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: 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:

Hey America—Russia attacked you, why don’t you care?

If we can put aside, for a moment, the question of Trump campaign cooperation with agents of or working for the government of Russia to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, we are left with this undeniable fact: the government of Russia waged an on-going attack on the United States to influence the outcome of that election.

A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.

(snip)

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

I say “undeniable” despite the fact that our president denies the findings of our own nation’s intelligence services, and those of every other honest broker of information out there; none of that is not good enough to satisfy the Crybaby in Chief when he feels dissed.  Now, the Washington Post reports on research being delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee that states plainly the evidence leading to the conclusion that the Russians worked against Hillary Clinton.

The report offers the latest evidence that Russian agents sought to help Trump win the White House. Democrats and Republicans on the panel previously studied the U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 finding that Moscow aimed to assist Trump, and in July, they said investigators had come to the correct conclusion. Despite their work, some Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to doubt the nature of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.

[Sen. Mark] Warner said the reports should serve as “a wake up call,” resulting in “some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.” [Sen. Richard] Burr said the reports are “proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”

The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote. Many other groups — Latinos, Muslims, Christians, gay men and women, liberals, Southerners, veterans — got at least some attention from Russians operating thousands of social media accounts.

Even if—if—no one in the Trump campaign was in on the deal, or encouraged it or cooperated with it in any way at all, or even said a small silent prayer to their god that the Russian actions would help their guy win, we are left with this: the Russian attacked America.  And they had help.

I don’t mean Wikileaks, although it seemed to be in on the con, too.  I’m talking about the National Enquirer.  The same National Enquirer which just admitted in court documents that it helped Trump bury Karen McDougal’s story about the affair she claimed to have had with Trump (which he denies having had) so that it wouldn’t hurt him in the election was devoted to helping Trump throughout the campaign.  The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg put the Enquirer’s contribution in perspective.

The Enquirer’s racks, under the current chief, David J. Pecker, were given over to the Trump campaign. This was a political gift even more valuable than the $150,000 that The Enquirer paid in a “catch-and-kill” deal with the former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story of an affair with Mr. Trump.

Wondering what The Enquirer’s covers were worth to the Trump campaign, I called Regis Maher, a co-founder of Do It Outdoors, the national mobile and digital billboard company. He said a campaign with that level of national prominence would cost $2.5 million to $3 million a month.

And like the payoff to McDougal, that could be looked at as another effective campaign contribution that Trump never reported, but we probably can’t avoid that being classified as “journalism,” sad to say.

Now that federal prosecutors have cleared away some of the fog that shrouded the 2016 campaign, it’s easy to see that The Enquirer was more than just a publication that puffed up Mr. Trump while going after his rivals.

It was the real-world embodiment of the fantasy online world of trolls, Russian and domestic, who polluted the political discourse. From its perches at Publix and Safeway, it was often doing the same job as Alex Jones, of the conspiracy site Infowars, and the more strident Trump campaign surrogates on Twitter and Facebook.

The Enquirer spread false stories about Hillary Clinton — illnesses concealed, child prostitution, bribery, treason. Each cover trumpeting these tales was arguably more powerful than a tweet from an account with millions of followers.

The Republicans who’ve been taking up space in the current Congress—the one that turned a blind eye to every crazy and questionable thing Trump has done and which may let parts of our government shut down at the end of the week for lack of funds since they can’t pass a budget—have proved plainly that they’re not concerned enough about a foreign attack on our country to take any action in response.  Sad…Republicans used to claim to be the party of a strong national defense.  In two and a half weeks we’ll see another party take control of the House of Representatives, and I’m putting those folks on the clock to show Russia and the rest of the world that the America that’s been sleeping the last two years is mad as hell and is not going to take this any more.

Almost halfway

Two years…really?  Is that an eternity, or does it seem like no time at all?  It seems like…it seems like I’ve been on a merry-go-round that not only hasn’t slowed down in almost two years but occasionally cranks up to “dizzying,” and it feels like we all could use a rest.

Let’s see how smart I was two years ago (“Eyes Open, moving ahead” Nov. 11, 2016): I said, we owe it to the new president to give him a chance to perform in office, to get up to speed and be the best he can be and live up to the responsibilities of the office, blah blah blah…something like that.  I still think that was the only right attitude to take at the time; so, where are we now?

Well, the only real “important legislation” I can think of that this president has passed was the ill-considered December 2017 tax cut, and last month it was reported that it has contributed to the fact that today we have a $779 billion federal budget deficit, exactly the thing Republicans used to cry about—when Democrats were in power. (Now, not so much?  Nope; now, not at all.  E.J. Dionne likens today’s GOP “tax policy” to an artful scam pulled by some high-end grifters.)  Anything more recent?

BFD Trump (big freakin’ dealmaker), who campaigned on stopping the bleeding in the American car industry and promised to save the steel industry, has pretty much watched dumbfounded as there’s been no resurrection in steel and, this week, General Motors announced plans for plant closings and more than 14,000 layoffs to prepare for the future in sight of a present in which Trump tariffs have raised its costs.  (Yours and mine, too.)  And when he talked to the Wall Street Journal, long-time friend to Republican presidents, Trump demonstrated he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

(That extends beyond economics: he displayed the breadth of his ignorance warped view of the world when he talked to the Washington Post on several topics, including his pals in Russia and Saudi Arabia and his own Fed chairman.)

Thirteen federal government agencies released the latest report on the on-going investigation into climate change, in which they find many previously-predicted negative results of the climate changes that have already resulted from human activity are coming true and warn of “a profound threat to Americans’ well being.”  But Trump says he doesn’t believe the report, so, that’s that—nothing to worry about here, everybody, go about your business.

(Not so fast, conservatives: S.E. Cupp writes that it’s “both willfully ignorant and negligent not to acknowledge that there is in fact a scientific consensus that the Earth is warming and man is responsible for much of it” and suggests we get about doing something.)

Of course, there’s endless amusement in watching Trump twist helplessly in the wind waiting for another shoe to drop in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has been moving along pretty briskly, thank you very much.  It just secured a second guilty plea from Trump’s former personal and business attorney, Michael Cohen, who now admits he lied to Congress about the ongoing effort of the Trump Organization to arrange a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow, an effort (he now concedes) that was still active even during the latter stages of the 2016 presidential campaign—a time during which the candidate himself repeatedly denied he had any business dealings with the Russian government or Russian businessmen, because, you know, people would have frowned at that.

(The Mueller investigation is not a witch hunt, unless you count as witches all the people on the list of “Trump people who have admitted criminal activity.”  Also, I read an interesting piece in Wired that argues the Mueller investigation could be close to an end, and has been leaving its conclusions strewn along the way in various court filings that no hack political appointee acting attorney general can ever hide from us even if he succeeds in firing Mueller himself.)

Wow.  And all of that…all of that is just some of what has happened in the past week.  Doesn’t even touch on the constant and inveterate lying from Trump and his press secretary and other subordinates and acolytes.  Gotta tell you, I know that what he says matters since he’s the president of the USA and all, but I don’t understand why anyone ever believes anything that comes out of his mouth.  He says what he wants to be true, or needs to be true, at the time he’s saying it; there’s seems to be no positive correlation between any statement made and discernible factual truth, nor any need even for niggling and inconvenient consistency between what he said today and anything he said before.  Ever.

I look forward to a beginning of some checks and balances of the Executive branch from the House of Representatives in the new year, and I will say that I hope the Republicans who serve in the current Congress are ashamed of the way they have blown off their constitutional responsibility and rolled over for this guy.  I have no doubt that Trump is deserving of being removed from office, but I don’t know that in the current circumstance that an impeachment effort would be worthwhile, what with Republicans still controlling the Senate and the alternate-facts-Fox-universe unlikely to see the light.  But Democrats could take a lesson from history:

The president of the United States was both a racist and a very difficult man to get along with.

He routinely called blacks inferior. He bluntly stated that no matter how much progress they made, they must remain so. He openly called critics disloyal, even treasonous. He liberally threw insults like candy during public speeches. He rudely ignored answers he didn’t like. He regularly put other people into positions they didn’t want to be in, then blamed them when things went sour. His own bodyguard later called him “destined to conflict,” a man who “found it impossible to conciliate or temporize.”

But the nation’s politicians simply had to interact with Andrew Johnson, for he had become the legitimate, constitutionally ordained chief executive upon Abraham Lincoln’s death by assassination.

Their path for managing this choleric man reveals that a president need not be kicked out of office to be removed from holding a firm grip on the reins of power. It also shows that people around the president, from Congress to the Cabinet, have many more tools at their disposal than, say, writing an anonymous New York Times op-ed to stop a leader they consider reckless or dangerous.

Read how they did it in this terrific piece by David Priess in Politico.  And get ready for the second half.

Resist, America!

Happy Birthday, you big ol’ wonderful U S of A, you!

db180701

Doonesbury Archive/Washington Post

More of the same, Mike.  It just keeps coming and coming, crazy outburst after incomprehensible decision.  An unprovoked trade war here, a cruel immigration enforcement policy there…how can we be expected to even keep up, much less resist?  It’s too hard, right?

Yes, it’s hard, but not too hard.  This isn’t over unless we let it be over.  (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”)

America can’t throw up its hands and quit because our president lies to us, unconstitutionally profits off of holding the office, threatens our alliances all over the world, and shows no signs of changing his behavior.  There’s more and more of it every day, and it feels like we have no time to rest up from the onslaught from the White House, even a sliver of which would have been unimaginable before January 2017.  In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick used the occasion of the separation of immigrant families at the border last month to encourage us all to speak up and not let Trump’s treatment of America become normal.

That we are finding ourselves unable to process or act or organize because the large-scale daily horrors are escalating and the news is overpowering is perfectly understandable. But we need to understand that and acknowledge it and then refuse it any purchase. Because to be overwhelmed and to do nothing are a choice.

It’s a choice, and it’s also a luxury, because the asylum-seekers at the borders cannot afford to go numb. Female victims of domestic abuse who are coming to the United States to save their own lives cannot afford to go numb. Teen girls denied access to reproductive care do not have the luxury of going numb.

(snip)

There isn’t a lot we can control in the present time, but as any good counselor will tell you, we can absolutely control how we react to what’s going on around us. And this is the scene in the movie where even though you want to fall asleep in the snowdrift, you need to get up and walk around. If you decide to stop swimming and just drift for a while, you’re apt to wake up in a land you don’t recognize. Because “going numb” is the gateway drug to acceptance.

As David Frum wrote in January, reflecting back on the first year of Trump, “the unacceptable does not become more acceptable if it is accepted by increments.” It’s only easier to swallow and more apt to wear down our defenses. Don’t let other people tell you what to focus on. Choose for yourself. Sure, tune out that which makes you feel hopeless. But hold on to what motivates you to act. Find all the humans you can find who agree with you and make calls and register voters. Because if things continue on this way for people without funds, or with brown skin, or for women and children and the sick, there will come a time when we all have fewer choices. This is not yet that time. Get out of the snow bank, find the St. Bernard with the tiny flask of hope, and stomp around like democracy depends on it

You don’t have to be a member of Congress to fight back, although it sure might help if members of Congress started holding the president to account—that is part of their damn job.  We can all start by being careful in the language we use in talking and writing about what’s going on, and not lazily repeating the words Trump uses that make him seem stronger and more rational than he really is.  This is a spot where we all have to make an extra effort because the president has an advantage: our brains just naturally keep track of what is true and what is not, what makes sense and what’s just crazy talk, but he’s just spewing whatever he wants to be true at the moment he says it or Tweets it, with no effort at accuracy, or consistency, or even sensibility.  Lili Loofourow calls it a “linguistic emergency” and urges us to stop reinforcing his defenses.

Sidestep every attempt he and his allies make to equate treating people badly with being strong, because their efforts to link those concepts are working. Neutral outlets are defaulting to his language for what he does—he’s “cracking down” on unions! He’s taking a “hard line“ on the G-7! Driving “hard bargains”! These all position him as powerful, which he loves. The trouble is, it’s wrong. In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.

(snip)

A president’s lack of basic competence is worth accurately reporting on. And it must be reported on when there is nothing else of value worth reporting.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Two reasons: For one, I sense in much of the reporting on Trump a secret fear that maybe we’re missing something. He won, after all. And he keeps insisting that he’s strong despite all the evidence, so maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. This, as many have pointed out, is gaslighting. It’s why he always says he has a plan he won’t describe.

The second reason is that many news organizations still confuse neutrality with accuracy. Better to just report what he says and let the people decide, the thinking goes.

But that’s wrong. And that’s due to the power of language: Simply repeating his fantastical claims makes them seem less fantastical. What a president says usually matters a great deal. But because what Trump says usually bears no relation to the truth (or to what his own policies end up being) it therefore fails to inform the public, and is not worth repeating. He wants to propagate the story of a power he doesn’t have. We shouldn’t help him.

Jon Stewart made the same point, along with some others, when he visited his pal Stephen Colbert last week:

And remember, along with still having our votes to use this November, we in the resistance have one other advantage: unlike Trump, we have a sense of humor and can see the ridiculousness for what it is…all he has is a mirror.  Sad.

Tom the Dancing Bug for Jun 15, 2018 Comic Strip

 Tom the Dancing Bug at go.comics.com