Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

They Aren’t Even Pretending Anymore

As it has begun to dawn on the Trump criminal enterprise that it is in danger of losing in November, it’s ramping up its efforts to destroy federal agencies and the rule of law–and in its haste, abandoning efforts to be subtle about it.

The Republican National Committee and the Trump Campaign has budgeted twenty million dollars to fight efforts to expand voting by mail.  Wouldn’t want to make it easy for people to vote…..

Congressional investigators are asking for information about loans and other bailout funds that the Trump Organization has tried to get from Britain, Ireland and other foreign governments, to cover the wages of employees who’ve been furloughed from the company’s golf properties in Europe due to the pandemic–setting up a conflict-of-interest that probably violates the Constitution.

Then, of course, there’s the astonishing move by Attorney General and Trump lackey William Barr, who has petitioned the court to drop the Justice Department case against Michael Flynn. Tellingly, the filing was signed only by Barr’s hand-picked US Attorney for the District of Columbia–not by a single career prosecutor.

In order to understand how stunningly improper this request is, it may help to remember the behaviors for which Flynn was prosecuted–and for which he twice pled guilty–and why, after the election, President Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn.

Flynn was evidently being watched because he had suspicious connections to Putin. When the Obama administration announced retaliatory measures for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, he immediately made five phone calls to the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. When the FBI interviewed Flynn, he lied about those calls, prompting the famous warnings from Sally Yates to the White House that Flynn was compromised and vulnerable to blackmail.

Trump ignored Yates’ warnings, and when Comey wouldn’t drop the investigation into Russia–focused largely on Flynn’s activities– he fired Comey.

Flynn subsequently offered to testify about the campaign’s connections to Russia in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution, but was turned down. When it became obvious that Mueller had enough evidence to bring criminal charges against both Flynn and his son, he began to cooperate with the investigation. He subsequently pled guilty to lying to federal investigators. (Evidently, he was not sentenced at that time because he had not yet finished cooperating with the special counsel’s office.)

These are hardly the actions of an innocent man, but when Mueller’s investigation ended–and, presumably, heartened when the Senate GOP supinely refused to convict Trump despite evidence of impeachable offenses– he moved to withdraw his guilty plea.

Barr’s pleading (it would be a mistake to attribute it to the professional Justice Department since none of the career prosecutors would sign on) is based on an astonishing assertion: any investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election was unfounded and illegitimate. It’s a flatly dishonest assertion, one clearly dictated by Trump, who is talking about rehiring Flynn.

We learn something new–and appalling–about this horrific administration every single day.

The fossil fuel lobbyists currently dismantling the EPA are continuing their assault on the environment–the number of regulations they have rolled back or eliminated is approaching one hundred. Betsy DeVos continues her efforts to gut public education and to funnel our tax dollars into private and for-profit schools. The Interior Department is busy giving away public land. Etc.Etc.

And Trump, of course, is barreling ahead with his insistence on “opening” the economy, in an effort to salvage his re-election prospects– despite universal warnings from health officials that we are not nearly ready and that many people will die unnecessarily.

His administration is already killing people with increased pollution, so I’m sure a few thousand extra deaths won’t bother them.

If the voters don’t throw this crew out in November–and by “this crew” I very much include the Republicans in the Senate, whose partisanship and lack of patriotism have enabled it all–we can just bid farewell to the America we thought we knew.

 

 

 

 

 

Elitism? Or Respect For Knowledge?

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic is that electing leaders who sneer at expertise and make war on science was a big mistake.

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis defended the federal bureaucracy, and pointed out how significantly the tasks they perform – from maintaining nuclear waste to  forecasting the weather–depends upon knowledge and training. In a recent interview, Lewis pointed to the Trump camp’s “glaring ignorance” of government’s responsibilities and the expertise required to discharge those responsibilities.

I’ve previously blogged about Trump’s effort to eject scientists from the federal bureaucracy–a fixation exceeded only by his determination to purge anyone responsible for oversight–but the excessive anti-intellectualism of this administration isn’t simply due to Trump. It’s the result of a longstanding Republican “culture war” strategy in which educated folks are demonized as “elitists.”

“Real” Americans don’t put on fancy airs, or point out when policies aren’t based on facts.

As the “Big Sort” has accelerated America’s cultural differences, the GOP has found it easier to sneer at the effete intellectuals who flocked to congenial urban neighborhoods.(I recently read that House Democrats represent 78 percent of all Whole Foods locations, but only 27 percent of Cracker Barrels.) Trump doesn’t understand much, but he does recognize that most of those remaining in the dwindling GOP- -whiter, older and more Christian than the country as a whole–don’t care about policy, or about voting what others might consider their own self-interest. They see themselves as an identity group under threat, and they’ll follow anyone who speaks to their sense of grievance. It’s easy to convince them that coastal “elitists” look down on them.

The GOP’s constant assault on knowledge, professionalism and education has had a predictable effect on trust in all the institutions necessary to democratic self-governance.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on the degree to which the erosion of trust has made us more vulnerable to this pandemic, and noted that Trump is “merely the apotheosis of a political approach that has animated much of the conservative movement for a half century or more: undermining trust in the media, science, and government.”

For America to minimize the damage from the current pandemic, the media must inform, science must innovate, and our government must administer like never before. Yet decades of politically-motivated attacks discrediting all three institutions, taken to a new level by President Trump, leave the American public in a vulnerable position.

Trump has consistently vilified the national media. When campaigning, he called the media “absolute scum” and “totally dishonest people.” As president, he has called news organizations “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” over and over. The examples are endless. Predictably, he has blamed the coronavirus crisis on the media, saying “We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media.”

Science has been another Trump target. He has gutted scientific expertise and administrative capacity in the executive branch, most notably failing to fill hundreds of vacancies in the Centers for Disease Control itself and disbanding the National Security Council’s taskforce on pandemics. During the coronavirus crisis, he has routinely disagreed with scientific experts, including, in the AP’s words, his “musing about injecting disinfectants into people [to treat COVID-19].” This follows his earlier public advocacy for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, also against leading scientists’ advice. Coupled with his flip-flopping on when to lift stay-at-home orders, the president has created confusion and endangered people.

Finally, President Trump has consistently demeaned essential government agencies, labeling them part of a “deep state.”

An article originally from Salon looked at the history of empiricism and its importance:

What Galileo established as separating science from other types of “revealed” truths was this: facts and the ability to make testable predictions mattered. There weren’t anymore your facts and my facts, neither were there facts and “alternative facts“. There weren’t revealed facts or aspirational facts. Facts came in only one flavor — observable. Observations, experiments, and reasoning based on reliable data became the only acceptable methods for discovering facts about the world.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt summed it up:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Since at least the 1960s, the GOP has waged a sneering assault on “elitists” who respect empirical inquiry, and pursue facts, knowledge and expertise. The result is that today’s Americans occupy alternate realities. Denigrating knowledge, however, is equivalent to a demand that we disarm the front-line soldiers fighting our wars.

That is no way to fight a pandemic–or run a country.

The Math of Politics

Life in the U.S. these days is dispelling a number of previously accepted “truths”–and not just the widespread belief in American “can-do” spirit and competence.

Those of us who have spent a significant portion of our adult lives in politics, for example, have generally accepted the “math” of politics–the belief that political success is an exercise in addition. Successful campaigns are those that add supporters to whatever base the campaign started with.

One of the reasons so many of us were stunned by Trump’s victory (even recognizing that it was an Electoral College squeaker, and a significant loss in the popular vote) was that his entire strategy was based upon subtraction and division. That first surreal trip down the golden elevator (you really can’t make this shit up) was followed by a speech calculated to repel Latino voters.

His subsequent behaviors were similarly offensive exercises in subtraction. I doubt that disabled folks were charmed by his cruel and demeaning imitation of a disabled reporter. His declaration that there were “good people on both sides” of the racist and anti-Semitic riot in Charlottesville reminded  black and Jewish voters, among others, why David Duke and the Neo-Nazis had endorsed Trump.

It has been three-and-a-half years of constant subtraction.

Political pundits are fond of pointing out that Trump’s popularity has never been good–he has been “underwater,” with negatives larger than positives throughout both the campaign and his dismal presidency. I’ve been appalled by the number who do continue to support him, but it’s true that his base has never been close to a majority. (The lesson here is the importance of turnout, and the need to fight voter suppression–it doesn’t matter that a majority hates you if enough of them don’t vote.)

Thanks largely to his pathetic performance during the pandemic, there are emerging signs that his internal polling is tanking, posing a real dilemma to the down-ballot sycophants running in 2020.

Dozens of media outlets are reporting that US intelligence agencies held more than a dozen classified briefings beginning in January, warning Trump about the emerging threat of the coronavirus. Trump ignored them (as, evidently, he ignores everything in those briefings…). Voters who cared only that their 401Ks were growing–who dismissed the obvious corruption and incompetence and international embarrassment because the only indicator they found meaningful was the one on the bottom line–are suddenly less forgiving.

Speaking of numbers and math–Trump’s pursuit of political victory has always rested on his belief in division. Dividing immigrants from citizens, blacks from whites, Muslims and Jews and mainstream Protestants from Evangelicals, rich from poor, rural from urban residents and  more recently, Red States from Blue.

The concept of “American” seems entirely foreign to him. Playing on fears and resentments  has been his “go to” instinct, and in 2016 that (barely) worked for him.

There’s plenty to fear about a pandemic, but very few people are looking to the “bully pulpit” for direction; a “pulpit” from which we get only rambling diatribes, seething animosities and evidence of Dear Leader’s monumental stupidity. (True, some people are actually asking health authorities if it’s okay to drink bleach…Those people are beyond help.)

Right now, Americans need reassurance that our government is in the hands of competent people who will see to it that we’ll eventually be all right.

We need empathy–expressions of concern and human-kindness and connection.

We need to believe that we have a President who is more concerned with our health and wellbeing than with himself. (Amazingly, the braggart-in-chief– a consummate liar–somehow can’t manage to lie about that.)

Above all, we need a President who knows how to add–and stops dividing.

 

Why Competence Matters….

I’m so tired of writing about the Coronavirus pandemic, and I’m sure most of you are equally sick of reading about it–or receiving updates to the monumentally-long list of ways the Trump administration continues to commit malpractice–or worse.

But the hits keep coming…

You know we are in uncharted territory when a Republican governor admits that he is hiding protective gear and testing supplies from the federal government.

Not only is the administration not helping states navigate this pandemic, it is appropriating critically needed supplies and according to multiple reports, doling them out in ways that favor political allies and punish states seen as insufficiently enamored of “dear leader.”

Now, a report from the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services has again highlighted the multiple failures of the administration. (There’s a reason Trump is constantly firing or otherwise neutering Inspectors General…) Update: Yesterday, Trump–reportedly furious– fired the IG who submitted this report.

NBC News reports that the HHS IG found that hospitals across the United States are lacking supplies as basic as thermometers, even as they’re being undercut by their own federal government in trying to acquire new supplies.

 “Vendors have told us that they need to send whatever they have to the national stockpile,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

Additionally, the report found that supplies delivered to states by the federal government were either inadequate or defective.

“One hospital received two shipments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with protective gear that had expired in 2010,” NBC News writes. “Another hospital system received 1,000 masks from federal and state governments, even though it expected a much larger delivery, and ‘500 of the masks were for children and therefore unusable for adult staff,’ the report said.”

Professionals have characterized these and other failures listed in the report as “unprecedented.” (One hospital administrator reported sending his staff to auto part shops,  home supply stores, beauty salons and art supply stores in an effort to find gloves and masks.)

Hospital administrators around the country also complain that conflicting guidance from federal, state and local governments is causing confusion.

A report on the situation from NBC News  met with a response directly out of that “alternate reality” Trump inhabits.

President Donald Trump on Saturday said hospital administrators speaking to his administration were “thrilled” about their situation.

“Many hospital administrators that we’ve been in touch with, even in the really hotspots — you know what they are — are communicating directly with us that their level of supplies are meeting essential needs. And at the current time, they’re really thrilled to be where they are,” Trump told reporters.

All of the other failures reported pale in comparison to the shortage of testing supplies. The inability to test sufficient numbers of people and to get the results of those tests promptly delays the day the nation can reopen, and further strains an already inadequate system.

Diagnostic testing kits to identify patients or staff members with the virus were also in short supply, according to the inspector general. Hospitals said they were struggling with “a severe shortage of test kits,” limiting their ability to monitor the health of patients and staff members, the report said. There were also problems with incomplete testing kits missing nasal swabs or reagents to detect the virus.

“Across the industry millions are needed and we only have hundreds,” a hospital administrator was quoted as saying.

The shortage of testing kits was aggravated by delays in testing results, straining hospital resources and bed capacity as doctors waited for the results, the report said. One hospital reported test results’ taking as long as eight days, it said.

Hospitals said that presumptive patients waiting for test results took up bed capacity needed for other patients, according to the report, and that staff members were forced to use personal protective equipment, or PPE, as a precaution because of the slow pace of test results, wasting precious resources.

The armed idiots storming state capitols to demand an end to measures that are saving lives should be storming the White House and demanding competent governance.

But of course, that would require another possession that is apparently in short supply, at least in their ranks: cognitive capacity.

 

Visualizing Trump Country

Several readers have sent me an infographic from The American Prospect, titled “Mapping Corruption.” It’s stunning–not because we didn’t know, or at least assume, what has been going on, but because being faced with a comprehensive overview is just overwhelming.

The introductory text invites exploration of the details–agency by agency.

The Trump administration has brought its brand of corruption and self-dealing to every agency in the federal government, and it’s hard for anyone to keep on top of it all. We’ve mapped it out for you. Click on any agency building below, and unlock an extensive dossier of the activities happening inside.

For each agency, there is a list, detailing the corrupt activities undertaken by that agency by Trump’s administration, and even more telling, a description of the particular “best” person Trump has placed in charge of that part of our government.

We have heard a fair amount about several of them–Betsy DeVos and her campaign to destroy public education, Bill Barr who has shamed the Department of Justice–but there are several lesser-known figures who are equally slimy. Take Sonny Perdue, at the Department of Agriculture–the first agency in the alphabetical list.

As governor of Georgia, after issuing an order prohibiting gifts worth more than $25 to state employees, Perdue accepted sports tickets, airplane flights, and other gratuities valued at over $25,000.

He signed a tax bill with a last-minute tweak that saved him $100,000 on an already-completed land sale. One of the legislators backing that bill had worked part time for Perdue on his personal legal business.

As a founder or part-owner of more than a dozen agribusiness companies, Perdue collected $278,000 in federal farm subsidies between 1996 and 2004.

In his campaigns for political office, Perdue received large contributions from the likes of Monsanto and Coca-Cola.

In a 2014 article, Perdue dismissed efforts by “some on the left or in the mainstream media” to connect extreme weather events to climate change. “Liberals,” he wrote, “have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

Under “Quick and Dirty”–the abbreviated portion of the agriculture section–we see that Perdue appointed former agribusiness executives and lobbyists, and what the report says is an “unusual number” of Trump campaign workers without obvious qualifications, to the Department’s management. Those officials have authorized sharply higher line speeds for slaughterhouses; they’ve cut back on USDA meat-safety inspections; and they’ve allowed some large operations do handle their own inspections–with low-wage workers.

The department has also proposed denying food stamps to three million people who currently rely on them, and has rolled back a number of environmental, health and safety regulations.

The Trump administration may oppose welfare for those lazy bums on food stamps, but in the longer, more detailed portion of the report, we learn about the handout recipients of whom they approve:

Perdue’s Agriculture Department has distributed more than $28 billion in emergency relief to farmers injured by the administration’s trade war with China. This program has been massively tilted toward multinational agribusiness companies. More than $62 million, for example, has gone to the world’s largest meat processor, JBS, owned by a pair of billionaire brothers who have served prison time for bribing hundreds of government officials in their native country of Brazil.

A couple of other items from the list:

Perdue undid a set of newly adopted rules meant to keep agribusiness giants from engaging in price-fixing and other forms of collusion at the expense of farmers or consumers. He effectively eliminated the unit (known as GIPSA) responsible for enforcing the anti-fraud regulations that remained, making it part of an office dedicated to marketing and public relations.

The Agriculture Department went to bat for Dow Chemical in pressing China to accept its genetically modified, herbicide-resistant corn seeds. With that victory secured, Dow spun off its agriculture business into a new subsidiary, Corteva, which is now the top corn seed producer in the Asia-Pacific region.

The department reinterpreted the Clean Water Act to let farmers use previously forbidden chemical pesticides and fertilizers at the risk of contaminating local waterways.

The infographic has similar lists for every agency of the federal government. Click through and see for yourselves. And weep….