Merry Whatever

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holiday, Trump Maladministration

Even though it’s not a religious holiday for me, I have to admit I appreciate that there’s one time of year when everything comes to a screeching halt. Routines go out the window; businesses close. There’s nothing left but to say, “Oh, yeah. It’s Christmas.” It helps one appreciate normal, especially when all those insipid made-for-television Christmas romance movies go away.

In the unintended consequences department, we learn that Trump’s announcement about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has killed Christmas tourism in the Holy Land.

Chalk the absence of visitors up to President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem speech, which outraged Muslims, scared off tourists, and unnerved Christian clerics. It also bushwhacked Vice Preside Mike Pence’s planned (now postponed) trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Cairo, which was meant to express solidarity with Mideast Christians. Church leaders were refusing to meet him.

“Who was advising Trump?” one prominent Bethlehem Christian asked me plaintively. Good question. Because the backlash against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital makes one wonder what Trump and Pence thought they would gain.

According to what I have read here and there, those advising Trump to do this included his go-to guy on Middle East Peace, Jared Kushner; and his veep, Mike Pence.

And then there is Pence, a fervent Christian who urged the president to keep his pledge to his evangelical base and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. If he thought this move would help Holy Land Christians, he was very wrong.

One of the terrible ironies here is that Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims have co-existed peacefully for generations. The reason the Palestinian clergy want to keep a distance from Mike Pence is that they fear making enemies of Muslims.

Ordinary Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem worry that Trump’s perceived challenge to Muslim holy sites will destabilize the city and affect them. They are a minority who have lived for centuries alongside their Muslim Palestinian brethren, and always hope for calm.

On the West Bank, Palestinian Christians do not face persecution for their religious beliefs. Christian restaurants in Bethlehem serve alcohol without any problem, and Christian women walk with hair uncovered. “In Bethlehem, we are a minority, but the Palestinian government supports Christians here,” Canawati said. “The post of mayor always goes to a Christian.” …

…”Most Christian Palestinians feel caught in the middle,” says the Rev. Peter Vasko, a Brooklynite and longtime resident of Jerusalem, who heads the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, which aims to help Christians remain there. “Israeli soldiers look at Christians as Arabs, while Palestinian radicals see them as traitors to the cause.”

Christian evangelicals in the U.S. think that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a great idea; Christians who actually live in Israel, however … not so much.

The divide between evangelicals and other Christian denominations reflects two views of Jerusalem — one traditional and political, the other literal and theological. The key to understanding this rift is the evangelical belief in what is necessary to pave the way for the second coming of Jesus.

For many Holy Land Christians, Trump’s declaration was about as welcome as a biblical curse.

Hours before the declaration on Dec. 6, Jerusalem’s Orthodox Christian patriarchs and heads of local churches sent Trump a letter predicting that “such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.”

And yet, across the ocean, Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Christian Family Research Council, said on a White House visit that “evangelical conservatives are grateful” to Trump for his decision on Jerusalem.

I’m afraid the best we can hope for is that someday Tony Perkins and the whackjobs who admire him find Jesus.

Meanwhile, at the North Pole, there’s a climate crisis.

On a more cheerful note, someone — maybe the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — sent Steve Mnuchin a gift-wrapped box of horse manure. This was generous; I would have just sent some well-used kitty litter. Horse manure is too good for Mnuchin.

And so as not to be a complete downer this Christmas, here’s my favorite Christmas carol. Enjoy.

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Republicans Could Be Disappointed

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Trump Maladministration

There’s a lively debate going on about whether, and how much, the tax cut bill will hurt Republicans in the midterms. Some people are pointing to the current unpopularity of the bill; the most recent CNN poll shows that 55 percent of Americans oppose it. But Republicans think this opposition will melt away when people see reductions in taxes withheld from their paychecks, starting a few weeks from now. Maybe. I’ll get back to that.

There are a couple of wild cards out there that could change the game. One, a big one, is health insurance. Companies providing employee benefit health insurance had already announced big increases in premiums (thanks in part to Trump), a portion of which are deducted from paychecks. From what I have read this could wipe out at least half of the tax cuts for middle income people and all of the tax cuts for low income people, none of which were all that generous to begin with.  Republicans appear to be blissfully unaware of this.

The other wild card is chaos. Because of the speed and carelessness with which this bill was put together, it’s going to take months to work the kinks out. The IRS has to issue rules for employers for how much to deduct. The IRS may have to design new W-4 forms that everyone will have to fill out and return. The IRS may not be able to process all this in a timely manner.

The chaos is likely to take months — and perhaps longer — to sort out as the IRS begins writing the rules governing the law’s implementation. The agency has already said it doesn’t expect the tax tables helping employers decide how much in federal taxes should be withheld from workers’ paychecks to be ready until mid-January, allowing them to be implemented in February.

“The IRS will be working closely with the nation’s payroll and tax professional community during this process,” the agency said in a statement.

But some tax experts are also concerned about the IRS’s ability to quickly address the mounting concerns. The agency has been attacked by Republicans for years and has seen its budget cut repeatedly, leading some to question whether it will be up to the task. When the IRS’s former commissioner, John Koskinen, stepped down last month, he blamed Congress for underfunding the agency.

“I don’t know how the IRS is going to enforce this stuff. They have to write regulations, give guidance to taxpayers. They are probably going to feel the brunt of this more than anyone,” said Willens, the tax attorney.

The bottom line is that people who expect to see a big change in their deductions in January will be disappointed. And there will likely be many news stories about all the uncertainty and chaos being created by the tax law.

And then there’s Obamacare. Trump actually bragged about killing the individual mandate. That’s going to create another level of chaos, as insurers are likely put their feet down and refuse to insure people with pre-existing conditions.

Amber Phillips wrote in WaPo:

In the throes of his superlative-filled praise of the Republicans’ tax bill, President Trump said this Wednesday: “We essentially repealed Obamacare.”

It is not true — and it could also have been a major political blunder for Trump and Republicans.

Republicans did pass a tax bill Wednesday that undoes one of the central components of Obamacare: the mandate that people have health insurance, or pay a fine.

Health-care experts say that does not mean Obamacare is dead. It is just in trouble — and by extension, so are the health-insurance markets that have framed their business model around the law. That means Trump may have opened up his party — and himself — for taking responsibility for whatever trouble lies ahead for the markets.

We don’t know how extensive the damage is going to be and how widely it will be felt, but it’s going to be felt.  And there will be many, many news stories about the millions of people who are losing their health insurance.

Still, Republicans think they’ve got a winner:

“We will run on tax reform and win on tax reform in 2018,” said Matt Gorman, the NRCC’s communications director. “This bill will help ease the cost of living for millions of Americans who feel left behind.”

On the other hand, it’s equally remarkable that not a single Democrat in either chamber voted for this, including all 10 of the senators up for reelection next year in states Trump won. “Democratic obstruction of middle-class tax reform will be our No. 1 issue going into next year’s elections,” said Senate Leadership Fund President and CEO Steven Law, a former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell. …

However, if the middle class doesn’t actually see this tax reform in any tangible way, will they still believe in it?

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Canada Is Looking Better All the Time

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Trump Maladministration

The tax bill has gone to Trump to be signed.  It will go into effect immediately. People still don’t know what it’s going to do. Expect chaos.

I still think that the single biggest fly in the GOP ointment is health insurance. Republicans are promising that people will see bigger paychecks starting immediately, but from what I’ve read increases in health insurance premiums will more than wipe out the difference. Nobody seems to be talking about that.

The tax cuts are unpopular, partly because people have gotten the message they’re skewed to benefit the rich. But I think it’s also the case that we’ve all been sold the same snake oil a few too many times already. Reagan’s tax cuts actually triggered a recession, and of course his administration ended with the 1987 stock market crash. Bush’s tax cuts were supposed to do glorious things, but the economy was mostly stagnant and then tanked big time in 2008. I don’t think most people believe in the snake oil any more.

 

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What Could Go Wrong?

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Trump Maladministration

The House passed the Murder-Suicide Tax Bill after a whole hour of debate, while protesters were removed from the gallery. I watched a bit of coverage on MSNBC this afternoon, and various Republican talking heads were gleefully talking about the lower payroll taxes most working Americans would see starting in 2018.

I take it they think this is going to help them in the 2018 midterms. The worst of the effects may not hit people until 2019; between now and the midterms things may not be disrupted that much; people may decide it’s not that bad. On the other hand, the paycheck difference most people will see won’t be big enough to make any damn bleeping difference in their lives, so they may not feel all that grateful for it, either.

It’s also the case that a lot of people’s taxes will go up because of many deductions that were eliminated. Not all of those people are poor and working class; it may hit the pretty-well-off professional class pretty hard, actually.

But the bill kills the individual mandate beginning in 2019, which is going to wreak havoc in the health insurance markets.  Premiums were going way up in 2018 anyway, thanks mostly to Trump, in ways that could impact everyone’s insurance. The couple of bucks taken off each paycheck is likely to be offset by a big increase in insurance premiums.

Here’s something fishy — “The bill would move from the current worldwide tax system, in which income earned abroad is taxed in the United States, to a territorial system in which only domestic profits would be taxed.” What the bleep?

One of the guest talking heads on MSNBC said that people don’t resent the rich doing well as long as the rich have earned it, which is kind of the catch. I don’t think people are seeing the rich earning it. They are seeing the rich rigging the system for it. And people do tend to resent that.

 

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Trump’s Cracked Legal Team Has an Email Problem

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Trump Maladministration

The Mueller investigation obtained tens of thousands of emails of the Trump transition team, and Trump’s lawyers claimed these were obtained “illegally.” The most important thing to keep in mind is what Josh Marshall says about this:

Behind the new faux controversy over Mueller getting Trump transition emails is a key and probably too little discussed aspect of the Russia story: Mueller’s team has some of the most accomplished and aggressive prosecutors and legal minds of their generation. They’re facing off against a team of has-beens, 3rd or 4th rate lawyers and in some cases simple incompetents. Why? Because Trump values sycophancy above competence and because none of the top lawyers were willing to work for him.

Chris Geidner did some good reporting on this at Buzzfeed:

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. …

The GSA — which is responsible under law for providing the presidential transition with office space, supplies like phones and laptops, and “ptt.gov” emails — was instructed after the transition had ended and President Trump had taken office to preserve records from the transition in connection with ongoing investigations.

Further, the Buzzfeed article says, the Trump transition team was told up front that they had no expectation of privacy regarding the emails or any materials being kept at the GSA. Trump’s lawyer is saying they had an agreement with former GSA general Richard Beckler that nothing at the GSA would be turned over to anyone without the Trump team being notified. But Beckler died in September, and there seems to be no official record of any such agreement.

Also:

In response to Langhofer’s claim that some of the emails could be “susceptible to privilege claims,” Georgetown University national security law professor Phillip Carter tweeted that there was no “legal privilege” that applied in this case. “Just putting a ‘privilege’ legend on something, or asserting the privilege in a letter after the fact, doesn’t make it so.”

Also:

Mueller’s office dismissed Langhofer’s claim late Saturday. “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” spokesman Peter Carr said in a rare public statement.

Does anyone think that Mueller doesn’t make certain all Ts were crossed and Is dotted before doing anything on this case? And does anyone think the Trump lawyers aren’t in way over their heads?

We don’t know if there’s anything actually incriminating in the emails. It appears Trump’s lawyers are using this to just discredit Mueller. Seems kind of desperate to me.

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It’s That Time of Year Again

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holiday

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Facing a Dying Nation

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Trump Maladministration

At the moment there doesn’t appear to be any way the GOP’s murder-suicide tax bill won’t become law next week. Bob Corker has flipped back to “yes”; another possible holdout, Marco Rubio, won’t be holding out.

This is going to be devastating to the nation’s economy, as even larger numbers of people will fall into poverty. And it’s bad enough already.

Meanwhile, Josh Marshall believes there’s about to be a purge at the FBI. Republicans and Right-wing news media has gone bonkers over an August 2016 text message between two FBI officials that seemed to suggest “Andy” (FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe?) was doing something so that “he” (Donald Trump?) wouldn’t get elected. And if so, it obviously didn’t work.

Josh Marshall:

You’ve seen the on-going pseudo-controversy about two FBI employees who sent texts to each other trashing now-President Trump. The two were having an affair at the time and Special Agent Peter Strzok was reassigned off the Mueller probe and in essence demoted over the texts. Public employees are allowed to have political opinions. Indeed, there are laws specifically protecting government employees from being disciplined or having their work affected by their political views. The only real infraction here seems to be that the two used government devices to discuss their private political opinions when they should have reserved those for their personal devices – hardly a major infraction.

Nonetheless, defenders of the President have leaped from these emails to saying the entire Clinton emails probe – Strzok was involved in both probes – and the Mueller investigation are irreparably tainted. Others are going so far as to say the DOJ and the FBI need to undergo a political purge. The head of one prominent right-wing legal advocacy group went as far as to say the FBI should be shut down. It is a stark reminder of how many will go so far so quickly to prevent the enforcement of the law and lawful investigations when it comes to Donald Trump.

I think a lot of ugly stuff is about to break loose.

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The Flim Flam Men

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Trump Maladministration

The FCC just voted to end Net Neutrality. The FCC vote was along party lines, note, with all Democratic appointees voting against. This is another case of Republican officials taking a deeply unpopular stand. Polls show 83 percent of Americans favor net neutrality, which includes a majority of tea baggers.

The primary political argument against net neutrality is, of course, that it’s government regulation. I think the wingnuts bought that one for a while. But of course the real reason for ending it is that it allows the big tech companies to squeeze more money out of customers while providing less service. Win/win!

Apparently the FCC had solicited public comments on the issue, but New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that there were two million fake comments on the FCC site.

Schneiderman set up a website where people can search the FCC comments for their names to determine if they’ve been impersonated. So far, “over 5,000 people have filed reports with the Attorney General’s office regarding identities used to submit fake comments,” the AG’s announcement said. …

…While the 5,000 reports provide anecdotal evidence, the AG’s office performed an analysis of the 23 million public comments in order to figure out how many were submitted under falsely assumed identities.

Many comments for and against net neutrality rules are identical because advocacy groups urged people to sign form letters, so the text of a comment alone isn’t enough to determine if it was submitted by a real person.

The AG’s office thus examined comment text along with other factors, such as whether names matched lists of stolen identities from known data breaches. Schneiderman’s office also told Ars that it looked into whether or not the submission of comments was in alphabetical order, one after another, in short time periods. In general, analysis of formatting and metadata played a role in the analysis.

Although Schneiderman’s office isn’t saying it, an analysis at Wired magazine suggests the fake comments tended to be opposed to net neutrality. Big surprise.

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Republicans Charge Ahead on the Suicide Tax Bill

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Trump Maladministration

While we are all basking in the glow of Roy Moore’s defeat, congressional Republicans say they have reached an agreement on their tax bill, and that it will be voted on next week. And it’s doubtful they will allow Doug Jones to be seated first. Here’s what’s known about what’s in the bill.

 

 

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Famous Fatuous Fails

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Republican Party

This happened a couple of days ago. If you haven’t seen this yet, do watch.

Clearly the local yokel was not ready for prime time.

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