Originally Published: 1/27/2018
Is Democracy Failing: The NY Times has started a new series of videos called The Interpreter which will be “exploring big questions and ideas about the world” and attempting to explain “what we know about democracy’s troubles, what’s causing them, and where it leads.” It should be an interesting series. The first is a summary of the growth of democracy around the world and how that growth has stalled. Some countries are backsliding into authoritarianism “and even in established Western democracies, voters are losing faith in democratic institutions and norms.” The authors ask: “Is this all just a blip, or is democracy in real trouble? Are the oldest and sturdiest democracies, like those of Europe and the United States, really as safe as they seem? And why would people voluntarily dismantle their own democracy from within?” The series will explore these questions. In the first video, they make an interesting statement: “One of the most powerful forces that can turn people against democracy is polarization. When people feel scared enough of their political opponents, it feels more important to protect their side than it does to protect democracy. Leaders can exploit that fear . . .” [Emphasis added.]
Jeff Sessions: The Attorney General was interviewed by the special counsel’s office “for several hours,” probably indicating that they had him in to verify information they already had. He’s the first of Trump’s cabinet to be interviewed. (NY Times)
FBI: FBI Director Christopher Wray has been resisting pressure from AG Jeff Session “to replace the bureau’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, a frequent target of criticism” from Trump. There are also other FBI officials who served during James Comey’s tenure that Trump wants to get rid of. (Washington Post) Trump’s animosity toward McCabe started when he was appointed acting director. According to the Washington Post, just after McCabe was named as acting director, Trump summoned him to the Oval Office and asked him for whom he voted. McCabe said he didn’t vote. However, Trump’s issue with McCabe appears to be that McCabe’s wife, a Democrat, who ran for the Virginia state senate, received “several thousand dollars” in campaign contributions from a PAC controlled by her “close friend” Hillary Clinton.
The Memo: Just in case you haven’t heard about #ReleasetheMemo, I thought I’d clue you in. Rep. Devin Nunes (R, CA), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, compiled a memo “alleging scandalous misdeeds at the Department of Justice and the FBI, based on classified information that few other people can access.” He allowed some of his colleagues to see it but has declined to make it public. According to Vanity Fair, the memo “reportedly claims that senior FBI officials abused the FISA Act to get the warrant on Carter Page. (TWW, Carter Page, 11/11/17) The FBI has repeatedly requested the memo “in order to evaluate the information and take appropriate steps if necessary.” The DOJ has also requested to see it. Nunes won’t turn it over. Apparently, the memo has been “classified.” But you’d think that if it exonerated Trump, Trump himself would de-classify it in order to clear his name. For a timeline of the goings-on, see Vox.
Firing Mueller: According to 4 people told of the incident, Trump ordered White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June. McGahn “refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead.” (NY Times) Trump denied this, calling it “fake news.” (Roll Call) Even Fox News confirmed the story, clarifying it by saying: “Trump did have conversations about firing Mueller - but it might not have amounted to an outright directive.” Watch as Sean Hannity does an about-face. (HuffPost)
First Anniversary: I don’t remember any other president doing this, but Trump planned an anniversary party at Mar-a-Lago. Of course, it was also a fundraiser, with tickets starting at $100,000 per couple. Unfortunately, the host wasn’t there. Trump was stuck in Washington trying to work out a budget deal. He could have made it to the party if he hadn’t changed his mind and accepted the unbelievably generous deal that Democrats offered him. (See below.) However, he was convinced by anti-immigrant staff and congress critters not to do the deal and everything fell apart. So, he missed his own party. But the party went on just the same and he still made money. “By holding the event at his own club, Trump will be able to collect tens of thousands of dollars in fees for food, ballroom rental, and other costs. In effect, he will have transformed his supporters’ political donations into revenue for his business. Again.” (Washington Post)
Alex Azar: The former drug industry executive “with pristine conservative credentials,” (TWW, Alex Azar, 11/18/17) was confirmed by the Senate to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 55 to 43. (Washington Post)
Sam Brownback: The Senate narrowly confirmed him to a diplomatic post “to promote religious freedom.” The former Kansas governor was so disliked that they had to call in VP Mike Pence to break the tie. Brownback was confirmed 50 to 49. (Washington Post)
Jerome Powell: Trump’s pick for Federal Reserve chair (TWW, Jerome Powell, 11/4/17) was confirmed by the Senate 84 to 13. (Washington Post)
Notwithstanding Clause: The so-called Leahy Laws prohibit the Defense Department (DOD) and the State Department from providing assistance to any foreign security forces “if they have credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights until the behavior has been remediated.” Since 2002 the United States has appropriated more than $71.2 billion in assistance to the Afghan security forces with a clause that says “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” (Notwithstanding clause) The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has investigated allegations of sexual abuse of children committed by members of the Afghan security forces “and the manner in which the DOD and State Leahy laws are implemented in Afghanistan.” SIGAR found that DOD has been side-stepping the Leahy Laws by using the “notwithstanding clause.” The DOD “has interpreted this clause to allow the Secretary to forgo implementation of the Leahy Laws in specific cases, or more broadly if necessary.” Fighting in Afghanistan is apparently more important than protecting children from sexual abuse.
Civil Liberties: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just awarded a contract for a database that will give it nationwide access “to billions of license plate records and new powers of real-time location tracking, raising significant concerns from civil libertarians.” (The Verge)
Israel: VP Mike Pence, speaking to Israel’s parliament, said that our embassy in Jerusalem will open next year, “accelerating plans that have sparked fury from Palestinians and widespread condemnation in the region.” (Washington Post) Interestingly, according to a Pew survey, overall U.S. support for Israel over Palestinians is at 46% but only 27% of Democrats sympathize more with Israelis. Republican sympathy for Israel over Palestinians is 79%.
Palestine: Last week Trump announced a reduction in aid to Palestine. (TWW, Palestine, 1/20/18) This week he threatened to withdraw further aid if they don’t negotiate with Israel. (Washington Post)
Turkey: 72 Turkish jets bombed U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in Syria. We should have expected this given last week’s information. (TWW, Turkey, 1/20/18) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “vowed to crush Kurdish militant forces across northern Syria to remove what he said was a terrorist threat.” (NY Times) After the bombing, the Turks started a ground incursion. Kurds responded by shelling the Turkish province of Kilis. (Guardian) Trump decided to mollify Erdogan by “suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds,” which was contradicted by the Pentagon “which said it would continue to stand by the Kurds.” (NY Times)
Montana: Governor Steve Bullock (D) issued an executive order requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that operate in the state to embrace net neutrality principles in order to obtain lucrative state government contracts. He’s the first governor to take such action. (Montana.gov) Let’s hope he won’t be the only one.
Pennsylvania: The state supreme court ruled that “the state’s GOP-drawn congressional districts violate its Constitution and ordered all 18 districts redrawn in the next few weeks.” (Washington Post)
Vermont: It became the first state to legalize pot without a ballot measure. A bill was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. (Courthouse News)
Shutdown: Trump blamed the Democrats for the shutdown saying they had “orchestrated” it in order to mar his 1-year anniversary. (NY Times) However, the facts are coming out and now we know that at the meeting between him and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D, NY) (TWW, Budget, 1/20/18), Schumer offered him funding for his border wall - something Democrats hate - in exchange for protecting DACA - something even Republicans wanted. It was a generous offer and Trump rejected it (Washington Post) primarily at the urging of staffer Stephen Miller (Washington Post). House Republicans are urging the Senate to “nuke” the filibuster to get a budget passed (Roll Call) and Trump agreed. (Reuters) And while the negotiations are in the Senate, the House warned that they will not be bound by whatever agreement senators make. (Roll Call) The Senate moved ahead, though, and on Monday the Dems finally caved in and gave the Repubs what they wanted - a Continuing Resolution (CR) to February 8th, “with a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to work toward a bipartisan compromise on immigration, border security, and a broader budget outline before that new deadline.” The vote was 81 to 18. (USA Today) See how your senator voted. (NY Times) The bill includes funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and rolls back some of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) taxes. (Washington Post) The House passed it later that day. (Washington Post)
New Negotiations: Ain’t goin’ too well. Trump offered legislation that would “provide a path to citizenship for an many as 1.8 million young, undocumented immigrants in exchange for an end to decades of family-based migration policies, a massive border wall, and a vast crackdown on other illegal immigrants already living in the country.” The plan was drafted by Stephen Miller - whose hardline against immigration is probably what destroyed last week’s deal - and chief of staff John Kelly - who ain’t no hero of immigrants either. The plan was immediately rejected by Democrats. (NY Times)
Net Neutrality: Burger King made an ad about net neutrality. “The company released an ad today explaining the concept of net neutrality with a stunt that showed what it would be like to have paid prioritization in a burger joint. In the ad, actors playing Burger King employees taunt ‘actual guests’ by making them wait for absurd amounts of time to receive their food - unless they pay huge tolls to get it quickly.” (The Verge) It’s a hoot. Watch it.
Inequality Gap: It’s growing. 42 people - many of whom are at Davos with Trump - hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion “who make up the poorest half of the world’s population.” OxFam, the development charity, is calling for action. It said that “billionaires had been created at a record rate of 1 every 2 days over the past 12 months, at a time when the bottom 50% of the world’s population had seen no increase in wealth.” [Emphasis added.] (Guardian)
School Shootings: You’ve probably heard about the school shooting in Kentucky where 2 were killed and 18 injured. (CNN) What you probably haven’t heard about are the other 10 school shootings that have occurred since January 1st. That’s 11 shootings in 3 weeks. And these are just the school shootings, not other shootings. (NY Times) It’s not news anymore.
Supreme Court: I was hoping with the demise of Justice Antonin Scalia that the days of Supreme Court justices cavorting with politicos was over. Not! Our newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, had dinner at the home of Senator John Cornyn (R, TX) with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R, KY) wife, Elaine Chao, Transportation Secretary, and “a few” other Senate colleagues. This was tweeted out by Senator Lamar Alexander (R, TN), with his thanks for the opportunity “to talk about important issues facing our country.” (Think Progress)
Sanctuary Cities: The Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan group chaired by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), has canceled a planned meeting with Trump “to protest his attempted crackdown on sanctuary cities, complaining he was hurting their ability to ‘protect immigrant communities.’” (Washington Times) That same day (whether before or after, I don’t know) the Justice Department sent letters to officials from California, Oregon, Illinois, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, “among others,” “threatening to force” the 3 states and 20 cities “to turn over records related to compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” The letter said that if they fail to turn the information over “in a timely manner,” the DOJ will exercise its authority and issue subpoenas for the information. (District Sentinel)
Tariffs: Acting under a provision of U.S. trade law authorizing global tariffs, Trump imposed them on imported solar panels and washing machines at the urging of American manufacturers. Solar is the fastest growing segment of our society. It’s estimated that this will cause 23,000 installers, engineers, and project managers to lose their jobs. (Washington Post) Think maybe it will encourage the American solar industry? Probably not. The tariff is only good for 4 years. Who would start a company with such a substantial investment knowing that in 4 years it will be in competition with the Chinese? Hell, it would take at least a year or two just to build the manufacturing plant. No, the tariff will just increase the cost of solar for the next 4 years, substantially reducing its use. It’s another giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.
K-12 Propaganda: Voucher programs are on the rise. Currently 14 states and the District of Columbia have them and 17 states have tax credit programs. And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing for a federal choice initiative. But a recent investigation by Rebecca Klein looked at 3 popular textbooks used by private religious schools receiving those vouchers. She found materials touting creationism over evolution, teaching that homosexuality is a sin, and other propaganda embedded throughout their K-12 curricula. (Huff Post) In all there are over 7,000 schools around the country, 3/4 of them are religious, and 33% use a curriculum provided by either Abeka, Accelerated Christian Education or Bob Jones. This is a fascinating read.
Border Wall: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson issued a decree that the Border Wall upgrades in the El Paso sector “wouldn’t have to comply with construction rules under the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and roughly 2 dozen other environmental laws.” (District Sentinel)
Plastic: Following China’s decision to stop taking plastic (TWW, China, 1/20/18), the EU “launched a plastics strategy designed to change minds in Europe, potentially tax damaging behavior, and modernize plastics production and collection by investing €350 million (£310 million) in research.” The plan is to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. (Guardian)
Oil Spill: There was an oil spill off the coast of China. A tanker carrying “condensate” sank. Condensate is “a liquid by-product of natural gas and some kinds of oil production.” Millions of barrels have been dumped. Experts say there has never been a condensate spill like this. Since this is unprecedented, damage to the environment is unknown, but extensive damage is expected. (The Atlantic)
United Airlines: They went to lighter paper for its inflight magazine, Hemisphere, and reduced each magazine’s weight by 1 ounce. Multiply that 1 ounce by hundreds of seats on a Boeing 737, then multiply that by more than 1.5 million flights per year, and the result is enough weight to save the company 170,000 gallons of fuel annually, about $290,000. (LA Times) I call that a win-win.
Hiring Boon?: I guess the new tax plan isn’t a boon to jobs as was promised. So far we have Kimberly-Clark cutting 5,500 jobs (NY Times), Toys R Us is closing more than 180 stores (CNN), Sears is closing 103 stores (Business Insider), Kmart is closing more than 60 stores (USA Today), Macy’s is closing 11 stores (Business Insider), and more than 200 Carrier workers were laid off because their jobs are going to Mexico. (Reuters)
BofA: Bank of America is going to start charging $12 a month for low balance accounts. Less than $1,500 in your account? You’ll be charged. Move your money to a credit union. (NewsOne)
Payday Lending: Mick Mulvaney, now heading up the Consumer Financial Protect Bureau (CFPB), (TWW, CFPB, 12/9/17; 12/2/17) didn’t waste any time undoing the rule that prevented payday lenders from preying on low-income Americans. “The payday lending and title loan industry has been battling the CFPB since Congress created the bureau in 2010 - and the fight has intensified since the bureau started crafting rules to regulate short-term lending in 2015. Since then, payday lenders have given $1.5 million to congressional lawmakers and another $300,000 to the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The industry also spent another $6.2 million on politics at the state level to combat regulation over the same time period.” (International Business Times) Best investment in the world is to buy politicians.
Koch Brothers: Charles and David Koch will save between $1 billion and $1.4 billion in income taxes each year from the new tax law. This estimate doesn’t include how much they’ll save “in taxes on offshore profits or how much their heirs will benefit from weakening the estate tax.” (Americans for Tax Fairness) They sure made a great investment. At least $1 billion a year for a one-time investment of more than $20 million. (Wall Street Journal) Of course you have to add to their expenses the $500,000 they handed over to Speaker of House Paul Ryan (R, WI) after the bill was passed. (AOL)
Comcast: How is it actually spending its tax windfall? Last December it announced that it would award a $1,000 bonus to about 100,000 employees. That’s a total expenditure of $100 million. However, Comcast recently announced massive expenditures on dividend payments and stock buybacks. (TWW, The Problem, The Tax Cut, 1/6/18) Dividends, which totaled $2.9 billion in 2017, will be increased by 21% - an additional $609 million in dividends. It also plans to spend at least $5 billion and as much as $7 billion in buybacks.
Camels: At a Saudi Arabia beauty pageant for camels 12 “contestants” were disqualified because the owners used Botox on their lips, noses, and jaws. (NY Times) I’m not kidding. The prizes were “millions of dollars,” so lots of incentive to cheat.