An Assault on American Democracy

One of the key – and very expensive at $250 billion or so – components of the GOP tax reform plan is the immediate reduction of the estate tax followed by its complete elimination in five years.  To many people, that sounds reasonable.  After all, isn’t the “death tax” a bad, un-American thing?

Actually, the opposite is true.  Very soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence – and well before the U.S. Constitution was ratified – the Continental Congress voted overwhelmingly to eliminate certain aristocratic laws that had been inherited from Europe.  First among these was something called “primogeniture and entail,” a strange-sounding term that reflect political reality in Europe at the time.  The reason the “founding fathers” (that sounds sexist, but everyone in the Continental Congress was indeed male – a sign of the times) acted so quickly and decisively to outlaw primogeniture and entail was that it was the basis of the European aristocracy.  What the obscure-sounding term “primogeniture” referred to was the common practice – often enforced by law – of leaving the entire estate of a family to the first-born son.  Everyone else – including, of course, all daughters – were (in more modern parlance) SOL.  The “entail” part refers to the common practice among European aristocracy of including a clause in the will of an aristocrat that forbids his (it was always ‘his’) heirs from ever breaking up the estate.  The idea was to ensure that the family name and family fortune endured for eternity.

The reason that America’s “founding fathers” put such great emphasis on outlawing these practices was that they realized that not just the aristocracy but the entire concept of a class-based society rested on such laws.  Thomas Jefferson went farther than his peers in this regard, arguing that all wealth should be redistributed equally every 50 years.  His hope was that this frequent redistribution would keep democracy alive and fresh and allow what he called the “natural aristocracy” – those individuals that, for whatever reason, are more intelligent, capable and public-minded than all others – to rise to the top of society and lead our nation.  As Jefferson’s one-time adversary and life-long friend politely explained to him, the proposal might have merits but was utterly impractical, if not impossible, to implement.  Despite not agreeing with Jefferson on one of his more audacious proposals, there was essentially zero dissention among the leading figures of the American Revolution that preventing the rise of a hereditary aristocracy was one of the most important tasks facing the young United States of America.

Then, as now, the idea was not to prevent children from inheriting the family farm or continuing the family business.  The goal was to prevent the emergence of a class of wealthy overlords capable of controlling the political process in America for their own benefit.  That’s why Benjamin Franklin pushed (unsuccessfully) for the constitution of the Pennsylvania to declare concentrated wealth “a danger to the happiness of mankind.”

While neither Jefferson nor Franklin were successful, that does not mean that leaders of the Revolutionary Era disagreed with their goals.  The method for avoiding the possible disaster of American Democracy being overthrown by a European-style aristocracy was the inheritance tax.  Over the ensuing two hundred-plus years, the exact implementation of the tax has changed, as has the rate.  At times, it reach 90% on large estates, but at other times it was much lower.  Today, it is as low as it has ever been in American history.

Under current law, only estates with a net value of over roughly $5.5 million for an individual or $11 million for a couple are subject to any taxes at all.  “Net value” means that farms and small business are not taxed on the value of land or the value or all assets, but on the net value of assets minus all encumbrances such as loans, other debt, contractual obligations, etc.  What this means in practice is that 99.8% of Americans’ estates pass to heirs without any estate taxes.  Zero.  Of the remaining 0.2%, most pay relatively little.  Even though the top rate for the estate tax is 40%, the average tax paid by those who paid estate taxes is just 17%.  In 2012, total receipts from the estate tax equaled less than 1% of the $1.2 trillion inherited that year.  1%.  Another way of looking at this question is to realize that in a nation composed of roughly 325,000,000 Americans, just 400 families stand to reap 80% of the benefit from the elimination of the inheritance tax.  That’s right, the top 0.0001% of the population reaps 80% of the gains.  Looking back at the correspondence between Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the other founders of American democracy, there can be no question that this is exactly the type of concentration of wealth that they all agreed should be avoided.

In the eyes of the people who literally wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the GOP “tax reform” is nothing less than a frontal assault on American democracy itself.

 

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Oh! What A Tangled Web They Weave When First They Practice To Deceive: A Trump – Russia Chronology

I suspect that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the flood of information (revelations, accusations, denials, counter-denials, statements, revised statements, etc.) surrounding allegations of collusion and/or conspiracy between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Government of Russia.  Tracking the whole web is beyond my abilities (Robert Mueller and his team is working on that), so I therefore attempted to assemble a chronology with complete original sources surrounding just one aspect of this complex saga: the events starting with June 3, 2016, when Donald Trump Jr. received an email proposing a meeting with a group of Russians through today, August 1, 2017.

I was tempted to try to create sort of wiring diagram to go along with the statements to highlight the myriad ways in which statements from the President, his family and various officials and spokespersons have “evolved” (or contradicted each other) over time.  In end the, I gave that up both because there were just too many lines to draw and because I felt readers could form their own views.

Readers be ware:  Having complied this, I can see why the various press attempts at a similar timeline are so incomplete – there is just too much information.  Nonetheless, I thought some people might be interested in reading the full, overly long, version.  If anyone believes that I have left out important dates/events/statements, please send a comment so that I can update accordingly!

 June 3, 2016: Trump Jr. receives an email from Rob Goldstone stating that Trump associates Emin and Aras Agalarov had arranged for the delivery of “information that would incriminate Hillary” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 7, 2016: In a primary-night speech at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York, Donald Trump announces that he will reveal “big news” about Hillary Clinton “probably” on June 13.

June 8, 2016: Trump Jr. forwards the email thread to Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and to his Campaign Manager, Paul Manafort.  (The exact forwarding addresses and time are in the e-mail chain.)

June 9, 2016: The promised meeting took place.  Representing the Trump Campaign are Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, Trump Senior Advisor and Son-in-Law Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.  Donald Trump Jr. now says the information offered was not of interest and that the meeting focused on the lawyer’s desire to change adoption-related sanctions against Russia.  Because adoptions were suspended in response to US sanctions over Russian human rights abuses, “discussing adoption” means discussing sanctions.

June 15, 2016: The Democratic National Committee’s Trump opposition research file is released online. The software firm CrowdStrike releases an analysis indicating that the DNC had been hacked by “Russian intelligence-related adversaries.”

July 22, 2016: On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks releases hacked DNC emails.

July 24, 2016: Donald Trump Jr. tells CNN’s Jake Tapper that the Clinton campaign’s suggestion that Russia was trying to intervene in the election on behalf of Trump is “disgusting” and “phony.”  He goes on to state that “It just goes to show you their exact moral compass. They’ll say anything to be able to win this. I mean this is time and time again, lie after lie. … It’s disgusting. It’s so phony. … These lies and the perpetuating of that kind of nonsense to try to gain some political capital is just outrageous.” Paul Manafort similarly denies any links between Russia and the Trump campaign, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that such a suggestion is “absurd and there’s no basis to it.”

July 27, 2016: Paul Manafort again denies any relationship with the Russians and again says it’s “absurd” to suggest Russia was working on behalf of the Trump campaign.  (Note: He knew he was lying since he received a copy of the full e-mail chain with Rob Goldstone explaining Russia’s efforts to support Trump.)

July 27, 2016: Donald Trump publicly asks Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Oct. 7, 2016:  The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that Russian intelligence services had hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Google email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks.

Oct. 19, 2016:  During the final debate of the 2016 Presidential season, Donald Trump rejects the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and instead declares that “the U.S. has no idea” who was behind election interference.

Oct. 31, 2016: U.S. President Barack Obama directly warned Putin to stop interfering or face “serious consequences”.

Nov. 8, 2016: Donald Trump wins the 2016 Presidential election with a minority of the popular vote but a majority of the Electoral College.

Nov. 10, 2016: Two days after Trump’s election, his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied a report in the Washington Post that the Russians and the campaign had communicated, saying the campaign had “no contact with Russian officials.”

Nov. 11, 2016: Hicks issues another denial. “It never happened,” she said. “There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”

Dec. 16, 2016:  The FBI officially concurs with other U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked both the DNC and John Podesta’s personal e-mails as part of an overall campaign to influence the U.S. election.

Dec. 18, 2016: Kellyanne Conway, a campaign and eventual White House official, denies outright any contact between the campaign and the Russians. “Absolutely not,” she told CBS’s John Dickerson. “And I discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it’s a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false, but it’s dangerous.”

Jan. 10, 2017: Manafort denies a report alleging collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. “I have never had any ties to Russia or Putin,” Manafort told NPR.  (Note: Paul Manafort received millions of dollars from Russian government sources for his efforts to elect Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Putin candidate, in the Ukrainian presidential election.  When widespread protests over election fraud forced Yanukovich from office, he fled straight to Moscow where he remains under Vladimir Putin’s protection.)

Jan. 15, 2017: Five days before the inauguration, Vice President Mike Pence went on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday and stated unequivocally that there had been no contact between Trump campaign officials and Russians seeking to meddle in the election. “I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy,” Pence told Dickerson.

Jan. 19, 2017: The day before the inauguration, Manafort again vigorously denies that any contact ever took place. From the New York Times: “In an emailed statement Thursday evening, Mr. Manafort called allegations that he had interactions with the Russian government a ‘Democrat Party dirty trick and completely false.’  “I have never had any relationship with the Russian government or any Russian officials. I was never in contact with anyone, or directed anyone to be in contact with anyone,” he said.  “On the ‘Russian hacking of the D.N.C.,’ ” he said, “my only knowledge of it is what I have read in the papers.”

March 18, 2017: Trump Jr. tells the Times: “Did I meet with people that were Russian? I’m sure, I’m sure I did. But none that were set up. None that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.” Asked at that time whether he had ever discussed government policies related to Russia, the younger Mr. Trump replied, “A hundred percent no.”

March 27, 2017: Under scrutiny for a transition meeting with the Russian ambassador, the White House describes Kushner’s meetings with Russians as follows: “Throughout the campaign and transition, Jared Kushner served as the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials.”

April 6, 2017: The New York Times reports that Kushner failed to disclose meetings with Russians on his security clearance forms. His lawyer said he told the FBI the following about those meetings: “During the presidential campaign and transition period, I served as a point-of-contact for foreign officials trying to reach the president-elect. I had numerous contacts with foreign officials in this capacity.”

May 6, 2017: Trump Jr. tweets out a New York Post story titled “Bad news for the Trump-Russia tinfoil-hat brigade” denying any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, adding his own comment .

May 8, 2017: Trump makes the header image of his Twitter account an image that incorrectly states that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had “reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows – there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion w/Russia and Trump.”

May 9, 2017: President Trump dismisses FBI Director James Comey without even warning Comey in advance.

 May 18, 2017: President Trump repeatedly denies collusion during a press conference, but then seems to hedge on whether any of his campaign officials might have colluded. “The entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians—zero.”

May 30, 2017: Trump Jr. tweets another denial of collusion, this time including a story from TownHall.com, a conservative site that consistently backs the Trump administration.  The TownHall.com story repeated President Trump’s mischaracterization of Director Clapper’s remarks.  Trump Jr. added his own comment that “You mean nothing has changed in the 10 month witch hunt?

June 8, 2017: On the day of James Comey’s Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, Trump Jr. sends out a series of tweets denying collusion.  One thanking former FBI Director Comey read “Thanks James: Comey Debunks NYT report about Trump Campaign having repeated Russian contacts.”  The other referenced a report on the right-wing “Drudge Report with Trump’s Jr.’s added comment “If Chris Matthews is willing to say it, it’s over folks. Now can we get to work to ???”

June 27, 2017:  The “Trump 2020” campaign fund pays the law firm of criminal defense attorney (who is best known for defending Mafia figures) Alan S. Futerfas $50,000 to represent Donald Trump Jr.

 July 8, 2017: The first story about Trump Jr.’s meeting with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya went up on the New York Times website.

 July 8, 2017: In response to the New York Times article, Trump Jr. states that campaign issues were not discussed in the meeting and that he didn’t know the identity of the person he was meeting.  He specifically stated that “It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow up. I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.”

July 9, 2017: Donald Trump Jr. gives the following new and greatly revised statement about the meeting:  “I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign. I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance. We had a meeting in June 2016. After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information. She then changed subjects and began discussing the adoption of Russian children and mentioned the Magnitsky Act. It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting. I interrupted and advised her that my father was not an elected official, but rather a private citizen, and that her comments and concerns were better addressed if and when he held public office. The meeting lasted approximately 20 to 30 minutes. As it ended, my acquaintance apologized for taking up our time. That was the end of it and there was no further contact or follow-up of any kind. My father knew nothing of the meeting or these events.”

July 10, 2017: Trump Jr. sends two tweets.  The first states “Obviously I’m the first person on a campaign to ever take a meeting to hear info about an opponent… went nowhere but had to listen.”  The second denied that there were any inconsistencies between the multiple evolving statements he had issued describing the June 9, 2016 meeting with Russian representatives.

July 11, 2017: Trump Jr. sends a tweet at 5:27 AM stating “Media & Dems are extremely invested in the Russia story. If this nonsense meeting is all they have after a yr, I understand the desperation!”

July 11, 2017: A few hours after the tweet above, the New York Times informed Donald Trump Jr. that they had obtained copies of the actual e-mail exchanges that led up to the July 8, 2016, meeting with the group of Russians and planned to publish them.  Trump Jr. himself released the an image of the e-mail chain via twitter at the exact time deadline set by the NYT for comments.  The full e-mails in readable form can be found on the NYT website.

July 11, 2017:  On afternoon after Trump Jr. pre-empted the NYT story by releasing the e-mails himself at the very last minute, the White House issued a statement from President Trump is statement from President Trump stating that “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.”

July 12, 2017:  Jay Sekulow, the lawyer on President Trump’s personal legal team charged with handling all press relations appeared on Good Morning Americaand stated categorically that “the president didn’t sign off on anything” and “wasn’t involved” with the statement in any way.

July 16, 2017: Jay Sekulow reaffirmed that statement on NBC’sMeet the Press”, stating “I want to be clear – that the President was not involved in the drafting of the statement.

July 31, 2017:  The Washington Post breaks the story that President Trump personally dictated the initial (July 8) statement issued in the name of Donald Trump Jr. concerning the meeting with multiple campaign officials and Russians in Trump tower.  This contradicts every previous statement made by the White House and Trump’s lawyers.

August 1, 2017: While being careful to avoid confirming the details of the July 31 Washington Post story, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders indirectly confirms the gist of the report during an official press briefing by stating “Look, the statement that Don Jr. issued is true. There’s no inaccuracy in the statement. The president weighed in as any father would, based on the limited information that he had.

 

 

 

President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration: A Self-Inflicted Wound

First, a caveat.  On policy grounds, I do not agree with President Trump’s order banning nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.  While I agree that provisions for screening applicants can always be improved, a sudden ban on all entry will weaken America’s position in the world, embolden our enemies, help ISIS and other Islamic extremist organizations with their recruitment, and unfairly victimize literally thousands of individuals who have selflessly contributed to fighting terrorism – including Islamic extremism – around the world.  I recognize, however, that I disagree with the President on policy.  As President, Mr. Trump does not need to listen to me.

As President, however, Donald Trump does need to abide by the US Constitution and to manage effectively the operation of the government of the United States.  In issuing his Executive Order on immigration, Mr. Trump failed miserably.  Here are three specific ways he failed.

(1) President Trump could have ensured that his Executive Order (EO) was consistent with the US Constitution by excluding legal permanent residents (AKA “green card” holders) from the entry ban, but he did not.

(2) President Trump could have made an exception for “special immigrant visa” (SIV) holders, which includes persons who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to American values by helping advance American foreign and military objectives abroad, but he did not.

(3) President Trump could have made allowances for persons who were already in the air flying from an overseas origin to the USA, but he did not.

Let’s look at each of those failures in more detail.

Legal Permanent Residents:  It is telling that when Department of Homeland Security officials first saw the text of the EO they interpreted it not to cover legal permanent aliens since it was clear to the immigration experts that such a ban cannot, under the US Constitution, be applied to permanent residents of the USA.  The experts were overruled by the White House, which specifically ordered the exclusion of legal permanent residents.  That specific policy direction from the White House was clearly unconstitutional because it denied the right of due process and equal protection to legal permanent residents of the United States.  (Note: According to Section A of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”)  While numerous Federal Courts quickly moved to prevent the removal of legal permanent residents, countless reports indicate that many such individuals were deported or “turned around” despite the existence of valid court orders.  Others were coerced into “voluntarily” giving up their status as legal permanent residents under various threats.  The legal mess from this part of the EO will likely drag on for months or years.  The impact on the lives of people who were summarily returned to countries where they do not live, do not have a home, and may well be targeted for politically-motivated arrest or execution is incalculable.  The impact on American security will be severe.

Special Immigrant Visa Holders:  The fact that the very first person to be detained pending expulsion under the EO was Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi who had worked for the US military in Iraq for 10 years prior to immigrating to the USA with his family, is emblematic of this deeply flawed EO.  Mr. Darweesh was not a newly-arriving immigrant; he already lived here.  Even after immigrating on an SIV, however, Mr. Darweesh continued to work with the US military and it was in this capacity that he agreed to return on a dangerous mission to Iraq to help US military advisors working to defeat ISIS.  As he was returning from this dangerous mission undertaken on behalf of the US government, Hameed Darweesh was detained and would have been deported under the provisions of the EO had not a Federal Court quickly ruled that he must be afforded full due process under the Constitution.  Luckily for Mr. Darweesh, immigration officers in New York followed the court order.  Reports from elsewhere in the USA indicate that other permanent residents were not so fortunate.  To understand how unfair and how counterproductive the EO was as written, consider that Mr. Darweesh had survived 10 arduous years supporting US forces in Iraq.  Under SIV rules, he would have been eligible to immigrate to the USA after just two, but he stayed in Iraq to support US troops because he believed in the US cause and the US government.  Even after he finally did leave to save the lives of his family, he agreed to return to Iraq to support US troops.  As thanks, the US nearly threw him out of the country.  Mr. Darweesh is one man, but his story is the story of thousands of Iraqis.

While the Pentagon, under the leadership of General James Mattis, is preparing a list of SIV holders from Iraq as well as Iraqis who have provided invaluable assistance to US troops but who are still in Iraq, there is nothing in the EO that would allow the State Department to issue visas to those individuals or that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to admit them to the USA.  I have faith in the ability of Secretary “Mad Dog” Mattis to convince the White House to modify the EO, but that does not change the fact that it should never have been written so as to exclude people who have risked their lives to advance US security and save the lives of US service members.

People in the Air:  A basic principle of American legal system is that no law can be applied retroactively.  In other words, a city or state cannot decide 2017 to make fireworks illegal and then proceed to fine or arrest everyone who has ever lit a firecracker in the 50 years prior to that ban.  While retroactive laws are rightly acknowledged to be illegal and unethical, that is exactly what the EO did to the hundreds of people who boarded planes thinking that they had done absolutely everything right to prepare for their trip to the USA but then were treated as criminals on arrival.  Those caught in this trap included tourists, students, business people and at least one tiny infant coming to the USA for emergency open heart surgery.  A 60-year old woman was not allowed to see her severely ill mother in a US hospital for even a few minutes before being sent back.  The horror stories have been repeated hundreds of times.  These stories of personal anguish, as well as the perception that the US is ignoring one of the pillars of its own legal system, could have easily been avoided by including even a very brief grace period for persons who were already in the air.  Despite White House comments to the contrary, no one from one of the seven countries included in the ban could possibly receive a visa quickly enough to travel during that tiny window, meaning that allowing such a window carried no risk, no downside at all.  (Note:  All persons from those seven countries were already subject to “special processing” requirements – AKA extreme vetting – that takes at least weeks and usually months to complete even for a simple tourist visa.)

Why Did This Happen?

There are only two ways this could happen.  Either the White House is so unaware of the US Constitution and long history of the US working closely with foreign nationals to advance US national security that they did not realize how detrimental the EO would be, or they did not care.

Conservatives such as Karl Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney have clearly expressed their disappointment with President Trump’s EO on immigration, stating that it could have, and should have, been handled much better.  Karl Rove, for example, specifically used the term “amateurish” to describe the drafting and roll-out of the EO.

I hope Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are correct, because the alternative explanation – that the White House knew its actions were unconstitutional and detrimental to US security but did not care – is much, much worse.