Thursday, December 14, 2017

GOP Hypocrisy on FBI/Justice Department

Jonathan Chait details the screaming Republican hypocrisy on the FBI and Justice Department handling of tbe Trump-Russia investigation in New York Magazine.

Tuesday night, officials from the Department of Justice invited reporters to see something scandalous: text messages by FBI agents sent during the presidential campaign expressing … opinions about the political campaign. One message called Bernie Sanders “an idiot like Trump. Figure they cancel each other out.’’ Another read, “God, Trump is a loathsome human.” “I cannot believe Donald Trump is likely to be an actual, serious candidate for president,” read yet another text.

Republicans in Congress spent the day expressing indignation at the horror and bias of it all. Here, finally, was evidence of the sinister deep-state conspiracy of which Trump had warned. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — the two authors of the offending texts, who were reportedly in a romantic relationship — have already been removed from the Trump investigation, but the mere fact they ever had any involvement strikes Republicans as fatally suspect. “This is not just political opinions. This is disgusting, unaccountable political bias, and there’s just no way this could not affect a person’s work,” cried Representative Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas. Senator Lindsey Graham called for a full investigation. It has become the centerpiece in the argument circulating throughout the party media that the FBI is the equivalent of an anti-Trump secret police and which must be purged of enemies.

The notion that a person who considers Trump an idiot has no business judging him is a novel one. Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a “fucking moron” yet has continued to serve as secretary of State. Graham himself has called Trump a “kook” and “unfit for office.” This is not even a controversial opinion among Trump’s handpicked staff. That Trump is ignorant, emotionally fragile, and unable to learn or handle his tasks is the stated and unstated premise of the endless stream of leaks emanating from scores of people who work for him. It is the conventional wisdom not only in Washington but within the White House.

Obviously, law-enforcement agents have a duty to segregate their opinions from their work. But the idea they cannot express political viewpoints is a standard invented in recent weeks for the purpose of discrediting the people investigating the Trump administration. As Representative Ted Lieu pointed out, acting FBI director Christopher Wray has donated $39,000, and Deputy Attorney General Rachel Brand $36,000, both exclusively to Republicans. These are public donations, not text messages to a romantic partner that were never intended for public consumption.

The notion that the FBI has been harboring a bias for Democrats is especially rich. Like most law-enforcement agencies, the FBI tends to attract people who lean right. While the politics of its leaders and agents can’t be quantified, it is disproportionately white and male. To some extent this is probably unavoidable. Getting good staff means attracting people who are especially enthusiastic about their mission, and law enforcement will tend to draw from the right of center just as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Health and Human Services will tend to draw from the left of center.

There is relatively strong evidence evidence that the FBI’s conservative bias influenced its behavior during the election. Reporting indicated Republican-leaning agents were agitating for a prosecution of Clinton. Agents leaked damaging stories to Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani, who — not anticipating that his party would decide the next year that politically opinionated FBI agents were scandalous — boasted openly about his contacts. This pressure culminated in then-director James Comey’s extraordinary decision, in the final ten days of the campaign, to publicly announce a reopening of the investigation into Clinton on the basis of the flimsiest evidence — some old Anthony Weiner emails that predictably amounted to nothing.

At the same time, Comey refused to disclose that the FBI was in the midst of investigating Trump’s web of ties to a hostile country that was attempting to intervene in the election on his behalf. Unlike the email investigation, the Russia probe has already produced multiple indictments and two guilty pleas to date. Yet the FBI created a news environment in which Clinton was portrayed as under investigation and Trump was not.

Indeed, if you recall, when Trump fired Comey earlier this year, his pretext was that Comey had treated Clinton unfairly. (“We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of  declined criminal investigation,” noted the letter from Rod Rosenstein, which the administration waved around to justify replacing Comey.) Now the charge is that the agency was unfairly biased in her favor.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trump in a Nutshell

Chris Cillizza describes Donald Trump very well on

What explains Trump's decision to provoke Pelosi and Schumer in advance of the meeting? Some of Trump's allies will insist that he is playing a strategic game that people like me are just too dumb to see. That by forcing Democrats to walk away from the table, Trump will improve his party's leverage. Or something.

But the simpler explanation is that Trump is playing -- and has always been playing -- zero-dimensional chess. There is no grand strategy. There is no broad blueprint. There is just impulse, reaction and then reaction to the reaction.

Put more simply: Trump just says stuff. Like calling Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas" at an event honoring Native American code talkers for their service during World War II. Or suggesting to people that maybe, just maybe, the "Access Hollywood" tape is a fake. Or one of a thousand other things Trump has said since being elected president.

The arc of his presidency is that there is no arc. There are just a series of dots on a board. You can try to draw a line in between them all but there's really no through line other than ego and personal grievance.

That's it. Remember that Trump declared proudly in the opening passage of his seminal "Art of the Deal" that he liked to sit at his desk every morning with no set plan and no real schedule. As a businessman, Trump liked to let the world come to him and react to it. That's the exact same philosophy he's brought to the White House.

There is no long game at work here. There is no game at all. It's zero-dimensional chess. Which isn't chess at all.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Frum: GOP Blowing Tax Reform

David Frum points out the latest example (tax reform) of Republicans' inabilty to govern in The Atlantic.

From the point of view of future U.S. growth and prosperity, the broad outline of tax reform seems obvious. Lower corporate rates to somewhere between 25 and 30 percent, the developed-world norm. Tighten collection so that the rate is actually paid. This is one reform that should come near to paying for itself, since collections from the present loopholed system have shrunk to such relatively low levels. Make up any difference by raising other, underperforming taxes, especially excise taxes; while collections from the individual income tax have doubled since 1997, receipts from the federal excise tax on alcohol have risen only by one-third over the same period.

Those are changes that could command broad assent. The present Republican plan to use the manifest need for corporate tax reform to shift the burden of the individual income tax from the wealthiest to middle-income families in blue states will not.

Congressional Republicans well appreciate the unpopularity of what they are doing. That’s why they are short-circuiting the traditional legislative process, bypassing hearings and other opportunities for public comment. The more the public knows, the more jeopardized their plan becomes. Since the Great Recession, the GOP has grown both more extreme in its goals and more radical in its methods. Apocalyptically pessimistic in its view of America’s future, it seems determined to seize for its donors and core constituencies as much as it can, as fast as it can, as ruthlessly as it can. It will then take advantage of the U.S. political system’s notorious antimajoritarian bias in favor of the status quo to defend the grab over the coming years and decades. Repeal and replace failed. The new slogan is: Rush, grab, entrench, and defend.

Despair is always a bad counselor. This hubris and haste will not deliver the results that U.S. businesses want and that the American public should expect. A normal Republican president would say so. A normal Republican president would enlarge the narrow views of his congressional party—if only to win a second term for himself, but ideally because presidents by their job definition are compelled to think of the wider interests of the nation. But President Trump, elevated by the Electoral College on the basis of a Michael Dukakis–size share of the popular vote, is not only the least public-spirited president in U.S. history, but also the most ignorant and shortsighted. He struck an implicit deal with the congressional Republicans during the campaign of 2016: If they would shield his wrongdoing, he would sign their bills. It’s the one of the rare commitments in his lifetime on which he has not (yet) reneged.

An opportunity to achieve a sensible improvement by broad consensus is being flung away in favor of accumulating special favors for “special” people. If it succeeds, it will not last. And it probably will not succeed. The differences between the House and the Senate are real; settling them will take time.

Some Republicans may reason, as Paul Krugman tweeted on Thursday, “You might think that growing evidence that 2018 will be a Dem wave would make some Rs break ranks. But here’s the thing: Probably many of those Rs figure that they’ll be wiped out regardless … So if you’re, say, a GOP Congressman from a well-educated, affluent CA district, you might look at VA results and say, ‘Well, by 2019 I’ll be outta here and working as a a lobbyist on K Street.’ So keeping the big money happy is what matters.” Not all will think thus, however, and certainly not all will arrive at Krugman’s conclusion equally fast. Vestigial instincts of self-preservation among Republican members of Congress will slow the legislative timetable against the unforgiving clock. It’s very possible, too, that in the face of negative polling, Trump may panic and go back on it, sabotaging the entire project. It’s quite possible that the only legacy of the great tax reform push of 2017 will be raw material for devastating Democratic attack ads in 2018.

It didn’t have to be this way. It should not be this way.

A rationally conservative party of business and enterprise could, and should, have written a corporate tax-reform bill that is compelling on the merits. The slowdown of U.S. productivity growth would be the country’s leading problem if U.S. constitutional democracy were not being attacked from the White House at the same time. The GOP submitted to Trump in 2016 very largely to reach this moment. The ironic outcome is that his success that year doomed the very prize for which his party sold its soul.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Trump's Real Fear

Paul Waldman breaks down Donald Trump's biggest fear from the Mueller investigation in The Week.

Trump is plainly sensitive about anything that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of his election victory. But that's not what he's really afraid of. The real threat Mueller poses, the thing that's probably keeping Trump up at night, is what he might find out about the president's finances. If Mueller follows the money — and he certainly will — it could lead to all sorts of interesting places.

To begin, it's important to understand that although Mueller's investigation is concerned with possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, that investigation can expand anywhere he encounters evidence that crimes might have been committed. Since Trump has copious connections to Russian money, it was inevitable that Mueller would begin probing his finances.

 Trump is right that he never invested in Russia. But a whole lot of Russians invested in him — more than just a condo here and there. In fact, Russians, including a large number of oligarchs and mobsters, have bought hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Trump properties over the years, in many cases apparently as a means of laundering money. Trump has also had Russian associates and Russian investors with questionable ties who have joined with him on troubled projects like Trump Soho. So there are a lot of threads for a prosecutor to start tugging on.

But more broadly, once Mueller begins looking into Trump's books, there's no telling what he'll find. If you have even a passing familiarity with Trump's business career, you know that it's full of scams like Trump University, vendors he refused to pay, labor law violations, and deals he managed to slip out of while leaving others holding the bag.

All of it was investigated only perfunctorily by the press during the 2016 campaign: an article here or there explaining some shady deal from Trump's past, with little or no follow-up from the rest of the media. For instance, did you know that Trump once had to pay a $750,000 fine in an insider trading case? I'll bet you didn't. For any other candidate it might have been disqualifying, but for him it was barely worth noticing. Did you know that Trump had substantial dealings with the mafia in New York, which was heavily involved in the construction industry? You probably didn't hear about that either.

Much of that may be in the past, but we don't even know what Trump is involved in right now. Because the Trump Organization is a private company, its details are not open to public view — and in fact, the company is really a series of hundreds of smaller companies, partnerships, and arrangements, a kind of gigantic financial rat king in which the component parts send money flowing to Donald Trump from all over the world.

And think about the risk Trump took to keep his tax returns secret, in defiance of half a century of political tradition. He knew that he'd get significant criticism for the decision and it would lead to lots of uncomfortable questions, but he was adamant that no one would get to see those returns.

But Robert Mueller can. He can subpoena them whenever he decides it's necessary. For all we know he already has. And if it's relevant to the investigation and it appears that there might have been crimes committed by someone, he can go deeper and deeper, an examination Trump has never been subjected to before. Mueller made a point of hiring a number of lawyers for his team who have expertise in money laundering and other financial crimes; they helped build the case against Paul Manafort, but they'd also know what to look for in Donald Trump's financial web.