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.


It Just Will Not Stop

Just when one thinks that just about everything that could happen under the Trump Administration has already occurred — it can’t possibly get any crazier, but it does.  Last week was chock full of newsworthy items, any one of which would have been worthy of discussion but they just kept coming and coming. Over the last week or so, we’ve seen proof that President Trump still does not understand the dignity and impact of the presidency.

To quickly cover a few of the highlights before getting to the main event — health care bills — let’s do a tour d’ horizon.  Two venerable institutions, the Boy Scouts of America and Police Departments across the country, had to issue apologies and “clarifications” following President Trump’s speeches to the annual Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and to a Long Island New York police department.

In the former he gave a political speech that was short on inspiration to America’s youth and long on past grievances, politics, and a reminder of how personally great everything Trump is and will be. Some parents threatened to pull their kids from the Scouts.  President Trump supporters opined that the “kids loved it” forgetting that they are boys and teens and that when you get 40,000 kids together in one place, especially mostly boys, they will laugh and cheer at just about anything, especially if flatulence is involved. On Long Island the president seemed to say that police brutality when arresting suspects was okay.  As usual, whenever called out on similar pronouncements, it was proposed that it was a “joke.” Police departments around the country could only cringe and issue statements that such statements were no joking matter and that their (fill in the city) police department does not condone such action.

Within days of President Trump announcing the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch”, aka “Mini-me” Mr. Scaramucci went on a rant to a New Yorker Magazine reporter that disparaged key senior members of the White House staff and included numerous references, in full graphic detail, to acts of biology that to my knowledge are impossible.  No comment from the president at the time.  Others in the Administration opined that he’s just a “New Yorker” and apparently that’s how New Yorkers talk about co-workers.  Having lived for a number of years in New York state I don’t recall anyone talking that way and certainly not in the name of the President of the United States.

In Tweets (Tweets!) the president continues to disparage his own Attorney General and his first and for a very long time, only official supporter for president.  According to some accounts this is a prelude to cleaning out the senior levels of the Department of Justice including the Attorney General, his deputy, the Acting FBI Director, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  No problem there.  In another Tweet the president arbitrarily told all active duty transgender military personnel that their services were no longer required “in any capacity” because they are a burden and “disruptive.”  Suddenly somewhere around 7,000 soldiers, Marines, Sailors and airmen are in limbo and told that somehow their patriotism and willingness to defend the nation does not count.

In yet another Tweet, the president fired his chief of staff Reince Priebus.  The Tweet announced that retired Marine general and serving Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly would be the new chief.

Whew!  A full week.

On the upside for those of us rooting for a successful and appropriate presidency there were several positive developments.  As I write this, reports are that Anthony Scaramucci was removed from his job of ten days as the Communications Director.  I have no inside information but I suspect that the new chief of staff had something to do with that as Mr. Scaramucci bragged last week that he only reported directly to the president and did not have to answer to anyone else on the staff.  My knowledge of General Kelly, although limited, would indicate that he would absolutely not tolerate antics such as those of Mr. Scaramucci.  Perhaps the General can bring order to the White House staff.  We’ll see, but a good first step.

Also positive, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, USMC let it be known that the military does not act on Tweets or any other form of informal communications when a policy decision is to be made, even a Tweet by the president concerning transgender policy.  Hurrah. It remains to be seen what actual policy evolves, but it is good to know that spontaneous utterances by the president will not precipitate military action.

Further good news came out of the Congress that overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill strengthening sanctions primarily against Russia, but with some additional provisions against Iran and North Korea. The Congress felt it necessary after listening to, and observing the actions of, President Trump with regards to Russian President Putin and our president’s apparent fascination with him.  The White House staff had worked hard behind the scenes to stop the passage of the bill but both houses of the Congress got up on their hind legs and said “no” to the president on this issue. A positive sign that they may increasingly exercise their role in governing as an equal branch of the government.

Many Republican Senators and Representatives also went on the record along with their Democrat colleagues to oppose President Trump’s Tweet policy on transgender individuals in the military and the treatment of Attorney General Sessions.  Clear signs that the president will not get blanket support from them.  As an aside, the president now taunts Republicans as well as Democrats via Twitter seeming to make it clear that he does not consider himself a Republican.  But to most of us, that is no surprise.

And of course let’s not forget that North Korea tested new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that experts think can reach targets on the U.S. mainland as far as Chicago.

Arguably the biggest news of the week was the failure to repeal or repeal and replace or otherwise get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) lovingly known as Obamacare.  Most of us followed the news and at least heard of the ins and outs of the entire suspense filled week of “will they or won’t they?”  They did not.  One could ask why after seven years of clamoring for (and voting over 50 times for) the repeal of Obamacare the Republicans were not ready to put forward their own coherent health plan. One could also ask why the only argument put forward by most Republicans, and especially by the president, had nothing to do with the merits of the proposed replacement plan(s) but rather the only argument was that Obamacare was “bad” — nothing about why the new plan would be better.  SAD!

But be careful.

I do not think the health care battle is finished, only in a strategic pause.  There will be further efforts to repeal or repeal and replace.  For supporters of Obamacare, or supporters of a bipartisan effort to repair Obamacare and to make it better, do not relax.  The fat lady has yet to sing.

Over the weekend President Trump tweeted out (how else?) that Obamacare was going to implode and implicitly that he would make it happen.  On Sunday the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney went on television to be explicit about the president’s threats/promises. As I have written in this space before, the president can do grave harm to the current Obamacare system, primarily through non-enforcement of the mandate and by withholding funds to subsidize premiums. He also made news by threatening the Congress and Congressional staffers with actions to increase their premiums.  I am no expert in this area, but this is what I understand is the issue.

Is it possible for the president to make Obamacare “implode” as he promises?  As with most things, the answer is “it depends” on what part of Obamacare one refers to during the discussion.  Since Obamacare remains the law of the land, the president cannot make it go away at once.  He can, however, create enough chaos in the system that it can degrade over time.  Remember that most Americans get their health insurance through their employers or through the government (military, VA, military retirees, Medicare, etc.).  For middle to low-income working adults and for children that do not have employer or government health insurance they mostly get their insurance through Medicaid or in a market place created by the ACA.  Although a major factor in the latest debates, Medicaid is provided by law and cannot be legally changed without a change to the law. What is really under discussion are the ACA market places.  Since the ACA was fully implemented, about 10 million Americans get their coverage via the government market place.  These are the people you most hear about on the news and in political rallies, be it how bad the system is or how wonderful the system is.

The administration has a number of ways to degrade the ACA.  In a slow motion effort, they could stop advertising and marketing the exchanges so that people either don’t know that the markets still exist (a lot of Americans are unsure as to what is available after all the latest hubbub) or miss deadlines to sign up because there was no public advertising as to how or when to get on board.  Additionally, if the administration follows through by not enforcing the mandate (either get insurance or pay a fine) healthy people will get out of the market which causes costs to rise for the insurers which is then passed on to those still in the market — their premiums rise — or the insurer gets out of the market because it isn’t profitable for them if they have to eat the added costs.  (Remember the three legs from my 23 June post. To work, if we want to cover pre-existing conditions, the system needs a mandate to keep the pool costs low by balancing healthy folks with those that we already know have problems, but then to be fair, we subsidize those that have to have insurance but cannot afford it.  Get anything out of whack, and the system starts to wobble — the promised “death spiral.”)

President Trump is threatening/promising to speed up the process by withholding cost sharing payments. As I write, they are only released through the end of July — today. (The next deadline is in late August.)  The ACA requires insurance companies to hold down the deductibles, co-pays and premiums for those in the individual market place. However, the insurance companies are not charitable organizations and they are in business to make money.  To make up the loss of revenue to those companies every month the government makes up the difference on the costs — currently about $600 million a month.  Should the Trump administration stop paying those subsidies, premiums for those on the market place would sky-rocket or the insurers would just pull out of the market.  This is a lot of what you hear about when those that oppose the ACA say it is “collapsing.”  Health care and health insurance is not “collapsing” for most Americans, but it could for those middle to low-income Americans that are on the individual markets should the president follow through and try to cause the ACA to “implode”.

He claims the Democrats will “own it” and he will take no blame.  I think he is fooling himself if he takes deliberate action to make it tough on the citizens he swore to protect.

There is one more esoteric wrinkle in the president’s threats that you may hear more about this week. Mr. Mulvaney explained the issue and says that the president is serious about implementing it.  This involves the health insurance for members of Congress and their staffs.  Despite rumors to the contrary, by law the entire Congress and their staffs are on the ACA — they get their insurance from Obamacare. But with a wrinkle.  President Obama’s administration put out a policy that allowed them to treat each individual office of each Senator and Representative each as a small business.  This means that they are eligible for the subsidies just talked about above, saving them lots of money out of their own pockets. Before setting our hair on fire, take a minute to think about it.  Certainly the individual Senators and Representatives could afford to pay full price in an employer plan, but most staffers, interns, administrative personnel, etc. working in their offices are young folks not making much money.  It would have a huge impact on them should President Trump change the policy to exclude them from the subsidy program.

Today is the start of a new week.  Let’s hope it is a dull one.  We need to take a collective deep breath and take a few minutes to enjoy the summer.  And summers in official Washington D.C. are supposed to be dull.  Nothing going on.  If so, hold on to your hats come September.


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.


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.


We’ll Always Have Pittsburgh

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.

— President Donald J. Trump on 1 June 2017

As most of you know, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord during a speech in the Rose Garden at the White House.  This announcement fulfills a campaign promise that he continually made in the run-up to the November election.  His base, and several close advisers clearly think that putting the United States in the same company as Syria and Nicaragua (the only other nations not in the agreement), instead of in the company of the other 195 nations that agreed to the Accord in December 2015, is a positive development.  Other advisers, including Secretary of State (and former Exxon-Mobil CEO) Rex Tillerson reportedly did not and advised the president to stay within the boundaries of the agreement. As a consequence, many misstatements were made about what was or was not in the Accord.  Somehow, it got caught up in an argument over whether or not climate change is a hoax, as the president continually claimed on the campaign trail, or is it backed up by a preponderance of evidence that human beings are contributing to the changing climate on Earth.

The main effort of the Accord was to reduce green house gas emissions.  These emissions are the root cause of rising global temperatures, which in turn are melting the polar ice cap, shrinking the ice shelves in Antarctica, and eliminating glaciers around the world.  As the world’s ice melts, sea levels increase putting coastal land, and many island nations, in danger of being covered by water. Will this happen tomorrow or even next year?  No.  However, 196 nations (until the U.S. announced its withdrawal) agreed that it was a real and present danger to life as we know it on this planet. Long-term problems need long-term solutions, and that was the aim of the Accord.

In my view we can restate it another way.  Forget about arguments for or against climate change. Put it in terms of being pro or anti pollution.  Who is for more pollution?  Apparently, the president and his key advisers such as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Edward Scott Pruitt and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon who reportedly convinced President Trump to leave the Accord.

Rather than looking at the Accord as a positive thing for the citizens of the United States and all living things around the world, the president put his opposition to the agreement in economic terms.  To me, this is a short-sighted vision that provides misleading hope for the future for those struggling in the economy with mining and manufacturing jobs that are disappearing whether or not the U.S. remains in the Paris Accord.  The president also claims his decision is a matter of sovereignty and a chance to keep “others” from telling us what to do in our own country.  Or as the president said, “As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”  Apparently no one told him what “non-binding” means and also forgot to inform him that the agreement does not set any burdens on any country outside those that the individual countries voluntarily agree to for themselves.

This is what makes the president’s announcement extremely puzzling.  Under the Accord, each country sets its own commitments with the common goal of “holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels” which is intended to begin to reduce the long-term warming trend rather than stop it, but more on that in a minute.  The point is that if President Trump did not agree with the goals laid out by the Obama administration, under the terms of the Accord, he could change them.  He did not have to leave the agreement.  This makes his statement that “we’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair” even more preposterous.  He is not going to get 195 nations to renegotiate.  And it isn’t necessary, just adjust the commitment under the terms of the existing agreement.  I cannot decide if he is being purposely misleading or if he does not understand what he is talking about.

This is a central point for understanding why it is bad policy for the United States to withdraw and makes me believe that the move was intended as an “in your face” insult to the Europeans (thus the reference to the citizens of Paris) and a purely political decision to appeal to the hard-core base that voted for him in 2016, rather than truly thinking about the long-term needs and welfare of our citizens.

This is also reflected in his claim that the United States could not build new coal plants but China and India can, and will, thus somehow depriving the U.S. of the coal-burning market.  Wrong again.  As has been repeated,  the agreement is non-binding, and also has nothing in it that prohibits the United States from building coal-burning plants and it has nothing in it that “allows” China and India to do so. To so state is purely political demagoguery, or ignorance.  In the United States, coal plants are being replaced not because of EPA regulations or because of the Paris Accord, but because of market forces — mainly, because of the abundance of natural gas at cheaper prices.

Coal jobs currently number about 50,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Nearly universally, economic analysts say that the combination of natural gas and technological advances in mining mean that number will not grow, and is likely to decrease.  As pointed out in an article by Christopher Ingraham that number of coal miners compares to about 80,000 employees at Arby’s restaurants or the approximately 150,00 employed in the car wash industry. 50,000 is a drop in the bucket for our entire economy and not at all near the catastrophic impact that the president implies.

Clearly coal mining jobs are important to the 50,000 so employed, but dropping out of the Paris Accord is not going to help them in the future.  When the Pony Express went out of business because of the telegraph and railroads, those people found new jobs.  And so it goes throughout history — innovation and technological progress cause people to lose jobs, but new jobs are created.  For example, the energy efficiency industry had about 2,700,000 jobs in 2016 of which about 677,000 jobs were in the renewable energy sector (solar, wind, hydro, etc.).  President Trump should be putting effort into retraining and educating miners and others in dying industries to allow them to help themselves and the economy in the future rather than promising them a past in which they cannot long survive.

At the same time, those that find environmental issues important, and a threat to our survival, need to do a much better job at making the case.  When asked to choose between the environment and jobs as our president states it, many Americans will choose jobs every time.  It is important to educate voters and all our citizens about the importance of working towards improving our environment.  It is also important to explain and educate voters that a clean environment and jobs are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, environmentally related jobs are a growth industry and go a long way in reducing unemployment.  Railing and ranting will not convince others.  Education and reasoned arguments as to why we are better off under an agreement such as this one, including how it creates jobs (and not in the government bureaucracy), is important to our long-term goals and well-being.  Use this as a wake up call.

Without going through every portion of President Trump’s speech on departing from the agreement and comparing it with the actual Accord, there is one thing he got right — sort of — although it did not appear that he understood what he was saying.  He said, “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a 2/10 of one degree – think of that. This much [held his fingers nearly close together] Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny tiny amount.”  The size of the reduction is unknown and several experts contend that it will be more significant than the president intimated.  But here’s the point, the signatories of the Accord acknowledge that the limits pledged thus far will not meet the 2 degrees Celsius goal, but the efforts to reach that goal will be better than just letting the pollution continue and allow temperatures to continue to rise unabated.  In other words, the signatories were working on the premise that something is better than nothing and that as technology and developments continue evolving in the coming years, new ways of reaching those goals will become apparent. Time will not stand still and the world and its technology will not always be the same as it was in 2015 or now.  The president seems to miss that point.  He seems to think that the world won’t reach the goal anyway so screw it.

Since the president’s speech really did not discuss the issue of global climate change, how to deal with it best, or point out misguided practices, it can only be seen in this light.  It was instead one more example of his belief that some kind of conspiracy — primarily by our closest and most important allies — is holding the United States back and dictating what we do or cannot do.  His belief appears to be that by putting “America First” that he can do, or not do, whatever he feels like, the rest of the world be damned. This is extremely dangerous to the future of the United States and its place on the world stage.


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.