The Sleeves From Her Vest

As all who care are aware, last week Special Counsel Robert Mueller vocalized his Report’s implied call upon Congress to conduct an impeachment inquiry addressing President Trump’s activities related to the Special Counsel’s investigation — a process that, if the inquiry’s findings merited, would culminate with a House impeachment vote and likely Senate Trial. Given his derogatory comments about the Special Counsel following the statement, it is apparent that the President himself interpreted Mr. Mueller’s remarks as a call for impeachment proceedings.

The practical difficulty with the Congressional approach urged by Mr. Mueller is manifest: there aren’t 20 Republican Senators who have the political courage to vote for the President’s removal from office even if they privately agree that his behavior warranted it. The political calculus is equally obvious. Any such efforts to remove Mr. Trump from office will: arguably play into his hands, enabling him to wage a straightforward crusade — against “the Dems,” “the Deep State Coup,” and “the Media”; result in an almost certain and outwardly vindicating Senate victory for the President; create a perhaps-unequaled way to galvanize his supporters for the 2020 election; and – to me most importantly – leave the centrist voters upon whom the election’s outcome will rest with the unfavorable impression that the Democrats engaged in an inappropriate partisan spasm intended to undo the results of the 2016 election. I would submit that for Democrats, an impeachment initiative is a sucker’s choice.

The two primary players in this constitutional chess match are obviously the President and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Mr. Trump is reported to recognize the strategic political advantage he may gain from an impeachment inquiry, but to be at the same time understandably wary about the inquiry’s outcome and its effect on the public. For her part, Ms. Pelosi is reportedly facing intensifying calls from members of her House caucus to begin an impeachment inquiry that she clearly considers a practical and political loser. She seemingly will soon need a way to appease pro-impeachment House Democrats while avoiding the political pitfalls that her instincts tell her lie in impeachment proceedings.

Rather than embark upon a struggle which Ms. Pelosi knows she can’t win, she could consider an approach that might enable her to maintain the upper political hand and help the country as well. House leadership might draw up a list of its top priorities and have staff draft bills that, if passed, would implement those priorities. Given our need to thwart future election meddling, the highest priority (at least for me) would be a comprehensive, amply funded bill enabling the safeguarding of our federal, state and local election systems from interference by state/non-state actors, combined with the imposition of legal duties upon significant social media providers to identify and remove fraudulent presences from their platforms. Other potential priorities could range across health care, the environment, immigration, infrastructure, repeal of some 2017 corporate and personal high-income tax cuts, etc., etc. Congressional Democratic leadership would then decide which one or two of the various priorities might (1) given the right incentive, be palatable to the White House and (2) be considered sufficient exchange by progressives intent on impeachment.

When this effort was completed, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer could approach the President and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with this proposal: if Sen. McConnell garnered sufficient Republican Senate votes to pass the House-drafted bills virtually “as is” and the President thereupon signed such bills, the House of Representatives would, after the bills had been passed and signed, suspend its investigations of the President for the remainder of the current Congressional term. This would not be an offer to “start discussions” of the Democrats’ priorities in return for the suspension; the quid pro quo for the suspension would be the prior enactment of the Democrats’ priorities “as is.” An ancillary, but crucial point: the House’s pledge to suspend its investigations would expire if the President claimed vindication related to the House’s discontinuance.

One might surmise that depending upon the priorities Democrats selected and how progressively the enabling legislation was cast, Mr. Trump, given his lack of grounded policy principles, might be very tempted to agree to the deal. Although Mr. McConnell would probably be less enthusiastic, I suspect that he might warm to the notion if the President suggested that he would otherwise endorse an alt-right Republican to compete against Mr. McConnell in the 2020 Kentucky Republican Senatorial primary.

There would obviously be nuances to be worked out and potential ramifications to be weighed; among them, that each side would have to agree to share the credit for whatever bills were passed, that there would be no assurance for the President that he wouldn’t be subject to the criminal justice system the day he left office, and that the deal might steady Mr. Trump’s politically-listing ship. Democrats would be gambling that Mr. Trump’s divisive and exhausting behavior would still be his 2020 undoing.

In October, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and U.S.S.R. Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, desirous of reducing ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry. During their discussions, Gen. Sec. Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear weaponry, but added a condition – accounts I’ve seen varying a bit – that either field testing or deployment of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) be delayed for a significant number of years. Mr. Reagan demurred, and the discussions ended (although they are generally credited with laying the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty). When asked about Reykjavik years later, Mr. Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz, recalled, “[W]hat we did was use [as bargaining chips] things like an agreement not to deploy [SDI] for a certain number of years, which I remember arguing with the President, that’s like giving them the sleeves from your vest. There’s nothing we’re going to deploy in seven years anyway [my emphasis].”

There is admittedly no indication that the President, Senate Republicans, and Democrats are capable of contemplating any “grand bargain.” Even so, given the overwhelming likelihood that Democrats will never garner sufficient Senate votes to remove the President from office following an impeachment trial, if Ms. Pelosi was able to leverage the President’s uneasiness with impeachment proceedings (in turn caroming through Republican legislators’ evident fear of politically crossing Mr. Trump) to achieve substantive policy goals, while enabling the Democrats to escape the political box in which they are increasingly finding themselves, it would be a significant accomplishment in return for … the sleeves from her vest …

On CRS’ “Preliminary Observations,” re: the 2017 Tax Revision

Perhaps easily missed due to its release on the eve of the Memorial Day Holiday weekend, the Congressional Research Service (the “CRS”) — a legislative branch agency “charged with providing the United States Congress non-partisan advice on issues that may come before Congress” – on May 22 issued its Report No. R45736, “The Economic Effects of the 2017 Tax Revision: Preliminary Observations.” In its Report Summary, the CRS indicates as follows regarding the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act taking effect January 1, 2018 (the “Act”):

“On the whole, the growth effects [of the Act] tend to show a relatively small (if any) first-year effect on the economy … [T]he growth patterns for different types of assets … may raise questions about how much longer-run growth will result from the tax revision.”

“From 2017 to 2018, the estimated average corporate tax rate fell from 23.4% to 12.1% and individual income taxes as a percentage of personal income fell slightly from 9.6% to 9.2% [my emphasis].”

“While evidence does indicate significant repurchases [by corporations] of [their own] shares, either from tax cuts or repatriated revenues, relatively little [of the cash corporations received from the cuts or revenues] was directed to paying worker bonuses ….”

In the text of the Report itself, the CRS states:

“[T]he combination of projections and observed effects for 2018 suggests a feedback effect of … 5% or less of the growth needed to fully offset the revenue loss from the Act.”

“[T]he data indicate little growth in consumption in 2018. Much of the tax cut was directed at businesses and higher-income individuals who are less likely to spend. Fiscal stimulus is limited in an economy that is at or near full employment [My emphasis].”

“Much of these funds [received by corporations from the tax cuts and repatriated revenues], the data indicate, has been used for a record-breaking amount of stock buybacks, with $1 trillion announced by the end of 2018.”

Perhaps the only remarkable aspect of these preliminary findings … is that they were so widely predicted beforehand. A link to the pdf of the CRS Report is included below for those that wish to dig in more deeply.

On William Barr: a Postscript

Set forth below is a link to an article forwarded to me not long ago by a very close friend: “The Catastrophic Performance of Bill Barr,” by Benjamin Wittes, the Editor of Lawfare, published in The Atlantic on May 2. Mr. Wittes describes more eloquently than I did [and surprisingly, given the length of this site’s posts, at greater length than I did 😉 ] a number of concerns related to Mr. Barr’s handling of and public statements regarding the Mueller Report.

On William Barr

As part of a note posted February 7, 2019, addressing the Senate’s confirmation process for then- Attorney General Nominee William Barr, I stated:

“Partisans on both sides are currently all too-ready to impute ulterior motives to those with whom they disagree. If solid evidence that senior members of the Trump Campaign illegally colluded with Russia is presented to Mr. Barr by a universally-respected investigator, I suggest that one need assume either that he will bring the information to the Congress, or that he is a partisan – indeed, traitorous – blackguard. I am willing to believe, unless and until I have evidence to the contrary, that Mr. Barr will do what is necessary to protect the United States while conducting his duty.”

While my caution regarding Mr. Barr specifically related to the prospect of his being presented with evidence of “illegal collusion” – technically, criminal conspiracy – for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team finally found insufficient basis to bring charges against Trump Campaign Principals, and the Attorney General has ultimately made the majority of the Special Counsel’s Report public, it has nonetheless now become obvious through both the contents of the Report itself and the letters sent to the Attorney General by the Special Counsel following Mr. Barr’s issuance of his Summary of the Special Counsel’s Report that for a period of weeks, Mr. Barr misleadingly characterized the overall thrust of the Special Counsel’s Report and unnecessarily delayed in releasing sections of the Report which would have made its tenor plain.

A link to Mr. Mueller’s March 27, 2019, letter to Mr. Barr is set forth below. A bit over one page in length, it is worth reading in its entirety. You will find that Mr. Mueller indicated to Mr. Barr, a scant three days after Mr. Barr issued his Summary of the Report’s findings: “[Mr. Barr’s] summary … did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine … full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations. [My emphasis].”

It is sadly clear that my belief in Mr. Barr was … undeserved.

Late April Musings

Generally, I try to base these notes upon some level of validated facts, expert authority, history, or logic [although a number of the learned eyes that read these pages may reasonably demur, at least with regard to the latter ;)]. This note has none of that – just a couple of admittedly gut instincts I have as what is hopefully the last spring snow melts in Wisconsin.

As to the first: I think that President Trump will grossly overplay his hand if he persists in a course of rebuffing every information request and refusing to comply with every subpoena put to the Administration by House committees. While polls make clear that a plurality of Americans are opposed to any efforts to impeach him – clearly, even a number of our citizens who oppose Mr. Trump don’t believe that obviously partisan politicians should attempt to fire a duly-elected President – my gut says that the vast majority of our people don’t want a King who considers himself above the law, either. The Mueller Report has set forth a sufficiently widespread pattern of unsavory behavior that it has arguably punctured the President’s “Witch Hunt” claim in the eyes of open-minded Americans (a point that Mr. Trump, judging by his behavior of late, apparently recognizes).

It would appear that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants face a conundrum – the need to avoid commencing generally unpopular impeachment proceedings while at the same time preserving the House’s Constitutional oversight responsibilities. If advising them, I would recommend that they limit themselves to strategic probes where the President seems most legally and popularly vulnerable:

Aggressively push the subpoena to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for the President’s income tax returns. As has been widely reported, 26 U.S.C. 6103(f) provides a mechanism under which the Treasury Secretary “shall” furnish a House of Representatives’ committee with “any [tax] return” that the committee requests. While a committee’s right to a return may not be unlimited under the statute, it would seem that the House Oversight and Intelligence Committees, given the Special Counsel’s undisputed findings of repeated interactions between the Trump Organization and Russian interests, can readily construct a rationale for their need for the President’s returns to help them assess what, if any, relationships exist between the Trump Organization and Russian business interests that could influence Mr. Trump’s conduct of his office. I suspect that virtually all Americans, including those that support Mr. Trump, are curious about the contents of the tax returns he has so zealously guarded. By pushing a properly-positioned request to the Supreme Court if need be, House Democrats would potentially put the Court’s avowedly strict constructionists in a position in which they would seemingly be loath to look partisan. No matter the outcome, if the Democrats position themselves correctly, they will look reasonable – and the President autocratic — to the majority of our citizens who will decide the 2020 election.

Aggressively assert the Oversight Committee’s prerogative to thoroughly interview former White House Security Director Carl Kline regarding the security clearances provided to certain White House aides, including Jared Kushner, allegedly despite objections presented by career security staffers. As this is being typed, Mr. Kline intends to appear on May 1 with a White House lawyer. If Mr. Kline is less than fully cooperative, I would cite him for contempt and take any resisted requests for information to court for adjudication – again, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Here, the issue is national security and the Special Counsel has shown the majority of Americans that the President and his cohort are unprincipled; this seems another area in which the House’s oversight activities will appear in sympathetic light.

The second musing is perhaps more suitably offered over late night refreshers than in a sedately-toned website; nonetheless: The combination of distaste and exhaustion about President Trump is sufficiently pervasive among our people that if the Democrats present a reasonable nominee [four coming to mind for me as good matchups against Mr. Trump from a purely handicapping standpoint are former Vice President Joe Biden, VT Sen. Bernie Sanders, MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar (whose candidacy admittedly seems to be fading), or South Bend IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg], the Democrat will not only defeat Mr. Trump; s/he will win convincingly – approximating President Obama’s 2008 Electoral College total of 365 votes. It is up to the Democrats to NOT do what they are chronically prone to do – beat themselves through internecine clashes …

On the Potential Effects of Automation and Artificial Intelligence

Although we have an avalanche of data and opinion regarding the projected dangers of Climate Change to our nation and planet, the inevitable (indeed, inexorable) advance of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) seems to me to carry almost as great and probably a more immediate threat to our way of life – a potentially destabilizing force that, if appropriate policies to account for its impact are not soon implemented, will seemingly adversely affect the United States and the rest of the developed liberal democratic world the most heavily, precisely because of the combination of their peoples’ higher standards of living, greater expectations, and power of the ballot. Attached below is a link to a Brookings Institute Report issued in January, “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How machines are affecting people and places.” I suggest that it is worth one’s time to at least read the 10-page Executive Summary. Not surprisingly, the Report indicates that our rural areas and the livelihoods of those of our people performing what it calls “routine” tasks – those involving the most predictable physical and cognitive labors generally requiring the least education – will be the most endangered. The Report projects that in the “near future,” 55% of roles requiring less than a bachelor’s degree are vulnerable, and that in the coming decades, more than 40% of all jobs in all states will be subject to “automation risk,” with some states (including my state of Wisconsin) having perhaps 47% or more of their jobs facing such risk.

Immediately below is a link to a video published by South Bend Mayor (and rising Democratic Presidential candidate) Pete Buttigieg (some who read these pages may recall it; I added it to an earlier post on Democratic presidential candidates in a passing reference to Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy – which I then thought would be my only reference to Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy). This note is not about Mr. Buttigieg; the video is offered because it may provide a useful verbal illustration of the issues raised in the Brookings Report.

I admit that I am concerned that we already face an uphill battle in developing programs to address our approaching automation risks, and about the prospects of what could be millions of our people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to sufficiently adapt.

On the Pursuits of Messrs. Mueller and Trump

I frequently write these notes a day or two before I post, and the Easter Holiday resulted in a bit greater delay here. Only after it was written did I become aware that UT Sen. Mitt Romney had also indicated that he was “sickened” by what he read in the Mueller Report. I am pleased to echo Sen. Romney’s sentiments.  A link to his statement is included at the end of this post.

This will not be a note on the innards of the Mueller Report; my aging eyes refuse to spend hours reading a screen and my aging printer was horrified at the notion of printing 500 pages, so I have only read the 18 or so pages constituting the Special Counsel’s respective Introductions and Executive Summaries for Volume I (dealing with Russia’s interference in our 2016 election and its interaction with Trump Campaign principals) and Volume II (addressing President Trump’s actions relating to the investigations of the Russians and his Campaign’s activities). When hard copies of the Report are available, I intend to read the gory details. What follows is heartfelt, but likely nothing you’ve not already heard or felt.

Although I have deliberately not watched a lot of the commentary that has spewed forth from either side since the Report was made public, in what little I have seen, the Progressive talking heads have focused on the Report’s description of what arguably amounts to the President’s obstruction of justice, while the President’s propagandists (I refuse to call them Conservatives) have loudly noted both Mr. Mueller’s failure to find sufficient evidence of illegal conspiratorial activity by Trump Campaign principals, and the decision by Attorney General Barr – now, regrettably, appearing to be a partisan shill – that there is insufficient evidence to find that Mr. Trump obstructed justice. Both sides have speculated whether Democrats will attempt impeachment proceedings.

To me, none is the main point. I am literally sickened by what I have read – as if I have gorged on too-rich icing of a cake even before eating any of the filling. What I find grievous is the litany, even in the few pages of these Report Volumes’ Summaries, demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of the President and his cohort. The Volume I Summary makes crystal clear that Mr. Trump and his aides flirted with an enemy nation in an attack on another American and in disregard of obvious American interests to further his own political and financial fortunes. [Although I found the President’s efforts to obstruct justice outlined in the Volume II Summary less shocking – simply the tawdry flailings of a flimflammer availing himself of the prerogatives we have accorded George Washington and his successors – it is patently clear that Mr. Mueller intended his investigation to provide the groundwork for Congress to consider impeachment proceedings (See Fn. 2, Page 1 of the Introduction to Volume II)]. I concede that there is little in the Summaries that we didn’t already know or surmise, but the sheer weight of it has had a surprisingly marked impact on me; it has laid bare the amorality of the individual now bearing the most responsibility for the wellbeing of our nation and our people.

It may come as a surprise to those that know me only through these posts – but as no surprise at all to those that know me personally – that of the Presidents of my lifetime (Harry Truman – Donald Trump), I consider Ronald Reagan the most accomplished and, at least until 2003, Jimmy Carter to have been the least productive. That said, no one has ever doubted that both, opponents in 1980, were honorable men. I will hand Mr. Trump this: in all my years absorbing politics, I had actually taken for granted that our national candidates intended to put our nation first, no matter how I assessed their abilities or their positions … until we experienced his presidency. That is not to say that all of the Presidents of my lifetime were paragons – most issues facing a President are cast in shades of gray, and by no stretch could one consider at least John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or Bill Clinton to be choir boys — but none, as far as I am aware, ever interacted with an enemy nation for personal or political gain. It’s beside the point whether the Trump Principals’ behavior related to Russian interference in our election process amounted to criminal activity; it was wrong. Notwithstanding the high regard I have for Mr. Reagan’s performance as President and the disappointment I retain about Mr. Carter’s, if the two stood before us in 2020 as they did in 1980, and I could foresee that each would conduct the presidency as he did, but further, foresee that behind the White House gates, Mr. Reagan would conduct himself as wantonly and malignly as Mr. Trump has … I would cast my vote for Mr. Carter, and be proud of it. Our nation remains strong; although we’ve stumbled a bit in this century, we still have the wherewithal to muddle through an ineffective and/or inept presidency. What we cannot sacrifice is our honor. Policies can always be modified or reversed; character is rarely redeemed.

I find it a great tribute that our children and a number of our nieces and nephews follow these pages; I hope that our grandchildren, at some point when they’re quite a bit older, read some of these notes if for no other reason than to get some idea of their grandfather. For all of them, I note here that which those of us that are a little grayer are already aware: American leadership, whether able or misguided, has not – has never – carried a stain like this. More importantly: it doesn’t need to be like this in the future. I would hope for the remainder of their days, they will cast their ballots upon a framework, first, of their assessments of the candidates’ characters, and only then – if (as we hope will at all times be the case) both candidates are honorable people as far as can be discerned — upon their ability and policy positions.

Americans will always be better off with an honorable president they disfavor than with a scoundrel who curries their favor while seeking his/her own good. I believe that the 2020 presidential election will be the most consequential for the spirit and essence of America that I will see in my lifetime.