Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

ExxonMobil Plays Trump Like a Fiddle

President Donald Trump—the great dealmaker—has an ego fueled by flattery, which is allowing corporate America to play him like a fiddle. Since the passage of his massive tax cuts, Trump has trumpeted the news of one-time bonuses, wage hikes, capital investment projects, and job creation promises as affirmations of his genius.

His State of the Union Address Wednesday night was no different. As Trump proclaimed:

Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax-cut bonuses—many of them thousands and thousands of dollars per worker, and it’s getting more, every month, every week. Apple has just announced it plans to invest a total of $350 billion in America, and hire another 20,000 workers. And just a little while ago, Exxon Mobil announced a $50 billion investment in the United States. Just a little while ago.

This, in fact, is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.

So what about that ExxonMobil investment? ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, who took over for Rex Tillerson when he went to work for Trump, announced Monday that the company would be investing $50 billion in capital and exploration investments over the next five years—a move, he said, that is thanks in part to the corporate tax cuts. Trump repeated the news in his address to much applause, as Tillerson looked on from the front row.

It turns out the fossil fuel giant was, in all likelihood, going to make that investment anyway. As Americans for Tax Fairness point out, SEC filings show that ExxonMobil made about $53 billion in domestic investment in the five-year period between 2012-2016. This suggests that the company will continue to invest in capital spending at a similar (or even lower) pace.

The company was already paying an absurdly low rate in corporate taxes—just 13.6 percent on $60 billion in U.S. profits between 2008-2015. Lowering the statutory rate to 21 percent, then, doesn’t do much for its after-tax profits.

Of course, ExxonMobil is an incredibly powerful corporate actor—the third largest company in the world. It has a tremendous interest in currying favor with its regulator, the Trump administration.  Trump’s presidency could prove highly lucrative for the company, enhancing prospects for drilling along the U.S. coasts, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and potential for new fracking operations on public land.

It’s also absurd to assert that news of these bonuses is anything more than savvy public relations. And that money that Apple is “bringing back” from overseas is merely an accounting move on paper—and an affirmation that it was evading U.S. taxation by shifting its income into foreign accounts. Apple’s move is not any sort of tribute to the brilliance of Trump’s deal making on taxes.

Corporations like ExxonMobil and Apple will continue to misrepresent their typical business operations as all due to the brilliance of Trump. The flattery will work. But that does not mean the Trump tax cuts are working.  

Hudson River Tunnel Supporter Bites the Dust

Democrats do get excited over Republican retirements. As things stand now in New Jersey, full of people incensed by President Trump and recently departed GOP Governor Chris Christie, the 11th Congressional District, a longtime Republican stronghold, may turn blue in the fall.  

But for commuters and travelers wanting to get from New Jersey to New York, it’s tough to be completely enthused about the departure of Republican House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, who this week announced he wouldn’t run for re-election in New Jersey’s 11th.

Even with more conservative Republicans accusing Frelinghuysen of flirting with earmarks, the 12-term Republican somehow managed to secure hundreds of millions in funding for the Gateway Program—the $30 billion infrastructure project to replace and upgrade the 19th century cross-Hudson antiques that currently connect the two states.

Doing away with earmarks seemed a good idea to Republicans and some pliable Democrats back in the sands of time (2010 to be exact). But living without earmarks—a convention that forced members of Congress to give in order to get—has pretty much turned the body into a hornets’ nest of aging Republicans refighting sectional battles: sticking it to the so-called coastal elites and steering funds that could build tunnels and bridges between New Jersey and New York (and more than a few other places) into tax cuts for their campaign donors.

Frelinghuysen may have violated Republican orthodoxy by working with Democrats to secure funding for the tunnels and voting against the GOP tax plan (which clearly penalized his New Jersey constituents). But one of the wealthiest men in Congress went wobbly on the Affordable Care Act, which he voted to repeal (despite his initial opposition to the repeal-and-replace effort); earned his constituents’ wrath for not holding town hall meetings; and sparked NJ 11th for Change, a fired-up grassroots movement dedicated to throwing him out of Congress.

In the end, he couldn’t deliver for the Hudson tunnels, either. At the end of December, Frelinghuysen got royally screwed over by the president, who elected not to support the Obama administration’s Gateway funding program after all. It will likely require a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress—which might well include a Democratic successor to Frelinghuysen—to come up with the funds for the tunnels.

The seat has been in the hands of Republican since 1985, and Hillary Clinton lost the district by only one percentage point in 2016. The 11th Congressional District, a wealthy, moderate, suburban area outside New York City, could be a good get for the blue team this fall: Already two Democratic women are in the race to succeed Frelinghuysen. 

More College Students Risk Hunger

Tuition costs are sky-high. According to the College Board, the average yearly cost of attending a two-year community college in 2016 was $11,580. For a public four-year university, the cost was $20,090 per year and the private university sticker price was $45,370. These costs are alarming enough, but what’s even more shocking is that increasing numbers of low-income students try to save money by sacrificing meals. Founded in 2013, the College and University Food Bank Alliance had roughly 600 member schools in mid-January; two years ago, the group had less than 200.

In December, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a Madison-based organization that studies ways to produce more equitable outcomes in postsecondary education, published “Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates.” The report found that at least 50 percent of two- and four-year college students struggle with food insecurity.

College students are at a higher risk for food insecurity than the general population. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that just 12.3 percent of households were food insecure, which puts college students well above the national average. In a survey conducted by researchers from Southern Illinois University, 35 percent of students at four public universities reported low or very low food security, while another 23 percent reported marginal food insecurity. Only 42 percent of students were considered food secure.

Food insecurity among community college students is especially alarming: The HOPE Lab found that 20 percent of students had very low food security, meaning they reduced their food intake, sometimes for days at a time, to save money.

Unlike public elementary and secondary schools, which provide low-income students with free and reduced lunches, free transportation, and free (although limited) health screenings, college students often fend for themselves because there are few federal or state assistance programs for nutrition or other necessities “even though,” as HOPE lab researchers concluded in a 2014 report, “policymakers and educators say that college should be viewed as a mere extension of high school, a necessity for a stable life and strong national economy.”

Earlier this month, Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed opening a food pantry at every state college or coming up with another “stigma-free” way students can gain access to food. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a HOPE Lab researcher, told CNN that while this move is a “big deal,” it’s still more like a “Band-Aid” than a solution.

Postsecondary institutions should help make food and other basic necessities available to low-income students by revamping college tuition assistance programs and providing additional financial resources such as discounted or free meal plans. Without decisive action, food insecurity will continue to be a harsh fact of life on America’s college campuses. 

Mick Mulvaney Leads the Race for Worst Cabinet Official

(Gage Skidmore)

 

Mick Mulvaney has been busy—and for those who believe that the federal government can improve Americans’ lives, that’s not a good thing. 

Mulvaney, who is both President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, introduces himself to others as a right-wing nutjob. And as a South Carolina representative and founder of the House Freedom Caucus, Mulvaney led the far right’s shutdown threats to obtain spending cuts during the Obama presidency. 

In a Trumpian twist of fate, OMB Director Mulvaney found himself in charge of shutting down the government last week, a task he found “kind of cool.” He then proceeded to go on CNN and call Democratic senators’ decision to vote against a continuing resolution because there were no Dreamer protections “pure politics.” This coming from the man who very nearly killed a $50.7 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package by insisting on dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. 

Now that the government is back open, Mulvaney has gotten back to his work of turning the CFPB—which was created through Dodd-Frank as a Wall Street watchdog—into a toothless industry lapdog focused more on deregulating predatory lenders than on consumer protection. 

ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger obtained a memo Mulvaney sent to CFPB staff outlining his new vision for the agency. In short, he rebuked his predecessor Richard Cordray’s approach to regulation in which, as Mulvaney puts it, the CFPB staffers are the “good guys” out to fight the “bad guys” on Wall Street.

As he wrote: 

We are government employees. We don’t just work for the government, we work for the people. And that means everyone: those who use credit cards, and those who provide those cards; those who take loans, and those who make them; those who buy cars, and those who sell them. All of those people are part of what makes this country great, and all of them deserve to be treated fairly by their government. There is a reason that Lady Justice wears a blindfold and carries a balance, along with her sword. 

In Mulvaney’s eyes, Wall Street bankers and your average consumer are on an entirely equal playing field. 

Since taking over the agency in November (and winning a legal battle for the post), Mulvaney has literally rewritten the agency’s mission as one that protects Americans from “burdensome regulations” and stocked it full with Trump and Wall Street loyalists.  

Under Mulvaney, the agency’s regulatory and enforcement work has ground to a halt. As one of payday lenders’ biggest allies in Congress, Mulvaney is now easing off the industry. He said he will “reconsider” one of Cordray’s hallmark rules that aimed to root out predatory practices in the industry. In just the past week, Mulvaney dropped a CFPB lawsuit against four payday lenders in Kansas and, according to a report from the International Business Times, closed an investigation into a South Carolina payday lender that contributed to his congressional campaigns. 

As both the head of the OMB and the CFPB, Mulvaney is leading Trump’s deregulatory crusade, vying to dismantle the very industry regulations that protect workers and consumers from unscrupulous and profit-hungry corporations. 

The contest for Trump’s worst cabinet official is a close one, but Mulvaney is at the front of the pack. 

Republicans Suddenly Want to CHIP In

As time winds down for Congress to pass a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, Republicans have another plan in the works—not only to place the blame for a shutdown squarely on Democrats but to blame them for a failure to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Early Friday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan had this to say:

Republican Representative Martha Roby of Alabama had this to say:

It’s a clever, albeit diabolical, strategy. CHIP is an extremely popular program—88 percent of Americans say it is important to reauthorize the health insurance program. But it couldn’t be clearer that House Republicans are using CHIP’s popularity as leverage against the Democrats, hoping that by including CHIP’s reauthorization in the spending bill that Democrats will be forced to vote for it.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently tweeted,

Given many Republicans’ views on CHIP in the past, one tends to side with Hayes over Ryan and Roby.

While it’s true that the program largely enjoys bipartisan support (Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and his good friend Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah sponsored the creation of CHIP in 1997) there are many Republicans who are ambivalent about the program and support it grudgingly. A standalone bill that funds CHIP would easily pass, especially considering CHIP expired in September.

But it’s not as if all Republicans have always supported health care for low-income kids. In 2009, President Obama signed a bill that expanded the program to cover an additional four million low-income children; for the most part, the bill passed on party lines. Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa said the program would be the “foundation stone for socialized medicine in the United States.” President George W. Bush had vetoed two similar expansion bills in 2007, believing, as Bush said, that those measures went too far toward “the federalization of health care.”

Compared to poor adults, most people view poor children as worthier of government assistance. Though CHIP may resemble just another abhorrent entitlement program for some conservatives, the reality is that Americans say that want to support poor kids. (The same often cannot be said about supporting poor children’s care providers, their poor parents or guardians: witness the current state of the Medicaid debate.) That’s why Republicans have moved to use CHIP’s reauthorization as a political football to try to bring the Democrats to heel on other issues, including DACA. How the Democrats respond will be instructive: Will they cave into the pressure in an election year or will they forcefully refuse to compromise on protecting DREAMers? 

Boston’s Amazon HQ2 Fantasies Take Off

Who needs one million square feet of office space in Boston’s Seaport District? Amazon might. The Boston Globe reported Thursday that real-estate industry executives “with knowledge of the talks” dished that Amazon is in the market for one, maybe two office buildings in the bustling and picturesque waterfront neighborhood. (The Boston Business Journal first reported the story Tuesday.)

This latest revelation has set tongues wagging that “the Hub” (a Boston nickname, short for “Hub of the Universe”—yes, seriously) had moved to the front of the pack of more than 200 U.S. cities looking to land “HQ2,” Amazon’s much-discussed second headquarters—even though Amazon had already been in the hunt for more office space (the company has about 1,000 employees in metro Boston) long before company officials announced the new headquarters search.

Predictably, Amazon had nothing to say to the Globe. The company plans to make a decision on an additional Boston site at about the same time that it announces its short list of finalists for its new headquarters. The much-vaunted new HQ would employ about 50,000 people.

Massachusetts officials are salivating over the possibility of adding Amazon to its roster of corporate catches. General Electric has already decided to move its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut, to Boston.

City officials have also proposed another location, a former race track in an eastern section of the city. The race track would be better able to provde the 8 million square feet that the company says it needs for a new campus. But emails obtained by the Associated Press indicate that state officials are trying to “pitch the whole state” as a potential site.

A whole-state strategy might be a more attractive option. Massachusetts prides itself on its highly educated workforce and its standing as home to dozens of other technology innovators.

That pitch has the virtue of glossing over some Boston negatives. The Seaport flooded in jaw-dropping fashion during a recent nor’easter. (Also known locally as the “Innovation District,” some locals refer to the area as the “Inundation District.”) Area residents fear that an HQ2 victory would drive up the metro region’s already astronomical housing prices and saddle new workers with a notoriously poor transportation system:

The Emperor Trump

The Fool Who Plays The King
Todd Gitlin

As the UN General Assembly readied to vote on a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (it passed, 128 to 9), Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is reported by the Times to have written to the members of the General Assembly as follows:  

“As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally.”

Personally!

Nothing new, in one sense. Of course Donald Trump takes everything personally: a branded steak and a bottle of water, an Arnold Schwarzenegger rating, the height of a rival and the size of his rivals’ genitals, the weight of a beauty contestant, a football player’s posture, ad infinitum. But now, fancying that he has ascended to a truly royal realm, the Brander-in-Chief has gone yet one further: He is treating foreign policy as a personal plaything. It is back to the Shakespearean days when the king of France was known as “our cousin France.” Then it was understood that nations were the personal properties of their rulers. In and of themselves, they constituted the public domain. They were the sole active agents of history, and everyone else was a subject—subject, ultimately, to their will. To insult a nation was to insult the monarch, and vice versa.

In 2005, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not yet President of Turkey but only Prime Minister, the Turkish state made it a crime (Turkish Penal Code Article 301) to “insult Turkishness.” Under this law, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, among many others, was prosecuted. Trump’s desired world is one in which disagreeing with American foreign policy is insulting Americanness—which is insulting Trump—which is lèse-majesté. His majesty will not be trifled with. Who do the petty rulers of these little piss-ass countries think they are? Do they brand hotels? Are their names stamped onto the sides of beef?

Donald Trump ran to become CEO of America. He now holds himself to be, in his sole person, the American brand. He is the august Hirer and Firer. He is, as Garry Wills wonderfully put it, Big Rocket Man. He was elected to reign. Since January 20, 2017, there are no longer civil servants; they are his servants, to carry out his whims and tweet his praises. In command performances, Cabinet members assemble in the throne room to pay homage.

Welcome to the wide and wonderful world of His Excellency Donald Trump, Making America Royal Again.

 

About Those “No” Votes
Harold Meyerson

Nikki Haley’s threat (about which Todd Gitlin writes above) that President Trump would “take personally” any “yes” votes on today’s General Assembly motion to condemn the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital apparently didn’t move many nations to vote “no.” While 128 nations, including Britain, France, Germany and Japan voted “yes,” only nine nations opposed the measure. In addition to the U.S. and Israel, those “no” votes came from Guatemala, Honduras, Togo, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau.

The last four, of course, are nations of mid-Pacific islands, all of which are existentially threatened by rising sea levels. Will Trump take their “no” votes as personally as he takes the “yesses?” Will they move him to embrace the climate change measures that might enable those nations to survive? Will he welcome refugees from those nations when their islands are washed away? As the answers to these questions are all resounding “no’s,” these imperiled isles will sadly find their “no’s” have gone for naught.

Clinician Activists Grapple with 25th Amendment and Trump’s Mental Health

Mulling over President Trump’s mental health has become a national preoccupation, with commentators from Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski to politicians like Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy all eager to weigh in on the issue. But one group of activists hope that their words will hold a little more weight and speed up Trump’s departure from the White House.

Duty to Warn, a group of mental health professionals, has called for Trump’s removal from office under the 25th Amendment. The group argues that Trump exhibits many of the traits of malignant narcissism—a condition characterized by high levels of selfishness, grandiosity, paranoia, antisocial personality, and sadism, all which make him unfit to govern.

However, the group’s stance is controversial. An American Psychiatric Association guideline known as the “Goldwater Rule” states that it is unethical for a clinician to offer a professional opinion about the mental health of someone they haven’t diagnosed in person and without the patient’s consent. During Barry Goldwater’s 1964 bid for the presidency, a Fact Magazine poll found that nearly 1,200 psychiatrists believed that Goldwater was unfit for the job.

While the APA acknowledges that the legal concept of “duty to warn” (which varies by state) requires a psychiatrist to disregard confidentiality when he or she has reason to believe a patient is a threat, “it does not apply if there is no physician-patient relationship.”

But psychologist John Gartner, the head of Duty to Warn, cites numerous reports about Trump’s alarming behavior, including comments from the president’s inner circle, as evidence that there are clear warning signs that Trump is unfit. Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Tom Barrack has found his behavior shocking; Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee has doubted his stability; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” after he expressed a desire to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm coined the term “malignant narcissism” to describe leaders like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. According to Gartner, “when personalities [exhibiting this condition] achieve power, they become dramatically worse.” He believes that Trump is deteriorating psychologically, which means that he could make a rash decision, such as launching nuclear weapons. “Knowing that Donald Trump meets all criteria for malignant narcissism is actually a matter of national security,” Gartner said at an October Duty to Warn town hall meeting in Washington.

Gartner supports two pending bills: the Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity (OCPC) Act and the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act. The OCPC Act, introduced by Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, calls for Congress to establish an 11-person committee of physicians, psychiatrists, and former high-ranking members of the executive branch (such as a president, vice president, secretary of state, or attorney general) to determine whether a president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. Each party would appoint five committee members, who would then select an 11th person to chair the commission. Raskin, a constitutional lawyer, says he wishes that the congressional body described in the 25th Amendment had been established “50 years ago.”

Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California introduced the nuclear weapons bill, which aims to prevent the president from launching a “first-use nuclear strike”—meaning a strike against a country that has not already attacked the United States with nuclear weapons first—unless Congress has made a declaration of war explicitly authorizing the strike.

However, Gartner’s decision to launch two political action committees, the Duty to Warn PAC and super PAC, which he plans to use to support social media campaigns to target local and state voters, has raised eyebrows. Raskin was named Duty to Warn’s “Legislator of the Year” at an October kickoff event in Washington, and received a $1,000 check from the group. Gartner says that the group intends to support candidates who say they will vote for bills that could restrict Trump’s access to nuclear codes, or lead to his removal from office under the 25th Amendment.

Gartner is adamant that his activism is not motivated by partisan politics, or any interest in only electing Democrats. If a Republican candidate for Congress pledges to support Raskin’s or Lieu’s bills, Gartner said he would “support that person double.” Asked about the Duty to Warn PACs, Raskin says, “They’re definitely supporting the legislation and trying to bring attention generally to the 25th Amendment.”

Prior to setting up Duty to Warn, Gartner says he had never been politically active. “It’s so obvious what we’re doing and why we’re doing this,” Gartner tells The American Prospect. “I’m doing it because as a psychologist, I see this person as a murderous madman.”

However, some doctors do not agree with Gartner’s moves. Psychiatrist Allen Frances, author of Twilight of American Sanity, a recent book about the Trump age, calls Trump the “most dangerous man on earth” and agrees that his access to the nuclear codes should be restricted.

But Frances says that while the danger Trump poses is obvious, diagnosing his behavior is a “distraction” and stigmatizes the mentally ill. He adds that while Duty to Warn’s diagnosis is a prelude to a call to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump, that “will never happen politically.”

Raskin suggests that mental illnesses do not automatically disqualify someone from being able to execute the powers of the office. Abraham Lincoln, who many historians believe suffered from clinical depression, was “one of our greatest presidents,” he says. Yet even without a formal diagnosis, Raskin thinks there is a strong case for Trump’s removal. “The question isn’t does he have this or that … disorder,” Raskin says. “The question is simply: Would a citizen think [a president] is dangerously unfit to execute the powers and duties of office?” He adds, “Mental health professionals, psychiatrists, and psychologists have every bit as much right as any other citizen to opine about that.” 

The Republicans’ Leninist Respect for Democracy

The Republican Party is the B-team of politics. The B stands for Bolshevik. They strike even before the iron is hot, partly because they fear it won’t stay hot for long, partly because they know how unpopular their moves are, and partly because they believe in the exercise of raw power.

The Republican commandos are in a hurry because, so far, they haven’t been able to legislate themselves out of a paper bag. They fear, reasonably, that the midterm elections will go badly for them even if last-minute sweeteners for the likes of Marco Rubio, Bob Corker, and Susan Collins give them an ambiguous legislative trophy to campaign on. They also must fear—if they’re paying attention—that their president is marching them over the precipice into a full-blown constitutional crisis by arranging to fire Robert Mueller, and that however the imbroglio turns out, it won’t nourish further legislation.

The Republican commandos are also rushing because their deep-pocketed donors are impatient. They want their tax ripoffs! When do they want them? Now!

They’re in a hurry, too, because the more time that elapses before they pull off their oligarchic robberies, the more time public opposition has to crystallize and mobilize to stop them in their tracks.

They’re also in a hurry because they believe in raw power, not the power of persuasion. They’re not into argument, which require a certain respect for logic and evidence, and takes time. They’re not into slowing down to make deals with the minority Democrats. They prefer secrecy, writing bills no one has read. They prefer, in other words, the logic of the putsch.

As Kevin Drum and Joshua Holland have written, they’re also afraid that their demographic clock is ticking and that even voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the arousal of white nationalism might not be potent enough to sustain their congressional power for long.

This is the way of the Bolsheviks. Take power now, wield it brutally, and to hell with anyone who has another idea.

Alabama: One More Assault on Voting Rights

Just in case we needed one more thumb on the scale of today’s Alabama Senate election, how about this:

The Alabama Supreme Court last night inserted itself to block a lower court ruling requiring election officials to preserve ballots, in case of challenges to voter suppression or even a just plain recount. In Alabama, about 85 percent of ballots are recorded digitally, and the lower ruling required the preservation of digital images.

Ironically, Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, served twice as chief justice, and was removed. The Supreme Court, in issuing a stay blocking the lower court ruling, gave no explanation, but sided with a brief filed by Secretary of State John Merrill. Which contended that state officials had no authority to direct local election officials to preserve ballots.

Such preservation, of course is standard procedure. The state Supreme Court adds one more bit of mischief to anticipated abuses of ID requirements and other forms of voter suppression. If Democrat Doug Jones does win, he will need to win by a theft-proof margin.

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