He Went to Jared…

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a secret meeting with Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince. All three parties denied the meeting occurred but lately their story has sprung leaks. 

This triad of unsavory characters – MBS, who ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Netanyahu, under indictment for bribery, bank fraud, and breach of trust at home in Israel, and Pompeo seeking support for a presidential run in 2024 – are doing Trump’s dirty work by establishing an anti-Iranian alliance they hope will undermine the incoming Biden administration.

Then yesterday, following the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist (widely understood to have been the work of Israel) we learned that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is headed back to the Middle East to resolve a dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and to “quiet tensions” amid Iranian threats to retaliate. What could possibly go wrong?

Best guessers think Pompeo’s secret meeting was intended to prevent the Biden administration from rejoining or renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear treaty signed by Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union that Trump withdrew from in 2018. Whether the US was involved with Israel in the Iranian assassination (remember Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January and was silent on the murder of Khashoggi) Iran vowed today that “it is not going to ‘fall into the trap’ of scuttling any future talks with the Biden government following the assassination.” (Bloomberg News)

This is a scary game of chicken. Iran will surely retaliate against Israel. The port of Haifa with its strategic significance and a large civilian population is the most likely target. With wars in Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, tensions in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran, the entire Middle East is a tinder box. Surely, Kushner is the man to clean it all up.

I have a theory about this flurry of activity in the Middle East. The Donald is not a strategic thinker. He really doesn’t care about the Middle East unless it impacts him and his bottom line. Kushner is smarter but mans the other oar in the same boat. My theory is that they’re scared to death of the future. Both are highly leveraged with all that debt coming due in the next few years. 

We know that no respectable bank will loan to Trump. Deutsche Bank bailed him out last time – probably with laundered Russian money – but DB is unlikely to step up for the next bailout while they are under investigation for bank fraud and money laundering. Kushner was saved from a $1.4 billion default on his 666 Fifth Avenue property when a Canadian investment bank backed by the sovereign fund of Qatar stepped in at the last minute. 

So, where will they go for money next time to keep their pyramid schemes from imploding? Trump is beholden to Putin for something. We don’t know exactly what, but he’s been Putin’s “useful idiot” for four years because of it. Loyalty is the password in Trumpworld, but not in Putin’s. Despite his offer to “gift” the Russian president the penthouse of a glitzy new Moscow Trump Tower, I’m betting Putin will throw him under the bus as soon as his “useful idiot” is no longer useful.

Under the circumstances, my best guess is that all this last-minute activity – selling out the US to support Netanyahu’s claim to the West Bank and Golan Heights and the sale of extensive military hardware, including missiles and maybe even F-35 fighters to Saudi Arabia – aims at getting Trump/Kushner a lock on Saudi money (maybe even UAE money) in the future. This unholy alliance of two centuries-old Middle Eastern enemies is designed to handcuff the US in its dealings with Iran, legitimize Israel’s land grab on the West Bank, rehabilitate MBS’s reputation following the Khashoggi murder, and give Trump a tiny bit of revenge against Biden for the loss of the election.

There is something about this last 55 days of Trumpworld that has the feel of Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Don’t worry. He went to Jared…

Disclaimer: It gives me no pleasure to write about Trump and his posse, but I think it’s important to show what I believe to be the depth of their wrongdoing and the geopolitical consequences. I try to give it a spin that’s interesting and sometimes even darkly funny, but I can’t wait to see the end of this nightmarish period in our history.

The Grift that Keeps on Grifting…

Fifty-eight days and counting… but the criminal enterprise shows no signs of slowing. It’s not Rudy Giuliani’s creepy, pathetic “voter fraud” claims, or the Republicans’ silence on the presidential election, not even that America’s biggest loser skipped work to play golf during the G-20 Summit. No, it’s all the other mean spirited obstructionist activity surrounding the Grifter-in-Chief.

So much attention has been devoted to his reluctance to acknowledge Biden’s victory that much of the grift is still below the waterline. Nevertheless, his enablers continue to do damage that will limit the incoming administration’s ability to act in critical areas. Here are the most recent and egregious examples:

  • Last week, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced his intent to “claw back” unspent Congressionally allocated funds from the Federal Reserve. These funds were to provide emergency loans to medium-sized businesses and municipalities in order to stabilize markets. Reclaiming the unspent funds will make it more difficult for the incoming administration to address these problems. Mr. Mnuchin’s action, clearly retaliatory, came only after it was clear Mr. Trump had been defeated.
  • This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is touring of seven European and Middle Eastern countries at US taxpayers expense. The unannounced purpose seems to be to undermine the incoming administration’s ability to stabilize and restore balance in the Middle East. To that end:
    • Last night, he and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia to finalize a secret anti-Iran alliance with Mohammed Bin Salman who, let us not forget, murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Their purpose–to subvert Biden’s interest in renegotiating the Iran nuclear treaty. 
      • While there is no legitimate State Department purpose for this eleventh-hour tour at government expense, it works well for him to establish Middle Eastern support for a 2024 US presidential campaign.
      • In Israel, he bestowed United States’ blessings on West Bank settlements, recommended goods manufactured in Palestinian areas be labeled “Made in Israel” rather than “Made in the West Bank.” In addition, he visited the disputed Golan Heights, which taken all together “is tantamount to the US recognizing Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.”
        • These actions by the American Secretary of State, though unofficial, undermine 50 years of US and European policy in favor of a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. 
  • Earlier in the week, before Pompeo and Giuliani sucked the air out of the room, the Federal Register, promoting another Trump environmental obscenity, posted the Interior Department’s intention to sell oil drilling leases to 1.5 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area bordering on the Beaufort Sea and until now off-limits to oil exploration. The Secretary of Interior said he thought sales could begin before the end of the year, but opposition by environmental and Native American group spokespersons indicate January 17, three days before the new president is inaugurated, is the earliest the sales could commence.
  • With all of this in mind, it’s obvious to a majority of Americans that the country’s reputation has suffered in the Trump years. Trump apparently thought so too, and in September 2019 he appointed Michael Pack to be CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media (parent organization of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, etc). 
    • Prior to his appointment, Mr. Pack claimed Voice of America was a “nest of foreign spies,” and vowed to rid the historically non-political agency of them while reshaping the agency’s message to deliver messages in support of Mr. Trump’s agenda and restrict the free speech of VOA journalists.
    • On Friday, in a suit brought by several former VOA journalists, a federal judge issued a series of preliminary injunctions against Pack and other government-funded news networks, effectively stopping the appointee’s efforts to reshape international broadcasts. The ruling late Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell, in Washington was a setback for Trump and Pack and a victory to journalists’ free speech protections. (Washington Post)
      • Lee Crain, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs, said Judge Howell’s ruling ensures that journalists at the agencies can “rest assured that the First Amendment protects them from government efforts to control” their reporting. “They are free to do exactly what Congress intended: export independent, First Amendment-style journalism to the world.”

These are last-ditch efforts of Trump allies to disrupt the new administration’s transition and create obstacles as they prepare to take office. Some, like Michael Pack’s position at USAGM, can be quickly reversed. Others, like the West Bank initiatives and the secret alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia are more problematic. Others, such as the ongoing travesty at the Post Office and ICE, will take longer to remedy.

The Biden team was doing what it could without GSA funding and the approval and support of a majority of elected Republicans. Now he can proceed, but the transition funding delays have hobbled the endeavor. Fortunately, the President-elect and many of his staff are familiar with government operations and should be able to affect a smooth transition.

In the midst of a global pandemic it is disgraceful that the outgoing President remains such a sore loser. There is no doubt that Joseph R. Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021. They won’t go away, but it’s time to move on and leave the grifting crowd behind.

“When they go low, we go high.”

Healthcare in America?

When Donald Trump contracted the Covid-19 virus in October, he was medevac’d by helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where a team of 12 doctors monitored his vital signs, supplied him with supplemental oxygen, injected him with Remdesivir, a viral inhibitor, and gave him Regeneron, an experimental antibody cocktail not yet approved for general use. Mr. Trump recovered from the virus at an estimated cost of $100,000 not counting the helicopter ride to and from the White House. American taxpayers paid for all of it.

In an irony of ironies, if you’re one of the 20 million Americans whose health care is covered by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the guy whose medical bills you just paid is trying hard to take your coverage away.

Unfortunately, American taxpayers don’t have access to Mr. Trump’s level of care. What they have is a confusing mix of private, government, and employer-based insurance plans anchored by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicare, and Medicaid. 

The ACA, enacted by Congress in 2010, was the best Congress could do, at the time, to offer uninsured Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions, healthcare coverage. Since its passage, ACA opponents have tried to “repeal and replace” (mostly repeal) it at least 70 times (Newsweek) and have taken it to the Supreme Court twice—most recently last week—in an effort to have it declared unconstitutional.

Here’s the great mystery… why would any American want to prevent other Americans from having access to affordable health insurance? We’re in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years. Over 250,000 fellow Americans are dead, many others hospitalized, millions have lost their jobs. The ACA is their healthcare safety net, yet conservatives want it repealed without offering a replacement plan. 

According to the Center for American Progress, if the law is invalidated more than 20 million people will lose their health coverage and 135 million with pre-existing conditions (including Covid-19 survivors) will be left without access to affordable insurance.

Conservatives argue the law amounts to socialized medicine, an argument left over from Ronald Reagan’s “red menace” conservativism, yet the law is overwhelmingly popular. The argument escapes me; their America already has Social Security, Medicare, public education, food stamps, TSA, air traffic control, and subsidized agriculture. There are laws mandating drivers licenses and automobile liability insurance. So why is health care such a socialist threat?

The Commerce Clause of the US Constitution grants Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” From its earliest history the court judged commerce to mean “the activity of selling, trading, exchanging, and transporting goods and people, as distinct from producing the things being moved.” In a 1944 Supreme Court case (United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters) commerce was deemed to include “a business such as insurance.” (National Constitution Center)

I’m not an originalist, a textualist, or any kind of constitutional scholar but one approach to legal interpretation I learned in law school is “the plain meaning rule.”  There is a presumption in favor of the plain meaning of a statute’s words. Congress has the power to regulate commerce, including insurance, under the authority of the Commerce Clause. The plain meaning is clear.

I’m not covered by the ACA. As an older American I qualify for Medicare, but this case is more important than how it affects me. It affects millions of my fellow Americans. Here’s the overview of its history:

  • The final version was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010. As a condition of its passage, health insurance was made “mandatory” for all adult US citizens. This provision, referred to as the “individual mandate,” was inserted to ensure the “risk pool” included enough healthy people to lower and spread the cost across all enrollees. The mandate included an opt out provision such that if the taxpayer opted not to purchase insurance he or she would pay a penalty. This provision was inserted to prevent people from waiting until they got sick to purchase insurance. Buy now or pay a penalty.
  • The mandate’s constitutionality was challenged by taxpayers in several states as a violation of the Commerce Clause. Could the government order all Americans to purchase health insurance? The challenge asserted the mandate was an unconstitutional application of the Commerce Clause and therefore not within Congress’ authority. 
    • The case reached the Supreme Court in 2012 where the law was upheld in a 5-4 decision with Chief Justice Roberts holding that the mandate’s “penalty” was a valid exercise of Congress’ power to tax and not a Commerce Clause issue.
  • Attacks on the law’s constitutionality continued even after Congress repealed the penalty (tax) provision in 2018. The Supreme Court granted a second hearing in the 2020 term when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the mandate unconstitutional and so integral that the entire law should be invalidated. This is the case the Supreme Court heard last week. It was brought to the court by the Texas Attorney General, 26 Republican attorneys general, and the Trump Justice Department, arguing that the mandate is so integral to the ACA that if it is unconstitutional the whole law is unconstitutional.
  • On Tuesday November 10, one week after the Presidential election and eleven days after the installation of Amy Coney Barrett as an Associate Justice, the court heard oral arguments with a decision expected before the end of the 2020 term in June.

I got up early on November 10th (Marine Corps birthday) to listen to the oral arguments on C-Span 1. This is really dry stuff, but it might be life or death for those covered by the law. If you’ve never listened to oral arguments, I recommend it. The Chief Justice controls the questioning, the proceeding is formal, and the participants all respectful. Very different from the political dialogue of our time.

Oral argument, in this case, turned on two legal questions: did the plaintiffs (the challengers) have “standing” to bring the case and if they did would their argument “on the merits” persuade the justices to rule the ACA unconstitutional? On the first question, plaintiffs had to show they suffered “damages.” You can’t just show up at the Supreme Court (or any court) and complain about a law without “standing” i.e., that you’ve been injured by it.  If not, you don’t get to argue the “merits.” or substance of the case. Texas claimed financial injury caused by the burden of increased paperwork. Sounded weak to me.

On the merits side, the plaintiffs argued that because the individual mandate was ruled unconstitutional by the Fifth Circuit, the entire law was flawed and should be declared invalid. It’s often difficult to read the outcome of a case from the justices’ questions but it seemed that the Chief Justice and Justice Kavanaugh were both skeptical that the mandate (repealed by Congress in 2019), even if unconstitutional, should invalidate the whole law. Their questions turned on “severability,” a doctrine that says if one part of a law is invalid the remainder can be saved by severing that provision and leaving the rest intact. Since Congress had already zeroed out the mandate’s tax provision and it was no longer a factor, severing it from the larger act would allow the law to remain in force. Most of the legal commentators agreed that it is likely the ACA will survive. The ACA is not perfect, but Congress has a chance to improve it. We’ll see if Congress under a new administration has any appetite for work. The ACA can’t be fixed by Executive Order. It will take bipartisan Congressional support to make the necessary changes. My fingers are crossed.

62 days remaining until the inauguration and we can breathe again.

Gypsies in the Palace…

It’s easier to keep them out than get rid of them. Once they’re in it’s more difficult. I’m talking about slugs…of course. You can pour salt on them and watch them slowly shrivel or use a beer trap, crushed eggshells, or seaweed, but at some point you have to scrape ‘em up and dump ‘em in the trash. That time is now.

We should have seen it coming… King Lear in golf duds, Old King Don making his last stand. Since November 3rd he’s been hunkered down in the East Wing, pouting, glued to Fox News, refusing to concede, and determined to stay in the peoples house with the aid of his spoiled children and Rudy the Troll. It’s pathetic, but it’ll be over in 70 days – maybe sooner. Remember he has Ratcliffe as DNI, Pompeo at State, a fresh team of loyalists in the Pentagon, and access to the nuclear codes. Stand back and standby.

Still, we can be thankful for two things – the lessons he’s taught us and the electoral system that will usher him out. Federalism is both a blessing and a curse. The Electoral College is a relic of a bygone time and needs to be revised, but the federalism that gave it birth may have saved us from another four years of Trump. 

In 2016, Russia, through its Internet Research Agency aka Trolls from Olgino, interfered in our election in an effort to help the Trump campaign. It diddled around in our system, but wasn’t able to change any votes. The system was too baroque. One of the lessons we learned this year is that a fragmented decentralized system can protect us from a concentration of executive power. Time and again we saw state governors and attorneys general intervene to keep the man who would be king from exercising the absolute power Bill Barr wanted for him and the kind we see in China, Hungary, North Korea, and Turkey.

For years I’ve been a critic of the Electoral College and the flawed patchwork system that allows white supremacy and racial inequality to influence state and local governments and create laws that suppress voter registration and deny voting rights. Nevertheless, the absence of a central election authority makes it almost impossible to hack into the variety of voting systems and make a significant difference in the national vote count. With 51 jurisdictions, a diversity of voting machines, different timetables and protocols for counting, we are protected from an autocratic takeover of the voting system. 

So here we are, soiled and battered but still standing. The president has pandered to dictators, damaged America’s reputation internationally, given white supremacists a foothold in the mainstream, fomented civil and racial strife, endangered our troops abroad, alienated allies, lied to the American public, and failed to protect us from the most dangerous public health threat in 100 years. That’s his legacy.

But, the 2020 election is over. Joe Biden is our President-elect though the current occupant of the office is blocking him from receiving intelligence briefings, meetings with department secretaries, and GSA funding for the transition. Regardless, the Biden transition team is undeterred. A pandemic response team has been selected, candidates for cabinet positions are being vetted, the Muslim-ban and other Executive Orders have been selected for recession, and foreign leaders have been contacted. The transition is in progress.

The states are mandated to resolve disputes and certify their 2020 election totals by December 8th, six days before state electors certify their totals to the Electoral College. King Don and his court don’t have to cash out until noon on January 20, 2021. We’ll see how that goes… For now I’ll leave you with this:

It’s a Jimmy Buffett song called Gypsies in the Palace. Seems appropriate doesn’t it?

We’re gypsies in the palace, there ain’t no wrong or right
We’re gypsies in the palace, and we’re going wild tonight.

Everybody out of here, the show is closing down
We’ve got to find someone to clean this up

or should we burn it down?

Say goodbye now!

She Lived Her Dream…

Night before last, in the uncanny way of the unconscious, I woke up thinking about a woman I hadn’t seen in 50 years. In the morning, I Googled her name and was directed to her obituary. It wasn’t that she was a great beauty or broke my heart, but the news is haunting me. We knew each other for a short time when we were starting to grow into the people we would become. Then, we went our separate ways.

Judith Devereux Fayard and I met in Manhattan in 1967. We were both new to the city. She transferred from Time/Life job in Los Angeles to one in New Yorkand I left a law firm in LA to be a Pan Am pilot at JFK. I knew her as Judy then, but prefer to think of her now as Judith, the whip smart Catholic-school girl from Mobile who became a Parisian journalist/editor celebrated for her no-nonsense editorial chops and chic fashion sense.

My girlfriend knew her first, but soon the three of us and a few of Judith’s colleagues at Life were hanging out in what Kurt Vonnegut would have called a karass, a network of like-minded people. In those days there were only two ways to live in New York. one was to be rich and the other to live like a student. We lived like students – busses and subways, shared apartments, free plays, concerts in Central Park, chamber music at The Cloisters, and Ladies Night at bars with no cover charge.

Judith shared her geography with two other originals – she and Truman Capote were both born in New Orleans but grew up in Alabama and, like Jimmy Buffett, her high school years were lived in Mobile. She was whip smart and ambitious – a National Merit Scholar in high school and Phi Beta Kappa in college – and took the job with Time/Life in LA as a first step in her pursuit of a serious career in journalism.

I lost the connection around 1970, about the same time she wangled a temporary assignment in Paris. She stayed there as bureau chief until Life closed its door in 1990. She followed up as a freelancer until she was landed the job of Editor in Chief at Women’s Wear Daily. Later gigs followed with European Travel and Life, Where MagazineFrance Today and as an arts contributor to the Wall Street Journal.

In New York we spent hours talking books, art, and how much we both loved Paris. She knew she wanted to live there and made it happen. Shortly after her move to Paris I moved to Berlin, but when I tried to find her Paris address I ran into a series of blind alleys. Pre-Google it wasn’t that easy, but I wish I had tried harder. It would have been fun to compare notes. 

I don’t think she ever married though I know men found her very attractive – always au courant and stylish. I picture her as one of those women who get better looking as they grow older. She had the bones and good skin that are a prerequisite. There is an online picture of her as a contestant on The Dating Game from the time I knew her. She’s cute but hadn’t yet grown into her looks. A mutual friend in Paris is looking for a picture of the older Judith. I hope she finds it. It might help close the circle.

She died of lung cancer a year ago in August after a six-year battle with the disease. During those years she assisted French cancer researchers and worked with immuno-therapists in clinical trials for small cell lung cancer. She wasn’t one to give up easily.

She and I were never involved romantically, just good friends, but I can’t seem to shake off the news of her passing. This morning I heard a Leonard Cohen song that pinged for me. Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye was written in 1967, the year Judith and I met, and it sums up how I feel about not having had a chance to say goodbye. Writing this helps, but it also makes me wish we had reconnected. She was a woman who actually got to live her dream. 

RIP Judith Fayard. RIP.

Paris photo courtesy of Judith’s friend Harriet Welty Rochefort