Fiddling while the USA burns

The Thinker by Rodin

Reputedly Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Republicans pretty much reenacted this event this week when the Senate passed its version of a “tax reform” bill in the wee hours yesterday. As if Americans were not sufficiently appalled by the House’s version of the bill, the Senate’s version turned out to be even more of a looting spree. It got totally crazy in the generally gentlemanly Senate.

It turned out that cutting taxes was kind of incidental in this “tax reform” bill. Lots of taxes will get cut if you are wealthy. There is the illusion that middle and lower classes will have their taxes cut but at best it’s a temporary tax cut to make the budget math work. As for budgeting, apparently there is none because at least $1.5T in new debt will get authorized and most of that will go into the pockets of the rich who already can’t find enough ways to spend their existing windfalls. The permanent tax cuts the rich will get apparently aren’t good enough for the rest of us, but then again our current Congress is proof that not all the animals on the farm are equal. Even Republicans seemed less than enthusiastic about tax reform, but their donors were pretty explicit: cut our taxes or we stop funding your reelection campaigns.

Apparently regular order in Congress is now so 20th century. When asked when senators were supposed to find the time to read the tax bill, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said there would be plenty of time after the bill was passed. Amendments to amendments that were hand scrawled in the margins were submitted to the bill at the last hours of debate. No one had time to actually read the 400+ page bill chock full of new amendments. Lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers actually dictated the wording of many of these last minute amendments. There was one committee meeting that turned out to be a farce. Protestors were dragged out of the committee room as the discussion was going on.

A so-called budget reconciliation bill morphed into a social engineering bill. It tries to do lots of things that Republicans want to do. To kill the Affordable Care Act, it essentially lets people opt out of the requirement to get health insurance by removing any penalties for doing so. Last I checked, the bill sort of defined a person as not just a fetus in utero, but as potential human beings you might have at some future date, because it allows you to set up college trust funds for children not yet conceived. If all this were not crazy enough, the bill will require automatic Medicare cuts to kick in to save money because of the $1.5T in additional borrowing. We know this will effectively take away cancer treatment for many senior citizens because that’s what happened in the past when these cuts kicked in. Since senior citizens form the base of the Republican Party, senators effectively are giving the middle finger to their own base. Seniors had best hope they not get cancer. If they do, they better hope they can fund their treatment out of pocket. If not, well the Party of Life apparently wishes you a happy and premature entrance into eternal life because it’s far more important to give tax cuts to the rich than to keep you alive.

So the Senate bill now goes to conference with the House bill. It will be interesting to see what happens now, but something will likely get signed into law pretty soon. Trump will apparently sign anything Republicans put on his desk. He’s obviously not someone who pays attention to details. Whatever form of bill is signed into law it will take aim not just at Democrats, minorities and the poor, but Trump’s base and the Republican Party’s base too. Republicans think their base is the oligarchy. While they provide the money to keep them in office, these legislators actually stay in charge to the extent they can hoodwink the rest of their voters.

PT Barnum famously said that no one went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. So I can’t predict that come 2018 Republican voters will not stupidly continue to vote against their own interests. One clue may be next Tuesday’s special election in Alabama to replace Jeff Sessions’ senate seat. If Alabama voters are stupid enough to vote for Roy Moore, twice thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court and a documented pedophile, it might well predict modest Democratic gains at best in 2018. At best Democrats have a 50/50 chance of flipping the Senate.

I like to think though that Republicans will get their comeuppance next year. It sure looks that way with Trump’s approval rating at 34% and Congress’s less than half of that. Elections last month in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere showed Democrats very energized. The House should flip; the Senate looks more problematic. While the energy level from frustrated voters is very high, there are many unknowns. These include how gerrymandered districts will affect the outcome and continued voter disenfranchisement. An expected Supreme Court ruling next year may clarify the former issue.

Meanwhile, the circus continues. Trump is a terrible president but he continues to excel in one area: distracting us from stuff that matters. When Trump makes some crazy or inane tweet, it gets Washington all a Twitter, literally, while conveniently distracting us from the real issues at hand. Even for Trump though Trump is looking wholly unhinged. There seems to be a direct correlation between the Mueller investigation’s closing in him and the level of weirdness coming out of his Twitter feed. If it were a fire, it would be four-alarm.

Reality is slowly catching up with Donald Trump though. I expect he’s about to go Richard Nixon in a Saturday Night Massacre kind of way. When he senses Robert Mueller is too close, he’ll find a way to fire him, which will probably involve firing the Deputy Attorney General supervising Mueller and installing an acting sycophant who will fire him. That’s when the crazy gets even crazier. Like the fictional band Spinal Tap, the amplifier will then be set at 11.

Let’s hope voters can stay focused amongst the painful noise and vote rationally next November 6.

Do we have a constitutional crisis now?

The Thinker by Rodin

Last November before Donald Trump assumed office I opined that it wouldn’t be long before we had a constitutional crisis. It wasn’t a hard call to make and I was hardly alone is predicting how his administration was likely to unfold. Tuesday’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey though seemed to suggest to many that our constitutional crisis has at last arrived.

Since taking office, Trump has fired three prominent officials with Comey being the latest. All firings relate to potential collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. First up was Sally Yates, who Trump fired on January 30th. She was the acting Attorney General at the time, a holdover from the Obama administration but actually an acting Attorney General for a time during the Bush administration. She had the dubious job of running the department until Jeff Sessions was confirmed.

We learned from her testimony last week that less than a week into the Trump administration she urgently warned the White House counsel that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, had lied to Vice President Pence and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. She was fired supposedly for refusing to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration in court but that it came days after this warning to Trump’s counsel seems more than coincidental.

Next was Michael Flynn. He lasted until February 13; eighteen days after Yates first discreetly sounded the alarm. There were so many red flags around Flynn even before he joined the White House it’s amazing that Trump would be so clueless as to pick him. He had failed to register as a foreign agent even though he earned millions working with Russian interests in areas as sensitive as Russian infiltration into eastern Ukraine. President Obama fired him for bad judgment while director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Moreover Obama specifically warned Trump not to hire him. Now we also know that Sally Yates warned the White House as well. Interesting.

And now it’s FBI Director James Comey’s turn. He was fired allegedly because of his handling of the Clinton emails, handling that Trump specifically approved of and cheered on during the campaign. A long report by the Washington Post yesterday makes clear that Trump’s real motivation was that Comey was looking into connections between Trump and the Russian government. He wanted Comey to be looking into White House leaks instead. We also learned yesterday from the Post that Comey had petitioned the Justice Department for additional resources for the probe shortly before being fired.

So there have been three prominent firings by Trump so far and all were key actors involved in exposing potential Trump-Russian connections. It’s getting hard for anyone to credibly claim these actions don’t amount to obstruction of justice. This is why Democrats in particular want an independent special prosecutor to thoroughly investigate these allegations. Comey’s removal certainly slows any investigation. His replacement may stop the investigation altogether.

And who gets to nominate his replacement? Trump, of course, who will seek guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions was apparently instrumental in his firing, despite supposedly having recused himself from all matters related to Trump’s Russian connections.

What’s amazing is how brazen all of this is. Those of us with long memories will recall President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. Nixon first ordered his attorney general Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, an independent prosecutor tasked to investigate Watergate. Richardson resigned instead. Nixon then ordered deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus to do it, who also resigned. Next in line was Robert Bork (who was later nominated to be a Supreme Court justice). Bork did the deed and it probably cost him a seat on the court. A federal judge eventually determined that Cox’s firing was illegal. Just two weeks after the “massacre” Nixon resigned. No doubt many Americans are hoping Trump will follow Nixon’s timeline.

Nixon was at least politically savvy. One thing that is abundantly clear about Trump is that he is not. Moreover, with a few exceptions he’s populated his administration with people of similar disqualifications. The few with qualifications (Pence and Priebus) don’t seem to have the courage or ability to get Trump to weigh the political costs of his actions. This of course exacerbates Trump’s problems, giving the impression that he is digging his own political grave. His naivety is pretty staggering and he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Then there is the optics. The day after firing Comey he invited the Russian foreign minister, Russian ambassador and Nixon’s controversial secretary of state Henry Kissinger to the White House!

Forty years ago we weathered a similar crisis. It’s unclear whether we will this time. It all depends on the strength of character of key Republicans in Congress. In the 1970s Republicans were capable of putting country above party. The way these things usually evolve gives me hope, because when the politics of defending and excusing Trump become untenable for Republicans own reelection, tables can turn quickly. There is no consensus yet but doubtless many Republicans are weighing their own political calculations on when to jump ship. Forty years ago though districts were not so heavily gerrymandered. This suggests that there are more than two weeks left in a Trump administration.

It’s clear to me that by trying to make his political problems go away through firing people, Trump only makes them worse. If there were nothing to Trump-Russia connections then he would have no reason to be concerned, as nothing would tie him to it. Clearly though there is, which suggests to me that Trump eventually will suffer Nixon’s fate. Given his stubbornness, it may take impeachment, conviction and bodily removal by the Secret Service. In a way I’m hoping for the latter. Watching his bloated form being tossed outside the front gate of the White House would be quite a site for the ages.