Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Durham to Right Wingers: "Blame Hillary"

Just before Bill Barr resigned as Trump's attorney general, he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassell and indicated exactly what he wanted from the Durham report.

The attorney general also hopes people remember that orange jumpsuits aren’t the only measure of misconduct. It frustrates him that the political class these days frequently plays “the criminal card,” obsessively focused on “who is going to jail, who is getting indicted.”…One danger of the focus on criminal charges is that it ends up excusing a vast range of contemptible or abusive behavior that doesn’t reach the bar.

What was the "contemptible or abusive behavior" he wanted Durham to highlight? Last summer Barr told Fox News that he was proud of the work Durham was doing to crystalize "the central role played by the Hillary campaign in launching, as a dirty trick, the whole Russiagate collusion narrative."

In other words, the entire investigation was about Durham producing a document that right wingers could use to blame Hilary Clinton for the whole Trump/Russia affair. Never mind that, when Trump sued Clinton and associates for orchestrating the whole thing, a federal judge didn't just throw the case out of court, he ordered the former president to pay the defendants $938,000 for filing a bogus lawsuit.

That didn't stop Durham from doing exactly what Barr wanted. And it worked. Here is the so-called "legal analyst" at Fox News, Gregg Jarrett.

In July 2016, CIA Director John Brennan rushed to the White House to brief then-President Barack Obama and Joe Biden, our current president, about alarming new evidence uncovered by American intelligence. The agency had obtained reliable information that "Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians" (page 81 of the report).

It was an outrageous and wholly invented accusation unsupported by anything except Hillary’s craven imagination. Her shrewd goal was to frame her opponent for unidentified crimes that he never committed and, thereby, damage or sink his candidacy.

Who was the source for that "reliable information?" I'll let Durham answer that question (emphasis mine).

In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians' hacking ofthe Democratic National Committee. The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.

Even Durham had to admit that it came from Russian intelligence and was not "reliable information." Yet he devoted much of his report to what he calls the "Clinton plan intelligence." Here's Durham's major claim:

On July 28, 2016, Director Brennan met with President Obama and other White House personnel, during which Brennan and the President discussed intelligence relevant to the 2016 presidential election as well as the potential creation of an inter-agency Fusion Cell to synthesize and analyze intelligence about Russian malign influence on the 2016 presidential election...

Brennan stated that the inter-agency Fusion Cell, a team to synthesize and analyze pertinent intelligence on Russian malign influence activities related to the presidential election, was put in motion after his meeting with President Obama on July 28th. Email traffic and witness interviews conducted by the Office reflect that at least some CIA personnel believed that the Clinton Plan intelligence led to the decision being made to set up the Fusion Cell.

According to Durham, all of that activity was focused on dealing with the Clinton Plan intelligence. But let's keep in mind the context of what was going on at the time. On July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks. Based on a tip from Australian intelligence, the FBI opened its Crossfire Hurricane investigation on July 31th. 

Meanwhile, CIA Director Brennan was working some late nights.

By early August, the sense of alarm had become so acute that CIA Director John Brennan called White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. “I need to get in to see the president,” Brennan said, with unusual urgency in his voice.

Brennan had just spent two days sequestered in his office reviewing a small mountain of material on Russia…There were piles of finished assessments, but Brennan had also ordered up what agency veterans call the “raw stuff” — unprocessed material from informants, listening devices, computer implants and other sources. Clearing his schedule, Brennan pored over all of it…

Brennan’s review session occurred against the backdrop of these unsettling developments. But his call to the White House was driven by something else — extraordinary intelligence that had surfaced in late July and reached deep inside the Kremlin, showing that Putin was himself directing an “active measures” operation aimed not only at disrupting the U.S. presidential race but electing Trump.

In the midst of the hack and leak, the focus was on what Russia was doing. The big news for Brennan was that they weren't just interfering in the election. They were doing so to elect Trump. 

According to the Washington Post. Brennan wrote up his own dossier and sent it directly to the White House. 

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race. 
But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The dates are a little off. Durham said that Brennan met with President Obama on July 28th and the Post suggests that it was early August. But the "Fusion Cell" Durham refers to was set up as a result. Here's how the Post reported it:

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI...

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Regardless of what gossip Durham heard, the Fusion Cell was not set up to investigate the Clinton Plan intelligence. It was designed to figure out WTF Russia was up to - with a main concern being the prospect of a cyber-assault on voting systems before and on Election Day.

I'm sure that both Barr and Durham know all of this. They've probably even reviewed Brennan's entire dossier on how Putin himself was directing the "active measures" to interfere in the election on behalf of Trump. But they went into this whole thing with a narrative about blaming Clinton that they wanted to sell to right wingers. Damn the evidence and the truth!

Saturday, May 13, 2023

That Time When Refusing to Negotiate With Hostage-Takers Worked

In our 24/7 news cycle, major political stories come and go with lightening speed. When the result of those stories surface later, most of the mainstream media starts from scratch, failing to provide the historical context - and so voters don't connect the dots about how issues unfold. 

That is happening right now as Republicans hold the debt ceiling hostage and threaten to blow up the economy if their demands aren't met. Most news outlets are simply reporting that Biden has refused to negotiate with Republicans. But we've been here before and what happened in the past is important for understanding that position. So let's examine the recent history that led us to this place.

Soon after Republicans gained a House majority in the 2010 midterms, Republicans threatened to blow up the economy by refusing to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agreed to massive spending cuts. As a reminder, here's the essence of the threat:

When Congress raises the debt ceiling, it does not authorize any new spending; it permits the Treasury to pay the debts the U.S. has incurred from earlier fiscal-policy decisions. A failure to raise the debt ceiling would lead to the federal government defaulting, something that has never happened, and which could crater the stock market, spike interest rates, and disrupt payments to the millions of Americans who rely on federal checks.

President Obama entered into negotiations for a "grand bargain," seeking tax increases along with budget cuts to reduce the deficit. Ron Brownstein documented what happened.

Only days before August 2, when the nation would face an unprecedented default, Obama, Biden and the congressional leaders in both parties gathered in the White House for a frantic final weekend of negotiations. The two sides were trying to avoid calamity in an environment of “pure acrimony,” Furman told me. “I think if you look at the photographs that [the White House photographer] Pete Souza took over the course of that weekend, you can look at our faces and you don’t need to hear any words,” Lew said. “If you ask President Obama about the two or three most gut-wrenching moments as president I have no doubt this would be on the list.”

The sticking point was that Republicans wouldn't agree to raise taxes, but a deal was reached at the last moment. 

The deal linked as much as another $1.5 trillion increase in debt to the creation of a congressional “super committee” that would be guaranteed a floor vote on a plan to cut the deficit an equivalent amount. If the committee deadlocked, automatic spending cuts in defense and non-defense discretionary spending—what became known as sequestration—would be triggered.

Republicans on the "super committee" refused to raise taxes, so the disastrous sequestration cuts went into effect. 

What most news outlets are missing is what happened next. First of all, everyone from the Obama administration that was involved in the 2011 process said "never again." But in 2013, Republicans went back to the drawing board and refused to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agreed to their demands. That's when Obama made his position perfectly clear.

In recent weeks, Obama has been taking almost every opportunity to step in front of cameras and say, as clearly as possible, that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling. On Dec. 5, he went to the Business Roundtable and said: "We are not going to play that game again next year. We've got to break that habit before it starts." On the 19th, he held a news conference where he was no less emphatic. "I’ve put forward a very clear principle: I will not negotiate around the debt ceiling."

On Jan.1, he gave a statement on the fiscal cliff deal. "While I will negotiate over many things," he said, "I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills."

On the 4th, he gave a radio address in which he repeated the message. "One thing I will not compromise over is whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they’ve already racked up," he said.

Then there was today's news conference, which was almost solely devoted to the debt ceiling. "To even entertain the idea of this happening, of the United States of America not paying its bills, is irresponsible," Obama said in his prepared remarks. "It’s absurd. As the speaker said two years ago, it would be, and I’m quoting Speaker Boehner now, 'a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy.' "

After Republicans added a government shutdown to the mix, here's how that one ended:

That campaign succeeded mainly in undermining popular support for the Republican Party, however. By late Wednesday, dozens of anxious GOP lawmakers were ready to give President Obama almost exactly what he requested months ago: a bill to fund the government and increase the Treasury Department’s borrowing power with no strings attached.

Of course, during Trump's presidency the debt ceiling was raised three times with no threats of default, even as the deficit ballooned. But as soon as Republicans regained a House majority during the Biden administration, they're at it once again. 

President Biden had a front-row seat for both approaches to Republican hostage-taking during Obama's presidency. With that recent history in mind, the call about what to do this time is not a difficult one to make. Negotiating with hostage-takers failed and refusing to do so succeeded. 

However, there is one way that things are different this time around. I suspect that the current lunatic caucus on the right would actually welcome a collapse of our economy - assuming it would damage the Democrats. But that means that negotiations are even less likely to succeed than they were in 2011. 

So we're in for a bumpy ride over the next few months. I'm placing my bets on the possibility that, when it comes to Republicans taking our economy hostage, perhaps the third time around is the charm. Maybe this time Biden will do something like use the 14th Amendment and end this nonsense once and for all. 

Friday, May 12, 2023

The Other Christian Nationalists: Leonard Leo and Opus Dei

Here's the story the Washington Post broke last week:

In January 2012, [Leonard] Leo instructed the GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway to bill a nonprofit group he advises and use that money to pay Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the documents show. The same year, the nonprofit, the Judicial Education Project, filed a brief to the Supreme Court in a landmark voting rights case.

Leo, a key figure in a network of nonprofits that has worked to support the nominations of conservative judges, told Conway that he wanted her to “give” Ginni Thomas “another $25K,” the documents show. He emphasized that the paperwork should have “No mention of Ginni, of course.”

The Post was able to document that Leo funneled at least $100,000 to Ginni Thomas through these connections. 

Not many people know who Leonard Leo is because, until recently, he's managed to keep a pretty low profile. But in 2018, Clarence Thomas referred to him as “the Number Three most powerful person in the world.” Of course, he was only joking...sort of. 

Two of the best sources of information on Leo are (1) the Washington Post article from 2019 titled: "A conservative activist’s behind-the-scenes campaign to remake the nation’s courts," and (2) a presentation by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse documenting how dark money interests bought the courts.

The bottom line is that Leo spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting the six extremists judges that currently sit on the Supreme Court. Now, he's using the $1.6 billion from one mega-donor to fight the co-called "culture wars" - even going so far as to create a “private and confidential” conservative group to “crush liberal dominance.”

What you are less likely to know about Leo is that he currently serves on the board of an organization called the Catholic Information Center - which was founded by the cult, Opus Dei. Like much of Leo's endeavors, membership in Opus Dei is usually kept private. But Leo doesn't just serve on their board. In 2022, CIC honored him with their "John Paul II Evangelization Award" (Justice Antonin Scalia received the award in 2016).

Unlike how Opus Dei was portrayed in Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code," the cult is all about gaining political power. After studying Opus Dei in Europe, the Center for Research on Population and Security described their efforts with this:

Opus Dei advances its agenda...on a number of fronts and through a variety of strategies. The ultimate aim of all of these endeavours is to gain political power so that its moral agenda might be enshrined in public policy and legislation.

That is exactly what the Catholic Information Center is all about. In many ways it resembles the Protestant group Jeff Sharlet wrote about in his book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” 

The man who put the CIC on the map in Washington, D.C. is Rev. C. John McCloskey. What he brought to Catholicism was an emphasis that has been more visible in some Protestant denominations: evangelism. Incorporating the need to proselytize moves religious faith beyond the arena of the personal to one in which it’s all about “building the Kingdom of God” by taking over the institutions of power. 

Here is how Chris Suellentrop summarized McCloskey:
He describes the period after Vatican II as a “generally unfortunate period for our country and our Church,” calls coeducation a “failure,” and notes the “particular needs of the complementary yet quite different sexes.” He advises college students to avoid “nominal” Catholic colleges (meaning Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, and the like) that emphasize concepts like “openness, just society, search, diversity, and professional preparation.”

Back in 2003, Charles Pierce interviewed McCloskey for the Boston Globe. Here's an excerpt that seems to have been a forecast of the "soft civil war" being egged on by the GOP today:

He is talking about a futuristic essay he wrote that rosily describes the aftermath of a "relatively bloodless" civil war that resulted in a Catholic Church purified of all dissent and the religious dismemberment of the United States of America. "There's two questions there," says the Rev. C. John McCloskey 3d, smiling..."One is, Do I think it would be better that way? No. Do I think it's possible? Do I think it's possible for someone who believes in the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of family, over a period of time to choose to survive with people who think it's OK to kill women and children or for—quote—homosexual couples to exist and be recognized? "No, I don't think that's possible," he says. "I don't know how it's going to work itself out, but I know it's not possible, and my hope and prayer is that it does not end in violence. But, unfortunately, in the past, these types of things have tended to end this way. If American Catholics feel that's troubling, let them. I don't feel it's troubling at all."

But when the curtain got pulled back on McCloskey, it was the same-old, same-old.

The global Catholic community Opus Dei in 2005 paid $977,000 to settle a sexual misconduct suit against the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a priest well-known for preparing for conversion big-name conservatives — Newt Gingrich, Larry Kudlow and Sam Brownback, among others.

The woman who filed the complaint is a D.C.-area Catholic who was among the many who received spiritual direction from McCloskey through the Catholic Information Center, a K Street hub of Catholic life in downtown Washington. She told The Washington Post that McCloskey groped her several times while she was going to pastoral counseling with him to discuss marital troubles and serious depression.

All of this is a reminder that, while we've grown accustomed to thinking of Christian Nationalists as exclusively white evangelical protestants, the halls of power are filled, not just with dark money, but with extremist Catholics - many of whom (like Leonard Leo) belong to the Opus Dei cult. Their goal is to gain political power so that they can enshrine their moral agenda in public policy. But even as they scream about "groomers," their ranks are filled with sexual abusers and pedophiles. 

Friday, May 5, 2023

Hawley Demonstrates That He's an Ignorant Liar

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released their jobs report today. 

Job growth fared better than expected in April...Nonfarm payrolls increased 253,000 for the month, beating Wall Street estimates for growth of 180,000...The unemployment rate was 3.4% against an estimate for 3.6% and tied for the lowest level since 1969.

As Steve Benen pointed out, the last time the unemployment rate was this low, we hadn't landed on the moon yet and Woodstock was still a few months away. 

In related news this week, Sen. Josh Hawley derisively laughed at Interior Secretary Deb Haaland when she told the truth. 

In that clip Hawley claimed that the Biden administration is cutting off energy independence in favor of a "radical climate change agenda." He goes on to attack Haaland for denying a permit for new mining on federal land within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Here's what you should know about the Boardary Waters in my home state of Minnesota.
With over 1 million acres of lush forests, diverse wildlife, and pristine glacial lakes and rivers, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a unique treasure located in northern Minnesota. It is the most visited Wildernesses Area in the United States and the second largest Wilderness Area east of the Rockies. The BWCAW, which attracts more than 250,000 people each year, has more than 2,000 backcountry campsites, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, and over 230 miles of overnight hiking trails...

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is home to some of the cleanest water in the world. Many of the lakes and rivers in the BWCA are so clear that you can see straight down to the bottom and visitors often pride themselves on drinking straight from the lakes and rivers.  
These pristine waters are currently threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining, which would seriously harm the Boundary Waters watershed and the wildlife that calls it home.

So of course, Haaland defended her decision to ban new mining operations that would threaten this valuable resource. But Hawley proceeded to lecture Haaland - stating that "jobs for blue collar workers are also valuable resources" and asked why those would be "sacrificed in favor of her agenda for radical climate change?

Haaland responded by pointing to the fact that there are 1.9 jobs for every worker in the country right now.  

That is when Hawley derisively laughed at Haaland and went into a rant about how many jobs we've lost to China over the last 20 years.

This is one of those moments when it is impossible to tell whether Hawley is ignorant or mendacious. Ignorance would mean that he missed the fact that the Associated Builders and Contractors just documented that "the construction industry will need to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2023 to meet the demand for labor."

All of the major news outlets - including the Wall Street Journal - have reported that the biggest challenge Biden's "blue collar blue-print for America" faces is the shortage of workers.

Hawley, who tries to brand himself as a champion of the working class, is either completely ignorant about what is happening today or he is lying through his teeth. We could split the difference and just say that he's an ignorant liar - which makes it all the more appalling that he would behave so obnoxiously to Secretary Haaland. 

Monday, May 1, 2023

DeSantis Board Votes to Counter-Sue Disney Over Something...Anything

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's hand picked board overseeing the newly named Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (formerly the Reedy Creek Improvement District) voted on Monday to counter-sue Disney. Referring to the suit the Mouse House filed last Wednesday, Martin Garcia, chair of the board, said that "We have no choice now but to respond."

But as Kimberly Leonard noted, "It was not immediately clear from Monday's meeting what the basis of the lawsuit would be." In approving the suit, the board didn't discuss anything about it other than where it will be filed: in state court in central Florida. 

So five days after Disney filed their lawsuit, the board basically told their lawyers to file something - anything. Just make sure it goes to a state court. That's because even DeSantis knows he's going to lose the case Disney filed in federal court.

All of this sounds exactly like the kind of move DeSantis would make. As a reminder, Disney put out its statement against the "don't say gay bill" on March 28, 2022. The governor pointed out in his book that he started working on a bill to punish the company two days later. By April 22nd (23 days later), a bill to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District had passed both chambers of the state legislature and DeSantis signed it. 

But in his rush to punish Disney, DeSantis missed the fact that dissolving the district would dump $1 billion in bonds on Florida taxpayers. So it was back to the drawing board. Ten months later he signed a bill that kept the special district in place, but allowed him to appoint the members of the supervisory board. 

So now DeSantis's hand-picked board members are at it to counter-sue Disney before they have even identified a basis for the suit. It's as if they said, "let's shoot first and try to figure out our target later."

When I heard that DeSantis got an undergrad degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, I naturally assumed that he was intelligent. But as a trained therapist, I should have remembered that intelligence gets buried in a vengeful, arrogant bully. 

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...