Huge Deficits Are Bad – the Alternative Is Worse

President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March.  Not one Democrat was invited for the signing, although they had more input on this bill than Republicans.  This legislation provided an extra $600 in unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who were out of a job and included a moratorium on evictions.  There were numerous other provisions in this bill but these two were designed to expire at the end of July. 

The U.S. House passed the $3.4 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act on May 15.  Democrats anticipated that the unemployed would need more financial help and so would those in danger of being forced out of their homes.  Conservatives railed against this bill as a liberal wish list and the Republican-controlled Senate ignored it for over two months.  Perhaps they believed the ridiculous – actually stupid – statement by Vice President Mike Pence that the virus would be gone after Memorial Day and the economy would come bouncing back.

Finally, Senate Republicans presented their $1+ trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act in the last week of July, just days before the extra $600 unemployment benefits were due to expire.   Still, they appeared to be in total disarray.  In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advised that 15 to 20 GOP Senators wouldn’t vote for any additional coronavirus relief legislation, whatsoever.

Democrats acted early and comprehensively to anticipate the pandemic effects that health professionals were predicting.  Republicans failed to act, perhaps based on Trump’s happy talk or an expectation that the virus would subside and a V-shaped recovery was in the offing. 

Now, July 2020 is behind us but it recorded more virus cases than any one of the previous five months and the pandemic is still staring us in the face with no end in sight.  All of this drama made me eager to compare the House and Senate bills; here’s what I discovered.

HEROES Act (Dems) v. HEALS (GOP):

1. One-time stimulus payment – Both bills provide $1,200 per adult but the Dem’s bill is much more generous for children, proposing $436 billion (b) v. $300b for the GOP.

2. Hazard pay for essential workers, including health care – Dems $190b v. GOP $0.

3. Extra federal unemployment benefit – Dems, $600 weekly, costing $437b v. GOP, $200 weekly through September and 70 percent of a worker’s former earnings after that, costing $110b.

4. Assistance for home owners and renters – Dems, $202b v. GOP, $3b.

5. Health care funding – Dems, $382b v. GOP, $111b.

6. State and local government aid – Dems, $1.1 trillion, including $81b for Medicaid and $90b for education v. GOP, $105b for education only. 

7. Additional small business aid – Dems, $0 v. GOP $200b.

8. Business tax cuts – Dems, $36b v. GOP, $203b.

9. Higher education funding – Dems, $169b v. GOP, $0.

10. Increase child tax credit benefits – Dems, $119b v. GOP, $0.

The GOP bill would shield businesses, universities, schools and hospitals from being sued over coronavirus-related damages for five years.  It also includes $1.75b to demolish and replace the FBI building in Washington instead of moving the headquarters to the suburbs.  Trump wants this money because he fears a flashy hotel would be built on the vacated property and compete with his hotel, which is across the street.   Democrats strongly object to these provisions. 

Dems want a two-year elimination of the 2017 tax law’s cap on state and local tax deductions, which would cost $137b and favor blue state tax payers.  This probably won’t fly with Republicans.

These two bills dramatically highlight the differences between Democratic and GOP philosophy.  Democrats are trying to help people remain in their homes or apartments, put food on their tables and pay their bills.  They are also trying to prevent massive additional layoffs in the public sector by giving significant aid to state and local governments whose tax revenues have cratered.  

Congressional Republicans are attempting to do the bare minimum for people and state and local governments, while favoring relief to businesses.  A significant number of them don’t even want to do that.

Virus cases are spiking all across the nation and our economy is reeling from the worse quarterly decline in the past 70 years, down 9.5 percent.  Economists are fearing a descending spiral where more workers lose jobs, leading to greatly lowered consumer spending, leading to more business closures, leading to….  Well, you get picture; they are worried about an out of control economic downturn that damages the economy for years to come.

Many economists advise going BIG on virus relief and even some right-leaning ones are not so worried about more debt now.  Still, a substantial number of Republicans in Congress will tenaciously cling to their deficit hawk ideology even if Americans lose their homes, people go hungry and the country goes to hell.

Sure, I’m concern about adding $6+ trillion to the deficit this year – but if it saves this nation from sliding into a bad depression, it will be well worth it.

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A Divided Nation Threatens Our Democracy

This nation is confronted by massive problems that aren’t being solved.  Affordable health care, racial injustice, inequality, and crumbling infrastructure are a few that demand urgent attention but climate change and the ballooning federal deficit are also looming.  Unfortunately, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have no viable plans to address any of them.

Today, the nation is divided like at no other time in my memory.  Even this horrific coronavirus pandemic – which menaces every citizen – has failed to bring us together.  The president deserves much of the blame for this situation but the current political polarization began long before the 2016 election.  Trump is just the culmination of the Republican Party’s dramatic shift to the right.

The roots of the GOP’s evolution to ultra-conservatism, however, are difficult to pinpoint.  But I believe the seeds were planted during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, nurtured by some fertile soil left over from President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the 1971 formation of the Libertarian Party.

Nixon was a skilled politician but according to conversations recorded in the Oval Office, he was also a racist.  So, it’s not surprising that he would formulate a devious plan to lure white southern Democrats into the Republican camp by appealing to their racial biases.  It apparently worked, because by 1995 the formerly solid Democratic South was mostly represented by Republicans.

Along with Nixon came the Libertarian ideology of very limited government and minimal federal taxes.  Reagan was a champion of both.  Grover Norquist formed Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 – allegedly at Reagan’s request – and in the early 1990s devised a written pledge to never raise taxes on anything – ever.  Most congressional Republicans have signed Norquist’s promise. Their objective is to shrink the federal government by starving it of operating funds.  Republican’s absolute refusal to raise taxes makes federal budget compromises to reduce deficits nearly impossible.

Reagan’s tenure also emboldened various right-wing, government-hating militia organizations, which are now Trumpian Republicans.  Today, dozens of these well-armed, paramilitary groups are scattered across the nation, driven by antigovernment conspiracy theories and in some cases, white nationalist ideology.  I fear they will appear at the polls to intimidate voters in November, particularly in heavily minority areas.

Congress has been mostly gridlocked for over a decade, which left many pressing problems unsolved.  How did it get this way?  Well, Democrats aren’t completely blameless, of course, but I believe the cause goes back to 1995 when the GOP began evolving into a hard-right, uncompromising organization under then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).  This movement was supported by right-wing radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News channel after it was launched in 1996.

Gingrich initiated scurrilous attacks on Democrats during his tenure in Congress (1979-1999), bashed the “liberal” media and scoffed at democratic norms.  He referred to his opponents as “radical,” “sick” and “corrupt” and he encouraged other conservative Republicans in Congress to “speak like Newt.”  I believe Gingrich’s influence and rhetoric caused many members of the GOP to begin viewing Democrats as the enemy, instead of colleagues who have a different political philosophy.

Newt’s attitude carried over to the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010. When they took control of the House in 2011, they eschewed governing and recklessly obstructed President Obama.  Then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did the same in the Senate, using the filibuster as a weapon.  As Senate majority leader in 2016, his refusal to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland – Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court – was stunning in its audacity.

Back then, McConnell claimed that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court justice during an election year until a new president is elected.  Yet, when asked what his position would be on filling a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020, he said with a wry smile, “Oh, we’d fill it.”  McConnell’s affronts to Senate norms and shocking hypocrisy crippled bipartisanship in Congress and further divided the American electorate.

Gingrich-like hatred toward Democrats continues to this day.  Tea Party Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) accosted liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on the steps of the Capitol last week, calling her “crazy,” “disgusting,” “dangerous” and out of her “freaking mind.”  Why?  She had suggested during a virtual town hall meeting that an increase in crime in New York City during the pandemic was the result of poverty and unemployment.  Later, a reporter overheard Yoho – an avowed Christian – call Ocasio-Cortez a “f—— bitch.”

Jenna Ellis, one of Trump’s personal lawyers and a senior Trump campaign legal adviser, recently bashed Democrats who criticized Trump for sending federal police to Portland, Oregon with a tweet: “No Democrat should EVER AGAIN be elected in the United States in any capacity…..They are willing to sacrifice America and our freedom and liberty. NO!!!”  She appears frequently on Fox News.

Trump’s divisive rhetoric and Republicans’ blind support of him as he savages our democratic institutions and thumbs his nose at the rule of law has exacerbated political polarization and weakened the very foundation of our democratic republic.

Defeating Trump in November, however, will not totally solve the nation’s critical problems. They will continue to fester until McConnell and the radical Republicans in Congress are no longer able to sow division and block responsible legislation.

There are dozens of reasons for voting Trump and radical Republicans out of office; number one is to help unite the nation and save our democracy.

 

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They Extol Freedom but Legislate Servitude

The Republican Party plans to repurpose its 2016 platform for 2020 without changes.  Perhaps they’ve forgotten how severely they criticized President Obama’s “current administration.”  Now that it’s President Trump’s administration, their vitriol is a bit awkward.  Here are a few examples: The current administration has – hugely increased the national debt and placed a significant burden on future generations – exceeded its constitutional authority – brazenly and flagrantly violated the separation of powers – sought to divide America into groups and turn citizen against citizen – unconstitutionally expanded into areas beyond those specifically enumerated, including bullying of state and local governments– and abandoned America’s friends and rewarded its enemies.  Hey, now it’s the truth.

But the real key to GOP orthodoxy is the 42 times this document uses the word “freedom.”  It claims that Obamacare, labor laws and executive branch regulations take freedom away.  On the other hand, religious freedom, which typically means the right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, is lauded.  So is the freedom of association for religious, private and youth organizations so they can set membership standards that discriminate.  And it wants people – which now includes corporations – to have the freedom to fill the political system with unlimited amounts of cash, even anonymous foreign money.

Obviously, the GOP wants freedom for its base but I believe its policies deprive workers of the resources to be free.  In fact, I have begun thinking of Republican ideology less as benefactor of the rich – which it certainly is – and more as a suppressor of the middleclass and poor.  If you want to belong to a union; they enact right to work laws.  If you need an increase in the minimum wage to survive; Republicans will surely vote no.  If you hope to get Obamacare for your family; they’ve asked the Supreme Court to eliminate it.  Actually, I struggle to think of one policy conservatives champion that would economically lift up working-class Americans.  Instead, they cater to the rich.

The 2019 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report tells the shocking story of wealth accumulation and inequality in the United States:

  • Among the 20 wealthiest countries, the U.S. has an estimated 80,510 members in ultra-high net wealth categories – those with over $50 million – which is 48 percent of the world’s total.  China was a distant second with 18,130 or around 11 percent.
  • The U.S. had 40 percent of world’s U.S. dollar millionaires in 2019 and comprised more than half of the 1.1 million added since the 2018 report.  The number of millionaires in the U.S. grew by 250 percent from 2010 to 2019, while wages for most Americans were stagnating.
  • The top 1 percent of wealth holders in the U.S. controlled around 35 percent of this nation’s wealth in 2019 – a lower percent than the 1 percent in Brazil, India and Russia – but their share has now grown to 42.5 percent according to Inequality.org.
  • Among a group of 16 prominent nations, including the UK, China, India and Brazil, inequality in the U.S. was higher than all the others in 2019 except Russia.  Fifty-eight percent of Americans are estimated to have a net worth less than $100,000, which includes home equity, with 27 percent having less than $10,000.

All of these numbers provide proof that the richest Americans are accumulating an ever-larger percentage of the wealth, while the U.S. middleclass and poor are struggling.

Unquestionably, Republican policies favor corporations, many of which hold enormous power over their workers, particularly those in the service and fast food industries.  As I have written before, several years ago a conservative friend revealed the Republican mind set when he told me that McDonald’s would install machines to make burgers before they’d pay employees $10 per hour.  It’s an inhumane attitude that completely ignores the needs of working Americans.

The Federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, unadjusted by inflation.  A family of four can probably qualify for food stamps and Medicaid on this wage, even with both parents working fulltime.  The many folks who must work two jobs to make ends meet are not much better off than slaves.  Still, most Republican legislators not only refuse to raise the minimum wage, they want to cut the social safety net benefits that many low-income workers are force to seek in order to survive.

To make matters worse, Republicans want to separate major health care programs from the federal government.  They favor transitioning Medicare to a voucher system where insurance companies control retiree’s health care and providing block grants for states to totally manage Medicaid.  They’re also trying to completely overturn Obamacare without having a viable plan to replace it.

It’s a fact, all Americans do better – including the wealthy – when middleclass and poorer Americans are thriving.  Seventy percent of the U.S. economy is consumer spending, mainly driven by the middle and lower-income individuals who spend most of what they make.  Republicans, however, reject statistics and common sense; they’re totally committed to their trickle-down ideology that claims tax cuts grow the economy, government is the problem and freedom is more important than health care.  Well, I believe GOP policies will eventually create an economy like the early 1900s when a small percentage of the ultra-rich controlled the government and the vast majority of workers were in virtual servitude to their wealthy masters.

There’s no damned freedom for most Americans in that space.

 

 

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What Did We Celebrate This Independence Day?

Are we tired of winning yet, as candidate Donald Trump promised in 2016?  Are we proud of how great the nation has become under President Trump’s MAGA leadership?  Is the United States respected around the world like never before as Trump now claims?  Is there a petition circulating to demand that the president’s leering, orange face be carved on Mt. Rushmore?  Hell no!

According to polling last month by the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.  Only 17 percent of Americans say the state of the country makes them feel proud.  A majority of 53 percent do not feel hopeful about the state of the country.  Yet, Trump’s approval rating still hovers around 39 percent.

Life expectancy in the U.S. started declining in 2014, as much as one year in some areas of the U.S.  Researchers found that the causes are drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related illnesses and obesity, problems they believe have been increasing since the 1980s.  I don’t believe it is mere coincidence that these phenomena coincide with the growing inequality in this nation that had its genesis around the same time.

Since the days when President Ronald Reagan promoted supply-side economics, corporations and the wealthy have gained in power at the expense of workers and their families.  Mr. and Mrs. American now have less control over their lives, while suffering with a smaller share of the nation’s wealth.  According to an article in the Washington Post, union membership – which typically brings higher wages – has cratered from 35 percent in the 1950s to around 10 percent today.  There’s even lower union membership among private sector workers, 6.2 percent.

Diminished bargaining power of the labor force resulted in lower wages for workers, higher profits for corporations and burgeoning CEO pay.  I believe if all Americans had health insurance and a much higher federal minimum wage indexed to inflation, union membership would be less relevant.  But Republicans consistently oppose unions, minimum wage increases and health care insurance reform, while medical care for Americans costs twice as much on average as it does for citizens of other wealthy countries.

The richest 10 percent of U.S. households held 70 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2018 and the top 1 percent controlled 32 percent.  If anything, they’ve gotten even wealthier in 2020.  These people invest in stocks so they reaped the benefits when the market’s second quarter this year was the best since 1998.  Incredulously, this occurred while the coronavirus was killing 130,000+ Americans and the 11+ percent unemployment rate was predicted to trend higher as states stall reopening phases.

Unless the federal government provides hundreds of billions of dollars in relief for states and municipalities – perhaps $500 billion – lower tax revenues will force them to slash budgets.  This will mean millions of public service workers will join the ranks of the unemployed, including thousands of teachers.  Children’s education – already diminished from the coronavirus pandemic – will suffer even more.  Police forces will be automatically “defunded” to lower levels and important community services will be cut.  Senate Republicans, however, are balking at providing additional financial relief for states.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.8 million jobs had been added for the month ending in the middle of June.  This good news resulted in a lot of Trump/Republican happy talk.  Trump proclaimed: “Today’s [jobs] announcement proves that our economy is roaring back.”  Yet, over 31 million Americans were seeking unemployment benefits during the same week that this rosy job survey was completed, hardly cause for celebration.

This nation’s challenges, however, aren’t just domestic.  America’s stature on the world stage has shrunk several sizes since Trump took office.  It’s hard to accept that the United States is now being called “pitiful” due to the Trump administration’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic and “racist” due to the police killing of George Floyd and its aftermath.  Countries around the globe are fearful of being caught between an erratic United States, which is no longer viewed by many as a trusted ally, and the hegemony of totalitarian China.

It appears that the Chinese government is much less concerned about Western criticism and sanctions.  An official in China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, recently told reporters: “The era when the Chinese cared what others thought and looked up to others is in the past, never to return.”  This is an ominous warning about China’s future intentions.

Russia’s aggression against the U.S. and Europe and China’s heavy-handed dominance over Hong Kong are likely the result of Trump’s foreign policy incompetence.  And Taiwan’s independence from China could be threatened as U.S. attention is consumed by an election, a health catastrophe and nation-wide social unrest.

With the nation craving for unity, why did Trump choose Independence Day to further divide Americans with a veiled attack on Black Lives Matter protesters and praise of Confederate monuments?   Well, if he’s trying to provoke more protests and violent rioting to enrage his base and enhance his chances for victory in November, that’s totally sick!

After eight years of Republican policy failures in 2008, America’s reputation was in the toilet and Americans were facing a bad recession.  Trump managed to achieve even worse results in less than four years.

When will voters ever learn that electing Republicans brings a “Bad Deal” for both them and the nation?

 

 

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Finding Some Good News in All the Bad News

These last few months have left me reluctant to continuously write about President Trump’s shocking assault on our democracy and his incompetent administration.  It’s deeply depressing.  Lately, however, I’m finding some bright spots in this gloom.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened” is a great example.  During 17 months of being up close and personal with the president, Bolton acquired inside knowledge of what was going on in the Oval Office and the meeting rooms in foreign capitals.  I can’t imagine a more damning critique of a president of the United States.  Actually though, it’s merely icing on a well baked cake.

Diehard Trump supporters will either claim – like the president – that the book is full of lies and false stories or they will simply dismiss Bolton’s revelations as the rantings of a disgruntled official who was fired.  Some Democrats and independents who voted for Trump in 2016, however, may not be so kind and approving if they believe even half of Bolton’s story.  His appearance on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier was no doubt watched by millions of conservatives and he was quite convincing.

Ultra-conservative Bolton is frequently criticized for his blunt, uncompromising positions and rhetoric; but he’s not known as a liar.  His attack from the right confirms a pattern of Trump behavior and incompetence documented in numerous books by  liberal writers and never-Trump Republicans.  That makes it harder for the president’s supporters to refute.

Now, Republican Senators will have to explain why they were so quick to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial after refusing to allow witnesses, like Bolton.  They may claim that this testimony wouldn’t have changed the verdict but that doesn’t wipe the stain of bias off their decision.  I believe most Americans wanted to hear what various witnesses had to say, regardless.

One of Bolton’s most audacious claims is that obstruction of justice is a way of life for the president.  And Attorney General William Barr has added great credibility to that allegation.  He intervened in the sentencing of Roger Stone in February, seeking a lighter sentence for this Trump associate.   In May, Barr had the Justice Department drop the case against Trump’s former National Security, Advisor Michael Flynn, a man who had twice pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.

Barr’s topper, however, was the June 19th massacre, when he attempted to fire the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Geoffrey Berman and install his handpicked replacement, current SEC Chair Jay Clayton.  New York City is the center of Trump’s business empire and subject to this office’s jurisdiction.  Trump’s favorite lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is reportedly under SDNY’s scrutiny.  Clayton is a neophyte prosecutor and a Trump golfing buddy.  How convenient.

But Berman refused to resign and a nasty legal battle seemed likely.  He was not confirmed by the Senate but appointed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a 120-day interim period in 2017.  Thereafter, he was appointed by federal judges for the SDNY to “serve until the vacancy is filled.”  When Berman claimed that Barr lacked authority to fire him, Trump, who has the authority, was forced to do his own dirty work.

Republican Berman then stepped down after ensuring that his equally competent deputy, Audrey Strauss – a registered Democrat – would take over.   Barr’s inept attempt to control this highly effective, fiercely independent district and its investigations of Trump associates was foiled.  And SDNY investigations will continue as before.

Conventional wisdom cautions a politician to avoid creating a negative issue like this during an election year.  It’s on par with another pithy warning; never try to use a box cutter when you’re well into cocktail hour.  But Trump doesn’t have wisdom, conventional or otherwise.  So, the Berman firing fiasco, as ominous as it appears for the rule of law, reinforces Bolton’s claim that Trump continuously attempts to obstruct justice.  This is great material for political attack ads.

The Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, which has begun an investigation of Barr, will likely call on Berman to testify.   The Republican National Committee and 22 Republican Senators up for reelection this year are no doubt dreading the news coverage that will occur as these hearings progress.  Their Democratic opponents will happily make the best of it.

There is absolutely no good news, however, in the fact that over 126,000 Americans have died from Covit-19.  We all wish the president would have taken the early lead in organizing the effort to stop its spread, protect our health care workers and keep our older citizens safe.  He didn’t.  Instead, he politicized this crisis and divided the public, as he does with almost every other issue.  Polls indicate that a majority of voters don’t like what they are seeing and hearing from the president as the cases multiply unabated.  Yet, Trump continues his rallies, while downplaying the virus’ threats, hyping conspiracy theories and refusing to wear a mask.

These past several months have dramatically shown that Trump is the president in name only.  Actually, he’s just a reality show host, still catering to an audience of right-wing bigots like he did in 2016 and trying to improve his ratings.

Fortunately, an increasing number of voters believe it’s time for this program to be cancelled.

 

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Historic Supreme Court Decisions Are Looming

Pandemics, protests and politics, oh my!  Yes, there’s a lot driving the news cycles these days but pending decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court are even more ominous for the nation’s future.  Later this month, or certainly this summer, the court could drop some bombshells right in the middle of the presidential election year battlefield that could affect the very democratic principles upon which the nation was founded.  The court will rule on three cases involving subpoenas for President Trump’s tax returns and other financial records that will decide – in essence – if the Constitution’s separation of powers has any meaning and if a sitting president is subject to the rule of law.

Trump’s lawyers failed to block these subpoenas in the lower courts based on sound precedent established by separate Supreme Court decisions involving Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.  The court forced Nixon to hand over Oval Office tape recordings subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor in 1974.  And the court required Clinton to sit for a deposition in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment civil suit in 1997.  Both of these cases were decided unanimously under conservative chief justices appointed by Republican presidents, with three justices appointed by Nixon ruling against him and two justices appointed by Clinton giving him thumbs down.

So, I was a bit surprised – but probably shouldn’t have been – that the Supreme Court decided to weigh in on these cases that seemed to be correctly decided by the lower courts.  Is this court intent on establishing some limits of executive power and/or congressional oversight?  Or, are conservative justices eager to shield Trump from damaging revelations of his finances?  We should know soon.

One case involves subpoenas by the Democratic-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Reform for the president’s tax returns and financial records held by his accountants and business entities.  Another, concerns subpoenas by the House committees on Financial Services and Intelligence for similar records at the president’s bank.

Subpoenas in the third case resulted from a grand jury criminal investigation by the New York City district attorney into payments made by Trump to a porn star and other women.  It was issued to Trump’s accounting firm and also covers tax returns and financial records.

None of these subpoenas requires Trump to produce records in his possession, but his lawyers have vigorously challenged all of them.

In the cases involving congressional committees, the central issue is separation of powers.  Congress has typically had broad oversight powers under the Constitution to investigate anything and subpoena witnesses and documents so long as its purpose is to draft legislation.

The president’s lawyers mainly argued that the congressional subpoenas are an unwarranted witch hunt to investigate Trump’s criminality and not intended for legislative purposes.  They also contend that unfettered congressional subpoena power would result in constant harassment of a president by an opposing political party.  (Do they mean like Republicans did to Bill Clinton?)

In the criminal case, Trump’s lawyers made the ludicrous argument that the president is not only immune from prosecution while in office, he can’t be investigated, even if he shot someone on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.  They also caution that such subpoenas would allow state and local officials to politically harass a sitting president.

Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department has joined these cases in support of Trump, although its lawyers didn’t contend that the president is immune from investigation.

Unquestionably, the foundation of our democratic republic is the rule of law.  What’s at stake with these cases is the neutrality of the Supreme Court as an unbiased arbiter of the law.  If it gives deference to a political party or a president over previously settled law, it will seriously weaken the foundations of our democracy, perhaps irrevocably.

Still, it’s possible the court will send the cases involving congressional subpoenas back to the lower courts for additional briefing by the lawyers or require that House Democrats provide more specifics on the legislation for which these documents are being requested.  A delay would benefit Trump this election year.

But if the conservative justices decide that the court won’t intervene in disputes between the other two branches of government or that a president has broad immunity from congressional oversight, the Constitution’s separation of powers will be obliterated.  And if they overturn the lower courts’ rulings with regard to the grand jury subpoenas, we will know that this court has put a sitting president above the law.

I don’t care if the president’s financial records show he’s not a billionaire.  He lies about everything else, so why not his wealth?  It doesn’t matter if he legally paid no income tax; lots of rich people avoid paying taxes.  What all Americans need to know about, however, is Trump’s dependence on Russian money and his involvement in money laundering or other financial crimes, which I suspect he has committed.

Trump treats the rule of law with distain as president; it’s highly likely he did the same as a businessman.  He seems to enjoy living on the legal edge.  Trump isn’t restrained by the law; he uses it as a weapon.  And if he gets another four years to appoint additional conservatives to the Supreme Court, he will attack the Constitution like any other of his opponents and attempt to eviscerate it.

So, vote in November as if your liberty and our democracy depended on it — because they do.

 

 

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Has Trump Finally Gone Too Far?

Many unnerving tragedies have occurred since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman on May 25.  Police frequently attacked and injured journalists covering the resulting protests – President Trump called for federal troops to police American cities – federal officers cleared the way for a Trump photo op by using tear gas and rubber bullets to push peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Square – and coronavirus deaths exceeded 110,000, partially due to Trump’s incompetent response to the pandemic.

In this time of uncertainty and chaos, Americans are crying out for a hero who will speak truth to power.  They yearn for a voice that can’t be stilled by a nasty, threatening Trump tweet.  Then, just when it seemed as if stalwarts like that were AWOL in the Trump era, former Defense secretary and retired Gen. James Mattis rose to the occasion.  Last week his stinging rebuke of the president entitled, “In Union There Is Strength” was published by The Atlantic magazine.

The U.S. military is supposed to be a nonpartisan national defense force, which should not be used against Americans.  It appears that Mattis was angered by the sight of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley – in battlefield camouflage – walking across Lafayette Square with Trump for his photo op with a Bible.

After accusing the president of trying to divide the American people instead of trying to unite them, Mattis admonished “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.  We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”  He added. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

This powerful, unprecedented condemnation of the commander in chief by a well-respected retired Marine general required a response from politicians of both parties.  South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has effusively praised Mattis in the past, chastised the general for these statements.  So did several other GOP senators who were once huge Mattis fans, although most of their colleagues tried desperately to avoid commenting.  Democrats, as you might expect, lauded Mattis for his bold, forthright critique.

A few Republicans, however, were not so quick to take the former secretary of Defense to task, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president and frequent Trump critic.   He called Mattis a “wonderful man.”  “Gen. Mattis’ letter was stunning and powerful. Gen. Mattis is a man of extraordinary sacrifice. He’s an American patriot. He’s an individual whose judgment I respect, and I think the world of him,” Romney said.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Mattis’ statement was “overdue” and that she was “very thankful” he had made it.  When asked if she intended to support Trump’s reelection she said, “I’m struggling with it”.   She added that she found the statement by former President George W. Bush on Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, “empowering.”

While Bush decried the violence and looting, he said, “It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future.” Also, “Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.”

Mattis isn’t the only Trump critic from the military and defense establishment.  In a Washington Post op-ed, four former secretaries of Defense joined 85 other Democratic and Republican Defense officials in criticizing the president for his use of the military in responding to protests over Floyd’s murder.  They wrote, “We are alarmed at how the president is betraying this oath [to defend the Constitution] by threatening to order members of the U.S. military to violate the rights of their fellow Americans.”

Retired ADM Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired ADM William H. McRaven, who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, retired Marine Gen. John Allen and numerous other retired military officers have spoken out in support of Mattis and frequently against the president.  “President Trump has shown he doesn’t have the qualities necessary to be a good commander in chief,” said McRaven, which sums up the opinions of many others.  I don’t think Trump tweets will silence or diminish any of these men.

The U.S. military is one of the few government institutions that is still respected by the majority of Americans.  Fortunately, it has so far managed to stay mostly nonpartisan under the heavy hand of a president who demands absolute loyalty from all who serve him and claims that the Constitution gives him the power to do anything he wants to.

No doubt, Trump’s power is based on his enablers’ fear of retribution.  He’s a bully, quick to ridicule and punish those who challenge him.  The bipartisan support for Mattis’ statements, however, indicates Trump has finally gone too far.  His grip on the GOP has been weakened and his threats to this nation and its Constitution have been laid bare.

The late political scientist Gene Sharp once wrote: “Obedience is at the heart of political power.”  Now, high level, virtually unassailable officials are refusing to obey Trump and that number could grow.  Large, diverse groups of Americans are nonviolently protesting police brutality and Trump’s agenda.  This two-level pushback demonstrates that Americans aren’t about to yield when faced with this president’s authoritarian tactics.  These, I believe, will be the keys to toppling Trump’s regime in November.

 

 

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If You’re Feeling Helpless – You’re Not Alone

What more can I write about President Trump and his inept, corrupt administration?  Ditto the Republican Party.  And who needs negative predictions about the path ahead when there seems to be so little we can do about it?  Yet, when I pause and focus on the future, I can’t help believing that Americans will turn away from the authoritarian abyss where Trump and the GOP are leading this nation.

I know, Trump is an incompetent, narcissistic idiot being protected by his toady attorney general, Bill Barr.  Yes, Republican-controlled states with a minority of the population are dragging this country around by the nose.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell represents Kentucky, one of poorest states in the country.  His right-hand man, the majority whip, is South Dakota Sen. John Thune.  Next in line is Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso.  These two states have such a tiny – mostly white – populations they have only ONE representative in the U.S. House.

We still have a free press, however, and elections.  Not even the conservative-controlled Supreme Court would dare abolish these freedoms.  The greatest threats to an independent media are wealthy right-wing investors who might purchase a majority of the outlets, like they did in Hungry.  But Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, owns the Washington Post.  And I don’t believe it’s possible that other major independent news sources could be taken over by conservative buyers.

Billionaire Libertarians like Charles Koch who fund conservative causes are offset by numerous, very wealthy moderates and liberals like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.  Many of the new billionaires are in the high-tech industries with younger, more diverse employees.  The conservative dominated industries like oil and gas production are not nearly as politically powerful as they once were.  The titans of technology will be driving policies in the future much more than coal and oil executives.

Americans have a 220+ year history of relative freedom and democracy.  That’s not the case with Russians and Eastern Europeans who, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, had mostly lived under monarchies or dictators for hundreds of years.  So, I simply don’t believe that liberty-minded Americans would ever accept Trump/Republican authoritarianism where Trump’s gut makes all the decisions and they suffer the consequences.  Neither would powerful U.S. corporate leaders.

We have a Constitution, right?  Even ultra-conservative Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – who claim to strictly follow the Constitution’s text – can’t circumvent the Bill of Rights and its protections of individual freedoms.

The United States is a democratic republic.  The Constitution can only be changed via a constitutional convention – which hasn’t occurred since 1787 – or by two-thirds of the members of both chambers of Congress passing amendments.  Either way, changes must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.  That’s not like Russia where a majority of its people may soon approve constitutional amendments that will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to retain power, virtually for life.  Trump envies Putin’s dictatorial authority but he will never achieve it via constitutional amendments in the United States.

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat theorized, however, that Trump doesn’t want power like other authoritarians, he just wants attention.  As populous leaders like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the coronavirus crisis to consolidate power, Trump demurred, forcing state governors to take the lead.  Douthat believes Trump was afraid of “claiming any power that might lead to responsibility and someday blame”.  He concluded, “America needed a president capable of exercising power and found that it had only a television star, a shirker and a clown”.  Amen to that!

I totally agree that Trump seems more interested in playing the showman than formulating policy.  He is lazy, preferring to hold rallies where he relishes the adulation – Mussolini-like – before spending a weekend golfing with sycophantic friends.  The pandemic chaos and its likely aftermath of high unemployment and economic stress are not situations he has the temperament to handle.  His staff and cabinet are equally incapable doing the tough work of governing.

In fact, Trump’s presidency calls to mind the old proverb “one bad apple spoils the barrel”.  Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will probably go down in history as two of the most unethical officials to ever hold those powerful positions.  Trump’s other executive branch appointments – which are quickly confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate – are frequently inept and/or corrupt, including department heads like former EPA chief Scott Pruitt.  At the same time, career federal employees with skill and integrity have been replaced by compliant Trump loyalists.

Yes, it’s such a helpless feeling to watch Trump ravage the stature and credibility of the United States on the world stage and hamstring the oversight powers of the Democratic-controlled House.  Equally frustrating is seeing Republican committee chairs in the Senate operate like Trump’s reelection campaign staff.

The Founders would probably be incredulous – as most Americans are – at how easily Trump and congressional Republicans have been able to threaten the very foundation and continued viability of the great democratic republic they created.  Yet, I believe the considerable damage they have done is reversible.

Fortunately, the architects of the Constitution provided freedom loving U.S. citizens with a mechanism to deal with Trump and his GOP supporters – the vote.   And I firmly believe they will use it to change directions and put this nation and our democracy back on course.

 

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What Is Freedom – And Who Has It?

Freedom-Protests-A-1

Anti-government protestors have been aggressively railing against stay-at-home orders in Michigan and other states, demanding their freedom.  But what is “freedom”?  Is it their right to own an assault rifle?   Does it equate to refusing vaccinations for their children?  Is it being unencumbered by any type of government action whatsoever?  Or is freedom synonymous with economic and health care security?

The Libertarian Party reveres freedom.  Its motto is: Less Government, More Freedom.  Actually, many members of the GOP are Libertarians, perhaps because they have more influence as Republicans.  These ultraconservatives want to abolish income taxes and the IRS, outlaw labor unions and limit government to police and national security duties.  Sure, who needs the EPA and the Department of Education anyway?

The “give me liberty” protests, however, got me thinking a lot about freedom and who really has it.

Certainly, the top one tenth of one percent of wealth holders – those with a net worth starting at around $43 million – have plenty of freedom.  Many of them own one or more jet aircraft.  Hey, who hasn’t thought about how great it would be to own a private plane?  Well, during my working years, I frequently flew on company aircraft.  And I can attest; it’s the ultimate in stress free travel.

No need to worry about a security check, TSA agents or crowded gate areas.  On a morning flight, the pilots take your luggage and provide a hot cup of coffee and a freshly made donut as you relax in a first-class seat.  When returning in the afternoon, a cocktail, cold beer or glass of wine helps smooth out the trip home.  You can fly from Chicago to New York City, hold some meetings and be home in time for dinner.

Yet, luxurious travel is not the only freedom the ultra-wealthy enjoy.  Most have multiple homes; many have luxurious yachts; and some even own a private island.  Their real freedom, however, comes from access.  If they want to meet privately with their representative, senator or even the president, no problem.  A generous campaign contribution facilitates getting special treatment.  No doubt, multi-millionaires and billionaires have the ultimate in freedom.

Those households in the top one percent with a net worth starting at $10.4 million have it pretty cushy too.   They get preferential service wherever they go and have no worries about getting the very best in medical care.  Even folks at the lower end of the top 10 percent with a net worth of a little over $1 million have a reasonable amount of freedom; their main worry is running out of cash before they run out of time.

Retirees above age 65 with a modest net worth also have a fair amount of freedom if they own their home and are collecting Social Security.  At a minimum they have a roof over their head, a guaranteed income and Medicare.

I would submit, however, that freedom for a majority of Americans is very tenuous, even if they have a job and company provided health insurance.   A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute estimates that 43 million of these folks could lose their job and their health insurance due to the coronavirus crisis.

As we learned from a 2019 Federal Reserve study, 27 percent of Americans would have to borrow or sell something to cover an unexpected $400 expense and 12 percent would not be able to cover it at all.  That’s almost 40 percent of Americans – roughly 130 million – who  are in poor financial shape.  How much freedom do they have?

A New York Times article by Nicholas Kristoff about Denmark’s response to the current pandemic and a McDonald’s employee there is illustrative of the stark contrast to a similar American worker.  According to Kristoff, the humblest Danish burger-flipper at McDonald’s makes about $22 per hour, which includes various pay supplements.  He or she also gets six weeks of paid vacation a year, life insurance, a year’s paid maternity leave and a pension plan.  Plus, all Danes enjoy universal medical insurance and paid sick leave.

Kristoff states that the cost of living in Denmark is around 30 percent higher than in the United States.  But U.S. McDonald’s employees are currently fighting for $15 per hour and that wouldn’t include all the other benefits the Danes have.  Who has more freedom, the guy or gal in Denmark who asks “Do you want fries with that?” or his or her counterpart in the U.S.?

Around five years ago, McDonald’s employees in the U.S. were seeking a $10 per hour minimum wage.  I was trying to discuss this movement with a conservative friend, but he dismissed it with, “Well, if McDonald’s has to pay that, they’ll use machines to make burgers.”  I thought, how callous is that?  Still, it’s a typical Republican mindset regarding minimum wages; working-class Americans must either accept low pay or risk being replaced by a robot.

Yes, those protesting against stay-at-home orders in Michigan and elsewhere can wave their assault rifles and their flags.  They can claim the government is being tyrannical and Nazi-like, as they have.  They can angerly vent about being robbed of their freedom.  But no matter what the involved governors do, if these protestors don’t have adequate savings, a secure job and affordable health insurance – the only freedom they’ll actually have is in their mind.

Above photo by Paul Sancya/AP

 

 

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After the Virus, What’s in America’s Future?

The Great Depression of the 1930s was devastating for the entire world, especially the United States.  The agrarian economy of the early twentieth century produced a society that was probably much more self-reliant than that of today’s interconnected, information age.  So, I’ve often wondered how 21st century Americans would cope with a similar economic catastrophe.  Well, apparently, it’s here.  Unemployment claims in the United States have soared to over 33 million and the percent of jobless may exceed the peaks that occurred in the 1930s.

I read an interesting article in The New Yorker recently that questioned if the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout would cause this nation to become more progressive or more dystopian.  It’s possible that we’re nearing that inflection point, so it stimulated my thinking, not only about the future and also about the early 1900s and another horrific pandemic.

World War I ended in November 2018, right in the middle of the first wave of the 1918-2019 flu epidemic that killed 675,000 Americans.  The European conflict had cost the United States an estimated $22.6 billion and the death of over 116,000 American soldiers.

The victorious allies – heavily influenced by France where much of the fighting occurred – dictated the terms of the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles that disarmed Germany’s military and stripped it of territory and economic resources.  Its most humiliating provisions forced this defeated nation to admit responsibility for the war and pay reparations of $33 billion ($504 billion today) in gold-backed German marks.

The treaty was strongly opposed by powerful Massachusetts GOP Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds vote for ratification in the U.S. Senate.  It followed that the U.S. didn’t join the League of Nations in 1920 as President Woodrow Wilson had strongly advised.  U.S. politicians didn’t believe that future involvement with Europe would be in America’s self-interests.  Sound familiar?

Republican Warren G. Harding became president in 1921, promising a return to “normalcy.”  He was backed by a Republican-controlled, isolationist-minded Congress.

But while Americans were enjoying the “roaring twenties” – notwithstanding the prohibition of alcohol – the German economy was in shambles and the German mark (without gold backing), was almost worthless.  As a teenager, I did some work for a German couple who had lived in Germany before 1926.  They talked about needing a basket full of paper marks to purchase a loaf of bread.

As the Great Depression completed its third year in November 1932, Americans threw out the Republicans who had controlled the government for almost a decade and elected Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, with a Democratic-controlled Congress.  Thus, began eight years of enacting the “New Deal,” probably the most progressive legislation in the nation’s history.  What followed was 30+ years of economic progress that greatly benefited all working-class Americans.

The depression, however, steered Germany in an entirely different direction.  During the prior decade of humiliation and economic chaos, radical right-wing political organizations like the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nazis) had gained power.  They promised to reverse the oppression of the Versailles Treaty.  The German government (Weimar Republic) had been totally destabilized by economic stagnation and unrest.  The resulting rise of populism and nationalism paved the way for Adolf Hitler to seize power in 1933.  What followed was massive military expansion and World War II, during which millions of combatants and civilians died.

Today, as the possibility of another global depression looms, populism and nationalism are on the rise again across the western world.  Authoritarian, right-wing governments are threatening to completely replace democracies in Romania, Hungry, Poland, Turkey and Brazil.  In the United States, long-established democratic norms are being trampled under President Donald Trump’s inept, authoritarian-styled leadership.

Even in 2019, this nation was experiencing 1920s-like income inequality.  Now, thousands of cars line up at food banks in communities that were prosperous just three months ago.  And this situation will only get worse as millions of jobless, cash-poor Americans struggle to pay their bills and buy groceries.

Congress is throwing trillions of dollars at these problems but one has to wonder how much of it will actually benefit the individuals and small businesses that are most needy.  Still, many companies won’t survive, leaving their former employees desperately seeking jobs.

Trump-supporting white nationalists and swastika displaying neo-Nazis are taking advantage of the chaos and gaining national attention by opposing the stay-at-home orders of various – mostly Democratic – state governors.  They’re encouraged by Trump who calls them “very nice people” and tweets, “Liberate Michigan”.

Right-wing, antigovernment militia organizations are also protesting, typically carrying military-styled assault rifles.  There are likely more than 100,000 members of the 200+ radical militia organizations operating throughout the U.S. and a deep recession could dramatically swell their numbers.

It’s obvious that Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP will do anything to retain power.  They’re stifling congressional oversight and crippling the Constitution’s separation of powers, while politicizing both the Justice Department and the courts.  Frankly, I fear they are politicizing the rule of law.**

No question, the November election will decide America’s future.  Will voters elect a president and Congress that preserve our democratic institutions and enact progressive legislation that helps working-class Americans escape the prison of income inequality?  Or, will they choose the opposite direction by reelecting Trump and a Republican-controlled Senate that will help him add the shackles of authoritarianism?

I know how I will vote.

**DOJ just dropped the criminal case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor.

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