A white unicorn

Our weather has been pretty consistently dreary for weeks on end now, long enough so that I don’t know for sure how many weekends it’s been since I was able to go stand in the sun and club the life out of some perfectly innocent golf balls that have never done anything to me.  The forecast is that the weather will start looking better next week, and I hope that comes true.  In the news, there are a lot of predictions about the good possibility that the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 elections (and related matters) may be very close to ending; that would be even better news.

I want to know what Robert Mueller’s investigators have found about how Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and maybe the 2018 midterms, too.  There isn’t any real doubt that Russia was involved in an organized effort to keep Hillary Clinton from being elected president, and I want all the evidence lined up for us all to see.  Even if the Trump campaign and the Trump family were in no way at all complicit or cooperative with the Russian effort, we need to publicly recognize that our country was attacked by a foreign power and be better prepared to withstand that attack the next time it comes.  (You’d think that a president of the United States would agree with that, and say so; do you wonder why this one doesn’t?)

So what are we going to do when the Mueller Report is submitted and (it if is) released to the public?  Dahlia Lithwick suggests in Slate this week that we shouldn’t expect we can sit idly by and let Robert Mueller lead us to the Promised Land.

There’s a lingering perception that once Mueller delivers his report, the Trump era will end in a cloud of white smoke and glitter. It’s a nice fantasy—the one in which Mueller, armed with Truth and Fact, finishes off the Trump presidency with a ride through the Capitol on a white unicorn, scattering indictments and the seeds of impeachment, in a conclusive and irrefutable wrapup of the two-year probe.

It is also profoundly unlikely to actually happen that way. As one observer after another has reminded us, this is not necessarily Mueller’s call, and it’s not necessarily Mueller’s mandate. It’s also, perhaps most importantly, not necessarily Mueller’s style. At every turn, Mueller has shown us who he is, and that would be the antithesis of the Trump-style reality show protagonist.

(snip)

For those who have been collecting the Mueller memes and the T-shirts and the mugs, and who are waiting breathlessly for his conclusions, there’s a very reasonable chance that major disappointment looms. The Mueller report is unlikely to provide a perfectly binary call to arms. He is amassing facts on a limited series of questions. Some of those facts will make their way to the public, but many will not. Congress will make decisions on how best to proceed. There is going to be a torrent of “no collusion/fake news” out of the White House. What comes next may not be perfectly certain.

Instead of “waiting for Mueller” to take action, we should perhaps realize that we largely know what’s happened: Four people who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign have either faced conviction or indictment for their involvement with Russian actors, or for lying about it. There’s a case to be made that Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. could face charges. It’s surely true that should any such thing happen, life will grow infinitely more complicated for the Trump administration.

But it’s also true that this administration has thrived in part because too many people have been waiting for Robert Mueller to formally say what we already know to be true: The levels of corruption, conflict of interest, and untruth in this administration are without parallel. What we saw at Helsinki was without parallel, what was done to Jamal Khashoggi and the refusal to address it is without parallel, threats of “retaliation” against the press are without parallel. We don’t need to read this in a report. We live it every day.

(Hey, this could be fun, and cathartic, too: go to the comments and fill in the blank to extend Lithwick’s thought: “The ______ we have seen during the Trump campaign and presidency have been without parallel.”  Keep it clean and I’ll post ’em all.)

Mueller’s job was and is to investigate, not to prosecute or impeach or even to tell the rest of us what to do.  Lithwick again:

We want Mueller to be both the guy who knows everything and the guy who does everything. It obviates anyone else from needing to know what we already know and do what needs doing. But going into the next few fateful days, my sense is that we might want to stop investing too much hope in great men, and superheroes, and saviors. Instead, we should remember that it is our job to insist that we, and our public officials, must be the Muellers we hope to see in the world.

The action that comes next is up to us, and to the people we elected to Congress.  It’s not surprising that Republicans in Congress would want to support a Republican president and his goals and actions, but party political success is not (supposed to be) the primary reason they are there: it’s to represent us and our interests, and the Constitution, even when that means challenging the president.  The Constitution establishes each of the three branches of government to provide checks and balances on the other two.

That’s the major theme of an open letter from Democrat Adam Schiff, published this week in the Washington Post.  The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee reminds his colleagues that the responsibilities of their offices go deeper than just supporting the president, especially when our country is under attack.

For the past two years, we have examined Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its attempts to influence the 2018 midterms. Moscow’s effort to undermine our democracy was spectacularly successful in inflaming racial, ethnic and other divides in our society and turning American against American.

But the attack on our democracy had its limits. Russian President Vladimir Putin could not lead us to distrust our own intelligence agencies or the FBI. He could not cause us to view our own free press as an enemy of the people. He could not undermine the independence of the Justice Department or denigrate judges. Only we could do that to ourselves. [emphasis added]  Although many forces have contributed to the decline in public confidence in our institutions, one force stands out as an accelerant, like gas on a fire. And try as some of us might to avoid invoking the arsonist’s name, we must say it.

I speak, of course, of our president, Donald Trump.

The president has just declared a national emergency to subvert the will of Congress and appropriate billions of dollars for a border wall that Congress has explicitly refused to fund. Whether you support the border wall or oppose it, you should be deeply troubled by the president’s intent to obtain it through a plainly unconstitutional abuse of power.

To my Republican colleagues: When the president attacked the independence of the Justice Department by intervening in a case in which he is implicated, you did not speak out. When he attacked the press as the enemy of the people, you again were silent. When he targeted the judiciary, labeling judges and decisions he didn’t like as illegitimate, we heard not a word. And now he comes for Congress, the first branch of government, seeking to strip it of its greatest power, that of the purse.

Many of you have acknowledged your deep misgivings about the president in quiet conversations over the past two years. You have bemoaned his lack of decency, character and integrity. You have deplored his fundamental inability to tell the truth. But for reasons that are all too easy to comprehend, you have chosen to keep your misgivings and your rising alarm private.

That must end. The time for silent disagreement is over. You must speak out.

This will require courage. The president is popular among your base, which revels in his vindictive and personal attacks on members of his own party, even giants such as the late senator John McCain. Speaking up risks a primary challenge or accusations of disloyalty. But such acts of independence are the most profound demonstrations of loyalty to country.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may soon conclude his investigation and report. Depending on what is in that report and what we find in our own investigations, our nation may face an even greater challenge. While I am alarmed at what we have already seen and found of the president’s conduct and that of his campaign, I continue to reserve judgment about what consequences should flow from our eventual findings. I ask you to do the same.

If we cannot rise to the defense of our democracy now, in the face of a plainly unconstitutional aggrandizement of presidential power, what hope can we have that we will do so with the far greater decisions that could be yet to come?

Although these times pose unprecedented challenges, we have been through worse. The divisions during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were just as grave and far more deadly. The Depression and World War II were far more consequential. And nothing can compare to the searing experience of the Civil War.

If Abraham Lincoln, the father of the Republican Party, could be hopeful that our bonds of affection would be strained but not broken by a war that pitted brother against brother, surely America can come together once more. But as long as we must endure the present trial, history compels us to speak, and act, our conscience, Republicans and Democrats alike.

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Furlough Journal: Not with a bang, but a whimper

A few unexpected days off from work means…time on the golf course, of course, and yesterday I had finally gotten past practice time and was enjoying my first round of golf in a month.  Between the 11th green and the 12th tee I got a text message from someone at work with the news bulletin that the president had agreed to end the partial government shutdown for three weeks.  Enjoy these last seven holes, pal.

I’ve got to say that the first thing that came to my mind was to assume a less-than-altruistic motive on the president’s part.  Rather than his finally recognizing the unnecessary hardship he had visited upon hundreds of thousands of civil servants and government contractors and making the decision to release the hostages while negotiating for his border wall, I was ready to bet that we’d find out Mr. Trump had said something on the order of, “OK, now I’ve opened the government so I’m on TV on Tuesday with the State of the Union, right?”  That might still turn out to be the determining factor…right along with the inconvenience of restricting air traffic in New York because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, or any one of a list of calls from people within government to end the madness, to the growing embarrassment caused by members of the administration showing off their unimagined levels of lack of understanding of what it’s like to be non-rich and miss a paycheck.  Or two.

In any case, I’ve received official word from my boss that we’re to return to work Monday at the regular time.  The deal in Washington is just for three weeks to allow negotiation on border security, and provides back pay for the civil servants who have missed two paychecks (so far)…compensation to the companies holding contracts with the government which didn’t get promised payments will apparently have to come in subsequent legislation, if it comes at all.  It seems to me that the president is setting the stage to declare a national emergency three weeks from now if an agreeable compromise is not reached, rather than closing the government again at that juncture.   (Just wondering, how can we reasonably call the situation at the border now an “emergency” if we’ve waited the last five weeks, and perhaps three more weeks to come, to declare it so?)  We’ll see what happens.

JPEG imageA few things I’ve learned during this “vacation”: the phone at our house never stops ringing all day; my beard is greyer than it was;

and my new iPad can do tricks!

JPEG image 2JPEG image 5JPEG image 4JPEG image 3

Furlough Journal: The good, the bad, and the stupid

Surely this is happening all around the country, as we’re in the fifth week of a totally avoidable shutdown of parts of our federal government.  (Including the part that employs me.)  But I know it’s happening here in Houston, because this morning Houston’s Leading Information Source tells me it is.  Of the 800,000 or so federal employees who are out on furlough and learning to do without paychecks—because, essentially, a girl on Fox News challenged the manhood of our tiny-fingered president and that led him to renege on his commitment to sign a bill funding the government—more than 200,000 of them are in Texas and 30,000 of those in the Houston area.  It’s heartening to read about the local businesses taking action to help neighbors and customers who are strapped for cash.

There are restaurants offering free meals to federal employees; pharmacies charging discounted prices on prescriptions; banks waiving late fees or allowing customers to miss a payment with no penalty; a credit union offering interest-free loans to furloughed workers to cover their missing paychecks; phone and internet companies and utilities offering payment plans.  I’m keeping a list of these good neighbors so I can patronize them in the future, and maybe take them up on their offers if I have to as we wait to see where this unprecedented national hostage-taking leads us.

In the meantime, what’s being done to end this nasty situation and get us back to our normal routine of overeating and underexercising, staring blankly at cat videos, and worrying about whether our favorite social media influencers are getting enough online attention?  Well, after more than a month of not even talking about a single damn thing that the president hadn’t already said he would agree with (BTW, why should that be a concern with a president who never keeps his word?), the leadership in the Unites States Senate plans to take a couple of votes it already believes are doomed to failure.  But at least they’re trying, right?  Because that’s what a co-equal branch of government charged by the Constitution with providing checks and balances on the other branches of government is supposed to do, not act like it has no authority or free will or good judgment of its own and shout over and over again “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”.

The White House appears to have come to a complete and safe stop about any and all other issues—except for the president’s yes-I-will-oh-no-you-won’t fight with the House speaker over a State of the Union speech next week, and the president’s laughable “threats” to the family of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that have given Cohen a laughable excuse to cancel his scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill about…what was it again?  Oh, yeah, about his financial crimes and possibly the campaign finance law violations in which he implicated his former boss.  Good times.

But there is some targeted action in the Senate intended to keep this jackassery from happening again in the future, and for that I am very glad if not downright giddy:

Furlough Journal: Once more into the breach

It never would have occurred to me when this partial government shutdown started more than four weeks ago that it would still be going on today, the day that it turns out is the day before I start on furlough myself because of the inaction of my government representatives obstinacy of my president.  (Lookie there, me being nice to Mr. Trump; let’s see if it lasts.)  Truth is, what really never would have occurred to me was that he would be the president.  Of the United States.  Of America.  Unless maybe it was bizarro America.

Nope, not even then.

I’ve worked as a contractor for NASA at the Johnson Space Center since the summer of 1995, just a few months before the Gingrich Shutdown that had been the longest shutdown in history until last week.  The only other serious shutdown in my experience was the one in October 2013, which sent us all home for a couple of weeks; we were allowed to do things related to our regular jobs, but we were not allowed to work in the office.  I started the Furlough Journal then and found it therapeutic for a guy forced to sit home on an unexpected vacation…yes, I was allowed to use my accrued vacation so I didn’t miss a paycheck.

When this PGS began my civil servant colleagues were sent home without pay and that’s where they’ve remained, except for a few who had permission to come in to do important work for which they would not be paid.  (Until, hopefully, they are reimbursed after the shutdown ends…which would be good for them, but doesn’t help them now with no income to spend on the little extras that make life worth living, like food, and rent, and electricity.)  At that point our contract had already received periodic funding in advance, so we were allowed to continue to do our regular work in our offices so long as it didn’t require a civil servant to participate.

Late last week the bosses gathered us all to let us know the advance funding was about to run out and our furlough was about to begin.  Since I don’t usually work weekends, and today was a funded holiday, tomorrow feels like the first day of furlough for me.  But my company is allowing us to use accrued vacation to keep getting paid, at least for a couple of weeks.  After that, we’ll see.

Let’s give the president a little credit here. After a full four weeks of government shutdown that was caused by him changing his mind and refusing to sign a funding extension passed by the Senate which he had promised to sign (and which the House has subsequently also approved) he made a counteroffer last weekend which Democrats have not embraced (shall we say).  I think “a little” is about as much credit as he should expect for offering to give back something he took away in the first place and which he isn’t now promising to return permanently, in exchange for a down payment on a wall that he promised us Mexico would be paying for anyway but which it says it won’t, and who can blame them.  I think we should also note that the president has proven over and over again that we should never take him at his word, about anything, which of course makes it harder to negotiate a deal and surely says it wouldn’t be smart to agree to the first thing he offers.

(Is the therapeutic-ness kicking in yet?  Keep keyboarding.)

I want the government shutdown to end as soon as possible, for myself and the hundreds of thousands of people who do work that makes our country run…no doubt you’ve got examples of your own of things that aren’t happening because of the shutdown, or have read stories filled with those particulars.  Our representatives in Washington can do their jobs and negotiate about a border wall while the people who process tax returns and staff the national parks and control our air traffic and advance our exploration of space get paid for doing their jobs.  I have confidence that Congress can find a deal that will allow all sides to claim a little victory, maybe even agree to build more border barrier.

But don’t you dare cave in to this crazy man.  If Congress gives Trump this border money, in this way, you and I both know that the next time he doesn’t get something he wants he’ll take hostages again.  We don’t negotiate with terrorists.  And we’re not afraid of bullies.

The post that wasn’t because of the news that is

At first I had great plans for a post called “Fecklessness, thy name is Mitch McConnell” in which I would elegantly make the simple point that Republicans in the U.S. Senate are refusing their constitutional duty to be a check and/or balance on the president of the United States.  The Senate that last month unanimously passed a bill to fund the government while the president was on record promising to sign such a bill should not now be refusing to even consider passing the same bill because the president has said he won’t sign it.  (This is, of course, precisely what is happening.)  The job of the Senate is not to pass only those bills which the president has indicated with a wave of his hand that he will deign to accept.  If you think the bill deserves passage, as you did a few weeks ago, pass it; if the president vetoes it, override the damn veto if you can.  (Hint: you can.)  Mitch, it’s not your fault that the president’s word can’t be trusted (about anything), or that he went back on his promise because a couple of women on Fox News effectively called him a thing that can be grabbed by stars without the stars even asking permission, which they did because he hasn’t made good on his campaign promise to build a wall on our country’s southern border, even when his party controlled the House and the Senate and the White House.  It is your fault if you keep deferring to the president and the leader of your political party when you know full well he’s a lying hypocrite who not only doesn’t have the best interests of this country at heart but is using his office for personal enrichment.  And maybe working for the Russians.

It’s that working-for-the-Russians part that made me change my mind about what to write about, because—did you see this in the New York Times:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

That’s the same president who’s now in the fourth week of a Fox News-inspired temper tantrum over funding of his request for more than $5 billion to support construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to fight illegal immigration, which has caused a portion of the federal government to suspend operations and more than three-quarters of a million federal employees to miss their paychecks, and who has reportedly thought about seizing federal funds allocated for Hurricane Harvey recovery and future flood control efforts in the Gulf Coast region of Texas but not yet committed to specific projects and spending it on border wall construction under a theorized declaration of national emergency.  But this is even more outrageous, I think.

I’ll offer two of the many analyses of the Times story floating around out there today.  First, in The Hill Jonathan Turley suggests “this is likely the only time in history that the FBI has investigated whether a sitting president was either a knowing or unknowing agent of a foreign power” and in the next breath wonders if this investigation explains everything away innocently: “What if there were no collusion or conspiracy but simple cognitive bias on both sides, where the actions of one seemed to confirm precisely the suspicions of the other?”  Seems unlikely, but it’s an interesting read.

Even more so is this one in Esquire by Charles P. Pierce, who everyone should be reading anyway all the time just because.  He thinks that one word in the story is a clue left by the Times reporters that today’s bombshell isn’t the end of the story.

The word is tucked into a sentence that, at first glance, seems to be a perfectly anodyne statement of the current facts. Indeed, it’s tucked into a sentence that would be an unremarkable bit of knee-jerk newspaper balance if this explosive charge of a word weren’t placed right the in the middle of it. That word is “publicly,” as in: No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.

(snip)

This is not a word chosen idly, not in a piece as judiciously written as this one. Clearly, the Times printed pretty much all it was given by its sources, but the implication of that “publicly” is that investigators likely know far more than what appeared in the newspaper.

More to come?  Yeah, I bet there is.