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Betsy DeVos Flunks Her First Test

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Washington confirmation hearings are both theater and ritual. Behind the ostentatious displays of deference that senators and would-be cabinet secretaries must display toward each other is a useful democratic exercise. To be forced to grovel before one’s political adversaries is a crash course in respecting the norms of peaceful political combat in service of accountability.

Despite garish wealth and ghastly reputations, Donald Trump’s cabinet of generals and plutocrats has not entirely failed to conform to those norms. In two rounds of questioning last week. James Mattis, up for Secretary of Defense, gave some faint hope that he will not live up to the reputation of his nickname, Mad Dog Mattis. In his three rounds of questioning, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson fared worse, evading questions and maybe even perjuring himself.

But even by the low standards of the Trump crowd, billionaire Betsy DeVos, the president-elect’s choice for Secretary of Education, came up short in her Capitol Hill appearance Tuesday evening. While Republican supporters (and the unctuous faux Democrat Joe Leiberman) lauded her as a bold reformer and defender of “school choice,” her Democratic interrogators scored with questions about her command of law and policy, both of which seemed weak, and her political donations, which are legion.

When Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked her about the debate among education policymakers about whether standardized testing should seek to measure student “profiiency” or “growth,” DeVos was clueless. Her answer indicated she had no understanding of the issue, much less a position.

When Senator Robert Casey (D-Penn.) asked if she would support the department’s 2011 guidance for colleges and universities about how to handle sexual assault cases, DeVos balked, saying that would be “premature.”

Asked by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) if guns have any place in American schools, DeVos replied that she had visited a rural school in Wyoming that had a fence to keep out grizzly bears and expressed hope that the school had a gun. In light of the 210 school shootings in America since 2013, DeVos’s answer was flippant at best. Senator Murphy, whose constituents lost their children at Sandy Hook, said tersely, “I look forward to you coming to Connecticut to talk about guns in schools.”

When Senator Elizabeth Warren asked DeVos if she or her children had ever attended a public school, taught in public school or applied for a student loan, DeVos’s answers were no, no and no. DeVos hastened to add she had once mentored students in a public school. That was literally the only public school experience the woman who wants to preside over governmental education policy could cite: a part-time volunteer position.

DeVos seemed to dissemble when Senator Hassan (D-New Hampshire) asked what she, as a board member of the Edgar and Elsie Prince Foundation, thought of the foundation’s $10 million in donations to Focus on the Family, the conservative evangelical group. DeVos said she was not a member of the board and that her mother made all the decisions. Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept tweeted out a copy of an IRS filing showing that DeVos served as vice president of the Foundation. In a followup question, DeVos said that the filing was a “clerical error.” Scahill pointed out the alleged clerical error had been repeated for several years.

For her supporters, DeVos’ unfamiliarity with public education constituted a qualification. Senator Orrin Hatch said he welcomed a Secretary of Education who was “not necessarily of stereotypical education but who might bring new things to the forefront.”

DeVos was most successful in repudiating right-wing positions that are now considered outside of the mainstream. She told Franken she had never believed in so-called conversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality. To Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) she affirmed equal rights for all students, albeit without actually using any words beginning in L, G, B or T.

The theater of a confirmation hearing inevitably limits its educational benefits, as the DeVos hearing demonstrated. Limited to five minutes of questioning, the senators did not have much time to explore what DeVos actually means by her mantra of “school choice.” Judging by the laudatory introduction by committee chair Lamar Aexander, DeVos is a champion of charter schools and accountability. But aside from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), DeVos faced little questioning about her vision for charter schools in federal education policy, and none about her successful efforts to prevent tighter regulation of Michigan charter schools.

And the partisan tension that suffused the hearing indicated a certain erosion of norms in the confirmation process.

Unlike other Trump nominees, DeVos did not submit an ethics agreement before the hearing, stating how she would avoid conflicts of interest. Russell Berman of the Atlantic says that DeVos is the first cabinet nominee in more than a decade to sit for a confirmation hearing without such an agreement in hand.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Alexander for another round of questions, as was done for Mattis and Tillerson. Alexander rebuffed her. The committee would treat DeVos the same way it treated President Obama’s education nominees, he said. Arne Duncan and John King had only faced one round of questioning, so DeVos would only face one round.

Eliizabeth Warren politely objected, noting in fact that she had asked for a second round of questions at the hearing for John King, and reminded Alexander that he had granted her request. Warren wondered why the fact that no Republicans wanted to ask additional questions of an Education Secretary should be cited as precedent preventing Democrats from asking additional questions.

“Will the record show that this is the first time that [a senator] has asked for another round of questions and was refused?” she asked Alexander.

“I have to bring this to a conclusion,” the chairman replied, adjourning the hearing without answering the question.

Courtesy was spurned and DeVos was spared. The committee is scheduled to vote on her nomination on January 24.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent.

IMAGE: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at a “Thank You USA” tour rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S. December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Intelligence Agencies Probe Possible Covert Kremlin Aid To Trump

IMAGE: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Trump Scorns Probe Into FBI Pre-Election Handling Of Clinton Emails

(Reuters) – Donald Trump responded with derision on Friday to news of an investigation into the FBI decision to make public an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails days before the Nov. 8 presidential election, a decision that Clinton said was a factor in her defeat.

The Justice Department said on Thursday it would investigate the FBI actions.

FBI Director James Comey said on Oct. 28 the agency was reviewing emails that might be relevant to a previous inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, then announced on Nov. 6 that the fresh review had yielded nothing to change the agency’s finding that she was not guilty of criminal wrongdoing.

“What are Hillary Clinton’s people complaining about with respect to the F.B.I. Based on the information they had, she should never have been allowed to run – guilty as hell,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday.

“They were VERY nice to her. She lost because she campaigned in the wrong states – no enthusiasm!” added the Republican president-elect, who is due to enter the White House in a week.

Democrats said Comey’s announcement of the new inquiry into the emails in October damaged her standing with voters right before the election, and he faced complaints that his moves were politically motivated. Announcing its inquiry on Thursday, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said it was looking into decisions leading up to Comey’s public statements and whether they may have been based on “improper considerations.”

Trump assailed Clinton over the email issue throughout the 2016 election campaign, and crowds at his rallies often chanted “lock her up!” In a debate in October, Trump vowed Clinton would “be in jail” over the matter if he became president, although in a New York Times interview soon after the election he indicated that he would not pursue prosecution.

After a year-long probe into whether Clinton mishandled classified information with her email practices, Comey said in July that while Clinton and her staff had been extremely careless, the agency recommended no charges be brought.

Brian Fallon, Clinton’s spokesman, told MSNBC on Thursday that Comey’s actions before the election “cried out for an independent review.” Referring to Trump’s reaction, Fallon said on CNN on Friday: “Those tweets are just the latest indication that Donald Trump is someone who is very insecure in his victory.”

Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate said Comey’s statements were not “fair, professional or consistent with the policies of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Comey said on Thursday the FBI would cooperate fully with the investigation.

Trump will not have the power to dismiss the investigation. Federal law permits U.S. presidents to dismiss inspectors general for federal agencies, as long as the president provides Congress a written justification for the removal 30 days in advance.

(Reporting by Washington Newsroom; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Howard Goller)

IMAGE: U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump  (R) speak at campaign rallies in Westbury, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016 and Toledo, Ohio, U.S. September 21, 2016 in a combination of file photos. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Jonathan Ernst/Files

Trump Coverage Should Reflect That He Is Historically Unpopular

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

There are lots of ways the political press continues to normalize President-elect Donald Trump’s often radical behavior. From regurgitating his vague tweets as news while he refuses to grant press conferences, to shying away from calling the serial prevaricator a liar, journalists continue to play nice.

Here’s another way Trump’s getting the benefit of the doubt: He’s a wildly unpopular political figure, yet the press continues to gloss over that fact while granting him soft coverage.

In terms of polling data, there’s virtually no good news for Trump. The results generally point in the same direction: He’s widely disliked and inspires little confidence in his presidential abilities.

This stands in stark contrast with characteristically stronger bipartisan approval for presidents-elect in recent decades. For instance, in 2008, “50 percent of John McCain’s voters approved of Barack Obama’s handling of his presidential transition,” noted an NBC News report. And as NPR reported, “Even after a prolonged recount and Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush received 29 percent approval from Democrats in 2001.” This is 14 percentage points higher than the same Pew statistic for Trump.

Trump’s contrast with Obama in late 2008 is stunning: Obama entered 2009 with a 68 percent favorable rating. Today, Trump’s favorable rating stands at an anemic 43 percent. And if history is any indication, that rating is almost certain to go down once the new president takes office.

A plurality of Americans think he will be a “poor” or “terrible” president. His cabinet picks enjoy historically little support, and 54 percent of adults say they’re either “uncertain (25 percent) or pessimistic and worried (29 percent) about how Trump will perform during his presidency.” Meanwhile, 68 percent would describe the president-elect as “hard to like,” and less than half of Americans are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis.

Those numbers are off-the-charts awful for an American president-elect. On average, 71 percent of Americans were confident that Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton could handle an international crisis, when polled after each was newly elected. Today, just 46 percent are confident about Trump’s ability to handle such a crisis.

Modern American history hasn’t seen anything like this. So what explains the press’s passive, often genuflecting coverage of Trump since November?

“Watching the formation of Donald Trump’s presidency, the press coverage is disappointingly weak and thin,” John Dean recently wrote in Newsweek. “The news coverage of the transition of the most unqualified man ever elected to the White House is as weak and wishy-washy as it was at the outset of his campaign.”

And as Media Matters stressed last month:

In the weeks since Election Day, political journalism has largely fallen short both in style and substance. Journalists watching from the sidelines have been reduced to parroting Trump’s publicly available tweets — allowing him to drive the news cycle — and have bungled one of the most important roles the press plays during a transition period: the vetting of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations and appointments.

If Trump had just posted a 49-state, Reagan-esque landslide victory, I could more readily understand why the press would be acquiescing so regularly. But Trump just made history by losing the popular tally by nearly three million votes and remains, without question, the least popular president-elect since modern-day polling was invented.

Yet members of the press seem unduly intimidated by his presence, and have even rewarded him with chatter of an invisible “mandate.” (He has none.) Noted John Nichols at The Nation, “It’s absurd to claim that [Trump’s] administration and this Congress enjoy enthusiastic popular support. They don’t.”

Yes, some news outlets have highlighted Trump’s miserable standing with the public, and what the political implication might be for him this year. “Trump will enter the White House as the least-popular incoming president in the modern era of public-opinion polling,” Politico announced in late December.

But those kinds of stories have made for spot coverage, passing reports here and there about Trump’s approval ratings. But why isn’t that the running narrative about Trump’s presidential transition? Where is the endless cable news hand-wringing about Trump standing poised to be a failed president even before he’s inaugurated? Or about the mountainous challenge he faces in trying to lead a country that largely does not support him or even find him likable?

Does anyone think that if Hillary Clinton had won in November while badly losing the popular vote to Trump, and then posted historically awful approval ratings during her transition, that story would not dominate Beltway coverage day after day, week after week?

And don’t forget the press’s entrenched fascination with Obama’s public approval during his presidency, particularly the desire to depict “collapsing” support when, in fact, Obama’s approval rating remained stubbornly stable for years.

There’s a glaring Trump transition story hiding in plain sight: He’s historically unpopular. The press ought to start telling that tale on a daily basis.

IMAGE: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech during a campaign event at the Trump Soho Hotel in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., June 22, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar