Strangely Content Free

Even by State of the Union standards, that was a colossal waste of time. High on purple prose and racist dog-whistling, low on content.

Without hyperbole, there are 3 proposals in this State of the Union.

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  1. $1.5T dollars in infrastructure spending
  2. A very detailed immigration plan
  3. End the “defense sequester”

Now, I have thoughts about each of these, but what is striking is that I caught no other policy proposals. To count as a policy proposal, I had to know either 1) its magnitude in monetary terms or 2) what the implementation would look like. The thing about directing his people to work on a plan to decrease drug costs? Not a policy. The thing about foreign assistance was marginal; but there was not enough meat for me to comment on so I didn’t list it. Standing tall for the flag was just pathos.

I didn’t go back and count Obama’s policy proposals, but I recall those speeches being full of them. It was a point of criticism for me, actually, that they were often divorced from what his Congress was willing or able to do. There was even a recurring joke that the proposal for better rail was for Joe Biden and, let’s be real, it was as true as it was a joke. The fact that this was mostly just dog-whistling, asserting America’s strength and touting a strong economy would be weird for another presidency. Its only not weird for this one because it we’ve come to expect so little of Trump.

This isn’t to say other things didn’t matter. The lines about standing for the flag foresage more hostility towards African Americans; hardly shocking, but worth making note of. And if this speech was an insight into how this Administration is weighing North Korea, in terms of its moral failings rather than the very real consequences for South Korea if we start a war, then Seoul is in peril. And the things he didn’t say—Russia, rising hate crimes, the scourge of murders with guns—matter too. But this was a speech largely without content.

As for his three proposals? Unsurprisingly, I am largely against.

$1.5T for infrastructure is badly timed. Trump was largely correct that the economy is doing well, though, that has little to do with Trump or Obama. Regardless, this is exactly when the government should be cutting spending to keep the assets market from overheating. A good way to do this? Keep taxes the same and bring down the debt. The economic policy being pursued is exactly opposite the standard macroeconomic recommendation. (Though, if the tepid applause is anything to go by, Congress will not pursue it.)

I am largely punting on the immigration plan. There will be higher quality analysis than I can do right now by other people, but suffice it to say I am unimpressed. Let me pick at a detail instead. “Protecting the nuclear family from the threat of chain migration” is an incredible sentence. Stripped of jargon, it says protecting mothers and fathers from their parents living in the same country as them. It is, I am given to understand, the greatest threat against the family since homosexuality was decriminalized in the 90s. Grandparents. Threat to the family.

The defense sequester was maligned in 2011 as a possible threat to readiness, but the evidence on that is scant. We could rehearse the statistics about the size of the military post-sequester; larger than the next 10, full of waste and unwanted programs, creaking under its own bureaucracy. We could demand an independent audit of the ways that has hurt readiness, though its hard to imagine it has. We could point out that there is literally no threat to our interests from a non-nuclear power that current spending levels doesn’t address and that conventional military readiness is probably somewhat secondary to our interests. But half the country really likes funding the military, so, sure, applause line.

For all that Trump is terrifying—and putting someone so racist and shortsighted at the bully pulpit should give anyone decent pause—he has very little to back up his rhetoric. He is all racism, pathos, and cheap TV stunts. The State of the Union Address as a format has always rewarded grandstanding, even for those who laid the ground for real policy discussions, but just as Trump is the hollow shell of a man, this was a hollow shell of a State of the Union Address. The State of the Union, no thanks to Trump is strong.

The state of his presidency is weak behind all the fronting.

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Thoughts and Prayers

I don’t believe in God. I cannot offer you any justification to this; I have no deep theological insights or clever thought experiments. Only simply that when confronted with the question of, “Can you take a leap of faith?” the answer in my heart is No.

But I have learned to sit with my thoughts and hopes in ways that are not only in some ways like prayer, but explicitly come to me from exposure to people and writings of faith. Buddhist meditation is many things within a single tradition, never mind the width, breadth, and disagreement of the many Buddhist traditions. But two strains emerge in many: the deep contemplation of the inevitability of loss and grief and a radical, non-judgmental openness of mind. (Complicating matters, I believe a theme in Buddhist writings is that this is one strain.) Learning to feel my grief about national tragedies and accept that I have it, while perhaps of no particular Buddhist origin, comes to me through Buddhist writings.

At the same time, my Christian friends who are guided by their faith view prayer are a radical, reflective exercise. “What Would Jesus Do?” has been reduced to a cliché, but I’ve seen it become a guiding light for some people—though, they tend to avoid those four words. The Bible is a rich, often apparently contradictory text that offers complex questions and equally complex answers about justice and right conduct. For me, the text of the Bible has never been “alive” they way it seems to be for those friends, but prayer is both a reflection and a request to find a wise, just path forward in the words of Christ and the Prophets. Though I never look to God and rarely to the Bible (I have a few passages I think are very wise), I do try to search myself for all the wisdom I have when confronted with injustice. Though there is a vast difference in faith, I like to think I have learned something from my friends who take the time to ask for guidance and grace.

I am deeply saddened by the tragedy in Las Vegas. As is often the case following these mass shootings, I am at a loss for words. All I have is this heaviness in my chest and weariness in my mind when I think about it. I simply cannot write coherently about it. This tangent about thoughts and prayers is what I have the words for, and so that is what I am offering.

The reflexive scorn for “thoughts and prayers” is something I feel a lot of sympathy for. When Marco Rubio posts Bible quotes to his Twitter as a substitute for doing something, when conservative politicians suggest prayer is a replacement for action on gun policy, and when obviously unrepentant politicians say they are “prayerfully” reformed, I feel a knot of disgust and anger in my stomach.

It is hard to remember that my rage is not because they are prayerful, but rather because they are not. It is hard to imagine that those in Congress beholden to the NRA are taking the time to sit with the awesome power they wield and how to wield it. These don’t feel like disagreements of faith to me. Would Christ not have acted when kindergartners were gunned down at Sandy Hook? Is the wisdom handed down to us from the Bible that Christ would have stood outside Pulse and said, “Once again, the downside to American freedom is on gruesome display“? Does the Bible condone tweeting in public but doing nothing in Congress? Does any of this seem like the consequence of “thoughts and prayers”.

As I struggle to sit with my thoughts about the wider tragedy, I share the disgust with those who have run out of patience for “thoughts and prayers”. But now is the time to help each other sit with our feelings of rage and helplessness; Buddhism offers some perspective there. And for those with the power to do works and those of us with the power to influence them, demanding we sit with questions of justice in ways that are not self-serving is the only path forward. I should think the teachings of a political dissident brutally murdered at the hands of the most powerful government on Earth can offer US Senators some guidance if they sit with that uncomfortable contradiction.

I am quite certain it is not thoughts and prayers that I am angry with; I am certain that it is that they are hollow gestures.

Thoughts on Trumpcare’s Demise and John McCain

I have thoughts about the final (final?) healthcare vote.

McCain

  • I said McCain was a hypocrite for not voting to send this back to committee. I still think that was his most principled course of actions, and woe be it to the rest of them who didn’t even help kill this monstrosity.
  • That said, having watched it play out, McCain just humiliated the Majority Leader on live television in a monumental spectacle after calling for regular order. It is not clear to me that he could have made a better case for regular order than making it apparent that McConnell’s process was a sham designed to bully McCain and then calling McConnell’s bluff. When McCain demands the next issue is addressed by committing the bill to committee, he has good standing in the caucus to do that. So, I feel like I was right to defend McCain and that he weakly met the spirit of my defense, but not the letter of my analysis?
  • I’m not trying to save face here. I feel good about defending McCain broadly, because I didn’t game the last minutes of McConnell’s pressure cooker plan out right. Nonetheless, I think there was a higher road to be taken. I was kind of wrong? I was kind of right?
  • There’s a larger lesson here. McConnell would not have gone to the floor if he’d seen this coming. McCain kills A LOT of bills, but normally he has the decency to pull this stunt in a back room. McCain is known as a maverick because when he doesn’t like a bill, he puts in the hard, important work of finding a few others and negotiating with whichever party is in charge. Outlets like FiveThiryEight (who, granted, have him parting ways with Trump more often than almost anyone else in his party) are stuck counting only those bills that make it to the floor. McCain is such a powerhouse because he keeps things off the floor that can never be counted, or gets large concessions that make it easier for him to swallow the bad parts. He’s not a Democrat, and you shouldn’t expect him to torpedo GOP legislation because you don’t like it. But McCain privately shapes legislation in profound ways.
  • Murkowski and Collins displayed much more consistency through this process and good on them.
  • McConnell should resign. He won’t. But he should.
  • Paul Ryan’s big plan for Tax Reform hinged on billions of dollars of savings from this bill. So, the next legislative set piece for the House is in bad shape. They will figure something out and it will be a mess. Get ready to fight.
  • What, precisely, is protecting Trump now? The antics of his Interior Secretary likely pushed Murkowski away. He’s a giant electoral and international liability, the Trump/Russia affair stinks of illegal activity, and now he’s without a legislative agenda to offset that. Expect more Republican Senators to really warm to the idea of getting to the bottom of this. They won’t say the words “President Pence seems better” while cameras are running, but they are saying it to each other.
  • Even set off from quotes, I feel dirty typing the words “President Pence”. *shudder*
  • Both McConnell and Schumer got tears in their eyes during their post-vote speeches. Not enough men cry in the public sphere, so, I’m all here for Schumer getting misty eyed because activism helped kill this bill. However, McConnell looked about ready to cry because his plan to deny treatment that would save tens of thousands of American lives per year failed in a humiliating way after he tried to cheat his way through the process. I do not kid: I was ready to drink them.
  • There is talk of repealing the 17th Amendment so that Senators cannot scuttle legislation. Two things. First, that means the likes of Mike Huckabee are getting the lesson that they did not play enough dirty tricks. That’s super gross and a window into why the GOP needs to be removed from the majority ASAP. Second, the idea that Portman would have defied his governor if he was counting on his support for reappointment is bonkers. The whole point of having states appoint Senators (as was originally done) was that they would have to think about what their state government wanted, while Representatives would have to think about what their constituents directly wanted. Ohio, West Virginia, and Arizona would have killed this more decisively!

There’s a lot more to be said, especially parsing McCain’s principles here. But this was not only a victory for those who think protecting healthcare access in this country is important, but also for those who believe that long, boring committee meetings are the only way they are going to improve it.

The True Test of Hypocrisy for McCain is Coming Today

Charges of hypocrisy are easy. But proving them is harder.

McCain found himself in a complicated vote yesterday with three competing values. First of all, McCain broadly supports Obamacare repeal, so moving onto debate and getting the legislative process underway suits those interests. (Liberals who feel like that’s unprincipled need to square themselves with the fact that principles they don’t like are still principles.) Debating that is in his interest and I take him at his word when he says he believes it in the nation’s interest.

Second, McCain opposes using procedural votes as proxies for final votes—in fact, he generally opposes Motions to Proceed. McCain has been in the Senate long enough to remember when they skipped that Motion by unanimously voting to debate. The principle here is to err on the side of debate rather than hiding behind the process. McConnell changed all that to make it harder for the Democrats to operate. McCain opposed the change, though, to be clear, he was inconsistent in actually voting against Motions to Proceed. It’s less hypocritical when you consider that in those cases, he usually had a clear principle against whatever was being advanced. This is the classic rock and a hard place.

Third, McCain supports regular order in committee. I can’t explain this better than the pure column of justified rage that was Claire McCaskill:

Traditionally this committee would have had not held just a hearing, but multiple hearings. McCain has publicly joined these concerns—though, he has not yelled at a committee chair with cameras on. The vote on the Motion to Proceed restored regular order, but skipped this step. McCaskill and McCain differed on their final judgment in ways that benefit their hope for a final outcome. It is a complicated trade off. Do you accept half of regular order? Or is it all or nothing? How do you weigh your legislative goals in these calculations? Its easy to say McCain should have voted the way you want. But that doesn’t mean the principles here are easy or clear.

Fortunately, Minority Leader Schumer is going to make this easy!

The motion to send back to committee is a chance for Senators calling for regular order to get it. Having asked around, the consensus I got is that this this will take 60 votes to overcome the procedural filibuster and then 51 to pass. Every person, however, said some variation of they’re not sure, so take this with a grain of salt.

Republican Senators on Record Supporting a return to regular order:

If these 8 of these 9 band together and vote with the Democrats, they can overrule McConnell’s unusual process that trashes Senate norms. I am sure a few other others should be on this list. At any rate, 7 of them have explicitly said they would like to see a return to the committee process, while Cassidy and Capito have spoken more about a vague “open process”. They are arranged on the list above in roughly descending order of commitment, though its a very subjective order.

Am I predicting that they will send this back to committee? No. Apart from the logistical hurdle of making that deal in the next few hours, I suspect that some of them supported it when it was cheap and are just full of hot air. Paul, Cassidy, and Moran strike me as especially likely to fold given anything resembling a deal; Capito and Cassidy haven’t even explicitly committed to the plan.

But for the 7 who have offered unqualified support for the committee process, this is a good test of how genuine that support is. For those who attacked McCain last night, he can prove you wrong or he can prove you early by voting to head back to committee.

This, more than the final vote, is the measure of hypocrisy.

Trump and the Chocolate Factory

The internet called:

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I answered:

Flynn

Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo
I’ve got a perfect puzzle for you
Oompa Loompa, Doomapadah Dee
If you are wise you’ll listen to me

Who do you blame when your man’s a traitor?
Taking money to give our foes favor!
Have you no decency nor any shame?
Pay from the president is not the same…

He will take the plea bargain!

If you follow laws you’ll be fine
And you will live very free too
Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do
Doompadee Doo.

Spicer

Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo
I’ve got another puzzle for you
Oompa Loompa Doompadah Dee
If you are wise you’ll listen to me

What do you get when you obfuscate?
Wallowing in lies and getting irate!
Do you think you can get another job?
Or will the nation see you as a slob?

Joke’s on you and on TV!

If you don’t lie you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do
Doompadee Doo.

Kasowitz

Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo
I’ve got another puzzle for you
Oompa Loompa Doompadah Dee
If you are wise you’ll listen to me

Where do you find an honest attorney?
Not near the President, apparently!
Justice must be paired with truth and honor
Or else you get Lovecraftian horror

Why did you go into law?

With ethics you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do
Doompadee Doo.

Conclusion

Never let it be said that I don’t do this blog as a public service. I may update this as firings continue? Stay tuned!

We’re Not Heading for an Authoritarian Crisis

These Will Still Be Trying Times for Our Democracy

Back in February, a piece, Trial Balloon for a Coup made the rounds on blue Facebook. The essence of the piece was that the way the travel ban was rolled out—through a gutted state department, around an objecting DHS, and skirting the orders of the court—was Trump’s team trying to test the waters. I dissented, suggesting it was much more likely blundering by people who did not understand the limits and finesse of executive power. As the courts have continuously struck down and rolled back the ban and the administration has ceded to their authority, I have felt vindicated. The Trump Administration is testing and searching, but so far within Constitutional limits. And they’ve not been very good at it.

The newest round of breathless panic is about how the final months of the Trump administration might play out. And I do mean it: final months. The panic in the administration as Mueller moves in on Trump’s finances should tell that he is hiding something there. The publicly available information is starting to point to a racketeering operation that ties in with Russian efforts to compromise our democracy. We may not need to prove espionage to impeach the President; money laundering could well do the trick.

The President is enormously powerful and will have a few tools at his disposal. First, he could fire Mueller. There are some niceties here. Whether or not Trump can literally fire Mueller or if he has to find someone in the chain of command to do it for him has been debated. If Nixon’s precedent is anything to go on, he may have to fire Deputy Attorneys General until someone is willing to carry out the order to fire Mueller. The so-called Saturday Night Massacre touched off a firestorm that ultimately undid Nixon. Trump may be convinced not to follow that precedent.

Beyond a basic level of immunity and privilege (designed to keep more baseless
“scandals” from consuming the Executive), he may also be able to pardon the conspiracy. There is a vigorous legal debate about whether or not SCOTUS will uphold those pardons. First, there is good reason to think the President cannot pardon himself, though the matter is far from settled. If he cannot, then pardoning co-conspirators may also not be allowed because it would undermine the investigation into the President and effectively amount to a self-pardon. It would be an incredible SCOTUS case, to say the least. At any rate, being pardoned waives the right to claim the 5th Amendment (as self-incrimination would then be impossible). We could fall into an infinite loop of contempt charges and Presidential pardons, but its worth pausing here to consider the political ramifications of this.

This blog does not offer much aid or quarter to Republicans in Congress. Members of Congress are a spineless, self-preserving lot and this is a liberal outfit besides. But Republicans have been nominally correct on two fronts. First, there has been a paucity of conclusive evidence. Aside from the Donald Trump Jr. emails—and that’s a huge aside—there has mostly been innuendo, leaks, and speculation. Second, while it is technically their job to check the executive, Mueller is running an internal investigation. Passing the buck is not ideal, but its not in any way contrary to the way the Constitution frames this kind of problem. The public position of most Republicans in Congress has been to defer to Mueller and point out they’ve conveniently not seen much evidence.

Liberals were kidding themselves if they expected Representatives to rush to the steps of the Capitol to announce they were abandoning their party’s President before 6 months were up on a single admission by the President’s son. Conservatives are delusional if they think their party isn’t having private meetings about how they are going to close ranks when mostly smoke becomes mostly fire. Firing Mueller or issuing pardons would remove the veneer of plausible deniability and create a media sensation eclipsing the Comey firing. Committee hearings into Russia’s tampering of our election got more serious after that; imagine what a Mueller firing will do. Members of Congress saying they are “very concerned” may be a joke, but they are leaving themselves an escape hatch. Either of these actions by the President may well force them to finally take it.

What if I’m wrong? What if they duck for more cover? The crisis would be real, but the incentives to use our institutions to check the Executive would grow commensurately. Firing Mueller will almost certainly require a major reorganizing of the Department of Justice, while pardons would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. The firestorm that would follow would consume Washington, scuttle the domestic agenda, and fundamentally alter the political landscape more than even Comey’s firing. I predict that the public outcry would be withering, and that a critical mass of Republicans would defect against the President. But again, if I’m wrong, that wouldn’t be the worst of it. There will be a few days grace period for Senators and Representatives to cobble together a response. If it was not forthcoming or woefully insufficient, the institutional coup that would follow would be profound and undercut any authoritarian designs Trump harbored.

As a matter of public record, the Intelligence Community has been on this case for years. While they were not ready to pull the trigger in the lead up to the election—and Obama stopped them from the more measured plan they hatched—it has long been known they have damning evidence against Trump and his associates. If the first three branches refuse to see what is plainly recorded in the dark recesses of the NSA, there is a final, informal branch of government they can appeal to. If the Republican Party proves too paralyzed to defend our nation, the IC will not so much as leak as hemorrhage. It will be unsparing. Every Senator and Representative with tangential ties to Russia or the RICO case will find themselves the subject of a widening “leaking scandal”. The exact contours of the FARA case will become the subject of breathless NYT and WaPo reporting. Senators can scoff at WaPo’s masthead, but this Presidency may well die in the light.

This final recourse will do incalculable damage to the political system, but it will not be an authoritarian crisis. We have every reason to believe the evidence was collected legally for national security purposes, and only sought after foreign adversaries mentioned this plan. For good reason that information is meted out through the politically accountable parts of our government, but the system was designed on the premise that our Congress would defend the Constitution from plain threats. If there is ever a time for leaks, it is as the President bullies Congress into accepting his collaboration with a foreign adversary.

To clamp down on this, Congress, the Press, and the rank-and-file officers of the Executive Branch would have to accept a clamp-down on rights. Could attorneys at the DOJ suddenly prosecute periodicals that published leaks? The DOJ would stand empty before most did that. Will SCOTUS acquiesce to a suspension of civil liberties? Could Trump shut down the press? It hardly warrants consideration. Would Congress stand by him through an assault on the First Amendment? Stuff of fiction! Would the Army back a power grab if he tried to deputize them? There is a great miniseries in that, but it should be relegated to speculative television. The machinery of authoritarianism is not in place, nor will it materialize in the next year.

Appointing Mueller created a brittle covenant with the GOP in Congress. So long as he is investigating, they will defer to him and turn over as few stones as they can get away with. It is not praiseworthy, but it is also only support at the most tacit level. They get stability and keep their options open. They can credibly say that their duty to check the President has been outsourced. If Trump removes Mueller or pardons the conspiracy, that covenant is broken. Congress will abandon him to save their own skins and, on the off the off chance I’m wrong, the IC will bring to light what our “leaders” have been too cowardly to show us.

The coming crisis—and I do think its all but upon us—will shake our Democracy to its foundations and re-write politics for a generation. But it will be the desperate final acts of incompetent, self-serving blow-hard, not the calculated authoritarian power grab that liberals fear. Trump’s extraordinary power and Congress’s vile timidness means that any patriotic should be ready to defend those foundations. But, having exhausted all other options, Congress will do the right thing if Mueller is removed.

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.