Thursday, May 9, 2019

MANY A TRUE WORD...



When I was a boy, I often heard my mother quote an old adage: Many a true word has been spoken in jest.
I hated it when she said it because it usually was aimed at me whenever I said something cruel, unkind, unjust or self-serving and then, when she called me on it, would claim I was “just kidding.” When I did this, like I say, I was just a boy. It’s a puerile and only very thinly veiled ploy that is wholly unsophisticated and simply doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny.
And yet, the 45th president of the United States makes use of this childish device on a not infrequent basis. One of the first times we heard it was when the infamous Access Hollywood tape became public. You’ll recall that on that tape, among other totally inappropriate and sexist things that Donald Trump said, he bragged that he could “grab women by the pussy” and they wouldn’t do anything to stop him because he was a star.  He would later say that it was “just locker room talk”—a variation of the “just kidding” argument—as if that justified it or rendered him any less repulsive for saying it.
The Access Hollywood tape is now part of a long list of offensive or potentially dangerous things this president has said and later tried to justify by arguing (or having one of his surrogates argue) that he was just joking.   
At the height of his campaign to win the presidency over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump publicly and famously said, “I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 (Clinton) emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” He thus not only openly encouraged Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections, but also tacitly admitted that he believed reports of Russian operatives hacking sensitive US communications.
However, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian interference in US affairs, sent a written question to the US president’s attorneys regarding this campaign statement, Team Trump responded that the president (then candidate) had  made the statement “in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer.”
Be that as it may, Mueller’s probe showed that it was no more than five hours after Trump’s 2016 statement before Russian agents were already actively engaged in hacking Hillary Clinton’s server and eventually the communications of the Democratic National Committee. Furthermore, although the Mueller Report fell short of establishing evidence of an actual conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin, it did indeed establish that there were multiple lines of communication between Russia and Team Trump.
When, later in the 2016 campaign, thousands of emails hacked from the DNC and from Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta were published in a public information dump orchestrated by publishing transgressor Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and picked up by the mainstream media, Trump crowed at a public rally, “I love Wikileaks!” Clearly, Trump and Assange shared inimical feelings toward Hillary, Trump because of the election campaign in which he was constantly insisting that she should be “locked up”, and Assange dating back to Hillary’s stint as secretary of state, when the Obama administration sought to bring charges against the Wikileaks founder for his role in the publication, among other things, of incidents of wrongdoing by US troops that were being kept secret by the military.
After his “I love Wikileaks” cheer, Trump would go on to praise the organization dozens more times, for as long as it was undermining his rival’s campaign. When Assange was arrested in London, however, after holing up for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in order to elude arrest warrants in Britain, Sweden and the US, the president’s chief spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Chris Wallace of Fox News that the president “clearly...was making a joke” regarding Wikileaks  during the 2016 campaign. Trump, for his part, seems to be suffering from “Wikiamnesia”, since when asked by reporters what he thought of Assange and Wikileaks now, after the rogue publisher’s arrest, he said, “I know nothing about WikiLeaks.”
Sarah Sanders once again pulled a joker from the deck after Trump asked, “Can we call it Treason?” when Democrats in Congress failed to applaud his State of the Union address. Democrats said accusing opponents of treason for not praising the executive seemed a lot like fascism, to which Sanders claimed that the president “was clearly joking.”
And then there was the time Trump claimed to have been joking when he suggested to a gathering of law enforcement officers that they should “not be too nice” to the suspects they arrested. And the time that he said former President Barack Obama was “literally the founder of ISIS.” After that outlandish claim, Trump tweeted of those who were appalled by such a suggestion, “They don’t get the irony.”
The list goes on, but the latest presidential “joke” is, perhaps, his most narcissistic and authoritarian-minded yet. This is his controversial two bonus-years “joke”.
But first, he had a laugh at the expense of the Mueller investigation on the telephone with Vladimir Putin, the very Russian head of state whose espionage agents carried out a disinformation campaign that sought to skew the 2016 US general election in favor of Trump. The hour-long phone call between the two leaders was a thumb in the eye to everyone who finds Russia’s interference in US domestic affairs completely unacceptable. It came just two weeks after the release of the Mueller Report on the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling, which corroborated that this had indeed taken place. Despite denying any Russian state interference in US affairs, Putin had admitted that he was “rooting” for Trump to win.
Well, that interference was never discussed in the US president’s latest talk with Putin—an anti-democratic strongman for whom Trump has continuously expressed admiration since his 2016 presidential campaign. Rather, Trump encouraged Putin to reset their good personal relations now that “the Russia hoax” was over. The president told reporters that Putin had “actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it (the Mueller investigation) started off as a mountain and ended up being a mouse. But he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever.”
When critics pointed out that the communication with Putin had been a phone call rather than a video conference, so Trump’s assertion that Putin had smiled seemed rather like wishful thinking, the White House rushed to clarify that the president had misspoken and meant to say that Putin had “laughed, chuckled.”
Surely, neither version made any difference to Americans who find rampant Russian anti-American cyber-espionage no laughing matter. And considering the grave contents of the Mueller investigation report, a critical mass of Americans find the president’s quasi-carnal relations with the Russian autocrat baffling and disturbing to say the least.
But back to the “two-year bonus round”. Last weekend, lawyer, Liberty University president and Trump-Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. took to Twitter to compliment Trump on his “no collusion, no obstruction” status following release of the Mueller Report. Falwell bought into Trump’s own theory that the Mueller investigation had been an attempted coup orchestrated by Democrats. The Liberty University president tweeted, “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
Far from explaining to Falwell that, in case he hadn’t noticed, the US was a constitutional republic based on the rule of law and that presidents only served on behalf of the people and only for the terms mandated by law, Trump re-tweeted Falwell’s seditious suggestion and added: “Despite the tremendous success that I have had as President, including perhaps the greatest ECONOMY and most successful first two years of any President in history, they have stollen [sic] two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor and researcher who specializes in the traits of authoritarian rulers, in response to a query from The New York Times, said, “Everything that he (Trump) says is a trial balloon—even his, quote, ‘jokes’ are trial balloons.” According to Professor Ben-Ghiat, “If you look at what he jokes about, it’s always things like this. It’s the extension of his rights, it’s the infringement of liberties.” She added that, “Authoritarians are continually testing the boundaries to see what they can get away with, and everything he does is a challenge to Democrats to mount some response against him.”
The Falwell and Trump tweets underscored fears expressed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about the possibility of Trump’s refusing to accept the outcome of the 2020 election if his Democratic rival wins. She suggested that if Democrats were to win, they needed to “win big” in order to protect the country from the kind of divisiveness that any refusal by Trump to accept an orderly transfer of power could cause.
Alarm and condemnation expressed in the media and in opposition circles regarding the portent of Trump’s tweeted enthusiasm for Jerry Falwell Jr.’s anti-democratic and unconstitutional suggestion was so swift and so strong that the White House felt called upon to issue a denial. Officials said the president was “just joking” when he talked about being owed an extra two years over and above his four-year term.
It is noteworthy that the president’s latest “joke” comes at the dawning of a constitutional crisis, in which the Executive Branch is actively rejecting legislative oversight and seeking to rule the country as an autocracy that answers to no one for its actions. In my many years as an expatriate and newsman, I’ve had the fortunate professional experience and the dubious personal distinction of living under and next door to a rather wide variety of populist authoritarians and hardcore dictators. It’s an experience that, until now, not a lot of Americans have had, so for many it’s hard to see the signs of what could be coming or even of what’s happening right now. On the one hand, there is Trump’s base, made up of people who seem to have no use for democracy and who are perfectly happy to be ruled by an autocrat. On the other is the majority of Americans, who simply can’t bring themselves to believe that anything as intrinsically alien as authoritarianism could ever happen in the United States.
Friends, all I can say is, “Wake up!” It can, and it is.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

WRECKING BARR



Donald Trump is the granite boulder against which reputations are smashed. William Barr’s is the latest in a long series.
Barr - proved unworthy of his reputation
Prior to his confirmation as attorney general, Barr was thought of by many on both sides of the congressional aisle—despite his obsequious spinning and justifying of criminal behavior witnessed in the Iran-Contra affair under both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations—as a sound constitutionalist and legal scholar, as well as a “straight-shooter” who could be counted on to carry out his duties as the nation’s  highest-ranking law enforcement officer with unyielding adherence to the necessary objectivity and independence of that post. But in light of his performance in handling the Mueller Report, Barr has proven himself to be unworthy of the high regard in which he was previously held.   
Generals Kelly and McMaster - too much, too long
Noteworthy among earlier alleged “adults in the room” who trashed their good names before, far too belatedly, abandoning the Trump camp are generals John Kelly and H.R. McMaster. In both cases, they were broadly seen as patriots and men of good faith who joined and remained in the Trump administration, more than anything else, as a means of guiding a clueless president along a legal and legitimate path in a complex world that he was loath to comprehend, while acting as “damage control” whenever it proved impossible to sway Trump from the designs of his most disastrous policies.
Be that as it may, both men overstayed their usefulness to the United States in this sense and ended up trying, against their better judgment, to justify the administration’s madness rather than frontally opposing it and, eventually, only after sullying what, in both cases, had been stellar records, decided they could no longer remain at odds with their own ethics and resigned. Too late, as it turns out, not to be splashed by the blowback from Trump’s lies and his hostile relationship with the Constitution and the rule of law.
Latest news updates regarding the two-year Mueller investigation and Barr’s presentation of it to the public suggest that the attorney general has forsaken the responsibilities of his office and scotched his good name in the legal and political community by acting, not as the representative of constitutional law and order, but as a partisan Trump surrogate.
A few corroborating facts:
 - On March 24, William Barr prefaced the release of a redacted version of the Mueller Report with a four-page letter, described at the time as “a summary” of the report’s contents, in which he issued the opinion (stated as fact) that the special counsel’s findings demonstrated no collusion by the president and his 2016 campaign team with the Russian government in its interference in the general elections, nor did they demonstrate any attempt by the president to obstruct justice by seeking to squelch an investigation into Russian interference and Trump-team collusion with it.
 - The government pushed this narrative with the president calling the report a “complete and total exoneration” and repeating the words “no collusion, no obstruction” ad nauseam following publication of the attorney general’s four-page tone-setting message.
 - On March 27, Special Counsel Mueller is reported to have written to Barr protesting the attorney general’s roll-out of the report. A long-time acquaintance of Barr’s, Mueller pulled no punches. The fact alone that the special counsel wrote a memo to Barr is a very big deal, since Robert Mueller’s sound reputation as one of the last true “boy scouts” in Washington would have precluded any interference with the attorney general’s handling of the report that, as per protocol, he turned over to the Department of Justice on conclusion, had Barr properly addressed the investigation’s findings. According to an article in The Washington Post, Mueller challenged Barr’s four-page public statement, complaining that it did not reflect the “context, nature or substance” of the report’s contents.
Mueller - not amused
 - The next day, Barr and Mueller are understood to have had a fifteen-minute telephone conversation. And the day after that, Barr wrote a memo to Congress saying that his four-page letter of March 24 shouldn’t be taken as “a summary” of the report. Clearly, this was because he had been unable to convince Mueller that the letter was anything but an attempt to spin the true findings of the report before it was released to the public. Barr knew full well that the vast majority of the US public would never peruse the details of the 440-page report except as chewed up and digested sound bites on their favorite news media—which would have vastly different interpretations across the spectrum between, say, Fox News and CNN.
 - Barr’s intention to continue to set a pro-Trump tone for release of the Mueller Report was apparent in his stalling of its release for over two weeks, while Trump and surrogates, including himself, used the time to hammer away at the no-collusion-no-obstruction narrative and to fabricate a conspiracy theory that the real idea behind the investigation had been to stage “a coup” to bring down the administration.  
 - On April 10, Barr gave Senate testimony regarding the Mueller Report. During that testimony, he lied when asked if Mueller supported his assessment of the report as per his four-page letter of introduction, saying that he didn’t know if Mueller supported it. Clearly, Mueller had already told him both by memo and probably by phone, that he vigorously disagreed with the attorney general’s interpretation, saying that Barr’s letter had created “critical confusion” among the public.
 - Barr finally delivered the Mueller Report to Congress and the public on April 18. But not without holding a pre-release press conference during which he renewed the no-collusion-no-obstruction narrative as if to further establish a pro-Trump tone among those who would never actually read the report, among whom Trump’s staunchest base could almost certainly be counted.
 - Once the report was released, and despite the attorney general’s redactions, it was obvious to any objective observer that Barr had purposely sought to mislead the public regarding the contents and conclusions. Among other things, it was clear that Mueller and his team had found multiple examples of what could be considered collusion—numerous instances of the Russian government offering its help to the Trump campaign and of Trump surrogates demonstrating enthusiastic interest in that help rather that reporting attempts by a hostile power to influence US elections to the FBI—and that the president did indeed seek to obstruct justice but was at least minimally saved from himself by aides who merely ignored and disobeyed his orders, as well as by current DOJ rules holding that a sitting president couldn’t be indicted. The report further and implicitly invited Congress to investigate and, if politically expedient, impeach the president, stating specifically that the investigation in no way exonerated Trump.
As a side note, it is interesting to recall that Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, faced an uphill battle in his confirmation as attorney general. Sessions was viewed by many as not only a Trump surrogate but also as a long-time political manipulator, a racist bigot and a good ol’ boy with an, at best, ambiguous relationship with the moral high ground. He was expected to be a loyal Trump servant and to do the president’s bidding with no regard for the required impartiality and legal tenets of his office.
Sessions - unlikely adult in the room
Against all odds, however, and no matter what one might think of Jeff Sessions’ civil rights record, he turned out to be a much more mindful and independent attorney general than Barr is proving to be. Sessions incurred Trump’s rage and disfavor by recusing himself with regard to the investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, because he admitted to having had contact with the Russians.
Sessions maintained the independence of the Department of Justice, even despite overwhelming pressure for him to demonstrate loyalty to the president over loyalty to the nation or to resign. Barr, on the contrary, was practically a shoo-in for the post, despite having written a paper shortly before his nomination the basic premise of which was that sitting presidents couldn’t be indicted and that obstruction wasn’t obstruction if the president committed it (a.k.a. the Nixon defense). Politicians on both sides of the aisle saw Barr as a brilliant lawyer and as a man of law. But since then, he has delighted Trump and his base by proving just the opposite, by basically showing himself to be, in contemporary street vernacular, “Trump’s bitch.”
There can be little doubt that Robert Mueller has held himself to a higher standard in his role as special counsel in charge of the investigation into obstruction of justice, Russian interference in the US election process, and possible collusion between American political agents and the Russian government. Barr, meanwhile, has shown himself to be disingenuous and politically prejudiced to the detriment of the very American justice that he is sworn to uphold.

Friday, April 19, 2019

THE MUELLER REPORT—AS I SEE IT



During the highly divisive debate over the past two years to which the Department of Justice investigation into presidential abuse of power, obstruction of justice and conspiracy with a hostile foreign power has given rise, moderates on both sides have cautioned their more radical peers to stop trying to second-guess Special Counsel Robert Mueller and wait for his report. Wait, we have, but the release of the report this week holds out no promise of an end to the discussion. On the contrary, it opens up new questions on which defenders of the two juxtaposed positions regarding the latest US administration are bound to bitterly clash.

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Donald Trump in May of 2017 that prosecutor Robert Mueller was being appointed by the DOJ to look into allegations of obstruction and collusion, the president is reported to have said, “This is terrible. This is the end my presidency. I’m fucked!” The best one could surmise about such statements is that the president might have been unwarrantedly paranoid about the legal process within the US justice system—considering his unfamiliarity with the Constitution, Federal law or the truth. But it would appear, rather, that Trump was genuinely worried about how exposed he was to such an investigation because there really was a “there there” under these headings.
The 400-page Mueller report indeed confirms a “there there”, despite Attorney General William Barr’s best efforts to downplay it, to the chagrin of Republicans and Democrats alike. The Republicans, because it implies that the Mueller Report is not an end to a controversy, but just the beginning. The Democrats, because Special Counsel Mueller has effectively punted to them, and how they receive the ball and run with it is likely, one way or another, to affect their performance in the 2020 elections.
I received the report through a friend in New York while it was still hot off the press and have galloped through it since then. I’m a slow and careful reader, so I’m sure that I’ll have more to say on this investigation in the future. But my first look has led me to certain concrete preliminary conclusions that, for what they’re worth, I am sharing below. But one of the main ones is that no matter how carefully the investigation was carried out or how many truths it has uncovered, the GOP is bound, by and large, to continue to contend that it isn’t what you know but what you can prove (or that it’s all about the privileges the office of the president provides), while Democrats will argue that the report reveals exactly what they expected it to reveal and that if the president isn’t indicted it’s only because, under the law, he can’t be.
Here are a few other first impressions I’ve formed in scanning the redacted Mueller Report:
 - The US media, which the president and his base have gone out of their way to insult and try to discredit, have done their job admirably with regard to the misdeeds of the Trump administration and of the president himself. My main reason for arriving at this conclusion is that little if any of the special counsel’s report comes as a surprise to anyone who has been closely following the mainstream news. Papers like the The New York Times and The Washington Post have done a particularly good job of reporting over the past couple of years, as have magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and news sites such as Politico and The Daily Beast, among others.
 - The Mueller Report is not the end of anything, but the beginning. In one passage of the report the special counsel practically extends an invitation to Congress to investigate further and possibly impeach the president. According to legal experts making statements to the media the day after the report’s release, there appear to be more than a dozen potential prosecutions arising from the report. And Mueller has alerted other departments and agencies to them.
 - Since receiving the Mueller Report, Attorney General William Barr has sought to mislead the country about its contents. In his four-page preliminary summary of the report and in the press conference that he held on its release, he carefully trimmed his conclusions to leave out “the bad stuff” and to concentrate on vindication for the president. He even went as far as to give his own opinion with regard to the “obstruction and collusion” issues, with an eye toward prejudicing the GOP base in full favor of Trump and toward undermining the morale of Democrats and some Republicans who were hoping for conclusive evidence of both things. Barr’s ministrations on behalf of Trump were inconsistent, we now know, with the contents of the report.
In this sense, and combined with his unfounded allegations of deep-state “spying” on the 2016 Trump campaign, Barr is showing himself to be precisely what skeptics thought him to be when he took over from former AG Jeff Sessions: a Trump “hired gun”, a legal eagle with clear partiality and at the personal service of Donald Trump, not a true attorney general serving the interests of the people of the United States as a whole. Those who thought Barr was “a straight-shooter” or an impartial purveyor of balanced justice will be disappointed. But those of us who were aware of his past actions in government know that his specialty is obfuscation.
Indeed, it was Barr (along with other colleagues), who was one of those called in as a “cleaner” during investigation of the Iran-Contra affair under the administration of George H.W. Bush. Those investigations were being handled by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Walsh, like Mueller, was a Republican who had earned a well-deserved reputation for professionalism. The job for which Barr and his associates were brought in was the effective short-circuiting of that probe into “conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan administration officials,” which included by then President Bush. And they did their job well, conjuring up ways to suppress evidence, and thus shield top officials like Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger—co-defendant along with six others in the investigation— and, indeed, Presidents Reagan and Bush. Bush would eventually issue highly controversial pardons to the seven defendants, thus effectively halting Walsh’s probe and the legal jeopardy to which he and Reagan were exposed in its tracks.
- The Mueller report could not establish that the Trump electoral campaign directly colluded with the Russian government to subvert the 2016 presidential elections so as to swing them in favor of Trump. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. The report indicates that the Russians repeatedly reached out to the Trump campaign and that campaign officials including Trump’s son, Don Jr., did indeed show interest in the Russian overtures. This in itself is at least ethically questionable behavior, since a more politically savvy and democratically honest team would have immediately made the candidate aware of what was going on and urged him to go to the FBI to let the agency know that Russian intelligence was seeking to influence the outcome of the election. The report indicated that Don Jr. wasn’t charged for his role in seeking Russian contacts because his testimony demonstrated that he truly wasn’t aware that what he was seeking to do might be a felony. In other words, we can infer from this that Trump’s son was deemed too stupid and ignorant to be charged.
Furthermore, despite the president’s insistence that he was “joking” when, during a campaign rally, he said, referring to the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Internet server while she was secretary of state, “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find 30,000 emails that are missing,” the report indicates that it wasn’t more than five hours until Russian agents were at work seeking to hack their way into the computers of Hillary Clinton and, eventually, the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
 - There was indeed, according to the report, Russian intervention in the 2016 elections. It led to the Mueller team’s indictment of a dozen Russian military intelligence agents. Collusion or no, this is a topic of grave concern to the country’s security, and one that is getting way too little attention, mainly because if the president admits that Russian intervention in US domestic affairs is a major problem that requires immediate action, it will be a tacit admission that his performance in the popular vote, which he lost by nearly three million votes, may have been even worse than at first believed.
 - The Mueller Report does not say, as the president and AG Barr have sought to convince the public, that there was no obstruction and/or attempted obstruction of justice on the part of Trump. It merely says that Department of Justice guidelines dictate that no sitting president can be indicted. If not, independent legal experts indicate, there are at least eleven examples of attempted obstruction with which Trump could be charged. And former federal prosecutor and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told CNN that under federal law, attempted obstruction is the same as obstruction because it indicates a willingness to subvert and influence the outcome of legal proceedings.
 - Which brings me to a bottom-line conclusion of the report: namely, that, thanks to the adults in the room among Trump’s team and the GOP, the system worked to keep the president somewhat more in check than he otherwise would have been, particularly as regards obstruction of justice. What can be inferred from Mueller’s report is that collusion was avoided and obstruction contained because a number of Trump team members disobeyed Trump’s orders. In other words, they saved Trump from himself, and in the process, preserved the rule of law. The highest-profile case of this was seen in testimony by former White House Counsel Don McGahn whose lengthy presentation before investigators provided major insight into a paranoid and dysfunctional administration in which he consistently stood up to the president to keep him from breaking the law or getting others to do so.
The importance of McGahn’s testimony before the Mueller investigation team is clear from the fact that the president is now railing against the former White House counsel, saying that McGahn painted a distorted picture of the Trump administration. It is more likely, however, because McGahn was right on the money that he is now a target of the president’s rage.  As an unnamed White House source told The Washington Post, “If anything, Don (McGahn) saved this presidency from the president. If Don had actually gone through with what the president wanted, you would have had a constitutional crisis. The president’s ego is hurt, but he’s still here.”

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.