Here's an interesting new tidbit on the Jared Kushner front. The New York Times account of Kushnergate says that the reason Kushner wanted to set up backchannel comms to Russia was so that Michael Flynn could hold private conversations about Syria. The Times didn't characterize their sources for this information, but it turns out it was people providing Kushner's side of the story. So why didn't this detail make it into the Washington Post story?

So these sources said Kushner was setting up a channel to talk about Syria, which sounds fairly benign. But they refused to allow themselves to be quoted even as "sources close Kushner" or somesuch. So the Post passed.

Obviously this makes a difference. If the Syria story is Kushner's alibi, it means a lot less than it would if it came from some relatively neutral source who happened to know what was going on. Discount it accordingly.

Last night the Washington Post and the New York Times both reported that Jared Kushner buttonholed the Russian ambassador last December about setting up a secret communications backchannel with Moscow. This was during the transition period, six or seven weeks before Trump was inaugurated. The stories differ in the details they provide:

  • The Times reports that the purpose of the backchannel was for Michael Flynn to discuss Syria, but doesn't report how the backchannel would work.
  • The Post reports that Kushner proposed using secure facilities in the Russian embassy, but doesn't report what Kushner wanted to talk about.

The White House has not denied this story. It has simply refused to comment.

What do we make of this? Even after pondering it for several hours, I'm not sure what to think. I assume the Post has good sources for its report that Kushner wanted to use Russian embassy facilities, which suggests he was looking for a channel that was safe from monitoring—and leaking—by American intel agencies. In fact, the Post directly asserts this. But if the Times is right about Syria, that doesn't make sense. There have been a lot of leaks recently, but not last December. And certainly there was no reason to suspect that any intel agency would leak conversations about Syria.

So maybe they really wanted to talk about something else. But what? It would need to be something that was (a) highly sensitive, and (b) dodgy enough that some do-gooder in the intel community might feel like it needed to be leaked. There's been plenty of speculation about what that could be, but nothing grounded in reporting.

Also unknown: did Trump know about this? Or were Kushner and Flynn freelancing?

Also: what was the rush? In a few weeks Trump would have access to all the secure comms he wanted. Why was it so urgent to have galactic-class secure comms right away?

And: who wrote the anonymous letter that first tipped off the Post in mid-December?

The whole thing will remain something of a mystery until we know more about it. However the Post reports that the Russian ambassador was taken aback by Kushner's naivete in thinking that Russia might agree to expose its embassy facilities to an American. Subsequent commenters have used stronger terms than naivete.

Also, everyone agrees that Kushner's multiple meetings with various Russians were withheld from his security clearance application. That's not good.

On Donald Trump:

President Trump reportedly complained to world leaders about roadblocks he has faced setting up golf courses in the European Union....“Every time we talk about a country, he remembered the things he had done. Scotland? He said he had opened a club. Ireland? He said it took him two and a half years to get a license and that did not give him a very good image of the European Union,” a source told Le Soir.

On Jared Kushner:

Harleen Kahlon was an experienced digital media maven when she was hired by Kushner in 2010 to boost the paper’s digital outreach....At the end of the year, when she went to collect her performance bonus at his real estate office for meeting agreed upon metrics on page views and audience growth, Kushner told her that they couldn’t pay, citing financial concerns, and asked her to “take one for the team.”

....Just before the election, Kahlon described her former boss on Facebook thusly: “We’re talking about a guy who isn’t particularly bright or hard-working, doesn’t actually know anything, has bought his way into everything ever (with money he got from his criminal father), who is deeply insecure and obsessed with fame (you don’t buy the NYO, marry Ivanka Trump, or constantly talk about the phone calls you get from celebrities if it’s in your nature to ‘shun the spotlight’), and who is basically a shithead.

On Trump again:

After the "family photo" group shot, the other leaders convivially walked down the narrow Sicilian streets to their luncheon. Trump hung back and, minutes later, opted instead to ride in a golf cart.

Low energy. Sad.

The Wall Street Journal provides an example of the criticism leveled at Donald Trump's press operation:

Some Trump advisers have also questioned the judgment of communications officials, citing as an example the rollout of a tax-plan outline in April that featured Goldman Sachs alumnae Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director.

“The left is automatically going to say the tax plan is tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. And we just gave them an image of the rich and of Wall Street,” one Trump former campaign official said.

First off, who else is going to roll out a tax plan? The Secretary of Defense?

Second, the left isn't automatically going to say the tax plan is tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. We're going to say that if it actually is tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. But the confusion here is easy to understand since Republican plans are always tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. That makes it hard to parse responses from the left, I suppose.

From Peter Yen of Santa Ana Packaging, a manufacturer of donut boxes:

Anytime you see a movie or sitcom set in New York and a pink doughnut box appears, you know it obviously took place in L.A.

I did not know that! But it turns out that pink donut and pastry boxes are unique to Southern California.1 Why? Long story short, a Cambodian refugee from the Khmer Rouge became the donut king of Orange County during the 80s before he gambled away his fortune in the 90s. When he was starting out he asked his supplier for a cheaper donut box, and the pink box was born. Click the link for the longer story.

1Are they really? Or have they since spread to the rest of the country? Let us know in comments.

Someone in comments the other day was kvetching about the fact observing that I tend to crop my photos pretty tightly, and that's true. I like sharp, tightly-cropped pictures. Still, variety is the spice of life, and my fondness for close-ups means that you rarely get to see Hilbert or Hopper in action. I use the word "action" advisedly, since that mostly just means walking around. But even that's something, so today you get an exciting action shot of Hilbert.

Even with the fancy new camera, this is surprisingly hard to do. Cats in motion are frequently blurry or out of focus, and the follow-focus feature of the Lumix is pretty hit-or-miss. All that said, here it is. Photographic proof that Hilbert doesn't just sit around 24 hours a day.

Donald Trump claims that his world trip this week has saved millions of jobs. Millions!

A White House official said Trump was not talking just about the Saudi deals but “benefits to trade from the entire trip from Saudi Arabia to the G7.” He noted that “any improvement on trade would save many jobs. Stopping even one bad trade deal can save millions. Changing the infrastructure of global trade to tilt it back toward the U.S. would save and create millions.”

Hmmm. Barack Obama made 52 overseas trips during his presidency, and employment climbed 12 million during the same period. That's about 200,000 jobs per trip. Trump says he's responsible for millions just in one trip. That's pretty remarkable, no? But Trump is a remarkable man.

Last year, Michael Flynn received half a million dollars as part of a contract with the Inovo Group, headed by Ekim Alptekin, the chairman of the Turkey-US Business Council. Was this legit? Or is Inovo just a front for the Turkish government? David Corn investigates:

The paperwork Flynn filed with the government is confusing. Some of the records note that his company, the Flynn Intel Group, was hired to compile opposition research on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish government claims helped orchestrate an unsuccessful coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last summer....It was through his contract with Inovo that Flynn ended up in a September 19 meeting set up by Alptekin at the Essex House hotel in New York City with Turkish government officials, where reportedly the participants considered kidnapping Gulen. (A Flynn spokesman insisted Flynn had not discussed any illegal actions, and Alptekin has denied there was any talk of abducting Gulen at this gathering.)

OK. But there's also this:

An attachment to the filing, citing an American law firm representing Alptekin, says that "Inovo represented a private sector company in Israel that sought to export natural gas to Turkey".... In March, Alptekin told one reporter that he had hired Flynn "principally to produce geopolitical analysis on Turkey and the region" for a "regional energy company that is considering an investment in Turkey."

Digging up dirt on Gulen doesn't sound like something a private consulting group would be interested in. It sounds like something the Turkish government would be interested in. This is all the more mysterious because we don't know who was funding Flynn's work:

In an interview with a Dutch newspaper in April, Alptekin said the funds for the Flynn project came from a loan from his wife and payments from Ratio Oil Exploration, an Israeli natural gas company.

It seems unlikely that an Israeli oil company would have much interest in Michael Flynn's assessment of the potential market in Turkey for Israeli natural gas—especially since the oil company in question flatly denies that it has any connection with Alptekin at all. And it seems even more unlikely that Alptekin's wife would have any interest in this.

So was Flynn actually acting as an agent of the Turkish government, with the money being thinly laundered through Alptekin? Or was it, as both Flynn and Alptekin claim, really all about Alptekin's belief that Flynn had keen insights to offer regarding geopolitical analysis of Turkey and the region? We report, you decide.

A couple of days ago I tossed off a late-night post pointing out that health care is expensive, so it's hardly surprising that estimates of California's proposed single-payer plan have clocked in at a net additional cost of around $200 billion. That was pretty much my only point, but this post caused quite a...stir...on Twitter from the usual suspects, who were outraged that I hadn't assumed single-payer would radically slash medical costs. Today, Jon Walker provides a more measured version of the argument:

It is critical to address this weird claim from Drum because the idea that single-payer would cut health care costs isn’t some optimistic liberal talking point. It is a near universal assumption and the main reason achieving single-payer has politically been so difficult. It is the heart of the whole debate.

Again, this is not a liberal idea. The Lewin Group, a health care consulting firm owned by UnitedHealth Group, has repeatedly concluded that single-payer would cut health care costs. For example, they analyzed a single-player plan for Minnesota and concluded, “that the single-payer plan would achieve universal coverage while reducing total health spending for Minnesota by about $4.1 billion, or 8.8 percent.” It reached the same basic conclusion looking at a national single-payer plan in years past.

As it happens, I've found Lewin Group estimates in the past to be a little optimistic, but set that aside. I put the ballpark additional cost of national single-payer health care at $1.5 trillion, but if someone wants to assume it would be $1.36 trillion instead, that's fine. That's still in the ballpark. More important, though, is this chart, which accompanies that Lewin report on Minnesota:

This is basically right. As I mentioned in the original post, "If we're lucky, a good single-payer system would slow the growth of health care costs over the long term, but it's vanishingly unlikely to actually cut current costs." And that's pretty much what Lewin shows. The initial cost saving is small, but the cost containment measures inherent in a government-funded plan push the cost curve down over time. Their estimate is that within a decade Minnesota's proposed plan would have been a third less expensive than business-as-usual. This is roughly what I'd expect for a national single-payer plan too.

Is it technically possible to cut initial spending more? Sure. We could nationalize the whole medical industry, cut nurse and doctor pay by a third across the board, and create a mandatory formulary for drugs at a tenth of the price we currently pay. When the revolution comes, maybe that will happen—and doctors and pharma executives will be grateful we didn't just take them out and shoot them. In the meantime, I'm more interested in real-world movements toward single payer. Obamacare was a good start. Adding a public option would be another step. Medicare for all might be next. And something better than Medicare would be the final step. That will be hard enough even if we don't make mortal enemies out of every single player in the health care market.

In broad terms, if we adopted national single-payer health care today it would cost us something like an additional $1.5 trillion in taxes. That's reality, and as a good social democrat I'm fine with that. In theory, after all, my taxes might go up 30 percent, but Mother Jones will also increase my salary 30 percent because they no longer have to provide me with health insurance. Roughly speaking, this would be a good deal for half the country, which pays very little in income taxes; a wash for another third; and a loss for the top 10 percent, whose taxes would go up more than the cost of the health insurance they currently receive. If we decide to tax corporations instead of individuals, the incidence of the tax would pass through to individuals in a pretty similar way.

So that's that. I don't believe in Santa Claus, and I don't believe that we can pass a bill that slashes health care costs to European levels. They've had decades of cost containment that got them to where they are. We, unfortunately, haven't, so we have to start with our current cost structure. One way or another, that's what we have to deal with.

The Washington Post confirms what we've already heard about Senate Republicans doing away with the blue-slip rule:

Leaders are considering a change to the Senate’s “blue slip” practice, which holds that judicial nominations will not proceed unless the nominee’s home-state senators signal their consent to the Senate Judiciary Committee....Removing the blue-slip obstacle would make it much easier for Trump’s choices to be confirmed. Although Trump and Senate Republicans have clashed early in his presidency, they agree on the importance of putting conservatives on the federal bench.

....The Senate acted Thursday on Trump’s first appeals-court nomination, elevating U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar of Kentucky to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

....“Eliminating the blue slip is essentially a move to end cooperation between the executive and legislative branch on judicial nominees, allowing nominees to be hand-picked by right-wing groups,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a memo this week. She pointed out that the vacancy for which Thapar is nominated exists only because McConnell refused to return a blue slip for Obama’s nominee, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Tabor Hughes. The seat has been vacant since 2013, and Tabor Hughes never received a hearing, because blue slips were not returned.

Christopher Kang, who advised Obama on judicial nominations, said that was the reason 17 of the president’s picks did not receive hearings, killing the nominations. But the impact was even greater than that, because Obama gave up on trying to find nominees in some states, such as Texas, with two Republican senators. One vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has been open for five years.

Were Republicans snickering in private for six years because Democrats continued to be Boy Scouts during the Obama presidency, respecting the blue-slip rule despite blanket Republican opposition of the kind that Republicans now say will prompt them to kill it? Probably. Was it the right thing to do anyway? I guess I'm still unsure. But it sure doesn't look like it.

The Brookings table above shows the effect of all this for circuit court vacancies. The absolute numbers aren't huge, but both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama simply gave up nominating judges in states where there were any Republican senators. They would object as a matter of course and their objections would be honored. George Bush, by contrast, continued nominating judges everywhere. Democratic senators sometimes objected, but not always—and Republicans often ignored their objections anyway when they controlled the Senate.