Two Down In Trump Administration

Two days ago I wrote about how James Flynn was on thin ice, and that Andrew Puzder’s confirmation as Labor secretary were in jeopardy. Later that day Flynn was forced to resign, and today Puzder has withdrawn his nomination.

Both the choices of Flynn and Puzder were examples of poor management from Donald Trump and a failure to perform traditional vetting. The Puzder withdrawal is a fairly straightforward story, but Flynn’s resignation has only led to many additional questions which do require further investigation.

Objective people recognize that there was something improper with Flynn lying to both Vice President Pence and the American people, and with the attempted cover-up by the Trump administration. We have no way to know the degree to which Flynn was acting on his own or under the direction of Donald Trump. We do know that Trump waited three weeks after being informed of Flynn’s calls (regardless of what he might have known previously) to take action. We do not know the full story regarding contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.

We are seeing considerable partisan hypocrisy here, such as in Rand Paul saying it would not make sense to investigate other Republicans. The Republicans who refuse to acknowledge the importance of the Flynn scandal, or question how much leads directly to Trump, sound just like the Democrats who refused to acknowledge the importance of Clinton’s scandals. Partisan politics creates such blindness. This deserves to be investigated regardless of your overall opinion of Trump, and regardless of where you stood in the race between Clinton and Trump.

Of course, while we have strong reasons for further investigations, this does not mean we should buy into every claim made about Trump without evidence. There is no evidence that Trump knew anything until three weeks ago. There is no evidence tying Trump to any attempts to influence the election the results. Claims about Trump’s business dealings with Russians appear to be exaggerated but we should have more information including, but not limited to, his tax returns for further evaluation.  We need to get the facts before coming to conclusions.

There has been a lot of anti-Russia hysteria being spread by Clinton and her neocon allies. The Clinton camp has strong reasons of their own to distort the facts, stemming from both their history of hostility towards Russia and their use of Russia as an excuse for their loss. Clinton lost because she was a terrible candidate and ran a terrible campaign, regardless of what Russia did. We need to find out exactly what Russia did without jumping to conclusions based upon hysteria being created for political reasons.

Dan Rather, who has considerable experience in White House cover-ups, compared this to Watergate:

Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now. It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now. On a 10 scale of armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9. This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. And we may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.

When we look back at Watergate, we remember the end of the Nixon Presidency. It came with an avalanche, but for most of the time my fellow reporters and I were chasing down the story as it rumbled along with a low-grade intensity. We never were quite sure how much we would find out about what really happened. In the end, the truth emerged into the light, and President Nixon descended into infamy.

This Russia story started out with an avalanche and where we go from here no one really knows. Each piece of news demands new questions. We are still less than a month into the Trump Presidency, and many are asking that question made famous by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker those many years ago: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” New reporting suggests that Mr. Trump knew for weeks. We can all remember the General Michael Flynn’s speech from the Republican National Convention – “Lock her up!” in regards to Hillary Clinton. If Hillary Clinton had done one tenth of what Mr. Flynn had done, she likely would be in jail. And it isn’t just Mr. Flynn, how far does this go?

The White House has no credibility on this issue. Their spigot of lies – can’t we finally all agree to call them lies – long ago lost them any semblance of credibility. I would also extend that to the Republican Congress, who has excused away the Trump Administration’s assertions for far too long.

We need an independent investigation. Damn the lies, full throttle forward on the truth. If a scriptwriter had approached Hollywood with what we are witnessing, he or she would probably have been told it was way too far-fetched for even a summer blockbuster. But this is not fiction. It is real and it is serious. Deadly serious. We deserve answers and those who are complicit in this scandal need to feel the full force of justice.

He is right. This all needs to be settled by finding the facts–not by ideology or partisanship.

Chaos In The Trump White House

The chaos continues in the Trump White House.

Michael Flynn is reportedly “on thin ice” after it came out that he spoke with the Russian ambassador about sanctions before Trump took office, and then liked to Mike Pence about having done so. Getting rid of Flynn would be a huge plus.

Reince Priebus’ job also isn’t very secure, with Kellyanne Conway describing his job as her dream job. In this case, I’d prefer Priebus over Conway.

Andrew Puzder, Trump’s anti-labor pick for Labor Secretary, is in trouble now that four Republicans are talking about voting against his confirmation. Another plus if he is blocked.

One member of the Trump administration who isn’t in trouble but should be is Stephen Miller, who sounded Steve Bannon-level crazy in this exchange on Face the Nation:

DICKERSON: When I talked to Republicans on the Hill, they wonder, what in the White House — what have you all learned from this experience with the executive order?

MILLER: Well, I think that it’s been an important reminder to all Americans that we have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become, in many cases, a supreme branch of government. One unelected judge in Seattle cannot remake laws for the entire country. I mean this is just crazy, John, the idea that you have a judge in Seattle say that a foreign national living in Libya has an effective right to enter the United States is — is — is beyond anything we’ve ever seen before.

The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.

Joe Scarborough tore him apart over this:

“No, they are questioned by young little Miller. They will be questioned by the court. It’s called judicial review,” Scarborough said, as his colleagues on set guffawed.

“Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote about it in the Federalist Papers,” Scarborough continued. “It was enshrined in Madison’s Constitution. Andrew Jackson — you go into your president’s office, you know that one, and you look on the walls, and there are all these pictures of Andrew Jackson — he talked of the importance of judicial independence.”

“And seriously, the White House has got to stop embarrassing themselves by putting this guy on,” Scarborough said.

The New York Times had an excellent background article on Miller yesterday.

Update: Michael Flynn has resigned as National Security Adviser.

Philip Roth On The Election Of Donald Trump

Last week, prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, I had recommended the novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis on Facebook. The 1935 novel had a populist demagogue beat FDR and establish a dictatorship, while promising to restore America to greatness and promoting patriotism. Lewis died in 1951 and cannot comment on current events, but I have also read a novel with a similar overall plot from a living author. Philip Roth, who described a similar scenario in The Plot Against America, has provided his views on the election of Donald Trump. From The New Yorker:

In 2004, Philip Roth published “The Plot Against America.” The four main characters of the novel, which takes place between June, 1940, and October, 1942, are a family of American Jews, the Roths, of Newark—Bess, Herman, and their two sons, Philip and Sandy. They are ardent supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but, in Roth’s reimagining, Roosevelt loses his bid for a third term to a surprise Republican candidate—the aviator Charles Lindbergh—whose victory upends not only politics in America but life itself.

The historical Lindbergh was an isolationist who espoused a catchphrase that Donald Trump borrowed for his Presidential campaign, and for his Inaugural Address: “America First.” The fictional Lindbergh, like the actual Trump, expressed admiration for a murderous European dictator, and his election emboldened xenophobes. In Roth’s novel, a foreign power—Nazi Germany—meddles in an American election, leading to a theory that the President is being blackmailed. In real life, U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin and the possibility that a dossier of secret information—kompromat—gives Russia leverage with his regime.

Roth wrote in the Times Book Review that “The Plot Against America” was not intended as a political roman à clef. Rather, he wanted to dramatize a series of what-ifs that never came to pass in America but were “somebody else’s reality”—i.e., that of the Jews of Europe. “All I do,” he wrote, “is to defatalize the past—if such a word exists—showing how it might have been different and might have happened here.”

Last week, Roth was asked, via e-mail, if it has happened here. He responded, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”

American reality, the “American berserk,” Roth has noted, makes it harder to write fiction. Does Donald Trump outstrip the novelist’s imagination?

Roth replied, “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist—that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.

“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

…Many passages in “The Plot Against America” echo feelings voiced today by vulnerable Americans—immigrants and minorities as alarmed by Trump’s election as the Jews of Newark are frightened by Lindbergh’s. The book also chronicles their impulse of denial. Lindbergh’s election makes clear to the seven-year-old “Philip Roth” that “the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ a harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”

Asked if this warning has come to pass, Roth e-mailed, “My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history. I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us. As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

Both It Can’t Happen Here and The Plot Against America are worth reading, but if I had to pick one I preferred the former. (As I read them years apart, it is possible that my opinion could change if I reread them). As It Can’t Happen Here is older, the copyright has expired and ebook versions can be downloaded for free. Goodreads has download links in epub, Mobipocket, and epub versions here.

Many Americans View The Presidential Transition As Ominous

A large number of Americans are looking at the inauguration of Donald Trump with dread. Beyond ideological differences, there are concerns that Donald Trump does not respect the norms which have maintained our democracy.  E.J. Dionne calls this “the most ominous Inauguration Day in modern history.” He wrote, “Trump’s disdain for the democratic disposition we like our presidents to embrace was on display when he dressed down CNN’s Jim Acosta at that news conference last week. Trump’s tone, style and sheer rage (whether real or staged) brought to mind authoritarian leaders who brook no dissent.”

The Associated Press reports on how the presidency is about the change, also discussing Trump failure to respect established norms:

Polls over the past week show that Trump is poised to enter the White House as the least popular president in four decades. Democrats remain staunchly opposed to him, independents have not rallied behind him and even Republicans are less enthusiastic than might be expected, according to the surveys.

In his typical reaction to poll results he doesn’t like, Trump dismissed them as “rigged” in a Tuesday tweet.

It’s exactly that kind of tweet that worries governing experts, lawmakers and other critics, who argue that traditional practices of the presidency protect the health of the American democracy.

“With notable exceptions, we’ve had a political culture in which presidents largely respect a series of unwritten rules that help democracy and the rule of law flourish,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “What’s striking about Trump is he flouts norms that have previously been respected by both parties on a daily basis. He calls things into question that have never been questioned before.”

Since winning the election, Trump has attacked Hollywood celebrities, civil rights icons and political rivals alike. He’s moved markets by going after some companies, while praising others.

He’s questioned the legitimacy of American institutions — appearing to trust the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the intelligence agencies he’ll soon oversee, engaging in personal fights with journalists as he assails the free press and questioning the results of the election, even though it put him in office.

With this backdrop, many Americans are more interested in the massive demonstrations expected for inauguration day than in seeing Donald Trump inaugurated. David Weigel points out that in the past, such as when George W. Bush was inaugurated, demonstrations were “dominated by the political fringe.” Now they being embraced by both the Democratic Party and the left:

Democrats and the broader left, recuperating from an election few of them thought they could lose, are organizing one of the broadest — and earliest — opposition campaigns ever to greet a new president. It began with protests in the hours after Trump’s victory, but it has become bolder since, marked most dramatically by nearly 70 Democratic members of Congress boycotting the inauguration itself…

This year, in his enhanced role as a messenger for congressional Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) successfully encouraged 70-odd rallies last weekend in support of the Affordable Care Act, organized on the ground by Democrats and labor groups. Local branches of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Sanders (and de Blasio) in 2016, have organized “Resist Trump Tuesdays,” in which activists have protested inside the offices of Republican legislators or filled the galleries of state legislatures. According to WFP spokesman Joe Dinkin, 450 community planning meetings took place the week before the inauguration.

Donald Trump has made many contradictory statements. While he has given reason to fear he might not respect our political norms, we really do not know yet what he will do. Adam Gopnik warns to be prepared for the worst possible scenario, and offers this advice:

What is to be done? In such a moment of continued emergency, the most important task may be to distinguish as rigorously as possible between new policies and programs that, however awful, are a reflection of the normal oscillation of power, natural in a mature democracy, and those that are not. To borrow from Woody Allen’s distinction between the miserable (something we all are) and the horrible (fortunately suffered by only a few), we must now distinguish resolutely between the sickening and the terrifying. Many programs and policies with which progressive-minded people passionately disagree will be put forward over the next few years. However much or strongly one opposes them, they are, like it or not, the actual agreed-on platform of a dominant national party. On the issue of gun control alone, we’ll get a Supreme Court that won’t reverse the bad decision of Heller, a legislature that will only further diminish sane controls on military weapons in private hands, likely an increase in open-carry laws, and all the murderous rest. All of this will cost kids’ lives and bring much misery.

One may oppose these things—and one should, passionately and permanently—but they are in no sense illegitimate. They are just wrong. They are also reversible by the same laws and rules and norms and judicial and, perhaps most of all, electoral processes that created them. If we want gun control, we need to get more people caring about it and more people in more places voting for it; we cannot complain because people who don’t want gun control don’t give it to us.

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

So we need to stiffen our spines and broaden our embrace, grasp tightly but reach out far. The conservatives who see Trump for what he is and are shocked by it—and there are many, though not as many as there should be—should be welcomed. We can postpone arguing about the true meaning of the Second Amendment while we band together to fight for the Constitution that precedes it…

The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons: that meek submission is the most short-sighted of policies; that waiting for the other, more vulnerable group to protest first will only increase the isolation of us all. We must refuse to think that if we play nice and don’t make trouble, our group won’t be harmed. Calm but consistent opposition shared by a broad front of committed and constitutionally-minded protesters—it’s easy to say, fiendishly hard to do, and necessary to accomplish if we are to save the beautiful music of American democracy.

Both Parties Tainted By Corruption

There are reasons to fear that the Trump administration might set new records for corruption in government, but before Democrats can claim the high moral ground they must recognize the corruption they have both tolerated and ignored from Bill and Hillary Clinton. Two stories today highlight these points.

First CNN, following attacks for spreading fake news by Donald Trump at his recent press conference, has broken some real news regarding one of his cabinet picks:

Rep. Tom Price last year purchased shares in a medical device manufacturer days before introducing legislation that would have directly benefited the company, raising new ethics concerns for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.

Price bought between $1,001 to $15,000 worth of shares last March in Zimmer Biomet, according to House records reviewed by CNN.

Less than a week after the transaction, the Georgia Republican congressman introduced the HIP Act, legislation that would have delayed until 2018 a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services regulation that industry analysts warned would significantly hurt Zimmer Biomet financially once fully implemented.

In potentially related news, The New York Times has a lengthy account of Donald Trump chasing deals in Russia, contradicting the recent statement from his press secretary that, “Mr. Trump does not have any business dealings in/with Russia.”

Today there was also news with the closing of the Clinton Global Initiative to remind us of all the unsavory stories about the Clinton Foundation and how the Clintons have made a fortune selling influence:

…as soon as Clinton lost the election, many of the criticisms directed toward the Clinton Foundation were reaffirmed. Foreign governments began pulling out of annual donations, signaling the organization’s clout was predicated on donor access to the Clintons, rather than its philanthropic work. In November, the Australian government confirmed it “has not renewed any of its partnerships with the scandal-plagued Clinton Foundation, effectively ending 10 years of taxpayer-funded contributions worth more than $88 million.” The government of Norway also drastically reduced their annual donations, which reached $20 million a year in 2015…

WikiLeaks revealed several criticisms of the Clinton Foundation were true, as pay-to-play schemes and the foundation’s corrupt management were exposed. On October 26, The Washington Post reported a memo detailed how the Clinton Foundation was used to boost Bill Clinton’s income.

“The memo, made public Wednesday by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, lays out the aggressive strategy behind lining up the consulting contracts and paid speaking engagements for Bill Clinton that added tens of millions of dollars to the family’s fortune, including during the years that Hillary Clinton led the State Department,” reported The Washington Post. “It describes how Band helped run what he called “Bill Clinton Inc.,” obtaining “in-kind services for the President and his family—for personal travel, hospitality, vacation and the like.”

The Clinton Foundation‘s downward trajectory ever since since Hillary Clinton’s election loss provides further testimony to claims that the organization was built on greed and the lust for power and wealth—not charity.

I previously posted about the material on the Clinton Foundation leaked by Wikileaks here. As I wrote in another previous post, Clinton unethically made rulings on multiple occasions regarding parties which contributed to the Foundation and/or made unprecedented payments for speeches to Bill Clinton. I’ve previously discussed the Clinton Foundation scandals in greater detail, including here and here. I’ve recently noted how both fact checkers and ethicists viewed the scandals and Clinton’s violations of the ethics agreements which she entered into before becoming Secretary of State, while Common Cause called for an independent audit of the Clinton Foundation well before her nomination.

I bet we will see plenty of rotten things under Trump, but we must not forget this record of corruption from two Democratic leaders.

Senate To Investigate Alleged Ties Between Trump And Putin

The Hill  and Politco report that the Senate Intelligence Committee is going to probe the alleged connections between Donald Trump and Russia. As long as it is a real investigation, and not a coverup or witch hunt depending upon party affiliation, I’m all for investigating. I’ll go with whatever the facts show. I could be wrong, but at the moment I question if the Russia claims are the new Benghazi.

There is a tendency of people to believe negative things they hear about politicians they do not like. Sometimes they are true, and sometimes they are not. While I do not like Hillary Clinton, and have discussed at length many of the valid criticisms of her, I never bought into many of the claims ranging from Vince Foster to Benghazi. Turning on Fox (which I can only handle in brief spurts) demonstrates that many on the right still believe these things. Despite all the conspiracy theories, multiple investigations have shown that most of what conservatives claimed about Benghazi was false. All that is left is the possibility that Clinton might have involved in spinning the explanation for the attack after the fact based upon what sounded best politically, and it is also possible we were just seeing confusion from the fog of war as opposed to intentional deceit.

I don’t like Trump any more than I like Clinton, and there is also considerable valid criticism of him, but the material recently released regarding Trump’s alleged Russian ties has the same smell of bullshit as that which surrounded Benghazi. Claims of Russian attempts to influence our election are probably valid, just as the United States (including Hillary Clinton) often tries to influence elections in other nations. Circumstantial evidence such as business ties between Trump and associates is insufficient to prove a wider conspiracy.

This all needs to be investigated, but any conclusions ultimately need to be based upon the facts, not whether you dislike Trump for other valid reasons. On the other hand, if there is valid evidence against Trump, this should not be ignored just because you dislike Hillary Clinton, also for multiple other reasons. If the claims are false, they should be demonstrated to be false, as opposed to hiding behind the vastly over-used term fake news.

Whatever the investigation finds, Russian interference is not the main reason Hillary Clinton lost. There are no credible allegations that Russia actually hacked the voting machines, or even faked email. The Wikileaks email was one of many factors which was damaging to the Clinton campaign, but ultimately this just provided evidence of dishonesty on the part of Clinton, and unfair intervention in the campaign by the DNC, which was already known. Similarly, it is foolish to blame James Comey for Clinton’s loss when it was Clinton who both violated the rules regarding handling of email (as documented in the State Department Inspector General report) and who handled classified information in a careless manner, placing her campaign in this situation. Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate for Democrats to nominate, and she went on to run an inept campaign.

One negative to a two party election system is that some people come out of it seeing one side as good and the other side as bad. Both sides can be bad, and if we are unusually fortunate, perhaps some year we will have an election when both sides are good. Your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend. Disliking Clinton is no reason to like either Trump or Putin, and all of Trump and Putin’s flaws do not make Hillary Clinton acceptable.

Russian Journalist Warns Of Dangers To The Free Press Under Trump

Donald Trump’s confrontation with the press on Wednesday has reinforced the view among civil libertarians that Donald Trump’s election is a threat to the free press. In November, the Freedom of the Press Foundation pointed out that–

he has threatened to sue newspapers or journalists over a dozen times and said he will attempt to “open up libel laws” as president to make it easier to take newspapers to court. He has attacked and insulted members of the media almost daily and blacklisted countless news outlets over the course of his campaign. He has blamed “freedom of the press” for a terrorist attack in New York and has said the press has “too much protection” under the First Amendment.

While much of Trump’s behavior is unprecedented by American standards, Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev found this to be similar to what journalists face in Russia. He wrote:

Congratulations, US media! You’ve just covered your first press conference of an authoritarian leader with a massive ego and a deep disdain for your trade and everything you hold dear. We in Russia have been doing it for 12 years now …

  • Welcome to the era of bullshit.

Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. Some journalists will try to preempt this by asking two questions at once, against the protests of their colleagues also vying for attention, but that also won’t work: he’ll answer the one he thinks is easier, and ignore the other. Others will use this opportunity to go on a long, rambling statement vaguely disguised as a question, but that’s also bad tactics. Non-questions invite non-answers. He’ll mock you for your nervous stuttering and if you’re raising a serious issue, respond with a vague, non-committal statement (“Mr President, what about these horrible human rights abuses in our country?” “Thank you, Miss. This is indeed a very serious issue. Everybody must respect the law. And by the way, don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well? Next question please”).

Kovalev had other warnings for the press, such as not to expect any camaraderie from other members of the press: ” It’s in this man’s best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention.”

While Kovalev addressed this to “my doomed colleagues in the American media,” fortunately the United States is not Russia. We have a tradition of supporting freedom of the press which Russia lacks. Trump might attack journalists, but he is not likely to have them killed as has become far too common in Russia. PolitiFact points out that “Russia currently ranks 180 out of 199 countries for press freedom, behind Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the international watchdog Freedom House.”

Unlike Russia, elected government officials can be voted out of office, and public opinion has some effect on them. While it is common for winning presidential candidates to receive a positive bounce after being elected, Donald Trump is taking office with record low approval. The latest Gallup poll found:

In Gallup polling conducted two weeks before Inauguration Day, President-elect Donald Trump continues to garner historically low approval for his transition performance, with 51% of Americans disapproving of how he is handling the presidential transition and 44% approving. Last month, the public was split on this question, with 48% approving and 48% disapproving…

Trump’s 48% transition approval rating in December was already the lowest for any presidential transition Gallup has measured, starting with Bill Clinton’s in 1992-1993. Trump’s current rating only further separates him from his predecessors — particularly Barack Obama, who earned 83% approval for his handling of the transition process in January 2009, up from 75% in mid-December 2008….

The last president before Trump to win the election despite losing the national popular vote was George W. Bush in 2000. However, while Bush’s transition scores were lower than those of both his predecessor (Clinton) and his successor (Obama), his 61% approval rating in mid-January 2001 was nowhere near as low as Trump’s is today.

Donald Trump Hides Behind Claims Of Fake News To Attack News Media

Fake news has become a greatly overused expression. A few days ago Margaret Sullivan wrote that it is time to retire the term:

Faster than you could say “Pizzagate,” the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.

“The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become,” said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher.

As Jeremy Peters wrote in the New York Times: “Conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself . . . have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.”

So, here’s a modest proposal for the truth-based community.

Let’s get out the hook and pull that baby off stage. Yes: Simply stop using it.

Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. After all, “fake news” is an imprecise expression to begin with.

Of course it is not only Donald Trump and Republicans who rely on term. Hillary Clinton, once again oblivious to the First Amendment,  even called on Congress to take action against fake news which she saw as hurting her campaign. During the campaign, Carol Lee, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, pointed out how both Trump and Clinton are a threat to press freedom.

Donald Trump showed the problem with the term again today in refusing to allow a CNN reporter to ask a question, accusing them of spreading fake news. (The full text of the press conference can be found here.)

There were certainly a number of problems with the story as reported by Buzzfeed, alleging deep ties between Trump and Russia. There are grounds to question CNN’s reporting of the story, along with other stories, but this hardly justifies dismissing the network work as Trump did. Besides, Democrats have put up with far more objectionable reporting from Fox over the years out of respect for the First Amendment.

CNN released the following response:

CNN’s decision to publish carefully sourced reporting about the operations of our government is vastly different than Buzzfeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos. The Trump team knows this. They are using Buzzfeed’s decision to deflect from CNN’s reporting, which has been matched by the other major news organizations.

We are fully confident in our reporting. It represents the core of what the First Amendment protects, informing the people of the inner workings of their government; in this case, briefing materials prepared for President Obama and President-elect Trump last week.

We made it clear that we were not publishing any of the details of the 35-page document because we have not corroborated the report’s allegations. Given that members of the Trump transition team have so vocally criticized our reporting, we encourage them to identify, specifically, what they believe to be inaccurate.

It would have been far better if Trump had responded to a question on his objections to the story at the press conference as opposed to handling it as he did.

Damon Beres commented on the irony of Trump’s complaint about fake news:

There are a number of arguments against BuzzFeed’s publication of the document. Chief among them: It’s a totally unverified report, yet, gets legitimized as a natural consequence of its distribution. There is no doubt that plenty of people who’ve seen these rumors spread, sans context, on social media, might take them as fact, sight unseen.

But to lump BuzzFeed’s coverage into the now overly-broad category of malicious “fake news” isn’t quite right, either.

Trump should know this better than most. His campaign disproportionately benefited from the spread of viral, fabricated stories during the election…

For Trump to put BuzzFeed on blast for propagating “fake news” is ironic at best, given what he’s reaped from the viral spread of legitimate misinformation. And it’s troubling for another reason: It gives people license to cry “fake news” when the media reports something they simply don’t like.

The term has arguably outlived its usefulness at this point, distorted as its definition has become. But “fake news” was originally intended as a label for online articles that deliberately misled for some secondary purpose—to profit or electioneer.

BuzzFeed’s publication of incendiary documents, heavily couched as unverified, was not “fake news.” It is real news about information that may not be true.

There’s a difference—a big one. And if we want a free press to continue working for the public, we’d do well to understand it.

Besides, there is no exclusion to freedom of the press listed in the First Amendment for fake news–something which both Trump and Clinton need to understand.

The primary topic of the press conference was to Donald Trump to present his response to concerns about conflicts of interest. The head of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has called Trump’s plan “wholly inadequate.”

“The plan the president-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the last four decades have met,” OGE Director Walter Shaub said during a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective,” he said.

Evaluating Russian Actions Based Upon Facts And Not Political Biases

With the intelligence reports released yesterday being somewhat underwhelming but raising serious questions, I fear that many people will continue to look at the Russian hacking through partisan lenses as opposed to taking a fact-based approach. Clinton supporters many partisan Democrats see a conspiracy between Trump and Russia which stole the election from who they see as the rightful winner, ignoring how weak a candidate Clinton was. Some opponents of Clinton, on both the left and right, go to the other extreme in denying any foul play by Russia, with some even displaying a misplaced admiration for a despot such as Putin. The facts we have now place matters somewhere in between.

William Rivers Pitt had a good comment on the situation on Facebook:

I am capable of holding two thoughts in my head simultaneously. 1: Clinton and her campaign fucked up royally and are in full dodge mode; 2: Russia fucked with a national presidential election. Both of these things can be true at the same time.

Try it, see what happens. This binary 1 0 1 0 shit is for the birds.

To this I would add 3: The United States also has a long history in meddling in foreign elections. This includes Clinton. Therefore it is important to keep matters in perspective. Clinton, Trump, and Putin are all bad guys here. It is not necessary to love Putin (or Trump) if you oppose Clinton.

I think we are seeing excessive push back from some on the left because of the manner in which many Clinton supporters have exaggerated the significance this, with claims that Clinton would have won if not for  Putin (or Comey). This is especially dangerous when we hear speculation that Clinton might run again in four years, which would be a colossal mistake.

It is not necessary to deny that Russia has had a policy of trying to disrupt western elections to blur the distinction between himself and the west. Improving relations with Russia as Trump speaks of is preferable to Clinton’s Cold War policies, but we also must not be naive regarding Russia, or totally ignore intelligence based upon political considerations.

Last night Rachel Maddow gave a rather one-sided account of events, portraying Clinton as the hero in opposing Putin, ignoring her history of support for regime change. Clinton is also not an innocent here, and Russia had legitimate reason for concern that the election of Clinton would greatly increase the chances of increased conflict with the United States. David Remnick provides a more balanced background, including Putin’s disdain for Hillary Clinton, and reminds us of reasons we should not admire Putin out of common ground of opposing the policies of Hillary Clinton:

Putin’s resentment of Clinton was always manifest; it is almost as severe as Trump’s. Putin saw the Clinton Administration of the nineties as having taken advantage of Russian weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union, twenty-five years ago. He viewed Hillary Clinton as a foreign-policy hawk who wanted regime change from Baghdad to Kiev to Moscow. In 2011, Putin, who lives in fear of spontaneous uprisings, events like the Arab Spring and the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, accused Clinton of giving “a signal” to urge thousands of Russians to come out on the streets of Moscow to protest parliamentary-election “irregularities” and Putin’s intention to return once more to the Kremlin as President.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with Russian political experts, and all of them agreed that Putin was certainly pleased, at least initially, with Trump’s victory—and that satisfaction is reflected, too, on countless news and talk shows on television. These analysts added that Putin is undoubtedly cheered that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s appointment to head the State Department, was likely to leave behind American “sanctimony” about human rights and democracy and, following the pattern of his career at ExxonMobil, to concentrate on purely “transactional politics.” Some, however, wondered if Putin will remain enchanted with Trump once he encounters Trump’s inconsistencies, his alarming penchant for surprise pronouncements via Twitter.

Like many nationalist politicians in Europe, Trump has made plain his admiration for Putin, complimenting the Russian leader’s “great control over his country,” while at the same time failing to address the reality that Putin’s regime has instituted wholesale censorship of television, increased repressive measures on ordinary citizens, and unleashed his forces in Ukraine and Syria. (Putin, of course, discounts criticism of his policies as Western hypocrisy and points to everything from the invasion of Iraq, which he opposed, to the eastward expansion of NATO, which he sees as an aggressive act.)

Trump’s argument throughout the campaign, the reason for his compliments for Putin, he has said, is related to his stated desire to ease tensions between Russia and the United States and avoid the ultimate disaster, a nuclear confrontation. But what concerns many seasoned American analysts, politicians, and diplomats is that Trump is deluding himself about Putin’s intentions and refuses to see the nature of Russia’s nationalist, autocratic regime clearly. Trump has spoken critically of NATO and in support of European nationalist initiatives like Brexit to such a degree that, according to one Obama Administration official, “our allies are absolutely terrified and completely bewildered.”

Strobe Talbott, who was Bill Clinton’s closest adviser on Russia, told me recently that the hack of the D.N.C. and Putin’s other moves in Europe—including the annexation of Crimea, the Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine, and the financial support of nationalists like Marine Le Pen, of France—were part of a larger strategy intended to weaken the E.U. and NATO.

The reports continue to leave many questions open, as described by The New York Times:

Perhaps most arresting is the assessment that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, sees the election attack as payback — not offense, but defense. He has borne a serious grudge against Mrs. Clinton, who he believes denigrated him when she was secretary of state and encouraged the pro-democracy protests in Moscow that erupted against him in 2011.

Mr. Putin, the report says, sees the hidden hand of the United States in the leaking of the Panama Papers, files stolen from a law firm that exposed the wealth of his closest associates, secreted in offshore accounts. He even blames the United States for the exposure — carried out mainly by international sports authorities — of Russian athletes for their widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“From the Russian perspective, this is punching back,” said Christopher Porter, a former C.I.A. officer who now studies cyberattacks at the firm FireEye. “We may not think that’s fair or justified, but that’s the way they see it.”

Mr. Porter said Mr. Putin had made no secret of his view that the United States, by promoting democracy in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, had interfered in Russia’s backyard and was trying to undermine its power.

What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. That is a significant omission: Mr. Trump has been expressing skepticism for months that Russia was to blame, variously wondering whether it might have been China, or a 400-pound guy, or a guy from New Jersey.

There is only a whisper of dissent in the report — the eavesdroppers of the N.S.A. believe with only “moderate confidence” that Russia aimed to help Mr. Trump, while their colleagues at the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. have “high confidence.”

While most of Congress and much of the public appears to accept the agencies’ findings, Mr. Trump’s prominent doubts, accompanied at times by scorn for the agencies’ competence, has rallied a diverse array of skeptics on the right and the left. Under the circumstances, many in Washington expected the agencies to make a strong public case to erase any uncertainty.

Instead, the message from the agencies essentially amounts to “trust us.” There is no discussion of the forensics used to recognize the handiwork of known hacking groups, no mention of intercepted communications between the Kremlin and the hackers, no hint of spies reporting from inside Moscow’s propaganda machinery.

While the claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq showed the need to be skeptical of intelligence reports, especially when used to justify going to war, they also cannot be discounted. Most likely Russia was involved in trying to influence the US election, as they have been involved in similar actions in Europe. This does not mean that there was a direct conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russians as Democrats such as Harry Reid have claimed without any evidence. On the other hand, it would be a serious matter if this was true, and any connections should be investigated.

This also does not mean that Russia is responsible for Clinton’s loss. While Wikileaks received a lot of news coverage, at most it was one of many factors affecting a very close election. As I mentioned previouslyFivethirtyeight has shown how any argument that the Wilkleaks releases cost Clinton the election is “circumstantial.” To the degree that the leaked information hurt Clinton, it was because of confirming what her critics on the left already were well aware of, and providing factual information for the voters to consider. Russia did not hack voting machines or even harm Clinton with false information to alter the results of the election. None of the released intelligence information casts any doubt on the accuracy of the leaked email, regardless of whether Russia was indirectly the source for Wikileaks.

Obama Announces Response To Russia, Avoids Doing “Stupid Stuff”

While I don’t always agree with Barack Obama, compared to the two candidates to replace him in 2017, he will be missed for his policy not doing “stupid stuff.” Hillary Clinton, who supported “stupid stuff” including in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, attacked Obama over the principle of “don’t do stupid stuff” sometime between leaving as Secretary of State and stupidly thinking it was a good idea to run for president by claiming to be running for a third Obama term. Donald Trump has been an endless source of stupid stuff since he decided to run for president. I was glad to see that Obama continued this principle in limiting his response to the alleged Russian meddling in the presidential election.

Obama has announced his response to Russia, described by The New York Times as “ejecting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the United States and imposing sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services.” The full statement is here. It was a response proportional to the alleged acts which avoids permanent harm to any attempts to repair relationships between the United States and Russia.

US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was involved in hacking email from top Democratic leaders. Others have questioned the evidence. Skeptics have compared this to how US intelligence agencies also concluded, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Saddam threatened our security with weapons of mass destruction. It is certainly believable that Russia was spying on American political leaders. After all, the United States routinely does this in foreign countries, and has a long history of meddling in foreign elections.

Unfortunately this also reinforces the false narratives that Russia hacked our election to elect Donald Trump. Even if it is accepted as fact that Russia was involved in hacking the email of an American political party,  US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been far from unanimous in taking this further to conclude that the Russians were doing so with the purpose of helping Donald Trump win. There is certainly no evidence of any coordination between Trump and Russia as Democrats such as Harry Reid have claimed. Julian Assange has denied that the information he released even came from Russia. Clinton supporters have used claims about Russia to deny responsibility for Clinton’s highly flawed campaign. Fivethirtyeight has shown how any argument that the Wilkleaks releases cost Clinton the election is “circumstantial.” To the degree that the leaked information hurt Clinton, it was because of confirming what her critics on the left already were well aware of, and providing factual information for the voters to consider. Russia did not hack voting machines or even harm Clinton with false information to alter the results of the election.

It appears that the Democratic National Committee fell for a rather simple phishing scheme, and compounded the error with miscommunication and possibly a typo. The best response to espionage which depends upon gaps in cyber-security is to improve cyber-security. Foreign governments, among others, are going to continue to spy on Americans, just as the United States is going to continue to spy on both allies and foes. If he feels like he must, Obama can expel some diplomats, but there is no point in risking more serious conflict over this. Similarly, there is no point for Democrats to continue to blame Russia for their loss after running such a poor campaign with a terrible candidate.