The Hot New Right Wing Conspiracy is Really Boring, Guys

In the Great Book of Washington Spin, there is a tactic as old as politics: Whataboutism. Whataboutism is asking, “Yeah, what about…” and inserting the scandal of the day. Its barely tolerable during election season when it is tantamount to saying, “My guy is bad, but your guy is worse.” But now that the election is over, Whataboutism is simply ridiculous.

Which brings us to the Obama scandal of the moment: the NSA under Obama systematically violated the Fourth Amendment. Take for example this Fox News piece:

The secret court that oversees government snooping took the Obama administration to task late last year, suggesting it created “a very serious Fourth Amendment issue” by violating rules the government itself had implemented regarding the surveillance of Americans.

According to top-secret documents made public by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – often referred to as the FISA court – the government admitted that, just days before the 2016 election, NSA analysts were violating surveillance rules on a regular basis. This pattern of overreach, coupled with the timing of the government’s disclosure, resulted in an unusually harsh rebuke of the administration’s practices and principles.

This is largely true. (An “unusually harsh rebuke” is true mostly in that Obama didn’t usually draw the Court’s ire for anything, not in that the abuse was severe—more on that in a second.) Much of the rest of the piece, including that press outlets like The New York Times didn’t cover it, are false. Indeed, it largely passed unnoticed in the liberal press because, frankly, it was not a particularly interesting story.

The gory details laid out by the FISA Court are far from scintillating. In fact, they are almost comically boring. As mentioned, ts true that in late September a pattern of Fourth Ammendment violations was found and brought before the Court. But who uncovered and reported this dastardly plot? Well, it turns out to have been the Inspector General of the NSA. That’s right: The NSA caught the NSA making these errors and told the court. They were rebuked, lest you think anyone ends up looking good here, for being slow to report them, but the Court gives no reason for the month delay and draws no wider conclusion as Fox does.

The abuse itself was hardly the basis of a Hollywood thriller or vast conspiracy against a CBS journalist. The main problem according to the Court was that the software the NSA was using to query its database required its analysts to opt out of data about people on email threads. If the analyst left a box checked, they might find out that an American citizen was on an email thread. I don’t want to pull the punch: The NSA should not have been finding that out. But the several hundred (the exact number is redacted) instances of this being used over 5 years were not linked to any sort of criminal behavior. It was systemic in the sense it appears few meant to do it, the system was just built that way.

The conservative press needs this to be a big issue because if the NSA was habitually breaking the law, Kushner’s actions can be excused. It’s the worst sort of whataboutism. Never mind that they would not be looped in until after many of the alleged exchanges happened. Never mind that email threads are not something you’d go into a Russia SCIF to hide. Never mind that there is a lot more substance to the accusations against Kushner than just, “some IC dudes said so”; he’s admitted to hiding his contacts with Russia, a transparent felony.

This isn’t a hot conspiracy. It’s a boring technical violation that the Government was fixing anyway.


The Catch-22 of Leaks

How do I even summarize the last few weeks? Words have failed me, so let me just share a gif:


The White House has been a tire swing on fire. Special prosecutor? Ryan maybe-but-maybe-not joking about Trump being on Putin’s payroll? Flynn and Manafort being completely, hopelessly, utterly screwed? I’m sure within two days these examples will seem quaint developments from a simpler, less chaotic time. The point is not to keep you updated on this dumpster fire. Its to point out something that ties all the developments together.

Everything we know so far is because someone with inside information called a journalist they strictly should not have. Donald Trump—sit down for this—has a point when he says there is a story in why his administration is hemorrhaging information to the press. To use Congress’s favorite word, it is “troubling” that people without authorization are fanning the flames of this scandal with leaks. That’s not how this is supposed to work.

A subtle line was crossed with the leak of the Paul Ryan tape. The transcript reveals that Paul Ryan, at best, actively considered that Trump was on the Russian payroll and thought it funny. At worst, it shows he was willfully complicit. Neither is good. But the leak is taking aim at Ryan’s domestic agenda by undercutting his Speakership. The problem is that Ryan and McConnell have been willfully ignoring the mounting evidence because it endangers their legislative master plan. We are at a precarious moment where a whistle blower has demanded the domestic agenda be put on ice to address a growing international espionage scandal.

The ethics of this, I think, are pretty straightforward. Leakers should only disrupt the domestic agenda if there is a clear and present danger to national security. The events of the past two weeks should have convinced you that the Russia collusion allegations are 1) substantive and 2) worth vetting. Trump likely got an Israeli spy killed and damaged our national security because he bragged to Russian officials about our intelligence. If the allegations of collusion are true—and the leaker may be in a position to know better than us—then Congress dragging its feet is doing real-time damage to our nation.

The Catch-22 is there is no way to be certain if it was ethical without Congress digging deep into this. If it is found that the FBI or the leaker in particular did not have solid reason to believe that there was immediate danger, this is in and of itself a scandal. But with what is public its hard to imagine that there is nothing fishy here.

Therefore, the question of leaks is fundamental. It’s not an either/or, where we should drop the investigation to find the leakers. We should immediately seek to learn why this information was being made public and make the determination if the judgement was sound. Whistle blowers should be judged on what they knew and the judgement of a reasonable person. The only way to know if this is, in the President’s words, a witch hunt is to vet the evidence.

The only way out is through.

Argument of the Week: Health Care and Dying

It’s Monday, but its hard to imagine anyone topping this: “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care”. That’s Representative Rual Labrador.

This statement is baffling. I want to respond with a spluttering, “But of course people die if they can’t access health care!” It’s a new high watermark in “post-facts” discourse. I find myself wondering how a person, let alone a member of Congress, has a sequence of thoughts and arrives at health care and being alive have nothing to do with each other.

A large fraction of the internet has informed me that if people really wanted to live, they’d get a better job. Never mind that if everyone did that, there’d be no one to work those jobs; never mind that its simply not a realistic option for some people; never mind the inherent cruelty of those positions. Those people are at least being honest with me. If you are barista or work a cash register or lost your job because Wall Street gambled too dearly, your life is not worth saving! That barbaric cruelty looks damned upstanding for its honesty next to Representative Labrador’s statement.


I own a Labrador retriever so dumb we must persuade her not to eat goose droppings. It turns out, the people of Idaho sent a dumber Labrador to Congress.

Not the dumbest Labrador in America!

They have an opportunity to correct that mistake November 6th, 2018.

Also, here is a basket of Labrador puppies, not just because they are smarter than a Representative, but because I sense we are going to need them this week.

Everything You See on the Internet Is Not True (Erectile Dysfunction Edition)


Now that I have your attention:


This is…grossly misleading, though partially true. CNN Money says that insurers “have the right to choose what counts as ‘pre-existing'”. They go to give a list from the Kaiser Foundation that has been floating around Facebook of “ailments and conditions [that] were universally used to deny people coverage”. You would be correct in noting that erectile dysfunction is not on that list, but its not because it wasn’t a preexisting condition.

A blog devoted to ED drugs* noted before the pre-existing conditions clause went into effect:

If current proposed health care reform stays in place, in 2014, this won’t matter. But until then, the answer is, it depends. Mostly it depends on what the insurance company considers a preexisting condition and what they will or will not cover. Also, most insurance companies use a certain formula or logarithm to determine eligibility. They may look at your medical history to see what conditions you have been diagnosed with, what you’ve been treated for, what medications you’ve taken, etc. Compounding this is the fact that erectile dysfunction is usually not a standalone issue, but a symptom of another underlying condition, physical or psychological, like diabetes or clinical depression, and that is more likely to be what the insurance company will be looking at as far as preexisting conditions go.

ED and its causes (many of which are on CNN’s list) were preexisting conditions, and ED treatments weren’t and still aren’t covered in many cases anyway. If you have diabetes and that causes ED, they can deny you coverage for your ED medication as a “preexisting condition” as long as their rules are clear, so ED shows up here as an implication. It’s possible to squint and add a bunch of caveats that make this meme “true”, but I think the implication, that ED is usually covered but complications from sexual assault aren’t if you buy insurance after the fact is false.

And there is no reason to cling to this! To find examples of institutional sexism in health care look no further than AHCA! Planned Parenthood defunding is just that. This murky example, largely anchored on a misunderstanding, looks washed out next to PP’s loss of funds.

So please, outraged citizens, direct your rage at the actual problem here: that both ED and treatment for complications from sexual assault will be denied as preexisting conditions if the House GOP has their way.

*I too wondered PDE5guy kept a blog about Viagra and Cialis for years, but, hey! If there is one thing 2017 is teaching us, it is that the world is weirder than we thought.

Why Yes, I’ll Trash Paul Ryan Even More

The great problem before The Speaker of the House was this: His membership wanted a healthcare bill that was more conservative than what would pass the Senate. His challenge was to reach a compromise.

Which was hard and Paul Ryan doesn’t work hard so he didn’t.


Here’s the thing about the version of AHCA that just passed out of the House. The Senate hates it. The first group of people Paul Ryan wrote off in creating the legislation was Senate Democrats; using the reconciliation process they need only 50 votes and the Vice President to pass it. With 52 GOP Senators, 3 defections kills the bill so its a narrow path to walk.

So what did Paul Ryan put in the bill to sweeten the deal for his folks? Well, for starters, it defunds Planned Parenthood, a non-starter for the two pro-choice Republicans. It also added the much vaunted Upton Amendment, which, and I’m only exaggerating a little, offers peanuts to people with preexisting conditions. That may have been good enough in House, but several Senators have said that the issue needs properly dealt with. It also stripped out help for the opioid crisis—I don’t have a clue why that was popular in the House either—and has given Rob Portman cause to signal no. In fact, the theme from the Senate seems to be, “That’s nice, but, uh, we’re writing our own.”

And a big blow to the bill is coming. When Democrats passed Obamacare, they had every amendment scored by the CBO before voting. While they were accused of not reading the bill (and it was literally true), they carefully weighed and studied each part trying to get it to work. Ryan intentionally rammed this bill through before the CBO could comment on it because it is going to tear the bill to shreds. Most policy experts think the amendments made the bill worse from a deficit standpoint, which will make this even more unattractive in the House, and will increase the number of uninsured people. Pelosi claimed on the floor, and I’m not going to contradict her, that the pitch the GOP made was the Senate would fix that. But then they would send it back to the House—presumably with changes to make it less popular among the very people who narrowly passed it in the first place, thus endangering the coalition that now knew how bad it was.

Let’s review. To make the bill palatable, the Speaker put in several provisions that are DOA in the Senate. He did this without checking with the CBO because he knew that would be bad news. On the off chance the Senate does pick it up—and they say they won’t—any changes to make them accept it endanger the coalition that passed it in the first place.

One arrives at the inescapable conclusion: this is a photo op, proof of life for Ryan’s Speakership. As long as this is rotting in committee, Ryan can tell his caucus that they passed something, that its the dastardly Senate’s fault that nothing happened. And his caucus was stupid enough to go along with it in the first place, so who knows, maybe they will buy it. They got a beer and front page pictures with Trump, after all.

But man, this is a garbage legislative gambit that is already failing.