Saturday, February 10, 2018

Last Call For That Whole Saturday Night Massacre Thing

America crept closer to the fateful showdown over Robert Mueller this week as the number 3 official at the DoJ, Rachel Brand, announced her resignation. I agree with Vox's Alex Ward that this makes Trump's attempt to fire Special Counsel Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein a lot easier, as now Trump can appoint his own headhunter.

Here’s why: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is currently in charge of overseeing the Mueller probe. Rosenstein has said that he won’t fire Mueller without good cause.

But if Trump were to fire Rosenstein, or if he were to recuse himself from the investigation or quit outright, the responsibility for overseeing the probe would go to the next in line: Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand.

Which means that whoever Trump picks to replace Brand could potentially end up in charge of the Mueller investigation. Technically, the next in line is Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who is now serving in Brand’s role in an acting capacity. But legal experts told me that Trump has the authority to name anyone he wants to replace Brand.

And here’s the scary thing: That person might follow Trump’s order to dismiss the special counsel.

That can only happen if Rosenstein no longer oversees Mueller — and that’s still a distinct possibility for three reasons.

First, Rosenstein could recuse himself from overseeing Mueller because he had a hand in firing former FBI Director James Comey. Mueller became the special counsel becauseTrump may have let go Comey go in order to obstruct the Russia investigation. So if Rosenstein recuses himself — legal experts, like Jack Goldsmith at Lawfare think he should — then Mueller’s boss becomes whomever Trump may soon name.

Second, Trump could simply fire Rosenstein — and there’s reason to think he might. Trump allies expected last week’s release of the memo from Rep. Devin Nunes would prompt Rosenstein’s dismissal. Trump has consistently made his displeasure with Rosensteinknown, at one point claiming he’s “a Democrat” even though Rosenstein is a lifelong Republican.

And finally, Rosenstein could resign if Trump ordered him to fire Mueller. Rosenstein has reiterated time and time again that he has yet to see any reason to fire Mueller. So if Trump does ask Rosenstein to let Mueller go — and Rosenstein declines — Trump could fire Rosenstein. And so, again, Trump’s hand-picked successor would oversee Mueller — and then possibly fire him.

Trump can search more carefully for somebody willing to fire Mueller now with Brand gone, that is if he doesn't already have somebody in mind.  My guess is that Brand was asked if she would do it, or knew that she very soon would be, and decided to leave rather than be a part of it.  Her departure is a thundering alarm that Trump is moving sooner rather than later on this.

Pay very, very close attention to whomever Trump appoints to fill Brand's shoes, because that person will be expected to swing the axe.

Israeli A Problem Now

Things just got very serious in Syria this weekend as Israel carried out a major air attack on a Syrian base after Israeli claims of an Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace from Syria.

Israel says it launched a “large-scale” aerial attack inside Syria on Saturday after one of its jets was downed under Syrian antiaircraft fire, in a series of cross-border incidents that threatened to destabilize the volatile region between the two countries.

Israel says the situation started with an Iranian drone crossing into its territory from Syria at around 4:30 a.m. It was shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahran Qasemi, however, described the Israeli claim as “ridiculous.”

Israel later dispatched eight fighter jets to bomb the T4 military base near the Syrian city of Palmyra, from where it says the drone was dispatched and controlled. Syria responded with “substantial Syrian antiaircraft fire” under which two Israeli pilots ejected from their F-16, which crashed inside Israel, according to the Israeli military. One of the pilots was severely injured, it said.

The Syrians are playing with fire that they are allowing the Iranians to attack Israel from their soil,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. “The IDF is ready and capable to inflict a heavy price on anyone that attacks us. This is a severe attack and a breach of Israeli sovereignty perpetrated by Iran.”

There's more than a bit of "wag the dog" here as the bribery scandal closing in on Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has reached the stage where indictments against him are imminent.

According to Israeli media reports, the police team investigating Netanyahu, nominally headed by Alsheikh, has concluded that Netanyahu should be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in "Case 1000," which involves the allegations that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, inappropriately accepted expensive gifts.

One of the businessmen is believed to be Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, an Israeli citizen for whom Netanyahu reportedly pressured then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry for a green card.The police have reportedly not made a firm recommendation regarding "Case 2000," in which Netanyahu is also suspected of having negotiated a quid pro quo with the publisher of Israel's most widely distributed tabloid newspaper. According to recordings held by the police, Netanyahu negotiated for favorable coverage in exchange for a law that would have weakened Israel Hayom, a free daily owned by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Netanyahu is a central figure, but not a suspect, in "Case 3000," a police inquiry into Israel's questionable multibillion-dollar procurement of German-made naval vessels and submarines. Numerous close associates, including senior aides and his personal lawyer and cousin, have been questioned or arrested.

In a rare television appearance, Alsheikh, the police chief, said that his senior detectives had been pursued by "private investigators collecting information against police officers involved in ongoing investigations into the prime minister."

"We're not talking about a conspiratorial mind here," Alsheikh said, "these are facts." He said the private investigators had been hired by "powerful figures."

In response, the prime minister uploaded a Facebook post denouncing the police chief, who is a Netanyahu appointee. Netanyahu said he was shocked by the "outlandish and false claim," adding that "every decent person will ask himself how can people saying such outlandish things regarding the prime minister then question him objectively and be impartial when it is time to reach a decision about him?"

"A dark shadow has been cast over the police investigations and recommendations," Netanyahu added, calling for "an immediate and objective inquiry into the matter."

If this all sounds very familiar, like, say, a defiant Trump, there's a reason for that.

Netanyahu aides recently implied that he is likely to do what none of his predecessors has done: Remain in office even if indicted. Noting that Netanyahu is unlikely to resign "after what happened to Olmert," Rahat said that "by law, he can remain prime minister until he is convicted of a crime, and even then parliament has to vote him out."

Such a circumstance, he added, would cause an unprecedented legal crisis in Israel.

Indeed it would.  And less than 24 hours after it became clear Netanyahu was going to be indicted, we now have a major military escalation between Syria and Israel that could lead to open war.

Go figure.

Austerity Hysteria, Con't

The GOP austerity regime has real-life consequences in America, folks.  The GOP tax scam bill is going to remove trillions from state budgets over the next decade and states are going to be expected to pick up the tab. Should you want to see the future if the Republicans continue to control the House and Senate in 2019, you have to look no further than Oklahoma, now drowning in red ink to the point where lawmakers have gutted schools to the point where they are only open four days out of the week now.

FORTY miles from Tulsa, sometimes along unpaved roads, sits Wagoner High School, with its 650 pupils, championship-calibre football team and show barn—a seemingly ordinary small-town school. But unlike most high schools, Wagoner is closed on Mondays. The reason, a severe reduction in state funds, has pushed 90 other school districts in Oklahoma to do the same. Teacher pay is the third-lowest in the country and has triggered a statewide shortage, as teachers flee to neighbouring states like Arkansas and Texas or to private schools. “Most of our teachers work second jobs,” says Darlene Adair, Wagoner’s principal. “A lot of them work at Walmart on nights and weekends, or in local restaurants.” Ms Adair hopes that Walmart does not offer her teachers a full-time job, which would be a pay rise for many
The roots of the fiasco are not hard to determine. As in Oklahoma’s northern neighbour, Kansas, deep tax cuts have wrecked the state’s finances. During the shale boom, lawmakers gave a sweetheart deal to its oilmen, costing $470m in a single year, by slashing the gross production tax on horizontal drilling from 7% to 1%. North Dakota, by contrast, taxes production at 11.5%. The crash in global oil prices in 2014 did not help state coffers either. Oklahoma has also cut income taxes, first under Democrats desperate to maintain control over a state that was trending Republican, and then under Republicans, who swept to power anyway. Mary Fallin, the Republican governor, came to office pledging to eliminate the income tax altogether. Since 2008 general state funds for K-12 education in Oklahoma have been slashed by 28.2%—the biggest cut in the country. Property taxes, which might have made up the difference, are constitutionally limited. 
Other state agencies are broke, too. Highway patrolmen are told not to fill their petrol tanks to save money. Those caught drunk-driving are able to keep their licences because there are no bureaucrats to revoke them. Prisons are dangerously overcrowded, to the point that the state’s director of corrections publicly says that “something is going to pop”. But unlike Kansas, whose Republican legislature eventually rebelled and reversed the tax cuts over the governor’s veto, Oklahoma will find its troubling experiment much more difficult to undo. Because of a referendum passed in 1992, any bill that seeks to raise taxes must be approved by three-quarters of the legislature
No fact embarrasses Oklahomans more, or repels prospective businesses more, than the number of cash-strapped districts that have gone to four-day weeks. Yet even such a radical change may not help finances much. Paul Hill, a professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell, estimates that the savings are “in the 1 or 2% range at most”. That sliver is still important to Kent Holbrook, superintendent of public schools in Inola (the self-styled “Hay Capital of the World”). “In my mind, that’s five or six teachers,” says Mr Holbrook. Already, from 2008 to 2016, he has lost 11 teachers from a corps that once numbered 100. He has also had to reduce Spanish classes and, for the tenth year running, delay buying new textbooks. 

This is what the Tea Party movement has wrought in red state Midwest: states that literally can't afford to keep schools open five days a week anymore and haven't been able to buy new textbooks in over a decade because it would take a 75% vote from both chambers in the state legislature to raise a dime of new taxes to pay for basic services.

And mysteriously, those tax cuts went to big oil who walked away with the money and left the people of Oklahoma holding the bag.

There are only budget cuts now.  And every year they get worse.  It's hard to imagine a state that has cut education spending over the last decade more than Kansas of Kentucky, but there Oklahoma is, a state where Wal-Mart employees now make more than the people who teach their kids.

They decided government was the problem, it was the enemy, it had to be destroyed.  Now they wonder who will keep the schools open, the roads open, put gas in State Patrol cars.

And they answer, very soon, will be "nobody".

Oklahoma is far from the only red state trapped and squeezed by Republicans until no more blood can come from the stone.  West Virginia's GOP governor, billionaire coal magnate Jim Justice, is following the lead of Kentucky and Indiana and wants to add work requirements to pretty much all government assistance programs with the goal of driving people off the rolls.

Months after rejecting a Kentucky-style work requirement for Medicaid in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice (R) now seems to be moving in the opposite direction — with assistance from the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ally and an affiliate of the Koch-funded State Policy Network. 
The apparent switch is nothing new for Justice, who made a leap into politics when he ran for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 2016. Nine months after winning, Justice — the richest man in West Virginia and the state’s only billionaire — announced at a Trump rally that he was switching to the Republican party. 
Today, Justice’s Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) is pushing a series of bureaucratic barriers to public assistance, including: three-month time limits for unemployed and part-time workers receiving food assistance (SNAP); a $2,250 limit on cash and assets that would penalize families receiving food assistance for modest savings; and a hefty contract for a private corporation to determine the assets of every member of a recipient family. 
DHHR has already awarded Optum with a contract of $300 million over 10 years to verify eligibility for Temporary Assistance (income assistance for families with children), food assistance, Medicaid, and other programs — even as a bill that would create such a system is still under consideration in the state legislature. That legislation would incentivize the corporation to kick people off of these programs — requiring it to demonstrate greater savings than the cost of the contract in the first year. (A spokesperson for DHHR confirmed the 10-year contract with Optum worth more than $308 million, but denied that there is a savings requirement. The spokesperson said the state will “save approximately $55 million over 10 years while reducing its existing system cost.”) 
The DHHR’s own study suggests that strict time limits on food assistance for people who are unemployed or underemployed is flawed. Its pilot project in nine counties with the best local economies in the state terminated SNAP for more than 5,400 jobless people. The agency’s nearly 14,000 job referrals led to just 259 people gaining employment. According to the DHHR, “Our best data does not suggest that the program has had a significant impact on the employment figures for the [targeted] population in the 9 counties.” 
That didn’t come as a surprise to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP), which noted that the people most affected by the time limits tend to be “very poor and most have a high school education or less.” Unemployed and part-time workers terminated due to the limit typically have barriers to employment such as “a lack of transportation or driver’s license, mental or physical limitation, felony conviction, or were recently dismissed from a job.” 
What the pilot project did have a significant impact on was federal dollars leaving the state to the tune of $13 million due to reduced SNAP caseloads, and an increased demand for assistance at local food banks and pantries that the providers couldn’t keep pace with. 
There was a 30 percent rise in meals served during the study,” said Seth DiStefano, policy outreach coordinator at the WVCBP. “You can see the exact point that people were thrown off SNAP — by July 2016 people had to be turned away by our churches, food banks, and missions. There is no reason to think it will do anything but get worse if we expand this policy.”

And remember, these austerity cuts to social programs are being made while the overall economy is good.  When it starts turning bad again, and the warning signs of another impending recession are already here, these programs won't be able to handle the need.

At that point, things are going to get very bad, very fast in America.

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