Tag Archives: Rashida Tlaib

Trump, Would-be Despot

These are the words of a would-be despot: “I can tell you this, you can’t talk that way about our country, not when I’m the president,” said Donald Trump last Friday. In Trump’s America, criticism in not acceptable, and the four congresswomen — the target of his racist tweets for more than a week — “can’t get away with” speaking freely.

The U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States protect the members of “The Squad” — as they are known — in their exercise of free speech, at least so far. Trump has to resort to bullying and threatening the Democratic representatives — Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — into silence. The president uses racism and the threat of the mob — as witnessed in last week’s chants of “Send her back” at a Trump rally in North Carolina — to intimidate American citizens. 

It is the conjunction of a nascent authoritarian streak with racism that makes Trump so dangerous and the coming election so important. The 2020 presidential election may be the most consequential in the nation’s history since 1860, when the election of Abraham Lincoln as president sparked Southern secession and the Civil War. If Trump were to win reelection next year, all restraints upon his tyrannical tendencies would be removed. And, if Republicans also were to regain control of Congress, a supine GOP might abet the nation’s descent into authoritarianism.

A putative dictator cannot establish an autocracy alone. He or she needs enablers to aid in the tearing down of democratic structures and a target to focus the rage of his supporters — who, in their rage, will agree to overturning traditions and rights protecting all citizens. In Trump’s case, the enablers are the Republican Party and the mob chanting “Send her back.” The targets are, in this particular case, the four congresswomen of color, proxies for all people different from Trump and his base.

Trump may not be clever enough to have thought this through carefully. But, he has stumbled onto the potential demise of a democratic America and a way for him to maintain control. (Never forget that Trump may well need to win reelection in 2020 to prevent his indictment as soon as he leaves the White House.) Trump knows using racial tropes is effective, a point recognized by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who said, “I think the president is onto something.” 

“Send her back” — the mindless chant of the mob — sent chills down my spine when I saw the tape of the North Carolina rally. Make no mistake about it, the American Mussolini loved all 13 seconds as he stood silently and listened to the crowd. He may have half-heartedly walked his approval back the next day (and then whole-heartedly walked back his walk back the day after), but the tape shows Trump with the smug, self-satisfied look he exhibits whenever he is basking in a give-and-take with his base.

Trump uses racism because it works — at least with his core supporters. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Monday and Tuesday of last week — after the initial tweet storm telling the congresswomen to leave but before the North Carolina rally — Trump’s net approval rating among Republicans rose five percentage points compared to a poll taken the week before. His approval rating dropped among Democrats and independents, but Trump has always focused his reelection strategy on solidifying his base and not adding to his support. There is precedent for this: The Nazis came to power — and destroyed the democratic Weimar Republic — based on winning only a minority of the popular vote in the last free elections in Germany before the Hitler came to power.

“I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” Trump tweeted recently. It is, like much of what Trump tweets and says, beside the point. What Trump believes in his heart about people of color is immaterial. What matters is that the amoral man in the Oval Office is happy to use racism, as history shows, to further his goals. Government investigators accused Trump of refusing to rent to black tenants in the 1970s. He never recanted his erroneous accusation against the five African American and Hispanic teenagers falsely accused of raping a jogger in New York City’s Central Park. He considered pitting an all-white team against an all-black team to bolster ratings of “The Apprentice,” even though friends and colleagues warned him against the racist implications of such a matchup. And, of course, he sharpened his political chops on the racist “birther” nonsense that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, then began his 2016 campaign maligning Mexicans. In the White House, he has referred to “shithole countries” and complained that Nigerian visitors would never “go back to their huts.” Finally, he equated “both sides” in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Yes, as McConnell noted, “The president is onto something.” Trump is willing to exploit the fear among many whites of losing status in an increasingly diverse nation. The president did not create that fear, but he is happy to use it for his own purposes.  “Send her back” serves his purposes well, because it is a barb aimed at a hijab-wearing Muslim woman of color who — so the chanters believe — does not belong in their vision of America. “She’s lucky to be where she is, let me tell you,” Trump said of Representative Omar, and most of the crowd in North Carolina probably agreed. 

With the mob — a substantial minority of Americans — backing him, Trump will continue to bully his opponents and use racial taunts as a tool to chip away at individual rights and democratic protections as the nation slides into tyranny. That is why the 2020 election is so important — if it is not already too late. The United States may have gone so far down the road to despotism under Trump that the next would-be dictator may well have a solid base upon which to build. 

Posted July 23, 2019



Trump’s Campaign Strategy: It Will Get Uglier

Send her back!” chanted the crowd In Greenville, North Carolina, Wednesday in reference to Somali-born but naturalized American citizen Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat. The chanters were witnessing the unveiling of President Donald Trump’s ugly reelection strategy, which drew on four days of racist tweets and statements making it clear that the targets of his attacks — four freshman Democratic congresswomen of color, of whom Omar is one — were not welcome in his America.

Make no mistake: Trump wants this fight, and he needs — for his electoral strategy — to fight the 2020 presidential election along the racial divide that permeates America’s past. Twelve years after the election of the nation’s first African American president, Trump’s appeal to racism and xenophobia takes America back to a dark period in our history. 

Trump clearly intends to recycle all the old, vile tropes of past campaigns: “Love it or leave it,” in reference to the United States, left over from the anti-Vietnam War protest movement; guilt by association when he says Omar supports al-Qaeda; an updated version of “Lock her up,” meaning Hillary Clinton; and the constant raising of the bogeyman label of “socialist” and “communist” in reference to Democrats generally and to Omar and the other three members, particularly, of “The Squad”: Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. Nothing, apparently, is too old, too vile, too indecent for the amoral racist who sits in the Oval Office.

Thursday, Trump tried to distance himself from his chanting supporters by saying, “I was not happy with [the chants] — I disagree with it.” When asked why he did not stop the chants, Trump said he thought he had tamped down the enthusiasm by starting to speak “very quickly.” However, a review of the tape shows him pausing as the chants of “Send her back!” intensified. Nor did Trump do anything to discourage the crowd. When the president returned to the White House after the rally, he tweeted, “What a crowd, and what great people. The enthusiasm blows away our rivals on the Radial Left. #2020 will be a big year for the Republican Party!” The Washington Post Fact Checker gave Trump “Four Pinocchios” for claiming he tried to stop the crowd from chanting.

Trump may have been moved to issue his disclaimer after a few Republicans expressed reservations about the tenor of the crowd’s reaction to Trump’s mention of Omar. Representative Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican, said he “struggled” with the chants. Others — such a Representative Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican, said there was “no place for that kind of talk,” but he defended Trump’s weekend tweets, which suggested the members of “The Squad” should return to their ancestral countries. And, then, there was the fine example of courage exhibited by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California who claimed the chants came from “a small group of people off to the side” and were not encouraged by the president. Trump took the bait, claiming he had not led the chants, thereby trying to have it both ways — revving up the crowd while disavowing its action, after the fact. (Memo to the voters of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District: Send Omar back — to Congress.)

Clearly, Trump believes his path to victory depends on appealing to the passions of his base. It is a curious strategy, since one assumes the base is solidly behind Trump by now. But, the strategy envisions winning reelection along the contours of his 2016 victory, built on securing the vote of whites — particularly older white males — in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump’s presidential victory came because he won those three states by fewer than 80,000 votes while Clinton underperformed Barack Obama in 2012 by 600,000 votes.

Trump anticipates narrowly winning the Electoral College, while perhaps losing the popular vote by an even greater margin than in 2016. Clinton won the popular vote by three million, even though nine percent of 2012 Obama voters cast ballots for Trump in 2016, and seven percent — more than four million missing voters — stayed home. If Clinton had won a small percentage of the Obama-to-Trump voters or of the stay-at-homes, she would be president. That is history, and Trump’s campaign may be drawing on such numbers. 

Trump’s plan might work, but it ignores the anger of suburban voters, especially suburban women, in areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Milwaukee, who were instrumental in helping Democrats gain control of the House in 2018 and who — along with black women — may well decide the 2020 election. The Trump path is so narrow that he must get every possible angry white vote from people scared of the demographic changes that are making America more diverse. Hence, the appeal to the Trump voters’ fears requires an increasingly ugly campaign.

And, it will get uglier. In the process of stoking the fears and prejudices of his backers, Trump is building a cadre of disaffected people loyal only to him. These Trumpistas — many of whom have guns — could form the core of Trumpian “Storm Troopers” willing to take to the streets to keep Trump in the White House. I use the term “Storm Troopers” guardedly, but I fear what might happen if Trump were to lose in 2020, especially if he loses narrowly in the Electoral College. Remember, in the final debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump refused to promise he would abide by the election results. “[I will] look at it at the time,” Trump said.

Trump’s victory in 2016 meant we never found out how far Trump would go to undermine the electoral returns. This time — facing possible indictment on numerous alleged crimes and misdeeds — would Trump refuse to turn over the keys to the White House to the victor? Would he call upon his loyal followers to take to the streets to overturn the election? I do not know, but I am scared.

Posted July 19, 2020

The Racist-in-Chief

Why does he do it? Why does the president of the United States post such vile tweets as the series he unleashed Sunday — and defended Monday — calling on four Democratic congresswomen — freshman progressives — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?” A day later, at a White House event, Trump continued the attack, saying the four “hate our country… and all I’m saying — they want to leave, they can leave.” The president, who is good at recycling old slogans, was harking back to the Vietnam era “love it or leave it” trope hurled at anti-war protestors.

One reason for the vitriol should be clear by now: Donald Trump cannot help himself. His tweets are who he is: A vile, racist, xenophobic misogynist whose presence in the White House dishonors the office. No one should be shocked by his recent tweets. He has said and written the same despicable thoughts numerous times since he rode the escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 to announce his presidency by trashing Mexico and its people. (Actually, his hawking of the racist “birther” conspiracy nonsense and his continued claims of the guilt of the Central Park Five provided ample evidence of his lack of character and racism long before his presidential run.)

Trump tweets vileness because he knows it revs up his base. Not everyone who voted for Trump in 2016 and who will vote for him in 2020 is a racist, but everyone knows that Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” really means Make America White Again. The vast majority of Trump supporters fear the America that looks like the four Democratic congresswomen he attacked: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Theirs is a diverse, youthful America in which age, gender, sexual preference, and ethnic and racial backgrounds no longer are a bar to holding office. “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us. You rely on a frightened America for your plunder.” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in reply to Trump. The president appears ready to fight his re-election bid along the lines of racial division. Many Trumpistas may not be racists, but the only definitive way to prove one is not a racist is to stop voting for racists.

And, then, there is the diversionary aspect to Trump’s tweets. For Trump to concoct a diversion may be giving the president more intellectual and strategic credit than he deserves, but the fact remains that Trump has had an exceedingly bad last few weeks and nothing distracts attention from failure and ineptness like a racist harangue. For many, that kind of distraction may be akin to forgetting your foot hurts by rapping yourself on the knuckles, but Trump may figure his rants work since his supporters love them (or at least allow for them).

When the press talks about Trump’s racist tweets, it is not talking about recent polls showing the president trailing all the leading Democratic presidential candidates in head-to-head matchups. Nor is anyone talking about the promised raids to round up undocumented immigrants that did not happen. Nor is there any conversation about the dismissal of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta for his role in the lenient treatment of convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Nor is there discussion about the larger question of Trump’s relationship to Epstein and the president’s conduct with women. Nor is there coverage of the stunning number of Trump appointees who have resigned under an ethical cloud and the huge number of empty offices in the Trump administration. When there is little or nothing good to tout, Trump pulls out the oldest trick in the political playbook: Go on the offensive by being offensive. The president is very good at that.

Does he know how ignorant his tweet about the congresswomen is? Does he know that three of the four members of Congress he attacked were born in the United States? That one of them is Puerto Rican, which makes her an American citizen no matter where she was born? That the fourth, Ilhan Omar, was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, but is a naturalized American citizen? Trump has long shown that truth is a very malleable commodity for him, and so is accuracy. The message he wants to send is obvious: Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Omar, and Tlaib do not look like his America and the America his ardent followers envision. So, these congresswomen should “go back” to the countries “from which they came.”

Trump followed up his Sunday tweets with a page stolen from red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy of the 1950s. “We all know that AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and this crowd [presumably Ocasio-Cortez and her three female colleagues of color, known colloquially as “The Squad”] are a bunch of Communists,” he tweeted Monday, who “hate Israel… [and] our own Country.” Trump’s Twitter ranting did not end with a Red Scare trope. Never one to lack for gall, Trump asked, “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said. So many people are angry at them & their horrible & disgusting actions!” Trump seems to believe capital letters convey seriousness, but they cannot hide that he is projecting his own ugliness onto those he attacks. 

Trump’s gall extended to offering Democrats advice, suggesting “The Squad” may harm his opponents’ electoral chances. “If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out,” he tweeted. Actually, it may well work the other way. Trump’s vicious attacks on the four progressive congresswomen serve only to unite Democrats. “The Squad” has had its differences with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic leadership, most recently in a dispute about whether to appropriate money to alleviate the Trump-created crisis on the border. The Democratic leadership favored increased funding as a humanitarian measure; progressives argued the Trump administration cannot be trusted not to divert the money to immigration enforcement. 

Many of the differences — such as the one on border funding — between Pelosi and “The Squad” probably come down to tactics rather than goals, with the progressives demanding immediate action while Pelosi cautions moving only on what can be accomplished. Whatever the situation, Trump’s tweets serve only to unite Democrats in opposition to his racism. “I reject @realDonaldTrump’s xenophobic comments meant to divide our nation. Rather than attack Members of Congress, he should work with us for humane immigration policy that reflects American values,” Pelosi tweeted. As a show of unity, House Democrats introduced a resolution condemning Trump’s tweets.

Uniting Democrats does not serve Trump well. A united Democratic Party will be a stronger adversary in the 2020 presidential election. And, a Democratic president may well pursue a criminal investigation of former President Donald Trump. That is an outcome he should fear!

Posted July 16, 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 Don and His Consigliere

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!” That playground taunt, delivered by Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona and accompanied by a poster, was the epitome of the Republican defense of President Donald Trump during the day-long testimony of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee. Admittedly, Trump — who acts like a mob boss — is a tough guy to defend, so it should surprise no one that the Republican strategy was to impugn the bearer of the bad news rather than to counter the substance of Cohen’s remarks.

Chris Christie, a former governor of New Jersey and a Trump defender, noticed the weakness of the GOP ploy. The president, Christie said, must have been “fuming that no one’s defending him.” Christie labeled the lame performance “either a failure of those Republicans on the Hill or a failure of the White House to have a unified strategy with them.” 

In truth, there was not much Republicans could do. Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina tried to defend Trump against Cohen’s accusation of racism by positioning an African American woman — Lynne Patton, a longtime Trump aide and current official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development — over his shoulder as a prop to demonstrate diversity. That piece of theater led to a scuffle later in the hearing when Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, labeled the use of Patton a “racist act.” Meadows bristled at the thought Tlaib was calling him a racist, but she insisted she was talking about the act, not Meadows.

For the most part, GOP members simply used their time not to poke holes in Cohen’s testimony — which would have been difficult because he provided documentary evidence for many of his charges — but to question his motives or to attack Democrats for holding the hearing in the first place. It seems Republicans on the Oversight Committee have no idea what oversight means, since they refused, when they were in the majority, to hold any substantive hearings to investigate credible charges of Trumpian misdoings.

Gosar of the playground taunts was disowned last November by six siblings, all of whom endorsed his opponent in the 2018 midterm election. “We gotta stand up for our good name,” said David Gosar in a political advertisement on behalf of his brother’s opponent. “This is not who we are.” But, it is who the member of Congress is. Gosar got so excited by his attack on Cohen that he stumbled over his words. Others also demonstrated a fair degree of apoplexy. Meadows looked as if he were about to have a coronary when he tried to nail Cohen for allegedly lying on a committee form about whether the former Trump aide had been paid for services by a foreign government. The dispute demonstrated only that Meadows had not accurately read the question on the form. 

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan expressed outrage that Lanny Davis — a friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton — represented Cohen. Jordan and others repeatedly attacked Cohen as a convicted perjurer. Cohen is going to jail for that crime, and other misdeeds. But, even liars sometimes tell the truth, especially when they have documents to back up their assertions. 

Much time was spent on Cohen as a would-be influence peddler and prospective recipient of lucrative book and movie deals. Numerous Republican members tried to get Cohen to vow he would not profit from his notoriety, which Cohen refused to do. Republicans also tried to portray Cohen as a grasping office seeker disappointed he did not get a job in the White House. All in all, the strategy of attacking Cohen as a dishonest criminal who should not be believed begs an important question: Why did Trump employ such a disreputable person for a decade?

The truth is, of course, that Cohen is much like Trump, who was something of a mentor to the younger man. Apparently, Cohen had easy access to Trump and his family. According to Cohen, he briefed Trump, Don Jr., and Ivanka at least 10 times during the 2016 presidential campaign about the Trump family’s attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. That gives the lie to Trump’s claim of no business dealings with Russia and implicates Ivanka for the first time in that sordid episode. One other family note: Don Jr. might want to inquire as to the veracity of Cohen’s statement that father thought son “had the worst judgement of anyone in the world.”

Cohen produced checks indicating Trump reimbursed his fixer for the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels while Trump was in the White House. Cohen also testified that he was present in July 2016 when Trump took a call on speakerphone from Roger Stone who said, “He had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” According to Cohen, Trump replied, “Wouldn’t that be great.” 

Cohen also offered tantalizing hints of more investigations. When one member of Congress asked about Cohen’s last conversation with his former boss, Cohen declined to give details, saying it is “being investigated right now” by federal prosecutors in New York. As for other instances of possible wrongdoing or crimes by Trump, Cohen repeated, “Again, those are part of the investigation.” Stay tuned!

The former consigliere reaffirmed that Trump operated like a mob boss. Trump never gave explicit instructions to Cohen to do wrong, but Cohen understood the “code.” Like a good Mafia underling, Cohen was not hesitant to threaten those who might stand in Trump’s way. When asked, Cohen said he issued about 500 threats on behalf of Trump (that includes threats of litigation) in his decade of employment. So, Cohen should not have been shocked that Trump used mob language in calling his former aide a “rat.” Nor should anyone have been surprised that on the eve of Cohen’s testimony, Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who has a history of incendiary comments, tweeted, “Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” (The tweet has been deleted, but the gist was repeated on the House floor.)

Cohen’s testimony — and the antics of a fool like Gaetz — demonstrate once again that, as Cohen pointed out, Trump corrupts everyone who comes in contact with him. That may be the greatest tragedy of this sordid presidency.

Posted March 1, 2019

A Divided Congress

In 1917, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress. The Montana progressive was also the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into both World Wars. After more than two decades out of office, Rankin was returned to the House in 1940 because of the threat of another war. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she commented upon election in 1916. “But I won’t be the last.”

Rankin was certainly right about that, as the number of women in the new Congress demonstrates. More than 100 women were sworn in as members of the House Thursday, with about one-third of them new members who replaced men. The vast majority of females in the House are Democrats, just one indication of the huge gender gap in American politics that favors Democrats. Many, but not all, of the new women members are progressive and will likely push the Democratic caucus to the left while challenging the leadership. 

A photo shared by now-representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democratic first-termer, shows the diversity of the new Congress. Among the new members: Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, the first African American woman from Massachusetts to serve in Congress, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first Muslim women in Congress (along with Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib), Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas, the first indigenous women in Congress (Davids is also the first openly LGBTQ person to represent Kansas). Also in the picture is Veronica Escobar. She and Sylvia Garcia are the first Hispanic females elected from Texas.

The liberal wing of the Democratic caucus is much larger than the conservative wing. The last time Democrats controlled the House, in 2010, the Blue Dog coalition, a group of the most conservative House Democrats, was nearly equal in size to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the two factions wielded comparable influence. The Blue Dogs, for example, succeeded in making the Affordable Care Act more conservative than progressives had advocated. Now, the disparity between the two wings is huge, with progressives outnumbering conservatives by a nearly four-to-one margin. 

On policy, this may not matter much in the short run. Progressive policies like Medicare-for-all, even if enacted by the House under liberal pressure, are not likely to pass the Republican-dominated Senate or earn President Donald Trump’s signature. Still, some governing has to be done, and House progressives will push bills — such as those funding the government — to the left and exert pressure when the House leadership has to negotiate compromises with Senate Republicans and the president, in the same way the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus forced House Speaker Paul Ryan to accept more conservative legislation in the last few Congresses. 

Moreover, progressive agitation in the House Democratic caucus will help set the party’s agenda for the future. Single-payer healthcare and aggressive action on the environment, including a Green New Deal that addresses climate change, are among the topics of concern to progressives, and these issues will influence the party’s debates as it gears up for the 2020 presidential election. If the Trump presidency continues to implode, there is a good chance a Democrat will be elected president next time around, and he or she may have a Democratic House and Senate. If so, legislation introduced by liberals in the new House will be a blueprint for action in 2021.

The excitement generated by the new members in the House largely is absent in the Senate, where the dynamics are very different. Republicans remain in control of the upper chamber, and Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he will not allow the Senate to take up legislation to restart the federal government that does not have the president’s approval. As McConnell’s spokesman put it, “It’s simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won’t sign.”

McConnell may be reading the politics of inaction correctly. Trump’s position that funding the government must include money for his wall may play well with his ever-shrinking base. McConnell may not want to endanger sitting Senate Republicans by tempting them to vote yes on a funding compromise that does not include additional money for the wall. But, his deference to the president is yet another indication of how Congress has abdicated its traditional role as a coequal branch of government.

In 1789, in the very first Congress, an important precedent was set when the Senate refused to defer to the executive branch. President George Washington wanted to negotiate a treaty with the Creek Nation which would be a model for the new government’s policy toward Native Americans. The Constitution stipulates that treaties require the Senate’s “Advice and Consent.” Washington had no idea what “Advice and Consent” meant, and he was inclined to think the Senate was more akin to an executive council than a legislative branch, so he decided to appear before the Senate. The Senators peppered him with questions, ultimately deciding to refer the issue to a committee. An angry Washington declared, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!”

The awkward meeting established an important precedent: In the future presidents communicated in writing with the Senate (and House), and the legislature asserted its prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government, as the Constitution intends. Now, we have a Congress that readily cedes its responsibilities to the executive. Such a willingness of Congress to defer to the president has been a trend in foreign affairs for decades, with Congress surrendering, for example, the power to declare war. McConnell’s reluctance to challenge the president on reopening the government marks a new low in legislative deference, and it is inexplicable since the Senate previously agreed to reopen the government without additional money for the president’s wall.

Progressives in the House — indeed, virtually every Democratic member — steadfastly are opposed to providing money for the wall, so it is hard to see how this impasse ends. The only way out appears to hinge on McConnell relenting and allowing a vote on funding bills that do not include additional wall money. Then, the onus will be on the president.

A divided Congress will make for messy governance, at best.

Posted January 4, 2019