Today's grilling of FBI Director James Comey was probably a dumb move on the part of Republicans. He didn't give them anything new to work with, but he did offer up plenty of answers helpful to Hillary Clinton. Here's a small sampling:

Did Hillary Clinton lie?
To the FBI? We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI.

Did Hillary Clinton lie under oath?
Not to the FBI. Not in a case we're working.


Do you agree with the claim that General Petraeus "got in trouble for far less"? Do you agree with that?
No, it's the reverse.

What do you mean by that?
His conduct, to me, illustrates the categories of behavior that mark the prosecutions that are actually brought. Clearly intentional conduct, knew what he was doing was a violation of the law, huge amount of information. Even if you couldn't prove he knew it, it raises the inference that he did it. An effort to obstruct justice. That combination of things makes it worthy of a prosecution.


If you're going to classify something, there has to be a header on the document. Right?
Correct.

Was there a header on the three documents that we've discussed today that had the little "C" in the text someplace?
No…There was no header on the email or the text.

So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert at what's classified and what's not classified and were following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?
That would be a reasonable inference.


I understand why people are confused by the whole discussion. I get that. But you know what would be a double standard? If she were prosecuted for gross negligence.


Did you get any political interference from the White House?
None.

Did you get any political interference from the Hillary Clinton campaign?
None.


This last one is from Rep. John Micah of Florida, who spent most of his time laying out a full-blown conspiracy theory about collusion between Comey, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Loretta Lynch about this investigation. Then he claims there's something "fishy" about the whole thing:

Tomorrow we'll go back to our districts and we have to explain to people, in a couple cafes where I see folks and have meetings. They're going to ask a lot of questions about what took place…One week ago, former president Clinton meets with the attorney general in Phoenix. The next Friday, last Friday, Mrs. Lynch, the AG, says she's going to defer to the FBI. On Saturday morning I saw the vans pull up…Then on Tuesday morning…you basically said you're going to recommend not to prosecute. Correct? And then Tuesday we had President Obama and Secretary Clinton arrive in Charlotte at 2:00. Shortly thereafter we had the attorney general closing the case. This is rapid fire. I mean, my folks think there is something fishy about this. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but there are questions on how this came down.

I hope what you'll tell the folks in the cafe is, look me in the eye and listen to what I'm about to say. I did not coordinate that with anyone. The White House, the Department of Justice, nobody outside the FBI family had any idea what I was about to say. I say that under oath, I stand by that. There was no coordination. There was an insinuation in what you were saying. I don't mean to get strong in responding, but I want to make sure I was definitive about that.

I don't know that this hearing will have any real effect one way or another. But there was no reason for Republicans to hold it other than inchoate rage at not getting the indictment they so desperately believed they were due. It accomplished nothing for their side, since Comey had already delivered a pretty blistering assessment of Hillary Clinton's "carelessness" and was unlikely to go further in front of Congress. But it did give Democrats a chance to get Comey on record refuting several conservative talking points and conspiracy theories. That was dumb. But that's what happens when you live in a bubble where Hillary Clinton is an obvious villain and it's simply inconceivable that she did nothing illegal.

Donald Trump Has Never Read the Constitution

Donald Trump had a meeting with congressional Republicans today, but it turns out that plenty of people had other plans and couldn't make it:

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told reporters he had "a longstanding appointment downtown." Another member said he had to be at the doctor's office and couldn't make it. A third said he had a "breakfast meeting." The member—who asked not to be named—then pulled out his schedule for Thursday morning. When he saw that there wasn't any event on his schedule, the member took out a pen and wrote "Breakfast meeting" on it. "See, I have one!" he joked.

By an amazing coincidence, the same thing is happening to the Republican convention: A surprising number of people are totally booked that week and just can't make it. Still, today's meet-and-greet took place, and there were plenty of attendees. So what did Trump say?

Another Republican in the meeting who declined to go on the record so he could speak candidly told TPM that Trump was asked pointedly if he would defend Article I of the Constitution. "Not only will I stand up for Article One," Trump enthusiastically stated, according to the member in the room. "I'll stand up for Article Two, Article 12, you name it of the Constitution."

The Republican member said that Trump's lack of knowledge about how many articles exist, gave him "a little pause." (The Constitution has seven articles and 27 amendments.)

Translation: Trump has no idea what Article 1 is about. But he'll stand up for it!

Since everyone is going bonkers over the fact that Hillary Clinton sent and received some emails containing classified information, here's a quick reminder that we've known this for a long time. We've also known just what that classified information was. Here is Fred Kaplan:

As anyone who’s ever had a security clearance will tell you, the labels secret and confidential mean next to nothing.... Top secret information is another matter, but the stuff that showed up in Clinton’s private email wasn’t so special. Seven of the eight email chains dealt with CIA drone strikes, which are classified top secret/special access program....Everyone in the world knows about these strikes; nongovernment organizations, such as New America, tabulate them; newspapers around the world—including the New York Times, where some of the same reporters are now writing so breathlessly about Clinton’s careless handling of classified information—cover these strikes routinely.

The other top secret email chain described a conversation with the president of Malawi. Conversations with foreign leaders are inherently classified.

If you choose to believe that top secret is top secret, and it doesn't matter if the classification was ridiculous, that's fine. Knock yourself out. The rest of us can examine Emailgate in a real-world sense and try to decide if Hillary Clinton actually did anything that might have compromised national security. The answer, pretty clearly, is no. We've seen virtually all the emails. We know what the top secret emails were about. We know that Russia could have hacked into her server and read every word and learned nothing of interest.

Hillary was still careless, and she still shouldn't have done it. But for anyone interested in actual national security, it's pretty clear that she never came close to compromising anything even remotely important. We've known this for many months. We still know it. And all the faux outrage from Republicans in Congress won't change it.

From the annals of headlines your presidential campaign really doesn't want to see:

In other news, Republicans are currently grilling FBI Director James Comey about his decision not to recommend prosecution of Hillary Clinton over her email server. I'm "watching" the hearing on Twitter, and it doesn't seem to be going well. It turns out that Comey is considerably smarter than your average GOP member of Congress. "There's no evidence that she lied to the FBI," he says clearly, thus proving the old adage that you shouldn't ask a question you don't know the answer to. The upshot of the whole thing may actually help blunt some of the criticisms Comey made of Clinton in his press conference on Tuesday. Nice work!

I thought the Stop Trump forces had pretty much given up, but apparently not:

Mr. Trump’s intraparty foes, led by a group of rogue delegates, are waging an intense behind-the-scenes effort to push the Republican National Convention’s Rules Committee for a vote on freeing delegates to back whom they wish, rather than being bound to Mr. Trump....The anti-Trump camp needs the backing of 28, or one-quarter, of the 112 Convention Rules Committee members, in order to place the issue before the full convention. A Wall Street Journal survey suggests it could be close.

....Though a majority of the convention delegates are bound to support Mr. Trump, Mr. Evans’s count shows just about 890 delegates are personally loyal to the New Yorker. Another 680 oppose Mr. Trump. That leaves 900 delegates who are presumed to be “in play,” he said. The stop-Trump forces would have to take nearly two-thirds of them to block his nomination.

This still seems like a pretty far-fetched effort to me, but I guess that a coup against Trump isn't totally out of the question. The Republican Convention is shaping up to be surprisingly exciting this year. I hope we all have our popcorn ready.

Trump: I Help Myself Before I Help Others

Hillary Clinton gave a big speech today laying out the case that Donald Trump is a lousy businessman. Trump's counterargument, as usual, is that bankruptcy laws are there to be used, and anyway, only four out of his hundreds of companies have ever gone bankrupt. Oddly enough, this is actually true—but only in a hypertechnical sense, not in any sense that actually matters.

The real story is that he went enormously into debt in the late 80s, did a lousy job of running his casinos, and went completely bust. He only avoided personal bankruptcy because his creditors decided it was better to put him on a strict allowance and keep him on the team that liquidated his assets. When Trump finally recovered, no one would loan him money anymore, so he suckered the public into doing it. His shiny new publicly-traded casino company was the only time we ever got a real look at how Trump runs his companies, and it was a disaster. Trump paid himself millions, but the company never made a profit and eventually went under. Mom and pop investors lost everything. If you want all the gory details, Matt Yglesias rounds them up here.

Anyway, this is just a long windup to share with you his campaign's response to Hillary's speech:

Ladies and gentlemen, your Republican nominee for president. Makes you feel proud to be an American, doesn't it?

Guess what? The Pentagon is still lying about how effective our anti-missile defenses are. David Willman of the LA Times reports on the recent test of an anti-missile interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California:

The missile agency issued a news release that day touting a “successful flight test.” The agency’s lead contractors were no less effusive. Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc., maker of the thrusters, said the new model “successfully performed its mission-critical role.”

....In fact, the test was not a success, the Los Angeles Times has learned. One of the thrusters malfunctioned, causing the interceptor to fly far off-course, according to Pentagon scientists.

....Project engineers for the Jan. 28 test had planned for the interceptor to fly within a narrow “miss distance” of its target to test the new thrusters’ effectiveness. That is not what happened. The closest the interceptor came to the target was a distance 20 times greater than what was expected, said the Pentagon scientists, who spoke on condition they not be identified.

 “The mission wasn’t successful,” one of the scientists said. “Did the thruster perform as expected? No, it did not provide the control necessary for a lethal impact of an incoming threat.”

A couple of months after the failed test, the Missile Defense Agency was still keeping up a brave face. "In appearances before Congress, the agency’s director, Vice Adm. James D. Syring, has expressed no concerns about any aspect of the test, including the thrusters’ performance."

Finally, confronted with evidence of the failure, the Missile Defense Agency conceded the problem but insisted that it had been identified and fixed. "Any necessary corrective actions will be taken for the next flight test," they said. How often have we heard that before?

It doesn't bother me too much that the test failed. Anti-missile defense is a tough nut to crack, and failures are inevitable. But given the fact that we've been working on this for decades and still can't field a reliable system, isn't it about time for the Pentagon to at least start telling the truth about whether these systems work?

I haven't found much to say about yesterday's finale to the Hillary Clinton email saga. Mainly this is because we really didn't learn much new from James Comey's press conference. We've known for over a year that Hillary was careless and perhaps a bit arrogant in her use of email while she was secretary of state, but also that she almost certainly did nothing that would lead to criminal charges. Comey added a few details to the story, but nothing that changed the basic contours of what we already know. I didn't read a single commentary yesterday that struck me as even modestly interesting.

Politically, though, there's something we can learn from this. Consider two "scandals." The first is Benghazi. Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong. It was, essentially, a complete nothingburger. The second was Emailgate. In that one, Hillary unquestionably did things that were foolish at best and possibly criminal at worst. It was a genuine story.

But Republicans treated them both exactly the same. It didn't matter whether Hillary actually did something wrong or not. They went after her with their usual Whitewater/Travelgate/Vince Foster level of fury, convinced that if only they yelled loudly enough the country would finally see her unmasked as the villain she really is. And they're still doing it. James Comey has spoken, and no one reasonable thinks he's on the take for the Clintons. But conservatives are almost unanimous in their shrieking that she is too guilty and ought to be put behind bars. Paul Ryan is now promising a probe of the probe, and idiotically calling for the director of national intelligence to "block" Hillary's access to classified information while she's running for president. The only surprise here is that he isn't demanding that Hillary's access to classified information be blocked even if she wins.

After eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency and now four years of Hillary Clinton's post-cabinet career, Republicans have been crying wolf about Hillary for more than a decade. It's pretty obvious that they're going to continue, and that they really don't care whether she's actually done anything wrong. I have a feeling the public may finally be getting tired of their games.

Report: Tony Blair Lied Britain Into War

It took seven years, but the great and good of Britain have finally concluded that Tony Blair basically lied them into war:

Tony Blair has responded to criticisms made in the Chilcot report by saying he takes full responsibility for leading Britain into the Iraq war following the “hardest most momentous, most agonising decision” of his life....“For all of this I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or believe,” he said, in a speech in which his voice cracked with emotion.

....In a forensic account of the way Blair and his ministers built the case for military action, Chilcot found that Blair disregarded warnings about the potential consequences of military action and relied too heavily on his own beliefs, rather than the more nuanced judgments of the intelligence services.

A memo published by Chilcot also revealed that Blair had written to the US president, George W Bush eight months before the 2003 invasion, promising him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

More here.

How Likely Is a Recession in 2017?

Deutsche Bank says there's a strong chance that the US economy will go into recession within a year:

The so-called yield curve suggests there’s a 60% chance of a U.S. recession occurring in the next 12 months, according to analysts at Deutsche Bank, led by Dominic Konstam....The bank’s fixed-income researchers looked at the difference between the three-month and 10-year U.S. Treasury yields, which has been narrowing sharply in recent months. Adjusting for the low level of short-term rates suggests that the yield curve is already inverted, they found.

“Given the historical tendency of a very flat or inverted yield curve to precede a US recession, the odds of the next economic downturn are rising,” the analysts found.

I'm not quite sure how predictive the yield curve is at the moment, but I have my own reasons for fearing a near-term recession. The chart on the right shows it in a nutshell: housing prices are getting near their bubble highs of 2006, while household incomes are growing slowly.1 There are lots of measures you can use to detect a housing bubble, but my standby has always been a simple one: house prices vs. income. At some point, if house prices outpace income by too much, people just can't afford to buy new homes. Then prices fall and—if the decline is steep enough—a recession follows.

We're not out of whack by as much as we were in 2006, but we're getting there. Add in the length of the current expansion, Europe's continued sluggishness, Brexit fears, and the Chinese slowdown, and there are plenty of reasons to be nervous about the economy. Our next president might have a pretty tough time in her first couple of years in office.

1Both series are in nominal dollars, indexed to January 2000 = 100.