On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

May 14, 2018

Too Normal. I had one of those “aha” experiences over the weekend. My wonderful nephew, Ben, graduated from medical school. To be precise, he graduated from the medical school of the University of South Carolina, in the state capital, Columbia.

The ceremony was lovely. Some 85 med students who had worked their hearts out for four years got accolades from teachers. The commencement speaker hit just the right notes. The locals were friendly, and the food was superb. It was as normal as any university setting could be.

But most citizens of this state voted for Donald Trump. And deep racism continues to define the South Carolina ruling elite, as installed by the electorate. Here’s what’s so troubling. Normal daily life coexists all too easily with the destruction of what’s decent in America, in the age of Trump.

Germans, at least those who were not Jewish or gay, must have had something of the same feeling circa 1937 as they went about their daily business in Berlin. The cafes were open, the universities held classes and graduated students, couples got married, babies were born. People went to work, did their jobs, paid their bills.

Some celebrated the dictator, some ignored him. But it was too normal.

Hannah Arendt referred to Adolph Eichmann and his crimes as the banality of evil—“terrifyingly normal.” There is something terrifying about how normal so much of daily life is today. I’ve been at dinners with friends where we congratulate each other at having gotten through a social evening without mentioning Trump.

I’m not saying that daily life and happy ceremonies should be suspended for the duration. But somehow, if we are to rid this nation of Trump, we must keep the menace he represents in our consciousness even as we find joy in life’s pleasures.

May 11, 2018

For more than 30 minutes on Wednesday, President Trump, his face “reddened” (that’s the description in today’s Washington Post), “yelled” (that’s from today’s New York Times) at his cabinet in general, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in particular, about the number of immigrants still crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

Trump’s tirade makes clear what’s behind our new Get-Tough (more precisely, Get-Sadistic) border apprehension policy, as announced Monday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Instead of simply busing undocumented border crossers who have no criminal records back to Mexico, our new policy is to incarcerate them all for the misdemeanor violation of crossing without papers, and to send children, no matter how young, to different detention facilities from their parents’.

What’s behind it is sheer rage, at once egomaniacal, xenophobic, and racist. Trump, the Times reports, claimed repeatedly during his first year in office that the 2017 drop in border crossings was entirely due to his tough stand. This year, however, as violence has grown unendurable in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the number of crossings has risen, stripping him of a much-loved (by him) talking point at his rallies and press encounters. Since the decline in crossings testified to his manly resolve, the rise in crossings perforce undermines it.

Can’t have that!

A “person close to Nielsen,” the Times reports, describes her as “miserable in her job,” and the paper also reported that following the meeting, she drafted a resignation letter that she was persuaded not to submit. Miserable? Could that mean she has been troubled by having to defend the parent-child separations, which she has done repeatedly and vociferously since accounts of the policy began appearing in the press? Could it be that she secretly thinks that separating a two-year-old from her mother for many months might actually not be in that two-year-old’s best interest? Could she, in some nether region of her consciousness, harbor some instincts of a minimally decent human being?

Probably not. But if she does, the president wants to make damn sure they never surface. 

May 10, 2018

Homage to Stormy. It is somehow fitting that the indignation of a wronged porn star could lead to the final undoing of Donald Trump. Despite the growing power of the #MeToo movement, and the falling of predatory male icons across the political spectrum, the Predator-in-Chief has gotten away with it—until now.

As Deep Throat (whose nickname is now somehow doubly fitting) famously counseled, follow the money. So if we follow the money, Stormy’s rage against Trump and his fixer, Michael Cohen, has now led to the following chain of revelations.

Cohen was not running a law firm. He was running a money laundry. Send payments to Cohen, and you could pay disguised bribes to Donald Trump. As The New York Times has reported, Cohen’s dummy company received at least $4.4 million in funds including money from a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin, Viktor Vekselberg, as well as money from corporations doing business with the Trump administration, including Novartis and AT&T.

It was the lawyer for Stormy, Michael Avenatti, who first made much of this information public. The special counsel, Robert Mueller, might have unearthed these and other details in due course, but Stormy’s battle gave the issue a nice boost.

All of this is likely to put Michael Cohen at even greater legal jeopardy, and incline him to sing to prosecutors a couple octaves higher. In Trump’s America, in the era of #MeToo, in the era of Eric Schneiderman exposed as a thug, the person of relative honor is a porn star.

Stormy didn’t abuse or assault anybody, she didn’t try to bribe the government, and she didn’t launder money for the Kremlin. It’s a pretty low bar, but it may be enough to help bring down Trump.

You were expecting, maybe, Mother Teresa? 

May 8, 2018

Trying to identify the cruelest policy of the Trump administration may be a fool’s errand, but the new border policy unveiled yesterday in a speech by Attorney General Jeff Sessions has quickly moved to the head of the pack.

Until now, people apprehended while crossing the border without legal documentation have been routinely bused back to Mexico so long as they have no criminal records. Under the new policy, everyone apprehended will be placed in already jam-packed detention facilities and have their cases heard—eventually—by over-burdened immigration courts, which already stagger under a backload of cases it will take years to hear and decide.

And that’s not even the half of it. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “Sessions also said that families who illegally cross the border may be separated after their arrest, with children sent to juvenile shelters while their parents are sent to adult detention facilities. Until now, border agents tried to keep parents and their children at the same detention site.”

Call it Trump’s “Suffer Little Children” initiative.

Which makes the point of the new policy unmistakably clear. It’s not to boost the income of private immigration prisons or make a mockery of the immigration courts. It’s to punish everyone who comes to America by crossing its southern border without papers, to make them languish indefinitely in those detention facilities until the courts, probably after a number of years, hear their cases. It’s to take children from their parents and keep them in different detention facilities for indefinite time periods as well. And by so doing, it intends to stop border crossings altogether—overlooking the fact that most border crossers are generally desperate or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.

So now, taking small children from their parents is official administration policy. A judge will soon rule in a case brought by the ACLU to stop this practice. If there’s a higher judge, He or She or It has surely already ruled on it.

May 7, 2018

Trump, Kerry, Korea, and the Logan Act. One of the possible charges against disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and quite possibly against Trump himself is that they violated the Logan Act. That’s the statute that dates to the early years of the Republic, making it a crime for a private citizen to attempt to conduct foreign policy, specifically to “influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government” in a dispute with the United States or “to defeat the measures of the United States.”

It’s painfully clear that the Trump campaign did just that, in multiple contacts with Russia, both before and after the 2016 election. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a Boston Globe report, has made multiple efforts in recent months to salvage the Iran deal, including a meeting with Iran’s foreign minister.

Donald Trump, by all indications a serial Logan offender, is predictably outraged. “The United States does not need John Kerry’s possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy on the very badly negotiated Iran Deal,” the president tweeted. “He was the one that created this MESS in the first place!” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also blasted Kerry.

Let’s admit that this is tricky stuff. Henry Kissinger plainly violated the Logan Act when he had secret meetings with the North Vietnamese on the eve of the 1968 presidential election in an effort to slow down any deal that might help Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey.

Though the law doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems far more offensive when a political campaign mucks around with sensitive foreign policy in an attempt to disadvantage the incumbent government. That starts bordering on treason.

Kerry’s bigger worry—and ours—is not that he might face prosecution under the Logan Act. It’s that Trump could destroy the Iran deal out of sheer spite.

However, one unlikely factor might prevent that: Trump’s overblown hopes for a deal with North Korea. But if Trump were to torpedo the Iran agreement, why should Kim Jong-Un trust that Trump won’t do the same with a Korea deal, should that prove expedient?

Trump, of course, is not famous for honoring trust—just ask any of several former business associates, not to mention his former wives. On the other hand, neither is he famous for making logical connections.

May 4, 2018

Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave. The problem with serial lies is that it becomes hard to keep them straight. Add to that a compulsive liar with a short attention span and a penchant for impulsive outbursts, and you have a first-class challenge. Especially when that serial liar happens to be under criminal investigation by prosecutors who, unlike their target, are experts at keeping facts straight.

Exhibit A is Stormy Daniels. First Trump denied knowing anything about the $130,000 hush money, and his hapless, lapdog lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, gamely went along with the lie. Then Trump's latest lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, blurted out on Fox News that Trump in fact was the source of the money. This was then confirmed, in more detail, by Trump, also on Fox. None of this seemed part of a coherent defense plan, just half-baked blurts.

This may not cause criminal liability for Trump since he has not said any of this under oath, but it sure puts Cohen in deeper jeopardy. It's not clear which of the earlier lies Cohen told the FBI, but none of this bodes well for Trump, since Cohen is under increasing pressure to sing. The fact that Cohen had to advance the money out of his home-equity loan, and is essentially a lawyer without clients, does not suggest a defendant with deep resources to resist.

Exhibit B is James Comey. Trump and the White House initially fabricated an elaborate cover story to justify Trump’s firing of the former FBI director. Trump then blurted out that in fact he had canned Comey because he doubted Comey’s loyalty. And then this week, Giuliani yet again—wait for it—on Fox News, said that Trump had fired Comey because Comey had refused to say that Trump was not a target in the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

And there are dozens more such exhibits. Dwelling in an alternative post-fact universe where you can blithely make things up and then change your story may work sometimes in politics. It doesn’t work so well in a criminal or a potential impeachment investigation.

And to compound the damage further, Trump’s latest lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, seems to have some of the same character traits as his client. Your lawyer is supposed to be circumspect, cautious, and there to rein in your impulses. Giuliani is almost as impulsive as Trump. (With a lawyer like this, who needs prosecutors?)

And why in the world openly talk strategy on Fox News? You would think that Trump and Giuliani assume that the only court that matters is Fox. That’s surely how they’ve manipulated public opinion, but at the end of the day, Trump’s fate will be decided by real prosecutors, not by fawning interviews.

There’s an old saying that a lie is halfway around the world when the truth is just getting its boots on. That may be true of ordinary, individual lies, but the truth has a way of catching up with serial lies and serial liars.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. 

May 3, 2018

This past Monday, the California Supreme Court rocked the world of actual existing American capitalism by unanimously ruling that workers who are labeled “independent contractors” actually have to be independent and contractors—not mislabeled employees. In a suit brought by truckers for a delivery company who had formerly been that company’s employees until that company re-labeled them, the Court ruled that such mislabeling was illegal in the nation’s largest state.

The full implications of the ruling remain unclear, but it likely affects the tens of thousands of drivers who deliver goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the warehouses of companies like Walmart, the tens of thousands of drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft, and the tens of thousands of construction workers employed on long-term construction projects. If the company sets the workers’ wage rates and restricts them to working just for them, the Court ruled, then those workers are employees, no matter what their employers call them. California’s stellar labor commissioner, Jerry Brown-appointee Julie Su, has been leveling back-pay settlements on a host of misclassifying employers for much of the past decade, but until now, she’s been constrained to do so only when the individual worker has brought suit. The Court’s decision might enable the state to render judgments on a broader basis.

It’s interesting to note that among the justices who ruled in favor of the drivers were a number of Arnold Schwarzenegger appointees to the Court, including Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who authored the decision. In hindsight, Schwarzenegger increasingly looks like the nation’s last moderate Republican elected official, a distinction he achieved by having been elected without having to go through a Republican primary (he won the governorship in the election, open to all voters, that recalled Gray Davis). Like earlier moderate Republicans—President Eisenhower, for instance, who appointed both Earl Warren and William Brennan to the U.S. Supreme Court—Schwarzenegger appointed justices who’ve taken notice of the lives of real people, which is certainly what they did in their emancipatory ruling earlier this week.

May 2, 2018

Robert Rubin, Philosophe. If you have ingested some bad seafood and are looking for a quick emetic, you cannot do better than Robert Rubin’s April 30 op-ed piece in the Times, in which Rubin explains how the study of philosophy under Professor Raphael Demos prepared him for a successful career in finance and then in government. Isn’t that nice?

Read it for yourself. 

This little essay is a classic case of image-polishing masquerading as deep reflection, by a man who personified the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington. Rubin, first as chief economic adviser and then as treasury secretary, persuaded Bill Clinton to preside over an orgy of deregulation that enabled Citigroup to become a financial conglomerate, with Rubin becoming a senior executive only a few months after leaving government; and then the same deregulation crashed the economy in 2008.

Rubin also persuaded Clinton to embrace budget balance as a fiscal holy grail, a politically and economically disastrous idea that extended into the Obama administration, when several of Rubin’s close protégés held senior positions. And he convinced Clinton to let China into the WTO with few changes to China’s predatory behavior other than giving firms like Goldman Sachs (from whence Rubin came) a piece of the action.

Rubin does not address any of this, much less try to defend it. Rather, we get an affectionate self-description of his life as a Harvard undergraduate, discovering the appeal of philosophy. He writes:

I’m asked from time to time which undergraduate courses best prepared me for working at Goldman Sachs and in the government. People assume I’ll list courses in economics or finance, but I always answer that the key was Professor Demos’s philosophy course and the conversations about existentialism in coffee shops around campus. For me, embracing these two perspectives brought me a sense of calm in what were incredibly stressful situations.

Unfortunately, tens of millions of people who suffered from the economic collapse and the recession that followed did not get to enrich themselves the way Rubin did by surfing conflicts of interest between Wall Street and Washington, much less to find serenity in coffee houses or philosophy classes at Harvard. They did not find serenity at all; they were struggling to survive and millions lost their homes.

If you want a deeper explanation for the sort of nominal Democrat who brought America Donald Trump, you need look no further than Robert Rubin.

One of the aphorisms of Greek philosophy that Rubin must have missed is this one: “know thyself.” The self that Rubin knows is entirely benign, self-satisfied, feigning reflection and wisdom. History may judge him more harshly. 

May 1, 2018

Angela Merkel has come and gone, her visit to the White House late last week a veritable blip between the rapturous welcome given Emmanuel Macron and the uneasy chortles accorded Michelle Wolf. President Trump seems somewhat confounded by the challenge that Merkel’s Germany presents: an ally, but also a nag insisting that the U.S. adhere to the Iran agreement (as did Macron’s France, but Macron talks Trump’s language, as they share a common ideology: narcissism). A nation with which we run a trade deficit, but we can’t ask them to revalue their currency, since they use the euro. A major manufacturer of high-end steel, though little of it ends up here, and even if it did, it doesn’t undercut the U.S. steel industry, as its workers’ pay ranges from comparable to higher than ours’, and the same is true for the price of its steel.

So Trump has postponed unveiling his list of nations against whose steel he’ll impose tariffs. The grand Trumpian gesture would be to include everybody, but by firing that blunderbuss, he’d penalize both the trade-law miscreants and the trade-law compliers (not that distinctions such as these have deterred Trump up to now). The United Steelworkers have made clear that the point of the tariffs shouldn’t be to penalize producers like Canada, which don’t undercut U.S. steelmakers, but those nations that provide state subsidies to their producers so they can underprice us.

If Trump (for that matter, if the American economic establishment) wished to ferret out the real culprits behind our massive trade deficit, they’d look first and foremost to Wall Street. It was the rising power of American finance and its shareholder-über-alles ideology that propelled our manufacturing sector to move offshore in search of cheaper labor and higher profits. There are many reasons why Germany has retained its manufacturing sector while we have not, but chief among them is the fact that Germany has no equivalent of Wall Street or London’s “the City.” But for Deutsche Bank, Germany lacks a global investment titan, and its far stronger community-banking sector is committed, by virtue of its control by local stakeholders rather than distant shareholders, to bolstering domestic manufacturing. Germany has problems of its own, but a financial sector committed to undermining the nation’s economy isn’t one of them. It’s only one of ours.

April 30, 2018

2018: The Case for Optimism. So let’s review the bidding. The investigative waters keep rising around Trump. The bill guaranteeing the safety of the special counsel won’t pass, but the support of four senior Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sends Trump a warning—seven if Trump were to stage a Saturday Night Massacre. Too much information is now with the U.S. attorney in New York. And firing Mueller would lead directly to impeachment.

Issues that looked like winners for Trump are turning blurry at best. China is pushing back against Trump’s hard line, and efforts by even hawkish trade officials to get back on the same side with the EU (whose support we need against China) are running up against Trump’s stupidly uninformed cold shoulder to Germany and his insistence that tariffs apply to Europe. Korea, despite early euphoria, will be far from an easy win for Trump, since at best we are in for a period of protracted diplomacy and a deal is still a long shot.

Republicans continue to look worse and worse for the November midterms. Speaker Paul Ryan’s unforced error in firing the House chaplain alienates Catholic Republican voters and divides his own caucus. The pitiful mess with former White House physician and failed VA nominee Ronny Jackson creates yet another wedge between Trump and his party’s nervous supporters in Congress. Trump's personal unpopularity spills over onto his Republican enablers.

And despite the Republican penchant for trying to rig or steal elections, please note that the six special elections for vacant House seats since Trump's election went off more or less as normal.

A Democratic pickup of at least 50 seats in the House seems likely, and the Senate is now seriously in play as well. In Tennessee, polls show the popular Democrat, Phil Bredesen, leading the widely detested far-right Republican and likely nominee, Marsha Blackburn. Even Republican Bob Corker, who is retiring from the Senate seat, backs Bredesen.

Lots could happen between now and November, of course, but none of it is likely to be good for Trump and the GOP. Even a good economy is not translating into support for the incumbent party.

I know, I know, it’s risky to count chickens before they hatch. But with all the gloomy news, there are actually many things to celebrate—things that keep hope alive.