Republicans are being buried by their own fake news

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump is in a heap of trouble. He’s going to get impeached, assuming he doesn’t pull a Richard Nixon and resign first. That will be one major blemish on his record as president, as if there aren’t many others. Getting thrown out of office by the Senate is a much higher hurdle, but every day it seems more plausible.

It’s pretty clear that most Republicans in Congress don’t like him. Oh they say they do for show, but if given their druthers you can bet that the vast majority would druther Mike Pence in his spot. Then maybe the crazy would stop for a while. Because it just gets more and more insane every day.

Trump is blaming Democrats of course, but if he really wanted to blame someone of course he could look in the mirror. He could also blame voters for unwisely picking him, although of course he famously lost the popular vote by three million votes. This of course became one of the first items he labeled as “fake news” once he became President-elect. Still, if he has to pick a villain, he could pick Fox News, the biggest propagator if not creator of fake news out there.

This actual fake news peddled by Fox News and many right-wing outlets is, quite frankly, over the top, outlandish and utter bullshit. This fake news was published by outlets that I hope at least knew they were peddling in fake news. Their fake news was a means to an end: political power. For at least twenty years they have been at it, and its been working. How many Tea Party members of Congress arrived sincerely believing that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya? Trump clearly did, and he’s been peddling this and many other outlandish fake news stories. It’s been his way of getting attention, something he craves more than power. Fake news gives him power, or at least it has until now.

A truly stable genius would recognize this fake news for what it is: complete and utter bullshit. But apparently our stable genius president doesn’t. He spends much of his day tuned into the Fox News network where this stuff is highlighted hourly. He’s been indoctrinated by Fox’s fake news. Who’s buying their bullshit? Or stable genius president is buying it, pretty obviously.

Just look at what is bringing him down: fake news the right wing has been feeding him. He actually believes the preposterous suggestion that there’s a DNC server somewhere in Ukraine. He has bent over backwards to move the levers of government to prove the allegation. Not only did he create a shadow State Department in the form of his lawyer Rudi Giuliani, who he sent to Ukraine to pressure its leaders to find this server, he also sent his attorney general to Europe to do the same thing. Imagine that: our chief law enforcement officer and supposed arbiter of the execution of the law is being sent on a crazy quest to chase this and other bogus theories that are the product of hyperactive, paranoid people that probably mostly inhabiting their mothers’ basements.

I’m sure there are some Republicans in Congress who actually believe this stuff, but I suspect they are only a small percent of them. Most of them know it’s all bullshit, but they simply don’t care as long as it allows them to acquire and maintain power. Now though a number of them are beginning to care, as they realize that their peddling of fake news is becoming counterproductive. Fake news is biting them in the ass. It’s also creating an out-of-control monster, manifest in the form of Donald J. Trump.

It used to be that Trump had some gatekeepers, but they are all gone now. His senior staff is now entirely filled with disposable yes men (and a few women), virtually all white. They are interchangeable and he changes them frequently. He doesn’t have to chafe because someone near him is suggesting that he is not the smartest person on the planet. He just decides stuff, the staff salutes and that’s that. Unfortunately, a lot of these decisions are terribly bad, such as his recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, one of these ultra-stupid things that even Republicans in Congress could not forgive.

Stupid compounds stupid. There was no gatekeeper to tell Trump that hosting the G-7 next year at his resort was a bad idea. Instead, according to published reports, they said it was an interesting and intriguing idea. Not one person apparently had the guts to say, “Well Mr. President, if you are looking for a way to get removed from office, this brazen violation of the emoluments clause of the constitution alone should do it.”

The larger problem though is that you can only pretend the emperor has no clothes for so long. At some point, someone’s going to say, “Hey, he’s naked!” You can stifle the obvious for a while but at some point reality hits you on the head like a 2×4. Last week, arguably Trump got whacked.

Farmers affected by his tariffs can’t pretend his trade actions aren’t hurting. That’s true of all sorts of businesses affected by his tariffs. Denying climate change isn’t keeping it from happening, and already the impacts are being felt severely. Cutting fuel emissions standards won’t keep more people from ending up in the hospital or dying from asthma and other lung-related diseases. The greater the difference between reality and what is asserted, the harder it is to ignore. Reality works like this.

And so the pain continues until the body politic does the one thing it can’t help: instinctively vomit out the filth that is killing it, fake news in this case. It looks like that process is underway. Let’s hope we vomit out enough of it to survive. Vladimir Putin is hoping we won’t.

Reading the tealeaves on the Trump end game

The Thinker by Rodin

If it’s true that thirty Senate Republicans would convict Trump in an impeachment trial (if a secret vote were allowed), then perhaps what’s needed is a plausible reason they could openly vote to convict Trump. The obvious reasons don’t appear to be enough. Senate Republicans don’t seem to be bothered by his grifting, and likely won’t be the least bit fazed that he’s decided to host the next G-7 meeting at his money-losing Miami resort either. It appears that in general Republicans are on board with using public office for private gain.

They also probably won’t be bothered by what Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, openly confirmed today: that aid was withheld from Ukraine specifically to force Ukraine to look into possible Democratic misdeeds there, misdeeds that only appear in the fevered imaginations of the rightmost of the right wing. That’s open lawbreaking, but is most likely wholly excusable by Republicans.

But Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw our special forces from Northern Syria, in the process abandoning allied Kurdish separatists who were instrumental in neutering the Islamic State, well, that might do it. Hard to say yet but as bad as this is, it keeps getting worse. Turkish president Erdogan wasted no time in sending in paramilitary forces when our troops started to withdraw, and had them throw some volleys near our troops too for good measure too. The House voted 354-60 to condemn Trump’s actions in Syria. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding up a similar vote in the Senate, which would likely attract an even higher share of Republicans.

Trump is basically saying to Congress: Impeach me! I dare you!

His lawbreaking is open; the case irrefutable, and it will rest entirely on whether Republicans will put country over party. Right now that looks like a losing bet. However, this Kurdish mistake might be the fig leaf Republicans need. The scope of this disaster is just starting. It’s likely to get much worse.

For example, it looks like we have nuclear weapons in Turkey, a disclosure we only know about because Trump has seemed to confirm it, a breach of long-standing policy. We rent these bases from Turkey, but Turkey essentially control our forces there. Which means that Turkey might grab our nuclear weapons. Oops.

So it’s possible that Turkey would seize these weapons and once seized who knows where they might end up? Presumably it would be very hard to trigger one of these weapons. I hope all sorts of specially encrypted codes would be required, but who knows? They could probably be disassembled and, worse, reengineered. It’s not clear if there is anyone left in the Defense Department agile enough to get these weapons out of Turkey.

There is that plus a whole host of other bad things there that are underway. The Kurds were one of our few allies in the region, and now they are aligned with Syria and Russia simply to survive. There are already atrocities being committed against Kurdish fighters and civilians by Turkish paramilitary forces, if not the Turkish army itself. Hitherto, national security has been the Republican Party’s strong suit. Trump is rapidly making our country less secure. From this vote in Congress, it’s clear Republicans are deeply worried by Trump’s actions.

Trump gets more Captain Queeg-like every day. His latest meeting with Congressional Democrats was described as a Trump meltdown. Trump is pretty obviously cracking, if he hasn’t cracked already. I wonder if like Richard Nixon during Watergate he is talking to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Not likely. If talking to any portrait, it would be one of Andrew Jackson.

As Gallup pointed out, when a majority of Americans polled said Nixon should be impeached and removed, Nixon resigned. Trump has already met that milestone. This suggests that Trump’s resignation should also be forthcoming. Like Nixon, there would be no doubt that he would be impeached. It’s much less likely he would actually be removed from office, but that may be changing.

Our genius president would be wise to seriously consider resigning. That’s what most geniuses would do, looking at the bad hand of cards he has served himself. Many believed that Nixon made a secret deal with his then vice president Gerald Ford to pardon him for his offenses before resigning, which Ford did sometime later. A more rational Trump would be looking for a similar exit strategy. It’s really his best hope as his prospects for winning a second term diminish.

Why? Because of that darn U.S. Constitution, which he obviously hasn’t read. Article 2, Section 2 says that the president’s pardon power is unconditional, except in the case of impeachment. So a President Pence could not pardon a former President Trump who is impeached, convicted and removed from office by Congress. This means that after his trials for his many misdeeds are over, Trump would likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Trump’s vanity and boundless ego probably won’t entertain such a suggestion, and it’s doubtless anyone on his staff has the spine to suggest something pragmatic like this. Nixon was rational enough to know when to resign. It’s unlikely Trump will ever see the bad hand he dealt himself.

Turning of the tide on Trump’s impeachment?

The Thinker by Rodin

Having recently written that there was no bottom for Republicans, I can’t help but wonder now if the tide is finally turning against Donald Trump.

I don’t mean his impeachment. I don’t see how that’s not going to happen now. I mean his removal from office. As I noted in the last post, it’s a high hurdle, since it takes 67 votes, which means 20 of 53 Republicans have to vote to remove him, along with all Democrats and independent senators. It’s never been done successfully before, but then arguably we’ve never had a president who is so chronically a liar and lawbreaker before. And that says a lot because if you study Andrew Jackson’s presidency, you can see why Trump is so busy emulating him.

I believed from the start that if Democrats opened impeachment hearings, the public would come along. And they are coming. The most recent omen that should scare Republican senators: a Fox News poll that 51% of Americans want to see Donald Trump impeached and removed from office. 45% are opposed, but that’s a nine-point shift since July.

It’s hard to see how this gets better for Trump. Not only is he our most reckless president, he’s also our stupidest. He admits lawbreaking that proves the Democrats’ points, making calling witnesses pretty pointless except as a means to add more charges. When you trust your gut more than you trust professionals who are supposed to manage your problems, expect to fall flat on your face. Trump does many times a day. Republicans keep looking for a way to excuse his behavior, but they can’t. Republicans in Congress are now largely running from the press. They don’t want to be pinned down by either the press or voters.

The thing is, there are apparently enough votes to convict Trump already … if senators could hold a secret vote. Maybe in the end, that’s how it will go: they’ll create some mechanism where they put their vote secretly in a box and have it counted. This is likely as brave as these senators will get, since they seem otherwise wholly intimidated by Donald Trump. But the loonier it gets, the easier it may be to summon the political courage required. There is, for example, this tweet by Donald Trump:

That’s right: no one has more wisdom than Donald Trump. How do we know? He says so!

Cracks are appearing all over his ship of state. It’s not just whistleblowers, but also the courts that are beginning to smack him down. Those summoned to testify in front of Congress are starting to come forward, particularly those that no longer work for him. Of course Trump and his Justice Department want to claim executive privilege over those they no longer employ. The real Trump toadies seem to agree, but people are coming forward and testifying anyway.

His stonewalling of Congress isn’t helping him either. First, it gives those who don’t like him more incentive to go against his will: whistleblowers are coming out of the woodwork. Second, the truth is coming out anyhow: there is too much to control, and it doesn’t help when your administration is wholly inept at it. It keeps getting uglier and more egregious. Our ambassador to the European Union was ordered to work with Ukraine, even though Ukraine is not part of the E.U. Our former ambassador to the Ukraine was abruptly fired when she wouldn’t do Rudy Giuliani’s bidding. Giuliani is not a federal employee and has no delegated responsibility. And then there’s Rudy himself, who seems as equally unhinged as Trump. He claims he is Trump’s personal lawyer, but it appears that Trump isn’t actually paying him. Trump loves to get something for nothing. In this case, Giuliani is more like a deadweight dragging him down.

Trump simply doesn’t understand that grifting is bad. He’s surrounded himself with sycophants who agree: the whole point of government is apparently to loot it. There’s no magic document out there that is going to clear him. Instead, day by day, the accumulating evidence will get worse as more grift is exposed.

Things will really hit the fan when his tax records are exposed. He’ll try to keep it bottled up in the courts, but this strategy won’t last forever. As for obstructing Congress, it’s not even slowing down impeachment hearings that much anymore. Trump likes to think he can control what the House can do, but he can’t. He’s impeached already; it’s just a matter of time.

What does it take to get at least 20 Republican senators to vote to convict this guy? It’s not so much finding their backbone, as finding their constituents have turned against him. Now 20% of Republicans support Trump’s impeachment and removal. By nine points, independents favor it as well. These numbers will only continue to grow. In this case though Nixon’s crimes and obstructions look relatively minor. The case against Trump is overwhelming. If there is enough of a political price to pay, Trump can be removed.

The job for the rest of us, particularly those represented by these Republicans, is to let them know they will pay a price. I’m not saying that enough Republicans will summon the necessary courage, but if it happens it’s likely to come like a torrent. The cracks have appeared. At some amorphous point I think it’s likely to come tumbling down.

Here’s hoping.

Trump is unraveling in plain site

The Thinker by Rodin

The governing phase of the Trump presidency is effectively over. Donald Trump is unraveling in plain site. As a result there is basically nothing he can get done between now and the election, assuming he survives that long. I am very skeptical now that he will make it that long.

You know what people care about by how they spend their time. Right now, all Trump cares about is impending impeachment hearings. He has no time to govern because most of the time he is tweeting, and mostly he is tweeting about Democrats having the audacity to hold impeachment hearings against him. There has been 36 tweets today so far, and it’s only 9:15 PM. The first one was at 5:00 AM. And most of them were related to the impeachment investigation. So far that’s nine more than the 27 tweets yesterday, again mostly impeachment related. It’s hard to find a waking hour when our president is not tweeting.

When you tweet all the time, it squeezes out the time you need to actually govern. To govern, you have to make decisions and take actions. You need to talk with your aides, consult with foreign leaders, heck, consult with your own party. Instead his presidency is now largely a series of multiple tweets an hour, mostly full of rage and hurt.

This self-professed extremely stable genius is proving he is none of these things. He is also proving himself awfully damned stupid, or perhaps just incredibly incurious. The main reason Nancy Pelosi approved an impeachment investigation was due to the “transcript” (actually, a bunch of Cliff Notes) of a call he had with the president of Ukraine back in July. It says right on it: declassified and released on authority of the President. And the notes say explicitly that he wanted political favors from Ukraine:

I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.

This is against the law: compromising our national security for political purposes. It’s not an ambiguous matter. But Trump denied he did this. So he either did not read the “transcript” he declassified or (perhaps because he is functionally illiterate) didn’t understand what he was reading. Most likely he had no idea that what he did was illegal, or felt that it shouldn’t be because his intent was pure somehow in his own mind. According to the still-anonymous whistleblower, someone figured it out, and moved these notes into a more secure electronic vault specifically for code word classified information, another likely violation of our classification laws.

Just today Trump publicly said China should investigate Joe Biden and his son too. It’s like he wants to be impeached. There are two incontrovertible egregious violations of our law right there.

No one is left in the White House to say no to him. Those who did are gone. All he has left are lackeys, who are easily disposed. His trusted source of news is the Fake News … no, not CNN and the Washington Post, but Fox News and right wing websites that are feeding him fake news, such as that Ukraine has an email server that contains the missing Hillary Clinton emails, or something.

Trump is worried about impeachment because it makes him look bad, which reduces the likelihood that he will win reelection. His chances of actually being removed from office are still slim, although I continue to be astonished that Republicans in Congress are still mostly sitting on their hands and biting their tongues while this Captain Queeg roams around the White House. Trump actually believes the fake news being fed to him. More worrisome (but not surprising) are that his aides do too … they actually believe this crap, or they are too timid to say they know better. Trump won’t brook any dissent. Oh the irony: Trump is being undone by the fake news he consumes because, well, it’s fake, instead of the “Fake News” which his actually real news. His fake news can’t be empirically proven. But his case of cognitive dissonance is so severe he can’t admit to himself that it could possibly be fake; or that his “friends” have been faking him out all this time simply so they could wield political power.

Obviously, this isn’t going to end well. The logical me knows what a more logical Trump should do: simply resign at some point, after getting a promise of a pardon from Mike Pence, as I mentioned in my last post. But Trump is severely mentally ill and is not playing with a full deck. Above all, he can’t acknowledge to himself that he is not the glorious image of himself that he sold to himself and to voters. And with an administration full of sycophants, they apparently mostly believe this stuff too, or simply are in it to the bitter end, like our so-called Attorney General Bill Barr.

My wife is expecting that Trump will bust a blood vessel or something and keel over dead. Given his obesity, his chronic lack of sleep, his refusal to exercise and his dangerously disordered mind, she may be right. He is clearly feeling the gates closing. It’s all he cares about.

His days of governing though are plainly over.

Promises of a Pence pardon is now the key to getting Trump out of office

The Thinker by Rodin

Maybe it was my last post that did it. After waiting all year for Democrats to open up impeachment hearings over a clearly lawless president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally decided to open impeachment hearings, or rather an impeachment inquiry, which amounts to the same thing.

It sure is curious though. Mueller’s report has been out since March and it documented ten episodes of obstruction of justice by Trump. The report technically wasn’t needed. There was plenty of impeachable conduct prior to its release that was illegal if true, along with a trail of Trump detritus-charged or convicted of crimes committed at Trump’s behest.

Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen is sitting in jail right now for his offense, but his un-indicted co-conspirator “Individual-1” isn’t because, well, he’s the President of the United States, and the U.S. Justice Department has decided justice is deferred for presidents until they are out of office. Impeachment though is a political judgment, not a criminal one. There was no reason to wait other than cowardice, unless you believe in game theory.

Why is it that Trump’s attempt to strong arm Ukraine to help his reelection seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? After all, during the campaign Trump invited Russia to hack the Democratic Party, and they thoughtfully obliged. But our political wags didn’t see this offense as impeachable. It’s clear that Trump has crossed many big blue lines. I just thought any obstruction of justice allegation would be a big blue line too.

While no one is breathing a sigh of relief, this is the first truly hopeful sign that Trump won’t finish his term. It suddenly feels different, simply because it’s causing quakes in Congress that weren’t manifested before, mostly among Republicans.

Pelosi probably would not have opened an impeachment inquiry at all had it not been for these whistleblower’s charges, which we can finally read online. I’m convinced though that Trump feels truly victimized. He has no idea that his conduct could be illegal because, well, he is profoundly ignorant on matters of the law and avoids being educated. As far as he is concerned, ignorance is an excuse. Moreover, when his people tried to make him act adult-ish, he fired them. So now he has an administration full of sycophants.

He spent his life breaking the rules and largely getting away with it, so this is normal for him. You can often do that if you can afford to throw teams of lawyers at your problems. It’s the way he has always done business: running them like a criminal syndicate and ripping off anyone foolish enough to partner or work with him. He must have figured Republicans in Congress would keep him from facing any consequences. When Democrats won the House in 2018, that illusion was shattered. But he still has the Senate, its Republican majority and control of the 67 senators he needs to avoid conviction.

Is this still true? The Senate has 53 Republicans so at least 20 would have to be persuaded to convict him for him to go. I certainly thought so in my last post, but political friends are rarely true friends. Basically Trump has no friends. I don’t believe there is one Republican senator that wakes up and thinks, “Gosh, Trump and me have so much in common. I wish I could spend more time with Donald Trump.” He certainly has plenty of sycophants like Lindsey Graham that are ready to kiss up to him. Graham used to hate Trump until it was in his political interest to like him, i.e. when his voters voted for Trump. It’s an open secret that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dislikes him. He’ll join Trump to advance goals of mutual interest, like getting more conservative jurists on our courts. I don’t think he has ever joined Trump for eighteen holes of golf.

Impeachment and conviction then are ultimately political decisions. That’s how it worked for Richard Nixon. So if a senator up for reelection determines he will pay a political price for not convicting Trump, he might bale on Trump. Trump’s running in 2020 is supposed to help his reelection, not hurt it.

As I noted though, Trump’s approval rating in many red states are tipping negative. Those senators up for reelection that clearly affected by Trump’s unpopularity include Susan Collins (ME), Joanie Ernst (IA), Thom Tillis (NC), Martha McSally (AZ) and David Purdue (GA). Right there that’s five seats that could go to Democrats, which would give Democrats the majority in, even if Doug Jones (AL) loses.

There are a number of red states where Trump’s net approval is at zero or only a few points above. I am using a Morning Consult Poll to track Trump’s approval by state, which is about a month old. This is potentially a concern for Steve Daines (MT, +0 Trump approval), John Cornyn (TX, +4), Ben Sasse (NE, +2) and Pat Roberts (KA, +4). If Trump turns toxic in these states, rather than riding his coattails, they could be pulled down with him.

There are other Republican senators up for reelection who are unpopular but haven’t gotten the memo. Take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Just 18% of Kentuckians approve of the job he is doing, so he has less than half the national approval rating of Donald Trump. In a wave election, and with a good Democratic challenger, next year could be his last in the Senate, not to mention as majority leader.

Trump’s impeachment will be the dominant story for months, and probably all of 2020. If it goes to a trial in the Senate, each senator will be making their own political calculation and may decide they have better prospects if they vote to convict him. The Ukraine evidence is damning. There is no way to say it isn’t. All senators can say is that although it’s damning, they won’t convict Trump anyhow.

Still, getting 67 senators to convict is a huge problem. But will a vote ever be taken? Republican consultant Mike Murphy says 30 Republican senators would vote to convict Trump if the vote was secret. It’s not hard to see Mitch McConnell going to the White House to tell Trump that the votes to convict him are there, so he should resign. That might do it. It worked with Richard Nixon. More importantly, for Trump, resignation would be preferable to actual conviction, a distinction Donald Trump’s fragile ego could not endure.

But there’s another reason Trump should prefer to resign. Presumably Trump would require some conditions for his resignation: a promise from Vice President Pence to pardon him for all related crimes. Because what Trump is scared of the most is not his impeachment, or losing his reelection, but going on trial for his crimes. When he is out of office for any reason, at least before 2023, he’s fair game for prosecutors.

If he wins reelection, he’s golden: he can wait out the statute of limitations. But this is a huge and problematic bet for him, particularly with his unfavorables, a recent impeachment dogging him and a possible recession arriving. Doubtless there is some thought that by being exonerated by the Republican Senate he can claim innocence and ride that to a reelection victory. But look at it from Trump’s perspective: do you want to hope you can win reelection despite the unfavorable odds? Or do you want some assurance that you won’t ever go to jail, if you can be assured of a bunch of Pence pardons? Trump is mostly bluster. I think he’ll go with saving his own skin.

Ultimately, he’ll prefer the golden prison of Trump Tower to the bare metal one with cinder blocks in a federal penitentiary.

Democrats in Congress are proving pathetic

The Thinker by Rodin

The only thing sadder than Donald Trump and the current state of the Republican Party and our democracy may be the current state of the Democratic Party.

I’m reading Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened. It’s not particularly interesting or insightful, but I felt a duty to read it since it was a Christmas present from my daughter. I read it where I read most stuff I don’t want to read: when sitting on the john and in snippets.

I’m reading the chapter where she talks about “those damned emails” (as Bernie Sanders put it). It was such a nothing-burger. There was no rule requiring the Secretary of State to use a @state.gov email address. In fact, her successor John Kerry was the first SoS to use one. Nonetheless, Republicans in Congress and Donald Trump turned this nothing-burger into the major topic of the 2016 election. They used it to create unwarranted mistrust against her.

Arguably, James Comey (former FBI Director) threw the election to Donald Trump by reopening the issue just before the election. So if you can inflate a story that is basically nothing and go at it relentlessly, you can apparently win elections. Donald Trump has obviously used this tactic profitably and is busy repeating it relentlessly. Notice that when anything comes up that makes him look bad he makes up some other phony smear against someone else or some group and promotes it relentlessly. And stupidly, the media usually goes along. The latest one is to complain about homeless people in California. You don’t see the press looking a conditions at our border detention facilities anymore. They’ve moved onto something newer and fresher, and Trump has an infinite supply of bait.

Contrast this with what the Democratic Party is doing with regards to Donald Trump’s many misdeeds. The most recent one is the most egregious of all: an allegation by a whistleblower that is likely that Donald Trump asked the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son for potential misdeeds in his work for Ukraine. Donald Trump has relentlessly been using his office for private gain since becoming president. It should not surprise us that he is also using it to undercut a potential opponent in the 2020 campaign.

If this was a quid-pro-quo arrangement with Ukraine, as in “I won’t release our aid to your country until you do this for me” (and Ukraine’s funds have been suspiciously held up), it would be a clearly illegal act, a national security issue and about the highest crime possible relevant to removing a president from office. No wonder this whistleblower felt compelled to blow the whistle. Compared to Hillary’s “crime”, it’s at least a thousand times worse.

So you would think Congress would be doing something to hold Trump accountable. House committees hold sporadic hearings where subpoenaed witnesses rarely show up. The Trump Administration simply stonewalls all Congressional subpoenas and witnesses. Trump claims powers that he doesn’t have. For example, Corey Lewandowsky never even worked for the White House, but Trump claimed executive privilege over his testimony. Lewandowsky did testify, sort of, but revealed little new and was rude and snide the whole time to the committee. The others didn’t bother to show up.

The obvious response by Democrats should have been to call the Sergeant at Arms and put Lewandowsky in the clink. The House has such a cell in the Capitol basement. They could let him out after he pays a fine TBD until he truthfully answered all their questions. The House has done this in the past for those showing contempt of Congress. Naturally, Democrats did nothing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is convinced that impeaching Trump is bad politics. She fears a backlash that will strip Democrats of their majority in the house. This is despite polls consistently showing Trump deeply disliked, even in red states like Arizona. Whereas Republicans proved in its endless Benghazi – Clinton email investigations that going after someone relentlessly is good politics, regardless of whether it turns up anything. It’s Congress doing its job: oversight. Unlike Hillary Clinton though, Democrats have a mountain of credible crimes and misdemeanors against Trump. Any one of them done by Barack Obama would have resulted in impeachment by Republican House of the time.

By doing nothing of consequence, Democrats in Congress are basically enabling a bully. Bullies though just keep getting stronger until they are stood up to. They have to be faced down. If they get away with it, they try even more outlandish stuff. The sky is the limit for Donald Trump. Most recently he had his lawyers make the outlandish claim that he can’t be prosecuted for any federal or state crimes while in office. This is clearly false, but Trump makes his own reality. He’ll keep making his own reality until he is stood up to.

Yes, if impeached by the House he likely will not be thrown out of office because at the moment there are not 67 senators with the spine to do so. Nonetheless, the House should impeach his ass. First, if Congress doesn’t take action in these situations, God help the next Congress that tries to hold a president accountable. Second, keeping aides from testifying alone is impeachable conduct. A Congress that can’t perform its oversight role cannot function. It’s like expecting Congress to write laws without having access to any information. Third, there has never been a case of a president who deserved impeachment more. The legal and political case against Trump is overwhelming.

Also, the optics are changing. The country is now evenly divided about whether Trump should be impeached or not. A majority of House Democrats also favor impeachment hearings. It’s changing because more people are paying attention. The more that do, the more they realize it is not only justified, but necessary.

Democrats can look at history for perspective. Polls showed that Richard Nixon maintained good favorability ratings until shortly before he resigned, and Trump’s are much worse already. Calling attention to his misconduct, as relentlessly as attention was paid on Hillary Clinton’s emails, makes it newsworthy and draws attention.

But at some point, Congress simply needs to draw some boundaries. Simply obstructing Congress’s duty to conduct oversight is impeachable because he is thwarting the intent of the constitution he swore to uphold. It’s quite possible that by taking steps to open impeachment hearings that Trump will cave and start providing witnesses. Bullies after all are more smoke than actual power. Their power diminishes quickly when they are called to account.

Congress should be using every tool in its toolbox if for no other reason than to keep it relevant. The only power it is exercising so far filing lawsuits, which Trump wait it out until they are moot. He’ll probably ignore rulings he doesn’t like anyhow. This minimal oversight seems to be what Nancy Pelosi wants as well. She wants an election to impeach Donald Trump. Hopefully that will work in keeping him from getting a second term, but it does nothing to restore the rule of law and the proper balance of power within government. It’s the latter than is the worse threat in the long term.

The negatives of negative interest rates

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump wants the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates to zero or to even allow them to go negative. It’s pretty obvious why: so he can avoid being at the wheel if a recession inconveniently hits before Election Day. He’s clearly freaking out about the election still more than a year away, as also evidenced by his decision to suspend some tariffs on Chinese goods.

Why should negative interest rates matter to you? It’s not like you can set up a Federal Reserve bank account. The Fed Funds Rate is currently 2.25%. This is the interest rate the Fed requires that one bank charges another bank to park its funds in their bank. It usually parked there only overnight. Any excess reserve a bank has on hand is money they cannot earn interest on. So parking it overnight at another bank allows them to make some money on it.

So what does this mean if the reserve rate is set to 0%? It effectively means there is no reason for a bank to park its excess reserves because it will not earn the bank any money. They might as well lend it. What happens if it’s a negative number, say -1%? Then effectively a bank takes a hit to park its money elsewhere. It would be stupid not to lend it.

A bank could pass its lower profitability from these lower rates onto its depositors. This happens routinely when the Fed Funds Rate changes. We bank at Ally Bank. When the Fed cut its rate by .25%, my savings and money market interest rates were cut by this amount too. Anticipating a rate cut, we at least did one thing smart: we took out a certificate of deposit for one year, which locked in our rate. We’ll earn 2.47% on it after one year, but not before. In general though most people don’t like to tie up their cash like this, so when the Fed Funds Rate drops, they will lose interest income. Better to take that money and risk it on investments is the hope.

Banks could in theory charge depositors’ negative interest rates, i.e. charge them for holding their money. (Considering all the bank fees we pay, some of us in effect already are!) They probably won’t, but accounts that effectively draw little to no interest at least one advantage: safety. Or do they?

Most accounts are fully insured because they don’t pass the threshold of $250,000 per depositor per bank. So yes, if a bank goes under you are likely to get your money back. But since the Glass-Steagall law (passed as a result of the Great Depression) was repealed in 1999, things have loosened. Banks can now invest in speculative investment with depositors’ money. This resulted in the Great Recession when banks loaded up on toxic assets to chase their bottom line. For them, the worst thing that can happen is they declare bankruptcy, which is what happened to so many banks in the Great Recession. The government got to clean up the mess and shoulder any financial losses, i.e. you and me assumed the risk.

Now, as the economy improved and Republicans controlled government again, these financial rules were loosened even further. In 2018, Trump signed into law new regulations that eased oversight on the largest banks, by raising the criteria for what comprises a very large bank. This results in less regulator oversight.

Add in low or negative interest rates though and we add a lot more risk to our financial system. Trump of course is hoping these low rates will incentivize banks to loan money, pumping up the economy. (It might also save him boatloads of money, if he can renegotiate interest rates on his loans.) But by incentivizing banks, we are in effect incentivizing risky loans. In short, we risk another Great Recession, or possibly another Great Depression by doing this.

Some countries are trying negative interest rates to stem deflation or deflation fears. Deflation occurs when money you have today is worth more tomorrow. In that case, there is no incentive to invest the money. Rather, you want to hold onto it, which means it’s not available for others to use. By making savers pay negative interest, it encourages them to loan out the money to stimulate the economy instead.

As a tactic for stopping deflation, maybe it has some merit. It’s working marginally in Japan, which has experienced years of deflation. But the United States is not in a deflationary environment. Hopefully though the Fed is instead trying to prevent deflation from happening in the first place.

Negative interest rates don’t have to lead to financial calamity, at least if they are properly overseen and regulated. But in this country it would be a very nervy thing to do at present. The Fed’s toolset though is very limited and well tried. The Fed’s policy of quantitative easing (imitated by lots of central banks) was one tactic of desperation after the Great Recession when the economy was still a mess even after virtually zero interest rates. Quantitative easing is essentially the Fed buying up investments others don’t want to buy with money the Fed creates out of thin air. They control the money supply, and can create money willy-nilly. That and low interest rates are about all the tools they have left.

A negative interest rate policy looks like the next and more desperate step to keep an economy from sinking into depression. It is basically a tool to use for deflation, which is what happened in the Great Depression. It’s like a fire extinguisher alarm: break glass only in case of emergency.

If investors though figure deflation is going to happen, they have an option: take the money out of the banking system and figuratively put it in the mattress. That way no one can use it but at least it’s safe, unless someone looks in the mattress. It’s more likely though they will move it to currencies and economies that are not deflating.

So hopefully the Fed will take a pass on Trump’s idea. In reality, the problems of our economy are structural and these tactics of the last ten years are basically stopgap measures. The Fed should have been doing more modest increasing of interest rates instead, as our economy, at least if it’s not in a recession, should be able to handle it. Mostly our economy is showing every sign of being over-leveraged and fragile again. If your economy is truly strong, you don’t need to even think about using these tools.

If this house of cards collapses again, it will be felt the way it was last time: soaring unemployment, wiped out savings. A lot of it will be due to risky investments, just like the Great Recession. If you are looking for a true revolution, another Great Recession or Great Depression is a good way to start one.

Who is going to be our next president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Who knows? At this point it’s probably easier to say who it won’t be. That likely includes any Democrat polling at under ten percent nationally. That almost certainly includes any of Trump’s Republican challengers on a quixotic quest to convince Republicans he’s the loser he is, since about ninety percent of them love Donald Trump. There is always the possibility of a great Trump implosion. It’s been long underway; it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. As I noted recently, there’s no bottom for Republicans.

Anyhow, sorry Kamala Harris, Corrie Booker and even Pete Buttigieg, who curiously raised the most money of any Democratic candidate last quarter. Mayor Pete though may be going for the consolation prize: being on the eventual Democratic nominee’s ticket. Not bad for the mayor of a city of only 100,000 people.

Will it be Joe Biden, the current presumptive Democratic frontrunner? If history is any judge, probably not. The odds favor whoever wins the Iowa caucuses. You have to go back to 1992 to find a case where the Democratic nominee did not first win in Iowa. That was because Tom Harkin was running and he was Iowa’s senator. He got 76% of the vote; Bill Clinton got just 3%. New Hampshire’s primary is hardly a bellwether; it’s more often wrong than not at calling the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee.

Polls will doubtless be all over the place between now and February’s Iowa caucuses. The Des Moines Register hasn’t polled the state since June when Biden had a comfortable lead. It will be interesting to see their next poll, since theirs in typically the most valid. Generally though the candidate with the most enthusiastic supporters is the one who ultimately wins, since they show up on caucus night. You have to look hard for Biden enthusiasts. If I had to pick a winner of that primary, it’s most likely to be Elizabeth Warren. At least, that’s the sense I’m gleaning from reporters following her around: she generates the most enthusiasm and highest crowd sizes.

The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have the effect of quickly winnowing the field. They also perversely assure that white Democrats get an oversize ability to help pick the eventual nominee. Is this racism? It wasn’t intended that way, as it was set up at a time when our country was overwhelmingly white but today it looks racist. Multicultural Nevada now rings in third, with its caucus on February 22. After Super Tuesday on March 3, which now includes California, we’ll probably know with 80 percent probability who the Democrats nominee will be: whoever has racked up the highest delegate count. Barack Obama was the exception, although he did win in Iowa in 2008.

I don’t think the Democrats are going to nominate Joe Biden. It’s not just because of his gaffes and his tepid support. It’s because if you add up the polling for the other progressive candidates, they trounce him. As candidates drop out, it’s unlikely that those supporting progressives will realign behind Joe Biden. They are more likely to align behind Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders instead.

Warren probably has more enthusiastic supporters, plus Sanders is a known and older commodity. So I think the omens look quite good for Warren, who also happens to be my choice at the moment. Warren has been steadily creeping up in polls.

Democrats would be wise to nominate someone they are actually enthusiastic about voting for. That won’t be Joe. What brings out Democrats in droves on Election Day is someone new and different. Unfortunately, what they often get instead is someone tried, true and tired but favored by party insiders. Their candidate should be someone with good favorability ratings, particularly among independents. Currently, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders qualify. This will change. Biden’s are declining while Warren’s are rising. Many candidates have underwater favorability ratings solely because most voters don’t yet know who they are.

I’m rooting for Warren and have been giving her $50 a month for many months now. After people really listen to her, they tend to like her. She seems relatable in a way few Democratic candidates are. I’m betting that she wins the nomination and I hope the election too. If she does, I will definitely enjoy watching her debates with Donald Trump. Trump will never know what hit him.

How the “American Dream” killed the American Dream

The Thinker by Rodin

The truth is, I think of Tom a lot. Tom and I go back to fourth grade. He was the new kid in class and unlike any of the other boys there he was a bit geeky like me. So we struck up a friendship. Decades later we are still friends, but we are bicoastal. I’m still on the east coast; he’s on the west coast near Portland, Oregon.

We lost touch with each other for a long time. My family moved south to Florida. His call was advertising, which took him various places further and further west, including Alaska. Tom is a brilliant at advertising and art in general. Frankly, my talents were far less impressive than his. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My BA in Communications was largely worthless. It was the rise of computers, the dearth of talent in a rising industry and my willingness to get into a rising field that finally gave me a calling that paid. This led to a career largely working for Uncle Sam, a master’s degree that came later in life at age 42, and retiring in 2014 on a comfortable pension.

Tom, truly the more talented of us, wasn’t so fortunate. Both of us are now age sixty plus. Tom works in an industry that worships the young. Tom has worked for many advertising agencies over the years. These turned increasingly into gig jobs. Younger talent, more conversant in the nuances of social media and willing to work for cheap, tended to get the work instead of him. Mostly he worked for himself. Huge economic forces like the 2008 recession left him reeling. He’s had some ups since then but arguably more downs than ups. Tom is hardly alone.

I am the exception. It’s unnatural to retire at age 57 these days. Only the rules of an old civil service system let me do so. Pensions are getting hard to find, but I got one. It pays for the bulk of my retirement, but I also have a 401K to supplement my income. I also am not quite unemployed. I do some consulting from home, and a little teaching as an adjunct too.

As for Tom, he is scrambling. I’m sure he does advertising gigs when he can get them. His talent though is undiminished, just largely not recognized anymore. Mostly he is scrambling. His most recent “gig” was working at a local Amazon distribution center, working the night shift for a small pay differential. Amazon was shamed into raising wages to $15/hour, so he’s earning a bit more than that. I’m sure his wife is working too. Clinging to their middle class life must be excruciatingly hard with two boys to raise.

How did this happen? It’s been driving me nuts, and filling me with something akin to survivor’s guilt. Granted, I really like retirement, but it feels like a gilded life. It’s not too hard to imagine me in Tom’s shoes. Through someone’s grace I got lucky. Tom didn’t get that grace.

It’s Tom and millions like him. They were supposed to live the American Dream and it was supposed to work for them, as it had for his parents. You educate yourself, you try your hardest, you give the best of yourself and you expect to get rewarded. It worked for Tom for a while, until it stopped. It wasn’t because Tom suddenly became less talented. It was because someone moved his cheese.

An early factor was that Tom dropped out of college. It didn’t stop him from getting into some great ad agencies and even teaching college for a while, but the student loans dried up. His father got his education from the GI Bill that paid all his tuition. Tom never joined the military. Tom’s father also rode a successful career with IBM as an engineer, which gave him a generous pension. You can’t get a pension if you work for IBM anymore.

In short, the American Dream left Tom behind, and he’s a smart white guy like me, supposedly a privileged sex and race. It probably would have left me behind too had not I sensed opportunity in this computer thing, made the best of it, and got lucky. It also helped that I made a career working for the government. There were times when I didn’t like the work, but the bills got paid regularly and I had only one incidence of unemployment.

The American Dream is that if you work hard and apply yourself you can live a reasonably prosperous life, one better than your parents’. The dream is that there will be opportunities there for you and that with persistence and tenacity you too can claim them. For a while, it was the American reality, not just a dream. It wasn’t for everyone of course, but for white men like Tom’s dad and mine it was.

The reality though is that the American Dream wasn’t so much a dream as it was the American system. The “Dream” was made possible by progressive government. The GI Bill funded not only Tom’s father’s education, but also my father’s. Without it, it’s unclear if he too would have gotten his engineering degree. He might have swept floors instead. There were plentiful scholarships for the talented, but also student loans. There were beneficent companies willing to invest in employees for the long term. Both our fathers had such employers. Climbing the ladder was possible because there were many rungs and they were fairly easy to climb.

Since about the time of President Reagan, the tables have turned. Pensions became 401Ks, if your employer even offered a 401K. Student loans became less generous, had higher interest rates and became harder to pay off. The cost of living in general went crazy, with housing disproportionately harder to afford. The cost to buy a ticket on the American Dream kept getting pricier: tuitions skyrocketed, class sizes swelled anyhow but the career you often aimed for often turned into something you could not market profitably. It happened to me with a BA in Communications and would have brought me down too had I not found an aptitude in information technology and low entry requirements at the time. Now, more of us have advanced degrees than ever. They just don’t buy us much. For example, there is my friend Tim who I met when we both worked retail. He has a PhD and earns his living largely through a lot of adjunct teaching. It doesn’t pay very well.

The American Dream used to come with a support system that made it possible. Now that support system is gone. The one that exists is mom and dad, if they are wealthy enough. Unsurprisingly, these people are the ones who are most likely to attain it and prosper. We have decided not to make the investment that makes the American Dream possible. Unsurprisingly a lot of people like my friends Tom and Tim arguably fell through the cracks. A few, like me, got lucky anyhow. But rather than making me feel good, it just makes me feel sick.

Religion is failing us, Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

(Read Part One, if you haven’t.)

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I’m not obsessive about it, but my interest in it picks up from time to time. Yesterday, it was snagged again watching this video on YouTube:

The speaker at this TED Talk, Thomas Fleischmann, knows a thing or two about NDEs. As an emergency doctor he has witnessed about two thousand deaths. Since it’s his job to try to resuscitate them, he sometimes succeeds. These people are clinically dead: no heartbeat and no brain waves. The uniformity of their NDEs is amazingly consistent across ages, religions, races and geographical regions.

What makes Fleischmann’s case unique is that he also had a NDE, and he gave the same report his patients did. People brought back tend to be happy, caring, highly relational and lose all fear of death. They report moving toward a light after death, often seeing relatives, and feelings of absolute peace and unconditional love.

This is not quite the Pearly Gates, a greeting from Saint Peter and sitting near the Right Hand of God, but it sounds pretty good. I’m reminded of that snippet from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. If you read the books by JRR Tolkien, he says largely the same thing:

PIPPIN: I didn’t think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Given that none of us can escape death, assuming all these experiences continue to progress the way it seems like they should, death should not be something to fear at all. Perhaps it should be welcomed because arguably for many, if not most of us, it’s a great improvement over our reality.

Tethered as we are to this reality, or perhaps to what we think is this reality, only the suicidal will want to hasten their demise. It’s a bit crazy not to fear death, as it seems to be instinctual. So many of those many early Christian martyrs fed to the lions in Roman coliseums must have been crazy. They thought they were earning a place in a heaven. At least it appears that some of them were able to surmount the fear of death to spread the message of Christianity to the heathen.

But overall, religion isn’t helping us confront our mortality in a healthy way. Arguably, most religions make it worse.

These NDEs strongly suggest there is an afterlife, the soul is real and our death moves us into a different, happier and more loving realm. It doesn’t seem to matter how evil you were in life; you are still loved and accepted in the afterlife. It’s kind of hard to get my mind around that given that someone like Jeffrey Epstein recently joined the ranks of the dead. You would figure some of them would deserve eternal torment. Yet if Jesus bought us salvation, then it appears that the Universalists were right: he did so for everyone, for all time. It’s not something you have to earn like a Boy Scout merit badge. It’s something that just is. It’s innate. It’s built in.

You have to look hard to find a religion that tells us not to worry about death, or more specifically eternal damnation as a result of death if you don’t get their religion. Most religions preach just the opposite: you have to work really really hard to get into heaven, or at least be a sincerely good person in this life to get your eternal reward. Yet even Jesus seem to be providing a hint that we are all due salvation. (See Matthew 20).

The atheists aren’t helping either. They don’t believe in an afterlife, hence they don’t believe in NDEs either. Yet it sure looks like they are going to get one whether they like it or not. Or maybe by believing you aren’t going to get one, you actually don’t. There’s no evidence of this though from the many atheists who’ve had NDEs.

Many Buddhists believe we are stuck in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, unless you achieve Nirvana, which is apparently very hard to do. It’s probably easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle, as Jesus also taught. The Buddhists appear to have picked up a lot of this from the Hindus, since Hinduism preceded Buddhism and Hinduism permeated Buddha’s life.

The monotheistic religions all believe in one God and one chance at salvation. Naturally they are very concerned about straightening you out now so you can make it to heaven. Some are arguably more than a bit crazy about it. As I noted in an earlier post, some fundamentalists are actively trying to bring about the end of the world, convinced that they are chosen ones like Donald Trump, and will be raptured.

I would think it should give even a fundamentalist pause to consider that Trump will be raptured too, along all the other sinners out there who they are desperately trying to help see the light, but seem to secretly despise. Frankly, from all the Left Behind books, the Rapture seems like a lot of fun to these elect. It’s like God will be burning these souls like marshmallows over the campfire of Hell, and they get to watch gleefully. After all, they are the chosen, not the rejected.

It’s hard to think of a point to religion if we all make it to a great afterlife for free, and if no one checks our punch cards to make sure we’ve earned our Golden Ticket. The obvious consequence of religion though is to hype our fear of death, so we get so scared that we change our behavior to act and worship a lot like them. And that appears to add a lot of misery to people’s life by pushing them to act in way contrary to their nature. It seems sadistic.

At the very least though, it is not helpful. In fact, it’s very hurtful. We all need to get along in this life as best we can because we are trapped inside this matrix. If religion has a purpose, these NDEs suggest that’s it: to model in some small way the peace and brotherhood and unconditional love we will all find after death, at no charge and unconditionally. Yes, even Donald Trump.

How about some of that religion? And a lot less of the apparently hurtful and counterproductive crap we are getting instead? Sounds good to me. You best not hold your breath.