American Rope

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about the chaos in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Washington Post reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

and impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the trade war

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let’s close with something bouncy

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

The Ukraine Story Runs Deeper Than We Thought

What at first looked like just a phone call has turned out to be a much larger and sleazier operation.

When it first broke, the Ukraine story seemed nice and simple: In a call to Ukrainian President Zelensky, Trump strongly implied that if he wanted American military aid, he should dig up (or invent) dirt on Joe Biden — and also investigate some other conspiracy theory involving the DNC server (and “proving” Putin’s contention that the Russians didn’t really hack it). Unlike the crimes that the Mueller investigation uncovered, it was an easy story to understand, and easy to see why what Trump did was wrong.

Conversely, that simplicity was why Trump supporters didn’t think it was an impeachable offense: It was just a phone call. Trump got a couple of weird ideas into his head, and they happened to spill out while he was talking to somebody. The American aid got released eventually anyway, so let’s just move on.

I have an analogy that I think sums up their thinking. (As far as I know, none of them actually used it, but it would make sense out of the kinds of things a lot of them said.): A married man gets drunk at a party and makes a move on some pretty girl, who manages to get away from him. Sure, his wife should be upset with him, but it’s probably not worth getting a divorce over. Tucker Carlson put it like this:

Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea. Like a lot of things Trump does, it was pretty over-the-top. … The key question with Trump’s Ukraine call, though, is whether the president’s actions, advisable or not, rise to the level of an impeachable offense. It’s hard to argue they do.

In the two weeks that followed the initial revelation, though, we’ve been finding out that the pressure-Ukraine-for-partisan-favors scheme was way more than just a phone call: In fact, it shaped the whole Ukraine policy of the United States over a period of (at least) months. Our ambassador to Ukraine got recalled because she kept getting in the way. Diplomats up and down the line were rattled about it. Multiple national-security people in the White House were raising their concerns with the White House Counsel’s office about Trump’s Ukraine call, some even before it happened. Career officials at OMB protested that it was illegal to hold up aid Congress had appropriated, and were overruled by a political appointee.

Rudy Giuliani, who has no government job at all and is just Trump’s personal attorney (at least for now), was running a shadow foreign policy, and working with some shady characters to implement it. Two of them were arrested Thursday for funneling foreign money into American political campaigns, including giving $325K to America First Action, a pro-Trump PAC. Rudy himself is reported to be under investigation by the office he used to head: the US Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York. A goal of that scheme (which apparently pulled in Energy Secretary Rick Perry — wittingly or not — as well as various Republican donors) was to try to get their people installed in the management of Ukraine’s state gas company, in order to “steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies”.

At this point, it’s hard to say just how far the wrongdoing goes. And it raises a question: If you drilled this deep anywhere in the Trump administration, would you strike a similar gusher of corruption?

The difficult task of the House Intelligence Committee, as it works towards preparing at least one article of impeachment for the Judiciary Committee, is to give the American people a sense of the depth of the cesspool it has found, while not losing the simplicity of the original story: We have the rough transcript (from the White House itself) of Trump pressuring a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 elections.

That’s not right, and something needs to be done about it. But it’s also not all.

Backstabbing the Kurds is Just Trump Being Trump

Who could have predicted that the founder of Trump University would betray people who had faith in him?
Just about anybody who’s been paying attention.

Ever since he came down the escalator and announced his crusade to protect American womenfolk from Mexican rapists, the Donald’s Republican defenders have been singing the same song: You’ve got to let Trump be Trump.

If he says or does something racist, stands up for the poor mistreated Nazis of Charlottesville, slanders federal law enforcement institutions, sides with Putin over US intelligence services, says dozens of things each week that have no basis in reality, is nicer to enemy dictators than to our democratic allies, calls members of Congress traitors or says that they should go back where they came from … well, that’s just who he is. You need to roll with it.

But strangely, they forgot their own advice this week after Trump ordered our troops in Syria to stand aside and let Turkey attack the Kurds. Kurdish troops bore the majority of the burden in the war against ISIS in Syria, whose success Trump has often crowed about. [1] They lost something like 11,000 soldiers while we lost six fighters and two civilians.

But now that Trump believes the battle against ISIS is won [2], what good are they? Turkey’s authoritarian ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — one of those dictators Trump admires — wants to clear them away from his border, where they give hope to his own oppressed Kurdish minority. And Erdoğan doesn’t just have the second-largest army in NATO going for him, he also has Trump Tower Istanbul, and countless future opportunities for ambitious businessmen who play ball. What’s loyalty to our brothers-in-arms compared to that?

Trump Tower Istanbul

But for some reason, Republicans are upset this time. Lindsey Graham, who has been Trump’s biggest sycophant through all his other betrayals, found this one shocking. The Kurds, he said in outrage, had been “shamelessly abandoned”, as if he thinks Trump’s shamelessness is a new development. Liz Cheney found it “impossible to understand why [Trump] is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered.”

Well, Liz, I can explain it for you: This is who Trump is and who he’s always been. Betraying people who have trusted him is just Trump being Trump.

A trust-is-for-suckers theme runs through Trump’s entire life. Look at Trump University: People who admired his business acumen believed him when he said he could teach them his secrets. He took advantage of their admiration with a fraud that he needed $25 million to settle. In addition to that betrayal of trust, there’s his long history of stiffing the contractors who build his buildings, scamming the taxman, profiting from buildings that never got built, cooking the books at his hotels, refusing to repay bank loans, cheating on all three of his wives, and on and on.

Why would anyone expect him to stand by people who (in his view) have already done everything for him that they’re going to do? In his eyes, that’s a loser move. He’s never shown that kind of loyalty before, so why would he start now?

So here’s what I have to say to Lindsey, Liz, and all the other Republicans who are shocked by Trump’s faithlessness, as if it came out of the blue: One of Trump’s favorite ways to bash immigrants is to recite part of a poem in which a woman saves a poisonous snake, who then bites her. When she asks why, the snake explains:

Oh, shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin.
You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.

Maybe when you heard that recitation, you thought he was warning you about MS-13 gangsters. You should have realized that he was telling you about himself.

[1] One of the many good things Trump inherited from President Obama was a strategy for beating the Islamic State. Obama saw that the American people had no appetite for another ground war in the Middle East, and yet the spread of the Islamic State not only destabilized Syria, but threatened everything the US had tried to accomplish in Iraq.

So the Obama administration came up with a plan (announced September 20, 2014) in which we would provide air power, material support, and a relatively small number of troops on the ground, while local groups — most prominently the Kurds — would do the bulk of the killing and dying. The public might not like the idea of having troops in harm’s way in yet another Middle Eastern nation, but as long as not too many of them came home in body bags, the war would stay off the front pages and most of the country would forget it was happening.

By the time Trump started measuring drapes for the Oval Office, three things were clear:

  • Obama’s strategy was working.
  • Trump was going to continue what Obama started, because Obama’s reasoning was still sound: Americans didn’t want a major new war, but they also didn’t want to turn large chunks of Iraq and Syria over to an Islamist caliphate.
  • When Obama’s strategy eventually succeeded, Trump was going to hog all the credit.

Here’s what I wrote two weeks after the 2016 election:

ISIS has been losing territory for some while now. Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, is cut off and likely to fall in the next few months. Its de facto capital of Raqqa is under attack in Syria. If events continue on their current path, sometime in 2017 President Trump will be able to declare victory in the territorial struggle, though ISIS will continue to be a significant underground movement. That victory will be the result of Obama’s strategy, but I expect Trump to crow about how “America is winning again.”

It took a little longer than I expected, but played out exactly that way. Here’s what our resident stable genius tweeted in January of this year:

When I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria & running rampant. Since then tremendous progress made, especially over last 5 weeks. Caliphate will soon be destroyed, unthinkable two years ago.

I know this outcome was not “unthinkable” when Trump took office, because I was thinking it and so were a lot of other people.

[2] It isn’t. The Islamic State has lost its territory, but it still continues as the “significant underground movement” that I and everybody else predicted.

The Atlantic’s national security correspondent Mike Giglio summarizes:

For much of America’s war against the so-called ISIS caliphate, it was clear that the extremist proto-state that ISIS created across Syria and Iraq didn’t stand much chance of lasting. The militants had no way to counter the relentless U.S. air-strike campaign and faced a committed enemy in the U.S.-backed local soldiers who did the bulk of the ground fighting. ISIS, a successor to the al-Qaeda militants who battled U.S. troops during the Iraq War, would one day return to its insurgent roots and go underground. It would ultimately be left to America’s local partners to keep up the pressure and ensure the group’s lasting defeat.

These local soldiers—the Kurds in Syria, the Iraqi military, and various other forces—have already suffered many thousands of casualties. Once the territorial caliphate was defeated, America could have focused on rebuilding them as well as the heavily bombed areas where they are now charged with keeping the peace. As The New York Times reported this summer, ISIS still has as many as 18,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria, many of them organized into sleeper cells and hit teams who carry out ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations across both countries.

Remember: Al Qaeda never did control territory, but managed to be a quite a nuisance anyway.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s been a week of interesting times, in the Chinese-curse sense of the term.

When I posted last week’s Sift, Trump had announced that American troops in Syria were pulling back from the border zone that Turkey wanted to occupy, apparently abandoning the Kurdish allies who had defeated ISIS under our guidance. Turkey hadn’t moved yet, but an invasion was expected soon.

Since then, Turkey has invaded, the UN Security Council’s condemnation of that invasion was blocked by the odd couple of the US and Russia, Trump made noises about economic sanctions against Turkey but did nothing, the Kurds flipped their alliances and sought protection from the Putin-supported Assad regime, some unknown number of ISIS prisoners escaped to sow new mayhem, and now the remaining US troops in Syria are making a chaotic retreat to avoid getting caught in a Syrian-Turkish crossfire. The only clear winner in all this is Putin. Funny thing; weird Trump administration stories always seem to come back to Putin somehow.

The Trump impeachment story also got more interesting. Our recently fired ambassador to Ukraine defied Trump’s gag order and testified behind closed doors for nine hours. Two of Rudy’s cronies got arrested for channeling Ukrainian (and possibly Russian) money into Republican campaigns, amid tales of plots to manipulate the Ukrainian national gas company to the advantage of Republican donors. Giuliani himself is said to be under investigation by the SDNY, which he used to run. The administration lost a series of court cases, but that didn’t stop the White House Counsel from staking out a maximal Trump-is-above-the-law position in a letter to Congress.

Meanwhile, Trump announced a breakthrough in the China trade war, which so far looks a lot like his “breakthrough” to denuclearize North Korea. The Democrats are about to hold another presidential debate. Another big Brexit deadline is coming up. Poland’s voters endorsed its authoritarian-populist ruling party. California had a series of brownouts and blackouts. The kettle kept boiling in Hong Kong. And … well, you get the idea. The world kept being the world, even while we were all looking in some other direction.

So anyway, there will be two featured posts this week. The first one, out soon, is my answer to Republicans like Lindsey Graham, who have supported Trump in everything else, but are shocked by his betrayal of the Kurds: “Backstabbing the Kurds is just Trump being Trump”. A trust-is-for-suckers theme has run through his entire life, so you can’t really be surprised that the Kurds are joining Trump U students and his three wives on the list of people whose trust he’s abused. As Trump often says about immigrants, you knew he was a snake when you took him in.

The second featured post will focuses on impeachment, and in particular how the Ukraine shakedown gets bigger and bigger the longer Congress investigates. At first we thought it was just a simple phone call, but now it looks like large chunks of the State Department — and possibly Energy Secretary Perry and VP Pence — got pulled into a months-long corrupt scheme. That should be out around 11 EDT.

The weekly summary will cover more of the operational developments in Syria, plus a lot of important stuff that isn’t getting the attention it deserves while we all focus on Syria and impeachment. It should appear between noon and 1.

Morally Centered People

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

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)

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

This week everybody was still talking about impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theory

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

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

It goes on.

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

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

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

and abortion

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

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

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

and the Democrats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but I read a book this week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

It didn’t used to be like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let’s close with something portentous

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

More Answers to Impeachment Objections

This post is a follow-up to a similar one last week. As the available information has changed, Trump’s defenses have shifted, and some of the points I made last week have more support now.

But before we get into the excuses and responses, I think it’s important never to lose sight of the heart of the case against Trump. It’s a simple case, which is why his supporters work so hard to obscure it: He’s cheating again.

One thing the Mueller Report made absolutely clear was that Russia cheated for Trump in 2016. Mueller couldn’t prove that the Trump campaign itself was part of the Russians’ criminal conspiracy, but what Russia did is pretty well established at this point. Tucker Carlson and Jared Kushner may try to minimize it as “a few Russian Facebook ads”, but serious crimes were committed: In addition to the illegal social-media campaign help, Russian operatives broke into the DNC’s computers and conspired with WikiLeaks to distribute what they found. That drip-drip-drip of email revelations consistently disrupted the news cycle for the Clinton campaign, and (in such a close election) was almost certainly decisive.

It’s a very real possibility that Trump owes his presidency to Vladimir Putin’s criminal conspiracy.

The essence of the Ukraine and China stories is that Trump is looking for a country to cheat for him in 2020, the way Russia did in 2016. And this time he has more to work with than just a wink-and-nod about sanctions. As president, he can distort all of US foreign policy to bribe or threaten foreign leaders into doing him “favors”.

So the question to be answered in this impeachment is: Are we going to let presidents cheat their way to re-election? And there are only three possible answers.

  • Yes. We’re going to become the kind of banana republic where the full power of the government is devoted to making elections come out the right way.
  • No. We’re going to take the power of the presidency away from Trump so that he can’t use it to cheat his way to a second term.
  • No. We’re not going to remove Trump from office, but we have some other way to stop his cheating and to make sure future presidents don’t follow his example.

I included that third bullet for logical completeness, but I’m still waiting to hear what such an “other way” might be. If someone makes the case that what Trump is doing is wrong but not impeachable, I think the burden is on them to explain how exactly the US is going to avoid the banana-republic scenario.

Anyway, let’s get to what Trump supporters are saying.

Trump is just being Trump. The point of standing on the White House grounds and publicly asking China to investigate the Bidens — coincidentally at a time when Chinese negotiators are about to arrive for trade talks and might be looking for a cheap way to curry favor with him — was to normalize the situation: This isn’t a crime committed in secret (although it was; that’s why Trump’s staff inappropriately locked the transcript down in a computer system meant for secrets about covert operations), it’s just how I roll.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and not only get away with it, but “not lose any voters”. Now we know how he would accomplish that feat: The day after he shot the first guy, he’d shoot somebody else. The day after that he’d shoot two people. And by the end of the week Fox News and Lindsey Graham would be saying: “That’s who Trump is. He shoots people. The country knew that when it elected him.”

But crimes are crimes and abuses of power are abuses of power, no matter where or how often they happen. If “being Trump” means abusing the power of the presidency, then he shouldn’t have that power. Let him go be Trump in private life, or in prison.

Trump just said a bad thing. This related defense is one that Trump’s supporters use a lot: His heart is in the right place, but because he’s not a career politician, he occasionally says things that break protocol. It’s no big deal.

We’ve heard this defense many times. For example, after the Access Hollywood tape came out: You may think you heard Trump confessing to a pattern of sexual assaults, but no; it was just “locker room talk“. And he shouldn’t have used the word pussy. So he said a bad thing, but that’s all there was to the scandal. (And when dozens of women accused him of the same kinds of sexual assaults he had bragged about, they were all lying. Most of them were too ugly to assault anyway.)

Tucker Carlson adapts the he-said-a-bad-thing argument to Ukraine:

Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea. Like a lot of things Trump does, it was pretty over-the-top. … The key question with Trump’s Ukraine call, though, is whether the president’s actions, advisable or not, rise to the level of an impeachable offense. It’s hard to argue they do.

But as I pointed out above, Carlson does not offer any way out of the banana-republic scenario. He doesn’t propose any consequence that would discourage Trump from doing this again, or doing worse things. Maybe a president shouldn’t abuse his power this way, but … let him.

It was a joke. Remember when the writers of Dallas painted themselves into a corner, and then got out by claiming that the whole previous season was a dream? That’s what “It’s a joke” is for Trump. It’s how he calls backsies. We’d all love to have the power to do that: Imagine if anytime somebody brought up something you shouldn’t have said, you could respond with, “Oh, that was a joke. Where’s your sense of humor?” I’m sure Henry II would have loved to claim that “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” was a joke. But Pope Alexander wasn’t buying it.

Getting back to Trump, he claimed it was a joke in 2016 when he said:

Russia, if you are listening, I hope that you are able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think that you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.

And here’s the real punch line: It did happen, or at least Russia tried to make it happen.

Russian spies began trying to hack Hillary Clinton’s personal email server on the very day Donald Trump urged the Russian government to find emails Clinton had erased, prosecutors said on Friday.

Putin’s people didn’t get the joke, so they went out and tried to do more illegal hacking. Those effing ex-KGB guys! No sense of humor, any of them.

Even better than being able to claim backsies yourself is having other people do it for you, so your position can remain ambiguous. Whatever you said is either a joke or not a joke, depending on what’s convenient. Right now, Republicans in Congress know they can’t defend what Trump says, so it’s-a-joke has become convenient for them. Marco Rubio started it, saying that Trump’s suggestion that China investigate Biden wasn’t real.

I don’t know if that’s a real request or him just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it. He’s pretty good at getting everybody fired up and he’s been doing that for a while and the media responded right on task.

On yesterday’s talk shows, Senator Roy Blount and Rep. Jim Jordan repeated that excuse. Blount said:

Well I doubt if the China comment was serious to tell you the truth

The important question this time is whether China got the joke. China’s foreign minister did not appear to be laughing when he said:

China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the US, and we trust that the American people will be able to sort out their own problems.

I think Congress should react like the TSA does when you “joke” about having a bomb in your luggage. Unless he’s in an obviously comic setting, like the White House Correspondents Dinner, when the President of the United States says something, the world should take it seriously. If Trump can’t adjust to that situation, he shouldn’t be president.

And BTW: Is there any evidence that Trump even has a real sense of humor? Has anyone ever seen him laugh — except possibly at someone else’s pain or disability?

No quid pro quo. Last week, I answered this by saying that the quid pro quo in Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was implicit:

It’s impossible to read the transcript of the Ukraine call without immediately recognizing the quid (money for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders) and the quo (manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden).

The case for that interpretation got much stronger Thursday when former Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker testified to Congress, and provided text messages related to the case. For example, Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, asked U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland about what he perceived as a quid pro quo:

Taylor asks for further direction: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland replies: “Call me.”

A few days later Taylor texts:

As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.

And Sondland replies with the White House spin that will turn into its cover story, while again trying to stop Taylor from leaving an evidence trail:

The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign[.] I suggest we stop the back and forth by text[.]

However, in conversation with Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sondland also expressed his belief that there was a quid pro quo. So Johnson talked to Trump:

Johnson claims he heard from Sondland that this was in fact the policy. However, Johnson adds that he became disturbed by this, and followed up with President Trump himself — who denied any such linkage. “He said—expletive deleted—‘No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” Johnson told Journal reporters Siobhan Hughes and Rebecca Ballhaus.

But the story doesn’t end there. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Molly Beck, Patrick Marley, and Eric Litke, Johnson said in a separate interview that Trump did say he was considering withholding the aid because he wanted to find out “what happened in 2016.”

Johnson said he asked Trump whether he could tell Ukraine’s president the aid was on the way anyway, to dispel the government’s fears, but “I didn’t succeed.”

Chris Hayes sums up:

The thing that is so damning about these texts is the consciousness of guilt that hangs over them. … They knew what they were doing was wrong, and they were trying to keep it secret. … Not only did they know it was wrong, but they worked on their cover story.

BTW, the format Hayes is experimenting with, of doing his show before a live audience, works really well here. The real editorializing comes from the audience, which laughs at Trump supporters’ ridiculous excuses.

Trump is draining the swamp. His push to investigate Biden is part of his anti-corruption mandate. The Trump campaign makes this point in a TV ad you may have seen.

But Mitt Romney nails him on this:

When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.

Other observers have noted that there is at least one other example of Trump caring about corruption: He wanted Hillary Clinton investigated also. CNBC’s Eamon Javers asked the obvious question:

Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don’t involve your political opponents?

Trump bloviated for a while, but could not name any other instances. Trump has picked this trick up from the autocrats he most admires: Putin and Mohammad bin Salman. They both like to manufacture “corruption” cases to take down their rivals.

In general, the drain-the-swamp argument is a joke at this point. Trump’s cabinet is full of lobbyists. He has stood behind obviously corrupt officials like EPA Director Scott Pruitt and Wilbur Ross. He channels public dollars into his private businesses. And in spite of Trump’s claim that his tax plan would “cost me a fortune”, Trump himself is one of the law’s prime beneficiaries. That’s one reason why his tax returns are such tightly held secrets.

To conclude: Washington has gotten much, much swampier since Trump came to town. If you want to drain the swamp, support impeachment.

Democrats are pushing impeachment because they know they can’t defeat Trump in 2020. That’s the case made in that Trump ad. However, all the current polling indicates that the major Democratic candidates — especially Biden — are ahead of Trump by wide margins.

This point makes more sense if you turn it around: Trump is trying to cheat because he knows he can’t win a fair election.

But if Trump is allowed to use the full power of his office to cheat — then yes, Democrats are worried that he’ll win in 2020.

The Monday Morning Teaser

LIke everyone else, I had a hard time paying attention to anything but impeachment this week. Not only is that story important, but it’s moving at the speed of TV. (Who imagined a week ago that Trump would be calling for Senator Romney to be “impeached”, which is not even a thing for senators?) So this week’s featured post will update last week’s: “More Answers to Impeachment Objections”.

But that’s not to say nothing else is happening. Prime Minister Johnson is still steaming towards a no-deal Brexit, ignoring Parliament. Trump has given his OK for a Turkish attack on our Kurdish allies in Syria. The administration is cutting the Food Stamp program through executive action. North Korea is making it increasingly clear that it is not bound by whatever understanding Trump imagines that he has with Kim Jong Un. The Supreme Court is getting ready to gut Roe v Wade. The Democratic presidential campaign is continuing: Bernie Sanders had a heart attack, Elizabeth Warren batted away a poorly conceived attempt at a smear, and nobody knows for sure what effect the corruption smear is having on Joe Biden. There are anti-government protests in Iraq and the ones in Hong Kong continue.

In short, the world is not stopping to watch Trump’s impeachment play out.

And oh, they keep publishing books. I finished Samantha Power’s engaging autobiography this week, and I’m in the middle of Rachel Maddow’s history of the oil industry’s baleful influence on democracy and good government.

So anyway, it’s another Monday where I’m running late, so the featured post may not be out before 11. The weekly summary should follow around 1.

Be Not Afraid

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Greta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers to Impeachment Objections

You might think there’s no role for us in the impeachment process. But our role may be the most important one. Here’s what you need to know to start doing your part.

So it’s on: There’s a serious impeachment inquiry, and in all likelihood it will lead to a vote in the House on articles of impeachment. Then it will be the Senate’s turn to look at the evidence and decide.

In a literal, constitutional sense, that’s where the important stuff will happen: in Congress. Witnesses will be called, subpoenas issued, questions asked and answered, votes held, and in the end the President either will or won’t continue in office.

To lesser extent, stuff will happen in the courts. What subpoenas are valid? What documents have to be produced? What witnesses have to testify? What privileges can they claim to avoid answering?

Put that way, it sounds like there is no role for the rest of us. But in fact there is a role, and collectively our role is the most important one. Because whatever the evidence says, Congress isn’t going to move without public support. So at every point, they’re going to wondering about us: Are we paying attention? Are engaged or bored? Angry with the President or with his accusers? Convinced by the case against him or befuddled?

So yes, it’s about witnesses, documents, and votes. But it’s also about TV ratings, public demonstrations, letters to the editor, and what’s trending on Twitter. While we’re watching Congress and the courts, they’re going to be watching us.

Yes, Congress will eventually make up its mind. But they will also be following us as we make up our minds. And that will happen not in televised hearings, but over coffee and in social media. We’ll think things out on our own, or discuss them one-on-one or in small gatherings. And what we decide will matter.

Trump’s supporters seem to understand this, so they have been out in force spreading — let’s be blunt about this — bullshit. Wild charges, baseless conspiracy theories, lies about evidence that has already come out, threats, pseudo-legal mumbo-jumbo, and anything else will throw sand in the gears of the public thought process. You can see this happening on the TV talk shows, where Trump defenders like Jim Jordan and Rudy Giuliani shout, talk over their interviewers, change their story from moment to moment, and refuse to answer questions — because they know that if the public has a rational conversation about evidence and law, Trump will lose. They can’t engage your mind, they have to overpower you.

The same thing is happening on the smaller scales as well. Trumpists distract, misdirect, make things up, repeat slogans, insult, spread conspiracy theories without worrying that they contradict each other, and in general create a fog rather than shining a light. Because if the American people just get confused, nothing will happen. And that’s what they want.

So it’s important that lots and lots of us refuse to be confused or distracted, and that (to the extent we can) we commit to be shapers of the opinions around us rather than wallflowers.

With that in mind, I have assembled a list of the most popular objections to impeachment that I have heard, and have tried to cut through the fog with sharp answers you can use in your own discussions.

What about the Bidens? This isn’t really a defense of Trump at all; it’s an attempt to distract attention from his wrongdoing and unfitness for office.

I discussed the general tactic of whataboutism back in August. Its purpose is to draw you into defending Biden against a ridiculous attack, which keeps the spotlight off of Trump and the reasons to remove him from office. The important thing to understand here is that a whataboutist can win by losing: Even if you shred all of his arguments, and impress all physical or social-media bystanders with the baselessness of his charges, all that time and energy has been diverted from the case against Trump. As I wrote in August:

Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we’re rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn’t do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.

The opposite horn of the dilemma is to leave people with the general impression that there is something slimy about Biden, even if they can’t say exactly what it is. (To a large extent, this kind of shapeless smear is what sunk Hillary Clinton.)

What to do? Two things:

  • Call out the whataboutism for what it is: a confession that Trump’s actions can’t be defended on their own terms. All his defenders have is distraction: Look here! Look there! Look anyplace but at the criminal in the White House!
  • Don’t go through the details of defending Biden — that’s taking the whataboutist bait — but do have a detailed reference you can link to or point to. Say something like “This has been checked out in detail and it’s all bullshit.” (Or maybe substitute some more polite word for bullshit, depending on the forum.) This response has the advantage of being completely true.

I recommend two links: “The Swiftboating of Joe Biden” from the Just Security blog, and “I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside-Down” in The Intercept.

The whistleblower report is all hearsay. Lindsey Graham went wild with this talking point on Face the Nation Sunday, repeating “hearsay” 11 times. The kernel of truth is that the whistleblower complaint assembles information from unnamed “White House officials”, many of whom saw or heard things the whistleblower himself/herself did not witness.

But that kind of misses the point: The evidence that is really damning is the transcript of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, which the White House released itself. That’s not hearsay. (It also matches the whistleblower’s description pretty well, which argues for his/her credibility.)

The whistleblower’s complaint is a roadmap for investigation, and not the substance of the case against Trump. By the time an impeachment vote is held, the House will have assembled more direct sources that either will or won’t corroborate what the complaint says. I expect the White House to try to stop those sources from testifying, because that’s what guilty people do.

There was no quid pro quo. This is just a lie, and a pretty obvious one at that. It’s impossible to read the transcript of the Ukraine call without immediately recognizing the quid (money for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders) and the quo (manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden).

It’s true that Don Trump never spells it out in so many words, but Don Corleone never did either. When the Godfather said, “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse”, he never elaborated “because if you do, something bad will happen to you.” He didn’t have to.

Where’s the crime? As you read the Ukraine transcript or the whistleblower complaint, and then listen to legal analysts debate it, one striking thing is that the laws they discuss don’t really capture what’s wrong here. It’s sort of like extortion. It’s sort of like bribery. It’s definitely a campaign violation, but that seems like a comparatively minor charge.

What’s wrong is that the President is treating the powers of his office as if they were his private possessions, rather than as a trust he holds for the People. He is trading a public good — aid to defend Ukraine from a Russian invasion — for a personal advantage over a rival in the 2020 election. If that kind of thing is acceptable presidential behavior, then we can pretty much give up on having fair elections from now on. Foreign governments will try to curry favor with future presidents by doing things that would be illegal for the president to do himself — like hacking DNC emails the way the Russians did in 2016 — and expect to receive future favors like foreign aid or readmission to the G-7.

Trump wriggled out of that bit of cheating by claiming that he didn’t directly conspire with the Russians in their crimes. (That’s the “no collusion” part of the Mueller report: Mueller established that Trump was the beneficiary of Russia’s crimes, but was unable to prove Trump’s involvement in the criminal conspiracy.) But in the Ukraine case, Trump is personally involved in an attempt to strong-arm the Ukrainian president into helping him cheat in 2020.

If that’s OK from now on, then the Republic is sunk. Future elections will be meaningless.

Abuses of power that “subvert the Constitution, the integrity of government, or the rule of law” are precisely what the Founders had in mind when they put impeachment into the Constitution, and it doesn’t matter whether the details precisely match some criminal statute. Congress should not get lost in legalisms, but needs to focus on defending the integrity of our elections.

The Senate will never remove Trump from office, so what’s the point? Three things are wrong with this one:

  • Not impeaching Trump will be costly. First, it would back up Trump’s claim that all the Democratic talk about Trump’s crimes is just politics; if the charges were serious, Pelosi would have impeached him, wouldn’t she? And second, it is in Trump’s nature to keep pushing until he meets resistance. If pressuring foreign countries to manufacture dirt on his rivals is OK, what other ways will he find to cheat in the 2020 elections? If you want to beat Trump in 2020, you can’t just stand there and watch him cheat.
  • Impeachment puts Republican senators on the spot. When you don’t do your job because you assume the next guy won’t do his, you take the pressure off the next guy. “I would have done my job,” he can claim later, “but nobody asked me.” Republican senators, especially the ones vulnerable in 2020 like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, will try to distance themselves from Trump’s crimes without doing anything to upset his base. (“Deeply troubling,” Mitt Romney says, and he’s the brave one.) Democrats should assemble the case against Trump as clearly as possible and make senators vote yes or no. Do you approve of this behavior or not?
  • You never know. The Nixon impeachment seemed absurd until suddenly it wasn’t. Trump’s support in the Senate is held together by fear, not by love or unity of purpose. Coalitions of fear sometimes dissolve suddenly, as in “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. If Trump starts going down, not many senators will want to go down with him.

Impeachment will make it impossible to accomplish anything else. Frank Bruni makes the argument like this:

Where’s the infrastructure plan that we’re — oh — a quarter-century late in implementing? Where are the fixes to a health care system whose problems go far beyond the tens of millions of Americans still uninsured? What about education?

This argument would be a lot more persuasive if Mitch McConnell’s Senate hadn’t bottled up everything before impeachment. Republicans in Congress may use impeachment as an excuse to do nothing; but they weren’t doing anything anyway.

The Democratic House has actually been quite busy passing legislation, which the Senate just ignores. Of course you wouldn’t expect a Republican Senate to simply rubber-stamp whatever comes out of a Democratic House. But nothing stops the Senate from passing its own version of, say, background checks or lowering drug prices or helping people save for retirement. Then there could be a House/Senate conference committee to work out the differences, the way Congress used to get things done.

As for Trump, it’s absurd to claim that impeachment prevents him from working with Democrats on infrastructure, or any other common purpose he claims he wants. Both Nixon and Clinton took some pride in being able to keep doing their jobs in spite of distractions. (Much of what Clinton did to balance the budget was happening while he was under investigation or being impeached.) Trump alone thinks it makes sense to take his ball and go home until Nancy treats him better.

Impeachment will rile up Trump’s base. I wish Democrats would stop thinking about Trump and his base the way some battered women think about their abusers: If dinner is on the table when he comes home and the house is ship-shape, maybe he won’t hit me tonight.

You know what? Trump’s base is going to be riled up from now on. Get used to it, because no matter what Democrats do, Trump will spin a story in which he is the most unfairly persecuted man in the history of politics. His idolaters will believe it, and they’ll be hopping mad. It’s already happening, and it’s going to get worse. The Trumpist minority can threaten violence and even civil war if we don’t do what they want. But if we’re letting ourselves be ruled by a violent minority, if we are terrorized out of doing what is right and what the country needs, then there’s already been a civil war and we lost.

Democrats should wait for the election. David Brooks makes this case, saying that impeachment is “elitist”.

Elections give millions and millions of Americans a voice in selecting the president. This [impeachment] process gives 100 mostly millionaire senators a voice in selecting the president.

It’s true that elections are the Constitution’s primary method for getting rid of bad presidents. But what makes the Ukraine scandal stand out as impeachment material is that it’s an attempt to cheat in the 2020 election. We can’t just wait for the election if in the meantime we’re doing nothing to stop Trump from cheating in that election.

So yes, Democrats should keep talking about healthcare and climate change and all the other important issues of America’s future. But at the same time we have to do our best to make sure that a fair election is held at all. The only way we have to do that is to call attention to Trump’s cheating and appeal to the American people’s sense of fair play. That’s what this whole process is about.

Wouldn’t Pence be harder to beat in 2020? Trump, from this view, is an unpopular, damaged candidate. But Pence, being more like a typical Republican presidential candidate, could win back the never-Trumpers and the professional-class suburbanites, reunite the Republican coalition, and be a more formidable candidate in 2020.

I don’t share this concern. If Trump is removed from office, or damaged to the point that he doesn’t seek re-election, Pence will face the same problems Gore did in 2000: Does he embrace Trump or distance himself? Does he let Trump speak at the convention? Does he campaign with Trump? Should his rhetoric inflame the resentments resulting from the impeachment or try to move on? If he stays too close to Trump, he won’t win back the people Trump alienated, and may risk being stained by whatever brought Trump down. But if he is too distant, Trump’s base will resent his disloyalty.

Gore at least could run on Clinton’s policies, which were fairly popular. (In The Onion, President-elect Bush assured America: “Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.“) But Trump’s policies have never been popular: the border wall, standing with the NRA, making climate change worse, race baiting, gutting ObamaCare, shutting down immigration, palling around with Putin, the farm-destroying trade war with China, and so on. In addition, the issue Pence is most identified with personally is bigotry against gays and lesbians, which is also not popular.

True, Pence would not have to answer for Trump’s long series of outrageous tweets. He could make his own version of Biden’s case that the adults were in charge again. But Trump’s base loves those tweets and doesn’t want adults to be in charge. They identify with Trump because he insults all the people they wish they had the courage to insult, and defies the experts who make them feel stupid. If Pence tries to be an adult, or (even worse) a gentleman, they won’t like him.

Picture 30,000 people showing up to hear Pence, hoping to be revved up the way Trump revved them up. Won’t they leave disappointed?

So no: If Trump is removed, Pence is not a formidable candidate.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Last week I was several hours ahead of Nancy Pelosi, claiming Monday morning that Democrats really had no choice but to impeach Trump. The Speaker didn’t publicly announce the same conclusion until late in the afternoon, and all the subsequent developments — the release of the Ukraine telephone transcript and the whistleblower complaint, the testimony of the DNI to the House Intelligence Committee, Trump’s blatant attempt to intimidate potential witnesses by calling them “spies” and hinting at their execution, new polls showing a sharp increase in the number of Americans favoring impeachment — have happened in only a week.

Now it’s on, in a way that it wasn’t on last Monday morning. The battle is joined. So this week I want to point out something about how this battle will be fought. On the surface, there will be a procedural struggle: committee hearings, subpoenas, court cases about enforcing the subpoenas, and so on. There will also be a legal/political struggle, as the House (possibly followed by the Senate) wrangles over exactly what happened and whether or not it constitutes an impeachable offense.

But underneath that struggle will be a much less visible one that happens all over the country, in conversations among friends, in arguments on social media, and so on. Because Congress will almost certainly not move without public support, and people will make up their minds one-by-one and two-by-two. So it matters how many of us go to the effort to sort things out and think clearly. It matters how many of us decide to be outspoken, and to try to shape the opinions of the people around us. And it matters how good we are at that task.

With that in mind, the featured post assembles answers to the objections being made to impeachment, whether they are arguments about the facts or about the wisdom of the process. You’re already hearing those points, and it would help the cause if you could respond clearly and sharply. That post should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The rest of the week nearly got lost. But the UN met and Greta Thunberg spoke for her generation, calling on adults to take their responsibilities to future generations seriously. Israel struggled to form a government after another close election. Boris Johnson got soundly rebuked by the UK’s Supreme Court, raising questions about whether his government will survive long enough to complete Brexit. The weekly summary will discuss all of that, and then close with an XKCD timeline of the global temperature. That should be out maybe noonish.