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The Pricking of the Trump Bubble?

dowjones

Last Friday night we went to a dinner hosted by our financial advisor, who talked about the current state of the financial markets. His message was reassuring–basically that the economy is fundamentally healthy and there are no real indications that another recession is on the horizon. He made a persuasive and cogent case for his optimism, and I do hope he’s right. But my gut keeps telling me that the next few years might not be quite so rosy.

I will admit up front to some schadenfreude over the market plunge over the past few days, simply because Trump has been so loudly trumpeting the recent climb in the DJIA as his personal achievement, which it clearly is not. But a bear market certainly is not going to do the country (or me personally) any good, however satisfying a bit of karma payback might feel.

So here’s what makes me worry. Let’s start with the fact that the stock market isn’t the country or even the economy. Barely half of Americans own any stocks at all, and the wealthiest 10 percent account for 81 percent of the value of all stocks and 91 percent of directly held stocks and bonds. That means that for half of the people in this country, the ups and downs of the stock market have no direct impact on their wealth or well-being. Back when people actually had pensions, more people might have had a stake in the markets, but pension funds are a dwindling presence in America. And only about one-third of American workers contribute to a 401(k) plan or some other tax-deferred retirement plan. That means that when stocks go up, it’s primarily the rich who benefit, not the average Joe.

Then there’s the issue of wage growth, which has been unusually slow as the economy has climbed out of the Great Recession. Indeed, there has been a kind of downward ratchet effect on wage growth since the last two Bush-era recessions, as illustrated in this graph from a study by the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. There had been some encouraging signs that as unemployment has dropped wages are at last beginning to rise, but the increases are still anemic compared to previous recoveries. And the direction of the moving average suggests that the rate of increase is not necessarily on an upward trajectory.

wage growth

Today’s New York Times published an analysis showing that companies are increasingly giving out one-time bonuses instead of salary increases, which are more permanent and set a new baseline for compensation. The article notes that “bonuses have not made up for wage stagnation. The inflation-adjusted median income of men working full time was lower in 2016 than it was in 1973. And their lifetime earnings–which include salary, wages, bonuses and exercised stock options–have mostly dropped since then.” All of this also suggests that the benefits of the recent bull market have accrued to a rather small and rich slice of the US population and the rest have benefitted relatively little if at all. The question is this: If most people aren’t seeing their incomes go up, how much of a recovery is it really?

Indeed, the post-election bull market seems to be in large part a product of what Alan Greenspan once called “irrational exuberance”–based on a giddy euphoria in corporate America that their taxes would be slashed and those annoying regulations would vanish and they could party like it was 2007 again! This in itself should be reason for concern.

Everybody just loves tax cuts, but the one that just passed, combined with last week’s spending bill that will keep the government running, will roughly double the deficit in the next fiscal year. ( I will refrain from further comment on GOP hypocrisy regarding deficit spending. And no, the Democrats are not equally to blame for running up the deficit.)

This means that the federal government will have to borrow a lot more money to cover the gap between falling revenues and increasing expenditures, which in all likelihood means that interest rates will rise faster than they otherwise would have. In general, the stock market doesn’t like it when interests start rising, and this could also have a dampening effect in other areas such as real estate, as well as increasing inflationary pressure.

Then there’s the regulation thing. Wall Street and corporate America hate them, but the fact remains that the greater danger lies in too little regulation rather than too much. Just look back at the economic damage that de-regulated capitalism has caused since the “Reagan Revolution”, starting with the ’80s savings and loan crisis, the “Black Monday” crash in 1987, Enron, the dot.com bubble that set off the first Bush recession, and finally the real estate and banking bust of 2008 that precipitated the Great Recession.

Now we have an administration that is gleefully bent on smashing the entire regulatory system that we have set up over the past 50 years precisely to mitigate such problems. Scott Pruitt has gutted the EPA, Mick Mulvaney is destroying the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, federal investigation of corporate malfeasance has all but ceased, and (perhaps most alarming) the Dodd-Frank regulations imposed in the wake of the Great Recession are under concerted attack. This looks like another financial disaster waiting to happen, even if we don’t know exactly what it will be.

Then there is the historical track record. Republicans may be the party of business, but historically the American economy has grown significantly more when the government was under Democratic control. Since the Reagan years, every recession has begun under a Republican administration, and this has been an unusually long economic expansion.

Moreover, we are in an extraordinarily unstable time politically. Confidence in the institutions of American government is at an historic low. Corporate America may love Trump, but a majority of Americans do not like him. The Mueller investigation is a looming danger to the administration. We don’t know how this will all turn out, but we can be pretty sure that some kind of constitutional crisis is on the horizon. Regardless of what that means for American democracy, the markets generally do not respond well to political turmoil.

Finally there is the possibility of an unforeseeable event–the Black Swan.  It could involve North Korea or another armed conflict in the Middle East, or something else quite unanticipated. Of course, that could occur at any time, but we now have an exceptionally erratic person in the White House, which raises the likelihood that some incident could suddenly escalate into something far worse with who know what consequences.

I respect the expertise of financial professionals and the market analysis they do, but at the same time it seems to me that there are just too many cross-cutting macro trends in the economy, government, and society at large to feel very confident at this point. I just have this feeling that the party is winding down and a hangover is on the way. Hope it’s not a bad one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How a Brit Ex-Spy is a Better US Patriot than GOP Senators

 

Steele timeline

The Washington Post, 2/6/2018

 

How is it possible that an Australian diplomat and a former British intelligence officer have been far more concerned about Russian influence on US elections and the current US president than the entire Republican congressional delegation?

Today’s Washington Post ran a fascinating and detailed story about contacts between Christopher Steele, author of the now-famous “dossier”, and the FBI, the US State Department, and others in the US government including Senator John McCain. The article deserves careful reading and attention. You can read it in full here.

The Post article contains details about repeated contacts during which Steele presented information to the FBI that he had uncovered during his research for Fusion GPS–the company initially hired by a conservative Republican publication and subsequently by the DNC Clinton campaign to dig up information on Trump and his business associations.

Some of this is broadly familiar by now, if you’ve been paying attention, but there are some quite surprising new tidbits, particularly about how alarmed Steele was at what he had uncovered and how he vetted his findings with MI6 (the UK intelligence branch) and sought out various contacts within the US government to alert them to the information.

It is important to remember (from what has been reported in the press) that the FBI had been tipped off by an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, about a May 2016 conversation in London with an inebriated George Papadopoulos, in which Papadopoulos (then designated by Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers) reportedly spilled the beans about a large trove of stolen Clinton emails the Russians were going to release to the world. After the emails started appearing online, the Australian alerted the FBI about the conversation, which now appears to have been one (and perhaps the first) of the factors that made the FBI initiate its investigation of Russian interference.

Among the most intriguing elements of the Post story is how John McCain got briefed about the Steele information. According to this report, Steele confided his report to Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador in Moscow, who in November briefed McCain at a meeting in Canada and in early December arranged to have the full Steele report delivered to him. Wood described McCain as “visibly shocked” after the Canada briefing, and (as has been previously reported) McCain handed over the “dossier”–which the FBI had had for months–to James Comey on December 9, 2016.

Then there is this tantalizing bit in the Post article:  Steele sought advice on how to handle this explosive material from his former boss at MI6, who said that the “situation reminded him of a predicament he had faced years earlier, when he was chief of station for British intelligence in Washington and alerted U.S. authorities to British information that a vice presidential hopeful had once been in communication with the Kremlin.” Huh, what?!! Wouldn’t we like to know who that might have been!

The takeaway from this story is that Steele seems very far from the biased pro-Clinton political operative that Devin Nunes and others in the GOP are trying to portray him. In fact, he is a respected intelligence professional with continuing links to both UK and US diplomatic and intelligence services who used his extensive contacts in Russia that revealed information that might otherwise not have seen the light of day. It is worth reiterating here that nothing in the Steele reports has yet been proven to be false, and more and more of it has indeed been corroborated by other reporting.

What is most deeply disturbing is that here we have an Australian diplomat and a British intelligence officer delivering information of the most alarming possible nature about a existential threat to American democracy at the same time that the entire Republican party remains determined not merely to look the other way, but to punish the messenger! Even the sainted John McCain has been closed-mouth about it. A month ago senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham actually made a criminal referral to the Justice Department to bring charges against Steele! Devin Nunes has become Trump’s Haldeman and Ehrlichman, attempting to spin the whole sordid affair as somehow being Hillary Clinton’s fault. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell just mumbles nonsense into his chins, and Paul Ryan just opens his blue eyes really wide and utters five impossible things before breakfast everyday.

They just don’t fucking care.

The State of the Union

State of the Union

We are in a cold Civil War–one which in many ways is simply an extension of the armed conflict that ended a century and a half ago. Those issues–the most fundamental of which is racism–were never really resolved.  Now they are back out in the open, in large part because we have a president who has gleefully fanned those smoldering embers back into a raging fire.

What’s really different is that for the first time in our history, the man in the White House sees himself as a messianic despot. “I alone can fix it.” He asks people to put their trust in him personally rather than in the institutions of the country, while doing everything possible to undermine and subvert those same institutions and subordinate them to his own agenda. And the Republican Party has become his eager accomplices.

We are on the verge of something unprecedented in this country: the decimation of the nation’s premier law-enforcement agency in order to kill an investigation into clandestine manipulation of our election by a hostile foreign power in support of the sitting president. The truly scary part is that Trump might very well get away with it.

He has put in place all the elements of a classic authoritarian dictator:

  • Building a cult of personality fueled by repeated rallies in front of carefully selected adulatory audiences and holding meetings with cabinet members who must individually praise him.
  • Engaging in character assassination against former and current political adversaries, and using such attacks as diversions from criticism of the leader.
  • Creating an inner circle comprised primarily of family members and sycophants, whose responsibilities are fluid and ill-defined.
  • Expressing unrelenting hostility towards the independent press and incessant attacks on legitimate news organizations that are critical of him.
  • Showing casual disregard for facts and willingness to repeat lies that, though refuted, are uttered in such quantity that truth becomes irrelevant.
  • Deliberately stoking of fears and prejudice against easily identifiable and vulnerable minorities who are vilified as the cause of the country’s problems.
  • Pandering to perceived grievances and fears of the dominant ethnic group by claiming to be their savior.
  • Using religion to solidify political support and exploit prejudices.
  • Instituting targeted rules and regulations to suppress voting by specific groups deemed to be hostile to the leader.
  • Saber-rattling and brinkmanship against selected foreign countries to foster public fears and patriotic sentiments.
  • Cultivating the military by appointing politically sympathetically generals to senior White House positions and staging political events in front of military captive audiences.
  • Catering to the financial interests of wealthy and ideologically-attuned donors who will support political allies and amplify the message in media they control.
  • Attacking government agencies whose missions are not aligned with the leader’s agenda by starving them of resources and appointing directors who will cripple those agencies from within.
  • Imposing fiscal and regulatory policies and awarding government contracts that directly benefit large corporate interests in return for financial and political support.
  • Flouting of ethical rules and encouraging a culture of corruption with particular benefit to financial interests of the leader, his family, and close associates.

We Americans (or at least white Americans) have been inculcated since birth with the idea that our country is exceptional and our constitutional freedoms will always be secure. We may think that the Founding Fathers had such god-like wisdom that  democracy will live forever under the system they created. But that’s an illusion.

African-Americans certainly know better. The Confederacy may have lost the war in 1865, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution supposedly gave them the full rights of citizenship. But the forces of reaction never gave up and have waged an unrelenting and often successful battle ever since to keep that from happening.

The point is that the Constitution is just a piece of paper. For it to function as intended, there must be a shared consensus on norms, practices, customs, and rules to faithfully implement its lofty aspirations. Without that it can just be a sham, as so many fine-sounding constitutions of dictatorships have proven.

That’s why this moment in our history is so crucial and dangerous, because we have a person in the Oval Office who cares about nothing but gratifying his own personal greed, grievances, and ego. And behind him is one of our two major political parties which has cast off adherence to the norms and practices that have allowed American democracy to function, however imperfectly, and appears fully prepared to follow him off the cliff.

Maybe a majority of Americans has become disgusted with Trump, but we have never faced this situation before, we can’t quite believe what is happening, and we don’t know what to do about it. But I think we know that the ground is shifting under our feet.

Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the union is alarmed!

Sen. Schumer, Don’t Let Trump Build That Wall!

Berlin Wall

Ever since the Weekend Shutdown ended with a whimper on Monday, I have been reading analyses about how Schumer got the best possible deal while holding a weak hand. There is one by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, one by Ezra Kline in Vox, and one in Wonkette (with the best title ever). I get their lines of thought on this, but I think they–and Schumer–are missing something more fundamentally important. It feels like a capitulation and reinforces the theme that the Democratic congressional leadership is untrustworthy and all too willing to make unsatisfactory deals with an implacable enemy. They risk losing the confidence of the party’s foot soldiers and sapping the energy that has fueled the Resistance. The troops want Churchill and they’re getting Chamberlain.

If there’s any hope of getting a fair shake for the millions of immigrants living in the shadows in this country, it lies in getting a Democratic Congress in 2018. This is an issue that supposedly appeals to all factions within the party and represents a basic difference from the Republicans. But if the Democratic leadership in Congress is seen as wobbly on this crucial issue, then what happens to the enthusiasm and focused anger that seemed to be generating a Democratic wave for the mid-terms? I think that Schumer is so focused on legislative maneuvering that he is missing the critical importance of symbolism in this battle. Maybe wonkish insiders immersed in Senate rules understand what he’s doing, but the folks out there marching in the streets are getting entirely the wrong message.

Supposedly, the major accomplishment of the deal Schumer made was “releasing one of the hostages”, i.e., the CHIPS program which funds health care for poor kids. But CHIPS is about the least controversial program imaginable these days, and even all but the most extreme Republicans support it. There was never any real chance that Congress was going to let it lapse.

Schumer’s other alleged achievement was a  carefully (and suspiciously) worded promise from Mitch McConnell to allow a clean bill on DACA to come to a vote in the Senate. Let’s accept for a minute the dubious proposition that McConnell keeps his word, and let’s even posit that such a bill would pass the Senate. There is virtually no chance that the bill will make it to the floor of the House, because the radical cabal of anti-immigrant Republican members would never allow Paul Ryan to bring it out of committee, let alone come to a vote. It will be the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration bill debacle all over again.

What will happen is that the fate of the Dreamers, who have the overwhelming sympathy of the public, will be tied yet again to building Trump’s Wall. The argument is being made that it is worth squandering billions of dollars to build his useless fucking wall if it means that the Dreamers can stay. And it’s hard not to be sympathetic to that logic.

Except: The Wall is more than just a wall. It is the very cornerstone of Trump’s appeal. It is the thing he needs above all else to achieve. If he gets it funded, he will be doing an endless mother-of-all-end-zone-dances to celebrate his triumph, and it will energize his base and the rest of the Republican party along with it.

The Wall is, therefore, the biggest bargaining chip of them all. If the Democrats are going to allow it to be part of a bargain, it needs to be for more than just the Dreamers. It needs to be part of a comprehensive immigration bill that would create a way for the millions of undocumented immigrants to get legal status and a path to citizenship. They deserve this, and the Democrats need to fight for this tooth and nail. Otherwise, it’s not just not going to happen.

I’m really not sure that the Democratic leadership really understands that this country has moved into an era of a Cold Civil War. They appear to cling to the hope that somehow they can go back to dealing with Republicans in traditional ways, when their adversary has become a party of Bolsheviks or Jacobins bent on their annihilation.

To use a Civil War metaphor, we have Generals McClellan and Burnside leading the Democratic troops, when who we need are Grant and Sherman.

 

The Libertarian Presidency

Libertarian Trump

For a lot of people–especially the young–voting Libertarian has become the hip alternative to the two mainstream parties. Saying you’re Libertarian often seems to convey a condescending sense of being more “evolved”. But I wonder how many self-described Libertarians really know what they are endorsing. There is actually surprisingly little difference between the agenda of Donald Trump’s Republican Party and the Libertarian Party platform. If one were to draw a Venn diagram, the overlap would be somewhere around 70 or 80 percent.

In fact, there has been a kind of stealth coup by which the party of Eisenhower has become the party of Ayn Rand, whose veneration of the sanctity of private wealth and  hatred of government regulation of any kind is now the guiding philosophy of the GOP.

Much of that takeover has been thanks to the ceaseless and semi-clandestine activism of billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, who for four decades have been constructing the financial, organizational, and intellectual structure which now dominates the Republican party. (Charles Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice-president in 1980.) These are the people who financed and largely created the Tea Party movement, which enabled the rise of GOP senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul and governors like Scott Walker, Sam Brownback, Rick Scott, and (before he became vice-president) Mike Pence. Their influence so dominates the party that relative moderates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush are now marginal figures, and John Boehner quit as Speaker of the House in frustration. Mitch McConnell, who lacks any actual convictions, has adapted well, however.

To see just how congruent today’s GOP is with Libertarian principles, take a look at the 2016 Libertarian Party platform. It is divided into three broad areas: “personal liberty”, “economic liberty”, and “securing liberty”, but clearly the greatest of these is economic liberty.

Let’s start with issues where there is disagreement, which are mostly in the “personal liberty” category.

–Abortion. The platform states that “people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” Can’t get much more pro-choice than that.
–Gay rights. “Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships.” Again, pretty unambiguously pro-LGBT. Except for that little escape clause… (see below).
–Drug laws. Libertarians oppose “victimless” crimes, “such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.” Jeff Sessions wouldn’t like that, and besides those drug arrests make a great voter suppression tool.
–Death penalty. Libertarians oppose it. Most Republicans, especially in the South, think it’s great.

These are the “shiny objects” that attract younger, educated voters to the Libertarian label. Indeed, Donald Trump seemed to hold similar views on most of these issues before he ran for president.

Another area of dissonance involves trade and immigration. The Libertarian platform states: “Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders.” In other words, no border walls. Wall Street Republicans should like this, however.

There is also a hint of disagreement about defense spending. The Libertarians “support the maintenance of a sufficient military to defend the United States against aggression.” This is a much more limited role than the US military now has and implies a correspondingly limited budget. Republicans usually can’t wait to give the Pentagon a blank check.

Okay, so much for the differences. When we look at the core of the platform, “economic freedom”, their programs are in almost perfect harmony:

This section of the Libertarian platform begins with a unequivocal endorsement of pure laissez-faire capitalism straight out of Ayn Rand: “The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.”

In other words, if the top 10 percent of the population own more than three-fourths of the entire wealth in the US (which they do), that’s just fine because that’s the way the markets work. No difference from the Republicans there.

Libertarians would begin by eliminating the income tax. “We call for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution.” Even Paul Ryan wouldn’t dare go this far…yet. But this is clearly the direction in which Republicans aspire to go, as articulated by Grover Norquist’s declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Libertarian platform is silent about where revenues to run whatever remained of the federal government would come from.

On health care: “We favor a free-market health care system. We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want (if any), the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care, including end-of-life decisions.” This would mean eliminating Obamacare and Medicaid and privatizing Medicare–all of which are Republican goals.

On retirement and Social Security“Retirement planning is the responsibility of the individual, not the government. Libertarians would phase out the current government-sponsored Social Security system and transition to a private voluntary system. The proper and most effective source of help for the poor is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.” Again, exactly the goal of the Republican party. If the poor need help, it should come from private charity, not government programs.

On the environment: “Competitive free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources…Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights and responsibilities regarding resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.” This is essentially the rationale for dismantling the EPA and rescinding regulations designed to protect the environment and public health. It is also contrary to historical experience, and acknowledges no such thing as a public good such as clean air or water.

On energy policy“Government should not be subsidizing any particular form of energy. We oppose all government control of energy pricing, allocation, and production.” In other words, there should be no government investment in alternative forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal, etc. No recognition whatever of the impact of fossil fuel on climate change.

On education: “Education is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality, accountability and efficiency with more diversity of choice. Recognizing that the education of children is a parental responsibility, we would restore authority to parents to determine the education of their children, without interference from government. Parents should have control of and responsibility for all funds expended for their children’s education.” This is in a nutshell a manifesto against public education at the primary, secondary, and university level. Betsy DeVos couldn’t have said it better.

On banking: “We favor free-market banking, with unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.” So no Dodd-Frank, no consumer protection regulations, maybe no FDIC? Wall Street’s wet dream!

On employment and wages: “Employment and compensation agreements between private employers and employees are outside the scope of government, and these contracts should not be encumbered by government-mandated benefits or social engineering.” That means no minimum wage or requirements regarding working conditions or non-discrimination. The platform also restricts government involvement in labor disputes and is essentially anti-union. Again, pretty much the Republican platform as well.

But wait, there’s more!

On gun control“We oppose all laws at any level of government restricting, registering, or monitoring the ownership, manufacture, or transfer of firearms or ammunition.”  No control of firearms whatever! That actually goes beyond the NRA’s position.

And then there’s this: “For voluntary dealings among private entities, parties should be free to choose with whom they trade and set whatever trade terms are mutually agreeable.”   That sounds a lot like the old “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”, and everyone knows exactly what that meant in real terms. It would also cover religious-based refusals to serve LGBT customers. Mike Pence would be just fine with this.

The Libertarian platform has little more than platitudes to say on foreign relations, but it is essentially isolationist, stating: “The United States should both avoid entangling alliances and abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world. We oppose any form of compulsory national service.” 

This certainly is in line with Trump’s reckless attacks on allied leaders and the doubts he has sown regarding US commitment to the system of alliances we have constructed since World War II. And Trump would certainly endorse the part about avoiding the draft.

Taken as a whole, the Libertarian platform might seem at once idealistic and historically uninformed–a sophomoric manifesto cobbled together by privileged naifs untouched by how the world really works. But there is nothing naive about the way Trump and the Republican donor class are turning its elements into a rationale for policies enabling corruption and inequality on a scale we have not seen in more than a century.

 

 

 

 

 

American Horror Story: 3 Scenarios for 2018

Trumpshining

As this horrible year drags itself to a close, there’s reason to think that 2018 could be even worse. Here are three all-too-plausible scenarios for how the 2018 season of Trump’s reality show might go. Of course, these could never really happen, right?

1. “Not With a Bang, but With a Whimper.”  In this scenario, the desultory investigations by the Senate and House intelligence committees are sabotaged and wound down by the Republican majority in charge of them. The committees don’t issue subpoenas to the key witnesses or suspects, who therefore are not compelled to deliver documentary evidence, and they are either interviewed in closed session (so the American public never hears what they have to say) or not placed under oath for open sessions (so that witnesses don’t have to fear prosecution for perjury.) The committees issue reports saying that the evidence is inconclusive.

The administration fires FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe for having a wife who was a Democrat who once ran for office in Virginia. Trump and his allies keep up a steady drumbeat of attacks on the credibility of  FBI professionals on the laughable premise that the agency is a hotbed of crypto-Democrat activists, leading to a spike in early retirements or resignations among senior and mid-level department heads and agents, who are replaced with people more in tune with the administration. The remaining FBI leadership is increasingly cowed by the threat of further firings and puts pressure on the Special Counsel to wrap things up.

Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation has soldiered on despite a crescendo of attacks on its credibility and impartiality from both the White House and congressional Republicans as well as from supportive media like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Under pressure to justify itself, the Special Counsel leaks a draft report that shows strong evidence of coordination between Russia and senior officials of the Trump campaign up to and including Mike Pence and members of the Trump family as well as previously undisclosed financial ties between Trump himself and Russian oligarchs closely linked to Putin. Congressional Democrats present a bill of impeachment in the House. Congressional Republicans ignore the leaked findings and blast the Special Counsel for bias. Paul Ryan never brings the bill of impeachment to a vote. Mueller resigns in disgust under a hail of propaganda attacks financed by Americans for Prosperity and other dark money groups, and the investigation is closed. Trump claims he has been vindicated.

2. “Helter Skelter.”  As the New Year begins, polls continue to show that a majority of Americans continue to believe that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The press picks up indications that Mueller’s investigation is delving deeper into financial dealings by the Trump and Kushner organizations. The Washington Post publishes a story that Mueller is preparing an indictment of Jared Kushner.

The White House panics and decides a diversion is needed. Trump summons the Republican congressional leadership and demands that it create a Special Counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton for Uranium One and anything else it can find. Alarmed about prospects for a Democratic sweep in the 2018 midterm elections, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan agree. Eager to get back in Trump’s favor, Jeff Sessions appoints a Special Counsel. Trey Gowdy jumps into the fray, convening another probe using his position as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and modeling the proceedings on the Benghazi hearings.

Democrats erupt in outrage, pointing out that this has been exhaustively investigated already and debunked, but they are powerless to prevent the appointment. Fox News, Breitbart, and the entire alt-right agitprop machine turns up the volume. Dark money TV ads start proliferating especially in smaller, conservative media markets. Mainstream news shows on NBC, CBS, and ABC give even-handed coverage to the controversy, creating an impression among the public that there may be substance to the allegations. Meanwhile, Republicans incessantly bombard the Mueller investigation with accusations of bias.

By the spring, polls show the American public is evenly divided on the Hillary Clinton investigation and that support for Mueller has slipped below 50 percent. Trump’s approval ratings stop falling and start to climb. He decides the time has come to fire Mueller.

3. “Doctor Strangelove“. The Mueller investigation develops conclusive evidence of collusion with Russia by senior members of the Trump campaign as well as use of Russian-supplied voter data analysis and opposition research by the Republican Party in down-ballot races. Indictments are prepared for Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., and the New York Times reports that Mueller is considering charging Mike Pence with lying to the FBI. The Washington Post reports that sales of Trump properties have been used to launder money from Russian oligarchs.

Trump decides to fire Mueller and orders Rob Rosenstein to shut down the investigation. Rosenstein refuses, and is himself fired. A replay of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” ensues, but eventually someone in the Justice Department agrees to do the deed.

The country explodes in outrage. Massive demonstrations appear in Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities. The Congress is convulsed with Democrats demanding impeachment and Republicans defending Trump. Trump’s approval ratings slide into the 20 percent range.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un seizes this opportunity to fire ballistic missiles over Japan into the Pacific and claims he will explode a missile-carried small nuclear device in the air to demonstrate that North Korea has the capability to deliver nuclear weapons. In response, Trump orders the Navy to deploy carriers close to the Korean coast in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea and to fly aircraft sorties just outside of North Korean airspace. He fires off a series of provocative tweets calling Kim “fake atomic man” and threatening to annihilate North Korea. A US fighter plane is shot down. Trump demands a resolution from Congress authorizing “all necessary measures to counter North Korean aggression.” The vote is 97-3 in the Senate, with Bernie Sanders., Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren the only votes against.

The Mueller investigation instantly disappears from the news. Trump’s approval rating soars to 65 percent. Trump’s nominees for US attorneys throughout the country are confirmed with little opposition, assuring a compliant judiciary for another generation. The Kochtopus orchestrates a massive campaign accusing Democrats of weakness on national security. Trump embarks on series of enormous rallies.

Fade to Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John McCain’s Ultimate Vanity Production

McCain Ovation

He could have just stayed in Arizona. He didn’t have to vote at all, if he doesn’t like the Republican so-called health care bill, which he says he wouldn’t vote for in its current form (whatever that is). If McCain had just stayed in bed, McConnell’s atrocity would have been dead.

But no, John McCain had to rise heroically from his bed of pain, because–you know–he’s a media-certified hero, and that’s what heros do. And sure enough, he got what he wanted–a standing ovation when he walked into the Senate chamber. Because, you know, that’s what heros deserve. It’s that red carpet moment.

So McCain did what he always does, which is to pretend to be a principled, straight-talking “maverick”. I’m calling bullshit.

McCain can talk the talk. He decried the grotesque parliamentary maneuvers employed by McConnell to keep TrumpDon’tCare alive, but again today McCain enabled them just by showing up. He laments that the Senate doesn’t do business as it used to do, but he always goes along with the Republican leadership’s scorched-earth tactics. He complains that the Republican bill is being voted on just because it’s “better than nothing.” But I’m betting that he will vote for it in the end, if for no other reason because it could kill the program named after Obama–the man who defeated him.

So, just like Marco Rubio, he harrumphs about his “reservations” in order to get credit for his self-proclaimed “independence.” But reservations only count in restaurants. In the end, McCain (like Rubio) is no maverick, but just another one of the neutered herd.

Sad.