Monday, June 19, 2017

Is He Or Isn’t He?

Either Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice, or no he’s not.  That’s the view(s) of one of his minions/lawyers, Jay Sekulow.

During an interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace, Sekulow defended Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

“He takes the action that [the Attorney General’s office] recommended and now he’s being investigated by the Department of Justice,” Sekulow complained. “He’s being investigated for taking the action that the attorney general and deputy attorney general recommended him to take by the agency who recommended the terminations!”

“You’ve now said he is being investigated after saying [he isn’t],” Wallace observed.

“No, he’s not being investigated!” Sekulow shot back.

“You just said he’s being investigated,” Wallace noted.

Sekulow tried again to say that the president is not under investigation, but Wallace interrupted.

“Sir, you just said two times that he’s being investigated,” the Fox News host said. “And he’s not just being investigated for firing Comey, there’s also what he said to Comey when Comey was still the FBI director.”

“I do not appreciate you putting words in my mouth,” Sekulow complained. “When I have been crystal clear that the president is not and has not been under investigation.”

“You do not know that he has not been under investigation, sir,” Wallace pointed out. “Actually, what I’m trying to get is a straight answer out of you.”

Sekulow argued that it would be impossible to indict the president for wrongdoing “because there is not an investigation.”

“Oh boy, this is weird,” Wallace interrupted. “You don’t know whether there is an investigation. You just told us that.”

Not to be outdone on the WTF trail, Newt Gingrich — remember him? — is telling everyone that the president can’t be indicted for obstructing justice because he’s the president.  But this is the same Newt Gingrich who led the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton for obstructing justice.

I think what they’re saying is that Trump is under investigation for not being under investigation and can’t be indicted for obstructing justice but can be impeached for it.  Got that?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

If Only He Would Shut Up

One of the takeaways from the Washington Post piece about Trump now being under investigation for obstruction is that he probably wouldn’t be if he kept his mouth shut.

Accounts by Comey and other officials of their conversations with the president could become central pieces of evidence if Mueller decides to pursue an obstruction case.

Investigators will also look for any statements the president may have made publicly and privately to people outside the government about his reasons for firing Comey and his concerns about the Russia probe and other related investigations, people familiar with the matter said.

We know that Trump talks to a lot of people.  He’s on the record for telling the Russians in the Oval Office that he got rid of “that nutjob” Comey, and he picks up the phone and talks to just about anybody who will listen.  (He’s probably chatted with Rachel from Credit Card Services about this whole mess.)  We know he did this before he was elected and of course there’s the power-barf level of tweets that come forth every morning.

What’s important about that is that now that he’s in the White House, there are laws governing how those conversations are recorded such as the Presidential Records Act, basically making everything he does a piece of public property.  And anyone he talks to can be called as a witness.

It’s ironic that Trump accused Comey of being a leaker.  If Trump hadn’t gone on TV and told Lester Holt that he fired Comey over the Russian thing, we wouldn’t be here.

Nixon had his secret tapes and they were his undoing.  Trump has his big mouth, and that may be his.

Bonus Track: On another note, Trump’s big mouth may engender trouble for the Republicans’ stealth plan to repeal Obamacare.

House Republicans are angry with President Trump for blurting out an inconveniently candid view of their health-care bill, Politico reports today. Trump reportedly told a closed-door gathering of GOP senators that the House repeal-and-replace bill is “mean” and called on them to make it “more generous.” This promptly leaked, and a lot of people are noting that Trump undercut House Republicans politically and provided Democrats with ammo for a thousand attack ads.

You were saying?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Peak Bullshit

Charles P. Pierce on Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday and the fact that he bullshitted his way through it, ably assisted by toady Tom Cotton (bet he gives great head) and John Cornyn, who stands up for his fellow Dixian.

Democracy is helpless against this kind of contempt, especially if its primary institutions surrender to it without a fight, the way they did on Tuesday. To be plain, because of his continual assertion of an “appropriateness” privilege—which does not exist in the Constitution or the laws of this country—in order to avoid answering questions under oath, JeffBo should be residing in a holding cell right now until he changes his mind. (It’s very possible that Dan Coats and Mike Rogers should temporarily be his bunkmates, too. And the consistency of the testimony of all three men suggests a certain amount of, ah, coordination at other levels.)

You just don’t get to refuse to answer questions before a Senate committee because you don’t want to, or because you think you might get the president* in Dutch, or because you don’t like the people asking the questions. The Bartleby defense—”I would prefer not to…”—has no basis in constitutional or criminal law. There is no, as Senator Martin Heinrich put it to JeffBo, “appropriateness bucket” in which the attorney general can hide himself. Yet, there he was at the end of things, being flattered by the committee’s chairman, Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, for the immense sacrifice JeffBo had made in coming in and being transparently ridiculous on camera for a couple of hours.

The people who best treed JeffBo on his most preposterous bullshit—Heinrich, Kamala Harris of California, and The Mustache of Righteousness, Angus King of Maine—could only push him so far. Everybody on that committee knew that what JeffBo was selling was batter-fried nonsense. (Call me an elitist snob if you like, but whenever I hear a Southerner talking about “mah honah,” I reach for William Tecumseh Sherman’s phone number.)

Everybody on that committee knew that, when JeffBo declined to answer questions about whether James Comey was fired because of the Russia probe, he was hiding the plain truth behind a privilege that he’d made up on the spot. Everybody on that committee knew that JeffBo’s memory lapses were at best highly convenient. (He couldn’t remember meeting the Russian ambassador, but he could quote an op-ed by William Barr from almost a year ago? That dog don’t even want to hunt.) Everybody on that committee knew that you can’t refuse to answer a question because the president* might want to invoke executive privilege at some vague point in the future. But if the majority is content to look like an entire bag of tools and pretend otherwise, there’s not much the Senate can do about being obstructed in such a shameless fashion.

I would like to think that there are Republicans who have a grain of conscience and respect for sanity — or at least common sense — who listened to what Mr. Sessions said yesterday and said “Enough!”  But that ship sailed long ago, back when they had a chance to banish this band of draggle-tailed poseurs and con artists.  But no, they just had to win the election, so they sold their souls — and our country.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Et Tu, Delta?

Delta Airlines yanked their sponsorship of Shakespeare in the Park because they were doing theatre.

Two major US corporations have ended their sponsorship of a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader mimics Donald Trump.

In the New York-based production, Julius Caesar is depicted as a blond-haired businessman in a blue suit.

The production company, Public Theater, said the character was a contemporary Caesar “bent on absolute power”.

One of the sponsors, Delta Air Lines, said the producers had “crossed the line on the standards of good taste”.

In the Shakespearean tragedy, which is staged in New York’s Central Park, Caesar is assassinated in a lengthy scene in which he fights off his attackers before succumbing to multiple stab wounds.

The lead character’s wife in the play, Calpurnia, is depicted wearing designer outfits and speaking with an apparent Slavic accent.

In announcing the production earlier this year, Public Theater described its portrayal of the Roman leader as “magnetic, populist and irreverent”.

On its website, the company states that the play is about “how fragile democracy is,” adding that it highlights how the “institutions that we have grown up with can be swept away in no time at all”.

Delta said on Monday that the “graphic staging of Julius Caesar” at the Free Shakespeare in the Park event “does not reflect” the airline’s values.

I haven’t seen the production so I can’t render a critic’s point of view, and as a rule I’m not wild about staging Shakespeare with a contemporary theme unless it truly adds to the telling of the story as opposed to making a political statement.  Getting the vapors over a staging of “Julius Caesar” and calling the assassination scene “graphic” is a little too cautious; the scene is supposed to be graphic.  But apparently Delta and BofA were worried about backlash from a White House that thinks “Gilligan’s Island” was a documentary.

Theatre is supposed to startle the sensibilities, or at the very least make you think.  So perhaps that’s why the sponsors got upset; the Trump people are trying to ban thinking.

PS: In 2012, the New York Acting Company did a production of the same play with Caesar modeled on Barack Obama.  Remember the outcry about that?  Yeah, me neither.

Firing Line

The news media figured out over the weekend that Trump could fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller, if he wanted to.  From Politico:

One of President Donald Trump’s attorneys on Sunday wouldn’t rule out the possibility the president would fire the special counsel appointed to look into his campaign’s potential ties to Russia.

Robert Mueller was appointed by the Justice Department last month to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. And on Sunday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Trump attorney Jay Sekulow whether the president would pledge not to interfere or order the attorney general to fire Mueller.

“Look, the president of the United States, as we all know, is a unitary executive,” Sekulow said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But the president is going to seek the advice of his counsel and inside the government as well as outside. And I’m not going to speculate on what he will, or will not, do.”

And since the Republicans don’t really care what he does and wouldn’t vote to impeach or convict him of anything, he could get away with it.  It doesn’t matter whether or not it makes him look guilty as hell; he already does and he still has a base that thinks he’s wonderful and all this Russia nonsense is Hillary people sucking on sour grapes.

Don’t Stop Now

Via TPM:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Sunday said President Donald Trump could be the first president to “go down” as a result of his inability to stop tweeting about the investigations he appears to view as a threat.

“You may be the first president in history to go down because you can’t stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that, if you just were quiet, would clear you,” Graham said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

He said Trump’s tweeting is a source of frustration for Republicans.

“This is not helping,” Graham said.

Trump nevertheless began Sunday with one of his by-now regular Twitter salvos at Democrats and fired FBI Director James Comey.

Live by the tweet, die by the tweet.

Short Takes

French President Macron looks like he’s heading for big parliamentary wins.

Puerto Rico voting on statehood.

Thousands march for LGBTQ rights.

Arrests made during anti-Sharia law protests.

Despite rumors, No. 10 says Trump state visit to Britain is still on.

And the Tonys went to…

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Reading

“The Meddlesome Priest” — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on the White House’s conundrum on how to deal with James Comey.

“Should I take one of the killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news—should I do that?” Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. It didn’t matter which correspondent he called on. Every one of them wanted to ask about the same thing: the testimony that the former F.B.I. director James Comey had given on Thursday. “Go ahead, Jon,” he said, gesturing toward Jonathan Karl, of ABC News. Since he took office, the President’s personality hasn’t changed much, but his King Lear tendency is deepening. Before Karl could ask his question, Trump started musing aloud. “Be fair, Jon,” he said. “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”

“Always fair, Mr. President,” Karl said, and then he asked Trump about Comey, who had testified under oath that the President had spoken to him about the Bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, and had urged him to “let this go.” Karl wanted to know whether Trump agreed with Comey’s account of their conversation. “I didn’t say that,” Trump said. So had Comey lied? “There’d be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody I’ve read today, but I did not say that,” Trump said. This muddied his defense. If he hadn’t tried to get Comey to squash the investigation, why mention that it wouldn’t have been a big deal if he had?

Karl pressed on. Comey had also testified that, at a private dinner in January, Trump had asked for his personal loyalty. Trump said that this was not true either. Karl asked if the President would be willing to testify under oath to this. “One hundred per cent,” Trump said. And that gave the situation a useful clarity: either Comey was lying or Trump was. The President started gesticulating. “I hardly know the man,” he said. “Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense.”

In the wake of Thursday’s testimony, the White House is going after Comey, trying to neutralize the threat that his words pose. But the attacks have been convoluted. It has been clear since Trump fired Comey that the former F.B.I. director would have a central and threatening role in the theatre of this Presidency, yet neither Trump nor his advisers and allies seem to have figured out what to say about him.

On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway filibustered her way through an interview on Fox News, insisting that, while Washington was in a tizzy over Comey, the White House was diligently working on policy. She was evidently the good cop. The bad cop was Corey Lewandowski, apparently back in Trump’s good graces, dispatched to the morning shows on Friday to explain that Comey was part of “the deep state” that is out to humiliate Trump. In a tweet, Trump called Comey a “leaker.” Later, at the press conference, Trump described him as both a liar and a tool of Democratic Party. “That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election they shouldn’t have lost,” Trump said.

Comey’s advantage over the President is that he paid close attention during their conversations, wrote down his impressions immediately after the conversations took place, and then shared these notes with others. Comey noticed the way that the President asked the Vice-President, the Attorney General, and his own son-in-law to leave the room before talking to him about the Flynn investigation. Comey noticed when the President was trying to hug him and when he was putting his future as F.B.I. director in question. He noticed the exact words that the President used when he tried to goad him to “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” He noticed the grandfather clock in the Oval Office, and the Navy stewards, and the time Trump called his cell phone when he was getting into a helicopter with the head of the D.E.A., and how he once had to return a call from the President through the White House switchboard.

Comey is hard to miss—six feet eight, with popped marionette eyes. But it seems that the White House never really got a good look at him. Was he a Democratic partisan, or an agent of the deep state, or the star of some self-aggrandizing melodrama (a “showboat,” the President told NBC’s Lester Holt a few weeks ago, and a “grandstander”)? Maybe if Trump had noticed the awkwardness with which (if we believe Comey’s account) the F.B.I. director ducked out of a hug, or the belabored way in which he avoided pledging his loyalty, Trump would have realized sooner that Comey was not his friend, and not part of his cadre. And perhaps his aides would have a clearer way of describing the man they are now trying to impugn.

At the press conference on Friday—on a bright June afternoon—Trump stood podium to podium with President Klaus Iohannis, of Romania, a muscular former physics teacher from Transylvania. The Comey-centered questions emanating from the American press corps alternated with wider-ranging queries from the travelling press.

One Romanian journalist, a young woman, asked the two Presidents whether, in their one-on-one meeting, they had talked about giving Romania access to a visa-waiver program. “We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said, and then, after saying he’d be open to accommodating Romania, gestured over to Iohannis.

“I mentioned this,” the Romanian President said, perhaps trying to be politic. To his left, Trump just nodded. Had he noticed the difference?

Could Jon Ossoff Win?  — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the special election in Georgia.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped a new poll of the most expensive special congressional election in history, and it is good news for Democrat Jon Ossoff and liberals across the country who have placed inordinately high stakes on Georgia’s 6th District just six months after a Republican cruised to reelection there by 23 points. According to the AJC, Ossoff leads Republican Karen Handel by 7 points, 51 to 44, which is outside the margin of error. Another poll released Thursday showed Ossoff with a 3-point lead, 50 to 47.

The election is still 11 days away, but early voting began a week and a half ago and is proceeding at a rapid clip that is almost on par with the early-voting turnout of the 2016 presidential election.

An Ossoff win wouldn’t make much of a dent in the Republican majority in the House, and after raising $23 million (a record for a House candidate who is not self-funding), he’d likely to have to raise a ton of money again as a top Republican target in 18 months. But Democrats have latched onto the seat, previously held by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (and, years earlier, Newt Gingrich), as a way to make a major statement months into President Donald Trump’s term. Hillary Clinton nearly carried the district during her presidential campaign, and the Democrats’ strategy for retaking the House hinges on replicating that success—not just in Georgia’s 6th but in similar affluent suburban districts in California, Kansas, Texas, and elsewhere. An Ossoff win would be a strong signal that they can, and it would hand an energized grassroots a badly needed breakthrough.

Republican criticism of Ossoff has mostly focused on personal issues, such as his youth, his support from national Democrats, a brief stint making documentaries for Al Jazeera, and, bizarrely, a video of a college-age Ossoff dressed as Han Solo. To the disappointment of some on the party’s left flank, Ossoff has run openly as a moderate; he told reporters recently that he opposed a single-payer health care plan (which is fast becoming the party’s new standard) and in a historically conservative district has focused on issues like cutting government waste and promoting the tech industry.

But one big progressive plank he has adopted—support for a living wage—produced one of the campaign’s signature moments. At a debate on Monday, Ossoff and Handel were asked if they supported raising the minimum wage to a “livable wage.” (The questioner did not specify an amount, but the most common figure thrown out by proponents is $15 an hour.) Ossoff said yes. Handel very much did not.

“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative: I do not support a livable wage,” she said. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”

Meanwhile, Democrats seem encouraged enough by Ossoff’s performance in the suburbs north of Atlanta to have recently added another suburban Georgia seat to their target list next year: the 7th District, currently represented by Republican Rob Woodall. This week, Woodall got his first Democratic opponent.

Policies?  What Policies? — Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on what Trump isn’t going to be doing.

It’s “Infrastructure Week” at the White House. Theoretically.

On Monday, the administration announced a plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure and overhaul U.S. air traffic control. There was a high-profile signing in the East Wing before dozens of cheering lawmakers and industry titans. It was supposed to be the beginning of a weeklong push to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports.

But in the next two days, Trump spent more energy burning metaphorical bridges than trying to build literal ones. He could have stayed on message for several hours, gathered Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan agreement, and announced a timeframe. Instead he quickly turned his attention to Twitter to accuse media companies of “Fake News” while undermining an alliance with Qatar based on what may be, fittingly, a fake news story.

It’s a microcosm of this administration’s approach to public policy. A high-profile announcement, coupled with an ambitious promise, subsumed by an unrelated, self-inflicted public-relations crisis, followed by … nothing.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

Consider the purported focus of this week. An infrastructure plan ought to include actual proposals, like revenue-and-spending details and timetables. The Trump infrastructure plan has little of that. Even the president’s speech on Monday was devoid of specifics. (An actual line was: “We have studied numerous countries, one in particular, they have a very, very good system; ours is going to top it by a lot.”) The ceremonial signing on Monday was pure theater. The president, flanked by politicians and businesspeople smiling before the twinkling of camera flashes, signed a paper that merely asks Congress to work on a bill. An assistant could have done that via email. Meanwhile, Congress isn’t working on infrastructure at all, according to Politico, and Republicans have shown no interest in a $200 billion spending bill.

In short, this “plan” is not a plan, so much as a Potemkin policy, a presentation devised to show the press and the public that the president has an economic agenda. The show continued on Wednesday, as the president delivered an infrastructure speech in Cincinnati that criticized Obamacare, hailed his Middle East trip, and offered no new details on how his plan would work. Infrastructure Week is a series of scheduled performances to make it look as if the president is hard at work on a domestic agenda that cannot move forward because it does not exist.

Journalists are beginning to catch on. The administration’s policy drought has so far been obscured by a formulaic bait-and-switch strategy one could call the Two-Week Two-Step. Bloomberg has compiled several examples of the president promising major proposals or decisions on everything from climate-change policy to infrastructure “in two weeks.” He has missed the fortnight deadline almost every time.

The starkest false promise has been taxes. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks,” Trump said of tax reform in early February. Eleven weeks later, in late April, the White House finally released a tax proposal. It was hardly one page long.

Arriving nine weeks late, the document was so vague that tax analysts marveled that they couldn’t even say how it would work. Even its authors are confused: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly declined to say whether the plan will cut taxes on the rich, even though cutting taxes on the rich is ostensibly the centerpiece. Perhaps it’s because he needs more help: None of the key positions for making domestic tax policy have been filled. There is no assistant secretary for tax policy, nor deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, according to the Treasury Department.

Once again, the simplest summary of White House tax policy is: There is no plan. There isn’t even a complete staff to compose one.

The story is slightly different for the White House budget, but no more favorable. The budget suffers, not from a lack of details, but from a failure of numeracy that speaks to the administration’s indifference toward serious public policy. The authors double-counted a projected benefit from higher GDP growth, leading to $2 trillion math error, perhaps the largest ever in a White House proposal. The plan included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the estate tax, which appears to be another mistake, since the White House has separately proposed eliminating it.

Does the president’s budget represent what the president’s policies will be? It should, after all. But asked this very question, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made perhaps the strangest claim of all: “I wouldn’t take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are,” he said.

This haphazard approach extends to the repeal of Obamacare, which may yet pass the Senate, but with little help or guidance from the president. Trump has allowed House Speaker Paul Ryan to steer the Obamacare-replacement bill, even though it violates the president’s campaign promises to expand coverage and protect Medicaid. After its surprising passage in the House, he directly undercut it on Twitter by suggesting he wants to raise federal health spending. Even on the most basic question of health-care policy—should spending go up, or down?—the president’s Twitter account and his favored law are irreconcilable. A law cannot raise and slash health care funding at the same time. The Trump health care plan does not exist.

It would be a mistake to call this a policy-free presidency. Trump has signed several executive orders undoing Obama-era regulations, removing environmental protections, and banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He has challenged NATO and pulled out of the Paris Accords. But these accomplishments all have one thing in common: Trump was able to do them alone. Signing executive orders and making a speech don’t require the participation of anybody in government except for the president.

It’s no surprise that a former chief executive of a private company would be more familiar with the presumption of omnipotence than the reality of divided powers. As the head of his own organization, Trump could make unilateral orders that subordinates would have to follow. But passing a law requires tireless persuasion and the cooperation of hundreds of representatives in the House and Senate who cannot be fired for insubordination. Being the president of the United States is nothing like being a CEO, especially not one of an eponymous family company.

Republicans in the House and Senate don’t need the president’s permission to write laws, either. Still, they too have struggled to get anything done. Several GOP senators say they may not repeal Obamacare this year—or ever. It is as if, after seven years of protesting Obamacare, the party lost the muscle memory to publicly defend and enact legislation.

In this respect, Trump and his party are alike—united in their antagonism toward Obama-era policies and united in their inability to articulate what should come next. Republicans are trapped by campaign promises that they cannot fulfill. The White House is trapped inside of the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of economic promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation. With an administration that uses public policy as little more than a photo op, get ready for many sequels to this summer’s Infrastructure Week.

 Doonesbury — Despatches.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Little Confused

I doubt that it was intentional and I doubt that the Republicans were happy with it, but Sen. John McCain’s questions to former FBI Director James Comey were the most puzzling of the day.

McCain, the final lawmaker to question the former FBI chief, seemed to conflate the federal investigation of Russian election interference with the Hillary Clinton email probe.

The veteran lawmaker then appeared to suggest the FBI was guilty of a double standard, effectively clearing the former Democratic nominee for her use of a private server while keeping the heat on President Donald Trump and his campaign associates for their possible ties to Russia.

“In the case of Hillary Clinton, you made the statement that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring a suit against her, although it had been very careless in their behavior, but you did reach a conclusion, in that case that it was not necessary to further pursue her, yet at the same time in the case of Mr. Comey you said that there was not enough information to make a conclusion,” McCain said, confusing Comey for the president.

McCain later asked, “You’re going to have to help me out here. In other words, we’re complete, the investigation of anything that former secretary Clinton had to do with the campaign is over and we don’t have to worry about it anymore?”

“I’m a little confused,” Comey replied.

I am loathe to diagnose from a distance, and I am hesitant to label anyone as suffering from dementia.  If they are, then it’s not something you mock them for; it’s a debilitating disease for both the patient and the family.  So I’m not going there with why Sen. McCain was confused and lit up Twitter.  But even if he’s not perfectly healthy, he still had no reason to make it sound like Hillary Clinton got off easy.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Previews Of Comey Attractions

Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution took a long look at former FBI Director James Comey’s prepared opening statement for today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing and posted his thoughts on Lawfare.  Here’s his summation.

First, Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president. We have spent a lot of time on this site over seven years now debating the marginal exertions of presidential power and their capacity for abuse. Should the president have the authority to detain people at Guantanamo? Incinerate suspected terrorists with flying robots? Use robust intelligence authorities directed at overseas non-citizens? These questions are all important, but this document is about a far more important question to the preservation of liberty in a society based on legal norms and rules: the abuse of the core functions of the presidency. It’s about whether we can trust the President—not the President in the abstract, but the particular embodiment of the presidency in the person of Donald J. Trump—to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office. I challenge anyone to read this document and come away with a confidently affirmative answer to that question.

Second, we are about to see a full-court press against Comey. I don’t know what it will look like. But the attack instinct always kicks in when a presidency is under siege. And Trump has the attack instinct in spades even when he’s not under siege. It is important to remember what the stakes are here. They are not about whether Comey was treated fairly. They are not about whether you like him. They are not about whether he handled the Clinton email investigation in the highest traditions of the FBI or the Justice Department. They are not about leaks. The stakes here are about whether what Comey is reporting in this document are true facts and, if so, what we need as a political society to do about the reality that we have a president who behaves this way and seeks to use the FBI in this fashion. It is critical, in other words, that people not change the subject or get distracted when others try to do so.

Finally, it is also critical—though probably fruitless to say—that we eschew partisanship in the conversation. Tomorrow, this document will be the discussion text when Comey faces a committee that, warts and all, has handled the Russia matter to date in a respectable and honorably bipartisan fashion. It is not too much to ask that members put aside party and respond as patriots to the fact that the former FBI director will swear an oath that these facts are true—and was fired after these interactions allegedly took place by a man who then told Lester Holt that “when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself … this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” and boasted to the Russians the day after dismissing Comey that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

The question they—and we—all face is simple: Do we care?

Forty-four years ago — June 1973 — another fired attorney, John Dean, testified before another Senate committee about private conversations he had with the president, revealing alleged criminal activity on the president’s and other White House officials behalf in pursuit of an election victory and the cover-up of that criminal activity.

Mr. Dean’s testimony, broadcast live on national TV and radio networks, broke open the Watergate scandal and took it from dirty tricks to the end of a presidency.  Whether or not the same thing will happen with Mr. Comey’s testimony today is open to speculation and hope, but at the least the parallels between what John Dean said in that committee hearing and what Mr. Comey will say today do have a certain rhyming quality.

The question Benjamin Wittes asks at the end of his summation is a good one: Do we care?  Have we come so far and become so jaded that meddling by a foreign power — one whose very mention of the name had us ducking and covering — in a presidential election gets a shrug and a rejoinder of “but her e-mails” from 32% of the voters.  Or did Watergate and the subsequent real or imagined -gates that followed immunize us against the expectation that elected officials would hold themselves to a higher standard since they were elected by the people and therefore had to represent our better angels, not the common denominator.

For my part, having arrived at advanced middle age and able to testify about living through one-quarter of the history of this nation, I can say that if we don’t care about what happened to elect this president and allow the legacy of the nation to be turned into a comment thread on an unmoderated blog, then perhaps we have invited the meddling by the Russians and the kleptocrats.  It wasn’t because they want to rule what’s left of our democracy and make it their own, but because they were bored with their own toys and found another shiny one.

So my question to you is simple: Do you care, and what are you going to do about it?

Time To Go

Charles P. Pierce says go away already:

The Trump presidency is not an accident of history. Conservative politics has been moving toward something like it ever since Ronald Reagan declared that the national government was the problem. It has been enabled by a consistent trend toward civic disengagement, some of which was encouraged by ambitious men in the wake of Reagan’s success. And the genuine danger going forward is that the next ambitious American authoritarian will not be a half-bright bungler dancing on strings held by god-knows-which foreign autocrat or banker. The next one might be better at it. After all, the template has been established, and the Republican Party has demonstrated a taste for authoritarianism that history says is hard to shake. The Trump political template has to be crushed to dust so that it never rises again. Until it is, it remains a cancer on the republic that’s only in the most fragile remission.

It is time for all of them to go: Steve Bannon and his dreams of being the king of chaos, Reince Priebus and the other hapless throne-sniffers, the children with their many scams and their clearly unresolved Daddy issues—all of them. But, most of all, it is time for him to go. The anger of the marks whom he conned last November cannot be used to dodge the obligations that fall on politicians that know what their duty is, but still fail to do it. History demands a bit of courage every now and again.

Getting rid of Trump isn’t enough.  We need to root out the local politicians who laid the groundwork for him with their holier-than-thou puritanism on school boards where they can ban transgender bathrooms with impunity, rally voters with gun raffles, label immigrants as criminals while paying them in cash to mow their lawns and raise their children, and go unchallenged for re-election because the local opposition party is too busy worrying about the national election.

Trump and Trumpism didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Fool For A Client

Trump can’t find a lawyer.

Top lawyers with at least four major law firms rebuffed White House overtures to represent President Trump in the Russia investigations, in part over concerns that the president would be unwilling to listen to their advice, according to five sources familiar with discussions about the matter.

The unwillingness of some of the country’s most prestigious attorneys and their law firms to represent Trump has complicated the administration’s efforts to mount a coherent defense strategy to deal with probes being conducted by four congressional committees as well as Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

Booman lists the major reasons they won’t take him on as a client.

1. They won’t get paid.
2. Their client wouldn’t follow their advice.
3. They represent clients who have been or might be subpoenaed in money laundering aspects of the case.
4. It would destroy the image and reputation of their firm.
5. It would ‘kill’ efforts to recruit top lawyers to their firm.
6. They’ll be washing their hair that year (“I’m too busy to represent the POTUS.”)
7. He can’t be saved.

It’s a twist on the Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member: who would want a lawyer that is foolish enough to take on a client like Trump?

It’s Official

According to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, if Trump tweets it, it’s official.

“The president is the president of the United States, so they are considered official statements by the president of the United States,” he said in response to a reporter’s question.

That’s going to come back to bite both Spicer and Trump in the ass.  For instance, when the appeals courts have been ruling on the travel ban, they have noted that while the briefs and filings from the administration say nothing about banning Muslims per se, Trump has been shooting off his mouth via his thumbs and making it clear that he’s singling out Muslims, and the courts have noted it.  So will the Supreme Court when the ban gets there.  So the lesson here, as heard on countless episodes of “Law & Order,” is “Counselor, control your client!” [Gavel]

He’s also used his mouthpiece to undermine his own spokespeople.

Members of President Trump’s Cabinet and top White House aides tried to soften his travel ban by calling it a “temporary pause.” They said his firing of former FBI director James B. Comey was not about the Russia investigation. And this week they used their public comments to attempt to keep the United States out of a messy regional conflict in the Middle East.

But every time, Trump weighed in with a different message that effectively undercut what his aides and Cabinet secretaries appeared to be trying to achieve.

Trump’s aides are quickly learning they speak for the president at their own peril.

The president seems to shrug off these incidents, several of which have occurred since he took office, and he has made clear that ultimately only he speaks for his administration, all while rejecting efforts to curtail his use of Twitter.

“The president has always said that Twitter is like owning his own newspaper, except he can’t lose money,” said former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg. “He’ll listen to your advice. He’ll listen to suggestions. But the president is not going to be handled.”

I think the only way you can really get him to stop tweeting is with handcuffs.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Monday, June 5, 2017

We’re Laughing At You

Paul Waldman on Trump’s aversion to being the laughingstock of the world.

It is Trump’s gift to future biographers that he makes so little attempt to hide his psychological issues, but the desire to avoid being laughed at truly stands out. Perhaps there was some childhood trauma that led to this obsession, a schoolyard incident in which a bully pulled down Donny’s short pants to the guffaws of the other tots (particularly the girls!). It would be only fitting if Trump, the world’s foremost avatar of anxious masculinity, lived in terror of women’s laughter, but he seems concerned with everyone’s laughter, whether it comes from people or governments. As much as he cares about winning and getting the better of someone, defeat is marked by the ultimate humiliation of being laughed at.

Yet ironically, no president in history has ever been laughed at as much as Trump. Long before he ran for the White House he was considered a cretinous buffoon, one of the world’s least serious people trying to convince everyone how serious he is. Even Trump’s cartoonish hair, which looks like what you’d get if you put three separate comb-overs into the Large Hadron Collider and smashed them together at the speed of light, seems to be in large part an effort to avoid being laughed at for being bald.

And today there is without a doubt not a single human being on planet Earth who is laughed at more than Donald J. Trump. He’s laughed at by ordinary people and by other politicians, by the rich and the poor, by Americans and residents of other nations, by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, by one and all. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has tracked the jokes in late-night monologues for years, found that in his first 100 days Trump was the target of over 1,000 jokes from Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, et al, on pace to easily surpass the record set in 1998 when in the midst of the irresistibly salacious Lewinsky scandal the hosts told 1,700 jokes about Bill Clinton. Comedy Central even commissioned a weekly show starring a Trump impersonator, so viewers can laugh at him for an entire half hour at a time.

Not every politician is equally mockable — Barack Obama’s reserved cool made him harder to mock than did George W. Bush’s goofy cluelessness or Clinton’s omnivorous smarm. But everything about Trump invites derisive laughter, from his spray-tanned skin to his overlong ties to his TV-watching habits to his Russian-mobster taste in decor to his overcompensating for his insecurities to his general stupidity and ignorance. If anything, Trump is hard to satirize because the actual person is so absurd to begin with that exaggerating his foibles is nearly impossible.

This is his — and every narcissistic bloviator’s — Achilles heel.  The one thing they can’t endure is being laughed at.  It comes from taking themselves far too seriously and from a need to be not just loved but feared.  Ironically, the more he tries to demean and destroy those who mock him, the louder the laughter and the derision.  To quote the immortal Hawkeye Pierce: “He invites laughter; it would be rude not to accept the invitation.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sunday Reading

Al Franken, the Anti-Trump — Joan Walsh profiles the Minnesota senator in The Nation.

Torrential rain came down on the late May afternoon I interviewed Senator Al Franken about his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (yes, he’s still funny). Thunder and lightning jolted our conversation, along with laughter, much of it his. (Staffers say they can always find him at events by following the laugh.) Having won reelection in 2014 and endured the nightmare of 2016, he has decided to Let Franken Be Franken Again: Hilarious. Sometimes, I told him, the book reads as though he saved up all the jokes his staff wouldn’t let him tell over the last decade. “There were a few of them,” he admits. “That [Antonin] Scalia’s dissent [on marriage equality] was ‘very gay…’ I really fought for that one! I’d already been reelected. I will argue my case, but if my people say absolutely not, I pay attention almost all the time.”

As a demoralized Democratic Party looks for new leadership, Franken has written the kind of thoughtful, bracing book that will make people say: “Al Franken is running for president in 2020.” He resolutely says he’s not—but Giant of the Senate is enough to make you wish he’d change his mind, in part because of the way Franken is an ideal foil to Donald Trump. Superficially, they both entered politics as TV stars. But, as he chronicles in Giant, Franken worked hard to become a senator who happens to be a comedian, rather than a comedian who unexpectedly became a senator, earning the respect of his colleagues in the process. Trump has resolutely and dangerously refused to do the same.

Now, with this book, Franken is both resistance leader and family counselor. Giant sometimes reads like a pep talk for Democrats devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. Yet it was mostly written before November 8, when Franken, like virtually everyone in public life, believed Clinton would be the next president. “I was essentially finished with the book,” he admits. “So then I had to figure out what to do with Trump. I decided I’d tie it into what was already there. My pep talk to the troops is actually about what happened between the 2004 presidential loss and 2008. I mean, [Karl] Rove was talking about a permanent GOP majority.”

But Democrats pushed back, and Franken was part of that resistance, eviscerating the right with best-sellers like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, then hosting a popular three-hour daily Air America radio show where he deconstructed the lies in real time.

Trump seems the culmination of everything Franken wrote about in Lying Liars, I note. “Don’t you find that depressing?” I ask him.

He sighs. “You can’t allow yourself that,” he warns me. Remember, he says, that the work of the left in 2005, in organizations from the late, great Air America to the Center for American Progress, beat back a Bush plan to privatize Social Security and led “to [Democrats taking back the House in] 2006. Then 2008 and then boom, there’s the reversal.”

Boom. He makes it sound easy. He knows it’s not.

Franken’s mission for Giant is serious: to use his personal story to illuminate and entertain, and ultimately reorient the nation around progressive priorities that direct government to help families and businesses rebuild the middle class. In many ways, the book’s moral center is the story of his family and the family of his wife, Franni. He was born in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century in the middle of the greatest middle class ever created; Franni grew up poor.

“I felt like the luckiest kid in the world—and that’s because I was,” he told me. “Then I met Franni, and she didn’t grow up that way. She grew up poor, because her dad died when she was 18 months old. Her mom was 29 years old with five kids and a high-school education. They were hungry; they had the heat turned off and the phone turned off. But they made it. And they made it because of Social Security survivors’ benefits. They made it because of Pell Grants and scholarships. They made it because of the GI Bill. My mother-in-law took out a GI Bill loan [as the widow of a veteran] and went to college and had all of her loans forgiven because she taught Title I kids. That’s the story: Every one of her kids made it into the middle class. They tell you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? But first you have to have the boots. And the government gave them the boots.”

The book is not all tributes to the hard-working middle class or detailed economic prescriptions, though there’s some of that. Franken also tells his own personal story with candor. He puts all his drug use on the record, for example, going beyond the Barack Obama political-memoir standard (weed and cocaine) to LSD. There’s a chapter titled: “Saturday Night Live (The Drug Part),” which is funny and bawdy and ultimately heartbreaking, as you watch the cast lose not just John Belushi but Chris Farley to addiction.

Franken also talks about the late Tom Davis, his beloved comic partner from high school into the 1990s, who struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs. Franni, the soul of the book, also developed a reliance on alcohol as she raised their two kids. Franni got sober, and her husband went to Al Anon, where he learned he could be sort of a judgmental jerk. His Stuart Smalley SNL character—“You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you!”—was a comic tribute to the simple wisdom of the recovery movement on what it takes to face down life’s hard knocks without relying on alcohol or on being an asshole.

I came of age with early SNL, so all of this was like candy to me. The chapters on Franken’s post-SNL career, and the way he transitioned first to truth-telling, best-selling author, then Air America host and finally Senate candidate, were just as absorbing for someone who survived the Bush presidency. His recounting of those years really does help remind us that we can organize our way through dark times. For Franken, maybe the darkest day was when Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash right before his election, with his wife, daughter, three staffers, and two pilots. The lying liars on the right depicted the public Wellstone tribute as a crude, menacing partisan rage-fest, infuriating Franken.

But it’s when Wellstone’s successor, Republican Norm Coleman, boasted that he’s “a 99 percent improvement” over Wellstone that Franken started to feel the stirrings of political ambition.

From that point on, the book is a hilarious guide to what happens when a comedian runs for Congress. Franken can change his shtick, tell fewer jokes, show a serious side, give 45-minute orations on the skyrocketing costs of college or health care. The one thing he can’t do is erase the jokes that are already out there. Some GOP hit pieces took his gags out of context; those didn’t land a blow.

But Franken suffered over three: first, an apparent Holocaust joke about the worst gift to give Anne Frank (the answer: drums). It turns out that Franken didn’t even write or tell that joke, but he was in close proximity, and it made some Minnesota establishment politicians a little anxious. (It made Harry Reid, however, cry with laughter, when Franken called to tell him about the controversy over the phone.)

He gets in more trouble with a spoof he wrote for Playboy headlined “Porn-O-Rama,” about visiting a virtual-sex institute. But the worst was a joke attributed to Franken from a 1994 2 am SNL writers’ room rewrite session, working on a sketch in which cornball 60 Minutes staple Andy Rooney goes from banal to berserk. Franken suggested that Rooney find an empty bottle of sedatives and give the pills to show correspondent Lesley Stahl, and then he’d “take her to the closet and rape her.” In the book, Franken has the space to give the context for the joke: that he knows it’s terrible, that it was never meant to be aired, that it was the kind of free-associative crazy idea intended to jolt everyone’s psyches and inspire better (and less offensive) jokes. His SNL pal Conan O’Brian commiserates, telling Franken: “If I was on the stand at a trial, and the prosecutor asked me, ‘Mr. O’Brien, have you ever joked at a rewrite table about defiling Lincoln’s body immediately after he was shot? I’d have to throw myself on the mercy of the court.”

But rewrite-room excuses didn’t fly in the 24/7 reality of the campaign, and the “joke” almost killed Franken’s campaign. It landed on the eve of the Minnesota convention where he hoped to be chosen as the Democratic nominee to face Coleman. He made the dangerous move of addressing the controversy in a raw convention speech. “It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for all Minnesotans, in this campaign and in the Senate,” he told the crowd. I’m sorry for that.” He went on to acknowledge he’d written and told some “offensive” jokes over the years, that he’d made some folks “uncomfortable,” and ended: “But I’m in this race because there are some people in Washington who could afford to feel a little less comfortable.” And he promised the first person he’d make uncomfortable was Norm Coleman.

He won the nomination, but the GOP continued to depict him as a “rape-joking pornographer,” though he had the strong support of women’s groups and his campaign was run by Stephanie Schriock, who now run’s Emily’s List. Candidate Obama refused to campaign with him when he came to Minnesota for his own race, though Hillary Clinton did, twice. Even after his formal state nomination, the head then of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Senator Chuck Schumer, tried to shop around for a new candidate. Franken had to promise that if he couldn’t cut his deficit with Coleman to 5 percent by Labor Day, he’d drop out and let a Schumer-picked Minnesota Democrat take his place.

Franken did what he had to do, but trailed Coleman in tracking polls into October. “That’s when Franni saved the campaign,” he writes. His wife, who’d been private about her struggles with alcoholism, did an ad about it. “When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me.” The ad diluted the GOP’s toxic claims that Franken disrespected women. He won, after a recount, by 312 votes. But Coleman fought the results by every means possible, and Franken didn’t take his Senate seat until July.

The trauma of being accused of disrespecting women made it even more incredible, to Franken, that Trump could be elected. “My experience in ’08 was really having to agonize about this stuff,” he recalls, “stuff that was only a joke.” “And then Trump got elected in ’16, with all this awful stuff about him that was real!”

Arriving late to the Senate, Franken won a seat on the Judiciary Committee, where he’s made news with his dogged questioning of Supreme Court nominees and now Trump cabinet appointees. He had one of his finest moments dragging Justice Neil Gorsuch over his ruling against a trucker who abandoned his nonfunctioning vehicle in subzero weather, basically to save his life. “What would you have done?” Franken asked fiercely, and Gorsuch bleated, shamelessly: “Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would’ve done—I wasn’t in his shoes.”

Franken’s tough questioning also led, ultimately, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s having to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, after he essentially perjured himself by telling Franken he’d never had contact with Russian officials, though he’d met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign.

Some progressives, I note, worry that the Russia investigation is distracting Democrats from other pressing issues. Some see it as a way for Clinton supporters to cover over the troubles in her campaign that led her to lose to a misogynist joke like Trump. Franken disagrees. “The Russia investigation is incredibly important—it’s about a foreign power interfering with the very basis of our democracy. So we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time—health care being a prime example.”

There’s only one topic on which Franken is tight-lipped: the Democratic Party divisions that linger since the bruising 2016 primary battle between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders. Franken endorsed Clinton early, and I asked if he regretted that, given what came later (the Minnesota Democratic caucus went for Sanders). I got a quick and resounding “No.”

We talked about single-payer health insurance–there’s a bill in California to establish a statewide single payer system, and some on the left want to make supporting it a litmus test for California Democrats. Is he worried about that?

“Vermont tried it and they couldn’t quite get to it,” he observed. Franken writes positively about single payer in his book, noting that it would have been a “much simpler” solution than the ACA. “But I also wrote that we needed 60 votes to pass something, and single payer was about 50 votes short. There are many ways to get to universal health care coverage; the problem is we don’t have a health care system, we have systems.”

Franken is as pro-choice as senators come, so I ask him about the tensions over the place in the party of so-called pro-life Democrats, which flared in the unsuccessful Omaha mayoral campaign of Heath Mello. Does he worry the party is in danger of putting the pursuit of white working-class guys over the women and people of color that make up its base?

“We do have to pay attention to them, clearly—but not at the exclusion of anybody else.” He repeats himself. “Not at the exclusion of anybody else. We have to talk about economic issues. It’s clear from the budget that Trump was talking out of one side of his mouth and he doesn’t care about those people, because if he did, this wouldn’t be his budget. So we need to take that message to them.”

But Clinton talked about economic issues, I remind him. Still, she fell short—in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin; even his own state of Minnesota was a tighter contest than many expected.

“I think part of it was the Bernie problem,” he replied. “These people are angry. And they’re angry because they feel the system is rigged—and it is rigged, but not in the way they think.

“And we have the problem of people segmenting themselves in terms of where they get their news, and they just don’t wanna hear the other side of it. But you have to go there. I represent rural Minnesota, and I go there all the time. I co-chair the rural health caucus. I toured around there after the first [version of AHCA], and people up there hated it. The rural hospitals? They know how bad this bill was. But you gotta go everywhere, and reach them with the same message. Wellstone had the message: We all do better when we all do better.”

Franken is fairly optimistic the Senate can beat back the so-called American Health Care Act. “Even Mitch McConnell says he doesn’t know if he can get 50 votes.” I ask if he saw the news that House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows cried when talking about how the amendment his caucus sponsored might threaten people with preexisting conditions. “He cried? I gotta tell you, I’m sometimes aghast at some of my Republican colleagues who really don’t understand how this stuff works.” He shares the story of a Republican Senate colleague, who he won’t name, who didn’t understand the way the House bill hurt people with preexisting conditions until Franken explained it.

The most clueless may be Donald Trump. “The quote of the year has to be ‘nobody knew how complicated healthcare was.’ Everybody knew. That is such an enormously dumb thing to say.”

Soon a staffer warns us we’ve only got five more minutes, so I throw out a last few bonus questions: Who in the Senate could have been a Saturday Night Live cast member?

“No one,” he answers immediately. “No one. Remember, I wasn’t a cast member, I wanted to be a cast member. I was just a featured player!” (Obviously, this still rankles.)

Could any of his SNL colleagues be senators?

“Oh yeah. A lot of them. Conan [O’Brien], definitely.”

And then, while we’re talking about role switching, I ask the question he’s already answered dozens of times, while talking about the book and elsewhere: Does he ever think about running for president against Trump? “No,” he says, again decisively. Why not?

He laughs. “It’s a really, really hard job!”

So there are no circumstances?

“No. None.”

I warn him that a lot of people may finish the book and either think he’s running—or wish he was. He shrugs.

“What I think is funny about the book—remember I started writing it in 2015, I’d basically finished it when Trump was elected—is some people are gonna read it now and go: ‘Oh, Franken really cracked the code of what kind of a memoir to write in a post-Trump world! He’s clearly playing three-dimensional chess and he’s four moves ahead of anyone else!’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no!’”

Our time is (long past) up, but Franken waits with me for my ride to arrive. He is still talking when I turn off my tape recorder; I warn him I have to pay attention; once I hit delete instead of save because I was distracted; I confess I’m too embarrassed to say who I was interviewing.

“Nelson Mandela!” he deadpans, and we crack up.

My car arrives, he walks me to the door, and I make peace with the fact that Franken may never be president, but he’ll continue to be an excellent senator from Minnesota. We just need another dozen folks like him to begin to roll back what the GOP has wrought.

Attack on the First — David Snyder in Mother Jones looks at Trump’s war on free speech.

On May 17, while delivering a graduation speech to cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, a scandal-plagued President Donald Trump took the opportunity to complain, yet again, about the news media. No leader in history, he said, has been treated as unfairly as he has been. Shortly thereafter, when the graduates presented Trump with a ceremonial sword, a live mic picked up Homeland Security chief John F. Kelly telling the president, “Use that on the press, sir!”

Kelly was presumably joking, but the press isn’t laughing. Presidents have complained bitterly about reporters since George Washington (“infamous scribblers“), but Trump has gone after the media with a venom unmatched by any modern president—including Richard Nixon. At campaign rallies, Trump herded reporters into pens, where they served as rhetorical cannon fodder, and things only got worse after the election. Prior to November 8, the media were “scum” and “disgusting.” Afterward, they became the “enemy of the American people.” (Even Nixon never went that far, noted reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. Nixon did refer to the press as “the enemy,” but only in private and without “the American people” part—an important distinction for students of authoritarianism.)

On April 29, the same day as this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner (which Trump boycotted), the president held a rally in Pennsylvania to commemorate his first 100 days. He spent his first 10 minutes or so attacking the media: CNN and MSNBC were “fake news.” The “totally failing New York Times” was getting “smaller and smaller,” now operating out of “a very ugly office building in a very crummy location.” Trump went on: “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, then I think we would all agree the media deserves a very, very big, fat failing grade. [Cheers.] Very dishonest people!”

Trump’s animosity toward the press isn’t limited to rhetoric. His administration has excluded from press briefings reporters who wrote critical stories, and it famously barred American media from his Oval Office meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States while inviting in Russia’s state-controlled news service.

Before firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump reportedly urged Comey to jail journalists who published classified information. As a litigious businessman, the president has expressed his desire to “open up” libel laws. In April, White House chief of staff Reince Preibus acknowledged that the administration had indeed examined its options on that front.

This behavior seems to be having a ripple effect: On May 9, a journalist was arrested in West Virginia for repeatedly asking a question that Tom Price, Trump’s health secretary, refused to answer. Nine days later, a veteran reporter was manhandled and roughly escorted out of a federal building after he tried (politely) to question an FCC commissioner. Montana Republican Greg Gianforte won a seat in the House of Representatives last week, one day after he was charged with assaulting a reporter who had pressed Gianforte for his take on the House health care bill. And over the long weekend, although it could be a coincidence, someone fired a gun of some sort at the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader, a paper singled out days earlier by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who likened journalists to “cicadas” who “don’t actually seem to care about Kentucky.”

Where is all of this headed? It’s hard to know for sure, but as a lawyer (and former newspaper reporter) who has spent years defending press freedoms in America, I can say with some confidence that the First Amendment will soon be tested in ways we haven’t seen before. Let’s look at three key areas that First Amendment watchdogs are monitoring with trepidation.

Abusive Subpoenas

The First Amendment offers limited protections when a prosecutor or a civil litigant subpoenas a journalist in the hope of obtaining confidential notes and sources. In the 1972 case of Branzburg v. Hayes, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not shield reporters from the obligation of complying with a grand jury subpoena. But the decision left room for the protection of journalists who refuse to burn a source in other contexts—in civil cases, for instance, or in criminal cases that don’t involve a grand jury. Some lower courts have ruled that the First Amendment indeed provides such protections.

Unlike most states, Congress has refused to pass a law protecting journalists who won’t burn their confidential sources.

The Constitution, of course, is merely a baseline for civil liberties. Recognizing the gap left by the Branzburg ruling, a majority of the states have enacted shield laws that give journalists protections that Branzburg held were not granted by the Constitution. Yet Congress, despite repeated efforts, has refused to pass such a law. This gives litigants in federal court, including prosecutors, significant leverage to force journalists into compliance. (In 2005, Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her secret source to a federal grand jury investigating the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. The source, Miller eventually admitted, was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.)

Trump will almost certainly take advantage of his leverage. He and his innermost circle have already demonstrated that they either fail to understand or fail to respect (or both) America’s long-standing tradition of restraint when it comes to a free press. During the campaign, Trump tweeted that Americans who burn the flag—a free-speech act explicitly protected by the Supreme Court—should be locked up or stripped of citizenship “perhaps.” In December, after the New York Times published a portion of Trump’s tax returns, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski declared that executive editor Dean Baquet “should be in jail.”

Trump took over the reins from an executive branch that was arguably harder on the press than any administration in recent history. President Barack Obama oversaw more prosecutions of leakers under the vaguely worded Espionage Act of 1917 than all other presidents combined, and he was more aggressive than most in wrenching confidential information from journalists.

Over the course of two months in 2012, Obama’s Justice Department secretly subpoenaed and seized phone records from more than 100 Associated Press reporters, potentially in violation of the department’s own policies. Thanks to the rampant overclassification of government documents, Obama’s pursuit of whistleblowers meant that even relatively mundane disclosures could have serious, even criminal, consequences for the leaker. Under Obama, McClatchy noted in 2013, “leaks to media are equated with espionage.”

The Obama administration went after leakers with zeal. One can only assume Trump will up the ante.

One can only assume Trump will up the ante. His administration’s calls to find and prosecute leakers grow more strident by the day. He and his surrogates in Congress have repeatedly tried to divert public discussion away from White House-Russia connections and in the direction of the leaks that brought those connections to light. It stands to reason that Trump’s Justice Department will try to obtain the sources, notes, and communication records of journalists on the receiving end of the leaks.

This could already be happening without our knowledge, and that would be a dangerous thing. Under current guidelines, the Justice Department is generally barred from deploying secret subpoenas for journalists’ records—subpoenas whose existence is not revealed to those whose records are sought. But there are exceptions: The attorney general or another “senior official” may approve no-notice subpoenas when alerting the subject would “pose a clear and substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

The guidelines are not legally binding, in any case, so there may be little to prevent Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department from ignoring them or scrapping them entirely. Team Trump has already jettisoned the policies of its predecessors in other departments, and it’s pretty clear how Trump feels about the press.

The use of secret subpoenas against journalists is deeply problematic in a democracy. Their targets lack the knowledge to consult with a lawyer or to contest the subpoena in court. The public, also in the dark, is unable to pressure government officials to prevent them from subjecting reporters to what could be abusive fishing expeditions.

As president, Trump sets the tone for executives, lawmakers, and prosecutors at all levels. We have already seen a “Trump effect” in the abusive treatment of a reporter in the halls of the Federal Communications Commission, the arrest of the reporter in West Virginia, and the attack by Congressman-elect Gianforte.

We are also seeing the Trump effect in state legislatures, where the president’s rants may have contributed to a spate of legislative proposals deeply hostile to free speech, including bills that would essentially authorize police brutality or “unintentional” civilian violence against protesters and make some forms of lawful protest a felony. A leader who normalizes the use of overly broad or abusive subpoenas against journalists could cause damage all across the land.

Espionage Laws

A second area of concern is the Espionage Act of 1917, a law that has been used for nearly a century to prosecute leakers of classified information—from Daniel Ellsburg and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The government hasn’t ever tried to use it to prosecute the journalists or media organizations that publish the offending leaks—possibly because it was seen as a bad move in a nation that enshrines press protections in its founding document. But free-speech advocates have long been wary of the possibility.

The successful prosecution of a journalist under the Espionage Act seems unlikely—a long string of Supreme Court decisions supports the notion that reporters and news outlets are immune from civil or criminal liability when they publish information of legitimate public interest that was obtained unlawfully by an outside source. “A stranger’s illegal conduct,” the court’s majority opined in the 2001 Bartnicki v. Vopper case, “does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield about a matter of public concern.” But like any appellate decision, the Bartnicki ruling is based on a specific set of facts. So there are no guarantees here.

Litigious Billionaires

Very, very rich people with grievances against the press are as old as the press itself. But the number of megawealthy Americans has exploded in recent years, as has the number of small, nonprofit, or independent media outlets—many of which lack ready access to legal counsel. In short, billionaires who wish to exact vengeance for unflattering coverage enjoy a target-rich environment.

Win or lose, a billionaire with an ax to grind and a fleet of expensive lawyers can cause enormous damage to a media outlet.

Trump did not create this environment. But from his presidential bully pulpit, he has pushed a narrative that can only fuel the fire. The Trumpian worldview holds that the media deserves to be put in its place; the press is venal, dishonest, and “fake” most of the time. It should be more subject to legal liability so that, in his words, “we can sue them and win lots of money.”

Win or lose, a billionaire with an ax to grind and a fleet of expensive lawyers can cause enormous damage to a media outlet, particularly one with limited means (which, these days, is most media outlets). Some lawsuits by deep-pocketed plaintiffs, like the one filed against Mother Jones by Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot (a case I helped defend), are ultimately dismissed by the courts. Others, such as Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media—funded by Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump adviser Peter Thiel—succeed and put the media outlet out of business. Another recent suit, filed by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson against a Wall Street Journal reporter, ultimately settled.

Regardless of the outcome of such cases, the message to the media is clear: Don’t offend people who have vast resources. Even a frivolous lawsuit can stifle free speech by hitting publishers where it hurts (the wallet) and subjecting them to legal harassment. This is especially so in the 22 states that lack anti-SLAPP statutes—laws that facilitate the rapid dismissal of libel claims without merit.

The VanderSloot lawsuit is instructive. Although a court in Idaho ultimately threw out all the billionaire’s claims against Mother Jones, the process took almost two years. During that time, VanderSloot and Mother Jones engaged in a grueling regimen of coast-to-coast depositions and extensive and costly discovery and legal motions. Along the way, VanderSloot sued a former small-town newspaper reporter and subjected him to 10 hours of depositions, which resulted in the reporter breaking down in tears while VanderSloot, who had flown to Portland for the occasion, looked on. VanderSloot also deposed the journalist’s ex-boyfriend and threatened to sue him until he agreed to recant statements he had made online.

Trump has not brought any libel lawsuits as president—but his wife has.

Victory did not come cheap for Mother Jones: The final tab was about $2.5 million, only part of which was covered by insurance. And because Idaho lacks an anti-SLAPP statute, none of the magazine’s legal costs could be recovered from VanderSloot.

Despite his threats, Trump has not brought any libel lawsuits as president—but his wife has. First lady Melania Trump sued the Daily Mail in February over a story she said portrayed her falsely “as a prostitute.” The Daily Mail retracted the offending article with a statement explaining (a) that the paper did not “intend to state or suggest that Mrs. Trump ever worked as an ‘escort’ or in the sex business,” (b) that the article “stated that there was no support for the allegations,” and (c) that “the point of the article was that these allegations could impact the U.S. presidential election even if they are untrue.”

So which billionaire will be next to sue, and who will the target be? The question looms over America’s media organizations like a dark cloud. That is an unacceptable situation in a nation whose Constitution guarantees “robust, uninhibited and wide-open” discussion of public issues, as Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in the landmark First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan.

Trump has yet to act on his most outrageous rhetorical attacks on the media and free speech, but it’s likely only a matter of time. When he does act, it will be important to remember that constitutional protections are quite broad, and that there’s only so much any White House can do to the press without the backing of Congress or the courts. Such cooperation is hardly out of the question, though. Stranger things have already happened in this strangest of political times.

Farewell, My Lovely! — From The New Yorker in May 1936, E.B. White pays tribute to the Model T.

I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. The great days have faded, the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet everyone remembers springtimes when the Ford gadget section was larger than men’s clothing, almost as large as household furnishings. The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene—which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene.

It was the miracle God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once. Mechanically uncanny, it was like nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard-working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it. My own generation identifies it with Youth, with its gaudy, irretrievable excitements; before it fades into the mist, I would like to pay it the tribute of the sigh that is not a sob, and set down random entries in a shape somewhat less cumbersome than a Sears Roebuck catalogue.

The Model T was distinguished from all other makes of cars by the fact that its transmission was of a type known as planetary—which was half metaphysics, half sheer friction. Engineers accepted the word “planetary” in its epicyclic sense, but I was always conscious that it also meant “wandering,” “erratic.” Because of the peculiar nature of this planetary element, there was always, in Model T, a certain dull rapport between engine and wheels, and even when the car was in a state known as neutral, it trembled with a deep imperative and tended to inch forward. There was never a moment when the bands were not faintly egging the machine on. In this respect it was like a horse, rolling the bit on its tongue, and country people brought to it the same technique they used with draft animals.

Its most remarkable quality was its rate of acceleration. In its palmy days the Model T could take off faster than anything on the road. The reason was simple. To get under way, you simply hooked the third finger of the right hand around a lever on the steering column, pulled down hard, and shoved your left foot forcibly against the low-speed pedal. These were simple, positive motions; the car responded by lunging forward with a roar. After a few seconds of this turmoil, you took your toe off the pedal, eased up a mite on the throttle, and the car, possessed of only two forward speeds, catapulted directly into high with a series of ugly jerks and was off on its glorious errand. The abruptness of this departure was never equalled in other cars of the period. The human leg was (and still is) incapable of letting in a clutch with anything like the forthright abandon that used to send Model T on its way. Letting in a clutch is a negative, hesitant motion, depending on delicate nervous control; pushing down the Ford pedal was a simple, country motion—an expansive act, which came as natural as kicking an old door to make it budge.

The driver of the old Model T was a man enthroned. The car, with top up, stood seven feet high. The driver sat on top of the gas tank, brooding it with his own body. When he wanted gasoline, he alighted, along with everything else in the front seat; the seat was pulled off, the metal cap unscrewed, and a wooden stick thrust down to sound the liquid in the well. There were always a couple of these sounding sticks kicking around in the ratty sub-cushion regions of a flivver. Refuelling was more of a social function then, because the driver had to unbend, whether he wanted to or not. Directly in front of the driver was the windshield—high, uncompromisingly erect. Nobody talked about air resistance, and the four cylinders pushed the car through the atmosphere with a simple disregard of physical law.

There was this about a Model T: the purchaser never regarded his purchase as a complete, finished product. When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start—a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware. Driving away from the agency, hugging the new wheel between your knees, you were already full of creative worry. A Ford was born naked as a baby, and a flourishing industry grew up out of correcting its rare deficiencies and combatting its fascinating diseases. Those were the great days of lily-painting. I have been looking at some old Sears Roebuck catalogues, and they bring everything back so clear.

First you bought a Ruby Safety Reflector for the rear, so that your posterior would glow in another car’s brilliance. Then you invested thirty-nine cents in some radiator Moto Wings, a popular ornament which gave the Pegasus touch to the machine and did something godlike to the owner. For nine cents you bought a fan-belt guide to keep the belt from slipping off the pulley.

You bought a radiator compound to stop leaks. This was as much a part of everybody’s equipment as aspirin tablets are of a medicine cabinet. You bought special oil to prevent chattering, a clamp-on dash light, a patching outfit, a tool box which you bolted to the running board, a sun visor, a steering-column brace to keep the column rigid, and a set of emergency containers for gas, oil, and water—three thin, disc-like cans which reposed in a case on the running board during long, important journeys—red for gas, gray for water, green for oil. It was only a beginning. After the car was about a year old, steps were taken to check the alarming disintegration. (Model T was full of tumors, but they were benign.) A set of anti-rattlers (98c) was a popular panacea. You hooked them on to the gas and spark rods, to the brake pull rod, and to the steering-rod connections. Hood silencers, of black rubber, were applied to the fluttering hood. Shock-absorbers and snubbers gave “complete relaxation.” Some people bought rubber pedal pads, to fit over the standard metal pedals. (I didn’t like these, I remember.) Persons of a suspicious or pugnacious turn of mind bought a rear-view mirror; but most Model T owners weren’t worried by what was coming from behind because they would soon enough see it out in front. They rode in a state of cheerful catalepsy. Quite a large mutinous clique among Ford owners went over to a foot accelerator (you could buy one and screw it to the floor board), but there was a certain madness in these people, because the Model T, just as she stood, had a choice of three foot pedals to push, and there were plenty of moments when both feet were occupied in the routine performance of duty and when the only way to speed up the engine was with the hand throttle.

Gadget bred gadget. Owners not only bought ready-made gadgets, they invented gadgets to meet special needs. I myself drove my car directly from the agency to the blacksmith’s, and had the smith affix two enormous iron brackets to the port running board to support an army trunk.

People who owned closed models builded along different lines: they bought ball grip handles for opening doors, window anti-rattlers, and de-luxe flower vases of the cut-glass anti-splash type. People with delicate sensibilities garnished their car with a device called the Donna Lee Automobile Disseminator—a porous vase guaranteed, according to Sears, to fill the car with a “faint clean odor of lavender.” The gap between open cars and closed cars was not as great then as it is now: for $11.95, Sears Roebuck converted your touring car into a sedan and you went forth renewed. One agreeable quality of the old Fords was that they had no bumpers, and their fenders softened and wilted with the years and permitted driver to squeeze in and out of tight places.

Tires were 30 x 3 1/2, cost about twelve dollars, and punctured readily. Everybody carried a Jiffy patching set, with a nutmeg grater to roughen the tube before the goo was spread on. Everybody was capable of putting on a patch, expected to have to, and did have to.

During my association with Model T’s, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal’s head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator), and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded—first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.

In zero weather, ordinary cranking became an impossibility, except for giants. The oil thickened, and it became necessary to jack up the rear wheels, which, for some planetary reason, eased the throw.

The lore and legend that governed the Ford were boundless. Owners had their own theories about everything; they discussed mutual problems in that wise, infinitely resourceful way old women discuss rheumatism. Exact knowledge was pretty scarce, and often proved less effective than superstition. Dropping a camphor ball into the gas tank was a popular expedient; it seemed to have a tonic effect on both man and machine. There wasn’t much to base exact knowledge on. The Ford driver flew blind. He didn’t know the temperature of his engine, the speed of his car, the amount of his fuel or the pressure of his oil (the old Ford lubricated itself by what was amiably described as the “splash system”). A speedometer cost money and was an extra, like a windshield-wiper. The dashboard of the early models was bare save for an ignition key; later models, grown effete, boasted an ammeter which pulsated alarmingly with the throbbing of the car. Under the dash was a box of coils, with vibrators which you adjusted, or thought you adjusted. Whatever the driver learned of his motor, he learned not through instruments but through sudden developments. I remember that the timer was one of the vital organs about which there was ample doctrine. When everything else had been checked, you “had a look” at the timer. It was an extravagantly odd little device, simple in construction, mysterious in function. It contained a roller, held by a spring, and there were four contact points on the inside of the case against which, many people believed, the roller rolled. I have had a timer apart on a sick Ford many times, but I never really knew what I was up to—I was just showing off before God. There were almost as many schools of thought as there were timers. Some people, when things went wrong, just clenched their teeth and gave the timer a smart crack with a wrench. Other people opened it up and blew on it. There was a school that held that the timer needed large amounts of oil; they fixed it by frequent baptism. And there was a school that was positive it was meant to run dry as a bone; these people were continually taking it off and wiping it. I remember once spitting into a timer; not in anger, but in a spirit of research. You see, the Model T driver moved in the realm of metaphysics. He believed his car could be hexed.

One reason the Ford anatomy was never reduced to an exact science was that, having “fixed” it, the owner couldn’t honestly claim that the treatment had brought about the cure. There were too many authenticated cases of Fords fixing themselves—restored naturally to health after a short rest. Farmers soon discovered this, and it fitted nicely with their draft-horse philosophy: “Let ‘er cool off and she’ll snap into it again.”

A Ford owner had Number One Bearing constantly in mind. This bearing, being at the front end of the motor, was the one that always burned out, because the oil didn’t reach it when the car was climbing hills. (That’s what I was always told, anyway.) The oil used to recede and leave Number One dry as a clam flat; you had to watch that bearing like a hawk. It was like a weak heart—you could hear it start knocking, and that was when you stopped and let her cool off. Try as you would to keep the oil supply right, in the end Number One always went out. “Number One Bearing burned out on me and I had to have her replaced,” you would say, wisely; and your companions always had a lot to tell about how to protect and pamper Number One to keep her alive.

Sprinkled not too liberally among the millions of amateur witch doctors who drove Fords and applied their own abominable cures were the heaven-sent mechanics who could really make the car talk. These professionals turned up in undreamed-of spots. One time, on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington, I heard the rear end go out of my Model T when I was trying to whip it up a steep incline onto the deck of a ferry. Something snapped; the car slid backward into the mud. It seemed to me like the end of the trail. But the captain of the ferry, observing the withered remnant, spoke up.

“What’s got her?” he asked.

“I guess it’s the rear end,” I replied, listlessly. The captain leaned over the rail and stared. Then I saw that there was a hunger in his eyes that set him off from other men.

“Tell you what,” he said, carelessly, trying to cover up his eagerness, “let’s pull the son of a bitch up onto the boat, and I’ll help you fix her while we’re going back and forth on the river.”

We did just this. All that day I plied between the towns of Pasco and Kennewick, while the skipper (who had once worked in a Ford garage) directed the amazing work of resetting the bones of my car.

Springtime in the heyday of the Model T was a delirious season. Owning a car was still a major excitement, roads were still wonderful and bad. The Fords were obviously conceived in madness: any car which was capable of going from forward into reverse without any perceptible mechanical hiatus was bound to be a mighty challenging thing to the human imagination. Boys used to veer them off the highway into a level pasture and run wild with them, as though they were cutting up with a girl. Most everybody used the reverse pedal quite as much as the regular foot brake—it distributed the wear over the bands and wore them all down evenly. That was the big trick, to wear all the bands down evenly, so that the final chattering would be total and the whole unit scream for renewal.

The days were golden, the nights were dim and strange. I still recall with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises when you drew up to a signpost and raced the engine so the lights would be bright enough to read destinations by. I have never been really planetary since. I suppose it’s time to say goodbye. Farewell, my lovely!

Doonesbury — Short-Term Memory aid.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Job Openings

Following up on what I noted the other day: working in the Trump White House is career suicide.

BuzzFeed News spoke with 20 Republican communicators and operatives, many of whom have worked on Capitol Hill and in presidential campaigns and some who have declined previous offers to join the Trump administration. Nearly all said they would be unwilling to accept an offer to replace [White House Communications Director Mike] Dubke.

“Hell no!” said one Republican — one of the most common types of response BuzzFeed News got from operatives. “That would be career suicide.”

Others brought a mix of dark humor.

“That’s like asking someone who just witnessed a horrific bungee jumping accident whether they would like to go next,” one Republican source responded in a text message.

“It would be only a few months on the job before tapping out the ‘I want to spend more time with family’ email,” another said.

One operative whose spouse works in the Trump administration dissolved into laughter upon being asked if they would want the role.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” the source said between stifled laughs. “Oh, you’re being serious? Oh my god, I’m crying of laughter. Why would anyone in their right mind want to be his communications director?”

Even some responses that weren’t entirely terrible were still bad for the White House. “Coming on board now is a bit like taking over communications for the White Star Line after the Titanic has sunk,” a former George W. Bush staffer said. “I mean, no one is going to blame you and how much worse can it possibly get?”

Bomb disposal? Giving a bath to a bobcat?

The only upside is that you would be guaranteed a guest slot on Fox News.

Fear and Petulance

Josh Marshall looks at the bigger picture.

This isn’t about climate and it isn’t about Trump’s base. It’s about sticking it to the leaders of Europe. That’s what gave the Bannonites the edge. That and one other thing.

Trump is scared. He’s entering a a widening gyre of political crisis over Russia. He’s scared and he’s angry and he needs friends. So he’s more and more likely to hug his base – both the most aggressive advisors and the most committed supporters. He’s trying to bring back Corey Lewandowski, his wildest and most troubling-driving advisor who has the unshakable loyalty and lickspittledom Trump now requires. Indeed, we can take it as a given that as the Russia scandal crisis deepens Trump will become more aggressive and more extreme in his policies both to maintain his emotional equilibrium and reinforce his backing from a shrinking base of supporters. This is as certain as night follows day.

It’s worth noting, if it is not obvious, that the growing rupture in Trump’s relations with Europe is also driven by the Russia issue and Trump’s desire to hamstring or break apart the EU and NATO. Whether Trump’s affinity for Russia is legitimate or corrupt, the reality itself is indisputable. That drives his hostility to the EU and NATO.

In any case, this is about wanting to lash out at enemies, strike a blow in a context in which people can’t easily fight back and try to assert control over a situation that increasingly feels (and is) out of control. Rewrite the last four weeks, leave Trump less angry and threatened, I’m confident the US would still be in the Paris accord. That’s how he operates.

That’s also how spoiled children and dictators operate: they lash out with vengeance.  “I’ll show THEM who’s boss around here!”

In a way, though, this further revelation of his petulant and irrational behavior makes it clear to the world that he is fully capable of acting out in response to nothing more than hurt feelings — or covfefes — and must be dealt with swiftly.  There is no negotiating with someone backed into a corner.

Dumb Show

Charles P. Pierce on Trump’s exit from reality.

It used to be the young bucks and their T-bones, or the welfare queen with her Cadillac, who were leeching off good, hard-working Real Americans. It turns out Ronald Reagan was modest. On Thursday, in a speech that was such a towering pile of complete horseshit that it may well reach the moon, President* Donald Trump told the country that the rest of the world is now the craftiest welfare queen of them all.

I didn’t think he could top his ghastly American Carnage inaugural address for sheer fact-free and paranoiac mendacity, but he managed to do it on Thursday. By announcing that the United States was withdrawing from the groundbreaking Paris Accords regarding the world climate crisis, the president* wallowed in rank, xenophobic victimhood while basking in the scattered applause of the otherwise unemployable yahoos whose self-respect is sufficiently low that they still work for him. Any doubt that Steve Bannon is running this White House now, either personally or through his finger-puppet, obvious anagram Reince Priebus, now has evaporated. The transformation of the American government into a Breitbart comments thread is complete.

It was appalling. It was condescending. It was awful content delivered by a dolt who wouldn’t know the Paris Accords from a baguette without the shoddy talking points that someone put in front of him. For example, he read off a fanciful list of “consequences” for adhering to the Paris Accords down through the next decades. Afterwards, Ali Velshi, a welcome addition to the MSNBC cast of regulars, pointed out that the president* was reading from a debunked report that presumed in its analysis that the U.S. would fulfill every one of its agreed-upon conditions while no other participating country would fulfill any of theirs. This is not surprising. The president* would have read a commercial for hair-replacement if someone had put it in front of him.

The least objectionable element of the speech was its utter internal incoherence.

The United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian economic and financial burden the agreement imposes on our country.

Paris was a non-binding and ineffective agreement, but it was “draconian” nonetheless. The economy is booming under his leadership, but the Paris Accord was destroying it at the same time. This was a speech written by a fool, to be delivered by a fool, with the presumption that a great percentage of its target audience is made up of fools.

But the really noxious stuff was the attempt at transforming a worldwide agreement to combat an existential threat to life on this planet into what he stupidly called a scheme to redistribute our wealth to China, as if we’re all not going to be buying our solar panels from China for the next 50 years because of this cluck. The really noxious stuff was all that simpering about how the rest of the world is playing us for suckers and laughing at us, as though the rest of the world doesn’t think we’ve lost our mind as a nation simply by electing a vulgar talking yam. The really noxious stuff was all his crocodile tears about the Forgotten People, as though a lot of them are not suffering through drought, or losing their houses to floods and to landslides, about which he and his people care nothing at all.

The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris agreement. They went wild. They were so happy, for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage. A cynic would say that the obvious reasons were for economic competitiveness and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is that we continue to suffer from this self-inflicted economic wound.

You see what’s happening. It’s pretty obvious to those who want to keep an open mind. At what point does American get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us at a country? We want fair treatment for our citizens, and fair treatment for our taxpayers and we don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us any more.

It was a speech written by an angry child, to be delivered by an angry child, with the assumption that its targeted audience was made up of angry children, too. And it was of a piece with that lunatic Wall Street Journal op-ed from Tuesday in which H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn pretty much decided that international diplomacy is nothing more than a larger-than-usual barrel of cannibalistic crabs.

Not content to have lined the United States up with the anti-science side of the most pressing global issue of our time, he brought up Scott Pruitt, the head vandal at EPA, after the speech, so that Pruitt could say great things about him, and actually talk about freeing the government from “special interests” without his tongue turning to sand. (Pruitt, you may recall, is the guy who, while Oklahoma’s attorney general, literally passed an oil company letter along to the EPA by signing his name to it. He also doesn’t believe that human activity causes the climate crisis.) The idea that these people put together a party in the Rose Garden to celebrate the withdrawal of American leadership in the world leads me to believe that they’d host a barbecue to celebrate a public execution.

None of that matters. While the president was speaking, as it happens, a huge chunk of Antarctica was preparing to break off. Meanwhile, Wednesday was the first day of hurricane season, and this president*, who cares so much about the duties of his office and the people of this great land, still hasn’t bothered to appoint a FEMA director yet. The nonsense he spewed on Thursday doesn’t matter, either, even if it continues to gull the suckers out in the sticks. The oceans are not listening to him.

While Trump was deciding to trash the planet, I had the honor of speaking to a drama class at a local high school about playwriting.  They were eager, enthusiastic, full of energy to explore the magical craft of creating theatre.  I loved every minute of it, but I couldn’t help thinking that my generation is doing them a great disservice by basically leaving this world worse off than we found it.  More galling is that I remember when I was their age, my friends and classmates were just as eager, enthusiastic, and full of energy to do right by our world; to make it better, more peaceful, more loving.  We failed them.

I wish I could tell them that we did our best, and I hope they will forgive us.

Thursday, June 1, 2017