Friday, June 23, 2017

GOP : Party of Trolls

Andrew Sullivan describes the Trump administration's apparent goal of simply reversing the policies of Barak Obama in New York Magazine.

I was mulling, as one does, over this presidency, and something crystallized in my head that I had not quite grasped before. Its policies are best described as simply perverse. The new Senate health-care bill is just the latest shining example. As Peter Suderman explains, it certainly isn’t based on any serious conservative ideas about reforming health care; it has no vision of how it wants health care to be organized; the loss of health care for the working poor will be most intense in Republican districts; and, just as important, a huge amount of it is simply kicked into the future — and could easily be forestalled or nullified by future Congresses and presidents. For good measure, by ending many of the taxes in the bill that make it work, and by removing the individual mandate, it risks sending the insurance markets into a deeper crisis.
So what on earth is the point? For Trump, it seems to me, the whole point is to have a “win.” He doesn’t give a shit about what the bill actually contains. He’ll just lie about it afterward and assume his cult followers will believe him. For Ryan, it’s just a way to make a future tax cut for the superrich more budget-friendly, while pushing the political costs of shredding Medicaid onto some future sucker.
And then you think about those tax cuts Ryan wants so badly. We are told that these cuts will spark so much growth they will pay for themselves — and more. And yet if there is one thing we really do know by now, it is that this strategy has spectacularly failed and failed again to work. Reagan’s tax cuts left the U.S. with an unprecedented peacetime deficit; George W. Bush inherited a small surplus and, after his tax cuts didn’t spur higher growth, handed Obama a Treasury close to bankrupt. In Kansas, the exact same strategy has incurred so much debt that a supermajority of the legislature, led by Republicans, have junked it. To pursue it a third time on a national scale is the definition of madness.
We are also living in an era of extreme inequality. Any responsible politician would be trying to find a way to ameliorate this, if for no other reason than it is deeply dangerous for the stability of our society and the health of our democracy. And yet the policy of the Republicans is to further increase such inequality to levels beyond even the robber-baron era. Again, the only word for this is … perverse.
Ditto, for that matter, the idea that coal is the future of energy, and that climate change is a hoax. There was absolutely no point in withdrawing from the nonbinding Paris Accord — which is why Trump is now lying by claiming, as he did last Wednesday night, that it was binding. It was an utterly pointless way to isolate the U.S. from the rest of the world, and cede leadership to China. There was really no point at all in trashing the modest opening to Cuba under Obama, poisoning relations, and then just fiddling with the details.
Elsewhere in foreign policy, we have just begun a deepening of the war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, with no strategy in place. We’ve also junked the very careful limits that Obama put on the war against ISIS, leading to increasingly dangerous conflict with the Russians. And we now have a broader Middle East policy that has needlessly junked the core gain of the Obama years. The opening to Iran gave the U.S. far more leverage in the region, balancing out our previous Sunni commitments with a Shiite counterweight. Now Trump has fully committed the United States to one side of an intra-Muslim divide, while trashing Qatar, which houses the most important military base in the entire region. Again: perverse.
And what on earth was the purpose of equivocating about the critical commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, undermining the core underpinning of the Atlantic alliance — and then affirming it anyway? We haven’t even gotten commitments to more defense spending from the Europeans, apart from what Obama had managed to get them to agree to already. But what we have achieved is an unprecedented rupture in relations with most of the key European allies.
It is also, frankly, perverse to ignore Russia’s blatant attempt to disrupt our elections and to keep reaching out to Putin — when the Congress will rightly deepen sanctions anyway, and Putin will pursue his own ambitions regardless. None of this is coherent strategy, and almost all of it counterproductive.
The only theme I can infer is this: Whatever Obama did, Trump will try to undo. The perversity is the flip side of spite.
Former conservative talk radio host Charley Sykes agrees.
Rather than defend President Trump’s specific actions, his conservative champions change the subject to (1) the biased “fake news” media, (2) over-the-top liberals, (3) hypocrites on the left, (4) anyone else victimizing Mr. Trump or his supporters and (5) whataboutism, as in “What about Obama?” “What about Clinton?” 
For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.
In many ways, anti-anti-Trumpism mirrors Donald Trump himself, because at its core there are no fixed values, no respect for constitutional government or ideas of personal character, only a free-floating nihilism cloaked in insult, mockery and bombast.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Trump-Russia Getting Real

Josh Marshall explores the Washington Post bombshell on Trump being investigated for obstruction and his circle for financial crimes on Talking Points Memo.

Reading through this article, contemplating that the President less than five months in office is already being investigated for obstruction of justice, what is so mind-boggling is that the case isn’t even really a he said, he said dispute. How do we know the President fired Comey because of the Russia investigation? He said so on national television! And he said something similar the day before, on May 10th, only this time in a private setting.

On May 19th, the Times reported a White House memorandum summarizing Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office. In that meeting President Trump said “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

This meeting was on May 10th, the day after Comey’s dismissal. The memorandum was likely written later that day. In other words, almost immediately after firing Comey, within the following two days, President Trump made at least two statements in which he essentially admitted or more like boasted about firing Comey with the specific goal of impeding or ending the Russia probe. There are various and highly significant complexities tied to the unique role of the President. He is the only person in the country who can, arguably, obstruct an investigation by exercising his statutory right to fire a members of the executive branch. But on its face, this is essentially admitting to obstruction.

It will be interesting to see whether either or both of these admissions played into the decision to launch a probe and precisely who authorized it. In any case, Robert Mueller has now subsumed it into his broader mandate and purview.

The additional detail about this part of the Russia investigation writ large is that Mueller appears to see this potential obstruction of justice as either including Trump’s requests to DNI Coats and NSA chief Rodgers or in some way evidenced by what he asked these two men to do. The article also says preliminary interviews suggest Mueller’s team is “actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government.”

What does this mean?

Here’s one guess. We know that President Trump has a number of close friends who he calls frequently to shoot the shit, rant or just unwind. Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy seems to be one of these. There appear to be plenty more. We can see that Trump was far from discreet in sharing his thinking and motivation about firing Comey. He literally said it in a nationally televised TV interview and in a conversation with the Russian foreign minister. We also know that he spent the previous weekend at his Bedminster golf club stewing in his anger at Comey and finally deciding it was time to fire him. Given all this, it seems close to impossible that Trump didn’t stream of consciousness with many of his sundry associates and toadies about what he was planning to do and why.

Those people are all now witnesses.

The one additional part of the WaPo article is broad and vague but in its own way represents the most peril for the President and his entourage. At one point the article reads: “Mueller is overseeing a host of investigations involving people who are or were in Trump’s orbit, people familiar with the probe said. The investigation is examining possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals.” Earlier in the piece, there’s this: “Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.”
The seeming multiplicity of investigations speaks for itself. But it is the repeated reference to “financial crimes” or “suspicious financial activity” that grabs my attention.

Experts will tell you that “financial crimes” can often mean technical infractions, ways of structuring or organizing movements of money, failures to disclose, certain actions that are prima facie evidence of efforts to conceal, etc. This doesn’t mean these are just ‘technicalities’ in the colloquial sense. They are rather infractions the nature of which may be hard for a layperson to understand but which often end up snaring defendants when other crimes are too difficult to prove. But here’s the thing about the Trump world. I don’t have subpoena power. And we’ve yet to assign a reporting crew to the Trump entourage beat full time. But even with my own limited reporting, it is quite clear to me that there are numerous people in Trump’s entourage (or ‘crew’, if you will) including Trump himself whose history and ways of doing business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. It sounds like Mueller sees all of that within his purview, in all likelihood because the far-flung business deealings of Trump and his top associates are the membrane across which collusion and quid pro quos could have been conducted.

As I said, a basic perusal of business in the Trump world makes clear that serious legal scrutiny would turn up no end of problems. Just consider what was from a financial perspective, a tiny island in the Trump archipelago of mischief, The Trump Foundation which David Fahrenthold did so much with. Almost every rock Fahrenthold overturned exposed some self-dealing, at least legal violations and often real wrongdoing and as much as anything a wild level of sloppiness and indifference to doing business like even semi-honest people. From one perspective it’s hard to say Trump knowingly broke the law with the Foundation since the whole conduct of the Foundation seemed to be carried on as though none of the relevant laws even existed. Again, the Foundation was just a sideline for Trump. It’s not where he made his big money and ran off from his biggest obligations. That’s how they do business.

If Mueller is taking a serious prosecutor’s lens to Trump’s financial world and the financial worlds of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn and numerous others, there’s going to be a world of hurt for a lot of people. And that is if no meaningful level of 2016 election collusion even happened.

And I don’t think that’s true.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Comey and our Predator in Chief

Nicole Serratore draws parallels between Donald Trump's coercion of James Comey and sexual harassment in The New York Times.

As I listened to James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, tell the Senate Intelligence Committee about his personal meetings and phone calls with President Trump, I was reminded of something: the experience of a woman being harassed by her powerful, predatory boss. There was precisely that sinister air of coercion, of an employee helpless to avoid unsavory contact with an employer who is trying to grab what he wants.

After reading Mr. Comey’s earlier statement, I tweeted about this Wednesday night, and immediately heard from other women who had seen that narrative emerge. How recognizable it was that Mr. Comey was “stunned” to find himself in these potentially compromising positions. His incredulity, mixed with President Trump’s circling attempts to get his way, were poignant. For a woman who has spent a lifetime wrestling with situations where men have power they can abuse, this was disturbingly familiar.

In the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, Mr. Trump said of any woman he wanted: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” And he added: “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” With the power of the presidency at his disposal, Mr. Trump thought that he could use the psychology of coercive seduction on the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Victims of sexual harassment often face skepticism, doubts and accusations when they tell their story. That’s part of the predator’s power. But I’m here to tell James Comey, and all the women and men who have suffered at the hands of predators, I believe you.

Sullivan on Comey's Testimony

Andrew Sullivan spells out what James Comey's testimony tells us about Donald Trump in New York Magazine.

And there was a lovely resonance, don’t you think, that this shocking reversal for right-populism came on the very same day that President Trump was definitively shown to be more than worthy of impeachment. I’ve long been a skeptic of some of the darkest claims about his campaign’s alleged involvement with the Russian government — and possible evidence thereof — but I’m not skeptical at all of the idea that he has clearly committed a categorical abuse of his presidential power in his attempt to cover it up.
This sobering reality was not advanced by the Comey hearings yesterday, riveting though they were. We have long known that Trump colluded with the Russian government to tilt the election against his opponent — because he did so on national television during the campaign, urging the Kremlin to release more hacked Clinton emails to help him win. We also know that he fired FBI Director James Comey in order to remove the cloud of the Russian investigation from his presidency — because Trump said so on national television himself and then boasted about it to two close Putin lackeys in the Oval Office!
But the details to buttress this picture add weight and texture to all of it. Comey credibly asserted that the president asked for personal loyalty to him, and not to the Constitution; that Trump sought leverage over Comey in a highly inappropriate private dinner for two; that he cleared the Oval Office of everyone else so that he could ask Comey alone to drop the inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia; that when Comey refused to obey, the president fired him; that when asked why he fired him, the president openly cited the investigation into Russia; and that he then brazenly threatened the FBI director if he spoke the truth about their interactions in hearings or the press.
What else do we really need to know?
Or look at it this way: We now have a witness of long public service, clear integrity, with contemporaneous memoranda and witnesses, who just testified under oath to the president’s clear attempt to obstruct justice. Any other president of any party who had been found guilty of these things would be impeached under any other circumstances. Lying under oath about sexual misconduct is trivial in comparison. So, for that matter, is covering up a domestic crime. Watergate did not, after all, involve covering up the attempt of the Kremlin to undermine and corrode the very core of our democratic system — free and fair elections. Even conservative commentators have conceded that if this were a Democrat in power, almighty hell would have already been unleashed. We wouldn’t be mulling impeachment. It would already be well under way.
The “defenses” of the president are telling. Republican senators were attempting to parse the words “I hope” yesterday in a manner that made Trump’s aspiration to get Flynn off seem like an innocent musing directed at no one in particular — when it was directed alone in private to the man running that investigation. Please.
The Speaker of the House then tried this one on: “The president’s new at this. He’s new to government and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He’s just new to this.” Excuse me? Someone who assumes the office of the presidency without knowing that we live under the rule of law, and who believes that the president can rig the legal and investigative system to his own benefit, has no business being president at all. This should not be part of some learning curve. Not knowing this basic fact about our constitutional democracy — something taught in every high school — is ipso facto disqualifying. If the president doesn’t know this, he doesn’t know anything. And if he can violate this clear, bright line, he can violate anything.
What chills me even more is how Comey of all people was clearly intimidated. He didn’t threaten to resign; he didn’t immediately cry fowl; he appealed only to Sessions, who rolled his eyes. This “cowardice” — to use Comey’s own term — is from a man who stood up to a previous president under great duress in the emergency of wartime. Imagine how many other functionaries, less established and far weaker and less pliable than Comey, will acquiesce to abuse of this kind, if it is ignored, enabled, or allowed to continue.
And yet Trump remains in office, hoping that our outrage will somehow be dimmed by his shameless relentlessness and constant distractions. In classic Roy Cohn fashion, he is now, through his thuggish lawyer, calling for an investigation into (yes) Comey for his leak of his (unclassified) memoranda as a private citizen. He will say or do anything — and yes, lie through his teeth repeatedly — to obscure the reality in front of our eyes. But we need to be clear about something. If we let an abuse of power of this magnitude go unchallenged, we have begun the formal task of dismantling our system of government. This is not a legal matter — dependent on whether you can convict someone of a specific crime. This is a political matter — and of the gravest kind — about whether we wish to sustain our liberal democratic norms.
Do we Americans have sufficient integrity to do this, and to reverse the drastic error we all so recently made? Maybe the British have just showed us that, yes, we can.