Tuesday Reads: Languishing

Good Morning!!

9c4ebca4ac61734a16521d33b4ada1b7I’ve been really dragging lately–partly because of health problems, but very likely also because of the exhausting events of the past year. Am I “languishing”? Are you?

Dakinikat pointed me to this New York Times article by organizational psychologist Adam Grant: There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.

At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member was staying up late to watch “National Treasure again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends.

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic. It hit some of us unprepared as the intense fear and grief of last year faded.

That sounds familiar. Of course I was already completely exhausted by the horror of 2016 and three years of Trump insanity when the pandemic hit. I’ve also been dealing with an autoimmune disorder called polymyalgia rheumatica. Despite seeing a Rheumatologist and taking multiple medications over the past year, I’m still struggling with chronic joint pain and stiffness. That has added to my sense of emotional exhaustion. I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s been happening.

More from Adam Grant on “languishing:” 

In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that your brain’s threat detection system — called the amygdala — was on high alert for fight-or-flight. As you learned that masks helped protect us — but package-scrubbing didn’t — you probably developed routines that eased your sense of dread. But the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

downloadIn psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving. His research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren’t the ones with those symptoms today. They’re the people who are languishing right now. And new evidence from pandemic health care workers in Italy shows that those who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.

Read the whole thing at the NYT and see what you think.

Now for today’s news . . .

Walter Mondale died yesterday. From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Walter Mondale, who rose from small-town Minnesota to vice presidency, dies at 93.

Walter F. Mondale, a preacher’s son from southern Minnesota who climbed to the pinnacle of U.S. politics as an influential senator, vice president and Democratic nominee for president, died on Monday. He was 93.

Known as “Fritz” to family, friends and voters alike, Mondale died in Minneapolis, according to a statement from his family.

“As proud as we were of him leading the presidential ticket for Democrats in 1984, we know that our father’s public policy legacy is so much more than that,” read the Mondale family statement.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who chose Mondale as his running mate in 1976, called his friend “the best vice president in our country’s history.”

merlin_171769038_49c1faf5-410a-4b9b-9fd5-827ec973d93e-mobileMasterAt3x“He was an invaluable partner and an able servant of the people of Minnesota, the United States and the world,” Carter said in a statement. “Fritz Mondale provided us all with a model for public service and private behavior.”

After serving four years under Carter, Mondale was the Democratic nominee for president in 1984. He lost to the incumbent, President Ronald Reagan, in a historic landslide.

“A night like that is hard on you,” Mondale wrote in his 2010 memoir, “The Good Fight.”

Even in defeat, Mondale made history by choosing as his running mate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president on a major-party ticket. It followed a series of political landmarks in a public career that spanned seven decades.

A protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, another Minnesota politician who rose to the vice presidency and lost a presidential election, Mondale served as a U.S. senator from Minnesota for a dozen years. He played a lead role in the passage of social programs, civil rights laws and environmental protections that defined President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”

As vice president from 1977 to 1981, Mondale transformed the office from what had historically been a punchline into what both he and Carter called a true governing partnership. Mondale’s role as chief adviser and troubleshooter, working from a West Wing office near the Oval Office, became a model for successors including George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.

“The first person I called was Fritz,” Biden once said about the time President Barack Obama offered him the No. 2 position.

At The Washington Post, Karen Tumulty wrote about how Mondale changed the vice presidency: Opinion: Walter Mondale reinvented the vice presidency. Both Biden and Harris should thank him for it.

[Mondale’s] most enduring contribution may well have been the invention of the modern vice presidency, and his creation of a template that has been followed to some degree ever since. Mondale’s activist model as an all-purpose adviser and troubleshooter is one for which President Biden, a former vice president, and Kamala D. Harris, the current occupant of the office, should be grateful.

Before Mondale, the vice president was largely a figurehead….

E4UJRGVYMZHBBLRWRV6ZBWSPUUBut Jimmy Carter, coming to Washington in 1977 with a contingent of fellow Georgians and no real sense of how the place operated, had recognized that he needed a true governing partner with the experience Mondale had honed in 12 years as a well-regarded senator from Minnesota.

Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the West Wing, steps from the president’s own, rather than being sidelined in the Old Executive Office Building, and a weekly lunch scheduled with the president. Carter also made it clear that their two staffs were to be considered one; Mondale’s chief of staff Richard Moe was given the additional title “assistant to the president.”

“We felt that Fritz’s long experience in Washington and the fact that for the first time he was being integrated into the Presidency itself was a compensating factor for the ignorance among the Georgia group concerning Washington,” Carter said, referring to Mondale, in a 1982 oral history moderated by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Read more at the WaPo.

The Derek Chauvin trial wrapped up yesterday, and now the nation awaits the jury verdict. Here’s an interesting op-ed by former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rogers at CNN: Chauvin trial is ‘believe your eyes’ vs. ‘hey, look over there!’

Prosecutors treat closing arguments as an opportunity to make things simple for the jury and to keep them focused on the critical issues. Thus we heard state prosecutor Steve Schleicher’s mantra to the jury to “believe your eyes,” and his repeated references to the video evidence as well as his use of visual aids through which Schleicher listed and then checked off each legal element of each offense as he reminded the jury of the evidence proving them. This was a very effective technique, giving jurors who walked into the jury room inclined to vote to convict some ammunition to use in convincing more reluctant fellow jurors.

Defense Attorney Eric Nelson and Derek Chauvin

Defense Attorney Eric Nelson and Derek Chauvin

Defense lawyers have a different checklist, and Chauvin’s lawyer Eric Nelson hit all of his marks. Defense lawyers use closings to distract the jurors, to pull them away from the focus encouraged by prosecutors, and to provide as many reasons as they can muster as to why the prosecutors’ theory of the case fails.

Nelson embraced this tactic, spending almost an hour showing body camera footage of and arguing about the period before Chauvin restrained Floyd, a time when other officers were trying to cram a resisting Floyd into the squad car, while virtually ignoring most of the 9 minutes and 29 seconds that Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. Nelson then tossed out all of the alternate causation theories he had cultivated throughout the trial — Floyd’s preexisting heart condition, his consumption of fentanyl and methamphetamine, the paraganglioma tumor, and possible carbon monoxide poisoning — claiming that with all of these possibilities out there, prosecutors couldn’t possibly prove causation beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jurors would be forgiven if their heads were spinning a bit from this rapid fire of legal theories — and that is exactly what the defense was aiming for.

Read the rest at CNN.

One more big story from yesterday at The Washington Post: Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who engaged rioters, suffered two strokes and died of natural causes, officials say.

Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick suffered two strokes and died of natural causes a day after he confronted rioters at the Jan. 6 insurrection, the District’s chief medical examiner has ruled.

The ruling, released Monday, will make it difficult for prosecutors to pursue homicide charges in the officer’s death. Two men are accused of assaulting Sicknick by spraying a powerful chemical irritant at him during the siege, but prosecutors have not tied that exposure to Sicknick’s death.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Francisco J. Diaz, the medical examiner, said the autopsy found no evidence the 42-year-old officer suffered an allergic reaction to chemical irritants, which Diaz said would have caused Sicknick’s throat to quickly seize. Diaz also said there was no evidence of internal or external injuries.

While there’s apparently no proof, it’s difficult to believe that a man in his early 40s who was involved in a violent insurrection and probably was hit with bear spray suddenly had two spontaneous strokes. But that’s where things stand.

Brian Sicknick

Brian Sicknick

Christopher Macchiaroli, a former federal prosecutor who handled violent crime cases before grand juries in D.C. Superior Court and U.S. District Court, said a ruling of a death by natural causes “does make it more difficult to bring a homicide prosecution.”

Macchiaroli said additional evidence of some conduct by rioters could emerge independently, which prosecutors could argue contributed to the strokes. But he said that “any defense attorney . . . would use the medical examiner’s conclusions as clear-cut evidence of reasonable doubt.”

In explaining the decision, the medical examiner’s office provided an updated timeline leading up to Sicknick’s death. A statement says Sicknick collapsed 7 hours and 40 minutes after he was sprayed, and then died nearly 24 hours after that.

Sicknick was among hundreds of officers who confronted the violent mob that took over the Capitol, seeking to overturn the election Donald Trump had lost. Nearly 140 officers were assaulted, authorities said, facing some rioters armed with ax handles, bats, metal batons, wooden poles, hockey sticks and other weapons.

So . . . what’s on your mind today? As always, this is an open thread.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Lazy Caturday Reads: The “President” Is A Crook.


Good Morning!!

After the release of three court filings yesterday (a sentencing recommendation for Michael Cohen from SDNY, another Cohen sentencing recommendation from Robert Mueller, and a statement from the Special Counsel of the lies from Paul Manafort that justify ending his plea agreement) the consensus of legal and political pundits is that Trump is essentially finished. How long he will continue as fake “president” is unclear, but he has been credibly accused of a crime by his own Justice Department.

I’ve gathered a number of opinion pieces that I think are very good. It’s difficult to excerpt these long pieces, so I’m just giving you the highlights. You’ll have to go to the sources for more details.

Jonathan Chait: The Department of Justice Calls Donald Trump a Felon.

Federal prosecutors released sentencing recommendations for two alleged criminals who worked closely with Donald Trump: his lawyer Michael Cohen, and campaign manager Paul Manafort. They are filled with damning details. But the most important passage by far is this, about Trump’s fixer: “Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”

The payments in question, as the document explains, concern a payoff to two women who claimed to have affairs with Trump. The payments, according to prosecutors, were intended to influence the campaign, and thereby constituted violations of campaign finance law. They have not formally charged Trump with this crime — it is a sentencing report for Cohen, not Trump — but this is the U.S. Department of Justice calling Trump a criminal….the fact that he is being called a felon by the United States government is a historic step. And it is likely the first of more to come…..

Cohen is providing helpful information on other crimes. Cohen reportedly gave the special counsel “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during them.” And this contact continued into 2018. Cohen was not locked out and probably has access to some secrets….

The special counsel sentencing recommendation for Cohen also reveals that Russian contact with the Trump campaign began as early as 2015, not the following spring. And Russians promised “political synergy” — which is essentially a synonym for campaign collusion — and “synergy on a government level.” That means a quid pro quo in which Russia would help Trump win the election and Trump, if elected, would give Russia favorable policy. This is the heart of Mueller’s very much ongoing investigation.

There are suggestions in both the Cohen filings that The Trump Organization was involved in crimes, and that is very significant. As Emptywheel pointed out recently, even if Trump were to pull a Nixon and make a deal with Pence–the presidency in return for pardons–Pence could not pardon Trump’s company.

Marcy writes that the sentencing memorandum released by Cohen’s attorneys on November 30,

…puts Trump’s eponymous organizations — his company and his foundation — squarely in the bullseye of law enforcement. The known details of all those puts one or the other Trump organization as an actor in the investigation. And we’ve already seen hints that the Trump Organization was less than responsive to some document requests from Mueller, such as this detail in a story on the Trump Tower deal:

According to a person familiar with the investigation, Cohen and the Trump Organization could not produce some of the key records upon which Mueller relies. Other witnesses provided copies of those communications.

If there’s a conspiracy to obstruct Mueller’s investigation, I’m fairly certain the Trump Organization was one of the players in it….

But the Trump Organization did not get elected the President of the United States (and while the claims are thin fictions, Trump has claimed to separate himself from the Organization and Foundation). So none of the Constitutional claims about indicting a sitting President, it seems to me, would apply.

If I’m right, there are a whole slew of implications, starting with the fact that….it utterly changes the calculation Nixon faced as the walls started crumbling. Nixon could (and had the historical wisdom to) trade a pardon to avoid an impeachment fight; he didn’t save his presidency, but he salvaged his natural person. With Trump, a pardon won’t go far enough: he may well be facing the criminal indictment and possible financial ruin of his corporate person, and that would take a far different legal arrangement (such as a settlement or Deferred Prosecution Agreement) to salvage. Now throw in Trump’s narcissism, in which his own identity is inextricably linked to that of his brand. And, even beyond any difference in temperament between Nixon and Trump,  there’s no telling what he’d do if his corporate self were also cornered.

In other words, Trump might not be able to take the Nixon — resign for a pardon — deal, because that may not be enough to save his corporate personhood.

Head over to Emptywheel for more details.

Ken White (AKA Popehat) at The Atlantic: Manafort, Cohen, and Individual 1 Are in Grave Danger.

White provides a very good summary of the yesterday’s three court filings, which you can read at the link. Here’s his conclusion:

The president said on Twitter that Friday’s news “totally clears the President. Thank you!” It does not. Manafort and Cohen are in trouble, and so is Trump. The Special Counsel’s confidence in his ability to prove Manafort a liar appears justified, which leaves Manafort facing what amounts to a life sentence without any cooperation credit. The Southern District’s brief suggests that Cohen’s dreams of probation are not likely to come true. All three briefs show the Special Counsel and the Southern District closing in on President Trump and his administration.  They’re looking into campaign contact with Russia, and campaign finance fraud in connection with paying off an adult actress, and participation in lying to Congress. A Democratic House of Representatives, just days away, strains at the leash to help.  The game’s afoot.

Another very good summary of the filings can be read at Lawfare, this one by Victoria Clark, Mikhaila Fogel, Quinta Jurecic, and Benjamin Wittes: ‘Totally Clears the President’? What Those Cohen and Manafort Filings Really Say. Here’s a short excerpt on Trump’s culpabililty:

In short, the Department of Justice, speaking through the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, is alleging that the president of the United States coordinated and directed a surrogate to commit a campaign finance violation punishable with time in prison. While the filing does not specify that the president “knowingly and willfully” violated the law, as is required by the statute, this is the first time that the government has alleged in its own voice that President Trump is personally involved in what it considers to be federal offenses.

And it does not hold back in describing the magnitude of those offenses. The memo states that Cohen’s actions, “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows.” His sentence “should reflect the seriousness of Cohen’s brazen violations of the election laws and attempt to counter the public cynicism that may arise when individuals like Cohen act as if the political process belongs to the rich and powerful.”

One struggles to see how a document that alleges that such conduct took place at the direction of Individual-1 “totally clears the president.”

Garrett M. Graff at Wired: The Mueller Investigation Nears the Worst Case Scenario.

WE ARE DEEP into the worst case scenarios. But as new sentencing memos for Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen make all too clear, the only remaining question is how bad does the actual worst case scenario get?

The potential innocent explanations for Donald Trump’s behavior over the last two years have been steadily stripped away, piece by piece. Special counsel Robert Mueller and investigative reporters have uncovered and assembled a picture of a presidential campaign and transition seemingly infected by unprecedented deceit and criminality, and in regular—almost obsequious—contact with America’s leading foreign adversary.

A year ago, Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic outlined seven possible scenarios about Trump and Russia, arranged from most innocent to most guilty. Fifth on that list was “Russian Intelligence Actively Penetrated the Trump Campaign—And Trump Knew or Should Have Known,” escalating from there to #6 “Kompromat,” and topping out at the once unimaginable #7, “The President of the United States is a Russian Agent.”

After the latest disclosures, we’re steadily into Scenario #5, and can easily imagine #6.

Read a detailed analysis at the link. Graff is the author of a book on Robert Mueller’s time as FBI Director.

Another highly recommended analysis from Ryan Goodman and Andy Wright at Just Security: Mueller’s Roadmap: Major Takeaways from Cohen and Manafort Filings. Goodman and Write offer eight “takeaways.”

1. SDNY Prosecutors named the President of the United States as a direct participant, if not the principal, in felonies….

2. Other Trump Campaign and Trump Organization officials may face criminal charges for the hush money scheme….

3. The Special Counsel ties Trump directly to possible Russia collusion….

4. Russian contacts began during the GOP Primary….

5. The Special Counsel targets many Manafort lies but is silent on the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians….

6. Some potential hints of obstruction and suborning perjury….

7. Mueller’s M.O.: What he’ll do with lying to the public (and lies in writing)….

8. Why Cohen was more forthcoming with Mueller than SDNY, and SDNY wants him to serve a significant prison sentence.

I’ll just share one interesting excerpt from point 7, on lies that are put in writing and lies to the public. Both of these could apply to Trump himself.

In terms of perjury and false statements, Mueller seizes on fact that Cohen lies were in written testimony rather than arising “spontaneously from a line of examination or heated colloquy.” That’s a danger sign for people like Trump, who may have thought they had greater safety in written responses to Mueller, and people like Roger Stone, whose apparent lies to Congress are on the face of his written testimony.

Another important insight is how Mueller seizes on Cohen’s lies made to the public.

First, Mueller’s theory of the case recognizes that public statements are methods of communication with other witnesses. That’s important for potential conspiracies to commit perjury or otherwise obstruct justice. This also increases the likelihood that Mueller will regard public statements by President Trump and his lawyers as signals to other witnesses–such as publicly dangling pardons and favoring the “strength” of uncooperative witnesses.

Second, Mueller considers lies to the public can be an attempt to undermine the investigation. The memo states, “By publicly presenting this false narrative, the defendant deliberately shifted the timeline of what had occurred in the hopes of limiting the investigations into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” That sounds awfully similar to the creation of a cover story about the June 9 Trump Tower meeting, which the President himself reportedly directed from aboard Airforce One.

Third, Mueller considers Cohen’s false statements to be even more significant because he “amplified” them by “by releasing and repeating his lies to the public.” That approach spells trouble for several Trump campaign associates including Roger Stone, Donald Trump Jr., Erik Prince, and Michael Caputo.

Barry BerkeNoah Bookbinder and Norman Eisen at The Washington Post: Is This the Beginning of the End for Trump? A brief excerpt: 

The special counsel focuses on Mr. Cohen’s contacts with people connected to the White House in 2017 and 2018, possibly further implicating the president and others in his orbit in conspiracy to obstruct justice or to suborn perjury. Mr. Mueller specifically mentions that Mr. Cohen provided invaluable insight into the “preparing and circulating” of his testimony to Congress — and if others, including the president, knew about the false testimony or encouraged it in any way, they would be at substantial legal risk.

Mr. Trump’s legal woes do not end there. The special counsel also advanced the president’s potential exposure under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for activities relating to a potential Trump Tower Moscow. Mr. Mueller noted that the Moscow project was a lucrative business opportunity that actively sought Russian government approval, and that the unnamed Russian told Mr. Cohen that there was “no bigger warranty in any project than the consent” of Mr. Putin.

If recent reports that Mr. Cohen floated the idea of giving Mr. Putin a $50 million luxury apartment in a future Trump Tower Moscow prove true, both the president and his company could face substantial jeopardy.

There’s much more analysis at the WaPo link.

It has been quite a week, ending with a bang yesterday. As Trump often says, “we’ll see what happens.” What stories have you been following?


Tuesday Reads: Breaking News and A Change of Pace

Girls under Trees, August Macke, 1914

Good Afternoon!!

There’s been a development in the Manafort case. The jury has sent out a note with a question for the judge. Unfortunately, the question is somewhat ambiguous.

It sounds like they are saying they are deadlocked on one of the 18 counts, but it’s also possible they are saying they can’t reach a unanimous decision on any of the counts. The judge is taking a five minute recess to prepare his response. I’ll update when I learn more.

Joyce Vance responds:

More breaking news on MSNBC, a report from WNBC that Michael Cohen is in talks with the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and a plea deal could be reached as early as today. It’s possible that we will learn something this afternoon.

The jury is back in the courtroom. Ken Dilanian says they are probably deadlocked on only one count, and they need guidance on how to enter that into the verdict sheet. Expert on MSNBC is saying it would be highly unlikely that there would be not guilty decisions on 17 counts.

The jury has now received instruction from the judge and has returned to the jury room. Ken Dilanian says the indecision is on only one count. So maybe we’ll get a verdict today. I sure hope so.

WNBC: Ex-Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Discussing Plea Deal With Federal Prosecutors in Manhattan.

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is discussing a possible guilty plea with federal prosecutors in Manhattan in connection with tax fraud and banking-related matters, multiple sources familiar with the matter tell NBC News and News 4.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen leaves federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Those sources stress no deal has been reached but do say the potential deal could be reached as early as Tuesday.

The plea could have significant implications for Trump, who has blasted Cohen ever since his former fixer and his attorney, old Clinton hand Lanny Davis, began signaling this summer that Cohen might cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

When reached by NBC, Davis said he cannot comment on advice of counsel since there is an ongoing investigation.

Maybe that partially explains Trump’s hysterical behavior over the past several days.

Jonathan Dienst of WNBC is now reporting on MSNBC that we should know something in an hour or so. The two sides are close, but if the deal falls through, the prosecutors will proceed to prepare charges against Cohen and indict him in the next week or two.

Some stories to check out while we wait for these breaking stories to resolve themselves:

The Hill: Paul Manafort never believed the rules applied to him; I know — I worked with him for a decade, by K. Riva Levinson.

A good plot, most writers will tell you, is built on conflict. Working for Washington’s first bipartisan lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, reporting to Paul Manafort, was my conflict; what came thereafter, my self-reckoning.

I was a recent college grad, broke, with no political connections when I managed to talk my way into an interview with Manafort and told him, boldly — and naively — “There is no place I will not go.” And from 1985 to 1995 (the beginning and end of BMS&K), there was no place that Manafort wouldn’t send me: war zones, states under armed occupation, the African bush or the cocaine-trafficked jungles of Latin America.

I had a front-row seat to a world changing in fast-forward with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was thrilling, scary and, at times, overwhelming. But I never said no to a mission, or turned back. And despite all that unfolded, I will always remain grateful to Manafort for giving me a chance to learn first-hand how world events are often shaped.

BMS&K was where my mettle was tested, my foundational skills acquired, and where I struggled with my conscience, asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

Manafort had no such concerns about right and wrong.

I saw in Manafort no evident distress about the collateral damage that unfolded, the lives that were damaged or lost. He could self-justify anything. And as time went on, it seemed to me that he became all about the money. I and my colleagues were left to defend the extravagant expenses he charged to our clients.

I watched Manafort bend the rules, and so did everyone else, until eventually the firm’s new management asked him to leave. I left him, too.

I haven’t seen nor spoken directly with Paul since 1995, though I did receive an angry email when The Guardian wrote a story upon the release of my book in June 2016, quoting a passage where I call him “mercenary.”

The Washington Post: I miss Richard Nixon, by Philip Allen Lacovara.

I am hardly a Nixon defender. I was part of the special prosecutor investigation that led to his downfall. I was and remain shocked at the extent of his crass and criminal behavior, which first became palpable to me listening to the secret Oval Office tapes that we pried away from him, eventually including the “smoking gun” tape the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over. It was that evidence that convinced Nixon’s closest supporters that his defense against impeachment and removal from office would have been unsustainable, and that he had no choice but to resign in disgrace.

I even created a rift with Leon Jaworski, Archibald Cox’s successor as Watergate special prosecutor, when I publicly protested the pardon that President Gerald Ford issued to Nixon shortly after the resignation, thereby shielding Nixon from the legal consequences that were soon to be visited upon his co-conspirators, who, after conviction, spent years in prison for the coverup.

But then I look at the incumbent, and I become wistful.

…unlike Nixon, Trump was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and has exploited his family’s power and wealth from his earliest days. Supposed bone spurs insulated him from the crucible of military service, when many of his contemporaries were called to duty to fight in Vietnam. He relishes the flamboyant and the superficial, though the glitz comes with hefty dose of cheesiness — which I can attest to as someone who lived briefly in one of his “Trump Towers.”

Except for Trump’s own unsupported braggadocio, he entered the Oval Office ignorant of even the rudiments of American history and world affairs. He is a man of no particular political principles; his vacillation between parties (and occasionally as an “independent”) reveals the lack of any political core. Nor did he have any experience in public office, civil or military, or familiarity with the practical art of governing.

Nixon, on the other hand, grew up impoverished and was the archetypical self-made man. He was demonstrably thoughtful — even brilliant. At a conference several years ago at Duke University, where he attended law school during the Depression, I heard stories of his struggles living in a cold-water flat but achieving a distinguished record that was respected decades later.

Lacavera notes that Nixon, unlike Trump, “understood government and policy,” and he “had enough decency and respect for the office to cloak his conniving in secret.” Nixon also had a consistent political philosophy, while Trump clearly has no moral or political core. Read more at the WaPo.

Joseph James DeAngelo, the “golden state killer” via REUTERS

Now for a change of pace, I want to share a couple of nonpolitical reads. This spring the sensational serial rape and murder case of the so-called “golden state killer” was solved through research on an open source DNA website. The suspect was identified as Joseph James DeAngelo of Citrus Heights, CA, a suburb of Sacramento. In the past few days, I came across two similar stories.

Novelist Matthew Sullivan writes at The Daily Beast: I Grew Up in the Shadow of a Neighborhood Killer. He May Have Finally Been Caught.

To anyone living in the suburban boomtown of Aurora, Colorado in the 1980s, the horror story is familiar: at some point after midnight on the night on January 16, 1984, on a quiet cul-de-sac in a newer housing development near the Aurora Mall, an intruder armed with a hammer entered the home of Bruce and Debra Bennett.

They were a young couple with two young daughters, aged 7 and 3, and they had recently moved to Aurora to raise their girls after the 27-year-old Bruce wrapped up a stint in the Navy.

The Bennet family

As of now there’s no way to know the exact sequence of events that happened in the house that night, but the whole family was likely asleep when the intruder slipped in.

Using the hammer he brought with him and a knife he may have taken from their kitchen, the intruder attacked Bruce and Debra. Bruce fought back, grappling with the man in the bedroom and up and down the stairs, but the man overcame him, slit his throat and left him on the steps to die.

By the time the man left, he had also violently attacked and sexually assaulted both Bennett daughters.

The three older Bennetts were dead. The intruder had bludgeoned the three-year-old daughter and left her for dead as well, but according to Kirk Mitchell, who has spent years reporting on this case for the Denver Post, when her grandmother arrived the next morning, worried because Bruce hadn’t shown up for work, she found the youngster in her bed, barely alive. The littlest Bennett had survived.

There had been similar attacks and murders in the area. The crimes cast a shadow over the entire community; but the killer that kids in the neighborhood called “The Hammer Man” was never caught. Sullivan’s descriptions of how the crimes affected him and the community as a whole is fascinating. But now a suspect has been identified through DNA.

Alexander C. Ewing, “the Hammer Man”

One afternoon in early August, 2018, my phone began to erupt with messages from friends and family, co-workers and classmates, all of them living in Denver. Each said the same thing:

They got him.

They got him.

They got him! [….]

Each night, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation runs a comparison against the Combined DNA Index System database (CODIS), run by the FBI, which collects and indexes DNA from different states and agencies.

In early July of this year, the agency got a hit: a match was found between the DNA of the wanted John Doe suspect—the unknown man whose semen was traced to both the Bennett and the Smith crime scenes—and that of a 57-year-old prisoner in Nevada whose cheek was swabbed in 2013 as part of a new state law, his data uploaded.

The man, Alexander C. Ewing, was serving a 40-year sentence for two counts of attempted murder and other crimes and was eligible for parole in three years. According to a Washington Post report, he lived in Denver in 1984—and worked in construction.

One more story from The Washington Post: A baby was abandoned in a phone booth 64 years ago. Now, DNA has helped explain why.

Steve Dennis’s birth certificate didn’t say where he was born or when, or to whom. It just said he was found in a telephone booth.

Steve Dennis

Two bread deliverymen had found him there early one January morning in 1954, back when Dennis didn’t yet have a name. They found the “big blue-eyed infant” wrapped in blankets inside a cardboard box in the phone booth just outside Yielky’s Drive-In near Lancaster, Ohio, the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette reported at the time. There was no telling how long he had been there, perhaps only a few hours. The baby was very cold to the touch, the paper reported, and so was the bottle of milk left with him in the box.

The mystery soon captivated the residents of Lancaster. In just two days, dozens inquired about adoption, and “literally scores of persons” tried to help police identify the baby abandoned in the phone booth, the Eagle-Gazette reported in 1954.  Nobody knew who put him there or why, and for a long time in the decades that followed, Dennis didn’t know either.

For years, the whole story struck him as too bizarre to even be true, as he told the Eagle-Gazette’s Spencer Remoquillo in a follow-up story 64 years later, on Friday. Dennis had always known he was adopted as a baby, but he didn’t learn about the phone booth until he was a teenager. He got curious. He traveled all the way to Lancaster just to see it for himself. But he didn’t find very much there, he told the Eagle-Gazette. He didn’t think he would ever find his birth parents, and for most of his life he didn’t think anything of it, either.

But that changed when his two children, 18 and 14 years old, started asking questions.

Dennis solved the mystery of his origins through Ancestry DNA. Read the rest at the WaPo. It’s quite a story.

So . . . what stories have you been following?


Tuesday Reads: Trump Nominates Brett Kavanaugh for SCOTUS

The Four Justices, Nelson Shanks, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Good Morning!!

Last night thug “president” Trump did his ridiculous PT Barnum act with his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace Anthony Kennedy. Supposedly, Trump was deciding among about four candidates, but it turns out the fix may have been in all along.

Has any other president made a deal with a Supreme Court Justice to appoint a chosen replacement?

From Politico: How a private meeting with Kennedy helped Trump get to ‘yes’ on Kavanaugh.

After Justice Anthony Kennedy told President Donald Trump he would relinquish his seat on the Supreme Court, the president emerged from his private meeting with the retiring jurist focused on one candidate to name as his successor: Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Kennedy’s former law clerk….

So even as Trump dispatched his top lawyers to comb though Kavanaugh’s rulings and quizzed allies about whether he was too close to the Bush family, potentially a fatal flaw, the president was always leaning toward accepting Kennedy’s partiality for Kavanaugh while preserving the secret until his formal announcement, sources with knowledge of his thinking told POLITICO.

I’m sure we’ll be learning more about this, and I hope Democrats respond aggressively.

Basic background on Kavenaugh

NBC News: Who is Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick is no stranger to partisan politics: Before becoming a judge, he was helping make the case for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and later for the election of George W. Bush.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit judge Brett Kavanaugh

Twenty years ago, Kavanaugh’s story starts amid the highly politicized independent counsel investigation into Clinton. He worked for Starr as a young Yale Law graduate, first when Kenneth Starr was solicitor general and later in the Office of the Independent Counsel, where Kavanaugh was a key player in the slew of investigations into the Clintons, including the Whitewater scandal, the suicide of White House counsel Vincent Foster and Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The Starr Report to Congress laid out the details of Clinton and Lewinsky’s affair and findings of potential wrongdoing by the president. Kavanaugh was the primary author of the section on the grounds for possible impeachment, Starr would reportedly later say,because “that needed to be very carefully crafted, so I was looking to one of the office’s most talented lawyers — of superb and balanced judgment — to take the lead in drafting.” [….]

He was a member of the GOP legal team fighting to stop the recount in Florida to clear the way for Bush’s election against Al Gore in 2000, later taking a job in the Bush White House in 2001, where he’d serve for five years as counsel and later staff secretary until his confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2006.

The Washington Post: Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court pick, has sided with broad views of presidential powers.

Brett M. Kavanaugh, the federal judge nominated by President Trump on Monday to the Supreme Court, has endorsed robust views of the powers of the president, consistently siding with arguments in favor of broad executive authority during his 12 years on the bench in Washington.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

He has called for restructuring the government’s consumer watchdog agency so the president could remove the director and has been a leading defender of the government’s position when it comes to using military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects.

Kavanaugh is “an unrelenting, unapologetic defender of presidential power” who believes courts can and should actively seek to rein in “large swaths of the current administrative state,” said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck, who closely follows the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Kavanaugh’s record suggests that if he is confirmed, he would be more to the right than the man he would replace, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, for whom he clerked. Kavanaugh has staked out conservative positions in cases involving gun rights, abortion and the separation of powers.

Read more details at both of those links.

What Kavanaugh Would Likely Do on the Court

Slate: How Brett Kavanaugh Will Gut Roe v. Wade

Kavanaugh is an obvious choice for Trump. A judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, he has maintained staunchly conservative credentials without earning a reputation for being a bomb-thrower. Unless Republican Sen. Susan Collins grows a spine, which she won’t, he has a clear path to Senate confirmation. During his hearings, Kavanaugh will claim he cannot reveal his true feelings about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion access. But there is little doubt that Kavanaugh will gut Roe at the first opportunity. Indeed, he has already provided a road map that shows precisely how he’ll do it.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Kavanaugh was forced to confront the abortion question in 2017 after the Trump administration barred an undocumented minor, known as Jane Doe, from terminating an unwanted pregnancy. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on Doe’s behalf, and the dispute came before a three-judge panel at the D.C. Circuit. Kavanaugh was joined on the panel by Judge Karen L. Henderson, an arch-conservative, and Judge Patricia Millett, a moderate liberal. Doe, who was being held in a federally funded Texas shelter, had already obtained the necessary judicial bypass to get an abortion. But the Trump administration refused to let her see an abortion provider, instead sending her to an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center.”

By that point, Doe would be about 18 weeks pregnant. Texas bans abortion after 20 weeks, and the procedure becomes more dangerous as the pregnancy advances. Moreover, the process of finding and verifying a sponsor for an undocumented minor frequently takes weeks or months. And Doe’s lawyers had already searched for a possible sponsor, to no avail. Kavanaugh’s ostensible compromise, then, was nothing of the sort. At best, it would force Doe to suffer through her unwanted pregnancy for at least two more weeks, increasing the odds of complications when she was finally able to obtain an abortion. At worst, it meant the government could run down the clock to the point that an abortion would become illegal.

Luckily for Doe, the full D.C. Circuit swiftly reversed Kavanaugh’s decision and allowed her to terminate her pregnancy, which she did. This move prompted Kavanaugh to write a bitter dissent explaining why the government’s bar on Doe’s abortion was not, in fact, an undue burden.

Read the rest at Slate.

The Daily Beast: Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court Pick, Is Probably the End of Abortion Rights and Same-Sex Marriage.

When President Trump Monday nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he probably doomed the right to abortion, same-sex marriage, and maybe even contraception….

Future justice Elena Kagan arging a campaign finance reform case before SCOTUS

…while Kavanaugh’s record on women’s and LGBT rights is sparse, it gives good reason to suspect that he could be the swing vote to strike down Roe v. Wade, the abortion-rights case. This, after all, is what Trump promised in 2016: that Roe would be “automatically” be overturned should he be elected. And Kavanaugh has been praised by numerous right-wing organizations.

In the case of Garza v. Hargan, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that an undocumented teenage immigrant was entitled to obtain an abortion without having to obtain familial consent (as is required in several states).

Kavanaugh vigorously dissented, asking, “Is it really absurd for the United States to think that the minor should be transferred to her immigration sponsor ― ordinarily a family member, relative, or friend ― before she makes that decision?”

Those are strong words, endorsing not only parental consent rules but enforcing them in extreme circumstances. If you are looking for signals that a Justice Kavanaugh would limit or overturn Roe, Garza is a giant red flare.

There’s also a possibility that Kavenaugh might not be right wing enough to satisfy some Republicans.

Kavanaugh may not be conservative enough to survive the confirmation process. There is even talk that conservatives might revolt against Kavanaugh, as they did in 2005 against George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers. The reason? Many conservatives wanted Kavanaugh to cast doubt on the teenager’s right to get an abortion at all, which another dissenting judge did.

Neal K. Katyal for respondents, Travel Ban case

Legally speaking, that objection is absurd. Not unlike “judicial minimalist” Chief Justice John Roberts, Kavanaugh was discussing the case at issue, not some hypothetical issue. And he was responding to the circuit court’s holding, not writing an essay.

But there’s more. Some conservatives have pointed to dicta in another Kavanaugh opinion, a dissent in Priests for Life v. HHS, a case similar to Hobby Lobby involving the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement. While dissenting in favor of the Catholic religious organization objecting to the requirement, Kavanaugh wrote that the “the Government has a compelling interest in facilitating women’s access to contraception” because of a variety of factors, such as “reducing the number of unintended pregnancies would further women’s health, advance women’s personal and professional opportunities, reduce the number of abortions, and help break a cycle of poverty.”

Kavanaugh is writing here about the state’s interest in access to contraception, not whether an individual has a constitutional right to access it. Those are totally different questions. But Kavanaugh’s opinion doesn’t question the constitutional right either, which rests on the same foundations (substantive due process, privacy, family) as the right to obtain an abortion.

This one is a must read–lots of details on Kavenaugh’s record. Head over to The Daily Beast to read the rest.

Read more about Kavenaugh and abortion here:

One more from The New York Times editorial board: There’s So Much You Don’t Know About Brett Kavanaugh. And you probably won’t until it’s too late.

First, the awful lot: Judge Kavanaugh would shift the balance of constitutional jurisprudence to the right, creating a solid right-wing majority on the court possibly until the second half of the 21st century. While the somewhat unpredictable Justice Anthony Kennedy once served as the fulcrum for the court, that role will now go to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., a far more ideological conservative.

Judge Kavanaugh, who sits on the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia, has been a fixture in conservative politics and is widely respected by the Republican elite. Before becoming a judge, he clerked for Justice Kennedy and worked for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton, and later in the George W. Bush White House. He successfully portrayed himself in his remarks at the White House as a nice guy who coaches girls in basketball, feeds the homeless and believes in the Constitution.

What Americans can’t know about Judge Kavanaugh: pretty much anything else. That’s thanks to the perversion of the Supreme Court confirmation process, which once provided the Senate and the public with useful information about a potential justice’s views on the Constitution, but which has, ever since the bitter battle over President Ronald Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, devolved into a second-rate Samuel Beckett play starring an earnest legal scholar who sits for days at a microphone and labors to sound thoughtful while saying almost nothing.

Read the rest at the NYT.

I know there’s plenty of other news, but this is the biggie for today. Post your thoughts and links on any topic in the comment thread, and try to have a good day despite the horrors all around us.

 


Thursday Reads: Trump Has Major Meltdown on Fox and Friends

Good Morning!!

The pressure is building on Trump. This morning he had a major meltdown on Fox and Friends. It was so bad that the hosts couldn’t hide their embarrassment and they finally had to cut off the call. Trump publicly accused James Comey and Andrew McCabe of committing crimes and for the first time he said the words “Stormy Daniels” and admitted that Michael Cohen was representing him (Trump) in Cohen’s dealings with Daniels. He also admitted that he spent the night in Moscow in 2013, despite what he told Comey. Finally, he said that he wasn’t going to keep his hands off the DOJ much longer.

Yahoo News: Trump sounds off on Comey, Cohen, Kanye and more in freewheeling ‘Fox and Friends’ interview.

President Trump called into his favorite morning show for a wide-ranging interview during which an animated — and, at times, angry — Trump weighed in on several scandals swirling around his administration. Chief among them: special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

The president chastised the Justice Department for greenlighting the Russia probe into his campaign’s alleged ties with Russia rather than pursuing a separate investigation into former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

“Our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point, I won’t, our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia,” Trump said. “There is no collusion with me with Russia and everyone knows it.”

On Michael Cohen:

Asked about the extent to which Cohen handles his legal affairs, Trump characterized his involvement as “a tiny, tiny little fraction.” But there was a notable exception.

“He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal,” Trump said, marking the first time he had ever spoken the porn actress’ name publicly. The disclosure also raised further questions about his earlier assertion that he had no knowledge that Cohen paid the porn actress $130,000 in hush money during the 2016 presidential campaign.

On Comey:

“He leaked classified information to get a special counsel and leaked the memos which are classified — the memos were about me and he didn’t write those memos accurately. He wrote a lot of phony stuff,” Trump said as the Fox & Friends hosts looked on in silence. “For instance, I went to Russia for a day or so, a day or two, because I own the Miss Universe pageant, so I went there to watch it because it was near Moscow. So I go to Russia, now, I didn’t go there, everybody knows the logs are there the planes are there. He said I didn’t stay there a night. Of course I stayed there. I stayed there a very short period of time but of course I stayed there. Well his memo said I left immediately, I never said that. I never said I left immediately.”

Trump also said of Comey: “I did a great thing for the American people by firing him.”

Here’s his rant on McCabe.

I hope McCabe’s lawyer was listening, because I think he has a case for defamation.

Think Progress: Trump made 2 costly legal errors during unhinged Fox & Friends interview.

First, Trump claimed that Cohen — his longtime personal lawyer and fixer — only represented him in “a tiny, tiny little fraction” of his overall legal work….

Trump’s comments come a day after a lawyer representing him told a federal judge that Trump himself “is ready to help recommend what materials seized from his personal attorney that relate to him should be withheld from federal investigators because of attorney-client privilege,” according to the Associated Press.

The day after the raid on his longtime personal attorney, Trump suggested that it shouldn’t even have happened because of attorney-client privilege.

But Trump’s claim that Cohen only deals with “a tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work will likely complicate his lawyers’ efforts to shield seized documents from federal investigators in prosecutors.

The second legal goof:

Trump acknowledged during the Fox & Friends interview that Cohen did represent him during his dealings with Daniels. Trump recently claimed he had no knowledge of the payment at the time.

“Michael would represent me and represent me on some things,” Trump said. “He represented me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me. He represented me and you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong.”

But Cohen’s story about the secret Daniels hush payment — which may have been illegal if it was meant to help Trump’s campaign — is that he made it from his personal funds, without Trump being looped in at all. Trump’s acknowledgement that Cohen “represented me” in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal” undermines the repeated public claims of his own lawyer.

Read more details at the link above. Also see this piece at The Guardian: Trump admits Michael Cohen was his lawyer in Stormy Daniels matter.

You can watch a long clip from the interview at this Business Insider link. If you can’t stand to listen to Trump’s voice, at least watch it with the sound muted to see the embarrassed looks on the faces of the Fox hosts.

Here’s what Trump whisperer Maggie Haberman had to say about Trump’s meltdown.

And here we go. The government’s attorneys quoted Trump’s Fox and Friends rant in their filing for the court hearing in the Michael Cohen case today at noon.

Click on that link to read the entire document.

One more related story from The New York Times: Michael Cohen to Take Fifth Amendment in Stormy Daniels Lawsuit.

Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, will invoke his Fifth Amendment right in a lawsuit filed against the president by Stephanie Clifford, the pornographic film star better known as Stormy Daniels.

Mr. Cohen’s decision, disclosed Wednesday in a court filing in California, where the suit was filed, came a day before a federal judge in Manhattan was set to hold a hearing regarding materials seized from Mr. Cohen during an F.B.I. raid earlier this month.

Mr. Cohen cited the Manhattan investigation in his filing on Wednesday, saying that, if called as a witness in Ms. Clifford’s lawsuit, “I will assert my 5th Amendment rights in connection with all proceedings in this case due to the ongoing criminal investigation by the F.B.I. and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.” [….]

Citing the Fifth Amendment in the Clifford case allows Mr. Cohen to avoid being deposed and revealing sensitive information in the more important criminal investigation.

In Trump “I know the best people” news, The White House has withdrawn the nomination of Ronny Jackson to run the VA. The Washington Post:

The White House withdrew the nomination of Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, the White House physician, to lead the Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday after lawmakers went public with a torrent of accusations leveled against him by nearly two dozen current and former colleagues from the White House medical staff.

In a statement released Thursday morning, Dr. Jackson announced that he was withdrawing his name for consideration to be the secretary of Veteran Affairs.

“Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for this president and the important issue we must be addressing — how we give the best care to our nation’s heroes,” Dr. Jackson said in a statement provided by the White House press office.

He said that the charges against him were “completely false and fabricated.”

Within minutes of the withdrawal, President Trump lamented the loss of his nomination, and said that Senator Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, would “have a big price to pay” for undercutting Dr. Jackson.

Happening right now: Scott Pruitt is testifying before Congress. He faces two hearings today.

Vox: Congress is grilling Scott Pruitt about his ethical breaches.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt will face a double whammy of hearings on Capitol Hill Thursday that could make or break his career at the EPA. You can watch the C-SPAN livestream here.

The hearings were originally intended to give Pruitt the chance to pitch his agency’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. But members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, including some Republicans, are expected to grill Pruitt over his growing list of alleged ethical lapses.

A tsunami of accusations of improper dealings has emerged since Pruitt’s last trip to the Hill in January, from using sirens to get to dinner reservations to a sweetheart condo deal with a lobbyist to ousting staffers who questioned his luxury travel. These allegations have led to investigations from Congress, the White House, and government watchdogs. The Government Accountability Office already found that the $43,000 phone booth in Pruitt’s office broke the law.

And though his prepared statement for the Energy and Commerce Committee completely ignores the controversies around him, the New York Times reported that Pruitt is preparing for a confrontation with a set of talking points on his long list of scandals. He will argue, among other things, that he flew first class based on recommendations from his security staff and that he wasn’t involved in the decision to bypass the White House to get massive raises for two close aides.NB

Meanwhile, EPA employees protested outside the agency’s headquarters on Wednesday, decrying budget cuts alongside activists and lawmakers who want to “Boot Pruitt” out of office.

NBC News’ First Read suggests that Trump’s biggest problem might be the competency question.

This morning, President Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs withdrew his nomination after new allegations against him surfaced. Today, Congress is expected to grillthe president’s EPA administrator over alleged ethical lapses. And the president’s personal lawyer and fixer is pleading the Fifth Amendment.

 Yes, it’s chaos and controversy, which we’ve constantly chronicled here. But it’s also a matter of competency. According to this month’s NBC/WSJ poll, a majority of Americans — 56 percent — said that Trump’s administration isn’t competent, including 39 percent who said it isn’t competent at all. By contrast, 43 percent said it was competent, including 16 percent who said “very competent.”

To put those numbers into perspective, 50 percent of American said Barack Obama’s administration was competent in June 2014 (so after the Obamacare website crash during his second term), and 53 percent said George W. Bush’s administration was competent in March 2006 (after Hurricane Katrina).

So for all the potential dangers to Trump’s presidency — the Russia investigation, historically low approval ratings, Democrats possibly winning the House (and Senate) in November — the biggest could very well be the competency question.

Indeed, majorities of women (61 percent), seniors (58 percent), millennials (57 percent), independents (57 percent) and men (51 percent) said the Trump administration wasn’t too competent or not competent at all. Even whites were split down the middle — 50-50.

That’s a big problem.

That’s all I have for you this morning. I know I’ve only touched on a small part of what’s happening. So . . . what stories are you following today?