Friday, April 20, 2018

Paul Ryan, the short-distance runner

IT HAD BEEN going so well, or, at least as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The Washington Post reported recently how, days earlier, political advisers to Rep. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives “announced he had already raised $54 million over the last 15 months, $40 million of which was directed to ... GOP campaigns through the National Republican Congressional Committee.”

The speaker’s reputation as a top-tier fundraiser was soaring, even if his cred as herder of fractious cats — leader of the Republican caucus — was under fire and his ability to navigate the turbulence of the Trump White House was always in question.

But then he went and spoiled it all by saying something shocking like “I’m outta here.”

Ryan, who replaced John Boehner in 2015, announced April 11 that he would not seek re-election to either his leadership role or his congressional seat. His reasoning is as understandable as it is commonplace in today’s Congress: Ryan, the father of three children, said he wants to spend more time with the family, a rationale for retirement lately invoked by everyone from Orrin Hatch to, well, whoever drops out next.

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“This was really about two things,” Ryan added. “I accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids are not getting any younger. And if I stay, my kids are only going to know me as a weekend dad and that is something I cannot do. That is really it right there.”

Since then, Ryan has been circling the wagons in his own camp, doing what he can, maybe whatever he can, to husband his powers as a short-timer that everyone knows is a short-timer.

And the House itself is still in a wait-and-see mode. When Ryan’s bombshell dropped, House members went into hair-on-fire mode contemplating a successor. Today? Not quite so much. Last week’s slam-dunks to succeed Ryan may not be such a sure thing after all. In short: it’s business as usual in Washington.

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WITH RYAN set to exit the scene, we can start the protracted farewell to one of the more reliable (and reliably ham-fisted) shapeshifters in modern Washington politics. Ryan has been an acolyte of Jack Kemp, the late New York Republican whose political equipoise — balancing centrist social policy, “big-tent” party aspirations, and conservative economic principles — would be mighty damn refreshing on Capitol Hill today.

But Ryan the student fell a long way from the Kemp the teacher. Since he assumed the speakership in October 2015, Ryan has practiced a sometimes clumsy situational politics, hitting just the right optic tone in moments of social crisis — the NFL protests, Charlottesville — but failing to follow through when it otherwise counted. Like in photo-ops with, and political support of a president whose naked bigotry and dogwhistles to white supremacy have gone a long way to polarizing this nation.

The pending exit of the speaker, amid the woofers and tweeters loose in the nation’s capital, endangers the Republican House majority in some important ways. First, it compromises, at least in the short term, the fundraising that Ryan did superbly well. His ability to grow money for the GOP was the result of relationships cultivated over time, relationships that won’t be easily or immediately transferable to his successor.

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Second, Ryan’s walkaway is an optical disaster for the GOP, sending the signal that the despair disease infecting numerous Republicans earlier in the year has been contracted by the Speaker of the House. The incumbency factor Republicans have employed to great effect in solidifying GOP objectives, identity and majorities in both houses of Congress, has been nullified, thanks to this wave of Republican resignations — of which Ryan’s is among the latest.

It keeps getting worse: The day after Ryan announced, Florida Rep. Dennis Ross said he wouldn’t seek re-election either. On April 17, moderate Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, already planning to retire at ear’s end, announced plans to hang ‘em up “in the coming weeks,” presumably by the end of April.

John Bresnahan of Politico observed in an April 12 podcast: “The message, the image it gives — ‘the Speaker is leaving, why should anybody vote Republican?’ The Democrats are already spinning this. ... How can he lead them if he’s leaving? ... I think Ryan has a big problem.”

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FOR HIS part, Ryan is in a mindset to soldier on. “I want be clear here,” he told reporters on April 11. “I’m not done yet. I’m going to run through the tape.”

Maybe. Ryan’s professionally reflexive desire to Finish The Job may be — will be — complicated by a desire among some in the GOP House majority to show Ryan the door sooner rather than later, as a strong signal of continuity to the base, an announcement of an intent to start fresh with a new speaker before the predictable headwinds of November. The thinking: Better to deal with this now and all at once than to endure the longish goodbye of Speaker Paul Ryan for another eight months.

Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei said as much to The Post, when he called for advancing the timetable for the leadership elections. “No disrespect to Paul,” he said, “but quite frankly, you want somebody who’s got skin in the game for after the election.”

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Rep. Peter T. King begs to differ. The reliably combative New York Republican wants to let Ryan ride it out. “Depending on how the elections come out, we can see what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and that can determine who should be the speaker,” King said to The Post. “There will be some maneuvering behind the scenes, but we don’t need a public campaign right now.”

But the operative phrase in that whole passage is “[d]epending on how the elections come out.” It’s conditional by definition, an endorsement of a roll of the dice that everything’s gonna come out all right in the end, maybe. A lot depends on the willingness of the Republican caucus to get behind that idea.

It’s not as if there aren’t people already waiting in the wings. Ryan’s announcement had barely hit the interwebs before the names of possible successors emerged.

On the short list: California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who bid for the speakership in 2015, and who is now championed by Ryan himself; and Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip whose survival of and triumph over gunshot wounds suffered in a 2015 incident in Washington, make for a compelling personal comeback narrative that could be emotionally galvanizing for a House majority on the ropes, if not on the rocks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

4/4/68: What was taken and what remains (republished)

Fifty years ago today was one of the most pivotal days in the history of black America, and just another day in black America. The fact that the same date could occupy two spaces, accommodate those two realities at once is some kind of testament to the power of African American identity against the backdrop of the nation as a whole. The essay below was first published April 5, 2013, just after the 45th anniversary of his assassination. I'm bringing it back today, five years later, fully aware of its ironies -- and fully believing in its necessity -- in the time of House Trump. — MER
FORTY-FIVE years ago, a skinny, rusty-butt African American boy left school and came home to find the lights down and his mother crying. His brothers, both of whom were younger than he was, were absent, somewhere else in the house that seemed larger than before. But his mother’s tears jarred and frightened him. He hadn’t seen that for a while. At least three years. Or four.

His father emerged from one of the rooms, his eyes bearing the rheumy sheen of someone who’d been crying too. Pops had just retired from the army the year before, after 22 years in, and he was no pushover, no lightweight. So to find him in the same condition as his mother filled the kid with alarm. Something big must have happened.

His mother, finally regaining her self-control, wiped the tears from her face long enough to get maternal again. She stepped to her son, the oldest of three, and spoke softly.

“You boys don’t go to school tomorrow.”

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It goes without saying that when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis this date in 1968, the nation lost its most populist moral compass, and African Americans lost their distilling messenger, the one who, since the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, articulated and defended the aspirations of black America in every precinct of the national life.

In the years since, the social and political advances this country’s made have rightly been viewed against the metric of King’s own aspirations for his nation — measured against the particulars of the “I Have a Dream” speech that's part of the double helix of the spiritual DNA of our modern United States.

From the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, from the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009, to the still-emerging legislative evolution on marriage equality, our nation’s leaps or lurches toward social justice and personal freedom have used King’s vision as a benchmark.

'It Is Still 1968: 50 years after, the struggle continues (Mother Jones)

What remains of King’s “dream” is more than the grainy newsreel footage of the man speaking truth to power at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s percolated heartily into the bedrock of reality. In the last 45 years, African Americans have achieved pinnacles of leadership in the worlds of entertainment and the media — taken summits whose importance isn’t defined by mainstream America, but on its own terms, sufficient unto itself. They’ve seen America elect its first African American president, a signal event King would have praised with tears in his eyes.

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BUT THERE’S more work to do. What also remains is the persistence of old inequities, imbalances of race, culture and class. We’ve only to look at the protest today by about 400 workers at several different fast-food restaurants in New York City — a protest sparked by people who’ve had enough of minimum wage, everyday people pushing back against the same economic injustice that King made his last mission.

We only have to consider the fact that the Voting Rights Act, one of the crowning achievements of his career, is thought to be targeted for dismantling by conservatives in Congress and, quite possibly, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said in 1965, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an 19th-century abolitionist whom King admired. And what was true in Parker’s distant day and in King’s more immediate lifetime is a fact today. But that arc doesn’t bend all by itself.

What we lost 45 years ago was irreplaceable; what’s left 45 years later is inescapable: It’s left to us to further the “Dream” and make it both closer to reality and more of a reality than it already is. It’s up to us to be the weight that makes that arc bend.

Image credits: Detail from King statue, Washington: BBC News. Times Square fast-food worker protest: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

John Bolton: The fire starter this time

WE MUST, as a nation, be more unpredictable ... and we have to be unpredictable starting now,” President* Donald Trump said on March 22 from Washington, uttering the breathtakingly foolish words that may be the defining language of the Trump Doctrine, right before introducing the Cardinal Richelieu who will advise him on how best to achieve the angry inscrutability that Trump demands.

Trump named John Robert Bolton, the ardent überhawk who helped engineer the disaster of the Iraq war, to become his third national security adviser in 14 months. Bolton replaces Army lieutenant Gen. H.R. McMaster, thought to be a relative moderate in the Trump inner circle — and thus, subject to banishment from House Trump.

The New York Times reported March 22 that “General McMaster struggled for months to impose order not only on a fractious national security team but on a president who resisted the sort of discipline customary in the military. Although General McMaster has been a maverick voice at times during a long military career, the Washington foreign policy establishment had hoped he would keep the president from making rash decisions.”

So much for that. The oversize child scratching up the Resolute Desk has moved on to bigger things. With Bolton by his side in the West Wing (he starts on April 9), he’s about to break all the furniture in the White House at once.

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It’s difficult to think of a more automatically divisive, ideologically narrow figure to sit at the literal right hand of an American president* than John Bolton, whose appointment is a major pivot point in American national security.

As recess-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, Bolton helped establish the pretext for the Iraq war, and create a global view of America as Warrior Nation. Bolton worked with Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and the Bush II neocon cabal in helping popularize the domestic and foreign notions of the United States as a superpower victimized — a perception widely, eagerly amplified in the zeitgeist in the fearful days and months after 9/11. Over the years, Bolton became a longtime contributor to the Fox News political-media ecosystem.

He’s been a man on a mission for some time. The New York Times reported March 23 that in 2014, his political action committee, the John Bolton Super PAC, hired Cambridge Analytica, shelling out about $1.2 million over two years for “survey research” and “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” The Bolton PAC allegedly knew that Cambridge Analytica, lately accused of misusing personal data from perhaps as many as 50 million Facebook users, was using Facebook data to do its work.

Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica co-founder who blew the whistle on his former company’s actions, said Bolton’s PAC was “obsessed with how America was becoming limp-wristed and spineless,” saying it wanted “research and messaging for national security issues [which] really meant making people more militaristic in their worldview.”

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BOLTON’S PENDING arrival might accelerate debate about the next shoe to fall. There’s already handicapping under way that points to John Kelly, the beleaguered White House chief of staff, being shown the door next." Ron Klain, a former aide to President Obama, made that case on March 23, on MSNBC:

Kelly, Klain said, “is a military man who understands the huge cost, the human cost, of war and [is] not a war hawk. I think seeing John Bolton come into the White House with his proposals for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, for war with Iran – he even wrote recently about the idea of a war with Cuba – this is a person who is going to get this country into a military conflict. And I don’t think that’s what John Kelly wants.”

It’s not. The Times reported March 22 that “Mr. Kelly ... prevailed in easing out General McMaster but failed to prevent Mr. Trump from hiring Mr. Bolton, whom they said Mr. Kelly fears will behave like a cabinet official rather than a staff member.”

To the extent that Kelly doesn’t want a fulminating ideologue like Bolton in the White House (“we’re all full up here, thanks”) but Donald Trump does ... well, that puts Kelly and Trump even more at loggerheads. And we know how one-on-ones with the boss always work out, sooner or later.

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Kelly, once thought to be the principal adult persona in the White House (if only by a little) actually shares common cause and frontline experience with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a pragmatic ex-military man still held in very high regard by U.S. military leaders.

Mattis has what Republicans would no doubt call a nasty streak of moderation. He’s pushed back on Trump overtures more than once, both before his tenure as SecDef and since. As a veteran who knows the sting of combat firsthand, Mattis is likely to oppose Bolton on some of his more hawkish intentions.

Politico reported on March 23: “He opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal, slap tariffs on steel and aluminum, and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He opposes the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members ...”

And The New York Times reported Saturday that “Mattis, the retired general who has ... warned that military confrontation with North Korea would result in ‘the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,’ told colleagues on Friday that he did not know if he could work with Mr. Bolton.”

Which likely pits Mattis and Trump against each other.

And we know how that always works out, sooner or later.

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THIS IS THE DYNAMIC of the New Trump Order, a simple thing, if not downright simplistic: The Donald is tired of gettin’ pushed around. This is his playground, see? It’s all his, it all belongs to him, it’s all about him, see? He’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the White House and he’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the world. And he thinks he’s got just the right pit bull on steroids to deal with both problems at the same time. You can bet that Bolton, not on the clock until April 9, already has The Donald’s ear, singing his praises, validating his bellicose rhetoric ... one angry militarist provocateur in league with another.

This is the concern, if not the fear: That Bolton’s ascension as national security adviser is an implicit, pre-emptive rejection of the idea of moderation in geopolitical tone and tactics — really, a rejection of the value of international negotiation itself. That Bolton’s appointment emboldens conservative hawks in Congress to double down on bloating the Pentagon even more.

That Bolton’s appointment effectively tells the nation and the world that Trump is fed up with doing what he’s told — by which he means doing what the Constitution, generations of White House protocol and geopolitical reality tell him to do — and that now, with id fully unleashed through the conscious mind, he’s ready to raise hell, to run things His Way: like the autocratic CEO of a major (and majorly dysfunctional) corporation instead of the United States of America.

The only declaration of independence Donald Trump may care about now is the one he’s just created for himself.

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Something about this choice – its sheer, brazen, willful disregard for Trump’s own biography and the risk of lasting damage to the country – makes it look like an intentional feint, a manufactured distraction a la Wag the Dog. But in a context where distraction is an everyday thing, what the hell would he be distracting us from?

Is it Stormy Daniels? Robert Mueller? The Russia investigation? The parade of shaky staff hires in recent months? Is it the White House curio cabinet of knaves, mushwits, stooges and fools who’ve been there from the beginning? The skeptics and defectors among high-profile Republicans? The possibilities are endless.

Some think Trump’s gambit with Bolton was a way to pre-emptively assuage the far-right, who eighteen hours later, on March 23, would be apoplectic over Trump’s signature of a $1.3 trillion spending bill that gave Democrats and progressives Christmas in March, with no new funding for the border wall or 1,000 new ICE agents (cherished Trump objectives), and fresh sanctions against Russia — among other things.

Giving the Pantone-red conservatives Bolton, as a kind of counterbalance to the impact of that left-leaning bill signed into law, might be seen by those conservatives as a fair exchange. Much of the world already wishes this devil’s bargain wasn’t going to happen.

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WILLIAM RIVERS Pitt, writing at Truthout, has got the Fear.

“Bolton's gruesome personal behavior with staff and others has become lore. He once got crossways with a federal contractor named Melody Townsel, and chased her through the halls of a Russian hotel while pelting her with shoes and other available missiles. Over the next several days, he stalked Townsel around the hotel, shouting threats and shoving threatening letters under her door. This is not a guy you want to give a staff to. ...

“The people who agree with him are still freaked out by him, because he is a ball of terrifying war hubris made flesh, yet somehow he keeps landing jobs within walking distance of the Oval Office. George W. Bush made him UN ambassador while Congress wasn't home. He was fantastic at alienating other nations, but wasn't really in a position to do the kind of serious damage he's capable of.”

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That may be about to change. From a historically traditional and fundamentally advantageous position, as a kind of Rasputin vulture affixed to the shoulder of the president, the national security adviser is more often than not, as Pitt observes in his piece, “the last person in the room.” That also presumes he or she would, logically, have the last word on whatever issues are top of mind in the Oval.

Pitt: “The job of the National Security Adviser is to judge and filter intelligence data for the president. In this incredibly powerful position, John Bolton will literally be creating reality for Trump according to his own twisted, violent vision of how US military might is best used. The man is a manufacturer of corpses, and has been so for a very long time.

“It has been firmly established by now that the most powerful person in the country is the last person Trump speaks to before making a decision. This phenomenon has been on vivid display as he staggers through debates on repealing the ACA, tax cuts, the budget, DACA and gun control. In every instance, Trump trumpeted nearly by rote the opinion of whoever had his ear five minutes before. There is more whiplash in Congress because of this than you'll find at a demolition derby. It is fact.”

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IT'D BE ONE thing if Bolton was an outlier, a crackpot Cassandra with no paper trail of experience and perspective. He is, in fact, a known quantity. “John Bolton is not some gray bureaucrat whose views are unknown to us,” said Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama, and now a Stanford University professor, to The Times. “He’s very clear that there should be regime change in Iran and North Korea, and military force should be used to achieve those goals,” he said. “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”

Given what’s at stake, you can’t help but think about that doomsday clock created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. On Jan. 25, the group’s Science and Security Board advanced the clock’s hands by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. That minute hand hasn’t come closer to striking midnight since 1953.

We may get closer still. John Bolton, the embodiment of the military hawk, Buck Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove rolled into one, has the absolute undiminished ear of the president* of the United States, and the world doesn’t have a second to lose. We’ve had a taste of his previous incarnations as a firebrand, a political figure with only aspirations of the incendiary. The rhetorical flamethrower we know as John Bolton may have never had a better time, or opportunity, to set the world on fire. Literally.

Image credits: John Kelly:  Cliff Owen/Associated Press. James Mattis: via @thehill. Cambridge Analytica logo: © 2018 Cambridge Analytica.  Trump: via @davidaxelrod.  Truthout logo: © 2018 Truthout. Doomsday clock graphic: © 2018 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

John Kelly in hell

TRUMP WHITE House Chief of Staff John Kelly is said to have a predilection for Irish whiskey, once the sun has crossed the yardarm and the day’s work is done. It’s a fair surmise that the last eight months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have made that libation a regular event.

They may have rolled a keg of Tullamore Dew up to the service entrance at the White House last week. That was when Kelly was tweet-midwife to the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was cashiered by Trump in a tweet released early March 13, asTillerson returned from a trip to north Africa. According to different sources, the former Exxon Mobil CEO was on the can when he found out he'd been dumped, from Kelly, who  called him on the phone.

Who could blame Kelly for his style of unwinding? It’s been a wild and rocky eight months, choked with intrigue and double-dealing. And then, of course, he had to deal with the president*.

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Since last July, the former Marine Corps general and head of the Department of Homeland Security has moved — some will say “lurched,” and they’re not wrong — from one crisis to another at the mercy of a relentlessly mercurial boss, plagued by noisy bad hires, intrusive Trump family members, and internecine squabbling that hasn’t stopped from either day one of his tenure or day one of the administration itself.

It’s all led him to say, on March 1, at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the agency he once directed, to say that “[t]he last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”

Was it just a burst of dark Irish wit, or something more? No matter, Kelly’s arc in the most functionally deficient White House in modern times may have less to do with Irish wit than with English drama.

Never mind the man in the Oval Office: John Francis Kelly is the most fascinating fixture of House Trump today, and, not quite coincidentally, the one most susceptible to Shakespearean analogy: a headstrong, brutally plain-spoken but presumably well-intentioned public servant tragically manipulated by — hoist on the petards of — duty, hubris, and the unstable leader he is unswervingly committed to serve.

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WHEN KELLY took over on July 31 as chief of staff, in the wake of Reince Priebus’ untimely departure, sighs of relief spread all over Washington. Finally, the thinking went, the Trump White House would be subject to some adult supervision. Kelly, whose stellar Marine career was no doubt a big selling point in his selection to begin with, sure as hell looked the part: ramrod-straight, with a steely, no-nonsense gaze, an unfiltered vocabulary and a personal bearing straight outta Central Casting.

Early signs were promising. The day Kelly started the job, he fired showboat White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci after Scaramucci’s infamously profane interview with The New Yorker.

Kelly cut former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski from the herd, denying him “badge access” to the White House. At year’s end, he fired the deeply loathed director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, Omarosa Manigault Newman, whose prickly self-importance had been rubbing White House staff the wrong way for months. She was cashiered specifically for using the White House car service as a delivery service, forbidden by the federal government.

Since then, however, the former general has been a party to the circling of the drain that’s been underway at the Trump White House since he started. As Tillerson’s firing shows, Trump is answerable to no one on matters of personnel. Not even the man charged with marrying personnel, policy and public persona within the White House. John Kelly.

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TO THE PUBLIC at large, the job of White House chief of staff is a somewhat mysterious one. Part president whisperer, part administration megaphone, the job has requirements that seem to have a lot to do with deciding presidential access. The job title itself — “chief of staff” — suggests a kind of White House air traffic controller, the one with go-no go authority over who lands at Oval Office Airport and who doesn’t.

It’s also true that the chief of staff is often meant to act in unpleasant roles, a Son of a Bitch in Chief, kicking asses and taking names when the need arises (and it always does). In this, by any measure, John Kelly has done exceedingly well.

But Kelly faced (and faces) the singular challenge of trying to manage the unmanageable, attempting to restore order and establish decorum and discipline in a White House whose prime occupant — loathe to any influence but his own — is more problem than solution.

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“It’s almost mission impossible here for a lot of different reasons,” said historian Chris Whipple to Politico. “His credibility was already really seriously damaged going all the way back to his appearance behind the podium in the WH briefing room. Now I think his credibility is really beyond repair and moreover, very few people will really believe he’s really speaking for the president.”

A slight rejoinder to Whipple’s assessment: With 14 months of presidential style in the public eye, and a presidential campaign before that, it’s safe to say no one ever really thought Kelly speaks for the president, any more than Priebus or Lewandowski did.

With Twitter as his megaphone of choice, Trump has weaponized White House public discourse like no president before him. His late-night/early-morning tweets have contributed to the polarization of the country, and point to Trump as a loose cannon who revels in that status, regardless of the consequences. Kelly is enduring some of those consequences himself.

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NOT THAT Kelly hasn’t put his foot in it himself from time to time. On Oct. 19, he wrongly asserted that Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson took the credit for federal funding required to build a new FBI field office in Miami in 2015. Despite a statement of reprimand released by 17 female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kelly doubled down, saying he would not apologize for his claims against Wilson.

“Not only was Kelly's claim false but his manner was rude, degrading, and racist,” wrote the activists at, which circulated a petition demanding Kelly apologize to the congresswoman.

That arose from another dispute with Wilson, one in which Kelly defended the tone and context of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 7 with three other American soldiers in southwestern Niger, in an ambush by Islamist militants. Wilson, a Johnson family friend, listened in on the call, which upset Kelly to no end. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me,” Kelly said, as reported by The New York Times.

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And Kelly played footsie with the media when asked about information that suggested Johnson survived the initial assault, but had died some time later. “I actually know a lot more than I’m letting on, but I’m not going to tell you,” he said on Oct. 19, indicating the ability to be as tone-deaf about White House optics as his boss.

In early February, Kelly drew the ire of advocates of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, among millions of other Americans, when he referred to some immigrants as “lazy" while visiting the Capitol.

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and half times that number, to 1.8 million,” Kelly said, as reported in The Hill. “The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”

Nice. Stay classy, general.

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It gets uglier. An October piece by Jon Schwarz in The Intercept explores the ways that Kelly, seemingly the sane one in the loony rooms of House Trump, has his own fairly recent history of, and relationship with, the irrational and the xenophobic.

“Any examination of Kelly’s past public remarks makes clear he is not a sober professional, calculating that he must degrade himself in public so he can remain in place to rein in Trump’s worst instincts behind the scenes. Rather, Kelly honestly shares those instincts: He’s proudly ignorant, he’s a liar, and he’s a shameless bully and demagogue.”

He may be subject to situational blindness, too. Witness the Rob Porter incident. Porter, formerly the White House staff secretary, resigned Feb. 7 amid highly credible allegations of domestic abuse of his first ex-wife, allegations documented in a story in The Daily Mail that included a photograph of the ex-wife with a black eye. Responding to the allegations, Kelly initially accepted Porter’s denial about what happened, siding with Porter in a reflex that was as good-old-boy as they get. Porter, Kelly said, was a "man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional.”

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THEN HE GOT called on it. Politico reported: “Kelly was aware weeks before the Daily Mail story that Porter’s background check had turned up red flags — though not the full extent of the abuse — but Porter never rose to the top of his list of problems to deal with.”

Kelly seemed to masterfully pivot from the Porter mess on Feb. 16, when he issued a five-page memo to staff outlining a series of changes in the White House security clearance process, one that saw top-secret access revoked for some, even though at that time others in the House Trump food chain were exempt, including senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to The Washington Post, Kushner’s had more asks for classified intelligence than anyone else on the White House staff, except National Security Council staff.

“The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted -- especially those who work closely with the President or handle sensitive national security information," Kelly wrote. "We should -- and in the future, must -- do better.”

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On Feb. 27, Kelly pulled the trigger. He restored more of his credibility, specifically sidelining Kushner, Kelly’s West Wing bête noire from the start, by downgrading his White House interim security clearance, which, up to that point, made him privy to some of the nation’s most sensitive, most important intel.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

After 'Black Panther'

When you fight for a seat at the table long enough, it seems that you get to run the table—for a minute, anyway. That’s one takeaway from Black Panther’s already phenomenal success—a success whose casting and narrative essence force Hollywood to make some overdue decisions on casting that the industry can’t avoid.

In its four-day holiday weekend opening, the film roared to a $241.9 million debut, beating out Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the second-highest grossing weekend opening in history. Ryan Coogler’s runaway hit, coming on the heels of both the #OscarsSoWhite social-media firestorm and broad changes in the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the kind of wake-up call Hollywood can’t ignore: one with the sound of cash registers attached. ...

Read the full story at Geeks

Image credits: Black Panther promo image: © 2018 Disney/Marvel. Geeks logo: © 2018 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

More Time With the Family

A new year, like a new broom, sweeps clean, at least for a while. Before and after the start of this still minty-fresh jaunt around the sun called 2018, several Republican lawmakers have decided not to seek re-election. The rush for the out doors will include the retirements of relative newcomers to Congress and an institutional lion of the Senate.

These exits, the ones that came before, and those likely to follow in the months between now and November have dire implications for a Republican party struggling to find its future stars amid an increasingly depleted cast of existing characters. ...

Retirements from Congress are hardly party-specific, of course. Democrats in Congress have been dropping out, for reasons of exhaustion with the partisan atmosphere, and in response to various allegations of wrongdoing (Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers among the two most prominent Dems to be caught up in sexual harassment charges).

But if you sense there’s a louder, more populated Republican sprint to the exits, you’re right. Going away. ...

Read more at The Swamp

Image credits: Swamp logo: © 2018 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Trump's State of the Union: A tale of two GOPs

IT WAS A juxtaposition whose irony was cruel, unusual and inescapable: Hours before President* Donald Trump made nice across the aisle at the 2018 State of the Union address, proposing to govern in a new spirit of bipartisanship and commonality, a Republican senator called for the arrest of any DREAMers who dared to attend ... the State of the Union address.

Politico reported that, before the SOTU speech, Paul Gosar, Republican congressman from Arizona, tweeted that “Of all the places where the Rule of Law needs to be enforced, it should be in the hallowed halls of Congress. Any illegal aliens attempting to go through security, under any pretext of invitation or otherwise, should be arrested and deported."

When Gosar acted as an apprentice to the tweeter-in-chief, he was setting the stage for a State of the Union address that had more news in it than usual. Some of that was the address itself; more of what made it news will have to do with whether it marks a turning point for a reliably mercurial chief executive, or merely sets a pattern of behavior in stone. There’s a lot to suggest the status quo will have the upper hand.

Or not. The true character of today’s Republican party, and the party of the inescapable future, is caught up in navigating that existential dilemma: Which is the real GOP? Which one will Donald Trump serve? And which one will serve Donald Trump?

◊ ◊ ◊

He began with the fat, uplifting topic sentences: “Less than 1 year has passed since I first stood at this podium, in this majestic chamber, to speak on behalf of the American People — and to address their concerns, their hopes, and their dreams. That night, our new Administration had already taken swift action. A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land.

“Each day since, we have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission — to make America great again for all Americans.

Much of the speech’s early going was not an overarching vision of the country’s direction, but was punctuated by Trump name-checking people in the gallery, picking them out for truly deserved recognition for their roles in various major events: the volunteers of the “Cajun Navy,” who rescued scores during Hurricane Harvey. A Coast Guard officer who performed admirably during the same Gulf storm, saving dozens of people.

A firefighter who braved one of the recent California wildfires to rescue some 60 people. A married couple running a small business in Ohio. One of that business’ more stellar workers. An Army staff sergeant who valiantly worked to save the life of a fellow soldier in Raqqa. Those who helped shield victims of gunfire from country music fans on the Las Vegas Strip. And a shoutout to Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalice, the congressman gravely wounded in June 2017 by a shooter at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was a cherry-picking of the national mosaic that led to Trump’s calls for unity: “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve. ...

“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.

“So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything. ...

“[T]onight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed.”

◊ ◊ ◊

HIS SPEECH sounded as close to full-on presidential as anything he’s said in the last year and ten days in office. While a lot of it wasn’t Trump so much as the stagecraft, the affect, the trappings that made Trump look presidential almost by default, he talked a good game, hit all the anodyne, ameliorative notes we’ve come to expect from any modern president delivering a SOTU in prime-time.

A State of the Union address, properly delivered, isn’t just a laundry list of objectives or an honor’s list of accomplishments. The best SOTU speeches are acts of smart rhetorical weaving, combining the factual, the granular and the unabashedly aspirational, statements of where we’ve been joined with those containing some bigger, broader objective sense of where we hope to go as a nation.

                       State of the Union 2018: The transcript   |   The speech

Trump accomplished much of this, performing, in some ways, better than this observer thought he would or could. But the man can’t help himself. Trump wasn’t above taking shots here and there, at adversaries real and imagined: North Korea, terrorists, immigrants ... his usual targets of opportunity.

◊ ◊ ◊

He of course mentioned the economy’s 2.4 million new jobs, a figure that, whether Trump thinks so or not, has a lot to do with programs and policies created and executed in the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump mentioned increasing new highs on the stock market, again, a manifestation of momentum from the Obama years. There’s no denying the advances the market’s made in the past year; there’s also no denying the origins of that financial velocity, a product of the past eight years. On that basis, Obama could have taken as many as bows as Trump just did.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

House Trump: Hearing footsteps in the new year

WHEN IN THE COURSE of human events you’re faced with so many events in a short time that you don’t know where to begin ... you don’t begin.

That’s the challenge facing yours truly and every political analyst, blogger and opinionated American with the dawn of this new year — not just any new year. For me it started late in 2017: creatively frozen, trapped in an interminable funk fed by the ongoing series of wildfires in California; the baffling inanities and geopolitically provocative tweets from the White House; and a general malaise I’m led to believe was an expression of the current collective unconscious. Christmas felt forced, vacant, bereft. New Year’s Eve at midnight was spent howling “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” at the drivers passing my house in East Hollywood, waving a bottle of cold duck. More than a few honked or shouted in agreement as they drove by.

Not surprised. Understatement of the decade: We’ve been eager to turn the page on 2017. Any year that could usher out Chuck Berry, Walter Becker, Charles Bradley, Fats Domino, Glen Campbell and Tom Petty, and usher in the quasi-presidency of the most dangerous carnival barker in history is a year that deserves to be forgotten, asterisked, if not for the upheaval that occurred in that 365 days we just got out of, a little more than three weeks ago.

◊ ◊ ◊

But now it gets interesting. On a number of political fronts, last year was a building prelude to the storm that’s about to be unleashed at the White House, the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill. Florsheims have been dropping for months now, not just in Washington but in places and with results that will have an impact on Washington, from now to the election less than eleven months away.

The biggest chicken roosting this election year will rest on the head of the beast that is the Republican Party. Years of gridlock – not just the interparty gridlock we’ve come to expect, but also the philosophical gridlock within the party, the conflict that’s typified the GOP since at least the Tea Party’s rise in 2009 – are about to yield, ironically, the kind of painful, forced evolution required when a voluntary evolution apparently isn’t possible.

The Republican Party is about to be dragged kicking and screaming into a future it’s been haplessly designing, and denying, for years.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE PROBLEM for the GOP begins with a White House on a vendetta. From the jump, Donald Trump made it clear that his Job #1 was to undo as much of the eight years of the legislative and political legacy of Barack Obama as possible. He maybe never actually said it, word for word, but he never had to. With a flurry of executive actions and tweets, Trump set his intentions in motion and began rolling back various Obama-era initiatives and policies.

The Trump White House thus defined its own first year in the White House by the metrics of its able predecessor. For that reason, there’s been little or nothing affirmative about House Trump a year in. Trying to undo that predecessor’s work has negated Trump’s own agenda. To the extent he ever had one.

Michael Caputo, a Republican operative and another veteran of Trump’s presidential run, blamed Congress for inaction on the Trump first-year “agenda.” “I think we all trusted the Congress too much,” he told The Daily Beast in November. “Today we know leaders of both houses have not been able, or even willing, to deliver on the President's agenda. If I knew we would have so many problems on Capitol Hill, I would have urged the president to move immediately on tax cuts and infrastructure after the Inaugural.”

Trump apologist/mouthpiece/cheerleader Scottie Nell Hughes said much the same thing to The Daily Beast on Nov. 8: “President Trump and his team should have been ready to introduce and push for the vote almost immediately of his top three campaign promises,” Hughes added. “Tax reform, repeal and replace AHCA & legislation to build the wall (in that order) should have been ready, introduced and voted on before the opposition could organize against. Instead, this administration lost their focus in the fog of the swamp and was swallowed up by the status quo.”

This underscores a major problem for the Trump administration. Leaders of both houses haven’t followed through on the Trump agenda because, strictly speaking, there isn’t one.

◊ ◊ ◊

From Trump’s efforts to marginalize Muslims and immigrants to his monstrous “shithole countries” comment about Haitians, Salvadoreans and people from African nations; from actions rolling back environmental protections to breathtaking contradictions and inconsistencies in dealing with other countries, the transactional, small-hearted actions taken since last Jan. 20 — spasmodic treacheries, callous deceits — don’t qualify as an agenda. They barely qualify as “actions.”

Yes, Trump scored a much-needed win with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — his signature piece of legislation to this point. But with that exception — and we still don't know who'll really benefit from that besides the smitten multinational corporations, and their CEOs — there’s been nothing ennobling and pragmatic from House Trump, no throughline to most of his works in the Oval Office except the mercurial rage of their author, and his punitive intent. It’s all been very angry and small.

Trump, careening from lane to lane since before day one, doesn’t really have an agenda. The central reason why he has no agenda? He may not really want one.

In his 2016 campaign, Trump presented himself as a true maverick, a hothouse carnivore, a seat-of-the pants outlier whose promised willingness to improvise in office wasn’t just a quirk or a bullet point; it was central to the ethos of the Trump campaign. Inimical to the traditions of the presidency, the outsider got inside and started doing things His Way. The last thing a man wants to do, after vowing to “drain the swamp,” is to adopt the swamp-dweller's language.

An agenda of his own, a doctrinal overview in the classic political sense, a granular platform thoroughly defining his vision, his worldview, his picture of the United States and its interaction with the evolving college of the world’s nations .... well, doing that, in his mind, might mean breaking a campaign promise to not think and talk like the pointy-heads on the Potomac. OK, that last part's over the top. It might just be that much long-attention-span orderliness is simply beyond him, something outside his emotional and intellectual bandwidths.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE CLOSEST thing we have to that overview — Trump’s national security statement, released on Dec. 17 — leaves a lot to be desired. Intended to showcase a return to pragmatism, hard-nosed diplomatic overtures, and the conclusively persuasive powers of the world’s pre-eminent military force, the statement promulgates a national security framework that is, according to people in a position to know, a Trump policy in name only.

We might, for example, thank national security adviser H.R. McMaster for putting his spin on the events. A military man, McMaster reportedly characterized the summary statement by invoking a phrase from the Reagan days of yore: “Peace Through Strength.” His fingers certainly aren't the only ones deep in this pie.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A year of living very dangerously

“Trump is at war with the central ideal of the Republic — a vision of strength through inclusion and equality that makes our country special and exceptional.”
                                                                 — Michael Gerson, The Washington Post

SOMETHING about anniversaries. For all the attention we pay to a certain milestone on a Certain Date, the mood and tone and tenor of the thing itself are usually established well in advance. An anniversary is a train, or a train wreck, you can see coming from a long way off.

Well, we’re just shy of the official one-year anniversary of the Donald Trump White House experiment, and it doesn’t get much worse for him than this. With a handful of events in a short period of time, it’s been possible to grasp the gravity of the disaster unfolding, for the Trump White House, a sadly fractionalized Republican Party, and a deeply wounded nation. A snapshot of some events over the last week distills how we’ve gotten to where we are over the last year:

On Monday, Jan. 8, Trump walked onto the field of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where the NCAA championship football game in Atlanta was played. Trump faced a withering blast of jeers and curses from people in the stadium. The Daily Beast reported that “protesters projected the message ‘Fuck Trump’ on the front of the stadium. Trump’s appearance at the game — where he took the field to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’— also triggered scorn from Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, who appeared to yell ‘Fuck Trump’ ahead of the high-stakes game against Georgia.”

“The president stuck around long enough to sing along to part of the national anthem, though footage showed him apparently singing the wrong words,” The Beast reported.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Tuesday, Jan. 9, discussing with reporters the possibility of a presidential run by Oprah Winfrey in 2020, the braggadcious chief executive said he’d beat her in a head-to-head matchup. “Yeah, I’ll beat Oprah. Oprah would be a lot of fun,” he said.

Then, employing some novel linguistic gymnastics, Trump added: “You know, I did one of her last shows. She had Donald Trump—this was before politics—her last week. And she had Donald Trump and my family. It was very nice,” Trump said, not explaining, or probably even noticing, how he spoke of himself in the first person (“I did one of her last shows”) before switching to the second third person (“Donald Trump”) before switching back to the first person (“my family”).

On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would not seek reelection in 2018. On Wednesday, Jan. 10, Royce’s fellow southern Californian, Rep. Darrell Issa, former once-feared chairman of the House Oversight Committee, announced his retirement, after nine terms. “I am forever grateful to the people of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties for their support and affording me the honor of serving them all these years,” he said in a statement. Issa’s retirement makes him the 31st Republican to bail on seeking re-election in 2018.

◊ ◊ ◊

ALSO WEDNESDAY, a new Quinnipiac Poll had nothing but bad news for Trump. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said Trump is not level-headed, and only 28 percent said he is, according to the poll. Sixty-five percent of Republicans said he is level-headed, 32 percent would beg to differ. Some 93 percent of Democrats said he’s not level-headed, which pretty much dovetails with long-held expectations.

Most people, 57 percent, said Trump is not “fit to serve as president.” The current occupant of the White House now lays claim to “the lowest approval ratings of any modern president at this point in his presidency, despite a thriving economy and record stock market numbers,” the poll reports.
Grading Trump's first year in office, 39 percent of voters responding to the poll give him an “F,” while 17 percent give him a “D.” Trump got an “A” from 16 percent of voters, a “B” from another 16 percent and a “C” from 11 percent.

Of course as of Thursday afternoon, Jan. 11, all letter grades for the presidency* of Donald Trump went sideways. That was when, in a candid immigration-related meeting with aides and others in the Oval Office, Trump said the following, in an angry, brief but corrosive hypothetical heard ‘round the world: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said in reference to people from Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries. Jaws have been dropping internationally ever since.

◊ ◊ ◊

If you’re looking for one way to distill the last year at the White House, a year of living very dangerously at the highest level, any of these events should suffice. Michael Gerson at The Washington Post recently tried to put the immigration debate under Trump into perspective: “Trump’s ping-ponging from dealmaking to feuding, from elation to fury, has come to define the contentious immigration talks between the White House and Congress, perplexing members of both parties as they navigate the president’s vulgarities, his combativeness and his willingness to suddenly change his position.”

Those things have come to define more than that. They define an administration that can’t think straight, one at cross-purposes with reality, one that seems to lurch from decision to decision with little consistency or relationship with what’s been promised in the past.

Another classic example: The United States' signing of the nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran, something Trump (doing the full transactional) called a terrible deal for the United States during the 2016 campaign. Fast forward to Thursday, Jan. 11, and the news that Trump had rolled over, waiving sanctions and extending for a third time the same nuclear deal with Iran that he bitterly opposed, foaming at the mouth, on the campaign trail.

◊ ◊ ◊

TRUMP INSISTS he won’t do this again absent some permanent way to keep nukes out of Tehran’s hands. But despite the ostensibly high-minded rationale and the threats of what’s next, you can’t get away from the first-blush perception: Trump the campaign-trail blowhard reluctantly faces his comeuppance at the hands of geopolitical reality — and saving face remains of paramount importance.

Gerson, writing Jan. 15th, in The Post, framed the Trumpian cult of personality in the context of those sad loyalists who drank the Kool-Aid: “The perfunctory criticisms, self-indicting silences, half-hearted defenses and obvious lies provided by most elected Republicans have been embarrassing and discrediting. Loyalty to Trump now consists of defending the indefensible. His advocates are becoming desensitized to moral corruption. They are losing the ability to believe in anything, even in their own courage.”

Welcome to the freshman presidential legacy of Donald Trump. This is the story of House Trump’s Year Zero.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Saturday, we mark the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, a benchmark of our government, our history and our culture that people on either side of a great national divide will greet with celebration or (most of us) with a deep, abiding dread.

Some of these Americans will be there in the gallery of the House of Representatives on Jan. 30, 10 days from now, when Trump makes his first State of the Union address.

Many more of these Americans will be in the streets across the United States in the morning, about 10 hours from now, as the 2018 Women’s March steps off in numerous U.S. cities and towns.

A year ago the Women’s March was naturally about anticipating what would likely be coming — what Draconian cuts in services, what preposterous advances in rationale for sexist rhetoric and policy — under House Trump. Today, a year later ... now we know.

We know we have elected to the presidency a man we do not know, and entrusted him with the care and well-being of people he does not care for, people whose wounds and frailties disgust him, people whose life stories amuse him, people whose fears and doubts are finally, for him, of no consequence whatsoever.

Image credits: Trump: © 2018 Getty Images. Issa: ABC News. Quinnipiac University logo: ©2018 Quinnipiac Uniersity. S**t for Brains front page: © 2018 New York Daily News. Washingtgon Post nameplate: © 2018 The Washington Post Company. Trump inauguration: Pool feed.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Wild West Revisited

“PROHIBITION ENDS AT LAST!” screams the cover of the latest LA Weekly, the one dated Jan. 1, 2018 — 84 years after the end of the genuine article, in December 1933. The cover of the popular alt-weekly was a bit over the top; Californians have been finding ways around restrictive marijuana laws for years — even as the country incrementally evolved its own position on recreational use. Like the original from the 1930s, the pot prohibition that ended with the year 2017 was, practically speaking, never much of a “prohibition” in the first place.

But there’s no denying that California, the Avatar State, is entering its own truly uncharted territory, a realm of civic experience that will change the cultural, economic and political landscape of the state that lays claim to the sixth-largest economy in the world.

Call it the Golden Rush: Like that first heady bloom of a high-potency hybrid, Cali is a bit ... staggered right now by all this. The patchwork of laws and regulations, and the slow speed of city and state lawmakers to get things done have helped make the post-Jan. 1 period what we should have already known it would be: A process and not an event.

Recreational smokers in California (and everywhere in the country, for that matter) have always worked around that, like a weed that winds its way through a fence. But coming in the wake of serial historic wildfires, the availability and affordability of recreational herb in California will ultimately have as much to do with the land as with the law. ...

Read the rest at Potent

Image credits: Potent logo: © 2018 Jerrick Ventures LLC.
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