Monday, June 4, 2018

It’s Not Good To Be The King

When the Constitution was written, the folks who wrote it did everything they possibly could to get away from a monarchic form of government.  They made all the people with power subject to election and to the rule of law, and they split the powers of the government between three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.  That seemed like a good way to do it; no one branch could overtake the other, and there was accountability so that if one got out of hand, the others could deal with them until order was restored.  The few executive powers that resembled those held by a monarch were limited to benign or even restorative abilities, such as the power of the pardon.  The Founders probably thought this would be sufficient; they had the optimistic yet cautionary view that we were inherently good but that firm control via common sense and the ballot box would be enough.

They didn’t take into account the possibility that we would get Trump.

The 20-page memo from Trump’s lawyers to Robert Mueller, written in January and leaked by the New York Times on Saturday asserts that the president has the power to do whatever he wants in terms of controlling the Department of Justice; fire the director of the FBI, terminate an investigation, pardon himself for anything he might have done while in office, and basically assume the powers of an authoritarian without worrying that anyone in the executive branch can stop him.

Indeed, the President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations.

People who have been to law school and have read this memo say that it is deeply flawed in both legal and logical terms.  The attorneys cite outdated statutes and take positions that stretch reason beyond the absurd.  But it is an insight into the defense strategy that will be mounted on behalf of Trump and sold to the GOP base at rallies as black-letter law: Trump is above the law and it’s good to be the Trump.

The only people who can bring an action against the president for violating the law or the Constitution is Congress.  They have done so twice in living memory: the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and the actual impeachment of Bill Clinton.  At those times — 1974 and 1998 — the Congress was held by the opposition party to the president, which means that their desire to prosecute the president was inherently a political one.  This time it’s different.  Trump is nominally a Republican, as is the House and Senate.  So the question then becomes do the people who have the power over the term of the current president believe more in the rule of law than they do in the integrity of their own party, their re-election, and their conscience that speaks to them when they’re outside of the glare of TV cameras and soundbites.

We decided over 200 years ago that we didn’t want a monarch any more (even if we do watch their royal weddings on TV) and gave ourselves and our elected representatives the power to control those who assume they have powers beyond those granted by law.  Whether or not Congress decides to do anything about that tells us more about the future of this country and our path forward as a constitutional democracy than the results of an election.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sunday Reading

Kids These Days — In The New Yorker, Charles Bethea profiles a young inventor.

Audrey Larson’s mother is an accountant, and her father is a teacher. A grandfather, who died before she was born, was an inventor of sorts, she told me on Thursday. Audrey is also an inventor: she has been entering invention contests since the fourth grade. She’s now in ninth grade, at a public school in Wallingford, Connecticut. This weekend, she will compete in the National Invention Convention & Entrepreneurship Expo, in Dearborn, Michigan, where she’ll début her latest idea: a wall-mounted shield designed to protect students from active shooters invading their classrooms.

“I always try to address a problem I can personally connect to,” Audrey told me. She listed some of her “old inventions,” including light-bulb-equipped “glow-jamas,” which she conceived of in fourth grade (“You could turn them on when you needed to use the bathroom at night”), and an “automatic dog scratcher,” called the Scratch-O-Matic 4000, which she created in fifth grade. In sixth grade, she dreamed up an underarm I.V. fluid-warmer, called PIT, for Pre-heated I.V. Technology, which warmed I.V. fluid to body temperature using a tube-encased copper wire inserted under an arm. That one signalled the beginning of Larson’s love for acronyms, as well as inventions geared toward health and safety. In seventh grade, she created Safe Emergency Assistance Technology, or SEAT: “crutches that fold out into a chair for fatigued crutch-users.” Last year, she came up with Carbon Abatement Naturally Over Paved Environments, or CANOPE: “a canopy of plants that go over the highway, filtering out CO2 emissions from cars, naturally, using photosynthesis.”

Until recently, CANOPE was her “proudest invention.” (She’s in the process of obtaining a preliminary patent for it.) Then, a few months ago, she thought of something she liked even better: Safe KIDS, which, in her words, is “a foldable bulletproof panel designed to protect students and teachers from an active shooter.” The acronym stands for Kevlar-cellulose-nano-crystal-AR500-steel Instant Defense System.

The Larsons live about forty minutes from Sandy Hook Elementary, where, in 2012, a twenty-year-old killed twenty children and six adults using multiple semiautomatic firearms. Audrey was eight years old at the time. “I didn’t have a cell phone and I wasn’t really on the Internet. But I heard about it at school,” she told me. “My teacher didn’t want to scare the students. I remember her not being able to completely tell us we’d be O.K. And I remember feeling a weird energy in the room—of just, you know, fear amongst all of us, even though, at that age, I didn’t completely understand what was going on. I recognized the same feeling this year when more and more school shootings were happening.”

“I’ve personally never even seen somebody carry a gun,” she went on. “I know people who hunt and shoot for sport. But not everybody in my community has a gun, and I wouldn’t say they are a big part of my life.” The gun-control debate has been a constant, however. “It’s been going on my entire life and it hasn’t really gotten anywhere, and I don’t feel like Democrats or Republicans will ever come to a consensus,” she said. “I think we can’t wait around anymore. We have to do something that looks at kids’ safety before opinions on guns.”

In late January, Audrey and a group of friends “were getting emotional about the shootings,” she said. They’d been keeping track of the growing number of them around the country. “I talked to my parents about our safety. I thought, Maybe I can invent a partial solution.” After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Florida, in February, her brainstorming intensified. “Movements had started,” she said. “I wanted to look at the problem differently, in a non-political way. That’s when the idea really sprouted. I started doing drawings.” At school, people were discussing lockdown procedures, and how to improve them. “Normally, you hide in the corner away from windows and doors, where you’re least likely to be spotted,” she told me. “I didn’t think that was really effective. There had to be a better way.”

What Audrey envisioned was a virtually impenetrable, easy-to-use barrier, a half-inch thick, manufactured from Kevlar, steel, and other materials, which, she told me, “have been studied by scientists. You can get the numbers on what bullets, guns, ammo they can withstand. I chose a combination of the stronger materials.” The floor-to-ceiling panels, which create a bulletproof space once unfurled, are folded against the wall when not in use. “It doesn’t take up any space, because most schools don’t have the biggest classrooms,” Audrey said.

“The idea is that, in the event of a school shooting, if you hear shots or an alarm goes off, you’d pull it off the wall, and it locks into place, from the inside, once kids are behind it,” she explained. “The panels go from the ceiling to the floor, so there’s no place the intruder could get the gun above the panels, to hurt the students.” An electronic system is also incorporated into the design, with three functions: “It tells you when you’re properly locked inside. It sets off an alarm when other rooms have theirs locked. And it also calls 911, once activated.” She added, “Maybe it could also ultimately have a camera system or phone, so you can communicate with the outside. But the main idea is to create a safe zone in a corner of every classroom, between students and a shooter.”

Building a working prototype is cost-prohibitive for Audrey, at this point. So, after perfecting her sketches and computer-aided-design models, she fashioned a scale model using materials from “a local craft store and some 3-D-printer materials.” At this weekend’s invention convention, where her model will be on display, “we have a twenty-five-dollar limit on spending for our invention, so everyone can take part,” she noted.

How much would it ultimately cost to create Safe KIDS? Audrey wasn’t sure. “But right now the government is spending millions and billions of dollars on school safety per year and that number has significantly gone up this year,” she said. “It would be expensive to implement my invention, but eventually it would pay back into the system.” She added, “If I were to get the opportunity to patent Safe KIDS, I’d do it in a heartbeat and file it as soon as possible. After that, I’d start talking to my local and state government, and the state board of education, to see if this is actually something we can get in schools. I think it’d be well worth the money, but that’s something schools and school systems would have to determine.”

Did Audrey find it sad, or frustrating, that her ingenuity is focussed on defending herself, and her fellow-students, from people trying to kill them with guns at school? “This is just our reality now,” she said.

Big Trouble for Don Jr. — David Corn in Mother Jones.

On Saturday afternoon, the New York Times revealed a 20-page private letter that President Donald Trump’s lawyers had sent special counsel Robert Mueller in January in which they contended that it was impossible for Trump to commit obstruction of justice because he, as president, has authority over all federal investigations and the power to do whatever he wants with them. The letter is a brazen declaration of executive power, and legal experts immediately challenged its premises and assertions. The missive also raised a possible problem for Donald Trump Jr.: it suggested he had not told Congress the whole truth—and might have even misled the body—regarding the cover story he put out when it was revealed that during the campaign he, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had met with a Russian emissary after being told she would share with them dirt on Hillary Clinton, as part of a Kremlin operation to help Trump.

At issue is the statement that Trump Jr. released, when news broke last July of that June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower between the senior Trump advisers and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer supposedly dispatched by a Kremlin official. Trump Jr.’s first statement claimed the meeting had been about Russian adoption policy. (American adoptions of Russian children had been curtailed by Moscow in response to the implementation of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses.) That statement did not mention that the meeting had been set up by the Trump campaign in the expectation it would receive from Moscow negative information on Clinton. And Mueller’s investigation has been looking at the elder Trump’s involvement in concocting that cover story. Earlier this year, the Times reported that Trump had supervised the writing of the statement and had insisted that it claim that the meeting only was about Russian adoptions.

The letter from Trump’s lawyers goes further than the Times’s account—and confirms an earlier Washington Post report pegging Trump as the author of the statement. It states, “the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr.” Dictated—that means Trump devised that misleading statement. This is the first time Trump and his lawyers have conceded that he is responsible for the statement. The Times notes that previously “Trump’s advisers have tried to muddy this point, suggesting several people were involved, so the clarity of the sentence is striking.”

The sentence is also striking in that it undercuts the veracity of Trump Jr.’s testimony to Congress.

On September 7, Trump Jr. was questioned in a private session by the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Trump Tower meeting, and he was asked about the origins of the statement he put out when the meeting was revealed. First, the statement was read to Trump Jr.:

On July 8th of this year you issued a statement about the meeting: “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no followup. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”

Then Trump Jr., according to the transcript, which was recently released, was asked about the Washington Poststory noting that his father had actually drafted that statement. This exchange ensued:

Q. The Washington Post has since reported that your father was involved in drafting your July 8th statement. Isthat correct?

A. I don’t know. I never spoke to my father about it

Q. Do you know who did draft that statement?

A. Well, there were numerous statementdrafted with counsel and other people were involved and, you know, opined.

Q. To the best of your knowledge, did the President provide any edits to the statement or other input

A. He may have commented through Hope Hicks.

Q. And do you know if his comments provided through Hope Hicks were incorporated into the final statement?

A. I believe some may have been,but this was an effort through lots of people, mostly counsel.

Q. Did you ask him to provide any assistance with the statement?

A. No. She asked if I wanted to actually speak to him, and I chose not to because I didn’want to bring him into something that he had nothing to do with.

Trump Jr. certainly did not inform the committee that his father had dictated the statement. In fact, he made it seem as if Trump was marginally involved, if at all. Yet according to the letter written by Trump’s own lawyers, Trump was in charge of the statement.

Trump Jr.’s remarks to the committee conveyed an inaccurate impression and can be seen as an attempt to provide cover for his pop. They might even be considered false statements. By the way, it’s a crime to lie to Congress. 

At least one member of Congress has tagged the letter from Trump lawyers as bad news for Trump Jr. On Saturday afternoon, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House intelligence committee, tweeted, “Donald Trump is lying or Donald Trump, Jr. lied during the House Intel investigation.”

Castro was referring to Trump Jr.’s testimony before his committee, not the Senate Judiciary Committee. This testimony has not been made public, but the tweet suggests that Trump Jr. took a similar line when he spoke to the House committee and distanced his father from the misleading statement about the Trump Tower meeting.

Now the question is will either committee, both led by Republicans, give a damn and examine whether Trump Jr. tried to stonewall them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

There’s Only One Scandal

Adam Serwer in The Atlantic posits that all the garbage we’re being treated to by Trump amounts to just one truth:

There are not many Trump scandals. There is one Trump scandal. Singular: the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.

When you put it that way, it’s not that hard to understand, and all of the links are there, from the Russians to the hush money for affairs to the pressure on the Justice Department to Middle East billionaires buying into his properties to curry favor and so on and so forth.  The details are important, but they can also be confusing and lead to a network of rabbit holes that would make the New York subway system look simple.  All you have to understand is that Trump’s goal in becoming president was to tap into the biggest license to print money for himself and his minions.  That’s it.

But her e-mails.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Take Your Time

The Mueller investigation has been going on for a year.  That may seem like a long time, but this handy chart from TPM puts it in perspective.

Every investigation is different, but just looking at the numbers, the Trump/Russia probe has barely begun.

(And I don’t remember any Republicans calling for Ken Starr to “wrap it up.”  As far as they’re concerned, it’s still going on; they just know there’s still some dirt to be had on Bill and Hillary and that airstrip in Arkansas.)

What I think is telling is that the learning curve on these types of investigations is so obvious.  In every case illustrated above, the perps thought they could get away with whatever it was that they were doing and that this time for sure they’d bamboozle both the investigators and the public.  It never works, and someone — usually a mid-level minion — ends up in jail.  (Interesting to note that in all of the investigations, at some point someone involved in the case was able to wangle their way into a presidential pardon.)

So take your time, Mr. Mueller.  Compared to Whitewater, you’ve got another seven years ahead of you.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Something’s Coming

Rudy Giuliani is all over the TV and very proud of the confusion he’s sowing.

“I’ll give you the conclusion: We all feel pretty good that we’ve got everything kind of straightened out and we’re setting the agenda,” Giuliani, the former New York mayor who recently joined Trump’s legal team, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Giuliani said he met with the president at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., to discuss developments and legal strategy.

“Everybody’s reacting to us now, and I feel good about that because that’s what I came in to do,” he said.

Yeah, everybody reacted to the Hindenburg explosion, too.

Meanwhile, the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is opening up the earth and spewing forth lava, wiping out homes and turning a tropical paradise into something that resembles the last moments of Mordor (or Pompeii for those of you not into the Lord of the Rings).

Shortly after Kilauea erupted Thursday, the ground split open on the east side of Leilani Estates, exposing an angry red beneath the lush landscape. From the widening gash, molten rock burbled and splashed, then shot as high as 80 to 100 feet in the air.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency called it “active volcanic fountaining.” Some residents insisted it was Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, come to reclaim her land. Residents there were ordered to flee amid threats of fires and “extremely high levels of dangerous” sulfur dioxide gas.

Soon, another such fissure had formed less than three streets to the west. Then another, and another. From the vents, hot steam — and noxious gases — rose, before magma broke through and splattered into the air.

I’m not one of those people who believes in tying the forces of nature to the doings of humanity.  Gay marriage doesn’t cause hurricanes, and the spewing forth of lava, destroying everything in its path, isn’t a warning from Pele.  It’s just that the volume of vitriol and destruction from the Trump mouthpieces is eerily similar what’s flowing out of the ground in Hawaii.

I have nothing other than just a gut feeling that there’s something coming down the road, heading right for us.  I don’t think it’s impeachment — that can’t happen as long as the Republicans are in control of Congress — but I’m getting the very powerful feeling that the shitstorm is going to hit, hit soon, and hit hard.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Whose Idea Was That?

From the Washington Post:

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a recent addition to President Trump’s legal team, said Wednesday night that Trump made a series of payments reimbursing his attorney, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 settlement with an adult-film actress — despite Trump’s assertion last month that he was unaware of the payment.

This probably won’t be a large part of the historical record, but when the history of this period of time, someone is going to write a book or an article looking into the process — assuming there was one as opposed to a late-night cheeseburger nightmare — of hiring Rudy Giuliani as counsel to Trump.

Probably the same process as “Hey, let’s call it ‘New Coke.'”

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

He’s Got A Little List

The New York Times is reporting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has a list of questions he’d like to ask Trump.

The open-ended queries appear to be an attempt to penetrate the president’s thinking, to get at the motivation behind some of his most combative Twitter posts and to examine his relationships with his family and his closest advisers. They deal chiefly with the president’s high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

But they also touch on the president’s businesses; any discussions with his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, about a Moscow real estate deal; whether the president knew of any attempt by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition; any contacts he had with Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser who claimed to have inside information about Democratic email hackings; and what happened during Mr. Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant.

The Mueller team does not leak inadvertently, and the first rule they teach you in law school (or so I’m told) is, “Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.”  I’m willing to bet that this was done on purpose in order to bait the Trump team into saying something that could later be proven to be a lie and thereby get them on both obstruction and perjury.

Too bad that Mueller will probably never get a chance to ask them unless it’s in front of a grand jury.

Update:  The Hill is reporting that the leaked questions may have come from the White House.

Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst and former assistant to Robert Mueller, said Tuesday he believes President Trump leaked the list of nearly 50 questions the special counsel allegedly wants to ask Trump.

“I think these are notes taken by the recipients of a conversation with Mueller’s office where he outlined broad topics and these guys wrote down questions that they thought these topics may raise,” Zeldin said on CNN’s “New Day.”

“Because of the way these questions are written… lawyers wouldn’t write questions this way, in my estimation. Some of the grammar is not even proper,” he continued. “So, I don’t see this as a list of written questions that Mueller’s office gave to the president. I think these are more notes that the White House has taken and then they have expanded upon the conversation to write out these as questions.”

Hmm.  That sounds plausible… not the leaking, but the typos.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Retort

I think the last Washington insider book that I bought and read was John Dean’s “Blind Ambition” that depicted this role in Watergate.  So I probably won’t read James Comey’s forthcoming tome, “A Higher Loyalty,” in which the fired FBI director recalls his brief time in the Trump administration.  But it must be a page-turner the way the right-wing media and the White House is laying into it.

The battle plan against Comey, obtained by CNN, calls for branding the nation’s former top law enforcement official as “Lyin’ Comey” through a website, digital advertising and talking points to be sent to Republicans across the country before his memoir is released next week. The White House signed off on the plan, which is being overseen by the Republican National Committee.

“Comey is a liar and a leaker and his misconduct led both Republicans and Democrats to call for his firing,” Republican chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement to CNN. “If Comey wants the spotlight back on him, we’ll make sure the American people understand why he has no one but himself to blame for his complete lack of credibility.”

While it’s an open question how successful Republicans will be in making their case against Comey, given that Trump unceremoniously dismissed him last May 9, there is no doubt that many Democrats remain furious at how the former FBI director treated Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.

If the RNC and the White House wanted to suppress book sales and discredit Mr. Comey, they would ignore it or say nothing more than “Well, he’s entitled to his opinion” and let it be.  But giving the campaign to discredit him its own website?  Sales of the book are going to go through the roof.

The biggest question now will be, where will they find an actor who’s 6’8″ to play Comey in the HBO version?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Island Getaway

Apparently the Seychelles, a scattering of remote islands in the Indian Ocean, is the exclusive place for rich people from other lands to get together and plan how to run the U.S. government… or at least buy it off.

Via various sites that lead to NJ.com:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is examining a series of previously unreported meetings that took place in 2017 in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, as part of its broader investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to two sources briefed on the investigation.

The sources said several of those meetings took place around the same time as another meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, founder of the security company Blackwater, Kirill Dmitriev, the director of one of Russia’s sovereign wealth funds, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates (also known as “MBZ”). Details of that earlier meeting were first reported by the Washington Post last year.

The sources requested to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The inquiry into the meetings in the Seychelles suggests there is growing interest on the Mueller team in whether foreign financing, specifically from Gulf states, has influenced President Trump and his administration.

Documents obtained by this reporter, and interviews with those familiar with the probe, suggest Mueller is also looking at other foreign influencers, including individuals from Russia and from Saudi Arabia.

The meetings in the Seychelles are a key component of Mueller’s investigation, sources familiar with the investigation said. The meetings connect powerful players from Russia, the U.S., the UAE and Saudi Arabia across the political, financial and defense worlds. The details of what was discussed in the meetings in January and in the following months, however, are scarce.

Flight records and financial documents obtained by this reporter over twelve months, as well as interviews with parliamentary and aviation officials in the Seychelles, paint a scene out of a Hollywood thriller.

Wealthy and politically-connected individuals from across the globe — from Russia, France, Saudi Arabia and South Africa — land in the Seychelles for meetings that take place as a part of a larger gathering hosted by MBZ, according to an individual briefed on the matter, who also requested anonymity. Many of them fly in on private jets and several do not clear customs. Some check into the Four Seasons Hotel while others arrive and stay on their yachts.

This qualifies as a “scene out of a Hollywood thriller” but only if this was a remake of “The Godfather” and Fredo was the smart one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Raid On Cohen

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The F.B.I. raided the Rockefeller Center office and Park Avenue hotel room of President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, on Monday morning, seizing business records, emails and documents related to several topics, including a payment to a pornographic film actress.

Mr. Trump, in an extraordinarily angry response, lashed out hours later at what a person briefed on the matter said was an investigation into possible bank fraud by Mr. Cohen. Mr. Trump accused his own Justice Department of perpetrating a “witch hunt” and asserted that the F.B.I. “broke in to” Mr. Cohen’s office.

The president, who spoke at the White House before meeting with senior military commanders about a potential missile strike on Syria, called the F.B.I. raid a “disgraceful situation” and an “attack on our country in a true sense.”

It is not clear how the F.B.I. entered Mr. Cohen’s office, but agents had a search warrant and typically would have presented it to office personnel to be let in. The documents identified in the warrant date back years, according to a person briefed on the search.

The prosecutors obtained the search warrant after receiving a referral from the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, according to Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, who called the search “completely inappropriate and unnecessary.” The search does not appear to be directly related to Mr. Mueller’s investigation, but most likely resulted from information that he had uncovered and gave to prosecutors in New York.

The louder he screams, the closer they’re getting.

Charlie Pierce:

The FBI doesn’t raid the offices of high-end lawyers unless they are absolutely sure about what they’re looking for, and absolutely sure they’re inbounds, too. Attorney-client privilege is a serious business, and that’s a good thing. It’s pretty plain that this is a serious turn in Robert Mueller’s investigation. It’s also pretty plain that his investigation is going everywhere it can possibly go.

And knowing how Trump lashes out at anything nearby when he gets riled, folks in Syria better brace for an air raid.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sunday Reading

Corruption, Thy Name Is Trump — Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.

“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” declared Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.” To the extent that Trump’s candidacy offered any positive appeal, as opposed to simple loathing for his opponent, this was it. He was a brilliant businessman, or at least starred in a television show as one, and he would set aside his lifelong pursuit of wealth to selflessly serve the greater good. This was the promise that pried just enough Obama voters away from Hillary Clinton in just enough upper-Midwest states to clinch the Electoral College.

Since Trump took office, his pledge to ignore his own interests has been almost forgotten, lost in a disorienting hurricane of endless news. It is not just a morbid joke but a legitimate problem for the opposition that all the bad news about Trump keeps getting obscured by other bad news about Trump. Perhaps the extraordinary civic unrest his presidency has provoked will be enough to give Democrats a historic win in the midterms this fall, but it is easy to be worried. Trump’s approval rating hovers in the low 40s: lower than the average of any other president, yes, but seemingly impervious to an onslaught of scandals that would have sunk any other president, and within spitting range of reelectability.

As the races pick up in earnest, some kind of narrative focus is going to be necessary to frame the case against Trump. Here, what appears to be an embarrassment of riches for Democrats may in fact be a collection of distractions. It is depressingly likely that several of Trump’s most outrageous characteristics will fail to move the needle in the states and districts where the needle needs moving. His racism and misogyny motivate the Democratic base, but both were perfectly apparent in 2016 and did not dissuade enough voters to abandon him.
The Russia scandal is substantively important, but it is also convoluted and abstract and removed from any immediate impact on voters’ lived experience. The reports of Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels, even the possibility of hired goons to keep her quiet, is not exactly a disillusioning experience for voters who harbored few illusions to begin with.

But they did harbor one. Trump’s core proposition to the public was a business deal: If he became president, he would work to make them rich. Of course, the fact that Trump was able to reduce the presidency to such a crass exchange, forsaking such niceties as simple decency and respect for the rule of law, exposed terrifying weaknesses in the fabric of American democracy. But the shortest path to resolving this crisis is first to remove Trump’s party — and it is Trump’s party — from full control of the government in 2018, and then to remove Trump from the White House in 2020. The clearest way to do that is to demonstrate that Trump is failing to uphold his end of the deal. After all, the students at Trump University once constituted some of the biggest Trump fans in America. Until they realized Trump had conned them. Then they sued to get their money back.

Historically, corruption — specifically, the use of power for personal gain — has played a central and even dominant role in American political discourse. In the 1870s, revelations that public officials were caught lining their pockets with millions of dollars from alcohol taxes (the Whiskey Ring) and inflated railroad costs (Crédit Mobilier) exploded into spectacular scandals. One of the triumphs of the Progressive Era was establishing rules and norms of professionalism in government so that public officials would not be tempted to sell their favors. The far more petty corruption cases of the 20th century still roused public rage. Harry Truman was famously scorned in his time, owing to penny-ante scandals, one of which involved an aide’s acceptance of some freezers. Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff had to resign after he accepted a vicuña coat; George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, resigned in disgrace after using military aircraft for personal and political trips. There is a reason Trump labeled his opponent “Crooked Hillary,” and it stems from a law of American politics Democrats would be wise to remember: To be out for yourself is probably the single most disqualifying flaw a politician can have.

“Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people?” argued Larry Kudlow, now Trump’s primary economic adviser, in 2016. “Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.” The administration seems to have set out to refute this generous assumption. The sheer breadth of direct self-enrichment Trump has unleashed in office defies the most cynical predictions. It may not be a surprise that he continues to hold on to his business empire and uses his power in office to direct profits its way, from overseas building deals down to printing the presidential seal on golf markers at the course near Mar-a-Lago. It is certainly not a surprise that Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns. What’s truly shocking is how much petty graft has sprung up across his administration. Trump’s Cabinet members and other senior officials have been living in style at taxpayer expense, indulging in lavish travel for personal reasons (including a trip to Fort Knox to witness the solar eclipse) and designing their offices with $31,000 dining sets and $139,000 doors. Not since the Harding administration, and probably the Gilded Age, has the presidency conducted itself in so venal a fashion.

It is hardly a coincidence that so many greedy people have filled the administration’s ranks. Trump’s ostentatious crudeness and misogyny are a kind of human-resources strategy. Radiating personal and professional sleaze lets him quickly and easily identify individuals who have any kind of public ethics and to sort them out. (James Comey’s accounts of his interactions with the president depict Trump probing for some vein of corruptibility in the FBI director; when he came up empty, he fired him.) Trump is legitimately excellent at cultivating an inner circle unburdened by legal or moral scruples. These are the only kind of people who want to work for Trump, and the only kind Trump wants to work for him.

It should take very little work — and be a very big priority — for Democratic candidates to stitch all the administration’s misdeeds together into a tale of unchecked greed. For all the mystery still surrounding the Russia investigation, for instance, it is already clear that the narrative revolves around a lust (and desperation) for money. Having burned enough American banks throughout his career that he could not obtain capital through conventional, legitimate channels, Trump turned to Russian sources, who typically have an ulterior political motive. Just what these various sources got in return for their investment in Trump is a matter for Robert Mueller’s investigators to determine. But Trump’s interest in them is perfectly obvious.

Trump’s campaign followed his patented human-resources strategy, filling its ranks with other rapacious and financially precarious men. Paul Manafort was deeply in debt to a Russian oligarch when he popped up on Trump’s doorstep. Michael Flynn was selling his credentials to Russian and Turkish dictators while advising Trump. Jared Kushner was flailing about in an effort to make good on a massive loan he took out on a white-elephant Manhattan building and seems to have used his access to Trump to leverage potential investors who might bail him out. Even as he has wielded enormous influence, Kushner has been unable to obtain a top-secret security clearance, because he may be vulnerable to foreign influence.

The virtue of bribery is a subject of genuine conviction for Trump, whose entrée to politics came via transactional relationships with New York politicians as well as Mafia figures. Trump once called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars American corporations from engaging in bribery, a “ridiculous” and “horrible” law. Enforcement of this law has plummeted under his administration.

Trump’s vision of an economy run by tight circles of politically connected oligarchs has reshaped America’s standing in the world. The same effect that applies at the personal level with Trump has appeared at the level of the nation-state. Small-d democratic leaders have recoiled from the Trump administration, while autocrats have embraced him. Similarly, the president and his inner circle feel most comfortable in the company of the wealthy and corrupt. They have built closer ties to Russia, the Gulf States, and China, all of which are ruled by oligarchs who recognize in Trump a like-minded soul. They share the belief that — to revise a favorite Trump saying — if you don’t steal, you don’t have a country.

An easy fatalism about all this corruption has gained wide circulation. It was known about Trump all along and his voters signed up for it anyway, so nothing matters, right? In fact, Trump’s behavior runs directly contrary to his most important promises. “Draining the swamp” was not supposed to mean simply kicking out Democrats and competent public officials. He made speeches promising good-government reforms: a ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and stricter rules on what lobbying meant; campaign-finance reform to prevent foreign companies from raising money for American candidates; a ban on lobbying by former senior government officials on behalf of foreign governments.

Not only has Trump made no effort to raise ethical standards but he and his administration have flamboyantly violated the existing guidelines. Lobbyists are seeded in every agency, “regulating” their former employers and designing rules that favor bosses over employees and business owners over consumers. The problem of former government officials’ being paid by foreign governments has been superseded by the far larger problem of current government officials’ being paid by foreign governments.

Small episodes of corruption can play an outsize role in American politics, since the human scale of petty self-dealing is often easy to understand. And in Trump’s case, the smaller and larger scandals reinforce each other. Why is Trump giving rich people and corporations a huge tax cut? Why has he been threatening to take away your health insurance? Why is he letting Wall Street and Big Oil write their own rules? Above all, if Trump supposedly believed that “if I become president, I couldn’t care less about my company — it’s peanuts,” why are his children still running it? For the same reason he has let his Cabinet secretaries run up large travel expenses, and why his son-in-law met with oligarchs in China and the Gulf States whose money he was trying to get his hands on.

Even the strong economy does not mean Democrats have no way to attack Trump’s economic management. After all, the reason public opinion about the economy improved almost immediately after his election is that the Republican message machine stopped bad-mouthing the recovery and instead rebranded the same conditions as a fabulous new era of prosperity. Rather than sit back and allow Trump to take credit for a recovery he inherited, Democrats can press the point that he and his allies are doing little more than skimming off the top of it.

Somebody persuaded corporations, fattened by a trillion-dollar tax windfall, to publicize the same raises and bonuses they had been handing out for years as a special dividend of the Trump tax cuts. If Democrats win control of a chamber of Congress and thus the ability to hold hearings, they should investigate whatever coordination yielded this nexus of self-interest. A Democratic House or Senate could also compel disclosure of Trump’s tax returns, and both the documents themselves and any drama surrounding them would attract more attention to the administration’s commitment to self-enrichment.

But that can happen only if the Democrats win the midterms, and the best way to do that is to tell a very simple story. Trump represented himself as a rich man feared by the business elite. He had spent much of his life buying off politicians and exploiting the system, so he knew how the system worked and could exploit that knowledge on behalf of the people. In fact, his experiences with bribery opened his eyes to what further extortion might be possible. Trump was never looking to blow up the system. He was simply casing the joint.

Mr. Popularity — John Nichols in The Nation on Trump’s delusions.

Trump is so out of touch with reality that he thinks he is popular.

He’s not. And Americans, no matter what their partisanship, no matter what their ideology, should be worried that their president is lying not just to them but to himself.

Trump has been obsessed in recent days by a Rasmussen Reports daily presidential tracking poll that was published April 4. It put his approval rating at 51 percent. “Still Rising: Rasmussen Poll Shows Donald Trump Approval Ratings Now at 51 Percent,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday, as part of a pattern of tweets claiming that he’s experiencing a popularity surge.

Appearing Friday morning on the Trump-approving Bernie & Sid Show on New York’s WABC radio show—”we both think you’re doing a terrific job…”—the president claimed he was on a roll. “A poll just came out now, Rasmussen, it’s now 51,” chirped the president. “And they say that it’s 51, but add another 7 or 8 points to it. That’s somewhat embarrassing for me to tell you because they don’t want to talk about it, but when they get into the [voting] booth they’re going to vote for Trump.”

Rasmussen, a polling firm that has consistently found higher numbers for Trump than other survey research operations, did put the president at 51 on Wednesday. But Thursday’s Rasmussen daily tracking poll had the president’s approval rating falling to 47 percent, with 51 percent of those polled expressing disapproval. On Friday, when Trump was saying “it’s now 51,” his Rasmussen approval rating was actually 47 percent, while his disapproval number had risen to 52 percent.

In other words, the survey firm that the president has been busy thanking for doing “honest polling” is telling us that his approval rating has gone down in a week that saw talk of a “trade war” with China and mounting calls for the removal of scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt.

But it’s actually much worse than that for Trump. Rasmussen is just one pollster. All the rest of the recent polls from major survey research groups show Trump with a double-digit polling deficit. Some have his approval rating falling into the 30s. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls provides the clearest picture: As of Friday morning, Trump’s approval rating was at 41.5 percent. His disapproval rating was at 54.6 percent. That’s a 13.1 percent deficit.

That’s also well below the level of support Trump got when he lost—let’s reemphasize: lost—the popular vote in 2016. In that year’s presidential race, Trump secured 46.1 percent of the vote to 48.2 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than Trump, and that was after she faced an onslaught of criticism and attacks during the 2016 campaign.

Trump could never accept those numbers. He has made wild claims about voter fraud and promoted other electoral fantasies in attempts to explain his failure to appeal to the vast majority of voters. And he never acknowledges—no matter how his numbers compared with Clinton’s in the popular vote—that the overall portion of the 2016 American electorate that chose someone other than Trump for the presidency was 54 percent.

Why should Americans worry that their president keeps deceiving himself—and his fellow Republicans, in Congress and in the states where GOP-backed candidates are being rejected with growing frequency—about these approval ratings?

Because this is a president who, we are told, trusts his instincts. If Trump really believes his approach to governing is popular, if he really imagines that his popularity is “still rising,” he is more likely to keep doing what he is doing.

The fact is that Trump’s instincts are wrong, as are his policies. They are not making him more popular. He may experience temporary fluctuations in his approval ratings, but they are never great—or even all that good. In fact, when it comes to approval ratings, it certainly looks like Trump’s best days were back in November of 2016, when he was on the losing end of a 54-46 measure of popular sentiment.

The Smells of Home — Sofija Stefanovic in The New York Times about sense memory recall.

When I was 5, the night before we left Yugoslavia and a few years before that country embarked on the Balkan wars and eventually dissolved, my mother put me to bed. Before starting on the hour of lullabies I demanded, out of nowhere she said, “The smells of your childhood will always stay with you and will make you remember home.”

“But what if you were born in a garbage bin?” I said.

“Then the smell of garbage will always remind you of home,” she said, and her eyes filled with tears, making me (incorrectly) assume that she’d been born in a garbage bin herself and was getting emotional about it.

Though I didn’t think much of it at the time, my mother was right about the smells. It is well documented that our senses can cause an involuntary flooding of memory. Some call it the “Proust phenomenon,” after the scene in “In Search of Lost Time” when a character’s childhood comes back to him simply from tasting a madeleine biscuit soaked in tea.

To me, the Belgrade of my childhood smelled like the Marlboro cigarettes my mother smoked — even while I was in utero (it was the ’80s) — and the perfume my aunt wore and chestnuts roasting in the winter, which sellers scooped into a paper cone and we ate on our way to my grandma’s place.

But I didn’t think about those smells as being special, because I had never not smelled them. We hadn’t yet moved to Australia, with its clean air, eucalyptus trees and suburban lawns, where the Southern Cross constellation hung above us, far from our family and the small gray sky of my hometown. I didn’t know that I would miss the smells, or rather, that I wouldn’t realize I missed the smells, and their associated memories, until I experienced them again.

It’s only now, as an adult living in New York, that I have my own Proustian moments. On a cold day smelling of snow, I sometimes get a whiff of urine in a doorway, and that olfactory cocktail reminds me of our building on the Boulevard of Revolution, with its green door, where my family lived when I was small. Men used to relieve themselves in the doorways there, just as they do here.

Behind the green door was an old foyer, and if you were walking down the stairs, you had to push a button each time you arrived on a new floor because the light was on a timer that went out. Out the back of that building I played with other kids. Stray kittens would appear near the caretaker’s toolshed and we’d argue over them, tugging them out of one another’s grasps, except when it was snowing and the kittens huddled under the shed and we’d make snowmen instead.

All those memories from a stinky doorway.

For me, the Belgrade of today is not home. We left there a long time ago, and I rarely visit. When I do, I often get lost, and the slang of young people is unfamiliar. It is not the home I remember when my senses are triggered (like when I try the Israeli peanut snack Bamba, which is uncannily similar to the Yugo Smoki I grew up on). The more time I spend with my memories, the more I augment them, my fantasy Belgrade becoming more beautiful than it ever was.

The United States is a nation of immigrants (still), and New York City is brimming with them. People who have been parted from the smells and tastes of their homes, who I assume are, like me, jolted back when a long-forgotten piece of music blares from a passing car, or a childhood spice enters their nostrils on a windy street in Queens. Do their memories make them feel nostalgia, or love, or are they ambivalent, terrified, heartbroken?

My son was born in New York City a few months ago. Based on the sensations of our block, he may well feel at home smelling a garbage bin. He might also remember the smell of the cinema near our apartment: popcorn and synthetic butter. The sound of his mother humming a Yugo-rock tune. Will these sensations, of the only home he has known, ever stand out to him as something to be missed?

If we go back to Australia (I’m not sure what the final straw will be — health care, education, immigration policy, gun laws), my son will be left with memories waiting to be sparked like a match. And then, the sound of a siren might take him back to our East Village block, where I pushed him in a stroller, picking up dog poop and balancing a coffee that I spilled on myself, and then cursed over and over. Maybe the smell of a dog’s breath will remind him of the couch he had to share with poodles while his parents shouted at the news, or the dog run with its squirrels and cobbles.

As stimuli fly at my baby — I watch him turn his head when he hears someone shouting, at the smell of laundry coming from a grating — I wonder what version of home he’s creating for himself. Which memories will my son carry of the city where he lived when he was born? And will he be like me, and many others who have moved, carrying certain baggage wherever he goes?

I remember my mother’s comment about how the smells of my childhood would remind me of home, and home, I now know, is a place that exists not on a map but in my mind, ready to appear in its full, smelly glory at any moment.

Doonesbury — Quick results.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Short Takes

Oklahoma teachers continue their march to the state capital.

Pruitt under pressure: EPA chief’s problems keep growing.

Yeah right: Trump says he was unaware of payment to Stormy Daniels.

Cyclist fired for flipping off Trump sues her former employer.

New Russia sanctions go after oligarchs.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Today In Double Standards

Hillary Clinton used a private e-mail server when she was Secretary of State to basically innocuous purposes and the nutsery chanted “Lock her up!”

Scott Pruitt, now head of the EPA, used a private e-mail server when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma for official business (and lied about it when questioned by Congress) and now it looks like he was doing some shady business with political donors.  He also hires cronies and pays them huge salaries.  He has the full support of the nutsery.

Short Takes

87 million: That’s the number of Facebook users who got swept by Cambridge Analytics.

Trump backs off immediate Syrian withdrawal.

National Guard at the border will not touch immigrants.

No kidding: Rubio says federal funds needed to help the Keys recover from hurricane damage.

There are dozens of black holes at the center of the Milky Way.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Getting Close

The Washington Post reports that the Mueller investigation has told Trump’s attorneys that he — Trump — is not currently the target of a criminal investigation.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III informed President Trump’s attorneys last month that he is continuing to investigate the president but does not consider him a criminal target at this point, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

In private negotiations in early March about a possible presidential interview, Mueller described Trump as a subject of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Prosecutors view someone as a subject when that person has engaged in conduct that is under investigation but there is not sufficient evidence to bring charges.

Just because he’s not a target doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods by any means; Richard Nixon was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in Watergate and look what happened to him.

The special counsel also told Trump’s lawyers that he is preparing a report about the president’s actions while in office and potential obstruction of justice, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations.

Mueller reiterated the need to interview Trump — both to understand whether he had any corrupt intent to thwart the Russia investigation and to complete this portion of his probe, the people said.

Mueller’s description of the president’s status has sparked friction within Trump’s inner circle as his advisers have debated his legal standing. The president and some of his allies seized on the special counsel’s words as an assurance that Trump’s risk of criminal jeopardy is low. Other advisers, however, noted that subjects of investigations can easily become indicted targets — and expressed concern that the special prosecutor was baiting Trump into an interview that could put the president in legal peril.

By the time Mr. Mueller releases his report on the obstruction portion of the investigation — Robert Costa of the Washington Post reports that could happen in June or July — the interview with Trump may have already taken place.  Then once the report is released and they close in on Trump for lying to the grand jury — the guy can’t get through a take-out order without lying — he’ll fire Mueller, the shit will hit the fan, and even if Mueller is fired, the investigation will go on.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

That Would Explain It

Andrew McCabe, newly-fired deputy director at the FBI, had opened an investigation into Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and his less-than-truthful testimony before Congress about his contacts with Russians.

Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly accused Sessions of misleading them in congressional testimony and called on federal authorities to investigate, but McCabe’s previously-unreported decision to actually put the attorney general in the crosshairs of an FBI probe was an exceptional move.

One source told ABC News that Sessions was not aware of the investigation when he decided to fire McCabe last Friday less than 48 hours before McCabe, a former FBI deputy director, was due to retire from government and obtain a full pension, but an attorney representing Sessions declined to confirm that.

Of course he knew and of course he fired him.

Monday, March 19, 2018