Trump is functionally illiterate

The Thinker by Rodin

One of last week’s biggest stories was of course the “infrastructure” meeting between Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the White House. It quickly blew up when Trump took offense at remarks Pelosi made earlier in the day when she accused Trump of a cover up.

His blow up looked quite staged since minutes later he was at a podium in the Rose Garden with preprinted signs that seemed to match the occasion. Also suspicious was an image captured by a photographer of Trump’s handwritten notes (written in Sharpie, of course) with prominent misspellings. Among other misspellings he noted that Democrats have “no achomlisments”.

Trump’s typos are hardly news, but these handwritten notes prove Trump is a very poor speller. He also has very poor grammar. He confuses words. On April 2nd, Trump was ranting about House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff. He repeatedly used “oranges” when he should have used the word “origins”. Trump’s speaking is full of malapropisms. It doesn’t seem to bother his supporters. Should it bother the rest of us?

It should bother all of us because Trump is functionally illiterate. I know what you are thinking, “But what about all those tweets? He types them himself.” They tend to have occasional errors but most of the time the grammar and spelling is correct. And this is because his Twitter client points these out and suggests the correct spelling or grammar to use. We all do this, at least if we care about what we post online. Trump though sometimes slips up.

In 2016, The Washington Post compared the grammar and vocabulary levels of the major candidates at the time. Trump’s was at the bottom of the bunch: with a less than 8th grade vocabulary and less than 6th grade grammar. His speech is confusing, to say the least. My daughter does voice captioning for a living. She sometimes has to caption Trump live. Closed captioners hate translating Trump because he rarely speaks in compete sentences. Where do you place the period? It’s so hard to tell. But also, his “sentences” are rarely coherent and veer from place to place. It’s a sign of a very disordered mind that cannot think linearly.

Trump is not illiterate in the sense that he can’t read. But he can’t comprehend much of what he reads. No doubt every textbook he encountered during his education was a challenge. He misses a lot of nuance. In response, he basically doesn’t read and depends on TV and radio for information. That’s why he’s so anxious to hustle out of a meeting to watch Fox News instead: TV is the equivalent of his reading time. That’s why his staff stopped giving him briefing materials. At best he gets a one-page bullet summary of key points. Mostly he wants you to tell him information. Since it appears he is easily distracted, it’s unclear how much of what he hears he actually absorbs. To compensate, he declares himself an “extremely stable genius” and proudly proclaims most decision are made from gut feelings instead of, you know, absorbing the complex and nuanced information that staff could provide to him.

Lots of us share Trump’s disability, which may explain in part why so many people relate to him. Like him, they got through life by overcompensating in other areas and hoping that makes the difference. What his disability reveals though is a man who is far from an “extremely stable genius”. If he can’t master basic grammar and vocabulary, he’s hardly smart by any conventional definition and can’t understand a lot of the material given to him. This means he’s woefully uninformed about the many issues he has to confront and decide on as president. As for stable, someone who huffs out of a meeting after only a few minutes is hardly stable. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is openly calling for an “intervention”. I’m not sure though that Trump understands what that means. It’s one of these words with lots of syllables.

If you are functional illiterate, it means that you grasp most of the basics of reading but lack much of the ability to process and integrate the written word. And that describes Donald Trump’s entire career. It’s not just anyone who can lose a billion dollars over ten years, most of it his father’s money. But you can if you don’t know what you are doing, you can’t read a balance sheet and you run your business by talking to people on the phone instead of absorbing yourself in the minutia of your business.

It also explains why he is stonewalling Congress and blocking any attempts to reveal these underlying falsehoods. No wonder his former attorney Michael Cohen spent a lot of time sending threatening letters to places like Wharton, warning them not to publish Trump’s grades. His career is a cavalcade of false fronts. It doesn’t take too many of these to unmask this Lone Ranger for the fraud he is.

With so many potential vulnerabilities, his luck won’t hold on forever. This is why he finds being dictator much more appealing than being president: no accountability ever! Fortunately for him, the Republican Party is totally on board, because it too projects a different image of what it claims to be compared to what it actually is. It’s unclear though when he is finally unmasked – when his taxes returns show him to be the cheat that he is and his grades prove he is the ignoramus we also know he is – whether it will make a difference.

Until then we continue to have a government led by the most ignorant person ever to hold the office. We have to hope that our constitutional government can somehow survive it.

Monetary policy and the danger of revolution

The Thinker by Rodin

My recent post on quantum computing and its impact on cyber currencies like BitCoin have taken me exploring the world of money some more. This exploration took me to this video, which discusses who controls money and how it is created.

I think this video is meant to be shocking. Most of us are painfully aware of how important money is, because we cannot survive without it. While vital, money is also completely abstract. We like to think money is a form of permanent liquid value. This video points out the “shocking” fact that money is not this and that it is created almost universally by central banks, the Federal Reserve in the case of the United States.

As you get on in the video, you also learn that banks create money when they issue loans. If you were hoping to trade in your dollars for gold bullion, those days are gone. President Nixon turned the U.S. dollar into a fiat currency. This essentially means that the dollar has value because the government says it does. If it’s backed up by anything, it’s backed up by your faith that our government can manage money intelligently.

But really, the only ones managing money is the Federal Reserve, since they are the sole suppliers of money. The degree to which the Fed controls the spigot of money generally determines the health of the economy. Quantitative easing, which the Fed (and other central banks) have been doing since the Great Recession is basically the creation of lots of money which are then used to buy assets. Doing this helped pick up the economy and over many years took us out of recession.

So one might extrapolate that it’s not how much money that gets printed that is important, but how frequently it gets circulated. If circulated a lot, the production of goods and services continues apace. If it gets circulated too much, you end up with inflation, which means the same money buys fewer goods and services. If it’s not circulated enough, you may end up with deflation, which seems worse than inflation, in that the same money tomorrow buys more than it will today. In a deflationary environment, you would rather hold onto money than spend it, and that tends to stifle economic activity.

Lots of people like Ron Paul don’t like the way money actually works, which is why they would prefer the dollar be based on a gold standard, or some standard which equates a dollar to some amount of something precious. These people are probably economic Don Quixotes chasing electronic money windmills that may have existed at one time but which are probably gone for good. They look for impartial standards of value instead, which is why they turn dollars into BitCoin and similar electronic currencies.

The video says that central banks, being run by bankers, are a system that essentially pumps money from the lower classes to the upper classes. There’s a lot of recent evidence that they are right, as our middle class seems to be disappearing. Americans owe a lot more than they used to and in general earn a lot less in real wages than they used to. It used to be that wage increases followed productivity increases, but for decades that has not been the case. Today, the level of personal debt is staggering. Without meaningful raises, it gets harder and harder to pay off debt or do things we used to take for granted, like buy cars and homes. The Uber/Lyft phenomenon may be in part a reaction to these new facts of life.

Something ought to be done. In part, Donald Trump’s election was due to these economic anxieties. Trump was going to be our fixer to these various problems by bulldozing his way through all obstacles. Of course, he has done just the opposite. There is more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, but Trump’s education secretary Betsy DuBois is actually making it harder for people to pay off their student debts, and is promoting pricey private education at the expense of relatively affordable public education. So Trump is turning the screws even tighter on the working class.

Democratic presidential candidates have all sorts of ideas for addressing these problems. My senator, Elizabeth Warren, is distinguishing herself by having the most comprehensive set of policies for addressing these issues, including a lot of student loan debt forgiveness. All these policies though are basically ways of trying to solve the fundamental problem of more of our wealth going to the wealthiest and to put more money into those who need it the most. They all depend on redistribution of income from the wealthy toward the poor.

This “socialism” of course has the wealthy up in arms, since maintaining and increasing their wealth is all they seem to care about. So they are dead set against any of these ideas. Based on how our money supply works though, all this will do is keep pushing more of the wealth toward the wealthy.

It makes me wonder how all of this economic anxiety ends. And that gets me to figuring out what money really means. Money is essentially a social compact for the exchange of wealth, and whoever sets the rules controls the flow of wealth. The Fed is essentially accountable to no one. At best, all you can do is wait for someone’s term to expire. Trump’s inability to get people like Herman Cain on the Fed speaks to Republicans true values: they want the Fed to be populated with people that think like them, and that’s not Herman Cain. He’s too out of the mainstream.

To cut to the chase, the real threat to the wealthy is revolution. That’s exactly what happens if you screw the working class for too long. Revolution is upsetting the whole apple cart and starting over because the system is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed. I believe this is the root of the partisan tensions we see these days. It’s not about value, or whether you are white or not; it’s about money and who gets to control it and how it should be distributed and used. Revolution though is very dangerous. It brings severe economic disruption, likely civil war, complete upheaval and a fundamental reordering of society. Hopefully when it is over the new system is more fare, but as we watch these things play out in places like Brazil it doesn’t look like that’s likely.

Ideally, rich Americans would understand that giving more back to society is in their interest. Sucking ever more wealth from the lower classes exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of revolution. They don’t seem to believe it though, and want to maintain control of the levers of power. If they succeed they will likely bring about the real revolution that will destroy their wealth, because wealth is predicated on connected economic systems that work. Unfortunately, the rich seem to be deliberately tone deaf, increasing the likelihood of the exact outcome they fear the most. Should it occur, BitCoin is not going to save them.

As billionaire Nick Hanauer puts it, the pitchforks are coming.

Time for Mr. Mueller to be a true patriot

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, our new attorney general Bill Barr is a horror. We shouldn’t be surprised because essentially he auditioned for his job by circulating a paper before his nomination on why the Mueller investigation was invalid.

Barr’s testimony yesterday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed to anyone paying attention that Barr is Trump’s lackey and shill. He will do pretty much anything that Trump wants him to do because that’s how he sees his role. Which is why he thinks looking into Hillary Clinton’s emails yet again is worthy of investigation.

It’s likely to get much worse. Trump is likely to use the Justice Department as his political arm by having it open investigations into his 2020 opponents. Based on the Hillary’s email precedent, Barr shouldn’t object at all. In short, the Justice Department is becoming a new bludgeon that Trump hopes to use to win reelection. Its mission to impartially apply justice based on the law seems to be waning. In short, true justice in the Justice Department may be hard to find.

It’s painfully clear that Senate Republicans won’t check Trump in any meaningful way. It’s increasingly clear that our Supreme Court won’t either now that it has a reliable conservative majority. Trump is the outcome of over thirty years of corrupting the system to affect their ends. They don’t want democracy. They just want to be in charge and remain in charge. Which means that only voters can hold Trump and Republicans accountable.

But Trump has every incentive to corrupt the 2020 elections, and Republicans are jubilantly helping him along. Mueller’s report basically says Trump obstructed justice many times and that the only reason he wasn’t charged is because he wasn’t allowed to charge him due to Justice Department rules. With a five-year statute of limitations, if Trump loses reelection then there’s a good chance he will be prosecuted for these and many other offenses.

So in Trump’s mind he must not lose. He can see his future if he fails, and it’s inside a jail cell. He is clearly bending the power of the federal government in every way possible to stack the odds in his favor. And Republicans will aid and abet him: by making it hard for people of color to vote, through relentless gerrymandering, through fearless voter suppression and now apparently allowing the Justice Department to be used as a political weapon.

By grossly mischaracterizing Mueller’s findings, Barr’s summary of findings succeeded in muddying the waters. It’s hard to find someone without an axe to grind that the public can trust. Most won’t have time to read over four hundred pages of his report, much of it redacted. Which is why Mueller’s public testimony in front of Congress is needed. We need Mueller to rise to the occasion and be the patriot the country needs by simply telling the truth.

But will he get that chance? Trump’s policy is now to stonewall Congress and refuse to provide them any information, at least no information not in his favor. Mueller is an employee of the Justice Department, but presumably term limited as he was pulled from retirement to investigate Trump and his administration. Trump or Barr could prohibit Mueller from testifying in front of Congress. It’s unclear that they will, but it’s certainly possible if they are stonewalling everything else. It’s also unclear whether Mueller would not testify anyhow.

Polls do make one thing clear: the public trusts Robert Mueller. If anything can right this wrong ship, his testimony might. Clearly, if Mueller says things that upset Republicans, they will berate him and cast doubts on his integrity. It’s unlikely though that the public would buy it, as his integrity has so far been impeccable, unlike Donald Trump’s.

Mueller would be most helpful by simply stating the obvious: anyone other than Trump would have been prosecuted for obstruction of justice, the Justice Department is being turned into a political weapon, that government of, by and for the people is perilously close to disappearing, and the public needs to wake up and fight for its democracy.

Why we must impeach Donald Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

So the Mueller report (with many redactions) finally was made public. Unsurprisingly, the report did not exonerate Trump. It was quite the opposite, in fact. While Mueller could not prove beyond a reasonably doubt that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia, he found plenty of evidence to show that Trump obstructed justice. He just refused to prosecute these obstructions, believing that constraints put on his investigation precluded this possibility.

Mueller basically laid out the obstruction charges and their underlying evidence and suggested that Congress could impeach Trump in part based on his evidence. Less noticed was another possible approach: wait until Trump was out of office and then prosecute him. But this is only viable if Trump does not win reelection and the subsequent administration chooses to prosecute these crimes within the five years of the statute. If Trump does win reelection, the statute of limitations effectively means he can’t be charged for these crimes. In short, in certain situations the president can circumvent his own accountability to the law. It’s all because of an opinion by the Justice Department that a sitting president can’t be indicted for crimes while in office. (This seems strange to me. What’s the point of having a vice president then?)

I noted before that Trump wouldn’t escape justice. Neither Richard Nixon nor Bill Clinton did. Nixon agreed to resign to keep from being impeached and convicted, a badge of shame that he carried to his grave. On Bill Clinton’s last day in office, Clinton agreed to pay a fine and lose his law license for perjury he committed testifying about his relationship with Monica Lewinski. This was to avoid facing these charges and possible jail time when out of office.

In some ways those were simpler times. Today’s hyper-partisan Congress means that if the House impeaches Trump, it’s almost a slam-dunk that the Senate won’t convict him, just as the Senate refused to convict Clinton and narrowly avoided convicting Andrew Johnson. Nixon would have certainly been removed from office for his cover up, i.e. obstruction of justice charges laid out by his special prosecutor. Mueller laid out ten obstruction of justice charges that could be filed against Trump and likely would have been filed against him if Justice Department regulations forbad it.

I’m surprised no one has filed a lawsuit to challenge these regulations. It’s possible but unlikely that the Supreme Court would declare them unconstitutional. There is no law that gives the president this special treatment, just an opinion (once amended) by the Justice Department’s legal team.

Mueller’s team made fourteen referrals to other prosecutors, only two of which we know about. It’s quite likely that some of these referrals will come back to bite Trump, either before or after he leaves office. It’s already quite clear that New York State will be prosecuting Trump and the Trump Organization for violating its charity laws. The Trump family may face prosecution since it looks like they fraudulently protected their father’s wealth to inherit more of it. Trump’s sister abruptly resigned her appellate court seat recently to avoid an internal investigation. So despite Attorney General Bill Barr’s spin that the report leaves the president untouched, it’s quite clear that Trump will be haunted by charges and court cases, probably for the rest of his life.

There are a lot of wags in Congress discussing whether Trump should be impeached or not. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already stated she doesn’t want to open impeachment hearings unless there are enough Republican votes in the Senate to make Trump’s conviction likely. Others like my home state senator Liz Warren have publicly stated that Congress has a duty to open impeachment hearings and if the evidence is strong enough, to convict the president and remove him from office.

I’m with Liz. Certainly I’m aware that there is little likelihood that the Senate would convict Trump. I suppose it is possible that hearings would bring to light enough evidence to persuade enough Republican senators to throw Trump overboard. I am for impeachment not for an idealistic reason, but for a pragmatic reason: the lawless Trump Administration must not be used as a model by future administrations hoping to escape justice.

Just two posts ago I noted how alarmed I was because I felt we were at the edge of autocracy. I’m just as alarmed today. The way for a democracy to survive is not to acquiesce but to rise to the occasion. It’s likely if the House held an impeachment vote that it would impeach Trump. It would set a mark in the sand for future presidents that this conduct is unacceptable. It would also force a trial in the Senate that, even if doomed, would hold senators accountable. It would mark those voting against his conviction for life. The case for Trump’s lawlessness is inescapable.

So while it might not actually hold Trump accountable, it would formally tarnish his legacy, give little sanction to his behavior, uphold the principle that no one is above the law, demonstrate that Congress had the nerve to push back against a lawless president and make it easier in the future to maintain our democracy.

Pelosi is looking at the 2020 election and wondering if impeachment would distract from a winning message for Democratic candidates. I am thinking that standing up for democracy and the rule of law is the primary responsibility of any member of Congress. That’s what they are elected to do, not to be weasels. If the American people object to that, well then our democracy truly is lost.

Let’s not give in to hopelessness and unaccountability. Let’s do the right thing and open impeachment hearings.

Autocracy and why Trump’s firing of his Secret Service director is extremely alarming

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m getting the sick feeling that we are this close to an autocracy. Things seem to be going rapidly from bad to worse to ohmigod this is incredibly dangerous!

The feelings got real when I learned what Attorney General William Barr was planning to do with the Mueller report: redact as much of it as possible and work as hard as possible to keep the full report from ever getting to Congress. It got worse when I watched our petulant Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brush off Congresswoman Maxine Waters: the idea of wasting his time talking to Congress when he had important things to do! Also, he seems to be aiding and abetting keeping Congress from getting Trump’s tax returns, even though the law requires it.

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of other signs. For example, Donald Trump is thinking of dumping migrants in sanctuary cities. Why? Because he thinks he can and he wants these cities to pay for having the audacity to oppose him. Then there’s his de-facto concentration camps that separate immigrant families and new reports that suggests he wants the U.S. military to build a whole lot more of them and run them, much like the German military ran its concentration camps. And if that weren’t enough, Trump was recently on the border urging CBP employees to break the law by not letting these asylum seekers in. Trump is implicitly saying: I can get away with anything, because Congress won’t hold me accountable in the end. And if you do break the law, I’ll pardon you!

All this is sickening enough, but then there’s the imperial way his administration seems to be blowing off the courts. He’s been under a court order for about a year to resettle these unaccompanied minors with their parents, or at least place them with relatives in the United States. Instead, most of them linger inside former Walmart stores under lock and key and out of sight. Recently, three congresswomen weren’t allowed in to inspect a detention facility for minors in Homestead, Florida. Trump doesn’t care that Congress has the responsibility for executive oversight.

More and more the Trump administration seems to be simply ignoring the courts. Until now, we’ve sort of assumed that if the courts tell you to do something, you must. More and more the Trump administration seems to be just ignoring the courts. After all, what can the courts do but issue more rulings? I guess there is the U.S. Marshal Service, which is supposed to enforce court orders if necessary. But the courts do not control it; it’s controlled by the Justice Department. And our new attorney general Bill Barr seems quite happy to take orders from Trump, even though he is supposed to uphold the law.

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The constitutional remedy for executive overreach is congressional oversight, subpoenas and when all else fails impeachment. Trump’s lackeys are ignoring most congressional subpoenas. Nancy Pelosi has ruled out impeachment, mostly because she knows Trump has no possibility of being convicted in the Senate. And that’s not just because Republicans control it narrowly, it’s because Republicans are very clear that they don’t care about the rule of law. All they care about is expanding their power or, failing that, holding on to their power.

And it’s not like they feel the least bit compelled to follow the rules or precedent anymore. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an erstwhile conservative, broke with more than 230 years of precedence to speed up the debate on the nomination of federal judges and no longer allows home state senators to block these nominations either.

Meanwhile, deeply red states like Alabama and Texas are going out of their way to turn their states more authoritarian. In Texas, they are debating a law that could potentially give the death penalty to women who get abortions. Wow! The breadth of this should be astounding, but it’s par for the course these days. Ohio’s governor just yesterday signed a law that outlaws abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. These states are simply trying new tactics to see what might overturn Roe v. Wade now that Brett Kavanaugh is a justice. It’s all supposedly about being pro-life, but at least in Texas they are willing to kill people to do it. It’s all absolutely insane, particularly when you consider that not one of these states wants to give women contraceptives to not get pregnant in the first place, won’t subsidize their pregnancies and do their best to keep these kids off food stamps once they are born. Since so many are nonwhite, they’ll be happy to disenfranchise them when they reach voting age too.

Of course, these red states continue to do their best to gerrymander districts and suppress people of color from voting. Florida wants ex-felons to pay all judgments before being allowed to vote, essentially a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. Its state legislature is also working to overturn the referendum, which allows ex-felons to vote in the first place.

So it is crystal clear to me that Republicans will let nothing stop them from achieving their aims. Increasingly they are simply ignoring courts and Democrats in Congress. In essence, they are wholly abandoning democracy in favor of autocracy, and using inertia built into our system of checks and balances and Republicans open willingness to allow Trump to get away with stuff to bring it about.

Frankly, to me the most alarming sign of all was not Trump’s firing of his Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, but his firing of Secret Service Director Randall “Tex” Alles. Think about it. Let’s assume that Democrats do win the presidency in the 2020 election. And it is ultimately up to the Secret Service to evict Trump from the White House. Will his hand-picked lackey evict him? When push comes to shove, who decides to hand over the nuclear codes to the next president? And if you have a Republican senate that won’t fight back on Trump against anything, if he refuses to leave, how do you get rid of him?

It all makes for a constitutional crisis already well underway that looks like it will come to a crescendo on January 20, 2021, but which is likely to all come to a head much earlier than this.

These are crazy, deeply dangerous and incredibly scary times. We are facing what looks like the probable end of a 230 year old democracy.

Michael Cohen’s testimony heralds the beginning of the end of the Trump era

The Thinker by Rodin

Michael Cohen’s testimony this week sure was riveting. Cohen, Donald Trump’s “fixer” lawyer, allowed Trump to live the life of Riley. Whatever Trump was paying Cohen, it certainly was cheaper than the real estate taxes he would have paid had not Cohen helped him artificially discount the value of his property, or the damage to his image that would have come out had some of his many affairs prematurely seen the light of day.

Cohen’s testimony though simply confirmed what even Republicans accept about him: Trump is a bamboozler, cheat, liar and conman, but he’s their bamboozler, cheat, liar, and conman. So unsurprisingly, Republicans on the House Government Oversight Committee went to bat for Trump by trying to paint Cohen’s testimony as untrustworthy because he is a convicted felon.

Of course, none of them bothered to mention that the main reason he’s going to prison is because of crimes he committed on behalf of Donald Trump. Not one of these Republicans bothered to refute the evidence that he provided. They tacitly accept that Trump (like Cohen) is a bamboozler, cheat, liar, and conman. Unlike in 1974 though Republicans don’t plan to hold the president accountable.

It’s good to be retired though and to have the time to watch it live on TV. Curiously in 1974 when Nixon’s counsel John Dean provided testimony to Congress I was watching it live too (I was only 17 at the time). I was more than a bit crushed. I’m not sure if I was a Republican back then, but I did believe what Nixon said and thought he should be given the benefit of the doubt. And there was John Dean on TV proving that I had been a sap for trusting in Nixon.

Today’s Republicans though don’t feel crestfallen at all. They knew all along whom Trump was; they just didn’t care. He’s a means to their ends. Their ends are simply power: holding onto it and milking it for all its worth. They feel it slipping away, which is why they have no choice but to double down.

In reality, Trump is causing the end of the Republican Party. A party that wants to survive would heave him overboard, but they can’t because he genuinely does represent who they are. There are no more principled Republicans left, not that there were ever many of them. Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t care about their professed goals like reducing budget deficits. They care about making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and stacking courts with conservatives who will force people they don’t like to do things their way. Most importantly of all, they care about retaining their white privilege. Sometimes they give away the store. As former Maine governor Paul LePage put it recently:

LePage told WVOM radio that allowing the popular vote to choose the president would give minorities more power and that “white people will not have anything to say.”

Thanks for clarifying that, Paul. But it’s not like these goals are mysteries; Trump has been the living embodiment of them. In the past though they were hidden behind code terms, like “states’ rights”. Now they are out in the open for all to see. Their racism is now explicit, not implicit while the nation keeps coloring up.

And yet, Cohen’s testimony feels like the beginning of the end. Cohen provided a tableau of people for Congress to call on to testify. With the House in Democratic hands, these people no longer have a choice on whether they want to testify. Deutsche Bank is now cooperating with Congress in its attempt to figure out how Trump was getting his financing, a supposed red line for Trump. Trump’s tax returns will soon be demanded and must be provided under law to the House upon request. Now the whole Trump Empire is subject to congressional subpoena and much of it can be examined in public testimony. “Rat” (a term Trump used that is only used by mobsters) Michael Cohen has provided many names, places to look and questions for Congress to ask. He should know, since he spent more than ten years at its center. We can also expect more indictments from Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York too, not to mention at some point a report from Mueller on his findings.

While it’s unclear if the Justice Department would charge Trump while in office, he can no longer realistically expect to escape justice. While Trump waits though, justice can still reach his underlings. It’s likely to reach Trump’s entire inner core including Roger Stone, Don Jr., Ivanka and son-in-law Kushner. And since justice takes time, it’s unlikely that Trump will be president when their cases could potentially become pardonable. And when Trump is out of office, he’s only pardonable by a successor, who is unlikely to be sympathetic to what looks like many crimes.

It took about eighteen months of testimony and work before the Watergate committees grew into the resignation of President Nixon. With his testimony, Michael Cohen has set in motion a snowball on a hill destined to crush many people beneath it as it cascades down the hill. Cohen demonstrated this week he knows just where to let his snowball drop. Now we just need time and patience.

Our national emergency non-emergency

The Thinker by Rodin

It turns out we’re having an emergency. It’s a strange one though, because it’s due to the misuse of The National Emergencies Act. We never imaged that a president would invoke the law for something other than an actual emergency. Obviously, Donald Trump has ignored that part and in typical Trump fashion, he went big: really big. That’s the emergency.

Trump’s true “emergency” is that he has a huge ego and it’s under threat. He wants to win reelection and senses he needs to start now. Given that he ran on building a wall on our southern border, he figures if he can’t show progress on this with his base along, he won’t win reelection. Congress keeps rejecting his requests to build more walls. So now he’ll bypass the Congress by declaring that wall is now an emergency. And he’ll take the money from other pots of money that were appropriated by Congress to do it.

You would think this would be malfeasance: an impeachable offense by itself, and Congress might move forward on removing this lawless president. But thanks to the crazy way this law was last amended in the 1970s and 1980s, it now means an evil president may be able to unilaterally reappropriate certain funds unless both houses of Congress can override him with a two-thirds vote. This is the exact inverse of the way the U.S. Constitution was written: money is ultimately appropriated only if both houses of Congress can override a president’s veto.

On Tuesday, the House will take the first step in declaring his emergency not to be one. The chances are iffy in the Senate, but it is probably likely to happen there too. Trump promises to veto the bill, which will mean that Congress will have to come up with a two-thirds majority in both chambers to undo this non-emergency. That’s not likely to happen, thus our emergency non-emergency.

It won’t happen because our Congress is now so partisan that Republicans in it can’t summon the nerve to override Trump’s veto, fearful of primary challenges in 2020 from MAGA heads. They will do this even when they know there is no emergency. It’s sad proof that for most of the Republicans, partisanship now takes precedence over their obligations to country. Like the president, they swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution when they assume office. The benefits of being in Congress must be great, and those pensions must be super-fat to put self-interest in front of the country’s interest. It’s also quite sad. Those of us who remember the Watergate days recall a less partisan time when the interests of the country and maintaining our democracy demanded it, Republicans could rise to the occasion.

This was my assumption too after Trump was inaugurated. I assumed if there was firm evidence for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, or to remove him via the 25th amendment, Republicans would rise to the occasion. It seemed logical at the time given the Watergate days experience. Forty-five years later though, it’s clear times have changed for the worse. It is now indelibly Party over country, at least for Republicans, unless they calculate that there is no political price they will have to pay.

Granted that many presidents used the National Emergencies Act for things that even at the time didn’t seem like emergencies. And granted also that Congress has mostly looked the other way when these emergencies were declared. It’s still an emergency to block the property of certain U.S. citizens supporting the government of Zimbabwe or Belarus, for example. But these “emergencies” were mostly minor matters and hardly worth Congress’s time to declare them non-emergencies. Nor were these “emergencies” of such broad scope or so egregiously designed to circumvent the will of Congress.

So the act needs to be amended to make some common sense reforms, like Congress has sixty days to vote that it’s an emergency and if it doesn’t then the emergency is not authorized. For me the real troubling part now is that this law has been thoroughly misused. It clearly violates Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The article unambiguously states that only Congress has the power to determine how appropriated funds will be used and their amounts.

Now apparently any “emergencies” that fall under the scope of the act mean the president can redirect funds and use them contrary to Congress’s intent unless two-thirds of Congress says otherwise. Given that the Supreme Court said the Line Item Veto legislation Congress passed during the Clinton years was an unconstitutional usurpation of congressional authority, the precedent to declare the National Emergencies Act unconstitutional too is clearly there.

As I noted in an earlier post, this will ultimately be decided in the courts. If this were an actual emergency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be busy constructing walls on the border right now and no one would be upset. Curiously, all previous presidents didn’t see it as an emergency. We simply have to hope that the U.S. Supreme Court sees this law as unconstitutional and strikes it down, or at least Trump’s interpretation of it. Yet the court has upheld it in various ways in the past, so this is not a given. However, it is very likely that the issue will linger until past the 2020 election, in which case if Trump loses it will hopefully become moot.

This should be a no-brainer for the courts. For the many so-called strict constructionist jurists on our Supreme Court, it should be obvious this use is unconstitutional, as it is being applied against the express wishes of Congress. Article I is crystal clear. But as I noted, we no longer have a government that puts the Constitution above party loyalty, so it’s no longer a given.

Should Democrats regain Congress and the White House, this should be one in a very high stack of legislative fixes to ensure “emergencies” like this never happen again.

The odd advantages of having a stupid president

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump is pretty damned stupid. Obviously he is not retarded. His vocabulary, while often elementary school level, is enough to be understood. He still knows how to apply the spray tan, dye his hair, then lacquer it with industrial strength hair spray. Anyhow, if you have any doubt, watch Trump’s news conference yesterday.

In any normal times, this would have leaders of both parties rushing to invoke the 25th Amendment. And they should have, but of course Republicans in Congress are too cowardly to admit the obvious. He is so stupid. Any half self-aware president would not announce that their national emergency for a border wall with Mexico wasn’t really a national emergency, undercutting the many cases that will come before various courts. But more than a few of them were probably thinking: He’s so stupid he probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to follow through anyhow, so what does it matter? Donald Trump goes for nice shiny objects that are dangled in front of him, hopefully with mirrors that reflect his glorious visage. He has proven staggeringly inept at actually getting anything done.

Think about it: he had control of all branches of government for two years and his signature accomplishment was piling on more tax cuts for the wealthy, something the Republican Party can always agree on. I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that my federal taxes are actually going up, but I live in a relatively high tax state now (Massachusetts) and I can’t claim to be in the top ten percent of income earners. To the extent he has been successful, it’s been in putting minions in charge of various departments with unusual wile and animus, but who are usually deeply corrupt such as Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt. They have no problem throwing people under the bus if it makes millionaires and corporations richer. It’s obvious though that while Trump wants to appear as an effective president, he simply can’t bother to spend the time to actually be one.

So this in a way is an advantage. Yes, he can foul up the machinery of government, but he’s not smart enough to do it adroitly. This means if you are going to elect a fascist as president, he’s the best possible fascist if you want to keep your constitutional democracy. This is because he is so stupid and clueless. He can’t be bothered to actually spend the time necessary to be a mendacious fascist, as his official schedule shows because it is loaded with “executive time” (read: watching Fox News).

It must bother the heck out of Vladimir Putin, but doubtless he was smart enough to realize Trump’s limitations. You get the sycophant you have, not the one you actually need. He was better than nothing but he will hardly bring about the rapid collapse of the United States.

Under the circumstances, our democratic government is handling his presidency pretty well. Many of his cabinet secretaries work against Trump’s aims, and do so overtly. The civil service seems to be morphing as best it can to provide passive resistance. During the latest shutdown, air traffic controllers showed Trump who was really in charge. This is amazing if you recall that Reagan fired all air traffic controllers for going on strike. The courts seem largely untouched, but stacking them with more Republican jurists will prove problematic over time. And now that Democrats control the House, it’s pretty clear that Trump’s agenda is blocked. No wonder then that he is left to declare fake “national emergencies” to stop the flow of migrants into our country, which is just 25% of the peak of the problem during the Clinton presidency.

Although the precedence for this emergency is very bad, don’t lose too much sleep over any more wall actually getting built. While it’s unlikely that Congress will overturn it, it is very likely that it will be ricocheting through the courts at least until the 2020 election, by which time it is likely to be moot. Trump has to hope he can win reelection and convince the Supreme Court to uphold his bogus emergency. That is, if he can be bothered to focus on it for the remainder of his term. Most likely he will be off playing with other new and shiny toys instead.

Should this happen again though it’s unlikely that our next fascist president will be as stupid as Trump. Hopefully Congress will turn blue and rewrite the national emergency law to prohibit exactly what Trump is trying to do. Let’s just be glad that if a Republican had to be elected president in 2016, it was Donald Trump and not Dick Cheney.

Trump folds

The Thinker by Rodin

Yea! We get to have an open federal government again! Donald Trump threw in the towel this afternoon and agreed to reopen government, at least for three weeks and without getting his stupid border wall. Just a couple of days ago I lamented that I couldn’t see how this would end. I was not alone. But very suddenly, it all changed.

We’ll probably not know for a long time what changed Trump’s mind. If I had to guess, it was the wheels spinning off the federal government. Air traffic controllers were calling in sick in enough numbers that it caused the FAA to suspend air traffic in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. When stuff like this happens, the pain extends beyond federal employees, their families and federal contractors. It hits the general public. And that makes them mad.

So it may be the unpaid but essential federal employees who brought the shutdown to an end by refusing to take the crap they were dished out anymore and calling in sick. It’s one thing for Trump to piss off his base; he’s basically been holding the government hostage to show Ann Coulter that he’s a real man. It’s quite another thing to be held responsible, not for the shutdown (all the polls show he’s being held to blame) but for something truly serious like an E. Coli outbreak or two airliners crashing into each other because there were insufficient controllers on duty.

This whole shutdown has been counterproductive to Trump’s and the Republican Party’s ends. It was stupid to do. It was an impulsive and rash decision by Trump in the first place. He is consistent in not thinking through the consequences of his actions. But it has had some surprising results. For the first time in my memory, the general public sympathizes with federal employees. They are no longer an evil, overpaid, lazy bunch of bureaucrats. They are real people who are seen as necessary and underpaid to boot.

The Republican Party has promulgated a lot of myths about federal employees over the years. As a four-year federal retiree, these always chafed on me. These myths have now been laid bare. Federal employees have endured decades of little or no cost of living raises. In the name of deficit reduction, it’s always in fashion to make federal employees pay.

In fact, the benefits of being a federal employee have been dramatically reduced over the decades. Federal employees still have pensions, but they are being asked to contribute more toward them. Inadequate cost of living raises have eroded their ability to buy things. Most federal employees live or work in the cities, which are high cost areas. They have been financially stretched for years.

So was no surprise to me to read stories of furloughed federal employees going to food pantries and losing their leases. So many of them are living paycheck to paycheck because their pockets have been picked for decades. To add insult to injury, now they get regularly furloughed. While federal unions are allowed, they are effectively toothless. They can’t bargain on wages. The sorts of benefits they bargain for amount to the discount at their department’s in-house health club. In August, Trump canceled a federal employee cost of living raise, for no reason anyone can figure out other than spite. The proposed raise was meager anyhow and would not have even kept up with the cost of living.

But it turns out that we need federal employees after all. And to fulfill a Republican’s worst nightmare, the general public now sees the value of federal employees. They make things work. They also see them as human beings, not faceless bureaucrats. It will take many years before they can be effectively stereotyped again.

From our trashed national parks, to our Coast Guard operating without pay, to the TSA agents who keep us safe traveling to the customs agents I encountered a week ago flying home from Ecuador, federal employees do important stuff. Some of the most important work you don’t see but take for granted, like ensuring that your food and medicine you use are safe. But it’s also stuff that is harder to see. During the shutdown, weather instrumentation that could not be maintained. This reduced the reliability of local forecasts.

Strangely, some federal employees do vote for Republicans. Not so much anymore. Even the most hardcore Republican in the federal bureaucracy won’t vote for Trump again, and probably not their Republican legislator or senator either, at least if they had a hand in keeping this shutdown going.

So who were the winners and losers?

  • Loser: Donald Trump. He literally could not have done a worse job with this shutdown. He proved once again that governing is way out of his league. He has no idea how to govern, how to garner support or even the basics of our constitutional government. He literally pleased no one, including his base. He only squealed because he was frightened things could get irreparably worse and that he would indelibly bear the blame. As for winning in 2020, he’s toast with 57% of Americans saying they will never vote for him in 2020.
  • Winner: Nancy Pelosi. It’s clear that she can kick ass and Trump is actually afraid of her. It may be because she is smart and pretty, and he finds that intimidating.
  • Winner (of sorts): Mitch McConnell. By refusing to do anything that Trump wouldn’t approve of, he likely did not reduce his 2020 reelection chances by much because he did not piss off his base too much. That’s all he cared about anyhow. He judged that no one would hold him accountable in the end. He’s probably right on that. As for his reputation as a spineless person unwilling to do his constitutional duty, that’s intact and impossible to erase.
  • Losers: Republicans in general. The Senate will probably flip to Democrats in 2020, and this shutdown will be a major factor. It is now seared as a painful national memory. Expect Republicans to lose more House seats too.
  • Winners (of sorts): Federal employees. They have found new sympathy and respect from the public. Actually, they have garnered empathy. A lot of them will throw in the towel anyhow, at least those who can afford to cut their losses and get out. I wouldn’t blame them. They’ve been treated abominably.
  • Losers: The American public in general. If nothing else, the 20% of the government that was shutdown for a month bought you nothing of value and made things worse. This was money wasted. This shutdown is likely to result in a negative GDP quarter and quite possibly trigger a recession.

We’ll see if Trump has learned his lesson in three weeks. He’s obviously not playing with a full set of marbles, so he might shut down the government yet again. Here’s hoping he’s retained enough of them not to make the same mistake twice.

The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.