Thursday, May 9, 2019


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


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.