Friday, March 24, 2017

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Either Way You Look At It, You Lose

Trump told recalcitrant Republicans that if they don’t vote for the yet-again revised version of their healthcare bill, they will lose their seats in 2018.

Trump spent Tuesday selling the Republican health-care overhaul to skeptical House members, warning his party that failure would endanger his legislative agenda and their own political careers.

But more than two dozen GOP lawmakers remained firmly opposed to the legislation amid the high-stakes persuasion campaign led by Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — more than enough to block the bill ahead of a planned Thursday vote.

[…]

In a morning address to a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, Trump used both charm and admonishment as he made his case, reassuring skittish members that they would gain seats in Congress if the bill passed.

He singled out Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, which has led the right-wing opposition to the bill.

“I’m gonna come after you, but I know I won’t have to, because I know you’ll vote ‘yes,’ ” Trump said, according to several lawmakers who attended the meeting. “Honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks.”

I’ve got news for you: if you vote to pass this turd of a repeal/replace bill and if 26 million people, a lot of them who are poor and who voted for Trump, lose their health insurance or find out that they got screwed, you’re going to lose, too.

And you right-wingers who are holding out because any kind of help from anyone is a violation of God’s will — don’t you be getting healthcare if Jesus means for you to die — will also find out that there are a lot more people who would rather live than take their chances with Bible-lotto.

I suppose it doesn’t occur to Trump that having him campaign against a GOP candidate in 2018 might actually help them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Survival Of The Twittest

Oh, so now they’re worried…?

Mr. Trump’s allies have begun to wonder if his need for self-expression, often on social media, will exceed his instinct for self-preservation, with disastrous results both for the president and for a party whose fate is now tightly tied to his.

“The tweets make it much more difficult for us as we try to build a case against these leakers,” said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee. “We always have to be answering questions about the tweets — it puts us on defense all the time when we could be building a case for the president.”

And Mr. Trump’s fixation on fighting is undermining his credibility at a time when he needs to toggle from go-it-alone executive action to collaborative congressional action on ambitious health care, budget and infrastructure legislation.

“I don’t always like what the president is saying,” the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, told The Washington Examiner last month. “I do think he frequently, by wading into other matters, takes attention away” from “the very substantial things we’re already accomplishing.”

Nice try, Mitch, but you haven’t accomplished jack ever since you decided that no uppity ni-CLANG was going to run the country.  Now you’ve got this loose cannon to blame your fecklessness on, but as noted below, screw you.

And for those of you who voted for Trump because you didn’t want a president under F.B.I. investigation, that goes double with cheese.

In This Corner

Via the Washington Post:

FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged Monday that his agency is conducting an investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in a counterintelligence probe that could reach all the way to the White House and may last for months.

The extraordinary disclosure came near the beginning of a sprawling, 5½ -hour public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in which Comey also said there is “no information” that supports President Trump’s claims that his predecessor ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the election campaign.

[…]

Remarkably, Trump’s presidential Twitter account continued to fire away throughout the widely watched hearing, live-tweeting comments and assertions that lawmakers then referred to and used to question Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers.

Comey and Rogers both predicted that Russian intelligence agencies will continue to seek to meddle in U.S. political campaigns, because they consider their work in the 2016 presidential race to have been successful.

So the director of the F.B.I. testified before a congressional committee that the nation’s top criminal investigative agency is looking into evidence that Russia manipulated the last presidential election and it was likely they would continue to do so; that Trump was repeating a right-wing nut-job website story about spying that has as much truth to it as the one about Elvis working at a Burger King in Grand Rapids; and meanwhile Trump was still tweeting about all of it and giving the Democrats on that committee fodder for their questions to the director.

At what point does Franz Kafka show up and say “Too weird for me, fellas, I’m outta here”?

Actually, it might be worth it to stick around just to see how he gets out of this one.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Keeping Them Under Watch

Trump doesn’t trust his own appointees to keep in step with him.

The political appointee charged with keeping watch over Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides has offered unsolicited advice so often that after just four weeks on the job, Pruitt has shut him out of many staff meetings, according to two senior administration officials.

At the Pentagon, they’re privately calling the former Marine officer and fighter pilot who’s supposed to keep his eye on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “the commissar,” according to a high-ranking defense official with knowledge of the situation. It’s a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal.

Most members of President Trump’s Cabinet do not yet have leadership teams in place or even nominees for top deputies. But they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty, according to eight officials in and outside the administration.

This shadow government of political appointees with the title of senior White House adviser is embedded at every Cabinet agency, with offices in or just outside the secretary’s suite. The White House has installed at least 16 of the advisers at departments including Energy and Health and Human Services and at some smaller agencies such as NASA, according to records first obtained by ProPublica through a Freedom of Information Act request.

These aides report not to the secretary, but to the Office of Cabinet Affairs, which is overseen by Rick Dearborn, a White House deputy chief of staff, according to administration officials. A top Dearborn aide, John Mashburn, leads a weekly conference call with the advisers, who are in constant contact with the White House.

What’s ironic is that Trump himself — between tweeting at all hours of the night and playing golf in Florida the rest of the time — is barely running the government himself.

It also strikes me as just a tad too authoritarian for a supposed democracy to have the White House placing minders at the agencies just to ensure their loyalty.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday Reading

Sesame Street Isn’t Just For Affluent Kids — Gene B. Sperling and Danielle Lazarowitz in The Atlantic.

When the Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested that parents in struggling rural and urban areas might not consider funding public television through the Corporation for Public Broadcast a good use of taxpayer dollars during an appearance on Morning Joe on Thursday, he may have thought his statements reflected their feelings and were backed by up evidence. He was wrong on both accounts.Mulvaney was likely parroting the long-held conservative belief that PBS – with cultural programming like Masterpiece Theater and Antiques Roadshow – is too highbrow, and geared solely towards “coastal elites.”  Yet he may have seemed woefully out of touch with the needs and desires of economically struggling families to Vicenta Medina, an immigrant mother from Mexico. While she and her husband Gilbert struggled to raise their family on the South Side of Chicago forty years ago, she says Sesame Street helped teach English to their young son David. They watched him go on to collect degrees from both Harvard and the University of Chicago, and then work in the Obama White House—where I first heard his story from a mutual friend.

 The Medina’s story of a hard-pressed family benefiting from public television is hardly anecdotal. Strong research shows that PBS programs such as Sesame Street have proven academic benefits for young audiences — especially those from more underprivileged households. According to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study by University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine, exposure to Sesame Street is an extremely low-cost intervention that has increased grade readiness for children living in economically disadvantaged areas. The effect is especially pronounced for boys and minority children, who have seen their likelihood of being below grade level decrease by as much as 16 percent.
A number of earlier studies have also discovered positive academic impacts. One study found that children who watched Sesame Street frequently in pre-school earned high-school grade point averages almost 16 percent higher than those of children who didn’t grow up watching the show. Another from the University of Wisconsin concluded that children who watch international versions of the program gain nearly 12 percentile points on learning outcomes, as compared to those who don’t watch the show. In Bangladesh, 4-year-old viewers of the local version of Sesame Street were found to have 67 percent higher literacy scores, as compared to those who don’t watch.And the benefits of programs like Sesame Street are not limited to academic achievement. A report from the Future of Children, a collaborative effort from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, indicated that kids who watched Sesame Street formed more positive attitudes toward people from different backgrounds. That finding was replicated in Ireland, where exposure to the show promoted an increased propensity toward inclusiveness among Catholic- and Protestant-raised children. A study that examined Israeli and Palestinian children had similar conclusions. This is no small deal at a time when the country is seeing the number of hate incidents rising.

 If there is an out of touch or elitist attitude toward PBS, it is the one implied by the OMB Director: The notion that lower income parents don’t value this free educational television in the way suburban parents do, or that they and their families cannot appreciate the historical and educational documentaries that appear on PBS—covering topics from Lewis and Clark to the Civil War to Jackie Robinson—just doesn’t match up with the facts. Surveys found that nearly two-thirds of poorer families reported that PBS KIDS “helps a lot” to prepare their children for school. PBS stations reach more kids ages two to five, more moms with young children, and more children from low-income families—9 million in fact—than any other kids TV network. And parents have confidence in PBS, with 66 percent saying they completely trust PBS KIDS to provide high quality programming—that’s 12 percent higher than the next closest competitor.
The trade-off proposed in the budget is a dubious one. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting cost the federal government just $445 million last year—approximately one hundredth of one percent of the entire federal budget, and only about one-seventh of the $2.8 billion in annual health care tax cuts the current Republican plan gives to the top 400 families alone—a group with average incomes of $300 million.In a nation divided by inequality in income, schools, and neighborhoods, PBS is one equalizer—providing all kids, regardless of economic background, the chance to watch and learn for free from the likes of Elmo, Bob the Builder, and the impressive show, Sid the Science Kid. Families with a lower household income report having fewer resources for school preparedness, and PBS can help fill that gap by providing free, academically-proven educational experiences.

It is difficult to imagine that the White House can defend the deep and painful cuts to programs that are vital to middle class and working poor families. But one way they can’t defend the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is by suggesting that its efficacy lacks evidence, and has no support from working parents in hard-hit urban and rural areas who rely on this educational programming to improve their children’s future.

Seriously Funny Al Franken — Karen Tumulty profiles the junior senator from Minnesota.

It was a half-hour before one of the sparsely attended committee hearings that take place almost every day on Capitol Hill — in this case, a session on energy infrastructure so dry it would not merit even the presence of a C-SPAN camera.

But in Al Franken’s suite of offices in the Hart Senate Office Building, the man still known best as one of the early stars of “Saturday Night Live” was going through an intense rehearsal with four aides.

How much, Franken wanted to know, are the Chinese spending on clean technology research? Where do things stand on the University of Minnesota’s study of torrefaction, a roasting process that produces better fuel for biomass energy production? And might there be a chance to ask a question about one of his favorite causes, loan guarantees for Native American reservations?

“I just want to keep bringing it up, so they keep hearing it,” Franken said, with a trace of a sigh.

Everyone is hearing a lot more from Minnesota’s junior senator these days.

At the dawn of a presidency that stretches the limits of late-night parody, and at a moment when an out-of-power Democratic Party is trying to find its voice, the former comedian and satirist may be having a breakout moment as a political star.

He is also finding it safe to be funny again.

Franken, now 65, barely made it to the Senate, taking his oath in July, 2009, after a ballot recount that took eight months to resolve. So he spent his first term trying to prove he was not a joke — buttoning up his wit, buckling down on esoteric issues and sidestepping all but his home-state media.

“I won by 312 votes, right?” he said in an interview. “I had to show people that I was taking the job seriously, and I had come here for serious purposes, and I am still here for serious purposes. So I think I just felt like I was on probation.”

That diligence paid off in 2014, a disastrous year for Democrats nationally, when Franken was reelected with a double-digit margin.

In between, he developed a reputation on Capitol Hill for policy chops and penetrating questions — skills that have been on display during confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

Franken “had an instinct for the legislative process, but the one talent that surprised me a little bit beyond that was his talent for cross-examination,” said political scientist Norman Ornstein, a close friend. “He has that Perry Mason quality.”

An exchange with Franken tripped up Jeff Sessions, then a fellow senator and now the attorney general, during his appearance before the Judiciary Committee.

Franken inquired what Sessions would do if he learned that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government in 2016.

He was trying to nudge Sessions into recusing himself, and he was startled when the Alabama senator offered information he had not asked for.

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions said.

After The Washington Post revealed that Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador twice last year, the attorney general did indeed have to promise to step aside from any Justice Department investigations of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Franken later declared it “one the most embarrassing performances by a nominee in the history of the United States Senate.”

“We wouldn’t accept a secretary of defense who couldn’t name the branches of the military,” he argued as the Senate prepared to vote. “We wouldn’t accept a secretary of state who couldn’t find Europe on a map. We wouldn’t accept a treasury secretary who doesn’t understand multiplication.”

Although one had to withdraw (Andrew Puzder, Trump’s first nominee for labor secretary), all of Trump’s other nominees have been approved by the Senate, a reflection of two realities: Republicans have 52 votes, and Democrats, when they had the majority in 2013, did away with the power to filibuster Cabinet picks, a procedure that requires 60 votes to surmount.

But Franken’s questions have left a mark. He will be at it again starting Monday, when Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch goes before the Judiciary Committee.

When he met privately with Gorsuch, Franken said, the nominee “seemed evasive, on pretty much everything I asked him.”

So given the chance to grill Gorsuch publicly, “I’m really going to be going to certain areas that serve what I consider his pro-corporate bias, which I think has been the bias of the court, the Roberts court,” Franken said.

The Minnesota senator spent the last eight years proving that he’s good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like him. (Don’t groan. Reporters who write about him should be allowed the indulgence of using at least one of his signature lines from SNL.)

Nearing the halfway mark of his second term, Franken said, he feels “a little freer to be myself, and so every once in awhile, something comes out.”

At the end of May, Franken has a book coming out — part memoir, part policy prescriptive — that he has wryly titled: “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.”

Franken has a laugh that bursts like a Tommy gun, and it does not take much to get it going. His staff keeps track of him on the Senate floor by listening for eruptions on their office televisions.

But the best stage to see Franken-style legislative improv is the hearing room. One recent exchange went viral.

“Governor, thank you so much for coming into my office. Did you enjoy meeting me?” he asked former Texas governor Rick Perry, who was up for confirmation as energy secretary.

“I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch,” Perry replied. In the awkward laughter that followed, Perry added: “May I rephrase that?”

“Please,” Franken said, shuddering. “Oh my lord.”

Those moments aside, and with Donald Trump in the White House, “I don’t think my role to play here has anything to do with humor,” Franken said. “I don’t think humor is the tool I’m supposed to be using.”

By one measure, Franken’s career has come full circle. In a 1991 “Saturday Night Live” skit, he played a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A week ago, on an episode of SNL’s “Weekend Update,” cast member Alex Moffat portrayed Franken in what is now a real-life role on that panel.He has many sides. During slow periods in committee hearings, Franken sometimes sketches elaborate portraits on a notepad. If he does not take them when he leaves, Senate staffers scoop up the Franken doodles as collector’s items.

But celebrity is a tricky thing in the Senate chamber, a place already well stocked with ego and ambition.

Franken said he found an early mentor in Tamera Luzzatto, who was Hillary Clinton’s Senate chief of staff at the time. Luzzatto had previously worked for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), another famous name.

Luzzatto advised Franken to keep a low profile, take care of his state and always show up well prepared.

“What we really talked about is, there is still an opportunity in the Senate to get to know each other, and impress one another with your work ethic,” Luzzatto recalled. “The way one handles fame as an elected official — senators in particular — can help or harm you.”

When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), then the minority leader, made a speech on the Senate floor in 2010 opposing the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, he noticed Franken rolling his eyes. The impropriety was made worse by the fact that Franken was presiding over the Senate at the time.

“This isn’t ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Al,” McConnell said.

Franken apologized.

As it happens, Franken’s arrival in Washington marked the very moment that Democratic power reached a pinnacle.

His belated arrival in 2009 gave the party its 60th vote in the Senate, the one that made their agenda filibuster-proof and opened, among other things, the possibility of passing President Obama’s health-care law on Democratic support alone.

But that dominance did not last long. The following January, Republicans picked up a Massachusetts Senate seat and began a long march back to the majority, which they won in 2014, the year Franken was reelected.

And with Trump’s election, the party is shut out of power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Franken brings a set of skills for navigating the wilderness they are in, Ornstein said. “It’s clear they need focused champions who can use the tools available to the minority to make points and frame issues and put people on the defensive and unmask things that need to be unmasked.”

Where it took Franken nearly six years to agree to his first Sunday show appearance as a senator, he now shows up on them frequently. There has even been talk of his potential as a presidential candidate.

“No. No,” he said. “I like this job. I really like this job. I like representing the people of Minnesota. I feel like I’m really beginning to know this job.”

Voters in Minnesota — a traditionally Democratic state that Trump lost by only a point and a half — also are paying attention to Franken’s emergence.

With another celebrity in the White House, “the context has completely changed,” said Kathryn L. Pearson, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota. “There’s no question that his Democratic constituents are enthusiastic about his high-level role at the national level, but it certainly is riskier [with] Republicans in Minnesota, and even independents.”

The night before a hearing, Franken takes the prepared testimony of witnesses home and pores over it for weaknesses and inaccuracies. If a study is cited in a footnote, he will read that too, he said.

“Very often, when I think someone isn’t being truthful, that gets my ire up,” Franken said. He cited a skirmish in the Sessions confirmation hearing over a questionnaire in which the Alabama senator claimed to have “personally” litigated several important civil rights cases when he was a U.S. attorney. Other lawyers involved said Sessions’ role had actually been minimal.

Pressing Sessions on the discrepancy, Franken got him to admit that his role in some of the cases had consisted of “assistance and guidance” and that he “had been supportive of them.”

Republican senators objected to such rough treatment of one of their own. “It is unfortunate to see members of this body impugn the integrity of a fellow senator with whom we have served for years,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said.

But for Franken, the moment was sweet: “That was fun for me.”

But he is also part of the club. When the bells rang for a vote on a recent afternoon, Franken and four colleagues crowded onto a Senate subway car.

“We have Franken here to make us laugh!” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) announced.

Which they all did.

“The first time Franken presided,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told them, “I was sitting and looking at his profile, and all I could think was ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”

Franken smiled. All that seemed like a long time ago.

Words Matter — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

As a Presidential candidate, Donald Trump led a charmed existence. Whatever he said, no matter how outrageous, it didn’t seem to hurt him. He could insult his Republican opponents, make misogynistic comments about female journalists, call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, describe Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, trot out blatant falsehoods by the dozen, encourage the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mail account—none of it proved damaging to his candidacy. As he famously remarked, it was as if he could go out and shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue “and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Now things have changed. He might never admit it, but Trump has belatedly discovered a basic principle of politics: words matter. They matter so much, in fact, that they can make or break a Presidency. That’s why every one of his predecessors—during the modern era, at least—has chosen his words carefully. It took a few weeks for it to become clear that President Trump, as opposed to candidate Trump, would be subject to this principle. But, at this stage, there can be no doubt about it. Virtually every day brings a fresh example of his own loose words coming back to hurt him.

Take the legal setback to the Administration’s revised travel ban, which was supposed to go into effect on Thursday. Derrick Kahala Watson, the federal judge in Hawaii who, on Wednesday, halted the measure on constitutional grounds, said that the public record “includes significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus driving the promulgation of the Executive Order.” Among other things, Watson cited a Trump campaign document that said, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” On Thursday, another federal judge, Theodore D. Chuang, of Maryland, issued a separate injunction against the revised ban. Citing statements from Trump and his advisers, Chuang said that they indicated the new executive order represented “the realization of the long-envisioned Muslim ban.” (My colleagues Benjamin Wallace-Wells and Jeffrey Toobin have more about both judges’ orders.)

It doesn’t stop there. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has pointed out, even a staunchly conservative judge who has taken the Administration’s side in the fight over the travel bans has criticized some of Trump’s public statements. Earlier this week, in a dissent from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against the original ban, Judge Jay Bybee strongly condemned the President’s attacks on James Robart, the district-court judge in Seattle who originally halted the ban. (On Twitter, Trump had referred to Robart as “a so-called judge” and called his ruling “ridiculous.”)

“The personal attacks on the distinguished district judge and our colleagues were out of all bounds of civic and persuasive discourse—particularly when they came from the parties,” Bybee, who worked in the George W. Bush Administration, wrote. “Such personal attacks treat the court as though it were merely a political forum in which bargaining, compromise, and even intimidation are acceptable principles. The courts of law must be more than that, or we are not governed by law at all.”

So far, then, the words that Trump has used to bully and berate the judiciary have succeeded only in encouraging judges to display their independence, with disastrous results for his Administration. And something similar has happened in response to his effort to divert attention from his Russia woes by accusing his predecessor, Barack Obama, of bugging Trump Tower.

Two weeks ago, in a series of early morning tweets, Trump declared that “President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” Perhaps he thought that no one would interrogate his words. Or perhaps he wasn’t thinking at all. In any case, the White House spokesman Sean Spicer later compounded the error by calling on Congress to investigate Trump’s charges. The House and Senate intelligence committees did what Spicer asked, and on Thursday the heads of the Senate committee—the Republican Richard Burr and the Democrat Mark Warner—issued a joint statement that said, “Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”

After that, you might have thought that Trump and his aides would decide to exercise a bit more caution in what they said. Not a bit of it. At his daily briefing on Thursday afternoon, Spicer said that the President “stands by” his bugging accusations. By way of trying to prove that these accusations were reasonable, Spicer also read out some comments made by Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News commentator, in which Napolitano claimed, without citing any evidence, that Obama had asked G.C.H.Q., Britain’s version of the National Security Agency, to bug Trump.

Spicer’s briefing created yet more embarrassment for the White House. G.C.H.Q. issued a rare public statement, in which it said that Napolitano’s claims were “utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.” In response to reporters’ inquiries, a spokesman for Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, repeated the word “nonsense,” and added, “We have made this clear to the administration, and have received assurances that these allegations will not be repeated.” On Friday morning, there were reports, subsequently denied by Trump aides, that the United States had issued a formal apology to Britain.

What can’t be denied is that, yet again, the White House is in the soup. The President and his aides now know that words and truth do matter. Yet they continue to act as if they are oblivious. At a press conference with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, on Friday afternoon, a German reporter asked Trump, “Why do you keep saying things you know are not true?” Trump didn’t answer directly. When another German reporter asked Trump about the White House citing claims that the British government bugged him, he refused to take responsibility. “We said nothing,” he said. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” And, once again, Trump refused to back off the discredited claim that Obama bugged him. Looking at Merkel, whose phone the N.S.A. reportedly tapped for years, he said, jokingly, “At least we have something in common, perhaps.”

Of course, it’s no joke. But will he ever learn?

Doonesbury — What a job.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Going Viral

Charles P. Pierce on the level of corruption in the Trump world.

The important part about dealing with epidemics is to deal with them early. Just like the fire department would really rather come into a building when there was smoke coming out of one window instead of when there are flames coming out of every window, because it’s a lot easier to control the fire early on, it’s much easier to control an epidemic early on.

—Dr. Don Francis, AIDS researcher, 2006.

It’s almost as though the entire bureaucratic immune system of the government is reacting to an invading virus. The worst thing any of us can do is assume that the ascent of El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago was not the sui generis event that it clearly was, and that he, himself, is not the sui generis occupant of the White House that he clearly is, and that he has not surrounded himself with dubious quacks and hacks that are sui generis in their approach to government as they clearly are.

There is a level of intellectual—and, perhaps, literal—corruption that is unprecedented in the modern history of the presidency and that is a genuine and unique threat to democratic institutions that are the objects of destructive contempt. The man ran on chaos. He won on chaos. And now he’s governing on chaos. The checks and balances and safety valves of the Constitution—the things that, well, constitute—the immune system of this self-governing republic are facing a threat that is as different as it is lethal.

The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is the sudden firing of U.S. Attorneys all over the country—specifically, those appointed by the previous administration. It is true that every president can do what this president did, and that most have. But the people who said all through the campaign that the rules changed with the elevation of Donald Trump cannot say that the rules are back now that he’s president. In addition, what he did on Friday was precipitous in the extreme and so much so that it seems to have been improvised on the spot, and that it might have been prompted by a virulent paranoia at the White House about “deep-state” saboteurs, a feeling encouraged by the hardbar caucus in Congress and pimped heavily by the conservative media auxiliaries.

There has been corruption in the White House before this present administration — the historians will note that one of the unique aspects about the term of Barack Obama is that there wasn’t any — and there will be corruption after this present administration.  (I well remember how after Watergate it was said that now we will be able to spot and excise corruption before it starts.  Ah, good times.)  But what makes this particular administration unique is that corruption, shady deals, tax evasion, lack of transparency, foreign influence peddling and manipulation, and other various crimes and questionable connections is not only acceptable in the eyes of certain elements of the electorate and members of Congress, it is what was needed to “shake things up.”

There are two questions that come to mind.  First, at what point will this house of cards collapse and bring down the central core of the current executive branch and who will be the ones to do it?  Certainly not the enablers in Congress; they are either too afraid of midnight tweets and the riling of the pitchfork-and-torches constituency to do anything but meekly go along, or they are in on it and are finally making something from being in office.  No help there.

The second question is who’s running the joint?  The current administration has left hundreds of federal office positions unfilled.  It may be some aspect of conservative political philosophy to shrink the size of government, but emptying whole offices and leaving statutory and policy positions vacant means that work that keeps the country running is not getting done.  You can’t run a Wal Mart outlet with two shelf-stockers and a cashier, and if this is the way Trump ran his businesses, no wonder he filed for bankruptcy so often.

We have recently been told to accept this situation as the way things will be for the foreseeable future and that we should “settle in” and ride it out.  At some point, though, the level of outright corruption and sand in the gears of the machinery will bring it to a halt, perhaps so slowly that we don’t even notice it as it happens.  Just as the sniffles turn into a cold that becomes pneumonia, this is happening now and by the time you start taking the aspirin and the Cold-Eze, it’s too late.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Reading

Do Your Job, Media — Sophia A. McClennen in Salon on the press caving to Trump’s propaganda.

On Nov. 13, 1969, then Vice President Spiro Agnew passionately denounced television news broadcasters as a biased “unelected elite” who subjected President Richard M. Nixon’s speeches to instant analysis. Disagreeing with the views expressed by broadcasters like Walter Cronkite, Agnew argued that the president had a “right” to communicate directly with the people without having his words “characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics.” When Agnew went on to call for greater government regulation of the media’s “virtual monopoly” on public information, Cronkite responded that such a call was “an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country.”

Sound familiar?

Many have argued that President Donald Trump’s administration has borrowed heavily from the Nixon-Agnew playbook. Trump referenced the “silent majority” throughout his campaign — a term that Nixon popularized in a 1969 speech. When Trump repeatedly attacks the press, calling the media the “enemy of the people,” it’s easy to hear echoes of Agnew.

But while members of the Trump team draw on their predecessors, it would be a mistake to see a complete pattern match. One can only wonder what would have happened if Nixon had access to Twitter and we can only guess at the possibility of a Nixon-era Steve Bannon in the White House. While tabloid news like that found in the National Enquirer has a much longer history than today’s alt-news, we never have had such an open and obvious propaganda machine coming out of the White House.

Agnew referred to the press as an “unelected elite.” Trump’s chief strategist Bannon raised him one and has described the press as the “opposition party.” Trump’s endless press slurs are too numerous to even list. And these are just the open and public attacks. As Carole Cadwalladr has chillingly recounted for The Guardian, the backstory is the way that big-data billionaire and Trump supporter Robert Mercer is waging war on the mainstream media. According to her, his goal is nothing short of changing the way the entire nation thinks.

The Trump attacks on the press are not just Nixon 2.0. In fact, they literally have no historical precedent.

Here’s the thing, though: These attacks should actually be good news for the press. Recall that well before Trump had any idea he was going to win, the public’s trust in the press was at an all-time low. A Gallup poll from September 2016 showed that Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had dropped to the lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only 32 percent of those polled saying they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. That number was down 8 percentage points from 2015.

Given the clearly unhinged ways that Trump, Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway make things up, attack critics and fumble with even basic parts of speech, the press should be having a field day. Then there is the ongoing question of Trump’s endless conflicts of interest. Add to that the blatant disregard for civil rights, the selection of Cabinet members who generally hate the mission of the departments they lead, the basic disrespect for any system of checks and balances, and it seems clear that the press should be well on its way to regaining public trust.

Trump is literally dismantling government before our eyes while spitting on the First Amendment. It’s an easy story to go after and it should be turning the press into our hero.

So far it’s not.

Sure, there is lots of good investigative reporting coming from independent news sources and even from some mainstream outlets, but the Trump era shows no signs of a Bob Woodward or a Carl Bernstein. And no one on mainstream television news comes close to Cronkite.

Remember when Stephen Colbert roasted President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006? At that time news media outlets had largely swallowed the narrative offered them by the Bush administration. So Colbert chose to use his speech to roast the media as much as Bush. He started off saying, “Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”

Colbert reminded his listeners that the media had simply failed to fact-check the White House as the Bush administration led us into war, denied climate change and lowered taxes on the rich. He riffed on the idea that it seemed as if all media outlets did was repeat what the press secretary told them. He mocked media organizations, saying all they had to do was put White House comments “through a spell-check and go home.”

Colbert chastised the news media: “Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”

If we weren’t watching carefully, we might think that today’s press has finally listened to Colbert.

But certainly this is a news media that doesn’t take everything press secretary Spicer says to be fact. If anything, the opposite is true. The news media seems ready to pounce on any and everything coming out of the White House.

That is just one of the many ways that the press is blowing it.

As Jon Stewart illustrated brilliantly in a cameo for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the press needs to “break up with Trump.” Despite the existence of what seems to be investigative reporting, what we really have is a mainstream press obsessed with each and every little thing Trump does.

Why does CNN report on Trump using tape to hold down a tie? Why does ABC follow his rants about Arnold Schwarzenegger? And how does the Associated Press defend publishing the email addresses of Mike Pence and his wife? It may not have been meant as doxing, but it certainly isn’t good journalism.

This means that when the White House chief of staff, Reince Preibus, goes after news media outlets and accuses them of “acting like Washington daily gossip magazines,” there is sadly too much truth to what he says.

The point is that members of the mainstream press have a chance to rescue their image and offer the public the truth in the midst of the most outrageously dishonest administration in history. Instead, they seem to be favoring the exact same sort of fear-based, hyperbolic, spectacle-heavy reporting we had during the Bush years.

To make it worse, even when news outlets cover an important story, they literally bury the lede. Rather than open stories on Trump by pointing out that he is once again going off the rails, they open with details of the actual rant.

Consider, for example, Trump’s baseless accusation that Obama wiretapped him. The Washington Post ran an AP story with this headline: “Trump Accuses Obama of Tapping His Phones, Cites No Evidence.” When CNN ran the story, it opened with Trump’s claims and captured Trump’s tweets. It was only after several paragraphs that CNN reported quotes from experts who dismissed Trump’s accusations.

The point, as Gleb Tsipursky, an Ohio State University professor, has argued, is that only those who read deep into a story will get the true picture. Meanwhile the 6 in 10 who read only headlines will come away believing false information. He explained, “Thinking errors will cause the majority of Americans to develop a mistaken impression of Trump’s wiretapping claims as legitimate, despite the lack of evidence.”

Another key problem is the accusation that the media is biased against Trump. Every single member of the Trump team makes this claim. In response, we see the mainstream news media attempt to suggest impartiality and ensure “balance” by assembling panels of experts with  opposing views.

But it is not the news media’s job to be neutral; its job is to report the truth.

Before we wait for the press to pull itself together and offer the public the reporting that’s needed, we would do well to remember that it may well be the case that we can thank the mainstream news media for Trump’s win.

As Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy reported in December, the press failed U.S. voters. The center found most coverage had been negative in tone and light on policy. An earlier study showed that in 2015 Trump received disproportionate coverage in the press, given his low status in the polls. During the primaries, Trump’s coverage was also generally positive in tone, and he received far more “good press” than “bad press.”

The Shorenstein center concluded that the volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of polls of Republicans: “Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience.” And the center also pointed out that “Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories” and referred to Trump as the first “bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”

It turns out that the story of Trump as a whirling dervish of insanity may well perfectly fit the mainstream media’s desire for click-bait. But simply covering the next Trump meltdown is not what we need. What we need is accurate and fearless reporting of the issues that are important for the health of our democracy.

Rather than ask news media outlets to go after Trump, we should pressure them to follow Cronkite’s playbook and go after the truth.

How Trumpcare Will Make the Opioid Epidemic Worse — Julia Lurie in Mother Jones.

During his campaign, President Donald Trump said his supporters were “always” bringing up one issue: the opioid epidemic. “We’re going to take all of these kids—and people, not just kids—that are totally addicted and they can’t break it,” he promised at a Columbus, Ohio town hall meeting last August. “We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.”

Yet in the midst of the largest drug epidemic in the nation’s history, the Republican plan to replace Obamacare threatens to cut insurance coverage for mental health and addiction treatment for millions of Americans. The effect, public health advocates worry, would be to further decrease access to substance abuse treatment at a time when drug overdoses are claiming more 50,000 American lives per year—more than car accidents or gun violence.

Their concerns with the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare, titled the American Health Care Act, fall into two broad categories: The legislation limits who qualifies for public insurance, and it eliminates the requirement that many insurance plans cover substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Freezing Medicaid expansion

One of the most significant (and controversial) parts of Obamacare was a provision that expanded Medicaid to millions more poor Americans. Under the Affordable Care Act, those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for this government-funded insurance program. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states could choose whether or not they wanted to participate in the program, and 31 states have done so—resulting in health coverage for an additional 11 million Americans through Medicaid expansion. Of those, an estimated 1.3 million used their newly acquired insurance for substance abuse or mental health services, according to an analysis by researchers Richard Frank of Harvard Medical School and Sherry Glied of New York University.

The Republicans’ health care plan would freeze Medicaid expansion, cutting off funds for states adding new enrollees starting in 2020. Those already enrolled in Medicaid expansion plans by 2020 would continue to receive the benefits, but they would be at constant risk of losing that insurance. Anyone who has a gap in insurance coverage of more a month—say because they miss a deadline or their income temporarily changes—would lose eligibility. (A lack of private health insurance would be penalized too: Going more than 63 days without coverage would increase premiums by 30 percent for a year.) These provisions have a lot of public health advocates worried. It’s not uncommon for people, particularly those with serious mental health and addiction problems, to drift in and out of insurance coverage.

Eliminating “essential” services

Under Obamacare, insurers are required to offer so-called “essential health benefits,” including mental health and substance abuse services. In order to sell insurance, insurers have to cover addiction treatment. (Other essential benefits currently include contraception, preventative care, and emergency services—here’s the full list). That set of guarantees also applied to how states must structure their Medicaid programs.

The GOP plan would remove the entire package of essential benefit requirements, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, from Medicaid expansion insurance, as well as from some other Medicaid plans. Starting in 2020, each state could choose whether the insurance offered by Medicaid would include these benefits. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), an outspoken critic of the legislation, pressed GOP lawyers on the matter on Wednesday:

Medicaid, which provides insurance coverage for more than 70 million Americans, is the largest payer for addiction services across the country. Eliminating a chunk of that funding could be particularly crippling for many of the communities that voted Trump into office, notes Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who advised the Obama administration on drug policy.

West Virginia and Ohio, for example, have some of the highest rates of opioid overdoses in the country. In those states, which both adopted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, Medicaid pays for more than 40 percent of the cost of buprenorphine, a life-saving opioid addiction medication. “This will hurt the worst in the places that supported these politicians the most,” says Humphreys. “They voted in this Congress that is now going to stick a knife in them.”

Sucker Punched — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on Trump’s phony populism.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader, went on Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night and tried to talk up the awful health-care bill that his party had just rushed through two committees. His message was aimed at the ultra-conservative groups, such as the Freedom Caucus and Heritage Action for America, that have come out strongly against the proposed legislation. McCarthy didn’t try to claim that the bill would make health care more affordable or widely available. Instead, he defended its conservative bona fides, twice pointing out that it would repeal all the taxes that were introduced under the Affordable Care Act—taxes that mainly hit the one per cent.

Hannity, who is one of President Trump’s biggest boosters, didn’t hide his loyalties or his concern about the political firestorm that the bill has set off. “This has to work: there is no option here,” he said at one point. Later, he warned, “As soon as it passes, you own it.”

Intentionally or not, Hannity summed up the political dilemma facing Trump and his Administration. The White House has embraced Paul Ryan’s handiwork—the House Speaker is the bill’s top backer—and they are now trying together to persuade the full House and the Senate to vote for at least some version of it. But if the bill does pass and Trump signs it into law, what happens then? The health-care industry will be thrown into turmoil; many millions of Americans will lose their coverage; many others, including a lot of Trump voters (particularly elderly ones), will see their premiums rise sharply; and Trump will risk being just as closely associated with “Trumpcare” as Barack Obama was with Obamacare.

Two questions arise: Why did Ryan and his colleagues propose such a lemon? And why did Trump agree to throw his backing behind it?

The first question is easier to answer. For seven years, promising to get rid of Obamacare has been a rallying cry for Republicans on Capitol Hill—one supported by both Party leaders and activists, as well as by big donors, such as the Koch brothers. It was inevitable that, if the G.O.P. ever took power, it would move to fulfill this pledge, despite the human costs of doing so.

What wasn’t anticipated was that the Republican leadership would run into hostility from the right. But that, too, is explainable. After November’s election, Ryan and his colleagues were forced to face the reality that fully repealing the A.C.A. would require sixty votes in the Senate, which wasn’t achievable. Many of the things that ultra-conservatives see as shortcomings in the bill now being considered—such as the retention of rules dictating what sorts of policies insurers can offer—are in there to make sure that the Senate can pass the bill as part of the budget-reconciliation process, which requires just fifty-one votes. As McCarthy explained to Hannity, “The challenge is the process of how we have to do this.”

The more interesting question is why Trump would stake his credibility on such a deeply regressive, and potentially unpopular, proposal. During the campaign, he frequently promised to repeal Obamacare—but it wasn’t one of his main issues. Clamping down on immigration, embracing economic protectionism, rebuilding infrastructure, and blowing a raspberry at the Washington establishment were much more central to his platform.

Early in the campaign, in fact, Trump praised socialized medicine, and promised to provide everybody with health care. “As far as single-payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland,” he said in August, 2015, during the first Republican debate. A month later, he told “60 Minutes,” “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

Part of what is going on is that Trump needs a quick legislative success. He is keenly aware that, by this stage in his Presidency, Obama had signed a number of important bills, including a big stimulus package. Trump also badly needs to change the subject from Russia. It might sound crazy to suggest that a President would embrace a bill that could do him great harm in the long term just for a few days’ respite, but these are crazy times. If nothing else, the political furor surrounding the House G.O.P. proposal has eclipsed the headlines about Trump claiming that Obama wiretapped him. For much of this week, Trump has ducked out of sight, letting Ryan and his bill take the spotlight.

That’s not the only way the Russian story may have played into this. As the pressure grows for a proper independent probe of Trump’s ties to Moscow, he must retain the support of the G.O.P. leadership, which has the power to block such an investigation. It has long been clear that the relationship between the Republican Party and Trump is based on a quid pro quo, at least tacitly: in return for dismissing concerns about his authoritarianism, self-dealing, and Russophilia, the Party gets to enact some of the soak-the-poor policies it has long been promoting. For a time, it seemed like Trump was the senior partner in this arrangement. But now Republicans like Ryan have more leverage, and Trump has more of an incentive to go along with them.

Still, even if he had more leeway to speak out against the House G.O.P. bill, is there any reason to think he would? The thing always to remember about Trump—and this week has merely confirmed it—is that he is a sham populist. A sham authoritarian populist, even.

Going back to late-nineteenth-century Germany, many of the most successful authoritarian populists have expanded the social safety net. Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor, introduced health insurance, accident insurance, and old-age pensions. “The actual complaint of the worker is the insecurity of his existence,” he said in 1884. “He is unsure if he will always have work, he is unsure if he will always be healthy, and he can predict that he will reach old age and be unable to work.”

During the twentieth century, Argentina’s Juan Perón, Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew were among the authoritarian leaders who followed Bismarck’s example. Today, if you look at the election platform of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, you see something similar. Like Trump, Le Pen is a nativist, a protectionist, and an Islamophobe. But she is not proposing to dismantle any of the many social benefits that the French state provides. Rather, she says she will expand child-support payments and reduce the retirement age to sixty.

Trump, on the other hand, has little to offer ordinary Americans except protectionist rhetoric and anti-immigrant measures. Before moving to gut Obamacare, he at least could have tried to bolster his populist credentials by passing a job-creating infrastructure bill or a middle-class tax cut. Instead, he’s staked his Presidency on a proposal that would hurt many of his supporters, slash Medicaid, undermine the finances of Medicare, and benefit the donor class. That’s not populism: it’s the reverse of it. And it might be a political disaster in the making.

Doonesbury — Rank amateur.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Keep Hope Alive

Steve M is throwing cold water on the idea of the premature end of the Trump regime.

Stop. Just stop. This isn’t going to happen. Yes, you can point to individual Trump voters who are now disillusioned, but when 91% of Republicans still approve of his job performance, as they do in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, there’s absolutely no chance that Republicans in Congress will pursue investigations of the president, much less vote to impeach and convict, no would they oppose the president in the extraordinarily unlikely event that Section 4 of the 25th Amendment were invoked. (Even if “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments” in the White House were to call for Trump’s removal, he could still appeal to Congress and two-thirds of its members would have to vote to give him the boot. You’re more likely to win the lottery and be struck by lightning on the same day than to see either of these events.)

Do we think Trump wouldn’t fight like hell to stay in office if challenged? Did we learn nothing from last weekend’s tweetstorm? This is a man whose most primal conditioned response is: I must go on the attack, as viciously and relentlessly as possible, whenever anyone threatens my reputation. This is not a man who, if he’s under siege, is not going to pace the White House corridors moping and drinking and feeling sorry for himself — he’s never going to be Nixon in the final days.

And no, he’s not going crazy: That tweetstorm looked preposterous, but in the right-wing bubble where the majority of white American voters apparently live, it changed the narrative of the Russia story. Those people literally believe that Barack Obama is the real villain of Hackgate. Trump’s no crazier than your uncle who watches Fox all day.

In all likelihood he’s right; there is too much inertia in our system to make it happen, especially as I’ve noted previously that impeachment doesn’t happen when the president and his party are in power in the House and Senate.  I also know that it would take extraordinary measures to invoke Amendment XXV, Section 4.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways; if not to remove him at least make him as powerful as your crazy uncle who watches Fox all day.

Marching and protesting are ways of raising consciousness, but so are letters — not mass e-mails or “petitions” (and please donate!) pleas — and phone calls — not robocalls from outsiders — to your local representative in Congress or the state house.  Creepy people can make threats against minorities, but concerned citizens with real stories and families can make a difference, and often do.  By the time the mid-term elections come around, there can be enough candidates from the opposition and enough momentum against the trashing of the country by oligarchs and polluters that Democrats can take back the House and the Senate.  That would ensure that by January 2019 all Trump has left is his Twitter account.

So settle in. Trump’s going to be president until at least January 20, 2017 2021. Figure out what to do about that.

We may have to “settle in,” but we will never settle for Trump.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

“Hey, We Tried”

The response to the GOP healthcare bill has been roughly the same as having a wet dog at a wedding, and yet the House and Senate leadership is bound and determined to rush it through both chambers by the end of the month without hearings or even conferences.  (Ironic since the Republicans in 2010 complained bitterly that President Obama “rammed ACA down our throats.”)

The short answer, according to Jonathan Chait, is that when the Republicans couldn’t get repeal-and-replace past President Obama, they had all the time in the world to carry on about how terrible it was and how it was destroying America and they could vote fifty-plus times to repeal it and not worry about actually doing anything.  But now that they have the White House and both the House and the Senate, they can do something… but what?  They’ve got various factions within their own party who have very different goals and they’re all attacking the piñata of a bill the House cobbled together that does everything and nothing.

Not only that, if they repeal and replace Obamacare with something that is truly worse — and this new bill seems to embody the worst of every GOP trick in the book, including tax credits and vouchers — it will be their albatross, and the mid-term campaign will be all about the Democrats running against the GOP House that killed — literally — healthcare.

So the solution seems to be to try and shove this terrible bill through and have it fail so they can go out to the voters in 2018 and say, “Hey, we tried, but there were too many special interests and Obamacare holdovers, so you’re just going to have to suffer through with it while we go on and give massive tax breaks to the rich, gut education spending, demonize immigrants, bully the transgender community, and play slap-and-tickle with the Russians.”

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Here, Play With This

The revised Muslim travel ban has been signed, pushed along by the White House staff in order to distract Trump from his temper tantrum over his fantasy that there was a black man listening in on his phone calls.

Trouble for Trump continued to spiral over the weekend. Early Saturday, he surprised his staff by firing off four tweets accusing Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap his Trump Tower phones in the run-up to last fall’s election. Trump cited no evidence, and Obama’s spokesman denied any such wiretap was ordered.

That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.

So this is how we’re going to conduct the nation’s business: find a shiny object to play with — in this case a lawsuit-baiting bagful of xenophobia — in order to prevent Trump from carrying on like a three-year-old with a stinky diaper.

Monday, March 6, 2017

In The Bunker

Reading this account in the Washington Post of what’s going on inside the White House, the West Wing, and out on the golf course in Florida, one really has to wonder how this will manifest itself.

Trump spent the weekend at “the winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago, the secluded Florida castle where he is king. The sun sparkles off the glistening lawn and warms the russet clay Spanish tiles, and the steaks are cooked just how he likes them (well done). His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner — celebrated as calming influences on the tempestuous president — joined him. But they were helpless to contain his fury.

Trump was mad — steaming, raging mad.

Trump’s young presidency has existed in a perpetual state of chaos. The issue of Russia has distracted from what was meant to be his most triumphant moment: his address last Tuesday to a joint session of Congress. And now his latest unfounded accusation — that Barack Obama tapped Trump’s phones during last fall’s campaign — had been denied by the former president and doubted by both allies and fellow Republicans.

When Trump ran into Christopher Ruddy on the golf course and later at dinner Saturday, he vented to his friend. “This will be investigated,” Ruddy recalled Trump telling him. “It will all come out. I will be proven right.”

“He was pissed,” said Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative media company. “I haven’t seen him this angry.”

Trump enters week seven of his presidency the same as the six before it: enmeshed in controversy while struggling to make good on his campaign promises. At a time when White House staffers had sought to ride the momentum from Trump’s speech to Congress and begin advancing its agenda on Capitol Hill, the administration finds itself beset yet again by disorder and suspicion.

At the center of the turmoil is an impatient president increasingly frustrated by his administration’s inability to erase the impression that his campaign was engaged with Russia, to stem leaks about both national security matters and internal discord and to implement any signature achievements.

This account of the administration’s tumultuous recent days is based on interviews with 17 top White House officials, members of Congress and friends of the president, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Gnawing at Trump, according to one of his advisers, is the comparison between his early track record and that of Obama in 2009, when amid the Great Recession he enacted an economic stimulus bill and other big-ticket items.

[…]

Trouble for Trump continued to spiral over the weekend. Early Saturday, he surprised his staff by firing off four tweets accusing Obama of a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap his Trump Tower phones in the run-up to last fall’s election. Trump cited no evidence, and Obama’s spokesman denied any such wiretap was ordered.

That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.

Trump was brighter Sunday morning as he read several newspapers, pleased that his allegations against Obama were the dominant story, the official said.But he found reason to be mad again: Few Republicans were defending him on the Sunday political talk shows. Some Trump advisers and allies were especially disappointed in Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who two days earlier had hitched a ride down to Florida with Trump on Air Force One.

Pressed by NBC’s Chuck Todd to explain Trump’s wiretapping claim, Rubio demurred.

“Look, I didn’t make the allegation,” he said. “I’m not the person that went out there and said it.”

This episode is indicative of his entire reason for running for president in the first place: getting revenge against Barack Obama.  Not just for mocking him at the White House Correspondents Dinner in May 2011 (and the night that the SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden) but for everything: being a good politician who defied the odds by winning the presidency as the first African-American, by being cool under withering fire, by laughing off and even mocking the birther accusations that Trump obsessed over, by getting more done against an openly hostile Congress and GOP leadership than he can accomplish with his own party in power, and the tumult around him that will not go away, all brought on by himself.  This has Shakespeare written all over it.

The question is not just what’s the next outrage that will paralyze the West Wing and energize Twitter, but what will he do?  So far his staff has managed to contain him, but he’s also surrounded himself with toadies, sycophants, people who believe the paranoid fantasies of Barack Obama pulling off a Black Ops (pun intended) operation on Trump Tower, and a Republican leadership in Congress that is either afraid of him and his base or don’t know how dangerous he is.  Is there anyone who can restrain him from taking some action that might actually endanger the lives of others?

King Lear had his Fool who could tell truth to power.  Richard Nixon, at the end, had the Republican leadership in Congress who came to him and told him that it was time to resign for the good of the country (and to try to save their own collective asses in the upcoming mid-term election in 1974).  But who is going to step up and tell him that this must all end, not just for the sake of his presidency but for the safety of the country and the world?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sunday Reading

Another Episode — Charles P. Pierce on the latest from Mar-A-Lago.

At some point, I guess, you just have to walk away. Not forever, and not for long. But, sooner or later, you have to arrange one morning where you wake up and deliberately decide not to find out how the country has lost its mind overnight. I’m getting to that point, I have to tell you.

Around 5:30—in the freaking A.M. morning!— the president*, or someone like him, got on the official Donald Trump electric Twitter account and threw the ongoing controversy over Russian influence on his campaign and on the 2016 presidential election deep into the red zone. In short, he is now accusing his predecessor of using the powers of the intelligence community and of the national law-enforcement apparatus to spy on his campaign. Kudos to The Washington Post for the “citing no evidence” disclaimer.

Trump offered no citations nor did he point to any credible news report to back up his accusation, but he may have been referring to commentary on Breitbart and conservative talk radio suggesting that Obama and his administration used “police state” tactics last fall to monitor the Trump team. The Breitbart story, published Friday, has been circulating among Trump’s senior staff, according to a White House official who described it as a useful catalogue of the Obama administration’s activities.

Gee, I wonder if the “White House official” possibly could be the guy who used to run that particular information SuperFund site and, anyway, it’s nice to know that the president* of the United States goes dumpster diving for his political news.

I think the whole thing started percolating to draw attention away from Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s unfortunate collision with his own confirmation testimony this week. But I think the real match tossed into the powder magazine was an interview that Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, gave to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC Friday afternoon.

In that interview, Coons as much as said that he believes that transcripts of conversations between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials exist. In my opinion, if those transcripts exist, and the Trump people know it, and know what’s in them, it is in the interest of the administration to flip the script pre-emptively to how the transcripts were obtained as opposed to what they might contain. If administration officials are in contact with the Breitbart people—which isn’t exactly a leap in the dark—then they slip the possibility of wiretaps to those people and then the president* reacts to news that some of his own people may have planted. (Think Dick Cheney, Judy Miller, and the aluminum tubes.) In any case, the stakes in this matter just became mortal.

“It’s highly unlikely there was a wiretap,” said one former senior intelligence official familiar with surveillance law who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. The former official continued: “It seems unthinkable. If that were the case by some chance, that means that a federal judge would have found that there was either probable cause that he had committed a crime or was an agent of a foreign power.”

“Unthinkable” is one of those Washington CYA words that does a lot of work until a lot of people start thinking about something seriously. (The president ordered a cover-up of a burglary? The president signed off on sending missiles to Iran? The president was doing the help? Unthinkable!) Let us assume for the moment that, if there’s a shred of truth to what the president* is saying, then the previous occupant of the White House didn’t do it without availing himself of the legal requirements.

If he requested a FISA warrant and got it, then there’s something out there that troubled not only the previous administration, but also some federal judges on a secret court. If that happened, then what President Obama did was not in any way “illegal.” You can argue that it might be improperly political during an presidential election season, but then you get hung up on why Lyndon Johnson didn’t blow the whistle on how Richard Nixon jacked around with the Paris Peace Talks. It’s impossible to conclude in retrospect that the country was well-served by LBJ’s uncharacteristic delicacy in that matter. If this keeps up, the demand for complete transparency is going to become overwhelming.

A spokesman for Barack Obama issued a statement early Saturday afternoon refuting President Trump’s claims:

A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of the practice neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.

There is a critical mass building quickly concerning the connections between the president*, his administration, his aides, and the Putin regime. There’s just too much of it right now for the administration to contain. Given that, it probably would have been helpful if the president* hadn’t had another episode on Saturday morning. Of course, once the episode passed, he was back to serious business again – tweeting about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance on Celebrity Apprentice. I guess the time for trivial fights really is over.

The Next Step — Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones on the Trump-DeVos plan to send money to religious schools.  Florida is the model.

During his address before a joint session of Congress earlier this week, President Donald Trump paused to introduce Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student from Florida sitting with first lady Melania Trump. Merriweather “failed third grade twice” in Florida’s public schools, Trump said. “But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, great learning center, with the help of a tax credit,” he continued, referring to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program that allows students attend private schools. Because of this opportunity, Denisha became the first member of her family to graduate from high school and college.

Trump used Denisha’s story to call for his favorite education policy, school choice, asking lawmakers to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also been pointing to Denisha and Florida in the past two weeks as a way to promote school choice. “Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices,” DeVos told a conservative radio host on February 15. DeVos brought up the state’s school choice model again during her speech to the leaders of historically black colleges earlier this week.

So what is it about Florida? For starters, the state offers many different types of school choice, including charter schools, vouchers for low-income students and those with disabilities, and tax credit scholarships. Charter schools, found in 43 states and Washington, DC, represent the most common type of school choice. Vouchers are a little more complicated: They essentially operate like a state-issued coupon that parents can use to send their child to private or religious schools. The amount is typically what the state would use to send a kid to a public school. But vouchers are difficult to implement, because many state constitutions, like those in Michigan and Florida, have what are called Blaine Amendments, which prohibit spending public dollars on religious schools. And notably, only 31 percent of Americans support vouchers.

Tax credit scholarships provide a crafty mechanism to get around these obstacles. Tax credits are given to individuals and corporations that donate money to scholarship-granting institutions; if parents end up using those scholarships to send their kids to religious schools—and 79 percent of students in private schools are taught by institutions affiliated with churches—the government technically is not transferring taxpayer money directly to religious organizations.

While DeVos is best known as an advocate of vouchers, most veteran Beltway insiders told me that a federal voucher program is very unlikely. “Democrats don’t like vouchers. Republicans don’t like federal programs, and would rather leave major school reform decisions up to states and local communities,” Rick Hess, a veteran education policy expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute said. “Realistically, nobody thinks they’ve got the votes to do a federal school choice law, especially in the Senate.”

This political reality is perhaps why Trump and DeVos are singling out Florida’s tax credit programs as a way to expand private schooling options. While Trump and DeVos have not specified what shape this policy might take at the federal level, most of these changes will come from the state legislators. Republicans have full control of the executive and legislative branches in 25 states, and control the governor’s house or the state legislature in 44 states. At least 14 states have already proposed bills in this legislative session that would expand some form of vouchers or tax credit scholarships, according to a Center for American Progress analysis. (And 17 states already provide some form of tax credit scholarships, according to EdChoice.)

This perfect storm for pushing through various voucher schemes comes at a time when the results on the outcomes of these programs “are the worst in the history of the field,” according to New America researcher Kevin Carey, who analyzed the results in a recent New York Timesarticle. Until about two years ago, most studies on vouchers produced mixed results, with some showing slight increases in test scores or graduation rates for students using them. But the most recent research has not been good, according to Carey: A 2016 study, funded by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation and conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that students who used vouchers in a large Ohio program “have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

Then there is the issue of state oversight and transparency. Many states, including Florida, have little to no jurisdiction over private schools and don’t make student achievement data public, save for attendance. A 2011 award-winning investigation by Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times described the resulting system as a “cottage industry of fraud and chaos.” Schools could qualify to educate voucher and tax credit scholarship students even though they had no accreditation or curriculum. Some staffers in these schools were convicted criminals for drug dealing, kidnapping, and burglary. “In one school’s ‘business management’ class, students shook cans for coins on the streets,” Garcia-Roberts found.

Florida’s Department of Education investigated 38 schools suspected of fraud and in 25 cases, the allegations were substantiated. “It’s like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash,” Garcia-Roberts wrote. “Dole out millions to anybody calling himself as educator. Don’t regulate curriculum or even visit campuses to see where the money is going.”

But these on-the-ground realities in Florida won’t tame the enthusiasm of a voucher booster like DeVos. As I showed in my recent investigation, her philanthropic giving shows an overwhelming preference for promoting private, Christian schools, and conservative, free-market think tanks that work to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education. These past choices suggest that the data—or the fact that there are many stories like Denisha Merriweather’s in America’s public schools—doesn’t matter.

Spring Hopes Eternal — Justin Verlander and the Tigers are back for more.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Justin Verlander gave up two home runs here on Thursday. One was hit well, and the other was carried away by a steady wind to center field.

“It got out,” Verlander said with a shrug by his locker in the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse. “One of those days here in Lakeland.”

Verlander’s status in baseball has been so thoroughly restored that a rocky day in spring training means nothing. Last season, he was 16-9 with a 3.04 earned run average, leading the American League in strikeouts (254) and walks plus hits per inning (1.001). He had the most first-place votes for the Cy Young Award, but finished second over all to Boston’s Rick Porcello, a onetime teammate.

Verlander telegraphed his turnaround in late 2015, when he finally felt strong again after torn abdominal and adductor muscles — and the resulting physical weakness and compromised mechanics — had sapped his dominance. The Tigers were out of the race then, but his comeback may have saved their immediate future.

“That opened our eyes,” General Manager Al Avila said. “I even told him: ‘What you just did the last month and a half of the season has given our group, from ownership to us, new life. Maybe we do have another run in us.’ It was that kind of revival. That was him.”

A different A.L. Central team, the Cleveland Indians, rose to the World Series last year. But the Tigers hung in the playoff race until the final day of the regular season and kept their roster intact this winter. They would like to get younger, but Avila found no deals worth breaking up a group still striving to win a title.

Verlander has the longest tenure with the same team of any active major league pitcher. He joined the Tigers in July 2005 and has helped lead them to A.L. pennants in 2006 and 2012. They nearly won another, in 2013, with Verlander gritting through pain in October.

“Dying,” he said. “Everything hurt.”

For most observers, it was hard to tell: Verlander gave up one run in 23 postseason innings. But he tore the muscles while lifting weights after the 2013 season, the result of the wear and tear of an eight-season stretch in which only C. C. Sabathia pitched more innings.

Verlander had core-muscle surgery in Philadelphia in January 2014. His surgeon, Dr. Bill Meyers, called the area — from midthigh to midchest — the engine of the body.

“That’s really the harness for your power,” Meyers said. “It’s like if you’re riding a horse and you lose your bridle. It’s not only that you lose power, but you can’t really control it.”

Verlander, who was one year into a seven-year, $180 million contract extension, made it back for opening day. He made 32 starts and helped the Tigers back to the playoffs — but he also led the league in earned runs allowed and contemplated his career mortality.

“For the first time, I saw the end of the line,” said Verlander, who turned 34 last month. “I mean, I want to play ’til I’m 40 or 45. I’ve always wanted to play ’til the wheels fall off. I kind of saw that then: ‘If this is the way it’s going to feel, I can’t pitch like this.’”

Because he came back so soon, without proper rehabilitation, Verlander’s mechanics were a mess. Everything was off, he said, from his feet to his head. He could still direct the ball, generally, to its intended location. But a fastball that once crackled with life was often dead on arrival.

In August 2014, he lasted just one inning in Pittsburgh, hammered for five runs with a fastball hovering around 85 miles per hour. Verlander has always been a student of pitching, highly attuned to his body and how it moves. He knew he was risking his future by pitching with bad mechanics, and he expected to pay a steep price.

“I’m very fortunate that I didn’t get hurt,” he said. “I remember after I came out of that game in Pittsburgh, they said I was going to go get an M.R.I. on my shoulder — and I thought I was done. I thought I was going to need shoulder surgery. That’s how bad it felt.”

It was just tendinitis, although Verlander still knocks on the wooden frame of his locker when telling the story. He worked intensely with a physical therapist before the 2015 season, hurt his latisimuss dorsi muscle that spring, but returned to make 20 starts with a 3.38 E.R.A.

He was ready to break out again in 2016, but not because he suddenly learned how to win with lesser stuff. Even at his very best, Verlander baffled hitters with a devastating pitch mix.

“He was always like that,” said Sabathia, the Yankees left-hander. “He was always a power pitcher, but he always knew how to pitch. I don’t think it’s going to be hard to transition from when he does lose the velocity on his fastball, because he came in with all the pitches.”

Verlander’s average fastball was 93.5 m.p.h. last season, according to Fangraphs, up a tick or two from 2014 and not far removed from his Most Valuable Player season of 2011. Then, his fastball averaged 95 m.p.h., a speed he hit consistently on Thursday.

“He throws his fastball a lot,” the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer said. “And to see him work both sides of the plate, up and down, it really works as eight different pitches — two-seam and four-seam to each quadrant — and he commands it. I’m trying to get to the point where I can at least think I’m doing that.”

Fulmer won the A.L. Rookie of the Year award last season, and he said Verlander encouraged him to pitch for weak contact early in counts and save his wipeout stuff for two strikes. It was counterintuitive advice from the league’s strikeout king, but it underscored Verlander’s intuition about the craft.

After a start in Cleveland last May 3, Verlander noticed that nothing good was happening with his slider: Hitters took it if he threw it for a ball, and crushed it if he threw it for a strike. He needed more deception, and he asked the pitching coach, Rich Dubee, about holding the ball a different way.

Verlander created the new slider by offsetting the grip on his four-seam fastball, moving his index and middle fingers to the right side of the ball. This is a common cutter grip, but Verlander’s pitch retained the slash of a slider with increased velocity.

Some pitchers take weeks, or even years, to master a new grip. Verlander tried it on flat ground, then in a bullpen session, then used it in his next start.

“It was instantaneously a go-to pitch,” Manager Brad Ausmus said. “It was a big factor. It wasn’t the factor, but it was a big factor.”

Verlander made 28 starts with the new slider, and opponents hit .193 against him. In his dream season of 2011, when he went 24-5, they batted .192.

Baseball is better when Verlander is good. The sport needs more crossover stars, and Verlander’s fiancée, the supermodel Kate Upton, is more famous than he is. He is back in a leading role and could stay there a while; Meyers said the recurrence rate of a core injury after proper repair was 1 percent.

With his body intact and his arm alive, Verlander is unafraid to say where he hopes this all leads: Cooperstown, N.Y.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about that,” he said. “Of course I want to be in the Hall of Fame when I’m done playing. That’s kind of the end goal: win a World Series and be in the Hall of Fame. I think that’s what every kid wants growing up and I’ve never wavered on that. I will say, Baseball’s fun again.”

Doonesbury — Tweeting along with the twit.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Meeting? What Meeting?

According to the Washington Post, Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador at least twice during the run-up to the election in November.  When asked about it during his confirmation hearing in January, he denied it.

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.

The previously undisclosed discussions could fuel new congressional calls for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential election. As attorney general, Sessions oversees the Justice Department and the FBI, which have been leading investigations into Russian meddling and any links to Trump’s associates. He has so far resisted calls to recuse himself.

[…]

At his Jan. 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

As noted in the video, Michael Flynn had to resign his post as National Security Advisor when we found out he lied about his meetings with the Russians. So now what?  Well, if we held Mr. Sessions to the same standard that he held President Clinton to in regards to committing perjury, he should resign.

Low Bar

The Very Serious Pundits are all giving Trump golf claps because, after five weeks in office and with the help of Speechwriting for Dummies, he sounded “presidential” in his speech before Congress.

If the bar was any lower, they’d have to find it with ground penetrating radar.

PS: Veterans were not pleased with Trump’s exploitation of the death of Navy Seal William “Ryan” Owens.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

You Bought It, You Own It

Charles P. Pierce has no sympathy for those folks who are now regretting their vote for Trump.

Holy mother of god, I’m tired of reading quotes from people who live in places where the local economy went to hell or Mexico in 1979, and who have spent the intervening years swallowing whatever Jesus Juice was offered up by theocratic bunco artists of the Christocentric Right, and gulping down great flagons of barely disguised hatemongering against the targets of the day, all the while voting against their own best interests, now claiming that empowering Donald Trump as the man who will “shake things up” on their behalf was the only choice they had left. You had plenty of choices left.

In Kansas, you could have declined to re-elect Sam Brownback, who’d already turned your state into a dismal Randian basket case. In Wisconsin, you had three chances to turn out Scott Walker, and several chances to get the state legislature out of his clammy hands. And, now that the teeth of this new administration are becoming plain to see, it’s a good time to remind all of you that you didn’t have to hand the entire federal government over to Republican vandalism, and the presidency over to an abject loon on whom Russia may well hold the paper.

You all had the same choices we all had. You saddled the rest of us with misrule and disaster. Own it. I empathize, but I will not sympathize.

The only thing that will make it worse would be spineless Democrats who think they can either work with him — guess what — or who are too afraid of losing the next election to try to win it.