Tuesday, April 9, 2019

SINKING DEEPER INTO A POLICY MADE IN HELL


US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has become the latest casualty in the presidential version of The Apprentice reality show that President Donald J. Trump once hosted on national television. The catch line for that show was, “You’re fired!” And Trump is now hosting it from the White House, although it only reaches TV through third party news sources and is a drama that is being staged in the only relative privacy of the presidential cabinet. It is clear from news sources and Nielsen’s own comments that she didn’t quit last weekend, but was forced out of office by the president, whom she described as “increasingly unhinged” regarding immigration policy. And the shake-up at Homeland Security has continued since Nielsen quit under pressure last Sunday.
Kirstjen Nielsen
As the story is being pieced together from off-the-record statements by concerned inside government sources to the mainstream media, we are learning that Nielsen’s departure was only the first major symptom of a sweeping purge that the president is carrying out in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and related agencies. The symbolic beheadings continued this week with the dismissal of Secret Service Director Randolph Alles, who, according to the White House “will be leaving shortly.”
The story has implications that are complex and far-reaching, but that can be summarized in a few questions that those working in the Homeland Security Department of Donald Trump must ask themselves if they hope to keep their jobs: Am I willing to shut down the border wherever and whenever the president tells me to? Am I willing to snatch children from their mother’s arms and cage them? Am I willing to send those children off to parts unknown without a clue of how to get them back to their families? Am I willing to break the law in order to do the president’s bidding? Nielsen appears to have been willing to do some but not all of these things. In the main, she wasn’t willing to break the law to close the border, or to ignore judicial decisions regarding immigration cases, and her refusal to do so was sufficient for the president to fire her.
Despite Nielsen’s having garnered a dark reputation as a Trump enforcer—who has overseen mass detention of asylum-seekers, separation of would-be immigrant families at the border, the tear-gassing of migrants including mothers and children on the frontier between Mexico and the US, the scattering of immigrant children separated from their parents to other parts of the country, the deaths of several children in detention from apparent neglect and the “misplacement” of hundreds of children in government or foster care—the president is understood to have sought Nielsen’s resignation because she was “too soft” on immigration.
Mother and child detained at the border
Following this latest departure, Trump’s cabinet now includes four acting department heads. With a turnover rate of around 66 percent, Trump has hosted the largest number of top-slot cabinet departures in recent memory: 14 only three months into his third year. His closest competitor for cabinet departures was Bill Clinton, with 12 for his entire first term. Obama oversaw the departures of nine of his cabinet members in his first four years. The lowest turnover by far was in the cabinet of George W. Bush with only four departures during his first four years in office.  
Nielsen was one of the better-prepared of Trump’s staff members, having graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and from University of Virginia Law. Apparently with an eye to diplomacy, she also majored in Japanese Studies at Nazan University in Nagoya, Japan.  But her career early on turned to national security when she served under George W. Bush on the White House Homeland Security Council as Director for Prevention, Preparedness and Response.
After leaving the Bush administration in 2008, Nielsen didn’t continue in government but turned instead to private contracting. She made herself known as the founder and president of Sunesis Consulting. But she was listed as the firm's only employee, and her personal cellphone number served as the company switchboard. Despite this skeletal profile, during the Obama administration she won a federal contract for an initial sum of 450,000 dollars to “provide policy and legislation, technical writing, and organizational development” for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
She also later served as a senior member of the Resilience Task Force under the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security Committee at Georgetown University, and was a member of the Global Risks Report Advisory Board at the World Economic Forum.
Nielsen’s rise to Director of Homeland Security came in a roundabout manner. She was General John Kelly’s chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security when he headed that agency. But she later accompanied Kelly to the White House when Donald Trump appointed the general to the post of Chief of Staff. There, Nielsen became Kelly’s principal deputy. Following Kelly’s move to the White House, the Homeland Security post was held by Acting Secretary Elaine Duke. But in October of 2017, Trump named Nielsen to replace Duke, and she was Senate-confirmed in December of that year, officially becoming Secretary of Homeland Security.
Surrounded
In the year and a half that she headed up the Homeland Security Department, Nielsen presided over some of the most morally and legally questionable as well as cruel policies of the Trump era to date. Surely the most controversial of these has been “family separation”, in which the United States government has ordered the separation of the families of undocumented immigrants, including asylum-seekers, at ports of entry on the US-Mexican border. This policy of separation has included the removal of immigrant children, quite often to parts unknown.
The Washington Post Editorial Board has accurately described Nielsen’s performance at the DHS as “attempting to placate a president for whom no anti-immigrant measure is beyond the pale.” While some media outlets have sought to turn Nielsen into a sort of unsung hero for her refusal to go as far as the president asked her to go in implementing his authoritarian advances, the Post also precisely described her time at the DHS as “a season of gratuitous, inept and ultimately futile cruelty,” adding that, “in the process, she bent the truth, sought to evade accountability and did incalculable damage to the prestige of the United States. It is a miserable record.”
And new evidence is pointing to the probability that many thousands more migrant families have been broken up than originally thought, with the process of family separation having begun in the first year of the president’s term and only becoming public knowledge last year when the situation reached crisis proportions. Worse still, Nielsen was so anxious to placate her boss that neither she nor her staff deigned to ask themselves how they would track the members of the families that they were ripping apart so that they might be reunited in the future. There was a feeble attempt to scrap this policy after it became a full-blown scandal in the national and international news media, but the president is doubling down on it once more and it is now clear that this heinous and inhuman practice has his enormous signature all over it.  
The heart-rending result of this is that hundreds of children snatched from the arms of their parents and caged, before being fostered out to parts unknown, are now missing and the government has no idea where to find them. Clearly, this US administration has no foresight, nor does it seem concerned at all about the burden of posterity.
We’ve come to understand that Donald Trump is hardly an intellectual. This is why, since taking office, he has consistently relied on shadowy, Rasputin-like characters to do his thinking for him. To a man, they are extreme nationalists who view the presidency more as an authoritarian game-changer than as an integral part of a complex system of division of powers and of checks and balances. The most prominent figures in this camp have been far-right ideologue Steve Bannon and, more lately, Stephen Miller. The 33-year-old Miller, who had a political kinship to Bannon when Bannon had the president’s ear, came to the government through former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but “outlived” Sessions to become Trump’s senior adviser.
Stephen Miller
Miller is seen as having a major influence on Trump’s courting of the National Rifle Association, his false claims regarding “massive voter fraud” that he perceived as taking the popular vote from him in 2016, his view of the judiciary as “too powerful” and as an enemy of the presidency, and, first and foremost, his extreme anti-immigration policy. Indeed, Miller was instrumental in the administration’s defeat of the Immigration Reform Bill that would have gone a long way toward solving the immigration situation in the US.
As a footnote, it is worthwhile wondering how a man like Miller developed his rabid aversion to immigrants. The fact is that he descends from a family of asylum-seekers who immigrated to the US. His mother’s family arrived in the United States in the early 1900s from Belarus, from where they fled in the face of the anti-Jewish pogroms perpetrated by czarist Russia. Furthermore, as a Jew, it would be hard for him not to know that today’s Western asylum laws originated after World War II, as a result of the holocaust. His fundamentalist anti-immigration stance and his full support for and promotion of such cruel policies are, then, all the more baffling.    
The fact is that the border crisis is being manufactured by the Trump administration in general and by Stephen Miller in particular. The solution isn’t throwing human rights considerations out the window and acting like some of the worst dictatorial regimes in living memory, where state-promoted abductions, disappearances and separation of families have also been used as inhuman policy tools, but by putting aside futile political divisions and agreeing on a compromise to repair what is, basically, a dysfunctional immigration system.
Perhaps a history lesson would be in order, for the sake of providing perspective. This policy bears a striking resemblance to the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans and Japanese residents during World War II. That humanitarian fiasco left a moral stain on the Roosevelt administration—and so too on the United States—that no amount of good that FDR might have done for the country could erase.
Again, however, this administration seems uninterested in either the past or the future, but merely in a present that it is deeply invested in turning chaotic. If we can’t get the full story now, when the Trump administration is consistently stone-walling on not just this, but practically every issue of the day, we’ll surely get it in the future when books are written, studies done, and films made about the lawlessness and cruelty of this administration, whose chief executive is notoriously divorced from humanitarianism, the Constitution and the rule of law.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

THE BARR LETTER—NOT WHAT YOU KNOW BUT WHAT YOU CAN PROVE



Special Counsel Robert Mueller
There is a saying in law and law enforcement that, in court, it isn’t what you know, but what you can prove. This is the same rule I applied many years ago as a newspaper editor in deciding what would go into the paper and what wouldn’t—or would, perhaps, if I thought it was newsworthy, but with all of the “allegedlys” and “reportedlys” and sourced quotes necessary to piece a story together without stating it as fact unless we had hard evidence that it was. I still apply that rule to all of my non-fiction writing and opinion pieces.
That’s why I think that, no matter on which side of the deeply partisan US divide we might be, both sides need to admit that Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein are both serious public servants who have done their best in a highly conflictive climate to be firmly impartial and to preserve the rule of law, resisting tremendous pressure from all quarters to abandon their best instincts.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
That said, this is the same kind of impartiality that Attorney General William Barr should apply to his handling of the report that Special Counsel Robert Mueller handed him last weekend. So far, all we have is a brief four-page summary that Barr released after reading the Mueller Report. And the attorney general is still in the process of deciding just how much of the information contained in the report he will release to Congress and to the American people.
Already in his summary, however, Barr has caused surprise by inserting himself into the discussion, making judgments about the level of guilt or innocence of the president and his aides that, according to his own admission, Mueller never articulated in his report. Specifically, Barr says that, “...Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” In other words, Barr would appear to be arriving at a conclusion that the report itself did not, as far as we know. 
Nor is President Trump’s assertion that the report “completely exonerates” him accurate. On the contrary, according to the attorney general, the Mueller Report says specifically that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
This is an important distinction since it leaves the door open to prosecution of questionable actions in other venues—such as the Southern District of New York. And, as the report indicates, the Special Counsel himself has, according to Barr, “referred several matters to other offices for further action” even though the report makes no recommendation for further indictments within the limits of Mueller’s investigation itself.
Disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn
pled guilty to a one-count felony and told all.
It is important to make a distinction too between exoneration of the current administration (and its entourage) from all wrong-doing and simply finding insufficient evidence to lay charges—again, it’s not what you know but what you can prove. Be that as it may, Democrats were quick to quote the rule of law when the Republicans cried foul after the FBI announced that there was insufficient evidence to charge then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her private email escapades. They will need to remember that now, when the GOP cites the Mueller Report as finding insufficient evidence to accuse the president and his associates of conspiracy with Russia to affect the outcome of the 2016 elections or of obstructing justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey.
And a further distinction to be made is between not having sufficient evidence to prosecute and the power of Congress to impeach a president when his misdeeds warrant it, based on political and ethical rather than legal considerations. Nor should public perception be seen as bearing any resemblance to the limitations of legal justice. According to Washington Post legal analyst Henry Olsen, “This evidence could have a quite different effect on public opinion than it would in a legal proceeding. Criminal prosecutions require proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ and Mueller clearly saw a strong case against Trump under that standard. While Barr decided he did not, reasonable observers could conclude differently. They could also conclude, perhaps, that they have reasonable doubts but think Trump did obstruct justice under the more lenient ‘clear and convincing evidence’ or ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standards. Prosecutors would not look at a criminal case through those lenses, but politicians and pundits are sure to do so.”
Olsen goes on to suggest that “the matter of the president’s intent is key, as a prosecutor would have to prove that such a crime was committed with ‘a corrupt intent.’ Barr writes that the special counsel’s finding that the president was not involved in an underlying crime bore ‘upon the President’s intent’ regarding obstruction. In plain English, that suggests there is evidence that people could conclude constitutes criminal obstruction, but that Trump’s saving grace in the law is that he also could not be proven to have colluded with the Russians. Political observers could disagree.”
George and Kellyanne Conway
That point of view appears to be succincty expressed in an op-ed that appeared earlier this week, also in the Washington Post. It’s author was relenteless Trump critic and New York attorney George Conway, who is famously married to one of the president’s closest aides, Kellyanne Conway. According to Attorney Conway, “As for whether the president obstructed justice, that question was always dicey. No one should have been surprised that it raised, as Attorney General William P. Barr’s letter put it, quoting Mueller, ‘difficult issues of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction.’ On the law, Barr was probably not wrong to suggest, as he did as a private citizen, that there’s a difference under the statutes between a president destroying evidence or encouraging a witness to lie and a presidential directive saying, ‘Don’t waste your time investigating that.’ But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be an impeachable offense.”
Conway added that Mueller was a guy who “plays by the rules, every step of the way.” He went on to say that “if (Mueller’s) report doesn’t exonerate the president, there must be something pretty damning in it about him, even if it might not suffice to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Beyond the idea of whether or not there is evidence to accuse the president or any of his unindicted associates of anything, Conway indicated that one thing seemed clear:  “If the charge were unfitness for office, the verdict would already be in: guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The fact that the investigation was unable to establish criminal conspiracy with the Russians has been taken in pro-Trump quarters as signifying that the whole Mueller probe was a monumental waste of time and tax-payer money—that, in short, it was, as the president repeated ad nauseam, a witch hunt. But nothing could be further from the truth.
To start with, the investigation indeed established that there was significant Russian espionage and intervention in the 2016 election process. Barr describes the Mueller Report as outlining “the Russian effort to influence the election and documents crimes committed by persons associated with the Russian government in connection with those efforts.” Barr goes on to say that “the Special Counsel’s investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.”
Donald Trump pictured with disgraced collaborators 
Michael Cohen (left) and Paul Manafort
One of these was spearheaded by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), apparently an intelligence front, which conducted disinformation and social media operations in the US that were “designed to sow discord”—mission accomplished! The other was a hacking operation “designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election.” According to Barr, “the Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”
Whether there was collusion or not is clearly of paramount importance, but shouldn’t we be at least as concerned about the fact that the Kremlin managed to infiltrate US data systems and achieve a significant measure of success in influencing the election process, or at the very least, the campaigns as such? On that count, the Mueller probe was clearly a great success, managing to identify and indict a number of Russian operatives, including military intelligence officers. It also established that, if there was insufficient evidence to charge collusion, there were indeed “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” This raises the question of why organizers of that campaign didn’t bother to report these offers to the FBI, considering that they were being made by a hostile foreign power that was clearly seeking to influence the outcome of a US presidential election process.
There was indeed a “there-there” in the investigation. It rendered the indictment of 34 people including 13 Russians and three companies, as well as gleaning a number of guilty pleas, convictions and useful testimony, some of which included top advisers to President Trump, on charges ranging from interference in the 2016 election and hacking emails to perjury and witness-tampering.  Collusion or no, this is a very big deal.
Obviously, having access to the full report rather than to the attorney general’s four-page interpretation of it would clear up a lot of what remains a mystery to the people of the United States and their congressional representatives right now. Considering the tremendous weight that this information and the investigation have brought to bear on the US political scene and on the hearts and minds of citizens as a whole for the past two years, perhaps the head of the Justice Department should—except for any redaction necessary to preserve the rights of the innocent and the rule of law—consider the possibility that whether or not the rest of the report should be made public isn’t his decision to make. Morally, he should consider it his duty to the people of the United States to provide the highest degree of transparency possible within the law and to lead by taking the stellar example of his two subordinants, exercising the same kind of impeccable ethics and impartiality that they have demonstrated.
It remains to be seen whether that is what he will do. But the president, at least in public, has said that it is solely the attorney general’s decision and that he, Trump, is willing to release the report to the public. In terms of allaying suspicions and doubts regarding this topic among Americans of all political stripes, it is of crucial importance that William Barr do exactly that.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

THE WHITE HOUSE AS THE HOME OF WHITE NATIONALISM



In the wake of the Christchurch Massacre last week, it is growing more and more difficult—even for those who would like to un-disingenuously and legitimately give him the benefit of the doubt—not to see US President Donald Trump as a blatant white nationalist. While it may be scary enough to have a white supremacist in the White House, the most frightening part of this assessment is that, for a large part of his far-right following, this very likely comes as good news.
From the outset of his current term in office and during the campaign leading up to it, Trump has tended to cater to the paranoid sensibilities of American xenophobes and to those of a segment of the white population that sees the possibility of its eventually becoming a minority as a threat to what it has come to believe should be the “established order” in the United States of America. The positive idea of diversity that sees the United States as a melting pot of nationalities, religions, ethnicities and races is anathema to this group, and apparently to the president as well, since he encourages the notion among his predominately white Christian base that they are what a “true American” looks like and that he is governing for them and them alone. 
The president’s white-nationalist leanings come as no surprise to most unabashed liberals. This is especially true, for instance, after the president’s dogged defense in 2017 of neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, who clashed with counter-demonstrators, one of whom, Heather Heyer, was murdered.
While Trump called the killing a horrible thing, he refused to distance himself from the white supremacists who triggered the violence, equating them seamlessly with the counter-demonstrators, saying that there were “many fine people” on both sides of the clash and that one side was as guilty as the other of prompting the incidents. He made the point that, indeed, the white supremacists had a permit to demonstrate while counter-demonstrators didn’t, thus seeking to legitimize the nature of the neo-Nazi demonstration while laying more blame for the violence at the door of the racially diverse counter-protesters.
"Some fine people on both sides"
Whatever medium the president was perusing to reach such a conclusion apparently wasn’t any of the ones other Americans were viewing when they saw white-nationalist demonstrators descending on the quiet college town wearing Confederate flags and swastikas, some packing weapons and holding shields, chanting phrases such as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” before engaging counter-protesters in fist and club fights that quickly turned into a violent general riot. 
So appeasing was the president’s defense of the neo-Nazis that it prompted a tweet from former Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard” David Duke thanking Trump for his “honesty and courage” in “condemning the leftist terrorists” who opposed the white nationalists in Charlottesville. The outrage that Trump’s statements caused back then spilled over from liberal Democrats into the Republican political community as well. For example, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Ohio Republican Steve Stivers, tweeted, “I don't understand what's so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended.” Still, even following this incident, many independents and “undecideds” have often been willing to write off the president’s most outrageous pronouncements with the “oh-that’s-just-how-he-talks” defense.
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, empathy above all
Last weekend, after the horrific attacks on two Islamic mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Trump ignored a plea from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday for him to offer “his nation’s sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.” The New Zealand leader had made the request when Trump called to ask her what the United States could do for her country, in the face of an attack on two mosques by a single white nationalist armed with assault weapons, in which 50 people were killed and many others injured.
Trump’s tepid and belated condolences to New Zealand, for what was the worst terror attack in that country’s history, were followed by his almost immediate minimization of the white supremacist threat. Asked by a reporter at the White House, where he was meeting with “the Trump of the tropics”, Brazilian far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, whether he thought white-nationalist terrorism was a growing threat, Trump responded, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
In order to separate fact from presidential fiction, one only needs to consult a February report from the respected Southern Poverty Law Center. Its research shows that there are currently over a thousand far-right nationalist hate groups across the United States. This total, the report indicates, is at an all-time high and the think-tank notes that, in 2018 alone, there was an increase in the death toll tied to the radical right, with white supremacists in the United States and Canada having killed at least 40 people. And this reading of the trend is backed up by US Department of Justice and FBI indicators as well.
These reactions are part and parcel of President Trump’s—for him subtle—pattern of behavior that tends to reveal his preferences in responding to acts of Islamic extremism and white-nationalist attacks. Hate crimes carried out by Muslims elicit an immediate and definitive presidential response. Attacks that target Muslims, however, receive belated and/or tepid reactions from Trump, to such an extent that his sincerity is seriously brought into question.
His timing seems often either mindlessly insensitive or intentionally prejudiced. Amid shocked world reactions to the New Zealand Massacre, Trump was tweeting his support for Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro, whom the infotainment network suspended last Saturday for making an anti-Muslim reference to Congresswoman Ilha Omar of Minnesota.
In the lengthy white-supremacist rant that the New Zealand shooter wrote before carrying out his mass slaughter, he mentioned Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” Showing sincere sympathy for all Muslim communities would have gone a long way toward separating Trump from the ideology behind such attacks. Instead, his collaborators in the West Wing, like Mick Mulvaney and Kellyanne Conway had to scramble to do damage control, suggesting that it was ridiculous to describe the president as a white nationalist or to make any connection between the New Zealand mass murderer’s manifesto and Trump’s embracing of a far-right nationalist philosophy, while the president chose to take to Twitter and attack everyone and everything from union workers to France, and even late senator and Vietnam war hero John McCain and McCain’s daughter.
There was little enough evidence already to lend any kind of credibility to Mulvaney and Kellyanne’s ardent defense of the president’s lack of prejudice on this topic. There is, in fact, ample proof to the contrary. From his campaign through the first couple of years of his presidency Trump has, among other things, threatened to surveil or close mosques in the US and bar Muslim immigration, suggested throwing all Syrians out of the country (“they could be ISIS, I don’t know”) and creating a Muslim database to keep an eye on all people of Islamic faith, said that “Muslims hate us” with ‘us’ apparently meaning white Christians, and falsely claimed to have seen thousands of Muslims cheering in the street when the Twin Trade Towers collapsed after Islamist terrorists from Saudi Arabia hijacked American planes and flew them into the iconic New York buildings, killing thousands of people. And these are only a few of the occasions on which the president has sought to stir up indiscriminately anti-Muslim sentiment. 

The truth is that in every opportunity that the US president takes to refer to neo-Nazis as “fine people”, to consider Muslims as a whole somehow suspect, or to refer to immigrants as “an invasion” or as an “infestation”, he is contributing, wittingly or unwittingly to the further radicalization of already extremist white-power and ultra-nationalist segments of society.
Going from being a melting-pot nation, built by immigrants and founded by pilgrims fleeing persecution in their native lands, to being a bastion of closed society philosophy and of racial and religious hatred flies in the face of long-held American principles. As do proposals for barring certain peoples as a whole, or creating walled citadels along the country’s border to punctuate the radical autism of xenophobic policies.
The main question to ask is, what’s so hard about unequivocally condemning violent white-supremacist movements? Unless you agree with them.  

Thursday, February 21, 2019

TRUMP'S SPAWN


This is a cartoon from Politicked that was making the rounds this week on the social media. Political cartoons often unveil the humor behind the news by exaggerating the truth, much like a caricature artist exaggerates facial features for comic effect.
In this case, however, the subject is so spot on that the effect is chilling. From his 2016 campaign to the present, Donald Trump’s presidency has indeed sown the seeds of this divisive spawn, making this cartoon seem more tragic than funny.

And once these seeds have sprouted, you can’t just shove them back underground again.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A NATIONAL EMERGENCY



The United States is facing a national emergency. But it’s not the one that President Donald Trump just declared. Indeed, Donald Trump is the first and last name of the emergency, one that has nothing to do with illegal immigration, the incidence of which is at an all-time low, but with the president’s consistent efforts to circumvent and undermine democracy while trafficking in lies and titillating his most reactionary base.

Finding ways to duck under and around the rules is not something alien to Trump’s modus operandi. He has turned profiting from bankruptcy loopholes, skirting taxes and non-payment of providers into a sort of cottage industry that has been, perhaps, as much of a core activity in his business dealings as real estate, construction, hotels and casinos have. But it is, clearly, alien to the office of the presidency of the United States. True, not all presidents in living memory have been the choir boy type. But all of them have understood the gravity of the post and responsibilities bestowed on them and the need to govern for all Americans, not just a small proportion of them.
Past presidents have, in short, bowed to the checks and balances imposed by every properly functioning democratic system and by the US Constitution. Trump has not. Just as in his businesses where he has sought to slip past state, local and federal legal codes, as president, he is intent on finding ways around the highest law of the land. And he has further sought to ridicule and vilify the liberal democratic system as a whole in the minds of his most blindly loyal base.
In this sense, the current president of the United States is a clear and present danger to democracy. And his latest attempt to bypass the Legislative Branch by declaring a “national emergency” on the US southern border (an emergency that only exists in his mind and in those of his most xenophobic followers) is a patent example of the disdain with which he views the democratic process and of the invented dread with which he manipulates and indoctrinates the simplest among his constituents. Furthermore, this is a dog-eared page from the playbook of would-be tyrants of every color around the world.
Speaking of tyrants, on numerous occasions, Donald Trump has openly expressed his admiration for, friendship with and trust in the authoritarian leaders of other nations, who should arguably be viewed as potential or effective enemies of the United States, and surely as enemies of democracy. He has demonstrated this bizarre attitude with regard to every dictator from Kim Jong Un (the murderous absolute ruler of North Korea who literally views himself as a god and who has threatened to nuke the Unites States), to ruthless Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has dispensed “justice” in his country from the barrel of a gun—sometimes wielded by Duterte himself—with a number of other universally condemned dictators in between also being inducted, unsolicited, into the Trump gratuitous admiration society.
Of Kim Jong Un (after first insulting him as “little rocket man” and threatening him with the mass destruction of North Korea) Trump would eventually come full circle and say, “You gotta give him credit. How many young guys—he was, like, 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden ... he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss. It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn't play games. And we can't play games with him.” In other words, killing the competition seemed to Trump to be an admirable and respect-worthy leadership trait. This would seem to give new meaning to Trump’s campaign statement—an expression of desire?—that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters.”
Trump said he had “a great relationship” with Rodrigo Duterte, who heads up The Philippines’ current “thugocracy”, which makes former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal kleptocracy look almost tame by comparison. Trump blithely ignored the worldwide discussion swirling around Duterte’s abominable human rights record which includes literally thousands upon thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out by his government with not only the Filipino strongman’s overt approval but also with his self-confessed participation.
On a state visit to Manila, the US president ignored the issue of human rights altogether and chose to concentrate on his favorite subject: himself.  “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received,” Trump said. “And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our county. And I’m really proud of that.” It might be noted that the way to show respect for the United States is by emulating its liberal democratic tenets and the rule of law, not by imposing or praising a bloody dictatorship. And receiving an extraordinarily warm welcome from a sitting tyrant is something that the leader of the world’s largest democracy should, perhaps, take with suspicion or at least with a grain of salt. But it seems apparent that the advancement of democracy does not form part of the current president’s core beliefs.
Trump has also had words of praise for Syrian dictator Bashad al-Assad, comparing him favorably against by then lame duck US President Barack Obama. “I think in terms of leadership,” Trump said, “he's getting an A and our president (Obama) is not doing so well.”
A staunch ally and virtual dependent of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Assad is perhaps the most universally condemned authoritarian leader among Western democracies. He is maintained in power (which he inherited from his autocratic father) by Russian military and political backing, despite being directly responsible for the deaths, incarceration and torture of tens of thousands of his own people as well as for triggering the worst civil (and proxy) war in recent memory—a war which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Syrians and has sparked the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Recently, Trump announced that US troops would be pulled out of Syria entirely, thus abdicating American resistance to Russia’s geopolitical advancement in that part of the Middle East, and giving Assad a freer hand to crush all opposition to his historically bloody dictatorial regime.
Another authoritarian leader that Trump has praised is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Trump, “Frankly, he’s getting very high marks. He’s also been working with the United States. We have a great friendship and the (two) countries—I think we’re right now as close as we’ve ever been.” He went on to say that “a lot of that has to do with a personal relationship.”
Trump made these statements right after Erdogan’s harshest crackdown yet on his opponents, the media and civil society as a whole. Ever since he first came to power, Erdogan has sought to gradually choke the life out of Turkish democracy. Parallel to this, he has taken Turkey from being a staunch NATO ally on the doorstep of the Middle East to sidling up to Vladimir Putin next door to the country in which Russia is exercising its greatest Middle East influence.
In the Syrian War, Erdogan has played both sides against the middle, pretending to be on the side of the US-led coalition fighting ISIL, but continuing his bitter war against that coalition’s Kurdish allies who have provided the most effective ground-fighting of any combat group against ISIL and other pro-Assad forces. The thanks that Trump has given to the Kurds is to announce US withdrawal and to abandon them to their fate in the face of Erdogan’s vow to wipe them out.
There are persistent reports that, within his delusions of grandeur, Erdogan is even entertaining the dream of seeking to recapture some of the past glory and unbridled expansionism of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire, which ruled a vast part of the world from the 14th to the early 20th centuries.
Regarding Egyptian authoritarian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Trump has said, “We agree on so many things. I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
El-Sisi seized power in Egypt by means of a military coup following the country’s fleeting romance with democracy resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings. Trump’s own Department of State has accused el-Sisi of “excessive use of force by security forces, deficiencies in due process, and the suppression of civil liberties.” The civil liberties advocacy group Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, reports that el-Sisi’s regime has “maintained its zero-tolerance policy towards dissent,” adding that it has encouraged “near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces under the pretext of fighting ‘terrorism.’”
Even China’s so-called “paramount leader”, Xi Jinping, has gotten a shout-out from Trump, despite the trade war that the US president has sparked between the world’s two most powerful economies. Last year, CNN reported obtaining a recording of Trump’s comments during a Mar a Lago gathering praising the Chinese strongman, in which he said, among other things, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
Everywhere else in the Western world and in much of China itself, Xi’s chairman-for-life power grab within the country’s all-powerful Communist Party (shades of Stalin and Mao) was seen as a highly negative authoritarian trend that drew sharp and widespread criticism. The fact that Trump alone saw it as positive and even “something we’ll have to give a shot someday” is telling...and chilling.
But Trump’s greatest praise and deference have been consistently reserved for Vladimir Putin, who, with the help of his straw man Dimitry Medvedev, has managed to perpetuate his position as the supreme leader of the Russian Federation for nearly two decades, with no sign of giving up that seat any time soon. His regime’s suppression of resistance in Georgia, it’s annexation of Crimea and its military action against Ukraine, as well as its aggressive role in the Syrian (proxy) War in favor of the anti-Western Assad regime have all put America’s Western allies on red alert since Putin has made no secret of his desire to return Russia to the height of its power and hegemony under the Czarist empire and the Soviet Union.
Trump, meanwhile, has famously never had any criticism for Putin’s regime. In fact he has praised it on multiple occasions. For instance:
Just prior to the 2018 US-Russia Helsinki summit, “I'd have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spend time together.” And also in the run-up to the summit, "Hopefully someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen...”
He also said, “You know what? Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.” And when former Fox News superstar Bill O’Reilly reminded Trump that Putin was a dictator and “a killer,” Trump fired back, “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?”
The cruelest cut of all was when 13 US intelligence agencies told Trump that there was little if any  doubt that Putin would have had to have been involved in the plot to hack the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 election campaign and instead of taking his own intelligence chiefs’ word as fact, he stood on a stage in Helsinki in the company of Putin and said,  "Every time he (Putin) sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe…he means it.”
Also during that campaign he compared then-US President Barack Obama to Putin saying, "He is a strong leader, unlike what we have."
Sometimes his admiration for Putin almost verges on a “boy crush”, like when he said, “Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow. If so, will he become my new best friend?"
It seems clear, then, that Trump’s attempt to elude the checks and balances provided by a three-branch system by declaring a phony state of emergency must be viewed against the backdrop of his often repeated admiration for (and tacit envy of) authoritarian leaders. He is a president who clearly seeks by any means necessary to have the prerogatives of an absolute monarch.
But at the same time, it is a no less phony political ploy. He has made it clear that he knows perfectly well that his emergency declaration will face an uphill battle in Congress where even many Republicans think it’s a bad idea. The fear is that if Trump sets a precedent of arbitrary declarations of national emergencies any time he doesn’t like the results of political negotiations, Democrats could invoke “the Trump precedent” to do the same on issues that the GOP, and especially the Trump-usurped GOP, have resisted tooth and nail, like climate change and medical-coverage-for-all legislation.
So in the end, it’s a win-win proposition for Trump, since his “national emergency” will either stand or be challenged and shot down in Congress and the courts. In the first case, he will get his way and energize his base. In the second, he will be able to tell his followers that he tried to “make America great again", but was shot down by the opposition, thus gaining supporter sympathy.
Be that as it may, both major parties should realize that there is a lot more at stake here than immigration, Trump’s wall, or the precedent that a phony national emergency sets for the future. What is at stake is no less than the system of checks and balances that, since the earliest days of the republic, has ensured that no one branch of the government and especially the Executive, ever concentrates a monopoly on power. In short, what is at stake is the essence of democracy itself. And as history has shown again and again, democracy dies by the hand of apathy, vested interests and appeasement.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

VENEZUELA — A NATION DIVIDED AND A LONG-STANDING CRISIS COMING TO A HEAD



The dramatic crisis that is unfolding in Venezuela has formed part of the international news cycle since mid-January, but it has been in the making for nearly a decade. And it finds its roots in the controversial popular authoritarian regime of Comandante Hugo Chávez, who ruled the country from the previous decade, until his death in 2013.

The late Comandante Hugo Chávez...where it all began

In this latest chapter, a nationwide crisis has been sparked over who, indeed, is the legitimate president of the country. This constitutional crisis took shape when, in early January, the National Assembly, in which the opposition holds a majority, pointed to alleged election tampering and declared the 2018 re-election of leftist authoritarian Nicolás Maduro null and void.
In Maduro’s stead, the Assembly named opposition candidate Juan Guaidó to serve as acting president until new elections could be called. The pro-Maduro Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Venezuela’s supreme court) has declared the National Assembly’s de-authorization of Maduro and the appointment of Guaidó to be unconstitutional. This is where the battle-line has been drawn separating the two diametrically opposed sides in the crisis—a test of strength between the legislature and the judicial branch of government.
The National Assembly, for its part, is responding to the Supreme Tribunal by quoting the very Constitution enacted under Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, as backing its authority to question the legitimacy of the elections and to appoint an interim president. The specific constitutional passages that the opposition is invoking include Article 333 and Article 350.
The first of these states that the Constitution “shall not be rendered invalid through any act of force or because it is repealed by any method other than that (legally) provided for.” It goes on to say that “should this happen, every invested citizen shall have the duty to cooperate in the re-establishment of its effective validity.”
Embattled president Nicolás Maduro 
Article 350, meanwhile, states that “the Venezuelan people, in keeping with their republican tradition, (and) with their struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that might run counter to these democratic values, principles and guarantees, or that undermine human rights.”
International support for one side or the other in diplomatic circles has divided along what might be considered logical lines, with Russia and its allies supporting Maduro and the US and Europe pledging their backing for Guaidó. US President Donald Trump—who, in other instances, has often indicated his admiration for authoritarians—has demonstrated vehement opposition to the Maduro regime and has imposed economic sanctions against Maduro’s government. Although the European Union and the Trump-era United States see eye-to-eye on very little these days, in terms of the Venezuelan crisis they are both clearly siding with Guaidó and the National Assembly and against the continued presence of Maduro as head of state.
Where the US and EU disagree is on Trump’s openness to possible military action in Venezuela should it be necessary to wrest power from Maduro’s hands by force. Most European leaders agree that this course of action would not only be inadvisable, but also potentially disastrous and counterproductive. Considering the checkered history of US intervention in Latin America, many observers feel any direct action by Washington in Venezuela would quickly sour the mood of other South American countries that are currently pleased that the US has joined them in bolstering democracy by welcoming Guaidó and censuring Maduro. US military action in any South American nation would very likely be considered an attack and a renewed act of imperialism by the United States on South America as a whole, and would thus be more likely to help rather than hurt Maduro’s standing.  
The current national socioeconomic crisis, with Maduro as its focal point, has been brewing since 2010, beginning, briefly, under Hugo Chávez but intensifying under Maduro. Venezuela’s economy has long been largely dependent on oil revenues, which at one time made it the wealthiest country in Latin America. Comandante Chávez drew his vast support as a populist authoritarian from the re-distribution of oil profits, without seeking diversification of the country’s economy. But when the bottom fell out of the international oil market, it also fell out from under his presidency, which Maduro inherited on its way down following Chávez’s death. Maduro’s ineffectiveness in dealing with this crisis led to extreme hyperinflation (over a million percent) and severe shortages of everything, including basics such as food and medical supplies, with the standard of living for average Venezuelans plummeting—in many cases, to the point of starvation. Through the “magic” of hyperinflation and prices pegged to international currency, there were cases of bottled water or a single trip to the grocery store costing as much as or more than many Venezuelans made in a month.
This crisis also led to rampant murders, abductions and other crimes, turning Venezuela’s cities into some of the most dangerous in the world. This situation led not only to violent street protests in which casualties have numbered in the hundreds on both sides, but also to the election of an opposition majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999, when Chávez took over as the country’s flamboyant leader. But the lame duck pro-Maduro Assembly quickly stuffed the Supreme Tribunal with Maduro allies in order to have that institution act as a counterbalance to the opposition’s legislative majority. Not content with that, the Maduro government also managed to strip three opposition leaders of their seats in the Assembly, citing “irregularities” in their election. This kept the opposition from gaining a super-majority, by which it would have had the constitutional power to pose a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority.
Maduro’s friends in the Supreme Tribunal invented and granted extensive new powers to him in 2017. Armed with this increased authority, Maduro mounted a so-called Constituent Assembly, with the aim of drafting a new Constitution to replace the one enacted by his predecessor in 1999. Members of this Constituent Assembly were not elected to it but were appointed from within the ranks of Maduro supporters.
This drew worldwide attention since it indicated a bid by Maduro to remain in power indefinitely. In diplomatic circles it was deemed important by many to take a stand against increasing authoritarianism in Venezuela, and scores of countries made it clear that they would not recognize the Constituent Assembly. On the domestic front, however, in the face of a virtual opposition boycott of these government moves, the Constituent Assembly was handed an inordinate quota of power. It became the body that guaranteed non-interference with measures “in solidarity” with the presidency. For all practical purposes, this meant that, between the power of the Supreme Tribunal and the all-pervading power of the Constituent Assembly, the legitimately elected legislative branch of the Venezuelan political system was stripped of any power that it had managed to retain until then.
Due to oil-price instability, an under-diversified economy and Maduro’s clear lack of ability to deal with the economic situation, the once wealthy Venezuela has been plunged into a prolonged crisis described by some economists as being far worse than the Great Depression. This has led to a vast humanitarian crisis in the country. Although less is being reported about it than the crises in Middle Eastern war zones, the Venezuelan socioeconomic situation is no less grave. For several years now, there has been a constant flow of socio-economic refugees hemorrhaging from Venezuela’s borders in search of a better life in other parts of Latin America and the world.
The greatest numbers of displaced persons—over a million of them—have settled in neighboring Colombia. But there are also large Venezuelan diaspora communities in other major countries, such as Argentina. So far, about three million Venezuelans have left the country in search of peace and prosperity. That’s about one out of every ten Venezuelans who has opted to leave.
Provisional President Juan Guaidó
Provisional President Juan Guaidó has called on all Venezuelans to protest against the Maduro government. And over the course of the past month, the response to this call has been enormous, with hundreds of thousands taking to the street again and again in mass anti-Maduro rallies.
Maduro is already suffering defections in pockets of the military. Small groups of active-duty and retired military personnel—some currently living in exile—have vowed to come to the defense of the National Assembly against the Maduro regime should the situation morph into increasing civil strife. There are also defections in the Venezuelan diplomatic corps including Venezuela’s top diplomat in the United States, José Luis Silva, a military man who has, nevertheless, stated recognition of Guaidó as his president. Yajaira Flores, Venezuela’s consul general in Houston, Texas, told Guaidó that she was “at your service and at your disposal to serve my country”, while the top Venezuelan consular official in Miami, Scarlett Salazar, offered her support to Guaidó, “in keeping with my democratic principles and values.” She urged other diplomats to do the same. Venezuela’s Ambassador to Iraq Jonathan Velasco swore his loyalty to the National Assembly and its decision to appoint Guaidó provisional president, saying that the Assembly was “the only government branch attached to ethics, legitimacy and legality.”
At mid-month last month, Venezuelan intelligence agents loyal to Maduro detained Guaidó after intercepting the car in which he was traveling. The BBC claimed it was an ambush created to intimidate opponents to the regime. But Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro was quick to call the arrest “a kidnapping”, and US Secretary of State Mike Pampeo decried it as an “arbitrary detention”. The government ended up releasing Guaidó within 45 minutes and reprimanding the arresting agents.
OAS chief Almagro was among the first leaders of organizations and governments to lend official support to Guaidó. Brazil quickly followed suit. Spain and most of the rest of Europe swiftly concurred. And the plethora of support for the decisions and democratic legitimacy of the Venezuelan National Assembly continues to burgeon.
With sanctions levied on his oil exports, a freeze placed by the Bank of England on Venezuelan gold reserves in its vaults and three quarters of all Venezuelan imports coming from countries that now recognize Guaidó as the country’s president, Maduro is being backed ever tighter into a corner. It can only be hoped that his patriotism will overcome his authoritarian ego and that he will withdraw quietly and with no further bloodshed in a country that has suffered far too long under his pernicious regime.