In non-Comey news today, the director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, is stepping down:

The director of the U.S. Census Bureau is resigning, leaving the agency leaderless at a time when it faces a crisis over funding for the 2020 decennial count of the U.S. population and beyond....The news, which surprised census experts, follows an April congressional budget allocation for the census that critics say is woefully inadequate. And it comes less than a week after a prickly hearing at which Thompson told lawmakers that cost estimates for a new electronic data collection system had ballooned by nearly 50 percent.

The basic background here is that Republicans are demanding that the 2020 census be conducted for no more than it cost to conduct the 2010 census. Inflation and population growth essentially mean that Republicans are asking the Census Bureau to conduct the census for about a quarter less than it cost to conduct the 2010 census. Democrats find that ridiculous, and presumably Thompson resigned because he felt like he was being set up for failure. With the budget he was given, the census would be a fiasco and he'd take the fall.

So are Republican demands unreasonable? I'm sure there's a massive backstory here, but just to get started here are the costs of the past five censuses plus a projection of what a flat budget means for the 2020 census:

The Republican argument, obviously, is that the cost of the census shot up in 2000 and 2010 and it's time to rein it back in. The Democratic argument, presumably, is that the census is more complex today and costs more to run etc. etc.

I don't want to pretend to be an instant census expert, so I'll stop here. But the questions we should be asking are: Is the census a lot more complex than it was in 1990? If so, why? Does it have to be, or can we scale it back? What would we be losing?

Donald Trump is embroiled in a scandal over his ties to Russia. He just fired his FBI director over this, a move widely viewed as Nixonian. So who does Trump meet with today at the White House?

First, the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. Then Henry Kissinger.

And no US photographers are allowed in the room for the meeting with the Russians. Only Russian agency photographers. Because of course.

This is what happens to a TV show when it feels like it has to top itself every season. It's time to cancel this one.

It's gonna be one of those days, isn't it? It's all Comey all the time. Check out the front page of the New York Times right now:

I've highlighted the ones that got headlines, but there are actually 16 stories about the Comey firing there. The top one tells us this:

Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.

I'm sure this surprises no one. We're already pretty far into "What did he know and when did he know it?" territory. And there's more than one he that this applies to.

And don't miss Jenna Johnson's fascinating report about a White House press staff taken by surprise and scrambling to figure out what the hell they should say about all this. "Another Tuesday at the White House," Sarah Huckabee Sanders joked. I wonder how long these folks can hold out? Ron Ziegler lasted until the very end, but I doubt that these folks have his kind of fortitude.

Politico has a big "inside" look at the Comey firing tonight, and it is bananas:

[Trump] had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

....Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn't support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.

....Trump received letters from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, calling for Comey's dismissal...[A White House spokesman] said Trump did not ask for the letters in advance, and that White House officials had no idea they were coming. But several other people familiar with the events said Trump had talked about the firing for over a week, and the letters were written to give him rationale to fire Comey.

Summary: The Comey firing had nothing to do with the Hillary Clinton email investigation. It was all because Trump was outraged over Comey's public acknowledgement that the FBI was investigating his Russia ties. He wanted the investigation to disappear, and he began obsessing about firing Comey—presumably in hopes that this was all it would take to kill the case. And apparently Trump was shocked when Democrats didn't line up behind him. They hate Comey too, don't they?

Trump's astronomical ignorance has finally caught up with him. He seems to have had no idea that firing Comey wouldn't stop the investigation—nor that a new FBI director wouldn't dare quash it. In fact, all the firing does is make the investigation untouchable. And Trump's astronomical narcissism has caught up with him too. He has so little insight into other humans that he simply couldn't conceive of anyone hating Comey but still defending his right to serve out his term. In Trump's world, you reward your friends and punish your enemies and that's that.

This is hardly unexpected from Trump, whose ignorance and narcissism are legendary. But does he really have nobody on his staff to warn him about this stuff? Reince Priebus surely knew how this would play out. Ditto for Mike Pence.

And one final thing: once again, we learn that many of Trump's advisors are perfectly willing to portray him as an idiot. The Politico story is based on conversations with insiders who were happy to confirm that the Comey firing was all about Russia. This directly contradicts the White House narrative that it was about the fact that everyone had lost confidence in Comey because of the way he mistreated poor Hillary Clinton. Who are these people who work for Trump (?) but are happy to undermine him to the press on a regular basis?

Donald Trump is bragging today that "Manufacturing openings, hires rise to highest levels of the recovery." Well of course they have. As long the economy keeps expanding, openings will set a new record every month, more or less. Like so:

If you want to know how manufacturing is really doing, you want to look at it as a percentage of all job openings. Here you go:

Meh. Manufacturing job openings have been declining since 2012, but have shown a small uptick since the start of 2016. Nothing to get excited about, though.

I know, I know: who cares? Well, what can I tell you? I'm just trying to take my mind off the whole, incredible Comey thing. It's mind boggling. Maybe today is a good day to start sniffing glue.

How the world works, 2017 edition:

July 2016: Republicans are united in outrage when James Comey declines to recommend charges against crooked Hillary Clinton despite mountains of evidence that she is totally guilty.

Today: Republicans are united in disappointment at Comey's decision to harm poor Hillary Clinton by breaching agency guidelines against commenting on investigations and interfering with an upcoming election. Thank God he's finally been fired.

The official story about Comey's firing goes something like this. On April 25, Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as deputy attorney general. It takes him less than two weeks to put together a memo arguing that: Comey was wrong to usurp the attorney general's prosecutorial authority. He was wrong to hold a "derogatory" press conference about Clinton. He was wrong three months later to claim that keeping quiet about the Huma Abedin emails amounted to "concealing" them. He shouldn't have said anything on October 28. Rosenstein concludes by saying that everyone from the janitor to the pope agrees that this was obviously egregious behavior on Comey's part. Within hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommends Comey be fired and Trump immediately announces Comey's termination. Comey hears about it on TV.

Needless to say, there is precisely nothing new in any of this. As Rosenstein says, these criticisms of Comey have been obvious from the start, and Trump could have used them as justification for firing Comey at any time. But he didn't. Until now.

The difference between then and now, of course, is that then Comey was helping bury Hillary Clinton, and now Comey is investigating ties between Russia and Trump. So only now is it time for Comey to go.

So far, there are a tiny handful of Republicans who are "troubled" by Comey's firing. Will they go any farther? Will any more Republicans join them? Or is everyone going to take one for the team and pretend that Comey really was fired because of how badly he treated Hillary Clinton?

Another month, another drop in illegal immigration. The conservative Washington Times is crowing about it:

Illegal immigration across southwest border down 70 percent under Trump

Illegal immigration across the southwest border dropped yet again in April, with the number of illegal immigrant children fallen below 1,000 for the first time in recent records, Homeland Security announced Tuesday. The numbers are part of a stunning drop since the beginning of the Trump administration. Border Patrol apprehensions alone are down a shocking 70 percent compared to last year under President Obama.

....Authorities attributed the continued drop to the administration’s changes in border enforcement policies. “A lot of the discussion about changes in our enforcement policy and the way we are going about doing business, we believe that has deterred people,” said Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan in a briefing at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters Tuesday.

Is this really a Trump effect? I don't have much of a dog in this fight, since I think it might well be. Trump's brand of bluster and fear isn't very effective in most circumstances, but it's certainly possible that it is here. A loud president combined with some loud raids could easily scare off folks from trying to cross the border.

But you can judge for yourself. Here are total Southwest border apprehensions since 2008. Since this stuff is extremely seasonal, I've drawn three lines for apprehensions in January, February, and March:

On the one hand, border apprehensions are down sharply compared to 2016 in all three months. On the other hand, this has happened before: in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2015. The number just announced for April is below the April trendline (dotted line), but only a little.

If I had to guess, I'd say the Trump effect is small but real. There would have been some reversion to the mean regardless, but the drop under Trump seems to be a little steeper than we might otherwise expect. The real question is how long it lasts. I imagine that border crossers are accustomed to periodic crackdowns, and willing to wait them out. The question is whether Trump's bluster gets backed up with anything more.

FBI Director James Comey has been fired. Why? The White House hasn't said, but it seems to be linked to Comey's bungled testimony to Congress regarding the number of emails Huma Abedin forwarded to her husband, and more generally to Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation during the 2016 campaign. This is what got President Trump elected, so there's zero chance he actually cares about it. But I suppose it's as good an excuse as any.

So what's the real reason? Well...the FBI is investigating the ties between Russia and Trump's campaign. If I were president while that was going on, I probably wouldn't want someone running the agency who was eager to prove that he could get tough on my party too. Much better to have a friendly face running things. I imagine that Trump feels the same way.

Lunchtime Photo

This is one of our monarch butterflies. We only have three or four, but it's always nice when one of them makes an appearance in the garden and flits around for a while.

BTW, this is an example of a picture I couldn't have taken with my old camera. It only allowed me to focus this close with the zoom set to its shortest focal length, which meant I'd have to be about six inches away. There's no way the butterfly would have stuck around for that. But the Lumix allows me to focus pretty close even when the zoom is out to 100-200mm. I took this from a foot or two away, which was just far enough not to spook the butterfly into flight or flight mode.

Apparently we are going to stay in Afghanistan forever. If we leave, the Taliban will likely take over large swaths of the country—if not the entire place—and no president wants to be in office when that happens. But neither can we "win." So we just keep announcing the same old plan: send in more troops. Here's the latest:

Senior Trump administration and military officials are recommending sending several thousand additional American troops to Afghanistan to try to break a military deadlock in the 15-year war there, in part by pressuring the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government.

....American officials said that 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops, including hundreds of Special Operations forces, could be sent....NATO nations would also be asked to send thousands of troops, and the precise number of American forces deployed would probably depend on what those allies were prepared to do.

Is this a joke? We've been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for more than 15 years and we're once again pretending that adding a few more troops will break that 15-year stalemate? Here's what troop levels have looked like in Afghanistan since the war started:

The official story is that Trump's little uptick will be the final straw that panics the Taliban into serious negotiations. I would sure like to hear someone defend this fanciful notion with a straight face.