Trump’s Team Traveling on Taxpayers’ Dime!

Dear Commons Community,

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned yesterday following reports that he spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money on chartered and military flights for official travel across the United States.  However, Price’s departure won’t bring an end to questions about Trump administration officials’ spending of public funds on expensive travel.  As reported by various media:

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is being investigated by the Treasury Department’s inspector general for opting to use a government jet to commute from New York to D.C. after an August news conference in Trump Tower, ABC reported last week. The trip of less than an hour cost at least $25,000.

Investigators are also exploring why Mnuchin requested the use of an Air Force jet to travel on his honeymoon to Europe over the summer.

The Treasury Department launched its probe after Munchin’s wife, Louise Linton, posted a photo to Instagram of the couple disembarking from a military plane in Kentucky on the day of the solar eclipse. In the comments, Linton flaunted her lavish lifestyle and later berated a woman who criticized her for sharing the image along with tags on which designer items she was wearing.  A spokesman for the Treasury Department told ABC that the honeymoon request was eventually withdrawn and that the department welcomed the review.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also has faced scrutiny for using military and private planes while traveling on official business. The Washington Post reported this week that Zinke and his staff traveled on chartered private planes between the islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas during a three-day trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands in March.

Politico and the Post also reported that Zinke and his entourage paid more than $12,000 for an oil company’s plane to take them from Las Vegas to Montana in June.

The Interior Department said in a statement that Zinke’s travel “was completely compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” and claimed there were no commercial flights that fit the secretary’s schedule.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and members of his staff spent more than $14,000 on a chartered flight for stops in Oklahoma in July, CBS News revealed.

Since taking office in February, Pruitt racked up at least $58,000 in costs for four non-commercial flights, according to The Washington Post.

An EPA spokeswoman told the Post that Pruitt usually flies commercial and that the private flights stemmed from unusual circumstances.

And Veterans Affairs chief David Shulkin has also been accused of mixing personal trips and expenses with government travel. The VA secretary cruised the Thames, took in sight-seeing at Westminster Abbey, and watched a Wimbledon tennis match during a 10-day European trip with his wife, according to an itinerary obtained by The Washington Post.

The VA secretary’s 10-day trip—which also included the department’s undersecretary and her husband, Shulkin’s chief of staff, an aide, and six security people—was approximately half business, half pleasure, the itinerary reportedly details. The government paid for Shulkin’s wife airfare and provided a per diem for her meals because she was traveling on “approved invitational orders,” reports the Post.

It appears that Trump’s swamp is getting bigger and bigger.



Students Silently Protest Betsy DeVos at Harvard!

Dear Commons Community,

Students at Harvard University staged a protest yesterday against  US Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her address on school choice.  As reported by the Associated Press:

“Some held up fists. One held up a sign reading, “White supremacist.” Others called for protections for victims of campus sexual assault.

DeVos last week revoked Obama administration guidance that instructed colleges on how to handle sexual assault cases.

She did not interrupt her speech Thursday to address the protesters, but later took some pointed questions from the audience. The protest was mostly silent, though some students snapped their fingers or cheered in support of some questions.

Asked about protections for transgender students, DeVos said she is committed to making sure all students are safe. Earlier this year, she rescinded guidance that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity.

“With respect to any student that feels unsafe or discriminated against in their school, that is the last thing we want and the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education continues to hear and work with the schools that have any of those issues to deal with,” DeVos said. “And we are committed to doing that on behalf of the students.”

She said she wants new rules on campus sexual assault to be fair to both the victims and the accused. “One sexual assault is one too many,” DeVos said. “By the same token, one student that is denied due process is one to many. So we need to ensure that that policy and that framework is fair to all students.”

Another student said school choice is used by large corporation to make profits and asked DeVos how much she expects her net worth to increase as a result of her policies.

DeVos took the question in stride. “I have written lots of checks to support giving parents and kids options to choose a school of their choice,” DeVos said. “The balance on my income has gone very much the other way and will continue to do so.”

School choice refers to efforts that give students options other than their local public schools, such as charter or private schools. Charter schools are funded by public money but usually operated by entities that are independent of school districts.

During her speech DeVos talked about the importance of reforming the American education system.

“The future of school choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington,” DeVos said. Rather, she added, the role of the federal government is to help states provide more choices for parents as they decide where to send their children to school.

“We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kid,” she said in the speech at Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. “We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and urge those who haven’t.”

Secretary DeVos will never change her views on school choice.  She will also find willing partners, both Republicans and Democrats, in many states to move forward her agenda.


N.Y. Times Editorial:  Puerto Rico Deserves Better!

Dear Commons Community,

The people of Puerto Rico remain in dire straits as a result of the devastation from Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria.  Most residents don’t have electricity or access to clean running water.  Much needed food, medicine, and supplies are sitting on piers in San Juan because trucks do not have fuel, drivers are not available, or roads are impassable.  The New York Times editorial this morning calls out President Trump to step-up relief efforts.  Below is the full editorial.



Puerto Rico Deserves Better

by the Editorial Board

Sept. 28, 2017


“It has been a week since Puerto Rico emerged from a double battering by hurricanes, and it is caught in a painful, torpid recovery. Far more and far faster help is needed as the island struggles with vast devastation that only the federal government has the resources to repair.

In one sign that Washington is getting the message, President Trump finally agreed Thursday, after days of dithering, to temporarily waive restrictions on shipments by foreign vessels to the island’s ports. The administration also appointed a three-star general to focus on faster distribution of emergency supplies, addressing one of the main problems on the wreckage-clogged island. The Pentagon was rushing to send more military assets, including a hospital ship.

Mountains of vital cargo — roughly 10,000 containers of food, water and medicine — were already backed up at San Juan piers because of a shortage of delivery trucks, drivers and fuel to send the aid on to communities across the island. Roads remained blocked, and enough drivers could not be found as they saw to their own families and homes. Hospitals warned they were running low on diesel for emergency generators, with at least two deaths reported as a result.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló took care to praise Mr. Trump for his concern and optimistic promises, saying, “He has been on top of it.” But the governor wisely emphasized a larger message for congressional leaders and fellow Americans. If aid is not forthcoming on the levels of that for Texas and Florida, Mr. Rosselló warned of “a massive exodus” of Puerto Ricans to the mainland as fully entitled citizens, hurting the island’s chances for a full recovery and — probably to the consternation of Republicans — bringing “deep demographic turmoil” to states like Florida.

Members of Congress, anxious to visit and stress the need for emergency aid at the scene, complained that the administration had denied them use of military transports. But the White House said the top priority was the human emergency and Mr. Trump would therefore not visit Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands until Tuesday.

In Puerto Rico, the power grid is devastated, 80 percent of agricultural crops have reportedly been wiped out, 40 percent of the people need drinkable water and communications are inoperable for most of its 3.4 million American citizens. The 103,000 residents of the Virgin Islands are in comparable straits and highly dependent on the choked ports of Puerto Rico for relief. Tourist hotels were reduced to rubble. Officials expect two main hospitals to be torn down and replaced. The islands’ debt-burdened government has been facing the same threat of bankruptcy that had already strapped Puerto Rico with sweeping austerity measures.

In surveying the extraordinary recovery challenges, Mr. Rosselló made a point that Washington should heed. “We can’t be treated differently,” he said, referring to Texas and Florida. “You can’t build half a house.”


Amid College Basketball Scandals:  Coach Rick Pitino Out at Louisville!

Dear Commons Community,

Various media are reporting that the University of Louisville has fired long-time men’s varsity basketball coach, Rick Pitino.  This comes after investigations of improper recruitment practices at a number of colleges.  Here is the announcement as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The University of Louisville on Wednesday put its athletic director and its head men’s basketball coach on administrative leave after federal prosecutors charged 10 people on Tuesday following a sweeping investigation of corruption in college basketball, the Associated Press reports. The charges included bribery, fraud, and corruption.

At a news conference, Greg Postel, Louisville’s acting president, said that Tom Jurich, the athletic director, was on paid leave and Rick Pitino, the coach, was on unpaid leave. Steve Spence, Mr. Pitino’s lawyer, told The Courier-Journal that the university had “effectively fired” the coach.

In a written statement, Mr. Postel said the university had learned of the scandal only when the Justice Department announced the charges.

“Today the University of Louisville received notice that it is included in a federal investigation involving criminal activity related to men’s basketball recruiting,” Mr. Postel said. “While we are just learning about this information, this is a serious concern that goes to the heart of our athletic department and the university.”

According to the Justice Department’s legal complaints, three high-school basketball recruits and their families were bribed with payments of up to $150,000 using money from the sportswear company Adidas.”

This is not good for big-time college athletics!


Twitter to Test New 280 Character Limit for Tweets!

Dear Commons Community,

Twitter representatives announced yesterday that the microblogging site will be testing a 280-character limit for tweets, doubling its current 140-character standard.  As reported by The Huffington Post:

“The expanded space is currently available only to a small test group, but the blog post announcing that test hinted the feature will soon be site-wide.

“Although we feel confident about our data and the positive impact this change will have, we want to try it out with a small group of people before we make a decision to launch to everyone,” wrote Twitter product manager Aliza Rosen and senior software engineer Ikuhiro Ihara.

The company cited differences between languages as a reason for expanding the character limit. As an English speaker, Rosen noted that she often runs into the 140-character limit, forcing her to edit down her tweets.

“Sometimes, I have to remove a word that conveys an important meaning or emotion, or I don’t send my Tweet at all,” Rosen wrote.

Ihara doesn’t have the same issue when he tweets in Japanese.

“This is because in languages like Japanese, Korean, and Chinese you can convey about double the amount of information in one character as you can in many other languages, like English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French,” they wrote. 

Market data collected by Twitter show that “when people don’t have to cram their thoughts into 140 characters and actually have some to spare, we see more people Tweeting,” the blog post said.

Twitter users ― who use the platform to criticize, celebrate and inform ― erupted with opinions after the character limit expansion was announced. Many argued that the character limit made them better writers by forcing them to express their thoughts more concisely.”

Th Twttr wrld wll neer be th sme!


Roy Moore Wins Senate G.O.P. Runoff in Alabama: Good News and Bad News!

Dear Commons Community,

The main political story today is that Roy S. Moore defeated Senator Luther Strange yesterday in a special primary runoff election in Alabama for the U.S. Senate.   The good news is that President Trump and establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell, worked feverishly the last two weeks to support Strange.  The bad news is that Moore is a very right of center candidate who strongly opposes same-sex marriage and is prone to making inflammatory remarks about race.  As reported in the New York Times:

“Roy S. Moore, a firebrand former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, overcame efforts by top Republicans to rescue his rival, Senator Luther Strange, soundly defeating him on Tuesday in a special primary runoff.

The outcome in the closely watched Senate race dealt a humbling blow to President Trump and other party leaders days after the president pleaded with voters in the state to back Mr. Strange.

Propelled by the stalwart support of his fellow evangelical Christians, Mr. Moore survived an advertising onslaught of more than $10 million financed by allies of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. His victory demonstrated in stark terms the limits of Mr. Trump’s clout.

Taking the stage after a solo rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” an exultant Mr. Moore said he had “never prayed to win this campaign,” only putting his political fate “in the hands of the Almighty.”

“Together, we can make America great,” he said, borrowing Mr. Trump’s slogan and adding, “Don’t let anybody in the press think that because he supported my opponent that I do not support him.”

Mr. Trump had tweeted his support for Mr. Strange several times in recent days, but tweets appeared to be deleted on Tuesday night. Mr. Trump offered congratulations to Mr. Moore in a tweet. “Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Dec!” he wrote.

In a race that began as something of a political afterthought and ended up showcasing the right’s enduring divisions, the victory by Mr. Moore, one of the most tenacious figures in Alabama politics, will likely embolden other anti-establishment conservatives to challenge incumbent Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.

And more immediately, the party will be forced to wrestle with how to prop up an often-inflammatory candidate given to provocative remarks on same-sex marriage and race — all to protect a seat in a deep-red state. Mr. Moore’s incendiary rhetoric will also oblige others in the party to answer for his comments, perhaps for years to come, at a time when many Republicans would just as soon move on from the debate over gay rights.”

We shall see how Mr. Moore does in the Senate election against the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor, on December 12th.



Puerto Rico at Night:  The Electricity is Gone!

Dear Commons Community,

Puerto Rico is desperately trying to recover from Hurricane Maria but efforts are moving slowly.  Of grave concern is the lack of electricity or clean running water.  Here are several photos which capture the eeriness of being in Puerto Rico at night without any lights.

There are many relief efforts on the way throughout the country.  In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office is coordinating these efforts.  Here at the CUNY Graduate Center, Vice President Matt Schoengood has sent out an email indicating that collection tables for Puerto Rico Relief will be set up in the entrance area this week.  Please be generous.


Lindsay Graham:  John McCain Can Vote Anyway He Wants on Repealing the Affordable Care Act!

Dear Commons Community,

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has this to say about Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) decision whether to vote for or against repealing the Affordable Care Act.

“He can do whatever damn he wants to. He’s earned that right.”

Graham was responding to President Donald Trump’s latest attack on the Arizona senator for opposing Republicans’ most recent attempt at repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans do not appear to have enough votes to pass the latest bill, which Graham co-wrote, and McCain is one of the few Republicans opposing the new legislation. Trump attacked McCain on Twitter Monday, and Graham fought back tears defending his longtime friend.

“John if you’re listening … nobody respects you more than I do.” Graham said during a CNN debate Monday night. “So to any American who’s got a problem with John McCain’s vote, all I can tell you is that John McCain was willing to die for this country, and he can vote any way he wants to, and it doesn’t matter to me in terms of friendship.”

McCain was the deciding vote that derailed a previous Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare in July. The senator, who is currently battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, has had a poor relationship with Trump since the president’s candidacy, when he said McCain was “not a war hero.” 


Suzy Hansen:  “Notes on a Foreign Country…”

Dear Commons Community,

While traveling last week, I read Suzy Hansen’s book, Notes on a Foreign Country:  An American Abroad in a Post-American World.  You have to read this book carefully because the author covers a lot of ground and has important messages about how Americans see themselves and how the rest of the world, particularly people living  in the Middle East, sees Americans.  Although born and raised in New Jersey and worked for a while in New York City as a journalist, she leaves in 2007 to spend several years in Istanbul on a fellowship and decides to stay there.

While living in Turkey, she comes to realize that Americans have quite a different view of who they are versus the rest of the universe.  Americans see themselves as living in the greatest country in the world and have no problem pushing their way into other countries neglecting what they are doing to cultures and people’s lives.  Furthermore, she also does a fairly good analysis of American foreign policy over the past hundred years that essentially attempted to promote American values and thwart communist incursions and influence.  Here is an excerpt from a New York Times review:

“Hansen is not only unnerved by but also genuinely interested in the ways her country fails to “interrogate” itself. She asks why, given the extent to which America has shaped the modern Middle East — the lives it ended, the countries it fractured, the demons it created, its frantic and fanatical support of Israel — it “did not feel or care to explore what that influence meant.” She is unsettled by how absent or illusive or, worse, unnecessary this fact is to many Americans, including herself — for, before anything else, “Notes on a Foreign Country” is a sincere and intelligent act of self-questioning. It is a political and personal memoir that negotiates that vertiginous distance that exists between what America is and what it thinks of itself. That dramatic, dizzying and lonesome chasm is Hansen’s terrain.

One of the causes of this disparity, she proposes, is that “Americans are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire.” She is curious about the nature of the impediment, about how “ignorance is vulnerable to the atmosphere it is exposed to.” Without realizing it, she too had absorbed a fear of Islam and the idea that Muslims “were people that must be restrained.” She admits, “My problem was that not only had I not known much about the Middle East, but what I did know, and how I did think, had been an obstacle to original and accurate and moral thinking.”

The book is well-written and engaging but as I mentioned earlier has to be read carefully.  There are some small issues such as she relies moslty on novelists and fiction to support her positions.  She displays an immediate dislike for Turkey’s former president, Mustafa Attaturk, who secularized the country without sufficiently evaluating the turmoil that existed in his country and the pluses and minuses of his regime.   She also can treat enormously complex issues such as the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in one and half pages. There is a ton of analysis on this both pro and con that cannot be reduced to a quick commentary and conclusion.

In reading Hansen’s book, I recalled several times the 1958 best-selling novel, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, that traced American foreign policy blunders in Southeast Asia in the post-World War II era.  Hansen’s book dovetails with what Burdick and Lederer said about how America pushed its way into other countries much to the detriment of indigenous populations.  Hansen reduces a lot of the distrust if not the hatred in the Arab world to a combination of America’s economic hegemony, its unabashed promotion of Western culture, and its support and backing of Israel.

I have visited Istanbul and Cairo, two cities that figure prominently in Hansen’s book and I understand a bit of what she is saying.  I would give her “Notes…” a read!


Leaving Scotland!

Dear Commons Community,

Elaine and I travel home today.  It was a fine trip to Scotland.  People friendly, places interesting, and pubs delightful.

Bye for noo!