Archive for February 16th, 2017
Kevin Drum has a good post that sums it up and highlights the key points. Trump is destroying his own team because he seems to know nothing about people: very poor person judgment. Was that evident on The Apprentice? (I never saw it.)
The GOP Senator is right that Trump’s press conference consisted mostly of what he should say to his therapist
A therapist, I might add, who seems to be doing no good whatsoever. John Cassidy in the New Yorker:
It was “insane,” a “marathon rant” at the media, and “a press conference for the ages.” Before you accuse me of liberal bias, these were the terms that Fox Business Channel’s Charles Gasparino, the home page of the New York Post, and Fox News’s Shepard Smith used, respectively, to describe the performance that Donald Trump put on during a lengthy press conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
Nominally, the White House had hastily scheduled the press conference so that Trump could announce he was nominating Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University College of Law, for the post of Labor Secretary. But it was clear something strange was afoot when Trump walked in alone—without Acosta. Then, when the President started to talk, his tone was one of thinly suppressed fury.
After briefly lauding Acosta’s credentials, Trump thanked Paul Singer, a conservative Wall Street billionaire who used to oppose him and now supports him, for paying him a visit. (One of the few things Trump seems actually to like about being President is having supplicant rich guys come and pay homage to him.) Then he changed tack and said, “I’m here today to update the American people on the incredible progress that has been made in the last four weeks since my Inauguration . . . I don’t think there’s ever been a President elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.”
What Trump has actually done, of course, is demonstrate his manifest unsuitability for the job he now holds. He has also signed a bunch of papers, most of which have had little immediate effect, and one of which—his anti-Muslim travel ban—plunged America’s airports into chaos before being put on hold by a federal judge. For the past week, his Administration has been consumed by damaging stories about his ties to Russia, and his firing of his national-security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Four weeks into its first term, the Obama Administration had already passed the biggest economic stimulus since the Great Depression and a sweeping fair-pay act. It had also announced a troop surge in Afghanistan. By comparison, Trump has achieved virtually nothing, except scaring the bejesus out of the world.
In his mind, of course, things are very different. For more than hour on Thursday, he stood at a White House lectern, the yellowness of his hair accentuated by the gold drapes hanging behind him, and demonstrated, again, that he long ago escaped the bounds of reality that restrict most mortals. He talked about his various executive orders, his meetings with the leaders of the United Kingdom and Canada, and his fifty-five-per-cent approval rating in the latest Rasmussen poll. (For some reason, he didn’t mention his forty-per-cent approval rating in a Gallup poll, the lowest on record for a President in his first month in office.) “I’m keeping my promises to the American people,” he said.
He returned, yet again, to the subject of the election. After pointing out that he got three hundred and four votes in the Electoral College, he added, “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.” It wasn’t anything of the sort—Obama, for one, received higher vote counts—but Trump didn’t let that bother him. He spoke of the campaign-style rally he is scheduled to attend on Saturday, near Orlando, Florida—many observers suspect his handlers organized the event to cheer him up—and said that he had “heard that the crowds are massive that want to be there.”
About the only bit of real news came when Trump confirmed, from his own mouth, that he didn’t have a problem with the fact that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian Ambassador to Washington three weeks before the Inauguration. The reason he fired Flynn, he said, was because he subsequently misled Vice-President Mike Pence.
In a more fractious political setting—the British Parliament, say—Trump would have been shouted down by howls of derision. There in the East Room, the members of the White House press corps sat meekly as the President offered them up as chum to conservative talk radio and other redoubts of alternative-reality Trumpery. “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos,” he said, striking a note of incredulity. “Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite. This Administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my Cabinet approved.”
Evidently, Trump was so pleased with that bit of Newspeak—“fine-tuned machine”—that he used it twice. He also dismissed a Times report that said some of his campaign aides were in regular touch with Russian intelligence officials. “The three people that they talked about all totally deny it,” he said. “And I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia. . . . Russia—this is fake news put out by the media.” Speaking more generally, he declared, “The press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.’’
Nobody can argue with that last sentence—but not in reference to the press. . .
Commerce Secretary-nominee Wilbur Ross, still awaiting confirmation, faces new questions about his banking ties to Russia, the latest member of the Trump team to be embroiled in the controversy over alleged ties to the Kremlin.
Ross was sent a letter late Thursday by six Democratic senators questioning the billionaire financier about his ownership stake in the Bank of Cyprus, on which he still serves as vice chairman of the board of directors. The six senators demanded answers about his relationship with Viktor Vekselberg, the second largest shareholder in the bank.
The letter cited reporting by McClatchy last December about Vekselberg, who sits atop the Renova Corp., a Russian conglomerate. Aside from his friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Vekselberg at one time served on the board of directors of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. It is under a partial sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The senators, led by Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, also want to know about Ross’s relationship with Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former vice chairman of Bank of Cyprus, a former KGB agent and believed to be a longtime associate of Putin. The letter sent to Ross on Thursday afternoon noted that Russian shareholders had at one point been the largest stakeholders in the bank he rescued in September 2014 amid a financial crisis in Cyprus.
Senators joining Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, were . . .
Josh Gerstein reports in Politico:
President Donald Trump’s new nominee for secretary of labor, Alexander Acosta, could face a grilling in the Senate over claims that — while he was the top federal prosecutor in Miami — he cut a sweetheart plea deal in 2008 with a billionaire investor accused of having sex with dozens of underage girls.
As the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida, Acosta agreed not to file any federal charges against the wealthy financier, Jeffrey Epstein, if he pled guilty to state charges involving soliciting prostitution and soliciting a minor for prostitution.
Epstein ultimately received an 18-month sentence in county jail and served about 13 months — treatment that provoked outrage from alleged victims in the case.
Soon after the deal was cut in 2008, two women filed suit claiming that the decision to forgo federal prosecution violated a federal law — the Crime Victims Rights Act — because they and other teenagers Epstein paid for sex were never adequately consulted about the plea deal or given an opportunity to object to it.
Acosta is not a party in the suit, which names only the federal government as a defendant. In 2015, lawyers for the women demanded Acosta submit to a deposition in the case. The motion was withdrawn last year as settlement talks in the case went forward, but the case remains pending.
“There is good reason to believe that if the prosecutors had exposed their dealings to scrutiny by Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2 and other victims, they would not have reached such a sweetheart plea deal,” the alleged victims’ attorneys wrote in a court filing last year.
Acosta acknowledged to the media in 2011 that he came under extreme pressure from Epstein’s high-powered defense team, which included legal heavyweights such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr and Florida criminal defense attorney Roy Black.
Acosta said Epstein’s defense mounted “a yearlong assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors.”
“I use the word assault intentionally, as the defense in this case was more aggressive than any which I, or the prosecutors in my office, had previously encountered,” the former U.S. attorney wrote. He said his office stuck to its opening position in the case, but he also acknowledged that the ultimate punishment in the case may have been more lenient than Epstein deserved.
“Some may feel that the prosecution should have been tougher,” Acosta wrote in the letter, posted online by The Daily Beast. “Evidence that has come to light since 2007 may encourage that view. Many victims have since spoken out, filing detailed statements in civil cases seeking damages. Physical evidence has since been discovered. Had these additional statements and evidence been known, the outcome may have been different. But they were not known to us at the time.”
Acosta indicated he did not approve of cushy treatment Epstein appeared to have received during his jail stint. “The treatment that he received while in state custody undermined the purpose of a jail sentence,” the former prosecutor wrote. . .
I watched the Watergate thing avidly, so I responded to this post by Dan Rather on Facebook:
Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now. It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now. On a 10 scale of Armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9. This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. And we may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.
When we look back at Watergate, we remember the end of the Nixon Presidency. It came with an avalanche, but for most of the time my fellow reporters and I were chasing down the story as it rumbled along with a low-grade intensity. We never were quite sure how much we would find out about what really happened. In the end, the truth emerged into the light, and President Nixon descended into infamy.
This Russia story started out with an avalanche and where we go from here no one really knows. Each piece of news demands new questions. We are still less than a month into the Trump Presidency, and many are asking that question made famous by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker those many years ago: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” New reporting suggests that Mr. Trump knew for weeks. We can all remember the General Michael Flynn’s speech from the Republican National Convention – “Lock her up!” in regards to Hillary Clinton. If Hillary Clinton had done one tenth of what Mr. Flynn had done, she likely would be in jail. And it isn’t just Mr. Flynn, how far does this go?
The White House has no credibility on this issue. Their spigot of lies – can’t we finally all agree to call them lies – long ago lost them any semblance of credibility. I would also extend that to the Republican Congress, who has excused away the Trump Administration’s assertions for far too long.
We need an independent investigation. Damn the lies, full throttle forward on the truth. If a scriptwriter had approached Hollywood with what we are witnessing, he or she would probably have been told it was way too far-fetched for even a summer blockbuster. But this is not fiction. It is real and it is serious. Deadly serious. We deserve answers and those who are complicit in this scandal need to feel the full force of justice.
Be careful what you wish for: A new study suggests that school vouchers could actually hurt organized religion
Matthew Rozsa has an interesting post in Salon:
Although school vouchers may be a boondoggle to churches, a new study from The National Bureau of Economic Research finds that “they offer financial stability for congregations while at the same time diminishing their religious activities.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than 80 percent of private school students in the 2011/2012 school year attended a religiously-affiliated school, with Catholicism being the most common religious affiliation. The authors studied 71 Catholic parishes in Milwaukee from 1999 to 2013.
“We find that expansion in voucher policy is, unsurprisingly, associated with increases in voucher revenues for parishes with schools,” the study stated. “We also find that voucher expansion prevents parish closures and mergers.”
At the same time, the authors seemed surprised to discover that vouchers do not subsidize religious activity beyond the operation of religious schools. Rather, the opposite occurred. “Vouchers cause a significant decrease in spending on non-school religious purposes such as religious staff salaries, mission support, and church maintenance. We also find that voucher programs lead to a significant decrease in church donations,” the study continued.
Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether one believes that religious institutions should focus on religion or on making money by supplanting public schools. . .