this semester’s federal loans will be forgiven under a school-closure program.

Obama tried to shut these scams down, but the Trump administration has relaxed the regulations again.

and let’s close with something aetherial

I’ve been hearing for years that Iceland in winter is a great place to see the aurora borealis, but this display of a dragon and a phoenix are a bit much.


Not Again

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

– Pete Townsend, “Won’t Get Fooled Again

This week’s featured post is “Before We Even Think about Candidates for 2020“. During my week off, I preached this sermon.

This week everybody was talking about Michael Cohen

Two things were striking about Michael Cohen’s public testimony to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

  1. He accused the president of multiple crimes, offered documents to back up his claims, and gave names of people who were also involved.
  2. Republicans on the committee did not rebut any of these claims. With only a few clumsy exceptions (see below) they did not even defend Trump’s character.

Republicans were right, of course, in the observation that Cohen’s word by itself shouldn’t count for much. But that’s not what Democrats are asking the country to believe. They’re going to use Cohen’s account as a road map to assemble supporting evidence. I want to know what Trump’s accountant, Alan Weisselberg, is going to say, and what’s in the tax returns of Trump himself and the Trump Organization.

To anyone outside the Fox New bubble, Republican Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows embarrassed themselves in the hearings. They made crystal clear what House Democrats have been saying for two years: If Trump has done anything wrong, House Republicans don’t want to know about it. [Another thing that’s apparently OK if you’re a Republican: witness intimidation.]

The SNL parody (with Ben Stiller as Cohen and Bill Hader as Jordan) wasn’t far from the truth.

Cohen’s actual comment was dead-on:

I did the same thing you are doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years … And I can only warn [that] people that follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.

Cohen cleared up the question of whether Trump “directed” him to lie to Congress, as BuzzFeed reported and Mueller’s office rebutted: Before his testimony, he had a conversation with Trump in which the President spoke to him “in code“.  [at 2:26 in the transcript]

He doesn’t tell you what he wants. Again: “Michael, there is no Russia. There’s no collusion. There’s no involvement, no interference.” I know what he wants, because I’ve been around him for so long.

Also, Cohen says Trump’s lawyers read and edited his prepared remarks for that hearing, which included the lie.

Many people (including James Comey and Andrew McCabe) have made this observation: In private, Trump talks like a mob boss. This kind of non-specific direction resembles dialog from The Sopranos.

Cohen started his prepared remarks by saying that Trump is a racist. That started a long and silly dispute, in which Rep. Mark Meadows attempted to “prove” that Trump is not racist by producing a black woman who works in his administration. (The woman in question had no background in public housing, but qualified for her position at HUD by working for the Trump family. She is reported to be angling for a role in reality TV.)

Sure, Trump is a racist, but that’s the wrong point to get hung up on, especially given the many definitions of racism and the fact that many people (like me, for instance) admit that we’re pretty much all racists in one way or another.

The more significant fact, the one we can observe directly without trying to see into the man’s heart, is that Trump exploits racism. He supports efforts to suppress the black vote. He makes racist appeals. He is very slow to criticize white supremacists, because they’re a key part of his base. Whenever he needs to get his minions stoked up, he picks a fight with some black athlete like LeBron James or Steph Curry or Marshawn Lynch. (Actually, his biggest critics in the sports world are white coaches: Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. But hitting back at them wouldn’t make the racial contrast, so what would be the point?)

While we’re talking about racism, don’t miss this article by Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility. She points to the “racial illiteracy” that is promoted by the notion that racism is an individual attitude (that nice people don’t have), rather than a problem in the very shape of our society.

If I don’t understand racism as a deeply embedded system that I have been shaped by and participate in, my inaction will uphold it.

Given his article, you can read the Mark Meadows episode as an example of her point: Meadows interprets racism as an individual hostility towards blacks, and is offended that anyone would accuse either Trump or Meadows himself of racism. After all, he has nieces and nephews who are people of color, and is friends with the black chair of the committee, Elijah Cummings.

But none of that really matters. Good for him as an individual for consciously accepting his nieces and nephews, but that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t affect his actions, or that his votes as a congressman don’t uphold a racist system.

and the Trump/Kim summit

I wasn’t surprised that nothing came of the summit, but it did surprise me that everyone admitted nothing came of it. Trump is now trying to paint the summit’s failure as an expression of his strength, but it really just reflected the fact that the whole Trump/Kim relationship has been a reality TV show.

In the early part of the week, Republicans and Democrats contrasted Cohen’s testimony with the approaching summit: Which was the news and which was the distraction? Don Jr. laid it out like this:

You got a President trying to deal with a major world issue, and to try to distract – or whatever it is – by bringing in a convicted felon and known liar. I mean, it’s pretty pathetic, but it really shows you how much the Democrats hate Trump.

I interpreted the summit as the distraction, because Trump’s whole approach to North Korea has been more theater than substance. He theatrically exaggerated the threat of war with his “fire and fury” remarks, and then he resolved the self-induced tension with his ridiculous claim that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” His statement that “we fell in love” should have made the whole US foreign policy team cringe, and probably did.

In reality, Kim did enough testing to establish North Korea’s nuclear threat, and then paused to play Trump for propaganda points, which Trump gave him. Kim’s people have now seen him meet the American president as an equal, and to refuse to be bullied into giving up his country’s nuclear status. Trump has scaled back military cooperation with South Korea and vouched for Kim’s innocence in the death of American Otto Warmbier (which his family disputes).

In return, Kim hasn’t given up anything. There never was a serious prospect that he would.

and the national emergency

The House passed a resolution voiding Trump’s declaration of national emergency on the southern border. The Senate has to vote on it, and four Republican votes are needed to pass it. This weekend, Rand Paul became the fourth to come out against the emergency, saying:

I can’t vote to give the president the power to spend money that hasn’t been appropriated by Congress. We may want more money for border security, but Congress didn’t authorize it. If we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing

He joins Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Tom Tillis. The vote is expected next week. Trump is expected to veto the resolution after it passes, setting up a legal battle that undoubtedly will be decided by the Supreme Court.

I generally try to rein in my urge to speculate, but I don’t think John Roberts really wants this responsibility. I expect him to look for some way to drag the process out until the point becomes moot.

and the US government taking children from their parents

The House Oversight Committee is looking into the Trump administration policy of separating families at the border. The first hearing was Tuesday. Channel 3000 lists its takeaways:

  • There was no cross-agency mechanism to track children as they moved from the jurisdiction of Homeland Security into HHS.
  • No officials along the way objected.
  • There are thousands of complaints of sexual abuse against minors in custody.
  • Scott Lloyd from ICE (and now a senior advisor at HHS) kept track of pregnant minors in order to block them getting abortions.

The committee is now subpoenaing documents from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and HHS.

and an unusual amount of hypocrisy and projection

Hypocrisy is constant in this administration, so I generally let it go. But this week stood out.

Ivanka Trump went straight from her inherited role in the family business to a job in her father’s White House (that she has no qualifications for). Here’s her comment on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ idea for a federal job guarantee:

I don’t think most Americans, in their heart, want to be given something. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around this country over the last 4 years. People want to work for what they get.

She is, I deduce, deeply envious of all those people who were born with nothing and have only the things they’ve earned.

Paul Krugman went on to look at the further claim Ivanka made: that people “want the ability to live in a country where there is the potential for upward mobility.”

Ms. Trump is surely right in asserting that most of us want a country in which there is the potential for upward mobility. But the things we need to do to ensure that we are that kind of country — the policies that are associated with high levels of upward mobility around the world — are exactly the things Republicans denounce as socialism.

Allies of President Trump are incredulous that anyone still listens to a person who has lied in the past. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders:

It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies.

It’s worth noting that during Michael Cohen’s first opportunity to “spread his lies” to Congress, he was actually spreading Trump’s lies. Fact-checkers estimate that in 2018 Trump averaged 15 false claims per day.

After years of ranting about imaginary voter fraud by Democrats, Trump has nothing to say when an actual absentee-ballot scam by Republicans causes an election to be thrown out.

The same people who object strongly when Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets hint at anti-Semitism don’t care at all when she faces blatant Islamophobia.

and books you might want to read

Andy McCabe turns out to be a really good writer. His new book The Threat is worth reading for its content, of course. But McCabe also has a deft hand for including just enough scene-setting details to make his account come alive.

In addition to all the Trump-and-Comey stuff, he also tells the story of the FBI’s role in tracking down the Boston Marathon bombers.

Timothy Carney’s Alienated America is a frustrating book. The first half is really good: He seems to be the kind of conservative who was opposed to Trump (but voted for him over Hillary), and he’s pursuing the mystery of why Trump was attractive to so many other conservatives. He popularizes a lot of good sociology, cuts through some simplistic stuff about the white working class, and comes to a very interesting conclusion: The Trump base, the first supporters who picked him over Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, were people who were doing well in places that were doing badly. Not the guys dying of opioid overdoses, but the neighbors of guys dying of opioid overdoses.

He then does some more good work to identify what’s wrong with those communities: Their civic institutions have been hollowed out. So when people hit misfortune, they feel like they’re on their own: no churches, no extended family, no union, nothing that anchors a supportive network. People lack social capital, so they respond to the Trump message that the American Dream is dead. (In places that still have social capital, it turns out, the chances for social and economic mobility are much higher, so the American Dream is alive.)

That was all fascinating. And then, very abruptly at Chapter 8, all the data goes away and we’re in Conservative Just-So-Story Land: Local civic institutions were killed off by centralization, and especially by government. Liberal government is hostile to churches, and to anybody but government doing anything for the community. There’s no need for data; just tell a couple of uncheckable anecdotes and rely on the fact that there’s no other way things could be.

A second culprit is hyper-individualism, which is embodied in the sexual revolution, but has nothing to do with the conservative push to replace public schools with voucher-supported private schools, or to turn public-policy decisions over to the market. (Upscale liberal communities, he believes, teach our kids the sexual abstinence we think is judgmental in school programs. He doesn’t know the same teens I know, and hasn’t talked to the people who teach UU sex education.) Mom-and-pop shops are being killed off by zoning rather than the market. The local diner is the kind of “third place” a community needs, but he never mentions the public library.

It’s like a very interesting and intelligent guy wrote the first seven chapters, and then turned the manuscript over to a yahoo to finish.

and you also might be interested in …

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has joined the 2020 presidential race. He is likely to make climate change his central issue.

Great article: “Mitch McConnell, Republican Nihilist“.

there is only the will to power. He is a remorselessly political creature, devoid of principle, who, more than any figure in modern political history has damaged the fabric of American democracy. That will be his epitaph.

The mainstream media loves Democrats-in-chaos stories like this one from the Washington Post. But nothing in this story sounds alarming to me: Moderate Democrats from swing districts sometimes vote with Republicans to amend bills that more liberal Democrats want. The progressive wing of the Party may challenge the notion that those districts really are that conservative, by running primary candidates who are more liberal than the current Democratic representative.

That’s all as it should be. Neither the moderate votes nor the threat of progressive primary challenges sound like betrayals to me. A healthy party has these kinds of debates.

Now it’s the Methodists’ turn to fracture over LGBTQ issues.

No charges will be filed in the Stephon Clark case. Clark was an unarmed 22-year-old black man who was shot by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s back yard.

The officers fired their weapons 20 times in Mr. Clark’s direction within seconds of turning a blind corner. “Both officers believed that he was pointing a gun at them,” Ms. Schubert said. She added that police video showed Mr. Clark was “advancing” on the officers.

Mr. Clark was later found to be unarmed; his cellphone was found under his body. An autopsy released by the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office in May found at least seven bullets had hit Mr. Clark.

A comprehensive analysis of police video footage by The New York Times found that gunfire continued after Mr. Clark had fallen to his hands and knees. Six of the seven shots most likely hit Mr. Clark as he was falling or was already on the ground, according to The Times’s analysis. Three minutes passed after the shooting before police officers identified themselves to Mr. Clark, and he did not receive medical attention for six minutes.

So Clark was someplace he had every right to be, holding his phone and “advancing” towards a corner police had not turned yet. Whenever I hear about such cases, I imagine myself trying to raise a black teen-ager. What do you tell him to do or not do, so that he can avoid getting killed like this?

and let’s close with something we’ve seen far too often already

Namely: a trailer for a movie where a white person plays a key role in black progress.

Defending the Constitution

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on March 4.

We call upon our Republican colleagues to join us to defend the Constitution.

– Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
joint statement on President Trump declaring a national emergency

This week’s featured posts are “A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic” and “I See Color“.

This week everybody was talking about the “national emergency”

I covered this in one of the featured posts. I left out a link to the proclamation itself, so here it is.

Before getting around to declaring the emergency, (There is no emergency, so what’s the hurry?) Trump talked about trade with China, demonstrating that he has no idea how international trade works.

We have been losing, on average, $375 billion a year with China. A lot of people think it is $506 billion. Some people think it is much more than that.

He doesn’t seem to know that this is not a guessing game; his own government actually keeps track of foreign trade. The US trade deficit with China in goods in 2018 was $382 billion. In services, we run a trade surplus with China — $38.5 billion in 2017 (I haven’t found a 2018 figure)  — so the total trade deficit in 2018 was probably less than $350 billion.

The only person who says $500 billion or more is Trump himself. He has been saying it since 2015 and it has repeatedly been pointed out to him that this is wrong.

The more subtle but more important error in his statement is that we aren’t “losing” that $350 billion. We’re spending money and getting stuff for it.

“A bilateral balance doesn’t really tell you anything about what the economy is doing,” said Scott Lincicome, an adjunct fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, “just like my bilateral deficit with my grocery store doesn’t tell you anything about whether I’m in debt.”

Trump continued:

We’re gonna be leveling the playing field. The tariffs are hurting China very badly. They don’t want them and frankly if we can make the deal, it would be my honor to remove them. But otherwise, we are having very many billions of dollars pouring into our Treasury; we have never had that before with China.

He also doesn’t understand how tariffs work. China doesn’t pay the tariffs; American importers do, and they pass the cost on to their customers. So if you bought anything made in China this year, you paid a tariff. The Chinese paid nothing.

Military Times asked 900 active-duty troops to rate a variety of threats. Each bar in this graph represents the percentage of troops who described the threat as either “significant” or “very significant”. Both “immigration” and “Mexico” ranked way down the threat list.

The conservative National Review has taken a very strong stand on the abuse of executive power:

Because executive power is awesome, and intended to be that way, certain abuses of it can be discouraged only by the credible threat that Congress will remove the president from power — or, if discouragement fails, can be remediated only by the president’s actual removal. That is why Madison believed that the inclusion of impeachment in Congress’s arsenal was “indispensible” to preserving the Constitution’s framework of liberty vouchsafed by divided power.

Of course, it took that stand in 2014, when the “executive overreach” in question was Obama’s decision to tell 5 million undocumented immigrants that he was not going to get around to deporting them. To it’s credit, NR isn’t happy about Trump’s seizure of power, but I haven’t noticed them talking about impeachment.

and anti-Semitism

Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, got herself in trouble by tweeting six words. Glenn Greenwald had just tweeted:

GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy threatens punishment for @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib over their criticisms of Israel. It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.

Omar responded:

It’s all about the Benjamins baby

If you’re not tuned in to the history of anti-Semitism, you might not get why this is anti-Semitic. If the issue under discussion were, say, guns or drugs, there would be nothing particularly out-of-bounds about tweeting “It’s all about the Benjamins” as a way of saying that McCarthy had been bought by the NRA or Big Pharma. But what makes it different when the subject is Israel is the long history (going back to the Rothschilds and even further) of conspiracy theories about Jewish money controlling events from behind the scenes.

Most recently, the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh was motivated by the belief (widely held on the right-wing fringe) that Jews are plotting to dilute the US’s white majority by encouraging caravans of illegal Hispanic immigrants to come up from Central America. George Soros is supposedly financing the caravans. Soros himself was a target of the MAGA Bomber in October, who shared a social-media meme showing Soros at the top of the “Controlled False Opposition”.

So it’s playing with fire to imply without evidence that Jewish money has bought Kevin McCarthy, because irresponsible accusations like that have resulted in people getting killed, not just in Eastern Europe during the pogroms, but recently here in America. (If terrorists were attacking NRA conventions, I’d be more careful about how I talked about them, too. I wouldn’t stop disagreeing with them, but I’d be careful not to seem to endorse the violence.)

Omar apologized. Some Jewish writers, like David Perry, want to accept that apology and move on:

too often, my would-be allies against injustice on the left can easily stumble into anti-Semitic tropes and only sometimes realize quickly enough to reverse course. The most recent example happened on Twitter when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose district in Minneapolis surrounds me as I write in my office, made a flippant tweet about Israeli money buying off Congress. She clearly meant it as a comment on the power of lobbyists, but it inadvertently invoked long-standing tropes of wealthy Jewish cabals exerting influence. The ensuing political firestorm revealed just how hard it is to maintain solidarity in the face of the oppressive forces that want to divide and conquer. The solution is this: Listen. Believe people when they reach out to you in good faith. Ignore bad-faith hypocrites. Apologize if necessary. Then we can move forward together.

But then there are the “bad-faith hypocrites” like Trump, who said Omar should resign. Or Mike Pence and Kevin McCarthy, who want Democrats to take away Ilhan’s committee assignments, as Republicans did to Steve King after a lifetime of racist comments.

CNN’s Jake Tapper did a great job of demonstrating that hypocrisy.

There is nothing that this White House finds more offensive than a politician feeding into stereotypes about Jews, Jewish money, and controlling politicians, which is what Congresswoman Omar is accused of having done.

But instead of a clip of Omar doing this — there isn’t one, she just tweeted those six words — what rolled instead was Trump talking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015:

You’re not going to support me, even though you know I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. … You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. … You want to control your own politicians.

Tapper then apologized for showing the wrong clip, and began a mock struggle with his “rogue” control room. As Tapper kept asking for the Omar tape, what he got instead was

  • A Trump tweet showing Hillary Clinton on a backdrop of money, with “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” printed on a large red Star of David.
  • Trump lecturing the press that “very fine people” were “on both sides” of the marches in Charlottesville, where right-wing extremists chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
  • A Kevin McCarthy tweet: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg” [three Jewish billionaires] “to BUY this election!”

He could have kept going by showing the 2016 Trump campaign’s final ad, which The Guardian characterized like this:

The film features lurid shots of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve interspersed with images of three prominent Jewish people: Janet Yellen, who chairs the Federal Reserve, the progressive financier George Soros and the Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

“The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” Trump is heard saying in the advert. “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

Instead, Tapper apologized and went to commercial, saying “We seem to be having some issues here sorting out which anti-Semitic tropes are offensive and which ones are not.”

I understand the arguments for and against boycotting Israel (or perhaps just products made in the occupied territories) over the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. For: The situation is frequently compared to apartheid in South Africa, where a boycott played a significant role in putting pressure on the white government. Against: Of all the countries that violate human rights in one way or another, Israel is being picked out because of anti-Semitism.

But I don’t understand why one side or the other of that debate should be illegal.

and Amazon

After that long public process about siting a second headquarters, Amazon has now changed its mind about building it in New York. Progressive politicians had begun to challenge the $3 billion in tax incentives that drew Amazon to New York.

There’s a broader conversation to be had about corporations playing communities off against each other. I’m sure Amazon will get the deal it’s looking for somewhere else. But should it?

Usually this issue comes up in the context of sports, when a city feels like it has to invest hundreds of millions in a sweetheart stadium deal in order to attract or keep a team. This is a situation where some federal rules might benefit everyone: Even the cities that “win” these competitions often wind up as losers.

and you also might be interested in …

It looks like Bernie is running again.

Let’s review: Kamala Harris isn’t black enough, Kirsten Gillibrand is so out of touch that she doesn’t know how to eat fried chicken, Elizabeth Warren should never have told anybody about her Native American ancestor, and Amy Klobuchar is a bad boss.

Isn’t that weird? For every woman who runs for president, there’s some story that blocks out consideration of what she wants to do.

I think the video rolling out Mark Kelly’s campaign for the Arizona Senate seat that’s up in 2020 is one of the best political pieces I’ve ever seen. Kelly has been a Navy pilot in Desert Storm, an astronaut, and the husband of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived being shot in the head by a mass shooter. The video is a fabulous mix of themes: service, heritage, heroism, risk, family. He may be a man running against a woman (Martha McSally, who lost her race to Kyrsten Sinema, but got appointed to fill out John McCain’s term), but he’s a man who has supported his wife through a difficult recovery. I think that’s going to count for something.

To me, the most heart-breaking exchange is when Mark is sitting on a couch with Gabby, who apparently is still challenged to put together long sentences. “Do you remember when you entered Congress for the first time?” “Yes, so exciting.” “It was exciting. You know, I thought then that I had the risky job.”

Former FBI Director Andy McCabe isn’t an unbiased source, but his account of the days after James Comey was fired is worth a look. I’ll probably read his book when it comes out in a few weeks.

Cartoonist Jen Sorensen responds to Tom Brokaw’s suggestion (since apologized for) that “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation”.

Politicians put religion to the strangest uses. Wyoming recently came close to repealing the death penalty. The repeal bill passed the House and was unanimously approved by the appropriate Senate committee, only to lose 12-18 on the floor of the Senate. One senator explained her No vote like this:

Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, argued that without the death penalty, Jesus Christ would not have been able to die to absolve the sins of mankind, and therefore capital punishment should be maintained.

“The greatest man who ever lived died via the death penalty for you and me,” she said. “I’m grateful to him for our future hope because of this. Governments were instituted to execute justice. If it wasn’t for Jesus dying via the death penalty, we would all have no hope.”

That’s what she learned from the story of Jesus.

What kind of woman has a late-term abortion, which the far right calls a “partial-birth” abortion? This kind.

In December 2014, I had an abortion at 29 weeks, after my first baby was diagnosed with a brain abnormality called lissencephaly. The early diagnosis—lissencephaly is sometimes not diagnosed until after birth—meant her case was severe and her prognosis was grim: We could expect her to live for two to six years while suffering from frequent respiratory infections and intermittently choking on her own saliva. Her cognitive development would be arrested or even reversed by painful seizures. She might have been able to smile socially and/or track motion with her eyes, but maybe not. Eventually, one of the bouts of pneumonia or choking episodes or complications from one of the surgeries needed to sustain basic life functions would have killed her.

The author, Margot Finn, eventually got involved with a support group for women who have gone through late-term abortions. None of them fit the anti-abortion stereotype of an irresponsible woman who just whimsically decided to kill her baby after procrastinating for six months.

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how incurious some pro-life people seem to be about the reasons people seek abortions. In response to the version of my story I posted recently on Facebook, I’ve had people confidently claim that no one’s talking about people like me, that what I did was between me and my doctor. They say they’re talking about people who “just change their minds” at 24-plus weeks of pregnancy about whether they want the presumably healthy fetus cresting today’s fulcrum of “viability” inside them.

Oh, those people. Has anyone ever met one?

and let’s close with some stupidity

Some would-be hi-tech thieves in Silicon Valley stole a shipment of GPS tracking devices. Within hours, police had tracked the devices, some of which were in the thieves’ storage locker and the rest in their car. The storage locker also contained other stolen property, as well as some drugs.

And that’s not all they did wrong.

Before making off with about $18,000 worth of the devices, the thieves grabbed a beer out of the fridge and cut themselves in the process, leaving fingerprints and blood evidence.

Clearly these guys need to spend time in prison, where they can meet more accomplished thieves and begin to educate themselves in their chosen profession.


The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.

– Donald Trump, 2019 State of the Union

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

Every day he designs a false threat, steps in to the nonexistent battlefield, and declares himself victorious to a group of now emotionally dependent human beings, whose internal story and well-being depends on him winning. That’s the only way their world makes sense anymore, it is the only outcome they can conceive of.

– John Pavlovitz, “The Cult of Trump

There was no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Virginia

Last week’s featured post “Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness” looks better now than it did at the time. When I wrote

I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough pure people to form a majority.

I didn’t know that the entire Democratic leadership of Virginia state government would soon find itself embroiled in scandal and facing calls to resign. (Also some Republicans. And then the virus spread to Mississippi.) Forget about forming a majority. In Virginia, it may not be possible to find enough pure people to staff a government.

My point (that Democrats need to define a forgiveness process for past incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia) was improved on by Rev. William Barber (famous for leading the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina): Forgiveness has to begin with repentance. Repentance, for Barber, means more than just a verbal apology; it means taking action to restore the balance.

Whether we are talking about Northam or President Trump — Democrats or Republicans — restitution that addresses systemic harm must be the fruit of true repentance.

If Northam, or any politician who has worn blackface, used the n-word or voted for the agenda of white supremacy, wants to repent, the first question they must ask is “How are the people who have been harmed by my actions asking to change the policies and practices of our society?” In political life, this means committing to expand voting rights, stand with immigrant neighbors, and provide health care and living wages for all people. In Virginia, it means stopping the environmental racism of the pipeline and natural gas compressor station Dominion Energy intends to build in Union Hill, a neighborhood founded by emancipated slaves and other free African Americans.

Barber made one important point very clearly: It does no good to force out people who did racist things years ago, if their power will then pass to people who are sponsoring racist policies today.

we cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy. If anyone wants to call for the governor’s resignation, they should also call for the resignation of anyone who has supported racist voter suppression or policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color.

Barber’s article doesn’t revisit the 2017 gubernatorial election, but it’s worth thinking about. Northam was a candidate with a decades-old racist secret. But the Republican candidate in the race (Ed Gillespie) ran a race-baiting campaign, focused on raising fears about “sanctuary cities” (of which Virginia has none) and defending Confederate monuments (of which it has many).

While we’re talking about Confederate monuments, Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent long article “The Costs of the Confederacy“.

A century and a half after the Civil War, American taxpayers are still helping to sustain the defeated Rebels’ racist doctrine, the Lost Cause. First advanced in 1866 by a Confederate partisan named Edward Pollard, it maintains that the Confederacy was based on a noble ideal, the Civil War was not about slavery, and slavery was benign.

The authors traveled all over the South, and found lots of tax-supported Lost Cause propaganda.

We went on many tours of the homes of the Confederacy’s staunchest ideologues, and without exception we were told that the owners were good and the slaves were happy.

At the home of Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, a question about his slaves (otherwise barely mentioned) elicited a quote (from a Depression-era oral history of slavery) from a slave about how proud he was to work for “Marse Robert Toombs”.

A more revealing, well-documented story is that of Garland H. White, an enslaved man who escaped Toombs’ ownership just before the Civil War and fled to Ontario. After the war erupted he heroically risked his freedom to join the United States Colored Troops. He served as an Army chaplain and traveled to recruit African-American soldiers. We found no mention at the Toombs memorial of White’s experience. In fact, we know of no monument to White in all of Georgia.

And that’s a point I wish got more attention: In addition to well-celebrated figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the South had real Civil War heroes like White, people who risked their lives for freedom rather than for slavery. Their monuments are nowhere.

and the possibility of another government shutdown

The deadline is Friday. This weekend the negotiators started sounding pessimistic. But a lot can happen in a week.

and Jeff Bezos vs. the National Enquirer

I’m wondering who at the National Enquirer said: “Let’s threaten the richest man in the world. That always works out well.”

At the moment, the Bezos/AMI story is great gossip, with nude selfies and claims of extortion and so on. It could turn into much more if some of Bezos’ accusations and implications turn out to be true.

Because deep down, we’re all still in middle school.

Let’s recap: The Enquirer ran a story on January 9 about Bezos’ extramarital affair, the day after Bezos and his wife MacKezie announced that they were getting a divorce. I haven’t heard whether the prospect of the story played any role in the timing or the fact of the divorce. The Enquirer story included “intimate texts” between Bezos and his mistress.

Bezos decided he wanted to know how the Enquirer got those texts, and what motivated them to go after him to begin with, so he hired investigators. You can hire a lot of investigators if you’re worth $100 billion.

In particular, Bezos wanted know if the motive was political. He owns The Washington Post, which makes him an enemy of AMI CEO David Pecker’s friend Donald Trump, and of the Saudi government, with whom AMI is seeking a lucrative alliance. The Post has been relentless about exposing Trump’s lying and corruption, and it refuses to let the Saudi government get away with murdering one of its journalists, Jamaal Khashoggi.

That implication of a political motive apparently unhinged Pecker. According to Bezos’ blog post on the subject, Pecker’s people made Bezos “an offer I couldn’t refuse”. (This is a Godfather reference.) Bezos should stop investigating and instead release a statement that his people “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” And in exchange, AMI wouldn’t release the texts and photos they had of him, including a naked selfie and revealing photos of his mistress.

Bezos instead decided to make the whole email exchange public and dare AMI to do its worst. (As Bobby Axelrod says on the TV show Billions: “What’s the use of having fuck-you money if you never say ‘Fuck you.’?”) Since going public, Bezos has picked up support from other people who claim to have been threatened by AMI.

And there’s another problem:

Federal prosecutors on Friday began looking into the accusation to see if American Media’s alleged conduct might violate the company’s agreement to cooperate with a government investigation of Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. If so, it could expose American Media and Enquirer Publisher David J. Pecker to prosecution for campaign-finance violations related to the McDougal payoff.

So it’s Amazon’s founder vs. the National Enquirer, with the possibility that the story might spill over and implicate Trump or the Saudi government. Pass the popcorn.

and the State of the Union

Usually, I treat the State of the Union as major news. For presidents of both parties, I’ve been known to do a featured article attempting to read between the lines. But this is another way in which this administration is different: Trump’s speeches are just not that serious, not even the SOTU. (Stacey Abrams’ Democratic response is here.) He says things that he thinks will sound good, but there is unlikely to be any follow-through.

Like all Trump speeches, this one was full of lies and misleading statements. It slandered undocumented immigrants, using the same propaganda techniques Hitler pioneered on the Jews. (Specifically: Highlighting crimes by the targeted group as if they were somehow different than other crimes. I’m sure someone could compile an list of crimes by German-Americans — people like Trump and me — that is just as horrifying as Trump’s litany of crimes by undocumented immigrants.) He segued directly from Iranian threats against Israel to the 11 Jews murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as if the murderer had been a Muslim motivated by Iranian propaganda rather than a white supremacist who blamed Jews for the migrant caravans that Trump had been rabble-rousing about.

To the extent that the speech laid out an agenda, it’s hard to take that agenda seriously. Once again, for example, he called for an infrastructure plan.

I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future.

He said something similar last year (“Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.”), and delivered a poorly-thought-out proposal that his own party shelved.

The next major priority for me, and for all of us, should be to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs — and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.

But of course, the main threat to people with pre-existing conditions has been Trump himself, and his eagerness to undo ObamaCare without caring what replaces it.

I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients. We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down.

In any previous administration, that would mean that he had a piece of legislation drafted and ready to go. I sincerely doubt that Trump does. He has stated his good intentions, so now it’s up to somebody else to craft a plan that manifests them, which he will feel no obligation to support.

I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.

So far, his policy has been the exact opposite: Not only has he demanded substantial reductions in legal immigration, but he has also tried to expel people who came here legally under the Temporary Protected Status program, and has been violating American laws and treaties by refusing to let refugees legally request asylum at the border. So is this new love of legal immigration an about-face, or did he just say something that sounded good in the moment, which we’ll never hear about again? I’ll bet on the latter.

The one statement in the speech I take seriously is this one:

If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!

In other words, if Congress starts getting serious about oversight on this historically corrupt administration, Trump is going to take it personally. Unlike, say, Bill Clinton, who continued to work with Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans while they investigated him constantly — because that was his job — Trump intends to hold the country hostage. If Congress passes legislation that would benefit America, Trump reserves the right not to sign it out of personal pique.

Democrats immediately called his bluff on that. A variety of House committees are gearing up for investigations of Trump’s foreign business activities, possible violations of the Constitution’s emolument clause, family separations at the Mexican border, and other issues. But Democrats are planning to proceed methodically.

“We’re going to do our homework first,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), whose panel is scheduled to receive testimony from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross next month. “What [Republicans] would do is, they would go out and make headlines a week or two before the hearing and then look for some facts to prove the headlines. We’re not doing that.”

The difference, IMO, is that Republicans investigating the Obama administration suspected there was nothing to find, so their biggest bang would be in the insinuations they could make as hearings were looming. But Democrats investigating Trump believe the corruption and illegal activity is really there. The payoff will come when they find it.

That said, I watched a small amount of Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s six hours of testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, and saw clips of the “highlights” of the rest it. I don’t think the hearing reflected well on anybody. Whitaker was needlessly rude and argumentative, and the members of the committee were needlessly aggressive and accusatory.

The main thing was to ask Whitaker a small list of questions and get his answers on the record. So here’s the content of the whole six hours: He denies telling Trump or other “senior White House officials” anything he learned about the Mueller investigation. He says he hasn’t interfered in Mueller’s investigation. He refused to say whether or not he thinks the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt”.

I think it’s important that investigating House Democrats project an image of calm determination: They won’t be stopped, but they’re in this for the good of the nation rather than to get on TV. Trump needs to tell his base a story of Us Against Them, while Democrats need the story to be Truth Will Out. The Whitaker hearing turned into Us Against Them, so in that sense I don’t think it was a good start.

and abortion

So Louisiana has passed an anti-abortion law that requires doctors in clinics that provide abortions to get admitting privileges in a local hospital. That may look reasonable at first glance, but I explained why it’s not when Alabama had a similar law challenged in 2014.

The history of violence against abortionists in Alabama, and the continuing harassment and intimidation of doctors and their patients, makes it unsafe for an abortion-clinic doctor to live in large parts of Alabama. In the three clinics likely to close, most doctors have their primary practice and residence elsewhere. (One doctor drives to the clinic from another state, using a diverse series of rentals cars rather than his own car, in hopes that he won’t be spotted by potential assassins.) That lack of local presence makes them ineligible for admitting privileges at local hospitals. The clinics could stay open if they could recruit new doctors who live and practice nearby, but that is impossible because they would not be safe.

So in passing this provision, the Alabama legislature was, in essence, conspiring with violent terrorists. Clinics would be shut down by the confluence between the law and predictable outside-the-law violence. That wasn’t some unfortunate but unforeseen side effect; that was the point.

Eventually, a Texas version of the law reached the Supreme Court, where it was struck down. (Justice Breyer wrote the 5-4 majority opinion. The provision did not confer “medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access”.) Courts are supposed to respect precedent rather than continuing to re-examine the same arguments, so that should have been the end of such laws.

It wasn’t. Louisiana passed its own admitting-privileges law, which is expected to make two of the three abortion clinics in Louisiana close. Anti-abortion activist judges refused to cite the binding precedent and illegitimately pushed the case up the line, figuring that with Kavanaugh replacing Kennedy, maybe the balance of power on the Court had changed. They were right about Kavanaugh, but Chief Justice Roberts cast the deciding vote to block enforcement of the Louisiana law until the Court can rule on its constitutionality.

When Susan Collins blessed Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Court, she took at face value his pledge to respect precedents like Roe v Wade. Charles Pierce explains how that is playing out.

[Kavanaugh’s] dissent relies on, along other things, the transparently phony notion that Louisiana officials will be judicious in using the law they’ve already passed. He writes:

…the State’s regulation provides that there will be a 45-day regulatory transition period before the new law is applied. The State represents, moreover, that Louisiana “will not move aggressively to enforce the challenged law” during the transition period.

You’d have to be as big a sap as Susan Collins is to believe that one. It’s impossible that even Kavanaugh believes it. What the defenders of the right to choose feared—and of which they still remain wary—is that upholding the Louisiana law will send a clear message to state judges that the federal system will not defend its own rulings. Thus would Roe v. Wade essentially die from a thousand cuts.

I’ll pull out another piece of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

during the 45-day transition period, both the doctors and the relevant hospitals could act expeditiously and in good faith to reach a definitive conclusion about whether those three doctors can obtain admitting privileges.

Kavanaugh trusts the good faith of anti-abortion forces, when bad faith is the whole point of this law. That’s what we can expect from Kavanaugh. Maybe he won’t seek to reverse Roe immediately, but in every case that comes before him, he will concoct some reason not to enforce it quite yet.

but ultimately, the Green New Deal might turn out to be the most important thing that happened this week

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released a proposed nonbinding congressional resolution calling for a Green New Deal.

It’s hard to know how to think about this. On the one hand, no one expects this plan for a “ten-year national mobilization” to be carried out as written. It may not even be possible, even if the country and its government had the political will to do so. (For example: “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers” in ten years.)

In addition to the call for massive infrastructure spending to create an environmentally sustainable economy (that anything calling itself a “Green New Deal” would have to have), it also includes (in the words of New York magazine’s Eric Levitz) “damn near every item on progressives’ policy wish list”: national health care, union rights, racial justice, and so on.

So if your definition of a “serious proposal” includes an expectation that it might become law sometime soon and succeed in achieving its stated goals, this is not a serious proposal. There’s no negotiation with Mitch McConnell that starts here and winds up anywhere. (Mitch wouldn’t even agree to massive infrastructure spending on roads and bridges when the leader of his own party called for it.) And even if Democrats win all the open Senate seats on 2020, it’s still not going to happen, because there’s the whole question of possibility.

Maybe that bothers you, or maybe see the Green New Deal serving another purpose. Slate’s Mike Pesca is bothered.

Well, call me a tired old watchdog, or fuddy-duddy fact finder—I do not assess policies through the lens of the charismatic and compelling Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the perfect distillation of the Trumpian, big swing, mega-MAGA hashtag, nonconstrained by literalism, post–reality-to-accuracy politics age. I tend to judge ideas by considering the opinions of experts who know more than I do. And when it comes to the Green New Deal, almost none of these people think that the United States can achieve its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

… Perhaps I am naïve when it comes to the way the world works, and I should realize that knowingly unrealistic, which is to say dishonest, goals and proposals that will not work are the best ways to steer us to a better future. Instead, I worry that having impossible goals might dissuade the public and discredit those proposing them.

Levitz, though, sees something else, “so long as you take the Green New Deal seriously, but not literally.”

AOC’s decision to append a wide variety of progressive goals — each with its own influential constituency — to her climate plan is tactically sound: If the entire Democratic agenda is rebranded as the “Green New Deal,” a future Democratic government will be less likely to ignore the central importance of climate sustainability to all of its other policy goals; which is to say, a future Democratic government will be less likely to de-prioritize preventing ecological catastrophe.

… As a mechanism for raising expectations for what qualifies as a progressive climate policy — and increasing the probability that Congress passes such a policy within the next decade — the Green New Deal is politically realistic. As a blueprint for a climate bill that is both legislatively viable, and commensurate with the scale of the ecological threat humanity faces, it is not.

But neither is anything else. … There is simply no way to mount a realistic response to climate change without changing political reality. And for now, the Green New Deal is the most realistic plan we’ve got for doing the latter.

Whether you’re a fan of AOC or think she gets too much attention already, her lightning-round exploration of government ethics limits is brilliant and deserves wider distribution.

and you also might be interested in …

If you ever doubted that the conservative version of “religious freedom” only applies to Christians, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court just made it clear. Thursday, the Court voted 5-4 (on party lines, a phrase we didn’t used to use for Supreme Court votes) to allow Alabama to execute a Muslim prisoner without honoring his request to have an imam present. The prison employs a Christian chaplain.

The chaplain kneels and prays with inmates who seek pastoral care, the officials said. After considering Mr. Ray’s request, prison officials agreed to exclude the chaplain. But they said allowing the imam to be present raised unacceptable safety concerns.

Justice Kagan’s dissent summarizes the problem:

Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam,Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.

While we’re talking about religion and the law, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (where the Supreme Court sided with the baker against the gay couple that wanted a wedding cake) was decided on such narrow grounds that it didn’t really settle the underlying issues: How do anti-discrimination laws interface with a business-owner’s freedoms of speech and religion? So now new cases are rising through the system.

Two completely different views of what’s going on in Venezuela: It’s about restoring democracy. It’s about preserving white supremacy.

As people start completing their tax returns, many of them are realizing that the Trump Tax Cut didn’t do much for them. Some are actually paying more tax, due to changes in deductions. And even people who are paying less tax in total are being surprised that they owe money rather than have a refund coming. That’s because withholding guidelines were changed, possibly with the intent to make the tax cut temporarily look bigger than it actually was.

Finland ran an experiment in giving people a guaranteed basic income. The government picked 2,000 unemployed Finns at random and promised them $635 a month for two years, no strings attached. Find a job, don’t find a job, you get to keep the money.

How you view the results depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full person or not. The GBI turned out to have no effect on whether or not people got jobs. So it didn’t turn their lives around, but it also didn’t encourage idleness. The recipients became slightly more entrepreneurial, and they reported feeling much less stressed.

OK, I admit that “Trump supporter says something stupid” isn’t news any more. I think we see way too much coverage of stuff like that already. But this

Candace Owens … is one of the president’s best-known black supporters. The 29-year-old activist and social media aficionado regularly appears on Fox News imploring black Americans to leave the Democratic Party. … At a December event in London, Owens said:

“I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism.’ I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want, so when you think about whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. … He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.”

So basically, as long as Hitler just wanted to annihilate the Jews in Germany, that was “okay, fine”. He didn’t get out of line until he started to go after the Jews in Poland and Holland. National death camps good; international death camps bad.

Back in May, Trump tweeted:

Candace Owens of Turning Point USA is having a big impact on politics in our Country. She represents an ever expanding group of very smart “thinkers,” and it is wonderful to watch and hear the dialogue going on…so good for our Country!

And “Trump is a hypocrite” isn’t exactly news either, but this story similarly takes things to a new level. The Washington Post describes “a long-running pipeline of illegal workers” between Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey and the village of Santa Teresa de Cajon in Costa Rica.

Over the years, the network from Costa Rica to Bedminster expanded as workers recruited friends and relatives, some flying to the United States on tourist visas and others paying smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the U.S.-Mexico border, former employees said. New hires needed little more than a crudely printed phony green card and a fake Social Security number to land a job, they said.

Why did the Trump Organization do this? In a word, money.

There was also seeding, watering, mowing, building the sand traps and driving bulldozers, mini-excavators and loaders — all while they earned about $10 an hour or less, they said. Around that time, a licensed heavy equipment operator in central New Jersey would have received an average of $51 to $55 per hour in wages and benefits, according to union officials at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 in the nearby town of Springfield.

In The Atlantic, Richard Parker explains why Trump’s wall will never be built: The people who own that land now have enough clout to protect it from being taken by the federal government.

There will be no “concrete structure from sea to sea,” as the president once pledged. Taking this land would constitute an assault on private property and require a veritable army of lawyers, who, I can assure you, are no match for the state’s powerful border barons.

Elizabeth Warren officially announced her candidacy, during a week when the Native American issue refused to die. I’m sad about that. To me, Warren is the most authentic candidate in the race. She went into politics because she felt that the big banks and corporations were rigging the system against ordinary people, so that the path she had taken from the working class to the professional class was now much, much harder to travel. That’s what her career has been about ever since.

I have to agree with Matt Yglesias’ take:

Warren would like to have a debate about economic policy with Trump. Trump would like everyone to fall back on racial identity instead. You, as a citizen or a journalist or whatever else you are, are allowed to choose whether or not to take the bait on his provocations.

Amy Klobuchar is in the race. My impression is that Klobuchar is the Democrats’ most likeable candidate other than maybe Biden. She’s also the candidate I would feel most confident of in a race against Trump. She radiates a Midwestern decency that I think Trump would have a hard time countering.

But I recall another Minnesota candidate, Republican Tim Pawlenty. It’s hard to remember now, but at the beginning of the 2012 cycle, a lot of pundits were projecting Pawlenty as the candidate the party would ultimately settle on, because he was the one who would be most acceptable to all the major Republican factions.

The problem with that strategy was that Pawlenty turned out to be nobody’s first choice, so he was out of the race before a single vote was cast. That’s going to be Klobuchar’s challenge: How is she going to become people’s first choice, rather than just somebody they like?

If you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it any more, other candidates will express that anger better for you. But if you’re tired of being angry all the time and you long for a politics that’s more than the Outrage of the Day, you might want to look at Amy. (Or Cory Booker.)

and let’s close with something topical

The Dunning-Kruger song from The Incompetence Opera.