Let's finish the evening with a quick roundup of all the shoes that dropped today. By Trumpian standards it was actually a calm day, but not totally free of shoes. First up is deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who testified before Congress today about how and why he came to write a memo justifying President Trump's firing of James Comey. How did it go?

Rosenstein says he knew that Trump planned to fire Comey, and provided a memo justifying it at Trump's request. This was apparently typical of Trump's relationship with the Justice Department: they work for him, so of course they should provide him with anything he needs. The same seems to have been true of the FBI. Ben Wittes tells us what was going on between Comey and the Trump administration during its early days:

Comey was preoccupied throughout this period with the need to protect the FBI from [] inquiries on investigative matters from the White House. Two incidents involving such inquiries have become public: the Flynn discussion and Reince Priebus’s query to Andrew McCabe about whether the then-Deputy FBI Director could publicly dispute the New York Times’ reporting regarding communications between Trump associates and Russian officials. Whether there were other such incidents I do not know, but I suspect there were. What I do know is that Comey spent a great deal of energy doing what he alternately described as “training” the White House that officials had to go through the Justice Department and “reestablishing” normal hands-off White House-Bureau relations.

This fits with everything we know. Trump just doesn't understand the concept of the FBI being an independent agency free of presidential interference. Comey knew this and prepared diligently for his meetings with Trump:

Comey was very apprehensive heading into a dinner with the president in late January, because of his previous encounters with Trump during the transition and immediately after the inauguration, according to one associate.

....Before going to the dinner, Comey practiced Trump’s likely questions and his answers with a small group of his most trusted confidants, the associates said, in part to ensure he did not give Trump any ammunition to use against him later. The director did not take notes during the dinner with the president, but there were times, one associate recalled, when after meeting with Trump, Comey started writing notes as soon as he got into a car, “to make sure he could accurately record what was said.’’

In the Trump administration, the Justice Department is an arm of the White House, and the FBI is expected to follow the president's direction. The weird part of this is not that Trump believes it—of course he does—but that plenty of other folks in the White House seem to believe it too. At the very least, you'd think Reince Priebus would know better, but he's as bad as the rest. There hardly seems to be anyone in the entire building with any genuine knowledge of how the government works and how other people are likely to react to Trump's actions. Very peculiar.

Good afternoon.

What is this?

Twitter user @wayne5540 made this amazing observation today. But what exactly is the observation? People can't agree!

Do you know? Because I know. The internet isn't sure. "What is this drawing?" asks the internet.

Is it a cat?

An Elephant?

The United States of America?

What do you think?

 
What is this?
Cat
Elephant
USA
Something else
survey maker
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

It's an elephant.

Have a nice day.

I missed President Trump's press conference this afternoon, but Josh Marshall sums it up for me:

The only real consistency in Trump’s remarks are that he did nothing wrong and his anger at whomever he’s angry at at that moment. Everything else is mutable and up for grabs. He’s mad, mad at everyone, mad at Comey, also mad at Rosenstein and he made that anger clear in something like a million ways during this brief performance.

That's our president. Mad at everybody, all the time—except himself. I wonder if he really lacks self-awareness so utterly that he has no idea he's the one causing all the chaos? Or that he almost certainly broke the law pretty seriously when he asked Comey to kill the Russia investigation? Is he that clueless?

Probably. Trump always thought the business world was a lot tougher than politics, so being president would be a breeze. That was a level of cluelessness that's truly mind-boggling. Leaving aside the fact that Trump never actually ran his business in any real sense of the word—and was never as successful as he thought he was—that world was patty-cake compared to big-league politics. In only a few months Washington DC has eaten him alive.

And the rest of the planet is even worse. Trump has already shown signs of being taken to the cleaners by foreign leaders, and this is almost certain to continue. That's because despite his big talk, he's never shown any real talent for negotiation. Dan Drezner makes the case here, and it's not pretty.

Lunchtime Photo

This photo has been run through a Photoshop filter, and I was sort of taken by the final result. It's certainly very colorful, and sometimes that's all you need to get through the day. Can anyone guess what it was originally a picture of? It was taken a couple of days ago. Answer tomorrow in Friday Catblogging.

I didn't realize that Charles Murray was still talking about his belief that African-Americans are genetically less intelligent than whites. But he is. Over at Vox, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett report on a two-hour podcast he did recently with Sam Harris:

The consensus, he says, is that IQ exists; that it is extraordinarily important to life outcomes of all sorts; that it is largely heritable; and that we don’t know of any interventions that can improve the part that is not heritable. The consensus also includes the observation that the IQs of black Americans are lower, on average, than that of whites, and — most contentiously — that this and other differences among racial groups is based at least in part in genetics.

I've read The Bell Curve, so I'm not just talking out of my ass about it. And it's a weird book. The vast bulk of it is about the first five bolded items above, which really are part of the scientific consensus. You can argue the details, but it's safe to say that intelligence is real; it's important; it's partly genetically heritable; it's difficult to change; and blacks score lower on IQ tests than whites. The evidence in The Bell Curve on these scores is fine. But then the book gets to a couple of chapters about the genetic basis of the black-white IQ gap, and suddenly the evidence gets very, very fuzzy. In fact, I want to share a brief boxed item included on page 310:

The German Story

One of the intriguing studies arguing against a large genetic component to IQ differences came about thanks to the Allied occupation of Germany following World War II, when about 4,000 illegitimate children of mixed racial origin were born to German women. A German researcher tracked down 264 children of black servicemen and constructed a comparison group of 83 illegitimate offspring of white occupation troops. The results showed no overall difference in average IQ. The actual IQs of the fathers were unknown, and therefore a variety of selection factors cannot be ruled out. The study is inconclusive but certainly consistent with the suggestion the B/W difference is largely environmental.

In one sense, I applaud Murray and his co-author for including this. At the same time, they spend no time engaging with it in the text of the book. But they should: it's only one study, and as they suggest, it has some missing pieces. Still, it's one of the very few studies of African-American and white American children raised in middle-class environments outside of America. The fact that it shows no difference between black and white children is pretty significant—especially since it's highly unlikely that any of these children received any kind of special treatment.

I don't want to pretend that this study is definitive. It's not. But a single disconfirming case is all you need to demonstrate that the black-white IQ gap is entirely non-biological, and this one is pretty close.

It's not impossible that there's a biological difference in intelligence between blacks and whites. That's fundamentally a scientific question, and it hasn't been conclusively proven one way or the other. But the effect of American culture on blacks is so toxic that it's all but impossible to believe that any conclusions drawn in a study of Americans can ever be free of environmental contamination. After all, the Irish used to have low IQs. Jews used to have low IQs. And everyone was quite sure it was due to biology. But when anti-Irish and anti-Semitic animus died out, their IQs increased to normal levels. Amazing, isn't it?

Maybe eventually Murray will find his long-sought gene complexes for cognitive ability, and will be able to show that there really is a genetic difference between blacks and whites. But I doubt it. The evidence just doesn't point in that direction. Maybe in ten or twenty years we'll know for sure.

This is getting a lot of snarky play today:

President Donald Trump has canceled a planned visit and speech at the ancient mountain fortress of Masada in Israel after authorities told him that he could not land his helicopter on top of the UNESCO-listed site....Unlike former presidents who have made the trip, such as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Trump declined to land the helicopter at a base of the historic site and then take the cable car up, preferring to cancel the visit altogether.

Trump's Razor, of course, suggests that Trump is just being an asshole. But it's also possible that he has acrophobia in some form or another, and doesn't like the idea of swinging in the air from a cable for three minutes. I don't suppose Trump would ever admit to such a weakness, so we'll never know unless someone leaks about it. And what are the odds of that in this buttoned-down administration?

Anyway, it's possible there's a benign explanation for this. Just saying.

This would normally be big news, but it's been overshadowed by all things Trump:

WASHINGTON – Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, including his government security forces and several armed individuals, violently charged a group of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence here on Tuesday night in what the police characterized as “a brutal attack.”

Eleven people were injured, including a police officer, and nine were taken to a hospital, the Metropolitan Police chief, Peter Newsham, said at a news conference on Wednesday. Two Secret Service agents were also assaulted in the melee, according to a federal law enforcement official.

The current story from Erdogan is that his folks were acting in "self defense," which is absurd. Eyewitness accounts, along with the testimony of Washington DC's police chief, confirm that the protest was loud but peaceful until Erdogan's goons waded in and attacked.

This was all happening while President Trump was hosting a visit with Erdogan in the White House. Naturally they haven't said anything about this. Hell, Trump probably wishes he had a security force that would do stuff like this.

I don't have anything non-obvious to say about this. The descent of Turkey into a strongman state is discouraging, and there's no sign that it's going to turn around any time soon. I just didn't want to let this pass without at least a mention.

Poor President Trump:

This makes sense. If Trump is going to be the victim of a witch hunt, you just know it has to be the greatest of all time.

And we'd like to help make it even greater! We've already met our goal for matching gifts from the Glaser Progress Foundation, which will kickstart our muckraking fund to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. But we want to keep going. Our overall goal is $500,000, and we're getting close to that. Read more about it here. Or go straight to the donation page here. If Trump wants a witch hunt, let's give it to him.

The New York Times warns us that household debt has made a comeback:

Americans have now borrowed more money than they had at the height of the credit bubble in 2008, just as the global financial system began to collapse. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Wednesday that total household debt in the United States had reached a new peak — $12.7 trillion — in the first three months of the year, another milestone in the long, slow recovery of the nation’s economy.

The growing debt level...suggests a rising optimism about economic growth among banks and other lenders....Yet the borrowing peak also signals the potential for new risks to the economy....debt binge...stifle economic growth...ballooning debt...new wave of defaults...“This is not a marker we should be super excited to get back to,” said Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a liberal think tank.

You know what else has increased over the past decade? That's right: the population of the United States. Also GDP. Also inflation. And you know what's decreased? Interest rates. It's misleading clickbait reporting to write about a dumb, nominal, aggregate number like total debt just because you can get a good news hook out of the fact that it's surpassed its previous peak. In fact, the Federal Reserve explicitly warned against this when it released these figures yesterday. Instead, you should take a look at how much households are actually spending to pay off their debt. Here it is:

Debt service has not only been flat for nearly five years, it's been flat at its lowest level in 40 years. If you want to write about growing student debt, as the Times article does, that's fine. But overall household debt hasn't "made a comeback." It's at historically low levels and, at the moment, doesn't show the slightest sign of increasing.

Another hour, another Trump scandal. I can't keep up. Here's the latest timeline on Mike Flynn. The three items in italics are new:

August 9: Flynn is hired by the Turkey-U.S. Business Council for $600,000 to help repair Turkey's image in the US. However, Flynn chooses not to register as a foreign agent on the pretext that he's just lobbying for a business group that has nothing to do with the Turkish government.

November 18: Trump names Flynn as his National Security Advisor.

November 30: The Justice Department opens an investigation into Flynn's lobbying activities. Flynn keeps this news to himself for over a month.

December: Flynn has repeated contacts with various Russian officials but doesn't tell anybody.

January 4: Flynn tells the incoming White House counsel that he is under investigation. Nothing happens.

January 10: In a meeting with Susan Rice, Flynn puts the kibosh on an Obama plan to use Kurdish help to take the ISIS-occupied town of Raqqa—something that his erstwhile client Turkey is opposed to. McClatchy reports: "Members of Congress, musing about the tangle of legal difficulties Flynn faces, cite that exchange with Rice as perhaps the most serious: acting on behalf of a foreign nation — from which he had received considerable cash — when making a military decision. Some members of Congress, in private conversations, have even used the word “treason” to describe Flynn’s intervention, though experts doubt that his actions qualify." Still nothing happens.

January 26: Acting attorney general Sally Yates warns the White House that Flynn has lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which may have compromised him. Still nothing happens.

February 9: The Washington Post reveals Flynn's lies about his Russian contacts. Everything is now public.

February 13: Finally something happens. Trump fires Flynn.

February 14: Trump meets with FBI director James Comey and asks him to kill the investigation into Flynn.

March-April: Comey continues the investigation.

May 9: Trump fires Comey.

The new news here is that Trump knew about the FBI investigation far earlier than anyone has reported before. By the time Sally Yates alerted the White House to Flynn's lying, they had already been warned off Flynn by President Obama and they'd known about the FBI investigation for three weeks. Nonetheless, they did nothing until it all became public.

UPDATE: If you want to brush up with a more detailed—but still brief—timeline of events in the Trump-Russia affair, the LA Times has one here. It's a nice, quick read.