Friday, August 31, 2018

Hide And Seek

Trump’s obsession with the media and what they’re reporting tells me a couple of things.  First, he isn’t in favor of the idea of a free press unless it’s saying nice things about him and bashing everyone else, and second, there must be a shitload of dirt on him somewhere and he’s freaked out about it getting into the light of day.  Given that he was able to get elected while having the Access Hollywood tape out there plus all of his on-stage antics — bashing the disabled, Gold Star parents, any woman who didn’t acknowledge his charms, and all the other flaws he waved under our noses — the true tales must be really something.

I’m not sure what kind of delusion he was under to get him to think that the press was going to fawn over him like a newborn infant, but since the only news he watches is Fox, it’s not surprising that he thinks all the other news outlets are out to get him.  Any news story that doesn’t flatter him is fake, and Google must be biased because its search algorithms only pull up stories about him that have the most hits, not the most “likes.”  That’s to be expected when your role models of leadership are Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.  So when you see that freedom of the press can also mean that facts matter more than propaganda and reality means that people will call you out when you blatantly lie and have the tapes and facts to prove it, the only remedy you have to resort to are threats and tantrums.

This latest rant tells me that something big is coming, and probably soon.  Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House” is due to be published in a couple of weeks and so far very little has leaked out, but the tidbits that have are enough to set people on edge and Trump on a rant.  Whether or not they contain bombshells is unknown, but that combined with the news that he and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, tried to buy up all the dirt that the National Enquirer has on him indicates that what’s hidden would be bad news to the people who read supermarket tabloids the way stockbrokers read the Wall Street Journal: it’s their gospel.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday Reading

The Right Thing To Do — Charles P. Pierce on the newspaper editorials’ response to Trump.

Congress shall make no law…

To tell you the truth, I was preparing to mock the idea of a couple hundred newspapers’ getting together all at the same time to punch back at El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago. It seems like so much inside-baseball wankery, and it didn’t look to change any minds, and, frankly, the real enemy of local newspapers are the beancounters in the various corporate headquarters who think you can cover a city with two reporters, a laptop, and a couple of drones. Media consolidation and corporate timidity completed the job that Spiro Agnew started in the modern era. But I thought about the year 2030, and then I changed my mind.

One day in the future, when the awful crime this country committed against itself somehow has been largely expiated, it’s going to be important to remember who stood against an incompetent and half-mad Peronista wannabe, and who did not. That the idea came from my most recent alma mater fills me with not a little pride, too. From the editorial published in The Boston Globe on Thursday, its central theme reiterated in 200 newspapers, small and large, all across the country:

Replacing a free media with a state-run media has always been a first order of business for any corrupt regime taking over a country. Today in the United States we have a president who has created a mantra that members of the media who do not blatantly support the policies of the current US administration are the “enemy of the people.” This is one of the many lies that have been thrown out by this president, much like an old-time charlatan threw out “magic” dust or water on a hopeful crowd…

There was once broad, bipartisan, intergenerational agreement in the United States that the press played this important role. Yet that view is no longer shared by many Americans. “The news media is the enemy of the American people,” is a sentiment endorsed by 48 percent of Republicans surveyed this month by Ipsos polling firm. That poll is not an outlier. One published this week found 51 percent of Republicans considered the press “the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy.”

Having spent the last two decades watching American newspapers flounder against new technologies, and debase themselves in a hundred ways trying to coddle what readers they had by telling those readers what they wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear, and turning “objectivity” and “balance” into a kind of survival cult in which any idea, no matter how pernicious, was treated as having an equal value with any other idea simply because a desperate business model didn’t want to lose even one set of eyeballs, it was bracing to see the editorials call out their readers for failing to inform themselves the way good citizens of a self-governing republic should. That was long overdue. It also recognizes that newspapers are trying to atone for their own shortcomings in abetting a spavined and desiccated attitude toward the truth that made the current president* not only possible, but inevitable.

I still don’t think this changes any minds. But I no longer think that’s important. Sometimes, it’s just the right thing to do simply to yell at the correct buildings. Truth is in a fight for survival at the moment, and if this profession won’t join that fight, it’s hard to think of another one that will. If the role of the press in a self-governing republic is going to be imperiled, can it at least be imperiled by a person of some substance, instead of a television carny barker confused by the concept of time zones? I mean, holy hell, this profession has faced down dictators and actual armies. What good are we if we can’t defend ourselves against an obvious clown?

The Clairvoyance of Aretha Franklin — Doreen St. Félix in The New Yorker.

An inarticulate misery, and yet the desperate need to articulate it, is what brought the thunderous wonder of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to the earth. In August of 1932, the musician, who had left the packed blues clubs and rent-raising parties of the South for a Baptist-church choir in Chicago, took brief leave of his pregnant wife, Nettie Dorsey, for a gig in St. Louis. While performing, a messenger handed him a Western Union telegram that read “YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.” The baby died, too. He buried his wife and son in the same casket.

When Dorsey returned to his empty South Side apartment, he was prepared to abandon his God. The Baptist-church elders, stern in their faith, advised him to submit to God’s will. Later, Dorsey would recall being coaxed by his choir associate, Theodore Frye, to approach a piano in a local school. Before the instrument, Dorsey felt overcome with a strange peace. A melody of the nineteenth-century religious composer George Nelson Allen coursed through him. “As my fingers began to manipulate over keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock,” Dorsey later said. He gave the first performance of “Precious Lord” at his church shortly after his wife and baby’s death, and the act of uninhibited spiritual praise was forever changed.

How this hymn, the greatest example of American lamentation, how it travels. It passed through Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who electrified Dorsey’s pleas; through Nina Simone, who grasped the first verse so delicately that it is nearly painful to attend; through Elvis Presley, who dared to root the song more deeply in the workaday wretchedness of man; through Mahalia Jackson, who made the hymn somehow more transcendent. Jackson was in the habit of visiting with C. L. Franklin, the pastor of New Bethel Baptist, in Detroit. She was taken by the preacher’s young daughter Aretha, who was, in her craft, trying to match her father’s prophetic fire. Through Aretha—so many times through Aretha—“Precious Lord” was an existential cry, a justice prayer shed of pretense. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s favorite hymn, and it’s said that his last words were a request to have it ring at his funeral. Franklin sang the song at a memorial service for her friend King, in 1968; she was still in tune with the primal frisson when she delivered her rendition at the dedication of the memorial to King in Washington, D.C., in 2011. She assisted Jackson’s transition to that other realm, washing the faithful with “Precious Lord” at Jackson’s funeral, in Chicago, in 1972. “Precious Lord, take my hand . . .  I’m tired / I’m weak / I’m ’lone”: Franklin interprets it as a relationship song—did God do her and her people wrong? The hymn is a confrontation, spurred by agony, then loneliness, then immobilizing veneration.

What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her. She was a vessel and a commander. She knew her God like John Donne did—intensely, almost physically. She was of the black church, the church of protest, the church of brash women, the church of sorrows and of ecstasy, and yet she was also of her own church. We hear that church, already clarion, in the 1956 recording of “Precious Lord,” from her first album, “Songs of Faith.” It was recorded at New Bethel; the congregation hollers. Franklin was just fourteen years old, already a mother, without her mother. She draws from a font of pain and awe and indignation so worldly that you may flinch in disbelief: “Hear my cry, hear my call.” It is as though she is wrapping her instrument around death and strangling it. She then leaves Dorsey’s man-made words behind, as they are inefficient for expressing the way she feels both about her God and about transmitting the miracle of her voice. The child elder starts humming, then moaning, deep and steady and not at all faintly aroused. Moaning in the church. The interlude is a premonition of her career, which imprinted on us the power and the anguish in sacred and sexual love. “Ain’t no harm to moan,” she says, before taking up the verse again. Listening now, during this national wake for her, we know where Franklin will go, what educations she will preach. The fourteen-year-old maybe knows, too. The clairvoyance of her “Precious Lord” is staggering.

Doonesbury — Trivial Pursuit.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Real Enemy Of The People

Editorial boards across the country and even overseas are joining the Boston Globe to speak out against Trump’s attacks on the media as, to quote Josef Stalin, “the enemy of the people.”  The Miami Herald, as a part of the McClatchy chain of papers, printed their thoughts.

No American president, or any city council member, for that matter, has ever unreservedly delighted in the way he or she was presented in the press. “I so appreciate the accuracy of their reporting on my perceived flaws!” said no official ever. “And good for them for holding me accountable.”

But President Donald Trump has veered into unfamiliar and perilous territory with his unceasing all-out assault on the free press and the First Amendment. Of course, the irony of Trump’s attacks on the “SICK!” and “very dishonest people” in “the fake media” he accuses of purveying, yes, “fake news” is that he himself is a product of the New York tabloids. He’s as savvy about manipulating his coverage as he is adept in undermining it.

But today the consequences of the president’s perpetual battle against journalists extend far beyond the Manhattan gossip pages. And the animus you see directed at CNN’s Jim Acosta isn’t just reserved for the White House press corps. Everywhere in the country, any matter that an official doesn’t want to talk about or that a reader doesn’t want to hear about is “fake news” now.

In our business, we know how much words matter. We know, too, that Trump’s references to us as the “enemy of the American People” are no less dangerous because they happen to be strategic. That is what Nazis called Jews. It’s how Joseph Stalin’s critics were marked for execution.

Every reporter who has ever covered a Trump rally knows the scratch of a threat that’s conveyed during that ritual moment when he aims the attention of the crowd to reporters, many of whom no longer stand in the press pen in the back for that reason.

And as real as the threat of physical violence is, especially after the murder of our colleagues in Annapolis, Maryland, Trump’s aggressive posture toward the First Amendment worries us even more.

That’s why nearly all of McClatchy’s 30 daily newspapers, which almost never speak with one voice, are doing so now. That’s why we’re joining with fellow journalists across the country in calling for an end to the president’s war of words against our free press.

It’s an affront to the U.S. Constitution when President Trump threatens to eliminate the First Amendment protections the Supreme Court has built into our nation’s libel laws — or when he suggests revoking the FCC licenses of broadcast news organizations whose reporting he doesn’t like.

The White House’s besmirching of journalists who are doing their jobs is dangerous to the public as well as to the press. It’s not just that we dislike being called “fake news.” That misnomer discredits facts and creates what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts,” making reasoned and informed debate basically impossible.

We all — as citizens — have a stake in this fight, and the battle lines seem pretty clear. If one first comes successfully for the press as an “enemy of the American People,” what stops someone for coming next for your friends? Your family? Or you?

Not even President Richard Nixon, whose original “enemies list” of the 20 private citizens he hoped to use his public office to “screw” included three journalists, tried to incite violence against reporters. While stewing privately about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “enemies … trying to stick the knife right in our groin,” not even Nixon tagged the lot of us, Soviet-style, as “enemies of the people.” Nor did even he dare to take on the idea that our free press is worth protecting.

Donald Trump swore on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible to uphold the Constitution. And the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” implies that no branch of government will do so.

That 44 percent of Republicans polled recently said Trump should have the autocrat’s power to shut down news outlets shows how successful his efforts have already been.

Like Nixon, Trump still pines for the kind of coverage his behavior makes impossible. But his place in history will be far less mixed than Nixon’s if he continues to menace James Madison’s best work.

Having worked, however briefly in the news business (nine months), I know all too well the pressure reporters are under to get the story, get it right, and make sure that it is reported as fairly and without bias as possible.  That’s all you can hope for, and there’s never time to sit back and try to spin it or slant it.  You ask questions, you do your research, and if someone tells you something, you check it out.  The people you report on may have an agenda, but the only one you have is to the truth as best you can find it.  In other words, it’s too hard to come up with “fake news;” getting the real news is hard enough, and anyone who voluntarily takes the low pay, the long hours, and the countless attempts to prove you wrong are truly dedicated to their mission.

Trump’s attacks on the press and the people who report the news stink of desperation and consciousness of guilt.  Granted, no one likes seeing their faults printed or being called out for falsehoods, but that’s human nature.  The true sign of maturity and of civilized society is the ability to either accept it, laugh it off, or make amends.

The real enemy of the people are those who would try to repress the true expression of the truth or the attempts to do so.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Enemy Of The People

Until Trump came along, the only time most people had heard the term “enemy of the people” was in old newsreels about Stalin or in theatre history class discussing the play of the same name by Henrik Ibsen.  (By the way, it’s a really good play and a cautionary tale for our times.)  But now Trump is slandering the media with that tag, and it’s being thrown around by his minions, including Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Yesterday she got into an exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta.

Notice that her complaints are all how the press has treated her. That’s all it really is; she’s the victim here and it’s SO unfair.  That seems to be why she is incapable of agreeing with Ivanka Trump that the press is not the enemy of the people.

First, if you’re going to be the White House press secretary, you’re going to get a lot of scrutiny and be held accountable for what you and the people you represent do and say.  (Oh, and if you’ve got a list of grievances about how those meanies in the media go after you, sit down with Hillary Clinton and hear what it’s like to have the press go after you for real.)

Second, and more importantly, the press’s job is not to be just an echo chamber for your balderdash and bullshit.  Their job is to ask the questions and get the answers and call out the bullshit when they see it.  (Ironically, not a lot of the press is actually doing that; most of the time they sit and watch.)  That’s what Sarah Huckabee Sanders objects to; that there are those in the press who call her and her boss out and wow does it hurt her fee-fees.

Hey, Ms. Sanders, you want to see the real enemy of the people?  Look in the mirror.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Pressing Issue

I suppose it’s not a bad thing that the publisher of the New York Times had a private meeting with Trump, and I suppose he had hopes that he would get his point across that telling the world from the Oval Office that the press is “the enemy of the people” isn’t good for anybody, but I’m not sure that it accomplished anything.

In a five-paragraph statement issued two hours after the tweet, Mr. Sulzberger said he had accepted Mr. Trump’s invitation for the July 20 meeting mainly to raise his concerns about the president’s “deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.”

“I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” said Mr. Sulzberger, who became publisher of The Times on Jan. 1.

“I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’” Mr. Sulzberger continued. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

This is particularly true overseas, Mr. Sulzberger said, where governments are using Mr. Trump’s words as a pretext to crack down on journalists. He said he warned the president that his attacks were “putting lives at risk” and “undermining the democratic ideals of our nation.”

Mr. Sulzberger’s lengthy, bluntly worded rebuttal was a striking rejoinder to the president by the 37-year-old publisher of a paper with which Mr. Trump has had a long, complicated relationship. And it apparently touched a nerve: The president fired off a series of angry tweets in the afternoon, accusing newspapers of being unpatriotic.

“I will not allow our great country to be sold out by anti-Trump haters in the dying newspaper industry,” he wrote. “The failing New York Times and the Amazon Washington Post do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements — and they will never change!”

Mr. Trump, in his initial tweet from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Sunday morning, described the meeting with Mr. Sulzberger as “very good and interesting.” But in referring to the phrase “enemy of the people,” he did not make clear that he himself began using that label about the press during his first year in office.

Other than, “Hey, we tried,” there’s not a whole lot the Times or any new outlet can say or do other than do their job regardless of what Trump thinks or tweets.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Reading

LGBTQ Refugees In Turkey — Masha Gessen in The New Yorker on the plight of getting out of oppression in the Middle East.

When you are a refugee, you learn all about the hierarchy of compassion. There are the people from war-torn countries—refugees from humanitarian catastrophes so enormous that they upend the world’s imagination, such as those who have escaped from Syria. There are people who have fled a sudden campaign of violence and hatred, such as the gay men who have been escaping from Chechnya for the past year. And then there is you: unlucky enough to have suffered the kind of misfortune that can’t seem to hold onto a headline. From the officers of U.N.H.C.R.—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that runs refugee-resettlement operations around the world—what you hear is this: “There is no country for you.”

Ali (he asked not to use his full name) is a gay man from Iran who reached out to me on behalf of L.G.B.T. refugees in Turkey. We have corresponded and talked on Skype during the last few days. When we spoke, he tried to make clear that he doesn’t begrudge the world’s focus on the refugees from Syria. Nor does he begrudge the activism that has helped more than a hundred queer Chechens flee their country for the safety of Canada, France, Germany, and other destinations. Ali wants everyone to make it to safety. But he and other L.G.B.T. refugees currently living in Turkey feel like they have been forgotten.

Refugees usually flee their country for one where they can apply, at an U.N.H.C.R. office, to find a third country in which to resettle. The process is not the same as entering a country directly and seeking asylum there—which is an option most refugees don’t have—but it does mean that people have the legal status of refugee when they finally arrive in their destination country. And, in theory, refugees are safe while in the care of the U.N.H.C.R. But U.N.H.C.R. facilities in Turkey have been overwhelmed since the current refugee crisis began: there are more than three and a half million refugees from Syria in the country, along with more than three hundred and sixty-five thousand refugees from other countries. This means that processing times to receive refugee status, which is required before resettlement can begin, have stretched from several weeks to a couple of years. Refugees receive little to no financial or housing assistance while they are in Turkey.

When I asked Ali how old he was, he was momentarily stumped. “I’ve stopped counting the years since I came here,” he said. He did know his birthday, though, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that he was thirty-five. He grew up in Iran. He told me that he was detained by security services, held overnight, and tortured, in 2004—he would have been twenty-two at the time. This scared him so much that, for a couple of years, he stopped blogging on L.G.B.T. topics; in fact, he stopped writing altogether. But then he returned to writing, and even organized some clandestine meetings of gay men. When Ali’s parents found out about his homosexuality, they had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. When he was released back into their care, they kept him under lock and key for a year and a half, and then tried to force him into marriage. He took part in elaborate charades in order to secure a small measure of freedom. He even began making a documentary about gay life in Iran. But, when several of the friends with whom he was making the film were arrested, he realized that he had to flee. “I could be arrested and hanged at any time,” he said. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran.

In 2010, Ali and his partner, who is from India, moved to India together. Ali felt safer, but soon his partner was being harassed and blackmailed by neighbors, who threatened to turn him in to the police. (In India, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment.) In 2014, the two men went to Turkey in hopes of finding their way to a safe country. Like many gay refugees—and unlike perhaps any other group of refugees—Ali would have preferred to go to a country where he didn’t have relatives. But when the men finally had their refugee status, a year and a half after arriving in Turkey, they asked to be resettled anywhere, in any country that would take them.

They knew, however, that only two countries—Canada and the United States—resettle L.G.B.T. refugees as a matter of practice. By the time Ali and his partner were eligible to be resettled, it was late 2016. Canada had announced its commitment to taking in more Syrian refugees, which still made barely a dent in the number of refugees needing resettlement; it also meant that refugees from other countries were no longer getting resettled in Canada. And Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. Almost as soon as he was inaugurated, he would impose a ban on refugees from eleven countries that he considers “high-risk,” Iran among them. (The ban has since been lifted—or, more accurately, relaxed slightly, but the U.S. has also drastically cut the number of refugees it accepts over all.) These events led to how Ali and other L.G.B.T. refugees came to hear the phrase “There is no country for you.” This is what they hear when they inquire about their cases at U.N.H.C.R., Ali said.

Ali estimates that between seven and eight hundred L.G.B.T. refugees are now stuck in Turkey without the prospect of resettlement. Most of them are from Iran, with some from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East. Over the past couple of years, as their hopes of finding a home in the world have dwindled, their life in Turkey has grown harder. Ali was careful to again acknowledge that things are hard for all refugees—all of them have to fend for themselves; all face ever-increasing bureaucratic hurdles to securing work permits; all face increasing impatience, and sometimes hostility, from local residents. Still, Ali said, “if we were from a war-torn country and we entered Turkey, we would be safe in Turkey because there is no war here. But we are fleeing homophobic and transphobic attacks, and we face them here.”

The U.N.H.C.R. assigns refugees to small towns in Turkey, where they are expected to stay as long as they are in the country; the Turkish authorities require them to check in weekly in their assigned town. Far from the thriving queer scene in Istanbul, small towns and cities in Turkey tend to be socially conservative, and have grown only more so during the country’s recent political crackdown. Ali told me that, during the first ten days of June, five L.G.B.T. refugees were attacked in Yalova, a small coastal city on the Sea of Marmara where many of Istanbul’s secular élite historically kept summer homes. One of the victims, a trans woman, had to be hospitalized for three days following a stabbing. This is not unusual, Ali said: “People are beaten up, raped, gang-raped.”

The hopelessness is its own kind of violence, too. “We have seen people commit suicide, go into severe depression,” Ali said. “One lesbian single mother couldn’t get medical treatment for her small child here, and had to go back to Iran for it. She committed suicide there.”

Earlier this month, a number of the L.G.B.T. refugees gathered to try to figure out what to do. “After losing hope for U.S. resettlement, we see that there is no option ahead of us,” Ali said. “We decided to show our own desperation.” This was no small decision. Under the provisions of the state of emergency that has been in effect in Turkey for nearly two years, protest is effectively banned. Refugees have every reason to fear being deported if they protest.

Such was their despair, however, that, on June 4th, several of the refugees went to the offices of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, a Turkish organization that is largely funded by the European Union, in two cities—Yalova and Denizli—and stood in silent protest. They held placards with summaries of their stories (“Gay refugee. 5 years. 60 months. 240 weeks. 1680 days. Still in Turkey. Future: uncertain!!!”) and slogans (“We demand urgent resettlement of all LGBT refugees to a safe country!!”). More than two hundred of the refugees also signed a petition addressed to European, North American, and international officials. The online version of the petition is titled “Save LGBT refugees in Turkey who are abandoned in unsafe conditions for years with no help.”

For all the courage the protest took, it received no media coverage. A few days later, Ali reached out to me. “We are requesting the world to help us reach to safety before its too late,” he wrote.

Cartoon Censorship — Samantha Michaels on the firing of Rob Rogers.

On Thursday, veteran editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers was abruptly fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a string of anti-Trump illustrations were spiked from the newspaper.

Rogers, who joined the Post-Gazette in 1993, says 19 cartoons or proposed drawings were killed by the paper over a three-month period, including six in a single week shortly before he was fired. “After so many years of punch lines and caricatures, skewering mayors and mullahs, the new regime at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decided that The Donald trumped satire when it came to its editorial pages,” he wrote in an op-ed on Friday.

The Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block—who boasted about joining Donald Trump on his private jet at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign—defended the decision. “It has little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump,” he told the Washington Post. “It has mostly to do with working together and the editing process.”

Below are some of Rogers’ recent cartoons going after some of Trump’s most divisive and disturbing actions as president. “The paper may have taken an eraser to my cartoons,” Rogers wrote in the op-ed. “But I plan to be at my drawing table every day of this presidency.”

Full disclosure: I went to high school with John Robinson Block and his twin brother in Toledo in the late 1960’s.  His family has been running The Blade, and now they have the Post-Gazette.  (They’re probably still running “Mary Worth” on the comics page.)  They’ve always been stuffy old bores with no sense of humor or an appreciation for sharp wit.  It surprises me not at all that he would fire a cartoonist, and I’m not surprised at all that he’s a shill for Trump.

Doonesbury — She’s a natural.

Friday, January 12, 2018

You Said It

Since no one who has been following the news for the last couple of years was surprised in the least that Trump called Haiti and El Salvador and other places with a majority of non-white citizens “shithole countries,” the fun part was watching TV or reading online and finding out which commentators or journals would actually use the word “shithole” on the air or in print.

The Washington Post, which broke the story, shocked some readers by putting the vulgar word in its headline — a rare occurrence in the paper’s 141-year history.

“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

Such a comment made by the president, especially in front of several witnesses, is newsworthy, no matter how reprehensible it may be, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer who writes a language column in The Wall Street Journal.

“It was incumbent on media outlets to present what he said without extradition or euphemization,” he said.

That’s exactly what many of them did. In an unusual move, the word “shithole” was repeated in print and on air Thursday evening, in capital letters on the CNN and MSNBC headlines that appear on the lower part of the screen. Fox News censored the word with asterisks.

Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News warned viewers that the story would not be appropriate for younger viewers, while ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir said the president used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”

But CNN’s Phil Mudd embraced the expletive in condemning the president’s language, citing his Irish and Italian ancestry and the slurs once used against immigrants from those countries.

“I’m a proud shitholer!” he told Situation Room anchor Wolf Blitzer. “In the 1940s, we called people traitors because they came from a shithole country we call Japan. And we’re ashamed.”

For those who write dictionaries, the repetition of “shithole” on television and on the Internet was “the sort of thing we call a party,” wrote Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam Webster.

You could actually see that the network news broadcasters were getting a bit of adolescent glee out of being able to say the word on the air without fear of reprisal from the FCC; it’s like they’re actually enjoying it.  (The folks on cable TV did too, but they don’t have to worry about government oversight.  They just had fun with it.)

As for the newspapers, even the New York Times, ever the Aunt Pittypat of decorum, allowed the word to be used full-tilt in the body of the story but kept it out of their headlines.  Oh my stars and garters.  (The New York Daily News didn’t use the exact word in their headline, but a picture is worth a thousand asterisks.)

It’s also fun to see how quickly he blew up all the carefully choreographed message from the White House that he was both in control and a stable genius.  The mad scramble came from people checking their betting slips on how soon he would do something to torpedo that meme: who had under 24, 48, or 72 hours?  (Meanwhile, Eric Greitens, the governor of Missouri, is sending a box of candy and a dozen roses to the White House for knocking his sex scandal into the “In Other News” abyss.)

Since it’s not a news flash that Trump is a bigot and a racist, the only thing left now is gauging the reaction to the fact that even his staunchest supporters can’t hide behind the dog whistles that he’s been hardly using since long before he emerged as a presidential candidate. He was sued for racial discrimination in housing in the 1970’s, so it’s not like we didn’t know.  Now we get to see how all the Trumpistas, especially the ones who railed about character counting during the Clinton years, explain to the rest of us that labeling entire nations as shitholes is “shocking” without alienating the base of the voters who agree wholeheartedly with him.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doonesbury — A huge compliment.

Monday, November 27, 2017

They Did Nazi That Coming

Imagine the surprise at the New York Times when they got a huge backlash to their Saturday story about the nice polite vegan “Big Bang Theory”-loving Nazis in Ohio.

A profile in The Times of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer in Ohio, elicited a huge amount of feedback this weekend, most of it sharply critical. Here’s how the piece came about, why we wrote it and why we think it was important to do so.

The genesis of the story was the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August, the terrifying Ku Klux Klan-like images of young white men carrying tiki torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and the subsequent violence that included the killing of a woman, Heather D. Heyer.

Basically they thought it would be a good story to put a human face on them.

Whatever our goal, a lot of readers found the story offensive, with many seizing on the idea we were normalizing neo-Nazi views and behavior. “How to normalize Nazis 101!” one reader wrote on Twitter. “I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,” wrote another. “Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups – should Never have been printed!”

Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.

We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.

We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear.

Good.  Now stop trying to make these people sound like regular, normal Americans.  They’re not, and we spent trillions of dollars and countless lives trying to eradicate this mindset 75 years ago.

We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.

Why do we need to shed more light on the extreme corners of America when we have a president who got into office by turning over those rocks and bringing them out into the sunshine?

To quote the pithy motto of the ADL and just about every decent person who values life and liberty, “Never again.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Beatings Will Continue

Peter Baker in the New York Times wonders where the outrage is.

After six months in office, Mr. Trump has crossed so many lines, discarded so many conventions, said and done so many things that other presidents would not have, that he has radically shifted the understanding of what is standard in the White House. He has moved the bar for outrage. He has a taste for provocation and relishes challenging Washington taboos. If the propriety police tut tut, he shows no sign of concern.

“His tweet is bizarre and unprecedented,” said James A. Thurber, the founder and former director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. And yet, “he has made so many outlandish statements, Americans seem to be immune to this latest call for investigating Hillary.”

[…]

By now, it takes more to shock. After all, this is a president who refused to release his tax returns or divest from his private businesses, who put his son-in-law and daughter on the White House staff, who accused his predecessor of illegally tapping his phones without proof, who fired the F.B.I. director leading an investigation into the president’s associates and who has now undercut his “beleaguered” attorney general in public. When he talked politics, jabbed the news media and told stories about Manhattan cocktail parties before tens of thousands of children at the nonpartisan National Scout Jamboree here in West Virginia on Monday, it was hardly surprising.

This kind of behavior will continue as long as there are those who enable, excuse, and treat him as if he and his id-driven antics are normal or acceptable.  It has nothing to do with decorum or manners or protocol; it’s dangerous and has the potential for body counts.

I understand why the Republicans on Capitol Hill are willing to go along; they’re happy to have someone else take the spotlight so they can get out of it whatever is in it for them.  They don’t and won’t care what he does as long as it doesn’t threaten their chances for re-election.  Of course when it does, they’ll blame it on him instead of their own toadyism.

But as long as he is treated as normal or, Dog forbid, “presidential” by the news media, including those who should know better or those who fear for their livelihood (“This is NPR”), it will continue.  Expecting him to change is a lost cause, but at least they can make the effort to try to raise the hue and cry and get him away from the levers of power and a Twitter account.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Legacy of Lies — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Sean Spicer’s record at the White House podium.

Sean Spicer’s resignation, on Friday morning, after six months of routinely lying from the White House lectern and then ending on-camera briefings altogether, once again raises one of the most important questions of the Trump era: What is the red line that Trump must cross for his aides to quit on principle? For Spicer, the answer was a new boss he didn’t like. Trump, over the objections of Spicer and Spicer’s closest White House ally, Reince Priebus, the President’s chief of staff, hired Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and frequent Trump surrogate on TV, as his new White House communications director.

The hire is unusual for several reasons. The role of communications director, a job that has been vacant since May, when Michael Dubke, a low-key Republican strategist, resigned from the position, is traditionally reserved for campaign operatives. Scaramucci is a Wall Street guy—he started at Goldman Sachs and later founded his own investment firms—and a former host on the Fox Business channel. Before the Trump campaign, his experience in politics was more on the fund-raising side than on the strategy side. In the Trump campaign, which was small, he took on a broader role as an adviser to the candidate and appeared frequently on TV, where he stood out because he was less ideological than the usual pro-Trump pundits.

More unusual is the way Scaramucci was hired. In a normal White House, the chief of staff is in charge of hiring. For the President to overrule his chief of staff on such an important position is an enormous embarrassment for Priebus. During a briefing on Friday afternoon, Scaramucci tried to downplay the friction between him and Priebus, but for months he has been telling people of his frustrations with the chief of staff. Scaramucci was originally asked to run the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, but Priebus blocked Scaramucci from taking the job, even after Scaramucci sold his investment firm to take it.

Scaramucci then appealed directly to Trump to find him another position. He had three meetings scheduled with the President, and they were all cancelled. Scaramucci believed that Priebus, who is in charge of Trump’s schedule, worked to keep him away from Trump. Scaramucci “had to go over the top and directly to the President,” a source familiar with the episode said. “The problem is that Trump is in such a bubble now, he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.” Scaramucci was offered the ambassadorship to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Europe.

If Priebus thought he had rid the White House of Scaramucci, he was wrong. In recent weeks, Scaramucci was a familiar figure at the Trump Hotel in Washington, meeting with reporters and Trump advisers. Ostensibly, he was there because he was working as an official at the D.C.-based Export-Import Bank. But, clearly, something else was in the works.

For Spicer, Trump’s decision to install Scaramucci above him—the press secretary reports to the communications director—was too much to take. Given the highs and lows of Spicer’s time at the White House, this was an unusual choice of hills to die on. Spicer began his tenure as press secretary with a bizarre rant about how Trump’s Inauguration audience “was the largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration, period.” (It wasn’t.) For someone who was never fully inside the Trump circle of trust, the performance had the ring of an eager gang initiate committing a crime to please the boss. Trump, who regularly watched the briefings, which were broadcast live on cable news, reportedly complained about Spicer’s pale suits and later seemed to become aggravated that Spicer was becoming famous, or at least infamous. Spicer’s temper tantrums, ill-fitting suits, and mispronunciations turned him into a pop-culture sensation.

But it was Spicer’s lies and defense of lies that he will be remembered for. Spicer defended Trump’s lie about how there were three million fraudulent votes in the 2016 election. He spent weeks using shifting stories to defend Trump’s lie about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. In trying to explain the urgency of the attack on Syria, Spicer explained, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Last week, he lied about the nature of the meeting at Trump Tower in June, 2016, between senior Trump-campaign officials and several people claiming to have information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. “There was nothing, as far as we know, that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for discussion about adoption,” Spicer claimed, bizarrely, because Donald Trump, Jr., had already admitted that the meeting was about Russian dirt on Clinton. On March 10th, Spicer came to the lectern wearing an upside-down American flag, which is a signal of dire distress.

Despite the repeated humiliations of standing before reporters and saying things he had to know were untrue, what finally made working at the White House intolerable for Spicer was a minor staffing issue. Scaramucci comes to his new job with a good reputation. He is not a conservative ideologue—he is pro-choice, a moderate on gun control, and anti-death penalty—and he is well-liked by reporters. But working for Trump can have a corrosive effect on good people. Scaramucci’s task is to, without sacrificing his own reputation, communicate on behalf of a President who routinely lies. Scaramucci has his work cut out for him.

Saving Planned Parenthood — Becca Andrews in Mother Jones on how an obscure Senate rule may have saved Planned Parenthood.

Planed Parenthood received good news late Friday afternoon: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough released a determination that says certain provisions in the Republican’s latest Obamacare replacement bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA),” violate the 1985 Byrd Rule. That means some of the bill’s provisions—including the one to defund Planned Parenthood for one year—cannot pass without a full 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans currently only hold 52 of the Senate’s seats.

The Byrd Rule, named after Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, states that any legislation that directly affects the federal budget by decreasing spending or increasing revenue can be passed through reconciliation, the process that Republicans are using to try and pass their latest health care law. But some of the bill’s provisions don’t appear to qualify: As my colleague Kevin Drum points out, the provision that would prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds probably “doesn’t pass muster because it doesn’t affect total spending, only where money can be spent.” “This means that, should the Senate proceed to the bill, these provisions may be struck from the legislation absent 60 votes,” the parliamentarian’s decision explains.

“Targeting Planned Parenthood because we provide abortion is an obvious violation of the Byrd Rule because the provision’s primary intent is clearly political, and the budgetary impact is ‘merely incidental’ to that purpose,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Other casualties of the bill include the replacement to Obamacare’s individual mandate, which under the BCRA would have meant that anyone who had a lapse in coverage for more than a month and then signed up on the exchange would have had to wait six months for full coverage to take effect. The parliamentarian also stated that the measure in the BCRA to restrict federal tax credits from being used for abortion violates the Byrd Rule.

It’s possible that Republicans will try to overturn the parliamentarian’s decision, but doing so would violate decades of precedent in the Senate.

Sky Faerie — Clay Routledge in the New York Times on defining religion.

Are Americans becoming less religious? It depends on what you mean by “religious.”

Polls certainly indicate a decline in religious affiliation, practice and belief. Just a couple of decades ago, about 95 percent of Americans reported belonging to a religious group. This number is now around 75 percent. And far fewer are actively religious: The percentage of regular churchgoers may be as low as 15 to 20 percent. As for religious belief, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.

Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt the death of religion, or at least the death of what you might call the “religious mind” — our concern with existential questions and our search for meaning. A growing body of research suggests that the evidence for a decline in traditional religious belief, identity and practice does not reflect a decline in this underlying spiritual inclination.

Ask yourself: Why are people religious to begin with? One view is that religion is an ancient way of understanding and organizing the world that persists largely because societies pass it down from generation to generation. This view is related to the idea that the rise of science entails the fall of religion. It also assumes that the strength of religion is best measured by how much doctrine people accept and how observant they are.

This view, however, does not capture the fundamental nature of the religious mind — our awareness of, and need to reckon with, the transience and fragility of our existence, and how small and unimportant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. In short: our quest for significance.

Dozens of studies show a strong link between religiosity and existential concerns about death and meaning. For example, when research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind or challenge a sense of meaning in life, they exhibit increased religiosity and interest in religious or spiritual ideas. Another body of research shows that religious beliefs provide and protect meaning.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?

 Doonesbury — House hunt.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Reading

“The Meddlesome Priest” — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on the White House’s conundrum on how to deal with James Comey.

“Should I take one of the killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news—should I do that?” Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. It didn’t matter which correspondent he called on. Every one of them wanted to ask about the same thing: the testimony that the former F.B.I. director James Comey had given on Thursday. “Go ahead, Jon,” he said, gesturing toward Jonathan Karl, of ABC News. Since he took office, the President’s personality hasn’t changed much, but his King Lear tendency is deepening. Before Karl could ask his question, Trump started musing aloud. “Be fair, Jon,” he said. “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”

“Always fair, Mr. President,” Karl said, and then he asked Trump about Comey, who had testified under oath that the President had spoken to him about the Bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, and had urged him to “let this go.” Karl wanted to know whether Trump agreed with Comey’s account of their conversation. “I didn’t say that,” Trump said. So had Comey lied? “There’d be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody I’ve read today, but I did not say that,” Trump said. This muddied his defense. If he hadn’t tried to get Comey to squash the investigation, why mention that it wouldn’t have been a big deal if he had?

Karl pressed on. Comey had also testified that, at a private dinner in January, Trump had asked for his personal loyalty. Trump said that this was not true either. Karl asked if the President would be willing to testify under oath to this. “One hundred per cent,” Trump said. And that gave the situation a useful clarity: either Comey was lying or Trump was. The President started gesticulating. “I hardly know the man,” he said. “Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense.”

In the wake of Thursday’s testimony, the White House is going after Comey, trying to neutralize the threat that his words pose. But the attacks have been convoluted. It has been clear since Trump fired Comey that the former F.B.I. director would have a central and threatening role in the theatre of this Presidency, yet neither Trump nor his advisers and allies seem to have figured out what to say about him.

On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway filibustered her way through an interview on Fox News, insisting that, while Washington was in a tizzy over Comey, the White House was diligently working on policy. She was evidently the good cop. The bad cop was Corey Lewandowski, apparently back in Trump’s good graces, dispatched to the morning shows on Friday to explain that Comey was part of “the deep state” that is out to humiliate Trump. In a tweet, Trump called Comey a “leaker.” Later, at the press conference, Trump described him as both a liar and a tool of Democratic Party. “That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election they shouldn’t have lost,” Trump said.

Comey’s advantage over the President is that he paid close attention during their conversations, wrote down his impressions immediately after the conversations took place, and then shared these notes with others. Comey noticed the way that the President asked the Vice-President, the Attorney General, and his own son-in-law to leave the room before talking to him about the Flynn investigation. Comey noticed when the President was trying to hug him and when he was putting his future as F.B.I. director in question. He noticed the exact words that the President used when he tried to goad him to “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” He noticed the grandfather clock in the Oval Office, and the Navy stewards, and the time Trump called his cell phone when he was getting into a helicopter with the head of the D.E.A., and how he once had to return a call from the President through the White House switchboard.

Comey is hard to miss—six feet eight, with popped marionette eyes. But it seems that the White House never really got a good look at him. Was he a Democratic partisan, or an agent of the deep state, or the star of some self-aggrandizing melodrama (a “showboat,” the President told NBC’s Lester Holt a few weeks ago, and a “grandstander”)? Maybe if Trump had noticed the awkwardness with which (if we believe Comey’s account) the F.B.I. director ducked out of a hug, or the belabored way in which he avoided pledging his loyalty, Trump would have realized sooner that Comey was not his friend, and not part of his cadre. And perhaps his aides would have a clearer way of describing the man they are now trying to impugn.

At the press conference on Friday—on a bright June afternoon—Trump stood podium to podium with President Klaus Iohannis, of Romania, a muscular former physics teacher from Transylvania. The Comey-centered questions emanating from the American press corps alternated with wider-ranging queries from the travelling press.

One Romanian journalist, a young woman, asked the two Presidents whether, in their one-on-one meeting, they had talked about giving Romania access to a visa-waiver program. “We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said, and then, after saying he’d be open to accommodating Romania, gestured over to Iohannis.

“I mentioned this,” the Romanian President said, perhaps trying to be politic. To his left, Trump just nodded. Had he noticed the difference?

Could Jon Ossoff Win?  — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the special election in Georgia.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped a new poll of the most expensive special congressional election in history, and it is good news for Democrat Jon Ossoff and liberals across the country who have placed inordinately high stakes on Georgia’s 6th District just six months after a Republican cruised to reelection there by 23 points. According to the AJC, Ossoff leads Republican Karen Handel by 7 points, 51 to 44, which is outside the margin of error. Another poll released Thursday showed Ossoff with a 3-point lead, 50 to 47.

The election is still 11 days away, but early voting began a week and a half ago and is proceeding at a rapid clip that is almost on par with the early-voting turnout of the 2016 presidential election.

An Ossoff win wouldn’t make much of a dent in the Republican majority in the House, and after raising $23 million (a record for a House candidate who is not self-funding), he’d likely to have to raise a ton of money again as a top Republican target in 18 months. But Democrats have latched onto the seat, previously held by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (and, years earlier, Newt Gingrich), as a way to make a major statement months into President Donald Trump’s term. Hillary Clinton nearly carried the district during her presidential campaign, and the Democrats’ strategy for retaking the House hinges on replicating that success—not just in Georgia’s 6th but in similar affluent suburban districts in California, Kansas, Texas, and elsewhere. An Ossoff win would be a strong signal that they can, and it would hand an energized grassroots a badly needed breakthrough.

Republican criticism of Ossoff has mostly focused on personal issues, such as his youth, his support from national Democrats, a brief stint making documentaries for Al Jazeera, and, bizarrely, a video of a college-age Ossoff dressed as Han Solo. To the disappointment of some on the party’s left flank, Ossoff has run openly as a moderate; he told reporters recently that he opposed a single-payer health care plan (which is fast becoming the party’s new standard) and in a historically conservative district has focused on issues like cutting government waste and promoting the tech industry.

But one big progressive plank he has adopted—support for a living wage—produced one of the campaign’s signature moments. At a debate on Monday, Ossoff and Handel were asked if they supported raising the minimum wage to a “livable wage.” (The questioner did not specify an amount, but the most common figure thrown out by proponents is $15 an hour.) Ossoff said yes. Handel very much did not.

“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative: I do not support a livable wage,” she said. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”

Meanwhile, Democrats seem encouraged enough by Ossoff’s performance in the suburbs north of Atlanta to have recently added another suburban Georgia seat to their target list next year: the 7th District, currently represented by Republican Rob Woodall. This week, Woodall got his first Democratic opponent.

Policies?  What Policies? — Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on what Trump isn’t going to be doing.

It’s “Infrastructure Week” at the White House. Theoretically.

On Monday, the administration announced a plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure and overhaul U.S. air traffic control. There was a high-profile signing in the East Wing before dozens of cheering lawmakers and industry titans. It was supposed to be the beginning of a weeklong push to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports.

But in the next two days, Trump spent more energy burning metaphorical bridges than trying to build literal ones. He could have stayed on message for several hours, gathered Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan agreement, and announced a timeframe. Instead he quickly turned his attention to Twitter to accuse media companies of “Fake News” while undermining an alliance with Qatar based on what may be, fittingly, a fake news story.

It’s a microcosm of this administration’s approach to public policy. A high-profile announcement, coupled with an ambitious promise, subsumed by an unrelated, self-inflicted public-relations crisis, followed by … nothing.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

Consider the purported focus of this week. An infrastructure plan ought to include actual proposals, like revenue-and-spending details and timetables. The Trump infrastructure plan has little of that. Even the president’s speech on Monday was devoid of specifics. (An actual line was: “We have studied numerous countries, one in particular, they have a very, very good system; ours is going to top it by a lot.”) The ceremonial signing on Monday was pure theater. The president, flanked by politicians and businesspeople smiling before the twinkling of camera flashes, signed a paper that merely asks Congress to work on a bill. An assistant could have done that via email. Meanwhile, Congress isn’t working on infrastructure at all, according to Politico, and Republicans have shown no interest in a $200 billion spending bill.

In short, this “plan” is not a plan, so much as a Potemkin policy, a presentation devised to show the press and the public that the president has an economic agenda. The show continued on Wednesday, as the president delivered an infrastructure speech in Cincinnati that criticized Obamacare, hailed his Middle East trip, and offered no new details on how his plan would work. Infrastructure Week is a series of scheduled performances to make it look as if the president is hard at work on a domestic agenda that cannot move forward because it does not exist.

Journalists are beginning to catch on. The administration’s policy drought has so far been obscured by a formulaic bait-and-switch strategy one could call the Two-Week Two-Step. Bloomberg has compiled several examples of the president promising major proposals or decisions on everything from climate-change policy to infrastructure “in two weeks.” He has missed the fortnight deadline almost every time.

The starkest false promise has been taxes. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks,” Trump said of tax reform in early February. Eleven weeks later, in late April, the White House finally released a tax proposal. It was hardly one page long.

Arriving nine weeks late, the document was so vague that tax analysts marveled that they couldn’t even say how it would work. Even its authors are confused: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly declined to say whether the plan will cut taxes on the rich, even though cutting taxes on the rich is ostensibly the centerpiece. Perhaps it’s because he needs more help: None of the key positions for making domestic tax policy have been filled. There is no assistant secretary for tax policy, nor deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, according to the Treasury Department.

Once again, the simplest summary of White House tax policy is: There is no plan. There isn’t even a complete staff to compose one.

The story is slightly different for the White House budget, but no more favorable. The budget suffers, not from a lack of details, but from a failure of numeracy that speaks to the administration’s indifference toward serious public policy. The authors double-counted a projected benefit from higher GDP growth, leading to $2 trillion math error, perhaps the largest ever in a White House proposal. The plan included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the estate tax, which appears to be another mistake, since the White House has separately proposed eliminating it.

Does the president’s budget represent what the president’s policies will be? It should, after all. But asked this very question, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made perhaps the strangest claim of all: “I wouldn’t take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are,” he said.

This haphazard approach extends to the repeal of Obamacare, which may yet pass the Senate, but with little help or guidance from the president. Trump has allowed House Speaker Paul Ryan to steer the Obamacare-replacement bill, even though it violates the president’s campaign promises to expand coverage and protect Medicaid. After its surprising passage in the House, he directly undercut it on Twitter by suggesting he wants to raise federal health spending. Even on the most basic question of health-care policy—should spending go up, or down?—the president’s Twitter account and his favored law are irreconcilable. A law cannot raise and slash health care funding at the same time. The Trump health care plan does not exist.

It would be a mistake to call this a policy-free presidency. Trump has signed several executive orders undoing Obama-era regulations, removing environmental protections, and banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He has challenged NATO and pulled out of the Paris Accords. But these accomplishments all have one thing in common: Trump was able to do them alone. Signing executive orders and making a speech don’t require the participation of anybody in government except for the president.

It’s no surprise that a former chief executive of a private company would be more familiar with the presumption of omnipotence than the reality of divided powers. As the head of his own organization, Trump could make unilateral orders that subordinates would have to follow. But passing a law requires tireless persuasion and the cooperation of hundreds of representatives in the House and Senate who cannot be fired for insubordination. Being the president of the United States is nothing like being a CEO, especially not one of an eponymous family company.

Republicans in the House and Senate don’t need the president’s permission to write laws, either. Still, they too have struggled to get anything done. Several GOP senators say they may not repeal Obamacare this year—or ever. It is as if, after seven years of protesting Obamacare, the party lost the muscle memory to publicly defend and enact legislation.

In this respect, Trump and his party are alike—united in their antagonism toward Obama-era policies and united in their inability to articulate what should come next. Republicans are trapped by campaign promises that they cannot fulfill. The White House is trapped inside of the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of economic promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation. With an administration that uses public policy as little more than a photo op, get ready for many sequels to this summer’s Infrastructure Week.

 Doonesbury — Despatches.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Stop The Presses

Included in the story about Trump trying to get James Comey to put the kibosh on the Flynn investigation is this little nugget of suppression.  Via TPM:

Trump suggested to ousted FBI Director James Comey that journalists who publish classified information should be jailed, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

The Times, citing unnamed associates of Comey’s describing memos he kept recording his meetings with Trump, reported the discussion came in a meeting on Feb. 14.

Alone in the Oval Office, the Times reported, Trump asked Comey to end the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, who Trump had a day earlier fired as his National Security Adviser.

The Times also reported that “Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.”

There’s a little thing called a “court of law” and a “trial” that come between an accusation and prison.  But something as trivial as the rule of law is clearly not something Trump is concerned about.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Now They’re Going After The First Amendment

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC’s Jonathan Karl that it would be a good idea to abolish or amend the First Amendment because the press is being mean to Trump.

I’m not kidding.

KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?

PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—

KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?

PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.

KARL: I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. It’s about whether or not the President should have a right to sue them.

PRIEBUS: And I already answered the question. I said this is something that is being looked at. But it’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue. [Emphasis added.]

These bastards should be impeached and thrown out of office just for saying it out loud.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Don’t You Love Me?

There’s been a lot of unpacking of Trump’s AP interview that was posted last weekend, but this part, highlighted and emphasis added by Josh Marshall at TPM, is both pathetic and scary.

TRUMP: You have to love people. And if you love people, such a big responsibility. (unintelligible) You can take any single thing, including even taxes. I mean we’re going to be doing major tax reform. Here’s part of your story, it’s going to be a big (unintelligible). Everybody’s saying, “Oh, he’s delaying.” I’m not delaying anything. I’ll tell you the other thing is (unintelligible). I used to get great press. I get the worst press. I get such dishonest reporting with the media. That’s another thing that really has — I’ve never had anything like it before. It happened during the primaries, and I said, you know, when I won, I said, “Well the one thing good is now I’ll get good press.” And it got worse. (unintelligible) So that was one thing that a little bit of a surprise to me. I thought the press would become better, and it actually, in my opinion, got more nasty.

You would have to be the world’s biggest ignoramus not to know that just being president means that you’re going to be attacked in the press.  It is as much a part of the deal as the big airplane and the Secret Service.  Did he honestly think that any of his predecessors automatically got good press just because they won?  Really?  Name one.

He sounds like a petulant and spoiled child, which, regardless of the job he holds, is sad and pathetic in a grown man of 70.

It’s scary because the presidency is not there to make you happy, and we have seen what people with thin skins have done when they also have a lot of power at their ready.  They lash out, and when they do, there are body counts.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Cracking Under Pressure

It’s not a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but you can get an idea of how things are going at the White House by how they deal with the press.  Based on this exchange, I’d say things aren’t going too well inside the West Wing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer finally seemed to reach a breaking point Tuesday when it comes to questions about President Trump and Russia.

Spicer got testy in an exchange with American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan after Ryan announced a premise that Spicer disagreed with: that the White House has a Russia issue to deal with. By the end, Spicer accused Ryan of pushing her own agenda and even instructed her not to shake her head at him.

“No, we don’t have that,” Spicer said when Ryan cited the White House’s Russia issue. When Ryan continued with her question, he cut in again: “No, no. I get it. But I’ve said it from the day that I got here until whenever that there’s not a connection. You’ve got Russia.”

Spicer then offered this zinger: “If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.”

When Ryan tried again to ask her question, Spicer said, “I appreciate your agenda here. … At some point, report the facts.”

Spicer pointed to those who have said there is no proof of collusion between Russia and the Trump team — which is true but is only a part of the inquiries and is still being investigated by the FBI. He added, “I’m sorry that that disgusts you. You’re shaking your head.”

Spicer then told Ryan that she was “going to have to take no for an answer” when it came to the idea of collusion with Russia.

Ryan moved on, asking about former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the White House and the fact that she wasn’t a Trump supporter. But Spicer again took issue.

“It seems like you’re hellbent on trying to make sure that whatever image you want to tell about this White House stays,” Spicer said.

After some more back-and-forth, Spicer again spotted Ryan shaking her head and told her, “Please, stop shaking your head again.”

What are the chances that Spicer would have treated a white male like that?  Somewhere between “hell” and “no.”

Melissa McCarthy will probably be doing another cold opening for SNL this week.