Archive for January, 2018

Pants On Fire

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

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Trump is liar.

It isn’t that he is just a liar. He is a liar of historic proportions.  The NYT has a complete list and a couple of charts comparing Trump’s lies (repeats excluded) and Obama’s lies.

 

In our political system, public officials normally pay a price for lying.  That’s because a candidate makes promises to voters in order to secure their votes.  While most voters are sophisticated enough to realize that even a President can’t do everything that they promise, our system does include an expectation that whomever holds the office will in fact respect the office and the power voters have put in his/her trust.  Breaking that trust may be just another example of Trump “shaking up Washington”, but according to the polls, most voters don’t like it.

This post is about an upcoming scenario where Trump may finally pay that price.

Obstruction of justice is a very difficult charge to prove because it relies on intent.

There is plenty of smoke to suggest that Trump had intent to obstruct the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That smoke does not need to include any evidence that the 2016 election results were altered by Russian activity. The charge isn’t that Trump made the Russian efforts more or less effective. The charge is that he interfered with the investigation into Russian efforts.

The smoke also doesn’t need to include any evidence of collusion with the Russians. Whether or not there was collusion is a separate charge. The obstruction charge is that he interfered with the investigation into whether or not there WAS any collusion. Trump could be cleared of the collusion charge and still be liable for the obstruction of justice charge.

Finally that smoke doesn’t need to include any evidence that Mueller somehow overstepped his authority. He was given broad authority by Dept. AG Rosenstein to follow whatever threads he found that would lead to evidence of criminal activity. When he finally presents his case, Trump supporters are going have a hard time convincing the public that Trump’s crimes were outside the scope of what Mueller was originally supposed to investigate.

Here’s the short list of the things that support a potential obstruction of justice charge.

  1. Trump and his staff put a lot of pressure on Sessions NOT to recuse himself from the Justice Department investigation BECAUSE Trump expected Sessions to protect him from that investigation. This speaks to a state of mind that suggests that Trump felt that he needed protection.
  2. Trump drafted a letter to Comey suggesting that Russian investigations were “fabricated and politically motivated”. Comey was later fired because he refused to stop the investigations even though Trump’s initial public statements were that he was fired because of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email inquiry. This also speaks to state of mind regarding a cover-up.
  3. The Wolff book claims that Trump and his lawyers concocted a misleading statement on Air Force One regarding DTjr’s Trump Tower meeting with Russians. They did that in “an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation’s gears”. Wolff also claims that a staffer (Mark Corallo) quit over the incident because of the obvious obstruction of justice implications. This alone would meet the standard for prosecution.  It should not be too hard for Mueller to find out from Mark Corallo whether or not Wolff quoted him accurately.
  4. NYT reports that Mueller has substantially corroborated Comey’s notes regarding his dealings with Trump. That corroboration includes notes kept by other WH staffers that Mueller has obtained.

If these Wolff claims are true, that means that other staffers on the flight DID knowingly participate in obstructing justice. Mueller will have the opportunity to interview them under oath for their version of events.

Trump’s defenders continue to suggest that Trump can’t be prosecuted for taking actions that are within his legal authority. That misses the question of intent. The courts have clearly ruled that legal authority does not immunize a government official from abusing that authority with corrupt intent.

But that ultimately isn’t going to be the issue.

The issue will be that at some point in the not too distant future, a sitting President will again be summoned to testify in front of a grand jury. This is a man who doesn’t read, doesn’t have the patience to sit through policy briefings that last more than a few minutes, admittedly didn’t prepare for campaign debates, lies regularly to inflate his own accomplishments, has an overinflated view of his own capabilities, and seems to have only a tenuous grasp on facts. How is this man going to perform when confronted with a detailed discussion of his actions as described by the sworn testimony of others?

This will be a situation where his usual strategy of bending the truth will not work. This is also situation where inexperience, “negotiation”, or even delusion are unacceptable excuses for failing to tell the truth. He won’t be able to deny that he said things because government lawyers and the grand jury will have the transcripts. He won’t be able to deny that he was present at a meeting when the sworn testimony of others who were there confirmed his presence. His experience as a performer will not help him. He won’t be able threaten. He won’t be able to settle. He won’t be able to leave after ten minutes. He will just have to answer the questions to the best of his ability. The recent NYT interview is a perfect example of the sort of disaster that this President is facing.

This is a minefield of Trump’s own making. It is hard to believe that he will be able to navigate it without stepping on at least a few of them. When he does, Mueller won’t need to prove intent to get an obstruction of justice claim to stick. He will have Trump on tape lying to a Grand Jury.

It is also ironic that a deeply flawed book that contains a lot of misinformation may end up being the publication that takes down a president who has a similar disregard for the truth.

Postscript:

At the time of this posting, two more Republican members of the house have announced their retirement (Issa and Royce). That brings the number retiring to 32 (compared to 15 Democrats). 20% of the 23 House Republicans running in districts won by Clinton in 2016 are not seeking re-election to those seats. Since 1962, an average of 40 house seats have been lost in midterm elections by the president’s party when the president’s approval rating fell below 50%. Trump says that polls don’t matter, but a lot of Republicans appear to be acting as if they do. Democrats only need 24 seats to regain a majority in the House.

Irrational Risk

Friday, January 5th, 2018

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There is some good research out that suggests that power actually causes physical changes to the brain.

Those who feel that they are in a powerful position lose their ability to experience empathy.  The result is that they become more willing to take risk because they don’t consider how these risks may potentially affect others.

At least one of these studies documents that CEO’s who lived through a disaster (war, famine, etc) during their childhood are far less likely to take big risks as adults.

Lord David Owen calls it “Hubris Syndrome”.

“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence. In May, the Royal Society of Medicine co-hosted a conference of the Daedalus Trust—an organization that Owen founded for the study and prevention of hubris.

You might be inclined to regard this as nothing new.  To some extent you’re right.  Psychopathy and hubris have been with us as long as we have had social groups.

The cautionary tale of the consequences of hubris and psychopathy, however, is a new history of WWII by Victor David Hanson.

He points out in great detail that Germany was incapable of winning WWII.  Here are some of the reasons why.

Germany never had a mass produced four engine bomber that could compete with the B-17.  They also had no aircraft carriers.  As a result, they lacked air superiority in naval battles and they could never have extended their reach across an ocean.

The Germans didn’t have much oil.  Half the world’s oil at that time came from the US.  Fuel shortages limited the number of missions the Luftwaffe could fly.

Their planes were inferior technology.  They were harder to operate which meant that their pilots required more training than the Allies.  They were more complicated to build.  Germany never figured out how to build them in high volume.  Germany didn’t build concrete runways in their forward bases like the Allies.  As a result, more of their limited supply of aircraft were damaged in take off and landings on dirt runways.

As a land-based power with a small navy, Germany depended on their Luftwaffe to make up the difference.  The disadvantages their air force faced in a long war should have been obvious.

WWII was about new mechanized mobile warfare.  The Germans introduced the blitzkrieg, but used horses to resupply their troops because of oil shortages.  The blitzkrieg depended on fast tanks.  The Russians had both a superior design and the ability to manufacture tanks in high volume.

Early on, Germany could have likely settled with the rest of the world and retained their territory gains.  Instead the Germans ignored the limitations of their air force and attempted to bomb England into submission.  Any hope of even just a European victory was lost when Germany attacked Russia in 1941.

There was good data before the war that science could produce new massively destructive weapons using the theories of Einstein and others.  The Third Reich, however, purged their universities of some of the best minds of their generation because they were Jewish.  Most of them escaped to the west where they eventually created the atomic bomb.

All of this data raises the real question of what were these people thinking?  How could they have made so many serious mistakes in the long term planning that would be required if they wanted to achieve the world domination that they claimed?

Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.” For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.

The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable.

That said, the Allies also convinced themselves that Axis leaders had successfully brainwashed their citizens.  They used that conclusion to justify unprecedented violence against civilians abroad, internment camps for Japanese citizens in the United States, and the only use of atomic weapons on civilians in history.

We face similar problems today in our country.

When countries lose track of facts and start believing their own mythology, they become vulnerable not only to delusional power-hungry leaders, but also to foolish military adventures.

We invaded Iraq because Bush II neocons thought it would be a cake walk.  There was no evidence of any connection between Saddam and the 9/11 attackers.  There was no credible evidence of a threat to the United States.  Lack of international support didn’t deter the Bush II administration either.  It turned out to be the worst foreign policy blunder in US history (at least so far).

Our current president has brought us closer to a nuclear confrontation with North Korea.  He has threatened to tear up the multi-national treaty with Iran that has suspended their nuclear weapons program.  He destabilized the situation in the Middle East with his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

At home he has created division and broken virtually every political taboo in our shared political religion.  He has set out to destroy the credibility of the media as independent arbiters of truth.  In the face of multiple investigations into misdeeds by his campaign and his administration, he has become the sole source of truth for his followers.

There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that he wasn’t interested in the job to begin with AND does not possess the temperament or the intellect to do the job that he has found himself in.  The recent interview that he gave the New York Times is shocking.  He is both delusional and incoherent.  He appears locked into an endless cycle of confrontation and misrepresentation that is the direct result of failing to deliver on his own narrative.

History tells us that this sort of “ism” does sometimes lead to violence but always ultimately collapses of its own weight.  There is already good data suggesting that Trump has suffered significant erosion in the base of those who voted for him for President.  Hopefully the next couple of elections will peacefully restore balance and confirm that there are consequences to lying to the American people.