All posts by Hal Gershowitz and Stephen Porter

Health Care: Is it a Basic Human Right?

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsWell, no it isn’t. But it is a basic human need.

We certainly agree that as a matter of national policy making sure all Americans have access to good health care should be among our highest national priorities. But given the GOP’s failed attempt at sausage making this week, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act will define American health care for the foreseeable future.  Senators on both sides of the aisle agree that the Affordable Care Act needs fixing.  They just can’t agree on the definition of “fixing.”  That’s because neither Democrats nor Republicans dare take issue with the popular narrative that health care is a basic human right.

But is it really a basic human right, or is it even a basic right of American citizenship? Defining health care as a basic right as though it were, or should have been, the 11th amendment of the Bill of Rights has become the narrative de jour today. It is a narrative that corrupts rational discussion and could propel us to irrational national policy. At the risk of sounding indifferent, which we are not, we do not believe health care is a basic human right, nor is it a basic right of citizenship in America.  While health care has never been a basic right in America,  the vast majority of working Americans, about 85%, were protected by health insurance before the Affordable  Care Act was enacted. We certainly agree that the remaining 15% required coverage as well.

Basic rights in America have always protected us from those things our government might do to us or require of us. Our basic rights define, to a great extent, our relationship with our government. Our government cannot muzzle us, even if we want to criticize or condemn it. Nor can the government infringe upon a sane or law-abiding citizen’s right to own a firearm, nor can it require anyone to incriminate himself or herself. No American can be made to prostrate himself or herself before the government and confess to a crime. It is his or her basic right to be presumed innocent and neither he nor she has any obligation to even assist a government prosecutor in making or trying a case. In other words, in America, a citizen’s rights are, essentially, specific restrictions on government’s ability to act against us or require certain things of any of us.  In America, citizen’s rights have never required one citizen to give up something of value so that another citizen could exercise his or her basic rights. Until today’s health care debate, rights have always involved personal freedoms the government cannot infringe upon, not material goods or services that the government must provide.

We often hear that America is the only nation in the developed world that doesn’t provide free health care for all of its citizens. And that is true.  We don’t consider that an indictment of America or of its values.  It is simply a reflexion of how we have chosen to allocate our resources. We’re also the only country that took responsibility for rebuilding Europe after World War Two, and for the defense of what we called the “free world” ever since. President John F. Kennedy articulated what was America’s commitment to the free world in his inaugural address when he proclaimed, “that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival of the success of liberty.”  Our post-war commitments largely defined how we would allocate our resources.

Nonetheless, America does, today, provide Universal Healthcare for everyone over age sixty-five, or for millions of lower income families through the federal Medicaid and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program). Prior to 2009 eighty-five percent of all working Americans were covered either by employer-sponsored health insurance programs or individually secured health insurance.

America may, someday, very well decide to reallocate its resources and provide healthcare to all its citizens. That’s a course some future Congress and some future Administration might very well choose to follow. At first blush, the Administrative cost of running our Medicare reimbursement program is actually considerably lower than the administrative cost of providing reimbursements through the health insurance industry.  Most physicians and other service providers, however, consider the administrative burden to be excessive that has been transferred to them by the government so an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult to make. Of course, the insurance industry also transfers considerable administrative burden to health care providers.

So how much of the nation’s health care is to be provided by government is, ultimately, a matter of allocating resources. Let’s take a look at how we allocate our resources (tax revenue plus debt) today.

There are two very broad budget categories— discretionary spending and mandatory or non-discretionary spending. Discretionary spending is simply that part of the federal budget that Congress appropriates each year. Congress has the constitutional authority (and obligation) to raise and spend money for the federal government. The discretionary budget ($1.244 trillion) includes just about everything except Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid ($3.850 trillion). The discretionary budget for fiscal year 2018 has two components, department operating budgets (including defense) and emergencies. The Trump Administration has asked for $85 billion for emergencies—think wars, disaster relief and acts of nature like controlling wildfires.

If the government were to pay for all health care, as though it were a basic right, the cost is estimated to be $3.35 trillion or about $10,345 for every man woman and child in the country, with costs estimated to increase by at least five percent annually for the foreseeable future. About five percent of the population (mostly the elderly) account for nearly half of the entire health care bill. Today, about 90% of pre-retirement-age Americans do have health insurance to cover or ameliorate these costs as compared to about 85% who were covered by either employer or individually provided insurance prior to the Affordable Care Act.

Obviously, there is an important role for government in dealing with America’s health care needs. There is also an important role or responsibility for most every family and individual.

When we, as a nation, recognized hunger as a serious problem, we didn’t nationalize the food industry. We provided vouchers (food stamps) to alleviate hunger for our neediest citizens. Perhaps, there is a lesson there for how we should have attacked health care in America by focusing our efforts on the 10% to 15% of Americans who had fallen through the cracks and were uncovered by public or private insurance programs.

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Healthcare Conundrum: Turning a Sows Ear into The Sow’s Other Ear

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsThe US Congress has, and is, really making a mess of healthcare.

Instead of focusing our efforts on the 15% of Americans who were uninsured prior to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA)—an oxymoron if ever there was one, President Obama embarked on a quest to require all Americans (85% of whom were happy with the insurance they had), to have or to obtain health insurance that the Obama Administration considered acceptable.

“Acceptable” plans were those that— (1) took in, at no additional risk-related cost, all comers regardless of pre-existing health condition, (2) redefined children who could be covered under their parents’ plans as kids through age 26, and (3) provided a wide range of “essential coverages” that many people simply didn’t need and, therefore, hadn’t purchased in their previous policies, which were then considered “unacceptable” by the ACA.

To compound the problem, the low penalty for not buying insurance under the ACA has been counterproductive. Millions of young, healthy men and women have ignored the ACA. They understand they can simply apply when, and if, they eventually get sick, knowing they can’t be turned down nor can they be charged a higher premium for waiting until they are about to impose high health-related costs on the system. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a deluge of applicants who were disproportionately older and sicker, while far too many younger and healthier Americans took a pass, or, maybe, a trip to Disneyland instead.

To make matters worse, Americans were “sold” on the ACA with what we’ll call the most famous three no’s since Khartoum. The Obama “three no’s were, (1) no loss of your doctor, (2) no loss of your plan and (3) no increase in premiums. Of course, millions of people quickly lost their doctors, their plans, and their former premiums, not to mention incurring substantial increases in their deductibles.

Premiums for healthcare plans sold through HealthCare.gov are projected to increase by an average of 22 percent this year—nearly triple the 7.5 percent annual increase in 2015 and again in 2016.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average annual growth rate of annual healthcare spending will continue to increase by more than 5.0% a year by 2020. That’s at least a 50% increase over a five-year period, with continued increases of more than 5.0% projected thereafter. This after candidate Obama promised in 2008 a $2400 reduction in premiums for families by 2012. Well, who remembers 2012 anyway?

Republicans have pontificated for the better part of a decade that when and if they gained control of Congress they would repeal and replace the ACA. As Candidate (and then President) Trump promised, the Republicans were going to replace Obamacare with something…beautiful and terrific. Now that Republicans have gained control of Congress they are finding that the silk purse they wanted to make of the sow’s ear known as Obamacare, is turning out to be nothing more than the sow’s other ear.

That’s because the Republicans want to keep the most popular provisions of the ACA while simultaneously reducing costs. The only way to do that, really, is to pull back on the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, which, of course, has created a firestorm of criticism. That’s because of the potential impact on millions of additional lower-income citizens who were brought into the ACA who, prior to Obamacare, still earned too much to qualify for Medicaid. Politicians who vote to take away or reduce an entitlement are called all sorts of names. In the case of cutting back on the expansion of Medicaid the name de jour is “murderer.”

We assume that those of our fellow citizens who had to drop health insurance coverage under Obamacare because they couldn’t afford the higher premiums and deductibles being incurred under the ACA are also prospective murder victims at the hands of those who passed the ACA in the first place.

Under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, many states chose to accept the federal dollars dangled in front of them to expand the government Medicaid program. That was the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that 13 million additional people will be enrolled in Medicaid through 2017 as a result of the ACA.

Now comes the non-partisan Foundation for Government Accountability with the finding that adult Medicaid enrollment in 24 of the 29 States that accepted Medicaid expansion has exceeded projections by an average of 110 percent. That means that the States’ portion of the tab for this expansion will double in the next couple of years, leaving taxpayers in those States on the hook for substantially increased budgets and the increased State taxes that are certain to follow. It seems free lunches are just as hard to come by today as they ever were.

Now, here’s the conundrum. Republicans are hell bent on reducing taxes. The Republicans have no choice but to reduce the budgetary impact of the ACA if they want to enact tax reform later using the rather arcane reconciliation process, which only requires a simple majority vote. Without being able to use the reconciliation process, the Republicans would have no chance of getting tax reform through the Senate as that would require a supermajority of sixty votes. A Senate healthcare bill must, as a practical matter, result in deficit reduction over ten years if it is to pass with a simple majority through reconciliation. That’s why turning back the Medicaid expansion in the ACA is a must for the Republicans. That’s where they can most readily reduce the impact of healthcare on the federal fisc.

That’s because the use of the reconciliation process is prohibited for provisions that would increase the deficit beyond 10 years following the reconciliation measure. In other words, a budget provision that is enacted using reconciliation must either lapse after ten years or result in a deficit reduction within ten years, which the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House does and, which the Senate bill, if it is ever enacted, must do.

That is why the tax cuts enacted during the Bush (43) Administration lapsed after 10 years in order to satisfy the requirement that prohibits legislation that increases the deficit within the ten-year time period covered by a budget resolution passed through reconciliation.

The House healthcare bill is expected to reduce deficits by $119 billion over a 10-year period, which, therefore, qualified it for a simple majority vote. The reconciliation rules dictate that any budget bill that isn’t deficit neutral in ten years, or which failed to provide budget deficit reduction cannot qualify under reconciliation and would, therefore, be subject to filibuster (legislation-killing unlimited debate). That’s why the Republican Senate’s healthcare legislation is projected by the CBO to reduce deficits by over $300 million over the next ten years.  It’s all about deficit reduction. The Republicans are determined to produce a healthcare bill that slashes Obamacare costs so that they can enact tax-reduction legislation later this year or next year.

But all of this is, of course, academic if we as a nation have determined that more or less state-of-the-art medical treatment is a basic human right. But is it? More on that next week.

The summer reading best picks –

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Remarkable “Takeaway” From Aspen Ideas Festival

Of Thee I Sing Heading Authorsde Tocqueville would smile.

Aspen Colorado – So, a remarkable “takeaway” for us from the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of mostly left-of- center, well educated, and successful Americans who care greatly about their nation’s future was this—America has to reduce its reliance on Washington and focus more on local initiatives to make progress and solve problems. While Republicans tie themselves in knots and make a spectacle of themselves as well as the US Congress, many liberal elites have, ironically, begun to focus on a traditional bedrock Republican position—decentralization of political initiative in order to get things done.  Who knows, perhaps federally funded block grants to fund state and local initiatives will gain attraction among thinking politicians of both parties.

The decentralization of the political process for problem-solving in 19th century America is exactly what so excited Alexis de Tocqueville one hundred and eighty years ago. As a young French historian, de Tocqueville traveled throughout America and chronicled his observations in his seminal work, “Democracy in America,” which we strongly commend to everyone.

de Tocqueville marveled at the uniquely American practice of self-reliance. He saw an entire nation in which people looked to themselves and to their neighbors to address and resolve all manner of issues and problems. It was, he said, as nothing he had ever seen before.  Elsewhere, especially in Europe, the people were totally conditioned to look centrally, to their sovereign or monarch, for resolution of all disputes and formulation of all programs for the common good. Not so in America. He described these new Americans as Englishmen left to themselves.  This was, he observed, “a general progress and evolution that history has never yet experienced.” He found “no parallel to what is occurring before my eyes.” This was, we believe, the American Exceptionalism that so impressed de Tocqueville.

In describing 19th century Europe, de Tocqueville wrote as though he were channeling 21st-century American domestic debate.  “It (the governments of Europe) covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

The Aspen Ideas Festival is a feast for those who hunger to understand the issues of the day and our collective prognosis for the future. There were hundreds of speakers and panel participants and thousands of attendees spread over two sessions between Sunday, June 25 and Saturday, July 1st. Often, there were as many as eight sessions running simultaneously.

There were many different points of view discussed and, no doubt, there were attendees who came merely to have their own views affirmed, but we were impressed with the willingness of most of the attendees to respectfully consider perspectives that differed from their own. There was also a willingness of panelists to, respectfully, take issue with fellow panelists.

Jeffrey Immelt, retiring  Chairman, and CEO of GE provided candid insight into his management philosophy and his view of globalization and of our very interconnected world.  Today 70% of General Electric’s business is generated outside of the United States.

Our favorite participant who served as both panelist and moderator in various sessions was Gillian Tett of Financial Times.  She was invariably perceptive, crisp in her comments, and never hesitant to provide a point of view that differed from other panelists. We’ll be renewing our subscription to Financial Times.  We don’t want to miss anything Gillian Tett writes.

We thought commentator Chris Mathews (MSNBC) was, perhaps, the least impressive panelist, moderating a light panel discussion between two Saturday Night Live regulars, Colin Jost and Michael Che. While his session was, of course, designed to provide a light and humorous touch, his Trump bashing deteriorated into silliness and was, we thought, out of place in an otherwise high-quality array of sophisticated and often differing points of view.

We found the discussion, “Being Muslim and American in 2017,”   by Rabia Chaudry and Haris Tarin to be the most moving and, in many respects, the most eye-opening presentation. Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, an immigration and human rights activist and a superb advocate for those who are at risk of becoming road kill at the hands of those political demagogues who wrongheadedly infer or equate all Muslims as the enemies among us. Haris Tarin is actually a senior policy advisor at Homeland Security. Their discussion of post-911 America and how this period has affected their and their family’s lives was something every thinking American should hear.

“Around the World in 60 Minutes,” a discussion between David Petraeus and John Dickerson was also quite worthwhile as was the discussion, “National Security in the Age of America First” with Professor Peter Feaver of Duke University, Julia Ioffe, Atlantic Magazine, and David Petraeus (4-star General ret.) and moderated by foreign affairs author, Professor, David Rothkopf.

We thought “China in Transition” was both enlightening and sobering as discussed by Elizabeth Economy (Director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Affairs), Julian Gewirtz (Author, “Unlikely Partners”), Evan Osnos, (New Yorker) and beautifully moderated by Financial Times’ Gillian Tett.

Journalists Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria along with Elizabeth Economy provided rare insight into the growing crises with North Korea.

Considerable time was devoted to cyberwarfare and what we can do about it by Dmitri Alperovitch (Co-founder and chief Technology Officer of Crowdstrike), Yasmin Green (Director of Research and Development, Jigsaw – Alphabet), and Garrett Graff (Executive Director, Cybersecurity and Technology Program, The Aspen Institute).

We leave you this week with this tidbit of wisdom from cyber exec Dmitri Alperovitch. “There are two types of people.  Those who have been hacked, and those who don’t know they have been hacked.”

Georgia’s 6th District Special Election: The Trump Referendum

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsOminous development for Democrats.

There’s much more than meets the eye here.  True, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is and has been a strongly Republican district, but it was a very weak Trump district. It was and is full of very reluctant Trump voters, which made it a juicy target for Democratic strategists. Trump won the national election last year in spite of himself.  Simply stated, Donald Trump captured a sizeable share of voters who really didn’t like him.  It’s true.   Analysis of post-election survey data reveals that about 7 percent of all voters are so-called reluctant Trump voters.  They didn’t like Trump, and they didn’t like Hillary Clinton very much either.  Flip about half of the so-called reluctant Trump voters, the reasoning goes, and you can flip the entire election map.  We would agree IF the Democrats handled this critical reality with a modicum of sophistication and strategic judgment. But, instead, as we’ve opined over and over again in our recent essays, the Never-Ever-Trump-Resistance movement, and the left-leaning media that provides non-stop wind for its sails has so overplayed their cards that a backlash that redounds to Trump’s benefit was likely to emerge.  And now it has.

Georgia’s 6th congressional district is one of the most highly educated districts in the country. These highly educated districts are areas with which Trump generally has trouble. Reluctant Trump voters, as might be expected, have had more education than other Trump voters; it’s one of their defining characteristics as a group. In the 2016 election, 37 percent of reluctant Trump voters have at least one college degree compared with 25 percent of all other Trump voters. That’s exactly consistent with the general movement away from the Republican Party by well-educated voters in 2016. The latest American Community Survey finds that 58 percent of Georgia’s 6th District residents age 25 and older have at least one college degree, which is higher than all but five other congressional districts in the entire nation. This would not generally be considered fertile Trump territory.  And in fact, it isn’t now and it wasn’t last November.

Think of it. John McCain took Georgia’s 6th with 62 percent of the vote beating Barack Obama by 18 percentage points, and Mitt Romney topped that with 68 percent of the vote, beating Obama by over 23 percentage points.  Donald Trump squandered that traditional Republican lead and squeaked by with 48 percent of the vote,  beating Clinton by barely one percentage point. That’s why the Democrats, quite correctly, focused on this congressional race like a laser. They raised seven times more money for the Democrat Jon Ossoff than the Republicans raised for their candidate, Karen Handel. Democrats poured approximately $30 million into Ossoff’s coffers (mostly from California), compared to barely $4 million that Handel raised.  Ossoff wasn’t a long shot, dark horse. It was his to lose — and he did.

So what or who beat Ossoff? Karen Handel is a seasoned state politician, but not that charismatic and not that well funded.  In fact, she was swamped by the Ossoff campaign’s fundraising. The ridiculous $30 million Ossoff raised made his campaign the highest and best funded congressional campaign in American history. Yet Handel won comfortably with nearly a 4-point margin of victory.

As our readers know, we’re not entirely surprised.  We have in these essays warned time and time again that near 24-hour Trump bashing by much of cable news and leading print news was almost certain to backfire just as it did in 1972. That’s  when Richard Nixon, forty-five years ago, beleaguered by Viet Nam, the King Assassination, widespread urban riots, anti-Nixon protests throughout the country, Kent State, and Watergate called upon the “Great Silent Majority” in whose sense of fair play he professed confidence and placed his trust. His confidence and trust were well founded.  He went on to win in the greatest presidential landslide in American history.

The greatest Special Prosecutor Investigation since Watergate and  Whitewater is now underway. The Watergate and Whitewater investigations both involved known crimes, and a Special Prosecutor was appointed to determine whether Nixon, in the case of Watergate, and Clinton(s) in the case of Whitewater were implicated in a crime that had previously taken place. In Watergate, there had been a burglary, and in Whitewater there had been 18 felony convictions attributed to Whitewater partner Madison Guarantee Savings and Loan owned by James McDougal (Clinton’s partner in Whitewater).  In the current investigation, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, seems to be looking for a crime (any crime will do), and then whether Trump or his campaign participated in the yet undiscovered crime. There is a difference, which many find troubling. Count us among them.

We believe we have just witnessed the first indication of a dramatic backlash that is building against the almost hysterical over-the-top Stop Trump at-any-cost movement about which we’ve been warning for weeks. In this case “at any cost” was a $30 million cash assault on a Georgia congressional district. Thirty million dollars gone with the wind like the lost cause at Tara one hundred and fifty years ago.

 

 

 

Investigation of Trump/Russia Collusion: Even Torquemada would blush.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsAt least Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, had a shred of evidence when he unleashed his horrific crusade to purge Spain of alleged secret Jews. They were the Spaniards whose ancestors were Conversos, neighbors whose forefathers, generations or even centuries earlier, had converted to Catholicism, often at the point of a sword. Everyone who was a descendant of a Converso, (many of whom didn’t even know they were of Jewish ancestry) was suspect. That they were of Converso ancestry was all the evidence the fanatical Castilian Dominican friar needed to send the suspected infidels to the rack. Pretty paltry evidence, but evidence nonetheless. Of course, Torquemada, himself a descendant of Converso’s, conveniently exempted himself from the Inquisition

Today’s inquisitors are simply partisan Never Trumpster members of any of the various congressional or agency committees who have been feeding at the Never-Trump trough. Let’s count them. There’s the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, The Senate Judiciary Armed Services Committee and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. And, of course, we have the FBI, the CIA and the NSA, all of which have, and are, conducting their own investigations. The first of these investigations commenced last July, nearly a year ago.

There seems to be plenty of evidence that the Russians practiced high mischief during the 2016 presidential campaign, but that’s really nothing new. We’ve engaged in some pretty impressive mischief ourselves. Our snoops were bugging German Chancellor Merkel’s phone for ten years, and in July of last year, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that an NGO with connections to President Obama’s 2008 campaign used U.S. taxpayer dollars in an attempt to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. But we digress.

Here’s what we know so far: none of these Trump/Russia investigations have found a shred of evidence (not a shred) linking the Trump campaign, or Trump himself, to any election collusion with Russia. Everyone agrees that there’s been plenty of smoke, but they’ve lost sight of the fact that most of the smoke has been created by leaks from anonymous sources within those committees and agencies who are searching for collusion. And according to none other than former FBI Director James Comey, media stories suggesting that the multitude of investigations have found collusion simply have been dead wrong.

This is serious stuff. The Russians could have never dreamed in a million years that their cyber-age mischief (hacking and leaking the unseemly goings on in the Clinton campaign) could have so tied up and paralyzed our government. Nor could they have imagined the distemper that would be unleashed in the land. Last month in Portland two men were killed and another injured when they tried to stop a deranged man from harassing two women, one black and the other wearing a hijab.  As we went to press today, a Sanders supporter began shooting up a congressional Republican baseball team practicing for an annual Republican-Democrat charity baseball game.  We are making a spectacle of ourselves searching for some scintilla of evidence that Trump or his campaign was involved in the Russian hijinks. The Clinton campaign masterfully pivoted attention from its own foibles to the fact that we learned of them from Russian hackers.  The Russian hacking and the predictable innuendo that the Trump campaign must have been involved became the issue.

Our top intelligence agencies have been investigating the possible link between the Trump campaign and the Russians ever since Moscow’s election mischief became apparent nearly a year ago.  One of the most powerful men in our nation’s intelligence community has been James Clapper, former US Director of Intelligence, the cabinet level position that coordinates all of our intelligence efforts and advises the President accordingly. No fan of President Trump, Clapper nonetheless confirmed that as of the time he left government none of our intelligence agencies could find any evidence that the Trump campaign or Trump himself had colluded with the Russians.

Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, himself a presumed Clinton supporter, also concluded that the CIA had found no evidence that Trump associates cooperated with the Russians. Smoke but no fire, “not even a spark,” he said. The same is true of virtually every Democratic member of a congressional investigating committee when asked if their committee had found any evidence of collusion. No evidence.  Plenty of smoke, but no evidence. And where has the smoke originated?  From unnamed sources within the various committees. The one named source who has, perhaps, the greatest gripe regarding President Trump, Former FBI Director James Comey, has also acknowledged, under oath, that the bureau had found no evidence of collusion, and that press reports to the contrary were simply wrong.

The Russians probably can’t believe what we are doing to ourselves. We had an election in which both candidates wound up with an opponent they could only have prayed for. Each had millions of followers who could not countenance a win by the other side. Millions on each side delight in whatever misery they can inflict on the other side. Little to nothing gets done and the nation suffers as politicians get in their licks.

As we have written in recent essays, the danger of “over-the-top” implacable, bitter and revengeful harassment of the Trump Administration could well produce a backlash that will redound to the benefit of the Republicans and to President Trump.

Now, irrational schadenfreude reigns supreme.  We are reminded of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece”:

 “What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?

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Political Arson: Creating Smoke

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsYes, unequivocally, we strongly believe that any American, especially politicians, guilty of colluding with the Russians to affect our electoral process should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Now, having said that, let’s differentiate between those who seek truth and only truth, and those who practice to insinuate and sow fear and doubt. We are not fans of this Administration, and we have not been sparing of our criticism, but we hope the allegations of collusion and other inferences of high crimes and misdemeanors are wrong and that President Trump and his team wind up doing good rather than ill. Who would wish otherwise?  Well, quite a few people, it seems.

It is pretty evident to us that no law enforcement or intelligence agency, including the FBI, has found any evidence suggesting that President Trump was, or should be, investigated for colluding with the Russians. And it certainly hasn’t been for lack of trying. The never-Trump press and the never-Trump Resistance, however, are full-throated and hyper-caffeinated in their determination to create enough smoke to keep the Administration off balance and devoid of accomplishment until the 2018 mid-term elections. That, in great measure, is what the incessant all-the-way-everyday accusatory drumbeat in so much of the press and among so many politicians on Capitol Hill is all about.

It seems that much of the press reporting, on both the right and the left, is all about pressing a particular narrative—the actual news and the truth be damned.  Here’s our assessment of the much awaited Comey hearing—the hearing the press dubbed the Super Bowl of news: (1) We learned that President Trump can be the Oval-Office oaf we thought he was. He “wished” Comey could see his way to letting go of the Flynn investigation, which is no crime. In fact, had he ordered Comey to end the investigation that would not have been a crime either unless it could be proved that he wanted to end the investigation to cover up a crime (which is, of course, what the Never-Trump crowd is inferring). (2) We also learned that, according to Comey, President Trump asked for his loyalty. That isn’t a crime either unless loyalty to Trump required disloyalty to America.

Last month John Dickerson, CBS News anchor, and host of Face the Nation, inquired of Robert Gates, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations with distinction, “In the reporting about the F.B.I. director, there was a report that the president asked him for his loyalty. Help people understand the line between duty, loyalty, and personal conscience.” Gates replied, “I think in the context of senior government positions, I think an anecdote of what I told President-Elect Obama when we had our first meeting. And I said, ‘You don’t know me. Can you trust me? Why do you think you can trust me?’ and so on. But at the end, I said, ‘You can count on me to be loyal to you. I will not leak. I will keep my disagreements with you private. And if I cannot be loyal, I’ll leave.”

We also learned from Comey, that the news coverage of the investigations into Trump Administration collusion was often, well, lousy. When asked, under oath, about a sensational New York Times story that stated that “phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials,” former FBI Director James Comey testified under oath, “In the main, it was not true.”

So, we’ve coined a new inside-the-beltway term—Political Arson, creating smoke in the absence of fire.

Let’s review: Senator Joe Manchin (D- W. Va.) On “Face The Nation” JOHN DICKERSON: “Have you seen anything that suggests any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.” SEN. MANCHIN: “Well, there is an awful lot of smoke there, let’s put it that way, people who may have said they were involved, to what extent they were involved, to what extent the president may have known about these people there is nothing there from that standpoint that we see directly linking our president to any of that.”

Dianne Feinstein, (D-Cal) Senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: BLITZER: “The last time we spoke, Senator, I asked you if you had actually seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and you said to me — and I am quoting you now — you said, ‘not at this time.’ Has anything changed since we spoke last?” SEN. FEINSTEIN: “Well, no — no, it hasn’t. …” BLITZER: “But, I just want to be precise, Senator. In all of the — you have had access from the Intelligence Committee, from the Judiciary Committee, all of the access you have had to very sensitive information, so far you have not seen any evidence of collusion, is that right?” SEN. FEINSTEIN: “Well, evidence that would establish that there’s collusion. There are all kinds of rumors around, there are newspaper stories, but that’s not necessarily evidence.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) with Fox’s Chris Wallace March 5th 2017:  CHRIS WALLACE: “Why would you suggest in that clip that I just played for Senator Cotton that there are FBI transcripts that show, and I want to get your words, “provide very critical insights” in the collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians?” SENATOR COONS: “What I was trying to make clear, Chris, and I appreciate a chance to restate this, is that I don’t have, and I don’t know of, any conclusive proof one way or the other about whether there was collusion between senior levels of the Trump campaign and Russian officials.”

Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, on NBC News: Michael Morell, who endorsed Hillary Clinton, cast doubt on allegations that members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Morell, who was in line to become CIA director if Clinton won, said he had seen no evidence that Trump associates cooperated with Russians. He also raised questions about the dossier written by a former British intelligence officer, which alleged a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Morell stated, “There is no serious evidence showing Trump/Russia connections.On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all,’ Morell said at an event sponsored by the Cipher Brief, an intelligence website. ‘There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”

Former Director Of National Intelligence James Clapper Said, “There Was No Evidence Whatsoever… Of Collusion Between The Trump Campaign And The Russians. “Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told ABC News he did not see anything to suggest that Russia successfully infiltrated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign or recruited any of Trump’s advisers – at least as of the time Clapper left office. “There was no evidence whatsoever, at the time, of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians,” Clapper, a retired three-star general and career intelligence officer, told ABC News’ Brian Ross in an interview for World News Tonight.

On March 5, When Asked If There Were “Definitively” Improper Contacts Between The Trump Campaign And Russia, Clapper Responded “Not To My Knowledge… At The Time, We Had No Evidence Of Collusion.” MSNBC’S CHUCK TODD: “That’s an important revelation at this point. Let me ask you this, does intelligence exist that can definitively answer the following question, whether there were improper contacts between the Russia campaign or intelligence officials.” JAMES CLAPPER: “…there no evidence of that in our report. “TODD: “I understand that, but does it exist?” CLAPPER: “Not to my knowledge.” TODD: “If it existed it would have been in the report?” CLAPPER: “This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government. At the time, we had no evidence of collusion.” (MSNBC’s “Meet The Press.” When Asked To Clarify, Clapper Said “That’s Correct” When Asked If There Is No Proof Of Collusion. TODD: “What’s not proven is the idea of collusion?” CLAPPER: “That’s correct.”

We learn in science that where there’s smoke there’s generally fire. In politics, however, it ain’t necessarily so. Not when it’s political arson.

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Trump on Paris Accord: Hot Air from The Rose Garden.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsThere was only one reason for President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Scuttling US participation in the Accord played well to his base. He said he would, so he did. To be sure, the Paris Climate Accord was an imperfect agreement, but it provided an impressive framework for an international consensus and commitment to addressing a very real problem facing the planet that every human being and other known lifeform calls home.  But let’s face it, the Accord imposed no legally binding commitments on the United States nor on any other nation.  It was a framework for future cooperation and, yes, it was flawed and, in many respects, more demanding of the United States and other developed nations than to most every other country.  That modifications would have to be made in the agreement as time went on was a certainty. So what!

We’re not climate scientists, but we have poured over a lot of data.  We’ve read endless pros and cons on whether or not the planet is warming, and whether man’s activity is contributing to global warming beyond the routine fluctuations that have always taken place.  It seems, to us, undisputable that man-caused greenhouse gases are causing temperatures to rise and will continue to adversely affect climate if we don’t begin to curtail activities that contribute (and trap) greenhouse gases in the very atmosphere on which we all depend. While Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Fluorinated gases and Carbon Dioxide are all referred to as greenhouse gases, the real culprit is Carbon Dioxide.  It represents over 80 percent of Greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere and hang around for a long time. These gases absorb energy, and because they do not readily escape into space they act as an insulating blanket causing temperatures to slowly rise. Reducing the level of these insulating gases or, more graphically, this heat-trapping barrier, is not, in our opinion a highly debatable objective.  It is a matter of common sense.

A united worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions offered some hope that responsible nations would take responsible action. The Paris accord was, to be sure, not a panacea, but it was a beginning. It recognized that we are all in this together and that together we might be able to control and begin to reverse what appears to be a frightening global reality.

Most important, the Accord assured the United States a leadership role in determining how the world would deal with a very real problem that threatens us all.  Instead, President Trump threw his (and our) lot in with Syria and Nicaragua, in what can now be described as a pathetic troika of truculent naysayers. When the United States, Syria, and Nicaragua all stand together in opposition to the rest of the world, the odds are pretty good that the smart money should be on the rest of the world.

President Trump’s Rose Garden homily was as unimpressive and as breathtakingly sad as we found his inaugural address to be. It was pure Trump, full of misleading hyperbole and bad judgment all wrapped in the flag and his tiresome and vacuous America-first rhetoric. Turning our back on a worldwide effort to rein in global warming is not putting America first. It is putting America with Syria and Nicaragua and with Europe’s losers such as Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen.

The sad reality is that America already has been making real progress toward reaching the greenhouse gas reductions envisioned by the Accord. We are today, already nearly half way to meeting the 2025 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% from our 2005 levels. President Trump’s facetious nod to the nation’s coal miners that pulling out of the Accord will bring back coal, ignores the reality that coal is suffering because of the abundance of cheaper natural gas, which also happens to be much cleaner and safer.

Setting a new standard for oratorical redundancy, President Trump complained that the Accord would cost the United States “billions and billions and billions” (of dollars), which we assume is meant to suggest a sum somewhat greater than simply billions of dollars. And it is true; America’s contribution would be greater.  Then again, we alone have emitted a third of all the carbon dioxide that is straining our atmosphere. Furthermore, focusing on the gross costs is a bit misleading. The Paris Climate accord envisioned America’s contribution at about $9.30 per capita. That’s not exactly pocket change, but compared to Luxembourg’s pledge of $93.60 per capita and Sweden’s pledge of $60.54 per capita, what we would have been contributing was far from inequitable.

The non-binding Paris Climate Accord was a worthwhile and responsible beginning. As a leading contributor of support (not to mention our sizeable contribution to the problem), we not only had a place at the table but more importantly, at the head of the table. But according to President Trump, it wasn’t a good deal for the United States, because we were obligated to put up more early money. Someone needs to explain to President Trump that this isn’t about his favorite zero-sum real estate negotiating philosophy. This is about remediating a growing worldwide problem that is and has been for a long time, disproportionately of our making.

Thank goodness  President Trump wasn’t in the Oval Office when the Marshall Plan was proposed.  We can just hear him.  “We won, they lost. Let them fund Europe’s reconstruction.”

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The Kushner Imbroglio: Searching for a There There.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsIt seems this week’s Resistance agenda has been to publically skewer Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, for seeking a back channel with the Russians during the presidential transition.  This morning there were reports attributed to no one in particular that suggested that Kushner was being asked to step aside.  Who knows, maybe he was asked by President Trump, or, more likely, he hasn’t been asked to resign by anyone other than the concocter of today’s unattributed and, so far, unsubstantiated scheduled rumor. The “Kushner affair” is being presented, in well-orchestrated fashion, as though it were the greatest scandal since turncoat Benedict Arnold made his stealth dash down the Hudson River to the HMS Vulture nearly 240 years ago.

Presidential transition team back channels to the Russians, or for that matter to the Iranians or, actually anyone, are neither new nor illegal, so the so-called Resistance and the journalists who carry their water, have kept up an endless drumbeat of If’s—“if Kushner said this or offered that. The last we heard government intelligence sources were still opining that Kushner was neither the focus nor the target of any investigation…not yet anyway.

So far, the only real news seems to be that someone within the intelligence community has passed along to the press information that our snoops know Kushner sought the establishment of a back channel with the Russians in order to discuss who knows what. We’re sure it delights the never-under-any-circumstances-anti-Trumpsters that their government is listening and telling. Sad, there are so few civil libertarians among them, or that they don’t care because, after all, this is about Trump, or that those who do care have been so effectively silenced.

Perhaps Kushner wanted to offer the Kremlin our nuclear codes, but we rather doubt it. Perhaps, more plausibly, he wanted to explore chances for a significant improvement in relations sort of like Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and closest advisor, did when he secretly met with a known Russian agent in December 1960 just prior to his brother’s inauguration. Interestingly, Robert Kennedy who was also the senior-most member of President-elect Kennedy’s transition team, met with the Red agent at the Russian’s request.

Then of course we learned from Robert Sick who helped handle the Iranian hostage crisis during the Carter Administration that William J. Casey, a key Reagan confidant and future CIA Director, was meeting with representatives of Iran months before the 1980 election to discuss timing the hostage release after Reagan was elected and sworn it.

Then there was the leaked memo Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Kobryin wrote in 1969 to his bosses in the Kremlin in which he explained that Henry Kissinger confided to him that the Nixon administration wanted to conduct a “most confidential exchange of views” because President Nixon said (we love this part) “the Soviet side … knows how to maintain confidentiality; but in our State Department, unfortunately, there are leaks of information to the press.”

Much is being made, according to the leaks,  that Kushner suggested that the back-channel discussions take place through the use of Russian secure communications. Why would that surprise anyone, given how pathetically porous our own governmental and private communications have become?  Nothing other than, presumably, pillow talk seems out of listening range these days, and who can be sure of that?

We don’t know what conversations may have transpired between Jared Kushner and the Russians.  We’ll be surprised to learn that those conversations involved any skullduggery, but we don’t know.  What we do know is that our intelligence community has turned it’s snooping apparatus on American politicians and American political candidates, and, perhaps, for good reason…and perhaps not.

Julian Sanchez of the libertarian CATO Institute summed it up well. “Progressives who’ve recently learned to stop worrying and love the surveillance state should think hard about the precedent such leaks set — and the implicit message they send to political actors — even if any particular instance can be justified as serving the public interest. The leaks may not be, as conservative media would have it, the only real scandal, but nobody should be too enthusiastic about the prospect of living in a country where officials who antagonize spy agencies find their telephone conversations quoted in news headlines.”

We do know as a certainty that our intelligence apparatus is maliciously and illegally leaking to the press, apparently, with complete abandon, for no other conceivable reason other than to bring down certain public figures—especially if they are part of the Trump Administration. There may be reason to bring them down, but this is not the way to do it, and when all is said and done, the pervasive bugging and leaking may be the biggest scandal of all.

Maybe our snoops are bugging and leaking because they believe the Trump Administration is riddled with crooks and spies. And maybe the snoops are in high dudgeon simply because they can’t stand Donald Trump.

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Trump Abroad: So Far So Good.

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsWhile we do not know how President Trump’s first soiree out of the country will ultimately be judged, (he still has important stops to make in the Vatican, Brussels and Italy) so far so good. Trump’s trip is going well because Trump is assiduously avoiding being Trump. His public comments have been devoid of Trumpian bombast, hyperbole or off-the-cuff, spontaneous miscues.

His speech to many leaders of Islamic countries and kingdoms in Riyadh was direct, relevant, presidential and focused on things that had to be said, and should have been said years ago. Finally, an American President discussed Islamic terrorism with leaders of Islamic-majority countries, and the sky didn’t fall, and the earth didn’t spin off its axis.

Of course, President Trump came with $110 billion worth of goodies that will goose both the Saudi economy (which badly needs goosing) as well as our own economy as the Saudi’s contract with American defense companies for tens of billions of dollars in military equipment.  Given that the US-Iran nuclear deal provided a largess for Iran to purchase weapons and fund terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, the investment in Saudi defense capability seems acceptable.

There was more going on in Riyadh then met the untrained eye. Think of it.  In barely two days, President Trump, in a summit trifecta, met separately with the Saudi King, leaders of the Gulf States and with an impressive cross-section of the heads-of-state of the Sunni Arab world.  We would not be surprised to see more public thawing of relations between the Gulf states and Israel as a result of this trip. Who knows, perhaps the ancient Arab adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend will actually prove to be true. Even Trump’s flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv was somewhat historic merely because it was a very rare direct flight.

The highlight of the President’s first day in Israel was his visit to the Western Wall, the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by Rome during the conquest of Jewish Jerusalem in 70 AD. Many consider the Western Wall to be the most sacred site in Judaism. It is the retaining wall on top of which rests the Temple Mount, believed to be where the ancient biblical tabernacle and its inner sanctuary once stood, which religious Jews believe housed the holy of holies, where God actually dwelt. By all accounts it was a moving experience for both the President and his Jewish daughter, Ivanka who remarked, “It was deeply meaningful to visit the holiest site of my faith and to leave a note of prayer.”

That President Trump and his daughter visited the Western Wall is no small matter.  No other American President has ever done that. That’s because, according to international  law codified without respect to history, the Western Wall is not considered to be a part of Israel, but rather part of the disputed West Bank.

Israel liberated the Western Wall when it liberated Jerusalem and the old walled city including its former Jewish quarter during the six-day war fifty years ago. The old Jewish quarter, which was called the Jewish quarter because, well, it was where Jews lived, and had lived for time in memorial. The Jews were forced out during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and the ancient Jewish quarter wound up in Jordanian hands.

Interestingly, no one in the international community protested “the occupation” of the Jewish quarter by Jordan, or, for that matter, Jordan’s entire occupation of the disputed West Bank. Contrary to the armistice terms following the fighting in1948, Jews were given no access to the old Jewish quarter nor to any of the synagogues or other Jewish landmarks. In fact, the Jordanians systematically destroyed or otherwise desecrated most of the Jewish holy sites, to which no one except Jews objected.

The Jordanians were quite proud of their obliteration of Jewish life in the old Jewish quarter. Jordanian Colonel Abddullah el Tell, who commanded local units of the Jordanian Arab Legion proudly described the destruction of the Jewish quarter in his memoirs.  Let us quote:  “… The operations of calculated destruction were set in motion…. I knew that the Jewish Quarter was densely populated with Jews…. I embarked, therefore, on the shelling of the Quarter with mortars, creating harassment and destruction…. Only four days after our entry into Jerusalem the Jewish Quarter had become their graveyard. Death and destruction reigned over it…. As the dawn of Friday, May 28, 1948, was about to break, the Jewish Quarter emerged convulsed in a black cloud – a cloud of death and agony.”  

And so, following the Six-Day War, the old Jewish Quarter, or what was left of it, was back in Jewish hands. That’s how it became “occupied territory,” according to the sages who divine international law.

And that is where President Trump and his son-in-law and daughter respectfully, rightfully and resolutely approached the ancient remnant of the second temple known as the Western Wall, and either symbolically or earnestly communed with a painful past and, presumably, prayed for a better future.

So far, so good, Mr. President.

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The Trump Administration: A Sole Proprietorship

Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsContrary to popular belief, the Trump Administration is not being run like a big business. This Administration is being run like a small business—sort of like a sole proprietorship.  That is not to say that President Trump hasn’t employed some excellent people. He has. But like many sole proprietorships he seems to be the ever-present decision maker, commenter, defender, and offender and the nation’s first oval office tweeter of tweets.

Many sole proprietorships reflect the quirks, habits, strengths and weaknesses of “the guy or gal” who comes in and opens the shop each morning. In many respects these are the people who make America tick. They are the proverbial backbone of the nation. But the guy or gal who does a fine job of running Ajax TV Service, might not be so good at running NBC, or for that matter the Trump Taj Mahal, The Trump Plaza Hotel, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts or the Trump Entertainment Resorts all of which, except for NBC, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Now, as Tevia the fiddler might say, “bankruptcy is no sin, but it’s no great honor either.” Donald Trump the candidate bragged that “Hundreds and hundreds of deals, and four times I’ve taken advantage of the (bankruptcy) laws. And, frankly, so has everybody else in my position.”  Well, not so — only everyone else in his position whose enterprises ran out of money with which to meet their financial obligations. Now, we are in no way being critical of those who have availed themselves of the nation’s bankruptcy laws, especially under Chapter 11 which governs restructuring as compared to liquidation. But bankruptcy is far, far, more common, in relative terms, among sole proprietorships and other small businesses as compared to big businesses.

For example, about 20% of small businesses will fail in their first year in business and about 80% will have failed by the end of ten years. Conversely, only 5% of the 500 largest companies have declared bankruptcy over the past twenty years. So candidate Trump’s proud (everybody in my position does it) pronouncement, while not true, is far more accurate about sole proprietorships as compared to big businesses.

We do not make this point to criticize the President’s business acumen. We think he’s pretty astute, even cunning, and he’s certainly been quite successful.  We also think he has some very impressive presidential accomplishments to his credit. Where he can operate as the firmly and legally established chief executive of the United States, which he can do where executive decisions are final, he has done some impressive things…and some not so impressive.  He has certainly gotten China’s attention, and, we suspect, Chairman Kim Jong-un’s as well. That’s something a succession of prior Presidents had failed to do. They were played by Kim Jong-un as well as his father. We supported his decision to send cruise missiles into Syria and to drop the MOAB onto a terrorist tunnel system in Afghanistan. On the other hand, his thrusts with respect to immigration have been hasty and clumsy—perhaps, a bit of showboating and grandstanding.

President Trump seems to view the legislative and judicial branches of our government as anything but co-equal, but he is not the first President to have a contemptuous relationship with the two other branches of government. He is incredibly Nixonian in that regard, and his firing of FBI Director James Comey suggests that he never heard of (or read about) Archibald Cox and the historically clumsy, Nixon-instigated Saturday-night massacre. Anyone who believed President Trump fired Jim Comey because of the recommendation he received from the Justice Department’s Deputy Secretary Rosenstein, well, we have some lovely beachfront property to sell them at the water’s edge on the Sea of Tranquility.

We know of few chief executives of major businesses who rely on themselves to communicate with, or respond to, everyone who is critical of their decisions or performance. First, they have more important things to do, and furthermore, they have knowledgeable professionals who can respond more factually and articulately to the issues of the moment. President Trump has made his communications staff largely irrelevant, because he has conditioned the press and the public to await his tweets or comments on whatever the controversy of the moment is.

President Trump has so compromised his communications staff that he is now hinting at ceasing daily press briefings—not because they can’t keep up with his pace of work, but because they can’t keep up with his erratic and often self-contradicting tweets and quotes.  While the President’s base delights in his tweets, the greater public, and certainly the press and those serious thinkers and historians who will eventually chronicle these days (or years) will observe the confusion, the walk-backs, the ire and record a very unpleasant time in our history. That President Trump doesn’t see what all his contretemps are inflicting on his Presidency is an American tragedy in the making.

As of now, we rather suspect that when the investigations into Russian election interference are concluded there will be little there there. We can’t get our heads around the notion that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn was a serious potential candidate to be blackmailed. As Professor Alan Dershowitz has opined, all the State Department had to do is tell him he had been taped by our snoops, and poof, he is no longer a potential blackmail target.

President Trump should stop whining and tweeting. His chronically petulant behavior is unbusinesslike, and he is giving sole proprietorship a bad name.

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