Friday, June 21, 2019

THE LESSONS OF CRIMSON TIDE



Remember Crimson Tide, the 1995 feature film in which Gene Hackman is the skipper of a nuclear missile-carrying submarine and Denzel Washington his reluctant first mate? If you haven’t watched it in a while, now’s the time.
In it, civil war has broken out in post-Soviet Russia. An ultra-nationalist rebel military leader called Vladimir Radchenko and his followers have taken over a Russian nuclear missile installation and threaten to trigger a nuclear holocaust if either the Russian central government or the US federal government decides to challenge their power.

Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) is the skipper of the USS Alabama, who has received orders to have his nuclear sub in position to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike if Radchenko should attempt to prepare his missiles for an attack. Ramsey is an old salt and one of the few naval commanders with any real war-time experience. His executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington), is a modern, highly educated Navy officer with in-depth studies in military history and extensive strategic training but no combat experience whatsoever.
This military generation gap and vast difference in styles lead to rising tension between the two officers even before the plot thickens. On the one hand, Captain Ramsey is a hard-nosed, impulsive, my-orders-above-all, sort of officer, while Commander Hunter is a cautious, discerning, analytical leader who, although highly disciplined, isn’t above double-checking orders that might be questionable or illegal.
The real clash between the two men comes when the Alabama receives emergency action orders. Satellite images appear to show that Radchenko is fuelling up his missiles to launch an attack. The order Skipper Ramsey receives is to launch an immediate preemptive nuclear attack on Radchenko’s facility. As he’s making preparations to do so, however, a second message starts coming in from the naval command. But only half of it reaches the Alabama before a rogue Russian submarine that backs Radchenko attacks Ramsey’s sub and knocks out its communications.
Damage to the Alabama’s communications electronics keeps the sub’s crew from being able to decode the second half of the message. And here, the two officers’ totally different approaches result in a split that has Hunter trying to instill logic and Ramsey bent on obeying the last orders available—to launch a nuclear attack. The drama is a modern version of a story not unlike Mutiny on the Bounty or The Caine Mutiny in which a captain’s refusal to see logic leads to other officers questioning his fitness to continue serving.
In this case, Hunter reasons that theirs is not the only US sub in the region and that the others will be in possession of the full second order, which may very well be a retraction of the first. And if that is the case, the Alabama may well end up being responsible for initiating nuclear holocaust on the capricious strength of only partial information. Ramsey contends, however, that orders are orders and that without communications, there’s no way for the Alabama to know whether or not the other US subs in the region have also been attacked and perhaps destroyed. His sub may be the last thing standing between Radchenko and a nuclear attack on the United States.
A military drama ensues in which Hunter takes command and confines Ramsey, at gunpoint, to his stateroom. However, in the midst of the mutiny, the Alabama is again attacked by a Radchenko-loyal vessel. After a brief chase and undersea naval battle, the Alabama emerges victorious. But the skipper has managed to take advantage of the chaos to pull off a counter-mutiny and to arm enough men to place Hunter and some of his fellow mutineers under arrest in the officer’s mess. Ramsey again begins the countdown to nuclear missile launch, but Hunter and his men escape and retake command, while in the meantime, the technical crew find a way to repair the damage to communications.
In happy-ending Hollywood style, rugged individualism and Hunter save the day. Commander Hunter halts the nuclear strike, just as the second message is finally decoded, telling the Alabama to stand down from the original orders.
Crimson Tide is supposedly based on a true story of an incident that actually took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, back in the early sixties. But as the movie ends, you can’t help thinking about how much more capricious, illogical and dangerous the world is today. Even just twenty-five years down the road since the film was made, you tend to ask yourself whether, if something similar happened today, could a worldwide nuclear catastrophe be avoided?
These are some things any sane person is certain to ponder when the chief executive of the US places the Armed Forces on red alert for a preemptive strike on the territory of a foreign power in the morning and by the afternoon has said, well, okay, maybe not. Logically, you have to breathe a sigh of relief that the man in charge—and holder of the nuclear codes—decided against his first impulse.
But that also leads you to realize that it was just that, a personal impulse with no more apparent consideration or consultation than the reactionary tweets for which he is infamous. And then too, you have to realize to what extent the US and the world are subject to the whims of a single American oligarch. And, what all can go wrong in the timespan between the whimsical orders and counter-orders on which his policies turn.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS?


Charles Pierce always sees things from a maverick's viewpoint, but he also always tends to make sense and to tell the awful truth. 
At the end of this piece in Esquire, in which he takes Joe Biden to task for being tone-deaf to the political music of today, he writes, “Joe Biden would be a better president than the one we have now. But I'm not sure everyone has a grasp on how very low that bar is.”
He bashes Biden for expressing his nostalgia about “the good ol' days” when he was a young member of Congress who got things done through alliances with good ol' boy southern segregationists despite their racism and their disdain for “mongrels” in southern culture.
That's not a message for today. In fact, it's a message that would surely appeal more to the largely racist and xenophobic Trump base than to Democrats who, no matter what their age or status, are leaning, to a greater or lesser degree, closer to liberalism, and away from the “good ol' boys” of the “good ol' days”.
Pierce's message is that Democrats and liberal independents have moved on...and so should Biden if he hopes to be a president for these times.
You can read Pierce's article at the link below:

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.