January 19, 2017

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At the very end of his presidency, Barack Obama is working to fix one of the biggest blights on his record.

On Thursday, he lashed out at Congress for failing to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As a candidate, he pledged to close the prison and transfer its remaining detainees either to other countries or other facilities in America, but failed to do so in his eight years in office. In a letter, Obama wrote that the facility “never should have been opened in the first place” and that “there is simply no justification beyond politics for the Congress’s insistence on keeping the facility open.” Donald Trump, meanwhile, not only pledged to keep it open but to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

The Obama administration is working to reduce the number of detainees being held before Trump takes office. Ten detainees were sent to Oman on Monday and on Thursday Foreign Policy reported that four more detainees were being transferred. Foreign Policy also reported that “lawyers and Obama administration officials are working down to the wire to get remaining detainees out of Guantánamo before Trump throws away the key, potentially for good.”

The Guantanamo facility has been a blight on the United States’s human rights record and on its international reputation since it was opened. Some of the detainees are being held indefinitely and have never been tried outside a special military court. Even if Congress has proved the main obstacle to closing Guantanamo, failing to do so will undoubtedly be a black mark on Obama’s legacy. Obama is well aware of this—the last minute efforts, though certainly too late, reflect as much. “If this were easy, we would have closed Guantánamo years ago,” Obama wrote in his letter to Congress. “But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to bring it to a responsible end.”

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Betsy DeVos is such a disaster that bitter enemies are uniting against her.

Before her wince-inducing Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, the education secretary nominee’s most visible critics were teachers union leaders, like Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen García, who recognize her as a right-wing advocate of school privatization. But on Thursday, as unions organized a national day of action against DeVos, one of their fiercest foes in the education policy wars announced its opposition to her confirmation, too.

“We are strong supporters of choice married with accountability, but as vital as parental choice is, choice alone is not an answer for ensuring the education of 50 million kids,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a left-of-center group that supports “school choice.”

Jeffries noted that DeVos was “non-committal on whether public schools should be de-funded or privatized,” and voiced a series of other concerns on issues ranging from federal support for students with disabilities to higher education regulations. “We do hope that at some point Mrs. Devos will speak more expansively about her vision for all public schools and the federal role in ensuring our schools work for our kids,” he said. “But based on the record before us, we cannot support her nomination.”

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Democrats should be doing more to hammer Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin’s “foreclosure machine.”

The bulk of Mnuchin’s hearing has so far been devoted to his offshore hedge fund—the Democrats have been trying to trap him into admitting that it’s a tax haven. Mnuchin has certainly been cornered on the issue, but has still held his ground. Mnuchin has argued it was common (who doesn’t have an offshore hedge fund?) to use such a setup. “In no way did I use them whatsoever to avoid U.S. taxes,” Mnuchin said. Instead his offshore hedge fund was for “pension funds and nonprofit institutions. And as Treasury secretary, I would look at these rules. ... I can sure you I paid all my taxes as was required.” Uh huh.

The Democrats are chasing a rabbit here. Grilling Mnuchin on the offshore hedge fund could pay big dividends if he slips up or if something is discovered later, but the questions at the start of the hearing have been very specific and don’t do as much as they could to build the narrative that they’re clearly grasping for: that Mnuchin is an out-of-touch plutocrat who doesn’t pay his fair share. (Sound familiar?) But it has been moderately effective: Mnuchin is getting increasingly irritated at having to answer the same type of question over and over again.

But so far Democrats may be missing a big opportunity to hammer Mnuchin on foreclosures. Mnuchin should be made into a poster child of the housing crisis, but it took well over an hour for Democrats, led by Sherrod Brown, to start to sink their teeth into him. That should be their central focus. Getting Mnuchin to admit that his bank OneWest foreclosed on veterans, among others, goes a long way to build that narrative.

Mnuchin, in response, has tried to play the role of the humble striver who made it big, telling the committee, “I started on a folding chair in the mortgage department.” But that’s not quite true.

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Trump is on track to fulfill the right’s dream of eviscerating programs people like.

It’s no secret that the Heritage Foundation has been in the driver’s seat for Trump’s incoming administration. While it may not have quite the influence it had in the early days of the Reagan administration, when its phone book–sized Mandate For Leadership was Reagan’s playbook, it has been vetting candidates for job openings and supplying potential Supreme Court nominees. On Thursday, The Hill reported that Trump is planning on fulfilling one of Heritage’s longtime goals: defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund thousands of local public radio and television stations. Major unspecified cuts are also proposed for the Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Justice, and State departments.

Republicans have argued that cutting funding for these entities is necessary to reduce the debt, though they have sometimes balked at seeing them through. They claim that axing all three would “reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years,” per The Hill. But reducing the debt is often a euphemism for cutting programs that Republicans don’t like—raising taxes on rich people is a much better and more efficient way to reduce the debt, and it has the added bonus of not destroying programs beloved by rich and non-rich people alike.

But the $10.5 trillion number is especially ridiculous when you consider the fact that these programs do not cost very much money in the grand scheme of federal spending.

This is why Trump’s team is throwing out a huge proposed number of budget cuts: It is a Trojan Horse to cut programs they don’t like—public services, in other words—which they will claim was necessary to reduce the debt.

Rick Perry didn’t know what the Energy Department was until about a month ago.*

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he does have a knack for identifying people’s weaknesses. In a primary campaign full of memorable jabs, Trump’s best insult was one of his first. Targeting Perry, who would drop out of the race shortly thereafter, he said, “He put on glasses so people think he’s smart. People can see through the glasses.”

When running for president in 2012, Perry famously forgot the third government department—the Department of Energy—that he wanted to cut. Five weeks ago, Trump nominated Perry to lead that department and he accepted. And on Wednesday evening, The New York Times and Politico published stories suggesting that Perry did not know what the Energy Department did—including its principle task of regulating nuclear arms and energy—until after he accepted Trump’s offer. The Times reports:

When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.

In the days after, Mr. Perry, the former Texas governor, discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Perry’s views about the department have shifted, however—as, reportedly, have his views on climate science. At his hearing today, Perry plans on repudiating his call to scrap the DoE. “My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry plans to say, according to Politico. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”

Michael McKenna, a former Perry adviser who has worked on the Trump transition, described Perry’s arc to the Times: “If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, ‘I want to be an advocate for energy.’ If you asked him now, he’d say, ‘I’m serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.’ It’s been a learning curve.” Perry may be learning, but no one would confuse him with a nuclear scientist. The problem is, he’ll be replacing one at the Department of Energy.

Update: The Times is facing some criticism for basing its reporting on a sole source, McKenna, who claims his quote was taken out of context. Others have noted that Perry appeared to be aware of the Department of Energy’s remit from the day he was nominated. But was Perry aware of what the Department of Energy did when he called for abolishing it? This is a serious question.

January 18, 2017

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Barack Obama won’t promise to remain silent about President Trump.

In the final press conference of his presidency on Wednesday, the president reiterated that he’ll largely keep quiet once President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Friday. “It is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values,” Obama said.

Yet Obama also detailed “certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values are at stake” that mightmerit me speaking out.” He cited “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion,” “explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote,” “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press,” and “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids and send them somewhere else.”

Given that a few of Trump’s campaign pledges fall under these categories, it’s likely Obama will be speaking out in the next four years. The president’s die-hard supporters will also hold out hope that he’ll be a candidate again someday. Despite having said he’d run his last campaign, Obama said on Wednesday he’s not running for office again “anytime soon.” So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

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EPA nominee Scott Pruitt: I don’t “know about” the science of lead poisoning.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 times, including a failed suit in which more than 20 states attempted to block an agency rule limiting mercury emissions from oil- and coal-fired power plants. So it’s no surprise that he was asked in Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing about the regulation of harmful pollutants.

“Do you believe there’s any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body, particularly a young person?” Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, asked.

“That’s something I have not reviewed nor know about,” Pruitt replied. “I would be concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water. Or obviously human consumption. But I have not looked at the scientific research on that.”

That the would-be head of the agency responsible for regulating lead pollution in our air and water has “not looked at the scientific research” is concerning, to say the least. All Pruitt need do is spend a few minutes on the CDC website, which says, “There is no known identified safe” level of lead in the bloodstream. “Millions of children are being exposed to lead in their homes, increasing their risks for damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems (e.g., reduced IQ, ADHD, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior), and hearing and speech problems.”

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Tom Price has already screwed up his insider trading defense.

Price’s nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services hit a couple of big snags over the past week. The Wall Street Journal reported that Price and fellow Congressman Chris Collins (coincidentally the first House Republican to endorse Donald Trump) received sweetheart deals from a small Australian biotech firm looking to introduce multiple sclerosis drugs to the U.S. market. The stock, which Price and Collins purchased for a measly 18 cents a share, has since gone up more than 400 percent, though Price has pledged to divest if confirmed. And on Monday, CNN reported that Price had introduced legislation benefiting a company he had recently purchased stock in—and that the company, Zimmer Biomet, then gave Price campaign contributions. The Journal also reported that Price had traded $300,000 in health care stocks while working on health care legislation.

The Trump campaign has demanded that CNN retract its story. Price, too, defended himself against the accusations at his hearing on Wednesday, saying, “Everything that we have done has been above-board, transparent, ethical, and legal.” But Price also contradicted his own defense of his actions. After the reports alleging potential insider trading circulated, Price defended himself by saying that his trades were made by a financial adviser from a broker-directed fund operated by Morgan Stanley. But when questioned, Price said that Collins informed him about stock in the Australian company.

His testimony indicated that all of his trades were not, in fact, made by a financial adviser from a broker-directed fund and that he did play a role in what stocks were and were not purchased or sold.


The cover for Hypertension. Photo via: luakabop.com

Goodbye, Fantastic Man William Onyeabor.

The visionary funk musician has died at age 70. From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, Onyeabor recorded nine albums. All of them had spectacularly good titles, like Great Lover (1981), Hypertension (1982), and Atomic Bomb (1978). He is perhaps best known for his song “Better Change Your Mind,” which is characteristic of his synth-rich, melodic sound. Newcomers to Onyeabor’s oeuvre could start with the luscious “Good Name.”

Onyeabor worked mostly alone at his own studio, which was filled with imported analog equipment. He then pressed his records at Wilfilms Limited—his own enterprise. After this extraordinarily prolific period, Onyeabor turned to various business enterprises. He was born again in 1985, according to the record label Luaka Bop.

Onyeabor’s music came to widespread international attention in 2013, when Luaka Bop managed to get in touch with him after five years of searching. Founded by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, Luaka Bop reissued Onyeabor’s music (after some convincing) on the compilation record Who is William Onyeabor? Onyeabor did not indulge the publicity that surrounded his international “comeback” of recent years with interviews.

Onyeabor’s distinctive sound is often called synth-funk, which slightly disguises the strangeness of his process. He used strangely childish sound effects from time to time, over sophisticated horn and guitar work. His relaxed, almost angular vocals were often backed by woman singers. His keyboard work was joyful and varied.

In 2014, Vice’s vertical Noisey released a short documentary on the musician, called Fantastic Man. The documentary brought Onyeabor’s work and career to a broader and younger audience. A 2014 live touring show of Onyeabor’s music featuring David Byrne, Devonté Hynes, The Lijadu Sisters, Ahmed Gallab, and more also stoked interest in his work.

Onyeabor was six-foot-five. He died after a short illness. He was born outside Enugu, Nigeria (formerly the Biafran capital), and died there. He is survived by four children and four grandchildren. Watch the Noisey documentary about Onyeabor here:

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Has the office already changed Donald Trump?

“I’ve had a lot of briefings that are very … I don’t want to say ‘scary,’ because I’ll solve the problems,” the president-elect told Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei in an interview for their new media company, Axios, published Wednesday. “But … we have some big enemies out there in this country and we have some very big enemies—very big and, in some cases, strong enemies.”

In a sense, the fact that Trump is a little freaked out is good. Trump is impulsive and reckless in a way that’s literally threatening to global stability. If clear-eyed threat assessments leave him sobered—“dare we say, humbled,” Allen and VandeHei wrote—that’s heartening.

But the Axios founders would have us read Trump’s jitters as evidence that Washington changes presidents: “Dick Cheney’s friends used to tell us he was a decidedly darker, changed man once he started reading the daily intel reports after 9/11.” The bigger story is that Trump is woefully unprepared for this job—totally out of his league on deadly serious national security responsibilities. It’s no wonder he’s spooked.