White House trade advisor Navarro says trouble ahead if lawmakers don’t act on COVID-19 stimulus


White House trade advisor Peter Navarro urges lawmakers to pass coronavirus relief legislation. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

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UPDATED 6:35 AM PT – Thursday, November 26, 2020

White House trade advisor Peter Navarro said lawmakers need to “act now” on coronavirus stimulus legislation. While speaking to reporters on Wednesday, he called on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to put aside their differences to pass a stimulus package.

“The administration has done a very good job up to this point,” he stated. “We are facing, however, a chasm ahead for millions of Americans unless there can be a bipartisan ‘come to agreement moment’ on these core elements.”

Navarro went on to stress the need to save small businesses, noting if those are lost then they are not coming back. With many states reporting an increase in cases, business owners have expressed their concerns that they will be unable to survive another round of lockdowns.

Restaurant owners reported spending thousands of dollars in modifications to adapt to local and state requirements to feed guests outside only to have many major cities like Los Angeles adopt new policies forcing them to close anyway.

Navarro said despite the stalemate, Congress needs to focus on three major components: the Paycheck Protection Program, relief checks and unemployment compensation.

The White House trade adviser said he anticipates a second term for President Trump and the administration will continue on the path for strong economic recovery.

RELATED: Outdoor dining ban moves forward in L.A. County despite decision being based on scarce data





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Phone and internet customers reveal debt trouble with telco companies during pandemic


Phone and internet customers say they are being disconnected, harassed by debt collectors and generally treated harshly by their telco providers when they need help, negatively impacting mental health.

The Consumer Action Law Centre has released a report detailing stories of people struggling to pay their phone and internet bills, with some fearing homelessness due to losing their job during the pandemic.

Despite a federal moratorium on evictions and banks allowing mortgage repayments to be deferred during the pandemic, debt collectors have continued to contact telco customers demanding repayments.

James* was one of those customers.

The 23-year-old lives in Melbourne and identifies as Aboriginal. He’s studying for a Cert III and receives JobSeeker and the Mobility Allowance for his disability.

He was contacted by debt collectors for multiple debts, including for a buy-now-pay-later purchase, a payday loan, a consumer lease and a Telstra debt of nearly $3,000 from three years ago when James entered into a 24-month contract for a Samsung Galaxy S8.

The salesperson conducted a credit check and knew James was on Centrelink. The monthly cost was $80, which James believed was affordable.

Two months later, he lost the phone and his insurance claim was declined.

James was told he had to pay out the contract so he complained to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, but it was denied due to the SIM card still being active in another phone and the account remaining active with a usable number.

The $3,000 Telstra debt is now on James’s credit file as a default and he says he’s being harassed by debt collectors.

“It’s kind of scary because it is affecting my credit history and it is putting me back. I have received my credit file and there actually is a default on my credit file that makes me annoyed because I did have insurance with the phone and it should have been covered,” he said.

James said the debt collectors ramped up their calls to him during the pandemic.

“They just want payment. They said I could go on a payment plan but I don’t feel comfortable for something I had insurance for.”

He said there were some Telstra customer service representatives who wanted to help him.

It’s not the first time Telstra has been accused of treating customers poorly.(Greg Wood: AFP)

On Thursday, Telstra admitted to unconscionable conduct during its sales of mobile phone plans to indigenous consumers.

After an 18-month investigation by the ACCC, Telstra admitted it breached Australian consumer law and could face a penalty of up to $50 million.

In a statement, Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn apologised for the failings and the impact they had on people.

“I have spoken often about doing business responsibly, including about these failings since earlier this year. I am determined we have a leadership position and hold ourselves accountable in this regard,” he said.

Despite Mr Penn saying the “unconscionable conduct” occurred between 2016 and 2018, some Telstra customers say they are still being failed by the telco.

Katy* is an Aboriginal grandmother living in Echuca in Victoria who says she was pressured by Telstra representatives into putting her daughter-in-law’s mobile and internet bundle in her own name.

Her daughter-in-law had no formal ID and a poor credit history but wanted to buy the bundle for her daughter — Katy’s granddaughter.

Her daughter-in-law has since been incarcerated and Katy is having to pay for the monthly bill, which she cannot afford on top of looking after her grandchildren.

Speaking with Telstra’s hardship team proved futile, she said, after she was told there were no suitable hardship options available to her.

Katy has since complained to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman and is talking with lawyers from the Consumer Action Law Centre.

Fearing homelessness because of unaffordable phone bill

A woman uses a tablet device at her kitchen table
The pandemic made internet and phone services essential for the majority of Australians, especially Victorians.(Pexels: RF_Studio)

Ulka* is a pregnant woman from Melbourne who says she’s been hung up on multiple times by a telco company.

She has been experiencing poor mental health and is living on youth allowance and the JobSeeker supplement.

Last year, she signed a 36-month contract with a major telco provider for a mobile phone plan costing about $115 per month.

When she signed up to the plan, Ulka was working full time.

When the pandemic hit and Ulka couldn’t make her monthly payments, her provider restricted her service and blocked her from making outbound calls.

When she told customer service representatives that she was out of work, pregnant, and needed to be able to call her doctor, she was told she would need to pay almost $1,000 in debt in full to remove the restrictions on her phone.

A line stretches back as far as the eye can see outside Centrelink.
Ulka had to claim the JobSeeker supplement to stay afloat during the pandemic.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

Ulka asked if she could go on a fortnightly payment plan, but that was rejected.

She told her story to different customer service representatives but she says they all hung up on her.

Eventually, Ulka tried cancelling the service completely but was told if she did, she would have to pay out the phone and her debt in full.

The provider referred her to the National Debt Helpline but said her service would soon be cancelled.

Unable to pay the debt on top of her rent, Ulka feared she would end up homeless.

The National Debt Helpline referred her to a lawyer from the Consumer Action Law Centre who spoke to her provider and mentioned that she would be getting legal advice.

‘People left with unaffordable debt’

Consumer Action Law Centre chief executive Gerard Brody said the pandemic showed how reliant people are on telecommunication services.

“The COVID-19 crisis has confirmed, without a doubt, that telecommunications services are essential. Yet the telco industry continues to fail community expectations of essential services providers and is still not regulated as an essential service,” he said.

Mr Body said without directly enforceable rules by the independent regulator, people were “being left with unaffordable debt, poor or no financial hardship responses, the stress of unprofessional dispute resolution and disconnections”.

“It is clear that this lack of connectedness just won’t do — it denies people access to family, medical care, education, work and government services.”

*Names have been changed.



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A successful vaccine spells trouble for some investors


Then came last week’s Pfizer announcement of the success, in a trial, of its vaccine. Ten-year bond yields spiked to almost one per cent before slipping back to about 90 basis points at the end of the week.

That late slide in yields came as it dawned on bond (and equity) investors that even if the vaccine were cleared for distribution it would take many months and the creation of a very complex new distribution system before there could be sufficiently wide distribution for the vaccine to have a material impact on the course of the pandemic.

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With the pandemic now raging across the US and Europe again there is a lot at stake for investors in the effectiveness of a vaccine and how quickly mass distribution can occur.

The outlook for the US and the global economy hinges on it – even more so in the US now that it is likely (albeit not certain) that the Republicans will retain control of the Senate and are unlikely to allow the Democrats to execute their big-spending plans.

So too does the value of many trillions of dollars of government and corporate bonds.

Where equity investors have remained bullish, after plunging in response to the initial shock of the pandemic in March, bond investors have been pricing in years of very low growth, low inflation and ultra-low interest rates that would be capped by a continuation of the aggressive central bank interventions sparked by the pandemic.

What’s good news for economies and shares spells losses for bond holders.

The Fed, for instance, has made it clear it sees no material movement in US interest rates until 2023. The Reserve Bank has cut the cash rate to 0.10 per cent and its increased asset purchasing program envisages it remaining at ultra-low levels for at least three years.

Thus low rates, and the expectation that they will remain at negligible levels for the foreseeable future, are baked into bond markets.

Just over a week ago the stock of bonds globally with negative yields, as measured by a Bloomberg Barclays index, hit a record $US17.05 trillion ($23.5 trillion).

Those bonds, which have been mainly issued in Europe and Japan (Germany’s 10-year bunds have been trading at a yield of minus 0.55 per cent), reflect a flight to safety, with investors effectively paying issuers a fee to keep their cash safe.

It is also possible to generate capital gains from negatively-yielding bonds if rates continue to fall deeper into negative territory so the willingness of investors to buy bonds that will, at face value, return them less than they invested isn’t only about paying for security.

For existing bond investors, the prospect of a faster than anticipated pick-up in economic growth if the vaccine is successful and widely distributed and accepted is not the good news that it is for equity investors, or for yield-hungry bank depositors.

There is an inverse relationship between bond prices and bond yields. If interest rates rise the value of existing bonds, with lower yields, falls and vice versa. What’s good news for economies and shares spells losses for bond holders.

Conversely, as has been the case for most of this year, falling rates produce capital gains for existing bond investors.

Equity markets have shot higher on optimism a vaccine is on its way.Credit:AP

If vaccines results in a strong rebound in economic growth, rates will rise and the Fed and its peers might be able to begin tapering their monetary policy interventions earlier than they envisage or is now factored into markets.

That is, of course, a big “if” and one where the qualifications have massive consequences for markets.

If the pandemic continues to worsen in developed economies and the development or distribution of the vaccines proves to have more issues than the markets are currently factoring into their pricing then the prospect of big capital losses for holders of bonds with negative or ultra-low yields will recede.

If all goes well, particularly in the US – if the pandemic is contained earlier and the Democrats are able to get more of their spending programs through Congress than currently appears likely – rates will rise and the losses to existing bond investors will be substantial.

It isn’t just bond investors that have a lot at stake.

Ultra-low rates lower companies’ costs of borrowing and provide lifelines for companies with otherwise unsustainable balance sheets. Even companies ravaged by the virus – cruise companies and airlines, for instance – have seen both their share prices and the value of their bonds rise since the Pfizer announcement.

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There’s been a scramble to increase risk exposure that will end badly unless all the dominoes required to bounce back quickly from the pandemic fall neatly but there’s also the potential that an abrupt rise in interest rates could raise the cost of servicing debt for companies teetering on the brink – the so-called “zombie” companies that are only staying afloat because borrowing costs are so low.

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US election 2020: How much trouble can Trump cause before Biden takes charge? | US News



As ever, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed told a tale: “WE WILL WIN!” he tweeted, four days after HE HAD LOST.

If that wasn’t a stark reflection of the distance still to travel, his secretary of state told a news conference around the same time: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Inside the White House, something surely has to give. Publicly, there is no guarantee but privately, there is some guidance that it’s a matter of time.

“What is the downside for humouring him for this little bit of time?” a Republican Party official told The Washington Post.

“Those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

So far, so reassuring. But the question is what trouble can President Trump cause between now and a Joe Biden inauguration on 20 January?

There might never be a concession from the current president but, in practical terms, that’s not a necessity.

What does matter is the transition process – how soon and how smoothly it takes place.

However, it hasn’t even started.

Something called the General Services Administration (GSA) is in charge of the handover of cash and keys to federal buildings and agencies.

The GSA enables a transition of government and the process begins only when its administrator decides an election is won. However, the current administrator Emily Murphy, who is a Trump appointee, is signing nothing.

The stalling has also deprived Joe Biden of access to intelligence briefings – something his Democrat colleagues say is compromising national security. They have floated the prospect of unspecified legal action if access isn’t improved to the machinery of government.

Decision time for Mr Trump might come when his legal action is exhausted. Republican challenges have had no success so far and election officials stress that any change they make in the numbers would not change the election result.

Practical obstructions are matched politically.

While a handful of Republican voices have called for the president to fall on his sword, the more influential voices have not.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Donald Trump is “100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities”.

The difficulty he and other Republicans face is the huge support that Mr Trump has brought to the party.

His influence matters moving forward, particularly with regard to two hugely important senate “run-off” contests in Georgia.

If Democrats defeat Republicans in both January contests, they will take control of the Senate (with the addition of a vice-president’s casting vote) and it would have a huge bearing on Mr Biden’s presidency and its power to pass legislation.

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Republicans see the need to keep Mr Trump and his followers inside the tent through the Georgia campaign and beyond.

While there may be many who have tired of Mr Trump, they see the hold he has on the party’s voter base and will calculate the extent to which their best interests are protected by indulging his.

The question is how long that can last.

The president has been untypically camera shy, going several days without scheduling any event with media access.

There are, however, glimpses of a lame duck unleashed. With two days of his defeat, President Trump fired his defence secretary Mark Esper, by Twitter, and there is growing speculation the heads of the FBI and CIA will be next.



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Storing up trouble – The Epic-Apple courtroom battle commences | Business


FITTINGLY, THE legal deathmatch is happening online. On September 28th a court in California heard arguments, via video call, in a case that pits Apple against Epic Games, the maker of “Fortnite”, a hit video game. At issue is whether the tight control Apple exerts over the software that can run on its smartphones amounts to a monopolistic abuse of power. The verdict, when it comes, may determine what other digital marketplaces can and cannot do.

Apple’s software practices have seen challenges before (see table). But Epic’s is the most brazen. In August Epic offered “Fortnite” players 20% off in-game purchases on iPhones if they paid Epic directly, not via Apple’s App Store, which takes a 30% cut on most transactions made in apps. This violated App Store terms; “Fortnite” was booted from the platform. Expecting this, Epic responded with the lawsuit (and a cheeky PR campaign).

The hearing concerned the narrow question of whether Epic could force Apple to return “Fortnite” to the App Store while the case proceeds. But it offered a preview of both sides’ arguments. Epic contends that Apple’s “walled garden”—in which iPhone software can be downloaded only via the App Store—stifles competition. In 2018 Epic launched a PC games store, charging a 12% commission. Steam, the dominant store, then dropped its cut from 30% to 20% for top-selling games. Tim Sweeney, Epic’s feisty boss, argues that Apple prevents something similar on iPhones.

Apple retorts that those who dislike its rules have plenty of alternatives. “Fortnite” is available on desktop PCs, games consoles and smartphones that run on Android, a rival operating system made by Google. In a statement, Apple accused Epic of forcing its hand and “putting customers in the middle of their fight”. It has countersued Epic for breaching its App Store contract.

Mark Patterson of Fordham University sees parallels with Microsoft’s run-in with trustbusters in 2001. The software giant’s bundling of a web browser with its Windows operating system was eventually found to be anticompetitive. Apple exerts more power over iPhones than Microsoft did over Windows PCs, Mr Patterson says. But its market share in smartphones is smaller than Microsoft’s was in desktops.

The Epic case may hinge on how the court defines the relevant market. In Apple’s eyes the App Store is part of a broader universe of digital platforms in which it can reasonably claim not to be a monopolist. Epic takes a narrower view, arguing that iPhones are a market unto themselves.

Most lawyers think Apple had the better of the initial exchanges. The judge seemed unconvinced by Apple’s attempts to stop Epic from updating the iPhone version of the software behind “Fortnite”, which is licensed to other gamesmakers. But she reserved her strongest words for Epic, which she admonished for inviting trouble.

The case looks likely to go to a jury trial next year. With no clear precedent, big ramifications for the tech industry and the odds that the losing party will appeal, the dispute may end up in the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Apple is facing other pressures. Epic is being cheered on by fellow members of the “Coalition for App Fairness”, like Spotify, a music-streamer, and Match Group, owner of Tinder and other dating apps. In June, at Spotify’s urging, the EU opened an antitrust probe into the App Store, and David Cicilline, who chairs a committee in America’s Congress that examines antitrust issues, described Apple’s fees as “highway robbery” and lamented the lack of “real competition” on iPhones.

While it battles Epic in the courts, Apple may tweak its rules to placate some developers. It has done so on occasion in the past, for instance exempting Amazon from the 30% commission on in-app purchases for the e-commerce giant’s Prime Video streaming app. On September 25th, following criticism from Facebook, Apple announced a temporary waiver on the 30% fee on in-app purchases for companies that had been forced by the covid-19 pandemic to switch to online-only events.

Such concessions may be as far as Apple will go, at least willingly. When Steve Jobs launched the App Store in 2008, he didn’t think it would ever make much money. He was wrong. Although the company does not break out the platform’s financial results, it probably makes up the bulk of its services business, which accounts for nearly 20% of revenues—and rising (see chart), as iPhone sales slow. Seeing what a promising profit engine it has turned into, Apple’s late boss would doubtless have fought tooth and nail to hang on to it.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Storing up trouble”

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Lambley trouble started six months ago, says Alliance (updated)


Mrs Lambley, the only candidate to win a seat for the party, announced yesterday she was sitting as an Independent again. At the election she defeated Alice Springs Mayor Damien Ryan.

The letter sent to Ms Lambley, released by the party to the Alice Springs News, says the reason for the expulsion “is that your behaviour during the campaign and since the election is inconsistent with the culture and constitution of Territory Alliance.

“[It] is primarily focussed on making a positive change to governance in the Northern Territory.

“Good governance starts at home which includes upholding the standards and rules of our own constitution. As you have actively disregarded the Territory Alliance constitution your conduct is considered to be detrimental to the interests of Territory Alliance.

“The culture of Territory Alliance is all about honesty, accountability, transparency, mutual respect and being a genuine team player. That is why we do not engage in negative campaigning.

“Our goal is to influence the political paradigm from the current one in which politicians are not believed or trusted to one where politicians are valued as community leaders.

“Your behaviour over the last six months demonstrates that you are not an appropriate fit for Territory Alliance.

“From the beginning you said you joined Territory Alliance because of Terry Mills [the party leader who lost his seat], rather than the values of the party.

“Sadly, your behaviour has repeatedly demonstrated that original approach and until now you have not demonstrated any effort to align with the culture and constitution of Territory Alliance.

“A decision on this matter will be made at a meeting to be held this Sunday at 8pm.

“At the meeting you will be afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard or to make representations in writing. You may not be represented by another person.”

The email is signed Danial Kelly, Secretary, Territory Alliance and carries yesterday’s date.

Mrs Lambley said in a media release yesterday: “Against my better judgement I undertook to remain in the party for a few months to allow the dust to settle to see what happens.

“However it now seems like a good time to resign.

“I am relieved and very happy to sit in the NT Legislative Assembly as an Independent again, and to put the whole Territory Alliance debacle behind me.

“The only thing that is important to me is serving the people of Alice Springs.”

PHOTO: Campaign picture with leader Terry Mills and candidate Dale McIver (at right) which conceals early ructions in the party now coming to light.

UPDATE 11.20am

Mrs Lambley hit back at her erstwhile party colleagues saying “no one from Territory Alliance has ever raised any of these ridiculous issues with me.

“Pointing fingers, blaming individuals and going public on such nonsense is not going to achieve much. Territory Alliance was an experiment that failed.

“There were a lot of good, hard working people involved in Territory Alliance whom I have enormous respect for. Most of these people have also walked away,” Mrs Lambley says in a statement to the Alice Springs News.

“I am greatly relieved that this chapter has now ended for me, and I can entirely focus on Alice Springs and the critical problems facing our community, as the Independent Member for Araluen.”



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Sandra Wollner’s controversial The Trouble With Being Born gets second life at Adelaide Film Festival and Fantastic Film Festival


“I believe one of the fundamental roles of a Film Festival is to provide a platform for critical debate about issues confronting our society,” he said.

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The film has attracted attention in Australia and overseas, he said, “because of its portrayal of what is described as ‘techno’ paedophilia”, but it is about much more than that, specifically our reliance on technology to combat the “structural loneliness” of modern existence.

The film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where it won a prize in the Encounters section dedicated to more adventurous works. But it was also condemned in some press reports as an “android paedophile film” because of the implied sexual relationship between Ellie — who is played by a real-life child actor heavily disguised through the use of silicon face masks, wigs, and the stage name Lena Watson — and her human “father” (Dominik Warta).

MIFF had scheduled the film for its online-only festival in August, but dropped it from the program on July 30 when this masthead sought the festival’s response to the views of two forensic psychologists who condemned the film, although neither had watched it in full. One of them claimed it would “without question” be used “as a source of arousal for men interested in child abuse material”, and the other saying it likely constituted child exploitation material.

Hudson Sowada, artistic director of the Fantastic Film Festival, had tried to secure the film before MIFF programmed it, and picked it up for his festival’s October 23 screening last month.

“To be clear, this is not some kind of declaration that MIFF wasn’t brave enough to screen this,” he said. “The online film festival is a new model and I can see how the MIFF team didn’t anticipate some of the new quirks.

“I don’t blame them at all for not taking that risk this year. I think if the event was physical there might have been a different decision.”

That’s a view shared by Kesting. “Seeing the film in the cinema is the appropriate forum for it,” he said.

Had Adelaide been similarly forced into a digital-only event this year, “I think that’s a different proposition”, he added, and one in which the film would “probably not” have been screened.

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Courting trouble – The knife fight over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement | United States


THE PARTIES to a civil war almost never agree on why it began—and the parties to America’s decades-old fight for control of the Supreme Court are no different.

For Republicans, the cause of the conflict is a Democratic Party that has tried to block conservative justices, starting with Robert Bork’s failed nomination in 1987, by underhand means. In attacking Bork’s opposition to civil-rights legislation, Ted Kennedy abandoned a bipartisan tradition of assessing judicial nominees on their qualifications, not their values; in airing allegations of sexual abuse against Clarence Thomas in 1991, Democrats allegedly took that a step further; ditto in the sorry case of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

Democrats consider this self-serving nonsense. They note that they supported Ronald Reagan’s alternative to Bork, Anthony Kennedy; and that their efforts to block Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh were unsuccessful. The median justice on the court has grown more conservative in recent decades—suggesting that if the Democrats are trying to sabotage its conservative drift, they are failing. They believe Republicans’ grievances are fuelled by undimmed rage at the court’s consequential liberal lean in the 1960s, and a related ambition to turn back the clock.

These positions have long been entrenched. Yet the conflict has been managed through a combination of improved geriatric medicine and partisan micromanagement of Supreme Court retirements. With only one justice dying in office between 1955 and 2016 (the conservative William Rehnquist, in 2005), the parties have generally replaced outgoing judges with like-minded successors. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18th, following that of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, has abruptly ended this phoney war.

Given his party’s fixation with the court, Mitch McConnell’s decision to push through a conservative replacement for the liberal heroine was never in doubt. Even so, the contempt for Senate norms it has necessitated on his and his Republican colleagues’ part is one for the history books. In 2016 Mr McConnell refused to hold hearings for Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland, on a made-up pretext that new justices were not confirmed in an election year. This was so demonstrably untrue that even some Republicans seemed discomforted by it.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a sometime bipartisan moderate, felt compelled to insist that Republicans would honour the same precedent in the unlikely event that a justice died in the last year of Mr Trump’s term. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said the same. Mr McConnell’s latest breach of fair play has therefore occasioned a rippling cascade of bad faith. For his part, Mr McConnell claims to have identified a bogus exception to his bogus precedent. When the Senate and presidency are held by the same party, he says his 2016 rule does not apply. (The most recent election-year confirmation, of a conservative judge by a Democratic Senate, points to the nonsense of that.)

Mr Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile claims the Democrats invalidated his pledge by being beastly to Justice Kavanaugh. Mr McConnell needs the votes of 50 of the 53 Republican senators to confirm Mr Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ginsburg, and at the time of writing only Susan Collins of Maine seemed certain to deny him hers. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska vowed to do likewise, then appeared to back down. A gathering of Republican senators over lunch this week appeared to leave only the fine-print of Mr McConnell’s strategy to be worked out.

Most Republican senators are keen to push ahead with the confirmation before the November election—including, as a sign of how reliant the Republican Party has become on base-rallying, those such as Thom Tillis of North Carolina facing stiff re-election fights. A handful of others believe there may be electoral advantage in waiting until after the poll. Yet even if the Republicans lose control of the Senate and White House in that scenario, they still plan to confirm Mr Trump’s third Supreme Court justice. So the court will almost certainly soon have a 6:3 conservative majority. And given that Justice Ginsburg was one of its most liberal members and her expected successor, Amy Coney Barrett, would be one of its most conservative, it will probably be jolted to the right.

Democrats appear stunned. A few days ago they were looking forward to a possible sweep of the White House and Congress, and thereby an opportunity to reverse the damage done by Mr Trump to Mr Obama’s legacy and to the country’s governing institutions. Now they are contemplating the possibility of Obamacare being eviscerated by hostile conservative judges (Ms Barrett is not a fan of Mr Obama’s health-care reform) when it appears before the Supreme Court after the election.

Any future Democratic rule or law could also fall victim to such a court. And even if the justices refrain from activism, the court is in danger of losing the vestige of bipartisan public trust it has hitherto retained. The Senate, which has already lost its vestige, is meanwhile likely to be rendered even more dysfunctional by the bad blood Mr McConnell is generating. “The potential damage to the Senate, the damage to how the parties see each other, to the institution of the court is real,” said Senator Chris Coons, an influential Democrat on Mr Graham’s committee.

While moderate Democrats such as Mr Coons still dread that possible scenario, their Republican counterparts seem to have concluded that the time for norm-respecting niceties has passed. Mr McConnell’s strategy permits no other conclusion. So does the fact that his supporters invariably present his abandonment of Senate tradition as a defence against the even worse abuses they claim the Democrats are plotting. No matter what Mr McConnell does, they suggest the Democrats are about to pack the Supreme Court with liberal judges; if that is right, his theft of the odd Supreme Court seat might seem defensive and proportionate. Like William Howard Taft, another divisive Republican, Republican senators have convinced themselves that the malice of their opponents leaves them no alternative but to “do anything I find myself able to do”.

In reality the alleged Democratic perfidy is not obvious. Left-wing activists and their few elected champions—including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—do advocate the structural changes Republicans fear, such as expanding the Senate and Supreme Court bench in a bid to stop conservatives accruing immense power with a minority of votes. But they are relative fringe players in the party. Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential nominee. And he and most of his rivals in the primaries (including Senator Bernie Sanders) ruled out court-packing.

Even after Mr McConnell’s latest judicial heist—and despite media speculation to the contrary—it is hard to imagine 51 Democratic senators backing such a proposal anytime soon. There is especially little appetite for it among the moderate Democrats whose influence increases as the party’s congressional numbers rise. But in the longer term, if Republicans continue down this path, Democratic forbearance will end. Emboldened by their belief that the culture and a majority of Americans are with them, Democrats will also discover their breaking-point. And the Republicans may rue what comes next.

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Read the best of our 2020 campaign coverage and explore our election forecasts, then sign up for Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter and podcast on American politics.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Courting trouble”

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