Last night, BuzzFeed decided to publish a dossier of raw intelligence put together by a British former MI6 officer. Like most reports of this kind, it contains lots of tittle-tattle, and there's a good chance that much of it is untrue. So should BuzzFeed have published? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan makes the case against:

It’s never been acceptable to publish rumor and innuendo. And none of the circumstances surrounding this episode — not CNN’s story, not Trump’s dubious history with Russia, not the fact that the intelligence community made a report on it — should change that ethical rule.

Quite so, and virtually every mainstream media reporter seems to agree. And yet, I'm not so sure. Several things happened in the past couple of days that make this a trickier question:

  • The intelligence community briefed Obama, Trump, and several members of Congress about the contents of the dossier.
  • CNN reported that "US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago."
  • The Guardian reported that the FBI took these allegations seriously enough to apply for a wiretap warrant on several of Trump's aides.

This is still a judgment call. But it's not a judgment call about some random celebrity. It's a judgment call about the soon-to-be president of the United States. And it's about allegations that the intelligence community is taking very seriously.

What's more, this dossier has apparently been seen or discussed by practically everyone in Washington DC. It has long annoyed me that things like this can circulate endlessly among the plugged-in, where it clearly informs their reporting unbeknownst to all the rest of us. At some point, the rest of us deserve to know what's going on.

Put all that together—president, credibility among the intelligence community, and widespread dissemination—and I'm not at all sure that BuzzFeed did the wrong thing. Maybe this will all turn out to be the worst kind of made-up gossip, but at some point there's enough reporting around it that it's time to stop the tap dancing and let us know just what it is that has everyone so hot and bothered.

Health Update

Nothing much to report this month. After four straight months of my M-protein level holding stable at exactly 0.58, I was hoping to extend the streak to five. But no: this month it's at 0.51. That's down a bit, so it's good news. Everything else is stable and normal too (for me, that is). Take that, cancer.

On the other hand, this damn cold really needs to go away. Apparently everyone has it. Even my oncologist has it. And I'm pretty tired of coughing my lungs out every night. But maybe there was a bit less of that last night than usual. Maybe.

 

So what was the actual news from Trump's press conference? Here it is:

  • He will introduce legislation (or a plan or something) to both repeal and replace Obamacare within a few weeks.
  • He now believes Russia was probably behind the election hacking.
  • He has chosen a nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin.

The rest was mostly general whining about the press and various and sundry other Trump bugaboos.

The nomination of David Shulkin as Secretary of Veterans Affairs was certainly unexpected. After months of (mostly false) blather about how the VA was a failing organization and the current management was incompetent, Trump nominates...a member of the current management. In fact, he's the member of management who runs the Veterans Health Administration, the very organization that Trump has been so scathing about. This is very strange indeed.

NOTE: This liveblogging of Donald Trump's press conference would have worked a lot better if I'd actually published it instead of keeping it as a draft for the entire time. Sigh. Can I plead sickness? Anyway, here's what I wrote in real time.


12:16 pm - It would be nice if more reporters would ask specific questions about what Trump plans to do in office. But it's too late. The press conference is over.

12:15 pm - With Trump in office, Russia will no longer do any hacking. That's because Putin respects Trump.

12:14 pm - Trump is once again moaning and groaning about leaks.

12:13 pm - Once again, Trump says the Republican National Committee wasn't hacked. That does not appear to be true. Russia did hack Republicans, but didn't release anything they got.

12:09 pm - The press is terrible blah blah blah. We need more honest reporters.

12:07 pm - BuzzFeed is a "failing pile of garbage." CNN sucks too.

12:04 pm - Mexico is great. They've been so nice. But no more taking advantage of the US. He will announce a replacement for Scalia in a couple of weeks after the "signings." On Monday and Tuesday he will be doing a bunch of very nice "signings."

12:02 pm - Now we're back to the border tax. If you move your factory to Mexico, you will pay the price. No more of the Obama-esque shilly-shallying. Move to Mexico and you're not selling anything to America. Capiche?

11:59 am - I guess that's it for health care.

11:57 am - Obamacare is a complete and total disaster. It's imploding. 2017 will be catastrophic. But Trump won't allow that. Soon he will introduce repeal and replace, very complicated stuff, all at the same time. Within the same day, or the same week, or even the same hour. We are doing the Democrats a great service. It will be far less expensive and far better.

11:54 am -  Back to Trump: "We have one of the great cabinets that's ever been put together."

11:52 am - Dillon is now saying that paying for a hotel room is not an "emolument." But because this is the kind of guy he is, Trump plans to donate all his hotel profits to charity if they come from a foreign government. Or something. I didn't entirely follow that.

11:45 am - Trump lost "millions of dollars" by canceling all ongoing deals. Poor guy. There will be no new foreign deals. New domestic deals will be allowed, but only under the tightest possible ethical standards. All Trump Organization social media accounts will be banned from mentioning the presidency.

11:43 am - Dillon: Trump businesses will all be put in a trust. Management of trust will be in the hands of Don Jr. and Eric Trump. An ethics advisor will be appointed to the management team. Everyone is committed to making sure Trump businesses are "beyond approach."

11:41 am - Trump attorney Sheri Dillon is now going on and on about how conflict-of-interest laws don't apply to the president.

11:35 am - Trump says he has no relationship with Russia, period. No deals, no loans, no nothing. He turned down a $2 billion deal in Dubai just this weekend! He could have taken it, he says, since presidents can't have conflicts of interest. Plus, he could be president and run his company if he wanted to. He's the only person who could do such a thing. But, you know, that looks bad, doesn't it? In any case, no, he's not going to release his tax returns.

11:29 am - For the first time, Trump says the hacking of the DNC was "probably Russia."

11:22 am - Now Trump is rambling about multiple subjects: Fiat Chrysler, the high cost of drugs, the F-35, Jack Ma. The inauguration will have "tremendous talent." It will be a very elegant day. Massive crowds. A movement like the world has never seen. Oh, and speaking of veterans, he's appointed a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. Shulkin is currently Under Secretary for Health in the VA. Sounds like a guy who's really going to shake things up.

11:20 am - Trump says he stopped giving news conferences because there had been so much inaccurate news. But now he's back—and he's thanking the news media for not writing about the horrible, terrible, despicable raw intelligence report that CNN reported on. This is obviously an attempt to shame reporters into not asking about it. Will it work? We'll see.

11:18 am - Pence follows up Sean Spicer's blast against BuzzFeed with a stern warning that the news media needs to stop being mean to Trump.

11:16 am - Mike Pence? We don't want Mike Pence. We want Trump.

Over at Vox today, a trio of researchers takes a broad look at the evidence that FBI Director James Comey affected the election. Their conclusion:

The evidence is clear, and consistent, regarding the Comey effect. The timing of the shift both at the state and national levels lines up very neatly with the publication of the letter, as does the predominance of the story in the media coverage from the final week of the campaign. With an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign, the letter hugely increased the salience of what was the defining critique of Clinton during the campaign at its most critical moment.

The appeal of big-picture narratives about demographics, along with anecdotal evidence of big mistakes by the Clinton campaign in certain key states, makes it easy to point fingers. But looking specifically at the three “Rustbelt” blue states mentioned at the beginning of the article, no unifying picture emerges. Most stories mention Michigan, where Clinton didn’t campaign, rather than Pennsylvania, where she campaigned intensely. Indeed, these three Midwestern states (Wisconsin being the third) provide essentially an A/B/C test of different campaign strategies — and in each state she came up just short.

If it weren't for Comey, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by about 6 points and the Electoral College by 70 or more. And that might have turned into control of the Senate as well, though that's a little more speculative.

Democrats clearly need to focus attention on state and local races, where they have done steadily worse throughout the Obama years. But at the national level, they should resolutely avoid the circular firing squad. They didn't lose because their message was unpopular or because they're out of touch or because they're insufficiently centrist or insufficiently leftist. That just wasn't the problem. The Democratic message was fine; Democrats are perfectly well in touch with their constituencies; and they weren't perceived as too unwilling to shake things up. Even with eight years of Democratic rule acting as a headwind, Hillary Clinton's default performance was a substantial win.

The only reason it didn't happen is because James Comey basically decided to call her a liar and a crook—based on absolutely no new evidence and with everyone in the world advising him not to—with 12 days left in the election. That was something she couldn't overcome, and it has nothing to do with the basic Democratic message.

Needless to say, this is why Democratic senators were stunned yesterday when they asked Comey if the FBI was investigating Trump over his Russia ties, and Comey replied, "I would never comment on investigations — whether we have one or not — in an open forum like this, so I really can't answer one way or another."

In the definition of chutzpah, this might have to replace the murderous children who beg for mercy because they're orphans. I try to maintain a relatively level tone around here, but I have to say it's getting harder and harder these days. WTF IS GOING ON IN OUR COUNTRY?

We now know that the FBI considered the evidence of ties between Russia and the Trump team to be credible enough to investigate. Julian Borger reports on where this led:

The Guardian has learned that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The Fisa court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.

The Twitter reaction to this has mostly been: Oh, so now the FISA court finally turns down a warrant request. Yeesh.

And sure, this is sort of ironic considering the FISA court's 99 percent rate of approving warrants. But there's also a serious point to be made here. This was a warrant targeting four specific people, so the court treated it like a normal warrant. That meant rejecting it if it didn't provide enough evidence to form probable cause. However, when a warrant is broad-based and applies to thousands or millions of people, the FISA court seems to adopt an entirely different standard. Just demonstrate a vague national security need and you're good to go.

That's the irony. The more people that are targeted in a warrant, the less seriously the FISA court seems to take it.

And while we're on the topic of Trump and Russia, it's worth pointing out that the original reporting of the dossier on Russian ties to Trump noted that there were some errors in it. Since then, we've learned of at least one more error. That's perfectly normal. This is very, very raw human intelligence, and even if it comes from a reliable source it wouldn't be surprising if two-thirds of it was wrong. That's why raw intel is never released publicly. The job of the intelligence community is to figure out which third of it—if any—is right, and then to pursue it further.

So don't worry about the fact that several parts of the report have been debunked and more will be in the future. What we're waiting for is to find out if any parts of the report are true. It's probably going to be a good long time before we know that for sure.

In late October, Harry Reid sent an angry letter to FBI Director James Comey saying that "it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government." What was that all about? A few days later, David Corn summarized a dossier of raw intel provided by a "former senior intelligence officer for a Western country":

When he dug into Trump, he notes, he came across troubling information indicating connections between Trump and the Russian government. According to his sources, he says, "there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit."...The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer's conversations with Russian sources, noted, "Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance." It maintained that Trump "and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals." It claimed that Russian intelligence had "compromised" Trump during his visits to Moscow and could "blackmail him."

This is where things stayed until today, when we learned a little bit more. Apparently the intelligence community now considers this raw intel credible enough that it included it as an annex to the classified version of its report on Russian hacking. CNN reports:

Some of the memos were circulating as far back as last summer. What has changed since then is that US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.

The Washington Post adds this:

A senior U.S. official with access to the document said that the allegations were presented at least in part to underscore that Russia had embarrassing information on both major candidates, but only released material that might harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — a reflection of Russian motivation that bolstered U.S. spy agencies’ conclusion that Moscow sought to help Trump win.

....If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information — known in espionage circles by the Russian term “kompromat” — that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House.

BuzzFeed has the full 35-page memo here. Oh, and did I mention that the compromising information on Trump supposedly includes evidence of Trump's "personal obsessions and sexual perversion," including "golden showers" and "sex parties" in Moscow? Well, consider it mentioned.

Sen. Jeff Flake, who has taken up the mantle of Sen. Tom Coburn, who in turn was taking up the mantle of William Proxmire's infamous "Golden Fleece" award, has released the 2017 issue of Wastebook, documenting all the dumb ways the government is spending your hard-earned dollars. In keeping with tradition, it has a pun-heavy theme: this year it's Porkémon Go—get it? Pork-émon!—which probably seemed pretty funny a few months ago. But popular fads are fickle things.

In any case, the bulk of the report is pretty typical. Flake is unhappy that President Obama wants money to fight Zika when he's already squandering money on things that "most would consider obvious or even absurd":

Researchers were literally playing with dolls to prove what every child already knows—girls are more likely to play with Barbie dolls than boys—with support from National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants totaling $300,000.

Studies on the habits of college students funded with $5 million of NIH grants found fraternity brothers drink, smoke and generally party more than other students. They also sleep in later, which led the researchers to speculate “one explanation for this finding is that Greeks students recognize their sleep needs.” Perhaps a more likely reason is that they are sleeping off their party lifestyle.

NIH is also drilling down to determine why some people are afraid of the dentist as part of another $3.5 million research project. The researchers found “fear of pain has been shown to be a critical component.”

Your mileage will vary on whether you find this hilarious or not, but it's worth noting that even a dedicated investigator like Flake found only $5 billion in waste, of which $3 billion was for one project: the California bullet train. Now, I happen to agree with Flake that the train is a bad use of money, but it's certainly not waste. The money is being used to build a train. Flake and I happen to think the train is a bad idea, but the definition of waste is not "stuff you and I don't like."

In any case, take out that one project and you're left with $2 billion, which is something like 0.2 percent of the discretionary federal budget. That's actually...not bad. I wish my own household ran that efficiently. It's worth adding that of that $2 billion, about half seems to be legitimate waste1 while the other half is just sophomoric jeering at scientific studies that are perfectly reasonable but sound kind of funny. So the actual waste is probably closer to 0.1 percent of the budget.2

It kinda makes you wonder how much the US government spent researching and writing this report?

1This is just my horseback guess based on flipping through the report.

2This doesn't matter, of course. What matters is that Flake has presented the right-wing media with a nice sourcebook of funny-sounding projects that they can recycle for the next 12 months as evidence of idiotic government spending. Someone should ask for federal funding for a project to track how many times Flake's examples get recycled throughout the next year by Fox, Limbaugh, Drudge, etc.

Students in a single elementary grade classroom differ in age by about 12 months. Do the older students do better than the younger students? Plenty of evidence says yes, but all the existing studies have shortcomings, says Pablo Peña, "the most important of which is that their identification strategies implicitly assume the absence of selection into gestational seasons."

Gestational seasons? Let's not get into that. Long story short, Peña found a school district in Mexico that suddenly changed its age cutoff from September 1 to December 1 a few years ago and was willing to provide student test data broken down by birthdate. Unlike many studies, which only look at a data for a single year, Peña was able to track students across seven years. Here's the basic data after the change in age cutoff:

The bottom half of the chart shows scores on standardized Spanish and math tests, and year after year the older kids do better. However, one encouraging finding here is that the age effect fades over time. Eight-year-olds (far right of chart) show very large differences in standardized scores, while 14-year-olds (far left) show a smaller range of differences.

But now we'd like to know the cause of these differences. Is it a function of absolute age? Or is it a function of relative age within a classroom? According to Peña, it's both. For the younger kids, their relatively poor showing is strictly a function of age. By comparing results with a neighboring school district, he concludes that their scores would be the same as the older kids if they were tested a few months later. The older children, however, suffer a bit from having younger kids in the same classroom. "Holding age at test constant, being older relative one's classmates has a negative effect on test scores."

The long-term effect of all this is quite small. However, younger kids do have a slightly worse chance of getting into college, since they're younger when they take college admissions tests. This results in poorer scores due solely to their age, not their mental abilities. Peña estimates a difference of about 1 percent.

It's not clear to me how much this matters, or whether there's anything we can do about it. You have to have a cutoff date, after all. However, it does suggest that "redshirting," the practice of deliberately holding back your child a year so she'll be the oldest in her class, has mixed results. Overall, her education will probably suffer a bit. But her odds of doing well on college entrance exams will be slightly better. It sounds like a wash to me. Parents probably ought to stop worrying about it and spend their time on more productive pursuits instead.

Let the Lobbying Begin

Sure, Donald Trump may be a man-child with at least betting odds of destroying the world, but who cares? On K Street, it's time to par-tay:

Oil and gas firms are pressing to roll back federal regulations on drilling. Verizon Inc. and other large telecommunications firms want changes to the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules. Airlines are seeking stronger enforcement of an aviation agreement that they believe favors foreign carriers on the most prized international routes. Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and other defense contractors are scrambling to protect against cuts in the Pentagon’s budget....McDonald’s Corp., Choice Hotels International Inc. and other restaurant, hotel and retail companies are pushing to overturn an Obama administration decision to make it easier for unions to organize employees at franchises like McDonald’s.

This is called "draining the swamp," folks.