“You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, ‘Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?’ You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word. Use that word!”
— Donald J. Trump at a political rally in Houston, 22 October 2018
And there we have it.
The President of the United States is proudly using a word that is full of historic negative connotations. Mr. Trump stated yesterday in response to a reporter’s question that he didn’t know why people were upset with his use of the word and implied that it meant the same as “patriotism.” It is not the same, and anyone with any sense of history knows that. While the president is famously ill-informed, and proud of it, I have no doubt he knew exactly what he was saying. His own words tell us that: “we’re not supposed to use that word.”
Nationalism: Loyalty and devotion to a nation. Especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or groups.
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Patriotism: Love for or devotion to one’s country.
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Note the difference, and it’s a big one. One espouses devotion to a nation, one to a country. While we say that we “are one nation under God” we are really a country, not a nation in the sense that it is used in these definitions. In this sense a nation is a group of people with a common language, ethnicity, and an outlook that manifests in a common culture. In other words, it is exclusive of those that do not share the same traits.
Nationalism is a relatively recent development in history, coming into wide-spread usage starting in the 1800s and resulting in the founding of nation-states in place of empires or kingdoms that had dominated previously. The idea came of age in the 20th century and was one of the key causes leading to World War I and World War II. In truth, nationalism can be a positive force, such as in the end of colonialism and the emergence of many new countries from nations across Africa, Latin America and Asia, or it can be a negative force such as the rallying cry of fascist dictators and others. Vladimir Putin is using Russian nationalism to consolidate his power and as an excuse for the annexation of Crimea and for threats against the Baltic States, especially Estonia which has a high percentage of ethnic Russians in its population.
E Pluribus Unum. “Out of many, one.” Our country’s motto reflects the fact that our country is made of people from around the world, from many nations, that have come together to form a “more perfect union.” We put aside our devotion to the nation of origin and pledge our allegiance to a new country. This is what made, and keeps, America great and is significantly different from what it means to be French, or Spanish, or Chinese.
The history of nationalism in this country is sordid. Historically it means a belief in a country dominated by white Christian males and is most closely associated with white nationalism. The march in Charlottesville Virginia last year was a white nationalist rally which included overt neo-Nazi groups. Mr. Trump opined that there were “good people on both sides” thus validating the cause of those groups, at least in their eyes. Nationalism means that one promotes one’s own culture and values ahead of those of others. Nationalists do so not just because they believe in them but because they believe that their culture and values are inherently better than those of any other one’s or any other nation’s culture and values. Thus, it means that in the context of the Charlottesville rally, for example, that white interests should supersede those of any other group in the U.S.
In the 1930’s the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party used nationalism to legally rise to power in a republican Germany. The rallying cry was that German culture and ethnicity was superior to any other nation’s and therefore Germans should dominate the world.
In the U.S., mainstream politicians and citizens celebrate our diversity. We have a history of people of different ethnic groups, nationalities, religions, cultures and customs coming together in a common cause. It is what makes for American Exceptionalism which is, well, exceptional because we are one of the few, if not the only, country in the world that not only believes in our diversity, but celebrates it.
Mr. Trump claimed yesterday in response to a question about white nationalism during a press availability in the Oval Office, as to whether he intended his remarks to encourage white nationalists. He responded incredulously to the question and said “no, I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist.”
Where are the patriots? Who is standing up and saying, “no, Mr. President, we are not nationalists, we are patriots.” We do not celebrate the demonization of other ethnic groups or nationalities. Patriots celebrate our country and are proud of the fact that from our various backgrounds we come together in common purposes. We are a beacon to the world. Extinguishing that beacon through a misguided belief that we are somehow being “screwed” by “others” will not improve the life of any American. Should we follow the path that Mr. Trump espouses we lose the essence of what has served us so well for so long. Anger and fear are the basic ingredients of a “nationalist” ideology. We are better than that.
As the evidence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi continues to grow, the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State expand their dissembling and cover up on behalf of the leadership of Saudi Arabia.
It is embarrassing in one sense and appalling in every way.
Whether or not Prince Mohammad thought that he would be able to murder someone on foreign soil with impunity and without consequence or not, with the complicity and direct efforts of the President of the United States he will get away with it. The president trotted out his tag line that worked so well in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh by accusing the press and world leaders elsewhere of jumping to conclusions. Or as he said in an interview with the Associated Press, “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”
The preponderance of evidence, including from Turkey our NATO ally, indicates that the Saudis certainly did murder Mr. Khashoggi and given the way the Saudis govern, it is preposterous to stipulate that Saudi hit men that are known to work directly for the Crown Prince would have gone “rogue” and killed him without the Prince’s knowledge.
One element that indicates the president is involved in a cover up is the fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies were directed not to follow through with scheduled briefings for the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning events surrounding the murder. As Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), the Chairman of the committee told reporters yesterday, the administration has “clamped down” on providing information to the committee and cancelled a scheduled briefing on Tuesday. Senator Corker went on to say that before his committee’s oversight of the Executive Branch was blocked, that the intelligence he had seen indicates that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis. He added, “everything points to MBS. This could not have happened without his approval.”
Once again, this administration is driven by money and money alone. Apparently they are not knowledgeable enough or competent enough to figure out how to condemn the actions resulting in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi without breaking off relations with Saudi Arabia, an important, if unreliable, friend in the Middle East. The Saudis (and their money) are important players in the region and can be a counter to Iran. Diplomacy and foreign relations require skill and knowledge of the trade craft involved in the push and pull of world events. Evidently this administration cannot pull it off.
For example, back in the day I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in dealing with regional issues, including in Saudi Arabia. The Bedouin tradition is one of extreme hospitality, based on their origins as nomads in the desert where survival might depend on help from others. This ingrained hospitality has carried over to modern Saudi Arabia. Part of that tradition is to never say “no.” They don’t. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that not saying “no” doesn’t mean “yes.” An apocryphal but not too unrealistic negotiation would go something like this: “Will you commit to buying $110 billion in U.S. arms?” “It would be a great honor.” “So that means you will?” “Inshallah!” (God willing!) And so it goes. One walks away thinking that there was a deal until it comes time to put ink to paper.
The president is being hoodwinked if he thinks that the value of the Saudis to U.S. security interests is so immense that it outweighs human rights, and thus he needs to cover up the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. They need us more than we need them. Some examples. The U.S. is now a net exporter of oil, thanks to the expansion of the commercial viability of shale oil. We do import oil, but our biggest supplier is Canada. Oil is a fungible commodity, the Saudis need to sell their oil as their economy is nearly entirely dependent on it. They aren’t going to stop. The arms sales the president is so afraid of losing constitute a small percentage of the U.S. defense industry. More to the current point, most of the Saudi’s military equipment is U.S., especially their aircraft and the munitions they carry. They will need U.S. spare parts and maintenance contracts for years to come. They will not cut those off as it would be against their own best interests especially as they continue to interfere in the war in Yemen. Should war break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are toast without us. And so on. One gets the idea. The Saudis need us economically and militarily more than we need them. We hold most of the cards and a skillful administration would know how to parlay them into the Saudi’s taking accountability for a crime against humanity. Diplomatically and through intelligence sharing they can provide the U.S. some real value. However, the president argues in terms of the bottom line — money — and not in terms of their other value added.
Apparently, human rights has no place in U.S. foreign policy, a break in our traditions since World War II. That is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t looked the other way in the past in order to attain our national interests. We have, in some truly shameful circumstances. Rarely, if ever, however, has the president actively worked in favor of a foreign power to cover up a heinous crime.
Perhaps there are other motivations such as personal financial gain for the president and his family?
Over the last 18 months the U.S. has given the dictators of the world a license to kill. In addition to the unfolding events in Saudi Arabia, the president has shrugged over Russian president Vladimir Putin ordering a poison attack on British soil, congratulated Philippine president Duterte’s hit squads killing thousands of people on the streets in his war on drugs, congratulated China’s president Xi on changing the succession of government to become President for Life, as he did with Turkey’s president Erdogan who undermined democracy in his own country and installed himself as a de facto autocrat, and of course expressed his admiration for the world’s current most ruthless dictator North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. As the President of the United States said about the Great Leader, “We went back and forth, then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters. We fell in love.”
Meanwhile he trashes our allies in the U.K,, Germany, Japan, Canada and the entirety of NATO, to name a few of the nations we actually depend upon .
Let’s look from the outside in. Were I sitting in North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia or a host of other nations led by autocrats and dictators, I would conclude that all one needs to do to silence and paralyze the United States is to impress the president on how wonderful he is and to put some money on the line. After that, anything goes. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” Maybe those despots just “gotta use some Tic Tacs” to get what they want.
Of course poor people in Africa or Latin America are a direct threat to the survival of the United States. I guess that’s why today the president threatened to put the military on our border with Mexico to stop the “invasion” coming from Central America.
Something is upside down in our country.
Roughly two weeks ago Jamal Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Mr. Khashoggi, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime who was living in exile as a permanent green card holder in the United States and was a Washington Post journalist. Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate, as seen on security cameras outside the building, but was never observed coming out and has not been heard from since. The Saudis claim that he left the Consulate in fine condition but can provide no proof and cannot say where he may be. The Turkish government states that it has hard evidence — reportedly audio and possibly video recordings — that Mr. Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the Consulate. The Turks report that a fifteen man “hit squad” flew in and out of Turkey from Saudi Arabia on two private aircraft before and after the alleged murder.
This incident is getting the full attention of both political parties in the United States Senate as well as freedom loving nations around the world. Demands for answers from the Saudis and a full investigation into the disappearance of a respected journalist are growing. For those nations that care about human rights, this is an egregious and blatant act of state sponsored terrorism against an innocent civilian conducted on the foreign soil of a NATO ally. It cannot be tolerated.
While acknowledging that a state ordered murder of Mr. Khashoggi (“if it’s true”) would be a problem (“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a bit.”), the President of the United States has been clear over the last several days that restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not be on the table. Or as he said on Thursday, ” I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” (Mr. Trump keeps touting the $110 billion arms deal, but analysts say that the Saudis have only committed to about $10 billion and it is debatable that the Saudis will ever buy the full $110 billion as their military cannot assimilate all of those weapons.) So we know that Mr. Khashoggi’s life is not worth $110 billion or even $10 billion. What is it worth?
This murderous development significantly impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The Trump Administration, through the president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, has put all of their Middle East policy eggs in the Saudi basket. The reasons are many, varied and complicated, but if you can’t tell the players without a score card, a quick summary follows.
The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1930 under King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud. The relationship with the United States began following the discovery of oil in the kingdom in 1938 and dates to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy while anchored in the Suez Canal. A hand shake between the two took on the force of a treaty. The kingdom would supply oil to the U.S. in exchange for security and protection guarantees from the U.S. That same basic agreement is still in force today, but with greater complications.
The kingdom was ruled for most of its existence by one of the sons of King Abdul-Aziz. As one half-brother died, another would succeed him as king. For all of this time, the main focus of Saudi policy was, and is, the preservation of the rule of the royal family (which now numbers in the thousands with uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. that can trace lineage back to King Abdul Aziz) and their wealth. As the brothers died off, there was a power struggle within the family as to how succession would be passed down for the future. Currently, the winner of that struggle is Mohammad bin Salman, at 33 the current Crown Prince, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as his father, King Salman, the nominal ruler of the kingdom is reported to be in poor health.
Crown Prince Mohammad, commonly referred to as MBS, is also good friends with Mr. Kushner. Both are young and apparently bonded in the days following the election in 2016. Many thought originally that Prince Mohammad would be a reformer within the kingdom and bring it into the 21st century through economic and social reform. Recently, analysis of his efforts indicates that he is a good public relations man in pushing the appearance of reform, but in fact his efforts are focused on establishing himself as the autocratic head of state and in consolidating power for himself, regardless of who gets hurt in the process. For example in 2017 he had over 40 members of the royal family and senior government officials arrested and imprisoned along with roughly 200 other businessmen, bankers, broadcasters and others. Ostensibly this was to rid the government of corruption but it is widely viewed as a test of his power and an attempt to eliminate any competition for his leadership. Most were eventually released after paying “fines” (read bribes) to the Crown Prince worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It is widely believed that Mr. Kushner may have shared highly classified intelligence with the Prince prior to the purge naming those in the country that opposed his taking the reins .
Mr. Kushner sees MBS as the key to countering Iran in the region and as the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The prince positioned himself to be a “player” but so far the Saudis have not delivered on their promises (as anyone knowing how things work in that area would know) even as the U.S. has delivered on their end, most controversially by supporting the Saudis with arms and intelligence during their ongoing military involvement in Yemen.
Additionally, and not surprisingly, both the Trump and Kushner family business organizations have long-standing and wide-spread business involvement in Saudi Arabia. When Mr. Trump was in serious financial trouble in the 1990s, for example, he sold condos, a hotel, parts of his business and his yacht to Saudis to raise money. It is rumored that the Saudis saved the Kushner family business by taking on the loan for a prominent New York land mark. There are other business connections that have been detailed in many venues, but without the release of a certain president’s tax returns and other normally provided financial information, the true extent of the deals cannot be determined. Oh by the way, the biggest spender at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC since the election is the Saudi government.
Mr. Khashoggi wrote often and furiously about the corruption in the Saudi royal family, their business ties and the efforts by Prince Mohammad to take control of the country. Or as he said last year to The New Yorker, “It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi Arabia. MBS is now becoming the supreme leader.”
Mr. Khashoggi would never have been murdered without the knowledge of Prince Mohammad.
And all of this is the tip of the iceberg. Our relationship is a complicated one, on all levels. There are advantages and disadvantages to working with the Saudis. The alleged murder of Mr. Khashoggi puts a lot of the national and personal goals of this administration in peril should the president choose to act on punishing the Saudis. The Senate is invoking the Global Magnitsky Act based on a December 2016 law that invokes sanctions against anyone or any government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world. The president is resisting. (Ironically the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr. Trump, Jr. and the Russians concerned the Magnitsky Act which at the time involved sanctions against Russians committing human rights abuses. In December of that year it expanded to a global scale.)
Mr. Trump knows he must act tough, but my bet is that he hopes that it all blows over. Today he reportedly spoke to King Salman, the titular head of Saudi Arabia, who assured him that the Saudis had nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. He flatly denied it. Or as Mr. Trump told reporters today, “It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind. The denial was very strong.” (As one recalls, anyone or any government that strongly denies a murder by chemical attack — hello Russia — or preying on young girls — hello Roy Moore — or anything else is believed by Mr. Trump because they are “very strong” in their denials.)
To add injury to insult, Mr. Trump added to his statement by saying that “It sounded to me like it could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Indeed. Can you say “cover up”?
I can see it developing already. No official U.S. government action will ensue as Mr. Trump says we can’t be sure who did it. The Saudis deny it. Very strongly. It could have been rogue killers. We cannot give up billions in arms sales. Too bad. I feel bad for his family. Hey, look over there!
And we move on.
There was a time when the U.S. cared about and set an example for human rights, freedom of the press and other values we held dearly as a nation. Now, not so much. Apparently all of our relations are now transactional and only get fully considered based on the financial bottom line. It only matters how much money is involved, not what is right.
Apparently a human life isn’t worth anything to the United States anymore.
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!
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.
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.
This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.” It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result. Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II. There are many reasons why this may be true.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles. It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. It worked. The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement. There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA. Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed. This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.
The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members. During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.” Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.” Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections. There is no evidence of cheating as some claim. No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.
In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.” We have now conceded the initiative to Iran. They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements. We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed. Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.” Presumably, he means that some years in the future, the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors. One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason. First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons. Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years. The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not. They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests. Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.
Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.” Perhaps he is correct. Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits. It might work. However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal. Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal. It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement. What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say? None.
More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around. The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council. All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran. The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them. The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement. Again, this gives the initiative to Iran. They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.
The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go. We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served. Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball. The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure. They are tough. Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.
Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests. Always. However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations. Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition. This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena. We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges. Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”
This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran. This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era. Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO. We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions. As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.
Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead. In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies. He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians. That may or may not be a good bet. Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement. If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals. Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.
All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East. Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time. The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria. The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.
Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea. Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are. Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.” It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.
An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.
Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts. In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”. Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home. However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary. Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD. This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged. The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic. If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night. To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal. They released prisoners in the past, too. Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place. They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result. Talking is way better than fighting. I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath. Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans. More on that in a yet to be post in this space.
Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place. No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.” That makes it one mighty big gamble. Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.” What if we succeed then what do we do? What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step? There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.
One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was. There are no next steps. He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).
Hubris is not a policy.
As described in this space last week, the situation in and around Syria is quite complicated. We are where we are today because last Saturday Syrian aircraft dropped gas bombs on civilians in the rebel held town of Douma. In the ongoing fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rebels, and those civilians around them, continue to be subject to crimes against humanity. Photographs and videos of the resulting injuries and the wrenching reactions of those hit by the gas have gone viral and provoked a response from the president as well as a likely response by France and the United Kingdom.
One could reasonably ask, why now? International monitors believe that this is the eighth time that the Syrians have used gas against civilians in the last year. Usually, they use chlorine gas which is not technically banned under international law. Of course it is not banned because it is not supposed to be used as a weapon, but when dropped in high concentrations in confined spaces it can cause severe lung damage, leading to liquid forming in the lungs and inducing severe pneumonia. The effects usually take time to cause damage and it is not automatically fatal. The gas used last Saturday is believed to have been chlorine gas with some other agent mixed in with it. Based on the videos, experts believe that a nerve agent, probably Sarin, was the other ingredient. Sarin is man-made, colorless and odorless, but causes immediate and severe reactions from touching, breathing or ingesting it and often causes a quick but horrible death. One can debate the morality of reacting to Sarin attacks but not to chlorine attacks, but the international community has drawn that line.
Currently, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are investigating if gas was used, and if so, what types of chemical weapons were used in Douma. The effectiveness of their investigation is doubtful so many days after the incident, especially since most of the people impacted by the attack died or left the city. However, military action, if any (and I believe there will be) will likely be delayed while the OPCW is on the ground.
A complicating factor is that the Russian military is heavily invested in Syria in support of the regime.
The U.S. has a history of trying to deter Bashar’s use of chemical weapons. Recall that in 2012 President Obama suggested that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring a response. The next year Syria used chemical weapons. After failing to get an international response, especially from the U.K., coupled with the lack of support in the U.S. Congress for military action in Syria, President Obama backed away from his red line. As I wrote at the time, that was a huge mistake.
As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council brokered an agreement whereby Syria would destroy all of its chemical weapons. With Russian assistance, the OPCW removed “all” of the chemical stockpiles, completing the job in June 2014. Russia “guaranteed” that all of the weapons were removed or destroyed — with the exception of chlorine gas.
In 2017 Syria was found to have used Sarin agents against its population. In April last year, Mr. Trump ordered cruise missile attacks against the airfield used to launch the weapons. While I joined others in applauding the decision to strike Syria, the actual strike was a mere hand slap. Mostly it destroyed a few planes on the ground and put some holes in the runways at the air base. They were back up and operating in a few days. More to the point, the strike clearly did not act as a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons.
This is where it gets dicey. To effectively punish Bashar and his regime, the U.S. — hopefully with participation and support from our Allies in France and the U.K — must hit him where it hurts. Targets should be some combination of command and control centers, headquarters buildings, and the locations of the secret police, for example. The counter argument is that Russian citizens and military personnel are very likely to be at some of those targets. Killing Russians in an attack on Syria could easily lead to a full-blown crisis and could endanger our ground troops in Eastern Syria fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. Indeed, the Russians have vowed to defend Syria against, and to retaliate for, any attack. Thus the president’s taunt/threat/thoughtless statement in the Tweet above is directed at Russia.
A tactical strike such as the one carried out last year is relatively easy and low risk. However, based on the ineffective results from our previous strike, coupled with Russian threats, it may make the U.S. look weak. To conduct a much larger attack, with real consequences to Syria, raises the stakes immeasurably and could include manned aircraft. Manned aircraft. Real people going in harm’s way. While I have every confidence in our military aviators, nothing is fool-proof. American lives could be lost or pilots captured. In particular, the Russians have installed sophisticated air defense missiles in Syria that were not there at the time of our Tomahawk strike last year. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly said that they would go after the sources of any attack. Once an attack is underway, the dogs of war are unleashed and it is impossible to project all of the consequences. Syria is a tinder box waiting to explode among the many factions involved.
It is unlikely that the Russians would be able to effectively reach ships and submarines launching missiles hundreds of miles out in the Mediterranean Sea or to reach air bases in Qatar or other locations in the Middle East that may be used to launch aircraft. But they could intercept them. And any commander worth their salt will want to know the plan for protecting our forces in Eastern Syria who would definitely be within the reach and capability of the Russians to hit them. Recall that last February Russian “contractors” (they still insist on calling them that) attacked a U.S. base.
Syria is a difficult dilemma. I feel confident that our military leaders and the Secretary of Defense are putting forth the best options to achieve the mission. What bothers me are the reckless statements of the Commander-in-Chief and his lack of ability to coherently articulate any strategic vision or overall goal for our involvement in Syria. It cannot be an impulsive reaction, an attempt to divert attention from events surrounding his extracurricular activities, or just an exercise in video game perceptions of what combat actual entails.
The military is ready and capable of carrying out their mission and to protect the good citizens of these United States. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be punished — not only for now but for the future — in order to make clear that the international community condemns their use in no uncertain terms. However, let’s not do so lightly. Actions have consequences. This is not some theoretical exercise of military might. The lives of real people are at stake. It is not too much to ask the Commander-in-Chief to act like it.