Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Team Trump Tries To Allay Recession Fears

President Trump and his economic advisors fired back against recession predictions over the weekend. Over the past few weeks, recession fears have mounted as prospects for a trade deal with China have dimmed, sparking an 800-point selloff in the stock market and an inverted yield curve for bonds, which is often a leading indicator for economic downturns.

Two top White House advisors made the Sunday talk show rounds yesterday in an attempt to allay concerns about the trade war. Speaking to Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chief White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow said, "No, I don't see a recession. And let me add just one theme ... Just one theme. We're doing pretty darn well, in my judgment. Let's not be afraid of optimism. It's a funny sign of our times. And I think there's a very optimistic economy going on out there.”

After that appearance, Kudlow popped up on “Fox News Sunday” with Dana Perino, where he again touted the Trump economy, saying, “First of all, I don't see a recession at all. Second of all, the Trump pro-growth program, which I believe has been succeeding lower tax rates, bid rollback of regulations, energy opening, trade reform, we're going to stay with that.”

White House Trade Advisor Peter Navarro showed up on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper where he argued that tariffs are “not hurting anybody here” because China was devaluing its currency to a greater degree than the Trump Administration was imposing tariffs.

President Trump also got into the act, telling reporters on Sunday, “We're doing tremendously well. Our consumers are rich.”

“And we're not going to have a recession. But the rest of the world is not doing well as we're doing,” Trump said.

“I think our economy is very, very good,” the president said, but then seemed to acknowledge that the trade war was acting as a brake on the economy, adding, “We can do a lot of things, but if it slowed down it would be because I have to take on China and some other countries. Look, you have other countries that are just as bad as China, the way they treated us.”

When the president had dinner with Apple CEO Tim Cook on Friday, Cook took the opportunity to bend the president’s ear on the upcoming tariffs on consumer electronic products. Cook pointed out that the tariffs would affect Apple more than Korean phone manufacturer Samsung since iPhones are made in China, but Samsung phones are built in several different countries.
“I thought he made a very compelling argument” about the difficulty in competing with Samsung, Trump told Bloomberg. “It’s tough for Apple to pay tariffs if it’s competing with a very good company that’s not.”

This contradicts Trump’s statement to reporters that “In the case of China, China is eating the tariffs. At least so far."

Trump and his advisors crowed over retail sales numbers released last week, which increased for the fifth straight month, but other recent indicators are not so rosy. Job growth was slower than expected in July and housing starts fell by four percent, the third straight month of declines.

Farmers are also showing signs of discontent with the trade war. Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said, “Words and twitters and tweets, that doesn’t pay the farmer’s bills, that doesn’t solve the problem we’re dealing with.

“This would is self-inflicted by our president,” Wertish added. “We definitely agreed with him at the beginning, but it doesn’t appear that there’s a plan B.”

“Short-term, stair-stepped subsidies ... stimulate production but not sales and therefore do little to undo the long-term log jam caused by not selling soybeans to destinations like China, the world’s number one customer.” Lindsay Greiner, the president of the Iowa Soybean Association, said in a statement earlier this year.

The president also addressed concerns about the inverted yield curve, saying, “Also, when you go in and analyze the [bond yield] curve, the curve always means that about two years later, maybe you will go in [to a recession].  That's a long time, two years. But I don't think so. Interest rates are low. I think I could be helped out by the Fed. But the Fed doesn't like helping me too much.”

Navarro denied that there was an inverted yield curve at all, saying, “An inverted yield curve requires a big spread between the short and long. All we have had is a flat curve. It’s a flat curve which is a very weak signal of any possibility.”

Most economists and investors disagree with Navarro. The Wall Street Journal cited uncertainty over the stock market, news that the German economy shrank 0.1 percent in the second quarter, Brexit concerns, and Chinese economic figures as pointing towards a slowing economy and pushing investors towards the more stable bond markets. The Journal noted that the market warning signs are an “omen of the future, not destiny,” however.

The key to averting an economic downturn is for the Trump Administration to find a way to make a trade deal with China and call off the trade war. While some celebrate news of the slowing Chinese economy, the Journal points out, “a Chinese recession would mean a European recession, which would send U.S. growth down too.” As I’ve noted before, the Chinese don’t have to outlast the US economy, they only have to outlast President Trump and, if Trump loses his one unequivocal advantage in the solid economy, his departure in 2021 would be virtually guaranteed.

Unfortunately, the president does not seem ready to declare victory and end the trade war, maintaining that China’s economic pains are “why they want to come to the table,” as well as that “President Xi, I'm sure, likes me very much.”

“Our country is going to be stronger by far than ever before,” Trump insisted. “I mean, if I wanted to make a bad deal and settle on China, the market would go up. But it wouldn't be the right thing to do. I'm just not ready to make a deal yet. China would like to make a deal, I'm not ready."

Originally published on the Resurgent

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Trump's Self-Made China Mess

American relations with China, a centerpiece of President Trump’s foreign policy, are unraveling. Trump’s China policy has been erratic, inconsistent, and working towards cross-purposes at various times. After three years, the effect of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy seems to be coming home to roost as China gears up to quell democratic protests in Hong Kong while simultaneously nearing endgame in the trade war against the United States.

Even though China figured prominently as a foil in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the new president initially reached out to the Chinese government for help in dealing with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, even as China and the US began trade talks. Chinese President Xi Jinping was reluctant to help Trump rein in the Chinese client state. This may be partly because the Chinese see Trump’s overtures to Kim as an attempt to take North Korea out of China’s sphere of influence.

In 2018, as the US and North Korea were experiencing a d├ętente, Trump was beginning the tariff war against China and myriad of other nations. The trade war began with US tariffs on washing machines and solar panels in March and ramped up in April with tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The first rounds of tariffs did not single out China, but the Chinese government responded with 25 percent tariffs on 128 US goods. Trump fired back with a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of Chinese imports. The cycle has continued throughout the 16 months since.

Fast forward to August 2019 when pro-democracy activists began protesting Chinese rule in Hong Kong. As the protesters waved American flags and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the Trump Administration seemed to be in disarray. Many members of a party that is making the argument against American socialism a central theme of the 2020 election seemed reluctant to criticize the communist Chinese government’s actions. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called the Hong Kong situation an “internal matter,” while National Security Advisor John Bolton took the opposite tack and warned China that a crackdown similar to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre would be a “big mistake.”

For his part, the president, who had spent the last two years criticizing China, was unusually subdued when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday, saying, “The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation, very tough. We'll what see what happens. But I'm sure it'll work out. I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way.”

Politico reported on Wednesday that President Trump agreed not to press President XI on human rights abuses prior to the G-20 summit in June. Per three people who were familiar with the telephone conversation between the two leaders, Mr. Trump did not extract a promise from China for his concession.

Since news of the conversation became public, President Trump cautiously broached the subject of Hong Kong in a tweet that first complimented President Xi and then said that Trump believed that “if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it.” Trump also offered Xi a “personal meeting.”

The bottom line is that even though many of President Trump’s supporters maintain that he is playing 4-D chess, it is more and more apparent that he has been outfoxed by both President Xi and Kim Jong Un at every turn. First, Kim won a diplomatic coup in having the president of the United States come to him without making any concessions. Now, Xi seems to have planned ahead to silence Trump as China handled Hong Kong while simultaneously destroying Trump’s chances for re-election.

China’s response to Trump’s latest tariff threat was to allow its currency to be devalued and shutting off Chinese purchases of American agricultural products. The cheaper yuan will make Chinese exports more attractive to other trading partners while shifting Chinese agricultural purchases to Russia will deprive American farmers of one of their largest export markets. The economic attack on American farmers is especially problematic for President Trump since rural white voters are a vital part of his base. Trump’s farm bailouts have already cost more than the combined revenues from his tariffs.

As the US economy teeters on the brink of recession thanks to the trade war and Trump faces increasing pressure to show progress due to the looming elections, China has more weapons ready to fire in the tariff tiff. Last May, the Chinese warned that they would use rare earths as an economic weapon against the United States if the trade war persisted. China controls about 90 percent of the world’s supply of these metals, which are used in the manufacture of electronics from games to smart weapons. If China cuts off the supply of rare earths to the US, the effect on the tech industry would be devastating.

Another weapon that the Chinese might deploy against the US is our own debt. With more than $1 trillion in Treasury notes, bills, and bonds, China is the largest foreign holder of US debt. China could call in this debt and cause the value of the dollar to crash. This is likely a doomsday scenario since the accompanying world financial crash would also be devastating to China.

On the other hand, Trump is running short of leverage to use against the Chinese. Typically, the US would respond to a problem like China’s actions in Hong Kong with economic sanctions, but American trade with China has been hard hit by the trade war. As trade between the two countries declined, so has America’s ability to influence the Chinese government. With heavy taxes on most Chinese goods, there are few arrows left in President Trump’s quiver.

There appear to be few ways out for Donald Trump. His choices are to stay the course and risk a recession or back down and risk his image. Even though the trade war is hurting also China, as I’ve pointed out before, China doesn’t have to outlast the American economy, they just have to outlast Donald Trump.

President Trump is in a very tight spot. If he persists in the trade war then it is almost certain that China will continue to ratchet up the reprisals on the American economy. More and more economists see the likelihood of a recession before the election, which would be devastating to Trump’s chances of re-election. Yesterday’s stock market sell-off was based on recession fears.

Likewise, if the Chinese decide to crack down on Hong Kong’s democracy demonstrators, people who are appealing directly to the United States, Trump would have very few tools to influence the Chinese government on behalf of the protesters. As a result, the US would lose face around the world while China flexed its muscles.

In either case, Trump would look bad at home. His strongest area has been the economy so, if the US enters a downturn, the president loses his best argument for re-election. Further, Trump’s base has long relished his reputation as a fighter. If he is seen as ineffective against a brutal Chinese action against Hong Kong, his tough-guy image could shatter and cost him support.

Trump’s current situation is almost unwinnable and the president has no one to blame but himself.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Republicans Fret About Trump On Guns

President Trump’s advisors are worried about his stance on gun control in the wake of a series of mass shootings. After active shooter attacks in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, the president has signaled that he is open to new gun control proposals including red flag laws and expanded background checks, but his advisors are concerned that such a move might erode his slim electoral edge from 2016.

“It’s very simple: There’s nobody that is more pro-Second Amendment than Donald Trump, ” Mr. Trump told reporters Tuesday, quoted by the Wall Street Journal. “But I don’t want guns in the hands of a lunatic or a maniac, and I think if we do proper background checks, we can prevent that.”

Conservatives are split on the new proposals, but polling shows that the public at large strongly favors the new proposals, which even have broad support among Republicans. Sources say that Trump’s advisors have warned the president against embracing new gun laws despite their popularity.

“When you’re president because of a grand total of less than 78,000 votes spread out over three states, you don’t have to alienate too much of your base on an issue they care about to lose,” conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace said in the Journal.

Mr. Trump has long been soft on guns. Last year after the Parkland shooting, he said that he was open to an “assault weapons” ban championed by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The president didn’t follow on through that proposal but did ultimately use his bureaucracy to ban bump stocks. He seems to have paid no political price among Republicans for that action.

President Trump told reporters that “Don Jr. is my gun expert. He knows more about guns than anyone I know.”

Donald Trump, Jr. has expressed skepticism about the proposals for red flag laws and expanded background checks according to WSJ sources.

At this point, it is uncertain whether there is actual support from Republicans and the president for tighter gun laws, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that red flag and background check bills would be “front and center” in the Senate. McConnell specifically cited a proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to extend grants to states enacting red-flag laws and a proposal for expanded background checks from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) as topics for discussion.

Gun legislation represents a minefield for Republicans. There is strong support for measures designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerously mentally ill people, but there is also strong opposition to any new gun laws from the right. There is a risk for Republicans in doing nothing, but there is also a risk in passing laws that would be unpopular with a large and vocal part of the base. If there are additional active shooter attacks by killers who were known to be threats before the election, the issue could become even more important to voters.

The most likely course for Republicans may be to take the middle road and slow walk the gun bills. If the bills get stuck in committee or fail to gain enough votes for cloture then neither congressional Republicans nor President Trump has to make a difficult stand on the issue. That would give Democrats another campaign issue, but it might well be one where they would overreach and allow Republicans to label them as “gun grabbers.”

Originally published on The Resurgent

Trump Delays Tariffs Due To Christmas

What if they gave a tariff war and nobody came? That, unfortunately, isn’t what happened when President Trump launched his tariff war last year, which seems to have involved pretty much all of America’s trading partners, but at least American consumers have a reprieve from the president’s next round of tax increases.

Yesterday the Trump Administration suddenly delayed plans to implement some new tariffs on an additional $300 billion in Chinese goods that were slated to go into effect on September 1. The new tax would have added a 10 percent duty to items such as smartphones, laptops, toys, and videogames imported from China. Tariffs on some items such as tools, apparel items, and some footwear will still go into effect on September 1 while tariffs on other items, including Bibles and shipping containers, will be removed from tariff lists entirely.

“We’re doing this for Christmas season, just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers,” Mr. Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

Trump’s statement flies in the face of months of claims that his tariffs do not affect American consumers and businesses. The president has maintained since the onset of the tariff war last year that tariffs were filling US “coffers” and were being paid directly by China at no expense to Americans.

The president’s statement that the delay for the tariffs was due to Christmas undercuts his previous claims that the tariffs only affected the Chinese. Although some Chinese celebrate Christmas, the birth of Christ does not warrant an official holiday in communist China. Christmas does, however, represent the major retail season in the United States. Both businesses and consumers would not be happy to find gifts from China to be 10 percent more expensive as the holiday approaches.

Despite claims of revenue being generated by the tariffs, the US government is losing money from the trade war. The Council on Foreign Relations points out that the Treasury collected $19 billion in tariff taxes from US importers, but is slated to pay out more than $25 billion to farmers hurt by the president’s trade policies.

Other sources in the Trump Administration say that there were other reasons for the delay. The announcement of the tariffs and disappointing news from the trade talks had prompted a loss of more than 1,000 points in the Dow since late July. The US reportedly took into consideration that businesses had already locked in prices for seasonal goods and would be forced to either absorb the cost of the tariffs or pass them along to consumers.

US officials warned that the move should not be seen as an olive branch to China, despite the fact that the US did not obtain any concessions for the delay. After the president announced the new tariffs in early August, China allowed its currency to depreciate and announced that it would suspend purchases of US agricultural products. So far, there has been no reversal of these policies.

Even if the delay is only temporary, the news was welcomed by the stock market. The Dow surged on the news, closing with a gain of 372 points.

Over the past few months, a clear pattern has emerged in financial markets. When the president announces tariffs or bad trade news, markets tank. On the other hand, when trade talks look promising or tariffs are delayed, the markets surge.

Perhaps Mr. Trump should take note.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Deficits Soar To Obama-like Levels

Once upon a time, there was a country that spent too much. This country had the largest economy on the planet and took in trillions of dollars from its citizens in taxes, but every year it went deeper into debt because it always spent more than it took in. The overspending created a monster called “the national debt.” This went on for years and years and both of the ruling groups pretended to care about the overspending, but no one ever did anything about it.

For years, the federal budget deficit was relatively small and only caused the national debt to grow a little every year. Even then people worried about both. Then, about 40 years ago, the deficit got bigger and the national debt started growing by leaps and bounds.

Things really got bad after an enemy attacked the country. The government had to borrow money to fight the evil people that had murdered thousands of its citizens. The war lasted a long time and the national debt had doubled in short order.

As the threat of war receded, the country went into a financial crisis. The country’s new leader decided that the answer was to throw money at the problem. His spending increases caused the largest deficits that anyone had ever seen and pretty soon the national debt had doubled again.

After the financial crisis, a brave knight came to the king and said that spending was at dangerous levels. When the knight confronted the king, they finally were able to come to an agreement that cut spending for the first time in the reigns of many, many leaders.

But, alas, the spending cuts didn’t last long. And the knights never slayed the deficit. They only made it smaller for a little while. Pretty soon, both the deficit and the debt started growing again.

A new king soon came to power and, despite the fact that there was no war or financial crisis, the new king quickly grew the deficit back to levels that it had only seen during national emergencies under the old kings. The national debt looked like it might double again during the new king’s reign but this time no one was worried. In fact, one of the knights who had fought the deficit years before now said that no one had ever really worried about the deficit at all!

I wish I could say that this story has a happy ending where “they all lived happily ever after,” but obviously this is not true. This story doesn’t have an ending yet and this year the deficit monster is going to be as big as ever, feeding the national debt to levels that are unprecedented during peacetime with a good economy.

The sad truth for Americans is that the Republicans who valiantly fought the deficit during the Obama years, now don’t seem to care about it. While most Republicans are merely silent about the deficit, which will exceed $1 trillion this year, the highest point since 2012, none other than Rush Limbaugh has now embraced the once-liberal position that deficits don’t matter.

Responding to a caller last month who argued that President Trump was not a “fiscal conservative,” Rush responded, “Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”

Rush is wrong. There are many of us who are still fiscal conservatives and whose concerns about the deficit were genuine from the beginning. We may not hold office, but we do vote.

The unpleasant truth for Republicans is that Donald Trump is worse on the deficit than either Barack Obama or George W. Bush or any prior president. Trump’s deficit is going to rival the worst years of Barack Obama and be worse than that of any other president. This is without the excuse of a war or the Keynesian excuse of needing deficit spending to overcome a financial crisis. In the US today, deficit spending is the rule regardless of what is happening in the economy or the rest of the world.

To be fair, Donald Trump did inherit much of the mess. The largest part of the deficit is driven by mandatory spending on entitlements that Congress and the president don’t control on an annual basis. In the 2019 federal budget, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, and health spending account for more than 60 percent of federal spending. In contrast, defense spending (including veteran’s benefits) makes up only 20 percent. Interest on the federal debt accounts for almost six percent by itself.

But Trump has made the problem worse. Under President Trump, federal spending reached a record high. This is partly due to increases in mandatory entitlement spending, but it is also due to increases in discretionary spending championed by Mr. Trump. Earlier this year, the president proposed a record $4.7 trillion budget, which would increase federal spending by almost a trillion dollars over the current year. The proposed budget cuts some programs but includes a big increase in military spending.

The Trump Administration has also hurt the income side of the deficit equation. Tax reform slashed corporate income tax rates, but, despite this, tax revenues are at a record high. They are not, however, as high as they would be in a growing economy if the tax rates had been left unchanged.

The theory is that the lower tax rates would help to grow the economy and to some extent that has been true. The theory did not account for President Trump’s tariff war, however. President Trump’s increases to tariff taxes have offset the benefits of tax reform for millions of American individuals and businesses. The higher the tariffs go, the more they are a drag on the economy.

Mr. Trump’s economy has not yet achieved his target growth rate of three percent per year. Despite achieving three percent growth in several quarters, Donald Trump’s annual growth rates average worse than Barack Obama’s. This is due in large part to his tariffs.

The best news for Republicans is that Democrats would probably be worse on deficits and the debt. With a number of Democrats proposing giveaway programs like free college tuition and Medicare-for-all, there is no political home for deficit hawks. Neither party really wants to cut spending. They just want to cut spending on the other side’s priorities so that they can shift tax dollars to their own programs. Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the put on an Alfred E. Neuman grin and say, “What? Me Worry?”

The bad news for us all is that the overspending, particularly that of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have boosted to the national debt to 104 percent of GDP. No one knows how such a high debt level will affect the world’s largest economy and the holder of the world’s reserve currency.

What we do know is that the high debt level restricts the number of tools that the Fed has to deal with future recessions and economic problems. For example, with interest rates at near-zero, there is little room to reduce them further to goose the economy. If the Fed raises interest rates, the deficit will go up as the government’s interest payments on the debt increase. The flip side is that low interest rates come at the cost of discouraging saving and investment.

Do deficits matter? We are about to find out.
Originally published on The Resurgent

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Epstein’s Suicide Sends Both Sides Over The Edge

If you wanted to purge your social media accounts of those who push conspiracy theories, this weekend was your opportunity. The sudden death of billionaire pedophile and friend to the rich and famous, Jeffrey Epstein, brought the tinfoil hat crowd out of the woodwork and into plain view on the internet.

Within a few hours of the news of Epstein’s death on Saturday, keyboard warriors were advancing theories that reflected their political biases. Rather than a suicide, Epstein was killed by the Clintons, the Trump Administration, Russia, or the British royal family, depending on who you don’t like. And that’s if you think he’s dead at all. Some woke users advanced the idea that Epstein’s death had been faked so that he could be inserted into the witness protection program. The fact that there is so far not a shred of evidence that Epstein’s death is anything other than what it seems has done nothing to stop the conspiracy theorists who knew from the moment that they read the headline that their suppositions were correct.

While Epstein’s death seems convenient to numerous powerful people on the surface, the reality is different. While Epstein won’t be around to name names, he leaves behind a mountain of evidence. A search warrant had already been served on the accused sex trafficker’s Palm Beach home and investigators likely have incriminating photos, videos, and documents that can be used to indict co-conspirators. A potential murderer would have to know that Epstein’s death might not be the end of their own problems.

Epstein’s death might actually mean more trouble for co-conspirators who were caught on film or mentioned in his papers. Adam Klasfield of Courthouse News pointed out on Twitter that “no one else will have the standing to challenge the search warrant on his house. Everything will be admissible against any other defendant without possibility of a motion to suppress.”

Throughout the weekend, people asked the question of how Epstein could have committed suicide while on suicide watch from his previous attempt. The answer turned out to be that he was no longer on suicide watch. The question then became who removed him from suicide watch and why. It seems very suspicious until you find out details of how suicide watches work.

An interesting Twitter thread by C.Z. Edwards, who has experience with suicide watches in clinical facilities, explains the procedure. Inmates are typically not kept on suicide watch for more than 72 hours because it entails many things that could actually drive a person to want to kill themselves even more. Suicide watches include checks by guards every 15 minutes, having the lights on all day, no clothing other than a safety smock, no linens for a bare vinyl mattress, limited reading material with no other media allowed, and no privacy. Even bathroom breaks are supervised. She notes that about a third of in-patient suicides occur while the patient is on suicide watch. In other cases, inmates convince doctors that the danger is over and then bide their time until they have another chance to attempt suicide. That seems to be what happened to Epstein.   

There is also evidence that guards at the prison dropped the ball. The New York Times reported today that a procedure that required guards to check on Epstein every 30 minutes was not followed the night before his death. The jail also allegedly transferred out his cellmate and allowed him to be housed alone two weeks after being taken off suicide watch, another violation of procedure.

Epstein certainly had reason to want to kill himself. Up until a few months ago, he had the world at his fingertips, but in his last months, he had totally lost control of his life. He was at the mercy of the judicial system and would likely face a humiliating public trial to be followed by spending the rest of his life in prison.

Even though Epstein had the means and the motive to want to kill himself, it isn’t impossible that he was murdered. If we assume that Epstein was murdered, what about the difficulty of covering the trail of an assassin who just killed the most infamous inmate in America? Epstein’s death was certain to invite close scrutiny and a jail is a closely monitored facility. There are cameras, guards, locked doors, and records of who goes in and out. Any murderer would leave a trail that could be quickly followed.

Among the most unlikely suspects for a murder attempt would be the Clintons. The #ClintonBodyCount meme is a long-running joke that applies blame to the Clintons for pretty much any death within six degrees of separation. The Clintons are blamed for suicides and deaths from natural causes in addition to actual murders such as that of Seth Rich. Yet, to those who bother to look at the actual facts of the cases, the conspiracy claims don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The Clintons are said to have a motive because of Bill’s relationship with Epstein, yet the fact that we already know about their friendship cancels out the motive. The Clintons are said to be so sinister and sly that they have killed as many as 100 people and never been caught (even though everyone except law enforcement seems to know that they are guilty), yet Hillary was so incompetent that she forgot to visit the Rust Belt in 2016. The contrast between the two claims, which are often made by the same people, strains credulity.

Further, the allegations against Bill Clinton were made by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, a former Epstein employee, rather than by Epstein himself. Yet Giuffre, an easy target outside of the prison, remains alive while Epstein does not. Likewise, Ken Starr, Juanita Broaddrick, and Monica Lewinsky are all still breathing despite crossing the Clintons.

President Trump retweeted an allegation by a follower that blamed the Clintons for Epstein’s death yet it is Donald Trump’s Justice Department that will investigate. If there is evidence that the Clintons are complicit in Epstein’s death – or anyone else’s – it would give the president a good reason to “lock her up,” but he hasn’t done so.

And speaking of Trump, the president also makes a poor suspect. Although Mr. Trump also seems to have a motive in covering up his associations with Epstein as well as the opportunity to clear a path for the hit by virtue of his control of the Department of Justice, this also seems farfetched when examined more closely.

Fresh from the Russia investigation, Mr. Trump hopefully learned from the experience that it isn’t a good idea to flout the law. The Mueller report revealed the president to be willing to order aides to disobey the law, but, when they refused to follow illegal orders, the president did not force the issue by firing those who refused to fire the special counsel. It seems unlikely that he would act more forcefully to order a hit on a federal inmate. Trump would have to assume that anyone who received such an order would be quickly writing memorandums to memorialize the occasion in case there is another investigation if not to leak the information directly to the press.

The royal family and the Russians also don’t pass the logic test. The royal family might have a motive, given the allegations that Prince Andrew had sex with Epstein’s girls, but lacked an opportunity. Such an assassination, if it went bad, would jeopardize relations with Britain’s closest ally at a time when it is trying to develop closer trade ties due to the looming Brexit. The Russians have less to lose and fewer inhibitions about assassinations but lack a motive. Putin’s intention seems to be to weaken the US by wreaking political havoc. To that end, Epstein was probably more useful alive and able to spin yarns about everyone from the president on down.

As I write this, information is just coming about Epstein’s autopsy,

Occam’s Razor is a principle of logic that holds that when there are two possible explanations for an occurrence, the simplest one is usually correct. In a case like this, that means that the probability that the prison personnel messed up and unintentionally allowed Epstein to kill himself is the most likely explanation. If there was a conspiracy, evidence will probably surface given the tightly-controlled nature of prisons and the propensity of people to talk and make mistakes that leave a trail. My favorite aphorism, Hanlon’s Razor, puts it more succinctly: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

A lot of people posting conspiracy memes probably don’t really believe them. Many of the memes are funny and are probably shared in a spirit of fun. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen in recent years, conspiracy theories can be taken seriously by the suggestible people and can sometimes lead to real violence. We’ve seen time and again in recent years how heated political rhetoric can spur radicals to resort to violence. A lot of people that I thought were reasonable and sensible have jumped on the conspiracy bandwagon over the weekend.

The one thing that both sides seem to agree on is that they believe the other side to be capable of anything, including murder. In an already tense political situation, spreading conspiracy theories only serves to further inflame political passions. We should all sit back, take a deep breath, and wait for the facts before we make up our minds rather than squaring facts with what we want to believe.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Pros and Cons Of Red Flag Laws

The debate over red flag laws has gone from heated to intense over the course of the past week. While there are strong majorities in favor of the legislation, a vocal minority of Republicans oppose the idea, which has been endorsed by both President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As with any debate, there are many misconceptions on both sides about the concept.

Let’s start by admitting that we have a problem. Going back at least as far as the Tucson shooting spree by Jared Lee Loughner in 2011, it has been evident that some people with histories of mental illness were skirting gun laws to buy weapons. Loughner bought his gun legally but lied about his mental health history on the paperwork. The background check did not include information about his mental health background that would have prevented him from buying a gun. While Loughner’s case brought national prominence to the problem, he was still preceded by Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean Virginia Tech student with a long history of mental problems.

Since then, a number of high-profile massacres have been perpetrated by active shooters with similar backgrounds. James Holmes, who had made homicidal statements to a psychiatrist, legally purchased the guns that he used to shoot 82 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Adam Lanza, who shot 30 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, showed “severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems” per a report on the incident. The Washington Navy Yard contractor who shot 21 people, raised red flags at his employer, but the company did not report their concerns to the government and his access to secure areas was never revoked. A victim of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, in which 42 people were shot, had previously told her mother two weeks before the shooting spree that she was afraid that the shooter “was going to come and kill her.” This is not an exhaustive list.

I am a gun owner, a Life Member of the NRA, and a staunch pro-Second Amendment supporter. I have never been an advocate for gun control. However, it is painfully obvious that we have a serious problem with access to guns by mentally ill and obviously violent people. This problem is killing hundreds of people every year.

Admittedly, spree killers account for only a small percentage of homicides every year, but that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the problem. The randomness of the attacks, paired with the high body counts, sparks fear in many Americans. My company is one of many that now have annual training on how to deal with active shooter threats (“run, hide, fight”). Parents are left wondering whether a deranged student or outsider is going to kill their children at school. No one can know whether a trip to the grocery store might turn into a firefight. The problem is reminiscent of the high frequency of terrorist attacks in Israel a few years ago.

And the problem is getting worse. FBI statistics show that active shooter attacks are growing in terms of both the number of annual incidents and the number of casualties.

The question is not whether we have a problem. The question is what to do about it. Possible answers range from nothing to a total national gun ban and confiscation. The most practical solutions lie somewhere in between with most Americans rejecting both extremes. The Israelis built a wall around their country but that wouldn’t prevent most American shootings.

Traditional gun control also does little to stop active shooters while primarily impacting law-abiding gun owners. In 2018, California, which has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, had four active shooter attacks, more than any other state per FBI statistics. Illinois, another gun control state had two, the same number as Texas, which has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. Interestingly, even though active shooter attacks have been on the rise, overall rates of violent crime have been falling since 1993. This remained true even after the “assault weapons ban” expired in 2004.

Even if a gun ban was constitutional and practical, there are enough guns in private hands that shootings would be a problem for decades to come. A determined shooter could find a gun on the black market just as easily as they can find illegal drugs today. Any attempt at nationwide gun confiscation would be a nightmare that turned law-abiding gun owners into criminals and takes law enforcement resources away from more serious crimes.

If traditional gun control isn’t the answer, neither is doing nothing. As shooting sprees dominate the headlines and body counts rise, voters are becoming more insistent that the government take action to stop shootings that often seem to have been easily preventable in hindsight. If conservatives refuse to come up with a plan to do so, Democrats would be happy to oblige.

The right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental constitutional right. Constitutional rights are not absolute, however. The fact that gun laws already are on the books and have been upheld by the courts is proof of the fact that they are permissible.

Especially where constitutional rights are concerned, the law should tread lightly, however. Regulations and limitations to rights should be as minimal as possible and should affect as few people as possible. They should also be effective and not part of a “shotgun” approach.

To determine what laws would be most effective at preventing active shooter attacks, we should look at the motives of shooters. Statistics on motives are difficult to find but shootings seem to fall into several broad categories. These include terrorism (both Islamic and white supremacist), workplace (including schools) and domestic violence, and rampages by the mentally ill.

The FBI and counterterrorism agencies have made headway against homegrown Islamic terrorists by monitoring mosques and jihadist websites. They should do the same for sites frequented by neo-Nazis and white supremacists if they aren’t doing so already. This is unlikely to work as well against workplace and school violence although the Wall Street Journal reported today that the agency wants to “aggressively monitor social media for threats.” This also raises privacy concerns.

Improving background checks is a good option. At present, background checks for gun buyers, but little mental health information is included. Much health information is proprietary to health providers as well as protected by HIPAA laws. Background checks are also subject to errors. For example, the shooter in Sutherland Springs, Texas lied about his domestic violence history when he bought his gun and then the conviction failed to show up on his background check.

But what about those people who already have guns and represent a danger to themselves or others? People who feel threatened can get a temporary protective order, a restraining order, or an injunction against someone they believe to be dangerous. Current law, however, doesn’t do anything about weapons that these people have.

So, for example, if a man threatens his ex, she can get a TPO to keep him away. If he ignores the order, he still has a gun to kill her. Even worse, waiting periods in many states mean that the ex cannot buy a gun in time to defend herself.

Red flag laws, technically called Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), attempt to solve this problem. David French has written several excellent pieces on red flag laws this week. In particular, he has debunked many of the claims by opponents of the laws and laid out several characteristics of a good law.

Per French, “A good red-flag law is going to require that the petitioner come forward with admissible evidence, require the petitioner to carry a burden of proof and provide advance notice of the hearing to provide the respondent with an opportunity to contest the claims against him. In emergency situations — where advance notice isn’t possible or prudent — the law should provide the owner with a prompt opportunity to contest the claims against him. And, at all times, the petitioners (those seeking the seizure order) must bear the burden of proof, and respondents should be granted the right of appeal.”

Red flag laws are on the books in several states, while others, such as South Carolina have laws that create databases of people who have been adjudicated to be mentally defective. The details of state laws vary, but at least fifteen states already have some form of red flag law.

Proponents of the laws, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is “a big supporter of protective order laws – but at the local, not federal level,” say that the laws “take guns out of the hands of people that are showing disturbing signs or dangerous signs.” USA Today reports that Graham wants to create a federal grant program to encourage states to pass the laws.

Opponents of red flag laws argue that the potential for abuse is too high and that punishing people for crimes not yet committed is unconstitutional. As we have noted, the use of TPOs and other court orders to prevent crimes that have not yet occurred has a long legal history in the US, but the risk of abuse by people on the other side who see any use of guns as crazy and illegitimate is a very real concern. Any law supported by conservatives should contain strong protections for gun owners to prevent removal of guns for false reasons. A speedy appeals process is also a must.

Opponents point to a tragedy in Maryland last year as an example of why red flag laws are bad. Police served a red flag order to a man who came to the door with his gun when officers arrived at 5 a.m. Police say the man initially put the gun down but then “became irate” and picked it back up. The officers tried to disarm him, but the man fired the gun. At that point, one of the officers shot and killed the gun owner. The protective order against the man was requested by a family member, but the reason is not known.

This case is a gray area. The man would not have died that morning if the red flag order had not been served, but his reaction lends credence to the family member’s claim that he was dangerous. If he hadn’t died that morning, it is not difficult to believe that a man who would pull a gun on two police officers would have killed someone else.

“If you look at this morning’s outcome, it’s tough for us to say ‘Well, what did we prevent?’” Chief Timothy Altomare told the Capital Gazette. “Because we don’t know what we prevented or could’ve prevented. What would’ve happened if we didn’t go there at 5 a.m.?”

Maryland’s law was signed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2018. Per the Baltimore Sun, it allows “certain family members to petition a court to forbid someone exhibiting dangerous behaviors — such as amassing weapons, making threats or planning violence — from possessing or buying guns. A judge generally decides on a short-term emergency petition and a longer-term petition, usually lasting no more than a year.”

Such a law would likely have been effective at preventing the Parkland school shooting. The shooter in the 2018 massacre had a long record of problems with police and schools, including violent and suicidal behavior. Nevertheless, he legally bought the gun that he used to kill 17 people.

Opponents also argue that red flag laws are part of a slippery slope to more gun regulations and bans. It is possible that the opposite is true, however. If red flag laws prove effective at reducing spree shootings, they may actually reduce the public clamor for more gun control. Even before the most recent spate of massacres, voters were strongly in favor of legislation to keep guns out the hands of homicidal individuals. A Washington Post poll from April found that 85 percent of voters, including 84 percent of Republicans, support a law that would “take guns away from people who have been found by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others.”

Ironically, many of the people who are staunchly opposed to red flag laws were quiet when the Trump Administration unilaterally banned bump stacks with a bureaucratic redefinition of the law. The bump stock ban is likely to have no discernible effect on crime and became law without congressional action. This is a much bigger Second Amendment threat than Congress acting to target a small percentage of gun owners with violent histories.

When it comes to spree killings, America has a problem. There is no one answer, but improving background to include information on people who have dangerous mental health problems and identifying people who are known to their friends and family to be dangerous seem to be good ideas. We may also need to revisit involuntary commitment laws.

These measures are popular with voters and have minimal effect on gun owners who do not exhibit threatening behavior. A law that specifically targets homicidal and threatening individuals may be the most narrowly defined gun control ever devised.

As with many of my conservative colleagues, I remain skeptical of the left’s intent and trustworthiness on the issue, but that is not an excuse for doing nothing in the face of a growing national concern. If conservatives write a narrow law and include adequate protections for gun owners, the threat to the Second Amendment after the law’s passage might well be lower than it is today.

All this week, I’ve put out a call on social media for alternatives. While there is definitely a place for things like expanded carry rights so that good guys with guns are more likely to be on the scene when a bad guy opens fire, so far no one has come up with a better and more realistic plan to prevent homicidal maniacs from opening fire in the first place. If you have such an alternative, I’d be glad to hear it.

Originally published on The Resurgent