Was there a coup in the last days of Trump’s administration?

During the period of turmoil just before and after the 2020 election, when an increasingly belligerent and angry Trump kept insisting that he could only lose if there was cheating and would not state that he would go along with the peaceful transfer of power if he was declared the loser, there was increasing alarm that he would try and stage a coup rather than leave office. I personally thought that this was unlikely and said so in June before the election and in November just after the election.

The reason for my skepticism was that in order to carry out a coup, Trump would need the support of the military and I could see absolutely no upside for the US military to get involved in such an attempt. Other than so-called palace coups where a group of insiders edge out a leader by some means and replace them with another insider, most coups require actions by the military to seize the major organs of power and the media, arrest opposition leaders, and patrol the streets to quell any nascent opposition. A simple cost-benefit analysis would tell the top US military brass to steer clear of any such move. The potential cost is very high, since if the coup attempt failed, all the officers would be charged with treason. The potential benefits are nowhere close to being worth the cost since the US military already does very well in terms of broad public support. The top military brass get treated very well and have all manner of desirable perks. Both major parties fall over themselves to see who can be more generous in funding the military, sometimes giving them even more than they ask. Why would they risk a very cushy gig by breaking all prior norms and coming down on one side, especially when that side is led by an utterly erratic, irrational, and narcissistic person like Trump? This situation is quite different from that in countries where successful coups have taken place, where the military thinks it has much to gain by taking over the government or aiding a politician in taking it over.
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The pandemic is over – or not

President Biden created a bit of a stir when he said in an interview that the pandemic is over but “We still have a problem with covid”. Is he correct? And what exactly does he mean? Public health experts have criticized his remarks as premature, saying that it might discourage people from getting vaccinated or boosted and encourage risky behavior, thus possibly triggering the emergence of yet another variant.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization has also been optimistic, saying that the end “is in sight” but refrained from declaring the pandemic over.

It is undoubtedly true that the public is tired of taking pandemic precautions. Also, many have got covid and that may make them feel that they have paid their dues in some way and are now past it and are entitled to live normal lives, though one can get covid again, and some have had it multiple times. The problem is that the definition of a pandemic is not unambiguous so that there is no marker that will indicate that it is formally over. Hence each person will decide for themselves whether it is effectively over and whether they will continue taking precautions or not, which will be the ultimate determinant of whether the pandemic is ‘over’. But the transition to that state will be gradual.

The numbers of deaths and infections in the US are dropping but still a little too high for me for comfort. The US is averaging 400 deaths and 60,000 new cases per day. Covid is still the fourth leading cause of death in the US, after after heart disease, cancer, and accidents, but ahead of stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and flu. If it reaches the level of flu, that would be a good indicator that the pandemic is over.

So right now, I am still in the pandemic frame of mind and avoid as much as possible indoor public places and if I cannot, wear masks when I enter them. I am not sure when I might give up masking. I will be taking the omicron booster in a couple of weeks and will decide after that depending on the numbers, whether for me personally, the pandemic is over.

John Oliver on the weirdness of the funeral coverage

Seth Meyers asked this anti-royalist for his reaction to the news coverage of the funeral. Oliver describes an innocuous but wry comment he made that was censored by Sky TV that broadcasts his show in the UK. He also says that a supermarket chain there muted the beeps that its scanners make as a mark of respect. He was pretty funny.

Incidentally, whenever I ridicule the absurd extent of the coverage and its hagiographic nature of non-news like Queen Elizabeth’s death and funeral, I inevitably get comments to the effect that by writing thus, I am contributing to the coverage, implying that I am being inconsistent. This puzzles me. Of course I am referring to the same event. That is obvious. But there is a difference between covering an event and making fun of that coverage. The point of making fun is to try and ridicule such coverage out of existence. It may or may not work but staying silent will definitely not bring about any change.

When confronted with pompous nonsense, the best thing to do is laugh at it.

Two more cases brought against Trump

Letitia James, the attorney general for the state of New York has announced the filing of a civil lawsuit against Donald Trump and his family and associates for fraud.

In a statement, the attorney general said the suit was filed “against Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, senior management and involved entities for engaging in years of financial fraud to obtain a host of economic benefits.

“The lawsuit alleges that Donald Trump, with the help of his children Donald Trump Jr, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, and senior executives of the Trump Organization, falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to induce banks to lend money to the Trump Organization on more favorable terms than would otherwise have been available to the company, to satisfy continuing loan covenants, induce insurers to provide insurance coverage for higher limits and lower premiums, and to gain tax benefits, among other things.”

James also said investigators believed “the conduct alleged in this action also violates federal criminal law, including issuing false statements to financial institutions and bank fraud”.

She said: “We are referring those criminal violations that we’ve uncovered to the United States attorney for the southern district of New York and the Internal Revenue Service.”

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Morning Edition goes over the top with funeral coverage

Since I get my news online, I have managed to avoid coverage of the non-news of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. My morning routine is to listen to the news headlines on NPR and the news program Morning Edition while I prepare and have my breakfast. I listen online instead of on the radio and yesterday (Monday) when I scanned the show’s website, I found that 16 out of the 20 items were about the funeral. Only one item, lasting about three minutes in the two-hour program, dealt with hurricane Fiona that was hitting Puerto Rico hard, dumping a lot of rain, cutting off all power to the island, and causing catastrophic damage.

So I listened to a podcast of This American Life instead.
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I was a target of the ‘pig butchering’ scam

Readers may recall a couple of posts earlier this year about me receiving cryptic text messages on WhatsApp from people who seemed to have reached me by mistake and whose profiles were those of attractive young Asian women. I did not respond because it looked like a scam and with a little investigation discovered that indeed it was.

The investigative journalism outfit ProPublica has published an article that reveals that this is part of a huge operation known to the authorities with the somewhat unsavory name of the ‘pig butchering’ scam. The article describes how it works and how to recognize it so as to avoid falling into the trap.

If you’re like most people, you’ve received a text or chat message in recent months from a stranger with an attractive profile photograph. It might open with a simple “Hi” or what seems like good-natured confusion about why your phone number seems to be in the person’s address book. But these messages are often far from accidental: They’re the first step in a process intended to steer you from a friendly chat to an online investment to, ultimately, watching your money disappear into the account of a fraudster.

“Pig butchering,” as the technique is known — the phrase alludes to the practice of fattening a hog before slaughter — originated in China, then went global during the pandemic.

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What determines if a presidential order should be obeyed?

In November 2018, Donald Trump was considering general Mark Milley for the position of chair of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest military position, and an article in the New Yorker by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker (based on their book The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021) describes the conversation Trump had with Milley in which he expressed concern that Milley was ‘weak’ on transgender issues because Milley had spoken out against the banning of transgender troops. Milley supposedly replied, “No, I am not weak on transgender. I just don’t care who sleeps with who.” Milley also reportedly told him that if he was selected, “I’ll give you an honest answer on everything I can. And you’re going to make the decisions, and as long as they’re legal I’ll support it.”.

Milley and many others already had concerns about Trump’s reckless decision making and hence his qualifying his support for them by conditioning it as long as they’re legal. It is not clear that this caveat registered at all with Trump who clearly seemed to think that anything he said and did was legal.

But this raises an important and unresolved question about how one judges the legality of any order or action by the US president. Since the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has the right to issue orders to the military and expect them to be carried out. So in a sense, other than ask someone to commit an actual crime, any order issued by the president has to be considered legal, at least in a technical sense. So what gives Milley, or any other member of the military, the right to question the legality of such an order? What Milley seemed to be suggesting is not legality per se but whether he was obliged to obey any order however reckless and dangerous it might seem. In short, are there any safeguards at all to prevent, or at least avoid, a catastrophe caused by an order from a reckless president?
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Political regression in Sri Lanka

Readers may recall some of my earlier posts about the dramatic developments this year in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy went into a deep dive, with essential supplies such as fuel for vehicles and cooking and medicines becoming unavailable, the prices of food skyrocketing, and inflation soaring. This caused massive hardships for almost everyone in the country, except of course for the very wealthy, with people waiting in long lines, sometimes for days, in order to get even the smallest amount of essential supplies.

The proximate causes of all this were two major decisions taken by the government: one to suddenly ban the import of chemical fertilizer, which devastated agricultural yields, and the other was the decision to pass a massive tax cut accompanied by printing money to cover the resulting deficit, leading to high inflation. The ultimate causes, though, were the long standing corruption and nepotism and incompetence that had been going on for decades but became most pronounced in the last government in which the president and prime minister and two cabinet members were all brothers of the same Rajapaksa family and another cabinet member was the son of the prime minister. Other members of the family were also given government positions, making the government essentially a family fiefdom.
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Is Trump capable of doing a genuine act of kindness with no thought of reward?

There are many stories about the heavy drinking of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The latest comes from yet another book about the Trump administration. This is by Geoffrey Berman, a former US attorney for the southern district of New York.

At a law firm dinner in New York in May 2016, an “unhinged” Rudy Giuliani, then Donald Trump’s suggested pick to head a commission on “radical Islamic terrorism”, behaved in a drunken and Islamophobic manner, horrifying clients and attorneys alike.

According to a new book by Geoffrey Berman, a former US attorney for the southern district of New York (SDNY), at one point Giuliani turned to a Jewish man “wearing a yarmulke [who] had ordered a kosher meal” and, under the impression the man was a Muslim, said: “I’m sorry to have tell you this, but the founder of your religion is a murderer.”

“It was unbelievable,” Berman writes. “Rudy was unhinged. A pall fell over the room.”
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Reducing child poverty

Poverty is a terrible thing, and even more so when children are involved. To not be sure of where one’s own next meal is coming from or if one can pay the rent or take care of medical emergencies is bad enough but when one cannot provide those things for one’s children, it can be heartbreaking.

Children are not responsible for their economic state and so the state has a responsibility to make sure that at least that section of the population is taken care of. So the news that child poverty was cut in half in 2021 due to the enhanced child tax credit enacted during the pandemic is excellent news. It shows that government policy can do a lot ameliorate that problem.

The US child poverty rate fell by nearly half in 2021, largely thanks to enhanced child tax credits, new census data shows.

The child poverty rate fell to a low of 5.2% compared with 9.7% the year before.

Experts noted that increased child tax credits provided low-income families with much-needed resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Overall, US child poverty levels have been falling for decades. Child poverty has fallen by 59% since 1993 with rates declining in all 50 states, the New York Times reported.

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