Thursday, May 25, 2017

No Lifetime Appointments While There Remains A Cancer On The Presidency

As we brace for the next revelation to contribute to Trump's "downward spiral," as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn) put it, let's not lose sight of the unmitigated and long-lasting damage the malevolent orange shit-gibbon can still wreak -- particularly with regard to the federal judiciary.  Remember, the Republicans didn't only steal a Supreme Court seat when they refused to even hold hearings on Obama's nominee for the high court.  They also mucked up the process for Obama's nominees to the lower federal courts.  As a result, only twenty district court and appellate court judges were confirmed in the last two years of Obama's presidency (compared to three times that many for each of his three immediate predecessors).

This means that Trump has the opportunity to fill over 120 vacancies on the federal bench and, in doing so, drastically reshape the courts with radical right wing judges who will roll back rights, strike down regulations and protect corporate wealth.

While there has justifiably been great attention focused on how the balance of power on the Supreme Court could drastically shift if there are further vacancies during Trump's time in office, the reality is that the lower federal courts -- both the courts of appeal and the district courts -- have enormous influence on the application and scope of federal laws and constitutional rights.  After all, the Supreme Court grants review in less than 2% of the roughly 7,000 certiorari petitions that are filed every year, leaving in place the vast majority of lower federal court rulings for which review is denied.

Trump has already nominated the first ten federal judges of the 120, and they are not a promising group. Many are Scalia acolytes (like Trump's new Supreme Court justice) who believe in an originalist interpretation of the Constitution -- a flawed, result-oriented judicial philosophy that is well outside the mainstream of legal thought.  The consequences for civil rights, voting rights and LGBT rights, for women's reproductive health and health care reform, for enforcement of environmental and Wall Street regulations, for consumers and unions, for gun control and campaign finance reform, and for criminal justice and social justice could not be more bleak.

But beyond judicial philosophy, the more basic issue is whether a president whose very legitimacy has been called into serious question -- whose administration is under investigation for its connections to a foreign power that interfered with the election, for abusing the power of the office and for obstructing justice -- should be able to make lifetime appointments that will influence our legal rights and remedies for generations. 

Even without the filibuster, which is no longer a permissible tool for blocking nominees, there are steps Democrats can take to slow -- if not, shut -- things down while these questions remain unresolved.  Indeed, the Judiciary Committee (which has already approved a judge for the Sixth Circuit), should have its hands full investigating Russia-gate, even after being stood up by former FBI Director Comey this week.  In addition, states with Democratic Senators can still withhold the "blue slip," a tradition that allows home-state senators to block nominees -- and one that Republicans used to stymy 17 Obama nominees.  (Republicans, however, are -- what a surprise -- threatening to do away with the blue slip for appellate court nominees.)     

But, more broadly, Democrats must insist -- with regard to all Senate matters but especially for  judicial nominees -- that Trump's agenda must yield to an independent commission empowered to investigate allegations of obstruction of justice and abuse of power, and until that happens, Congress will not return to business as usual.   That means using every technicality and procedural rule from objecting to unanimous consent requests to forcing roll call votes on every matter.  And it means using every opportunity to speak on the Senate floor to keep Trump's incompetence, instability and corruption at the forefront of our political discourse.  And it means using the Senate rules that encourage free and open debate to force Republicans to answer for their unwillingness to accept Trump's incompetence, instability and corruption. 

Trump has yet to fill an unprecedented amount of vacancies throughout his administration, many of which require Senate confirmation. The tenure of such appointees, however, is generally only as long as the president remains in power, and so the damage they could do, while very real, is at least somewhat circumscribed. (The FBI's 10-year term is a notable exception.)  If Trump is removed from office, those political appointees can be removed too.  Not so with federal judges, who are appointed for life.  As the drip, drip, drip of scandals continue -- while there remains a cancer on the presidency -- there should be no lifetime appointments.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Country Over Party: Get Rid Of The Orange Nightmare First; Worry About Pence Later

Donald Trump is mentally, intellectually and morally unfit to be president.  His ignorant and erratic behavior is a threat to our national security, as most recently shown by his perhaps unwitting disclosure of highly classified information to the Russians.  He is doing long-lasting damage to our relationships with allies.  How he would handle a domestic or international crisis is too frightening to consider.  It would make Bush's criminally inept handing of Katrina look like the height of competence.  He has installed white nationalists in key positions of his government and emboldened fringe racists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes.  His lack of respect or understanding of fundamental constitutional rights -- particularly, freedom of speech and the press -- is chilling.  His most recent act of firing the FBI director who refused to pledge his fealty is the behavior of an autocrat not a democratically-elected president.  Meanwhile, he and his family are making a fortune off of it all. 

As his presidency appears to be unraveling, there are cautionary calls from the left to be careful what we ask for, claiming that Mike Pence would actually be worse.  He would be more disciplined and skilled at governing and thus better able to successfully pass the Republican Party's agenda.  His extreme religious beliefs and regressive views about women and their reproductive health and about the LGBT community would risk turning the government into a white Christian version of the Taliban. And, he would allow the Republicans, who at this point are tainted with the stench of the rancid orange shit-gibbon, to regain credibility and forestall a mid-term electoral collapse.

This, unfortunately, may all be true.  But for at least three reasons, Trump needs to be removed from office as soon as possible after a fulsome investigation of his abuse of power, and sent back to Trump Tower where he can spend the next several years enmeshed in criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits.

First, if we determine to keep Trump in power because it would make things worse for Republicans and better for Democrats in the long run -- no matter the destruction he could do to the nation in the meantime -- we would prove ourselves just as cynical as the Republicans who have put the interests of their party over that of the country in ignoring Trump's abuses, lies, corruption, incompetence and instability. 

Second, if we are to remain a nation of laws then when high government officials break the law or abuse their power, there must be a true reckoning.  President Ford pardoned Nixon, and the first President Bush pardoned the key participants in the Iran-Contra affair.  President Obama, giving in to his bipartisan fetish, insisted on looking forward, not backward, in failing to hold the second Bush Administration accountable for torture and other war crimes.  It is not surprising that the next Republican president -- particularly when his Party controls all three branches of government -- would feel unconstrained by the checks and balances to run roughshod over the norms of governance. 

And third, we don't know where the investigation of the Trump Administration will lead.  Remember Pence was in charge of Trump's transition team, which, the Times recently reported, was told by Michael Flynn during the campaign that Flynn  was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey.  Pence has claimed to essentially be "out of the loop" -- the phrase Bush I conveniently used to avoid becoming ensnared in Iran-Contra -- and not aware of Flynn's contacts with Russia or his work as a foreign agent but that seems increasingly implausible.  It is, thus, quite possible that Pence will be found complicit in some of Trump's malfeasance, and, under the rules of presidential succession, we will have to consider a President Paul Ryan -- or a President Nancy Pelosi, if Democrats take back the House in the mid-terms. 

At bottom, Trump has no business being the president of this country and it is our patriotic duty to see that he goes down regardless of whether it ends up helping the Republicans hold on to power or takes them down too. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Profiles In Cowardice: "It Is What It Is"

Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn): "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
"Nixon’s tactics backfired because the system of checks and balances clicked into place; the public demanded that the president be held accountable for his actions, and Republicans stopped defending him at every turn, putting country above party.  But will that happen again now?"  -- Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. representative from New York and member of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate
There is already a prima facie case for obstruction of justice.  The allegations include (1) Trump fired FBI Director Comey as he was  ramping up an investigation into what Trump himself referred to as "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia," and (2) he did so after Comey refused to pledge his loyalty to the president; (3) Trump asked Comey three times whether he was under investigation; and (4) Trump requested that Comey "let [the investigation regarding Michael Flynn] go" in the wake of Flynn's resignation as National Security Advisor after lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.  If these allegations alone are proven true -- and who knows what else will be revealed -- there is a compelling case Trump  “corruptly” or by “any threatening letter or communication” tries “to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

There is also already a prima facie case that Trump violated the oath he took when he was inaugurated to “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” to the best of his ability (putting aside the paltry limits of his 'ability').  These allegations include disclosing highly classified information to the Russian government regarding "sources and methods" that jeopardized intelligence operations, endangered U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources, undermined the trust of a critical ally, and potentially hampered cooperation from otherwise friendly governments who would be justifiably concerned about sharing their secrets with us.  Again, if only, these allegations are true, there is a compelling case that Trump's conduct falls under "high crimes and misdemeanors."

(And let's not forget the prima facie case that Trump has violated Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, i.e., the “Emoluments Clause,” based on allegations that he is profiting from the Trump Organizations business dealings with foreign government )

The tepid responses from Republican leadership is -- to use their language -- "troubling" (Susan Collins) and "disturbing" (John McCain).  Marco Rubio tweeted that Trump's handling of the issues "certainly it’s less than ideal, but it is what it is." And Paul Ryan is mostly concerned that “there are some people out there who want to harm the President.” 

Richard Burr, who is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and armed with subpoena power said in response to the New York Times report that Comey has memos of his discussions with Trump:  "I think the burden is on the New York Times—if they're reporting it and they've got somebody who's got the document—they need to get the document and get it released."

Perhaps the most honest and cynical response came from Mitch McConnell, who unwittingly admitted what Republican recalcitrance is all about:  "“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, [and] repealing and replacing Obamacare.”

So, do Republicans believe that these allegations aren't true or that even if true they don't matter?  If it is the former, then they have an obligation to agree to an independent bipartisan commission and call for a special prosecutor to determine whether they are true.  And, to be fair, it does seem that after stonewalling Democratic demands, there has been some movement from some Republicans towards at least seeking to obtain the Comey memos and learn more about what Trump spilled to the Russians.  Whether they will agree to an independent commission remains to be seen.

But what about those Republicans -- still the vast majority of them -- who don't really care about Trump's abuse of power and its implications for national security and the rule of law, but simply don't want any more "drama" to impede the success of their political agenda?  They have no business being in government.  They must be shamed, run out of office and removed from polite society.  At minimum, they need to get out of the way and allow Congress to do its job.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ending Our Long National Nightmare -- It's All About Subpoena Power

The modern Republican party controls all three branches of government, and it is demonstrating quite clearly that it is not up to even the most essential task of protecting the institutions it controls from the ravings of a wild man -- Charles Pierce
As the rancid orange shit-gibbon continues his destructive march through the various articles and clauses of the Constitution, it becomes clearer every day that he is intellectually, morally and mentally unfit for office.  This ignorant, corrupt, lying malignant narcissist has got to go before he takes us down -- or, at minimum, does lasting damage to our democracy.  As former director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just warned:  "I think in many ways our institutions are under assault both externally -- and that's the big news here is the Russian interference in our election system -- and I think as well our institutions are under assault internally," i.e., by the aforementioned shit-gibbon. 

Trump's most recent round of stunning insensitivity to fundamental norms of governance includes, of course, the firing of the FBI Director just as he was ramping up an investigation of possible Russian collusion.  The comparison to Watergate and the removal of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who demanded Nixon's oval office tapes, is apt -- and, as James Fallows compellingly argues, based only on what we know so far, this scandal is worse:  "Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself."

I'm not sure I totally agree with Fallows, but one way the current "Gate" is dangerously worse is the absence of principled Republicans who are willing to ask what Trump knew and when he knew it -- and take the steps necessary to get the answers to those questions.  Sure, a few Republicans have paid lip service to being "troubled" by Trump's brazen obstruction of justice -- but that's as far as they'll go.  Republicans want their tax cut for the wealthy, their repeal of Obamacare, and their dominance over the Supreme Court and lower federal courts to further their regressive agenda.  And they will overlook all the craziness, corruption and abuse of power until they accomplish these goals.

But we can't let them.  We must demand that Democrats utilize every procedural tool they have as the minority party to shut down or slow down committee hearings and delay business as usual.  As Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid, explains, in the Senate, they must also "use the Senate’s rules encouraging free and open debate to take advantage of every opportunity to press Republicans directly and publicly on why they continue to cover for President Trump instead of holding him accountable. Senators can and should flood the floor with speeches and hold frequent news conferences on Trump’s ties to Russia.  But they can also engage Republicans directly on the Senate floor and force them to publicly defend their blind obedience to the most conflicted and compromised president in recent history."

At minimum, there should be no lifetime appointments for federal judges while there is a cancer on the presidency.  There should be no tax reform while Trump refuses to hand over his tax returns and disclose the extent and nature of his business entanglements.

There are essentially two options for removal of a president:  The 25th Amendment (See It's Medication Time) and impeachment.  (See, e.g., Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Emoluments Clause But Were Afraid To Ask)  But until the Democrats can take back at least one house of Congress, neither option seems even remotely possible.

But if the Democrats win a majority in the House in the 2018 midterms -- an idea that is not as farfetched as it seemed a month or so ago -- they will be able to take control of the current meandering investigations from the Republicans and initiate others into Trump's corruption and abuse of power.  As Evan Osnos, who provides a great (pre-Comey firing) historical perspective on removing presidents, writes in The New Yorker, "if Democrats retake the House, the Judiciary Committee could establish subcommittee to investigate potential abuses and identify specific grounds for impeachment."

Most importantly, majority control would give Democrats subpoena power -- which will allow them to obtain Trump's tax returns, financial records of his business dealings, documents involving meetings or contacts between Trump and his associates and the Russians, and more.  And once they get access to Trump's papers -- or spark a Watergate-like confrontation over access to those papers -- all bets are off. 

Short of a mid-term victory for Democrats, the only other hope is that enough Republicans discover, if not their principles, at least their political savvy, as Trump's erratic conduct threatens to take down their Party and impede their ability to govern.  Only three Republicans in the Senate are needed to cross the aisle and vote with Democrats to establish an independent commission.  Three.

The Republican majority's refusal to use its considerable powers to the check the president and conduct meaningful investigations is shameful, cowardly and deeply unpatriotic.  Democrats need to keep the pressure on them by throwing sand in the gears and forcing them answer for their recalcitrance and hypocrisy.  And we need to pressure the Democrats to keep at them.  And we need to make them pay in 2018.

Monday, May 1, 2017

It's Medication Time (Again)

Every time Trump does a TV interview it's like an infomercial for the 25th Amendment. -- Andy Borowitz
He is a pathological liar.  The Washington Post has documented 488 lies in the first 100 days.  That's about five a day; the only days he didn't publicly lie was when he was golfing and not making public statements (although no one has checked his scorecards).  Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, stated that Trump "has lied as no president of the United States in my lifetime has, day in and day out."

He has no respect for or understanding of the Constitution.  Trump tweeted not for the first time: "the failing New York Times has gotten me wrong for two solid years.  Change libel laws?"  When it was pointed out to his chief of staff, who whined about how the press is not sufficiently respectful of his boss, that this would require a constitutional amendment, he responded:  "I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story."  Something they've looked at?  What does that mean?  Oh, and Trump also condemned Congress's rules for passing laws:  "There are archaic rules and maybe at some point, we’re going to have to take those rules on because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different."  So much for checks and balances.

He sees nothing wrong with maintaining chummy, conflict-ridden relationships with murderous dictators, including Philippine President Duterte, who Trump just invited to the White House for a play date without consulting either the State Department or the National Security Council.  (As the Times summarized, Trump's "name is stamped on a $150 million, 57-floor tower in Manila, a licensing deal that netted his company millions of dollars. Mr. Duterte appointed the chairman of the company developing the tower, Jose E. B. Antonio, as an envoy to Washington for trade, investment and economic affairs.")

He is delusional.  This weekend he took credit for stopping China from manipulating its currency when this stopped in 2014, before he was president.  And he continued to insist that President Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower despite all evidence to the contrary -- which ended in a bizarre interview-ending exchange on Face the Nation when questioned about it ("I have my own opinions. You can have your own opinions.”) 

Perhaps more frightening, is that Trump's tenuous grasp on reality seems only marginally better than his understanding of history:
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that -- he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There's no reason for this.” People don't realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
Um.  "Right. Well, I have to -- I have to go now, Duane, because I, I'm due back on the planet Earth."

The 25th Amendment outlines a procedure to remove the president when he becomes disabled or incapacitated.  It states: "whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President."

The 25th Amendment was invoked twice during the Bush Administration to temporarily transfer power to the Vice President when Bush underwent a colonoscopy.  It is time to use it permanently with regard to another asshole

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Key To Gooden

"Doc didn’t get the accolade that day in 1986, that parade, he didn’t get to stand here with teammates and Mayor Koch. We’re going to fix that right now, 30 years later. We’re going to celebrate the player and the man.”  -- Mayor Bill de Blasio

"The '86 World Series always left a void in my heart.  Today I can close that wound. I can fill that void with love, and peace and joy. That’s because of you guys believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.” -- Dwight Gooden
Dwight Gooden was one of the greatest and most exciting pitchers I ever saw.  He won 100 games by the age of 25, but then injuries and substance abuse tragically derailed his career.  He was only 19 years old in 1984, when, with incredible poise, an explosive fastball and a devastating curve he won 17 games and led the National League in strikeouts.  He was an All Star and Rookie of the Year.  In 1985, Gooden had one of the best seasons any pitcher ever had -- and he was only 20 years old.  With 24 wins, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.53 ERA (leading the league in all three categories), he became the youngest player to win the Cy Young Award.

But the numbers don't begin to tell the story.  I still remember the game I saw him pitch that year at Candlestick Park against the Giants.  He struck out 14, in a 2-1 victory, going the distance and striking out the side to end the game.  I've been lucky to witness some extraordinary performances by some of the greatest pitchers of all time.  That includes some of Tom Seaver's gems at Shea, most notably his historic 19-strikeout game in 1970.  But that day I saw Dwight Gooden was something special.  He was more electrifying than anyone I'd ever seen.  And he pitched that way every time he went to the mound that year.  What no one could have imagined then was that 1985 would be his greatest season.

In 1986, the Mets' championship season, Gooden was their ace, winning 17 games and striking out 200, but he faltered in the World Series and failed to show up for the ticker-tape parade.  While the Mets and their fans were ecstatically celebrating, Gooden was succumbing to what we later learned was a drug addiction. 

That winter, Gooden was arrested for fighting with police and during spring training, he tested positive for cocaine.  I recall hoping desperately that Dwight could overcome his personal problems and resume a career that looked to be a lock for the Hall of Fame -- for his own well-being, of course, but also, selfishly, because he was such a joy to watch.  Indeed, for awhile all seemed well.  He returned in 1987, after missing the first third of the season with a stint in rehab, winning 15 games, and in 1988, he won 18.  But he then suffered a series of injuries and drug relapses, and although he continued to have occasional flashes of brilliance (and a 19 win, 200+ strikeout season in 1990), he was never again the truly dominant  pitcher he had been.  He left the Mets after 10 years, in 1994, and pitched for the Yankees and three other teams, retiring after the 2000 season.  In subsequent years, he had periods of apparent recovery followed inevitably by substance abuse and legal problems.  

Yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented Gooden with the key to the city to make up for the fact that he missed the ticker-tape parade in 1986.  It was arranged by sports radio host Amy Heart, who is producing a documentary.  Gooden always deeply regretted missing out that day and being able to celebrate with his team and be celebrated by the fans who loved him.  I still think about what could have been for Gooden as a pitcher.  But how great that Gooden the man is still with us and could, in some way, get that day back.

As he said:  “Unfortunately, my addiction had the best of me that night and as the mayor mentioned, I didn’t get to make it. That stayed with me for a very long time. It kept me sick for a very long time.  But today I’m not that person. And to get the opportunity to share that moment here again with my teammates and with you guys, I can’t thank you enough.” 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Asterisk Presidency*

In 1961, Yankee slugger Roger Maris was threatening to break Babe Ruth's then-hallowed record of 60 home runs in a season.  That year teams played more games than ever before as baseball expanded its regular season from 154 to 162 games.  Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, who had been a dear friend of Ruth's, suggested that if Maris did not break the record within 154 games, his total should go in the record books with an asterisk.  As it happened, Maris hit his 60th home run in game 159 and his 61st on the last day of the season.  And while there was never an official asterisk -- and, in fact, no official "record book" -- the asterisk became associated with Maris' 61 homers and undermined the legitimacy of his achievement for decades. 

The stigma attached to Roger Maris because he happened to break the record of a much-beloved legend was unfair.  If anyone should have had an asterisk it should have been Ruth and all the other players who established records before 1947, while baseball was segregated, because they never had to play against the great African American players of their day.  But what Maris' situation tells us is that the metaphorical use of the asterisk -- fair or not -- can create a longstanding question of legitimacy. 

Which brings us to Trump -- who won the presidency after the FBI director and the Russian government undermined his opponent, the latter perhaps in coordination with the Trump campaign.  Even with this unprecedented interference, Trump still lost the popular vote by over 3 million.  And the stench of his illegitimacy has only worsened since he assumed office.  His refusal to separate himself in any meaningful way from his business interests, constructing what Jonathan Chait refers to as "a full-on nontransparent oligarchy" is mind-boggling.  The Republican Party's failure to confront such debilitating conflicts or undertake anything close to a good-faith investigation of Russian hacking, of course, makes them complicit in, paraphrasing Chait again, a "shocking degradation" of the presidency.  Finally, there's the fact that Trump has proven himself psychologically, intellectually and morally unfit for office -- dangerously so.  Thus, if any president deserves an asterisk it is this ludicrous, corrupt, ignorant bigot.   And the asterisk should remain unless and until he discloses his tax returns and the full extent of his international and domestic business entanglements, and is cleared by an impartial and rigorous investigation of any Russian meddling.

And then there's Neil Gorsuch, our newest Supreme Court Justice.  Gorsuch's confirmation was only made possible because of the Republicans outrageous refusal to hold hearings and vote on President Obama's mainstream-to-a-fault nomination of Merrick Garland despite the fact that there was almost a year left in Obama's presidency.  The brazen theft of this seat from the Democrats has badly damaged the Court's credibility, ensuring that what is supposed to be the least partisan branch of government is completely entrenched in electoral politics.  The bottom line is that Gorsuch should not be on the bench.  Every opinion Gorsuch writes and every decision in which his vote is the deciding one should have an asterisk.  (Gorsuch's first vote, a tie-breaking one, was to deny a stay of execution for a possibly innocent Arkansas man who was then put to death as part of the state's despicable rush to kill several condemned men before the expiration of one of the lethal injection drugs, giving us, as the New York Times editorialized  "an early, and troubling, look into the mind-set of the high court’s newest member.")  The Gorsuch asterisk, unfortunately, is one that will remain for a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ella At 100

I would so much rather talk about Ella Fitzgerald's 100 years (she was born on April 25, 1917) than Donald Trump's 100 days. The rap on Ella was that she couldn't sing the blues.  Maybe not, but she was probably the greatest interpreter of what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook.

Here's some proof:

This is what I wrote about Ella a while back when I was doing profiles of fifty jazz albums:
The Songbook series of recordings is essential listening; her live albums are remarkable, especially the classic Ella in Berlin, and the albums in which she is paired with Louis Armstrong are fun.  But when I feel like listening to Ella, my go-to album is Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.  In a small combo setting (piano, guitar, bass, drums), she swings, scats, and settles down for some lovely ballads too.  Highlights include, but are definitely not limited to, A Night in Tunisia, Stella By Starlight, Jersey Bounce and The Music Goes Round and Round.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Free Speech At Berkeley

"Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. If you cannot speak... I mean, that's what marks us off. That's what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels. I don't want to push this beyond where it should be pushed, but I feel it."  -- Mario Savio
I must admit that I love living in my protective, progressive bubble in Berkeley where the political spectrum runs from far left to left. Sure, we have our share of bullying, misogyny and bigotry. And we suffer from plenty of the other problems that plague the country, from vast income disparity to intractable homelessness.  But I would venture to say that compared to most communities in America, we are far more more welcoming of those who are marginalized by society due to gender identity, race, religion and ethnicity, and immigration status.  I am proud to be raising my children in such a community of tolerance and respect. 

But it has been much more challenging to teach -- or model -- tolerance of and respect for those who have opposing political views.  When the president is a dangerously unhinged, ignorant bigot, should we tolerate those who speak out in support of his presidency and respect those who endorse his more hateful positions?  Should we at least support their right to speak?  What if the speech is likely to incite intolerance or violence?  Where does political speech end and hate speech begin?

In fraught times like these, one would look to the University of California at Berkeley, a beacon of intellectual rigor, progressive thought, and free speech for answers.  Right?

A Republican group on campus invited Ann Coulter to speak next week.  Now, you could not pay me enough money to listen to Ann Coulter.  I'd rather guzzle antifreeze.  She spews provocative, hateful, ignorant right-wing nonsense designed to appeal to narrow-minded people who have far less education than UC Berkeley students.  But if some misguided young conservatives want to have her speak, then let her speak. 

The University first decided to shut her down.  Cal officials were apparently concerned with safety and security after the violence last Saturday in downtown Berkeley when residents were deprived of buying organic produce from the farmers' market, whose locale was overtaken by a pointless confrontation between alt-right dead-enders and anarchists with nothing better to do.

Officials also had in mind the violence that occurred in February when those same (non-student) anarchists disrupted the speech of Milo Yiannopolos, who had been invited by the same group of college Republicans that have invited Coulter. 

There is certainly a question whether provocative right wing figures are being invited on campus not to speak but to provoke the predictable outrage and overreaction from outside groups, so that "liberal Berkeley" can then be blamed for intolerance when either the speech is cancelled or violence breaks out.  Even if true, the answer isn't to shut down the speeches but to take measures to ensure a peaceful outcome. 

With plenty of advance notice, it is hard to imagine why the University couldn't impose the necessary restrictions and security to permit Coulter to speak -- like keeping out people dressed head to toe in black who are armed with Molotov cocktails.

And, indeed, Berkeley has reversed itself and decided to let Coulter speak after all on alternate date.  That's good news for the principle of free speech.  It is bad news for those who have to listen to her.  But, as Robert Reich, who is a Berkeley professor put it, "How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?"

Update:  Coulter apparently has found the University's conditions for her appearance unacceptable and is insisting on speaking as originally scheduled.  Her refusal to consider that the University may have legitimate concerns about the safety of its students suggests that she is more interested in creating a spectacle than making a speech.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Passover And The Plague Of Trump

Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax.  -- The Big Lebowski
Passover is a celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt three thousand years ago. We've been telling and re-telling the story ever since -- and it continues to resonate with us because, as Jews do, we ask questions, and then struggle to answer them as we try to connect the ancient story to our lives, our experiences and the society we live in today. Critically, our story is a universal story of liberation that not only reminds us that Jews were not always free but challenges us to recognize that others here and throughout the world have also suffered from and continue to struggle against oppression in its many forms.  This is their story too.

Some, like Schmuel Rosen, who wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times, believe that the Passover Seder shouldn't be politicized -- that bringing contemporary politics into the mix of ritual and tradition trivializes this sacred festival.  But I don't see how we can meaningfully celebrate our story of freedom and redemption without reflecting on today's impediments to social justice. 

As Jonathan Chait points out, "this would not be such a problem if the sitting president did not bear such an uncanny resemblance to a villain from a traditional Jewish narrative. Like the Pharaoh, Trump is a builder fond of exploitative labor practices and an arch-nationalist, with a nasty habit of making deals then welching on his side of the bargain."

Or if the Trump Administration didn't continue to use language familiar to Holocaust deniers and white nationalists.  Just today, on the second day of Passover, press secretary Sean Spicer, decided to compare Hitler favorably to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming that even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons. First of all, it is never a good idea to compare Hitler favorably to anyone --  and especially on a sacred Jewish holiday.  Then there's the inconvenient fact that the lethal ingredient that killed millions of Jews in what Spicer later referred to as "Holocaust Centers" was a chemical -- Zyklon B, to be exact.  Oy.

Trump is a plague on this country and on the world.  He rose to political power by scapegoating and demonizing Mexicans and Muslims, he has surrounded himself with racists and anti-Semites, and he is pursuing policies that will cause fear and hardship to the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society.

If Passover isn't a time for speaking out against injustice and calling out today's tyrants and their enablers, then, to paraphrase that great Jewish scholar Alvy Singer, "what's the point?"

Friday, March 31, 2017

Time Begins On Opening Day

You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.  -- Jim Bouton
As the vulgar talking yam occupying the White House seeks to delegitimize truth, justice and the American Way, it is critical that we #resist by protesting, mobilizing and organizing.  We must insist on truth and push relentlessly for justice, but we also can't forget to celebrate the American Way -- by which I mean reveling in those profoundly American institutions that cannot be tainted by that malevolent shit-gibbon who is befouling just about everything else.  For me those sacred institutions include jazzmovies and, of course, baseball. 

Thomas Boswell, the long-time sportswriter for the Washington Post, wrote a timeless piece collected in a book of the same name, Why Time Begins On Opening Day, published in 1984.  Boswell muses on the "resolute grasp" that baseball maintains for so many of us" and why our "affection for the game has held steady for decades, maybe even grown with age."  He asks what baseball is doing among our other "first-rate passions."  And, indeed, when one looks over the posts on this blog, it could seem incongruous to have baseball pieces interrupting the rants on politics and pleas for social justice. 

Boswell explains that "in contrast to the unwieldy world which we hold in common, baseball offers a kingdom built to human scale.  Its problems and questions are exactly our size.  Here we may come when we feel a need for a rooted point of reference."  It is not that baseball is an escape from reality, "it's merely one of our many refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms." 

This refuge has never seemed more urgent than this season. What Boswell wrote more than thirty years ago speaks volumes today:  "Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by its monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket."

As Boswell points out, baseball "offers us pleasure and insight at so many levels and in so many forms."  There is history -- an "annual chapter each year since 1869."  At the ballpark itself there is "living theater and physical poetry."  And perhaps, "baseball gives us more pleasure, more gentle unobtrusive sustenance, away from the park than it does inside it," pouring over box scores, crunching statistics, debating players and teams with our cohorts, and watching games and highlights on tv.  "The ways that baseball insinuates itself into the empty corner, cheering up the odd hour, are almost too ingrained to notice."

Opening day is just about here.  Play ball!

Friday, March 24, 2017

November Horror Leads To March Madness

The FBI is investigating a sitting president to determine whether his campaign colluded with Russia  in the 2016 election.  As CNN reported, U.S. officials have indicated that "associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign."  Have we become so inured to the day-to-day craziness of the Trump Administration that this isn't an earth-shattering revelation? 

Then there is the pervasiveness of Trump's conflicts of interest, which is also staggering.  A recent report by Public Citizen detailed how: Trump has failed to isolate himself from the management of the Trump Organization;  the company has, contrary to Trump's assurances, continued to pursue new foreign deals; Trump has not, as promised, donated profits from his Washington D.C. hotel to the U.S. Treasury; and he has failed to appoint an independent ethics officer for the company.  It concluded that Trump has "pursued policies that boost the financial interests of contributors, friends, and family" and "with the conflicts of interest unchecked, the Trump administration is well on its way to becoming the most scandal-ridden administration in history."

Trump's lies have become so commonplace that they barely register.  He tweets absurdities and the media dispels them and moves on.  But then came his claim that President Obama wiretapped his phones which, with or without scare quotes, is not just a blatant lie but a libelous one -- one that he still refuses to acknowledge is false despite the categorical statements from the intelligence community.

And as we saw again today, there's his remarkable lack of understanding of politics and policy that has resulted in the collapse of three main pillars of his campaign -- that he would build a wall Mexico would pay for, that he would install a Muslim travel ban, and that he would repeal and replace Obamacare. 

Oh, and Trump has not only failed to fill an unprecedented number of administrative posts, he has surrounded himself with white nationalists.  This includes the Attorney General, who may have committed perjury during his confirmation hearing when he failed to disclose his contacts with . . . the Russians.


For Republicans, the game plan is clear.  As always, party over country.  Derail the investigation into what should alarm all Americans, not just Democrats -- Russian meddling in our elections and the Trump campaign's role.  Ignore Trump's financial self-dealing and global business entanglements that strongly suggest the President of the United States has divided loyalties.  Minimize the lies, the corruption, the incompetence and the mental instability.  For the Republican Party it is all about ensuring that a right wing nominee is appointed to the Supreme Court, gutting environmental and workplace regulations and Wall Street oversight for the benefit of big business, and passing tax cuts for the wealthy funded by the removal of the safety net for the less privileged.  And doing so before the presidency implodes. 

The critical job for Democrats is to resist -- to refuse to cooperate while the very legitimacy of the presidency is in serious question; to raise the issue of conflicts and demand Trump's tax returns and financial disclosures before considering any policy initiative or nomination; to filibuster the current Supreme Court nominee because a president who is under an FBI investigation should not be allowed to select a lifetime-appointed justice -- especially when the seat was stolen from the Democrats by a cynical and unprecedented power play.

The astonishing failure of the repeal of Obamacare has exposed deep fissures within the Republican Party and Trump's complete inability to navigate the complexity of the political process.  But that doesn't mean the Republicans won't keep their eyes on what they prize -- unfettered corporate power and tax reform, with a side of social conservatism -- and so Democrats better gird themselves for the next round.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hearings To Appoint A Supreme Court Justice Must Be Postponed While There Is A Cancer On The Presidency

FBI Director James Comey, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged the existence of what the Washington Post described as "a counterintelligence investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election," that "extends to the nature of any links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government."  Comey stated, according to the Post, that the investigation "is also exploring whether there was any coordination between the campaign and the Kremlin, and 'whether any crimes were committed.'” 

There are plenty of reasons why the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch should be blocked.  But rising to the top of the list is the fact that the very legitimacy of the president who nominated him is currently being investigated.

At the end of January 1973, a month into Richard Nixon's second term in office, two officials of his re-election committee (CREEP) were found guilty of conspiracy, burglary and bugging the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex.  Others had already pleaded guilty.  A week later, in early February, the Senate established a Select Committee to investigate what had become a full-blown scandal. Nixon's top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned in April, and the Senate's televised hearings began in May.  The rest is history. 

There would not be a Supreme Court vacancy during Nixon's truncated second term and so the issue of confirming a Supreme Court justice during this constitutional crisis never came up.  But imagine if it had.  Do you think there is even the remotest possibility that the Senate would have simply gone ahead and held confirmation hearings as if there weren't "a cancer on the presidency," as Nixon's former counsel John Dean put it?

Here we are just a couple of months into Tweetledrumpf's™ term, and with each passing day the malignancy that plagues his presidency continues to metastasize. The list of his campaign officials that had contact with Russia while Russia was actively interfering with the election continues to grow, as does the administration's attempts to dissemble and distract.

We already have had one senior official -- the National Security Advisor -- resign, and another -- the Attorney General -- recuse himself (and should resign) for lying about their communications with Moscow.  The facts continue to pile up that suggest Trump's campaign actively colluded with Russia or at least gave its blessing.  Either way, this is a political scandal that, as Dan Rather argued last month, may ultimately rival Watergate:
Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now. It was the closest we came to a debilitating constitutional crisis, until maybe now.  On a 10 scale of armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9.  This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. And we may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.
Indeed, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, stated today:  "This is as big if not bigger than Watergate”-- the committee has “circumstantial evidence of an entire web that Putin put in place ensnaring many of the people who now have very respected positions within the U.S. cabinet.”

And so it is more imperative than ever that the hearings be postponed and that Democrats use every  procedural weapon in their arsenal to fight, delay, block, obstruct and oppose Trump's nominee to replace the late Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.

They must do this not only because Republicans, by refusing to hold hearings and vote on President Obama's mainstream-to-a-fault nomination of Merrick Garland, stole a Supreme Court vacancy to which they are not entitled -- although ensuring that Republicans are not rewarded for their unprecedented obstruction would also be compelling reason enough.  (See Republicans Can Go Bork Themselves)

They must do this not only because Trump's nominee, Neil Gorsuch, according to The New York Times and various legal analysts, is similar but actually to the right of Justice Scalia in terms of judicial philosophy, putting him well outside the mainstream -- although ensuring the Supreme Court doesn't cement another right wing majority for a generation or two would be compelling reason enough.  (See Filibuster or Bust)

They also must do this because, as Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West put it, "if the Trump victory were even somewhat abetted by shady ties to the Russians, everything he does as president is of questionable legitimacy."  And the process for appointing a Supreme Court justice who has the potential to change the balance of the Court -- and impact fundamental rights and remedies -- for decades should not be undertaken in the midst of what is quickly becoming a constitutional crisis.  Indeed, as Lithwick/West continue, "once a Supreme Court appointment is done, it cannot be undone. And the damage won’t stop with Trump’s judicial nominee: Having one justice serve under a cloud of doubt also threatens to harm the entire court."  And so, "until the presidency is no longer under a cloud, there can be no hearings, and there can be no votes."

Friday, March 17, 2017

Trump, Like Reagan, Hopes To Slam The Courthouse Door In Poor People's Faces

"We promote what Thomas Jefferson described as "the most sacred of the duties of government," which is "to provide equal and impartial justice to all its citizens." And we do it at a cost that amounts to less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget." -- John Levi, Chairman of the Board of LSC
My first job as a lawyer, over 30 years ago, was in a legal aid office.  I'm extremely proud of the important work we did on miniscule salaries and limited resources.  Our clients were people of limited financial means who sought help navigating the legal system against well-heeled landlords, unyielding government bureaucrats and abusive spouses.  We prevented many of them from being evicted or from living in sub-standard housing, helped them obtain government benefits they had been unfairly denied, and protected them from dangerous domestic situations through restraining orders. 

In those days, the Reagan Administration was aggressively seeking to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation altogether.  While these efforts failed, Reagan did succeed in slashing funds, resulting in the layoffs of 1800 lawyers, and placing on LSC's board of directors members who were ideologically opposed to federally subsidized legal services for the poor. 

Legal services came under assault again during the Clinton Administration, when the Republicans in Congress sought to cut funds and limit the cases LSC-funded legal aid offices could take.  One would think, given that Hillary Clinton had been a former chair of the LSC board, that defending legal aid would be somewhat of a priority.   But, as part of comprehensive welfare reform, Clinton signed off on restrictions to legal aid lawyers, which included prohibiting LSC-funded agencies from taking part in class action lawsuits -- in other words, offices that received LSC funds could only assist individuals and not bring or join cases that might impact underlying unfair policies and could have benefitted groups of low income people.

And, with every administration since, legal services funding has been subject to budget cuts that reduce the ability of legal aid offices to serve the low-income families who need assistance.  Last year's budget was merely $385 million  a year.  Its request for 2017 is $502 million.  But as the President of the American Bar Association (ABA) points out, "more than 30 cost-benefit studies all show that legal aid delivers far more in benefits than it costs. If veterans become homeless, or disaster victims cannot rebuild, their costs to society are significantly more."

But now comes the Trump Administration that, like Reagan's, proposes to eliminate the program altogether.

The ABA issued a statement condemning the proposal that would slam the courthouse door "in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice."  It noted some of LSC's worthy services include "securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, delivering legal services to rural areas, protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping disaster survivors."  It noted that "their offices are in every congressional district and they help almost 1.9 million people annually."

As Don Saunders, vice-president of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association states, “LSC forms the backbone of the civil justice system in the United States that serves low- and moderate-income people” and that “without the federal support . . . you will see veterans and victims of domestic violence, victims of natural disasters, seniors – a growing population with tremendous legal needs. You will see greatly reduced resources available to make critical legal needs across the United States.”

Yet one more thing to reach out to your Congresspersons about.  For lawyers, here's a link to the ABA's website that lets you fill out a form and send a card to Congress:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

You Can Fool 40% Of The People All Of The Time

"The reality is that if Congress were to accept these numbers — which it can’t possibly do — America would be made dumber, dirtier, hungrier and sicker. -- Eugene Robinson
What is so striking about the roll out of Trump budget is not that it is designed to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthy and a big boost in military spending.  Or that this is to be paid for by substantial cuts in services that are vital to the well-being of the less privileged and by the gutting of programs that are essential to such things as keeping our water clean and our air less polluted.  None of this should be surprising.  It has been the Republican game plan since at least the Reagan Era. 

What is striking is how, together with the Trump(Don't)Care health plan, it doesn't pretend to be anything but a giveaway to the rich and a devastating blow to low-income Americans, especially the working poor in rural and rust belt America that Trump championed before he was elected.  In addition to the 24 million who may lose their health insurance, Trump envisions cutting or eliminating programs that help heat homes, feed the poor, sick and elderly, assist with job training, education and legal services, and provide affordable housing. 

Some of the cuts seem to be the product of nothing but gratuitous cruelty.  Who can object to Meals on Wheels, for fuck sake. Or the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, which helps pay for energy costs and to repair broken heaters?  How about the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children?   Or the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps find work for low-income folks that are 55 and older?  

Apparently, Trump and his Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney object because as Mulvaney told reporters today, "we can't spend money on programs just because they sound good."  He actually said that Meals on Wheels is "not showing any results" and that there is "no evidence" that a program to help kids who don't get fed at home so they do better in school does that. 

Trump conceded, in a shockingly honest colloquy with the vile Tucker Carlson, that one of the "centerpieces" of the health care plan is a tax cut that would "primarily benefit people making over $250,000 a year" while those that voted for him in "middle class and working class counties, would do far less well under this bill than the counties that voted for Hillary, the more affluent counties."

During the campaign, Trump said that he wouldn't lose voters if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody.  Tragically, he was probably right.  But that was a campaign where, with his snake oil salesman persona, he could effectively promise anything.  Now that he is president and is supposed to at least pretend to deliver the snake oil, it is remarkable how little he cares about doing so -- or about even appearing to do so. 

Trump must still believe that his supporters -- roughly 40% of Americans -- will remain loyal as long as he blames Obama for their hardships and promises to keep them safe from Muslim terrorists and Mexican job stealers.  The big question is whether he is still right.