Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

The Emperor Trump

The Fool Who Plays The King
Todd Gitlin

As the UN General Assembly readied to vote on a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (it passed, 128 to 9), Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is reported by the Times to have written to the members of the General Assembly as follows:  

“As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally.”

Personally!

Nothing new, in one sense. Of course Donald Trump takes everything personally: a branded steak and a bottle of water, an Arnold Schwarzenegger rating, the height of a rival and the size of his rivals’ genitals, the weight of a beauty contestant, a football player’s posture, ad infinitum. But now, fancying that he has ascended to a truly royal realm, the Brander-in-Chief has gone yet one further: He is treating foreign policy as a personal plaything. It is back to the Shakespearean days when the king of France was known as “our cousin France.” Then it was understood that nations were the personal properties of their rulers. In and of themselves, they constituted the public domain. They were the sole active agents of history, and everyone else was a subject—subject, ultimately, to their will. To insult a nation was to insult the monarch, and vice versa.

In 2005, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not yet President of Turkey but only Prime Minister, the Turkish state made it a crime (Turkish Penal Code Article 301) to “insult Turkishness.” Under this law, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, among many others, was prosecuted. Trump’s desired world is one in which disagreeing with American foreign policy is insulting Americanness—which is insulting Trump—which is lèse-majesté. His majesty will not be trifled with. Who do the petty rulers of these little piss-ass countries think they are? Do they brand hotels? Are their names stamped onto the sides of beef?

Donald Trump ran to become CEO of America. He now holds himself to be, in his sole person, the American brand. He is the august Hirer and Firer. He is, as Garry Wills wonderfully put it, Big Rocket Man. He was elected to reign. Since January 20, 2017, there are no longer civil servants; they are his servants, to carry out his whims and tweet his praises. In command performances, Cabinet members assemble in the throne room to pay homage.

Welcome to the wide and wonderful world of His Excellency Donald Trump, Making America Royal Again.

 

About Those “No” Votes
Harold Meyerson

Nikki Haley’s threat (about which Todd Gitlin writes above) that President Trump would “take personally” any “yes” votes on today’s General Assembly motion to condemn the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital apparently didn’t move many nations to vote “no.” While 128 nations, including Britain, France, Germany and Japan voted “yes,” only nine nations opposed the measure. In addition to the U.S. and Israel, those “no” votes came from Guatemala, Honduras, Togo, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau.

The last four, of course, are nations of mid-Pacific islands, all of which are existentially threatened by rising sea levels. Will Trump take their “no” votes as personally as he takes the “yesses?” Will they move him to embrace the climate change measures that might enable those nations to survive? Will he welcome refugees from those nations when their islands are washed away? As the answers to these questions are all resounding “no’s,” these imperiled isles will sadly find their “no’s” have gone for naught.

Clinician Activists Grapple with 25th Amendment and Trump’s Mental Health

Mulling over President Trump’s mental health has become a national preoccupation, with commentators from Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski to politicians like Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy all eager to weigh in on the issue. But one group of activists hope that their words will hold a little more weight and speed up Trump’s departure from the White House.

Duty to Warn, a group of mental health professionals, has called for Trump’s removal from office under the 25th Amendment. The group argues that Trump exhibits many of the traits of malignant narcissism—a condition characterized by high levels of selfishness, grandiosity, paranoia, antisocial personality, and sadism, all which make him unfit to govern.

However, the group’s stance is controversial. An American Psychiatric Association guideline known as the “Goldwater Rule” states that it is unethical for a clinician to offer a professional opinion about the mental health of someone they haven’t diagnosed in person and without the patient’s consent. During Barry Goldwater’s 1964 bid for the presidency, a Fact Magazine poll found that nearly 1,200 psychiatrists believed that Goldwater was unfit for the job.

While the APA acknowledges that the legal concept of “duty to warn” (which varies by state) requires a psychiatrist to disregard confidentiality when he or she has reason to believe a patient is a threat, “it does not apply if there is no physician-patient relationship.”

But psychologist John Gartner, the head of Duty to Warn, cites numerous reports about Trump’s alarming behavior, including comments from the president’s inner circle, as evidence that there are clear warning signs that Trump is unfit. Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Tom Barrack has found his behavior shocking; Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee has doubted his stability; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” after he expressed a desire to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm coined the term “malignant narcissism” to describe leaders like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. According to Gartner, “when personalities [exhibiting this condition] achieve power, they become dramatically worse.” He believes that Trump is deteriorating psychologically, which means that he could make a rash decision, such as launching nuclear weapons. “Knowing that Donald Trump meets all criteria for malignant narcissism is actually a matter of national security,” Gartner said at an October Duty to Warn town hall meeting in Washington.

Gartner supports two pending bills: the Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity (OCPC) Act and the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act. The OCPC Act, introduced by Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, calls for Congress to establish an 11-person committee of physicians, psychiatrists, and former high-ranking members of the executive branch (such as a president, vice president, secretary of state, or attorney general) to determine whether a president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. Each party would appoint five committee members, who would then select an 11th person to chair the commission. Raskin, a constitutional lawyer, says he wishes that the congressional body described in the 25th Amendment had been established “50 years ago.”

Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California introduced the nuclear weapons bill, which aims to prevent the president from launching a “first-use nuclear strike”—meaning a strike against a country that has not already attacked the United States with nuclear weapons first—unless Congress has made a declaration of war explicitly authorizing the strike.

However, Gartner’s decision to launch two political action committees, the Duty to Warn PAC and super PAC, which he plans to use to support social media campaigns to target local and state voters, has raised eyebrows. Raskin was named Duty to Warn’s “Legislator of the Year” at an October kickoff event in Washington, and received a $1,000 check from the group. Gartner says that the group intends to support candidates who say they will vote for bills that could restrict Trump’s access to nuclear codes, or lead to his removal from office under the 25th Amendment.

Gartner is adamant that his activism is not motivated by partisan politics, or any interest in only electing Democrats. If a Republican candidate for Congress pledges to support Raskin’s or Lieu’s bills, Gartner said he would “support that person double.” Asked about the Duty to Warn PACs, Raskin says, “They’re definitely supporting the legislation and trying to bring attention generally to the 25th Amendment.”

Prior to setting up Duty to Warn, Gartner says he had never been politically active. “It’s so obvious what we’re doing and why we’re doing this,” Gartner tells The American Prospect. “I’m doing it because as a psychologist, I see this person as a murderous madman.”

However, some doctors do not agree with Gartner’s moves. Psychiatrist Allen Frances, author of Twilight of American Sanity, a recent book about the Trump age, calls Trump the “most dangerous man on earth” and agrees that his access to the nuclear codes should be restricted.

But Frances says that while the danger Trump poses is obvious, diagnosing his behavior is a “distraction” and stigmatizes the mentally ill. He adds that while Duty to Warn’s diagnosis is a prelude to a call to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump, that “will never happen politically.”

Raskin suggests that mental illnesses do not automatically disqualify someone from being able to execute the powers of the office. Abraham Lincoln, who many historians believe suffered from clinical depression, was “one of our greatest presidents,” he says. Yet even without a formal diagnosis, Raskin thinks there is a strong case for Trump’s removal. “The question isn’t does he have this or that … disorder,” Raskin says. “The question is simply: Would a citizen think [a president] is dangerously unfit to execute the powers and duties of office?” He adds, “Mental health professionals, psychiatrists, and psychologists have every bit as much right as any other citizen to opine about that.” 

The Republicans’ Leninist Respect for Democracy

The Republican Party is the B-team of politics. The B stands for Bolshevik. They strike even before the iron is hot, partly because they fear it won’t stay hot for long, partly because they know how unpopular their moves are, and partly because they believe in the exercise of raw power.

The Republican commandos are in a hurry because, so far, they haven’t been able to legislate themselves out of a paper bag. They fear, reasonably, that the midterm elections will go badly for them even if last-minute sweeteners for the likes of Marco Rubio, Bob Corker, and Susan Collins give them an ambiguous legislative trophy to campaign on. They also must fear—if they’re paying attention—that their president is marching them over the precipice into a full-blown constitutional crisis by arranging to fire Robert Mueller, and that however the imbroglio turns out, it won’t nourish further legislation.

The Republican commandos are also rushing because their deep-pocketed donors are impatient. They want their tax ripoffs! When do they want them? Now!

They’re in a hurry, too, because the more time that elapses before they pull off their oligarchic robberies, the more time public opposition has to crystallize and mobilize to stop them in their tracks.

They’re also in a hurry because they believe in raw power, not the power of persuasion. They’re not into argument, which require a certain respect for logic and evidence, and takes time. They’re not into slowing down to make deals with the minority Democrats. They prefer secrecy, writing bills no one has read. They prefer, in other words, the logic of the putsch.

As Kevin Drum and Joshua Holland have written, they’re also afraid that their demographic clock is ticking and that even voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the arousal of white nationalism might not be potent enough to sustain their congressional power for long.

This is the way of the Bolsheviks. Take power now, wield it brutally, and to hell with anyone who has another idea.

Alabama: One More Assault on Voting Rights

Just in case we needed one more thumb on the scale of today’s Alabama Senate election, how about this:

The Alabama Supreme Court last night inserted itself to block a lower court ruling requiring election officials to preserve ballots, in case of challenges to voter suppression or even a just plain recount. In Alabama, about 85 percent of ballots are recorded digitally, and the lower ruling required the preservation of digital images.

Ironically, Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, served twice as chief justice, and was removed. The Supreme Court, in issuing a stay blocking the lower court ruling, gave no explanation, but sided with a brief filed by Secretary of State John Merrill. Which contended that state officials had no authority to direct local election officials to preserve ballots.

Such preservation, of course is standard procedure. The state Supreme Court adds one more bit of mischief to anticipated abuses of ID requirements and other forms of voter suppression. If Democrat Doug Jones does win, he will need to win by a theft-proof margin.

Trump's Neo-Fascist Slime Pit

When Trump launched his n+1st vileness on Twitter yesterday, retweeting phony and incendiary videos (talk about “fake news”!) posted by a lunatic-fringe white Christian Muslim-hating British website, Britain First, the reaction from anti-racists was quickly and rightly outraged. Britain First traffics in demographic panic that can be summarized easily: The white Christians are vanishing! THEY are taking over.

Its chiefs, in particular deputy leader Jayda Fransen, roam Europe, not just Britain, crusading against Muslims and mosques. After being arrested at a Belfast rally, she popped back in a video to call her arrest evidence that “Britain has become Sharia compliant and our establishment has now instituted legislation that constitutes blasphemy laws here in the U.K.” This was way too much for Prime Minister Theresa May, whose spokesman declared after Trump’s retweets:

Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies, … stoke tensions, … cause anxiety to law-abiding people. … [T]he prejudiced rhetoric of the far right … is the antithesis of the values this country represents, decency, tolerance and respect.

Nevertheless, May declined to lift her invitation for a Trump state visit.

Britain First is a fringe sect whose videos are slapped-up, scattershot, mislabeled, and concocted shouts of fire in crowded theaters. Ordinarily, though, they have limited reach. Even after a massive boost from Trump, their Twitter subscribers number 27.3 thousand. Trump’s blast away to 43.6 million. This is how the fringe migrates mainstream. This is how a trickle-down of vileness acquires a fire hose.

But the big story doesn’t stop with Trump’s globe-wide gift to the worst devils of human nature. It’s not even that Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the tweets on the ground that, whether or not the videos are true to reality, “the threat” [of Islam] is real.” The big story is that Trump, or his trusted Ministers of Internet Intake, inhabits a bottom-barrel world in which Fox News and Infowars and Gateway Pundit and—sure—Britain First loom large. They’re picking this stuff up, combining through it, repurposing it all the time.

They’re picking it up selectively and combing it to weaponize it most efficiently. As The Guardian pointed out, “The Islamophobic videos were originally tweeted by Fransen on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning before being picked up by Trump. They were not sequentially posted, meaning the president would have had to scroll through her timeline before picking out which videos to retweet.”

Martin Callanan, the Conservative Party’s Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, told the BBC: “I can only assume [Trump] has made a mistake and that he didn’t realize who Britain First were.” But no, Trump doesn’t make that sort of mistake. Along with the rest of what he is pleased to call his “movement,” he lives in an intellectual universe, if we can call it that, where race-hatred, Islamophobia, Jew-hatred, and refugee-hatred are the overpowering themes.

To anyone paying attention, this has been crystal-clear since at least early July 2016, when Trump retweeted a red Star of David shape slapped onto a bed of $100 bills—an image derived from the online white-supremacist movement. For at least the fifth time, Trump’s Twitter account was sharing a meme from the racist “alt-right” and offering no explanation why. (I wrote about his immersion in online loathsomeness then for billmoyers.com.)

Ben Kharakh and Dan Primack, at Fortune.com had more detail:

Throughout his campaign, Trump has been blithely recycling tweets from neo-Nazis and white supremacists who revel in the phrase “white Genocide.” They use those tweets, copy them and reuse them. Thus, consciously or not, they flash signals to the Make America White Again crowd—come on board. As one prominent neo-Nazi put it, Trump is “giving us the old wink-wink.”

Kharakh and Primack scrupulously tried to give Trump an out, writing:

It is possible that Trump―who, according to the campaign, does almost all of his own tweeting—is unfamiliar with the term “white genocide” and doesn’t do even basic vetting of those whose tweets he amplifies to his 7 million followers. But the reality is that there are dozens of tweets mentioning @realDonaldTrump each minute, and he has an uncanny ability to surface ones that come from accounts that proudly proclaim their white supremacist leanings.

Trump said then that he doesn’t pay attention to the source of his tweet material. He sees what he likes and retweets it. Asked by Kharakh and Primack for more detail about his Twitter practice, his spokesperson Hope Hicks “declined to explain how Trump searches through his Twitter feed. Hicks also declined (repeatedly) to answer Fortunes question as to whether or not Trump believes that white genocide is a legitimate concern.”

Here’s the point: Trump’s Twitter pattern tells you a lot about the crowd he or his Twitter-reading staff hang out with. If you believe that Trump or his top lieutenants just happen to stumble on these racist tweets—singling them out from among the vast universe of possible source materials, perhaps because neo-Nazi design ideas are so “interesting”—then I’ll buy you a life membership at Mar-A-Lago and a lifetime supply of Pepto-Bismol to accompany it.

The great big story is not just that Trump lies and bullshits. It’s not only that Trump and his campaigners court Americans who want to make America white and Christian again. The problem is not only the vicious and lunatic legions who creep out from under the rocks at his signals. He lives in their world. He breathes their air. Tweets like those of Britain First don’t fly onto his screen at will. A slime-pit of race and religion hatred is the universe where Trump and his movement live.

Tax Cuts Won’t Go to Job Creation -- Just Listen to the CEOs

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Republican tax scheme is going to pass. And already, corporate executives are undermining the GOP’s claim that their gigantic corporate tax cuts will be funneled directly into job-creating investments in the United States.

Some of the country’s largest and most profitable companies are saying that they’ll be sending tax savings straight to the shareholders. Pfizer, Coca-Cola, and IT giant Cisco have all said that they intend to reward shareholders with increased dividends and lucrative share buybacks, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

“We’ll be able to get much more aggressive on the share buyback,” once the tax plan is passed, Cisco CFO Kelly Kramer told Bloomberg.

Of course, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Trump administration and GOP leaders have been going on and on about how their tax cuts and the tax repatriation holiday that allows companies to bring their trillions in offshore cash back at a bargain rate will spur unprecedented rates of economic growth and job creation.

But CEOs have been telegraphing their true intentions for a long time.

On an earnings call a year ago, Cisco, which has $58 billion stashed abroad, was already talking about how corporate tax cuts would allow the company to hand out buybacks and ramp up mergers and acquisitions, The Intercept reported in January. Hewlett Packard, with $47 billion in overseas profits, was also boasting about how any tax savings would go straight to shareholders.

The last time Republicans passed a tax holiday for overseas profits, the 15 companies that benefited most ended up cutting more than 20,000 net jobs and curtailing research investment. Instead, they pushed their cash piles into their shareholders’ pockets.

Earlier this month, at a Wall Street Journal event for corporate CEOs featuring Trump’s top economic advisor (and former Goldman Sachs executive) Gary Cohn, the moderator asked the high-powered audience: “If the tax reform bill goes through, do you plan to increase investment—your company’s investment, capital investment?”

Just a few hands went up. A flummoxed Cohn asked, “Why aren’t the other hands up?”

CEOs are so emboldened these days that they don’t even feel compelled to offer the typical obligatory bromides about job creation and investment.

The GOP tax plan is already a naked redistribution of wealth to the upper class—a ploy that will ultimately be funded on the backs of the middle and working classes.  A share buyback bonanza will only further enrich those who can afford to invest in the stock market—the wealthy and upper middle class.

The modern corporate strategy is to immediately maximize profits by any means available—be it through cutting labor costs or limiting long-term investments or securing tax cuts in Congress—and then funnel those profits to the shareholders, who will reward the CEO with a hefty bonus. It is not, as Republicans would have you believe, to build new U.S. factories or lift up wages for employees.

Just listen to the CEOs. 

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

VA Officials Continue to Discuss Proposed Health-Care Changes Out of Public View

In a now familiar pattern, leading veterans organizations are up in arms again over the latest revelations about White House plans for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—plans that were concocted behind closed doors.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin and other Trump officials have been quietly discussing ways to shift veterans, now eligible for VHA care, into Tricare, the private insurance program for active duty military personnel and their families. The administration’s Tricare discussions have been conducted without input from members of Congress or veterans groups.

In recent months, Amvets, Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, and other veteran service organizations have become increasingly worried about the Trump administration’s moves to out-source more VHA services through expanding a program called “Choice,” which reimburses non-VHA doctors and hospitals that treat veterans.

Veterans’ advocacy groups have reacted with shock and anger about the prospect of a VHA merger with Tricare, which pays for private-sector health-care services. Such a move could ultimately lead to the dismantling of the VHA, which provides integrated, direct care for nine million patients at 1,700 facilities nationwide.   

As Louis Celli, a top staffer for the American Legion, told the Associate Press, a merger would siphon off funds from VHA hospitals and clinics and eventually shift costs directly to veterans, through co-pay and other possible fee increases. (Tricare patients have recently started paying higher co-pays.)

Curt Cashour, a Veterans Affairs Department spokesman, called the concept a possible “game-changer” that would save taxpayers money because it is based on “the type of businesslike, common-sense approach that rarely exists in Washington.”

Recently, congressional Republicans have tried to convince veterans that the troubled Choice program should be renewed with even fewer restrictions on veterans who want to use private-sector providers—even though the program has been rocked by $2 billion in cost over-runs. (The VA Inspector General released a report in September that also revealed that the third-party contractors responsible for the Choice program had overbilled the federal government by almost $90 billion in 2017.)

The author of one such proposal is Representative Phil Roe, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He has insisted that his bill, the VA Care in the Community Act, would actually strengthen veterans’ health services. Some Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, like Tim Walz of Minnesota, even co-sponsored Roe’s bill, despite the VHA privatization threats. But others, including California Democrat Mark Takano, a staunch supporter of the VHA and ally of veterans group, sought major changes in the legislation that would ensure the VHA maintains a critical role in providing direct care to veterans and coordinating any care veterans receive in the private sector with services provided by the VHA.

But with the revelations about secret meetings, Walz now believes that the real White House goal is “to force unprecedented numbers of veterans into the private sector for their care.” In response to the AP story, Walz demanded that the administration release “unredacted copies of any and all documents, records, memoranda, [and] correspondence” related to the private insurance scheme.

This latest development in the long-running Koch brothers–backed campaign to turn veterans into private-sector health-care customers should not come as a surprise. As The American Prospect has previously reported, when the Choice program was initially created in 2014 to deal with VHA appointment delays, Congress and the Obama administration also formed a VA Commission on Care to make recommendations to improve the health-care system. But health-care industry executives and allies of the Koch brothers who favored VHA privatization influenced the commission’s findings. Darin Selnick, a top official of the Koch brothers–funded Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), served on the commission and later became a senior adviser to Shulkin.

The Prospect also reported that a conservative faction on the commission known as the “Strawman group” short-circuited public deliberations about the future of the VHA by meeting in secret. Their “minority report” called for replacing the VHA with an insurance scheme like Tricare. One Strawman group member, Obama appointee Joyce Johnson, is a top Coast Guard official who helped to move the Coast Guard into Tricare.

Secretary Shulkin’s secretive approach raises new questions about how he intends to run the agency. Last winter, the VHA’s defenders breathed a collective sigh of relief when Trump decided to keep Shulkin (who served as the VHA undersecretary for health under former President Obama) in his cabinet. (The other leading contenders for the job, Pete Hegseth, former CEO of the CVA, and Florida Republican Jeff Miller, the former chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, had both publicly supported VHA privatization.) His credibility among veterans may take a big hit if he continues to speak out against privatization while working behind the scenes to steer the VHA in that very direction.

The GOP Tax Plan Places Huge Burden on Graduate Students

Late last week, House Republicans passed the “Tax Cuts and Job Act,” a bill they claim will cut taxes and raise wages for the majority of Americans. One group that would see a huge tax increase are graduate students. Many of them survive on modest stipends, but they could see their taxes quadruple under the GOP plan.    

Most doctoral programs come with a sticker price somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000 per year. Yet many graduate students usually do not pay the going rate. Instead, these students work as teaching assistants who conduct research and teach classes. They receive a small yearly stipend, typically between $15,000 and $35,000. Roughly 145,000 graduate students fall into this category.

The House Republicans' plan would treat waived tuition as income, which means some graduate students would see their tax bills skyrocket despite their meager take-home pay.

In an interview with Wired, Amanda Coston, a Carnegie Mellon PhD student, said she expects her tax bill to increase from roughly $2,000 to more than $10,000. Essentially, Coston would pay taxes on $76,234 (tuition plus stipend), even though her real annual income is only $32,400. (The latest version of the Senate bill does not tax waived tuition.)

Michael Stenovec, a UCLA graduate student working on his doctorate in political science, told The American Prospect that the Republican plan “hurts graduate students who work in high-cost areas like Los Angeles and at public schools without the resources to better compensate grad students.”

The higher tax burden is not the only new penalty: Interest on student loans would no longer be tax deductible. Other workers in the higher-ed sector would also suffer under the Republican tax scheme. University employees from janitors to administrative assistants have long been able to score free tuition for their children. Under the GOP plan, that valuable benefit would be counted as taxable income.

In knowledge sectors like “eds and meds,” graduate students help large research universities—as well as the regions of the country that host them—maintain a competitive edge in the global economy. A plan that forces graduate students to cough up thousands in additional taxes a year to give tax cuts to the super-wealthy is no way to build off that success. It’s actually a move that may put graduate school out of the reach of America’s best and brightest.

Menendez Mistrial Is a Relief to Democrats -- for Now

The bribery trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez ended in a mistrial on Thursday, quelling Democrats’ fears about an open Senate seat being filled by a Republican.

If Menendez, a Democrat who was indicted on 18 counts of corruption, had been convicted and subsequently resigned or been expelled before January 16, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would have had the authority to appoint a senator to serve in his place until December 2018.

Presumably, Christie would have appointed a Republican to the position (some speculated that he might have even appointed himself), tilting the balance of power to GOP even further: As Vox recently reported, a 53rd Republican senator would have the potential to breathe new life into the Obamacare repeal effort.

If Menendez is retried and found guilty, his resignation or expulsion would be less daunting for Democrats. After Democrat Phil Murphy is sworn in as the state’s new governor this January, the responsibility of appointing a replacement for Menendez would fall into his hands.

Menendez was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges: He allegedly used his position to protect the business interests of a friend, Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida doctor, in exchange for gifts and campaign contributions.

If this trial was any indication, a second trial could be a lengthy one. Menendez was indicted in 2015, but the case did not go to trial until September of this year. Earlier this month, a juror left for a long-scheduled vacation during the deliberations. The judge replaced her and the deliberations restarted this week. Soon afterward, the jurors announced that they were deadlocked.

Menendez is still up for reelection in 2018, but this scandal could weaken his chances of winning. According to a September Quinnipiac University poll, half of New Jersey voters believe that he should not be re-elected. His approval rating had also dropped to 31 percent.

But in October, he told CNN that he was confident he would be acquitted and that his poll numbers would improve as a result.  "I have no intention of being anything but exonerated," Menendez said. "So therefore, I'm not contemplating anything but reelection next year."

If he does decide to run, a handful of the state’s Democratic leaders, including Murphy, have pledged that they would throw their support behind him. 

Medicaid Malpractice

We knew it would happen, but that doesn’t quite reduce the sting.

In September, I wrote about a proposed waiver to Kentucky’s Medicaid program, which would foist work requirements on recipients (among other patronizing indignities like premium payments and “health incentives”) and would devastate Kentucky’s large newly insured population. Those work requirements directly conflicted with the federal Section 1115 waiver guidelines, which govern what’s allowable in Medicaid waiver requests.

This week, at a National Association of Medicaid Directors conference, Seema Verma, head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, indicated that states could request waivers that would permit officials to impose work requirements as a condition of receiving Medicaid. Which means, according to Kentucky’s Medicaid Director Stephen Miller, the state’s waiver request will be approved “soon.”

Verma defended the changes this way: “Believing that community engagement requirements do not support the objectives of Medicaid is a tragic example of the soft bigotry of low expectations consistently espoused by the prior administration,” she said.

The “soft bigotry of low expectations”? This phrase brings two thoughts to mind.

First, what about the hard bigotry of requiring people to prove their worth to receive health care? That’s what Medicaid “community engagement requirements” (read: work and volunteer requirements) represent. These requirements would force the poor and low-income people who would be subject to these rules (and most of whom are already working) to prove that they are worthy of assistance—in this case, worthy of having good health.

Such requirements often include difficult reporting requirements like documenting each hour of work, and limited flexibility if family or other emergencies arise. They are based on the flawed assumption that people in poverty are lazy—a stereotype that has been disproven again and again.

Second, work requirements just don’t work. So, “low expectations”?

My low expectations have nothing to do with poor people who receive Medicaid, and everything to do with Republicans who make false claims about how “hard work” will improve people’s lives, based on inaccurate ideas of who is poor and why.

I have low expectations that unemployed people who receive Medicaid will be able to find good work—not because they aren’t motivated to find work, but because the abysmal unemployment that plagues many areas in Kentucky and other states will be ignored by Republicans.

The consequences (and causes) of poverty don’t help either, like limited formal education, lack of employable skills, and lack of access to transportation. And since the Trump administration ended rules that would have made it easier for people on welfare to participate in job training, I also have low expectations that Republicans will facilitate participation in such programs.

Plus, even though most people on Medicaid work, many of those jobs are in retail, food service, and construction—sectors that often have variable and inconsistent payroll hours. It’s challenging to meet arduous reporting requirements, like the 20 hours of work per week requirement proposed in Kentucky, if one week you’re scheduled for 25 hours but the next you get 10. And Kentucky nonprofits have already indicated they don’t have the capacity to create new volunteer positions for anyone who wants one.

In short, I have low expectations that any policy that is based on false assumptions about the poor will in any way help them in escaping poverty. Instead, these policies, which reinforce stereotypes of the lazy poor person, are designed simply to push people off of assistance programs in order to limit welfare, decrease the size of government, and save money.

Remember that under past administrations, work requirements were at odds with Medicaid waiver guidelines. So what did the Trump Medicaid officials do? They simply rewrote the rules. “Seemingly, they did that so they could push through Kentucky’s waivers and other waivers after that,” says Dustin Pugel, research and policy associate at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

In her conference remarks, Verma said, “The thought that a program designed for our most vulnerable citizens should be used as a vehicle to serve working-age, able-bodied adults does not make sense.” The problem with this statement is that poor working-age, able-bodied adults are some of our most vulnerable citizens. But in Kentucky, Medicaid expansion allowed this population to finally access health care. New Medicaid recipients began accessing preventative services, and were more likely to seek care for chronic conditions like diabetes. The state got healthier.

The Trump administration is putting those gains into jeopardy—as it will for any Medicaid expansion state that is granted a waiver. In Kentucky, “the changes will result in at least 95,000 fewer people covered, primarily because they can’t keep up with the requirements,” says Pugel. Medicaid provides health care for low-income people. The Trump administration twists this objective into nothing more than shaming the poor.

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