Browsing the blog archives for December, 2016.


CIA: Now They Tell Us

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corruption, elections

The Washington Post‘s “Russia” story is getting real traction, in spite of the fact that we sorta kinda knew this for a long time, as far as I’m concerned.

The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

Let us be clear that nobody officially is saying that Donald Trump is not the legitimate winner of the Electoral College vote. Hillary Clinton might have lost, anyway, for a whole lot of other reasons. And, again, most of this isn’t new. It was kind of obvious.

Some elements of this story were new, however. And the picture that emerges is dirty as hell.

One is that some time back Russian hackers broke into both the RNC and DNC networks. That the DNC and other Democratic networks had been hacked was public knowledge. But the Republicans have denied all along that their networks had been hacked, which was a lie.

The CIA now confirms that Wikileaks received materials from hackers working for the Russian government and released those materials. The Russian hackers apparently passed only material stolen from Democrats on to Wikileaks, however, which is why the CIA concluded Russia wanted Trump to win.

Further, the CIA presented this assessment to key members of Congress back in September. Democrats wanted the information to be made public; Republicans wanted to quash it. And the chief Republican who blocked release of this information before the election was Mitch McConnell.

You might remember that Donald Trump nominated McConnell’s wife to be Secretary of Transportation.  Stinks, much?

One of the individuals who knew about this intelligence was our old buddy FBI Director James Comey. You might remember that the FBI released a statement a week before the election saying there was no clear link between Trump and Russia, and that the Russian hacking was not part of an attempt by Russia to mess with the election. But Comey was fully aware of the CIA assessment that said otherwise.

Today outgoing Senator Harry Reid called for Comey to resign.

“I am so disappointed in Comey. He has let the country down for partisan purposes. That’s why I call him J. Edgar Hoover. Because I believe that,” Reid told MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Saturday.

Later asked if Comey should resign as FBI director, Reid replied, “of course.” Reid also said that Comey should be investigated by the U.S. Senate and other security agencies of the government.

Some senators — including Republican senators McCain and Graham, to give credit where credit is due — are calling for an all-out Senate probe into this situation. And President Obama has asked the intelligence agencies to give him a full report before he leaves office.

Typically, the yam-elect threw a tantrum.

Mr. Trump, in a statement issued by his transition team on Friday evening, expressed complete disbelief in the intelligence agencies’ assessments.

“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Trump’s team said, adding that the election was over and that it was time to “move on.”

Though Mr. Trump has wasted no time in antagonizing the agencies, he will have to rely on them for the sort of espionage activities and analysis that they spend more than $70 billion a year to perform.

At this point in a transition, a president-elect is usually delving into intelligence he has never before seen and learning about C.I.A. and National Security Agency abilities. But Mr. Trump, who has taken intelligence briefings only sporadically, is questioning not only analytic conclusions, but also their underlying facts.

“To have the president-elect of the United States simply reject the fact-based narrative that the intelligence community puts together because it conflicts with his a priori assumptions — wow,” said Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the N.S.A. and later the C.I.A. under President George W. Bush.

Further, the current frontrunner for the Secretary of State job — a bleeping Exxon CEO with no public sector experience whatsoeverhas extensive ties to Russia.

Tillerson received the Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013. Tillerson’s work with ExxonMobil included a stretch working for Exxon Neftegas Ltd., putting him in charge of the subsidiary’s fields in Russia and the Caspian Sea.

Two years before receiving the award, ExxonMobil won a contract to explore for oil in a Russia-controlled portion of the Arctic Ocean, which was made more economically viable for drilling in part thanks to the sea ice decline that’s followed global warming. Putin himself announced the deal at a meeting in Sochi (where the Winter Olympics would be held the next year).

Tillerson’s stake in ExxonMobil will certainly raise questions at a confirmation hearing. Once Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the United States instituted sanctions against Russia that froze ExxonMobil’s Arctic agreement. Were those sanctions to be lifted, the deal would probably move forward — making Tillerson’s shares of ExxonMobil stock much more valuable. (The Wall Street Journal noted that he’d probably have to divest from that stock if appointed to run the State Department.)

Bob Cesca wrote last July that the Russian hacking was a bigger scandal than Watergate; I’d say he was right.

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True Colors: Republicans Hate Poor Old People

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Medicare, Republican Party, Social Security

You might remember that just about the day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Paul Ryan started bleating about privatizing Medicare. He couldn’t wait. Nobody was talking about privatizing Medicare during the election, but Ryan acted as if the election gave him a mandate to do so.

Now Republicans are going after Social Security already. They aren’t even waiting to seat the next Congress.

A key House Republican on the issue of Social Security introduced a bill Thursday that would impose major cuts to the program. The bill, the Social Security Reform Act of 2016, was introduced by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), the chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.

It would, among other things, gradually raise the retirement age from 67 to 69 on Americans 49 or younger at the present. It would change the formula that determines the size of a retiree’s initial payments. And it would switch the program to a less generous formula for raising payments according to cost of living increases. …

… The cuts in the bill lean more heavily on high income-earners, but most workers would see cuts — some of them drastic — if Johnson’s bill became law.

They want to make Social Security more “solvent” by cutting it. Raising funds, such as by raising the cap on Social Security taxes, is not even considered in this bill.

If you’re a Republican, you screw old folks. It’s just what Republicans do.

See also How The GOP Social Security/Medicare Doomsday Machine Works

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John Glenn, 1921-2016

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Obama Administration

An all-around decent human being. He had the right stuff.

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Up, Up and Away, or Not

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Bad Hair

Updating the last post, on the Republican “repeal and delay” plan for getting rid of Obamacare — members of the House “freedom” caucus are making noises that they won’t go along.

The Republican congressman who made his name as the instigator of John Boehner’s ouster last year was set to take the reins of the House Freedom Caucus on Monday night.

And first up on Rep. Mark Meadows’ to-do list: Torpedoing GOP leadership’s tentative plans to take as long as three years to replace Obamacare.

The proposal “will meet with major resistance from Freedom Caucus members,” the North Carolina Republican vowed in an interview, calling it “the first big fight I see coming for the Freedom Caucus.”

“It should be repealed and replaced, and all of that should be done in the 115th Congress” — the two-year period starting in January through 2018 — and “not left to a future Congress to deal with,” Meadows added.

Bless their empty little hearts and clueless little heads — that would actually be principled. And, look, GOP, the shit from cutting people off from healthcare is gonna hit the fan sometime. Do you want it to be before the 2018 midterm election or the 2020 general election?

In other news, Pathology-elect Donald Trump caused an uproar when he tweeted disapproval of the alleged costs for updating Air Force One:

Experts are a tad bewildered

Boeing won the contract to build the new Air Force One in January 2015, but no plane has been officially ordered by the Department of Defense.

Aerospace industry expert Richard Aboulafia says this is “complete madness.”

“I scratched my head and thought I might be asleep and might be dreaming … but it turns out I was alive, awake, and at my computer,” he told Seattle’s Morning News.

The cost for the planes was an estimated $3 billion, according to the Associated Press, but costs have reportedly been rising. Aboulafia says this isn’t Boeing trying to make a ton of money.

“It’s actually what it costs to have two airplanes that can survive a nuclear war and transport the president in times of national emergency, and any other time for that matter,” he explained.

See also “The Inaccuracies in Donald Trump’s Air Force One Tweet.”

It’s reported the Senate found this funny, but one Senator was not so amused

One senator who wasn’t laughing was Washington Democrat Patty Murray, who’s constituents have a direct stake in the contract to build the new planes, which would replace the aging aircraft now used for presidential travel. Aerospace giant Boeing is expected to build the planes in her home state of Washington.

“The workers of my state and the workers of Boeing across this country do an incredible job and build an incredible airplane,” she said. “I hope the president-elect takes the time to talk to the Pentagon and the Air Force and Boeing about how defense contracts work before he tweets.”

But there may be something besides frugality behind Trump’s tweet. Per Josh Marshall, the Chicago Tribune published this about 20 minutes before Trump tweeted:

The brain trust at Boeing, among the city’s largest companies and a global aerospace and defense powerhouse, must cringe every time President-elect Donald Trump riffs on foreign policy, especially when it comes to dealing with China. …

…”I’m not a political pundit or prognosticator — we have too many of those — but anyone who paid attention to the recent campaigns and the election results realizes that one of the overarching themes was apprehension about free and fair trade,” he [Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO] said.

Muilenburg argues that international trade is essential to the U.S. economy and its importance is reflected in the “large and growing percentage of our business” coming from international sales, including commercial jet orders from China.

Ooo, the giant talking yam is a tad sensitive, it seems. And, anyway, $3 to $4 billion ain’t nothin’ to the Pentagon.

The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.

See also Charles Pierce.

Update: See also “Did Donald Trump tank Boeing’s stock because he was mad about a news article?

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Can Obamacare Be Saved?

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Health Care

The Republican plan, as I understand it, is to pass a law repealing Obamacare as soon as the next Congress is called into session. However, sniveling weasels that Republicans are, the law won’t go into immediate effect. They’ll put the end date sometime after the 2018 midterms, of course.

The latest is that Republicans will repeal Obamacare right away in January using a process called budget reconciliation, which lets them repeal budgetary items with just 51 votes in the Senate. Then, Republicans will enact a self-imposed deadline roughly three years from now before they have to pass a replacement plan. How much of the existing Obamacare elements will limp along until then remains unclear, and whether you can repeal some but not all of Obamacare without causing it to collapse is a big open question.

But such a scenario also creates a self-imposed crisis that Republicans hope will pressure Democrats into coming to the negotiating table down the road. This is where clarity is crucial. Three years from now, it’s not the Democrats’ crisis. It’s a Republican one. There is no health care cliff, Obamacare doomsday, congressional-health-care-death-spiral apocalypse unless Republicans create one by repealing Obamacare without a replacement plan.

And they’ve never been able to come up with a replacement plan. Time and time again they claim to have done so, but that plan always falls apart under scrutiny, forcing them to come up with another replacement plan.

The biggest bite to any Republican so-called plan always is that they can’t cover people with pre-existing conditions without either a mandate for everyone to buy insurance (which, of course, in their minds is Evil) or without putting uninsurable people into high-risk pools, which have been tried in several states and just plain don’t work.

And if they eliminate the mandate but keep the pre-existing condition requirement, the costs of policies would more than skyrocket. It would set the health insurance industry into chaos. See “Why Keeping Only the Popular Parts of Obamacare Won’t Work.”

But the real bite is that the guy Trump wants to head Health and Human Services is a five-alarm whackjob. In his perfect world, only young, healthy people (and the very rich) would have insurance and the rest of us would just be required to suffer and die.

Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for health and human services secretary, already has a plan for how to abolish Obamacare. …

…Price will arrive at HHS with a clear blueprint for what comes next. He is the author of the Empowering Patients First Act, one of the most thorough and detailed proposals to repeal and replace Obamacare. …

… It would replace the law with a plan that does more to benefit the young, healthy, and rich — and disadvantages the sick, old, and poor. Price’s plan provides significantly less help to those with preexisting conditions than other Republican proposals, particularly the replacement plan offered by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).

The biggest cut to the poor in Price’s plan is the full repeal of the Medicaid expansion, a program that currently covers millions of low-income Americans, which Price replaces with, well, nothing.

I caught a few seconds of Paul Ryan’s interview on 60 Minutes yesterday, before I was able to change the channel. Ryan assured America that Obamacare would be replaced by “Patient-centered healthcare that gets everybody access to affordable healthcare coverage, so that they can buy whatever they want to buy.” And I want a pony, too.

But now the Republicans will have to put up or shut up, and they can’t do it. Whatever they do is going to hurt a lot of people.

So they’ll make a big show out of repealing Obamacare, except most likely it will still be in effect — mandate and all — for the next three years or so. But it’s possible enough of the whackjobs — like Tom Price — will insist on taking it apart sooner, which will cause widespread disaster and lots of suffering.

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Who Called Whom?

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Asia, Bad Hair

One of the more interesting aspects of the now infamous Taiwan-Trump phone conversation of Friday, is that nobody admits to initiating the call.

When criticism of the call broke out Friday, Trump quickly claimed that Taiwan called him:

Trump offered no apologies, nor did his transition team make any comments. Instead, he defended the discussion amid reams of criticism for having broken U.S. protocol by saying Tsai initiated it.

“The President of taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” Trump tweeted.

However, Taiwanese officials say otherwise.

Except, a spokesman for the Taiwan government quickly contradicted the U.S. president-elect, saying the call had been arranged in advance: “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.”

See also:

If he meant to imply that the incoming call was a surprise, then he either was lying or had been misled; Taiwan’s press had already published news of a “scheduled” call hours earlier. The Taipei Times reported, “Trump reportedly agreed to the call, which was arranged by his Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Strait, sources said.”

Josh Marshall:

Today we learn that the guy who arranged for Trump’s call with the President of Taiwan was none other than Stephen Yates. He’s currently in Taipei and working for the Trump transition team. Yates has a post at The Heritage Foundation while also running his own international consultancy – a typical arrangement for high level foreign policy hands of both parties when their party is out of power.

[Late Update: After I wrote this post but I think before I pushed the ‘publish button’, Yates has now denied reports that he arranged the call, while saying he thinks he was a great idea. I would suggest keeping an open mind about whether the original reports or the denial are more credible. If it wasn’t this Yates, it was likely another.]

For starters this leaves little doubt that this call was intentional – at least in the sense that Trump’s advisors put it together with a full understanding of the diplomatic implications. Just how much Trump understood this or understood the full ramifications of taking this call isn’t entirely clear. The fact that Trump’s twitter freak out pushed the point that the Taiwanese President had called him, not vice versa, suggests an element of defensiveness and incomplete understanding of the situation.

In other words, it’s possible Trump is being manipulated by advisors with their own agenda. Of course, it’s also possible that most of the people advising Trump are dumb as a box of rocks, also.

Back to Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

In the hours that followed, it became clear that Trump may have been manipulated into doing something he doesn’t understand. Michael Crowley, of Politico, noted that the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who favors a tilt away from Beijing, visited Trump Tower on Friday for undisclosed reasons. Bolton has argued for “playing the Taiwan card” to pressure Beijing. In a January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote,

The new U.S. administration could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei from a private “institute” to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.

Further complicating matters, according to the blog Shanghaiist, Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia, Taiwan News reports.” Did Trump break nearly four decades of diplomatic practice to sweeten his family’s business prospects with Taiwan? His supporters, of course, say no. But the President-elect has taken no steps that would defuse that perception.

It’s going to be a long four years, folks. News analysts are saying that China appears to be taking a low-key approach, possibly concluding that Trump must be an idiot. But apparently they had been willing to give him lots of benefits of lots of doubts, thinking he was someone they could work with, and now he’s blown that impression out of the water.

“This is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship,” Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said Saturday. “There was a sort of delusion based on overly optimistic ideas about Trump. That should stop.”

If they’re going to cause an international incident, though, I’d rather they do it now while President Obama is still running things. Perhaps even Trump can learn that actions have consequences. Otherwise it’s going to be one blunder after another until somebody finally has had enough.

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How Trump Learned to Do Business

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Bad Hair

One of the most interesting commentaries on Trump’s so-called deal to save jobs at Carrier Corps. in Indiana was in CNBC, of all places.

Trump’s deal with United Technologies includes $7 million in financial incentives provided by Indiana to keep 1,100 jobs at Carrier, the company’s heating and air conditioning unit, in the state. However, Carrier still plans to move roughly 1,300 other jobs to Mexico and close another facility in Indiana.

Such a deal. With deal-making skillz like that, no wonder Trump went bankrupt, what, four times? I lost track.

Trump boasted about his deal to keep about 1,100 Carrier jobs in Indiana, and also took aim at other companies who may be thinking about moving jobs out of the country.

“Companies are not going to leave the United States anymore without consequences. Not going to happen. It’s not going to happen, I’ll tell you right now,” Trump said on Thursday.

To which an American Enterprise Institute fellow said,

“The idea that American corporations are going to have to make business decisions, not based on the fact that we’ve created an ideal environment for economic growth in the United States, but out of fear of punitive actions based on who knows what criteria exactly from a presidential administration. I think that’s absolutely chilling.”

And, y’know, that’s a point. Not that a lot of companies wouldn’t mind facing the same consequences Carrier had to endure, but it’s not the sort of talk corporate leaders are used to hearing from Republican presidents.

I mean, who talks like that? Wait … it’ll come to me …

I don’t know anything about the Mob beside what I’ve seen in movies, but it’s known that Trump cut his teeth as a businessman by working with the New York/New Jersey Mob. Even PolitiFact grudgingly admits this, although it wants you to know Trump may not have liked it.

Politico published an article last May that may need more reading

From the public record and published accounts like that one, it’s possible to assemble a clear picture of what we do know. The picture shows that Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.

Now that he’s running for president, I pulled together what’s known – piecing together the long history of federal filings, court records, biographical anecdotes, and research from my and Barrett’s files. What emerges is a pattern of business dealings with mob figuresnot only local figures, but even the son of a reputed Russian mob boss whom Trump had at his side at a gala Trump hotel opening, but has since claimed under oath he barely knows.

See also “The Many Times Donald Trump Has Lied About His Mob Connections” by David Corn at Mother Jones and “The Donald Trump Story You’re Not Hearing About” by Todd Gitlin at Moyers & Company.

Most of the information in the Politico article goes back to the 1980s. Does The Donald still work with the Mob? I don’t know. But he learned to cut business deals by dealing with the Mob. And since he’s never worked for anyone else, no one’s ever told him that leaving bloody horse heads in people’s beds is not a standard negotiating technique.

Ooo, just wait until he gets to negotiate some nuclear treaty.

At the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt sees another model — our buddy Vlad Putin.

It’s good that about 1,000 Carrier Corp. workers will not be losing their jobs. But there is a whiff of Putinism in the combination of bribery and menace that may have affected Carrier’s decision — the bribery of tax breaks, the menace of potential lost defense contracts for Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies.

If this were to become the U.S. government’s standard method of operation, the results would be Russian, too: dwindling investment, slowing economic growth, fewer jobs.

On the same day that Donald Trump took a victory lap through the Carrier plant in Indiana, The Post published a coincidentally relevant article about Russia’s “fixer-in-chief,” Vladimir Putin.

The article, by Post correspondent David Filipov, describes how government-controlled television continually features Russia’s president interrogating or berating factory directors and petty officials. …

…The problem is that it doesn’t work. Russia’s economy is shrinking, year by year, and no matter how many factory directors Putin humiliates, it won’t start growing again without structural and political reform.

It also reminds me of Chris Christie’s method for improving New Jersey’s schools, which was to get himself videoed yelling at teachers.

See also “Trump’s Tough Trade Talk Could Damage American Factories.”

Speaking of salesmanship, Trump also has been cold-calling foreign heads of state to sell them on his new project, to be known formally as The Trump Administration.

Mr. Trump’s conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan has generated the most angst, because, as Mr. Earnest put it, the relationship between Mr. Sharif’s country and the United States is “quite complicated,” with disputes over issues ranging from counterterrorism to nuclear proliferation.

In a remarkably candid readout of the phone call, the Pakistani government said Mr. Trump had told Mr. Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Mr. Sharif invited him to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.” …

…The breezy tone of the readout left diplomats in Washington slack-jawed, with some initially assuming it was a parody.

The next four years will be such fun.

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