Drips of Intolerance

The question for this Court, distilled to its essential form, is whether the Constitution remains “a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace.” And if so, whether it protects Plaintiffs’ right to challenge an Executive Order that in text speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.

— Chief Judge Roger Gregory, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, 5-25-2017

This week’s featured post is “On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.

This week everybody was talking about Jared Kushner

Last Monday, it had just come out that the FBI was interested in one of Trump’s senior advisers, and a lot of people who didn’t know anything for sure were speculating that it would be Jared. Whoever it turned out to be, the significance of the report was that the Russia problem didn’t just concern people who used to work for Trump, like Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, but also someone who was still playing a major role in the Trump administration.

Well, it is Jared, and the story is stranger than any speculation I had run into:

Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Monitoring by American intelligence services, that is. This does not seem to be illegal (although omitting the meeting with the Russian ambassador from his security-clearance application is illegal), but it raises all sorts of questions: He was already talking to the Russian ambassador face-to-face; who in the Kremlin did he want to talk to and about what? Why seek to hide those messages from the Americans?

Words like espionage are being thrown around by people who don’t use that term lightly. Some speculate that the inexperienced Kushner simply didn’t understand what he was suggesting. But he went to the meeting with Flynn, who would have understood it. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza sums up:

We still don’t have a crime in this case, but there is an awful lot of coverup.


The NYT puts a different slant on this story:

the idea was to have Mr. Flynn speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues.

Though why that conversation required dodging American intelligence isn’t clear. Another cryptic part of the NYT article says this:

And less than two weeks later, the idea was dropped when Mr. Trump announced that Rex W. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil who had worked closely with Russian officials on energy deals, was his choice to become secretary of state.


My working model of Kushner resembles in part my working model of Trump, and maybe reflects my own class prejudice: I imagine that being born at the top of a real estate empire convinced Jared that he’s a lot smarter than he actually is, and shielded him from the criticism he needed if he was going to form an accurate view of his place in the world.

That model is supported by someone who actually knows Kushner: Elizabeth Spiers, who edited New York Observer for him.

I don’t even know how to quantify Kushner’s expertise, anyway. Yes, he ran the company — which he inherited, not uncommon in New York’s dynastic, insular real estate world. But he was sure he had the goods. When I worked for him, I didn’t think he had a realistic view of his own capabilities since, like his father-in-law, he seemed to view his wealth and its concomitant accoutrements as rewards for his personal success in business, and not something he would have had in any case. To me, he appeared to view his position and net worth as the products of an essentially meritocratic process.

It’s not hard to imagine such a person getting in over his head, and being manipulated by well-trained operatives like Ambassador Kislyak and General Flynn.


If you’d ever wondered why Putin would prefer Trump to Clinton, Trump’s meeting with our European allies in Brussels made it clear. In Brussels, Trump continued to work on Putin’s agenda, insulting our European allies

According to a report in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, many EU officials were appalled by how little the Americans appeared to know about trade policy. The guests from Washington seemed not to be aware that EU member states only negotiate trade treaties as a bloc. According to the paper, Trump’s chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, claimed during meetings, for example, that different customs tariffs are in place between the U.S. and Germany than between the U.S. and Belgium.

and undermining NATO. Trump’s advisers had led everyone to believe that his speech would finally unequivocally endorse the center of the treaty defining the alliance: Article 5, the one the obligates all the NATO countries to come to one another’s defense. He didn’t. Instead he continued to peddle a fiction from his campaign: that most NATO countries “owe money” either to the United States or to the alliance. They don’t.

Josh Marshall:

Whether Vladimir Putin has something on Donald Trump or somehow has him in his pay hardly matters. If he doesn’t, he apparently doesn’t need to do since Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own.

Matt Yglesias:

To undermine NATO in this way has, of course, been a core goal of Russian (and, earlier, Soviet) foreign policy as long as NATO has existed. And through all the ups and downs of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, Russia has never scored a success on that front as striking as Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency and his continued refusal to affirm that the United States will defend its allies. Why exactly Trump won’t do that remains a mystery, but the conduct itself is striking — in some ways all the more so because it involves Trump overruling the professional opinion of his own aides in favor of a different, more Russia-friendly line.


Here we see a photo of three NATO leaders and what appears to be a cardboard cut-out of Trump.

and the budget

Matt Yglesias:

Budgets are important as statements of values. One clear headline value of the Trump budget is an overwhelming preference for cutting taxes on high-income families over providing food, medical care, housing assistance, and other support to low-income families.

Stranger than that, though, is that the whole thing seems to be based on an obvious double-counting error of something that maybe shouldn’t even have been counted once. Trump’s unspecified tax cuts are supposed to pay for themselves by generating revenue from economic growth — a dubious proposition already. But that increased growth is used again to increase revenue beyond what the current system would produce. The mistake is sizeable: $2 trillion over ten years.

and health care

The CBO analysis of the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill that the House passed came in. The previous version of the bill would increase the number of uninsured people by 24 million in ten years. The version the House passed (without waiting for the CBO analysis) gets that number down to 23 million.

Senate Republicans claim they’re going to do something different, but they have the same underlying problem that the House did: Republicans have made more promises than they can deliver on. 23 million extra uninsured people is the price of delivering on all the Republicans other promises: cutting taxes, reducing the deficit, giving insurance companies more freedom, and so on.

I don’t doubt that the Senate can lower that number, but to do so it will have to turn its back on promises the House fulfilled. I still don’t see a compromise that gets enough votes to pass in both chambers.

and two court decisions

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration’s appeal to lift a lower court’s injunction against its Muslim Ban. It wasn’t close: 10-3.

The entire issue is whether you take the President at his word: Trump’s executive order (which Chief Judge Roger Gregory abbreviated EO-2, to distinguish it from the first version, EO-1, which Trump withdrew after the 9th Circuit ruled against it) is what judges call “facially neutral”. Its text says nothing about Muslims or religion; it’s all about national security.

However, if you read EO-2 in the context of EO-1 and in the context of Trump’s campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the country “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on“, it’s easy to make the case that EO-2 is all about religious discrimination. That’s how Gregory’s majority opinion views it.

Based on this evidence, we find that Plaintiffs have more than plausibly alleged that EO-2’s stated national security interest was provided in bad faith, as a pretext for its religious purpose. …

EO-2 cannot be divorced from the cohesive narrative linking it to the animus that inspired it. In light of this, we find that the reasonable observer would likely conclude that EO-2’s primary purpose is to exclude persons from the United States on the basis of their religious beliefs.

From here, it goes to the Supreme Court.

Right now, the administration claims this isn’t a Muslim ban at all, and that the resemblance to what he promised on the campaign trail is just coincidental. But does anyone doubt Trump’s tune will change the instant the Supreme Court says it’s constitutional? Within a week, he’ll hold a rally somewhere and say, “I promised you a Muslim ban, and I delivered.”

Critics of the decision argue that the judges are playing politics. But I think they should be forced to answer the question the judges had to address: Do you believe the executive order was made in good faith, and not as an attempt to limit Muslim immigration simply because they are Muslims?


Clarence Thomas was the deciding vote on the liberal side of a racial gerrymandering case: The Supreme Court rejected two congressional districts in North Carolina. His concurring opinion is very brief, so it’s not entirely clear what he’s thinking.

There are other gerrymandering cases to be decided before the Court goes on its summer break, so I’ll save more detailed comments until they come in.

and you might also be interested in

Remember how Trump was going to sort-of comply with the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by tracking how much of his business’ profits came from foreign governments and voluntarily donating that much to the Treasury? Well, never mind. Rather than produce a transparent, auditable plan for calculating foreign-government profit, the Trump Organization sent Congress a glitzy eight-page brochure describing a process full of holes.

The short version: If they get checks that say “Government of Russia” or “Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kuwait”, they’ll keep track of the amounts and assume that the net profit rate on that property applies to that payment. (This blows off the distinction between average profit and marginal profit, and allows them to do bookkeeping tricks with depreciation.) But the TO considers it “impractical” to track foreign-government payments more subtle than that.

So, for example, if the Russian Embassy decides to throw its Christmas Party at the Trump International Hotel in Washington (pictured below), the profit on that revenue would count as foreign-government income, unless the hotel can find enough depreciation to declare a paper loss that year. But if one of Putin’s billionaire buddies throws a Christmas Party and happens to invite the ambassador and everybody from the Russian Embassy, that wouldn’t count.

Reading the brochure, you have to keep reminding yourself that we’re talking about violating Article I, Section 9 of the effing Constitution. That clause says that foreign-government money can’t be accepted in the first place “without the consent of Congress”, which Trump has not even sought. Obeying the Constitution is often inconvenient, but convenience has never been the standard.


I continue to refuse to go after Melania (for anything other that profiteering off the presidency). This week’s Melania story was about her wearing a very expensive jacket. But I defended Hillary Clinton wearing a somewhat less expensive (but still very pricey) jacket during the campaign, and I extend that defense to Melania: We pay way too much attention to the clothes and hair and shoes of women in public life. If they err on the side of frugality, they’re frumpy. If they err on the side of expense, they’re Marie Antoinette. Men face no comparable choice.


I’ve been following the problems Kansas has had after the Brownback tax cuts. Sunday, the WaPo looked at Oklahoma, where a combination of tax cuts and a decline in oil revenues has the state cutting back on — what else? — education: four-day weeks, 49th in teacher pay, big class sizes, etc.


The year’s best feminist protest was at the Texas State Capitol:


The special election for the House seat in Montana had what is starting to feel like a familiar result: The Republicans held onto the seat by less that they ordinarily would have. Assaulting a reporter on election eve appeared to make no difference. Some Republicans actually liked it.


Despite last week’s rumor, Joe Lieberman won’t be the new FBI director.


Cultural appropriation is when somebody from a dominant culture tries to acquire fame and fortune (or just look cool) by using stuff created by a dominated culture. (I’ve written about it before.) Sometimes it’s done with respect and a share-the-wealth attitude. (Paul Simon didn’t just steal the South African sound, he toured with and helped popularize authentic South African bands.) Sometimes it’s annoying and disrespectful, but relatively harmless (like Anglos who have no idea what Cinqo de Mayo commemorates “celebrating” by drinking too much tequila). And sometimes it results in a significant injustice, like Elvis becoming a musical icon while the black pioneers he imitated couldn’t get radio time.

Crystal Contreras uses a local controversy about a Anglo-owned burrito shop to make a very good point: Cultural appropriation is mostly an effect of injustice. It happens because a dominance relationship already exists. Beating it back may be emotionally satisfying, but doesn’t do much to solve the underlying problem.

It’s just that cultural appropriation is not what caused these inequalities in the first place, and it’s just one arm of a much larger system that makes it so POCs are not seen as experts on our own cultures.

Instead, I’m more interested in confronting the entire apparatus in place that make it so the dude who fell in love with Mexico on spring break is able to open a tamale bar in the ultra-gentrified Hipsterfuck Chill District, while the woman from Mexico has to risk arrest to sell tamales out of a cooler in front of the grocery store.

Her piece doesn’t claim to be the final word on the subject, but it’s a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.

and let’s close with an old song updated

Paul Simon and Stephen Colbert redo “Feelin’ Groovy” for 2017.

On Memorial Day we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.

I grew up in the era of the draft. Young men by the hundreds of thousands were remanded into the military under penalty of law. They were not sent to defend their homes and families against an invader, but to Vietnam to fight a war whose significance was hard to explain. (In retrospect, we lost and American life went on more-or-less as before. So what was that all about?)

Tens of thousands died there. Others came back alive, but left arms or legs behind. Some came back whole, but said little about their experiences afterwards. Some avoided the draft, either legally through student deferments (or whatever other loopholes were available when their names came up), or illegally, by going to Canada or Sweden, or (like Muhammad Ali) to prison.

I imagine that some must have had the kinds of positive experiences I liked to read about in formulaic World War II novels: They came of age. They discovered inside themselves a strength and courage that they had not previously been aware of. They bonded with other young men they probably would not have met any other way, and found friends for life.

This is all speculative for me, because I was never drafted. The draft wound down just in time to miss my age cohort: We had to register, and they held a lottery that told us what order we would have been drafted in, but no draft was held. So whether I would have died, lost a limb, locked the whole experience away in a dark corner of my mind, escaped to Toronto, gone or jail, or found myself — who can say? I was there for the beginning of the all-volunteer army, and I didn’t volunteer.

While I am personally grateful to have had the chance to make that choice, I am ambivalent about the policy that allowed me to do so. I sympathize with the Jeffersonian vision expressed in the opening of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State …”. Jefferson and Madison pictured a militia-based military, where ordinary people defended their towns and farms, rather than a standing army that could be sent on imperial missions, or maybe could develop its own interests, separate from the rest of the country. When soldiering becomes a profession, they realized, military and civilian cultures can start to go in different directions. And that’s dangerous “to the security of a free State”.

That divergence has been happening, slowly but steadily, for almost half a century now. It hurts America in two different ways. On the one hand, we get chicken hawks: neo-conservative intellectuals or tough-talking radio hosts, who know that neither they nor their sons or daughters will ever be called on to back up their geopolitical theories or their jingoistic rhetoric. If anyone ends up getting shot it, it will be the rural kid whose college fund vanished after Dad lost his factory job, or the ghetto kid who sees no other way out than to sign away a few years of his life and take a chance on losing all of it.

On the other hand, families who maintain a military tradition without financial necessity may come to see themselves not as representatives of America, but as a breed apart from it — a better, braver breed that has been forced to deal with violent reality in a way that the rest of us avoid, and who therefore deserve to rule. If a fascist takeover ever succeeds in this country, it will be due not just to some Trump-like clown at the top, but also to warriors up and down the line who no longer respect civilian America.

These thoughts come to me on Memorial Day, because I have no one in particular to remember: Not only have I never been shot at, but no one close to me has died in war. Our soldiers continue to serve in war zones in Afghanistan and in parts of Iraq and Syria, but no one I know is in danger. I care about those wars only to the extent that I choose to care. If I ignore them, they will not slap me in the face by claiming someone important to me.

Memorial Day didn’t used to be like this. It began after the Civil War, a conflict that killed about 2% of the population, and is still responsible for nearly half of the total of Americans who have ever died in battle. It began, in other words, at a time when nearly everyone had someone to remember.

I picture the early Memorial Days as bittersweet holidays, full of personal anecdotes about the dead, respect, regret, and a touch of gratitude for the chance to be living in peace. You might take your children to the cemetery to tell them stories about a father or uncle they remembered either dimly or not at all, while silently you hoped that you would never have to visit their graves on a some future Memorial Day. If you prayed, it was not for the greater glory of the United States, but for peace.

For many, perhaps most of us, particularly those in the educated or managerial classes, that personal connection has been lost. We have no graves to visit, and we never seriously worry about our children going to war, because that’s not their job. They’re destined for colleges and offices and the exciting digital future. Bullets and bombs are for the lower classes to deal with.

What replaces the personal is pageantry. Rather than a reminder of the cost of war, this holiday has become either a content-free weekend marking the start of summer, or a celebration of the military. Friday night, I saw on television an example that was simultaneously trivial and ridiculous: The Boston Red Sox played the Seattle Mariners, and both teams marked the Memorial Day weekend by wearing caps of Army green with camouflage visors. (The caps are being marketed; yesterday on a sidewalk, I passed a young man wearing one.)

The changes in Memorial Day are part of a larger growth of nationalistic ritual and worship of things military. I have always been uncomfortable singing the national anthem at baseball games (a practice that began during World War I, in the 1918 World Series; perhaps this misappropriation was the true origin of the curse that prevented both teams — Red Sox and Cubs — from winning a world championship for the rest of the 20th century), because I don’t see what is patriotic about playing or watching baseball. By now, of course, that practice extends to virtually all sports events, to the point that football quarterback Colin Kaepernick could create a national controversy simply by kneeling down.

After 9-11, many teams started putting a second patriotic song (“God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful”) somewhere else in the program, like during the 7th inning stretch. Last summer, the college-summer-league team in my town began including a moment where all veterans in the house were asked to stand and be applauded by the rest of us; not just on a particular day, but every game.

This Thursday, I was at the graduation ceremony of a nearby community college. It also began with the national anthem, included “God Bless America” later in the program, and had a moment when all graduating veterans stood to be applauded. Again, nationalism and militarism seemed pasted onto this event. Why not, for example, the state song or the college song? We were told that graduates came from many different nations: Why were they required to participate in an American patriotic ritual? (Why, for that matter, are baseball players, many of whom come from Latin American countries that have no cause to remember us or our soldiers kindly?) Trump’s planners even looked into the possibility of military vehicles adding spectacle to his inaugural parade, as they did to the old Soviet Mayday celebrations.

As actual soldiers become more and more distant, we are offered the Soldier and the Veteran as symbols. They are to be honored and worshiped, not empathized with, or even taken care of. (They are, in essence, getting the Jesus treatment: Worship Him as Lord, but pay no attention to the actual person. Ignore that liberal Sermon on the Mount, or much of anything else He said.) We are offered the Nation and the Military as objects of veneration, and encouraged to take an imperial pride in their world-bestriding power.

I find myself missing the bittersweet holiday Memorial Day started out to be. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a day where we appreciate the huge difference in scale between the Nation’s ambitions and the costs that will filter down into our own lives? Or, perhaps, to recognize the ways that we have been insulated from those costs, which have not vanished, but are borne by someone else instead?

Memorial Day itself is becoming something to mourn for. Once a bittersweet recognition of the toll assessed by military power, it now too often becomes a celebration of that power.

The Monday Morning Teaser

After the Civil War, Memorial Day arose as a holiday for remembering the human cost of war: You went to a cemetery to visit the graves of friends and relatives who had been killed. It had a personal scale. If you thought of nations at all, it was to pray that somehow they might work out their differences without any more battles.

But in the post-Vietnam era of the professional military, more and more Americans — particularly in the upper and upper-middle classes — have no personal connection to the wars we fight, much less to those who have died in them. And so the holiday is tending to drift. If it has any content at all (beyond marking the beginning of summer), it’s turning into a celebration of the American military and the greatness of the United States.

I feel a need to protest this, so today’s featured post will be “On Memorial Day, we ought to remember the dead, not celebrate the Empire.” It should be out early, certainly before 9 EDT.

The weekly summary will review whatever-the-heck is going on with Jared Kushner, an appeals court (by a wide margin) refusing to let Trump’s Muslim Ban take effect, the CBO score on the Republican healthcare bill, Clarence Thomas amazingly taking a stand against racial gerrymandering in North Carolina, the FY2018 budget proposal, and a few other things, before closing with a Paul Simon/Stephen Colbert duet that doesn’t feel very groovy.

Greatest Danger

Our greatest danger is not from the grossly wicked around us, but from the unreflecting multitude who are borne along as a stream by foreign impulse, and bear us along with them.

William Ellery Channing, “Self Culture” (1838)

This week’s featured posts are “What is impeachment for?” where I try to keep myself honest by going back to first principles rather than just tailoring a case against Trump, and “Step Around the Benghazi Trap“, which urges Democrats not to make the same kind of cognitive errors Republicans have made.

A shorter version of a Sift post from March just got published in UU World as “Reframing the healthcare conversation“. They added a truly kick-ass illustration. Man, do I wish I could draw.

This week everybody was talking about Special Counsel Robert Mueller

We now have a special counsel to investigate Trump and Russia. I didn’t see that coming. Of course, I haven’t predicted much of what has happened these last two weeks.

Interesting and very positive article about Mueller in Politico. It describes him as “America’s straightest arrow”.

“His gift is that he’s decisive without being impulsive,” Comey told me several years back, recalling his years working alongside Mueller. “He’ll sit, listen, ask questions and make a decision. I didn’t realize at the time how rare that is in Washington.”


The question everyone has been asking after Mueller’s appointment is: How independent can he be? The answer is in a column Neal Katyal wrote in The Washington Post. Katyal was involved in writing the rules for special counsels back in 1999.

The short version is that Trump could still fire Mueller or impede his investigation in various ways, but every interference with the special counsel’s investigation would have to be reported to leaders of both parties in Congress, who could make that information public.

The regulations provide that Mueller can “be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General” (again, Rosenstein here, because Sessions is recused) and only for “good cause.” The president, therefore, would have to direct Rosenstein to fire Mueller — or, somewhat more extravagantly, Trump could order the special-counsel regulations repealed and then fire Mueller himself. Either of those actions was unthinkable to us back in 1999, for we understood that President Richard Nixon’s attempt in this regard ultimately led to his downfall. At the same time, after Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey this month, many things once thought beyond the realm of possibility look less so now.

Ultimately, every democracy lives or dies by the same principle: The public has to have expectations of integrity, and has to punish leaders who are visibly dishonest. If the people become so cynical that they believe all politicians are dishonest, so we might as well tolerate this particular slimeball doing these particular slimy things, then democracy slides away.


For those of you who think a special counsel should be completely immune to outside interference, I have two words: Spanish Inquisition.

There’s no totally satisfactory answer to the question of a government investigating itself. If an investigative body has total independence, it effectively becomes a fourth branch of government that isn’t checked or balanced by the other three.


I keep reading that Trump is about to appoint U.S. attorneys to replace the ones he fired over two months ago, and there are rumors about who is or isn’t in the running for certain districts. But I haven’t found any actual appointments. (Try googling “new u.s. attorney appointed”.) To me, this suggests that the point was to get rid of the old USAs, not to make room for people Trump wanted to appoint.

The persistent rumor is that axing all the U.S. attorneys was just cover for getting rid of one troublesome one: Preet Bharara in New York, who was zeroing in on the insider trading of HHS Secretary Tom Price.

A new administration typically replaces the U.S. attorneys appointed by the previous administration, but usually they stay on until their replacements are confirmed. The exception was President Clinton, who also asked for a mass resignation when he took office in 1993 — and was also rumored to be doing it to shut down one investigation, that of powerful Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. But didn’t work out that way: Clinton appointee Eric Holder indicted Rostenkowski in 1994. He went to jail.

Sleep well, Secretary Price.


Trump’s approval rating (as aggregated by Nate Silver) shows gradual erosion rather than sudden collapse.

and the Russia leak

I have a theory that would make a great movie: Some coven of feminist witches has cursed Trump to live out all the negative scenarios he conjured up for Hillary.

Seth Meyers played this clip from Trump’s campaign:

If Hillary Clinton were elected, she would be under protracted criminal investigation likely followed by the trial of a sitting president. The investigation will last for years, nothing will get done, government will grind to a halt and our country will continue to suffer.

and commented: “It’s amazing ― the only thing he got wrong was the president’s name.”

So now Trump leaks highly classified information directly to the Russian ambassadorroyally pissing off the Israelis, who gathered the information and don’t want the Iranians to guess how they got it — and we have to remember what he said about Clinton and classified information:

This is not just extreme carelessness with classified material, which is still totally disqualifying. This is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct.

and Trump’s tour of the world capitals of monotheism

His speech in Riyadh also fits my witches-curse theory. During the campaign, he called out Hillary’s “weakness”:

We cannot let this evil continue. Nor can we let the hateful ideology of radical Islam … be allowed to reside or spread within our country. Just can’t do it. We will not defeat it with closed eyes or silent voices. Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country.

But now he’s the one who can’t say that name: “radical Islamic terrorism”. Instead his speech talks about “Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires”. The difference between Islamic and Islamist is like the difference between real and realistic: If terrorism is Islamic, then it is a true representation of the faith of Muhammad, but if it is only Islamist, then it has been constructed to resemble Islam, but may not actually be Islam.

During the campaign, he said “Islam hates us.” But now he says:

This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.

Honestly, that part sounds a lot like Obama.

Two things are different from Obama: (1) He’s taking the Sunni side in the Sunni/Shia struggle to dominate the Muslim world. His speech to the Sunni Saudis included an all-out rhetorical attack on Shiite Iran. Obama was trying to stay out of that.

(2) He signed a huge arms deal with the Saudis that Obama had balked on.

Back in September, the Obama administration approved a more than $115 billion arms deal with the Saudis. But as the death toll and reports of human rights violations in the Saudi-led war on Yemen began to rise dramatically, the Obama administration nixed the sale of the precision-guided munitions it had originally agreed to put in the deal to try to coerce the Saudis into curbing those atrocities.

Now those munitions are back in the Trump arms package — which speaks volumes about this administration.

In fact, the entire deal paints a vivid picture of the Trump administration — an administration that is willing to bend over backwards to make deals with important friends, that doesn’t let human rights concerns get in the way of doing business, and where personal relationships with those closest to the president can prove highly lucrative.

This fits with the rhetoric he’s using. If we and the Saudis are united in “a battle between Good and Evil”, then our side is Good by definition. So we don’t have to prove our goodness by, say, avoiding war crimes. That weakling Obama thought America’s goodness was open to judgment, and so wasn’t always willing to stick by our friends when they did horrible things. Trump will.


I oppose allowing Trump to re-enter the country until Congress “can figure out what the hell is going on” with him.

and you might also be interested in …

A James Fallows tweetstorm explains why CNN is wrong to feature knee-jerk Trump loyalists like Jeffrey Lord:

Genuine, serious, ongoing, borderline-Fox-like harm to journalism/public life for CNN to keep featuring Lord & the Trumpkins. Why? Since they are guaranteed *never* to criticize anything Trump says or does, and *always* to say HRC/Obama/Dems were worse, and in fact are cast in that role, sit-com style, they embody the idea that politics is ONLY about tribal loyalty.

You pick your team; you stay with it thick or thin, as you would in a real war or a Game of Thrones war or a Mafia war. You wage this combat as if there is no such thing as “reasonable criticism” of your side, or “in fairness, we must credit” for the other. While of course democratic politics *depends* on people recognizing, and changing minds, based on actual ideas, arguments, interests.

CNN should have more actual *conservatives* on air, with actual progressives, but fewer tribal loyalists, who embody idea that all political differences are tribal and THEREFORE INSOLUBLE.


In a fabulous stunt, someone projected messages above the entrance to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Trump is currently facing a lawsuit filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that alleges he is violating the clause by accepting payments from foreign states through his hotel.


Sometimes words like fascist get thrown around too lightly. And then you run into Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who seems to have been appointed as Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security (which does not require Senate confirmation).

During a December 2015 segment of his show, The People’s Sheriff, on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze radio network, Clarke suggested that any person who posts pro-terrorist sentiments on social media be arrested, deprived of the constitutional protection against unlawful imprisonment (known as habeas corpus), and sent to Guantanamo Bay indefinitely. He estimated the number of people who could be imprisoned under his proposal could reach 1 million.

Clarke is popular on the Right primarily because, being black, he gives cover to white racists to quote the stuff he says about Black Lives Matter. (You know: “I’m just repeating what that black guy said.”)

Clarke’s understanding of domestic terrorism runs far beyond radical jihadists. He has predicted that Black Lives Matter will “join forces with ISIS,” and on multiple occasions described the group as a terror organization. The protesters do not “care about black lives. They care about their own radical ideology of terrorism: anarchy.” Clarke insists Black Lives Matter “needs to be crushed.”

BLM is illegitimate, in his view, because the police are doing just fine. Especially his police.

Clarke’s ironfisted beliefs about criminal justice can be explained in part by his own career. He oversees a prison that is notoriously brutal. Four people have died of mistreatment and torture in his custody. One newborn baby died while its mother was shackled during childbirth; another prisoner died of dehydration, after the water in his cell was shut off for seven days. In 2013, one of his deputies ran a traffic light and T-boned the car of a civilian driver, who was badly injured. Clarke’s department charged the driver, who was actually sober, with drunk driving in order to cover up its own culpability.


Roger Ailes died. As the Nixon political operative who created Fox News, Ailes is a central figure in the transformation of the American news landscape into what it is today. He’s an interesting example if you want to debate the Great Man theory of history. Maybe the world would be vastly different (and better) if he had never lived. Or maybe the changes he wrought were inevitable; conservative talk radio already existed before Fox News, and somehow that mindset would have arrived on TV anyway.

I’ll give Joy Reid the last word on this:

Ailes built an empire by creating a fantasy world for white, conservative men, where women are agreeable sex objects and [people of color] are predators.


Speaking of sexual harassers, Bill O’Reilly might be back on TV sooner than anybody thought. Several conservative media groups see themselves as the next Fox News, and hiring O’Reilly might be just what it takes to launch them into the big time.

Of course, the protest groups behind the advertising boycott that prompted Fox News to oust Mr. O’Reilly would certainly have something to say about any move to bring him back to television. As the National Organization for Women president, Terry O’Neill, said to me, “Any network that hires him, what they’re doing is sending a message to women: ‘We don’t care about sexual harassment.’”

But there’s a flip side: They’d also be saying to men “We don’t care about sexual harassment.” And the men who would respond positively to that might be just the audience they’re looking for.


The Onion trolls Republican hypocrisy on Trump:

“Frankly, we need an independent counsel to look into why I continue to do absolutely nothing in the face of mounting evidence against this reckless, unethical, and potentially compromised White House,” said McCain, passionately arguing that his disturbing pattern of inaction in regards to the Trump administration raises “deeply troubling questions” about his own motivations. “Without a thorough inquiry empowered to go wherever the facts may lead, I’m afraid we’ll never get to the bottom of why my opposition to this madness amounts to little more than the mildest of criticisms on Meet The Press. The fact that I essentially rubber-stamp this president’s agenda despite a reputation for integrity and independence simply doesn’t add up, and the time has come to find out once and for all what’s really going on with me.”


For reasons that escape me, Joe Lieberman is rumored to be the front-runner for FBI director.

and let’s close with something mysterious

That glowing orb Trump was touching with the Saudi king and the Egyptian president — was it the Globe of Peace? a palantir? a device for communicating with the Kree Supreme Intelligence?

I love the expression on King Salman’s face. Caption contest: What is he about to say?

The scene turns out to look even stranger in the uncropped photo.

Step Around the Benghazi Trap

As the Trump scandals deepen, Democrats should learn from Republican mistakes: If you let your expectations get too far ahead of what’s known, confirmation bias can lead you into an a universe of alternative facts.


A few days before last November’s election, I saw a guy wearing an anti-Hillary t-shirt with the slogan “Benghazi: I will never forget!”. And it made me wonder: Of the things he will never forget about Benghazi, how many are imaginary? Will he always remember, for example, the stand-down order that was never given? Or that Clinton’s response to four American deaths was to ask “What difference does it make?

Benghazi was a real event, but eventually it got surrounded by a cloud of virtual events conjured up by conspiracy theorists. The virtual events — did you hear that Obama knew the attack was coming and intentionally did nothing? — stick in the mind so much better than the real ones. I suspect they’re the ones that guy (and the millions like him) will always remember.

Republicans went certifiably insane about Benghazi. When seven separate investigations failed to verify their wildest accusations against Obama and Clinton, they did the obvious thing: spent millions of tax dollars on an eighth one that also found nothing, in the vain hope that someday the same evidence would start saying something different.

Last week, a commenter on this blog asked how Democrats will know if we’ve gone down a similar rabbit-hole about Trump and Russia. I replied that it was way too early to make such a comparison, because we haven’t even completed one investigation of Trump/Russia, much less started our eighth. But the longer I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn’t something worth thinking about here: It may have taken four years and eight investigations for their Benghazi insanity to play out, but when exactly did Republicans start making the fatal mistake that eventually drove them insane?

Early days, I think. Right about where we are now.

And here’s what I think the fatal mistake was: convincing themselves that they already knew what had happened and how everything was going to play out. Within days or weeks, they knew that this was the big one, the scandal that was finally going to bring Obama down. Obama and Clinton had done something horrible here, even if nobody was sure exactly what it was. The point of investigating was to find the horrible thing they did, not to determine whether it existed. Any investigators who failed to find something bad enough to end both of their careers — and maybe send them to jail as a bonus — just hadn’t looked hard enough.

The point of me bringing this up isn’t to pooh-pooh the seriousness of what we’re finding out about Trump, or to suggest that an investigation shouldn’t be pursued with all possible vigor. I think Trump and a number of his people are acting like they’re guilty as hell. And the seriousness of the possibilities is undeniable: One of the determining factors in the 2016 election might have been a conspiracy between the winning candidate and a hostile foreign power. An unsavory Trump-Russia connection might go back decades, to Trump getting bailed out of his terrible investment decisions by money that Russian oligarchs needed to launder. Or maybe Trump campaign officials like Manafort and Flynn were Russian agents paid to manipulate the useful idiot who was their candidate.

Those possibilities can’t just be left out there for people to wonder about. If there’s even a tiny chance that one of them is true, a major investigation is necessary.

It’s possible that all this will come out quickly, in months or even weeks. Maybe Flynn or somebody will flip on Trump and produce a smoking gun that will either force him to resign or convince reluctant Republicans in Congress that they need to impeach him. Maybe Pence is in it up to his eyeballs and he’ll be forced out too.

It’s possible. But at this point, I don’t actually know any of those things. Trump does a lot of stuff I don’t understand, so he could be acting guilty for some ridiculous reason that isn’t illegal at all. Remember how adamant he was about his inaugural crowd being bigger than Obama’s, or how he didn’t really lose the popular vote? Maybe the Big Thing he’s hiding is some similarly ego-diminishing fact that anybody else would just own up to. Maybe the stuff that looks like a giant conspiracy is actually made up of dozens of unrelated instances of stupidity and incompetence. Maybe the corruption being covered up is ordinary money-grubbing by lower-level Trumpists, and doesn’t have anything to do with high-level treason.

That’s all possible too.

We need to find out. So we need to keep paying attention. All the avenues of investigation should be pursued as vigorously as possible, and everybody needs to remain vigilant against attempts to change the subject or derail the inquiries. We need to stay on guard against the worst: If the tension keeps ratcheting up inside the White House, eventually somebody is bound to suggest a Reichstag Fire — a real or fake attack on America that is supposed to make us circle the wagons around our Leader.

Or our enemies could decide that now, while the country is divided and so many of us are inclined to disbelieve anything our president says, is exactly the right time to launch a real attack.

As Americans, we need to keep the pressure on our elected representatives to take all this seriously. We need to stay ready to protest in the streets if it all goes wrong, just as Tunisians and Egyptians did to chase their corrupt leaders into retirement.

But while we’re making sure we’ll be geared up for whatever happens, we also need to make sure we’re staying in touch with reality, and that we’re maintaining the separation between what we know, what we suspect, and what we’re getting ready for just in case. We can’t let ourselves live in a speculative future where everything we’ve always suspected about Trump turns out to be true, and everyone who supported him finally has to admit that we were right.

If you get too attached to that future, you’ll most likely miss the turn when reality decides to go some other way. As the facts unfold, you’ll only see the ones that point in the direction you want to go. That’s a well-documented cognitive failing called confirmation bias. It’s not a conservative or liberal thing, it’s a human thing. Unless you’re some particularly well-designed artificial intelligence, you’re susceptible to it.

It’s already starting to happen in certain circles. Things that might eventually turn out to be true are being reported as if they are inevitably going to happen, or maybe have already happened. (Did you hear that Trump has already been indicted?)

It’s very satisfying to respond to Trump’s alternate reality (where his inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s, his electoral college margin was historically large, only fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote, and no politician — not even one who got assassinated, like Kennedy or Lincoln — has ever been treated so unfairly) with an anti-Trump alternate reality.

But as boring as it can be sometimes, we need to hang onto real reality. It sometimes takes a while to manifest itself, but in the long run real reality has a power that we want on our side.

It’s tempting to believe that we already know what’s going to happen: We know what James Comey is going to testify to, we know that Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort are going to flip on Trump and what they’re going to say; we know where the money trail is going to lead; and so on. We’re just waiting for that inevitable future to arrive, when Trump is ridden out of town on a rail.

But I don’t know any of that stuff, not yet. So I’m going to have to listen to the witnesses as they testify. I’m going to have to read the investigators’ reports as they come out.

Trump’s defenders are telling us that because we don’t already know that he did something wrong, we shouldn’t be investigating. The answer to that isn’t that we’re investigating because we do already know. The reason to investigate is because we don’t know. Trump’s defenders — other than possibly Trump himself and a small circle around him — don’t know either.

We should move forward, but with full knowledge of the uncertainties and ambiguities. That’s harder than moving forward with full certainty of where you’re going. But in the long run, it will keep you sane.

What is impeachment for?

Before Democrats can talk responsibly about impeaching Trump, we need to state some standards we’d be willing to apply to a Democratic president.


One of the more ridiculous quotes of the Obama era came from Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan. It was the summer after Obama’s re-election and Bentivolio’s constituents were wondering about impeachment, like you do when you think the wrong guy won the election.

The Congressman responded that “it would be a dream come true” to impeach Obama, and claimed he had challenged lawyers to “tell me how I can impeach the President of the United States.” But the lawyers uncovered a pesky little problem: “Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president.”

Damn. You need evidence that he did something wrong. There’s always a catch somewhere.

The cheapening of impeachment. The mood was very different in 1973, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating impeachment against President Nixon. Up to that point, there had been only one serious presidential impeachment case in American history, against Andrew Johnson in 1868. No one had come out of that affair looking good, and it made both sides cautious a century later. [1]

So the Nixon proceedings had an air of solemnity: History was watching, and whatever you did now would be what you were remembered for. Democrats, who held the majority in both houses in spite of Nixon’s 1972 landslide, bent over backwards to give Nixon at least the appearance of a fair hearing; Republicans likewise worked hard to create the impression that they were taking their duties seriously. Ultimately, it was three Republicans — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes — who went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

A lot of Democrats had hated Nixon for a long time, but nobody crowed about “a dream come true”. Impeachment wasn’t something you started talking about as soon as your side lost. It was a constitutional last resort, and you didn’t break that glass unless it was really an emergency.

Impeachment still required a high bar in 1987, when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra was a big deal: A dozen major figures in the Reagan administration were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. [2] President Reagan apologized to the American people on national television: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Congress concluded that Reagan either knew about the wrong-doing or should have known. But he was not impeached.

It was Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-1999 that changed all the rules. For Nixon, it was thought to be important that the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, be a political independent who had voted for Nixon; that made it clear the President wasn’t being railroaded. But Clinton’s first prosecutor was a Republican (Robert Fiske), who was replaced mid-investigation by a more partisan Republican (Ken Starr). Starr published a report emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the case in lurid language, and frequently leaked sensational details to the press.

Throughout the process, the votes on impeachment were very close to party-line — which meant that the ultimate result was predetermined: The Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton by majority vote, but conviction in the Senate required a 2/3rds majority, which couldn’t happen without convincing a significant number of Democrats. Clinton served out his full two terms.

George W. Bush could have been impeached over violations of the Convention Against Torture or for deceptions in the process leading to the Iraq War. A resolution was introduced in the House, but it died in committee. The full House never voted on it.

Republicans often talked about impeaching President Obama, but their efforts never passed the laugh test: Like Bentivolio, they failed to come up with a plausible charge, much less assemble evidence to support it.

Standards. It’s easy to be a partisan hypocrite about impeachment. If the question is just “Do I want to get rid of this guy?”, then I’ll want to impeach presidents of the other party and defend presidents of my own. And after the plainly partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, it’s tempting for Democrats to return tit for tat.

But cheap impeachments are bad for democracy. An election should mean something; it should make a decision that is not easily reversed. On the other hand, the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. If Democrats are going to start another one any time soon, we owe it to the Republic to form a clear idea of what impeachment is for, and to state a non-partisan standard we’d be willing to stand by the next time a president from our side is in office.

The standards for impeachment are listed in the Constitution, but the statement is terse:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Treason and bribery we all sort of understand, but it’s the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has been so maddeningly vague over the years.

A prime example is obstruction of justice — what Trump may have done when he fired Jim Comey. Obstruction was an impeachable offense when Nixon did it, so Republicans claimed it as an impeachable offense for Clinton. Democrats thought you needed more context; not all obstructions should count the same: Clinton was accused of inducing Monica Lewinsky to lie about their affair; Nixon was accused of doing a long list of things — conspiring with others, concocting cover stories, destroying evidence, asking the CIA to interfere with the FBI — to block the investigation of a burglary intended to help his re-election campaign. It didn’t seem fair to lump the two in the same category and proceed from there.

Now that it’s a Republican in the dock, expect the parties to switch places: Democrats will insist that obstruction-as-impeachable-offense is now well established; Republicans will want to say, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re not all just going to run to our respective partisan banners, we need think this through from the beginning.

What is impeachment for? The Founders knew that occasionally the voters would screw up. Bad presidents were inevitable, which is why John Adams talked about forming “a government of laws, and not of men“. The Constitutional system created multiple centers of power that could check and balance each other. The hope was that the country would be strong enough to ride out a bad presidency.

So the ordinary way to get rid of a bad president is to wait for his term to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment is only for cases where that solution just isn’t adequate.

That’s why treason and bribery are specifically mentioned. If a president is just bad at his job, you can usually live with that until the next election. (After all, the country survived eight years of George W. Bush.) But if the power of the office is being controlled by someone else — by a hostile foreign power (treason) or a wealthy special interest (bribery) — then we really can’t wait that long. (That’s even more true today than in the 1700s, because of the immediacy of nuclear weapons.) So I interpret “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as “other offenses too urgent to put off until the next election”.

The most obvious offense that you can’t put off until the next election is anything that subverts the next election. So if a president is using his or her power to alter the political system — like burglarizing the other party’s files or making deals with foreign powers to hack their computer systems — that also should be impeachable. [3] Other things that could be impeachable in the same way are shutting down hostile newspapers, or preventing legal voters from casting their ballots.

Since the separation of powers is what we’re counting on to keep a bad president in line, anything that usurps the power of the other branches has to be impeachable, unless the breach can be repaired some less drastic way. [4]

Along the same lines, the impeachment process itself has to be protected. So obstruction of justice needs to be an impeachable offense, if the obstructed investigation concerns an impeachable offense. [5]

Finally, there are offenses that have no other enforcement mechanism. For example, violations of the Emoluments Clause, which there is a good case Trump is guilty of. Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.” [6]

Application to Trump. Under these standards, it seems obvious to me that the House Judiciary Committee should be investigating impeachment, because there are viable accusations of impeachable offenses: most obviously the emoluments, but possibly more directly dangerous things. Any collusion with Russia to hack the Democrats would be impeachable, as well as obstruction of justice if it was intended to shelter allies who did collude. (Whether Trump was involved directly in the collusion wouldn’t matter; if he later suspected what his associates did and tried to protect them, that would be impeachable.)

At this point, whether I would support an impeachment vote in the House or conviction by the Senate would depend on what those investigations turned up. But there are definitely things to investigate.


[1] Johnson had been the slave-owning Democrat Lincoln put on his ticket in the name of national unity. After the assassination, he was an outsider dealing with Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

If you’ve ever wondered why vice presidents are such yes-men, Johnson’s example explains why. When the VP has very different views than the president, it’s practically an invitation to assassins. John Wilkes Booth really did succeed in changing the direction of the country.

[2] Both were pardoned by President Bush before they served jail time.

[3] By contrast, Clinton’s extra-marital affair was just embarrassing, not a threat to the Republic. He finished his term, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the other party after the next election.

[4] Republicans claimed that Obama’s executive orders on immigration usurped the power of Congress. So they sued, won their case, and Obama obeyed the judgment of the courts. But if Obama had instead said, “Screw the judges, I’m going to do what I want.”, then impeachment would have been Congress’ only recourse.

[5] That leaves out the obstruction charge against Clinton, but creates an interesting test scenario: What if the reason Trump wanted to stop Comey’s investigation wasn’t that he himself had done anything wrong, but to prevent Comey from catching his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was guilty of some financial chicanery? I’m leaning towards the idea that Trump should be prosecuted for that after leaving office, but not impeached.

[6] Naturally, if the money the President receives from a foreign government is in return for some favor, then it’s already impeachable as a bribe.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’ve got two featured posts planned this morning, both having something to do with trying to proceed responsibly on the Trump-Russia scandal.

The Clinton impeachment in the late 90s was what hardened me as a Democrat. Before that I’d been a mostly left-leaning independent, but I had voted for a number of moderate Republicans over the years, and I went through a real decision process on every election. But when Republicans in Congress misused the impeachment power so badly — and virtually none of them dissented from that effort — their whole party became dead to me. It seemed obvious that having an extra-marital affair and then lying about it wasn’t what the Founders had in mind as an impeachable offense.

Now, as impeachment talk starts to swirl around Donald Trump, but we don’t yet know the full extent of what he did, I think it’s important to examine myself for hypocrisy, and do what I can to guard against a similar partisanship. So this week I set myself a challenge: Can I spell out a vision of impeachment that I’m both willing to apply to Trump and prepared to live by the next time there are accusations against a Democratic president?

My answer to that question is in the article “What is impeachment for?”, which should be out between around 9 EDT.

A second post comes out of a question a commenter raised last week: How will we know if we’ve gone off the rails on Trump conspiracy theories the same way that Republicans did on Benghazi conspiracy theories? My first response was that it’s way too early to be making those comparisons. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Republicans — not the puppet-master types, but the rank and file who are still genuinely enraged about Benghazi and really believe that Clinton and/or Obama got away with murder — made their key mistakes early in the process, right about where we are now with Trump/Russia.

So I wrote “Step Around the Benghazi Trap”, which still needs some work, but should be out by 11.

The weekly summary is more focused on the immediate news: the special counsel, the Russia leak, what Trump’s Saudi-Arabia speech tells us about policy changes, Roger Ailes died and Bill O’Reilly might be coming back, and some other stuff, before closing with a caption contest for that weird-glowing-orb photo. I’ll predict it for noon.

The Pitch President

Whoever touches pitch will be defiled, and whoever associates with a proud man will become like him.

Sirach 13:1

Until two days ago, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, had an enviable reputation as a straight-shooting law-enforcement official respected by members of both parties. Then he decided that he was willing to help President Trump tamper with an investigation into his presidential campaign. Now Rosenstein’s reputation is permanently damaged, as it deserves to be. In that damage is a lesson for other subordinates and allies of Trump.

– David Leonhart, “Rod Rosenstein Fails His Ethics Test
The New York Times, May 10

This week’s featured post is “Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

This week everybody was talking about Jim Comey and the Russia investigation

I cover one aspect of this in the featured post. Initially, Trump spokespeople claimed Comey wasn’t fired because of the investigation, but then Trump more-or-less said he was. That’s obstruction of justice, which was an impeachable offense when Congress thought Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon might be doing it. This Congress, though, doesn’t seem inclined to defend our system of government against a president of its own party.

This is a good time to review exactly what there is to investigate. Obstruction of justice is a fourth question which arose during investigation of these original three:

  • How can we prevent Russia (or other powers) from interfering in future elections the way Russia interfered in 2016? This is the plainly bipartisan part of the investigation. Republicans and Democrats alike should worry about hostile foreign powers having a thumb on the scale of our elections.
  • Was Putin simply an outside force acting for his own interests, or was the Trump campaign cooperating with its Russian allies? This is where the bizarrely dense network of connections between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives — and the Trump people’s repeated lying about meetings with Russians — becomes relevant. It’s not a crime to know somebody or even talk to them, but why lie about it?
  • Beyond any natural affinity between Trump and Putin, do they have some deal that Trump is now obligated to complete? This is the nightmare scenario, the Manchurian Candidate come to life. So far, I haven’t heard or seen anything that makes this seem likely, but it doesn’t have to be likely to be scary. Anything that points in this direction needs to be thoroughly checked out. In particular: Does Putin have something on Trump? This is why the Trump Organization’s long-standing relationships with Russian oligarchs need to be investigated.

Trump and his defenders argue that there is (as yet) no publicly available evidence proving anything about the second or third questions, so there’s “no there there”. But here is a minimal list of things that need to be done before the investigation can be over.

  • Every Trump associate who has lied about meeting with Russians or about an ongoing relationship with Russians — so far I count Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, and Carter Page, at a minimum — must testify in public under oath, and give an account of both the substance of their interactions and why they lied.
  • The Trump administration needs to give a credible account of how they vetted Michael Flynn, why they hired him, and why they sat on evidence against him (letting him continue in the highly sensitive position of National Security Adviser) until that evidence leaked to the press. Would they ever have fired him if not for the leaks?
  • Paul Manafort needs to come clean about how much he was paid by Russia, Russian puppet governments like the former regime in Ukraine, and Russian oligarchs closely associated with Putin. What did he do for them? When, if ever, did his relationship with them end? In particular, was he still working for them when he was managing Trump’s campaign?
  • Similar questions for Michael Flynn.
  • During the campaign, how did Roger Stone know that something concerning John Podesta was about to come out? Did the Trump campaign get other heads-up alerts before Russia/WikiLeaks released new material hacked from the Democrats?
  • The public needs to know how much money has passed back and forth between Russian oligarchs and the Trump Organization, Trump himself, and members of the Trump family over the last 20 years or so. Did all transactions happen at market rates?
  • Is there some reason why the firing of Jim Comey was not the obstruction of justice it appears to be? If it was, should Trump be impeached for it?

In the course of covering those six issues, other issues are likely to arise as well. Those must also be pursued to their conclusion.

but we should all be paying more attention to Trump’s voter suppression task force

Thursday, Trump signed an executive order creating a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. It is chaired by Vice President Pence, and vice-chaired by Kris Kobach, who has a long history of drumming up phony voter-fraud issues to justify voter-suppression tactics.

Ever since he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, Trump has been soothing his wounded ego with the fantasy that “millions” of illegal votes were cast. And unlike any other demographic group, all of the illegal voters picked Clinton.

In fact, it’s much more likely that Trump owes his Electoral College victory to voter suppression. The Nation reports:

A new study by Priorities USA, shared exclusively with The Nation, shows that strict voter-ID laws, in Wisconsin and other states, led to a significant reduction in voter turnout in 2016, with a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters. Wisconsin’s voter-ID law reduced turnout by 200,000 votes, according to the new analysis. Donald Trump won the state by only 22,748 votes.

Voter suppression was also an issue in Republican-controlled swing states like North Carolina and Florida. In other words: If all the legal voters who wanted to vote had succeeded in doing so, Trump might not be president.

So voter suppression — making it harder to vote in hopes that many people won’t jump through all the hoops — is close to this president’s heart. The excuse for voter suppression is voter fraud, the belief that large numbers of votes are cast illegally, either by people who shouldn’t be voting at all (like noncitizens) or by people who vote multiple times by either registering in many places or by impersonating someone else.

Study after study shows that voter fraud is a negligible phenomenon: It happens, but the numbers nationwide are tiny, far smaller than the number of legitimate voters who are discouraged or turned away by laws that make voting harder.


538’s Maggie Koerth-Baker tells the full story of the report that is the basis for Trump’s claim that “millions” of noncitizens voted illegally in the 2016 election. It’s a fascinating narrative about an obscure kind of statistical error and the perverse ways that scientific research gets lodged in the public mind and influences public policy. In other words: the article is way too long and wonky for most people to read all the way through, so it’s not going to change the public debate.

Which is sort of the point. Understanding what really happens requires patience and an ability to deal with ambiguity. It’s much more satisfying to respond to a clickbait headline like “Millions of Immigrants Vote Illegally!” and forward it to all your friends.

The statistical error in this case happens when you’re studying a small subset of people in a larger survey: The legitimate responses can get swamped by erroneous responses from the larger group. So some small percentage of citizen voters will check the wrong box on the citizen/noncitizen question, but because the number of citizen voters is so much larger, that small percentage can still swamp the actual sample of noncitizen voters.

Luks, Schaffner and Ansolabehere [i.e., researchers critiquing the original paper] found evidence that, in this case, small was still significant. In particular, they noted multiple cases of people who marked themselves as citizens in 2010 but, on the 2012 edition of the survey, marked themselves as noncitizens, and vice versa. Moreover, this rate of error that we do know exists between 2010 and 2012 — just 0.1 percent — turned out, by itself, to be enough to account for all the noncitizen voters in Richman and Chattha’s 2010 sample. In other words, there might not have been any noncitizen voters that year.

I like to illustrate statistical concepts with sports examples, so here’s an analogy: no-hitters in baseball. A no-hitter (a game where the opposition gets no hits) is a great pitching achievement, so we think of it as something a great pitcher might do. But there is also a lot of luck involved; no-hitters typically include a number of near-hits that are saved by some great fielding play or because a well-hit ball happens to go right at somebody. So there are two ways to get a no-hitter: You can be really, really good, or you can be an ordinary pitcher who for one night gets really, really lucky. An ordinary pitcher is unlikely to get that lucky, but because there are so many more ordinary pitchers than great ones, in fact fewer no-hitters are thrown by all-time greats (like Sandy Koufax) than by folks who are otherwise lost to history (like Bo Belinsky). An unlikely occurrence in a large group can still happen more often than a likely occurrence in a small group.

The takeaway should be that noncitizens do sometimes register and vote; there are anecdotal reports, usually featuring immigrants who don’t understand voting laws and don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong. But the number of noncitizen voters nationwide is more likely to be measured in dozens than in millions.


Another bogus argument supporting the voter fraud myth is that voter registration rolls have millions of errors: People who die or move aren’t promptly taken off the rolls, so in theory someone could cast votes under those registrations.

But like every other kind of voter fraud, there’s no evidence that this is actually happening in more than a handful of cases. I examined a typical dead-people-are-voting story in “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“: A computer search turned up hundreds of “dead voters” in South Carolina in the 2010 election, leading to many alarming headlines and garnering face-time on national TV for the South Carolina attorney general who initiated the search. But when election boards and the state police got involved, they found innocent explanations (like clerical errors or similar names) for all but three of those votes, and doubted that even those three were fraudulent. No one was prosecuted.

As for living people with multiple registrations, one of them is Trump’s daughter Tiffany. Steve Bannon was registered in both New York and Florida. It can easily happen without any intent to commit voter fraud, and if people were actually voting in more than one place, that would be a matter of public record. (Who you vote for is secret, but the fact that you voted is public.) So this kind of fraud would be easy to prove, and yet nobody is proving it. You have to wonder why.


Samantha Bee discusses a kind of voter suppression that happens in plain sight: In a few states like Florida, anyone convicted of a felony loses voting rights permanently. When you hear that, you might picture murderers and rapists and not feel too bad about them not voting. But when you realize we’re talking about 10% of the whole voting-age population and 1/4th of voting-age blacks, you realize “felons” must include more than just Trump’s “bad hombres”. “You might lose your right to vote over something as simple as driving with a suspended license.”

In country with mass incarceration, particularly mass incarceration of black men, this makes for a serious distortion of democracy.

Two former felons are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to change the law, restoring felon voting rights after they complete their sentences and any subsequent probations. If you’re a Florida voter, sign their petition.

and whatever is going on at the Census Bureau

You might think that the Census Bureau has a boring job: Every ten years, it tries to count everyone in America. But in a large country where people move around so much, and so many are suspicious of why somebody from the government is asking them questions, it turns out to be quite difficult.

What’s more, the answers matter. They determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress; how federal money is distributed to care for the poor, the elderly, military veterans, the disabled, etc; whether people from various ethnic or religious groups manage to vote in the numbers you’d ordinarily expect; and so on.

There’s currently a leadership crisis at the Census Bureau: Its director just quit, with rumors that his boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, was unhappy with his work. There’s also currently no deputy director, and the Commerce under-secretary who is supposed to sit between the bureau and Ross hasn’t been appointed.

The Bureau is also between a rock and a hard place: Congress wants to cut its funding, but also disapproves of using cheaper statistical methods to cut costs, rather than sending people out to talk to everybody. There is also a partisan divide: Conservatives don’t like that the census collects so much data on ethnic subgroups like blacks or Hispanics, representing us as “a nation of groups” as National Review puts it.

If the census winds up poorly led and underfunded, the groups most likely to be undercounted are the poor and young adults, particularly people who are temporarily or permanently sleeping on somebody else’s couch. That will have consequences.

and you might also be interested in

Republican word-guru Frank Luntz shows a real lack of understanding of Mothers Day, tweeting:

Twitter 2017: Where even gets turned into partisan politics

Leah Greenberg parodies his attitude:

“If only women could shut up and let us honor them without actually talking about the issues that affect their lives”

A little history: Mothers Day was originally about politics. It was Mothers Day for Peace, and was intended to give voice to the women who lost sons in the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe wrote:

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”


Speaking of peace, the Pentagon is pushing to expand the Afghan War effort again. Trump will hear their recommendations this week.


During the campaign, one of the most insightful articles about Trump was David Roberts’ “The question of what Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer“. Friday, he followed up with “We overanalyze Trump: He is what he appears to be“.

[B]ecause we are relentless pattern seekers, we are constantly developing theories of people, seeking to explain what they do through reference to their beliefs and plans.

This has badly misled us with Trump. Much of the dialogue around him, the journalism and analysis, even the statements of his own surrogates, amounts to a desperate attempt to construct a Theory of Trump, to explain what he does and says through some story about his long-term goals and beliefs.

We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him. It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next.

But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there? What if our attempts to explain Trump have failed not because we haven’t hit on the right one, but because we are, theory-of-mind-wise, overinterpreting the text?

In short, what if Trump is exactly as he appears: a hopeless narcissist with the attention span of a fruit fly, unable to maintain consistent beliefs or commitments from moment to moment, acting on base instinct, entirely situationally, to bolster his terrifyingly fragile ego.

We’re not really prepared to deal with that.


As New Orleans continues to fight over its Confederate monuments, University of Richmond philosopher Gary Shapiro writes a thoughtful column about the statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, and the ambiguity about whether they are monuments or memorials.

If they are monuments, then Richmond is celebrating the Confederacy and the slavery-based society it was created to preserve. If Richmond no longer feels like celebrating that society, the monuments should be removed.

But if they are memorials, then removing them would deny Richmond’s past. However,

Much could be added: plaques concerning the war itself, disputes over slavery, Richmond’s and Virginia’s roles in the Confederacy, Reconstruction (and its abrupt termination following the 1876 election deal), African-American disenfranchisement, the blatant racism surrounding the statues’ planning and dedication.

New statues (like, say, Nat Turner or John Brown) might be erected to remember Virginians who fought against slavery or the extension of white supremacy in 20th-century Jim Crow laws.

What Shapiro rejects is the position of those who defend Monument Avenue as it stands:

The contested works, originally built in a monumental spirit, are now defended as memorials. The figures honored cannot be acknowledged as predecessors who inspired Jim Crow, but as reminders of an old conflict, a fallen capital and hazily articulated ideas about “states’ rights.”

Richmond, Shapiro believes, should not be trying to forget or hide its history as the capital of the Confederacy. But contemporary citizens — including black citizens, who are now the majority — deserve a voice in how that history should be remembered.

and let’s close with something off the wall

What do you get if you cross Star Wars with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? This!

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Just about the only thing pundits have been talking about this week is the firing of Jim Comey on Tuesday. Initially, the Trump administration claimed the firing had nothing to do with the FBI’s Russia investigation. But their story kept changing, until by Thursday’s interview with Lester Holt, Trump’s attitude seemed more like: Yeah, I obstructed justice. So what?

So what? is a question for Congress, which so far seems unwilling to answer it, as it has been unwilling to confront Trump about any of his other assaults on our nation’s small-R republican traditions. I think we’re at the point where this has stopped being an issue of partisanship and has become an issue of patriotism: As Trump, in typical bully fashion, keeps pushing towards a Putin-style authoritarian kleptocracy, is Congress ever going to start defending the Republic? Is there a line somewhere that Ryan and McConnell won’t let Trump cross? Where might it be, and will Congress itself still have any power by the time we get there?

I think it’s time to stop being polite about these questions, so that’s what I’ll do in this week’s featured post: “Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?” That should be out between 8 and 9 EDT.

In the weekly summary, I’ll list questions that I think the Russia investigation still needs to answer, call your attention to the voter-suppression task force Trump just created (that may yet split out into its own article), note that something strange is going on at the Census Bureau, discuss an insightful column about Confederate monuments, and cover a bunch of other stuff, before closing with the answer to a question no one was asking: What do you get when you cross Stars Wars with Sgt. Pepper?