The Comey Firing and the Coming Constitutional Crisis: Crossing the Border

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When talking about the firing of James Comey, that smirkingly moralistic Boy Scout who clearly decided to hand over the election to Donald Trump, there are a few things to stipulate.

  1. The stated reasons for his firing–that he engaged in a grotesque abuse of power, or at the very least, political malpractice in how he handled Clinton’s emails–were the correct ones. James Comey should no more be the Director of the FBI than I should.
  2. The stated reasons are clearly bullshit.
  3. The stated reasons are initially clever, but incredibly witless. They hang a lampshade on how cheap and petty the arrangement is.  They only make it more clear that this is, in one way or the other, about Russia.

You can tell the Administration is somehow stunned that no one believes their nonpartisan rectitude in this manner. They honestly expected to be praised for this. That’s how they operate: they still assume that if they say something, us normal non-billionaire totally un-President people should believe it.  It’s Trump’s way. One of the reasons for his increasingly erratic ways are that it isn’t working. The media isn’t just reporting what he says as reality.

Because really, this is too much. I bet there are 10 hours and 2000 tweets worth of material on top Republicans praising Comey for disclosing the Anthony Weiner email “investigation” (and I still can’t believe we have to talk about that as a world-changing event). Many of these are by the President! We’re expected to believe that they are now outraged about this? And if so, why five months in?

It is belaboring the obvious to say that this is about Russia. It’s either that Comey got “too close” to something they are trying to hide, or just that he refuses to close the investigation, to do the bidding of Donald Trump. Either way, these aren’t headlines we should be reading in America.

But again, the lie is the key here. In his public letter, Trump says “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” Why even bring that up? It’s a way to change the story, to say, “see, there’s nothing here!” It’s the typical Trumpian con. You can just say anything, so long as it gets you to a yes.

That reckless cynicism and nearly supernatural disregard for the truth isn’t just a part of this crisis; it is key to it. They actual tawdry crimes and corruption that drive this Administration are, in and of themselves, enough to cause a genuine catastrophe, but it is what they are driven by that makes this moment so scary.

Our system of government is formed less around laws than it is around norms and expected behavior. There are rules, but when they are broken, there is shockingly little that can be done until the rule-breaker himself is forced to change his behavior. When the exemption on conflict of interest rules were carved out for the President due to the complexity of the job, it was assumed that the President would avoid potential conflicts, not that he would see it as carte blanche, an open door. That’s obviously not the case with Trump.

He has no instincts except to enrich himself and to further his brand. There isn’t a democratic bone in his body, or a thought for the greater good anywhere in the arid warped-mirror desert of his mind. That’s why he can fire the FBI Director for lack of loyalty: he thinks this is how it should be, and there is really no way to stop him.

That’s the problem, and that’s why we are in a crisis. It was assumed that the President wouldn’t be in hock to a foreign power and wouldn’t have every top staffer equally entangled. It was assumed they wouldn’t fire the FBI Director for looking into it. It was assumed that they would adhere to some basic democratic standards. Donald Trump, with his unique and terrible sicknesses and vanities, turned out all those assumptions.

That’s what has always worried me the most about this Administration. That the only real mechanisms to stopping his revolt against the Constitutional order were Republicans, enthralled with a right-wing strongman and unable to put basic patriotism over their lust for tax cuts. And even if they did (and now is the moment, boys), there is only so much that can be done.

Let’s say this is impeachable (High crimes and misdemeanors are not just jailable offenses, but crimes against the Presidency), or something is, and the GOP actually decides to do it.  Say they impeach, and the Senate convicts. Then what? What if he refuses to leave? Again, it is assumed that a convicted President will leave office, but what if he refuses to, claiming that Congress can’t usurp an election? What horrors await us there?

This is the problem. We assume a President will behave one way. This one won’t. I’ve been worried that at some point he will order the military to do something flagrantly illegal, or that he’ll govern as a strongman, ruining our democracy, and the military will have to decide to do something. (This is the Turkish model, as I argued) A coup against an elected leader is antithetical to democracy, but it also might be needed. It is a terrible, unfathomable situation. But it is fathomable, now.

We have no idea how this President will act or what he’ll do. We don’t know if we have the legal mechanisms to alter some of his worst behaviors. We don’t know if he’ll follow the Constitution, and impeachment is part of the Constitution. If he doesn’t follow that, then what?

The title of this post is about a border. I felt that on Jan 20th we crossed the border into another land, in a way. Our conceptions of ourselves have changed, because the norms that guided us don’t any longer. It’s a psychic shock, and I think the naked and sweaty corruption of yesterday’s assault on democratic norms is pushing us further across the line.

(B)eyond his ignorance, his vapid stupidity, his tireless and pathetic ego, is that he is the exact kind of dull and base grotesquerie we’d laugh at in other countries. There is nothing there but ego and avarice, brainless pronunciations in the service of cheap laughs from his braying sycophants, who react tumescently whenever he punches down. He’s the comic bouffant strongman, the kind you see in some wretched mountain land. And that’s the border we somehow crossed over.

The true psychic shock of this transition will, I think, be hard to measure, and hard to predict. But I do think, now that the elegies are over and Donald Trump is sworn in, placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, that there will be a subtle breaking. Its effects won’t be felt all at once, of course. But our conception of who we are will change.

We’ll have a penny-ante Balkan-esque strongman in the White House instead of a President. We’ll have a witless dummy who thinks his smirks are poetry. We’ll have a man whose conception of leadership is finding and punishing enemies. Our country will be different. We’ll be different.

I wrote this in January. I was hoping to be wrong, and the resistance still makes me hopeful. I do think that this might really spur the GOP into action, partly because he made them look foolish (most of them praised Comey for the October letter with effusive partisan bonhomie). But we also might be slowly ground underfoot, one lie at a time, until we think the bottom of a shoe is the wideopen sky.

 

Some Unrequested Advice to Mr. President Trump, In Re: The First 100 Days

Far be it from me to give advice to our President, especially when I actually agree with him. The “First 100 Days!” measurement is such a breathtakingly stupid and destructive media-driven standard that it makes me dizzy. It’s arbitrary and emphasizes the image of “wins” over the long hard work of government.

But it seems to me that when you are “the ultimate deal maker”, and all you promise are “wins”, and have frequently talked about how many wins you’ll get in the first 100 days, maybe you shouldn’t slag it? And maybe you shouldn’t brag about how much you’ve accomplished when it has been essentially nothing?

And maybe the one accomplishment you can point to is filling a Supreme Court seat that was stolen for you and was, by dint of majority, guaranteed to be filled, so much so that a not-particuarly-bright chimpanzee throwing rocks at the Federalist Society could have done the same, maybe don’t brag about how much you’ve done?

And maybe when everything you’ve done has failed, don’t say that you have new plans that are very, very good, and you’re going to have health care and a budget next week, when no one seems to have a bill for either, and Congress isn’t even in session, because people will begin to realize that you just say things to fool them, kicking the can down the road, but now you’re the only one on the road, and you can’t duck away and hide from your own ineptitude, and the tidal wave of unrelenting and greedy bullshit that has taken you so far in life has crashed, has taken you to the top, but it doesn’t work anymore.

And maybe when realizing that take a moment to reflect, probably for the first time in your life, at what you’ve done. Not what you’ve done to other people, of course, because that’s asking the moon to shine only for me, but to yourself. Everyone knows you are a liar now. Everyone knows your little games. Everyone can see that you promise things you have no intention, and no capacity, to deliver. They see you doing the same thing you’ve always done, like building a third casino, and then going bankrupt, and blaming the economic climate, like you weren’t the idiot who built during that climate in the first place (and that other casinos were doing fine, anyway). Maybe realize that it’s too late for you to save your reputation. Everyone knows you are empty, and a joke. You’ve spent your whole life running both away from and inexorably toward your fraudulent nature, and now it is there for the whole world to see.

Anyway, I don’t have any advice for how to deal with that. It just makes me happy to think of you suffering a bit for the trashy horror you’ve brought upon us to satiate your empty vanity.

Tillerson’s “Warning” To Russia about Assad: Trump’s Meaningless Foreign Policy in a Nutshell

 

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The President gathers his top men

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has landed in Moscow, where he will seek to convince Russia to back away from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yeah, Russia: you better start following this policy that we’ve had for nearly five days now.

It isn’t even that I disagree. It’s just that: is Russia supposed to take this seriously? “Oh, the Americans bombed an empty airfield and announced it was a one-off, except when Spicer said it wasn’t, then said he was wrong. This sure seems consistent and permanent. We better do what they say!”

This is what happens when you elect a man who has no idea what he’s doing and whose top advisors (Bannon, Kushner, Priebus) have exactly zero days of federal government experience between them.

Update: Syria Responds With Another Bombing

From The Guardian:

A warplane on Friday bombed the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, where a chemical attack killed scores of people this week and prompted US missile strikes, a witness in the rebel-held area and a war monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that monitors the war, said a Syrian government or Russian warplane hit Khan Sheikhun, in rebel-held Idlib province, before noon local time.

This is what happens when you “send a message”: people want to know just what it meant. Either the Assad government or the Russians (which you can’t 100% seperate) have decided to test whether the US is actually interested in involving themselves in the fight against Assad, or just wanted to send a very limited and ultimately ineffective message. Because the people killed in this strike are no less dead than those killed by chemical weapons.

So, again, are we just saying there is one line that can’t be crossed, and otherwise essentially stepping away from the battlefield? Or are we going to continue to degrade Assad and involve ourselves in Syria’s future? To be honest, I don’t know what is the better course. But nor does Trump.

Pakistan and Climate Change: Presented Without Comment

 

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Pakistan takes steps to politicize tragedy

 

Sigh...

The Pakistan senate’s approval of the Climate Change Act on March 17 was warmly welcomed by many as a step in the right direction for a country that is battling the growing threat of climate-related disasters.

The bill, authored by senator Zahid Hamid who heads the climate change ministry, was passed to ensure the country meets its obligations under international conventions relating to climate change and address its effects. Though ranked 153rd in terms of greenhouse gas emitting countries, Hamid told the senate it was the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change. The bill had already been approved by the National Assembly.

With this new law, Pakistan has joined the ranks of a handful of countries that have passed legislation to specifically tackle the impact of climate change, said Michal Nachmany who has been leading a global review of climate legislation at the Grantham Institute. As of 2017 there were over 400 laws relevant to climate change and energy, according to the institute’s review of 99 countries. However, there are just a few countries like Finland, United Kingdom, Denmark, Kenya, Australia, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, Micronesia and the Philippines that have passed climate change acts.

OK, just one comment: Pakistan officially believes in science more than the Republican Party.

Monday Quick Hits: Robots, Water, and Keystone

 

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“So I says to Mabel, I says…”

 

Did everyone have a good weekend? I had a great weekend. Lots of family, and lots of toast to Trump’s and Ryan’s failure to devastate the lives of millions of people. But this victory is, I think, just a pause. The battle will be to pressure Republicans, who seem to be a bit nervous about ruining the lives of their constituents, to make positive changes to the ACA, rather than repeal it.

Admittedly, they’re in a bind. The Times reported some anecdotes about people in GOP districts shocked that their reps would even think about such a thing, and might not vote Republican again. But then, there are also lots of GOP voters who, having been told that Obamacare was basically the forward thrust of creeping Bolshevism, are mad that it wasn’t repealed. So they are caught in a dilemma, namely: how do we do the things we’ve been saying we were going to do now that people have learned exactly what it is?

So now the question for Democrats is: how much should they work with Republicans? They are, thankfully, not eager to make some kind of “grand bargain” in order to help out the Republicans. The goal should be to fix Obamacare, working where you can to lower costs and make sure that insurance companies stay in. The talk of the “death spiral”, always exaggerated, is made possible by the threat of repeal. With that out of the way, for now at least, it could be possible to woo nervous Republicans to fix the bill at the margins, essentially working around Paul Ryan. That’s why the continued pressure from the outside is the only way to heighten their fear, and maybe force their hand to do the right and sensible thing and fix Obamacare.

Or, you could be like the President, who seems eager to watch the whole thing spiral out of control.

The “do not worry” is an especially nice touch.  He’s got a plan!

-Re/Code had a little story today about how PwC estimates, offhand, that the US could lose 40% of its jobs over the next 15 years thanks to automation. While there would of course be jobs created by automation (engineer, repair, etc) most of these will be high-skill jobs for people with advanced education. This is more than an unemployment trend; even if PwC’s numbers aren’t strictly accurate, this is economic devastation. This is something that can fundamentally alter society.

Massive unemployment of that sort needs to be ameliorated with something like a Universal Basic Income, or, failing that, an effort to create new work around infrastructure, tourism, or more. But there needs to be a collective effort grouped around the ideas that 1) the common good actually exists; and 2) that self-government is a good thing.

This isn’t something private markets can fix alone; indeed, it is the private market that will be at fault. There needs to be collective action to help the less educated and more vulnerable people in the new economy–the same ones who have been hurt for decades by market forces. That many of these are your stereotypical Trump voters (though they will be joined by millions of white collar types as well) represents an opportunity to convince them that the government is not the enemy, and that, in fact, this kind of intervention is the heart of the American experiment.

Of course, we’re debating whether or not it is ok if people just, you know, die because they don’t have employer-based insurance, so consensus on this seems a long way off.

-But we do have an answer on Keystone! That answer, of course, is “yes”. Trump signed off on Keystone on Friday, saying in a signing ceremony that:

It’s a great day for American jobs and a historic moment for North American and energy independence.  This announcement is part of a new era of American energy policy that will lower costs for American families — and very significantly — reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs right here in America.

It’s important to note, in the interest of being strictly accurate, that none of this is true. And it is just weird to talk about reducing “our dependence on foreign oil” right before you introduce the President of TransCanada, above and beyond the fact that this isn’t how the oil markets work. The sludge pumped over the largest underground aquifer isn’t going to be shuttled to your car. It goes into the global markets. I honestly don’t know if Trump understands this. I also wonder how he would reconcile the “lower costs” with the fact that, while Keystone was blocked, gas prices plummeted.

It is also good to note that this isn’t a done deal. As the TransCanada President reminded the United States President, they face resistance and lawsuits in Nebraska, where people don’t want a Canadian pipeline bringing dangerous material across their lands and into their water. That led to this exchange.

Trump: So we put a lot of people to work, a lot of great workers to work, and they did appreciate it.  And they appreciated it, Russ, very much at the polls, as you probably noticed.  And so we’re very happy about it.

So the bottom line — Keystone finished.  They’re going to start construction when?

MR. GIRLING:  Well, we’ve got some work to do in Nebraska to get our permits there —

THE PRESIDENT:  Nebraska.

MR. GIRLING:  — so we’re looking forward to working through that local —

THE PRESIDENT:  I’ll call Nebraska.  (Laughter.)  You know why?  Nebraska has a great governor.  They have a great governor.

MR. GIRLING:  We’ve been working there for some time, and I do believe that we’ll get through that process.  But obviously have to engage with local landowners, communities.  So we’ll be reaching out to those over the coming months to get the other necessary permits that we need, and then we’d look forward to start construction.

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay.  I’m sure Nebraska will be good.  Peter is a fantastic governor who’s done a great job, and I’ll call him today.

Remember that the head of an oil company is talking about working with local communities and landowners, and the President of the US is saying he’ll call the governor to get it done. That’s a true populist man of the people right there.

Brief Notes on Publishing and The Evil Spying British

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Wait, who might be Preshident?

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. Been sick as a dog and barely able to keep a thought in my head. Which, sure, wouldn’t make the blog that much more different than usual. In my feverdreaming state, I honestly thought I read somewhere that the Trump budget cuts Meals with Wheels, but then, no one–and certainly no political party–could have that level of baseline meanness, right?

Next week we’ll be back with budget stuff, Great Lakes book reviews and budget cuts, an in-depth analysis of Butler’s run to the Sweet 16 (I hope) and more. But right now I just want to quickly mention the ridiculousness of the Trump administration publically accusing the British government of spying on Trump, based on Sean Spicer reading out loud something an idiot said on Fox.

The White House has assured No 10 that allegations British intelligence spied on Donald Trump will not be repeated, Theresa May’s spokesman has said.

The claim that GCHQ helped former president Barack Obama wiretap Trump during the 2016 election drew a rare denial by British intelligence officials after the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated it on Thursday.

Spicer quoted a claim by the Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano that three intelligence sources confirmed to him that the Obama administration used GCHQ to spy on Trump so there would be “no American fingerprints on this”.

In its surprise public rebuttal, GCHQ described the allegation as “utterly ridiculous” and on Friday, the prime minister’s spokesman said the White House had told the British ambassador and the UK’s national security adviser that Spicer had been instructed not to repeat them.

A couple of things: one, we’re still basing policy and public declaration on what idiots say on Fox. Administrations tend to run from the top down, no matter how much we like to ascribe to the people President’s have around them. When the dude at the top is a paranoid TV-obsessed idiot, so is everyone else.

Two, this is just another example of how their TV-obsession and the grudge-fueled need to never be wrong on anything leads to chaos and disaster. Because they have to back up Trump’s insane claims, arguing at one point that his quotation marks were a sign of ignored subtlety, they will flail wildly to the point where they are accusing allies of crimes. That’s an insanely dangerous way to run things, but it is the heart of Trumpism. The boss’s petty pride is the top priority.

And that gets to the main point: I hope the GCHQ was spying on Trump. That is, I hope the Fox reports were right. It’s the job of intelligence agencies to monitor potential threats. A dangerous madman becoming the President of the United States is a major threat. They should be monitoring him.

But even if they are right about this, it’s a given. We monitor allies. We monitor threats. Trump being both, ostensibly, makes it an imperative to be monitored. But you don’t come out and say it. You don’t levy criminal accusations against your most important allies. You accept it as a price of doing business in a fallen world.

So Spicer saying this, and the reasons why he did so, really proved GCHQ correct. The Brits were right to do so. This is the world we are in.

Now, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and my health is revived, so I am out in the world, and this was the last nice thing I’ll say about the British all day.