There are too many states voting today to focus on just one, so instead here's the latest national polling in the Republican primary. In a nutshell: Rubio is crashing, Kasich and Cruz are surging, and Trump just keeps steadily picking up more and more support.

On the Democratic side, there's nothing much to report. Nationally, Clinton has been about ten points ahead of Sanders for the past month, and she still is.

Vladimir Putin announced today that he would begin withdrawing most of his forces from Syria. The move came as a complete surprise—sort of:

But U.S. officials also said that there had been evidence over the last several months that appeared to suggest that Moscow didn’t have plans for a long-term stay at the bases it used in Syria.

For instance, the Russian military didn’t appear to be rotating its equipment—tanks, aircraft and artillery—among bases throughout the country in a way that would be consistent with a military’s plans for a sustained presence. Equipment wasn’t being withdrawn for maintenance, for example, and Russian forces weren’t being rotated in and out, according to U.S. officials.

It's unlikely that Putin ever really intended to stay for a long time in the first place. His goal wasn't to help Assad win his civil war, but merely to prevent him from losing—just as there's a reasonable case to be made that this is basically our goal too on the other side of the fight. It's realpolitik at its nastiest and most cynical. And while the recently convened peace talks in Geneva provided Putin with a convenient pretext to get out, there was more to the timing than just that:

Russia is also facing deepening economic problems caused by the collapse in global oil prices, and the announcement may reflect Mr. Putin’s desire to declare victory and extricate his country from a costly military venture....There have been growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government over the Geneva talks, which Moscow has pressed hard for, along with Washington. And for Mr. Assad, the prospect of Russia’s leaving him to fend for himself is sure to focus his mind on following its lead — advice that Russian officials have publicly offered him in recent days.

In the end, Putin managed to prop up Assad for a little while longer and reassert control over Russia's only military base outside of its own territory. He also earned a place at the negotiating table and, perhaps, kept Iran's influence over Syria at bay. In terms of pure military achievement, however, it was a modest affair. The maps below, from ISW, show what's happened over the past six months. Syrian forces have made progress toward retaking Aleppo, which is significant but hardly tide turning. And that's about it. What's more, with Russian air support gone and Kurdish forces also advancing on Aleppo, it's unclear if Assad can hold this ground in the long term. Stay tuned.

Donald Trump at the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1990.

It's pretty common knowledge that Donald Trump lies routinely about his wealth and his businesses. He can get away with this because he runs a private company and isn't required to open his books to the public.

But there was one period in his life when he ran a public company. Here's the backstory: During the '80s, Trump invested heavily in Atlantic City casinos. He ended up owning three of them, culminating in the Trump Taj Mahal, a billion-dollar monstrosity that was ill conceived and poorly run, hemorrhaging money from the day it opened. Trump had borrowed heavily during this period, guaranteeing many of the loans personally, and this was the last straw. His company was bankrupt.

He would have been personally bankrupt, too, but his creditors decided to put him on a leash and let him try to work his way out. He made steady progress, but the casinos continued to be a millstone around his neck. By the mid-'90s, however, the stock market was getting hot and lots of small investors, then as now, were mesmerized by the Trump name. So Trump decided that as long as there were lots of rubes who still thought he was a great businessman, he might as well take advantage of them. Timothy O'Brien tells the story in TrumpNation:

In a masterstroke of financial maneuvering, and in a tribute to the sucker-born-every-minute theorem, [Trump] managed to take two of the Trump casinos—the Plaza and the Taj Mahal—public in 1995 and 1996, at a time when Donald was unable to make his bank payments and was heading toward personal bankruptcy. The stock sales allowed Donald to buy the casinos back from the banks and unload huge amounts of debt. The offering yanked Donald out of the financial graveyard and left him with a 25 percent stake in a company he once owned entirely.

In one fell swoop someone else became responsible for the debts that almost sank Donald…Exactly what investors thought they might get for their Trump Hotels investment wasn't entirely clear. Donald had already demonstrated that casinos weren't his forte, and investors were buying stock in a company that was immediately larded with debts that made it difficult, if not impossible, to upgrade the operations.

…Allan Sloan, the financial writer who had opined with great accuracy on many things Trump, offered a fair warning to Trump Hotels' investors: "Shareholders and bondholders have to be total fools ever to think that Donald Trump will put their interests ahead of his own."…Donald spent several years proving Sloan correct.

…Just a few months after Trump Hotels absorbed the Taj, Donald sold his last Atlantic City casino, the Castle, to the public company. That is, Donald sold his own casino, with all of its heavy debts, to a public company he controlled. The $490 million price tag for the Castle was about $100 million more than analysts thought it was worth…sending the company's stock into a nosedive from which it never recovered.

Although Trump Hotels' shares were sinking and there were no earnings to be seen, Donald paid himself $7 million for his handiwork at the company in 1996…Jerry Useem at Fortune took note in 2000 of Donald's "disquieting” tendency to "use the casino company as his own personal piggy bank." In addition to the multimillion-dollar bonuses Donald was lifting out of Trump Hotels, Useem pointed out that "the pilots of his personal 727 are on the casino company's payroll" and that in 1998 Donald "had the already cash-strapped company lend him $26 million to pay off a personal loan."

Trump's fans were conned into buying up his debt-laden properties and turning them into a public company. Trump, who plainly had no interest in running a casino and had demonstrated no corporate management skills during the prior decade, paid himself millions of dollars from the company's coffers for doing essentially nothing. He then unloaded his third casino onto the public company at an inflated price.

The public company didn't show a profit during a single year of its existence. In 2004 the stock was delisted and the company forced into Chapter 11 reorganization. It was renamed Trump Entertainment Resorts, but with Trump still at the helm it continued to pile up losses and amassed debts of nearly $2 billion. In 2008, after missing a $53 million bond payment, it declared bankruptcy yet again and Trump resigned as the company's chairman. Its investors lost all their money.

In case you're curious, this is how Trump treats the little people. Some of the investors in his casinos were big guns who should have known better. But plenty of them were moms and pops who believed Trump when he insisted he was the greatest businessman the world had ever known. Trump didn't care: He figured he could fleece them, and he did. That's what happens to people who trust Donald Trump.

Weekly Flint Water Report: March 4-11

Last week I posted a chart showing the average lead levels in Flint's water since the beginning of the year. This is an easy chart to update, so I figure I'll make it a weekly feature on Monday morning for a while. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. The average for the past week was 8.08. The average since mid-January is 10.07.

What's the secret to being a highly-paid CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Sales growth? Earnings growth? Impressive return to shareholders? Visionary leadership?

According to a new study from Institutional Shareholder Services the real key is simpler: set your own pay. Or better yet, have a friend set it. According to ISS, in companies that have an insider as chairman of the board, CEOs earned a little over $15 million during the past three years. But in companies with an independent outsider as chairman, CEOs made only $11 million.

Did anything else matter? Revenue did: bigger companies pay their CEOs more. But that was it. Shareholder return was insignificant, as were several other variables. Bottom line: if you want a big payday, run a big company and make sure an insider is setting your pay.

Obama Says He Would Have Bombed Iran

Here's another excerpt from Jeffrey Goldberg's essay on President Obama's foreign policy:

One afternoon in late January, as I was leaving the Oval Office, I mentioned to Obama a moment from an interview in 2012 when he told me that he would not allow Iran to gain possession of a nuclear weapon. “You said, ‘I’m the president of the United States, I don’t bluff.’ ”

He said, “I don’t.”

Shortly after that interview four years ago, Ehud Barak, who was then the defense minister of Israel, asked me whether I thought Obama’s no-bluff promise was itself a bluff. I answered that I found it difficult to imagine that the leader of the United States would bluff about something so consequential. But Barak’s question had stayed with me. So as I stood in the doorway with the president, I asked: “Was it a bluff?” I told him that few people now believe he actually would have attacked Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.

“That’s interesting,” he said, noncommittally.

I started to talk: “Do you—”

He interrupted. “I actually would have,” he said, meaning that he would have struck Iran’s nuclear facilities. “If I saw them break out.”

He added, “Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting” the bomb. “This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb.

“You were right to believe it,” the president said. And then he made his key point. “This was in the category of an American interest.”

But is he bluffing even now? We'll probably never know.

Yesterday, following the disruption and melees at Trump rallies in St. Louis and Chicago, I wrote this: "Both sides have a point: Trump should be allowed to hold rallies, but he shouldn't be allowed to pretend that he's not consciously encouraging both the protests and the increasing violence."

I stand by that. At the same time, Trump is running for president. He's running to be the leader of the nation, and he has a choice: he can try to de-escalate the tension or he can pour fuel on the flames, risking a serious outbreak of violence. He's now clearly chosen the latter route. Here he is on Meet the Press, talking about the supporter who sucker punched a protester who was being led out of a Trump rally:

CHUCK TODD: I'm just curious, do you plan on paying for the legal fees of this older gentleman in North Carolina who sucker punched the protester?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I'm not aware. I will say this. I do want to see what that young man was doing. Because he was very taunting. He was very loud, very disruptive. And from what I understand, he was sticking a certain finger up in the air. And that is a terrible thing to do in front of somebody that frankly wants to see America made great again.

....CHUCK TODD: And that condones a sucker punch though?

DONALD TRUMP: No, as I told you before, nothing condones. But I want to see. The man got carried away, he was 78 years old, he obviously loves his country, and maybe he doesn't like seeing what's happening to the country.

....CHUCK TODD: It's possible you could help him with legal fees, if this man needs it?

DONALD TRUMP: I've actually instructed my people to look into it, yes.

And here he is talking about a guy who tried to rush the stage at a rally on Saturday:

CHUCK TODD: You praised the secret service, but then you said the man had ties to ISIS, that turned out to be a hoax. Did you go over the top there on that? Where did you get that—

DONALD TRUMP: No, no, no, no. He was, if you look on the internet, if you look at clips....He was waving an American flag.

CHUCK TODD: Well, it turned out to be a hoax. Somebody made that up, sir.

....DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don't know what they made up. All I can do is play what's there.

....CHUCK TODD: We're playing the clip right now.

DONALD TRUMP: No, excuse me, you didn't see the clip....He was dragging the American flag on the ground like it was a piece of garbage, okay? I don't like that....But you have to check it before you ask the question.

CHUCK TODD: Well, I — no, we have checked it. That's my point, sir. There's no ties to ISIS for this man. No law enforcement official. And this video that you linked to appear to be a hoax.

....DONALD TRUMP: It looked like the same man to me....Now, I don't know. What do I know about it? All I know is what's on the internet.

And finally this:

CHUCK TODD: I want to button this up a little bit, because this violence on the campaign trail, it's got a lot of people concerned. And I guess why won't you go up on stage and ratchet it back?

....DONALD TRUMP: The reason there's tension at my rallies is that these people are sick and tired of this country being run by incompetent people that don't know what they're doing on trade deals, where our jobs are being ripped out of our country....They're not angry about something I'm saying. I'm just a messenger.

....CHUCK TODD: You will not call for ratcheting back the rhetoric? You will not call for it?

....DONALD TRUMP: What have I said that's wrong?....The fact is, they're really upset with the way our country is being run. It's a disgrace.

Yesterday I said that Trump had a right to hold rallies without having them disrupted so badly that he can't speak. He's not Hitler, after all. Today, I'm a lot less sure of that.

The Koch-Fueled Plot to Destroy the VA

A ranking of the various kinds of American health care on a "socialized medicine" scale of 1 to 10 would look something like this:

If you're a hardcore libertarian, which program would you be most eager to privatize? The VA, of course, which is America's only genuine example of purely socialized medicine. In the past, the VA's status as health care provider to military vets has protected it from attack, but that's changed over the past few years. Why? Because of a carefully orchestrated smear campaign by a Koch-funded activist group called Concerned Veterans for America. Over at the Washington Monthly, Alicia Mundy reports:

Though the CVA's incorporation papers don't reveal its donors, Wayne Gable, former head of federal affairs for Koch Industries, is listed as a trustee. The group also hired Pete Hegseth as its CEO…a seasoned conservative activist, having been groomed at a series of organizations connected to—and often indirectly funded by—the Koch brothers.

…Hegseth became a fixture on Fox and was a guest on Bill Maher's show....By late 2013, Hegseth and the CVA were making the case that the VA needed “market-based” reform that provided vets with more "choice" to receive care from private doctors and hospitals.

…Then, on April 9, 2014, at a hearing in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Representative [Jeff] Miller dropped the bomb. He announced that his staff had been quietly investigating the VA hospital in Phoenix and had made a shocking discovery: some local VA officials had altered or destroyed records to hide evidence of lengthy wait times for appointments. And worse, Miller claimed, as many as forty veterans could have died while waiting for care.

This latter charge guaranteed screaming headlines from the likes of CNN, but was later shown to be unsubstantiated…In only twenty-eight out of the more than 3,000 patient cases examined by the inspector general was there any evidence of patient care being adversely affected by wait times…In most VA facilities, wait times for established patients to see a primary care doc or a specialist were in the range of two to four days…For the VA system as a whole, 96 percent of patients received appointments within thirty days.

In short, there was no fundamental problem at the VA with wait times, in Phoenix or anywhere else.

Bottom line: There were some problems in Phoenix, where employees had gamed the system for recording wait times. However, there was no evidence that this problem was widespread; there was no evidence that it caused any deaths; and there was no evidence that care had been compromised. In fact, a Rand study concluded that with the exception of patient communication with doctors and nurses, the VA performed as well as or better than private health care on nearly every measure:

  • VA outpatient care outperformed non-VA outpatient care on almost all quality measures.
  • VA hospitals performed the same as or better than non-VA hospitals on most inpatient quality measures, but worse on others.
  • VA performed significantly better, on average, on almost all 16 outpatient measures when compared with commercial, Medicare, and Medicaid HMOs.
  • On average, VA hospitals performed the same or significantly better than non-VA hospitals on 12 inpatient effectiveness measures, all six measures of inpatient safety, and all three inpatient mortality measures, but significantly worse than non-VA hospitals on two effectiveness measures and three readmission measures.
  • On most measures, Veteran-reported experiences of care in VA hospitals were worse than patient-reported experiences in non-VA hospitals.

For example, this chart shows how the VA compares on various measures of outpatient diabetes care:

During the Clinton administration, the quality of VA care was dramatically improved by Dr. Kenneth Kizer. When George Bush took office, he slowly but steadily eroded Kizer's work. Control was centralized in Washington; services were outsourced, leading to both higher cost and lower quality; VA eligibility standards were tightened, which resulted in time-consuming new processes to determine if new applicants were eligible for VA care; the Iraq War produced a flood of new patients; construction of new facilities was delayed; and all of this together caused wait lists for admission to the VA to skyrocket.

Obama's nominee to head the VA, Army General Eric Shinseki, quickly cut the backlog of unprocessed claims by 84 percent and instituted other reforms as well. But the scandal in Phoenix, with the fans flamed by Hegseth and the CVA, eventually forced Shinseki to resign. It also cracked open the door to privatizing the VA:

Legislation that came to be known as the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act…called for the creation of a "Choice Card" system that was designed as a first step toward privatizing VA health care services. Under the statute, veterans who lived forty miles from a VA hospital or had to wait more than thirty days for a VA appointment were promised that they could use their Choice Card to receive care from a network of private providers, much like one would use a private health insurance card.

The basic idea of the VA partnering more with private providers was not flawed in principle…Done right, closer collaboration between VA and non-VA providers could improve care for everyone in many areas. But the new legislation set in motion a "choice" program in which the government would be paying for bills submitted by private providers for care that was unmanaged, uncoordinated, and, to the extent that it replicated the performance of the private health care system, often unneeded. This is the very opposite of the integration and adherence to evidence-based protocols that has long made VA care a model of safety and effectiveness.

Worse, implementation of the Choice Card was a disaster from every point of view. Congress gave the VA only ninety days to stand up the program. Largely because of that insane time line, the VA was able to attract bids from only two companies. Each of these has a sole contract that gives it a monopoly wherever it operates, and each put together networks that were so narrow and poorly administered that that for many months vets who received Choice Cards typically could not find a single doctor who would accept them.

Everything is going according to plan! First, create a system that enriches private providers and is almost certain to make service worse. Then blame the crappy service on the old, bureaucratic VA and insist that only further privatization can fix it. Rinse and repeat. Eventually your donors are rich and the VA has been dismantled. Victory!

Donald Trump Is Right: We Don't Win Anymore

First they beat us at Tic-Tac-Toe and we laughed. It's a kids' game! Then checkers. Then chess. Then Jeopardy! Then the final domino fell: they crushed us at Go, the most complex game ever invented by the human mind. Now it's the robots who are laughing.

Donald Trump is right: we don't win anymore. Our future silicon overlords have made us into perpetual losers, and it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it. What is Trump going to do to make homo sapiens winners again?