Political News In Brief: January 23-29

My head is spinning from the onslaught of troubling news this week, President Trump’s first full week in office: from his neediness to appear the greatest to his disregard for the truth, from his first attacks on the environment to his appalling executive order that is, in effect, a Muslim ban. Below I offer my take on the week’s top stories. I’ve tried to keep it brief – but do know there were a lot of other signals that our democracy, as we know it, is in danger. 

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AFTERMATH OF TRUMP’S ENTRY BAN: CHAOS REIGNS AS IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES ARE DETAINED AND DEPORTED AT U.S. AIRPORTS

President Trump on Friday (Jan 27) signed an executive order that immediately blocked refugees from any country and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. – including people holding legal visas and permanent residents holding green cards.The seven countries are Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen – none of which were involved in the 9/11 and San Bernardino attacks, although those attacks were cited as reasons for the ban.

By Saturday afternoon (Jan 28), the chaos that this poorly considered and abruptly implemented order created was apparent across the U.S. and the world: On arriving at U.S. airports, people from the banned countries – like international students, immigrants returning to their families, and business folk – were detained or promptly deported.

Word got out and large protests in support of immigrants and refugees erupted in airport terminals – in the U.S., as well as abroad where people from the travel-banned countries heading for the U.S. weren’t allowed to board planes. Protests continue.   

Meanwhile, lawyers are at work on behalf of the detained, deported, and those likely to be denied U.S. entry or deported despite their previously legal right to be here. As of this morning (Jan 29), several federal courts have temporarily blocked aspects of Trump’s order, allowing some of the detained to enter the country.

Expect much more media attention on this matter – it’s being covered as I write. Stay tuned. This is a very big deal!

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TRUMP’S “ALTERNATIVE FACTS” (as his counselor Conway put it)

Until the entry-ban news broke, Trump’s difficulty with accepting facts that negatively affect his grandiose self-image received a lot of media attention – particularly regarding two matters: (1) the fact that no evidence exists, none at all, to support Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with 2.9 million more votes than he did only because there were 3 to 5 million illegal votes – all of which went for her; and (2) he refused to accept the fact that the crowd at Obama’s 2009 inauguration was considerably larger than his, despite the ocular evidence in the side-by-side photo above. (See this linked NPR story for more details, including on several matters that suggest Trump has a serious fact-deficiency problem).

Why does Trump’s penchant for making up facts matter? Indeed, shouldn’t we count on our President to tell us the truth? If he’ll create media squabbles about trivial matters like crowd size, what else might he lie about and what important issues could the media be covering instead? Climate change and other environmental issues, for example, should receive a lot more attention than it has in the past.

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TRUMP AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Meeting with business men on Tuesday (Jan 24), Trump promised to cut regulations by 75% and told the group that he’s something of an environmentalist and has “received many, many environmental awards.” He first made this claim in 2011; since then reporters have looked for evidence, finding none. The Washington Post did, however, give Trump an award for this claim: Four Pinocchios – in other words, “whoppers.” Apparently he’ll lie about anything.

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The new administration’s disregard for the health of our planet was displayed in several other ways this week. For one thing, Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday (Jan 24) giving the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access oil pipelines the go-ahead for construction. But, as The Hill reported, these are not done deals due to lawsuits pending in Nebraska and by the Standing Rock Sioux. 

The day before that (Jan 23), ProPublica confirmed that the Trump administration had “imposed a freeze on grants and contracts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], a move that could affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.” This freeze goes along with Trump’s executive order to institute a hiring freeze for all new federal workers. 

BEST NEWSY THING FOR ME THIS WEEK

hidden-figures-poster-405x600Hidden Figures received three nominations for an Academy Award, including Best Picture. The film is based on a true story about 3 African American women whose talents and courage led to holding crucial NASA positions during the early years of the space race. My husband and I enjoyed the film on Wednesday. In my view, it’s a must-see!

Photo/Image Credits: Demonstrators at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, G. Morty Ortega/Getty Images; on the National Mall comparing Obama 2009, left, and Trump 2017 inauguration crowds, Reuters; four Pinocchios, Washington Post graphic; signs of protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times; and Hidden Figures official poster, 20th Century Fox.

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Political News In Brief: January 16-22

You may notice that my tone is different in this edition. Previously I strove for objectivity, but I couldn’t maintain it this week. Trump’s speech and the Women’s March, data on climate change and economic inequality – I couldn’t help but react. Perhaps you couldn’t either. In any case, I apologize upfront for my occasional editorial remarks.

TOP STORIES: From the Sublime to the Resisted Ridiculous

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Obama’s Farewell Press Conference

On Wednesday (Jan 18), Barack Obama – with grace and good humor, as well as warnings tempered with hope – told the White House press corps that he was looking forward to some quiet time and doesn’t plan to rush right back into the political fray. However, he did make it clear that he will speak out if he believes that America’s “core values” are at stake. Among the values he mentioned are freedom of the press, voting rights, absence of systematic discrimination, protection of children of undocumented parents, and the right to protest (quick read – NPR; detailed overview – NYT).

Trump’s Inaugural Speech

On Friday (Jan 20), Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. I enjoyed watching the usual pomp surrounding the ceremony but was appalled by Trump’s inaugural speech. It was dark, filled with negative exaggerations about the state of the nation, but thankfully short, running 16 minutes. Trump spoke as if he were at one of his rallies – the same divisive rhetoric and belligerent “strongman” tone. What should have been an uplifting celebration of the peaceful transition of power felt like a funeral for American values.

Perhaps the most chilling part of Trump’s speech was his repeated use of the phrase “America First,” the name of “the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler” CNN. He put forth a warped image of America as having lost its greatness due, among other things, to “the ravages of other countries … destroying our jobs.” (Inaugural story told with photos – NPR; detailed story of the day – NYT.)

The next day (Jan 21) was much better

Turnout for Women’s Marches Greatly Exceeds Expectations

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Wonderfully diverse crowds of women, men, and children – with and without pink “pussy hats” – marched. Trump’s frightening “America First” inaugural speech may have helped swell the crowds. According to crowd scientists, “The women’s march in Washington was roughly three times the size of the audience at President Trump’s inauguration” (New York Times explains how experts arrived at this estimate.)

In the U.S. alone, it’s now estimated that up to three million marchers turned out, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco and many places in between, including our own Madison, WI with its estimated 75,000 to 100,000. Estimates for other cities include over half a million in D.C., more than 400,000 in New York City, and hundreds of thousands more in Chicago and Los Angeles. There were also large marches abroad – in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Sydney, to name a few, and even a small group in Paradise Bay, Antarctica (NYT, NPR, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

The marchers were there “to express solidarity with the aims of the original march: opposition to President Trump’s agenda, and support of women’s rights and human rights in general,” wrote NPR. Not only was it an anti-inaugural march against a new president who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, it was also a call to mobilize a national movement for action on progressive issues like abortion rights, sexual assault, and equal pay, as well as “immigrant rights, police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression and environmental protection” (NYT).

OTHER IMPORTANT NEWS

2016 Reported as Hottest Year on Record on same day Trump’s EPA Nominee Refuses to Attribute Global Warming to Human Activity

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USA Today reported, “The planet sizzled to its third straight record warm year in 2016, and human activity is to blame, federal scientists announced Wednesday” (Jan 18). According to paleoclimatic data, it’s been 125,000 years since the last time the earth was this hot.

“No leader can afford to ignore these results,” a leading economist told USA Today. And yet if the Senate confirms Trump’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, the results may be ignored.Not only has he sued the EPA 14 times in an effort to block clean air and water regulations, but also during his Senate hearing on Wednesday (Jan 18), Pruitt said that it’s debatable whether humans are part of the cause – a statement “not consistent with the scientific consensus on climate change” (NYT). Nevertheless, it’s likely that Pruitt will head the EPA.

Worth noting: “Less than an hour after taking the oath of office, the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared” (The Hill)

Richest 8 Men Hold Half the World’s Wealth

Oxfam International, which annually releases data on the world’s wealth, announced on Monday (Jan 16) that 8 super rich men have as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people, half the world’s population. Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, called this disparity “obscene.” She said that economic inequality traps “hundreds of millions in poverty” and “is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.” Six of the men are Americans. (NPR)

BEST FEEL-GOOD MOMENTS OF THE WEEK: all those wonderful videos and photos of Women’s Marches around the globe

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Photo Credits: Trumps and Obamas on White House steps, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty; Women’s March in New York City, Nicole Craine for The New York Times; Ice in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea region, Esther Horvath in The New York Times; Women’s March in Madison, WI, Amber Arnold for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Political News In Brief: January 9-15

What a week! Russian election interference remained at the center of our national conversation. The Justice Department announced an investigation into the FBI director’s actions regarding Clinton’s emails. Congress began confirmation hearings on Trump’s cabinet nominees and geared up to repeal Obamacare. Trump talked smack about two American icons. And (ending this edition on a high note) Obama delivered his Farewell Address and later awarded Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

TOP STORIES

Allegations and Questions Abound about Trump’s Ties to Russia and Russia’s Influence on Our Presidential Election

This explosive and ongoing story began on Tuesday (Jan 10) when BuzzFeed dumped an unverified, classified document on the Internet called “US Presidential Election: Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin.” CNN ran with this “breaking news,” and other news agencies quickly followed – for the first time making public what they, and many others, have long been aware of but have neither confirmed nor disproved.

The document Trump received in a briefing alleges that Russia has been gathering information on Trump for five years, intel that includes a sordid sexual romp in a Moscow hotel and questionable business negotiations – info ripe for blackmail, if true. The most serious allegation is that during the campaign the Kremlin fed “Trump and his team valuable information on his opponents,” including on Hillary Clinton.

Trump strongly denounced the unproven claims on Wednesday (Jan 11), during his first press conference as President-elect. He blamed the intelligence community for the leak (which it has denied) and lambasted the media for carrying the story.

Wednesday night, according to an intriguing New York Times story on how the document came to be, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper talked with Trump and then released a statement saying that intelligence agencies don’t know if the information in the document is reliable or not – although the former British agent who uncovered it has an excellent reputation with the intelligence community.

In his news conference on Wednesday, Trump finally acknowledged what the intelligence community had been saying all along: that the Russians had hacked and made public emails belonging to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The next day (Jan 12) in their joint statement, a Republican and Democrat announced that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence would engage in a bipartisan inquiry on Russian inference in the recent elections. They said, “we believe that it is critical to have a full understanding of the scope of Russian intelligence activities impacting the United States.” (NPR)

Justice Department to Investigate FBI Director James Comey about His Handling of the Clinton Email Case

Michael Horowitz, Inspector General of the Justice Department, announced on Thursday (Jan 12) that he would open an investigation on FBI Director Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case, including Comey’s “decision to discuss it at a news conference and to disclose 11 days before the election that he had new information that could lead him to reopen it.” (NYT)

Apparently the FBI found nothing new: three days before the election Comey closed the case. But the damage was done. In fact, Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters believe that Comey’s actions then, as well as his unprecedented announcement in July calling her use of a private email server “extremely careless,” cost her the election. Members of both parties have questioned Comey’s judgment to make statements that appear to violate the FBI’s policy never to appear partisan and never to do anything that could influence an election.

OTHER NEWS OF INTEREST

Key Cabinet Nominees Disagree with Trump

This past week the US Senate held confirmation hearings on a number of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, nominee for Attorney General, received the most media attention because of actions, ancient and recent, that suggest he holds racist beliefs. Of great interest to me, however, is the extent to which Sessions and other nominees disagreed with Trump on statements he repeatedly made before and after the election.  

Sessions, for example, said he believes that water-boarding is illegal and that a ban on Muslims entering the country is unconstitutional; Trump has disagreed.

Former ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State, called Russian president Putin an “international threat” that we must counter. He also opposes a Muslim ban and is committed to NATO; Trump has said the opposite.

General James Mattis, nominee for Secretary of Defense, said he supports the Iran nuclear agreement, “a stark contrast from Mr. Trump’s view that the Iran negotiations produced ‘one of the dumbest deals ever.’”

And like Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, nominee for CIA director, all of these “nominees have taken strong stands against Russia” and agree with the intelligence community that Russia meddled in our presidential election.

Perhaps, as Representative Susan Collins of Maine said, “Trump wants advisers who will bring him different views.” That would be, as she says, “very healthy”; or, as the New York Times suggests, “it could lead to confused messages both to our allies and adversaries.”

Republicans Start the Process of Repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

On Friday (Jan 13), the Republican-led Congress’ first act was to rush “approval of a budget resolution … that sets up a framework for repealing Obamacare.” The proposed budget includes cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood. At this time, Republicans haven’t arrived at an affordable replacement that would keep the popular ACA benefits (for example, coverage of preexisting conditions) and eliminate the unpopular parts (for example, the mandate to have health insurance).  (NPR)

Trump Slams American Icons in Tweets

Last Sunday night (Jan 8) at the Golden Globes, actress Meryl Streep was honored for a lifetime of notable work. During her acceptance speech she described her shock at watching a person seeking the presidency mock a disabled reporter, someone “he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.” Never directly mentioning Trump, she said, “It sank its hooks in my heart.” The next day Trump tweeted that Streep was “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky who lost big.” (NYT)

Then on Friday (Jan 13) in an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, said that “he did not regard Trump to be ‘a legitimate president’ because of allegations that high-level Russian operatives interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf.” Early the next morning Trump tweeted that Lewis is “falsely complaining about the election results” while his district “is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Trump, as he sometimes does in retaliatory lobs, ended his two-part tweet with “Sad!” Many have come to Lewis’ defense since then. (Washington Post).

BEST MOMENTS OF THE WEEK

Obama Delivered His Farewell Speech to a Rapturous Crowd

On Tuesday night (Jan 10) in Chicago where his political career began, President Obama delivered his farewell address, speaking, as the New York Times says, “to a rapturous crowd that recalled the excitement of his path-breaking campaign in 2008.” He offered a message of hope, a warning against giving in to fear, and a call for individual action. Early in his speech he listed several of his administration’s accomplishments:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high

As I watched his speech live on TV, like so many others I was deeply moved. He ended his address by asking us to believe – “Yes, we can!” 

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

 Obama Farewell Address full video and text 

Obama Bestows the United States’ Highest Civilian Honor on Biden

In a surprise move on Thursday (Jan 12), President Obama awarded Vice President Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling Biden “my brother” and saying, “He’s as good a man as God ever created.” Biden, deeply moved, told Obama, “This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don’t deserve this but I know it came from the President’s heart.” (CNN)

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Whew! That’s a lot of news for one week – and yet there was so much more I could have mentioned. If you spot any factual errors, please let me know. Thanks!

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Political News In Brief: January 2-8

I’m a political news wonk who’s worried about the prevalence of low-information Americans. I understand that working people, especially families with children, haven’t the time to delve into the news. But now, as a retired educator, I have the time not only to read the news (instead of just grabbing sound bites off the TV or radio) but also to provide a kind of national news digest for those with busy lives. That’s one of my goals for this blog: to sum up, as I see it, the major political stories of the week as often as I can. At this time my primary news sources are the New York Times (NYT) and National Public Radio (NPR). Here’s my first edition.  

TOP STORY OF THE WEEK

Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meet with Senators and then Trump shortly before releasing their report on the Russian Hacking to the Public 

“A united front of top intelligence officials and senators from both parties on Thursday [Jan 5] forcefully reaffirmed the conclusion that the Russian government used hacking and leaks to try to influence the presidential election, directly rebuffing President-elect Donald J. Trump’s repeated questioning of Russia’s role” (NYT).

On Friday (Jan 6), top intelligence officials provided Trump with a two-hour briefing, concluding that “President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia directed a vast cyberattack aimed at denying Hillary Clinton the presidency and installing Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office.”

Shortly after Trump’s briefing, these officials released their intelligence report to the public in what the NYT called “a virtually unheard-of, real-time revelation by the American intelligence agencies that undermined the legitimacy of the president who is about to direct them.”

According to the report (as summarized by CNN), Putin’s motives for hacking and leaking embarrassing Democratic emails included undermining Americans’ faith in the democratic process and “discrediting Secretary Clinton because [Putin] has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime.”

While the election itself is legitimate – for example, no evidence exists that voting machines were hacked – the intelligence community is confident that there was Russian interference during the campaign.

OTHER NEWS OF INTEREST

Republicans’ Rocky Ethical Start to 2017

In a secret meeting on Monday night (Jan 3), House Republicans voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).  Under their proposal, the OCE would no longer serve as an independent ethics watchdog. Instead, the foxes (U.S. representatives themselves) would watch the hen house. One reason given for the change was “to prevent the office from pursuing investigations that might result in criminal charges” against House members. When the news got out, public outrage arose. And by the time the new congress was sworn in on Tuesday (Jan 4), House Republicans had abandoned the proposal. An independent OCE remains, at least for this session of Congress. (Full NYT story here)

In a related ethics story, NPR reported (Jan. 7), “The Office of Government Ethics is raising alarm over the pace of [Senate] confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees, saying Saturday that they have yet to receive required financial disclosures for some picks set to come before Congress next week.”

“Make America Sick Again”

With the Republicans set to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA, popularly known as Obamacare), the new Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, in a parody of Trump’s campaign slogan, declared on Wednesday (Jan 4) that the Republicans were on a path to “Make America Sick Again.” Meanwhile, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence said that Trump’s first order of business would be to begin the repeal of the ACA through “a series of Executive Orders,” the very kinds of action Obama was repeatedly criticized for using. (Full NPR story here)

“Michelle Obama’s Emotional Farewell” 

This past Friday (Jan. 6) on TV, I watched Michelle Obama give her last speech as First Lady. NPR described her talk as “a passionate pep talk to the nation’s young people.” “That’s my final message to young people as first lady,” she said. “Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.” I was overcome with emotion and, along with school counselors standing behind her, cried.