Sorry about the clickbait headline. Here's what Trump actually said:

Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.

That doesn't seem so bad. Trump just wants ministers to be able to speak up and support Godly candidates if they want to. What's the problem with that?

Maybe nothing. Except that repealing the Johnson Amendment would also allow churches to contribute to campaigns. And churches aren't required to disclose their donors. And setting up a church isn't really very hard. Mark Kleiman explains:

The Russian, Chinese, Saudi, and Iranian governments would all, predictably, either find congregations already recognized by the IRS to use as front groups or incorporate new ones. Of course a group organized as a mosque might not be able to wield much influence without stirring up opposition, but nothing bars the Saudis or the Iranians from paying some stooges to set up a fake Baptist church.

....So, like most of Trump’s ideas, this one reduces mostly to corruption and the sacrifice of American sovereignty to foreign — especially Russian — influence. And of course that won’t keep the tame preachers of the Christian Right from backing him all the way.

So maybe my headline wasn't really so clickbaity after all? It all depends on the fine print, I guess.

Read the Fine Print

See update below.

A few years ago I switched to T-Mobile. The price was good, and their plans included tethering at no extra cost. I mostly use my phone as a mobile hotspot with only occasional forays into text, talk, and apps, so this was a good deal.

A few weeks ago Marian switched over too. When we did that, we also switched to their unlimited data plan. We didn't really need it, but it was only a few dollars more than our old plan, so why not?

Well, ever since then my hotspot performance has been lousy. At first I paid no attention. Sometimes this stuff happens. But it went on and on, and eventually I wondered if I had missed something. It turns out I had: the unlimited plan includes unlimited 4G except for the hotspot. Here's the fine print: "Tethering at Max 3G speeds." That's bad enough, but in practice it seems to mean "3G except when we don't feel like it," since about half the time my hotspot performance reminds me of using a dial-up modem back in the 80s. Why? Because I didn't read the fine print to the fine print: "Smartphone and tablet usage is prioritized over Mobile Hotspot Service (tethering) usage."

As you can see, it's all right there in the description of the plan. How could I have missed it? It's plain as day if only I'd looked at it with a magnifying glass or the sales rep had pointed it out. But I didn't and he didn't. So now I'm stuck paying more for a plan that delivers less of what I actually want. And why did T-Mobile do this? Because they now have a new product: for $20 per month, you can get 4G hotspot performance. Fabulous.

I'm so tired of this shit. It seems like it applies to practically everything I buy these days. There's always something.

UPDATE: I remain annoyed about this, but when I complained to T-Mobile about this they promptly switched me back to my old plan. In fact, they switched me back a better, cheaper plan than I used to have. So it all worked out.

Well, it's morning for me, anyway. First up, under headlines you never thought you'd see:

That's from the LA Times last night. Here's another headline from Reuters:

Conveniently, this means that the current "Countering Violent Extremism" program will no longer target white supremacist groups. It's good to see that Trump is demonstrating some loyalty to the groups that supported him so faithfully throughout the election. They've been harassed too much by the federal jackboots already, amirite?

Next up, we're learning more details about President Trump's Great Southern Wall:

In one of the Star Trek movies, Scotty uses an Apple Macintosh to whip up the formula for transparent aluminum. Maybe that's what this is! A wall you can see through! Sadly, though, the truth turns out to be less futuristic: the "transparent wall" will be a non-wall. That is to say, it will be "sensors and other technology," just like it is now. This, of course, is what wall enthusiasts have been bitching about forever. When Trump said he'd build a wall, they wanted a wall, dammit, not a bunch of namby-pamby sensors.

Finally, here is today's Gallup poll on what Americans think of Trump's recent executive orders:

It's heartening to see that a majority of Americans disapprove of his Muslim ban (by 13 points) and the suspension of the Syrian refugee program (by 22 points). Maybe there's hope for us after all.

Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog pointed me to an interesting bit of data yesterday. It's the Martin-Quinn measure of how the Supreme Court tilts over time, and apparently it's widely accepted as reasonably accurate. Here it is for the entire postwar period:

There are two fascinating nuggets here:

  • Despite conservative kvetching, the Court has leaned conservative for all but seven years from 1946 to 2013. The seven years of the Warren Court are literally the only period in recent history during which the Court has been consistently liberal.
  • The Martin-Quinn measure depends on the votes of the median judge, which is Anthony Kennedy right now. This is what accounts for the Court's recent shift to the left. According to his Martin-Quinn score, Kennedy has been getting steadily less conservative ever since he joined the Court, and over the past three years he's become positively liberal:

I suppose this is old news to veteran court watchers, but it's new to me. Has Kennedy really shifted that much over his career? And is he now generally left of center? If so, does this have anything to do with the effect of Sotomayor and Kagan joining the Court in 2009-10? It sure looks like it.

Two years ago the Obama administration issued an executive order that allowed the Treasury Department to sanction any organization engaged in "cyber-enabled activities...that are reasonably likely to result in, or have materially contributed to, a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States." (This was after the Sony hack.)

In late 2016, in retaliation for the Russian interference with the US election, Obama issued another executive order. This one added the Russian security service (FSB) and several other Russian actors to the list of sanctioned organizations.

Today, the Trump administration loosened these sanctions:

All transactions and activities otherwise prohibited pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13694 of April 1, 2015...are authorized that are necessary and ordinarily incident to....

(1) Licenses, permits, certifications, or notifications issued or registered by the [FSB] for the importation, distribution, or use of information technology products in the Russian Federation....

(2) Complying with law enforcement or administrative actions or investigations involving the Federal Security Service; and

(3) Complying with rules and regulations administered by the Federal Security Service.

What does this mean? Payments are limited to $5,000 per calendar year, so the payments themselves are not what's important. Nor does this order allow the sale or export of goods to the FSB itself. What it does is allow payments to the FSB for the licenses required to sell IT equipment in Russia.

How big a deal is this? What kinds of exports have been held up because it was illegal to pay for the FSB permits that were required? Is this just a minor fix for an unanticipated side-effect of the sanctions, or is it the first small step in loosening other sanctions on Russia? Good question. Perhaps some Russia expert will weigh in on this.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, conservative sanctions expert Eric Lorber says this is probably just a benign fix to an "unintended consequence" of the original sanctions ordered by Obama.

UPDATE 2: Last year Russia passed a law requiring that metadata for all communications be stored for 3 years (by phone companies) and 1 year (by internet providers). In addition, the content of all communications must be stored for 6 months, and decryption keys have to be provided to the state security authorities. The new rules take effect in 2018.

A reader emails to say that the problem with the Obama sanctions is that they prevent Western companies from engaging with the FSB to understand exactly how the new law will be interpreted. I don't entirely understand why that requires any money to change hands, but hey. It's Russia. So maybe this wrinkle is what the easing of the sanctions is really about.

UPDATE 3: I'd sure be interested to hear from the folks who drafted the Obama sanctions. Did they deliberately want to cause Russia pain by preventing the import of IT equipment, or was this just an oversight? Who was responsible for writing and reviewing this stuff, anyway?

In December 2015, Donald Trump released a letter from his physician stating that he takes "81 mg of aspirin daily and a low dose of a statin." Yesterday we learned that's untrue. Here's the New York Times:

President Trump takes medication for three ailments, including a prostate-related drug to promote hair growth, Mr. Trump’s longtime physician, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, said in a series of recent interviews. The other drugs are antibiotics to control rosacea, a common skin problem, and a statin for elevated blood cholesterol and lipids.

The hair-growth drug, Propecia, has been associated in some men with "depression, anxiety and mental fogginess."

This is all good for a few jokes, but there's something serious here too: Once again, Trump has lied to us. He released a letter saying he takes only one prescription drug. He actually takes three, and obviously he knew this. What else is he lying about?

The raid in Yemen that went pear shaped on Saturday was originally planned under the Obama administration. However, they were unable to complete their detailed assessment before Obama left office. Then Trump and his team took over and—apparently—decided to speed things up:

Mr. Trump’s new national security team, led by Mr. Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired general with experience in counterterrorism raids, has said that it wants to speed the decision-making when it comes to such strikes, delegating more power to lower-level officials so that the military may respond more quickly. Indeed, the Pentagon is drafting such plans to accelerate activities against the Qaeda branch in Yemen.

That's the New York Times. Here's the Washington Post on the same subject:

“We expect an easier approval cycle [for operations] under this administration,” another defense official said...“We really struggled with getting the [Obama] White House comfortable with getting boots on the ground in Yemen,” the former official said. “Since the new administration has come in, the approvals [at the Pentagon] appear to have gone up.”

And here is Reuters:

U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations. As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.

Reading between the lines, Trump figured that Obama was a wuss and spent too much time over-litigating this stuff. He wanted action, so he approved the mission. It went badly, and now military officials are blaming Trump, telling reporters that he went ahead "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations."

Is that really what happened? Or is the Pentagon throwing Trump under the bus for a failure that's their fault? I suppose we might find out if Congress decided to investigate, but that would be out of character for them. After all, Congress rarely spends its time holding contentious hearings about missions in dangerous parts of the world that go south and get people killed. I can't think of one recently, anyway.

Here's the latest on President Trump's unhappiness upon learning that the Obama administration had previously agreed to accept 1,250 Muslim asylum seekers from Australia. Note the timestamps. The statement from the US Embassy in Canberra comes at 6:15 pm (Pacific Time):

President Trump's tweet about the deal comes an hour later:

First the US will honor the deal. Then the US president tweets that he's going to study it.

Aside from the sheer ineptitude on public display here, this shows that, once again, Trump refuses to be briefed before calls with foreign leaders. Even a cursory memo from an area expert in the State Department would have mentioned that the refugee deal was likely to come up in his call with Prime Minister Turnbull on Saturday. But Trump was taken completely by surprise. He had no idea.

The Hill reports that Republicans are gradually backing off their promise to repeal Obamacare:

Key Republican lawmakers are shifting their goal on ObamaCare from repealing and replacing the law to the more modest goal of repairing it.

....“I think it is more accurate to say repair ObamaCare because, for example, in the reconciliation procedure that we have in the Senate, we can't repeal all of ObamaCare,” [Sen. Lamar] Alexander said. “ObamaCare wasn't passed by reconciliation, it can't be repealed by reconciliation. So we can repair the individual market, which is a good place to start."

....Lawmakers have already started to face crowds of constituents concerned about what repeal might do to their own healthcare....Other lawmakers are worried repeal could cause chaos in the insurance market that would be politically damaging to Republicans, or simply that their constituents could lose coverage under repeal.

Hmmm. We'll see. In any case, it turns out that Republicans are already busily trying to repair things. Indiana Rep. Larry Buschon has just introduced the State Age Rating Flexibility Act of 2017, which accomplishes one thing: it changes the age band in Obamacare from 3:1 to 5:1. This means that insurers would be able to charge older customers five times as much as they charge young people, rather than three times as much. The end result would be to lower premiums for young people and increase them for older people.

I'm not quite sure why this is such a hobbyhorse among Republicans, but it is. And it's a weird one. Even if it's a good idea, which is debatable, older people will obviously hate it. AARP is already calling out the dogs. And since older people tend to be Republicans, why would Republicans want to piss them off? It's all very mysterious.

But whatever they decide to do, Republicans need to make up their minds. With everything up in the air, Aetna is now pulling out of the exchanges entirely and Molina Healthcare is pondering its options. I'll bet every other insurer is doing the same. They need to know what Republicans plan to do before they commit to anything for 2018. And if they don't commit, there are going to be millions of registered voters who will lose their insurance and then descend on their members of Congress like a plague of angry locusts. The clock is ticking.

The AP reports on President Trump's recent phone call with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto:

"You have a bunch of bad hombres down there," Trump told Pena Nieto, according to the excerpt given to AP. "You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it."

Oh please. We're supposed to believe that Trump threatened to invade Mexico? We all know that Trump is a bit of a hothead, but even he wouldn't lose his shit like this with the leader of a close ally during a—

Wait. What's this about Trump's call on Saturday with the Australian prime minister?

President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refu­gee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.

....“This is the worst deal ever,” Trump fumed as Turnbull attempted to confirm that the United States would honor its pledge to take in 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center. Trump, who one day earlier had signed an executive order temporarily barring the admissions of refugees, complained that he was “going to get killed” politically and accused Australia of seeking to export the “next Boston bombers.”

U.S. officials said that Trump has behaved similarly in conversations with leaders of other countries, including Mexico.

Trump hung up on the prime minister of Australia, one of our oldest, closest, and most reliable allies? I don't have the words. In any case, that's the leaders of Mexico, Australia, and "other countries" that Trump has apparently insulted on phone calls. I wonder what the body count really is. How many foreign leaders has Trump yelled at so far?

How about Vladimir Putin? Apparently not. In fact, Republicans in Congress are rushing to do a big favor for oil companies that do business in Russia. It all has to do with Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which requires drilling and mining companies to disclose any payments they make to foreign governments. Back in 2010, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson—now our Secretary of State—opposed this provision. Here is Michael Grunwald in Politico:

Tillerson argued that forcing U.S. oil firms to reveal corporate secrets—such as paying foreign governments—would put them at a competitive disadvantage. He also explained that the provision would make it especially difficult for Exxon to do business in Russia, where, as he did not need to explain, the government takes a rather active interest in the oil industry.

Today, seven years later, Republicans confirmed Tillerson as President Trump’s Secretary of State, despite allegations that he’s too cozy with Russia. At the same time, the GOP is preparing to try to kill the disclosure rule created under Section 1504, despite warnings from international aid groups that the move would provide a wink-and-nod blessing to hidden corporate payments to petro-thugs.

This is likely to be the very first bill that Congress sends to Trump's desk: a big wet kiss to oil companies and Vladimir Putin. It's nice to know that we have our priorities straight.