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  1. #11
    Democrats' plan to help California taxpayers doesn't pass the smell test. They should still go for it

    George Skelton

    Capitol Journal

    Even for California government, this seems nutty: calling a state income tax payment a "charitable contribution" so it can be deducted on a federal tax return.

    I recently wrote that the idea was cockamamie. Then last week, it was actually introduced as legislation by state Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles).

    On second thought, maybe the concept isn't so screwy. And even if it is, given the pugnacious, polarized time we're caught in, it's probably a justifiable tax dodge in an effort to defend millions of California taxpayers from President Trump and the Republican Congress.

    It fits snugly with the current shoot-first, ask-questions-later political climate.

    Under the new GOP tax law, 6.1 million Californians who itemize their federal income taxes stand to lose an average of $8,438 in state and local tax deductions. That's because the law caps state and local tax deductions - mainly on income and property - at $10,000 total. The average California deduction was $18,438 in 2015, the latest year with complete data, according to the Government Finance Officers Assn.

    De Leon's solution, gleaned from academicians, is to allow Californians to take advantage of a federal loophole and deduct more than the $10,000 cap. They'd do that by claiming the amount over the limit as a charitable contribution to a state California Excellence Fund. There's no dollar limit on charitable contributions.

    California government would treat the so-called contribution as a state income tax payment. There'd be a 100% state tax credit for the "donation." All the money would flow into the general fund for regular government programs. And the taxpayer could soften the federal tax bite by exceeding the deductions cap.

    At least that's the theory. Trump and Congress probably would have a different idea: Forget it. The IRS could quash it, or Republican lawmakers could amend the law.

    "This isn't a pie-in-the-sky idea," insists UC Davis tax law professor Darien Shanske. "It could fit comfortably with existing law. That's not to say Congress wouldn't change existing law."

    UCLA law professor Kirk Stark has studied this concept for years and notes "it's not a new thing. Many states have charitable tax credits." Even California does. But no state has anything approaching the scale that De Leon proposes.

    In all, 21 states have programs that offer tax credits for donations to specific causes. Popular in some Southern red states are generous credits for funding private school vouchers.

    In California, there's a program - created by a De Leon bill in 2014 - that offers a 50% tax credit for donations to the Cal Grant college scholarship fund. There's also a program that allows a private property owner to grant an easement to a land conservancy and receive a 55% tax credit. Several states offer that.

    All that's OK with the IRS. But concocting a scheme so millions of Californians can deduct untold additional thousands of dollars on their federal returns would undoubtedly rattle the IRS and Trump.

    But the president would need to use a scalpel targeted at California and other blue states trying to evade federal taxes, rather than taking a meat cleaver to every tax credit in the country. Trump presumably wouldn't want to anger loyal red states that use tax credits to fund pet conservative causes.

    Democrats suspect Trump of vengefully picking on high-tax blue states anyway.

    "The Republican tax scam offers corporations and hedge fund managers massive tax breaks and expects California taxpayers to pick up the costs," says De Le?n, who's running against veteran U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat.

    But, I asked him, is his bill really good tax policy?

    "What is not good tax policy," he replied, "is what happened in Congress. It's the worst tax policy in the history of this country. Perhaps the world."

    Actually, California's current tax policy is pretty rotten - literally rotted out from decay - and the Legislature should be focused on rebuilding it. But very few are interested. It's too tough politically.

    As I've often written, the state tax system leans too heavily on high-end income taxes and ignores California's growing service economy. There's virtually no sales tax on services. The result is a highly volatile system that produces gushes of revenue in good times, but slows to a trickle when the economy?s bad. It's periodically boom or bust for the state budget.

    What's needed is to lower income and sales tax rates and make up the lost revenue by extending the sales tax to services.

    Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) is drafting a bill to do some of that. It would extend the sales tax to services used by businesses, but not by individuals. He'd also lower middle-class income taxes.

    "Under Trump's plan, the business tax is going down," Hertzberg says. "So add a little extra state cost. It would still be deductible."

    But his bill would require a two-thirds majority vote. So it's doomed.

    De Leon's bill needs only a simple majority vote. So it can pass.

    Would Gov. Jerry Brown sign it? He hasn't said. It's not the kind of gimmicky stunt Brown would ordinarily sanction these days. But given that it's a dagger at Trump and Republicans, and is drawing national attention, he just might.

    It doesn't pass the smell test. But hardly anything political does these days. And it could save California taxpayers money. So open the windows and go for it.

  2. #12
    The Republican tax plan is a victory for the Democrats - maybe

    George Skelton

    Capitol Journal

    Republicans won the tax fight in Congress by overpowering Democrats. Now the battle begins to retain that power in next year's elections. Their celebrated victory could cost them control of the House.

    Theoretically anyway.

    Democrats need to pick up 24 Republican seats nationally to take back the House and end the GOP's control of Washington.

    Seven congressional races in California will be crucial. In all of those districts, voters elected Republicans to Congress last year, but they snubbed then-candidate Donald Trump and voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

    So the Democratic strategy is a no-brainer. The tax bill is unpopular in California and across the country. Trump is equally disliked in this state. Tie both around the Republican House incumbent and this makes a nice Democratic victory package. Maybe.

    How much does voting for the GOP tax bill really hurt vulnerable California Republicans?

    "The quick and easy answer is that 12 Republicans [who voted for the bill] just committed hari-kari," says Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races. "But whether that's true or not is unclear. There are an incredible number of unknowns."

    No one really knows how the Republican tax plan will play out. Few even seem to know precisely what's in it. One thing is certain, however: Individuals in high-tax Democratic states like California and New York will be worse off than people in lower-tax GOP states because of new limits on state and local tax deductions.

    In the final days of Republicans compromising among themselves, the GOP wisely softened the bill's impact on taxpayers who itemize deductions, as a third of California taxpayers do.

    The final bill will allow up to $10,000 in deductions of state and local taxes, which is especially important in California. There's currently no limit on those deductions. And the bill will permit mortgage interest deductions on new loans up to $750,000, rather than $500,000 as originally planned.

    Two of the most threatened California Republicans played it smart. Reps. Darrell Issa of Vista and Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa took no chance on a voter backlash and shielded themselves by voting "no" on the bill.

    "The bill was improved, but not enough for a significant # of my constituents," Rohrabacher tweeted.

    Issa also tweeted that "the changes do not go far enough to guarantee tax relief for constituents in my district."

    The Cook Political Report, a national tip sheet for political junkies, rates the Issa and Rohrabacher races as toss-ups. Also rated a toss-up is the reelection bid of Republican Steve Knight of Palmdale. Knight joined all the other California Republicans in voting for the tax bill.

    Three other Republicans representing districts that voted for Clinton are rated by Cook as "leaning" their way for reelection. They're Reps. Mimi Walters of Irvine, Ed Royce of Fullerton and Jeff Denham of Turlock. A fourth, David Valadao of Hanford, is considered by Cook a likely winner for another term.

    But it's very early. What happens next November will depend on the quality of candidates and campaigns.

    Bombastic Democratic rhetoric - such as Gov. Jerry Brown likening Republican congressional leaders to "a bunch of Mafia thugs" - probably just drives GOP voters deeper into their party corner.

    There's enough natural California fear of the new tax law and resentment of President Trump to propel Democratic campaigns without hyperventilating.

    A poll released this week by the nonpartisan UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showed California's dislike for both the tax plan and the president. That's a potentially fatal combo for at-risk Republicans who voted for the bill. The tax plan was supported by only 30% of registered voters. It was opposed by 51%, including 42% who disliked it strongly. Opinions broke along party lines - with 60% of Republicans supporting it, 67% of Democrats against. But only one-third of Republicans felt that the bill will have a positive impact on California.

    A mere 30% of voters approved of Trump's job performance; 66% disapproved. Again, it was party line: 73% of Republicans approving but 93% of Democrats disapproving.

    In much worse shape was Congress: 15% approval, 76% disapproval. Even 70% of Republicans disapproved of the GOP Congress.

    "It's not a great year to run for reelection to Congress with congressional approval so low," says Mark DiCamillo, the poll director.

    Especially for a California Republican.

    But Wayne Johnson, a longtime Republican consultant, says his prognosis of the tax bill's political impact has changed. He's now more optimistic.

    Asked whether it could hurt Republicans' reelection efforts, Johnson replied: "The first reaction I had was probably yes. But the more I've looked at it and got into the details, I really don't think so. I think Republicans have done a terrible job of explaining it."

    "The effect of doubling the standard deduction [for non-itemizers] is huge," the consultant continued. "Nobody is looking at that."

    Sragow says: "Is it a good day for Democrats? Sure. They've got dreams of sugar plums in their heads. Republicans are tossing and turning. But that's just tonight."

    The stark reality of the bill's effects won’t be known until April 2019 when taxpayers file their tax returns for the first time under the new law. And that will be long after next November's elections.

  3. #13
    Another fake news: Trump's climate theory

    Associated Press / 07:22 AM January 29, 2018

    WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump's description of the climate on planet Earth doesn't quite match what data show and scientists say.

    In an interview with Piers Morgan that aired on Sunday on Britain's ITV News, the president said the world was cooling and warming at the same time and that claims of melting ice caps haven’t come true.

    "There is a cooling, and there's a heating. I mean, look, it used to not be climate change, it used to be global warming. That wasn't working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place," Trump told Morgan.

    Ten different climate scientists contacted by The Associated Press, however, said the president was not accurate about climate change.

    Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis responded in an e-mail: "Clearly President Trump is relying on alternative facts to inform his views on climate change. Ice on the ocean and on land are both disappearing rapidly, and we know why: increasing greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels that trap more heat and melt the ice."

    The facts: The world hasn't had a cooler than average year since 1976 and hasn't had a cooler than normal month since the end of 1985, according to more than 135 years of temperature records kept by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    4 hottest years on record

    The last four years have been the four hottest years on record globally, with 2010 the fifth hottest year, according to NOAA.

    Every year in the 21st century has been at least 0.4 degrees Celsius warmer than the 20th-century average and in the top 25 hottest years on record, NOAA records show.

    And while a good chunk of the United States had a frigid snap recently, most of the rest of the world was far warmer than normal, according to temperature records.

    'Not quite right'

    Zeke Hausfather of the Berkeley Earth temperature monitoring program - initially funded by nonscientists who doubt that the world is warming - said in an e-mail: "The world has been warming steadily over the past 50 years, with 17 of the past 18 years being the warmest since records began in the 1850s. It is not accurate to say that the climate has been 'cooling as well as warming.'"

    "The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they're setting records. They're at a record level," Trump said in the TV interview.

    The facts: It is a bit more nuanced, but not quite right.

    While a small number of experts a decade ago had predicted that the Arctic would be free of summer sea ice by now, most mainstream scientists and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not.

    Instead they said Arctic sea ice would shrink, which it has, said Richard Alley, a Pennsylvania State University ice scientist.

    Most scientists, including the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, are predicting that the Arctic will be free of summer sea ice sometime around the 2040s.

    The Arctic set a record for the lowest amount of sea ice in the winter, when sea ice usually grows to its maximum levels, in March 2017.

    In 2012, the Arctic set a record for lowest sea ice levels. Sea ice recovered slightly from that record and in 2017 in September, the annual low was only the eighth lowest on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

    Continuous decline of sea ice

    But the 10 lowest years of sea ice have been all in the last 11 years. Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 13.2 percent per decade, according to Nasa.

    Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist, said the Antarctic sea ice pack, less directly influenced by global climate change, varied from year to year.

    Antarctica hit a record low for sea ice in March 2017, the same month the Arctic hit a record winter low.

    Antarctic sea ice also reached a record high in 2014.

    "Both of the large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are losing hundreds of billions of tons of ice per year. Sea ice continues to decline significantly in the Arctic decade by decade, and the thickness of Arctic ice is now less than 50 percent of what it was 40 years ago," a National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist, Ted Scambos, said in an e-mail.

  4. #14
    The Trump factor and US foreign policy

    By: Joschka Fischer - @inquirerdotnet 05:09 AM January 29, 2018

    BERLIN - In the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, the damage wrought by his administration's foreign policy fell well short of what had been feared.

    Despite his thundering rhetoric and tweets dubbing North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un "little rocket man," the new US president did not start any wars, whether on the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea. There was no conflict over Taiwan, either, following Trump's questioning of America's longstanding "One China" policy.

    In fact, rather than clashing with China, Trump seems to have forged a close personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China’s leaders could hardly believe their luck when one of Trump’s first official acts was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have excluded China and shored up Western trade rules in the Asia-Pacific region. It was as if Trump wanted to make China, not America, great again.

    Moreover, Trump did not start a trade war by imposing high tariffs on imports from major US trade partners such as China, Germany and Japan. Despite his refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal, it remains in place. And the long-term consequences of his unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital remain to be seen.

    Trump's hope of cooperating more closely with Russia at the expense of US allies also went unrealized, and the official US position in the Ukrainian conflict has not changed. Of course, that is largely due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, which has made it impossible for Trump to reorient America's Russia policy without triggering a domestic political firestorm.

    Similarly, despite having been deemed "obsolete" by Trump, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) has actually gained strength and legitimacy during the past year, owing to Russia’s military buildup and continued war in Eastern Ukraine. To be sure, Europeans will have to see to their own defense more than in the past. But that would have been no different under a Hillary Clinton presidency (though the message would have been couched in friendlier terms).

    All told, the White House "adults in uniform" - Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, and Chief of Staff John Kelly - have ensured continuity in US foreign policy. And the same seems to be true for economic and trade policy.

    Does that mean the world can rest easy? Of course not. There is still a big question mark hovering over US foreign policy in the form of Trump himself. It is entirely unclear what the president wants, what he actually knows, and what his advisers are and are not telling him. A coherent foreign policy may not withstand Trump's mood swings and spontaneous decisions.

    Making matters worse, the administration's shrinking of the US State Department has weakened the institutional base for implementing official foreign policy to an almost mission-critical degree. And the White House’s recently published National Security Strategy is no more reassuring. In a departure from America’s official position since Sept. 11, 2001, the US will now view its global power rivalry with China and Russia, rather than terrorism by nonstate actors, as the primary threat to national security and world peace.

    So, looking back at 2017, one gets the impression that while US foreign policy remained largely intact, it has also become completely unpredictable. To that extent, 2018 seems likely to be a year of substantially increased risks, especially given the tensions in the Persian Gulf and Lebanon, the war in Syria, the hegemonic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula.

    The Trump factor could be the single most significant source of uncertainty in international politics this year. The US is still the world’s foremost power, and it plays an indispensable role in preserving global norms. If America's policies are difficult to predict, and if Trump's behavior undermines the reliability of the US government, the international order will be vulnerable to immense turmoil.

    As the US approaches its midterm elections in November, it will be important to consider how domestic political events might shape the country's foreign policy.

    The critical question for 2018, then, is what Trump will do if he finds himself threatened domestically at the same time that a foreign policy crisis erupts. Will the “adults in the room” still be able to handle their charge? One need not be a doomsayer to regard the coming months with considerable skepticism and concern. Project Syndicate

  5. #15
    Trump blasts EU trade policy with US as 'very unfair'

    Agence France-Presse / 08:03 AM January 29, 2018

    LONDON, United Kingdom - The European Union's trade policy with America is "very unfair", President Donald Trump said in an interview to be aired Sunday, warning that his many problems with Brussels "may morph into something very big".

    "We cannot get our product in. It's very, very tough. And yet, they send their product to us - no taxes, very little taxes. It's very unfair," Trump told ITV News in the interview done Thursday.

    "I've had a lot of problems with (the) European Union, and it may morph into something very big from that standpoint - from a trade standpoint."

    Trump delivered the warning during a wide-ranging interview on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he took his "America First" agenda to the global business elite.

    In a speech Friday he told the forum that his mantra "does not mean America alone" and hinted that the US could rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal he withdrew from a year ago.

    But earlier this month the Trump Administration imposed steep tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, and his comments in the interview to air Sunday may cause alarm in European capitals over future trade with the US.

    The Trump Administration last year vowed to impose nearly 300 percent punitive tariffs on airplanes manufactured by Canada's Bombardier.

    A bipartisan US trade panel blocked that decision on Friday but the dispute, which has inflamed relations with Ottawa - and to a lesser degree Britain, where Bombardier has a large workforce - could be a harbinger for the EU.

    'I certainly apologize'

    In other remarks released ahead of the interview's airing, Trump appeared to slight British Prime Minister Theresa May's handling of fraught Brexit negotiations, declaring that he would have "negotiated it differently".

    "I would have had a different attitude," he said of the talks, which have followed Britain's June 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, and will continue through to its planned departure in March 2019.

    "I think I would have said that the European Union is not cracked up to what it's supposed to be. And I would have taken a tougher stand in getting out," Trump added.

    In excerpts of the discussion screened in Britain Friday, the US president apologized for the first time for retweeting a British far-right group's videos apparently showing Islamist violence.

    "If you're telling me they're horrible racist people, I would certainly apologize if you'd like me to do that," the president said.

    Trump confirmed he will visit Britain later this year, where he believes he is "very popular", according to the interviewer Piers Morgan, who wrote an account of the sit-down in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

    The president said he does not care about those opposed to his British visit, who include London mayor Sadiq Khan and the opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, amid predictions of large protests.

    "I think a lot of people in your country like what I stand for, they respect what I stand for," he told Morgan, according to the presenter.

    Asked if he had received an invitation to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle later this year, Trump replied "not that I know of".

    "I really want them to be happy. They look like a lovely couple," he added when pressed if he would like to attend the ceremony.

    Not a feminist

    During the interview - billed as the first of his presidency with a non-US international broadcaster - Trump was asked if he identifies as a feminist.

    "No, I wouldn't say I'm a feminist," he replied.

    "I mean, I think that would be, maybe, going too far. I'm for women, I'm for men, I'm for everyone."

    Trump also signaled he would be willing to sign the US back up to the Paris climate accord, but only if the treaty undergoes major change.

    He was met with global condemnation when he announced in June 2017 that America was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, painting it a "bad deal" for its economy.

    "The Paris accord, for us, would have been a disaster," he said in the interview to run Sunday.

    "If they made a good deal… there’s always a chance we'd get back."

  6. #16
    Trump's war on Russia probe reaches new peak

    Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

    Updated 0248 GMT (1048 HKT) January 30, 2018

    Washington (CNN)The escalating campaign by President Donald Trump and his allies against the Russia investigation hit a new peak of intensity Monday.

    First came news of the resignation of Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, after weeks of attacks by Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill and in conservative media that he was a symptom of a "deep state" conspiracy against the President.

    Then the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a memo alleging abuses by the FBI of surveillance law when it used a dossier about Trump and Russia to obtain a warrant to eavesdrop on Trump campaign foreign policy aide Carter Page.

    The revelations, following a flurry of developments last week that suggested special counsel Robert Mueller was nearing the end of part of his probe, sent shockwaves through Washington, underscoring the gravity of a building political crisis.

    The White House insisted it had nothing to do with the sudden departure of McCabe.

    But given the political heat being cranked up by Trump, GOP aides on Capitol Hill and in the pro-Trump media, it would not surprise anyone if special counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is next to go.

    Though such a step would trigger political mayhem and a potential constitutional showdown that could imperil Trump's presidency, such steps, if they happened, could be seen as the logical outcome of a pressure campaign that has raised concerns about Trump's tendency to rage against legal norms constraining his office.

    The swirl of events also comes as speculation mounts over whether Trump will testify in person to the Mueller probe, as some of his friends warn him he could be walking into a trap set by the special counsel's team.

    And in a new sign of the President's fixation with the Russia probe, his anger boiled over as he flew to Davos, Switzerland, on Air Force One last week, after he found out that Associate Attorney General Stephen Boyd had said the release of the GOP memo about the dossier would be "extraordinarily reckless," Bloomberg News reported Monday, citing four sources with knowledge of the matter.

    Clear and consistent pattern

    Events of the last year show a clear and consistent pattern by the President of demanding loyalty from law enforcement officials -- including recently forced out McCabe and fired FBI chief James Comey. Trump has also publicly vented at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying he wouldn't have picked him had he known he would recuse himself from the Russian investigation -- another variation on the loyalty theme.

    At the same time, the President has shown himself willing to blur the traditional firewalls between the White House and the Justice Department and the FBI, either misunderstanding, or showing disdain for, protocols observed to avoid any impression of political interference in the neutral administration of justice.

    The administration has spent weeks cranking up scrutiny on career FBI and Justice Department officials, claiming the Mueller probe is biased against Trump, apparently seeking to discredit its eventual findings and perhaps to shape the political terrain ahead of any calls for impeachment proceedings.

    White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday admitted that the President had put pressure on those in the investigation "to get it resolved" so he can go back to work she said Americans care about.

    But she denied the White House had ordered McCabe's exit.

    "I can say the President wasn't part of this decision-making process," Sanders said.

    Another building block in the apparent efforts of the administration and its allies to cast doubt on the probity of the Mueller probe could come later Monday.

    Nunes memo

    Democrats have claimed the House Intelligence Committee memo misrepresents the facts and intelligence officials worry that its release could compromise classified information, though Trump is minded to approve its publication, an official familiar with the matter told CNN last week.

    Republicans are adamant that the memo suggests serious problems with the use of the dossier, drawn up by former British spy Christopher Steele, which they claim was the spur for the FBI probe into alleged collusion between Russia and Trump's 2016 campaign.

    "I have read the four-page memo. What I read was very concerning. I support making it public and getting this done as soon as possible," Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House GOP leadership, told Fox News on Monday.

    The memo cites the role of McCabe and Rosenstein for their roles in overseeing aspects of the investigation, according to a source briefed on the matter.

    The cresting intrigue Monday follows a flurry of sensational developments in recent days that suggest that Mueller is approaching a critical point of his investigation and that the President's personal jeopardy could be deepening.

    On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Trump ordered the firing of the special counsel in June. CNN reported that pressure to dismiss Mueller prompted the White House Counsel Donald McGahn to tell colleagues he would resign.

    The firing never happened, but it could be relevant to Mueller's inquiries into whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey, since it could serve as evidence of the President's state of mind and intent in his apparent attempts to end the Russia investigation.

    Trump now has Rosenstein in his crosshairs, CNN reported Friday, and has repeatedly suggested removing him, prompting advisers to warn the President off.

    In McCabe's case, Trump's advisers highlighted the fact that the former deputy FBI director's wife mounted a Democratic state Senate campaign in Virginia, before he took his final post with the bureau.

    The Washington Post reported last week that Trump had directly asked McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election in a highly unusual move for a president toward a civil servant. CNN established that McCabe voted in the Republican primary in 2016 but did not vote in the general election.

    Pressure on key officials

    For some of Trump's critics, the pattern of pressure on key officials is already sufficient to raise strong suspicions that the President, in the Comey firing and subsequent actions, is guilty of obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offense.

    "On perhaps the most important question of all -- whether the President of the United States committed the crime of obstruction of justice -- the answer now seems clear," Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst, wrote on Friday.

    Should he go a step further and seek to fire Mueller, as he apparently recommended in June, Trump could trigger a constitutional crisis.

    "I think if the President had gone through with this or tries to go through with it on a going forward basis, we're into uncharted territory, we're into the real question of the fundamentals of our democracy," Virginia Sen. Mark Warner told CNN's Jake Tapper on Friday.

    "Are we still going to be a country where the rule of law prevails and that no one, even the President, is above the law?" Warner said.

    Still, though it is clear the President is furious about the Russia investigation, and has demonstrably created political pressure on multiple officials linked to it, it does not follow that Mueller is destined to conclude he obstructed justice.

    Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who led the investigation against President Bill Clinton, said that he did not believe Trump's actions had demonstrated corrupt intent that would be needed to back up an obstruction finding.

    "I don't think that those who have been saying this is obstruction of justice have come forward with pervasive authority and have not addressed what I view as a fundamental question, the power of the presidency," Starr said on ABC News "This Week" on Sunday.

    Though he maintained that the President has broad jurisdiction over law enforcement officials in his administration, he did allow that any move by the President to fire Mueller would cause "Armageddon."

    Still, a case against the President that fell short of the criminal standards for an obstruction inquiry could still be forwarded to Congress for consideration of whether his conduct amounted to a high crime and misdemeanor required to trigger the political process of impeachment.

    Yet given the intense skepticism of the Mueller probe and the orchestrated campaign against it that was again in evidence Monday, there must be significant doubt whether the GOP-led House would decide to move ahead.

  7. #17
    Tensions in the US-China relationship


    By Ian Bremmer (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 7, 2018 - 12:00am

    In Davos and during his recent State of the Union address to Congress, Donald Trump made clear that he means to get tough with China. This US president has an “outdated Cold War mentality,” responded China’s foreign ministry. Trade and investment relations between the world's two largest economies are headed for trouble. Trump doesn't want a full-scale trade war. Neither does Beijing. But even short of that, there is much damage that can be done.

    Since announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015, President Trump has presented himself to US voters as the consummate maker of deals, a tougher, shrewder and a better defender of the American people than any past president, Democrat or Republican. He knows that his popularity, odds of re-election, and presidential legacy depend on his ability to promote the interests of voters who believe that trade competition has undermined their lives and livelihoods. In that arena, fast-rising China and its state-dominated economy have emerged as the ultimate adversaries.

    Trump has begun to argue that economic security is national security. That's his warning to Beijing that righting the wrongs in US-Chinese trade and investment relations is his highest priority. His first moves will include announcements of trade enforcement actions and restrictions on Chinese investment in coming weeks. There will be continued discussion between Congress and the White House of how best to reform the process by which the US government approves proposals for foreign investment. Trump will also push Beijing to change rules that force US firms to transfer intellectual property (IP) to gain access to Chinese markets and to end IP theft.

    With these changes, Trump hopes to impose enough pain on China and Chinese companies to force Beijing to take US commercial complaints more seriously. He'll begin with announcements of new tariffs and other restrictions on Chinese products entering the US. Only if these moves fail to win concessions will he threaten to make it more difficult for Chinese companies to operate and invest in the United States. These carefully calibrated measures are designed less to punish China than to push its negotiators to the bargaining table.

    China will respond first with criticism and defiance, but both will be limited to avoid unnecessary provocation. President Xi will cast his government as a global leader in cross-border trade and investment and warn that Washington is headed down a dangerous protectionist path. China will certainly challenge US actions at the World Trade Organization.

    He will also test the US pain threshold. US companies in many sectors will face new formal restrictions, but also audits, inspections, and other forms of bureaucratic assault that might move the US business community to pressure Trump to tread more lightly. In particular, each government will target the other side's tech companies.

    Both sides have good reason to compromise. Xi Jinping will resist changes that prevent China's government from providing subsidies for Chinese firms that can help build a modern, technologically dynamic Chinese economy. But nor will he try to weaken the Chinese currency for tactical advantage or order a sharp slowdown in the purchase of US Treasury bonds to up the ante. Both actions would be self-defeating. Instead, Xi will probably appeal to Trump directly with pledges to give US companies expanded access to Chinese markets without forcing them to share IP and technology. Trump too has reason to compromise. He wants to win enough concessions from China to declare victory without jeopardizing the strong economic numbers that he believes can bolster his popularity.

    Here's the problem: Each side believes the other is more vulnerable. Trump officials believe that China needs continuous access to US markets to avoid a sharp economic slowdown that might provoke a political crisis. Chinese officials believe their president is much less vulnerable to pressure than Trump, who must listen to continuous complaints from US business leaders and face voters again soon enough. The risk of conflict rises when each side believes it holds the stronger hand.

    Don't expect a quick resolution. Neither side wants to look weak, at home or abroad. US-China frictions will likely last through 2018. Given the importance of relations between the world’s most important rising and established powers — for China, the US, and the entire global economy — let’s hope that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping can find common ground with enough space for both to stand proudly.

    * * *

    Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.

  8. #18

    What defines American politics as we enter year two of the Trump presidency?


    FEB 1, 2018

    "I'm the least racist person you will ever interview," President Trump told a gaggle of reporters earlier this month. Trump was responding to reports that he had dismissed all 54 countries of Africa as "shitholes" and wondered why the U.S. didn't prioritize immigrants from places like Norway. Previously, the president reportedly insisted Nigerians who come here would never "go back to their huts in Africa," and suggested Haitian immigrants "all have AIDS." Trump began his political career with a loud and completely evidence-free campaign to prove Barack Obama, America's first black president, was born in Kenya. He also repeatedly suggested that Obama, who was editor of the Harvard Law Review, could not have gotten into Ivy League schools legitimately. On the morning Trump formally declared his intent to run for President, he characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.

    In the 1970s, Trump and his father were sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination against black New Yorkers. In 1989, he took out a full-page newspaper ad calling for the death penalty for a group of black and brown 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds convicted in the Central Park Jogger rape case, and continued to advocate for it 14 years later when their wrongful conviction was overturned. During the 2016 campaign, Trump spread disgusting propaganda about black-on-white crime and lied about the flow of illegal immigrants across the southern border. Before his inauguration in January, Trump attacked John Lewis, who marched for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. - and was nearly beaten to death by an Alabama state trooper at Selma - as "all talk" and "no action." Trump once said a federal judge could not preside over his case fairly because the judge's parents were Mexican.

    Yet the incident in January marked at least the third time Trump has publicly deemed himself "the least racist person" alive. This is a ludicrous thing for anyone to say. Gandhi wouldn't say it. The whitewashed version of Martin Luther King, Jr. that some remember wouldn't say it. It is simply shameless, and there is no better word to describe this president or the political era that he has ushered in.

    As we embark on a second year of this presidency, more and more of our public officials now feel they can say anything, even when they previously said the opposite, or when we can readily see their falsehoods. More and more of our country's leaders are steadfastly, almost impressively, impervious to shame.

    "Shame is a particularly useful tool in enforcing social norms," says Jennifer Jacquet, a professor at New York University and the author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. "You may risk being arrested by the police for indecent exposure if you appear naked in Washington Square Park, but you certainly risk a lot of shame. That's the thing that the crowd is still allowed to do. I'm not allowed to put you in prison, or throw rocks at you, but the vigilantism, the power of the audience - the crowd - still exists in this role of public opprobrium."

    In recent months, there have been signs that shame hasn't utterly vanished from our politics. At the end of 2017, Al Franken and John Conyers, two Democratic members of Congress, were pressured to resign amid sexual harassment allegations. So, too, was Republican Tim Murphy. If anything, though, the larger #MeToo movement is about the establishment of new norms around gender equality and abuse of power. It also doesn't seem to apply to everyone. The nauseating Blake Farenthold of Texas remains a United States congressman despite using $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim. Yesterday, Farenthold backed off his pledge to pay the money back. There's also our president, who has been accused of misconduct by 19 different women. Trump shamelessly called out Franken and continues to insist that the women he himself has been accused by are liars.

    Shame may or may not have had an effect on Sean Spicer. The former White House press secretary apologized this week for the "embarrassment" he caused himself and his family while serving in the West Wing. Spicer lied incessantly and rewrote the history of the Holocaust from the White House podium with his infamous "Even Hitler" rant. But nothing compares to his first ever press conference, when he kicked off the Trump presidency with the ludicrous claim his boss had attracted the largest inauguration crowd in history - "period" - and that photos to the contrary were somehow doctored or misleading.

    As the title of Jacquet's book suggests, shame is an ancient social tool. It's a punishment for violating social norms that don't quite amount to breaking the law. If you suggested those who march alongside Nazis in the street can be "very fine people" at an office holiday party, your coworkers would probably back away slowly - and file a complaint with HR. Clearly, however, shame has lost a step, at least at the highest levels of our politics.

    "Inherently, politics involves exaggeration," says John Geer, a Political Science professor at Vanderbilt University. "But usually those exaggerations had some basis in fact. You were spinning the results, you were spinning the data. But it had some basis - not necessarily a lot - in reality. Right now, the big problem is that the claims people are making are often just inconsistent with what we know. They are lies - or the whole idea of alternative facts."

    Trump's particular attitude towards reality is not restricted to his views on people of color. He's also "the least anti-Semitic person you've ever seen in your life." You should know that "nobody loves the Bible more," even if his favorite passage is "Two Corinthians." There's nobody that "respects women more," although he does attack the appearance of any woman, like Megyn Kelly or Mika Brzezinski, who challenges him.

    Trump attacked John McCain, a senator from his own party who spent five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, as a loser who got captured. Trump spent those same years getting draft deferments and called avoiding sexually transmitted disease in '70s New York his "personal Vietnam." He peddled the insane conspiracy theory that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the JFK assassination. He flouted the norm of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns, historically a gesture of transparency meant to show they will not bring conflicts of interest into office. Trump tapped his family, many of whom bring their own conflicts, to be among his most senior advisers. Many of those he appointed to leadership roles essentially made a career out of trying to destroy the agencies they now run.

    But above all, Trump continues to disseminate false information at a breathtaking, surely unprecedented clip - then screams that any reporter or news outlet that challenges him is spreading Fake News. By his 355th day in office, The Washington Post assessed that the president had made 2,000 false or misleading claims. Remember when The Wall was going to cost $12 billion and Mexico was going to pay for it? Now the president is asking for $25 billion in American taxpayer cash.

    Trump quite clearly does not believe in the concept of truth in the public discourse. He believes anything he says is true so long as enough of his supporters believe it. This has allowed him to trample the norms of our democratic politics with almost complete impunity. As president, he has outlasted any and all attempts by his peers or the public to shame him.

    "We've kind of seen a sea change here on shame and shamelessness," says Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University. "I'm giving my lecture course this semester, and I did McCarthyism. I played the famous clip of Joseph Welch: 'Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last.' It took the air out of McCarthy. I don't think it would work today. Now, with the charges that everything is fake news, there's no sense that if you're caught in a lie, the public will turn on you. In a new era dominated by cries that everything is fake news, there can be no truth. And without truth, there can be no shame."

    Trump's shamelessness has filtered down into society, much like the apocryphal story about John F. Kennedy eschewing the tradition of top hats. "You have these people in society called 'norm entrepreneurs,'" Jacquet says. "The leadership sets the tone for the country." One of Trump's longest-serving aides, Kellyanne Conway, coined that infamous term, "alternative facts," to unwittingly describe the White House's approach to the truth. She illustrated it at every opportunity, which included cooking up a non-existent terror attack called "the Bowling Green Massacre” to justify the president’s Definitely Not a Muslim Ban. When called out on it, Conway claimed to have misspoken that one time - until it emerged she had peddled the would-be tragedy on other occasions. Conway also once made the astounding claim that a proposed $880 billion Medicaid cut did not constitute a cut to Medicaid.

  9. #19
    ^ Continued ...

    In August, Dave Chappelle marveled at the fact he never knew that things like "government ethics" weren't enforced through legal measures, but through norms. It's easy to see why we've all had to take notice. The Environmental Protection Agency chief's calendar is filled almost completely with meetings with his real constituents: oil, gas, and chemical companies. That man, Scott Pruitt, installed a $25,000 top-secret phone booth for...protecting the environment?

    Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke grew up in a tiny Montana town where two-person companies just happen to get no-bid federal contracts. Chief of Staff John Kelly, lauded by some Beltway media types as the paragon of virtue in this administration, smeared a sitting congresswoman from the White House podium. During the campaign, Trump and his surrogates spent day after day blasting Hillary Clinton’s use of private email as an unforgivable breach of national security. After he took office, at least six of his White House advisers used private email for official business.

    The signs of shame's collapse as a social force are everywhere. One congressman peddling conspiracy theories literally ran down a staircase in the Capitol to escape CNN, yelling "Fake News!" as he fled. CNN's longtime Trumpist-in-Residence, Jeffrey Lord, once called Trump "the Martin Luther King of healthcare" on national television. He returned to the airwaves twice more that day to defend the statement. The network later severed ties with him over his use of a Nazi slogan, which Lord maintains was a joke.

    In Alabama in December, there appeared to be a notable example of shame's resilience in the ultimate defeat of Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate accused by nine different women of sexual misconduct, many of whom were under 18 at the time of the alleged incidents. Moore enjoyed the support of the Republican National Committee, and came within two points of winning. His supporters defended him by referencing the Bible, and his pastor friend suggested he sought out teen girls when he was in his 30s because they were "pure." But Moore did not win - a victory for shame and decency. Except Republican turnout was actually about normal, and Moore primarily lost because of extraordinary turnout among black voters in favor of Doug Jones, his opponent. Was it really shame that doomed Moore?

    Elsewhere in the Republican party, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy went on Jimmy Kimmel's show and coined The Jimmy Kimmel Test™, Cassidy's humane-sounding criteria for any prospective Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill that he then trumpeted across nearly a half-dozen cable news shows. When it came to write his Repeal and Go Fuck Yourself bill with Lindsey Graham, however, Cassidy included little of what he pledged to do. It was as if he thought all the video clips and the news stories and the tweets documenting what he'd earlier said just wouldn't matter - that in a way, they didn't really exist.

    "Cassidy thought, Attention is so fractured that the people who I need in order to stay in office won't even know about this," Jacquet says of the healthcare bait-and-switch. "While you and I know Cassidy was caught - and Jimmy Kimmel did a big expose using his platform and power of shaming - maybe that did not reach his constituents."

    This idea hints at the structural problems abetting shame's decline, and the rise of post-truth politics that seems to go hand-in-hand. One reason attention is "fractured" is that the media landscape has become fractured and fragmented, itself. The Washington Post might have had 30 sources corroborating the stories of the first four women who accused Roy Moore. But it's "The Liberal Washington Post," and enough Alabamians dismissed it—automatically favoring the stories peddled by Fox News, or talk radio, or their pastors—that Moore nearly won the election.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's blockade of Merrick Garland, whom President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court with nearly a year left in his term, was an unprecedented assault on the Senate's political norms based on a stretch, to say the least, of the so-called "Biden Rule."

    That was the culmination of a similarly unprecedented campaign of obstruction from McConnell, particularly when it came to federal judicial nominees: Obama handed over 103 court vacancies to Trump, twice the number handed to him by George W. Bush. More Obama appointees were blocked using the filibuster than under all previous presidents combined. That was part of a larger campaign by McConnell, and Eric Kantor and John Boehner in the House, to block any and all Obama initiatives in the interest of pure power politics. It's the same political instinct that led Republicans to feel empowered to wage campaigns of voter suppression throughout the country - campaigns that very well could have had an impact in the Alabama race, and in the 2016 election.

    However, Trump's assaults on decorum and common decency didn't emerge from thin air. Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina infamously yelled, "You lie!", twice, at Barack Obama, the sitting President of the United States, as he addressed a joint session of Congress. Wilson, though he did apologize, scarcely faced any real consequences - either for his disrespectful behavior, or for being completely wrong.

    "He was rebuked in the House on a party-line vote," Kruse says. "No Republicans voted to rebuke him. And then he went out and fundraised off it. He made like a million dollars off that comment. So something that should have sent him cowering in shame was something he bragged about, he made money off of. It was politically profitable for him."

    There's little doubt that Donald Trump learned from both McConnell's procedural shamelessness, and Wilson's shameless public attacks on the first black president. He also quickly learned a few things from how his own behavior was received. When Trump launched his birther campaign, Republican leaders by and large failed to condemn it. A number of sitting congressmen welcomed it with open arms.

    "No one [in the Republican Party] resisted or spoke up against the campaign that he was running in that regard," Jacquet says, "which did in some fundamental ways roll out the carpet for his arrival." Just as important, mainstream news outlets proved incapable of denting the movement despite debunking Trump's fact-free claims and pillorying his outrageous behavior. Trump was developing a base of support that only listened to him, because he played all the right notes on an instrument dating back to America's founding.

    There could be no Donald Trump without an environment ready to receive him. The Republican Party and the conservative movement that provides its energy fostered this environment over the decades, developing its own information ecosystem that gradually became an impenetrable vortex - an alternate reality. Republicans became transfixed on white identity politics and resentment of a changing America over all else, including the concept of truth itself. And they began to rig the machine of our democracy, keeping The Wrong People away from the polls and herding them into districts where their votes only went so far anyway. The Democratic Party had its issues during the primaries, when the party establishment was ultimately exposed as having favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. But there simply is no liberal infovortex that rivals the conservative machine.

    "It happens across the political spectrum, but if you look at the particular communities Trump tapped into, they've [conservatives] got an even greater level of epistemic closure than we might see in other places," Kruse observes. "Fox News or Breitbart or the alt-right media out there are really living in their own universe." You can't truly equate Breitbart with The Washington Post, or see them as counterweights. Only a fan of Breitbart would.

    Trump has simply made the pre-existing qualities more garish and extreme. It is difficult to get the full measure of the damage he has done to the body politic as it still unfolds, though surely the fact Roy Moore was even remotely competitive in a statewide election to a national office is its own thermometer.

    "Has Donald Trump and this administration not only weakened the social norms, but also the power of shame itself?" Jacquet asks, without a sure answer. "They have shown such a clear way that you can skirt the traditional shaming channels in our society." She offered that my interest in this article showed we're still aware that some norms are being violated. But does it matter when the president has convinced half the country they shouldn't care?

    "If there's something that my research has shown," Jacquet adds, "it's that it's easier to destroy a norm than to restore it." Geer agrees that the challenge is immense: "We need somebody who can rise above this partisan fray. And I don't know who that is, because it's hard to get the nomination without being heavily partisan. And third parties don't work in this country."

    You can't rebuild the norms of political behavior if the country exists in two entirely disconnected spheres of existence. To reconnect them would require huge structural changes to how information is disseminated in society, or a uniquely charismatic leader whose message carries over both sides of the fence. Or maybe it may just take us hitting rock bottom before we all agree that something in how we’re processing the world, and holding our leaders accountable, has to change. If Donald Trump isn't rock bottom, then what is?

  10. #20
    Republican Ruthlessness and Democratic Ineptitude Got Us Here

    Only one party read the tea leaves of the 2010 Census.


    FEB 8, 2018

    On Wednesday, Salon published a remarkable piece based on documents it sprung from various places, including the inner sanctums of Republican organizations, that paints almost a complete picture of how that party got itself ahead in the long game of redistricting our politics to its complete advantage. In a strictly academic sense, it’s a marvel of planning and execution energized by apparently limitless gobs of corporate money and the vast donations of the country's plutocrats.

    The visionaries at the Republican State Leadership Committee, who designed the aptly-named strategy dubbed REDMAP, short for Redistricting Majority Project, managed to look far beyond the short-term horizon. They designed an audacious and revolutionary plan to wield the gerrymander as a tool to lock in conservative governance of state legislatures and Congress. It proved more effective than any Republican dared dream. Republicans held the U.S. House in 2012, despite earning 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic congressional candidates, and won large GOP majorities in the Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina state legislatures even when more voters backed Democrats.

    They saw the census year of 2010 coming from a mile off. They recognized the importance of electing state legislators for the purpose of redrawing maps so that they more easily could elect more members of Congress.

    Republicans, Hofeller said, must be fully prepared and engaged on multiple fronts - and he told state legislators that they would play the starring roles. He explained how in more than 40 states, state legislatures drew both their own state House and Senate districts, along with the vast majority of the 435 U.S. House seats. He walked through the importance of being in the room when the new lines were drawn. He emphasized that the state legislative elections in 2009 and 2010 represented the party’s last chance to influence its position at what he called the "redistricting table" when line-drawing began after the census - and suggested how meaningful it could be to be the only people in the room.

    The Democratic Party, at both the state and national levels, was completely wrong-footed on all of this. I'm telling you, people will be studying how the Republicans did this in political science classes for the next 100 years. It's like the Republicans were the only ones that remembered everything they'd learned in civics class.

    However, in the real world, and especially in the lives of every American who is not an oligarch, this master plan has come at a terrible cost. Retrograde policies have been enacted by legislatures drawn so crookedly that even the United States Supreme Court recognizes it now. Wisconsin has been changed from the proud laboratory of progressive politics into a conservative policy lab rat second only to the disaster that was Sam Brownback's Kansas. Thanks to a local Kochish clone named Art Pope, North Carolina went so newly insane that an entirely new civil rights movement sprang up almost overnight in reaction.

    And, as to the United States House of Representatives, in 2010 and 2014, this long-term project has visited upon the nation the two worst Congresses ever elected. History will blame the Republicans for the damage they've wrought, but it will blame the Democrats for failing to see it coming.

    "Maps matter," the RSLC presentation continues. It calls maps the first tool in winning elections. In Texas, it explains, Democrats controlled the congressional delegation by a margin of 17 to 15 before the GOP won back the state legislature. Once Republicans had the pens in their own hands, that swung to 21-11 in the GOP's favor the very next election.

    Read the whole thing, as the kidz say. This is how we got here.

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