Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Deflating Trump's Bombast about the Mueller report

Although Trump is claiming complete exoneration from the Mueller report, I confess to more than a little skepticism, not least because the basis of Trump's triumphant claims is not the report itself, reputedly close to 400 pages long, but the four-page letter Attorney General Barr wrote summarizing that report. According to one account, Trump was told the contents of that letter over the telephone, and, given he is not a reader, it is altogether possible that he hasn't even read Barr's four pages. If he had, he couldn't boast that Mueller exonerated him on obstructing justice: Barr's letter is crystal clear that Mueller did not exonerate Trump on that charge.

The other question Mueller examined is whether Trump and his associates conspired with Russian agents. Barr's letter says they didn't, so there is no case to be made for criminal conspiracy. And that may be accurate. But a more nuanced opinion might well be that there was lots of conspiracy, but either it never rose to criminal conspiracy or, if it might have, it would be too difficult in court to prove conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.

Fourteen (14!) of Trump's associates had been in contact with Russian nationals, among them Donald, Jr.; Jared Kushner and Ivanka; Michael Cohen, Trump's fix-it attorney; Paul Manafort, at one time Trump's campaign manager; and Michael Flynn, a campaign adviser and, briefly, Trump's National Security Adviser.  We also know that not only during the campaign but after he was elected, Trump was pursuing a multi-million building project in Moscow--even though he repeatedly lied about that fact.  And when Donald, Jr., began to get some heat about meeting with a Russian to obtain Hilary Clinton's e-mails, Trump himself wrote while flying in Air Force 1 an entirely false account of that meeting's purpose and had it disseminated over his son's name.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. These meetings and many more did take place.  One question is, Were they the result of intentionally conspiring with the Russians or merely the bungling efforts of political novices to win the election by any means?  The latter may well be the case:  conspiracy could exist on the Russian side, but on Trump's side his people could have been clueless: stupid, perhaps, but without corrupt intent.

I'd like to think there was no conspiracy. Trump says there wasn't, but he lies so often and so outrageously that only a cretin would believe him. I keep coming back to a simple question: Given that fourteen individuals had over 100 contacts with Russians, if these encounters were indeed innocent, why then did a number of these individuals lie to the FBI or to Congress about what took place? We know they lied because subsequently they either pled guilty or were convicted in courts of law. So, why did they lie?

We won't know what really went on until we read the Mueller report. Barr has promised a mid-April date for releasing the report with some needed redactions. Let's hope he makes that date, and that the redactions are as minimal as possible.


Monday, March 18, 2019

Another French Comment on Brexit

Given that Brexit is a mess with negative economic implications for the United Kingdom, it's a momentary relief to learn that not everyone is filled with doom and gloom.  In The Independent, Jon Stone reports that France's Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau has named her cat "Brexit."

Why?  Because "he meows loudly to be let out but just stands there when I open the door."

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Congressman John Dingell’s “Last Words for America”

John D. Dingel (D, Michigan) died at 92 on February 7, 2019.  He served in Congress from 1955-2015, the longest span in American history.  Always seeing the larger picture, always ahead of his time while conscious of the need to compromise, he dictated to his wife, Representative Debbie Dingell (D, Michigan), his last words addressed to the American people on the day he died.  We would do well to heed them.

One of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.

In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.
And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.
My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler. We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.

Think about it:
Impoverishment of the elderly because of medical expenses was a common and often accepted occurrence. Opponents of the Medicare program that saved the elderly from that cruel fate called it “socialized medicine.” Remember that slander if there’s a sustained revival of silly red-baiting today.

Not five decades ago, much of the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — our own Great Lakes — were closed to swimming and fishing and other recreational pursuits because of chemical and bacteriological contamination from untreated industrial and wastewater disposal. Today, the Great Lakes are so hospitable to marine life that one of our biggest challenges is controlling the invasive species that have made them their new home.

We regularly used and consumed foods, drugs, chemicals and other things (cigarettes) that were legal, promoted and actively harmful. Hazardous wastes were dumped on empty plots in the dead of night. There were few if any restrictions on industrial emissions. We had only the barest scientific knowledge of the long-term consequences of any of this.

And there was a great stain on America, in the form of our legacy of racial discrimination. There were good people of all colors who banded together, risking and even losing their lives to erase the legal and other barriers that held Americans down. In their time, they were often demonized and targeted, much like other vulnerable men and women today.

Please note: All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.

I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a part in all of these efforts during my service in Congress. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement.

But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).

In my life and career, I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.”

It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better). I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. It was a lesson learned at home from my father and mother, and one I have tried to impart to the people I’ve served with and employed over the years.

As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.

May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Plus Ça Change: A French Comment on Brexit

Sylvie Kauffman quotes a telling comment on Brexit in "Watching Brexit Fall Apart" (NY Times, 22 January 2019).  Referring to the mixed feelings Great Britain has entertained ever since joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, the French legislator Jean-Louis Bourlanges quipped, "The British always had one foot in the E.U. and one foot out--now with Brexit they want the opposite."


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Is Trump is a Russian Agent? Let's Hope So, Says Garrett Graff

On January 16, 2019, Garrett M. Graff In Wired summed up two competing and mutually exclusive ways to view President Trump.  I'll quote verbatim Graff's first three paragraphs, but I urge you to read his entire piece:  not only is it clear, but the clear presentation of evidence is devastating.*

"It would be rather embarrassing for Donald Trump at this point if Robert Mueller were to declare that the president isn't an agent of Russian intelligence.

"The pattern of his pro-Putin, pro-Russia, anti-FBI, anti-intelligence community actions are so one-sided, and the lies and obfuscation surrounding every single Russian meeting and conversation are so consistent, that if this president isn't actually hiding a massive conspiracy, it means the alternative is worse: America has elected a chief executive so oblivious to geopolitics, so self-centered and personally insecure, so naturally predisposed to undermine democratic institutions and coddle authoritarians, and so terrible a manager and leader, that he cluelessly surrounded himself with crooks, grifters, and agents of foreign powers, compromising the national security of the US government and undermining 75 years of critical foreign alliances, just to satiate his own ego.

"In short, we've reached a point in the Mueller probe where there are only two scenarios left: Either the president is compromised by the Russian government and has been working covertly to cooperate with Vladimir Putin after Russia helped win him the 2016 election--or Trump will go down in history as the world most famous 'useful idiot,' as communists used to call those who could be co-opted to the cause without realizing it."

Either/Or hypotheses don't always work, however, not only because there can be some middle ground between the two extremes, but because chronologically they sometimes can be seen as "First/Then."  In this case, for example, it's altogether possible that Trump was first a "useful idiot" to the Russians, eager as he was to obtain Russian financing for his hotels that he couldn't obtain from US sources.  Then, compromised perhaps by acts like participating in Golden Showers or money laundering for the oligarchs (and of course both are possible), Trump became an agent of Russian intelligence.

All the more reason, then, to hope that Special Prosecutor Mueller's report gets published.

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*[I am unable to link to Wired, but you can read Graff's piece by Googling "Graff Trump Mueller."]


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Dillinger's With Saw, Plane & Chisel: How to Build Historic American Furniture

As a collector of American Colonial furniture for over fifty years and a user of hand tools for over thirty, I read Zachary Dillinger’s With Saw, Plane & Chisel: How to Build Historic American Furniture (Popular Woodworking Books, 2016) with keen interest. Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver what its title promises.

Dillinger’s six projects span a good hundred years. With detailed instructions and excellent photographs, Dillinger shows how to build a Jacobean chest of drawers, a William and Mary side chair, a Queen Anne stool, a Queen Anne desk, a Chippendale bookcase, and a Hepplewhite hunt board. But how historically accurate are these reproductions? A critical look at these projects soon reveals that they are generic, based less on specific surviving examples than on stylistic features generally attributed to whatever so-called period is in question. The sources for these six projects remain vague: Dillinger says that the William and Mary side chair copies a chair he owns and that the Hepplewhite hunt board comes from Vermont, but he does not give sources for his other projects. 

Even worse, three of his six projects distort what historic examples looked like. Dillinger’s version of a “Queen Anne” stool, for example, is nothing less than grotesque.  Upholstered stools with cabriole legs were common in England with its more stratified society but rare in America. Squatty with bandy legs, Dillinger’s stool looks as if it had been whelped by an English bulldog. His “Queen Anne” desk also has faulty proportions:  Colonial slant-top desks with drawers were generally about as wide as they were high.  At 29 1/2” wide, Dillinger’s desk is unusually narrow for its height of 41”, so it looks top heavy. His “Chippendale” bookcase possibly could be considered an example of early 20th century Colonial Revival style, but it certainly isn’t representative of American bookcases from the second half of the eighteenth century. It’s a modern bookcase with some period details applied to the carcass the way icing is applied to a cake.

Half of the six projects, therefore, present distorted versions of Colonial American furniture. To that extent, they are not remotely “historic.” Dillinger’s With Saw, Plane & Chisel is a useful guide to hand tool techniques, but anyone who wants to understand period styles or reproduce furniture that looks right will be far better served by Jeffrey Greene’s American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique and Structure (Taunton Press, 1996) or by Norman Vandal’s Queen Anne Furniture: History, Design and Construction (Taunton Press, 1990).

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Michael Flynn's Sentencing Memorandum

Former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn is back in the news. Last April, Flynn had admitted lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador Kislyak about sanctions. This was a criminal offense, but, as I commented at the time, sentencing was being deferred, presumably to ensure Flynn's continued cooperation. Special Prosecutor Mueller had no reason to go easy on Flynn unless Flynn could provide valuable information.

One piece of this information, I continued, would be naming the "very senior member" of Trump's transition team who directed Flynn to talk to Kislyak about a United Nations Security Council  resolution. That person could well have been Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, who perhaps was acting on his own--or perhaps was not. After firing Flynn as national security adviser, Trump tried again and again to get Flynn off the hook, even to the extent of directing the then Attorney General Sessions to fire the then Director of the FBI, James Comey. Why, precisely? As I asked a year ago: Just how deep does this rot go?

Yesterday, the Government's Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing Michael T. Flynn was submitted. Nearly all of the document has been redacted, but we can read that despite his previous "multiple false statements," Flynn's "substantial assistance" justifies "a sentence at the low end of the guideline range" (zero to six months). That substantial assistance apparently took place over the course of nineteen (19!) interviews. That in itself is remarkable, but even more remarkable is that no one has leaked what he said, just as no one has leaked what former White House counsel Don McGahn has said in his 30 hours of testimony and what Michael Cohen has said in his 70 hours of testimony.

Given that Washington leaks like a sieve, this silence is amazing. It is clear that Mueller's team is careful and thorough. Far from being "out of control," as Trump keeps insisting, Mueller is exerting remarkable control. His report, I predict, will be incontrovertible.  The problem in this era of conspiracy theorists will be those fanatics who will choose to ignore documentary evidence in favor of their own fantasies.  Their name is legion.