Paris, part 1

Dear Donald –

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written, but you’ve been busy in the meantime making quite a mess of things. As time goes by, we’ll discuss much of it, I’m sure, but today I wanted to talk about your biggest fuck-up to date – the Paris Climate Accords. 

First, we should address the greenhouse gas emitting elephant in the room. Climate change is happening, and it’s being driven largely by Human activity. Nowhere in the world is this a partisan political issue outside of the U.S. It is an accepted fact. The members of your party who disagree with that fact fall largely into two camps – those who just aren’t smart enough to understand the science and those who do understand the science but are too cowardly or venal to admit it. This second group believes that admitting that they believe in climate change (and believe is an odd word – like saying I believe the earth is a planet – it’s a fact, not really a belief) means that here may be political and/or fundraising consequences as those who profit from the status who and would lose out in a shift to more sustainable practices rally against them. For these members of the party, there’s not much that can be done. They will continue to publicly deny that which they know to be true until the political tides are so strongly allied against them that they can’t continue to ignore reality. 

As for the first group, those who simply do t understand the massive evidentiary basis for man-made climate change, it’s a thornier and issue. It’s completely possible that they haven’t sufficiently engaged in the subject to understand it or that, even if they did, it’s just beyond their grasp. And that’s okay, except that the fate of the world depends on understanding and accepting this fact. Let’s be clear, though.  There are plenty of things people don’t understand in this world. If you went up to most politicians and asked how radios or microwaves work, or why the sky is blue, they won’t be able to explain it. We don’t need to understand every single piece of the world and all the science behind it for us to act on it. They may not know why or how their microwave works, but they know when they put something in it, it comes out hotter. You should be able to look at weather patterns over the last several decades, or the shearing of million year old ice shelves, or massive hurricanes, and realize that something different is happening, that something is changing. But even if you can’t do that, I’d argue that you should still accept climate change as real and act on that belief. 

There’s something known as Pascal’s wager. When contemplating whether or not to believe in God, Pascal argued that he could believe in God or not, and that, ultimately, God actually does or does not exist. If he believed in God, and he did exist, then Pascal was good. If he believed in God and he didn’t exist, then there was no real harm. Similarly, if he didn’t believe in God, and he didn’t exist, there’s no harm. However, Pascal postulated that if he did not believe in Gid and he did exist, he would suffer eternal damnation. Ultimately, if God didn’t exist, there was no real harm either way, but if he did exist, why risk eternal damnation by not believing?

Climate change represents a similar wager for us all (or at least those who are ignorant of the clear facts before us). If it doesn’t exist, then whether we do nothing or we act to mitigate it, we’ve really lost nothing. But if it does exist, and we do nothing, we risk destroying the planet. So why not believe in it and act to mitigate its effects?

Syrian air strike

Dear Donald –

Last night, you decided to launch an air strike on an airfield in western Syria, supposedly the launch point for the recent sarin gas attack by government forces in that country. You said it was in the vital national security interests of the United States to prevent the spread of chemical weapons and condemned prior international efforts as inadequate to address the problem of Assad’s leadership. 

I remember coming home from dinner 16 years ago and seeing another Republican president addressing the nation saying he had ordered a missile strike on another Middle Eastern country – an attack he said was designed to stop the spread of dangerous chemical and biological weapons. He said it was in the vital security interests of the United States and the world to do something and that the international community had clearly failed at dealing with this dictator. He ended up manufacuting an excuse to invade the country and, sixteen years and thousands of lives later, we still have troops in the country and it has devolved into ongoing sectarian violence. 

Syria is, to be fair, different than Iraq. Whereas Iraq was, by most measures, a stable country, Syria has spent the last seven years embroiled in a deadly, and convoluted civil war. There is the government, propped up by Russia, non-sectarian rebel groups seeking a democratic government, sectarian rebel groups looking to overturn Asssad and install theocratic government, Iranian backed rebel groups, and ISIL, among others. It is a war with constantly shifting alliances and no easy answers about who is right and who is wrong and he best way to ensure peace. 

It’s one reason why the U.S., until now, has been hesitant to get involved. There’s no clear solution to the Syria problem, and it seems perfectly designed to drain resources indefinitely and embroil any participants in an impossible quagmire. It’s also setting up as a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia,  with Putin preferring to prop up the Assad regime and the U.S., until recently, had placed the preotection of human rights as a primary feature of its foreign policy, meaning support of the overthrow of Assad and installation of a liberal democracy. 

The best way forward has always seemed to be to establish no fly zones and safe zones within Astro to protect innocents and refugees, while providing protection and safe passage to those attempting to flee the country. Then, provide them haven in other countries, including the U.S., until the situation settles down. You don’t seem to be endnotes with that approach. 

Deep American involvement in the country, particularly a military intervention that has the potential to drain time, resources, and support at home and abroad, would serve only to weaken the U.S. and it’s international reputation – an outcome that only furthers Putin’s interests. It’s part of the reason Russia sought to put its thumb on the scale in the election. They believed that you were much more likely to take action without thinking through the consequences and destabilize the geopolitical order. 

Don’t live up to the expectations. 

You’ve already sent one American soldier to his death on a fool’s errand. Don’t repeat that mistake thousands of times over. 

Who Knew Healthcare Could Be So Complicated? Part 3

Dear Donald –

We’ve already talked about the basic structure underpinning the ACA and the impact of the GOP bill on precipitating a death spiral by penalizing people who reenter the marker rather than those who stay out of it. Today I want to talk about subsidies. 

Health insurance can be expensive, so the ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility to anyone making less than 138% of the Federal poverty level and provided subsidies and tax credits to help those not enrolled in Medicaid purchase insurance on the private market. Now, let’s think about who needs help paying for insurance. Chances are, folks who don’t have much income are going to have a harder time being able to afford insurance than people with more money. Let’s say you have a $3,500 per year insurance plan. A 28 year old earning $20,000 per year will gave a much harder time covering that cost than a 55 year old making $100,000 per year. The ACA recognized that and made tax credits available to individuals purchasing private insurance on a sliding scale based on income. 

But wait. Money isn’t the same everywhere. Cost of living varies widely in this country and $75,000 in New York City doesn’t go nearly as far as it does in Sandusky, Ohio. That’s why the ACA actually made their tax credits not only contingent on income, but also on location. 

Those seem like smart designs. 

Now, let’s change things up a bit. First off, instead of giving subsidies to people based on income, the new Reoublican plan bases subsidies on age. Even though a 30 year old and a 50 year old may have the same health care plan, the 50 year old gets a bigger subsidy, even if she makes two or three times as much money as the 30 year old. Under the Republican healthcare plan, anyone making less than $75,000 per year, or couples making less than $150,000 per year, qualify for tax credits based on age. The subsidies increase by $500 for each decade of age, maxing out at $4,000 for individuals 60 and over. And that’s not all, those earning above $75,000 per year can get subsidies too, they just decrease the value by 10% of the amount you earn over $75,000. So a 60 year old earning $95,000 per year would get a tax credit of $2,000 ($4,000 minus 10% of $20,000). Similarly, a 22 year old making $15,000 per year would get a tax credit worth $2,000. 

Under what circumstances would two people making such vastly different sums of money need the same help to buy the same thing?  The only people this plan really benefits are wealthier and slightly older people. Young, low income people end up losing out in a major way. 

Particularly for those just above the poverty line, who don’t qualify for Medicaid (at least under the Republican plan), the $2,000 tax credit may be their only option for insurance coverage, and what kind of plan can you honestly buy for that? 

The Republicans have made a stock industry out of playing generations off of each other.  Any conversation about entitlements quickly sells out the young for the benefit of the middle aged, having decided long ago that younger generations should pay the price for years of financial mismanagement to benefit boomers.  

Paul Ryan recently said that the healthcare bill is about creating a fairer tax code, but let’s be honest, the only thing that fairer can possibly mean in this context is “more beneficial to older richer people”. That’s who Fepublicans have always been more concerned with, and nothing changes here. 

On Monday, minimum coverage requirements.  

Who Knew Healthcare Could Be So Complicated? Part 2

Dear Donald –

Yesterday, I wrote about the basics of how  we get from covering oreexisting conditions to the ACA in a few logical steps. Today, I wanted to start going through the GOP replacement bill and see how it stacks up. Last night (or should I say this morning) the Ways and Means Committee approved the bill after an 18 hour session. I’d be willing to put good money on the fact that most of the “yes” votes haven’t fully read the bill considering it was only out for less than 48 hours before the meeting started. To be fair, I don’t think many of the “no” votes read the bill fully either, but they knew there were enough bad provisions to poison the entire thing, regardless of anything they might have agreed with. 

Let’s start with what is basically the linchpin of the entire ACA – the individual mandate. Without it, insurance pools quickly fall into a death spiral as healthy people drop out of the market and leave the sick ones behind. Since the very beginning, Republicans have attacked this provision as a direct assault on freedom, democracy, and apple pie. They argued that, by requiring individuals to purchase health insurance, you were mandating their participation in a market that they might not want to participate in. They said it was akin to requiring everyone to eat broccoli. As bizarre as that analogy is (who wrote that talking point? Someone’s four year old refusing to eat their vegetables?)it’s also way off base. Most traditional marketplaces actually provide a genuine option for non-participation without negative externalities. Basically, I can choose not to buy broccoli and it doesn’t really hurt anyone who does choose to buy broccoli. Health insurance is different. First of all, I can’t really choose not to participate in the healthcare system. By being a living breathing thing, I will at some point get sick or have an accident that requires medical care or die. At any of those junctures, I will interact with the healthcare system. My very existence is a guarantee of eventual market participation. 

As for the second issue, my decision not to purchase health insurance actually harms those who choose to purchase insurance. By not buying insurance, I operate outside the risk pool and drive up costs for others by either being exceptionally costly to serve when I join or by driving up the costs by not being able to pay my bills out of pocket as Heath care providers inflate what they charge insurance to cover the cost of the defaults. 

Regardless, Republicans HATE the individual mandate and made it a key piece of their repeal agenda. So what did they come up with?

An individual mandate that incentivizes staying uninsured for as long as possible. 

Remember, the ACA mandate charges individuals an annual tax as long as they stay uninsured and the government uses that money to help offset the costs of insuring more people. Under the replacement plan, individuals who lose their health insurance or let their coverage lapse would not be taxed by the government. Instead, private insurers would get to charge them extra when they do finally Get insurance again – up to 130% of the standard rate. That’s right, the Republican plan to end the individual mandate, increase coverage, and bring costs down keeps the mandate, penalizes those who are net covers when they decide to re-enroll, and increases costs. 

Let’s start with a basic issue – inertia. People, like objects, are content to keep doing what they’re doing unless something makes them change. The ACA penalty does that.  It makes staying uninsured costly. The new plan makes staying uninsured ideal, particularly when the cost of insurance would be 30% higher than it was when you lapsed coverage. Let’s imagine someone paying $5,000 per year for healthcare which they let lapse. Suddenly, they have the extra $5,000 per year and no penalties. Then, should they choose to reenroll, doing so could now cost them $6,500. What’s my incentive to re-enroll then until I absolutely have to have coverage – when I’m going to be the most expensive to the insurer and when I’m most likely to help precipitate the death spiral. The penalty is on those who choose to re-enter, not those who left, so the incentive is to just not re-enter. 

Next, note that now the penalty would get paid out to the insurance companies, not to the government, meaning that the global harms I may have done to the insurance market are offset with payments to private industry. The government no longer can use those funds for more genral welfare purposes. They get used to inflate CEO bonuses, not subsidize healthcare for low income Americans. 

It’s a truly bad idea that incentivizes all the wrong behavior and rewards the wrong actors. As a general rule, you penalize people doing what you DONT want them to do; you don’t penalize them for doing the right thing. Tomorrow, subsidies. 

Who Knew Healthcare Could Be So Complicated? Part 1

Dear Donald –

Seven years in development, and we finally have the GOP healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). And it’s bad.  Really bad. Despite all of the promises they’ve made over the years, this bill is really a slapdash of conservative talking points without any real cohesive vision. As you said, who knew healthcare could be this complicated? (other than anyone who’s watched the news or read a paper in the last decade or so) so I figured it’d be worthwhile to take some time and send you a few notes about some of the main pieces to help you understand what’s really at stake. 

Let’s start off with the basics. Insurance is about pooled risk. That means that it’s all about getting enough people to buy into the program to cover the costs of just a few of them needing payouts. For example, if I’ve got 100 people in my insurance pool each paying $1,000 then I’ve got $100,000 to make payments. If the folks I’m insuring need $150,000 in payouts, then I’m losing money. The whole idea is to balance high risk people with low risk people, preferably with a focus on the low risk ones so there’s money left over to pay salaries and such. 

Prior to the ACA, people with preexisting conditions had a hard time getting insurance coverage, mostly because the risk of payout was too high for insirers  As a result, people had to forego coverage for those conditions or join what is known as a “high risk pool” – a group of people whose risk of payout was much higher than normal, so the premiums were much higher. Needless to say, many folks couldn’t afford to join these high risk pools and just didn’t have coverage. 

One critical feature of ACA is what is known as “guaranteed issue,” which means that insurance companies have to offer insurance to everyone, regardlesss of preexisting conditions. However, the standard approach of insurance companies to guaranteed issue is simply to charge those higher risk people more money. To make sure that people can actually afford coverage, the ACA required guaranteed issue at the standard rate, meaning that they couldn’t charge high risk people more. That creates a problem for insurers though, because then individuals with these conditions have no incentive to maintain coverage, as they can wait until they get sick to buy insurance, meaning that the only people in the insurance pool are costly and the insurer can’t charge them more. We’re stuck again with a $100,000 pool needing $150,000 in payouts. As a result, the insurance company needs to raise the standard rate to cover the payouts. Now, they want to charge those 100 people $1,500 each to cover the payouts. That price increase will drive more people out of the market who don’t need the costly payouts. That means less money into the pool while the remaining people are sicker than average. And on and on and on. This is the “death spiral.”  Insurance companies have to keep raising rates to offset costs which drives more people out leaving sicker people behind. 

To stop the death spiral, insurers need a crop of healthy low risk people to offset the costs of the sicker, high risk people. And that’s the individual mandate. By making everyone buy insurance, the ACA protected insurers against the death spiral.  The individual mandate was enforced by assessing a penalty on anyone who didn’t maintain coverage and continued to assess it as long as they remained uninsured. Those funds went to the government to help finance the expansion of Medicaid for low income people who couldn’t afford to buy private insurance. 

Now that everyone’s got to buy insurance, you’ve got to make sure that (1) they’re not being charged exorbitant prices and (2) they’re actually receiving something worth buying. To address the first issue, the ACA capped the profit margins that insurance companies could have. If insurers neded up making more than a certain percentage profit, it meant they were overcharging the pool of consumers for their own benefit. In such an instance, insurers are required to reimburse consumers. They still get a profit, but that profit isn’t unlimited, recognizing that consumers, under the individual mandate, don’t have be option not to participate in the market. 

To address the second issue,the ACA required all insurance plans to offer a basic level of coverage. Think of it like car companies being required to offer a minimum range of safety features in their vehicles – they have to have headlights and seatbelts and turn signals and brakes. You can make a car with less features, but you can’t drive it on the road legally because it would put both the driver and other people on the road at risk. An insurance plan that didn’t cover basic items still put consumers at risk of catastrophic expenses that would go uncovered,  making them just as good as uninsured. Additionally, it put all other consumers at risk because if they couldn’t pay the cost of that extra uncovered illness, the costs would get passed on to everyone else. 
So, yeah, healthcare is complicated. But it’s also pretty straightforward. If you start with the premise that people with preexistingcinsitions should be able to get insurance and they shouldn’t have to pay exorbitant rates, you pretty quickly get to ACA. That’s just the way it is. Tomorrow, we’ll start to discuss how your Republican friends are screwing it all up. 

Gold Star props

Dear Donald –

Your speech last night has been getting decent reviews, with most outlets praising your “tone” – a clear sign to me that the bar is incredibly low for you right now. Truthfulness or policy prescriptions don’t matter as much as whether or not you seemed batshit crazy up there. Case in point, one analysis showed 51 falsehoods in your 61 minute speech, and yet the reviews aren’t talking about that. 

All that aside, there’s one moment in particular I’d like to talk about.  During your speech, you made a point to recognize the widow of Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL killed during the botched raid in Yemen you ordered last month. It was a poignant moment, no doubt. But there are some major issues underlying it that many outlets are glossing over.

First, the raid itself. As I’ve noted before, you ordered the raid over dinner with General Mattis, Steve, and Jared without being fully briefed about the operation. Multiple civilians were killed, including an American girl, and Ryan was also killed. And for all that, we got intelligence that was already easily available online. In short, it was a debacle. It’s amazing that it hasn’t snowballed more than it has. 

Despite that fact, you continue to tout it as a major success, as you did last night, saying that the intelligence gathered makes Americans safer. But you still refuse to take responsibility for Ruan’s death. In an interview with Fox News that aired yesterday, you tried to pin responsibility on the generals, saying that they wanted to do it and “they lost Ryan.” No. Incorrect. You’re the one in charge. You’re the one making the decisions and you have the green light. Ryan’s blood is on your hands. Without your sloppy management and laissez fairer attitude about military oversight, he would still be alive today, as would the 15 civilians killed. 

You never saw combat. You got three deferments from the draft, using daddy’s connections to get out of serving your country when everyone had to go. Ryan signed up and volunteered when he didn’t have to. He was a true hero who understood service and sacrifice. For you to treat his life so callously should be an affront to us all. 

Instead, we have a draft dodger using the widow of an American hero he ordered to his death as a prop in his speech designed to further his xenophobic rhetoric and justify sending more men and women to their deaths. 

And the news talks about “tone.”

Immigration order

Dear Donald – 

A cornerstone of your campaign, since the very beginning, has been the demonization of immigrant communities. Whether it be your statements about rapists and murderers, border walls, or Indiana born judges, youveconinually sought to isolate, fear monger, and scapegoat immigrants. Last week, your Administration used the powers uou now wield to start your long-promised crackdown. 

Your immigration order vastly expanded the number of individuals subject to immediate deportation. The Obama Administration focused its efforts on “hardened criminals” – those convicted of serious felonies and repeat offenders. Your new order prioritized these folks, but also those charged with a crime (even if they haven’t veeen convicted), and those who could be charged with a crime. Since anyone in the county without a visa could technically be charged with a crime, you essentially “prioritized” everysingle  undocumented immigrant in the country. 

You ordered the hiring of 15,000 new border patrol agents, a 75% increase over current levels. The last ramp up was played with problems, driven largely by an inability to find qualified staff. There are even a huge number of vacancies today. If we can’t fill the positions we already have open, how are we going to massively increase staffing without cutting some major corners in vetting applicants? And with populations as vulnerable as those coming across the border and concerns about undue influence from coyotes and drug smugglers, CBP officers need to be beyond reproach. 

Your order increases the number of people subject to expedited review and deportation (from those in the country less than 2 weeks to those here less than 2 years). Functionally, this means you’ve dramatically increased the number of people who will not receive a hearing or adequate due process prior to deportation. How is denying due process to anyone an American value?

You’re also trying to expand a program that deputized local law enforcement to participate in deportation actions, meaning that immigrant communities are less likely to engage with law enforcement, even when they need them. For example, if I know my neighbor or brither or coworker is undocumented, am I going to call the police when I get robbed or abused if I think they might jail and deport the people I care about? Let alone if I’m the one subject to deportation. Undocumented immigrants in this country are already subject to substandard treatment because people know they’re less likely to report violations. Why exacerbate that problem? You only drive them further into the shadows. 

We all already know about the case of Guadalupe Garc├Ča de Rayos, but more stories are coming out now. There was a woman in Texas who was removed from a hospital when she was seeking treatment for a brain tumor. And the woman who was arrested when trying to file a complaint against her domestic abuser. These stories will only continue to grow as the deportation force continues to sweep across the country. 

I can only hope that Americans of good conscience stand up against this travesty of justice and make their voices heard. 

Budget increases and cuts

Dear Donald –

Yesterday, you released the first details of your first budget request to Congress. It was scarce on details, but it did confirm that you plan to ask for a 10% increase in defense spending, about $58 billion extra.  Clearly, the first question is where that type of money comes from. Supposedly, that funding will be offset by cuts in other non-defense discretionary spending. Let’s go through the basics for a second. 

There are generally two types of funding – mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory funding is money that is authorized to be spent in an existing law and doesn’t require any action from Congress each year to be spent. For example, Medicare funding is mandatory funding, so That money isn’t dependent on Congress every year. Mandatory funding represents about 65% of annual Federal spending. Discretionary funding is the money that Congress appropriates annually. If Congress doesn’t take action, no funds can be spent on that purpose. For example, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts is discretionary, as is funding for a huge swatch of Federal programs. Discretionary appropriations are about $1.1 trillion annually, or about 30% of total annual spending. Your announcement yesterday was just about this piece of the Federal budget. 

Within discretionary funding, there is a clear breakdown – defense and non-defense. You see, he U.S. spends so much on its military that it constitutes over half of all discretionary spending – 54% in 2015 or $598 billion. Everything else combined – foreign aid, education, highways, housing programs, the VA, NASA, and everything in between – is only about $500 billion. 

Now, the other thing to remember is how U.S. military spending compares internationally. Worldwide, nations spent $1,676 billion on their militaries in 2015, meaning we alone constituted more than 35% of the worldwide total. We spend about as much as the next eight countries combined. A list that includes China, Russia, Germany, he United Kingde, France, and Japan. We’re not hurting when it comes to military spending. 

With that context, we have to ask why we need to spend more. What do we get for $650 billion that we can’t get for $600 billion? In a 2015 report, the Department of Defense was found to be wasting $125 billion over a five year period. DOD buried the report because they were afraid their budgets would get cut. With that much waste, why would we increase their annual funding until they’ve realized all possible efficiencies with their current funding?

Then there’s the question of what trade-offs we have to make. You said that the defense increases would be offset by reductions in non-defense discretionary spending, meaning that the extra $58 billion has to be cut from everything else – about a 12% cut across the board for all other programs. And that’s a net decrease. If there are any new initiatives in there, existing programs have to be cut even more.

 For example, you’ve pushed for $20 billion for school vouchers. If we assume that’s over 10 years, that’s about $2 billion per year. In 2016, the Department of Education’s budget was $68 billion. A 12% cut would be more than an $8 billion reduction in funding across the board. If you want to get $2 billion for vouchers, you’ve got to cut another $2 billion from existing programs, meaning a $10 billion cut in existing programs, or about 15%, and that’s assuming Education doesn’t get singled out for deeper cuts than other agencies. When you’re making cuts that deep, there are only a few places you can go – Title I grants to school distreicts, special education funding, teacher quality and training grants, or Pell grants have to take a hit, along with a whole host of other grant programs. 

So, is that worth it?  That’s the question that will ultimately be up to Congress. I can only hope that they don’t agree to this unnecessary military buildup at the expense of critical programs that help our most vulnerable citizens. 


Dear Donald –

Did you see the news about Senate Bill 142 in Arizona?  It just passed the Senate on a party line vote last week and is on its way to the House.  You’d probably like it, but odds are that a Justice Gorsuch will be reviewing it before too long. 

You see, SB142 is intended, supposedly, to go after paid protestors, though for the life of me I can’t say I’ve ever met one. The bill allows police to charge not only rioters with rioting, but also anyone else involved in the protest, including any peaceful demonstrators and event organizers. In so doing, they open up everyone attending a march to criminal charges if even one person causes property damage. By that logic, everyone attending your inauguration could have beenarrested because a few people decided to smash windows. 

And that’s not all. SB142 also links those charges with the state’s RICO statues, which allows the seizure of personal assets to reimburse victims of crime. It was meant to financially cripple organized crime. It may be used in Arizona to bankrupt rally organizers if anyone causes a disturbance.

This  bill serves no purpose other than to chill free speech. It is designed to intimidate organizers into not planning rallies or demonstrations with the fear that, if someone,anyone, connected with the rally or not, decides to commit vandalism, they will be personally liable, and potentially spend a year in jail. 

One thing about you right-wingers, you’re definitely not subtle about this stuff. Voter ID laws? What do the black folks have? Let’s block those. Protests in the streets? Let’s lock up and bankrupt the organizers. 

It’s a scary world we live in, and bills like SB142 make jr a little scarier by silencing the house of the people. 

The first amendment is precious and must be protected. The people have a right to speak up without fear of reprisal, regardless of message. I fear Arizona has forgotten that. 

You’ve sprung a leak

Dear Donald –

It sucks when you can’t control the news cycle. A political operation running like a finely tuned machine can usually use selected leaks of information to the right news outlets at the right time to their advantage – floating an idea for a policy proposal or a nomination to test the waters without actually making a commitment, for example. However, when you can’t control the cycle, you’re constantly playing defense, with information getting out before you’re ready for it to, or even when you don’t want it out at all. You and Sean have both seemed particularly on edge lately about the leaks out of the White House, leading to crackdowns on staff. 

Just the other day, Sean brought his entire staff into his office and demanded access to their work and personal cell phones to check for signs of subversive behavior, or something. Supposedly, even having Confide or Signal on their phones was sufficient justification for firing. Now, I won’t fault Sean for that.  A communications office firing a staffer for unauthorized communications with the press doesn’t seem too far fetched.  However, I think it’s probably crossing a line to demand access to personal cell phones, particularly without any other evidence of wrongdoing. Either way, the fishing expedition he was clearly on went too far, and not just because even having an app on your personal cell phone (an app Sean himself is said to have used) was apparently grounds for dismissal. 

You see, Sean brought in White House Counsel to up the ante, even having them frame outside communications with the press as a violation of the Federal Records Act, which it clearly isn’t. First off, the Federal Records Act pertains to, shockingly enough, records. Under the law, “records” are:

…all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or the cause of the informational value of data in them

In short, most anything you write down while doing your job as a government employee can be considered a record. A conversation you have with a member of the press about your job is not a record for FRA purposes. 

And any halfway decent lawyer knows that. Which means that the White House Counsel knew Sean was wrong in his threats and went along with it anyway. In our system of government, lawyers serve a vital function as checks on executive power. By clearly delineating right from wrong, they provide guardrails that protect the American people from the excesses of unchecked power. Lawyers that fail to serve that role in pursuit of giving the executive the answer that he wants only undermines good governance. Look at the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program. The executive was given cover to engage in illegal and horrifying torture of prisoners by a lawyer who drafted a memo. 

Here, lawyers gave Sean free reign to intimidate and bully his staff and potentially illegally Stacy their personal cell phones. And this is just because of a few small news leaks. What happens when someone higher up the food chain comes asking for even bigger favors?  Will they say no then when they couldn’t even say no to Sean now?