Archive for the ‘scandals’ Category

Forgive Me Father For I Have Sinned

Monday, August 21st, 2017

For those unfamiliar with this Catholic meme, it is the opening sentence Catholics whisper to the priest to start confession.

My confession is that I find this particular point in our history fascinating.

We have a President who appears determined to self-destruct, a party that is uncertain they are willing to go down with him, and his supporters who have swallowed the kool-aide and have lost touch with reality.

So here’s a little bonus coverage courtesy of one of my favorite academics, Jonathan Haitt of Righteous Mind fame.  He has a great article in The Atlantic which explains the widespread negative reaction to Trump’s Charlottesville comments.

This IS NOT a political rant.

It is simply an explanation of a taboo that Trump broke.

All societies have taboos.  I won’t go through why, though Haitt does in his article.  Suffice it to say that we use a common set of deeply revered values, people, or places to hold all our citizens together in a shared bond.  That bond is our willingness to sacrifice our individual interests for the greater common good.

Charlottesville was a clash of sacred symbols.

The far right displayed their sacred symbols including swastikas, confederate flags, and guns – lots of guns.  They were marching to defend another symbol – the statue of Robert E. Lee.  The goal of the rally was to bind white people together with a shared hatred of Jews, African Americans, and other minorities using claimed white victim-hood and racial purity. (BTW racial purity is a myth.  Skin color is the result of a not well understood interaction between about 100 genes rather than the presence or absence of a particular set of genes.  Commonly available genetic ancestry tests are causing real problems for those advocating a “pure white” society.)

For UVA students, “the lawn” in the center of campus is also hallowed ground.  Students rushed out, unarmed, to defend the Jefferson statue from the approach of the torch-bearing armed white supremacists.  The marchers weren’t planning on vandalizing the statue, but from the student’s point of view these particular marchers would have “contaminated” the statue if allowed to approach unopposed.  That’s because for a Jeffersonian, neo-Nazi’s are taboo.

That’s what the country saw.  Unarmed students spontaneously opposing an organized group chanting the worst slurs against Jews and African Americans and making Nazi salutes.  It was a desecration of our most cherished American story based on the belief that “all men are created equal”.  We all know that this creed is aspirational, but we demand that all of our political leaders accept this premise as a requirement to hold office.  Denying this premise is blasphemy.  As a result white supremacists, the KKK, and neo-Nazis are widely regarded as blasphemous outsiders.

We treat our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution as sacred texts.  We erect monuments to our martyrs.  We punish or shame anyone who ignores our documents or dishonors our martyrs.  We expect our president to play the role of high priest and chief unifier in times when those texts and martyrs seem under attack.

In Trump’s press conference on Tuesday August 15th, Trump fumbled his opportunity to play the role of the high priest and chief unifier because he failed to condemn the blasphemers exclusively.  In response to the public outcry, the President read a staff-written speech to right that wrong.  If it had stopped there, perhaps he could have recovered.  Instead just 24 hours later, he committed the greatest sacrilege of his presidency by saying that there were “very fine people on both sides”.  That’s because our basic belief is that Nazi’s aren’t just bad – they are taboo.

Trump has become taboo by embracing those that we have decided are taboo.  The moral stain of the blasphemers has rubbed off on him.  That’s why you saw such a scramble by all those who understood what he had just done.  Those who fail to distance themselves from the taboo will also become taboo, just as Trump has done.  That’s also why most people in this country were willing to condemn those who just walked in the march.  They didn’t have to carry a flag, shout a slogan, or salute.  Just being there made them taboo too.  They got fired.  They were disowned by their families.  People won’t want to live next to them any more than they would a sex offender.

You can’t apologize for breaking a taboo, particularly one as deep as the Nazi or KKK.  You can’t even use the excuse of ignorance because that would suggest ignorance of our basic values.  In Trump’s case, it doesn’t matter, because he is not going to admit that he did anything wrong.

the stain, the moral pollution, the taint, will linger on him and his administration for the rest of his term. Business leaders have quit his panels and projects; artists who were due to receive honors from the president have changed their plans. Pollution travels most rapidly by physical touch, so be on the lookout for numerous awkward moments in the coming months when people refuse to shake the president’s hand or stand next to him. It is unclear how far the contagion will spread, but it will surely make it more difficult to attract talented people into government service for as long as Trump is the president.

Further this is going to do generational damage to the Republican Party.

people’s political orientations are shaped for life by events that happen when they are young, particularly between the ages of 14 and 24. The young generation—iGen, as Jean Twenge calls them—is extraordinarily progressive and passionate about matters of race and prejudice. If Republicans stand by their tainted president rather than renouncing him, an entire generation of voters may come to see the GOP as eternally untouchable.

It’s hard to say what will come next, but right now the country is unbalanced.

Extraordinary sacrilege has occurred, but divine retribution has not yet come down from the heavens.  We have no priest and no scripture to guide us.  The country may suffer for failing to remove this apostate.

What I can see in the not too distant future, however, is an emotional pivot toward impeachment as a cathartic recovery of purpose and balance.  Trump will be blamed.  Some in his administration will go to jail.  All will be disgraced.  The country will heal.  I saw this happen with Nixon.  It could very well happen with Trump too.  All that is missing is the smoking gun of corruption or scandal and the game will be over.

 

 

The Credibility Gap

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

During the Vietnam War, there was a lot of public skepticism regarding statements that came from the LBJ administration.  Ultimately that led to Nixon’s election because he promised that he had a secret plan to end the war.  He lied too and instead expanded the war.  There were a lot of leaks including the Pentagon Papers.  Those internal defense department documents confirmed that both the Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.  Daniel Ellsberg leaked those papers.  Nixon hired G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to plant bugs to acquire information that the Nixon administration used to discredit Ellsberg.  That same group went on to commit the Watergate burglaries.

The reason for this digression is that when Nixon eventually resigned, 24% of Republicans still supported him.

We are faced with a similar situation today.

Trump supporters are distrustful of any media that disagrees with them.  They are distrustful of any politicians that disagree with them.   In an April poll, 81% of self-described Republicans thought Trump was honest and trustworthy.  Only 38% of American’s share that view.  For those who attribute that 38% to some political bias, only 34% of those who self-describe as independents felt that Trump was honest and trustworthy.

Both of these things can’t be true.  Either he is honest and trustworthy or he isn’t.

It may be possible that Republicans have a different definition of honesty, but the accepted definition is that an honest person tells the truth.  By ALL objective measures, Trump lies on a regular basis.  Here’s a current running list of the 623 lies that he has told since his inauguration.  You may be able to dispute some of these, but it is difficult to suggest that they are all the result of media or political bias.

Republicans may believe that ALL politicians lie and Trump in particular is just a BS’er.  His lies are part of his method of negotiation.  But ultimately, they trust his motives and as a result excuse his tactics.  But that in itself is dishonest.  You can’t tell lies and be called honest.

But let’s give partisans a little bit of a break. They like Trump’s politics and suggest that all politicians lie because the media or the opposition won’t let them tell the truth, or else distort their statements to turn them into lies when in fact they were completely innocent.  But this a President who began his administration disputing the undeniable facts about the size of his inauguration crowd.  No, this President is different.

That brings us to the second topic of trustworthiness.  That is someone who does what he says he is going to do.  Someone who keeps their promises.

Trump fails this measure too.  He promised to release his tax returns.  He promised to put Hillary Clinton in jail.  He promised to pass a healthcare bill that would provide cheaper coverage to more people at a lower cost than Obamacare.  He promised to wipe out ISIS.  He even promised that he would never tell a lie.  I could go on, but I think the point is clear.  He doesn’t keep his promises either.  Worse, he doesn’t even acknowledge that he has failed to keep a promise.  Yet somehow Republicans feel he is still trustworthy.

Where does this come from?

From what I can see so far it is simple tribalism.  It doesn’t matter what Republican is in office, as long as there is an “R” next to their name, they are going to get the support of a large percentage of Republicans.  When the overall approval rating of Bush II fell into the 20’s in October, 2008 as the world-wide financial system began to collapse over 60% of Republicans still approved his job performance.

Another telling statistic that supports this view is what happened during the most recent primary season.

Just before Trump claimed victory, 46% of Republicans felt he was honest and trustworthy.  After the Republican convention, that number jumped to 69%.  Now it is at 81%.  Did Trump become a different person after the convention or after his surprising victory?  I don’t think so.

Here’s another example.  Only 22% of Republicans supported a missile strike on Syria during the Obama administration.  86% of Republicans supported Trump doing exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons earlier this year.

So that brings us to Comey.

Will his testimony, that has been widely regarded a damaging to Trump and his administration, affect his support among his base?

Early indications are no.

Comey called Trump a liar.  Trump called Comey a liar, suggested there might be tapes to prove his case, and offered to testify in Congress under oath.  What he didn’t do is explain why he cleared the room before his conversation with Comey.

We recently learned that he had similar conversations with Preet Bharara before firing him.

Comey connected the dots between the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, to Trump’s request that the FBI drop those investigations, to his firing, to Trump’s statements that the firing was because Comey did not do what Trump asked him to do.  Trump’s defenders claimed it was just the fumbling of an inexperienced politician.  No harm was intended.  Why would an inexperienced politician make sure that all his conversations with Comey were private?  If nothing else, the reaction of Jeff Sessions, the “experienced” politician in the bunch speaks volumes.  He did not act to protect Comey.  Instead he quickly moved to dismiss him even though it may result in his prosecution because of conflict of interest.

Here’s why all this matters.

Trump is digging a deep hole that he may not be able to get out of.  He has not been vindicated.  The investigations are continuing.  Comey laid out the obstruction of justice case for Mueller to follow.  Mueller just hired a bunch of very high power lawyers who likely would not have signed on if there wasn’t the prospect of building a case against very high ranking members of the Trump administration.

We are long way from the Democratic House majority and the smoking gun that could result in a bill of impeachment.  But fivethirtyeight.com gives Democrats a 10% point lead over Republicans if the house election were held today.

What we do have is a widening credibility gap between a president, his supporters, and the rest of the electorate.  Every week, Trump’s actions and statements confirm the majority view of his credibility.  Those statements and actions also require his supporters to sacrifice their credibility in defense of Trump and out of allegiance to the Republican tribe.

This is not a healthy or balanced situation.  Eventually Trump will be held accountable for his actions and those supporters that remain will also be held accountable for enabling those actions.

Or else this will become the new normal and our country will continue to fracture in to warring camps where tribalism finally breaks democracy.

The Great Erosion

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Nixon left office with a 24% job approval rating.  I’ve often wondered what sort of people would still support a President after his spectacular abuses of power were revealed.  Based on recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight, I now have a better understanding.

Nate Silver makes a good argument that Trump has already lost significant support among those who voted for him, and that may only be the beginning.

His analysis tracks the changes in the “strongly approve” portion of those supporting Trump’s job performance.

While Trump continues to enjoy strong approval among those who self-identify as Republicans, the nature of that support has changed.  Those who “strongly approve” has eroded from a high of 30% to current levels of 22%.  In addition, those who “strongly disapprove” outnumber those who “strongly approve” by a 2-1 margin.

The cause of this erosion in base is the first failure to pass healthcare reform followed by an even worse bill that added removing protections to those with pre-existing conditions to a bill that will reduce the rolls of the insured by 23M.

What’s important about this erosion is that it is entirely in line with what NBC polls predicted several months earlier.  They identified a “floor” of approval for Trump at 22%.  The rest of his support was conditional on accomplishments.

The erosion reflects approximately 8% of those who were previous strong supporters, now becoming “somewhat approve”.  But the “somewhat approve” and “somewhat disapprove” numbers have been fairly constant.  The “strongly disapprove” number spiked with the release of the travel ban and has stayed high.  So where did the 8% where were strong approvers ultimately go?

What appears to be happening is that the erosion is in the segment of Trump voters who were reluctant supporters to begin with.  It is those voters that are making the slow journey through the stages of grief from “somewhat approve” to “strongly disapprove”.

The result is that the 22% of voters who supported Trump during the primaries, continue to stick with him.  Everyone else is up for grabs.

That’s why the midterms are going to be an interesting test.

We’ll find out how many of these “reluctant supporters” are going to be willing to vote if their choice is between a candidate who represents a President who has disappointed them and a party that they don’t identify with.  What may make that vote easier for some are those House Republicans who will be defending their vote for a healthcare bill that most of these “reluctant supporters” did not support.

We’ll also find out if Democrats are going to be able going to turn out across the country in the numbers that we’ve seen in the couple of special elections.

If so, Trump may be in trouble because 23 of the seats won by Republicans in 2016 were in districts that Clinton won.  The Democrats only need 24 seats to reclaim a majority.  The special elections in Kansas, Montana, and (soon) Georgia are all much closer than anyone would have predicted.  The result is that ALL of those seats will be in play for the Democrats in 2016 too.

In any normal electoral cycle, gaining 24 seats would be a heavy lift but recent history (Republicans gained 63 seats in 2010) certainly indicates what’s possible when some parts of the electorate are unhappy.  And there are A LOT of people who are unhappy.

Here are some of the reasons why.

The House passed a healthcare reform bill, with Trump’s help, that only 17% of voters supported. His threats to undermine the existing ACA have caused BCBS of NC to request approval of a 22% rate increase.  His budget proposal eviscerates pretty much every discretionary dollar not spent on defense in order to fund a huge tax cut for the wealthy.  Trump’s executive immigration order has been struck down twice by the courts.  We’ll see how his court nominee affects that vote when it gets to the SCOTUS.  The investigations into obstruction of the Russian investigation will continue to produce bad news over the next 18 months.  Trump is considering pulling out of the Paris Accord which is supported by 70% of the public.  North Korea will continue to improve their missiles that could reach the west coast within a year.  Trump trusts China to help with North Korea, but China has their own agenda.  Russia and Syria will continue to deteriorate.  Nothing of substance is going to pass Congress because those who are up for reelection in 2018 won’t want to take any more hard votes.  And Trump will continue to be Trump.

He has no one to blame but himself.

Lock Him Up

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

In a stunning display of arrogance and incompetence, President Trump single-handedly ground his administration to a halt and changed the 2018 election into a referendum on his potential impeachment.

Firing the head of the FBI took a smoldering scandal about collusion with the Russians and turned it into a full blown bonfire with its own special counselor and an impaneled grand jury.

That’s because this is no longer just a question of connections between the Russians and the Trump campaign.  It is now an investigation of obstruction of justice.  It no longer matters whether or not there is substance to the claims that there were a dozen or so conversations between Russians and the Trump campaign.  It also no longer matters whether the conversations were about coordinating the Russian social media and hacking activities with Trump campaign, or they were about current or future business opportunities, or they were just friends catching up about hockey.  What matters now is that there is evidence that Trump and his administration may have attempted to intervene in an ongoing investigation.

The last two impeachment investigations were based on obstruction of justice claims.  It’s that claim that will drive this investigation forward.  That’s because voters are much more concerned about abuses of power than they are about any other claims of corruption.

Trump has attempted to characterize this as a witch hunt, but he only has himself to blame.  Firing James Comey in a fit of pique and then attempting to discredit him caused the response.  Involving the Deputy Attorney General in the firing, gave the Justice Department no other choice.  AG Sessions had already recused himself because he had lied during his confirmation hearings about his Russian connections.  The President had fired the guy leading the investigation at the FBI.  The DOJ had to appoint an independent counselor in order to preserve the integrity of the DOJ and the FBI.

This is politics 101.  Unfortunately, Trump and his administration appear to have skipped that course.

Here’s the rest of politics 101.  This investigation is going to take a long time.  There are two reasons.

First, there is already a grand jury involved, and they have a broad mandate to follow whatever issues they deem appropriate.  The Starr investigation started out with Whitewater and ended up with Monica Lewinsky four years later.

Second, everyone in the White House and the Trump campaign are going to be asked what they know and when they knew it.  Timing is critical to determine intent.  Intent to obstruct justice is what the special counselor will be attempting to prove or disprove.

The consequences of a long investigation are also obvious.

The administration will grind to a halt because Congress will be unwilling to take any controversial votes until they determine what the results will be from this investigation.

What that leaves is the 2018 election.

All the house seats will be contested as well as 33 senate seats.  A lot more information will dribble out between now and then.  Most of it will be unflattering to the President.  The House will not take an impeachment vote before the election because they will not want to run on how they individually voted.  Instead, House Republicans will be faced with the challenging prospect of defending their vote on a VERY unpopular healthcare bill AND defending the actions of a President who is under investigation for abusing his power.  Every Democrat running against an incumbent Republican in the House or Senate is going to tell voters that re-electing the incumbent will insure that Trump will never be held accountable for his actions AND that healthcare insurance will be taken away from all those who have pre-existing conditions and all those on MedicAid.

What is particularly ironic is that Trump won the election based in part on a last minute surge of voters who were persuaded by Trump’s claims that Clinton was a criminal.  He may now end up losing his majority in at least the House for exactly those same reasons.

BTW the Real Clear Politics combined job approval ratings poll just hit a new low.  For the first time since the inauguration, the aggregate poll slipped below 40.  Same thing with the aggregate FiveThirtyEight job approval poll.

 

Sometimes It Takes More Than Looks

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

harding2

Warren G. Harding is widely regarded as the worst President ever to occupy the office.

Many say he won the election because he “looked like a President”.   This was the tail end of an era where those who LOOKED like gentlemen were assumed to possess all of qualities and capabilities associated with gentlemen.  While Harding was popular during his term, the scandals which emerged after he left office relegated him to his status as a failed president.

We are now in an era of billionaires.  Those who appear to possess great wealth are assumed to possess special qualities and talents that set them apart.  Trump’s election is an example of the trust that some voters have in a wealthy person.  They elected a man whose only qualification to occupy the most powerful political office in the country is that he appears to be wealthy.

I think it is fair to say that in the first month and half, the Trump administration is struggling to find its way.  Even though it is early, there are seeds of scandal that are already blooming.

Russia

The White House has been working furiously to discredit a story that the NYT broke regarding contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In a now famous interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, Reince Priebus disputed the story alternately calling it “grossly overstated”, “inaccurate”, “totally wrong”, “total baloney”, and “garbage”.  He claimed that people in both the intelligence community and the congress confirmed this description.  The next leak was that Priebus asked the FBI to go on the record with what they had told him.  The FBI refused because the request would politicize the FBI even more than it is now.  Then Priebus assembled a group of intelligence community members and Republican members of Congress to rebut the story, but only anonymously.  This is particular ironic since Priebus (and later Trump) used anonymity of the NYT sources to question the accuracy of the whole article.

It is this sort of fake news stuff that is enormously important that, when you get a front page story of The New York Times without a single source on the record saying that your campaign had constant contacts– they didn’t say one contact. They didn’t say two contacts. It doesn’t matter. We have not been informed of even that. But to say, “Constant contact?”

In this process, however, the two points that the White House objected to in the story became clear.

  1. The story said “repeated contacts”. The White House has built a straw man by claiming that the story said “constant contacts”.
  2. The story said the contacts were with senior Russian Intelligence officials. We now know that the White House is trying to claim that the Russian conversations that DID occur were not with senior Russian Intelligence officials.

“NBC News was told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that the NYT story WAS wrong — in its use of the term ‘Russian intelligence officials.’ Our sources say there were contacts with Russians, but that the US hasn’t confirmed they work for spy agencies. We were also told CNN’s description of Trump aides being in ‘constant touch’ with Russians was overstated. However, our sources did tell us that intelligence intercepts picked up contacts among Trump aides and Russians during the campaign.”

We find out today that new AG Jeff Sessions was one of the people who DID have at least two conversations with a Russian official during the campaign and neglected to share that information during his confirmation hearing.

Testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was asked in January by Al Franken what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. “I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

There’s more: Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) sent Sessions an additional written question: “Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” The AG’s one-word answer could not have been more categorical: “No.”

Sessions response was that his conversations with the Russian ambassador did not involve the campaign, so he felt he answered the questions accurately.  He has also agreed to recuse himself from future congressional investigations.

Here’s the scope of this potential scandal.

There WERE conversations between the Trump campaign and Russians during the election.  Those conversations included Jeff Sessions, though he claims that their conversations didn’t touch on the campaign.  Sessions clearly had an opportunity to disclose his conversations during his confirmation hearings and chose not to.

The White House is disputing that these conversations (Sessions and others) were “constant”, that they were with Russians who worked for Russia’s various intelligence agencies, and that they were about the 2016 election.  Of course this begs the question of why the FBI or other intelligence agencies were listening to the phone conversations of “regular” Russians, but the larger issue is the nature of the White House’s attempt to bury this story.

The risk to the Trump administration is that their efforts to bury the story will ultimately be more damaging than the story itself.  Flynn was the first victim.  Fired for lying supposedly lying to the President. The second victim could be Sessions.  He could be on the hook for perjury.  The cover-up is always more dangerous than the story itself, but in this case the story about a foreign power intervening in a US election is unprecedented.

Yemen

The father of the Navy Seal that died in last month’s operation refused to meet with the President.  He is blaming his son’s death on a poorly planned and poorly executed operation.  He has demanded an investigation.

“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why?” said Mr. Owens, who told The Herald that he had not voted for Mr. Trump. “For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now all of a sudden we had to make this grand display“  “Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation.”

“The government owes my son an investigation,” the father, William Owens, told The Miami Herald.

One of Trump’s campaign positions was that Clinton failed in her responsibilities to protect the lives of Americans in the Benghazi attack.  Trump criticized the Clinton investigations.  He claimed she was guilty even though the investigations produced no evidence to support that claim.  The Trump campaign produced an ad quoting some of the family members of those who were killed in the attack.  Several of them spoke at the Republican National Convention.  One was in the audience at the third debate.

Ryan Owens’ wife was at Trump’s first speech to Congress.  Trump recognized her for her sacrifice.  But he has also failed to take any responsibility for the failed mission.  He has instead blamed both the military and the Obama administration.

Here’s the scope of this potential scandal.

Will there be as thorough an investigation into this failed raid as Trump called for in Benghazi?

Will Ryan Owens’ father be as celebrated in his grief  as Ryan Owens’ widow?

Will the White House drop their claim that the raid yielded valuable intelligence – a claim that has since been disputed by intelligence officials?

The risk to the Trump administration will be similar to Russia.  If they oppose or interfere with an independent investigation, they will be putting the administration in jeopardy.  If the investigations reveal that decisions on either the raid or the speech were mainly political, they will lose the trust of voters.

Summary 

As these and other scandals continue to pop up and unfold, the façade of media bias as the root cause for Trump’s troubles will fall away.  What will be left are the tawdry facts that the Trump campaign DID have conversations with the Russians about the election. And the Trump administration DID approve a poorly planned, poorly executed mission that discovered no new information because there was political benefit to what appeared at the time to be an easy win.

The legacy of this administration will be similar to the business legacy of the President.  The claims of expertise and unique skill will all fail to produce any substance.  The bodies will stack up.  The collateral damage will mount.  The domestic and foreign mistakes will increase dissension and weaken our country.  At some point, enough people will realize that the only thing that Trump brought to this office was wealthy arrogance.  Once they realize that being President requires larger skill set, they will kick him out of office.  When they finally tire of his attempts to blame his failures on others, they will finally blame him for misleading them.  The fact, however, is that it was voters who misled themselves.  They assumed that wealth somehow qualified a person to be President.  Like Harding, voters will realize that wealth, just like looks, has little or nothing to do with competence or trustworthiness.