What’s heard in Moscow stays in Moscow

by Tom Sullivan

Pullman House, former site of the Soviet Embassy, 16th St. NW. (Source: Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey).

The acting president of the United States damned sure doesn’t want anyone examining his tax records. He’s fought tooth-and-nail in court to keep investigators from seeing what he promised repeatedly during his 2016 campaign he would share with the public.

But secure his telephone conversations? Nah! From the Washington Post:

President Trump has routinely communicated with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and other individuals speaking on cellphones vulnerable to monitoring by Russian and other foreign intelligence services, current and former U.S. officials said.

Phone records released this week by the House Intelligence Committee revealed extensive communications between Giuliani, unidentified people at the White House and others involved in the campaign to pressure Ukraine, with no indication that those calls were encrypted or otherwise shielded from foreign surveillance.

The revelations raise the possibility that Moscow was able to learn about aspects of Trump’s attempt to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival months before that effort was exposed by a whistleblower report and the impeachment inquiry, officials said.

But, hey, it’s not like the Deep State is listening in, right?

Trump is not identified by name in the House phone records, but investigators said they suspect he may be a person with a blocked number listed as “-1” in the files. And administration officials said separately that Trump has communicated regularly with Giuliani on unsecured lines.

“It happened all the time,” said one former senior aide, who noted that Giuliani had a range of foreign clients.

The disclosures provide fresh evidence suggesting that the president continues to defy the security guidance urged by his aides and followed by previous incumbents — a stance that is particularly remarkable given Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign for her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state.

Weakness is a cardinal sin for conservatives, as it was for Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn. Attack, counterattack and never apologize. A consistent criticism Republicans level against Democrats is they are weak. Weak on crime. Weak on defense, etc. Donald Trump fixates on projecting strongliness. It’s one of his many tells.

Thus, it is stunning that Trump-the-paranoid is so slack about his communications. Fellow trust-fund baby, Jared Kushner, proposed using a secure room at the Russian embassy to shield his communications from prying ears. Of course, those were American prying ears.

An indelible childhood memory from my first visit to Washington, D.C. was seeing the top of the Soviet embassy bristling with antennae (similar to above). The Russian embassy’s new digs on Wisconsin Avenue are more discreet about their communications gear.

Embassy of Russia in Washington DC. Russia. Photo: Aaron Siirila via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.5).

Seeing as prominent GOP leaders now parrot Russian talking points, perhaps, as David Rothkopf told Greg Sargent, “Trump, his administration and the GOP have made a conscious choice to align themselves with Putinism … It is not unwitting.”

“Putinism,” Sargent writes, is a worldwide movement “that allies various ethno-nationalist and illiberal authoritarian leaders against Western liberal democracy, the rule of law, international institutions and the commitment to empiricism in the face of disinformation.”

When I first set eyes on the Soviet embassy, Pete Seeger was singing “Which Side Are You On?” about unions and G.O.P. hawks were warning us about Russian propaganda. Now they’re trafficking in it, and it’s less clear which side they are on.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

Trump-effect fallout?

by Tom Sullivan

Graphic displayed by House Judiciary Committee Democrats Wednesday shows “fact witnesses” the White House refuses to allow to testify.

Wednesday’s national news, of course, was the House Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on the impeachment of President Donald Trump. But is news yesterday from far outside the Beltway evidence the president’s welcome is wearing thin with his own party?

Stanford Law School professor Pamela S. Karlan came in scorching with her opening statement during Wednesday’s House Judiciary hearing on the Trump impeachment. She quickly made what might have been an academic discussion a polemical one:

Karlan emerged Wednesday as a new hero for liberal law professors across the country for her ability to joust with House members all the while ticking off why she believes Donald Trump should be impeached, making complicated legal philosophies understandable, and raising the ire of supporters of the President. Her testimony also evoked a rare tweet from first lady Melania Trump castigating her for a comment she made that invoked the Trumps’ 13-year-old son, for which Karlan later apologized.

Karlan clearly made a splash in her opening statement, first among many noteworthy moments. Democrats hammered away at Trump’s perfidies while Republicans, lacking any defense for them, attacked the process or tried to change the subject.

Republicans whined about the lack of “fact witnesses” with direct knowledge of Trump’s actions, then demanded to hear from Ukraine-connected witnesses with no direct knowledge of Trump’s actions. No Republicans asked the president to allow over a dozen executive branch officials with direct involvement to testify. (Image at top.)

Comments in the last hour of the nine-hour hearing are worth attention for the broader picture they paint of the Trump presidency. Broader, that is, than Trump pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations of potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) pointed out that during the Clinton impeachment, members of that White House testified before Congress and Clinton provided answers to 81 written interrogatories. Conversely, Trump has refused. He has intimidated witnesses and issued a blanket order that none of his subpoenaed executive branch officials testify. Trump praised others for refusing to cooperate with the House inquiry. He has refused to produce subpoenaed documents. Both Nixon and Clinton allowed the White House counsel and chief of staff to testify, Neguse observed. Trump has not.

Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) offered that Trump has not only refused to cooperate with normal congressional oversight, but with its constitutional obligation to oversee impeachment.

Noah Feldman, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, responded:

For the president to refuse to participate in any way in the House’s constitutional obligation of supervising him to impeach him breaks the Constitution. It basically says, nobody can oversee me. Nobody can impeach me. First, I’ll block witnesses from appearing. Then, I’ll refuse to participate in any way. And then I’ll say you don’t have enough evidence to impeach me. And ultimately, the effect of that is to guarantee that the president is above the law and can’t be checked. And since we know the framers put impeachment in the constitution to check the president, if the president can’t be checked he is no longer subject to the law.

Stanton asked Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina’s law school about the president’s refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas. Isn’t that the framers’ worst nightmare?

Gerhardt replied:

One way in which to understand that is to put all of his arguments together and then see what the ramifications are. He says he’s entitled not to comply with all subpoenas. He says he’s not subject to any kind of criminal investigation while he’s President of the United States. He’s immune to that. He’s entitled to keep all information confidential from Congress. Doesn’t even have to give a reason. Well, when you put all those things together, he’s blocked off every way in which to hold himself accountable except for elections. And the critical thing to understand here is that is precisely what he was trying to undermine in the Ukraine situation.

Trump holds himself above any legal constraints on his actions. That is clear from his history both in business and in public office. He refuses to recognize the legislative branch’s constitutionally defined oversight authority. He refuses to comply with legal subpoenas. Those actions themselves, aside from the Ukraine affair, demonstrate the need to end his presidency and his efforts to undermine the rule of law.

At the end of the day, this item from the heart of Rep. Mark Meadows’ NC-11 (home to your truly) came over the transom: Three County Commissioners Leave GOP – Transylvania County, NC:

“This is not an action we do happily, and it is not a choice we take lightly,” the announcement said. “It comes after much prayer, reflection and discussion among us and with our loved ones. In leaving, we are ending a long association that is deeply personal. Between us, we have won 20 different elections as Republicans in Transylvania County.”

The announcement noted three “broad areas” for their decision to leave the party: “First, we have clear notions of conservatism. To be conservative is to honor and preserve the fundamental institutions, processes, structures and rule of law, which have enabled the United States to be history’s greatest success story. To be conservative is to be financially prudent while also investing in common ground works that support individual success for all citizens. To be conservative is to be welcoming and inclusive, understanding that all of us share the same human aspirations; conservative tenets of self-determination cannot be exclusive. To be conservative is to have a strong moral compass and the willingness to challenge wrong regardless of its source. We believe all of these are not merely conservative principles but American principles.

Their statement does not mention Donald Trump by name. But the trio must find it difficult to square those principles with the actions of their leaders in Washington, D.C. and in Raleigh. Their leaving the Republican Party was obviously a long time coming. They left in a coordinated fashion for cover. (New state and federal district lines won’t affect officials at this level in this county.)

It is far too early to know if these officials abandoning the Party of Trump as a group is an isolated event or a sea change. But it won’t reflect well on Meadows who faces reelection in a district more like the one Heath Shuler won from a Republican in 2006 before the post-2011 gerrymander pushed it to R+14. What may make this announcement from a rural red county disquieting for national Republicans is the template it sets for Republicans elsewhere to follow.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

Quod erat demonstrandum

by Tom Sullivan

Image by Anubhav Rawat via YouTube.

At 10 a.m. EST (7 PST) this morning the House Judiciary Committee begins its first impeachment hearing. The session bears a title: The Impeachment Inquiry into President Donald J. Trump: Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment. (The link goes to the live-stream site.)

Democrats will be serious and sober. Lacking any real defense, Republicans will put on a circus.

Democrats hope to convince us all why the man in the video clip below, Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States, should be removed from office.

It’s a wonder Trump did not project those words out his eyes in beams of light onto a nearby wall.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Tuesday night invited psychiatrist Lance Dodes, a former assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to assess Trump’s mental/emotional state in light of those comments.

Yes, it’s projection, says Dodes. Trump “tells other people that they are what he is.” Dodes believes (as this blogging amateur has said before) that Trump is emotionally and developmentally stunted.

Dodes calls Trump’s level of development “primitive.” Trump is a sociopath who runs a “very simple program” and is “limited by the capacity of a person with early emotional development.”

Asked about the developmental path that produced someone like Trump, Dodes responded, “It’s very early. Almost all people don’t have this problem … The early capacity to have empathy for other people, to identify them as being worthwhile and caring about them, happens in all human beings at a very early point. He doesn’t have that.”

It’s not all Trump doesn’t have.

Former Deputy Director of Intelligence Susan Gordon told an audience Trump is the first in her experience with “no foundation or framework to understand the limits of intelligence,” its purpose, or how the intelligence community discusses it.

Trump’s lens for viewing the world is economic rather than military or political, Gordon said. Officials had to retool briefings to present them framed for a person “who is interested in making trades and deals.”

Trump was interactive, though, Gordon said, and had two typical responses:

“One, ‘I don’t think that’s true,'” Gordon told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.

“The one is ‘I’m not sure I believe that,'” Gordon continued, “and the other is the second order and third order effects. ‘Why is that true? Why are we there? Why is this what you believe? Why do we do that?’ Those sorts of things.”

Basically, coming he views policy solely from an economic perspective: What’s in it for me?

USA Today adds:

Gordon, who was in line for the top intelligence job following the departure of Dan Coats, resigned in August after learning that the president sought to bypass her elevation.

While the House ponders whether Trump is fit to remain in office, Trump, the man who swore that with him occupying the Oval Office, the world would no longer laugh at us (meaning at him), is attending the NATO summit in London.

Will aides be able to keep Mr. Insecurity from seeing this?

Stand by for more projection.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

Nothing to see here, Congress. Move along.

by Tom Sullivan

An overwhelming amount of news broke Monday night.

Attorney General Bill Barr reprises his pre-release distortions of the Muller report, this time with the Justice Department’s inspector general findings about FBI’s Russia investigation. Barr reportedly disputes the conclusion that the FBI’s investigation was “adequately predicated” on Trump campaign aid George Papadopoulos’s besotted blabbing to an Australian diplomat that Moscow had thousands of Hillary Clinton emails.

Democrats are considering broadening the scope of possible articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to include obstruction of justice offenses chronicled in the Mueller report. The House Judiciary Committee begins its impeachment hearings on Wednesday. With Republicans falling in line behind the president, some Democrats want to move beyond a narrow focus on Trump’s abuses of power with Ukraine.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) believes demonstrating a pattern of abuse is in order. “If you show that this is not only real in what’s happening with Ukraine, but it’s the exact same pattern that Mueller documented … to me, that just strengthens the case.”

Regarding patterns of abuse, BuzzFeed News received another tranche of FOIA documents from the Mueller probe Monday evening. Jason Leopold dumped them online and invited crowd-sourcing of news from nearly 300 pages of FBI interview summaries (“302 documents”).

One of the first items to surface is from an interview with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen (now serving a prison sentence for lying to Congress, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations). From page 37 of the PDF, BuzzFeed’s team reports:

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, told FBI agents about negotiations to build a gleaming Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow, about how much Trump, who was then in the midst of a presidential campaign, knew about the negotiations, and about the false statement that Cohen later made to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about it all.

Cohen said that during the presidential campaign, he informed Trump that he had a discussion with a “woman from the Kremlin” about the plan to build the tower, according to a Nov. 20, 2018, summary of his interview with FBI agents and prosecutors from Mueller’s team. “Cohen told Trump he spoke with a woman from the Kremlin who had asked specific and great questions about Trump Tower Moscow, and that he wished Trump Organization had assistants that were that good and competent,” the FBI summary says. He also said that in his letter to Congress about the development, he initially wrote that he had “limited contact with Russian officials.” But that line was struck from the letter. Cohen said he did not know who specifically struck it.

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow told Cohen not to elaborate on details of the Moscow project so as not to “muddy the water.” Sekulow told the Associated Press Monday night (NYT story) Cohen never told him anything about any call with a woman from Russia. He did not respond to BuzzFeed’s request for comment. That is: Nothing to see here, Congress; move along.

Now might be a good time to remind readers that members of Team Trump feel “no obligation to be honest with the media.”

Josh Gerstein, legal affairs contributor for Politico, believes many of the redactions in the FOIA documents relate to conversations with the president. Marcy Wheeler guesses that’s right:

Wheeler also responds to the Republicans’ prebuttal of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report in a tweet thread here. That report is scheduled for public release today.

Finally, Natasha Bertrand reports for Politico that the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the Ukraine conspiracy allegations and, “according to people with direct knowledge of the inquiry, and found no evidence that Ukraine waged a top-down interference campaign akin to the Kremlin’s efforts to help Trump win in 2016.” Not that that will stop Republicans from publicly claiming (for Trump’s benefit) that this Moscow-inspired conspiracy theory is not a dead issue.

Republican chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina told Frank Thorp of NBC, “I don’t think there’s any question that elected officials in Ukraine had a favorite in the election.” Asked whether having a preference amounted to election interference, Burr challenged the news media to look into it and refused to answer if he had.

Even if Ukrainian officials preferred Clinton over Trump in 2016 and publicly said so, disliking Trump does not an election interference conspiracy make, as Burr well knows. But he’s got a liege lord to serve.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

The monetary monster

by Tom Sullivan

All the 1% complaints about being “vilified” for their wealth miss an essential point: their getting impossibly richer eventually destabilizes the planet.

Donald Trump and his allies argue that if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country. The subtext is about keeping non-white people from emigrating to the U.S. and diluting white sovereignty. But capital flowing unrestricted across borders? No problemo.

Eric Levitz addresses the issue of capital flows and wealth taxes for “Intelligencer.” Economists and billionaires themselves argue the country would be unable to enforce the sorts of wealth taxes supported by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and 60 percent of Americans. Wealth taxes would simply incentivize more tax-dodging by the super-rich and/or moving their wealth offshore.

Levitz observes:

This argument asks Americans to accept a stark limitation on their nation’s sovereignty. It stipulates that in a world of globally mobile capital, the effective limit on top tax rates is set by our superrich, not our democratic polity. Why this diminution of the nation-state’s authority should be acceptable — even as a minuscule amount of undocumented immigration is regarded as a crisis of the rule of law — is difficult to explain.

Well, not really. Steeply progressive taxation is politically untenable “because of the outsize political influence (and innovative unlawfulness) of the cosmopolitan elites who bankroll the Republican Party.”

Not that Democratic elites don’t have skin in that same game too.

But here’s something else to consider as apologists for unfettered wealth ply us with tales of all the good billionaires might do with their fortunes.

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has pledged to give away nearly all of his wealth. He has, Vox reported last year, given away over $45 billion through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s saved millions of lives using his wealth to fight malaria and global poverty. (Bloomberg estimates the donations at a mere $35 billion.)

Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett has donated over $34 billion since pledging to give away his fortune. Reuters reported in July Buffet still owns “about 15.7 percent of Berkshire, despite having given away 45 percent of his 2006 holdings.” He gave $3.6 billion this year to five charitable foundations so they can give it away for him. Reporting earlier this year showed Berkshire Hathaway was taking in money faster than Buffett could invest it.

It turns out giving away money is as hard, if not harder. It takes “expensive and time-intensive” due diligence to be sure the money isn’t simply thrown at scam charities. (Our acting president’s former charity, for example.) Gates’ fortune has grown so large he can’t give away his money as fast as he’s making it. Gates’ portfolio today is $16 billion larger than when he started giving it away.

Gates and others likely didn’t set out to become Weyland-Yutani, “The Company” of the Alien and Predator franchises. But despite laudable efforts like Gates’ and Buffett’s, is that where unfettered wealth is headed?

Among the terrible B-movies from the 1950s is one called The Magnetic Monster (1953). Except, there is no monster. A scientist, naturally, creates a marvelous new something that is neither marvelous nor even visible at first. It quickly gets out of control, naturally again. But Jurassic Park this is not. The “monster” here is not alive, but a new isotope that grows, doubling in mass every 11 hours by sucking in energy and matter from around it. This script arrived before “black holes” had agents, but that’s the idea. If other scientists cannot “kill” the stuff in time, it will grow massive enough to throw Earth out of its orbit and hasta la vista, baby.

Here we have massive fortunes growing ever more massive. Wealth concentrates itself in the hands of a tiny segment of the population as the middle class shrinks. The more high-minded billionaires can’t even give it away faster than the piles swell. And in the roles of frantic science geeks trying to keep expanding piles of money from throwing the planet out of its orbit we have Warren and Sanders. Naturally, they are opposed by skeptical wealth-o-philes and Cold War dead-enders who condemn them as socialists who want to punish success.

In the 1950s, we knew who would prevail. Today, that’s not a sure bet.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

No harm, no foul, yes?

by Tom Sullivan

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other during bilateral meeting, July 2019. Image via Voice of America.

The acting president, his staff, enablers in Congress, and red-hat true-believers have their golden oldies. Donald Trump’s Greatest Hits are material he trots out at rallies when he needs an applause line whether or not riff is already yesterday’s news or overtaken by subsequent events. “Lock her up” still shows up occasionally. “Fake news” is a staple. So is the “the phony, fake dossier, the disgusting fake dossier,” as he describes the report developed for Fusion GPS by former British intelligence official, Christopher Steele.

Fusion GPS co-founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch have taken considerable heat for the material Steele leaked to the press. Simpson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his firm’s role in contracting the opposition research on candidate Donald Trump. BuzzFeed published the dossier in early 2017, but it had floated around Washington for months. Days before the election, David Corn of Mother Jones named Christopher Steele as the veteran British spy with a bundle of human intelligence detailing Trump’s ties to Russia.

Obscured by right-wing smears is the fact an unnamed conservative Trump opponent first contracted the opposition research project through the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website. Once Trump became the presumptive Republican nomination, the pair explain, the donor pulled the plug and Democrats resumed the funding. Their interest was in Trump’s overseas business deals. They hired Steele for his Russia experience because of the opaqueness of the country’s business arrangements. Steele turned up troubling information that Russians had tried to cultivate Trump and develop blackmail material on him.

Simpson and Fritsch are making the rounds of talk shows promoting their book, “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.” Simpson and Fritsch explain they never met or spoke with Hillary Clinton. “As far as Fusion knew, Clinton herself had no idea who they were. To this day, no one in the company has ever met or spoken to her,” they write.

Steele defends his research as based on “tried and tested” sources, neither a fabrication nor Russian disinformation. Jane Meyer of the New Yorker adds:

Steele points out that the most critical criteria for judging disinformation is “whether there is a palpable motive for spreading it”; the ultimate Russian goal in 2016, he argues, “was to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president, and therefore, the idea that they would intentionally spread embarrassing information about Trump—true or not—is not logical.”

Steele, according to Simpson and Fritsch, is equally dismissive of those who claim that the Russians spread disinformation in order to discredit him. “The stakes were far, far too high for them to trifle with settling scores with me or any other civilian,” he said. “Damaging my reputation was simply not on their list of priorities. But helping Trump, and damaging Hillary was at the very top of it. No one denies that anymore.”

Even if everything contained in the dossier is proven, say Simpson and Fritsch, “a spy whose sources get it 70 percent right is considered to be one of the best.” The central message stands, they argue: Russian President Putin was actively meddling in the U.S. elections in an effort to “sow discord and disunity with the United States itself but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance.”

Nevertheless, the Steele dossier remains a bugaboo for Trump and Republican supporters who defend his Ukraine arms-for-political dirt scheme. Ukraine eventually got the aid, they argue. Ukraine’s President Zelensky never announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son as Trump demanded. No harm. No foul.

Still, Republicans condemn Democrats for paying Fusion GPS for foreign dirt aimed at stopping Trump from being elected. Simpson and Fritsch should argue since Trump was elected and Steele’s dossier wasn’t published during the campaign, then no harm, no foul. Quit yer whining!!! Right?

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

Bonfire of the plutocrats

by Tom Sullivan

Bonfire Night in the United Kingdom celebrates the Gunpowder Plot every 5th of November.

Fiscal conservatives have sold the notion that taxes are theft and government is “inefficient” since the Reagan era. Yet, the no-free-lunch bunch has been selling Americans free lunches ever since. In the form of “win-win” solutions to social problems. In the form of “public-private partnerships” (P3s). Get a new highway, new bridges, without new taxes, and maybe while cutting them. (You’ll pay daily user fees instead.*) Foreign conglomerates will privatize the profits (and offshore them) if they succeed and socialize the costs (to you) if they don’t. Frequently, they don’t.

But “no pain, no gain” applies as much to country-building as it does to muscle-building. At least for countries fit to live in. The win-win ideology promoted by financial elites over the last several decades promised we plebes could have their scraps by letting them grab the rest, writes Anand Giridharadas (“Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World“) in a Time magazine cover story:

If a single cultural idea has upheld the disproportionate power of this class, it has been the idea of the “win-win.” They could get rich and then “give back” to you: win-win. They could run a fund that made them sizable returns and offered you social returns too: win-win. They could sell sugary drinks to children in schools and work on public-private partnerships to improve children’s health: win-win. They could build cutthroat technology monopolies and get credit for serving to connect humanity and foster community: win-win.

As this seductive idea fizzles out, it raises the possibility that this age of capital, in which money was the ultimate organizing principle of American life, could actually end. Something could actually replace it. After all, a century ago, America was firmly planted in the first Gilded Age—and then it found its way into the Progressive Era and the New Deal, an era of great public ambition. Business didn’t go away; it wasn’t abolished; capitalists didn’t go into gulags. It was just that the emphasis of the society shifted. Money was no longer the lodestar of all pursuits.

It was a time when America’s dreams were boundless, as I’ve written before.

A series of jarring incidents once again has again challenged metastatic capitalism, Giridharadas explains. Amazon canceled its New York satellite office after citizens objected to granting Jeff Bezos “billions in tax breaks that wouldn’t be available to a regular Joe starting a business.” The college bribery scandal exposed how elites exploit the college admissions system to advantage their kids over the less-heeled. Facebook drew a $5 billion slap on the wrist in July for privacy violations that helped its platform polarize the world and channel Russian propaganda. Finally, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal exposed “systemic rot in our culture,” demonstrating in grotesque terms how with enough money a sexual predator might walk among the rich and powerful untouched by the law, burnishing his public image (as the elite will) by investing in reputation-cleansing philanthropic works.

Giridharadas believes an new Progressive Age may be struggling to be born amidst the decay of democracy and the avarice of “manic hyper-capitalism.” He is not the first to warn the plutocrats (“plutes,” he calls them) a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman told an elite audience at the World Economic Forum this year that their philanthropy would not solve the world’s problems, reduced rampant inequality, or excuse their excesses. It was time they again pay their taxes:

He told his audience that people in Davos talked about participation, justice, equality and transparency, but “nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share. It is like going to a firefighters’ conference and not talking about water.”

“This is not rocket science,” Bregman told the stunned audience that arrived on a fleet of private jets.

They prefer to paint themselves as the world’s benefactors — “job creators,” as venture capitalist Nick Hanauer pointedly explained to a TED conference in 2012:

Significant privileges have come to people like me, capitalists, for being perceived as “job creators” at the center of the economic universe; and the language and metaphors we use to defend the current economic and social arrangements is telling. It’s a small jump from “job creator” to “The Creator”. This language obviously wasn’t chosen by accident. And it’s only honest to admit that when somebody like me calls themselves a “job creator”, we’re not just describing how the economy works, but more particularly, we’re making a claim on status and privileges that we deserve.

TED initially deemed Hanauer’s speech “too politically controversial to post on their web site” before relenting under pressure. In 2014, Hanauer warned fellow plutocrats “The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats.” Rising inequality will cause a revolution (of some kind). To think otherwise is to inhabit a dream world that ignores history:

The most ironic thing about rising inequality is how completely unnecessary and self-defeating it is. If we do something about it, if we adjust our policies in the way that, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression—so that we help the 99 percent and preempt the revolutionaries and crazies, the ones with the pitchforks—that will be the best thing possible for us rich folks, too. It’s not just that we’ll escape with our lives; it’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer.

Because consumers with disposable income actually drive the economy, not plutocrats, as Hanauer explained in his TED talk and now at his Pitchfork Economics podcast.

But more broadly than taxing the rich, reform must rework capitalism’s DNA, the corporate model for organizing business that was poorly designed … by us. Its underlying assumptions, like the myth of the “job creator,” are so ubiquitous as to render them invisible.

In a 2005 op-ed, I likened the modern corporation to Mary Shelley’s creature or Michael Crichton’s dinosaurs. Conceived in law and born on paper, corporations grow, consume resources and generate waste — even mate and spawn offspring. They need not die. Ever. They are intelligent (some more than others) and have personalities (some nicer than others). Corporate behavior is as businesslike as a great white shark’s. Charitable donations give corporations a human face but are ultimately window dressing. When their doll-like, black eyes roll back in their heads and bite through your family’s financial security by moving a factory to a lower-wage country, it’s nothing personal. Except to their victims.

I wrote in 2014:

What Milton Friedman called capitalism in 1962 looks more like an economic cult today. Question the basic assumptions behind corporate capitalism, publicly point out its shortcomings and suggest we are overdue for an upgrade, and the Chamber of Commerce practically bursts through the door like the Spanish Inquisition to accuse you of communism and heresy. Why you … you want to punish success! It’s weirdly reflexive and a mite hysterical. What their blind fealty and knee-jerk defense of this one particular style for organizing a capitalist enterprise says about them, I’ll leave for now. It suffices to say I find it rather peculiar.

We think we invented capitalism. Yet there have been “capitalist acts between consenting adults” [h/t Robert Nozick] since before Hammurabi. We don’t call one capitalist enterprise the world’s oldest profession for nothing. There’s a restaurant in China that has been in operation for nearly 1000 years. And pubs in England that have been in business for 900. All without being incorporated in Delaware or the Cayman Islands. (Communists?)

We upgrade our hardware and software every couple of years, yet capitalism has not seen an upgrade since the last Progressive Era. Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to upgrade its operating system. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants a “revolution,” however that’s defined. The plutocrats fear any upgrade that challenges their privileged status. They still believe they can hold back the pitchforks and stop the hard rain building on the horizon.

* The Beltway area workweek commute that one day was free the next day cost nearly $60 when a P3 took control, an acquaintance observed last week. Same public road. New, private overseer.

Trump impeachment in review

by Tom Sullivan

The Committee on the Judiciary Committee, United States House of Representatives, opened its formal impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon on May 9, 1974. Photo via Library of Congress.

A flurry of breaking stories uncorked over the weekend still require time to age properly. But after two weeks of testimony in the impeachment inquiry, a review might be in order this morning. It’s been hell keeping up.

Thankfully, several sources provided summaries to help ensure everyone is on the same page.

The Washington Post provided a short video cataloging 24 GOP defenses of Donald Trump’s arms-for-political-dirt scheme with Ukraine. It’s a moving target. On Nov. 12, the Post counted 17.

Here’s a summary of this weekend’s count:

Walter Shaub, former director of the United States Office of Government Ethics under presidents Obama and Trump, provides a lengthy bill of particulars against Trump. For a moment there, I thought I was reading the list of 27 complaints against King George III. But Shaub counts 40 against Trump, a few of which are posted below. Donald will be pleased the size of his list is bigger:

Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Obama and MSNBC contributor, watched every minute of the hearings and knows most of the witnesses to date. “After 2 weeks,” McFaul tweets, “none of the basic facts were ever seriously disputed.” He summarizes his takeaways in a tweet thread. “Trump used his public office — the most sacred office in our country — to try to pursue his private electoral interests,” McFaul concludes. Trump only stopped because he got caught. McFaul’s first few conclusions are below:

There is more, naturally. Settlements against Trump’s “sham university,” his Trump Foundation (closed down by the state of New York), and decades of questionable tax dodges by the Trump Organization document a pattern of self-dealing that will follow Trump’s family business out of office even if as a former president Trump himself somehow evades legal accountability for offenses committed in office.

Finally, over the weekend yet another billionaire master-of-the-universe — Michael Bloomberg — announced he would run for president as a Democrat against Trump in 2020. Not even Wall Streeters think Bloomberg has a chance. If nothing else, it will be fun reminding Trump at every opportunity that Bloomberg’s stack is bigger. Much, much bigger. Perhaps seventeen times bigger. And Bloomberg is actually self-made.

Trump has a history of threatening lawsuits against people who publicly question the size of his, um, endowment. One hopes Bloomberg will question the size of Trump’s fortune for the entertainment value alone.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

“A domestic political errand”

The key moment in Thursday’s impeachment hearing came when Dr. Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council official, began explaining that the Trump administration had steered American foreign policy into the weeds.

Hill described a couple of “testy” encounters with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. In one, she was angry that Sondland was not coordinating with the rest of the NSC team and career diplomats in the field. Sondland had insisted during his testimony that he was following the president’s orders in pursuing an arms-for-political dirt deal with Ukraine. “Everyone was in the loop,” the newly minted diplomat testified. That is, everyone Sondland thought mattered: President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.

But Sondland’s assignment and Hill’s were very different.

Hill explained:

But it struck me when yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland’s emails, and who was on these emails and he said “These that these people need to know,” that he was absolutely right. Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged. So he was correct.

And I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating. And I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up. And here we are.

This was not going the way Republicans on the panel wanted. Hill continued, explaining in a sleight-of-hand way she’d been unfair to Sondland:

And after I left to my next meeting, our director for the European Union talked to him much further for a full half-hour or more later, trying to ask him about how we could coordinate better or how others could coordinate better after I had left the office. And his feeling was that the National Security Council was always trying to block him.

What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics. And that was precisely what I was trying to do.

But Ambassador Sondland is not wrong that he had been given a different remit than we had been.

And it was at that moment that I started to realize how those things have diverged. And I realized, in fact, that I wasn’t really being fair to Ambassador Sondland because he was carrying out what he thought he had been instructed to carry out. And we were doing something that we thought was just as or perhaps even more important, but it wasn’t in the same channel.

Ranking member Devin Nunes jumped in, cut off staff attorney Steve Castor, and launched into 2016 conspiracy theory questions. He needed to change the subject. Now. The rest of the Republican bench tried to discredit Holmes or stalled for time, trying to avoided giving Hill more rope.

The Ukraine scandal has unfolded like a Quentin Tarantino film. Different time frames. Different characters with different viewing points. Same arms-for-political-dirt story.

Hill was based in the White House. David Holmes, a State Department political aide, works at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. Both told the same story from different angles thousands of mile apart. Sondland told the same story from his perspective. As did Amb. William Taylor and George Kent. As did former Amb. Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and others. How many career professionals (and one, millionaire Trump donor) have to tell the same story before Republicans sworn to uphold the Constitution acknowledge they are not part of a Never-Trump conspiracy? Trump abused his office to direct an international smear campaign against a domestic political rival.

Perhaps headlines will convince them? As Digby (and TPM) noted on Thursday, headlines from coast to coast blared that Sondland implicated Trump. “We followed the president’s orders.” “Diplomat acknowledges ‘quid pro quo’.” “Envoy Says Trump Directed Effort.” “Trump directed Ukraine pressure campaign, EU envoy says.” And as MSNBC’s Chris Hays pointed out Thursday evening, many of the subheads implicated Pompeo by name.

And today’s online headlines?

Impeachment Hearing Takeaways: A ‘Domestic Political Errand’

‘I think this is all going to blow up’: Witness says EU ambassador was running ‘domestic political errand’

Trump Ukraine pressure campaign was ‘a domestic political errand,’ Fiona Hill tells impeachment inquiry

Hill Calls Investigations A “Domestic Political Errand”; Holmes Details Trump Call

Impeachment hearings: Sondland was ‘involved in domestic political errand’, Hill testifies

Fiona Hill: Trump Ukraine Dealings a ‘Domestic Political Errand’

In her opening statement, Hill chastised those (Republicans) peddling “politically driven falsehoods.” She refused “to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.” She requested they “please” not aid the Russian security services’ propaganda campaign,

I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist. I do not think long-term conflict with Russia is either desirable or inevitable. I continue to believe that we need to seek ways of stabilizing our relationship with Moscow even as we counter their efforts to harm us. Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

The narrative Republicans advance is professionals such as Hill, Holmes, et. al. mean to undermine Donald Trump. In fact, such career patriots mean to defend the U.S. from being undermined by him, by those in his thrall, and by foreign adversaries with agendas hostile to U.S. interests and to democracy itself.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.

Devin Nunes is committed

by Tom Sullivan

“I thank the gentleman, always, for his remarks,” a bemused committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said to laughter in the hearing room after Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), ranking member, completed his remarks after a long day of impeachment inquiry testimony. Nunes hits all his marks during these now-familiar derisive opening and closing speeches before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: circus, hoax, sham, Star Chamber, three-card monte, con game, Spanish inquisition, story-time-hour.

“Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared,” Nunes said Wednesday morning. He was clearly unprepared for testimony by European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland that implicated “everyone” in the Ukraine arms-for-political dirt scheme, including President Donald Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Rudy Giuliani. “Everyone was in the loop.

In his opening remarks, Nunes listed a series of facts he claimed Special Counsel Robert Mueller failed to prove. Salon sampled a few from what Nunes branded false charges:

“Trump had a diabolical plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow,” he said. (True.) “Trump changed the Republican National Committee platform to hurt Ukraine and benefit Russia,” he added. (True.) “Trump’s son-in-law lied about his Russian contacts while obtaining his security clearance,” he continued. (True.)

“It’s a long list of charges, all false,” Nunes declared of the largely corroborated list of allegations.

Nunes insists it was Ukraine and the Democrats that interfered in the 2016 election, that “their operatives got campaign dirt from Ukrainians in the 2016 election” [timestamp 3:16:15]. Why do that? Because Nunes is not speaking to “those of you at home,” as he claims. He is playing to an audience of one in the White House, to someone who actually believes this nonsense and/or wants to see his minions repeat it.

The audience in the hearing room thinks Nunes and his spewings are as much a joke as his suing a fake cow earlier this year. Nunes is committed to debasing himself to serve his liege.

Betsy Swan breaks news that Nunes and his aides traveled to Europe in 2018 to search out foreign origins for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian election-meddling investigation. Attorney Ed MacMahon, representing indicted Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, told The Daily Beast Parnas had helped arrange meetings and calls for Nunes’ team. A Nunes spokesperson declined comment:

Nunes has been at the center of the broader story about foreign influence in President Donald Trump’s Washington. When congressional investigators began probing Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, Nunes made a late-night visit to the White House and announced the next day he’d found evidence of egregious wrongdoing by Intelligence Community officials. The move appeared to be an effort to corroborate a presidential tweet claiming that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Nunes then stepped back from the committee’s work scrutinizing Russian efforts. Instead, he ran a parallel probe looking at the origins of Mueller’s Russia probe. The undertaking made him a hero to the president and Sean Hannity, and a bête noire of Democrats and Intelligence Community officials. That work was still underway when he traveled to Europe in 2018.

Prosecutors from the Southern District of New York last month charged Parnas and colleague Igor Fruman with (among other things) conspiring to violate campaign finance laws by laundering foreign money through straw donors and dummy businesses to U.S. campaigns. Parnas and Fruman, U.S. nationals, sought to “advance the political interests of… a Ukrainian government official who sought the dismissal of the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian government official was Ukraine’s former chief prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. The U.S. ambassador eventually forced out in May is Marie Yovanovitch. Lutsenko had “sharp disagreements with Yovanovitch over his handling of corruption cases, and was also seeking to curry favor with the Trump administration,” according to two former U.S. officials.

It was not a good day for Nunes. Twitter took notice.

It was not the first time this week Nunes was the butt of viral jokes.

But let’s not pile on.

Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.