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.

The Justice Department finally caved in and appointed a special counsel to investigate the Flynn/Manafort/Trump/Comey/Russia/etc. affair. Their choice is Robert Mueller, the FBI director before James Comey. Mueller, like Comey, is one of the heroes of the great Ashcroft hospital bed confrontation, so he's widely viewed as an upright guy. Before he gets too deep into the weeds, however, I'd like to lay out one piece of the case:

February: President Trump meets with James Comey about his future. In notes written right after the meeting, Comey says that Trump explicitly asked him to please drop the whole Russia investigation.

March: Comey declines to drop the investigation. In fact, he makes it clear to Congress and the public that the investigation exists and is serious.

April: Trump admits on national TV that his growing frustration with the Russia investigation led to his decision to fire Comey.

This is what happened. It's pretty simple. Trump asked the FBI director to kill an investigation into his friends, and then fired him when he refused. All the added detail in the world will never change this.

POSTSCRIPT: Just as an aside, one of the bizarre aspects of this case is that I suspect Trump never really thought he was doing anything wrong. Comey worked for him and he was making trouble for his friends, so of course he had to go. What's wrong with that? Trump probably doesn't even know what obstruction of justice is, and if he does he probably figures it doesn't apply to the president.

Last year, after a meeting with the Ukranian prime minister, the #2 Republican in the House turned to Paul Ryan and said, "There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump." That's from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and it's apparently what he thought back in June after Trump had won the Republican nomination. Ryan quickly shushed him, but the Washington Post found out about it today:

When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”

After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians. What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”

Good on Adam Entous of the Post for getting a response from both men before they knew he had a recording. It's good for the public to understand how shamelessly and effortlessly they'll flatly lie about anything they think they can get away with.

Anyway, the current explanation is that this was all just a big joke.1 That's also the latest excuse making the rounds for Trump asking James Comey to kill the Russia investigation.2 There sure are a lot of jokers in the Republican Party these days.

UPDATE: The transcript is here. McCarthy says, "There's...there's two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump...[laughter]...swear to God." Then there's more laughter. So yeah, it sounds like it was just a joke, though probably in a "funny cuz it's true" sort of sense.

1Actually, I can buy this. McCarthy's comment really does sound like dark humor. Still, even if he didn't mean it literally, it shows just what he thought about Trump and the Russians. In humor, veritas.

2This is pretty ridiculous in the case of Trump, since as near as I can tell he has no sense of humor and never laughs about anything. That's probably because he's too busy obsessing about how badly everyone treats him.

Lunchtime Photo

The neighborhood I live in is called Woodbridge, so naturally there has to be a wooden bridge that spans our little artificial lake. It's a fine looking bridge during the day, but I've never taken a picture of it at night—until now. This shot makes it look a lot more ominous than it really is, but it's what the camera captured. I didn't do any color fiddling in Photoshop. I took this photo about an hour after sunset, and to the naked carbon-based eye, there was only the slightest tinge of orange in a dark sky. But with a 4-second exposure, the silicon eye makes it look like Costa Mesa was going up in flames a few miles away. No worries, though: Costa Mesa was fine.

Yesterday the White House announced that President Trump will deliver a speech about Islam when he visits Saudi Arabia this weekend. This sounded very, very bad, sort of like the Ayatollah Khamenei dropping by Wittenberg to deliver a speech about Christianity. Still, maybe we're overreacting. After all, it's not as if Trump is going to write the speech himself. It will probably be drafted by regional experts in the State Department who are able to navigate the minefields of—

Wait. What's this?

Stephen Miller? This guy? The 31-year-old zealot who started his political career working for Michele Bachmann and Jeff Sessions? The guy who makes Steve Bannon look sort of reasonable?

We are doomed.

I don't know why this occurred to me, but I got curious about the price of marijuana in states that had legalized it for recreational use. So I headed over to Priceofweed.com, a crowdsourced font of information about the price of weed. There's a pretty sharp divide at the Rocky Mountains, so here's the price of pot in all eleven states west of the Rockies:

Sure enough, marijuana is noticeably cheaper in the four states that legalized recreational use more than a year ago. (Nevada has also legalized recreational use, but the law has been in effect for only a few months.) I'm really glad this turned out to be the case since it would have been damn strange if it hadn't.

As for the east-west divide, that's a little mysterious. Why is pot so expensive in the bustling and competitive markets of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, and other populous states? And does it really cost $500 per ounce in Washington DC, the highest priced market in the nation? They don't get represented in Congress and they have super expensive pot. Why does anyone live there?

POSTSCRIPT: Someone is sure to point out that maybe marijuana was cheaper in the green states all along. Could be. I'll leave it to some enterprising grad student in the study of freakonomics to round up the data and do all the proper econometric calculations.