Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pardon Me! (And me! Me, too! Don't forget me!)

Wonder why nobody in TrumpWorld seems fazed about MoronGate? Steve reflects on the reason that the cold, hard evidence of Junior's intent to collude is being shrugged off at the White House.

The news that Donald Trump, Jr. recorded a mile-long email trail documenting his salivating eagerness to collude with the Russian government should not have come as a shock. Profoundly stupid as this appeared, it was still and all the act of a man whose most consequential life accomplishment to date has been emerging intact from the birthing canal, enabling him to coast his ensuing 39 years on a name that represents the pinnacle of taste to all those who possess no taste. This man makes one think that DNA is actually an acronym for Does Not Achieve. Of all the hypotheses as to why the younger Trump placed the smoking gun to his own temple, the one with that singular ring of truth is that he is an idiot. People say he is dumber than a box of hammers, but then again, hammers do not post wildly incriminating email trails on their Twitter feeds.

Trump proceeded to offer a most unlikely defense for having taken a meeting with a Russian government emissary that was essentially characterized as an opportunity for collusion: he willingly tweeted absolute proof of his intent to collude, but appeared angry and disappointed that there wasn’t anything worth colluding about. I went to that branch with every intention of robbing the bank, he seems to be saying, but when I demanded the money, they didn’t have much, so I left.  How much more innocent can I get?

To round out his day, Trump handled incoming lobbed softballs from Sean Hannity by taking his moron defense to the airwaves, arguing that in the he-man, testosterone-driven world of business, everyone is going to take a meeting in which they are offered juicy tidbits to take down their competitors. Funny how the Trumps appear to understand the differing standards between business and government when they are chanting “lock her up,” but are tripped up by those nuances when eagerly entertaining illicit offers from hostile sovereign nations.

A delicious side dish in Don Jr.’s comprehensive bungle was that when he learned from The New York Times that it was about to release the full text of his emails, he disingenuously raced to pre-empt the Times’ scoop by tweeting the full trail himself. The Trump White House’s entire strategy of dealing with bad news is to label any such bombshell as just so much fake news disseminated by a lying liberal press on the devil’s mission to delegitimize the Donald’s presidency. However, it became a bit harder to call it fake news when Don Jr. was the one actually sent the tweet.

Indeed, many in the liberal press cracked open the vintage Dom Perignon, believing that MoronGate would finally set in motion an inexorable chain of events that would bring the Presidency of Donald Trump to its knees. Time magazine’s cover headline was “Red Handed,” which seemed to capture the permanent delusion among progressives that anyone in the Republican Party gives a rat’s ass about what the liberal media says. 

But in the long view, the real implication of MoronGate has little to do with Donald Trump Jr.

As the foggy shroud of bullshit burned away from his initial claims of an innocent meeting about “adoptions,” the true significance of this event is that Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort found it worth their while to attend a meeting in June specifically billed as an opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.  The implications of this fact are seismic: while private citizen Donald Trump Jr. can very credibly retreat to the idiot defense, Advisor to the President Jared Kushner does not have that latitude.   

Make no mistake: it is Kushner’s reputation that Trump Junior’s tweet shredded. It was only two months ago that Kushner was forced to acknowledge that he had attempted in December to set up a secret “back channel” to the Kremlin. Then followed the disclosure that Kushner was a subject of the FBI’s investigation. More recently, Kushner had to amend his disclosure of meeting with Russians for the third time to acknowledge his attendance in Trump Junior’s meeting in June.  And now Trump Junior tweets that the specific intent of this meeting was to find out whether the Kremlin could provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Jared Kushner is now in the position of being the senior-most official of the United States government who has acknowledged direct meetings with Russian government emissaries about highly questionable topics at a time when all U.S. intelligence and investigative agencies agree that Russia intentionally took actions to undermine the U.S. elections.  In Kushner, we now have reasonably concrete evidence of the means, motive, institutional authority, and now even intention to authorize collusion with the Russian government.

Indeed, it’s still early in the evidence-gathering game. Who knows how many more meetings, emails, and crazy Russian rock stars are going to emerge as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the FBI, and the congressional committees continue to dredge the swamp? Will still more Kushner meetings with the Russians materialize? That sounds just about as risky as betting against the Knicks.

Which brings us all the way to the hardened, gnarly nut yet to be cracked open.

We have, on the one hand, the narrative of a President who micro-managed his campaign, making every single important decision himself, and taking counsel only from a tiny group of fiercely loyal aides and family members. On the other hand, we have those very fiercely loyal family members insisting that they never told the micro-managing candidate of a potential game-changing opportunity to gain information that could mortally wound Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.  It simply defies logic or common sense that none of Don Jr., Kushner, or Manafort  ever mentioned this meeting to Trump Sr.

Kushner, in particular, is at the center of every bulls-eye: it is simply unfathomable that Kushner had repeated substantive discussions with Russian operatives about a wide array of topics and yet did not discuss a single one of them with his father-in-law, which is essentially what President Trump has maintained throughout his “witch hunt” counter-attack.  How are we to believe that such a scenario was executed? 

  • Are we to believe that Kushner was free-lancing -- repeatedly engaging in unauthorized, rogue, and wildly dangerous secret meetings with Russian operatives at his own initiative and authority?
  • Or that Kushner took all these meetings believing that it is what the old man wanted him to do, all the while keeping Trump Senior insulated from any specific incriminating involvement or information?
  • Or, perhaps this: Kushner was man-Friday for every scheme Donald Trump wanted to explore, and was empowered to pursue clandestine and borderline-illegal activities because he had been completely reassured that he would never, ever be negatively affected by a single one of his actions.

The President of the United States has the power to grant whole, unreserved, and permanent pardons regarding any crime of any magnitude to any citizen he so wishes to bestow this awesome gift upon. Donald Trump received, among many other things, an endless supply of “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards when he received the gold-plated Monopoly Game from Vladimir Putin and James Comey in November, 2016.

Among the crimes that Jared Kushner need not worry about are treason, election tampering, and perjury. All he needs to do is stand up, raise his right hand, and swear that every meeting he ever took with Russians was his own idea, his own doing, his own initiative, and that he never told the boss.

Flynn? Same deal. Never told the boss a thing. Pardon me.

Manafort? Me? Tell Trump?  I beg your pardon!

And Donald Trump, Junior, the only one (so far) stupid enough to fully document and publish his intent to collude? Please pardon the behavior of my idiot son.

Make no mistake: the point here is not that Kushner and this gang plan to plead the Fifth or invoke executive privilege. Either of those routes would be interpreted as tantamount to a confession, and would risk sowing doubt among the party faithful. No, these people would be more likely to brazenly lie, knowing that no penalty -- perjury, treason, destroying evidence -- cannot be undone by a Presidential pardon. Lying is the lingua franca of Trump's motley crew, and it is the native form of communication of its cult leader. Why do we think any of them would stop in the face of sworn testimony?
Don’t be surprised when all these people materialize at the end of the Trump Presidency with the Kush-iest of jobs at Trump Enterprises. Go to prison? These guys are going to be paid millions for their cooperation.

The parade of testimony from each of these four players may be all that die-hard Republican representatives and senators may need to claim that there is no case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Think Trump wouldn’t have the audacity to promise a full pardon and fat reward to every flunkie who promises to lie under oath on his behalf? Perhaps you do not truly understand this man. He has already demonstrated a full willingness to use every power the office accords him, with no restraint born of custom, history, or patriotic behavior. Release my taxes? Respect the press? Ban immigrants based on religion? 

Let’s just hope that Special Prosecutor Mueller has already long-since gamed this one out.  A prosecutor’s usual approach is to attempt to flip the underlings in order to gain their testimony on the big target. Knowing that Trump has, in the power of presidential pardon, the ultimate trump card, Mueller may have to take an entirely different approach to this case.

We can hope that the administration has more idiots like Donald Trump Jr., who have created similar electronic trails that provide the hard evidence of collusion.

We can hope that the Mueller is relying on wholly separate sources of evidence and never needs to hear a word of testimony from anyone in the administration to make a case for collusion or obstruction.

But all we learned from Donald Trump Jr. last week is that this President isn’t even fazed by hard, tangible evidence of intent to collude by his son, his son-in-law and key White House advisor, and a top-ranking manager in his campaign.

Pardon me if I suggest that there is a reason why.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

BTRTN June 2017 Month in Review: The Dirge

Tom on another miserable month in a miserable presidency.

THE MONTH

Donald Trump's sad excuse of a presidency is settling into a wretched dirge.  The world may be on fire -- another round of frightening terror attacks, no deterrent to North Korea’s escalating nuclear weapons program, an extraordinarily devastating health care insurance bill hanging in the balance – but the President of the United States is occupying his time and attention with an ongoing personal brawl with two television hosts over plastic surgery and The National Enquirer.  That is, when he is not "obsessed" (using Dan Coats' word) by the Russia investigation.  It has come to this.

The month has proven to be another exercise in distraction, with the Trump Administration pursuing, single-mindedly, an active strategy of all-out war with the media.  The White House has been shut out of the health care talks by Mitch McConnell, has delegated military strategy to the Pentagon, and is essentially running a different foreign policy than that of its very own Secretary of State.  In the wake of Trump’s decision to revoke U.S. support of the Paris Accords, our allies have given up on us.  Trump admitted that his “China Strategy” of controlling North Korea has failed (surprise!), there is no Afghanistan policy, and Trump can’t seem to strike the right tone in the wake of various UK terrorist attacks, using them as forums to pick fights on issues and people (e.g. the Mayor of London) rather than a show of solidarity.

Did we mention that this was the month that James Comey publicly testified to what at the very least seems to be, to any layman, a strong case for obstruction of justice?  That the Washington Post reported that Trump himself was now officially under investigation for obstruction, a report apparently confirmed by Trump himself and then reversed by one of his lawyers, who made the absurd argument that Trump was confined to 140 characters and thus could not explain himself fully?  (Trump, of course, is expert at running series of tweets that collectively allow for many multiples of 140.)  That Special Counsel Robert Mueller interviewed Mike Rogers and Dan Coates, who have nothing to do with the collusion case but are intimately involved in the obstruction issue, thereby essentially confirming the Post?

Here is what passed for “wins” this month for the White House:  abandoning 194 other nations in the Paris Accords, joining only two others in rejecting them (one of whom because the Accords did not go far enough, in their view); the Supreme Court’s decision to lift parts of the notorious travel ban, until the case is heard this fall; and Trump not blowing the message after a gunman badly wounded House Whip Steve Scalise at a GOP baseball practice.  That…is….it.

We are well past the novelty of an unconventional president, well past the point when a “New Trump” (like the many “New Nixons”) might have emerged, well past any thoughts of Trump translating his victory into a legislative record the GOP could be proud of (however hideous it might be).  We have settled into this miserable march, replete with senseless tweets, personal vendettas, classless insults, a stalled agenda, sycophantic Cabinet meetings, titillating statements (e.g., White House Tapes) that are later withdrawn, discrediting Robert Mueller, self-proclaimed P.R. plays like “Infrastructure Week” and “Energy Week” that are trampled in the message game by Trump himself, no foreign policy and an increasingly exhausted and frustrated America.

There is no end in sight.  Many of us are truly horrified by all of this and have been since Election night; some of us were willing to give Trump a shot and are now basically unhappy, and some of us are still applauding.  The Mueller investigation has begun in earnest and it will be methodical and lengthy.  Steel yourself America, this is the way it is going to be for many, many months.

THE NUMBERS

Trump’s approval rating remains at roughly 40%, in and of itself another sign of our collective stalemate.  I am often asked how anyone could possibly approve of the way things are going.  There is truth, of course, to the parallel universe theory that Trump supporters live in their own world of media, blogs and alternative facts that support the notion that this has been a successful presidency.

But I think other factors – that take into account the many misfires – are also at play.  First, Trump supporters are simply happy that, after eight years of Obama, the agenda in play and the discussion around it, is a conservative one.  Second, even if Trump supporters believe he has not accomplished much as yet, they are far more likely to blame Congress (see: health care), or the courts (travel ban) or, less rationally, the Deep State (that they believe exists for the sole purpose of trying to torpedo Trump)  rather than Trump himself.  And third, even those Trump supporters who accept that he is utterly failing can still take solace in the fact that, in their view, it was much worse under Obama and would have been even worse under Hillary Clinton.

But the approval rating is falling, about a point a month, and the “net negative” is widening, now at -14.  Trump may not be in the true Danger Zone of the 20-30% range, where GOP congressmen dump him as the midterms approach.  But he is also a long way from the Reelection Zone that is much closer to 50%.  The trajectory is downward, and there does not appear to be any near-term catalyst to break the trend.

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Approve
46
46
43
43
42
41
Disapprove
46
50
52
52
54
55
Net
0
-4
-8
-9
-12
-14

TRUMPOMETER

It’s easy to forget that Trump was essentially elected on an economic platform – the promise of jobs for the working class.  “America First” seems to be playing out more on the foreign policy side, with the Paris Accords and the lukewarm stance on NATO.  But “America First” was first and foremost about jobs.

Trump, despite his protestations otherwise, inherited a good situation, with a dwindling unemployment rate, modest GDP growth, and good prospects for both.  While he is claiming credit for the continuation of good news, the burden is shifting to him to make good on his promise for 4% GDP growth.  He surely will  point to tax reform as a key pillar required to achieve such a huge spike, and that is no lay-up.  The Administration has already walked back its promise for August passage of the bill, and they will be laughably later than that, if they achieve a bill at all.

For now, we track the Trumpometer, which is at -2, little changed since the Inaugural.  The unemployment rate has dropped, the stock market has been strong, consumer confidence remains high and the price of gas has fallen.  But Trump now owns that GDP number…stay tuned.

"Clinton-ometer"        1/20/2001
"Bush-      ometer"        1/20/2009
"Obameter"      1/20/2017
"Trump-ometer" 5/31/2017
"Trump-ometer" 6/30/2017

25
-53
0
-4
-2
  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
4.4
4.3
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
118
119
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.52
2.40
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
21,009
21,350
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
1.4
1.4



Friday, June 30, 2017

On Hamilton, Madison, the Origin of the Two Parties, Ted Kennedy and the GOP Health Care Bill

Tom reflects on 1790, 2010 and 2017.

Alexander Hamilton was not very happy.  Hamilton had just delivered his opus, a report on the credit situation of the United States, and what to do about it, to the very first Congress.  The report was requested by Congress not long after George Washington had appointed Hamilton to be the first Treasury Secretary, and was widely anticipated.  Hamilton, in typical fashion, went far beyond the assignment, and delivered, essentially, a blueprint for how to achieve his vision of a strong, centralized U.S. government, replacing the ineffectual government under the Articles of Confederation.  Among his principal recommendations was the assumption by the new government of all state debts, which then amounted to a whopping $25 million.

Hamilton was unhappy because his intellectual partner, James Madison, had just launched a broadside attack on Hamilton’s report, a critique that dumbfounded Hamilton.  Just two years before, the pair had written 80 of the 85 Federalist Papers that were so instrumental in securing passage of the Constitution, thereby replacing the Articles and setting our nation on its unified course.  Madison was the strongest voice in Congress, and his blessing, which Hamilton took for granted, was crucial to passing Hamilton’s plan.  But Madison, it turned out, was wary of a strong, centralized government, and he knew the assumption of states’ debts would irrevocably establish the federal government’s preeminence over the states. 

And so began the battle still being waged in Washington, DC, today over the power of the federal government.  Hamilton and Madison would become arch-enemies, Hamilton (and President Washington) favoring – to put it mildly -- a strong, centralized government, while Madison (joined by the new Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson), fearing the same, and favoring states’ rights instead.  The party names have changed since the time of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, but the Dems and the GOP carry on the debate.

It is hard to find an issue that better exemplifies the two underlying party philosophies than the health care insurance debate.  The Dems believe in a strong role for the federal government, expressed through Obamacare, which sought to subsidize health insurance for the previously uninsured through an expansion of Medicaid, paid for by taxing the wealthy, and requiring a commitment of all Americans to enroll in health insurance program, the so-called mandate.  The GOP considers Obamacare to be yet another massive federal entitlement program, and for years argued for its repeal and a return to a market-driven system, with no “forced choices” such as the mandate.  Once in power, however, Trump realized that simply “repealing” the now-popular Obamacare would leave him and the GOP open to huge criticism, and thus announced a goal to “replace” it as well.

The divide reveals the effects of the two philosophies in ways rarely so starkly quantified    It is a pretty clear choice, and the CBO analysis makes the trade-off clearer still.  The new Senate bill will result in 22 million fewer Americans with health care coverage, and would save roughly $300 billion over ten years.  Under the GOP plan, the more limited government approach would give the wealthiest Americans a huge tax cut and deny coverage to poorer and older Americans, while eliminating the mandate of insurance coverage.

Which brings me to Ted Kennedy.  Perhaps no public official worked harder over his career than Kennedy to expand health care coverage (Kennedy’s and the Dem’s true goal was universal coverage via direct government insurance, essentially Medicare for all).  How thrilled Kennedy surely must have been in 2009 to see Obamacare moving through Congress; not universal care, perhaps, but strong enough to cut the number of uninsured in America from 50+ million to half that.  And success seemed assured, because the Democrats controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress, indeed they had 60 certain votes in the Senate, enough to pass the bill without a single GOP vote.

Fate would, of course, intervene, and Kennedy would die in August, 2009, before he could cast one of those 60 votes.  And a Republican, Scott Brown, would, shockingly, win his seat.  Obama would get his bill though, and the GOP House would go on to vote to repeal it 60 more times.  Obamacare in practice did reduce the number of uninsured by tens of millions, but the Supreme Court, while upholding (surprisingly) the constitutionality of the bill, made the states’ Medicaid expansion requirement optional.  Obamacare’s various flaws inhibited its effectiveness, and in a number of states the number of insurers remained low.

Kennedy would not have been surprised by Obamacare’s defects. He would have seen the bill in a clear-eyed manner – landmark legislation that went far in achieving far greater coverage, but with defects, in need of legislative improvement.  “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” he would intone; his legislative philosophy always favored passing a good-but-not-perfect bill and then fixing it over time.  In Ted Kennedy’s Senate, this was the way it was.

But the GOP has, in seven years, refused to follow that dictum, choosing to repeal rather than engage in the needed fixes.  And thus, now, we have the ”repeal and replace” madness, with a Senate bill that is only slightly less “mean” (to use Donald Trump’s own words) than its House counterpart.  The fractured GOP hates the bill from both the far right and from the moderate center, and in reality, it is a garbage bill in all ways.

Hamilton could have predicted the folly of “repeal and replace”.  As he said, “Whoever considers the nature of our government with discernment will see that though obstacles and delays will frequently stand in the way of adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted, they are likely to be stable and permanent.  It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”  Hamilton also decried smallminded legislators who followed their constituents rather than lead them.  He bemoaned, “The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit, the people.”

How did Madison’s Congress ultimately pass Hamilton’s program?  In the best political tradition, the way it has been practiced from 1790 until very recently, a deal was cut, the first major compromise in our legislative history.  Hamilton and Madison went to dinner at Jefferson’s house, in our young nation’s first capital in New York City.  And by the time dinner was over, Hamilton would have his bill, and Jefferson and Madison would have what they wanted, which was that the permanent site of the capital would border their beloved Virginia, right on the Potomac, in what would become – yes, Washington, DC.

The GOP of the 115th Congress (or its immediate predecessors) does not appear to be capable of doing what Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson and Kennedy would have done – reaching a compromise with the Dems and fixing the ACA, which would actually both please and benefit the people.   The undoing is exposing the GOP’s dysfunction, putting them in a lose/lose debacle, where passing the bill could very well be worse than failing to pass the bill.