Tag Archives: Chuck Schumer

Time’s Up, Senator!

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Open letter to Senator Joe Manchin,* Democrat of West Virginia:

You tried, Senator! You helped draft a compromise on voting rights — fashioning a bill not quite as good as the one the House passed earlier, but still good — and took it to Republicans. You told your colleagues in the Democratic senatorial caucus that you could get 10 Republican votes for the compromise. Well, you were wrong. The Republicans would not even allow a vote to come to the floor! So, now is the time to move boldly and reform the filibuster to pass legislation to protect the fundamental basis of a democratic government: The right to vote!

Because, senator, here’s the thing: Our democracy is at stake. If the federal government does not move to protect voting rights for all Americans in every state, then no election in the future truly will reflect the will of the people. Millions of Democratic-leaning voters — particularly young people and people of color — will be denied access to the ballot, tilting the field toward Republicans. And, even if Democrats manage to eke out victories, Republican legislators have given partisan state officials wide authority to overturn election results. And, the Supreme Court cannot be counted on to protect the electoral system, given how Republicans — led by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell — have stacked that body with politically motivated (though some justices publicly have denied this) conservatives.

If you, Senator Manchin, and your Democratic colleagues do not secure passage of S. 2747, the Freedom to Vote Act, then the game is up. Republicans now control the Supreme Court. Without federal guarantees of free and fair elections, Republicans easily will win a majority in the House in 2022 and probably the Senate. In 2024, candidate Donald Trump could well lose the presidential election by millions of votes and lose the Electoral College by an even greater margin than in 2020, but still be inaugurated as president on January 20, 2025. How? Easily, as Republican legislatures in such states as Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, aided by compliant governors, certify Republican electors even though the Democrats secured a majority of the popular vote. They will do in the next presidential election what Trump tried to do in the last. 

Fanciful, you say? No, the road map from 2020 is in place. If this happens — and it is a very real possibility — then Democrats will never, at least not in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children — wield political power again. Imagine a world in which Republicans dominate all the levers of the federal government and many state governments, as well. You think we have problems now? Imagine what the tax code will look like. You think the United States suffers from income inequality today? Imagine the disparity in income and wealth under Republicans who have no fear of ever losing power again. 

I know you represent a coal-producing state, senator, but even West Virginians have to be concerned about climate change. Well, if you think it is getting warmer now, think again about how hot it might be 20 or 30 years from now if the federal government does not take steps — any steps — to control carbon emissions. Think about the levels of pollution in our water and in the air we breathe.

You are a conservative Democrat, Senator Manchin, but still a Democrat, if only for a bit longer. I would wager you care about some of the priorities in the huge budget reconciliation bill that President Joe Biden supports. Do you think any of the provisions you favor in that bill will ever become law if Republicans can do as they please? Or, stay as law if you manage to squeak legislation through this term?

All of this is why passing the Freedom to Vote Act is so important. Nothing gets done — or stays done — without it. You know this, which is why you worked with several of your Democratic colleagues on the legislation. If passed, this bill will override restrictive state laws that make voting more difficult. It will prevent Republican voting officials from purging voter rolls, and it will guarantee mail-in voting. The bill curbs gerrymandering, limits dark money, and prevents state officials from manipulating election results. As you well know, these are good things for a democracy, senator!

This bill is foundational. You know that, which is why you worked on it. You thought a compromise might attract Republican senators. Well, nice try! Wednesday, in the Senate, all 50 Republicans voted against permitting debate on the bill. They invoked the filibuster, preventing even consideration of this all-important legislation. As Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer put it, “If there’s anything worthy of the Senate’s attention, if there’s any issue that merits debate on this floor, it’s protecting our democracy from the forces that are trying to unravel it from the inside out.”

The sentiments Schumer uttered should be obvious to all, but in the Senate of today, that is not the case. Republicans — who voted overwhelmingly for extensions to the Voting Rights law in the past, and most recently as 2006, without a dissenting vote — now are so afraid of Donald Trump and the power of his “Big Lie” that they are willing to overthrow American democracy in order to protect their pathetic political careers.

Do not let them get away with it! 

Get the Freedom to Vote Act passed, even if it means limiting or overturning the filibuster!

Sincerely,

A Concerned Voter

*Manchin is not the only Democratic senator clinging to the filibuster, but he has been most vocal about it, and he suggested he could deliver Republican votes.

Posted October 22, 2021

Democrats at a Crossroad

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

This is crunch time for Democrats. The party’s congressional leaders must make several crucial decisions in the next few weeks, deciding what parts of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda to push, how to do so (with or without Republican support), and how to placate the disparate wings of their own party.

Three immediate questions confront Democrats. First, how long to continue discussions with Republicans regarding bipartisan support for an infrastructure bill? Second, how fast to move, given the legislative calendar? Third, what to do about the Senator Joe Manchin problem?

The president desires — almost desperately — bipartisan cooperation with Republicans. No one should find this surprising, given Joe Biden’s background. He spent decades in the Senate, at a time — at least in his early years as a senator — when comity ruled. Biden witnessed and participated in forging numerous compromises with members across the aisle. As President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden drew on his past as a dealmaker in the Senate to persuade a few Republican senators to support Obama’s economic stimulus bill, making its passage bipartisan.

No doubt, Biden entered talks on an infrastructure package with West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito sincerely hoping to reach an agreement. But, those talks broke down this week as the two sides remain hundreds of billions of dollars apart and disagree over how to pay for infrastructure improvements. If Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on an infrastructure plan — given that every senator or representative should want a new bridge or road in his or her district — then the prospects of cooperation on anything else approach zero.

Gaining Republican support for anything proposed by Democrats was always a long shot for Biden. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell telegraphed early his intention to continue his sordid career as the king of obstruction. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” the Kentuckian said. Another indication that bipartisanship is chimerical came when Republicans in the Senate refused to end a filibuster against creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. If Republicans cannot agree with Democrats to investigate a riotous mob that threatened their own safety, then, once again, what in the world would they ever back?

Infrastructure talks continue among a group of so-called moderate senators from both parties, but prospects for success remain dim. Despite those talks, it is easy to conclude that Republicans are stringing discussions along, delaying votes for as long as possible. At some point, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must decide when to pull the plug and invoke the parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation to get something passed by the Senate. What would be in a bill passed only with Democratic votes depends on what conservatives in the party are willing to support.

The legislative calendar dictates the need for Democrats to move quickly. It is less than six months into the Biden administration, but time is short. So far, Biden can point to two major successes: The distribution of the vaccine, allowing the nation to return to some semblance of normal (though the decline in the number of shots per day threatens the recovery), and the passage of his stimulus package, which appears to have bolstered the economy. But, the rest of important parts of Biden’s plan are either stalled in the legislative hopper or unlikely to receive even united Democratic support.

Congress works frustratingly slowly. Haste is not likely in the foreseeable future, as it is already the second week of June, with Congress slated to take a nearly two weeks break around July 4 and then a month-long recess in August. The longer Republicans can delay legislation, the more difficult it will be to pass anything. By late summer and early fall, Congress will be bogged down in talks over raising the debt ceiling, always a messy process. In any event, Democrats must pass substantive legislation this year, because 2022 is an election year, which will make legislating even more difficult, if not impossible.

Then, there is the Joe Manchin problem. The West Virginian is the 50th, and arguably most conservative, member of the Democratic caucus, so keeping him happy is imperative. Manchin represents a conservative state, and he must be attuned to the wishes of his constituents. And, while I believe he is an impediment to progress, it is also unfair to blame him entirely for Democratic woes. There are many other Democratic moderates in both chambers of Congress who have problems with parts of the Biden agenda, including the expansive voting rights law and the cost of much of what has been proposed. In the Senate, in addition to those concerns, there is reluctance to end the filibuster.

The victory this week of former governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial primary heightens the previous trend in which Democratic primary voters have chosen moderates over progressives. The failure of progressives to win more elections only eases the pressure on moderates in Congress to support liberal measures. In turn, this easing of pressure on moderates increases the pressure on progressives to persuade their more conservative colleagues not only of the wisdom to go big, as it were, but of the need, in the Senate, to end the filibuster to allow for straight majority passage of the Democratic agenda.

Manchin professes to seek bipartisanship. He is not likely to get it. He also says he will not vote for the omnibus “For the People Act,” but will support reenactment of the 1965 voting rights law, which he thinks will get bipartisan support. But, McConnell recently declared his opposition to that measure, popularly named after the late Representative John Lewis, making it very unlikely that 10 Republican senators would vote to end a filibuster. At what point, does Manchin realize bipartisanship is a pipe dream?

All of this leaves Democrats at a crossroad. They must act soon to secure important legislation, including bills on infrastructure, protecting voting rights, addressing climate change, family security, and more, or risk going to the voters in the 2022 midterms having failed to enact most of their agenda. Perhaps, running against Republican obstruction might yield surprising victories in those elections, but that is a high-risk gamble, given Republican built-in electoral advantages, including gerrymandering, controlling redistricting in important states, and the long list of state voter suppression laws.

Democrats must act, and act soon, or risk wasting an important historical moment.

Posted June 11, 2021

 

 

Donald Trump Is a Murderer

President Donald Trump is committing murder on an unprecedented scale, and the Republican Party is his accomplice in this criminal endeavor.

Two charges are apt against Trump for his role in the burgeoning spike in new COVID-19 cases. First, as the number of cases — and hospitalizations and deaths — soar, the president has abdicated all responsibility for curbing the spread of the virus. Second, his refusal to begin the transition to the incoming Biden administration means the president-elect’s team is flying blind, ignorant of government plans, to the extent they exist, for the distribution of promising vaccines.

The statistics are grim: An average of more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week, an increase of 81 percent from the average two weeks prior. More than 11-million Americans have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and nearly 250,000 have died so far. Current models predict the mortality number will reach nearly 440,000 by March 1, 2021, if nothing is done to control the infection rate and the nation simply maintains the current use of masks, social distancing, and closings. If all that is eased, the total deaths could reach 600,000 by the end of February of next year. 

And, what does the president do? Nothing, except pout about his election defeat and spin wild conspiracy theories about how many votes President-elect Joe Biden stole. Oh, and Trump finds time for golf. The medical adviser to whom Trump listens, Dr. Scott Atlas, who is not an epidemiologist, embraces the controversial “herd immunity” strategy to allow the coronavirus to spread through most of the nation’s population to build resistance to the virus. Most public health officials and infectious-disease experts call this approach reckless. 

The Trump administration has ramped up testing and has made more equipment available to health care practitioners, though supplies likely will be stretched to the breaking point if the pandemic continues to worsen as cold weather approaches. But, the president himself apparently has lost interest in trying to stem the infection rate. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, told CNN Sunday, “The last time the president was physically at a task force meeting was several months ago.” Trump also contributed to the infection rate by holding potentially super-spreader rallies before the election and by staging two dangerous White House events recently: The introduction of Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee as associate justice on the Supreme Court and an election night gathering.

At campaign rallies, Trump predicted the media would stop talking about the pandemic as soon as the election was over, frequently citing the constant print and television stories as proof “the fake news” was out to get him. It was all part Trump’s schtick of playing the victim. But, it turns out, no one is ignoring the spread of the coronavirus more than Trump himself. 

Equally serious is the president’s refusal to begin the transition to the next administration. In his interview with CNN, Fauci said, “Of course it would be better if we could start working with” the Biden team that will take office on January 20. “It’s almost like passing a baton in a race — you don’t want to stop and then give it to somebody,” Fauci  added. ”You want to just essentially keep going. And that is what transition is.” Ron Klain, named by Biden as his chief of staff, said on “Meet the Press” Sunday, “There has to be a seamless transition. We now have the possibility— we need to see if it gets approved — of a vaccine starting perhaps in December or January. There are people at [Health and Human Services] making plans to implement that vaccine. Our experts need to talk to those people as soon as possible so nothing drops in this change of power we’re going to have on January 20th.”

Cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations on the worst public health crisis since the great flu epidemic of 1918 is not happening. No one, apparently, can convince Trump his time in the Oval Office is about to end. Republicans in Congress, with only a few exceptions, fear informing the “king” he lost because they worry about angering his loyal followers. Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the upper chamber, blamed his colleagues on the other side of the aisle for not telling the president the truth. “Every day Senate Republicans continue to indulge the president in the delusion he didn’t just lose the election, they are undermining faith in our democracy, putting our national security at risk and impeding the response to the Covid-19 health and economic crises,” Schumer said. The president-elect put it simply, “More people may die, if we don’t coordinate.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is one of the few Republicans to criticize Trump for interfering with the transition, saying the president should share vaccine plans with Biden to ensure “there is that flow of information that we typically see when we have transitions.” The current lack of cooperation is the reverse of what happened four years ago when President Barack Obama directed his team to provide Trump’s aides with detailed briefings and simulations of crises, including a possible flu pandemic. Trump’s assistants refused to accept Obama’s help, the repercussions from which the nation now suffers. 

The pandemic will end one day. Therapies are being developed and vaccines are on the horizon. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced last week the development of a vaccine found to be more than 90 percent effective in participants in a study. Drugmaker Moderna reported Monday that its vaccine is nearly 95 percent effective, based on early results from a large study.  Unfortunately, until those vaccines are widely available to the public, tens of thousands of people will die, many of whose lives could have been saved if the Trump administration had taken appropriate, timely steps to mitigate the crisis.

The president’s willful abdication of responsibility for taming the pandemic, his refusal to model appropriate behavior, such as mask wearing, his holding of massive rallies and White House events, and his unwillingness to allow his team to cooperate with the incoming administration has resulted and will result in needless deaths. Trump faces myriad legal problems when he leaves office on January 20, 2021 — violation of the emoluments clause, tax problems, business fraud, allegations of sexual assault, and possibly more. He also should be held accountable for his murderous behavior during the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted November 17, 2020

The Tail Has Wagged

Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren believes President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani for a domestic U.S. political reason: To distract the American public and Congress from his trial in the Senate. “We know that Donald Trump is very upset about this upcoming impeachment trial,” Warren said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But look what he’s doing now. He is taking us to the edge of war.” 

Warren was accusing Trump of employing a “wag the dog” tactic: Launching a military strike to divert attention from impeachment. The phrase comes from the title of a 1997 film satire starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. The same accusation was leveled against President Bill Clinton in 1998 when he ordered strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan in the midst of the scandal that led to his impeachment. 

Warren said it was “reasonable” to ask questions about Trump’s motivation because “the administration, immediately after having taken this decision, offers a bunch of contradictory explanations for what’s going on. There was a reason that he chose this moment, not a month ago, not a month from now, not a less aggressive, less dangerous response.”  Trump claims he ordered Suleimani’s death to “stop a war,” but many Democrats find — in the words of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer — the evidence for an “imminent” Iranian attack “very unsatisfying.” Schumer added, ”We don’t know the reasons that it had to be done now. They don’t seem very clear.”

Reading the president’s mind — to ascertain his motives — is a tricky proposition, but two points should be obvious. First, Trump is a pathological liar, so believing anything he says about anything is next to impossible. And, second, no one should ever doubt that Trump will do anything if he thinks his actions benefit him, which is — after all — what his impeachment is all about: The withholding of aid to Ukraine in exchange for that country smearing Trump’s political rival. Trump simply has no filters — and no scruples or morals — when it comes to self-interest. 

This is a serious problem, and one of the president’s own making. By lying continually and by demonstrating his willingness to act in his interest rather than the nation’s, Trump automatically makes his motives suspect. He cannot be believed when he states a purported reason for an action — any action — and it is reasonable to assume he acted to further his own political success. Suleimani was a “bad guy” who may have deserved to die, but questions will always linger.

Trump was not impeached by the House for acting like a king, but he surely is behaving as one in his handling of the current Iranian crisis. Witness the bizarre way Trump believes he has notified Congress regarding his Iranian policy. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress…. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!” posted the tweeter-in-chief. Actually, as in so many other matters, the president is wrong. The War Powers Act of 1973 requires formal notification to Congress within 48 hours of the onset of hostilities. 

Like many monarchs of old, Trump is impetuous. In the chaotic events leading to the attack on Suleimani, military officials presented Trump with a menu of options to punish Iran for the attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad. The menu included the most extreme option — killing the Iranian general — on the assumption that the president would reject the improbable choice in favor of a more palatable possibility. It is a strategy used by the Pentagon since 9/11 — one that worked with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom rejected targeting Suleimani. But, Trump is not like his predecessors. To the surprise, and perhaps chagrin, of his advisers, Trump chose the extreme option. 

And, like despots of olden and modern times, Trump acts with little input from others. The president faces the prospect of war hamstrung by a lack of trusted and experienced advisers. His constant disparaging of American intelligence agencies has taken its toll. The president’s national security team is short-staffed, depleted by scores of departures. His closest White House aides are consumed by the impeachment process, and Trump hardly can turn to America’s traditional European allies for assistance and advice since he has bullied and alienated most of them from the beginning of his tenure in office.

An impetuous president lacking an experienced team of advisers — who he probably would not heed in any event — is ill-equipped for the coming game of tit-for-tat with the Iranian theocrats. Trump’s rashness caused this escalating crisis in the first place. He tore up the nuclear deal with Iran because of its fatal flaw: It was negotiated by Obama. He did that without considering a Plan B, and now he has to confront the Iranians without any apparent long-range strategy.

The ayatollahs in Tehran are prepared for the long haul, which is why Suleimani was in Baghdad when he was killed. As Dexter Filkins points out in his superb New Yorker 2013 profile of Suleimani, the Iranian leaders learned a lesson in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The carnage of that war — and its indecisive outcome — convinced the leadership of the futility of traditional combat. Instead, the Iranians decided to wage asymmetrical warfare — attacking stronger powers by using proxies, first in Lebanon, then in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Suleimani’s Quds Force (Quds means Jerusalem, which Tehran promises to “liberate” from the Israelis) was key to this strategy.

The reliance on this kind of combat means the Iranians are unlikely to launch a direct attack on U.S. interests. The mullahs surely will thunder from their pulpits about the “Great Satan” in Washington, but their response may rely on unleashing Hezbollah in Lebanon to strike Israel or a cyber attack of some kind on the United States. A cyber attack of unknown origins already hit a U.S government facility, and while it cannot be attributed directly to Tehran, it shows the perils of Trump’s actions. 

Whatever the Iranians do, Trump will not care. His goal was distraction, after all. He will not succeed if the American public is able to view Iran through a different lens than impeachment and sever any linkage between the two. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, now says he is willing to testify before the Senate if subpoenaed, keeping impeachment at the forefront regardless of the next steps in the Iranian crisis or how much tail wagging Trump does.

Let the Senate trial begin!

Posted January 7, 2020

Scarred by Reagan

Generals, so the hoary maxim goes, are always prepared to fight the last war. Building on the lessons of World War I, France constructed the Maginot Line — an ultramodern defensive line of fortifications — along its border with Germany, but not on the Franco-Belgian border. In the spring of 1940, Hitler’s armies invaded Belgium, and after conquering that small country, crossed into France. The Maginot Line was effective, so the German Army simply outflanked it. In the United States, the world’s most superb military cannot shake the trauma of Vietnam. It colors all military decisions, from where the nation will deploy troops to the strategy used in conflicts.

Politicians, too, it seems, are often mired in the past. Or, at least, older politicians cannot forget past painful political experiences. Nowhere is this more evident than in the generational divide within the Democratic Party. On issue after issue, the younger Democratic members of the House — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, among others — call for bold action, only to hear party elders — lead by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California — say, yes, we agree with you, but now is not the time. Push too far too fast, older Democrats argue, and there will be a backlash for Republicans to exploit.

Pelosi and her generational peers — Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and, applying this analysis to the presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden — all came of age in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter. The rout that year saw not only Carter’s defeat, but also the ouster from the Senate of a number of liberal Democrats who had defined the party for a generation: Frank Church of Idaho, Warren Magnuson of Washington, and George McGovern of South Dakota, the party’s 1972 presidential nominee. 

The lesson the now older Democrats took from the trauma of 1980 was that the party had moved too far to the left in the late 1960s and 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Reagan’s victory was the inevitable result in what — or so Pelosi, et al. believed — was a center-right country. Future events only strengthened their conviction: Reagan’s even bigger landslide victory four years later and the subsequent triumph of the rather inept George H.W. Bush — despite the Iran-Contra scandal and eight years of Republican control — over Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who had held a 20-point lead in the polls.

Even when Democrats won, battle-scarred veterans like Pelosi, Schumer, Hoyer, and Biden, learned the lessons of moderation: Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 came only because Ross Perot’s presence in the race kept either major party candidate from gaining 50 percent of the vote and Clinton eked out a win because he was a centrist Democrat. In his first term, Clinton signed into law the controversial 1994 crime bill, originally written by Biden and which bolstered Clinton’s centrist bona fides. Clinton ran for reelection in 1996 and governed as a Republican moderate. “The era of big government is over,” he declared in his 1996 State of the Union address. Then, Clinton proved it by working with Republicans on enacting Republican ideas on welfare reform and Wall Street deregulation.

The tendency to move toward the center continued during the presidency of Barack Obama. Obamacare was framed not as a human right but as a reform that would reduce budget deficits. The heart of the new system was the individual mandate, a Republican idea borrowed in the hope — misplaced — of garnering GOP votes in Congress. Same for the stimulus package, which was long on tax cuts — to appeal, again, misguidedly, to Republicans — and short on actual stimulus projects.

Pelosi is liberal, but she fears progressive Democrats will move the party too far to the left. “Own the center, own the mainstream,” she says, adding, avoid the “exuberances that exist in our party.” “Exuberances” refers to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. This is the voice of Democrats who grew up in the years of Reagan. But, younger Democrats — Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley — matured in the  years of Republican obstructionism when the party veered far to the right. For these Democrats, Republicans should not be coddled, they should be beaten. And, progressive issues — such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, free college education — should not be avoided, but extolled and advocated.

This divide spills into the presidential race, with Biden the candidate who bears the scars of the Reagan years. Most of the younger candidates are more outspokenly progressive than the former Delaware senator. The two exceptions to the age differential split — Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — turn out not to be exceptions upon closer inspection. Sanders is not really a Democrat and has few ties to the Democratic establishment. Warren voted for Carter in 1980, but she was largely apolitical in those years. It was only in the 2000s that Warren became involved in national politics and found her progressive voice.

The Democratic base appears to be moving left. At least, that is true of Democrats likely to vote in the primaries. If that is the case, then a progressive Democrat with bold ideas — Sanders, Warren, Senator Kamala Harris of California — could be the party’s presidential nominee. A victory by a progressive finally might salve the wounds of the Reagan years. Then, Nancy Pelosi could shed her calculated caution and push a truly progressive agenda through Congress. It is time!

Posted July 9, 2019

The Law and Trump’s Wall

President Donald Trump will not get his wall. Legal challenges probably will prevail, and the courts will overturn Trump’s declaration. But even if that does not happen, the wall will not be built because justice moves slowly. Even if the courts do not rule the president exceeded his constitutional authority in declaring a national emergency to build his wall, litigation will run out the clock.

Trump, in his bumbling way, did not help his legal case. First, he talked about declaring a national emergency for months, falsely claiming drugs and dangerous criminals were streaming across the border. The courts may wonder why such a serious problem was addressed in such a leisurely fashion. Second, Trump undermined the assertion of an emergency when, in his Rose Garden announcement, he said, “I could do the wall over a longer period to time. I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.” That does not exactly convey a sense of urgency. Third, his decision to leave immediately after the announcement for Mar-a-Lago and reports of him playing golf over the weekend suggests the Republic is not exactly in peril at the southern border. If it were, would not the president remain in Washington to monitor the situation?

Even if Trump had done everything right, he would probably lose this battle on constitutional grounds. Democrats in Congress will bring suit to overturn the emergency, but the courts may rule that either members of Congress do not have standing to sue or that Congress has the remedy to fix the problem. Trump’s emergency powers, after all, derive from a 1976 law that gives Congress the right to review presidential declarations. The courts may decline to interfere in a dispute between the executive and legislative branches in which the legislative branch refuses to utilize its available powers. Or, the courts may say to Congress: If you do not like the law, change it!

But, if Congress does not have standing, others may satisfy the legal requirements. Contractors, for example, who will suffer if Trump shifts funds from appropriated projects to the wall will be able to demonstrate monetary injury. Similarly, owners of private property along the border may be able to challenge the federal government’s use of eminent domain to seize their land for building the wall.

Trump’s declaration of emergency powers involves two questions. One, is there a crisis at the border, and, two, who appropriates money?  On the first, Congress delegated to the president the power to declare an emergency. Objectively, there is no emergency at the border: Illegal entries at the southern border are down; most undocumented immigrants are people who overstayed their visas; and most human trafficking and drug smuggling occur at ports of entry. But, while the declaration clearly is frivolous, the courts traditionally have deferred to presidents who declare emergencies. 

The second question goes to the heart of the Constitution: Who controls spending? Article One, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution is clear: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Given that Congress has the power of the purse, the president, even in a national emergency, must find a statute in which Congress authorizes the spending of money. Congress has approved a bill to allow the president to undertake military projects “necessary to support… the armed forces.” However, it is not clear that using funds previously appropriated for different military projects to support the building of a wall fits the criteria of this law since the military does not have domestic law enforcement powers to patrol the border. There is another bill that allows the president to divert funds from one project to another “authorized… for [projects] essential to the national defense.” The problem here is that Congress has not “authorized” any new sections of the wall and Trump would be hard pressed to prove the project is “essential for national defense.”

The last point is critical. Courts traditionally defer to the executive when Congress has authorized action. In this case, Congress has authorized presidential declarations of national emergency. But, courts typically invalidate presidential actions that Congress has prohibited. Last week, Congress approved spending $1.375 billion on a physical barrier at the border. If Trump were to allocate more money — and he wants to spend roughly $8 billion — he would be defying the will of the legislative branch.

There is at least one Supreme Court case on limiting presidential power that appears relevant. During the Korean War, the high court rebuffed President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize control of the nation’s steel mills when a labor action threatened to stop production. The Supreme Court held the president had no authority to seize private property without express congressional authorization. In the Youngstown case, no one disputed that there was a wartime emergency and that a stoppage in steel production would harm the war effort. Still, the Supreme Court ruled the president could not act without the approval of Congress. The Youngstown ruling clearly presents a precedent for overturning Trump’s emergency declaration as building the wall would require seizing property through eminent domain and without congressional approval. 

Democrats are right in labeling Trump’s declaration an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power. “This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed president, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate minority leader, said in a joint statement.

Democrats in Congress, private property owners, Native Americans living along the border, environmental groups, several states, and other interested parties will bring suits against the Trump administration to stop the wall. It will not be built, which probably is fine with Trump. After all, his ranting and raving about immigration is red meat to rile his base. If the wall were built, what would he have left to entice his followers?

Posted February 19, 2019

Not My President

Donald Trump is not my president.

I say this with a heavy heart and not because I did not vote for Trump nor because I disagree with his policies. I say it because Trump does not represent me and does not wish to do so. He does not believe I am his constituent. Rather, Trump believes himself to be the president of the Republican base only — one-third to two-fifths of the electorate — and governs, at best, in what he perceives is its interests. At worst, he governs only in his self-interest.

Harry Truman is the first president I remember. All of them since, Republicans and Democrats, were my president and the president of all Americans. I first voted in 1960, often — all too often — for the losing candidate. But, all of the winners, until Trump, governed in what they perceived was my interest and the interests of all Americans. Trump simply does not care about the two-thirds of America that did not vote for him. Frankly, I am not sure he cares about the other third, either.

George W. Bush is, perhaps, the one exception to my statement that all previous presidents were my president. Bush was an illegitimate president — loser of the popular tally by 500,000 votes and loser in the Electoral College, until the Supreme Court intervened in a highly partisan and constitutionally dubious decision. Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast one of the votes to make Bush president, later expressed regret over the court’s decision. But, though Al Gore should have been president and Bush’s policies in Iraq and on the economy were disastrous, I always believed he governed in what he perceived were the interests of the nation.

The sad truth is this: Trump is not even the president of the Republican base. As I suggested above, he cares only about himself. Trump perfectly fits the textbook definition of a narcissist: “The hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are grandiosity [Trump frequently touts his brilliance], a lack of empathy for other people [just ask the 800,000 federal workers who have not been paid since December 22, 2018, about Trump’s empathy], and a need for admiration [no comment necessary]. People with this condition are frequently described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding [again, the evidence is obvious].” And, narcissists throw temper tantrums when they do not get their way. 

As we learned recently, thanks to excellent reporting in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Trump may well represent the interests of only one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Times’ report claims the FBI opened an investigation after the firing of Director James Comey into whether Trump is a Russian agent, an accusation Trump at first declined to deny in a friendly interview on Fox News. The second report, in The Post, describes Trump’s efforts to conceal details of his conversations with Putin. The issue now is not whether Trump’s policies aid the interests of the Russian government. They clearly do. The issue is whether the president of the United States is a witting or unwitting agent of that government. Which one it is may not, in the end, matter much.

Trump is not my president for another reason: He is the first head of the United States government who has no reverence for this nation’s history and does not appear to care whether this grand experiment in self-government continues. I do not know for a fact, but I would be very surprised if Trump has ever read the Declaration of Independence, and his ignorance of the Constitution has been documented (remember the time he told a group of Republican senators he wished to protect the non-existent Article XII?)

Trump tramples the principles upon which America was founded. He claims extraordinary powers for himself (the right to declare a national emergency to build an ineffective wall to counter a non-existent crisis, for example). He professes “love” and admiration for the world’s most brutal despots, and his actions veer toward autocracy. Just this past week, Trump said, “…I find China, frankly, in many ways, to be far more honorable than cryin’ Chuck [Schumer] and Nancy [Pelosi].” Think about that! The president of the United States finds a regime that imprisons thousands for alleged political transgressions, violently suppresses the Uighurs, 11 million of whom live in the Chinese northwest, and regularly censors its own citizens more “honorable” than the loyal opposition in his own country! 

There is much ugliness in the history of the United States: The extermination of North America’s original inhabitants, the enslavement of millions of Africans, segregation, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and more. But, the founding creed of America (all men are created equal) inspires millions around the world, and American history has been the story of the nation aspiring to live up to Thomas Jefferson’s words. The bravery of the abolitionists, the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Civil War, the marching and demonstrating of courageous Americans in the last century all testify to the longing to achieve a “more perfect Union.”

I fear Donald Trump’s presidency undermines Abraham Lincoln’s famous words “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” I suspect Trump either does not care whether the people’s government flourishes or, as an agent of a foreign power, actively is subverting self-government. Regretfully, that is why I say, Donald Trump is not my president. 

He is not yours, either.

Posted January 18, 2019

Who’s “Dumb As a Rock?”

He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough.President Donald Trump tweeting on Rex Tillerson on December 7, 2018, after his former secretary of state said Trump is undisciplined, does not like to read, and is willing to commit illegal acts. 

You know what I’ll say: Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other — whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government. Absolutely…. I am proud to shut down the government for border security…. So, I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.Trump in an Oval Office meeting with presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, December 11, 2018.

One of the more interesting questions of the Trump era (aside from how many criminal acts he committed as a candidate and while in office) is: Just how dumb is the president?

We know he does not read, at least not much. We know he was ignorant of the historical significance of Frederick Douglass. We know candidate Trump did not understand the Republican position on abortion nor the nature of the nuclear triad. We also know President Trump embarrassingly was unaware of the meaning of NATO’s collective security clause. The list goes on….

But, few thought Trump would be so foolish as to give away the whole ballgame in a rash statement during his White House meeting with Pelosi and Schumer. After all, the trick in Washington is to pin a government shutdown on the other side. Now, we have a president who, for the first time, pinned it on himself! Way to go, Mr. President!

I suppose a case can be made that Trump, once again, is playing to his base supporters in threatening a partial government shutdown at midnight on December 21 over funding for his border wall. Trumpistas, after all, despise the government and probably believe shutting it down is a good thing. They also may consider his threat a sign of manly toughness, though Pelosi may have had the last word on that when she said, “It’s like a manhood thing with him — as if manhood can be associated with him. This wall thing!” As for Schumer, he could barely contain his glee, breaking into a wide smile at Trump’s ineptness, declaring simply, “Okay. Fair enough.”

Trump befuddled congressional Republicans, who along with members of the administration, have been laying the groundwork for a “Schumer shutdown” by trying to blame Democrats if an agreement on border security is not reached. “I don’t understand the ­strategy, but maybe he’s figured it out and he’ll tell us in due course,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. “But I don’t understand it.” The third-ranking GOP senator, John Thune of South Dakota, agreed. “It [a shutdown] would not be good.” Thune added, “The president has his own style and way of negotiating.” 

That is putting it nicely. During the campaign, Trump billed himself as the master negotiator, the author (kind of) of the best-selling, “The Art of the Deal.” I will leave it to the experts, but I am pretty sure a good negotiator does not go into talks declaring his or her willingness to take responsibility if the negotiations break down. And speaking of deals, whatever happened to Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the wall? “We will build a great wall along the southern border. And, Mexico will pay for the wall,” candidate Trump promised on September 1, 2016.

Promises, promises! Of course, Mexico was never going to pay for the wall, so now Trump has to beseech Congress for funding. The president thinks it is a winning issue for him. “If we have to close down the country over border security, I actually like that in terms of an issue,” Trump said after the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer. “I will take it because we are closing it down for border security, and I think I win that every single time.”

There are three problems with Trump’s analysis. First, he ignores the simple fact that for the next few weeks, Republicans control all the branches of the government, which Pelosi pointed out. “…[I]n the House, you could bring it up [a bill funding the wall for five-billion dollars] right now, today,” she said. While the rules of the Senate dictate that Republicans will need some Democratic votes to pass the bill, the House is simpler, and the simple truth is that the GOP lacks the votes to pass a border security bill in the lower chamber, despite controlling a majority of representatives. And, frankly, Trump does not have the negotiating skills to persuade reluctant Republican House members to vote for funding his wall.

The second problem with Trump trying to pin blame on the Democrats is that the border wall is not very popular. In a poll taken last summer, a majority (57 percent) of Americans opposed expanding construction of the wall along the Mexican border. It is difficult to imagine many people rallying to Trump’s side because he shut down the government over funding a wall they oppose. 

Finally, Trump’s assessment is wrong because shutting down the government is never a winning issue. Trump believes Democrats will lose the current fight over funding because Schumer and his colleagues caved a year ago when they shut down the government over a path for citizenship for the Dreamers (immigrants brought to America illegally at a young age). But, that dispute differs from the current one in two ways: First, this time, Trump is the one making demands, and, second, Dreamers have much more support than the wall. If a shutdown over the Dreamers was a loser, then one over the wall is even more so. Besides, no one ever wins for causing a government shutdown. Just ask Senator Ted Cruz about the closing of the government he caused in 2013, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about the 1995 shutdown. Moreover, shutting down the government just before Christmas — throwing federal workers off the payroll — seems particularly Grinch-like.

So, Mr. President, who is dumb as a rock?

Posted December 14, 2018

I Have A Lot To Say — Part I

(A note to readers: Politics and History has been on hiatus for two months while I moved from Alexandria, Virginia, to Stephenson, Virginia. Now, my blog is returning. Much has happened in the last two months, and I will have much to say in the coming weeks. Indulge me.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell orchestrated a judicial coup in placing Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court for two reasons: First, because McConnell could, and, second, because he believed it necessary.

The Kentucky Republican is an expert at wielding raw political power, and, with a president who outsourced the nomination of judges to the arch-conservative Federalist Society and a razor-thin but solid Republican majority in the Senate, McConnell had the tools he needed. First, of course, he needed to pave the way for seizing control of the Supreme Court by denying President Barack Obama his constitutional right to choose a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia. The refusal to even consider Judge Merrick Garland for the high court was a gross violation of the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution (more on this later in Part II), but McConnell stood firm and got away with grand larceny. His reward for stealing a seat on the Supreme Court: Probably control of the federal judiciary for decades to come.

For decades, conservative Republicans have been convinced that the only way to move America to the right is through dominating the judicial system. McConnell believes his success in putting right-wing justices on the bench will be his enduring legacy as majority leader. “I said it was a top priority, and it remains so,” McConnell said this past summer. The Kentuckian ruthlessly has pursued this goal up and down the federal judiciary. He worked to frustrate Obama’s ability to appoint district and appellate judges and has pushed through President Donald Trump’s appointees. The result is that where Obama succeeded in placing women and minorities on the bench, Trump, with McConnell’s assistance, is making the judicial system white and male again. And, very conservative. 

McConnell knows a gridlocked Congress can accomplish little. The Republicans control the Senate, for now, but their narrow majority makes enacting major legislative initiatives dicey, at best (See the late Senator John McCain and the failure to repeal Obamacare!) As former House Speaker John Boehner said before the last presidential election, “The legislative process, the political process, is at a standstill and will be regardless of who wins. The only thing that really matters over the next four years or eight years is who is going to appoint the next Supreme Court nominees.” 

McConnell’s gaze is longer than Boehner’s. (The choice of The Long Game as the title for McConnell’s political memoir is instructive.) The Senate majority leader has worked for decades to reshape the courts to insure the triumph of conservative principles. Much of the right-wing agenda is out of step with current American political beliefs, making legislative victories more difficult for McConnell. Republicans may not be able to repeal Obamacare or ban abortion through legislative action, but control of the Supreme Court and the lower branches of the federal judiciary opens up another avenue for the triumph of conservative ideas. As Chuck Schumer, McConnell’s Senate counterpart as minority leader, succinctly put it, “Senate Republicans haven’t been able to move much of their hard-right agenda because it’s so unpopular with the American people, so they’re trying to do in the courts what they couldn’t do on the Senate floor.”

McConnell also knows that the future is cloudy, at best, for conservatives. As the nation becomes more diverse, with women and minorities exerting more political clout, and more culturally and socially progressive, Republicans will find it harder to win the presidency and control Congress. A conservative judiciary might be the only bulwark against the triumph of liberalism in politics. A majority of right-wing justices might rid the nation of Obamacare, ban abortion (or so weaken Roe v. Wade as to make abortions virtually impossible to obtain), further emasculate voting rights, protect low tax rates for the super-rich, and undo all remaining restrictions on campaign spending. On this last point, McConnell’s other animating political passion has been opposition to campaign finance reform. For all the blather that political donations are a form of free speech, conservatives know that enormous political contributions by the very wealthy to Republican campaigns have an outsized influence on the political process.

As was true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — up to the time when a conservative court changed and approved key New Deal legislation in the 1930s — the right has always depended on unelected judges to interpret the law to benefit the privileged and defy popular will. So far in the current century, a Supreme Court with a 5-4 conservative majority has issued decisions making it harder for minority groups — who traditionally support Democrats — to vote; allowing corporations and the wealthy to spend freely in political campaigns; and permitting gross Republican gerrymandering to stand, insuring GOP control of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. And, let us not forget, the egregiously unconstitutional decision that stole the 2000 election from Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. All of this, and more, was done with some relatively moderate conservatives as part of the 5-4 majority. How much more political devastation will ensue with rock-ribbed right-wingers Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the high court?

A changing America and the perceived need to protect the right-wing political agenda motivated McConnell and his Republican senatorial cohorts to run roughshod over the constitution and legislative niceties and ignore the legitimate and serious allegations of women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Kavanaugh’s fitness to sit on the Supreme Court was never a consideration given the prospect that Republicans may lose control of Congress in November. Nor did it trouble McConnell and his colleagues that Kavanaugh was nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and approved by a Senate majority that represented a minority of voters.

All that mattered was winning, and McConnell is a master at that.

(Part II appears Friday, October 12, 2018)

Posted October 9, 2018

The Stephen Miller Shutdown

It is inevitable. In every government shutdown, each party tries to pin the blame for failing to keep the government open on the other. This time around, Democrats called it the President Trump shutdown, Republicans the Schumer shutdown, after Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Neither was accurate. Rather, it was the Stephen Miller shutdown. Who is Stephen Miller that he wields such influence? Miller is a 32-year-old extremist on the White House staff who serves as the ideological architect of the Trump immigration agenda, constantly pulling the president away from making a deal and pushing him toward hardline positions on immigration, which was central to the just-ended government shutdown. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Republican in efforts to forge a compromise on immigration that would satisfy Democratic demands for protecting Dreamers — immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children — while giving Republicans more funding for border security, perhaps including building additional stretches of a wall on the Mexican border, a key Trump campaign promise.

Miller may be young to exercise so much power, but he has a rather long history as a purveyor of extreme positions on immigration, beginning as a combative conservative activist at Duke University. As an aide to then-Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, Miller was influential in beating back a 2013 bipartisan immigration deal. Along with his boss, Sessions, Miller organized House conservatives to block a bill passed by the Senate, distributing a handbook of talking points to undermine the compromise measure. Now, in the White House, Miller has told colleagues, according to a senior White House official, his goal “is to make what I know the president wants in an immigration deal a legislative reality.”

Miller may know what the president wants on immigration, but few others are as sure. Schumer said working with Trump is “like negotiating with Jell-0.” Schumer’s counterpart across the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is equally frustrated. “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports,” the Kentucky Republican said.

A case in point: Two weeks ago, the president held a remarkable 55-minute televised meeting in which he twice told Democratic and Republican lawmakers that he wanted an immigration deal that would be “a bill of love” in taking care the Dreamers, whom he once called “these incredible kids.” When Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California asked Trump if he would accept a “clean” bill addressing only the plight of the Dreamers, the president said, “Yeah, I would like to do that. I think a lot of people would like to see that.” The problem? Trump either had abandoned his signature issue of the wall or he simply did not know what a “clean” bill entails. A clean bill, by definition, has only one component. It was left to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, to yank the president back on message by saying that a Trumpian “clean” bill would include border security.

Matters deteriorated further after the president ordered cameras out of the Cabinet Room. Aides distributed a four-page document on the administration’s “must haves” for any immigration bill — including $18 billion for the border wall and an end to “extended family chain migration,” a conservative pejorative phrase describing a program whereby relatives of American citizens can immigrate legally. The only problem: The president demurred, saying the document did not represent his positions and told the members of Congress to disregard it.“The president looked at it and said: ‘Who did this? This is way too much. I didn’t approve this,’” Graham later said. Another lawmaker said, “It’s like the wedding where someone actually stands up and objects to the wedding.”

Something similar happened two days later in the infamous meeting in which the president referred to “shithole countries.” Earlier in the day, Trump appeared eager to reach a deal on immigration when Graham and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic number two in the Senate, hurried to the White House, only to find Republican hardliners, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Georgia Senator David Perdue already seated. Their presence was arranged by Miller who feared his boss might agree to a liberal deal.

Miller always appears poised to pull Trump to the right on immigration. Miller is not alone among White House advisers. Chief of Staff John Kelly repeatedly has told members of Congress that no deal is possible, despite whatever the president may say, unless the legislators agree to stiffer immigration restrictions. Trump’s staff is not shy about stepping into the void created by a president who either is unwilling or unable to articulate a clear immigration policy — or, perhaps, fails to understand the nuances involved. “There’s a real sense that there’s a disconnect between the president and his staff on immigration issues, and people on all sides are seeking to exploit that disconnect,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist.

White House officials say Miller chats frequently with the president about immigration. “Stephen Miller is an impassioned advocate for President Trump and his agenda,” said White House communications director Hope Hicks. The youthful adviser reportedly has close ties to Kelly, who has told others he trusts Miller to handle immigration. More importantly, the president appreciates Miller’s combative style, perhaps seeing a bit of himself in Miller. Trump has praised Miller for standing his ground in intra-mural contests within the White House, and the president tweeted a commendation after Miller got into a heated debate with CNN’s Jake Tapper over Michael Wolff’s controversial book, Fire and Fury. According to the president, “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller.”

As long as the president trusts Miller and other hardliners on immigration — while at the same time demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the issue’s many facets — an agreement on Dreamers may prove elusive, despite a promise by Senate Republicans to hold a vote on resolving the status of the Dreamers, a key concession to Democrats to reopen the government.

Posted January 23, 2018