Tag Archives: George W. Bush

democratic (small d) Power Grab

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the emperor with no clothes from Kentucky, calls the sweeping election reform bill Democrats back a “partisan power grab.”

Well, yes, guilty as charged! Democrats, indeed, will benefit from a federal election law that ends gerrymandering, prevents voter suppression, overturns state laws that permit voter nullification, makes election day a federal holiday, and limits the corrupting power of big money in politics. Democrats (with a big D) will benefit from democracy (with a small d). Free and fair elections, which the voting reform bill insures, means more people will vote, and more people voting is a good thing for Democrats.

So, yes, Republicans are right, election reform is a Democratic power grab. It is also a democratic power grab. And, it is the right thing to do.

It is, of course, always easy to be cynical about politics and politicians. But, sometimes, shocking as it may seem, self-interest and doing the right thing align. It happens!

As the advocacy group Public Citizen tweeted in response to McConnell, “This is a bill that stops voter suppression and ends gerrymandering. How depraved do you have to be to insist that more people voting is somehow a power grab? What sort of anti-democratic garbage is that.” Public Citizen, in a separate tweet, also noted, “Mitch McConnell is absolutely terrified of a bill that simply makes it easier for people to vote. This tells you all you need to know.”

As I have pointed out before, Republicans have understood, for decades, that more people voting is bad for Republican electoral chances. As early as 1980, Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, said, “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” For more than a decade, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded organization, has written draft legislation for Republican state legislators to introduce that impedes voters at every step in the electoral process. And, former President Donald Trump said in March 2020, that if the Democratic election reform bill passes, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Trump may well be right. After all, since 1992 the Republican candidate for president has won the popular vote only once — George W. Bush in 2004. Democrats routinely outpoll Republicans in cumulative votes for members of the House and Senate, but the distribution of seats in both chambers rarely reflects the vote totals. Republican representation in the House benefits from gerrymandering, which allows state legislatures to draw congressional district lines to the benefit of their party. Both parties do this, of course, but in recent decades, gerrymandering has helped Republicans more than Democrats. 

Republicans benefit from institutional protections that cannot easily be changed, if at all. The Electoral College elevated George W. Bush in 2000 (with help from the Supreme Court) and Donald Trump in 2016 to the presidency even though both candidates lost the popular vote. Republicans have disproportionate power in the Senate because of the constitutional guarantee that gives each state two senators, insuring that small Red states such as Wyoming are equal in the Senate to large Blue states such as California.

But, those constitutional protections do not satisfy today’s Republican Party. Its leaders understand that even the built-in advantages in the Electoral College and the Senate cannot guarantee Republican dominance. Thus, Republican state legislators for decades, and most assiduously since the 2020 election, have been passing legislation to suppress the vote and give Republican state officials the power to overturn election results. Yes, in other words, to give Republican state officials the power to take away citizens’ votes. 

The problem Republicans have is that the modern version of the party is beholden to special interests and to the very wealthiest of Americans. The concerns of the groups and individuals Republicans represent do not align with those of most Americans, so to win elections, Republicans hide their indebtedness to special interests like the fossil fuel industry by claiming, for example, their opposition to new energy sources is rooted in economic growth. In a more sinister vein, Republicans often appeal to the baser instincts of the electorate by railing against immigration and stoking White fears about the growing electoral power of people of color. 

That kind of political flimflam only goes so far, so Republicans have to back it up with measures to limit the vote to people receptive to their messages. Republicans are right: The more people who can vote, the worse it is for the party. And, so at the state level, Republicans pass legislation to limit the vote and, at the federal level, Republicans filibuster every attempt by Democrats to enact legislation to guarantee American elections are free, fair, and democratic. 

So, yes, election reform is a Democratic power grab. It advances democracy, and it is a democratic (small d) power grab. It is also the right thing to do.

Posted October 26, 2021 

Call for Unity

Donald Trump left the White House several hours before Joe Biden was sworn in Wednesday, January 20, 2021, as the nation’s 46th president. A small person to the end, Trump broke a long-standing tradition by declining to attend his successor’s inauguration. Just as well, as the presence of former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama testified to the sanctity of the American tradition of the peaceful transfer of power while highlighting Trump’s petulant refusal to concede he lost.

Biden’s Inaugural Address was a clarion call to unity, asking Americans to put aside “this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” But, Biden uttered more than platitudes. The president also called upon America to live up to its core values of truth, equality, justice, and acceptance of diversity of opinion. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said. 

The new president’s appeal to our “better angels” contrasted with his predecessor’s constant stoking of division, distrust, and hatred. Other contrasts between Biden and Trump were the evident openness of the new administration — the new press secretary briefed Wednesday evening — and the eagerness of those at the top to get down to work. Biden signed several executive orders only hours after becoming president, and Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the swearing-in of three new senators in her role as President of the Senate. Trump always showed little interest in actually being president, in the work of the presidency, and in the weeks following his electoral defeat he did little but stew, lie about the validity of the election, play golf, and issue pardons to his cronies.

There is evidence that the sway of Trumpism is diminishing. The Proud Boys, the far-right group asked by Trump at the first debate with Biden to “stand back and stand by,” is rethinking its undying loyalty to the former president. After the election, the Proud Boys wrote in an online message on a private channel “Hail Emperor Trump.” But, as soon as Trump departed the White House, the White-supremacist group referred to him as a “shill” and “extraordinarily weak.” It may be a positive sign that no militias descended on Washington, D.C., and state capitols and no anti-Biden protests occurred, despite warnings from the FBI of the potential for violence and the threats of far-right activists to mobilize in the days leading up to the Inauguration.

One place where divisiveness still lingers is the Capitol. Biden is quite right to call for unity and to appeal for bipartisan cooperation, which may occur as some Republicans search for ways to work with Democrats on much needed legislation, such as economic relief from the ravages of the pandemic and rebuilding the nation’s decrepit infrastructure.

While unity and bipartisan cooperation is a worthy goal, some accountability is needed for those who worked to undermine American democracy by pushing the “big lie” of election fraud. That there was no significant fraud and that Biden fairly won election as the next president was evident immediately after November 3. Yet, a significant bloc of Republican senators and a majority of the House GOP caucus voted against certifying the electoral returns of two states. They did so only hours after a mob — encouraged by Trump and congressional opposition to certification — stormed the Capitol, putting the lives of members of Congress in jeopardy.

The United States cannot pretend this did not happen. Obviously, we will never forget those frightful images of insurrectionists desecrating the “people’s house.” But, we also must never forget the role played by prominent Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is a case in point. Two weeks ago, McCarthy was a prominent challenger of Biden’s victory, telling constituents, “I agreed with objections that were made to two states.” Yet, Wednesday, McCarthy had the temerity, the gall, the nerve to stand in Statuary Hall and tell Biden and Harris he was “very proud of you both.” The California Republican added, “I listened to your [Biden’s] speech today. You talked about tension and division. Our task as leaders is to bind this nation’s wounds and dedicate ourselves to the values that all Americans hold dear.”

Not too proud, evidently, to vote against Biden’s and Harris’ certification as president and vice president. Politics is not a profession that emphasizes self-introspection, but really, Mr. Minority Leader, how lacking in self-awareness can you be? On Inaugural Day, McCarthy also said, “As leaders, we are judged not by our words, but by our actions.” Indeed! Mr. Minority Leader, your action in objecting to electoral certification before and just after the insurrection of January 6 speaks much louder than those words you spoke on Inaugural Day!

McCarthy is not the only Republican who requires scrutiny. Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas fanned the flames of insurrection by their words and actions. Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin called the behavior of Hawley and Cruz “inexcusable” and said the Senate must  “seriously” investigate their actions. Some Republicans in the House may have given aid to the mob before and during the storming of the Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “there will be prosecutions” if evidence shows that members of Congress “aided and abetted an insurrection in which people died.”

Public understanding of the role of elected officials in undermining the peaceful transfer of power — a bedrock of republican government — needs to occur not because Americans are vengeful but because knowledge is the most effective tool for preventing future betrayals. We know that lies — deliberate lies told by people who knew better or ought to have known better — unleashed the mob on the Capitol. The only way to fight lies is with truth and the truth will only emerge when the culprits are named and their abettors come to grips with their betrayal of constitutional government. Only then will the unity of which President Biden spoke truly occur. 

Posted January 22, 2021

Trump’s Fantasies

I alone can fix it. — Donald Trump, accepting the 2016 Republican nomination for president. 

I alone can fix it because I alone broke it. — Not said, but the message from Trump’s speech accepting the 2020 Republican nomination for president.

It is as if we are watching the same tape, a loop that repeats and repeats. Donald Trump is the incumbent president, running a campaign reminiscent of the one he ran four years ago. He tried to shift slogans a while back, from “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great,” but the latter is a tough sell in the middle of a pandemic, high unemployment, and civil unrest. So, MAGA it is again, even if the “again” is a tad awkward nearly four years into Trump’s presidency. 

The sense of déjà vu is reinforced by the decision to ditch the usual exercise in platform writing and run again on the document adopted in 2016. Nothing wrong, in theory, in repeating the promises and criticisms of the previous campaign, except it raises the nagging question of why the Trump administration has to promise to do in its second term what it promised to do in its first. Also awkward are such sentences as this: “The current Administration has abandoned America’s friends and rewarded its enemies,” a barb aimed at the Obama administration that could be easily interpreted as the GOP platform criticizing the Republican president. Oh, well, no one reads platforms, anyway. 

Platforms are the prose of a campaign; convention speeches, the poetry. Not that there was much poetry at the just-concluded Republican National Convention. Instead, there was fantasy. All America was surprised to learn the pandemic is over. We all missed that tidbit, but COVID-19 was mentioned as little as possible, and, on one occasion, in the past tense. “It [the pandemic] was awful,” opined Larry Kudlow, Trump’s senior economic adviser and noted epidemiologist. And, when the Trump administration was not saying COVID-19 is not dangerous, it was demonstrating it. At least, that is the takeaway from seeing all those applauding Trump fans sitting cheek by unmasked jowl on the White House lawn listening to the president speak. 

Fantasy was the theme of Trump’s acceptance speech: “Greatest economy in history” is hard to reconcile with high unemployment, and “I say modestly that I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” arguable as a perversion of Lincoln’s reputation and absurd as a supposition that Trump is ever “modest.” Fantasy appeared in Trump’s abuse of the naturalization process when he televised at the convention the naturalization ceremony of five newly minted American citizens, without, apparently, telling at least two they were being used as propaganda. Many of the speeches were fantastical as well, portraying a kinder gentler Trump who pardons suffragists and a bank robber, expresses concern for the well-being of his aides, represents a party that celebrates the removal of the Confederate flag (“a divisive symbol,” said former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley), and believes gratitude is more important than grievance (according to Vice President Mike Pence).

The kindler, gentler Trump was a naked play for the votes of college-educated, minority, and independent voters alienated by three-plus years of presidential vitriol, name calling, and lawbreaking from the White House. But, this being a Trump renomination extravaganza, there also was plenty of red meat for the base. In his acceptance speech, Trump accused Democrats of standing “with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag burners.” He said Democrats remained “completely silent about rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities.” And, the convention invited Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-wielding St. Louis couple, to tell the faithful, “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” Given the origin of their notoriety, it does not take much imagination to understand the barely coded message: Not safe from people of color.

Trump has two problems in running for reelection. First, his administration has been an abject failure, with more than 180,000 Americans dead from the pandemic, the economy in tatters, and protests against systemic racism roiling the nation’s cities. Hence, the need to pretend the virus is in the rear view mirror, extol the record-breaking stock market, and highlight Black speakers at the convention (as Ruth Marcus writes in The Washington Post, there were probably more African Americans speaking than sitting in the audience). 

Trump’s second problem is an inability to define his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. As Nate Cohn notes in The New York Times, the last two incumbents to seek reelection, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012, used their conventions to paint their opponents with a negative brush. Bush depicted John Kerry as a flip-flopper who tried to have it both ways on the Iraq War, and Obama portrayed Mitt Romney as a rapacious plutocrat who symbolized the policies eroding middle-class industrial jobs in the Midwest. Trump and his lackeys have tried to describe Biden negatively, calling him “Beijing Biden” or “Sleepy Joe,” the latter a particularly tough sell given Trump’s ample, lumbering physique contrasted to trim, lively stepping Biden and the president’s frequent slurring of words that makes his challenger appear positively eloquent. 

Then, there is the “Trojan horse” charge, the accusation that Biden is either a closet socialist or a front-man easily manipulated by radicals such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden as stealth candidate has not gained much traction either, largely because, as I have written, the public sees the former vice president as “reasonable.” 

Fantasy is what is left. Trump must pretend the problems are not that bad, and regardless, he alone can fix them. The public is asked to ignore the nasty fact that those problems occurred on his watch. That may be a fact, but how important are facts to an administration that has touted “alternative facts” from the very beginning?

Posted September 1, 2020

 

Nightmare in November

The bedrock of American democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. When George Washington left office after two terms as president, he established the principle that American political leaders willingly cede power to legally elected successors. And, when Thomas Jefferson peacefully succeeded John Adams in 1801, America demonstrated that, in a republic power, can pass from leaders with one set of political ideas to successors with a different set.

This system has worked well enough for more than two centuries — until, perhaps, now, as many Americans worry that, if President Donald Trump loses the election, he may not abide by tradition and constitutional norms and leave the White House on January 20, 2021. These are not the perfervid fears of committed anti-Trumpers. The fears are based on substantive concerns fed by the remarks of the president himself. Recently, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump if he would recognize the results of the 2020 election. “I’m not going to just say yes, and I didn’t last time, either,” Trump responded. In the final debate of 2016 with Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, Trump said he would consider his options and “keep you in suspense.”

That 2016 nightmare of Trump contesting the results was averted by a worse nightmare: Trump won. But, even in victory, Trump was full of sour grapes, complaining that he lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally. He provided no evidence of that accusation because there is none. Even his commission appointed to investigate the election could not find evidence of fraud. Still, if the president was a sore winner, it is reasonable to presume he will be an even worse loser.

Nothing is certain in politics, but it is reasonable to fear Trump rejecting the electoral results. He may try — has already tried — to queer the results by inviting foreign intervention in the 2020 presidential election. He may try to cheat in other ways, and he has been laying the groundwork for challenging the results by his repeated and unfounded charges that mail-in voting — necessary in the time of a pandemic — is rife with fraud. He may simply refuse to recognize the results. What would happen next in that scenario is by no means certain, but what is almost certain is that he will challenge the results if they are close.

Into this thicket of what might happen steps legal scholar Lawrence Douglas in a slim and well-timed book, Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020. There are many possible scenarios in which Trump might challenge the electoral results. Douglas considers three such possibilities, catastrophes he calls them, all based on historical precedents. Here, I concentrate on the third of Douglas’s scenarios because it strikes me as the most possible, given the pandemic and Trump’s continuing attacks on mail-in voting.

This scenario replays some of the drama of 2016 because it hinges on the 46 electoral votes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which Trump narrowly carried four years ago. The votes of these three states gave Trump the presidency, but his margin of victory in each was very slim. A shift of a few thousand votes in each would swing these critical battleground states away from Trump. 

On election night 2020, Douglas assumes Democratic challenger Joe Biden has won the popular vote, this time by an even larger margin than Clinton’s four years ago. Late at night, Fox News projects Trump the winner. The returns of the same-day vote appear to give Trump Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but by an even narrower margin than in 2016. Some observers urge caution on calling the race because of a large number of absentee ballots yet to be counted. As the count from those ballots is tabulated in the coming days, Trump’s lead over Biden narrows in the critical three states. Trump takes to his favorite forum, Twitter, tweeting in Douglas’s imagined scenario: “In the interest of FAIRNESS, ELECTION must be CALLED NOW! We must STOP the CORRUPT Democrats in PA, MI & WI from STEALING our VICTORY with THOUSANDS of FAKE VOTES!!!”

Trump’s claims of fraud are as fraudulent after the election as before, but his continuous drumbeat of tweets and statements challenging the legitimacy of the returns emboldens his supporters in Congress and the disputed states, all of which have Republican-controlled legislatures and Democratic governors. The legislatures in all three states vote to accept the election day count — excluding absentee ballots — while the governors certify that Biden has won based on the tabulation of all the votes. The states send two sets of returns to Congress, muddling the count in the Electoral College. The machinations, as Douglas hypothesizes, are complex, but the end result is clear and unprecedented: The nation finds it itself at noon on January 20 without an elected president. Instead, two persons claim the office: Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi according to the constitutional stipulation that in the absence of a duly elected president, the speaker steps into the void. 

Far-fetched? Not really, given the numbers of expected mail-in votes this year and the unpreparedness of many states to tabulate them in a timely fashion. The possibility of three states submitting two sets of returns showing different electors casting ballots has happened before. In 1876, the votes of the states of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were disputed, with both Rutherford Hayes, the Republican nominee, and Democratic challenger Samuel Tilden claiming victory. The disputed electoral votes (one in Oregon was also up for grabs) would determine the outcome. To resolve the deadlock, a compromise was reached whereby Hayes was awarded the contested electoral votes in return for a Republican promise to remove federal troops from all Southern states, effectively ending Reconstruction. The Compromise of 1877 prevented a possible return to armed civil conflict at the price of second-class citizenship for recently freed African Americans. 

The nation avoided a catastrophe in 1876 because Tilden put a peaceful transfer of power ahead of his personal interest in the presidency. Similarly, in 2000, Al Gore acknowledged the Supreme Court’s decision to halt the Florida recount and give the presidency to Republican George W. Bush. Gore had grounds to keep on fighting, but he chose not do so. Anyone who thinks Trump would act selflessly like Tilden or Gore either has been drinking the Kool-Aid or has not been paying attention.

Posted July 28, 2020

 

 

How About a Mea Culpa?

Progressives eager to oust President Donald Trump from the Oval Office should welcome all who are willing to vote against the incumbent and for former Vice President Joe Biden. The tent needs to be big because Biden must win in a landslide to overcome likely cheating by the opposition and a possible unwillingness of Trump to leave the White House. And, a landslide for Biden has repercussions down the ballot, with a likely increase in the Democratic majority in the House and the possibility of Democrats taking control of the Senate. Democratic command of as many levers of power as possible is necessary because much work will need to be done to restore the Republic and overcome the damage done by Trump and his supporters.

So, all are welcome — Democrats of all stripes, independents, and Republicans who have seen the light. Some of the best and most biting critiques of Trump have been fashioned by former Republicans, proof that the most zealous often are the recent converts. The work of the Lincoln Project, for example, has been stellar. No one will forget the group’s “Mourning in America” ad for its evocation of older Republican themes and devastating takedown of Trump’s failed presidency. 

Again, welcome to the cause you “Never Trumpers” and recovering Republicans. Pleased to have you on board George Conway, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, David Jolley, Nicolle Wallace, and many more. As I said, the tent is big.

Here is the rub. Trump is evil and represents the worst in American politics, but anti-intellectualism and racism did not suddenly take over the Republican Party in a Trumpian coup in 2016. The disdain for science and fact and the willingness to use race-baiting for political ends have been Republican tropes for decades. Trump’s ascendancy is not a new tack for the Republican Party; rather, it is the culmination of Republican trends that reach back into the middle of the last century. Unfortunately, all those “Never Trumpers” and former Republicans kept their mouths shut and their ink dry while Republicans mocked knowledge and played the race card to win elections. Many, in fact, participated in campaigns that used those strategies. 

Full disclosure: I read and applaud the columns of Michael Gerson, Max Boot, and George Will, all conservatives who disdain Trump. I think Nicolle Wallace is an excellent television host. She is smart, likable, and asks tough and probing questions with good followups. But, Wallace worked on the campaign of Sarah Palin — whose anti-intellectualism rivals Trump’s — for the vice presidency in 2008. Wallace says the Palin campaign informed her of “where the party was going.” Wallace acknowledged later that she did not vote for a presidential candidate in 2008. Yet, at the time, she remained silent. The road from Palin to Trump is short.

It is very easy to blame all our troubles on Trump. His failure to combat the global pandemic alone rightfully earns Trump his place as the worst president in American history. But, the attacks on science and an unwillingness to listen to experts are not just products of Trump’s ignorance and incompetence; they are inherent in decades of Republican denigration of knowledge, college professors, and intellectuals.

In the early years of Republican anti-intellectualism, it was conservative intellectuals who offered the critiques. William F. Buckley longtime editor of National Review, frequently quipped, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” Buckley went to Yale and flaunted his intelligence by using multisyllabic words and Latin phrases probably obscure to 99 percent of the first 2,000 names in said telephone book.

Recent Republican presidents adopted anti-intellectualism as a strategy that cynically cultivated a distrust of experts and learning. But, once in office, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes reached out to scientists and other intellectuals for advice and to develop policies. George W. Bush once explained that he intentionally adopted an anti-intellectual image after losing a race for Congress in Texas in 1978. “Kent Hance [who won the election] gave me a lesson on country-boy politics. He was a master at it, funny and belittling. I vowed never to get out-countried again,” Bush recalled. 

The problem is that practitioners of anti-intellectualism as a political ploy eventually learn to take their own rhetoric seriously and thus reinforce the prejudices of their supporters, who demand more over time. The path from past Republican presidents to Sarah Palin and then Donald Trump may be twisty, but it is clearly marked.

The same with racial appeals. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” may or may not have reflected the candidate’s own prejudices, but Nixon adopted the appeal because he knew the surest way for Republicans to gain power was to draw Southern whites from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. Every Republican after Nixon understood that as well, and so it was no accident that Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential quest in Neshoba County, Mississippi, site of one of the worst crimes of the Civil Rights Era and a hotbed of racism. George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad appealed to the same prejudices as well. The dog whistles of the past have become the internalized, in-your-face racism of the current administration and many, if not most, of its supporters.

Many of today’s “Never Trumpers” and former Republicans cut their political teeth on the anti-intellectual and racist campaigns conducted by Republican candidates over the last four decades. So, it is somewhat disingenuous of them to be shocked suddenly that an overtly racist anti-intellectual now occupies the White House in place of the covert ones of the past. 

All you recovering Republicans, welcome aboard the Biden express! But, an occasional mea culpa would be nice.

Posted July 17, 2020

Doctor Franklin, The Answer, Sadly, May be No

“A republic, if you can keep it,” was Benjamin Franklin’s catchy answer to the query shouted at him — “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” — as he left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. America has preserved its republican form of government for over two centuries, surviving numerous trials, most grievously the attempted severing of the Union by the slave states. But, Senate Republicans’ pending acquittal of President Donald Trump may pose the most serious challenge yet to the American experiment in self-government.

Fifty-one senators voted last week against hearing relevant evidence of Trump’s abuse of power, and those same senators, perhaps joined by others, will vote Wednesday to enable the president to continue abusing power. These enablers checked reason, logic, and fairness at the door of the upper chamber to engage in pure sophistry in lame attempts to explain their votes. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander admitted Trump’s guilt in a statement issued by his office: “There is no need for more evidence to conclude the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.’” Alexander went on to call Trump’s actions “inappropriate,” and indicated the proper remedy is to “let the people decide” in the coming election.

How illogical! Alexander believes Trump cheated in the election, but his fate should be decided in the election in which he already has cheated. How irrational! How rigged!

So, here we are: The Senate accepts that Trump cheats but refuses to punish him for cheating. Why would Trump not continue to cheat? Why should the American electorate have faith that the 2020 election will be fair?

Alexander had an answer for that as well, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “If a call like that [Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] gets you an impeachment, I would think he would think twice before he did it again.” Really, senator? Is that the lesson you think Donald Trump will take away from his acquittal? If history is a guide, Trump will not be chastened by his impeachment. He will be emboldened by his exoneration.

Remember, Trump had his infamous call with Zelensky the day after special counsel Robert Mueller’s bumbling appearance on Capitol Hill to explain his report on the Russia investigation. Even a sketchy reading of the Mueller report would lead most culprits to tread carefully in the future. But, not Trump, who obviously took away the opposite lesson.

Trump has sent us numerous signals over the years: He does what he does because he can — because he gets away with it, because there never is any penalty for the improprieties, abuses, and illegalities he commits. He cheats in business, he has a history of stiffing vendors, he lies, he abuses and bullies people and always gets away with it. He even cheats at golf! Trump told us his ethos in the “Access Hollywood” tape. Everyone focused on his notorious admission of grabbing women’s genitalia, but the far more revealing statement was this: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything!”

There is no bigger star than the president of the United States! Why would Trump not try to steal the next election, especially when the polls are so gloomy? After all, the Senate vote gives him a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio

Other Republican senators besides Lamar Alexander conceded Trump’s guilt in the Ukraine scandal. “I assumed what is alleged is true,” said Florida’s Marco Rubio. True, but not “in the interest of the nation to remove the president.” Sorry, senator, but that argument flies in the face of why the drafters of the Constitution gave the Senate the power to remove from office a president guilty of abuse of power. Impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate are not in the Constitution because the Framers wanted to keep most presidents from behaving badly. The Framers assumed most presidents would not abuse power because most presidents not named Trump would be guided by moral and political restraints. The reason for the constitutional impeachment clause is because of extreme cases (such as Trump) of a renegade president who is so dangerous (attempting to rig an election qualifies as dangerous) that he or she must be removed from office. 

The dangers to the American Republic exceed this lawless president. His devoted base — the millions who engage in a “cult of personality” — and the spinelessness of the Republican Party will further convince the amoral president that there are no restraints, that he can break any law in pursuit of personal power and private gain. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” House Democrats struck at the president, but the Senate abdicated its responsibility, emboldening not only Trump but his sycophants in the Republican Party. 

It is a dynamic, as Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times, that has unwound multiple times in the last few decades: Democrats trying to play fair, Republicans ruthlessly doing whatever it takes to win. The dynamic played out in the election of 2000 and the aborted recount in Bush versus Gore; repeated when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld lied their way into war in Iraq; and recurred when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stole a vacant Supreme Court seat. And, it happened again last week when the GOP did Trump’s bidding and shut down the Senate trial.

Americans once took pride in the belief that ours was a “government of laws, not men” (pardon the sexist terminology, but that was the statement). The age of Trump teaches us a different lesson: If men and women are not willing to play by the rules, if they are permitted to disregard the law, “If right doesn’t matter,” as California Representative Adam Schiff said in his closing argument in the Senate trial, then “we’re lost.”

So, Dr. Franklin, the answer to the question posed to you in 1787 is, we still do not know if we can keep the republic you and your colleagues bequeathed us.

Posted February 4, 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

Who’s Special Now?

Poor Donnie, that mean British ambassador said nasty things about the president, calling him “inept,” “insecure,” and “incompetent.” In leaked cables, Sir Kim Darroch warned London that the White House was “uniquely dysfunctional” with aides engaging in “knife fights.” Darroch, in the secret reports, added that President Donald Trump’s scandal-afflicted presidency could “crash and burn” and that Trump might be “at the beginning of a downward spiral… that leads to disgrace and downfall.” Darroch did suggest, however, that the Teflon president, who has shrugged off numerous controversies in the past, might “emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator.”

Darroch was doing what ambassadors are supposed to do. One of the functions of an envoy is to report to the country he or she represents about the country where the ambassador is stationed. As Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to Washington, put it, “Yes, yes, everyone does” report his or her impressions. It would be foolish to assume that the U.S. ambassador to Germany in the 1930s did not tell Washington about the rise of the Nazis, the repression of dissent, the treatment of Jews, and the revitalized military. Similarly, U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union constantly informed the State Department about who was in favor and who was not, and their cables discussed the repression of dissent and the shortages of consumer goods. All that is part of the job.

Daniel Fried, who served as an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, says Trump’s Twitter response to the leaked cables was the “functional equivalent” of declaring Darroch persona non grata. Trump’s public reaction — and the clear message that the White House would no longer work with the ambassador — was “a nasty diplomatic step and an unfriendly act.” Fried further noted that Trump’s behavior “rather proved the British ambassador’s point now, didn’t it?” 

Prime Minister Theresa May, who is leaving her post as soon as the Conservative Party names a successor, stood by Darroch, with her office saying at the beginning of the controversy, “Kim Darroch continues to have the prime minister’s full support.” Later, May told Parliament, “Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.” She went on to say, “Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice.” Despite the prime minister’s support, Darroch resigned, telling his bosses, “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”

One of the villains in this episodes is Trump, who put his narcissism and vanity before American interests. Virtually, any other president — think Barack Obama, in particular — would have dusted off the shoulder of his suit jacket and carried on, dealing with the ambassador, because, after all, Britain is our most important ally and business must be conducted, even with people one does not like. But, Trump’s fragile ego was wounded, and Darroch knew his time in Washington was up. Trump, and the State Department, rarely deal with ambassadors, anyhow. When the president announced — on Twitter — the pullout of U.S. troops from Syria, where Britain, as well as France, has deployed troops, some of whom depend on American forces for transportation and intelligence, Darroch was not informed ahead of time. 

“For me, as a foreigner, it was fascinating,” said Araud, the former French ambassador. “It’s what happens when a populist leader takes command in a liberal democracy. These people don’t recognize or accept the idea that an ambassador or a bureaucrat could be of any use. They only want to deal with other leaders.” Trump would rather talk face-to-face with tyrants like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Russia’s Vladimir Putin because they flatter Trump and stroke his ego. They may laugh at how they play him, but, rest assured, the laughter is in private.

Darroch’s resignation has caused an uproar in Britain. Most British citizens and officials have praised Darroch for his professionalism and for providing candid analysis of the Trump administration. For Trump, the leaked cables provided an opportunity to criticize Britain and Prime Minister May, which he has done ceaselessly since taking office. Trump has injected himself in the controversy over Brexit, the decision Britain made in 2016 to leave the European Union, but which the U.K. has not yet implemented. Trump and the “Leavers,” as those who favor Brexit are called, share a populist and anti-elite point of view. It is no surprise that Trump is on good terms with Nigel Farage, the anti-immigrant racist who led the pro-Leave forces in the referendum three years ago.

In the race to succeed May as prime minister, Trump backs Boris Johnson the former London mayor and former foreign secretary. Johnson — the odds-on favorite to defeat Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary — is the other villain in this fiasco. In a debate with Hunt, Johnson declined to give Darroch solid backing, which left the ambassador with no choice but to resign. Trump has praised Johnson in the past, and if Johnson becomes prime minister, it is reasonable to expect that the British-American “special relationship” will come down to their private connection. Many in Britain fear Johnson will become Trump’s “poodle.”

Britain and America have a “special relationship” because the two nations share common values and goals. Trump has done his best to trash the relationship, but it probably will survive in the long run. One thing is certain in the short run, whoever becomes Britain’s next prime minister will need the United States. Britain must leave the European Union by October 31, 2019, and without a trade relationship with the continent, Britain will have to negotiate one with the United States. Those negotiations should provide insight into the “special relationship” between Trump and Johnson, if he prevails in the leadership fight.

Posted July 12, 2019

 

Gulf of Doubt

Let me stipulate at the outset that Iran is a bad actor. It pursued nuclear weapons (though it appears to have honored the Obama-negotiated nuclear agreement), it supports terrorists, and it tries to destabilize nations in the Middle East. Iran certainly is capable of launching attacks on oil tankers in international waters.

But, since it is the administration of President Donald Trump that is accusing Iran, skepticism is warranted. Trump’s uneasy relationship with the truth is one reason to doubt the American version of what happened in the Gulf of Oman. The president is, to put it bluntly, a pathological liar. As of the end of April of this year, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, he had made more than 10,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. In recent months, Trump has averaged nearly 23 lies a day. If the president appeared on the White House lawn to announce he had Rice Krispies for breakfast, a reasonable person would ask to see proof.

Another reason to question the American claim is the role of John Bolton, the national security adviser. Bolton is an unreconstructed hawk, a militant on foreign policy who advocates the use of force against adversaries. If he had his way, Bolton would beat North Korea and Iran into submission, in no particular order. In the administration of George W. Bush, Bolton led the charge to invade Iraq, claiming, on the basis of little or no evidence, that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction and was in cahoots with al-Qaeda in plotting 9/11. Both allegations were false. Bolton either was unduly credulous of dubious evidence or willfully lying. In either case, he should not be in the government today, and he certainly cannot be believed.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is loudest in accusing Iran of the tanker attacks, is not without credibility problems of his own. Pompeo was quick to blame Tehran for a May 31 car bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed four Afghans and slightly wounded four American service members. The Taliban claimed responsibility, but Pompeo insisted the terrorist group should not be believed, and he continued to point the finger at Iran. Pompeo also is biased as he is an advocate of regime change in Tehran.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg says confusion about what happened stems from the Trump administration’s “low” credibility. “It’s a little distressing to think that because this administration’s credibility is so low in general, I think a lot of people are thinking twice at a moment when America’s word should be decisive,” the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Despite that note of caution, Buttigieg added, “That being said, [the attacks in international waters are] not inconsistent with Iranian behavior that has been aggressive and malignant in the region.” Still, “an administration that has been extremely unreliable” cannot be trusted.

International reaction to the American charge of Iranian blame has been skeptical. The Japanese owner of one of the tankers said the vessel was struck by a flying projectile. That assertion contradicts the American military claim that both ships were hit by limpet mines, which are attached to boats below the waterline using magnets. “We received reports that something flew towards the ship,” insisted Yutaka Katada. “The place where the projectile landed was significantly higher than the water level, so we are absolutely sure that this wasn’t a torpedo. I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.” For its part, the Japanese government requested the United States provide further evidence to back its assertion that Iran is to blame for the attacks. A source close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Pompeo’s claims “are not definite proof that it’s Iran.” (The attack occurred when Abe was meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, a strange coincidence.)

Japan is not alone in doubting the U.S. story. Germany’s foreign minister said the grainy video Washington provided is insufficient to make a definitive assessment. Officials from the European Union and the United Kingdom also expressed skepticism. Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was one of the few to back the United States fully. He called on the international community to take a “decisive stance” against what he termed Iranian expansionism.

The abysmal relationship between the Trump administration and the truth sadly accounts for much of the questioning at home and abroad. Also contributing to the skepticism is that American officials have not made a solid case. Much of Pompeo’s “evidence”  was inferential: Proxy groups operating in the Gulf do not have the resources to conduct such an attack and Iran has done this sort of thing before. That is not exactly compelling language geared to convincing skeptics beyond a reasonable doubt.

Doubt leads to conspiratorial theories. Some have posited that Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates launched the attack to make it look like Iran was at fault, thus provoking an American overreaction, possibly triggering a war in which Iran’s power would be curbed. Similarly, theories abound that Iranian-backed militias are responsible, again with the aim of forcing the United States to attack Iran. Or, perhaps, worst of all is a “wag the dog” scenario in which the Trump administration blames Iran — without conclusive evidence — to induce a crisis as a distraction from the president’s low poll numbers in matchups against several Democratic challengers or the unfavorable reaction to his tariff and immigration policies, even among some Republicans.

All of this is dispiriting. Iran may well be responsible for the attack, but lack of compelling evidence and the past chicanery of Trump and his aides lead to uncertainty. No one should be surprised that the administration’s prevarications in the past cast doubt on whether it can ever be believed. This is a scenario long feared, and, now, it has arrived. Just another reason why Trump must be removed.

Posted June 18, 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