Friday, January 26, 2018

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Mueller Closing In

When an investigation starts questioning the principle players, you know they’re getting close to the main event.  Anyone who’s read a good detective story knows that.

So it sounds like the Mueller investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign is focusing in on the people who are going to end up answering a lot of serious questions.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week as part of the special counsel investigation, the Justice Department confirmed Tuesday, making him the first member of President Trump’s cabinet to be interviewed in the inquiry.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is increasingly focused on Mr. Trump’s conduct in office and on whether he obstructed the investigation itself.

Mr. Mueller has also told the president’s lawyers that he will most likely want to interview Mr. Trump, and one person familiar with the discussions has said that the special counsel appeared most interested in asking questions about the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and about the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Those topics show Mr. Mueller has an interest in whether the president tried to obstruct justice.

Mr. Mueller’s investigators have asked current and former Trump administration officials about what Mr. Trump cited as reasons for Mr. Comey’s firing, and why Mr. Trump was so concerned about having someone loyal to him oversee the Russia investigation, people familiar with the interviews said.

For Mr. Sessions, the interview was the latest in a balancing act that has lasted nearly a year. He has sought to get back in Mr. Trump’s good graces by pursuing investigations into issues like leaks to the news media and relaying Mr. Trump’s displeasure about senior F.B.I. leadership to the bureau’s current director, Christopher A. Wray.

But Mr. Sessions has also tried to present a veneer of independence in congressional testimony and now has met with investigators in Mr. Mueller’s inquiry, which has for months cast a shadow over the Trump White House.

Then we have this scoop from Axios:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions — at the public urging of President Donald Trump — has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, but Wray threatened to resign if McCabe was removed, according to three sources with direct knowledge.

Throw in a little bit of witness intimidation

Shortly after President Trump fired his FBI director in May, he summoned to the Oval Office the bureau’s acting director for a get-to-know-you meeting.

The two men exchanged pleasantries, but before long, Trump, according to several current and former U.S. officials, asked Andrew McCabe a pointed question: Whom did he vote for in the 2016 election?

McCabe said he didn’t vote, according to the officials, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a sensitive matter.

Trump, the officials said, also vented his anger at McCabe over the several hundred thousand dollars in donations that his wife, a Democrat, received for her failed 2015 Virginia state Senate bid from a political action committee controlled by a close friend of Hillary Clinton.

McCabe, 49, who had been FBI deputy director for a little more than a year when James B. Comey was fired, is at the center of much of the political jockeying surrounding the investigation into potential coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin. He has for months been the subject of Trump’s ire, prompting angry tweets suggesting that the Russia probe is politically motivated by Democrats sore about losing the election.

And we end up here.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is seeking to question President Trump in the coming weeks about his decisions to oust national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James B. Comey, according to two people familiar with his plans.

Trump has said all along that he thinks the Mueller investigation will be over soon.  Hey, it could be, but not in the way he thinks.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday Reading

What’s Next — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on what the Republicans are planning to do with Social Security and Medicare.

Much of journalism is dedicated to the proposition that the truth is often hidden. Sometimes, though, it is right there before our noses. Despite the chaos, the insinuations, and the scandals surrounding Donald Trump, he and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill are making progress toward enacting the radical conservative agenda that the G.O.P. has been developing over the past two decades.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, talked about the budget-busting, reward-the-rich G.O.P. tax bill—he didn’t describe it that way, of course—and what will happen after Trump signs it into law, assuming the House-Senate conference can agree on a final text. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” he went on, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

Even by the standards of today’s Republican Party, Ryan’s comments were pretty brazen. No such worry about deficits came up when the G.O.P. proposed slashing taxes for the wealthy. This about-face wasn’t anything new, however. For the G.O.P., tax reform was always part of a larger agenda: dismantling the welfare state, rolling back the regulatory state, and crippling the Democratic Party. Other prominent Republican politicians have made similar comments to Ryan’s, including Senator Marco Rubio and Trump himself. In a speech last week, the President talked about moving onto “welfare reform”—seemingly oblivious to the fact that Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress dismantled the primary welfare programs back in the late nineteen-nineties. About the only big federal means-tested programs left are Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Evidently, these will be on the Republican hit list, even though the primary populations they serve are the sick, the elderly, and children.

But the Republican leaders won’t stop there. For years, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, the great liberal creations of the New Deal and the Great Society, and radically downsizing Medicaid, another Great Society innovation, have been their primary goals. In Ryan’s “Roadmap for America,” the legislative blueprint that he first put forward in 2008, these proposals were the central element, while tax cuts were secondary. During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to protect these popular programs from cuts—but he still called for the abolition of Obamacare, which would have involved drastic cuts to the Medicaid budget. Now, Trump’s attitude toward Social Security and Medicare appears to be changing, too. Ryan, in his radio interview, said that he had been speaking privately with Trump about the approach they should take to entitlement programs, and he added, “I think the President is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare.”

Ryan’s remarks illustrate why he and other Republican leaders have refused to break with Trump despite his frequent outrages, which, most recently, have included endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate, Roy Moore, who stands accused of repeatedly molesting teen-age girls. The alliance between Trump and congressional Republicans is sometimes an uneasy one, but it’s based on mutual self-interest. With his approval rating in the mid-thirties and Robert Mueller’s investigators circling, Trump needs to maintain the support of Republican leaders, who could theoretically impeach him. The Republicans, meanwhile, need Trump—and the fervent supporters who follow him—to maintain even the barest populist pretense to their reactionary endeavors. Senior Republicans know full well that they have made a Faustian pact. With passage of a tax bill seemingly within sight, they think it is finally paying off. And from their perspective, they are right.

Earlier this week, the conservative economist and Trump supporter Stephen Moore pointed out that the Republican tax bills don’t just include the Party’s long-standing aims to slash tax rates on corporations, eliminate (or drastically curtail) the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and abolish the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. By getting rid of the personal tax deductions for state and local income taxes, the bills also target high-spending Democratic states and municipalities, such as New York and California. As this provision bites, these Democratic strongholds will come under increasing pressure to cut their budgets. That, in turn, will hurt the public sector unions that are a key pillar of the modern Democratic Party.

In addition to undercutting the base of the Democratic Party, the tax bill would boost key Republican constituencies—and not just the corporate and plutocratic ones. In a last-minute move as it was hashing out its version of the tax bill, the Senate approved an amendment from Ted Cruz that would greatly expand the scope of 529 college-savings plans. If Cruz’s proposal makes it into the final bill, as seems likely, parents will be able to use money from 529 plans to help pay the tuition fees for private K-12 schools. That would give a big lift to charter and religious schools, many of which are staffed by teachers who aren’t union members. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s radio show on Thursday, Cruz said that the G.O.P. tax bill was now the “biggest schools-choice bill ever.”

To sum up, the Republicans are using Trump as a blunt instrument—a term that Steve Bannon once used—to help them enact the legislative and administrative counter-revolution that they have long been plotting with their mega-donors and corporate-funded think tanks. And Trump, despite his efforts to portray himself as a defender of the working people, is eager to go along with this plutocratic agenda, which, of course, benefits him and his family.

It is tempting to think that Trump’s hard-pressed supporters will eventually see through him. But that moment of revelation could be a good while coming. Like many right-wing populists, he uses divisive and diversionary tactics to disguise the true nature of his regime. And when it doesn’t come into conflict with Republican dogma or his own interests, he tries to repay the groups that supported him. (This week’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, widely presented as a big foreign-policy initiative, was also a sop to Evangelical Christians, who for theological reasons have taken up the Zionist cause.)

A new Quinnipiac University poll indicates that just twenty-nine per cent of Americans support the Republican tax plan, and sixty-four per cent (rightly) believe that it will benefit the wealthy most. And yet eighty-two per cent of Republicans still approve of the job that Trump is doing as President. That, of course, is another reason why G.O.P. leaders won’t break with him.

It’s Their Turn — Joan Walsh in The Nation argues that it’s time for the Democrats to hold hearings on Trump.

When sexual-harassment allegations first emerged against Minnesota Senator Al Franken, I wrote in these pages that he shouldn’t resign. Seven new accusations later, I’d come to agree with prominent Democratic senators that Franken has to go. And on Thursday he agreed.

While claiming that “some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently,” Franken nonetheless resigned from the Senate. “I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” he noted.

It pains me to write this. The comedian turned politician has been an excellent senator, this year establishing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which led to Sessions’s recusing himself from the investigation into collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Franken was also part of an earlier Resistance, against George W. Bush, in the dark days after Bush’s 2004 reelection. He raised progressive spirits and raised money for Democrats in the years leading up to the election of Barack Obama, when Franken was also elected to the Senate (after a protracted recount). I have written about him as the perfect foil for Trump. I’ve said I hoped he’d run for president. He assured me, back in May, that he would not—for one reason, he was extremely happy in the Senate.

But as the stream of allegations went on, it became obvious Franken couldn’t continue to be effective—and on Wednesday night, that apparently became obvious even to Franken.

Still, I would like to see Franken’s departure be not just another #MeToo moment but a long-delayed #TrumpToo moment. Now that Franken has left the building, why can’t the Democratic senators who’ve asked him to resign—an astonishing 35 out of 48 caucus members—now commit to holding hearings on Trump’s many sexual-abuse accusations? A Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday shows that 70 percent of Americans polled say they want Congress to investigate the allegations against Trump; only 25 percent are opposed. Given that Trump’s pathetic approval ratings normally show him with the backing of 35 to 40 percent of those polled, this means a significant number of Trump supporters also want these charges investigated.

I know: Democrats are in the minority, in both houses of Congress. Such hearings would hold limited power. But even in the minority, ranking congressional Democrats can still get congressional hearing rooms and media attention. They won’t have subpoena power, but they don’t need subpoena power to call Trump’s victims to testify.

I would like to see the Democrats get more aggressive with Trump, because they need to be honest with themselves about what Franken’s resignation will not do. It will not force GOP leaders to concede that Democrats have integrity when it comes to these claims, and that Republicans don’t. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explains, that’s because “Republicans have built an unlevel playing field of morality.” Remember: Serial prevaricator Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already explained that the difference between Franken and Trump is that Franken admitted something happened, and apologized, while Trump denied all the charges against him.

To GOP hypocrites like Sanders—and so many more—all Franken’s resignation will mean is that the senator is guilty of sexual wrongdoing, while Trump is not. And that standard applies to the brazen child molester Roy Moore, accused of sexual predation by nine women—including one who said he molested her at age 14—and who may still be elected Alabama’s next senator. And on Fox Wednesday night, host Laura Ingraham and guest Newt Gingrich previewed a new way conservatives will use Franken against them, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter: by making them the party of “weird puritanism,” denying Franken “due process” over “minor stuff” and acting like a “lynch mob.” There is no bottom when it comes to the GOP.

Another thing Franken’s resignation won’t do: It will never establish any kind of equivalence between what the Minnesota senator is accused of doing, and the accusations against Trump, Moore, and Texas Representative Blake Farenthold. Even though Franken is the first among them to pay any political price, there is no comparison in terms of what they’ve been charged with. Let’s start with Farenthold, who used 84,000 taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim with an employee. That woman told The Washington Post this week that Farenthold ruined her career. She left politics and now babysits and does other odd jobs. None of Franken’s accusers have said anything close to that happened to them as a result of his wayward hands.

Much like Farenthold’s accuser, the woman Moore molested at 14, Leigh Corfman, says Moore’s abuse took a serious toll on her life—on her romantic prospects, her friendships, her sobriety, her career. That’s a sadly common story for victims of child sexual abuse.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t have eight accusers, like Franken; he has twice that, 16. Their charges range from his reaching up their skirts to touch their vaginas through their underwear, to multiple counts of unwanted kissing, to all kinds of creepy groping, kissing, and predation. Plus, there are the four young Miss Teen Universe contestants who told Buzzfeed that Trump walked in on them while they were changing.

For both that and the vagina-groping charge, we have Trump’s own voice in confirmation.”When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he said on the Access Hollywood tape. “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” About his Miss Universe pageants, Trump told Howard Stern: “I’ll tell you the funniest is that I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed. No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it. You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”

I think it would encourage demoralized progressives considerably if Democrats followed Franken’s departure with a strategy to bring Trump to public account for his serial abuse. And to shame House Speaker Paul Ryan for having the audacity to weigh in on now-retired Democratic representative John Conyers, while saying nothing about Farenthold. Democrats are doing the right thing, morally, but they really need to figure out the right thing, politically. This doesn’t end with Franken’s departure. It begins.

Get A Move On — Humor from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In a new poll conducted on Wednesday, a sweeping majority of Americans said they support moving Donald J. Trump to Jerusalem.

The sixty-three per cent of survey respondents who approved relocating Trump to Jerusalem placed few conditions on such a move, other than that it take place “as soon as possible” and that it be “permanent.”

In other poll results, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that they would support relocating Trump to any number of other foreign destinations, including Russia, the Philippines, and “that station where scientists live at the South Pole.”

Though Americans were strongly enthusiastic about moving Trump to Jerusalem, in a rare consensus both Arabs and Israelis vehemently opposed the move.

 Doonesbury — Unforgettable.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Short Takes

The Mideast is in turmoil over Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Mueller goes after Trump’s Deutsch Banke records.

Mass evacuations in the Ventura County wildfires in California.

Russia banned from 2018 Olympics.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) retires from Congress in wake of accusations of sexual assaults.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Reading

Inside the Mueller Investigation — Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig, and Josh Dawsey in the Washington Post report on what goes on behind the scenes.

A white sedan whisked a man into the loading dock of a glass and concrete building in a drab office district in Southwest Washington. Security guards quickly waved the vehicle inside, then pushed a button that closed the garage door and shielded the guest’s arrival from public view.

With his stealth morning arrival Thursday, White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II became the latest in a string of high-level witnesses to enter the secretive nerve center of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Twenty hours later, Mueller and his team emerged into public view to rattle Washington with the dramatic announcement that former national security adviser Michael Flynn would plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

The ensnaring of Flynn, the second former aide to President Trump to cooperate with the inquiry, serves as the latest indication that Mueller’s operation is rapidly pursuing an expansive mission, drilling deeper into Trump’s inner circle.

In the past two months, Mueller and his deputies have received private debriefs from two dozen current and former Trump advisers, each of whom has made the trek to the special counsel’s secure office suite.

Once inside, most witnesses are seated in a windowless conference room where two- and three-person teams of FBI agents and prosecutors rotate in and out, pressing them for answers.

Among the topics that have been of keen interest to investigators: how foreign government officials and their emissaries contacted Trump officials, as well as the actions and interplay of Flynn and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Mueller’s group has also inquired whether Flynn recommended specific foreign meetings to senior aides, including Kushner. Investigators were particularly interested in how certain foreign officials got on Kushner’s calendar and the discussions that Flynn and Kushner had about those encounters, according to people familiar with the questions.

Often listening in is the special counsel himself, a sphinx-like presence who sits quietly along the wall for portions of key interviews.

This picture of Mueller’s operation — drawn from descriptions of witnesses, lawyers and others briefed on the interviews — provides a rare look inside the high-stakes investigation that could implicate Trump’s circle and determine the future of his presidency.

The locked-down nature of the probe has left both the witnesses and the public scrutinizing every move of the special counsel for meaning, without any certainty about the full scope of his investigation.

Trump and his lawyers have expressed confidence that Mueller will swiftly conclude his examination of the White House, perhaps even by the year’s end. Trump’s Democratic opponents hope the investigation will uncover more crimes and ultimately force the president’s removal from office.

Meanwhile, some witnesses who have been interviewed came away with the impression that the probe is unfolding and far from over.

“When they were questioning me, it seemed like they were still trying to get a feel of the basic landscape of the place,” said one witness who was questioned in late October for several hours and, like others, requested anonymity to describe the confidential sessions. “I didn’t get the sense they had anything incriminating on the president. Nor were they anywhere close to done.”

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said he believes the probe’s focus on Trump’s White House is wrapping up, noting that all White House staffer interviews will be completed by the end of next week.

“At the end of the interviews, it would be reasonable to expect that it would not take long to bring this to conclusion,” Cobb said. “I commend the Office of Special Counsel for their acknowledged hard work on behalf of the country, to undertake this serious responsibility, and to perform it in an expedited but deliberate, thorough way.”

At least two dozen people who traveled in Trump’s orbit in 2016 and 2017 — on the campaign trail, in his transition operation and then in the White House — have been questioned in the past 10 weeks, according to people familiar with the interviews.

The most high profile is Kushner, who met with Mueller’s team in November, as well as former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer. Former foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon has also been interviewed.

White House communications director Hope Hicks was scheduled to sit down with Mueller’s team a few days before Thanksgiving. Mueller’s team has also indicated plans to interview senior associate White House counsel James Burnham and policy adviser Stephen Miller.

McGahn, who was interviewed by Mueller’s prosecutors for a full day Thursday, was scheduled to return Friday to complete his interview. However, the special counsel postponed the session as a courtesy to allow McGahn to help the White House manage the response to Flynn’s plea, a person familiar with the interview said.

Cobb declined to say which White House aides remain to be interviewed.

Several people who worked shoulder to shoulder with Flynn have also been interviewed by Mueller’s operation. That includes retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff to the National Security Council, as well as several people who worked with Flynn Intel Group, a now-shuttered private consulting firm.

During the transition, Kushner and Flynn met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. At the early December meeting, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications line between Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.

Kushner has said that Kislyak sought the secure line as a way for Russian generals to communicate to the incoming administration about U.S. policy on Syria.

Trump’s son-in-law has also been identified by people familiar with his role as the “very senior member” of the transition team who directed Flynn in December to reach out to Kislyak and lobby him about a U.N. resolution on Israeli settlements, according to new court filings.

The volume of questions about Kushner in their interviews surprised some witnesses.

“I remember specifically being asked about Jared a number of times,” said one witness.

Another witness said agents and prosecutors repeatedly asked him about Trump’s decision-making during the May weekend he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. Prosecutors inquired whether Kushner had pushed the president to jettison Comey, according to two people familiar with the interview.

Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell declined to comment on what the president’s son-in-law discussed at his November session with Mueller. “Mr. Kushner has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and will continue to do so,” he said.

Two administration officials said that it would be natural for investigators to ask a lot of questions about Kushner, whom Trump put in charge of communicating with foreign officials, adding that such inquiries do not indicate he is a target.

The special counsel has continued to make ongoing requests for records from associates of the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the requests. The campaign associates aren’t expected to finish producing these documents by the end of the year. Mueller’s team is also newly scrutinizing an Alexandria-based office and advisers who worked there on foreign policy for the campaign.

In the past several weeks, Mueller’s operation has reached out to new witnesses in Trump’s circle, telling them they may be asked to come in for an interview. One person who was recently contacted said it is hard to find a lawyer available for advice on how to interact with the special counsel because so many Trump aides have already hired attorneys.

“It was kind of a pain,” the person said. “It’s hard to find a lawyer who wasn’t already conflicted out.”

People who have gone before Mueller’s team describe polite but detailed and intense grillings that at times have lasted all day and involved more than a dozen investigators. Spicer, for example, was in the office from about 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. for his fall session. Mueller’s team has recommended nearby lunch spots, but many witnesses have food brought in for fear of being spotted if they go outside.

Mueller has attended some interviews, introducing himself to witnesses when he enters and then sitting along the wall. Sometimes he is joined by his deputy, longtime friend and law partner James Quarles, a former Watergate prosecutor who is the main point of contact for the White House.

Investigators bring large binders filled with emails and documents into the interview room. One witness described the barrage of questions that followed each time an agent passed them a copy of an email they had been copied on: “Do you remember this email? How does the White House work? How does the transition work? Who was taking the lead on foreign contacts? How did that work? Who was involved in this decision? Who was there that weekend?”

Some witnesses were introduced to so many federal agents and lawyers that they later lamented that they had largely forgotten many of their names by the time one team left the room and a new team entered.

“They say, ‘Hey, we’re not trying to be rude, but people are going to come in and out a lot,’ ” one witness explained about the teams. “They kind of cycle in and out of the room.”

One contingent of investigators is focused on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice and head off the investigation into Russian meddling by firing Comey in May. Prosecutors Brandon Van Grack and Jeannie Rhee have been involved in matters related to Flynn.

Yet another team is led by the former head of the Justice Department’s fraud prosecutions, Andrew Weissman, and foreign bribery expert Greg Andres. Those investigators queried lobbyists from some of the most powerful lobby shops in town about their interactions with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign adviser Rick Gates.

Mueller’s team charged Manafort and Gates last month with engaging in a conspiracy to hide millions of dollars in foreign accounts and secretly creating an elaborate cover story to conceal their lobbying work for a former Ukrainian president and his pro-Russian political party. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Lawyers familiar with prosecutors’ questions about Manafort said they expect several more charges to come from this portion of the case.

People familiar with the Mueller team said they convey a sense of calm that is unsettling.

“These guys are confident, impressive, pretty friendly — joking a little, even,” one lawyer said. When prosecutors strike that kind of tone, he said, defense lawyers tend to think: “Uh oh, my guy is in a heap of trouble.”

Long Time Coming — Charles P. Pierce on the inevitability of the GOP passing this tax bill.

I confess. I gave up on the whole exercise Friday night around midnight when the Republican majority in the Senate passed an amendment to its Abomination of Desolation tax bill that was proposed by that remarkably friendless character, Tailgunner Ted Cruz. (I like to think that it was Cruz’s essential friendlessness that accounted for the fact that they needed Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie on the Cruz amendment.) The amendment would allow families to use money from 529 savings plans to send their kids to private and/or religious schools, or to homeschool their children themselves. Considering that this was in the context of passing a retrograde bill that would wipe out the deduction for state and local taxes, a move that would hit hardest the American families who send their children to public schools, this was too much even for my strong political stomach. The Republicans had the votes to make war on the very idea of the commons, and they were using them, and, shortly before two in the morning, they won, and the commons lost, and we awoke Saturday morning to a meaner, grubbier country.

It is still possible that the Republican members of the House of Representatives will don their animal skins, sharpen their bone knives, paint their faces blue, and go screaming off to war when this thing goes to conference, befouling Mitch McConnell’s delicate magical math with poo flung from all directions, but, as the Romans learned centuries ago, you shouldn’t try to bargain with barbarians, and I doubt the Republicans will make that mistake again, not after what happened with their attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

No, there will be some howling and wailing for show, but the barbarians are not going to save the country. All they’ll do is make a greasy operator like Mitch McConnell look reasonable. (And make vainglorious senators like Susan Collins and John McCain look more useless.) And, besides, with this foul bag of rags they passed on Friday night, the one that eliminates the individual mandate that is the engine behind the Affordable Care Act, they won that battle, too. I think the Senate conferees will agree to some adjustments from their colleagues in the House, all of which will make things worse. However, alas, I don’t think the country can count on the Republicans fumbling on the goal line this time around.

No, they got what they wanted, and they’re going to be quite happy with it. Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, knows he’s a giant step closer to his lifelong goal of demolishing the social safety net. All he has to do is wait for the inevitable explosion of the deficit, at which point he will screw on his sad-basset face and tell us that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are just things we can’t afford anymore. The members of the House will quickly agree that the Senate bill is OK by them and pass it quickly on to a half-mad Republican president who won’t understand a word of what he’s signing but … so much winning!

(By the way, you can feel free to skip any story over the next week that discusses the passage of this sack of cholera in terms of who won and who lost, as though it were a ballgame. It is in measuring the scope of what has been wrought on the country here where elite political journalism will continue to fail utterly.)

In fact, it is important to keep in mind that, all things being equal, this is a bill that would have been proposed and passed even if the Tailgunner, or Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich had been elected president last November. If the president* had been impeached by the end of business on Inauguration Day, this bill, and the sad carnival of how it was passed, wouldn’t have changed a bit. For such a huge and consequential assault on the political commonwealth, the president*’s fingerprints are remarkably absent from this bill, not because the president* is smart, because he’s not, but because the Senate Republicans didn’t need him.

This was not a Trump bill. This was a Republican bill, a kind of culmination of everything the party has stood for since Ronald Reagan fed it the monkeybrains in 1981 and the prion disease began slowly devouring the party’s higher functions. It is purely supply-side in its economics, purely retrograde in its attitude toward the political commons, and purely heedless in its concern for anyone except the donor class who keep the party alive. This is why the Republican party chose to ally itself 50 years ago with the sad detritus of American apartheid. This is why the Republican party set itself against the expansion of the franchise. This is why the Republican party set itself against any form of campaign-finance reform, and cheered the decision in Citizens United. All of these dynamics were in play long ago, back in the days when Donald Trump was a Democrat. The assault on the idea of a political commonwealth began back then and it rarely has abated. The only way what happened Friday night could have been avoided is if Hillary Rodham Clinton had been elected in November of 2016 and, if the Bernie people have a problem with my saying that, they can go up an alley and holler fish.

This is also why so many longtime conservative fetish objects got stuffed into this big barrel of botulism. Lisa Murkowski’s price was oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. (Murkowski at least struck a hard bargain. Collins got bought off with a promise that there will be no Medicare cuts in the future, which…) There was the comical attempt to slip in an exemption for Christian Hillsdale College, which has rehabilitated its image from the days when its president was accused of having an affair with his son’s wife. This failed because it was too ridiculous even for this bill, but I’m fairly sure it will be back. One amendment failed because it was handwritten and nobody could read it. We all really ducked a bullet there, boy.

The entire process was shot through with a contempt for democracy, and for “regular order,” which suddenly became less important for McCain than it used to be a few months ago. That’s because the bill itself was built on a foundation of contempt for the notion that, in a democracy, we all have a stake in what the government does, and for the notion that we have certain values and principles in common upon which we act. The bill that passed the Senate early Saturday morning has been consistently, wildly unpopular. It passed anyway.

When its full effects descend on the country, there will be a great outcry about how the government is entirely corrupt and about how it has grown so distant from the people it was designed to serve. “Politicians” will be blamed, irrespective of party. “Politics” will be blamed, irrespective of ideology. Alienation and anger will rise and, very likely, another demagogue will appear, more competent than the present one, and he will ride that alienation and anger into power, and the whole thing will happen all over again.

The Republicans will have no problem with that, either. In fact, they’re counting on it.

Faking It — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on how Trump’s attacks on the media has strengthened it.

Last December, Variety and other news outlets reported that Donald Trump planned to serve as an executive producer for “The Celebrity Apprentice” while he was President. Kellyanne Conway, appearing on CNN, defended the President-elect’s prerogatives, but the next day Trump tweeted that the story was “fake news.” Since then, he has tweeted about fake news more than a hundred and fifty times; on a single day in September, he did so eight times, in apparent frustration over coverage of his Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. And, of course, Trump regularly invokes “the fake-news Russian-collusion story,” as he named it last summer. He has attacked coverage of the Russia investigation more than a dozen times on Twitter alone.

“One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake,’ ” Trump said on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, in October. (In fact, the phrase “fake news” has been around for more than a century.) The President’s strategy has been successful, however, in at least one respect: he has appropriated a term that had often been used to describe the propaganda and the lies masquerading as news, emanating from Russia and elsewhere, which proliferated on Facebook, YouTube, and other social-media platforms during the 2016 election campaign. These manufactured stories—“POPE FRANCIS SHOCKS WORLD, ENDORSES DONALD TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT,” among them—poisoned the news ecosystem and may have contributed to Trump’s victory.

Judging from the President’s tweets, his definition of “fake news” is credible reporting that he doesn’t like. But he complicates the matter by issuing demonstrably false statements of his own, which, inevitably, make news. Trump has brought to the White House bully pulpit a disorienting habit of telling lies, big and small, without evident shame. Since 2015, Politifact has counted three hundred and twenty-nine public statements by Trump that it judges to be mostly or entirely false. (In comparison, its count of such misstatements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is thirteen.)

The President also publicizes calumnies that vilify minorities. Last Wednesday morning, he outdid himself by retweeting unverified, incendiary anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right group. Through a spokesman, Prime Minister Theresa May responded that Trump was “wrong” to promote the agenda of a group that spreads “hateful narratives which peddle lies.” The following day, members of Parliament denounced the President, using such epithets as “fascist” and “stupid.” It was a scene without precedent in the century-old military alliance between the United States and Britain.

Trump’s tactics echo those of previous nativist-populist politicians, but his tweets also draw on the contemporary idioms of the alt-right. This is a loose movement, as the researchers Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis have written, best understood as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” who express “a self-referential culture in which anti-Semitism, occult ties, and Nazi imagery can be explained either as entirely sincere or completely tongue-in-cheek.” Trump is no alt-right digital-news geek, yet his Twitter feed is similarly ambiguous. He seems to provoke his opponents for the pleasure of offending them, but when he is called to account he often claims that he was just joking. Sometimes he promotes conspiracy theories to insult personal nemeses, as he did last week when he tweeted baseless speculation about the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s connection to the “unsolved mystery” of an intern’s death.

The President’s tweets slamming CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be comical and weird, but they do serious harm. Last week, a Libyan broadcaster cited one of Trump’s tweets about CNN in an attempt to discredit a report by the network on the persistence of slavery in that country. And, when the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.

At home, the Trump effect is more subtle, but corrosive. The First Amendment does not appear to be in existential danger; on the Supreme Court, Justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents endorse expansive ideas about free speech, even as they debate interpretations. Yet many of the rights that working journalists enjoy stem from state laws and from the case-by-case decisions of local judges. The climate that Trump has helped create may undermine some of these protections—for example, by prompting state legislatures to overturn shield laws that encode the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources.

Trump’s alignment with right-wing publishers, such as Infowars and Breitbart, some of which see Fox News as the old-school communications arm of an obsolete Republican establishment, reflects a broader fragmentation of the media. Amid the cacophony of the digital era, publishers and advertisers prize readers who are deeply engaged, not just clicking around sites. News organizations as distinct as the Times and Breitbart now think of their audiences as communities in formation, bound by common values. A more openly factional, political journalism need not portend the death of fact-driven, truth-seeking, fair-minded reporting. Yet excellent journalism typically follows a form of the scientific method, prioritizing evidence, transparency, and the replicability of findings; journalism grounded in an ideology can be discredited by the practitioner’s preëmptive assumptions.

Fortunately, in attacking the media Trump has in many ways strengthened it. This year, the Times, the Washington Post, and many other independent, professional enterprises have reminded the country why the Founders enshrined a free press as a defense against abusive power. Among other achievements, the media’s coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has made transparent the seriousness of its findings so far, and constrained the President’s transparent desire to interfere.

Last Friday, Mueller dropped his latest bombshell, a plea agreement with Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who admitted that, in January, he lied to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. The court papers filed with Flynn’s plea lay out a story of how senior members of the Trump transition team asked Flynn to communicate with Russian officials on matters of U.S. foreign policy. The papers also contain a reference to a discussion that Flynn had with “a very senior member” of the transition team, a characterization that suggests that the list of names of who that may be is a short one. The chances that history will remember Mueller’s investigation of Trump and his closest advisers as fake news grow slimmer by the day.

Doonesbury — A huge compliment.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Monday, November 20, 2017

We’ve Only Just Begun

Somehow the Trump folks think the Russia investigation is almost over.  People within the White House are going on TV and saying that Robert Mueller and his team will wrap it up “soon,” which to them means any time between next week and January.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and anyone who thinks a probe such as this will end soon is doing a lot of wishful thinking and doesn’t understand how federal investigations work.

Seth Abramson, a long-time criminal attorney, analyzes the facts via this Twitter feed.  The short version is that there are so many leads, threads, and people to interview that in terms of completion, they have only just begun.

But wait, there’s more.

Special CounselRobert Mueller‘s team investigating whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct a federal inquiry into connections between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives has now directed the Justice Department to turn over a broad array of documents, ABC News has learned.

In particular, Mueller’s investigators are keen to obtain emails related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the earlier decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the entire matter, according to a source who has not seen the specific request but was told about it.

Issued within the past month, the directive marks the special counsel’s first records request to the Justice Department, and it means Mueller is now demanding documents from the department overseeing his investigation.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein played key roles in Comey’s removal. And Sessions has since faced withering criticism from Trump over his recusal and Rosenstein’s subsequent appointment of Mueller.

Mueller’s investigators now seek not only communications between Justice Department officials themselves, but also any communications with White House counterparts, the source said. Before this request, investigators asked former senior Justice Department officials for information from their time at the department, ABC News was told.

The latest move suggests the Special Counsel is still actively digging into, among other matters, whether Trump or any other administration official improperly tried to influence an ongoing investigation.

So not only is the Mueller team looking into Russia’s role in the election and the Trump campaign’s involvement with their meddling, they are now looking into Trump’s attempt to kill the investigation itself, which could amount to federal charges of obstruction of justice.

A reminder for those of you too young to remember Watergate: That’s how they got Nixon.  It wasn’t the crimes themselves, but the attempt to cover up and kill the investigation.

HT to CLW.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The First Line Of Their Obituary

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III remembers that lying to Congress comes with a penalty phase.

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday denied, again, lying to Congress about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. He said he had forgotten about a campaign round-table in which an aide played up his Russian connections and suggested arranging a meeting for Donald J. Trump in Moscow.

But even as Mr. Sessions remained hazy on the details, he was adamant that he had swiftly rejected the aide’s suggestion.

“I have always told the truth,” Mr. Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee, adding that he stood by his previous testimony because “I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports.”

Translation: “I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known I’d get caught.”

I seriously wonder if Mr. Sessions and the rest of the people who work for Trump have thought beyond next week and realize that the first line of their obituary is going to include the notation that they devoted a part of their life to working for a scandal-plagued authoritarian regime that will remain a stain not just on their lives but on the nation.  That these years, no matter how many, will be seen by historians as one of the darkest times in our democracy; where accused pedophiles have a real shot at being in the Senate because they’re a member of a political party.  That’s the stuff of tinpot dictatorships, not Western civilization.  (I was going to say “banana republics” but even they don’t want to be associated with a cut-rate narcissist.)

When this is all over, how many of them are going to tearfully beg for forgiveness for their gob-smacking attempts to normalize serial lying and demonization of entire populations and genders for the sake of winning an election and riding on a tricked-up 747?  And for what?  Trying to wipe out the memory of America’s first black president as if he was the aberration and what they seek is the real white straight Anglo-Saxon Christian nation that never existed in the first place?

Mr. Sessions and the rest know what they’re doing.  They know full well that they’re going to be remembered as part of this blatant attempt to obliterate the past.  And without any tinge of self-awareness, they will be proud of it.

Money Talks

Via Buzzfeed:

On Aug. 3 of last year, just as the US presidential election was entering its final, heated phase, the Russian foreign ministry sent nearly $30,000 to its embassy in Washington. The wire transfer, which came from a Kremlin-backed Russian bank, landed in one of the embassy’s Citibank accounts and contained a remarkable memo line: “to finance election campaign of 2016.”

That wire transfer is one of more than 60 now being scrutinized by the FBI and other federal agencies investigating Russian involvement in the US election. The transactions, which moved through Citibank accounts and totaled more than $380,000, each came from the Russian foreign ministry and most contained a memo line referencing the financing of the 2016 election.

The money wound up at Russian embassies in almost 60 countries from Afghanistan to Nigeria between Aug. 3 and Sept. 20, 2016. It is not clear how the funds were used. At least one transaction that came into the US originated with VTB Bank, a financial institution that is majority-owned by the Kremlin.

Russia says that it was for the purpose of helping Russians living abroad vote in parliamentary elections in September 2016.

Yeah, right.  Hey, looking for some really cheap property in Florida?  I know a guy….

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Pressuring Sessions

It would appear that Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is giving in to Trump’s attempt to use the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies.

The department, in a letter sent to the House Judiciary Committee, said the prosecutors would examine allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to a 2010 decision by the Obama administration to allow a Russian nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that owned access to uranium in the United States, and other issues.

The letter appeared to be a direct response to Mr. Trump’s statement on Nov. 3, when he said he was disappointed with his beleaguered attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and that longstanding unproven allegations about the Clintons and the Obama administration should be investigated.

It has been demonstrably proven that Uranium One is another of those right-wing conspiracy theories on the level of the pizza parlor pedophile ring, but Sessions is going along either out of an attempt to be a complete toady to Trump or, and this is doubtful, to put to rest the bullshit.  I’d go with the former.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sunday Reading

Consciousness of Guilt — David Frum in The Atlantic.

“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that.”—Donald Trump on Vladimir Putin, en route to Hanoi, November 11, 2017.

So, to put it bluntly: At this point in the proceedings, there can be no innocent explanation for Donald Trump’s rejection of the truth about Russian meddling in last year’s elections. Earlier, it may have been suggested, sympathetically, that the case had not yet been proven. That Trump’s vanity blocked him from acknowledging embarrassing facts. Or—more hopefully—that he was inspired by some Kissingerian grand design for a diplomatic breakthrough. Or that he was lazy. Or stubborn. Or uninformed. Or something, anything, other than … complicit. Not anymore.

As yet, it remains unproven whether Trump himself was personally complicit in Putin’s attack on U.S. democracy as it happened during last year’s presidential campaign. What is becoming ever-more undeniable is Trump’s complicity in the attack after the fact—and his willingness to smash the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies in order to protect Putin, Russia, and evidently himself. Consider what the president said to reporters on Saturday: Then you hear it’s 17 agencies [who agree that Russia meddled in the elections], whoa, it’s three. And one is [former CIA Director John] Brennan, and one is whatever. I mean give me a break, they’re political hacks. … So you look at that and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that.”

A year after the 2016 election, the Trump administration has done nothing to harden U.S. election systems against future interference. It refuses to implement the sanctions voted by Congress to punish Russia for election meddling. The president fired the director of the FBI, confessedly to halt an investigation into Russia’s actions—and his allies in Congress and the media malign the special counsel appointed to continue the investigation.  These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn, or uniformed.“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard for criminal justice. It’s not the standard for counter-intelligence determinations. The preponderance of the evidence ever-more clearly indicates: In ways we cannot yet fully reckon—but can no longer safely deny—the man in the Oval Office has a guilty connection to the Russian government. That connection would bar him from literally any other job in national security except that of head of the executive branch and commander- in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.

At any time, this situation would be dire and ominous. It’s graver still at a time when this president seems determined to lead the United States into a preventive war in the Korean peninsula. President Trump may soon demand that this country incur terrible risks and accept heavy sacrifices—even as he leaves Americans in darkening doubt over whose interests he is serving, and why.

Roy Moore Is The GOP — Charles P. Pierce.

The fact is that Roy Moore is very much who the Republicans are. He is representative of a fanatical splinter of American Protestantism that has accounted for a great deal of the success enjoyed by modern conservatism and the Republican Party for over four decades, and there always has been dark sin at the heart of that success.

The rise of what used to be known as “the religious right” did not begin with the legalization of abortion. That’s a nice story that the various Bible-banging charlatans would like you to believe. No, the institutions that would nurture and produce the religious right were the white-only Christian academies and universities that sprang up in the South as part of the massive resistance to desegregation—the churchgoing end of that strategy. The religious right was not born out of opposition to Roe v. Wade. It was born out of opposition to Brown v. Board.

There was always something wretched in its founding that invariably asserted itself in our politics. Dishonesty and camouflage were its primary sacraments. As part of their bargain with these people, Republicans and conservatives agreed tacitly to overlook these things, and so they became accustomed to overlooking everything until, today, alleged pedophilia of the most grotesque sort is the latest thing to be overlooked in the cause of tax-cuts and the restriction of women’s reproductive rights.

Without fastening itself to the enthusiastic remnants of American apartheid, modern conservatism and the modern Republican party never would have become the juggernaut they became, and the religious right was one of the more enthusiastic of those remnants. Small wonder, then, that so many Good Christian Men are either lining up behind Roy Moore, or if-then’ing themselves into incoherence trying not to talk about him. He has all the right positions on all the right issues that discomfort all the right people, and, given that, these people would vote for Satan himself.

He is you. He is all of you. Another monster out of the lab.

Fighting Deportation — Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn in Mother Jones.

Eleven cities and counties across the United States announced on Thursday that they will provide free legal representation to immigrants facing deportation, part of a new initiative called the Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Cities Network. The initiative, launched in collaboration with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit and research organization, helps cities with funding and resources to help train legal service providers and share best practices.

Unlike in criminal court cases, immigrants generally do not have the right to a free court-appointed attorney during removal proceedings, and often have to bear the costs on their own.  Nationally, only 37 percent of immigrants facing deportation proceedings get access to a lawyer, and only 14 percent of immigrants in detention do, according to a report from the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit and advocacy group. As Mother Jones has reported previously, studies have shown that access to legal representation can drastically improve an immigrant’s chances of winning relief from deportation or release from detention. Without it, often immigrants and families are quickly deported.

Vera started soliciting competitive applications from cities and counties to be part of the network earlier this summer. Local governments had to commit some public cash, which Vera would then supplement with additional funding. Atlanta, GA, Austin and San Antonio, TX, Baltimore and Prince George’s County, MD; Chicago, IL; Columbus, OH; Dane County, WI, and Oakland/Alameda County, Sacramento, and Santa Ana, CA were selected.

Vera’s project comes at a time when cities and states are ramping up their efforts to protect undocumented immigrants against a potential crackdown. A Reutersanalysis found that arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal history increased by more than 200 percent in the first half of the year. Though deportations have slowed, ICE agents have made 43 percent more arrests since Trump has been in office, compared to the same time last year, according to the Washington PostAttorney General Jeff Sessions has also attempted to speed up deportations and reduce immigration court backlogs, though to seemingly little effect.

For cities like Atlanta, it will be the first time the city has ever provided legal defense for those facing deportation. “This support is needed now more than ever,” Mayor Kasim Reed said.

“Immigrants are our friends, neighbors, and co-workers, but new enforcement tactics are breaking up families and weakening our neighborhoods and our city,” Elizabeth Brown, council member for the City of Columbus, stated in a press release. The city will provide $185,000 to three groups, and received $100,000 in additional funding from Vera.

Providing universal representation is an approach that Vera has tested before. In 2013, the group helped start a pilot project called the New York Immigrant Family Unit Project (NYIFUP) that provided free legal defense services to immigrants detained at the Varick Street Immigration Court. A new report evaluating the program found that immigrants who participated were able to able improve their chances of remaining in the US. Before the project began, only 4 percent of immigrants who had no legal representation at the court were able to win their cases. With the help of the free legal defense, NYIFUP estimates that 48 percent of its cases will end successfully. The program has represented more than 1,770 people and also helped reunite more than 750 people with their families, according to the report.

Outside of the SAFE Cities Network, other cities have taken on their own efforts to provide funds for legal defense. In April, Seattle’s city council unanimously passed a resolution to allocate $1 million to a defense fund for immigrants and refugees, and increased that fund to $1.5 million with the inclusion of King County in August. Earlier this summer, Los Angeles city and county officials also approved an L.A. Justice Fund that, with help from outside donors, would provide up to $10 million for legal defense to immigrants.

“It’s inhumane for people to go to court with no lawyer,” Omar Siagha, a green card holder who was able to win his case through the NYIFP, said in a press release. “Everyone deserves a chance to explain their case to the judge.”

Doonesbury — Humor me.