Monday, December 14, 2020

The Presidential Pardon - Uses and Abuses

As was easily foreseeable, Trump has made the power of the pardon a center of attention. When we saw what was going to happen, David Levine and I wrote a paper that gave the necessary background and proposed a solution: we proposed the Constitution be amended to require that all presidential pardons receive the co-signature of the Speaker of the House to become effective.

In this post I want to state succinctly the legitimate aims of a pardon, and its dangers.

The power of the pardon is surprisingly complex. The most legitimate aims of pardoning are:

  • to extend mercy for its own sake, perhaps to rectify either a faulty conviction or a too-severe sentence.

  • to extend mercy for state purposes, as did George Washington with the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln and Johnson with the Civil War, and Carter with Vietnam draft evaders, to quell dissent and bring dissidents back into the fold.

There are also subtle effects of the pardon that can be positive. Extending a pardon demonstrates and strengthens the perception of sovereignty – he or she who extends mercy is clearly in charge. Extending a pardon can also enhance one's credentials for beneficence. As we can see from Trump's actions, extending a pardon can be very theatrical, a flagrant display of power and sovereignty, the real life equivalent of deus ex machina. This display can be a positive, because in the end, the bedrock requirement of government is that of sovereignty. Who gets to rule, and by what right? In this sense, even in extending pardon, one strengthens the legitimacy of the state, and enhances its obvious power to do good.

Even when the pardon is used legitimately, however, there are hazards.

  • Just as sovereignty is central to the state, so is respect for the laws. Yet the intervention of a pardon by its very nature undermines respect for law in favor of an individual judgement – which led 16th century French political theorist Jean Bodin to oppose pardons completely.

  • The pardon can also seem unfair to those in a similar situation who go unpardoned, and if the pardon involves someone who hurt someone else, then the injured person certainly can feel additionally burdened.

  • The pardon can locate sovereignty in one section of government to the detriment of another – lodge it with the President, and the legislative branch is diminished, and vice-versa. One solution for this is to de-theatricalize and bureaucratize the power, as it has been through the Office of the Pardon Attorney in DOJ for over 100 years.

  • The pardon can also be unwise. Without extracting remorse and guilt, the pardon can enable a miscreant not to lose prestige, and enable them to continue the harm they have already done. Hard as it may be to say, some people just need to be locked up.

Even more nefarious, of course, is when the pardon is used for illegitimate purposes.

  • The pardon can be used for personal and political purposes. Constitutional Congress member George Mason raised the question of how the president might use the pardon illegitimately, and the constitution as written does exclude pardons “in the case of impeachment,” but this is in the process of proving wholly inadequate. Pardons have been used to protect a president from investigation (Iran-Contra), and the lure of a pardon has done the same (Trump.) Hamilton's responses, that the prospect of opprobrium and the possibility of impeachment as retardants to such actions, ring false to us today. The honor system does not work when the officials have no sense of honor.

  • A second illegitimate use is even more insidious – what if the pardoner disagrees with a law itself, and pardons as a virtual veto of that law? Would the pardon serve as a lever to override the other branches of government, as does the Arpaio pardon? This is an even worse transgression that self-interest, because it's effect is to bring down the very structure of the government. Again, the honor system is proving insufficient.

As revisions to the pardon system are considered, it would be well to keep these considerations in mind. In history the power to pardon has not always rested simply with a King or President or Governor. It is possible to lodge it with other branches of government and to decrease its chances for being abused. There may be times when an unbounded ability to pardon can be justified, and others when more guardrails need to be in place.

Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Post-Trump Reforms: Can Trump Be Prosecuted?


I have been all for prosecuting Trump. My argument has been, aside from visceral pleasure, that nothing says “wrong” like conviction and, hopefully, jail. Trump’s improprieties are manifest; it's only a question of picking which ones rise to the level of federal crimes and which are worth prosecuting.

What are the consequences of not prosecuting? I point to the comparison between Watergate and Iran-Contra. In Watergate, the law took its course, first under Archie Cox, then under Leon Jaworski. Convictions were obtained, jail time was served, front page pictures were rife. Many savored the perp walks. People were changed by their incarcerations. Charles Colson found God and prison reform. John Dean was steeled for a life of chastened righteousness and wisdom. Others simply lived with the ignominy; some were better for the ordeal, some not. It was a righteous result.

In addition, there were far-reaching, significant Watergate reforms, including the Inspector General system. And moreover, Watergate retains a stench. Say “Watergate,” and you can smell it. If they hadn't followed the law and let it ride, the stench would not have lingered.

The Nixon pardon was something else. It was bad politics then, and it was bad policy for all-time. If Ford, never known for his perspicacity, had worked out the possible consequences, not he, but some on his brain trust, might have foreseen that at some time in the future, if another President broke the law, the question of immunity might come up, and it would be a question rather than a certainty. As we now look back, we don't say, “Prosecute Trump, of course. What he has done was worse than Nixon, and Nixon was convicted.” He might not have served jail time, but conviction would have served as an important precedent of a misbehaving President.

For contrast, see Iran-Contra. Iran-Contra is a cautionary tale where pardons interrupted the course of justice for crimes against the constitution by high-ranking officials, possibly involving Vice-President George H. W. Bush, and possibly involving President Ronald Reagan. Taking advice from then-Attorney General Bill Barr, to the furious consternation of the investigators who were taking the case forward, on Christmas Eve of 1992, the month after he had been defeated for a second term by Bill Clinton, Bush pardoned the guilty officials and froze any investigation into himself.

Who were those he pardoned? Who remembers? But we should. Bush's line of explanation was so lame: “[The] common denominator of their motivation—whether their actions were right or wrong—was patriotism.” He criticized the years-long investigation run by Walsh as reflective of “what I believe is a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences.”

Who remembers what former judge Lawrence Walsh, the Independent Counsel who was pursuing the case, said at the time?

[The] pardon of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran-contra defendants undermines the principle that no man is above the law. It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office—deliberately abusing the public trust without consequence. Weinberger, who faced four felony charges, deserved to be tried by a jury of citizens.” He concluded, “The Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed with the pardon of Caspar Weinberger.”

The answer to that question is: not many remember. The message was, as opposed to the message of Watergate, what Walsh said it was – the powerful can be above the law.

Therefore, what I have thought is that under Biden and whoever comes after him, justice must take its course. No accepting whatever pardons Trump might issue, no “forgive and forget,” no “let's move on,” no “the future rather than the past.” The past matters an awful lot when it comes to the future.

But, now comes this New York Times oped by law professor Eric Posner that says that pursuing Trump might not be so easy as we think it is.



The constitution is intentionally vague on exactly what presidential crimes might be, the powers of the President have been increasingly expansive, and courts are reluctant to act against a President. Posner focuses on charges of obstruction of justice, bribery and extortion in dealing with the Ukraine, and emoluments. These would be tough cases, he says. They seem more solid to me than they do to him, but he's the law professor, and he's probably right. He says that what would be needed for successful prosecution would be crystal clear cases. Bringing a case against Trump where Trump might have a decent chance of beating the rap would be a mistake, Posner says, and I agree. Trump walking triumphantly out of federal court would be a horror show.

In addition to which, what Posner doesn't mention, is the apparent imminence of pardons, almost certainly for Trump’s friends and family, and quite possibly for himself. The self-pardon ultimately would go to the Supreme Court if he were to be accused of committing a federal crime. Even if the ruling went against him, the time spent determining the validity of the self-pardon would probably take Trump well along in his remaining natural life. The friends and family pardons, if appropriately constructed, will probably protect the miscreants from being prosecuted federally.

In other words, it seems probable that the whole Trump spree while in the White House will go unprosecuted in federal venues. The Trump post-transgression period will certainly not resemble Watergate, and might be even more benign to the perpetrators than the Iran-Contra fiasco, where at least there were some charges and some guilty pleas and sentences, although they were very light ones. In other words, the message to future Presidents will be, you are above the law, do what you want, you are impervious.

So, where does that leave us? Up the creek? Maybe so, when it comes to federal legal actions against the Trumps and other pardonees. But what Trump has done is so much more inimical to the integrity of the country under the constitution that either Watergate or Iran-Contra, that even if perp-walks and convictions and orange jumpsuits are not in the cards, the country needs and deserves constant spotlights on the depredations. (If state and local legal actions against the Trumps are successful, as they probably will be, this will help.) It could start with a Post-Trump Reforms Commission. List the depredations, harp on them, focus on what happens when you are on the honor system and a dishonorable group takes over assign responsibility, and fix the problems. Let everyone know very clearly what the depredations were. If the laws are too vague, that can't stop the repair process. You can't face the future with a limp.

But just because the legal system as currently constructed might protect the Trumps from federal prosecution, that doesn't mean that the country should be vulnerable to a replay with someone else. What we need to do is to take the obvious miscarriage of justice as a guidepost for enacting Post Trump Reforms. I have suggested a menu for Post Trump Reforms here. Included in those suggested reforms are detailing in more specific legislation what is required in cooperating with investigations, what exactly are the prohibited activities in consorting with foreign countries in influencing our elections, what are prohibited emoluments. Along with the enumeration of details, specific and severe criminal penalties also need to be specified. David Levine and I have suggested reforms to the pardon power, requiring the Speaker of the House to cosign all pardons, here.

Naturally, the Posner article impelled David and me to send a response in to the New York Times. We assume it won't be published too much competition. But no matter; we like it, and you might, too. It reiterates some of the points I just made, but its brevity and cogency make it worth printing here.

To the Editor:


Eric Posner might well be right that Trump's violations might not be prosecutable successfully under current federal law. The Founders relied on good character and the threat of public disgrace to rein in high public officials. Unfortunately, those moral guardrails are sometimes insufficient. Even if Trump is beyond reach today, for the future, we need to strengthen those guardrails with more specific laws and remedies. 


For starters, Congress should spell out what emoluments are; spell out what constitutes illegally cooperating with foreign governments; spell out what truthful cooperation with Congress and investigators requires.  Legislation should enhance deterrence by making presidents subject to fines and prison for violating these clear rules, if not during the term of office, then afterwards.  While the President is in office, legislation should prescribe expeditious court consideration of inter-branch disputes, so that courts can issue orders promptly for real-time corrective compliance. 


We need a strong and effective chief executive, but we also need a non-abusive one. 

Budd Shenkin

with aid, additions, and edits by David Levine

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Morning After


Today, after the declaration and the speeches last night, I'm feeling very positive.  As a doctor, and as an aging man, I understand the relief when you finally see that turd circling the porcelain bowl, and you look forward to breathing freely and eating without pain.

Will we simply revert to the past, let norms reappear, the same old people?  I doubt it.  We will have scars, but we will also have muscle regrowth, maybe some bone regrowth, new tissues.  I generally don't like ID politics, but it has a place.  The women are right - little girls need to see someone like Kamala there, to reify in themselves that they are not second class citizens.  Same for the other identities who have been shadowed by discrimination.  It's important.  The new cabinet will be something!

The policies now will take center stage, and rightfully so.  That's the muscle regrowth.  But the bones of democracy need to be made stronger, so a smarter and craftier would-be fascist leader doesn't emerge.  This was my attempt to point a way toward that:  Or, if you just want the executive summary:  Trump gave us the MRI of where the holes are; now to fill them.

I would add to the list that I offered in the posts that we now need to act in selected places similar to what the Allies did in Germany post WW II – de-Nazification.  ICE, CBP, some police departments, most police unions.  That means identify, reeducate or remove, and indict where indicated.  Plus new rules, and especially new education.  My Assistant District Attorney stepson says it's the indoctrination.  They strip them down and then build them back up "the police way."  What that way is needs to change.

And for continuing entertainment and endorphin release, let the trials begin!  We need a balanced commission to spotlight all the depredations without being susceptible to charges of partisanship.  I want an American Nuremberg!  I want a Trump wing at Sing-Sing, or Leavenworth. Nothing say wrong better than jail.

And we'll have to find a way to deal with pardons.  I wonder if my suggestion of a constitutional amendment to require that pardons to bear the co-signature of the Speaker of the House, and to forbid pardons in the lame-duck period, will get legs.  Long shot, but desirable.  

The new policies that emerge will be different and leftier than before.  The most urgent is COVID-19, where scientists will take over, CDC will be repopulated, and a sustained march to federal drums will ultimately work. In the meanwhile more focused, nuanced, and intelligent economic support will be needed. We'll have to see if the Senate is willing without adding poison pills. It will be messy and depressing, but we'll have to remember how it used to be, and bless the change.

That's the urgent. The ultimately most important to deal with is climate change. Here, Biden will have to find a way to package the general idea of Green New Deal – making money by doing the right thing – without the lefty label. He'll have to convince energy companies that they are indeed energy companies and not oil and gas companies. If he helps them find a way to make money doing the right thing, they will bend the legislative branch the way they always have. Exxon solar panels installed by newly trained rural laborers could go a long way.

It's interesting that the most urgent and the most important – COVID and climate change – both turn on the same hinge – yes, it's important, but what about the economy? Ways will be found with proper leadership, which is what's been missing. Grab them by their money and their hearts and minds will follow.

For general domestic policy, I remember what Martin Amis said in a book on Russia decades ago.  He listened to an older Russian woman who was listening to the young, who said, "They are saying, no one should be rich.  When I was young, we said, no one should be poor."  When I listen to the vitriol Elizabeth Warren spills when she talks about the rich, her eyes flashing, I understand what she must have experienced when she looked at the terrible policies of selfishness and the self-congratulation of the money lenders, but nonetheless, I am repelled and fearful.  Vitriol and bile do not good policy make.  I'm glad it was Biden.

For a general guide, I think it makes sense to update the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want.  My policy guide could be called:

The Policy of Nobody

Nobody should be a second class citizen.

Nobody should be without health care.

Nobody should lack education because of money.

Nobody should be food insecure.

Nobody should lack shelter.

Nobody should lack possibilities.

The future should be good.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Metaphor of Qanon


Qanon sounds Onion-esque. Qanon “alleges, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.” I even understand that “pizzagate” is still operative in the Qanon canon, which alleges that Hillary Clinton operates the child sex ring out of a pizzaria in Washington, D.C. Right – child sex-trafficking rackets headed by Hillary Clinton, drinking blood, worshipping Satan. Sure. Anyone really believe that?

Well, apparently a lot of people do. The other night I saw TV interviews with “suburban women” who believed it. My mouth got stuck in the open position and my head got stuck in the rock back and forth mode. How stupid can these people be? What on earth could induce anyone to believe this crap? When a “suburban woman” was asked if she believed it was true, she answered “I wish it wasn't,” and Brian Williams reacted on camera by shaking his lowered head in abject disbelief.

Me, after watching those amazing interviews I went to bed and finished up Bob Reich's latest book, The System. (He's an acquaintance, hence “Bob.” Probably the only famous person I know, slightly. Although I did meet Steve Kerr last year and we joked with each other.) He is such a cogent writer. In The System, he makes the familiar observation is that in the last 40 years inequality has skyrocketed, the powerful have become even more so, and the rich have succeeded in persistently changing the rules in their favor. As a result, the working class and the poor have gotten royally screwed.

Among the causal factors he cites are companies adopting the Milton Friedman viewpoint of shareholder power (as against stakeholder power, with the resulting orientation that nothing else matters except the stock price), the shift of power to management over workers as unions decline (under pressure), and governmental deregulation (under persistent corporate pressure). The result is that the very rich garner nearly all of the increasing wealth of our society; hence, the inequality.

What legitimizes the results? One is the belief system of market fundamentalism. Despite all the advantages nurtured by the favored to ensure their success, the belief is promulgated that the market is basically a fair test for all, and if you succeed you must have deserved it. I think Reich mentions the similarity of this belief to the divine right of kings.

The second legitimation comes from bribery. If you are one of the beneficiaries of the system – a highly paid lawyer, say – even though you don't have the power directly, you are hired at a high price and thus quite ready to support the system. While they see themselves as professionals of the highest ethical values, their functions are essentially those of enablers.

The third legitimation is manufactured threats from “the other” – immigrants, minorities, visible enemies to divert attention from the invisible oppressing oligarchy.

It's a very convincing and beautifully written book. I finished it and went to sleep.

I don't know what I dreamed, but I must have dreamed, or dreamily thought about the book and the interviews. Night thinking can be the clearest. I might have thought about the passion of Bob Woodward imploring that Trump supporters must be taken seriously and understood. I might have thought about what Reich says about Arlee Hochshield's book about the intimate lives of the afflicted in society, how they are not necessarily racist, mostly just afflicted.

Whatever it was, when I woke up, I thought I might have an answer of sorts for what had set Williams' head to bobbing. Yes, the Qanon beliefs are more than absurd, who would believe them? Of course it's tempting, and not wholly incorrect, to say that these people must be incredibly stupid and credulous and insulated from the world at large if they harbor Qanon beliefs. But it's also true that when we think people are stupid, sometimes what we think of as stupid thinking can really just be alternative thinking, not alternative facts in the imbecilic Kellyanne Conway assertion, but alternative thinking. I thought that when we “listen to them,” we need to use our imagination to understand what they are saying.

I thought, did the Greeks really believe there were a bunch of gallivanting immortals on Mount Olympus, fighting with each other and visiting earth, seducing mortals and constantly intervening? What about the story of the Virgin Birth – any takers? But while these stories might be fanciful, that doesn't mean they are not powerful. Millions of people find them full of truths. They are metaphors. You might not imbibe all the stories, but you still entertain them, because they are part of a larger perception, a larger orientation.

So I thought, what if we think about Qanon as a metaphor. Reich's book outlines quite well the pressures on the middle class trying to keep afloat as the wealth goes elsewhere, just as Woodward described. The women leave home and work, everyone works longer hours, and families draw down savings and borrow (until 2008, anyway). And they get angry. They can't put it all together the way Reich can, but they sense it. So when they hear a story, they listen. Elites draining the life out of the lower classes? Check. That their dreams have been stolen, and their dreams for their children, and that they have all even been defiled? Check.

They might not be the smartest or most capable people in the world, but nonetheless, they deserve a hell of a lot better than what they are getting. The world is getting richer, there is enough wealth available so that everyone could have a secure and satisfying life, but instead of that, the rich are keeping everything for themselves, and these working class people and middle class people are living very hard, insecure lives with no enticing future to even hope for. So if you were going to have a dream to encapsulate all that, wouldn't the Qanon fantasy fill the bill? The elite is in on it, all of them. They are sucking our blood, they are taking our children.

So, as with The Book of Mormon – it's a metaphor. We can call them credulous and unsophisticated, but we could also just say that people think differently. Everyone doesn't have that big, logical, schooled and drilled left cerebral lobe of logic. Some people think in terms of stories and impressions, in broad brush strokes, in intuition. Of course, pinning the savior button on Donald Trump is, well, more than regrettable. But pinning the conspirator button on Hillary isn't far off, much as she might not be conscious of it. Reich pins it pretty firmly on Jamie Dimon, who might not be aware of it, either.

I just wish their metaphor included, as the poet David Shaddock asserts, identifying him as a less-cunning Milton-esque Satan.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Peter Strzok - Compromised


If a student of Trumpism is looking for subtlety, he or she will be disappointed. “Might makes right” and the “ethics of the unsupervised schoolyard” don't require much nuance. Thugocracy speaks for itself. Truth yields to alternative facts, the search for loyalty obviates the need for competence, cruelty and destruction and the willingness to be cowed take precedence. Untethered accusations carry weight.

In that world, then, proving your case may seem irrelevant. You may be right, but who is going to enforce it?

Yet, it isn't. The people in charge may make mincemeat of right and truth, followers might adopt the same attitude, but the majority of people in this country and the world aim higher. People who oppose the thugocracy need the mental ammunition to know they are right, not just go on common sense and belief. And in the case of the FBI, the long heritage of lying and intimidation and right wing activity makes every claim of the new FBI need to be supported by evidence. Trumpists may have the upper hand now, but the present opposition and the future need to see the truth. Plus, when you are falsely accused, you just have to defend yourself, and in this case, also defend your righteous organization.

Into that arena, then, steps Peter Strzok. Strzok is an honest man, an intelligent man, a man who rose within the FBI to the top of the counterintelligence. He was the one who headed the FBI's investigation of Russian intervention in the 2016 campaign and the connection to the Trump campaign. Coincidentally, he was also high in the investigation of the sleeper cell of Russians who passed for Americans and raised families as normal suburbanites while informing their Russian spymasters, and he was a lead in investigating the Hillary Clinton emails.

So, Strzok has more than one story to tell, as he defends himself from the vicious Trumpian attacks on his person and his work. I saw him on TV – he was smart and informative. And for my part, I'm a great fan of Le Carré, Philip Kerr and Alan Furst, so I read his non-fiction book. It was a good choice.

I recommended it to my recently-retired ex-roommate from med school, who had joined the Public Health Service just after internship with me. We worked in community health, me from headquarters in Washington, he in the San Francisco Region IX office. Our experience in government was eye-opening, the way going to college and going to med school and going together to Medellín, Colombia one summer, had been eye-opening. Each a different world, with their own worldviews, jargons, assumptions. The way belonging to a church is eye-opening. Different worlds, practices, words, assumptions, beliefs, culture. One great strength of Le Carré comes from his years in the spy bureaucracy. He knows procedures, how you work in a large organization. Without our experience in the PHS, we wouldn't have understood it the way we did.

So I wrote my ex-roommate this: I'm just finishing Peter Strzok's book which I think is very good.  He is self-justifying against the allegations that they were anti-Trump spying, etc. I like especially, as a fan of spy literature (Le Carré, Alan Furst), its real life policier-espionage. Pretty well-written. Recommended.

Here's what he wrote me back:

Competently written, excruciatingly detailed as to what counterintelligence is and how it works (at least on the U.S. side), but without any exciting revelations about stuff you didn’t already know — just a whole lot more granular. And interesting as well. What I particularly enjoyed was his description of how the SVR's (the KGB's descendent) Russian sleeper spies — with their two grown kids born in Canada — were inserted into the US; how they were surveilled and eventually arrested. Great story.

Strzok’s a cop and investigator, no doubt at the apex of his trade. He trusts nothing anyone says without verifying it five times over (unless it’s from a fellow FBI man).

What’s so odd for a really smart guy like him — at the apex of his trade — is how he could have been so absolutely stupid to use his FBI-issued cell phone to send text messages having nothing to do with his official duties. It might have been bad enough if these texts had been discovered on his personal cell, with his fairly minimal "anti-Trump” stuff sent to his FBI lover Lisa Page: the Trump people would have made the same attacks anyway.

Strzok presents the FBI as a vast, benign organization despite its ancestry: iron-jawed guys (he mentions just one female agent, I think) with the same haircuts, suits, shoes and ties, all of prime Boy Scout caliber: trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. All his fellow agents are hands-down brilliant at their various subspecialties, whether it is interviewing or breaking and entering. Whether they are also adulterers is not revealed.

What gets my dander up is when I read the following, time and time again, throughout the book: that Strzok himself as well as each and every FBI agent is 1,000% "dedicated to upholding the Constitution and protecting the American People.” Whenever I hear “the American People” spill from some politician's or bureaucrat’s mouth, I tune out. I can understand it well enough in a stump speech or in congressional testimony…but 25 times in a book? C’mon.

I would have been fun to be a fly on the wall during a lot of this, to audit the banter and jokes that pass among these guys. I can’t believe that there’s never any locker-room type language being used, interspersed with the usual flour-letter words, which, by the way, Strzok is happy to use in his narrative often enough.

BTW, he is not Iranian: he was born in Michigan. His dad was a US Army Lt. Col.; he worked for the Corps of Engineers and was posted three times to Iran, where Peter attended the American School in Teheran.

I responded:

I was puzzled by the Iranian thing - glad you cleared it up.

I know what you mean about repeating the mantra. I do think there is some non-ironic group think in the FBI mission among the agents. You see something similar in sports teams. You see it in medicine with "good of the patient." Some of it is honored, some of it honored in the breach, just with different balances in different organizations, different people, different times, and different situations. Churches are also good examples.

I agree about The Americans. I also thought the indictment of Hillary's stupid obstructionism and the heinous Cheryl Mills was very interesting. Hillary was so stupid technologically, and not smart enough to get good help with it and be well advised. Which tells you a lot about Hillary, which was fairly obvious from her behavior. Carl Bernstein's book was pretty objective, I thought, and quite damning. She rubs me exactly the wrong way.

I also agree about the detailed descriptions being interesting because of what you could observe without being told directly.

Glad you read it and your commentary was very helpful to me.

To enlarge on what I responded about Strzok's apparent cultural loyalty, why would he be so emphatic about that? We know it's not true in some instances – the New York station was reliably reported to be very anti-Hillary and feeding Giuliani stories. But think about a sports team, when one member or a group of teammates loudly proclaims their all for one and one for all, how they will all keep in training, where they will all be the others' first priority. This must go on all the time in the FBI, I would guess. And at this point it certainly is in Strzok's interest to reassert the mantra. The FBI has been decapitated. Odds are the body still misses the heads, or at least feels loyalty to them, and realizes that standing up for them now ensures their own support later on. We'll see.

Also, the decapitated leaders, so poorly treated, still stand a good chance of winning in the long run. All it takes is one election, and the guts of the new administration not to adopt the chicken's way out, live and let live. Me, I think it's time for American Nuremberg.

So, even though it is patently obvious that everything that Trump and Barr say and do is ridiculous and absurd and Orwellesque. No need to dwell on that. But if you really need to be convinced of the certainty of Russian involvement, and the hopes the Trump campaign had of capitalizing on it if they could just get themselves to be competent enough to effect it, then reading this book will leave little doubt. And if you want to see what real life Le Carré looks like, what you see in this book makes a lot of sense to my ex-roommate and me, who spent time in the bureaucracy, and have that feeling of recognition.

Budd Shenkin

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Mary Trump's Book: Too Much And Never Enough




It is just so sad. That's my reaction to reading Mary's book. My God, the anguish that everyone in this super-dyfunctional family has had to live with! No one escaped. Mary's father, Fred Jr., “Freddie,” tried to escape and failed. He succumbed to a heart condition and alcoholism, divorced, solitary, poor, living in a spare small room in the garret of the Trump House in Queens (“The House” Mary calls it, the center of pathology from which no one could really escape) where he lay ill and dying for weeks when no one even called a doctor or took him to a hospital before he finally died at 42. Mary loved him, but being only 16 and infected by the family dysfunction, she accepted the family judgement that it was his own fault, that he hadn't measured up, that he had gone off on larks like being a commercial pilot and marrying a flight attendant (Mary's mother Linda) when his father had wanted him to succeed him as head of the Trump Company and keep the family business thriving as a good first son should and he couldn't make it. So he died for his alleged sins.

Mary grieves for her father now, probably thinking “if only I knew then what I know now.” All the others suffered, too, each in his or her own way. Her grandmother, Fred Sr.'s wife who was also named Mary, was chronically unhappy and suffered the misogyny of Fred Sr. The middle child of the five Trump children, Elizabeth, has been an introverted and depressed ghost. The eldest, Maryanne, succeeded in being a lawyer and a judge, but she also participated in the Trump hallmark dishonesty. She was part of the tax evasion fraud of wealth transfer in the family documented in the New York Times, and she joined the three-sib plot to defraud Mary and her brother Fritz from any semblance of a rightful inheritance. Robert, the youngest sibling, was the agent assigned by the other two after Fred died to get Mary and Fritz to sign the papers that would consent to the inheritance plan. The three Trump siblings stuck together in telling Mary and Fritz that the nearly $1 billion estate was only worth $30 million. The deluded wife of Fred declared him virtually devoid of funds in what seems perhaps to have been a gaslighting event. When Mary and Fritz delayed signing the documents, the sibling trio cut off Fritz's baby son's health insurance as he was being treated for infantile spasms, a very severe neurological disease of childhood. It was perfectly legal to do so. The lying about the value of the estate? Not so legal. As though there wasn't enough to go around. Trump Family Values. Just win, baby.

The original villain of the piece, of course, is Fred, Sr., who we learn grew up in a German-speaking family – so one would have thought that the Trumps' immigrant status should be palpable to them. Or perhaps because Fred became very wealthy, they learned the wrong lessons. He was a man out of time and maybe out of place: cold, authoritarian, wearing a three piece suit at all times and asserting control through absolute denial of the validity of feelings of others, even his wife's while she was severely ill – “You're fine, aren't you Toots?” Then she goes to the hospital for surgeries and recuperation for months on end. We don't know how Fred got to be that way, and Mary is probably in no position to know about this, and that's not part of her mission here. We just know how he was, and how his dominance forced everyone to adopt his point of view. When he finally deterioratd into dementia, it appears he received little family support. It must have been pathetic and even funny, the way Lear is funny wandering at the end, but ineffably sad. It was dog eat dog chez Trump.

Fred was the typical absent father who ran his company obsessively. The mother was in charge of raising the girls and the father the boys, but his being at work all the time limited his fathering chores, which it appears he was unsuited for, anyway. Even in this killer of a family, everyone strives for his favor. His success in business was largely from government-funded housing in the outer boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens. He got the jobs through “political connections,” the substance of which we are left to imagine. His large complexes featured impressive lobbies that bespoke luxury, but the apartments themselves were cramped and maintenance was lackadaisical. The Trump brand then was glitter outside, decrepit on the inside, and neglect after the deal is done. Fred's crucial insight was to retain ownership and carry no debt, which made them huge cash cows.

Although an effective money-maker, Fred was narrow and gauche and could never penetrate to the higher social ranks in Manhattan – he was Queens all the way. As his wealth grew, it appears he didn't know how to spend it, so accumulation itself appeared to be the purpose, and the personal control that accumulation conferred.

Fred is not the only father who envisioned his oldest son, and if not his oldest then one of the others, taking over the company and making him immortal, with nothing ever to be sold, like a shrine. When Fred Jr. dropped out of that fantasy, Donald was ready to take it up. He aped the old man, and then he entranced and gulled the old man with strutting, swagger and lies, which the old man was more than willing to gobble up and fund, even as the bailouts got bigger. But, after all, Donald did crack Manhattan as Fred Sr. had never been up to doing, got a lot of press, was a somebody, which Fred couldn't be. Fred was not the only father to let his fantasies run away with him. And Donald was not the only son to gull his old man and to try to fulfill his fantasies, to try to do what the old man would have loved to have done himself, to have cracked Manhattan and the world. The difference of Donald from others who inherited and then make themselves bigger – compare Ted Turner, for instance – is that Donald didn't really make or do anything, he just blew himself up with air and hype and tried to push it for all it was worth. It was worth a lot to Fred.


This book is written with a clinical eye, which I as a pediatrician appreciate. It can't be an accident that Mary became a PhD in clinical psychology. When you are one of the victims of a toxic family, what better expertise to acquire than that of a PhD clinical psychologist, studying family dynamics and family therapy? She could not only learn to understand herself, but she could help others who find themselves lost in similar situations. Relatives of gun victims, relatives of drunk driver victims, relatives of those stricken with diseases do the same – let at least some good come of this horrible event, let's get some legislation passed, let's fund research and treatment. Good for Mary! As she helps others in her work, so she tries to help the country with this book.

Mary's way of thinking is not so different from what we pediatricians are familiar with. Mary declares her family's affliction not rare, but uncommon. That's clinician talk. When confronted with a case like Donald's, we clinicians think, what happened in the mother/child dyad, what innate characteristics of the child were at play, and what were the family dynamics that caused this monstrosity? Something caused this.

For the mother/child dyad, Mary focuses on Donald when he was two and his mother had her major illness and was effectively removed from Donald's life for a year and replaced by … nobody. Mary tells us that this is the stage of a child's life when their emotions are sensed by the intimate caregiver, reflected back to the child, and the child comes to sense what his or her emotions are, and learns how he or she can be comforted. That's what parents, and archetypically mothers, do. When Donald had nobody to mirror and comfort him, his reaction must have been to deny his feelings, she says, to be cold, and in not recognizing his own feelings he was unable to recognize anyone else's, and so became cruel. I'm a little rusty on my first year med school Erik Erikson's stages of development, but I'm willing to go along with her analysis as being at least a good part of the truth. I have to admit that I have always thought less dynamically that Donald might have had the syndrome of oppositional defiance, which doesn't specify a cause, but many assume it comes at least partially from the innate nature of the child.

But whatever the origin, these developed characteristics of Donald's, the self-centered win and don't look back, don't worry about the feelings of others, and then the bonus of grandiosity – they lit up Fred's eyes as he saw his successor. This brings in family dynamics. I was introduced to the developing field of family therapy as a pediatric resident at UC San Francisco in the 1970's. I so vividly remember my astonishment when, rather than simply meeting with individual patients, we learned to treat the family as a unit, as a system within which all the individual component parts (the people) interacted and affected each other. Meeting with the family in the room, not just individually, was key.

In that family therapy rotation I remember being confronted with an elementary school-aged boy who was being aggressive at school and disrespectful to and uncontrollable by his mother. At the meeting we saw the mother express her understandable distress, and we saw the father agreed verbally, but we could also see, when our instructors pointed it out to us, that the father's facial expressions and body language said something completely different. They said non-verbally how proud he was of his son for being a “manly” little boy. The confused boy receiving this double message looked at his Mom giving society's party line, but he was not at all unaware of his father's pride in his “spunk.” He sought to please his father. It was complicated. The father of course had his own history, and there could have been a fair amount of misogyny involved. It was a classically dysfunctional family.

A further concept we learned in family therapy was that of the “identified patient.” The family comes in with the medical complaint that relates to one family member – she won't stop eating junk, he is bullying everybody, etc. Everyone in the family sees the squeaky wheel. But what the family therapist sees is how the pathology of the family system is expressing itself in this one member. If Fred Jr. had presented to a doctor with depression and the doctor referred him for family therapy, the therapist would have called Fred Jr. the “identified patient.” The family certainly thought there was something wrong with him. Today, we all might view Donald as the identified patient. But family therapy says, yes, those are the visibly ill ones, but they are expressing the illness of the whole system.

Donald and Fred, of course, would not be caught dead in family therapy. But if they had been seen, Fred would be clearly not giving the double signals that the father of our family at UCSF did. That was minor leagues compared to Fred. Fred would be seen giving one large unambiguous signal, giving it to everyone, and everyone would be seen as trying to win his approval, or to duck and not be seen. He would brook no opposition, he of the three piece suit and imperious demeanor.

When you're caught in the situation with a family like this, there are no magic bullets. There will be some survivors like Mary – barely, it seems – but most will continue to be sociopathic as they learn to exist in the system of the family, and in time it will be gradually diluted out by marriages, changing circumstances, and new generations emerging with less direct experience. In the meanwhile, one has to hope just that it won't come to one big blowout. Lacking the ability to go back in time and nip it in the bud, one can only seek to control all the collateral damage by the sociopaths.  Mary's most plaintive sentence in the whole book is this: Donald has never been loved. But so terribly sad as that may be, everyone needs to be warned, and that is what Mary is doing.


I have another memory from my first year in med school that is applicable. Our class was in the old Peter Bent Brigham Hospital auditorium on a Saturday morning, and beloved psychiatrist John C. Nemiah interviewed a patient in front of us. Under Nemiah's sensitive and friendly questioning, the patient told his florid story of how resounders had been placed in his brain, and how he got explanations of the world and orders to act through them. The statements he made had some verisimilitude to a possible reality, if you ignored that it was resounders delivering the news. After he had left, Nemiah asked us freshmen med students how we would describe the patient. Those of us headed for psychiatry took the lead, describing his paranoid ideation in detail, noting his affect, commenting on irregularities in his logic. I was impressed by their observations and expositions. Then Nemiah took charge and said, look, those are interesting and good observations, but let's just look at this guy, OK. What do you see? He's crazy! He's nuts! The shock of recognition grabbed us and we laughed hard, to the last person. Forest, said Nemiah, forest – not the trees. (He probably didn't say that, but that was his message.) I loved Nemiah.

So, our forest is the Trump family. They are totally nuts. A crazy father raised a crazy family. Just because you are rich and financially successful doesn't mean you can't be nuts. “High-functioning,” yes, incredibly able to raise money in the first generation and to spend it in the second, but nuts. A family constantly conspiring against each other, filled with terror and lies, yet reassembling at The House like clockwork for the birthdays and holidays and such. A family where the divorced spouses were induced to be part of the assemblage, until Marianne and Blaine, Robert's wife, asserted that they would no longer come if Freddie's ex-wife Linda, Mary's mother, were to continue to be included, thus exiling her. Forget Mary's feelings. “Feelings?” Good luck with that. A family where secrets and plots and illegalities were rife, where paying taxes was the ultimate sin, where the celebrated son and heir commerced in lies, damned lies, and false statistics. We can focus on the trees, which are astounding to behold, but let's take Nemiah's way and look at the forest. This is crazy town.

As to scion Donald, the self-proclaimed very stable genius, if there's one thing he isn't, it's “very stable.” But we should take the claim of genius more seriously. How could someone so unqualified, so ignorant, someone with probable dyslexia and ADHD and therefore someone who can't read well and can't concentrate well, someone so florid, so unmoored to the reality we commonly agree on, so full of constant easily-refutable lies, so totally cynical, how can such a person actually take over not only one of the two great parties of the republic, but the apparatus of state as well? How can someone whose schtick is best described as Borscht Belt fear, hate, and diminishment; whose taste is lower working class; whose vocabulary is elementary; whose greatest achievement was to be a third rate reality TV host; whose businesses were disasters, frauds, and hoaxes; whose ability to empathize seems totally absent; whose habits are publicly disreputable; whose inclinations are publicly gangsterish; who is obvious in his search for thieves and knaves to serve him – how can someone like that rise to the pinnacle of power in a well-established democracy? If that is not genius, what is?

Geniuses have their own individual ways. If there ever were a crazy genius, it is not some mad scientist making a Frankenstein monster in some home cellar, it is not an evil genius in the labs of Wuhan creating a lethal virus, it is not a James Bond villain. The crazy genius is someone who has found a way of seizing power and orchestrating destruction of government, someone who is seen by conventional society as a clownish and fraudulent would-be gangster, someone nurtured and enabled by a crazy but high-functioning family, who manages to disrupt the country and the world.


That's the forest. That's what Mary is telling us. She is saying, don't fall for his bullshit, he has always pulled this stuff, he has always blustered his way through things, he has always lied and manipulated, and he was selected for these characteristics and promoted for them and enabled for them by a very sick family with an immense amount of money. Here's how he lied, here is how cruel and acquisitive he has been, and please, people, see it for what it is. He's just doing what he has always done. You can see the end result as it appears now, but I see its long history, how the process has worked, how it came to be this way, how it has been this way for a long time, and I see how dangerous it is. America, don't fall for it.

Budd Shenkin

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Time Flies


Time's arrow is cruel, very cruel. The very definition of relentless, don't you think? Time impaled my parents, first my mother with breast cancer at age 72, then my father at 92, finally – he had warded off many an illness until he finally said, take me off everything that is prolonging my life. Time will get me, and you, too, and then my kids, sure as shooting. Time is a relentless mother-fucker, believe me.

Not that this is a big discovery. Time is to people not as water is to fish. Fish don't know they're in water, they just swim. We, on the other hand, we all know about time all too well, even though we live our lives often ignoring it. The Capuchin monks have a museum in Rome featuring their skulls. The caption to the display says, as you are now, so we once were; as we are now, so you will be. We were there when we were in Rome, Ann and Peter and I, back in the day, when we lodged in a hotel right down the street, and I cadged a room on the top floor overlooking the whole city from a huge roof deck – as they say, never accept the first room they give you, which in this case was like a cell. We moved to a new room, same price, and victory was ours! The Eternal City at our feet. Although “eternal “ is, we know, a exaggeration.

I wrote the other day – where, on Twitter? evanescent twitter? – that we have fought against time for a long time. Pictures of animals on cave walls that last for eons, made by those hands and minds of long-ago victims of time. Not that long ago, actually, if you put it into thei perspective of the earth's being four and a half billion years old, life on earth three and a half billion years, so cave people were just yesterday in that perspective, but just as gone as that original molten ball of earth that eventually cooled and permitted us to emerge and grow.

Then, after cave paintings, I thought about the oral epic story. Gilgamesh – Gilgamesh never did that much for me. (I hear my father's voice – “Didn't impress you then, big shot?” He would say that with a loving smile, he wasn't belittling me, I was the first-born Jewish son, and I wasn't to be belittled, a burden I carried all my life, but I guess it worked, channelled me, if that's what you want, persistence works. Anyway, who am I to belittle Gilgamesh?)

Then came writing, keeping records, recording stories of wars, heroics, love poems, philosophy, thoughts, talk, imagination, all captured by the code of lines on a surface. Architecture, too, all the trappings of civilization, capturing and freezing, then being lost, becoming decrepit, superannuated, obsolescent, obsolete, forgotten, and sometimes then unearthed and resurrected. Time just keeps going.

My parents were aware of it. They took the technology of the day to freeze time as much as they could. They took eight millimeter home movies in the 1940's and 1950's. Pictures of us running under the boardwalk. “What happened to that cute little boy?” my father would wonder as he looked at me in later years. They loved us so, their loved their young family, they remembered their own childhoods which we heard about in dribs and drabs. They had some old photographic portraits with names loosely attached – that is, there were no labels, just the photos, and we were told who was who but who could remember? They were our ancestors and relatives, but they looked just like everyone else from the 19th century, hats, dresses, mustaches, we are related to them? I guess so. That's how it works.

“You should have a hobby, Buddy,” my parents told me. I guess I was 12 or 13. We were still living in West Philadelphia, the four kids going to school just outside the city limits at Friends' Central School, so I was probably in 6th or 7th grade. I thought and answered, “Photography?” In no time I had all the equipment to develop negatives and prints with trays and chemicals down in the cellar, with a red light that wouldn't spoil the film and a yellow light for I forget what. I guess time has dimmed my memory.

I read about composing shots, f-stops, everything, and got pretty good. I was official photographer at my great aunt Sadye's wedding at her Rittenhouse Plaza apartment, and developed and printed the pictures of her and my new Uncle Henri the music publisher, and the overexposed eight by ten prints I produced were put under the glass top of Aunt Sadye's dresser forever. It was still there when she died at 96, lonely, asking me as a young doctor, is there a pill she could take to end it all? She was impatient in her loneliness, but her death was just a question of timing, as usual.

I am amazed at all the time and care and hopes my parents put into me. Supplying me with a hobby. I don't think I was grateful enough. I don't think I put enough back into my own kids. It's pretty hard when you're divorced.

I was in my thirties when the first camcorders appeared. I wanted one badly, I had the money, I saw the one I wanted at Eid's in North Berkeley, but I was taught to be thrifty. My soon to be wife Ann taught me to spend the money if that was what I wanted. So I bought it and got a tripod thrown in when I whined to Eid that it was expensive, but I knew its value. I remembered my parents eight millimeter movies, how they would get them out and run them sometimes and we would watch, and one time – it was still in the West Philly house – they were running it and I pointed at a cute little blond girl in a stroller, and I cried out, “There's Susie Levin!” But Susie's parents Herb and Beck were in the next room, visiting from their house a block and a half away, and Susie had died a few years ago from leukemia, decades before medicine learned how to cure it, and they could hear me, so in a moment of panic my Mom put her hand in front of the projector so the screen would go dark, and she hissed: “Shhhh!” Their pain was, of course, too great, people just can't talk about it. Just the other day I heard Peter Bogdanovich say how his mother could never talk about his brother who died at a year and a half. It never goes away, it perseveres, it is only covered up. The time up on the screen, they were good times, but not forever. It was long ago. Beck died a few years ago when she was almost a hundred, living alone near Rittenhouse Square, I think.

I started taking videos of our kids as my parents had taken movies of us. I got lost in the dancing at Play Day at Henry C. Lea Elementary School at 47th and Spruce Streets when I was in kindergarten, and there it was on the screen, anytime we wanted to look at it. I still have it, now on a DVD. I took lots of videos, lugged that bulky camera attached to a heavy recorder strapped over my shoulder, to games and even vacations. On Lanai I remember the busboy asking, “What's that?” It was bulky. I was relentless, I put in the effort.

We would go back from Berkeley to Philly regularly. My parents were then living in their I. M. Pei house on Society Hill on Fourth and Orianna, not far from Independence Hall, in the neighborhood my father had been born in and raised in and been happy in – he remembered when there were more horses than cars, he claimed, although I don't know, he was born in 1915 and was known to exaggerate – or lie, actually, or misremember – until the depression came and his father died of a brain abscess and his mother's family's bank failed and they moved in with a relative in some apartment, went the story. But here he was with my Mom back in city center, happy, prosperous, renewed.

I was in my late thirties, I guess, and newly confident. Camcorders were still bulky, so I left mine at home and rented one in Philly – what an expenditure! We also stayed at a nearby Holiday Inn instead of bunking with my parents – what an expenditure! And then I led them to my project.

“Buddy wants to do this,” said my mother, telling my father to go along with it. It had taken me that long to break through her iron grip on organizing the family, or so it seemed. Torch-passing, maybe, as we all got older. And what I did was, I got my mother and father in their car, Dad driving and Mom in the back seat trying to direct, certainly contributing to finding the best way to our objectives, which were all the places they had ever lived in, to film them and narrate. We would go from center city where my Dad was born, to the apartment on 42nd street where I was taken home from the hospital when I was born and where my earliest memories are – the shadows of the lights coming through the blinds as the clanging street car made its way past the apartment and I could track how the light and shadows on the walls progressed as it passed, to the house at 4931 Osage right around the corner from my mother's parents, then to the one at 422 South 47th where I learned photography and chess and had an aquarium, to the 52nd street squalid apartment where my mother was born (“the family manse, she narrated) and then out to 526 North Wynnewood Avenue where I went to Lower Merion High.

Then we went back home to Society Hill, and I don't know if it was that day or another, it might have been the next day, when I videotaped Mom and Dad in the TV room talking about old times and my father was standing up remembering when a patient, a relative or someone prominent, had been sent specially to Dad to operate on his back, I think it was. It was some kind of a tough operation. He was assisted in the operation by a resident from South America who had pustular acne, and he contaminated the op site with a bacterium that the elementary antibiotics they had at the time couldn't cure. Nowadays, of course, it wouldn't be a great problem, but the time for great antibiotics had not yet arrived. My Dad said, “I made rounds on him every day. It took him such a long time to die.”

“Don't, Henry,” my mother begged. But he had recounted it, and all the anguish that went with it. I have it all on tape. Not that I look at it. But I sent it to my siblings and I think they watched it, not that we talk about it, just one or two comments once or twice.

Back home in Berkeley I taped it when we told the older four kids that a new one was on the way, to their wonder. I taped it when we told them it was to be a boy and the three boys were thrilled and Sara, not so much. We taped Brian and Nicky and Allie on their skateboards and on their bikes, and Peter at his Little League games. Then eventually we just stopped taping, although we shouldn't have, when kids get older you just stop taping. Then came digital cameras that made taping easier, then I-phones when it's a true snap, and the kids had kids and they do it with their kids, of course.

And now it's 2020 – it should be the year of perfects eyesight but instead it's the year of COVID-19, shut up stores and staying home, waiting for COVID to disappear and for Trump to disappear as well. They will, for sure. It's only a matter of time. Waiting them out. In the end, Trump's right, everything goes away.

But with all this recording of events, freezing them in time with ever greater verisimilitude as the technology leaps forward, somewhere along the line we have neglected to take videos of me, just as we didn't take videos of my father when he got older, nor of my mother when she got sick and the good treatments for breast cancer hadn't arrived yet. But who would take them? Allie lives in Oxford with his own family, I was estranged from Nick for many years and now we're back together but his family lives in Marin and probably I'll get to see them in the future when COVID recedes in time, and Peter is not one to memorialize. And Sara my step-daughter has her own family and her own father. Maybe I'll figure out how to tape myself. Can't be that hard. I guess each nuclear family tapes itself, is the way it usually works.

So, like everyone else at this time, we wait. We have fewer events to mark it's passage, it just keeps flowing regularly on its own. We have our pursuits and our daily routines that are now more pronounced than exceptional events, I study my French and pursue writing projects and take walks for exercise, we have our meals to enjoy, our crows and squirrels to watch, the sun setting earlier each day. We just had our house painted and it's beautiful, best paint job ever. I was careful to take before and after pictures because if you're not careful and the new paint is already on, you can't go back and get the before picture. Do it then or you never will. And the new kitchen floor and appliances from two years ago are great, too. Change is good.

Actually, there's no alternative.

Budd Shenkin

A Stunning Majority, A Massive Crisis, An Historic Opportunity


I believe that the Democrats will probably run the table in November, taking the Presidency by a landslide, increasing their majority in the House, and taking the Senate by about 54-46. Who knows, but that's what I think. The election will constitute a massive rejection of Trump personally, and Trumpism, and the Republican party as it is now constituted. Not only will the united Democrats have complete control, but their Republican opposition will be divided and thus even less able to obstruct than the numbers will indicate.

They will take over in the midst of a huge, mishandled, dangerous, ongoing pandemic health crisis, and in the midst of the associated huge, dangerous, ongoing economic crisis. These two singular crises will take the major part of the attention of the public and the top administration. That is where the drama will be.

At the same time, however, the crises that Trump had precipitated even before the pandemic will still be there, ready to solve. These Trumpian crises are of two sorts. One is Trumpian policies – the tax policies, the destruction he has caused throughout the government agencies in their objectives as well as their ability simply to function. The other is the Trumpian trampling of the laws and norms of how the government does its business. To make a medical analogy, you might think of these two separate areas as the bones and the muscles of government. The bones would be the laws and norms, the stable structure necessary for the muscles to attach to and to operate. The muscles would be the policies themselves.

(I have discussed this in three previous posts focusing the the laws and norms – the bones, if you will – on Post Trump Reform, Post Trump Reforms Executive Summary, and Post Trump Reforms David Frum Commentary, with comments on David Frum's excellent book, Trumpocalypse. I have also discussed one specific important suggested reform that refers back to the paper that David Levine and I wrote recommending that the power of the presidential pardon be constitutionally amended to require that each pardon receive the co-signature of the Speaker of the House.)

So you have to wonder, if the Democrats take over as I have outlined, or something close to that, would the necessity of concentrating on COVID-19 and the attendant recession/depression completely suppress and delay all the other necessary actions of post Trump reforms? After all, you might think, their hands and the congress's will be more than full.

Maybe so. That will certainly be the argument of the disorganized rump Trumpian/Republican minority. But I have a different view. I am optimistic that the Democrats will find it possible to walk the COVID-19 and economic support walk, and at the same time to chew the gum of post Trumpian Reforms. And in fact, with COVID-19 and economic support at center stage, I would posit that, (switching metaphors here!) like a magician who has focused the audience's attention on his right hand doing the pandemic/economic juggling, the Dems could push the post Trumpian Reforms even faster and more completely than if everyone's attention were on them.

You never know until you get there, but it's possible. But, it will only be possible if the Democrats are prepared. It's all in the preparation. You have to rehearse the hell out of that left hand, or the chewing of the gum, take your pick of metaphors. If you're not ready for the opportunity, you won't be able to take advantage of it.

So here is what I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting that the Democrats construct a detailed battle plan right now. Even if the plan never survives the battle intact, you still have to have it ready so you can act with the knowledge of what you have planned. What are your major steps and how are you going to accomplish them?

I would divide them up into policies and laws/norms, muscle and bone. I won't deal with the muscle here and now, but first would probably have to be personnel; I would have them ready. Then there would have to be all the policies and rules and regulations that have been changed – just change them back and make them better – Build Back Better, the man said. Then, as the Republicans squawked about the cost of the economic support program, I would reverse the Trump tax cuts and say, you're right, we need the money, and guess how we're going to get some of it.

For the laws/norms, the bones of government, I think David Frum hit it on the nose. I would start with getting rid of the filibuster first thing, then vote in DC as a state before they can say Jack Robinson. As Frum reasons succinctly, just do it, you can do it with simple majority votes in both houses and a presidential signature. They'll never know what hit them.

I'm not sure what the professional Democrats would plan to do next, but there would have to be a list. I would take the Frum tactical line and just get it done. Invite the opposition in, allow cooperation and amendments – but not obstruction. If they howl, excoriate them. Respond – no more obstruction! No more emasculation of the legislative branch! But whatever, the crisis atmosphere and the rare Democratic predominance should not to be wasted.

I would start the planning, slowly and quietly, but bringing in the major players inside and outside of government, right now. Have your list ready. And have your playbook ready on how you are going to educate the nation to what you are doing. (Learn from the great missed opportunity and cautionary tale of the Obama administration – how to sell it. Personally, I would put Donnie Deutsch on the case, and the Lincoln Project people, and James Carville, but that's personal taste.)

You've got to be ready. This will be your chance. As my wife told me when I got Stanford's offer to buy my practice, as she very wisely advised me, and as she directed me, let me say now to the Democrats – Don't fuck it up!

Budd Shenkin

Monday, July 20, 2020

Opening Elementary Schools Might Make Sense In Covid Time

The original post is this note from Dr. Hoeg.  Her reasoning, while sound at the time, might be faulty, in that the New York Times reports that children have been now shown to harbor large loads of the virus in their nasal mucosa - see here

From Tracy Hoeg MD PHD: (UC Davis)

I wanted to give an update on the research regarding COVID in children. 

I should back up briefly and state that I am a physician with a PhD in Epidemiology who became very interested in this topic when a colleague and friend of mine, Jennifer Kasten, MD MSc, wrote a systematic review of COVID epidemiology in children ( and found kids 12 and under *might be viral "dead ends", meaning they can get COVID but can't transmit to anyone else. This really captured my interest because this would make COVID very different from most respiratory viruses we know. Then in a physician's group dedicated to school opening, a physician researcher published a document for the group in which said she could identify 0 (zero) cases of certain transmission from children under 12 in the scientific literature and since that time Dr. Rutherford, UCSF Epidemiologist, has also been public about elementary-aged children being a "one way street" for infection - they get it but don't appear to transmit it, much, if at all. (UCSF Grand Rounds lectures are now available on YouTube for those interested in hearing him).

Last month, I did my own summary of the data ( and found evidence of the following:

*Very limited transmission if any from children ages 12 and under to either other children or adults

*Children appeared to be at least 10 times more likely to die of influenza than Covid and are more likely to be struck by lightning (I rechecked the CDC website today 7/13 and they are still reporting 3 deaths in children under 18 due to confirmed COVID; for comparison, there have been 185 deaths due to influenza in this population in the 2019/2020 season. If anyone has an updated death count in the pediatric population due to COVID, please share).

*Countries that reopened elementary schools as a first step in their country's reopening did not see an uptick in cases (these include numerous European and Asian countries, some of which are displayed in Figure 4. Reopenings not causing and uptick in cases is consistent with children not being a major vector for the disease. Figure 3 shows age of the source of the cases of COVID in Holland, with none ages 18 and under in their study, as just an example of these data. 

What have we learned in the last month?

1. We now have a generally accepted mechanism for younger children getting milder disease and transmitting significantly less than adults, which is paucity of ACE2 receptors in the respiratory tract compared with adults (this is the receptor SARS COV2 uses to enter the cells of the body). This could explain why children get COVID less, have milder disease (lower viral load) and are less contagious (if contagious at all). Yet another way COVID is unlike typical influenza!
(Figure 2)
2. Consistent with this was the study showing lower viral load (lower amount of the virus) in children up to age 18. (Figure 1). The original non-peer reviewed print of this article from Drosten et al was reanalyzed as per UCSF Grand Rounds and does indeed show significantly lower viral load in children as seen in image 1. 

3. This is great news for teachers and children, because not only are children significantly less likely to transmit COVID, but IF they do, the dose of the "inoculum" will be expected to be lower and there is mounting evidence (though inconclusive at this point) that the lower the dose of the virus you get, the less severe your disease will be if you even get symptoms at all ( This may be why Denmark and Norway were able to reopen elementary schools without any mask wearing in children (or adults for that matter!). Now if there IS mask wearing in the US by either children, adults or both, that would make both transmission even less likely and possibly the severity of the disease will be less if it does occur (interesting non peer-reviewed study showing inverse correlation between mask-wearing and mortality rate:

4. I am sensing many of your are STILL skeptical we can safely open elementary schools in the US. Well, thankfully we have really good data from the YMCA childcare for essential workers in the US, which has been providing childcare throughout the pandemic (our kids go there) and was even open in NYC at the height of the outbreak and they have had 0/>40,000 kids (ages 14 and under) contract COVID. They have also not had any outbreaks, though a few staff at different sites tested positive (presumably contracted from another adult per the above data) and quarantined so no more than 1 positive case a just a limited number of sites. Adults wear masks, kids don't, temperature checks at the door, each kid has a small "cohort" of kids they do everything with. More details can be seen in this article, but it shows that WE CAN DO THIS SAFELY in the US - even in areas hit severely by the virus and with truly minimal resources. 

Edit: The small cohorts in children may actually not be necessary and the data I am using to support this is guidelines for return to school in Holland in quotes below and from their Ministry of Health Website ( This model has worked for them:

"Children up to and including 12 years of age do not have to keep 1.5 metres apart from each other and from adults. This also applies to childcare and primary education.
Young people aged 13 until 18 years old (i.e. 17 years old and younger) do not have to stay 1.5 metres apart from each other. In secondary schools, this applies to all pupils, regardless of their age."

--I also want to briefly address the many "clickbaity" articles in the popular press lately about school and day care outbreaks. Specifically I will mention the school outbreaks in Israel where there were some infections in high school aged children but the "outbreaks" in the elementary schools were among adults only. Also, if you carefully look at the reports of day care outbreaks in our country, most appear to be involving staff that infect each other and, if kids are affected they are infected by the adults and are asymptomatic/have mild disease. I challenge you all to look at the articles coming from the popular press with the above data in mind and you will be surprised in the elementary age group that the adults appear to be the ones responsible for the outbreaks (though it is hard to get all of the info from those articles) and the ones who are severely affected by the disease.

--What are the bottom lines?

1. Kids 13-14 and below (likely around puberty) do not appear to be driving the spread of COVID. They rarely (one can never say never) transmit the disease. Tracing the source case with 100% certainty can be very challenging, but the data overall indicate pediatric transmission to be quite rare compared with adults.

2. Kids up to 18 years of age tend to get mild disease if any symptoms and death in this age group is less likely than getting hit by lightning. 

3. In school settings, adults can and will give to adults and kids, so teachers need to be socially distancing while at work. Adults also should be wearing masks and getting tested and staying home if they have symptoms. 

4. Data and guidelines from Holland suggest distancing among children <19 and="" as="" be="" been="" children="" countries="" div="" economy.="" even="" first="" has="" in="" it="" masks.="" may="" necessary.="" not="" of="" opened="" out="" pointed="" reopening="" scandinavia="" schools="" should="" step="" successful="" that="" the="" their="" these="" wearing="" without="">

5. I have previously discussed the many downsides of not having kids in school in person this fall: further entrenching socioeconomic disparities, job loss for parents who can't afford childcare worsening poverty and neglect, abuse of children (which will be underreported), lack of support for children with special needs, anxiety, depression and lack of physical activity and peer relationships in children. The list goes on and on. But I want this post to focus more on the science of the disease so it can inform our public policy decisions.

6. I hope the above data are reassuring. The more we know, the better we can tackle and live with this disease.

Edit: Now that this post has been shared hundreds of times (never imagined this), I want to say first of all, that I in no way am intending to detract from the seriousness of COVID-19. It is imperative our country get this disease under control -by social distancing, closing indoor businesses which are not essential, wearing masks, etc, but the above data at least suggest to me that children are not driving the pandemic; adults are. And I also want to say that a lot of what I shared above was recently discussed in the UCSF combined Medicine and Pediatric Grand Rounds lecture (an inspiration for me to write this to get this scientific info to the public). I encourage anyone interested in the above data to watch this recording of the Grand Rounds :

And this article about the above UCSF physicians' stances on reopening schools and transmission in children:

I welcome any data or questions you have. The science about COVID in pediatrics is evolving and we don't have all the answers (far from it), but I hope people can use the above data to help them make informed decisions about children's activities and school openings. 

Now in my OPINION- elementary school is an essential service of a country. All other first world countries prioritized opening their elementary schools BEFORE their economies. When one considers the number of couples or single parents who are essential workers, or now working again in the US, with kids too young to watch themselves - I ask you- where will they go if not to school? And will the alternative be better?  These children with either be 1. in school, 2. in a day care (IF their parents are privileged enough to afford this) or 3. neglected/potentially left alone at home and not learning and without their usual resources. It is our job together as American people to figure out what is in the best interest of all our children (regardless of socioeconomic status) - they are truly the future of our country and figuring how to open schools safely is infinitely more important than reopening Disney World (WHY is this open??). I hope we can use the above data and strategies of other countries (as well as our own YMCA daycares!) that have successfully managed this pandemic to guide us. Having NO plan for how to most safely open our elementary schools is not an acceptable modus operandi for our country.


Edit to add new data:

7/16: In Germany, a study of over 2,000 children: "Scientists from Dresden Technical University said they believe children may act as a “brake” on chains of infection."

7/16: Study performed by the Swedish and Finish Ministries of Health "closure or not of schools had no measurable direct impact on the number of laboratory confirmed cases in school-aged children in Finland or Sweden. The negative effects of closing schools must be weighed against the positive indirect effects it might have on the mitigation of the covid-19 pandemic."