Tag Archives: corruption

The Crowding-Out Effect

Tomorrow is the most important Election Day in my lifetime. Among other things, the results will tell me whether my longtime faith in the common sense and goodwill of my fellow Americans has been justified or misplaced.

Hopefully, after tomorrow, this blog can return to discussions of rational, albeit debatable, policy proposals, commentary on interesting research results, and occasional forays into legal disputes and political philosophy. Hopefully too, we will have occasion to use a phrase introduced by Gerald Ford: “our long national nightmare is over.”

One aspect of that “long national nightmare,” of course, is the incredible amount of destruction it will leave in its wake–regulations that must be reinstated, laws that must once again be enforced, corrupt people who must be held accountable, and a return to public health directed by medical scientists rather than politicians, among many other things.

The opposite of “nightmare” is a good night’s sleep, and if all goes well, we can once again look forward to days when we haven’t had to think about the President of the United States, followed by nights when we can once again sleep soundly because–whether we agree with administration policies or not– a sane and honorable person is in charge.

If there is one word I have heard over and over during this political season, it is “exhaustion.” Trump’s desperate need for constant attention, his bizarre tweet-storms, insults and various insanities have sucked the oxygen out of our public life. He has been in our faces, on our television screens, Facebook feeds and comedy routines. As several columnists have recently noted, he has crowded out so many activities that we would otherwise enjoy–books of fiction, works of art and music, conversations with friends that didn’t give rise to disappointment when we discovered their willingness to look the other way so long as their 401K stayed healthy…

Last Thursday, at the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote about all the things we’ve lost.

After listing the “big” things–the lives lost to COVID, the children whose parents can’t be located, the people whose livelihoods have disappeared, and after acknowledging the greater significance of those losses, she speaks for so many of us:

When I think back, from my obviously privileged position, on the texture of daily life during the past four years, all the attention sucked up by this black hole of a president has been its own sort of loss. Every moment spent thinking about Trump is a moment that could have been spent contemplating, creating or appreciating something else. Trump is a narcissistic philistine, and he bent American culture toward him.

I’ve no doubt that great work was created over the past four years, but I missed much of it, because I was too busy staring in incredulous horror at my phone….

Conservatives love to jeer Democrats for being obsessed with Trump, for letting him live, as many put it, rent-free in our heads. It’s a cruel accusation, like setting someone’s house on fire and then laughing at them for staring at the flames. The outrage Trump sparks leaves less room for many other things — joy, creativity, reflection — but every bit of it is warranted. The problem is the president, not how his victims respond to him.

If the polls are right, if Biden wins convincingly, Americans will nevertheless be on pins and needles until January 20th. We won’t be out of the woods until this blot on our nation and our history is gone–and even then, we will be left with the alt-right haters and know-nothings who have spent the campaign brandishing guns, refusing to wear masks and cheering ugly pronouncements at Trump rallies– voters motivated by fear and grievance who want only to “own the libs.”

Buckle up. We’re about to see how this horror show ends.

 

Distraction

Note: Apologies for the extra and misleading email yesterday. The blog referenced (to which the link would not work) will post on the 16th. (I sometimes work ahead–and in those cases, obviously don’t know what I’m doing…)

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I know that many of you who read this blog also subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson’s  Letters from an American. That almost-daily letter is particularly valuable for those who are trying to just keep up with the daily outrages and indignities coming from the White House, since she tends to focus on updating readers to the fire hose of improprieties that exhaust so many of us.

The other day provided an example: from continued fallout over Trump’s “suckers and losers” insult to America’s soldiers, to documentation of his continuing buildup and corruption of the Military-Industrial Complex, to not-so-surprising revelations in Michael Cohen’s new book, to the absolutely unprecedented, legally-appalling effort of Bill Barr’s version of a Justice Department to assume Trump’s defense against Jean Carroll’s defamation suit, it was just another day in TrumpLand.

On the off-chance that you missed that last offense, here’s a brief background: Carroll is one of the many women who have accused Trump of sexual assault. She alleged that he raped her some 20 years ago, and when he responded in true Trumpian fashion that he’d never even met her (as usual, there are contemporaneous photographs to the contrary) and she “wasn’t his type,” she sued him for defamation.The courts have thus far refused to dismiss or halt that lawsuit.

Now, lawyers with the Department of Justice (presumably with straight faces) are arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied knowing her and thus should be defended by the DOJ, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. As Richardson reported,

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called this “a wild stretch by DOJ…. I can’t remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the President to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office.” He continued: “This is very much consistent with Barr’s well-established pattern of distorting fact and law to protect Trump and his allies.”

(I am at a loss to understand Barr, who–unlike Trump– is not stupid. My operating theories since he began acting like the President’s consiglieri vacillate between mental illness and blackmail, since he clearly knows that history will not be kind…)

All this is, in a fashion, beside the point. 

Much has been made of Trump’s ability to distract—to point to the “shiny object” (squirrel!!), to create a new outrage in order to distract attention and media from his most recent crimes and misdemeanors. It’s true that the media turns its attention to the most recent example of norm-and-rule breaking, but what makes this constant misbehavior a really effective distraction is simply the “fire hose” rate of discoveries of the administration’s corruption and incompetence.

It becomes impossible to keep up–and it exhausts those of us who continue to try.

The sheer volume of the misbehavior prevents the sort of continued, in-depth reporting of  a single incident of unethical or criminal behavior–the sort of ongoing media attention that would be paid to such incidents occurring in past administrations. Think of the amount and duration of reporting on Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, or the Watergate break-in. Substantial research has shown that it takes numerous repetitions of news items before they “sink in” and become common knowledge.

Historians will undoubtedly have a field day with the literally hundreds of examples of this administration’s criminal, unethical and deeply disturbing behaviors, but the rapidity with which these incidents come to our attention and then vanish means that they barely have time to make an impression on the significant number of citizens who do not follow political issues closely.

There’s an analogy here to that old joke to the effect that, if you have run over someone with your car and maimed them, you’d do well to back up and finish them off.  A few corrupt transactions will attract sustained attention, but the daily trashing of laws and norms will simply wear us out. 

Law And Order

No mentally-competent American still believes that Donald Trump is (1) honest (2) intelligent (3) informed or (4) sane. In a way, we are probably fortunate that he is so incredibly incompetent and unable to restrain himself from broadcasting his idiocy–if he was smart and just as corrupt, he could pretend to be other than what he is. Fortunately, he is too stupid to hide what he is.

Give him credit for one thing, though: he knew enough to commute Roger Stone’s sentence rather than pardoning his creepy co-conspirator.

The difference is significant: a pardon erases the conviction of guilt. A President’s decision to commute a sentence, however, doesn’t eliminate a federal conviction or imply that the person was innocent. It doesn’t even remove the ramifications of a criminal conviction, such as losing the right to vote or inability to hold elected office.

So–since even Trump must have recognized that letting Stone off the hook via either mechanism would engender huge blow-back–why not give his old pal a pardon?

Mother Jones asks–and answers–that question.

Why the second-class treatment of a commutation instead of a pardon? Wasn’t Stone important enough for a pardon?

But wait. Someone who gets a pardon can no longer invoke the Fifth Amendment as a justification for refusing to testify in court. If Stone were called in some other case, he’d be required to spill any beans he had. But if I understand the law correctly, a commutation is more limited. The conviction stands, and the possibility of putting yourself in further jeopardy remains. Thus your Fifth Amendment rights stand.

So if you wanted to help out a buddy, but you also wanted to make sure he couldn’t be forced to provide dangerous testimony in the future, commutation sure seems like the best bet, doesn’t it?

Reactions to the commutation have reminded us that Trump has either pardoned or commuted the sentences of a long list of other truly despicable–and unambiguously guilty– men: Joe Arpaio (Contempt of Court) Michael Milken (Fraud)  Scooter Libby (Perjury) Eddie Gallagher (War Crimes) and Rod Blagojevich (Corruption) come to mind.

There is another interesting wrinkle, legally, to Trump’s latest favor to the dark side.

Seth Abramson, an attorney and commentator, has characterized Stone’s commutation as that of a “co-conspirator,” and opined that–because it amounts to a “self-pardon”–it is obstruction of justice and thus unconstitutional. Nancy Pelosi has weighed in by recommending passage of a law forbidding a President from pardoning or commuting a sentence if the conviction was for illegal behavior to protect the President–which Stone’s quite obviously was.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the situation came from Mitt Romney–who seems to be the only Republican in the Senate with either scruples or a backbone. Romney tweeted

Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.

There is broad recognition that another four years for this grotesque buffoon would be the end of America’s experiment with democratic self-government. Inconceivable as it seems, however, he continues to have the devotion of his base/cult. They won’t desert him and they will turn out for him.

If we want to save America in November, we’d better get massive turnout of people who come prepared to “vote blue no matter who.”

How Do We Spell Corruption? T-R-U-M-P

Well, I suppose the headline really should read “Trump Administration,” since Trump has managed to assemble a group of people who are both magnificently inept and thoroughly dishonest.

It’s something every day–usually, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, buried under the propaganda and disinformation being spewed every day by the buffoon-in-chief.

NBC recently reported on a story first broken by Pro Publica.

On a Tuesday just before Halloween in 2018, a group of federal prosecutors and agents from Texas arrived in Washington. For almost two years, they’d been investigating the opioid dispensing practices of Walmart, the largest company in the world. They had amassed what they viewed as highly damning evidence only to face a major obstacle: top Trump appointees at the Department of Justice.

The opioid crisis was the most pressing public health issue facing the country before the arrival of the current pandemic. What the investigators had uncovered was proof of clearly criminal activity by Walmart–activity that played a significant part in creating and sustaining that crisis.

Opioids dispensed by Walmart pharmacies in Texas had killed customers who had overdosed. The pharmacists who dispensed those opioids had told the company they didn’t want to fill the prescriptions because they were coming from doctors who were running pill mills. They pleaded for help and guidance from Walmart’s corporate office.

Investigators had obtained records of similar cries for help from Walmart pharmacists all over the country: from Maine, North Carolina, Kansas and Washington, and other states. They reported hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate opioid prescriptions. One Walmart employee warned about a Florida doctor who had a “list of patients from Kentucky that have been visiting pharmacies in all of central Wisconsin recently.” That doctor had sent patients to Walmarts in more than 30 other states.

How did “corporate” respond? By repeatedly forbidding pharmacists from cutting off any doctor. Pharmacists were told to “evaluate each prescription on an individual basis.”  One opioid compliance manager even sent an executive an email (viewed by ProPublica, which confirmed its contents), that Walmart’s focus should be on “driving sales.”

The prosecutor investigating Walmart’s behavior prepared to indict the corporation for violating the Controlled Substances Act.  She had the support of her boss, who also believed the evidence justified what would have been an unprecedented step.(Fortune 500 companies don’t get indicted–gee, I wonder why…)

Before the Texas prosecutors could file their case, however, Walmart escalated concerns to high-ranking officials at the DOJ, who then intervened. Brown was ordered to stand down. On Aug. 31, 2018, Trump officials officially informed Walmart that the DOJ would decline to prosecute the company, according to a letter from Walmart’s lawyer that lays out the chronology of the case.

The Texas prosecutors appealed to higher-ups at DOJ, pointing out that dispensing opioids without a legitimate medical purpose is legally indistinguishable from dealing heroin.

Criminal law says if a person or entity is willfully blind or deliberately ignorant, they are as liable as if they had acted intentionally. Once Walmart’s headquarters knew its pharmacists were raising alarms about suspicious prescriptions, but the compliance department continued to allow — even push — them to fill them, well, that made the company guilty, the Texas prosecutors contended.

This wasn’t a situation where a few employees “went rogue.”  Worse, the company was a repeat offender; seven years earlier, Walmart entered into a settlement with the DEA in which it promised to improve its controls over the abuse of opioid prescriptions.

The DOJ didn’t budge, so prosecutors tried another tactic: criminal charges against individual employees. Trump officials blocked that, too. Then prosecutors tried to bring a civil case, and Trump officials blocked that.

The lengthy story at the link is detailed enough to dispel any doubts about how thoroughly this administration has corrupted the DOJ.

The news of the Walmart investigation comes at a time when the Trump administration is being assailed for legal favoritism and cronyism. Attorney General Bill Barr has inserted himself into multiple investigations of Trump friends and associates. In February, four prosecutors on the case of Roger Stone, a Trump friend and adviser, quit the case in protest after political appointees undercut their sentencing recommendation.

The Trump DOJ has also pulled back on white-collar and corporate investigations and prosecutions. White-collar prosecutions are at a record low. Walmart itself seems to have already benefited from the Trump administration’s approach to corporate misconduct. The company was the subject of a seven-year investigation into bribery allegations in Mexico and around the globe. The Obama administration sought $600 million in fines, according to The New York Times, which broke the story, but failed to reach a resolution with the company. The Trump DOJ settled the charges for $282 million in June 2019.

It certainly pays to have low friends in high places…..

 

Radio, Television And Fake News

When Trump announced his ban on travel to most–but not all–European countries, commentators generally panned the move as irrelevant to containment of the virus, which is already spreading in the U.S. Whether Trump’s loyal cult will understand the uselessness of that move–or grasp the degree of incompetence being demonstrated in the face of the coronavirus pandemic–is unknown, but I’d guess it’s improbable.

What the cult won’t even see or hear about are aspects of the travel ban that certainly don’t surprise the rest of us. According to Politico

President Donald Trump’s new European travel restrictions have a convenient side effect: They exempt nations where three Trump-owned golf resorts are located.

Because of course they did.

This is what happens when stupid meets corrupt. As the article notes, residents of the exempted countries are free to live and work in the United Kingdom, meaning they could fly to the United States from a British airport as long as they hadn’t spent time in their countries of origin within the last 14 days. And as leaders of the EU have emphasized, pandemics are global crises. They aren’t limited to any continent and they require cooperation rather than unilateral action.

Meanwhile, His Idiocy has expressed an intent to continue the Hitler-like rallies where he feeds off the resentments and bigotries of the crowd. Until just the last few days, right-wing commentators had joined him in downplaying the risks and dangers of the coronavirus–which brings me to a recent paper by Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor and co-author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

Benkler and his colleagues reviewed four million political news stories over the course of three years. They found that “the right wing media ecosystem is distinct and insular from the rest of the media ecosystem,” which hardly comes as a shock to most of us. But they also discounted the influence of the Internet, concluding (as many commenters to this blog have concluded) that radio and television are far more culpable in conveying misinformation.

“A critical implication of our findings is that it is highly unlikely that technology played a central role in causing this asymmetric media ecosystem,” he explained. “If anything, Democrats tend to be younger, and younger people tend to use online and social media more than older people. [Two separate studies found] that sharing of ‘fake news’ was highly concentrated in a tiny portion of the population, was largely done by conservatives, and interacted with age–primarily driven by people over 65. In other words, the problem of online dissemination seems to be driven by older conservatives–precisely the demographic of Fox News.”

And yet while there is plenty of sharing of fake news and other forms of deceptive propaganda online, Benkler explained, these stories only really “explode” once they appear on Fox News. If they remain solely online, the spread is limited.

Benkler attributed the phenomenon to Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show, starting in 1988, demonstrated that conservative “outrage-bait and propaganda” could generate huge profits.

By attacking the groups who sought to change society — feminists, civil rights activists — Limbaugh captivated white Christian men and tapped into their identities.

“The whole business model was not about informing, but creating a sense of shared identity,” he explained.

Despite right-wing efforts to paint false equivalencies, Fox has no leftwing counterparts–Democratic diversity defeats similar propaganda efforts on the left.

Benkler has a somewhat surprising antidote to the rightwing echo chamber.

The most recent Pew survey of news sources used and trusted by Democrats and Republicans suggests that, surprisingly, the most used and trusted sources by both centrist lean republicans and lean democrats are CBS, ABC, and NBC. It becomes critical that these outlets be particularly attentive to how they cover the news, what sort of frame they offer for propagandist pronouncement by the president, and so forth. The hard core of the Republican base who spend their days purely in Limbaugh-Hannity land are lost. But they are only enough to win a Republican primary, not repeated elections. And so the critical pathway to a more reasoned public discourse is for these core mainstream media, trusted by a substantial minority of lean-republican voters, to be ever more vigilant not to spread disinformation, not to stoke the fires, and to understand that professionalism and truth seeking do not mean neutrality when you are reporting in a highly asymmetric media ecosystem like ours. (emphasis mine)

When the pandemic is finally over, I wonder if anyone will compare coronavirus infection rates in the Trump cult to those in the fact-based population?