This administration is generating news faster than anybody can get a handle on it, and whether intentional or not, the blizzard of bullshit serves as a kind of shield, splitting our attention. So let’s see what happened last week and what’s worth keeping an eye on.
I want to be clear that there were a lot of reasons to want Jeff Sessions far away from any position of power long before last week. To remind you, Jeff Sessions is a racist who has, for his entire political life, used his position to disenfranchise non-white voters. From the text of a letter submitted by widow of Martin Luther and activist hero in her own right Coretta Scott King submitted to the congress opposing Sessions’ nomination as a federal court judge in the 1980s:
Civil rights leaders, including my husband and Albert Turner, have fought long and hard to achieve free and unfettered access to the ballot box. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge…Mr. Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference towards criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that the lacks the temperament, fairness, and judgement to be a federal judge.
The conduct as a U.S. Attorney Mrs. King’s referring to? The Guardian just did a long piece on it. Apparently Sessions saw his federal prosecutor job as the best way to use the FBI to destroy the Democratic opposition in Alabama. Mr. Sessions was the second guy to fail to be appointed as a federal judge in fifty years because the Congress thought he wasn’t up to the job.
A few years ago, the Supreme Court got rid of a provision of the Voting Rights Act that submitted all changes to election law in several southern states for review, since they were all almost unerringly racist. Now the responsibility for looking at that stuff falls to Jeff Sessions. Where do you think he’s going to land?
Added to all his baggage this week is that Sessions is apparently the latest member of the Trump administration to be embroiled in the ongoing Russia coverup.
Jeff Sessions testified before Congress that he “did not have communications with the Russians.”
It has, unsurprisingly, come out that Sessions, of course, did have contact with the Russians. Specifically, he met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak twice, in Kislyak’s office and at the GOP convention in Cleveland, as the Trump team was softening the GOP’s platform on Russia for the first time ever. Sessions has claimed that he just didn’t remember having met with the ambassador.
First, lying under oath in front of Congress, just like Mike Flynn lying to the FBI, is a crime. Second, as has been pointed out everywhere, when the administration you’re about to be a part of is part of an ongoing scandal with Russia and when you’re before Congress testifying in order to be let into that administration, what are the chances you’re just going to happen to forget about having met with the chief Russian representative in the US? Low, I think.
Now, Sessions has said he’ll recuse himself from any investigations into the 2016 presidential campaign. Great, sure. But he pointedly did not say he’d recuse himself from any other investigation into what’s going on. Given that Flynn’s and Jared Kushner’s also-illegal contact with Kislyak took place post-election and that the White House seems pretty interested in covering up whatever else is going on, that recusal would not be enough from Sessions. Which is par for the course with this guy. Empty Wheel’s got a more complete analysis.
Let’s run this down.
Trump has had decades’ worth of business connections to Russian plutocrats and mobsters. After his several bankruptcies, they were the only kind of people who would lend to him.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s first campaign manager, stepped down last August when it came out that he’d received over $12 million for working with and lobbying for Ukraine’s pro-Russian ex-President. Manafort’s also got longstanding ties to Russia.
Then we’ve got Roger Stone, a GOP operative and Trump advisor during the campaign. Trump made his now-famous appeal to Russia to hack the Clinton emails. Stone says in August that he’s in touch with Wikileaks. On 1 October, he sends this tweet:
Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks.
— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) October 2, 2016
And on 7 October, Wikileaks lets loose the first set of emails hacked from John Podesta, meaning Stone had prior knowledge.
After the campaign was over, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov publicly admitted that members of Trump’s “entourage” were in touch with Russia. “I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives,” he told the Russian news service Interfax.
In December, new National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, along with Trump’s son-in-law and now senior advisor and ‘shadow secretary of state’ make contact with Russian ambassador Kislyak, apparently to do a little pre-emptive—and illegal—diplomacy. They lie about it to the press and to VP Mike Pence and Flynn has to step down when his position becomes untenable.
From the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza:
There is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Flynn, Sessions, and other Trump advisers talked to the Russian Ambassador. With the Kislyak affair, in which multiple conversations between Trump officials and the Ambassador have been concealed, so far, we have a coverup without a crime.
It’s become a kind of weird truism that “it’s the coverup, not the crime.” But, from Watergate through Iran Contra, it’s absolutely the crime that’s the worse thing. And what we have now is a widespread coverup operation. Maybe this is nothing, but you don’t lie in front of Congress to hide from nothing. And once the full story breaks, the lies in front of Congress are always just the tip of the iceberg.
The Joint Address
In case anybody’s not in the know, the joint address to Congress is the State of the Union. New presidents don’t call it that because they haven’t been POTUS long enough.
Trump made a speech.
It was a bad speech.
Pundits far and wide called it “presidential,” which is was by default, since he’s president, and some right-wingers fell all over themselves calling it a Reagan moment. I’m not linking to anything because they’ve got enough clicks and that’s garbage.
Trump’s big moment was when he called on a dead soldier’s widow. Trump got that soldier killed. He blamed the death on his generals. What’s more important is the raid that Trump ordered got many innocent civilians also killed, but nobody’s mourning for them or calling their families into the Capitol.
Celebrating that raid, “successful” in terms of intelligence or not, is poison. Putting somebody’s widow in front of the world so you can brag about her dead husband is poison.
That’s all you need to know.
What is great, though, is that the FUBAR situation with Jeff Sessions apparently has Trump hopping mad that attention got stolen away from what Sean Spicer described as a speech that “will go down in history as one of the best.”
Before we move on, think about that Spicer quote. In the same way that Trump’s assertion that he’s “the least antisemitic person” in the world puts him ahead of, say, every rabbi in the world, babies, and the yarmukle wearing reporter who asked him the question, Spicer is saying that Trump’s address ranks with Gettysburg, with Eisenhower or Washington’s farewell speeches, with Lincoln’s second inaugural, with Kennedy’s inaugural, with, literally speaking, Cicero and Pericles.
It’s dumb in the way a “my dad could beat up your dad” assertion is dumb.
Maybe trying to steal the limelight back again, Trump sent this tweet late in the week:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
Trump apparently “found out” about the wiretaps from a Breitbart article summarizing a paranoiac rant from a talk-radio host. The White House has provided no evidence to back the tweets up because, of course, there is no evidence. If there was, Trump would be all over the news with it.
Despite that there’s nothing to back this up, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes of California, has said that he’ll be investigating. From CNN:
“One of the focus points of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation is the U.S. government’s response to actions taken by Russian intelligence agents during the presidential campaign,” Nunes said in a statement Sunday. “As such, the Committee will make inquiries into whether the government was conducting surveillance activities on any political party’s campaign officials or surrogates, and we will continue to investigate this issue if the evidence warrants it.”
Democrats have, thankfully, taken a stand. Again from CNN:
“You make up something and then you have the press write about it, and then you say, ‘everybody’s writing about this charge,'” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s a tool of an authoritarian, to just have you always be talking about what you want to be talking about.”
The pretty-much definitive analysis comes from Jon Favreau, an Obama speechwriter and current head of Crooked Media, which produces Pod Save America, which is a podcast you should listen to right after you click on mine five extra times.
Barack Obama’s master plan:
1) Wiretap the opposition
2) Gather damaging info
3) Say nothing
4) Let him win
5) Ride off into the sunset
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) March 5, 2017
For all Trump’s posturing on how unfair it was to [not in reality] wiretap him [in a Watergate-like fashion, for campaign purposes], this White House is pushing ahead with spying on you.
We’ve got a thing called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. It’s the thing that lets the government spy on you, and the thing that authorized the programs that Snowden leaked about. FISA has come under much criticism, and keeping it going was one of the huge failures (‘failures’ is the generous term; ‘totally intentional actions’ would be the more realistic one) that liberals can point to under the Obama administration.
Rather than using the wiretap “revelations” as an opportunity to revise our thinking on dragnetting the communications of millions of Americans, Trump’s pushing to get FISA re-authorized with zero changes.
Like I said last week, authoritarian government is a question of will (in the persons of Trump and Bannon) and a question of opportunity. FISA and other laws which expand the ability of the security state to spy on, detain, intern, or murder American citizens, are the opportunity.
GOP lawmakers continue to prove…
Jesus, guys, I can’t even be glib. It’s one thing for us to sort-of-unwittingly elect a wannabe strongman. It’s another to realize that the GOP across the fifty states literally wants to do away with democracy as we know it.
In Georgia, the GOP’s stranglehold has been slipping despite it being one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the Union. The GOP’s response has been to build a bigger tent, soften its policies, and really make an appeal across the aisle.
What Is War Good For?
Trump’s already been floating balloons about further foreign wars, namely with Iran.
Now, it’s becoming clear that with the help of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he’s trying to dismantle the State Department and run our foreign policy out of the White House with his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Immediately after taking office, Donald Trump forced resignations by a number of top level State Department management officials. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came on board, he engaged in an abrupt reorganization of remaining management without explanation. And as of yet, the Trump team has put forth nominees for only 7 of the 118 positions within the State Department that require Senate confirmation. The majority of leadership positions remain unfilled, including almost every Ambassadorship.
From a Department officer quoted in the Atlantic:
They really want to blow this place up. I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law] can do everything. It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.
Trump said on the campaign trail that as far as foreign policy, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
The administration’s representatives don’t seem eager to explain how further cuts to State’s budget will improve our foreign policy.
Best video you’ll see today.@mitchellreports won’t stop grilling Tillerson in photo-op—gets escorted out while still asking questions. https://t.co/L1CYjWK3oa
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 4, 2017
There are, to understate, a lot of countries in the world. The US maintains contact with almost all of them. That means an ambassador for each, along with embassy staff and the consular, political, economic, public diplomacy, and management-track foreign service officers who work our embassies and consulates abroad. In DC at the State Department in Foggy Bottom, we’ve got country desks, analysts, clerks, on and on up to the deputy secretaries of state and the SOS himself. That infrastructure processes a huge amount of information and maintains an unfathomable number of personal and professional contacts with diplomats, businessmen, journalists, politicians, and activists in every country in the world.
The State Department has been underfunded since WWII, but its breadth and depth of knowledge and relationships gives us a huge number of options to use when dealing with any given foreign state.
Eliminating that apparatus leaves us with with many fewer options and makes the military, which is the only federal department getting an expansion under Trump, a much more attractive tool. Nails and hammers.
The GOP is pushing ahead with its repeal-and-replace plan with regard to the Affordable Care Act.
Except that the draft of the replacement bill has been repeatedly hidden, in third-grade antics, from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Until the text comes out, we don’t have much to go on, but any bill that has to be hidden from the public and even from the Congress is, count on it, not a good bill.
The Trump White House wants to cut 25% of the EPA’s budget. EPA facts:
For those who have forgotten the value of EPA’s mission, here are ten facts to remember and share:
230,000: Lives saved each year by EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act in 2020.
2.4 million: Asthma attacks prevented each year by EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act in 2020.
22.4 million: Avoided lost school or work days each year due to EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act in 2020.
30-1: Ratio of benefits to costs– the Clean Air Act provides $30 in health benefits for every $1 invested in compliance.
1,308: Number of enforcement actions concluded in fiscal year 2016 under the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.
62 billion: Pounds of hazardous waste EPA enforcement actions required companies to commit to treat, minimize, or properly dispose of in fiscal year 2016.
190 million: Cubic yards of contaminated soil and groundwater cleanup commitments secured in fiscal year 2016 alone (enough to fill the Empire State Building over 138 times).
40,000: Pounds of toxic mercury cut from coal plants by the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule.
67: Percent of Americans across the country who think EPA should stay the same or be strengthened.
Just, Honestly, Horrible Shit
A man in Kent, Washington, walked up to a Sikh in his driveway, told him to “Go back to your own country,” and then shot him.
Four mosques have burned down as the result of arson since Trump’s inauguration.
Dozens of bomb threats at Jewish community centers continue to come in.
As we saw last week, the immigration plan under Trump is to deport the people who least need to be deported:
But At Least There’s This
Not everything is terrible. If you don’t know Chuck Tingle, the enigmatic, prolific, incredible-title creating erotica author, now’s the time:
Domald Tromp hasn’t been listening to his Timeline Briefings, and now he’s in trouble. To the frustration of his staff, Domald’s incompetence has allowed several unethical timelines to get dangerously close to this one, and facts regarding his administration’s deep connections to the Russian government are leaking left and right.
Domald decides to solve this problem old-fashioned way, with a tweet brazenly declaring that the previous President was wiretapping him. Domald hopes his bizarre fabrication will now dominate the news cycle while he heads out to golf with his Russian T-Rex buddies. Unfortunately, he has simply opened an even bigger can of worms.
Facebook’s about a year late on this, but they’ve finally rolled out their answer to fake news:
Facebook is flagging links to fake sites now, looks like: pic.twitter.com/N7xaWDkdYA
— Anna Merlan (@annamerlan) March 3, 2017
Der Spiegel‘s new cover is something we can start hanging on dorm walls:
And Marco Rubio, who has been too afraid of being “heckled” and “screamed at” to show up to his town halls, has now been kicked out of his Florida office, since the protestors he ignored turned out in force at the building. From Politico:
Citing protesting tips published by the new Indivisible movement, Rubio told the station that activists are instructed to go to town halls early and “take up all the front seats. They spread themselves out. They ask questions. They all cheer when the questions are asked. They are instructed to boo no matter what answer I give. They are instructed to interrupt me if I go too long and start chanting things. Then, at the end, they are also told not to give up their microphone when they ask questions. It’s all in writing in this Indivisible document.”
The only boo when you’re worth booing, Marco, which is all the time.
Also quoted in Politico, Gabby Giffords had some words:
“I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning my offices were open to the public,” Giffords said on Twitter. “To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage. Face your constituents. Hold town halls.”
Everything looks bad, but at least Gabby’s still around.
 To be 100% fair, it’s possible that some part of the intelligence community, probably the NSA, picked up some of the communications coming out of Trump Tower, given that the NSA tracks potential threats to the US, many of whom are in Russia, and some of whom Trump and associates might have been in contact with. Now, since a President can’t actually order anybody to wiretap anybody, if Trump’s wires were specifically tapped, it means one of two things: a FISA court found that there was sufficient evidence that Trump was colluding with a foreign power to damage the interests of the US to justify a wiretap; or a judge, on behalf of a law-enforcement agency, like the FBI, decided there was sufficient evidence that Trump and associates were breaking the law (with, for example, the Russian mobsters that Trump used to hang out with) to warrant a wiretap.