Disturbing

The last few days have been deeply troubling.  I fear that I will be saying that over and over and over for the next three and a half years.  Every time it seems that our president cannot do anything more outrageous, he does it.  There is no low bar.  Every time I think he’s gone about as far as he can go, he goes further.  Yesterday takes the cake.  So far.  I can never say he won’t go lower.

I do not need to go into detail about President Trump’s impromptu press conference from the gilded lobby of Trump Tower.  You have undoubtedly heard all about it already.  And if you haven’t, all you need to know about his support of Nazis and Klansmen, not to mention how he butchered our history by putting Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on an equal basis with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, is the following Tweet at 4:45PM, immediately following the president’s remarks yesterday, from former KKK leader David Duke:

Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.

So now what?  Well, lots of politicians and business executives separated themselves from President Trump’s moral equivalency of putting the KKK, Nazis, Anti-Semites and other white supremacy groups on the same level as those that oppose them.  Unfortunately most did not separate themselves from the president himself — just his remarks.  Look carefully and you will see that very few actually condemned the president.  A real failure of moral courage.

As Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said in a speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  For two years we have listened to Mr. Trump disparage group after group after group, from women to Mexican Americans.  The events of the last few days are just one more data point in a long list of unacceptable statements and actions of the same vein. He is the same guy, we shouldn’t be surprised.  So, when is he going to be held accountable by an equal branch of government — the Congress? When are Cabinet members and White House Staffers going to leave?  Any ideas that Mr. Trump will change are pure fantasy.  In a piece published this afternoon, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote out five concrete steps that Republicans must take to regain the moral high ground, restore the good name of the Republican Party and put Mr. Trump in a box to limit any future damage to our country.  It is worth a look.

Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that the Republican leaders in Congress will do anything substantive to rein in Mr. Trump.  They are focused on achieving their “agenda” which apparently does not include taking action to counter the rise of the vilest elements of our society.  Thus the rats know that they can come out into the light now because no one is trying to push them back into their holes.

Looking at this from another angle, I am deeply disturbed not only by the president’s defense of racists bent on destruction (“both sides” did not commit a terrorist act, which I am not afraid to say even though Mr. Trump said it was “legal semantics”).  I am ever more disturbed by his actions, of which yesterday’s impromptu press conference was just one more in a long line of troubling actions by the president.

This is what I mean.  Yesterday’s press event was supposed to be an announcement concerning infrastructure plans.  The president was to sign an Executive Order and turn the event over to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (spouse of Senator Mitch McConnell by the way) and depart — no questions from the press.  It was planned.  The Chief of Staff John Kelly, the Secretary and other cabinet level individuals were in place, briefed and all knew the plan.  The president knew the plan and said he would stick to the “script.”  He lied to all of them.  The evidence?  He had a copy of his speech from Saturday in his pocket which he pulled out.  It wasn’t left over from Saturday — he purposefully pulled it from his pocket to start his tirade about the events in Charlottesville.  He knew before he came down that would happen but did not bother to tell any of the other participants.  One look at the photos and videos of the Chief of Staff show his dismay and dare I say horror at what was happening.

And that is my point.

Mr. Trump just had to prove — had to — that no one can control him and that he can do whatever the heck he wants to do.  Period.  He gave an inappropriate speech on Saturday following the disturbing events in Charlottesville.  He doubled down through a nameless staffer on Sunday.  On Monday cooler heads got to him and he read a prepared speech, without any emotion or sense that he believed what he was saying, but he did it and it helped.  And then, and then, he could not control himself and the real Donald J. Trump came through.  A petulant, whiny individual who always, always, always has to have the last word.  He will not be controlled, he cannot be controlled.

You need further evidence?  Look at his remarks on North Korea and Venezuela.  Yes, Venezuela.  He threatened military action against Venezuela because he could.  And thereby undermined ongoing diplomatic efforts with our Latin American neighbors trying to bring pressure on that regime.  And undermined Vice President Mike Pence who was on a diplomatic mission in Latin America.

He does things just to show that he can.  Because he wants to.  It is always, always, always only about him. That is even more frightening than what appears to be in his heart.  Whether or not Donald J. Trump is a racist is something I can never know.  But his words and actions indicate that if he is not, he is at least clueless about the mission and intent of the white supremacists who see him as “their man” and see him as helping their cause.

Where are our moral leaders at the national level?  Thank goodness many mayors and governors around the country and of both political parties stood up and took action.  Shoot, even the members of the service leaders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff put out statements today condemning the events in Charlottesville and the racist nature of those acts.  They were clear and unambiguous.  They did not mention Mr. Trump directly, but it is very clear when you read them that they are reacting to the president’s remarks from yesterday.

When will Congress find its moral footing?


Shameful

It was a sad day for our country in Charlottesville Virginia yesterday when white supremacists, including self-avowed Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semites and others demonstrated, resulting in the loss of three lives — one woman killed in a white supremacist terror attack and two Virginia State Police Troopers helping to protect the citizens of Charlottesville died when their helicopter crashed.

I could hardly believe that this was happening in our country.  Not so much that such people exist — it is a sad but true fact that they do — but that so many of them came from around the country to impose their twisted vision of America on the good citizens of Charlottesville.

More unbelievable, and vastly more disappointing and troublesome to me, our president refused to denounce the white supremacists and refused to call it an act of terror when a car deliberately plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters denouncing the white supremacists .

Shameful.

I just happened to see the president’s remarks live, as they happened.  Many of you probably saw them replayed on various news stations.  The clip most played is the president saying:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

Watching it closely, and paying attention to the body language, it was clear to me that President Trump was ad libbing the “many sides” phrase.  Which he repeated with his characteristic hand gestures usually utilized in conjunction with “believe me.”  What is not shown, and astounded me in the moment, was during his prepared remarks, he deviated from the script several times, including a long riff in the middle of his remarks about the unfolding tragedy in Charlottesville to assure us, as a nation, that he was doing a great job.

“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”

It always has to be about him.

Not only did he fail his course on Presidency 101 and what to say and do when faced with a tragic event, he totally failed in calling out the white supremacists and in making clear that there was no place for them in our United States.  On “many sides” indeed.  He doesn’t have the guts to call out Nazis? The KKK? He has the guts to call out the immigrant parents of a United States Army officer killed in action defending our country but not these yahoos?  What the heck?  My father and father-in-law were World War II veterans, what did they fight for if professed Nazis can carry swastikas in the streets and the president refuses to call them out?

The only answer I can come up with is that he doesn’t want to upset his “base.”  One would hope that he doesn’t want white supremacists in his base, but apparently that isn’t the case.  Am I hyperventilating? Perhaps. But I am not making this up from thin air.  Look at the comments from the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke on the eve of the demonstration.

“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”

Was that a one-off?  Let’s take another sample from a white supremacist who said the following after the president’s remarks.

“Trump’s comments were good.  He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa [I looked this up — it is short for antifascists] are haters.”

“There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

You get the picture.  That’s why words matter and especially from the president.  He knows that and if he doesn’t then his staff sorely let him down.  But having watched his remarks live, he appeared to deviate from his prepared remarks on several occasions so as not to be specific about the groups behind the hate.  I guess he just cannot bring himself to separate from his so called supporters.

As I write, the White House staff is in full damage control mode saying essentially that of course the president denounces all hate groups.  Why would they go into damage control mode if the president’s remarks were not in fact totally inadequate?  Because he didn’t and he hasn’t actually rebuked these far right-wing extremists and terrorists.  How hard is it to say that driving a car into a peaceful crowd to purposely maim and kill is an act of terrorism?  He certainly is not shy.  Except in these cases.  Where is Mr. I’m-not-politically-correct?

Thankfully politicians of every stripe from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) to former Vice President Joe Biden came out in full-throated condemnation of the white supremacists and also chastised the president for his missed hand slap to the violent white supremacists.  There is hope that all of us will stand up for what we believe actually makes America great and not let this behavior continue unchallenged. And we should voice our opinions to President Trump to let him know how badly he let us all down, both as president and as a person.

Clearly these far right-wing nuts think that the president is on their side.  With so called alt-right (a nice name for white supremacists) supporters on his personal staff in the White House — Mr. Steve Bannon and alleged doctor Sebastian Gorka to name two — they have good reason to think so.  The only way that he can disabuse them of that notion is to clearly, forcefully and unambiguously tell them to climb back into their holes and that he refuses their support in any way, shape, or form.  Otherwise, he is not the president of the United States that I know and love.


That Was The Week That Was

Some of us of a certain age can remember the 60’s political satire show “That Was The Week That Was”, or TWTWTW, or simply TW3.  The show launched the American career of the British television host David Frost who went on to do many serious interviews including the definitive series of interviews with former president Richard Nixon.  But in the beginning, think of TW3 as an early, ensemble cast version of the “Daily Show.”  I can only imagine what fun they would have had with this week’s news out of Washington D.C.  Actually, it is hard to keep up with the news from the last 72 hours, but I will try to hit some of the highlights.

First, on the Russian front.  No, not that news, but rather the news that President Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. from a CIA program to provide training and equipment to Anti-Assad forces in Syria. One could argue whether that secret program — different from the American involvement in Syria fighting ISIS — was effective or not, but it was relatively low-cost and showed U.S. support for freedom fighters in Syria.  By pulling the rug out from under them, it seriously undermines confidence in U.S. commitments in the Middle East. Oh, by the way, the Russians’ number one request from the U.S. was to withdraw support from those forces.  They have been demanding it for years.  And now the U.S. has given in to the demand in exchange for, for, well apparently for nothing.  A significant bargaining chip for the U.S. in its relations with Russia (and a symbol of our desire for Bashar al-Assad to go away) is now off the table.  Not sure how or why because the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about it.

In an extraordinary (in every sense of the word) interview with the New York Times President Trump talked about everything from the healthcare bill, to the French Bastille Day celebration, to Napoleon, to Hitler to NATO and many more topics (you can’t make this stuff up).  In total, a bit disconcerting when it is all put together.  Reading the transcript is actually frightening as it shows that the president thinks that the entire federal government is his personal staff — that they owe allegiance to him first, foremost and only, rather than to the American people and the Constitution.  It cements in my mind that he has no real understanding of what it actually means to be president of the entire United States. It is particularly disconcerting when he speaks about the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the senior leaders in both.  By name and with apparent malice of forethought he disparaged Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.  For one example, how would you interpret what he said about Attorney General Sessions?

TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.

HABERMAN {NY Times}: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?

TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.

To me two things jump out.  First, in the best case scenario, the president does not understand the role of the DOJ and that those attorneys do not work for him as Mr. Trump.  They work for the American people and need to have a loyalty to the Constitution rather than to an individual in the White House. Mr. Trump always insisted on loyalty from employees and so it appears President Trump insists on loyalty to him from his “employees.”  A second more sinister interpretation would be that President Trump would not have nominated Mr. Sessions if he knew that the Attorney General was not going to keep any investigation into the Russian interference in the election and possible Trump campaign involvement in it from gaining any traction.  Apparently, he expected the Attorney General to keep things under control and away from the president and his family.  Otherwise, why appoint him?  Read it for yourself, but if you look closely, you will see that he is castigating Mr. Sessions for doing the right and honorable thing.  There are now reports from multiple sources revealing that President Trump is reviewing his options on pardoning friends, family, and himself.  Very Nixonian.  Take a look at these three quotes and guess which are which from President Trump and President Nixon.

“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

“When you’re a star, they let you do it.  You can do anything.”

“The law’s totally on my side.  The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

The first one is from President Nixon, the other two from President Trump.

The biggest issue of the last few days is healthcare.  What the House and the Senate decide, or don’t, in the coming days and weeks will have an impact on millions of people and on billions of dollars in our economy.  It should not be something that is just pushed through for the sake of “getting something done” alone.  I agree that the Congress should get something done — so far not much of substance has gained escape velocity from Capital Hill — but something this big should be carefully considered. Kudos to Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other Republican Senators that examined the proposed bill and found it woefully wanting.

Claims that Trumpcare is dead are, however, exceedingly premature.  Likewise reports of the death of Obamacare are premature.  But the president can murder Obamacare if he wants to, and there is some indication that he wants to do so.  By withholding subsidies for insurance premiums, which he says he may do, and by not enforcing the mandate, which is already the case, the president can make portions of Obamacare collapse — not the whole thing, but parts.  Claims that he “doesn’t own it” will not hold.  If he actively undermines the law, people that lose it will notice.  Bad policy.  Hopefully some of his advisers and others in Congress will convince him not to take that path.

The Senate will vote on something next week, but even the Senators themselves do not know what that will be.  Not good news. Currently there are at least two basic versions of “repeal and replace” legislation, with the possibility that those two bills will change before voting occurs, and one version of “repeal and replace later” with the possibility that one will also change.  It is surprising and disconcerting that a vote will be held early next week, with wide-ranging consequences on real people’s lives, not just in theory, and no one yet knows what will be up for a vote.

Dare I hope?

Here is what I hope for.  There are definite signs that moderate Republicans and Democrats are making the early moves to work for a bipartisan bill to “repair” the flaws in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare.  Flaws do exist.  But there is no reason to get rid of the entire program — assuming one believes that health care should be affordable and available to all as I wrote about in my 23 June post. To be realistic, no Democrat will budge until the word “repeal” gets buried.  They also won’t support anything called Trumpcare.  Conservative Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) won’t support anything that does not completely repeal the ACA “root and limb.”  But I hope that enough good folks, willing to put country above party, still exist in the Senate in both parties and that cooler heads will prevail.  If that happens, it could be the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  Getting something as tough as health care tackled on a bi-partisan basis would go a long way in having Republicans and Democrats getting back together to tackle other long-standing problems.  What a concept. I am always told how naive I am, but I hope that we have a break through on this issue and that it leads to accomplishments in many more areas.

Finally, and I leave it here despite many more developments of the last 72 hours, speaking of putting country above party I have always had the deepest respect for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz).  That doesn’t mean I always agreed with him but I always thought he was trying to do what he thought best for the nation and its people.  As you know, he is battling a particularly nasty form of brain cancer. I hope that he is back on his feet and back to the Senate before too long.  There are not many like him left in today’s Senate chamber.


“Fake News” No More

With the daily evolution of the story of Mr. Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer that offered to help the Trump campaign work against Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, one can no longer claim that reports of Russian efforts to impact the election is “fake news.” I have always believed that the Russians clearly worked to influence the election, taking as accurate the consensus of the American intelligence community that they stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the Clinton campaign manager Mr. John Podesta.  Other evidence of Russian influence, especially in the realm of social media, is beginning to emerge.  It is fact.  I was not at all certain that senior members of the Trump campaign would have actively worked to aid and abet the Russian effort. One way or the other I figured that the ongoing investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller would conclusively resolve that part of the issue.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Well now we know a lot more.

If you are not familiar with the story, you can read Mr. Trump Jr.’s emails for yourself. In sum, a friend of the Trumps named Mr. Rob Goldstone with close Russian ties offered to arrange a meeting with a Russian national in order to give damaging information about Secretary Clinton to the Trump campaign. In the email exchange Mr. Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically and set up a meeting with the Russian emissary to hear her out.  The key passages of the email that jump out at me follow.   Mr. Goldstone wrote that the Russians “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.  This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump….”  To which Mr. Trump Jr. replied in part “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

At the subsequent meeting were Mr. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and current Senior Adviser in the White House, and Mr. Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign manager.  And others, which I will get to momentarily.

End of discussion.  After months and months of denying vehemently that they ever had any meeting with the Russians where cooperation or coordination with the Russians was ever discussed, it turns out that there was one.  At least.  Additionally, since the story broke last Saturday, nearly every day a different story as to what was discussed and who was present came out.  Can you spell “cover up”?

To be honest, I am exhausted by all things Trumpian.  It is very difficult to keep track of all the misleading statements, innuendo and out right lies that come out of the White House or from others associated with President Trump.  The tangled webs of who knows who, or more importantly has significant business ties to the Trump Organization is hard to follow as well, or as they say at the ballpark, “you can’t tell the players without a score card.” But we need to try.

Today’s events caused me to say “that’s it” — I cannot ignore the outrageous carrying on any longer. I planned to write about other issues, but when it came out today that at least one other previously undisclosed person (as I write, some news outlets are reporting that it may actually be two other people) with Russian ties (the new attendee was born there, served in the Russian Army and may be a lobbyist or may be a former intelligence officer or both as this unfolding story develops) was in the room.

After days of Mr. Trump Jr.’s denials and obfuscation about everything, until it is uncovered by reporters at which point his story changes — despite his claims of total transparency — this takes the cake. Appearing on the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News, Mr. Trump Jr. was asked multiple times by the very friendly to the Trumps interlocutor Mr. Hannity if there was anything else that would come out or if any other people with Russian ties had met with him.  He gave a vigorous and straight forward “no” answer. Check it out. And yet… there was more to the story.  It seems there is always more to the story with the Trumps.

Mr. Trump Jr. claims that “nothing” came of the meeting and that it was a waste of time.  Given the events of the last week, and many more before that, I am unwilling to take the word of Mr. Trump Jr.  I am sure that Special Counsel Mueller will be very interested in following up on this story.

It is indeed a weak defense of these actions to claim that nothing came of the meeting and that they did not get any “dirt” on Secretary Clinton.  To them this means that it was a “nothingburger” of a meeting. Very troubling.  Read the emails.  The Trump campaign was eager to get negative information on Secretary Clinton.  Fine.  That happens in many, many campaigns.  But not from the Russian government! Or any foreign government.  End of story.  Just because they got nothing — as if we can believe anything Mr. Trump Jr. says about this situation — they clearly were willing to take this information and to use any ties to the Russian government that they thought would help them win. Nice. Strong ethics. Look, I know that politics is a full contact sport and that it can be really nasty. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, it doesn’t matter.  It gets personal.  But really?  The Russians? C’mon man!  It only shows that with this outfit, there are no boundaries.  Mr. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former chief speech writer for President George W. Bush has an excellent piece today.  Basically he argues that the Trumps are clueless about all the fuss because they have no concept of right and wrong, they have a set of values “in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules.”  Mr. Gerson explains that “it is the banality of this corruption that makes it so appalling. The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.”

Most troubling to me in terms of national security is the portion of the email train that says, emphasis mine, that this “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Part.  What else was going on?  What else is going on?  Coupled with all that we know so far, and the inability of Mr. Trump Jr. and the White House to accurately and correctly deal in facts, I would read that section to mean that the Russians were actively interfering in the election, and that quite plausibly, the Trump campaign knew about it in other ways.  Just because they may or may not have walked out of this particular meeting with dirt in hand, it clearly implies that they were ready and willing to work with the Russians and may in fact have other sources and methods where they were doing so.

I have no idea what will come of this.  I have no idea if anything illegal occurred or if any of the attendees can be held accountable under the law.  I do have an idea, however, that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  I am sure more and more will slowly be uncovered as the Senate, House, and Special Counsel’s office continue to investigate the Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

I also know that for the President to continue to deny that it happened is unhelpful to our country. For him to continue, as recently as two days ago, to continue to call this the “greatest WITCH HUNT in political history” (his emphasis) is also unhelpful.  In every way, President Trump is actively working to undermine every U.S. institution that may stand in his way.  Fake news, indeed.

What is clear, is that it is becoming impossible to breathe with all the smoke rising out of the Russian election interference issue.  It is only a matter of time before the conflagration flares up.  I pray that we don’t all get burned by the resulting fire and that we are not left with only the smoldering ruins of our great democracy.


Whither Healthcare?

“Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”  — President Donald Trump 27 February 2017

And you know what?  He is correct.

As the Senate debates and votes on Trumpcare to repeal and replace Obamacare over the coming days, much will be written and talked about regarding its impact and efficacy.  Some will think it is great and others will think it a travesty.  It all depends on what the goal for the program might be and how one thinks that goal should be attained.  Is Trumpcare, or the American Health Care Act (AHCA) (as it is called in the House of Representatives while the Senate Bill is called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017) designed to help Americans and keep them healthy or is it an attempt to do the bare minimum while saving the government, and ultimately tax payers, money?  One’s view of Trumpcare also depends on whether or not Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is working for you.

Put more succinctly, is healthcare in the greatest country on earth a right or a privilege?  Should it be open to a free market — those that can afford to pay do, those that can’t need to earn more money — or something that every citizen deserves?  If you happen to think that healthcare is a privilege, you get what you pay for, then you may as well stop reading here because you basically think that the government should have nothing to do with healthcare.  If you think that access to healthcare should be a right, then read on. Be forewarned however, that this is, as the president says, complex. Politicians of every stripe also parse and obfuscate elements of healthcare to their own advantage. It can be difficult to determine where the truth lies — especially since many times two people can both be technically correct while interpreting the meaning in totally different ways.  As I like to say, it is the difference between what things are and what things mean.

Here is the crux of the problem.  The United States does not suffer from poor medical care.  People come from all over the world to have their health problems resolved here in the U.S. — if they can afford it. That is the problem.  It is not the quality of care, but rather having access to good care and being able to afford it. Access and affordability are the reason we need insurance plans which is what both Trumpcare and Obamacare are really about.

The U.S. does not really have a health system.  It has a series of health systems depending on whether the individual is on Medicaid or Medicare (the dreaded by conservatives single payer system), or on the VA or Tricare (military) system (basically socialized medicine), or gets insurance through an employer (where most people get their insurance), or buys it on the open market (usually very expensive).

A pervasive goal in the U.S. should be that no one goes bankrupt due to an unexpected illness or injury. Likewise no one should have to forgo medical treatment because they cannot afford it.  Both happen in the U.S., although by most accounts, Obamacare went a long way in reducing the numbers of people in either situation.

So let’s design a system that helps people get care without using their every last dollar.  Let’s assume we want a system where no one can be turned down — or charged unattainable amounts of money — for a pre-existing condition.  This seems to be one area that most politicians can agree upon and one of the most popular aspects of Obamacare.  How to do that?  It does not take a genius to see that maybe I won’t buy any insurance until I get sick or injured and I will save a lot of money in the meantime.  That leaves only those with pre-existing conditions on the insurance rolls — a situation which will either leave the premiums so high as to be unaffordable, or leave the insurance companies holding the bag and going bankrupt.  To even out the costs and make them more affordable to all, we would then require everyone to have insurance — the dreaded mandate. However, it may not be fair or even affordable for everyone to buy insurance, especially for people that do not receive insurance through their employer, so if we are going to require it, then we should come up with a system to help people pay for it — the other debated aspect, subsidies. Those three elements are the basis for every proposed health care plan concocted by politicians.  If you play around with one of the three, it impacts the other two.  It becomes a very complicated game.  How one plays the game depends on my opening statement — what is the goal for the plan?

On top of that throw in hot button issues such as who can do what (Planned Parenthood anyone?), whether in our proposed system we “punish” young healthy citizens by making them subsidize the old “sick” citizens, should the government have the power to tell people that they “have” to have insurance, and who pays for all this, the wealthy or the poor who are most likely to benefit from a plan like this.  It does indeed get complicated in a hurry, and also very emotional for a lot of people.

In evaluating a planned system, lots of politicians focus on premiums and deductibles — and not always together.  It is possible to devise a plan with very low premiums, lower than Obamacare, but does it cover everything?  Does it have a high deductible?  Does it have annual or lifetime caps? What pre-existing conditions are covered?  Those and other details mute any discussion about premiums.  To coin a phrase, we cannot compare apples with oranges.  Premiums are certainly relevant when discussing the cost of a particular plan, but it is not sufficient to get a true picture of the impact or value of that plan.

To muddy the issue, the president makes unfounded claims about Obamacare.  He says “it is dead.” Except it isn’t.  But the president and the Republican leadership are trying hard to kill it, partly to force through Trumpcare.  Insurance exchanges are drying up and companies are pulling out because of the biggest fear they have — uncertainty.  The Congress has yet to decide if they will provide the money for the aforementioned subsidies to help people afford the mandated insurance.  And they have announced that they will not enforce the mandate.  Two of the legs of our three-legged plan are being distorted, that means the third leg is terribly out of balance which makes it appear the system is not working.  If insurance companies don’t think they are going to get paid — or that they will be left holding the bag for high cost pre-existing conditions which they are required to cover — then there are two choices.  They can raise premiums or leave the market.  Most experts assert that without the uncertainty coming from the White House and Capital Hill, the health insurance system in the U.S. would be stable and hold down costs for most (most — not all) Americans seeking health care.  Many people now have insurance that would not otherwise have it.  The result is “wellness checks” and other preventive health measures now sought out by people that did not seek it before.  Therefore they are healthier and the over all expenditures for larger, more catastrophic care comes down because they are less necessary.  Like it or not, the states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare generally have more small hospitals and clinics serving the poor or rural areas of their states because those hospitals have a known source of income for the care they provide.  Many of those small hospitals and clinics closed in states that did not expand Medicaid and there is significant concern over the reduction of those Medicaid funds under Trumpcare. In mostly rural states such as Alaska and Maine, even their Republican Senators are concerned and may vote against the proposed Senate bill.  Senators Murkowski and Collins both realize what the proposed reductions in Medicaid mean to their states and are worried, as are others.

Whatever your own views on healthcare in the U.S. take a good hard look at any plan floated to solve the problem.  I am no expert on this subject.  Not at all.  I recognize that we do not have a bottomless purse to pay increasing costs for social programs.  I get it.  Personally, I think we leave a lot of possible solutions (such as a single payer system which prevails in many modern nations, such as Canada) on the table because of emotional political arguments rather than a factual airing of the pros and cons to different solutions.

It boils down to one’s personal views.  Do you get what you pay for and if you can’t pay you don’t get it? Or should the greatest nation on earth also provide the best healthcare available to its citizens?  If so, how is it paid for?  There are no easy answers, but I think we are making it harder on ourselves than needed.  Democrats and Republicans state that they both have the same goal — to make healthcare available to our citizens and at a cost that is sustainable.  If that is the case, then everything else is politics.

To me, we have a system for providing affordable care through an insurance program called the ACA — Obamacare.  No one thinks that system is perfect.  Democrats affirm that they are willing to work with Republicans to fix what needs to be fixed.  Republicans shout that Democrats are obstructionists while jamming through a bill that even most Republicans did not get a chance to look at.

You can look it up, you don’t have to take my word for it, but in putting together Obamacare the Democrats took nearly a year, held countless hearings, folded Republican amendments into the final bill, and tried to put together a bipartisan bill.  Politics interfered at the end of that process and one could argue that Democrats jammed it through at the end.  But contrary to what you now hear, it was not a secret process and it wasn’t a slap dash final product.  I am not sure what the rush is in the Republican held Congress at this point.  This is major legislation that will impact many Americans and a large chunk of our economy. There is no need to play hurry up ball at this point.  Every piece of legislation has some perverse and unintended consequences.  Obamacare has some.  Trumpcare certainly will if it has not been properly vetted and reviewed.  It is too important to just slam through, whether or not you support the fundamental political and social theories behind it.

This process is not in the best interests of our country.  I hope that cooler heads prevail and that everyone takes a step back.  Take a deep breath.  Let’s regroup and come forward with a bipartisan approach to helping every citizen find effective and affordable healthcare.

I’m not holding my breath.


A Soup Sandwich

With increasing frequency, nearly daily, we as a nation wake up to yet another incredible self-created crisis in the Trump Administration.  People that care that our nation’s leader is becoming something of a punch line around the world debate whether President Trump’s actions, statements, and yes, tweets are part of a larger plan or simply the reflection of a man with little to no intellectual curiosity, the attention span of a young child, and who is in way over his head.  I am increasingly falling into the latter category.

In my day the military term for his administration would be that it is a soup sandwich.  The term means exactly what the imagery suggests, something so confused and messy that it cannot be salvaged.

The litany of recent events are well-known.  Whether it is his casual revelations to the Russians of highly critical intelligence, his thinly veiled threats to former FBI Director Comey, his stated reason for firing Mr. Comey because of the “Russian thing”, or the possibility that he tried to stop the FBI investigation of the Russian meddling and specifically Lt General Michael Flynn’s possible involvement with the Russians, his actions have shown a president and an administration that have lost their way.  Put more bluntly, look in the dictionary for “soup sandwich” and you will see a picture of the president.

Note again that all of the crises that the White House staff have dealt with thus far are all self-created by the president.  This does not bode well for handling the inevitable national security crisis or domestic tragedy on the horizon that will test our ability as a nation to deal with all that comes our way.

Most legal scholars and Constitutional law experts point out that nothing that we know about thus far concerning the president’s actions is illegal.  Unethical and/or immoral, perhaps, but not illegal.  This is very troubling.  As Dana Milbank ably points out in a recent opinion piece, just because it is legal, does not mean that it is right.  Or as we used to say, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that it is a good idea.  The basic point is that President Trump knows no boundaries, has no self-control and therefore has the ability to do great damage to our nation, whether deliberate or out of ignorance.  As Mr. Milbank points out in his troubling piece, the president is within his rights — legally — to do all of the things that we know about.  But the assumption for all modern presidents is that a president would not do all of those things without the proper justifications and explanations.  In crafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers assumed that the chief executive would be virtuous , guided by honor, and exhibit self-restraint.  Scholars point out that the Constitution gives many powers to the president, specifically and inherently.  The checks and balances that we rely upon cannot stop the president from wreaking havoc in the short-term.  Although the ultimate power rests with the Congress — impeachment — and the courts — ruling certain presidential actions unconstitutional — it takes time and political capital to bring those counter balancing powers to bear. In the meantime, significant and even irreparable damage can be done to our nation.  With President Trump we have a chief executive that seems to be lacking the knowledge to understand the limits and responsibilities of the presidency combined with unchecked impulsivity that can easily lead to damaging actions and decisions.

Look at President Trump’s background.  His success as a businessman by most accounts was not so much because of his personal knowledge and ability.  It was more about branding.  He sold the Trump Brand to investors and let others actually build the real property.  Recently, few of his Trump buildings were actually Trump projects, he merely sold his name and promotional abilities for use by those doing the work.  He became famous due to his time as a television reality star.  Even today he talks about “ratings” for press conferences and speeches.  The pop psychoanalysis could go on and on, but in every instance, it appears that his personality is ill-suited to lead the greatest nation on earth.  To me, for example, he related the very highly classified information to the Russian Foreign Minister (information that will probably result in lives lost, and certainly the loss of an important avenue of intelligence) not because he wanted to help the Russians. I think he did it because he was showing off and wanted to impress his visitors.  Remember this is the guy that in the midst of the ceremony “celebrating” the House passing Trumpcare, stopped his speech to turn around and ask “How am I doing? Am I doing OK? Hey, I’m president. I’m president. Can you believe it?” Well, no, I can’t believe it.  But it is true.

I hear the “I word” — impeachment — bandied about a lot recently.  From what we know now, we are not there yet.  I also worry that under the current divisive political atmosphere in our country that an impeachment act and subsequent trial would be very bad for our nation.  We might not recover from that trauma for many years.  Therefore any impeachment proceedings must be based on clear violations of the law, should there be any.

The other proposal that floats around from time to time is that the 25th Amendment can be used to remove him from office.  This amendment pertains to the succession to the presidency should the president be unable to fulfill his duties.  The relevant section of the amendment in this case is Section Four which provides a procedure for the Vice President and such other “principal officers of the executive departments” (meaning the Cabinet) to declare the president unfit for duty.  Should the president contest that declaration, it goes to a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate.  This too would be a long drawn out procedure that could seriously divide our country should the president resist the take-over attempt.  It seems unlikely in any event that Vice-president Pence and the Trump appointed Cabinet would invoke this avenue of removal, barring some obvious and unassailable problem with the president.

Finally, President Trump could resign.  Many pundits and others think this is the most likely scenario for the current president to leave office.  President Trump himself said that 

“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.  I like to work, so that’s not a problem, but this is actually more work and while I had very little privacy in my old life because, you know, I’ve been famous for a long time, I really, this is – this is much less privacy than I’ve ever seen before.”

None-the-less, I doubt very much that the president has any intention of resigning.  He likes the attention and being on the “inside” — people have to pay attention to him and he likes that.

Potentially compounding President Trump’s negative impact on the nation is the dilemma many of his top advisers are facing.  It is a classic scenario.  The president continually throws good, hard-working and upright people under the bus.  They go out and defend his actions in, I hope, good faith only to have him personally provide a completely different rationale for his actions.  This can only go on for so long before people start to ponder resigning.  This is the dilemma such good people face — resign and save my reputation and integrity or stay and try to change things because they could really be a lot worse if no one of significant knowledge and competence is left to try to hold him in check?

I fear that most people consider the recent events as “typical” Washington politics.  That’s too bad. This is not typical and it is not normal. And it isn’t “sour grapes” that the Democrats lost the presidency.

Many continue to state that as a nation we should give the guy a chance.  He’s only been in office about four months.  Give him time.  I tried.  Sorry, but I do not think that anything is going to cause President Trump to change.

For the Republican majority on Capital Hill I can only say, “Clean up on aisle seven.  Soup sandwich in progress.”  The Republican agenda depends on a functioning presidency.  The deal with the devil is almost gone as more and more of the president’s actions take away from the legislature’s ability to legislate.  Clean up the soup sandwich through comprehensive and bipartisan investigations.  Find out what actually happened, or did not happen, and get it into the public domain.  Use a little Clorox on the clean up of the soup sandwich.

If it turns out there is nothing there involving the Russians or other problems then so much the better. If there is something, hold all involved accountable.  The good news/bad news may be that there is nothing there. The good news is that people will not go to jail and the integrity of the system may be restored. The bad news is that we will still be left with a soup sandwich.

 


A Disturbing Conclusion

Another day, another Trump story dominating the news.  I will eventually again write about something other than our president, but it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room when every morning there is some new statement by the president or his staff that is cringe worthy.  Be it wire tapping (with or without “quotation marks” — this is what we have come down to — or misspellings) or microwaves as cameras, every day there is something.  We as citizens need to look past the daily “guess what they just said” comments and try to discern what is really going on.

Avoiding a discussion on the Trump Administration policies for the moment, which is hard to do, there is a different picture I am trying to understand.  And believe me, trying to ignore his proposals is difficult, be it the American Health Care Act (or Trumpcare — no, no, it’s Ryancare — no, no Trumpcare) or the president’s budget proposals that gut many essential programs and departments. Those proposals, as good or as bad as they may be depending on one’s political views, are just that, proposals. The Congress ultimately will pass, or not, the AHCA and any president’s budget proposals are more of a wish list and indicator of their administration’s priorities rather than the actual budget, which is also the purview of the Congress.

I am focused for the moment on trying to figure out exactly what is going on with those things that the president actually controls and what they may portend.  To some degree, it is necessary to get down in the weeds to see where things are headed.  There are several troubling indicators of how President Trump intends to run his administration.

At first I could not figure out if the nonsensical and illogical tweets, statements, and press briefings were the sign of an administration in disarray, trying to find its bearings or something else.  I have come to believe it is something else.  Many pundits have already commented on the fact that every time the media or the public focuses on some inane action or statement from the president or his staff, some new, head line grabbing tweet or statement comes out.  Some call President Trump the Distractor-in-Chief (DIC?).  That may be part of it, but I think there is a larger more insidious goal.  President Trump continually calls any reporting he does not like “fake news.”  Beyond that he and his staff continually attack the media and put out statements that are proven to be untruthful, yet they double down and insist that it is true by pointing to some off-the-wall media source as the “proof” of their statements. This is deliberate — not flaky, or anti-PC, or any other excuse attributed to the activity. I say again, it is deliberate.  The White House staff is deliberately and systematically trying to undermine the credibility of the serious news outlets in the United States.  Coupled with the stated disdain of the intelligence community so often reiterated by the president and his advisers, there is a very deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of distrust where nothing is ground truth.  Once such an atmosphere exists, the administration can say and do anything that they want to do and they will then claim black is white and only they know what is going on.  Trust them.  How many times has Senior Adviser Kelly Anne Conway (and others) gone on a news show and defended some outrageous statement from the president?  When pressed for evidence that such statements are true, how many times has she said words to the effect that “well, the president has access to information that I do not have so he must know what he is talking about?”  No proof.  No logic.  Only that if the president said it, it has to be true, no matter how outrageous.   And how many times when personally pressed does the president decline to give proof to defend a statement and only says something along the lines of “more information will be coming out in about two weeks.  It will be amazing.  You won’t believe what is going on.  It will surprise you.  Believe me.”  Have you noticed that it is always in two weeks?  And then two weeks, months, years, pass and nothing more comes out.

This approach seriously undermines the credibility of the president.  If anyone were to pay attention. Seemingly most Americans shrug it off as that’s “Trump being Trump” or as the “mainstream media” trying to undermine his presidency.  Never mind that the media merely plays what the president or his advisers actually say and then for some strange reason ask them to provide the basis for the statement. How unfair!

You can take it to the bank that our friends and enemies are paying attention.

That is why I am so troubled.  Either the president does not care that his credibility suffers, credibility that will be crucial when a real crisis hits our country, or he is risking his credibility in order to undermine the veracity of any source of information outside the White House so that only his version of the truth is available.  A harsh assessment, I admit, but increasingly I am unable to come up with any other explanation for the way that he and his staff conduct business.  What began as mildly amusing behavior morphed to incredulity to concerns about sanity to fear that it is intentional.

And there is more.

There are some good people working in the Trump administration.  Secretary Mattis is one, Lt General McMaster is another, and others, who while I may disagree with their policy views, I respect their integrity and willingness to try to do the right thing.  Many of them signed up with this administration with the caveat that they be able to pick their own people and not be micro-managed by the White House.  So far, that is not happening.

Secretary Mattis has yet to get a second in command, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.  He tried three times so far to get three different people in place.  All rejected by the White House.  There are no other political appointees below the Secretary level at DOD thus far.  One may claim that we need to “drain the swamp” but the reality is that the Secretary cannot do everything by himself.  Skilled, knowledgeable people with expertise in everything from procurement to regional alliances need to be in place to make U.S. policy effective.  Right now, nobody.  Likewise, in the State Department. Secretary Tillison’s nominees for his subordinate political positions are zero for everyone.  None has gotten past the White House.  Just as troubling to those that understand how such things work, last week the Mexican Foreign Minister, the direct counter part to Secretary Tillerson was in Washington for talks and the State Department did not even know he was in town, much less participate in the discussions. Only the White House inner circle participated.  National Security Adviser McMaster found out last week that, in fact, he cannot pick his own staff.  He tried to have a Trump campaign supporter now in charge of national intelligence for the National Security Council moved to a different job so that NSA McMaster could put a more qualified and effective person in that slot.  The staffer went to the president, on the advice of Mr. Steve Bannon, and NSA McMaster was overruled. There are a multitude of similar examples were one to peel away the layers and look inside the various departments and agencies in the Executive Branch.

Even if all that is true, who cares?  So what?  Why write about it except for sour grapes?

There are at least two reasons to take note.  The most benign concern is that our nation’s defense and foreign policies, to name two, cannot be thoroughly vetted, reviewed and implemented without the right people (any people!) in place.  No matter how good the Secretary may be, he or she is only one person and cannot do it all alone.  The more serious concern is that the White House staff, the close inner circle to the president, may not want any effective push back from the Defense or State Departments or other agencies.  They may want only the White House inner circle to promulgate and execute policy.  The Cabinet’s job is merely to act as props (see almost every signing ceremony in the White House) or cheerleaders for the president.

President Trump’s style as a businessman was to have a small, totally loyal, inner circle that carried out his decisions.  By all accounts describing his style, President Trump is not much for details and makes decisions by using his “gut instincts.”  His close inner circle then carries on and implements what they understand to be his intent.  This may work in a real estate business, but it does not work well in an undertaking as large as the United States government, especially when the current inner circle takes great pride in stating that they have no experience.  When they also refuse, or limit, the input from those that do have knowledge and expertise, something is brewing.  It is either a disaster waiting to happen, or something more sinister, such as a drift towards centralized, autocratic control of the nation.

When all of the pieces of the puzzle are together — and there are more including Mr. Bannon’s view of the world, his declaration to “dismantle the administrative state,” blaming “the deep state” for the failures of their policies, lashing out at the judiciary, claiming  that former President Obama is running a shadow government with the aim of stopping the Trump administration, among others — it paints a troubling picture.

At first I thought that maybe they were just experiencing growing pains, not unusual for a new administration.  Then I thought that maybe the staff was just trying to deal with a loose cannon in President Trump — which could be dangerous, but the experienced hands would eventually bring him back to reality.  Now I am beginning to see that it is actually a plan.  What I have not decided upon is whether President Trump is the visionary using his staff, or whether Mr. Bannon is the visionary using the president to fulfill his own view of re-ordering the world.

I absolutely have not given up on the ship of state being righted and put back on a steady course. There are positive signs such as the Congress (after only about 8 months!) investigating the impact of Russian meddling on our national election.  Equally soothing is that more and more Representatives and Senators, of both parties, have nicely said that the president lied when he stated that President Obama had Trump Towers and the campaign “wire tapped.”  The judicial system is working to check the executive over reach of some of the president’s Executive Orders.  The system is working as intended, even if in fits and starts. It remains incumbent on all Americans to keep our eyes wide open and call “foul” when appropriate. Likewise, we need to give credit where it is due.  All is not lost, not even close, but I still worry.  If we see this seeming chaos from self-inflicted crises within the White House, one wonders what will happen when a real crisis erupts.  History teaches us that one eventually will come along.  And probably sooner than later.

When it happens, that will be the true test of this administration.  My nightmare scenario is given the chaos and attempts to undermine anything that runs counter to White House wishes now, while in a period of relative calm with a strong economy and no direct existential threats to our well-being, what will happen in a major crisis?  Will the administration draw upon the many talented and experienced resources our nation and our government has to solve the problem or will they draw even more inward in an attempt to use the crisis to consolidate more power and move further towards autocracy?

I have no crystal ball and have no idea how things will unfold.  The signs thus far leave me greatly troubled about the future of our great nation, more so than at any point in my life.