Friday, April 28, 2017

The corrosive consequence of the politics of tax cuts.


According to the New York Times, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor needs a $28 billion overhaul, including, most significantly, the replacement tunnel under the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey. The significance of the tunnel project is hard to overstate, yet Republicans in Congress--now with White House backing--appear almost gleeful at the prospect of defunding the railroad and crippling the region. Perhaps it is payback for the famous Saul Steinberg's New Yorker cover and all that it represents, but GOP members of Congress from the flyover states are itching to tell Amtrak to go f--k itself.

It is an odd way to say thank you. The Northeast Corridor is an essential transportation artery in one of the two most economically vital regions--along with California--that drive the nation's economy, and in terms of annual contributions to the federal government, it stands alone. Given the disproportionate amount of funding that the region contributes to the federal government, one would not think that supporting badly need capital investment required by that critical rail link would be too much to ask.


Associated Press: April 17, 2017
A quick look at the list of per capita federal taxes paid by states that was compiled and published last week by the Associated Press tells the story. The states served by the Northeast Corridor--from north to south--Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland represent eight of the fourteen leading states in terms of federal taxes paid per resident. 

Year in and year out, those states--along with most of their blue state brethren--are net payers of federal taxes while most red states take out more than they pay in. It would be one thing if there was a hint of appreciation from those deep red states to the productive states that provide all that money, but listening to the braying coming from the halls of Congress these days--the hostility to funding Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is just one example--one would think that it was the red states that were supporting the rest of the country. 


With Republicans in full control, the Northeast Corridor states are taking it on the chin. It would be one thing if the GOP simply wanted to take the axe to Amtrak--it has been a favored target of budget cutters for decades--but now Republicans are determined to stick it to the blue states on the tax side as well. 

Right at the top of the GOP tax reform agenda--and reflected in the Trump tax plan as well--is eliminating the federal deductibility of state and local taxes. This is both a money grab and a political power play. As illustrated in the "tax burden" graphic below, the states that pay the most federal taxes per capita--the Northeast Corridor, Midwest and West Coast--tend to have higher state and local taxes than the lower-tax "taker" states as well. For decades, conservative economists such as Art Laffer, Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow have argued that it was only a matter of time before those low tax red states became the shining stars of economic growth. Yet, for some reason, despite low taxes--and decades of subsidies from the high tax states that those economists conveniently ignore--the future never comes. Federal taxes paid per capita as shown here are directly tied to income per capita of each state, and--despite the predictions of moralizing tax cutters--those Northeast Corridor states, from Taxachusetts down to Maryland, continue to produce higher real incomes across their populations and subsidize those low tax, conservative shining stars of Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina, and their brethren.

For decades now--as documented by the conservative Tax Foundation--higher performing blue states have seen their money flow to lower performing red states. Yet somehow those red state Republicans get away with saying--as we now hear in the tax reform discussions on Capitol Hill--that the deductibility of state and local taxes represents a subsidy by the low tax to the high tax states. While this might be true in a narrow mathematical sense, whatever benefit that deduction provides to taxpayers in high tax states is a pittance compared to the overwhelming subsidies that flow the other way.

Republican lawmakers don't object to some states subsidizing others--after all, Republicans are more likely to represent taker states than payor states--but they object to subsidizing what they view as morally bad behavior on the part of the blue states: taxing citizens to pay for government. Yet, blue state Democrats can look at the same circumstances and see a very different picture. In their view,  those higher taxes that Republicans find objectionable go in large part to fund investments in K-12 and higher education that directly contribute to the higher real incomes and wealth accumulation over time in blue states--which in turn have resulted in the higher per capita federal tax payments that are used in part to subsidize red states. In contrast, in the view of blue state Democrats, red state politicians who prioritize low taxes and suppressing education funding are making policy choices that result in lower levels of education attainment across their communities, and contribute to lower real incomes and less financial security over time.  

The destructiveness of the tax cut imperative central to GOP politics  is evident within states as well, where--as on the national level--tax revenues are generated disproportionately in the economically dynamic urban centers, while spent to support poorer, rural populations. Colorado,  where I live, is just one example of a state where politically opportunistic tax-cut rhetoric has contributed to - rather than helped ameliorate - the "American carnage" that has been visited upon rural and exurban communities. Since a tax-limitation constitutional amendment was approved by voters in 1992, state and local funding of education has been crippled, particularly in rural areas. While urban and suburban communities have approved local tax increases for investments in education and transportation to supplement limited state funding and override constitutional limitations, voters in rural areas have consistently declined such tax increases. Now, as the urban communities are booming, school districts in rural Colorado lack funds to hire teachers or even to remain open more than four days a week. As a result, as we have seen nationally, disparities in economic growth, and family incomes and security, between the economically productive urban and suburban communities and the rural parts of the state have continued to grow.

The GOP has long had a preference for returning programatic control to the states through block grants, and now proposes to block grant Medicaid as part of the Obamacare overhaul. Beyond issues of federal control and uniformity of entitlements across states, to block grant programs is the worst of all possible outcomes from a blue/payor state perspective. After all, to raise revenues as is now done on a progressive, and thus grossly unequal manner, and then distribute the funds back to the states on a per capita basis to be used under locally established guidelines is fundamentally no different than giving Alabama and Mississippi to have taxing power over New York and California. It would be, from a certain historical perspective, as though the Confederacy won the Civil War.

Better instead that we consider--as I am sure the Freedom Caucus and Ted Cruz would appreciate--reverting to the original federalist structure designed by the founders. Instead of having an IRS to raise tax revenue directly from taxpayers across the country under a progressive income tax with a uniform set of rules, we could revert to the Constitutional system of apportionment. Under apportionment, the federal government would determine its budgetary needs, and apportion to each state its obligation based on an equal, per capita amount reflective of the most recent census.

Each state, then, would be responsible in assessing its citizenry to raise its apportionment as it saw fit. California might choose a highly progressive income tax, Texas a flat tax, Florida a sales tax and Wyoming a real estate tax. It would be nobodies business but their own. But when the AP does their analysis, it would show each state making an equal contribution on a per capita basis--$8,943 for argument sake. It would be fair, it would be constitutional, and it would stop the ceaseless hypocrisy of red state politicians yelling about blue state profligacy, while profiting from it at the same time.


To the extent that the emphasis on low taxes has undermined educational attainment in red state America, the anti-tax Reagan Revolution has turned the GOP into a fount of public policy moralism that has undermined the economic success and security of those communities that it represents. In the modern world, where capital flows to those places that offer the greatest opportunity for an economic return, low taxes are not enough; investments in education and human capital matter. Now, more than ever, investments in primary, secondary and higher education have become critical drivers of long-term economic growth at the state level. 

In the wake of a presidential election that swung on the devastation wrecked by globalization on less educated populations, one might have imagined that elected officials from those communities would be focused on the urgency of investments in education to support community economic vitality and family financial security. But instead, rather than point to the factors that produce economic success and security over the long term--for individuals, families and communities--we just hear more of the same old, same old, as red state politicians continue to hector blue states about what taxes cost, rather than what they produce.



There is nothing new about the tension of wealth redistribution. The progressive income tax system was premised, among other things, on the notion that the entire nation benefits from improving socio-demographic outcomes of poorer communities. And so it is with the taxation of wealthier states to support less wealthy states--or in the State of Colorado using revenues raised from wealthier Front Range communities to invest in the western slope or eastern plains.

The political challenge of one community vilifying the other--often for political advantage--is that such redistribution--or "progressive taxation"--becomes more difficult to sustain. This is true whether in the traditional vilification of the 1% by Democratic activists, or vilification of high-tax blue states by politicians from red taker states.

The GOP of Mitt Romney was clear in its core principles that the reciprocity for the taxation of the wealthy was the obligation of personal responsibility on the part of the less wealthy. The redistribution of wealth was not, in the GOP view, morally justified for the creation of an entitlement state, but rather an opportunity society. That perspective mirrors those in payor states who do not begrudge the subsidization of taker states, as long as those states are making public policy choices that--in a manner similar to that envisioned by many in the traditional GOP--create opportunities for individuals in those states to improve their circumstances over time. If, instead, those states use the fact of perpetual subsidies from payor states as an opportunity to simply cut taxes and benefit the wealthy in those states rather than assure opportunities for upward mobility for the less well off, the rationale for supporting inter-state transfers of funds withers.

Trumpian politics has blended the abject, tax the risk, taker resentments, with a plutocratic set of policies that benefit the wealthy. By cutting back on the availability of healthcare for the less well off and cutting taxes massively for the wealthiest, Trump's policy prescriptions are beyond anything that Mitt Romney might have been tempted to propose. At the same time, Trump's populist rhetoric drives resentments of rural and exurban supporters toward the urban centers to extremes that the most dedicated socialist or leftist demagogue could hope to match.

The politics of resentment are corrosive to efforts to pursue a society characterized by upward mobility rather than class stratification. The states along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor have done well by their residents over the years. Decade after decade, those states have contributed far more to the federal kitty than they have taken out. Yet for all their success--and the billions of dollars they pour into the pockets of red state taxpayers year after year--they continue to be subject to resentment and derision from Republicans in Congress, who take their money and then tell them to pay for their own railroad.

In thrall of the politics of cutting taxes and their own advancement, those same politicians ignore the critical links between educational attainment and family incomes and financial security, and inhibit their states and local communities from making investments in education that might improve the welfare of those communities that are struggling the most. The irony, as is too often the case, is that the supporters of those politicians are not just the wealthy who want to keep their money, but those who are in most need of education and healthcare funding for them and their families, yet fail to see that their elected leaders are undermining them every step of the way.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Trump tax plan: nothing for his base, and they love him for it.

According to Gallup this week, 57% of Americans believe that their federal income taxes are too high. That fact alone should help put the wind at the backs of members of Congress pushing for tax cuts this year. The Trump administration presented its "plan" this week, and that plan should provide further impetus for action.

On the face of it, the Trump plan is silly. By some estimates, the proposed cuts would cost upwards of $6 trillion over the ten-year scoring window. No doubt, that number will be trimmed down when "dynamic scoring" is taken into account. Trump's original plan was twice as silly--$12 trillion in tax cuts--and at the time the Tax Foundation scored the cost as just over $10 trillion, taking into account the impact of tax cuts on economic growth. By extension, Trump's new $6 trillion plan might only cost $5 trillion. But whether the number is $6 trillion or $5 trillion, it isn't budget neutral by any extent.

Six trillion might sound like a lot in terms of increasing the deficit, but it also buys a lot of friends. For deficit hawks in Congress--House Speaker Paul Ryan most notably, but also the Freedom Caucus and those with roots in the anti-debt Tea Party--this looms to be a come-to-Jesus moment. Donald Trump ran on deficit-busting tax cuts, and he was elected on deficit-busting tax cuts. If those members of Congress want to face down the President, they are going to have to stand up to a lot of high paid lobbyists and powerful industry groups--to say nothing of a lot of lies and silliness about dynamic scoring--along the way. As Bruce Bartlett--the author of the Reagan tax cuts and Bush 41 advisor--has observed, tax cuts have long since lost their supply side justification, they are all just about politics now.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn did their best to sell the plan as being about economic growth, and avoid micro-details (to use Gary Cohn's word) about who--most notably the President--would benefit. What they lacked in details, they made up for with adjectives. Massive. Enormous. Critical. Huge. This is language right in Donald Trump's wheelhouse, and if deficit hawks were troubled by size of the plan, they must also know that big plans garner lots of supporters, and to call Trump's tax plan big is an understatement. It is, in fact, huge.

Donald Trump understands as well as any politician in memory exactly who has supported him and what they are looking for in return for that support. He won the evangelical vote by promising Neil Gorsuch--metaphorically speaking--and he delivered. He built his "base" by alternately appealing to and stoking the resentments of white working class voters, and each day he looks for ways to maintain that visceral connection. And he won the large swath of economic conservatives--that cohort of voters motivated by tax cuts and less restrictive federal regulation--on the prospect of both. This week, he put his money where his mouth is. Or, more accurately, someone else's money--notably future taxpayers who someday will have to pick up the $6 trillion tab should the proposed tax cut package make it to his desk.

Those who dismiss the possibility of Trump's plan--or a reasonable facsimile--being signed into law should consider what money can buy. The Trump plan contains truly huge cuts in corporate taxes--sufficient alone to keep industry groups and K Street lobbying firms working overtime for months to come. Perhaps even more significant is the proposal to tax pass-through income--partnerships, Subchapter S corps and the like--at the new 15% corporate rate. For those who complained that Trump has benefited over the years from the panoply of tax breaks that privilege real estate investors, he is now proposing to level the playing field not by getting rid of those tax breaks, but instead by offering similar benefits to millions of small business and professional firms. This is a gift of enormous value that will not only entice many heretofore reluctant supporters to his side, but, if passed, should secure the support of those voters four years from now, should Democrats continue down the path to the left at the urging of their activist base.

From early on in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump swore that he would end the carried interest loophole that effectively allows many in the investment, venture capital and private equity worlds to have their ordinary income taxed at the lower, capital gains tax rate. Attacking the carried interest loophole was seen by some as political cover for Trump's first, $12 trillion tax cut plan. While the plan introduced this week is silent on carried interest, it appears to make the issue moot. Under the Trump plan, those investors income could prospectively be treated even better than it is now, by falling under the 15% pass-through rate rather than at the proposed 20% rate on capital gains for which it might otherwise be eligible under the old rules. Rather than producing a tax hike for those investors as he promised over the course of the campaign, Trump may be giving them an additional tax cut.

Then there is the personal income tax side of the equation. It is here, more than on the corporate side, that the marketing of the plan has a stroke of genius. During the presidential campaign Trump insisted that wealthy taxpayers would get no benefit from his tax plan, which would instead deliver massive cuts to the middle class. Mnuchin doubled down on the Trump promise shortly after the inauguration, when he stated that “Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions, so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class." 

There were always two problems inherent with that promise. First, wealthy taxpayers pay most of the taxes in this country--a fact at odds with Democrat rhetoric and beliefs, but nonetheless a fact--and if one cuts income tax rates, it is very difficult not to have those at the upper end of the spectrum who pay the lion's share of income taxes derive a benefit. And so it is in this case. Contrary to Trump and Mnuchin's promises, the Trump plan delivers massive cuts in income taxes to the wealthiest taxpayers by lowering rates on ordinary income, capital gains and dividends. But then it goes farther, and eliminates the Obamacare tax on investment earnings, the Alternative Minimum Tax and the Estate Tax. It includes, quite simply, everything wealthy Americans could ever want to find under the tree on Christmas morning.

Second, as Mitt Romney famously pointed out four years ago, approximately half of Americans--47% was the number Romney pointed to at the time--pay little or no federal income tax. In the press conference introducing the Trump plan, Mnuchin suggested that in addition to reducing the current seven tax brackets to three, with tax rates of 10%, 25% and 35%, there would effectively be a new tax rate of zero for families earning less than $24,000. The misleading aspect of Mnuchin's boast is that, according to Congressional Budget Office data, a family with $24,000--which is at the upper end of the first quintile of taxpayers--now pays a net income tax rate of negative 7.2% (net of the refundable tax credits, including the Earned Income and Child Care tax credits) . Mnuchin's statement is misleading because those taxpayers whom he says will enjoy a zero tax rate under the Trump plan are already paying no federal income tax. (And, it should be noted, neither Cohn nor Mnuchin suggested that the Trump plan would eliminate the payroll tax, a flat tax that is distinct from the income tax and dedicated to funding Social Security.)

This was always the problem with the Trump tax cut rhetoric. A massive income tax cut for people who are not paying much to begin with is hard to deliver. But as Donald Trump knows better than any politician we have ever seen, the truth of what you say matters far less than the conviction with which you say it. This is where the stroke of genius resides in the plan as proposed. And Trump will sell it well: We are getting rid of all those special interest deductions for the wealthy. That I can tell you. And we are lowering the bottom rate to zero. It doesn't get much lower than zero. Right? Much of Trump's base lies well within the 47% of taxpayers that Romney held in such contempt, but they love Donald Trump and many actually believe what he tells them. If Trump's tax plan becomes law and he declares that he has delivered to them what he promised--a huge, massive, beautiful tax cut--they will believe him, whether or not they get anything out of it.

The problem with the Gallup suggestion that 57% of Americans believe that their federal income taxes are too high is that it is hard to come up with 57% of Americans who actually pay much in federal income taxes. According to CBO data, in addition to the first quintile rate of negative 7.2%,  the second and third quintile of households pay net tax rates of negative 1.2% and positive 2.6%, respectively. Those three quintiles represent 60% of American households. In sum, those 60% of households pay an aggregate net negative tax rate of -1.3%. That is to say that the cost of the refundable tax credits received by that 60% of taxpayers more than offsets their entire federal income tax liability. Including the payroll tax, which approximates 8% for that cohort of taxpayers, those 60% of taxpayers pay 13.6% of total federal taxes.

Since the Reagan Revolution, lower income taxpayers have provided the votes to deliver tax cuts for wealthy Americans. The power of tax cut rhetoric is powerful, and it endures. Trump's tax plan will garner support that is broader and deeper than his election majority, for the simple reason that there will be something of real value on the table this time. Millions of Americans who stand to gain from the tax cuts will likely throw caution--and deficits--to the wind, and clamor for their passage. Corporate America is already all-in. The Trump voters will be all in even if they get little out of it, because--facts be damned--they will be thrilled that their man is once more delivering what he promised. And those who will pay the cost of the $6 trillion when the bill finally comes due will have little to say on the matter, as most of them have not yet been born.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Trump doctrine.

Bombing Syria has had such a salutary impact on the punditocracy. The beautiful images that MSNBC host Brian Williams described, of Tomahawk missiles being launched from a destroyer in the Mediterranean, brought back the halcyon days of Desert Storm and Shock and Awe. Talking on Morning Joe on Friday morning, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered fulsome praise for Donald Trump standing up as the last bulwark of defense for international norms and values. 

Speaking on the same show, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatious summed up the widespread enthusiasm for Donald Trump's Syria attack: "It sets the table. It establishes the credibility of American power. Trump's problem, in dealing with the Chinese and everyone else is, is he big talk, he is bluster but no delivery. And by taking action quickly, and in a way that's moved with surprising speed, I think he's demonstrated this isn't just talk. 'I mean it. I'm going to enforce the positions that I take.'"

The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that when Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in Syria, he wasn't actually enforcing a position that he had taken. Quite the contrary. Just a week earlier, his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had announced a shift in US policy toward Syria, accepting the "political reality" that the regime of Bashar Assad was likely to remain in place, in order shift the US focus to the defeat of ISIS.

Trump's suggestion that it was the televised images of the children mutilated by the attack that changed his view on Assad and impelled him to act was strikingly disingenuous. As horrific as the chemical weapons attack killing an estimated 70 Syrians was, it did not tell us anything we did not know already about Assad. The Bashar Assad whom Haley and Tillerson accepted as a political fact of life a week before the chemical attack last week had repeatedly used chemical weapons to kill upwards of 2,000 of his own people, and is the central figure in a civil war that has left a half a million Syrians dead, led 3 million Syrians to flee the country, and left 6.5 million internally displaced--out of a country with a pre-war population of 23 million.

Until this week, under the banner of his America First doctrine, Donald Trump had forsworn his role as 'president of the world' and the responsibilities of the United States as the protector of the global order. This week, he came full circle. In his remarks following the military action against the Assad regime, Trump declared that attacking Syria was in the vital, national security interest of the United States and its allies, and he embraced his responsibility to enforce United Nations edicts and international bans on the use of chemical weapons. Much to the chagrin of his most loyal supporters, his words mirrored the language used by George W. Bush and Barack Obama justifying United States military actions in the region on their watch. New military engagement in the Middle East--with the exception of destroying ISIS--was exactly what Trump had long railed against and had pledged to his supporters would never happen under his watch.

Members of the foreign policy establishment have been bending over backwards to identify the emergence of a global geo-political doctrine in Trump's action. Some see his Syria attack as a projection of strength, announcing to the world that the United States is back from the Obama years of timidity and prepared to reassume a position of muscular global leadership. For others, it was the strategic brilliance that stood out, as the attack sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jingping--with whom Trump was meeting at the time of the attack--that Trump is not a man to be trifled with--whether with respect to the South China Sea or North Korea--and that he is willing to use force and to act swiftly.

This is one more quintessentially Trump moment, where people interpret Trump's behavior through their own eyes. As a man with no real ideology, Trump has mastered the art of letting others see what they want to see in him. To economic conservatives, he is an economic conservative; to social conservatives, he a social conservative; and to white nationalists, he is a white nationalist. Now, realpolitik, great power internationalists who had despaired of having an isolationist in the White House are viewing his action through their own lens, while their historical neoconservative adversaries watched the same missile attack and are seeing glimpses of idealistic interventionism in Trump's action. Like the morning after one of his overnight tweetstorms, the world watched the missiles fly and scurried to interpret their meaning.

In the same vein, Washington Post guru Bob Woodward praised Trump in the wake of the attack for the swiftness of his "pivot" from the isolationist rhetoric that led him to accept the Assad regime last week to the robust internationalism that led him to bomb the regime this week. But if we know anything about Trump, it is that he does not pivot; what we saw in Syria was just Donald Trump being Donald Trump.

Reporting for the New York Times, Robin Lindsay and Dave Horn suggested that the Syria attack pointed to the outlines of an emerging Trump Doctrine, but in their case it was one that resonates with the Donald Trump we have come to know: "Don’t get roped in by doctrine... Mr. Trump dispensed with his own dogma and forced other world leaders to re-examine their assumptions about how the United States will lead in this new era." That assessment mirrors what Trump described during the campaign as his belief in strategic unpredictability, which, he argued, had the benefit of not letting your adversaries know what you might do next. Call it a doctrine if you must, but Trump's strategic unpredictability can also be seen simply as a justification for acting impulsively. Looked at through the lens of the Trump doctrine of strategic unpredictability, what we saw in Syria might be our first glimpse of Donald Trump with a nuclear-armed Twitter account.

In the days since the attack, it seems to have quickly shrunk in significance. The airbase hit in the missile strike is back in operations, and the Assad regime is once again targeting the town where the chemical attack occurred. If Trump's action was supposed to be a shot across the bow of the Assad regime, it is not yet apparent that the warning had great effect. Reflecting back on events over the weekend, it is apparent that the pronouncements of a coherent Trump Doctrine might have been a bit premature. The Syrian civil war continues unabated. It is hard to imagine how anyone expected otherwise from one missile strike.

While the strike was sold to Congress and the public as a one-off event, it is hard to imagine that there will not be more to come. Trump stood before the world and embraced his role as nothing less than the defender of the suffering children of Syria--"No child of God should ever suffer such horror"--and their anguish is nowhere near an end. And then there is the media coverage. It may have been fake news, but over the past few days, Donald Trump has had the best press he has seen in the short life of his presidency. Having gotten a whiff of the plaudits that come to a wartime president--in the early days at least--it is hard to imagine him letting go for a better grip.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Screwed again, Trump voters stand by their man.

As Passover approaches, a parable is in order: Moses never entered the Promised Land, only his followers did. If Donald Trump were Moses, however, things would have been different. Moses F. Trump would have said to his followers standing by the bank of the Jordan River, "You guys wait here, I will be right back." Then he would have crossed the river into the Promised Land. He would have claimed that land of milk and honey as his own, leaving his followers stranded on the side of Mount Nebo.
*  *  *  *  *

A month short of his first hundred days, and Donald Trump's job approval/disapproval rating according to the Quinnipiac University Poll dropped to a new low. His 35% approve vs. 57% disapprove rating. Subtract one from the other and you get minus 22, which can be a shorthand way of referring to it. As in Trump's approval is at minus 22. This marked a decline from 41% approve vs. 52% disapprove (-11) in the same poll four weeks earlier, and beat out Barack Obama’s worst approve/disapprove rating of his presidency, 38% approve vs. 57% disapprove (-19) reached on December 10, 2013.

Trump's job approval level slipped across nearly every party identity, age and sex sub-group identified in the poll compared to four weeks earlier. Among Republicans, his job approval slipped 12 points from a stratospheric 91% to 79%, while among non-college educated whites he declined nine points from 60% to 51% approval. Only among Democrats did Trump's approval edge up, from 5% approve vs. 91% disapprove to 6% approve vs. 89% disapprove. Just by way of comparison, in early April 2001, after the contentious 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush approval rating among Democrats was 37%.

For those puzzled by Trump's still-strong support among Republicans, the answer is simple: he has delivered. Roughly speaking, the coalition that elected Donald Trump can be divided into three groups: economic conservatives, social conservatives and Trump's base--largely comprised of disaffected, less educated, white working class voters.

The first group, economic conservatives, were probably the most skeptical of Trump as a candidate, but they turned out for Trump hoping that he would deliver on his promises of lower taxes and reduced regulation. Now, two month into the administration, that group is probably more positive than they were on election day, as both tax reform and deregulation have been a central focus of the Trump agenda and the prospects for tax cuts remain strong.

The second group, social conservatives, supported Trump in the hope, first and foremost, of a conservative nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. For that group, Trump delivered in his first week, with an executive order reinstituting the global gag rule, cutting of federal funds to international organizations that provide family planning services. And this week, Neil Gorsuch, conservative jurist, is on his way to the Supreme Court.

The third group--the @realDonaldTrump voters--turned out for love, pure and simple. Since the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have maintained a sharp focus on Trump's campaign promises to his base and sought to address them one at a time, through both real and symbolic actions. Trump promised to kill the TransPacific Partnership, and he did so immediately upon being sworn into office. He promised a crackdown on immigration, and within days of his inauguration, teams of ICE agents began cracking down on undocumented immigrants in communities across the country. He promised he would institute a Muslim ban, and wasted no time in rolling out his first version of the Muslim ban. Indeed, his fights that ensued with the judges that blocked his executive orders may have burnished support among his core supporters even more than the ban alone would have. And Trump's most outrageous early morning tweets rekindle, week after week, the love of his most loyal supporters.

The debate within the GOP that killed the American Health Care Reform Act provided a wake-up call that things might not be so easy going forward. The first flurry of executive orders, and even the Gorsuch nomination, were low hanging fruit; they were all actions that Trump could take unilaterally, or, in the case of the Gorsuch nomination, that would face no opposition within the GOP on Capitol Hill. The real work began with healthcare legislation.

The negotiations around the repeal of Obamacare laid bare the cruel underbelly of Donald Trump's politics. He never actually had a plan for delivering on his campaign promise of better healthcare, for more people at a lower cost; it was just a great applause line at his rallies. He knows the depth of trust that his supporters have invested in him, but showed no compunction about turning his back on their interests in pursuit of his own, when the time came. As the legislation moved forward, it became apparent that if the price of winning--which for Trump was defined as destroying Barack Obama's signature creation--was selling his core supporters down the river and saddling them with higher costs, reduced benefits and less access to healthcare, Trump was fully prepared to accept that deal.

Most Americans were not fooled about the impacts of the deal that was in the works. By the time the healthcare bill came up for a vote, the public had soured on the entire exercise. According to the Quinnipiac poll, only 17% of those polled supported the bill. Yet buried within the Quinnipiac numbers was that continuing enigma of American politics--the Trump voter. Alone among the demographic sub-groups polled, a majority of non-college educated whites supported the Republican healthcare plan, notwithstanding the analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and the Kaiser Family Foundation that suggested that those families stood to lose the most in terms of increased health insurance cost, reduced benefits or lost coverage compared to the Affordable Care Act status quo.

The healthcare bill was the metaphorical equivalent of Donald Trump shooting someone on Fifth Avenue during broad daylight, but in this case Trump shot point blank at those who supported him, and, as he predicted, they did not flinch. Trump has now assured his supporters that a second effort at healthcare reform is underway, but there is no evidence that he intends to protect the economic interests of those he considers his base any better during this next go-round.

Healthcare reform has much in common with tax reform, which is next up on the GOP agenda. Both are issues with clearly identifiable winners and losers, as well as well-heeled political and policy advocates prepared to do battle as legislation moves forward. As was the case with respect to replacing Obamacare, Donald Trump made promises to his core supporters, promising "massive middle-class tax cuts" while making sure that no net benefit would accrue to the top 1%. But, as with the drafting of the healthcare legislation, that is not the way things are headed.

Trump's point person on tax reform, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, has suggested repeatedly that "there is very, very strong support" for a tax bill. Of course there is. Tax reform is a Christmas tree, and every industry sees it as an opportunity to advance their economic interests. In the name of growth, corporate and individual tax cuts are handed out. In the name of corporate tax repatriation, a tax holiday is granted on repatriated corporate profits. It all translates into higher after tax incomes for wealthy taxpayers, executive compensation, and dividends. What's not to like?

The problem, of course, is that old deficit thing. Republicans had been counting on hundreds of billions of dollars in savings from repealing Obamacare that have yet to materialize to offset the budget impact of their corporate and personal income tax cuts. They need the budget offsets if they are going to be able to comply with the "Byrd Rule" that allows legislation deemed to be budget neutral to be approved with a simple majority rather than 60 votes. If tax reform has to be structured as revenue neutral on a stand-alone basis--meaning that for everyone who gets a tax cut, someone else has to pay more--the prospects become much more problematic.

While Mnuchin has repeatedly stressed Donald Trump's commitment to massive middle-class tax cuts, that is not so simple to accomplish. Much of the middle class--as Mitt Romney famously pointed out four years ago to a group of hedge fund managers in Palm Beach--pays little or no federal income tax. As it turns out, Romney was telling the truth, and if he had been as willing to defend his facts as Donald Trump has been willing to defend his lies, Mitt Romney might have won the Presidency in 2012, Donald Trump would still be the host of Celebrity Apprentice, and we all would have been spared the mayhem that has infected our politics over the past year and a half.

The problem with Trump's tax cut promises to his supporters is inherent in Romney's observation. If people pay little or no federal income tax beyond the social security payroll tax, it is hard to promise them a massive income tax cut. According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office data, the second quintile of households--those whose incomes are in the 21-40% range of all households--paid an average income tax rate, net of refundable tax credits, of negative 1.2%, while the third and fourth quintile of households paid average income tax rates of 2.6% and 6.1%, respectively. If the average tax rate for the middle quintile is 2.6% and the average household income for that group is $70,000--implying a tax bill in the range of $1,800--there are limits to what a massive middle-class tax cut might look like, and those data suggests that health insurance costs are of far greater consequence than federal income tax rates for middle-class families. Cutting the social security payroll tax rate, which adds an additional 8-9% tax burden, may be what Trump has in mind, though that would undercut the stability of the social security system, which Trump has pledged not to touch.

More likely, Trump has nothing particular in mind beyond campaign rhetoric. Just as he proved himself willing to walk away from his pledge to reduce the cost of health insurance paid by his core supporters, he will most likely walk away from his pledge to massively cut their tax bill as well. Trump is committed to passing major tax reform legislation this year and he is not going to walk away from whatever Republican negotiators are finally able to put together just because it fails to deliver middle class families a tax cut that, one observer commented, will barely buy them more that a hamburger or two.

Donald Trump will not the first Republican to have seduced white working class voters, only to turn his back on their economic interests. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan built their electoral coalitions around white southern and working class voters who had long been part of the base of the Democratic Party. The difference is that while Nixon and Reagan drew those voters into the modern Republican Party coalition on the basis of social issues and grievances, Trump built on the Patrick Buchanan platform of economic nationalism as he suggested making the Republican Party into the "workers' party." Trump's new Republican Party was not just going to be about Pro-Life judges and protecting guns, but about trade, walls and Muslims, as well as reducing the cost of and expanding access to health insurance, and those massive, massive tax cuts.

This week's poll numbers provide the first hint that Trump's core supporters are beginning to realize that they have fallen for the same old con yet again: they delivered their votes and once again their economic interests are being ignored. In the Obamacare overhaul and tax reform negotiations, Donald Trump's commitment to them has proven to be nothing but words. But their blind loyalty to him remains, as support for Trump among among Republicans and non-college educated whites (without regard to political party) continues to be strong--with approve/disapprove ratings at 79%/14% and 51%/39%, respectively. But not so Republicans in Congress, whose approve/disapprove ratings among non-college educated whites came in this week at 29%/60%, or negative 31. When those Trump voters finally wake up, Republicans in Congress are the ones who will likely feel their wrath.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Be careful what you wish for.

As Senate Democrats move ahead with their plans to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, I can't help but wonder what Merrick Garland thinks about the showdown in the Senate. A filibuster might feel good in the moment--a salve for the simmering rage that continues over Republican treatment of Garland's nomination last year--but it will not affect the ultimate course of events. Mitch McConnell won. He might have thrown his reputation as a Senate institutionalist under the bus when he led the Republican boycott of Garland's nomination last year, but at the end of the day, a Republican nominee will sit on the Supreme Court. That was what McConnell cared about, and that will be the result.

The looming Democrat filibuster is payback for McConnell's boycott--what they see as the theft of a seat on the Supreme Court--and many have come to see it as a matter of principle. But the filibuster is an action that is fraught with potential unintended--though easily foreseeable--consequences. If Democrats are lucky, McConnell and the Republicans will--as promised--get rid of the filibuster rule and confirm Gorsuch. If through some fluke event--or last minute loss of nerve by McConnell--Gorsuch is not confirmed, one can only imagine who a petulant and brooding Donald Trump will nominate next. But whomever it might be--Jeff Sessions' best friend Judge William Prior, perhaps--there is no way that Republicans will let two nominees fall to Democrat petulance over Garland.

The outcome of the Gorsuch nomination is in Mitch McConnell's hands. If Democrats do filibuster the nomination--as now seems all but assured--McConnell will most likely make good on his threat to proceed to the nuclear option, and Gorsuch will be approved by a simple majority vote. Should eight or more Democrats ultimately back off and oppose the pending filibuster--whether to keep their powder dry for the next Supreme Court vacancy or out of concern for the damage that eliminating the filibuster will do to an increasingly fragile institution--there is no reason to believe that Republicans would not use the same threat next time around.

Either way the Supreme Court filibuster has already effectively gone by the boards: either the GOP goes ahead and eliminates it this time around, or the filibuster will be effectively neutered as a tool of the minority going forward, undermined by the permanent threat of the nuclear option down the road. This is not Mitch McConnell's doing--or Harry Reid's for that matter--we live in an era of rank partisanship, where residual notions of reverence for the Senate as an institution have long since been rendered quaint. With the demise of the judicial filibuster, it is only a matter of time before other Senate rules come under attack. After all, once the filibuster is eliminated as an inconvenient artifact impeding majority rule on judges, why should other vestiges of earlier eras of Senate comity such as the Byrd Rule--which requires a 60-vote majority for approval of legislation with significant deficit consequences--continue to act as impediments to true majority rule?

Each year that goes by, we tell ourselves that the partisanship in our politics cannot get worse, yet somehow it does. But don't blame members of Congress, they are merely a mirror of the electorate at whose behest they serve. Democrats should keep that in mind, lest they read too much into Donald Trump's approval ratings dipping below 40%. While Donald Trump may have historically low approval ratings for a president in his first months in office--with negative ratings hovering around 55%--those numbers are not simply about Trump. They are a reflection of how deeply rooted our partisan divisions have become. The fact that George W. Bush's approval rating hovered near 60% in his first months in office--after the most bruising election drama in memory--tells you how much the world has changed. There is no honeymoon anymore. Trump won 46% of the popular vote in the general election, and few of those who voted for Clinton are likely to be inclined to think better about Donald Trump simply because he is now President Trump. As such, an approval rating for Trump below 50% is baked into the cake.

The devolution of political debate was evident in the recently completed Senate hearings on the Gorsuch nomination. Perhaps--to use a Trumpian metaphor--if Neil Gorsuch were to shoot someone on Pearl Street in Boulder in broad daylight, a Republican or two on the Senate Judiciary Committee might reconsider voting to confirm his nomination, but perhaps not. More likely, reports of the shooting would be deemed fake news, and the vote would go forward as planned.

Senate Democrats should allow the Gorsuch nomination to go forward. I do not say that with some notion that returning to comity requires that someone take the first step--that the partisan genie can be put back into the bottle--but rather as a pure strategic assessment of the realities of the situation. Eight years ago, at a time when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, incoming President Barack Obama admonished Republicans that elections have consequences. His words are more true today than they were then, but this time it is the Republicans who hold the whip hand. When I read about Senate Democrats demanding that Trump withdraw Gorsuch in favor of a new nominee, I wonder what evidence they have gleaned from Donald Trump's brief tenure as President that suggests to them that his next nominee would be more to their liking. I understand that many of those Senators are responding to the demands of Democrat activists who have let their anger over the treatment of Merrick Garland blind them to the realities at hand.

To those who yearn for the succor that a filibuster fight might offer, I can only say, be careful what you wish for. Given what we have seen from this administration to date, there remains the not-insignificant possibility that Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions will look at a Democrat filibuster and use it as an opportunity to turn things up a notch. Screw 'em, Bannon might say, to Sessions' inevitable glee, let's pull the Gorsuch nomination and put William Pryor on the Court instead.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The road to perdition.

Why, exactly, is anyone surprised? FBI Director James Comey did as Congress asked on Monday when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. He confirmed that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice have any information supporting Donald Trump's tweets accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones.

This cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. Since Trump first tweeted his accusation two weeks ago, defenders of the President have been scurrying to his defense. As President, they argued, Trump must have sources of information that the rest of us don't know about. Yet it was apparent from the outset that it was just more of the same old, same old. Trump's information source for the first tweet--accusing Barack Obama of bugging his phones--was a rant by right-wing talk show star Mark Levin that was written up in Breitbart. Levin did suggest that phones in Trump Tower may have been under surveillance, but all of the information he cited referenced legal investigations--a fact that Trump omitted from his comments on the matter. The second tweet was more egregious--accusing the British spy agency GCHQ of tapping his phones on Obama's behalf--and Trump himself later acknowledged that his only source of information was comments made by Fox News "analyst" and Trump groupie Andrew Napolitano that Trump saw on TV.

This was vintage Donald Trump, full of bluff and bluster, and animated by conspiracy theories for as long as he has been in the public eye. This is the man who boasted that he got his military intelligence from the Sunday morning shows, who claimed to know more about ISIS than the Generals, and who eschewed the daily intelligence briefings. This is the man whose rivals in the Republican primaries warned that he was a con man, a pathological liar, and a cancer on the Republican Party. Yet any number of senior, respected Republican members of Congress still saw fit to place their own credibility on the line in his defense.

And, true to form, in the wake of Comey's testimony giving the lie to the entire episode, the White House responded by confirming that Trump has no intention of withdrawing--much less apologizing for--his accusations. The only question that was left at the end of the day was how on earth could anyone be surprised?

For all the build up, we actually learned little new from this week's testimony by James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. They confirmed what had long been concluded by any reasonable observer: that Russia's President Vladimir Putin led an information operation targeting our presidential election, and that the FBI was continuing to investigate Russia's actions, as well as potential collusion in Russia's operations by Trump campaign operatives. Comey described Putin's strategy as having three distinct objectives: first, to seed chaos in our election and damage public confidence in U.S. democratic institutions; second, to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and--presuming she was expected to win--her credibility and capacity as President; and, finally, to support Donald Trump's campaign. In response to Republican pushback, Comey specifically emphasized that it was not just that Putin deeply detested Clinton and wanted her to lose, Putin wanted Trump to win.

Republicans have been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the fact of Russia's efforts on Donald Trump's behalf. It was not enough that Republicans won the presidency, they seemed determined to feel clean and righteous about how things transpired. Even as many Republicans ultimately came to acknowledge over the past few months that the Russian operation was real, they were always quick to caveat any discussion of Putin's efforts with the disclaimer that, 'of course, nothing Russia did impacted the results of the election.' If nothing else, that codicil to the discussion of Russia's efforts was debunked by the tenor of Monday's testimony.

We will, of course, never know what the impact ultimately was of Russia's operation on the outcome of the election. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College by virtue of a combined 77,000 vote margin in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, representing a mere 0.06% of the 127 million votes cast across the country. It was an outcome that has been attributed by some to Clinton's lack of an effective campaign message and evident disdain for the white working class voters who flocked to Trump, and by others to James Comey's own interventions into the race. But given the closeness of the race--Republican disclaimers notwithstanding--one simply cannot dismiss the impact of Russian intervention as a factor that may have tipped the balance. Russia's cyber and disinformation efforts--including the steady stream of WikiLeaks disclosures--had the effect of a months-long campaign of attack ads designed to drive up Clinton's negatives.

Even as Comey and Rogers were testifying before the House committee, Trump tweeted out in his own inimitable fashion to try to spin their words as an affirmation that Russia's operations had no impact on the outcome. Told of Trump's tweet, Comey retorted in real time that Trump was misstating his and Rogers' conclusions. Rogers had testified that there was no evidence that voting machines were tampered with, but, Comey stated to correct the record, neither he nor Rogers meant to suggest that the Russian efforts had no impact on the outcome. The target of the Russian campaign was not the voting machines, it was the voters. And in that regard, Comey suggested that it was likely that Russia will be back again in two or four years, seeking to wreck further havoc in our elections, for the simple reason that they will conclude that their efforts this time around were successful.

Last Sunday, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd suggested that, in the wake of the ongoing controversy surrounding the tweets, Donald Trump was struggling with a credibility gap that was threatening his ability to push the healthcare bill through the House. The healthcare vote, scheduled for tomorrow, looms to be a crucial test of how badly Trump has been weakened by his continuing conduct and his nationally televised rebuke at the hands of James Comey and Mike Rogers.

It was not surprising that just a day after their testimony, the stock market suffered its worst one day decline of the year--as traders began to question whether Trump would be able to deliver on the tax cuts he has promised--and conservatives in the House began to push back against Trump's demands that they fall in line and support his healthcare bill.

Chuck Todd's comments raised the question of how a conspiracy theorist and demagogue who long ago sacrificed any claims to credibility could suddenly have a credibility gap. The answer, of course, is that Republicans have been steadfast in their to determination to convince themselves that Donald Trump is someone other than who he really is. Just ten months ago, Marco Rubio warned that they were dealing with a con man, and Ted Cruz warned that Trump was a pathological liar.

That was the Donald Trump who loomed in the background as the House committee listened to testimony, the man who Rick Perry suggested early on was a cancer on conservatism, a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party on the road to perdition. Republicans--who sat shaken and ashen-faced as Comey spoke--had to be asking themselves how far down that road they are prepared to go.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Putin, Trump and the rise of the deep state.

Last week, an Agence France-Presse news report published in Le Soir, a major French language daily newspaper, made the rounds on social media. The story suggested that the campaign of leading French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was being funded by Saudi Arabia. The report was immediately retweeted by right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. It was fake news as it turned out--actual fake news, not the Donald Trump variety. It was clickbait mocked up to look like Le Soir, with the intention of slandering the leading presidential contender in the upcoming French elections. Like déjà vu all over again, it provided a stark reminder that ours are not the only politics that have been under attack.

Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party as an extreme right-wing, nationalist movement. She has led the normalization of the National Front in France, and the parallel rise of right-wing populist movements cross Europe. The National Front's anti-immigrant, anti-globalization platform in the French presidential race mirrors that of the Donald Trump campaign.

The National Front has received significant funding from a Russian bank. Marine Le Pen supported Russia's annexation of Crimea, opposes sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, and proposes to pull France out of both the European Union and NATO. If Le Pen were to win the French elections beginning next month, it would change the face of Europe. She is currently in a dead heat in the first round of polling, though well behind in a projected second round runoff. If she does prevail, it would mark a dramatic victory for the cyber and information operations that Vladimir Putin has orchestrated against the West.

Russian fear of and hostility toward the West is not new, and not unique to Vladimir Putin. It may not seem relevant to Americans as they consider Putin's aggressive behavior, but Russia is a country with no natural defenses--neither oceans nor mountains--that has been surrounded over the centuries by innumerable external enemies. Only the Russian winter and spring mud enabled Russia to withstand invasions by Sweden, France and Germany in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. If Russians seem paranoid, it is not because people haven't been out to get them. In America, the attack on Pearl Harbor, 2,500 miles from the mainland, is our only experience with being invaded. We cannot relate to the impact on a national psyche of being invaded repeatedly over the centuries.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been in a state of demographic decline and economic turmoil, and under political siege by the West, as the European Union and NATO have each expanded into former Soviet states that once protected Russia from the west. It is no secret that Putin has trying for years to push back against western encroachment into what he terms Russia's "near abroad," and Russia's efforts to influence and undermine elections across Europe over the past several decades are part of that effort.

Putin's objectives in recent years have included (i) undermining public confidence in core democratic institutions in the advanced western democracies , (ii) building support for opposition parties that might challenge the pro-western, anti-Russian political consensus across Europe, and (iii) driving a wedge between European public opinion and the United States, which has led the alliance of western advanced industrial democracies since the end of World War II.

The election of Le Pen in France would constitute Putin's second major victory in his cyber warfare and information operations strategy, because he is already well underway to a first victory in the United States. By all accounts, Putin's objectives in operations against the United States have similarly been to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions, as well as to undermine the widely anticipated Hillary Clinton presidency by polarizing public opinion against her and undermining her political stature such that she would be less effective once elected.

The media and political focus continues to be on whether a collaborative relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign can be proven. Last week former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated that the U.S. intelligence services had no evidence documenting such a relationship, though reiterated as well that the intelligence community believed that Putin--whose animosity toward Clinton was well known--clearly preferred that Trump win.

And for good reason. If Putin's goals have been to undermine public confidence in and support for core democratic institutions across the U.S. public, Donald Trump has proven to be as good an agent of change as he could have hoped for. Whatever their relationship, Trump has systematically sought to undermine public confidence in our electoral system, the judiciary, the press and the intelligence services.

And it has worked. In the wake of Trump's continuing insistence that the American electoral system is rigged and rife with voter fraud--despite the lack of any credible evidence--two-thirds of Trump supporters, and nearly half of the electorate as a whole, now apparently believe, that voter fraud is significant.

With respect to the fourth estate, Trump's cynical campaign to brand major news outlets as purveyors of fake news--ultimately declaring them to be enemies of the people--has similarly worked, as recent polling suggests that 65% of Republicans and 44% of the general public have bought into Trump's contention that reporters makes stories up out of whole cloth.

Trump's ongoing war with the intelligence services has put Putin within reach of the Holy Grail of the Russian intelligence: driving a wedge between the U.S. intelligence services and the President, leaving the public uncertain of what information on the threats to the nation they should believe.

Putin understands well that public faith in the integrity of the election system, the independent judiciary and the free press are central to the stability of western democracies. It is what separates them from countries like Venezuela. Or, for that matter, Russia.

Most recently, in the wake of Trump's tweets claiming that Barack Obama bugged his phone, Donald Trump and his senior strategist Steve Bannon have begun to push the narrative that there is a "deep state" that is plotting to overthrow his presidency. The deep state--a cabal of the intelligence services in collaboration with the former president--is a conspiracy theorists dream. It likens the United States to countries like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, where real power is widely viewed as tightly held within the military and intelligence circles. Where the deep state rules, democracy is an illusory concept.

So far, the deep state narrative has had limited traction beyond Trump's most partisan stalwarts, though on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dutifully doubled down on it. But the Wikileaks dumping of the CIA Vault 7 documents should add credibility to the deep state narrative among conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters alike, suggesting that like the news media, the CIA is the enemy of the people. 

The fake news attacks against the French elections should serve as a reminder that we actually have real enemies, and they aren't the news media or the CIA. It may be hard for Republicans embroiled in the heat of our daily politics to keep matters in perspective, but investigating whether or not the Trump campaign was in cahoots with Russian intelligence is not about party loyalty. It is about, first and foremost, a very cunning foreign adversary who has succeeded in undermining the integrity of our election and those of our allies. And, second, it is about whether one political campaign conspired with a foreign adversary for its own political advantage. It is about the security and integrity of our democracy.

And then there is the very separate issue of Donald Trump's conduct. Whether out of some alignment of interests with Putin--or more likely for his own self-interested reasons--the Manchurian President who now sits in the Oval Office has repeatedly acted to undermine core institutions of our democracy to an extent that only Vladimir Putin could have imagined. Each time he has gone off with one more unhinged attack, various Republicans have spoken out, while a far greater number have tried to sweep the significance of what he has said or tweeted under the rug. But there is nothing insignificant about any of it, and taken as a whole--whether Russia was involved or not--it is a big, big deal.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Donald Trump is a master troll, and Saturday was the pièce de résistance, his masterpiece. With a single tweet accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones, Trump has thrown the nation's politics into a state of frenzied disarray once again.

In the ensuing fire drill, everyone assumed their proper roles. Major newspapers and investigative journalists headed off to respond to his claims. Senior members of Congress abandoned whatever they were doing to address the media. The Secretaries of State and Defense rushed to assure nervous allies across the globe that they should ignore the lunatic in the White House.

This time, Trump amped it up a notch, suggesting that the FBI and the former President orchestrated illegal surveillance against him. And they rose to the bait. FBI Director Jim Comey demanded that the Department of Justice refute Trump's claim and defend the integrity of the FBI. Caught between defending the integrity of Jim Comey and Donald Trump, officials apparently checked to see who signed their paychecks and declined to come to Comey's defense.

Then--no doubt to Trump's glee--Barack Obama denied Trump's accusation. Trump's trolling worked; by his denial, Obama gave Trump supporters all the evidence they needed to know that Trump's claim must be true, and no doubt deepened their resolve to defend him in the escalating battles that are inevitably in store.

Perhaps the most successful impact of Trump's tweets on Saturday is that he has framed the story as being about illegal actions by the FBI and Barack Obama. There is no evidence, people are screaming, there is no conspiracy. But they are wrong. There may not be a conspiracy, but there certainly is evidence.

The story began last Thursday evening on Mark Levin's radio show. Levin, a conservative talk radio star and former Reagan administration official, laid out his case that Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump prior to the election and orchestrated a "silent coup" against him. On Fox News, Levin walked through public newspaper accounts of the FBI seeking FISA court approval for surveillance because of evidence that suggested collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to support the election of Donald Trump. Notably, Levin did not suggest the taps were illegal or done without warrants, he simply connected that fact of FBI surveillance of Trump associates to Obama's presence, and concluded "police state."

Trump is an eager consumer of right-wing conspiracy agitprop, and by Saturday morning the Obama silent coup theory was the subject of a Trump twitter storm.

The facts are in Trump's favor, but facts and truth are not the same thing. By all accounts, it appears that the FBI did have active wiretaps that included individuals in Trump Tower. When those taps were put into place, Barack Obama was the President, and the FBI by definition worked for him. Therefore, by Trump's syllogistic logic--sufficient logic for his followers to buy in--Obama "had" the phones in Trump Tower tapped.

But the facts as laid out by Mark Levin actually describe a somewhat different story. Unlike Donald Trump's intimation that the taps were illegal and orchestrated by Obama, Levin's own argument described them as legal taps approved by the FISA judge, specifically targeting Russian banks suspected of wiring funds to the Trump campaign.

Levin never makes the case--or even suggests--that Barack Obama directed anything the FBI did. The fact that the White House received information on the investigation--which Levin does highlight in a manner suggesting there was a conspiracy--is well known. The fact that Barack Obama knew of the investigation into the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign and did not make that information public, or otherwise act on it, remains a particularly sore point for the Clintons and many Democrats.

The evidence Levin complied pointed to the Russia dossier, which was first made public earlier this year. The 35 page dossier comprises a series of intelligence memoranda--prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele--regarding communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign over a seven month period from June through December of last year.

The dossier was originally published by Buzzfeed on January 10th, the same day that CNN reported that Donald Trump had been briefed about its contents by the Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The contents of the dossier were widely greeted by the media with skepticism, as the information could not be independently verified. Clearly, however, by the fact that the most senior members of the intelligence community briefed the President-elect about its contents, the substance of the dossier was not being dismissed out of hand.

And now, Mark Levin and Donald Trump have reminded the world that the FBI has indeed taken the dossier seriously, and that it has been leading a coordinated criminal investigation into evidence connecting the Trump campaign to Russian efforts to subvert the American presidential election. Somewhere, in hiding for his life since the publication of the dossier, Christopher Steele must be smiling at the irony of Trump's tweet.

The irony is that through his raucous defense of the President last Thursday, Mark Levin unintentionally smoked out the new, presidential Donald Trump, who had made an appearance before a joint session of Congress just two days earlier. The world understood that the test of the new Donald Trump was whether, in the wake of his widely acclaimed speech, he could show the self-discipline to avoid one of his 6 a.m. off-his-meds tweetstorms, lashing out at who-knows-who for having done who-knows-what. And there it was, at 6:35 a.m. on Saturday, an enraged Trump took Levin's bait and ran with it, insinuating that Barack Obama and the FBI had illegally tapped his phone; accusing his predecessor in the White House of "police state" tactics.

Once again, Donald Trump has trolled the country to great effect, but the substance of what he and Mark Levin have done is to bring the focus of the FBI investigation to light. Up until now, Jim Comey has been reluctant to talk in detail about the FBI investigation into the relationships between Russia and the Trump organization. Now--particularly if the Department of Justice declines to refute Trump's allegations--Comey may have little choice but to acknowledge the direction of the FBI investigation into the substance of the relationships laid out in Christopher Steele's dossier. Tweets that Trump imagined might put Comey in a corner and neuter the investigations underway by the intelligence agencies might, at the end of the day, have the opposite impact.

Since Saturday, the media has focused on whether there is evidence to support what they suggest is Trump's claim that the FBI and Barack Obama conducted illegal surveillance against him. But they are missing the point. Trump never actually suggests in his tweets that anything illegal was done. The real story is the one hiding in plain site: The Russia dossier. That is the story that Trump has been seeking to evade since Carter Page--a long-time Trump associate who appears several times in the dossier--disappeared from the campaign in mid-2016. It is the story Donald Trump and Mark Levin inadvertently brought back to life this week, and that--because of Trump's Saturday morning tweetstorm--we now know that the FBI is continuing to pursue.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Donald Trump's extraordinary, extraordinary moment.

For a moment there, it appeared that Donald Trump had turned a corner. He delivered a speech to Congress last Tuesday widely acclaimed to be presidential in tone. Pundits had suggested in the hours leading up to the speech that Trump would unveil a softer tone on immigration. He was going to heed the words of his new National Security Advisor and eschew the use of the term radical Islamic terrorists. A New Donald Trump was going to emerge.

When I listened to Donald Trump's speech to Congress, the extent of my halo effect problem with him made it difficult for me to buy into the New Donald Trump theory. After several years of listening to him, I have developed a pretty bad attitude. I am predisposed to not believe anything he says. It is a terrible admission--particularly now that he is sitting in the Oval Office--though not one that I believe is unique to me.

Trump has worked hard to earn my distrust. For years, all I heard from Donald Trump were words that were consistently, demonstrably, and most of the time intentionally, false. For the past half decade or more, back to the Birther movement, he has been the most aggressive practitioner of rumor mongering and fake news as a political tactic in the country, enthusiastically repeating or promoting one conspiracy theory or another.

As he started to speak on Tuesday, reading from a teleprompter, he spoke to the threats against Jewish communities across the country and the shooting of two Indian software engineers in Kansas. He spoke with a presidential tone about a nation "that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms." He evoked the words of JFK and the responsibility of each generation to continue the pursuit of truth, liberty and justice. "I am here tonight," he pronounced, "to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart."

I recognized the voice, but the words seemed out of place. The simple act of saying that the message of unity was deeply delivered from my heart, highlighted how at odds his words were with the persona that he cultivated so assiduously. I could not help but recall a tweet from David Duke earlier that day. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK and a prominent personality within the alt-right, tweeted, "President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these [threatening] calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda." Then, a few hours after Duke's tweet, Trump floated the idea to a group of states attorneys general that the rash of threats to Jewish communities might be "false flag" efforts "to make others look bad."

That was the Donald Trump I knew; the Donald Trump who has spent years walking a fine line between his flirtations with racists and bigots, and adhering to the standards of civil society; the Donald Trump who, in direct contradiction to his words in that speech, has given license to the rise in hateful actions we have seen across the country for months now, against immigrants, against minorities, against gays and trans people, and against Jews. Tuesday, it appeared, was just one more day. In the morning, Donald Trump was David Duke's guy; that evening, he gave a speech that pundits declared proved that he had finally embraced the mantle of the presidency. But it was all just words.

He read the speech from a teleprompter, and it was clearly a speech with input from those close to him who were trying to clean up his act and put words in his mouth. He stuck to the script diligently, and he delivered it well, but I just knew that this was not the @realDonaldTrump. It was just a matter of time and we would hear the @realDonaldTrump slip into the speech.

And it happened. He could not control himself. "Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited. Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force..."

Busted. As the Gipper would have said, There you go again.

Back in August of 2015, on Sarah Palin's cable show, Trump rolled out this meme, an alternative fact which would become a stock piece in his stump speech and elemental to his American carnage leitmotif. There are, he insisted then, foreshadowing his speech on Tuesday, “93 million people out of work. They look for jobs, they give up, and all of a sudden, statistically, they're considered employed.” 

It was a meaningless number then, and it is a meaningless number now. His number includes students, retirees, the infirm and those working in the home. But Trump is addicted to hyperbole, the mundane facts of the world as it is bore him. It is a lot more interesting to paint a picture of a nation in ruins than talking about the 7.8 million officially unemployed, or even the somewhat larger number including underemployed and discouraged workers. Trump's interest was not then, and is not now, in accurate information. 93 million out of work was emblematic of his deceptive, deceitful use of fake news and alternative facts to rile up his base. Mexican rapists. Syrian terrorists. Muslim presidents. False flag attacks by Jews. All part of the bombastic dissembling of the man who is now our president.

Yet lo and behold, in the hours after the speech, cable news pundits confirmed that which they had predicted. Donald Trump came off as presidential. His tone and bearing exceeded that very low bar that has been set for him. As it turned out, he hardened, rather than softened, his tone on immigration, and he uttered the words radical Islamic terrorists with particular relish--as if to rebuke H.R. McMaster for suggesting that he should do otherwise--but he placated those pundits and network analysts by giving a nod to paid family leave.

For more than a year now, over the course of the campaign, and now into the early weeks of his presidency, we have been promised at critical moments that, this time, Donald Trump is going to pivot. And like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, each time people believe that this time will be different.

And yet, the pivot never comes. This Tuesday, we were duped again, suckered in one more time. For twelve hours or so following the speech, it looked like he had done it, he was softening his tone, managing his Twitter finger, becoming presidential. He was pivoting! A measure of his success was the vitriol launched from the left against Democrat activist turned CNN analyst Van Jones who declared Trump's recognition of Carryn Owens "one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period." To those that feared that Trump would finally rise to the occasion and become a unifying president, the notion that Trump might get his act together as Jones suggested was terrifying.

But they needn't have worried. By the next day, the illusions of a normalized Donald Trump faded quickly. The Washington Post turned the attention of the political world to Jeff Sessions' dissembling about his Russian contacts, and Donald Trump returned to full coverup and deflection mode. The tweeter-in-chief resumed his morning ritual. And there was Lucy, walking away with the football, shaking her head and laughing, as those who had bought into the New Donald Trump story lay flat on their backs, like Charlie Brown taken in once again.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.