Category Archives: Politics

Trump v. Kim

The theory of nuclear deterrence is predicated on the idea that, ultimately, nations would act rationally. When I think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s alarming how unnecessarily bellicose both Kennedy and Khrushchev initially acted. Kennedy wanted to prove that he could be as tough and as resolutely anti-Commie as any Republican. Khrushchev hadn’t been in power for long, and needed to mollify more hawkish members of the Politburo. Throughout the crisis, Kennedy got terrible advice from at least some of his generals. But ultimately, both Kennedy and Khrushchev backed down, found a face-saving compromise both sides could live with. Unleashing the horror of thermonuclear holocaust isn’t necessarily unthinkable. People in power do seem capable of thinking about it. General Maxwell Taylor, President Kennedy’s most important military advisor, clearly was willing to at least entertain the thought of it. But finally, in the end, nuclear war was avoided. Ultimately, both the Americans and the Soviets thought better of it. Everyone took a deep breath, reconsidered previously held positions, calmed down. A nuclear exchange was, finally, averted.

And thus it has always been. Diplomacy has, in the final analysis, triumphed over bellicosity. When I look at the world today, I shudder to realize which countries have nuclear capacities. Pakistan is far too unsteady and unstable to really be a nuclear power. It nonetheless is one. So is India. And India and Pakistan loathe each other, with deeply rooted religious animosities unworthy of two great world religions. Still, both countries have nukes, and that’s a scary thought. But when it comes to their nuclear arsenals, both countries have, miraculously, remained rational, reasonable, peaceable. Israel has nuclear weapons, understandable given its many enemies. But, at least so far, without untoward incident. The nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union remains poorly maintained and guarded, and at least some weapons exist in exceedingly unstable regions. But everyone does seem to recognize how high the stakes are. The Obama administration negotiated a treaty with Iran, which is holding up exceptionally well, at least so far. Iran’s governance is hardly any kind of ideal, with dual military presences and modes of governance. But even Iran, so far, is behaving reasonably.

And then there’s Kim Jong Un. Who may or may not have a nuclear capability, and who definitely has developed an ICBM. And he’s being opposed by Donald Trump. And while James Matis and Rex Tillerson have responded to North Korean threats with diplomatic language, offering to negotiate a way out of the current dispute, Donald Trump seems intent on acting like a spoiled, angry, frightened child. And we’re in major threat escalation mode. Now, Kim is threatening Guam. Poor Guam. And the Donald is promising ‘fire and fury.’

Here’s what would ordinarily happen. The President of the United States would consult with a number of experts on North Korea. He’d probably start with the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs from the State Department, plus the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security from Defense. Those two officials would have access to the expertise of a number of career diplomats with more specific knowledge of Kim and North Korea. The President would also talk with the US ambassador to South Korea. There would be meetings between State and Defense and intelligence agencies. A coherent, rational, consistent policy would emerge. Diplomatic overtures would begin, certainly involving China, Japan and South Korea. And everyone would commit to both the process and the policy. And six months from now, we’d all be wondering whatever happened to Kim Jong Un. Weren’t we scared of him for awhile there?

That can’t happen with Trump; none of it can. For one thing, none of those positions are filled. There isn’t an ambassador to South Korea–Trump hasn’t named one. State is badly understaffed. So is Defense. And the President of the United States is trying to govern via Twitter, as informed by Fox and friends, advised by ideological extremists (Steve Bannon), and desperately unqualified family members (Jared Kushner.) We have no coherent policy. We have no process by which one might be arrived at.

Nuclear deterrence requires nations to act rationally. Which means, at present, we have to hope that Kim Jong Un fills that role, Donald Trump having abdicated it.

Now, to be fair, Trump is getting some good advice from some qualified people. Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H. R. McMaster are, at least, sensible people. They’re career military men, and they know full well that even a conventional attack on North Korea would be a sickening, disastrous nightmare. We’d probably win such a war. So what? It would result in a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. That choice has to be off the table. The nuclear option has to be off the table and buried fifty feet down in the backyard.

But it may not be. Our current President has not demonstrated a capacity for mature self-reflection, careful strategic planning, or rationality. We have to hope Kim can be the sensible adult in the room. Or, just maybe, Xi Jingping. Otherwise, this whole situation is scary, and getting scarier. Maybe, just maybe, Rex Tillerson and Xi are on the phone right now. Let’s desperately hope so.

 

Donald Trump: Editor-in-chief

Two oddly similar political news stories came out today, though both got kind of buried in the wake of the astonishing firing of White House Communications Director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. In fact, in a strange kind of way, all three stories are connected. I mean, all politicians try to control their own political narratives. That’s why administrations have a ‘communications director.’ But Trump emerges as, perhaps, a bit more hands-on than most.

Okay, so here’s the first story. Remember a few days ago, when the big story involved a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and an amazing assortment of Russian spies, money launderers, attorneys and hangers-on. The deal was that they would provide dirt on Hillary Clinton, in exchange for, well, who knows? Anyway, Donald Jr. sort belatedly remembered that meeting, which took place in June of 2016, when his Dad was still running. And his initial account of that meeting was misleadingly vague.

Well, it turns out that his Dad wrote it. That is, Donald Trump wrote, or rather, dictated, the first account given by Donald Jr. about his June meeting with Russians. Here’s what the President came up with:

It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up.

“I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.

It’s not that this description of the meeting is a lie. It certainly is misleading. What it leaves out is the fact that it was set up with the promise that Trump Jr. would get dirt on Hillary Clinton, and that the person setting it up claimed it would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Also, that the meeting was attended by Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist who has been linked to Russian money-laundering, and by Ike Kaveladze, a former Russian intelligence operator, who is generally believed to still be conducting espionage on behalf of Putin’s government. Also, if Trump knew nothing about this meeting, as he claims, why was he dictating his son’s response to it?

Also, and this is a key question for me, how stupid is this? Did the President genuinely believe that this brief, uninformative statement would end all media coverage of the meeting? Did he really think that Washington Post reporters would stop digging? According to the Post story, various Trump advisors urged Donald Jr. to be much more transparent. Get accurate information out there, quickly. Wouldn’t that have been a better course of action? And can anyone imagine Donald Trump following that counsel?

The second story is even more amazing. A lawsuit alleges that Donald Trump and Sean Spicer colluded with Fox News to build a disinformation campaign around the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer. According to this lawsuit, Trump, Spicer, and Fox News host Sean Hannity worked together to make up the Seth Rich story.

We have to be careful with this one. A private investigator, Rod Wheeler, claims that he was hired by a wealthy Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, to investigate the death of Seth Rich, a young DNC staffer. Rich, in July 2016, died in an apparent robbery-gone-bad. The crime is still being investigated by DC police. Right-wing media outlets, including Hannity and including Fox News, fell in love with this story last fall, alleging that Rich had been the one responsible for the DNC documents exposed on Wikileaks, and that Hillary Clinton had therefore had him murdered. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this might be true, and the Fox narrative has been debunked by law enforcement, and by every fact-checking website out there, including Politifact, Snopes, and FactCheck.org.

But Fox News ran with it anyway, basing much of their story on quotations from Wheeler. Wheeler now claims that those quotations were fabricated. He also claims that Butowski, President Trump and Spicer were involved in the writing of the story. Wheeler says he was made the scapegoat when other news sources discredited it, and Fox was forced to back off.

I think this story warrants further investigation. And since it’s currently the subject of a lawsuit, it seems likely that it will receive the additional scrutiny it needs. The fact is, Rod Wheeler was the main source for the Seth Rich story on Fox. I think there’s very good reason to question his credibility, including these new allegations involving Trump and Spicer. The Seth Rich story is the very definition of fake news, and Rod Wheeler was instrumental in its creation. And his lawsuit alleges that he was some kind of innocent victim. Uh, no. He says Fox News misquoted him in creating the story. Maybe he was misquoted. But he’s also responsible. For him to play the victim card is a bit much.

On the other hand, if the President and Spicer were involved in embellishing his, Wheeler’s, account, he would certainly be in a position to know. We have seriously untrustworthy people involved here, from Sean Hannity to Wheeler to Spicer. Sadly, one of the most untrustworthy of them is the President. The Seth Rich fake narrative was unquestionably useful to Trump. Probably, at least some Trump supporters still believe it. Did he help craft it? If so, that’s an explosive allegation.

But why should it be? After all, Trump’s entire narrative is both suspect and self-serving. Trump declares himself to be the best negotiator, the best deal-maker, a self-made man, a billionaire, author of the best-selling business book of all time, uniquely smart and driven and good. And none of that’s remotely true. He’s a fabulist, a weaver of tales. A BS artist, and a con man. A liar and a fraud. The Seth Rich story serves Trump’s purposes. Was he involved in creating it? I don’t know, and that the guy who says he did is not someone with a lot of credibility. But maybe.

At the very least, we can see why Trump is having a hard time hiring a communications director. There were a great many people in the room when Trump re-wrote his son’s account of his Russian meeting. Some of them were advising against him doing that, but he’s Trump and did it anyway. Now it’s backfiring on him, as was inevitable. The sheer hubris and stupidity of both stories witness to their credibility. I wish that wasn’t true of the President. But, sadly, it is.

 

 

Obamacare, Mooch, and other developments

I was asleep. Slumbering peacefully away, between sleep cycles, probably. And I heard a news alert beep on my phone. Rolled over, picked it up. And learned that the most recent Senate attempt to rescind and replace Obamacare had failed.

It was, of course, alwys an idiotic bill. They were calling it ‘skinny repeal’; repeal without ‘replace.’ Basically, it would get rid of the generally unpopular individual mandate part of the ACA, plus get rid of Planned Parenthood. The mandate is unpopular, but also essential; without it, it’s difficult to imagine the ACA surviving. The only way Mitch McConnell could sell this to his caucus was to promise that it would never become law. It would set up a conference with the House, where everything would get fixed. But could this be guaranteed?  At least some Senators suddenly remembered their junior high civics classes, and realized that if they passed this thing, and the House voted for it too, it would, with the President’s signature, become law. Yikes. Paul Ryan was asked for guarantees that that wouldn’t happen; he couldn’t offer any. And so the vote became very dramatic. 52 Republican Senators, 48 Democrats. But with two known Republican defectors, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, it was really 50-50, with Mike Pence poised to exercise his one constitutional duty. It looked like it would pass; 51-50.

And then, riding in on his white horse, John McCain entered the chamber, said some things that made Chuck Schumer happy, said some other things that made John Cornyn less happy, shrugged off Pence’s last second lobbying, and voted against the bill. 49-51. It’s dead. Who knows how long it stays dead–Obamacare repeal and replace schemes have resembled political zombies; shambling and stupid, but hard to kill. But at least for now, McCain is our hero.

We have better heroes to thank for this. Murkowski and Collins have stood steadfastly against their party’s leadership for weeks, despite tremendous pressure. Murkowski was even threatened with a loss of federal funding for her state of Alaska. Of course, it was awesome to have McCain, diagnosed with brain cancer, make his dramatic return. But the real heroine of the night, to me, was another cancer patient, Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono. She has stage four kidney cancer, for which she’s undergoing treatment, but still, she flew in to vote on these measures. Having cancer tends to focus the mind, and Hirono decided she was going to do what she could to preserve health insurance for her constituents. It worked. Barely, but still.

It had been a crowded newsday anyway. President Trump’s new communications director, less than a week on the job, gave an unhinged interview with a New Yorker reporter, demanding to know the reporter’s source for a story he’d posted. In that interview, and later, on TV, Anthony Scaramucci came across as, like, the very caricature of a New Yorker tough guy. He has, I’ll admit, a creative way with the King’s English, and although his understanding of the legalities of news leaks is positively Trumpian in its ignorance, he did at least get his boss’s ideas across. He’s going to be an entertaining figure for the few weeks that he’s on the job.

In my opinion, though, yesterday also brought some small, almost overlooked news items that strike me as being of much greater consequence, Signs that, at least on the margins, Republicans are standing up to Trump.

Item: Congress just passed a bill that would have strengthened economic sanctions against Russia. The bill would also restrict the President’s ability to ease previous sanctions. Trump now has ten days to sign or veto. But it passed both the House and Senate with huge, veto-[roof margins. Also, how pro-Russia does Trump want to appear right now? And that’s where this gets interesting. Sanctions against Russia; fine. But if Putin owns Trump, this is exactly the kind of bill he wouldn’t want passed. Trump looks terrible if he vetoes, and Congress, at least for now, has the votes to override any veto anyway. We’ll see.

Item: Trump is clearly not enthralled with his Attorney-General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and he’s been pressuring Sessions to resign. Specifically, he hates the fact that Sessions recused himself from dealing with the Russia scandal. Trump seems to regard Sessions recusal as, uh, disloyal. Apparently, Trump thinks the Attorney-General’s job includes shielding him, the President, from scandals. He doesn’t like being investigated, and thinks Sessions should head that off, and also, obviously, go after Hillary Clinton. Just for clarification, the Attorney-General of the United States is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He investigates crimes. He doesn’t work for the President, and no part of his job involves preventing the President from being investigated. Just to remind us of, you know, reality-land. Of course, Richard Nixon’s Attorney-General, John Mitchell, actually sat in meetings with Nixon’s campaign committee and helpfully discussed the various felonies they would all be committing. So that happened. But Mitchell went to prison for it, so maybe that’s not an historical example Trump wants to consult.

Item: In any event, Trump is clearly imagining a scenario in which he fires Sessions, get’s a more pliable AG confirmed, then gets the new guy to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel currently investigating him. And he wants to do it quickly, before Mueller can get his hands on Trump’s tax returns. Except that last night, the Chair of the Senate Judiary Committee, Chuck Grassley, sent out a tweet saying that there was just no way his committee could schedule hearings for a new AG until, at the earliest, January. Just no time for it, doncha know.

Item: best of all, this. Lindsay Graham, (R-South Carolina) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) have co-sponsored a bill that would make it impossible for a President to fire a special counsel without judicial review. As I understand it, their bill would require a three-judge panel to review whatever cause a President tried to use to fire a special counsel. Of course, the bill still needs to pass the House and Senate, and then Trump could always veto it. But it also enjoys pretty broad support, at least initially. Wouldn’t that be something?

For political reasons, Republicans are reluctant to challenge this President openly. But more quietly, in the background? They have to know what a train wreck he is. And how damaging to the institutions of American democracy.

 

Conservatism and health care

The Senate today held a vote on a procedural measure that would allow for debates and amendments on, well, something. No one is quite sure what measures will be debated and amended, This Vox explainer did a nice job of helping me understand what’s going on. The final vote was 50-50, with Vice-President Mike Pence performing his one constitutional duty by breaking the tie. There was also some high drama, as Senator John McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, nonetheless showed up and voted. He then gave a powerful, stirring speech, in which he launched an all-out attack on the bill he had just voted for. “I will not vote for this bill,” he said in a powerful, if wavering voice. Uh, okay.

I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but Republicans currently control the House, the Senate, the White House, and likely hold a 5-4 advantage on most Supreme Court votes. And after voting to repeal Obamacare a jillion times when Obama was President, they can’t seem to pass a health care bill now. No Democrats will vote for a bill repealing the single most important legislative achievement of the Obama administration, though Democrats do have bills ready for a vote that would fix the problems the ACA undoubtedly has. But those bills will never be allowed on the floor for debate or votes. Republicans have made it clear that they have no interest in bi-partisan cooperation on health care. And they haven’t been able to get much done. Today’s vote in the Senate was procedural. Will it lead to a final bill? Probably not, but you never know. I certainly hope not; every bill out there, including the House bill that passed, the Senate bill that didn’t pass, and the various bills under current consideration, all of them are terrible bills. If the goal is to expand the numbers of Americans with adequate access to affordable health care, these bills all fail. In fact, they fail pretty spectacularly. They reduce the numbers of healthy people buying insurance through the ACA exchanges. They cut Medicaid. They will take health insurance from 20 to 25 to 35 million Americans. Which means, in all likelihood, that people will die.

As a loyal Democrat, it’s tempting to conclude that these bad bills exist because Republicans are bad people. These bills are variously described as ‘mean-spirited,’ ‘cruel,’ vicious’ and ‘lethal.’ The implication is that Republicans are uniquely indifferent to basic human suffering. Republicans want to cut taxes for rich people. (They always want to cut taxes, and rich people pay higher taxes than poor people). And in these debates, they always look terrible, like a party of nasty, uncaring Scrooges, out to hurt, or even kill poor people. Of course, they try to defend their various bills, insisting that CBO scores are wrong, that poor people won’t lose their insurance, that what they’re doing is allowing states more flexibility and providing people with more freedom. It never works. They look terrible in every instance. These are historically unpopular bills.

I don’t think, though, that Republicans are meaner than Democrats. I think that’s a dangerously hubristic way of looking at it. Preening about our moral superiority is a temptation most progressives have given into at least occasionally. But it isn’t true. There are philosophical differences between the parties, and we’re never going to get anything done if we insist that those differences are also moral. I know lots of Republicans. Good folks. They’re just real bad at health care policy.

And the reason isn’t hard-heartedness or indifference to suffering. It’s conservatism. Republicans tend to be conservatives, and a lot of Republicans are deeply committed, ideologically conservative. In fact, I believe that Republicans are far more committed to ideological conservatism than most Democrats are to ideological progressivism, which I don’t think is even a thing. You will often hear Republicans, talking about some policy or another, say things like ‘that policy is incompatible with the basic principles of conservatism.’ I’ve never heard a Democrat say the equivalent. Never once.

If you know enough conservatives, and you listen long enough, you’ll hear them admit to this: they don’t think health care is a right. They think health insurance is a commodity, like any other commodity. If you can afford it, great. If you can’t, well, then live without it. If you get seriously sick, and don’t have insurance, there are any number of charitable organizations that can help out. (And in my experience, Republicans give generously to those charities). When we talk about universal health care, conservatives don’t believe it’s something government can or should provide. Big government, the federal government, is inefficient, corrupt and overly expensive. Putting government in charge of health care is likely to hurt a health care system that generally works pretty well. And Obamacare doesn’t just expand health care, it mandates that private citizens purchase policies (sin number one), and provides federal funding to subsidize such purchases (sin number two).

That’s a hard philosophy to argue for, though. It sounds terrible. It makes it sound like rich people should get better health care than poor people should. It makes it sound, in fact, like the lives of rich folks are more valuable than the lives of poor people. I think the conservative stance on health care is actually a principled one. But it’s based on bad theory, and on bad research.

The fact is that government-provided health care programs–specifically Medicare and Medicaid–are more efficient and effective and cost-effective than the care private insurers provide. Medicare is so efficient, in fact, that doctors don’t much like it. It doesn’t compensate them all that generously.

As to the philosophical point; is health care a right? Do all Americans have a right to affordable, effective health care? Should every American citizen have government provided-or-mandated health insurance? The answer to that question is ‘sure, probably.’ Health care is a right if sufficient numbers of citizens believe it to be a right. Besides, if we have a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ that would seem to include a right to see a doctor without being bankrupted. The Framers wouldn’t have agreed, of course, because their health care sucked. The idea that going to a doctor was likely to make a sick person better is a reasonably recent one. But yes, health care is a right. How do I know that? Polling data says so. If 60% of Americans think health care is a right, then it’s a right.

Conservatism is on the wrong side of history on this question, which is hardly surprising, because conservatism is generally opposed to change. I mean, the most fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism would seem to be ‘should things change, or should they not change.’ So, as change happens, conservatives tend, at least initially, to oppose it.

The other hallmark of conservatism is a commitment to free markets, a commitment which, of course, I share. I don’t want the government to regulate the prices of cell phones, or DVRs. I want the market to do that. But providing some commodities and services is generally beyond the capacities of markets. Roads should be built by the government, as should electric grids and sewage systems. And health care fits in that category. Health care is a service that is uniquely unresponsive to market ideology.

That’s why one consistent conservative answer to health care includes the expansion of health savings accounts. They’re not that terrible an idea. They’re also no panacea. You’d be able to put some of your money in a savings account, tax free, which you could then use to defray health care expenses. See, that way you would be incentivized to shop around, to ask several hospitals to quote you their best price for that MRI, for example.

Except very few people are ever going to do that. The relevant economic principle is ‘asymmetry of information.’ Doctors know more about our health than we do. If my doctor says ‘you need an MRI,’ I’m going to get one. Even if I ask for a second opinion, I’m not really reducing the asymmetry of relevant knowledge. i[‘m just seeing a second person who knows more about it than I do. That’s why insurance companies pay a lot of money to medical experts who determine if a proposed course of treatment is likely enough to work for it to be covered. And so does Medicare.

Does this reduce freedom? Yeah, some. We’re put our family’s health in the hands of these people, these doctor folks. It’s frustrating, and yes, we should (and do) inform ourselves, and research, and talk to people, and do whatever we can to take control of our own health. I agree with every effort to inform ourselves. But when the doc says ‘get an MRI,’ I’m getting one.

So what we’re currently seeing is conservatives trying to provide universal health care when they don’t believe in any part of it. Of course they look bad. Of course the results are bad. Barack Obama tried the most conservative, most market-oriented approach to increasing access to health care he could possible manage. The result is the ACA, and it’s not great. And all of its problems, all of them, stem from the fact that it’s a conservative, market-oriented approach to health care. We can and must do better. All Americans have a right to affordable health care. Time for us to do better.

 

Trump fights back

Following the various ins and outs of the multiple scandals and misstatements and gross ineptitudes of the Trump administration is just exhausting. Every day there’s something new; if only a new Trump tweet. The President apparently spends his days watching cable news, and fuming. Every once in awhile, he vents. Most recently, he vented to the New York Times, where, among other absurdities, he claimed “I’ve given the farmers back their farms. I’ve given the builders back their land to build houses and to build other things.” None of which is remotely true, in any sense whatsoever.

Of course, the Russia scandal must seem like Chinese water torture to Trump, who is not known for his patience anyway. Drip, drip, drip; every day, new revelations. Right now the press is primarily focusing on the various, previously undisclosed meetings members of the Trump campaign and administration held with various Russian entities. The national media is good at that kind of story; who met with whom, for how long, when. For the most part, these meetings merely suggest possible collusion, but don’t prove that collusion took place. The meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with a raftful of variously skeevy Russian figures comes closest to proving some kind of actual inappropriate or illegal interaction between Trump staff and Russians. Of course, we don’t know what they all talked about. Oh, yeah, adoption. That’s suspicious enough. Did the Trumpskies promise to consider reversing the Magnitsky act in exchange for dirt on Hillary? Hello, collusion.

But the ‘meetings with Russians’ angle, though certainly fascinating, has always seemed to me something of a sideshow. The real action, I think, is likely to be financial. The relevant questions, it seems to me, would include some version of these: how many deals did the Trump organization conclude with Russian oligarchs? How much Russian funding did the Trump organization receive? Did any of these transactions involve money laundering? Were there violations, by the Trump organization, of the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act? And finally this: does Vladimir Putin own Donald Trump?

Those kinds of questions are difficult for the national media, in large measure because very few such transactions are in the public record. To dig into those kinds of details requires someone with subpoena powers, and expertise in forensic accounting. These are the kinds of questions that Robert Mueller’s investigation is supremely well equipped to answer.  Mueller’s staff has precisely that kind of expertise. And Mueller himself has subpoena powers. It’s just impossible for me to imagine Mueller not asking for Trump’s tax returns.

And if he does, all hell could break loose.

Donald Trump is a fighter. Does anyone think he’ll just mildly turn over personal financial records? No. He may claim executive privilege. (A first step, and one he will lose). He could pressure the Justice department to fire Mueller. He could fire Jeff Sessions. He could pardon his family members. And he could pardon himself.

Does he have the authority to pardon himself? No one knows. It’s never been adjudicated. Probably not, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

And so, as has been the case since last November, the real question is this: if this President acts so egregiously, so nakedly in his own self-interest, if he behaves so far outside American political norms, what will Congress do? Will the Republican-controlled Congress act? Put another way, can we rely on the patriotism and integrity of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate?

And the answer to that is also pretty clear. No. We can’t. They won’t act. Trump can abuse the pardon power of his office, and they will let him do it. A constitutional crisis only exists if the political will exists to force the issue. I see no sign of either integrity or patriotism among the current Republican leadership. Man, that’s scary.

Let’s talk about collusion

It’s been awhile. Our esteemed POTUS is back in the country, after zipping across various oceans, to the Middle East and Europe, where he hectored our closest allies about NATO ‘dues’ they don’t in fact actually owe, shoved the President of Montenegro, offended the Pope, and grabbed hold of a palantir orb with some of his Arab pals, in an apparent attempt to communicate with Sauron. (He does seem to like back channel communications). Meanwhile, the various investigations into the Trump/Russian connections keep trudging onward. Let’s catch up.

Have you had this experience? You’re talking to a Trump supporter, and you mention the Russian connection, and they look at you smugly and say ‘can you show me any evidence of actual collusion?’ And you can’t. And we still can’t; not quite yet. But we’re getting closer.

For example: this. In case you don’t want to click on the link, here’s the gist: the Wall Street Journal reported that, last summer, a Florida GOP operative named Aaron Nevins was in communication with a Russian hacker who goes by Guccifer 2.0. Guccifer had hacked into the DCCC computers, and provided Nevins with all kinds of information useful to the Trump campaign. Memos with self-oppo research (where you hire someone to look for dirt on your candidates, so they can be prepared for ads). Databases of voters in key districts. Nevins called it ‘a map to where all the troops were deployed.’ Also, internal details about congressional districts in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, which were eventually used to create attack ads in those states. I’ll grant you that Nevins wasn’t involved in the national Trump campaign. But he shared his link to Guccifer 2.0 with Roger Stone, who was a highly placed advisor to the Trump campaign. Stone piously insists that he didn’t share that link with anyone else. We’ll see.

So, yes, there is absolutely evidence of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russia: Guccifer to Nevins to Stone. Of course, the Russians are offering pro-forma denials that Guccifer worked for them, but US intelligence sources know better. And there’s no evidence, so far, that Stone shared Nevins’ information with anyone else in the Trump national campaign. Still, this is collusion. This is what it looks like.

And here’s why it’s significant. Remember the second Obama Presidential campaign? Remember 2012? Well, the Democrats created what the Washington Post called “a high-tech political start-up whose main purpose was to put more people on the streets, armed with more information about the voters they were contacting, than any campaign had ever attempted.” They created a nonpareil voter database, allowing volunteers to contact undecided voters with better information than anyone had had before.

That database still exists, and has expanded. And in the waning days of the 2016 campaign, one of the advantages Hillary Clinton seemed to have was what pundits called ‘a strong ground game.’ She had more volunteers than Trump did, and they had this database to guide their efforts. So if polling showed a race as tied, it seemed likely that Hillary would outperform expectations, because she would working with better information.

But if that database was in the hands of the Republicans, that advantage could be lessened, or even eliminated. And look at what Nevins said he got from Guccifer: “sensitive information on voters in key Florida districts, breaking down how many people were considered dependable Democratic voters, undecided Democrats, Republican voters and the like.” Maybe not the entire database, but clearly at least some of it.

So, yes, there was collusion, and yes, it could easily have made a difference in the election.

What was the other major turning point in the election? Surely, it has to have been the Hillary Clinton email scandal, and the various twists and turns in that whole story. And a key moment in the election came when James Comey, the FBI director, announced that the FBI was not pursuing a criminal investigation into Hillary’s emails. He could have just let it go at that. But he didn’t. He chose to use that opportunity to give Secretary Clinton a real scolding. Remember?  “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Why did he do that? Well, we know a lot more about it now. As Business Insider describes it, Comey received a document regarding the Clinton investigation, a purported memo between Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, to a staffer for George Soros, saying that she had been assured by Loretta Lynch (Obama’s Attorney-General), that the Justice Department planned to go easy on Hillary. This memo is a fake. US intelligence has confirmed that its a  Russian creation. It’s not genuine. And Comey immediately mistrusted it. But it informed his decision-making nonetheless.

According to Business Insider, Comey “feared the document would be leaked and cast doubt on the credibility and independence of the FBI’s email-server probe — part of why he decided to bypass the Justice Department and announce the findings of the investigation in his impromptu press conference in July. CNN reported that sources close to Comey said he “felt it didn’t matter if the information was accurate, because his big fear was that if the Russians released the information publicly, there would be no way for law enforcement and intelligence officials to discredit it without burning intelligence sources and methods.”

So there we have it. The Russians hacked into DCCC computers, and got enough information to negate the Clinton campaign’s ‘ground game’ advantage. And perhaps the biggest turning point in the campaign, Comey’s press conference chiding of Hillary Clinton over the email scandal was driven by the FBI’s possession of a fake document they didn’t think they could properly or effectively expose.

Would Hillary Clinton have won without Trump having these improper advantages? Did the Russians really win the election for the Donald?  I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Was there collusion? Absolutely, but who know who high it went. These news stories are highly significant, but they don’t constitute proof of anything. Still, the investigation needs to continue. We need to know. A hostile foreign power may well have put their favored candidate in the White House. That’s got to concern every patriotic American.

Donald Trump and the oath of office

Jane Krakowski was on Colbert’s show last night, and as is obligatory when actresses appear on late night talk shows, Colbert complimented her on her appearance. “Thanks,” she said, and added that she was trying to lose her ‘Trump ten pounds.’ Everyone she knew was in the same fix: weight gain caused by binge eating, caused by Trump-caused anxiety.

This week has been especially bad, and it’s only Tuesday. Last night, the Washington Post dropped this bomb: Trump had provided two high ranking Russian officials with highly classified information, apparently just to brag. “I get great intel,” boasted Trump. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.” And then, to prove his point, he revealed code-word level information. And White House staff, panicked, began calling intelligence agencies to limit the damage.  At the same time, various Trump surrogates denounced the Post story as ‘fake news,’ with carefully parsed statements (Gen. McMaster’s was a gem) in which they take issue with things the Post story did not, in fact, say. Then, this morning, Trump cut them off at the knees, using Twitter to assert that he had the perfect right to share information with Russia. As a friend of mine put it on Facebook:

“[Media reports] Trump does staggeringly stupid thing

[Trump surrogates] he absolutely did not do the stupid thing

[Trump, tweeting the next day] I did the stupid thing

[Surrogates] …and that is why stupid thing is actually brilliant, and

[Trump, tweeting] I did it for the stupidest reason imaginable

[Surrogates] … the thing is now United States policy despite dishonest media reports on its stupidity, and also

(loop to beginning)”

As President of the United States, Donald Trump can declassify information any time he believes it to be in the national interest. He didn’t do anything illegal. I thought the best story on this was this one, on the Lawfare blog. Lawfare points to two crucial issues: first, that it matters why Trump did it: “what Trump thought he was doing might well inflect whether we should see this as an act of carelessness, an act of carelessness bordering on treachery, or an act of judgment (even if misjudgment) of the sort we elect presidents to make.” And second, that an act need not be criminal or illegal to be an impeachable offense:

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.

This analogy gets to the heart of my main concern about Trump’s Presidency. I do not believe that Donald Trump takes his oath of office seriously. For the first time in US history, we cannot trust this President to set aside his own emotional predispositions and act in the best interests of the nation.

There have been Presidents in the past that I didn’t think were particularly effective Presidents. This is because I disagreed with them on matters of policy. I thought their political philosophy was likely to prove ineffectual; I thought they were wrong. But I never questioned their patriotism. I never questioned their commitment to the job. I never questioned that serving the nation was their highest and only priority. Of course, people make mistakes, and some policy choices work better than others; of course, we’re all only human. But the men (only men so far, alas) who have served in the White House have always understood that they are doing the most important and difficult job in the world. Early in the first season of The West Wing, John Spencer, playing White House Chief of Staff, talking to his wife, tells her “this is the most important thing I will ever do in my life.” And she responds, understandably hurt, “it’s not more important than your marriage.” “Right now,” says Leo, “it is more important than my marriage.” And he was just Chief of Staff.

The Oath of Office is deceptively simple. “I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But its implications are profound. If you take that oath, then for the four or eight years you serve, it’s your first and only priority.

And I do not believe that that’s how Donald Trump understands his duties as President. I don’t think he considers that serving the nation and its people to be his first and highest obligation. I think he lets stuff get in his way. I do not believe him to be a serious person, taking a serious job seriously. I don’t know if he’s merely a particularly buffoonish clown, or if he’s actively mentally ill. He’s not . . . right.

That’s why his refusal to divest of his business interests is so disheartening. Every previous President has done this. President Carter sold his peanut farm; George W. Bush sold his baseball team. Trump has business interests all over the world. Are those businesses still important to him? Does he weigh their success as he conducts foreign policy; is profitability a factor in his decision-making? We have never asked that before about any former President. We find ourselves obliged to ask it about this one.

Far more important, though, is the raw emotionality with which Trump seems to make decisions. He gets angry, he gets frustrated, he gets his feelings hurt. So does everyone else. But most of us can set those emotions aside when we need to. Most of us can engage productively with that co-worker we dislike. Most of us can take a deep breath, set aside our resentments and fears and make important decisions.

i think it’s likely that Donald Trump is an immensely damaged human being. Of course, even mental health professionals balk at long range diagnoses. But Trump’s constant, incessant braggadocio has to some from somewhere. It’s not just that he seems to be a near-pathological liar. But have you noticed how his lies are pretty much always self-aggrandizing? He had the biggest crowds at his inauguration; he has the best temperment, he’s a phenomenal negotiator. He’s always the best; the smartest, the most aware. He doesn’t just get two scoops of ice cream, he deserves them. He’s such a good boy.

That has to be hiding some deeply seated inferiority complex, doesn’t it? And he can’t set it aside. And we don’t have time for him to work through it.

He gets the best intel, he tells the Russians. And then has to prove it. (Lavrov and Kislyak had to have been astounded. They didn’t think this would be so easy). By off-the-cuff declassifying highly sensitive intelligence, jeopardizing our relations with an ally, and quite possibly putting intel sources at risk. Let’s not forget this: Trump didn’t reveal classify information, he blurted it. To prove to his Russian comrades friends what good intel he gets. (To prove, yet again, once more, that he really is President, that he really did win). And people could die. Who did he compromise? How much at risk is our source?

It’s visceral, instinctive, our fear of him and of what he might do next. We sense it. This guy hasn’t put the nation first. He probably can’t. No wonder we’re all putting on ‘the Trump ten pounds.’ Every second this man spends in the Oval office is a continuing national emergency. Ending it will require impeachment and removal. Not much else matters politically.

 

Yes, the Comey firing is a big deal

Whenever a big news political event takes place, especially one that focuses on some peculiarly Republican bit of malfeasance, first, liberals react very strongly and publicly. Some conservatives rely on the officially approved spin. But there are always a few conservative intellectuals, affecting the diction, tone, and high Brahmin style of the late William F. Buckley, who carefully explain how unreasoning and hysterical we’re all being. More-in-sorrow-than-anger, you understanding. Publishing this sort of article is, I think the raison d’etre of the National Review. Think of the British conservative historian, Paul Johnson, saying that no Europeans ever understood why poor Nixon was so badly treated: Watergate was no big deal.

It may have seemed strange to see precisely such an article in Vox.com. I know a lot of people consider Vox a liberal site. It really isn’t though. Their motto is ‘explain the news.’ Not comment on it (though they do sometimes offer a point of view), but inform people, let ’em know what the substance of some prominent news story is. They’re surely seen as an anti-Trump site, but it’s because they don’t pull punches; if someone is lying about something, they’ll point it out. I should say that I’m a big fan. But it isn’t at all out of character for Vox to publish a contrarian article saying ‘here’s what everyone is saying. And here’s why they’re wrong.’

And so, a couple of days ago, Vox published an article by Richard A. Epstein, entitled “Attention, liberals: Comey deserved to be fired, and the Constitution is just fine.” It’s a well-reasoned and thoughtful article, though, again, infused with that Buckley/George Will/Paul Johnson tone of injured intellectual superiority. Here it is.

Epstein begins by agreeing that the decision by Trump to fire James Comey was poorly timed, and a political miscalculation. He goes on: “There are of course many reasons why one might oppose Trump’s decision to fire Comey, but none of them remotely deserve the hyperbolic responses that Comey’s termination has elicited. There are two sides to every story, and in this case the other side has, at least for the moment, the better of the argument.”

Epstein argues, first, that Comey should have been fired long before, because of his mishandling of the Clinton email case. He treated her with kid gloves, says Epstein. He didn’t issue subpeonas to any Clinton aides, he allowed Cheryl Mills to represent herself, and he didn’t conduct any of the ambush interviews that are usual in criminal cases. He took it easy on her, kowtowing to his superiors in the Obama White House.

Second, Epstein says, “criticisms of Comey’s conduct in the Clinton investigation had nothing to do with the president’s decision, which was made, we are confidently told (on the basis of no firm evidence), because Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump was, in Epstein’s view, perfectly justified in firing Comey over the mishandled Clinton email case, and there’s no reason to think Comey was fired for any more sinister reasons.

Finally, since Comey could legally be fired at any time by Trump, and given the ample reasons for dismissal detailed in the Rosenstein memo, it “requires contortions to convert an action that has independent justification into one that prompts talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment. In effect, one difficulty with that extravagant assertion is that it makes Comey de facto immovable from office so long as he continues to conduct this investigation.” Oh, and appointing a special prosecutor is also problematic. To whom would he report? Jeff Sessions? When there’s no smoke, there can’t be fire, says Epstein. And there’s no smoke.

Epstein also pushed back against the ‘Trump as incipient despot’ meme.

Nor is there anything to the claim that Trump has acted as a despot. Despots remove people in order to take over all the organs of government themselves. Cassidy seems to think the president has it within his power to appoint a successor to Comey entirely on his own, when the position requires confirmation by the Senate.

Allow me to respond.

First, Epstein seems to think that the case against Hillary Clinton ought to have been far more aggressively prosecuted, treated as the criminal investigation it was. But surely Epstein must acknowledge the political complexities of any case involving a major party Presidential candidate. I’m not saying that running for President is an excuse for all manner of criminal conduct. But at worst, Hillary Clinton was guilty of carelessness, possibly born of arrogance, and possibly reflecting her own discomfort with technology. And she was running for President; very likely to be elected President. (Sigh). Comey said, in a recent interview, that the difficulties of the Clinton case made him nauseous. I can well imagine it. Like it or not, the FBI is, if not a political organization, one that must of necessity sail on troubled political waters. Comey’s first loyalty had to be to the Constitution, of course (and no one has suggested he acted otherwise). But he had to think of protecting the Bureau itself, as an institution. I may disagree with some of the decisions he made. Some of those decisions do seem to have violated basic law enforcement protocols. But I don’t doubt that navigated those waters thoughtfully and carefully. He was in an impossible position.

And, while it’s not fair to call Epstein to account for actions that took place subsequent to the publication of his article, it really is true that the ‘Comey was fired because of his mishandling of the Clinton case’ narrative has been conclusively disproved. He really did fire Comey because, as Epstein puts it, “Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump confirmed it Thursday night, in his interview with Lester Holt, when he didn’t so much admit as brag that he’d fired Comey because of his pursuit of the ‘fake news’ story about Trump campaign Russian collusion. That interview was an amazing piece of candor, not least because it threw so many members of his own communications staff under the bus, people who had been doggedly defending the Clinton email narrative, even when they sounded ridiculous doing so. Holt didn’t even seem to work very hard for it, considering that, in his interview, he got the President of the United States to admit to obstructing justice, an impeachable offense. Smoke enough for you, Mr. Epstein?

Epstein suggests that despots act despotically according to a plan. If Trump’s firing of Comey is in fact an egregious act of tyranny, well, what’s the next step? Replace Comey with Chris Christie? (Or Rudy Giuliani?) What reason do we have to assume the Senate will confirm someone like that?

But Trump isn’t that kind of tyrant. He seems to be more of an instinctual authoritarian, a guy who doesn’t so much act as react. News reports describe Trump as watching cable news incessantly, raging furiously whenever they focused on the ‘fake news’ of Trump’s Russian connections, and ignoring the (to him) much more consequential story of Obama’s bugging of Trump Tower. Never mind that that never happened. Trump seems to have convinced himself that it did happen, just as he convinced himself that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, or any of the other ludicrous things he apparently believes.

Trump isn’t the kind of incipient dictator who carefully plans every step of his way to the top. He’s not Frank Underwood (from House of Cards). He gets angry. No, he becomes incensed. And sometimes he’s able to blow off steam on Twitter. But sometimes, his choler leads him to act. And often enough, he gets away with it, frankly because it just never seems to have occurred to anyone to make certain Presidential actions illegal. Every previous President has been constrained by norms, by protocols, by traditions. But Trump isn’t constrained by anything. Except the Constitution. Which also infuriates him.

He fired Comey impulsively, unreasoningly, because he hates the Russia investigation (fake news!), and also, apparently, because Comey wouldn’t pledge loyalty to him, to Trump. And how will he deal with the aftermath? By bluffing, by lying, by counter-attacking. And by relying on the cowardice and hypocrisy and lack of patriotism of the Republican leadership.

So, yes, Mr. Epstein. There’s plenty of smoke. We’re not over-reacting; the ship of state really is on fire. What there isn’t, yet, is a fire department.

Donald Trump talks to The Economist

The Economist is one of the most respected popular journals in the world. It is, as one might expect, particularly informative and interesting on questions of economics. It recently published an interview with President Donald Trump. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, chair of the National Economic Council, sat in. As New York Magazine put it, “Donald Trump tries to explain economics to The Economist. Hilarity ensues.”

Because businessmen participate in economic activities, buying and selling, there’s a presumption that they know something about economics. I think it’s safe to say that Donald Trump knows quite a bit about the Manhattan real estate market, and perhaps a bit about marketing and branding. He doesn’t know anything about macroeconomics, despite graduating from the Wharton School of Finance. This is, I think, less surprising than you might suppose. In my experience, a lot of guys who graduate in Finance loathed their required economics classes. Too theoretical, too abstract, and quite often, post-Keynes, counter-intuitive.

Anyway, Trump gets off to a splendid start.

What is Trumponomics and how does it differ from standard Republican economics?
Well it’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s ever been asked quite that way. But it really has to do with self-respect as a nation. It has to do with trade deals that have to be fair, and somewhat reciprocal, if not fully reciprocal. And I think that’s a word that you’re going to see a lot of, because we need reciprocality in terms of our trade deals. We have nations where… they’ll get as much as 100% of a tax or a tariff for a certain product and for the same product we get nothing, OK? It’s very unfair.

A few points. Reciprocality is not a word. Also, no, the United States has no trade deals in which our goods have a 100% tariff with a 0% tariff for their goods coming to the US. That’s just silly; hyperbolic posturing. Also “National Self Respect” is not an economic principle. Reciprocity is.

And the very interesting thing about that is that, if I said I’m going to put a tax on of 10%, the free-traders, they’ll say “Oh, he’s not a free-trader”, which I am, I’m absolutely a free-trader. I’m for open trade, free trade, but I also want smart trade and fair trade. But they’ll say, “He’s not a free-trader,” at 10%. But if I say we’re putting a reciprocal tax on, it may be 62% or it may be 47%, I mean massive numbers, and nobody can complain about it. It’s really sort of an amazing thing.

Yes, as wholly imaginary scenarios go, it is quite amazing. I love the idea of reciprocal taxes of 62% passing some fantasy muster with free-traders. Trump based his entire campaign on protectionism, on tariffs, on ‘making America great’ by engaging in trade wars with everyone. If he’s a free trader, I’m a sword-swallower.

We have so many bad trade deals. To a point where I’m not sure that we have any good trade deals. I don’t know who the people are that would put us into a NAFTA, which was so one-sided. Both from the Canada standpoint and from the Mexico standpoint. So one-sided. Wilbur [Ross, the secretary of commerce] will tell you that, you know, like, at the court in Canada, we always lose. Well, the judges are three Canadians and two Americans. We always lose. But we’re not going to lose any more. And so it’s very, very unfair.

I think he’s talking about NAFTA Investor/State Arbitrations. And no, Canada doesn’t always win and America doesn’t always lose. That’s nonsense. Sometimes American companies win, sometimes Canadian tariffs win.

Time for an anecdote:

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to… they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

Ah, the big-hearted sentimental lug! What a wunnerful guy. See, the United States is getting royally screwed by NAFTA (we’re not), and he was going to pull us out of NAFTA, but a tearful (implied) appeal by his good pals Justin and that Mexican guy (the President of Mexico is Enrique Nieto) led him to change his mind.

What does this story really say? That Trump is desperate to be liked. That he didn’t act in the national interest (as he conceives it) because two world leaders weepingly (extrapolating) begged him not to. In short, that Trump can be manipulated. He ran, remember, on his skills as a negotiator. We’ve seen no sign of any such skill set. And, you know: good. NAFTA’s a good deal. Hey, Justin and Enrique. Keep it up guys.

The Economist asks him four separate times what a fair NAFTA would look like, and all Trump can do is recite various synonyms for ‘big.’ It would be ‘huge,’ ‘Massive.’ He clearly doesn’t have any idea.

He thinks our trade deficit with Mexico is 70 billion dollars. It’s not. He thinks our trade deficit with Canada is 15 billion. It’s not. Also, who cares? My economist son likes to point out that he, personally, has a trade deficit with his local grocery store. He does in there all the time and buys food. They give him food, he gives them money. Never once has he so much as offered them a single avocado. And yet the Republic prospers.

Later, he invents a narrative in which he denounces Chinese currency manipulation on the campaign trail, and immediately after he wins, China stops doing it. He is right about one thing; China did stop currency manipulation. In 2014.

Now comes my favorite exchange of the entire interview:

Another part of your overall plan, the tax reform plan. Is it OK if that tax plan increases the deficit?
It’s called priming the pump. You know, if you don’t do that, you’re never going to bring your taxes down. Now, if we get the health-care [bill through Congress], this is why, you know a lot of people said, “Why isn’t he going with taxes first, that’s his wheelhouse?” Well, hey look, I convinced many people over the last two weeks, believe me, many Congressmen, to go with it. And they’re great people, but one of the great things about getting health care is that we will be saving, I mean anywhere from $400bn to $900bn.

Mr Mnuchin: Correct.

President Trump: That all goes into tax reduction. Tremendous savings.

But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll… you understand the expression “prime the pump”?

Yes.
We have to prime the pump.

It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?

Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?

Yes.
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just… I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.

Everything about this is amazing. First of all, the US is not the highest-taxed nation in the world; we’re just about the lowest-taxed. Second, ‘prime the pump’ is an economic metaphor for a basic Keynesian concept: when unemployment is high, governments borrow money short-term to provide an economic stimulus to increase demand. That metaphor has been around since the early 1930s. The US has very low unemployment right now. A tax cut will have no stimulative value. It won’t ‘prime the pump.’

And Trump did not invent that metaphor. As New York put it:

Telling The Economist you invented the phrase “priming the pump,” to describe a plan that does not prime the pump, is a bit like sitting down with Car and Driver, pointing to the steering wheel on your car and asking if they have ever heard of a little word you just came up with called “hubcap.”

Once again, in full view of the international community, Donald Trump has demonstrated his own unique blend of arrogance and ignorance. He’s the loud-mouth in the bar, sitting on the bar stool next to Bill Belichek’s, haranguing the coach about what the Patriots should do on offense. He should play a guy named Tom Brady.

 

The Comey firing

On June 17, 1972, five men were caught in an attempted robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a rented room in the Watergate hotel. They had previously broken into the DNC rooms on May 28th, had rifled through some filing cabinets and bugged a couple of phones. Although that operation had gone smoothly, the bugs had begun to malfunction. The second break-in was needed to repair the phones, and also to continue to look for damaging intelligence that could be used against the Democratic presidential campaign. The Watergate burglars had been hired by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Nixon campaign, the break-in authorized by CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) chair, Jeb Magruder, White House counsel, John Dean, and Attorney-General John Mitchell. It’s possible that President Nixon did not know of or approve the initial burglary. But he aggressively participated in the subsequent cover-up.

Once it was learned that President Nixon routinely recorded conversations in the Oval Office, the Watergate investigators tried to subpoena the audio tapes. President Nixon claimed executive privilege; Archibald Cox, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor, kept insisting. On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson, to fired Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. his deputy, William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fired Cox; he also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, third in command, was ordered to fire Cox, and after some soul-searching, did. This series of events has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and is seen as one of the more significant events in the scandal that led to Nixon’s eventual resignation.

What the Watergate burglars were looking for was damaging intelligence, stuff they could use to smear Democrats or foreknowledge of their strategies and tactics the Republicans could counter. They bugged phones, they rifled through files. During the recent election, Russian hackers did much the same thing. They hacked into the files of the DNC, looking for damaging intel. They didn’t actually find a lot, but they did find some snarky emails, in which Clinton campaign staff said nasty things about the Bernie Sanders campaigns, and they found other documents that suggested that the DNC did not treat the two Democratic candidates equally, but favored Hillary. When the hackers released this information on Wiki-leaks, it drove a wedge into the already-shaky relationship between Democratic voters who preferred Clinton and those who preferred Sanders. We do not know, and will never know, how significant a factor any of this was in Donald Trump’s eventual electoral win. We don’t know, in a close race, what effect the Wiki-leaks revelations had on voters’ behavior. What we do know is this; Russians hacked the election, because, for whatever reason, Vladimir Putin preferred Trump over Clinton.

We know, of course, a lot more about Watergate, the historical event, than we do about Russian electoral interference. With Watergate, we know who did what, and when. That’s not true so far with the current scandal. We do not know, for example, the extent to which the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s electoral preferences, or to what degree, if at all, members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians prior to the election. We don’t know if Trump himself is guilty, at all, of anything. I expect that, in time, we’ll know a lot more.

Former acting Attorney-General Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday may have seemed somewhat mundane, and not really all that revelatory.  No ‘smoking gun,’ in other words. But that’s generally not how these things work. I remember Watergate vividly. I was in high school then, and every day after school, was glued to my TV watching the Watergate hearings. I remember listening to the drip drip drip of new information, and trying to put it all together. What Yates did was confirm a lot of facts that had previously been reported. We do know more today than we did last week.

Last week, preceding her testimony, FBI director Comey made a request of President Trump, for more funding to expand the FBI’s investigation into the Russian hacking and possible Trump campaign collusion. Yesterday, President Trump fired Comey. This means that the most significant three people conducting investigations into Trump/Russia when Trump took office 110 days ago were James Comey, Sally Yates, and Preet Bharara, New York US Attorney. Trump has now fired all three of them. Again, we don’t know if Trump or his campaign were guilty of, well, anything. It would, however, be easier to cut him some slack if he didn’t act so darn guilty.

Again, there’s no hard evidence of collusion. But we do know that Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, may also be a Russian spy. (US intelligence agencies, apparently, regard him as one). We know that vast numbers of high ranking Trump officials met with Kislyak and other Russian officials, many times, during the campaign. Michael Flynn, of course, was among them. Trump has repeatedly claimed he didn’t and doesn’t have any business dealings with Russians. We know that’s not true; in a recent story admitted that Russian money funded Trump golf courses, and there are many other Russian/Trump connections discovered by journalists, including, in a stunning story, a major investigation by USA Today.

Of course, Watergate was a major historical event, certainly one of the most consequential in our nation’s history. Right now, the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections is in its infancy. We don’t know, or at least, have not yet proved, collusion.

But if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump or his campaign staff did collude with Russian to influence a Presidential election, that seems to me much much more important than even Watergate. Whatever we may think of Richard Nixon, he didn’t collude with a hostile foreign power. Nixon was certainly devious, thin-skinned, and amoral. But he was no traitor. But that’s what we’re saying Trump committed: high treason. No evidence yet, but he just fired the guy investigating the case. It’s hard to come across as guiltier than that.