Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sunday Reading

Where Will They Go? — Susan Glasser in The New Yorker on how Trump is destroying reputations.

In the first year of the Trump Presidency, White House advisers often promised reporters that this would be the week when they would unveil Trump’s plans for a massive investment in American infrastructure. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had vowed to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding roads, bridges, and airports. He said that he would work with Democrats to do it. For a time, it seemed to be the only bipartisan project that might actually go somewhere. But, of course, Infrastructure Week never happened. There was always some distraction, some P.R. disaster that overwhelmed it—a chief of staff to be fired, an errant tweet upending foreign policy. Infrastructure Week lived on as an Internet meme, a Twitter hashtag, a joke; it became shorthand for the Administration’s inability to stay on message or organize itself to promote a legislative agenda it claimed to support.

Trump never fully gave up on the infrastructure idea, though, and this week he resurrected it in a rare meeting with congressional Democratic leaders, who emerged from the White House on Tuesday morning, smiling and apparently excited. The President, they explained, had decided to double the price tag of his proposal, from a trillion to two trillion dollars, because it sounded more impressive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to whom the President reportedly offered Tic Tacs at the meeting in a friendly gesture, praised his vision for a “big and bold” plan. The meeting, Senator Chuck Schumer added, had been a “very, very good start.”

But it was all just a form of Washington performance art. There are no Republican votes for such an expensive package, as the Democrats well knew, and there is no way that the President’s allies on Capitol Hill, nor his own penny-pinching White House chief of staff, would agree to such a budget-busting deal. Trump’s “extreme and aspirational” idea, as Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota, put it, had Republicans “rolling their eyes,” Politico reported. The ranking member of the House committee that would have to approve any measure had offered a simple answer to the question of whether Trump’s idea could ever be passed. “No,” he said. It would not be Infrastructure Week, or even Infrastructure Day. The new era of bipartisan dealmaking was over before it began.

By late Tuesday, the news cycle had moved on. Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, was refusing to testify before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee and would not turn over the unredacted Mueller report or its underlying evidence. The Administration, in fact, was refusing to comply with more or less any congressional demands for information and testimony on an array of investigations of the President, from his business-related conflicts of interest to his family-separation policy at the border. Then came more news: Barr had a behind-the-scenes dispute with the special counsel about his characterization of the report. Robert Mueller, it turned out, had sent a letter to Barr (who later called the missive “snitty”) weeks earlier, but it was only now being revealed. In the letter, Mueller suggested that Barr had minimized and deflected the serious questions about the President that Mueller’s investigation had turned up. The next day, the whole mess was fought over in excruciating detail when Barr appeared before the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee to testify for the first time since the release of the Mueller report.

By Thursday, House Democrats were holding a hearing, with an empty chair where Barr would have been seated, had he shown up, and threatening to take the Attorney General to court. One of the Democrats had brought fried chicken, which some of his fellow-representatives ate during the hearing, to mock Barr—he’s a chicken, get it? It was all a “stunt,” a “circus,” and a “travesty,” Representative Doug Collins, the panel’s top Republican, complained. But Representative Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, said that nothing less than the “integrity of this chamber,” the Constitution, and the American system of “not having a President as a dictator” was at stake in Barr’s refusal to comply with the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena. “There is no way forward for this country that does not include a reckoning with this clear and present danger to our constitutional order,” Nadler added. Soon after, Pelosi, at a press conference, told reporters that the Administration’s refusal to coöperate with Congress on so many matters was itself obstruction. As for Barr, she said, he had lied under oath to Congress about his dealings with Mueller and “disgraced” his office. “We are in a very, very, very challenging place,” she said. So much for Infrastructure Week. The constitutional crisis was back on.

The Trump Presidency has been a great wrecker of reputations. In his short time in politics, Trump has managed to shred the careers, professional integrity, and dignity of many of those who worked for him. Rex Tillerson had been an American corporate superstar, the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, one of the wealthiest oil companies in the world. He became Trump’s Secretary of State and, according to the account given to reporters at an off-the-record session by Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly, learned that he was being fired while sitting on the toilet, an indignity followed up with a Presidential tweet announcing his exit. Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was just leaving Air Force One, oblivious, when Trump tweeted the news of his firing. On Thursday, Trump did it again, with Stephen Moore, his controversial choice for the Federal Reserve, tweeting that he was out of contention soon after Moore told Bloomberg News that the President was his “biggest ally.” In the interview, Moore said, of the President, “He’s full speed ahead.” The Trump tweet abandoning him came at 12:29 P.M., which was apparently little more than half an hour after Moore told a Bloomberg writer that the President was still all in. “Moore got Priebus-ed,” the writer tweeted.

Just as striking as Trump’s own crude efforts to humiliate, however, are the numerous examples of those who seem to abase or degrade themselves in their efforts to curry favor with the President. Such behavior, of course, has long been a bipartisan feature of life in Washington, where access to power can do bad things to the character of those who seek it. The Trump Presidency has produced more than its share of examples, however, given that getting and staying in this President’s good graces appears to require an extra helping of public obsequiousness, grovelling, flip-floppery, and over-the-top televised pronouncements.

This unseemly aspect of the Trump era was on full display at Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where both the committee chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Attorney General Barr went out of their way to appeal to the President, at the expense of their own credibility. Graham, who ran against Trump, in 2016, and called the future President a “kook” who was “unfit” to hold the office, opened the hearing by reading aloud text messages exchanged, in 2016, between two F.B.I. agents, who expressed the same fears about Trump that Graham had at the time. Graham then announced that he had not actually read the whole Mueller report, the contents of which he proceeded to dismiss.

For his part, Barr, once again, acted more as the President’s defense lawyer than as his Attorney General. Taking a maximalist position on Presidential power, Barr argued that Trump would be well within his rights to shut down any investigation of himself if he believed it to be unfair. Surely, that statement will go down as one of the most extraordinary claims of executive authority since Richard Nixon said that “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Throughout his appearance, Barr continued to assert that Trump had been cleared of all wrongdoing by the Mueller investigation, while admitting, under questioning by Senator Kamala Harris, that he and his deputy had not actually looked at the underlying evidence of Presidential obstruction assembled by Mueller before determining that it was not sufficient to warrant charges. Barr also said that Trump directing his then White House counsel to fire the special counsel—a key incident in the Mueller report—was not a big deal because Trump was actually ordering that Mueller be replaced, which, Barr contended, is not the same thing as ordering him fired. His client, not surprisingly, was pleased. “A source familiar with Trump’s thinking said the President thought Barr was great and did an excellent job,” Axios reported.

Barr’s whole performance, in fact, was so over the top, so Trumpian, that it immediately led to an array of tweets and op-eds wondering why Barr, a once-respected figure in conservative legal circles and a relatively uncontroversial Attorney General during the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, would choose to end a distinguished career in such a fashion. After all, Barr, like Graham, hadn’t even liked or supported Trump when he ran for President.

The most scathing take of all came from the former F.B.I. director James Comey, whose firing by Trump led to Mueller’s appointment. Writing in the Times, in a piece titled “How Trump Co-opts Leaders Like Bill Barr,” Comey posited that Barr’s conduct and that of others around Trump was a consequence of their having chosen to serve the President. “Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them,” Comey wrote. “Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from.” It doesn’t happen right away but over time, Comey wrote, in a series of compromises along the way. “Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.”

So Washington enters May as it ended April, with a constitutional crisis in the making and no Infrastructure Week. But will the constitutional clash between the Democratic House and the Republican President be any less performance art than the nonexistent infrastructure deal they claimed to be making? After Wednesday’s contentious Senate hearing, Lindsey Graham, whatever you think of his credibility, spoke what appeared to be a genuine political truth. He said that, as far as he and his Republican-controlled committee are concerned, there will be no more discussion of the Mueller report, no more testimony, and no impeachment. “It’s over,” he said, and he may well be right.

Scamonomics — Paul Krugman on the GOP’s plot to rig the economy against the Democrats.

Do you remember the great inflation scare of 2010-2011? The U.S. economy remained deeply depressed from the aftereffects of the burst housing bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. Unemployment was still above 9 percent; wage growth had slowed to a crawl, and measures of underlying inflation were well below the Federal Reserve’s targets. So the Fed was doing what it could to boost the economy — keeping short-term interest rates as low as possible, and buying long-term bonds in the hope of getting some extra traction.

But Republicans were up in arms, warning that the Fed’s policies would lead to runaway inflation. A Congressman named Mike Pence introduced a bill that would prohibit the Fed from even considering the state of the labor market in its actions. A who’s who of Republicans signed an open letter to Ben Bernanke demanding that he stop his monetary efforts, which they claimed would “risk currency debasement and inflation.”

And supposedly respectable Republicans engaged in conspiracy theorizing, suggesting that the Fed was secretly in league with the Obama administration. Paul Ryan and the economist John Taylor declared that the Fed’s policy “looks an awful lot like an attempt to bail out fiscal policy, and such attempts call the Fed’s independence into question.”

Of course, all these warnings were totally wrong. Inflation never took off. Although almost none of the people who waxed hysterical over inflation have so much as acknowledged having been wrong, Bernanke, Fed economists, and Keynesians in general were proved right: printing money isn’t inflationary in a depressed economy.

But what lay behind all these dire warnings about inflation? Well, they came at the same time that Republicans were warning about the terrible, horrible, no-good consequences of deficit spending.

And it was obvious even at the time that G.O.P. deficit posturing was hypocritical – obvious, that it, to everyone except the entire Beltway establishment. All you had to do was look at what was actually in Ryan’s budget proposals to realize that he wasn’t sincere, that he was using deficits as an excuse to bash social programs and hobble Obama. It was utterly predictable that Republicans would decide that deficits don’t matter as soon as they recaptured the White House.

But I thought that monetary policy was a bit different. Republicans have been the party of fiscal irresponsibility since Reagan, and there was no reason to believe that they had changed. But goldbuggery, hatred of fiat money, and abhorrence for the printing press did seem to be long-standing attitudes on the right. I imagined that Ryan, who once asserted that he had learned all he needed to know about monetary policy from Atlas Shrugged, might actually believe what he was saying about the Fed.

In light of recent events, however, it appears that I was wrong. Republican posturing on monetary policy was as insincere as the party’s posturing on fiscal policy. We now have to see the party’s 2010-2011 demands for tight monetary policy, like its demands for tight fiscal policy, as reflecting not economic principles, but rather a desire to sabotage Barack Obama.

You see, Donald Trump’s attempt to install Stephen Moore at the Fed failed for the wrong reason. Moore fell short because he turns out to be a loathsome individual. But he should have been rejected out of hand simply on the basis of his economic views. Not only was he wrong, again and again, during the financial crisis and its aftermath; not only did he refuse to admit error, or learn anything from his mistakes; but he turned on a dime as soon as Trump was in office, showing himself to be a purely political animal. He demanded higher interest rates when unemployment was above 9 percent; now he’s demanding lower rates with unemployment below 4 percent.

But as I said, that’s not why Moore fell short — because his whole party has followed the same path. Mike Pence, who demanded higher rates in the deeply depressed economy of 2010, wants lower rates now. No Republicans in Congress seem to have criticized Moore for his policy views, as opposed to his misogyny. Aside from Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, not one prominent Republican economist stepped up to oppose Moore, even though he clearly was engaged precisely in the kind of politicization of monetary policy Taylor and Ryan claimed to see in 2010.

I made a little chart to summarize the evolution of Republican positioning on monetary policy. It shows the employment rate of prime-age adults, widely seen as a better indicator of the state of the labor market than the unemployment rate, and the rate at which wages are increasing. Both measures hit low points in 2010-2011, making a strong case for expansionary monetary policy. That’s precisely when the G.O.P. was pressuring the Fed to stop trying to help the economy. Both measures are at post-crisis highs now, and sure enough, Republicans are advocating now the policies they opposed when they were most needed.

As Matt O’Brien points out, you don’t see the same thing on the Democratic side: center-left economists who have argued for years that the Fed was being too conservative are still saying the same thing with Trump in office.

What all this tells us is that Republican positioning on economic policy has been in bad faith all these years. They didn’t really believe that a debt crisis and hyperinflation were looming. They were just against anything that might help the economy while a Democrat was president.

Doonesbury — Up in smoke.