Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Six months and change:
The Trump presidency* and the nation

WE’RE ABOUT 12.5 PERCENT through the presidency* of Donald Trump, six months and change, and for a chief executive who famously distrusts the polls, there’s been a lot for him to disbelieve in lately. No fewer than five opinion polls in a row — released within days of July 20, the day of Trump’s six-month anniversary in The White House — show how politically and civically damaged Trump is.

If the polls are any indicator, there’s a lot to suggest that a ghost-ship narrative has taken hold of the subconscious of those in power at House Trump; what’s been more or less consistently communicated to the public is an administration bereft of any governing vision that extends beyond imposing the word No or asking How Much It Costs ... that and the ongoing parade of horrors and conundrum led by the tweeter-in-chief.

The first six months of his shambolic administration have been defined by two stories — the Russia hacking controversy, which dogs House Trump structurally and imagistically; and the prospects for Trumpcare, which faces a bruising legislative future — and by the Trump White House’s woefully ham-handed responses to dealing with both of them.

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Over that six months (and really before the administration began), House Trump has violated some basic laws of political physics: First, don’t vacate the high ground of a story you can’t escape. Like nature, the media abhors a vacuum, and the media, facing a relative absence of credible sourced information, will go with smart analysis, informed speculation and White House leaks — until the credible sourced information shows up (and it always does). At the very least, House Trump is learning that lesson from the immense fallout surrounding the Russia hacking scandal: Define the story early or the story will define you. Forever.

Second, don’t measure yourself against the actions and policies of your predecessor. To do so is to nullify your own identity. We’ve seen this time and again in the fury of conservatives’ attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell feverishly looking for every procedural trick in the book to topple the Obama White House’s greatest legislative achievement; and Trump himself calling for (or demanding) one more try — just one more repeat do-over.

In the bizzarro-world looking glass through which we view modern American politics, it’s clear: Thanks to a mountain range of insecurities, shady financial dealings with a sanctioned and adversarial foreign power; a perverse misapplication of congressional energy, and a squandering of already meager good will, Donald Trump has done the improbable: making much of the first six months of his administration more about the Obama presidency than about his own.

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THE DISCONNECT that’s existed between House Trump and the American people reveals itself in a wave of surveys that underscore the popular sense of an administration in free fall, and a chief executive increasingly unpopular and out of touch. One poll in particular tells a story Trump would just as soon forget: The media, a favored White House punching bag, has supporters who are punching back on its behalf.

According to a July 17 survey from Public Policy Polling, a majority of American voters trusts the networks, metropolitan daily newspapers and other big media outlets more than than they trust Trump. According to the PPP poll, 54 percent of Americans said they put stock in CNN, a major Trump bête noire from the campaign days into the White House, more than they trust the president*. Only 39 percent said they trust the Trump more than CNN. ABC and NBC got the same benefit of the doubt (each with 56 percent majorities). The New York Times and The Washington Post got similar respect.

There’s a growing call for The Donald’s impeachment. A Monmouth University poll released on July 17 showed that more people want to see Trump impeached today than was the case for then-incumbent Richard Nixon at the start of the Watergate scandal. “About 4-in-10 Americans currently support impeaching Trump six months into his term, which is significantly higher than the number who called for Richard Nixon's impeachment six months into that president's second term,” the poll says.

“The president's job rating currently stands at a net negative 39% approve and 52% disapprove. This is nearly identical to his 39%-53% rating in May.”

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ACCORDING TO GALLUP, Trump has registered the lowest favorable opinion results in decades. “President Donald Trump averaged 38.8% job approval during his second quarter in office, which spanned April 20 through July 19,” Gallup reported. “No other president has had a worse second-quarter average. Bill Clinton is the only other president who fell below the majority level of approval at a comparable point in his administration.”

“Trump's average approval rating for his second quarter in office, 38.8%, is more than five percentage points lower than the next closest president, Bill Clinton at 44%,” Gallup reported. “The two are the only presidents on the list whose average job approval does not rise above 50%.”

And Gallup finds that Trump isn’t growing the Republican church at all. On the contrary: “Trump maintains solid support among his fellow Republicans. However, with fewer than three in 10 Americans identifying as Republican he cannot rely on Republicans alone to have healthy job approval ratings.”

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By an admittedly slim margin, the Democrats are now preferred over Republicans to run Congress, as a check on Trump’s machinations, according to the Washington Post/ABC News poll. The survey found that voters are “clearly preferring Democrats in control of Congress to check President Trump even as Republicans appear more motivated to show up at the polls.

“A slight majority of registered voters — 52 percent — say they want Democrats to control the next Congress, while 38 percent favor Republican control to promote the president’s agenda, according to the poll.

And another survey’s come to the conclusion that Trump can’t dance with them who brought him to the party because, more and more, they won’t dance with him.

“Donald Trump is wearing out his welcome among the voters who swung 2016’s presidential swing states in his direction,” according to Salon, republishing a story from AlterNet that cites just-released regional polls — including that Washington Post/ABC News poll, which found that “Trump’s support had fallen since April, including in the important category of political independents, where only 32 percent support him now compared to 38 percent this spring. Independents are not the only swing voters who matter.”

“In many Midwestern states last November, tens of thousands of voters who previously backed Barack Obama rejected Hillary Clinton and voted for Trump,” AlterNet reported. “That’s where the latest regional polls come in, showing that growing number of voters in counties that flipped from blue in 2012 to red in 2016 were having the political equivalent of buyer’s remorse.”

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Not that he hasn’t given his detractors a lot of ammunition. Two lackluster or abysmal performances on the world stage at back-to-back summits. A willingness to be antagonists with world leaders. The scandal over the Russians hacking our presidential election. The Donald’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a hugely important trade agreement.

His ritual castigations of NATO and, by extension, the mutual-defense commitment that’s been at the heart of the U.S.-European relationship for generations. His thinly-disguised disdain for the media, minorities and anyone or anything that’s not on the good side of Trump's transaction-driven radar.

These and other pivotal events of his first six months in office have had an impact that’s slipped out of the six-month time frame; actions he’s taken in recent days will go on to define the next six months. Over the weekend, Trump turned on Attorney General Pete Sessions — the first senator to board the Trump train during the campaign. Trump condemned Sessions for recusing himself from involvement in the Russia hacking scandal, in the process undercutting his one indefatigable ally, and angering Republicans who respect Sessions’ conservative cred, and don't trust or believe in The Donald’s.

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And Wednesday, Trump tweeted a new military directive, banning transgender recruits from serving in the U.S. military: “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”

At a Tuesday campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump waxed passionate about his own prospects for making history in the Oval Office, saying, apparently with a straight face, that he could be “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln... more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that the remaining three years, five months and three weeks of his tenure as president-asterisk will be any less obviously an adventure in governmental improvisation, any less apparently a tour through the wack-job funhouse of Donald Trump, a legend in his own mind.

Image credits: Mark Wilson: Getty Images. Trump and Sessions: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg. Trump bottom: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. Logos and nameplates of news and polling organizations are the respective property of themselves or their parent companies.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Birth of a Commotion

It wasn’t exactly the shot heard ‘round the world, and it didn’t need to be; it was the press release sent and resent around the Twitterverse.

On July 19, HBO announced some of its post-Game of Thrones future with its greenlight of an original drama series that will revisit the American past, and provocatively revise it, in a time of real-life racial and ethnic turmoil that rivals any in our history.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, showrunners, writers and developers of Game of Thrones (just starting its seventh season) will create and write Confederate, a series set to chronicle “the events leading to the Third American Civil War,” HBO announced.

From the press release: “It takes place in an alternate timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate, and the families of people in their thrall.” ...

Read the full report at Geeks

Image credits: White Walker: HBO

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trumpcare Dies in the Senate.
Cause: Pre-Existing Conditions

In recent days and weeks, the debate over the future of Trumpcare in the media has generated a kind of Health Metaphor Full Employment Act. You’ve read the words: Trumpcare was On Life Support. It was in Critical Condition or Guarded Condition. It was hashtagged with #Emergency Room or it was Flatlining. Its declining fortunes dovetailed with the phrases available to describe it.

Finally, on July 18, the medical language ran out about the same time the bill did: Trumpcare, aka the American Health Care Act, was dead at the age of four months and 12 days. Time of death? Depends on who you asked. Some say it died that day, when Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia announced plans to vote against the legislation.

Others think it died the day before, when GOP senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah stated their opposition. ...

But there’s not much debate over the cause of death: Trumpcare died from complications of its own elitist history; an inability to improve on what it was meant to replace; and the passionate and ecumenical reaction to the Trumpcare bill in social media, editorials, petitions, months of sour polling data, phone calls and — especially — in angry, deeply personal reactions from citizens at town halls across America. ...

Read the full story at Swamp

Image creit: McConnell: Via Politico. Swamp logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Straight shooters I and II:
Mueller and Wray raise the bar, and the stakes

PRESIDENT* TRUMP does nothing by half measures, not even arrogance. The shambolic enterprise that his administration has been from the beginning has always been typified by the gale force of the Trump persona. But upon taking office, and for too long since then, he’s assumed the personage of the bloated amateur of a high diver with more nerve than skills, a man whose inescapable cannonball splash is followed by a climb from the water, and a fast but prideful undulating away from the scene, for all the world acting like a man on his way to the medal stand at the Olympics.

This was maybe never more obvious than when he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in a timed-release fit of pique that showed just how thin-skinned and reactionary this president* is. In a Trumpian bellyflop nobody saw coming, Comey was cashiered on May 9, two days before Comey was to testify in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. “In a letter informing Comey of his removal, Trump told him, 'It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.’”

“I don’t think this is rule of law. This is rule by Trump,” former FBI special agent Clint Watts told The Daily Beast on May 9. “[Trump] doesn’t like anybody who’s independent. I think it made him nervous that he couldn’t get Comey under his wing.”

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Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution said Trump’s decision to fire Comey “removes the one person of stature (figurative as well as literal) in the government whom everyone knows will—even when he’s wrong—do what he thinks is the right thing and damn the torpedo[e]s,” Wittes wrote on his lawfare blog. “It removes, in other words, the essential person for a credible investigation.”

It was the power of the Trump brand, his style of decision-making that invited speculation by various seers in the punditburo who debated whether Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI director appointed to investigate the role of Trump and his family and minions in the Russia hacking affair, was compromisable — either through the impact of the Trump persona and the force multiplier of the vast powers of the presidency ... or through some inner failing on the part of Mueller himself, as if the man could be bought and sold in the marketplace after all.

Many on the right apparently felt the same way, with a growing chorus calling for Mueller's head in a basket, too, just like Comey. “The idea that the investigation is illegitimate and politically motivated has been gaining currency on the political right for months,” The New York Times reported June 12. “Conservative writers, radio hosts and cable personalities — emboldened by the president himself, who has called it a witch hunt — have repeatedly sought to discredit the inquiry, its investigators, the mainstream news accounts of it, and the lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are demanding more answers.”

They needn’t have bothered. Mueller was appointed in mid-May, and tasked with a “full and thorough” investigation into the cyberscandal in which Russia tried to thumbscale the 2016 presidential election. A former prosecutor, ex-Marine and as celebrated a former director as any in the annals of the FBI, Mueller took the helm as Director one week before 9/11 — as crucible an event as you could ask for. In the current crisis, he’s presented himself as someone who intends to perform his brief, to fulfill the job he was brought on to do. He made that clear in a statement in a tweet after his appointment: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.” Full stop.

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SO HOUSE TRUMP already faced the expected pushback from Mueller, whose mission is to aggressively investigate what Trump doesn’t want investigated at all — that’s why he fired Comey in the first place. That was bad enough. But then, of course, Trump needed to name Comey’s replacement at FBI; he tapped someone who, with his recent testimony as evidence, may be as much of a problem for him as Comey or Mueller.

FBI Director nominee Christopher A. Wray, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 12, set the terms of engagement for anyone at House Trump who’d try to interfere in any way with the Russia investigation:

There are no terms of engagement. There will be no engagement.

“I would consider an effort to tamper with Director Mueller’s investigation to be unacceptable and inappropriate,” Wray told a committee already predisposed to hosannahs for this former G-man and successful Atlanta litigator. In his comments, Wray praised Mueller as “the ultimate straight shooter.”

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This isn’t just a budding law enforcement bromance in the works. What we’re seeing — and Trump knows this — is a pre-emptive warning to House Trump: Tampering? A late-night phone call just to ask an innocent question? Don’t even contemplate. What Mueller and Wray have done, separately but together, is establish a united front on the Russia hacking investigation, to suggest, without actually saying so, that, while this investigation may have one objective, it's likely to develop through multiple channels.

Friday, July 14, 2017

No 'SoHa,' NowOrEver

WHEN I LIVED at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in the borough of Manhattan, it was a hard-won badge of honor. I’d hopscotched around New York City for more than a few years, moving from Hell’s Kitchen (in what is now predominately known as Chelsea, in a victory of urban planners with no sense of urban poetry) to Greenwich Village, and even vacating the city altogether, spending a brief stint in Jersey City.

But when I took possession of my fourth-floor walkup up-uptown, I also took proud ownership of a relationship with an old neighbor, one that began when I crossed Central Park North and walked into the southernmost district of Harlem.

For generations, the history behind this celebrated 3.8-square mile swathe of upper Manhattan has been a source of pride to African Americans — indeed, to any and all Americans with a sense of history beyond the star-spangled pabulum we’ve been fed all our lives. ...

During the 20 years of the Harlem Renaissance, novelists, poets, artists and musicians made the area a vibrant, genially explosive hothouse for some of America’s most powerful and enduring artistic contributions. And the streets and parks of the area have kept the names of the secular saints of black history: Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Malcolm X Boulevard, Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Marcus Garvey Park, Jackie Robinson Park. ...

For years now, there’s been a kind of cultural détente at work there, a relationship that saw elements of upscale, privileged, entitled America co-existing with the earthier aspects of Harlem’s more indigenous identity. Even as Starbucks, Old Navy and American Apparel moved into the neighborhood, the older, legendary persona persisted. The lion, it seemed, could lie down with the lamb. Mocha Frappuccino went just fine with sweet potato pie.

Lately, however, there’s been a move afoot to obliterate the name of that iconic district. With one trial balloon or another, real-estate developers and some business owners have undertaken efforts to change the name of at least part of Harlem to “SoHa,” a too-hip-by-half compression of “South Harlem” that borrows the sadly frequent tendency to shorten established neighborhood names to something almost unintelligible (and certainly unintelligent).

The rationale is flimsy at best; the proposed name change is thought to attract more home buyers, or to make the neighborhood more appealing to young, upwardly mobile residents — those with no compunction about changing manifestations of history that don’t personally involve them.

But just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. ...

Read the full piece at Swamp

Image credits: Harlem Renaissance map: Ephemera Press. Harlem subway map excerpt: MTA. Swamp logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Supremes' declarations of independence

IN HIS September 2005 Senate confirmation hearing, John Roberts told senators that, if confirmed to join the nation’s highest court, he would “remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

As the head umpire of the team of judicial referees we call the Supreme Court of the United States, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been in a unique position to do just that — weighing in on matters whose import in the national life is nothing short of existential, making decisions with his (now, finally) eight colleagues that are, often enough, nothing short of unpredictable.

That unpredictability is sometimes the most predictable thing about SCOTUS decisions, as a look at the current, almost-ended term will show. The Supremes’ meme isn’t always what we think it is. This term has shown that, regardless of the ideological reflexiveness commonly assumed about the Supreme Court's members, they’re prone to handing down surprises from the bench, rulings that confound those who confuse Supreme Court justices with other people — like politicians.

This fact doesn’t stop presidents from making nomination choices for the high court in as predictable, and political, a way as you could ask for. Donald Trump has been no different.

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When Neil M. Gorsuch — Trump’s first pick for the court — was Senate-confirmed as an associate justice in April, it aroused waves of shock and fear in the nation’s progressive community, who conjured Chicken Little scenarios in which the sky of American jurisprudence would always be falling — on them, courtesy of the narcissistic First Hairpiece from New York and the strict-constructionist 10th Circuit Court judge from Denver.

Fast forward three months, and the high court hasn’t turned into the retributive right-wing playground many had feared. Recent pre-Gorsuch decisions by the court suggest just the opposite.

Despite the convenience of labels, and the equal convenience of our current political polarities, reports of the death of SCOTUS’ judicial independence have been greatly exaggerated, and not just recently. That fact could have a major impact on, and be a major complicator of, Trump’s judicial master plan.

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CONSIDER THE recent past at the high court: In October, not long after the first Monday in October that marks the start of the every Supreme Court term, the court ruled unanimously in Bosse v. Oklahoma that the death sentence for Shaun Michael Bosse, convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her two children, was reversed, his case to be reviewed by a lower court because the victim’s family members recommended a punishment to the jury. No ideological divide there, despite conservatives’ general appeal for death sentences.

On March 21, the court, 6-2, ruled that Elijah Manuel, an African American man, could sue the city of Joliet, Ill., for unlawful detention after he was arrested in 2011 by white police officers and held for seven weeks on suspicion of possessing illegal drugs, which turned out to be no more than vitamins. Most of the court’s conservatives agreed with this stand against prosecutors and in favor of a black male plaintiff.

The court’s breaks with the presumptions of social and political orthodoxy go back way before last October. Years before. We saw the court’s willingness to cross partisan lines of party politics in June 2012, when Chief Justice John Roberts (a Reagan-era Republican) cast the deciding vote to uphold President Obama’s signature and centerpiece, the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — and ushered in a torrent of divergent opinions about his true political leanings. Roberts similarly upheld Obamacare from the bench again in June 2015.

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In April 2014, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, kindred ideological spirits, were on the opposite sides of Prado Navarette et al. v. California, a SCOTUS decision that ruled that an anonymous tipster’s call to 911 to file a report was a valid reason for the California Highway Patrol officers to stop a driver for suspected drunken driving.

Thomas wrote the majority opinion for the court’s customary conservatives — Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — plus the usually liberal Breyer.

Meanwhile, Scalia, ordinarily a rock-ribbed ideological conservative, dissented along with the court’s reliable progressives — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Scalia wrote that the court’s majority in the case had given law enforcement a “freedom-destroying” authority. “Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference.”

Scalia wrote: “After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”

Also in 2014, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case upholding Michigan’s voter-approved law banning the consideration of race when making decisions on university admissions, Justice Stephen Breyer (usually part of the liberal clique) sided with conservatives in the 6-2 ruling.

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SINCE GORSUCH was confirmed in April, he’s largely settled into an amen corner with Justice Clarence Thomas as a champion of ultraconservative views. Gorsuch has rendered his first opinions, blasting outta the blocks on cases, supporting gun ownership rights, pushing back on the Obama-era latitude of rights of same-sex couples, and weighing in (on the Trump administration’s side) over the Muslim travel ban.

A cascade of rulings is expected between now and later in July, when the court ends this term. Gorsuch will certainly make his feelings known in most or all of them. But the more than occasional unpredictability of the court, with both recent and historical rulings as evidence, is well established. He won’t change that; he may well confirm it all over again.

When new presidents make appointments to the Supreme Court, there’s much attention paid to a presumed left/right divide and where in that divide the prospective new justice is expected to be. It’s zero-sum-game thinking, subject to head-slapping surprises and strange judicial bedfellows. We’ve seen plenty of both since the first Monday of last October.

The new president* needs to get used to that for the high court’s terms to come.

In the wake of Roberts’ June 2015 Obamacare ruling, Curt Levey of the Committee for Justice, a conservative judges’ advocacy group, told Politico that “Republican presidents need to be careful about appointing conservatives.” Levey’s right; it’s anyone’s guess how presidents in the future, or the one we’ve got now, are prepared to handle the matters of another kind of law.

The law of unintended consequences.

Image credits: SCOTUS: official portrait. Scalia: Official SCOTUS photo. Roberts: Win McNamee/Associated Press. Neil Gorsuch and Trump: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Dear Theresa: What a Difference a Year Makes

Prime Minister May,

Well now. It’s been one thing after another, eh? You started with such high hopes and great expectations a year ago. After David Cameron’s uncommonly swift exit from 10 Downing Street a year ago, you took charge of the government making history from day one, as the second woman in history to serve as prime minister and leader of the Conservative (or Tory) Party — no less than Margaret Thatcher was the first. You, therefore, stepped into huge shoes to be filled.

You struck the right notes in the beginning, starting with your first speech to the nation.

You said: “[W]e believe in a Union, not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all of our citizens, whoever we are, and wherever we’re from. ...

“As we leave the European Union, we will forge a new, bold, positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works, not for the privileged few, but for every one of us.

“That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together, we will build a better Britain.”

What a difference a year makes. What began with a galvanizing, egalitarian cri de coeur, a rally point for British identity, has since devolved into classic party politics — with a cruel twist. You’ve unwittingly aided the interparty divisions your speech of last year sought to downplay; you’ve accidentally undercut Conservative aspirations by trying to appeal to the other side; and you’ve signed on for a ride on the Trump Train, hitched your wagon to the much-maligned reality TV star ostensibly running the United States — a tie-up that serves you, or the country, no good at all. ...

Read the full piece at Swamp

Image credits: May: Friedemann Vogel/EPA. Swamp logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Little Donny and Big Vlad

PHOTO-ILLUSTRATIONS can be a wonderful thing, in this digital era a fine and helpful way of distilling myriad, wieldy concepts into a visual snapshot that clarifies at a glance. Case in point: Sarah Rogers’ photo-illo of President* Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, published Thursday in The Daily Beast. The image of a seriously downsized Trump next to an oversized shot of Putin tells more than one story without a word.

It visually describes Trump’s comparative position in any head-to-head matchups with Putin at the G-20 summit now underway in Hamburg, Germany, regardless of the headline achievements emerging from their meeting Friday.

The Russian hacking scandal — the collective of events that, according to a plurality of sources in a position to know, almost certainly affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election — has been the gift that keeps on giving the American people real reason to worry. That won’t begin to change until the denier-in-chief accepts the role of Russia in that scandal, despite Putin’s denial that Russia played any part in hacking our election. That hasn’t happened yet.

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It’s of course welcome news that Trump and Putin reached agreement on a cease-fire in Syria. The accord the two arrived at on Friday goes into effect on Sunday, and anything that dials back the deadly hostilities in that six-year-long conflict can only be a positive thing.

But that’s resolving a problem both Russia and the United States had a direct role in cultivating to begin with. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is an ally of Moscow; helping him maintain his grip on power is to Russia’s advantage (which is why Russia started airstrikes against the rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow in 2015). In 2014, the United States started airstrikes against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria, and supports the rebels in their battle with the Syrian military.

But Russia has no control over Syrian forces — certainly not compared to Assad himself, anyway — and the United States has no direct control over (or military participation with) the rebels. So to some extent, the cease-fire declared on Friday will be between the proxies in the conflict. Therefore, any such cease-fire could fall apart. Previous cease-fires have done just that.

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FOR AMERICANS, the big concerning issue remains the Russia hacking scandal. Trump’s steadfast refusal to admit that anything happened in the run-up of the U.S. vote last year — despite the best informed and researched evidence of the U.S. intelligence community — is deeply problematical.

To the extent that hackers did intervene in the U.S. election, the United States remains at a disadvantage: With the weight of available proof, it’s difficult to believe something didn’t take place.

It’s impossible to think another such event won’t happen again if our national leadership refuses to believe it happened the first time. Such undying denial makes a Next Time almost inevitable.

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None of this stopped Trump and Putin from informally agreeing to forget about the past in an effort to move ahead — a lot like two belligerents making peace without addressing what made them belligerents in the first place. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who’s at the summit and who was a witness to the Trump-Putin dialogue, said their meeting was “rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point.”

“There was not a lot of re-litigating things from the past,” Tillerson said, blowing right past the fact that nothing’s been litigated at all. It’s especially ironic since Trump and Putin actually discussed cybersecurity matters at the summit. “I had a very lengthy conversation with the President of the United States, there were a lot of issues such as Ukraine, Syria, other problems, some bilateral issues,” Putin said. “We again returned to the issues of fighting terrorism and cybersecurity.”

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was plenary about the whole thing. “President Trump said that he heard the clear declarations of President Putin that this is not true, and that Russian leadership did not interfere with these elections. And that he accepts these declarations.”

Trump’s blind faith in the assertions of an adversary isn’t so different (or any less naïve) than that of President George W. Bush, who said in June 2001 that he looked into Putin “in the eye” and got “a sense of his soul.” This is worse than whistling on a walk through a graveyard; this is whistling on a walk through a graveyard that's known to be dangerous.

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PUTIN’S DOMINANCE in that Daily Beast image also serves as a proxy for other dignitaries who stand head and shoulders above Trump on the world stage. We saw a glimpse of this changing of the geopolitical guard at and after the G-7 summit in May.

At that summit, Merkel took issue with Trump’s unwillingness to sign on to the Paris Accords, the first globally binding agreement on dealing with climate change — a pact signed by 195 countries. “The entire discussion about climate was very difficult, if not to say very dissatisfying,” she said. “There are no indications whether the United States will stay in the Paris Agreement or not.”

After the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was as blunt as possible about prospects for the U.S. role in European affairs. “'The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” she said.

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Since then, Merkel and, more recently, French president Emmanuel Macron (whose physical snub of Trump at the G-7 made headlines) have imparted a fresh dimension of world leadership — leadership that has less to do with arms and bluster and military strength, and more to do with social, environmental and emotional stewardship of a fractious and chaotic world.

The tensions at the G-7 in Italy seemed to be imported to the G-20 in Hamburg. Look at the latest so-called family photo of world leaders. If cosmetics and stagecraft count for anything at these events, and they do, it was a big deal that Trump, ostensible leader of the free world, stood at far stage left, while Merkel stood front row center — next to Chinese president Xi Jinping and ... Putin.

Nothing confirms the veracity of Rogers’ photo-illustration more than that.

The G-20 summit ends Saturday.

Image credits: Trump-Putin photo-illustration: Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast. Assad: Source unknown. Trump sworn in: Pool. Merkel: AFP/Getty Images.

Friday, June 30, 2017

MSNBC Leans to the Right, a Little

What do Bret Stephens and Greta Van Susteren have in common? (a) Both are conservative journalists recently in the pay and orbit of conservative media; (b) both have history with MSNBC. There the similarities end, since one's just started at MSNBC, while the other just left. This latest TV minuet, this square dance of talking heads has got people’s attention and sent fearful progressives rushing to social media to express their concerns.

But for longtime MSNBC viewers, this is about as reliable as the seasons changing — the political seasons. It’s been done before, and more than once.

Stephens, a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and as of April an opinion writer with The New York Times, just joined the lineup of commentators on MSNBC, the longtime cable stronghold for liberal American television viewers, and a fresh source of conservative voices added to the “Lean Forward” channel since the start of the year.

Read the full story in Swamp

Image credits: Stephens and Van Susteren: MSNBC. Lack: NBC. Swamp logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The little big reveals:
Why Trumpcare is already DOA

IT WAS A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the current debate over the future of health care in the United States, one that seems to suggest what’s coming next in this comic saga of a manqué presidency. It came, like so many moments of accidental revelation do lately, from President* Donald Trump, who sat down Tuesday with four Republican senators while in the presence (if not exactly the company) of the media. Matt Shuham reported on the moment for Talking Points Memo.

Speaking off-handedly about the prospects for the Trumpcare bill still in limbo in the Senate, Trump tipped his hand on his confidence in the outcome without realizing it, or maybe just without caring one way or another.

“This will be great if we get it done, and if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like and that’s OK and I understand that very well,” the president* said. “But I think we have a chance to do something very, very important for the public. Very, very important for the people of our country that we love.”

Note the relatively few important words in all of that, the words that matter: “if we don’t get it done ... that’s OK ...” Implicit in those eight words is at least a rhetorical expectation of failure, an embrace of the risk, and maybe even the likelihood, that things will not go as planned.

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That was one of Tuesday’s little big reveals on the future of the bill now known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (apparently the second name for the Trump bill). The other one was when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back the planned Senate vote on the bill until after the July 4 recess. “I had hoped, as you know, that we could have gotten to the floor this week, but we’re not quite there,” he told reporters. “But I think we’ve got a really good chance of getting there, it’ll just take us a little bit longer.”

That statement from the poster-boy senator for Obamacare repeal seemed to stir a chain reaction. Talking Points Memo reported that, not long after McConnell’s postponement of the planned Senate vote, three GOP senators — Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran of Kansas — tweeted or released statements announcing their decision not to back the Trumpcare bill.

Capito, very popular in her home state, had the response that was the most rooted in practicality, the constituent-driven practicality of what works for the people who elected her.

“I recognize that many West Virginians rely on health coverage and access to substance abuse treatment because of my state’s decision to expand coverage through Medicaid. I have studied the draft legislation and CBO analysis to understand its impact on West Virginians,” she said in a joint statement with Portman. “As drafted, this bill will not ensure access to affordable health care in West Virginia, does not do enough to combat the opioid epidemic that is devastating my state, cuts traditional Medicaid too deeply and harms rural health care providers.”

◊ ◊ ◊

MAYBE THE president* knew what was coming from Capito and the others, maybe not. If he did know, maybe he felt he could ignore it. What he couldn’t ignore, of course, was the letter that landed the day before, the letter to McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer direct from Dr. James Madara, executive vice president and CEO of the American Medical Association.

It couldn’t be more of a disaster for Trumpcare. “Medicine has long operated under the precept of Primum non nocere, or 'first, do no harm.’ The draft legislation violates that standard on many levels,” Madara wrote.

He continued: “Though we await additional analysis of the proposal, it seems highly likely that a combination of smaller subsidies resulting from lower benchmarks and the increased likelihood of waivers of important protections such as required benefits, actuarial value standards, and out of pocket spending limits will expose low and middle income patients to higher costs and greater difficulty in affording care.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Madara said the organization “continue[s] to oppose Congressionally-mandated restrictions on where lower income women (and men) may receive otherwise covered health care services – in this case the prohibition on individuals using their Medicaid coverage at clinics operated by Planned Parenthood. These provisions violate longstanding AMA policy on patients’ freedom to choose their providers and physicians’ freedom to practice in the setting of their choice.”

“We do appreciate the inclusion of several provisions designed to bring short term stability to the individual market, including the extension of cost sharing reductions payments. We urge, however, that these provisions serve as the basis of Senate efforts to improve the ACA and ensure that quality, affordable health insurance coverage is within reach of all Americans.”

Trump, the political object of serial two-by-fours to the head over the preceding 24 hours, thus came to the realization that “if we don’t get it done ... that’s OK ...” — a statement that effectively gives any senator that wants to back away from the bill the cover to do so without much penalty. Capito’s clear-as-glass opposition was based entirely on the needs of her fellow West Virginians; it was pothole politics played (and played well) on the national stage. If any rank-and-file Republicans need cover for the vote to come, she’s just given them plenty. So has the leadership of the AMA. And House Trump knows it.

◊ ◊ ◊

SO DOES MITCH McConnell. That explains the generally anodyne, perversely upbeat language in his scrum with reporters. But McConnell looks at least a little further down the road than most senators in the public eye. He’s not one for playing the long game, but he is capable of the longer game, looking for leverage no one else can see.

People have asked repeatedly how the Republicans could credibly advance such a willfully monstrous piece of legislation as the Trumpcare bill, which would eviscerate Medicare, remove pre-existing conditions as a coverage threshold, and balloon the health-care premiums for Americans in no position to pay them.

Leave it to Joshua Guess, my colleague at Swamp, to offer a provocative idea on June 24: Maybe McConnell isn’t serious.

◊ ◊ ◊

Guess writes: “The one read that no one seems to have on this situation is also the one I think is the most obvious: McConnell doesn't actually want the bill to pass. His mistake was in believing the base cared more than it does about ACA repeal and making new legislation a priority as a result. Everything going forward flows from that one wrong assumption. 

“What I believe he's really doing is deliberately crafting a bill he knows won't get the support of the necessary 50 GOP senators. By choosing to include provisions and language he knows will peel off certain votes, McConnell creates a liminal space where he believes blame can be targeted rather than directed at the party in general.

“As of right now, at least four GOP senators are publicly against passing the new legislation. If McConnell changes it to suit them, it will peel off several on the other end of the spectrum. This is the one central weakness of the congressional GOP. Finding a middle ground between the extreme right and the moderates is an increasingly narrow ledge to walk.”

◊ ◊ ◊

WE'RE PROMISED the climax of this drama sometime after the July 4th recess. By that time, McConnell says, he’ll have time to go back to other senators and wheedle and threaten and cajole ... and not coincidentally make changes in the bill that might make it more palatable. Changes that will, to one degree or another, make it more and more like Obamacare, the system they are sworn to destroy.

But it’s already too late. This iteration of Trumpcare is a variation of the one that died the death back in April; its prospects for survival shouldn't be any more likely than its predecessor. Also, the opposition is louder, it’s more grounded than it was before, and it’s wider now, with more opponents of Trumpcare emerging in red states all the time.

Consider the inescapable drumbeats: Not one state supports the Republican health-care bill as it stands, according to reporting and multi-poll calculations by The New York Times. “We found that Republicans have produced a rare unity among red and blue states: opposition to the A.H.C.A.,” The Times reported, using the old four-letter shorthand for the Trump bill's original name.

◊ ◊ ◊

Add to that the sporadic fury of off-the-chain citizens at town halls; the disappointing previous scores from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (which estimated that up to 22 million Americans could lose their health care under Trumpcare); and the generally favorable marks Obamacare has gained in its seven years of uptime.

The end results? An administration eager to define itself by undoing what its predecessor did, rather that charting its own affirmative legacy, by using a program's best attributes in order to build something better.

A party foolishly willing to die on this anti-populist hill, despite the best advice of many within that party (never mind the approaching midterm-year realities).

And a president* who’s not exactly confident of the future of this bill, and an opposition that's just as certain the bill has no future at all.

Image credits: Trump: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. McConnell: Associated Press. Swamp logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC. Trumpcare supporters map: ©2017 The New York Times. Congressional Budget Office logo: © 2017 CBO.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Ken: He's Just an American Guy

The artifact historically known as Ken — a template for male American imagery for generations — has always been something of a moving target. From his early days as a miniature stand-in for the ideal guy next door in the parallel dollhouse America of 1961 (paired up with his girlfriend, female analog and fellow everyday archetype, the legendary Barbie), Ken would slowly, in some ways glacially, come to symbolize variations in the idea of the average American guy.

Down through the years, the variations on the theme of Ken were more cosmetic than anything else: different hairstyles, a flirtation with a beard; changes in the chisel and shape of the face; even a 2014 Ken with Italianate features, a shift from his Anglo-Saxonesque heritage (Gianfranco Ken was a limited-edition collectors’ item).

Now, Mattel, the El Segundo, Calif.-based manufacturer of the doll that’s been sold hundreds of millions of times in the United States and abroad, has performed a startling Ken remake, releasing a “new crew” line of Ken dolls whose personae span more of American race, ethnicity, culture and gym membership than ever before. ...

Read the rest at Geeks Media

Image credit: © 2017 Mattel. Geeks logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Monday, June 12, 2017

For Ice Cube … one respectful rejoinder:
The n-word belongs to America

WE GOT ONE of those proverbial Teachable Moments over the weekend, one that followed a moment, the week before, that was lamentable more than anything else. As it so often happens, television was the medium, race was the subject and the n-word — star of stage, screen and TV — was again in the center square, the catalyst for an American event.

Only this one hinged on questions we rarely ask ourselves: Who gets custody of the n-word? From whose mouth should that word never emerge?

Teachable moments are useless if you don’t learn something from them once they happen. And we’ve been here before and before and before. Even when we think we haven’t.

One of those moments, of course, happened on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher on June 2, during an exchange between host Bill Maher and Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. ...

“I gotta get to Nebraska more,” Maher said.

“You’re welcome,” Sasse said. “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”

And Maher took the bait. “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The blowback was more or less immediate. Twitter exploded with outrage, calling Maher everything and a child of God. HBO, Maher’s own network, castigated him for the slur. Variety critic Maureen Ryan called for his firing, as did Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson and activist Chance the Rapper. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken canceled a planned appearance on the program.

On MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton embarked on a role as cultural archeologist, unearthing a video clip that, in showing Maher using the same word previously, tried to put the current matter into historical context.

It got so bad that wags in the entertainment trades speculated how or whether the outburst would scuttle Maher’s chances to win an Emmy.

Leave it to Ice Cube, the actor, writer, director and an icon in the rap game, to try to put things in some kinda perspective that didn’t involve prolonged bad blood on social media or Glocks at 30 paces. ...

Read the full piece at The Omnibus @Medium

Image credit: Bill Maher and Ice Cube: HBO.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Changing the Venue

Netflix debuted its $60 million original movie War Machine in late May. The reviews for the Afghan War-era film starring Brad Pitt were all over the place, from mildly rapturous to downright vicious. But if a recent study is to be believed, television viewers have made a decision about changing their moviegoing habits in a way that makes Netflix and other streaming services war machines themselves. The legacy studios are not happy.

In its May study of streaming video service use, Fluent LLC, a New York-based marketing company, found that more people use streaming video services now than have cable subscriptions. According to the Fluent study, 67 percent of Internet users in the United States watch or have access to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and only 61 percent have cable service in their homes. ...

Read the full story at Geeks

Image credits: Will Smith in Bright: Netflix. Geeks logo: © 2017 Jerrick Ventures LLC.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fighting fire with gasoline:
Lewandowski may be back on the Trump bus

IN WHAT could be President* Trump’s latest subversively contrarian staff hire — you know, the kind of thing that made him hire former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who couldn’t stand the Environmental Protection Agency, to be in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency — Trump is considering Corey Lewandowski, the irascible, assaultive Trump 2016 campaign manager, for a return to House Trump.

You remember Corey. A walking IED, Lewandowski was fired from the Trump campaign he directed in July 2016, facing battery charges after rather physically moving a reporter out of Trump’s path. This after weeks of baiting and taunting the media and vilifying anyone who didn’t kiss The Donald’s ring.

The president* is weighing Lewandowski’s return, and that of former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, to help with rapid-response messaging in the wake of the still-mushrooming scandal surrounding Trump, the campaign and Russian involvement in the 2016 election process.

◊ ◊ ◊

But as much as anything, the possible return of Lewandowski and Bossie to the Trump fold speaks volumes about one of the biggest problems the administration has to confront: a president* who is, inexplicably, still in campaign mode instead of the one required to govern a nation and its people.

If he comes back, Lewandowski’s likely to be the marquee headache. House Trump is deciding how best to use this daffy thug to the president’s* advantage: Will they let him run loose in the White House or keep him chained up on K Street or Z Street or wherever they quarantine the mushwits in Washington (the ones who aren’t on Capitol Hill)?

The chattering class isn’t waiting. Rumors of Lewandowski’s serving in or around the White House “have senior Trump administration officials gnashing their teeth,” The Daily Beast reported Monday. “It would be another trainwreck,” one White House official told The Beast. “I'm dreading that it could even happen … though he'll probably be kept outside [the White House], it's looking like.”

The Daily Beast reported that “[o]fficials suggested it is more likely that Lewandowski lands at a parallel communications operation designed to push back against waves of bad press that have consumed the White House since Trump was inaugurated. Axios reported on Tuesday that the White House is considering bringing on Bossie and Lewandowski ‘as part of an outside-inside duet.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

WHICH, IF it happens, would be a waste of time and taxpayer money. The challenges the president* faces are so numerous, they won’t respond to the convenience, the relative luxury of one problem being isolated from another. The crew at House Trump needs a holistic solution, having to resolve not just one self-inflicted crisis but at least three, and each of them is a truly full-blown crisis, not just a “distraction.”

The biggest problem to be solved is the one that sits in the high chair at the White House. The crises that Lewandowski and Bossie may be brought in to fix have their origins at Trump’s own gilded doorstep. Which probably won’t stop either of them from creating issues of their own.

“Word is [Lewandowski] won’t be in the White House proper. More of a shadow adviser,” one official told The Daily Beast. “When, not if, he does something crazy, there’ll at least be a degree of separation.”

"I gagged when I [first] heard that," another senior Trump aide told The Beast. "[Corey] will not be an asset in the West Wing. He would be a hothead in a [White House] that needs the opposite.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Perversely, the administration plan makes practical, tactical sense. When it gets crazy, you double down on the people you trust, the support system that keeps you going — the same one that, to one degree or another, helped get you where you are.

“At times of crisis obviously it’s important that you surround yourself with people you can trust, and Corey certainly has proven his loyalty,” said Alex Conant, a partner at the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s communications director during the 2016 campaign.

BUT. “The challenges Trump faces are not his staff’s fault. Staff changes won’t matter unless they come with systematic changes to how the president is running his White House,” Conant told Politico. And that’s the problem with bringing these two back under the big top. They’re not what’s needed by Trump & Co. They’re the opposite of what’s needed. They’ll probably exacerbate the situation, making things worse for everyone. They’re likely to be a case of fighting fire with gasoline.

◊ ◊ ◊

TRUMP’S POSSIBLE addition of Bossie confirms this. Most recently Bossie has been chairman of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, and from that position took point in advancing the case that led to one of the Supreme Court’s most momentous decisions, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a ruling that basically empowered corporations to impersonate human beings for the purpose of influencing political campaigns with mountains of cash.

But in the early 90’s, Bossie was on the staff of the Senate committee investigating Whitewater, and thus starting his career as a Clinton bête noire. In 1997 and 1998, he was an investigator for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tasked with finding campaign finance irregularities by President Clinton — a hot-dog job he performed with relish. Until he got fired by the people who hired him, for going too far.

“David Bossie is so craven and maniacal that in the heyday of the overreaching, Gingrich-era Congress, the top Whitewater conspiracy theorist in the House had to fire him for doctoring evidence,” said Bill Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, to The Guardian (UK) last September.

“He certainly knows how to set fires,” said Clinton administration image medic Mark Fabiani, to Politico. “Whether he’s good at putting them out or not, I have no idea.” A saga to be continued ... until it’s discontinued.

Image credits: Lewandowski: Fox News. Trump: Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Bossie: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons.
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