It Will Be Amazing. Believe Me.

Amazing:  causing astonishment, great wonder, or surprise

— Merriam Webster Dictionary

We have now experienced the first week of the administration of President Donald J. Trump.  And it was quite a week.  I am not sure that the country can survive many more of these types of weeks. Among other highlights we have the following:

  • A public battle over the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day (somehow with Mr. Trump it always involves size), including a personal call from the president to the head of the National Park Service to have him produce pictures to prove he had the biggest crowd ever.  “Period.”  There are no such pictures.
  • In his first full day in office, he went to the CIA, stood in front of the Wall of Heroes, and proceeded to mislead about crowd sizes, the role of the media, and deny that he said the intelligence community was like “Nazi Germany.”  I watched it live and not once did he mention the ultimate sacrifice of those listed on the wall, some of whom still cannot be named because of the sensitivity of their actions. They died for their country yet somehow it was all about him. I have been to the Wall.  It is humbling. It was appalling to see our president be so unaware, or uncaring, of his surroundings and their meaning.
  • A senior adviser to the president introduced the administration’s use of “alternative facts.”
  • A claim by the president that 3 to 5 million “illegals” voted in the presidential election and that every single one of them voted for Secretary Hillary Clinton.  No proof was provided.
  • A self-created diplomatic crisis with our neighbors in Mexico when they said that they would not pay for a wall along the border.
  • A declaration that torture works and should be used in interrogations because terrorists do a lot worse than that.  Torture is illegal under U.S. law including the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and under international law.
  • A draft Executive Order to bring back the “black sites” overseas where the CIA and other agencies can take terrorists secretly and interrogate them outside of international and U.S. law. The new Director of the CIA and the new Secretary of Defense say they were not consulted on the order.
  • A presidential pronouncement that lifting sanctions on Russia might be a good thing.  This while we still await the results of inquiries into their interference with our election and while they still illegally occupy Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.
  • An Executive Order halting immigration from seven Muslim countries including Iraq.  We currently have troops on the ground along side Iraqi military units fighting ISIS.  We will arm them and train them and send them into battle, but we will not let them into the country.  The ban includes those in danger because they worked with and helped U.S. forces as interpreters, informants, and fighters.
  • A presidential statement that his immigration ban is not anti-Islam, even though the only countries banned are Islamic and the president said that Christians from those countries would be admitted.  A gentle reminder may be in order that our Constitution prohibits discrimination due to one’s religion.
  • A host of other Executive Orders and Presidential Memoranda that create questions about the future of programs and freeze numerous regulations from the Affordable Care Act to inspections of commercial airliners.

There are more, but you get the idea.  Taken as a whole it is amazing.  Depending on your view of President Trump, it is amazing good or it is amazing bad.  But most of us can agree that as a whole his actions to date meet Webster Merriam Dictionary definitions and are certainly creating “astonishment” and “surprise”.  We may also “wonder” what is going on?

There are several ways to look at his words and actions thus far.  Some may think that President Trump is the ultimate egotist, thin-skinned and overly concerned about being the best ever — it is all about him and very little about the country’s well-being.  Some may say that he and his administration are rookies and that many of the rough patches will smooth out as they get accustomed to governing rather than campaigning — which is not unusual with changes in administrations.  Some may say that no one has ever told him “no” and that he is used to running a one man show and that eventually he will figure out that even though he ran as an autocrat, that is not how our government works.  Some may think that he is, simply put, a nut case.  Some may think that he is doing exactly what they voted for him to do and by golly he is out there doing it.

Of course, some or all of those opinions may be true in part or in whole.  The real question is whether the nation as we know it will withstand his impetuous actions and words.  And no, that is not a “sky is falling” we are all doomed statement.  It is too early to see how all of this will settle out.  More on that in a minute, but first let me digress for a few sentences.

Famously in the aftermath of the election, it was said that members of the press did not take him seriously, but they took his statements literally, while his supporters took him seriously but did not take his words literally.  An interesting way of looking at things. Maybe we should take him both literally and seriously as his actions thus far seem to indicate that he looks at himself that way. Regardless, here is the problem.

As president, words matter.  What the president says is often taken literally, or taken as a signal of intentions, in foreign capitals and can impact international relations, trade, economic matters and other elements of our national interest.  When he says he is building the wall and Mexico will pay for it with a 20% tax, the leadership in Mexico has to take him seriously.  When he says that 3 to 5 million illegals voted in the election and therefore it was rigged (yet he won!) it plays right into the hands of those in Moscow and other places that Americans are no better off than they are and that democracy is a sham. People around the world listen.  I have no idea if he believes what he says or not, but he must understand that as President and Commander-in-Chief he can no longer say the first thing that pops into his head.

There is an old military saying that he should become familiar with — “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Our opponents always have a vote in what happens because they have their own self interests and national goals to defend.  You can slap a 20% tariff on another country out of pique, but you have no say in what they do in return.  And you can be sure that they will react, often in ways that are unpredictable and harmful to our own interests.

Here is my opinion of Mr. Trump’s actions so far.  They are based on two factors.  He has never functioned as a part of government or of the military.  In his life all he has ever had to do was say he wanted something done, and it pretty much got done.  The government does not work like that. For better or for worse, there are a lot of moving parts.  The president alone cannot change laws or hand down court rulings.

The second factor is that much of Mr. Trump’s success, however big or small or entangled with overseas governments and entities (we still wait for him to reveal their extent), his biggest successes are in marketing and self-promoting — branding as it is now called.  His brand is brash and huge and a take no prisoners approach.  I am surmising that in his mind, he needs to keep the brand alive with his supporters and therefore he is continuing to be outrageous, bullying and a man of action. All of that feeds back into his own perception of himself as the best at whatever he does and the cycle continues. When it stops is anyone’s guess.

I am very concerned about the damage to our world position of leadership that will occur if he continues on his “America First” doctrine.  It may be a good marketing slogan, but isolationism is not in our own best interest and does not help us with our interests overseas.  Our history is replete with such attempts in our past and the result inevitably is war or a depression or both.  Neither of those outcomes are in our national interests.

I am less concerned about his actions thus far on the domestic front.  When looked at carefully, most of his Executive Orders are more like outlines of where he would like to go.  He is fairly restricted in what he can and cannot do without the House and Senate in agreement.  Thus far the Republican controlled Congress has begun to realize that governing, rather than just opposing the other party’s initiatives, is hard to do.  The first real test of President Trump will be when enough Republicans say “no” to one of his proposals. Hopefully when Congress collectively says no, it will be a political lesson to Mr. Trump and not result in a Constitutional crisis.

My biggest and most fundamental concern are his and his administration’s attacks on the First Amendment.  Most modern presidents have had a dim view of the media coverage they receive and some have had an adversarial relationship with the press.  That’s fine and to some extent it is good for our Republic’s health.  However it does no one any good for President Trump to continually and perpetually call the press dishonest, the worst people on earth, liars or any of the other epitaphs that he throws their way. His senior adviser told the press to “shut up.”  He went on to call the press the “opposition party” — not the Democrats.  The attacks come because the press reports what Mr. Trump and his advisers actually do and say.  As they used to say, “let’s go to the video tape!”  It’s there.  It’s a matter of public record and yet Mr. Trump continues to deny that a given action or statement took place.  This is dangerous.

I fear that over time the outrageous comments and attacks on the press will become old news. People will stop paying attention.  Or worse — justify the outrageous and potentially unconstitutional behavior because we got some jobs back, or some other narrow, short-range goal at the expense of what we hold dear. Most autocrats gain power that way.

None of us has any idea how the next four years will unfold.  Based on the last week, we know that it will indeed be amazing.  I trust that the Congress and the American people will begin insisting that we get more from our president than a sweeping “believe me” when it comes to critical issues.

 

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But Do They Have A Football Team?

Much has been written and discussed lately concerning the Electoral College.  Some argue that it is an anachronism that outlived its usefulness.  Others argue that it is integral to the foundation of our republic and must stay in place.  There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue and it seems that most people’s opinions are colored by whether they see our country as one nation, indivisible — as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance — or whether they see it as a collection of united states.

Although the discussions surrounding the Electoral College pop up every four years in conjunction with presidential elections , they are more noticeable this time around given that we have two presidents out of the last three (George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump) that lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.  There are only three other times in our entire history where this happened.  John Quincy Adams became president in 1824 through a vote in the House of Representatives.  Although Andrew Jackson won more Electoral College votes, he did not win enough to get a majority as required under the Twelfth Amendment (more on that later) and the House elected Mr. Adams.  In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became our president despite having lost the popular vote and the Electoral College vote — until 20 disputed electoral votes were changed under a compromise between Republicans and Democrats and awarded to Mr. Hayes.  This despite the fact the his opponent Samuel J. Tilden not only had more popular votes, but had a majority of the vote (just over 50%).  And we think our current election was contentious.  The only other time that the Electoral College victory came despite losing the popular vote was in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by campaigning to keep trade tariffs high to protect American jobs.  Some things don’t change.

For the next 124 years there were no instances of a candidate losing the popular vote but still winning the Electoral College vote.  And now in the first sixteen years of the 21st century it happened twice. Thus the argument over whether it is still a valid way to elect our presidents.

To fully understand the issue, a quick history of the reasons for the Electoral College are in order. Briefly stated, it was established because our esteemed Founding Fathers did not want the citizens of the new United States to elect the president.  Remember that their ideal for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was really meant for white wealthy males.  The pursuit of happiness meant property, and wealth meant education.  The masses were considered unfit and untrustworthy to elect the “real” leaders of the nation. Thus the president was elected by the Electoral College and United States Senators were elected by the legislatures of each state.  The House of Representatives was the “people’s house” — the safety valve for allowing the average citizen to participate.  Note that Senators are elected for six years (designed to provide stability and experience) and the House is elected every two years, making it easily changeable.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution created the Electoral College as the means to elect the President and the Vice President.  In practice it did not work out so well and the procedure was modified through the Twelfth Amendment when it was ratified in 1804.  All subsequent elections have been carried out under that amendment.  Clearly a precedent was set that if our method of electing the president is not efficient or effective, then it can be changed.

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution was replaced by the Seventeenth Amendment when it was ratified in 1913 and provided for the direct election of Senators, vice having them elected by state legislatures. This is another precedent that our voting procedures can change with the times.

Both of these changes are relevant to the arguments for and against the continued use of the Electoral College.  The arguments are cogent on both sides of the issue, although passions sometimes run rampant rather than logic or historical facts.

Some of the arguments for eliminating the Electoral College, or to significantly change the way that it works, include the following.

  • Our presidential election process is not democratic.  It is the only national office where “one person, one vote” does not apply.  As has happened, the voice of the people can be muted or eliminated by the electors choosing someone who did not win the popular vote.
  • Originally Senators were picked in a manner very similar to the Electoral College voters. That process was changed with an amendment to the Constitution to allow direct voting.  If that can change because the original purpose for state legislators to vote for Senators changed, then that same argument for the purpose of the Electoral College is no longer relevant. We now have an educated citizenry with easy access to communications and an understanding of the issues.
  • The Electoral College was meant to be a check on the whims of the citizens.  Most states now require the electoral voters to match the results of the popular vote in their state, thus the original purpose of the college is no longer followed.
  • Too much power is invested in smaller states relative to their population.  For example, one electoral vote in Wyoming equals 142,741 people whereas in New York one electoral vote equals 519,075 people.  One can argue that this is patently unfair to all voters, and gives disproportionate power to states with small populations.
  • The House of Representatives could elect the next president and in doing so totally ignore the wishes of the electorate.  This would happen if the Electoral College vote ends in a tie, a mathematical possibility unrelated to the national popular vote results.  The vote in the House is by state — one state, one vote — thus giving Rhode Island the exact same say in choosing a president as Texas.
  • It solidifies a two-party system and precludes the possibility of other candidates making a meaningful run for president.
  • A president may punish a state that voted for his/her opponent even though many citizens of that state voted for the winner.
  • Presidential candidates ignore states that are safely in their camp or that they believe will not vote in their favor.  They end up not visiting large states (no serious campaigning by either candidate in New York, California, Texas for example) and small states (no serious campaigning in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming for example).  They only campaign in a handful (about ten) of swing states.

Some of the arguments for keeping the Electoral College as it is include the following.

  • The Electoral College protects states rights.  Small states would lose their voice in presidential elections in favor of states with large populations.  Candidates would only focus on states such as New York, California, Texas and Florida.
  • The two-party system is preserved.  Such a political system is proven to be the best form for governing in the United States through competing political parties and their ideas .  If the Electoral College is eliminated in favor of directly voting for candidates, multiple candidates could conceivably run and splinter the popular vote.  This could allow a candidate with only 20 or 30% of the vote to win.
  • The Electoral College embodies our nation’s principle of federalism and eliminating it could be the first step in dismantling that system of governing.
  • Only the “coastal elites” in large cities would get presidential attention.
  • No one should mess with what the Founding Fathers created.  They knew what they were doing.
  • To change or abolish the Electoral College would require a Constitutional Amendment.  This process may open the door to other changes to our Constitution.
  • A victory in the Electoral College gives the president the legal authority to govern all of the states and all of the population.

To me, the strongest argument for changing or eliminating the system is that states with small populations have a disproportionate impact on the election.  The strongest argument for keeping our current process is to prevent a candidate from winning in a race with multiple candidates and garnishing only a small percentage of the popular vote.

Additionally, given the current political climate in our nation, any attempt now to change the Constitution would probably open a Pandora’s Box of other issues that could fundamentally change our Constitution and thus our way of life.

Although it goes against my preference, I reluctantly conclude that keeping the Electoral College is, at least for now, the best thing for our country.

And no, the Electoral College does not have a football team.  And that’s too bad.


Follow the Money

I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist.  I have a healthy sense of skepticism about would-be conspiracies and I normally take things at face value until I can see that the facts point in a different direction.  That said, there is an increasing number of people who are beginning to wonder about President-elect Donald J. Trump and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian oligarchs.  I am not saying that there is an untoward relationship, or necessarily a relationship of any kind, I am just saying that people are beginning to wonder what is going on. Perhaps when Congress conducts the investigation into the Russian interference with our recently completed election, they will dig deeper into the situation and see if there is any connection to all of the dots that are there.

And what are those dots you may ask?  Off the top of my head, let’s name a few.

  • At the end of July 2016, following the announcement that the U.S. intelligence services had “a high confidence” that the Russian government was behind an intrusion into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), President-elect Trump said at a news conference in reference to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.  I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
  • At that same press conference, the last one he held  (we are now at nearly six months and counting), he seemed to indicate that the Russian annexation of Crimea and continued efforts against Ukraine were acceptable and that as president he may lift sanctions against Russia. When specifically asked if he would recognize the annexation of Crimea he said, “We’ll be looking at that. Yeah, we’ll be looking.”
  • Last summer President-elect Trump said in an interview that he did not know if he would fulfill the nation’s NATO obligations in Europe.  To him, it depended on whether or not they had paid their bills.  Such a stance is in direct conflict with decades of U.S. policy founded on collective defense. Such a stance is also extremely encouraging to Russia as their long-standing policy goal is to break up NATO and undermine the European Union.
  • In August 2016, Roger Stone, a close adviser to the president-elect hinted that hacked emails from the Clinton campaign manager would be forthcoming.  This is before they were actually released.
  • In the lead-up to the election, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies agreed and the Director of National Intelligence announced that the Russians were attempting to interfere with the election.
  • After the election the U.S intelligence agencies put forward that the Russians were releasing the DNC emails to try to influence the election in favor of Mr. Trump.
  • President Obama called on the intelligence agencies to provide a report before he leaves office on the extent of Russian involvement.  A bi-partisan group of Senators is calling for a Congressional investigation of the Russian involvement and for greater sanctions on Russia than those already imposed.  The president-elect does not agree that either is necessary.
  • As post-election press coverage of the Russian attempts increased (finally moving from being preoccupied with the embarrassing, but relatively normal content of the emails to focusing on the attempts of a foreign government to tamper with our election), President-elect Trump and his transition team belittled the U.S. intelligence community and called the notion “laughable” and “ridiculous.”  Or as Mr. Trump said, “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.”
  • In response to U.S. actions against Russia, the president-elect dismissively said “I think it’s time we get on with our lives.”  And later he said, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”
  • President-elect Trump continually compliments Mr. Putin over each and every thing, especially with his Twitter praise of the Russian dictator.
  • On New Year’s Eve President-elect Trump had this to add, “I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove.  So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”

As the conservative columnist Mr. George Will would say, “Well.”

In and of themselves such continued admiration for a dictator and a dismissive attitude towards the very people who will need to help him keep our country safe would be troubling.  Equally troubling would be the president-elect’s dismissing a foreign power’s attempts to change our election. Troubling, but perhaps not worthy of the conspiracy theorists.  Until one puts it all in context with other statements and actions.

  • The president-elect continues to keep the nation in the dark about his business transactions and possible commercial connections to President Putin and/or other Russian oligarchs and/or other world leaders and some very shady characters.
  • The president-elect continues to refuse to release his tax returns so that the American people can judge for themselves whether or not the president-elect has conflicts of interest that could impair his ability to do the right thing for the country.
  • Due to his many bankruptcies, President-elect Trump had trouble raising money from U.S. banks for his business ventures.  Consequently, he went outside the country to raise cash.  Among other foreign entities, his son Donald Trump, Jr. said that Russian money was behind some of the projects. As he said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
  • For much of the past summer, Mr. Paul Manafort was the Trump campaign manager.  Before working for the Trump campaign he was for many years a senior adviser to Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yanukovych was the pro-Russian Ukrainian Prime Minister before his ouster which resulted in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Mr. Yanukovych is now in Moscow and remains close to President Putin.
  • LT. General Michael Flynn, USA (ret) is President-elect Trump’s designated National Security Adviser.  General Flynn was notoriously known for a paid speaking engagement in Russia, doing an unflattering assessment of the U.S. on Russian Television and cozying up to President Putin at dinner.  And along the way, comparing CNN, MSNBC, and other U.S. news networks to the state-run system in Russia.
  • The president-elect’s nominee for Secretary of State Mr. Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon-Mobil is on the record in favor of lifting sanctions against Russia.
  • There have been reports, as yet unverified, that there were secret communications during the campaign between the president-elect and/or senior campaign staff and the representatives of Mr. Putin.

You get the idea.

I am not sure what we should make of all that (and there’s more but that should be enough).  One or two or three of those developments would be interesting, but perhaps not alarming.  When taken together, it paints a picture that makes it easier to understand why a would-be conspiracy theorist could have a field day.

I hope that there is no fire, but there does seem to be a lot of smoke.  So, what to make of it?  If the president-elect indeed wants to “drain the swamp” he can easily do so by starting with himself.  If there is nothing to hide, if there is “no there, there” then shine a light on his business dealings, detail where the conflicts may arise, detail how he will build a fire wall between himself and his business dealings and release his tax returns, as a start.

There is no need for a witch hunt.  There is no need for the president-elect to be challenged at every turn as the public increasingly wonders about his intentions and probable conflicts of interest.  Just do the right thing.  The same thing that every president and presidential candidate has done for decades. Tell the truth.  Put it out there.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Let the American people follow the money and see where it leads.

Recall that the theme song for Mr. Trump’s “reality” show The Apprentice was For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays.  It could become the president-elect’s theme song as well.