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Posts published in February 2020

And Putin smiles


Everyone who has studied the facts – a notable exception being the president of the United States – knows that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin directed specific measures to help elect Donald Trump in 2016.

All the nation’s intelligence agencies, the relevant Congressional committees, numerous independent analysts, volumes of reporting and a special counsel confirm what the Russians did. That elements of one political party and its leader dismiss the Russian malevolence simply cannot change the facts.

It doesn’t help the Republican argument for dismissing the facts that some members of the party appear to be deeply compromised by connections to shadowy foreign actors. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, has been the recipient of campaign contributions from now indicted operatives tied to Ukrainian oligarchs who are in turn connected to Moscow. Congressman Devin Nunes has similar connections. A former Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, has admitted his contacts with the email leaker Julian Assange whose activities demonstrably helped Trump in the last election. McCarthy once reportedly said he was convinced that both Trump and Rohrabacher were essentially paid Russian agents.

Nor does it help GOP credibility that some like Idaho Senator Jim Risch cheerfully dismisses the seriousness of the Russian effort by saying Russians have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Almost identical words come out of the mouth of Trump’s new hyper-partisan and demonstrably unqualified director of national intelligence.

The “this is nothing new” rationalization is, of course, preposterous. Only recently have American political campaigns involved massive use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and only a sophisticated former KGB operative like Putin could elevate international mischief to a foreign policy, which is precisely what the Russians have accomplished.

Amid the Trumpian chaos it’s easy to forget that the president’s former campaign manager is in jail for hiding his financial involvement with Russian-connected Ukrainian oligarchs and his former national security advisor and oldest political advisor are headed to jail for lying about various aspect of their own involvement with Russia.

It must be particularly gratifying for Putin that he has helped install a Republican president and assisted in the profound corruption of a political party that in no small sense owes its modern existence to decades of hostility to Russia. From Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan, the GOP warned of the evil intentions of an evil empire. Republicans, led by Joe McCarthy and a generation of Cold War hawks, both politicized and profited by their anti-communism.

American foreign policy from 1945 to the 21st Century was defined by a contest between the Kremlin and American leadership of a western alliance determined to check Russian advancement. While much of the blustering was overblown, not all was mere partisan hyperbole. Stalin and a successor of Russian dictators did foment revolution, did vie for global dominance and did threaten American interests. Putin is cut from the same cloth.

Yet, now a Republican president and much of the party’s rank and file dismiss Russia as Risch does as “overrated” and Putin and his henchmen as, “These guys, they are all bluster.”

Now comes the realization that the leading candidate of the other major political party is also becoming a channel for Russian involvement in American politics.

“I suspect that, for our people [at the top], [Bernie] Sanders looks like the mad professor from ‘Back to the Future,’” Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told Julia Ioffe, the Russian-born American journalist who provides some of the most searching current insight into Putin’s motives.

In essence the old lefty Bernie, always willing to put the best gloss on Castro or the Sandinistas, is a great vehicle for Putin, “very convenient for starting a pan-American brawl,” in the words of the Russian political scientist. Sanders is, of course, less dangerous than Trump, but such an easy mark for Trump’s demagoguery, and Putin’s. The Russian manipulator loves it, Schulmann said recently, when Americans “fight each other while we lay another gas pipeline somewhere!”

Amid the clear evidence of Russian support for Trump is the equally obvious fact, as American intelligence agencies have reportedly confirmed, that Putin will advance Sanders’ candidacy because he knows it will both help his favorite Republican and sow discourse in the American body politics. Again, the Russian political scientist, Schulmann, puts a fine point on the Kremlin strategy: “Our candidate is chaos,” she says.

Putin has a plan and it is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. He elevates his own economically challenged and ethically bereft country by diminishing western democracy. To disadvantaged Russians, plagued by a police state mentality, bombarded with official propaganda and held in check by a collection of corrupt oligarchs who loot the nation’s resources, Putin’s rule doesn’t look so bad particularly compared to an American democracy divided by race and class and ruled by a narcissistic authoritarian who constantly attacks the courts, the press and his opponents. Our chaos is Putin’s catharsis.

A divided Europe works to Vlad’s advantage, so he generously encourages Brexit and cheerleads to weaken NATO. Putin longs to control and plunder Ukraine, as Stalin once did, and Donald Trump is his useful idiot in helping with that strategy. Since the time of the czars Russia has lusted after a starring role in the Middle East. Trump has obliged.

If there is any doubt that the modern Republican Party – what’s left of it – is playing out its role in this brutal strategy you need look no farther than Trump’s recent dismissal of Joseph McGuire, the former Navy Seal admiral cashiered as director of national intelligence. McGuire was fired for doing his job, especially warning about Russian methods and intentions. The silence over the firing and the subsequent promotion of a Trump loyalist to the critical role garnered nary a word of pushback from GOP politicians. Risch, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was silent, signaling his acceptance.

It was left to retired Admiral William McRaven, the guy who led the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden, to speak the truth about Trump and the GOP. “As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation,” McRaven wrote in the Washington Post. “When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”

We should be frightened. The courage is running out of American democracy. It’s happening right in front of our eyes.

Tax apportionment


Heading off into pure theory, taxes should hit all people who pay them about equally as hard: That is, they shouldn’t burden some people more than they do others.

In practice, of course, it never happens that cleanly. But it can be something the writers of tax laws, which often means state legislators, can aspire to.

A sales tax in theory hits everyone the same: The state collects six cents per dollar on sales of every taxable item. But in Idaho as elsewhere some items are taxed and others (such as services, generally) are not, and the result of those choices means some people are hit more than others. Lower-income people spend more of their money on items covered by the sales tax, so in practice they’re hit harder (which relates to why sales taxes are considered regressive). The state of Idaho actually recognizes that and provides some compensation for it, as noted on its website: “The grocery tax credit offsets the sales tax you pay on groceries throughout the year. For most Idaho residents it averages $100 per person.”

Once again, as seems to happen once every decade or two, the property tax is the big topic of discussion in Idaho, most especially around Boise. The present reason is clear enough: Property values in the area have been exploding, and the tax rates haven’t dropped to compensate, so property tax payments have been shooting upward. In many cases property taxes have increased by 50 percent or so over the last half-decade. For people on fixed incomes with suddenly more valuable property (which they can’t easily sell, since where would they go?), this is a problem.

It’s not an insoluble problem. There are plenty of ways to go at dealing with it, but some are more surgically precise than others.

One approach, which seems to be moving rapidly through the Idaho Legislature, is the one-year freeze plan offered by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. His thought is to freeze in place property tax levels for one year, so that the tax amount for 2020 would be the same as it was in 2019.

That would provide some, albeit limited, help for the fixed-income homeowners. But it would have the same numerical effect on others - upper-income people, businesses profiting nicely from the growth in the area that is driving the increase in valuation - so for them, a freeze would amount not to a staving off of disaster but rather a small windfall. The theoretically even application of the tax law would hit lots of people differently, while freezing for a year the budgets of local governments already scrambling to keep up with growth in their area.

Moyle himself has said that one of his main reasons for proposing the bill is to launch a conversation about the subject. An excellent idea, which leads to the question: Are there alternatives? Sure. Actually, quite a few, and they’re worth throwing in the mix.

One of the most obvious would be an extension of the state homeowners exemption.

The last time a general property tax revolt happened, in the late 70s, an initiative (then called the “1 Percent Initiative”) was passed by the voters to clamp a ceiling on property taxes. It was flawed, to the point of being internally contradictory and even unconstitutional, so much of it was dismantled by the legislature before the courts could have their way with it. Some limitations were still imposed afterward, however, and more citizen action led to the state property tax homeowner’s exemption, in which much of the value of an owner-occupied residence is exempted from property taxes. That helped many of the people who were hit by the fast-rising property taxes in the seventies.

The state also has (as the Tax Commission’s web site lays out) other tax help options, including the property tax reduction program, the tax deferral program and a benefit program for some veterans. It could create other options.

That might allow for some more precise ways of helping people who need it, rather than - in the old phrase - throwing a life jacket to a swimmer who’s already reached shore.

Different this time


Last week Idaho’s three branches of government, legislative, judicial and executive made a joint announcement. They agreed through resolution and executive order to form a Behavioral Health Council and Advisory Board. It’s a wise move. But hasn’t this been done before?

If this sounds familiar, it might be because there already exists a Behavior Health Planning Council. It was established in law in 2006. Of note, there was expected to be $4M in funding to support the duties assigned to the Council that year, which included the development of transitional housing. This Council was directed to give a yearly report to the Governor and the legislature. They are interesting reading.

Maybe this new executive order sounds familiar because there have been many studies in the past. But they were different. Usually these were done by outside entities that would come in and review what Idaho was doing around our “Behavioral Health System” and make recommendations. The most recent ones I am familiar with include the first WICHE report (2008) and their 10 year follow up in 2018. Further, there was another recent report evaluating Idaho’s Crisis “System of Care” which reviewed the performance of the regional crisis centers.

But maybe this time the work will be different. The work you get out of an effort often reflects the people doing the work. This Council will have appointees from the Governor, the Chief Justice and the legislature. This is not an independent evaluation. This is Idaho folks with skin in the game.

The Council has four directives:

1. Develop a plan to inventory expenditures, access and utilization

2. Assess the effectiveness of the current system and look for ways to efficiently coordinate

3. Determine Idaho’s unique needs

4. Recommend actions to “materially improve” Idaho’s behavior health system

Finally, the Council is supposed to develop a strategic plan and deliver it to the governor, legislature and judiciary this coming Halloween. I kid you not, that’s the deadline. Any ideas for a costume?

I applaud these goals. Why not get all the folks who see this problem from their many perspectives together?

Let’s look at number one: counting up where and how much we are spending. Did you know that the courts have money for “specialty courts”? These can be called behavioral health court, family court or “Drug Court”. Offenders may have a plea or sentencing delayed if the court decides the main problem they are dealing with is drug addiction or alcoholism.

If the offender agrees to the recommended treatment plan and sticks with it, they might get off without incarceration.

Further, the Department of Corrections pays for treatment of incarcerated addicts, and supports recently released offenders with drug problems on parole or probation. Many are now eligible for Medicaid, which can also support treatment. So, we pay through the state judiciary budget, the state corrections budget and the Department of Health and Welfare. It seems adding all this up, counting what we are treating makes common sense.

Number two might be harder; assessing effectiveness. I have wondered before, what are we counting? But I have no doubt there are efficiencies that coordination could accomplish, but remember how some legislators reacted to classroom standards? Maybe setting standards for behavioral health will be easier.

Number three, assessing Idaho’s unique needs can’t be any tougher than driving to Boise from the panhandle in January.

The final task, recommend “material” improvements, is easy, unless there is a budget item to consider.

I suspect the people who put this together, the governor, the judges, legislators are all tired of dealing with this problem from their limited vantage point. Maybe they see hope that together, maybe we can make a difference. That’s an inspirational view. I wish them the best.



In a political sense - the focus here - a politician's base is one's core support, the people who are with you whatever may come ... or at least to a further point than most people.

It is not an entirely new term, even in this context, and the larger sense of it has some generally obvious meanings. A military base is the place where troops are stationed, armaments and other secure supplies and materials are located and to which - in a combat area - forces can retreat or collect in comparative security. In a loose sense, its a localized home territory, a refuge.

Some of that carries over into politics: One's political base is a political refuge of sorts.

The term got its biggest push in that context in 2004, when the George W. Bush campaign, seeking re-election, calculated it was more likely to get the votes needed to win (in the right places) by pushing hardest for turnout within the core support - the base - rather than by trying to reach across to pull in broader support.

Bush's campaign strategist, Matthew Dowd, recalled in an interview figuring how many persuadable independents were out there as opposed to how many already-sympathetic non-voters: "nobody had ever approached an election that I've looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it. We didn't say, "Base motivation is what we're going to do, and that's all we're doing." We said, "Both are important, but we shouldn't be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation," which is basically what had been happening up until that point -- look at this graph, look at the history, look what's happened in this country. And obviously that decision influenced everything that we did."

That decision was significant in the management of presidential campaigns; it was the first explicitly to focus as much or toward toward maximizing the hard-core support as opposed to broadening support. That has had significant effects on both sides of fence, chiefly by deepening the political canyon between them. Many people in whatever remains of the middle are left stranded, and many on either side see the opposition in ever darker terms. During the Donald Trump presidency, notably, the effort please the base has specifically meant displeasing or even damaging everyone else.

Are we far from the point where being considered a part of a "base" becomes less a badge of honor with a small group than a criticism - a perjorative - with the large remaining majority? Maybe not far. And why not?

A Barr to justice


During the impeachment proceeding, former scholar Alan Dershowitz proclaimed that a U.S. President could engage in misconduct to get re-elected, without having to answer for it, if he believed his re-election was in the national interest. The Dershowitz theory runs completely counter to the Founding Fathers’ belief that no man, even the president, is above the law. We are a nation of laws, not men.

During his confirmation hearing, Attorney General William Barr agreed that a president is not above the law. However, his actions as Attorney General show him to be a practitioner of the Dershowitz theory. Barr has turned the Department of Justice (DOJ) into the President’s personal law firm—using it to punish Trump’s enemies and protect his friends.

Barr’s agenda was recently exposed when he meddled in the Roger Stone sentencing. Barr flat lied when he said it was normal for the Attorney General to become involved in the process of making sentencing recommendations to a judge. He also lied in contending that the sentence recommendation made by the front-line career prosecutors was not in keeping with department policy. It was right on target with the policy adopted by Jeff Sessions and followed by Barr.

It appears that Barr was also responsible for lowering the government’s recommended sentence for Michael Flynn. In fact, Barr has admitted that he is handling all cases related to the President, even though an ethical Attorney General with his history would have recused himself. It is no wonder that over 2,000 former DOJ employees have called for Barr’s resignation.

Some say that Barr showed his independence from the President when he proclaimed on February 13 that Trump’s tweets about DOJ criminal cases “make it impossible for me to do my job.” Barr had to be embarrassed when four career prosecutors resigned from the Stone case to protest Barr’s meddling in the case. His game had been exposed and he was trying to make it appear that he was not Trump’s lackey.

The problem is that Trump and Barr were working at cross purposes. Barr was intent on surreptitiously influencing the Trump-related cases. On the other hand, the President wanted to proclaim to the world that those who did his bidding would receive his favor, while those who crossed him would feel the DOJ’s fury.

Andrew McCabe’s case is instructive. The judge had demanded that the DOJ either pursue prosecution against McCabe or drop the charges by February 14. Try as he might, Barr could not scare up any evidence of criminal activity by McCabe and had to drop the case against him. This was in spite of Trump’s frequent claims over the last two years that McCabe was a criminal who should be prosecuted and imprisoned.

The judge, a Republican appointee, likened the DOJ’s handling of the McCabe case to a “banana republic,” saying that “the integrity of the process is being unduly undermined by inappropriate comments and actions on the part of people at the top of our government.”

McCabe was hardly the only one who Trump has demanded to have criminal charges filed against. It is strange that the DOJ under Trump has not been able to come up with credible evidence of criminal conduct by McCabe, Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Lisa Page, Robert Mueller and his team, or the many others Trump has villainized. The only people who have been successfully prosecuted and imprisoned are a number of Trump associates.

The main thing standing in the way of the Dershowitz-Barr-Trump effort to hijack the American justice system is a cadre of federal judges. Those judges preside over a legal system that demands proof of criminal conduct. So far, they have seen such proof in the case of Trump’s associates, but not with respect to his perceived enemies.

Unfortunately, Barr has now positioned himself to keep further prosecutions of Trump allies from moving forward and also to launch investigations against Trump’s enemies. Hopefully, the courts will hold the line so that our justice system is not turned into a weapon against the enemies of the self-proclaimed “Chosen One.”

The real importance


I took a tour the other day. Out to Luke Air Force Base, about six miles from my house as that mythical crow flies. Might not be important to you at the moment but, humor me. Read on.

Luke is our nation’s main training base for pilots flying F-16 fighters and the newer F-35's. The F-35 is a single-seat, stealth aircraft. Twin engines with afterburners and, probably, the loudest plane in the USAF inventory. Pilots from at least 18 nations have been - or are being - trained at Luke. To qualify, training takes at least a year. Sometimes, more. Buy an F-35 and you train here. No matter the country.

The F-16's' and F-35's fly over our house almost daily. If landing in the usual pattern, the noise level is low. But, if the wind shifts to the Northeast, as it can do, the afterburner-takeoffs can rattle windows and wake the dead. It’s that loud! And, remember, our house is about six miles away.

During the tour, I stood on a catwalk outside the control tower - about 150-feet up. Two F-35's took off about 200 yards away. The noise level was the worst I’d ever heard. And I spent nine years in the Strategic Air Command so I was familiar with aircraft noise. Even the B-52 with eight engines doesn’t come close.

On the base, there’s a large concrete block building housing several multi-million-dollar virtual reality cockpits for both aircraft. The F-16 is a two-seater so an instructor can eventually fly with the student. But, the F-35 seats only the pilot. So, on that first flight, the trainee had better get it right! Hence, a year of practice.

In another building, we learned about parachute rigging - both for the pilot and for the aircraft. Drogue ‘chutes are used to slow planes at touch-down if the runway is shorter than those at Luke, which are two miles long. The same young airmen also prepare and package the most complete survival pack I’ve ever seen. Even an inflatable life raft the looks like a huge shoe. Packed, it’s no bigger than football.

We learned ejecting from the F-35 at 700 mph shrinks the pilot’s spine a half -inch. Permanently! If he/she has to do a second bailout, it’s another half-inch shrinkage and the pilot is removed from flight status. Period!

Oh, and one more thing. The helmet each pilot wears is custom-made for that one person who will wear it for the balance of his/her career. And, it costs - wait for it - $500,000+. Each one! Covers the entire head and face. Computers inside. Heads-up displays. Wearing one can be like living in another world. But, it works!

Maybe the best part of the tour was meeting TSgt Cantu. Short stature, wearing the most bulky fatigues I’ve ever seen. Her long, black hair tied tightly in a bun under her fatigue hat. The fatigues were shapeless. As the Sergeant said, “The Air Force doesn’t want a girl to look like a girl.”

Sgt. Cantu retired last Friday - three days after our tour. It was learning her story that made the tour memorable.

When she graduated from high school 24 years ago - like me 66-years ago - she had no idea what to do with her life. College wasn’t affordable, good jobs were scarce and she had no goals. So, like me and hundreds of thousands of others, she joined the Air Force. 1996.

Over those 24 years, she was stationed in England, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Iraq. Promotions and new responsibilities came. Life experiences were learned. Travel, housing, health care and other military benefits accompanied her experiences. Pretty good life.

Oh, and she studied for - and received - a BA degree. And, currently, she’s halfway through her Master’s program. All paid for by Uncle Sam. Accomplished by determination and motivated by goal-setting learned in her Air Force training.

For several months, she’s been interviewing with major corporations in the Phoenix area, looking for a spot in corporate communications. Given the personality I observed in those bulky fatigues and, noting the sincerity and the confidence of someone who’s developed her own career path, my money is on her. She’ll be just fine.

In retirement, she’ll receive about $1,700 a month retirement pay, access to free medical and dental care, shopping at the base exchange and dropping by the NCO Club from time to time while pursuing a well-paid civilian career. A pretty good life.

When I related Sgt. Cantu’s story to wife Barbara, her response brought me up short.

“When I graduated from high school in a small Idaho town 58 years ago,” she said, “women, at the time, had few career choices. Maybe nursing, teaching, being a secretary. Or, a stay-at-home wife and mom. That was about it.”

“But, what this young woman’s done is a great example of how women’s lives have changed,” she said. “Careers in almost every field are there. And, if women pursue those careers with the same determination as the Sergeant, their lives will be so much more fulfilled.”

And that, my friends, suddenly became the most important part of my interesting military adventure. The comments from my wise wife made the point. All the whiz-bang, Buck Rogers equipment I had been so impressed by suddenly took on less importance. What really matters is the young people. The ones who made a choice to learn, develop, travel and settle into a meaningful career.

Good luck, former Sergeant Cantu!

The tools of foreign policy

A new column by M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., a political scientist whose specialities include American foreign policy and the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.

“War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” James Madison, 1793

Donald Trump was impeached, but acquitted, for extorting a foreign government to advance his reelection and for obstructing Congress’s inquiry into his political shenanigans.

He should, however, have been impeached and convicted for exploits far more serious: assassinating Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and his Iraqi counterpart, Mahdi al-Muhandis, abetting Saudi Arabia in its lethal bombing campaign in Yemen, and starving Iranians and Venezuelans with crippling economic sanctions. Congress has, in effect, avowed that bribing officials of a foreign government is impeachable, but killing them is tolerable.

Owing to America’s history of extrajudicial killings, Trump believed he had the power to order a death sentence outside the purview of Congress.

With the exception of the 1975 Senate Select Committee, chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, little has stood in the way of interventionist presidents. Church’s committee concluded that the CIA had attempted to assassinate the leaders of Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Chile and South Vietnam. It recommended that Congress outlaw assassinations.

To counter congressional action and maintain executive agency, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905 in 1976, which reads: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan issued similar executive orders.

According to these executive orders—still in effect—the extrajudicial execution of political opponents, in peacetime and in war, is illegal and a violation of existing norms. However, U.S. administrations have used circuitous terminology and logic to circumvent prohibitions and to legitimize political killings.

Since September 11, 2001, the term “targeted killing” has crept into political and public discourse to legitimize America’s execution of non-state political adversaries. U.S. administrations have contended that the prohibition against political assassinations does not preclude taking action against terrorists. Seldom questioned, however, is who has designated the United States to be the singular and decisive power to define terrorism and identify terrorists.

Former presidents took the ban on assassinations into account and attempted to develop rationales to overcome legal obstacles. Trump did not. The Trump administration acted unlawfully—committed a crime—when it killed a military leader of a country the United States is not at war with, based on questionable, unsupported claims that Suleimani posed an “imminent threat.”

Invasions, regime change, assassinations, sanctions and threats have been tools of U.S. foreign policy for decades.

The international exploits of U.S. presidents have often been shameful. Instead of impeachment or censure, presidents have been heralded with eponymous libraries, showered with million dollar book deals, and honored in death.

According to U.S. intelligence, Russia intervened in the 2016 U.S. election. Ironically, the United States has been interfering in other countries’ elections since the Second World War.

From Truman to Trump, American presidents have taken the United States to terrible places based on false narratives. They have orchestrated the overthrow of more than 40 governments, putting in place despots palatable to U.S. political and corporate interests. Acting on the premise of self-defense, presidents have ordered lethal operations against leaders they found unacceptable.

Over the past century, the executive branch has amassed power while the legislative branch has ceded it. Congress must assert its power by making clear that starving people, deposing governments, ordering assassinations and initiating wars are serious offenses that call for impeachment. Sadly, until then, the longstanding injustices and brutalities of American foreign policy will not end.

(c) 2020, Dr. M. Reza Behnam

Corruption and incompetence


Two dominant themes prevail in the current presidential administration: corruption and incompetence. They work together well, one complimenting the other and advancing the steady slide toward a new age of American authoritarianism.

A corrupt administration needs incompetence (and of course acquiesce) in order to continue its corruption. You can’t have independent and effective watchdogs and get away indefinitely with systematic corruption. The authoritarian needs to assert power and perhaps the most effective way to do so is to purge career public servants and replace them with incompetents willing to follow orders no matter what.

At the same time an incompetent administration reinforces with citizens the idea that a strong, decisive leader, even a corrupt one, is required to make sense of the chaos all around. Donald Trump has mastered the corruption and incompetence approach to modern politics and his handy enablers in the Republican Party seem just fine with how he has warped and corroded public affairs.

The president used his inherent constitutional power this week in a nevertheless corrupt and unlawful way. Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 11 white collar criminals, a who’s who of grifters, crooks and low lifes, as the New York Times noted “who were convicted on charges involving fraud, corruption and lies.”

Leading the list of recipients of Trump favors to the criminal class was former Illinois Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, a thuggish character who would not be out of place in the cast of a Scorsese film about the mob. It’s worth remembering what Blago, who was impeached and removed from office by his state’s legislature and then convicted of assorted crimes, did to get 14 years in prison. It’s a tidy list: racketeering, bribery, wire fraud, and attempted extortion. The former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the former governor called what Blagojevich did “a political corruption crime spree.”

Just for good measure Blago tried to extort an executive of a children’s hospital – a children’s hospital – “in in exchange for a Medicaid rate increase for pediatric specialists” and he shook down a racetrack owner in exchange for approving favorable legislation.

In a state known historically for its political corruption Blagojevich’s crimes were in a new class of rancid. Trump, however, called Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence – he served 8 years – a “tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion.” And we know his judgment is, like his Ukraine phone call, “perfect.”

Never mind that the Illinois legislature, the U.S. Justice Department, a jury of his peers and a federal judge dealt in a systematic and through manner with Blagojevich’s crimes, and the same can be said for the other reprobates Trump lavished with his favors. Corruption in the time of Trump comes in many forms, not least in the doing of favors for the well-placed and wealthy. It’s additionally been widely noted that the crimes the president is excusing, and effectively sanctioning, are much the same as what he will likely face once out of office.

Which brings us back to the incompetent and the central role an Idahoan is playing in helping Trump carry out additional degradation of the federal government.

Senator Mike Crapo presided over a lengthy confirmation hearing recently for a Trump nominee to the board of the Federal Reserve. To watch the hearing, as I did, was to witness an eyewatering display of Trump sycophancy, even by Crapo standards.

The nominee being considered by the Crapo-chaired Banking Committee is Judy Shelton, an economic theorist, one-time champion of a return to the gold standard and Trump acolyte, who is so far out of the economic mainstream that several of Crapo’s Republican colleagues bombarded her with critical questions. Shelton squirmed and prevaricated under the interrogation of Alabama Republican Richard Shelby who pressed her about past statements and positions that she has now dramatically jettisoned.

Shelton’s economic views have flopped around like the gyrations of a junk bond. She was critical of low interest rates during the Obama Administration. Now she’s for them. She was once part of an advocacy group favoring the gold standard and wrote extensively about it. Now she says never mind. Shelton has said she had no particular regard for the historic political independence of the Fed, clearly a qualification for a president would regularly bullies the central bank’s chairman. Under questioning she twisted unconvincingly away from many past positions. If you have a checking account you might wonder why the Federal Reserve would have a director who opposes federal deposit insurance, a fixture of American financial life since the Great Depression. Shelton has advocated that position, too.

Asked to rate Shelton’s performance before Crapo’s committee, Shelby, the committee’s chair before Crapo, said dismissively: “She performed.” Shelby then added, “I have a lot of concerns, especially even after the hearing. I’m thinking about it, talking to some of my colleagues.”

Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania John Kennedy of Louisiana, normally down-the-line Trump supporters, made similar comments. Crapo did not. He was too busy carrying Trump water to stir himself in the face of such economic incompetence and intellectual dishonesty.

Trump wants, of course, a Federal Reserve composed of mindless flunkies who place their loyalty to him above all else, even if that means repudiating every position they’ve ever held. For his part, Crapo praised Shelton as “very solid” and echoed Trump in complaining about an “orchestrated, calculated effort” to defeat her nomination.

One voice questioning Shelton’s intellectual honesty is the conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of National Review, not exactly a squishy liberal. The criticism that Crapo chalks up to a hit job is more correctly, as Ponnuru wrote recently, a legitimate concern that Shelton “is unlikely to exercise the steady and independent judgment that one would like to see from a central bank. They are, however, criticisms that can be defeated if she has a solid explanation for how her views have changed.” One doubts even Crapo can explain why Shelton’s views have so obviously changed.

As is often the case the simplest answer is the correct one. Shelton wanted to be nominated and she bent her views to please a president who cares not a whit about competence.

(Since this column was submitted for publication Trump named another incompetent loyalist, Richard Grenell, as Director of National Intelligence. Grenell, before becoming a divisive ambassador to Germany, was a frequent Fox News talking head. He was designated “acting director,” which allows the president – and fellow Republicans – to avoid Senate confirmation, a battle that would fully expose the fact that Grenell has zero experience related to the sensitive and critical job he now holds. More proof of Trump’s demands for loyalty over competence._

As the Senate decides what to do with Shelton’s appointment, Crapo may yet show some rare independence and join the chorus of critics who don’t want to see the Federal Reserve become just one more incompetent branch of the Trump White House, a neutered, subservient vehicle to carry out the president’s economic whims.

But don’t count on it.

As conservative columnist Michael Gerson recently noted, “A nation in need of Republican leaders has found flunkies instead.” And the flunkies have bequeathed us the now central tenants of Republican government: corruption and incompetence, the hallmarks of an authoritarian administration.

A greater Idaho?


If you drive along or near Interstate 5 in the area between Grants Pass, Oregon, and Red Bluff, California, you’ll see frequent references in road signage - and hear some on some radio outlets - to the State of Jefferson.

You won’t find it on a map, but it has been in the minds - and hearts? - of many people along the Oregon/California border for decades. It goes back to a plan proposed in 1941 by the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon, intended to create a 51st state out of much of that area, and would have placed the capital at Yreka, in what was and is California.

Despite revivals in recent decades, and a local populist fist-pumping that resembles in some ways that of the old Confederacy, the effort never has made much progress. (The change made would involve getting approval from all affected existing states, plus approval by Congress.) But the reference to an informal State of Jefferson does have some basis as a matter of political analysis, because this area, the southwest corner of Oregon and the far north of California, is ideologically far different from the population centers of its two host states: At least as (actually more) conservative and Republican than their full states are liberal and Democratic.

Politically, the theoretical state of Jefferson overall is a lot like the actual state of Idaho.

This year, regional and even national news reports say some people in some of the conservative sectors of Oregon are coming up with another idea, looking east more than south: Not a new state but rather a shifting of the state boundaries, to extend Idaho west all the way to the Pacific Coast, including just about all of the State of Jefferson, including much of northern California.

The ungainly-looking would-be addition to Idaho seems carefully drawn to exclude nearly any population center with a significant trace of blue. The smallish city of Ashland, Oregon, which is strongly Democratic, would be the largest. The Idaho state line would stop just short of Chico, California (a mostly Democratic university town), Bend, Oregon (historically Republican but these days trending blue) and the Democratic parts of the northern Oregon coast. If this new territory were added, Idaho would be just about as red as it is today.

California would be even deeper blue than it already is. And Oregon, which now is a mostly but not overwhelminglyDemocratic state, would become about as slam-dunk blue as Idaho is red. You probably could find Portlanders who would be happy with the landectomy.

And that’s where the problems start to come in.

One advantage Oregon and Washington have - sometimes hard to see when the political warfare heats up - is that these states are not all blue or red. They have plenty of people of both, and other, persuasions. Washington’s state legislature was split between Republican and Democratic control until recently, and Oregon’s legislature is close enough that in most recent cycles the battle for control of the chambers actually is serious. Democrats win most of the statewide offices, but usually not by overwhelming margins. The secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, is held by Republicans in both states.

When you live in Washington or Oregon, you get some exposure to the views and proposals of not just one side but of both. The parts of Oregon that would be in “Greater Idaho” in fact often see their local preferences - on statewide ballots - headed to defeat on election day. But they contribute importantly to the conversation. At the state legislature conservative ideas, and conservative critiques of liberal ideas, are heard and have to be taken seriously. The value of that is widely (even if not universally) recognized. It can make for legislation and ballot issues that, for example, in more cases can hold up to popular votes and court challenges, and will survive over time.

It’s a strength Idaho has in shorter supply. Over the last generation, as Idaho Democrats have withered in political clout, the public conversation often circles inward to involve only Republicans and conservatives - other viewpoints need not apply. That kind of narrowness is not helpful.

Of course, if what you really want to hear from and experience only people who think and vote the way you do, that may be comforting. But it’s also short-term and limited thinking. A “Greater Idaho” wouldn’t, then, help much in making for a greater Idaho.