On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

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.

April 27, 2018

Courting the Next Financial Collapse. You’d almost think the Republicans want the banks to melt down again. Bit by bit, they’ve been gutting the Dodd-Frank Act. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been put on ice, placed in the hands of one of its sworn enemies, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.

Giving banks free rein to screw consumers is one thing. Letting banks play roulette with the entire economy is something else. But the latest bad idea from the Comptroller of the Currency, the agency that regulates national banks, and the Federal Reserve, goes at the heart of the abuses that Dodd-Frank sought to remedy.

At the core of the financial crisis of 2008 was the tendency of banks to make increasingly risky bets, where the potential loss far exceeded their own capital. If all the bets went bad, all the banks would be insolvent. That’s what happened in the fall of 2008, and it took a massive government bailout to keep the banking collapse from taking down the rest of the economy.

Now the Fed and the Comptroller want to allow banks to have larger multiples of debt to capital. One of the core reforms of Dodd-Frank was to limit excess bank leverage. It’s not as if these strictures are draconian—banks today need to keep only six cents capital for every 94 cents they lend out. 

But the bankers have lobbied the administration for even more generous rules, and the administration seems inclined to do their bidding. Like the tax cut, these policy changes have nothing to do with making the economy more efficient. They are entirely about rewarding the already rich, and increasing risks for the rest of us.

This proposal is so perverse that two Republican regulatory officials, one former head of the FDIC and the current vice chairman wrote an op-ed piece that The Wall Street Journal published warning against it.

Tom Hoenig and Sheila Bair wrote: "These proposals would weaken system resiliency either to benefit shareholder distributions or to allow the eight largest banks to become even bigger by taking on more leverage and more risk."

You get the sense that the Trump crowd knows their days are numbered—and want to deliver everything that’s not nailed down to their corporate allies before they are tossed out.

April 26, 2018

The destruction of family values—and families—by the Trump administration continues apace. A few days ago, The New York Timesran a storydocumenting that Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has separated 700 children from their parents when they surrender themselves to seek asylum or are apprehended by ICE. The children—100 of whom are under the age of four—are sent to facilities often across the country from their parents, with whom they may be allowed sporadic phone contacts every few weeks or months. The Times documented the story of one 18-month old separated from his mother.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has confirmed that the number of children sent to shelters apart from their parent or parents is indeed 700. Perhaps HHS can produce a study of how such practices promote the health of children, while ICE can deliver a report on how the 100 children under four pose a threat to national security.

Yesterday, in a demonstration of what’s recently been termed “intersectionality,” but more fundamentally demonstrates simple humanity, Planned Parenthood condemned the practice for all the reasons it should be condemned. “ICE’s decision to remove protections for parents and their children is a stunning example of the Trump-Pence administration’s hypocrisy when it comes to its so-called ‘family values,’” Planned Parenthood Executive Vice-President Dawn Laguens said in a statement the organization released. “It is clear that rolling back these common sense protections for children and their families will only lead to more families being torn apart. … It is unconscionable that children as young as under four years old will be robbed of the opportunity to grow up with their parents and potentially without any plan for their own care in place.”

To its critics, Planned Parenthood presents a threat to the sanctity of the family and the parent-child relationship. In fact, Planned Parenthood at its very essence seeks to create healthy families where all children are wanted and loved, and its statement yesterday makes even clearer who in America actually upholds family values and who mocks and destroys them.

April 25, 2018

More Evidence of That Blue Wave. All the signs suggest that the wave is still building. In yesterday’s special election for an Arizona seat in in the U.S. House, the Republican candidate Debbie Lesko beat the Democrat, Hiral Tipirneni, by just six points, 53 to 47. This was in a staunchly Republican districtthat Trump carried by 21 points in 2016.

If the same 15-point swing to the Democrats were to occur this November, the Democrats would enjoy a House majority of between 20 and 40 seats.

What Trump disparages as the deep state, otherwise known as American democracy, seems to be holding. Republicans can gerrymander, they can use the entire arsenal of voter suppression tactics, but unless they literally cancel the election, those moves only give them an extra House 20 seats or so. In a true wave election, high Democratic turnout overcomes those obstacles.

This also looks to be a good year for the Democrats in state legislative and gubernatorial races, where large numbers of resistance candidates recruited by Indivisible and other grassroots groups are gaining momentum. The states are every bit as important as Congress.

It’s also the case that in a wave election, extreme gerrymandering can backfire. In a state like Ohio or North Carolina, where Republican legislatures took pains to spread out Republican voters into the maximum number of seats, they may have spread those voters too thin; and many seats presumed to be Republican in a normal election will flip in a wave election.

The large swing in races like the recent special elections in Arizona and Pennsylvania suggest that hard-core Trump voters are standing by their man, but a lot of swing voters are moving to the Democrats; and that the disgust with Trump rubs off on Republican candidates for Congress who are his apologists and enablers.

Maybe this isn’t a wave election. Maybe it’s more like a tsunami.

April 24, 2018

A few days ago, TheWashington Post ran an article detailing the curtailment of abortion rights in states since the 2010 elections, when many states fell under right-wing Republican control. Thirty-three states have enacted abortion restrictions since then, while just 17, plus the District of Columbia, have not.

What interested me about those two lists was the degree to which they didn’t align with the share of Roman Catholics in the states. The eight most heavily Catholic states—in order, Rhode Island (42 percent Catholic), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Jersey (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), California (28 percent) and Illinois (28 percent)—were among the 17 that had not passed legislation curtailing abortion rights. Conversely, the 13 states with the lowest percentage of Catholics—in order, Mississippi (4 percent), Utah (5 percent), West Virginia (6 percent), Tennessee (6 percent), Alabama (7 percent), North Carolina (9 percent), Georgia (9 percent), South Carolina (10 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), Idaho (10 percent) and Virginia (12 percent)—were among the 33 states that have curtailed access to abortions since 2010.

In sum, the relationship between the number of Catholics in a state and the intensity of the state’s anti-abortion policies is completely inverse.

Now, there are a host of other variables at play here, too. The share of secular residents in those heavily Catholic states doubtless exceeds their share in the least Catholic states; the same surely goes for feminists. But what these lists confirm, to the surprise of no one who’s been following the politics of abortion over recent decades, is that the anti-abortion cause has political heft not in places where Catholics live, but in states that are home to evangelical Protestants. The promptings of Catholic clerics in the John Paul and Benedict mode notwithstanding, the culture-war politics of their parishioners are nowhere near so fierce and misogynistic—or at least, as politically effective—as those of the evangelicals. And, of course, many of their parishioners are engaged in the culture wars (if they’re engaged at all) on other side—in this case, the pro-choice side—of the barricades.