Sunday, May 21, 2017

Meanwhile, Back on the Healthcare Front (Remember That?)

But Donald Trump's flying circus is just entertainment t most Americans; it does not directly impact our lives.  Healthcare policy, on the other hand, can have an immense impact on a lot of people.

When we last left the Obamacare repeal, House Republicans had rushed their bill to a narrow victory before its Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score was prepared, knowing that the score would be devastating and rile up public opinion against them.  The flying circus mercifully took all the oxygen out of the news cycle last week, but in the meantime it appears that Senate reconciliation rules do not allow them to accept a bill until it is scored by the CBO and shown not to increase the long-term deficit.  So the House is awaiting the score before passing the bill on to the Senate.  The CBO score is expected to come in next week and will undoubtedly be devastating in what it shows happening to people's insurance.  Worse yet, if the latest bill is estimated to increase the deficit, the House will have to modify it and pass the damn thing all over again, this time in the face of a CBO estimate showing just how many people it anticipates will either lose their health insurance or see premiums soar.  And what will happen in the Senate is anyone's guess.

But Republicans should not despair.  Even if nothing passes at all, Donald Trump appears to be well on his way toward crashing the exchanges all on his own.  His inconsistent messages to the insurance industry and sheer incom

petence is leading many of them to flee the exchanges or raise their rates. No one knows whether anything will pass Congress and, if so, what it do.  Trump has sent hopelessly confusing mixed signals about whether he intends to enforce the penalty for not having insurance, which is necessary to keep younger and healthier consumers in the mix.  He has also sent mixed signals on whether he intends to keep the cost-sharing reductions or CSR's, a system for partially paying the deductible for low-income consumers.  At one point one of his surrogates even offered to continue paying the CSR's if insurance companies would support repeal -- which would, of course, mean an end to the CSR's.

My guess would be that for many Republicans this would be, if not the ideal outcome, the best one they can realistically hope to achieve.  By crashing the exchanges and stripping 10 million people of their health insurance it will, after all, destroy half of the hated Obamacare, and in a way much less politically damaging than if they had actually passed a bill.

After all, if Congress had actually passed a bill, it would own the consequences.  Republicans have been doing their best to gloss over what all serious sources regard as the most likely outcome of their bill, and with some success.  But if the bill passes and millions lose their health insurance the next year, there will be no glossing over that.  Nor will there be any way to blame Obama since their bill, after all, passed with great fanfare.  If, on the other hand, their bill fails and then the exchanges crash, that will be easy to blame on Obama.  Republicans can always argue that they did their best to pass a bill to save the exchanges, but it failed, mostly due to resistance by those evil Democrats.  It will be a blatant lie, of course.  Their proposed bill would also strip millions of their health insurance, and Trump has been openly proclaiming his intent to sabotage the exchanges.  But Trump followers will eagerly accept this story and low-information voters will find it at least plausible.  Complete destruction of the exchanges will also prevent Democrats, should they return to power, from repairing them, and hopefully make the whole issue so toxic that Democrats will never attempt to expand health coverage again.

Of course, there will still be problems.  For one thing, crashing the exchanges won't actually repeal,sthe taxes that support them.  But once the exchanges crash, it will be easy to defend repealing a tax to fund a program that no longer exists.  It will also leave the Obamacare regulations still in place, but only the Freedom Caucus really cares about that.  

Since the regulations have not been repealed, crashing the exchanges may bring down the individual insurance market altogether.  That, I believe, is something Republicans genuinely don't want to happen, as no government is involved in the individual market off the exchanges.  But on the bright side, it will create a good argument for repealing the regulations and create more problems to blame on the Democrats.  In other words crashing the individual market, though undesirable, might be acceptable collateral damage.

Finally, crashing the exchanges won't roll back the Medicaid expansion, so about half of Obamacare will still stand.  But crashing the exchanges while leaving the Medicaid expansion in place should increase working class Trump supporters' resentment of poor people on Medicaid and increase the pressure to roll back the expansion eventually.  

So all in all, I am inclined to think that Republicans may see crashing the exchanges as optimal.

Donald Trump's Flying Circus: Westworld

During the Trump transition, Saturday Night Live had a brilliant skit that treated the whole thing as an episode of Westworld. Anderson Cooper and a team of analysts, one Trump supporters and the rest opposed,* discussed the latest Trump outrages.  The response to each successive outrage announce is the same:

"You know what, this is not normal!"
"It's unacceptable!"
"This is crazy!"
"This is where we in the media have to draw the line."
"This isn't like [the previous outrage].  Yeah, fine, whatever, who cares about that.  But this is different."
"We cannot let him off the hook this time."
TRUMP SUPPORTER:  "Um, can we just remember that most Americans voted for Trump?"
"Actually, they didn't."

These same lines (except for what "this isn't like") are repeated over and over verbatim for each successive outrage, most of them real.  The outrages named were Trump seeking security clearance for his children even though they were running his businesses (true), the entire KKK planning a parade to celebrate Trump's win (false, so far as I know), Trump proposing a Muslim registry (true, though never actually done), Trump naming Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist (true), and Trump settling a fraud lawsuit for $25 million dollars (true).  As the same script runs over and over, seeming more unreal each time, eventually Anderson Cooper has a strange sense that this has happened before.  At this point the screen freezes and some technicians show up to remove the malfunctioning unit and replace him with Jake Tapper.

 And that was just the first ten days of the transition!  And yet the same thing is still going on, only now with a line or two about whether this will be the final outrage that leads Congressional Republicans to break with him.  Congressional Republicans have developed their own Westworld script in which they tut-tut and express concern but nothing further happens.  The current joke on Twitter is "Sen. McCain just raised his threat level to 'furrowed brow,' while Sen. Graham has gone from 'concerned' to 'very concerned.'"

Consider the latest outrages from our continuing Westworld script:

Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn determined to be an unregistered Turkish agent who also took money from the Russian government.**

Donald Trump fires Mike Comey, the head of the FBI who was probing connections between Donald Trump and the Russian government.

Donald Trump admits that he fired Comey to stop the investigation.

Comey reveals that Trump asked him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn and to pledge loyalty to him personally instead of to his duties as law enforcement official.

Trump impulsively blurts out highly classified intelligence information to Russian diplomats that endangers an Israeli spy and our ongoing cooperation with Israel.

Trump bluntly tells the Russians that he fired Comey to put an end to the Russia probe.

Michael Flynn turns out to have persuaded the US government to change its military plans to please his Turkish patrons.  Oh, yes, and it turns out the transition team knew he was in the pay of the Turkish government when they hired him as National Security Adviser.

And Congressional Republicans are still saying:
"You know what, this is not normal!"
"It's unacceptable!"
"This is crazy!"
"This is where we in the media Congress have to draw the line."
"This isn't like [the previous outrage].  Yeah, fine, whatever, who cares about that.  But this is different."
"We cannot let him off the hook this time."
Lather, rinse repeat.

But then again, on the bright side, at least he hasn't shot anyone in the middle of Fifth Avenue (yet). Not that I would expect the reaction to be any different if he did.

And, in all fairness to Trump, at least he never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.  We have to focus on what is truly important, after all.
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*I don't follow the talking heads well enough to recognize all of them, but they are all real people.
**Agent in this case does not mean spy.  It means a paid lobbyist for a foreign government.  So long as such agents register properly, it is perfectly legal, if not highly regarded.  But it may not be legal for recently retired military personnel to be foreign agents.  It is definitely not legal for current federal employees to be foreign agents.  And for a National Security Adviser to be a paid agent of a foreign government was unthinkable until it actually happened.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Donald Trump's Flying Circus and the Fifth Avenue Watch

Well, Donald Trump hasn't shot anyone in the middle of Fifth Avenue so far, but he does seem to be testing to see just how much he can get away with.  Last week he fired the FBI director who was investigating his possible ties to Russia.  This week he blurted out highly classified information to Russian diplomats.  So maybe he'll shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue next week.

But I have come to the conclusion that my account of what would follow was inaccurate.  It would be something more like this.  Trump would shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.  He would then send out a parade of spokespeople to deny that he had done any such thing.  One of them would explain why we shouldn't believe the film showing him do it. Another would undermine the credibility of the witnesses.  Another would attack the forensic evidence.  And so forth.  And then Trump would come out and cheerfully proclaim that shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue was a glorious blow for the Real American against the Manhattan elite and besides, it was part of his prerogative as President.  Republicans in Congress would make a lot of throat-clearing noises but not actually do anything.  It would be poetic justice for Trump to be done in by one of the spokespeople who he has tricked into lying for him, but somehow it never seems to happen.

A suggestion here for any Republican who insists that it is the President's prerogative to declassify any information he wants so the whole episode is just fine.  Imagine if President Hillary Clinton had continued sending e-mails on a private server and defended it on the grounds that as President she could do anything with classified information that she wanted.  Would you have gone along with that?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Partial Defense of Sean Spicer

I love Bruce Bartlett's caustic remark about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "The principal job of Sarah Huckabee Sanders seems to be to make Sean Spicer look good by comparison. And she's doing a GREAT job!"

I always thought it was a mistake to blame Sean Spicer for -- well, for being Sean Spicer.  The problem clearly lies, not with Spicer, but with his boss and the job he is being asked to do.  From day one, Spicer's basic job has been to stand in front of the White House press corps and ask them who they believe, him or their lying eyes.  It doesn't really matter who gets the job of asking such a question; no one is going to look good doing it.

Of course, my intention is not to let Spicer off the hook.  He choose to take the job, after all.  No one forced him.  If Spicer wants to hold a job that consists of telling outrageous and easily refutable lies, then he fully deserves all the mockery that goes with the office.  Just don't have any illusions that anyone else will do any better.

What Would Happen If Donald Trump Really Did Shoot Somebody in the Middle of Fifth Avenue

The press has taken at least one of Donald Trump's statements seriously but not literally, his comment that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes.  No one expects him to literally get away with murder.  (Although his hero, Andrew Jackson did).

But the latest uproar has led me to consider what would happen if he did.  This is what I imagine:

First of all, Trump would indignantly, and to all appearances sincerely, deny having done anything of the kind.  That footage showing him do it was all "fake news."  All those witnesses who saw him are aid shills for Obama/Hillary/Soros/whoever.  And the forensic evidence that traces the bullet to a gun registered to Trump and bearing his finger prints is not really the issue.  The issue is New York's unconstitutional gun registration laws that violate the Second Amendment and without those laws there would be nothing.

Meanwhile, Steve Bannon would boast that shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue was a glorious strike against the Manhattan elite and everyone in Real America appreciated it.

A massive cacophony of mutually contradictory accounts would emerge from the White House.  Sean Spicer would hide in among the bushes to avoid the press until he got the official line.

Fox New would do its best to poke holes in the case against Trump.

Mainstream reporters would fan out into Trump country and find that Trump's act of shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue was widely popular among white, rural blue collar voters in the Midwest.

Polls would show that 70% of Trump voters believes that he never did it, while 70% approved of the shooting and an extraordinary 50% both believed that Trump never shot anyone and approved of his doing so.

Rush Limbaugh would cackle and rub his hands together with glee, pointing out how much shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue offended liberals and broadly imply, without actually saying, that if murder offends liberals, it must be good.

The NRA would proclaim the whole thing a fine example of a good guy using a gun and therefore protected by the Second Amendment.

Alex Jones would spin an elaborate conspiracy theory that the whole incident was a false flag.

Outraged Congressional Democrats would demand his impeachment, saying that murder was an impeachable offense.  Nervous Congressional Republicans would say that murder was purely a private indiscretion not affecting Trump's public duties and therefore not impeachable.

Paul Ryan would earnestly proclaim that, without going so far as to condone Trump's actions, he did not see how they affected his public duties and were therefore not an impeachable offense.  Trump would indignantly tweet, "I stand up for regular Americans against the Manhattan elite and Paul Ryan doesn't 'condone' it.  Sad!"  Paul Ryan would quickly fall into line and insist that just because he said he didn't condone Trump's actions did mean he thought Trump did anything wrong.

And Wise Men would solemnly shake their heads and say this just doesn't look the the final outrage that turns Trumps followers against him.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Brief Comment on the Repeal to Date

If I didn't know better, I would think the Freedom Caucus is intentionally making unacceptable demand in order to sink the repeal.  Sort of like Ted Cruz.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Republican Healthcare Debate as I See It

This is how I see the current Republican debate over the new healthcare bill between the leadership and the Freedom Caucus.

Freedom Caucus:  We demand that you strip 20 million people of their health insurance immediately!

Leadership:  I know our bill only strips 10 million of their insurance, but stripping all 20 million carries to much political fallout.  By applying the gradual squeeze, you can strip more people of their insurance in the long run without taking as much blame.

Freedom Caucus:  Any plan that doesn't strip 20 million people of their insurance immediately won't get my support.

Donald Trump's Flying Circus Collides with Reality in Hopes of Bringing it Down

So, speaking of the Kremlinology of Trump tweets, his latest outburst appears to have been inspired by Breitbart News.  Over the weekend he proclaimed President Obama to have wiretapped him.  Mainstream outlets duly reported the story, while making clear that there was no evidence for it whatever.  Now he has his staff scrambling for some sort of evidence to support his views.

In the meantime, Paul Ryan has finally come up with a replacement for Obamacare and is having an increasingly difficult time concealing the large numbers of people it will strip of their health insurance.  It will get even harder if this thing actually passes.

In the meantime, my boss is a Republican.  Donald Trump was certainly not his first choice to be President, but he is one of the Republicans who believes that so long as you cut taxes and gut regulations, nothing else really matters.  Over the weekend I was really dreading facing him arguing that yes, Obama really did wiretap Trump's phones (he has defended Flynn and Sessions talking to the Russian ambassador) or defending the Ryan plan (he has denounced Obamacare as an outrage and when I pointed out that simply repealing it will strip millions of their health insurance, dismissed that as not a serious problem since university hospitals would take care of them).  But instead I got radio silence, at least so far.

Still, I need to start preparing for what I will day to him as a Trump supports, and this blog is as good a place as any to practice.

For the Russian meetings: 

Suppose you are running for President and want to improve relations with Russia.  You think it deteriorating relations with Russia are not altogether the Russians' fault and that Russia is a valuable ally in fighting ISIS.  That is not an unreasonable viewpoint.  It might work out or it might not, but it isn't crazy.  But it does go against the Washington Consensus enough that none of the foreign policy establishment will join your team.  You have to get unconventional foreign policy advisers.  Many of these advisers have extensive ties to Russia.  Russia being what it is, many of their ties are to pretty sleazy people.  And, if truth be known, some of your advisers are pretty sleazy in their own right.  (I am thinking about Paul Manafort in particular).  

Then Russia starts hacking the Democrats and releasing their e-mails in the manner calculated to cause maximum damage.  And because your people have extensive ties to Russia, they are having extensive contacts with high-ranking Russian officials, including some in the intelligence services,  while the hacks are going on.  No one has proven that there is any connection between those things.  But you have to be sensitive to appearances.  What do you do if the Russians are actively trying to sway the election in your favor.  As a matter of basic political common sense, you warn your people to refrain from all contact with the Russians for fear of creating an appearance of collusion even if none actually exists.  And if they absolutely cannot avoid contacting the Russians, they should disclose and scrupulously document every move so as to avoid any sort of suspicion.

And if you say that Trump was a political neophyte surrounded by neophytes who didn't know better, I answer that Jeff Sessions is no political neophyte.  He, at least, should know better.

On healthcare:

You criticize Obamacare for the high deductibles that make insurance worthless unless you have a serious illness or injury.  And I agree, I have had that problem with it too. But that is a basic tradeoff that is inherent to the insurance industry.  To premiums affordable, you have to have high deductibles. To offer lots of coverage, you have to have high premiums.  And while government can step in and avoid this tradeoff by offering a subsidy to buy insurance, that costs the taxpayers money.  It really is that simple.  There is no getting away from the tradeoff between high premiums, low deductibles, or high taxes.  Its is simple arithmetic.  And arithmetic doesn't go away just because there is a Republican in the White House.

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

A Realistic Kremlinology of Trump Tweets

During the Cold War, figuring out Soviet motives was one of the most important projects for politicians and pundits, the the Soviet government was profoundly opaque and mysterious, so there arose a new field of study known as Kremlinology, which sought to understand the machinations taking place in the Kremlin but the subtle signals that were visible to the public, such as seating arrangements.  How useful these speculations were is the subject of much debate.  The term is sometimes applied to any attempt to understand a secretive organization or process.  Some people have applied a sort of Kremlinology to Trump tweets.

Kevin Drum has a fine self-mocking example here trying to understand the subtle distinctions between "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @ NBCNews and many more)  is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.  SICK!" and "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @ NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"  He follows it with a rather humorous attempt to figure out what subtle shades of meaning Trump is seeking to convey with these fine distinctions.  Likewise, when Trump tweeted, "Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!" a huge wave of speculation ensued.  Was he trying to bait his enemies into burning flags to provoke outrage against them?  Was he trying to distract from whatever real story was brewing at the time?  Or, as Saturday Night Live put it, does Trump tweet to distract people from unwelcome stories or does he do it "because my brain is bad."

Thus far all evidence points to the "brain is bad" theory.  The trouble with the distraction theory is that there is always real news going on out there, rarely favorable to Trump, and he is always tweeting something nutty.  If there is any particular correlation between these things, I have yet to see the evidence of it.  As for subtle maneuvering, we are talking about a man who is not quite so subtle as your average steam calliope, so I think we can rule that out.

Nonetheless, there does turn out to be a useful Kremlinology of Trump tweets.  They are rarely original thoughts or based on any inside information.  (Which is good, I guess.  At least it means he isn't making things up out of whole cloth or revealing anything classified).  Rather, most of these bizarre tweets are responses to something he saw on TV or read in the news.  The real Kremlinology, then is to search through the news sources to see which one formed the basis for the tweet.

For instance, the flag burning tweets appears to have been a reaction to a news story on Fox about a flag being burned. His claims that he only lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal immigrants voting appears to have come from Infowars.  When he posted a tweet denouncing Vanity Fair, it soon transpired that the magazine had run an unfavorable review of his restaurant.  When he tweeted about crime in Chicago and threatened to send in the feds, some of his opponents speculated on whether the Mayor of Chicago had criticized him, or what message he was trying to send to supporters.  However, the source quickly turned out to be a Fox News report -- Trump's own (inaccurate) statistics were borrowed directly from Fox.  And when he astonished many by quoting the highbrow blog Lawfare, it soon transpired that he was simply (mis)quoting a comment on it by Morning Joe.  Indeed, the timing of Trump's tweets is usually shortly after the show he is citing.*

This is important not just as a mental game, but because it tells us where That Man in the White House gets his news from.  And this is significant because he forms his world views from what he sees in the news.  And, as others have comments, who controls what Trump watches can control him.

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

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*Another significant bit of Kremlinology on Trump tweets: Close Trump watchers observe whether the tweet was from Trump's personal Android phone versus his staff's phone.  Unsurprisingly, the unhinged tweets invariably come from Trump himself, while the attempts to put hinges back on come from his staff.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Stronger is Not Better

This article seems like so much common sense to me, but apparently some people have to be told the obvious.  The article explains that while moderate protests might win people over, extreme measures invariably create hostility.  They offer instances of actual research that support this obvious phenomenon.  Study participants were more likely to support an animal rights group that marched and protested that one that broke into animal labs.  Black Lives Matter protests that advocated violence against police lost support among black and white viewers alike.  And anti-Trump protesters who blocked traffic and blocked Trump supporters from attending a rally created a backlash of support for Trump among liberals and conservatives alike.

To which I can only say, well, duh!  But apparently this obvious tendency is not so obvious to hardcore activists, who assume that more is always better.  I have seen signs of this on my side. Somewhere I saw an article lamenting that the more extreme, attention-getting measures like blocking traffic merely created hostility, so what can we do.  (Um, maybe not block traffic?)  Others have expressed outrage at Republican state legislatures enacting tough measures against protesters who block traffic.  And accused them of attempting to criminalize protest.  No, they are trying to impose perfectly reasonable "time, place, and manner" restrictions to limit the disruption caused by protests.  Ditto Trump prosecutors taking tough measures against Inauguration Day rioters.  Taking tough measures against this sort of disruptive behavior will serve to discourage it and limit our side to peaceable and lawful activity.  We should thank Republicans for their help here.

On a more personal level, I recall my aunt (an old hippie from the sixties) expressing pride in her daughter who has joined Black Lives Matter and took part in blocking traffic in the Bay Area.  I pointed out that blocking traffic will not make people love you.  She said that if you want to get people's attention, what alternatives are there.  She also said that many people have expressed understanding and said that the inconvenience is worthwhile for a worthy cause.  I was too taken by surprise to have a good response, but looking back on it, I should have said that there is nothing to stop Black Lives Matter protesters from getting a permit and marching on the sidewalk or in the park according to the terms it allows.  That will get plenty of attention, without making enemies.  And if people were willing to accept traffic blockages in the interest of a worthy cause -- well, that's the Bay Area for you.  It is not typical.

And to me the most surprising part of the article is not that extreme measure create hostility, but the strange blindness on the part of many activists to something so obvious:
The problem is, the extreme protesters didn’t realize this would happen. When Willer and his co-authors surveyed people about the causes they believe in and what they would be willing to do for the cause, the truest believers were willing to go to the most extreme lengths—and they thought the tactics would help gin up support.
“It can be really difficult to take the perspective of a bystander who has not yet joined a movement, when you’re interacting mostly with other activists,” Willer said.
 Head -- wall -- bang!

I suppose I should think of Bill Ayers, the 1960's terrorist who supported Obama for president.  Asked about his terrorist past, Ayers explained that he was strongly opposed to the Vietnam war, but peaceful protests were not stopping it, so he decided to resort to stronger measures.  He still seemed to think that "stronger" measures were both justified and effective and, in fact, that the stronger the measure the more effective.  And I just wanted to scream at him, "Seriously, dude!  You couldn't convince people to oppose the war by marching and protesting, so you figured that throwing a few bombs would make them see the error of their ways?!?!  What were you thinking?!?"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Running Government Like a Business

Lots of people voted for Donald Trump because they saw government as dysfunctional and wanted to see Trump run government "like a business."  This is a frequent fantasy about businessmen candidates.

There are a number of problems with running government like a business, most of which amount to that the two are not the same.  A business's goal is to make money.  Most of its decisions are about how best to achieve that goal and do not need to take ideology or complex public policy tradeoffs into account.  Businesses do not have an independent legislature or judicial system.  Their objectives are a whole lot more nebulous.  And so forth.

Nonetheless, in at least one thing running a government and running a business are similar.  They have somewhat similar demands of administrative competence.  Consider, then, how many right-wingers want to run to see government run and ask if you want to see those principles applied to a business.

The business recognizes that success means pleasing their customers. (OK).  The business also recognizes that most customers are not experts in their product and do not usually choose the product after careful deliberation, thorough weighing of the facts, and consultation of experts to guide them. Most customers choose their product on the basis of snap judgments and gut-level intuitions without extended investigation.

The leaders of the business therefore decide that in order to show solidarity with customers and properly relate to them, business leaders should do the same thing.  They should shun all expertise in the product as "out of touch" and "elitist."  They should refrain from careful deliberation and thorough weighing of the fact for fear of being "inauthentic."  They should shun all experts and tout ignorance as proof of virtue.  they should make all decisions on the basis of snap judgments and gut-level intuition and avoid any extended investigation of -- well, anything.

So, based on these principles and the need for fresh blood, they select a new CEO, one with no experience in the field whatever, no knowledge of it, and no interest in learning anything about it. Their new CEO not only knows nothing about their field of business and has neither the desire nor the ability to learn it, he deliberately sets out to "drain the swamp" of anyone who does have any knowledge or experience.  He dismisses not only knowledge and expertise, but even facts and evidence as "out of touch" and "elitist" and insists on eschewing them altogether from the decision making process.

Instead of doing anything so "elitist" and "inauthentic" as learning anything, the new CEO makes a fetish of being "strong," "decisive" and "principled."  Being "strong" and "decisive" means making decisions as quickly as possible, with as little input and preparation as possible, based solely on impulse.  Being "principled" means taking these decisions as far as possible while shunning all nuance and detail-work.  In government, that means making a travel ban take effect immediately without consulting anyone who might know anything about the details of implementation, and without any exceptions, such as current green card holders or translators for the US army.  In business, I suppose, it would mean that if you decide, say, that Atlantic City casinos are the wave of the future, building as many casinos as possible with as little foresight and advance planning as possible, while liquidating all other assets because spreading your risks shows a lack of "principle."

And anyone wanting to run government like a business and also making a fetish of "strong" leadership that ignores the experts and goes with the gut -- consider just how long a business run on those lines would last.

Would I Rule Anything Out about Trump and Flynn?

In my last post I said that so far as Trump and Flynn nothing could be ruled out.  This was based on ruling out a lot of things such as the possibility that the might be Russian spies, only to find that it wasn't as crazy as it seemed at first glance.  So nothing can be ruled out about those two.  Nothing whatever?  Well, if someone proposed the theory that Trump and Flynn were actually shape-shifting lizard people from outer space attempting to masquerade as actual human beings but not doing a very good job, I suppose I would dismiss that out of hand.  Although I must admit that it would explain a lot.


Reflections on Flynn's Departure

So let's get this straight.

Between the election and the inauguration, Michael Flynn, then Trump's prospective National Security Adviser, called the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, and urged him not to retaliate against US sanctions because the sanctions would be lifted under Trump.

Point one:  These conversations may have been a technical violation of the Logan Act, which forbids any private citizen from interfering in U.S. foreign policy.  Personally, I support the underlying purpose of the Logan Act, but no one has ever actually been prosecuted under it.

Michael Flynn
Point two:  Even if you do support prosecutions under the Logan Act, prospective Trump officials are not just any private citizens.  They were soon-to-be officials in an incoming administration who were going to be setting foreign policy in a matter of weeks.  It was therefore reasonable for them to contact officials in foreign governments to discuss what U.S. policy was to be.

Point three:  This was not just any conversation with foreign officials about future U.S. policy. The Russians had been hacking the Democrats' e-mails and publishing them in order to sway the election in favor of Trump.  The Obama administration was imposing sanctions specifically to punish them for the interference in the election.  The beneficiary of that election was proposing to reverse the punishment.  I suppose it is asking too much to expect an incoming President to punish the people who (however illegally) helped him to win.  Nonetheless, the whole thing is unsettling. Russian intelligence hacked Democratic servers and released the contents in a manner calculated to help Trump win.  Several members of the Trump campaign (including Flynn) had "repeated contacts" with Russian intelligence.  No one has proven that these things are related.  But it is hard not to be suspicious.

Point four:  Did Trump know about the conversations?  Well, duh!  Look, this isn't something like  Iran-Contra, in which rogue intelligence agents attempted to implement a policy that they knew the President wanted, but without letting him in on the details of what they were doing.  It was plausible then that these were rogue agents acting without official authorization because they were doing something secret that was supposed to be concealed.  Lifting sanctions on Russia is not the sort of thing that can be hidden.  If Flynn's proposal to lift sanctions was not undertaken with Trump's approval, then he was a rogue operative who should have been out on his ear the moment he was found out.  No President could possibly condone this type of unauthorized activity that are a direct challenge to his authority.  (Of course, I suppose given that these are Trump and Flynn we are talking about, nothing can be ruled out altogether.  But really!)

Point five:  In the current leaky-as-a-sieve administration, we now know an astonishing amount about what happened.  The conversation was monitored by the NSA, as is routine for the Russian ambassador in the U.S.  Still, the NSA has an extraordinary amount of incoming material to sort through and could easily have missed this one had Putin not refrained from retaliating against U.S. sanctions.  This drew attention to the conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador. Still- President Obama apparently learned of the conversation on January 5, seven days after it took place. Five days later, on January 12, the calls became public knowledge.  It was then that Flynn denied (to the incoming Vice President) that he had discussed anything substantive.  On January 19, FBI Director James Comey made the argument against telling Trump what they knew lest it jeopardize the investigation.  Wrap your head around that for a moment.  Comey was essentially urging that the entire intelligence community go rogue and conceal from an incoming President an important foreign policy initiative by his prospective National Security Adviser.  It was on January 26 that Trump was informed of what he (presumably) knew perfectly well anything.  The only difference was that he now knew that the intelligence community knew.

Point six:  It was not until the whole thing went public that Trump finally saw fit to move against his National Security Adviser.  Which means that either he allowed a rogue operative to defy his authority until publicly caught at it, or Flynn was acting with his authority all along.  Even granting that there is no accounting for either Trump or Flynn, I think we can safely assume it much more likely that Flynn's actions were authorized.

Point seven:  I was one of a number of people who thought for a time that Trump could not fire Flynn for fear he would spill the beans.  But its seems a safe assumption that the "beans" are every bit as incriminating from Flynn as they are for Trump, so I think he can be counted on to keep his mouth shut.

The good new is the Flynn is gone.  Michael Flynn is a functioning paranoid -- one who lives in a fantasy world and sees alarming patterns everywhere that don't actually exist.  Kevin Drum, keeping a "swamp watch" on all of Trump's nominees, rated whether they were part of the swamp, rich, crazy, or scary.  Most were denizens of the swamp and most who were not (and some who were) were filthy rich.  The good news is, only two were crazy, only two were scary, and Flynn had the dubious distinction of being the only one to be both crazy and scary.  (Steve Bannon, ranked as merely scary, wants to know why he isn't considered crazy, too).  Aside from being both crazy and scary, he also has suspicious ties to Russia -- all in all, a disaster as National Security Adviser.  We can hope to see him replaced with someone more normal.

It should also be noted that there were four members of the Trump campaign with suspicious Russian ties -- Roger Stone, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn.  Stone and Page were fairly minor figures and are now safely out.  Manafort was campaign manager for a time, but was also forced out and held no role in the Trump Administration.  With the departure of Michael Flynn, the Russia clique appears to be gone.

The bad news is that Steve Bannon is still in the White House, along with Steve Miller.  And, of course, Donald Trump.  Furthermore, Drum has also speculated on Flynn's future career.  With the Heritage Foundation?  CNN as a national security analyst?  RT?  Infowars?  The worse news here is that in some of these forums, he just might still exercise some influence with Trump.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Donald Trump's Flying Circus: Proof That He Lacks the Cunning or Discipline to Be a Fascist

Still, I think we can take comfort in at least one thing.  The combination between Trump's obsession with the size of crowds at his inauguration and the black-clad, masked, crowbar-wielding rioters have proven that he really is just a petulant 5-year-old in a 70-year-old man's body, without the cunning or discipline to be a fascist, or even a wannabe.

So what would a real fascist or at least a fascist wannabe, someone like Steve Bannon do when confronted with the combination of disappointing crowds at his inauguration and black-clad rioters burning things down?  Especially if the day after his inauguration there was a huge, peaceful protest march dwarfing the size of his inauguration crowds?  Obviously, he would turn the subject away from the respective crowd sizes and play up the rioters.  That would be especially true if he was already harping on the theme of American as a smoldering hellscape on the verge of complete social breakdown that only he could save.  Riots at his inauguration would play into this narrative very nicely.  Only a fool would decline to make use of such a gift when given to him.

A real fascist, or even a wannabe wouldn't talk about disappointing crowd sizes.  He certainly wouldn't offend the still-free press by telling the Washington new corp, many of whom had personally been present in the farther reaches of his inauguration and seen the empty stands, that they shouldn't believe their lying eyes.  He would talk about the outrageous riots that had taken place, Instead of having his press secretary make of fool of himself by claiming the crowds were of record size, he would have his press secretary show close-up pictures of the riots.  He would present peaceful Trump supporters beaten by protesters and have them interviewed as martyrs.  He would imply without actually saying (and therefore setting of fact checkers) that if his crowds were disappointing, it was only because the rioters were keeping them away and point out (accurately) that they were trying to block access to the inaugural.  And above all, he would regularly juxtapose talk and images of the Women's March with talk and images of the rioters, all creating the false impression that the Women's Marchers were the rioters while maintaining plausible deniability that he was actually making such an allegation and allowing him and his supporters to be outraged that when anyone accused him of trying to create that impression.*

But no!  Donald Trump instead becomes obsessed with proving that really he had a record-setting crowd, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  And this isn't some short-lived obsession that he relieved the next day by having his press secretary give a statement to the press demanding that they ignore the evidence of their lying eyes, and raising it with the CIA when visiting in an attempt to mend fences.  No, he just can't seem to drop the subject, any more than his alleged Electoral College landslide, or the supposed illegal voters who denied him a popular majority.

It should by now be apparently that there is no grand strategy behind Trump's outbursts and tweets, or he would do it better.  (See above).  What you see is what you get.  And what we are seeing is a pathetic narcissist with a pathological craving for approval, utterly unable to handle the demands of the job, and too thin-skinned to take the criticism that invariably goes with it.  Trump is no fascist, just an overgrown child.

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*Look, for instance, at how skillfully George W. Bush juxtaposed references to 9-11, to terrorism in general, to Iraq, to taking the fight to the enemy, and to Saddam Hussein.  He never came right out and said that Saddam was behind 9-11, but he made a very strong impression to that effect without actually saying anything that fact checkers could call him on.  Or look at David Frum still tries to conflate Women's Marchers -- peaceful and light-hearted, if a bit vulgar and raunchy for conservative tastes -- with actual rioters.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Another Reason the Anarchists May Have Avoided the Women's March

Berkeley riots
So, our side has manages to maintain peace and decorum at Women's Marches across the country, and protests in international airports and at the anti-ban protests (surprisingly large and widespread, given the short notice), violence has erupted once again.  Last time was at the Inauguration.  This time was in Berkeley (naturally), at a University protest against Breitbart shock jock Milo  Yiannopoulos speaking on campus,  Protesters attempted to shut the event down.  Most were peaceful, but they were joined by the usual black-clad, mask-wearing, club-wielding thugs, who showed up after dark and proceeded to riot, smash things, and set things on fire.  This occurred against a background of violent assaults on Trump supporters on and around campus.

So, why the peaceful protests up till now, yet violent at the Inauguration and now on the Berkeley campus?  The most obvious answer is to roll one's eyes and say, "Well, that's the Bay Area for you." Oakland and Berkeley are always having riots about something.  (Seattle is no slouch, either).  But the Women's March in the Bay Area went off without a trace of violence or disturbance.

Another answer may be that the Women's March was a daytime event, while the riots happened by night.  And the anonymity of darkness does seem to attract violent protesters.  But the Inauguration Day riots were well underway in the daylight.

Another possible answer might be that people fighting for openness and inclusion are not prone to rioting and violence.  The problem with that self-serving narrative is that the anarchist thugs really do see themselves in those terms and define themselves as "anti-fascists."  Nice way of showing it, guys!

Another answer, and one I was inclined to start out with, was that Women's Marches didn't have an actual enemy on hand to fight, and so lacked appeal to people going out looking for trouble.  The Inauguration (obviously) had plenty of Trump supporters on hand to tangle with, and the Berkeley Riots had Yiannopoulos.  But there have been pro-Trump rallies going on, not large, but also undisturbed (so far).  And I note the article on the Women's March in the Bay Area mentions that the march encountered a right-to-life march, without tension.

So I am inclined to a slight variation on the theme.   The rioters seem to show up when there is not just something to protest, and not just an enemy present, but an enemy they actively want to shut down, even though engaged in a clearly lawful activity.

The several times riots broke out among anti-Trump protesters on the campaign trail occurred when the rioters were actively trying to stop a Trump event and prevent peaceful and lawful supporters from attending a perfectly lawful rally.

The demonstrations that degenerated into riots following the the election were attempts to overturn a lawful election result.

The Inauguration Day Riots included attempts to block entrances and keep lawful supporters from attending.

And the Berkeley Riots were clear attempts to shut down Yiannopoulos' lawful, though odious, speech.

I can only assume that occasional pro-Trump demonstrators or right-to-lifers are simply not seen as a danger in the same sense.

Obviously the rioters and anarchists have no concept of free speech or freedom of assembly that must be extended to even the most hateful people.  Our side cannot forget this distinction, and must keep reminding people of it as often as necessary.  Up till now, the anti-Trump demonstrators have not had to deal with counter-demonstrators.  That can't remain the case indefinitely.  Sooner or later the counter-demonstrators will show up.  When that happens, we have to be ready to keep things peaceful.  Fortunately, the police are getting good at keeping hostile sides apart.  Unfortunately, they are not infallible.

Other pieces of advice to our side to avoid trouble.  Do not schedule protests around people or events that some trouble makers might want to shut down.  Schedule them the day before, or a safe distance away.  It may cut down on the people we might want to shut down seeing us, but so what?  There will be plenty of other times and places to be seen without attracting the thugs.  No night time events.  Daylight is no sure protection, but it helps.  No masks.  We aren't afraid to show our faces.  No clubs, crowbars, or other such weapons.  And no blocking or shutting down lawful events.  That way lies the end of freedom.

Monday, February 6, 2017

To All Offended Conservatives

Doubtless there are more, but I have seen three of these now, columns by anti-Trump conservatives who have watched the Women's March and other anti-Trump protests and agree that it is right to be out protesting Trump, but just wish that the marchers would be more conservative.  They want the marchers to reach out to them and to be their kind of people and are seriously annoyed that opponents of Trump tend to be liberal.  They want a nice, conservative aesthetic and are convinced that it would draw more followers, because the number of followers these marches are getting now just aren't enough.  

On January 24 David Brooks complained that they focused on “reproductive rights, equal pay, affordable health care, action on climate change,” issues that only matter to "upper-middle-class voters in university towns and coastal cities," when they should obviously be focusing on Trump-voter issues like immigration, job offshoring, and overseas commitments.  Or, better yet, on the threat to "globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order."  They should get better organized and act through institutional channels.  And they should offer "red, white and blue alternative patriotism, a modern, forward-looking patriotism based on pluralism, dynamism, growth, racial and gender equality and global engagement."  He is rather unclear on what this would look like, but presumably it would mean continuing to acknowledge that capitalists can do no wrong, fighting lots of wars overseas, flying the flag a lot, and adopting all the traditional conservative symbols.  In short, a lot like the program of the Republican elite.

On February 4, Ross Douthat wrote that just as Trump's (and Palin's etc.) claim to be the Real America omits about half the population, so too does anti-Trump protesters' insistence that "that's not who we are" omits that half of America that supports Trump.  He wants anti-Trump protesters to stop insisting on the narrative immigrants, Emma Lazarus, and civil rights and recognize that half the country still relates to the old narrative:
They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.
To defeat Trumpism, rather than just Trump, he says, they will have to find a way to give a more complete narrative that the other half can relate to.  Of course, he gives no suggestion whatever what such a narrative would look like.*

And now David Frum has come out with a piece of his own, very similar to Brooks' piece.  Like Brooks, he says that marching is not enough, you have to get organized.  Though he acknowledges the "orderly commitment and resolution" of the Women's March, he just can't resist equating parts that merely offend his sensibilities (the absence of conservative women like military women, police women, and pro-lifers from the lineup) with actual "black-masked crowbar thugs" of the type that rioted at the inauguration and at Berkeley -- and were totally absent among the millions who march on January 21, or at the anti-Muslim ban demonstrations since.**  Frum wants the marchers to carry the flag, to begin events with the Pledge of Allegiance and end with the Star Spangled Banner.  He recommends that members limit themselves to a single theme, one that can be fit onto a bumper sticker (actually he would allow members an entire tweet) and above all, one that "the vast American mainstream" (which tends to coincide with anti-Trump conservatives) would relate to.  In other words, nothing that could be considered partisan an nothing that your "Rush Limbaugh listening brother-in-law" would not agree with.

I think what all these guys are saying is, "Hey, what about me?  I hate Trump too, but I just don't fit into your event."  To which I can only say, there is certainly a conservative case to be made against Trump.  Many conservative intellectuals have articulated it very well.  They didn't make a whole lot of converts.  If you want a march of conservatives against Trump that dresses in red, white and blue, flies that flag, sings the Star Spangled Banner and focuses on issues that anti-Trump conservatives care about, by all means feel free.  Just don't be surprised if not many people show up.  I'm guessing that no amount of flag waving will attract that Limbaugh-listening brother-in-law.  Sorry.  In the meantime, maybe you will just have to deal with the anti-Trump movement you have and not the anti-Trump movement you wish you had.

The anti-Trump movement is organizing.  It is flooding Congressional offices with calls and showing up at events.  People are taking up the humdrum everyday tasks of getting organized.  They are expressly taking the Tea Party as a model.  But you know what about the Tea Party?  It was polarizing.  It didn't welcome liberals.  It initially claimed to be non-partisan, but that pose wasn't convincing for very long.  And it was mad as hell.  The overall mood of the anti-Trump movement has been exuberant and joyous.  It uses a lot of humor.  It is also rather vulgar at times, but then again, if vulgarity bothers you, then you should hate Trump.  This light-hearted tone appears to offend conservatives because it lacks seriousness. But they overlook its huge advantage -- it isn't threatening.

And yes, many of its central concerns are traditional liberal concerns.  What did you expect?  They are what Trump opponents care about.  And members are, in fact, splitting into sub-groups focused on different issues, but under the broad anti-Trump umbrella.  And I don't think they are as out-of-touch or liberal or elitist and anti-Trump conservatives think.

Douthat wants anti-Trump protesters to come up with a unifying narrative of this country that embraces the traditional narrative but rejects Trump.  Might I suggest, then, that instead of complaining that Trump's liberal opponents aren't coming up with such a narrative, that he work on it himself?  In the meantime, the Emma Lazarus narrative has gotten the Administration to modify its ban to let in at least green card holders and people with valid visas, to have the entire ban suspended, to convince a lot of Muslims that Americans really don't hate them, and has swung at least some public opinion in their direction.  Come back when your unifying narrative can do as much.

Brooks want protesters to stop focusing on trivia like healthcare and start addressing the threat to "globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order."  These things are so large and so abstract that he doesn't even faintly suggest what he has in mind.

Frum is more pragmatic and thinks protesters should stick to something more immediate and concrete, something that can actually be achieved by a law passed by Congress.  (Sensible).  He wants to address the unique threats that Trump poses to our system -- his unparalleled corrupting and his possible Russian ties.  I worry about those, too.  But I think it is time Frum faced facts and acknowledged that those just aren't on most people's front burner.  There was ample exposure of the corruption during the election, but that didn't stop huge numbers of people from voting for Trump because they thought he was more honest than Clinton.  And I don't doubt that our conservative elites are very concerned about Trump's Russian ties.  I share their concern.  But no one else seems to see those ties as a deal-breaker.  Either they hate Trump just fine regardless, or they shrug off the whole thing.

Actually, I think the protesters are showing a lot more political savvy than their anti-Trump conservative critics.  Financial corruption and Russian ties are just too abstract to matter to you average Trump voter.

But why are his opponents calling for women's marches, dressing in pink, and wearing pussy hats? Because the one thing that actually did hurt Trump with supporters was the tape where he bragged about grabbing women by the "pussy."  Yes, Trump whose signature trait, whose whole core appeal was that he never backed down and never apologized; Trump, who freely owned up to tax evasion, stiffing contractors, and gaming the system every way possible; Trump, who openly called on the Russians to hack his opponent's e-mails; Trump, who joked that his followers would literally let him get away with murder -- that Trump attempted to dissociate himself from his remarks about sexual assault and assured everyone that he had never actually done what he boasted about doing.

And the other issues the protesters are starting to raise are more partisan than Trump's conservative critics would care for, but also more real and concrete and likely to mean something to ordinary voters. The anti-ban protests have driven home that some of those scary Muslims Trump wants us to fear are little old ladies on walkers.  Obamacare repeal protests are opening people's eyes to all the people who stand to lose their health insurance.  If Trump makes a serious immigration crackdown and starts mass deportations, protesters will show people that many deportees are quite sympathetic people.  If Trump's protectionist policies disrupt supply chains and hurt manufacturing jobs, at least in the short run, have no doubt that his opponents will be on hand to make sure that everybody notices.

All of this may be partisan.  It may be liberal.  It may be polarizing.  It may just not be the sort of constitutional issue that anti-Trump conservatives care about.  But it is the sort of thing that will shrink Trump's popularity to the point that people might actually be willing to listen to these other, more abstract issue, and might give these more abstract issues some traction.

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*FWIW, my other blog makes at least an attempt. 
**And just so we are clear, I am 100% in agreement about the need to keep out crowbar wielding thugs.  And it probably is fair to say that even if the thugs only show up at a small number of events, they can stigmatize all of them.  For that reason, I am completely completely support prosecutors who want to throw the book at rioters, bringing charges with up to a ten-year sentence.  Some on my side have protested, and I certainly do not condone prosecuting mere bystanders.  But so far as I am concerned, cracking down hard on small riots now is a good way of preventing bigger riots later on and is a good general deterrent, so I favor it.  I do think that Frum's advice on how to keep rioters out of your march, "If you see guys with crowbars in the vicinity of your meeting, detain them yourselves and call the cops," seriously underestimates the difficulty and danger of making a citizen's arrest of crowbar-wielding thugs.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Why the Salacious Parts Matter

So, clearly the Steele memos contain a a lot more than just the salacious parts.  In fact, it is almost enough to cry out for an arson, murder and jaywalking joke.  As in, the Steele Dossier accuses Trump of being a Russian intelligence asset since 2008, receiving regular information on his opponents from Russian hacks, coordinating political strategy of the leaks with the Russians, paying their hackers, accepting a massive bribe (19% interest in their largest oil company) to lift sanctions, condoning Russian aggression and calling into question our commitment to allies in exchange for illegally hacked information on opponents, and peeing on the bed.

I'm pretty sure that last is the only one that does not count as a high crime or misdemeanor, yet it is the one he is purportedly being blackmailed for.  Aren't the others more than ample grounds for blackmail?

At the same time the salacious parts of the file, although among the least serious of the allegations, have a real impact in a different sort of way.  They expose Trump to mockery and ridicule.  Trump famously joked/bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose support, and there may be something to it.  He would blithely deny having done so in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  Some of his hardcore supporters would believe him.  Some would applaud him for really showing those Manhattan elitists what we think of them in the Real America.  And some would have misgivings, but when the liberals responded with outrage, they would conclude that anything that pissed off liberals so much must be good.  And that has ultimately been the source of Trump's appeal to his hardcore supporters. He is mad at all the same people they are.  He has all the right enemies.  He isn't politically correct.  He relishes giving offense to all the right people.  And  he drives liberals to all those expressions of righteous indignation that Trump supporters find so offensive.

Thus anything that provokes righteous indignation on the part of liberals is seen as good, even if Trump supporters wouldn't normally approve of it.  Egregious corruption, stirring up racism, stiffing contractors, ripping off investors, tax evasion, routine sexual assault, bragging that he could literally get away with murder, being a Russian spy -- all those things provoke righteous indignation in liberals because liberals see them as evil.  Of course, Trump supporters saw those things as evil too, at least until Trump did them.  Then, seeing how offended liberals got about them, Trump supporters decided that any evil in these things was outweighed by the offense they gave to liberals.

But hiring Russian prostitutes to whizz on Obama's bed is something that strikes liberals as not so much evil as merely gross.  And, as Jonathan Haidt et al have commented, liberals are less likely than conservatives to equate disgusting with immoral.   Instead of righteous indignation, liberals have responded with a veritable storm of pee jokes.  Like, "Donald Trump, the peeple's President." Or "He must be pissed!" and "I can't wait to see what he tweets in the wee hours."  Or my own favorite, "It's all a big mistake.  What he asked for a golden shower, he thought he was talking to his plumbing contractor."  And it turns out that the number of double entendres you can get out of this is extraordinary, much better than the small hands jokes.  Nor is this like the snobbish sort of ridicule over Trump's ignorance or bad taste that so outraged his supporters because they suspected (with some justification) that it was aimed at them.  Trump's supporters may not know any more about public policy than he does, and they may admire his vulgar display and wish they could afford it, but I am guessing that most Trump supporters don't fantasize about hiring Russian prostitutes to whizz on Obama's bed -- or if they do they certainly wouldn't admit it in public.

So, could anything hurt Trump's standing in the eyes of his supporters?  I have said, only half-jokingly, that the only thing I could think of that would hurt him would be to be caught strangling kittens.  But doing something that makes him look ridiculous, or weak, or disgusting, just might do the trick.

Now all we need are more fear of stairs jokes.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

So, What is in the Steele Memos

So, what is in the now-infamous collection of memos on Donald Trump, gathered by British spy Christopher Steele and published by BuzzFeed?

Naturally the most salacious part has caught the public attention.  The first memo (No. 80, pp. 1-3) claims that Trump, while staying at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow, rented the same suite used by the Obamas and hired some Russian prostitutes to urinate on the Obamas' bed.  It further claims that the Russian intelligence bureau filmed the whole episode and used it to blackmail Trump into being their agent.  No date was given for this episode, except that it was probably in 2013.  And in fact Trump is known to have been in Moscow in November, 2013, attending the Miss Universe contest.  Some people have actually taken the accusation seriously enough to obtain floor plans for the suite showing that there was another room in the suite where Trump could have slept after rendering the bed used by the Obamas unfit for use.

The same memo also hints that there may be other such tapes, since Trump's "unorthodox behavior" in Russia "over the years" provided enough "embarrassing material" to give ample room for blackmail.  Apparently the intelligence agencies agree and believe that there is "more than one tape" on "more than one date" in "more than one place" that can be used for blackmail.

But really the salacious parts are only a small portion of the memos.  There are plenty of other allegations which are, if less titillating, even more explosive.  Now, just to be clear, I know nothing whatever about intelligence gathering and analysis, so what follows is purely an Enlightened Layperson's take on the contents.

After reading it through, what jumped out at me?

First of all, the first memo, besides being the most salacious, is also the most thoroughly sourced.  It lists no less than seven sources, identified by letter rather than number as (A) "a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure," (B) "a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin, (C) "a Russian financial official," (D) "a close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow," (E) so sensitive that the description is blacked out, (F) a female staffer at the hotel where Trump stayed, and (G) "a Kremlin official."  Steele does not appear to have had direct access to A, B or G, but rather to a source they confided in, the same source for A and B, presumably a different one for G.  So the information is second-hand at best.  But D, E and F all appear to have first-hand knowledge of the black mail tape, and B said that Trump's "unorthodox behavior" in Russia over the years gave the Russians plenty of blackmail material on him.  That three separate sources claimed first-hand knowledge of the episode gives it credibility to this Enlightened Layperson.  Also significant in the first memo -- allegations by both A and D that Russian intelligence had been feeding Trump information on his opponents for several years.  It also said that Trump had very little investment in Russia, even though the authorities offered him many lucrative deals.

The first memo is dated June 20.  It is numbered 80.  Steele was apparently first hired to research Trump in June.  He must have been busy!*  After the first, his sourcing becomes much sloppier, often citing to a single, second-hand source.  It may be that Steele produced his first 80 memos not expecting them to be made public and therefore was less cautious in giving possible identifying details about his sources (a female staffer at the Ritz Carlton when Trump stayed there in 2013 presumably is not all that large a group to choose from).  Once he started circulating his memos, Steele may have become conscious that they might some day see the light of day and therefore become more careful about concealing identifying details on his sources, at the expense of making his report less verifiable.

Memo 95 (pages 7-8), undated, although presumably between Memo 94 dated July 19 and Memo 97 dated July 30 says that Trump had been providing the Russians with information on Russian oligarchs living in the US for several years.  It also says that his investments in Russia were minimal although (contrary to Memo 80), he had been trying to get in for some time.  It says that there was a well-developed conspiracy between the Trump organization and Russian leadership, with campaign manager Paul Manafort (forced out August 19) managing the ties on Trump's side and using Carter Page as a go-between.  Source: an ethnic Russian close associate of Trump.

Two other things are significant about this memo.  One is that it refers to Russian hackers in the US and specifically that Russian intelligence made payments to them disguised through its pension system, through diplomatic staff in "key cities such as New York, Washington DC and Miami."  This has been taken as discrediting the memo because Russia apparently does not have a consulate in Miami.

Second, it says that in return for Russia's assistance in the election, Trump promised to sideline Russian intervention in the Ukraine as an issue and raise NATO defense commitments to the Baltics. Indeed, Trump is believed to have intervened at the Russian National Convention to ask the party to take its condemnation of Russia's invasion of the Ukraine off the party platform.  The Convention  took place on July 18-21, so this had already happened when the memo was prepared.  Trump also questioned the US commitment to defending the Baltics in the first presidential debate.  The debates did not take place until September, so to that extent the memo might be taken as correctly anticipating future events.  I do not know if Trump had raised the question of our commitment to the Baltics before then.  Make of it what you will.

Memo 97 (pages 11-12), dated July 30 says that there had been a mutual exchange of information between the Trump organization and Russian intelligence for eight years, i.e., since 2008.  The information Trump supplied was mostly about Russian oligarchs living in the US.  The source as "a Russian emigre close to the campaign."  This may be the same source cited in the previous memo, although that is not clear.

A good many memos deal with the panic in the Trump camp and in the Kremlin as their leaks of Hillary's e-mails proved less damaging than they anticipated and the anger over Russian influence in the campaign proved stronger than they had foreseen.  I find this part comforting, really.  Too often our side has shown signs of succumbing to paranoia, thinking of the Russian State as a vast, unstoppable colossus, and the rest of us as its mere puppets.  Hearing about Russian leaders fighting among themselves and believing they had failed is a good reminder that it is not so.

Memo 102 (page 17), dated August 10, says that Russia's leak of e-mails showing Democratic machinations against Bernie Sanders was Carter Page's idea.  He suggested it to the Russians, saying that it would split the Democratic voters by turning Sanders supporters against Clinton.  There is no direct evidence of this, but to me it does seem plausible, simply because I would expect an American to have a better understanding of the intricacies of US politics than a Russian would have.

Memo 112 (pages 25-26) dated September 14 is intriguing.  It discusses the Alfa Group (misspelled as the Alpha Group). which it describes as a group of businesses led by oligarchs Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan and discussed at some length their rather nebulous relationship with Putin.  No mention of Trump is made.  But remember that Slate article?  The one that mentioned some mysterious communications between the Trump organization and Alfa Bank?  It refers to its leaders as Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, so clearly this is the same organization.  Admittedly the Steele memos (at least the ones made public) do not mention any ties between Trump and the Alfa Group.  But it is a tantalizing straw in the wind.

Memo 94 (pages 9-10) dated July 19 and Memo 134 (pages 30-31) dated October 18 may be the most explosive, both because they contain some of the most detailed, verifiable information, and because there appears to be at least some verification of them.  Memo 94 discusses a meeting between Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and Igor Sechin, CEO of Rosneft, a Russian oil company that is publicly traded, but with a controlling interest in the hands of the Russian government.  According the the memo, a "source close" to Sechin said that Sechin and Page had a "recent" secret meeting to discuss future bilateral energy cooperation and the lifting of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine.  According to this memo, Page reacted positively, but Sechin was non-committal.  It also mentioned Page meeting with another Russian official who provided embarrassing information on Hillary Clinton, but warned that they had such information on Trump as well.

Memo 134 appears to be more details about the same meeting.  This memo says that the meeting took place on either July 7 or 8, the day of or the day after Page giving a public speech to the Higher Economic School in Moscow.  (This part should be verifiable, I would think).  The memo says that at the meeting Sechin offered Page or Trump's associates a 19% stake in Rosneft in return for lifting the sanctions.  Page appeared interested and confirmed that, if elected, Trump would lift the sanctions. Page did not expressly say that he was speaking for Trump, but he implied it.  The memo also says that by October 17 (one day before the memo was written), Sechin had come to believe that Trump would not be elected and started looking for another buyer.  The source give is a "trusted compatriot" of a "close associate" of Sechin.

While these memos contain a great deal of gossip and second hand information and no doubt much of them are false and (almost) all unverified, there just might be some confirmation of this part.  On December 26, Oleg Erovinkin, Sechin's chief-of-staff/treasurer/liaison to Putin turned up dead in his car.  It was first reported as a murder, later as a heart attack.  So we don't know whether Erovinkin was the "close associate" listed in Steele's account, or whether there was foul play involved.  But it looks suspicious.  If this isn't exactly confirmation, it may be grounds not to dismiss the story out of hand.

And another part of this story has been confirmed.  Rosneft really did sell a 19.5% stake on December 7 to a Singaporan investment vehicle on behalf of a joint Swiss-Qatari venture, fronting for a mystery offshore account in the Cayman Islands.  Obviously, now, there is no evidence that the mystery buyer(s) have anything to do with Donald Trump or any of his associates.  Since Memo 134 says that the Russian leadership was looking for another buyer it is possible that they were already looking for another buyer and considered Trump one of many possibilities.  And maybe everyone in the know was aware of the proposed sale, so it shows nothing special that Steele reported it.  And since I would expect agreements of this sort to have a level of trust somewhat below your average drug deal, it seems implausible that the Russians would transfer their interest in Rosneft to anyone associated with Trump before he lifted the sanctions.  Or could the sale be to an intermediary who will turn over the company upon actual lifting of the sanctions?  Who knows?

On the other hand, some of the memos have been decisively disproven.

Memo 134 cites the same source as saying that after Page and Manafort departed the Trump team, Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen took over as liaison, followed by several sections so sensitive that they have been blacked out.

Memo 135 (pages 32-33), dated October 19 reports the Cohen had met secretly with the Russians somewhere in the EU in August to discuss cover-up.  The Russians decided that it was now too dangerous to have any direct meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and that contacts would have to take place through unofficial representatives of the Russian state.

Memo 136 (pages 18-19 (Don't ask)), dated October 20, presumably citing the same source, says that the meeting took place in Prague and that the unofficial Russian contacts would be the parastatal organization Rossotrudnichevsto and Duma member Konstantin Kosachev.

This part of the dossier, at least, has been proven false.  Cohen's US associates and Czech intelligence have established he was in the US at the time of the alleged crime.  Possible a different Michael Cohen with a non-US passport may have been in Prague at the time, presumably on an innocent errand.

There is one other, very strange memo, Memo 166 (pages 34-35).  What is so strange about it is that it is dated December 13, 2016, which is not only after the election, but after the memos appear to have been widely circulated in elite circles, and after John McCain brought the memo to the FBI on December 9, 2016.  All other memos in the collection pre-date the election predate David Corn's scoop on October 31, 2016.  This has led some to suspect that BuzzFeed got its copy from the intelligence community directly.  Whatever the story there, Memo 66 gives further details about Cohen's disproven visit to Prague.  It says that the meeting took place in the last week of August or the first week of September, that Cohen was accompanied by three associates, that he met with Rossotrudnischevsto official Oleg Solodukin, and that they discussed how to make but conceal cash payments to the hackers involved.  Details were given about how the hackers would be concealed. It also says that the Trump organization as well as the Kremlin paid the hackers, but that their ultimate loyalty was to the Kremlin.

So, clearly there is a lot more there than just the salacious parts.  There is the allegation that Trump has been a Russian intelligence asset since 2008; that he received tips from Russians about his political rivals; that there was extensive collaboration between Trump and the Russians on the leaks, with Trump associates suggesting strategy to the Russians; and that the Trump campaign offered the Russians specific policy concessions (dropping the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as a campaign subject, raising questions about US commitment to defend the Baltics) in exchange for support.  The point has been made a number of times that many if not most of these allegations are probably false.  But if any are true, that is grounds for impeachment, if not worse.

Some allegations, particularly the ones about alleged meetings between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian intermediaries Prague, have been proven false.  That would probably also disprove the allegation that that meeting specifically discussed direct payments to the hackers by the Trump organization.

On the other hand, there is possible collaboration of the allegations of a meeting between Carter Page and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin.  Allegedly, Sechin offered Trump and his associates a very large bribe, specifically, a 19% stake in their parastatal oil company in exchange for lifting the sanctions.  Since then the possible source of this leak has turned up dead under mysterious circumstances and the 19% stake has been sold to a mystery buyer.

Is Trump a Russian spy?  There is not enough evidence to say.  But no one has even asked such a question about any earlier US President.

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*He does appear prolific, at least once prolific, at least once producing three memos on a single day (Nos. 111, 112 and 113 are all dated September 14).