Kevin Drum

How Donald Trump Could Become President, In 10 Words

| Sat Jan. 30, 2016 10:58 AM EST

Over at Vox, David Roberts writes 2,000 words explaining why Donald Trump will never become president. He makes some good points, but I think he misses some important issues that call his argument into question. Here's my rebuttal outlining how Trump could win in November:

The economy dips into recession and workers' incomes start falling. The end.

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Hey, Have You Heard About the Top Secret US Drone Program?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 7:53 PM EST

Via the AP, here's the latest on Hillary Clinton's email woes:

The Obama administration confirmed for the first time Friday that Hillary Clinton's unsecured home server contained some of the U.S. government's most closely guarded secrets, censoring 22 emails with material demanding one of the highest levels of classification....The 37 pages include messages recently described by a key intelligence official as concerning so-called "special access programs" — a highly restricted subset of classified material that could point to confidential sources or clandestine programs like drone strikes or government eavesdropping.

Special access programs are the most secret of all secrets, so this sounds bad. But wait. What's this business about drone strikes? That's not much of a secret, is it? Maybe you need a refresher on all this, so let's rewind the Wayback Machine to last August, when we first heard about top secret emails on Clinton's server that turned out to be about drone strikes:

The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on....The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, the officials said.

Hmmm. A news article? Here's a Politico piece from a couple of weeks ago, when we heard that the inspector general's office was concerned about some of Clinton's emails. Politico's source is a "US official":

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some or all of the emails deemed to implicate “special access programs” related to U.S. drone strikes....The information in the emails “was not obtained through a classified product, but is considered ‘per se’ classified” because it pertains to drones, the official added....The source noted that the intelligence community considers information about classified operations to be classified even if it appears in news reports or is apparent to eyewitnesses on the ground.

OK then: the emails in question discuss a news article containing information that's widely-known but nonetheless top secret because...um, why not? Here's more from Ken Dilanian, formerly of the AP and now with NBC News:

The classified material included in the latest batch of Hillary Clinton emails flagged by an internal watchdog involved discussions of CIA drone strikes, which are among the worst kept secrets in Washington, senior U.S. officials briefed on the matter tell NBC News. The officials say the emails included relatively "innocuous" conversations by State Department officials about the CIA drone program.

So what do you suppose the "closely guarded secrets" in the latest batch of 22 emails are? Drones? That's a pretty good guess. Most likely, this all started with someone sending around a news article about the drone program in Pakistan or Yemen, and then several other people chiming in. It wasn't classified at the time, and most likely contains nothing even remotely sensitive—but the CIA now insists on classifying it retroactively. That's why Clinton's spokesperson calls this "classification run amok" and says, once again, that they'll seek to have all these emails released to the public.

Of course, this could just be a clever ruse on Clinton's part, because she knows the emails will never see the light of day. But there are other people who have seen the emails. How have they reacted? Well, nobody on the Republican side has leaked or even "characterized" any of them, and nobody on the Democratic side has withdrawn their endorsement of Clinton. This suggests pretty strongly that this whole thing is, indeed, just a stupid bit of interagency squabbling.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 January 2016

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 3:00 PM EST

Behold the mighty hunter. Today Hopper is stalking the elusive camera strap as it slinks quietly away, guided by its giant eye and human protector. But it was no match. Seconds after this picture was taken, it fell to the swift reflexes and awesome claws of Felis catus.

And speaking of hunting, Hopper has a new favorite game. She has discovered that she can bat toys from the upstairs balcony down to the first floor and then run downstairs to swat them around. Sometimes she carries them upstairs herself and then knocks them down, other times I toss them up and she goes tearing after them. I'm not sure how long this game is going to last, but she hasn't gotten tired of it yet.

How Many Molars Do You Need, Anyway?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 2:24 PM EST

A few years ago I was at a party in Newport Beach and found myself buttonholed by an elderly dentist who had a real thing for wisdom teeth. He talked my ear off about how the dental profession removed way too many wisdom teeth unnecessarily even though most of them don't do any harm. I didn't know anyone else at the party, so I didn't really mind listening, and by the time he ran down I had to admit that he seemed surprisingly convincing. I didn't have any personal stake in this since my wisdom teeth were removed long ago,1 but he seemed to make a pretty good case. Then I left the party and forgot about it.

Anyway, the guy's name was Jay Friedman, and it turns out that he is to wisdom teeth—aka third molars—what I am to lead poisoning and crime. I had no idea at the time. But if you're curious to read more about this, Rob Wile has you covered. It's worth noting that lots of dentists think Friedman is full of crap, but it's also worth noting that apparently more of them are coming around to a somewhat more cautious view of the whole thing. Bottom line: You might want to think twice if your dentist tells you to get your wisdom teeth removed just as a precaution.

1I wasn't having any particular problems. One of them was slightly impacted, and my dentist figured I might as well get them all taken out. I shrugged and said fine. Nor did I have any problems: a little bit of pain, but not much, and a day or two of eating pudding. I couldn't figure out why people make such a big deal out of it. I guess some of you had it a lot worse, didn't you?

A Cable Host Explains Why They Covered Donald Trump's Publicity Stunt Last Night

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 1:02 PM EST

Last night I griped about the endless news coverage Donald Trump got for a political stunt that obviously had no purpose except to get endless news coverage. A few minutes ago, MSNBC host Chris Hayes and Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post had a Twitter conversation about this:

Hayes:

this is not very complicated.

there are 3 cable networks competing for viewers. 1 had a debate that will draw millions and millions of viewers. Other 2 have to figure out how to best compete with that. Usually there's nothing to do but be crushed. And then: boom! A competing event to cover

obviously this hits home to me, but people outside of this industry *vastly* underestimate a) the competitive pressure and b) the appetite for spectacle, theatrics, etc...

Tankersley:

This wud be more convincing if CNN/MSNBC didn't show so much Trump at all other times.

On Wed, CNN gave Trump 70 percent of all its candidate coverage. That includes both Ds & Rs.

I report, you decide.

Economic Growth Slows to 0.7 Percent in Q4

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 12:37 PM EST

Yuck. The US economy slowed down a lot in the fourth quarter of last year. GDP growth clocked in at a hair less than 0.7 percent:

For the year, GDP increased 2.4 percent, which is pretty much what it's been for the past six years. So overall, this isn't crushingly bad news. It just means the economy continues to putter along without really building up any steam. That's better than Europe or China can say. Still, in the fourth quarter growth slowed, income growth slowed, and inflation was close to zero. And, as we all know, the stock market has been tanking lately. It's sure not looking like it was a great idea to start raising interest rates—and if the Chinese economy goes south, it's really not going to look like it was a great idea to start raising interest rates.

Naturally we want a political spin on all this, and that's pretty easy: If this is just a blip, and growth returns over the next two quarters, then the presidential contest will remain a close-run thing. But if the economy flags badly for the next couple of quarters, Democrats are going to have a very, very hard time holding onto the White House. Are you ready for President Trump?

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Three Things I'm Still Waiting For

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:56 AM EST
  1. Donald Trump's new corporate policy allowing unrestricted carry at his golf resorts.
  2. A look at the "very nice place" where Trump keeps all the Bibles that people send him.
  3. A list of the "25 different stories" documenting his pre-invasion opposition to the Iraq War.

Pentagon Wants a Few More Troops to Fight ISIS

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:32 AM EST

The Pentagon wants more troops for the fight against ISIS:

Pentagon officials have concluded that hundreds more trainers, advisers and commandos from the United States and its allies will need to be sent to Iraq and Syria in the coming months as the campaign to isolate the Islamic State intensifies.

....With the liberation of the Iraqi city of Ramadi last month, coupled with recent gains in northern Syria, senior military leaders say that the war effort can now focus on isolating — and then liberating — the Islamic State-held cities of Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria. “The reason we need new trainers or additional trainers is because that’s really the next step in generating the amount of combat power needed to liberate Mosul,” Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the American military in Baghdad, said last week. “We know we will need more brigades to be trained, we’ll need more troops trained in more specialties.”

....The United States has had little success in persuading allies to provide more troops. But Mr. Carter and General Dunford do not want the United States to be the only source of more forces. With ISIS posing a threat to European countries, they are trying again.

I will note a couple of things. First, the Pentagon didn't call for carpet bombing of ISIS strongholds. Perhaps they know something that Ted Cruz doesn't? Second, the US has tried repeatedly to get more support from our allies, including those in the Middle East, and gotten nowhere. Some of them are willing to contribute a little bit of air power, but that's it. None of them have any interest in providing troops. But perhaps Ted Cruz knows the magic words to change their minds.

Last night Cruz said his enthusiasm for carpet bombing wasn't just tough talk. "It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we've seen from Barack Obama." Uh huh. In reality, it's as much a "strategy" as Donald Trump's call to "bomb the shit out of them." It's nothing more than big talk with nothing behind it. The Pentagon has no interest in this because they know it would be useless. They have a hard time finding enough worthwhile targets as it is.

However, there's something that hasn't gotten enough attention in all this: Cruz and Trump really have tapped into Ronald Reagan's military spirit, and I'm surprised the rest of the field hasn't figured this out. Reagan basically talked tough and spent a lot of money, but shied away from foreign interventions. The invasion of Grenada and his support for the Contras were small things that never risked any US troops. He pulled out of Beirut when things got tough there, never committed any troops to Afghanistan, negotiated with the Iranians, and to the horror of neocons everywhere, nearly concluded an arms deal with Gorbachev in Reykjavík that would have banned all ballistic missiles.

This is what Cruz and Trump are doing. They talk tough and promise to spend a lot of money, but both of them explicitly want to avoid much in the way of serious intervention overseas. And this is popular. It's what a lot of conservatives want. If the rest of the world wants to go to hell, let them go to hell in their own way. Bill Kristol is appalled, I'm sure, but his brand of endless intervention has never really caught on—and after Iraq and Afghanistan it's even less popular than ever. Cruz and Trump have figured this out.

My Non-Debate Wrap-Up

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 12:05 AM EST

I may have missed most of the debate, but I did manage to catch the pre-debate festivities. What a horror show. Everybody knew exactly what Donald Trump wanted, and they gave it to him anyway. I flipped over to CNN and Brianna Keilar was interviewing Trump in his plane and letting him walk all over her. She throws him a softball about Fox so that Trump has an opportunity to announce that "someone" at Fox called to apologize to him. She asks him about his past support for abortion and he baldly changes the subject, basically daring Keilar to try to get an answer out of him—so she shrugs and moves on. I switch to MSNBC and they're split-screening with the Trump event. Switch back to CNN and now they're split-screening too. Switch to Fox and the very first question of the debate is, "Senator Cruz, do you have any zingers about Donald Trump you'd like to share with us?"

Curtis Houck informs us that the network evening news shows spent 10 minutes on the Trump boycott and less than two minutes on the actual debate. ABC News tells us that Trump was mentioned 11 times in the first 30 minutes of the debate. For the past two days Trump's boycott has been practically all anyone could talk about.

I know, I know: he's the frontrunner, we have to cover him, yada yada yada. But there's something pathological going on here. It's as if the press corps is a bunch of eight-year-olds tugging on daddy's arm begging for his approval. Trump refuses to answer any of their questions, but they don't press him because he might get mad and stop talking to them. He lies to their faces and they just move on. He puts on an obviously fake "veterans" event designed to show that he's the alpha chimp, and everyone rushes to cover it.

What the hell is going on? Seriously. What does everyone find so damn fascinating about the guy?

Amazon Is Becoming Just Another Mortal Company

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 5:52 PM EST

Amazon stock tumbled 11 percent after today's earnings report. Here's why:

Amazon recorded $35.75 billion in sales in last year’s final three months [and] $482 million in profit....Analysts, however, were expecting $36 billion in sales and net income of $754 million.

I assume no one was concerned about Amazon missing its sales forecast by a minuscule amount, so this was all about its profit number. But in the past, investors didn't much care about Amazon's profitability. They just trusted Jeff Bezos to grow the company and shovel earnings endlessly into ever more growth opportunities. Eventually Amazon would own the whole world.

Not anymore. Amazon's sales growth is now merely mortal, not stratospheric, and investors want to see Amazon prove it can actually make money as a mature corporation. I guess pretax income of 1.3 percent just isn't going to cut it in the future.