Friday, February 24, 2017

Look out, CNN. I'm comin' for ya!

THIS LITERALLY JUST IN: "The White House blocked a number of news outlets from covering spokesman Sean Spicer’s question-and-answer session on Friday afternoon. ... Among the outlets not permitted to cover the gaggle were news organizations that President Trump has singled out for criticism, including CNN. The New York Times, The Hill, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, BBC, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News were among the other news organizations not permitted to attend."
Let that sink in. Go on.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

A few days ago, I received an email from my mother with the subject line "Did you see this? Competition!" Contained therein was a link to CNN's way better-looking and better-funded Trump promise tracker. (Yes. Competition. Look out, CNN. I'm comin' for ya!)

In all seriousness, it's just one of several excellent promise-tracking tools currently available from your favorite fake news outlets. I highly encourage following 1-2 of them, but not all of them, because sanity is a non-renewable resource. Options include:
  • The "Trump-O-Meter" by PolitiFact, the latest in a series of promise-tracking projects, including the "Obameter" and the "GOP Pledge-O-Meter."
  • "Trump vs. Reality" by NBC News, who were smart enough to focus on President Trump's "10 boldest goals," instead of having to comb through a list 282 strong every Thursday night when they should be out drinking studying.
  • My beloved Atlantic, on the other hand, applies its signature long-form approach to the comprehensive and vindicating "Trump Promise Tracker."
  • Of course Public Enemy #1, The Washington Post, has some skin in the game. They've expanded their "Pinocchio" fact-checking system to include promise-tracking as well. This is one of my favorites, because it also features more nuanced statuses like "Launched," "Stuck," and "Compromise."
  • In a similar vein, the ABC News' "Donald Trump promise tracker" follows the progress of promises, rather than just the result, and clearly lists the events and decisions impacting each promise's trajectory.
Now that I'm done shooting myself in the foot...

...and singing half the Mulan soundtrack...

Kept and inevitably broken, respectively. President Trump has been nothing if not unpredictable, which is not necessarily useful to inspire confidence in one's allies. This has been especially evident in the confusion surrounding the US's position on NATO, one of the strongest military alliances of all time and fairly critical to maintaining European stability. (Yes, I know, my bias is showing.) Here's the quick-n-dirty version from the crooked writers over at Vox
"Trump is at the heart of the uncertainty surrounding the future of NATO. On his path to the White House, he repeatedly slammed NATO as “obsolete” and criticized allies for not pulling their weight on defense spending. Then he reversed his position on NATO, based on the either misguided or deliberately false claim that NATO had “changed their policy” due to his criticism. Later on, he expressed ambivalence about it. Then right before taking office, he decided that the alliance was, in fact, obsolete. Now in office, his team is trying to thread the needle by saying the US loves NATO but its love is conditional."
I literally have a Google Alert daily digest for NATO, and I'm still confused as hell about this. The inevitably broken aspect of this promise is the claim that "no one is going to touch us." Hopefully I'm wrong, but one attack is all it takes to decimate that promise.
Broken. To not actively pursue an investigation into intelligence agencies' conclusion that a hostile foreign power interfered in our elections is to definitively not put America first. A joint report issued by the FBI, CIA, and NSA at the beginning of January concluded that President Putin of Russia "personally ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. Presidential Election." President-elect (at the time) Trump open questioned the intelligence assessments, citing claims by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that Russia was not the source of the leaked DNC emails. Given President Trump's 2010 description of WikiLeaks as "disgraceful" and his suggestion that its organizers should face "the death penalty or something," this is quite an about-face. 
Nahal Toosi of Politico wrote, "The new tweets added to the discomfort in the national security circles as well as top Republicans about Trump's seeming disdain for America's intelligence officers, as well as his fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he's often praised."
Kept, so far. Russia and Turkey recently led Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Russia invited the Trump administration to participate, but "it was clearly a Russian defined process." This week, the first U.N.-led peace talks commence in Geneva, Switzerland, where a senior Western diplomat said, "We have no choice but to play Russia's games and try to resist attempts for a full-out military victory and try to bring them back to Geneva and hope something can be achieved here ... It is still an open question if and what an agreement would look like that Russia could accept."
191.  Ask TransCanada to renew its permit application for the Keystone XL pipeline so that it can be approved.
Kept. Last month, President Trump signed executive orders reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and TransCanada said it was preparing to reapply for the pipeline permit.
Broken. Let's set aside for a moment the fact that the specter of Watergate is invoked far too indiscriminately in the world of political scandals. And sports scandals. And entertainment scandals. And tech scandals.
Jeff Sessions will revolutionize the Department of Justice, the agenda of which is shaped by the attorney general's priorities. For example, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch focused on criminal justice reform, ratcheting back the war on drugs, and strengthening protections for the LGBT community. 
Attorney General Sessions does have a record of interest in prison reform, but that's about where the similarities end. He'll likely enforce the president's hard-line immigration agenda, push conservative social issues (e.g. supporting "religious liberty laws" that allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ clients on basis of religion; favoring the Johnson Amendment, which prevents partisan engagement by religious groups; and challenging Roe v. Wade at the federal level), and move away from prosecuting terrorism suspects in Chapter III civilian courts.
He will almost definitely not "reform" the Justice Department. 
Broken. This is the problem with absolutes. Why do I have to keep reminding you, Mr. President? All it takes is one counter-example.
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court upheld the State of Maryland's ban on assault rifles, ruling that the Constitution does not protect the right to possess "weapons of war."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Neither side appears much interested in diplomacy.

Rise and shine, Amsterdam!

Just kidding. It's 10:45 a.m. Everyone rose and shone a few hours ago -- except for the sun, which is hidden somewhere up there behind all the clouds -- and I'm sitting on a couch in my pajamas, blogging. Spring break, y'all.

It's a lovely city, even in winter. On today's itinerary is the Verzetsmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, a lot of Pod Save America, and... I'm not sure what else. Hot chocolate?

Anyway, I know a lot of you -- like, 2 of you -- were deeply disappointed in my failure to make deadline last week. Fortunately for everybody, despite a great deal of talk about "rolling back" Dodd-Frank, drug price negotiation, and federal funding cuts to sanctuary cities, little policy actually went through last week. Notable exceptions are the confirmations of profoundly inexperienced Betsy DeVos and white supremacist Jeff Sessions as Secretary of Education and Attorney General, respectively.

This week was kind of a different story.

44. Order every federal government department head to “provide a list of wasteful spending projects that we can eliminate in my first 100 days.” Review each agency and then decrease the size of the “bloated government,” making it “leaner and more responsive to the public.”
Kept, but only for programs that do not align with President Trump's platform, such as women's issues programs at the Department of State and climate research programs at NASA. This has, understandably, stoked fears of federal agency witch hunts, especially given the administration's interference with and rumors of planned cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency. (A bit of good news: coders across the country have been working tirelessly to preserve climate data out of the hands of the federal government to ensure that decades of research will not be lost.)
49. Dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which aims to prevent the excessive risk-taking that led to the financial crisis and was signed into law by Obama in 2010.
In progress. On Galentine's Day, President Trump signed his first piece of legislation, nullifying a component of Dodd-Frank that requires oil and mining companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments. It was originally created as an anti-corruption measure, which is why it's a little odd that Trump described the effects of the signing as "bringing back jobs big league. We're bringing them back at the plant level. We're bringing them back at the mine level. The energy jobs are coming back." (See also: previous post on the role of automation in working class job destruction)
62. Bring down drug prices by importing cheaper medications from overseas and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
Broken. And kept? Who knows? On January 31, after a meeting with pharmaceutical lobbyists, President Trump made a 180-degree turn on this promise, referring to the idea as "price fixing" that would hurt "smaller, younger companies." He said the new plan is to lower taxes and get rid of regulations. However, one week later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to a question about the government negotiating directly with drug companies on prices for drugs covered by the Medicare insurance programs by saying, "He's for it."
85. Allow “tremendous numbers” of legal immigrants based on a “merit system,” selecting immigrants who will help grow the country’s economy.
86. Reduce the number of legal immigrants because it is “simply too large to perform adequate screening,” and these immigrants could be taking jobs away from American workers.
Broken by their mutually exclusive nature. I'm no rhetorician, but this kind of televised self-contradiction is not good for winning arguments and building credibility as a policymaker. President Trump must now create parallel universes in order to fulfill campaign promises. TOO BAD.
90. Institute “extreme vetting” of all immigrants.
Broken. Impossible, actually, because immigrant (and especially refugee) vetting is already extreme
101. As soon as he takes office, ask Congress to repeal the defense sequester that limited the military’s budget.
Broken. Little has been heard from President Trump on the subject since September. That said, in terms of defense spending increases, he has the ear of the Republican-dominated Congress, as well as defense hawk Democrats and those from states with shipbuilding industries (e.g. Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island). He'll face opposition from fiscal conservatives -- a budget deficit increase of $4.4 to $5.9 trillion is never fun to explain to tax-paying constitutents -- but it probably won't be enough to derail pro-defense measures in the long run.
142. Be a “true friend to Israel.” Trump says the United States will “be working with Israel very closely, very, very closely.”
Kept, at least rhetorically. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was likely very pleased with President Trumps's meandering and non-committal thoughts on a one- versus two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I'm happy with the one they like the best." This is a momentous break from traditional U.S. advocacy of a two-state solution.
147. Negotiate the release of all U.S. prisoners held in Iran before taking office. (Five Americans were released during the campaign, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian; Trump has claimed some credit for this.)
Broken. I can't believe I missed this before. That's just embarrassing. Iran continues a decades-old habit of detaining American citizens, unimpeded by the election of Trump. Robin Wright of the New Yorker asks, "[W]hat is more important in Iran: hanging on to the American prisoners until its own Presidential election in May, or releasing them to prevent a showdown with the new Trump Administration? Neither side appears much interested in diplomacy."
278. “I pledge to protect and defend all Americans who live inside of our borders. Wherever they come from, wherever they were born, all Americans living here and following our laws will be protected. America will be a tolerant and open society.”
Yeah. Totally. 
(Full-size graphic here.)

Friday, February 3, 2017

"The moose was having none of it."

Friends, Parisians, lend me your ears!

Today's post begins with a warm-up, a nice little list of some things that have happened this week. While not comprehensive, I think it's fairly representative.

  • President Trump threatened to stop federal funds to the University of California, Berkeley, because students' protest of right-wing Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos are apparently in violation of the First Amendment. 
    "I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express." xkcd
  • I bought jeans! It's so nice to have Gap in Paris. I know exactly what my size and cut are, which eliminates the horror of trying on jeans in fluorescent-lit dressing rooms in winter.
  • Kellyanne Conway, coiner of the now-ubiquitous term "alternative facts," broke the incredible -- as in literally beyond credulity -- story of the Bowling Green Massacre. (Spoiler alert: There was no such massacre.)
  • After years of being kind of intrigued but never taking the time, I finally watched Closer (2004). It did not live up to the hype.
  • In the wake of President Trump's immigration order, which we'll get to more in a bit, the ACLU received $24 million in online donations in one weekend.
  • An Idaho family found a moose in their cellar. According to the Hailey Police Department, officers attempted to guide the animal through the house to the front door, but "the moose was having none of it."

Captures the feel of it, right? Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Last week, I missed a couple first day promises. You trusted me, and I let you down, and for that I deeply apologize. I will be better going forward, except possibly during mid-terms. And finals. And at the end of June, when I have to find a new apartment.

Broken. While "Kate's Law" -- named for Kate Steinle, who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco last summer -- has found its way onto congressional lips in recent weeks, President Trump did not mention it to Congress on his first day in office, preferring instead to discuss crowd science and public transportation.
Broken. As mentioned above, President Trump and his communications team were preoccupied by a compelling discussion of inaugural history on January 21st. However, even if they had been free to engage in more frivolous pursuits, like gun control legislation, an immediate executive stripping of gun-free zones would have been unfeasible due to a morass of overlapping local, state, and federal laws governing gun-free zones.
Okay, caught up! I think we all deserve an #Alternative30RockQuote before moving on to the promises of the week.

21. “I would not be a president who took vacations. I would not be a president that takes time off.” Trump will make time for golf but promises to “always play with leaders of countries and people that can help us.”
Broken, unless he cancels an upcoming Mar-a-Lago getaway that could reportedly cost taxpayers up to $3 million. Given his intense criticism of President Obama's decision to occasionally go on family vacations -- a common criticism dating back to Eisenhower's love of golf -- perhaps this is not the most base-consolidating move... even if his new friend, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, will apparently be joining him on the Mar-a-Lago golf course. (A protest march was even organized in West Palm Beach, but it was cancelled due to safety concerns.)
26. Fully focus on the presidency and put his three oldest children — Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump — in charge of running his company.
Kept. Kind of? I think the concern over President Trump's continued attachment to his company is less about it distracting him from the presidency and more about the numerous conflicts of interest it poses -- known and yet unknown. Passing control of the company to Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric while refusing to divest his assets does little to comfort the Office of Government Ethics.
27. Release his tax returns as soon as an Internal Revenue Service audit is complete.
Broken, and straight from the horse's mouth, though apparently WikiLeaks has offered to do it for him.
116. “I will not hesitate to deploy military force when there is no alternative. But if America fights, it must fight to win.”
Honest to goodness, I don't know. I'm just going to leave these here:

Kept. So, so freaking kept, in the least presidential way imaginable. Demonizing an entire faith while claiming only to target its most perverse misinterpretation is not security, it is not justice, and it is not American.

Kept. President Trump's 90-day travel ban on Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Somalian, Sudanese, Syrian and Yemeni citizens resulted in 940 people not being allowed to board their U.S.-bound flights, 200 people being denied entry once their flights landed, and hundreds more facing significant delays and detention upon arrival. Over the next three months, approximately 90,000 immigrant and non-immigrant visa holders will be affected by the ban. These are students kept from schoolparents kept from their children, patients kept from critical care, regular human beings kept from regular human things like their jobs, their friends, the comfort of their own beds and favorite restaurants. Originally, the ban also included green-card holders, but the White House reversed this position on Sunday under political pressure. The status of dual citizens from banned and non-banned countries, as well as that of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, seems to remain negotiable.
Whether the president actually consulted State, Homeland Security, and Justice on which countries to include is unclear.
174. Bar Syrian refugees from entering the country and kick out any who are already living here, as they might be “the ultimate Trojan horse.”
177. Do not admit any refugees without the support of the local community where they will be placed.
Kept. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has been suspended for 120 days. The executive order to suspend the program also includes a perpetual ban on Syrian refugees until "significant changes" are made, prioritization of future refugee applications for those whose religion is a minority in their country (i.e. Middle Eastern Christians), and a cap of 50,000 refugees in 2017, which is less than half of President Obama's upper limit. 
While I'm not aware of any resettled refugees having been removed from the country yet, if the past week has taught us anything, it would be an incredible follow-up diversionary tactic.
213. “Be the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice,” use the “pulpit of the presidency” to campaign for expanded school choice in all 50 states and support the election of local, state and federal officials who agree.
Kept. Betsy DeVos, President Trump's nominee to head the Department of Education, is a staunch advocate of school vouchers -- what are school vouchers, you ask? -- whose apparent lack of basic knowledge about our education system and curious fear of grizzly bears has drawn jeers from one side of the aisle and some trepidation from the other. Even as I type, her candidacy remains on tender hooks, with one more dissenting Republican Senator needed to block the nomination. (I'd suggest staying tuned, but if you're reading this blog, you're probably also glued to the news.)
243. Pick Supreme Court justices who are “really great legal scholars,” opposed to abortion and fans of the Second Amendment.
Kept. Neil Gorsuch is a judge in the late Antonin Scalia's own image, though perhaps without the sarcasm... and by most accounts, much less scholarly. He's an anti-choice, strict constructionist NRA darling who previously served in the Justice Department under Bush Jr. (and whose mother served as the head of the EPA under Reagan)! His nomination has been met with deep unease by Democrats -- to put it lightly -- to which President Trump responded with the suggestion of (hopefully metaphoric?) nuclear war in the Republican-controlled Congress.
279. Be a cheerleader for America and bring the country’s spirit back. “Bring us all together as Americans. We’re living in a divided nation. We’re living in a very divided nation. We’re going to be brought together.”

I'm so tired. God, I am just. So. Tired. Aren't you?

Take care of yourselves out there, my friends, but first take note of this excellent (actually de-stressing!) strategy for calling your elected representatives on the issues of the day, courtesy of a former congressional staffer:

"Friends! As some of you know, I used to work on Capitol Hill as the person in charge of all the incoming phone calls to my Senator's office. I have some insider tips to make calling your reps easier and quicker.

  1. Give your name, city, and zip code, and say "I don't need a response." That way, they can quickly confirm you are a constituent, and that they can tally you down without taking the time to input you into a response database.
  2. PLEASE ONLY CALL YOUR OWN REPRESENTATIVES! Your tally will not be marked down unless you can rattle off a city and zip from the state, or are calling from an in-state area code. I know you really want to give Mitch McConnell a piece of your mind, but your call will be ignored unless you can provide a zip from Kentucky. And don't try to make this up; I could often tell who was lying before I even picked up the phone from the caller ID. Exceptions to this are things like Paul Ryan's ACA poll.
  3. State the issue, state your position. "I am opposed to a ban on Muslims entering the US." "I am in favor of stricter gun control legislation including background checks." "I am in favor of the Affordable Care Act." That's it. That's all we write down so we can get a tally of who is in favor, who is against. It doesn't matter WHY you hold that opinion. The more people calling, the less detail they write down. Help them out by being simple and direct.
  4. Please be nice! The people answering the phones on Capitol Hill already had the hardest job in DC and some of the lowest pay as well, and for a month now their jobs have become absolute murder, with nonstop calls for 9 hours every day. Thank them for their hard work answering the phones, because without them our Senators could not represent us.
What does this sound like?

"Hi, my name is Mark, I'm a constituent from Seattle, zip code 98***, I don't need a response. I am opposed to any ban on Muslims entering the United States and I encourage the Senator to please oppose implementation of any such ban. Thanks for your hard work answering the phones!"

This is how I wish every caller had phrased their message. It makes it easier for the people answering the phones and takes less time and emotion than a long script. I know that you want to say why, but keeping it short and sweet helps the office answer more calls per hour, meaning more people get heard. The bigger the tally, the more powerful our voice.

Also, when you're reading off the same script as 100 other callers that day, they can tell.

Pick one issue each day, use this format (I am in favor of _____ or I oppose ______), and call your 2 Senators and 1 Representative on their DC and State Office lines, and you'll be on your way to being heard."

Good night, and good luck.

I still remember waking up on November 9th. I remember cleaning up the bottle of wine and bag of popcorn left in the living room from the ...