Monday, May 20, 2019

Foreign Cars

Sixty years ago imported (or “foreign”) cars were an interesting if not important part of the U.S. auto market.  If you wanted to go exotic you could get a Mercedes-Benz through the local Studebaker dealer, and of course everybody thought the VW Beetle was cute but not what you’d call a family car if you were used to driving a Ford Country Squire with room for nine passengers and a dog.  Japanese cars?  Are you kidding?

Well, that was then, and so was Ike and the Edsel.  Today the American car market is dominated by vehicles whose headquarters may be in Tokyo or Seoul but who build them here to the point that they’re exporting cars built in Ohio back to Japan.  Not only that, they have taught the American manufacturers how they did it, and now if you buy a Ford or Buick chances are it has parts brought in from their factories overseas (my 2007 Mustang’s engine is from Germany) and even certain models are badge-engineered to look and sound like American cars.

But apparently this represents a national security threat to some dipshit in the White House.

A US Commerce Department report has concluded that American auto imports threaten national security, setting the stage for possible tariffs by the White House, two people familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The investigation, ordered by President Donald Trump in May, is “positive” with respect to the central question of whether the imports “impair” US national security, said a European auto industry source.

“It’s going to say that auto imports are a threat to national security,” said an official with another auto company.

The report, which is expected to be delivered to the White House by a Sunday deadline, has been seen as a major risk for foreign automakers.

Trump has threatened to slap 25 percent duties on European autos, especially targeting Germany, which he says has harmed the American car industry.

Toyota is neither amused or impressed.

“Today’s proclamation sends a message to Toyota that our investments are not welcomed, and the contributions from each of our employees across America are not valued,” the company said.

The statement says Toyota has 10 manufacturing plants in the United States, some 1,500 dealerships, an extensive supply chain and directly and indirectly employs 475,000 US workers.

“Most every American has a Toyota story and we are very proud of the fact that over 36 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles are still on U.S. roads today. Our operations and employees contribute significantly to the American way of life, the U.S. economy and are not a national security threat.”

But Trump promised those workers at the Studebaker plant he’d save their jobs, and by golly he’s gonna do it.

PS: The last Studebaker plant to build cars for the U.S. market was in Canada.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Trade Marks

Via the New York Times:

Trump’s tariffs were initially seen as a cudgel to force other countries to drop their trade barriers. But they increasingly look like a more permanent tool to shelter American industry, block imports and banish an undesirable trade deficit.

More than two years into the Trump administration, the United States has emerged as a nation with the highest tariff rate among developed countries, outranking Canada, Germany and France, as well as China, Russia and Turkey. And with further trade confrontations brewing, the rate may only increase from here.

On Tuesday, the president continued to praise his trade war with China, saying that the 25 percent tariffs he imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods would benefit the United States, and that he was looking “very strongly” at imposing additional levies on nearly every Chinese import.

“I think it’s going to turn out extremely well. We’re in a very strong position,” Mr. Trump said in remarks from the White House lawn. “Our economy is fantastic; theirs is not so good. We’ve gone up trillions and trillions of dollars since the election; they’ve gone way down since my election.”

He called the trade dispute “a little squabble” and suggested he was in no rush to end his fight, though he held out the possibility an agreement could be reached, saying: “They want to make a deal. It could absolutely happen.” Stock markets rebounded on Tuesday, after plunging on Monday as China and the United States resumed their tariff war.

Additional tariffs could be on the way. Mr. Trump faces a Friday deadline to determine whether the United States will proceed with his threat to impose global auto tariffs, a move that has been criticized by car companies and foreign policymakers. And despite complaints by Republican lawmakers and American companies, Mr. Trump’s global metal tariffs remain in place on Canada, Mexico, Europe and other allies.

The trade barriers are putting the United States, previously a steadfast advocate of global free trade, in an unfamiliar position. The country now has the highest overall trade-weighted tariff rate at 4.2 percent, higher than any of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, according to Torsten Slok, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities. That is now more than twice as high as the rate for Canada, Britain, Italy, Germany and France, and higher than most emerging markets, including Russia, Turkey and even China, Mr. Slok said.

The shift is having consequences for an American economy that is dependent on global trade, including multinational companies like Boeing, General Motors, Apple, Caterpillar and other businesses that source components from abroad and want access to growing markets overseas.

While trade accounts for a smaller percentage of the American economy than in most other countries — just 27 percent in 2017, compared with 38 percent for China and 87 percent for Germany, according to World Bank data — it is still a critical driver of jobs and economic growth.

For now, the American economy remains strong, with rising wages and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. But with less trade, American jobs up and down the value chain that are seemingly unrelated to importing and exporting goods could suffer, including research and development, retail and marketing products.

Trump has promised, as he has in the past, to make it up to the farmers who lose money by having China hit back with retaliatory tariffs against their products.  In other words, he’s saying he’ll get them $15 billion in subsidies to keep them afloat because of something he did (as opposed to helping, oh, say, Puerto Rico recover from a hurricane or Flint get drinkable water).  He apparently thinks the farmers of America can be bought off like his one-night stands with women-not-his-wife.  And I think we all know how well he keeps his promises.

The sad fact is that the majority of the farmers who are hit by these tariffs in all likelihood supported Trump in the last election and are with him now even as he takes away their markets and promises to put them on the welfare rolls.  He’s seen it work before — frighten them with abstract fears about Others like undocumented immigrants (many of whom keep farms in business by doing the labor) or lesbians getting married in New York, unlike that nice couple who run the candle store in town — so why not try it again?  He knows his marks; he’s run his businesses that way for fifty years and gets his jollies — if not his profits — by getting away with the con.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Bad For Business

The New York Times dug into the clues available on Trump’s business dealings in the 1980’s and 90’s and found out to no one’s surprise whatsoever that he is really lousy at it.

By the time his master-of-the-universe memoir “Trump: The Art of the Deal” hit bookstores in 1987, Donald J. Trump was already in deep financial distress, losing tens of millions of dollars on troubled business deals, according to previously unrevealed figures from his federal income tax returns.

Mr. Trump was propelled to the presidency, in part, by a self-spun narrative of business success and of setbacks triumphantly overcome. He has attributed his first run of reversals and bankruptcies to the recession that took hold in 1990. But 10 years of tax information obtained by The New York Times paints a different, and far bleaker, picture of his deal-making abilities and financial condition.

The data — printouts from Mr. Trump’s official Internal Revenue Service tax transcripts, with the figures from his federal tax form, the 1040, for the years 1985 to 1994 — represents the fullest and most detailed look to date at the president’s taxes, information he has kept from public view. Though the information does not cover the tax years at the center of an escalating battle between the Trump administration and Congress, it traces the most tumultuous chapter in a long business career — an era of fevered acquisition and spectacular collapse.

The numbers show that in 1985, Mr. Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses — largely casinos, hotels and retail space in apartment buildings. They continued to lose money every year, totaling $1.17 billion in losses for the decade.

In fact, year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer, The Times found when it compared his results with detailed information the I.R.S. compiles on an annual sampling of high-income earners. His core business losses in 1990 and 1991 — more than $250 million each year — were more than double those of the nearest taxpayers in the I.R.S. information for those years.

Over all, Mr. Trump lost so much money that he was able to avoid paying income taxes for eight of the 10 years. It is not known whether the I.R.S. later required changes after audits.

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, journalists at The Times and elsewhere have been trying to piece together Mr. Trump’s complex and concealed finances. While The Times did not obtain the president’s actual tax returns, it received the information contained in the returns from someone who had legal access to it. The Times was then able to find matching results in the I.R.S. information on top earners — a publicly available database that each year comprises a one-third sampling of those taxpayers, with identifying details removed. It also confirmed significant findings using other public documents, along with confidential Trump family tax and financial records from the newspaper’s 2018 investigation into the origin of the president’s wealth.

The bottom line is that he’s a fraud and always has been; no different than that guy on late-night TV who sells you all-natural boner pills and prostate cures or foam-filled pillows for $100 a pop.  He made his millions and lost them twice over because he sucks at actually working but makes up for it with bluster and bullshit.  That’s the one thing he is good at.  Thirty years ago it only mattered to the bankers or the poor schmucks who bet on him — and the tenants in his properties — but now he’s in the White House and running the same con.

Ain’t that America.

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.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Don’t Take Our Word For It

Via Axios, National Security Advisor John Bolton confirms we scammed North Korea.

WALLACE: Did North Korea demand money for the release of Otto Warmbier?

BOLTON: It appears that they did. This occurred before I came into the administration, but that’s my understanding.

WALLACE: Did the U.S. official who was there to get him out of the country, Joseph Yun, did he sign a document pledging the money in order to get him out.

BOLTON: That is what I am told, yes.

WALLACE: I guess the bottom line question is, did the U.S. pay any money to North Korea, however it was disguised, after Warmbier was released?

BOLTON: Absolutely not. And that’s the key point.

At first Trump said it was all fake news, never happened, and claimed it was all Obama’s fault anyway.  Now we know it was all a con.

Look, I don’t have any soft spots for North Korea, unlike Trump and his “love” for Kim Jung-un, but you have to wonder what other countries are thinking if they try to negotiate with a country that has no problem cheating you just to get what they want out of you.  And Bolton apparently thinks this is good.  He’s just as much of a scammer as Trump.

Well, actually, it’s not like no one could have expected this.  Trump has a long history of not paying for anything; just ask the hundreds of contractors and vendors who have sued him over the years for non-payment.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Never Say “Never”

Via the Washington Post:

Trump’s acting chief of staff said Sunday that Democrats will “never” see the president’s tax returns, abandoning Trump’s long-held position that he would someday release the documents for public inspection and setting up what could be a protracted fight with Congress.

Mick Mulvaney and other Trump allies spent the weekend casting Democrats as politically motivated for formally asking the Internal Revenue Service to turn over six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. House Democrats last week asked the IRS to release the documents, setting a deadline of Wednesday, part of an ongoing battle with the White House as they seek information about Trump for numerous investigations into his businesses, campaign and conduct.

The Trump administration has been trying to shield the president from such inquiries, and Mulvaney was adamant that Democrats won’t ever gain access to Trump’s tax returns. When asked about it on “Fox News Sunday,” Mulvaney said: “Never. Nor should they.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what Nixon’s cronies said about the White House tapes in 1974, and guess what happened.  This may go all the way to the Supreme Court and it may not be determined until after he’s out of office, but eventually the House is going to get what it has a legal right to demand to see.

Whether or not they will be made public is another matter, but that’s not what’s at stake here.  It’s whether or not one co-equal branch of government can shut down the work of another.

Over to you, James Madison.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Tax Time

It took long enough.

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee asked the IRS on Wednesday for six years of President Trump’s personal and business tax returns, a request with which the president immediately said he was not inclined to comply.

The committee chairman’s letter to the Internal Revenue Service — and Trump’s immediate and public response — set up what is likely to become an intense and drawn-out court fight as Democrats push to see tax records they think can shed light on numerous aspects of Trump’s business dealings and Trump resists their demands. The Ways and Means chairman’s request was expected but nonetheless represented a significant escalation in House Democrats’ wide-ranging probes of Trump and his administration.

The IRS was given until April 10 to respond. The panel’s chairman was able to make the request because of a 1924 law that gives the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee broad powers to request and receive the tax returns of any American.

“Congress, as a coequal branch of government, has a duty to conduct oversight of departments and officials,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “The Ways and Means Committee in particular has a responsibility to conduct oversight of our voluntary federal tax system and determine how Americans — including those elected to our highest office — are complying with those laws.”

Trump broke with precedent when he refused as a presidential candidate, and then when elected, to release his tax returns, something every president since Richard M. Nixon has done. The explanation he gave was that he was being audited, although numerous experts have said that an audit would not have prevented him from releasing his returns.

I’m going to predict that this battle, more than anything about the election of 2016 and who colluded with whom, will last long after Trump has left office and will lead eventually to civil if not criminal charges.

The Republicans will carry on about a fishing expedition (as opposed to what Ken Starr did with the Clintons?) and eventually it will end up at the Supreme Court where Trumpistas will challenge the right of Congress to have the temerity to investigate the Executive branch via a law that dates back 95 years.

The House committee is casting a wide net, including in their request not just tax returns for Trump himself but for a lot of his shell corporations and shelters.  That’s probably why it took four months since taking control of Congress for Rep. Neal to gather together the support to make the request and prove in court why the House committee wants to look at the records.  They knew this was going to be a long haul.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

That’s A Lot

It is way too early to pay much attention to the Democratic candidates as they tune up and take warm-up laps, but seeing Beto O’Rourke bring in over $6 million in his first 24 hours of “official” campaigning is impressive.

As of now there are fourteen other candidates vying for attention, and if my e-mail inbox is any indication, they’re all after me for money.  That’s how it works.  (Sorry, folks, you’re not getting any until after the Iowa caucuses, and even then.)  And Joe Biden is still playing peek-a-boo with his (possible) candidacy as if the race needs to fill out every demographic that checks off the D box: women, POC, gay, young, old, ethnic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, single-issue (climate, health care, take your pick); mash them all together into one in some transporter malfunction and you’ve got the perfect candidate to run against Trump, or at least fill out the application at the HR office of the DNC.

I don’t know if Beto O’Rourke is it, or the $6.1 million is just an indicator of a lot of people ready to cast their lot, if not their PayPal account, with someone who seems to be the antithesis of everything that Trump and the Republicans have stood for in the last thirty years: greed, xenophobia, nationalism, ignorance, bullying, hypocrisy, and self-loathing.  And while the base is solidly with Trump, just as there were those who objected to Nixon resigning, the GOP numbers, both polling and actual people who identify as Republican, are shrinking.  Having 93% of support in a party that represents less than 40% of the voters isn’t exactly a strong place to plant your burning cross flag.

It’s going to be at least a year before we really know who the Democratic candidate will be, and a lot can change in a year.  My estimation is by then we’ll be down to four or five contenders (any bets on who will be the first to drop out?  My money’s on John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado).  But after seeing how he ran against Ted Cruz in Texas, I would not be surprised to see Mr. O’Rourke still at it, still going, and that first $6 million is just the beginning.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sunday Reading

John Cassidy in The New Yorker on confronting the rise of right-wing terrorism.

Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the twenty-eight-year-old Australian who allegedly carried out a racially motivated gun massacre, in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, appeared in court on Saturday morning and was charged with one count of murder. According to a report from the New Zealand Herald, Tarrant “appeared in white prison clothing, with manacled hands, and barefoot. He smirked when media photographed him in the dock, flanked by two police officers.” He didn’t enter a plea and was remanded in custody. The court hearing, at the Christchurch district court, was closed to the public, but the judge allowed some members of the media to report on the proceedings.

As they were taking place, surgeons were still operating on some of the victims of the shootings, which occurred at two mosques, and the confirmed death toll rose to forty-nine. More horrifying eyewitness accounts emerged, and the whole of New Zealand, a remote island nation of about 4.9 million people that had only thirty-five murders in all of 2017, was in a state of deep shock. “I honestly thought somebody was carrying a water pistol—this is New Zealand, you know—or a showing of a pellet gun or something,” Omar Nabi, a Christchurch man whose father was shot dead at one of the two mosques that were attacked, told reporters. “We feel safe here because it’s multicultural. We’re accepted no matter who we are.” Tragically, it took just one heavily armed fanatic to upset this equilibrium.

Tarrant grew up more than fourteen hundred miles away from Christchurch, in Grafton, New South Wales, a small city located about three hundred and eighty miles north of Sydney. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that, when Tarrant lived in Grafton, he was known “as someone who was dedicated to fitness and ran free athletic programs for children.” He lived in a modest home, and, after leaving high school, in 2009, he got a job at a local gym. “He never showed any extremist tendencies in conversations I had with him,” Tracey Gray, the owner of the gym, told the Herald. In social-media posts, Tarrant said that he quit his job in 2011 and set off to travel the world.

It’s not known yet when he settled in New Zealand, but recently he had been living in Dunedin, a coastal city about two hundred and twenty miles south of Christchurch. “This individual has travelled the world with sporadic periods of time spent in New Zealand,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, on Saturday. “This individual was not on the radar of either the New Zealand intelligence agencies or the Australian agencies.”

Somewhere along the line, Tarrant got radicalized and became a hateful racist who was consumed by alt-right conspiracy theories and historical nonsense. The manifesto he posted online showed that he was consumed with Australia’s European heritage, and it made reference to incidents that European white nationalists cite to vilify Islam and Muslims, including the long-running child-sexual-abuse scandal in Rotherham, England, and the sexual assaults in Germany, in 2015 and 2016. “It was not immediately clear whether Tarrant was involved in far-right neo-Nazi groups in Australia,” the Herald’s Michael Koziol wrote. “However, imagery from Tarrant’s now-removed Twitter profile bears striking similarity to those used by an extreme-right, anti-immigration group called The Dingoes. In his writing, Tarrant echoed views expressed by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing terrorist who killed 77 people with a van bomb and gun massacre in Norway in 2011. He specifically mentioned Breivik by name, claiming he had ‘brief contact’ with the mass murderer and had received a ‘blessing’ for his actions from Breivik’s associates.”

So much for Donald Trump’s absurd response, on Friday, when he was asked whether he thought that white nationalism was a rising threat around the world. “I don’t really,” Trump said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.” Of course, Trump had good reason to try to minimize the threat from the extreme right. In his manifesto, Tarrant praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” while also criticizing his leadership skills. “As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no,” Tarrant wrote.

Of course, right-wing terrorism is now a very real and deadly threat in many Western countries, the United States included. Last October, Robert Bowers, a forty-six-year-old Pittsburgh man who ranted online about the threats presented by “illegals” and “the overwhelming Jew problem,” allegedly gunned down and killed eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. Just last month, federal agents arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard who had called for “focussed violence” to “establish a white homeland.” Like Tarrant, Hasson had been inspired by the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, and, according to the prosecutors, he was intending “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.”

These are just the most visible recent examples of the ongoing violence perpetrated by white supremacists and other right-wing nuts. “Right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 extremist-related murders in the United States in 2018, making them responsible for more deaths than in any year since 1995,” the Anti-Defamation League noted in January. Even the Trump Administration’s own report, “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” which was published last year, acknowledged that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise,” and it cited “racially motivated extremism” as one of the causes.

Another factor, undoubtedly, is the role that social media plays in cultivating the growth and amplifying the impact of extremist groups. In this case, Tarrant not only inhaled hatred and bigotry from the online world: he also live-streamed his murderous attack on Facebook, and the giant social network didn’t even know about it until they were informed by the police in New Zealand. By that stage, the gruesome video had gone viral. “The attack was teased on Twitter, announced on the online message board 8chan and broadcast live on Facebook,” Kevin Roose, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote. “The footage was then replayed endlessly on YouTube, Twitter and Reddit, as the platforms scrambled to take down the clips nearly as fast as new copies popped up to replace them.”

What can we do about all this? In the face of all the hatred, the violence, and the enabling digital technology, it is easy to feel helpless. But some things can be done. To begin with, as Simon Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argued in a recent analysis, politicians from all parties, the President included, need to openly acknowledge the scale of the threat represented by right-wing terrorism, and to commit to tackling it in a number of different ways. One obvious step is to beef up the law-enforcement resources devoted to tracking right-wing extremism and investigating possible plots to carry out threats. In addition, the Trump Administration “needs to understand how overheated rhetoric—including the president’s own words—can lead to violence,” Clark wrote.

In addition, the Republican Party must face up to the responsibility it bears for refusing to accept that lax gun laws are another enabling factor for domestic terrorists of all ideological stripes. When Australia tightened its gun laws some years ago, following a gun massacre, New Zealand chose not to follow suit. That was a terrible error. On Saturday, New Zealand’s Attorney General, David Parker, said that the government would now ban semi-automatic weapons of the type that were used in Friday’s attack.

Parker also pointed a finger at the U.S. technology giants, saying, “How can it be right for this atrocity to be filmed by the murderer using a go-pro and live-streamed across the world by social media companies? How can that be right? Who should be held accountable for that?” At the very least, the big tech enterprises—such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter—must redouble their efforts to monitor hate speech on their platforms, take it down rapidly, and ban the people and groups who are spreading it. But, at this stage, it is too dangerous to leave this task to the companies, which, ultimately, are motivated by the desire to maximize traffic on their platforms. It is time for some collective action, also.

Perhaps, as my colleague Evan Osnos suggests, part of this could be a collective decision on the part of all of us to deny the terrorists the publicity and attention they crave. But how would that work in practice? Like it or not, it is big news when some embittered human shell goes out and kills fifty or a hundred innocents. People demand to hear about it. Perhaps refusing to name the shooter and blacking out his or her face in news photographs will discourage some future attackers, but that seems like a lot to hope for. Even if it had some effect, there would still be an urgent need to crack down on racial incitement and right-wing extremism generally. Only governments have the power to do this effectively.

Around the world, we are being confronted with the rise of a murderous and hateful ideology that targets minorities, glorifies violence, and thrives on modern communications technology. The response needs to be commensurate with the threat, which is spreading ominously, and to the most unlikely of places. Even bucolic New Zealand, a place where Silicon Valley billionaires are buying personal retreats in case it all comes down closer to home, couldn’t escape the plague.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. on money and morality in college admissions.

If you think you’re angry now, wait till you read the court documents.

Not that the summaries of a college cheating scandal so massive it briefly bumped Donald Trump from the “Breaking News” chyrons were not enough to make a nun cuss. Indeed, the story offered a perfect storm of outrage: the wealthy, well-known and well-connected gaming the system, lying, fixing tests and paying bribes to get their kids into prestigious colleges. It didn’t hurt that two of those arrested were famous actors: Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” fame and Lori Loughlin, who played “Aunt Becky” in that masterwork of saccharine banality, “Full House.”

But there is something about the tawdry details found in the affidavit by FBI agent Laura Smith that is truly infuriating. In its 204 pages, you get William “Rick” Singer, the scam’s mastermind, coaching his clients on lies they can tell to get a different ACT or SAT test site or some accommodation the testing services reserve for kids with learning disabilities. You get him soothing parents whose kids have entered school as purported athletic standouts and now worry that those kids will be asked to actually do something athletic. You get him scheming with parents who want their kids to think they did well on tests, when actually, one of Singer’s confederates secretly substituted his correct answers for their wrong ones.

And you get attorney Gordon Caplan, as captured on an FBI wiretap, fretting about what might happen if his daughter gets caught. “To be honest,” he says, “I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”

Ahem.

I am an alumnus of the University of Southern California, one of the schools — Harvard, Yale and Georgetown are among the others — Singer helped people like Caplan cheat their children into. Me, I got in because my mom and my counselor, Mr. Isaacs, moved Heaven, Earth and all the precincts in between to get my application approved and my tuition paid.

So forgive me if I am unable to dismiss “the moral issue here” as airily as Caplan does. Forgive me if I find these people and their scheme disgusting. But there is an object lesson here beyond disgust.

We live in a nation where equality is the official creed, but hardly the lived reality. To the contrary, people are jailed here because they cannot afford justice, ignorant here because they cannot afford learning, hungry here because they cannot afford food, dead here because they cannot afford health.

And the worst thing is, we accept that as somehow preordained, beyond our capacity to fix. Meantime, Forbes reported last year that the average CEO pulls down a salary 361 times more than his workers. In the 1950s, he earned “only” about 20 times more. How well do you live on your salary? How well could you live on your salary, times 20?

Yet when working-class people demand a wage large enough to simply sustain themselves — $15 an hour — it’s regarded as a radical idea and an existential threat. As perhaps it must be in a nation where poverty is structural, where the routes up and out are increasingly constricted and workers are kept distracted from their own plight by fights over race, religion and sexuality.

So this should be a wake-up call. While poor people fight internecine wars, while they choose between lights and food, while their services are cut and their industries disappear, rich people — some, at least — are writing large checks to lie their children into college. Every advantage in the world, and they take more.

If that’s not a moral issue we all should worry about, I don’t know what is.

Doonesbury — Building.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Random Thought

One question occurs to me in this college admissions bribery scandal: what happens to the student that got in thanks to mommy and/or daddy buying their way in?  It’s a fraudulent admission; shouldn’t they be expelled?

Even if they had no idea what was going on behind the scenes on their behalf, they got in to Yale or wherever based on a lie.  Not only that, they took the place that rightfully belonged to someone else.

I say kick them out and let them learn what life is like in the real world.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

God And Money At Yale

This is not surprising in the least.

A teenage girl who did not play soccer magically became a star soccer recruit at Yale. Cost to her parents: $1.2 million.

A high school boy eager to enroll at the University of Southern California was falsely deemed to have a learning disability so he could take his standardized test with a complicit proctor who would make sure he got the right score. Cost to his parents: at least $50,000.

A student with no experience rowing won a spot on the U.S.C. crew team after a photograph of another person in a boat was submitted as evidence of her prowess. Her parents wired $200,000 into a special account.

In a major college admissions scandal that laid bare the elaborate lengths some wealthy parents will go to get their children into competitive American universities, federal prosecutors charged 50 people on Tuesday in a brazen scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford and other big name schools.

Thirty-three well-heeled parents were charged in the case, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, and prosecutors said there could be additional indictments to come.

This along with the “legacy” admissions — the C-student kid gets into college because Dad and Grandad went there (Dubya at Yale, for example) — are as old as college itself.  And yet rich white conservatives carry on about affirmative action as if that’s the real scandal because giving a minority student a leg up is somehow SO wrong.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Deficit Deficit

Well, of course.

It wasn’t long ago that Republicans were hair-on-fire obsessed with the deficit and the nation’s multi-trillion-dollar debt. Though the purpose of the Tea Party “movement” was always a bit murky, it was ostensibly about the right’s overwhelming anxiety about the United States’ fiscal imbalance. The irony of these Republicans’ concerns went largely overlooked.

After all, as a percentage of the economy, Ronald Reagan was responsible for some of the largest deficits in American history. After the deficit disappeared entirely under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush added trillions to the debt.

It was in 2003 when then-Vice President Dick Cheney declared that “deficits don’t matter.”

After Barack Obama shaved a trillion dollars off the deficit in his first seven years, the deficit is soaring again under Donald Trump – and Cheney’s adage is back as a governing principle.

First, let me correct the record.  The Tea Party “movement” was about a bunch of old white people who were adamantly opposed to the idea of a black man as president.  Period.  The End.  They disguised it rather clumsily by saying they were opposed to the deficit, but that was pure racist bullshit and everyone knew it.

That said, however, the Republicans have always been against the deficit as long as a Democrat was in the White House, and they carried on about it when they found themselves out of office and leaving their mess for someone else to clean up.  They campaigned to get back in office so they could run up the deficit again on weapons or border walls or whatever the boogedy-boogedy scare-the-base theme was in a particular election cycle: Communism, abortions, or gays living their lives.

Everybody knew the Trump tax cuts would explode the deficit and blame it on the last guy, and when the Democrats win back the White House they’ll be blamed for bringing it back under control because that’s how this stupid shit works.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Big Parade

One of the first lies told by the Trump folks after he was sworn in was that his inauguration was the biggest and the bestest EVER and that more people watched it, saw it, and were there to make history.  So there.

Well, that may have been bullshit (and it was proven so in minutes), but there were some other things going on that made it unique.

Via ABC News (note: auto-start video):

Prosecutors in New York’s Southern District have subpoenaed documents from President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, sources with direct knowledge told ABC News, indicating that even as the special counsel probe appears to be nearing an end, another investigation that could hamstring the president and his lawyers is widening.

The subpoena from the Southern District, which came from its public corruption section, is the latest activity focusing on Trump’s political fundraising both before and immediately after the 2016 election.

“We have just received a subpoena for documents. While we are still reviewing the subpoena, it is our intention to cooperate with the inquiry,” a spokesperson for the inauguration told ABC News.

Prosecutors are seeking documents and records related to the committee’s donors to the massive inauguration fund, according to sources familiar with the request. Prosecutors also are seeking information on attendees to the events surrounding the inauguration, including benefits to top-level donors such as photo opportunities with Trump, sources said.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, has been interviewed extensively by prosecutors in the Southern District office. Longtime family accountant and Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg has agreed to cooperate, though the extent of his help is unknown.

The Trump family business also has been in contact with prosecutors, but sources familiar with those discussions would not spell out the specific topics covered.

Those involved in discussions surrounding the inaugural fund, a nonprofit tasked with organizing festivities surrounding the president’s swearing-in, declined to detail specific questions from investigators. Trump’s inaugural fund raised $107 million — the most in modern history.

“This is why I’ve been saying for months that the Southern District of New York investigation presents a much more serious threat to the administration, potentially, than what Bob Mueller is doing,” said former federal prosecutor and ABC News contributor Gov. Chris Christie.

A spokesperson for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

It would be ironic on a Greek tragedy/O. Henry level if the thing that finally brings Trump down is the crime and corruption behind the big event that celebrated his entry into office, and the next parade that we get to watch for him is his cronies being marched into court in those bright orange outfits.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Now What?

The shutdown is over — at least for the next three weeks — and this morning the wheels of government will slowly begin to turn again.  It’s going to take almost the time allotted to get things back on track before they hit another deadline.

It’s also noted that on Friday the FBI arrested Roger Stone, the dirty-trickster of the GOP who’s been peddling his wares since Watergate and gave a Nixonian V-for-Victory salute as he walked out of his arraignment.

I don’t know if the two bits of news are connected; it’s giving Trump a lot of credit for caving on the shutdown to distract the news media from a Mueller investigation arrest.  It just doesn’t seem in his nature to show how truly weak he is in order to move the spotlight off how corrupt he is.

At any rate, the pundits all had a fun time this weekend figuring out who won and who lost, but if you can get beyond all that noise, you’re left with the simple facts that Trump was revealed to be a really bad negotiator and that despite all of his bragging about being the master of the deal, he caved without gaining a single concession, put 800,000 people directly out of work for 35 days, not counting the other millions of people and businesses threatened by the closures, drove his own poll numbers down to the sheer base, fractured his political party, and, most impressive of all, united the Democrats and made damn sure that no one is going to challenge Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Trump can now threaten to declare a national emergency to try to get the funds to build the mythological wall, but that’s not going to happen in three weeks, and if he actually follows through, he’ll be faced with court challenges and inevitable delays while the Army Corps of Engineers tries to figure out how to come up with the money and the manpower.

But in reality Trump really has nothing more to say on how or what’s going to happen with the spending bills.  That has always been and will be up to Congress, and I’m pretty sure that neither Sen. Mitch McConnell nor Speaker Pelosi want a repeat of the last five weeks.  Mr. McConnell has to run again in 2020, and Ms. Pelosi now has a House who has bigger fish to fry, including seeing just what Robert Mueller has dug up on the last election.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Stinking Rich

This is all you ever wanted to know about the “best people” Trump chose to run our lives.

Trump ran for president as a populist who said he understood the plight of the common man. Never mind that he was raised wealthy, went to top schools, built his business with several hundred million dollars from his father, and spent his life in New York City hobnobbing with celebrities and literally living in a golden tower.

When he became president, he filled his Cabinet with fellow billionaires, almost assuring that they would not understand the struggles of the average American.

The latest example came Thursday morning, on the eve of federal employees missing their second paycheck, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, “I don’t really quite understand why” federal workers are visiting food banks for meals. He suggested they instead take out loans.

And with a few bucks left over, they could all go in together on a few tumbrels.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

In This Corner

I don’t have any idea how long the government shutdown will last, and I don’t have any idea how it will end.  Neither do the people who have the power to end it.  But as it works its way into the fabric of our daily lives, affecting more and more elements it’s going to have unintended consequences that will be permanent.

It’s all because of a wild-eyed campaign promise that started out as some kind of mnemonic about immigration that turned into a real thing.  It’s like Herbert Hoover and the Republicans in 1928 demanding that there really will be a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage and by golly, we’re shutting down the government until those chickens and cars are in their places.  It is just as ridiculous to promise a wall along the 2,000 miles of the southern border and betting your entire political legacy on it.

No one — least of all Trump — knows what he really meant, and it’s clear that this tantrum that has morphed into hardships for the people directly affected and creating ripples beyond their zero-sum paychecks — if they’re not getting paid, they’re not buying groceries or paying their bills and that hits the merchants and the landlords and so on — and now the good folks at the IRS may not be processing tax refunds upon which a lot of people count on as a boost in their income during the bill-paying months after Christmas (hi there!).  And it may even reach into the public schools, where kids who count on being fed breakfast and lunch to supplement their diets may lose out on free or reduced meals because the school district can’t put up the funds to pay for the program on their own.

But as long as Trump believes this is the only way to win and he’s being egged on by sycophants and his maniacal base, this situation will continue until he figures out a way to cave and make it look like he’s won.  It will be something along the lines of “I allowed the shutdown to end because I know the terrible burden it’s placing on the people who depend on the invaluable services the government provides!  I alone can save them!”  Fox News will hail him as the hero of the working class, he’ll demonize the Democrats as obstructionists, and campaign in 2020 as if he was the one who saved America.

Now, about those chickens…

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

By Any Other Name

From the Washington Post:

The Trump administration on Tuesday said it has called back tens of thousands of federal workers to fulfill key government tasks, including disbursing tax refunds, overseeing flight safety and inspecting the nation’s food and drug supply, as it seeks to blunt the impact of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The nearly 50,000 furloughed federal employees are being brought back to work without pay — part of a group of about 800,000 federal workers who are not receiving paychecks during the shutdown, which is affecting dozens of federal agencies large and small. A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a bid by unions representing air traffic controllers and other federal workers to force the government to pay them if they are required to work.

The efforts by the Trump administration to keep the government operating during the partial shutdown came as the White House and Congress made no progress toward resolving their underlying dispute.

I don’t know about you, but I think being forced to work without being paid for it amounts to slavery.  Didn’t we do something about that a while back?

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sunday Reading

Why Hasn’t He Folded? — David A. Graham in The Atlantic.

Saturday marks the 22nd day of the government shutdown, the longest closure in American history. And with neither Democrats nor the White House budging from their positions, and the president threatening to keep the government closed for months or years, there’s no end in sight.Which is all the more remarkable in light of how the shutdown began—or rather how it almost didn’t. As the nation approached the end of government funding in late December, President Donald Trump was on the verge of giving in. Then he reversed course, announced he’d shut down the government, and hasn’t blinked since. Why has Trump decided to hold firm this time, and what does it mean for the likelihood of a deal?

The proximate cause for his decision to shut the government down is relatively clear: firm pressure from his hard-line allies. In early December, during a meeting with the Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Trump said that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.” But for 10 days afterward, the White House tried to slowly walk that back. Aides said that Trump was looking for ways to build the wall using funds from other departments, and they signaled that he’d sign a clean bill that kept the lights on without money for the wall. On December 19, immigration hard-liners mounted a counterattack.

“This is textbook,” Rush Limbaugh fumed. “It’s a textbook example of what the Drive-By Media calls compromise. Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything, including control of the House in a few short weeks.”Ann Coulter blasted the president as “gutless” (earning herself a Twitter unfollow). Even Laura Ingraham was critical. “It was supposed to be a ‘big beautiful wall’ with a ‘big beautiful door,’” she tweeted. “Now it’s just an open door with no frame. Unreal.” Representative Mark Meadows, the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, held out hope that Trump might still veto the bill. Followed by what? “Renegotiating.”

Even though there was no clear plan for how Trump would get money out of the new Democratic House majority once it took office in early January, the pushback got his attention, and he announced that he wouldn’t sign any legislation without wall funding. Positions have been stuck since then. Democrats have not shown any weakened resolve; neither has Trump.

On the Democratic side, the X factor seems to be Pelosi and her newly empowered caucus. Schumer has been inclined to negotiate with Trump in the past, but the House Dems, having campaigned against the president and his wall, show no appetite for compromise.

What’s less clear is why this is the moment Trump has decided to take a stand. Though he styled himself a master dealmaker in the business world, he’s been far softer in politics, showing a surprisingly deferential side at the negotiation table, whether his interlocutor is domestic or foreign. He backed down after promising to go after the National Rifle Association on gun control; he shied away from branding China a currency manipulator; he didn’t follow through on threats to investigate the Justice Department or withdraw foreign aid as retaliation for UN votes.

The timing is also peculiar. Trump’s best opportunity to get funding was when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, during the first two years of his term. But Congress refused, and while Trump griped about it, he never pushed the issue as far as a shutdown. As my colleague Peter Beinart has written, the president shows little interest in actually building the wall. Instead, he appears to view it as an effective political bludgeon against Democrats.

Whether it actually is effective is unclear. Polling since the start of the shutdown has shown that more Americans blame Trump than Democrats for the deadlock, though Democrats haven’t escaped blame altogether. But a Morning Consult poll this week showed a four-point increase in the share of voters who see Trump as the culprit. Even if Trump is losing, there’s no massive shift against him that polls are picking up, and both sides seem to believe that they are winning.

Some Senate Republicans, however, may not be so certain. A small but growing number, especially those up for reelection in 2020, have begun saying that the government should reopen while negotiations over the wall continue—which is tantamount to surrender, since Trump would be giving up his leverage. (A few House Democratic freshmen are nervous as well.)None of this offers much insight into the way the impasse might break. The negotiation tactics that Trump imported from the private sector have, yet again, failed to deliver much in the way of results in politics. During a meeting this week, Trump walked out after Democrats once again said they wouldn’t compromise on the wall. (It’s a sign of how poorly the talks are going that the two sides promptly got into a quarrel over whether Trump had stormed out or merely politely departed.) Trump’s allies claim that this tactic worked well in his last job, but Democrats seem only to have been delighted by the incident, which demonstrated their resolve.

By the end of the week, it seemed that the most likely outcome was for Trump to sidestep the shutdown by declaring a national emergency and using those extraordinary powers to build the wall, perhaps with the help of the military. While that would open up a new front of legal and political crisis as he tested the limits of presidential powers, it would also likely end the shutdown, as it would obviate the need for Congress to grant funding.

“If this doesn’t work out, I probably will do it, maybe definitely,” Trump said Thursday while visiting the border. But Friday afternoon, Trump demurred. “What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” he said.

Once again, Trump had signaled one intention and then swerved at the last minute, a mirror image of his reversal on the shutdown in December. With negotiations frozen and the president ruling out a national emergency—at least for now—the shutdown that almost didn’t happen looks like it’s here to stay.

Old Story — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on the right wing’s rehash of personal attacks.

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Certainly, there is a sense of déjà vuall over again as one watches the right wing hyperventilate over a certain freshman congresswoman from New York. The attacks on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been frequent and furious, but also petty, silly and (in the mental-health sense) hysterical.

Just days ago, The Daily Caller tweeted “the photo some people are calling a nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” But it turns out “some people” are morons. The so-called “nude selfie,” depicts only a woman’s feet in a bathtub. Yes, some observers claim her bare breasts are visible in a reflection on the faucet, but if that’s true, your humble correspondent lacks the eyesight — and the interest — to make them out.

Not that it matters, because Ocasio-Cortez is actually not the woman in the image, as The Daily Caller was eventually forced to concede. So this was a political hit job wrapped in a Three Stooges routine. She seems to attract a lot of those.

On Jan. 6, for example, conservative blogger Jim Hoft tweeted the “news” that Ocasio-Cortez “Went by ‘Sandy’ Well into College.” This guy touted as an “EXCLUSIVE” the fact that the woman has a nickname — like he thought he had solved the Hoffa case or something.

Then there’s the since-suspended Twitter account that tweeted a video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing on a rooftop when she was in college. “America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is,” the tweet said. Apparently, we’re meant to be apoplectic to learn she once suffered boogie fever.

And so it goes. Republicans in Congress boo when her name is called. Her wardrobe and lodging are scrutinized. GOP operative Ed Rollins dubs her “the little girl.” Rush Limbaugh calls her “some young uppity.”

All this lavish abuse, it bears repeating, is for a freshman representative who, at this writing, has yet to do much of anything in Congress. Yes, like Bernie Sanders — and Martin Luther King Jr. — Ocasio-Cortez is drawn to democratic socialism. It’s fair to question her ideology. It’s fair to question anyone’s ideology. But that’s not what this is.

No, this is that movie we’ve seen before where the right wing, alarmed by the rise of the scary Other, seeks to manufacture scandal, spread rumor, sow confusion, impute some sense of the sinister. The less they have to work with, the more shrill, desperate and idiotic they become.

Back then, it was Barack Obama. He wore a tan suit, and conservatives sank onto their fainting couches. He greeted his wife with a fist bump and Fox “News” thought it might be terrorism. And how many conservatives, with furrowed brows and studious miens, pretended to believe there was some reason to doubt that he was born in Hawaii?

Obama’s “otherness” came of being a black guy with a funny name. Ocasio-Cortez, though, hits the trifecta. She is young (29), a woman and of Puerto Rican heritage. Add her ideology to that mix, and you have a perfect storm of panic for those who consider power the birthright of gray-haired white men.

Ocasio-Cortez is another unwelcome reminder for them that change is here — and that power will henceforth no longer be the province of a favored few. They’ve had over a decade to acclimate themselves to that, so it is sad to see the right wing retreat instead to the same old script — especially since it inevitably reveals more about them and their fraidy-cat bigotry than anything else.

Yes, we have, indeed, seen this movie before. It was a lousy film the first time around.

It has not improved.

Doonesbury — And the winner is…

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Unnatural Disaster

Florida has had its share of troubles, but the karmic lesson of reaping what you sow on top of Mother Nature and her visits are becoming a bit much for Trump fans in one part of the Sunshine State.

MARIANNA, Fla. — A federal prison here in Florida’s rural Panhandle lost much of its roof and fence during Hurricane Michael in October, forcing hundreds of inmates to relocate to a facility in Yazoo City, Miss., more than 400 miles away.

Since then, corrections officers have had to commute there to work, a seven-hour drive, for two-week stints. As of this week, thanks to the partial federal government shutdown, they will be doing it without pay — no paychecks and no reimbursement for gas, meals and laundry, expenses that can run hundreds of dollars per trip.

“You add a hurricane, and it’s just too much,” said Mike Vinzant, a 32-year-old guard and the president of the local prison officers’ union.

If nature can be blamed for creating the first financial hardship, the second is the result of the even less predictable whims in Washington: President Trump warned last week that the shutdown might last “months or even years.”

In Florida, where Republicans dominated the November midterms and the state’s only Democratic senator went down in defeat, conservative towns like Marianna — along with farm communities in the South and Midwest, and towns across the country that depend on tourism revenue from scaled-back national parks — will help measure the solidity of public support for Mr. Trump and his decision to wager some of the operations of the federal government on a border wall with Mexico.

Jim Dean, Marianna’s city manager, said he had already been concerned, even before the shutdown, that the hurricane would prompt public agencies to consider reducing their footprint in the region. What if an extended shutdown contributed to keeping the prison closed indefinitely?

“I worry about the government pulling out of rural America,” he said.

It’s easy to gloat and practice saying “schadenfreude” with a particular Germanic tone, especially when you remember that at this stage in the recovery from Hurricane Maria, people in Puerto Rico were still 90% without power and nothing was happening even with the government up and running.  It’s also a reminder that a lot of people who supported Trump are the ones who were so sure that they didn’t need the government hand-outs — bootstraps, everyone! — and those who had their hands out were lazy druggies or worse: immigrants.

I don’t minimize the pain and struggle the folks in Marianna went through after Hurricane Michael; I know hurricanes and they don’t care about politics, and all the best preparation doesn’t stop them.  But the rest of it was easily prevented, both before November 2016 and after when they were so sure that rhetoric and metaphors about mythical walls was the real solution to all their problems.

The shutdown will end at some point, the checks and back pay will come, and given the short attention span of the American electorate, they will probably vote back in the same people who lied and conned them the last time.  They probably know it; rest assured the liars and the con-men are counting on it.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Nice Work If You Can Get It

From the Washington Post:

While many federal workers go without pay and the government is partially shut down, hundreds of senior Trump political appointees are poised to receive annual raises of about $10,000 a year.

The pay raises for Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, top administrators and even Vice President Pence are scheduled to go into effect beginning Jan. 5 without legislation to stop them, according to documents issued by the Office of Personnel Management and experts in federal pay.

The raises appear to be an unintended consequence of the shutdown: When lawmakers failed to pass bills on Dec. 21 to fund multiple federal agencies, they allowed an existing pay freeze to lapse. Congress enacted a law capping pay for top federal executives in 2013 and renewed it each year. The raises will occur because that cap will expire without legislative action by Saturday, allowing raises to kick in that have accumulated over those years but never took effect, starting with paychecks that will be issued next week.

Cabinet secretaries, for example, would be entitled to a jump in annual salary from $199,700 to $210,700. Deputy secretaries would be entitled to a raise from $179,700 to $189,600. Others affected are under secretaries, deputy directors and other top administrators.

The pay of Pence is scheduled to rise from $230,700 to $243,500.

There was no immediate comment Friday by the White House. A spokesperson for Pence also did not immediately provide comment.

The White House will explain it by saying that these people really deserve it because they are working very hard for the American people and that while the optics may be awkward, who can deny that they’ve earned it?  And besides, it’s the Democrats’ fault because they wouldn’t fund the wall… or the fence… or the slats.  Whatever.  Amirite?

And of course the Fox News people will defend it and the drooling base will buy the load of bullshit because America.