Sunday, August 26, 2018

How To Best Honor the Memory of John McCain

John Avalon has a piece in The Daily Beast in which he makes the case that John McCain should've been elected president in 2000. I agree. He should've been. By all accounts, McCain ran an out of the box campaign that year and was very popular with independents, back when the term independent meant moderate, not more extreme. He, along with Democrat Bill Bradley, was someone who wasn't afraid to challenge his party when it was wrong.

I remember that presidential election very well. I often wonder what it would've been like had McCain and Bradley been the nominees, instead of Beavis and Butthead (AKA, George Bush and Al Gore), two people for whom the term "lesser of two evils" was invented. Imagine the prospect of two politicians standing on a debate stage who could talk frankly about the issues of the day without having to worry about offending their respective bases. That all went out the window after the Republican South Carolina primary in one of the most disgraceful episodes in American politics.

But if the courage that McCain displayed that year was a rare commodity, it's all but an endangered species these days. As political pundits and politicians alike deliver their eulogies to the fallen Arizona senator, it might be worth noting that more than just a man has departed this earth. Indeed, when he is laid to rest, the taps that will be played in his honor might as well be for the party he spent the better part of four decades serving. For if there ever was such a thing as a maverick, it is now just as extinct as the dinosaurs who once roamed this planet 65 million years ago.

Ever since the news broke that John McCain had brain cancer we knew this day was coming. Ted Kennedy had the same form of cancer and it took his life, literally nine years ago to the day. It wasn't a matter of if, but when. So now that the when is here, how might we best honor his considerable contributions to the nation?

Chuck Schumer has proposed renaming the Russell Senate building after McCain. That certainly would be a fitting gesture. But changing the name of a building from a someone who was a segregationist to someone who thought working across the aisle wasn't a necessary evil but a prerequisite for holding the job is only a start. It seems to me that the best way to honor the memory of the man would be to follow in his footsteps.

The sad truth is that the Republican Party that John McCain loved so much looks nothing like it did when he won his first election to the House of Representatives in 1982. We can rehash the decline of the GOP till the cows come home. Those who insist that Donald Trump is to blame simply haven't been paying attention. The fact is the malignancy that has taken over the Party of Lincoln took a long time to metastasize. And it isn't likely to be removed anytime soon. But it can be shrunken in size if enough Republicans have the will.

Unfortunately, the few Republicans who have managed to muster the strength needed to call out Trump and his apologists have decided not to seek reelection. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker can deliver all the high-minded speeches they want. Neither will be in the Senate next year. The real challenge for this party will be to find enough people with the courage to fill the void left by McCain.

And that will be a tall task indeed. Not only has Trump managed to drive his opponents from the party, the ones who are likely to be elected this fall - especially in the House - will be even more beholden to him. McCain's brand of independence - to the extent that he was capable of it - is anathema to party leadership who seem more concerned with protecting their electoral prospects this fall than with defending their oath of office.

Even his closest friend in the Senate - Lindsey Graham - has indicated he would be okay if Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Only a few months ago, Graham was adamant that such a move would be "the beginning of the end of his presidency." If someone who knew and supposedly loved McCain as much as Graham did can fold like a cheap tent at a yard sale, then the prospects of finding others with the testicular fortitude to resist this president will be virtually impossible.

It will likely take losing their majority in one or both houses of Congress to bring about something of a catharsis for Republicans. And even then, it will be a grudging acceptance, much like a child holding his or her breath and counting to a zillion before finally turning blue and exhaling. It's amazing how amenable and practical a person can get when deprived of something so basic as oxygen.

But while the optimist in me does hold out hope in a rebirth of sorts for the GOP, the cynic in me has his doubts. Frankly, as things stand now, I don't think these people have either the inclination or the willingness to take back their party from the extremists that have taken it over.  Maybe if Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and others like them had decided to run for reelection, even if it meant running as independents, rather than flee like rats on a sinking ship, things wouldn't have gotten so out of hand.

One thing is for certain: John McCain stood his ground and put his country before his party. He went toe to toe with Trump and came out better for the wear. If the members of his party are truly interested in honoring his legacy, they can start by taking up his mantle and going after the man who represents the single gravest threat to the Republic McCain himself was willing to give his life to defend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

All the President's Witches

Boy, for a witch hunt, Bob Mueller seems to be finding an awful lot of witches. The latest two to join the ranks of the defrocked are Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. In a Northern Virginia court room Tuesday, a jury found Manafort guilty of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failure to disclose a foreign bank account. That same day and two hundred miles to the north in New York's Southern District, Cohen pleaded guilty in front of a judge to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making false statements to a financial institution and two counts of campaign finance violation. Both men are facing considerable prison sentences.

To date there have been a total of seven convictions and twenty-nine indictments in this "witch hunt," and by all accounts, Mueller isn't done. There's still Don Jr. and Jared Kushner, both of whom attended that meeting at Trump Tower and, thanks to dear old dad, are now clearly implicated in this investigation. Contrary to what Rudy Giuliani keeps insisting, soliciting information on a political opponent from a foreign government IS a crime. Maybe this president can't be indicted, but that protection, I can assure you, does NOT extend to members of his family. And if you think Mueller won't indict both, you haven't been paying very much attention these last fifteen months.

For more than a year there has been this assumption that Trump and his lawyers don't know what Mueller knows. To quote John Brennan, that's hogwash. They know perfectly well what this prosecutor knows. That's why they're choosing to fight him in the court of public opinion, because if they fight him in an actual court, Mueller will clean their clocks.

While there is a very real possibility Trump will pardon Manafort, he probably won't do it until after the midterms. Let's not forget Manafort still has one more trial, this one in a Washington D.C. court. So long as Trump is going to issue a pardon, he might as well kill two birds with one stone. Besides, unless he flips, there's very little risk Manafort poses to Trump, apart from the embarrassment of knowing yet another one of his merry band of witches is a convicted felon. But, let's face it, the only thing Trump cares about is himself. If Manafort were on fire, I doubt he'd bother to throw a bottle of water on him.

The real threat to Trump, though, is Cohen, who probably knows more about his business dealings than anyone alive, with the possible exception of Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization. If we assume Mueller already has Trump's tax returns, both these men have the power to destroy this president, if not legally, than most certainly financially.

Even if his hands are tied by Justice Department regulations, there's nothing barring Mueller from issuing a report so damning to Trump that he and his family would rue the day he ever descended that escalator in Trump Tower. In fact, I can think of only one thing that would force this president from office: the prospect of financial ruin. To people like Trump, being poor is worse than imprisonment.

I think we're way past the seventh inning stretch. Indeed, to borrow a football term, we're in the two minute warning. Fasten your seat belts, kids, because it's going to get real bumpy from here on in.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

In Plain Sight

Let's be clear here: the revoking of John Brennan's security clearance in and of itself is not going to affect American intelligence's ability to keep the nation safe. Once he left his position, Brennan, like many former intelligence officials, played no vital role in the apparatus of the overall community. Would his expertise have been helpful in the event of another 9/11 attack? Sure, but, seriously, if that's the basis for your argument to keep your security clearance, that's not much of an argument.

No, the real concern here isn't whether John Brennan continues to have access to classified intel; the real concern is that, once more, this president is going after his political opponents by threatening to take away something of value if they don't stop criticizing him. And he's not going to stop with just Brennan. Within the next few days he will likely take away the security clearance of Bruce Ohr, who currently works for the Justice Department, and whose wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS, a consulting firm that was initially hired by a conservative website to do opposition research on Donald Trump on behalf of then GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio; a little known factoid that most conservatives almost always leave out.

If Ohr's clearance is stripped, his job will ostensibly come to an end. And that is the grave threat that should alarm all of us. A president who can silence his critics by depriving them of the tools necessary to do their jobs is a president who can wield power virtually unchecked. Who's to stop Trump from revoking the security clearance of Robert Mueller? Don't think for a moment the thought hasn't crossed that pee brain of his. The closer Mueller gets to him, the more irrational his behavior gets and the more determined he becomes to end this investigation. He has already publicly commented on the Paul Manafort trial by calling it "very sad." This while jury deliberations are ongoing. At this point would it really shock anyone that if Manafort is found guilty Trump ends up granting him a pardon? Frankly, I'd be shocked if he didn't.

John Brennan was correct when he wrote that Trump's claims of no collusion are "hogwash."
Mr. Trump clearly has become more desperate to protect himself and those close to him, which is why he made the politically motivated decision to revoke my security clearance in an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him.
But beyond the specter of being able to purge the intelligence community of people he perceives as threats to him lies an even greater dilemma; one that could seriously imperil the security of the country. When a president refuses to accept the advice of his officials because it contradicts his preconceived notions and assumptions, or, worse, when those officials tell him only the information he wants to hear, it limits their ability to protect the homeland from a would be attack. In short, Trump's desire to shield himself from criminal prosecution could put millions of lives at risk.

What we are witnessing is a corrupt president subverting the rule of law to his own end, and, in the process, obstructing a legitimate investigation charged with probing the conduct of him and his administration. And he is doing it all in plain sight. He is not unlike the owner of a bank, who after being discovered in the vault, has the nerve to say that it was empty, and even if it hadn't been, there was no crime because he was the owner and thus legally entitled to its contents.

Astonishing doesn't quite sum up what's going on here; more like incredulous. The sheer gall of what Trump is doing is unparalleled in American politics. Not even Nixon would've attempted it, and Nixon, it should be pointed out, also went after the media for what he called their "Watergate obsession." That "obsession" eventually forced him to resign his presidency.

Whether Trump will suffer a similar fate remains to be seen. That is why I reiterate my call for Mueller to issue his report as soon as possible, while he is still able to do so. If Trump's malfeasants are apparent to anyone with half a brain, two good eyes and two good ears, then how much more apparent must they be to a trained prosecutor like him.

The longer this drags out, the more Trump and his surrogates can muddy up the waters and turn what should be a fairly easy case to make into no more than a tossup in the court of public opinion. And if that happens, if Trump gets away with this, we are finished as a Republic.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Midterm Stretch Drive

So it's been just over a week since the last special election before the November midterms and it's time to assess where we are and where we could end up.

First, my take on the Ohio 12th. It looks like Republican Troy Balderson is going to prevail over Democrat Danny O'Connor. The race was listed as too close to call, but even with provisional ballots counted, O'Connor still trails by about 1500 votes. Still, given the makeup of the district, the fact that a Democrat came within one point of winning is significant. How significant? Consider that the district was +14 Republican lean going into the election and the final margin was +1. That's a 13 point swing.

In fact, if you look at the ten special elections that have taken place in which the Republican was the incumbent - including the Alabama Senate race that Doug Jones won - the average was a plus 23 for the GOP, with the Democrat outperforming the Republican by an average of 15 points. The result was a lot of close shaves that should've been blowouts. If you want to know why pundits are predicting a blue wave this November, here's why.

According to the Cook Political Report, there are now a total of 87 Republican seats that are either lean or tossup compared with just 14 Democratic seats that are lean or tossup. Lean seats are typically those where the lead is between 4 and 10 points, while tossups are usually 3 points or less. Assuming Dems win 70 percent of those Republican seats and lose, say, 50 percent of theirs, that would mean a net gain of 54 seats. That's 31 more than the 23 they need to take control of the House. Even if they only win 50 percent of the GOP seats and lose an equal percentage of theirs, we're talking a net gain of 36 seats, 13 more than they need to win the majority.

Want a more conservative estimate? Fine. Say Dems win only 40 percent of the 87 seats and still lose 50 percent of theirs. That still gives them a net gain of 27 seats, four more than they need to win the majority. Now you know why Republicans are shitting their pants. Even conservative estimates have them losing the House this November.

Now before you go planning a ticker tape parade down Broadway, it's important to note a couple of possible hiccups. One, not all of the elections in this year's midterms are going to result in the Democrat outperforming the Republican by 15 points. In fact, there were three races where the margin was under 10, including the Georgia 6th, in which the Republican was only a plus 9. Many thought that race was winnable, yet the Democrat only outperformed by 6 points. If that happens enough times this November, Republicans will hold onto their majority, if only by the hair of their chinny chin chins. In baseball, like politics, it doesn't matter whether you win by one run or a dozen. The only thing that counts is the final score. Despite all the hoopla about Democrats having the wind at their backs, the fact is they're two for ten this season. Not very encouraging.

The other possible hiccup has to do with the generic ballot, which was tightening until a couple of recent polls by CNN and Quinnipiac were released. As of this writing, the RCP average is 5.7 points in favor of Democrats. That is not nearly high enough to flip the House. The conventional wisdom is that the average needs to be somewhere around 7 points or higher in order for them to regain the majority. In 2006, for instance, the final RCP average was 7.9 and Democrats netted 31 seats in the House and 5 in the Senate, enough to take both chambers.

Look, I'm not saying Democrats won't win the House. After all, Trump continues to poll around 43 percent, and according to Gallup, presidents who poll under 50 percent see their party lose an average of 36 House seats in their first midterm. Even Eisenhower, with a 61 percent approval rating, lost 18 seats. All I'm saying is that with under three months to go, it's hardly a slam dunk. Anything can happen.

I guess I'm just cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on cautious.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Mueller Should Stop Pussyfooting With Trump

It's clear that Donald Trump's legal team has no intention of allowing him to sit down for an interview with Robert Mueller. Frankly, I don't blame them. If you had this president for a client would you allow him to testify under oath before a prosecutor? I didn't think so. Rudy Giuliani may be a laughing stock, but he's no idiot, and neither is Jay Sekulow, the other half of this comedy team that has been making the rounds on the cable news talk shows. Abbott and Costello know they have a losing hand legally, so they're playing the only hand available to them: the political one.

Mueller should call their bluff now and end this charade before it goes on any further. Either he issues a subpoena to force Trump to testify before a grand jury or he concludes that he already has enough evidence to issue a report without his testimony. My money's on the latter, and here's why.

Let's assume Mueller goes through with a subpoena. Trump's team challenges it. The D.C. Circuit issues a ruling in Mueller's favor and it gets appealed to the Supreme Court. That means we won't likely get a decision until late September, maybe even early October - a month before the midterms. Just what the Democrats need, another issue for Trump's base to get all lathered up about. If it isn't guns, it's the deep state looking to remove their guy from office. Mad dogs don't have that much foam around their mouths.

Then there's the distinct possibility that if the Supreme Court rules against him, Trump will simply defy it. What exactly is Mueller going to do? Drag him out of the White House in cuffs? It would be unprecedented in American politics. If you think the electorate is polarized now, just try something like that. The whole country would go up in flames.

And, God forbid, what if the Supreme Court decides against Mueller? I know it's a stretch, but, hey, two years ago, the thought of Trump winning the presidency was also a stretch. We all know how that turned out. The specter of a ruling in their favor would give the conspiracy nuts the justification they've been looking for to proclaim the whole investigation a hoax. The fallout would make the toga party at Delta House seem like cramming for a mid-term exam.

This isn't Paul Manafort or Michael Cohen we're talking about here. We're talking about the President of the United States. We're talking about a man who has gone out of his way to hide his financial dealings from public view; who openly admitted to soliciting information on a political opponent from a foreign government - a violation of campaign finance law; who pressured FBI Director James Comey to ease up on the target of a criminal investigation; who publicly admitted in an interview with Lester Holt that he fired Comey over the "Rusher" investigation; who then went on Twitter and publicly called for his attorney general to end that very same investigation. That's called obstruction of justice, people. The White House has already publicly conceded that Trump's tweets are official policy. What more does Mueller need to make his case?

The point is there's not much, if anything, to be gained from issuing a subpoena, and potentially a lot to lose. Other than the spectacle of a sitting president being served with a subpoena, Muller has already connected most of the dots he needs to prove collusion, obstruction of justice and / or money laundering without Trump's testimony. Giuliani and Sekulow already know this. That's why they're trying to drag this out as much as possible. The longer they can delay Mueller's final report, the more they can sway public opinion in their favor.

And their strategy appears to be working. Though a plurality of Americans still believe in the integrity of the investigation, support has dropped almost 10 points in just the last two months. Who knows what might happen in another two months? While the court of public opinion will not decide the merits of this case, if only half the country approves of what Mueller is doing, that will only embolden Trump's enablers in Congress and make it that much harder to bring impeachment proceedings against him. And if Democrats fail to retake the House - a distinct possibility - Trump might well appoint a stooge who would oversee the investigation and end it. It could be years before we know the full scope of what happened. In other words, Trump might end up escaping the fate that befell Nixon.

That's why Mueller should give up negotiating with Trump's legal team and move on to the report phase of this investigation. Depending on how the Manafort trial goes and what information Cohen gives up - assuming he flips, which he will likely do - Mueller should be able to present his findings to Rod Rosenstein by Labor Day. At that point, the ball will be in the Deputy Attorney General's court. He can make it public, submit it to Congress or both.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Don Jr. and Jared Kushner get indicted and Trump himself named as an unindicted co-conspirator. If the case against Bill Clinton is any indication, there should be at least three articles of impeachment that will be recommended by the Justice Department. Trump will explode and likely fire Rosenstein, and perhaps even Sessions for not unrecusing himself, but by that point it'll already be too late. The American people will finally know the full scope of what happened and they'll be able to judge for themselves what course of action should be taken. If Republicans don't act, they will likely face the consequences come November. You want a wave? How about a tsunami?

Of course, if it turns out that Mueller still has some more rocks to look under - Roger Stone perhaps? - that's another story altogether. In that event, this thing may drag out into next year. We have to remember that there is a lot about this investigation we still don't know. That's because while Giuliani continues to run his mouth on Fox and Friends and Hannity, the prosecution has been the epitome of discipline. To date there hasn't been a single leak from Mueller's team. Virtually all the leaks have come from Trump's team, Trump himself or Congressional Republicans.

But barring that scenario, it's time Mueller stopped pussyfooting with this president. With or without his testimony, Trump has given him more than enough ammunition. I say pull the trigger and let the chips fall where they may.

Post Script: in an earlier version of this piece I wrote that Trump admitted in an interview with Lester Holt that he fired James Comey because he wouldn't let the Michael Flynn investigation go. In fact, Trump never admitted to that. What he said was the "Rusher" investigation was the reason he fired him. I have made the correction.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Laura Ingraham Accidentally Lets the Cat Out of the Bag

On a recent segment of her Fox News show, “The Ingraham Angle,” Laura Ingraham said the following:

In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn't exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they're changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don't like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically, in some ways, the country has changed. Now much of this is related to both illegal and, in some cases, legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.

The comment has drawn widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum; a majority of it coming from conservatives who, I suppose, were probably more offended by the fact Ingraham continues to call herself a conservative.

This is not the first time Ingraham has been called out for making inflammatory statements. Back in March, she took a "planned vacation" after she tweeted that David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting, was "whining" about not getting into four colleges he had applied to. After several advertisers decided to boycott her show, Ingraham did an about face and issued a half-hearted apology.

She did likewise after this latest atrocity, claiming that she wasn't talking about race. Of course you weren't, Laura. You were just warning us about an impending invasion of Klingons intent on wiping out most of humanity and forcing the rest of us to eat gagh. Jesus, the only thing I hate more than a racist who won't own her words, is a racist who continually wears a cross around her neck without the slightest idea of what that cross means. You should really take it off, Laura, it isn't helping you.

In a way, though, I suppose we should be grateful to Ingraham. I'm not sure if she realized it or not, but her words, as hateful and racist as they were, perfectly crystalized the alt-right movement in this country. But more than that, they underscored the fear that many in the white community are experiencing about these "demographic changes" that Ingraham alluded to; changes that will inevitably lead to the white race in this country being a minority within the next 30 to 40 years.

Donald Trump has preyed upon that fear to activate the most reprehensible elements in our country. I'm still not prepared to admit that it alone was enough to carry him across the finish line, but it undoubtedly played, and continues to play, an integral role in virtually all of his stances. From his hideous wall, to his administration's decision to separate children from their parents, to the militarization of ICE in the round-up of illegal immigrants that would've made Himmler proud, all of these policies are intended to appeal to that constituency that Ingraham spoke about; the people who "don't like" the direction the country's headed in.

Forget dog whistles, people. We have a president who openly uses Twitter like a bullhorn to spew his racism and a network, masquerading as a cable news channel, that enables it on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. That Ingraham still has a job is proof positive that this tactic is working. More and more, white people are falling for the canard that their way of life is coming to an end, just because the country is becoming increasingly brown. Rather than appeal to our better angels, people like Ingraham appeal to our darker natures.

The fear that these people are invoking today is no different than the fear the country was gripped in more than a century ago when the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans and the Jews were singled out as somehow "different," i.e. inferior, to the people who were already here. Steps were taken then to "limit" those people from emigrating into the country. The internment of the Japanese during World War II remains one of the nation's most embarrassing chapters.

My religion tells me that the only way to defeat hate is with love. You cannot successfully combat it on its turf. Indeed, evil wants to draw us into battle; that's how it spreads. Just look at all of Trump's opponents. Virtually all of them employed his tactics and all of them ended up on the losing side. As the singer / songwriter Jewel once sang, "I will gather myself around my faith, for light does the darkness most fear."

I am not being pollyanna when I say that the overt racism which has inflicted this nation will eventually be defeated, not because I am naive enough to believe that we can ever entirely eradicate it from the body politic, but because we can expose it and its proponents to the light of day. The truth is all of us, on some level, have a story to tell about what our parents or grandparents went through when they entered this country. The bigotry they endured should sound a wakeup call for all of us.

Among my heritage, signs that read "Irish Need Not Apply" lined the local shops and businesses of New York City in the early 20th century. In Mel Brooks's classic movie Blazing Saddles, the people of the fake town of Rockridge were willing to take in the Chinese, but when it came to my people, they were defiant:"We don't want the Irish!" A joke in 1974, but a stark reality in 1904.

America has often been referred to as a melting pot. I rather think of it as a pressure cooker. And like any good pressure cooker, the ingredients are simmered together to create a meal of distinctive flavors and aromas. Taken separately they amount to nothing, but together they form the sustenance needed for a healthy society to flourish and grow.

The United States of the early 20th century looked nothing like it did during its colonial days. And the United States of today looks nothing like it did a hundred years ago. Fifty years from now, it will look vastly different. And that is a good thing. Our founders did not create a perfect union. Rather they created one that is constantly becoming more and more perfect.

The fact that Laura Ingraham doesn't understand or like it, doesn't change that fact. In the end, the racism that she and this president espouse will be relegated to the ash heap of history.