Sunday, December 27, 2020

Weekend Roundup

Table of contents:

Spent three days this past week working on Christmas Eve dinner. Barely looked at the computer for email, but pretty much enjoyed a total news blackout. Also only played old music I didn't have to write about. Still got occasional reports from my wife about various stupid and/or evil things Trump did. Wound up feeling even more disgust and contempt for him than ever before. I'm surprised that's still possible, but one still learns something every day.

Trump's Last Days

It's beginning to look like Trump's reconciling himself, not to the obvious fact that he lost the election but at least to the realization that nobody's going to save him from the loss and hand him a second term. Thus, he's started to move on to his final, most criminal stage: using his remaining powers to inflict as much damage as possible on the government, the economy, our sense of justice, and his own legacy. It's an appalling thing to witness, and likely to become even more so before Biden takes over on January 20.

Sasha Abramsky: Trump is guilty of sedition and must be brought to justice: "He's violating his oath to protect the Constitution, and every day that he's allowed to remain in power, the threat to our democracy grows." First, sedition (like treason) is a bullshit charge. You might argue that because he is president (still), there should be some limits on what he can say, but there's no practical way to enforce it -- about all you can do is counter that he's being stupid, evil, and/or a gross nincompoop who should be deeply ashamed of himself. Second, it's a little late to say that anyone must be brought to justice, given all those guilty of far worse crimes than throwing a tantrum over losing an election, even if you limit the time frame to this past year.

Isaac Arnsdorf: Inside Trump and Barr's last-minute killing spree: "Private executioners paid in cash. Middle-of-the-night killings. False or incomplete justifications. ProPublic obtained court records showing how the outgoing administration is using its final days to execute the most federal prisoners since World War II."

Shawn Boburg/Dalton Bennett/Neena Satija/Ken Hoffman: Ex-cop hits truck thinking it held 750,000 fraudulent ballots, police say. It held air conditioning parts.

The episode illustrates the extreme and sometimes dangerous tactics that a set of conservative groups have employed in an effort to substantiate President Trump's unproven allegations of widespread voting fraud in the election. Theories about truckloads of missing mail-in ballots, manipulated voting machines and illegal mail-in ballot collections have abounded in far-right circles, despite a lack of credible evidence, leading to threats of violence against election workers and officials.

Kyle Cheney/Josh Gerstein: Trump's latest batch of pardons favors the well-connected.

Kaitlan Collins: Giuliani told to preserve all records as lawyers for Dominion warn legal action is 'imminent': Moves toward a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems over the conspiracy treaties floated by Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

Sumner Concepcion: Dominion CEO weighs potential lawsuit against Trump for pushing bogus fraud claims.

Paul Dickinson: I sued Blackwater for the massacre of Iraqi civilians. Trump just pardoned those convicted killers. "Trump's pardon of the Blackwater mercenaries who murdered 14 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square shows the world what justice means in the United States." But the entire war was an unindicted, unprosecuted crime, the culpability increasing all the way to GW Bush at the top. That says all you need to know about the state of justice in the United States. The tiny number of soldiers and mercenaries who did get prosecuted were selected not because they killed and/or tortured Iraqis -- thousands did that, as directed by US policy -- but because they violated orders, so grossly the military felt the need to make an example of them, in order to maintain command order. What the pardons do is to show that the military cannot maintain discipline within its own ranks, let alone act as a viable occupying force. That's something to consider before inserting military forces in foreign countries where they cannot help but self-destruct. Of course, also consider the fact that no occupying military force, no matter how disciplined, can possibly be viewed and respected as just.

Franklin Foer: The triumph of Trump's kleptocracy.

Matt Gertz: Trump's Fox News pardon pipeline: A comprehensive review: "Fox's programming and personalities influenced at least 21 of Trump's acts of clemency -- so far." Update of an article from 2019. Expect another update around January 20.

Michelle Goldberg: Trump's most disgusting pardons.

Spencer S Hsu/Kareem Fahim: Trump administration weighing legal immunity for Saudi crown prince in alleged assassination plot. Mohammed bin Salman is being sued in US courts for his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump could intercede on the Prince's behalf.

Alex Isenstadt: Senior Trump advisers prepare to launch policy group. Brooke Rollins, Larry Kudlow. Other names are more speculative. Kudlow says, "The president is very enthusiastic about this."

Ankush Khardori:

Michael Kranish: Trump vowed to drain the swamp. Then he granted clemency to three former congressmen convicted of federal crimes.

Anita Kumar/Gabby Orr: Inside Trump's pressure campaign to overturn the election.

Anita Kumar/Melanie Zanona/Marianne Levine: 'Complete clusterf---': Trump leaves Washington in limbo: "No one in the White House or on Capitol Hill appears to know what Trump's plan is -- or even if there is one."

The repercussions of inaction could be dramatic. If lawmakers and White House aides can't persuade the president to sign a funding and Covid relief package by Monday, the government will enter the fourth shutdown of Trump's presidency. And millions of Americans had been told to expect another round of direct payments from the government shortly, while businesses across the country were expecting more financial assistance.

Yet Trump left town Wednesday afternoon without saying a word about the bill, departing for Mar-a-Lago, his South Florida resort, where he plans to stay through the new year. And no one seems to know what will happen next.

German Lopez: Trump pardons corrupt members of Congress and allies caught in Russia investigation.

Eric Lipton: In last rush, Trump grants mining and energy firms access to public lands.

Amanda Marcotte: Remember that stupid thing Donald Trump did? Hard as it is to pick, here are the top 10.

Tim Naftali: Trump's pardons make the unimaginable real. Much about Watergate here, how Nixon was tempted to pardon his way out of the jam, but held back, so Trump has already broken new ground in pardoning his accomplices -- and one only wonders how much further he's willing to go. One thing that's clear already is that neither public opinion nor respect for democratic norms will inhibit him.

Erica Newland: I'm haunted by what I did as a lawyer in the Trump Justice Department. Newland worked in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2016-18.

Tina Nguyen: Trump leans on QAnon figures in flailing effort to overturn election.

Paul R Pillar: The big finale: is Trump dangerous enough to start a war? Tricky territory here: calling Trump "dangerous" just strokes his ego. A better word choice is "deranged." Trump seems to be angling for a parting salvo on Iran. He's moving forces into position -- not that there weren't plenty already. But he doesn't have enough time for a full-blown war, and I rather doubt that the Joint Chiefs would go all in for a lame duck president. But there's little reason, other than his innate slothfulness, to think he's not deranged enough to try.

Nikki McCann Ramirez: A far-right architecture obsession just became a Trump executive order -- and Tucker Carlson was the middleman:

On December 21, President Donald Trump signed an executive order designating "classical" architecture the preferred style for federal buildings in Washington, D.C. The order represents the transformation of an far-right obsession into federal law, and the long-gestating effort was aided by Fox host Tucker Carlson earlier this year.

James Risen: Snowden and Assange deserve pardons. So do the whistleblowers Trump imprisoned. Reality Winner is also pictured. Evidently there's been some discussion of pardoning the first two. Indeed, one can argue that Assange was a major asset for Trump in 2016, and that Trump might have fared better in 2020 with Assange free to dig up dirt on Democrats -- something he couldn't do while in jail. (I'd put more emphasis on Trump's job performance as a reason he lost.) Still, I'd be pleased to see any/all pardoned. But if Trump pardons any of them, expect a lot of security-fetish Democrats to throw a conniption fit.

Aaron Rupar: Fox News's post-Trump identity crisis, explained by an expert: Interview with Matt Gertz, of Media Matters.

Maggie Severns: A Trump executive order set the stage for Falwell's political activities.

Ben Smith: The 'red slime' lawsuit that could sink right-wing media: "Voting machine companies threaten 'highly dangerous' cases against Fox, Newsmax and OAN, says Floyd Abrams."

Kimberly Wehle: No, Flynn's martial law plot isn't sedition. But it's not necessarily legal either. "If it incites violence, the former general's proposal to redo the election is not covered by free speech protections."

Matt Zapotosky: Undercutting Trump, Barr says there's no basis for seizing voting machines, using special counsels for election fraud, Hunter Biden.

Matt Zapotosky/Josh Dawsey/Colby Itkowitz/Jonathan O'Connell: Trump pardons Charles Kushner, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone in latest wave of clemency grants.

Politics as Usual

Congress passed a $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill, combined with a $1.4 trillion bill to keep the government from shutting down by allowing all sorts of spending through September. See Ella Nilsen/Li Zhou: Congress has officially passed a $900 billion Covid-19 relief package. Trump whined and pouted without signing the bill (at least as of late Saturday). See: Alexandra Olson/Jill Colvin: Trump fiddles as unemployment benefits are about to expire for millions. Sunday evening, Trump finally signed -- see Seung Min Kim/Jeff Stein/Mike DeBonis/Josh Dawsey: Trump signs stimulus and government spending bill into law, averting shutdown. Or, as the New York Times put it, Trump signs pandemic relief bill after unemployment aid lapses.

FiveThirtyEight: Latest polls of the Georgia Senate runoffs: Basically dead even. I'm not sure why anyone would split their vote, but the numbers show a 0.5% edge for Perdue over Ossoff and a 0.6% edge for Warnock over Loeffler.

Dean Baker:

  • Quick note on the Federal Reserve Board: So Republican Sen. Pat Toomey "insisted on adding language to the pandemic rescue package, stripping the Fed of emergency powers." Granted, the Fed mostly uses its powers to rescue banks and ensure them profits (remember "the Greenspan put"?), the clear intent here is to make the recession longer and deeper under Biden.

    Just for background, we know that the Republicans are perfectly fine with sabotaging the economy in order to hurt the political prospects of a Democrat in the White House. This is exactly what they did under President Obama, as they demanded recovery killing austerity as they feigned concern about deficits. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell openly said that his job was to make Obama a one-term president.

  • Bloomberg is concerned that Janet Yellen's dollar policy may lessen wealth inequality. Of course, Toomey's concern is not just a cynical political ploy. He's also concerned that the rich might suffer.

Eric Levitz: 7 surprisingly good policies buried in the stimulus-omnibus bill.

  1. The most significant climate-change legislation in at least a decade (and arguably ever).
  2. An end to most forms of surprise medical billing.
  3. The most significant anti-money laundering reform in decades.
  4. A simultaneous breakthrough in higher-education and criminal-justice-reform policy.
  5. Two cool new museums.
  6. An expansion of rural broadband.
  7. Medicaid for Marshall Islanders.

German Lopez: Trump vetoes military spending bill, potentially setting up first veto override of his presidency.

Natalie Shure: Congress doesn't care about your surprise ambulance bill.

Emily Stewart: The stimulus bill includes a "historic" provision to expand broadband internet access.

Li Zhou:

Biden Prospects

See Building Biden's Cabinet for a survey of who's been selected for Biden's top administration positions, and who's being considered for still open slots. Another updated scorecard is Intelligencer's All of president-elect Joe Biden's cabinet nominees. For an evaluation, see Robert Kuttner: Biden's cabinet: The scorecard so far.

I also want to point out an extensive series of articles, collectively titled Day One Agenda, at The American Prospect. I've linked to some below, and others in previous weeks. Most focus on things that Biden can do with existing executive powers, without having to go hat-in-hand to get support from a hostile Congress. A lot of these are unlikely to happen -- one article,, Joe Biden is unhappy about the Day One Agenda, is conscious enough to argue over it, as does The Day One Agenda polls pretty well -- but the vast scope of these pieces shows that the left is bursting with good ideas for better government. For further debate, see Ryan D Doerfler: Executive orders and smart lawyers won't save us, and the reply by David Dayen: Make progress on all fronts: A response to Jacobin.

Glenn Greenwald: With Biden's new threats, the Russia discourse is more reckless and dangerous than ever: "The US media demands inflammatory claims be accepted with no evidence, while hacking behavior routinely engaged in by the US is depicted as aberrational." My main complaint here is that I don't recall US hacking as ever having been depicted as anything -- aside from rare whistleblower complaints, it's simply not something American media tries to report on.

Jeff Hauser/Erich Pica: The most important Biden appointee no one has heard of: "The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs can determine the scope of the Biden presidency."

Mike Pearl: The green fantasy and messy reality of nuclear power.

Robert Wright: Five things about Gen. Lloyd Austin.

The Covid-19 Pandemic Surge

Latest map and case count: 19.1 million+ cases (14 day change -9%, total up 1.4 million in last week), 333,197 deaths (-71%), 117,344 hospitalized (+11%). Dec. 18 had a peak of 251,447 new cases, with Dec. 26 just barely down to 225,930 -- the drop to 91,922 cases on Christmas day is what's dragging the average down, but that may have more to do with reporting than with testing.

I saw a report last week that 4 of the top 5 counties nationwide for per capita death rates were in Kansas, topped by Edwards County. I had an aunt who used to live in Kinsley there, and I've spent a lot of time there, especially before 1970. The town has declined considerably, with the county population dropping under 3,000, so a small number of deaths makes a big blip. The map above shows an average of 10 cases per 100,000 in Edwards, but 147 in neighboring Pawnee County, and 0 in Hodgeman and Kiowa Counties. (Hodgeman, by the way, was where my great-great-grandfather homesteaded in 1867. My father was born there in 1923, although his birth certificate says Spearville, just over the Ford County line (and just a couple miles from Edwards County).

Dean Baker: Helping the NYT understand its reporting: China's coverup was not the cause of the worldwide spread of the Coronavirus.

Donald G McNeil Jr: How much herd immunity is enough? Without doing any math, my initial guess was that it would take about 80% immunity to significantly reduce the number of cases, and a good deal more to "banish it." Evidently people who should have done the math were throwing out 60-70% estimates, but when pressed recently Fauci is talking 75-85% (publicly, and 90% privately).

Brian Resnick/Umair Irfan: The new UK coronavirus mutations, explained.

Around the World

Andrew J Bacevich: Reflections on Vietnam and Iraq: The lessons of two failed wars. [Reprinted from TomDispatch, minus Tom Engelhardt's introduction.] While I'm pleased to see these two debacles linked in print, the only lesson of Vietnam is that Americans are incapable of learning lessons, even (or perhaps especially) from failures. Perhaps chances are better for Iraq: the memory is less distant, and less clouded by overarching mission -- the "global war on terror" was always more nebulous than the anti-communist crusade, and didn't even fit the situation in Iraq. But the similarities are critical, hence one should draw the same basic lessons: both are wars where the US attempted to impose its capitalist economic system on nations accustomed to resisting colonialism, and did so ultimately with military force, with little (if any) respect for the lives and welfare of the people. Sure, there were moments when the US talked its game of democracy, but it was always conditional on voting for the right politicians. The only things that made Iraq less of a disaster than Vietnam was that the US was able to disunite resistance by inciting civil war (between Kurds and Arabs, and between Shiite and Sunni Arabs), playing each side against the other. I'd draw two basic lessons from these wars: one is that the US has to be more respectful of the people and their welfare, even if that means letting them run their own affairs and organize their society and economy along lines we don't consider ideal; the other is that armed force is not a real option -- it is counterproductive, both in that it destroys the nation one hoped to save, and in that it is corrosive of the moral values of the occupying force. Also at TomDispatch:

  • Tom Engelhardt: Partyland 2020. Subtitle asks "what if, after 9/11, George W Bush had thrown parties?" But if memory serves, Bush did shill for Disneyland immediately after 9/11, while plotting to make his grudge war against Afghanistan even more unwinnable by extending it to Iraq and beyond, promoting an "Axis of Evil" that extended as far as North Korea. As Trump showed with Covid-19, America believes in partying through its wars.

  • Rebecca Gordon: All-War-All-the-Time?

Katrin Bennhold: She called police over a neo-Nazi threat. But the neo-Nazis were inside the police. In Germany.

Chas Freeman: The growing peril of war with China over Taiwan.

Fred Kaplan: Should the US retaliate for Russia's big hack? Any time I read about the need to deter attacks my bullshit detector goes off. Kaplan tries to make a case for nuclear deterrence, and that's not totally wrong, as there is a clear line separating use of nuclear weapons from other weapons, and nuclear weapons represent a clear escalation beyond any other weapons. Still, the main reason nuclear deterrence works is that nobody actually wants nuclear war, so deterrence reinforces preferred behavior. But how is it even possible to deter hacking?

Any assessment must also recognize the following: We do this sort of thing too, and have been doing it for a long time. Our cyberattacks tend to be more focused on specific targets, for specific aims. But the National Security Agency, Cyber Command, and certain units of the CIA have long been carving "backdoors" into foreign networks, roaming around in the critical infrastructure of adversaries, and planting malware that can damage this infrastructure on command.

In 2014, after realizing there was no way for America's vital networks to defend themselves from a sophisticated cyberattack, Cyber Command adopted a policy of "active defense." Defining the concept, Adm. Michael Rogers, the commander at the time, said the "biggest focus" would be "to attempt to interdict the attack before it ever got to us" -- in other words, to get inside the adversary's network, in order to detect him preparing an attack, then deflect or preempt it.

So, before U.S. leaders set about responding to the SolarWinds hack, they should articulate how it differs from the things that we sometimes do -- why the Russians deserve punishment and we don't.

Jessica J Lee: It's time to end the Korean War: "Seventy years into the conflict, Biden can resolve the original forever war."

Ted Snider: Israel-linked assassinations: How much is the US really involved?

Other Matters of Interest

Dave Barry: Dave Barry's year in review 2020: "And we thought past years were awful."

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw: The unacceptable costs of appeasing MAGA Nation: "Why we can't afford to make peace with white supremacists."

Thomas Geoghegan: Labor power is the key to racial equity: "The next big American conversation about race should take place in a union hall." Part of a series called Unbreaking America: "How to fix a country that was already cracking up before Trump came along." Some other pieces:

Parker Molloy: A war on Christmas story: How Fox News built the dumbest part of America's culture war.

New York Times: Remembering some of the artists, innovators and thinkers we lost in the past year. A somewhat idiosyncratic but interesting list, topped by Shere Hite.

Alex Pareene: The return of corporate tax incentives is a bad omen for blue states.

Kirkpatrick Sale: Is society collapsing? Author of the first major history of SDS (1973), recalls a bet he made 25 years ago "that global society led by the United States would collapse in the year 2020 from a confluence of causes created by modern technology out of control." Earlier this year (February 11), before the pandemic really hit, he wrote a short book to make his case for winning the bet (The Collapse of 2020). This is a précis. Not sure that he won the bet, but I'd say he's closer than his "won't even be close" opponent.

Zachary Siegel: The deadliest year in the history of US drug use.

Micah L Sifry: Why did Obama forget who brought him to the dance? "His memoir is strangely silent about the people who organized for him." This reminds me of the adage that while both parties despise their bases, Republicans at least fear theirs, which keeps them aligned. Most Democrats, on the other hand, feel free to turn their backs as soon as the votes are counted.

And as Election Day approaches, Obama writes of his awe at the size of the crowds coming to his rallies and worries about having aroused too much hope, knowing that he might not be able to meet the expectations that some of his followers were pressing on him.

But after his election as president, the grassroots disappears from Obama's story. The amnesia starts the night of his inauguration, when he attended ten formal balls with first lady Michelle Obama, but only the first one, where he was serenaded by Beyoncé, and later one for members of the armed forces, make it into his memoir. The Obama for America staff ball, which was attended by 10,000 staff and where Obama reportedly spoke for 17 minutes, is gone from his memory. White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who managed the White House's relationships with Democratic advocacy organizations, gets barely a mention for his role in the health care reform fight. The organizers who took him to victory in the Iowa caucus, who he says he "would still do anything for," are nowhere in the rest of the book, even as one of them, Mitch Stewart, would come to run Organizing for America at the DNC. . . .

It's no wonder that once Obama entered the White House, he and his team obsessed about how much power the media had to shape the narrative of his presidency. He never understood that when enough people are successfully organized to move en masse, they can actually write history themselves. Instead, he thought he was the author of his story. And apparently, he still does.

Richard Silverstein: Conflating Judaism and Zionism: Bad for the Jews.

Jeffrey St Clair: Roaming charges: Welcome to the malarky factory. A scattershot of useful tidbits. For example, "a handful of giant corporations have spent $8 trillion in unproductive stock buybacks since 2009." I was recently reminded that stock buybacks were illegal before Reagan. It has since helped inflate the stock market, becoming one of the main ways wealth is transferred to the top 1%.

Paul Waldman: What a miserable 2020 revealed about America: "It exposed an impotent political system, a deadly mythology of rugged individualism, and a Republican Party without shame."

Alex Walker: Rush Limbaugh's deranged 2020: From denying the pandemic to supporting a coup. Has anyone ever been more consistently wrong?

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