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Jared Kushner’s “SWAT Team” to run government like a business reveals what he doesn’t know about government (and business).

The Count of Monte Cristo cosplayer was skiing when Trumpcare died—a good place to be, I suppose, given the fact that the Trump White House and Republican House of Representatives spent the weekend throwing blame around. But that doesn’t mean that Kushner is disengaging. Far from it. Only Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, and maybe Steve Bannon can compete with Kushner’s influence in the presidential orbit. 

Despite having no history of public service and a business record that’s entirely dependent on inherited wealth and inherited proximity to power, Kushner’s fingerprints are all over the White House’s domestic and foreign policy (Kushner is Trump’s point man for China, Mexico, Canada, and the Middle East). And he’ll add another helmet: Late Sunday The Washington Post reported that Kushner would lead The White House Office of American Innovation which is (emphasis added) “viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants.”  

Uh huh. If you’re able to set aside the terrible and disturbing SWAT team metaphor, which you shouldn’t because it’s terrible, this is not a terrible idea in and of itself. The Obama administration started two startup-ish programs to bring digital innovation to the White House that have both made government programs more efficient without being disruptive—the US Digital Services and 18F. Neither of these programs, strangely, are mentioned in the Post’s report or by the White House, perhaps because it’s not entirely clear how Kushner’s SWAT Team will be different. 

The Office of American Innovation seems to be an outgrowth of the Strategic Initiatives Group, which Kushner worked on with Bannon, who famously said that his goal is to “destroy the state.” So, while the USDS has worked tirelessly to improve the functioning of the VA and Medicare, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Kushner’s programs try to improve the functionality of government programs—on the right, after all, “efficiency” is often a euphemism for “cutting budgets and staff.” If Kushner really wanted to make the White House work efficiently, he might start by hiring people—key government offices are currently empty. 

But the most revealing part of the Post piece about Kushner’s new role is this quote: “We should have excellence in government. The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.” The idea that the government should be run like a company is not a new one—judging by Trump’s performance in his first nine weeks in office, it’s also not a good one. But this quote is revealing in that it has the relationship between government and the citizenry backwards: Citizens are not the government’s “customers,” they’re its bosses. 

But Kushner has other things on his mind besides making the government function like Fuddruckers. On Monday morning, The New York Times reported that Kushner is the latest Trump White House official to have obscured meetings with Russians—he apparently met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice, although the White House did not disclose those meetings. He’ll soon be taking a break from throwing flash grenades and kicking down doors in the federal government to testify before the Senate.  

April 24, 2017

Jim Watson/Getty Images

Donald Trump is using taxpayer dollars to enrich himself while asking Congress to fund his government.

Multiple State Department websites were found promoting President Trump’s private club at Mar-a-Lago Monday, and not in particularly subtle ways.

As ethics lawyer and Trump watchdog Norm Eisen notes, this appears to violate the same federal conflict-of-interest rules Kellyanne Conway broke when she promoted Ivanka Trump’s fashion line from the White House briefing room, though this is far more intentional.

This kind of thing is becoming routine in Trump’s administration, in part because he’s fostering a culture of corruption in the government, and in part because Republicans in Congress have decided to let him get away with it. They could put a stop to the routine self-enrichment fairly easily, or force him to divest his assets and set up a blind trust, but they have chosen instead to do nothing.

The timing of this particular outrage is interesting, though, because it comes as the Trump administration is negotiating a temporary spending bill with Congress, to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the week. That legislation will require Democratic votes and that gives Democrats an opportunity to make issue of the fact that Trump wants to use these appropriations to advertise his commercial property. Whether they will take a stand here of not remains to be seen, but there’s an obvious logic to making Republicans explain why Democrats (or anyone!) should vote for this spending if Republicans intend to turn a blind eye when it flows directly into Trump’s pockets.

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The Democratic Party can’t cuss its way back to political relevance.

Warning its audience, “This post contains profanity and language readers might find offensive,” CNN reported Monday on the Democratic national chairman’s newfound cussing habit. At a rally in Las Vegas over the weekend, with children standing behind him, he said President Donald Trump “doesn’t give a shit about health care.” That followed a rally in Portland, Maine, one week ago, where Perez declared “Republican leaders and President Trump don’t give a shit about the people they were trying to hurt.” The chairman used the s-word to describe GOP budget proposals that day, and last month he said, simply, “Republicans don’t give a shit about people.” All of this appears to be part of an intentional branding strategy by the Democrats:

A $30 shirt for sale on the Democratic National Committee’s website.Democrats.org

DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa defended Perez’s language to CNN by saying, “Tom is angry, and he’s angry because Donald Trump continues to stick it to the American people.”

This is ridiculous. Even if most voters get past the spectacle of a major party chair cursing in front of kids, they’re going to see all this swearing for what it is: an act of desperation. Maybe Perez thinks he’s showing toughness against Trump, who’s prone to foul language. Or maybe he’s doing a bad imitation of his recent roadshow buddy Bernie Sanders, who certainly shouts a lot but doesn’t typically disparage Republicans in such broad, boorish terms. Either way, Perez is trying too hard to be the cool dad, and it’s embarrassing to the party.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

Trump’s Wall won’t stop the flood of drugs into the United States.

Donald Trump’s 100th day in office will be on Saturday and Trump is approaching that marker in two contradictory ways. He and his surrogates are trying to get ahead of the main narrative—that Trump has accomplished very little—by arguing that it’s an arbitrary standard that doesn’t really say anything about a president’s administration. Appearing on Meet The Press on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff/guy who hasn’t been fired yet Reince Priebus made the case that presidents don’t actually do anything during their first 100 days. “Barack Obama had a pre-baked stimulus package that started in October of the election year which was passed in February. It was pre-baked,” Priebus pleaded. “George Bush didn’t get any major legislation until June; Clinton, August 10th; Bush 41, a year and a half later; Reagan, August 13th; Carter, 658 days after he took the office; Nixon, one year; Johnson 225 days. Here’s the deal. The president signed over 28 bills already. Health care may happen next week. It may not.”

Trump himself made this case in a tweet:

The administration, however, is also contemplating using the threat of a government shutdown to secure a legislative victory, pledging to link the funding for a border wall to raising the debt ceiling. This is, as my colleague Brian Beutler wrote today, not the shrewdest strategy in the world. But Trump is nevertheless pressing the case.

The case that Trump is making—that The Wall is essential to ending the heroin epidemic—is fundamentally wrong. “A wall alone cannot stop the flow of drugs into the United States,” Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, told Vox last week, after Trump made a similar claim. “If we’re talking about a broader increase in border security, there could be some—probably minor—implications for the overall numbers of drugs being trafficked. But history shows us that border enforcement has been much more effective at changing the when and where of drugs being brought into the United States rather than the overall amount of drugs being brought into the United States.”

Traffickers simply change their means of smuggling drugs into the country when new obstacles present themselves. And perhaps most importantly, the best way to slow the heroin crisis would be to slow the opioid crisis, which would require reform of the drug industry.

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Did black lives matter at D.C.’s March for Science?

Reverend Lennox Yearwood, a prominent environmental justice activist and president of Hip Hop Caucus, says he was “assaulted, roughed up, and detained” by a Hispanic D.C. police officer while attempting to cross the street near the National Mall on Saturday. In a Huffington Post column recounting the incident, Yearwood said he was slammed against a food truck and accused of being “on drugs,” before being briefly detained and then released without arrest.

The police officer then told everyone to get out of the crosswalk. By then I was about half way across the street. I paused in the middle of the street and then decided it was easier to proceed to the other side of the street, in effect getting out of the crosswalk.

The officer then ran up to me, grabbed me forcefully by my jacket and swung me around, slamming me up against a food truck. I yelled, “What are you doing? Stop grabbing me”. He told me to stop resisting, to which I responded that I wasn’t. I dropped my umbrella, and put my hands up. I told him I was there for the Science March. He said he had to detain me because I “could be on drugs”. YES, he really said that.

Reached by phone Sunday night, Yearwood said he was physically fine, but mostly hurt by the inaction from the hundreds of fellow Science Marchers who saw what happened. “The crowd didn’t really do anything,” he said. “I saw how quickly they were to accept there was a person of color being detained.” (The Metropolitan Police Department did not immediately return my request for comment.)

Yearwood said the apathy was ironic given the march’s focus on diversity and the infighting among march organizers about how explicit that focus should have been. STEM fields have long struggled with diversity, and Yearwood sees his brief detention as representative of that problem. “Until I unzipped my rain coat and the officer saw my [clergy] collar and March for Science VIP badge, he probably felt that I wasn’t a part of this march,” Yearwood said. “And that was very hurtful. For some reason, I didn’t fit in to him.”

Yearwood is concern that such incidents will discourage people of color from attending large marches for science and the environment. “It is not hyperbole to say, if this can happen to me, than imagine what it feels like for a young person of color who might be coming to a march like this for the first time,” Yearwood wrote.

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Centrism didn’t save France.

Every country in the Western world must face down their Trumpian demons, and France appears to have survived the great test. Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist, is set to face off against the far right’s Marine Le Pen in a run-off scheduled for May 7. Although Macron and Le Pen were separated by only a couple of percentage points, Macron is a shoo-in according to pollsters, as politicians across the spectrum, with the notable exception so far of the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, throw their lot in with Macron. Though Le Pen was able to ride a nativist-populist wave to bring her National Front to unprecedented heights—which in itself will likely have profound effects on French politics—in the end her party was deemed, by voters on both the right and the left, to be too backward and too racist to lead the country.

But imagine what would have happened if Le Pen were a little less racist and backward, and if her party were not still associated with the more overt neo-Nazism of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Her attacks on the European Union—a two-headed beast of open borders and a globalized economy—clearly had widespread resonance. Her campaign was taking place against a backdrop of 10 percent unemployment; imagine, if you possibly can, what insane hell would have been unleashed on American politics if the economy remained at or near its Great Recession high for nearly 10 years. This is the product of years of failed policies by France’s two mainstream parties, both of which proved unwilling or unable to challenge the ruinous austerity agenda emanating from Europe’s true power center in Berlin. In fact, one of the reasons for Mélenchon’s surprise success was that he was able to win back traditionally liberal voters who had gravitated toward Le Pen’s anti-EU positions.

Macron—ironically or tragically, depending where you sit—is essentially promising more of the same. His moderate platform strikes a balance of appealing to middle- and working-class voters voters (more stimulus, no hike in the retirement age), to Berlin’s budget obsessives (fewer government workers, cuts in public spending), and big business (a cut in the corporate tax rate). “He is not offering a rupture, he wants to keep reforming while maintaining fiscal discipline,” one Socialist official told the Financial Times. “It’s the Socialist Party freed from the left of its left.”

It is to Macron’s great benefit that France’s electorate is split on various axes. There is the much-publicized populist vs. globalist split, and here Macron falls on the side that is floundering in the U.S. and Britain. But there is also the insider vs. outsider split, and this appears to be the main source of Macron’s strength. He does not represent one of France’s two loathed mainstream parties, and he is not a racist like Marine Le Pen. But centrism in France has already failed on a policy level—what remains to be seen is how popular it will remain as a sheer political posture.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans are starting to freak out about 2018 already.

President Donald Trump’s approval rating continued its long swoon over the weekend, with an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll putting him at 40 percent and an ABC News/Washington Post poll putting him at 42. These surveys pegged his disapproval rating at 54 and 53 percent, respectively, and the Post noted that no other president since 1945 has been this unpopular approaching his 100th day in office.

The silver lining for Trump is that “96 percent of those who supported him in November say they’d do it again today,” according to the Post poll. Still, Republicans are already worrying that his unpopularity—combined with a lack of legislative accomplishments and general incompetence—could drag down the rest of their ticket in the 2018 midterm elections.

Politico reported Monday morning that “interviews with more than a dozen top Republican operatives, donors and officials reveal a growing trepidation about how the initial days of the new political season are unfolding.” Trump’s troubles “have drawn the attention of everyone from GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who funneled tens of millions of dollars into Trump’s election and is relied upon to bankroll the party’s House and Senate campaigns, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.” Meanwhile, potential 2018 candidates are worried about the political environment they could be facing if they run for office.

This year’s special elections may be overrated predictors of how the 2018 campaign will play out, but reports like these should give Democrats heart. The GOP is already sweating about Trump weighing down a midterm election, and his presidency has barely begun.

April 22, 2017

Emily Atkin

The March for Science was a march against Donald Trump.

Organizers had described the Earth Day event as a non-partisan celebration of science and evidence-based policymaking. But as Saturday’s rainy rally in D.C. showed, it’s kinda hard to control the message of hundreds of thousands of people. Sure, many marched for reasons totally unrelated to Trump; I met one woman who just wanted to express her love for Miss Frizzle. But walking around the rally, it was hard to avoid one main theme: that a lot of people consider the president to be a threat to science and objective truth. In the spirit of the march, here is some evidence:













Many attendees were upset about Trump’s proposed budget cuts to scientific research. Amy and Dana Blackmer, from Richmond, Virginia, have two daughters who are scientists, one of whom is trying to get into a National Institutes of Health program that studies the CRISPR gene-editing method. “She has been studying her little butt off to get in,” Dana said. Trump’s budget proposes cutting NIH by 18 percent.

The only PhD scientist in Congress on fighting Trump’s cuts: “Republicans get cancer as well as Democrats.”

About an hour before pouring rain started to pummel the thousands of attendees at Saturday’s March for Science in D.C., Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois was hanging outside of the media registration tent, taking photos with science enthusiasts (and security guards). While there are a few mathematicians and doctors in Congress, Foster is the only formerly practicing scientist with a PhD in physics, which gives him a pretty unique perspective on the increasingly increasingly relevant intersection between science and politics. Foster and I chatted briefly about the state of science literacy in Congress, and whether any Republicans are nerdier than we think.

So do you hang out with the math people and the doctors in Congress?

Oh yeah, we sit there and make math jokes from time to time. But it’s a serious business. The attacks on science and the scientific method and just generally the disrespect for scientific truth is something that has all scientists on edge. That’s why we’re here—this is a day for wet scientists and bad humor.

And bad puns, right?

That’s right. But also a very serious opportunity for scientists to stand up and look the dragons in the eye.

You spent time in a lab before coming to Congress, right?

Oh, I spent almost 25 years as a high-energy particle physicist. I was on the experiment that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter, and I actually designed and led the construction of one of the last of the giant particle accelerators in the United States.

So what’s the difference between the mood in the lab and the mood in Congress?

Well there’s a big difference between scientific facts and political facts. Because a political fact is whatever you can convince people of. And in science, you’re debating what the logically possible answers are to a question, and what experiments you can perform to figure out which one of those logical possibilities is actually represented in the universe.

In politics, I think partly because due to the fact that we’re dominated by lawyers, the question is always what can you convince people of, rather than what is true.

The people that you work with in Congress, do you think any of them care about what’s happening today?

I think they do. And I think we’re likely to see a lot more public support for the budget at the National Institutes of Health. Because everyone knows someone who’s suffering from cancer, and is aware of the incredible breakthroughs that are happening as we speak and the fact that they’re due to decades of federally funded basic research. Because it turns out, Republicans get cancer as well as Democrats.

Putting climate change aside, do you think your colleagues in Congress are generally scientifically literate?

There’s a wide spectrum. There’s a lot of enthusaism for the economic benefits of science. And unfortunately that sometimes doesn’t get reflected in the budgets.

Is there anyone in Congress who is maybe more scientifically nerdy than we know?

Oh, [Colorado Democrat] Ed Perlmutter. He is always sending me emails with things he’s found in the science blogs.

Any Republicans?

Yes, I have a very good email conversastion going with [Texas Republican] Lamar Smith, the chair of the science committee on which I serve. [Note: Smith is one of the most notorious climate deniers in Congress.] We talk about human genetic engineering and what that means for humans.

My conversations with Lamar resulted in the first-ever science committee hearing on human genetic engineering, which I have been told was one of the best-ever-attended hearings on the science committee.

So you guys don’t fight all the time about climate change then?

No. And when we had that hearing, Democrats and Republicans asked very thoughtful and probing questions, and generally behaved themselves, which does not always happen when fossil fuels and climate change gets brought up.

So you think aside from the climate debate, the state of science literacy in Congress is maybe not so dire?

That’s right, but the way to understand what a politician really believes is to look at the budgets they vote for.


April 21, 2017

This is the most damning anecdote from the Clinton campaign tell-all Shattered.

Written by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, the book has caused quite a stir since it was published last week. It portrays the Clinton campaign as a Balkanized group of rival factions fighting behind the scenes, and is littered with damning quotes like, “Our failure to reach out to white voters, like literally from the New Hampshire primary on, it never changed.” It also, at times, reads like a series of second-rate Veep jokes. Clinton’s famously testy interview with CNN’s Brianna Keilar resulted from an aide hearing “Brianna” when Clinton said “Bianna”—meaning Yahoo anchor Bianna Golodryga, who is married to a former Hillary aide. Robby Mook declined to purchase poll data three weeks before the election. And one problem seemed to follow Clinton wherever she went: She just didn’t know why she was running for president.

Juicy anecdotes like these have appeared throughout the week in Politico’s Playbook and Axios Presented By News Corp. But these excerpts and early reviews have overlooked the most damning anecdote in the book, which appears on page 88 in a chapter about the campaign’s early struggles with Bernie-mania:

Raising the minimum wage and college-tuition assistance were prime examples of Sanders’s digging in at an outpost on the left and making Hillary look cautious, conservative, and very much a creature of the establishment. Every time she said she wanted to increase the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour—the main proposal from Senate Democrats—Bernie said he’d settle for no less than “fifteen bucks.” When she said she wanted students to emerge from college without debt, Bernie reminded voters that his plan would let them attend for free. Hillary’s advisers thought it was reminiscent of the scene from There’s Something About Mary in which a crazed hitchhiker tells Ben Stiller’s character that he can make a fortune by turning “eight-minute abs” into “seven-minute abs.”

The Clinton campaign’s struggles with millennials in one sentence! There’s Something About Mary came out in 1998 and, as far as I can tell, hasn’t been watched since. That this was the first pop culture reference on hand for (apparently) multiple advisers is incredibly troubling.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Something About Mary reference may not even have been original. It was used as the lede of an October 3, 2015, New York Times piece by Josh Barro, who seems to be a fan:

In the 1998 film “There’s Something About Mary,” there is a scene where Ben Stiller’s character picks up a hitchhiking drifter. The drifter explains that he’s really a businessman, and he has an idea that will someday make him a fortune: Seven-Minute Abs, a home exercise video that will produce the same great results as Eight-Minute Abs, but in one minute less.

Mr. Stiller’s character responds that it sounds like a great idea, unless someone comes out with Six-Minute Abs. The drifter, played by Harland Williams, gets angry. “Nobody’s coming up with six! Who works out in six minutes? You won’t even get your heart going!”

With my apologies in advance for comparing him to an unhinged drifter, this is roughly what happened to Jeb Bush in September.

The timing of this roughly tracks with the timing of the Shattered anecdote. I’m not sure what’s worse—that members of the Clinton campaign independently used a Something About Mary reference, or that members of the Clinton campaign stole a Something About Mary reference from Josh Barro.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Bernie Sanders admits he put his foot in his mouth.

On Friday, the independent senator from Vermont released a statement clarifying his position on Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, whom Sanders had called “not a progressive” earlier this week:

Let me be very clear. It is imperative that Jon Ossoff be elected congressman from Georgia’s 6th District and that Democrats take back the U.S. House. I applaud the energy and grassroots activism in Jon’s campaign. His victory would be an important step forward in fighting back against Trump’s reactionary agenda.

If anything, it’s surprising Sanders didn’t issue this statement sooner. There’s no evidence he ever opposed Ossoff, but his “progressive” remark rankled Democrats, who see the Georgia race as their first chance to replace a Republican in Congress in the Trump era. “It is true that Ossoff’s platform isn’t staunchly progressive,” The New Republic’s Brian Beutler noted on Thursday. “But Ossoff also wasn’t running to anyone’s right. There was no more progressive option in the jungle primary on Tuesday—no one whom Sanders would have favored over Ossoff—and the race is now a choice between him and a Republican.”

Sanders doesn’t think of himself as a partisan. He explicitly refuses to call himself a Democrat, even as he’s working to “transform” the party in his progressive image—one of several reasons he stumbled during his unity tour this week with Democratic national chairman Tom Perez. But if he’s going to work with the party, he has to avoid alienating it needlessly—and that starts by not dismissing the one candidate that Democrats have reason to be excited about.