Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Despotism or paralysis? Which is the problem?

March 16, 2021

Donald Trump never was a potential dictator, as so many Democrats and progressives feared. 

Rather he was part of a continuing a rear-guard action by conservatives and Republicans to thwart the will of the majority.

That’s the view of Corey Robin, a political scientist writing in the New Yorker.

Robin noted that Trump accomplished virtually none of his announced goals, not even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

That’s because Republicans and conservatives are a minority, he said. 

The GOP failed to get a popular vote majority in four of the last five elections.  No conservative or right-wing group had the massive support that the Black Lives Matter protests did last year.  Religious conservatives such as Rod Dreher rightly note that they are losing the culture wars.

The problem, according to Robin, is that the U.S. Constitution gives right-wingers the power to thwart the will of the majority because of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, the Electoral College and the Supreme Court.  The result, he wrote, is paralysis.

There’s something to what he says, although our 18th-century Constitution did not prevent Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, or, for that matter, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, from enacting ambitious political programs. 

The Constitution is not preventing change now.  What’s holding back change is the reluctance of the Biden administration to keep its promises.  Nothing prevents the Democratic majority in the Senate from abolishing the filibuster, as the Republican majority in the House of Representatives did way back in 1888.

Nor does anything prevent the calling of a convention to rewrite the Constitution and ask for ratification by the voters.  But the ones calling for a new Constitutional convention are the Koch brothers and other conservatives.  Liberals and progressives generally fear what a new convention would come up with, and cling to the Constitution as it is.

Then, too, paralysis only in one direction.  Nothing holds back or limits appropriations for the military.  Nothing hold back war-making by the President.  Nothing holds back upper-bracket tax cuts or bailouts for big financial institutions.

Paralysis does not hold off dictatorship.  Rather people come to accept dictatorship as the only possible solution to paralysis.

Authoritarian governments in the 20th century have arisen in three ways.  Revolutionaries take power from weak ineffective governments.  The military takes power to prevent revolutions.  Pseudo-revolutionary movements take power with the silent consent of the military, the landowners and big business.

Trump antagonized the military, and was regarded by Wall Street as a loose cannon, so he never had a chance of becoming an authoritarian ruler.  He did do a lot of damage to the normal functioning of government, but that is a separate issue.

I think there is a strong possibility of some future crisis, in which some right-wing pseudo-populist could succeed where Trump failed.  But for now, there is no reason for the military or big-money donors to be dissatisfied with the Biden administration.

There is also such a thing as creeping authoritarianism, which I think is what we’ve got now.  I think the proposed “domestic war on terrorism” is a greater threat to what’s left of American freedom and democracy than anything proposed during the Trump administration.

Rulers of empires in decline all had broad powers to wage war and crush dissent, but they were paralyzed when it comes to reforming themselves.

LINKS

Trump and the Trapped Country by Corey Robin for The New Yorker.  “For years we debated whether Donald Trump would topple democracy.  But the threat continues to come from the system itself.”  I say it all depends on what you mean by “the system.”

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Matt Taibbi on the one-party press, etc.

March 12, 2021

The Sovietization of the American Press by Matt Taibbi on TK News.  “The transformation from phony ‘objectivity’ to open one-party orthodoxy hasn’t been an improvement.”

HBO’s docuseries Allen v. Farrow: A shameful, vicious, McCarthyite attack on filmmaker Woody Allen by Joanne Laurier for the World Socialist Web Site.

Louis DeJoy Is Killing It by Casey Taylor for New York magazine.  “While Biden dithers, Trump’s minion wrecks the postal service.”

“Deaths of Despair” Are Rising – It’s Time to Define Despair by Bruce Bower for Science News.  “Scientists investigate whether despair is distinct from mental disorders.”

Trump really did try to instigate an insurrection

February 11, 2021

The video above, introduced as part of the prosecution’s impeachment case against Donald Trump, underlines that the violence in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was more than just a riot.

I had some doubts before as to how big a threat it was.  I don’t have such doubts any more.

The insurrection was intended to intimidate the Senate, and in particular Vice President Mike Pence, into refusing to certify the vote of the Electoral College.  It failed.  Vice President Pence and a majority of the Senate did their constitutional duty.

I don’t think that there ever was any serious possibility that the election results would be overturned.  Pence’s refusal to certify would not have changed anything in the end.

The harm that was done was to convince tens of millions of Americans that they are living under a government to which they owe no allegiance, any more than Americans of 1776 owned allegiance to King George III.

What bothers me is the thought of now things might have played out if the White House had been occupied by an authoritarian leader a little bit more self-disciplined and a little bit more astute than Donald Trump.

Such a leader would not have waited until after the votes were counted to question the voting system.  He and his followers would have sought court injunctions a year ago to block the changes they’re objecting to now.

When the game is over, it’s too late to question the rule book, because there’s no way to know how the game would have come out under different rules.

Such a leader would have a way to convince the FBI, the Pentagon, the CIA and the rest of the Homeland Security complex that he was on their side.  Experience in other countries shows that the police, the military and the intelligence agencies get along perfectly well with authoritarian rulers.

Such a leader would have had a real para-military force at his disposal—something comparable to Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s Brownshirts (SA).

Trump gave winks and nods to encourage the Proud Boys and other authoritarian right-wing groups to think he was on their side, but he never (thank goodness) gave them effective leadership.  He never arranged for his supporters to secretly give them funds for recruitment and military training.

What happened on Jan. 6 could be a dress rehearsal for a right-wing coup to come.  A more astute authoritarian right-wing leader might well see all the possibilities that Trump’s attempt revealed and not make the mistakes that Trump made.

LINKS

Emotive video dominates day one of Trump impeachment trial by Niall Stanage for The Hill.

Insurrection TImeline: First the Coup and Then the Coverup by Steven Harper for Moyers on Democracy.  A more detailed timeline.

The martyrdom of Mike Pence by Sidney Blumenthal for The Guardian.  [Hat tip to Steve from Texas]  In the end, Pence did his duty.

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Was Trump too incompetent to create a crisis?

November 8, 2020

Donald Trump (Getty Images)

I worried a lot about the possibility of a Constitutional crisis following this year’s national elections.  I feared Donald Trump would somehow sabotage the election process.  I worried about possible violence.

None of my fears of come true. We Americans can look forward to a peaceful transition of power, with nothing worse than hard feelings by the losers.

Maybe my fears were overblown.  But maybe we Americans dodged a bullet.

Rod Dreher, an editor of The American Conservative, noted that President Trump had threatened a massive legal challenge to the election results—like the Florida recount, but spread across many states.

But he never did anything to bring this about.  Dreher quoted the Wall Street Journal—

Some advisers have privately said they see little path forward, politically or legally, that would prevent Mr. Trump from becoming the first president to lose reelection since 1992.

Among the president’s advisers, finger-pointing over the campaign’s legal strategy has intensified in recent days, White House and campaign aides said. 

Aides have expressed acute frustration over what many see as a slapdash legal effort, complaining that—even though Mr. Trump spent months telegraphing his intent to fight the election outcome in the courts—there wasn’t enough planning ahead of Election Day and has been little follow-through on decisions made this week. 

For days after the election, advisers said they didn’t know who was in charge of the strategy.

Dreher himself added—

You got that?  Trump has known for months that this thing might conclude with a hellacious legal fight, but hasn’t bothered to put together a legal team to fight it.  The WSJ also reported that Trump has named longtime conservative political operative David Bossie to head his legal team.  Bossie isn’t a lawyer.  This is not a serious effort.  MAGA is done.

I can’t see the up side of fighting for Trump at this point, not only because this Biden win seems decisive, but also because Trump hasn’t taken the fight to defend his presidency seriously.  The Journal story is pretty incredible … but about what you would expect from a president whose mouth writes checks the rest of him can’t cash. 

Seriously, how is it that you spend months telling your supporters that you are going to fight this in court if you have to, but then half-ass the legal prep? 

When the GOP went down to Florida in 2000 to wage legal war in the Bush-Gore contest, they sent the lawyer equivalent of Seal Team Six.  Now?  The fact that Trump doesn’t take this seriously telegraphs to conservatives how seriously we should take him from now on.

Yesterday the WSJ editorialized that Republicans are correct to put an eagle eye on voting, especially in Philadelphia, but said that Trump is going to have to prove his allegations in court. 

So far, it doesn’t seem that Trump’s claims are very strong.  My sense is that most Americans are going to want this thing settled, and don’t have the stomach for a long, drawn-out argument.  Civil society is pretty fragile right now.

Source: Rod Dreher.

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The hidden powers of the Presidency

October 28, 2020

Source: BelConLawBlog.

The President of the United States has the potential powers of a dictator. Maybe “potential” is the wrong word. Here is the beginning of an article in the current issue of Harper’s magazine.

A few hours before the inauguration ceremony, the prospective president receives an elaborate and highly classified briefing on the means and procedures for blowing up the world with a nuclear attack, a rite of passage that a former official described as “a sobering moment.” Secret though it may be, we are at least aware that this introduction to apocalypse takes place.

At some point in the first term, however, experts surmise that an even more secret briefing occurs, one that has never been publicly acknowledged. In it, the new president learns how to blow up the Constitution. The session introduces “presidential emergency action documents,” or PEADs, orders that authorize a broad range of mortal assaults on our civil liberties. In the words of a rare declassified official description, the documents outline how to “implement extraordinary presidential authority in response to extraordinary situations”—by imposing martial law, suspending habeas corpus, seizing control of the internet, imposing censorship, and incarcerating so-called subversives, among other repressive measures.

“We know about the nuclear briefcase that carries the launch codes,” Joel McCleary, a White House official in the Carter Administration, told me. “But over at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department there’s a list of all the so-called enemies of the state who would be rounded up in an emergency.  I’ve heard it called the ‘enemies briefcase.’ ”

These chilling directives have been silently proliferating since the dawn of the Cold War as an integral part of the hugely elaborate and expensive Continuity of Government (COG) program, a mechanism to preserve state authority (complete with well-provisioned underground bunkers for leaders) in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

Compiled without any authorization from Congress, the emergency provisions long escaped public discussion—that is, until Donald Trump started to brag about them.  “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” he boasted in March, ominously echoing his interpretation of Article II of the Constitution, which, he has claimed, gives him “the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Source: Andrew Cockburn | Harper’s Magazine

These powers come from two sources. One consists of laws, going back to World War One, granting the President emergency powers and never rescinded. The other is the old doctrine that “in time of war, the laws of silent,” combined with the idea that the USA is a permanent state of war with no foreseeable end.

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Sabotage of Postal Service can risk lives

August 21, 2020

A number of people on my neighborhood association list-serve report problems with their mail delivery, including not getting medications and pension checks in a timely way.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recently took a lot of mail-sorting machines out of service and stopped overtime work, which he admits will slow down mail deliveries.  Delays in delivering medications can risk lives.

Some e-mails blame our local post office staff, but this is something that only happened in the past month or two and I don’t know of anything that has changed there at that time.

One of the under-reported aspects of the Trump administration is how he and his crew have undermined the normal workings of government.  We see this in Trump’s undermining of efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.  Now we see it again in his support for DeJoy’s policy.

LINKS

USPS slowdown delays delivery of life-saving meds by Christina Farr for CNBC.

Postal changes delay mail-order medicine for vets by Hope Yen for the Associated Press.

It’s Very Hard to Rebuild a Bridge Once It’s Torn Down by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

Why I Love the Post Office (And You Should, Too) by Mindy Isser for Current Affairs.

The Postal Service and its last-minute defenders

August 19, 2020

Click to enlarge.

Democratic leaders are rightly angry because the U.S. Postal service might not be able to deliver mailed-in ballots in time to be counted in the 2020 election.

Postmaster-General Louis DeJoy has cut overtime pay and taken mail sorting machines out of service, even though he acknowledges this will delay mail deliveries.

This is supposedly an economy measure, but a Monmouth University poll says 72 percent of Democrats say they might vote by mail, while only 22 percent of Republicans say so.  DeJoy’s policy just might change the outcome of the 2020 elections.

The reason the U.S. Postal Service is in dire straits in the first place is that Congressional leaders, both Democratic and Republican, have deliberately made it so.

The only reason Democratic leaders are concerned now is their perception that Postal Service failure will affect their chances of winning this year’s elections.

Don’t get me wrong.  All their outrage is fully justified.  But if they hadn’t been willing to put the Postal Service on the slide to privatization in the first place, while selling off its prime real estate at bargain prices, there wouldn’t be a problem now.

Here’s the back story, as reported by the great Matt Taibbi.

During the Bush years, the U.S.P.S. was put on the “high risk” list by the General Accounting Office, headed at the time by a future Pete Peterson foundation CEO named David Walker who would later come out in favor of privatizing the post office. The GAO recommended cuts and other measures to address the “rapidly deteriorating” financial situation of the U.S.P.S.

But when an analysis by the Office of Personnel Management was released in November, 2002, it turned out the U.S.P.S. had a “more positive picture” than was believed. The U.S.P.S. was massively over-paying into its retirement fund, headed for a $70 billion surplus.

Then in 2003 the Postal Pension Funding Reform Act was passed, which among other things forced the U.S.P.S. to pay the pension obligations of employees who had prior military service.

A few years after that, in 2006, the “Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” passed with overwhelming support in both houses, forcing a series of incredible changes, the biggest being a requirement that the U.S.P.S. fully fund 75 years worth of benefits for its employees.

The provision cost $5.5 billion per year and was unique among government agencies. “No one prefunds at more than 30%,” said Anthony Vegliante, the service’s executive vice president, at the time.

The bill also prevented the post office from offering “nonpostal services” as a way to compete financially. This barred it from establishing a postal banking service, but also nixed creative ideas like Internet cafes, copy services, notaries, even allowing postal workers to offer to wrap Christmas presents.

Coupled with the pre-funding benefit mandate and other pension changes, this paralyzed the post office financially, making it look ripe for reform.

By 2012, there were calls for the U.S.P.S. to eliminate 3,700 post offices (a first step toward eventually closing as many as 15,000) and 250 mail processing centers. [Senator Bernie] Sanders, along with other Senators with large rural constituencies like Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill, managed to change the bill and save a lot of the mail processing centers.

The Senate that year also cut the amount of required pre-funding for benefits and began refunding the U.S.P.S. for about $11 billion in overpayment for retirement costs.

A few years after that, in 2015, the Post Office Inspector General issued a blistering report about CBRE, the company that had served as sole real estate broker to the U.S.P.S. from 2011 on.

The report found that CBRE had been selling and/or leasing post office properties at below-market prices, often to clients of CBRE – a company chaired by Richard Blum, the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

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The coronavirus and the Trump administration

February 27, 2020

The failure of the Trump administration to prepare for an epidemic is greater than I thought, as indicated by this Jan. 31 article by Laurie Garrett in Foreign Policy magazine.

The epidemic control efforts unfolding today in China—including placing some 100 million citizens on lockdown, shutting down a national holiday, building enormous quarantine hospitals in days’ time, and ramping up 24-hour manufacturing of medical equipment—are indeed gargantuan.

It’s impossible to watch them without wondering, “What would we do? How would my government respond if this virus spread across my country?”

For the United States, the answers are especially worrying because the government has intentionally rendered itself incapable.

In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure.

In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion.

If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is—not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.  [snip]

In the spring of 2018, the White House pushed Congress to cut funding for Obama-era disease security programs, proposing to eliminate $252 million in previously committed resources for rebuilding health systems in Ebola-ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Under fire from both sides of the aisle, President Donald Trump dropped the proposal to eliminate Ebola funds a month later.  

But other White House efforts included reducing $15 billion in national health spending and cutting the global disease-fighting operational budgets of the CDC, NSC, DHS, and HHS. And the government’s $30 million Complex Crises Fund was eliminated.  

In May 2018, Trump ordered the NSC’s entire global health security unit shut down, calling for reassignment of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer and dissolution of his team inside the agency.  

The month before, then-White House National Security Advisor John Bolton pressured Ziemer’s DHS counterpart, Tom Bossert, to resign along with his team.  Neither the NSC nor DHS epidemic teams have been replaced.

The global health section of the CDC was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10.  [snip]

And though Congress has so far managed to block Trump administration plans to cut the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps by 40 percent, the disease-fighting cadres have steadily eroded as retiring officers go unreplaced.  [snip]

… State-level health leaders told me that they have been sharing information with one another and deciding how best to prepare their medical and public health workers without waiting for instructions from federal leadership. 

The most important federal program for  local medical worker and hospital epidemic training, however, will run out of money in May, as Congress has failed to vote on its funding.

The HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) is the bulwark between hospitals and health departments versus pandemic threats; last year HHS requested $2.58 billion, but Congress did not act.

Source: Foreign Policy.

The failure isn’t just Trump’s.  Congress has responsibility for oversight of the federal government.  The Democrats with their new majority in the House of Representatives could have prioritized investigating the functioning of governmental departments instead of impeachment.

For that matter, Republicans in the Senate and House could have exercised their oversight functions.  The Washington press corps could have investigated.  But if they had, would we the people have paid attention?  Or would we have found President Trump’s tweets more interesting?

But the main question now is not: Who is to blame?  It is: What do we—we Americans as a nation—do next?

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HHS chief can’t promise affordable vaccine

February 27, 2020

Alex Azar

Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a congressional hearing yesterday that he can’t promise an affordable coronavirus vaccine.

“We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price, because we need the private sector to invest, ” he said  “….. Price controls won’t get us there.”

Azar is a former drug industry executive and lobbyist.  When he was a senior executive and then CEO of Ely Lily, a leading pharmaceutical company, the price of insulin tripled.

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The coronavirus and the test of reality

February 26, 2020

Passengers disembark from virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship

Photo via New York Post.

The first duty of any government is to assure the survival of its people.  The COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus is a test of how well the world’s different governments can perform this basic duty, and they will be judged on how well they perform that duty.

It doesn’t matter whether leaders call themselves conservatives, socialists or something else.  Are they able to act effectively and without panic to meet a threat?  Are they able to face facts or do they punish truth tellers?

Here in the USA, our President and Congress have mainly been fighting over problems generated by governmental policy and a couple of things that don’t really exist—the alleged Trump-Putin collusion and the imaginary Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Now, along with the rest of the world, we face a real external threat—one that can’t be made to go away by means of public relations or changing the subject.

The Trump administration’s budget priorities are its nuclear weapons modernization program and the new Space Force.  In contrast, as Nicole Wetsman of The Verge reported—

The administration’s proposed 2021 budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) cuts $25 million from the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and $18 million from the Hospital Preparedness Program. The administration also asked for over $85 million in cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program.  [snip]

Housed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response is charged with responding to public health emergencies.  It also coordinates public health responses with local and international partners and manages the Strategic National Stockpile, which squirrels away critical medical supplies for use in emergencies.

The Hospital Preparedness Program aims to ready hospitals for emergency surges of patients, and it’s already under-equipped to handle situations like the ones currently seen in China.  Right now in the US, hospitals are already swamped by the flu and are counting their supplies of protective equipment.

Cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program would further hamstring the CDCs ability to do research on diseases like coronavirus and to gather the scientific information that lets it prepare for outbreaks like this one. [snip]

The 2021 budget request did ask for an additional $50 million for the CDC’s Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund.  That fund, which was established in fiscal year 2019, is currently being used in the ongoing coronavirus response.  That money, though, is activated only after a public health threat appears.

==The Verge.

The coronavirus has not yet reached our shores.  There is still time for the U.S. to rally.  There is still time for President Trump to assume leadership.  There is still time for Democrats in Congress and on the Presidential campaign trail to make an issue of this.  Will they?

It is not just an American issue, of course.  All the world’s leaders—Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and the rest—will be weighed in the same balance.

∞∞∞

The coronavirus threat makes two other things clear—the need for internationalism and the perils of globalization. Let me explain what I mean.

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Book note: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

February 26, 2020

When Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, he and his team declined to be briefed on the work of the government they were now in charge of.  This was unprecedented.

His appointees were also contemptuous and willfully ignorant of the work they supposedly supervised.

Michael Lewis, a well-known non-fiction author, took it on himself to get the briefings that Trump declined.  The result is his 2018 book, THE FIFTH RISK.

He showed the harm that Trump administration is doing.  We Americans are at risk of a hollowing out of governmental capability equivalent to the past few decades of hollowing out of manufacturing capability.

But the real interest in the book is his report of work and accomplishments of American public servants.  He shows what we are in danger of losing.  It is a shame, but not unusual, to not value what you have until you are in danger of losing it.

Lewis wrote chapters about the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce, all of which have priorities different from what I thought.

§§§

The Department of Energy, for example, is not devoted to energy in general.  It devotes about half of its $30 billion annual budget goes to maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  About $2 billion of that goes to tracking down the world’s missing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium before it falls into the wrong hands.

Another one-fourth of the DoE budget goes to cleaning up nuclear sites, including $3 billion a year for the ongoing mess at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was developed during World War Two.  The DoE runs 17 national physics research laboratories, such as Brookhaven, Fermi and Oak Ridge and also sponsors research on renewable energy.

Lewis asked John MacWillaims, the former “chief risk officer” for the DoE, to list the five top risks he worried about  The top risk was an accident with nuclear weapons.  Other risks involved North Korean nuclear weapons, the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons and accidents to the electrical grid.

The fifth risk, MacWilliams said, is what he called “program management”—or what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would have called “unknown unknowns.”  These are the risks you don’t know about because you never bothered to find out.

Donald Trump’s first budget eliminated the Department of Energy’s research program on renewable energy, and the largely successful $70 billion loan program for renewable energy startup companies.  It eliminated research on climate change.  It cut funding to national research laboratories so much that they had to lay off thousands of people.  It halved funding on work to protect the national electrical grid from sabotage or natural disaster.

“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost,” Lewis wrote. “There is an upside to ignorance and a downside to knowledge.  Knowledge makes life messier.”

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Maybe the shutdown is a goal, not a tactic

January 17, 2019

I criticized President Trump in a previous post for being willing to close down the government and possibly declaring a national emergency in order to get his way on building fences along the southern border.

But maybe I’ve got things backwards.  Maybe the goal is not to build more border fence, but to shut down the government and declare a national emergency.  This increases his power and frees him from constitutional checks and balances.

I’m not saying this is his plan.  I’m saying his actions are consistent with him having such a plan.

His administration has ordered tens of thousands of federal employees to work without pay, which from his point of view is an ideal situation.  It shifts the cost of the shutdown onto others and shelters him from the political consequences of his nation.

Right-wing plutocrats don’t care about government employees and they don’t care whether the government is well-administered or not.  They regard government regulations as a nuisance and government services as unnecessary.

If government fails to work under their watch, they can say that this just proves that government is a failure.

This also was the attitude of President George W. Bush to some extent.  One thing you can say for President Obama is that he appointed highly qualified people to top administrative positions, and that he was concerned that the government work.

Civil servants don’t advertise.  We the citizens don’t appreciate or even know all the ways we depend on them quietly doing their jobs.  We scorn public service at our peril.

LINKS

The Government Shutdown Is Bad, But It Could Get Much Worse by Bloomberg News.

A Shutdown for the 99 Percent, Concierge Government for the 1 Percent by Eoin Higgins for The Intercept.

Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.

Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming From the White House by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.

Who’s in charge of the U.S. government?

November 23, 2018

Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, defended President Obama against charges of being too supportive of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Obama, like all US presidents, was heavily constrained by our foreign policy establishment, but in the end he did provide Saudi Arabia with less support than any previous president—and the Saudis made no secret of their intense dislike of Obama over this.  

I think [Glenn] Greenwald underrates just how hard this is in real life, and how much credit Obama deserves for taking even baby steps against the virtually unanimous opposition of the entire US government.

Notice what Drum is saying here.  The elected President of the United States is one thing.  The unelected actual government of the United States is another.  The first can influence, but not control, the second.

I think this is all too true, like Senator Schumer’s warning to Donald Trump to not mess with the intelligence agencies.  What does this say about American democracy?

LINKS

Trump’s Amoral Saudi Statement is a Pure Expression of Decades-Old “U.S. Values” and Foreign Policy Orthodoxies by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

Donald Trump’s Statement on Saudi Arabia is a Lot Worse Than Just Removing a Mask by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Is Trump that much worse than his predecessors?

November 2, 2018

My big mistake during the 2016 election campaign was in under-estimating the harm that Donald Trump might do as President.

Donald Trump

I thought that it might do less harm, from the standpoint of progressive reform, for an incompetent authoritarian right-winger such as Trump to take office and take the blame for the coming financial crash, than for a Democrat to take office, fail and open the way for more capable, far-sighted right-wing authoritarian in 2020.

I thought that when my Democratic friends spoke of how Donald Trump was going to destroy American democracy, they failed to recognize how far we had already strayed from democracy.

This “normal” that you speak of: When was that, and where is it to be found?  The Benghazi hearings? The drone war and the secret “kill list” that included American citizens?  The birther controversy and the “death panels”?  Potential vice president Sarah Palin?  The Iraq war and the “unknown unknowns”?  The Lewinsky scandal and the “meaning of is”?

Source: Alternet

In many important bad ways, the Trump is a continuation of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.  He allows the drift toward military confrontation with Russia.  He continues the failing wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.  He continues to staff his cabinet and key departments from Wall Street, especially Goldman Sachs.  He has little or nothing to offer working people.

The new bad thing about Trump is his attack on what his former adviser Steve Bannon called the “administrative state.”  It’s true that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush talked as if government as such was the enemy, and made appointments without concern for their lack of qualification.  But the Trump administration has taken this to a new, much lower level.

Trump appointed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy.  During the 2016 primary campaign, Perry had the DoE in mind as one of three departments he wanted to abolish, but couldn’t remember its name.

The DoE among other things assembles the country’s nuclear weapons, oversees the safety of nuclear plants and nuclear waste dumps and trains foreign countries’ inspectors that verify nuclear disarmament.  The health and safety of Americans depends on the DoE functioning well.

When Trump took office, the DoE arranged a briefing on all its programs, just as it had done for Obama and George W. Bush.  But the Trump representative wanted just one thing—a list of all employees who had attended conferences on climate change (presumably to arrange a purge list).

Other major government departments are the same.  We Americans depend on their ability to function in ways we don’t think about (for example, the Department of Agriculture’s meat inspections) and often don’t even know.

The Trump administration has systematically downgraded the ability of government to function, except for the military and the covert action agencies.  It is also downgrading the government’s scientific and data collection functions, to eliminate sources of objective information that could be used against him.

The resulting failure of government will be used as an argument to abolish key public services or turn them over to profit-seeking businesses.

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What’s really wrong with Trump’s administration

September 13, 2018

Most of the coverage of President Donald Trump is based on his constant stream of tweets and social media comments, which enables him to dominate the news.

Most of the rest is based in developments of the Mueller Russiagate investigation, which may or may not turn out to be what it’s cracked up to be.

What’s out of the spotlight is reporting about the Trump administration’s actual deeds and policies.

Trump has continued American policy of attempting to dominate the world through military threats and economic sanctions, despite their evident failure.   During the 2016 campaign, I saw some possibility that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, would try to wind down American military interventions.  He was either lying or, what I think is more likely, unable to control the national security establishment—what some of us call the “deep state.”

Trump has continued American policy to risk nuclear confrontation with Russia and North Korea, which puts the whole world in danger.  The national security establishment has undermined his feeble and inept attempts to make peace.  But evidently he has frightened the North and South Korean governments into trying to make peace among themselves, which is a good thing.

Trump does not even pay lip service to trying to avert catastrophic global warming.  Instead his policy is to promote fossil fuels over renewable energy, which will speed up climate change.

Nuclear war and global warming are the main existential threats to the nation and the world.  Trump has failed to address the first and is actively preventing action against the second.

Trump during the campaign promised to do something about the offshoring of American jobs, which is a real problem that the other candidates ignored.  But his threats and tariffs will not help because U.S. industry has become too entangled in international supply chains to free itself overnight.   What’s needed is a long-range industrial policy that will rebuild American industry, which neither party has so far attempted.

Trump during the campaign promised to reform immigration, which is another real issue other candidates ignored.  The cruel treatment of asylum seekers and long-time foreign residents is shameful and does not change the overall situation.  I think there is something to be said for a merit-based immigration system, but I admit I don’t have a complete answer to the immigration question.  But neither does Trump.

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The deep state strikes back

September 12, 2018

Image via PJ Media

An anonymous writer wrote an article for the New York Times claiming to be working within the Trump administration to save the American people from the President’s worst excesses.

But those excesses do not include the destruction of protections of health and the environment, tax laws that redistribute income upward or expansion of the already-bloated military budget.

No, the writer regards “effective deregulation, historic tax reform and a more robust military” as “bright spots”.

The threat he and his friends are saving us from is the possibility of peace negotiations with Russia and North Korea.   The national security team supposedly knows better than the elected President.

In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.  He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior.  But his national security team knew better — such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.

This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.

President Trump reportedly is enraged at the letter writer’s disloyalty in going public with his letter.  What he should be enraged at is the mutiny within his administration that this letter apparently reveals.

There are two issues here.  One is the merit of Trump’s admittedly clumsy and poorly thought out attempts to reduce the threat of nuclear war with Russia and North Korea.  I happen to think this is a step in the right direction, but you may disagree.

The other is the Constitutional question of the authority of the President to determine American foreign policy, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

Lawyers say that hard cases make bad law.  I personally think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally and morally unfit to be President, so it is tempting to side with anybody who thwarts his will.

But what’s happening now is a precedent for future administrations.  Allow the national security establishment to set itself up as an un-elected fourth branch of government now, and that’s how it will be from now on, no matter who is in office.

LINKS

I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration by Anonymous for The New York Times.

We’re Watching an Anti-Democratic Coup Unfold by David A. Graham for The Atlantic.

Anonymous Op-Ed From Trump’s White House Shows Danger of Imperial Presidency by Jon Schwartz for The Intercept.

The Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed and the Trumpian Corruption of Language and the Media by Masha Gessen for The New Yorker.

BS jobs, sh*t jobs and moral envy

May 25, 2018
  • Huge swaths of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.
  • It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working.
  • The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.  It is a scar across our collective soul.  Yet noone talks about it.
  • How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? 
  • David Graeber: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013)

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, describes the frustrations of people doing jobs that they know are useless or even harmful, because the meaningful jobs are either unavailable or low-paid.

He said that forcing people to engage on tedious activities that serve no useful purpose, or, worse still, pretending to work when they actually aren’t, constitutes a kind of spiritual violence.

Not all useless or harmful jobs are BS jobs. Graeber defines a BS job as one you know is useless, but you have to pretend is necessary.

I think many of the people who invent BS jobs, or invent useless tasks for the useful workers, are under the impression they are making a positive contribution.  Graeber said his strongest critics are business owners who deny the possibility that they could be paying anybody to do anything useless.

A certain number of people think the world is divided into predators and prey, and pride themselves on being successful predators.  An example would be the bankers and financiers who, prior to the 2008 financial crash, made subprime mortgage loans to suckers who could never pay them off, then collateralized the mortgages and sold them to other suckers.

What all these jobs—hedge fund managers, telemarketers, diversity consultants, receptionists who never get phone calls, consultants whose advice is never heeded, supervisors with nothing to supervise—is that, if they went on strike, nobody would notice.

What Graeber calls the sh•t jobs are just the opposite.  Food service workers, health care workers, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners—all these workers labor under worse conditions and for lower pay than in BS jobs, and, contrary to reason and justice, they get less respect.

Coincidentally or not, the sh•t jobs are disproportionately done by black people, Hispanics and immigrants.

∞∞∞

Graeber said many of us have come to accept the idea that work consists of following somebody’s order to do something we dislike.  It follows, then, that if you want good pay, job security and benefits, you are lacking in moral character.  He calls this rights scolding.

It takes two forms.  Among right-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that working people in the time of Charles Dickens didn’t have, you are a fragile snowflake.  Among left-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that the most oppressed person alive today has, you are told to check your privilege.

It also follows that people whose jobs are fulfilling, such as school teachers, are not really working.  The idea is: You get to do work that is pleasurable, useful and respected.  How dare you want good pay and job security in addition?  Graeber calls this moral envy.

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Managerial feudalism and BS jobs

May 23, 2018

BULLSHIT JOB: A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee fells obliged to pretend that this is not the issue.  [David Graeber]

∞∞∞

Huge numbers of people work in jobs that they themselves think are completely unnecessary.  Many of them would prefer to do something useful, but useful jobs on average pay less.  Sometimes they quit and take a lower-paying useful job anyway.

Some five years ago, David Graeber, an American who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote an essay for an obscure left-wing magazine called Strike!, about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

The article struck a nerve.  It got more than a million hits on the Internet, crashed the Strike! web site several times and was translated into more than 10 languages.

A YouGov poll soon after found that 37 percent of full-time employees in the United Kingdom thought their work made no meaningful contribution to the world.  A survey in the Netherlands put the number as high as 40 percent.  I imagine a survey in the United States would be much different.

Graeber himself communicated with hundreds of unhappy, useless employees via e-mail.

The result is his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory.

He learned about a museum guard whose job was to report if a certain empty room ever caught on fire; a military sub-contractor who drove more than a hundred miles in order to give a German soldier permission to move a piece of equipment from one room to another; a receptionist who, to fill her time, was tasked with jobs such as sorting paperclips by color.

But most of his reports are about people who worked in offices—making studies that were never read, making proposals that were never acted on or not doing anything at all, but doing their best to look busy.

How can there be so many admittedly useless jobs?  We live in a time of austerity and layoffs.  Full-time jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs.  That is true of government as well as the private sector.

One thing that free-enterprise advocates and Marxists agree on is that competitive capitalism produces economic efficiency.  Free-marketers think everybody benefits and Marxists think that only the capitalists benefit, but they agree on the drive of business to maximize profit.

Maybe this is wrong.  Maybe competitive capitalism is a myth.  Maybe we live under what Graeber calls managerial feudalism.

Back in the days before the French Revolution, the peasants, who were the main producers of wealth, paid so much in taxes and rent they could barely live.  They supported an aristocracy, who, in turn, supported an economic class of coachmen, door keepers, lace makers, dancing masters, gardeners and the like, who were generally better paid than the peasants.

Just like the aristocrats of old, the prestige of managers in organizations is based on the number of people they have working for them.  Prestige is not based on whether they are useful or not.  In fact, employees whose work is essential are a threat.  They have the power to quit or go on strike or to unexpectedly reveal they know more than the boss.

So the incentive is to diminish the role and power of those who do necessary work while inventing new jobs whose existence depends on the discretion of the job creators.

A large number of new jobs are administrative staff.  They are different from administrators who make actual decisions.  Their job is collect quantitative information about the work of the useful employees on the principle that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

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Trump didn’t plan on being elected President

January 5, 2018

Neither Donald Trump nor his key supporters expected him to be elected President, according to Michael Wolff, author of a new book about the Trump administration.   They expected to lose and were unprepared to actually govern.  This would explain a lot.

Wolff was granted free access to the Trump White House—a fact that in itself shows the administration was in disarray—and has published a book, Fire and Fury: Inside Trump’s White House, which came out today.  The following is from an excerpt published in the current issue of New York magazine—

The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their worldview one whit.  Almost everybody on the Trump team, in fact, came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president once he was in office.  Michael Flynn, the retired general who served as Trump’s opening act at campaign rallies, had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech.  “Well, it would only be a problem if we won,” ­Flynn assured them.

Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his own business deals and real-estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns.  Why should he?  Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary.  His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities.  Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement.  Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star.  Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching.  Losing would work out for everybody.  Losing was winning.

I suspected something like that myself.  It explained Trump’s reluctance to spend his own money on his campaign.  It explained why Trump was willing to say whatever crossed his mind, regardless of the repercussions—which was part of his appeal.

Trump’s facial expression during the Inauguration was stormy and angry.  His face was not the face of someone enjoying a triumph.  But, according to Wolff, all this quickly changed.  Trump now is fully confident of his ability to be an effective President.

Another striking thing about Wolff’s account is that none of the top people in the Trump administration, except for his sons, daughter and son-in-law, manifest any personal loyalty to Trump himself.  This does not bode well for Trump in dealing with the Mueller investigation.

Wolff’s report should be read with skepticism.  His article is full of direct quotations of conversations he was not in a position to hear.  It is a mixture of first-hand, second-hand and possibly third- and fourth-hand information.

The reader must judge how much is known fact and how much is gossip.  For me, Wolff’s account is plausible and, as I said, it would explain a lot.

LINKS

Trump Didn’t Want to Be President by Michael Wolff for New York magazine.

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How the Trump administration governs

November 24, 2017

Source: Real News Network.  Click to enlarge.

If you are a president or governor who believes that government doesn’t work, you staff your administration with people who don’t want government to work, and your belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   This didn’t begin with Donald Trump and won’t end with Donald Trump.

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How long can they put their heads in the sand?

November 12, 2017

Double click to enlarge

Source: Real News Network.

“Reality,” according to the SF writer Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

“You can ignore reality,” the philosopher Ayn Rand reportedly said, “but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

How long can members of the Trump administration ignore the reality of climate change?

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The Trump administration vs. rural Americans

November 8, 2017

Rural America is Trump country.   The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the federal department that does the most to help rural Americans.    A writer in Vanity Fair magazine reported on how the Trump administration is gutting the USDA, and will probably get away with it, because most Americans don’t know what the USDA does.

When I think of the USDA, I think of the Agricultural Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service, which help and encourage to adopt best practices, and its crop subsidy programs, which, unfortunately, mainly benefit big agri-business corporations.

The fact is, as the Vanity Fair writer pointed out, that 70 percent of the USDA budget goes to programs to relieve hunger—food stamps, subsidies for school lunches, a program to assure proper nutrition to new mothers and infants and a dozen or so smaller programs.

The USDA conducts scientific research into food security, nutrition, food safety and plant-based fuel.   All these require taking global warming into account, which is unacceptable to the Trump appointees.

Other examples of the USDA’s many functions are inspection of meat animals and fighting forest fires.

The program of most benefit to ordinary people in rural communities are grants and loans for rural development, helping start-up businesses and local government projects that otherwise wouldn’t get started.

The political problem is the contradiction between rural America’s culture of self-reliance and fact of dependence on government.   This contradiction is resolved by hiding the source of funding.   Most people who benefit from USDA grants and loans are told that the help is coming from the local government or bank.   So when the grants and loans dry up, they won’t know why.

LINK

Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.

It’s an ill hurricane that blows nobody good

October 30, 2017

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has canceled its outrageous no-bid $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings, which, among other things, forbid federal and Puerto Rican authorities to audit its labor costs and profit and had no penalties for failure to meet project deadlines.

But questions remain: Why was the contract granted in the first place?  And what is PREPA going to do next to restore power?

The whole thing reminds me of the contracts for reconstruction of Iraq.   After the invasion, American and other foreign companies were given lucrative, no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq’s electrical systems, other public utilities and physical infrastructure.   Well-qualified Iraqi companies and workers were cut out of the process.

The result was that a lot of government contractors made a lot of money and very little reconstruction took place.   I can see the same thing happening with Puerto Rico—maybe a little less brazenly than in this case.

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Orwell, Trump and the definition of fascism

October 17, 2017

Back in 1944, George Orwell, my literary hero, worried about the misuse of language, including misuse of the word “fascism”.

As used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.  In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print.  I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

George Orwell

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning.  To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic.

Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others.

Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it.  By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.

Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.  That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

Source: George Orwell: What is Fascism? (1944)

I worry about the misuse of language, too.  During the 2016 election campaign, I fretted about calling Donald Trump a fascist.

This was because Trump’s movement lacked key elements of Mussolini’s fascism—a totalitarian ideology, a private militia, a parallel governing structure outside the official governmental chain of command.

My fear was that a real fascist movement will come along, perhaps something like the old Ku Klux Klan, and the word “fascist” will have lost its sting.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is certainly cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working class, as well as being a bully, and these things shouldn’t be accepted as normal.

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Can Trump be removed via the 25th Amendment?

September 26, 2017

The Constitution provides another way besides impeachment to get rid of a sitting President.   This is a determination by the Cabinet and Congress under the 25th Amendment that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

I wrote a number of times during the election campaign that I do not think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally or morally fit to be President of the United States.

His behavior is growing more erratic by the day.   Could this be this grounds for removing him, as the officers of the Caine removed Captain Queeg in the novel and movie The Caine Mutiny?

The process allows a President to declare himself unable to discharge his office and to delegate his power to his Vice President.   It also allows the Vice President, with the support of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to serve.

I think the kind of situation they had in mind was President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955 and his stroke in 1957.

Normally the President would resume the duties of his office when he declared himself able to do so.

But the Vice President and Cabinet could ask Congress to overrule him.

Congress would have 21 days to bar the President from resuming his powers.

This would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a superb article on the subject—The Madness of Donald Trump.

It covered both how deranged President Trump seems to be now and the legal obstacles to applying the 25th Amendment to overthrow him.

In fact, the procedure specifically can’t be about politics.  John Feerick, a Fordham law professor who helped work on the original bill with senators such as Indiana’s Birch Bayh and authored a book titled The 25th Amendment, goes out of his way to point out the many things that do not qualify as “inability” under this law.  The list reads like Trump’s résumé.

The debates in Congress about the amendment, Feerick writes, make clear that “inability” does not cover “policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness or impeachable conduct.”  When asked about the possibility of invoking the amendment today, Feerick is wary.  “It’s a very high bar that has to be satisfied,” he says. “You’re dealing with a president elected for four years.”


Source: Matt Taibbi  – Rolling Stone

Even if deemed unable to serve, Trump would still be President.   No doubt he would have many choice words about how Vice-President Mike Pence administered the office.

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