U.S. Government & governance 2017

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Eight Political Scientists Who Will Make Sense of 2017
Presidential memoranda vs. executive orders. What’s the difference?
What Trump Can and Can’t Do to Dismantle Obama’s Climate Rules
Stephen’s LIVE Monologue: Trump Lays Out His Vision For Moving Forward
Gilbert and Sullivan Explain Trump Lies.

The Trump Enigma
US President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming cabinet now includes retired generals, plutocrats, and people who would abolish the very departments they will lead. But it is still unclear how Trump will actually govern, which has become a source of growing anxiety for the rest of the world.
(Project Syndicate) John Andrews asks whether Carl Bildt, Joschka Fischer, Ana Palacio, and other Project Syndicate commentators are right to be so uneasy about the incoming US administration.
(16 December 2016)

Ross Douthat: The Trump Matrix
(NYT Opinion)  What we can do, for now, is set up a matrix to help assess the Trump era as it proceeds, in which each appointment and policy move gets plotted along two axes. The first axis, the X-axis, represents possibilities for Trumpist policy, the second, the Y-axis, scenarios for Trump’s approach to governance.
The policy axis runs from full populism at one end to predictable conservative orthodoxy on the other. (28 December 2016)

It would take two things to impeach Donald Trump, and right now his critics have neither
(Quartz) Democrats know two big things need to happen before they can even get close to booting Trump out of office:
Someone in the House of Representatives needs to actually charge him with something.
They need to convince a load of Republicans to vote to take him down. (7 February 2017)

Paul Krugman: The Scammers, the Scammed and America’s Fate
(NYT) we should be asking ourselves how the people running our government came to wield such power. How, in particular, did a man whose fraudulence, lack of concern for those he claims to care about and lack of policy coherence should have been obvious to everyone nonetheless manage to win over so many gullible souls?
No, this isn’t a column about whatshisname, the guy on Twitter, who’s getting plenty of attention. It’s about Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House.
I’m writing this column without knowing the legislative fate of the American Health Care Act, Mr. Ryan’s proposed Obamacare replacement. Whatever happens in the House and the Senate, however, there’s no question that the A.H.C.A. is one of the worst bills ever presented to Congress.

15 March
Wherever Trump goes, his gang of aides stays close by
Preoccupied with proximity, the president’s senior staff have developed an unusual habit of crowding into meetings and joining trips.
(Politico) In Trump’s White House, many of his top aides have overlapping interests and roles. And because the president doesn’t like to read policy papers or use the Internet, he is more focused on advice and information delivered to him verbally — putting even greater importance on proximity.
7 March
Wiretap Claim Thrusts Nominee for No. 2 Spot in Justice Department in Spotlight
Confirmation hearing could turn into a free-for-all as senators prepare pointed questions
(WSJ) The respected career prosecutor who has been nominated for the No. 2 position at the Justice Department takes center stage Tuesday in a drama that has so far seen the Russians accused of interfering in the U.S. election, cost the national security adviser his job, forced the attorney general to take a step back from his duties and the president himself claim that his predecessor authorized surveillance on his campaign.
Mr. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney in Maryland, faces a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, a session that had long been expected to be a smooth and stabilizing event for the department. Now, the hearing is likely to turn into a free-for-all over the investigation into Russia’s ties to President Donald Trump’s associates and the president’s new wiretap claim.
6 March
Transportation secretary admits that infrastructure plan is to make you pay tolls to corporations
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao was on Sean Hannity’s news-gameshow and you could really see that Ms. Chao is not the seasoned scam-artist when it comes to articulating a hussle. After saying how we needed to come up with “new and innovative ways” to revamp our country’s infrastructure, Chao started falling all over herself.
“So, basically, we allow foreign inv—uh, we allow different kinds of money, private sector money to come into the United States—I’m not saying foreign—to come and fund, let’s say a bridge or a road or it can be any kind of infrastructure. ”
President Donald Trump is the most powerful cornered animal in the world
By Lawrence Douglas
Trump lashes out by creating a chaos of conflicting claims to distract attention away from real allegations. It is all too effective
(The Guardian) Now once again, he seeks to buoy his political fortunes by attacking Obama. Perhaps what is so striking about the tweets is not their desperation, but their cynicism. In exclaiming “This is McCarthyism!”, Trump said something deeply revealing – only about himself. McCarthyism was never in the first instance about wiretapping. It was about defaming public officials with charges of treason without a shred of evidence.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee was undoubtedly correct when she observed that “if this [the wiretapping] happened … we have … seen … a huge attack on democracy itself.” But if it didn’t, we have witnessed an attack on democracy no less ominous. It is an attack at once concerted and ongoing. (emphasis added)
Trump’s Wiretapping Claims Puncture Veneer of Presidential Civility
(NYT) Mr. Trump’s team has been angered by the criticism but even more by what they see as the enemy within. With so few of his own political appointees in place, much of the government is still operating with acting officials, some held over from the Obama administration. Moreover, the federal Civil Service, while officially neutral politically, is not dominated by Trump supporters, judging by vote results in Washington and its suburbs.
So when Mark Levin, the conservative radio host, contended that Mr. Obama had targeted Mr. Trump for surveillance in what he called a “silent coup,” an assertion picked up by Breitbart News, the former website of the White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, it struck a chord.
3 March
Trump aides’ bid to plug leaks creates unease among some civil servants
(Reuters) President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin used his first senior staff meeting last month to tell his new aides he would not tolerate leaks to the news media, three sources familiar with the matter said.
Current and former officials said that in a departure from past practice, access to a classified computer system at the White House has been tightened by political appointees to prevent some professional staffers from seeing memos being prepared for the new president.
And at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), some officials told Reuters they believe a search is under way for the leaker of a draft intelligence report which found little evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries covered by Trump’s now-suspended travel ban pose a threat to the United States.
Washington career civil servants say the clampdown appears designed to try to limit the flow of information inside and outside government agencies charged with foreign policy and national security and to deter officials from talking to the media about topics that could result in negative stories.
2 March
Sarah Kendzior: Trump played nice for a night—a technique straight out of the autocrat’s playbook
(Quartz) Dutifully reading off a teleprompter, Trump made promises—like greater rights for women and clean air and water—that are countered by his actual policies. He explained that he would combat crises, like a soaring murder rate, that do not actually exist. He framed the scapegoating of immigrants as a palliative to job loss and crime, shamelessly using people who have lost loved ones as human props. For the first time since taking office, Trump addressed, for a mere minute, the wave of hate crimes that began when he launched his campaign. He spoke calmly and competently and was therefore praised by pundits like Van Jones, Wolf Biltzer, Anderson Cooper, and Chris Wallace.
And yet, it is possible that by the time you read this Trump will have delivered another unconstitutional executive order, or criticized (once again) the media who have set the bar so low that they run the risk of tripping on it. Perhaps another mosque will be burned or a Jewish community center threatened. Actions speak louder than words, and Trump’s speech is ultimately just another embarrassing exhibit in how wishful thinking will keep this burgeoning American autocracy afloat.
Gail Collins: The Three Donald Trumps Speak
The key to understanding our president is to realize there are three versions. Unscripted Trump is the one who obsesses about crowd size and expresses complete astonishment that constructing a national health care plan is hard. That’s the one we worry will start a nuclear war.
The second version is Reasonable Chatting Trump. R.C.T. is the one who had pre-speech gatherings with journalists in which he mused about passing immigration law reform and making the Dreamers legal. Everyone was very excited until it became clear this had no relation to anything he was actually planning to say in public.
Version 3? … the guy with the teleprompter. We will call him Somewhat Normal Republican Trump, or SNORT.
President Trump Changes His Tone, if Not His Tune
1 March
Jeffrey D. Sachs: The Three Trumps
[N]o one should ever underestimate a demagogue’s willingness to use fear and violence – even war – to maintain power. And if Putin is indeed his backer and partner, Trump’s temptations will be strong.
(Project Syndicate) Another theory is that all three Trumps – friend of Putin, wealth maximizer, and demagogue – are really one: Trump the businessman has long been supported by the Russians, who have used him for years as a front for laundered money. One might say they won the jackpot, parlaying a small bet – on manipulating the outcome of an election they most likely never expected him to win – into a huge payoff. On this interpretation, Trump’s attacks on the press, the intelligence agencies, and the FBI specifically, aim to discredit these organizations in advance of further revelations regarding the Trump-Russia dealings. …
His approval ratings are historically low for a new president, around 40%, with roughly 55% of respondents disapproving. Judicial challenges to executive actions, fights with the media, tensions stemming from rising budget deficits, and new revelations regarding Trump and Russia, will keep the pot boiling – and Trump’s public support could evaporate.
28 February
Trump’s Address To Joint Session Of Congress, Annotated
(NPR) President Trump gave an address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, outlining his vision for America. “We are one people, with one destiny,” Trump said, offering a markedly different tone than his inaugural address, which described a country in crisis.
He touted his executive actions, called again for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare and reiterated his position on immigration and national security.
Democratic Response To Trump’s Address To Congress, Annotated
Following President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, the Democratic Party gave its response. Party leaders chose former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to do the honors this year.
Beshear, who left office in 2015, has a record of expanding access to affordable health care, lowering his state’s uninsured rate from more than 20 percent to 7.5 percent.
Dripping with sarcasm
Richard Wolffe: Donald Trump’s Congress speech was a heroic effort in contradiction and cliché
The president’s first address to Congress was full of inconsistency when compared to his words and deeds in the White House
(The Guardian) He described a world in which dead factories would come back to life, drug addiction would end, inner cities would spring into prosperity, and the nation would be paved with gleaming new roads. Seriously, they are going to gleam because of this promise: “Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.” … Few of his critics understand what Trump so eloquently described as the way “each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present”. Trump’s loving care and attention to truth, liberty and justice shone throughout his lengthy explanation of his approach to immigration.
How the US press reacted to Trump’s Congress speech
Presidential address viewed as more upbeat than inauguration speech but for some little of what he said was new
27 February
Trump and Rep elephant New YorkerGeorge Packer: Holding Trump Accountable
After a month in office, he has already proved himself unable to discharge his duties. But the only people with real leverage over him won’t use it.
An authoritarian and erratic leader, a chaotic Presidency, a supine legislature, a resistant permanent bureaucracy, street demonstrations, fear abroad: this is what illiberal regimes look like. If Trump were more rational and more competent, he might have a chance of destroying our democracy.
(The New Yorker) Republican leaders … need Trump to pass their agenda of rewriting the tax code in favor of the rich and of gutting regulations that protect the public and the planet—an agenda that a majority of Americans never supported—so they are looking the other way. Even the prospect of Russian influence over our elections and our government leaves these American patriots unmoved. Senator John Cornyn, of Texas, the Republican whip, made it plain: Trump can go on being Trump “as long as we’re able to get things done.” Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, explained, “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.”
25 February
Christopher Caldwell: What Does Steve Bannon Want?
(NYT) He is a newcomer to political power and, in fact, relatively new to an interest in politics. He is willing to break with authority. While he does not embrace any of the discredited ideologies of the last century, he is attached to a theory of history’s cycles that is, to put it politely, untested. Most ominously, he is an intellectual in politics excited by grand theories — a combination that has produced unpredictable results before.
17 February
Trump must banish Bannon — or his presidency is doomed
(WaPost) Harward’s decision reflects how far the president and this administration have fallen in the eyes of esteemed national security experts, including current and former officials. The White House is without an experienced chief of staff or normal internal decision-making procedures. Stephen K. Bannon got himself inserted into the National Security Council’s principals meeting; Trump plans to bring on a crony, Stephen A. Feinberg, to “review” the intelligence operation. The president is in the middle of a crisis of his and Bannon’s making. …
Sooner rather than later, we hope that for the country’s sake, Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump (or someone else Trump will listen to) will lay it out bluntly: He can have Bannon running roughshod over the administration, or he can be a successful president; he cannot have both.
Trump’s team in disarray, U.S. Senator McCain tells Europe
(Reuters) Republican Senator John McCain broke with the reassuring message that U.S. officials visiting Germany have sought to convey on their debut trip to Europe, saying on Friday that the administration of President Donald Trump was in “disarray”.
McCain, a known Trump critic, told the Munich Security Conference that the resignation of the new president’s security adviser Michael Flynn over his contacts with Russia reflected deep problems in Washington.
Who Is Sebastian Gorka? A Primer on the Trump Adviser
(NYT) Since President Trump appointed Sebastian Gorka last month as a deputy assistant, Mr. Gorka has been an increasingly visible defender of the administration.
He has spoken out in favor of the targeted travel ban, which spurred mass protests and was then blocked by federal courts. He suggested in a recent interview with The Hill that the CNN anchor Jake Tapper was sexist for aggressively questioning the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. He has also insisted that media reports of turmoil in the White House bear “almost no resemblance to reality.”
Mr. Gorka came out swinging again on Thursday, after Mr. Trump’s contentious news conference in which he excoriated the media. Asked by Evan Davis of the BBC to assess Mr. Trump’s appearance, Mr. Gorka repeatedly declared the president’s performance “fabulous.” … Mr. Gorka, 46, is a former editor for the far-right media outlet Breitbart News and a friend of Stephen Bannon
13 February
The only way to get into America is through this 60,000 strong, pro-Trump armed force
(Quartz) As part of the US Department of Homeland Security’s largest law enforcement body, the 60,000 employees of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are tasked with policing the migration of goods and people in and out of the country, with two-thirds of them manning border crossings, airports, and ports. The agency is part of the executive branch of government, which means it answers to the White House—and is subject to the same checks and balances, from the legislative and judiciary branches, as the administration.
But in the wake of Trump’s attempted policy change on immigration, CBP officers refused to comply with a Brooklyn court order, issued hours after the president’s executive action, that temporarily blocked travelers nationwide from being deported. They also ignored demands from other federal judges that the CBP let travelers see lawyers.
As concerns swirl over the Trump administration’s unorthodox approach to everything from crafting executive policy to governing with conflicts of interest, the CBP’s actions in the days after Trump’s executive order have drawn heavy scrutiny. Several Democratic congressmen have called for an investigation into the president’s instructions to the CBP, warning that the US could become a “military junta” if the system of checks and balances breaks down.
… “In my opinion and observation, there has always been a ‘rogue’ element of CBP who is rabidly anti-immigrant,” said Jennifer Minear, an immigration lawyer in Richmond, Virginia. While most agents do not, a small minority of CBP agents viewed the job as “an opportunity to exclude as many foreigners as possible in what they must see as a mission to protect Americans from immigrants,” she said. The rhetoric and recent action of the Trump administration “have emboldened that anti-immigrant element and, I believe, sent the message that they may feel free to exercise their discretion in as discriminatory a manner as they choose without fear of reprisal,” Minear said.
Paul Krugman: Ignorance Is Strength
What we’ve seen … over the past three weeks is an awesome display of raw ignorance on every front. Worse, there’s no hint that either the White House or its allies in Congress see this as a problem. They appear to believe that expertise, or even basic familiarity with a subject, is for wimps; ignorance is strength.
We see this on legal matters: In a widely quoted analysis, the legal expert Benjamin Wittes described the infamous executive order on refugees as “malevolence tempered by incompetence,” and noted that the order reads “as if it was not reviewed by competent counsel at all” — which is a good way to lose in court.
We see it on education, where the hearings for Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, revealed her to be completely ignorant about even the most elementary issues.
We see it on diplomacy. How hard is it to ask someone from the State Department to make sure that the White House gets foreign leaders’ names right? Too hard, apparently: Before the Abe flub, the official agenda for the state visit by Theresa May, the British prime minister, repeatedly misspelled her name.
And on economics — well, there’s nobody home. The Council of Economic Advisers, which is supposed to provide technical expertise, has been demoted from cabinet rank, but that hardly matters, since nobody has been nominated to serve. Remember all that talk about a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan? If you do, please remind the White House, which hasn’t offered even a ghost of a concrete proposal.
In some ways this cluelessness may be a good thing: malevolence may indeed be tempered by incompetence. It’s not just the court defeat over immigration; Republican ignorance has turned what was supposed to be a blitzkrieg against Obamacare into a quagmire, to the great benefit of millions. And Mr. Trump’s imploding job approval might help slow the march to autocracy.
But meanwhile, who’s in charge? Crises happen, and we have an intellectual vacuum at the top. Be afraid, be very afraid.

11 February
‘A Sense of Dread’ for Civil Servants Shaken by Trump Transition
Across the vast federal bureaucracy, Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the White House has spread anxiety, frustration, fear and resistance among many of the two million nonpolitical civil servants who say they work for the public, not a particular president.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, a group of scientists strategized this past week about how to slow-walk President Trump’s environmental orders without being fired.
At the Treasury Department, civil servants are quietly gathering information about whistle-blower protections as they polish their résumés
State G.O.P. Leaders Move Swiftly as Party Bickers in Congress
Republicans have top-to-bottom control in 25 states now, holding both the governorship and the entire legislature, and Republican lawmakers are acting with lightning speed to enact longstanding conservative priorities.
In states from New England to the Midwest and across the South, conservative lawmakers have introduced or enacted legislation to erode union powers and abortion rights, loosen gun regulations, expand school-choice programs and slash taxes and spending.
10 February
Who’ll get fired first?

8 February
steve_bannon_cover_time“President Bannon,” explained
A narrative about who’s really in charge of the Trump administration is forming.
(Vox) On Monday morning, President Donald Trump decided that there was an urgent matter he needed to clear up for the public. “I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it,” he tweeted. “Some FAKE NEWS media, in order to marginalize, lies!”
It may seem odd that the president of the United States would feel compelled to remind the country that he is actually in charge. But over the past week and a half of Trump’s young presidency, a narrative has been gaining steam in the media and among political observers that it is not Trump but in fact White House chief strategist Steve Bannon who is actually running the show.
In the wake of the chaos following Trump’s order banning entry into the US from nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries — and in the wake of reports that Bannon was the chief architect of the policy — the hashtag #PresidentBannon began to spread on Twitter, and images of Bannon as a puppet master pulling Trump’s strings became commonplace. A Saturday Night Live skit concluded an Oval Office session with its version of Bannon asking Trump for the president’s desk back, and Alec Baldwin as Trump responding, “Yes, of course, Mr. President.”
Perhaps most prominently, Time magazine put Bannon on a striking cover and dubbed him “The Great Manipulator.” Just whom he might be manipulating was left unstated.
Trevor Noah: Steve Bannon is the ‘real president’

2 February
One Nation Under God: Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. this morning. Though he did take a moment to pray for better ratings for The Apprenticea characteristic move that prompted speculation of a publicity stunt—the main thrust of his speech was to present a vision of religious nationalism, describing the U.S. as a nation strengthened by Christian values and under attack by Islamic extremism. Such threats are a defining theme of Trump’s rhetoric, and they’re one way he might redefine American exceptionalism—by making the measure of America’s greatness its success in keeping people out.

31 January
David Frum: How to Build an Autocracy
(The Atlantic Magazine March issue) The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
“A president determined to thwart the law to protect himself and those in his circle has many means to do so.”
29 January
A Clarifying Moment in American History
There should be nothing surprising about what Donald Trump has done in his first week—but he has underestimated the resilience of Americans and their institutions.
By Eliot A. Cohen, Director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
(The Atlantic) … friends who urged us to tone it down, to make our peace with him, to stop saying as loudly as we could “this is abnormal,” to accommodate him, to show loyalty to the Republican Party, to think that he and his advisers could be tamed, were wrong. In an epic week beginning with a dark and divisive inaugural speech, extraordinary attacks on a free press, a visit to the CIA that dishonored a monument to anonymous heroes who paid the ultimate price, and now an attempt to ban selected groups of Muslims (including interpreters who served with our forces in Iraq and those with green cards, though not those from countries with Trump hotels, or from really indispensable states like Saudi Arabia), he has lived down to expectations.
Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.
Bannon Is Given Security Role Usually Held for Generals
(NYT) [I]n terms of real influence, Mr. Bannon looms above almost everyone except the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in the Trumpian pecking order, according to interviews with two dozen Trump insiders and current and former national security officials. The move involving Mr. Bannon, as well as the boost in status to the White House homeland security adviser, Thomas P. Bossert, and Mr. Trump’s relationships with cabinet appointees like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have essentially layered over Mr. Flynn. … Mr. Flynn, a lifelong Democrat sacked as head of the Pentagon’s intelligence arm after clashing with Obama administration officials in 2014, has gotten on the nerves of Mr. Trump and other administration officials because of his sometimes overbearing demeanor, and has further diminished his internal standing by presiding over a chaotic and opaque N.S.C. transition process that prioritized the hiring of military officials over civilian experts recommended to him by his own team.
Steve Bannon Is Making Sure There’s No White House Paper Trail, Says Intel Source
(Foreign Policy) The Trump administration’s chief strategist has already taken control of both policy and process on national security.

27 January
Trump’s Fevered Executive Orders Leave Capitol Hill in Chaos
Drawn up without consulting his Cabinet or legal experts, a number of the president’s first executive actions could be headed for failure.
(Vanity Fair) While President Barack Obama’s administration adopted a meticulous, weeks-long approach to drafting and issuing executive orders—thoroughly vetting any actions with affected agencies, lawmakers, and legal experts—the nascent Trump administration has been churning out initiatives at full tilt and, largely, without proper review. “He was determined to show people that he’s getting to work from Day One,” one person familiar with Trump’s strategy told Politico, adding that he was intent on signaling to his supporters—and critics—that Obama’s time in office was unequivocally over. But Trump’s aggressive pace in his first days as president could backfire. “If you don’t run these kinds of initiatives through the affected agencies, you’re going to get something wrong,” David Vladeck, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former official at the Federal Trade Commission, told Politico. “A government by edict is not a sustainable idea.”
More from Daily Kos Ex-Breitbart Alt-Nazi promoter Steve Bannon is author of Trump’s executive orders
Two of Donald Trump’s senior advisors — neither of whom has any previous government or legal experience — have reportedly been writing executive orders without any input from the agencies they would affect.
Aides told Politico that Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and Stephen Miller, the senior White House advisor for policy, have made almost no effort to consult with federal agency lawyers or lawmakers as they wrote executive orders.

26 January
From the Survival Condo Project, a fifteen-story luxury apartment complex built in an underground Atlas missile silo to a New Zealand luxury community with three thousand acres of dunes and forestland, and seven miles of coastline …
Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich
(This article appears in other versions of the January 30, 2017, issue, with the headline “Survival of the Richest.”)
Some of the wealthiest people in America—in Silicon Valley, New York, and beyond—are getting ready for the crackup of civilization.
(The New Yorker Magazine) Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.
Élite anxiety cuts across political lines. Even financiers who supported Trump for President, hoping that he would cut taxes and regulations, have been unnerved at the ways his insurgent campaign seems to have hastened a collapse of respect for established institutions. Dugger said, “The media is under attack now. They wonder, Is the court system next? Do we go from ‘fake news’ to ‘fake evidence’? For people whose existence depends on enforceable contracts, this is life or death.”
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
As Huffman, of Reddit, observed, our technologies have made us more alert to risk, but have also made us more panicky; they facilitate the tribal temptation to cocoon, to seclude ourselves from opponents, and to fortify ourselves against our fears, instead of attacking the sources of them
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index measures the state of democracy in 167 countries globally. If, like me, you think that democracy is a good thing then 2016 was an unhappy year: the average global score fell from 5.55 out of 10 in 2015 to 5.52 in 2016, with 72 countries recording a lower score and only 38 an improvement.
One of the most notable features of the Democracy Index, which is compiled using the expertise of our team of country analysts, is that the US is now classed as a “flawed democracy” rather than a “full democracy”. The key driver of this is a decline in public trust in democratic institutions to historic lows. Mr Trump’s election was in large part a consequence, not a cause, of this trust deficit, which has been a long time in the making. Promising to “drain the swamp”, Mr Trump tapped the mood of deep popular disaffection with government and elected officials that has been growing in recent years. Across the Atlantic, the UK saw its democracy score increase, as the Brexit referendum led to a marked increase in popular debate and participation.
Democracy-lovers looking for a distraction should check out countries such as Portugal, Cabo Verde, Peru, Madagascar and Tanzania, which have been quietly making progress and improving their democracy scores.
Trump’s flashy executive actions could run aground
The White House failed to consult with many of the agencies and lawmakers who will be critical for their success.
(Politico) The breakneck pace of Trump’s executive actions might please his supporters, but critics are questioning whether the documents are being rushed through without the necessary review from agency experts and lawmakers who will bear the burden of actually carrying them out. For example, there are legal questions on how the country can force companies building pipelines to use materials manufactured domestically, which might not be available or which could violate trade treaty obligations. There’s also the question of whether the federal government can take billions from cities who don’t comply with immigration enforcement actions: Legal experts said it was unclear.
14 January
Chuck Schumer Threatens Confirmation Delays For Trump’s Cabinet Picks Over Ethics Reviews
To prove his point, he sent Mitch McConnell a copy of a 2009 letter that McConnell himself had written about vetting nominees.
Senate Hearings Begin for Wealthiest Cabinet in U.S. History Despite Lack of Vetting
AMY GOODMAN: A barrage of Senate confirmation hearings is set to begin Tuesday for what could be the wealthiest Cabinet in modern American history. This comes despite concerns that ethics clearances and background checks are incomplete for several of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks. Senator Jeff Sessions faces questions Tuesday for his nomination as attorney general, along with Trump’s pick to head Homeland Security, retired Marine General John Kelly. On Wednesday, hearings are set for former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, along with education secretary [nominee] Betsy DeVos, Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao and CIA director nominee Mike Pompeo.
Tillerson’s net worth is at least $300 million, and several other nominees hold assets of more than a billion dollars, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose confirmation hearing is on Thursday. As Cabinet appointees, the nominees are required to submit a financial disclosure report that’s used by the agencies they’re to take over, along with the Office of Government Ethics. The New York Times reports some of the nominees have so many assets, there are not enough boxes on the standard form for them. See also Six Confirmation Hearings, Trump News Conference Scheduled on One Day
(The Atlantic)
… Federal nepotism laws seem to prohibit such an appointment, but Trump and Kushner may be able to bend the rules. In a similar vein, Senate Republicans are rushing to hold confirmation hearings for eight of Trump’s Cabinet nominees this week even though four of them haven’t yet completed the ethics review process—breaking a longstanding tradition and causing concern from the independent Office of Government Ethics. Meanwhile, Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, continues to defend his civil-rights record. One example he and his allies have cited is his role in prosecuting two members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1982—but the details of that case don’t seem to support Sessions’s claims.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to be top adviser
The 35-year-old played a key role in the presidential campaign and his new White House job will cover both domestic and foreign policy.
The news was confirmed by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, who described it as the “best news of the day”.
Jonathan Freedland: Don’t treat Donald Trump as if he’s a normal president. He’s not
From the US Congress to Theresa May, everyone needs to understand that when the next president takes office the usual rules will no longer apply
(The Guardian) The mistake is to project on to Trump the standards that would normally apply. Take this week’s parallel drama, as several of his nominees came before the senate to have their appointments confirmed. They all offered sweet words of reassurance: the would-be attorney general insisting he was no racist; the prospective secretary of state avowing that he was no patsy to Putin. Official Washington seized on these morsels of comfort, especially when Trump tweeted an apparent admission that his senior team were at odds with him on several core issues: “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
But what if such licensed independence is all for show? Maybe Trump has no plan to use these cabinet members for anything but window dressing. … Or  …  Surely it is just as possible that Trump’s team gave his nominees permission to say whatever they had to say to get confirmed, true or false.
7 January
Jared Kushner, a Trump In-Law and Adviser, Chases a Chinese Deal
(NYT) Unlike the Trump Organization, which has shifted its focus from acquisition to branding of the Trump name, the Kushner family business, led by Mr. Kushner, is a major real estate investor across the New York area and beyond. The company has participated in roughly $7 billion in acquisitions in the last decade, many of them backed by opaque foreign money, as well as financial institutions Mr. Kushner’s father-in-law will soon have a hand in regulating….
Mr. Kushner played a pivotal role in persuading Mr. Trump, who made the Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs a bête noire of his presidential campaign, to appoint the firm’s president, Gary D. Cohn, as his chief economic adviser, according to several people involved in the transition. (… they spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters.) Goldman Sachs has lent the Kushner Companies money and is an investor in a real estate technology company co-founded by Mr. Kushner and his brother.
Ethics officials express ‘great concern’ over Trump Cabinet vetting
(UPI) — A nonpartisan government ethics office said the potential for President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees to be approved before vetting for potential ethical violations or conflicts of interest is “of great concern.”
In a letter to Senate leaders on Saturday, Walter Shaub, Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, said he was concerned that financial filings from several of Trump’s Cabinet choices have not been completed and ethics monitors are lacking information from the nominees to finish the reviews before the confirmation hearings are held.
Shaub said the ethics reviews are a process that normally takes “weeks, not days.”
“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me. This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews,” Shaub wrote. “More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings.”
6 January
What Donald Trump Owes Wall Street
One wonders whether to be more worried about Big Finance using its leverage to influence the president or the president abusing his power in order to thwart his creditors.
(The Atlantic) Wells Fargo. JPMorgan Chase. Fidelity Investments. Prudential PLC. Vanguard Group. These are among the major financial institutions that own business debt held by Donald Trump, according to an investigation just published by the Wall Street Journal.
While the president-elect’s finances remain murky, due largely to his refusal to release his tax returns, the newspaper reports that he owes at least hundreds of millions of dollars, that the debt is held by more than 150 institutions, and that some of it is backed by his personal guarantee. …
Trump is nevertheless offering less transparency than any predecessor in the modern era, and entering office with both houses of Congress controlled by Republicans who show no inclination to fulfill their responsibility to scrutinize his conflicts. Until members of Congress launch a full probe into Trump’s financial assets and debts, so that at the very least they can understand where his interests and America’s interests diverge, there is no way that they can adequately represent their constituents.
3 January
Scott Feschuk: President Trump’s first 100 days in five overconfident predictions
A mulligan on the oath of office. A foreign trip to Israel. Many, many pardons. And that doesn’t even include the inevitable Twitter fight with Beyoncé.
1. He will need to retake the oath of office. Even when delivering a speech with a Teleprompter, he can’t help himself: Trump’s gotta Trump. Is there any chance the new President doesn’t ad lib on Inauguration Day? I do solemnly swear bigly, and better than any President person has sweared before…
Republicans Can’t Get Rid of These Watchdogs
By Noah Feldman
The stealth Republican move Monday night to weaken the ethics oversight office in the House of Representatives is a good reminder that the U.S. Constitution provides only limited protections when a single party rules. But the swift rollback of the plan on Tuesday is also a good reminder that the Constitution does have an oversight mechanism built in: the press. When one party controls the legislature and presidency, the “Fourth Estate” isn’t just a metaphor. It’s a necessity for functioning free government.
Flooded with phone calls from voters, House GOP drops effort to gut ethics panel
A North Carolina Republican said he got a “tremendous number of calls.”
(Think Progress) The House GOP reversed course on Tuesday, deciding in a closed door meeting to abandon a plan approved less than 24 hours earlier to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).
2 January
How the GOP plans to begin dismantling Obama’s legacy
(PBS Newshour) The new Congress starts work this week, with the Republicans in control of both houses. Soon, they’ll also have the White House. What’s on the GOP agenda? William Brangham talks to Lisa Desjardins, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and NPR’s Tamara Keith about the goal of ditching Obamacare, confirmation hearings for Trump Cabinet nominees, tax reform and more.
LISA DESJARDINS: I could go into a lot of details, but essentially dismantling the eight years of the Obama presidency.
And they’re going to start right away with actions that lead toward the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It’s complicated. In the end, it’s going to be a three-step process, but they are going to start with the process this week with votes Tuesday, Wednesday.
They’re also going to try and set up a process where they can start immediately rolling back some Obama regulations. Think about the environment in particular. And then there is going to be potentially a drawn-out fight over some of these Cabinet nominees.
Republicans Face a Dangerous First 100 Days
(Bloomberg) Congressional Republicans say Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence claim they’ll essentially delegate the substantive agenda to House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders on Capitol Hill, though the president-elect already has had several screaming phone calls with top Republican members of Congress.
Speaker Ryan’s top priorities are permanent tax cuts, skewed to the wealthy and investment, accompanied by cutbacks to domestic programs. If that proves unpopular, will Trump, who doesn’t like to be associated with unpopular things, pull the rug out?
Republicans remain tied in knots over Obamacare. They are going to repeal it quickly with gaping questions and loopholes when it comes to how and when it will be replaced. But the real possibility this could create chaos and cause the health insurance market to crater scares them.
Of course, the initial battles in the next few weeks will be over confirming Trump’s appointments. Most will make it through, unless they stumble badly in hearings or a new controversy or scandal is uncovered.
… The big economic issues will dominate the legislative calendar as Republicans calculate they have to enact sweeping changes by July 4. Trump will enter the White House less popular than any recent predecessor; if history is any guide, a president’s clout, ability to apply political pressure and galvanize public support, usually diminishes over time.
If they achieve their goals, and work together, consumer and business confidence could be soaring, the economy humming, adding jobs, and Republicans won’t have much to worry about.
That entails threading delicate political needles and enjoying a lot of luck. The zeal to make the supply-side tax cuts permanent means that, under the budget resolutions, they can’t add to the deficit in the second decade. Even with the gimmicks Ryan and others will employ that’s not anywhere close to achievable. To do so, they might then accompany these tax cuts with sharp cutbacks in federal spending on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. That juxtaposition makes a few Republicans uncomfortable.
With No Warning, House Republicans Vote to Gut Independent Ethics Office
(NYT) House Republicans, overriding their top leaders, [Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, spoke out during the meeting to oppose the measure] voted on Monday to significantly curtail the power of an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the aftermath of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail.
The move to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics was not made public until late Monday, when Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change. There was no advance notice or debate on the measure.
The surprising vote came on the eve of the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from health care to infrastructure, issues that will be the subject of intense lobbying from corporate interests. The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.

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