Malacandra.me

The Pitch President

Whoever touches pitch will be defiled, and whoever associates with a proud man will become like him.

- Sirach 13:1

Until two days ago, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, had an enviable reputation as a straight-shooting law-enforcement official respected by members of both parties. Then he decided that he was willing to help President Trump tamper with an investigation into his presidential campaign. Now Rosenstein’s reputation is permanently damaged, as it deserves to be. In that damage is a lesson for other subordinates and allies of Trump.

- David Leonhart, "Rod Rosenstein Fails His Ethics Test"
The New York Times, May 10

This week's featured post is "Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?"

This week everybody was talking about Jim Comey and the Russia investigation

I cover one aspect of this in the featured post. Initially, Trump spokespeople claimed Comey wasn't fired because of the investigation, but then Trump more-or-less said he was. That's obstruction of justice, which was an impeachable offense when Congress thought Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon might be doing it. This Congress, though, doesn't seem inclined to defend our system of government against a president of its own party.

This is a good time to review exactly what there is to investigate. Obstruction of justice is a fourth question which arose during investigation of these original three:

  • How can we prevent Russia (or other powers) from interfering in future elections the way Russia interfered in 2016? This is the plainly bipartisan part of the investigation. Republicans and Democrats alike should worry about hostile foreign powers having a thumb on the scale of our elections.
  • Was Putin simply an outside force acting for his own interests, or was the Trump campaign cooperating with its Russian allies? This is where the bizarrely dense network of connections between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives -- and the Trump people's repeated lying about meetings with Russians -- becomes relevant. It's not a crime to know somebody or even talk to them, but why lie about it?
  • Beyond any natural affinity between Trump and Putin, do they have some deal that Trump is now obligated to complete? This is the nightmare scenario, the Manchurian Candidate come to life. So far, I haven't heard or seen anything that makes this seem likely, but it doesn't have to be likely to be scary. Anything that points in this direction needs to be thoroughly checked out. In particular: Does Putin have something on Trump? This is why the Trump Organization's long-standing relationships with Russian oligarchs need to be investigated.

Trump and his defenders argue that there is (as yet) no publicly available evidence proving anything about the second or third questions, so there's "no there there". But here is a minimal list of things that need to be done before the investigation can be over.

  • Every Trump associate who has lied about meeting with Russians or about an ongoing relationship with Russians -- so far I count Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, and Carter Page, at a minimum -- must testify in public under oath, and give an account of both the substance of their interactions and why they lied.
  • The Trump administration needs to give a credible account of how they vetted Michael Flynn, why they hired him, and why they sat on evidence against him (letting him continue in the highly sensitive position of National Security Adviser) until that evidence leaked to the press. Would they ever have fired him if not for the leaks?
  • Paul Manafort needs to come clean about how much he was paid by Russia, Russian puppet governments like the former regime in Ukraine, and Russian oligarchs closely associated with Putin. What did he do for them? When, if ever, did his relationship with them end? In particular, was he still working for them when he was managing Trump's campaign?
  • Similar questions for Michael Flynn.
  • During the campaign, how did Roger Stone know that something concerning John Podesta was about to come out? Did the Trump campaign get other heads-up alerts before Russia/WikiLeaks released new material hacked from the Democrats?
  • The public needs to know how much money has passed back and forth between Russian oligarchs and the Trump Organization, Trump himself, and members of the Trump family over the last 20 years or so. Did all transactions happen at market rates?
  • Is there some reason why the firing of Jim Comey was not the obstruction of justice it appears to be? If it was, should Trump be impeached for it?

In the course of covering those six issues, other issues are likely to arise as well. Those must also be pursued to their conclusion.

but we should all be paying more attention to Trump's voter suppression task force

Thursday, Trump signed an executive order creating a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. It is chaired by Vice President Pence, and vice-chaired by Kris Kobach, who has a long history of drumming up phony voter-fraud issues to justify voter-suppression tactics.

Ever since he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, Trump has been soothing his wounded ego with the fantasy that "millions" of illegal votes were cast. And unlike any other demographic group, all of the illegal voters picked Clinton.

In fact, it's much more likely that Trump owes his Electoral College victory to voter suppression. The Nation reports:

A new study by Priorities USA, shared exclusively with The Nation, shows that strict voter-ID laws, in Wisconsin and other states, led to a significant reduction in voter turnout in 2016, with a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters. Wisconsin’s voter-ID law reduced turnout by 200,000 votes, according to the new analysis. Donald Trump won the state by only 22,748 votes.

Voter suppression was also an issue in Republican-controlled swing states like North Carolina and Florida. In other words: If all the legal voters who wanted to vote had succeeded in doing so, Trump might not be president.

So voter suppression -- making it harder to vote in hopes that many people won't jump through all the hoops -- is close to this president's heart. The excuse for voter suppression is voter fraud, the belief that large numbers of votes are cast illegally, either by people who shouldn't be voting at all (like noncitizens) or by people who vote multiple times by either registering in many places or by impersonating someone else.

Study after study shows that voter fraud is a negligible phenomenon: It happens, but the numbers nationwide are tiny, far smaller than the number of legitimate voters who are discouraged or turned away by laws that make voting harder.


Nate Silver tells the full story of the report that is the basis for Trump's claim that "millions" of noncitizens voted illegally in the 2016 election. It's a fascinating narrative about an obscure kind of statistical error and the perverse ways that scientific research gets lodged in the public mind and influences public policy. In other words: Silver's article is way too long and wonky for most people to read all the way through, so it's not going to change the public debate.

Which is sort of the point. Understanding what really happens requires patience and an ability to deal with ambiguity. It's much more satisfying to respond to a clickbait headline like "Millions of Immigrants Vote Illegally!" and forward it to all your friends.

The statistical error in this case happens when you're studying a small subset of people in a larger survey: The legitimate responses can get swamped by erroneous responses from the larger group. So some small percentage of citizen voters will check the wrong box on the citizen/noncitizen question, but because the number of citizen voters is so much larger, that small percentage can still swamp the actual sample of noncitizen voters.

Luks, Schaffner and Ansolabehere [i.e., researchers critiquing the original paper] found evidence that, in this case, small was still significant. In particular, they noted multiple cases of people who marked themselves as citizens in 2010 but, on the 2012 edition of the survey, marked themselves as noncitizens, and vice versa. Moreover, this rate of error that we do know exists between 2010 and 2012 — just 0.1 percent — turned out, by itself, to be enough to account for all the noncitizen voters in Richman and Chattha’s 2010 sample. In other words, there might not have been any noncitizen voters that year.

I like to illustrate statistical concepts with sports examples, so here's an analogy: no-hitters in baseball. A no-hitter (a game where the opposition gets no hits) is a great pitching achievement, so we think of it as something a great pitcher might do. But there is also a lot of luck involved; no-hitters typically include a number of near-hits that are saved by some great fielding play or because a well-hit ball happens to go right at somebody. So there are two ways to get a no-hitter: You can be really, really good, or you can be an ordinary pitcher who for one night gets really, really lucky. An ordinary pitcher is unlikely to get that lucky, but because there are so many more ordinary pitchers than great ones, in fact fewer no-hitters are thrown by all-time greats (like Sandy Koufax) than by folks who are otherwise lost to history (like Bo Belinsky). An unlikely occurrence in a large group can still happen more often than a likely occurrence in a small group.

The takeaway should be that noncitizens do sometimes register and vote; there are anecdotal reports, usually featuring immigrants who don't understand voting laws and don't realize they're doing anything wrong. But the number of noncitizen voters nationwide is more likely to be measured in dozens than in millions.


Another bogus argument supporting the voter fraud myth is that voter registration rolls have millions of errors: People who die or move aren't promptly taken off the rolls, so in theory someone could cast votes under those registrations.

But like every other kind of voter fraud, there's no evidence that this is actually happening in more than a handful of cases. I examined a typical dead-people-are-voting story in "The Myth of the Zombie Voter": A computer search turned up hundreds of "dead voters" in South Carolina in the 2010 election, leading to many alarming headlines and garnering face-time on national TV for the South Carolina attorney general who initiated the search. But when election boards and the state police got involved, they found innocent explanations (like clerical errors or similar names) for all but three of those votes, and doubted that even those three were fraudulent. No one was prosecuted.

As for living people with multiple registrations, one of them is Trump's daughter Tiffany. Steve Bannon was registered in both New York and Florida. It can easily happen without any intent to commit voter fraud, and if people were actually voting in more than one place, that would be a matter of public record. (Who you vote for is secret, but the fact that you voted is public.) So this kind of fraud would be easy to prove, and yet nobody is proving it. You have to wonder why.


Samantha Bee discusses a kind of voter suppression that happens in plain sight: In a few states like Florida, anyone convicted of a felony loses voting rights permanently. When you hear that, you might picture murderers and rapists and not feel too bad about them not voting. But when you realize we're talking about 10% of the whole voting-age population and 1/4th of voting-age blacks, you realize "felons" must include more than just Trump's "bad hombres". "You might lose your right to vote over something as simple as driving with a suspended license."

In country with mass incarceration, particularly mass incarceration of black men, this makes for a serious distortion of democracy.

Two former felons are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to change the law, restoring felon voting rights after they complete their sentences and any subsequent probations. If you're a Florida voter, sign their petition.

and whatever is going on at the Census Bureau

You might think that the Census Bureau has a boring job: Every ten years, it tries to count everyone in America. But in a large country where people move around so much, and so many are suspicious of why somebody from the government is asking them questions, it turns out to be quite difficult.

What's more, the answers matter. They determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress; how federal money is distributed to care for the poor, the elderly, military veterans, the disabled, etc; whether people from various ethnic or religious groups manage to vote in the numbers you'd ordinarily expect; and so on.

There's currently a leadership crisis at the Census Bureau: Its director just quit, with rumors that his boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, was unhappy with his work. There's also currently no deputy director, and the Commerce under-secretary who is supposed to sit between the bureau and Ross hasn't been appointed.

The Bureau is also between a rock and a hard place: Congress wants to cut its funding, but also disapproves of using cheaper statistical methods to cut costs, rather than sending people out to talk to everybody. There is also a partisan divide: Conservatives don't like that the census collects so much data on ethnic subgroups like blacks or Hispanics, representing us as "a nation of groups" as National Review puts it.

If the census winds up poorly led and underfunded, the groups most likely to be undercounted are the poor and young adults, particularly people who are temporarily or permanently sleeping on somebody else's couch. That will have consequences.

and you might also be interested in

Republican word-guru Frank Luntz shows a real lack of understanding of Mothers Day, tweeting:

Twitter 2017: Where even gets turned into partisan politics

Leah Greenberg parodies his attitude:

"If only women could shut up and let us honor them without actually talking about the issues that affect their lives"

A little history: Mothers Day was originally about politics. It was Mothers Day for Peace, and was intended to give voice to the women who lost sons in the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe wrote:

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”


Speaking of peace, the Pentagon is pushing to expand the Afghan War effort again. Trump will hear their recommendations this week.


During the campaign, one of the most insightful articles about Trump was David Roberts' "The question of what Trump 'really believes' has no answer". Friday, he followed up with "We overanalyze Trump: He is what he appears to be".

ecause we are relentless pattern seekers, we are constantly developing theories of people, seeking to explain what they do through reference to their beliefs and plans.

This has badly misled us with Trump. Much of the dialogue around him, the journalism and analysis, even the statements of his own surrogates, amounts to a desperate attempt to construct a Theory of Trump, to explain what he does and says through some story about his long-term goals and beliefs.

We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him. It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next.

But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there? What if our attempts to explain Trump have failed not because we haven’t hit on the right one, but because we are, theory-of-mind-wise, overinterpreting the text?

In short, what if Trump is exactly as he appears: a hopeless narcissist with the attention span of a fruit fly, unable to maintain consistent beliefs or commitments from moment to moment, acting on base instinct, entirely situationally, to bolster his terrifyingly fragile ego.

We’re not really prepared to deal with that.


As New Orleans continues to fight over its Confederate monuments, University of Richmond philosopher Gary Shapiro writes a thoughtful column about the statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue, and the ambiguity about whether they are monuments or memorials.

If they are monuments, then Richmond is celebrating the Confederacy and the slavery-based society it was created to preserve. If Richmond no longer feels like celebrating that society, the monuments should be removed.

But if they are memorials, then removing them would deny Richmond's past. However,

Much could be added: plaques concerning the war itself, disputes over slavery, Richmond’s and Virginia’s roles in the Confederacy, Reconstruction (and its abrupt termination following the 1876 election deal), African-American disenfranchisement, the blatant racism surrounding the statues’ planning and dedication.

New statues (like, say, Nat Turner or John Brown) might be erected to remember Virginians who fought against slavery or the extension of white supremacy in 20th-century Jim Crow laws.

What Shapiro rejects is the position of those who defend Monument Avenue as it stands:

The contested works, originally built in a monumental spirit, are now defended as memorials. The figures honored cannot be acknowledged as predecessors who inspired Jim Crow, but as reminders of an old conflict, a fallen capital and hazily articulated ideas about “states’ rights.”

Richmond, Shapiro believes, should not be trying to forget or hide its history as the capital of the Confederacy. But contemporary citizens -- including black citizens, who are now the majority -- deserve a voice in how that history should be remembered.

and let's close with something off the wall

What do you get if you cross Star Wars with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? This!