Who Cares?

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

— The sonnet “New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later (and) is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.

— Senior White House Adviser Stephen Miller in response to a question about new immigration proposals as compared to the sentiment from the sonnet.

Happy New Year!  I hope that 2018 brings us all health, prosperity and happiness.  Hopefully, you had a joyful holiday season.

I was fortunate to participate in several social gatherings during the last few weeks and to spend eleven days traveling in the great state of California.  The gatherings and travel afforded an opportunity to forget about politics for a while and yet at the same time to get a snapshot from friends, acquaintances, and family as to their views on the state of politics in our great country.  The comments were wide-ranging.

Among other things, I was asked why I write an “anti-Trump” blog.  “We get it.  You don’t like him.  Move on.”  Others asked why I don’t write about him more often.  Some are thrilled with the current president, or at least his policies.  Others despair over the future of our nation.  Many said that they had stopped following the news because it was just too upsetting.  Others advised that they just ignore what the president says, and especially tweets, and are much happier for doing so.  It set me to wondering.

I must admit that I was happier without hearing “all Trump all the time”.  I thought that maybe it would be a good idea to stop worrying about him and what he is doing to the office of the president and to our country.  I reflected on this course of action at length.  It certainly would be easier.

In the end I find it impossible for me to ignore what is going on with the president and I worry that too many people are choosing to tune him out.  This is dangerous.  If citizens do not pay attention to what our government is doing, then the politicians are free to do whatever they want.  If we do not understand the issues and their implications then we are doomed to living out the results of decisions that change our way of life.  In reflecting on the current state of affairs I asked myself how the president’s actions are impacting me, personally, and my day-to-day life.  In truth, I had to answer very little if at all.  So why get upset?  The answer is easy and not a shoulder wrenching pat on my own back — if no one pays attention then eventually it will impact my life and that of my family but it will be too late to do anything to change it.  More importantly, I realized that many people around me are being impacted right now.  Today.  And it is life changing for them.  As Americans, we do care.

This brings me to a representative example of what I see as very disturbing trends under this president.  That is his views on immigration.  It is what I used to tell my staff in my sea-going days:

“Know the difference between what things are and what they mean.”

In that context let’s look at Mr. Trump’s comments made last week regarding immigrants from non-white countries.

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front.  In the end, it is not important that the president used vulgar language in expressing his disparaging view of immigrants.  Whether it was “hole” or “house” is hardly relevant.  If Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark) and David Perdue (R-Ga) want to lose their integrity over the changing stories and provable lies in their interpretation of the suffix to the president’s vulgarity they will have to face themselves in the mirror.  The actual words don’t matter as much as the sentiment does.  Mr. Trump is not the first president to swear in the Oval Office and he won’t be the last.  It is embarrassing to the nation and unbecoming of the office, but in the end it isn’t the most important thing.  It is what it is.

What it means is something else.  Mr. Trump’s temper tantrum in response to a bi-partisan plan proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill) set in motion a string of events that will have both long and short-term impact.

Only days before the blow up the president said that he “would sign anything” that the Congress brought forward on solving the Trump created crisis concerning the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or “Dreamers”.  If not resolved very soon, the Administration could cause roughly 800,000 law-abiding hard-working people to be deported from the only country they have ever really known.  Whether or not the Graham-Durbin bill was the final answer, it did have bi-partisan support and gave the president much — but not all — of what he wanted regarding increased border security, changes to immigration quotas and other immigration procedures.  If nothing else, it was a starting point.  Only two hours before the Oval Office meeting, the president tentatively agreed to the outlines of the bill when it was explained to him over the phone.  Unfortunately, hard liners like Stephen Miller — quoted above — were afraid that the president would agree to the deal and thus called in Senators Cotton and Perdue to talk him out of it.  They succeeded.

What is the fallout?  In the short-term it significantly increases the likelihood of a government shutdown at midnight on Friday 19 January.  Democrats have been under intense pressure to “solve” the DACA dilemma quickly.  Their best leverage is to use a spending bill to do so because the Republicans cannot get enough of their members to pass it on their own.  There is still a lot of negotiating underway as to how to keep the government running, but membership on both sides of the aisle is tired of short-term Continuing Resolutions (CR) which are in and of themselves detrimental to an efficient government.  It could get ugly and there will be lots of finger pointing.  The rest of us suffer.

Longer term the president has exhibited — again! — that he does not understand what makes America the country that it is.  As has been written often, and more eloquently than I can, we are a nation of immigrants.  Most of them poor and from nations that in their day were not any more appreciated than those that the president now disparages.  For example, look at the history of Italian, Irish and Eastern European immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Look to many of our own family histories.  These were not lawyers, doctors, bankers or other wealthy immigrants.  Most could not read or write their own language, much less English.  But they worked hard.  They assimilated over time.  They produced generations of lawyers, doctors and bankers.  Many became wealthy and contributed to the development of industries we now tout as “all American.”  Mr. Trump clearly does not know this.  Probably he does not care.  Mostly, it does not interest or impact him so he pays little attention other than to what he thinks will appeal to the “base” that seems to be the only America he is interested in leading.

Longer term he has changed the way that the rest of the world looks at these United States.  Lady Liberty’s torch no longer seems to be a beacon to those “yearning to breathe free” but rather a torch searching out those not like us.  Mr. Trump revealed — again!–  who he really is.  For goodness sakes, our closest ally is the United Kingdom and they don’t want him to visit.  The UK is very divided politically right now, but all parties agree that Mr. Trump can stay home.

Longer term Mr. Trump’s actions hinder and impede our national security.  When allies question their level of cooperation with our own intelligence agencies because of his actions, we suffer.  When nations that are friendly to us send official diplomatic requests for an explanation of the president’s remarks we may find that they won’t stand with us when needed.  When we have military forces under fire in Africa and in other nations (remember we lost four good soldiers fighting terrorism in Niger) will they be reliable in the common defense if they think the commander-in-chief declares them unworthy to come to our country?

Everyday the list gets longer as we count the attacks on our nation as an idea and an ideal.  I do not think that Mr. Trump understands that.  By his words and actions he is steadily destroying what we stand for in the world and at home.  I am surprised at the number of folks that told me that they don’t care for Mr. Trump that much as a person but that they like what he is doing.  I have to assume that they mean they like the tax cuts and Supreme Court appointment and not his actions infringing on the First Amendment, claiming that the FBI actively worked against his campaign, his besmirching the judiciary whenever they rule against him, and the countless list of daily insults that spew forth and inexorably demean our nation and undermine our way of life.

His views on immigration are only one example of how he is changing our nation.  Reasonable people can reasonably disagree on the path forward in many areas of policy.  What concerns me more than Mr. Trump’s policies is the steady erosion of our American ideals.

So, yes.  It would be easier to just ignore it all and go on with my daily life.  But we all need in our own ways to have our voices heard and let it be known that it is not okay.  I am not anti-Trump in my writings.  I am pro-America and what we stand for.  A president that wants to be president to only 33% of the country needs to come to understand that he represents all Americans.  Those of Haitian ancestry as well as those of Norwegian ancestry.

Who cares?  We care.

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The Dark Days to Come

As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2017, let me offer my wish that each of you have a joyous holiday season and that 2018 brings you all the best.  Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a fine Festivus!

While I sincerely hope that all of us have a wonderful 2018 in our own ways, I am concerned that as a country we will hit turbulent waters at best or worse, experience a Constitutional crisis.  I gave up prognosticating some years ago.  However, since it is the end of the year, I will offer up my scenario as to how the coming year will unfold as the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller plays out.  There are certainly other very important events to come in 2018 that the administration will face, such as dealing with a bellicose North Korea, implementing a tax cut by expanding the deficit, undermining the Affordable Care Act, retooling immigration and someday passing a budget.  All of these will be overshadowed by the unfolding drama surrounding Mr. Mueller’s investigation and its final results.  It will not be pretty.

Lest we forget, as I see it there are four distinct areas of investigation for the Special Counsel.  Three have been his focus from the beginning and the fourth I surmise got added as the investigation looked into the activities of Mr. Paul Manafort and others and the resulting relationship to the original three areas of interest.  The four are concerns over Russian interference in the election, possible collusion between the campaign and the Russians, whether or not the FBI investigation into these matters was obstructed by the president or his advisers, and my fourth, money laundering and/or tax evasion by the president and/or family.  Let’s look at them one by one.

Many of us forget that the original intent of the investigation, starting with the FBI and CIA in 2016, was to determine the extent, methods, and impact of Russian interference in that year’s election.  The combined intelligence community in the United States and elsewhere concluded some time ago that the Russians did interfere.  End of discussion.  The questions of how, why, whether it mattered or not and what to do stop it in the future remain unanswered.  Reportedly, the president refuses to discuss it with his top advisers, has yet to hold any cabinet level discussions as to how to protect future elections and continues to deny that it ever happened.  This is unconscionable.  Regardless of one’s political views, all of us should be upset that there is overwhelming evidence that it occurred and there is no evidence that anyone is doing anything substantive to prevent it in the future.  There is still no federal coordinated action to stop it from happening again.  As Americans we should be appalled.  Michael V. Hayden had a lifetime of experience in the intelligence community and was CIA director under President George W. Bush.  His view of the Russian meddling?  That it is the political equivalent of the attack on September 11.  He further said,

“What the president has to say is, ‘We know the Russians did it, they know they did it, I know they did it, and we will not rest until we learn everything there is to know about how and do everything possible to prevent it from happening again. He has never said anything close to that and will never say anything close to that.”

Perhaps some in Congress will wake up to the fact that action is needed, and soon.  I won’t hold my breath for the president to initiate any action.  When Mr. Mueller’s findings come forward, we may have an impetus for action by the rest of the government.

The second area of investigation, and the one most focus on including the president, is whether or not the president’s campaign colluded with the Russians to interfere in the election and impede Secretary Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory.  This one is more complicated and takes more than a sound bite or Twitter statement to unfold.  In short, the theory is that in exchange for “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton and other “aids” during the election, the new administration, if they won, would lift sanctions on Russia imposed for a variety of reasons generated by Russian bad actors, and not just during the election.  This one is less clear as to the extent that the campaign organization knew what they were doing.  Their best defense, if one can call it that, is that they were incompetent.  That line of  reasoning is becoming less tenable as more and more instances of meetings between campaign representatives and Russian representatives become known.  In addition, both campaigns were briefed in August 2016, following the official nominations, that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election, that other bad actors might also try, and the two campaigns need to notify the FBI if they detect any Russian overtures or other activity.  The Trump campaign made no such reports to the FBI.  It is hard to claim ignorance under those circumstances.

The second area of investigation involves possible obstruction of justice.  This stems in one way from the aforementioned meetings with Russian operatives during the campaign.  Various campaign officials initially denied any such meetings.  It grew bigger after the president fired then FBI Director Jim Comey and bragged in a Lester Holt interview on NBC and later in a private conversation with the Russian (!) Foreign Minister and Ambassador that it was over the “Russia thing.”  Director Comey testified under oath that the president asked him to drop the investigation into former NSC Director Michael Flynn’s interactions with the Russians.  (The same Michael Flynn that pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those very interactions.)  As if that is not enough, the investigation also includes the president himself pushing prevarications on Air Force One concerning his son Donald Trump Jr. and his interactions with the Russians.  They made a very weak attempt to cover it up, allegedly at the president’s direct involvement in the cover up story.

You can’t tell the players without a program.

Not on the “official” list but the area that will cause the biggest consternation, and at the same time pull everything together, is my notion that the Special Counsel and his office are looking into the Trump Organization’s and family’s financial dealings.  I think that they will find instances of money laundering and tax evasion.  Very much like what they come up with concerning Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates — only with Russians rather than corrupt Ukrainians.

Many focus on Mr. Trump’s visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant and his subsequent attempts at creating new business opportunities in Russia.  Lost to some is the knowledge that he started visiting Russia in 1987 and has made trips off and on since then.  If his son is to be believed, lots of their investment money came from Russian sources.  U.S. banks would not underwrite his endeavors after four bankruptcies and he was desperate.  Think of it as a “Godfather” scenario.  “Donnie, don’t worry.  We’ll take care of the problem.  Relax.  But at some time in the future we may come and ask you for a favor.”  Or as Don Corleone says it much better in the original, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”

My opinion as to the results?

  • The Russians interfered in many, many ways in the election but the number of votes that changed because of those actions (none of which were by actual vote tampering) is unknown.
  • Aides to Mr. Trump did collude with the Russians but the president will benefit from plausible deniability as there will be no way to tie it directly to him.
  • The investigation will conclude that Mr. Trump and some of his aides did try to obstruct justice by interfering in the attempt to investigate his family and campaign ties to the Russians.
  • The Special Counsel will conclude that prior to becoming president, Mr. Trump knowingly engaged in unethical and illegal financial transactions.  These transactions helped Russian oligarchs launder money in Trump investments and real estate purchases.  His hundreds of LLCs and shell corporations were used to hide these transactions and to limit the taxes he was by law responsible for paying.

That’s when the “fun” starts.

First, prior to the Special Counsel’s findings, the House committees investigating these matters will rush out findings — possibly in early January — that will find that there is no evidence of collusion, they did not look at obstruction of justice because it is a criminal matter, and did not investigate his finances.  They will say that the Russians interfered in the election but it is unclear to what extent and in any case, the interference did not change the election.

The president will seize on this report, claim that it proves his innocence and that there was “no collusion!”

The president will try to fire Special Counsel Mueller because, he will reason, the House committees already proved that there was “no collusion!” and so there is no need for the investigation to continue.  To do so would make it a “witch hunt” based on the Democrats efforts to push a “hoax” and an attempt to disenfranchise millions of Trump voters because of a deep hatred of Mr. Trump.  Fox News and some House Republicans will cry long and loud that this is an attempted FBI “coup” to overthrow the duly elected President of the United States.  (By the way, this has already happened in the last 48 hours.  The attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice from certain Republican Members of Congress are despicable.  Please note that they are not attacking the facts, the results so far or any other substantive issue.  They only attack the people and the institution with the goal to sow doubt in advance of just this scenario.)

The Senate will try to protect the Special Counsel but at the same time expand their investigation to include the other nominees — Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton — to show that it wasn’t just Mr. Trump.  When the Special Counsel’s findings start to leak out, the Senate, caught in a bind as to how to act as the president continues to undermine, ignore and invalidate the non-partisan results, delays action.

The Special Counsel will name Mr. Trump as an un-indicted co-conspirator.

Mr. Trump will not step down  from the presidency and tries to pardon those indicted as well as himself.  This will lead to a Constitutional crisis.

The “#metoo” movement continues to build pressure against Mr. Trump as more allegations of harassment by multiple women come out and he calls them all “liars.”

To make sure that justice prevails, state prosecutors step in to bring state charges — especially on money and tax issues. Mr. Trump cannot pardon violations of state law, only federal.

The issue of pardons for whom and for what gets challenged in court and follows an expedited path to the Supreme Court.

Pressure will build for the Congress to act.  However, the House and Senate will not act to impeach the president and will cite the upcoming 2018 elections as the reason.  “Let the American people decide.”

Democrats win big in the elections.  While campaigning they will not use the word “impeach” but will insist that Mr. Trump needs to be held accountable for his actions with Congressional oversight.

Mr. Trump, Fox News, and some House Republicans continue to cry that the system was rigged and that an attempted “coup” is underway.  Mr. Trump embarks on a series of campaign rallies to build support among the minority of voters that still support him. Angry demonstrations ensue.

Most Americans are appalled at the complete story and the fact that Mr. Trump will not step down plus the fact that he is trying to pardon the wrong doers — especially close family members.  The Democratic landslide is a result of voters being fed up because Congress will not act.

Very bitter disputes break out in violence on both sides of the issue as Mr. Trump continues purposely to stir up animosity and anger.

There is very little energy left to try to tackle the big issues facing our nation.  American influence in the world continues to wane and other nations take advantage of our inward rage and lack of attention to international affairs.  The Russians continue to meddle in western European elections and to support Syria and Iran.  China consolidates its economic power and pulls other Asian nations closer to its orbit as they become the de facto leader of the region under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

2018 ends without resolution of the Constitutional issues surrounding Mr. Trump and his associates’ actions.  Trials begin for Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates, and Mr. Kushner and others close to the president.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

 

 


While You Were Tweeting

I trust that you all had an enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.  In many ways we have so much to be thankful for so it is always nice to take time out and to reflect on our good fortune — whatever form that may take.

In our nationally induced tryptophan haze, one may have noticed, or more hopefully ignored, a bevy of tweets and other distractions that obscure the many important legislative challenges coming up in the next four weeks.  Or more accurately, in the few days that the House and Senate are actually in session before Christmas.  Nearly all of the following impact Americans in some form or another and are important to the smooth functioning of our nation.  These are important issues that deserve serious consideration and discussion.  I will let you decide whether or not that will happen.

To name a few:

  • Tax cuts.  The president promised a “great big beautiful Christmas present” with completion of the Republican tax cut.  Both the House — which passed its version before Thanksgiving — and the Senate — which hopes to pass its version this week — have significantly different bills designed to permanently cut corporate taxes and to cut some lower and middle class taxes for a while.  The Republican leadership is touting both bills as a boon to the middle class.  Sorry, but I don’t see it.  Besides adding at least 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt over the next ten years, it makes some puzzling changes.  For example, nearly all deductions (mortgage, student loan, state and local taxes, medical expenses, moving expenses and about 40 some more) are removed from the individual taxpayers’ ability to use them but keeps them in place for corporations.  The argument is that the individual standard deduction will greatly increase (roughly doubled) and therefore there will be no need to itemize.  At the same time, corporate taxes drop roughly 40 percent (from 35% to 20%) but they still keep all itemized deductions, including those listed above that go away for the rest of us.  The real kicker is that corporate tax rates and rules are permanent and the rules for the rest of us are temporary.  The non-partisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimates that for many of us, our taxes will actually go up over the next ten years as compared to current law.  This happens primarily because of the “sunset” provisions impacting everyday Americans.  Many Republicans are arguing that some time “in the future” Congress will make them permanent and so in the end, we all benefit.  Except.  Except.  There is no guarantee that they will become permanent.  If they don’t, we are victims of a big lie.  And if they do, then it all has been a sham and a trick.  In order to meet the rules of the Senate, they cannot exceed the 1.5 trillion dollar addition to the national debt.  (To do so, they need 60 votes in the Senate, which means getting Democrats onboard, who, so far, have been shut out of any input to the bill.)  Thus, the permanent cuts for corporations are paid for by the average tax payer.   But not to worry, according to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Dick Mulvaney, it is all a trick.  A “gimmick.”  As he said on Meet the Press, in order to meet the Senate rules, “certain proposals can only have certain economic impact.  One of the ways to game the system is to make things expire.”  Or as he went on to say, “a lot of this is a gimmick… to get through these rules in the Senate.”  This from the president’s point man on the cuts and in charge of explaining them to the public.  There is a whole lot more to this issue, but it deserves a separate piece as the issues are complex with wide impacts on each of our futures.  Keep an eye on this.

(Please note that there is no need to place a time limit on getting this legislation right. It is an arbitrary political goal to “deliver” a tax cut by Christmas.  Remember that as it crowds out the following issues, many of which do have — or have already reached — a drop dead date to accomplish.)

  • Government Shutdown.  Funding to operate the federal government expires on 8 December.  Here we go again.  Both Republicans and Democrats are using the imminent expiration of the spending authorization to promote their political agendas.  As in the past, it is unlikely that the Republicans can pass a spending bill without at least some Democrats voting for it as well (there is always a hard-core Republican group opposed to the amount of spending and the impact on the deficit — although they mysteriously voted for the increased deficit from the tax cuts).  There is a “summit” planned tomorrow involving the leaders of both parties from both houses and the president to try to come to accommodation on this and other issues.  Probably there will be a short-term extension to keep the government operating — a continuing resolution or CR.  CRs wreak havoc on all government agencies from defense to agriculture as they limit immediate spending and give no clear guidance for the future, thus severely inhibiting planning for the future.  Predictions are not optimistic as to a quick resolution because the Republican leadership remains laser focused on getting the tax cuts finished first.
  • Defense Spending.  As part of the overall objective of setting spending levels for 2018 many want to see defense spending increased from about $549 billion to about $600 billion.  In order to do that, Congress must rescind a bipartisan 2011 budget deal that set spending caps on all areas of government.  Democrats are insisting that any increases in defense spending must be matched by increases in non-defense spending or they will not vote to lift the 2011 caps.  Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to change the bipartisan agreement providing the limits so Democrats have a say in how this is resolved.  Very little progress in resolving the issue is apparent and this impacts the funding for the government as a whole (see above).
  • Health Care. Politicians on both sides of the aisle want to see the market stabilized for health care.  Not surprisingly, there are differences on how to do it.  The Alexander-Murray health care bill is a bipartisan effort to bring some continuity and stabilization to health care under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The administration opposes this bill and the Senate version of the tax cut plan eliminates the penalty for not having insurance — thus creating the possibility of increased premiums for those with insurance and eventually driving a predicted 13 million from the roles.  (See my previous posts about the “three-legged stool” needed to keep the system stable.)  Democrats say the Alexander-Murray bill is off the table if the repeal of a key provision of the ACA is enacted.  Republicans are still making noise about “repeal and replace in 2018.”  Compromise seems unlikely and the public suffers.
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program.  The generally popular CHIP provides health coverage for about 9 million poor children and others.  The current legislation expired on 30 September and it is unknown when this usually bipartisan issue will be addressed.  To date, the states have picked up the slack to keep the program going in the short-term but many say that funds will run out at the end of the year.  This is also caught up in the “need” to address tax cuts before other legislation.
  • Immigration.  The president announced the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) (the Dreamers) program last September and gave Congress until March to come up with a system for dealing with the children brought here illegally by their parents.  Many Democrats say that they will not vote for any spending bills unless this issue is addressed by the end of the year.  Some Republicans say that they will not address immigration unless “The Wall” is part of the bill.  There are also Republicans that agree that the Dreamers issue needs to be addressed and that may actually favor their remaining in the country.  But, again, they argue this cannot be part of any spending bill and can only be addressed after the tax cuts pass.
  • Intelligence Gathering.  On 31 December of this year Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will expire.  This section of the law, approved by Congress in 2008 as a part of the response to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, is intended as a tool to track and thus foil foreign terrorists.  It is meant for use in conjunction with foreign citizens outside of the United States and has specific provisions to protect American citizens.  Unfortunately, critics of the provision claim that vast amounts of information is collected on U.S. citizens as they communicate with foreigners — any foreign national, not just those suspected of being terrorists.  Known as “incidental surveillance” it raises many questions of privacy and government intrusion into the lives of innocent, ordinary U.S. citizens.  The NSA considers this provision to be among their most important collection capabilities and fear that if they lose the ability to continue the surveillance that it will severely inhibit their counter-terrorism capability.  There is general bipartisan support to extend the statute, but with some restrictions to further try to protect Americans’ privacy.  Currently, there are no plans to address the expiring statute by the end of the year.
  • Disaster Relief.  The Administration asked Congress for $44 billion in disaster relief for help in mitigating the impact of the hurricanes and wildfires that affected many areas of the country this year.  To pay for it, they have asked for reductions in other expenditures, such as benefit programs.  By all accounts, 44 billion — a lot — is inadequate to meet the need.  Puerto Rico alone estimates that it will cost $99 billion to get the island back on its feet.  Congress has promised to provide the aid, but does not plan to address the issue with concrete action (money duly appropriated) until the tax cut plan is finished.
  • Iran Sanctions.  By declaring in October that Iran was not in compliance with the international deal to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, the president activated a 60 day period which expires in December for Congress to act to impose new sanctions or not.  The general sense is that there is mostly bipartisan agreement not to extend new sanctions on Iran and thus to keep the deal in place.  However, at the end of the 60 day period the ball is back in the president’s court and it may be that inaction on the part of Congress will lead to action by the president and thus put the deal in jeopardy.

And there’s more!  But you get the idea.  Not much of anything will get done until the tax cuts are passed, which is not a sure thing in the Senate.  Even if it does get through the Senate this week, or soon after, they still need to reconcile the two versions of the bill — no easy task as they are significantly different in several important areas.  All deadlines discussed for the tax cuts are purely political and self-imposed, unlike many other items in need of Congressional attention.

It is sure to be a busy political December.  Enjoy!  And don’t let the tweeting distract you from the real action going on.


Not Just “Something”

The Republican Congress is moving ahead with passage of a bill to enact tax “reform.”  Actually, if one takes a close look, it really is not tax reform, but rather a tax cut.  Some of us may be for it, some of us may be critical of it, some of us may think that there is no need for a tax cut at this point.  Whichever approach you favor, there are elements to the proposal that all of us need to understand as we will all hear different spins on the bill as more and more of it becomes clear.

The one thing we do not need or want — whether or not one favors the current tax cut proposal — is what I increasingly hear from Republican members of Congress.  That refrain is something along the lines of what’s important isn’t so much the details of the legislation but that this Congress must pass something.  Anything.  They could not deliver on Repeal and Replace and have so far not enacted any significant legislative at all.  Something has to pass or voters will think that they are ineffective and unable to govern.  As a result, the argument goes, they will be decisively punished at the polls in 2018 and therefore something is better than nothing.

Wrong.  I could not think of a worse reason to pass a bill, especially one that will impact every single American tax payer and business.  The last major attempt at tax reform took place under President Reagan in the early 1980’s.  Thus we hear that this is a once in a generation legislative achievement.  True or not, it is clearly significant and will have a lasting impact on our economy.

So, whether or not one supports the current bill, there are some things of which we all need to be aware as we decide if this is a good idea or not.  As usual, a few caveats apply.

The final version of the bill is unknown.  Even as I write, negotiations are taking place that will cause certain provisions to change or get modified as the wheeling and dealing takes place.  This deal making can substantively change the bill and not necessarily for the better.  Even as the version in the House is getting all of the attention, the Senate is working on its own bill, the provisions of which are being kept under wraps.  We can assume that it will probably be similar to the House version, but there is no guarantee.  The competing bills then go to conference where negotiators hash out the differences.  The question will be whether or not the “deals” see the light of day before voting takes place.  Finally, recall that the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate have decided to lock out the Democrats and pass the bills on a straight party-line vote.  Regardless of whether or not this is a good idea, certain Senate rules kick in as a result which means the House and Senate may not be able to do all that they want.  If they break certain rules — outlined in the just passed budget bill which got little attention because of other events — then the Senate will require 60 votes to pass the legislation, which is unlikely if the Democrats are locked out of any input to the bill.

I know, a lot of inside baseball type maneuvering, but it matters because the rest of us have to live with the results.

There are two major economic reasons for fooling around with taxes (either raising or lowering them).  One is to stimulate the economy to get it growing again.  The other is to bring about a balanced budget to stop or bring down the growth of our national debt.  The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they tend to act in competition in a modern economy.

Some argue that the economy cannot be stimulated further because current unemployment rates are very low.  According to the Labor Department, unemployment in October was 4.1% and there were 6.2 million open jobs on the market.  Demand for workers is exceeding those available.  During the presidential campaign, the Republican candidate claimed that the government’s statistics were “false” and that the unemployment rate was really much higher.  He now argues that the numbers are correct.  Regardless, an argument can be made that although the unemployment rate is the lowest in decades, there are many people that have stopped looking for jobs even though there are 6.2 million available.  Why the disparity?  Probably because the skill levels needed for the empty jobs is greater than, or a poor match with, the skills of those that stopped looking for jobs.  Couple this information with the fact that worker productivity is the highest ever — thanks to automation and other technology advances — and one can rightly ask how this tax cut is going to further stimulate growth in the economy.

The usual reply is that corporations will create more jobs by using dollars that would have gone to taxes to instead expand production.  This assumes that there is more demand for their products, an assumption that may or may not be true but is an unknown and should not be assumed.

The use of “dynamic scoring” helps the case for the tax cuts.  This is the theory that more money not spent on taxes will enter the economy as people have more cash to spend and this in turn causes the economy to grow and will actually bring in more tax dollars in the long run than are lost with the cuts.  Historically, this has rarely if ever happened.

The proposed tax cuts now before Congress will not balance the budget and will in fact increase the national debt by at least 1.5 trillion dollars over ten years.  (By the way, this is one of those intricate rules that the Senate must follow under the just passed budget.  They cannot go over that number or 60 votes will be required for passage.)  One might ask what happened to the Republican “deficit hawks” that argued for the past decade that the debt was growing too fast and even argued for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  Beware of the need to pass something.  One can also argue that it is not good governance or good policy to finance a tax cut through increasing the deficit.  It narrows the options going forward when it may be necessary to finance a major catastrophe or war through deficit spending.

In fact, the current proposal cuts government revenue by roughly 4 trillion dollars.  For those that argue for smaller government and less spending, that may be attractive.  Remember that many in Congress are also arguing for increased defense spending, major infrastructure spending, no cuts to Medicare or Social Security in an aging population, and other measures that will increase spending.  The money has to come from somewhere.

To get the 4 trillion in cuts down to 1.5 trillion in actual lost revenue, the bill makes up the difference by eliminating many current deductions.  This is where it starts to get interesting to you and me.

There are always winners and losers in these types of bills.  Depending on where you sit, you may or may not like what you see.  To me, we need to understand who wins and loses and decide for ourselves whether or not our elected representatives should vote for or against the bill.  There are philosophical reasons to support or oppose it and there are also practical reasons to do so or not.  Sometimes those line up, sometimes they do not.

As an aside, it is impossible to know if the president makes out well or not through the provisions of this bill because we do not have his tax returns.  Every analyst that I have seen opines that if his stated worth and holdings are true, the man and his family makes out “bigly” if the bill passes.  Call it a tycoon real estate developers dream.

Those that authored the tax cuts tout it as a huge win for the middle class and not so much for the wealthy.  Please investigate it for your self and do not take as gospel the talking points of anyone in the House or Senate, Republican or Democrat.

Here are some of the more eye-opening provisions.  These are only a sample.  Read the 429 page proposal for yourselves and see if it meets your needs.

According to the talking points, the attempt at tax reform is to simplify the tax code.  If you dig through the details, it really does not do that.  There will be no “post card” sized tax form unless you already use the “1040 EZ” form and use photo shop to make it fit on a post card.

According to the talking points the cuts will put about $1,182 into the “typical family of four.”  First, I’m not sure what a “typical” family might be (more on that in a minute), but more broadly, of the $1.5 trillion cut about $1 trillion goes primarily to corporations, about $300 billion to tax payers, and about $200 billion to the most wealthy Americans via the elimination of the estate tax.

Back to the typical family.  Some will receive a tax cut, although how much is in dispute by some economists, but they generally agree that some will get a cut and that some middle class folks will actually have their taxes go up.  The main argument from the bill’s authors is that increasing the standard deduction ($12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples) will eliminate the need to itemize deductions as most people will be better off not doing so.  Perhaps.  Individual circumstances vary so widely that it is hard to generalize.  But middle class tax payers should know that among other deductions that are to be eliminated include:

  • Federal deductions for state and local taxes (known as SALT) are eliminated.  Property taxes will be deductible up to $10,000.  The argument against “double taxation” — used in eliminating the estate tax — doesn’t seem to matter here.  For states with state and local taxes (including sales taxes) one will pay twice on the same income.  Arguments that high state taxes that are deductible means those with no or low state taxes subsidize them do not hold up.  There are many ways to analyze the return on investment, but in general, states with low or no state taxes get back more from the federal government than they send to Washington in taxes and just the opposite for the supposed free loaders.  For example, New York (high state tax) gets back about 75 cents for every dollar it pays in federal taxes and Florida (no state income tax) gets back about $4.50 for every tax dollar.
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is repealed.  This is the methodology that hits many middle class tax payers (although it was originally designed to keep wealthy people from paying no taxes through shelters and other tax dodges) requiring that when certain marks are reached, the owed tax is calculated in two different ways and the higher rate prevails.  Estimates are that the president will save tens of millions of dollars every year with the elimination of the AMT.
  • Elimination of the deduction for medical expenses.  Currently, one can deduct all expenses over 10% of adjusted gross income.  No deductions will be allowed under the new proposal.  This obviously impacts people with major medical bills, often the elderly, as it includes long-term care and other services needed for the aged or infirm.
  • Deductions for student loan interest is eliminated.
  • Estate Tax limits rise from the current $5.9 million to $11 million and then is eliminated in 2024.  This is a hot button issue.  Most of us will never be impacted by it, but Republicans claim it is “double taxation” (see above) and harms small businesses.  Its elimination adds about $200 billion to the deficit over ten years.  Estimates are that about 80 businesses were impacted by it last year.  The president’s family is expected to increase their inheritance by approximately $500 million through its elimination.  Keep an eye on this.  One proposal to pay for this change would provide for estates passed to heirs to be valued at their original prices (such as stock you bought 20 years ago and want to pass on) rather than the current rule where the origination value is that that it held at the time of passing.  This would impact far more people than currently affected by the estate tax.
  • A lower rate for “pass through” business income also sometimes called the “Trump loophole.”  This applies to businesses such as partnerships, “S” corporations, sole proprietorships, and the like.  It allows the owners to “pass through” profits from their businesses to be taxed as their personal income.  Thus pass through income is taxed at no more than 25 percent — far below the 39.6 percent top individual income tax rate that now applies to pass-through income, or the 35 percent top rate that would apply to individual income under the Republican plan.  Many very wealthy people such as the president use these types of arrangements for their businesses.  It is expected that many will restructure their business arrangements to take advantage of this new loophole.
  • There are proposals over the weekend to include repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or portions there of in the tax bill.  Mixed signals from law makers make it unclear whether or not they will try to sneak that into the bill after failing to pass it into law over the last seven years.
  • And a whole lot more, but you get the idea.

Clearly a “typical family” with a mortgage (deductions are limited under the bill) who are suddenly hit with catastrophic medical bills while paying off the student loans they took out to meet the needs of the new work place will fare totally differently than those families used in the talking points.  Very little is “typical” of any family.

Primarily we all need to keep an eye on the negotiations that will keep specifics of the bill in flux until the day it is voted up or down.  Whether for or against these provisions, we should insist on a fair and transparent process where our representatives know what they are voting on and what the implications for the new laws will be.  All of us will be impacted in some way.

Tax reform is a good thing.  There are many complicated elements to the current law and other elements that are unfair to some or too generous to others.  It’s complicated.  It’s messy.  Not everyone will be happy.  What we don’t need is a closed door, rushed job, unclear bill that gets passed only because they had to do something.

 


Dangerous Times

In the last ten to twelve days we have seen a remarkable display of something — although I am not really sure what we are seeing.  But from where I sit, it isn’t good.

In succession we have Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) (a former nominee for president), former Republican President George W. Bush, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) all directly or unmistakably reference, the leadership philosophy, character and fitness for office of our current president.  All found him seriously wanting in every imaginable category.  On top of that, former Democrat President Barack Obama and former Democrat Vice President Joe Biden made similar remarks.  But of course their remarks don’t count because of the fact that the Democrats are all “losers” and “whiners.”  So let’s just focus on the president’s own party and their criticism.

Some Republicans and some reporters and analysts use words like “feud” and “tit for tat” and “Junior High disputes” to describe the events of the last week.  Wrong.  Likewise is it wrong to think that their words have no real meaning because, in at least two cases, they have chosen not to run for re-election.  Perhaps it gave them more leeway to speak up, but it does not change the import of their words.

To brush it off as some kind of personality clash is to lose sight of what serious men of conscience are actually saying.  It is also not really a matter of policy or ideological differences either.  For goodness sake, Senators Corker and Flake vote with about a 96% consistency rate with the stated goals of the rest of their party and presumably of the president.  (Although it is difficult to know about the latter as his grasp of policy details is suspect and he can change his mind about an issue several times in the same day.  For example, with the bipartisan Alexander-Murray bill for a temporary fix of the health care system, where he was for it before he was against it — in the same afternoon.)

These proven Republicans, all of whom I respect even if I don’t agree with their every approach to solving the nation’s problems, make a compelling case that the president is manifestly unfit for office and that his tumbling tumbleweed approach to governing diminishes our place in the world and is dangerous.  It is a question of character and the current president is found to be profoundly lacking, if not completely devoid, of it.  More precisely Senator McCain said, among other things:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems, is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the phrase “blood and soil” is the phrase used by American white supremacists, is associated with some supporters of this administration, and comes from a philosophy from Nazi Germany. “Blut und Boden.” Look it up.

Likewise Senator Flake characterizes the president’s character as a danger to our nation and to peace in the world.  The speech is worth reading as many think that in historical terms, we will look back upon it as a clarion call to action to stop the reckless behavior of the current administration.  He warns of creating a “new normal” where the most crass and personal petty attacks and lies are taken as the course of events in politics.  His condemnation of the current administration is lengthy, but the heart of the matter can be summed up in these passages:

If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that it is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit and weakness. It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?

Mr. President, I rise today to say: enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

This is not a “tit for tat” or a personality conflict.  These comments, and similar ones by President Bush and even more blunt comments by Senator Corker are alarming.  Or they should be.

Politics in the United States has changed in the past year or so from differences in ideas to one where we argue over the populist slogans of the sloganeer-in-chief.  I heard it described the other day as “emotional sustenance.”  Substance from the chief executive is no longer required, all that is asked of him is that he entertain us.  Sadly, that entertainment is not even positive but geared to salve the emotional feelings surrounding perceived slights of those that just want to be mad at the establishment and he indulges them.  Substance may not be dead in the Congress, but it is on life support because the man at the top cares nothing about it.  Watch the interview from last weekend with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business News and the president.  She served up the most soft ball type questions imaginable and tried to lead him through his own policies, but with little success.  Asked about Russia he talked about Bob Kraft (owner of the NFL New England Patriots) and the Super Bowl ring he gave (?) to Vladimir Putin.  Having already mentioned the Alexander-Murray bipartisan health care bill, here was his description of it:

Well, I’ve — I have looked at it very, very strongly. And pretty much, we can do almost what they’re getting. I — I think he is a tremendous person. I don’t know Sen. Murray. I hear very, very good things.

I know that Lamar Alexander’s a fine man, and he is really in there to do good for the people. We can do pretty much what we have to do without, you know, the secretary has tremendous leeway in the — under the Obama plans. One of the things that they did, because they were so messed up, they had no choice but to give the secretary leeway because they knew he’d have to be — he or she would have to be changing all the time.

And we can pretty much do whatever we have to do just the way it is. So this was going to be temporary, prior to repeal and replace. We’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare.

A grasp of the issue?  You be the judge.

Here is what we now have in the United States of America.  We have a chief executive who created a cult of personality, and continues to expand that cult, with no grasp of the issues, no desire to learn the issues and who thinks that bullying (“Liddle’ Bob Corker”, “Little Rocket Man”, Jeff “The Flake” Flake, and countless others) is the way to govern and accomplish something meaningful.

And it gets worse.

As late as yesterday, the Commander-in-Chief continued to argue with a Gold Star widow.  Not Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla) who is a close family friend (you may know her better as the president does as “Wacky Congressman (sic) Wilson “).  The widow.

Most disappointing was the press conference given by Chief-of-Staff John Kelly last week.  After giving a heart wrenching, and something the country as a whole needed to understand, explanation as to how our fallen military members are returned home to grieving families, he went too far.  He too attacked Congresswoman Wilson with what was proven to be false accusations.  And he went on to show that in this White House, he is really just an admin guy and mouthpiece for the president.  Clearly, he does the president’s bidding without question and thereby refutes the idea that he is any kind of filter or brake for the president’s divisive views.

Many people, including military veterans, I’ve spoken with are profoundly disappointed in the president and John Kelly.  Many consider this the low point for this administration.

Sadly, I think that demonstrates a lack of imagination.  I don’t think we have yet realized just how low the president and many of his advisers are willing to go.  How many times in the last two years have people said “that’s it” — surely it cannot get any worse.  And then it does.

I think that is why Senators McCain, Corker, and Flake spoke out in recent days.  That is why Presidents Bush and Obama spoke out in recent days.  They realize the serious threat to our republic embodied by this administration and they cannot sit by and watch it be destroyed.

Unfortunately, too many others in Congress are willing to trade their souls for a tax cut.

All of us have a role to play.  We cannot sit idly by and watch our country careen towards ruin.


“The Apprentice: The White House Years” Needs To Be Cancelled

The past six weeks or so have been tough on a lot of people from natural and man-made disasters.  Multiple hurricanes, an earthquake, unprecedented wildfires, and a mass shooting all come to mind, to name a few of the major events since the summer.  Tough going for a lot of people who will take months or years to fully recover.  The loss of life is significant and the loss of property not only impacts people’s lives but also our national treasure.  We as a nation need to stick with the recovery efforts even as the president seemed to imply yesterday that the “ungrateful” Puerto Ricans — American citizens all — are themselves largely responsible for their condition and should not count on continued federal assistance to recover.

Amidst all of the heartache and sadness, there have been incredible scenes and stories of every day people stepping up to do incredible things.  The stories of human beings helping human beings are inspiring.  These people stepped up not for the glory or reward but because it was the right thing to do.  Many had lost their own homes or loved ones and yet they sallied forth over and over to help or rescue others even as their own lives were in danger.  Truly inspiring and a refreshing reminder that at heart we are all the same and that the vast majority of people will come through for their fellow citizens when their backs are up against the wall.

What was truly refreshing about these countless stories is that they took place against the backdrop of the continuing circus unfolding in and around the White House.  The Tumbling Tumbleweed Administration still values daily fights with the media and attacking anyone that looks at them cross-eyed.  One is either a pandering sycophant or an “enemy of the state” according to this administration.  The list of daily insults to our citizens and our nation is far too long to take on one by one and the pettiness and vindictiveness of this administration is ever more shameful when compared to the many uplifting actions taken in the wake of actual disasters, not the one’s unnecessarily created by the president.  The president continues to tumble around in the wind of his perceived need to satisfy a “base” of about 30-40% of our nation rather than to provide a vision of how to lead the entire nation to address the serious issues facing this country.

Of grave concern to me is that the leaders of the Republican Party will not stand up on their hind legs and tell the president that he is just plain wrong about many issues.  This is deeply concerning.  Apparently the hope — and so far they have demonstrated that it is only a hope — of passing their “agenda” over rides their Constitutional duty as an equal branch of government to stand up to the president when he is wrong and/or out-of-bounds.

Thankfully there are a few canaries in the coal mine (how ironic since the administration is “stopping the war on coal”) who are willing to publicly voice their concerns. The common knowledge around Washington is that nearly every Senator and Representative is privately concerned over the president’s personal behavior and the potential damage to our country.  Yet, only a few are willing to speak up.

Unfortunately, it needs to be Republicans that speak up as when Democrats do they are accused of partisanship or “playing politics” with important issues.  (One might ask if it isn’t their political job to raise questions about issues as they occur.)  This week two Republican Senators did speak up.  Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) did so.  Both were immediately personally attacked and belittled by the president.

In an interview with the New York Times Senator Corker said, among other things, that the president “concerns me.  He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”  He went on to liken this administration to “a reality show” and as has been widely reported, the president is leading the country “on the path to World War III.”   Anyone that follows such things knows that Senator Corker is a well-respected, conscientious individual that takes his duties seriously.  While I do not agree with all of his ideas, he is well-versed in foreign affairs and national security and an acknowledged expert.  If he is willing to speak out against a president of his own party, I see his words as a warning to the rest of us.  We should be paying close attention.

Think of it this way.  Yesterday in a press opportunity with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the president was asked about any differences he might have with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over North Korea.  In the context of his, shall we say, mercurial temperament, his words were troubling.  He opined that he might “have a little bit different attitude on North Korea than other people might have.” He acknowledged that he listens to his advisers but that “ultimately my attitude is the one that matters, isn’t it? That’s the way it works. That’s the way the system is.  I think perhaps I feel stronger and tougher on that subject than other people, but I listen to everybody.”

This from the man who threatened to “totally destroy” the North Koreans and belittled his own Secretary of State for trying to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels.

Senator Sasse spoke up yesterday following a statement and a series of tweets from the president (I still can not believe that we conduct national affairs via Twitter) where he seemed to state that he would abridge the First Amendment rights of NBC news for broadcasting “fake news.”  One sample:

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

For the moment, let’s look past the fact that NBC is not licensed by the federal government, individual local stations are, and that the president cannot take away their license.  Just another case of the president being factually challenged, or not having the intellectual curiosity to actually know what he is talking about.  But nothing new there.

Instead, let’s take it for what it is.  The first, classic step of an authoritarian regime.  Belittle institutions, question their integrity, claim that they are illegitimate, and then shut them down.  History 101.  Am I over reacting?  I used to think that there was a lot of hyperbole around the doings of this president and  that the basic nature of our Constitution and the safeguards there in would keep him in check.  Now I am not so sure (and more on that later).  In addition to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers assumed that certain norms and standards of behavior would naturally be part of the unwritten rules governing those in power.  I would opine that assumption is now being challenged in terms of the moral and ethical behavior of the man in the White House.

We need more Senators, and other, yes Republican, politicians to speak out as Senator Sasse did yesterday when he asked the president (and of course, via Twitter):

“Mr. President:
Are you recanting of the Oath you took on Jan. 20 to preserve, protect, and defend the 1st Amendment?”

It is not normal for a president of these United States to call for the shutting down of a news outlet because he is mad about their reporting.  Upset about it, sure.  Most presidents get upset about some news report about some issue.  But every day — well maybe not every day, but about 98% of the days — this president comes out with some new crazy thing that he says or does.  Again, Senator Corker was a truth teller when he said, “I don’t know why the President tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.”  This is not the America we know and love.

Here is where I almost fell over yesterday as analysts were discussing the state of affairs in the world vis-a-vis those in the White House.  By all accounts the president feels that he is not in control and expects the rest of the government to respond to his commands and desires as they did when he was in his gilded tower in New York City.  He is frustrated and ready to lash out.  Guess where the one power lies that no one else can countermand or dispute?  His role as Commander-in-Chief.  The hyperbole surrounding who has their “finger on the button” to launch our nuclear arsenal now sounds more real.  Throughout his campaign and now in his presidency he talks of our arsenal and its strength.   Unfortunately, he talks about it in ways that make me think that he does not understand what he is talking about (see my 21 September post on “Deterrence 101”).  Couple that with his comments about North Korea above (“my attitude is the one that matters”) and one could start to lose sleep at night.

To paraphrase Stan Oliver, “Well here’s another nice mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”  I have no magic solution.  We need to hope that more officials in government step up and hold this president accountable.  Stop the Tumbling Tumbleweed Administration from blowing aimlessly across the national landscape.  Hold Congressional hearings to force the administration to articulate its policies and explain the strategy to implement them.  Call out the president when he makes untrue and outrageous statements.  Things have not gotten better with time and we now know that there will be no “pivot” and no learning curve.  He is who he is and we know it.  It won’t change. If only he had the empathy, understanding and feeling for his fellow citizens that those suffering in the disasters have demonstrated. But he does not. It is time to hold the Apprentice-in-Chief accountable for all of his actions.


Deterrence 101

“I’m not the man they think I am at home”  — Elton John in “Rocket Man”

On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it.  Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence.  (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)

You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea.  To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay.  But what did he really say?

Let’s put this another way.  The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans.  As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons.  He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed.  Not very motivational to someone like Kim.

Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech.  Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea.  Iran is not testing nuclear weapons.  The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran.  No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them.  It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades.  It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two.  I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement.  It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it.  The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany.  If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit.  Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.

This is where we get back to North Korea.  Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  Hmmm.  Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement.  Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:

“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint.  (Who cares what he thinks, some may say?  Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.)  Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct.  Except for one thing.  We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.

From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S.  Not much of an incentive to give them up.

It gets worse.

Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival.  Period.  I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not.  Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea.  It might work.  But probably not.

It keeps getting worse.

Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts.  Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do.  Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred.  They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it.  One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical.  We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.

In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.

With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says,  “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so).  “Defend” against what?  He does not say.  In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968.  Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States.  Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves.  What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost?  I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that  “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  It is not a credible threat.  The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous.  Or it should be in this scenario.  Kim will not see it as a credible threat.  Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.

This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks.  It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between.  I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration.  But leaving one’s options open is the best course.

With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101.  There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory.  But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.

Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK.  Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK.  They believe it.  The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.

Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over.  The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens.  If Kim pushes we should shove back.  We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies.  End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime.  Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding.  We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases.  If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges.  Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily.  Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.

Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric.  It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime.  If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy.  China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players.  It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience.  It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.