All the Snowflake King’s Men

On Tuesday, January 9, 2018, California US Senator Dianne Feinstein released a full transcript of Fusion GPS Glenn Simpson’s extensive 21-hour testimony before 3 Congressional committees. According to her, “The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice. The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public.” The move follows a decision by Republican Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham, who after months of testimony, issued a criminal referral for Steele, alleging the committee had reason to believe the former spy has lied to the authorities about his conversations with the press regarding the dossier. His spokesman, Taylor Foy called it, “confounding” that Feinstein released the transcript “unilaterally” over the Republican majority’s objections. Well, of course, she did because she knew the Republicans were cover up that testimony to protect Trump’s ass. But according to Foy, “Feinstein’s unilateral decision was made as the committee is still trying to secure testimony from other witnesses, including Jared Kushner. Her action undermines the integrity of the committee’s oversight work and jeopardizes its ability to secure candid voluntary testimony relating to the independent recollections of future witnesses.” By releasing the transcripts against objections from Republican colleagues, Feinstein didn’t cause much harm. She broke no law. Though Simpson testified in a closed session, he wasn’t a government official. Nor did he discuss classified information or anything about anyone’s private life. Besides, Simpson had already called for his testimony’s full release. What Feinstein violated was the normal rules of Senate decorum, which Republicans had been using to cover up a key point that debunks some of their own talking points about this matter.

Simpson’s testimony contains many revelations. He touches upon how the Trump Organization handles taxes saying, Donald Trump’s relationship with gangster Felix Sater, how his country clubs aren’t making any money and that someone might’ve been killed as a result of the dossier. But most importantly, his testimony revealed that the FBI was already investigating potential links between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government before they even heard anything about Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier on the matter. During the hearing, Simpson stated when Steele spoke to the FBI about his findings, the bureau, “believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing, and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump Organization.” That along with a report from the New York Times suggests that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos who during a night of heavy drinking in May 2016, accidentally kicked off the Trump-Russia investigation by telling an Australian diplomat that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

We must not forget that Feinstein released this transcript over her Republican colleagues’ objections. Recently, conservatives had been pushing a theory that the basis for the FBI investigation was an opposition document compiled at the Clinton campaign’s behest. On January 3, key House conservative Rep. Jim Jordan rolled out a tweetstorm of 18 questions about the FBI and Russia, many of which centered on the Steele dossier. Along with another leading House conservative Rep. Mark Meadows, Jordan is calling for Trump to fire Jeff Sessions and put in a new attorney general to oversee and possibly quash the Russia investigation. This is part of a broader effort to discredit the Robert Mueller investigation which in turn is part of the conservative counternarrative on the whole Russian scandal. The dossier plays a key role in this conspiracy theory. By putting the dossier on trial, they have tried to impeach the basic case that people in Trump’s circle may have coordinated with the Russians who attacked the election. Trump allies have also used the dossier to go on offense against the FBI and the Justice Department, charging that “biased” federal investigators used what Republicans call partisan, Democratic-funded propaganda as the basis for the whole Russian investigation. However, the reality is that while intelligence circles hold Steele in high regard, there’s no evidence that the FBI has ever used his work as the basis of its Russia investigation. Besides, the case for collusion goes beyond the dossier and includes outreach by Russian agents to the Trump campaign as well as meetings between Trump associates and Russians.

Now who is this Glenn Simpson and what is Fusion GPS? Simpson is one of the co-founders of Fusion GPS which is a “strategic influence” firm first hired by the conservative publication called the Washington Free Beacon in 2015 to conduct opposition research on Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee contracted the firm once Trump’s Republican nomination became more imminent. In turn, Fusion hired former MI-6 Russian specialist Christopher Steele to specifically look at Trump and Russia. The former British agent used his Russian contacts to compile a dossier describing efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to cultivate a relationship with Trump and his entourage and to gather material to blackmail the candidate if necessary. He did not pay sources for the information. His investigation ended with a several allegations including that Russian security services are blackmailing Trump with a recording of him paying prostitutes to pee on his bed at the Moscow Ritz Carlton presidential suite. And that Trump’s campaign was the beneficiary of a multifaceted Kremlin plot to interfere in the 2016 US election. Obviously, Steele felt his findings went beyond political campaign fodder and made him worry that there was a genuine threat to US national security. So he took the info to the FBI who was already getting tips and reports something was going on. Steele’s information just confirmed the seriousness of the situation. Buzzfeed published Steele’s dossier in January 2017 which set off a firestorm of controversy and intrigue which neither man intended to happen. But in recent months, it had taken new life as the centerpiece of a conservative counter-conspiracy theory that Trump’s political enemies cooked up the whole Trump-Russia investigation. Simpson’s testimony primarily debunks the conservative narrative placing the infamous dossier at the center of the story and confirms the Times account of a drunk Papadopoulos kickstarting the Trump-Russian investigation.

But how could a drunk Papadopoulos be the start of the Trump-Russian investigation? Let’s just say that it all boils Papadopoulos having a drunk conversation with Australia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer about Russia having dirt on Hillary Clinton. Downer, of course, shared the details with other Australian officials who ultimately passed word of it to their American counterparts once the hacking of Democratic email accounts became a big deal. And thus the FBI investigation ensued that July. All because Papadopoulos said the wrong thing to the wrong guy while under the influence. They listened to Steele because they already had an investigation into the Trump-Russia question underway. While the investigation hasn’t yet proven the existence of anything like the vast conspiracy Steele alleges, it certainly has uncovered a real evidence of wrongdoing. This consists of a Papadopoulos guilty plea along with serious criminal charges against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We’ve also learned that key Trumpworld figures like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. were at least eager to potentially collaborate with the Russian government into revealing anti-Clinton “dirt.” Rather than taking a cue from Downer in alerting the authorities to the existence of the of an active Russian intelligence effort aimed at the United States. There also continues to be an ongoing investigation that might yet reveal other criminal activity. Or it might not. Either way, Simpson’s testimony is more evidence that law enforcement took the Trump-Russian collusion question seriously for reasons that had nothing to do with the Steele dossier.

Steele may have overreacted as well as got things wrong. Yet, fundamentally, it doesn’t matter since the investigation doesn’t rise or fall on his credibility. Even so, he turned the dossier to the FBI for no obvious reason other than his allegiance to our closest ally. Despite what the Republicans think, the Steele dossier was not a purely political document paid for by Democrats to hurt Donald Trump. Else Steele wouldn’t have reported such information to the FBI. In fact, the Democrats hardly made a concerted effort to hit Trump where it hurts during the 2016 election and they didn’t need a dossier suggesting treason to do it. For Trump’s history of corruption of dubious business practices is simply mindboggling. Also, he’s a narcissistic sociopath who has consistently abused any position of power he’s had to enrich himself. Besides, allegations of collusion with a foreign power to interfere in an election are far more serious than the traditional political punches.

While Republicans decry that Feinstein’s decision to make the Simpson testimony public undermines the congressional investigations, it was the their own efforts to obstruct inquiries that prompted to her to release the documents in the first place. Because they’d rather stick with Trump for their own selfish interests despite the damage he’s done to this country, how many norms he’s violated, and how he’s enriching himself. In an op-ed Fritsch and Simpson write, “We suggested investigators look into the bank records of Deutsche Bank and others that were funding Mr. Trump’s businesses. Congress appears uninterested in that tip: Reportedly, ours are the only bank records the House Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed. [We] found widespread evidence that Mr. Trump and his organization had worked with a wide array of dubious Russians in arrangements that often raised questions about money laundering.” The House committee investigating Trump’s Russian connections was an utter joke while led by Rep. Devin Nunes who was on Trump’s transition team! Last year, the California Republican betrayed his oath of office on behalf of a faction within the Trump administration. Hell, he practically went to and from the White House telling Trump and his allies the House committee’s activities. In siding with Trump, Republicans have put their party over nation and principles. In essence, instead of pursuing what Fusion GPS found out about Trump, they’ve become enablers to a possible traitor who has no love for the country he’s supposed to lead, no respect for the democratic values he’s supposed to protect and promote, and no affinity for the rule of law he’s supposed to abide.

Nevertheless, the fact Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans didn’t want the Simpson testimony released to the public speaks volumes about their motives. As Simpson and Fusion GPS co-founder Peter Fritsch wrote in an op-ed that the committees have “known for months” of credible collusion allegations but have chosen instead to “chase rabbits.” And yet, Republicans tried pushing a conspiracy theory that Trump’s political enemies created the dossier to defame him and launch an FBI witch hunt. It’s clear conservatives in Congress have been misleading people about the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump and Russia with hopes in discrediting it. We all know that Republicans want to hold on to their power to enact policy they want no matter how unpopular it is. We know they’re willing to support Donald Trump so they can get their way. It is one thing for a major political party to unite behind a corrupt president. But it’s a very serious concern when the GOP unites behind a campaign of willful disinformation at the country’s expense. As Joshua Marshall wrote in Talking Points Memo, “What’s happened is that we’ve had a year tarnishing the reputation of a man who did right by the United States for no obvious reason other than his allegiance is to our closest ally and creating a comic, degenerate alternate reality in which the people who alerted us to the problems and those who first sought to understand them are the malefactors rather than the people who were at a minimum cozying up to a foreign power. It is actually quite like the cliched story of the whistleblower who speaks up and then becomes the scapegoat in the cover-up of the bad acts he was trying to bring to light. In fact that’s exactly what it is.” Now that Republicans have chosen to protect their Snowflake King, we must remember how their selfishness at Capitol Hill has disgraced the nation.

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General Ripper Sings Like a Canary

 

In the biggest development yet in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors on Friday, December 1, 2017. The legal move poses the most direct threat to the Trump presidency itself so far. Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI on or around January 24 about conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. However, Flynn did not admit to colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, Flynn’s plea deal will strengthen Mueller’s sprawling probe into the Trump team’s possible criminal acts and Russian ties.

Of course, once Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted while George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty, it was only a matter of time when Michael Flynn would flip. In fact, it’s been speculated for weeks that Flynn wanted to protect himself from a more serious criminal indictment. As with Manafort, Mueller had a solid case against the retired general. Earlier this year, Flynn offered to testify in exchange for full immunity from prosecution but Mueller refused. On November 23, The New York Times reported that Flynn’s lawyers told Trump’s lawyers they could no longer share information. Four days later, ABC News reported that Flynn’s lawyers met with Mueller’s team, a strong sign a plea deal was imminent.

Michael Flynn’s plea deal is the most significant moment in Mueller’s probe to date since he is the first person who had actually served in the Trump White House to admit breaking the law. Nor was he just any old official either since Flynn’s role as national security adviser is one of the highest-level and most powerful posts in Washington. The retired three-star general temporarily had enormous influence over Donald Trump’s early policy and personnel choices. And due to his unique ties to both the Trump campaign and Trump White House, he’s particularly well-suited to answering the Mueller probe’s central questions on whether the Trump campaign knowingly colluded with Russia and if Trump obstructed justice by trying to derail the FBI’s investigation. Flynn’s plea deal gets Mueller closer to finding that out. Now Mueller gets Flynn to talk along with an admission of guilt. Obviously, this is bad news for Michael Flynn but it could be even worse news for Donald Trump. As legal expert Asha Rangappa noted, “When you flip somebody, you’re using them to go up the chain. This suggests that Mueller’s investigation is going to go into the even-tighter inner circle of the campaign and possibly the administration.”

A retired lieutenant general who served in the Army for over 30 years, Michael Flynn is a quintessential General Ripper. Hell, take General Jack D. Ripper’s line “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” and replace each mention of “Communist” with “Islamic” and you basically have Flynn. And let’s just say if it weren’t for his soft spot for Russia, he’d feel right at home among the trigger happy military brass in Dr. Strangelove. Anyway, in 2012, he was named head of the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency. During this time, he clashed with other Obama administration officials who viewed him as sloppy with facts and incompetent with management. Soon he was pushed out and resigned from his post in 2014. Technically, President Barack Obama fired him but you know how they do things in Washington. Furious, Flynn began his post government public life commenting on foreign policy and military issues in the media, becoming infamous for his extreme Islamophobic rhetoric. For example in February 2016, he tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” Such language combined with his poor DIA track record made Flynn a pariah in the mainstream foreign policy community. For the Trump campaign that championed a Muslim ban, he was a perfect fit.

In fall 2015, Michael Flynn began occasionally briefing Donald Trump on foreign affairs and his involvement in the campaign gradually deepened. By late May 2016, he was mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick for Trump. In July of that year, Flynn gave a now ironic speech at the Republican National Convention in which he riled the crowd with “Lock her up.” But while Flynn advised the Trump campaign, he operated a lobbying and consulting firm called the Flynn Intel Group which importantly, also employed his son. He was also a frequent guest on the Russian government’s English-language propaganda outlet RT, where he’d often espouse the idea that Russia and the US should team up against Islamic extremism. And it’s Flynn’s lobbying and work for the Russian government which first led into dangerous legal territory. In December 2015, Flynn traveled to Moscow for a gala celebrating RT’s 10th anniversary. He sat next to Vladimir Putin and delivered a speech about his foreign policy vision. For his services, RT paid Flynn a $45,000 speaker’s fee while Russian companies him $22,500 for speeches during the same trip. Now that in itself isn’t necessary illegal. However, Flynn reportedly lied about the source of the payments in his security clearance renewal form, claiming they came from “US companies.” Lying on this form is equivalent to lying to federal investigators which is a felony and perhaps one of the reasons why Flynn took the plead deal. In August 2016, an entity called Inovo BV hired Flynn’s consulting firm. Though it claimed to be Dutch company, Inovo BV turned out to be a shell corporation for a wealthy member from the Turkish government. Flynn seems to have continued working for Turkey until November at the earliest while Ankara paid him at least $530,000. Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, Flynn had to publicly disclose any lobbying work for the Turkish government when he started. His FARA paperwork said he worked for a Dutch company, not the Turkish government. In March 2017, Flynn filed paperwork correcting the error, admitting that Inovo really paid him to work on behalf of Turkish interests. If that’s all he did, then Michael Flynn would’ve been fine. After all, the US government typically doesn’t arrest people for filing incorrect FARA paperwork after they correct it. But if there’s more undisclosed lobbying for foreign governments like more Turkey payments or undisclosed Russian activity than he revealed in March, then he’d be in deep shit.

Still, you’d think Flynn’s legally questionable shenanigans would’ve ended in November 2016, when Donald Trump made him his national security adviser in his new administration. Though outgoing Obama officials warned the Trump transition team about appointing the guy. But if anything, it got worse. Throughout the transition, Flynn had several contacts with Kislyak. In one early December meeting at Trump Tower, he and Jared Kushner talked to the Russian ambassador about setting up a secret channel through which they can communicate. On December 29, 2016, the day Obama announced sanctions on Russia in response to the country’s hacking efforts, Flynn and Kislyak reportedly exchanged 5 phone calls. One of the discussion topics was sanctions. But Flynn reportedly told Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others on the Trump team that sanctions never came up in his calls with the Russian ambassador, spurring them to make false statements to that effect in public. This conversation between Flynn and Kislyak is part of the just-released document Mueller had sent to court.

On Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, Michael Flynn’s former business partner allegedly bragged that he told him that Trump would quickly lift US sanctions on Russia, which would pave way for a controversial plan to build nuclear plants across the Middle East with Russian help. While this is an explosive but unverified allegation coming from a whistleblower cooperating with House Democrats, there have been reports over the last few months that Flynn continued to promote this Middle East nuclear project after the election and even as national security adviser. In the Trump presidency’s first week, Flynn was questioned by the FBI in which he denied contact with Kislyak during the transition. That same week, then acting-Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that intelligence showed Flynn had lied about his conversations with Kislyak and he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Unsurprisingly, the Trump White House did nothing about this until it leaked to the press a few weeks later, when they were spurred to fire Flynn on February 13, 2017. Then there’s an entirely separate matter of whether Flynn improperly acted on Turkey’s behalf during the transition or while in office. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mueller is investigating an “alleged plan” in which Flynn and his son would be paid as much as $15 million for forcibly removing Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania, from the United States and delivering him to Turkey. Flynn discussed this possibility with Turkish government representatives at a December meeting during the transition as incoming national security adviser.

Altogether, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that Michael Flynn broke the law. The plea deal where he’ll admit to lying to federal investigators confirms he did and he’s trying to get a lighter punishment. The best Flynn can do is tell Mueller everything he knows abut Trump and Russia. The next important question is whether other Trump officials aided Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential campaign. If there was collusion, Flynn most likely knows about it. This is why Mueller wanted Flynn to strike a deal. Particularly, one where Flynn agreed to a lesser sentence in exchange for giving an honest accounting of what he knows about Trump-Russia ties. Sure getting Papadopoulos to agree to cooperate with Mueller’s team was pretty awesome. But getting Flynn to flip is a much bigger prize.

And it’s possible that Flynn has more Russia ties than known since there’s already some reporting suggesting we don’t have the full Flynn and Russia story. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Trump supporting GOP operative and private equity executive Peter Smith embarked on an effort to track down Hillary Clinton’s infamous 30,000 or so deleted emails during the fall of 2016 and contacted Russian hackers to ask if they had them. Smith wasn’t part of the Trump campaign. But according to sources, he told people working with him that he was coordinating with Flynn. While trying to recruit for the effort, Smith also distributed a document naming the Trump campaign as one of the 4 groups involved. Another piece of information pointing to Flynn was that US officials were aware of some intelligence that Russian hackers had at least discussed sending leaked emails to Flynn through a third party. As Shane Harris wrote for the Wall Street Journal: “Investigators have examined reports from intelligence agencies that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the intelligence.” Smith died this year, reportedly by his own hand and Flynn hasn’t said anything about the Journal report. Nevertheless, all this is enough to raise serious questions about just what Flynn knew about this or any other attempted outreach to Russian hackers or other Russian entities. However, we don’t know yet if this led to actual collusion implicating Flynn or anyone else on the Trump team. Perhaps Smith made his effort seem important by name dropping Flynn, rather than working closely with him. In addition, Smith’s efforts to find Clinton’s deleted emails have failed since they never surfaced.

Michael Flynn’s is also central to determine whether Donald Trump obstructed justice as president, essentially by unlawfully interfering with former FBI Director James Comey’s inquiry. Since Flynn is a central character in this entire drama and fate could shape Trump’s. As Rangappa told Vox, “I think Flynn’s value to Mueller is less on the collusion part and has more to do with obstruction of justice. If Trump had any knowledge of any kind of criminal liability that Flynn may have had — and he was trying to get Comey to drop the investigation — that essentially seals Mueller’s obstruction case.” After Flynn was fired, Trump held a counterterrorism meeting with his national security officials which ended when he ordered everyone except then-Director Comey to clear the room. According to Comey’s written notes, Trump asked him to lay off the investigation into Flynn’s Russia statements. He said that Flynn “is a good guy” and urged the then-FBI director “to see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey refused so Trump eventually fired him a few months later.

Flynn’s testimony could help answer if Trump wanted to protect him out of fear on what he might know. It’s not enough to show that Trump didn’t like where the Russia investigation was going. A prosecutor or member of Congress pushing for impeachment would need to show that Trump actually tried to cover up some kind of wrongdoing on his part to establish an obstruction case. As federal prosecutor Alex Whiting explained the specifics of Trump’s relationship with Flynn matter a great deal, noting: “Did [Trump] know that Flynn’s story was an important piece in the larger picture, one that he did not want revealed? Or did he know that the FBI’s pressure on Flynn could force him to give up other incriminating evidence? Far from simply acting to shield a former subordinate and ally, was Trump actually just trying to protect himself, and those close to him? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Trump’s actions will have a very different feel to them, and his potential defenses much harder, if not impossible, to swallow.” Flynn may know the answer to Whiting’s questions which Mueller will likely hear soon.

Still, former US attorney Preet Bharara isn’t convinced that Michael Flynn received “a sweetheart deal of a lifetime” in exchange for hugely important cooperation. On the latest podcast episode, the former New York prosecutor disputed that the relatively light charge against the former 3-star general clearly showed he must’ve agreed to provide especially valuable information to Mueller’s investigation. Bharara refers to his own experience supervising similar high-profile cases.  He claimed, “When we had evidence against somebody and wanted them to flip, we made them plead guilty to every bad act that they had ever done. Especially if we were later gonna be alleging other people had engaged in that activity as well.” Such actions, the former prosecutor argues makes a witness like Flynn more credible in court if he has to testify against someone else. “Otherwise, the only thing the jury will know for a fact about your witness is that he is an admitted, convicted liar,” he said. What he suspects is that Mueller doesn’t’ have anything else on Flynn that might stand in court. But he also suggests that Mueller is “holding back on other charges to which Michael Flynn will plead guilty if and when they form the basis of charging some other folks.” In other words, certain potential charges against Flynn could implicate others in Trump’s team as well and that Mueller’s team just isn’t ready to make those charges yet (and may never be). Yet, this case could be different than Bharara’s own past prosecutions. For one, Mueller’s potential endgame might be impeachment referral rather than a high-profile court trial. In addition, Mueller could be concerned about Trump’s pardon power, possibly holding off some potential charges against Flynn so he could bring them later, in case of a pardon. And seeing how quickly Trump pardoned infamous former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Mueller might’ve taken a cue.

On Saturday December 2, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted that he fired his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI. If that’s the case, Trump knew that Flynn lied to the FBI when he asked then FBI Director James Comey to drop his inquiry into Flynn and then fired him when he failed to do so. This could play into an obstruction of justice case against him. Looking into Trump’s history which shows unparalleled disrespect for the rule of law, committing obstruction of justice shouldn’t come as a surprise. Donald Trump’s corruption is mindboggling beyond any measure that anyone could imagine. He has already abused his power as president in order to enrich himself as well as constantly lies about everything whenever he opens his mouth. But should Mueller’s team find compelling evidence if the Trump team engaged in a criminal conspiracy to help hack Hillary Clinton’s email (since stealing documents is illegal), violated campaign finance laws through soliciting foreign help like from the Russian government, or committing crimes against the investigation itself like witness intimidation, perjury, obstruction of justice, and the like, Mueller can convene a federal jury and seek a criminal indictment against the person. If the grand jury signs off, that person is then arrested and charged. Eventually Trump can be forced to make a terrible choice. He could risk a close associate or family member going to jail or possibly making a deal with federal prosecutors in return for testimony that could incriminate others. Or he could use his pardon power to shield his cronies from federal charges. Should he go the second route, expect a massive political conflict with Congress because of the obvious impropriety of President Pussygrabber pardoning family members or close associates for crimes committed to help him win the presidency in the first place.

Then there’s the question of what happens if Mueller finds evidence of criminal behavior by Donald Trump himself. Granted that Trump is a narcissistic sociopath with a history of abusing his power for his own enrichment, disrespecting the rule of law, and getting away with egregious corruption practices, this is extremely likely. As special prosecutor, Mueller has the legal authority to file charges against any Trump associates or family members. But there’s another legal debate as to whether it’s constitutional for prosecutors to indict a president on criminal charges. Because no state or federal attorney has ever indicted a president on serious criminal charges and we have no Supreme Court precedent to answer that question. Mueller would likely sidestep that whole minefield and simply make a report to the House of Representatives documenting evidence of Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard of impeachment. Should Mueller’s report contain damning evidence, it would put a lot of pressure on the House to begin impeachment proceedings. In short, Mueller could take the first step toward ending Trump’s presidency. So Trump really needs to be afraid. Especially since Mueller is currently looking into his business practices and finances which contain plenty of shady stuff less wealthy people have been arrested for.

 

An Urgent Call for Action to Save Net Neutrality

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On Wednesday, November 22, 2017, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released his draft order to eliminate net neutrality. In short, this order will eradicate net neutrality rules and abandon the court-approved Title II legal framework serving the basis for the successful 2015 Open Internet Order. These regulations prevented internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or slowing down access to websites or services as well as bans them from offering so-called fast lanes to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly than competitors. The proposal’s most significant change is to strip the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband as a utility and shift that responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission, which can’t create the hard and fast rules ISPs must follow. But the FCC will simply require ISPs to be transparent about any blocking, throttling, or pay prioritization which they would evaluate based on whether or not the activity is anti-competitive. However, the proposal will also ban state and local governments from imposing their own net neutrality rules to replace federal regulations or lack thereof. A vote on this measure is scheduled on December 14 and it’s expected to be passed and implemented on a party line 3-2 vote. Ironically called, “The Restoring Internet Freedom Act,” is basically everything that ISPs could want. But it is a policy that will take away every safeguard we need to protect the open internet we’ve always had. Since it will give ISPs the power to kill off their competition, choke innovation, charge more for various content, suppress political dissent, and marginalize voices of racial justice advocates and others organizing for change. Essentially, Pai’s proposal is thin on substance and reasoning, cruel, willfully naïve, as well as not grounded in reality. Yet, should the FCC has its way, Pai’s plan will change how Americans experience the internet and for the worse.

Under the existing regulations the FCC passed in 2015, there are clear hardline rules forbidding telecom companies from unethical business practices. These rules are reinforced with strong but flexible safeguards that the 2015 order built in for other schemes ISPs might use now or invent in the near future to interfere with internet traffic. With the exception of scant transparency rules, Pai plans to “eliminate the conduct rules adopted in the Title II Order — including the general conduct rule and the prohibitions on paid prioritization, blocking and throttling.” This leaves internet users entirely without protections and relying on ISPs to behave and avoid exploiting their internet gatekeeper status. It’s clear in the “The Restoring Internet Freedom Act” that Pai and his fellow Republican colleagues at the FCC want to allow telecom companies to legally block and discriminate internet content. In other words, “restoring internet freedom” means restoring the ISPs’ own freedom to offer “curated services” rather than their broadband customers’ rights. Thus, Donald Trump’s FCC wants to let the most-hated and worst-rated companies in America block and edit online speech.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Pai wants to end net neutrality to enrich his buddies at Verizon where he worked as an attorney. But he’s often used flimsy arguments that even without oversight and prohibitions against blocking and discrimination by claiming, “transparency substantially reduces the possibility that ISPs will engage in harmful practices, and it incentivizes quick corrective measures by providers if problematic conduct is identified.” After all, he states that these large telecom companies have, “publicly committed not to block or throttle the content that consumers choose.” Except that public commitments don’t mean a damn thing to them. Besides we all know these telecom companies want to end net neutrality so they control whatever their customers say or do online. Discriminating against the content consumers to is the whole damn point. Telecom companies have the technology to scrutinize over every piece of information we send or receive online like websites, email, videos, internet phone calls, or data from games or social networks. They can program computers routing information to interfere with the data flow by slowing down or blocking traffic and communication they don’t like while speeding up traffic they do that pays them extra for the privilege. And as far as Tim Wu is concerned, “transparency” is basically a euphemism for “doing nothing.” But the FCC factsheet states that “Internet service providers didn’t block websites before the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed 2015 internet regulations and won’t after they are repealed.” However, before the 2015 order put firm rules on solid legal footing in place, ISPs blocked content, throttled websites, and used their power to rig the market in their favor. These cable and phone companies have taken every chance they could get around net neutrality laws and have already shown us exactly what they’ll do if we let them. Numerous incidents of abuse include:

  • AT&T pressuring Apple into blocking the Skype app on all iPhones, complaining that Skype was being unfair by “not operating on a level playing field,” or in other words, having a better product that AT&T couldn’t compete with. So they just blocked people from using it. And they weren’t the only ones to do so either since ISPs from around the world followed suit and most didn’t just stop at Skype either. In fact, they blocked every program you could use to make online phone calls altogether.
  • Madison River Communications blocking voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP) Vonage which filed a complaint to the FCC after hearing a slew of customer grievances. The FCC stepped in to sanction Madison River and prevent further blocking. But it lacks the authority to stop this kind of abuse today.
  • Comcast, Verizon, and Metro PCS slowing down Netflix. In 2011, Metro PCS sent out an ad boasting that anyone who signed up for their cheapest plan would receive “YouTube access.” Though it might seem good on paper, it actually meant that if you weren’t willing to pay for the expensive plan, the company will block every other video streaming site on the internet. Because they advertised users could “preview trial video content” but not actually watch it for $10 more. And if users paid $20 more, they could access 18 different video streaming websites. Verizon has also been caught slowing down Netflix users. Sure they didn’t make it impossible to watch a movie, but they made it slow enough so no one could waste bandwidth by watching a video in HD. Comcast has done it, too, which is particularly troubling since they own TV networks and have some clear reasons wanting to keep Netflix from succeeding. And they refused to slow down until Netflix paid money. So basically Comcast just blackmailed their competition by sabotaging them and refusing to stop until they paid them. And by the way, this was before net neutrality and thus perfectly legal.
  • Canadian ISP Telus blocking its customers from seeing their workers’ union website called “Voices for Change” which listed their complaints and demands during a 2005 strike. Oh, and they blocked 766 other websites hosted on the same server. In other words, Telus censored an entire section of the Internet because they didn’t like what people were saying. And since there was no net neutrality at the time, the Canadian company suffered zero consequences other than a media tongue lashing.
  • British ISP Plusnet telling charging their customers extra for playing online games. The company set up a tier of different data plans asking their customers to decide if they wanted to be able to surf the internet, stream videos, play video games, or do all 3. And if they weren’t willing to pay for the premium package, they’d be charged extra. And Plusnet didn’t just block video games in the cheaper plans either. They also blocked VPNs, forcing employees who remotely connect to their offices to pay more. And unless you were willing to pay for the most expensive plan, they slowed down peer-to-peer programs like Bit Torrent so badly they hardly worked at all.
  • AT&T censoring words from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder when he sang “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush find yourself another home,” on account of preventing youth visiting the website from being exposed to “excessive profanity.” Though the song contained none. Of course, they later blamed it on an external website contractor hired to screen the performance.
  • Verizon cutting off the pro-choice group NARAL text-messaging program since they didn’t want to service programs from any group “that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”
  • Comcast and Cox Communications blocking VPN. In 2001, these companies updated their terms of services declaring from now on that their customers had to agree not to use a VPN unless they were willing to pay for it. Since VPN lets you connect to another network, which for a lot of people means it’s a way to connect to their office from home, this resulted in a lot of people working from home being suddenly blocked off from how they made their livelihood. And when people called and complained, they didn’t receive much sympathy. Comcast basically said that anyone working from home was going to have to upgrade to their “@Home Pro Package” which started at $95 a month. Essentially, if you worked from home, you had 2 options: either start paying for the most expensive plan Comcast had or get a new job.
  • Verizon blocking Google Wallet. In 2011, Verizon developed its own digital wallet which was going to change the way people made purchases by letting people make purchases with a simple wave of their phone. And they were pretty sure they’d make a fortune, too. Except for two things. First, their product’s name was “Isis” which was about to become less marketable for reasons I need not discuss. Second, Google had already released an identical product called Google Wallet which basically doomed Verizon’s Isis from the start. So when Verizon realized they couldn’t beat Google fairly, they blocked Google Wallet on all Verizon phones, essentially making it impossible for their customers to pick their competition over them. Unsurprisingly, Verizon was accused of breaking net neutrality laws. But since they technically blocked Google’s hardware instead of its software, they got away with it. So there’s every reason to believe if Verizon could block an app that’s competing with one of their own, they’d take it.
  • Comcast deliberately blocking BitTorrent. In 2007, Comcast was caught blocking peer-to-peer programs like BitTorrent, eDonkey, and Gnutella through deep packet inspection to block file transfers from customers using these networks. As a result, any Comcast customer trying to share files from one computer to another would find that their internet connection inexplicably kept dropping. At first, Comcast denied it. However, national tests conducted by the Associated Press confirmed the company’s actions as unrelated to network congestion since blocking took place at times when there wasn’t any. Not to mention, enough people had spread proof online, Comcast couldn’t keep up the lie. Though the company wasn’t apologetic either since they claimed that blocking these peer-to-peer programs like BitTorrent was “necessary.” In their defense, Comcast blocked applications often used to trade videos like pirated content, despite that most of what they blocked on these networks was legitimate. And Comcast has strongly hinted that they’ll do it again. After all, they have promised to that they “will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content” once net neutrality is repealed. But as far as they’re concerned, peer-to-peer programs like BitTorrent fall under “unlawful content.” So once net neutrality is out of the way, Comcast is shutting these programs down.
  • Verizon shutting down Wi-Fi hot spots. When the technology to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hot spot came out, Verizon Wireless started offering it as an add-on. For an extra $20 a month, their customers could use their phone’s data plan through another device like computer. Only problem was that there wasn’t any reason to give Verizon that $20. There were already all kinds of apps available letting people turn their phones into Wi-Fi hot spots for free. So since Verizon couldn’t really compete with these apps, they just shut them down. And they put pressure on Google to remove every Wi-Fi hot spot app from the marketplace. Thus, in other words, Verizon literally shut down 11 smaller businesses because they couldn’t compete with them.
  • Windstream and Paxfire redirecting Google Searches. In 2005, Windstream Communications tried to get their own search engine on the market and compete against Google and Yahoo. However, their search engine was so awful that there was absolutely no reason anyone would really want to use it. So they set up a redirect. That way, any Windstream customer who typed something into Google would just be forcibly redirected to the Windstream search engine instead of getting Google results. And Windstream wasn’t the only company to do this. Paxfire started accepting bribes from companies to redirect Google searches. So for instance, if any Paxfire customer googled “apple,” they’d be just forcibly sent to apple.com. Didn’t matter if they were looking for information growing apples or apple pie recipes. Their users would be looking at iPhones and they couldn’t do anything about it.
  • AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and others running zero-rating schemes that advantage their own content. These are sponsored data programs to third party content providers to pay ISPs to exempt their data from customers’ data caps and at less favorable terms than they offer their affiliates.
  • Verizon admitting plans on censoring the internet. While most companies trying to end net neutrality try to hide what they’re up to, Verizon has directly and unambiguously said that they want to end net neutrality so they can censor free speech. In fact, a Verizon attorney told the FCC that they believe as broadband providers, they “transmit the speech of others” and deserve the right to what they call “editorial discretion.” Because the attorney claimed, “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.” In other words, Verizon doesn’t give a shit that everyone has a right to express themselves on the internet. In fact, they want to decide what goes online and what gets censored. Even when the FCC pushed them and asked if they planned on blocking websites, the Verizon attorney still didn’t deny that his company planned on censoring the internet, claiming, “But for these rules, we would be exploring those types of arrangements.” And that’s what will happen if net neutrality goes away. This isn’t a paranoid fear or a worst-case scenario, it’s straight out of their mouths.

If Pai’s FCC really wanted to guarantee that ISPs can’t charge tolls to access content, prioritize certain websites and services, create fast and slow lanes, and censor political speech, then it wouldn’t repeal net neutrality. In fact, Pai’s plan to end net neutrality doesn’t even conceal this. When it comes to letting ISPs dividing the internet into fast lanes for the few who can pay an extra toll and slow lanes for everyone else, his order actually celebrates the idea. As Pai writes, “We anticipate that lifting the ban on paid prioritization will increase network innovation [because] the ban on paid prioritization agreements has had … a chilling effect on network innovation.” Only the FCC and the ISP boardrooms would call slowing down websites and apps “innovation.” As far as they’re concerned, “restoring internet freedom,” will lead to “better, faster, and cheaper broadband for consumers and give startups that need priority access (such as telehealth applications) the chance to offer new services to consumers.” Except that creating fast and slow lanes will do absolutely no such thing. Yet, this is exactly the “trust the cable company” future Pai envisions for the internet which puts a ridiculous amount of faith in ISP promises.

Since the internet was available to the American people, there have always been a need for laws protecting people’s rights on the internet. Laws protecting these rights are in what’s called Title II of the Communications Act. These were updated on an overwhelming bipartisan basis in both houses of Congress in 1996 to establish the legal definition and duties that still do and still must apply to broadband service. Broadband internet access is what the law refers as a “common-carrier transmission service.” This lets internet users transmit what information they choose to and from the points of their selection and that the ISP must transmit the content without unreasonable discrimination. This is how broadband customers see the service ISPs offer and sell them. That’s the service we all need to have any chance of connecting and communicating with each other and accessing all the internet has to offer. The Obama FCC followed the law and fulfilled its congressionally mandated duties by returning to Title II and to the proper understanding of broadband internet access as a telecom service. A Federal appeals court reviewing the agency’s reason upheld that decision twice. Pai’s draft order fails to assess the proper history as well as the FCC’s steps and missteps past which explain Congress’s true intent and meaning of the law. But the best Pai can think of are ahistorical references to Clinton-era interpretations of an internet ecosystem long since gone, along with a smattering of ISP talking points and legal arguments courts just shot down last year. Talking about how the FCC treated AOL’s dial-up internet service in 1998 and pretending that this reasoning should apply to ISPs like Comcast and AT&T that control the physical networks we use to get online today just doesn’t cut it. Nor does the ridiculous claim that just because ISPs transmit internet speech and information, the broadband access line itself must be an information service, too. Pai’s justifications are simply attempts to ignore the reality of modern broadband internet services that people depend on today. And we still need rules guarding against the ISPs’ incentive and ability to discriminate. By abandoning the Communications Act and possibly punting federal oversight of net neutrality to the FTC, Pai turns back on the FCC’s sound legal framework for preventing discrimination online as well as abdicates its responsibilities and using the worst legal arguments it can find to justify his actions.

Another major argument the Pai order offers for all this upheaval is the supposed harm that a Title II framework has hurt broadband investment, thus slowing the expansion of nationwide internet access. It’s likely that Pai just made it up that’s only backed by a handful of lobbyists and corporate shills willing to lie or concoct supposed evidence for this alleged economic downturn. However, broadband investment doesn’t run on regulation alone. It doesn’t decline because the FCC restores the same kinds of protections against discrimination that have been kept in in place continuously for a wide range of Title II voice and broadband services for the past several decades. If you take the broader view, broadband investment has already been declining before net neutrality was in place. Besides, the stories ISPs tell their investors are very different from what they tell the FCC. In fact, Securities and Exchange Commission filings reveal an increase in internet investment since 2015 according to Free Press. Even so, whether industry investment should be the dominant measure of success in internet policy is kind of irrelevant considering the larger issues at hand.

Fortunately, there has been strong opposition to Pai’s terrible plan. During the FCC comment period, 98.5% of individual comments support keeping net neutrality rules. #Net Neutrality has trended globally on Twitter and was the top trending hashtag in the United States. Redditors representing a dizzying range of political philosophies and subcultures spoke out. In fact, the most popular post in the Reddit NASCAR group’s entire history is about the need to save net neutrality. Since last Tuesday, Americans have made over 500,000 calls to Congress urging their lawmakers to condemn Pai’s plan. Now Capitol staffers feel so besieged that a few reached out and asked pro-neutrality groups to make the calls stop. And on Saturday after Thanksgiving, Maine’s Senator Susan Collins became the first GOP senator to publicly oppose Pai’s proposal, joining scores of Democratic leaders who’ve spoken up in the last few months. As of today, there are 600 protests in the works in all 50 states in cities including Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Des Moines, Miami, New York City, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Wichita. And since Pai once worked for Verizon (officially), people are organizing outside corporate-owned Verizon stores all across the country. On Cyber Monday, hundreds of businesses and organizations sent a letter calling on the FCC chairman to reverse course and scrap his plans to repeal net neutrality rules. They wrote, “Without these rules, internet service providers will be able to favor certain websites and e-businesses, or the platforms they use to garner new customers, over others by putting the ones that can pay in fast lanes and slowing down or even blocking others. Businesses may have to pay a toll just to reach customers. This would put small and medium-sized businesses at a disadvantage and prevent innovative new ones from even getting off the ground. An internet without net neutrality protections would be the opposite of the open market, with a few powerful cable and phone companies picking winners and losers instead of consumers. The current rules provide the protections necessary to protect net neutrality and ensure the internet remains a free and open marketplace that encourages innovation and supports robust competition.”

Yet, even if the FCC votes to kill net neutrality, a federal court challenge is inevitable given overwhelming support for a free and open internet. Even if that suit remains in the US Court of Appeals, the outcome could very well drag on for another year and a half or more. And there will certainly be numerous lawsuits filed in reaction to the “Restoring Internet Freedom” Order. While the telecom industry will undoubtedly have an army of lawyers, they don’t have a strong case. For one, allowing ISPs to practice internet censorship akin to the Chinese state by blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda is anathema to the internet’s and America’s founding spirit. In fact, you can argue such censorship is unconstitutional under the First Amendment since it violates freedom of speech. Second, the Pai’s proposal is such a drastic reversal of net neutrality policy and is based on weak evidence to support the change. Government agencies aren’t free to abruptly reverse longstanding rules which many have relied on without good reason like a change in factual circumstances. A mere shift in FCC ideology isn’t enough. Because according to the Supreme Court, a federal agency must, “examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action.” Since the 2015 net neutrality rules are a huge success by most measures, the case for killing them would need to be very strong. Except that it isn’t. It’s very clear that Pai’s rationale for eliminating the net neutrality rules is that telecom companies need to earn even more money than they do despite enjoying generous profits for years. Third, because Pai’s FCC is killing net neutrality outright, the chairman will have to explain to a court not just the shift from 2005, but also his reasoning for destroying basic bans for blocking and throttling which have been in effect since 2005 which the entire internet ecosystem has relied on. This will be a very difficult task since there is a long history of (often concealed) anticompetitive throttling and blocking that the FCC has had to stop to preserve the internet economy’s health. Pai needs to explain why we no longer have to worry about this threat and he can’t just say, “you can trust your cable company” either. Fourth, the FCC is acting contrary to public sentiment which may embolden the judiciary to oppose Pai’s plan. While telecommunications policy doesn’t always attract public attention, net neutrality does. And since 76% of Americans support it, the FCC is on the wrong side of the democratic majority. In our times, the judiciary has increasingly become a majoritarian force which can prevent narrow, self-interested factions from getting the government to serve shameful ends.

Nevertheless, net neutrality assures Americans a free and open internet which has become crucial in our everyday lives. It has overwhelming support among the American public. For the FCC to repeal net neutrality rules goes against the will of the people. Pai wants to eliminate the Title II classification of ISPs as common carriers and leave these telecom companies to run the internet as they please. Repealing net neutrality will only give ISPs power to control what users experience online such as deciding who gets heard, which sites we can visit, what connections we can make, and what communities we can create. And they can throttle access, stall opportunity, and censor content that they don’t like. Most Americans believe you should go where you want on the internet without interference from your ISP, which net neutrality guarantees. Repealing net neutrality will only benefit a few giant corporate executives and lobbyists standing to profit from it. And such action will only stand to harm internet users, consumers, and businesses who depend on internet service for their day-to-day lives. No giant telecom corporation should have the power to control what you access online. American voters deserve a free, open, and neutral internet supporting democracy and economic growth. If you depend the internet for your livelihood, you need net neutrality. If you enjoy streaming video, social media, or playing online games, thank net neutrality. If you enjoy shopping on Amazon and want businesses to have a level playing field, net neutrality is for you. If you want to freely surf the web with the same rights and privileges as everyone else, then the assault on net neutrality must be stopped once and for all. The internet is for everyone and is the most important resource in the world with our exchange of information exalted over any physical and social barrier. We must stand together and fight for it.

The Great American Tax Swindle

Last week, the United States House of Representatives passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which seeks to dramatically cut corporate taxes and consolidate benefits for individuals. In addition, the legislation eliminates the alternative minimum tax and estate tax as well as pare back certain individual deduction. This bill would also offer a new tax rate for owners of “pass through” businesses like LLCs and partnerships whose income from their businesses is taxed as personal income. It’s very clear that the House Republican tax bill will disproportionately benefit wealthy Americans, who’d more likely profit from corporate tax cuts more than non-wealthy Americans and likely exploit the pass-through rate by setting up dummy corporations. According to the Tax Policy Center, the absolute richest Americans such as the top 0.1% earning at least $5 million a year, would receive an average income tax cut of 3% which can translate into $320,640. The middle fifth of taxpayers earning between $54,700 to $93,200 a year would get a 0.5% income boost which will only consist of $360. Nearly half the cut will go to the 1%. Though 61.4% of Americans would receive a tax cut by 2027, 24.2% will see their taxes rise by an average of $2,080. Nevertheless, this bill will almost certainly not become law in its current form since the current version will certainly increase the budget deficit by trillions over 10 years and beyond. But it nevertheless, reflects the Republican Party’s values and priorities which don’t translate into the kind of tax reform America needs as well as disproportionately punishes hardworking Americans and the poor for no reason. Because this isn’t a tax reform bill with ordinary Americans in mind, but major Republican donors and corporations.

Who Wins:

Corporations– Since they’re the main focus on most of the tax cuts. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% (like this bill does), costs nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years. They also gain new, more favorable treatment of income earned abroad, which either isn’t taxed or taxed at an even lower rate than 20%.

The Wealthy, Particularly the Ultrarich– Because they tend to earn a disproportionate share of their income from capital (like stock sales and dividends) and thus benefit from cuts to the corporate tax, which is largely a tax on capital. Should the corporate tax also reduce wages (as some conservative economists allege), corporate tax cuts still disproportionately help the wealthy as huge wage shares go to high earners, not low or median-wage earners. In addition, the pass-through cut could lead some wealthy people who either own pass-throughs or create new ones to shelter some of their income from high rates. Both Tax Policy Center analysis and the Joint Committee on Taxation confirm that the richest Americans will receive the biggest cuts as a percentage of their income.

People Making Mid-to High Six-Figure Incomes– They should arguably count as wealthy or rich, too. By raising the threshold for the 39.6% rate on individual income to $1 million for couples, up from $470,000 today, those with incomes in the $600,000 to $700,000 range will receive a sizeable reduction alongside to the low-end tax cut they get because the new 12% bracket will apply to income now taxed between 15% or 25%. The Tax Policy Center finds that once you reach the 95th percentile like earning $304,600 a year or more, over 70% of them get tax cuts in 2027, with the average change amounting to 1.4-3% of their income.

Pass-Through Companies– Companies like the Trump Organization get a new very low rate. Though the bill includes some provisions meant to prevent rich individuals from using this tax break to shelter income, it only limits the benefit in many cases. Overwhelmingly rich owners of these pass-throughs will still come out ahead. We know this because Kansas entirely eliminated state taxes on pass-through companies which mainly resulted in people to simply reclassify their income to dodge taxes while not actually starting any new businesses.

Heirs and Heiresses– Because this bill first reduces the estate tax (through increasing exemption and applying it to even smaller sliver of the ultrarich) and then eliminates it entirely. Keep in mind this is on those who earn at least $5 million anyway.

Who Loses:

Blue State Residents– Since they will pay higher taxes since this legislation eliminates state and local income/sales tax deductions while somewhat curtails those for property taxes. Wealthy people benefitting from these deductions will likely see this tax hike offset by the other tax cuts in the package. Though this may leave a silver lining when you realize that many blue states are home to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, major media organizations, Hollywood, many large corporations, and high earning Americans like Donald Trump.

The Housing Sector– Since it faces a new limit on mortgage interest deduction. Though the rate cuts largely make up for this in regards to some individual taxpayers, it reduces the incentive to build and buy homes, which could affect lenders, construction workers, real estate firms, etc.

Poor Families– Though they were rumored to receive a tax cut due to change in the refundability formula for the child tax credit, that measure didn’t make it in the bill. Because that credit only goes to families with $3,000 in earnings or more and phases in slowly. Though some in Congress did push to lower the threshold to $0, they didn’t succeed. Instead, the bill includes a provision denying the child tax credit to American citizen children whose parents are undocumented immigrants. Because Republicans don’t want undocumented immigrants having anchor babies to take advantage of that tax credit. Despite that fear of deportation keeps more undocumented immigrants from seeking benefits their citizen children could desperately use. Furthermore, fees extracted by tax preparers standing between the low-income and earned income tax credit aren’t deductible under this plan.

Higher Education– The House bill eliminates student loan tax exemptions and treats graduate tuition reimbursements as income. The Senate bill contains an excise tax on earnings of big university endowments. This will increase the cost of college for many students, result in more borrowers struggling to pay their loans, grad and doctoral students in terrible financial situations, as well as hit colleges and universities hard. Not to mention, such measures will dramatically hurt the economy in the long run by undermining human capital developments and creating a less educated workforce. In addition, it might even cost lives by impeding biomedical research.

Workers– The Republican tax plan treats union dues as taxable income. Poor and middle class people will also see their taxes increase across the board, especially if they earn between $40,000 and $75,000 a year. In addition, it taxes contributions to 401 (k) plans.

Healthcare– The House bill proposes eliminating medical deduction exemptions which will devastate many middle-class families with an illness. Republican Senators are proposing to repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate which will result in 13 million people uninsured, hurt enrollment in Medicaid and Obamacare exchanges, increase premiums on those who purchase insurance, and increase preventable deaths by 15,600 people per year. Not to mention, the Senate bill cuts alcohol taxes which are effective at reducing drink driving, violent crime, and liver cirrhosis while increasing them saves thousands of lives per year. Add to that cuts to Medicaid by $18 billion by 2021 and Obamacare subsidies. All this will only make the healthcare markets worse, not better.

The Deficit– As the Joint Committee on Taxation has reportedly determined that the House Republican tax bill will cost $1.51 trillion over 10 years, which is what the House/Senate allocated for the bill. But it’s still a sizeable increase in public debt.

As you can see, this Republican tax reform effort reflects the conservative allergic reaction to progressive taxation and goes beyond undoing the most progressive gains achieved during the Obama and Clinton administrations. 3 changes stand out in this legislation. First, these taxes are far more focused on owners than workers, even by Republican standards. Second, they take advantage of the ambiguity on what counts as income. Third, it weaponizes that vagueness to help their friends and hurt their enemies. Though to be fair, I’m not sure who counts as which in this scheme. After years of pushing for a safety net that works through the tax code and keep more social democratic forms at bay, Republicans now seem willing to even demolish even those modest protections, some of which benefit many of their voters. And they make it clear that a welfare state based on tax credits and refunds, rather than universal commitments, is all too vulnerable.

The House “reform” bill illustrates that Republicans understand how the economic game’s rules are shifting toward capital and away from labor (even from the rich’s labor). Since 2000, income growth among the 1% has accrued people making their money from owning money, stock, and other financial instruments, rather than to people making money via skills and labor. As a result, corporate profits have skyrocketed since then and increased faster during the Great Recession. However, such growth hasn’t trickled down to ordinary Americans. Wages have been flat since 2000 and recession recovery featured the weakest business investment of the postwar period. This marks a genuine shift in the economy’s organization which economists still struggle to understand. But the Republican tax plan supercharges these changes which are about benefiting not just the well-off, but those well-off because they own capital.

But why? Because the Republican tax plans mainly focus on corporate income tax reductions which will largely benefit concentrated owners of stock, passive owners of pass-through businesses who don’t actively work for the firm, and those inheriting their money. We should also understand that foreigners hold about a third of US-based stock, meaning there will be a significant amount of benefits not going to US citizens. In fact, the Institute of Tax and Economic Policy estimates that foreign investors would receive benefits roughly equal to those going to the bottom 3/5 of Americans.

Much of the Republican tax plan involves changing the definition of “income” in various ways. Now most people usually think of income as whatever their salary is. But it’s more complicated than that. And Republicans are redefining different kinds of income to benefit their friends as well as harming their enemies. Under the plan, Passive owners of pass-through entities get their income redefined in a way that minimizes taxation. Those inheriting money get their inheritance redefined to hide it from taxation. And those wanting to stuff money away to send their kiddies to private school, get that savings defined as non-income, too. All these are payouts to key Republican constituencies.

But Republicans are also defining income in other ways to punish their opponents. State and local tax deductions Republicans want to repeal primarily benefits those in blue states where those taxes are higher. They also want to treat graduate education tuition reimbursements as income, hitting higher education (which is home to climate scientists and the “politically correct” anti-right) hard. Union dues would suddenly become taxable income. And fees extracted by tax preparers who stand between low-income people and the earned income tax credit aren’t deductible under their plan.

Yet, it’s not just their opponents they want to punish either. House Republicans also propose eliminating all of the medical deduction exemption which would be devastating for middle class households with an illness. And the latest Senate tax bill calls for eliminating the individual mandate which could result in 13 million uninsured. In short, not only are Republicans are using the tax code to swipe at the Affordable Care Act, they also want to do away with their own tools for making medical expenses more bearable. In the past conservatives have explicitly stated that they hoped the growing use of tax-deferred 401(k) savings plans would weaken support and possibly replace Social Security. But today’s GOP almost reduced the cap for 401(k) contributions. What about the Adoption Tax Credit that was part of the 1994 Republican Contract with America? Well, the House tax plan got rid of that, too. And what about students investing in their own educations through student loans? The bill also puts student loan tax exemptions on the chopping block. Tax exemptions, deductions, and benefits are usually considered regressive, poorly targeted, and too reliant on the market. But they do form a coherent social insurance system for middle-class and upper-middle class families. Many of them number among Republican voters. Yet, it’s this very safety net via tax code that Republicans have declared war on in their new tax bill. They could’ve crafted these various deductions into a more coherent system, they’re axing them to cut taxes on the rich. Republicans are so indebted to capital owners that they’d destroy their system in order to appease them. Even if it means proposing a tax plan whose benefit are permanent for owners yet expire for everyone else. They’ve taken the worst trends in the American economy and hit the accelerator.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Trickle down economics has been implemented in US tax policy time and time again since the 1980s and has been shown not to work. When you cut taxes for the rich, you don’t create jobs nor raise wages. If anything, the rich just become richer while corporations make higher profits. Meanwhile, wages remain stagnant while ordinary Americans increasingly find themselves less able to adequately support themselves thank to inflation and rising costs of living. But according to free market purists, market competition should ensure low prices. Except that it doesn’t, especially if it results in large corporations expanding that they either become monopolies or conglomerates. Corporate increases in profits and size don’t translate into higher wages, more jobs, or lower prices. Nor will it benefit the economy or solve any of its problems. The Republican tax plan’s regressive nature is reason enough to oppose it. Should the United States run a deficit, then it shouldn’t be to reduce taxes paid by those at the top. Given recent economic developments, it’s especially irresponsible. Corporations are flush with cash thanks to large profits and aggressively low interest rates. But they’re not investing. Thus, these large tax cuts for corporations will have very little effect on the economy and only amplify the deleterious trends we’re still trying to comprehend.

I don’t doubt that the United States needs to reform its tax code. Wealthy Americans and corporations shouldn’t be the main beneficiaries in tax legislation. If anything, the rich should be made to pay more taxes as well as be held accountable for tax evasion and other financial shenanigans like everyone else. Should we need to eliminate deductions or benefits, let it be rich stuff like any measures pertaining to private jets. After all, if you could afford a private jet, you don’t need subsidies or tax breaks. In addition, we need to tax capital gains from which the wealthy primarily earn their money. The American people deserve better than an egregious tax scam that only benefits the few at the expense of the rest.

The Fall of the Low Hanging Fruit

On Monday, October 30, 2017, Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The two men face a total of 12 charges mostly focused on alleged money laundering, failure to disclose financial assets, and false statements regarding their work for the Ukrainian government and a Ukrainian political party. Particularly, it’s about how Manafort and Gates hid their lobbying work for the pro-Russian Ukrainian political party and used elaborate schemes to funnel more than $75 million through offshore accounts to conceal their activities and avoid paying taxes on the proceeds. Manafort’s history of pro-Russian consulting work and experience with international skullduggery make him a prime suspect for potential collusion. But the indictment actually doesn’t have anything to do with possible Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and whether Trump associates played any role in it. Instead, it’s almost entirely related to Manafort’s work for foreign interests predating the 2016 campaign which were already under FBI investigation. For months Mueller seemed to have zeroing in on Manafort. In July, the FBI raided his house for documents and there was a report he’d been wiretapped. Emails then revealed he tried to set up private briefings for a Russian billionaire while Trump’s campaign chair. It’s long been speculated that if Mueller’s team finds damaging evidence, they’re reportedly hoping they can use charges to get Manafort to give them more information on the collusion matter. In other words, they want to flip him against Trump, other Trump associates, or potentially Russians.

Paul Manafort has had a decades long career as a Republican operative and lobbyist who’s worked on several GOP presidential campaigns and representing several controversial dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s also been a longtime business partner of Roger Stone, with whom he founded a famous lobbying firm. In the mid-2000s, Manafort began focusing on business activities in Eastern Europe. Initially, he mostly advised oligarchs such as Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and Ukrainian steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov. In 2005, he advised the Ukrainian pro-Russian Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych. After Yanukovych lost a presidential election, Manafort’s team helped them formulate a comeback strategy. In 2010, Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency. Manafort had other dealings with wealthy people in Ukraine as well. In one instance, he tried to develop a luxury apartment with energy oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who was later charged with money laundering and bribery. Yet, these business ventures fall apart in 2014. Protests and clashes with pro-Russian policies forced President Yanukovych to flee Ukraine. Meanwhile, Manafort had a large falling out with Deripaska who claimed he cheated him out of millions in a lawsuit.
So why would Donald Trump appoint an operative who’s done so much pro-Putin work as his campaign chair? Well, consider the situation in March 2016. Back then, despite Trump winning several flashy victories in early primary elections. But Ted Cruz proved adept at locking down delegates even in states Trump won. Since delegates technically determine the nominee, Trump became convinced he needed an expert who understood the byzantine party rules actually governing delegate selection and the convention, else he could lose. Since Manafort had helped Gerald Ford lock down delegates in 1976 and managed Bob Dole’s convention 20 years later, he fit the bill. Even better, Manafort was also the former business partner of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. Though Stone had been pushed out of the Trump campaign some time ago, he kept informally advising Trump and to intrigue against campaign manager Corey Lewandowski whom he loathed. At first, Manafort’s job was merely leading a delegate wrangling operation. But when Lewandowski became enmeshed in scandal over grabbing Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign event, his portfolio gradually expanded until he was effectively running the campaign. In May 2016, he was officially made campaign chair and chief strategist while Lewandowski was fired. Manafort would remain in charge through the last through GOP primary elections and the Republican National Convention. By mid-August Trump had sunk in the polls while damaging news reports about foreign worked dogged Manafort. Thus, Trump brought in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to take over while Manafort had to resign. Of course, the Trump administration has recently attempted to distance itself from the former campaign chairman with then Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming, he “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” However, it widely understood that Manafort was a linchpin in the Trump campaign. As New Gingrich told Fox News in August 2016, “Nobody should underestimate how much Paul Manafort did to really help get this [Trump] campaign to where it is right now.”

Paul Manafort’s time with the Trump campaign may have lasted less than 5 months but it was an eventful and crucial period for Trump/Russian activity. For one, the Trump campaign transitioned from the primary to the general election in which finding a way to defeat Hillary Clinton would be top priority. Second, there’s the e-mail exchange between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone who offered to set up a meeting in which he’d receive incriminating information on Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. forwarded the e-mail thread about the meeting to Manafort and Jared Kushner and invited them to it. That meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and potential spy Rinat Akhmetshin took place on June 9, 2016 with Manafort and Kushner in attendance. Though the parties involved claimed the meeting lead nowhere, NBC News states that Manafort’s notes on the meeting included a reference to donations, “near a reference to the Republican National Convention” though the full context remains unclear. In July, Manafort oversaw the Republican National Convention. But as the Republicans assembled their platform some controversy spilled over whether Trump staffers pushed to dilute an aggressive anti-Russian amendment calling for arming Ukraine. The controversy seems somewhat exaggerated and there hasn’t been any indication that Manafort was personally involved. The existing platform wasn’t changed but a Ted Cruz supporter’s proposed amendment was modified before being added to it. Later in that same month, Wikileaks posted hundreds of hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee. The dumps showed certain DNC staffers saying unfriendly things about Bernie Sanders were perfectly timed to cause chaos at the Democratic National Convention the following week. US intelligence later claimed the Russian government orchestrated the DNC hack.
Nevertheless, Mueller’s indictment of Manafort was a long time coming. Even before the indictment, Manafort was already seen as astonishingly corrupt with longstanding interests in tilting the Trump campaign’s platform in a pro-Russian stance. The gist of the 12 charges against him and Gates is that they “acted as unregistered agents” of the Ukrainian government and politicians, generating “tens of millions of dollars in income” which they then “laundered” through “score of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.” In other words, taking a bunch of illegal Ukrainian money and actively lying about it to the federal government which is a criminal offense. On former front, Manafort and Gates are both charged with a “conspiracy to launder money” and separate specific charges on failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts. Together to hide their Ukrainian work, both men laundered their Ukrainian payments through a complex network of companies and bank accounts they set up in both the United States and abroad which included tax havens in Cyprus, Saint Vincent and the Grendines, and Seychelles. More than $75 million is said to flow through their offshore bank accounts. The indictment then reads: “Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income.” It then alleges that Manafort laundered over $18 million through offshore accounts, making various payments to businesses including a home improvement company, a men’s clothing store, a landscaper, and an antique rug store. In 2012, he’s said to buy a Manhattan condo for $2.85 million he rented out using Airbnb to generate cash.

Thus, it’s obvious that Mueller wants to know whether there was any follow-up to the meeting Trump Jr. set up (despite Trump Jr. claiming there wasn’t). And whether Manafort had any knowledge about the email hackings which he’s denied. There are also questions about Manafort’s emails with his Ukrainian business associate Konstantin Kilimnik about his old client Oleg Deripaska. On July 7, 2016, he e-mailed Kilimnik about the Russian aluminum oligarch saying, “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate” according to the Washington Post. Kilimnik wrote back a few weeks later, seemingly cryptically about Deripaska, claiming he met the guy in person “who gave you the biggest black caviar jar several years ago” and that it would take time to explain this “long caviar story.” He and Manafort then set up a meeting in New York that took place a few days later. By the way, he did this while chairing Trump’s campaign. And even though his Ukrainian baggage forced him to leave the Trump campaign, Manafort was known to be in contact with Trump. Mostly because investigators had been surveilling him thanks to a secret court order since September 2016.

As Mueller’s main goal is to investigate potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia, he can see charges against Manafort as a means to an end. The stronger the evidence the special counsel has against the former Trump campaign manager, the more pressure he can exert to get him to cooperate in the collusion probe. But the charges are serious enough to warrant prison time that Manafort and Gates turned themselves in to the FBI to face those charges. Thus, the men turned themselves in. Then there’s the foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos who’s plead guilty of lying to the FBI about his conversations with a Joseph Mifsud, a professor with close ties to the Russian government who told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” Such disclosure confirms at least one Trump campaign adviser knew of Kremlin efforts to help Trump win the White House and was open to accepting that assistance. But whether Papadopoulos shared that information with others within the Trump campaign remains a mystery. Yet, Mueller’s team has said in a court filing that Papadopoulos “has indicated that he is willing to cooperate with the government in its ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.” This begs the question what kinds of information Papadopoulos has already provided to Mueller’s team. Did he wear a wire? Did he try to help the special prosecutor gather information on other Trump associates? Are other Trump team members quietly working with Mueller? Nonetheless, Mueller’s moves increase the likelihood that campaign advisers or administration staffers finding themselves in his crosshairs might want to strike plea bargains in which they trade damaging information on Trump in exchange for lesser charges. This who don’t cut a deal will be prosecuted.

Though the investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia has simmered for months, it’s wasn’t clear if, or when, it would move from a political scandal to a legal one. Thanks to Mueller’s indictments on Manafort and Gates, it has. Now the question is how far Trump will go to protect himself from an investigation that threatens the future of his presidency. And whether the Congress and the courts will be up for the challenge. The time may come when Donald Trump decides he has no choice but try to protect himself by firing Mueller or issuing preemptive pardons to Manafort or others ensnared in the investigation. Either move can trigger a legal and political crisis in Watergate level proportions such as breaking decades of if not centuries of precedent for how American presidents treat the criminal justice system. Federal courts may have to decide whether to overturn any Trump pardons. Republicans could face a moment of truth about their willingness to actually stand up to Trump instead of publicly bashing him. Though a handful of GOP lawmakers have introduced legislation designed to protect Mueller from Trump firing him with bipartisan support. But such legislation has gone nowhere. So far, Robert Mueller has the upper hand but that could very literally change at a moment depending on what Trump does next. The US political and legal systems did their jobs during Watergate. But it’s profoundly depressing to ask whether they’ll do their jobs during the Trump presidency. It’s even more heart wrenching they might not.

So far the Republican Party has done nothing. Earlier in October, House Speaker Paul Ryan reputedly joked at the Al Smith Dinner, “Every morning I wake up in my office and I scroll through Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend I didn’t see later on.” Later, when a Wisconsin radio station asked his opinion on the Mueller indictments, he said, “I really don’t have anything to add other than nothing is going to derail what we’re doing in Congress.” There was nothing on his website even addressing the indictments. But there was a post summing up a busy month cheekily titled, “Not Another Tax Reform Post” and included photos of Ryan signing bills, handing out medals, and meeting interns. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t even make himself available enough to dodge any questions. The top story on his website that time was “McConnell on IRS Targeting During Obama Administration.” There is no mention of Mueller whatsoever. Had Hillary Clinton been in this situation you’d bet Ryan and McConnell would be all over it. Instead, they’re mounting a defense of Congress’s priorities in the face of Trump and the media’s distractions. Yet, these near-daily acts of silence and cowardice abdicate Congress’s role to contain a clearly rogue, lawless, and undisciplined White House. The Founding Fathers could see Americans electing a demagogue to the White House to the White House despite that their mistrust of the popular will and Electoral College system enabled just that. But instead of ambition counteracting ambition as they intended, it’s ambition enabling ambition which wasn’t what the Founding Fathers had foreseen. Today, Ryan and McConnell’s ambition to pass tax cuts for the rich and hold the Republican base is enabling Trump’s ambition to act without proper sanction or oversight. Congress has plenty of power to check Trump, but its leaders are too nervous to use it, or even signal that they might use it in the future.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell could’ve said or done so much to protect both the process and the country. They could’ve remarked how troubling Mueller’s indictments are for anyone caring about the sanctity of elections. They could’ve assured that Mueller had their full support for the investigation to run its course as well as endorse one of the bipartisan bills to safeguard his job. Even if it just in the name of self-preservation. Because Donald Trump firing Mueller will ignite a major political crisis that will be far more of a distraction from tax reform. But the GOP has come to bind and blind so effectively that congressional Republicans have lost sight that they, too, have an interest in the political system’s fundamental stability and indicating what behavior will or will not be acceptable from the president. And it’s not Ryan and McConnell who could act to safeguard Mueller’s investigation in advance. Senators John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake have all decried Donald Trump as a threat in apocalyptic terms. They can join the Democrats to create a 51-vote majority blocking action on any bills until the protective legislation Republican Senator Tom Tillis introduced was passed. But so far, they too, have done nothing of the kind.

The Trump era is an extraordinary time in American politics that’s a test not just to our institutions but also our leaders. Republicans are failing that test. It’s well known they’re more despairing than liberals in the back rooms and background briefings. They know that Donald Trump is a dangerous and impulsive man in the White House. Those who take their conservatism seriously and believe the best for their party keenly feel the consequences of Trump’s behavior. But because they’re so afraid of his wrath, confused by their base, and somewhat hopeful that something good can arise from this crisis, they regularly talk themselves into small acts of cowardice and silence. Yet, these small acts lead to committing larger ones when the party is too invested and too culpable to change. Now like hungry gamblers deep in a losing streak, they need to win something to justify all they’ve done and excused. But like all hungry gamblers, more likely than not, they’ll just keep losing while making everything worse for themselves and the American people. For the sake of the country, Republicans need to start taking Trump as a serious threat now.

Deliberate Sabotage

Since taking office, the Trump administration has already taken aim to sabotage the Obamacare marketplaces. First, they cut the Obamacare enrollment period from 90 days to 45. Second, they’ve cut the Obamacare advertising budget by 90% and reduced funding for in-person outreach by 40%. Nevertheless, this has caused Health and Human Services regional branches abruptly pulled out of outreach events they’ve participated in over the last 4 years. Third, they’ve shut down the Healthcare.gov website for maintenance. And finally, Trump has repeatedly threatened to end subsidies to insurance companies who cover the poor. Since Republicans have spent 7 years promising to repeal Obamacare, the healthcare law has become a political football. Recently Donald Trump has signed two executive orders sabotaging the Affordable Care Act. Both these executive orders could undermine President Obama’s signature domestic achievement sending insurance premiums skyrocketing and insurance companies fleeing from the ACA’s online marketplaces.

First, he ordered the government to allow associations of small employers or other membership groups band together and offer their own insurance that wouldn’t have to provide all the essential health benefits required under the law as well as be sold across state lines. The order also directed officials to loosen rules for low-cost, short-term health insurance. Trump claims these changes give consumers cheaper options. But health insurance (and basically everyone else) fear it could shift insurance markets back to their pre-ACA days when healthy people paid less but people with preexisting conditions often found coverage unaffordable.

According to the Brookings Institute, a version of these self-insured association plans first became widespread in the 1980s but they failed in droves because many were undercapitalized. Even worse, these earlier association plans had a history of becoming what the Labor Department referred to as, “scam artists.” And it’s known that some of these low-cost plans cover virtually nothing. The Government Accountability Office reported AHPs were “bogus entities [that] have exploited employers and individuals seeking affordable coverage.” In 1992, more than two dozen states found that these early association plans had committed fraud, embezzlement, and other criminal violations. AHPs also run a greater risk for insolvency when claims unexpectedly exceed their ability to pay and have a long history of financial instability. When a long-standing AHP covering 20,000 in New Jersey became insolvent in 2002, its outstanding medical bills totaled $15 million. Though employers paid their premiums, claims made by them and their workers remained unpaid. And it doesn’t help that even these plans’ strongest proponents want guardrails placed on what groups can qualify. For many associations offer health plans to just about anyone who needs insurance, not just small business owners. You don’t need to be a farmer to join the Farm Bureau and business associations can be open anyone filing a Schedule C tax form. Some even have skimpier qualifications that they’re criticized as “air breather” associations in which the only commonality among its members is need for air for breathing.

So it’s no surprise that insurers and state-based regulators have criticized Donald Trump’s provision as a counterproductive step that could pave way for a new batch of flimsy, poor regulated health plans. states are often well positioned with broad enforcement authority to protect their residents by preventing or quickly identifying and closing down scam health insurance operators, many of whom have long used association health plans to sell fraudulent coverage to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting consumers. However, unlike large employer plans and Obamacare, Trump’s executive order exempts AHPs from state authority. Thus, severely hurting the states’ ability to protect consumers. Instead, the US Department of Labor would primarily enforce AHPs but without the tools, resources, and culture to protect against fraud. As a result, con artists can potentially use existence of federally approved AHPs to so regulatory confusion in order to avoid state detection and shield themselves from law enforcement. So if you work for a small business that has an association plan, you may not be able to get help from your state insurance department if claims aren’t paid.
Though association plans may work great for small businesses with younger healthier workers, those with older, sicker workers will be charged higher premiums. Should one of these younger healthier employees experience a medical emergency, their insurance may not cover the care they need. In addition, small business owners might be incentivized to fire more medically costly employees to avoid premium increases. At any rate, a medical crisis could be potentially ruinous for small business employees under these plans, particularly if they become uninsured in the process. Furthermore, association plans might give small employers more incentives to reject certain applicants based on medical needs. Meanwhile, those on the Obamacare marketplaces will find their coverage less stable and secure if they have preexisting conditions since their insurance will be more expensive and consist of fewer people. Nevertheless, though association health plans may seem like affordable insurance, they’re actually poorly regulated inferior products that are only low-cost to consumers until something goes horribly wrong. But they also destabilize the insurance market which makes more viable small group and individual insurance more expensive and less accessible to those who need it the most. Such destabilization can result in higher medical costs, fewer options, and less healthcare access in the individual market.

When less regulated association health plans compete with fully regulated markets, they create an uneven playing field that can disrupt markets. People who don’t need to cover preexisting conditions or don’t want to pay community rates gravitate toward the better deals association plans offer, leaving sicker people in the regulated markets and having to pay higher costs. Thus, regulated market insurance prices increase, sometimes causing a death spiral that crashes the market and puts consumers at risk. Kentucky experienced this in the 1990s when it reformed its individual market but exempted association plans from the reforms. Association plan enrollment shot up while regulated market insurers pulled out. Within 2 years the state’s reforms were repealed. Though association plans were only a part of Kentucky’s failed market reforms, they’re still a major reason why the state’s health disaster now serves as a lesson for other states to avoid similar reforms.

Second, Donald Trump signed an executive order ordered the government to stop paying insurance subsidies that allowed low-income people to pay out-of-pocket medical expenses that could be as high as $7,150 for individuals and $14,300 for families. Known as cost-sharing reductions or CSRs, these subsidies drawn from a $7 billion fund had been embroiled in legal and political battles between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over whether Congress had authorized the president to pay for them. A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60% of the public thought Congress should guarantee these payments continue. Most Republicans, however, consider them insurance company bailouts and wanted them to end.

Eliminating CSRs is an inherently unpopular policy does nothing but hurt people and waste money. Without subsidies, insurance markets could quickly unravel. Cutting them will result in insurers issuing premium increases as high as 20-25% by 2018-2020 for anyone using Obamacare. Furthermore, an already fragile Obamacare marketplace at greater risk of a last minute health plan exodus by those who assumed the government would pay these subsidies and feel they can’t take the significant financial losses. This can result in as many as 1 million Americans uninsured next year. As those insurance plans make double digit rate increases, the government will have to spend billions more on the other subsidies that 10 million Americans receive to purchase that coverage. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the move will ultimately cost the federal government $194 billion over the next decade. To put it this way, by eliminating CSRs, Donald Trump has enacting a policy where the government spends billions to insure fewer people. And therefore, one that helps nobody and hurts millions.

It’s very clear that Donald Trump’s presidential agenda is destroying Barack Obama’s legacy than trying to replace, fix, or improve his predecessor’s biggest accomplishments. Or perhaps help some of the very people who voted him into office. Though he and the Republicans see Obamacare as a political football, his actions will have immediate and very real consequences for Americans. Real people will be hurt by an administration that has actively decided to make a public benefits program function poorly. All these executive orders do is drain Obamacare of the resources it needs to deliver care to the many millions who’ve signed on to the program. Dividing the healthy from the sick in the name of allegedly expanding choice and driving up healthcare costs for sick people benefitting from Obamacare is an egregious idea that only ruins lives and helps nobody. Though the ACA isn’t a perfect and could use a few fixes, to let it fail simply out of spite is outright cruel.

Healthcare is a human right every American is entitled to and the federal government should guarantee access to all. Nobody should be turned away from the healthcare regardless if they can afford it or who has to pay for it. And if it’s taxpayers footing the bill, so be it. If a medical treatment should save a sick or injured person’s life, nothing else should matter. Because to deny medical care robs Americans of their dignity as well as their life, liberty, and their pursuit of happiness. The fact the United States has a for-profit healthcare system that discriminates against the poor is unconscionable for corporations, politicians, and employers shouldn’t decide who has access. It’s essentially indefensible that Donald Trump and the Republican Party not only think it’s okay to deny people medical care, but they’re also perfectly fine with throwing people off their health insurance. Furthermore, they don’t see any problem with letting the Children’s Health Insurance Program expire and jeopardizing healthcare coverage for 9 million kids. To believe only certain people should healthcare because you don’t want more government intrusion in your life and don’t want to pay for other people’s treatment is extremely selfish, degrading, and dehumanizing to the most vulnerable who need it. The fact the Republicans embrace such pathological ideology that government has no role to guarantee healthcare to its citizens is an absolute travesty. And it’s a viewpoint I find completely indefensible that I can’t respect it as an acceptable political opinion. In the United States, universal healthcare shouldn’t be controversial partisan issue but one every American should embrace wholeheartedly. After all, everyone needs healthcare and it’s the right thing to do. Because healthcare shouldn’t be about politics but people’s lives. Americans deserve a universal healthcare system that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Not a pay to play system dominated by corporations.

Don’t Tell Me It’s Now’s Not the Time To Talk About Guns

At around 10 pm on the night of Sunday, October 1, 2017 during a Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, a gunman from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino opened gunfire on the outdoor crowd of 22,000 people below while country singer Jason Aldean performed on stage. The firing lasted for 11 minutes resulting in 59 dead and over 500 injured in what became the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. The shooter was a 64-year-old white man named Stephen Paddock who lived in a Mesquite, Nevada retirement community. By the time police reached his room, he was found dead, having shot himself in the head shortly before. Though he acted alone, Las Vegas police couldn’t find a motive. He had no criminal record or any investigative history showing he was dangerous. But what they did find was an arsenal of 23 guns and a large quantity of ammunition in his hotel room that he had occupied since September 28. The guns consisted of a handgun and 22 rifles including AR-15s, Kalasnikovs, AR 10s, and other .308 caliber rifles. Two of the rifles were mounted with bipods and equipped with telescopic sights. Over half of the guns were modified semi-automatic weapons with bump fire stocks which can simulate full automatic fire. As for the ammunition well, there were numerous high capacity magazines holding up to 100 rounds apiece. Paddock transported all this weapon stash to his hotel suite in over 10 suitcases during his stay and installed hidden cameras inside and out to monitor others’ arrival. Along with 24 other firearms found in Verde and Mesquite, Nevada, they were legally purchased from Nevada, Utah, California, and Texas as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives determined. Several pounds of fertilizer was found in his car. Though we don’t know why Paddock decided to fire upon concertgoers, all the evidence screams he had meticulously planned the whole thing in advance.

Yet, this is one of several major mass shootings the United States has experienced within my own lifetime. I’ve seen the whole scheme play out too many times in the same tragic and senseless song and dance routine. First, you have a gunman fire upon unsuspecting individuals at a public venue resulting in a high death and injury count and feelings of tear jerking shock and horror. What follows is the public in grips of mourning as further details of the shooter unfold along with tributes of victims such as thoughts and prayers. You might get plenty of public figures calling out for gun control. Only for those supporting gun rights decry how it’s inappropriate to debate about gun control in a tragedy’s aftermath. As time goes on, the story starts to fade and everyone moves on. Until the next shooting occurs to start the whole cycle over again. But whether it’s a black church, a movie theater, elementary school, workplace, nightclub, military base, college, or outdoor concert venue, too many Americans refuse to learn the harsh lessons of the costs lax gun laws. In fact, many states have enacted pro-gun legislation that make guns more readily available. Whenever it comes to causes of gun violence, gun rights advocates usually find some other excuse like mental health, violent video games, moral decay, sanctuary cities, and anything else. Anything but guns. Then they say how the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms which shouldn’t be infringed. And that gun control restricts freedom by giving the federal government license to seize firearms from law-abiding citizens. Such concepts are blatant lies. But they’ve resulted in devastating consequences. The Centers for Disease Control has been banned from researching gun violence since 1996. President Barack Obama’s Surgeon General received outcry for framing gun violence as a public health issue. Attempts to pass even the most minimal gun controls laws have gone nowhere in Congress.

Meanwhile, gun violence touches every segment of our society endangering Americans every day. There have been 1,500 mass shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre. On average the United States experiences more than one mass shooting a day. Gun violence claims 31 American deaths and 151 injuries every day. For every American who dies from a gunshot wound, two others are wounded. And for each American shot, people’s lives are forever changed by their loved ones’ deaths and injuries. Annual costs for gun violence amount to at least $229 billion including $8.6 billion in direct expenses like emergency medical care. Gun violence increases likelihood of deaths in domestic violence incidents. It raises the chances of fatalities by those intending to injure others and among those attempting suicide. It places children and young people at special risk. And like most of America’s social problems, it disproportionately affects communities of color. If gun violence isn’t a public health crisis in the US, I don’t know what is.

Too many times we’ve been told after a mass shooting that discussing gun control is taboo. Too many times “thoughts and prayers” has proven too insufficient for the real action to prevent mass shootings. Too many times has the Second Amendment been viewed as a sacred cow by gun advocates and the National Rifle Association. Too many times our leaders have done nothing to prevent future mass shootings that it’s only a matter a time when the next one takes place. It’s already been way past time to talk about gun violence, especially for the hundreds of Americans who died at the pull of the trigger. Or all those who struggle with disabilities, lingering injuries, and PTSD thanks to some guy with a gun he shouldn’t even have. Whenever there’s a national problem that’s put Americans at risk, our nation has done something about it. Politicians have worked tirelessly to instill regulations to protect people from further harm and make sure those deaths and injuries don’t happen again. But somehow whenever there’s a mass shooting it’s different when it shouldn’t be.

Regardless of what Bill O’Reilly said, gun violence shouldn’t be the cost of freedom in America. Even in a country as gun obsessed as the United States, our society should never accept or normalize mass murder as a price of freedom. We should never accept the meaningless slaughter of children, loved ones, friends, and other living their peaceful lives for those who want to possess military grade weapons in the name of their personal freedom. It’s not freedom when you can’t go to a public space without worrying about how some psycho can easily buy semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines showering bullets to kill scores of innocents within minutes. True freedom is knowing we’re reasonably safe from such nutcases with these weapons. If more guns resulted in less gun violence, then the United States would be one of the safest nations in the world and we wouldn’t need to worry about mass shootings. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way since the latest validated statistics confirms that more guns leads to more deadly violence. So the fact the US has one of the highest rates of gun violence and leads the world in mass shootings shouldn’t be a surprise. There is no legitimate reason why semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines and bump stocks should be available to the general public and carried around all over the place. If we want to ensure people’s true freedom and safety, we must work hard to make sure these killing machines are out of civilians’ hands. And ensure that those prone to violence don’t have access to a gun in the first place. We can prevent the next mass shooting and the tragic loss of life. The question is whether we’re willing to do so. But as far as I’m concerned, we need to discuss gun violence and implement common sense gun control measures now. Because if we don’t, then how many senseless tragedies must we have to bear before we do something?