No, Spicer had no malevolent intent. Yes, he has to go.

Photo via Michael Itzkoff

There’s a school of thought that the harsh criticism of White House spokesman Sean Spicer over his bizarre statement about Hitler never gassing his own people has been overblown. According to this line of thinking, expressed by (among others) Michael Scherer of Time magazine, Spicer deserves the benefit of the doubt because he obviously experienced a brain cramp and had no malevolent intent.

I agree that Spicer’s offensive statements were of the brain-cramp variety and not an actual expression of anti-Semitism. But I disagree that he should get a pass. He is the press secretary for the president of the United States, not an aide to a state rep. A person in that job needs to be quick on his feet and to be able to avoid stumbling into such offensive language, no matter how inadvertent. I couldn’t do it. By all indications, neither can Spicer. Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple puts it this way:

The halting, hard-to-follow speech patterns reflect an unflattering truth about the top spokesperson at the White House: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A press secretary needs to have command of a vast topical landscape. Spicer has mastered bluster, and not much else.

Consider, too, that when he realized what he had done, he managed to dig himself in deeper, referring to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers,” and then attempting to clarify his remarks with this reference to Hitler: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

“His own people.” Hitler, of course, did not believe that German Jews were “his own people,” and as a result 6 million Jews were exterminated. To see Spicer carelessly adopt the same idea in defense of his own misstatement is pretty shocking.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a sharp analysis of Spicer’s meltdown. He agrees with the point that Spicer was trying to make: that Hitler, even while he was semi-secretly gassing Jews in concentration camps (his own people, you might say), refrained from using chemical weapons on the battlefield, probably because to do so would have risked overwhelming retaliation. “Spicer is simply too big a boob not to know this and too inept to clean up his mess without digging deeper,” Marshall says.

It’s time for Spicer to go.

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Fahrenthold and journalism’s limits; the power of local; and the Globe’s near-winners

Few reporters have ever had the kind of year that David Fahrenthold experienced in 2016. From exposing the Trump Foundation’s bogus and illegal practices to unearthing a tape on which then-candidate Donald Trump could be heard crudely boasting about sexual assault, Fahrenthold single-handedly defined large swaths of the presidential campaign.

Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter, was recognized for his efforts Monday with a Pulitzer Prize, which was surely among the least surprising Pulitzers in history. It represented the third year in a row that the Post had won in the National Reporting category, but the first time in 24 years that a Pulitzer had been awarded for covering a presidential campaign.

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Is trust-based journalism the future? Jay Rosen thinks so.

Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Yes, Dems should filibuster Gorsuch — even though it’s not really about Gorsuch

Judge Merrick Garland, left, meets Sen. Al Franken last March. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

You may have missed it amid the Sturm und Drang over the fate of health care, but late last week Chuck Schumer announced that Senate Democrats would filibuster President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Schumer will almost certainly fail. But it’s worth trying to stop this illegitimate nomination. And if Senate Democrats approach it in the right way, they can make an important statement about our broken system of government and what happens when only one of our major parties is willing to respect the norms and traditions that have long guided us.

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It wasn’t the politics of health care that did in Trumpcare. It was the substance.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2017 by Lorie Scholl.

I find myself frustrated at the tone of much of the commentary following the humiliating withdrawal of the Trump-Ryan health-care bill Friday. I could find a bunch of stuff to link to, but we’ve all seen it. It’s all about winning. So much winning. And if the bill had been approved, most commentators would be hailing President Trump for his big victory.

Yes, Trump got the politics wrong. But of far greater significance is that he and House Speaker Paul Ryan got the substance wrong. There was nothing in their legislation other than a chest-thumping assertion that Obamacare is dead — and that we’re going to screw the poor, help the rich, and dismantle much of what was accomplished by the Affordable Care Act.

The two groups that defeated the legislation did so on principled grounds: Democrats and moderate Republicans who wanted Obamacare to remain entirely or mostly intact; and the House Freedom Caucus, whose extremist members don’t want any government involvement in health care whatsoever. On the other side, those who supported Trumpcare couldn’t point to a single provision that would have improved anyone’s lives other than the wealthy people who’d get a tax cut.

After the defeat, Trump blamed House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. He’s right — it’s on them. And we should thank them for saving the most important piece of social legislation since Medicare was approved in the 1960s. And these folks, too:

Any major new program needs technical fixes along the way. Unfortunately, after Obamacare was approved, congressional Republicans refused to consider any such legislation. That, along with attempts by many Republican governors to undermine it in their states, is responsible for the ACA’s not working as well as it should.

On Friday, the ACA was saved. It now must withstand at least two years of Republican attempts to starve it of funds. But as Jonathan Chait of New York magazine points out, it’s not likely to be repealed after the debacle of this week. Trump and congressional Republicans won’t be in power forever. At some point, we’ll have an opportunity to get this right.

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Gather ’round the keg and let Paul Ryan explain why hurting the poor is freedom

Paul Ryan. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s slide in the public eye from policy wonk to partisan hack was a long time coming. But it finally reached its bottom during the past few weeks in two revealingly smug displays of insolence.

The first came in the form of Ryan’s prediction that a report by the Congressional Budget Office would show that fewer Americans would be insured under his plan to replace President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

“The one thing I’m certain will happen is CBO will say, ‘Well, gosh, not as many people will get coverage.’ You know why? Because this isn’t a government mandate,” Ryan said in a television interview. “So there’s no way we can compete with, on paper, a government mandate with coverage.”

Sure enough, the CBO reported that 24 million more Americans would go without coverage under Ryan’s plan than under Obamacare. And Ryan pronounced himself to be delighted, saying his legislation “is about giving people more choices and better access to a plan they can afford.” As for all those millions of people who would go without health coverage, well, you know, freedom.

Ryan’s second offense came last week in the form of a public conversation with Rich Lowry of National Review. In a classic “Not The Onion” moment, Ryan shared with Lowry his excitement at the prospect of slashing health care for the poor:

So Medicaid, sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate. We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg…. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. We’re on the cusp of doing something we’ve long believed in.

Ryan was so proud that he posted the video on his own website, Speaker.gov. It speaks volumes that he feels so comfortable in his assault on poor people that he can crack frat-boy jokes about it in front of an audience.

Not too many years ago, Ryan was regularly described as the intellectual leader of conservative Republicanism. He was a reader of books — well, OK, Ayn Rand novels. He discussed complex policy issues as though he knew what he was talking about. And he thoroughly bamboozled much of the punditocracy.

In late 2015, shortly after Ryan deigned to become House speaker in response to the importunings of his leaderless party, Eric Alterman of The Nation dug up some choice quotes. Jacob Weisberg of Slate had referred to a Ryan plan to reform (that is, gut) Medicare as “brave, radical, and smart.” David Brooks of The New York Times wrote that Ryan had “set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion.”

According to a 2012 profile of Ryan by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic, the liberalish uberwonk Ezra Klein of The Washington Post — who later founded Vox — was also not immune to Ryan’s charms. Klein praised Ryan’s radical budget-cutting plans as “a more honest entry into the debate” than typical conservative boilerplate. MacGillis also observed: “Once you earn a reputation as a Serious Man in Washington, it’s almost impossible to lose it.”

Gradually, Ryan has managed to lose it. Without question, Ryan’s slide began after he accepted Mitt Romney’s offer to be his running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign. Ryan was demolished during his debate with Joe Biden — a far more intelligent man than he is generally given credit for, but someone who, unlike Ryan, has never been described as an “intellectual.” It was an embarrassing moment for Ryan, and one from which he has never completely recovered, despite his rise in the Republican hierarchy.

Some observers have always been onto Ryan’s act. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which really does qualify him as an intellectual — has described Ryan as a “con man” and worse. Charles Pierce of Esquire regularly refers to Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.”

Now Ryan is putting the finishing touches on his proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. As I write this, he is making changes to mollify conservatives who don’t think the measure goes far enough and moderates who think it goes too far. It will be quite a trick if he can pull it off. But as Robert David Sullivan of the Jesuit magazine America put it in a discussion on Facebook, “Paul Ryan is the Julia Child of making policy drafting catastrophes look barely presentable enough to swallow.”

Which is perhaps the ultimate irony of Paul Ryan. Even though he has been revealed as more an ideologue than an intellectual, even though his clenched-teeth alliance with President Trump has diminished him, he may be on the verge of his greatest triumph — a triumph that will line the pockets of the rich and harm the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

Ayn Rand would be so proud.

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ProPublica: Prosecutor was investigating Trump official at the time that he was fired

Preet Bharara in 2015. Photo (cc) by the Financial Times.

Preet Bharara was investigating Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price for possible insider stock trading at the time that Bharara was fired as U.S. attorney, according to a report by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

Recently, President Trump demanded the resignations of 46 Obama-era U.S. attorneys who had not yet departed. Although Trump’s move was not unprecedented, it was unusual. The last time a president removed his predecessor’s prosecutors en masse was Bill Clinton in 1993.

Bharara was fired after he refused to resign. His departure was the subject of some controversy, as Trump had apparently assured him he could stay. Now it looks like Trump may have ordered all 46 to leave at once to provide cover so that he could shut down Bharara’s investigation of Price.

I’m uncomfortable with ProPublica’s apparent reliance on one anonymous source. But ProPublica is the gold standard when it comes to investigative reporting, and so I’m going to assume that the person who provided the information (Cough! Bharara!) was truly in a position to know and provided some documentation. This is not a story that ProPublica would risk having to retract.

So let’s keep this in proportion, OK? If this were any other president, we would be talking about a scandal of epic proportions. If this were President Hillary Clinton, well, good God — the subpoenas would be flying by this afternoon. Don’t let all the other stuff going on distract you into thinking this isn’t a big deal. It is a very big deal. Or at least it should be.

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