Oh come on:

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

....The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, did not dispute the account.

That's from the New York Times, and it's what Trump told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister the day after he fired Comey. Of course, Trump probably didn't realize that the Russians were already keenly familiar with Comey since the FBI is America's primary counterintelligence agency—that is, the agency that tracks down Russian spies. So they know perfectly well he's not crazy and not a nut job. I'll bet they also knew perfectly well that firing Comey was only going to increase the pressure on Trump over Russia. That's because they aren't idiots.

The Washington Post reports on just what this increased pressure is turning into:

The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.

Stay tuned.

First things first: the answer to the origin of yesterday's lunchtime photo. It's a picture of the neon-lit Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. It's a 1-second exposure at night, one of several I took where I deliberately moved the camera while the shutter was open. Then I ran it through the dry brush filter in Photoshop.

And now for catblogging. Here is Hopper trying to leap from one branch to another on one of our trees. It looks touch-and-go, but it actually wasn't. She immediately chinned herself onto the target branch, but the camera just happened to catch her mid-swing. I assure you that no cats were harmed in the making of this photo.

However, you're all lucky I didn't make this into some variation on "donate to Mother Jones or the cat gets it." That would have been totally tasteless, and I'd never do that. But I could do it if I were that kind of person—and maybe I will if we don't make the $500,000 goal for our muckraking fund to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. We're getting close, but we're not quite there. So donate! Read more about it here. Or go straight to the donation page here.

Today we learned that Jim Donovan, a 25-year Goldman Sachs banking and investment management executive, is pulling out as Trump's nominee to serve as Deputy Treasury Secretary. Why? "Family concerns." That may be true, but it's also likely that he's rich and doesn't want to divest everything he owns just to be a deputy in a dysfunctional administration where he could get fired at any moment if the president gets annoyed with him.

In other news, I've removed Sebastian Gorka from the dead pool since he still seems to be around. I'll put him back if and when he takes a position elsewhere in the administration that's allegedly more important than being on the president's staff.

As we all know, the Republican health care bill can't survive a Democratic filibuster, so it's being considered via reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate. That means the bill has to obey reconciliation rules.

Normally, this is not a big problem. If some aspect of the House bill violates the rules, it gets removed in the Senate and life goes on. But what if the bill violates the prime rule of reconciliation—namely that it reduce the deficit? Then it's dead and everyone has to start all over. This means the House has to be pretty careful that their bill does indeed reduce the deficit.

But how do they know if it reduces the deficit? Easy: the CBO scores the bill and tells them. But Paul Ryan famously rushed passage of the bill in the House before CBO had time to deliver a score, so no one knows for sure if it still reduces the deficit. Bloomberg reports on what this means:

House Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t yet sent the bill to the Senate because there’s a chance that parts of it may need to be redone, depending on how the Congressional Budget Office estimates its effects...."I had no idea," Dennis Ross of Florida, another member of the vote-counting team, said Thursday, adding that the prospect of another vote "does concern me." GOP leaders never said publicly they were planning to hold on to the bill for two weeks or longer.

In the end, I imagine the bill will get scored as a deficit reduction and then be sent to the Senate. But the fact that Ryan is still holding onto the bill shows that he knew perfectly well how irresponsible it was to force a vote before the CBO delivers a score. In addition to being callous and malignant, the whole thing is also a massive FUBAR.

Over at NRO, Kevin Williamson takes Chris Hayes to task for implying that we don't pay enough attention to drunk driving:

The fight against drunk driving is a success story. A big one....In fact, the campaign against drunk driving is one of the great examples of how policy-driven social changes of the sort imagined by progressives such as Chris Hayes can succeed — and it also demonstrates the shortcomings of that model.

....Overall, we’ve cut DUI deaths and injuries by about 50 percent. Well done, us. We did it with invasive and paternalistic laws that lend themselves to occasional abuse and wanton mission creep, punishments that have tended toward the draconian, a campaign of social stigmatization, and heavy expenditures....That’s what real, effective social change looks like: a role for public policy, sure, but also changes in personal behavior, social norms, and economic activity, coupled with trade-offs and progress that is meaningful if modest.

This gives me an excuse to put up some statistics that have puzzled me for a while. Williamson is right that plenty of people credit stricter laws, checkpoints, social stigma and so forth for cutting drunk driving deaths over the past few decades. But does the data actually support this notion? I'm not so sure. For starters, here's the DUI arrest rate in California over the past 20 years:

I'm sure that nationwide data for this is available somewhere, but I'm not sure where. In any case, I imagine that California is pretty typical, and the data on DUI arrests sure doesn't suggest that police activity toward drunk driving has gotten a lot more severe over the past couple of decades. Just the opposite, in fact. Of course, this decline in arrest rates is partly because there are just fewer drunk drivers to arrest, thanks to social stigma etc. Right? National data doesn't really back that up:

Drunk driving fatalities have almost perfectly followed the overall trend toward fewer traffic fatalities as people drove less during the Great Recession. Outside of that period, both overall fatalities and drunk driving fatalities were pretty flat (or down modestly if you account for population growth and total miles driven). Fewer people are killed by drunk drivers these days, but it appears to be for the same reasons—air bags, fewer miles driven, etc.—that fewer overall people are killed on the road.

It's unquestionably true that drunk driving laws are stricter, social stigma has increased, and punishment is heavier than in the past. But in the past two decades, at least, this really doesn't seem to have changed things much. Relative to our our overall penchant for killing people on the road, drunk drivers are killing people at about the same rate as always.

Donald Trump may or may not be trying to destroy Obamacare, but his sheer incompetence is doing the job regardless. Noam Levey spoke to health insurance companies about their plans for 2018:

Health insurers across the country are making plans to dramatically raise Obamacare premiums or exit marketplaces amid growing exasperation with the Trump administration’s erratic management, inconsistent guidance and seeming lack of understanding of basic healthcare issues.

....Privately, many executives, including chief executives of major health plans, offered withering criticism of the Trump administration’s lack of leadership. “It’s hard to know who’s home,” said one chief executive. “We don’t know who is making decisions.” Another chief executive said: “There seems to be no coordination or coherent planning....It’s a mess.” A third official observed: “There is a sense that there are no hands on the wheel and they are just letting the bus careen down the road.”

....The uncertainty created by Trump comes as some Obamacare markets were beginning to stabilize, according to many industry and government officials. In several states, insurers and regulators noted that 2017 was shaping up to be a better year than the first several years of the marketplaces.

In addition, Trump's team continues to haul out the threat of killing CSR subsidies. Trump has done it twice with Democrats, and Levey reports that a Trump appointee has also done it with insurers: "At one recent meeting, Seema Verma, whom Trump picked to oversee the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, stunned insurance industry officials by suggesting a bargain: The administration would fund the CSRs if insurers supported the House Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. 'It made no sense,' said one official at the meeting."

(The Trump administration denies Verma said this. But I assume they're lying.)

Trump is both incompetent and a terrible negotiator—and that combination is wreaking havoc with the insurance market. If Trump really does kill the CSR subsidies and stops enforcing the individual mandate, insurance prices are going to go through the roof. Ironically, that wouldn't affect the poor too much, since their premiums are capped at a percentage of income. But for middle-class buyers, especially those over 50, it would be a disaster as premiums skyrocket.

Republicans have been claiming forever that Obamacare is failing. That's been flatly untrue: Obamacare has its issues, but has basically been running just fine—and the Congressional Budget Office projects that it will continue to to run just fine for years. Apparently this is too much for Republicans to bear, so now that they're in power they're going to force it to fail. The sheer callousness and venom this displays is breathtaking.

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.

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.