‐ Looks like Google dropped its “Don’t be evil” motto just in time.
‐ The personnel crises of the Trump administration are like groupies: There are so many, who can remember them once they have had their day? Sean Spicer had one of the briefest tenures of any White House press secretary; Anthony Scaramucci, whose accession to communications director precipitated Spicer’s resignation, lasted eleven days; his replacement is TBA (perhaps Stephen Miller). Reince Priebus fell as chief of staff; John Kelly, the retired Marine four-star who was secretary of homeland security, filled his shoes. Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump beat like a gong for a week, is once again part of the in crowd. Perhaps Kelly will impose some order. Good luck with that. The Trumpcapades are a consequence of the president’s steep learning curve, and of his unwillingness to learn anything new. (Why should he? Buoyancy and bluster got him this far.) It makes for great television; do we have to wait for Season Two for the story arc?
‐ Speaking of internal discord, the latest official caught up in it is national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, who has been targeted by the alt-right. If an avalanche of anonymous reporting is to be believed, the immediate cause of the clash is McMaster’s decision to fire two aides: the National Security Council’s intelligence director, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and its Mideast director, Derek Harvey. Cohen-Watnick and Harvey are purportedly allies of Steve Bannon, and their firing triggered a cavalcade of anti-McMaster stories in Bannon-friendly outlets. Anonymous leakers claimed that he was anti-Israel and soft on Iran. They called him a globalist. One ugly alt-right meme circulated depicting McMaster as a puppet under the control of international Jewish interests. Russian Twitter bots boosted the hashtag #FireMcMaster. The entire attack was low and petty and quickly swatted aside by President Trump himself. He issued a statement in support of McMaster, whom he called “pro-Israel.” While McMaster has been too willing to cling to the disastrous Iran deal, his knowledge, experience, and temperament are invaluable. Now is not the time to remove a heroic and thoughtful leader for the sake of settling personal scores.
‐ Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are crafting bills designed to prevent Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That’s a bad idea—it would be a case of one branch of government clearly interfering with another. Which is not to say that Trump’s firing Mueller is a good idea. The ensuing political storm would be of gale force. Mueller has a mandate to investigate collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia; doing so may legitimately require inquiry into the Russian business ties of the Trump family and former political associates (Manafort, Flynn). But going further afield than that would constitute a proverbial fishing expedition. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should have been more specific in outlining the crimes Mueller was authorized to investigate when he appointed him, and still could stipulate them—a much better option than Trump wielding the axe or Congress meddling with the powers of the executive.
‐ The unedited transcripts of phone conversations that Donald Trump had early in his administration with two foreign leaders—Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto—were published by the Washington Post. They are characteristically Trumpian—a bit rambling, a bit blustery, but ultimately not confrontational. True to his Noo Yawk roots, Trump aims, however clumsily, for a hand-on-the-elbow man-to-manliness. They will make a footnote in Vol. 4 of the Robert Caro biography. The news, and the scandal, is that they were leaked in the first place. Diplomacy depends on trust—between diplomats, and between heads of state. Who will talk with any degree of candor if he or she knows that the conversation might end up on the front page of one of the broadsheets of the resistance? Jeff Sessions has announced that the Justice Department will be landing hard on leakers. Right he is.
‐ Sessions has a ways to go before his DOJ matches the Obama administration’s record of leak prosecutions. Obama’s eight espionage-act prosecutions exceeded the combined total of every administration before his, and in 2013 his DOJ even seized records from the Associated Press. The attorney general should use caution in following Obama’s lead in his approach to the press, but journalists shouldn’t enjoy absolute immunity from scrutiny, and in extreme circumstances it’s acceptable and necessary to examine their records. If this chills the leaks, so much the better. Anyone in government who is disturbed by executive-branch excesses and incompetence has multiple lawful avenues for addressing these problems. Sending top-secret information to the New York Times is not among them.
‐ White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta got into a briefing-room donnybrook about poetry: specifically, Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus.” Miller was explaining the new Cotton-Perdue immigration-restriction bill when Acosta asked whether the bill did not contradict America’s historic immigration policy, quoting Lazarus as evidence. Miller answered that the Statue of Liberty, on whose base the poem is displayed, was originally intended to symbolize liberty (the statue was a gift of the French Third Republic to its sister republic). On they went to the shouts. Poems do not make policy, but they express sentiments, and America has a long history of welcoming immigrants. It has also maintained long periods of low immigration to encourage assimilation and bolster wages. (Know-Nothings wanted to keep furriners out, but they were not the only advocates of such policies.) The overarching goal is a well-functioning free society, so that liberty can be an inspiration to the world.
‐ Paul Ryan has given up on including a “border-adjustment tax” in a tax-reform bill. The idea was to change the tax code’s treatment of business so that imports were taxed but exports weren’t. It was a controversial idea, but among its advantages was that it would have generated a tidy sum of revenue that legislators could have used to make room in the budget for cutting tax rates. Now that it’s gone, tax rates can’t be reduced as much as Ryan wanted. As Republicans devise a more modest tax reform, their priorities should be to enhance growth and to deliver tax relief for middle-class families. They can do that by cutting tax rates on businesses, letting businesses write off the cost of investments more rapidly, expanding the tax credit for children, and scaling back the deduction for state and local tax payments. The last move might have the happy side effect of getting state and local governments to cut their taxes, too.
‐ The Trump administration—the president’s Twitter account, at least—announced that, after consultation with the generals and other defense officials, the president is handing down a ban on transgender people in the military. This came as a surprise to the senior military leaders, who insisted that, contra the president, they had not been consulted, and that they had not received any new orders or new directions regarding transgender troops. As with the question of gay soldiers, there are two main competing considerations here: The first is that there are good and patriotic men and women who want to serve their country in uniform and have personal characteristics that complicate such service; the second is that those complicating factors really do complicate things, and accommodating them can have the effect of shifting the military’s focus away from war-making. Barring transgender people from serving makes sense as a general matter, though it need not be accompanied by a witch hunt targeting those currently serving and should be subject to waiver depending on circumstances. What is not complicated is the conclusion that making policy via Twitter without consulting the relevant authorities is foolish and counterproductive.
‐ The strangest scandal in Washington is one that most Americans haven’t heard about. It involves a family of Pakistani information-technology workers, former Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a failed car dealership, federal indictments, and—of course—bizarre accusations of Islamophobia. The story is long and complicated, but the core facts are these: Democrats, including Schultz, hired multiple members of Imran Awan’s family to serve, ultimately, up to 80 Democratic members of the House. As IT workers, the Awans had access to sensitive information and were paid lavish salaries, but many of them were also allegedly engaged in a bizarre series of financial crimes, including bankruptcy fraud, insurance fraud, tax fraud, and extortion. Some were “ghost” workers, collecting paychecks without showing up for work. One Awan brother even ran a car dealership while supposedly working full time for the Democrats. Oddly enough, when the Awan family’s schemes finally unraveled and federal law enforcement closed in, Schultz remained faithful—even claiming that the Awans might be victims of “Islamophobia.” Awan’s wife fled to Pakistan, carrying an illegal amount of cash, but Imran himself was arrested on his way to boarding his own flight out of the country. The next steps are clear. Yes, he should be prosecuted for his alleged crimes, but investigators should dig deeper. Did he abuse his access to sensitive information? Why did he send large sums of money to Pakistan? What did Debbie Wasserman Schultz know? It’s a bizarre story, and it’s only just beginning.
‐ No state has changed its partisan allegiance more rapidly or completely than West Virginia. In 1996, it was one of 18 states that gave Bill Clinton an absolute majority of the vote; he did better there than in California, Washington, or Minnesota. In 2000, it flipped to George W. Bush. It has been growing more Republican ever since. (The state’s Republican margin even increased between 2004 and 2008.) A Republican candidate with a particular appeal to white voters without college degrees was bound to expand the party’s advantage even more, and in 2016 Donald Trump won the state by 42 points. The state’s governor, Jim Justice, left the Democratic party for the Republicans, holding a rally with President Trump. The state’s realignment is very bad news for Democratic senator Joe Manchin, who is up for reelection next year. Prudence would counsel him to follow Justice.
‐ Who says bipartisanship is dead? By votes of 419–3 and 98–2, the House and Senate sent a bill to President Trump’s desk that imposes new sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Russia and limits the president’s ability to lift Russian sanctions. In the main, this is a good bill, representing a response to a series of aggressive and provocative acts and demonstrating a degree of unified resolve rarely seen in Washington. President Trump, however, was not pleased. In a signing statement, he argued that portions of the bill were unconstitutional, and in a press release he blasted the bill for making it more difficult to “strike good deals for the American people.” On the constitutional claim, he has a point. The bill provides for a congressional vote that can extend a waiting period before sanctions can be revoked. Trump argues that the Constitution denies Congress the ability to unilaterally extend the waiting period without a presidential signature, and he might well be right. His inability to negotiate a better bill with Congress stems from the widespread distrust of him on the Hill, and his behavior—signing the bill while denouncing it—will do nothing to alleviate that distrust.
‐ The Department of Justice is reportedly gearing up to take a hard and skeptical look at colleges’ affirmative-action policies—and it might file suit if it finds schools breaking the law. This would be a tricky battle to fight: Though federal law plainly outlaws racial discrimination at colleges that accept federal funds, the courts have spent decades ignoring that prohibition, instead allowing colleges to take race into consideration so long as they’re not too blatant about it. But it’s a battle worth fighting nonetheless. Many colleges essentially impose racial quotas, which even the courts say are illegal—and while the New York Times portrayed Trump’s move as a play for aggrieved whites, it’s Asian applicants who pay the steepest price. If the courts want to override the anti-discrimination laws that Congress passed, the least the executive branch can do is ensure that schools’ practices don’t go beyond even what the courts allow.
‐ While campaigning for president, Donald Trump unnerved people in the Baltic republics and other nations especially threatened by Russia, because he seemed both warm to Putin and cool to NATO. In recent days, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro to reaffirm America’s alliances with those peoples. This was an important trip, designed to calm our allies’ nerves and to indicate to Russia that we haven’t stood down. It is better for the U.S. president to demonstrate that support, but a vice president is a significant proxy.
‐ New Mexico representative Ben Ray Luján has said that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he chairs, is willing to fund pro-life congressional candidates in 2018. The pro-abortion forces that overwhelmingly dominate the Democratic party came out harshly against Luján’s statement. Democrats will tell you all day long how desperately they want to take back the House to block Donald Trump. But not, it seems, desperately enough to cross NARAL.
‐ A Google employee has been fired for testing that company’s commitment to diversity. Ethnic diversity? Google affirms its fidelity. Diversity of sex and sexual orientation? Of course. Diversity of views, including views at odds with the diversity cult? That, apparently, is a line too far. James Damore, an engineer, was fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” Damore had argued in an internal memo that the relative dominance of men in the technology industry, and the relative scarcity of women, might have less to do with patriarchy or misogyny or this week’s feminist boogeyman than with actual differences between men and women—in their interests, inclinations, and abilities. The engineer also accused Google of silencing dissident political views within the company—which is exactly what Google now has done. Damore of course is considering legal action. Google has been challenged on this sort of thing before: Among other things, its executives have been quizzed about whether people holding conservative political views would be made to feel uncomfortable by the company’s mindset. Nonsense, said Chairman Eric Schmidt. “The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness, and science-based thinking,” he said. “You’ll find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.” No doubt they do agree, on too many things—and perhaps that is part of the problem.
‐ Scientists report that they have successfully edited genes in human embryos to repair a common mutation associated with a host of diseases. Of 58 embryos created in vitro and treated with the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing method, 42 were free of the mutation and therefore, if allowed to mature, would not pass it down to descendants. That bright news has been partially eclipsed by legitimate concerns that technology that can be used to prevent disease might eventually be abused for the purpose of creating “designer” babies endowed with super intelligence, athleticism, or (fill in the attribute). So vigilance is in order, yes, but so is prudence: Guard against abuse, but don’t let the possibility of it stop us from celebrating the reality of medical progress. Unfortunately, in the discussion over designer babies, the question of whether experimentation on human embryos is unethical got lost. In its earlier years, beginning in 2001, the President’s Council on Bioethics tackled the question with respect to embryonic-stem-cell therapy, and researchers developed ingenious proposals for continuing the research without killing the embryo. They integrated scientific and moral rigor. Every medical researcher would do well to emulate them.
‐ Researchers in Philadelphia placed six fetal lambs in an external artificial womb and watched them grow. The technology, slightly adapted, could help human infants born prematurely avoid diseases to which they’re prone, the research team suggested in its paper on the experiment, published in April. Some abortion-rights advocates worry that this medical advance will set back their cause: Roe v. Wade stipulates that a state may restrict abortion after the age at which a fetus would be viable outside the womb. Opinion differs as to when that is, with 17 states limiting abortion beginning at 20 weeks’ gestation. To fret—or, as in our case, hope—that artificial wombs will lower that limit is currently a leap. The researchers speculate only that an artificial womb could improve outcomes for critically premature babies born between 22 to 28 weeks. That should be cause enough for cheer, regardless of one’s views on abortion.
‐ Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an austere and gripping contribution to the canon that tells the harrowing story of the evacuation of British and French forces from the Continent at the start of World War II. Or is it? Since the film was released in July, it has become the target of an almost endless supply of bizarre and outlandish criticisms. The usual offerings were forthcoming—a host of pieces complained that the movie doesn’t feature enough women or minorities, and that it is too jingoistic—but some got unusually creative. In the Guardian, a writer proposed that the production was a “thinly veiled Brexiteer fantasy.” In the New York Daily News, it was suggested that the director’s choice not to depict the enemy at any point was pro-German. And in both the New York Times and the Village Voice, contributors made sure to remind their readers that Donald Trump is a fascist, just like the forces that pushed the Allies into the sea. Can’t a war movie be a war movie anymore? Perhaps it is not a surprise that these people would not warm to a movie about the need to retreat from an exposed and defenseless position.
‐ For some months, liberal journalist Michael Kinsley has invited readers of the New York Times to say something nice about Donald Trump. “He got the votes of more than 62 million people—and I am pretty sure I don’t know any of them.” Most of the answers Kinsley got, he admits, were snarky, as is his survey of them. But along the way he made a sensible point. “When Mr. Trump won, I prepared myself for an orgy of self-criticism by the liberal media, all wondering how they missed the amazing phenomenon of Mr. Trump’s popularity. . . . Instead, there has been endless vilification of the guy and speculation about how we might get rid of him.” Vilification short-circuits analysis, blunts understanding, and lessens the odds that critics will come up with superior arguments of their own. It’s “basket of deplorables” all over again. Sometimes it seems that the Trump administration is blowing itself up. Luckily for it, liberalism has blown itself up first.
‐ A long piece in Sports Illustrated about Donald Trump, golfer, detailed his love of the game and of his courses, analyzed his swing (“He has clubhead speed, and there’s no substitute for that,” says Phil Mickelson), and quoted Trump, in passing, as saying that the White House, unlike his properties, “is a real dump.” Groans from the gallery. Trump tweeted that the quote was FAKE NEWS, but it certainly sounds plausible. The president is a man with a strong aesthetic sense, and indoors, it’s awful: Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago look like mobsters’ seraglios. Trump’s eye serves him best on fairways and greens. May he visit them often; you can’t tweet while holding a 3-iron.
‐ Senator Bernie Sanders, the grumpy socialist from Vermont, is a big believer in redistribution of wealth and has been known to redistribute the occasional lakeside dacha in his own direction. But Sanders’s sense of apparatchik entitlement goes well beyond that, if Chris Plante of Washington’s WMAL radio is to be believed. Plante relates the story of a Washington Post subscriber who called to cancel his subscription, complaining that his (expensive) Sunday paper had not been delivered. The Post, eager to keep his business, investigated, and the deliveryman reported that each Sunday, as he delivered the paper, the subscriber had immediately sallied forth from his house to grab it. He even gave a description of the subscriber: older man, balding, little round glasses. The subscriber looks nothing like that. It is, however, a fair description of his next-door neighbor, Bernie Sanders. We cannot say for sure whether this story is true. But while we had hoped that the Jeff Bezos era would see the Washington Post liberated, this is not exactly what we had in mind.
‐ President Trump promised “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States, after which Kim Jong-un promptly threatened to hit Guam. What Trump probably meant to say was that all options are on the table. Despite the hair-on-fire cable coverage, war with North Korea isn’t imminent, although the regime’s ICBM capability is steadily advancing. Trump’s bluster isn’t helpful, nor is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s flaccid diplo-speak about how we aren’t North Korea’s enemy and we want to talk. What is needed is a sober, comprehensive strategy of regime change in North Korea, coupled with robust missile defenses of the sort that President Obama undercut and neglected. The 15–0 U.N. Security Council vote for harsher sanctions was a step in the right direction and possibly could deprive Pyongyang of about one-third of its $3 billion annual export revenue. We will need more of that, and less chest-pounding from the president and recitation of Foreign Service talking points from his secretary of state.
‐ Paul Kagame has been president of Rwanda since 2000—a presidential dictator. He “ran for office” again this summer. (You have to think of those words in quotation marks.) While campaigning, he promised that “the day of the presidential election will be just a formality.” He was true to his word. He won 99 percent of the vote. An honest politician.
‐ There is a Broadway musical called “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” based on Tolstoy. Originally, Josh Groban was in the part of Pierre. Then it was Okieriete Onaodowan. Then it was Mandy Patinkin—or it was supposed to be. Patinkin was announced for the part. But immediately there was a “firestorm” because he would be replacing a black actor. (Patinkin is white, and so is Groban.) Without delay, Patinkin renounced the role out of solidarity with the “firestormers.” So now the show is on the verge of closing. It needed a star, such as Patinkin, to keep going. The cast of this show is notably “diverse.” Now all of these actors of color, along with the whiteys, will be out of work. Art is in conflict with identity politics. They cannot coexist. One or the other must win. And art is losing.
‐ Diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, Charlie Matthew William Gard lost his vision, hearing, and ability to breathe unaided. He suffered brain damage. His doctors withdrew treatment and sent him to hospice. Meanwhile, his parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, went to GoFundMe and privately raised the money for experimental treatment for him in New York. His doctors at Grand Ormond Street Hospital in London refused to release him. They asked the High Court to overrule the parents’ decision. It did, and the European Court of Human Rights concurred. The public outcry on all sides of the question swelled. A Rome hospital affiliated with the Holy See offered to admit Charlie, and a New York hospital affiliated with Columbia followed suit. On July 24, the lawyer for Charlie’s parents withdrew their request to fly their son to America for special treatment, but could he remain on artificial ventilation for one more week? By now you can guess how the High Court answered that. Charlie was innocent. His parents were valiant. Condolences to them, blessings on him. He died on July 28, eleven months old. R.I.P.
Try, Try Again
‘Repeal and replace” may live on as a slogan, but this year Republican efforts have been designed to make reforms to Obamacare: serious and worthwhile reforms, but only reforms. In part that’s because Republicans don’t have the votes to replace the law: They would need 60, and Democrats have no desire to cooperate. In part it’s because some moderate Republicans have decided that, their past rhetoric notwithstanding, they like crucial elements of Obamacare. Republicans have also wanted to rush the process of considering a health-reform bill so they could move on to tax reform.
President Trump has intervened haphazardly, and rarely constructively.
It’s less surprising that Republicans have had so much trouble getting a law through Congress—the bill has been pronounced dead on several occasions—than that they have come so close. The latest burial took place after Senator John McCain cast a decisive “no” vote on the so-called skinny-repeal bill. That bill would have abolished Obamacare’s fines on people without health insurance (the “individual mandate”). By letting healthy people leave the insurance market, that step would have raised insurance premiums for everyone who remained. Republican leaders said that a better bill would emerge from a conference committee to mesh the skinny bill together with the more comprehensive one that the House has already passed. McCain was unwilling to rely on that assurance to vote for legislation he opposed, which is reasonable, and hopeful that a bipartisan path forward could be found, which is not.
Republicans now have three options. The “let it burn” approach advocated by Senator Lindsey Graham and others is untenable. More insurers will pull out of more markets, and premium hikes will keep happening, if Congress does nothing—and especially if the Trump administration stops the payments that its predecessor made to insurance companies without congressional approval. With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, many voters, including ones who supported them in the last election, will expect them to do something.
A second option is to try for a bipartisan bill that authorizes enough payments to insurers to stabilize Obamacare’s insurance markets while also including reforms. But the Democrats would have the whip hand in any negotiations, and they have displayed no interest in any changes to Obamacare other than devoting more taxpayer dollars to it.
Which leaves us with option three: Make another pass at a Republican reform bill. Start with the skinny bill; add elements that will keep premiums from increasing as a result of the end of the individual mandate; tack on as much reform to Medicaid as can get 51 Senate votes; and include restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion.
So they should try again. This time they should do it in a more deliberative way. And they should challenge falsehoods from the Democrats and the media. The chief attack on the GOP efforts has been the assertion that the Congressional Budget Office has found that they would “take away” insurance from many millions of people. Actually, most of the people who would “lose” their insurance, in every CBO score of every Republican bill, would voluntarily refrain from getting it once the fines disappeared. How many Republicans made that point? How many knew it?
Democrats have been working toward national health insurance for about 70 years. It is not too much to ask Republicans to put a few more weeks of work into something better.
Sifting the Masses
American immigration policy is largely governed by a law enacted in 1965 that has operated very differently than anyone at the time expected. Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and David Perdue (R., Ga.) have advanced the radical proposition that our policy should look as if someone intentionally designed it, and now President Trump has endorsed their idea.
Their legislation would halve legal immigration, to 500,000 people a year, mostly by slashing the chain migration of extended families. The legislation would also introduce a new points system to select the most skilled applicants as legal immigrants.
Reducing low-skilled immigration would relieve the downward pressure that both common sense and some studies suggest it places on wages at the low end of the labor market. It would promote assimilation, both because a smaller population is likely to be more digestible and because a smaller pool of low-skilled immigrants is likely to fare better than a larger one.
Economists who argue that low-skilled immigration adds to our GDP, and that reducing the one would therefore reduce the other, are making a fetish of a statistic. Most of that added GDP is captured, reasonably enough, by the immigrants themselves: The economic value added to other Americans is trivial. The non-economic arguments against Cotton-Perdue are even weaker. To note that many native-born Americans would not pass the bill’s test for skills, as many critics did, is to miss the point entirely: We can and should be selective about newcomers.
Passage of the legislation is in the near term unlikely. Cotton and Perdue so far exhaust the list of its Senate sponsors. Polls suggest that more people want to keep legal immigration at its current level than want to reduce it (although it would be useful for someone to ask people whether they think 500,000 legal immigrants a year is enough). But more people want immigration reduced than increased. In 2013, a large majority of the Senate voted for a “comprehensive immigration reform” that would have doubled immigration levels. Press coverage at the time didn’t note the unpopularity of that doubling, or, very often, that it would even happen.
If Cotton, Perdue, and Trump have accomplished nothing else, they have put the issue of the level of low-skilled immigration on the table—and taken a massive increase in that level off it.