The Trashing of the Presidency

Two significant events took place yesterday.  In one, the Attorney General went before the good people of the United States, and to put it kindly, embarrassed himself when he uttered misleading and deceptive statements regarding the Mueller Report.  The other event was the release of the 448 page redacted report itself.  In reading the Report it became clear that Attorney General William Barr is a shill for the President of the United States and will act in a manner consistent with many in the Trump Administration as outlined in the Mueller Report.  Lying and abuse of power are the norm as is so evidently clear in the Report.  (I have not yet read all of it — a compelling read, by the way.  You can find it here. It reads a lot like a mob crime novel.)  There is so much detail in the Report that it is easy to get distracted or to just stop and shake one’s head at the immoral and unethical activity detailed in it.  For now, let’s take a big picture view of what did and did not come out of the Report.

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the Report most certainly does not exonerate the president.  It does not recommend prosecution of the president, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller clearly lays out a road map for Congress to act if it so chooses.  More on that below.

The Report comes in two volumes, one on Russian-Trump Campaign coordination and one on obstruction of justice efforts.  It is significant to note that the Report does not contain any counter-intelligence information.  In other words, it doesn’t answer the question if one or more of those involved in the Trump Campaign and Administration were involved with a foreign power (or powers) to act in a way that furthered the interests of those countries at the expense of our own.  A very major hole in the entire Report.  It is also pertinent to remember, that Mr. Mueller took a very narrow view of his charter and stuck mainly to investigating Russian interference and the president’s subsequent reaction to that investigation.  There are numerous “spin-off” investigations taking place in New York, Virginia, Washington D.C. and elsewhere.  Those are not impacted by this Report.

When reading Volume I, remember that “collusion” is not a legal term.  (Which makes it even more embarrassing that A.G. Barr said at least five times in his press conference that there was “no collusion.”  Of course there wasn’t.  It’s not a legal term.  He was clearly pandering to an audience of one.  But I digress.)  Mr. Mueller does not use the term collusion anywhere in the report. The correct terms are conspiracy and coordination.  Mr. Mueller said that the Trump Campaign activities did not rise to the level of a crime provable beyond the shadow of a doubt, but that there were numerous contacts between the campaign and the Russians.  More specifically he wrote in the Introduction to Volume I that:

As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents. The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

Wow.

Russia interfered in the election.  Russia actively worked to help Mr. Trump and damage Secretary Clinton.  The Trump Campaign knew about it and expected to benefit from it.

In Volume II the Special Counsel lays out the reasoning behind not charging Mr. Trump with the crime of obstruction of justice.  This section is, to me, quite interesting and exceedingly relevant. To the contrary of A.G. Barr’s assertion that Mr. Mueller could not make a determination, the Report clearly states why they did not recommend prosecution of the president for his actions.  Mr. Mueller followed the existing policy of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that a sitting president cannot be indicted.  However, he says, a president can be prosecuted after he leaves office.  Therefore, the Report states in the introduction to Volume II, that in order to safeguard “the integrity of the criminal justice system, we conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.”  A big hint that criminal prosecution may be advisable in the future or that the Congress can use the information in the near term.

Additionally the Report goes on to say that it would not be fair to accuse the president of a crime, even though he is not indicted, because without an indictment no trial could be held and if there was no trial, then the accused could not defend himself.  In other words, under the rules we can’t indict a president, so we can’t bring him to trial, therefore we won’t say he broke the law, but we won’t say he did not either.  A considerable difference from the way A.G. Barr depicted the situation.  In fact, Mr. Mueller lays down a pretty compelling case that Mr. Trump probably did obstruct justice beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here is the kicker.  In the introduction the Report says that:

If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

In other words, we can’t say he committed a crime because then we would have to act, but we cannot act while he is in office, but (hint, hint) we do not exonerate him.  In fact, the only reason that Mr. Trump did not further obstruct justice was because some of his staff would not lie or act illegally on his behalf.  As the Report puts it, “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

Who can take action?  The Congress.  The Report also takes note of that fact.  In a long discussion of the legal precedents and other factors governing presidential powers and Congressional powers as delineated in the Constitution, it states in part that,

Under applicable Supreme Court precedent, the Constitution does not categorically and permanently immunize a President for obstructing justice through the use of his Article II powers. The separation-of-powers doctrine authorizes Congress to protect official proceedings, including those of courts and grand juries, from corrupt, obstructive acts regardless of their source.

The Report goes on to conclude that,

Finally, we concluded that in the rare case in which a criminal investigation of the President’s conduct is justified, inquiries to determine whether the President acted for a corrupt motive should not impermissibly chill his performance of his constitutionally assigned duties. The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.

In the context of the full report, it seems that Mr. Mueller is trying to lay out a road map for the Congress to take action.

The real question is whether or not the Congress will act on this extremely damaging delineation of the rampant corruption and flouting of the norms that used to govern our presidents.  Mr. Trump clearly has no interest in upholding his oath to defend the Constitution.  Will Congress?

Many political arguments are underway as to the pros and cons of initiating impeachment hearings.  One could argue that there should be no political considerations to be had.  Either the Congress has the duty to begin such proceedings given what we know (which is only the tip of the iceberg) or it doesn’t.

It most definitely is not time to “just move along.”  We must hold our elected officials to account.  As the true magnitude of this Report sinks in we as a nation must make considered decisions as to how to deal with it.  We either have a country of laws where no one is above the law or we do not.  So far, it appears we do not.  Even as I write this the president is in his lair at Mar-a-Lago using his Twitter feed to send out expletive filled expressions of rage to denigrate the Report, those that did the investigation, and those that had the courage to stand up to the president and refuse to do his bidding and told the truth about what happened.

Worse yet is that regardless of how one feels about Mr. Trump and what action should or should not be taken to hold him accountable, the evidence that the Russian Federation interfered in our 2016 election is irrefutable.  And yet, the president, who took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” still refuses to acknowledge the attack on the United States.

That alone should be an impeachable offense.

My biggest concern is that once again the president will take away the lesson that he can get away with anything and not be held to account.  Given his past performance, I think we can expect him to further ignore the law and to act outrageously.  There is no one to stop him and he now has an Attorney General that acts as his personal attorney ready to protect him.

Let us hope that the House of Representatives continues to exercise their Constitutional duty to provide over sight of the Executive Branch of government.  Otherwise, it’s “Katie bar the door.”  Hang on for a wild ride.


The End Of The Beginning

Last Friday, Attorney General William Barr announced that the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller was complete.  Yesterday, Mr. Barr put out a summary of the Mueller Report that some likened to a book report because it was very short on content and long on unanswered questions.  There was some good news for our country in his summary.

According to Mr. Barr, Mr. Mueller did not find evidence of any conspiracy or criminal cooperation between the Trump Campaign or the President of the United States and the Russian Federation or any others associated with that country to rig the election.  Very good news, indeed.

Let that sink in for a minute as you contemplate what it would mean had Mr. Mueller found that the president did conspire with a foreign adversary to win the election.  We as a country would be in a very difficult place today had the result of the investigation been different.  At the same time, think what a low bar that is.  Never in the roughly 240 years of our national existence has there been any need to investigate such a matter.  It was inconceivable.  Yet, today, celebrations ensue that the president did not sell his soul to the Russians.  At least politically.  But let’s take a big sigh of relief that it is a positive outcome.

Also good news is that Mr. Mueller was able to finish his investigation without undue interference.  Or at least it appears that way, with one known exception that I will address below.  I have faith in Mr. Mueller and his thoroughness (read Mr. Barr’s letter to see just how thorough).  In my estimation, he is a man of integrity who carried out his mission as he saw it and did not seem to be distracted by the circus atmosphere the president created.  (Mr. Trump owes him an apology.  Instead last night he continued to attack him and the investigation in his public statements and on Twitter.  Shameful.)  From the Attorney General’s letter, it also seems that Mr. Mueller took a very narrow view of his assignment and focused primarily on Russian interference.  As we have already seen, other crimes or unsavory activities were farmed out to the presiding jurisdictions for action.  It remains to be seen what else may arise from other federal and state district attorneys but there are no new indictments, announced or sealed, pending from Mr. Mueller directly.

There are many, many caveats and unanswered questions that hang over the whole report.  First and foremost is the fact that no one has seen it outside of a few people in the Department of Justice (DOJ).  Neither we as citizens nor our representatives in the House and Senate have seen it.  We do not really know what it says — only what Mr. Barr says it says.  By releasing his letter as he did, he gave Mr. Trump and his supporters a very big political win.  Everything that comes after, no matter how damning it may or may not be, will be considered “sour grapes” or otherwise discounted.  I happen to believe that there will be considerable evidence of wrong doing within the Trump Organization and the Trump Campaign that we will find to be unacceptable behavior from a presidential candidate but may not rise to the level of criminality or a provable conspiracy.  Why all the lying about Russia?  By lots of folks at different times and in different places including countless Russia lies by Mr. Trump himself?  My own opinion is that the lying was covering up financial relationships and business deals between members of the Trump family and organization and various nefarious Russian oligarchs and entities.  Again, perhaps not criminal (although such a great volume of lying to the people of the United States should have some consequence), but at best inappropriate and unseemly.  We just do not know and will not know until the report is available to all.

Remember that despite Mr. Trump’s claim that he was “totally exonerated” by Mr. Mueller he was not.  Concerning possible obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller did not make a decision.  Mr. Barr’s letter quoted directly from the Mueller Report to say that regarding obstruction, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”  I will be one of several million Americans that will want to know how that non-decision came about.  It is curious that a seasoned, respected, courageous prosecutor would collect a very thorough number of facts and then take a pass on recommending whether or not it reached the level of criminality.  What gives?  The context of Mr. Mueller’s remarks in this regard will be very important.  This is where we don’t know if there was undue influence on the investigation.  Was he told not to make a decision?  Why did Mr. Barr make a decision that there was no obstruction of justice if the investigator did not say so?  Attorney General Barr wrote a long legal dissertation about the investigation even before he was nominated to the position (some critics opine that it was his try-out and audition for the office in that he caught the president’s attention with it).  In it he stated his belief that a sitting president could not obstruct justice while carrying out the prescribed duties of the office.  (Such as firing the FBI director.) Some in Congress and elsewhere are worried that the “fix was in.”  In their view, Mr. Barr was hired to protect Mr. Trump from liability in just such a case.  Without the supporting documentation, we cannot know what transpired.  Unfortunately, Mr. Barr muddied the waters of an investigation that was meant to clear things up.  If we knew the context of Mr. Mueller’s “pros and cons” regarding obstruction, we may even find that his intent was to outline the road map for Congressional inquiries and possible action.  Mr. Barr seems to have tried to short-circuit that possibility.  In my view that was a political decision made in the president’s favor rather than a legal one that should have been left to Mr. Mueller.

Lost in the Tweets and punditry is the fact the report apparently concludes that the Russians did meddle in the election with the intent of helping Mr. Trump — or at least with the desired impact of helping to defeat Secretary Hillary Clinton in the general election.  This should be a major focus of those purporting to want to serve our country.  How did they do so?  What recommendations are there for stopping or at least limiting future interference?  If the president accepts the results of the conspiracy investigation why does he still refuse to acknowledge that the Russians did interfere even as every knowledgeable person in the intelligence agencies and the Congress say that they did?  This should be the basis of serious action on the part of the administration and the Congress to protect the 2020 election.  Will that happen in the midst of the political brouhaha that is occurring daily?

Pressure will be brought to stop further oversight by the House committees looking into the actions of the president and his aides as well as on the District Attorneys looking into possible illegal activities undertaken by the Trump Organization and Kushner, Inc.  Those investigations should continue.  Despite claims by Mr. Trump and his supporters, Mr. Mueller’s report does not seem to touch on those activities.  If they were illegal or unethical, the public should know.  If they are not, then it would seem that the Trump family would want that information to be forthcoming as well.

There is an awful lot that we do not know about the Mueller Report.  Right now, no one outside of the DOJ even knows how many pages it is or the depth of the supporting documentation.  With 19 lawyers, 40 FBI agents, 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants, 500 witnesses and other investigative work behind the report, it should be substantial and detailed.  But we don’t know what we don’t know and there is no clear indication from the DOJ as to when or how much of the report will be made available.

Finally, while I do not really see the parallels between Mr. Trump and President Richard Nixon, I will merely point out that the Watergate scandal and investigation lasted a very long time.  The original break-in occurred in June 1972.  In October 1972 the FBI began to uncover the extent of the nefarious campaign efforts.  In May 1973 the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was sworn in to investigate.  In May 1974 the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings (whether or not to do it).  In July 1974 on a bipartisan vote the House committee approved three articles of impeachment (the first was for obstruction of justice, the second was for misuse of power and not fulfilling his oath as president, and the third was for failure to comply with subpoenas).  In August 1974 the president resigned.  He was never impeached.

My purpose in relating this bit of info is not to advocate for impeachment but merely to say that the completion of the Mueller Report is only the beginning of the search for the truth about what did or did not happen.  It takes a long time.

Unfortunately, I think that the way Mr. Barr released selected excerpts from the full report will only serve to harden the positions of those that support Mr. Trump as president and those that think he has conducted himself improperly in the White House.  Nothing has been fully settled except — thankfully — the president and his aides did not directly conspire with the Russians to throw the 2016 election.

It seems to me that a lot is still on the table and that this is only the beginning of more to come.  I fear that given Mr. Trump’s proclivity to lean towards autocracy, that the idea that he was “exonerated” and the victim of a “witch hunt” will only embolden him and reinforce his worst instincts.

I hope that I am wrong.

 

 


Of M.I.C.E. And Men

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues, so far thirty-four people and three companies have been indicted or pleaded guilty to criminal charges.  Five of the six advisers to Mr. Donald J. Trump that are on that list have submitted guilty pleas.  Only time will tell how many more people close to Mr. Trump may be indicted as the investigation comes to a close.  I will not venture a guess as to who, or when those indictments will come down (I thought it would have happened long before now) but I have no doubt that others — some very close to the president — will be charged.

Whether those charges are directly connected to working with the Russians to throw the election in Mr. Trump’s direction is hard to say for sure.  However, of those indicted by Mr. Mueller to date, twenty-six are Russian nationals.

As the investigation continues to unfold, keep in the back of your mind the reasons why people spy on their own country or cooperate with foreign governments to undermine their home government.  What could motivate a person to betray their country?  There is an old acronym that summarizes those reasons.  It is M.I.C.E. and breaks down as follows.

  • M — Money.  This can take many forms.  Money to become rich.  Money because the individual needs it for personal or family reasons.  Money “owed” to them but because of “bad breaks” that they fault their own government for creating they never got what they felt they deserved.  And so on.
  • I — Ideology.  This was the motivator for some in the early days of the Cold War or for those that cooperated with the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  It is often an idealistic view of a particular ideology, such as communism being good for the poor and blue-collar workers.
  • C– Compromised.  This is otherwise known as good old-fashioned blackmail.
  • E — Ego.  This is one’s own sense of self-worth.  It can be the result of trying to increase one’s own sense of self-importance or it can be a result of having the ability to sabotage someone else’s sense of self-importance for pure spite.  Egos take many forms but the knowledge that you can do something and then did do something of great import is a significant motivator.  It can also be the ego boost of doing something daring or forbidden that no one else has the nerve to do.

In the current era, the two biggest motivators are money and ego.  And of course, some combination of two or more of these factors may play a part in getting someone to betray their fellow citizens.  For example, having compromising information on a potential asset may not be enough to bring them over to your side.  Sweetening the deal with substantial cash or some other fiduciary reward gets you there.  It could be that the potential asset is severely in debt and about to be embarrassed or financially ruined should that information become known.  That individual would be compromised by the release of that information. They are also further compromised if the “recruiter” offers to solve the indebtedness problem, which of course, further compromises the potential asset once they take the money or the debt is resolved.

Of those advisers to Mr. Trump indicted thus far, money and ego seem to be the driving factors.  We will see what happens as the investigation continues.  I for one will be curious as to their motivation.


What To Think?

You may have missed it with all of the theatrics surrounding the Trump Shutdown, but some potentially mind-blowing news came out last Friday and over the weekend.

Even as I suffer from Trump fatigue, and you know what I think of him as president, it is impossible to ignore this development.  The FBI started a counter-intelligence investigation of the president in 2017. The President. Of the United States.  It is unknown whether that investigation continues under the guidance of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but it is likely that it does.  A counter-intelligence investigation is totally unlike a criminal investigation.  It is a totally different ball game.  It also puts the possibility of the president’s efforts at obstructing justice into an entirely different dimension.  Perhaps instead of trying to protect himself from embarrassment or through some other motivation, his decision to fire then FBI Director James Comey “over this Russia thing” was with a different outcome in mind.  Coupled with all of the subsequent efforts to stop or disrupt Mr. Mueller’s investigation, it appears he was trying to keep the discovery of conspiracy with a foreign power from becoming known.  In other words, the obstruction was the conspiracy (or collusion as it is popularly, but wrongly, called.)

In this context, the Mueller investigation, and Mr. Trump’s actions as a candidate and as president form a continuum across time and are not a series of discreet events.

It is hard to adequately convey how difficult the decision to do this is.  For the Department of Justice (DOJ), that would have to approve the FBI investigation at its highest level, to sign off on it, would indicate that there is or was extraordinary evidence that something was amiss.  This would be no routine investigation.

Apparently, the FBI became so alarmed at Mr. Trump’s actions that it appeared he was acting on behalf of a foreign power.  They knew that a “normal” president would not talk or act as he was, specifically with respect to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and could only explain it by the concern that he must be under the influence of a foreign power.  In other words, they thought the president could be a Russian agent.  No movie studio would make this movie.  Too preposterous.

To be clear, to be a Russian agent does not necessarily mean that the individual was trained in Russia or by Russians, or even that he was directly controlled by a Russian case agent.  As former CIA Director John Brennan said in testimony to Congress, such people can be “wittingly or unwittingly” agents of a foreign power.  I do not know and cannot make a good guess as to whether Mr. Trump is or is not knowingly a Russian agent.  But I do know that he is acting to further the Russian agenda over the best interests of the United States.

Keep in mind, Mr. Putin was a career KGB agent who attained the rank of Colonel before the end of the Cold War.  He knows what he is doing.

This is scary, mind-blowing, and a conundrum.  Our system of government is based on the premise that the president is above reproach when it comes to national security. One may disagree on specific policy decisions, but we must assume that presidents are doing what they believe are in the best interests of the United States, not a foreign adversary. The president is the final arbiter of military, intelligence, and foreign policy issues.  How do intelligence agencies or law enforcement agencies or the counter intelligence arms of various government agencies deal with an individual who, while under investigation, can over turn, hinder or evade those investigations?  And how should they be held to account?  If by definition the president is the lead diplomat for our country, how can he be wrong?  There are many implications and questions that arise when one starts thinking about our president as a Russian agent.  My head hurts.

Keep in mind that counter intelligence agents are some of the most peculiar people one will ever meet.  Thinking about their job, they are suspicious about everyone and everything that does not fit their mold of the “normal.”  Conspiracies lurk everywhere.  None-the-less, there must have been sufficient reasons to open this investigation or it would never have happened.  They do not investigate the president for the fun of it or for political reasons.  They just do not.  Yes, paranoia runs deep.  Into your life it will creep.  (With apologies to Buffalo Springfield.)  You are not paranoid if it is true.

The possibility gains traction through documented reports that Mr. Trump met one-on-one with Mr. Putin five different times over the last two years with only interpreters in the room.  He then collected the interpreters notes and refused to share what was said with anyone else in the government. Two particularly troubling meetings were the one in Helsinki last summer and an unscheduled meeting at a G-20 dinner in Hamburg Germany where only the Russian interpreter was present. (I have written about these meetings before. I was especially alarmed by the meeting in Germany.)  Rest assured the Russians know what was discussed and agreed to, but not those in the highest levels of our own government.

In my view, the most likely foundation to this arrangement rests on sanctions.  The Russians want them lifted and so does the Trump Organization.  The Russians were heavily sanctioned following their annexation of Crimea and it is hurting their economy.  They want them gone.  The sanctions were the genesis of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian representatives to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.  When you hear “Magnitsky Act” think sanctions.  The Russians want them removed.  Now.  Mr. Trump wants them lifted because following his many bankruptcies, nearly all his money came from Russia. The banks that produced the loans are subject to the sanctions. Continued sanctions means no big money for Trump Org.  Additionally, it is well know that Mr. Trump’s business Holy Grail is to put his name on a Trump Tower Moscow.

My view is that of many possible explanations, the simplest is that Mr. Trump wants to do business in Russia when he leaves office and is willing to bargain with Mr. Putin to get the access.  What other evidence exists?

Let’s look at some of the president’s actions and words.  This list is not exhaustive but representative.

  • As the Republican nominee he had the Republican National Committee 2016 platform changed regarding Ukraine in order to mirror Russian claims and interests.
  • At every opportunity he incessantly praises Mr. Putin which validates Mr. Putin’s self-proclaimed status, empowers him at home, and comes at the expense of our allies and friends.
  • The primary goal of Mr. Putin is to splinter the Western Alliance so that Russia can fill the void and return to the glory days — as Mr. Putin sees it — of the Soviet Union.  Mr Trump aids that goal in many ways.
    • He launches personal and political attacks against the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and others.  He belittles lesser members of the European Union (EU) and NATO.
    • He supports Brexit (The UK departure from the EU) which currently has the UK in turmoil.  This weakens the EU and contributes to chaos in the internal affairs of a key ally.  That internal chaos distracts a force for good and takes a staunch opponent of Russia off of the world stage.
    • When asked in a 2018 interview to name the U.S. “biggest foe globally right now,” Mr. Trump  responded “I think the European Union is a foe.”  The EU contains our closest allies.  The interview was just before he met with Mr. Putin in Helsinki.
    • He continually belittles NATO in public.  It is apparent he does not know how funding for NATO works.  He apparently also does not know that the only time Article V of NATO was invoked (an attack on one nation is an attack on all) was following the terrorist attack in September 2001.  NATO troops have been in Afghanistan from the beginning of the conflict and remain there.  It has been widely reported that Mr. Trump continually pushed his senior aids throughout 2018 to have the U.S. withdraw from NATO.  Such an action would be Mr. Putin’s wildest dream come true.
  • He continually denies that Russia interfered with the U.S. 2016 election. He continually takes Mr. Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere over the facts presented by the entire U.S. intelligence community. Among his justification for taking Mr. Putin’s word is the newly reported reasoning for doing so, including this remarkable quote.  Mr. Trump “said that he raised the election hacking three times and that Mr. Putin denied involvement. But he said Mr. Putin also told him that ‘if we did, we wouldn’t have gotten caught because we’re professionals.’ Mr. Trump said: ‘I thought that was a good point because they are some of the best in the world’ at hacking.”
  • He pushed to have Russia rejoin the G-7 (it was previously the G-8).  The Russians  were expelled following their annexation of Crimea.  Mr. Trump said that he thinks that the punishment is too severe for that act.
  • At the 2018 G-7 summit Mr. Trump opined that of course Crimea belongs to Russia because “they all speak Russian.”  This put fear into the hearts of our Baltic, and NATO, allies that were once part of the Soviet Union and have a large Russian ethnic population.
  • Following the March 2018 poisoning in the UK of the Skirpals, former Russian agents that went over to the West, he said that there was no evidence to support the UK Prime Minister’s denunciations of Russia for an attack on British soil.
  • Last December he called for U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria “now” and turn it over to the Russians.  This is a long-standing goal of the Russians so that they can increase their influence in the Middle East and gain a military presence in the region.
  • He often spouts Russian talking points (propaganda).  The most recent instance was his spontaneous and out of the blue discourse on the Soviet Union, their presence in Afghanistan, and a revisionist history of their reasons for invading. (This was the subject of a recent post in this space, explaining how this promotes Mr. Putin’s view of the restoration of the Soviet empire.)

And so on.  Some big, some small, but all consistent in their praise of Russia and in pushing the Russian agenda.

So, what to think?  Is our president a Russian agent, whether wittingly or unwittingly?  I sincerely hope that the Mueller investigation addresses this issue clearly, either to confirm it or to debunk it.  From where I sit today, and from all that we have seen of Mr. Trump in the last three years, I think it likely.  It is most likely in the nature of long-standing business and other money schemes between Russian oligarchs and Mr. Trump and his family.  That would be in keeping with what we know about him and what he says himself.  With him, no matter the subject, it is all about the money.  Period.

Should this be true, I have no idea how it will be resolved.  It is beyond comprehension.  The President of the United States works for Russia.  Incredible.

The only thing that is clear to me is that Mr. Mueller needs to get the results of his investigation into the open as soon as possible.  I know that he is being meticulous, as he should be.  However, if this is even only a little bit true, our nation is in danger.  We need to know and we need to know before something truly awful happens.  And if it isn’t true, we need to know that as well so that we can move on without distraction to addressing the complex issues that we know await us in 2019

 


Absurd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


That Was The Week That Was

With apologies to the old 1960’s era television show — the precursor to shows on now such as the Daily Show — That Was The Week That Was, or as it was commonly known TWTWTW, or TW3, we just experienced among the craziest weeks in recent history.  Like the Daily Show, TW3 took actual news events and gave them a “can you believe it” comical twist.  Unfortunately, there was nothing comical about this past week.  If you were busy shopping or attending holiday parties, here are the highlights of what you missed over the past seven days.  In some semblance of chronological order, of which very little exists today in this administration, they include:

  • Late last Friday night a federal judge declared the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional.  The judge said that since Congress lowered the tax for the Individual Mandate to zero, they essentially repealed the tax.  In two Supreme Court decisions the ACA was ruled constitutional because of the tax — which is a right held by Congress.  Since there is now no tax, the whole law was deemed unconstitutional, ignoring the long-standing legal precedent of “severability” which means that just because one part of a contract or law is deemed to be wrong, the whole contract or law is not voided.  More on this in a future post.
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned from the Cabinet to avoid investigation of his actions while in office.  This now means that since the mid-term election in November, Mr. Trump has fired or accepted the “resignations” of the Attorney General, his Chief of Staff, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the Secretary of Defense.  There are still countless White House staff positions, Assistant Secretaries, and Ambassador positions yet to be filled two years into this administration.
  • It was revealed that there are currently at least 17 investigations of Mr. Trump, his organizations, and associates by at least seven different jurisdictions.  (The Special Counsel, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Attorney for  the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Attorneys General from New York City, New York State and other states, and a “mystery” investigation that is under court seal.)
  • Two independent studies reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians’ involvement in social media and efforts to help Mr. Trump and to hurt Secretary Clinton were more widespread than previously understood.  It continued well after the election and shifted focus to undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation of Mr. Trump.  In particular, the Russians took actions to suppress the minority vote.  Since Mr. Trump won the Electoral College by a total of approximately 80,000 votes spread across the three states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan it is probable, but not provable, that their actions changed the election.
  • General Michael Flynn arrived for sentencing thinking that he would get probation.  Judge Emmet Sullivan disabused him of that perception and threatened to lock him up.  “I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense,” said the judge.  Keep in mind that the judge has seen the redacted parts of the case that detail the full extent of the former National Security Adviser’s role in the campaign, transition and administration.  The sentencing was postponed for 90 days to give General Flynn another chance to cooperate with the investigation.  (Hint. Hint.)
  • In an ongoing civil suit in New York State, the Attorney General of New York attained a court order for the Trump Foundation to shut down.  The Foundation will distribute its remaining funds under court supervision.  The suit continues.  The N.Y Attorney General argued that the Foundation was little more than a slush fund for Mr. Trump, the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign.  All illegal activities.
  • Acting Attorney General Whitaker refuses to recuse himself.  The senior career ethics professional in the Department of Justice told the Acting A.G. that he should recuse himself from the Mueller Investigation.  Mr. Whitaker decided not to do so.  Remember that A.G. Sessions forever will feel the wrath of Mr. Trump for having rightly recused himself last year following the appointment of the Special Counsel.
  • The president unilaterally announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria within 30 days. On Twitter. He further ordered that plans be drawn up to withdraw most if not all of our forces from Afghanistan.  This decision was met with great joy and celebration in Russia, Iran, and by Syria’s despotic ruler.  It takes the U.S. out of any significant role in the future of the Middle East and sends a message to our friends and allies that we cannot be trusted.  The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are the Kurds.  Through U.S. training, equipping and our Special Forces fighting alongside, they have become the most effective fighting force in Syria and were our partners in driving ISIS out of the cities.  We are now throwing them under the bus.  The Turkish government (along with Iran) does not want the Kurds to be a strong entity in the region and indeed the Turks are planning to attack them as soon as we leave.  Likewise negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan are now in jeopardy because the president wants us to leave.  All of our opponents now know to just wait us out.  We have lost all credibility in much of the world, but especially in Asia.  We also undermine Israel with this decision as the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah and others can now consolidate their power, gain new territory and not worry about a U.S. presence in the area.  This is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
  • The president agreed to a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until 8 February, the Senate unanimously voted to approve it and then he changed his mind and refused to go along unless he got at least $5 billion for a border wall.  Ironically the approximately 800,00 federal personnel that will be impacted are significantly represented by TSA agents, Border Patrol agents, Coast Guardsmen (the Coast Guard is not part of the Defense Department but falls under the Department of Home Land Security) and others charged with keeping our borders safe.  They will keep working but not get paid until the budget bill passes. For those that have mortgages, Christmas presents to buy, groceries to feed their family and other obligations, getting paid sometime in the future is not helpful to their current situations.  Mr. Trump promises a “very long shutdown” if he doesn’t get his way.  Remarkably, Representative Mark Meadows (Trump-NC) said that federal employees knew what they were getting into.  “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position.”  (Someone should tell Mr. Meadows that a well-run government does not shut down.  Furthermore, the Republicans have controlled the House, Senate and White House for two years.  Apparently that isn’t enough time to, you know, do your job and pass a budget.)
  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned.  Take a look at his resignation letter here.  Those familiar with the way such things normally work, Secretary Mattis’ letter is a direct rebuke of Mr. Trump and his policies and his leadership.  Through the eloquent and gentlemanly language, the Secretary basically tells Mr. Trump that he is full of it and an anathema to all that the United States stood for, for over seventy years.  This is unprecedented in modern times.
  • The stock market is on track to have the worst December on record since 1931 and the Great Depression.  The reasons are varied but include the uncertainty created by Mr. Trump and his impulsive policy decisions, especially regarding trade and tariffs.

These are only the quick highlights.  And only one week’s worth of news is listed here.  In “normal” times this much activity in a month would be noteworthy.

Much of this will play out over the next few weeks and months.  I am sure we will all have plenty to say about it as events unfold.  Right now I want to emphasize what much of this means to us with respect to national security and foreign affairs.

Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” agenda.  Nice slogan.  As has been pointed out by many, this was also the slogan of the fascist leaning, isolationist wing of American politicians in the 1930s that refused to oppose the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.  I am not hinting that Mr. Trump is a fascist sympathizer, I am merely pointing out that there are historical roots to the thoughts, and policies he espouses.

Given Mr. Trump’s use of hyperbole in everything that he does, many thought that “America First” was just a catchy phrase that he liked.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that the words are more than a slogan.  He believes them in the sense that it governs his views on trade, national security, military action and our role in the world.  It is reflected in his decisions (against nearly unanimous caution not to do so) to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, his decisions to impose tariffs, and his desire to build a wall on the southern border.  It is an entirely isolationist, transactional way of thinking.  In this way of thinking we do not help or stand by allies unless there is something tangible in it for us — in Mr. Trump’s view, money.

This way of thinking is dangerous — to the interests of the United States and to peace and stability in the world.  It cedes the playing field to Russia and China who are more than happy to fill the void.

Re-read Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter. He resigned because of those “America First” policies.  This is what he is not so subtly saying.  Mr. Trump is a danger to all that we as a country have held dear for over 70 years and a danger to the influence and power for good that the world used to count upon from the good old U.S. of A. Not anymore.

Expect it to get worse as Mr. Trump has systematically removed all of those in his administration that were not afraid to tell him “no” and stood against his misguided plans.  The president acts impulsively and erratically and it seems that with two years of data, we now know that his instincts are either no good, or his knowledge of the world is sorely inadequate.

We are fast approaching a time where the United States government is run like the Trump Organization.  It will be in the hands of Mr. Trump, his daughter and son-in-law.  Period.

Likewise, the world — our friends and allies as well as our enemies — now know that the president is weak and ill-informed.  The decision to leave Syria proves it to them.  The icing on the cake was his decision to cave to the whining from hard-core right-wing pundits on television calling him out on not shutting down the government over his wall.  It makes Mr. Trump look scared of losing his base and gives power to the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh.  Along with Sean Hannity, those apparently are his real cabinet.

On the other hand, this is a season of great joy!  Celebrate with friends and family.  Remember that we are all God’s children and enjoy the gift of life.  For a few days, we can put aside the worries of the secular world and revel in the power of the spiritual world.

Best wishes to all.


Where Are The Patriots?

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

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

And there we have it.

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

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

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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