The Lawless Administration

According to the Constitution, the duties of the President include “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.  But from the beginning of his administration, Donald Trump has taken the same attitude towards the law as president that he did when he was a New York real estate tycoon: Not “What does the law say I have to do?”, but “Who’s going to make me do it?”

No previous president or administration has had such a disregard for the law, and he seems to be getting more brazen about it. This week included so much lawlessness I need to list it before I go into detail on any of it.

  • Trump announced that there is nothing wrong with doing what he was accused of doing in 2016: accepting help from a foreign government during an election campaign. The law may say otherwise, but so what?
  • An official watchdog group (whose head Trump himself appointed) reported that Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly and brazenly violated the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from partisan political activity while performing their official duties. The report recommended that she be fired. The White House Counsel rejected the report, and Conway will continue in her job. She has neither apologized nor promised to obey the law in the future.
  • Scandals continued to pile up around Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose stock in a major road-paving company was long ago identified as a conflict of interest, who attempted to use her position to benefit her family’s company, and who maintains a special pipeline for transportation projects in the home state of her husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Friday night, MSNBC’s Ali Veshi (subbing for Rachel Maddow), examined Trump’s long history of telling people to break the law. He mentioned these incidents:

(Veshi might also have mentioned incidents during the campaign, when Trump urged his audiences to beat up protesters. Or his instructions that his administration should defy “all the subpoenas“, regardless of their lawful authority.) In each case, intermediate officials felt obligated to tell the same people to obey the law rather than do what the President just told them to do.

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday, Trump said that he would “listen” to any foreign government that offered his campaign dirt on his opponent, and that “maybe” he would call the FBI. But then he elaborated in ways that made the call to the FBI seem unlikely:

I’ll tell you what, I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do. Oh, give me a break – life doesn’t work that way.

Both Attorney General Barr and FBI Director Wray have said that a campaign receiving offers of help from foreign governments should call the FBI, but Trump explicitly rejected that opinion. “The FBI director is wrong,” he said.

In essence, Trump has announced to foreign governments that he is open for business. If they have anything on his rivals, he wants to hear it. Will he ask questions about whether they broke any laws to get it, as Russia did when it hacked DNC computers? He didn’t say.

Democrats in the Senate offered a bill to require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance, but Republicans blocked it, as they have blocked every attempt to stop a repeat of Russia’s 2016 interference. It’s hard to come up with an explanation other than the harsh one: Republicans are counting on Russia to help them again in 2020.

When Elaine Chao took office as Transportation Secretary, she pledged to the Office of Government Ethics that she would sell her stock in Vulcan Materials, which the company’s web page describes like this:

Vulcan Materials Company is the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand and gravel—and a major producer of aggregates-based construction materials, including asphalt and ready-mixed concrete.

Given that the Transportation Department oversees the interstate highway system, the conflict of interest is obvious. She in fact didn’t sell the shares until two weeks ago, after the Wall Street Journal pointed out that she was still holding the shares — whose value had increased by $40,000 in the meantime.

Another obvious conflict is her family’s company, Foremost Group, which the NYT describes as “an American shipping company with deep ties to the economic and political elite in China, where most of the company’s business is centered”. The Times recently revealed that when Chao planned her first trip to China as a member of Trump’s cabinet, she asked for family members to be included in meetings with government officials.

David Rank, who had been deputy chief of mission for the State Department in Beijing, described the request as “alarmingly inappropriate”. The trip was cancelled after State Department officials raised ethical issues. Vanity Fair writes:

Though Chao has not worked for the company since the 1970s, it is the (ongoing) source of her wealth and the political wealth of her husband [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell]. In 2008 her father gave the couple a gift of as much as $25 million, while 13 members of the Chao family, including Foremost CEO Angela Chao, have given more than $1 million to McConnell’s campaigns and to PACs tied to him.

Angela Chao responded to the NYT article with a letter to the editor defending her sister, which in my opinion missed the point and denied charges that were never made.

Finally, there are the conflicts created by her marriage to Senator McConnell of Kentucky. Politico reports:

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.

Draining the swamp indeed.

The Office of the Special Counsel (not to be confused with Bob Mueller’s office; this one is run by Trump appointee Henry Kerner, formerly a Republican congressional staffer) issued a report recommending that Kellyanne Conway be fired for repeated violations of the Hatch Act. The NYT explains:

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. Named for former Senator Carl A. Hatch, Democrat of New Mexico, the law has been on the books for 80 years. The act dates to Depression-era reforms intended to prevent machine politics in which patronage jobs were handed out to people who then used their positions to help keep their patrons in power.

The OSC report lists several occasions in which Conway was speaking in her official capacity (for example, giving a press interview at the White House or tweeting on a Twitter account that she also uses for official purposes) and also attacking Democrats like Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Elizabeth Warren.

Conway has dismissed the whole issue, and all attempts by ethics officials to work through the White House Counsel’s office have by stymied. The report concludes:

Ms. Conway’s persistent, notorious, and deliberate Hatch Act violations have created an unprecedented challenge to this office’s ability to enforce the Act, as we are statutorily charged. She has willfully and openly disregarded the law in full public view. As recently as May 29, 2019, Ms. Conway defiantly rejected the Hatch Act’s application to her activities, dismissed OSC’s 2018 findings, and flippantly stated, “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” And she made it clear that she has no plans to cease abusing her official position to influence voters. Ms. Conway’s conduct undermines public confidence in the Executive branch and compromises the civil service system that the Hatch Act was intended to protect. Her knowing and blatant disregard for the law aggravates the severity of her numerous violations.

After the report came out, a Deadline reporter asked Conway for a reaction. She replied: “I have no reaction. Why would I give you a reaction?”

Trump has made it clear that Conway will not be fired or otherwise disciplined. The White House Counsel’s office issued a statement defending her actions, which a University of Texas Law School professor described as “fooling no one“.

In this White House, faithfully executing the laws is not seen as a priority, or even a duty. The law is something to be gotten around, not something to obey.

Socialism: What’s in a word?

The word socialism has become a little like the word God: something we can almost all believe in as long as we get to define it our own way. Depending on the speaker, socialism can mean Denmark or Venezuela or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even the National Socialism of Hitler’s Germany. In FDR’s day Social Security was denounced as “socialism” and in JFK’s day Medicare was. Now those programs enjoy almost universal popularity. So are we all socialists now?

If socialism means buying things collectively through the government, then your local fire department is socialist, and so are the national parks and the interstate highways. Who doesn’t like them? On the other hand, if socialism means buying everything collectively, so that we eat in big government cafeterias rather than in our own kitchens and dining rooms, that would be a lot less popular. So which is it?

And if we can’t decide which it is, why are we talking about it at all?

What Bernie said. Bernie Sanders wants to have that discussion, and I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates do. Wednesday, he gave a major speech (video, transcript) embracing socialism and attempting to define it his own way.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

He listed these economic rights:

  • The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
  • The right to quality health care
  • The right to a complete education
  • The right to affordable housing
  • The right to a clean environment
  • The right to a secure retirement

How others responded. Among this cycle’s Democratic candidates, none of those rights seems terribly radical. True, not every candidate would agree with all of them. The more moderate ones would see them as goals to work toward rather than rights that need to be delivered immediately. (Let’s extend quality health care to more people, even if we can’t get a universal program passed.) Each candidate would have a different interpretation of those rights (what jobs are “decent”? when is an education “complete”?), of the kinds of programs necessary to ensure them, and how to pay for those programs. But nothing on that list should inspire shocked pointing and cries of “infidel!”

All the same, nobody joined Bernie in endorsing socialism by name. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate whose policy proposals are probably closest to Sanders’, noncommittally said, “I’ll have to hear his speech.” But Warren has kept the word capitalism in her proposals (as in the Accountable Capitalism Act). She styles her program as a reform of capitalism, not a revolution that replaces it with socialism.

Other candidates were more critical.

Of the two dozen Democrats running for president, some are ready to sign on to ideas Sanders has pioneered, such as Medicare for All, but none agree with democratic socialism as a way to govern, or as a pitch that will defeat President Donald Trump. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was booed for condemning socialism two weeks ago in a speech before the California Democratic Party, laughed at the title of Sanders’s speech when I read it to him. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado let out an exasperated chuckle. “I don’t think the American people even know what that means,” he told me. “Nobody in my town halls talks about democratic socialism versus oligarchy and authoritarianism.” When I read the title of the speech [“How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism”] to Senator Kamala Harris of California on Monday after an event in Dubuque, she responded with a simple “Huh.”

Republicans, on the other hand, love to talk about socialism, and to label Democratic proposals “socialist”. One favorite technique is to dismiss a Democratic proposal as “socialist” without identifying any specific flaws, as if socialism were a plague that can only be fought by quarantine. Before he officially became a politician, Ronald Reagan attacked a proposal similar to Medicare like this:

I know how I’d feel, if you, my fellow citizens, decided that to be an actor, I had to become a government employee and work in a national theater. Take it into your own occupation or that of your husband. All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, from here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism — to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.

So sure, the idea that Grandma can go to the hospital after she falls sounds good, but it’s socialism. Before long we’ll all be living in government dormitories.

My own view of capitalism and socialism in America. Debating socialism and capitalism, as if they were two distinct roads and we could only choose one, seems misguided to me.

When I look at America, I see capitalist and socialist economies existing side-by-side. We commonly go back and forth between them without thinking about it. Your driveway is part of the capitalist economy; the street is in the socialist realm. When your kids play in the front yard, they’re under the aegis of capitalism. If they go down to the park, they’ve crossed into socialism.

(In Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber also posits an underlying communist system, which we instinctively revert to in emergencies. When the flood hits, you rescue your neighbors in your boat — without going through either a market or a government office — because you have a boat and they need rescuing. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.)

What we’re mainly arguing about when we talk about socialism is where the boundary between the two realms will be. Should our kids be educated in public schools (socialism) or private schools (capitalism)? If we raise taxes to improve the library (socialism), maybe I won’t be able to afford to buy as many books (capitalism).

In my view, the balance has shifted too far in the capitalist direction, and needs to shift back. Market forces are doing a really bad job of organizing our health care (as I see in my own life). Pro-capitalist Republicans deny climate change because capitalism has no answer for it.

So while I have no desire to destroy the capitalist system root and branch, I want to move the boundary to shrink the portion of the economy it commands. I don’t think we need public dormitories and cafeterias, but I also don’t think we want capitalists manipulating the insulin market.

What’s in a word? Whatever politicians say in their speeches, only a few libertarian radicals want to get rid of socialism entirely, and only a few communist radicals want to get rid of capitalism entirely. We’re going to continue living in a mixed economy and arguing about what activities belong in each realm. So the idea that we’re going to accept or reject socialism once and for all is unrelated to the world we actually live in.

But we keep trying to have that conversation, and it seems that every politician but Sanders (Republican and Democrat alike) has come to the same conclusion: Democrats are better off talking about their specific policies — universal health care, free college, sustainable energy, etc. — than having an abstract argument about capitalism vs. socialism.

So why does Bernie want to have that argument? I think the word socialism symbolizes a point he wants to make, something that’s key to his political identity. The argument about socialism has become a metaphor for a more nebulous question: How screwed up are things, what caused it, and how big a change is necessary to set the country on the right track again?

Joe Biden’s message is that Trump screwed things up. The country was more-or-less on the right track under Obama, and we just need to get back there. Trump’s extremism has shown Republicans what their flirting with white supremacy and subverting democratic norms leads to, and once he’s gone they’ll be more reasonable. So there’s no need to change America’s underlying system, we just need a new president — preferably one with a majority in both houses of Congress, like Obama had for his first two years.

Elizabeth Warren’s message is that the turn towards unfettered capitalism is the problem and it began around the time of the Reagan administration. She uses her personal story to say: We used to have opportunity. You could buy a house on one income. You could work your way through college and graduate without a mountain of debt. Now, irresponsible banks throw the world economy into a near-depression, and they get bailed out. CEO pay is out of control. More and more chunks of the economy are monopolies or oligopolies.

So Warren’s message is one of reform: We need to get capitalism back under control, so that it works for the many again instead of just the few.

But Sanders’ message is that America is screwed up at a much deeper level, and it was never really on the right track. In his speech, he points to FDR’s New Deal not as a time when things were going right, but as a time when people had a vision of a better system. In his speech he said:

Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

Unlike Trump, Bernie doesn’t think America can be made great again, because it was never really great. For a while we had a vision of greatness, but we left it unfinished. We don’t need reform, or the mere updating of old values to new circumstances. We need transformation and even revolution.

And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.

And that, I think, is why Sanders embraces the label socialist, while other Democrats shrink away from it. To him, the word symbolizes a whole new system, a revolutionary transformation.

In short, Bernie is appealing to a level of discontent that no other candidate (except maybe Trump, who represents a vision of authoritarian revolution; I would compare him not so much with Hitler as with Franco) sees. Sanders sees a country, a political system, and an economic system that is too far gone to be reformed. Rather than build on what has come before, he prefers a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. Rather than make deals with some collection of the current power brokers, he wants a peaceful popular uprising to blow them away.

So the argument about socialism is really an argument about that extremity of discontent: How many people feel that way? Some, definitely. But are there enough of them to win a nomination and presidency?

Bernie thinks there are. Other candidates disagree — and I guess I do too. But that’s what campaigns are for: We’re going to find out.

The Monday Morning Teaser

So poof! Last week’s trade war against Mexico is over, at least for the time being. The new crisis is with Iran: Did they attack oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman? Will anyone believe us if we say they did? What will we do about it and why? In the reality-TV presidency, each week needs its cliffhanger.

But I decided that the featured post needed to be about something that isn’t part of the Trump Show, at least not directly. So I call your attention to the speech Bernie Sanders gave this week defining what he means by socialism and explaining why he thinks we need it. That post “Socialism: What’s in a word?” is about not just Sanders’ speech, but the larger context in which other candidates may agree with Sanders on specific programs but still not want to talk about socialism. Why do either Sanders or his rivals care about this label, so that Bernie wants to claim it and all the other candidates want to avoid it?

That should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The weekly summary starts out talking about the most recent examples of Trump administration lawlessness: He says he would accept the help of foreign governments in the 2020 campaign, and Kellyanne Conway will continue violating the Hatch Act without consequences. From there it will cover the Mexico deal, such as it is; what we know about the Iran situation; the demonstrations in Hong Kong; the upcoming Democratic debate; and a few other things, before closing with something I haven’t found yet.

Oh, and I went to an impeachment rally in Boston Saturday. I don’t think this is going to happen without people in the streets.

The summary should be out noonish, or maybe a little later.

With Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

This week’s featured post is “We need hope, not optimism“.

This week everybody was talking about tariffs on Mexico

The Mexican tariffs are over before they started. A deal with Mexico was announced Friday. Trumpists are declaring victory, while anti-Trumpists are saying that Mexico largely reiterated commitments it had already made. (This is similar to the new NAFTA agreement Trump negotiated. Just about everything that wasn’t in the old NAFTA were concessions Mexico and Canada had already agreed to during the TPP negotiations.)

CNBC comments:

Whatever Mexican officials may promise the Trump administration, it’s unclear they would have the capacity to deliver. “Mexico’s immigration and refugee agencies are severely understaffed, under-resourced and overwhelmed by the increased numbers of Central Americans heading north,” [Tony] Wayne [of the Atlantic Council] said.

One way to judge the agreement will be whether the number of migrants apprehended at the US/Mexico border goes down (on an year-over-year basis; we already know apprehensions will go down over the summer because they always do). My prediction: Trump will be unhappy when the apprehension numbers come out, and the tariff threats will be back.

The deal means that we will never know whether Republicans in Congress were serious about trying to block the tariffs.

There are two bits of collateral damage from these negotiations: First, Trump has asserted his right to impose tariffs on any country at any time. So trade deals with the US are basically meaningless; why exactly should any country negotiate one? Second, if indeed more Central American migrants are held in Mexico while their American asylum requests are processed, what will happen to them there? Mexico itself has many of the violence and corruption problems they are fleeing in their home countries. I hope the media will pay attention to the human cost the deal imposes on these already-oppressed people.

The same CNBC article pulls back to take a broader view of the Mexico and China trade disputes.

U.S. economic weapons are the most potent in the world, and 88% of world trade is still done in dollars, although the U.S. share of global GDP has shrunk from nearly half after World War II to 38% in 1969 to about 24% now. That remains the case because for many years a good part of the world viewed this arrangement positively.

It remains to be seen – in Mexico, China and beyond – how much Trump will gain through his unique willingness to use economic weapons.

What’s clear already is that friends and rivals are more interested than ever before in exploring alternatives to the U.S.-dominated system. Such a transition would take many years, involve enormous costs and unfold in stages. However, consistent overuse of U.S. economic power has made the unthinkable more plausible.

Also on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplayed the significance of climate change by saying:

Societies reorganize, we move to different places, we develop technology and innovation. I am convinced, I am convinced that we will do the things necessary as the climate changes.

Of course, if anyone tries to adjust to climate change by moving to the US, we’ll stop them.

and straight pride

Apparently a “straight pride” parade has been scheduled for August 31 in Boston. The announcement garnered widespread derision, which may have been the point.

I find it hard to believe this event will actually happen, or that the organizers even want it to. If it does, I predict it will be a fairly pathetic event, because there just isn’t much pent-up straight pride that has been unable to express itself until now. Growing up, I remember many sources of insecurity; but worrying that it might not be OK to be straight was not one of them.

Whether the parade happens or not, though, announcing it is a very effective trolling stunt, producing outraged quotes that can be cut-and-pasted into blog posts “proving” how much hatred and discrimination straights are expected to live with. You can already watch that happening here and here.

Here’s my view: In general, overclasses just don’t need special celebratory events. A White History Month is unnecessary, because the historical significance of white people is already being covered quite well. (Picture some tearful white boy desperately searching his textbooks for a hero who looks like him.) Ditto for a men’s studies program. No scripture needs to remind us to remember the rich, because who can forget them? A White Lives Matter movement is superfluous, because white lives already do matter. And so on.

and Trump’s European tour

He’s back from Europe without breaking any treaties or calling for regime change in Belgium; I guess I should be happy. He insulted the Mayor of London and the Duchess of Sussex, and told the UK who their next prime minister ought to be, and let’s not even talk about his ridiculous tux, but he didn’t do anything really outrageous like expose himself to the Queen, so the trip was more-or-less a success.

Does it seem like we’re lowering the bar for the President of the United States? I know it was a long time ago (or at least it seems that way), but didn’t we expect more out of Barack Obama?

Isn’t Photoshop wonderful? The picture on the right is fake, but I have to say it does capture something.

The ceremony to honor the sacrifices made by Allied soldiers at D-Day had to be pushed back 15 minutes while Trump gave an interview to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, in which he described House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “a disaster” and Bob Mueller as a “fool”. We used to say “politics stops at the water’s edge“, but that is another lost norm of American democracy.

We later found out that French President Macron was the actual cause of the delay, but Trump took credit for it:

Listen to those incredible people back there. These people are so amazing, and what they don’t realize is that I’m holding them up because of this interview, but that’s because it’s you. By the way, congratulations on your ratings. I’m very proud.

Ingraham then told her viewers to disregard what they had just heard the President say, because (you know) he says stuff.

Some of you may have heard or read that President Trump supposedly held up the entire D-Day ceremony in order to do this interview with me,. That is patently false — fake news.

and Biden’s Hyde-Amendment reversal

The Hyde amendment is a piece of legislative boilerplate that has been added to appropriation bills ever since Rep. Henry Hyde got it passed in 1976. It prevents federal funding, i.e. Medicaid, from paying for abortions.

At the time, the amendment was viewed as an abortion compromise: Abortion would stay legal, but people who opposed it would know that their tax dollars weren’t paying for it. In practice, though, it has meant that abortion is an option for wealthy and middle-class women, but not poor women. The result has been to keep women trapped in a cycle of poverty: early pregnancy results in early motherhood, which prevents a woman from finishing her education and starting a career that could launch her into the middle class.

Last week, Joe Biden stood virtually alone as a Democratic presidential candidate who still supported the Hyde Amendment. That position was part of his tolerant, don’t-poke-the-bear attitude toward Republicans in general: show some willingness to make reasonable compromises and trust that they’ll do the same.

The problem here is that anti-abortion forces are showing no signs of compromise. Instead, they’re pushing to make abortion completely illegal in places like Alabama and Missouri. If they’re going to send doctors to jail, what exactly are we getting in return for our tolerance and understanding?

Thursday night, Biden reversed himself. He’s now against the Hyde Amendment.

This is both good and bad for his candidacy. For many (me, for example) Hyde is a bridge too far: I care more about women trapped in a cycle of poverty than about the sensitive consciences of anti-abortion zealots. (If they want to reduce abortions, they can help us make contraception more easily available.) Biden has never been my top choice among Democratic candidates, but I hadn’t written him off until the Hyde flap. Now that he’s recanted that position, I’ve returned him to convince-me status.

On the downside, the inherent weakness of a moderate position is that it can seem opportunistic or even wishy-washy. It’s one thing to have middle-of-the-road beliefs, and something else to shift with the winds of public opinion. Biden’s change of heart makes it harder to argue that he comes from a place of deep principle.

Any time I criticize or express doubts about a leading Democrat, I feel obligated to remind everyone of this: Biden is infinitely better than Trump. If he gets the nomination, I’ll support him every way I can.

but we shouldn’t lose sight of the abuses on our border

Jonathan Katz at the LA Times urges us to call the border detention camps what they are: concentration camps. He recounts the series of recent incidents: deaths in custody, herding people into small spaces, not providing adequate medical care, isolation cells for people who are not dangerous, locking children in vans for more than 24 hours at a time, and an end to many educational and recreational services for minors at the camps.

He then comments:

Preventing mass outrage at a system like this takes work. Certainly it helps that the news media covers these horrors intermittently rather than as snowballing proof of a racist, lawless administration. But most of all, authorities prevail when the places where people are being tortured and left to die stay hidden, misleadingly named and far from prying eyes.

There’s a name for that kind of system. They’re called concentration camps. You might balk at my use of the term. That’s good — it’s something to be balked at.

He quotes Hannah Arendt:

The human masses sealed off in [the camps] are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead.

Andrea Pitzer, who has written a history of concentration camps, posted a tweetstorm on Trump’s camps:

The longer a camp system stays open, the more predictable things will go wrong (contagious diseases, malnutrition, mental health issues). In addition, every significant camp system has also introduced new horrors of its own, that were unforeseen when that system was opened.

What’s especially ominous about Trump’s concentration camps is that the rhetoric of cruelty is already widely accepted among Trump’s supporters: These people shouldn’t have come here, so we can do whatever we want to them.

Of course this system is going to attract sadists and repel people of conscience. And of course the sadists will do as much as they’re allowed to in an environment where no one is paying attention.

and you also might be interested in …

UU World just published my review of three books about fascism: Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, and Yascha Mounk’s The People Versus Democracy. I’ve already discussed Snyder’s book at more length on this blog, and the other two have been mentioned now and then.

Here’s how skewed things have gotten in Alabama: Not even rich people can speak their minds without reprisal any more if they support abortion rights. Hugh Culverhouse Jr. denounced the state’s recent decision to criminalize abortion, and called on students to boycott U of A until the state relented.

In reaction, the University’s law school sent back his $26.5 million and took his name off their building. Culverson responded with this:

There will be no winners in the wake of the decision Alabama has made to attack the constitutional rights of women. The state will become more divided and isolated, and it will be people such as the future students of the University of Alabama law school who will suffer the consequences. Whether my name is taken down is unimportant, but I hope university administrators will contemplate all the names that will never appear on their admissions rolls, as well.

The U of A business school will continue to be named for Culverhouse’s father, who also supported abortion rights.

[An update based on a comment below:, a news site I’ve considered reliable in the past, says that the dispute is more complicated, and that discussions about returning Culverhouse’s money were going on even before he made his comments about abortion.]

Esquire comments on a new report by OpenSecrets on Trump’s widespread conflicts of interest.

It increasingly appears the President of the United States has business holdings all over the world that are drowning in shady money. … The level of lying, corruption, conflicts of interest, and other malfeasance here is just gobsmacking.

And WaPo’s Plum Line column pulls together a series of incidents where people wanting favors found ways to put money in Trump’s pocket.

The White House blocked the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from submitting testimony to the House Intelligence Committee “on the grounds that its description of climate science did not mesh with the administration’s official stance”.

the Trump administration is debating how best to challenge the idea that the burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet and could pose serious risks unless the world makes deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

The Washington Post summarized what the White House found objectionable:

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s 12-page prepared testimony, reviewed by The Washington Post, includes a detailed description of how rising greenhouse gas emissions are raising global temperatures and acidifying the world’s oceans. It warns that these changes are contributing to the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

“Climate-linked events are disruptive to humans and societies when they harm people directly or substantially weaken the social, political, economic, environmental, or infrastructure systems that support people,” the statement reads, noting that while some populations may benefit from climate change. “The balance of documented evidence to date suggests that net negative effects will overwhelm the positive benefits from climate change for most of the world, however.”

The senior director for emerging technologies at the National Security Council, Will Happer, is a long-time climate-change denier. He reportedly is advocating for a panel of climate-deniers to “conduct an ‘update’ of the National Climate Assessment” that will make it more friendly to the fossil-fuel industry.

The government just found a novel way to save $40 billion: reclassify high-level nuclear waste as low-level nuclear waste, so that it can be disposed of more easily. What could go wrong?

The waste is housed at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina, the Idaho National Laboratory and Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state – the most contaminated nuclear site in the country.

The explanation sounds like it could possibly make sense:

The old definition of high-level waste was based on how the materials were produced, while the new definition will be based on their radioactive characteristics – the standard used in most countries, the energy department said.

The old definition said high-level radioactive waste resulted from a military production stream, [Undersecretary of Energy Paul] Dabbar said. That meant, for instance, that all the waste from plutonium production at Hanford was classified as high level.

It was a “one-size-fits-all approach that has led to decades of delay, cost billions of dollars, and left the waste trapped in DOE facilities in the states of South Carolina, Washington and Idaho without a permanent disposal solution”, the agency said.

But this is where we see the cost of this administration’s constant lying, and the appointment of a know-nothing like Rick Perry as Energy Secretary. (Obama’s first secretary of energy, remember, was a Nobel laureate. Dabbar is a little more qualified than Perry: He may have come to the government from investment banking, but before that he was an officer on a nuclear submarine, though his official bio doesn’t say what his responsibilities were.) There are times when the government really is playing it straight and needs the public to trust that it’s doing the right thing. But how can we?

I agree with Michael Gerson so seldom that I feel like I have to mention it when I do. In a recent WaPo column, he responded to Franklin Graham’s call for a Day of Prayer to support President Trump. Gerson first recalled that praying for a nation’s leaders is fairly common in the Christian tradition and ought to be uncontroversial. But Graham is asking God for a little more than is usually considered proper.

Graham made clear that the real purpose of the event was not to pray for the president, but to pray in his political favor. “President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family and the presidency,” Graham said. “In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has.” The American Family Association described the day of prayer as a type of “spiritual warfare,” necessary because Trump’s many accomplishments “make him very unpopular with the Devil and the kingdom of darkness.”

Who are the “enemies” that Graham had in mind? Who represents “the kingdom of darkness”? The Democratic Party? Robert S. Mueller III and the “deep state”? Never-Trump Republicans?

However the conspiracy against the president is defined, I suppose I am part of it. Having been accused of serving the Prince of Darkness, I feel justified in making a frank response.

Gerson goes on to call Graham’s event “blasphemy” and “an abomination” and suggests that Graham has sold out Christ in favor of Trump.

For a minister of the gospel, making Christ secondary to anything is the dereliction of a sacred duty. Making the gospel secondary to the political fortunes of Donald Trump is betrayal compounded with farce.

Sean Hannity thinks it’s “despicable” that Nancy Pelosi wants to see a political opponent (Trump) in locked up. “That happens in Banana Republics,” he says.

I’m not sure what I find so morbidly fascinating about incels, the “involuntarily celibate” men who believe their looks unfairly doom them to lives without the hot chicks they otherwise deserve.

New York Magazine’s Alice Hines uncovers the world of incel plastic surgery, where strong jaw-lines and broad shoulders are created in order to turn incels into “Chads” — the incel name for the small percentage of men who get all the sex.

and let’s close with something award-winning

Saturday I was at a birthday party in Vermont when people started telling me about this neighbor they knew, Anais Mitchell, who kind of came from nowhere (other than down the road) and created a musical and would be up for a Tony award Sunday night.

I hardly ever make it into New York, so I don’t keep track of what’s on Broadway, and had never heard of Mitchell’s musical Hadestown, which was the big winner with 8 awards, including one for Mitchell’s score.

Here’s the audio of “Why We Build the Wall” from Hadestown, which was written before Trump became president.

Like a wall, the logic of the song builds verse by verse until it eventually encloses itself:
What do we have that they should want?
My children, my children
What do we have that they should want?
What do we have that they should want?
We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none.
And our work is never done
My children, my children,
And the war is never won.
The enemy is poverty,
And the wall keeps out the enemy,
And we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall:
We build the wall to keep us free

We need hope, not optimism

As regular readers probably know, when I’m not writing this blog I’m writing for a religious magazine and giving talks at churches. When you have that much religious exposure, sooner or later you end up thinking about hope, because hope is religion’s central product.

Humanistic religions offer hope for human progress, while salvation-oriented religions offer hope for a better world to come, but pretty much every flavor of religion deals in some kind of hope: for miracles, for eternal life, for an escape from suffering, for strength to change, for the eventual triumph of the better angels of our nature, or some other desirable outcome.

Once you start thinking about hope, your reading will fairly quickly bring you to a useful distinction that (for reasons I don’t understand) never catches on with the general public: Hope is not optimism.

The two words often get used interchangeably in conversation, and you do often find them together in real life: Hopeful people tend to be optimistic, and vice versa. But once in a while the difference between them is important. I feel like that’s true now in American politics, so I’m pointing it out in this secular context.

  • Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
  • Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”

So an optimistic person plants a garden because the rains will come and the plants will grow and the harvest will be bountiful. But a hopeful person plants without knowing what will happen, because the possibility of a harvest is worth creating.

Since we seldom actually know what’s going to happen (even when we think we do), optimism is more brittle than hope. After a hot, dry week, favorable assumptions about the future can flip to unfavorable ones, and our optimism can crash: A drought has started, the crops are doomed, we’re all going to starve. The garden might go untended while the formerly optimistic person searches the horizon for signs of rain.

Meanwhile, the hopeful person just keeps gardening. The harvest was uncertain when everything looked fine, and it’s still uncertain now. It’s worthwhile to keep going.

I trust that the application to the current political situation is already clear to you: An enormous amount of political discussion these days is of the optimism-versus-pessimism variety: Will we manage to get rid of Trump, either by impeachment or election? Is democracy already so damaged that it won’t recover in our lifetimes? Assuming we have a next leader, will he or she be able to heal the partisan divisions, or will America keep spiraling towards division or civil war?

And what about climate change? Are we past the point of no return? Will we pass it soon? Is civilization as we have known it already fated for ruin?

Truthfully, I have no idea.

I know most of my readers don’t want to hear that. Every now and then I find myself conversing with someone who has cast me in a Guardian of Optimism role. I think they cast me that way because I keep paying attention to the news and writing this blog every week. Surely all that would be too depressing if I didn’t think everything was going to work out eventually.

So they want me to pass along my optimistic secret: “Tell me it’s going to be OK. Tell me we fix this.”

I can’t. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. To be either an optimist or a pessimist requires a level of hubris I don’t have. For good or ill, reality has a way of doing whatever it damn well pleases, no matter how tightly we think we have it tied down.

So my advice at this point in history is to get comfortable with not knowing and try to stay hopeful. Keep tending the garden and let the rain do whatever it does.

Which means: Try not to waste too much of your time and energy searching poll results for evidence that Trump will or won’t be re-elected. Don’t agonize over who the Democrats will nominate. Don’t watch panels where pundits argue over their predictions. Don’t try to pick the exact year when the climate catastrophe will hit.

Just do something. Campaign, demonstrate, give money, write letters, mobilize your friends. Whatever you can think of.

Will it work? Who knows? We don’t need to know. Someday, maybe, we’ll look back and see that whatever we did either worked or didn’t work. Between now and then, a lot of unforeseeable stuff is going to happen.

So don’t waste a lot of time trying to foresee it. The harvest — as rich or barren as it might eventually be — will get here soon enough. Until then, just keep working. It’s worthwhile to create possibilities.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Remember the trade war with Mexico? Never mind; that’s over now. Until Trump decides it’s on again.

So what else happened this week? The announcement of a Straight Pride Parade for later this summer in Boston stoked a lot of outrage, which was probably the whole point. Mission accomplished, trolling accomplishment unlocked.

Joe Biden gave in to pressure and reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment that prevents federal funds from paying for abortions. Biden in general had a bad week and the polls are getting closer, as they were bound to eventually. Trump went to Europe and came back with only the usual amount of embarrassment for the United States, so I guess I’m relieved. He didn’t expose himself to the Queen or anything, so we should all be happy with his behavior.

The weekly summary will talk about all that stuff and a bunch more, including closing with a song from the newly anointed Tony-winning musical Hadestown. I expect that to be out between noon and 1 EDT. (I’m back home in the Eastern Time Zone. Once again I can look at clocks without mentally adjusting for what the time is “really”.)

But before then, probably before 9 EDT, I’ll put out the featured post, “We need hope, not optimism”. I keep running into people who want me to tell them how this is all going to come out: impeachment, 2020, climate change, and so on. Are we all doomed? Do we fix it? What happens? In other words, they are looking for somebody who can decide the optimist vs. pessimist argument that’s going on in their heads.

The point of the post isn’t just I can’t do that job, but that it’s the wrong discussion to be having. What we need now isn’t optimism, it’s hope. That’s a subtle but important distinction I picked up during my writing and speaking about religion, where hope is a central topic. We seldom talk about the difference in the secular world, but we should: A person worried about optimism studies the polls and listens to panels of pundits speculate about what’s going to happen. A hopeful person goes out and does stuff to try to make the future, not predict it.

Don’t worry about optimism; the future will come soon enough and then we’ll all see. Try to be hopeful.

Avoiding Weakness

Not executing John Bolton will be a sign of great weakness by the Americans.

Vee Terra, reacting to the news (which turned out not to be true)
that Kim Jong Un had executed his envoy to the U.S.

This week’s featured post is: “What makes Donald Trump so smart?

This week everybody was talking about Robert Mueller

Bob Mueller made his first public statement since submitting his report. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait observed the wildly different reactions on different sides of the partisan spectrum. If you either read the report yourself or got your news from the so-called liberal media, Mueller’s statement seemed like a non-event: He just repeated what he wrote in the report.

But those who live in the conservative news bubble were shocked.

What so vexed the right about Mueller’s curt affirmation of his previous conclusions? The answer, as we’ll see, seems to be that they believed their own propaganda about what Mueller had (and had not) found. Presented even briefly with reality, their minds have reeled in shock.

Mueller produced massive evidence that President Trump committed Nixonian-scale obstruction of justice in office. But Department of Justice policy prevented him from charging a sitting president with a crime, and Mueller reportedly believes he can’t openly state that this policy prevented him from accusing Trump of crimes. Mueller views his job as sending his evidence to Congress without prejudice, where the impeachment mechanism serves as a substitute for the jury trial that such crimes would normally call for.

Trump, William Barr, and the Republican Party followed a strategy of systematically lying about this.

Conservatives had heard a he-says/she-says that allowed them to continue believing whatever they wanted: Democrats say Mueller found evidence of crimes, but didn’t feel he could charge them; Trump says Mueller found “no collusion, no obstruction”. So they were stunned to be confronted by the idea that there is a fact of the matter — Mueller wrote a report that actually did say something.

and yet another trade war

Trump believes in tariffs so much that he’s going to keep trying them until they accomplish something. The new target is Mexico:

starting on June 10, 2019, the United States will impose a 5 percent Tariff on all goods imported from Mexico. If the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment, the Tariffs will be removed. If the crisis persists, however, the Tariffs will be raised to 10 percent on July 1, 2019. Similarly, if Mexico still has not taken action to dramatically reduce or eliminate the number of illegal aliens crossing its territory into the United States, Tariffs will be increased to 15 percent on August 1, 2019, to 20 percent on September 1, 2019, and to 25 percent on October 1, 2019. Tariffs will permanently remain at the 25 percent level unless and until Mexico substantially stops the illegal inflow of aliens coming through its territory.

Trump’s move is yet another usurpation of congressional power. Normally, Congress would set tariffs, but the President has the power to set them under a “national security” provision. The Eisenhower-era law was meant to apply to products of strategic military importance, with some assumption of good faith on the part of presidents. (If, say, foreign competition was about to bankrupt our last domestic producer of jet engines, the president could use tariffs to protect it.) But Trump is a bad-faith president, so he can claim that all Mexican trade has national security implications.

The president has told his advisers that he likes tariffs because they can take effect immediately and unilaterally.

In other words, he gets to act more like the dictator he wants to be.

Senator Grassley (R-Iowa and chair of the Senate Finance Committee):

Trade policy and border security are separate issues. This is a misuse of presidential tariff authority and counter to congressional intent. Following through on this threat would seriously jeopardize passage of USMCA, a central campaign pledge of President Trump’s and what could be a big victory for the country.

Mexico’s President Andrés López Obrador doesn’t seem inclined to respond to threats:

President Trump: You can’t solve social problems with taxes or coercive measures.

It is hard for me to imagine how any Mexican government could give in to this kind of bullying. (It’s also hard for me to imagine Trump deciding that Mexico had done enough and his imaginary border crisis — “the United States of America has been invaded” — was over now.) The main thing Trump has accomplished here is to doom ratification of the one big trade agreement he has managed to negotiate so far. And then there’s this:

If the tariffs damaged the Mexican economy, more of its citizens would try to cross the border to find work in the United States, experts said.

The point here is not to solve a problem; it’s to rile up Trump’s base.

Vox notes an interesting detail: Trump’s people say they’re going to “judge success here by the number of people crossing the border. And that number of people needs to start coming down immediately in a significant and substantial way.” But that’s bound to happen anyway, because undocumented border crossings always dip in the summer, when heat raises the danger.

Philip Levy, a senior fellow on the global economy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, explains why this move undermines any kind of trade negotiations going forward, not just with Mexico, but with all nations.

A very straightforward interpretation is that trade deals with the U.S. buy you nothing. You may be asked to jump through hoops and do things that are painful, but in the end you have no guarantees that the president won’t stick on tariffs when something irritates him.

and another state trying to end abortion

This week’s threat to abortion rights was Missouri, where the attack came not from a new law, but from state regulators, who had refused to renew the license of the state’s last remaining abortion clinic. The license would have expired Friday, but a judge’s order will keep the clinic open until tomorrow, when he will consider an injunction that could keep the clinic open until a hearing can be held on the merits of the state’s complaints.

If the clinic closes, Missouri will become the first state since Roe v Wade to completely shut down access to a legal abortion.

This is the kind of abortion prohibition I can imagine the Supreme Court getting behind: Yes, Roe is still settled law, but who are we to overrule the judgment of the state health board, even if their complaints are obviously manufactured? Is it the state’s fault — or the Court’s — if no clinic can manage to fulfill the requirements to stay open?

and hiding the USS John McCain

As you’ve probably heard, the White House asked the Navy to keep the USS John McCain out of sight during Trump’s visit to Japan, presumably because the sight of a ship honoring his political enemy might anger the President.

I was inclined to ignore this story, but it’s turning into a case where the response is the real scandal. Rather than get bogged down in the administration’s excuses and lies, I think the right way to think about this is to ask: What would an honorable White House have done after this report surfaced?

I think that’s clear. First, the President would have found out what the facts were, rather than immediately tweet that it’s all fake news.

Second, somebody would take responsibility and apologize to the people who have been dishonored. Ideally, the President himself should have been on the phone to John McCain’s widow, and a video statement should have been sent to the crew of the McCain, assuring them that the Commander in Chief is not ashamed of them or their ship, but in fact respects their service.

Of course, none of that will happen, because no one in this administration — from the President on down to the hypothetical (and possibly fictional) 23-year-old staffer that Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney suggests may have made the request — has enough character to do the right thing. Instead we’ll just hear that no one is to blame and it’s no big deal.

and you also might be interested in …

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was reported to have executed the diplomat he blames for the failure of his February summit with President Trump. One Twitter wag opined: “Not executing John Bolton will be a sign of great weakness by the Americans.”

Update: As one of the commenters notes, the reportedly executed diplomat later turned up alive. So I guess John Bolton is safe.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell verified that his rhetoric during the Merrick Garland nomination was all bullshit. If a Supreme Court seat comes open in 2020, the Senate will see it filled. A lot of people expressed shock and outrage at this hypocrisy, but I’m not sure why. McConnell only has one principle: to maximize his party’s power. Surely we all knew that by now.

Another thing we all knew: The point of the Trump tax cut was to shift more money into the hands of the rich. A study by the Congressional Research Service shows that this is the main (and perhaps only) effect it had, and yet the people who supported it seem not to care.

From the beginning, it appeared that the administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to next year’s census was an attempt to undercount Hispanics and shift congressional seats from immigrant-heavy blue states to whiter red states.

Now there’s a smoking gun: The idea goes back to gerrymandering advocate Thomas Hofeller, who

wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats. And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

The new evidence comes from a hard drive found by Hofeller’s daughter after he died.

But will the obvious fraud being perpetrated matter to the Supreme Court, which will rule on the legality of the census question later this month? As they did in the Muslim Ban case, the Court’s conservative majority may decide that it’s not their role to examine the motives of the Executive Branch (until a Democrat is elected).

It’s going to be a busy month at the Supreme Court. CNN lists the major cases: census, partisan gerrymandering, racial gerrymandering, allowing religious displays on public land, and several others.

Trump has arrived in the UK, where he’ll meet the Queen prior to attending a D-Day anniversary celebration. Not everybody in the UK is happy about his visit. Massive protests are expected.

and let’s close with some things I learned during my recent travels

The federal government’s interpretative centers are gems. I’ve been to two recently: the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center in Great Falls and the National Historic Trails Interpretative Center in Casper. Some are under the National Park Service and others under the Bureau of Land Management. In the future, I will look for them wherever I travel.

Also, I had grossly underestimated the Dakotas, which I had always pictured as Kansas with more snow. But the Black Hills region in South Dakota is well worth your time, especially the unfortunately named Custer State Park. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is not as well known as Yellowstone or Yosemite, but is also well worth seeing. (A hike I had planned got derailed when a bison sat down on the trail.)

What makes Donald Trump so smart?

Trump wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that he’s very intelligent.
But what kind of intelligence is he talking about?

When Donald Trump first described himself as an “very stable genius” — and was roundly ridiculed for doing so — I figured it was just one of those unfortunate phrases that sometimes slip out in the back-and-forth of social media. (I hate to think what a close inspection of my Facebook activity log would turn up.) But when he chose to repeat it just a week or so ago, it became clear that he really means it. Apparently “extremely stable genius” is part of the self-description that bounces around inside his head.

He also puts a lot of stock in the intelligence of others, or at least in its lack: Many of his insults directed at others target their intellect. Recently he tweeted that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had called Joe Biden a “low-IQ individual”, a comment that made him smile. (Kim’s assessment of Trump himself as a “dotard” is apparently long forgiven.) Politico notes:

In recent years, Trump has accused Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), actor Robert De Niro, Washington Post staffers, former President George W. Bush, comedian Jon Stewart, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, and Rick Perry, now his energy secretary, of having low IQs.

Back in 2013 he tweeted:

Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.

Apparently, though, not everyone does know it. (According to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump claiming that everyone agrees with him is a tell that he’s lying.) Rex Tillerson called him a “fucking moron” and Jim Mattis said he had the understanding of “a fifth or sixth-grader”. Numerous other high-ranking Trump appointees (John Kelly, Steve Mnuchin, Reince Preibus, H. R. McMaster) have referred to him as an “idiot”, with former economic advisor Gary Cohn adding that he is “dumb as shit”.

You might imagine that insults like this naturally fly back and forth in a high-pressure environment like the White House. But I haven’t come up with a comparable example from the previous administration, where someone who worked closely with President Obama claimed he had below-average intelligence. Maybe I’ve just forgotten.

How to prove you’re smart. Trump could of course settle all this by releasing an IQ test, the way that he has often demanded that others (Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren come to mind) release personal information to prove their claims. He could also support his “stable genius” claim by releasing stellar grades, or pointing to some singular academic honor (like Bill Clinton and Pete Buttigieg can point to their Rhodes scholarships, or Barack Obama his presidency of the Harvard Law Review).

Or he could demonstrate his intelligence to us directly, by speaking to the American people about difficult subjects and impressing us with the clarity of his thought. Barack Obama used to do that. I’ve often come away from an Obama speech feeling like I had learned something, and understood some topic in a way I never had before.

He could show an ability to think on his feet. He could submit to unscripted questions from voters or journalists. And rather than go off into a word salad of free association, he could answer those questions with facts (that are actually true) and insights the questioners hadn’t anticipated. I have attended a bunch of New Hampshire townhall meetings in the last few presidential cycles and watched politicians do this, some more skillfully than others. John McCain was brilliant at fielding whatever question anyone wanted to throw at him, even after he had been on his feet for hours. So was Chris Christie. I didn’t have to agree with their conclusions to appreciate their intelligence.

Obama could even face an audience of enemies and answer whatever questions they raised. He once went to  retreat of the House Republican caucus and owned the room. They couldn’t touch him. The best evidence that they knew they were beaten is that they never invited him back.

A different kind of smart. But maybe I look for that kind of evidence because I don’t define smart the same way Trump does. Maybe my notion of intelligence is self-serving: I was good at tests and classes, so that’s what I look for. I’m good with words and explaining things, so that’s how I want intelligence to be judged.

But maybe when Trump looks in the mirror, he sees a different kind of smart.

The best evidence that he does comes from a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. Clinton suggested that Trump doesn’t release his tax returns because

maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

Trump didn’t dispute Clinton’s claims, but spun them in a positive direction: “That makes me smart.”

To me, that suggests a whole different vision of human intelligence and its uses. Maybe life is a game where we’re all trying to gain advantages over each other. And anybody can claim an advantage they deserve. Millions of Americans, for example, avoid paying taxes by being poor; that’s not very smart. But claiming an advantage you don’t deserve, like not paying taxes when you’re rich — you have to be pretty smart to do that.

As soon as I understood that simple notion, I began to appreciate Trump’s genius. Once you know what kind of intelligence you’re looking for, you can see it all through his life.

Avoiding military service is smart. Risking your life is not smart at all, especially if there are other people who can serve in your place.

Trump avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by getting a medical deferment based on having bone spurs on his feet. But are those bone spurs real? The daughters of the (now dead) podiatrist who signed off on the bone-spur claim believe their father made the diagnosis as a favor to Trump’s father. “Elysa Braunstein said the implication from her father was that Mr. Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment.”

Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg and Seth Moulton are simpletons by comparison. They could have avoided risking their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq without faking anything; all they had to do was not volunteer. But like many people less smart than Trump, they try to make the issue about him rather than them. Buttigieg said:

If you’re a conscientious objector, I’d admire that. But this is somebody who, I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was the child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.

And Moulton put it like this:

I don’t think that lying to get out of serving your country is patriotic. It’s not like there was just some empty seat in Vietnam. Someone had to go in his place. I’d like to meet the American hero who went in Donald Trump’s place to Vietnam. I hope he’s still alive.

As with so many controversies, Trump could easily clear this up: He could release x-rays of his feet.

Stiffing your contractors is smart. In 2016, USA Today documented hundreds of examples of Trump refusing to pay for work he had hired individuals or contracted small businesses to do. (YouTube lets you watch several of his contractors tell how they were short-changed.)

Michael Cohen’s testimony backed up USA Today’s reporting:

Some of the things that I did was reach out to individuals, whether it’s law firms or small businesses, and renegotiate contracts after the job was already done, or basically tell them that we just weren’t paying at all, or make them offers of, say, 20 cents on the dollar.

Vox summarizes the tactic:

The basic Trump method, established as far back as his Atlantic City casino days, goes like this:

  • First, Trump contracts with someone to do some work for him.
  • Second, the work gets done.
  • Third, Trump does not pay for the work.
  • Fourth, the people Trump owes money threaten to sue him.
  • Fifth, Trump offers to pay a small fraction of the sum they originally agreed on.

The person Trump owes money to is now faced with an unattractive choice. He can accept 20 or 30 percent of what he is owed right now. Alternatively, he can hire a lawyer and fight out a lawsuit that might take months or years. Since Trump is rich and has lawyers on his staff, it’s nothing to [him] to fight an extended legal battle. And since Trump is the one not paying the bill, delay is inherently in his favor.

If you’ve ever had work done for you, you probably paid the money you agreed to. That’s because you’re not as smart as Donald Trump.

Choosing the right parents is smart. The reason Donald became rich isn’t that he’s a great businessman, it’s that his father Fred was a great businessman — and a brilliant tax evader. (That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.)

Last October, the New York Times published its research on how much Donald got from Fred: at least $413 million, “much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s”.

The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.

Dealing with Russian oligarchs is smart. According to Foreign Policy,

By the early 1990s [Trump] had burned through his portion of his father Fred’s fortune with a series of reckless business decisions. Two of his businesses had declared bankruptcy, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in New York, and the money pit that was the Trump Shuttle went out of business in 1992. Trump companies would ultimately declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy two more times. When would-be borrowers repeatedly file for protection from their creditors, they become poison to most major lenders and, according to financial experts interviewed for this story, such was Trump’s reputation in the U.S. financial industry at that juncture.

The money for the Trump Organization’s comeback came mostly from overseas, and particularly from Russia, where the fall of the Soviet Union had created new billionaires who didn’t trust the Russian legal system and so wanted to get their money out of the country. The Center for American Progress investigated the many business ties between the Trump Organization and Russian oligarchs.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was vital to get the money out of Russia without a trace, stashing it away from the prying eyes of tax agencies or law enforcement. Clandestine transfer was particularly critical if that money represented proceeds of a crime. Foreign real estate soon emerged as a preferred safe harbor.78 And because the Trump Organization reportedly had a reputation for not asking too many questions, Russian money flowed into Trump’s properties. … In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. famously boasted of the Russian money “pouring in” and then observed that, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”84

CAP’s Moscow Project goes into more detail:

Some of the individual deals have attracted attention, most notably the Russian fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev’s 2008 purchase of one of Trump’s mansions in Palm Beach. He paid a reported $95 million for it—$53 million more than Trump paid for it four years earlier. The transaction has received scrutiny from investigators, particularly because, though Trump justified the price increase by claiming he had “gutted the house” and spent $25 million on renovations, there were few apparent alterations. Such rapid and unexplained increases in price are frequently cited as red flags for money laundering through real estate.

It’s worth noting that the overall Florida real estate market had crashed between 2004 and 2008. Not many Florida property owners were smart enough to double their money during that period.

Trading in your wives is smart. Trump’s brilliance is not restricted to the business world. That whole “forsaking all others” and “till death do you part” thing is just another example of a contract that smart people can wriggle out of. Only suckers grow old with their first spouses, watching their bodies sag and wrinkle with age.

Ivana may have been a 28-year-old model when Trump married her in 1977, but by 1992 she was over 40 and had given birth to three Trump children. Her body was a depreciated asset by that point, so Trump moved on to Marla Maples, who he had met in 1989 when she was 25, and began a relationship with well before his divorce from Ivana. Trump and Maples then divorced in 1999, possibly because he had started dating 28-year-old Melania in 1998.

This short account leaves out his various affairs unrelated to marriage, like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, as well as the women he has bragged about “grabbing by the pussy“.

At 72, is he done trading for newer models? Melania will turn 50 in 2020, a milestone no previous Trump wife has ever reached.

Employing undocumented immigrants is smart. American workers and green-card holders may have a lot of virtues, but they’re expensive and have a tendency to insist on their rights, all of which is very inconvenient for a business trying to make a profit.

Naturally, then, Trump’s clubs and golf courses have a long history of employing undocumented immigrants. It’s a win-win thing.

Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, N.J., where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home.

Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down.

It’s a common story in this small town [in Costa Rica].

Other former employees of President Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property — the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it — where his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery.

“Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.”

Cheating people who trust you is smart. The image Trump has consistently presented, particularly in The Art of the Deal, is of a brilliant businessman who received relatively little help from his father or Russian oligarchs, but made billions through his own remarkable abilities.

Who wouldn’t want to learn the secret tactics and techniques of such a successful money-maker? That was the premise of Trump University, a series of workshops and courses available to anybody who believed in the story Trump told about himself. The ads said:

He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.

It was a con, one aimed not at bankers or other real-estate moguls or the government, but at “Americans like you”.

Jason Nicholas, a sales executive at Trump University, recalled a deceptive pitch used to lure students — that Mr. Trump would be “actively involved” in their education. “This was not true,” Mr. Nicholas testified, saying Mr. Trump was hardly involved at all. Trump University, Mr. Nicholas concluded, was “a facade, a total lie.”

Retirees and other folks who couldn’t afford to lose the money were encouraged to max out their credit cards to pay Trump U’s fees. After all, one of Trump’s get-rich secrets was to use other people’s money.

If he hadn’t been elected president, Trump might have stalled the lawsuits from his marks students long enough to get them to settle for far less than the $5 million profit he’s estimated to have made off them. But after the election he decided he needed to make this potential scandal go away, so he settled for $25 million.

Sometimes it’s smart to let the smaller con go so you can pursue the bigger con.

Profiting from public office is smart. Previous presidents have either put their investments in a blind trust or moved them into non-conflicting vehicles like treasury bonds. No law forced them to do this, it was just a political norm that they assumed voters cared about.

It took someone as ingenious as Trump to realize that voters actually don’t care, or that they’ll get used to conflicts of interest that occur on a massive scale.

This effect is similar to the Big Lie technique developed in Germany before World War II: Ordinary people tell little lies, so they’re well practiced at spotting them. But a big lie requires the kind of audacity that ordinary people lack. Since they can’t conceive of telling such a lie, they assume there must be some truth behind it. As one German leader put it: “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Same thing here: Ordinary people understand small-scale cheating, so they’ll get upset if a politician hires an illegal immigrant as a nanny, for example. But if a president spends over $100 million of public funds on golfing at his own properties — more or less just transferring money from the Treasury into his own pocket — it goes right past them. They’ll care if contributions to a Clinton charity might get you an appointment with the Secretary of State, but if $200,000 paid directly to the President gets you membership in a club he visits almost every weekend, and might result in an ambassadorship, or even put you in a position to run a major government agency, it is so bold that people assume it must be OK.

Ditto for the people who contribute to Trump’s campaign: A big chunk of their contribution goes straight into his pocket, because the campaign is run through Trump properties. Since he became the 2016 nominee, Republican Party events have also largely been moved to Trump properties, generating a considerable profit. It’s right out there in the open, so it can’t be corrupt, can it?

He also profits from foreign governments and US companies who want to get in good with him: They are major patrons of the Trump International Hotel and Trump World Tower. The favors they want come from Trump the President, but the payments go to Trump the businessman.

A related issue is corruption throughout the administration. If one cabinet secretary is corrupt, he or she will stand out and be a scandal. But if nearly all of them are, the story is too big for the public to comprehend.

Changing your beliefs is smart. When Trump was breaking into New York society as the son of a new-money upstart, it was a good idea to profess New York ideas. In 1999, for example, he told Meet the Press:

Well, I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debate the subject. But, you still, I just believe in choice.

In the past, he also has supported gay rights and even trans rights. Over time, though, all that has vanished as he has harmonized his views with the Evangelical Christians who form a large part of his base.

Picture it: If you had been a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, Bible-ignorant, twice-divorced libertine so comfortable in your debauched image that you can joke in public about incest with your daughter, would it have occurred to you that you could become the darling of the religious right? Could you have pulled that transition off?

That takes a kind of genius most of us can’t even imagine.

What about you? If you are a Trump supporter and look too closely at Trump’s ex-wives, Trump U students, or the pro-choice and LGBTQ people who trusted him, you might have a disturbing thought: At some point in the future, he might be able to gain some advantage from double-crossing you too.

Would he do that? Well, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do?

The Monday Morning Teaser

Surprise! There’s a new trade war! This one is with Mexico, and Trump says it will last until the Mexicans solve his border problem.

We also had another mass shooting, but no one is even pretending this will lead to any action on guns.

Robert Mueller made his first public statement since … I’m not sure. Probably since he solved Cain-and-Abel case. Liberals reacted with disappointment, because all he did was repeat what he said in his report. Conservatives were outraged, because how could he say these terrible things they’d never heard before? Wasn’t he directly contradicting what AG Barr has been saying about Mueller’s investigation and everything Fox News has reported about it? How can he do that? Anyway, saying out loud the stuff that he wrote appears to have moved the public discussion towards impeachment.

Missouri’s last abortion clinic can stay open until at least tomorrow, so no worries there. Evidence emerged that the proposed citizenship question for the census is indeed part of a Republican scheme related to gerrymandering. (But will the Supreme Court care?) Jared Kushner’s Middle East Peace Plan is almost ready to announce. It’s the result of intense discussions with the Israeli government and more-or-less complete ignorance of anything the Palestinians want, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem.

All that will get covered in the weekly summary, which I’m hoping to put out by noon EDT. (I’ve made it back to the Central Time Zone this week, which is so close to Eastern it’s hardly worth mentioning.)

But the featured post doesn’t elaborate on any of that. Instead, I’m going back to Trump’s repetition of his self-description as a “stable genius” and trying to imagine how he justifies that in his own mind. True, he’s not a Rhodes scholar like Bill Clinton or a Harvard professor like Elizabeth Warren. He doesn’t speak a bunch of languages like Pete Buttigieg, and he doesn’t possess either the verbal skills of Barack Obama or the engineering chops of Jimmy Carter. But maybe those are just pointy-headed-liberal-elite notions of the signs of genius. Maybe when Trump looks in the mirror he sees a different kind of intelligence entirely.

I took a clue from a comment Trump made in one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. When she suggested he didn’t release his tax returns because they would show he had managed to avoid paying taxes, he said, “That makes me smart.” Once I realized that tax evasion is smart, I looked at Trump’s life and found all kinds of similar evidence of intelligence, which I pulled together into a piece called “What makes Donald Trump so smart?” That should be out before 9 EDT.

Fastest to Ruin

The rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.

– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

This week’s featured post is “Two Paths to Impeachment“.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

In the featured post I discuss the Democrats’ internal debate on whether to start impeachment proceedings. On the Republican side, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash became the first Republican in Congress to call for Trump’s impeachment.

This move led a number of other Republicans to attack Amash, often dishonestly, as The Atlantic fact-checks. Until this moment, Amash has been a member in good standing of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is demonstrating that all its previous rhetoric about the Constitution has been opportunistic blather.

Mitt Romney also claims to have read the Mueller Report and come to a different conclusion than Amash, that Trump did not obstruct justice. finds Romney’s statement to be “astonishing nonsense”, and outlines the analysis technique used in the report. She challenges trained lawyers like Romney to show their work.

People like Sen. Romney who come to a different conclusion should show the public their analysis, and explain which of the three elements [of the definition of obstruction] haven’t been met and why. It would also be helpful if they explained which particular parts of Mueller’s analysis clear Trump and why.

Otherwise, we really have no choice but to conclude that they are telling a politically expedient lie.

and the President’s temper tantrum

Wednesday, Trump walked out of a meeting with House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The White House meeting was supposed to flesh out details of the $2 trillion infrastructure program the three had tentatively agreed to in a previous meeting, but Trump wasn’t having it.

According to a Democratic aide, Trump walked in, didn’t shake anyone’s hand or sit in his seat. He said he wants to do infrastructure, trade agreement, farm bill and other things, but that Pelosi “said something terrible today” when she accused him of a cover-up.

He then went to the Rose Garden, where a podium had already been decked with a “No Collusion, No Obstruction” sign detailing the expenses (but not the results) of the Mueller investigation, and said:

I walked into the room, and I told Senator Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, I want to do infrastructure, I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at it, that’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with.

In other words, he’s back to holding the government hostage: Do what I want, or the roads and bridges get it. Numerous pundits, like NPR’s Ron Elving, noted how unusual this was. During impeachment hearings, Presidents Nixon and Clinton both emphasized that they would not be distracted from doing the people’s business.

His move was widely described as a “temper tantrum”, an accusation that Trump responded to in a typically Trumpian way: He once again described himself as a “stable genius“, and called on his staff to verify one-by-one how calm and rational he had been in the three-minute meeting he walked out of.

It was one of those creepy scenes that Trump stages periodically, like the cabinet meeting where all the department secretaries were obliged to praise Trump and tell everyone what a privilege it was to serve him, or the meeting with black religious leaders where each minister was given an opportunity to thank Trump for all he’s done. Far from persuasive testimony, it was a demonstration of the soul-eating power Trump wields over his staff. (If Obama had ever tried to pull such a stunt, his people would have laughed at him. And once they started laughing, Obama would have laughed at himself.)

It’s important to keep pointing out how strange all this is. People who are actually intelligent, actually sane, and actually innocent don’t act anything like the way Trump does.

It seems like the only sane reaction was to go over the top.

Comedian Stephen Colbert quipped: “All told [the meeting] was over in three minutes. According to Stormy Daniels, that’s two bonus minutes.” Paul Krugman invoked a famous scene from The Caine Mutiny: “it was very clever of Nancy Pelosi to steal Donald Trump’s strawberries, pushing him over the edge into self-evident lunacy.”

Even Trump’s podium sign became a meme.

Next the nation was treated to a smearing of Nancy Pelosi. A video was altered to make her appear impaired, and Trump retweeted it. As usual, he was not embarrassed to be caught doing something dishonest, but claimed only that he didn’t know the video was altered — as if a President of the United States bears no responsibility to verify the truth of what he says before he says it.

and Theresa May’s resignation

Having repeatedly failed to do the one thing she became prime minister to do — pass a plan that would fulfilll the Brexit referendum by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union — Theresa May resigned Friday morning. She will leave office on June 7, immediately after the ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Together with a small party representing Northern Ireland’s Protestants, the Conservative Party retains its majority in Parliament, so presumably May’s successor will be another Tory. (The Tories used to have a majority by themselves, but lost it in a 2017 election May had called.) But who that will be or what Brexit plan the new PM will propose remains up in the air. Boris Johnson, a Brexit hardliner, is considered the frontrunner.

I have frequently compared the Tories’ Brexit conundrum to US Republicans’ problems trying to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare, which they failed to do in the last Congress, despite controlling both houses and the presidency. In each case, the popularity of the slogan (“leave” or “repeal and replace”) hides the fact that no majority supports any particular plan.

Another analogy: It’s like being part of a family that unanimously wants to take a big vacation this year, but some of you want to ski in the Alps, some want a beach vacation in Bermuda, and the rest are holding out for an Alaska cruise. You all agree until it’s time to make a real plan.

The biggest problem of any Brexit plan is what to do with the Irish border. Like Trumpists in America, hardline Brexiters want the UK to control its own borders and keep out “undesirable” immigrants from poorer EU countries, as well as non-European refugees that other EU countries have let in. That would mean enforcing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, where passports are checked and cargo rigorously examined.

Unfortunately, that would undo the Good Friday Agreement that ended “the Troubles“, an irregular civil war between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics that frequently spilled into the rest of the UK until peace was worked out in 1998. Catholics are a minority in Northern Ireland, but a majority in the Irish island as a whole; many would like to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s Protestants, meanwhile, hate the idea of becoming a minority in a united Ireland. Prior to 1998, a fairly large number of Northern Irish on both sides were willing to kill or die over this issue.

The current soft border allows Northern Ireland’s Catholics (and their relatives in the Republic of Ireland) to come and go as they please. They may not be part of a united Ireland, but they all belong to the EU. Largely for this reason, Northern Ireland had a substantial (56%-44%) Remain majority in the Brexit vote. For Northern Ireland’s Protestant party (the Democratic Unionist Party) to cast the decisive votes in a hard-border Brexit plan might push things over the edge.

Scotland had an even larger Remain majority than Northern Ireland: (62%-38%). Scottish independence has been a simmering issue since the Acts of Union turned England and Scotland into Great Britain in 1707. Scotland voted 55%-45% to stay with the UK in a 2014 referendum, but that was before Scots understood that staying in the UK meant leaving the EU. A messy exit plan from the EU will raise that issue again, as the cartoon below illustrates.

It would indeed be ironic if Brexit ultimately takes the Great out of Great Britain.

and Julian Assange’s indictment

The WikiLeaks guy has been indicted for violating the Espionage Act, from when he made public a trove of documents leaked by Chelsea Manning. In many ways this is a tough case to wrap my mind around, because the old ways of thinking about such things were based on categories that don’t necessarily make sense any more, like whether or not Assange is a journalist.

The NYT’s Charlie Savage (who knows a few things about investigative journalism) quotes a source who sees a dangerous precedent:

For the purposes of press freedoms, what matters is not who counts as a journalist, but whether journalistic activities — whether performed by a “journalist” or anyone else — can be crimes in America. The Trump administration’s move could establish a precedent used to criminalize future acts of national-security journalism, said Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“The charges rely almost entirely on conduct that investigative journalists engage in every day,” he said. “The indictment should be understood as a frontal attack on press freedom.”

Savage talked to “a Justice Department official who stayed behind to answer questions on the condition that he would not be named” who nonetheless wouldn’t answer the question of

how most of the basic actions the indictment deemed felonies by Mr. Assange differed in a legally meaningful way from ordinary national-security investigative journalism — encouraging sources to provide secret information of news value, obtaining it without the government’s permission and then publishing portions of it.

Here’s what makes this case difficult for me: When the First Amendment was written, “freedom of the press” was very literal. If you owned or otherwise got access to a press, you could print what you wanted, without seeking anyone’s prior approval. (Slander and libel rules applied after the fact, of course, and you might also be challenged to a duel if you defamed someone unfairly.) But in the 19th and 20th centuries, journalism became institutionalized and “journalist” became a profession with professional standards. In effect, journalists were a protected class under the First Amendment as it came to be construed.

With the advent of the internet, though, anyone can claim to be a journalist, so the rights of journalists and the rights of ordinary people have to come into some kind of convergence. An ordinary person who received hacked Top Secret documents and posted them to Facebook would probably be considered a spy. Charlie Savage — obtaining the same documents, applying principles of responsible journalism, and publishing only those parts where he judges that the public interest outweighs the harm — probably shouldn’t be. But the line is not so easy to draw now.

So for me the Assange case is more complicated than just picking a side. The question is how to reconstruct First Amendment protections for the current era.

and Bill Barr’s new powers

For years now, Trump has trying to delegitimize the Mueller investigation by concocting a conspiracy theory about how it started. Before Republicans lost their House majority in 2018, his main accomplice was House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes. Who can forget the Nunes Memo, which was supposed to be an Earth-shaking expose’, until it was finally declassified and proved to amount to nothing?

Jeff Sessions never wanted to get involved in this attempt to slander the Justice Department he led, not to mention the US intelligence community. But Bill Barr is the unscrupulous attorney general Trump always wanted. Two weeks ago Barr named Connecticut US Attorney John Durham to lead the investigation into those who dared to investigate the Great Leader.

Thursday, Trump gave Barr the authority to review and possibly declassify any documents related to the origin of Russia investigation. This has produced two widespread fears, which I share:

  • Given the deceptive way he has spun the Mueller Report in Trump’s favor, Barr may do the same thing with the classified record: He might cherry-pick documents to find ones that can be spun to support Trump’s conspiracy theory, while leaving classified any documents that provide refuting context.
  • Along the way, valuable intelligence sources (for example, sources close to Putin) might be compromised. Not only will this allow Putin to clean house — yet another dividend from his support of Trump — but it will discourage future sources in all countries from trusting US intelligence services.

Trump has already announced the conclusion he wants this investigation to reach: FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, FBI Director James Comey and Assistant Director Andrew McCabe, as well as “people probably higher than that”, have committed treason. People higher than the FBI director might be Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch, or maybe President Obama himself.

The charge, by the way, is ridiculous from the outset. Treason is defined in Article III, section 3 of the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

It’s outrageous to think that investigating the President, or a candidate for president, equates to “levying war against the United States”. To date the only evidence for the conspiracy theory are the tweets Strzok and Page sent each other, in which it is clear they didn’t want Trump to become president (perhaps because they feared he had been compromised by Russia).

Well, more than 65 million Americans didn’t want Trump to become president. Are we all traitors? Will Bill Barr be unleashed on us also?

One possibility we can’t lose sight of is that Barr’s investigation is supposed to be ridiculous. The point probably isn’t to prove anything, but to delegitimize the whole idea of finding truth through investigations. This is the reverse-cargo-cult propaganda technique pioneered by the Soviets and carried forward by Putin.

but we should talk more about legislation the House is passing

One of the charges against House Democrats pushing impeachment is that they’re investigating instead of legislating. But the problem isn’t a lack of legislation, it’s that the news media isn’t covering the bills the House passes. The real graveyard of legislation is Mitch McConnell’s Senate, which has devolved into a judge-confirming machine that shows no real interest in governing.

Vox produced a list of the 49 bills the House has passed since the Democrats took over.

House Democrats have passed a wide range of bills since they came to power in January, ranging from a sweeping anti-corruption and pro-democracy reform known as HR 1, to bills to save net neutrality, establish background checks for guns, and put the United States back in the Paris Climate Accord.

They have also put a large emphasis on health care, a defining issue of the 2018 election after Trump and Senate Republicans attempted to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Democrats have focused on bills to lower prescription drug costs, protect preexisting conditions, and condemning the Trump administration’s legal battle to strike down the ACA in the courts.

Much of this agenda is sitting in the Senate.

and you also might be interested in …

Another step towards autocracy happened Friday:

The Trump administration has declared an emergency to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to various countries — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — citing the need to deter what it called “the malign influence” of Iran throughout the Middle East.

Presidents typically declare states of emergency in order to act quickly in situations that are moving too fast for legislation. Such actions go back at least as far as the Civil War, when President Lincoln defended the capital while Congress was in recess, and asked Congress for its after-the-fact approval later.

But Trump uses emergencies differently. He is not just getting ahead of a slow-moving Congress; he’s doing things that Congress has already disapproved. In the case of his border-wall emergency, he re-directed money to wall construction after Congress had already had the time to debate and turn down such an appropriation. This arms-sale “emergency” seems similar.

“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in a statement. “There is no new ’emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there. This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress.”

Congress has already passed a ban on support for the Saudi war in Yemen, with bipartisan support. Trump vetoed that bill, and the Senate failed to override.

Speaking of the border wall, a federal judge temporarily blocked the administration from constructing the wall using the money Trump “reprogrammed” from the Pentagon budget via an emergency declaration. The judge wrote:

According to Defendants [i.e., the Trump administration]: “If Congress had wanted to deny DOD this specific use of that [reprogramming] authority, that’s something it needed to actually do in an explicit way in the appropriations process. And it didn’t.” But it is not Congress’s burden to prohibit the Executive from spending the Nation’s funds: it is the Executive’s burden to show that its desired use of those funds was “affirmatively approved by Congress.”

… Congress’s “absolute” control over federal expenditures—even when that control may frustrate the desires of the Executive Branch regarding initiatives it views as important—is not a bug in our constitutional system. It is a feature of that system, and an essential one. … In short, the position that when Congress declines the Executive’s request to appropriate funds, the Executive nonetheless may simply find a way to spend those funds “without Congress” does not square with fundamental separation of powers principles dating back to the earliest days of our Republic.

The Washington Post summarizes another point:

The law the administration invoked to shift funds allows transfers for “unforeseen” events. [Judge] Gilliam said the government’s claim that wall construction was “unforeseen” “cannot logically be squared” with Trump’s many demands for funding dating back to early 2018 and even in the campaign.

The injunction applies to $1 billion that has been reprogrammed so far. This is only part of the DoD money Trump has announced he is transferring, but is the only money to be specifically identified.

A March study by the Federal Reserve (summarized by MarketWatch) finds that wealth is continuing to concentrate at the top. The top 1% of Americans now control 32% of the nation’s wealth, up from 23% in 1989.

Deutsche Bank economist Torsten Sløk largely blames the Fed itself.

“The response to the financial crisis was for the Fed to lower interest rates which in turn pushed home prices and stock prices steadily higher over the past decade,” Slok said. “And another consequence of the financial crisis was a decline in homeownership and stock ownership among households,” he said.

A number of people in my social-media universe flagged the USA Today opinion piece “Rural Americans would be Serfs if we abolished the Electoral College“, but none of them really put their finger on what’s wrong with it.

The obvious problem, of course, is that the essay is essentially a guy explaining why his vote should count for more than other people’s. But the problem goes deeper than that if we decode his arguments:

This is why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Instead of winning over small-town Americans, she amassed a popular vote lead based on California and a few big cities. She won those places with huge margins but lost just about everywhere else. And the system worked. The Electoral College requires more than just the most raw votes to win — it requires geographic balance. This helps to protect rural and small-town Americans.

“California” is code for Hispanic/Asian voters and “a few big cities” is code for black voters. “The system worked” because “rural and small-town Americans” (i.e. white voters) got their candidate elected, even though he lost by 2.8 million votes. It’s impossible to imagine the author taking a similarly sanguine view if the candidate supported by white voters had lost in spite of getting more votes. (“Geographical balance” apparently is still satisfied if you can’t carry cities.)

The headline itself reprises a historic bit of rhetoric. Throughout American history, it has been non-whites who have been the “serfs”. But there’s a long history of whites expropriating the moral capital of their victims, and warning about their impending “slavery”. When John Calhoun gave the famous speech “Slavery a Positive Good” in 1837, he clearly meant to defend only African slavery. He begins by denouncing compromise with the abolitionists of the North in these terms.

I do not belong to the school which holds that aggression is to be met by concession. Mine is the opposite creed, which teaches that encroachments must be met at the beginning, and that those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves.

So in the first paragraph of the very speech where he extols the virtues of African slavery, he warns that white Southerners will become slaves if they fail to defend this principle.

Ditto here: Rural American whites are not and have never been serfs, slaves, or anything similar. Abolishing the Electoral College would eliminate their disproportionate influence and reduce their votes to the same value as everyone else’s. Horrors!

This is yet another example of the phenomenon I noted in “The Distress of the Privileged“: When you are accustomed to privilege, being treated like everyone else feels like oppression.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is postponing the Obama administration’s plan to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. But artist Dano Wall has a work-around: a way to stamp Tubman’s picture over Jackson’s.


and let’s close with a nightcap

Travis Rupp and Patrick McGovern are “beer archeologists“. From the recipes in ancient documents, the residues embedded in ancient vessels, and a variety of other clues, they attempt to reproduce what our ancestors were drinking.

One of the weirder beverages they have each independently reproduced is chicha, which was brewed in Peru before the Inca.

The recipe for the Peruvian corn-based beer, cobbled together from bits of pre-Incan archaeological evidence, called for chewed corn partially fermented in spit.

McGovern’s version was eventually brewed by Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware (one of the classiest brewers around). I’m intrigued, but would I drink it? Maybe instead I’ll order a Midas Touch, a drink from ancient Turkey combining “grape wine, barley beer and honey mead”, which might also have had grated cheese sprinkled on top.