All posts by Sheila

Taxes, Trump And 2020

In an introduction to his daily newsletter, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt recently commented on the most recent effort to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns, and the continued refusal of Trump and his Treasury Department to provide them.

The most innocent possibility is that he isn’t nearly as wealthy as he has long boasted, and he’s embarrassed by the truth. A less innocent possibility is that he has financial ties that could create political problems for him if those ties became public — for example, ties to Russia or other countries to which his foreign policy has been suspiciously friendly.

The release of the returns would let “Americans decide whether the president is making decisions that benefit his businesses at the expense of American taxpayers,” Aaron Scherb of Common Cause, the government watchdog group, has written in USA Today. “If Trump has significant debt to banks and/or individuals in certain countries, some of which might be adversaries of the United States, we must know because his foreign policy decisions might be compromised.”

Whatever the reason, it is obvious that Trump is hiding something. And it isn’t only his tax situation. We’re also supposed to believe his repeated bragging that he is smart (despite copious evidence to the contrary), and ignore the fact that he has threatened to sue his high school and college if they release his grades.

His stubborn refusal to release his taxes, however, suggests a relatively simple strategy to prevent his earning a second term in office. Bear with me here.

There is a lot wrong with our current electoral system, and one of the “wrongest” is that each state has the authority to administer election contests within that state. That allows for a lot of mischief (if you don’t believe me, look at Georgia’s last, arguably stolen,  gubernatorial contest), but mischief is as mischief does…

States can make  rules governing candidates access to the state’s ballot. Last year, legislation was introduced in some twenty-six states to make disclosure of five years of tax returns a condition of accessing that state’s ballot, but none has yet passed.

There is hope from Washington State, however, as The Stranger pointed out a couple of weeks ago.

On Tuesday evening a bill requiring all presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose the last 5 years of their tax returns in order to appear on Washington state ballots passed the Senate floor. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), passed 28 to 21 along party lines, because of course it did.

If Gov. Inslee ends up signing this bill, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Joe Bernie Sanders Warren Harris would have to show us the money if they want to get a vote from a single Washingtonian.

Twenty-six other states have introduced similar legislation, but so far none have taken. Two years ago, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill that passed through both chambers there.

Over the phone, Sen. Kuderer said she was “optimistic” Inslee would see “the wisdom in this bill” and sign it if it gets to him, making Washington state the first to force candidates to disclose returns to get on the ballot.

“Voters have a right to know what a candidate’s conflict of interests are, they have a right to know their businesses’ ties, their obligations, who they’re beholden to,” Kuderer said. “We’ve come to expect presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns. It’s become a vital piece of information when making a decision for the office,” she added.

Last week, the Illinois legislature also took steps toward passing such a requirement.

If just a couple of states were to require disclosure as a condition of appearing on the ballot of that state, we could assure The Donald’s defeat in 2020. Either he would finally make his returns public–allowing us to see whatever highly damaging information he has been hiding–or he would lose enough votes, both popular and electoral, to deny him a second term.

Because allowing him to remain in office beyond the term we are already suffering through would be very taxing…

 

Assange And The First Amendment: It’s Complicated

Let’s quickly review the relevant rules.

As most Americans know, the First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of the press. That freedom is not absolute: you cannot falsely cry fire in a crowded theater, nor blithely libel someone you don’t like, nor spill trade secrets in contravention of an agreement not to do so. Members of the press who report damaging, untrue information about public figures with “willful disregard” for its accuracy can be held accountable.

In most cases, the persons harmed by such improper behaviors can sue only after the fact. Our legal system has a strong bias against prior restraint–against enjoining publication in the first place. (That bias goes back to the era when England required publishers to obtain government permission before printing anything.) But even that strong presumption against prior restraint can be overcome in extraordinary circumstances–someone proposing to identify American spies abroad, or to disclose upcoming troop movements in wartime could certainly be kept from doing so.

It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of journalism to democracy–as one masthead puts it, democracy dies in darkness. Autocrats routinely take control of the media. That’s why Trump’s constant attacks on the press are so worrisome–and so unAmerican. Those attacks are probably one reason that the arrest of Julian Assange has raised such an outcry.

How does this apply to what we know thus far about Wikileaks and Julian Assange?

Assange’s Wikileaks published illegally procured classified information. Under First Amendment law as I understand it, his publication of that information is protected.

Engaging in criminal activity to acquire the information, however, is not. And that is what the government–so far–is alleging.

Typically, a whistleblower or other source of illegally obtained material is the one breaking the law; a journalist is not a lawbreaker simply because he or she received it. Here, it is alleged that Assange materially assisted Chelsea Manning in the hacking through which they acquired the information. If the government has persuasive evidence that Assange played an active role in the hacking, his conviction for that behavior would not implicate press freedom.

If there is no probative evidence that Assange broke the law in obtaining the information, or if the government expands its charges to include publication, analysis of the situation changes.  Journalists who have expressed First Amendment concerns are also worried about a “slippery slope”–especially since Assange is such an easily detested and unsympathetic figure, his case could conceivably set an unfortunate precedent. So long as the government prosecutes him only for illegal hacking, however, I think the First Amendment is safe.

This episode comes at a time when the First Amendment is under pressure from the craziness on the Internet, from conspiracy theories promulgated by provocateurs like Alex Jones, and from propaganda mills like Fox News. It’s really tempting to argue that some speech, some “news,” falls within the category of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. Efforts to ensure that news sources are truthful and fair, however, present us with the same dilemma that faced the nation’s Founders: who gets to decide?

Is freedom of expression dangerous? Yes. The First Amendment enables hate radio, protects propaganda and the spread of deliberate misinformation, and makes it difficult for even conscientious citizens to separate truth from fiction. But the Founders concluded that the alternative– giving government the authority to decide what information we see– would be even more dangerous.

Unless some genius can devise a way to keep information honest without empowering government censorship, slimy characters like Julian Assange will cynically market their activities as First Amendment expression. Chalk it up to the cost of protecting liberty.

 

 

When The Bar Is Low Enough…

In a recent column for The Atlantic, David Frum reacted to the Barr version of the Mueller Report by pointing out that the special counsel’s task was limited to investigation of legal liability.

And as he noted, absence of clearly prosecutable criminal behavior is a pretty low bar.

Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush; in my view he has substantially if not totally redeemed himself with a series of thoughtful columns intensely critical of the current occupant of the Oval Office. This column made several important points after a satisfyingly snarky initial paragraph:

Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers. He was the beneficiary of a foreign intelligence operation, but not an active participant in that operation. He received the stolen goods, but he did not conspire with the thieves in advance.

Frum focuses in on the important question that Barr’s summary suggests remains unanswered, although the actual report may shed some light on it.

The question unanswered by the attorney general’s summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is: Why? Russian President Vladimir Putin took an extreme risk by interfering in the 2016 election as he did. Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency—the most likely outcome—Russia would have been exposed to fierce retaliation by a powerful adversary. The prize of a Trump presidency must have glittered alluringly, indeed, to Putin and his associates. Why?

Frum considers some of the possible reasons: Trump’s distaste for NATO, his contempt for the rule of law, or (my own guess) the possession of information with which they might compromise him. Whatever the reason, the conclusions to be drawn from what we do know are now to be acted upon by Congress and the voters.

The 2016 election was altered by Putin’s intervention, and a finding that the Trump campaign only went along for the ride does not rehabilitate the democratic or patriotic legitimacy of the Trump presidency. Trump remains a president rejected by more Americans than those who voted for him, who holds his job because a foreign power violated American laws and sovereignty. It’s up to Congressto deal with this threat to American self-rule.

Mueller hasn’t provided answers, so much as he has posed a question: Are Americans comfortable with this president in the White House, now that they know he broke no prosecutable criminal statutes on his way into high office?

This American isn’t.

We learned during the Nixon debacle that “I am not a crook” is an insufficient qualification for the office.

“The Black Guy Did It!”

Have you noticed that whenever there is a particularly sharp public outcry over something Donald Trump is doing–a level of pushback that exceeds the expressions of distaste, disagreement and/or horror that regularly greet his version of “policy”–he blames whatever it is on Obama?

The Washington Post gives four Pinocchios to the latest example of Trump’s “don’t blame me, it was the black guy who did it” evasion, his insistence that his inhumane and illegal family separation policy was really Obama’s. They quote him:

“President Obama had child separation. Take a look. The press knows it, you know it, we all know it. I didn’t have — I’m the one that stopped it. President Obama had child separation. … President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it, okay?”

Trump keeps doubling down on that falsehood. Every time he is attacked about family separation, he repeats it. As the Post reports,

This is a Four Pinocchio claim, yet Trump keeps repeating it when he’s pressed on family separations.

Repetition can’t change reality. There is simply no comparison between Trump’s family separation policy and the border enforcement actions of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

In the article, the fact-checker reports that the Obama Administration had actually rejected such a proposal, and that neither the Obama Administration nor the Bush Administration had created or enforced a policy of family separation.

The zero-tolerance approach is worlds apart from the Obama- and Bush-era policy of separating children from adults at the border only in limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected human trafficking or another kind of danger to the child or when false claims of parentage were made.

The article concludes with quotes from Trump–responses to questions, tweets, etc.–documenting the number of times he repeated the lie that the policy was inherited from Obama, and the article links to the copious database of Trump lies that the newspaper maintains.

This particular falsehood illustrates the two utterly reliable aspects of the man who inexplicably occupies the Oval Office: his hatred of Barack Obama (how dare a black man be so obviously superior to him?) and people of color generally; and his inability to tell the truth. (I’m not sure he even recognizes the difference between objective facts and his preferred fantasies.)

The problem is, as Joseph Stiglitz has  recently reminded us,  America’s successes–both moral and economic–have rested on a process of experimentation, learning and adaptation that requires a commitment to ascertaining the truth.

Americans owe much of their economic success to a rich set of truth-telling, truth-discovering and truth-verifying institutions. Central among them are freedom of expression and media independence. Like all people, journalists are fallible; but, as part of a robust system of checks and balances on those in positions of power, they have traditionally provided an essential public good.

America’s “greatness” has depended upon–and varied with– the extent to which the nation has adhered to that truth-telling and has honored human rights and the rule of law. Greatness is not a product of bluster, or White Supremacy, or faux Christianity, or the worship of wealth and power and celebrity; it is a product of evidence-based allegiance to individual liberty and civic equality.

If we really want to make America great, we need to eject Trumpism, with its racism and “alternate facts,” not just from the White House, but from American culture.

How Shall Trump Kill Us? Let Us Count The Ways…

Just in the past week, I’ve come across several accounts of the Trump Administration’s war on regulation–you know, those pesky rules that impede commerce by denying businesses the “liberty” of selling shoddy and dangerous goods to an unwary public.

First, the Washington Post has reported on changes at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The crashes were brutal. With no warning, the front wheel on the three-wheeled BOB jogging strollers fell off, causing the carriages to careen and even flip over. Adults shattered bones. They tore ligaments. Children smashed their teeth. They gashed their faces. One child bled from his ear canal.

Staff members at the Consumer Product Safety Commission collected 200 consumer-submitted reports from 2012 to 2018 of spontaneous failure of the stroller wheel, which is secured to a front fork by a quick-release lever, like on a bicycle. Nearly 100 adults and children were injured, according to the commission. The agency’s staff members investigated for months before deciding in 2017 that one of the most popular jogging strollers on the market was unsafe and needed to be recalled.

The manufacturer refused to issue a voluntary recall of the nearly 500,000 strollers, insisting they were safe when used as instructed. The agency sued.

Then Trump was elected.

 According to a review of documents by The Washington Post and interviews with eight current and former senior agency officials, the agency’s Republican chairwoman kept Democratic commissioners in the dark about the stroller investigation and then helped end the case in court.

The settlement did not include a recall or formal correction plan.

Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times looks at food inspections.His column’s title– “Donald Trump is Trying to Kill You”–isn’t really an exaggeration. As Krugman notes, even if he’s a one-term president, Trump will have caused, directly or indirectly, the premature deaths of a large number of Americans.

Some of those deaths will come at the hands of right-wing, white nationalist extremists, who are a rapidly growing threat, partly because they feel empowered by a president who calls them “very fine people.”

Some will come from failures of governance, like the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria, which surely contributed to the high death toll in Puerto Rico. (Reminder: Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.)

Some will come from the administration’s continuing efforts to sabotage Obamacare..

But the biggest death toll is likely to come from Trump’s agenda of deregulation — or maybe we should call it “deregulation,” because his administration is curiously selective about which industries it wants to leave alone.

The administration recently announced plans to allow hog plants to take over a large part of what is currently federal responsibility for food safety inspections.

And why not? It’s not as if we’ve seen safety problems arise from self-regulation in, say, the aircraft industry, have we? Or as if we ever experience major outbreaks of food-borne illness? Or as if there was a reason the U.S. government stepped in to regulate meatpackingin the first place?

Krugman notes that the administration also wants to roll back rules that limit emissions of mercury from power plants, and has acted to prevent the EPA from explaining the benefits of reduced mercury emissions. But the Trump  Administration is very worried about supposed negative side effects of renewable energy, negatives which, as Krugman points out, “generally exist only in their imagination.”

Last year the administration floated a proposal that would have forced the operators of electricity grids to subsidize coal and nuclear energy. The supposed rationale was that new sources were threatening to destabilize those grids — but the grid operators themselves denied that this was the case.

An administration willing to “trust” pork producers insists that wind turbines cause cancer. This may just be because the President is monumentally ignorant (and clinically insane), but Krugman reminds us to follow the money.

Political contributions from the meat-processing industry overwhelmingly favor Republicans. Coal mining supports the G.O.P. almost exclusively. Alternative energy, on the other hand, generally favors Democrats.

Baby strollers, I assume, are manufactured by contributors to the GOP…one of the consolations of old age is no longer having a baby to stroll…

Thanks to growing up kosher, I still don’t eat pork. The rest of you might rethink that too.