Sunday, January 7, 2018


Weekend Roundup

Started collecting the Yglesias links and Taibbi on Wolff last night, and this is as far as I got today. Of Yglesias' big four stories, I left oil drilling, anti-pot enforcement, and the Pakistan aid cut on the floor: mostly didn't run across anything very good on those subjects, although that's partly because it seems like my source trawling has taken a big hit (especially since Paul Woodward's WarInContext went on hiatus). That leaves a bunch on the Wolff book, the unseemly end of the Kobach Commission, and some Iran links. Oh, and dumb Trump tricks, but that's a gimme.

Of the missing stories (and, of course, there are many more than the "known unknowns"), the break with Pakistan seems likely to be most fateful. Americans have bitched since 2002 that they're not getting their money's worth in Pakistan, but Pervez Musharraf's turn against the Taliban was never popular there, especially with the ISI, and only a combination of sticks and carrots made the move at all palatable. It remains to be seen whether Trump removing the carrots will tip the balance, but renewed Pakistani support for the Taliban could make the US stake in Afghanistan much more precarious -- at worst it might provoke a major US escalation there, with pressure to attack Pakistan's border territories ("sanctuaries"), with a real risk of igniting a much larger conflagration. Probably won't come to that, but Pakistan is a country with more than 200 million people, with a large diaspora (especially in the UK), with nuclear weapons, with a military which has fought three major wars with India and remains more than a little paranoid on that front.

The reasonable solution for Arghanistan is to try to negotiate some sort of loose federation which allows the Taliban to share power, especially in the Pashtun provinces where it remains popular, while the US military exits gracefully. This is unlikely to happen because the Trump administration has no clue how diplomacy works and no desire to find out. Pakistan could be a useful intermediary, so cutting them out seems like a short-sighted move. But it is a trademark Trump move: rash, unconsidered, prone to violence with no regard for consequences; cf. Syria, Libya, Somalia, Palestine, North Korea. It's only a matter of time before one of those bites back hard.

Same is basically true of the offshore oil leases, but probably on a slower time schedule. It will take several years before anyone starts drilling, and there will be a lot of litigation along the way. But eventually some of those offshore rigs will blow up and spread oil all over tourist beaches in Florida and/or California. Some people will make money, at least short-term, and some will be hit with losses in the longer term, but at least it will mostly be money. That matters a lot to Trump, but less so to you and me.

Less clear what the marijuana prosecution impact will be. In theory Sessions just kicked the ball down to local US attorneys, who can choose to prosecute cases or not. But a year ago Sessions initiated a purge and replaced all of Obama's prosecutors with his own, so it's likely that at least some of them will take the bait and try to make names for themselves. Meanwhile, politicization of the Department of Justice keeps ratcheting up. Trump and Congressional Republicans have renewed attacks on Sessions for failing to protect Trump from the Mueller investigation, and they've gone further to question the political loyalties of the FBI. Meanwhile the courts are increasingly being filled up with Republican hacks. The net result of all this is that people on all sides are coming to view "justice" in America as a vehicle of partisan patronage. It's going to be hard to restore trust in law once it's been abused so severely by goons like Trump and Sessions.

I haven't written much about the whole Russia situation. A big part early on was the fear that neocons were just using it to whip up a new cold war, which is something they were very keen on at least as early as 2001, when Bush took office and Yeltsin gave way to Putin. With his KGB background, it's always been easy to paint Putin as bearing Cold War grudges, even more so as a master of underhanded tactics -- most egregiously, I think, in his reopening of the Chechen War. The Cold War was very good for the defense industry, and generally bad for the American people (as well as many others around the world), so I regard any effort to reignite it as dastardly.

The neocons had modest success doing so during the Obama years, especially with recent sanctions in response to the Russia annexing Crimea and, allegedly, supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Hillary Clinton was especially vociferous at Russia-baiting, so it was no surprise that Putin favored her opponent. Trump himself had pitched numerous business ventures to Russian oligarchs, so he must have seemed to Putin like someone to deal with. Indeed, there seems to have been mutual attraction between many Republicans and Putin, possibly based on the former's admiration of strong men and contempt for democracy. It's worth noting that Russia is the only country where the ultra-rich have profited more inequally since 2000 than the United States.

The second major reason for resisting the post-election claims of Russian interference has been how it was used by Clinton dead-enders as an excuse for losing the 2016 election. Their desperation to blame anyone but the candidate has blinded them to the real lessons of the campaign's failure. (Presumably I don't need to reiterate them here.) A third reason, I reckon, is the hypocrisy of blaming Russia while ignoring Israel's much more pervasive involvement in US elections: I've seen numerous liberals describe Trump as "Putin's bitch" (most recently in Dawn Oberg's song, "Nothing Rhymes With Orange"), but if Trump's anyone's bitch, it's Netanyahu's (or more directly, Sheldon Adelson's -- who, as Philip Weiss notes in the link below put more money into the campaign than Trump himself did).

On the other hand, the "Russiagate" story is sticking, and lately the focus has shifted to culprits one feels no sympathy whatsoever for. The problem isn't really collusion: Trump's people were very sloppy about their meetings with Russians, but they were sloppy and inept in pretty much everything they did. On the other hand, it sure looks like they would have colluded had they figured out how, and they were aware enough that they were overstepping bounds to lie about it afterwards -- greatly increasing their culpability. It's also clear that Flynn and Manafort had their own Russian deals, which wound up looking worse than they initially were after they joined the campaign.

What Russia actually did to tilt the election toward Trump wasn't much -- certainly cost-wise it's a small drop in the ocean of money agents working for Adelson and the Kochs spent to get Trump elected. It would be a mistake to play up Russia's hacking genius, just as one shouldn't underestimate the effect of AFP's grassroots organizing. Elections are run in a crooked world -- even more so since the Citizens United ruling unlocked all that "dark money" -- but one thing that Clinton really can't complain about is not having enough money to compete.

On the other hand, what "Russiagate" is making increasingly clear is the utter contempt that Donald Trump and (increasingly) the whole Republican Party have for law, justice, truth, and fairness. I don't hold any fondness for James Comey, whose own handling of the Clinton email server case was shameless political hackery, and I've actively disliked Robert Mueller for decades -- ever since he prosecuted that ridiculous Ohio 7 sedition case (which my dear friend, the late Elizabeth Fink, was a successful defense counsel on). But Trump's interference in their jobs has been blatantly self-serving -- if not technically obstruction of justice easily conveying that intent. We seem to only be a short matter of time until Trump's contempt becomes too blatant to ignore, and while I doubt that will phase his Republican enablers or his most fervently blinkered base, it should at least help bury his awful political agenda.


Meanwhile, here are some other ways Trump has stunk up last week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: Trump's week of feuds with Bannon, Pakistan, marijuana smokers, and ocean waters, explained: Trump broke ties with Steve Bannon; Trump opened up huge areas to offshore drilling; Trump is cracking down on marijuana; Trump is cutting off aid to Pakistan. Trump breaking with Bannon doesn't amount to much, but Bannon will struggle for a while without the Mercers' money. Basically what happened there was that Bannon's always been a side bet for them, useful for electing Trump but unnecessary with Trump in office, able to further their graft. The oil drilling story is a prime example of graft under Trump, while the other two are cases where ideology and arrogance threaten to blow things up. Other Yglesias stories:

    • The Steele dossier, explained, with Andrew Prokop.

    • Cory Gardner showed how Senate Republicans could check Trump if they wanted to.

    • 2018 is the year that will decide if Trumpocracy replaces American democracy: Two takeaway points here: one is that despite all of the chaos surrounding him, Trump has consolidated effective power within the Republican Party, such that opposing him in any significant way marks one has a heretic and traitor; the second is that if Republicans are not rebuffed in the 2018 elections Trump's control will harden and become even more flagrant and dangerous. Yglesias gets a little carried away on the latter point, at one point noting that "even Adolf Hitler was dismissed by many as a buffoon" -- Trump's megalomania is comparatively fickle and suffused with greed, making African dictators like Idi Amin and Mobutu closer role models. He also fails to note the key point: that in all substantive respects, it was Trump who surrendered to the orthodox Republicans. Trump didn't bend anyone to his will; he merely proved himself to be a useful tool of movement conservatism, which in turn agreed to provide him cover for his personal graft. In some ways, this makes the Republicans more vulnerable in 2018, if Democrats can convince voters that the Party and the President are one.

    • The scary reality behind Trump's long Tuesday of weird tweets: "He's relying on Fox News for all his information." Of course, that was equally true before he became president. Back during the campaign, I noted that he didn't engage in didn't follow Republican custom in couching his racism in "dog whistle" terms because he wasn't a "whistler," he was a "dog." Among Republican rank-and-file, his lack of subtlety and cleverness was taken as authenticity and conviction, even though he merely echoed the coarseness he heard on Fox. Of course, one might reasonably expect a responsible statesman to seek out more reliable information, even if as a politician he chooses to bend it to his own purposes. But Trump lacks such skills, and would probably just get confused trying to sort out the truth. Sticking with Fox no doubt makes his life easier, but makes ours more dangerous.

  • Esme Cribb: Trump: 'Ronald Reagan Had the Same Problem' as Me With 'Fake News': Actually, Reagan had the same problem with facts, with truth, although even Reagan knew when to throw in the towel. After all, what was his Iran-Contra quote? "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not." As Matt Taibbi notes (see link below), Reagan was cognitively impaired well before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's: e.g., the CIA used to shoot movies to brief Reagan on world leaders, finding that the only way to get his attention. Still, no previous president has shown so little regard for facts or so much hostility to honest investigation so early in his term as Trump. While it's possible that age-related cognitive impairment may contribute to this, it strikes me as overly charitable to blame mental illness. From early on, Trump was a liar and scoundrel, a spoiled one given his inherited wealth, and he's only gotten worse as he's gotten caught up in his many intrigues.

    Josh Marshall (see Is President Trump Mentally Ill? It Doesn't Matter) adds this comment:

    All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell. Both are very bad.

  • John Feffer: Trump and Neocons Are Exploiting an Iran Protest Movement They Know Nothing About: I don't doubt that most Iranians have good reason to assemble and protest against their government, indeed their entire political system, and indeed as an American I sympathize with the rights of people everywhere to organize and petition their governments for change. But Washington pols habitually play their kneejerk games, touting dissent against so-called enemies while overlooking suppression of dissent by so-called allies, showing their own motives to be wholly cynical. Thus, American support for protests in Iran immediately taints those protesters as pro-American and anti-Iranian. (Nor are we just talking about Trump, who has become little more than an Israeli-Saudi puppet on Iran; Hillary Clinton was also quick to support the Iranian masses against theocracy, jumping to the conclusion that their goals are the same as her own.) For more, see Trita Parsi: These Are the Real Causes of the Iran Protests; Simon Tisdall: Iran unrest: it's the economy, stupid, not a cry for freedom or foreign plotters; and Sanam Vakil: How Donald Trump's tweets help Iran's supreme leader.

  • German Lopez: Trump has disbanded his voter fraud commission, blaming state resistance and Trump's voter fraud commission, explained: Presidential commissions have long been a method for addressing matters of broad and/or deep concern. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, convened two of the more famous ones: the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Kerner Commission on domestic violence (i.e., the "race riots" of 1965-68). They've rarely proved very satisfactory, although the commission investigating the Challenger NASA disaster (famously including physicist Richard Feynman) did appear to get to the bottom of the story. But Obama's sop to the deficit hawks, the Simpson-Bowles commission, proved to be biased and useless. There were some suggestions that Trump should have appointed a commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, but (not by choice) he wound up with a special prosecutor instead. One area where a commission might be useful would be to look into immigration laws and patterns, to try to clear away many of the popular myths on the subject, and try to come up with a sensible balance between all the competing interests and views. (Of course, had Trump done that, he would have stacked the deck supporting his own prejudices, thereby losing any possibility of building consensus.) Instead, the one (and only) problem Trump decided to be worthy of a presidential commission was the vanishingly tiny question of voter fraud. This was widely viewed as a vehicle for Kansas Secretary of State (and ALEC busybody) Kris Kobach, who appeared on Trump's doorstep with a folder full of schemes -- this appears to be the one that struck Trump's fancy: as the article makes clear, "the voter fraud myth has been used repeatedly to suppress voters." And few things have been more evident over recent decades than Republican efforts to undermine the popular vote. Indeed, that makes perfect sense, given that the Republican agenda heaps favors on the rich and powerful while undermining the vast majority -- people who could rise up and vote them out of office if only the Democrats offered a credible alternative.

  • Jeff Sparrow: Milo Yiannopoulos's draft and the role of editors in dealing with the far-right.

  • Michael Wolff: Donald Trump Didn't Want to Be President: An excerpt from Wolff's new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Amazon's #1 bestseller and the talk of Washington (except on Fox News) this past week. The excerpt runs from election night to a few months past inauguration -- Priebus and Bannon are still on board at the end, but probably not Flynn -- but the title focuses on election night, when "the unexpected trend" shook Trump, who "looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears -- and not of joy."

    Some other pieces on the book: