Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Well and Truly Boggled, Part 1

My mind is well and truly boggled.  "Flying circus" doesn't even begin to do justice to it.  Look, I hate Donald Trump's guts.  I think he is the most unqualified, unsuited, corrupt, incompetent, insane and many other adjectives candidate for President, ever.  And it became increasingly clear that the Russians were pulling for him.  But I never suspected that there was any complicity on his part.  I dismissed such speculations at tinfoil hat territory.  When the suspicions wouldn't go away, firmly positioned myself as one of the respectable people who didn't believe it.

And yet there were some very strange things going on.  Trump's views on every other subject might be flighty as birds, but his pro-Russian views never changed.  And he continued to deny that the Russians were behind the hacks of the Democrats' e-mails no matter how overwhelming the evidence. I could think of only two explanations.  Either he was completely delusional, or he was lying. I preferred to think that he was lying because at least it meant he had some contact with reality and wouldn't do something truly insane.  But why would he be lying?  I didn't speculate on that.  Probably I thought it was just a matter of ego, he couldn't bring himself to admit the obvious because it would tarnish his victory.  I was quite in denial myself that Trump would have an obvious motive to lie if he knew that the Russians were behind the hacks from the start and was deeply complicit.

So let's start off with what we do know.

Beyond any doubt someone was hacking the Democratic National Committee and later John Podesta, chairman of Hillary's campaign.  The experts were unanimous in saying it was the Russians, not only the intelligence agencies which might be vulnerable to political pressure by Obama, but independent outsiders as well.

Yet Trump kept insisting in the face of all evidence that no one knew who was behind the hacks, that it could be anyone and there was no proof that it was Russia.  Even though he received regular intelligence briefings presenting him with the evidence, he continued to deny that there was any proof who was behind the hack.  Yes, it could be a delusion impervious to all evidence.  Or it could be a lie told out of egotistical unwillingness to admit the truth.  Or it could be a lie born out of complicit.  And let's admit it.  That last best explains his refusal to allow any amount of evidence to sway him.

The hacked material kept showing up on Wikileaks.  Initially, one could wonder if Russia was the source.  But as the time lag between Russian hacks and Wikileaks publication got shorter and shorter, it became harder and harder to dispute the source.  And Julian Assange of Wikileaks openly said that he was acting to harm Hillary.  Whether Wikileaks was in the tank for the Russians, the Russians continued to feed Wikileaks damaging material on Hillary Clinton and Wikileaks continued to publish.  Clearly Assange's actions pleased the Russians or they would not have continued to feed him information.  And give Trump's pro-Russian orientation, it should hardly be surprising that the Russians were eager to see him win.  But none of this is evidence of complicity.

What evidence is there of complicity?  Well, there is Trump's relentlessly pro-Russia approach to foreign policy.  While other Republicans may favor the policy that has been called omnidirectional belligerence, Trump appears to favor belligerence in all directions but one --Russia.  But that is not proof of complicity in the Russian hacks.  It might just mean that the Russians liked what they saw and decided to support him.  What other evidence is there?

It has been frequently noted that the Trump campaign and the Russians often show considerable similarity in messaging, such as both calling the investigation of the hacks a "witch hunt" aimed at delegitimizing Trump, both blaming the Democrats for not having better cyber security, and so forth. But that is not necessarily evidence of secret collusion.  It may just mean that ideological kindred think alike.  Or they could be quoting each other's open utterances.

Rather more suspicious was when the Trump campaign began repeating a specific Russian error.  What happened was this.  On October 21, 2015, Newsweek columnist Kurt Eichenwald wrote an extremely long column condemning the Benghazi investigations as no more than a partisan witch hunt designed to thwart Hillary Clinton's anticipated run for President.*  The column, though overwhelmingly addressed to denouncing the Republicans, does concede them one point:
One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.
 When the Russians hacked John Podesta's e-mails, they found one in which Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal attached a copy of that Newsweek article.  He may have quoted the article in the body of the e-mail as well.  (Not having seen the material leaked, I do not know).  Sputnik, the Russian news agency, ran a story attributing the above quote as an acknowledgement by Blumenthal himself.  Trump offered the Sputnik story within hours.  Of course, that doesn't necessarily prove any more than that the Trump campaign closely followed Sputnik, or at least were in contact with people who closely followed Sputnik.

And then there was Trump adviser Roger Stone, who on August 21, 2016 tweeted, "Trust me, it will soon the Podesta's time in the barrel."  And, indeed, when Wikileaks started publishing Podesta e-mails in October, this looked remarkably as though he had an inside tip.  And, in fact, Stone admitted  back channel contacts with Wikileaks, although he did not admit to any contacts with Russia, or to any contacts by Trump.

In short, you have a set of suggestive circumstances, but no clear evidence of complicity between Trump and Russia.  So I was prepared to dismiss this as Russia helping a favorable candidate, but without any active participation on his part.  But the latest revelation, together with Trump's remarkably persistent refusal to acknowledge Russia's obvious role in the hack and his unswervingly pro-Russian policies have changed my mind.  I now believe it most likely that we have elected a President who really is a Russian spy.

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*It was from the Benghazi investigations that it was discovered that Hillary Clinton sent State Department e-mails on a private server and this was amplified into the worst crime committed by any political leader in the entire history of our Republic.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Give 'Em Hell, Chuckie

Many Democrats were alarmed when Harry Reid stepped down and Senate Minority Leader and handed the office over to Chuck Schumer.  They feared that Schumer didn't have the combative spirit of old Give 'Em Hell Harry.

Well, guess what.  Reid wasn't always Give 'Em Hell, Harry either.  When Democrats first retook the Senate and the House, they started with the common division of labor, the feisty, chomping-at-the-bit House with its grand plans and the more restrained Senate.  These were led, respectively by Nancy Pelosi, the liberal crusader, and Harry Reid, the moderate.  But a funny thing happened.  As the Republicans were endlessly combative, Harry Reid saw little choice but to retaliate in kind.  And so he became a notably feisty and combative character.

Now Schumer is in the same position, and he seems to be a quick study.  When the Republicans attempted to rush through Trump appointees without adequate vetting he tweeted the letter Republican leader Mitch McConnell sent at the beginning of the Obama Administration, about the importance of adequate vetting.  Just crossed out Harry Reid and wrote in Mitch McConnell.

Give 'em hell, Chuckie!

Here We Go Again

This election reminds me of the 2000 election, at least in the aftermath.  Not just that the winner of the Electoral College did not win the popular vote.  But both victors overcompensated in the same way.  After all, since rural areas tended to go Republican and urban areas tended to go Democrat, both Trump supporters and Bush supporters have used the electoral map to create the impression of a landslide where none existed.  Both times we were assured that Authentic Real Americans in the Heartland voted for the Republican and only a handful of Out of Touch Liberal Elitists in coastal enclaves voted for the Democrat.  Somehow, though, the out-of-touch elitists outnumbered the Authentic Real Americans.  Every attempt was made to conceal this awkward fact.

This time it goes even further.  Because journalists predicted a Clinton victory, this was taken as evidence of just how out of touch they were with Real America.  Comparison was sometimes made to Pauline Kael in 1972 who couldn't believe that Nixon would win because everyone she knew was voting for McGovern.

Look, Nixon won in 1972 by nearly a 2-1 margin.  He carried every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Clearly anyone who didn't foresee a Nixon win really was seriously out of touch with the country as a whole.

This time, on the other hand, the winner of the election received fewer votes than the loser, so clearly it was not out of touch with Real America to support Clinton -- unless Real Americans are outnumbered by liberal imposters.

Furthermore journalists were not just predicting a Clinton win because everyone they knew was voting for her.  They predicted a Clinton win because that was what the polls showed.  And not only did the polls show it, in the previously election Republicans had dismissed the polls as a mere artifact of liberal bias and insisted that they knew better.  The polls turned out to be right after all.  It was not unreasonable to expect the same thing to happen the next time around.

So spare us any comparisons to 1972 (the outcome, that is, underhanded behavior by the winner, maybe).  The better point of comparison is 2000, when the electoral winner was not the popular winner and kept creating the illusion of a landslide where none existed.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Donald Trump's Flying Circus, 1/8/17

The intelligence community's report on Russian hacking of the election has been pretty underwhelming, but the publicly release information on the hack leaves little doubt who was behind it.  Donald Trump responds with an obviously pre-prepared statement saying nothing.  He seems most concerned to show that the hack did not affect the election.  If by that he means that there is no evidence of tampering with vote results, that is certainly true.  As for whether the Russian hack swayed enough votes to affect the outcome, barring the invention of a time machine to re-run the election, we will never know.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are attempting to rush through many Trump appointees before the Office of Government Ethics has completed its check for conflicts of interest, and action unpresidented unprecedented since the Office was established.  And making it more egregious, Trump chose many of his appointees in such haste as not to have done any vetting on many of them.

But let's focus on what is important. At least Trump never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Few Further Thoughts

I like to imagine the following conversation taking place among the Republican caucus:
Rep A:  OK, what should we do now to cause massive outrage?
Rep B:  How soon are you talking about?
Rep A:  Immediately.  I want the whole country angry at us before we even convene.
Rep B:  We could call a press conference to introduce our legislative program.  That should do it.
Rep A:  Sure, that'll piss off the general public, but hard core libertarians will love it.  I'm looking for something that will offend absolutely everyone, regardless of party or ideology.
Rep C:  I don't see any sort of legislation that everyone would hate.  If we want to offend everybody, we would have to do something really corrupt.
Rep A:  Sure, any individual Congressman can do that, but I am thinking of something that would that would get people outraged at our entire caucus.
Rep C:  But for all of us to be corrupt, we would have to have some sort of criminal conspiracy.  That sort of thing takes too much time and too many moving parts.
Rep D:  Besides, we aren't even in session yet.  We need more time to commit even individual crimes.
Rep E:  We could take action to preemptively prevent investigation into future corrupt acts.
Rep A:  What do you have in mind?
Rep E:  I don't know, something to short circuit the investigation process.  That'll convince people we're corrupt without our actually having to do anything.
Rep A:  Great idea!  What's the best way to do that?
OK, I know that conversation didn't really take place.  But honestly, what was the Republican caucus thinking?  I can think of two possibilities.

One was they assumed that the maneuver was too obscure, too technical, too "insider baseball" for the general public to follow.  They should have known better. They were, after all, the ones who made such effective use of the "Cornhusker Kickback,"  basically a plan to extend special advantages to Nebraska to persuade Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to vote for it.  Senate Democrats assumed the agreement would be too obscure, too technical, too "insider baseball" for the general public to follow.  They were wrong.  The details may not have been entirely clear, but the basic outline -- that Democrats were offering Nebraska a special privilege as a bribe to the Nebraska Senator -- was easy to understand and reeked of corruption.  So, too, the general public may not understand the difference between the Office on Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee.  But it's easy to understand that the Republican Caucus voted to end independent oversight of Congress and to police their own instead.

The other possibility is that they figured the Trump had gotten a free pass on his outrageously corrupt behavior despite accusing Clinton of being corrupt and promising to "drain the swamp," so they assumed they would get a free pass too.  Again, they should have known better.  Donald Trump can get away with just about anything because he is Donald Trump.  If Donald Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, the Republican base would applaud him for showing those Manhattan elitists what real Americans think of them.  But no one else is Donald Trump, and they can't get away with imitating him.  Just ask Marco Rubio, who tried behaving like Donald Trump and found his prospects tanked.

At least part of the reason Trump gets away with such things is that a lot of his supporters buy into the general view of "government bad, private sector good."  Since Trump has never held an office in government before but has been part of the private sector, he must be good.  Besides, he can claim himself above temptation because he is too rich to buy.  And so when he stocks his cabinet with CEO's and Goldman Sachs types, supporters assume that, as members of the private sector, they must be good and uncorrupt too, and besides, they are also too rich to buy.  Republicans in Congress, on the other hand, have no such free pass.  They are part of the evil entity called "government" and must therefore be corrupt to start out with.  Besides, Congressional Republicans are not in the good graces of their base to begin with because they failed to remove Obama from office, or even to really humiliate him and make him crawl.  Obviously, this must be evidence that they are corrupt.  And deriding members of Congress for their corruption is a longstanding American tradition.

The good news here is that Congressional Republicans are not immune to public pressure.  They can be shamed.  The bad news is the public outrage alone quickly burns itself out.  What is needed for an effective political movement is outrage plus organization.  The Tea Party are a prime example.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Some Thoughts.

So, the new Republican Congress's first action, before they are even sworn in, is to undermine any independent ethical oversight.  This was apparently undertaken by the rank-and-file, against the advice of the leadership, who are probably imagining what the 30-second ads would look like.

OK, Democrats. if you have any political skills at all, get started on those 30-second ads.

PS:  I actually recommend following Trump's advice on security, sort of.  You need the internet to exchange e-mails with the general public.  You need it to put out your final product.  And there is really no help for using it to bring in information.  For all internal deliberations, I recommend computers with their internet access disabled, and communications by thumb drives and old-fashioned printed memos.  And yes, that will mean frequent use of couriers (as well as US mail, Fed Ex, etc).  I realize these things are vulnerable to theft, but at least the scale will be smaller and more difficult.

PS:  Primary challengers will probably run those 30 second ads, too.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Out of Control Executives and Filibusters

Look, I don't doubt that many Republicans and conservatives are sincere when they fulminate against an out-of-control executive and vow to stand forever in favor of legislative supremacy.

But they have extremely short memories.  They have forgotten when Reagan and Bush I controlled the White House and Democrats controlled Congress.  Back then Republicans favored executive power.  Or maybe they are not old enough to remember Reagan and Bush I.  But most of them are certainly old enough to remember when Bush II was in power and they held to his theory that the President could do anything, so long as he used the magic words "national security" first.

Well, Republicans may say, we still believe that.  We favor almost unlimited power for the President in foreign policy.  But in domestic policy Congress should be supreme.  Well, not exactly.  Diplomacy and treaty making is part of foreign policy, after all.  But Congress had no qualms about making diplomacy as difficult as possible for President Obama.  And internal surveillance is part of domestic policy.  But Congress seems quite willing to give the President unlimited leeway on that.

Once again, Republicans may respond that making treaties is really part of domestic policy because treaties have the force of law and are binding on internal U.S. matters.  And internal surveillance is really part of our war making power because we are at war with Islamic terrorists, so where ever Islamic terrorists are is a battlefield where the President's powers are unlimited.

Alternately, I might conclude that Republicans want the President to have unlimited power in exercising the government's daddy functions because they favor all daddy functions, but want Congress to be supreme on mommy functions in hopes that it will obstruct things so far as to make mommy functions impossible.

This is much closer to the truth, but I suspect that it wills soon transpire that Republicans like executive power a lot more even in domestic matters than they thought.  The reason, of course is the filibuster.

The way our government operates now, in order for a party to pass legislation it must control not only the White House and both houses of Congress, but also a super-majority of 60 in the Senate.  This was not always so.  There was a time when the filibuster was only rarely invoked, and only for very controversial measures.  There was a time when passing legislation by a simple majority of the Senate was not considered radical and dangerous.  Clarence Thomas, to take an obvious example, was confirmed by a vote of 52-48, an unimaginable thing today.  When Bush II took power in 2001, the Senate was split 50-50.  That meant the Vice President would vote to break a partisan tie.  But no one thought legislation was impossible as a result.

But today, with the nation split deeply divided by ideology and party and about half the country in each camp, the 60-vote threshold means that meaningful legislation will be impossible most of the time.  Because that would be catastrophic if passing a budget were impossible most of the time, the Senate has made an exception to allow budgetary matters to pass by a simple majority.  But regulatory legislation is impossible most of the time.  Republicans may be able to defund Obamacare, but Democrats will block any attempt at repealing any major regulatory legislation passed in the first two years of the Obama Administration.

So with Republicans desiring major regulatory rollbacks and Democrats able to block them (at least for now), what will they do?  It seems a safe assumption that the Trump Administration will set out to achieve its goals by administrative regulations and selective non-enforcement.  Exactly the way the Obama Administration did when regulatory legislation became impossible for it.  And doubtless there will be plenty of procedural hypocrisy on both sides.