Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sunday Reading

They’re Not Listening — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker.

Each day this week, when the Senate impeachment trial of Donald John Trump has convened at 1 P.M., the proceedings have opened with a prayer by the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, pitched to the tenor of the day. On Wednesday, responding to the ill-tempered partisan exchanges that marked the trial’s contentious first afternoon and evening, Black urged senators to “remember that patriots reside on both sides of the aisle.” On Thursday, he practically begged senators to take their role seriously, cautioning them against “fatigue or cynicism,” and insisting that “listening is often more than hearing.” Black warned against jeopardizing friendships of many years in the heat of the impeachment moment, and, on Friday, he returned to the theme of “civility and respect” and implored senators to maintain their ability to “distinguish between facts and opinions without lambasting the messengers.”

I came to look forward to these homilies, but only because they seemed like pleas to a country and a Senate that no longer exist. If anything, the chaplain was pleading with senators to do the exact opposite of what we all know they are doing. In Trump’s exhausted, jaded capital, there is some listening, but certainly no hearing. Civility is as often as not a dirty word, a synonym for moral compromise and not a prescription for practical politics. In days of watching the trial, I have observed only a handful of instances of Republicans and Democrats interacting with each other in any way. The Senate of the United States in 2020 is not a place where meaningful talking across the aisle is possible. It is not a place where facts are mutually accepted and individuals of good will can look at them and come to opposite but equally valid conclusions. The distance is too vast, the gulf unbridgeable.

We already knew this, of course, before Trump was impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives and put on trial by the Republican Senate, a trial that has been fast-tracked toward his inevitable acquittal. But what a sad and powerful demonstration of the phenomenon we are witnessing. On Thursday night, at the start of one of his most passionate—and ultimately partisan—speeches, the lead House manager, Adam Schiff, began by making an overture to the senators, going on at great length about their fairness and thanking them for keeping “an open mind.” To say this was aspirational would be a stretch. Schiff knew there were few, if any, open minds in the Senate, where, in the course of twenty-four hours spread across three days, he and his fellow House managers made their opening arguments.

The House team’s approach to the problem of having an essentially unpersuadable audience was to veer between lengthy and at times repetitive PowerPoint-enabled recitations of the evidence against Trump—which was plentiful—and impassioned appeals to the Senate to do something about it. As the week built toward the House managers’ Friday-evening close, the level of passion seemed to rise, along with every senatorial tweet and TV interview confirming that their eloquence was largely lost on their audience.

On Friday afternoon, Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, offered an impressive recap of the lengths to which the White House went to keep Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign secret. He cited names and dates for the cover-up. At the end of his presentation, his tone changed. “There’s a toxic mess at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Jeffries, who is often pegged as a future Speaker of the House, said. “I humbly suggest that it’s our collective job on behalf of the American people to try to clean it up.” A few hours later, Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman and another of the managers, went further. After outlining Trump’s assertion of essentially unlimited executive privilege and pointing out that Trump is the first President to categorically refuse to provide a single witness or document in response to a congressional impeachment inquiry, Nadler compared Trump to a would-be king. Trump is “the first and only President ever to declare himself unaccountable,” Nadler said. If he is left unchecked by Congress, Nadler concluded, “He is a dictator. This must not stand.”

In his own closing, Schiff hit many of the same themes. He ran through a litany of Trump’s obstructive acts. “That has been proved,” he said, over and over again, as he checked off each item on his list. His disdain for the President was palpable. (“For a man who loves to mock others, he does not like to be mocked,” Schiff, a frequent target of Trump’s attacks, said.) And then he ended with an homage to “moral courage” and the real political bravery needed in “disagreeing with our friends—and our party.” It was a moving speech, as Schiff’s usually are, and it sought to acknowledge that Republicans would have to do something very brave indeed: listen to his case and truly hear it. He even proposed that Republicans merely punt the remaining question of whether to call witnesses in the trial to Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the Senate proceeding. “Give America a fair trial,” he implored. “She’s worth it.” But, of course, it was not to be. Indeed, a riff in Schiff’s speech citing a CBS story that Trump associates had reportedly threatened that any Republican who dared to vote against Trump would end up with his or her “head on a pike” soon had G.O.P. senators claiming to be offended and outraged by Schiff’s words. As Schiff was speaking, the Associated Press tweeted out a news story that captured the moment. It said, “Democrats do not appear close to getting the 4 GOP votes needed for witnesses to appear in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.” The game is all but over.

Who, in the end, were they speaking to? And to what end? Jeffries and Nadler and Schiff spoke of Trump as a liar running a dangerously dysfunctional Administration—which counts as an incontrovertible truth in their world but clearly does not in that of the Republican senators. Those senators, after all, have been Trump’s enablers and supporters for three years now, no matter how initially reluctant they were to back him. They have voted almost entirely in lockstep with his priorities, even those that diverged from the Party’s previously held orthodoxies or the senators’ own longstanding beliefs. If Trump’s Washington is the toxic hot mess that Jeffries spoke of, these folks cannot conduct the cleanup. They voted for the pollution.

There are two observations from the Senate floor that stick with me after three long days of hearing the House present its case. These observations speak to how essentially impossible the task of addressing the jury was for Schiff and his fellow-prosecutors. The Republican John Kennedy, a canny Rhodes Scholar from Louisiana who is nonetheless known for his folksy observations, told a reporter, as he headed into the arguments on Friday morning, that the managers had made a mistake in reading their audience. “Very few souls are saved after the first twenty minutes of the sermon,” he said. Less charitable was the view of Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, who said that she had been watching her Republican colleagues squirm in their chairs and understood that nobody likes to be forced to listen to something that they disagree with. “Most of us get restless when we are presented with information we don’t want to hear,” Hirono said, and of course she was right. Imagine doing that for twelve hours or more a day, confined to a hard wooden seat, with no food and every bathroom break you take scrutinized by reporters as proof that you are not taking your job seriously. That, roughly, is the predicament in which the Senate Republican members found themselves this week. It is no surprise that they looked unhappy.

But, still, if the goal of the House managers was to sway any votes, then it is hard not to see their presentation of the case as a failure. On Thursday night, the Republican Rob Portman, of Ohio, spoke to CNN’s Manu Raju outside the chamber and made what counts these days as a concession of sorts to the Democrats. Portman acknowledged that Trump’s withholding of millions in military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine, as he sought politically motivated investigations, was problematic behavior. “Some of the things that were done were not appropriate,” Portman said. “I’ve used the word ‘wrong’ and ‘inappropriate.’ That’s a very different question than removing someone from office who was duly elected, in the middle of a Presidential election.”

This, in effect, is what I would have expected Republican senators to say in defense of Trump in a previous, less polarized era. It is a modified, updated, Trumpified version of the defense that Democratic senators used twenty-one years ago in voting to acquit Bill Clinton on charges of lying under oath about an extramarital affair: Wrong, bad, inexcusable, but does not rise to the level of impeachment and removal from office.

Had Senate Republicans adopted this argument en masse, the trial would still have the same partisan outcome, but at least it would have taken place in the world of shared facts and expectations. But Portman is no longer the mainstream of the G.O.P.; the center has not held. On Friday afternoon, Judy Woodruff, of PBS, asked Portman’s colleague Deb Fischer, of Nebraska, whether she at least accepted “their premise” that Trump had asked Ukraine to investigate his 2020 political rival, former Vice-President Joe Biden. “I don’t,” Fischer said. This is remarkable stuff. What must the Senate chaplain make of such willful defiance of the facts? The demand from Trump to investigate Biden—by name, no less!—is right in the summary of his July 25th call with the Ukrainian President—the “perfect” phone call, as Trump calls it. The President has tweeted dozens of times since September urging Americans to “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” How is it possible that one of the hundred senators is so disdainful of her duty that she has not bothered to do so or, if she has, is so willing to ignore what it so plainly says?

This is not a serious defense of Trump, of course, but it is amazingly revealing. The Senate trial of twenty-one years ago was for the Rob Portmans; the Senate trial of today is for the Deb Fischers. There is no audience for Adam Schiff, or if there is it has shrunk to a small handful of Republicans who may or may not vote next week to keep the trial going with witnesses and further evidence. For the rest of the Republicans and the forty per cent or so of America that has unflinchingly supported Trump through his Presidency, there will be another show, produced personally by the showman-in-chief.

That starts on Saturday, when the Trump legal team begins its opening arguments. Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, a Harvard Law School graduate who was the solicitor general of Texas before he became a senator, told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, in an interview on Friday morning, that he was actively advising the Trump legal team after hours of sitting on the Senate floor each day. He said that he told the President’s lawyers, “No. 1, focus on substance more and process less.”

Don’t expect much substance. On Thursday morning, Trump gave a clear indication of the kind of defense he wants and where his mind is as he directs his lawyers. After “having to endure hour after hour of lies, fraud & deception by Shifty Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer & their crew,” Trump tweeted, “looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.” Later, Trump’s private lawyer for the impeachment, Jay Sekulow, elaborated, in the language of show business preferred by the reality-TV star in the White House. Saturday’s presentation by the Trump legal team will be like a “trailer,” Sekulow told reporters, during a break on Friday—a preview of “coming attractions.” The show, for a few more days at least, will go on.

Tick-Tock — Erin Blankemore in the Washington Post on really knowing what time it is.

If you tune a shortwave radio to 2.5, 5, 10 or 15 MHz, you can hear a little part of radio history — and the output of some of the most accurate time devices on Earth.

Depending on where you are in the United States, those frequencies will bring you to WWV and WWVH, two extremely accurate time signal stations.

Developed before commercial radio existed, WWV recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. It’s the oldest continually operating radio station in the United States.

Both stations are overseen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency that governs standards for weights and measures and helps define the world’s official time.

That time can be heard on shortwave radio 24/7.

Early on, WWV focused on experimental broadcasts (think Victrola concerts that wowed early radio users). Beginning in 1945, it began broadcasting time, too. In 1948, it was joined by a sister station in Hawaii for better Pacific Coast coverage. Unlike its Pacific counterpart, WWV also broadcasts at 20 MHz.

The format is bare-bones: Ticktock-like tones mark each second. Every minute, a voice announces Coordinated Universal Time, also known as UTC, which corresponds with Greenwich Mean Time. The stations also broadcast marine storm warnings, Department of Defense messages and updates on the status of GPS satellites and solar activity.

The information is provided by cesium atomic clocks and is accurate within less than 0.0001 milliseconds. The signal takes a tiny bit of time to travel to radio listeners, but is accurate within 10 milliseconds in most places within the United States. The stations are most recognizable to shortwave radio fans, and they are used to calibrate stopwatches, synchronize clocks for scientific and industrial applications, and even to tune pianos and time astronomical observations.

But another sister station, WWVB, is less familiar and arguably more widely used.

It doesn’t broadcast voices, just digital time codes over a ­low-frequency carrier. In North America, millions of radio-controlled watches and alarm clocks sync up with WWVB.

Don’t have a shortwave radio, but want to listen in? Call 303-499-7111 for WWV or 808-335-4363 for WWVH, and listen to up to two minutes of the oddly comforting broadcasts.

Doonesbury — Priorities

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Friday, January 24, 2020

Happy Friday

It’s a rainy morning here in South Florida, and in terms of impeachment, we’re bracing for the calm before the sturm and drang of the Republicans screaming defense of Trump.  So let’s take a deep breath and relax before it all happens.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Cool Moon

We all need a little moment to just take a breath and remember how infinitesimally small we are in comparison to the universe, and that no matter what happens, the sun and the moon and the stars are still safe in their orbits, and Betelgeuse hasn’t gone supernova yet.  At least not as far as we can tell.

I took this yesterday morning as I was walking into work.  It was a cool morning and a clear sky, something we don’t often get here.  Enjoy.

Bored Pettifoggers

For all the money we pay them and for all the things we expect from them, you might hope that the Republicans in the Senate would at least act like they’re not a bunch of bored middle-schoolers in detention.  And you would be wrong.

An excerpt from Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post:

Just minutes into the session, as lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) presented his opening argument for removing the president, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) displayed on his desk a hand-lettered message with big block letters pleading: “S.O.S.”

In case that was too subtle, he followed this later with another handwritten message pretending he was an abducted child:

“THESE R NOT MY PARENTS!”

“PLEASE HELP ME!”

Paul wrote “IRONY ALERT” on another scrap of paper, and scribbled there an ironic thought. Nearby, a torn piece of paper concealed a crossword puzzle, which Paul set about completing while Schiff spoke. Eventually, even this proved insufficient amusement, and Paul, though required to be at his desk, left the trial entirely for a long block of time.

[…]

Some of Paul’s Republican Senate colleagues were only slightly better behaved as the House managers presented the evidence.

Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa) read press clippings. (Blackburn had talking points on her desk attacking the whistleblower.) Sessions begin with an admonition that “all persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment,” but Ernst promptly struck up a conversation with Dan Sullivan (Alaska), who talked with Ron Johnson (Wis.). Steve Daines (Mont.) walked over to have a word with Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Tim Scott (S.C.), who flashed a thumbs-up.

Yeah, it’s all a big joke to them, and the reason is simple: they’re not going to do anything but vote in lockstep with the White House.  They could be presented with the corpse of the guy they just saw Trump shoot on Fifth Avenue and still acquit.  Hell, the dude just told the world he’s withholding evidence, and they’re still on their knees servicing him, assuming they can find it.

The Democrats know all this.  And so does karma.  November is coming.  And when Graham and Blackburn and Paul and the rest of the little toads get crapped on by the voters and Trump is dragged kicking and screaming out of the White House, they’re going to be the ones wondering why no one is paying attention to them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Collaborators

Charles P. Pierce on fleeting hopes that any Senate Republican might actually give a rat’s patootie about the rule of law and the Constitution as demonstrated yesterday.

In the Senate on Tuesday, the Republican Party, represented by its majority caucus, formalized its fealty to this renegade administration*. It had several chances to demonstrate a modicum of independence, a smidgen of human courage, and it failed every time. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer proposed amendments to add further documents and witnesses to the deliberations. All of them failed by a straight, party-line 53-47 margin.

In this, no Republican was different from any other Republican. Lisa Murkowski and Tom Cotton were the same. Thom Tillis and Ted Cruz were the same. Cory Gardner and Jim Inhofe were the same. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse were the same as Mike Rounds and Mike Enzi. And they were all the same as Mitch McConnell. There were no moderate Republicans in the Senate on Tuesday. There were no Never Trumpers. There were only collaborators. There was no independence in the Senate on Tuesday, only complicity. And it was a deadening, sad thing to watch.

[…]

“I like to look around and see how many of my colleagues are looking guilty,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar. “I saw a lot of them just sitting there, looking down.” The Democratic senators seem content to plug along, letting the majority keep voting down what would seem to anyone who’s ever watched a police procedural on TV to be reasonable requests. “All this talk about how they’re asking the Senate to do the House’s work, that’s just BS,” said Senator Mazie Horono. “I’m listening very carefully, I take notes, and then I make my comments parenthetically, like, ‘What a bunch of…’”

House manager Hakeem Jeffries later made a fine presentation of how many witnesses testified in previous impeachments. (Andrew Johnson’s trial had 40 of them.) That’s the kind of thing that will survive on the record after all the knee-jerk constitutional negligence has been toted up. Barack Obama was wrong in 2008 and Joe Biden is wrong today. The fever never will break. The patient is going to have to die.

What’s even sadder is that when all of this is over, even if Trump loses reelection ignominiously and the Senate returns to a Democratic majority, there will be no accountability for the collaborators.  They’ll appear on cable chat shows and even if they have a scintilla of remorse, shame, or guilt for letting Trump off the hook, they will smile sweetly and say something mealy-mouthed like “what’s past is past, let’s move on.”  Yeah, no.

At the end of World War II when the occupied territories were liberated from the Nazis, people who collaborated with the Germans were marched through the streets, the women with shaved heads and striped of their outer garments, and a lot of them were killed outright.  Well, we’re better than that; we shouldn’t physically harm them.  But we should never forget, and those who marched in lockstep with the criminals should be held accountable.

WhatsNot

A little lesson on what not to add to your phone.

The Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his mobile phone “hacked” in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the personal account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, sources have told the Guardian.

The encrypted message from the number used by Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated the phone of the world’s richest man, according to the results of a digital forensic analysis.

This analysis found it “highly probable” that the intrusion into the phone was triggered by an infected video file sent from the account of the Saudi heir to Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post.

Here’s an idea: Don’t add WhatsApp to your phone.  The app is notoriously insecure, and besides, it’s very popular with people in the Trump White House, including Jared Kushner.  That right there should tell you not to use it.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dumbing Down

As I noted below, the impeachment trial of Trump is a study in foregone conclusions to the point that, according to Paul Waldman in the Washington Post, his defense team isn’t even trying.

After the Democratic House managers released a 111-page indictment providing copious detail on the events that led to impeachment, the nature of Trump’s misconduct and the constitutional basis for his removal, Trump’s attorneys responded with a six-page document that would have been shocking were it not just the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from this White House.

Indeed, it reads as though it was written by a ninth-grader who saw an episode of “Law & Order” and learned just enough legal terms to throw them around incorrectly. It makes no attempt to contest the facts, instead just asserting over and over that the president is innocent and the entire impeachment is illegitimate, calling it “unlawful” and “constitutionally invalid,” with no apparent understanding of what those terms mean. The articles of impeachment, Trump’s lawyers say, “fail to allege any crime or violation of law whatsoever, let alone ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ as required by the Constitution.” They then repeat this argument multiple times throughout a screed seemingly pitched to the Fox News hosts who will spend the coming days repeating its absurd claims.

The trouble, as any historian or constitutional scholar will tell you, is that just as there are crimes the president could commit that would not be impeachable (say, shoplifting a candy bar), there has never been any requirement that impeachment can only be used for violations of criminal law. Not only were the Framers deeply concerned about the potential of the president abusing his office, at the time the Constitution was written, there was no such thing as a federal criminal code.

Trump has found the one constitutional “expert” who will take such a position, however: Harvard professor emeritus and frequent Fox News guest Alan Dershowitz, whom Trump added to his defense team last week. “Criminal-like conduct is required” in order for a president to be impeached, Dershowitz now claims, to the puzzlement of pretty much everyone who knows anything about this topic.

Since hypocrisy is something of a job requirement for working for Trump, Dershowitz is naturally on video making exactly the opposite argument in 1998. “It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty,” he said at the time.

The defense wasn’t written for a law school review or to be submitted as a legal brief in a court of law.  It was written solely for the consumption by the audience of Fox News denizens and the lawyers who are sworn to mount a zealous defense of their client until the money runs out.  I am certain that if this brief, written like a homework assignment on the bus to school the day it was due, was submitted to a judge, it would be tossed, followed by charges of contempt and referral to the Bar Association for malpractice.  But they’ll get away with it because even though the United States Senate is comprised of many lawyers, they are not going to be held accountable to the canons of judicial ethics or peer review: it will be by Twitter.

Open And Shut

The Senate trial of Trump will be a show trial of the likes of North Korea without the blaring music and TV broadcasters in native garb.  Other than that, the fix is in and over and out.

Adam L. Silverman at Balloon Juice has a detailed explainer of why it’s a pipe dream to think that there will be any Republicans with intact vertebrae and who will vote either to allow witness testimony or vote to convict.  They are, as they say, like bacon: fried, dried, and laid to the side.  And other than the few people who read this blog and others like this, the vast majority of Americans aren’t paying attention and don’t really care about the outcome.  Mitch McConnell knows that; he’s counting on it, and he’s very sure that next November the folks back home in Kentucky will re-elect him even if Trump is ground to ash.

Senator McConnell knows, because he has been doing it successfully since January 2009, that the majority of Americans do not care about process, if they even understand it. And that the vast majority of Americans aren’t political junkies either. So if he just does what he’s going to do, give his regular more in sadness than in anger remarks, and is boring, then the news media will move along to whichever shiny object catches their attention. This is how he stymied President Obama for eight years. This is how he brought the Republicans back into the majority in the Senate. This is how he stole a Supreme Court seat. This is how he stole over 150 Federal judgeships. And this is how he was able to place Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

[…]

If you are counting on Senators Romney, Murkowski, Alexander, and/or Collins to do what Senators Corker and Flake did not in 2018, please email me about the great bridge I have to sell you on a lovely beachfront in Florida. The Senate runs according to McConnell’s rules and Senator McConnell’s only rule is doing whatever he can get away with to maintain power to achieve his objectives. That’s it. Expecting anything else to happen is self delusion.

Now, America, go out there and make your Super Bowl bets.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960’s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way. But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me. This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them. And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.

Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights. He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone. He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause. I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else. The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.

There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion? But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for? Last August marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. That marked a moment; a milestone.

Today is supposed to honor the man and what he stood for and tried to make us all become: full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; something that is with us all day, every day.

For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.

*

Today is also a school holiday, so blogging will be on a holiday schedule.

Sunday, January 19, 2020