Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Trump and the Paris climate accord

Nobody but Dear Leader knows what he will announce Thursday concerning the U.S.'s participation in the 2015 Paris climate accord. But let's be clear about a couple of things.

If you reject the reality of climate change, your grandchildren (and maybe even your children) will not think kindly of you.

If you think pulling out of the accord and following policies to promote coal, oil and other fossil fuels will strengthen the country, you are wrong. Fossil fuels are finite: they will run out. Anybody who hopes to return to the days when gasoline was cheap and coal was king is trying to take the country down a dead-end path. Again, your grandchildren (and, again, maybe even your children) will not think kindly of you.

Either we approach our problems clear-eyed about the limitations the world places on us, or we deny our descendants their future. It's as simple and as stark as that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The "deep state", or the real state?

Some of Dear Leader's advisers, including Steve Bannon, are starting to buy into the idea that "the deep state" is trying to bring down the Trump administration.
The number of leaks coming from inside the government, sources say, have advisers concerned that someone is out to get them.

Commentators on Fox News, Mr Trump’s channel of choice, have helped push the idea that these leaks come from an American “deep state” – a body within the government working to bring down those in power.

Are the leaks part of a giant conspiracy?

Not the kind of conspiracy in a spy novel, no. The leakers haven't pledged themselves to Goldfinger, or to Barack Obama, for that matter.

Rather, the leakers have pledged themselves to the Constitution, and to the country.

What they've heard the President say and watched him do are simply not conscionable.

They have heard and seen him reveal classified information to the representatives of a hostile foreign power, harming not just us but an allied nation.

They have heard and seen him upend his own agenda after watching Fox News, forcing his staff to cobble together pitiably inadequate policy papers under impossible deadlines.

They have heard and seen him consider unthinkable ideas, like withdrawing from NATO and treating nuclear weapons like conventional weapons. (This piece explains why the latter is so appalling.)

They have heard and seen him ignoring their attempts to brief him on complex policy issues because he can't or won't concentrate — unless, that is, his name is frequently mentioned.

They have heard and seen him rage at them for the flood of negative press his actions and words have engendered.

They have been moved to publicize those things so that we, the people, know what kind of man occupies the Oval Office.

He refuses to see the chaos he foments here and abroad, and is not forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions. The only way he can be curbed is to bring public pressure to bear, both on him and Congress, because they both hate low ratings.

The leakers are not acting out of partisanship: they're acting out of deep concern for the well-being of the country. They're trying to alert the nation to the danger of a President who does not understand his job and, even more disastrously, does not care about the responsibility that goes along with the power he wields.

They are not conspirators.

They are patriots.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The question the Gianforte incident asks us

When Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter asking him a question (and there's no "allegedly" about it: Gianforte has admitted he "made a mistake"), it forced the rest of us to ask ourselves a question:

If violence is acceptable in politics, where isn't it acceptable?

Politics is how we settle our differences so we don't have to resort to violence. If we've given up on the very premise of our democracy, well, let's stop wasting our time and just stock up on weapons.

I'm not too concerned that Gianforte got elected given that two-thirds of the ballots were cast before the assault happened. What I want to know is, how many of those who voted for him early would change their vote now that they know about his violent attack? Knowing that will tell us something about the health of our democracy.

Given that Dear Leader in the Oval Office, I suspect the patient is very sick.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mueller is a distraction

The conventional wisdom is that the appointment of Robert Mueller III as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign's connection to Russia is a good thing. It puts the investigation into the hands of a widely respected former FBI director who is seen as being above partisanship. Plus, a lot of us are just exhausted from the avalanche of disturbing news out of this administration.

David Frum, though, sees more clearly.

In his 14 May 2017 Atlantic piece he argued that "Of all the types of independent investigation that have been suggested, a special prosecutor is the most likely to disappear down rabbit holes—the least likely [to] answer the questions that needed to be answered." Why? Because a special prosecutor is charged to investigate only criminal conduct. Anything that isn't a crime isn't of interest, or at least cannot be reported to the public. The flip side is that criminal action must consume all the special prosecutor's attention, "no matter how secondary or tertiary the crime might seem in the larger scheme of things", to quote Frum again. In short, a special prosecutor wears a set of glasses conferring a particular myopia. What we need, however, is context — the big picture — not a narrow dive down one avenue of potential trouble (i.e., criminal misconduct).

Frum argued for an investigative strategy that allows us to answer a simple question:

While it remains uncertain whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, it’s a fact accepted by everyone except Trump himself that Russia did intervene on his behalf. Why?

This is an intelligence question with policy implications, not a prosecutorial question with legal implications.

Though simple, the question could require a wide-ranging investigation to elicit a comprehensive answer, and Frum contends that only a less narrowly-tailored investigative body can do the job:
A select committee of Congress or an independent commission of nonpartisan experts established by Congress can ask the broad question: What happened? A select committee or an independent commission can organize its inquiry according to priority, leaving the secondary and tertiary issues to the historians. A select committee or an independent commission is not barred from looking at events in earlier years statutes of limitations. A select committee or an independent commission seeks truth.
And truth is what we need above all: we're choking on the administration's lies and obfuscations.

So how did Frum react to Mueller's appointment? Read his 18 May 2017 piece.

Republicans in Congress have gained a new excuse to revert to their prior enabling of Trump’s misconduct: A special counsel has been appointed!

Instead of defiantly lying, the White House staff can now refuse to answer questions outright: A special counsel has been appointed!

Fundamental questions of national security and public integrity will go unexplored as the special counsel focuses on narrow legal matters. The public debate will be starved of new information as the special counsel proceeds in legally required secrecy.

What we don't know — what we entrust Mueller to find out for us — will take on primary importance for many, while "what happened in plain sight" will "dwindle into secondary importance". Trump's firing of James Comey, his "cheering rather than condemning a Russian attack on American democracy" — these will now be shrugged off by those who wish to shrug them off, with the excuse that they were "not criminal, merely anti-democratic and disloyal".

Perhaps most damningly:

People in Trump’s orbit now face legal fees and legal jeopardy. For a long time however, the president himself will enjoy the shield of Robert Mueller’s professional discretion.

Like me, Frum isn't hung up on the highly legalistic question of "did Trump or his people commit crimes?" Rather, Frum boils down his concern to a single, burning question:

“Is the president a risk to national security?”
Here's what we need, then:
The most urgent task ahead is a broader counter-espionage inquiry conducted not to mete out punishments, but to discover and publicize the truth, however disturbing.
Amen.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Be clear on the threat to the country

A lot of people are talking past each other about Donald Trump and the problems the country is facing. Look at this sampling of reader opinion in USA Today. Among the denunciations of the Republican Party for not turning on Trump are dissenting remarks like this:
How did the news media know about details of Trump’s conversation? Trump can legally discuss classified information with a foreign dignitary. Whoever leaked the details of the talk to the press should be charged or at the very least fired. The information, and by extension the conversation, was not for public eyes.
This kind of highly legalistic reading of the incident entirely misses the big picture.

Trump's threat to the nation arises not from violating the law (that we know of, anyway), but from his gross misuse of the power he has.

Consider: you have the legal right to spend your money on booze instead of food. That doesn't make it a good idea. And if your legal activities have bad consequences for others, you are responsible for those bad consequences. If your kids go hungry because you spend all your money on booze, you have misused your legal right.

Trump didn't break the letter of the law by disclosing classified information: he has that legal right. However, the far more important question is, Was disclosing the information a good idea?

The answer, according to everyone but Trump, is a resounding NO!

The disclosure

  • violated an intelligence-sharing agreement with a friendly nation
  • potentially compromised an intelligence asset or assets of that friendly nation — and "compromised" in the best case means somebody has to haul ass out of his or her undercover role and get to safety; in the worst case, that person is tortured and/or killed
  • royally pissed off that otherwise friendly nation
  • almost certainly makes other otherwise friendly nations reluctant to share intelligence because they can't trust the big mouth in the White House. That, in turn, screws us.
Those consequences of Trump's exercise of his legal authority seem more than bad enough to me.

Those of you hung up on the legality of his disclosure need to understand that the rest of us are worried as hell by his, and his staff's, terrible judgment.

Though he has no idea how the legislative process works (honestly, somebody should make him watch Schoolhouse Rock), he has been eager to dive in head-first to prove he can get stuff done — and he has the metaphorical fractured skull that mutely testifies he can't get stuff done.

  • Congress was caught off guard by Trump's insistence that a health care bill be passed with lightning speed. The result: an embarrassing failure in round 1, and a skin-of-the-teeth passage in the House after furious whip-work by the Republican leadership. Almost no one thinks TrumpCare 2.0 will pass the Senate in its current form, yet Trump celebrated in the Rose Garden as if he had signed the House bill into law. It makes the rest of us wonder: does he think he did? That's how low our opinion of his judgment (and grasp of reality) is.
  • Trump's staff, including the Treasury Secretary, was caught off guard by Trump's public pronouncement that his administration would have a tax plan ready within days. The response was a one-pager that serves more as a set of talking points than anything else; it certainly doesn't come within smelling distance of anything resembling a bill. Nobody thinks Steve Mnuchin or the Treasury Department fell down on the job: everyone knows this one-pager is what passes for a plan in Trump's mind. I'm sure he's still puzzled why the rest of us aren't praising him to the skies for it. Again, this bespeaks terrible judgment (and an inability to understand how others think) on Trump's part.

    Major legislation takes time to craft properly, but try telling that to him.

  • His first botched effort to enact a version of his promised "Muslim ban" was flatly shut down by the courts. Multiple judges acting independently of one another looked at the language of the executive order and decided that it almost certainly did not pass Constitutional muster, especially when they took candidate Trump's intemperate public remarks into account. Creating the order was his right as President — but he did it badly because he didn't have the good judgment to get competent and thorough legal help.
These incidents — and of course there are dozens more, not all of them relating to legislation or executive action — fit a pattern of ludicrous simplemindedness and indifference to detail. He thinks he can tell people, "Get this done!" and magically, it will get done. If it doesn't, he blames them, never taking any of the responsibility himself.

Of conscientiousness and good judgment, I see no sign.

What I do see is a man who would rather be a dictator than President. He lusts for power but loathes responsibility and is shameless about ducking it. If he were cunning about more than his self-interest, he would be Machiavellian and we'd be facing different problems. However, he's an abject simpleton when it comes to everything except his self-interest.

A couple of days ago I praised a recent column by David Brooks, the thesis of which is, Donald Trump "is an infantalist [sic]" (as far as I can tell, the spelling should be "infantilist"). This falls into a category of speculation that some pundits have been engaging in for the last year, that Trump might be mentally deficient in a clinically diagnosable sense.

Whether Trump can be clinically diagnosed as mentally diminished, I don't know, though I doubt it. He doesn't have to be clinically handicapped to be dangerous, though. We all know somebody who is physically an adult and is able to live an adult life, but who shows such poor judgment that you would not trust this person with any serious responsibility. That sounds like Trump to me.

We just found out that the administration knew Michael Flynn was under federal investigation when he was merely the nominee for national security advisor. In spite of that knowledge, the nomination went forward and he actually was made the national security advisor. That indifference to a major warning sign bespeaks terrible judgment on Trump's part.

So, again: to argue that Trump has acted within the letter of the law grievously misses the point. He has showed terrible judgment just since he took office. That is why I'm concerned. That, not the (so far) illusory spectre of illegal acts, is why we all should be concerned.

The President wields vast powers. We need the President to be a person who makes good decisions, whose judgment is sound.

In that light, consider the leaks from this administration. The leaks are profoundly distressing to the administration and its supporters, of course. I understand and (distantly) sympathize: I'd feel the same way if I supported this administration.

But put yourself in the position of a mid-level staffer in the White House. Suppose you're an aide to national security advisor H.R. McMaster. You're in the room when Trump brags to the Russian ambassador about how great the U.S.'s intelligence on ISIS is, and proves his point by mentioning a detail that even you, who have clearance to see a lot of secret information, didn't know. After the meeting, you make cautious inquiries; your boss can't come right out and confirm the detail's accuracy but the look in his eyes is all you need to know.

You're horrified. The President just shared highly classified information with representatives of one of the least friendly nations on the planet!

You've seen this before. You've seen him make horrible, horrible blunders that endanger the nation and its allies. You've always stayed silent because you respect the Presidency. You know the blunders you've seen, if made public, would cripple his reputation.

But now you realize that the biggest threat to the country is the President. Now you realize that the only thing that can stop the President is public opinion.

So you reach out to a reporter you trust — because you know this is the most patriotic thing you can do. You know that the country needs to know the danger it faces.

I don't expect everyone to buy into this entirely speculative scenario. But if you don't, consider that the White House itself almost certainly no longer includes any political appointees held over from the Obama administration. The political appointees in the White House are supportive of the current President. So why would these loyal appointees sabotage the President they support? Why would they leak information when it obviously hurts the administration?

The only way leaks make sense is if these staffers feel they have a responsibility that supersedes their duty to support the President. And they do. They are public servants. They work for the President, but their final loyalty must be to the American public.

So don't get caught up in the lesser (still important, but lesser) questions of whether what he did was illegal or whether leaks should be taken more seriously. His actions do not need to have been illegal to be damaging to the country. Leaks are bad, but it would be infinitely worse if we didn't know about his appalling blunders.

The biggest threat to the country isn't from leaks or illegal actions that may or may not have happened. The biggest threat to the country is the vast power of the Presidency being in the hands of an erratic and infantile man.

The biggest threat to the country is Donald Trump and his manifest unfitness to hold office.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"When the World is Led by a Child", David Brooks

I don't often agree with the New York Times' David Brooks, but his 15 May 2017 column hits the nail on the head.

He diagnoses Donald Trump as having failed to grow into adulthood.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.
Trump's profound immaturity underlies and adequately explains all of Trump's otherwise baffling behavior. It baffles us because we're accustomed to a grown man acting like a grown man. We especially don't expect our President to be so stunningly retarded in his intellectual and emotional development. (George W. Bush, for whom I had little respect, was merely ignorant: he wasn't volatile, nor did he have such profound disrespect for the office.)

Brooks' analysis also explains Trump's otherwise unfathomable sharing of classified information with Russian governmental officials:

From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.
After the classified-information release story broke, reporters apparently "overheard yelling" in the White House tonight among Trump, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and White House Communications Director Michael Dubke. I have no doubt Trump was doing most of the yelling; he has a habit of blaming everyone but himself when things go wrong. Rather like a 7-year-old.

We are at the mercy of a spoiled little boy in the body of a 70-year-old man.

Are you scared? I sure as hell am.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Perspectives on Trump and Comey

I've got a few tabs open in my browser relating to the firing of James Comey and I might as well list them and let you read (or not), since I clearly am not going to be able to discuss each of them.

Oh, and an older item that isn't about Comey: a piece from Vann R. Newkirk II entitled, "The American Health Care Act's Prosperity Gospel". It's the best explanation I've found for the fervent support in some quarters for the House's American Health Care Act. For some folks, bad health is a punishment for bad living, while "Health is wealth".

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Party unity is harming the republic

Enough.

That blinkered hack Mitch McConnell is refusing even to consider appointing a special prosecutor to carry out an impartial investigation into the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russian state action.

McConnell's intransigence, and the refusal of even ordinarily sensible Republicans like Susan Collins to buck him and Trump on this, is not mere partisanship. Their inaction is way, way beyond partisan. It is destructive to the honesty and integrity of government. It is destructive to the health of the nation.

This fish stinks from the head but Republicans for the most part are arguing that there's nothing wrong. Comey was the target of bipartisan criticism, goes the refrain, so ditching him should be celebrated by everyone. Left unanswered is the matter of timing: why was he fired now?

We all know the answer.

The reason given by the White House for Comey's firing — that he fouled up when investigating Hillary Clinton — is the rankest bullshit. Comey was fired shortly after asking for more resources to further the FBI's inquiry. He was fired because he was pursuing the investigation too zealously for Trump's taste.

Firing Comey was about as nakedly self-preservationist an action as we've seen since Nixon. As Timothy O'Brien at Bloomberg wrote:

What drives Trump today, and what has always driven him, are twin forces: self-aggrandizement and self-preservation. Most of his public actions can be understood as a reflection of one or both of those needs.

And Donald Trump firing James Comey was all about self-preservation.

Any politician's refusal to accept this simple truth makes him or her complicit in Trump's corruption.

In February I pondered how far Trump might indulge his authoritarian, anti-democratic instincts. I argued that Congress, with Republicans in charge, wasn't going to do anything to curb him. So far, all but a handful of Republicans are proving me right. Party before country, as despicable an attitude as can be found in politics.

So far the courts have served to check Trump's most outrageous abuses, but as I wrote:

It's crystal clear Donnie lacks even a hint of the sense of civic responsibility and respect for the nation's institutions that kept Nixon from holding onto power. Dear Leader is corrupt and doesn't care if we suspect (hey, how about those tax returns, Donnie?). He and his cronies have only contempt for the so-called establishment (that contempt is practically their brand). What if that includes the courts? Is it so hard to imagine Donnie ignoring court decisions, even Supreme Court decisions, he doesn't like?
We haven't yet arrived at that pass, but Bloomberg's O'Brien noted that Dear Leader openly mused about breaking up the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the circuit most likely to oppose his actions. If there is a way to neuter the courts' ability to check this administration, Dear Leader will find it.

That being the case, in March I pondered what recourse would be left for ordinary people like you and me if Dear Leader succeeded, with Republican legislators' cover, in establishing a truly authoritarian state.

... if Dear Leader presents the existential threat to our republic that I'm beginning to think he does, I'm talking about bringing the civic machinery of the country to a grinding halt. I'm talking about withholding federal taxes and refusing to cooperate with federal authorities. I'm talking about dropping tools and paralyzing the business of the nation.

I'm talking about a general strike and civil disobedience directed against the federal government, until such time as Dear Leader and his junta are removed from power.

We're not there yet, but we are slipping closer to the edge — because Republicans are putting party over country.

Something has been fueling the FBI investigation. Every belated admission of wrongdoing, every grudging recusal (after enormous public pressure), demonstrates that Dear Leader and his closest associates are hiding dirty dealings. Firing Comey was as public a sign as possible that Dear Leader is deeply worried, worried enough to pull a dictator's stunt — yet confident enough that he'll have political cover. So far, he's right on the latter score.

Trump is dirty, but we don't know how dirty. Every day that we continue not knowing what that dirt is, is a slap in the face of the public and an erosion of the promise of the Constitution. He and his authoritarian disregard for everyone but himself are the gravest threat our country has faced in over four decades.

How long are we going to let Republicans in Congress cover for him?

How long are we going to let them hold their damned party unity more sacred than their oath of office:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Your oath is to the Constitution, ladies and gentlemen, not to your party or the President.

Think about that oath, and whether you're truly keeping faith with it.

Think about which you love more: your party, or your country.

We're all waiting. And we will remember what you decide.