Browsing the blog archives for January, 2017.


Making Deals With the Devil

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Trump Maladministration

I’ve got about three sermons crowding into my head demanding to be written. So let’s start with the easy one.

Yesterday, I understand, in a nearby community there was a big (by local standards) pro-Trump rally and prayer service by the county courthouse. I wasn’t there, so I can’t comment on what happened. But given that Washington County has a per capita income of $16,095 (per Wikipedia), I’m going to assume most of the attendees were poor as dirt. It’s also safe to assume they were very conservative and very white.

This is the Bible Belt. People will tell you they are “Bible believing Christians” even if they don’t know Leviticus from Thessalonians and only attend church for weddings and baptisms. But they hold the ideal of the dominance of Christianity in high regard, and identify as Christian, even if they don’t practice the religion themselves. Conservative Christianity has a big presence here, and I’m told some of the local preachers actually campaigned for Trump.

Many already have reviled conservative Christians for embracing Trump. He would seem to be a repudiation of everything they say they stand for, like, um, morality. He’s sleazy, vulgar, dishonest, promiscuous, and he built gambling casinos, for pity’s sake. But this article by Michael Wear, an evangelical who headed religious outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign, explains it pretty well. (It was published in November but I’m just now seeing it.)

In the 2016 presidential election, 81 percent of these voters — voters that Democrats only remember exist every four years — voted for Donald Trump, and only 16 percent supported Clinton, well below the level of support of white evangelicals for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, when he won 26 and 21 percent of white evangelical votes respectively. …

… First, it’s a disturbing fact that safe harbors in white evangelical culture for an acceptance of or willingness to overlook racism, misogyny, xenophobia and anti-Semitism still exist. These tendencies do not wholly define evangelicalism; nor do they summarize all white evangelical support for Trump. But they still plague evangelical communities, and it is the responsibility of evangelicals who supported the winning candidate to be open to these conversations for the unity of the church. …

… But there are also ordinary political explanations for how white evangelicals voted. Trump’s message to evangelicals was that the challenges they face require a suspension of their values in politics — that it is now time to stop playing nice and start busting heads and disrupting the entire system. For evangelicals who feel embattled, isolated and marginalized by the onslaught of cultural change from sexual liberation to same-sex marriage to the coarsening of culture, Trump promised that he would relieve the pressure. Perhaps many of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who supported Trump were uncomfortable with his approach to winning, but there was an even firmer sense that they could not afford to keep losing.

My sermon to the white evangelicals is this — before you voted, you should have reviewed Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:15-20.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” [New International Version]

There’s a lot of stuff in the Bible open to many interpretations, but this is pretty much a dead-on warning to the faithful to not do what they just did — judge a leader by his promises rather than by the effects of his life. (Notice I don’t say “deeds” but “effects”; impressive resumes don’t necessarily mean beneficial results.) Although Trump owns some successful hotels, his actual record as a businessman is, um, mixed. It could be said he’s not really a brilliant businessman; he just plays one on teevee. His record as a humanitarian is worse. And then there’s the vulgar language, the infidelity and divorces, the fraud, the stiffing of contractors, the ties to the mob, etc., etc. And that’s just the stuff we know about. And he’s not displayed even a whiff of remorse or contrition about any of it. The effects of his life are mostly that he’s made a ton of money for himself and left a lot of human wreckage behind.

Oh, and remember when the Mouth of Sauron, a.k.a. Kellyanne Conway, told us to ignore what comes out of Trump’s mouth?

“You have to listen to what the president-elect has said about that. Why don’t you believe him? Why is everything taken at face value?” she asked anchor Chris Cuomo. “You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

In Matthew 15:11, Jesus said, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

So if Jesus was right, no good can come from a Trump Administration. The man is corrupt to his core. The effects of his presidency are likely to be terrible. And if this also isn’t a classic example of “making a deal with the devil,” I don’t know what is.

History shows us that whenever religious power and political power join forces, both become corrupted. And I think we’re seeing the high-water mark of the corruption of conservative evangelicalism in America; it’s the fundie equivalent of Catholicism during the time of the Borgias. They’ve sold out everything, including the Gospels, for the sake of political power.

Back to Michael Wear:

Trump’s outreach to religious people consisted of telling them he was the only one who could save them and the country from what was coming — terrorism, a loss of religious freedom, the ratification of abortion as a moral good — and that he would offer them not just protection, but power. His message was to affirm conservative Christians’ sense of isolation and vulnerability, and to offer himself as the only way out. The debate line Trump used to deflect from his “Access Hollywood” comments was not new. He used it at Liberty University:

…We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it. You know, and I asked Jerry [Falwell Jr.] and I asked some of the folks because I hear this is a major theme right here, but II Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the lord, right, where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty, and here there is Liberty College, but Liberty University, but it is so true. You know, when you think — and that’s really — is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like because I loved it, and it’s so representative of what’s taken place. But we are going to protect Christianity. And if you look what’s going on throughout the world, you look at Syria where if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads. You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege.

This helps us understand how a majority of Trump’s voters could question his temperament and fitness for office, and still think he’s the man for the job.

Even if evangelicals’ morality was on the losing side of the culture, which Trump’s candidacy was a walking reminder that it was, they could be protected through a more forceful exertion of power. This explains Trump’s unusual focus on the Johnson Amendment — a provision banning the endorsement of candidates from the pulpit or through the use of church resources. I have been involved in religion and politics for a decade now, and I had never before heard any mainstream religious leader prioritize the Johnson Amendment. Only a quarter of evangelicals believe an endorsement from the pulpit would be appropriate. Yet, Trump went around the country putting the repeal of the Johnson Amendment at the forefront of his outreach.

Trump’s money mostly came about because his father gave him a lot of it, but his fame came about because he is a master salesman. He’s really good at sniffing out what people want and offering to help them get it.

However, he also has a long history of breaking promises once the deal is done. A lot of his fortune came about because he gets away with stiffing people. And he has absolutely no compunction about doing this; as long as he gets what he wants, there’s no problem.  For example:

Trump’s promises are of the say-anything variety familiar to anyone who paid attention to Trump University:

The ads for his university were classic Donald Trump — Trump stares into the camera and proclaims:

“We’re going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific people, terrific brains, successful. We are going to have the best of the best… and these are people that are handpicked by me.”

… [But in] Trump’s own deposition [in] December [2015], Trump failed to recognize the name of a single presenter or teacher at his real estate seminars. He also confirmed he had nothing to do with the selection process of instructors who taught at the school’s events or mentors for the school’s “Gold Elite” programs.

A review of Trump University presenters and so-called real estate experts found many with questionable credentials and inflated resumes. Court documents show background-checks conducted during the hiring process could not determine whether some instructors even graduated high school.

He may follow through on his promise about the Johnson Amendment, or he may have forgotten about it already. But I can pretty much guarantee that those folks who rallied at the Washington County courthouse aren’t going to see a lick of benefit from a Trump Administration. It’s much more likely that their sorry, poverty-filled lives are about to get worse.

And considering that the state’s newly elected governor is the machine-gunning former Navy Seal who posed as the Ultimate Conservative, they aren’t going to get any help from the state, either. It probably won’t shock you to learn that one of his first acts was to drain tens of millions of dollars out of the budget for the state’s colleges and universities. Because that’s how wingnuts roll.

I’ve written in the past that people in many parts of the country have legitimate grievances, and that both parties  have ignored the economic stagnation growing in small towns and rural areas. However, Washington County has never amounted to much, frankly. When I was growing up nearby I was told most of the inhabitants were on welfare. Whether that is true I do not know, but it might have been true.

It might still be true, actually. It’s not good farm country, and the area has never attracted much industry. There used to be a lot of surface barite deposits in the vicinity, and in times past the locals made a little money digging it up by hand and selling it. But that’s gone now. I believe the biggest “business” there now is the state maximum security prison. And of course, there’s a big WalMart. And a lot of meth is getting cooked in them thar hills.

So exactly what the folks at the Washington County Courthouse expect Trump to do for them isn’t clear. If government really were to “get out of their lives” they probably wouldn’t survive long. Industry isn’t going to be revitalized here, because it was never here to begin with. I’m not seeing an influx of immigrants in the area, so they can’t complain about illegals taking away the jobs they didn’t have anyway.

I’m sure that between Trump and the state, women will have even less access to abortion and birth control, which they barely have now. Medicaid wasn’t expanded here, so a lot of Washington County residents have no health insurance. And the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic is in St. Louis, about an hour and a half drive away.

Perhaps they are living in fear of being asked to bake cakes for same-sex weddings someday.  But, frankly, this place is so poor that if someone were to open up a gay sex toy factory, the locals would line up for the jobs.

So, in Washington County, it probably does come down to racism and religion. People here aren’t just economically isolated; to a large degree they are culturally and socially isolated as well. The world outside of the Ozarks is alien territory. If anyone wants to study an area where white privilege and class privilege have completely parted company, this is it. And now even Christianity is selling them out.

This will not end well.

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C’est le déluge

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Trump Maladministration

I didn’t watch the inauguration, but I did read some of the speech. I imagine that when Trump spouted off about “America first,” a big asterisk appeared over his head with the words “after Russia and Israel.” Am I right?

Stuff to read:

Jonathan Freedland, “Divisive, ungracious, unrepentant: this was Trump unbound.”

Gary Younge, “Trump’s first speech in office was unapologetic appeal to nationalism.”

Josh Marshall, “A Few Thoughts on Entering the Trump Era.”

New York Times, “What We’re Seeing at Trump’s Presidential Inauguration.”

I may add some more if I stumble onto anything good.

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Elites: Let Them Eat Mindfulness

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economy

This article about the World Economic Forum kind of blew me away. Not in a good way.

They are eager to talk about how to set things right, soothing the populist fury by making globalization a more lucrative proposition for the masses. Myriad panel discussions are focused on finding the best way to “reform capitalism,” make globalization work and revive the middle class.

What is striking is what generally is not discussed: bolstering the power of workers to bargain for better wages and redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom.   ….

…. More entrepreneurialism, mindfulness training, education focused on the modern ways of technology: These are the sorts of items that tend to get discussed here as the response to the plight of those left behind by globalization. That perhaps private equity overseers should not be paid 1,000 times as much as teachers while availing themselves of tax breaks is thinking that gets little airing here.

Mindfulness training? “You’ll still be poor, dude, but you’ll be less stressed about it!”

“There’s never been a better time to be alive, and yet we feel so glum,” Mr. Goldin said. “So many people feel anxious. So many people feel that this is one of the most dangerous times.”

 Do tell.

And yet, Mr. Goldin said, if the benefits of globalization are not spread more equitably, the world could be in for a replay of the Renaissance, an extraordinary period of scientific progress, commercial growth and artistic creativity in Europe that ultimately yielded popular resentment.

The gold leaf landing on cathedrals was not bettering the lot of the peasantry. The spices coming in from Asia were too expensive for most. The Medici family that ruled Florence was sent packing by the mob. Intellectuals were persecuted and books burned.

“We need to learn these historical lessons and realize that this is the most precious moment in human history,” Mr. Goldin said. “We need to make the choices to ensure that globalization is sustainable, that connectivity is sustainable, that we deal with the intractable problems that are worrying people.”

Yes; glad to know someone gets it.

But Mr. Goldin’s comments were merely the prelude to a conversation that was supposed to be about how to pull that off. The answers from the corporate executives who comprised a panel could be crudely boiled down to this: The people who have not benefited from globalization need to try harder to emulate those who have succeeded.

Never mind.

Abidali Neemuchwala, the chief executive officer of Wipro, the global information technology and consulting company that hosted the event along with The Financial Times — and who last year earned some $1.8 million plus stock grants worth an additional $2 million or so — said working people would have to pursue training for the jobs of the future.

“People have to take more ownership of upgrading themselves on a continuous basis,” he said.

No one can reasonably argue against the merits of training (or entrepreneurialism for that matter). The jobs of the future have not yet been invented. New skills will be required to seize them. But nowhere in the discussion was there a mention of tax policy, or addressing the soaring costs of gaining higher education, or access to health care.

You’ll like this part.

Ray Dalio, founder of the American investment firm BridgeRay Dalio, founder of the American investment firm Bridgewater Associates — who took home $1.4 billion in compensation in 2015 — suggested the key to reinvigorating the middle class was to “create a favorable environment for making money.” He touted in particular the “animal spirits” unleashed by stripping away regulations.

What does that even mean?

I’m reading this and thinking about the “austerity economics” that have visited privations on the Middle Class to atone for the mistakes of the financial elite, who apparently are Too Big To Atone. And then there’s the creepy Steve Mnuchin, nominated to be Secretary of the Treasurer.

A bank established by President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, once tried to foreclose on a 90-year-old Florida woman over a $0.27 payment mistake, reported Politico Thursday.

Such a prince, this guy. But this is the latest:

Steven T. Mnuchin, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s pick to be Treasury secretary, failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven, an omission that Democrats said made him unfit to serve in one of the government’s most important positions.

He’s got money stashed in so many places he forget to include it all on his disclosure forms. I recommend mindfulness training.

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Avant le déluge

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Obama Administration

So here we are, two days before Trump’s inauguration. The most encouraging thing I’ve heard so far is that Trump won’t start work until Monday. He told the Times of London,

People don’t want to have other people coming in and destroying their country and you know in this country we’re gonna go very strong borders from the day I get in. One of the first orders I’m gonna sign – day one – which I will consider to be Monday as opposed to Friday or Saturday. Right? I mean my day one is gonna be Monday because I don’t want to be signing and get it mixed up with lots of celebration, but one of the first orders we’re gonna be signing is gonna be strong borders.

(#firstninetysevendays)

The man doesn’t drink, but he needs Saturday and Sunday to recover from the inauguration? Or maybe he’s just trying to put it off. Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote:

When we went to interview him in his office in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 72 hours before he takes office, we expected the emphatic showman who was on display through the campaign, and as recently as last week’s press conference.

Instead we found the incoming president unusually subdued: lowering expectations, acknowledging some of the messy realities of governing, and walking back some of the more provocative statements he had made only days before. A top adviser told us the sober tone reflects a bumpy few days inside Trump Tower — and the realization that he’s days away from truly running the nation.

And we all want to postpone his running the nation, because he doesn’t know what the bleep he is doing.

Trump said health care is his most urgent domestic topic, telling us he spoke with President Obama again on Monday about the topic. He back-tracked a bit from his promise of insurance for everybody, saying he wanted to find a mechanism — Medicaid block grants, perhaps — to help the poorest get insurance. “You know there are many people talking about many forms of health care where people with no money aren’t covered. We can’t have that,” he said.

Medicaid block grants? Medicaid block grants? 

But while we’re on the subject of health care, remember Tom Price? The guy nominated to head Health and Human Services whose health care plan I discussed this week? He’s getting ready to hand out those ponies

“One of the important things that we need to convey to the American people is that nobody is interested in pulling the rug out from under anybody,” Price said at a hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “We believe that it’s absolutely imperative that individuals that have health coverage be able to keep health coverage and move hopefully to greater choices and opportunities for them to gain the kind of coverage they want for themselves and for their families.”

I want a chestnut pony with a pretty gold mane.

Over the weekend, Trump told the Washington Post that he planned to unveil an Obamacare replacement plan after Price was confirmed that guaranteed “insurance for everybody.” That cut against the rhetoric that Republicans have used to explain their intentions, focusing on lower costs to ensure “access” to insurance, rather than universal coverage.

“I think there’s been a lot of talk about individuals losing health coverage. That is not our goal nor is it our desire nor is it our plan,” Price said at the hearing.

Later on in the hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) attempted to pin Price down on whether he shared the goal of “insurance for everybody,” pointing to the Obamacare repeal bills he introduced as a congressman.

“My role in Congress was to always make certain that individuals had the opportunity to gain access to the kind of coverage that they desired and that they had the financial feasibility to do so,” he said.

What the hell does that even mean — that individuals had the opportunity to gain access to the kind of coverage that they desired and that they had the financial feasibility to do so ? I’m interpreting this to mean “let them have tax credits.”

Back to Allen and VandeHei — in at least one way, Trump may be an improvement on, um, one other guy —

Trump seemed, dare we say, humbled by recent intelligence briefings on global threats. Dick Cheney’s friends used to tell us he was a decidedly darker, changed man once he started reading the daily intel reports after 9/11. Trump seemed moved by what he’s now seeing.

Dick the Dick didn’t read the daily intel reports until after 9/11? That explains a lot … But at least Dick had had previous real-world experience with international relations and wars and stuff. Trump has just been playing a businessman on teevee.

“I’ve had a lot of briefings that are very … I don’t want to say ‘scary,’ because I’ll solve the problems,” he said. “But … we have some big enemies out there in this country and we have some very big enemies — very big and, in some cases, strong enemies.”

He offered a reminder many critics hope he never forgets: “You also realize that you’ve got to get it right because a mistake would be very, very costly in so many different ways.”

But will he straighten up and start acting like an adults now? Don’t count on it …

In the opening moment, asked why he hasn’t been able to deliver on his promise to heal divisions in the U.S., Trump reiterated his promise “to be a president for all Americans,” only to launch, unprovoked, into his fourth-consecutive day of attacks on Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights icon. Think about that for a minute: He’s less than 72 hours from taking office and he was still stewing about a member of the Democratic minority in the House.

Trump told us his confrontational style is misunderstood. “You know, I’m not really a divisive figure,” he said, before pinning the blame for bad press and bad blood almost entirely on the media: “In the history of politics, there’s nobody that has been treated worse by the press than I have.”

He’s a child. A big, spoiled, venal, idiot child. Or, as Charles Pierce puts it, “the president-elect is a mindless, vengeful carnivore who holds grudges the way mother koalas carry their babies.”

This is not a prediction, but let’s say I wouldn’t be surprised if he bails out in a year or two. Remember, he’s never actually had a job before. The demands of this one are going to be more than a shock.

Elsewhere — do read Charles Pierce on the Betsy DeVos hearing.

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Trump: Everybody Gets a Pony! But Maybe Not Health Insurance

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Bad Hair, Health Care, Medicare, Republican Party

By now you’ve probably heard that Trump is putting the finishing touches on a health care plan that will provide health insurance for everybody.

President-elect Donald Trump said in a weekend interview that he is nearing completion of a plan to replace President Obama’s signature health-care law with the goal of “insurance for everybody,” while also vowing to force drug companies to negotiate directly with the government on prices in Medicare and Medicaid. …

… Trump said his plan for replacing most aspects of Obama’s health-care law is all but finished. Although he was coy about its details — “lower numbers, much lower deductibles” — he said he is ready to unveil it alongside Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“It’s very much formulated down to the final strokes. We haven’t put it in quite yet but we’re going to be doing it soon,” Trump said. He noted that he is waiting for his nominee for secretary of health and human services, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), to be confirmed. That decision rests with the Senate Finance Committee, which hasn’t scheduled a hearing.

Since he mentioned Tom Price here, one suspects that if there is an actual Trump plan, it’s Tom Price’s. So let’s look at that. Here is what Price has proposed:

1. Get rid of the insurance exchanges and their subsidies. Instead, offer fixed tax credits to help people buy insurance on the private market.

Those tax credits would be fairly modest, ranging from $1,200 a year for people 18 to 35 years of age to $3,000 for those 51 and older. In many regions of the country, that would hardly begin to cover the premiums and out-of-pocket costs for a relatively comprehensive health insurance plan.

2. Insurance companies cannot deny insurance to people with pre-existing conditions provided they been insured continuously for the previous 18 months. If you lose coverage because you can’t make a payment, too bad. No insurance for you.

3. “Expanded” health savings accounts. HSAs are great for young, healthy people who need tax shelters; not so much for anybody else.

4. There would be taxpayer funded high-risk pools for sick people who can’t get insurance. These have been tried in the past and have proved to be bottomless money pits. I’m sure the insurance companies like this idea, though, because it lets them off the hook for insuring really sick people.

Price appears to be seriously low-balling the scope of the problem by proposing to invest a mere $3 billion into state risk pools over a three-year period. Ryan’s “Better Way” plan, for instance, would provide $25 billion over the coming decade, and even that might prove to be woefully inadequate.

5. Price wants to limit the employer tax exclusion for providing health insurance to $8,000 a year for individual policies and $20,000 for families. I suspect people would see their employee benefit health insurance taking bigger bites out of their paychecks.

6. Able-bodied single people would no longer be eligible for Medicaid, no matter how poor they are.

7. Price wants to allow insurance companies to sell insurance across state lines. Republicans are in love with this idea because they think that the competition would force insurance premiums to go down. Nobody who understands the health insurance industry thinks this would work.  See also articles in The Fiscal Times, Forbes, and the New York Times explaining why this is a dumb idea.

What Trump probably will propose is a system that would in theory allow anybody to get insurance, but in practice probably would leave out most or all of the people who gained insurance under the ACA, and more beside. Paul Ryan and other Republicans like to make speeches about giving people “universal access” to health insurance, instead of universal insurance coverage, which I interpret to mean “you can buy all the insurance you want, as long as you can pay for it.” Which, of course, is the catch.

But Trump specifically said,

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump told the Washington Post. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”

He’s either lying or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Of course, both might be true. You either stick with some version of the ACA, or go with a single payer/national health care plan, or throw people into the private insurance market to sink or swim. There really aren’t any other options. Tom Price’s ideas won’t work to make health insurance affordable or  reduce health care costs. Health care costs are the real cause of high premiums, and health care costs are high in the U.S. because we have a for-profit system that allows for rampant price gouging.

The part about allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is something Republicans have fought tooth and nail since Part D was established in 2003. (Medicaid already allows for some negotiation.) President Obama tried to tweak the Medicare system a bit to allow for some negotiation, but Republicans balked at that, too. Part D is a cash cow for the pharmaceutical industry, and those lobbyists aren’t going down without a fight. Trump will be in for a fight from his own party on that one.

(I have to crab about Democrats, too, however. Recently Bernie Sanders introduced an amendment that would have allowed importation of cheaper drugs from other countries. This had enough Republican votes it would have passed, except that a gang of Democrats voted against it.)

 

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Worse Than McCarthyism

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Bad Hair, Congress, Republican Party

In the last post I quoted Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, who criticized Donald Trump’s so-called “plan” to plop a fig leaf over obvious conflicts of interest by allegedly separating himself from his businesses without actually separating himself from his businesses. Such criticism would seem to be to be part of Shaub’s job; he’d be remiss if he said nothing. My understanding is that most people who knows stuff about government ethics agree with Shaub.

Republicans might have reacted to this criticism in many ways. They might have disagreed with it; they might have offered counter-arguments. But here’s what they did, courtesy of  Jason Chaffetz, the head of the House Oversight Committee.

On Thursday, Chaffetz opted to go full Salem on the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, attacking Shaub for having done his job. The Republican threatened to subpoena Shaub if he refuses to participate in an official transcribed behind-closed doors interview. The calculus here seems to be that if nobody sees this crooked behavior by supposed ethics guardians like Chaffetz, then it didn’t happen.

OGE, set up post-Watergate, is nonpartisan and advises executive branch officials on avoiding conflicts. Shaub’s five-year term expires in January 2018.

Chaffetz demanded in a letter that he appear before lawmakers in the aforementioned closed-door, transcribed interview, to answer questions in a deposition-style setting. Richard Painter, who served as the ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, told the New York Times that this was “political retaliation” by Republicans against nonpartisan ethics officers for doing their basic duty.

Using threats of subpoenas and hearings to intimidate and silence political opponents is an old tactic for the American Right. Sen. Joe McCarthy was infamous for it back in the day, as was the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

But why do I claim that what Chaffetz tried to do is worse? Because he had no excuse. At least HUAC and McCarthy were ostensibly trying to investigate espionage and subversion in the United States, even though they were mostly just using said investigations as partisan political tools. But Chaffetz didn’t even bother to concoct some reason to harass Shaub that served some greater good. Back to Dahlia Lithwick in Slate:

In an interview with me on Friday, Norm Eisen—who led ethics initiatives during President Obama’s first term—agreed with Painter’s assessment that this is simply retaliation:

Democrats and Republicans alike, Richard Painter and myself included, are outraged by the chairman’s demand for a closed, Star Chamber–style interrogation of Director Shaub simply because he said exactly what bipartisan experts agree upon: that Trump’s proposed conflicts solution is woefully inadequate. An even more chilling aspect of the chairman’s letter is the not-so-veiled threat to cut OGE’s funding. All of this is merely the latest salvo in all-out attack on ethics oversight. The effort to shut down OCE, the four [Cabinet] nominees who had no ethics vetting who the majority tried to ram through confirmation hearings, Trump’s flouting precedent and the Constitution in his own [conflicts of interest] plan, and now this bullying of Shaub and threat to close OGE.

“It’s open season on ethics in D.C.,” Eisen added.

In the old days the enemy was Communism; now the enemy is ethics.  See also “Earnest: ‘Outrageous’ For Chaffetz To Threaten To Subpoena Ethics Chief” by Matt Shuham at Talking Points Memo.

In other news, Trump has now taken to tweeting insults about Rep. John Lewis. The creature has no shame at all.

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Abnormal Is the New Normal?

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Bad Hair, Congress

I was busy doing other things and missed all the fireworks. So I’m still catching up on the dossier scandal. What fun! And then there was Trump’s bizarre “press conference,” in which he pretty much dashed anyone’s lingering hopes that he’d drop out of Asshole Mode once elected.

Trump is going to turn his companies over to his sons, he said. PBS Newshour did a segment on this yesterday that’s very much worth watching.

See also Remarks of Walter M. Shaub, Jr., Director, U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.

Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are.

I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.

Republicans will do their best to keep Trump’s butt covered on this matter, but it’s also the case that if, someday, they decide he’s a liability to the party and their careers, and they want to get rid of him, the guy comes with a built-in impeachable offense. So that’s something.

With everything else going on, you might not have noticed that yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that could cripple the ability of government to regulate private industry. Also yesterday, as predicted, the Senate — at 1:30 a.m., no less — approved a budget procedure that will allow them to gut the Affordable Care Act through a simple majority vote. The actual repeal legislation is supposed to be ready to go by January 27.

Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing yesterday went badly enough that Charles Pierce thinks he could nixed for the Secretary of State position.

Our journey into the Twilight Zone continued today, with the Justice Department announcing an investigation of the FBI.

Dr. Ben Carson was grilled by the Senate as the nominee for heading Housing and Urban Development. As expected, Carson barely knew where he was, but the hearing went smoothly enough. He could not promise that the Trump family would not profit from HUD decisions.

And then this happened:

C-SPAN confirmed Thursday afternoon that its online feed had been temporarily interrupted by the Kremlin-backed news outfit RT, formerly known as Russia Today.

Of course.

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Are Wheels Coming Off the ACA Repeal Bus?

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Bad Hair, Health Care

There are signs congressional Republicans are beginning to get a clue that repealing Obamacare without a good plug and play replacement already in hand might come back to bite them. Jonathan Chait writes,

Something big is happening in the Senate right now: The Republican plan, affirmed again today by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is facing dire peril from Republican defections. Republicans need a House majority, 50 Senate votes, and soon-to-be President Trump to pass repeal and delay.

If Republicans lose three Senate votes, that drops them to 49, and repeal and delay cannot pass. At least three Republican senators (in addition to all the Democrats) now oppose repeal and delay. Rand Paul, of all people, has demanded that Congress repeal Obamacare at the same time it passes a plan to replace it. Paul has announced that he spoke with Trump and secured his agreement on this. Trump has not said so himself, confining his comments to date to a vague assurance, “That’s all gonna work out.”

Trump, of course, tends to change his mind frequently and agree with whomever he spoke with last. But other Republicans senators are taking the initiative. Fellow Republican Lamar Alexander says the same thing as Paul: “We have to take each part of it and consider what it would take to create a new and better alternative and then begin to create that alternative and once it’s available to the American people, then we can finally repeal Obamacare.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said on MSNBC, “It would not be the right path for us to repeal Obamacare without laying out a path forward.” And Senator Bob Corker is walking right up to the edge of the same position, asking Trump to tweet out confirmation of what Paul claims he promised. “If it is his view, it would be really good if he would consider tweeting it out very clearly. There’s more and more concerns about not doing it simultaneously,” Corker says.

Over in the House, Paul Ryan is pushing a bill that would use budget reconciliation to kill significant parts of the ACA. But on top of the three senators who oppose “repeal and delay,” four more Republican senators — Portman, Collins, Cassidy, and Murkowski — joined Corker in sponsoring a bill that would delay Ryan’s Obamacare repeal for a month. They say they just want to be sure everyone is clear about what comes next before they go forward with repeal.

(And since when do we ask presidents to “tweet out” what their intentions are?)

Conservatives hate Obamacare because it redistributes too much money from the rich and healthy to the poor and sick. But they don’t publicly attack the law on that basis. Instead they attack it for high premiums, high deductibles, and narrow choice of doctors and hospitals — all flaws that any Republican plan would have in much higher doses. Republicans have yet to unify around a single, concrete, scorable plan because it is conceptually impossible to design a health-care plan that meets conservative ideological goals and is also acceptable to the broader public.

Ryan is talking about making repeal and replace “concurrent” —

“It is our goal to bring it all together concurrently,” said Ryan. “We already show people what we believe in, what we believe Obamacare should be replaced with. so we’re going to use every tool at our disposal — through legislation, through regulation — to bring replace concurrent along with repeal so we can save people from this mess.”

Hmm. Well, what they believe in is that people without money should just die already. But we really haven’t seen what they think Obamacare should be replaced with. They make noises about various things — high-risk pools, tort “reform,” selling policies across state lines — that don’t add up to a comprehensive whole. There is no way they’re going to fund high-risk pools enough to make them work. That’s a symbolic fix only. Their other ideas barely rise to the level of “tweaks.”

But then there’s this:

On Monday night at Tortilla Coast, a Mexican restaurant on the Hill, the House Freedom Caucus – a group of fiscal conservatives with a reputation for rabble rousing–came to a consensus that they wanted more insight into what the GOP’s replacement is before they vote on a budget resolution slated to be taken up Friday in the House.

 If the House Freedom Caucus is getting nervous about repeal, this is serious. I would have expected them to push for repeal, period, and don’t worry about the replace. But I guess some of them want to be re-elected.

A reconciliation bill requites only a simple majority to pass the Senate, but you can do only so much with a reconciliation bill — change taxes and spending, and that’s about it. Actually changing the system requires a regular bill, which would require some Democratic votes.

The idea behind “repeal and delay” was that by setting a deadline for a replacement, Democrats might be pressured into writing the bill. Republicans, as you know, are congenitally incapable of crafting legislation without help from ALEC. But if there’s no delay, there’s no pressure.

And then there’s the Trump factor. Greg Sargent wrote this morning,

When Trump holds his news conference tomorrow, he will likely be asked whether he still thinks that Republicans should repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act “simultaneously,” as he said in a post-election interview. If he answers in the affirmative, it could throw the current GOP strategy — repeal on a delayed schedule with no guarantee of any replacement later — into further doubt.

 So, we’ll see.

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Russian Hacking: Should We Be Worried?

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Bad Hair, Russia

First, let me be clear that it’s sensible to be skeptical about anything ANYBODY is saying about the Russian hacking scandal. ANYBODY includes government agencies, news media and Julian Assange. ANYBODY includes the many nobodies crawling out of the internet woodwork who claim to be cybersecurity experts, or espionage experts, or both. Lots of people are pulling lots of “facts” out of lots of butts to serve their own ends. There are no disinterested parties here.

Let me also be clear that even if the assessment — that Vladimir Putin himself ordered the meddling of the election to favor Donald Trump — is true, it’s unrealistic to expect the intelligence agencies to explain what they know and how they know it. Assuming it’s true, this is an ongoing intelligence operation. “What they know and how they know it” must remain secret so that the Russians don’t know how the CIA is finding them out. So, the lack of “proof” is not in itself “proof” that the intelligence agencies are making it up. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. I’m astonished at the number of people I run into who don’t “get” that.

It’s also important to understand that we don’t know for a fact that the hacking changed the outcome of the election. Harry Enton of Fivethirtyeight analyzed polling data and said that one simply can’t see a clear pattern of Wikileaks releases moving the poll numbers. See also Matt Yglesias.

Opinions on who’s right or wrong on this matter seem to fall pretty much along predictable ideological lines. If you were a big Hillary Clinton fan before the election, you probably believe the intelligence agencies assessment, and more. Note that a Yougov.com poll found that 52 percent of Democrats believe Russian hackers somehow hacked into voting machines and changed election tallies. I’ve run into these people on social media. When you tell them no government agency or major media source has made any such claim, they don’t believe it.

On the other  hand, both the whackjob Right and the #DemExit Left tend to believe anything Julian Assange says, uncritically. I personally don’t trust Assange as far as I can throw him.

I see lots of opinions on the Web that boil down to, “So what? The U.S. has interfered with lots of elections.” True, and usually that’s come back to bite us. However, that’s no excuse to dismiss the Russian hacking scandal as something of no importance. That’s a bit like saying that it’s no big deal if someone drops a nuclear bomb on San Francisco, since we dropped one on Hiroshima all those years ago. It’s rather a big deal if you live in San Francisco, or downwind of it, at least.

So let’s hypothetically assume there is some truth to the claim that Russia at least intended to manipulate the U.S. into electing Donald Trump. And he got elected. Why should be we concerned?

There is lots of speculation about how much money Trump owes and who his debt holders might be. There seems to be widespread agreement that his debt is over $1 billion, much of which has been repackaged as bonds. But without his tax returns, everybody is guessing.

Ben Kentish of the Independent (UK) reports:

Donald Trump’s companies are almost $1.8 billion in debt to more than 150 institutions, a new report has suggested – raising fresh questions about potential conflicts of interests when the Republican takes office in January.

The new evidence exposes the extent to which the businessman will soon be responsible for regulating many of the institutions he owes sizeable amounts of money to.

Mr Trump has previously declared $315 million (£254 million) of debt owed to ten different lenders. However, a new study by the Wall Street Journal claims an additional $1.5 billion is owed by companies that are partly owned by the billionaire.

(Wall Street Journal articles are behind a subscription firewall, and I refuse to buy a subscription.)

Is any of that debt held in Russia? Last August Jeff Nesbit reported in Time:

Most of the coverage of the links between Trump and Putin’s Russia takes the GOP presidential nominee at his word—that he has lusted after a Trump tower in Moscow, and come up spectacularly short. But Trump’s dodge—that he has no businesses in Russia, so there is no connection to Putin—is a classic magician’s trick. Show one idle hand, while the other is actually doing the work.

The truth, as several columnists and reporters have painstakingly shown since the first hack of a Clinton-affiliated group took place in late May or early June, is that several of Trump’s businesses outside of Russia are entangled with Russian financiers inside Putin’s circle.

So, yes, it’s true that Trump has failed to land a business venture inside Russia. But the real truth is that, as major banks in America stopped lending him money following his many bankruptcies, the Trump organization was forced to seek financing from non-traditional institutions. Several had direct ties to Russian financial interests in ways that have raised eyebrows. What’s more, several of Trump’s senior advisors have business ties to Russia or its satellite politicians.

(There’s an internet rumor that Trump owes the Blackstone/ Bayrock Group $560 million dollars. I can’t find any confirmation of that. A quick google didn’t turn up confirmation that Blackstone and Bayrock have ever had anything to do with each other. Blackstone’s CEO is cozy with Trump, but Blackstone is supposed to have stopped doing business in Russia a couple of years ago. Bayrock Group is a sleazy company with definite connections to both Trump and American crime families. The managing director, Felix Sater, is rumored to be the son of a Russian crime boss, but I can’t find a not-hinky source for that. )

On the other hand, Putin has a keen interest in jacking up the price of oil, and Trump’s election may be a critical part of making that happen. The selection of an Exxon CEO as Secretary of State does seem suspicious; see Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! on that point.

My larger concern has to do with the Middle East. If Trump is doing favors for Putin, how will this influence Middle East policy? There is an alliance between Russia and Iran. I don’t want the U.S. to be pulled into making that a threesome. Another concern regards the Iran Deal, about which Putin is said to be ambivalent.

So yes, I’d say there’s reason to be concerned.

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Hey, Republicans: Put Up or Shut Up

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Bad Hair, Health Care, Republican Party

Martin Longman sums it up:

The Republicans have had tremendous success with what they know best, which is being a very good minority party. They can counter-message and use procedural tools in obnoxiously innovative ways to obstruct. They can simply refuse to even hold hearings for presidential nominees or insist that those positions don’t even need to be filled. They excel at this stuff, but they do not excel at legislating or doing oversight of the federal government and its agencies.

Their plan here is the plan of a minority party. They want to force the Democrats to do something rather than figuring out a way to do it themselves. They have no idea how to replace Obamacare without blowing up the private insurance industry, costing hundreds of thousands of people their health insurance, and taking all the political blame. So, they’ll just try brinksmanship and maybe those clever law-writing Democrats will rescue them at the end of the day out of some bleeding heart do-gooder sense of decency.

So far, the Democrats appear to be happy to let the the Republicans twist in the wind.

Schumer is taking a hard line when it comes to Republican plans to repeal the law, and whether or not Democrats would work across the aisle on a replacement if Republicans are successful in rolling it back. “And if they think we’re going to come in and save their butts when they screw it up? No.”

Schumer also proposed “Make America Sick Again” as a new Republican motto.

The Trumpster issued a new tweetstorm in the wee hours in which, among other things, he called Chuckie Schumer the “head clown.” This was followed by a call for Republicans and Democrats “to get together and come up with a healthcare plan that really works – much less expensive & FAR BETTER!” Yeah, that’ll work.

Schumer fired back today.

“Now, we understand that President-elect Trump is in a difficult spot, that Republicans are in a difficult spot. They want to repeal ACA, and have no idea how to replace it,” he said. “But instead of calling names, [the] President-elect should roll up his sleeves and show us a replacement plan that will cover the 20 million Americans who gained coverage, that will cover students or post-college students, 21 to 26, who want to stay on their parents’ plan, that will show how we cover people with pre-existing conditions.”

“So I’d say to the President-elect and the Republicans that this is not a time for calling names. It’s time for them to step up to the plate if they want to repeal, and show us what they’d replace it with,” Schumer added.

Also, too, yesterday dear Bernie Sanders brought an oversized print of one of the Donald’s old tweets and put it on display in Congress.


Sanders said Trump should either admit he was lying or say he will veto any forthcoming cuts.

“Millions of people voted for him on the belief that he would keep his word,” he said. “If he was sincere, then I would hope that tomorrow or maybe today he could send out a tweet and tell his Republican colleagues to stop wasting their time and all of our time. And for Mr. Trump to tell the American people that he will veto any proposal that cuts Medicare, that cuts Medicaid or that cuts Social Security.”

And when Trump made those promises on the campaign trail, I suspect his followers assumed he knew how he would make it happen. But it’s obvious he doesn’t have a clue.

See this article by Drew Altman in today’s New York Times — “The Health Care Plan Trump Voters Really Want.”

Surveys show that most enrollees in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces are happy with their plans. The Trump voters in our focus groups were representative of people who had not fared as well. Several described their frustration with being forced to change plans annually to keep premiums down, losing their doctors in the process. But asked about policies found in several Republican plans to replace the Affordable Care Act — including a tax credit to help defray the cost of premiums, a tax-preferred savings account and a large deductible typical of catastrophic coverage — several of these Trump voters recoiled, calling such proposals “not insurance at all.”

And it isn’t insurance at all.

One of those plans has been proposed by Representative Tom Price, Mr. Trump’s nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services. These voters said they did not understand health savings accounts and displayed skepticism about the concept.

When told Mr. Trump might embrace a plan that included these elements, and particularly very high deductibles, they expressed disbelief. They were also worried about what they called “chaos” if there was a gap between repealing and replacing Obamacare. But most did not think that, as one participant put it, “a smart businessman like Trump would let that happen.”

However, they also said this:

They were unmoved by the principle of risk-sharing, and trusted that Mr. Trump would find a way to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions without a mandate, which most viewed as “un-American.”

I don’t find the need for the mandate that hard to grasp, and I’m not exactly brilliant when it comes to number things.

But it does seem to me that if these people get their insurance ripped out from under them, with nothing to replace it but some blah blah health savings account blah, even they may notice they’ve been had.

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