Friday Talking Points -- A Fool's Paradise

Will tomorrow be any different at the White House? Since we all seem to now be living in Bizarro World, wouldn’t that tend to make you think that we’d get no foolishness from our president on April Fool’s Day? I mean, in an April Fool’s Year, shouldn’t one day be set aside for nonfoolery? Maybe even that’s too much to ask from this fool’s paradise of a White House.

It’s not just the White House, either. This week we saw the spectacle of the chair of the House committee investigating Russian meddling in the election trying a desperate stunt to reclaim the political narrative. Devin Nunes apparently met with White House personnel, then held a splashy news conference, went and briefed the president about what Trump’s own staff told Nunes, and then just for good measure gave another press conference. This was all somehow supposed to vindicate Trump’s conspiracy theory that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower (which it didn’t, since it is not true). What it did instead was convince everyone in America that Nunes is patently unqualified to lead any sort of investigation of the White House. We’re actually surprised Nunes didn’t appear at his pressers with a big bucket in hand. “Chairman, can you tell us why you’ve got that bucket?” “This? Oh, this is just some water Trump asked me to carry for him.” All Nunes accomplished, at week’s end, was the complete destruction of his own credibility. He also spurred the Senate to move forward on its own investigation, which could be much more effective in the end.

The Russia story may have given birth to a new political metaphor. We’d certainly never heard it before, but we bet it’ll be more widely used in the future, because “it’s got legs,” as they say. Instead of the old “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” we heard Trump’s Russian problems recently described as “a centipede ― because there are so many shoes dropping, one after the other.” Legs, indeed.

This week, unlike last, didn’t have any major legislative defeats for President Donald Trump, but this was the week when the polling reflected how the public saw the doomed Ryancare trainwreck from last Friday. To be blunt, it’s not pretty. Donald Trump hit a lower point (a dismal 35 percent job approval rating) on the respected Gallup poll than Barack Obama ever hit during his eight years in office. And it hasn’t even been three months yet! That’s a record, but likely one Trump won’t be bragging about any time soon. At least he’s doing better than Speaker Paul Ryan, whose own approval rating is down to 21 percent after the fiasco. You don’t hear either of them talking much about a “mandate” or doing what “the people” want anymore, which is probably no coincidence.

Other fallout from the destruction of Ryancare: Kansas actually voted to expand Medicaid. Kansas! The governor then vetoed the bill, but the fact that it got this far (and almost had a veto-proof majority behind it) is telling indeed. Charles Krauthammer darkly warns that we’re all on the road to single-payer now (which, to him, is the equivalent of a highway to Hell). The myth of Paul Ryan as the wonkiest Republican around is finally being questioned by a few inside-the-Beltway folks. Oh, and Donald Trump and the Tea Party are now waging open warfare on Twitter.

That last one is the most interesting, of course. Trump is trying to threaten the Freedom Caucus in the House, even going so far as to say he’ll fight them during primary season. Last week, he had nothing but kind words for both Ryan and the Tea Partiers, but that didn’t last long. By week’s end, he was naming individual Freedom Caucus members and trying to strongarm them into blind obedience of all things Trump. Not with any noticeable success, so far.

No wonder Trump needs to take so many vacations. He hasn’t even gone 100 days yet, and so far he’s spending one in every three days at his own properties. And playing a lot of golf ― thus breaking yet another of his campaign promises (he used to routinely badmouth Barack Obama for golfing while president).

Speaking of broken Trump promises, it now seems that Trump isn’t going to “tear up” NAFTA after all. He’ll be content to just tinker around the edges of it, according to the White House. How long is it going to take before his followers realize the con job he pulled on them?

So far, Trump hasn’t lost his key base. A recent poll found that “as few as 3 percent of Trump voters would recast their ballot if given the chance.” But there are notable exceptions within that three percent, including one woman whose husband is now being deported. She took Trump at his word that only the “bad hombres” would be deported, it seems. Another broken promise!

It got little attention this week, but Trump is also trying the “Bill Clinton defense” in a sexual harassment case against him by a former contestant on his television show. Trump’s legal team is arguing that he’s so gosh-darned busy presidenting that he shouldn’t have to deal with legal cases against him until after he leaves office. Trump might want to check with Bill how that all worked out in the courts, previously.

Outside of presidential political news, North Carolina tried to pull their own con job on the N.C.A.A., by “repealing” the bathroom bill that has been causing so much lost revenue for the state. The college sports organization gave them until this week to repeal the law or else no championship games in any sports would be scheduled in North Carolina for the next five years. So the politicians put together a bill which on the face of it appears to repeal the discriminatory law, but in reality does nothing of the sort. Gay rights and transgender rights groups denounced the sham, but (as of this writing) the N.C.A.A. has not taken a position on it yet, so we’ll see what they have to say about the “repeal.”

In marijuana news, Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Earl Blumenauer introduced a comprehensive legislative package to end the federal War On Weed altogether, and it is impressive in its scope. Check out their press release for more information, if interested.

And kudos once again for the Washington Post for extended reporting on a subject other news organizations have been ignoring for decades ― the ongoing shameful abuse of “asset forfeiture,” which is a legal term that really means “highway robbery by police officers and federal agents.” Don’t believe me? This is how it works: you are pulled over to the side of the road or stopped at an airport, and then a law enforcement officer steals your money. The officer doesn’t charge you with any crime, mind you, and you never get a day in court where you are presumed innocent. Instead, the money they stole is presumed guilty (of being linked to drug crime or anything else the cops make up on the spot out of thin air), and then you have to sue them to get it back, by proving the money’s innocent.

Don’t think this is a big problem? Well, a new report shines some light on just how big a problem it truly is:

Since 2007, the report found, the D.E.A. has seized more than $4 billion in cash from people suspected of involvement with the drug trade. But 81 percent of those seizures, totaling $3.2 billion, were conducted administratively, meaning no civil or criminal charges were brought against the owners of the cash and no judicial review of the seizures ever occurred.

That’s just the cash they stole, mind you. That doesn’t even count all the property they also stole. Here are figures for just one year alone, with a little needed context:

The scope of asset forfeiture is staggering. Since 2007 the Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, which collects proceeds from seized cash and other property, has ballooned to $28 billion. In 2014 alone authorities seized $5 billion in cash and property from people ― greater than the value of all documented losses to burglary that year.

Got that? In 2014, the cops stole more than the robbers did! That’s stunning. In fact, it brings to mind (in a very literal way) a popular T-shirt and bumpersticker slogan: “Don’t steal ― the government hates the competition.”

Before we get to the main award, there are a few other folks who need recognition. If we handed out awards to Republicans, we would certainly be giving both Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins some praise this week for voting against the bill to allow states to defund Planned Parenthood. Alas, they needed one other Republican to break ranks, which didn’t happen. But their aisle-crossing was noteworthy and appreciated nonetheless.

We have an Honorable Mention award to hand out this week as well, to the organization Stay Woke, which created the Our States webpage. This is an effort to shift some of the progressive energy out there by concentrating it on state-level politics. As one of the founders explained recently:

What we’ve noticed is that not only in speaking to our working state advocacy organizations, but also just looking at the literature, the state representatives are much more receptive than the Congress. They have much smaller districts, about 12 times smaller than members of Congress. They are not used to getting a lot of calls or being engaged very often at the scale that members of Congress are. What we are hoping for is a push around actually getting a number of state legislators to meet with their constituents.

This is an excellent idea, and we wish them all kinds of success. In between fighting odious Republican legislation at the federal level, everyone should feel free to get involved at the state level as well, where your voices may be even more effective in changing some minds!

But our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was none other than Chuck Schumer. Now, we’re fully aware that this is an incredibly biased pick for us to make, because the reason we’re handing Chuck the MIDOTW award is that he seemingly took our advice to heart in almost verbatim fashion.

Last week in this space, we went on an extended rant on the failure of Ryancare. This ended by examining whether Democrats should even consider working with Donald Trump at all, and it concluded:

Democrats now have the opportunity to call Trump’s bluff. If they start off with only one dealbreaking demand and a set of core principles, perhaps truly bipartisan agreement could actually be reached, at least in the Senate. The dealbreaking demand would be: “Don’t ever call it a repeal of Obamacare.” The core principles would be: “We have to have at least as many people insured as under the current law, and we must work for a better outcome, not a worse one ― but we’ll consider any suggestion that achieves that.”

Now here was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, appearing on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos last Sunday:

Well, you know, look, the bottom line is very simple. And that is ― [the] president never called us once about this. They came on board with “repeal,” which they knew every Democrat would oppose, and no one believes that. But I would say this, we Democrats ― provided our Republican colleagues drop “replace” and stop undermining the [Affordable Care Act] ― are willing to work with our Republican friends, as long as they say: “no more repeal.” That’s a loser. Seventeen percent of Americans liked Trumpcare. That’s it. They didn’t want it. And stop undermining A.C.A. And we’ll work with them. We have ideas, they have ideas, to try to improve Obamacare. We never said it was perfect. We always said we’d work with them to improve it. We just said repeal was off the table.

That’s pretty close, we have to admit. In fact, we cannot remember any previous instance of a politician getting so close to what we urged them to say in these Friday columns. So although awarded solely because of our own inherent bias, we feel we’d be hypocrites not to hand Chuck Schumer this week’s MIDOTW award. Well done, Chuck ― we still feel this is exactly the message to be sending to Trump and any moderate Republicans right now. Let’s fix any Obamacare problems, and let’s stop all the chest-beating over “repeal and replace” for good. Because that’s really the only way forward, at this point.

[Congratulate Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]

Normally we tend to hand out these awards to figures in national politics. Sometimes we dip down to state-level politics. But this week, we’re giving the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to the mayor of Baltimore. Here’s the whole reason why:

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh dealt a shattering blow to the Fight for $15 campaign, vetoing a new minimum wage law passed overwhelmingly by the City Council just last week. The effect was amplified as it quickly became clear that Pugh, a Democrat, had succeeded in lining up the votes necessary to prevent a threatened council override of her veto. Despite the fact that the minimum wage bill passed the council with the support of 12 of its 15 members ― enough to override a veto ― the solidarity of the pro-Fight for $15 members disintegrated under pressure. According to reports, several supporters of the higher minimum wage switched sides and are now pledging to sustain the mayor’s veto. Pugh’s action represents a reversal from a promise she made during last year’s mayoral campaign to sign a $15 minimum wage bill if passed by the council. That reversal is engendering bitterness from some minimum wage proponents. “Catherine Pugh not only went back on this promise, but it tells us that everything she said (during the campaign) is in question,” says Charly Carter, executive director of the pro-labor Maryland Working Families.

For breaking a big campaign promise, for siding with businesses instead of workers, and for a big failure of leadership, Catherine Pugh is easily our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week. With disappointing Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?

[Contact Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh on her official contact page, to let her know what you think of her actions.]

Volume 430 (3/31/17)

Kind of a mixed bag of talking points this week. We’ve got some ridicule for the Trump administration (naturally), as well as two viewpoints of the state of politics right now ― one from the left and one from the right. Plus the usual tomfoolery. Having said all of that, let’s get right to it....

Immunity, then and now (part 1)

Michael Flynn’s back in the news, begging for immunity in exchange for his testimony.

“Donald Trump today encouraged his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, to ask for immunity for his testimony to Congress. Strange how his view of asking for such immunity has changed over time. Allow me to read a few quotes from when Trump was campaigning: ‘The reason they get immunity is because they did something wrong. If they didn’t do anything wrong, they don’t think in terms of immunity.’ That’s back when the subject was an investigation of Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, of course. He even went further, while campaigning, saying: ‘If you’re not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for, right?’ Now that it’s one of his aides, however, Trump seems to have changed his mind rather dramatically. Odd, isn’t it?”

Immunity, then and now (part 2)

Ah, but it gets even better.

“I’m going to read a quote from an appearance on Meet The Press last year: ‘When you get immunity, that means that you have probably committed a crime.’ That’s pretty unequivocal, right? The person who said that was none other than Michael Flynn, while campaigning for Donald Trump. This is the same Michael Flynn who just asked Congress for immunity for his testimony. So, by his own measure, should we all now assume that Michael Flynn ― who spent the shortest time in office of any National Security Advisor ever, before he resigned in disgrace ― has, in his own words ‘probably committed a crime’? Maybe that’s the first question Congress should ask him. I mean, he himself set this standard, right?”

Sheer idiocy

One of the stupider things any member of Congress has ever uttered was said this week.

“Representative Ted Yahoo... oh, excuse me, that should be ‘Yoho,’ my apologies... this week tried to defend Devin Nunes bizarre stunt with a jaw-dropping misunderstanding of the requirements of his own job. Yoho said of Nunes: ‘You’ve got to keep in mind that he works for the president. He answers to the president.’ OK, let’s take this real slow, Representative Yoho. There are three co-equal branches of government. They don’t ‘work for each other’ in any way, shape, or form. They are, in fact, separate. That’s what that whole ‘separation of powers’ thing is all about. A member of the House is a part of the legislative branch, which does not work for the executive branch at all! What’s really stunning about this idiocy is that Nunes is the chair of a committee that is actually investigating the executive branch. That’s about as far away from ‘working for the president’ as you can imagine! Someone needs to buy Representative Yoho a fifth-grade civics textbook.”

Not what they had intended

Republicans are responsible for one big public opinion victory, but it wasn’t exactly what they were shooting for.

“In the past few months, Republicans have grappled with turning their wildly overstated campaign rhetoric on Obamacare into reality. They failed miserably at what they promised their own voters they would do, that’s for sure. But they did make one rather notable achievement ― for President Obama. During the debate over the Ryancare bill, in public opinion polling Obamacare hit the highest approval it has ever seen. A clear majority of Americans now approve of Obamacare ― something that has not been true since the day it passed. That’s something Obama himself never managed, which is why it’s so remarkable. Maybe Joni Mitchell was right ― ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’ Because America took a hard look at what Republicans wanted to do to it, Obamacare is now more popular than ever. Barack Obama should really write a thank-you note to Paul Ryan for this achievement.”

Nihilism on the right

These next two are direct opposites. The first is from Michel Gerson, who worked for George W. Bush. He wrote an extraordinarily gloomy article this week on the state of the Republican Party. By the end, he’s slipped into sheer partisan nihilism. Think that’s overstating it? Here’s how he ends his article:

Some Republicans choose to comfort themselves by repeating the mantra: “Gorsuch, Gorsuch, Gorsuch.” But that does nothing to change Trump’s stunningly high disapproval ratings. Or the stunning rebuke by the F.B.I. director concerning his claim of being wiretapped by President Barack Obama. Or the stunning rejection of his central campaign promise by elements of his own party. Or his stunning ignorance of the basics of policy and leadership. And all this has come in the course of the president’s political honeymoon. What, for goodness’ sake, will the marriage be like? It is now dawning on Republicans what they have done to themselves. They thought they could somehow get away with Trump. That he could be contained. That the adults could provide guidance. That the economy might come to the rescue. That the damage could be limited. Instead, they are seeing a downward spiral of incompetence and public contempt ― a collapse that is yet to reach a floor. A presidency is failing. A party unable to govern is becoming unfit to govern. And what, in the short term, can be done about it? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Revitalization on the left

Want to read something more cheerful, after that? Then take a look at an extraordinary article by a Democratic House staffer, who writes this week about being on the other end of the phone line during the overwhelming public response that has been almost continuous since Trump took office. Eric Harris, who works for Representative Gwen Moore, had nothing but praise for the energy and public participation that has been taking place, and reveals how heartening it is to be on the receiving end. Anyone who has ever considered phoning their congressional representative on any issue should really read the entire article.

For a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill in the age of Trump, the struggle for justice can feel disheartening, if not demoralizing. But with every phone call from a concerned constituent, every tweet in support of our shared resistance, every protest sign held by someone who demands dignity for all, I feel a renewed confidence in the resilience of our democracy. Their activism gives me hope. Their resolve gives me strength. And hopefully, hearing a live voice on the other end of the phone rather than a voice-mail message does a little of the same for them.

OK, Congressman, let’s see your browsing history!

Fair play, right?

“Republicans in Congress once again stuck a thumb in the eye of all of their own voters, by passing a bill nobody in their right mind wanted, supported, or ever even asked for. The GOP successfully overturned an Obama regulation which would have kept your browsing history private. That’s right, the Republicans voted to let giant corporations sell people’s browsing history for cold cash to anyone willing to pay. This has led to an instant response online. If these members of Congress think this is such a great idea, then maybe we should get some money together and buy their own browsing histories. I’m sure they wouldn’t have any problem seeing this information publicly displayed, since they just voted to remove privacy protections for all Americans. So let’s see what computers on Capitol Hill have been busy doing, shall we? Seems only fair, right?”

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

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