Is The Sky Falling?

…Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

—– Joni Mitchell from the song Big Yellow Taxi

From time to time I try to do a self-evaluation as to my perspective on current events under this president’s administration.  In a nod to Chicken Little, I wonder if things are really as bad as they seem or whether I am falling prey to the hype. Am I running around yelling that the sky is falling for no reason?  In my view, there is less hype and more to be genuinely concerned about with this president as time goes by.  I worry that the incremental destruction of our political norms and traditions is passing the notice of many of our fellow citizens and that one day we will wake up and realize that what we all assumed was right in these United States is now gone.

Consider the following:

  • The president gutted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  We now have an Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and key department heads are missing or also have “acting” leaders including the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, the Undersecretary for Management, the Director of the Secret Service and the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Any day, the Director of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will be empty as he becomes the Acting Secretary.  Additionally in the DHS the FAA and FEMA are headed by acting directors.  There are other key offices empty.
  • When the president was asked who is in charge at DHS given all the vacancies, he replied, “Frankly there’s only one person that’s running it.  You know who that is?  It’s me.”
  • There are 716 positions in the government that require Senate confirmation.  Of those there are 140 with no nominee.  Only six are awaiting confirmation.  Positions without permanent leadership include the Secretary of Defense, the president’s Chief of Staff, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  The other positions are generally department heads or at the Deputy and Assistant Secretary level across the government, in other words, the people that actually get things done.
  • The president is trying to interfere with the work of the Federal Reserve, an institution previously thought for decades to be above political interference which is critical to its credibility and role in shaping the U.S. and world economy.
  • The Attorney General of the United States is refusing to release the entire Mueller Report to the Congress.  He alone (or will it be with help from the White House?) will determine what will be released.  While it may be reasonable to withhold some of the report’s information from the general public, refusing to release it to Congress, who is authorized to deal with classified information and grand jury proceedings, makes it impossible to know whether the true story of the investigation will be known.  Additionally this week, Attorney General Barr asserted that the government was spying on the Trump campaign.  As he said, “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.  I think spying did occur.”  When asked to provide proof, he said he could not.  How convenient.  The man who controls what parts of the impartial investigation may be released can assert whatever he cares to and then not have to provide evidence.
  • The Attorney General got his job by currying favor with Mr. Trump.  His hiring is paying off for the president as Mr. Barr repeats many of the president’s talking points and provides further fodder for his assertions that he was “exonerated” (he wasn’t), that it was all a “hoax” (the entire intelligence community says it was not), and that it was an “attempted coup” (forgetting that the Special Counsel, Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, FBI Director, etc., etc., etc.) were all this president’s appointees.  The president procured a personal attorney in Mr. Barr, and the United States lost an Attorney General.  (One might ask Mr. Trump and his supporters how a corrupt, phony, political vendetta prone organization could “exonerate” him.  A seemingly direct contradiction.)
  • Additionally, the Attorney General refuses to support the law of the land — the Affordable Care Act twice upheld in the Supreme Court — primarily because that’s the president’s position.  It’s kind of scary if a president can seek to overturn laws he doesn’t agree with by directing the Department of Justice to work to overturn it, even though it was twice deemed Constitutional.
  • Speaking of not following the law, it appears that Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin will direct the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) not to turn over Mr. Trump’s tax returns.  This in spite of the fact that under the law the Secretary is not to interfere in decisions made by the IRS and the fact that a law is on the books that says the IRS “shall” turn them over to Congress upon request (not “may”, “could”, “might” or any other modifier).  The law is a 1924 statute enacted to uncover fraud within the Executive Branch following the Teapot Dome scandal.
  • After declaring a National Emergency and sending additional troops to the border, there is no Senate confirmed Secretary of Defense and no Secretary of Homeland Security. Not even nominees.  Where is the oversight?  Mr. Trump professes that “I like acting.  It gives me more flexibility.”  In other words, he likes people to be unsure in their jobs because it gives him more control over them.  Additionally, he does not have to worry about too many tough questions coming during Senate confirmation hearings.
  • Frustrated by the asylum laws governing immigrants, the president wants to undo them all and in fact argues that we eliminate judges that adjudicate the laws about asylum.  As he said this week, “And we have to do something about asylum.  And to be honest with you, you have to get rid of the judges.”
  • Among other measures being considered (again!) in the White House is an Executive Order ending birthright citizenship (anyone born on U.S. soil is considered a citizen).  So apparently the president and his advisers think that the president can unilaterally overturn the Constitution.  In this case, the 14th Amendment.

I could go on and on.  I find it very troubling that the assaults on the rule of law continue unabated and indeed, seem to be increasingly frequent and harsh.  On the other hand, the president is a known blowhard who continually speaks outrageously and without knowledge of nearly any subject.  Should we worry about his pronouncements or is it just more sound and fury rather than substance?  If during his presidency he has already told over 9,000 provable lies should we just dismiss most of his statements as more lies?  Or is there something there?

I think that there is something there.  The president does not seem constrained by any law  from taking action, even though many of his most controversial policies have been consistently overruled in the courts.  He and his administration willfully ignore attempts at oversight from the Democrats in the House of Representatives.  Republicans in the Senate are too afraid of being “primaried” (when did that become a word?) to stand up to him.  Where are the limits to his power as he continues to push the boundaries and in many cases break them?  Or are these concerns of mine just a gut level reaction to his abominable personality and persistent bullying and belittling?

In my heart I know that Mr. Trump cares nothing about the people of the United States.  He cares only of himself and arguably his family.  Whatever helps him personally and allows for his family to continue to make money off of the presidency is all that keeps him focused.

My concern is that having rid himself of nearly everyone in his Cabinet and close advisers that stood up to him to point out that his actions were unlawful, immoral or unethical (and in some cases all three) is gone.  Now he is surrounded by enablers.  I fear that as time goes by he will become ever more autocratic in outlook and action.  Reportedly, Mr. Trump models himself after President Andrew Jackson.  Remember what President Jackson is said to have remarked about a decision made by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall, “John Marshall has made his decision.  Now let him enforce it!”  (President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v Georgia.  The case involved the sovereignty of Native American tribal lands.)

Mr. Trump is headed in the same direction as Mr. Jackson.  He sees no limits on his power and believes that he can ignore the law where it suits him.  And why not?  Throughout his entire life he has never been held accountable for his actions in any meaningful way.  With A.G. Barr’s unilateral assertion that the president is exonerated under the Mueller investigation, what is to make him think that anything or anyone will get in his way?

Sometimes I do think that I am Chicken Little.  Maybe I worry about the course of our nation a little too much.  Unfortunately, I am also a student of history and current events.  There are just too many examples throughout time where revolutions and the loss of freedoms did not happen overnight, but rather incrementally and slowly.  Most people’s lives were not immediately or directly impacted and so they didn’t pay close attention or fret over it.  And then one day, it was too late.  They didn’t know what they had until it was gone.

One at a time Mr. Trump’s actions may be more annoying than substantive.  Put them all together and it paints the picture of a man who knows no boundaries. A president who is slowly eliminating his opposition and consolidating power in his own hands.

An old U.S. Navy saying goes “Eternal vigilance is the price of safety.”  We should all remain vigilant to the actions of our president.

 

 

 


Absurd

Mr. Donald J. Trump held his first cabinet meeting of the year on 2 January.  In keeping with his reality show background, the meeting was televised.  The meeting was really a 90 minute monologue on just about everything that Mr. Trump stewed about over the holidays.  There were many newsworthy elements to be found in the transcript ranging from the border wall to the economy.  Many of the statements were provably wrong or misleading.  The list of falsehoods is too long to go through here.

Among the many untruths from the meeting perhaps the most troubling, at least in terms of asking oneself “where the heck did that come from?” were his comments on Afghanistan.  In a discussion about a continued U.S. military presence there, he launched into a bizarre statement full of previously unknown “facts”.  In addition to slandering our allies that have fought and died alongside US troops there he said,

“Russia is there.  Russia used to be the Soviet Union.  Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.  Russia.  So you take a look at other countries.  Pakistan is there; they should be fighting.  But Russia should be fighting.

The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia.  They were right to be there.  The problem is it was a tough fight.  And literally, they went bankrupt.  They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union.  You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.”

No one.  No one, on the left, the right or the respective wing nuts of either side have ever said or believed that the Russians went into Afghanistan to fight terrorists or because they had a “right” to invade them.  Bipartisan efforts during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush worked to isolate and punish the USSR for that invasion.

The real reason the Soviets invaded was the Brezhnev Doctrine.  In 1968 Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union put forth as a basic tenet of Soviet foreign policy the right to interfere in the affairs of any communist country anywhere in the world.  The Afghan government was communist when the Soviets invaded in 1979 and they occupied the country until their withdrawal in 1989.  While true that the occupation was a drain on the Soviet military and the occupation became unpopular with the Soviet people, it did not bankrupt them or otherwise lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain.  There were numerous reasons for the fall, but Afghanistan was more of a symptom of all that was wrong with the Soviet system rather than the cause.  They definitely did not enter Afghanistan to fight “terrorists.”

Only one person is pushing the narrative that the Soviet Union had a “right” to invade Afghanistan to stop “terrorism.”  That one person is Vladimir Putin.  He is pushing a new revisionist history that is pure propaganda and is designed to restore his view of the glory of the Soviet empire in order to stoke nationalist sentiment in Russia, entrench his own power, and provide the basis for his adventurism in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and elsewhere in the hope of restoring that empire.

And now I guess there are two people pushing that line, one of which is the President of the United States.

As the Wall Street Journal put it in part in an editorial,

“Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government.

The invasion was condemned throughout the non-communist world. The Soviets justified the invasion as an extension of the Brezhnev Doctrine, asserting their right to prevent countries from leaving the communist sphere. They stayed until 1989.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat. Mr. Trump’s cracked history can’t alter that reality.”

Is the president ignorant of history or is someone feeding him propaganda that he willingly repeats?  I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this should raise alarm bells.  Either the president really is ignorant of important world events that continue to shape international relations today, or he is willingly repeating Mr. Putin’s revisionist history meant to restore the luster of the former Soviet Union.  Either answer is deeply troubling.

What are we to make of this?  In the continued chaos of this administration it is easy to lose track of the multitude of “absurd” statements and actions coming out of the White House.  However, given the president’s propensity to support and defend all things Putin, one must ask again, “what is going on?”  The answer may be even more troubling than we can imagine.


The Great War

Today is Armistice Day — what we in the United States now call Veteran’s Day.  This is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the war to end all wars.  Hostilities ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

In some ways this is the “forgotten” war as it set the conditions for, and was eclipsed by, World War II.  As such, it is fitting that nearly 100 countries, including roughly 60 heads of state, gathered in France to pay their respects to those that fought in the Great War.  Ceremonies throughout the weekend honored those that participated, and in particular those that paid the ultimate sacrifice.

The exact number of killed and wounded is unknown, but it is estimated that there were 37 million military and civilian casualties during the four years of conflict with about 10 million military men and women and 7 million civilians killed.  The United States joined the war late, in 1917, and lost about 116,000 military personnel from all causes during the war.  Altogether a generation of young men were lost to Europe and the Allies.  In the first day of one battle — the Battle of the Somme — the British lost an estimated 25,000 soldiers.  In the Meuse-Argonne Forest in 1918 an estimated 26,000 Americans lost their lives during the six-week offensive, the most of any battle in American history.

Ironically the U.S. Civil War is often considered the first “modern” war due to the use of trains for transportation, industrialization and organization.  The Civil War was studied closely by most major armies of the world, but by the time World War I came around, those lessons were lost or forgotten.  Thus, with the advent of mechanized combat using machine guns, tanks, aircraft, poison gas, and other implements of modern war, combat was even more destructive as tactics, operations and strategies were mired in the 19th century.  The result was a tremendous waste of life.

I always wondered how I would do when receiving the order to go “over the top” — out of the semi-safe trenches and into no-man’s-land — advancing in a line into the face of relentless machine gun and artillery fire.  It was a meat grinder in the most awful sense of the phrase.  Unbelievably, commanders on the front continued sending their men over the top on the morning of the Armistice resulting in needless deaths.  Reports indicate that 2700 men died on the Western Front on the last morning of the war.  According to the Washington Post via a 1919 report in the Baltimore Sun, the last American killed in the war was Henry N. Gunther from Baltimore.  He reportedly died at 10:59 from German machine gun fire.  The Germans yelled at him and tried to wave him back from their lines.  He continued to charge and to fire on their position and they felt they had no choice but to shoot him to save themselves.  According to the report, shortly after 11:00 the German soldiers emerged from their position, put Henry Gunther’s remains on a stretcher, and returned him to the American lines.

Many of those killed were never recovered.  To honor their memory, countries erected monuments to those unknowns.  In Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated on 11 November 1921 to honor those nameless Americans that were lost forever.  In 1958 unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were also interred beside their World War I comrade and the monument became the Tomb of the Unknowns.  Since 1937 the tomb is guarded by soldiers from the Army and since 1948 the guards come from the famous Army Third Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard.”

Please take a moment on this Veteran’s Day to remember the real reason that we honor this day.


Where Are The Patriots?

“You know, they have a word.  It sort of became old-fashioned.  It’s called a nationalist.  And I say, ‘Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?’  You know what I am?  I’m a nationalist, okay?  I’m a nationalist.  Nationalist!  Use that word.  Use that word!”

—  Donald J. Trump at a political rally in Houston, 22 October 2018

And there we have it.

The President of the United States is proudly using a word that is full of historic negative connotations.  Mr. Trump stated yesterday in response to a reporter’s question that he didn’t know why people were upset with his use of the word and implied that it meant the same as “patriotism.”  It is not the same, and anyone with any sense of history knows that.  While the president is famously ill-informed, and proud of it, I have no doubt he knew exactly what he was saying.  His own words tell us that: “we’re not supposed to use that word.”

Nationalism:  Loyalty and devotion to a nation.  Especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or groups.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Patriotism: Love for or devotion to one’s country.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Note the difference, and it’s a big one.  One espouses devotion to a nation, one to a country.  While we say that we “are one nation under God” we are really a country, not a nation in the sense that it is used in these definitions.  In this sense a nation is a group of people with a common language, ethnicity, and an outlook that manifests in a common culture.  In other words, it is exclusive of those that do not share the same traits.

Nationalism is a relatively recent development in history, coming into wide-spread usage starting in the 1800s and resulting in the founding of nation-states in place of empires or kingdoms that had dominated previously.  The idea came of age in the 20th century and was one of the key causes leading to World War I and World War II.  In truth, nationalism can be a positive force, such as in the end of colonialism and the emergence of many new countries from nations across Africa, Latin America and Asia, or it can be a negative force such as the rallying cry of fascist dictators and others.  Vladimir Putin is using Russian nationalism to consolidate his power and as an excuse for the annexation of Crimea and for threats against the Baltic States, especially Estonia which has a high percentage of ethnic Russians in its population.

E Pluribus Unum.  “Out of many, one.”  Our country’s motto reflects the fact that our country is made of people from around the world, from many nations, that have come together to form a “more perfect union.”  We put aside our devotion to the nation of origin and pledge our allegiance to a new country.  This is what made, and keeps, America great and is significantly different from what it means to be French, or Spanish, or Chinese.

The history of nationalism in this country is sordid.  Historically it means a belief in a country dominated by white Christian males and is most closely associated with white nationalism.  The march in Charlottesville Virginia last year was a white nationalist rally which included overt neo-Nazi groups.  Mr. Trump opined that there were “good people on both sides” thus validating the cause of those groups, at least in their eyes.  Nationalism means that one promotes one’s own culture and values ahead of those of others.  Nationalists do so not just because they believe in them but because they believe that their culture and values are inherently better than those of any other one’s or any other nation’s culture and values.  Thus, it means that in the context of the Charlottesville rally, for example, that white interests should supersede those of any other group in the U.S.

In the 1930’s the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party used nationalism to legally rise to power in a republican Germany.  The rallying cry was that German culture and ethnicity was superior to any other nation’s and therefore Germans should dominate the world.

In the U.S., mainstream politicians and citizens celebrate our diversity.  We have a history of people of different ethnic groups, nationalities, religions, cultures and customs coming together in a common cause.  It is what makes for American Exceptionalism which is, well, exceptional because we are one of the few, if not the only, country in the world that not only believes in our diversity, but celebrates it.

Mr. Trump claimed yesterday in response to a question about white nationalism during a press availability in the Oval Office, as to whether he intended his remarks to encourage white nationalists. He responded incredulously to the question and said “no, I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist.”

Really?

Where are the patriots?  Who is standing up and saying, “no, Mr. President, we are not nationalists, we are patriots.”  We do not celebrate the demonization of other ethnic groups or nationalities. Patriots celebrate our country and are proud of the fact that from our various backgrounds we come together in common purposes.  We are a beacon to the world.  Extinguishing that beacon through a misguided belief that we are somehow being “screwed” by “others” will not improve the life of any American.  Should we follow the path that Mr. Trump espouses we lose the essence of what has served us so well for so long.  Anger and fear are the basic ingredients of a “nationalist” ideology.  We are better than that.

 

 


The Man Who Changed History

As confirmation hearings get underway today for the next nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and as the President of the United States continues to undermine the rule of law through his tweets, it may be time to ponder the impact on United States history made by one man.  No not him.  Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) is the man.

You will remember that when Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February 2016, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to replace him in March 2016.  Senator McConnell as the Majority Leader of the Senate refused to even meet with him, much less allow hearings or a vote on the nomination.  This was unprecedented.  As I wrote at the time, the ability of a president to nominate a Supreme Court Justice, at any time in his term, was a long-established power held by the president.  Indeed, the precedent was set early when President John Adams nominated Chief Justice John Marshall after the election of 1800 and he assumed his position on the court at almost the moment President Adams was walking out the door of the White House (Thomas Jefferson won the 1800 election).

For the record, because we hear it still, there is no “Biden Rule” as claimed by the Republicans in the Senate as the reason for not moving Judge Garland’s nomination forward.  The truth is that then Senator Joe Biden of Delaware gave a speech in June 1992 where he argued that the president, at the time President George H. W. Bush, should not nominate a new Supreme Court Justice before the election.  But here is “the rest of the story.”  There was no vacancy on the Supreme Court.  There was no nominee to the Supreme Court.  The Senate never voted on his proposal and it was never incorporated into the rules.  And he did not argue that a president could not nominate someone should a vacancy occur, only that given the proximity of the upcoming election, the president should wait until at least the day after an election to make the nomination.  The “Biden Rule” is poppycock.  It doesn’t exist.  Senator McConnell had to really, really reach deep for a shaky reason for an unprecedented act on his part.

The seat left by Justice Scalia sat vacant for over a year.

But that’s not all.

Senator McConnell had an even bigger impact when, to facilitate what promised to be a hard-fought confirmation vote for then Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, he changed the Senate rules on a straight party vote to allow for a simple majority (51 votes) to confirm a Supreme Court nominee rather than stay with the over 200 year tradition of a super majority (now 60 votes) to confirm.  This is the long-lasting and perhaps devastating change to our nation’s judiciary and its independence that will haunt us for generations to come.

Why?  The reasons are complex but the simplest, and perhaps most important answer, is that for much of our nation’s history requiring a super majority usually meant that a nominee must appeal to a number of members of the opposite party in power.  This historically meant that radical judges mostly could not garner the required number of votes for approval.  This tended to result in nominees being right or left of center rather than far right or left.  There had to be a modicum of moderation in the nominee’s past and probable future rulings on the court.  That useful tool is now gone.  The party in power can put in the most radical, and dare I say political, Justice that they may find and do it for purely political or ideological reasons.  Many argue that the Supreme Court is already too political.  Well, we now have the potential for it to become a political tool of whichever party is in control of the White House and Senate.

Since the rules that have guided our nation for so long are now no longer followed, what block is there in the future for a president and his party’s Senate to use a simple majority to put eleven or thirteen or any number of justices on the Court?  The incoming party looks at the make up of the Supreme Court, decides that in order to overcome the last ruling party’s political Justices they will just pack the Court with enough Justices to override those that came from the other party.

Yes, I know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court and was thwarted.  Here’s the rub.  The Constitution does not say how many Justices should be on it.  It merely says that the Federal Judiciary should consist of “one supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”  The first Supreme Court nominated by President George Washington had six Justices including the Chief Justice.  Through our early history Congress passed a series of Judiciary Acts that designated the number of Justices and it varied from five to ten.  The current nine members is the result of an act in 1869.  The point is that Congress sets the number of Justices and since precedent has already been over turned, what will stop some future Congress from changing the law regarding the number of Justices?

Senator McConnell changed the future by effectively doing away with natural “checks and balances” that tended to keep our Justices more moderate than they might be and by putting political expediency in front of principle, thus opening the door for others to do so in the future.

The expectation is that Judge Kavanaugh will get at least 51 votes and join the Court.  His is a critical addition in an era where the president tweets constantly for law enforcement to punish his political adversaries (“Lock her up!”) and to protect his political supporters.  Just yesterday he tweeted out

“Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff.”  — Tweet from Donald J. Trump on 3 September 2018

“Jeff” is of course Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The “two very popular Republican Congressmen” are Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca) indicted by a federal grand jury of misusing over $250,000 of campaign funds and the other is Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) indicted on charges of insider trading.  Both have pleaded not guilty, however Rep. Collins suspended his re-election campaign.  For the record, Rep. Collins conducted his insider trading during the Trump Administration and indeed he is caught on film on the White House lawn making one of the calls that set off the chain of events that led to the charges.  The larger point is that the president is chiding his Attorney General for enforcing the law because people from his own party, that incidentally were the first two members of the House to endorse Mr. Trump, and that could help him politically, were the perpetrators.  So much for the rule of law and the president’s sworn oath to uphold the Constitution.

Further, thanks to Senator McConnell, we may now have two Justices on the Court appointed by a president that is very, very likely to have critical Constitutional issues surrounding the survival of his presidency come before them.  One could argue that the current nomination process should be put on hold until the unindicted co-conspirator in the White House has his legal situation resolved.

Long after we move past the current unfolding Constitutional crises, the impact of Senator McConnell’s decision to put political expediency above the good of the nation’s proven processes will have unintended consequences.


Half Empty or Half Full?

In the wake of yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Donald J. Trump of the United States of America (USA) it is hard to assess the level of success, if any.  It is likely that we may not know the impact of the meeting for months or even years down the road.

In the short-term it appears that tensions were defused on the Korean peninsula and the likelihood of war decreased.  It is always better to be talking to our adversaries than to be fighting.  As Winston Churchill said in 1954, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”  Should yesterday’s meeting in Singapore lead to further dialogue, that in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It may lead to larger achievements.  Or, it may not.

Given the past history of negotiations with the North Koreans, yesterday’s agreement is less impressive than others under past administrations and therefore does not give anyone solace that the results will be any better.  Here are the highlights of part of the history of past negotiations and agreements.  Note the continuing pattern.  The North Koreans express their willingness to end their nuclear and missile programs in exchange for normalized political and economic relations with the US and the rest of the world.  Deja vu all over again?

  • In December 1985, the DPRK agrees to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but does not complete the inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the international inspectors.  The DPRK linked its approval for IAEA inspectors to the US withdrawing all of its nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
  • In September 1991 President George H.W. Bush announces the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  In response, in November the South Korean president renounces the all elements of nuclear weapons including deployment from other nations and programs to develop their own.
  • In January 1992 the two Koreas sign the South-North Declaration of Denuclearization  of the Korean Peninsula prohibiting nuclear weapons and allowing for mutual inspection and verification.  Later in the year, the DPRK came to allow IAEA inspectors into the country.
  • In June 1994, former president Jimmy Carter negotiates a deal where the DPRK agrees to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for high level talks with the US.
  • In October 1994 the US and DPRK adopt the Geneva “Agreed Framework” where the DPRK will freeze its nuclear program and work to dismantle what is in place in exchange for heating oil and other economic assistance and a call for the normalization of all relations between the US and DPRK.
  • In the next few years, the US imposes ever harsher sanctions on the DPRK as they are found to be exporting missile and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
  • Late in 1998 President Bill Clinton appoints former Secretary of Defense William Perry to coordinate the US response to North Korean missile and nuclear advances.  The CIA assessed that the DPRK has the capability to reach Hawaii and Alaska with a ballistic missile.
  • Negotiations continue throughout 1999 with an agreement for a reduction in sanctions in response to the renewed inspection of DPRK efforts to dismantle their programs in a “step by step reciprocal fashion.
  • In June 2000 North and South Korea announce an historic agreement to “resolve the question of reunification” of the Korean peninsula.
  • Throughout 2000 envoys from the US and DPRK meet in various locations culminating in the unprecedented visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK capital in Pyongyang.
  • In January 2002 President George W. Bush includes North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
  • In April 2003 Trilateral Talks with the US, DPRK, and China get underway and the DPRK announces that they have nuclear weapons, the first time that they admitted having them.  They tell the US that they would be willing to get rid of them in exchange for “something considerable in return.”
  • Later in the month, Six Party talks are held and the DPRK proposes a step-by-step solution including a “non-aggression treaty,” normalized relations. and the US provides heating fuel and increased food aid, among other things.  In return they will dismantle their nuclear facility and end missile testing and exports.
  • In September 2005 the Six Party talks resume and the DPRK agrees to work to achieve a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.”  It will be done in a phased manner in a step-by-step way.
  • In July 2006 the DPRK launches seven missiles, six of which are assessed to be successful.  The UN Security Council condemns the launches and demands that they cease.  The DPRK refuses.
  • And so on, and so on, and so on.  The DPRK comes to the negotiating table, promises to end all of its programs and then proceeds to break all of its promises as the US, the UN Security Council and the world in general condemn them and institute sanctions.

Note how similar the language (in bold, just in case you missed it) is in all of these talks, agreements and protocols compared to Mr. Trump’s announcements as to his belief that Kim will abide by his word.

Kim came to the table because of the nuclear and ballistic missile capability that he now possesses.  He came to display his power as a world player co-equal to the President of the United States thanks to his nuclear capability.  He did not come to turn them over.  The agreements above (and more!) were very, very specific, technical, and based on the complicated and meticulous analytical tools needed to inspect and verify that the North Koreans are complying.

Compare that level of detail with the “agreement” signed in Singapore.  (The full text is here.)  It is surprisingly short and devoid of specifics.  The four main points in the document are (emphasis is mine):

  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
  • “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

That’s it.  The rest of the agreement talks (several times) about the “historic” nature of the meeting and other diplomatic language.  No specifics.  No timelines.  No next meetings.  Nothing.  Arguably only the recovery of POW/MIA remains is concrete.

In addition, much to the surprise and consternation of our allies in South Korea and Japan, the president said that he verbally agreed to halt all US exercises on and around Korea — or as he calls them “war games.”  Mr. Trump opined that “We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.”  He also went on to say that he hopes to bring US troops home from the peninsula soon.

Provocative?  Really?  Maybe in Kim’s eyes but hardly in those of the South Koreans or Japanese.  There is a reason that there has been no further large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula all of these decades. In large part it has to do with our presence and demonstrated capability and will to defend our allies as shown through those “provocative” military exercises.

And what did the US get in return?  A promise to “work toward” denuclearization.  Right in line with roughly three decades of such promises.  There isn’t even a delineation of what, exactly, denuclearization means.  In all previous instances it was clear that the US has a different idea of what that word means as compared to what the DPRK thinks it means.  Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”

Mr. Trump got rolled by Kim.

It was a fantastic public relations coup for both Mr. Trump and Kim.  It looked great, sounded good, and caught the world’s attention.  There was very little to no substance, but hey, it was a PR success.

Surely we can all start over and forget all about the fact that Kim is one of history’s most ruthless dictators that brutally kills his own family members, has 100,000 or more of his citizens in gulags, and routinely starves the general population when funds are needed to pursue his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.  Water under the bridge.  He took selfies!  He has a nice smile!  He seems like such a nice young man.  Very “talented” and “honorable” according to Mr. Trump.  Give a guy a chance to start over, okay?

But perhaps I’m too pessimistic.  After all, I’m so twentieth century.  Maybe this is a new era with new players and I just don’t see it.

Indeed, I hope that I am wrong.  I truly hope that Mr. Trump’s assessment of Kim Jung Un is correct and that he really does want to do the right thing and leave behind everything that he, his father, and his grandfather worked for all of these many years.

Maybe.

I hope that the glass is half full and that this is the beginning a new, safer era.  Unfortunately we were fooled and played by the North Koreans for so many years that I can only think that it happened again.  The glass is half empty.  With a hole in it.


On The Road To Sedition

Let me start by saying that I understand that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters give him their full-throated approval because they are angry.  As the saying made famous in the movie Network goes, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

In recent years, perhaps even decades, “professional” politicians of both parties rarely, if ever delivered on their promises while average citizens fought in wars, including our nearly seventeen year conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to an older generation, in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; struggle financially especially during and after the Great Recession; and have the necessities of life fiddled with including such basics as health care.

There was a palpable desire for something new and different.  Well, we got that, for sure.  Some of you argue that Mr. Trump has not had enough time to really make his mark on the nation or to implement his key policy initiatives.  Perhaps when it comes to policy, although I do not see any coherent or articulate policy concerning anything, except that if President Obama did it, it was bad and needs to be undone.

I would argue however that he has made his mark on the nation, and it isn’t for the better.  Our social and community discourse has become demonstrably worse.  When the president bullies people, calls them names and attacks the basic institutions of our nation, it has an impact.  A negative one, but it does have an impact.

It does not have to be that way.  It is possible to implement new, conservative (I would argue Mr. Trump is not a conservative, but that is a discussion for another day) policies without being vindictive and even vicious.  To me, even if I agreed with his policy aims, which in large part I do not, the end does not justify the means.  Civility is the currency of a functioning democracy and we are about to go bankrupt.

My biggest concern, one that I have expressed in this space before, is that Mr. Trump is working to undermine the basic checks and balances of our democracy to his benefit.  While many modern presidents have stretched the bounds of Executive authority, Mr. Trump seems to think that there are no bounds.  The only question is whether it is a deliberate action on his part, or done out of ignorance of the Constitution and the law, or whether he does it because it is all he knows — he wants to run the country like a family business.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  The result is the same.

We are on a very slow, day-by-day, slide into autocracy unless all of us wake up and get the Congress to act as the co-equal branch of government that it is.

I see a very distinct pattern beginning to emerge.  Mr. Trump is exploring the bounds of what he can do with an unfettered exercise of power.  He is doing this in several ways.

The president’s Constitutional power to grant pardons for any reason is being used in ways that it has rarely, if ever, been used.  He issues pardons, or promises to do so, to people that have been fully and fairly prosecuted under the law, whether or not they ask for them.  The main point of issuing these pardons to off the wall supporters of his seems to be to send a message.  He has picked pardons for crimes that reflect all of the things he or his aides have been accused of doing, thereby demonstrating that such crimes are meaningless because he says so.

My theory on why he does this lies partly in his life experience.  Mr. Trump is a member of what my father used to call the “New York wise guys.”  Mr. Trump’s view of life is that everyone — everyone! — lies, cheats and steals, but especially politicians.  Those that don’t do so are losers and suckers.  He believes it.  So when someone is convicted of a crime along those lines, he deems it “unfair” because he believes it to be a subjective prosecution.  They only prosecute people they don’t like or who don’t play the game the right way.  In his view, everyone does it, many get away with it, so why can’t he?  In his mind it is because they don’t like him.  Now he has the power to “show them” who the real boss is in town.

Another way he is slipping Constitutional bounds is by vastly expanding the use of Executive powers in the name of “national security.”  This is the reason given for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on some countries (mostly our friends and allies) while not on others (China).  He is now considering a 25% tariff on vehicles in the name of national security.  Since this impacts primarily Mexico and Canada, and to some extent our NATO allies, they are rightly insulted.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week called off a meeting in Washington due to the unseemly way he felt he and his nation were being treated.  It goes even further in that there are a wide variety of new regulations and Executive Orders that are due to be implemented using the rubric of “national security.”  One such example is the mandate that power companies buy a given percentage of electricity produced by coal power plants.

“National security” is being used in ways not imagined when the laws were written. They are interpreted in a way that allows the president to expand his powers into every area of the economy. Invoking national security was meant to be a very narrow, national emergency type of contingency but he is expanding its use far past what seems to be realistic.

Now for the topper, which may be one of the most egregious attempts to assert the primacy of the Executive in our history.

Last week a twenty page letter from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed the true extent of his power play.  The letter was sent earlier this year, but was only just obtained by the The New York Times.  (Read it for yourself here.)

Among other stretches of Constitutional law, Mr. Trump through his lawyers asserts that because he is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States he cannot illegally obstruct any investigation, including into his own actions.  According to their reasoning, the Constitution gives him the authority to do pretty much anything he pleases due to his special status.  Thus, it is impossible for him to obstruct justice by shutting down a case or firing a subordinate, no matter his motivation, because by extension he is responsible for all such investigations and cannot,  therefore, investigate himself.

What this means in practical terms is that if, as they assert, the president can shut down any investigation for any reason, corrupt or not, he is above the law.  This also infers that he can direct the start of any investigation into anyone for any reason, even if it is for his own corrupt purposes.  The argument continues to say that the only recourse is impeachment, which only means removal from office.

Oh by the way, he can pardon anyone for any crime, including himself.

Theoretically — or practically if you believe their argument — under this interpretation a president could come into office, conduct any series of illegalities for any purpose — to enrich himself or his family or even to commit murder — and could not be held accountable if he pardons himself.  Under their argument in the letter to Mr. Mueller, a sitting president could come into office with the intent of doing harm, do it, pardon himself, be impeached (or resign before being impeached) and then go on his merry way.  No accountability, no punishment, no nothing.  Clearly that is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Indeed, the last time this came up was in 1776.  In the Declaration of Independence, among the other reasons given for the rebellion against the king, was that (emphasis is mine) “he has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” including “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct objective establishment of any absolute tyranny over these states.” I did not know King George III, but I do know that Mr. Trump is no King George.  Or at least he should not be.

In case you have any doubts as to what I am saying, here was what Mr. Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for the president, told the Huffington Post this past Sunday.

“In no case can he be subpoenaed or indicted. I don’t know how you can indict while he’s in office. No matter what it is.”  He went on to say that “if he shot James Comey, he’d be impeached the next day,  Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him.”

In other words, Mr Giuliani argued that impeachment was the punishment for presidential misbehavior, even if instead of firing the former FBI Director he shot him in order to bring the Russia investigation to an end.

Mr. Trump is on record as saying “I alone can fix it.”  (at the Republican National Conference on 21 July 2016)  He also said “I have the absolute power to pardon myself”  (on Twitter on 4 June 2018.)

I have the absolute power.  Wow.

Taking this picture, coupled with attacks on the rule of law (DOJ, FBI) and the intelligence communities, coupled with attacks on the free press, coupled with attacks on the judiciary coupled with the failure of Congress to call him to task on anything, we are on the downward slope.

He is testing the boundaries of what he can get away with and will continue to expand that effort and try to bend our form of government for his own purposes until he is stopped.  Right now, I don’t see when that will happen.

It is basic to the autocratic play book.  Layer on top of that the typical autocratic play of draping the leader in the flag and espousing faux patriotism by creating a wedge issue out of nothing and thereby weaponizing patriotism (see the NFL).

He also is trying to tell private companies who to fire and has on several occasions pushed the Post Master General to have the United States Postal Service charge Amazon more for delivering packages because he doesn’t like Mr. Jeff Bezos who also happens to own the Washington Post.

How do we stop this?  Vote!

Put people into Congress during the mid-terms that will return to the normalcy of Congress being a co-equal branch of government to the executive.  Republican or Democrat, vote for folks that are not afraid of being the brunt of Twitter bullying and who will actually do their job of checks and balances.  It isn’t even a “conservative” or “liberal” thing — one can institute conservative policies without destroying the essence of our Constitution.

People who are mad as hell at the way they feel, as if they have been used for years, if not decades, are especially susceptible to autocrats that talk tough and claim to protect against the “others.”  The total picture creates dangerous times for us and our future.

I have hope, although it is dwindling.  Right now I have no sense that anyone will stand up and push back on Mr. Trump.  In interview after interview I feel as though the Members of Congress have their collective heads in the sand.  I continue to hear them say that “he wouldn’t do that” because of the political fallout and because it would be beyond the norm.

HELLO!

His entire campaign and administration has been a series of things that “no one else would do.” Time after time he has done and said things that were beyond the pale and each and every time he’s gotten away with all of it.  No repercussions.  Why would he stop now?

We as citizens are the answer.  No one else will save us from ourselves.