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.

Trump is likely to sink the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

This NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has some really bad news for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The poll focuses on the latest government shutdown and Trump’s further sagging approval ratings. The real story though is a bit below the fold: 57% of voters surveyed said they will definitely not vote for Donald Trump should he run for reelection in 2020.

Assuming the poll is accurate and those polled will carry through on their threat, should Trump run for reelection in 2020, he can’t win. Democrats could presumably pick just about anyone for their nominee and he or she would win instead. Assuming that Trump does not resign or is not impeached and removed from office before his term expires, he’s destined for defeat.

I will grant you that elections are often decided in their final weeks and that what seems like a sure thing now it no guarantee in November 2020. However, the Trump brand is fully established now. It’s also quite obvious that Trump will not change. It looks like his idea of running the government models how he runs his businesses: they go bankrupt due to his insatiable ego and complete incompetence. It’s hard to see how any campaign by Russia can undo America’s opinion of Donald Trump now.

All this is good news if you don’t like Donald Trump. Savvy Republican operatives though (if there are any of them left) should not have too much trouble figuring out the implications of this: Trump is likely to kill the Republican Party. If so, it would be karmic justice, and perhaps some compensation for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and likely millions of federal contractors not being paid during the longest government shutdown in our history.

That’s not to say this shutdown might not injure the Democratic Party too. The longer it goes on, the likelier that both parties will share in the blame. Most voters though understand the real issue: Trump simply won’t compromise. He’s now gone out on a limb. To pull back now makes him lose face with the only group he cares about: his base. But his base keeps shrinking. By one measure it’s down 7%, based on his poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) thinks he is being savvy by not having the Senate take up any of the appropriations bills passed by the House to end the shutdown unless he knows that Trump will approve them. By his way of thinking, this keeps him in good stead with Trump, who doesn’t like him (the feeling is mutual). It’s quite likely though that if any of these bills were actually voted on, they would pass easily. There might even be veto-proof majorities in both houses. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 too in a deep red state that sided heavily with Trump. So he thinks his strategy is smart: it innoculates him from criticism that he undermined Trump.

But it’s not. Republicans currently must defend 22 seats in 2020, including McConnell’s. Democrats have to defend 12. With the Senate 53R-47D, Democrats have to pick up just four seats to flip the chamber. Picking up 4 of 22 Republican seats while defending their own seas are excellent odds. This is easily doable but gets much harder for Republican senators who closely align with Trump. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pain it inflicts on their reelection prospects as more of their constituents are affected by the shutdown. Every day sears the memory more.

Basically, Trump is a huge and present threat to the viability of the Republican Party. After 2020, it might be effectively killed. The smart thing for Congressional Republicans to do is also the most risky in the short term: dump Trump. Trump’s negatives will probably inspire other Republicans to also run for the 2020 Republican nomination. These efforts are likely doomed because the Republican Party as we have known it ceased to exist with Trump’s election. So in some sense, the Republican Party is already dead. What is it without Trump? What is its center? What is its animus? Who does it represent? Whoever it represents, it will require a coalition to govern and Trump’s base is not nearly large enough. Trump is Humpty Dumpty. It’s hard to see how to bring the Republican Party together again.

Trump is leading McConnell and the spineless people that populate the Republican Party right off the cliff.

Getting out … of a shutdown and a presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

The missus and me are getting ready to bug out of the United States for two weeks. Saturday we are off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While in the Galapagos, we’ll spend four nights on a yacht out of range of all Internet and cell phone towers. We’ll be diving into the ocean and seeing species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, in an area that is largely untouched by the scourge of man. Somehow we’ll have to survive for a while cut off from all media, particularly those four nights we spend on a yacht island hopping. But we’ll be wondering if there will be any TSA or CBP agents still on the job to let us back in on January 18th.

As vacations go, this one will be a departure. In theory, there is no jet lag to worry about, as Ecuador is in our time zone and the Galapagos Islands are basically on Central Time. There are no international flights to the Galapagos; you have to go through Ecuador. So we will spend a few nights in Quito breathing the rarified air at 10,000 feet up, seeing the cloud forests and putting one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. You can do that in Ecuador, which is basically on the equator. It will be the first time I will have ever been in the southern hemisphere. Still, there will be jet lag of sorts: rising around 4 AM for a flight to the Galapagos Island is equivalent to a red eye to Europe. But we’ll survive these trials and have a lot of fun.

So don’t expect much posting from me over the next couple of weeks, but I do hope to document our journey to this rarely visited area of the world, albeit belatedly. It all depends on how much time I have to write and if I have Internet access. We’ll be kept pretty busy.

Still, I imagine our thoughts will frequently be of home and how much wackier our country has gotten since we left. Democrats now formally control the U.S. House, which means that our crazy government is about to get a lot crazier. Our national parks are overrun with litter and our museums are closed. Those asylum cases underway: postponed; no money has been allocated to pay the judges. Something has to break so you have to wonder how it will break and when.

A couple of Republican senators seem ready to cry uncle, specifically senators Susan Collins (ME) and Cory Gardner (CO), both up for reelection in two years in states swinging blue. House Democrats are swiftly passing bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider them if they are not acceptable to Donald Trump. There is another meeting tomorrow at the White House that probably won’t change the dynamics. In any event, it’s hard to see how a Democratic House with forty new and mostly progressive members can be convinced to add funding for a border wall, since most of them campaigned against doing just this. Speaker Pelosi is pursing a logical strategy of trying to pass individual appropriation bills, but she has to convince people who are not thinking logically.

Divided government requires compromise but it’s hard to see how it will happen. It will probably happen when the pain gets too bad to endure. I’m betting that Trump declares victory to make it all go away. Today’s tweets suggest he’s already preparing his supporters for this out: because of the new NAFTA treaty, Mexico will somehow pay for the wall, so problem over! Of course the treaty is not ratified, Congress has not agreed to allow a wall to be constructed, and there are no revenues there that will be paid by Mexico to the U.S. government that can be used for a border wall even if the treaty is signed. In the end though this probably won’t make much difference to his supporters: they will dopily follow Trump anywhere. If Trump says black is white, they’ll believe him. Mostly they want to see him stand up and fight for something, and mostly he’s been full of bluster instead of action.

If Democrats want to concede something symbolic, then how about a small wall near Tijuana? A nice, outwardly arching wall would obviate the need to throw canisters of tear gas across the border. I’d like to see Democrats propose to open the government by throwing the border wall issue to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to study. I doubt Trump would go for it, but it would defer the issue for another day and inject some honest research into the topic.

In reality, Trump has much bigger fish to fry. The subpoenas from House Democrats are going to come fast and thick. Hearings will be ramping up; Trump’s tax returns will be demanded from the IRS that must supply them by law. And of course we can expect Mueller’s report at some point, and it’s unlikely to be flattering to Trump.

Some posts ago I suggested that Trump won’t escape justice this time, but there is a way. It requires a deal, not with Congress or Mueller, but with Mike Pence. It is simply this: Trump agrees to resign if Mike Pence will pardon him for any crimes committed against the United States. He’d still have to deal with potential state crimes, but there is some hope that the Supreme Court will rule that states cannot prosecute people pardoned for similar federal crimes. This approach though assumes that Trump’s narcissism can abate long enough for him to execute something smartly in his self-interest. He’s obviously feeling the pressure, as his daily tweets get continually more unhinged. It’s clear he hates being president. He just has to figure out a way to justify his resignation. If he does resign, he will blame the deep state, Democrats and obviously anyone but himself.

And there is the 25th amendment route that Pence could choose, if he can get a majority of what’s left of Trump’s cabinet to agree. As an acting president, he could at least reopen the government. If it came to it, it wouldn’t be hard to find some top-notch psychiatrists to testify that Trump is dangerously mentally ill. I’m not holding out much hope on this. Pence is likely too much a coward, Trump’s base is too loyal and he would be seen as a turncoat.

It would be nice if it were all over when we return. But I’d best not hold my breath.

Shutdown dumbness

The Thinker by Rodin

There are lots of good things about being retired like me, but if you are an ex-federal employee like me, there is one truly great thing: not having to deal with yet another furlough from yet another government shutdown. These shutdowns became something of a regular thing during the last half of my career. They were always aggravating and pointless, as this current partial shutdown underway proves yet again. That’s not to say that they are easy to endure. Lots of federal employees live paycheck to paycheck, so even if they eventually get repaid it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering. The ones who suffer the most are probably those required to work anyhow, the “essential” ones like your TSA agents. Lincoln freed the slaves but not the essential employees during a government shutdown.

Some people actually lose money, principally federal contractors. Most of them cannot work unless federal employees supervise them, and in that case their contract usually does not allow them to bill hours. Eventually though there is a whole host of connected people and businesses affected: childcare providers, local businesses, transit systems, the traveling public and those tourists who just want to visit a national park. The longer it goes on the more painful it gets. Sitting on your ass at home is really not much fun, as I discovered. There is a lot of angst to being furloughed as you have no idea when it will end and whether your bank account will hold out until then. And many federal employees were like me: very mission focused, anxious to simply do our jobs.

For me this is now moot. Somehow I will still get my pension payment on time. I guess that and delivering social security checks are considered essential. Chances are though if they weren’t, it would spur both Congress and the President to make choices neither wants to make.

So there is no such thing as a smart shutdown, but there are dumb shutdowns and dumber than dumb shutdowns. This current one is one of the latter. It happened because only at the last minute Trump changed his mind. He apparently was watching Fox News and found out he was being criticized for not being tough enough on his border wall. Suddenly the continuing resolution passed unanimously by the Senate that he had approved was no longer acceptable. It was put up or shut up time for Trump, or at least for a few shrill people in the media whose support he craves. This shutdown has the feeling of one that is going to linger a long time, which might make the 1995 shutdown look like small potatoes.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? We’re about to find out. Most likely it won’t end well, or quickly. Now that Trump is out on a limb, he has no way to back down without losing face, something a bully cannot do. Lose face and you look impotent.

He complains that it’s a Democratic shutdown, but until January 3 Republicans control all branches of government. And Congressional Republicans have decided to punt the whole leadership thing. When Democrats gain forty seats on January 3, they are unlikely to be in an accommodating mood. And since all spending bills must originate in the House, a Democratic House is not likely to add funding for a border wall.

The Senate could add it back in, but they didn’t feel it necessary last time, and if they send it back to the House with border wall funding it probably won’t pass. Meanwhile, the productivity of millions of federal workers and contractors are lost, while the “essential employees” continue to work without pay. How long before essential employees go on strike? Why show up for work when you have no income to give to the landlord for the January rent?

If the shutdown were about something that mattered, maybe it would be worth the price. But it’s about a border wall that two-thirds of Americans don’t want and that a Republican Congress has repeatedly refused to fund. Moreover, it’s for a wall that won’t even solve the problem that Trump is so concerned about. As Anne Applebaum points out, the number of people crossing the southern border illegally has fallen 90% since 2000. The real scofflaws? Those overstaying their visas, who mostly fly in, 700,000 of which are Canadians. Trump has not proposed building a wall along our border with Canada, so clearly the issue has much more to do with the color of the scofflaw’s skin than anything else.

As a method of keeping people out though a wall is a terrible idea. There are much cheaper ways to accomplish border security and they are working pretty well. One of the best ways is to invest in the countries sending these people, like Honduras. Given them safety and economic opportunity where they live and there is no reason to head north. Of course Trump is now threatening to take away what little aid we give these countries, exacerbating the problem.

Yesterday Trump threatened to shutdown the whole southern border. It’s not clear that he can do that but it would certainly get attention, as about half a million people cross the border legally every day. Considering the amount of trade that goes on between the U.S. and Mexico, including lots of produce and auto parts, doing this for any sustained period of time would be disastrous. If you are looking to tip an economy officially into recession, this should do it.

All this so Trump’s narcissism can be sated a bit. You have to wonder just how dumb his supporters are. Did they really believe all the bullshit he was claiming? If nothing else then perhaps this shutdown will finally reveal the fraud behind the curtain.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Will one side blink? I do suspect if it drags on long enough, Congress will find the wherewithal to override Trump’s veto. The Senate needs 20 of 53 Republican senators to overturn a Trump veto. With 40 new Democrats in the House, 55 out of 199 Republicans would have to vote against Trump, or 27% of the caucus. I think it’s doable if the pain gets bad enough. If Congress does it though it would set a good precedent by making Trump increasingly irrelevant. Here’s hoping.

Trump and the price of being a bullshit artist

The Thinker by Rodin

So basically our government is shutdown because of bullshit.

At midnight today much of the government shutdown again, but this time it was because Trump got caught in his own bullshit. For years he had been talking about a great, big, beautiful wall on our southern border to keep the “illegals” out. It was going to have a great big door, the best of course. I guess gates aren’t allowed on this border wall. And most importantly Mexico was going to pay for it. He said it over and over again. If there was anything about his 2016 campaign that will be remembered in the history books, it will be all the relentless repetitions on this theme:

So you would think that if he really wanted to deliver on his signature promise, it would be pretty simple: order the U.S. Marines to occupy Mexico’s National Palace where its treasury is located and loot the place of the $50B or so needed to build Trump’s beautiful wall and door. Take the money back to the U.S. and build the wall. He’s commander in chief and doesn’t need the approval of Congress to send in the Marines. Or he could order a small thermonuclear weapons to be used on a suburb of Mexico City to show the Mexicans we’re serious … they need to pony up the dough for the wall now.

But no. Apparently what he really meant was that if Mexico refused to pay for it, Congress has to pony up the money instead. He is now spouting the line that the shutdown is the Democrats’ fault, even though until January 3, 2019 Republicans still control Congress.

I guess reinforced fences aren’t enough. It’s got to be a wall, a wall that somehow won’t get tunneled under like happens now. It’s got to be a tall wall to keep the drugs from coming in, as if they won’t continue to come in the way they already have: tunnels under the border, hidden inside trucks and in airplane cargo, or by speedboats. It’s going to have to be a hell of a tall wall to keep a catapult from throwing drugs over the wall, assuming smugglers want to try such a brazen method. With over two thousand miles of border, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a spot to toss some of it over.

Here’s the saddest part: Trump never really wanted the wall. The wall was a means to an end: to get elected (which surprised him) but really to get the crowds at his rallies riled up. It gave him the adulation that he craves more than anything else. Trump as usual wanted to have his cake and to eat it too. Apparently Trump loves the “illegals”; at least he loves to hire them. Apparently the maid who cleaned his toilet at Mar-a-Lago was undocumented. Trump doesn’t want to pay full price for anything, so of course he will have his managers look the other way to bring in the cheap help.

Anyhow, he apparently he did a good job of selling this wall thing with his base. Now they actually want him to build it. His base is only 25% of the public, but he’s convinced that somehow with this base happy he will win reelection, although a majority of Americans don’t want a border wall. Congress at least understands it’s kind of pointless: why spend $50B to build a wall that won’t even solve the problem?

In fact, if ever constructed it would make things a lot worse. It would be an eyesore for sure. It will get breached repeatedly. Like any other public infrastructure, it will require patching and maintenance. If Republicans’ willingness to spend money on highway infrastructure is any clue to how it will play out, the undamaged portions wall will simply deteriorate from neglect. Some migratory animals wouldn’t migrate anymore, not that this would bother them. Most importantly, the cheap labor we’ve depended on from the south to keep the economy humming might slow down, leading to our economic decline. I mean are you going to volunteer to clean all those airport toilets? Are you going to volunteer to pick crops in California and Arizona?

That won’t happen. But what will happen in time is that sufficient numbers of guest worker visas will get approved anyhow. Agribusiness won’t allow Congress to pull these visas anyhow; heck, Trump’s many resorts and winery depend on these special visas. Those from Central and South America who want to come here will do it the old fashioned way: on a tourist visa whose expiration date they will ignore. For the most part they will have to fly in, which is not cheap. Perhaps we’ll get a higher class of “illegal”.

This pointless shutdown is all about saving face for Trump. Someone pulled the mask of the old Lone Ranger. Ironically, Tonto did it.

Post 2000 and the blog continues

The Thinker by Rodin

I had to check. I reached post 1000 on August 29, 2009. Today on December 20, 2018 I finally hit the latest milestone, post 2000. My expectation was that maybe I could reach post 2000 on December 12, 2018. Then if I were to take the blog down, as I hinted I might, it would be after exactly sixteen years of blogging. Seemed fitting, somehow.

Happily, traffic has picked up just enough where I find the impetus to keep going. Most of my posts go into a backwater wasteland somewhere with zero likes or reposts, but some still seem to resonate. I’m not sure how they end up resonating. Maybe someone on my email list recommends them. It used to be that I could count on Google search to boost some posts. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. In any event, it makes no sense to blog if hardly anyone is reading. So, dear readers, if you want the blog to continue, simply read it and recommend posts to your friends when you think it warrants it. If this blog goes down, it probably won’t due to my disinterest, but only because no one seems to be listening. If blogging amounts to talking to myself online, it has no point.

What’s been resonating? The home page gets the most hits, about 26% of the total page views so far this year. Those pages that broke the twenty page views in the last thirty days include one on Trump’s treason, the beginning of the decline and fall of the Trump presidency, on the nature of reality and my Mike Pence tag for some reason. It may be that Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the blogosphere. It’s hard not to comment on Donald Trump given his disastrous presidency and its oversized impact on our nation. But of course even when I think I have a unique perspective on him, there is so much other content out there on him that it’s hard for anyone’s to get noticed unless you have a lot of followers already.

And that’s part of my problem. I suck at marketing, but worse, I don’t really want to market the blog. I don’t promote it with friends and family; in fact I actively discourage them from reading it. They know it’s out there but for the most part they don’t read it. I don’t post links to my posts on Facebook. I prefer anonymity but arguably it’s kind of pointless now that I’m retired. Not all my ideas are acceptable in polite society.

The blog’s decline has been exacerbated by the demise of Craigslist’s casual encounter’s section. I could count on my monthly reviews of these bizarre posts to bring in several hundred page views per month on average. Nothing has replaced it. Nonetheless, this 2015 post on Hartford’s section still gets regular hits. Maybe it’s due to nostalgia. For myself, I don’t miss reviewing these posts. While good for my traffic, there wasn’t much new in them. After a while, even the most bizarre posts seemed perfectly normal.

I restate myself a lot, with many variations based on topics in the news. With 2000 posts, of course you are going to find that you are repeating yourself. But since hardly anyone has read most of my posts (I mean who would be following me for sixteen years?) it doesn’t matter. Trying to make sense of the present is quite hard and feels kind of futile. Not all things that happen really make any sense.

Retirement has expanded my interests. In theory it gives me more time for blogging but in practice other hobbies and interests have taken up the time instead. I don’t want to post more than once or twice a week. There are plenty of other things to keep me engaged. My IT business keeps expanding. I revel in open source projects, teaching a class here and there, and the luxury of so much time in retirement. It’s time to do things like take daily walks; bikes rides; or simply slog through my favorite websites. I keep busy, mostly happily while our national nightmare continues to unfold around us.

So thanks for reading. I hope it is worth our time.

Trump won’t escape justice this time

The Thinker by Rodin

Karmic payback is a bitch. Donald Trump has spent a lifetime avoiding accountability. He got out of serving in Vietnam by having the family doctor write letters saying he had bone spurs in his foot. He escaped poverty by being born into a rich family and by having a father who made him a millionaire (in today’s dollars) at age three.

Letting others take the hit for him cushioned most of his failures. His father bailed out his failing businesses at least three time. When his businesses failed, fellow investors often took it on the chin instead of him. He also stiffed lots of contractors. When things got tight financially, he found people and institutions willing to bail him out.

It’s pretty obvious now why he has refused to release his tax returns. They will show he is not nearly as wealthy as he claims to be. Investigations seem to be showing how he really got his money during the last decade or so: loans from Deutsche Bank, which were probably underwritten by Russian oligarchs. There was also lots of money laundering: selling condos for inflated prices, disproportionately to Russian oligarchs and always in cash.

For Trump, it’s always about the money. He’s assumed that money buys privilege. Wave enough green stuff under their noses and he can make affairs with Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy bunnies disappear. And to his credit, between this, his late father’s money and lots of suspicious money laundering, it’s worked for him. All his life he has taken huge risks, but most of them were cushioned. It’s given him a brash and oversized obnoxious personality. Trump has always stayed one step ahead of the game. However, he’s going to find out that he can’t escape consequences and justice this time.

Trump will be able to postpone a lot of the accountability that is coming at him. His best strategy for holding on is to win reelection in 2020 or die in office. Because of a Department of Justice regulation that declines to prosecute presidents while in office, holding onto power is essential to continue his no-accountability lifestyle. He’s also hoping his latest Supreme Court pick, Justice Kavanaugh, will go to bat for him in a future ruling. The question likely to make it to the court: can a sitting president be indicted while in office for state crimes if federal regulations won’t let him be prosecuted for similar federal crimes? A decision by the court there might expand protections to exempt these as well as long as he is in office.

So far it’s not looking too good for Trump. A federal judge has allowed an emoluments lawsuit by Maryland and the District of Columbia to go forward; subpoenas of the Trump Organization will soon be issued.

It’s hard though to see a scenario where charges are not filed after he leaves office. There is one really wacky outlier possibility: Trump decides to pardon himself for any crimes he may have committed. A president’s pardon power in the constitution is not explicitly limited to prohibit him from pardoning himself. That’s because the constitution assumed that the president would not be wholly corrupt. It appears that a president cannot pardon crimes explicitly specified in the constitution itself. Ultimately it would be up to the Supreme Court again to decide if Trump could legally pardon himself. As stacked as the court is with right wing judges, it’s hard to see how even a court full of “strict constructionists” could uphold such a pardon. It would make a mockery of the rule of law. Trump of course has explicitly said he has the power to pardon himself.

So in early 2021 or early 2025 at the latest, the game is up for Trump and his accountability moment will finally arrive. Fortunately for prosecutors, Trump has left numerous breadcrumbs that will make documenting his complicity and intentions a no brainer; his Twitter feed is an obvious place to start. Trump is his own worst enemy, a condition due to his obvious case of malignant narcissism. Far from being a stable genius, he is an impulsive dumbass instead.

Maybe he still suffers from delusions that he can get the justice he wants by appointing people who will stifle Mueller’s investigation. That horse is already out of the barn. Mueller’s final report may be squelched by a new Attorney General (who won’t recuse himself from the Mueller investigation), but Mueller has already written de-facto reports. They are called indictments. Moreover, Mueller has smartly decentralized parts of the investigation, for instance, turning over the prosecution of Michael Cohen (Trump’s late personal attorney) to the Southern District of New York. It’s unlikely that whoever oversees Mueller will do much to restrain him. The political costs are too high.

Trump is stuck, but so is the nation. I’ve suggested before that Trump might just resign. A more reasonable president would when he saw the odds against him. But in Trump’s case, a resignation opens the door for prosecutions against him to start. Trump is obviously not playing with a full deck; he may be too stupid to realize this and resign anyhow. But he has every incentive to hang onto power simply to avoid the accountability that has always been chasing him. The House may impeach him, but he’s unlikely to be convicted in the Senate, even though the legal case for his corruption is overwhelming. So likely we have two more years of struggling with a slowly dissembling Donald Trump instead.

Given Trump’s obesity and the psychological stress he is obviously under, it may kill him first. As he gets loonier and loonier, a 25th amendment remedy could be triggered. Given though how much lunacy he has already inflicted on us, and Pence has not triggered the 25th amendment, it’s hard for me now to see how this can happen. But it certainly could. There may be some limit to his lunacy that those left in his administration simply can no longer tolerate.

Ultimately justice should be served, in the courts if not from his premature death from a stroke or embolism. It remains to be seen though whether there will be much left of our democracy at the end of this national trial. But while our courts at least seem to remain largely uncorrupted, there is plenty of reason to feel confident that justice will eventually be served on Donald J. Trump.

The decline and fall of the Trump presidency has begun

The Thinker by Rodin

One thing is pretty clear to me as a result of the 2018 midterms: the decline and fall of Donald J. Trump has started in earnest. Most likely it will quickly pick up speed.

The phases are a lot like dying, except Trump is unlikely to ever reach the final stage: acceptance. If he’s still around on January 20, 2020 when a Democrat is inaugurated president, it will probably be up to the Secret Service to bodily remove him from the White House. I doubt he will show up for the inauguration of his successor, breaking with a long precedent. After all, he couldn’t be bothered to show up for two Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. I don’t think there’s a back door on the White House, but I think there is an underground walkway to the Executive Office Building. That’s probably how he will sneak out of Dodge.

We’ve hit peak Trump, at least as far as Trump’s political power goes. Granted he can still wreak a lot of damage and do other crazy things like getting us into a new war. But he’s reached the point where any action is ultimately self-defeating and only his base believes he is truly working in the national interest. If Trump’s past is any guide to his future, he may cash in his chips and resign, particularly if Mueller’s report ever gets released. The only part of being president that he likes is the attention it gives him, and lately it’s been a lot of negative attention. No fun in that!

Trump is such a child that this latest phase was entirely predictable. He tried to spin his midterm losses as a great victory at first. A few days later it finally dawned on him that he was, well, largely trumped. Then of course he started pointing fingers because of course he couldn’t possibly be to blame. The most recent one was that these defeats were because he was not on the ballot. How strange! One of the few joys he gets from the presidency is holding rallies. He went all over the country to stir up his base and repeatedly told them they had to show up. And they did, but there’s just a lot less to Trump’s base than there used to be and they did not show up in the numbers that Democrats showed up. He held three rallies in Montana trying to defeat Democrat Jon Tester and failed.

The nation has been onto the disaster that is Donald J. Trump for a long time. Trump still hasn’t figured it out; at least it’s not something he can admit to himself. But emotionally he knows he’s been whipped. You can see it in his poutiness and isolation, but also by his reflexively defensive positions. He knows he can’t keep House Democrats from investigating him next year. He’s tried putting in a lackey, Matt Whitaker, as Acting Attorney General to blunt the Mueller probe, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to work. Before November 6th, he had Congressional Republican majorities to protect him. Starting in 2019, House Democrats are going to strip him metaphorically naked. We’ll see his tax returns. We’ll learn how much the Trump Campaign was in bed with the Russians. For the next two years, his life will only continue to get more hellish. This is why I think there’s a significant probability he will simply resign at some point.

Even Fox News isn’t reliably parroting his talking points anymore. Actually it’s been Fox News that has set most of his talking points. That is principally Trump’s source of news and opinions, but Fox News’ listeners are predominantly rapidly aging senior citizens. With all the younger people of color coming into Congress, it’s pretty clear that changing demographics are finally reaching critical mass. What eventually emerges won’t necessarily be blue states from sea to shining sea; most likely there will always be plenty of red states in between. Before 2020 though it may finally dawn on Republicans that Trump is a dead man walking and it’s in their best interest to cut him loose. They probably won’t summon the nerve to find a primary challenger to Trump, but they should field someone. As he continues to dissemble, it will be easier for some Republicans to summon some courage in the hopes of beating the long odds. Suddenly, Jeb Bush may not look so bad anymore.

Trump was never great at picking people to work for him. Mostly they are incompetent but sometimes he picks someone actively malicious and effective. Most quickly flame out. His White House is chaotic with no one really in charge. The most recent prominent example was picking Matt Whitaker as acting Attorney General. It’s unclear whether his legal staff first looked into this. I doubt they did because any competent attorney would have warned him picking Whitaker was probably against the law. Most likely Trump just decided impulsively to pick him and left it to staff to deal with the wreckage. This just goes to show his utter incompetence.

Trump certainly excels at keeping the focus on feeding his own ego, and the media is likely to keep dancing to his tweets in the hope of continued advertising revenue. While the general rule is that even negative attention is better than no attention at all, Trump will discover that when attention only generates bad press that it can cut him, make him bleed and perhaps fatally wound him too. Stay tuned.

We are living in Future Shock

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans lived through a frightening week last week. Bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and supporters. Thankfully, none of these exploded. The FBI apprehended a suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc. Yesterday something far worse happened: eleven people were killed and six injured in an obvious hate crime at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers was quickly arrested for these crimes.

Both Sayoc and Bowers fit the usual pattern for these criminals today: right wing domestic terrorists and big Trump supporters, although Bowers had some criticisms of Trump. Sayoc’s van was famously festooned with right wing invectives and pictures on almost every window (which restricted visibility so much it was probably illegal). Both Sayoc and Bowers used social media, in Bowers case to basically announce his attack on Jews was imminent. Bowers’ crime might have been prevented if someone had bothered to notice it or if we did not allow people like him to have guns in the first place.

It’s not surprising that most of these incidents are by right-wing domestic terrorists. Statistically these people cause 71% of these domestic terrorism incidents, with just 25% domestically by actual Muslim terrorists. This Anti-Defamation League (ADL) heat map makes abundantly clear who’s most likely to trigger these incidents and they tend to be male, white, Republican, conservative and loners. With yesterday’s latest incident in Pittsburgh, the right wing can now claim 74% of the victims of these incidents. From their social media postings, it’s clear that Trump inspired both Sayoc and Bowers. Trump of course with his advanced case of malignant narcissism disclaims any association with these perpetrators. With a case as bad as his, of course you are going to praise a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who body slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy” and feel no remorse. His narcissism would not be malignant if he felt remorse.

What’s harder for most people to see is that horrendous incidents like these are entirely predictable. What’s new is that we have Donald Trump as a prominent catalyst; no president has ever incited people to violence before. This gives these incidents explicit sanction. To an extent we are all players of this game because we are awash in a world undergoing great change. Certain personality types though are more likely to “go postal” than others: those groups who feel the most threatened. Conservatives at least in theory like things the way they were (and in most cases they weren’t actually the way they were) so are more likely to engage in these crimes, as borne out by the ADL’s heat map.

Trump of course is a master bully. My own personal theory is that he is empowering other former bullies to be bullies again. Curiously, many of these actions actually amount to cowardice of some form. Sayoc’s alleged actions mailing pipe bombs allow him to hurt other people without necessarily being discovered. (He was a particularly inept criminal, leaving fingerprints on his explosives. His crazy van was certainly a red flag and doubtless helped authorities track him down.) Bowers showed up in person with a number of armaments including an assault rifle. When Trump tells people at his rallies that it’s okay to beat up reporters at the rally and he’ll pay their legal expenses, he’s obviously giving explicit sanction to others to act as his proxies. A legal case could be made that Trump is guilty of inciting terrorism.

Change is an inevitable consequence of living. We’ve been plunging headlong into the future at rates that obviously make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with it too. Ironically, conservatives are causing much of the change they are fighting against. For example, if you say that businesses should be able to create any product they want because they are innovators and capitalism is great but not consider the consequences, you end up with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that show us only content that meets our own biases. To deal with their cognitive dissonance, Trump has labeled anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and it’s clear that the supporters at his rallies largely agree.

They are obviously wrong. My mother-in-law, a lifelong smoker, never agreed that smoking causes lung cancer, even though the research was overwhelming and she died a painful and somewhat premature death from lung cancer. Climate deniers, principally right-wingers, are doing the same thing. It’s like the lobster getting out of the pot and turning up the heat then jumping back into the pot. It’s counterproductive and makes no sense. And we know it’s only a matter of time, should we live so long, when they will be proven wrong. Our species might die off as a result, but to them this is just more fake news.

Liberals are not entirely blame free either. How much freedom can we promote when many of the consequences of freedom also contribute to these problems? For example, if we want a higher standard of living for everyone without figuring out a way to do it in a sustainable way, we contribute to the destruction of our planet. We can’t always be sure our proposals will actually solve the problem, or fit the circumstances.

I believe that there are larger forces at work. Most of us will carry the values we learn from our parents and pass them on to our children, so it takes generations to change most of these values if they change at all. We also unconsciously carry many of our parents’ issues and anxieties. Unfortunately, we don’t have generations to get it right. Anxiety is actually a rational reaction to a rapidly changing world, but paralysis is not. Unfortunately for conservatives, we can’t go back to the way things were. And unfortunately for liberals, we don’t have the luxury of trying many approaches until we find the right combination. We have only the fierce urgency of now that none of us can escape, with many of us lacking the wisdom for making an informed choice. I hope November 6 proves me wrong.

(For those of you wondering, this blog is not completely dead. I’m feeling the need to continue at least through post 2000, as it seems a good closure point. Ideally I’ll get there on our before December 12, 2018, the end of sixteen years of blogging.)

Preventing future presidents Nixon and Trump

The Thinker by Rodin

In my sixty-one years I have watched two disastrous presidencies implode. Nixon’s ended in an abrupt resignation following the Watergate scandal. Trump’s implosion is currently underway. It’s unclear how it’s going to end, but I’m reasonably confident he won’t survive a first term. It’s also unclear if our nation will too, at least in its form where branches of government keep a check on each other, which is already not happening.

Both Nixon’s and Trump’s presidencies qualify as national crises. Over the decades too much power has shifted toward the Executive and Congress has largely failed in its role to check the Executive’s power. Moreover, because the presidency has become so powerful, it attracts people drawn to power including people who should really not be president. Trump is the obvious poster child.

Given that about forty years spanned Nixon and Trump, it’s not too hard to predict that if nothing changes we’ll endure another disastrous presidency within a few decades.

One way of checking executive power has already been enacted: we passed the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to no more than two terms. Unfortunately, eight years gives presidents plenty of time to muck of the mechanics of government.

Time is revealing some flaws in our constitutional system. How do we fix things? These suggestions range from the idealistic and unlikely to the practical. They don’t necessarily guarantee another Nixon or Trump but make them less likely. Of course I am hardly the first one to suggest some of these solutions.

Elect a national attorney general. Many states do this already. It allows the people to decide who should impartially administer our laws. Being a constitutional office, this person could not be fired by the president but would take an oath to impartially administer the laws of the United States and would be in charge of managing the Justice Department. Because presidential election years are too consequential, I propose we elect an attorney general during midterm election years. The term would be for four years. Nixon and Trump demonstrate that you can’t count on a president to ensure that justice is fairly administered, particularly when the Justice Department has to look into the executive branch. The executive needs its hands constitutionally tied from managing the impartial administration of justice.

Get rid of the Electoral College. Presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Of course, twice recently it didn’t happen. Had Al Gore and Hillary Clinton (who won the popular votes) become president, it’s unlikely that we would have invaded Iraq or had to worry about a lawless chief executive. Obviously a constitutional amendment is a steep climb given that it’s not in red states’ interests. Still, initiatives like the National Popular Vote would guarantee electoral votes to the popular vote winner nationwide by committing a state to assign all its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. These state laws are written to take effect only when enough states that comprise a majority of the electoral votes pass state laws. 12 states are currently onboard representing 172 electoral votes. We need states comprising 98 more electoral votes to make this a reality. No, it’s not unconstitutional because the constitution empowers states on how they wish to apportion their Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner take all system.

Require presidential candidates release their tax returns to get on the ballot. The constitutionality of some proposed state efforts has been questioned, which is probably while this has been introduced in a few state legislatures it hasn’t passed in any. However, Congress could pass such a law with no issues. Obviously, this has been a problem with Trump, who still claims the IRS is auditing his returns, which is false. Even if it were true, there is no law prohibiting a candidate from releasing his tax returns while being under audit.

Split the presidency into two positions: head of state and chief executive. Arguably the U.S. president has too much power, as he/she is both the head of state and the chief executive. As a practical matter, doing both competently is virtually impossible. Most other democracies split these duties. For example, Israel elects a president that represents the nation but has few powers, but can speak for the nation. Its prime minister is the chief executive. Great Britain has the Queen as its head of state. Presidents tend to be politicians, not statesmen. We need both, not one or the other. The head of state should be the moral voice of the country. They too could be elected in “off” years.

Decentralize first-use of nuclear weapons. It’s quite frightening that Donald Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons against any country he wants at any time, given his impulsive nature documented in Bob Woodward’s latest book Fear. In general, this is a dangerous power with massive implications for the nation. Congress should pass a law that prohibits the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States without the consent of Congress. Since such a decision might clue in potential adversaries, such a decision should require agreement by the president, Speaker of the House and both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.

Reinstate the full Voting Rights Act. We need a law that explicitly overturns Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The case removed constrains on certain mostly southern states with a history of suppressing minority votes from enacting voter laws without a preclearance from the Justice Department. If we want to be non-discriminatory, make all states get preclearances. When a day after this decision, Alabama passed a Voter ID law you know this will be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Obviously I am against political or racial gerrymandering. I would like to see federal voting districts drawn impartially by federal judges, as is true in most republican forms of government. This effects the composition of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, so it’s off topic here. It has no effect on the national popular vote for president.