Live-Tweeting Obstruction of Justice

Three strains of executive incompetence and self-immolation came to a head this week. First, on the policy front, the administration’s absent leadership and ham-fisted threats continued its unbroken string of legislative futility as the Senate failed to pass its promised healthcare bill. Second, the wild and revolting West Wing drama cultivated by President Trump reached new heights as newly hired (and now newly fired) communications director Anthony Scaramucci caused Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Preibus to resign, while embarrassing himself with unhinged, confusing, and vulgar statements to the media. And third, the President escalated his assault on the rule of law by assailing his own Attorney General for recusing himself from overseeing the Department of Justice’s Russia investigation due to unavoidable conflicts just as powerful evidence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin came to light.

Yes, it has been an unnerving few weeks for the country (to say nothing of the last six months, or the last two years). What seems to make it all the more unsettling, though, is the sense—that heavy, dank, oppressive feeling—that that there will be no consequences. The sense that the rules have changed, that none of this will make a difference, and that these monsters will get away with everything. Certainly, this fear has informed and shaped much of the media coverage, with our weekly check ins on whether the Trump diehards are holding fast (newsflash: they are!).

This aura of invincibility that many across the spectrum—left, right, middle, and the media alike—perceive enveloping President Trump is understandable. There’s a legitimate concern that our politics are so polarized, and that the Republican Party is so radicalized, that Trump will survive all outrages and abuses and stand a decent chance of reelection should the economy continue rolling along. Perhaps in the short term this view is correct; Trump will hold most Republicans and the hearts of its most active supporters, and in turn the congressional GOP will muddle along, leaving him unchecked. But the problem with applying the “Teflon Don” theory to all things Trump—including his piques of obstructionist rage and the assorted sordid happenings of son Donnie Jr.—is that it imposes a cable TV framework to legal and policy worlds unconcerned with political theatre. A criminal investigation is not a news cycle. Continue reading

A Rose By Another Name

Pete Rose's statue outside Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati

I went to Cincinnati, Ohio two weekends ago to see a baseball game. So did 42,431 others. That kind of turnout there is rather unusual. Yes, the high-flying Los Angeles Dodgers were in town to take on the Reds. But quality baseball alone has not been enticing enough to lure fans to Great American Ballpark. Since the team’s last World Series in 1990, the Reds have routinely been at the bottom of baseball in that measure, and attendance is down even further the last few years. In 2017, they sit thirteenth out of fifteen National League teams, averaging only a little over 23,000 a game. A Reds game these days is hardly the place to be seen. Besides, on this day, June 17, 2017, it was nearly 90 degrees. The Reds were mired in last place, coming off a string of dismal loses. Father’s Day was the next day. There were plenty of other places to be.

But Cincinnatians weren’t at the ballpark to see the Reds. They came to see Pete Rose. On this hot Saturday afternoon, the Reds revealed their new statue of Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits, captain of two Reds championship teams, and native Cincinnatian. Rose’s statue is cast in the heroic pose of sliding headfirst into second base. It is placed directly in front of the ballpark’s main gate so that the words “Great American” hover directly above it (though the stadium is nominally in recognition of an insurance company). Reds fans responded enthusiastically, completely, and uncomplicatedly in celebration of the local hero.

I came to the ballpark to see Pete Rose, too, although with entirely different emotions. Continue reading

Lies Are Lies Are Lies Are Lies

There are a lot of ways to lie. That was the upshot from Thursday’s dramatic Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, where former FBI Director James Comey spent the better part of three hours recounting the latest chapter in the 1960s political thriller that is our ongoing national nightmare. The hearing uncovered new ground when Comey described President Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Michael Flynn investigation and implied that there was a greater scope to the underlying Russia investigation than previously thought. It also exhibited the many flavors of falsehoods.

The tutorial began the day before the hearing, when the Intelligence Committee prematurely released Director Comey’s written testimony. That seven-page submission detailed presidential intimidation in a dramatic first-person chronology of dinners and telephone calls between a wooing President Trump and a reluctant Comey. The testimony described a series of efforts by Trump as both president-elect and president to pressure the then FBI Director into engaging in deceit in its subtlest form—lying by omission. Continue reading

What’s Accurate and What’s Obvious

We keep waiting for the dust to settle, but Donald Trump refuses to stop kicking it up.  Although his ceaseless motion reveals more with every whirl, it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on right in front of us through all the grime. No doubt the effort is worth it. Determining what’s accurate with high precision is a worthwhile endeavor. Determining the reasons for his policies and pronouncements, the people most influential in his thinking, and the costs of his actions is critical to a righteous, small “d” democratic opposition. Provable, specific facts are the component parts of any indictments or articles of impeachment, and Trump’s totalitarian truthiness must be met with honest, ethical reporting. But in striving for the perfect truth, let’s not lose sight of the obvious. This lesson keeps popping up in a few critical, and often overlooked, ways. For even before we know the whole truth, we often know enough to distinguish right from wrong from immoral. Here are three obvious truths that appear to be getting lost in the distracting thrashing of the Trump administration. Continue reading

Taking The “Reform” Out Of “Tax Reform”

Everyone is talking taxes these days, and not just because the deadline for filing individual tax returns came and went this past week. Last Saturday, administration opponents marched in Washington and other cities to protest President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Last month’s battle over the American Health Care Act turned in part on the budget consequences of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s redistributive taxes on high-income individuals. New polling suggests that Americans of both political parties are increasingly concerned about how few taxes corporations and the wealthy pay. And now, congressional Republicans have promised to pass a comprehensive tax reform bill for President Trump’s signature that will both simplify the tax code and reduce taxes on most Americans.

It’s unclear whether Republicans will make another go at trying to pass health care reform before taking on taxes. The intricacies of the budget reconciliation procedure required to get around a senate filibuster will play a part in the decision, though the President, with typical off-the-cuff bluster, announced a tax bill would be forthcoming this week. But regardless of the order, the whole agenda is doomed. While the contradictory Republican politics on healthcare has attracted most of the attention, the difficulty of harmonizing GOP dogma with the practicalities of tax reform are just as stark. What Republicans talk about when they talk about “tax reform” (perhaps the title of Paul Ryan’s frighteningly bad Raymond Carver adaptation) is quite different, and far more unpopular, than what the rest of us understand it to be. Continue reading

The Efficient Skies Are Not So Friendly

The view from an airplane.

There was an outpouring of justifiable outrage at last week’s United Airlines debacle, when private security guards acting on behalf of the airline forcibly dragged an otherwise compliant passenger from his seat on a flight from Chicago to Louisville because of the airline’s self-created, over-booked flight. The event was a veritable YouTube Rorschach Test upon which the viewing public could project its perceptions of social dysfunction. The sordid episode held meaning on any number of fronts­— privatization, corporate privilege, police brutality, and systemic racism among them (the mistreated passenger, Dr. David Dao, is Asian-American). Yet for all the hand-wringing and finger-wagging, the very practice of airline overbooking that caused this mess went unchallenged. A spate of utilitarian articles defended United’s policy, taking issue only with its manner of enforcement. They argued that United failed only by refusing to offer its passengers more money to woo voluntary compliance. But the issue with United’s policy is one of values not mechanics. Airline overbooking replaces respect with the corrupting amorality of efficient breach. Continue reading

The Politics of Feeling

The seemingly pointless infighting between professional Democrats and its grassroots activists over the direction of the party has many liberals concerned. If the party is united in opposition to President Trump’s agenda, his controversial executive and judicial appointments, and his very presence in the Oval Office, why would its members turn to infighting and bickering about the way forward? After all, it’s not just Trump that connects Democrats of all stripes. Even after a deeply disappointing electoral defeat in November and the predictable media handwringing about out-of-touch, Eastern elites that followed, there has been surprisingly little dissent from the basic tenets of party orthodoxy as laid out in the 2016 Democratic platform. Protecting health reform, reducing income inequality, increasing taxes on the wealthy, combating climate change, passing criminal justice reform, expanding worker protections and LGBT rights. There remains no serious divergence from this agenda.

And yet…things are not so harmonious. Continue reading

Lavar Ball’s World

It’s Lavar Ball’s world; we’re just living in it. The father of UCLA freshman and college basketball phenom Lonzo Ball has taken American sports media by storm in the first step on the inevitable road to national stardom. Even if you’re not a diehard college basketball fan, you may have heard of the elder Ball’s antics by now. With his oldest son tearing through the college ranks on the way to being a top pick in this June’s National Basketball Association draft, Mr. Ball has used the small bit of fame that goes along with his son’s rise to showcase his unusual family and promote the brand he has created for it. In doing so, he has heaped notoriety upon himself by foisting an escalating series of outlandish statements on a content-hungry public.

With UCLA eliminated from the NCAA tournament last weekend, Lonzo Ball will not be at tonight’s Final Four. But as Lavar would likely put it, tonight’s Final Four doesn’t have him. Continue reading

A Disastrous Double-Standard

As the remarkable story of President Trump’s secret ties to Russia unfolds each day, it is hard not to think back to the day last summer where a press conference about a different investigation, with a different potential target, and an undoubtedly different outcome became the center of the political universe. On July 5, 2016, FBI director James Comey took to his high podium to deliver a statement about his organization’s criminal investigation into potential mishandling of classified information by former Secretary of State and then-presumptive Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton. As Comey himself admitted, it was “an unusual statement.” He both gave “more detail about our process than [he] ordinarily would” while “not coordinat[ing] or review[ing] [his] statement in any way with the Department of Justice.” Intense public interest and importance, he said, justified his departure from protocol.

Comey’s statement was unusual for another reason. Despite finding no deceit or destruction of evidence, finding no intent to disclose classified information, and ultimately concluding that Clinton sent or received a mere 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains (plus six others found by examining e-mail fragments) containing classified information over a private server, he felt the need to publicly chastise his investigation target. Although determining that no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges based on such meager evidence of intentional mishandling of classified information, Comey took time to make the damaging and debatable charge that Clinton had been “extremely careless” and speculatively ruminated that it was “possible” a hostile foreign actor had accessed Clinton’s communications.

Now we know that just weeks after Comey made these public statements about a confidential investigation, his FBI was actively investigating the far more explosive possibility that Clinton’s Republican opponent in the presidential race was intentionally conspiring with a hostile foreign power to influence the election in his favor. Continue reading

The President Has No Clothes

A host of insider tell-alls coming from within the White House have revealed what we knew would be the case—Donald Trump and his minions don’t know the first thing about running the Government. Two weeks ago, the New York Times described an executive branch led by a lonely man wandering the West Wing in his bathrobe and staffed by “a surprisingly small crew of no more than a half-dozen empowered aides with virtually no familiarity with the workings of the White House or federal government.” Last Sunday, the Washington Post detailed how one of Trump’s closest “friends” first privately, and then quite publicly, told the president that his chief of staff, Reince Preibus was “in way over his head.” That same day, the New York Times reported that the National Security Council was in a state of disarray: “Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them.” Now, Politico and other outlets are reporting that Trump is considering a massive staff-shakeup less than a month into his presidency, and that aides like Preibus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer may be out the door soon. Continue reading