Be Not Afraid

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and Greta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers to Impeachment Objections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do? Two things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monday Morning Teaser

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

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

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

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

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

Legitimacy and Authority

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

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

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

This week everybody was talking about a new impeachable offense

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

and responding to the attack on Saudi Arabia

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

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

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

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

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

This is a different recourse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we have to ask: Whose money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the Climate Strike

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

and a back-to-school video

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

and Elizabeth Warren’s rise

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

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

and Israel

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let’s close with some global cooperation

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

He’s not going to stop on his own

If Democrats put off impeachment until Trump does something worse, he’ll do something worse.

This week’s biggest news story unfolded slowly, and we still don’t have it all.

Flouting the law. Early in the week, the story centered on yet another example of the Trump administration flouting the law: On August 12, a whistleblower in the intelligence community filed an official complaint, which the the IC’s inspector general (Trump appointee Michael Atkinson) found to be “a credible urgent concern” on August 26. Invoking that phrase legally requires the Director of National Intelligence (acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who got the job after Dan Coats was let go; on July 28 Trump tweeted that Coats would leave on August 15) to pass the complaint on to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. But he did not do so.

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff wrote to Maguire on September 10:

In an unprecedented departure from past practice, you have not transmitted the disclosure to the Committee, nor have you notified the Committee of the fact of the disclosure or your decision not to transmit it to the Committee. Instead, in a manner neither permitted nor contemplated under the statute, you have taken the extraordinary step of overruling the independent determination of the [Intelligence Community Inspector General] and preventing the disclosure from reaching the Committee.

He followed this up with a September 13 letter, which appears to be a response to the DNI’s refusal to produce the complaint. This letter accuses the DNI’s office of

a radical distortion of the statute that completely subverts the letter and spirit of the law, as well as arrogates to the Director of National Intelligence authority and discretion he does not possess.

The DNI’s action

raises grave concerns that your office, together with the Department of Justice and possibly the White House, are engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible “serious or flagrant” misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law.

The letter concludes with a subpoena to deliver the complaint by September 17, or to appear before the committee to explain why on September 19. Maguire refused to do either one.

Mr. Schiff told CBS that Mr. Maguire had told him he was not providing the complaint “because he is being instructed not to, that this involved a higher authority, someone above” the director of national intelligence, a cabinet position.

That “higher authority” can only be the President.

What the complaint is about. Up to that point, no one — including Schiff or any other members of Congress — knew anything about the substance of the complaint, or why it was worth breaking the law to suppress. But then details began to leak out.

Wednesday the Washington Post reported that the complaint involved a conversation Trump had with a foreign leader.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint

Naturally, pundits speculated about Vladimir Putin, but Thursday the New York Times reported that the complaint involved Ukraine, and included “other actions” beyond just a phone conversation.

Thursday night, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani let the cat out of the bag in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. It kind of has to be seen to be believed. Rudy claimed CNN won’t cover Obama/Biden scandals in Ukraine, but when Cuomo asked for the proof Giuliani says he’s assembled, he yelled, “I’m not going to give you proof!” Later in the interview he repeated that refusal and explained “You’re the enemy!” Giuliani kept on yelling:

You won’t cover it! But you want to cover some ridiculous charge that I urged the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption! Well I did, and I’m proud of it!

Just that fast, it goes from a “ridiculous charge” to something he’s proud to have done.

Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported

President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.

Yesterday, Trump admitted he talked to Zelensky about Biden and his son, but insisted there was nothing improper in the call. However, so far he has refused to release the transcript. (As he so often does when he’s trying to deflect criticism, he says he’s “considering” releasing it. He considers a lot of things that never happen — sitting down with Robert Mueller, for example.)

By now we seem to know this much: On July 25, Trump talked to new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pressuring him to investigate a story (largely unsupported by facts, as Chris Cuomo lays out) that as Vice President, Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who had investigated his son. [2]

On August 30, Trump was reported to be considering withholding $250 million in military aid that Congress had appropriated for the Ukraine (which badly needs the aid because it is under persistent attack from Russia, which has already taken Crimea from Ukraine). On September 1, Mike Pence met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Schiff’s letter demanding the whistleblower complaint is September 10, and aid to Ukraine is released on September 12.

We still don’t know what “other actions” the complaint talks about.

Now let’s connect the dots. Those are all just facts; now I start to speculate. It appears that Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into taking action that would help his re-election campaign.

This would be an unprecedented abuse of power. Constitutionally, presidents have sweeping power over American foreign policy, but using that power to extort partisan political favors from foreign countries is an enormous breach of trust.

However, this also would be entirely consistent with everything we know about Trump. One character trait that has been consistent all through his administration is that he can’t compartmentalize. He can’t keep his government trips separate from his campaign rallies. His people can’t keep their political campaigning separate from their taxpayer-supported jobs. He can’t separate his business from his administration, or his family from his government. He can’t keep from blurting out secrets when he talks to the Russian ambassador.

Each previous president has understood the distinction between his person and the office he held. Each has understood that the power of the presidency is a trust from the People of the United States, to be used for the benefit of the nation. Sometimes presidents have crossed that line — for example, by bringing a foreign issue to a head when they needed a distraction from a domestic issue that was going badly for them — but they all knew the line was there.

Trump simply doesn’t grasp this. He is the President, so the power of the presidency is his, to do with as he likes. Sometimes that might be for the benefit of the nation (as he understands it), but he may also use that power to enrich himself and his family, cover up his mistakes, reward his friends, or strike at his enemies. And if, as in this case, the opportunity to get a partisan advantage from a foreign power presented itself, I doubt he would see anything wrong with pursuing it. One purpose of foreign aid is to make other countries do what the president wants, and this president wants Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

What should be done? First, no one should give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this, because he’s the one withholding information. If the whistleblower complaint [1] is as laughable as he says, he could just instruct DNI Maguire to release it so we can all enjoy the joke. If his conversation with Zelensky is as “perfect” as he says, he can release the transcript for us all to admire.

But if he won’t reveal those pieces of evidence, it’s probably because they don’t support his version of events. We all know this from childhood: If somebody stole the candy, and there’s one boy who won’t take his hands out of his pockets, you can bet that those hands are chocolate-stained.

Second, Politico’s legal affairs columnist Renato Mariotti makes an excellent point: It’s important not to try to shoehorn this abuse of power into the definitions of more typical crimes.

If what Trump is accused of doing is true, it is a kind of corrupt conduct that the criminal system is not equipped to handle. Labeling his behavior with criminal terms such as bribery and extortion not only misunderstands the statutory language, it gives Trump and his supporters ammunition with which to defend themselves, making impeachment—the proper constitutional remedy for presidential corruption—harder to achieve.

We have seen this happen already with the Russia investigation: Criminal conspiracy became the standard of judgment, and when Mueller didn’t find proof beyond reasonable doubt of Trump’s participation in that conspiracy (perhaps because his obstruction of justice worked), Trump could crow about “no collusion”. What Mueller did establish — that Trump knew about and welcomed an attempt by an enemy nation to get him elected — would have sunk any previous administration. But because winking at a foreign dictator’s attack on our democracy is not an indictable crime, Trump could claim “total exoneration“.

Trump and his defenders are already trying to spin things the same way in this case, by claiming that no explicit quid-pro-quo came up in the Zelensky conversation. (Trump’s near-simultaneous blocking of military aid Ukraine desperately needs was just a coincidence.) Quid-pro-quo would be a key element of a bribery or extortion charge, but it misses the point here. Mariotti continues:

Labeling Trump’s alleged conduct as “bribery” or “extortion” cheapens what is alleged to have occurred and does not capture what makes it wrongful. It’s not a crime—it’s a breach of the president’s duty to not use the powers of the presidency to benefit himself.

That kind of breach is what impeachment is for, and “No one should expect law enforcement to act if our elected representatives are unwilling to do so.”

Impeachment politics. It’s important to recognize that this is just another in a long series of impeachable offenses. If the evidence turns out to be what as it seems now, this may be the most flagrant violation yet, but it’s far from the only one.

  • The Mueller Report collected evidence of seven instances of obstruction of justice. (It examined ten possible obstructions, but found that three of them failed to include all three elements in the definition of obstruction.) Mueller himself refused (because of DoJ policy) to conclude that the president had committed a crime, but literally hundreds of former federal prosecutors have signed a statement saying that the evidence in the Mueller Report would be enough to indict Trump if DoJ policy did not forbid indicting a sitting president.
  • Trump’s business relationships with foreign countries and foreign governments violate the Constitution’s Emolument Clause. (Again, the reason we don’t have more complete information about this is that Trump is withholding it. Until he releases his tax returns and other relevant documents, he doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt.) So far, Democrats have left this violation to the courts, but that is not the proper jurisdiction. Oversight of the Executive Branch is a fundamental congressional responsibility. The primary issue is abuse of power, which is a political judgment, not a legal one.
  • Trump’s self-dealing — using presidential power to channel public money into his businesses, as well as getting government entities to do PR for his properties — is another abuse of power.
  • His stonewalling of Congress’ legitimate oversight authority — claiming ridiculous privileges, refusing subpoenas, and flouting laws requiring the administration to turn over documents — threatens the constitutional separation of powers.
  • His declaration of a phony emergency and subsequent pilfering of money to build his wall threatens the constitutional separation of powers.

As I’ve explained before, impeachment is not just about crimes, it can also be Congress’ only way to defend our system of government and maintain its status as an equal branch, if the President refuses to respect that equality. We’re at that point now.

The objection to impeachment among House Democrats isn’t that there is no case, it’s that the politics are wrong: The majority of voters aren’t there yet; some purple-district Democratic congresspeople might lose their seats if they vote to impeach; bringing impeachment to a vote and failing might be worse than doing nothing; likewise, impeaching Trump only to see the Senate acquit him might be counter-productive.

Nate Silver sums up this point of view:

I don’t understand how impeachment serves as more effective deterrent against impeachable conduct when the opposition impeaches even when it would politically benefit the president to do so (& he’d remain in office). That actually incentivizes impeachable conduct, in fact.

But Elizabeth Warren sees it differently:

A president is sitting in the Oval Office, right now, who continues to commit crimes. He continues because he knows his Justice Department won’t act and believes Congress won’t either. Today’s news confirmed he thinks he’s above the law. If we do nothing, he’ll be right.

What tips me over to Warren’s point of view is that this is not going to stop. Trump will push until he finds the line that Congress will defend. If that line hasn’t been reached yet, then he’ll push further.

Up until now, I have argued against those who worry that he’ll lose the election and refuse to leave office. And if the election happened today, I still think the system would stand against that usurpation. But if standards are allowed to continue eroding, who can say where they will be by November 2020 or January 2021?

Even Nancy Pelosi seems to recognize the seriousness of this moment:

I am calling on Republicans to join us in insisting that the Acting DNI obey the law as we seek the truth to protect the American people and our Constitution.

This violation is about our national security. The Inspector General determined that the matter is “urgent” and therefore we face an emergency that must be addressed immediately.

If the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.

Republicans. Democrats hesitate to pursue impeachment because they expect Republicans to refuse to defend the Republic and the Constitution against a president of their own party.

So far, for example, Mitt Romney is the only Republican in Congress who has expressed even a slight concern about either the flouting of the whistleblower law or the abuse of power allegedly described by the suppressed complaint. And his mildly expressed tweet is unlikely to make the White House quiver in fear.

If the President asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme. Critical for the facts to come out.

My attention is focused on North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. DNI Maguire’s refusal to release the whistleblower complaint is snubbing Burr in the same way that it snubs House Intelligence Chair Schiff. Will he roll over and accept that diminishment of his authority? Up until now, the Senate committee has been less partisan than the House committee. His Democratic counterpart, Senator Warner of Virginia, seems to express bipartisan confidence:

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, said on Thursday that he and the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, also expected both the inspector general and acting director to brief them early next week and “clear this issue up.”

We’ll soon see if that confidence is justified. If Burr demands to see the complaint, then things get interesting.

But in any case, if the Democratic majority in the House won’t move forward with impeachment, Senate Republicans will never be put on the spot. It may be true that they will respond in a corrupt and cowardly way. But if the question is never put to them, they don’t have to expose their corruption and cowardice.

Above all, Democrats need to ask themselves: If the abuse doesn’t stop here, with Trump pressuring a foreign leader to dig up dirt on his major rival, where will it stop?

[1] One important point is often getting shuffled aside: When government officials leak information to the press, critics ask why they didn’t do things “the right way”, by going through the official whistleblowing process. By all accounts, this whistleblower has done everything according to the proper legal process, and so far it is not going well: The complaint has not reached Congress, and it appears that the DNI has not protected his identity. The Justice Department (which has no role in the official process) has been consulted, and quite possibly the White House as well.

People throughout the government are watching. What many of them are learning, I suspect, is that if they know about wrongdoing, their only effective choices are to keep quiet or go to the press. I’m sure the Washington Post would be doing a better job of getting the complaint heard while protecting the whistleblower’s identity.

[2] The short version of the context is that Biden was one of many people pressuring Ukraine to get rid of the corrupt prosecutor, for a variety of reasons unconnected to Biden’s son. The dismissed prosecutor also claims that his Biden investigation had already concluded (without charges) before he was fired.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Another week where not much happened: Trump’s DNI is breaking the law to prevent Congress from hearing about yet another impeachable offense. Millions of people around the world rallied to demand action on climate change. Trump discussed attacking Iran, but instead sent “defensive” troops to protect the Islamist monarchy of Saudi Arabia, because they “pay cash”. (And does he mean cash to the US arms industry, or to the Trump Organization?) Israel had an election, and once again it looks like Netanyahu is out. The EPA is trying to take away California’s ability to set higher emissions and fuel-economy standards on cars. I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

In the featured post, I’ll focus on the illegally suppressed whistleblower complaint, which apparently concerns Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into digging up dirt on Joe Biden. After reviewing what we know so far, I’ll pull back to make a larger point: The impeachable offenses aren’t going to stop. There’s something fundamentally wrong with the way Trump views his presidential power, and that wrongness is going to lead to increasingly outrageous abuses of that power. Anybody (like, say, Speaker Pelosi) who thinks we can just go on from here and talk about healthcare is kidding herself.

I’m running a bit late today, so that post may not be out until nearly 11 EDT. The weekly summary will cover all the other stuff I listed, plus some unimportant stuff like the Democratic presidential race, a striking decrease in abortions, and the return of junk health insurance. Let’s predict that for about 1.

Contrasts and Comparisons

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

Governor Mike Huckabee

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

Barry Schapiro, MD

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

This week everybody was talking about the attack on Saudi Arabia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the Democratic debate

[video, transcript]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and John Bolton

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

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

John Gans comments in the NYT:

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

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

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

Ezra Klein sees the upside:

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

While Amanda Marcotte is balancing her negativism:

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

And Daniel Summers replies:

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

And now Valerie Plame is raising the bar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of how tyranny works today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let’s close with something natural

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

The Democratic Healthcare Debate

The differences are less stark and less consequential than either the candidates or the pundits would have you believe.

If you listened to the opening segment of Thursday’s Democratic debate, or the media discussion of it that followed, you might imagine that the ten candidates are sharply divided on healthcare. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Democrats’ disagreements branch out from a fundamental agreement on two principles, both of which are wildly popular with the general public.

  • When Americans get sick, they should get the care they need.
  • Paying for needed care shouldn’t drive families into bankruptcy.

Republicans, by contrast, focus on cost rather than coverage, and plan to control costs by inducing money-conscious Americans to forego care. They envision a nation filled with people who over-use the healthcare system, and would do so even more if it weren’t so expensive (as if we all viewed a night in the ER as entertainment, and would happily schedule unnecessary colonoscopies just for kicks). And if those expenses result in hypertension patients trying to save money by doing without their prescriptions, or diabetics getting priced out of the insulin market … well, those are the sad-but-necessary results of keeping taxes low and profits high.

So the debate the Democrats are having, about how to achieve the twin goals of care without bankruptcy, just isn’t happening on the Republican side. [1] If you believe that sick Americans should get care that doesn’t bankrupt them, you should be a Democrat.

The debate. As you listen to the arguments among Democratic candidates, you need to bear that fundamental agreement in mind. The disagreements are all about how to achieve those goals: Go straight there with a massive expansion of Medicare to cover everyone, or move more gradually by adding a public option to ObamaCare? Replace the current private-insurance system (with its familiarity as well as its profiteering and inefficiency), or build on top of it?

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is backing a lawsuit that would declare ObamaCare unconstitutional and make all its provisions void. Insurance companies would once again be able drop coverage for people with preexisting conditions. [2]

Why the tax gotcha? One fundamental difference between Medicare-for-All and our current healthcare system is how it’s paid for: Many treatments that are currently paid for through premiums and co-pays would be paid by the government, i.e., through taxes. The taxes would be progressive, so the burden of payment would shift towards the wealthy.

I don’t fully understand why, but for some reason both the media and the candidates are treating this like a gotcha question: Interviewers are asking it in a challenging way and candidates are dodging it. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to say, “Payments you used to make through premiums and co-pays, you’ll now make through taxes, and unless you’re very rich you’ll probably pay a lot less.” If I were an MfA candidate, I’d back that up with a pledge: “By the time Congress has to vote on a package, independent analysts will have weighed in on the costs. And if it doesn’t save middle class households a substantial amount of money, we won’t do it.”

That said, there is one group of people who will pay more: Those who could afford to buy health insurance, but have been successfully betting that they won’t get sick. They’ll have to pay something in taxes rather than the nothing in premiums that they’re paying now.

How it will play out. The MfA vs. public-option debate comes down to two points.

  • The Medicare-for-All candidates (mainly Sanders and Warren) are right about efficiency. A universal healthcare system that covered everybody for everything would deliver better healthcare at a lower price than we’re paying now. That price would fall entirely on the government, so government spending would go up even as total healthcare spending went down.
  • The public-option candidates, who want to let the private health insurance industry keep running, but give people the option of a Medicare-like system, are right about the politics. Rightly or wrongly, large swathes of the public don’t trust the federal government enough to bet everything on a big government program with no alternatives.

Warren was right to point out that no one loves their insurance company. (Mine is Aetna right now, and no, I don’t love it.) But I think a lot of people like the idea of having another choice if MfA turns out not to be as great as advertised.

The problem is that some of the gains a universal MfA would produce depend on the universality: Doctors would only need to know one system. Public health programs with diffuse benefits could be instituted without worrying exactly who is going to pay what when. The public option would still be more efficient than private insurance, but not as good as it could be.

In the end, though, this debate is not going to make a difference, at least in the short run. Even if Sanders or Warren get elected, together with a Democratic House and Senate, the new president will still find that the votes aren’t there for Medicare for All. As we saw with ObamaCare, the program will be whatever it needs to be to get the last few votes. In other words, even with Democratic majorities and the elimination of the Senate filibuster, it is the 50th Democratic senator and the 220th Democratic representative who will call the tune. They will be moderates from swing districts.

So one way or the other, the program will get scaled back to a public option. If that program is allowed to go forward without sabotage (as Trump has been sabotaging ObamaCare), the public option will gradually gain public trust, setting up an eventual universal program that may well resemble Medicare for All.

[1] Given the wide popularity of the two fundamental Democratic points — sick people should get care without going bankrupt — Republicans generally avoid detailed discussions of healthcare. Block whatever the Democrats want to do and repeal ObamaCare, and then something will happen that solves everybody’s problems.

That came clear in the repeal-and-replace debate in 2017. The replace part was always vaporware whose details could only emerge after repeal.

That scam is still going on. WaPo’s Paige Winfield Cunningham reports that the White House has given up on the health care plan it said it was writing, to be released only after the 2020 election. “The Republican Party will become the Party of Great Healthcare!” Trump tweeted back in March. He promised “a really great HealthCare Plan with far lower premiums (cost) & deductibles than ObamaCare. In other words it will be far less expensive & much more usable than ObamaCare.”

Cunningham notes that there is no sign anyone is working on this. Groups that you’d expect to lead the charge for a Republican plan, like FreedomWorks, say they haven’t been told anything about it.

The problem is that there’s no Republican consensus for a plan to implement. RomneyCare was the only healthcare plan the GOP had, and their idea-pantry has been empty ever since Obama used Romney’s plan as the basis for his proposal.

The usual Republican answer, the free market, is a non-starter here. Private health insurance companies make money by insuring people who don’t get sick. Given its freedom, no company would insure sick people.

[2] Trump claims to want coverage for preexisting conditions, but has put forward no plan for how that would happen. BuzzFeed summarizes:

The GOP argument is that Obamacare disappearing would be so catastrophic — regulated markets would collapse, millions of low-income people would lose Medicaid, insurers could once again deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions — that Congress would have no choice but to set aside their differences and pass a replacement.

We saw something similar play out with the Budget Control Act of 2011. Supposedly, the automatic budget cuts (the “sequester”) that would set in if Congress couldn’t come to an agreement were so onerous that of course Congress would come to an agreement. We’ve been dealing with the sequester ever since.

In general, if somebody’s plan is so onerous that it can only be announced in the face of an emergency, I want no part of it.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The big news this weekend — the drone attack on the Saudi oilfields — is still unfolding: We don’t know how convincing the administration’s attempt to pin the blame on Iran will be, or what kind of response against Iran it might carry out. We don’t know whether the disruption in the world oil market will be a blip or a longer-term shortfall in supply. We don’t know whether there will be further attacks.

As I’ve often said, a weekly one-person blog can’t compete with the major networks on breaking news, so I won’t try.  In the weekly summary I’ll set up the general situation, but leave the up-to-the-minute developments to outlets better equipped to handle them.

The featured post this week will focus on the healthcare debate among Democrats. I will argue that the differences between the candidates are overblown in two ways: All the candidates believe in two sweeping principles (that Republicans deny), and (whoever is president, and even if Democrats win both houses of Congress) the program will need the votes of the most conservative Democrats. So the program that gets passed will look very similar to a program that would be passed under a different president.

That post should be out shortly.

The weekly summary will cover the drone attacks, the rest of the Democratic debate, John Bolton, another weekly dose of corruption and deceit from the Trump administration, and a few other things. I hope to get that out by 11 EDT.

Limits to Wealth

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

Elizabeth Warren

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

This week everybody was talking about political chaos in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

The Washington Post outlines Johnson’s four options:

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

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

and the CNN climate townhalls

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

and another week’s worth of malfeasance

Previous administrations have all danced this dance with the media:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let’s close with some misunderstandings

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