Want to Improve Voter Turnout? Start by Making It Easier to Vote

voting_is_caring
Whether you consider voting a right or a privilege, it bears defending in the name of participatory democracy. (Photo Credit: Michael Fleshman/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

As we get closer and closer to Election Day 2018—which is Tuesday, November 6 in case you haven’t already circled it on your calendar or have voted or have made plans to vote—the factors that mediate voter turnout become all the more relevant.

As is so often talked about and lamented, a significant portion of Americans who can vote choose not to do so. It happened in 2016, as frustrated Hillary supporters and others not enamored with the current president are keen to remind everyone who will listen. It will likely happen to a greater extent this year. This is all before we get to the polls, where there’s no assurance we will even recognize most of the candidates listed.

Those who elect not to cast a ballot have their explanations. There’s work, school, and other responsibilities. They may believe they don’t know enough about the voting process or the candidates, or simply don’t feel inspired by their choices. Their district may not be a “competitive” one. Especially within immigrant populations, families may not have a robust tradition of voting in this country, with children of immigrants often not possessing a strong role model in this regard.

These explanations may not suffice as excuses, mind you. Barack Obama recently appeared in an online video designed to eat away at the most common justifications people give for not coming out. Not caring about politics. Not relating to the candidates. Not being well informed. Not knowing where to vote or not having time on Election Day. Feeling as if one’s vote “doesn’t matter” or that the midterms are “boring.” Obama addresses these ideas in a reasoned and amusing way. I personally could’ve done without the knowledge he doesn’t care about Pokémon (you’ll never be president of the Kanto region with that attitude, Barack!), but I appreciate the effort on his part.

Motivating potential voters is critical to achieving high turnout, of course. But working to overcome obstacles designed specifically to depress participation is important in its own right. As research suggests, voter turnout correlates in a statistically significant way with how easy the voting process is.

Christopher Ingraham, writing for The Washington Post, delves into a recent report by political scientists at Northern Illinois University and Wuhan University in China that measures voter turnout in each state against the relative “time and effort” needed to vote as a function of that state’s election laws. Researchers analyzed 33 types of laws that applied to areas like the ability of citizens under 18 to register in advance of reaching voting age, early and absentee voting permissibility, polling hours, registration deadlines and restrictions, and voter ID requirements.

The findings? Generally speaking, the easier it is to vote in a state—what the researching scientists term having a lower “cost of voting”—the higher turnout tends to be. For the sake of a comparison, the five states with the easiest voting profile (Oregon, Colorado, California, North Dakota, Iowa) averaged almost nine percentage points better turnout in 2016 than the corresponding pentad at the opposite end of the spectrum (Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas). The researchers also made sure to account for and control for potential founding factors including competitiveness of the race at the top of the ticket, education level, and income level. The trend in voting patterns held.

As with any correlation, there are outliers which prove counterexamples. Hawaii, despite being in the top 20 of easiest states to vote, owned the worst turnout rate from 2016 by far. Virginia, despite having some of the most restrictive election laws in the country, had turnout roughly equivalent to Oregon’s. Overall, though, the evidence is pretty compelling that expanding voting access leads to increased turnout. On the other hand, evidence is strong that intentional policies which make voting more difficult—Ingraham points to such efforts in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—are related to a lower turnout percentage.

As Ingraham relates, and as the Northern Illinois/Wuhan scientists submit, the easiest way to make voting, well, easier, is to allow same-day voter registration and, to boot, to permit people to get registered or re-registered at their polling place. This is not to say that other factors pertaining to the cost of voting can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. After all, what good is same-day registration when officials close polling locations? The idea remains, meanwhile, that simple changes which improve the voting process can have a material effect on producing better voting outcomes. With eyes already on Election Day 2020, voter ease of access is more than a passing concern.


As the scatterplot which accompanies Christopher Ingraham’s article speaks to, “red” states are more likely to be characterized by a high cost of voting. 4 of 5 and 9 of 10 of the hardest states to vote in by nature of their requirements went for Donald Trump in 2016. Returning to the notion of obstacles designed specifically to make voting more difficult, and as the very title of Ingraham’s piece indicates, this is no accident. To be fair, both parties have been guilty of trying to stack the deck, so to speak, especially when it comes to gerrymandering to try to get a political advantage.

Just because both parties have had their moments, however, doesn’t mean that all attempts to swing elections are created equal. Indeed, as attempts to suppress votes are concerned, Republicans are usually the worse offenders. All the more unnerving is the apparent phenomenon of the GOP aiming to disenfranchise voters and not being all that secretive about it.

Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has made news recently for his decision to suspend more than 50,000 voter applications—a majority of them from blacks—justified as part of an “exact match” voter fraud deterrent. He’s also come under fire for purging yet more voters from the rolls for not voting, and has been sued for failing to safeguard voting records against hacking.

On top of this, newly-leaked audio from a private Kemp campaign event reveals Kemp expressing concern about his opponent, Stacey Abrams, pushing to get voters to the polls and exercise their right to vote. These remarks may be fairly innocuous, but Kemp’s role as Secretary of State as well as his political stances (Kemp’s statements on Russian election interference have resembled those of President Trump) cast doubts about whether a conflict of interest is at work here.

There are any number of instances to which one can point to deliberate efforts to bar people from participatory democracy. Back in Georgia, some 40 elderly black residents were ordered off a bus in Cobb County on their way to the polls to cast their ballots during the state’s early voting. Not only is this a thinly-veiled intimidation tactic, but it is indicative of a pattern of voter suppression that disproportionately targets people of color. For a party in the GOP that seems content to try to deny projected population trends and a growing sense of multiculturalism in the United States in favor of appealing to working-class whites and older Americans fearful of change, while the strategy is no less appalling, it makes a lot of sense.

Assuming Democrats, particularly progressive Democrats (I am not treating these terms as mutually exclusive, but regard this term as you will), are interested in expanding and protecting the right to vote, what do they need to do? Honestly, probably the best thing they can do is win elections, and ay, there’s the rub. Republican efforts to suppress votes specifically target members of their base, making it harder for them to win elections and stop GOP officials from doing things like purging voters based on flimsy arguments and closing polling places, or nominating and confirming judges who uphold discriminatory election laws crafted by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). It’s a vicious circle, and one the apathy of American voters only helps perpetuate.

For activists, meanwhile, advocacy for the expansion of voting rights and informing and educating the public about options designed to make the voting process easier seems like a meritorious course of action, and one that is beneficial in terms of the bigger political picture, at that. Especially for the activist groups that prefer remaining issue-based and not candidate-focused, as well as for the organizations that have struggled with attracting more diverse membership, working to eliminate barriers to exercising the right to vote can be an important step in breaking down barriers to positive change elsewhere.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Primary Win Has People Shook

aoc
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of long-time congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for NY-14 has Democrats, the mainstream media, and Republicans all flustered. Good. (Photo Credit: Twitter/Jesse Korman

In advance of this year’s New York Democratic primaries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had already generated a lot of attention, thanks in large part to a viral campaign advertisement called “The Courage to Change.” The spot highlights how Ocasio-Cortez is, to put it simply, not your average congressional candidate. As the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaigner says in a voiceover for the two-minute ad:

Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family. Mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny. My name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m an educator, an organizer, a working-class New Yorker. I’ve worked with expectant mothers, I’ve waited tables, and led classrooms, and going into politics wasn’t in the plan.

So, what compelled the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez to run? Not to suggest her campaign is a derivative one, but her platform sounds a lot like one belonging to a certain Vermont senator who ran for president:

After 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: who has New York been changing for? Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by. The rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same. It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us, and we deserve a champion. It’s time to fight for a New York that working families can afford.

That’s why I’m running for Congress. This race is about people vs. money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens need is Medicare-for-all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform.

We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage. A New York for the many is possible. It’s time for one of us.

Ocasio-Cortez has stated her campaign is not about progressives vs. establishment Democrats, and rather, that it’s about people over politics and money, but it’s clear from her mission statement that she’s there in opposition to politics as usual, and if that means going through long-tenured party members to do it, so be it.

In particular, her campaign spot name-checks Joe Crowley, Democratic representative from her district and member of the House since 1999 (hence, the “20 years” reference). Crowley, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem like a bad guy per se, but he also represents the centrist, “old white guy” political mold that voters increasingly are eschewing in their embrace of substantive policy ideas (and it probably doesn’t help he’s been chummy with lobbyists and pro-business types). Sure, he’s moved farther left than when he started in Congress, but going against someone who looks and sounds like a real-deal progressive, he and others like him are suddenly more vulnerable.

As the title of this post would indicate, they may be very vulnerable, indeed. In a fairly surprising result, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the 10-term incumbent Crowley in last week’s primary, capturing 57% of the vote. Ocasio-Cortez’s “upset” win is surprising for any number of reasons, not the least of which are her status as a relative unknown and political neophyte, Crowley’s entrenchment in Washington, and her being outdone roughly 10-to-one in campaign spending. Ocasio-Cortez’s political bid began seemingly as a feel-good story, and progressives likely would have been happy with her showing regardless of the outcome. Now, however, she appears poised to be a force to be reckoned with.

In the immediate aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upending of Joe Crowley’s re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-election bid, it would seem few are really well equipped to reckon with her success. Certainly, that we are even treating her victory as a surprise is owed somewhat to the media’s previous lack of focus on her, a trend that others outside the establishment vanguard have encountered (see also Cynthia Nixon, of whom we would stand to know little if we weren’t already familiar with her acting).

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been consistently critical of the blind eye turned toward progressives in everyday political discourse, in particular chastised Joy-Ann Reid and MSNBC in a couple of tweets the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win:

Compare @JoyAnnReid’s revealingly insular and self-justifying tweet above about how “political journalism” (i.e. MSNBC) ignored the @Ocasio2018 race to @brianstelter’s honest and accurate @CNN story on how several media outlets actually covered the race.

A cable network that is monomaniacally devoted to faithfully serving the agenda of Party leaders and uncritically disseminating their talking points is obviously going to miss – or deliberately suppress – any challenges to those Party dictates. That’s what happened there.

While MSNBC talking heads are overlooking progressive candidates for public office and even the sources that more closely follow them, moderate Democrats are painting Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as an anomaly or one-off rather than a sign of the times during this post-mortem period. Nancy Pelosi, notably, dismissed these returns from NY-14 as being indicative of a movement or anything “larger” than one district. It’s perplexing considering the energy and press following Ocasio-Cortez seem like things Democrats of all make and model should be embracing. Then again, this is Nancy Pelosi we’re talking about here, a woman that Republicans seeking office are only too happy to have around because she evidently possesses a Hillary Clinton-like ability to make public declarations GOP political advertisers can use to their strategic advantage to make her and the Dems seem out of touch.

Speaking of Republicans, they’ve got their own reasons to be scared of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jay Willis, writing for GQ Magazine, explains that they’re “terrified” of the 28-year-old political hopeful, precisely because they can’t beat her on a policy debate. Instead, conservatives like John Cardillo have resorted to questioning her credentials right down to her upbringing, suggesting, among other things, that she grew up in a more wealthy household/neighborhood than she is otherwise letting on. This, to me, is akin to the types of conspiracy theories that would have you believe survivors of mass shootings and children separated from their families at the Mexican border are paid actors. It’s as reprehensible as it is dishonest.

In short, centrist Democrats, conservative Republicans, and corporatist media outlets all see Ocasio-Cortez as somewhat of a threat, and this seems to be as much about her identity as her policy goals. In talking about her “identity,” I’m referring not to Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx upbringing or Puerto Rican heritage, but her self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”

Much in the way Bernie Sanders was assailed on all sides from people who failed to draw distinctions between “democratic socialism” and “socialism” and ostensibly socialist regimes which belie a dictatorial bent—or intentionally confused them—Ocasio-Cortez’s win is forcing to those on the left and right alike to come to grips with the dreaded S-word. Within the press community, numerous outlets have taken to publishing articles trying to explain for the uninitiated what the heck, exactly, democratic socialism is. Nancy Pelosi, while diminishing Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory, also has publicly rejected the notion that socialism is “ascendant” within Democratic ranks.

On the right, meanwhile, SOCIALISM! SOCIALISM! BURN THE WITCH! This salvo from Cheryl Chumley for The Washington Times entitled “Ocasio-Cortez, New York’s socialist congressional contender, an enemy of America,” I share because I find it especially repugnant. It characterizes her primary win as a “face slap to America” and an “affront to all the Founding Fathers forged.” Chumley is the same woman who recently authored an essay on how “Democrats hate America,” apparently with the numbers to prove this assertion. For the record, her “numbers” are one statistic from a Gallup poll that shows Democrats are less likely to be “extremely proud” to be an American than their Republican counterparts—which surely doesn’t have anything to do with the Trump White House, a GOP-led Congress, and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, right?—and vague sentiments that reference Antifa, democratic socialists, and Obama apologists into one nebulous mix to be feared and loathed. Sorry Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t look and sound and think like you, Ms. Chumley. I forgot that makes her automatically less American or patriotic.

But about those policy goals. In the vein of a Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports progressive ideals such as Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, free tuition for public colleges, campaign finance reform, and housing as a human right. These are not new, and are not controversial to the extent that fellow Democrats may not explicitly argue against them, though they may be reluctant to embrace them in favor of more centrist policies.

Other views, meanwhile, are outside the mainstream, either by virtue of their direct opposition to commonly-held stances within the party or their relative novelty among leadership. For one, Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal critic of Israel, and joins an evidently growing number of people on an international stage who question the free pass Netanyahu’s government receives for its actions related to Israeli settlements and its handling of Palestinian resistance to the latter group’s apparent subjugation.

While she hasn’t yet clarified her position on the BDS movement, that the Democratic Socialists of America are pro-boycott worries the Democratic elites who have come to count on wealthy Jewish patrons and staunchly pro-Israel groups among their lists of donors. It’s another point of potential division between factions within the Democratic Party, which tend to get played up for effect in the media anyway, but nonetheless may be indicative of a fracture between the old guard and the new vying to push the party in a certain diplomatic direction.

The other major policy quirk which has drawn additional attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is her embrace of an “abolish ICE” mantra. On this note, her views seem to lack nuance, although it would likely be difficult to rally behind a cause with a more cumbersome message. As it would seem, Ocasio-Cortez only wants to “abolish” Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the extent that it would be replaced with a more accountable agency or otherwise reformed.

Of course, Republicans have sought to weaponize this stated goal by insinuating that Democrats who want to abolish ICE are asking for no border control at all, hence other Dems have been reluctant to embrace the slogan. Then again, in light of the ongoing crisis facing the detention and separation of immigrant families, as well as numerous alleged abuses by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the discussion over what is permitted in the name of “border security” is a worthy one.

All this has made for a rather confusing dissection of a race that few outside of progressive circles and Ocasio-Cortez’s own support system were wont to predict in her favor, a dissection that tests us as consumers of the news to view our sources critically. After all, what these outlets say about the congressional hopeful may say as much about them as it does her. In the case of Cheryl Chumley, it reveals ugly attitudes predicated on jingoistic paranoia. As such, while the November election in New York’s 14th congressional district will now undoubtedly receive much more widespread attention, how much of it is good or fair remains to be seen.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has only just won the Democratic primary for her district, but given the heavy blue leanings of NY-14, she’s looking like a pretty sure bet to make it to Congress. Either way, there is real energy behind her and her campaign, and not just from New Yorkers.

In Ocasio-Cortez, many pundits see the future of the Democratic Party, one of female leadership and better representation for people of color and other minority groups. They also see, in progressives like Ocasio-Cortez daring to go “further left,” Democrats more authentically embracing the values that the party’s detractors would say mainline Dems have all but abandoned over the years, particularly in defending the working class and organized labor from attempts by the GOP to erode their influence.

By proxy, search for “Nancy Pelosi” and you’ll see umpteen calls for her to step aside or hand the baton over. Her defenders, meanwhile, see her as a great leader, prodigious fundraiser, and tireless worker, so it may just as well be that Pelosi isn’t going anywhere.

While comments to downplay Ocasio-Cortez’s and other progressives’ influence reflect poorly on Pelosi, it also is worth mentioning that one upset victory does not a party takeover make. This is not meant to throw water on the fire of young candidates on the rise, but rather to underscore the magnitude of the opposition others like Ocasio-Cortez will face from Democrats (esp. firmly-entrenched incumbents) and Republicans (esp. in red-leaning areas) alike.

Following Ocasio-Cortez’s win, candidates like Ayanna Presley in Massachusetts and Kerri Harris of Delaware have seen an uptick in their donations. Primary results still matter, though, and much work has to be done by their campaigns to build on their compatriot from New York’s success. In short, while there is momentum building, this is not to say that democratic socialism in the United States has truly arrived.

Still, that we’re even having this discussion about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the future of the Democratic Party means that we can’t rule out Presley’s or Harris’s chances, and that the discussion about whether platforms like theirs can be adapted to succeed in jurisdictions like the Midwest where the GOP possesses an advantage is a meritorious one. Seeing various reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s win characterized by sheer bafflement, this only reinforces the idea few were ready for the eventuality of a liberal progressive gaining traction. Thus, while it’s too early to say what exactly this upset means, it’s highly intriguing to see people so “shook” over it.

Here’s hoping for a little more shaking-up before the 2018 election season is done.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

The “Ugly American” and the DACA Debate

daca_vs_maga
The DACA debate is one that exposes an ugly side of American attitudes toward immigration, a side fueled by cruelty, ignorance, and hate. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

I do not follow President Donald Trump on Twitter, if for no other reason than I don’t want to be counted among his followers. Seeing as he’s President, though, and his words matter—perhaps they should matter more than they do, but matter they do—the media reports on what he says, and so I get enough of what I need to know secondhand. This is not to say that his words don’t affect me—indeed, they do, and because they affect me, I try to distance myself so as not to get overwhelmingly angry or distraught.

In saying this, I realize I am privileged to the extent that, while what Trump says might affect me emotionally, what he says is unlikely to affect my daily existence to the extent it disrupts it or completely changes it. For recipients of legal status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the stakes are much higher, and as such, every Tweet has the potential to signify a policy shift which could make for a life-altering event. Akilah Johnson, in a recent piece for The Boston Globe, explores this reality for so-called Dreamers, who have to monitor the volatility of Trump’s Tweets the way others might follow the ups-and-downs of the stock market (and increasingly so in the wake of fears of a brewing trade war). Johnson provides a bit of context thusly:

On Easter morning, Trump began a series of tweets about DACA, border security, and the country’s immigration laws, and there has been at least one nearly every day since, though he has been tweeting about immigration since before taking office.

But young immigrants said they don’t see themselves in many of the tweets, which equate immigration with criminality one day and express sympathy for DACA recipients who have been “abandoned” and received “very unfair” treatment in another.

It’s as if, they say, their academic accomplishments, hard work, and individual stories mean little. Instead, they are reduced to stereotypes in the immigration debate that is playing out on social media. The declarations of support are even more confusing, they say, because it was Trump who seeks to end the program that shields them from deportation.

And so each news alert or iPhone notification about the president’s ever-changing immigration agenda can be panic-inducing.

That Donald Trump’s mindset and position on specific issues tend to vacillate—I’m being kind here—is no big secret or surprise. Assuming he even understands what he’s talking about, and that’s a big enough assumption as it is, Trump lacks the familiarity with the underlying subject matter and its nuances by virtue of not having seriously considered it as a function of his political inexperience. To a certain extent, the malleability of his stances reflect the notion he is a novice, as well as the high probability he seems unprepared to take the lead on areas like immigration because he not only wants to deflect blame or responsibility, but that he also was unprepared to win the 2016 presidential election in the first place.

Beyond learning on the job, however, Trump’s treatment of DACA recipients via Twitter reflects an attitude toward their plight that representatives of both parties at times have seemed too ready to embrace: that of behaving as if DACA is a mere bargaining chip and not something which affects hundreds of thousands of young people currently residing in the United States. Earlier this year, DACA negotiations were a notable sticking point in spending bill negotiations that ultimately resulted in a relatively brief government shutdown, but a shutdown it was. Democratic Party leadership apparently had its fears that Republican legislators would refuse to hold a vote on the immigration issue assuaged by Mitch McConnell’s promise that hearings on the matter would be forthcoming.

That was in January. We’re into April now, and evidently, little progress in Congress has been made on the subject of DACA, leaving Trump to unleash Tweetstorms about illegal immigration with his usual reckless abandon and even address the topic during the White House Easter Egg Roll. Seriously. At the time of the shutdown’s end, activists and other advocates for Dreamers maligned Chuck Schumer et al. for what they saw as “caving” on DACA, a characterization that was not lost on the GOP and other conservative critics who took their own opportunity to take jabs at their opponents at the center-left of the spectrum. Specifically, pro-immigrant groups voiced their disappointment with Democratic leadership agreeing to anything predicated on a Mitch McConnell promise, which would be—and these are my words, but I’m sure the sentiment is shared—like trusting a pack of wolves not to touch a juicy steak. Three months later, it appears their concerns were well justified.

What is singularly disturbing about the political gridlock surrounding DACA, and whether it is “dead” or simply in limbo following the passing of the March 5 deadline set by President Trump to get a deal done, is that, amid the inaction and turmoil, Trump’s voice is amplified. This is a terrible development, because in making illegal immigration a central theme of his campaign and into his presidency, Trump has exploited Americans’ fears about immigration, legal and not—as well as their lack of knowledge about the subject and/or refusal to adequately fact-check. On Easter morning, he raged about “big flows of people” trying to come to America and take advantage of DACA. He also has Twitter-shouted about “caravans” of dangerous criminals trying to cross the border, and has blamed Democrats for standing in the way of reform and wanting to let would-be Mexican border-crossers in unchecked. Presumably, it’s because the Dems are banking on undocumented Latinos to illegitimately vote by the millions for them, you know, despite there being any evidence of this whatsoever.

Like Akilah Johnson, Tessa Stuart, writing for Rolling Stone, spoke directly with Dreamers back in September 2017 to discuss the confusion surrounding DACA and the misconceptions that might exist as a result of hateful rhetoric related to its fate. In particular, the young people consulted for this piece hoped to debunk these myths about them and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals:

Myth #1: DACA recipients can just become citizens.

Even Barack Obama as President was explicit about the idea that DACA is neither amnesty nor immunity nor a path to citizenship. As Astrid Silva, interviewed for the article, outlines, one of the primary benefits of DACA is an Employment Authorization Document, or EAD. But as Silva asserts, the current immigration picture is more complex than a situation like in The Proposal where Sandra Bullock marries for papers, and as Stuart spells out with the help of Rep. Ruben Kihuen, the first Dreamer elected to Congress, it’s much different than it was some 30 years ago, when immigrants who overstayed their visas could adjust their status.

Myth #2: DACA allows immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay indefinitely.

Nope. As Stuart spells out, the window for qualifying to receive DACA is a fairly narrow one: one had to arrive in the United States before the age of 16, live in the country since 2007, and be younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012. Of the 1.7 million people eligible, fewer than half actually have registered for the program, and have had to apply for a renewal of their status every two years.

Myth #3: DACA recipients “put our nation at risk of crime, violence, and even terrorism.”

Wrong again. That’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, espousing his views based on tolerance as head of the Trump administration’s totally impartial Department of Justice. Felony convictions and multiple or significant misdemeanors disqualify DACA recipients, as do those who are considered “a threat to public safety or national security.” The vast majority of Dreamers are law-abiding, America-loving people. Which makes Jeff Sessions full of you-know-what.

Myth #4: DACA gives undocumented immigrants access to federal benefits.

DACA recipients can obtain driver’s licenses and go to college. But they can’t receive federal financial aid, nor can they even enroll in a healthcare plan under the Affordable Care Act. For the young people trying to afford school, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at least affords them the opportunity to work while they go to school so they can apply for private loans. People who harp on the supposed glorious “benefits” received by Dreamers overstate their case, and understate the contributions made by these immigrants, including but not limited to paying income taxes.


It should be stressed that Donald Trump is not the only influential voice to espouse anti-immigrant views steeped in racism and xenophobia. Worldwide, migration and refugeeism/asylum-seeking has helped put a strain on relations between ethnic groups; in Europe, for instance, one need look no further than the notion Marine Le Pen was one of the finalists, so to speak, in the race for France’s presidency that ultimately saw Emmanuel Macron elected, or how the Brexit referendum was pushed by far-right elements within the United Kingdom.

Besides, for Trump to succeed with a presidential campaign that, on Day One, bashed Mexicans as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists (with some good people; gee, thanks), he had to tap into prejudices shared by his supporters and others who voted for him. Though not an altogether significant group, a certain percentage of voters in the 2016 election went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to buying a ticket for the “Trump Train.” While economic factors and Trump’s faux populism had a part to play in this, the trepidation of white Americans over the nation “losing its identity” and of having “their culture” diminished by the influx of other ethnic groups likewise figured heavily into Trump’s upset electoral victory.

All this aside, Trump regularly ginning up the “deplorables” within his base deserves every bit of condemnation one can muster, and for the conservatives who cling to trickle-down theories of economics and change, this should inspire a proportionate sense of shame. While still misplaced, it would be one thing for Trump and his administration to more provincially focus their intensity on those undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes or are otherwise found guilty of significant misdemeanors, as he indicated he would do while stumping for votes.

Instead, Trump being Trump, DACA recipients are liable in their own right to be detained or deported, with boasts of “DACA being dead” and no opportunity wasted to throw members of Congress (especially Democrats) under the bus, and Trump keeping with the nonsense about a wall furnished and paid for by Mexico. Meanwhile, Trump, Jeff Sessions, and their conservative ilk continue to push the myth that DACA recipients and immigrants in general are more likely to commit crimes. This is made especially galling when considering that immigrant children often outperform their peers in school, as Bruce Fuller, sociologist at UC-Berkeley, and others have observed. By this token, we should be outraged that Trump et al. are attacking our best and brightest.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes for Recode’s Revolution TV special, spoke about how DACA is not an immigration issue, but a moral issue. Indeed, by going after Dreamers, the Trump administration is demonstrating its penchant for cruelty in threatening to deport those who came here as young children and who have little to no recollection of living in the country of their birth. People, who, moreover, contribute to America’s rich cultural tapestry, not to mention its economy. Even those who trumpet the need to uphold our nation’s laws seem to have their priorities in disarray. Are we content to punish DACA recipients for the “sins of their parents,” as outgoing GOP senator Jeff Flake would say? Is that “making America great again?”

The DACA debate is one that should serve as an impetus for all of us as Americans—native, immigrant, and otherwise—to consider who and what we support, and where we are going as a country. For members of the Republican Party, it is high time for them to contemplate how long they can continue to push false narratives about immigrants given a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse pool of individuals here. For Democrats and conscientious members of the electorate, it’s time to reassess whether or not we are doing enough to advocate for DACA recipients, open borders, and other liberal/progressive policies related to immigration. The shadow of the so-called “ugly American” looms large over the battle to protect a vulnerable subset of the U.S. population. Whether or not we care enough to put aside our hate and privilege, and act on these matters, is the question ultimately worth asking.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

Do We Care about the National Debt?

debt_as_a_doornail
Yup, that’s a lot of debt. (Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Alongside the immigration issue, the topic of the GOP tax overhaul is likely to be a prevailing theme leading up to the 2018 midterm elections in November. Republican candidates will be looking to tout its successes, and possibly the Trump White House’s political and economic agenda. Democrats will be looking to hammer their Republican counterparts over the idea the tax cut is intended to primarily benefit the wealthiest of the wealthiest Americans, not to mention corporations, which—and this seemingly can’t be stressed enough—are not people. In both cases, talk about our skyrocketing national debt will apparently be sparing as far as the national consciousness is concerned.

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the more immediate tangible benefits that American families might experience, and in doing so, not be as dismissive as some Democratic leaders might be. Numerous companies have cited the GOP tax cut as the impetus for bonuses allotted for their employees, and one-time giveaways aside, many workers may have noticed appreciable increases in their take-home pay related to the tax law changes. Even when accounting for context, however, the public comments made by key Democrats don’t seem to assuage the contention coming from conservative circles that the Democratic Party is out of touch with the rank-and-file of the country. Nancy Pelosi, in particular, has been assailed for likening the $1,000 bonuses some people have received to “crumbs” relative to the gains wealthy individuals and large businesses will expect to receive as a result of this policy shift. My girl Debbie Wasserman Schultz (sarcasm intended) also caught flak for her comments as the same event that she wasn’t sure $1,000 goes far for almost anyone. Maybe, ahem, not to the likes of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Wasserman Schultz, but $1,000 isn’t exactly chump change.

So, yeah, the positive aspects of the tax cut are not something to merely brush aside with a wave of the hand. Like crumbs. Or “deplorables,” recalling Hillary Clinton’s epic-fail gaffe. That said, if and how these bonuses apply for the average worker in the short term, and some real global economic concerns over the long term, serve to place the boasts of Donald Trump and Republican Party congressional leadership in a bit of a different light. According to a report by David Goldman and Jeanne Sahadi for CNN and citing a recent survey by Morgan Stanley analysts, only 13% of businesses’ tax cuts will go to bonuses, employee benefits, and pay raises, while 43% of the cuts will go to investors in the form of dividends and stock buybacks, which undoubtedly will involve some executives who are compensated in terms of stock incentives. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not to say that the American worker is a priority in this respect. The CNN report also cites statistics indicating that while companies have announced tax-cut-related bonuses and raises affecting some 3.5 million U.S. workers, that’s less than 3% of the 125.5 million U.S. workers in the employ of a company. Again, not nothing, but it imaginably might seem more like winning the lottery to those who don’t receive such rewards. And God forbid if you are underemployed, unemployed, or “work in the home” and don’t receive a traditional wage.

The obvious rebuttal to this criticism is that the tax cut was just recently put into effect, so it will take time for the economy to grow in proportion to its benefits, and for businesses to hire more and invest within the United States. Based on the way the law was written, however, there are plenty of red flags to be had. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 paves the way for permanent tax cuts for corporations, but on the individual taxation side of things, the modified rates are set to sunset by 2026. This means an extension of the Act’s provisions will need to be ratified by then, and seeing as Congress can’t seem to agree on anything these days except throwing ungodly sums of money at the military, this seems all but certain. In other words, the benefits of the tax cut—if they are to be enjoyed by as many members of the general public as the White House avers they will—are temporary, much like the one-time bonuses that companies are awarding to their employees.

And then there is the matter of our ever-escalating national debt. Annie Lowrey, writing for The Atlantic, probes the intersection of U.S. deficit spending with the GOP tax cut in relation to conservative Republican ideologies. In the onset, Lowrey speaks to the seeming strangeness of Donald Trump to make America’s debt a glaring omission from his State of the Union speech. She writes:

ISIS, tax cuts, public trust. Race, immigration, the Empire State Building. Civil-service reform, North Korea, manufacturing. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech addressed a broad sweep of issues. But one central economic topic went notably missing: the country’s growing annual deficits and its increasing burden of debt. The omission was a sign of the remarkable volte-face the Republican Party has taken on the country’s fiscal situation in just a few years. Republicans spent the early years of the recovery obsessed with the national debt, castigating Democrats for their supposed irresponsibility, warning about the dangers of the almighty bond market, and helping to construct complicated mechanisms to slash federal outlays. They are now spending what might very well be the late years of the recovery ignoring it, having passed a tax plan that will add more to the debt than President Obama’s stimulus package did and having forgotten their once-urgent plans to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

While this trend may prompt deficit hawks like Rand Paul to sob gently to themselves, Lowrey seeks not to be abjectly critical of Republicans in this regard, but rather to underscore just how much of a 180 this position is from the Tea Party fever which ushered so many Republicans into office and paved the way for a decade of legislative defeats for the Democratic Party. While Trump is not your average Republican and all politicians are liable to break their campaign promises—Trump, despite not being a lifelong politician, is a salesman and pathological liar, so somehow even more liable to do so—even he ran on a campaign of reducing our annual deficits and balancing the budget. If there is criticism to be leveled on Lowrey’s part, it is more so on the side of the Republicans’ past obsession with spending that sent the federal government into shutdown mode at least once and gave GOP members of Congress ample opportunity to rail against the Obama administration’s supposed largesse.

Now with Donald Trump as President and Commander-in-Chief on top of Republican control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the shoe is on the other foot, and with the change has come the aforementioned commensurate reversal on the topic of deficit spending. While a minority of American workers are presently receiving one-time gains or improvements to the benefits they receive from their employers, as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, according to figures from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation cited by Annie Lowrey in the article, the tax cut would add $1.8 trillion to the national debt over the 2018 to 2027 span. Not million. Not billion. Trillion. While the magnitude of the addition to the debt might be vaguely surprising, though, the mechanism should not. By effecting a tax cut, it’s a direct drain on revenue paid directly to the government. At the same time, meanwhile, Republicans have more recently shied away from the entitlement reform and domestic program cuts that have previously been a rallying cry for the party, and have further turned the dial up on this trend with calls for more military spending. Mentions of deficits and debt during congressional proceedings, too, have largely decreased since peaking in 2011, and the Trump administration, ever the depiction of tumult, is even more loath to broach the subject, and when it does, as Lowrey notes, its officials do so “with little sense of outrage or concern.”

Is this attitudinal change with respect to the national debt indicative of a seemingly inherent hypocrisy in major-party politics—i.e. when we’re in office/the majority, the same rules need not apply—or simply reflective of a sea change regarding how all of us have come to regard deficit spending? To be honest, it’s probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. As one Obama-era economic adviser quoted in Lowrey’s piece believes, Republicans’ prior importance placed upon the debt was merely a tactic to garner short-term political capital. To boot, retrospective thinking from experts on the trouble the United States might face in relation to its debt suggests worries based on European credit crises like the one notably faced by Greece may have been overstated, not to mention concerns about how deeply the American public is invested in this topic.

On the latter count, and citing a study by the Pew Research Center, Lowrey notes that whereas 72% of respondents named reducing federal deficits a top priority in 2013, today, fewer than half of those surveyed do. That the U.S. economy is performing well overall at the moment is an important factor herein, but also playing a role is growing attention other political and social issues, namely drug addiction/the opioid crisis, the environment, and improving the nation’s infrastructure and transportation. From our perspective, then, it may not be a case so much of not caring about economic issues like the national debt as much having a lot on our plates. Besides a majority of Americans still viewing the economy as a pivotal priority, fears about terrorism and preoccupations of the state of education in the United States weigh heavily on people’s minds.

Again, though, this isn’t solely a knock on Republicans. If Democrats were in power, there is every indication they’d be running up the country’s debt and not expressing outward reservations about doing so. This is not to say that all deficit spending is inherently bad; investments made which can lead to future growth or prevent future calamity come with a cost. That said, as with personal debt—a subject with which a seemingly increasing number of Americans have become familiar—the national debt is a “drag on the economy,” as a representative of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, quoted in Lowrey’s piece, highlights. Meanwhile, even if GOP leaders have temporarily put aside talk of dismantling core components of the U.S. social safety net, this is not to say that these programs do not need improving. With next year’s annual budget deficit set to top $1 trillion and concern for the sustainability of this arrangement seemingly on the decline, if what Annie Lowrey and other observers say is true, things are likely to get worse before they get better on the debt front. Just how bad, and whether or not a bursting of this bubble might produce a credit catastrophe, unfortunately remains to be seen.


Now that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has been signed into law and we have ample time to actually stop and think and wax philosophical about it, the Republican Party’s strategy is not altogether unsound from the perspective of manipulating public opinion. By the time the individual provisions of the tax cut are to sunset, we’ll be at least two more presidential election cycles down the road. Thus, the GOP can likely reap the rewards of the short-term political gains they’ve helped foster presently, and by the time Donald Trump is out of office (hopefully long before 2024, but these days, given the political atmosphere, I don’t like to get my hopes up) and Democrats have gained a majority in one or more wings of Congress or control the White House, they can defray any ill will they might have incurred related to the tax cut by pointing to the disastrous economic and social policies of the liberal left. In a 24-hour news cycle where viewers are already primed to quickly forget what just happened, it’s a fair bet that many of us will forget who the architects of this concession to corporate executives and wealthy benefactors even were.

This, to those of us insistent on documenting this chapter in American history, is rather obviously a long con. And I do mean con. In effect, it’s part of an even longer-term confidence trick that conservatives and neo-liberals have been imposing on the American public. Though officially titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the GOP tax cut is dyed-in-the-wool trickle-down economic theory. The primary beneficiaries of its amendments to tax law are corporations and business owners, under the idea that fewer taxes paid means more money to be invested in creating jobs and improving conditions for workers. The reality is that numerous corporations, financial experts and firms making use of the carried interest loophole, and pass-through entities have been taking advantage of favorable aspects of the tax code for years, and that the insistence from critics on the right that regulation and taxation is killing American industry tends to be overstated. There are a number of complex factors that go into why businesses succeed or fail, including changing social norms and advances in computer/automated technology, but consumer demand and discretionary spending are a crucial part of this mix. As for the employment side of the equation specifically, if firms are offering bonuses and other incentives to their workers, it is most likely not a sign of their generosity, but rather a competitive strategic move. In a tight job market, when companies like Walmart are raising wages, it’s an indication they’re doing so because they feel they have to survive.

Moreover, with the lowering of the top individual tax rate and the permanent slashing of the top corporate rate, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, given its signaled priorities, is very clearly class warfare. The GOP tax cut, ostensibly a boon for the middle class, working class, retired Americans, and the poor, is visibly skewed toward the most profitable companies and wealthiest individuals, and with caps on deductions for state and local taxes and property taxes, as well as the elimination of the personal exemption, the emphasis is not only on limiting the ability of the rank-and-file to alleviate their tax burdens, but to punish states like California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—states that all went blue in the 2016 election, it should be noted—that feature higher-than-average tax rates and were more liable to take advantage of superior SALT deduction policies. As alluded to before, too, Republicans’ success in passing tax “reform” legislation greases the wheels of attempts at entitlement “reform.” Which essentially means cuts to programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, because all that lost tax revenue is going to have to be made up somewhere else, and in all probability, it will not be coming from the untold sums stashed by the wealthy in offshore banking accounts and other tax havens.

The national debt is a real concern. However, it’s not a politically sexy topic right now, and with the stock market seeing record highs (when it’s not seeing dips related to fears about rising interest rates), it is seemingly of less interest to many of us as well. As yearly deficits continue to mount, and as questions of sustainability persist, it begs the question: how much longer can we continue to ignore that $20+ trillion elephant in the room?

The Memo Was Released, and Everybody Sucks

schiff_tiff
Devin Nunes (left) authored a misleading memo on abuses of FISA protocol that is a blatant attempt to undermine the FBI and the Department of Justice. Adam Schiff (right) is critical of the memo and its motivations, as well as President Trump, but he voted with other Republicans to reauthorize Section 702 of FISA. In this respect, they both suck. (Photo Credit: AP)

While watching Super Bowl LII—and watching the Philadelphia Eagles win their first championship and defeat the New England Patriots’ evil empire (I may be a Giants fan, but the Pats are second only to the Dallas Cowboys on my hate list)—I saw a commercial that spoke to me. No, not the thirty seconds of black screen that befuddled a nation. No, not the myriad Tide commercials that made you think they weren’t Tide commercials until they were, and almost made you forget about people eating Tide detergent pods. Almost. Not the NFL commercial that saw Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. dancing like they’ve never danced before. And certainly not the Dodge commercial that leveraged the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to sell RAM Trucks. It was a commercial for CURE Auto Insurance, an auto insurance provider in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. No, not the one where its mascot, an anthropomorphized blue dot, calls Tom Brady and the Patriots dirty cheaters (essentially). The one where that blue dot says that GEICO and their gecko and Progressive Insurance and Flo, the most impossibly adorable insurance sales agent, well, both suck. It was shocking for its brazenness as well as for its use of mild language—CURE could just as well suck, and you or I wouldn’t know it unless we used their product and lived to tell the awful tale.

What stuck with me, though, is that these sentiments—”they both suck”—could well be applied to other contexts. Namely politics. The objections of CURE Auto Insurance to the likes of bigger names in GEICO and Progressive Insurance are not unlike that of independent/third-party objections to the dominance of the Democratic and Republican Parties in today’s political discourse. As with political affiliations outside the Democrat-GOP binary, it is not as if they don’t have skin in the game, so to speak; CURE wants you to believe that their smaller size will allow them to be more attentive to your needs as a consumer in order to bring you in as a customer, as those outside the Democrat-GOP binary would have you believe the two major parties have largely stopped listening to the wants and needs of their constituents and thus deserve your vote because they have your best interests in mind. In both senses, then, the aggrieved third party is selling something.

To the extent GEICO or Progressive is derelict in its customer service duties I cannot say or wouldn’t begin to speculate; according to J.D. Power’s 2017 survey, Amica Mutual reigns supreme in overall auto claims satisfaction with 5 of 5 stars (J.D. Power trophies?), while GEICO manages a 4/5 rating, and Progressive, a so-so 3/5. In the world of voter satisfaction, meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party get high marks from the American public. In a January 2018 poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, while the Dems and GOP beat out Congress as a whole (8%) in terms of those who expressed “great confidence” in the institution, the 10% garnered by Republicans and the 13% managed by the Democrats fail to inspire in their own right. Moreover, if the fallout from the #ReleaseTheMemo drama has any impact on these figures, it’s only likely to depress them (and me in the process).

So, let’s talk about the Nunes memo, as it has been called. Its namesake, Devin Nunes, and other people who supported its release, insist it is not a political hit job. But come the f**k on—it totally is. Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about what the four-page memorandum actually says:

  • The crux of the fault-finding within the Nunes memo revolves around how the FBI and Department of Justice came to warranting, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a probable cause order and authorizing electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser and a person of interest in the special prosecutorial investigation helmed by Robert Mueller for his possible role as an intermediary between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials, potentially including pro-Trump interference on Russia’s part in the 2016 election. The memo’s contention is that it was not properly disclosed that the so-called Steele dossier, information compiled by former British intelligence officer and FBI source Christopher Steele and which formed a significant part of the basis for the initial FISA application and its three subsequent renewals, was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to the tune of some $160,000, nor was it disclosed that law firm Perkins Coie and research firm Fusion GPS had facilitated this arrangement.
  • Also of apparent issue is Steele’s correspondence with the news media. According to the memo, the FISA application for Page’s surveillance heavily cited a September 2016 article by Michael Isikoff for Yahoo! News, which doesn’t corroborate the Steele dossier because it doesn’t have to—Steele spoke with Yahoo! and other outlets directly—and later spoke to Mother Jones for an October 2016 article by David Corn and revealed his identity. The bone of contention is that an FBI source shouldn’t be revealing his or her identity and compromising his or her usefulness as a source, and at the very least, that Steele should’ve made his media contacts evident for the purposes of the FISA application.
  • More on Christopher Steele: according to the Nunes memo and citing a documented account by Bruce Ohr, former Associate Deputy Attorney General of the DOJ, Steele’s involvement was about more than just the money. That dirty, dirty Clinton money. It was about his “desperation” and “passion” for Donald Trump not becoming President that he did his part regarding the dossier.
  • So, why is all this an issue? According to the memo, it’s because, as of January 2017 and per former FBI director James Comey’s own words, the Steele dossier was characterized as “salacious and unverified.” Also, did I, Devin Nunes, mention Steele was biased against Trump? Did you get that? Christopher Steele—Donald Trump—MASSIVE BIAS. Just wanted to make sure that was in there.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, the Nunes memo additionally mentions, while stating there is no evidence of cooperation between Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and someone who has already pled guilty to lying to the FBI, that an FBI counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016 by looking at Papadopoulos, not Page. Of course, the memo also goes on to indicate that FBI agent Pete Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page were not only knockin’ boots, but had indicated their severe BIAS! against Donald Trump, and furthermore, that in their texts, orchestrated leaks to the news media and discussed an “insurance” policy against Trump winning the election with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. McCabe announced his resignation from this post on January 29.

In the wake of the memo’s release, many independent observers commented on just how remarkably, well, unremarkable its contents are. In terms of bombshell revelations, Nunes’ memo is about as earth-shattering as was the Benghazi investigation and Hillary Clinton’s involvement; in other words, much ado about nothing. Additionally, scrutiny of the memo raises its own set of questions about the motivations behind its release. Let’s do our own dive into the arguments raised within its text:

  • The Clinton campaign paid for the research that compiled by Christopher Steele. And? So? At worst, this would seem like an issue with the process of securing a warrant for surveillance of Carter Page, but this says nothing of the veracity of Steele’s claims. It’s my understanding that opposition research is a standard part of politics in today’s day and age. At any rate, if the intention was to prevent Trump from winning, it didn’t serve that purpose, so what’s the big deal at this point? The Republican candidate won. Get over it.
  • Steele’s interaction with the media and his disclosure of his identity as an FBI source, if anything, seems like an internal matter for the Bureau to handle, not for Devin Nunes to publicly criticize. Again, this would seem to be an issue of process, and highlighting Steele’s failure to disclose this aspect only serves as a blatant attempt by Nunes and others to undermine the FBI’s credibility.
  • Devin, bruh—a lot of people don’t like Donald Trump at this point. Trump’s approval rating may have gone up recently, perhaps thanks in part to his State of the Union speech of which a majority of Americans approve, but it’s still a minority of Americans who give him a thumbs-up at this point. These allusions to anti-Trump bias just look like a cheap way to gin up his supporters for his—and possibly your own—political benefit.
  • The memo highlights Comey’s indication that the contents of the dossier were “salacious and unverified.” Not only have some aspects of the Steele dossier since been confirmed (or disconfirmed), however, but other elements are simply still unverified, not demonstrably debunked. The mainstream media may distance itself from its contents, but that may have as much to do with lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers” as much as anything, not to mention Buzzfeed’s apparently reckless release of the associated information.
  • Last but not least, the notion that an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in American affairs began not with Carter Page, but instead George Papadopoulos, would seem to somewhat undermine the central theme of this memo: that surveillance of Page under FISA was based on faulty intelligence from an unreliable source. If Papadopoulos’ involvement with Russia was sufficient to spark an in-depth look, this works against the notion that Trump’s detractors or even Mueller and his associates have nothing besides the Steele dossier on which to go. Besides, once more, the memo doesn’t suggest the intel on Papadopoulos is false, but merely drags Pete Strzok and his “mistress”—yes, the Nunes memo actually refers to Lisa Page as such—as if to suggest that their affair makes them less than credible. This morality-based character assassination has no bearing on the validity of the case against either Page or Papadopoulos. Talk about salacious.

Donald Trump and his supporters see this as proof that the investigation into his possible ties to Russia, including orchestrating interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, is nothing but a witch hunt. Fake news. Then again, Trump especially would say this. For many discerning onlookers not already blinded by loyalty to Pres. Drumpf, though, the public release of the Nunes memo—which was only made possible because the White House opted to declassify its contents, mind you—is intended primarily to erode confidence in the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation so that it will seem like a natural consequence that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is fired, his successor is named, and that individual can get rid of Robert Mueller. Because Trump and his associates are innocent. And all around him, people are heavily BIASED against him. SO MUCH BIAS. PUTTING THINGS IN ALL CAPS MAKES THEM MORE BELIEVABLE.

Both the Democrats and the bulk of the U.S. intelligence community were highly critical of the use of classified information in this way. Adam Schiff, Democratic member of the House of Representatives for the state of California and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee—or “Little” Adam Schiff, in Trumpist parlance—CC’d on the release of the original memo, for one, asserts that the information included in the memo is cherry-picked in a manner designed to create a narrative that makes the President look like a target of a conspiracy. Not to mention its contents, it should be stressed, do not exonerate Pres. Trump, but merely cast aspersions on the reliability of the FBI, DOJ, and relevant sources.

Even if the revelations within are fairly tepid, meanwhile, the implications of the executive branch and members of the legislative branch of the federal government going after the American intelligence community are such that we of the rank-and-file persuasion should be concerned regardless of our political affiliation. As even some Republicans, including high-profile party members like John McCain, would insist, this interparty and interoffice conflict does Vladimir Putin and Co.’s work for them in sending public confidence in our political institutions downward yet further. This is not to say that FBI agents and DOJ personnel shouldn’t be held accountable for any misdeeds on their part, or should be afforded too little oversight owing to the broad notion that information related to investigations may be “sensitive.” By the same token, when Trump can take wild swings on Twitter at officials under his purview—including heads of agencies installed on his watch—and the media and its consumers can report and digest this all without batting an eye, one may get the sense we’re on shaky footing as a nation indeed.


President Trump’s tiff with Adam Schiff—the Schiff Tiff, if you will—and the resistance Nancy Pelosi showed in a marathon speech on the House floor in an effort to bring attention to the fate of Dreamers after the Senate reached an agreement on the terms of a budget proposal without any assurances that the immigration issue will be taken up in the near future, make for appealing political theater. The hullabaloo about the Nunes memo, meanwhile, paired with the recent vote to reauthorize FISA Section 702, makes leaders on both sides of the political aisle hard to support. On the Republican side of things, I was already predisposed to think less of Paul Ryan, but his defense of the release of the memo as standard operating procedure for Congress is disingenuous and cowardly when numerous GOP House members are either publicly criticizing Devin Nunes or abandoning ship by refusing to run for re-election in the midterms. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Pelosi and Schiff’s public censure of Donald Trump and his Republican brethren rings hollow when they’re voting alongside their GOP counterparts to extend the surveillance powers of a President they deem to be untrustworthy. For their part, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer should be held accountable for this vote as well, the latter in particular. If 34 senators could say “Nay”—including seven Republicans—he could’ve joined his fellow New York legislator Kirsten Gillibrand in doing so.

This all makes for a disappointing backdrop to the larger conversation about American foreign policy alongside the country’s military and intelligence capabilities. Amid reports that Russian hackers were able to penetrate several state voter rolls in advance of the 2016 election and that the Pentagon has been told by Trump to plan a military parade that could cost us upwards of $20 million—you know, just to show how great we are—we discerning consumers are left to wonder just how devoted Congress, the President, or the media is to safeguarding our best interests. The memo was released, and everybody sucks. If these events aren’t a call for new leadership across the board, I don’t know what is.

The Koch Brothers Are “All In” for 2018

David Koch
In a movie about the Koch Brothers, David Koch would be played Sir Michael Caine. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Money in politics. Whether you’re a concerned citizen on the right or left, a majority of Americans seems to agree that the influence of moneyed interests on the workings of Congress and on the determination of elections up and down the card is a problem in this country. Perhaps most egregious—though that could just be the nefarious nomenclature talking—is so-called “dark money,” or money spent by politically active nonprofits that, owing to their structure, do not have to disclose the sources of their funds, and thus can essentially receive unlimited amounts from corporate, individual, or union benefactors. As a brief primer on dark money on opensecrets.org explains, in theory, the extent of these nonprofits’ political activities is supposed to be proscribed, but the IRS, whether because it has been hampered by cuts to its funding or because it hasn’t made enforcement a priority, has done little to enforce any limits. Accordingly, spending by these groups has been on the rise in recent election cycles. The amounts are not insignificant either—we’re talking tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in all. Dark money, ahem, casts a long shadow on American politics.

It is with this backdrop in place that we delve into recent reports that Americans for Prosperity, a political network backed by the Koch Brothers, is planning to spend upwards of $400 million in 2018 alone to help try to advance conservative policies. As Kathryn Watson reports for CBS News, “friends” of the network are optimistic about the prospects of conservative candidates in the 2018 midterms after what they deem to be successes in reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs concerning loosened restrictions on the ability of veterans to seek health care outside the sphere of government, as well as the more recent tax cut authored by Republican leaders, not to mention the addition of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Watson underscores the notion that these fundraising efforts are to be made with anticipated difficulties come November. For one, history dictates that the party in the White House doesn’t tend to do well in midterm elections. In addition, polling cited in Watson’s piece has Democrats beating Republicans by an average of about eight percentage points. And then there’s recent Democratic Party successes in Alabama, New Jersey, and Virginia. And then there’s the ever-popular Donald Trump (sarcasm intended).

And yet, spend these Koch Brothers-affiliated political organizations will, including some $20 million on trying to sell the public on the idea that the tax cut passed in late December of last year isn’t, you know, a flaming pile of horse manure. Plus, while the Koch Brothers did not personally spend anything on the 2016 presidential election—maybe because they were as disappointed in the final list of candidates as many of us were, though I could just be projecting—as Watson also indicates, they have apparently warmed to the idea of working with the Trump administration, and “want to protect what they consider significant accomplishments in the administration, and work to further them.” For the record, I wasn’t aware the Trump administration had any significant achievements thus far, but if the Kochs and Co. can find them, more power to them.

With this news about the Koch network pushing its proverbial chips to the center of the table to protect Republican interests (and majorities), it’s not long before the Democrats really start sounding the alarm on the need to counteract the planned record spending on the 2018 midterms. Of course, this means that the Dems will be doing so with one hand on the crank to the air-raid siren and the other pointing directly at your wallet or purse. Not-for-profit organizations, political or not, need to solicit money to operate—this is an unavoidable truth of our world. At the same time, though, who prospective donations will be funding—that is, how the party arrives at its eventual nominee in key races—is significant.

Going back to Kathryn Watson’s article, on the GOP side, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, and their ilk have not specified what they’d be looking for in candidates to back, but whether erring on the side of economic or social conservatism, it seems pretty safe to assume they’d be erring; the only thing mentioned within the span of the piece is that Koch Family network leaders issued a statement expressing vague support for President Trump’s path to citizenship for young immigrants, but not without concern for ending “chain migration.” “Concern” is an understatement. As the Baltimore Sun and other critics of Donald Trump’s recently-unveiled immigration plan insist, aside from the requirement of a border wall in exchange for protection for Dreamers being an absurdity, curtailing practices like chain migration and the diversity visa lottery not only distorts the facts on the numbers of foreign nationals who come to the United States in this way, but risks putting the country at a serious disadvantage by communicating an inhospitable attitude toward all immigrants, and depriving the nation of needed entrepreneurship, innovation, and vitality given an aging workforce. To be sure, these arguments can be extrapolated to the immigration discussion as a whole, but here, they are particularly relevant.

What about the Democrats, though? Should they stick to their guns and ride it out with their preferred centrist strategy, banking on history, polling, and Republican retirements to reclaim electoral momentum this year? Numerous outside observers would respond in the negative, and would rather see the Dems “go left to be right.” Sophia Tesfaye, deputy politics editor for Salon, indicates as much in her own reaction piece to the recent news regarding Koch-backed plans to boost spending by some 60% relative to 2016, and relates the additional number-crunching in terms of seats in Congress that explains why Republican donors plan to invest so heavily in the 2018 midterms. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, for one, believes 80 seats will be competitive this fall. Meanwhile, as Tesfaye explains, Democrats only need to net 24 seats in November to reclaim a majority in the House, and with some 16 Republicans set to retire and make their vacant seats liable to flip in favor of the Dems, as identified by the Kochs—and this is before Rodney Frelinghuysen from my home state made his own announcement about retirement—this leaves little margin for error, so to speak, for GOP leadership re the midterms. Tesfaye also cites the same “generic ballot” polling which suggests a decided overall advantage for Democrats over Republicans in hypothetical matchups between the two major parties, with the former enjoying an even more decided advantage among women. Based on this, 2018 could see the same “blue wave” experienced with the 2006 midterms during George W. Bush’s tenure.

Obviously, the above presents the Democratic Party with a rare opportunity. What is less obvious, Tesfaye argues, is that it also provides the Dems with a real chance to institute the kind of reforms that Bernie Sanders et al. would argue the party needs to make if it is going to compete with the Republican Party and thrive over the long term. From the article:

It’s clearly rough out there for Republicans in the House of Representatives, but what may be less obvious is how that provides a prime opportunity for progressives who want to push Democrats to the left. While five of the first six Republicans to quit during this term did so to accept jobs in President Trump’s administration, Democrats’ attempt to regain a House majority relies on a number of high-profile Republicans’ planned retirements. Freeing the field of an incumbent advantage allows not only a chance for Democrats to compete in the general election, but also an opportunity to nominate candidates who more accurately represent the most motivated Democratic voters.

Take, for instance, the seat vacated by veteran Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in the coastal suburbs of San Diego. Democrat Doug Applegate came within 2,000 votes of unseating Congress’ wealthiest member in 2016, as Hillary Clinton won the district by more than seven points. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by that same margin in the district. With Issa’s retirement, Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, is being challenged by progressive clean energy professional Mike Levin. Both Democrats are campaigning on a decidedly progressive “Medicare-for-all” platform.

In invoking the idea of primary challenges, it’s worth talking about whether primary challenges in the abstract are an important part of the political process and to selecting a congressional, presidential, or other candidate, or whether a competitive race in advance of the general election does more harm than good. Speaking of Bernie Sanders and his bid to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination for the 2016 election, if you ask staunch Hillary Clinton supporters, Sanders not only hurt her prospects of winning the whole shebang, but did lasting damage to the Democratic Party infrastructure in holding on as long as he did. If you ask Bernie’s faithful, meanwhile, as well as any number of independent commentators, the surprisingly and robustly competitive challenge he offered made Clinton a better candidate, and did well to engage younger voters who otherwise might not have been engaged or were simply disenfranchised with the politics of the moment, especially coming down from the highs of Barack Obama and “YES WE CAN!” Sophia Tesfaye, too, evidently sees merit in holding more than mere walkovers to the general election. Continuing with the sentiments about the opportunity developing before the Dems’ eyes, she writes:

Throw out the conventional wisdom that contested primaries hurt a party’s chances in the general election (which was likely never true anyway). A competitive Democratic primary could get more people involved in the process, boosting turnout in November’s general election. Look to Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2017 for the clearest example of how that might play out in the Democrats’ favor. Some Democrats feared that a primary challenge by progressive Tom Perriello in the Virginia race could fatally wound establishment favorite Ralph Northam, but the intra-party competition led to increased media coverage and intense voter interest. After beating Perriello in the primary, Northam went on to trounce Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points in an election most observers expected to be neck and neck.

In midterms, low voter turnout makes the size of the Republican base in many purple-to-red districts appear much larger than it actually is. Coupled with egregious gerrymandering meant to dilute the influence of the Democratic base and rampant voter suppression, midterms and other non-presidential elections have helped Republicans build what can seem an impregnable political power base.

More coverage. More interest. Bigger turnout. As Tesfaye frames this viewpoint, low turnout—whether as a result of apathy, active interference, or both—tends to benefit Republican candidates. It certainly benefited Donald Trump, who seemed to stun his own damn self by winning the 2016 election. In elections at the state level, where turnout is more likely to be subdued (“Wait, who’s running for governor again?”), anything that could help boost the profile of a candidate—particularly in a race that’s expected to be as close as Northam vs. Gillespie was—could be a difference maker. Besides, as some might argue, if a candidate can’t survive a tough primary, he or she may not be a great candidate for the general election outright.

As Tesfaye insists, however—and as I’d be keen to agree with—this moment beckons more than the Democrats simply embracing authentic primary challenges for its nominations in 2018 and beyond. It’s about the Democratic Party embracing an authentically progressive direction now and in the future. Or as she puts it, “A blue wave is coming. Electing more moderate, poll-driven, ‘blue dog’ Democrats to ride that wave would be a grave mistake.” For a party prone to repeating its mistakes, though, there is every worry they will do just that.


In an era of escalating political expenditures, the need for organized fundraising networks is a clear and present concern. At the same time, meanwhile, it distracts us or takes away from two separate conversations we could or perhaps should be having. The first is the viability of the two-party system—I myself voted neither for Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton in 2016. As Americans become increasingly frustrated with the direction of the two major political parties, public opinion would suggest that we should be seeing more people coming out to support the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and independent voting options. And yet, owing to their dissatisfaction, the preferred option for so many eligible voters seems to be to stay home. This, to me, is a travesty, exacerbated by the notion relief from the indifference of the Democratic and Republican Parties to change seems slow in coming, as well as the idea leading and organizing a legitimate challenge to the two-party system is a tremendous effort. It’s why Bernie Sanders has thus far eschewed invitations to run as a Green Party representative or to spearhead the creation of a “People’s Party” in favor of trying to instill reform within the Democratic Party. As admirable as the cause is, it’s a long-term project, to be sure.

The second conversation that could or should be happening goes back to the idea that started this piece: money in politics. As long as not-for-profit entities are allowed to skirt restrictions on the scope of their political activities and are not required to be more transparent about where and from whom they get their donations, and as long as many politicians and government officials allow themselves to be beholden to the whims of leaders of industry and other wealthy patrons, our system as is will be little more than a mockery of the concept of a truly representative democracy. As Sophia Tesfaye alluded to in her piece, the skewing of legislative districts along demographic lines or otherwise done so for an express political advantage—Tesfaye points to Republican gerrymandering as a deleterious force but both parties have been guilty of this practice—is part of the problem, and the precedent created by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC which allows, under the First Amendment, for-profit organizations, not-for-profit organizations, labor unions, and other associations to make independent expenditures essentially unrestricted by the government, is also a big bone of contention for liberals and conservatives alike. When someone like Sen. Sanders is able to generate more donations than someone entrenched in big-money Washington politics like Hillary Clinton in a given month, it’s both commendable and inspiring, but heretofore, it’s the outlier more than the norm, and even then, Bernie was fighting an uphill battle against the Democratic Party establishment in the primaries.

These are significant problems that the United States of America faces, and not to blame the activists that are doing great work on the behalf of so many important issues, but the fragmented nature of their efforts doesn’t seem to help counteract the way those with more money and clout are able to afford more political influence up and down party slates in our country today. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, those who advocate on behalf of Dreamers, Native Americans, and Mother freaking Earth—all are causes related to challenging the patriarchal hegemony of moneyed, profit-seeking whites over the working class, the poor, minorities, and every intersection therein. Accordingly, the solution is a complex one, but to be sure, it involves a concerted effort on the part of the everyday Americans, including direct involvement in the political process, even from those who would appear to lack the interest in politics or don’t see themselves as the political “type.” Thus, whether you believe that “love trumps hate” or merely that true grassroots organizing and fundraising can overcome the cash that wealthy executives can throw endlessly at political races, and even in the face of despair that individuals like Donald Trump are running amok in Washington, we must act and stand together. The Koch Brothers are all in for 2018. What are you doing to do about it?

Meanwhile, Congress Extended Warrantless Surveillance and Rolled Back Dodd-Frank…

shutting_down
For all the back-and-forth that made headlines leading up to and during the government shutdown, it’s when Democrats, Republicans, and even Trump have agreed in recent times that inspires a feeling of dread. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As I have emphasized on this blog and as numerous other concerned members of the Resistance would offer, when something crazy is going on in national news and politics—which these days unfortunately seems to disproportionately involve President Donald Trump and his embarrassing conduct—it merits watching what is going on when Congress actually gets around to advancing and/or passing legislation through the House and Senate. To be sure, there have been a fair amount of distractions recently that have dominated headlines and have made this task more difficult. Probably the biggest topic on everybody’s minds was the President’s alleged use of the word “shithole” in describing countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and various African countries that are less savory as sources of immigrants than, say, Norway. I say “alleged” because several Republican lawmakers present for the meeting and DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have denied that he used that word. But come on—you know they’re full of shit. Even with a distraction like this, there’s another layer of distraction built in. Yes, Trump used a bad word, but the more important notion is Trump insinuated that it would be better if we accepted people from a country where white people are the majority as opposed to countries where black or brown people are the majority. Never mind that Americans are more likely to immigrate to Norway than the other way around because people who live there enjoy a high standard of living, universal health care, and generally are among the happiest individuals on Earth. The implication was clear to those who understand Trump has basically been a white supremacist’s wet dream since he started running for office.

Otherwise, there were more salacious accounts involving Trump’s personal life, specifically that he was having an affair with then-porn star Stormy Daniels while he was married to Melania back in 2006, and that, so as to not undermine his political chances or damage his brand or what-have-you, his lawyer formed a shell company in 2016 to negotiate the payment of $130,000 so that she would not disclose details about their relationship. Even though Daniels apparently did tell a number of details about it back in 2011 when interviewed by In Touch Weekly magazine—including the revelation that Trump is obsessed with sharks and hates their shark-y guts. Not a particularly damning revelation, mind you, but just entertaining. Why we haven’t heard or likely won’t hear more about it is perhaps puzzling—Chris Cillizza of CNN surmises it is likely because Trump’s camp has denied any connection between Trump and Daniels, people don’t want to be involved with anything even tangentially related to porn (at least where prying eyes might see), that we’ve heard it all about Trump already, or all of the above—but regardless of the profile of this story, it seems like pretty reprehensible behavior on Trump’s part from a moral standpoint, and pretty ethically inexplicable from a legal standpoint if there wasn’t any legitimate reason for Daniels to be getting $130K (and why wasn’t it $150K—that’s a much nicer “round” number than $130K, no?).

On top of this, there was the drama involving the government shutdown, which wasn’t so much of a “distraction” given that there were real consequences for this happening, but the partisan squabbling it encouraged was realistically more theatrical than anything. Democrats expressed their concerns about the level of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for the level of protection for “Dreamers” under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republicans were outright blaming the Democrats for this mess and used military pay as a bargaining chip, alleging that the Dems held these all-important monies for our uniformed men and women hostage. Donald Trump kept insisting that someone needs to pay for a border wall. All the while, fingers were being pointed in every direction—with most Americans pointing back at Congress for not being able to strike a deal or by tying the DACA issue to the budget resolution issue, even if Democratic, Republican, and independent voters alike broadly support an extension of DACA. In short, and after the fact, no one looks good as a result of this, and for all his past criticisms of President Obama in presiding over shutdowns, it looks especially bad for Trump now that he has encountered one in just a year or so since he began his tenure—and with both the House and Senate under GOP control, no less.

All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the #ReleaseTheMemo business that conservatives have had on the tip of their tongue of late! Congressional Republicans have been alluding to a memo in Devin Nunes’ possession that outlines Obama-era abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the FBI and Department of Justice, specifically as it regards investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Worse than Watergate, they claim! It is with this final distraction that I’ll bring in a recent piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for an excellent contextualization—as he is wont to provide—of this particular instance of click-bait news. Taibbi starts by saying what most reasonable observers have put forth: that if the memo is really as jaw-dropping as outspoken Republicans have made it out to be, then by all means, it should be released. At the same time, though, as Taibbi argues, if this material truly exonerates Donald Trump of any wrongdoing re Russia, why hasn’t the man himself released it? After all, Trump, um, is characteristically not afraid to share. From the article:

By all means, if the memo is important (although I doubt it) let’s let the public see it. But followers of this story should also remember that if this or any classified document somehow exculpates Donald Trump on any front, he’s had the power all along to declassify such information. Why Trump hasn’t done so on a number of these occasions has been one of the enduring mysteries of this affair. It’s given pause to even the most hardened Russiagate skeptics.

This includes people like former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of the National Review. McCarthy has been highly critical of the Robert Mueller investigation, but has also repeatedly wondered why Trump is not lifting the veil on some of these documents. One of the few figures in the media to explore holes in Russiagate theories propagated by both sides, McCarthy had this to say in August:

“I can’t get past a nagging question: Why must we speculate about whether the Obama administration abusively exploited its foreign-intelligence-collection powers in order to spy on Donald Trump’s political campaign? After all, Trump is president now. If he was victimized, he’s in a position to tell us all about it.”

At the very least, it’s food for thought, and prompts Matt Taibbi to label the #ReleaseTheMemo fervor “curious and disingenuous at best.” (Also not helping this case: that this hashtag has been linked to Russian bots that have helped to get it trending on Twitter.) At the same time, Taibbi indicates that it’s not like individuals on both sides of the political aisle haven’t been working to obscure what the sources of their information on Russia may be. Already, given its history of attention-grabbing details like lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers,” and the subsequent backlash it received for having the likes of Buzzfeed break the news unconfirmed, the Steele dossier, for one, has not necessarily been something the mainstream media wants to acknowledge as informative of the investigation into Trump’s affairs. In other words, there’s much confusion and misdirection about what people know and how they know it re Russia, and thus far, it has mostly amounted to nothing more than additional confusion and tedious back-and-forth accusation, as it did with the shutdown.

The main thrust of Taibbi’s article, meanwhile, and getting back to the notion of these events as distraction and theater, is that while all this political brinksmanship was going on, important legislation with serious implications was being passed, aided by Democrats crossing that proverbial aisle. The first, coincidentally, involves FISA. Specifically, the House and Senate passed an extension of Section 702 of the Act, which lets the U.S. government obtain the communications of foreign nationals outside the United States without a warrant. Per the language of the law, intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. citizens or nationals, or to use the power of Section 702 to surveil individuals on American soil. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties-minded organizations, however, have expressed doubts about how this program may be used and abused. The ACLU, in particular, enumerates these charges concerning the deleterious effects of Sec. 702:

  1. Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
  2. Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
  3. Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
  4. Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
  5. Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
  6. There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
  7. The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
  8. The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
  9. Section 702 surveillance chills freedom of speech and association.

There are more detailed explanations for each of these items on the ACLU page linked to above, but suffice it to say, there are legitimate concerns about how broadly Section 702 may be used to capture information that is relevant to “foreign intelligence”—a distinction that is subjective and seemingly intentionally vague—how this sensitive information may be stored in databases for undetermined lengths of time, how political or even personal enemies may be targeted by intelligence community members as an abuse of their privilege, how legal procedure may be circumvented in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts, and how so few data have been made clear to interested parties regarding the surveillance of Americans and the usage of their online communications. Liberal or conservative, it creates trepidation on the part of the average telephone/mobile/Internet user-consumer, and perhaps worst of all, it feeds the narrative of the “deep state” on the right that undermines even the best-intentioned government actions. But, by all means, let’s have more conspiracy theories!

As Matt Taibbi submits, too, it may be patently self-defeating to reauthorize the “virtually limitless surveillance powers of this president” when many suspect him to be aided or compromised by Russia. Which makes it all the more frustrating—at least to me—that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would vote for an extension of Section 702 of FISA when they have publicly expressed their doubts about Trump. Taibbi explains what is likely behind this “yes” vote from key House Dems:

This is a classic example of something that’s been axiomatic in Washington for ages: that both parties tend always to be interested in expanding executive power, no matter who’s in office or what the political situation. In this case, the principle of expanding presidential authority outweighed even concerns of abuses by the likes of Donald Trump.

Or, perhaps to put this another way, yes, let’s give the executive more power so we can exploit it when our party is in the White House. As tends to be the case in the world of politics, moral objections are relative to how many seats you control and whether or not your side is in the Oval Office.

The other piece of legislation which stands to get through the Senate, notably with the help of several Democrats, and which is equally if not more concerning, is the rolling-back of regulations provided for by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, already criticized for not going far enough to do either of its stated objectives. The list of Democratic co-sponsors to the so-called Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which was released on December 5 of last year, reads like a who’s who of irritatingly moderate Democrats. Michael Bennet. Joe Donnelly. Heidi Heitkamp. Tim Kaine. Angus King, who technically is an independent, but let’s give him, ahem, credit where credit is due. Joe Manchin. Claire McCaskill. Gary Peters. Jon Tester. Mark Warner. These are self-professed Dems from states like Colorado, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia in which being a centrist on matters of regulation of business appears to be a self-preservation move more than anything. Unless, as Taibbi suggests, they were either tricked or wooed by lobbyists for the banks. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:

In another bizarre episode, at least ten Senate Democrats recently crossed the aisle to support a rollback of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, the killing of which of course has long been a major policy goal of Trump’s. The Dodd-Frank bill story is particularly disturbing, because it signals a rare potential area of consensus amid the otherwise reassuringly dysfunctional three-headed monster that is the lunatic Trump, establishment Republicans, and Democrats.

The bill has been pitched as aid and regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions. Such groups are the widows and orphans of financial reform: nobody’s ever against helping them, which is why even giveaways to Wall Street behemoths are often dressed up as aid to regional bankers. The Dems who crossed the aisle to support the Dodd-Frank rollback bought into the lobbyist-flogged idea that Too-Big-To-Fail banks have too many punitive regulatory requirements, and moreover that “smaller” companies (i.e. firms with less than $10 billion in assets) should be exempt from the already watered-down Volcker rule, which prevents depository banks from gambling for their own accounts.

One of the main ideas behind the proposed bill, which passed the banking committee 16 to 7, is changing the definition of a “Too Big to Fail” institution from having $50 billion in assets to having $250 billion in assets. This quintupling of the size limit would mean a number of huge companies would now enjoy relaxed capital requirements and other benefits. Only about 10 companies would be left to face the more stringent rules.

Why is this a concern? Only because it would increase the risk of another financial meltdown like we had ten years ago. As Taibbi and others argue, de-concentrating financial power by breaking up the big banks and by forcing them to separate banking and investing (read: sanctioned gambling) activities helps to mitigate this risk. Besides, if you’ll recall, it was taxpayers who bore the brunt of the last recession, but absent more stringent rules to keep Wall Street and the financial industry in check, there’s no guarantee another crisis won’t manifest. And once more, we would be the ones called on to bail out the big companies who played fast and loose with our money—not the other way around.

As Taibbi frames this, this is Congress in a nutshell: they fight publicly over something that’s “irrelevant, inaccurate, or far from a resolution,” only to have a consensus group advance a bill that is highly important/relevant, but “unsexy” and unlikely to garner the same attention, or even the kind of attention it merits. For the liberal progressives among us, this is a decidedly poor modus operandi.


Even as distraction, the three-day “kerfuffle,” as Matt Taibbi called it, over the shutdown was particularly galling to many on the left because the Democrats made a deal without any real assurances from Republicans that voting on a new DREAM Act would be taken up in the near future. Oh, sure, Mitch McConnell swore there would be, but trusting Mitch McConnell is like the fabled frog trusting the scorpion not to sting it as they cross the river—the scorpion will sting because that’s its nature, and McConnell will back out of his promise because he, like our President, is a lying sack of shit. Of course, Chuck Schumer didn’t waste much time backing out of certain terms either—after initially indicating prior to the end of the shutdown that a border wall would be on the table as part of forthcoming negotiations, he apparently pulled a 180 and made it clear the wall was no longer on the table. Psych! Regardless, after Donald Trump and congressional Republicans were done lambasting the Democrats for causing the whole government shutdown, the relatively short duration of the shutdown dovetailed ever nicely into jabs from conservatives that the Dems “caved” on the issues at hand. Name-calling though it might be, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The fate of Dreamers and the wall are still sticking points, and once more, the can has merely been kicked down the road noting that this resolution is merely a temporary budget fix.

Not that this necessarily means a huge deal, but if Americans are disappointed and embarrassed by this particular episode in U.S. politics, you can just imagine what the world thinks of us—distractions and all. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, researched this very topic, and was struck by one prevailing theme which emerged from the responses he received from international observers: that there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system. For those looking on in Canada, France, and even the United Kingdom, with whom there yet remains some sympathy for our backward ways, there is cause for both concern and vague deprecation. For less understanding authoritarian regimes and otherwise tightly-run states, there is outright glee that America’s government can descend into chaos so easily, and unfounded as the claims may be, the shutdown makes us look weak, suggesting to some that Western democracy is fundamentally flawed (hello, Chinese propaganda!) or that the shutdown is pure theater to distract from the Democrats’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s ties to Russia (hello, Russian propaganda!). All these reactions without having to mention golden showers, shitholes, or Stormy Daniels. Jeez—has it only been a year so far? It feels more like ten with all the nonsense that’s gone on heretofore.

To reiterate, though, this goes back to the notion of distraction. For all the blaming and finger-pointing that went on this past week, where consensus has been achieved, yet worse consequences stand to be realized. The extension of Section 702 of FISA, as noted, is concerning to liberals and libertarians alike, and the continued collective kowtowing of Congress to “Too Big to Fail” institutions and Wall Street alumni is seeming proof that both parties work first for their benefit, and get to our concerns if and when they have the time and wherewithal. If you think a three-day shutdown is bad, just wait until the next economic nosedive, something that arguably is less a question of if and more a question of when.

The Democratic Party Loves Diversity—As Long As It Doesn’t Stray Too Far from Center

chelsea_peers
Chelsea Manning is running for a U.S. Senate seat as a Democrat, opposing incumbent Benjamin Cardin in the forthcoming primary. If you think the Democratic Party, a party that touts its diversity, is happy about this, though, you’d be mistaken. (Photo retrieved from Twitter.)

If you believe the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party, the Democrats are all about diversity. It’s a key selling point for the Blue Team as it tries to regain lost political ground from the Red Team a.k.a. the Republican Party. As the GOP continues to ally itself not only with the fiscal conservatism of the right, but the social conservatism that has seen its membership become—dare we say—dogmatic on issues like gun laws, “religious liberty,” and reproductive rights, the Dems wave their banner in the name of inclusion as a way of distancing and distinguishing themselves from Republicans. Indeed, Democratic leadership seems to be significantly more evolved on issues of gender, living with disabilities, race/ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, not to mention tending to give way more of a shit about the environment than their counterparts on the right, some of whom still try to deny that climate change, is, you know, a thing. It is no wonder that Democrats, by and large, tend to attract those people who are most underserved by the GOP. In the 2016 election, according to CNN exit polls, over three-quarters of LGBTQ voters went for Hillary Clinton as opposed to Donald Trump. Granted, some of that disparity may have been fueled by Trump’s overall repugnance, but when other members of the Republican Party seem more concerned about legislating who can and can’t pee in certain bathrooms than serving their constituents on matters of importance, the Democratic Party seems like an obvious choice by comparison.

Talking about diversity along the lines of clearly observable traits like skin color, however, potentially ignores other ways by which diversity can manifest. Namely diversity of opinion. While Democrats have done well to encourage diversity along demographic lines—even though besting the modern-day Republican Party is evidently not a high bar to clear—it is the diversity of opinion aspect which continues to plague the party more than a year since Bernie Sanders bowed out of a surprisingly contentious Democratic Party presidential primary. Establishment Democrats continue to try to keep a firm grasp on the reins guiding the party as the 2018 midterms fast approach, and as 2020 remains in everyone’s sights with a raving, Tweeting lunatic in the White House.

Meanwhile, liberal progressives who want to push the Dems further left find themselves between a rock and a hard place—they can insist on reform within the Democratic Party and get met with stern resistance, or they can lend their support to third parties and independents and essentially accede to electoral also-ran status in the short term. In the case of Sanders, who ran for President as a Democrat and caucuses with the Dems, but still identifies as an independent, he has been very vocal about the need for the Democrats to embrace a more progressive shift and to adopt a 50-state strategy which taps into authentic grass-roots energy rather than catering to big-money donors in a way that makes the party’s strategy look remarkably similar to that of the Republican Party’s. For his trouble, Bernie continues to be ostracized by the establishment wing of the party, especially by those who blame him personally for Clinton’s loss in the general election. As they would have you believe, Sanders was like some mad Pied Piper playing songs of discontent that planted bad seeds in the heads of young voters. He seduced our kids with promises of free college and health care! He’s not to be trusted!

In other words, rather than make the kind of party-wide reforms that they would seemingly need to counteract the losses they’ve experienced not only at the presidential and congressional levels, but in state houses across the country, the Democrats seem content to wait for Donald Trump and the Republican Party to cannibalize each other so they can waltz in and claim the lion’s share of the votes, aided by the American people’s frustration with (or downright embarrassment of) the GOP. This may not be an altogether poor strategy, I concede—at least in the short term. As discontentment grows within the voting population, though, and as income and wealth inequality further drive a wedge between the top earners and the rest of us plebeians, any gains enjoyed relative to the Republicans may eventually evaporate. While still a slender minority within the voting bloc, some of those who cast their ballots in the 2016 election went from a vote for Barack Obama in 2012 to a vote for Trump, likely fueled by concerns about socioeconomic status and the changing face of America among working-class individuals. Given the closeness of that race, and the concentration of this brand of voter in key battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, it’s not an entirely insignificant slender minority, either.

Now that I’ve set the scene, let’s discuss the recent decision of Chelsea Manning to announce her candidacy for U.S. Senate in the state of Maryland and oppose Benjamin Cardin in a Democratic primary. Manning should be a recognizable name to most, even those who follow politics and national/world news only casually. Prior to her gender transition, Chelsea Manning, as you probably know, was Bradley Manning, a serviceman in the United States Army. Manning, based on her circumstances and where she was stationed, was afforded access to potentially sensitive diplomatic and military communications between the United States and other nations. Secretly, she copied the contents of these cables and other information and went to the Washington Post and New York Times with what she downloaded, though representatives from both publications appeared uninterested in what Manning had to offer.

WikiLeaks, meanwhile, was not only interested in this material, but very willing to release it for all to see. What ensued over multiple releases, and eventually aided by the Post, the Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications, was the revelation of diplomatic cables, videos, and other salient media through WikiLeaks, helping in large part to put Julian Assange and Co. on the map, so to speak. This material painted quite a different picture of the Afghan War, Guantanamo Bay, and the Iraq War than the U.S. government was selling, not to mention it made public numerous views expressed by American diplomats, often unflattering ones about foreign countries and their leaders. For her service to the country as a whistleblower, Chelsea Manning was widely lauded across the United States. Kidding! Manning was charged with 22 offenses and was detained at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico in harsh conditions, including solitary confinement. She would be found guilty of 17 of the 22 charges, though being acquitted of aiding the enemy, a capital offense, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. After serving some six years of her sentence, though, and after appeals from human rights activists, petition signers, and on her own behalf, President Obama commuted all but four months of Manning’s remaining sentence. To this day, Manning remains a controversial figure, not merely because of her gender transition. On both sides of the political aisle, people regard her as a criminal and a traitor, and someone who should be jailed or worse for what she did.

Especially noting his status as an incumbent, it seems likely that Ben Cardin will retain his seat in the Senate, or at least capture the Democratic Party nomination. As famed journalist Glenn Greenwald tells in a piece for The Intercept, however, moderate Democrats are going out of their way to try to subvert Chelsea Manning’s bid for the Dems’ nod. In doing so, while Greenwald supposes that it’s the party’s prerogative to play favorites as it would—Bernie Sanders supporters, you don’t even have to say it—once more, Democratic leadership is missing a chance to inspire enthusiasm within its base (especially the trans community) in favor of keeping a centrist in power. The thrust of Greenwald’s article relies on an assessment of Cardin’s legacy as a U.S. Senator that is none too flattering:

Manning’s opponent in the Democratic Party primary is one of the most standard, banal, typical, privileged, and mediocre politicians in the U.S. Congress: Benjamin Cardin, a 74-year-old white, straight man who is seeking his third six-year Senate term. Cardin’s decades-long career as a politician from the start has been steeped in unearned privilege: He first won elective office back in 1966, when his uncle, Maurice Cardin, gave up his seat in order to bequeath it to his nephew Benjamin. With this dynastic privilege as his base, he has spent the last 50 years climbing the political ladder in Maryland.

Greenwald also notes that “Cardin has remarkably few achievements for being in Congress so many years.” Oof. So, why would the Democratic Party want someone like Cardin in office when he is apparently so ineffectual as a lawmaker? Dude’s a big supporter of Israel. Big supporter. In fact, he sponsored a bill in the summer of 2017 that would’ve made it a felony to support a boycott of Israel, a move that raised the ire of First Amendment defenders and even caused other Democratic senators to distance themselves from this legislation which targets the BDS Movement, a pro-Palestinian group devoted to divestment from, boycotting, and sanctions of Israeli interests as a protest against what it perceives as Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, and a controversial entity—if it can even be called that—in its own right. While the Republican Party is keen on its end to appeal to the pro-Israel crowd, particularly fervent Zionists with deep pockets, Democrats have their own rich Jewish donors to appease. It is perhaps no wonder that centrist members of the party favor the centrist Cardin, one of the most devoted backers of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in his bid for re-election.

Again, as Glenn Greenwald and others view these matters, Benjamin Cardin may be the more “reasonable” or safer pick compared to Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman who was convicted of numerous crimes related to the WikiLeaks releases, and someone who has struggled with her identity and mental health issues—at least as far as moderate Democrats are concerned. How they’re going about their character assassination of Manning now that she’s entered the political fray, however, is where things go off the rails. Those are my words, not Greenwald’s, but I’m sure he’d agree. So, what’s wrong with Ms. Manning? She’s apparently a Russian stooge, who is being used by the Kremlin to try take down Cardin, someone with a real ax to grind on the issue of Russian meddling in our elections and political affairs in general (Cardin introduced the legislation that would serve as the basis of the sanctions package levied against Russia, and just recently released a report as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff detailing Vladimir Putin’s long-standing assault on democracy and recommending policy changes to help safeguard the country from future outside attacks). No, seriously. Evidently, Manning is hailed as some sort of hero in Russia, and because of this, she must necessarily be a tool in the decline of American political institutions. Citing the views expressed/retweeted by Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that is no stranger to controversy thanks in large part to its list of donors which has been all but transparent, Greenwald reacts thusly:

This conspiracy theory mocks itself. The idea that Vladimir Putin sat in the Kremlin, steaming over Cardin’s report on Russia and thus, developed a dastardly plot to rid himself of his daunting Maryland nemesis — “I know how to get rid of Cardin: I’ll have a trans woman who was convicted of felony leaking run against him!” — is too inane to merit any additional ridicule. But this is the climate in Washington: No conspiracy theory is too moronic, too demented, too self-evidently laughable to disqualify its advocates from being taken seriously — as long as it involves accusations that someone is a covert tool of the Kremlin. That’s why the president of the leading Democratic think tank feels free to spread this slanderous trash.

Let me stress that I do not wish to make it seem as though Russian interference in American affairs is a trivial matter, or that it did not have an impact on the 2016 election. That said, I believe there are limits to how far we can take the “Russia as bogeyman” theory; even within the context of the election, there were a myriad number of contributing factors to Hillary’s loss, not the least of which were the ones that were in her and her campaign’s control. In this regard, the Chelsea Manning as Russian agent narrative strains the bounds of credulity. As Greenwald also suggests, that this specific type of anti-Chelsea Manning backlash was so immediate and widespread is troubling in just how committed (and coordinated) centrist Democrats are to undermining the chances of challengers to the status quo—however small these chances may be.


Glenn Greenwald’s outlining of a somewhat surprisingly well-oiled Chelsea Manning smear campaign is all well and entertaining (it would be more entertaining if it weren’t so disappointing about the Democrats, but that’s life, eh?), but the conspiracy theory and his rebuttals to the apparent backlash his article has received are ancillary to a larger point: that the Democrats like to play “identity politics” when it suits them until someone threatens the centrist order—and then all bets are off. Going back to the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders binary I briefly alluded to earlier, the Democratic Party establishment essentially did everything but formally state it was backing Hill-Dawg in the primary, including but not limited to giving her a decided head start in pledged delegates thanks to superdelegates—the likes of which are very unsuper, as far as liberal progressives are concerned—and the whole favoritism on the part of the Democratic National Committee that was made public by way of the DNC leaks, another WikiLeaks release. In this instance, mainline Democrats’ characterization of Sanders supporters is/was that they are a bunch of misogynists (see also “Bernie Bros.”) and/or that they are violent and disorderly (see also the “Nevada Democratic Convention”). Realistically, though, this speaks to a minority of “Bernie-crats.” It’s like saying James T. Hodgkinson, the man who shot at several Republican congressmen while they attended a baseball practice, is indicative of the progressive movement as a whole. These notions are as disingenuous as they are exaggerated.

In the case of Chelsea Manning, the attempts from those on the left to put her down are particularly egregious because she belongs to a minority that is no stranger to abuse and ridicule: the transgender community. As swift as censure of news Manning’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat was from centrist Dems, so too did admonishment erupt from naysayers on the right, alternatively pointing to Manning being a “criminal” or “traitor,” or simply lampooning the idea that a trans woman would identify as a Democrat and deriding the values and views of liberals as a whole. As I would contend, centrist Democrats don’t need to add fuel to the proverbial fire by joining in with the conservative outcry against Manning, and as Greenwald would contend, they are missing the opportunity to celebrate a candidate who would make history by being the first trans woman in the Senate, as well as to inspire other young trans Americans and to help erase the stigma that trans people face worldwide. Either way, it’s bad optics for a party that preaches the virtues of diversity, which I consider to be a major advantage it has over the GOP, an association which has made anyone who isn’t a white, straight male like Ben Cardin a lesser-than or potential target for hate and violence.

The most legitimate objection to Chelsea Manning’s candidacy for office, as I see it, is that she is young and inexperienced. After all, Donald Trump had never held a public office, and look at how that is turning out. Then again, Al Franken didn’t have experience in this regard, and if not for his resignation, he would still be serving as senator from the great state of Minnesota. Barack Obama was also relatively unproven prior to his inauguration, but if not a great president, he certainly wasn’t abysmal, and to this day is well respected by Americans and the international community alike. Manning, meanwhile, has used her high profile to raise awareness not only about issues facing the trans community and other whistleblowers, but other pertinent topics facing the American electorate, including the conditions of prisons in the United States, the plight of refugees worldwide, protecting civil liberties in the wake of acts of terrorism, and how marriage equality is not the be-all and end-all of the LGBT movement. Thus, while she is untested, she is by no means uninformed, and would likely make as good if not a better representative for her prospective constituents than Sen. Cardin.

According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, Americans’ faith in political institutions is decidedly low, with just 8% of Americans polled expressing a great deal of confidence in Congress, and the Republican Party next on the list at a scant 10%. But the media doesn’t fare much better (11%), nor does the Democratic Party (13%), and the only institution in the survey that inspires confidence from a majority of Americans is the military. The character assassination from both sides of the political aisle of Chelsea Manning and the all-too-likely scenario of Benjamin Cardin recapturing his Senate seat playing out don’t help these trends. It may be 2018, but at least to start the year, it’s politics as usual in Washington.

Don’t Mess with Robert Mueller

mueller_watch
Robert Mueller could probably kill you. Even if he’s just prosecuting you, though, you should still be afraid. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

What did you wish for in advance of 2018? One thing I am hoping for—but not banking on happening by any meansis that Robert Mueller and his team will be allowed to conduct their investigation into possible collusion between members of Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials undisturbed. As time wears on, my concern and the worries of many stand to grow as more and more Republicans begin to voice their opposition to the Mueller probe. Devin Nunes’ apparent assault on the credibility and unbiased work of Mueller and Co. is particularly troublesome for many, as Karoun Demirjian writes for The Washington Post. As you might recall, Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, stepped away from his involvement in leading the Committee’s own investigation into matters of Russia after he was accused of improperly disclosing classified information; this information was related to his own accusation of impropriety on the part of the Obama administration in exposing the identities of individuals tied to Trump on surveillance reports. Since being cleared of wrongdoing, however, per Demirjian, Nunes has stepped up his attacks on Mueller’s team and federal law enforcement agencies working with the probe, and while some Republicans in the House close to Nunes have distanced themselves from his tactics, other GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee seem willing to challenge the Mueller investigation with allegations of corruption.

The basis for any insinuations of bias or improper procedure herein seem to exist with respect to the revelation that members of Robert Mueller’s investigative team—who have since been removed from their roles—exchanged anti-Trump texts. Putting aside what appears to be that minor issue as well as other dubious proof of anti-Trump prejudice such as past criticisms of Trump by an FBI official and donations to Democratic Party candidates, there are those who object to the Mueller probe on the basis that it involves the criminal justice system into the workings of the executive and legislative branches. On both counts, though, there is ample room to debate whether these elements/qualities of the investigation merit a curtailing of or ending to it. David E. Kendall, an attorney at Williams & Connolly LLP, recently authored an opinion piece outlining his case for why Robert Mueller should be left alone. While we’re considering possible prejudice in forming opinions or effecting courses of action, it should be noted that Kendall’s firm represents Bill and Hillary Clinton, and has even since the time of the Kenneth Starr investigation into Bill’s, ahem, affairs.

Nevertheless, I would submit Kendall makes a compelling set of arguments as to why Republican criticism of the Mueller probe is overblown. First of all, on the idea that any anti-Trump prejudice has tainted the investigation:

In his Dec. 24 Sunday Opinion commentary, former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr proposed a “reset” of the Russia investigation in which Congress “steps up” to establish a bipartisan investigative panel and the “executive branch’s approach” changes from criminal law enforcement to some kind of nebulous fact-finding. Despite its bland profession of respect for the probe, Starr’s column was really just a subtler version of suddenly pervasive efforts by Trump apologists to undermine the investigation into Russian tampering with the 2016 election.

The reasons given for Starr’s reset are wholly specious: There is ostensibly a “drumbeat of criticism” aimed at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III which “has become deafening,” including “cascading revelations of anti-Trump bias.” This is true only on Fox News, in President Trump’s tweets and in the shoe pounding of the Freedom Caucus at legislative hearings. The claims of bias amount to some private comments of an FBI official criticizing candidate Trump (and other candidates). Despite the fact that government employees are entitled to have political opinions (so long as they do not interfere with their work, and there was no evidence of this), Mueller promptly removed this official.

The key thought in this reasoning is that there is no proof that any criticisms of Donald Trump as candidate or POTUS have impaired the investigation or have prevented it from being able to fairly assess whether there is evidence of the Trump campaign trying to collude with Russia and sway the 2016 presidential election. The obvious retort is that there is no proof these remarks haven’t compromised Mueller’s probe, but then again, that’s not how the law works—or at least is not how it’s supposed to work. You are innocent until proven guilty, no? In referencing Starr’s column in this way, David Kendall also responds to possible conflicts of interest regarding senior aides to Robert Mueller donating in the past to Democrats’ campaigns—which likewise do not mean the investigation can’t be conducted in a professional manner, as was the case when Starr conducted his own investigation into Bill Clinton’s conduct while at the same time being a Republican donor—and the idea that the FBI deputy director’s wife once ran for a legislative seat with financial backing from a friend of the Clintons, which has little to no bearing on Trump’s matters considering that this relationship has long since been disclosed and cleared, and besides, this deputy director is not even a part of Mueller’s team.

As for the notion championed by Kenneth Starr and others that a bipartisan congressional investigation is preferable to this independent investigation on Robert Mueller’s part, there are any number of ways that Kendall, or you, or I could attack this reason for a “reset” of the Russia probe. Before I get rolling with my pontification, I’ll let Mr. Kendall have the floor first. From the op-ed:

Starr’s misleading call for a “Watergate model” ignores the work of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. It is true that the investigations of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 were generally bipartisan and produced valuable information. But equally important was the work of the Watergate special prosecutor, first Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski, who fairly and thoroughly investigated criminal wrongdoing by President Richard M. Nixon and many of his top officials. It was that office’s successful pursuit of the Nixon White House tape recordings all the way through the Supreme Court, and its successful prosecution of several Nixon officials, that finally revealed the facts about Watergate.

So while a thorough, public, fair and bipartisan congressional investigation of Russian tampering would be terrific, good luck with that. Benghazi hearings anyone? The House and Senate intelligence committees have for months been conducting hearings on these issues, but these have been, particularly in the House, partisan, meandering, contentious and closed-door. And calling for a vague “fundamental . . . reset within the halls of the executive branch” on the part of the Trump administration is also utterly unrealistic. Firing the special counsel and all his staff would be the most likely “reset” by this White House.

Especially with the likes of a Trump apologist like Devin Nunes lurking, it would indeed seem unlikely that a fair investigation into Trump and Russia is possible in the current political climate. Either way, though, Kenneth Starr’s deprecation of Mueller, described by David Kendall as “a decorated Marine combat veteran, a Republican and a highly esteemed, long-serving law-enforcement professional,” is curious. I mean, the man was only able to serve as director of the FB-freaking-I for 12 years, a tenure that spanned presidents of different parties. If Robert Mueller, as a Republican, could challenge the George W. Bush White House on the use of unconstitutional domestic wiretapping and could disagree with the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in questioning terrorists, it is reasonable to assert that the man would be able to put politics aside to assess whether or not Trump and Co. acted specifically to obstruct justice. If the results of the probe thus far are any indication, after all, Mueller’s work has been fruitful indeed. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign director from June to August 2016, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s business associate and deputy of the campaign while Manafort was in charge, have already been charged in connection with the Mueller investigation. And Michael Flynn, the short-tenured Trump National Security adviser, has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacting Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. This would not seem to be small potatoes.

The above doesn’t even include important considerations about those pointing the finger at Robert Mueller, nor does it mention another facet about findings from the American intelligence community that seemingly gets lost in the conversation about the viability of the investigation. With specific regard to Kenneth Starr, for instance, and as David Kendall alludes to, Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton was highly politicized, and as far as Congress goes, the trend seems to have continued into fairly recent times. See also the Benghazi probe. Different Clinton, same (largely speaking) waste of time and other resources. Even more importantly, though, if we believe the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community on Russian meddling in our elections, then there is a formal acknowledgment of a deliberate attempt by Russia to hurt the chances of Hillary Clinton in the election and to disparage her in favor of Donald Trump, as well as to undermine the confidence of the American people in the electoral process. One might well argue U.S. politics has already done its part to grease the proverbial slope of eroding confidence in this institution, so it’s doubtful that the Russians should receive too much credit simply for giving it a push, if you will, but at any rate, the desired effects were achieved. Even if such meddling did not yield the same impact, however, the level of concern about the integrity and security of our electoral process should be very high, for democracy’s sake.

This dovetails into my own common-sense reasoning on the matter of whether Donald Trump and those around him should be above the kind of scrutiny that Robert Mueller’s probe entails. Owing to how serious the issue of corruptibility of the American electoral process isand by this, I mean primarily from foreign sources, though there would certainly seem to be enough to go around on the domestic frontif Republicans and their ilk are truly serious about national security, and not just in the arena of border security and terrorism, they would welcome this investigation. After all, Pres. Trump is presumed innocent, right? Going back to the Karoun Demirjian article about Devin Nunes and characterizations of the House Intelligence Committee investigation, if Democrats’ depictions are true, then numerous flaws plague this look into any possible Trump-Russia connections, including denied requests for documents related to/interviews of key witnesses, as well as a haphazard schedule marked by overlapping interview times that is difficultif not impossibleto follow. As Demirjian characterizes this situation, per critics of the House probe, it all amounts to mere window-dressing to make the investigation seem respectable, but in the end, the key figures behind it already have their mind made up to absolve Trump and undercut Mueller’s examination of the evidence. Assuming the Mueller probe is not an abject waste of time, then, what do we presume is truly motivating resistance from the right to its very existence? Is it pure partisan politics? Or, and not merely to be a conspiracy theorist, do critics of the Mueller investigation fear that Donald Trump and those close to him are actually guilty?


The obvious and present concern with Robert Mueller’s investigation is how Donald Trump—the big fish at the heart of this episode of prosecutorial justice, as many see him—might try to screw with things on his end. It makes the obvious and present follow-up question to this concern, “Well, can Trump fire Mueller?” In a word, kinda? Laura Jarrett, reporting for CNN, explores this subject in a piece (very directly) titled, “Can Donald Trump fire Robert Mueller? And how would it work?” Under special prosecutorial regulations, the President can’t directly remove someone like Mueller—that function would go to the Attorney General. As you might recall, Jeff “Hmm, Maybe I Did Talk to a Russian Ambassador After All” Sessions has recused himself from investigative matters related to the 2016 election, meaning Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller in the first place, would be the one to fire him. Rosenstein, at least from public statements, has indicated that he sees no reason to get rid of Mueller. (For the record, Trump, too, said he has no plans to send Mueller packing, but then again, the man is a lying liar who lies, so take his words with many grains of salt.) So, what Trump could do is fire Sessions, fire Rosenstein, and then the next person up could fire Mueller. Or, getting yet more theoretical, Trump could order the special prosecutorial regulations repealed and then he could fire Mueller himself. I mean, Trump has already broken with any number of conventions—what’s a few more?

The follow-up question to the follow-up question to the aforementioned obvious and present concern, then, is, “Should Donald Trump fire Robert Mueller even if he can?” Jarrett also addresses this, saying that, much as the decision to fire James Comey for apparent political reasons brought Trump additional and unwanted scrutiny, removing Mueller from the investigation would further suggest our President has something to hide. Furthermore, there’s every likelihood that firing Mueller won’t even kill his probe, as FBI Director Christopher Wray would take the reins and would presumably forge ahead with the investigation. The caveat to all this is, constitutionally speaking, the President of the United States is the head of law enforcement as the top dog in the executive branch. Consequently, if Trump were to give absolutely zero f**ks and get rid of Mueller himself, it doesn’t seem like there would be much legal recourse to challenge him on this point. For all the reverence the Constitution inspires, this apparent flaw in its design is one that Trump’s flippant disregard for this cornerstone of American law tests in a major way. The resemblance to Watergate, of course, is readily apparent. With Nixon, though, the man was facing certain impeachment and removal for his misdeeds. With Trump, there’s no same guarantee congressional Republicans would want to see him oustedespecially not after seeing their garbage tax plan get signed into law. By and large, the GOP is getting what it wants from Trump. Should, say, Trump’s approval rating become toxically low, though, or should Republicans lose control of the House, the Senate, or both, maybe the situation changes. That so much control is currently in the hands of President Agent Orange, Devin Nunes, and other sympathetic Republicans, meanwhile, is less than inspiring.

At least in advance of the 2018 midterms, though, it might just behoove Nunes et al. not to mess with Robert Mueller. If the opinions of voters mean anything to them, especially as regards their esteem of Mueller, they could be putting their personal political prospects in danger.