• ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, September 30

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ Why Trump fired Tom Price and what it means, going forward

    Comment: He was only appointed because he was the most knowledgeable Republican Congressman on healthcare.

    So, he was a good choice as point man to repeal and replace Obamacare with a new bill. When that didn’t succeed, he was expendable.

    We’ll never know if he would have survived another year or two if he had simply behaved himself. But he didn’t.

    Flying private jets on the public dime is justifiable if and only if the trips are vital to the senior official’s time and the private plane saves a lot of otherwise wasted time.

    Flying them in other cases and asking the public to pay is simply an unjustified perk and a perfect example of the Washington Swamp. Trump was right to fire Price for that reason alone. 

    Comment #2: Trump’s cabinet is not the first to misuse these privileges. I’m impressed that Chief of Staff John Kelly learned from this mess and immediately set up new procedures, requiring Cabinet officials to go through his office whenever they want to fly private jets at government expense.

    Mike Pence protégé, Seema Verma, seen as frontrunner to replace Price: She has deep experience running government health care programs (New York Post)

    Verma currently heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the Affordable Care Act.

    Verma led Indiana’s expansion of Medicaid when Pence was governor.

    Comment: Experience is essential. HHS has 80,000 employees and a $1 trillion budget.

    Indiana has been one of the three or four best-run state governments for two decades or more. Running programs there is high praise. Running them in Illinois normally leads to indictment.

    Victor Davis Hanson on “A Lying Quartet”: The Obama Officials who Surveilled their Political Opponents (American Greatness)

    The names are familiar:

    Susan Rice
    James Clapper
    John Brennan
    James Comey

    With a lot of details about their publicly-stated falsehoods, plus plenty on Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and others.

    Rarely has an intelligence apparatus engaged in systematic lying—and chronic deceit about its lying—both during and even after its tenure. Yet the Obama Administration’s four top security and intelligence officials time and again engaged in untruth, as if peddling lies was part of their job descriptions.

    So far none have been held accountable. –Victor Davis Hanson

    Colin Kaepernick: Imperfect Messenger. Donated $25,000 to group named after convicted cop killer who broke out of jail and fled to Cuba (Daily Mail)

    Comment: Kaepernick started something big politically when he knelt. That brings scrutiny–and he has not fared well under that microscope.

    Comment #2Cuba really needed American recognition when Obama handed it to them. As usual, he got nothing in return, not even the return of convicted US criminals who were given asylum by Castro’s government.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    Hat Tip to

    ◆ Tom Elia for the Kaepernick story 

    ◆ Clarice Feldman for the Victor Davis Hanson op-ed

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Friday, August 4

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ EXCELLENT ECONOMIC NEWS: Surging jobs in July means that the US has now regained all the jobs lost in the recession. Wages rose 2.5% last year. Unemployment remains 4.3% Dow-Jones above 22k for the first time ever (Washington Post)

    Comment: Now, to get more healthy people back into the labor force.

     

     ◆ After latest leaks of private Presidential phone calls to foreign leaders, AG Jeff Sessions announces more measure to find and punish the perps (Fox News)

    Based on the leaked documents, The Washington Post reported new details Thursday about Trump’s tense phone calls in late January with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In the former, Trump reportedly told the Mexican leader to stop publicly saying his government would not pay for a border wall.

    The newspaper said the transcripts had notes indicating they had been classified by the chief of staff on the National Security Council. The Post said it obtained full transcripts, which were “produced by White House staff” and based on records kept by White House note-takers. –Fox News

    Comment: My guess: holdover staff from the last administration or people who have just been fired.

    Special Counsel Mueller empanels Grand Jury in Washington (The Hill)

    They already had one in Virginia, so this is really not new, just a more convenient location for Mueller’s office, which now has 16 full-time prosecutors.

    Comment: It means the investigation is

    • Clearly a criminal one, not limited to counter-intelligence
    • Not limited to Mike Flynn, who was the subject of the Virginia panel
    • Likely to last many more months

    Who should be worried? Anybody in Trump’s circle who has extensive business dealings with Russia or Russian-sponsored entities and, of course, anybody who lies to Federal agents. Lying to the media is not a crime, but a pattern of lying could indicate intent to cover up and prompt further inquiry.

    West Virginia’s Democratic Governor announces switch to GOP at Trump rally (Charleston WVa Gazette-Mail)

    West Virginia, once reliably Democratic, has voted for Republicans in each presidential race since 2000, and dramatically last year. Four of the state’s five Congressional seats have flipped to Republican.

    The most important elected Democrat in the state is now centrist Joe Manchin, who said he will remain a Democrat.

    Comment: Democrats now control only 15 governorships and the fewest state legislatures in the party’s history.

    Sticking with Bernie and Nancy is not going to help, but the ineptitude of the current Congress will.

    Israel: PM Netanyahu’s top aide agrees to testify against him in a bribery, fraud investigation (Bloomberg)

    Comment: Likely outcome: Netanyahu indicted.

    It’s grim when top officials are suspected of corruption, but it is good news when an independent judiciary can investigate them, as they do in constitutional democracies . . . and nowhere else.

    Chief of Staff John Kelly emerges as key supporter of National Security Council Adviser McMaster in White House in-fighting (Politico)

    Comment: Yes, it helps that they are both former generals. But the main point is that they are both experienced at high-level Washington bureaucratic politics.

    McMaster has been cleaning house in his operation, putting his own people in place.

    The problems: McMaster has a violent temper, often on display in staff meetings, and is frequently pitted against Steve Bannon, who is an important link to Pres. Trump’s populist constituency–and who would be harder on the Trump Administration outside the tent than inside.

    Fragile economy limits Putin (Reuters)

    And US sanctions weak him further.

    Comment: ZipDialog has made this point repeatedly. Most news commentary has overlooked it.

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    Hat Tip to

    ◆ Michael Lipson for the Grand Jury story

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, August 1

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Comment: What the Scaramucci ouster shows:

    • The initial appointment was another of Trump’s unforced errors
    • John Kelly has quickly asserted control over White House staff, obviously with Pres. Trump’s blessing
    • The White House desperately needs to assemble a stable, competent communications team (Rumors are that Kellyanne Conway could be the new Communications Director; she would be a good choice.)

    ⇒ More at a separate ZipDialog post here.

    If anybody can run this circus, it’s Kelly. The biggest question is whether he can get the Ringmaster to restrain himself. Conway did it for several months as campaign manager. Perhaps Conway and Kelly can do it again. But they are facing an impulsive, temperamental, thin-skinned boss.

     More night-time lights in North Korea show an improving economy, despite sanctions  (Fox)

    Comment: Blame China. They’ve played the US for years. Trump, James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence have all declared that the time for talk–and waiting for China’s voluntary assistance–is over. Easier to say than to do.

    The question is whether any pressure on North Korea, either directly or via China, will stop them? China will only act if they fear a dreadful alternative. The only possible alternative short of war that they might fear is a nuclear-armed Japan. Moving in that direction is obviously fraught with dangers.  Before that, expect more anti-missile batteries, possible shoot-downs of North Korean launches, and economic sanctions against Chinese banks and trading companies.

     Pres. Trump himself dictated Jr’s misleading statement about meeting with Russian lawyer  (Washington Post)

    Comment: It’s hard to be stunned by this White House–or the leaks–but this qualifies. It is almost certainly not obstruction of justice in its own right, but it will undoubtedly attract the interest of Special Council Robert Mueller, who will look for a pattern.

     Venezuela sinking into a chaotic dictatorship, with economy in free fall  (Washington Post)

    Comment: The US is imposing more sanctions and could impose even more stringent ones. If so, expect the Iranians, Russians, and Chinese to step up and offer support in bids for more influence. The Iranians already have big-time connections there, forged under Chavez.

     Alabama inmates escaped using peanut butter. In jam after capture.  (Washington Post)

    They used peanut butter to renumber the jail cells and fool an inexperienced guard.

     Alphabet (Google) working on new way to store lots of energy; alternative to lithium-ion batteries (Bloomberg)

    They have a “skunk works” operation that tries to develop these long-shot projects. The idea here is to send energy to a heat pump, some of which will supercool antifreeze (or some alternative liquid), some of which will heat molten salt. When air from the separate hot and cold tanks are combined, they produce wind vortexes that spin turbines and generate electricity.

    Alphabet is working with prototype plants now and could be ready to work with a manufacturer soon to build a real-world version. The plants could range in size from as small as a garage to as large as a conventional electric plant.

    Besides scaling up, the researchers are looking for ways to build the plan with cheaper materials.

    Storage like this is crucial if renewable energy sources are to play a larger role since most renewables only produce power intermittently (when the sun is shining, the winds are blowing, etc.).

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

     

  • Two interpretations of Scaramucci’s outster–and my take

    After 10 tempestuous days as White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci is out.

    He seemed to be an authentic representation of Trump’s own in-your-face approach and reported directly to the President.

    The Wall Street Journal headline is instructive: Scaramucci Removed as White House Communications Director at Kelly’s Urging (Wall Street Journal)

    Those words–“at Kelly’s Urging”–are crucial. They show John Kelly is moving quickly to remove the wreckage after months of hurricane damage.

    I haven’t watched the pundits, but here’s my prediction of how they will react.

    1.  Anti-Trump Take: It’s total chaos. These guys are the Keystone Cops.
    2. Pro-Trump Take: President took decisive action to correct a problem.

    My take:

    • Yes, there has been total chaos in the White House
      • There are always warring factions, but they have been uncontrollable death matches in Trump’s White House
      • They were leaking to advance their positions and, worse, to undermine their West Wing adversaries
      • There were no clear lines of communication, no smooth flow of information and views to the President’s desk
    • Kelly needed to fire Scaramucci for three reasons
      1. To show he was willing to act decisively and immediately
      2. To put a severed head on his pike to show exactly who is in charge–that he, Kelly, had the President’s mandate
      3. To toss out the spaghetti network of authority in the West Wing; the senior staff will no longer report to the President, as Scaramucci had (and as Trump’s businesses had been run); they will report only through the Chief of Staff. They will meet with the President only when Kelly says they can. Their memos to the President will go through him.
        • The exceptions, in every White House, are the National Security Adviser and Vice President. They report directly to the President and meet with him whenever they wish; I’m sure that will continue
        • It will be fascinating to see how Steve Bannon’s shop reports and how Jared Kushner’s formal line of authority works (his informal line is obviously different)
    • My bets:
      • Bannon is asked to stay (assuming Trump wants him) but only if he agrees to report through Kelly; he will be told that leaks are over
      • The next head on a pike will be any self-serving leaker; of course, lots of leaks are done to serve the President; but Kelly needs to show that he won’t tolerate leaks due to in-fighting since those undermine the President’s agenda
      • This is Trump’s last chance to get the White House staff in order; if Kelly fails, there’s no Mulligan, no “do over”
      • Kelly’s most important appointment will be the legislative liason (who, I would guess, would be picked from a list Mike Pence selects)
    • Kelly’s two most important tasks:
      1. Control the President’s off-message tweets and impromptu statements. Loose lips are sinking his ship
      2. Work with Pence to get second- and third-level appointments in all the agencies and departments. It is outrageous that these are unfilled.

    What to look for immediately?

    Will Trump lay off Jeff Sessions? If he does, it means Kelly (or perhaps the family) has told the President how self-destructive that strategy is and actually gotten him to listen.

    That’s my immediate take, and I could well be wrong. 

    One important caveat for everyone to remember: Trump’s ability to recover from setbacks that would have sunk everyone else.

    When the Billy Bush audiotape surfaced, with Donald Trump talking about women in such horrific ways, few observers thought he could even come close in the Presidential election.

    The same recovery is possible here, if the economy grows, the tax code is reformed (or at least taxes are cut), the healthcare mess doesn’t destroy everything, the Mueller investigation doesn’t touch Trump himself, and there is some positive resolution to the North Korea danger.

    Big if’s. But not impossible.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Monday, July 31

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Comment: What the White House Shakeup Means

    It was obvious Priebus had to go. He had failed to impose order on the warring factions in the West Wing, which were leaking furiously to the media.

    He had also failed (through no fault of his own) at the main task for which he was hired: getting legislation passed. As a friend of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Priebus was expected to mediate between the Hill and an outsider President. But there were no legislative triumphs to point to, aside from a Supreme Court appointment and a Health Care bill that passed one chamber.

    What about the new guy? Trump’s choice of John Kelly says three things.

    1. The most important thing now is managing the factions in the West Wing and creating a smooth, efficient work flow for the President.
    2. The legislative agenda will have to be handled by others, not the Chief of Staff, who has no experience on the Hill.
    3. Trump is willing to move decisively on personnel. He fires people. (The obvious exception is the shameful treatment of Jeff Sessions, whom Trump wants out but doesn’t want to fire, for some reason.)

    Firing Priebus was not a bold move, but putting Kelly in that job is. Trump better get this one right. His Presidency is in deep trouble right now, and he needs to right the ship immediately.

    What I’d love to know: What did Kelly say to Trump before taking the job? What guarantees did he need? Military officers are trained to say “yes” to the commander-in-chief. If the President said, “John, I need you in this job,” then Gen. Kelly would be disposed to accept the position. My question is what kind of authority he asked for and whether he confronted the rogue elephant in the room: the guy sitting in the other chair.

     Putin hits back at US sanctions: tells most US diplomats to leave  (Washington Post)

    Comment: There are still plenty of US officials left in Russia, but this is a strong, escalatory response.

    Still, Putin is playing a very weak hand. What’s weakest? His economy, which is a basket case and depends completely on hydrocarbons, which are under tremendous, long-term downward pressure because of fracking and alternative energy. He is dangerous, not because his strength is growing but because he’s a wounded bear.

     Related article: OPEC’s big troubles  (Bloomberg)

    Comment: They have cut back production, but it failed to ramp up prices. Why? US oil-and-gas technology and global tech for alternative energy.

    Trump and Japan’s leader, Abe, talk about “grave and growing threat” from North Korea(Reuters)

    Nikki Haley tells UN that we are “done talking” about North Korea. Wants real action. 

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday and agreed on the need for more action on North Korea just hours after the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations said Washington is “done talking about North Korea”.

    Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement China must decide if it is willing to back imposing stronger U.N. sanctions on North Korea over Friday night’s long-range missile test, the North’s second this month.

    Any new U.N. Security Council resolution “that does not significantly increase the international pressure on North Korea is of no value”, Haley said, adding that Japan and South Korea also needed to do more. –Reuters

    Comment: We are on the edge of war. The next US action, short of a naval embargo or other act of war, would be serious economic sanctions on any bank or other company doing business with North Korea. This would hit Chinese banks hard because it would exclude them from US currency transactions. The Japanese could take actions against North Korea criminal earnings in their country. And both the South Koreans and Japanese could install more anti-missile systems. 

    Beijing has played a double game here, as it has for years. It offers weak help to the US, but it is not willing to risk the collapse of the Kim regime. The question Trump is posing is whether they will stick to that position if the US decides to put much more pressure on Pyongyang, threatening both war and China’s connection to the world trading system.

    Finally, some good economic news: US economy grew at 2.6% rate in second quarter  (NPR)

    The driver? Consumer Spending