King Trump

“Apres moi le deluge.”

– – Attributed to French King Louis XIV

The expression means “after me, the deluge.”  It can be understood in a number of ways, including that after the demise of the king, there would be a disaster, or that he simply did not care what happened after he was gone.  In some contexts, it has also come to mean that the king is the state, and without the king, the state ceases to exist.

Whatever one’s translation, it can easily be attributed in current times to our president.  In many of his statements, he clearly sees himself as the state.  Anything that goes against his wishes is a “disaster” or “an attack on our nation” or “treason.”  Numerous examples abound.

“And it’s a disgrace. It’s, frankly, a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

— Donald J. Trump on 9 April 2018 following the FBI executing a lawful search warrant on the offices and home of his attorney Mr. Michael Cohen

“Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

— Donald J. Trump on 24 July 2018

“I tell you what, if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think everybody would be very poor.  Without his kind of thinking (as he pointed to his head) you would see numbers that you wouldn’t believe in reverse.”

— Donald J. Trump on 23 August 2018 on “Fox and Friends”

There are many many more examples, too many to list here, where Mr. Trump equates his well-being to the state of the nation.  He apparently thinks he is the nation.  But perhaps the best example is still ongoing, starting with last week’s anonymous New York Times opinion piece on Mr. Trump’s fitness for office written by a “senior official” in the administration.  It is worth reviewing the entire impact and implications of the piece, but first it is interesting to consider Mr. Trump’s reaction to it.  Among other things, the writer made it clear in his/her opinion that Mr. Trump exhibits “erratic behavior,” exhibits fundamental “amorality,” and his leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty, and ineffective.”  Most importantly, the writer states that early on in his administration there was serious talk of invoking the 25th Amendment that provides the process for removing an unfit president from office.

Wow.  Are we dealing with Captain Queeg and the Caine Mutiny?  Will someone soon be ladling out strawberries to make sure they are all there?

More on all of that momentarily, but here is Mr. Trump’s reaction to it, coming on the heels of early reviews of Bob Woodward’s book on his presidency called “Fear” which will be released to the public tomorrow.  He called upon the Department of Justice to initiate an investigation into who wrote it and into the New York Times to find out why they published it.  His one word response to the events, over Twitter of course, was “TREASON.”  (The all caps are his.)  Once again, Mr. Trump loosely throws around very profound and serious accusations whenever anyone criticizes him.  He equates himself to the state.  Remember his insistence on loyalty to him, as a person, rather than to the Constitution and the rule of law.  Once again he is threatening to use the Justice Department and FBI for his own personal purposes.

Dangerous.

The New York Times opinion piece met with mixed reactions depending on who responded.  His senior political appointees duly swore that it wasn’t them.  Of course.  The original Deep Throat in the 1970’s swore for roughly thirty years that it wasn’t him.  Until it was.

More substantively, what is the import of the piece?  I think it naive and unthinking to pass it off as just another political hack job from someone who doesn’t like the president.  Just business as usual.  Except that it isn’t.  The increasing amount of evidence building around the president since his inauguration is that he is temperamentally, intellectually, and psychologically unfit to be the president of these United States.  Remember Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn) saying in the summer of 2017 that the White House is being run like “adult day care.”  Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb) said when asked about the piece “It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week. So it’s really troubling, and yet in a way, not surprising.”

Many other politicians, pundits, analysts and journalists relay that have observed the same unsettling behavior on the part of Mr. Trump for two years.  They find nothing surprising in the situation as described in the op-ed or as reported to be in Mr. Woodward’s forthcoming book.  It’s business as usual.

Yikes!

If everyone in the know understands that the president is not fit for office, why are they not stepping up and doing something about it?  Consider this.  In the piece the senior administration official says this:

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.”

This is serious business.  If they felt that strongly, then why has no one gone to Congress (that we know of, it is always possible they did and the Republican controlled Congress chose not to act) or to the American public and expressed their obvious concerns over his ability to function as president.  It is their duty.  If it is that bad, that his own political appointees seriously considered it, then we are in big trouble.  And no one is doing anything about it.

That isn’t to say that there should be a cavalier attitude about deposing a duly elected president.  This is serious business.  But that’s the point.  I assume that a senior official does not take invoking the 25th Amendment lightly, and if they do they should be removed. To even think about it, much less discuss it, hints at dire circumstances.  The writer is failing in his/her duty to the Constitution to not act on it.

One may also question the fidelity to the Constitution of the writer, and if the piece is correct, other members of the administration, by their tactics to keep the president in line.  The author writes of “a two-track presidency.”  This in and of itself is dangerous.  While officials inside and outside the administration may disagree with a decision, their duty is to execute the orders of the President of the United States.  We cannot function with a “two-track presidency.”  Such action runs counter to the principles of our nation.  When confronted with a profoundly troubling order, the officials surrounding the president have three choices.  They can talk him out of it, resign and express their disagreement, or carry it out to the best of their ability.  Period.

The story told in the op-ed and seemingly in Mr. Woodward’s book, coupled with long-standing journalist and news reports, paints a very scary picture of a president running amok.  Personally.  These concerns are separate and distinct from political agreements or disagreements on his policy.  Think of this, the senior national security cabinet officials and intelligence officials still do not know what Mr. Trump discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  That is wrong and extremely troubling.

Equally troubling is that people within the administration take it upon themselves to decide which policies to implement and which ones to ignore.  That isn’t how it works.

Finally there is Mr. Trump’s instinct to take everything personally and to invoke his powers to use the government for his own purposes.  The list is nearly endless.  In this case, it is a challenge to the fundamentals of our nation’s laws to call an op-ed piece “treason” and to imply (a president’s wishes are normally taken as commands) that the Department of Justice and the FBI should investigate an individual exercising their First Amendment rights.  Further to imply that they should investigate the New York Times and force them to turn over the name of the author should make us all extremely concerned.  No laws were broken in writing and publishing the piece.  None.  There is no national security or classified information in the piece.

One can argue that the anonymous source should have put their name on it.  I agree.  That is not against the law, however, and is significantly different from an investigation for treason.

I do not know what it will take for the Republican controlled Congress to exercise their Constitutional duties of oversight of this president.  One person opined that only “millions” marching in the street will get them to do their duty.  The elections in November will have a huge impact on the nation.  If the Republicans win and continue to ignore their duty, Mr. Trump will be emboldened and push the limits of his power even further.  If the Democrats win we will have endless hearings and investigations into Mr. Trump’s activities to the extent that it is possible that no other legislative business will get done.  For the future of our nation, I will take the latter — or elected Republicans willing to take on the president.

My theory is that the current Republican leadership in the House and Senate have decided to ride Mr. Trump as far as they can — especially in the appointment of federal judges that is taking place at an unprecedented rate, not to mention the Supreme Court.  The face of the judiciary has changed for years, perhaps decades to come.  The Congress, especially through Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), is going to continue to go full-bore on approving judges, riding Mr. Trump, until he collapses, at which point they will abandon him.  His collapse will happen either through a Democrat blue wave in November or through Mr. Trump’s removal by resignation or impeachment.

In all, it is a troubling picture where we all need to pay attention.  Risking hyperbole and hoping I do not sound shrill, nothing less than our future is at stake.

 

 

 

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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.


Are You Exhausted?

I am.

From legal developments surrounding Mr. Donald J. Trump to the continued revelations of evil emanating from the Catholic Church it is hard to catch one’s breath.  It seems that institutions that one could look to for ethical and moral guidance are themselves the worst kind of example for any of us.

It would take me pages to even quickly recap the events from the last week.  I think we will look back on it as some kind of turning point, although I am firmly of the belief that we have only just begun a new “long national nightmare” (as President Gerald Ford said on 9 August 1974 at his inauguration) before we reach an understanding of the totality of the illegal and immoral actions surrounding Mr. Trump, his family, his business and his efforts to skew the 2016 election.

Worse still is that we have a president that lashes out in retaliation for any sort of criticism.  He lashes out not just as a cyber bully (Be Best Mr. President!) but in harming the ability of people to earn a living.  He takes no responsibility for anything, and in fact is actively trying to shut down investigations into his and his associates activities that are against the law.  Duly authorized federal investigations, monitored by Republican political appointees, directed by a former FBI Director under a Republican president, resulting in court cases under duly appointed judges, and verdicts returned by twelve ordinary citizens as provided for in a civilized democracy are branded as “unfair” or “witch hunts”.  There is clear evidence of foreign intervention in our democratic processes and the president not only wants to shut it down, he praises the autocrat responsible for the actions.  Meanwhile he supports white nationalists, repeats provable lies, shows no respect for minorities, and searches for ways to increase his power without the constraints of Congress or the courts.

Everything is personal with him.  Everything.  Mr. Trump has absolutely no understanding of the ideals that support our nation.  The only things that cause him to act — in between golf rounds, “Executive Time” (ie., watching Fox News), and Tweeting — are to do things that benefit him personally.  He sees everything through that light, and it appears to me, assumes that everything anybody else does is similarly guided only by their respective self-interests.  There is no greater good.

He does not understand that there are actually people that serve honorably in government without partisan or personal gain.  He demands loyalty to himself and himself only, not to country or to what is right, or to the ideals of our nation.  His understanding of government, and especially those in the Executive Branch, is that it is merely an extension of the way that he ran Trump Inc. — he gets to be the boss and anyone that has a different idea, or worse tells him he cannot do something, is clearly just trying to screw him over.  In this way he is very petty and childish.  If he doesn’t get his way he acts out.  In Trump Tower as the head of Trump Inc. it is something to read about in the gossip columns and be amused.  In the Oval Office it is dangerous and un-American.

There are still over 500 children separated from their parents in “kiddie jails” created by this president’s policies.  North Korea makes our president look like a laughing-stock as they have gotten away with everything they wanted from Mr. Trump for nothing in return.  The press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin was the most disgusting, vomit inducing performance I have seen from an American president on foreign soil.  The “winning” trade wars over tariffs continue to expand with an increasing threat to our economy and has already driven numerous small businesses under because they could not afford raw materials like steel and aluminum.  The list is endless.  Congress is missing in action (“at least we got Gorsuch” is too high of a price to pay.)

And now we have the Chief Federal Law Enforcement Official in the land acting like the Mafia boss that he really is.  To call Mr. Paul Manafort a “brave man” and that he has “respect” for him because he didn’t “break” is disgusting.  He also belittles our court system by talking about “Justice.”  Mr. Manafort is a convicted felon that took advantage of American tax payers and knowingly broke the law in numerous ways for his own benefit.

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. “Justice” took a 12-year-old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to “break” – make up stories in order to get a “deal.” Such respect for a brave man!”  Mr. Donald J. Trump via Twitter on 22 August 2018

As an aside, one wonders what news Mr. Manafort could “break” (the inference of Mr. Manafort as a POW under torture is further evidence that Mr. Trump has no clue).  To me, for the president to congratulate him for not breaking means that Mr. Trump knows that Mr. Manafort has information to “break” about Mr. Trump and his probable illegal activities.

On the other hand Mr. John Dean, who famously testified against President Richard Nixon, thus breaking open that conspiracy, is a “RAT” (in all caps).  He had choice words for his personal attorney Mr. Michael Cohen who is now a convicted felon after pleading guilty to seven counts, including two that effectively name the president as an unindicted co-conspirator and said that “flipping” should be illegal.  In other words, the primary tool used by law enforcement to solve cases should not be allowed.  Nice.  Oh yeah, he also said that violations of campaign law were “not a big deal.”

“It almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair. Because if somebody’s going to give—spend five years like Michael Cohen, or 10 years, or 15 years in jail because of a taxi cab industry, because he defrauded some bank—the last two were tiny ones. You know, campaign violations are considered not a big deal, frankly. But if somebody defrauded a bank and he’s going to get 10 years in jail or 20 years in jail, but if you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you’ll go down to two or three years, which is the deal he made.”

An excerpt from Mr. Donald J Trump’s interview on “Fox and Friends” aired 23 August 2018

Let’s see.  Mr Trump’s personal attorney guilty of numerous crimes including tax evasion.  Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman convicted of numerous crimes including tax evasion.  What are the odds that Mr. Trump also evaded paying taxes?  No wonder he won’t release his tax returns.  Besides, he basically already told us about his crimes.  Remember that during the first presidential debate in 2016 he was accused of not paying taxes and his reply was “That makes me smart.”

And there is so much more.  Instead of draining the swamp he replaced the alligators with crocodiles and turned it into an infinity pool.  Only the best people, indeed.

I worry because we have already seen nasty instances of the president lashing out when something doesn’t go his way.  We have already seen him search for new and creative ways to use his Executive Powers in ways not imagined by the Founding Fathers.  When the heat comes, and it is coming, and we learn the full breath-taking scope of his law breaking over the years, only one’s imagination limits what possible scenarios might play out.

I have written in this space before that any comparisons to Watergate are misguided.  As nasty as he may have been, President Nixon recognized the limits to his power and had at least a modicum of pride in the proper functioning of a democracy.  He resigned.  Mr. Trump has no modicum of decency in any sense.  He proves that daily.  His mantra is that if he gets hit he hits back ten times harder.  There is nothing that we have seen that indicates that he will go quietly into the night when the full scope of his misdeeds are revealed.  I have no idea how this will end in the coming months.  One thing I would bet on, however, is that It isn’t going to be pretty.

If you are as exhausted by all of this as I am already, rest up.  Mr. Trump and his cohorts are counting on us thinking of all of his shenanigans as “normal” and on no one holding him accountable.  It will be “we the people” that are going to have to get the job done.  Vote in November!


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.


An Unsteady Hand On the Helm

“Because it’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history. They have; it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.” — Candidate Donald J. Trump 3 Nov 2015 responding to a question on China.

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”  — The President on Twitter on 13 May 2018

To some, developments surrounding the giant Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE may be a little too technical and down in the weeds.  I think it is a perfect example of how erratically and whimsically the current president operates.  It may also demonstrate that the president is primarily interested in policies that benefit him or his company rather than the nation as a whole.

Stick with me while I outline what happened.  It really is not that complicated.  Consider these facts regarding ZTE.

  • ZTE is a Chinese government-owned telecommunications company, based in China, that manufactures cellphones and other equipment with clients in 160 countries and research centers around the world.
  • ZTE uses U.S. technology and parts that make up nearly half of the materials they use.  They are also the fourth largest seller of smartphones in the U.S.
  • In 2012 the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released an in-depth report on ZTE (and another Chinese company named Huawei) saying that the company poses a national security threat because they are stealing U.S. technology.  The report recommends that “U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts.” There was, and presumably still is, a concern that ZTE may be using their products to spy on the U.S. or to provide the opportunity to disrupt essential activities.
  • In 2016 the Commerce Department found that ZTE was violating sanctions laws by selling devices, that included U.S. made parts, to Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba — all under embargoes at the time.
  • In April, the Commerce Department banned it from buying U.S. technology or products for seven years.
  • The Defense Department banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones on military bases through the Post Exchange and Navy Exchange systems as they “may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission.”
  • Last week ZTE reported that they were stopping all “major operating activities” which was widely understood to mean that they were going out of business because they could no longer get U.S. parts needed to continue their operation.

So, to summarize, the president is helping a Chinese company that is well-known as a sanctions violator and a threat to U.S. national security to get back into business by ordering the U.S. Commerce Department to “get it done!”  Why?

To be blunt, no one is quite sure.  But of course many people are never quite sure why Mr. Trump does many of the things that he does.  There are several theories, however.

The U.S. is about to enter into a major trade war with China if negotiations taking place this week fail.  Chinese President XI was reported to be “furious” about the decision to ban sales of parts to ZTE and threatened to impose harsh sanctions on the U.S. and/or to walk away from the trade negotiations.  So, apparently, the president on Sunday caved to his demands before ever reaching the negotiating table because it was politically more important to him to get a “deal” than to protect national security.  (Some analysts speculate that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un saw how quickly the president gave in to get something he wanted (“better trade deals with China”) and thus, among other reasons, threatened to walk away from talks with the U.S. in order get concessions.  But I digress.)

As part of that political calculation, Mr. Trump may be, rightly or wrongly, putting the interests of his supporters above national security.  When the Trump administration unilaterally imposed tariffs on Chinese imports earlier this year, the Chinese retaliated by refusing to buy U.S. soy beans.  China is the second-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports.  According to the Department of Agriculture, soy beans are the main crop sold to them.  By the beginning of May, China reportedly cancelled all purchases of U.S. soy beans and turned to Canada and Brazil for their supply.  If the ban continues, it will have a major economic impact in farm communities around the country, but especially in the mid-west.  Farmers are rightly worried that once the Chinese shift to other markets, they will never return to buying U.S. soy beans, whether or not tariffs and trade wars are resolved.  To me, this is yet one more example of Mr. Trump making a grand pronouncement and acting tough without consideration, or more accurately without understanding, the ramifications of his actions.  Other nations will not be dictated to by our president, especially other strong countries with their own interests at stake.

Other possible reasons may be that he may wrangle concessions from China as a quid pro quo to helping ZTE, thus helping to avoid a deep and wide-spread trade war.  Mr. Trump may also have done it because he needs China’s help and cooperation in dealing with Kim Jong Un in North Korea.

There may also be another reason for Mr. Trump caving so quickly.  He tweeted (is this the only way he can communicate with his own administration?) his command to the Commerce Department to save Chinese jobs on Sunday.  Only three days before that, another Chinese government-owned company agreed to finance 500 million dollars of development in Indonesia that will include a hotel, condominiums, and (what else?) a championship golf course with the Trump brand.  The deal will significantly benefit Trump, Inc., the company that he continues to get income from as president.  The deal has been in the works for a considerable period of time, but we can all be assured that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the actions against ZTE or the impending trade talks.  According to some Constitutional scholars, it may also put the president in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bans gifts from foreign governments.

Whichever reason, or combination of reasons, explains his abrupt about face, Mr. Trump’s action sets a dangerous precedent.  Besides continuing to reinforce the international perception that Mr. Trump is mercurial and cannot be trusted — thus raising questions as to why enter any deal with the U.S. — it violates the long-standing U.S. principle that trade decisions should not be based solely on domestic political reasons.  This is particularly crucial with respect to trade enforcement decisions.  Once other leaders discern that Mr. Trump is willing to cave on issues of trade or national security for purely domestic political reasons, expect more of them to demand concessions for their own issues.

Additionally, putting politics above enforcement weakens our positions on the rule of law and the normal course of interactions between nations.  If  there are no rules, or if the rules can change on Mr. Trump’s whim, we lose all standing to insist that other governments abide by their own agreements.  There appears to be little to no consideration by Mr. Trump as to what happens next when he makes these arbitrary decisions.  As I wrote in my last piece in this space, a prudent decision maker and government leader will consider the consequences of decisions and the subsequent actions that must take place — whether successful, or not successful, or when perverse and unexpected consequences result.

Finally, there are those in and out of government that worry that the Negotiator-in-Chief really is not that good at it.  In this case and others, he demonstrates a propensity to give up leverage (in this case the actions against ZTE) before getting the other side to offer up their own concessions.  In this case China offered nothing in return for the president rescinding the actions against ZTE.  Based on his tweet on Monday, it may be that Mr. Trump’s biggest concern is keeping his good buddy President XI happy.

“ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
This Tweet came only hours after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, in relation to the ZTE issue, that “our position has been that that’s an enforcement action separate from trade.”  So much for the left hand, right hand, and all that.
The ship of state sails on.  We can only guess where we end up.

Dereliction of Duty

There are a number of perplexing events unfolding in and around the White House.  My sense is that many Americans are uninterested, unaware, or just minding their own business until all of the facts are in.  I hope that the lack of concern is the latter and not that we as a nation have become inured to the unprecedented developments and are numb to the plethora of constant noise and fury emanating from the White House.  There are so, so many troubling developments surrounding this administration.  Thus far, only one is an existential threat to our democracy.

Yes, Russia again.

It is now over two weeks since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as another step in the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in our 2016 election. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the presidential election by active measures to disrupt the process, and specifically, to hurt Secretary Hillary Clinton and to favor the election of Mr. Donald Trump.  But don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t done so already, read the full 37 page indictment.  The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.”  Warfare.

News reports today indicate that Mr. Mueller will soon file more indictments, this time specifically naming Russian hackers and outlining their methods in stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Secretary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta.  Please recall that the hacking of the DNC and the campaign were the original reasons for the investigation into the Russian meddling.

Additional reports inform us that seven states had their systems compromised in some way including in at least two cases, getting into the voter registration data bank.  Attempts were made on a total of twenty-one states to get into the voting system.  While there is no evidence to date that any actual votes were compromised or voter information changed to prevent people from voting, many experts consider these to be “probing attacks” to find vulnerabilities for exploitation in the future such as in the 2018 mid-term elections and/or the 2020 national elections.

Last month the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Russian meddling attacks.  This included the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. General Robert Ashley and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo.  They were in agreement that the Russians did interfere and that it would happen again.  As Director Coats put it, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.”

When asked by committee member Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) if the FBI had been directed by the president to take any specific actions against the Russians, FBI Director Wray said the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter the Russians but was “not specifically directed by the president.”  If you saw the body language as Mr. Wray answered, it would sound even worse than it does here.

And it does get worse.

This week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency and the head of the U.S. military Cyber Command, said that he was using his existing authorities to combat the Russian attacks. When asked a question similar to that asked last month of Director Wray — had the president given him any direction — he acknowledged that the president had not asked his agencies that are charged with conducting cyberoperations to find ways to counter the attackers and had not been granted new authorities to conduct counter operations.

Director Wray and Admiral Rogers are saying that they are on the defensive and doing the best that they can.  However, they are inhibited by the apparent lack of interest from the Commander-in-Chief and have been given no authorization to go on the offensive.  I am sure that the hard-working men and women in the intelligence agencies are doing what they can to protect our country, but they are having to do so with their hands tied and with no consequences for our attacker.

Here is the plain truth from Admiral Rogers during his testimony:

“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity.’ Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

I can go on, but you know the story.  And it isn’t pretty.

Here are Mr. Trump’s responses, warnings, actions, deterrent activities, and punishments for Russia, in order: Bumpkiss, Nada, Zilch, Nothing, Goose Egg, Diddly-Squat.

Thank you Commander-in-Chief for keeping us safe from our adversaries and protecting our greatest democratic principle.

The latest story from the administration is that it is all President Obama’s fault.  Should one take that story hook, line and sinker, it still begs the question as to why the president, in office for nearly 14 months, has directed nothing to be done to dissuade and deter further Russian meddling, much less to punish them and hold them accountable for their actions in 2016.  He won’t even implement the sanctions voted on by both parties in the House (by a vote of 419-3) and Senate (98-2) last year designed specifically to punish Russia for their attack.

Why?  The most common answer from pundits, politicians and prognosticators is that in his eyes, to even acknowledge that the Russians interfered, much less to help him as delineated in Mr. Mueller’s court papers, lessens his election victory and somehow makes it less legitimate.

I have other ideas as to why he won’t hold Russia and Vladimir Putin accountable for their actions, but so far, that would be pure speculation.  Let’s go with the “my feelings would be hurt” reason.

Why does anyone accept that as an answer?  Even if he feels that way, he is the president.  As president he took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  To my knowledge there is nothing that precludes that responsibility just because the president’s ego may be bruised.  As Commander-in-Chief he has an obligation to do his duty.  If he refuses, then he is derelict in his duties as delineated in the Constitution.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise?

 


An American Disgrace. Again.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  Parkland, Florida.

Seventeen dead.  Fourteen Injured.

18 incidents with guns at schools this year.

Approximately 150,000 children were exposed to a school shooting since Columbine High School in April 1999.

We are killing our children.

We are the only industrialized nation in the world with such a level of violence.

(Graph from everytownresearch.org)

From 2012 to 2016, an average of 35,141 Americans died from guns each yearThat’s 96 a day.

Over eighteen years, from 1956 to 1974, a total of 58,131 Americans died from hostile and non-hostile actions in the Viet Nam War.

Gun safety is not un-American or against the Second Amendment.

Our elected officials need to grow a spine.

As a nation, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

So horribly sad.  So meaningless.  So disgraceful.