Telework Journal: What we have learned

Whether out of productive curiosity or an early onset of ennui bureaucratique, the people leading teleconferences and remote-by-video meetings I’ve been on in the past week are kicking the responsibility for meeting content over to the crowd.  The most common kick-off lately, as we finished our first four weeks of special circumstances, has been the question, “what have you learned so far from teleworking” that could conceivably be of value to others.

If that’s value to others who are teleworking, I don’t have too much to offer besides “get a comfortable chair.”  I think my biggest problem with teleworking is figuring out a new routine for how and when things are to be done, and that routine is going to be particular to me.  Whatever I finally figure out for myself is unlikely to be of too much help to you…I’m kinda quirky in how I work, and I don’t want to visit that on you.

The great philosopher Lawrence P. Berra once noted (or probably, more than once), “You can observe a lot by just watching.”  What I’ve been watching in the past week seems to be something of a steadying of our reaction to this great disruption in our lives.  Not that Americans are happy about being asked to put their lives on hold and stay inside; I think we get why that’s necessary, and we’ve started to look to the next level and the one after that, to try to make sense of this whole situation.  It appears that what more and more people are coming to realize is that America’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak could have been so much better.  And to identify those responsible.

That the pandemic occurred is not [Donald] Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault. The loss of stockpiled respirators to breakage because the federal government let maintenance contracts lapse in 2018 is Trump’s fault. The failure to store sufficient protective medical gear in the national arsenal is Trump’s fault. That states are bidding against other states for equipment, paying many multiples of the precrisis price for ventilators, is Trump’s fault. Air travelers summoned home and forced to stand for hours in dense airport crowds alongside infected people? That was Trump’s fault too. Ten weeks of insisting that the coronavirus is a harmless flu that would miraculously go away on its own? Trump’s fault again. The refusal of red-state governors to act promptly, the failure to close Florida and Gulf Coast beaches until late March? That fault is more widely shared, but again, responsibility rests with Trump: He could have stopped it, and he did not.

The lying about the coronavirus by hosts on Fox News and conservative talk radio is Trump’s fault: They did it to protect him. The false hope of instant cures and nonexistent vaccines is Trump’s fault, because he told those lies to cover up his failure to act in time. The severity of the economic crisis is Trump’s fault; things would have been less bad if he had acted faster instead of sending out his chief economic adviser and his son Eric to assure Americans that the first stock-market dips were buying opportunities. The firing of a Navy captain for speaking truthfully about the virus’s threat to his crew? Trump’s fault. The fact that so many key government jobs were either empty or filled by mediocrities? Trump’s fault. The insertion of Trump’s arrogant and incompetent son-in-law as commander in chief of the national medical supply chain? Trump’s fault.

For three years, Trump has blathered and bluffed and bullied his way through an office for which he is utterly inadequate. But sooner or later, every president must face a supreme test, a test that cannot be evaded by blather and bluff and bullying. That test has overwhelmed Trump.

Trump failed. He is failing. He will continue to fail. And Americans are paying for his failures.

If you’re sitting at home trying to get smarter about how we got here—more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths from the disease than any other country in the world, still not enough testing capability to truly get a handle on how and where the virus is spreading so we can marshal our efforts to fight it more effectively, sending our first-line medical care providers into the fight without enough of the right weapons—David Frum’s article is a very good place to start.   David Remnick’s story in The New Yorker is another.

And here we are, playing a tragic game of catch-up against a virus that has killed thousands and left millions unemployed. At Trump’s State of the Union address on February 4th, he pledged, “My Administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.” Three weeks later, Kayleigh McEnany, a loud promoter of birtherism and of Trump talking points during the 2016 campaign, cheerfully told the Fox Business audience, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful Presidency of President Obama?” Now McEnany is the President’s press secretary.

The coronavirus has inflicted a level of pain that is deep and global. And yet many nations, from South Korea to Germany, have done far better at responding to it than the United States has. The reasons for the American failing include a lack of preparation, delayed mobilization, insufficient testing, and a reluctance to halt travel. The Administration, from its start, has waged war on science and expertise and on what Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon called “the administrative state.” The results are all around us. Trump has made sure that a great nation is peculiarly vulnerable to a foreseeable public-health calamity.

Just how deeply and profoundly does Trump not get it?  His smug response to criticism that he’s not doing all he could is to point out that the TV ratings of the daily White House briefings—the ones he commandeered from his vice president after seeing that people were paying attention but not to him—are so very high.  Even a lot of Trump’s loyal defenders can’t sit still for that level off ignorance.

As for his insistence that the blame lies with the way things were left for him by the Obama Administration…

…or the hearty chestnut that the whole thing is a hoax:

What have we learned after four weeks of national semi-lockdown?  Doctors and nurses in a pandemic, and the people who keep their hospitals and offices running including the people who keep them supplied with the vital materials that make me better when I’m sick, are as brave or braver than anyone.  TV broadcasts that traffic in easy emotional manipulation and call it “news” should always be shunned.  Those who insist that human activity is not impacting global climate should have a quick look at the images taken from space that show dramatic changes on the planet—changes for the better—after just a few weeks of reduced driving and factory operations.  When working from home it takes longer to do things than it does when we’re at the office, at least until we figure out how to do things when we’re working from home.

And, we’ve done a sufficient job of coming to grips with a very necessary and dramatic change in our way of life, in a comparatively short period of just weeks, that we’re starting to be able to shift focus from our individual needs and see the bigger picture.  To assess the reasons why we are where we are.  To make rational choices about what we should do next.

Telework Journal: Two realities

It turns out that getting a better chair wasn’t the whole answer.

Two weeks ago I wrote about getting a new desk chair to ease my ability to work from home since my employer and the surrounding cities and counties had ordered those who were able to do so to start right away in order to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.  That first order expired last Friday; they have all been extended.  This isn’t going away like I thought it would.

At first, subconsciously, I think many of us in the Houston area treated the stay-at-home orders as a direction to do what we do when a hurricane comes: get your house ready, lay in supplies if you’re not going to evacuate, stay alert.  That might explain the inexplicable run on water and meat and soft drinks and toilet paper at every grocery store, drug store, convenience store and purveyor of paper products all across God’s creation.  When we lost electricity during Hurricane Ike it took three long days to get it restored here, but I have friends for whom it took three weeks, or longer.  In the meantime we all assessed the damage and made repairs, or started to, and life was returning to normal.

No hurricane lasts this long.  I think we didn’t really understand what we were in for when this started three weeks ago.

I work in television production for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and we’d been directed to come to the office if that’s what was necessary to keep making the products we make.  Since I do a weekly live television broadcast, I would have to come to the office, at least on that day, because that’s how you do these things.  Well, we did that once, although we put me in a studio by myself instead of the International Space Station flight control room, as usual, to support a plan to protect the flight controllers who fly the station from exposure to the virus.  By the following Monday our boss directed us all to figure out how to do the show without anyone having to come on site; we weren’t able to meet that goal, but we did scale it down to just one person and that wasn’t me—hence, the first episode ever in which America got to see a slice of my entry hallway at house.

It wasn’t that we couldn’t figure out how to do our jobs differently, it was that—at least for me—I didn’t get that I would have to.  Now I do.  And I have realized that, had this happened a few years ago, the technology that’s necessary would not have been available to us.  It wasn’t that long ago that most of America wouldn’t have had easy access to the audio and video conferencing hardware and software that we’re using all day every day right now.  The Houston Chronicle’s technology editor Dwight Silverman has a great story in today’s paper making the case that “Working from home, learning from home and getting your entertainment at home will become the newer normal when this is over”.

Within my own family there’s an instructive cross-section of how America is dealing with COVID-19, which at this point does not include anyone who has become sick.  There is a communications consultant, an accountant, a corporate manager, a salesman, and a customer service support specialist who, like me, are mostly doing their jobs routinely from home.  There are a couple of elementary school teachers who are learning how to teach their classes online, and other parents who are teaching their own kids at home.   The ones who work in restaurants and in-home child care are at work as usual, as are the banker and the computer chip manufacturer supervisor and the school district police officers and the owner-operator long-haul truck driver, and the one who has breast cancer finished her chemotherapy right on schedule.  The dental assistants have reduced hours because their bosses are only handling emergencies, and the real estate agent says “work for me has come to an almost complete standstill,” as it has for her son who she recently brought into the business.  Those who are retired are trying to adjust to not having the house to themselves any more.

I’m not complaining; for most of us, so far, this is an inconvenience.  Honestly, I’m having some cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile my experience with the one I’m reading and hearing about across the rest of the country and the world.  Three times as many dead in the New York City area as were lost on September 11; more than 9000 dead across the U.S. so far and nearly 70,000 across the world; more than 10 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment assistance with concerns of revisiting jobless levels not seen since the Great Depression; Queen Elizabeth addresses the United Kingdom on television for only the fifth time in 68 years (not counting Christmas addresses); no baseball or basketball or golf tournaments.

It was no surprise, sadly, to read this morning’s Washington Post story that lays out the damning timeline of how the Trump Administration has bungled the response to the threat of this virus right from the start.

By the time Donald Trump proclaimed himself a wartime president — and the coronavirus the enemy — the United States was already on course to see more of its people die than in the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

The country has adopted an array of wartime measures never employed collectively in U.S. history — banning incoming travelers from two continents, bringing commerce to a near-halt, enlisting industry to make emergency medical gear, and confining 230 million Americans to their homes in a desperate bid to survive an attack by an unseen adversary.

Despite these and other extreme steps, the United States will likely go down as the country that was supposedly best prepared to fight a pandemic but ended up catastrophically overmatched by the novel coronavirus, sustaining heavier casualties than any other nation.

It did not have to happen this way. Though not perfectly prepared, the United States had more expertise, resources, plans and epidemiological experience than dozens of countries that ultimately fared far better in fending off the virus.

The failure has echoes of the period leading up to 9/11: Warnings were sounded, including at the highest levels of government, but the president was deaf to them until the enemy had already struck.

The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus — the first of many — in the President’s Daily Brief.

And yet, it took 70 days from that initial notification for Trump to treat the coronavirus not as a distant threat or harmless flu strain well under control, but as a lethal force that had outflanked America’s defenses and was poised to kill tens of thousands of citizens. That more-than-two-month stretch now stands as critical time that was squandered.

What could have been done in 70 days?  Read the story, remember the details: the leaders of our government ignored the warnings and refused to take the actions that very likely would have saved lives.  Thousands of lives.  Thousands of American lives.  The Trump Administration did not cause the virus, and shouldn’t have been expected to stop it from entering this country.  But hoping it would just go away on its own was not the right answer.

A week on his HBO show, John Oliver had a good summary of how I feel today. (Start at 15:16)

We can all do our part to help, if only by keeping our distance from each other.  As Oliver said, what we do out here to fight the spread of this virus will have an impact inside the hospitals where real heroes are at work fighting to save the tens of thousands of people who have been infected.  Since they don’t (yet) have the medicine and the hardware they really need to keep those people alive, the best thing we can do to help them is to try to keep more patients from flooding in.  Let’s do what we can.

For those who are fighting the feeling

The genius of Donald Trump—or maybe just the effect of his incredible self-absorption, I’m not sure—is that he just won’t shut up.  He talks and prattles and chirps and rants and rages and scolds and belittles and Tweets and goes on and on and on, perhaps not as smoothly as he once did but still at a rate that’s frustratingly hard to keep up with, because so much of it is just plain nonsense.  Since he took office as president, journalists have compiled the lists of his lies into the many thousands, but there’s so damn much that it’s hard to remember it all, hard to keep straight in your head all the outrageous and patently false, and dangerous, and self-serving things he has said.

That’s where the impeachment process finds itself this week as it enters a new phase—the beginning of public testimony before House committees—which I believe will accelerate the American public’s growing realization and understanding that Donald Trump is not fit to hold office, and that he deserves to be tried in the United States Senate and removed from office.

The evidence of impeachable acts and lack of proper temperament for this job has been out there all along, like a scattering of bread crumbs, leading to an inescapable conclusion for those who are willing to honestly review the evidence.  A whistleblower complaint in September led us all to the now-famous July phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine that kick-started the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, which has turned up a growing number of people within the government who have given depositions with information supporting the accusations against the president.  That includes information supplied by the White House itself, albeit as it feigns innocence and asks, incredulously, what’s so wrong with that?  The polls indicate the start of a swing in public opinion in favor of investigation, and impeachment, and a Senate trial.

But now we won’t have to read the transcripts of depositions.  With televised public testimony from witnesses, we will all be able to see and hear the stories of what happened, and judge their credibility, for ourselves.  (We will also be able to judge the credibility of the House questioners; I hope they get that.)  I expect the volume of testimony, coming from people who joined Trump’s government out of patriotism and the desire to part of an effort they supported, and who have no ax to grind and no reason to lie, will persuade many of those who are leaning against Trump, but have been thinking this was all being blown out of proportion by his political rivals and should just go away, to understand that this is all real and must be addressed.

We have all been in their position at one time or another in our lives.  We have all supported a candidate or an officeholder, a coworker or a business associate, a family member or a friend, who turns out not to have lived up to their promises or our expectations; who has lied to or stolen from us; who has disappointed us in some unimaginable way.  It can be hard to admit to ourselves that we made a mistake, that we were taken advantage of, that our trust was abused.  It can look like we’re fighting like hell to give that person the benefit of the doubt, when we’re really fighting to keep from admitting that we got played.  It’s a natural feeling, and I empathize with those who are fighting the feeling right now.  Listening to the testimony changed minds when Congress did an impeachment investigation of Richard Nixon, and I bet the same will happen here.

On a related note, for those who couldn’t push through a reading of the Mueller Report and thus aren’t armed with an understanding of its real findings, may I suggest you listen to the Lawfare podcast The Report.  In fifteen episodes it lays out the allegations in the Mueller Report in a way that helps people get it; if you want to just lay still and let the investigated truth wash over you, take a listen.

In which the President of the United States makes plain that he really doesn’t get it

Wait, what?

It’s not the “Ukraine” part that makes it an impeachable offense, you know.

I’ll set the over/under at two on the number of Republican members of Congress who by the end of the weekend will finally wake up, ask “what died in here?” and bravely come out in favor of the impeachment investigation. Baby steps.

The right choice; the only right choice

This isn’t the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN, or any of Donald Trump’s other favorite targets.  This is the Wall Street Journal, fer cryin’ out loud, adding its credibility to that of many other outlets in reporting the story that seems to have shaken loose the impeachment process in Washington, D.C.: “President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”

To summarize: the president is accused of using his official position, by withholding and threatening to withhold American military aid to another country, to pressure that country’s leader into conducting an investigation meant to damage the political career of one of his potential political rivals in advance of the 2020 election.

And this came after the report last week that someone inside the intelligence community had filed an official whistleblower complaint about Trump making a commitment to a foreign leader, which the inspector general for the intelligence community determined was legitimate and an urgent matter that should, by law, have been forwarded to Congressional committees.  But it wasn’t—still hasn’t been—because the acting director of national intelligence blocked it.  A Trump appointee who was never confirmed by the Senate, made that decision in conjunction with Bill Barr’s Justice Department.

Today Trump insisted there was nothing untoward in his conversation with the president of Ukraine, and later said he would release a transcript of that phone call…tomorrow.  We have some idea of how reliable a document that might be.  But in the meantime, these developments led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change her mind and announce a formal impeachment inquiry.  At last.  It’s about time.

(Earlier today, prior to the Democratic caucus and Pelosi’s announcement, Slate restarted the Impeach-O-Meter as a “(still wildly subjective and speculative) estimate of the likelihood that the House votes to impeach Trump before the end of his first term” and which I intend to try to keep up with, and late this afternoon published a helpful refresher guide on How to Impeach a President.  Neat.)

Go online and search “Trump’s impeachable offenses”  to refresh your recollection if you need to.  Since inauguration day this president has repeatedly and unashamedly shown his disdain for the Constitution and the law, for tradition, for the separation of powers, and for the intelligence of the American people—especially, I think, for the ones who supported him out of a misplaced belief in his promises about…everything!

(Those are just from the past week.)

It’s past time that our Congress took the action the Constitution provides for in a case like this—this is what impeachment is there for, dammit.  Up to now the Republicans in Congress have proven themselves unable to undrink the Trump-aid, and there’s no real doubt that the Senate would never convict Trump of any accusations brought by the House.  But the Democrats simply cannot abdicate their responsibility to their constituents, and to history, to do what they can.

For so many of his actions as president, Trump deserves impeachment by the House.  He deserves to be condemned to that short short list of impeached presidents, right next to Hillary’s husband, even if he’s not removed from office by the Senate.  As a more practical matter, Adam Jentleson, a staffer for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, argues that the impeachment process itself will hurt Trump politically, and that not moving ahead with impeachment opens the door for Trump to insist that he was fully exonerated of all wrongdoing.  You want to listen to that for the rest of your life?

There are two lessons here for House Democrats as they debate whether to open an impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

First, polling can change.

I don’t know how else to say this: getting impeached is bad. It is not something you want to happen to you, especially if you’re president. You do not want to go down as one of only four [sic] presidents in history to be impeached. This is a bad thing. Only Democrats, bless our hearts, could convince ourselves that it is good for a president to be impeached.

Richard Nixon’s approval rating was at 65 percent when his impeachment process began and only 19 percent of the public supported his impeachment. By the end, the numbers had flipped: his approval was 24 percent and support for impeachment was 57 percent.

(snip)

The second lesson from the [Merrick] Garland experience is that like nature, power abhors a vacuum. The decision not to impeach is not a decision to focus on other things, it is a decision to cede power, control, and legitimacy to Trump. Trump is not a master chess player, he just bluffs his opponents into forfeiting their moves—and that is exactly what he is doing to House Democrats.

For their part, House Democrats have argued that by foregoing impeachment they can shift the conversation to topics their consultants tell them are safer ground, like health care. That’s not going to happen. Reporters cover news, and only events that drive news can shift the message.

(snip)

Impeachment is a long process that will highlight Trump’s crimes, which according to (literally) one thousand former federal prosecutors, include “multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” Imagine the Michael Cohen, James Comey, or William Barr hearings but on steroids, for many weeks. Anything can happen and hearings can go haywire, but the odds of making a convincing public case against Trump are stacked strongly in Democrats’ favor. Trump’s crimes are serious and laid out in meticulous detail by an unimpeachable source. The public already believes he committed serious crimes by a margin of two to one. There is already a loud chorus decrying Trump’s crimes and arguing that he should be impeached, ranging from Kellyanne Conway’s husband to a sitting Republican Congressman. In this case, the impeachment process is like one of those meals where all the ingredients come in a box: you have to boil some water and maybe crack an egg, but it’s basically idiot-proof.

If and when the House votes to impeach, the ball goes to the Senate. The Senate can ignore it, which means the House’s impeachment is the last word. That would be fine. But McConnell would be under enormous pressure from Trump and the entire right-wing echosphere to call a Kangaroo court into session for the purpose of letting Trump off. If the Senate conducts a trial, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020—like Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner—will have to decide whether to vote to remove from office a President who has been shown to have committed serious crimes, or protect him. They will likely vote to protect Trump and it will cost them: they will have to explain which of Trump’s many crimes they think are no big deal, why they disagree with the many voices from their own party saying his crimes make him unfit, and why a criminal president should be allowed to continue in office.

More importantly, if the public believes Trump is guilty but the Senate lets him off anyway, he won’t ever be truly exonerated—he’ll be O.J. Simpson, assumed guilty but sprung by allies and circumstance. Some Democrats have argued that we should skip impeachment and vote Trump out instead. But if the House impeaches Trump and Senate Republicans fall in line to protect him, the argument that the ballot is the only way to remove him will be supercharged.

By contrast, declining to impeach Trump validates his claim that Mueller exonerated him.

(snip)

Even more ominously, Trump’s weaponized Department of Justice under Barr, who has shown himself to be Trump’s eager and obedient partner in abusing the power of the state to advance the president’s political interests, will inevitably invent a pretext for investigating the Democratic nominee. Democrats should consider whether they’d rather engage that fight against a president who has been impeached for serious crimes, or against a president strengthened by the de facto exoneration bestowed when his opponents declined to pursue the evidence against him.

https://twitter.com/tonyschwartz/status/1175403260590657536

And remember this:

I can always count on Dahlia Lithwick to see through to the crux of the matter: “The integrity of our democracy isn’t threatened when a president breaks the law. It’s threatened when we do nothing about it.”

It defies logic for House Democrats to insist that their sole hope for salvation will be found in the 2020 election, when the 2020 election is subject to the same acts of foreign interference that poisoned 2016; when indeed they are failing to respond to the admitted acts of interference that happen before their eyes. By refusing to hold the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responsible for any of that interference—indeed by pretending it was very, very bad but let’s look forward and not backward, House leadership is inviting even more abuse. And in the face of it, Democrats continue to insist that the long game is what matters, even as the short game is making the long game increasingly unwinnable.

The net outcome of doing nothing is not politically or morally neutral. The net outcome is future loss after future loss.

When Corey Lewandowski puts on a clinic about contempt of Congress and nothing is done by the only body capable of doing something, that sends a powerful signal that all such future contempt will be welcome and effective. And when Robert Mueller says plainly and unequivocally that the next election is already in the process of being stolen, and nobody acts to secure it, that sends a powerful signal that all such interference is welcome and effective. To be sure, Democrats have very limited power at present and nobody doubts that the Senate will cower, whatever the results of an impeachment probe may be, and fail to convict. But by sitting on that limited power, fretting about how sad and mad they are, House Democrats are in point of fact giving over those limited powers to the other side.

By seemingly forgiving and forgetting the past, House Democrats are implying that they’ll also forfeit their chance at oversight in the future. In failing to say that the last worst thing was the impassable red line, they imply time and again that they are waiting for the next worst thing, which may really be the red line. But the implication that everyone’s waiting for the “big one” ignores the fact that the big one happened when this president endangered spies in a casual conversation in the Oval Office, when he took Vladimir Putin’s side over his own security advisers in Helsinki, when he tried to have Jeff Sessions fired, and when he conditioned foreign aid on helping to bury a political adversary.