Tinkerbell Effect

October 15th, 2018

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This is a term which describes things that are thought to exist only because people believe in them. One of the areas where is it used fairly widely is with money. Money has no intrinsic value. It only works because everyone using it believes that it will continue to work for the foreseeable future.

Populism at its core is built on the Tinkerbell Effect. Populists believe that “crowds” are self-validating. Whatever the crowd believes must be fact because everyone in the crowd shares the same belief.

Science, while it studies the “wisdom of crowds”, has never accepted the claim that belief should replace proof regardless of how popular any particular belief might be.

The modern era began with the introduction of the scientific method in the 17th century. That method requires all assumptions to pass a series of rigorous tests in order to gain credibility. The scientific method created the concept of objective truth. It freed reality from being narrowly defined by popes or potentates. Instead it handed the responsibility of understanding the world to a select group of highly decentralized critical thinkers around the world – experts in their particular fields. These groups are self-selecting based on their areas of interest. Anyone can join, regardless of race, color, creed, or nationality. They simply have to prove through their publications that they have sufficient understanding of the subject matter to be taken seriously by their peers.

When Galileo improved the Lippershey telescope to provide ultimately 30x magnification, he was able to confirm the Copernican helio-centric theory of the solar system. This was a direct challenge to the Biblical claim supported by the Catholic Church that the universe revolved around the earth.

Galileo championed the idea that all of the laws of nature are mathematical. That meant that natural outcomes should not only be predictable, but also repeatable by anyone with a comparable understanding of the underlying mathematics. In other words, you didn’t have to be Galileo to see the moons of Jupiter transit across the face of the planet. You only had to have the same telescope that Galileo had and understand what those dots moving across the image of Jupiter actually represented.

This ushered in a new age where scientists could reliably explain all natural phenomena. Reality was no longer dependent on opinion or dogma. Instead there was (and is) an unbiased group of experts who could not only separate fact from fiction, but were eager to test new ideas even if they questioned accepted theories. This group almost by definition is constantly pushing the boundaries of understanding while simultaneously strengthening those theories that survive rigorous testing.

This group earns the right to test all theories about reality through the professional credentials they acquire, the reputation they have with their peers, and their own success in producing original work that can be duplicated by other experts in the field.

By definition, these experts also know more about their subject than any random crowd regardless of its size.

Therein lies the rub.

Populist movements, including the one in this country, strive to take back the right to determine what is fact and what is fiction. They reject any and all outside groups who suggest that any but their own trusted group can dictate their beliefs.

Here’s why all of this is important.

Trump’s lying is not a character flaw or pathology. It is not a “salesman” characteristic. It IS a deliberate strategy to weaken our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Steve Bannon summarized this strategy when he said, “The way to deal with [the media] is to flood the zone with s**t.”

Trump’s singular success as a politician has been his ability to create an alternate reality in which he and his supporters live. He has been successful because he is exploiting a weakness in our democracy. That weakness is the power that we invest in the chief executive. An untrustworthy chief executive in our system can acquire a lot of power very quickly. The only checks to that power are congress, the courts, and voters. A free and independent press is supposed to inform the voters so that their choices are fact based.

Trump’s strategy is to delegitimize the press, create an alternate reality where he is the only arbiter of truth, and demonize all those who oppose him. Because he is the President, he has the power to accomplish that. Facts are no longer relevant in this discussion because Trump’s supporters reject experts as biased elites and the press as “the enemy of the people”. Democrats are “traitors” and “evil people”. All those who oppose Trump, in the minds of his supporters, should be “locked up”. The Republican Party has long since abdicated any role in checking the President’s power. Those who might provide leadership have either died or been drummed out of the party. The courts are slowly being bent to Trump’s will too as his appointments flood positions that a Republican Senate majority had kept open during the Obama administration.

The only reliable check that remains is voters. That fact isn’t lost on Trump and Republican either. Trump has already built the narrative that any vote that doesn’t go his way must be the result of a rigged system or voter fraud. Republicans have stepped up their efforts at every level of government to suppress the vote from those who generally vote for Democrats.

This brings us to the current crossroad.

Our country appears to be split.

We have conservatives who vote based on a set of ideological beliefs that they share regarding government, taxes, the free market, and personal responsibility. Whether smaller government actually increases human freedom is never questioned. If tax cuts and deregulation don’t result in faster economic growth, at least they are giving individuals more control over their own property – which seems to be good enough. Conservatives believe that people choose to be poor and that any attempt to mitigate the circumstances surrounding poverty discourages people from putting in the work that would improve their condition. There is no data to support this view either, but put that hasn’t stopped Trump from blaming the poor, immigrants, and people of color for the country’s problems.

Republicans were concerned about debt and deficits when a Democrat was in the White House. Now that Republicans control all branches of government, they are running up deficits and increasing the debt at an historic rate.

Liberals on the other hand are focused these days on achieving a pragmatic balance between the market and the state. They view government as tool to constrain corporate excess. Decisions on each specific issue of government involvement are the result of extensive evidence-based study and a good faith attempt to produce outcomes which benefit the most people. If liberals have a religion it is the belief that science will always produce the best answer. One of the potential outcome of this philosophy is a technocracy where all power as well decision-making is concentrated in a small group of supposed experts. China claims that this is their form of government, but it looks a lot more like an oligopoly because the Chinese “experts” who have the power are also personally benefiting from their decisions. While that isn’t the case in this country, there is a deep suspicion among conservatives that those who are making decisions based on their academic credentials MUST somehow also be benefiting personally from the positions that they are taking. There is no proof to support that claim, but conservatives still insist that “experts” can’t be trusted. This leaves conservatives free to insist that their beliefs are more credible because they are based in “common sense”.

From an ideological perspective, however, modern liberalism in this country may not be well equipped to deal with the anti-state anti-intellectual radicalism that has become the Republican Party. The pragmatic Clintonian Democrats come off as passionless technocrats rather than true believers. This more than anything else explains the rise of the Bernie Socialists. Democratic Socialism is on the rise because it brings a new vision of the expanded role of the state that can match the populist fervor that swept Trump into office. Both the Democratic Socialists and the populists share a deep distrust of what they view as the establishment. They both want to tear it down and build something new.

The populist challenge is they have failed to dislodge the Republican establishment. Instead the Republican establishment has figured out how to ride this populist wave. The result is that the power of establishment has increased. The only difference is that this establishment is speaking in populist terms rather than traditional conservatism. The policies, however, are the same as they have always been.

All indications are that the Democrats will regain control of the House and make significant gains at the state level.

What will that mean for the next two years?

If past is prologue, the path forward is pretty obvious.

Regardless of the election outcome, Trump will double down on his authoritarian tactics. He will try to end the Mueller investigation. He will increase attempts to suppress the 2020 vote. He will refuse to comply with court orders limiting his power. He will refuse to cooperate with congressional investigations. The resulting constitutional crisis will have to be resolved in a Supreme Court where Kavanaugh could be the deciding vote. Whatever the Supreme Court decides will only increase divisions between those who believe in their own views and those who seek the objective reality.

He will crack down on protests and try to further weaken the influence of the press. He may cause an international crisis in an effort to boost his status as a “war” president. He will almost certainly continue his misguided trade war.

Finally, the recession that we have all been waiting for will arrive. Trump will fumble the response and deepen the crisis rather than resolve it. Trump will use the crisis to impose even more draconian immigration enforcement in an effort to blame the failure on Muslims, Hispanics, and the poor. Violence against all of those groups will increase.

Next up a different take on this whole picture.

Flopping

October 10th, 2018

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Flopping is a technique in a number of sports. It is an intentional fall by a player after little or no contact from an opposing player. The intent is to fool the official into believing that a foul actually occurred when in fact nothing happened. It is widely practiced in soccer and basketball. To a lesser extent, you see it also in football on almost every incomplete pass. The defender jumps up celebrating his success and the receiver jumps up looking around in dismay for a flag to confirm the fact that his failure to catch the ball was because of interference from the defender.

Flopping has found its way into the politics of victimization. It even has its own acronym – DARVO. That stands for Deny Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender.

DARVO is President Trump’s favorite tactic.

Here is a recent example.

Trump mocked Dr. Ford at a rally and lied about her testimony. He went on to suggest that Kavanaugh and his family are the real victims and blames the Democrats. He then called Democrats “evil people”.  He said their aim is to “destroy people” and create a culture in which people are “guilty until proven innocent”. The ultimate irony, probably lost on those in the crowd, occurred when the crowd began to chant “lock her up”.

The press then held Trump accountable for both his tone and his lies regarding Dr. Ford. His press secretary denied that he was mocking Dr. Ford and said that he was only stating the facts of the case. That was also a lie since the facts of the case include many of the details where Dr. Ford’s memory was clear.

Sprinkling facts with lies is also a common Trump tactic.  Lies, however, taint any claim of stating the facts.  Telling only the half of the story is also misrepresentation.

Dr. Ford, for example, provided solid scientific reasons why she did not remember some details and did remember others.  That science of trauma has been widely corroborated by other psychologists.  Ignoring this important part of Dr. Ford’s testimony was just additional evidence that Trump had no interest in the facts.

Then Sanders repeated the Trump’s claims that the real victim here is Kavanaugh and the real villains are the Democrats who single-handedly turned the confirmation process into “a complete and total disgrace”.

Sanders and Trump also claimed that the FBI had free reign in their investigation.  Later statements from the FBI confirmed that it was in fact “limited in scope”.

Trump later justified his attacks on Dr. Ford as an attempt to “even the playing field” and that Kavanaugh’s ultimate successful confirmation was the direct result of his attacks.  The common statement is “level the playing field”.  Characterizing this as an “uneven” playing field may have been a subconscious admission that Dr. Ford had strong public support.

Political flopping and DARVO are all different versions of a flawed philosophy – the end justifies the means.

Flopping and DARVO are both cheating.

They are attempts to twist the truth in order to gain an advantage.

At this point, partisans are going to be hearing a lot of “yah but” arguments in their head. That’s fine. But just because someone else “flops” does not make it any more ethical for you to flop.

Also just to be clear, Trump earned the right to nominate SCOTUS judges as a result of winning the election. He just happened to pick someone who, like many of his past nominations for other offices, was poorly vetted. Just because Republicans had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, doesn’t mean that they should have.

The philosophical conclusion of accepting the “end justifies the means” rationale is that ANYTHING is acceptable behavior as long as you can justify whatever is accomplished.

IMHO, that is what has been exposed in the Republican Party by the Trump presidency.

This President can lie (well documented) with no recourse because those lies advance the agenda (ends) that the Republican party feels cannot be advanced in any other way. Or in fact to be more precise, Republican leaders ignore Trump’s lies because they don’t want to confront him and his supporters. The problem is that Trump has demanded the leaders in his party to declare that they are either with him or against him. He won’t, in fact, even tolerate their silence. Most chose the path of least resistance, actively defend Trump, and regularly praise his good works. Meanwhile the march to autocracy continues.

Trump and his supporters seem to live in an alternate reality where angry protesters are characterized as a mob. Worse yet, they can’t seem to accept that those people who are exercising their first amendment rights to protest are doing so voluntarily. Instead, even Republican Senators circulate the conspiracy theory that the protesters are paid by George Soros, but fail to produce any evidence to support their claim. They seem to forget that the current Republican majorities were won by angry protests by the Tea Party that started in 2010. Instead this protest must be motivated by paid provocateurs or revenge-seeking Clinton supporters.

Another flawed right wing meme is that young men are now somehow at risk from the #MeToo movement. This makes a false equivalence between women who are concerned about their physical security and long term psychological health and men who fear that a false accusation would damage their future employment prospects.

Blaming the victim, particularly when they are women, is a damnable defense that our current president has legitimized. The #MeToo movement started with powerful men in the entertainment industry. It has spread to those in all walks of life. Those who attack women should be held accountable.  Those who employ the DARVO technique are reprehensible cowards.

(rant starting) When multiple women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of abusive behavior, Republicans including Kavanaugh suggested that this was evidence of “an organized political hit”.  Why are three women who chose to come forward LESS convincing for Republicans than one woman?  Bias is the only reasonable answer.

When Kavanaugh lied about the meaning of entries in his yearbook, everyone paying attention knew this was a lie – but Republicans gave him a pass on the basis of youthful exuberance.  But putting your hand over the mouth of a screaming woman IS NOT youthful exuberance.  It is abuse regardless of the age of the abuser.

It also isn’t that times have changed.  Rape and sexual assault have always been wrong.  I graduated from an all boy’s Jesuit High School.  While there may have been a culture of privilege at Kavanaugh’s school, I can guarantee that he was taught that with privilege comes responsibility.  The core of all Jesuit schools is to teach boys to become “men for others”.  He knew that abusing alcohol was wrong and he knew that attacking women was wrong too.

So please tell me why Kavanaugh couldn’t just admit that he had a drinking problem in his youth?  He could have admitted that he did drink to the point where he was not able to remember everything that happened.  He could have said, whether it was true or not, that he has no memory of the events that these three women described.  At that point, a man for others would have apologized for any harm that he may have caused and promised that his life since that time has been dedicated to seeking justice and protecting the powerless.

Instead he turned it all into a partisan rant and as a result became the LEAST trusted justice in recent history to hold a lifetime appointment. (rant ending)

The conspiracy theorists are also weighing in, but now they happen to be Senators. Tom Cotton for example believes that this is all a Democratic plot orchestrated by Chuck Schumer. Specifically, Cotton claims that a friend of Dr. Ford had worked at one time for Attorney Preet Bharara who had at one time been Schumer’s chief counsel. The problem is that the friend never did work for Bharara and there is no evidence suggesting that Schumer knew about Dr. Ford’s claim any earlier than anyone else. This theory is based on the same magic thinking that suggests that people are incapable of coming to the same conclusion (i.e. trusting Dr. Ford’s testimony) on their own. That the only way to explain such a broad and deep emotional response as we’ve seen from the public is that it had been carefully planned months before. If that was the case, Schumer clearly fumbled the ball because all they got out of it was a week’s delay and a shallow FBI investigation. If they had brought these allegations to the committee earlier, it is likely that there would have been sufficient time to do a more thorough FBI investigation which may have led to a different outcome.

What we can take from this is another turn of the autocratic wheel.

Trump supporters, which include most of the Republican Party now, don’t just have contempt for the truth, but now rush to demonize any and all criticism. In the past this tendency was limited to Trump and a small group of his vocal defenders. Now senior Republicans freely embrace crazy conspiracy theories about what motivated opposition to Kavanaugh and NO ONE in the party is questioning them.

When conspiracy theories move from the delusional fringe to mainstream politics, it becomes a deliberate strategy to delegitimize opposition. This creates excuses for punishing anyone who dares to oppose those in power, because that opposition in and of itself is regarded as treason. Even the high ideal of protecting women from being abused quickly fell by the wayside when the accused abuser was a powerful Republican.  Rather than take these accusations seriously and conduct a thorough and detailed investigation into all claims, those claims were dismissed as being politically motivated and a majority of senators who represent a minority of voters imposed their will on the rest of the country.

The question remains, how is democracy going to respond? It clearly isn’t the Republican Party. If there was any previous question, it is clear now that they are all-in. The Supreme Court is no longer going to be a reliable check on presidential power either. The highly politicized appointment process disregarded any damage that might be done to the credibility of the court in the minds of a large majority US citizens in return for potential short term political gain in the upcoming midterms.

The only thing that stands between Trump and his march toward authoritarianism are the voters. Regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections, Trump will dare both the voters and the courts to try to stop him. It will take more than a defeat in the upcoming midterms.  If Republicans retain their Senate majority, which seems a likely outcome at this point, it is likely that Trump will take action to shut down the Mueller investigation by whatever means available to him.  The only thing that will stop him are Democratic wins in every election between now and the next time we can vote directly on Trump’s political future.  Hopefully, voters and the courts will be up to the task when they are called to make a choice.

 

Socialism

July 30th, 2018

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The recent nomination of a democratic socialist in a NY congressional district has awakened the great red scare among some conservatives.

The standard conservative line regarding socialism is that there isn’t one successful socialist country and it is a stepping stone to communism.

But that begs the question.

There isn’t one successful libertarian country either, but that doesn’t stop many of those same conservatives from suggesting that an unfettered free market is the solution to all that ails us.

So let’s start with a simple definition of what socialism is and the fairly successful history of socialism in this country.

Here’s the definition of socialism from dictionary.com

A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

Just for the purposes of comparison, here the definition of democracy.

A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Notice the difference? Democracy is a system of government. Socialism is a political and economic theory.

A democracy can operate on socialist principles. There are many successful examples around the world. They generally provide a high level of services supported by a high level of individual and corporate taxes. In addition to taxation, industries are also highly regulated, workers generally have a place at the table when decisions are made, and public resources like air and water are protected. Fundamentally, the government is run by representatives, just like this country, who are elected by citizens who have decided that this is the way that they would like their government to operate, just like this country.

A dictatorship can also claim to operate on socialist principles, though that dictator would have to be benign. But just saying you are a socialist country, doesn’t make you one any more than just saying that you are a democracy, as Russia does, means that all elections are fair, opposition parties are free to campaign, and voters really have a choice.

Milwaukee was dominated by a Social-Democratic party for the first 60 years or so of the 20th century. The focus there was worker’s rights. They successfully eliminated child labor and ushered in the 40 hour work week. All this was accomplished in addition to all of the day to day operational needs of big city.

By definition, police and fire departments, our military, public schools, public libraries, and public infrastructure are all examples of communities getting together to provide a service that is owned collectively and regulated either locally or nationally.

Suggesting that socialism is bad for free markets also misunderstands both free markets and socialism.

We have seen over and over that free markets operate best in well-regulated environments. Those regulations and laws also provide a means of enforcement and a method where those who have been injured can seek redress. If you don’t pay your bills, someone can take you to court in order to get paid. If you fix prices or inhibit competition in order to illegally inflate your profit, the government can levy a penalty that could include repayment to those who were harmed. Google was fined $5B by the EU for that very reason. If you want to sell a drug, you have to prove to the FDA that the drug is effective and that all of the potential side effects are well known. If you want to start a bank, there are all kinds of rules to insure that your bank is going to be able to manage your deposits in a responsible way.

All of this regulation fits the definition of socialism. The community (voters) are agreeing to regulate the means of production/distribution/exchange for the benefit of the community.

So the REAL discussion should be HOW MUCH socialism is appropriate.

This is the same discussion that we should be having about libertarianism – HOW MUCH government is appropriate.

Serious questions have been raised that the United States is not really a democracy, at least if you look at the outcomes of legislation. A ground breaking study suggests that we are really an oligarchy where the rich and powerful, though a small minority of the total population, are the ones who benefit from virtually all of the legislation and rule-making done by our elected representatives. That study has since been questioned by a closer examination of the alignment between middle class and upper class interests. But clearly the poor are not well served in this democracy even though they represent 15% of the population.

There are good reasons to have a discussion about how healthcare is delivered in this country. The facts are that we continue to spend more money per person on healthcare than any other country in the world, but our outcomes are far worse than even the average among our industrialized peers.

There are good reasons to have a discussion about income inequality and economic mobility. The number one factor in this country that influences future success is your father. In other words, if you are the child of a poor father, the barriers to you becoming wealthy are significantly higher than if your father was wealthy, even if everything else in terms of talents, ambition, and determination are the same. The reasons are that poor kids simply don’t have access to the same levels of nutrition, healthcare, education, and investment that are available to wealthy kids. That’s not the case in the rest of the industrialized world. All children have access to healthcare. All children have access to high quality education. All children have access to good nutrition. The best and brightest have a much easier time rising to the top in other countries than they do here. That said, those who have received their education elsewhere are attracted to our country because of the advantages available for the well-off.

There are good reasons to talk about the influence that money has in our politics. Corporations and wealthy individuals have tilted the playing field to their advantage. The result is that taxpayers and small investors end up subsidizing CEO pay, for example, because of tax and trading rules that are in place. Other countries (e.g. Austrialia) have taken successful steps to rein-in corporate pay without damaging their economy.

There are good reasons to talk about the cost of higher education. Our current system is warping the future of kids with huge student loan debt when they graduate. Rather than start their own companies, they are forced to work for big companies that pay well for a decade or more so that they can pay off that debt. Other industrialized countries subsidize the cost of higher education which frees up those graduates to take more risk early in their careers than their peers in this country.

There are good reasons to talk about our spending priorities in this country. We spend way more money on defense and far less money on infrastructure, education, and social services than our industrialized peers.

Trump’s message to Make America Great Again was in part a promise to get government working again for those who felt government has ignored them.

The conversations that I’ve suggested that we need to have are motivated by the same interest. We need to get the government working better for those who aren’t getting healthcare benefits from their employers. We need to get the government working better to help working people who are not getting their fair share of the benefits of economic growth. We need to figure out how government can be made less responsive to the wealthy and more responsive to the majority of voters. We need to figure out what role government can play in making higher education more accessible to those who can’t currently afford it without going into debt.

None of these topics are specifically socialistic, but all of them can be organized under the larger banner of making government work better for the majority rather than the minority.

No one is suggesting that we dismantle our current representative democracy.

What is being suggested is that voters have a serious discussion about the way our government currently operates.

What is being suggested by some candidates who call themselves Democratic Socialists is that if they are elected, they will advocate for changes to the way government operates in some of the areas that I’ve listed. The ONLY way that these changes will occur is if a majority of voters agree that these changes make sense.

How different are these changes than the changes that outlawed child labor, the 40 hour work week, public schools, or public libraries?

IMHO, there is no difference.

So let’s try to have these needed conversations without the hysteria that the country is being overtaken by some evil force. It’s not, unless that evil force is the people who resist change and are willing to demonize even a discussion about change as a slippery slope into communism.

Are We There Yet?

July 22nd, 2018

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Let’s just do a quick recap.

Trump goes to the NATO conference.

He gives an interview to the Sun in which he blasts PM May, his host. Then he denies that he said it even though the Sun has the whole interview on tape. He blasts NATO, lies about how much of the burden the US is bearing, takes credit for spending increases that were underway before he was elected, and then suggests that the mutual defense pact that is at the heart of NATO may be dangerous. Then he claims that the meeting was wonderful and everyone is better off as a result

Trump has a summit with Putin.

He ignores the advice of his staff, the diplomatic corps, and the intelligence community.

He has a private 2 hour meeting where only interpreters are present. No details of that meeting have been made public by him. The Russian government has suggested some agreements were made regarding military deployments.

In the press conference following the meeting he says that he finds Putin more trustworthy than his own intelligence services regarding the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He also celebrates the Russian offer to allow the justice department to work with the Russian government to interview the 12 Russians recently indicted for election tampering. In exchange Russians asked to interview some people whom Putin considers political enemies including former Ambassador Michael McFaul and former US citizen Bill Browder.

He comes back to this country and is furious to discover that his Russian meeting isn’t being celebrated as the triumph that he thought it was. His own staff say that he is confuses Russian meddling in our election with collusion.  He feels that the whole thing is an effort to undermine the legitimacy of his election rather than a reasonable response to an attack by country that seeks to do us harm.  He immediately pushed Pompeo and Bolton to schedule a follow-up meeting in Washington with Putin which blindsided National Intelligence director Dan Coates among others.

Trump lies about what he said in Russia suggesting that changing one word would alter the whole fawning exhibition that he put on. When asked about the “incredible offer”, his press secretary could only say that Trump was planning to “work with his team”. It took almost a week for them to reject that offer.

The press asked Trump whether or not he believed that Russia was still attempting to disrupt our election process. This was after security officials had said that Russians have stepped up their hacking attempts. Trump said no. Later his press secretary made another clumsy attempt to rewrite history by suggesting that Trump was answering a different question than the one that the video shows he was clearly answering.

Former Trump staffer Michael Anton has been an advocate for populist policies in the Trump administration. He recently published a very controversial opinion piece in the Washington Post suggesting Trump could change the 14th amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship with an executive order. Even he couldn’t bring himself to defend the recent actions of this administration. He joined the chorus of conservative thought leaders encouraging all those who care about the future of this country to vote out the Republican party this fall.  They all suggest that this is the only viable strategy to curb a president whom appears to be a threat to our security.

Trump ran on the promise to improve relations with Russia. That begs the basic question, however, of whether or not Russia is interested in having improved relations and can be trusted to treat us as a friend rather than an enemy. Putin was asked that question during the Helsinki press conference. His response was that he was going to do whatever he feels is in the best interests of Russia and he would expect that Trump will act in the best interests of the United States. There has been no question that past presidents could be trusted to act in the best interests of the United States when they spoke with leaders from Russia or the USSR . In the opinion of security experts and experienced diplomats across the political spectrum, Trump’s actions and statements do not meet that standard.

Our intelligence services and the justice department have told us that Russia is actively engaged in attempts to destabilize our democracy. It is no longer a question of who or how. We know the people who were involved. We know what they did and we know why they did it. There is no question that all of this was orchestrated by Putin’s government. We also know that Putin continues to deny any responsibility and Trump has said he is willing to accept that denial.

Trump’s son admitted to being eager to obtain “dirt” on Clinton from Russians. He was only one of multiple members of the Trump campaign who had contacts with Russians during and after the campaign and then lied about it.

We know that a Russian hacking effort started the day after Trump publically asked Russians to try to locate “missing” Clinton emails.

We know that Russians shared stolen DNC information with the public which the Trump campaign then used. We also know that some of the stolen information was passed by Russians to Republicans who used it to win House seats.

We know that the Russians are continuing their efforts to disrupt our elections, but Republicans recently killed an effort to fund increased state level election security.

A Russian spy was recently arrested after infiltrating the NRA. The NRA was one of the biggest contributors to the Trump campaign. The FBI is currently investigating whether some of that money was illegally funneled from Russian sources.

The Trump administration recently changed campaign rules to make is virtually impossible to trace future political contribution like the NRA ones currently under investigation.

Trump partisans have recently been suggesting that even if it could be proved that the Russians were successful in helping get Trump elected, it was still better for the country than if Hillary Clinton had won.

Whether or not those efforts were successful, the question remains that we have a president who appears unwilling to take these risks seriously. Whether it is by design, incompetence, or dementia the result is the same. The president’s own behavior poses a risk to our country’s security.

What roles are Pompeo and Bolton playing in this strategy? If they support Trump’s strategy, then they should also be held accountable. If not, they should resign and share what they know with the American people so our representatives can decide how to respond.

The majority party in the Senate and House has a constitutional responsibility to act when the president betrays the interests of the country. While some leaders of the Republican Party have spoken out, the only action that has been taken so far has been a nonbinding resolution objecting to making any US citizens available for questioning by Russian authorities.

Partisans trotted out past actions by other administration suggesting that Trump’s actions are no worse in comparison. This is a common tactic suggesting that it is all just politics and media bias. A careful analysis of this argument, however, leads to a deeper question. If it is all just politics, then what would THIS president have to do in order to cause his supporters to take the warnings of conservative thought leaders seriously.

That’s why it is the responsibility of the leaders in the Republican Party to help Republicans understand the great risks we face as a country when our president doesn’t appear to be acting in the country’s best interests.  The fact that we can’t even have the discussion because Republican elected officials fear the repercussions of perceived disloyalty indicates the grave danger we may be facing.

This is also why an authoritarian leader is so dangerous in our democratic system. If the Republican Party took their constitutional responsibilities seriously and began a sincere debate regarding the president’s actions, Trump would likely abandon that party and try to convince his supporters that HE is the only one that matters. If he was successful in convincing enough people to support him, there would be no effective limit to his power. He could declare war. He could enlist the military to solidify his domestic power. He could fire everyone in the justice department that opposed him. He could begin jailing his critics as he has already suggested. He could appoint new judges whose loyalty is to him rather than the constitution.  This is the well worn path that many autocrats from Hitler to Pinochet have followed.

That’s why it is important to start the conversation now, before Trump takes any further steps to either erode our democracy or consolidate his power.

While all this is going on, Trump’s legal troubles are only getting worse. We now have tapes that prove that Trump lied about his relationship with Karen McDougal. It is highly likely that the National Enquirer’s payment to her to spike her story before the 2016 election will be found to be an illegal campaign contribution which Trump was aware of.  Trump’s response was to claim that “your favorite President” did nothing wrong.  How will he respond as Cohen continues to cooperate with the Mueller investigation?

It is time for this country to have an honest and open debate about whether or not this president is acting in the best interests of the country.

If not now, when?

Fleeing to Another Country

July 7th, 2018

 

Fleeing to another country is the ultimate act of parental desperation.  Yet somehow those parents who are seeking asylum in this country are being cast as the villains in Trump’s twisted passion play.

Instead of embracing this situation with the compassion that we as a country normally exhibit when when people are in need, politics have overwhelmed the immigration discussion.

Here are a few facts in an effort to bring some reason to what otherwise seems dominated by emotion.

  1. Illegal immigration is at the lowest point in recent history. Border patrol apprehensions were 1.6M in 2000. Now they are a little over 250K. That’s a 6x reduction.  Even more important is for the last four years we have deported more people than entered the country illegally.  As a result, the number of illegal immigrants in this country has been going down.
  2. Our constitution and laws guarantee those seeking asylum the right to a fair hearing on their claims within a reasonable period of time.
  3. There are legal limits to the amount of time the government can hold a child.
  4. Numerous credible studies find that immigrants (regardless of status) reduce violent crime in the communities in which they settle. The numbers Trump uses have been widely debunked.
  5. Many of the mayors of border cities have said that illegal immigration is not currently a problem for them.

Here’s what has changed.

In past administrations, 90% of those seeking asylum presented proof of a “credible fear” of harm if they returned to their home country. Those people (mostly families) were released in the US while awaiting their hearing. In the current administration, the rates of release have dropped to single digits.  As the asylum seekers go up, those crossing in search of work has gone down.

The result is that a “zero tolerance” plan that may have been designed to discourage young single men from crossing the border to look for work,  has created a humanitarian disaster by traumatizing families and abusing children.

Most asylum seekers flee their country with their whole family. Those who have chosen to criticize the parents for putting their children at risk, clearly misunderstand the law AND are unwilling to admit that they would do the same thing if their family were similarly threatened.

The lawbreakers in this case are the Trump administration. They ignored asylum claims because it was politically inconvenient. Instead, they treated all those who cross the border as criminals. Once they committed to putting everyone who crossed the border in jail including those who presented themselves seeking asylum, they committed to family separation. It’s also because they wanted to use those separated children as leverage to coerce those in jail to drop their asylum claims in return for the promise of being reunited with their children.  Court documents indicate this promise was also a lie.

3000 children were separated from their parents by the time that Trump was forced to stop the practice. Courts found against the administration and ordered the Trump administration to quickly reunite children and their parents. The relevant child protection agencies finally had to admit what lawyers and immigrant activists had been saying from the beginning.  No records have been kept which can be used to reunite children with their parents.  For children under 5, the Trump administration has been forced to resort to DNA testing to even have a clue to who the parents might be.

The reason no records were kept was because the agencies charged with placing these children either with relatives or in suitable foster care were never setup to reunite parents with children.  They were setup during the Obama administration to deal with the flood of unaccompanied minors who started crossing the border in 2014.  While there were efforts to reunite these children with their parents, those parents were generally not being held in US jails awaiting an immigration trial.  No efforts were made prior to the implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy to add a layer of record keeping to the processes that were already in place.  These agencies and the Trump administration ignored all the warnings they received when they first announced their intentions to treat everyone as a criminal.

There are only two conclusions at this point regarding this policy. The first is that the Trump administration are incompetent liars. They put a policy in place with no understanding that it would separate so many children from their parents. They lied about their planning and ability to reunite those children with their parents. It was only after a judge intervened that the truth about the scale of this monstrous effort became clear.

The second conclusion is that the Trump administration are cynical liars. They knew that they were going to create a problem for which they had no solution, but they didn’t care. They felt that it was a controversy that would help motivate their base to rush to their defense when the truth came out about the abuse they had visited on innocent children. So they lied about virtually everything that they had done and then sat back as the media, those shocked by these actions, and the rest of the world reacted to what they were seeing.

Those who support Trump responded exactly as Trump had hoped. They blamed the media for bias. They repeated all Trump’s lies about secure borders, laws passed by Democrats, crime, and that old standard law and order. They blamed Democrats for criticizing something that Obama also did. They blamed the parents for putting their children in harm’s way. They blamed liberals for wanting an open border and lawlessness in return for increasing the ranks of illegal voters. They claimed it was all a conspiracy put up by the media and liberals to make Trump look bad.

The only person they didn’t hold accountable was the ONLY person who caused this calamity and the only person who eventually was forced to stop it – President Trump.

Objecting to this program is not advocating for open borders or lawlessness. Instead it is holding the current administration accountable for failing to abide by all the laws concerning immigration.

Those trying to defend these actions on the basis of politics, media bias, or parent-blaming should themselves be ashamed of what they have allowed themselves to become.

Liar’s Poker 2

June 13th, 2018

The ink isn’t dry yet on whatever it was that Trump and Kim signed and we are already dealing with WILDLY divergent claims about what happened and why.

Before we start, however, I do want to acknowledge that at least in the short term, this is much better than threatening any kind of conflict. On the other hand the long term costs may be significant.

Let’s start with Trump.

He held a press conference yesterday to celebrate his supposed success. Here are some of lies that he told in the process.

“Chairman Kim and I just signed a joint statement which he reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula….We signed a very, very comprehensive document.”

Simply not true. Compared to past documents that were signed between NK and the US, this document has been described as “remarkably vague, leaving it open to interpretation and debate”.

Here’s just one example from the Wash Post.

The statement said North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) committed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The phrase is not defined and “toward” is rather weak. In the past, North Korea viewed “denuclearization” to mean the United States removing the nuclear umbrella it provides to Japan and South Korea; there is no indication its definition has changed.

Contrast the Trump-Kim statement, for instance, with the Sept. 19, 2005, agreement signed by North Korea, the United States and four regional neighbors, which was much more specific:

“The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards. The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.”

“We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money. Unless and until we see the future negotiations is not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus. It is very provocative. … They are tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spend on that is incredible.”

Trump provided no facts to back up his claim. What we know is that SK pays 50% of the non-personnel costs to keep US troops in the region. Since the troops are not leaving, there is no cost savings there. Also this was primarily a training exercise. Since troops will still need to be trained it is unclear how training them some other way will save a lot of money over training them in the same way that we have trained them for decades. If he plans to simply skip the training, then you have to ask the question of how that will affect their readiness to respond in case they are needed.

“In one case, they took billions of dollars during the Clinton regime. Took billions of dollars and nothing happened.”

A big lie.

The Clinton NK deal centered on NK decommissioning a nuclear power plant that could also be used to create weapons grade plutonium. In return the US promised two things. We would supply heavy oil every year to replace the electricity that NK would get from the plant. We would also (as part of a consortium of nations) build NK different reactors that could supply electricity but couldn’t be used to make weapons grade material. This was the deal the George Bush blew up.

The US spent about $50M over the 8 years of the Clinton administration supplying fuel oil. The consortium spent $2.5B on the reactor project before the US withdrew. $2B of that was paid for by SK and Japan.

NONE of that money went to NK. It was spent on power plant contractors and oil producers. Also during that period of time, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed through regular inspections that NK did put all of the fuel rods from their reactor in cooling ponds and there was no evidence of any other enrichment activities. NK didn’t restart their program until Bush II pulled out of the deal and invaded Iraq.

“On the Iran deal, I think Iran is a different country now. I don’t think they are looking as much to the Mediterranean and so much as Syria like they were with total confidence.”

There is no evidence that Iraq has stopped supporting the insurgent groups that they have been supporting.

“I notice some of the people are saying the president has agreed to meet. He has given up so much. I gave up nothing.”

Presidential summits are usually reserved for the end of a negotiating process and are the reward for getting a deal done. Putting the summit at the front end of the process is a significant concession. Evidence is what NK is claiming was also promised.

“When you look at all of the things we got and when we got our hostages back, I did not pay $1.8 billion in cash like the hostages that came back from Iran which was a disgraceful situation.”

Another big lie which Trump has continued to tell even though it has been widely debunked.

The money ($1.7B) was paid by the Shah to the US for military equipment. Delivery on that equipment was suspended when the Shah was overthrown. But we kept the money. In parallel with the nuclear discussions were negotiations to return some hostages and give them their money back for purchases that we never delivered.

“[Iran was a] terrible deal. … I don’t think a deal could be softer. First of all, we’re not paying $150 billion.”

Another repeated lie.

The US IS NOT paying Iran. As Iran meets the various milestones of their agreement, billions of dollars of IRAN’s MONEY which had been frozen in foreign banks around the globe will become accessible to them. Most of that money was in payment for oil. Our Treasury Department estimates that the amount of money that will eventually flow back to Iran is $55B. Iran’s estimates are even lower than that ($32B).

“His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.”

This is the most frightening thing that Trump has said regarding NK. NK is a gulag state with prison camps, forced labor, torture, and death for anyone who opposes KJU. Celebrating Kim’s regime sets the cause of freedom and democracy back decades.

Trump has already laid a solid foundation for being regarded as the worst president in history. He is now running the risk of going down in history as the Neville Chamberlain of his generation.

Here’s what the NK said they got from the deal.

“it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

We’re saying that this is going to be a rapid total and complete de-nuke process.

Rodong Sinmun, official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party — also claimed that the president pledged to suspend military drills with South Korea, and lift sanctions on the North.

Trump did suspend the military drills. He did not say he would be lifting sanctions. Though this WAS something that China recommended.

The KCNA report, as well as the joint statement after the summit, also mentioned that the president had offered North Korea unspecified security guarantees, which Pyongyang considers an indispensable precondition for nuclear disarmament.

Trump did not mention what security guarantees he had been offered.

Summary

The devil is always in the details and there just aren’t a lot of details. It is much better to be talking versus threatening to lob missiles at each other. This agreement is little more than an agreement to start working on an agreement, yet it is being promoted as a peace plan that will save the world from nuclear war.

The optics of this particular deal are that the meeting itself gave both Trump and Kim something that they wanted. It did little to advance the cause of a real and lasting peace. What is likely is that talks will continue for a LONG period of time. That will also benefit both parties. Kim will be able to pretty much continue what he has been doing without the threat of being overthrown. Trump will continue to live in his fantasy world about how much progress has been made and paint himself as an expert in solving intractable foreign relations problems.

KJU has not demonstrated that he has any interest in changing. Until he does, he is a dangerous person that we should not be treating as a friend. The risk is that KJU is a realist and fantasy rarely survives when confronted with reality.

The long term costs of accepting a NK as legitimate member of the international community without a commitment on their part to human rights reform is chilling. Apparently, a different set of rules applies to countries with nuclear capabilities. That lesson is not lost on the other dictators of the world.

Liar’s Poker

June 11th, 2018

via GIPHY

Here’s how the old joke goes.

Two liars walk into a bar. The first turns to the other and says, “Isn’t this the place that you always told me about?” The second says, “No”.

Liar’s Poker is a fun card game when you and your pals have tired of all of the other card games that require some math. This one is strictly bluffing. What makes it particularly entertaining is that the only person who can’t see your card is you. So everyone else knows immediately how successful you will end up being in your bluff. That’s how the game starts.

That’s pretty much the situation we have in the NK US summit in Singapore.

Both Trump and KJU are liars of monumental proportion. We don’t know whether that condition is the result of choice or disability, but the result is the same. Neither can be trusted with the neighbor’s cat, much less the fate of the free world.

So what happens when both of them are in the same room?

Liar’s Poker.

In this corner, the guy who distains preparation and thinks that he will have this situation figured out in the first minute. Here’s how the Wash Post described Trump.

Nothing compares to the boundless, unruffled confidence of someone who knows so little about a subject that he cannot even tell that what he is saying is wrong. This is why Trump has always been so successful on the international stage, or if he has not, he has not noticed.

In the other corner, the guy who killed his mentor (who happened to be his uncle) and arranged for his older half-brother to be poisoned when he learned of their plot to overthrow him. When his aunt complained, he poisoned her too. He killed another of his uncle’s supporters with a flame thrower. When people in his cabinet are caught nodding off at his meetings he kills them too. He machine gunned one of them and blew the other up in front of hundreds of onlookers with an anti-aircraft shell. He runs your garden variety dictatorship with corruption, torture, prisons, starvation, indoctrination, and censorship. The American prisoner, Otto Warmbier, whose only crime was attempting to smuggle propaganda posters out of the country; was beaten so frequently and severely that he died shortly after his release from NK because his brain ceased to function.

This is a guy who travels with his own toilet in order to prevent unfriendly countries from gaining intelligence about the state of his health. He also brought along his own bulletproof limo. He brought his own food to protect against poisoning. There were three identical jets in his flight from NK to thwart any assassination attempts. Does this sound like a guy ready to trust that the US is going to uphold their end of a deal?

Why are they meeting?

Trump says it’s to build a relationship with KJU.

Is this really the kind of guy we want a relationship with?

Also seems supremely ironic that we’re making extra effort to build a better relationship with a murderer while we are simultaneously burning down a relationship with our closest ally.

The reason the meeting is happening is that it works for both people.

Both like the optics.

In order to get the meeting, Trump had to agree that KJU was the legitimate head of the NK government and reject any previous calls for regime change. What did we get in return? KJU returned some US prisoners that NK had been illegally detaining and they blew up an old nuclear facility that they no longer were using.

Trump gets to strut on the international stage.

KJU demonstrates to the rest of the world that his nukes make him a player, regardless of his past history of despotism.

What’s worse, KJU has now written the script for every other dictator in the world that has aspirations for mutigenerational rule. Just get yourselves some nukes and you’ll be all set. And guess what, KJU knows just where you might be able to buy some.

I suspect that KJU has realized that the world has changed. These days, you CAN run a repressive dictatorial regime and the world is still willing to trade with you. Authoritarianism seems to be the new normal. KJU wants his share of the wealth that would come from opening up his new markets to the highest bidder.

Also if a deal gets made, it will certainly destabilize the Pacific Rim because it will involve some reduction in US presence there. That is something that Trump has already signaled he would be willing to do.

I suspect that we will get some symbolic agreement to formally end the war on the Korean peninsula. That won’t mean much unless KJU also agrees to dismantle both his nuclear weapons, his huge army, his stocks of biological weapons, and his large artillery guns.

More likely is just an agreement to keep talking. That way KJU doesn’t have to give anything up, but Trump can’t enforce anything either.

Any deal, however, won’t be worth the paper that it is written on.

That’s because it’s Liars Poker. It’s all for show. The winner will only have proven that they are the biggest liar.

At this point, it is a race that is hard to handicap.

Intent

June 4th, 2018

A great oldie from the Castaways is a good theme for this post.

As a follow-up to my previous post speculating on the effect of dishonest President, here’s a little more speculation on the difference between lying and simply being misinformed.

The difference in a word is intent.

The liar knows that they are lying.

It is also possible to spread lies unintentionally.

Here are a couple of examples of that.

People who are ill informed believe what they are saying is true, but that belief is based on inaccurate information.

People who are delusional believe that what they are saying is true, just like those who are ill informed. The difference is those who are suffering from delusion are unable to discern the difference between fact and fiction. That may be because of some illness or disability that is affecting their capacity to make rational judgments.

The way that you tell the difference between the two is how they react to learning that their previous statement isn’t supported by the facts. The ill-informed person will reconsider their statement based on new facts. The delusional person will continue lie because they are either unable or unwilling to accept the fact that what they are saying is not supported by the facts.

Within this context, let’s examine Trump’s behavior.

We start with the basic fact that he and his administration produce statements that are contradicted by the facts at a volume and rate unprecedented in the history of our country. He also repeats these statements long after the error of those statements has been widely documented. You can choose to argue around the margins of some of these claims but the shear volume of material makes it difficult to avoid the obvious. This administration can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

Here’s a link to discussion by CNN’s Brian Stelter where he goes through the challenge of parsing each of the statements that come from this administration.

While this discussion is interesting, I’m less concerned about how many of the President’s statements are distortions versus how many are lies. This is not a discussion of degree. This is a discussion of intent.

The second point before we go further in this discussion is something that Trump told Leslie Stahl. While this conversation was off the record, Trump has not disputed it. Since he disputes pretty much everything that is either printed or broadcast that he feels is negative, I think it safe to assume that Leslie Stahl quoted him accurately.

President Donald Trump told the veteran journalist Lesley Stahl of the CBS program “60 Minutes” that he bashes the press to “demean” and “discredit” reporters so that the public will not believe “negative stories” about him, Stahl said.

Why this is important is that it speaks to intent. Let’s parse this statement. First he says that his attacks on the trustworthiness of the press are intentional. Second, the attacks are in reaction to reporting that he perceives as negative. Third, he purposefully attempts to erode the trust of the public in those reporters that criticize him and the publications that publish those stories as punishment.

There was nothing in this statement about facts.

There was nothing in this statement about accountability.

“And he said: ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.'”

His only purpose is to punish those who write negative stories about him and make it more difficult for those who might consider writing negative stories about him the future.

It is possible that he believes that he is perfect. As a result, any criticism of his actions by definition had to be a malicious lie. If true, that in itself is evidence of a dangerous delusion which we will try to dig into. If not, he just doesn’t like being criticized and has determined that he is going to use the vast power of his office to punish and undermine anyone who criticizes him. That is authoritarianism.

The Phantom Spokesman
The facts in this case are pretty simple. Trump objected to a NYT article regarding the potential rescheduling of a US NK meeting. Specifically he was upset regarding this part of the article.

“a senior White House official told reporters that even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.”

Here’s what he tweeted.

The Failing @nytimes quotes “a senior White House official,” who doesn’t exist, as saying “even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.” WRONG AGAIN! Use real people, not phony sources.

The problem with all of this is that the “senior White House official” was in fact someone that the White House made available to a pool of reporters to provide background on the quickly changing situation in NK. The meeting, organized by the White House, included 50 reporters in the briefing room and another 200 on the phone.

According to the NYT, the White House was the one who declined to make the name of the person giving the briefing public. They were the ones who provided the term “senior White House official”.

If there was any question of whether this briefing took place, beyond the testimony of all of the journalists who participated, Politifact includes a tweet from a NY Magazine and Huffpost journalist who happened to record the first minute or so of the briefing by accident. Matthew Pottinger is introduced in the audio. He’s the one who provided the briefing. He is the NSC’s senior director for Asian affairs. So it makes sense that he would be someone the White House would trot out to talk about NK.

Trump was clearly wrong.

We don’t know whether he was misinformed, delusional, or malicious. Using our gauge, however, there has been no admission from the White House that Trump was unaware of the briefing and as a result was simply misinformed. That leaves delusional or malicious.

Here’s why those are the only choices. If he only became aware of the briefing AFTER his tweet and then chose NOT to retract that tweet, he has now become malicious. He is taking advantage of the situation to continue his attack on the press even though he KNOWS that it is based on false information.

If he WAS aware of the briefing BEFORE his tweet, then he is certainly being malicious and this is a lie. It is possible that the White House setup this briefing for the purpose of providing another opportunity for Trump to continue his attack on the press. Politifact called this statement Pants on Fire. Their worst rating.

The ONLY OTHER choice is that he is delusional which is also dangerous a possibility.

Revisionist History
When he first fired James Comey, Trump claimed that a memo by the deputy AG criticizing Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation was the reason. That excuse lasted about a day. Then Trump told Russians and later Lester Holt on national TV that he fired Comey because he was unwilling to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn. That claim was supported by Comey in his congressional testimony, his notes, and his book. It was also recently supported by memos that Deputy Director McCabe released.

Yet on May 31st, Trump tweeted.

Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia! The Corrupt Mainstream Media loves to keep pushing that narrative, but they know it is not true!

Let’s go through our analysis again.

Could this be a case of being misinformed? Hardly. Trump himself has said on multiple occasions both in public and private that Comey’s Russian investigation figured into his decision to fire Comey. No information from any reliable source has disputed this claim.

That leaves us with malicious or delusional.

If it is malicious, it is the same argument as the previous situation. It is clearly a lie and the liar is simply following a strategy that he has already shared with the public. He will lie to undermine the credibility of the press in the minds of the public.

At the risk of putting a finer point on it, Trump’s own attorney Giuliani has admitted that they are actively engaged in a campaign to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation too. As a result, they continue to spread lies about that investigation as well.

Or he is delusional. He simply doesn’t remember what he has said in the past and has convinced himself that whatever has been written in the press about his past statements was a fabrication.

Conclusion
Hopefully you can appreciate the challenge that an untrustworthy executive branch presents to our democracy. If not, here’s a brief summary from my previous post.

We don’t know whether the President is intentional or delusional. What we do know is that he is abusing his power to discredit the press and the justice department. If that is the result of intention, as he suggested to Leslie Stahl, then he is a dangerous man following an authoritarian playbook. If it is delusion that is the result of some early stage dementia, he is also dangerous for different reasons. He really does believe what he is saying because his recollection of past and his grasp of the present is damaged. That makes him unreliable, unstable, and incapable of responsibly doing the job that he was elected to do.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Neither choice is good for democracy. But under normal circumstances, the other branches of government should check an executive who is abusing his power or is suffering from diminished mental capacity.

This has become a dangerous situation because the Republican controlled Congress and the leaders in the Republican party have been unwilling to provide a check on either a malicious or mentally ill President.

We had a similar situation in waning years of Reagan’s second term. You can see in the Iran Contra hearings that he was suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s disease. Even though Democrats had control of the House during both of Reagan’s terms, voters also turned the Senate over the Democrats in the last two years of Reagan’s second term because of concerns over his ability to govern.

What does that mean?
It means that when the President says that the NYT FALSELY reported information that came from a White House briefing, leaders in Congress tell the President privately and publicly that he is wrong and needs to set the record straight for the integrity of the office and the good of the country.

It means that when the President says that he NEVER said that the Russian investigation figured in his decision to fire Comey, that leaders in Congress tell the President privately and publicly that he DID in fact say exactly that in private and in public. As a result it is his responsibility for the good of the country and the integrity of the office to own his past statements rather than claim that they were falsely reported.

What are we going to do?
The only thing that we CAN do is to encourage everyone with a shred of conscience and patriotism to vote for a Democrat this next election cycle. It’s not because of policy or platform. It is also not because I think that Trump should be impeached. It’s because the ONLY way to prevent further damage to the fabric of our democracy is for that democracy to register a vote of no confidence in this president and the Republican Party that supports him. That vote will place control of at least one house of Congress in the hands of Democrats. It doesn’t matter whether or not they have enough votes to pass anything. It only matters that Democrats CAN be trusted to serve as a check on the executive branch until the country has a chance to vote for the next president.

I’ll close with Thomas Friedman who is not a liberal and very much a free marketer.

If I were writing the choice on a ballot, it would read: “Are you in favor of electing a majority of Democrats in the House and/or Senate to put a check on Trump’s power — when his own party demonstrably will not? Or are you in favor of shaking the dice for another two years of unfettered control of the House, the Senate and the White House by a man who wants to ignore Russia’s interference in our election; a man whose first thought every morning is, ‘What’s good for me, and can I get away with it?’; a man who shows no compunction about smearing any person or government institution that stands in his way; and a man who is backed by a party where the only members who’ll call him out are those retiring or dying?”

something more fundamental is at stake: It’s not what we do — it’s who we are, how we talk to one another, what we model to the world, how we respect our institutions and just how warped our society and government can get in only a few years from a president who lies every day, peddles conspiracy theories from the bully pulpit of the White House and dares to call our F.B.I. and Justice Department a “criminal deep state” for doing their job.

In the end, I don’t want to see Trump impeached, unless there is overwhelming evidence. I want to see, and I want the world to see, a majority of Americans vote to curtail his power for the next two years — not to push a specific agenda over his but because they want to protect America, its ideals and institutions, from him — until our next presidential election gives us a chance to end this cancer and to birth a new G.O.P. that promotes the best instincts of conservatives, not the worst, so Americans can again have two decent choices.

You Can’t Handle The Truth

May 21st, 2018

via GIPHY

For those who haven’t been paying attention, our President is a liar.

He isn’t just a garden variety political liar. Or an old-time used car salesman liar.

He is a liar of mammoth historically unprecedented proportions. He lies about small things (like the size of his inauguration crown). He lies about big things (nobody in this campaign had any contact with any Russians). He lies about everything in between. Very few days pass in this administration when he hasn’t lied about something.

I’ve been spending some time thinking about the impact of this level of presidential dishonesty on the country.

The challenge is that our democracy is based on a basic assumption that voters are well informed and make their decisions based on their own self-interest. One of the jobs of the president is to set the moral tone for the country and inform voters about what the government is doing and why.

But what happens to democracy when a significant number of voters are using false information to make their decision?

Turns out that I’m not the only one thinking about this problem.

Ex Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dedicated his whole graduation speech at VMI to this very topic.

I’m not a Tillerson fan, but we are both very much on the same page regarding our concerns about the impact of a dishonest President.

As I reflect upon the state of American democracy, I observe a growing crisis of ethics and integrity,

Here’s what I think that means.

Some of those who voted for Trump, did so because they wanted a change. They felt that government wasn’t working for them. They felt that the economy was rigged against them. They were anxious about their future because of industrial disruption and changing culture. They felt that their conservative and religious values were under attack. They felt disrespected by those who had more education, skills, and money. Trump ran a highly unconventional campaign which aligned itself with this deep feeling of alienation and anxiety.

To the surprise of everyone, Trump did win a narrow Electoral College victory and began the most tumultuous first year of any president in recent history.

The result is that Trump voters have either had to publically renounce their vote or double down on their support regardless of his actions. They had to choose to remain in the Trump tribe even though that might cost them friends and family, or they had to leave that tribe without some clear path to another group of like-minded people.

The challenge of remaining in the Trump tribe is that Trump is an unethical authoritarian figure who has been systematically dismantling the shared values that are at the foundation of our democracy.

That’s what Tillerson is talking about. One of those foundational values is the expectation that the President will both tell and the truth and be accountable when we discover that he didn’t.

Here’s how Tillerson described it.

When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America. If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society, and among our leaders in both the public and private sector, and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector, then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.

And

If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.

And

This is the life of nondemocratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth. … A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what the truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hopeful outcomes made in shallow promises; but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.

Here’s a quick review of some of the examples of this problem

Rigged Election
When it appeared the Trump would lose, he refused to commit to accepting the outcome of the election claiming that it was rigged for the benefit of his opponent. This in itself is a staggeringly reckless position. Then when he won the election, he blamed is loss of the popular vote on millions of fraudulent votes which artificially inflated popular vote totals of his opponent. He put together a panel to look for evidence. They couldn’t find anything even close to the scale that he claimed existed. Trump has never backed away from this claim that deeply undermines the confidence his supporters have in the election process.

Fraudulent elections are the stuff of what Tillerson called nondemocratic societies. We see them in places like Russia and just recently in Venezuela. Undermining the public trust in the reliability of the election system for the purposes of vanity is deeply troubling.

The truth is that that our election system is highly reliable because it is highly distributed. It is virtually impossible to rig a national election because thousands of independent voting boards across the country actually run them. The people on those boards are elected locally and are beyond the control of any one party or any administration.

Trump Stormy Giuliani Cohen
Facts are Stormy Daniels got paid $130K before the election in order to keep her from going public with her story about an affair with Trump. Whether or not her story regarding the affair is true, it’s the payoff that is the issue.

When that story came out, Trump and his administration denied that there was any affair or any payoff.

As more facts came out as the press dug into the details, the White House explanation changed from denying the whole thing to just denying the affair, but telling us that Cohen (Trump’s lawyer) did this all on his own using his own money and without Trump’s knowledge.

Then Giuliani (Trump’s new lawyer) said that Cohen WAS paid back in a method (retainer for services) that didn’t violate campaign laws.

Finally Trump files a financial disclosure form that lists the payment that he made Cohen last year from one of his personal accounts. This payment was not listed in the first financial disclosure form Trump filed last year.

In addition to the obvious questions regarding campaign finance reform violations, we have another question of why this payment was left of off the first financial disclosure form. Submitting false financial disclosure forms is also a crime.

Trump continues to deny that there was any affair but suggests that these sorts of payoffs are common for those with high public profiles. But neither he nor anyone in his administration including Giuliani have made any attempt to explain why the story went through so many twists and turns, why it isn’t a campaign finance violation, and why it wasn’t listed on the first financial disclosure form filled last year.

The result is that Trump appears not to hold himself or anyone else accountable for lying to the publc.

Witch hunt
Trump has yet to acknowledge that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is legitimate. Instead they have taken the position that this whole investigation is something that the Democrats made up because they lost an election. The problem with that position is that Trump and his party have all of the power. There is NOTHING that the Democrats can do to either cause, or continue an investigation on their own. The best example of this is the House Intelligence committee report. Fortunately the Senate did a more responsible job with pretty much the same evidence.

The Congressional investigations began because Jeff Sessions lied to Congress during his confirmation hearings about his contacts with Russians. That forced him to recuse himself from any ongoing investigation, so there was little that he can do to help Trump. That is also the fault of Trump and his administration in preparing Sessions to answer the Senate hearings.

As far as Mueller’s involvement, Trump has no one to blame but himself. He is the one who fired Comey, lied about why Comey was fired, then bragged to the Russians that he fired Comey BECAUSE of the Russian investigation. There was no choice but to hire a special prosecutor. That choice was supported by a majority of his own party.

The facts are that the Russians made a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election in favor of Trump. No one has been able to answer the question of why they chose to work on behalf of Trump.

Trump has made this all about himself, but it isn’t. The public deserves to know how and why the Russians were involved in attempting to disrupt the 2016 election. Anyone who knowingly helped the Russians should be held accountable. Any vulnerabilities in our systems should be identified and corrected. But that’s not how Trump has characterized this effort. Instead he paints it as a partisan personal attack. The result is that the public’s confidence in our election system, Justice Department, the FBI, and the Courts is being deliberately eroded for the sole purpose of political gain.

Obstruction of Justice
Trump fired Comey because he didn’t like the way the FBI was handling the Russian investigation – and then bragged about it to the Russians. Trump’s defense is that he was “fighting back”.

We’ve since learned that he asked the Post Office to raise Amazon’s rates because he doesn’t like the treatment he’s getting from Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post. Is that also “fighting back”?

We give president’s immense power. In return, we have high expectations. Presidents must obey the constitution and our laws. They must tell us the truth. The must not use their power against their political enemies. They must not use their power to enrich themselves, their family, or their associates at the expense of voters. They must not tolerate corruption in Executive Branch of government. They must exhaust every other option before starting a military conflict. They must treat our military with respect. The must treat out democratic norms with respect. They must treat the other branches of government with respect.

Tillerson said,

An essential tenet of a free society, a free people, is access to the truth

A government structure and a societal understanding that freedom to seek the truth is the very essence of freedom itself. … It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society, comprised of richly diverse peoples, that those free peoples can explore and find solutions to the very challenges confronting the complex society of free people.

When you call the press an “enemy of the people”, you are reducing access to the truth.

When you call the opposition party “traitors” because they didn’t stand enough during one of your speeches, you undermine the constitutional right of people to hold dissenting views.

The choice is being in the bubble or out. You can live a life committed to seeking truth and being honest. Or you can live a life constrained by conspiracy and ideology.

We are facing an important moment in the history of our country.

The choice is between a cult of personality where tribalism and fear allow an authoritarian to dictate the truth, or a reaffirmation of trust in democracy where the truth is not biased and isn’t owned by any party or ideology.

We’ve faced these moments in the past. We fought a civil war to answer the question of whether the principles on which our democracy was based could survive if some people were allowed to own other people. We went through a deep depression and a world war which questioned whether the free market and democracy were up to the challenges of the modern world. We went through a turbulent time during the Viet Nam War when the government lied, kids died, and the anti-war movement was born. Nixon ran a divisive campaign blaming the anti-war movement for social unrest and won in a landslide. Less than two years later he resigned in disgrace because he had abused his power.

We have had corrupt presidents in the past. We have had presidents who weren’t up to the job. We have never had a president who has used the power of his office to undermine the very system that elected him. My hope is that even as he seeks to dismantle the government in war against what Steve Bannon called the deep state, the press and the judiciary are holding firm and will ultimately uncover the truth of his actions.

What happens then?

That’s where the choice will ultimately be made. There are some whose support of Trump is part of their identity. They wear it as a rebel badge of courage. They feel all of this animosity proves that they were right all along about how the rich and powerful feel about them. They will never admit that he was wrong because that will mean they were wrong. It is a zero sum celebrity death match where only one will leave alive, and they have placed their bet on Donald Trump.

Authoritarianism in the defense of populism is NOT OK.

Our democracy works because we respect the outcomes of free and open elections.

My hope is that when the truth does come out, a majority of the country will recognize that this is not an “us versus them” conflict. This is an effort to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. I hope a majority will appreciate that demanding decisions be made on the basis of facts is not a partisan position. It is a position that we should all support because ultimately we will all be better as a nation if we start from a shared set of facts.

In starkest terms here are a couple of warnings. The first is from Yale History Prof Tim Snyder. The second is from Hillary Clinton’s address to Yale Law School grads.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.

Attempting to erase the line between fact and fiction, truth and reality is a core feature of authoritarianism! The goal is to make us question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, even ourselves.

I hope that the next occupant of the White House will help heal the wounds and repair the damage that Trump is doing to both our government and our society.

This Is The End

April 15th, 2018

This was the beginning of the end for the Nixon administration. One guy, Alexander Butterfield, decided to tell the truth that Nixon taped all of his Oval Office meetings. A year later Nixon resigned.

We are at that some point with the Trump administration. Though recent reports that Cohen could become a cooperative witness, does raise the possibility that Cohen could become the John Dean of this generation.

The reason is that reports coming out of Cohen investigation indicate three things.

1. Cohen lied about this trip to Prague
2. Cohen kept extensive notes of his conversations with Trump including tapes of phone conversations.
3. The investigation has been going on for months. Emails, phone conversations, maybe even meetings were all captured.

In order to answer the WHY this might be the beginning of the end, we have to back up a little bit.

The Trump organization isn’t really all that it is cracked up to be. It was a small organization run mostly by his two children and Michael Cohen. If President Trump has shown anything, it is that he is not a good manager. He let his kids do it under the watchful eye of his most loyal employee, Cohen.

If you take a look at the sorts of deals that they were cutting, it was with shady characters that couldn’t find more reputable partners. Those who have taken a look at those deals also suggest that the Trump organization sold their brand for far less than they could have received for giving legitimacy to developers that had none.

Here are a few examples.

In Azerbaijan, Trump was part of a hotel project that may have been a money laundering front for oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, Trump partnered with the group that is being investigated for the largest known bank-fraud/money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is up to his knees in dirty politics. His deals in Brazil are being investigated. The FBI is looking into his daughter’s role getting a Malaysian family who have already admitted to financial fraud to provide financial backing for a Vancouver Trump Hotel. The investigation into DTjr and Ivanka’s SoHo Trump Hotel was halted with no notice. His Taj Mahal Atlanta Casino was fined a record amount for money laundering.

As Adam Davidson pointed out in his New Yorker article.

It was not a company that built value over decades, accumulating assets and leveraging wealth. It burned through whatever good will and brand value it established as quickly as possible, then moved on to the next scheme.

The reason why we are near the end is that each of these shady business deals has its own set of risks and questions. But the questions boil down to the same set. How much did Trump and his kids know about the criminal backgrounds of their partners? Did that criminality have any effect on the price they were charging for the Trump “endorsement”? Cohen is the person who knows the answers. Those answers will determine who else besides Cohen goes to jail and for how long.

Some of the other things that the FBI are investigating include a business loan where Cohen used his three taxi companies as collateral. The license to operate a taxi in NY used to be a lucrative business. Cohen’s licenses at one time were worth over $1M. Their value has plummeted because of ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Cohen’s licenses may now only be worth $300,000. So there is interest in what he claimed they were worth when he took out the loan and what he used the loan money for.

They are also concerns about money laundering and campaign-finance violations.

The bottom line is that the authorized search had such a high bar for approval, that most informed observers believe that the NY prosecutor may already have had sufficient evidence to convict at least Cohen. There is also speculation that at least some of the justification for seizing the evidence is that FBI surveillance picked up discussion that the evidence was going to be destroyed.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think that Trump will be indicted on a charge of collusion. First of all, it’s just hard to prove. Second, it is just doesn’t fit with the Trump organization culture. A complex plan with a long-term uncertain payoff. Many reports suggest that Trump wasn’t convinced himself that he could win the election. Why would he ask Russians for help unless there was something else in it for him? The fact that the FBI now says that Cohen DID go to Prague supports a key element of the Steele Dossier. It also indicates that there was a deal in the works, or else Cohen would not have been involved.

That’s what we are going to find out.

With all this as background, it is easy to see why Trump said Mueller would be crossing a red line if he started investigating Trump’s businesses. Mueller not only crossed that line. He obliterated it. Even worse, he turned the business investigation over to the NY federal prosecutor. So even if Trump manages to fire Mueller and Congress does nothing in response, this investigation will continue. Even if Trump manages to dissolve Mueller’s Grand Jury, this investigation will continue. Even if Trump pardon’s Cohen, the information that the Feds already have on Cohen can likely become the basis for charges against Trump’s kids.

It may take a long time for all of this information to become public. We give the President a lot of executive power. If he chooses to use it, and Congress doesn’t hold him accountable, he can fight a very effective rear guard action. Eventually, however, all of this information will come out and Trump will finally be revealed for who he really is – a cheat, a liar, and a thief.