2020 Election, Justice Department, Trump

Corrupted Justice…

During the administration of President Warren G. Harding – until recently generally regarded as the most corrupt presidential administration in modern times – the attorney general was a thoroughly amoral political hack. His name was Harry Daugherty

Attorney General Harry Daugherty (left) with his friend President Warren Harding.

Daugherty was a small-time Ohio politician, never particularly successful in his own political life, but skilled at picking his friends and doubly skilled at using his position to advance his own interests. Daugherty became a bosom pal and personal lawyer of then-Senator Harding, helped engineer Harding’s surprising nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1920 and then managed a successful national campaign. As a reward, and because Harding was a singularly bad judge of character, Daugherty became attorney general.

There was some grumbling, even from Republicans, when Daugherty populated the U.S. Justice Department with a collection of cronies and grifters from Ohio. The press dubbed them “the Ohio gang,” and for a few years these shysters ran a series of scams to enrich themselves. (Meanwhile over at the Interior Department a corrupt cabinet member was selling government oil leases in order to enrich himself. Some remember that as “the Teapot Dome scandal.”)

Daugherty’s Ohio gang sold permits allowing exemptions from prohibition laws. They violated a law that governed the screening of prize fight films. They ran a racket to profit from property that had been confiscated from enemy aliens during World War I. And they went after their political enemies. 

In 1924 – Harding died in 1923 and Calvin Coolidge became president – Daugherty’s corruption was openly flouted in Washington and a handful of senators, including Idaho’s William E. Borah, demanded an investigation. Imagine that: A Republican senator demanding an investigation of a Republican administration. 

The leadership of the Senate’s investigation fell to a junior senator from Montana, a Democrat by the name of Burton K. Wheeler. Wheeler had been a righteous U.S. attorney before winning a Senate election in 1922. He insisted that the Justice Department had been corrupted and campaigned on launching an investigation. 

Senators William E. Borah, an Idaho Republican, and Burton K. Wheeler, a Montana Democrat, in 1924 when they worked together to hold a corrupt attorney general accountable.

Upon learning that Wheeler intended to call witnesses and probe alleged improprieties, Daugherty struck. FBI agents were dispatched to Montana to dig up dirt on Wheeler, the Republican National Committee sent its own investigators for the same purpose and a compliant U.S. attorney convened a grand jury to hear “evidence” of Wheeler’s own alleged corruption. The evidence produced was misrepresented or entirely manufactured, but Wheeler was nevertheless framed, indicted and labeled a crook by the very people he was seeking to hold to account.

Wheeler was eventually exonerated by a Montana jury and a Senate investigation led by Borah concluded that he had done nothing improper. Daugherty was ultimately forced to resign as attorney general – Borah again led the charge – and he evaded conviction on corruption charges when one of twelve jurors of held out against a guilty verdict. 

A senior justice department official who witnessed the entire sordid affair later said that Daugherty purposely set out, using political appointees loyal to him, to bring an indictment against a United States senator before that senator could expose Daugherty’s own corruption. 

The episode – improper use of the FBI, political intimidation, trumped up charges, politicization of the Justice Department, corrupt activity by an attorney general – stands as one of the worst examples in American political history of the department of the federal government charged with upholding the law doing precisely the opposite. The stench lasted for years.

Harry Daugherty is hardly alone in paving a trail of personal and organizational corruption at the Justice Department. Richard Nixon’s one-time attorney general John Mitchell, as another example, was convicted for his role in the Watergate affair and Mitchell’s tenure at the Justice Department was marked by profound politicization of the department. There were howls of Republican protest when Barack Obama’s attorney general held a highly questionable conversation with Bill Clinton during the 2016 campaign, while his wife activities were under investigation. 

Yet, not since John Mitchell, or even since Harry Daugherty have we seen the extraordinary level of Justice Department political game playing that we now see daily under Trump attorney general William Barr. And what makes Barr’s tenure so remarkable is that the political perversion of his department is happening in plain sight, driven by a vindictive president who now clearly believes there are no limits to his actions.  

“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control,” Trump Tweeted this week when the Justice Department changed course dramatically and in unprecedented fashion overruled federal prosecutors in a case involving Trump pal Roger Stone, the self-proclaimed Nixon-era sleaze merchant and dirty trickster. Stone, of course, was convicted of seven felonies, including witness intimidation and lying to Congress for his role in facilitating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Essentially the president is interceding with his attorney general to help a guy who lied for him. 

Four career prosecutors resigned from the case in protest, with one leaving the department entirely. Trump subsequently attacked the prosecutors and the federal judge who is scheduled to sentence Stone this month. Meanwhile, the president has encouraged discipline against the decorated officer who provided damaging testimony about Trump’s Ukrainian shakedown and the attorney general has moved out federal prosecutors who haven’t been sufficiently political subservient for his taste. 

Trump has so wildy succeeded – now with Barr’s help – in destroying the norms of presidential conduct that this kind of abnormal behavior seems to many to be OK. “What normalization does,” says Jason Stanley, author of a frightening little book called How Fascism Works, “is to transform the morally extraordinary into the ordinary. It makes us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this is the way things have always been.” 

“What if a regime, for example, used a dismal us-versus-them divide in national politics to destroy faith in institutions capable of containing its power – elections, an independent judiciary, the public forum – thereby eliminating checks on its own self-enriching schemes?” – From The Guardian’s review of “How Fascism Works.”

But it is not the way things have always been or should be. And a toleration of the intolerable is deadly to democracy. As Harry Daugherty’s biographer wrote of another corrupt attorney general, he “belongs to that large and growing number of American leaders who, in sacrificing principle to personal gain, have failed the American people.” That is already being said of Barr.

Trump is unchained now. He’ll certainly pardon Stone and others convicted of serious crimes and who have covered for him. The extremely partisan politicians – Republicans like Idaho’s Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, for instance – who sanction this intolerable behavior may not believe it, but they are quietly and effectively serving as grave diggers for the fragile American experiment in democracy. 

That the president and his enablers have assaulted a broad array of democratic norms is a feature of the last three years. It got worse – much worse – this week. 

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Further reading:

  • Yale philosopher Jason Stanley on How Fascism Works.
  • Attorney General William Barr appeared to push back against the president’s efforts to intercede in individual cases before the Justice Department – or maybe it was just a CYA move. Either way Barr has had, as Ben Parker writes, a disastrous first year as AG.
  • As I have noted before some of the best journalism these days is appearing in The Atlantic and among the magazine’s best writers on politics is McKay Coppins. He has a haunting new piece on plans by the Trump campaign to spend vast sums of money on a sophisticated disinformation campaign. Read his piece here or listen to Terry Gross’s interveiw with Coppins here.
  • And speaking of The Atlantic, here’s more from David Frum on Trump’s attorney general.
  • And…finally I just watched the stunning documentary that recently won this year’s Academy Award. It’s called “American Factory” and it goes some distance to explain both what has happened to the American manufacturing industry and our politics. Prepare to be informed and shocked. The film is streaming on Netflix.
2020 Election, Impeachment, Trump

No One Left to Lie To…

The Senate has stumbled its way through Donald Trump’s trial and having acquitted the president Republicans are urging us to “move on,” but before we do – and for the sake of the historical record – this episode demands one final assessment of what is left in the wake of impeachment. 

Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander tried to employ a Solomon-like splitting the difference on Trump. Alexander admitted Trump’s misdeeds – “It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation – and described his obstruction – “When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law,” but then Alexander said never mind

Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said Trump did it, but then voted to acquit the president (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Reporter Tim Alberta, author of the best book yet on what has become of the Republican Party, offered the best take on the Alexander method: even though he is retiring Alexander fears Trump’s wrath and cowers before the angry MAGA mob. “I’m just explaining the reality for these Rs,” Alberta said. “They feel trapped, most of them—and retirement isn’t the escape we might think.” 

No member of Idaho’s all Republican delegation is retiring, of course, and none offered even the mildest rebuke to the president’s actions in soliciting election interference – in the second straight election – from a foreign government. They could muster no hint of indignation that the president systematically obstructed Congressional examination of his actions. They wanted to hear no witness to the law breaking simply because they knew that hearing from a John Bolton or a Mick Mulvaney would open a wound so deep and so gaping that it would bring down this entirely corrupt administration.

Whatever happens next, Mike Crapo, Jim Risch, Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher now own. By ignoring historical levels of presidential misconduct and participating in a show trial that would have made Stalin proud they have sanctioned more of the same from their leader. Those Republicans like Maine’s Susan Collins and Iowa’s Joni Ernst who believe Trump will be chastened by his ordeal live in an utter fantasyland. 

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein put it correctly: “The most likely outcome of the impeachment trial will be that congressional Republicans are even less likely to confront Trump on his behavior, at least as long as it doesn’t threaten their policy preferences. And this will have the consequence of making those Republicans who do believe Trump did something wrong even less important within the party. Instead, it will further empower Fox News, the House Freedom Caucus, and others on the right who act with disdain for constitutional government.” 

You may recall that the president last year ordered that the White House subscription to the Washington Post be cancelled, but he had a copy handy this week for use as a prop

Or as journalist Peter Baker writes, “Trump emerges from the biggest test of his presidency emboldened, ready to claim exoneration and take his case of grievance, persecution and resentment to the campaign trail.”

Others, including journalist Gabriel Sherman, have written this week of Trump’s desire for “revenge” against his “enemies,” the key chapter from his never varying playbook, that calls for going “after people who crossed him during impeachment.”

This reality is simply that Trump runs his solely owned Republican Party by fear and intimidation and that fact is central to understanding the impeachment response of Idaho’s four cowed and callow federal officeholders. They are unwilling to confront presidential misconduct because they know they risk the ire of the president and his angry followers. This fear demands they willingly ignore historic misconduct. 

Historians will spill a lot of ink explaining how we got here and how acceptable presidential behavior has been so dumbed down that we now see the once proud “law and order” Republican Party reduced to covering for a serial liar who they know will offend again, and likely offend even more grievously. 

While this is a Republican mess of the first order, Democrats share some responsibility for where the country finds itself and not because they correctly investigated and proved – as Senator Alexander and others now admit – Trump’s lawlessness. No, Democratic culpability dates back two decades to a time, as is now clear, when Bill Clinton should have been forced to resign or been removed

David P. Schippers is now forgotten to most Americans. He deserves to be remembered, as his words from December 1998 still strike an eerie chord. Schippers was a burly Chicago lawyer, a Democrat, who headed the Clinton investigation for the Republican controlled House Judiciary Committee, in and of itself a remarkable footnote to history. 

David Schippers, the Democratic lawyer who prosecuted the case against Bill Clinton in 1998

“The president,” Shippers said of Clinton, “has lied under oath in a civil deposition, lied under oath in a criminal grand jury. He lied to the people, he lied to his cabinet, he lied to his top aides, and now he’s lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There’s no one left to lie to.”

The Republican House impeached Clinton, of course, but the Senate, influenced by the Clinton spin that the case was just about sex and not about perjury and obstruction of justice, refused to convict the man who possessed, as Christopher Hitchens colorfully wrote, “a rust-free zipper.” 

“As a pair,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Gary J. Schmitt wrote this week, “Clinton’s acquittal and Trump’s will set a bar for removal that suggests ‘a little’ wrongdoing by a president will be judged okay. Whether this low bar is what the framers had in mind is an entirely different question.”

Of course the founders wrote impeachment into the Constitution for precisely the kind of offenses Bill Clinton and Donald Trump committed. To suggest otherwise is to gaslight Hamilton and Madison and all the rest who risked life and fortune to create a system where a lying, cheating despot would not be allowed to rule. 

Republicans will rue the day they refused witnesses, sanctioned blatant disregard for the rule of law and invited what they must know will be ever more unconcealed corruption. An entire party, and in particular senators like Crapo and Risch, tied themselves in rhetorical knots addressing not the obvious facts of the case, but the procedure, while claiming in their best Orwellian manner that they were “following the Constitution.”

Trump engaged in “an appalling abuse of public trust,” Utah Senator Mitt Romney said as he claimed for himself if not for his party a modicum of honor in voting to convict the president of his own party. Romney’s courage and honesty stand in contrast to the appalling political opportunism of the Idaho cowards. 

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Suggestions for further reading:

  • Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum writes that Republicans are deluding themselves if they believe they can put the Ukraine scandal behind them because, Frum says, “with Trump, the next crisis is always just ahead.” Frum writes for the The Atlantic, which incidentally is producing some of the most outstanding journalism anywhere these days.
  • Another outstanding piece here from The Atlantic’s Mckay Coppins, who writes of Mitt Romney’s decision to follow his conscience rather than Trump.
  • While many of us have been focused on the impeachment matter the rest of the world has been making news, including the January 31st exit of the UK from the European Union. I was impressed by this piece from John le Carre, the famous author of spy novels. He hates Brexit.
  • And…an interesting new book by an outstanding historian Diana Preston, who has produce a fascinating day-by-day account of the historic Yalta summit at the end of World War II.
Journalism, Trump

It’s the Truth…

Jim Lehrer, the old school journalist who helped invent a sane and sober television news program on public television that he co-hosted for years with Robert MacNeil, died recently and his passing is a reminder of how imperiled the craft of gathering and reporting the news has become.

“I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” Lehrer told The American Journalism Review in 2001. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society, and Thomas Jefferson said a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”

Long-time PBS journalist Jim Lehrer, a beacon of professionalism in a craft under assault

Lehrer’s death and his warning about the commodification of news ironically coincide with a sham impeachment trial in the Senate that featured the president’s defenders shamelessly repeating Russian propaganda. In the same period we’ve seen an attack by the secretary of state aimed at both the truth and a distinguished reporter for National Public Radio, the Fox News host Lou Dobbs bizarrely asserting that life-long Republican John Bolton is a tool of liberal Democrats and Senate leadership eliminating the long established practice that allowed reporters easy access to the senators in the Capitol. 

Literally from its first day the Trump Administration has been at war with the truth, and with reporters and legitimate news organizations that try to discover the truth. It has been a systematic, unrelenting assault on a free press unprecedented in its scope and only rivaled by similar tactics employed by Richard Nixon a generation or more ago. 

But where Nixon – and his later criminally implicated vice president Spiro Agnew – kept “enemies lists” and tried to use the Federal Communications Commission to intimidate broadcasters, Trump isn’t nearly as subtle. As always incendiary rhetoric is his weapon of choice, from calling out individual reporters by name to labeling any report critical of him “fake” and reducing journalists to “enemies of the people.” 

Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” created a scandal when it came to light. Trump’s list is in plain sight

“It’s insidious, it’s aimed to intimidate, it’s a kind of dragging through the mud effort, a character assassination from as best as we can tell, and it’s alarming,” says Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, a leading free speech and human rights group. Nossel was reacting to reports that Trump campaign operatives were determined to plant derogatory information about reporters deemed critical of the president with pro-Trump outlets.

“We need the press to do its job. We depend on them to hold politicians to account, to cover what’s going to be a very fractious campaign.”

Trump’s toxic treatment of reporters is clearly spreading. Republican Senator Martha McSally, one of this year’s endangered incumbents, recently called a CNN reporter “a liberal hack” after the reporter asked her a simple, straightforward question: should the Senate consider new information in the impeachment trial. 

It wasn’t a “gotcha” question, wasn’t asked abusively and was completely legitimate. The encounter went viral, which may have been McSally’s motive, and within hours she was raising campaign cash based upon the phony courage standing up to a reporter with a microphone. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch has long had a contentious relationship with reporters, often popping off when he asked a question he’d rather not answer. “Oh, I don’t do interviews on any of that stuff,” Risch told the Washington Post when questioned about Trump’s shifting explanations on efforts to buy the silence of women who claimed sexual dalliances with him.

When the obvious follow up was asked – why not? Risch responded, “I don’t do any interviews on anything to do with Trump and that sort of thing, okay?” He then slipped into the Senate chamber. 

Last year when an Idaho radio reporter tried to ask Risch if it was appropriate for the president to implore China to investigate Joe Biden, Risch lost his cool, refused to answer and then walked away telling the reporter “don’t do that again.”

Risch almost certainly smiled his approval of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent silly run in with NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly. The two men are thin-skinned reactionaries who hate the scrutiny real reporters represent. You won’t be surprised that Risch has called Pompeo “a really good friend of mine,” adding, “he and I have very similar views on life in general.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Trump “mini-me” when it comes to attacking reporter doing their jobs

That’s true, of course. Risch was once a Trump critic and is now among his biggest defenders. So, too, with Pompeo who in 2016 said a President Trump would be “an authoritarian President” who would ignore the Constitution. Now the blustering secretary of state and the subservient senator vie to be a Trump “mini-me.”

Asked to explain his unwillingness to defend a career State Department official, former ambassador Maria Yovanovitch, who has been slimed by Trump after being dismissed in what surely was an effort to further the president’s misconduct in Ukraine, Pompeo blamed a reporter for having the audacity to question a great man. Then he lied about the circumstances that led to the interview. 

The incident was Pompeo’s “don’t do that again” moment, particularly after he threated Kelly with “people will hear about this.” He then doubled down by banning another NPR journalist from the group covering a trip to Europe. And naturally Trump praised Pompeo’s brutish behavior. 

Years ago I managed press relations for an Idaho governor who admittedly didn’t always enjoy handling a tough question from a reporter, but who nonetheless recognized it was a requirement for serving in public office. I’ve forgotten the specific budget issue at stake all these years later, but I remember Democrat Cecil Andrus asking his budget director Chuck Moss if a certain administration initiative could successfully make its way through the Republican legislature. Moss deadpanned that the idea could probably be sold to lawmakers, but “we might not get it past Fick,” a reference to the irascible, deeply informed Associated Press statehouse correspondent, Bob Fick. 

Andrus knew if he couldn’t explain his idea to a reporter who understood the state budget better than any legislator he was going to pay for it. Fick was dogged enough in his pursuit of a story that he would occasionally park himself next to the governor’s car in front of the Statehouse in order to buttonhole the chief executive on his way to lunch. 

Frankly, that’s the way it is supposed to work. These politicians work for us. Good reporters, and there are a lot of good reporters, go to work every day trying to keep the bastards honest. It’s hard and vital work, particularly when politicians with authoritarian instincts are trying to hide things. 

Shortly before being verbally assaulted by Pompeo, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly was one of the few U.S. journalists to report from Iran

Kelly, the NPR reporter, said as much in an article in the New York Times that was both more substantive and credible than anything Pompeo – or Risch for that matter – has said in the last year. “There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution,” Kelly wrote. “There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power — people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations — be held to account. The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible.” 

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Further reading:

  • “The New Enemies List” from Princeton historian Julian Zelizer in The Atlantic.
  • Attacking reporters is just one tool of authoritarian regimes around the world. “Don’t blame democracy’s decline on ignorance. The problem lies deeper” from The Guardian.
  • A “Freedom House” report on propaganda at home and abroad.
  • And a piece by historian and journalist Michael Petrou on the famous columnist and shaper of public opinion Walter Lippmann.
2020 Election, Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Trump

The Senate on Trial…

You may have heard a number of references this week to the Senate impeachment trials of two former presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom, given the long verdict of history, likely deserved to be convicted. Neither was, of course, and Donald Trump almost certainly will not be convicted either. 

“The proceedings there look like a flimsy excuse for a trial,” David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “and they are. But under the surface, a series of real trials is going on. Vulnerable senators sit in the dock, the jurors are voters, and the verdicts won’t come back until November.” 

“A flimsy accuse for a trial…”

While the serially lying president is technically on trial for abuse of power and his corrupt obstruction of Congress, additionally it is the Senate itself and individual senators on trial and among the accused are Idaho’s get-along by going-along Trumpians, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. 

Neither Idahoan did anything this week to warrant the high public trust that voters have repeatedly bestowed upon them and their craven political opportunism may yet bite them. By repeatedly rejecting the notion that the Senate should actually conduct a trial of the president as the Constitution demands, Crapo and Risch have put the interests of the Republican Party – not to mention their own interests – ahead of the truth. 

Both men voted over and over again not to seek witnesses or documents that the Trump White House has systematically refused to produce. This knowing disregard for information that could either convict or exonerate Trump may prove to be an effective strategy to prevent the truth from catching up immediately with the president, but the known unknowns of what is to come, a steady drip, drip of harmful revelations, should bring shivers to what is left of the spines of Crapo and Risch. 

Risch also unintentionally provided what will both be a lasting image of Trump’s impeachment and a metaphor for his own bootlicking in service to the president. Since still cameras are not allowed in the Senate chamber an old-school sketch artist for the New York Times captured Risch in pen and ink, head buried in hand snoozing at length during the trial’s opening day.  

New York Times artist sketch of Idaho Senator Jim Risch sleeping during the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate

Ironically, Risch’s afternoon nap came at the precise moment the Senate was debating whether to require the production of documents from the State Department, the agency of the federal government that Risch’s Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to oversee. It is worth noting that not once in the first year of his chairmanship has the napping Risch required an appearance before his committee of the Secretary of State who is positioned squarely at the center of the Ukraine scandal that engulfs Trump’s presidency. So, Risch’s sleeping is more than a metaphor it is a pattern.  

But set aside the comparisons to the racist, bullying Johnson in 1865 and the womanizing, dissembling Clinton in 1999, the true historical analog to the current Trump trial happened in 1954. In December of that long ago year of the Eisenhower presidency the United States Senate actually acquitted itself very well by condemning the outrageous conduct of one its own – the junior senator from Wisconsin Joseph McCarthy. 

As much as Trump’s presidency reminds us of Richard Nixon, another vulgar Republican who at least had the good grace to confine his bigotry to private conversations and eventually had the decency to resign the presidency short of being impeached, Joe McCarthy is Trump’s true political ancestor

McCarthy, as the superb new documentary in the PBS American Experience series makes clear, based what became his celebrity and his Republican power on a lie. McCarthy rode the fiction of widespread communist infiltration of the federal government all the way to the top much as Trump rode the lie about Barack Obama’s citizenship to his own takeover of the GOP. Both men are bigots: McCarthy an abuser of homosexuals and “elites” in the entertainment world, while Trump attacks any critic, but particularly immigrants, Muslims and African-Americans like the black listed athlete Colin Kaepernick or Congressman John Lewis

McCarthy was a bully. Trump is, too. Both count the repulsive Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s Senate aide and Trump’s long-time lawyer, as a godfather. Each attacked and skillfully manipulated the press and intimidated fellow Republicans into support or silence. Each tapped into something dark and sinister in the American psyche, the uncommon willingness to embrace the paranoid and ego driven impulses of a blustering demagogue. But there the parallels end because in 1954 the Senate, unlike today’s Senate, did something about McCarthy

Utah Republican Arthur Watkins’ investigation led to McCarthy’s 1954 censure by the Senate. Naturally McCarthy attacked him

Led by Republicans who had had enough of McCarthy’s nonsense – a hero of the story was Utah Republican Arthur Watkins whose role in bringing down McCarthy featured in the first paragraph of his obituary twenty years later – 67 senators condemned McCarthy, as one biographer has noted, “for obstructing the business of the Senate, impairing its dignity, and bring the entire body into dishonor and disrepute.” 

Yet with Trump Senate Republicans can’t muster the guts to even seek let alone confront the truth. As journalist Susan Glaser wrote the Trump defense team, much like the president, is “loud, intemperate, personally nasty, ad hominem, factually challenged, and often not even bothering to have a tenuous connection to the case at all.” The word “Ukraine” did not pass their lips. 

A Senate on trial and found wanting may well have even longer-term consequences for the increasingly fragile American experiment than ignoring the crimes of an individual president. Once the sideboards of Constitutional constraint where the legislative branch holds to account the executive are chopped into kindling the whole structure weakens and slides toward collapse. Have no doubt that is happening. 

In 1954 when Senate was on trial along with Joe McCarthy, Idaho’s then Republican senators, like Crapo and Risch today, took the path of party loyalty rather than institutional honor. Herman Welker, a one-term Idaho senator who if he is remembered at all is remembered as “an unflagging supporter” of his pal McCarthy, was one of 22 Senate Republicans – Idahoan Henry Dworshak was another – who refused to sanction McCarthy. 

“I wonder,” Welker said after the McCarthy censure, “if we did not injure the reputation of the Senate more than we could have in any other way.” Welker’s prediction was blindingly wrong and history honors not him, but those like Arthur Watkins who defended the honor of the institution. 

For Crapo and Risch it’s one thing to be a knee-jerk partisan, but an altogether more serious matter to be a wrecker of great institutions in service to a criminal president. 

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Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Simpson, Trump

The GOP Prairie Fire…

In his scathing takedown of the modern Republican Party – How the Right Lost Its Mind – the conservative former Wisconsin radio talk show host Charlie Sykes ponders – and worries – about the state of American politics. 

“Did I – did we,” he asks of fellow conservatives, “contribute to this prairie fire of bigotry and xenophobia that seemed to grip so many on the right? How did the elites miss the signs of division that turned to schism that became a veritable civil war? Did we play with fire, only to see it spread out of control? Did we ‘make’ Donald Trump? Or is he merely a cartoonish bizarro version of conservative values?” 

“Sometime in the last decade, conservative commentator Matt Drudge began linking to a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. By doing so he broke down the wall that separated the full-blown cranks from the conservative media, injecting a toxic worldview into the Right’s bloodstream. The conservative movement never recovered.

Charlie Sykes in “How The Right Lost Its Mind.”

Sykes, like many other observers of our crazy, divided political moment, trace the decline of American democracy to the rise of the so-called Tea Party midway in Barack Obama’s first term. 

“You can’t fix crazy,” former John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt says in a remarkable new edition of Frontline on PBS that tracks the arc of our division. “And the fact of the matter is you had a fair number of crazy people who started getting elected to the Congress on the Tea Party wave who there was no dealing with.” 

One of the Tea Party arrivals with the Class of 2011 was, of course, former Congressman Raul Labrador. Labrador quickly embraced the nihilist politics of The Freedom Caucus and became one of its leaders, challenging the leadership of then-Speaker John Boehner, as reporter Tim Alberta recounts in his book American Carnage

Labrador infamously helped orchestrate the government shutdown in 2013 – you can’t fix crazy – hoping to force a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Somewhat reluctantly Labrador came into the orbit of Trump World after the sketchy real estate developer became the last Republican standing in 2016, but then he went all in. 

Raul Labrador, the former Idaho Congressman elected with the Tea Party class of 2011, helped lead the Freedom Caucus and the GOP off a political cliff.

“Right now,” Labrador told Alberta for his 2019 book, “they’re (the GOP base) happy with Trump,” but Labrador predicted strong blowback should the national debt explode (it has), the immigration crisis remain (it has) or if working wages didn’t improve (they haven’t). 

But it looks as though Labrador, now quietly laboring in the Idaho GOP vineyard as party chairman, underestimated – as many have – the extent of Trump’s wholesale remodel of the Republican Party. The long term crisis for the GOP – and for the country – and the extent of the moral and intellectual degradation of the Grand Old Party requires looking not at the Labradors or at a Jim Jordan, the histrionic Ohio congressman, or even Doug Collins, the Georgia congressman who recently accused and then apologized for saying Democrats were coddling terrorists. 

Sadly, indeed tragically, a real accounting of who has fanned the present prairie fire rests with the handful of elected Republicans who truly know better, including Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, and who have willingly failed to mount an effective pushback against what conservative writer Kevin Williamson has called “a big market for servility.”

Simpson, an affable, capable, serious legislator who learned his brand of get something done politics in the Idaho Statehouse, has never been a bomb thrower. He openly disdained the craziness of the Tea Party and the guerilla tactics of the Freedom Caucus. When Labrador was bashing John Boehner, Simpson was supporting the speaker and the House as an institution. Before his election in 2016, Simpson said Trump was “unfit to be president” and he could not support him. 

Idaho’s Mike Simpson (center) in happier days working with the Obama Administration and conservation groups to protect Idaho wilderness. Simpson’s been critical of Trump, but at every critical stage as gone along with the president.

To his credit Simpson has called BS on the Trump Administration a few times. He said the Republican response to Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency in order to redirect congressionally authorized funds from the Pentagon was hypocrisy and Republicans would have rightly raised hell had a Democrat done something similar. 

“I mean I’ll be real honest,” Simpson said at the time, “if Obama had done this Republicans would be going nuts. That’s just the reality.” But then Simpson went along with the president who is poised to again raid the Pentagon budget

A year ago when Trump undercut members of his own administration and backed out on an immigration agreement Simpson said the president couldn’t be trusted not to renege on any commitment. “The one thing you’ve got when you come into this place is your credibility,” Simpson said, “and once you lose it, it’s gone and it’s gone forever. He’s lost it.” But then Simpson went along with the president. 

Even farther back, six months into the Trump presidency in 2017, Simpson expressed his frustrations with the president in comments to Politico. “I don’t even pay any attention to what is going on with the administration because I don’t care,” Simpson said. “They’re a distraction. The family is a distraction, the president is a distraction.” 

As reporter John Bresnahan wrote at the time, Simpson went on to say, “Quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder if anyone in the (Trump) family knows what the truth is.” Then Simpson went along with the president. 

“It’s all just a bunch of bullshit,” Simpson said on the first day of the Trump impeachment inquiry and then admitted he had not read the testimony of career diplomat William Taylor who provided one of the first detailed accounts of Trump’s effort to shakedown the Ukrainian government in order to smear former vice president Joe Biden. And then Simpson went along with the president and voted against articles of impeachment labeling Trump’s sordid mess a political hit job by Democrats. 

But wait. Now comes Lev Parnas, the Rudy Giuliani pal, who earlier this week turned over records to the House of Representatives that appear to show, as the Washington Post reported, that “Ukraine’s top prosecutor offering an associate of President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, damaging information related to former vice president Joe Biden if the Trump administration recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.” Other newly released records seem to show that Trump knew of these efforts and sanctioned them.

Mike Simpson has had a long political career, an often-distinguished one, but now he confronts a harsh reality, what Steve Schmidt calls the “guts-and-courage crisis in American politics.” By going along with Trump when he knew what a destructive force he would be not only to his party, but also to the country, Simpson has become the problem.   

“So we’re a country that now is willing to accept serial lying,” says Charlie Sykes, “that’s willing to accept overt racism; that’s willing to accept a president of the United States who behaves in a way that we would not find acceptable from any corporate executive, any other community leader. So what does that say about us?” 

And what does it say about Mr. Simpson? 

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Congress, Foreign Policy, Iran, Russia

The Risch Doctrine

In 1965 when Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright publicly expressed the private concerns he had long harbored about growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson blew his top.

LBJ had known for some time that the influential chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had profound misgivings about the president’s policy, systematically shifting the burden of waging a Vietnamese civil war from the South Vietnamese army to American soldiers. Fulbright had been privately pressing his view on Johnson to little effect, so he went public.

Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon Johnson

Johnson, who could be almost as mean in private as President Donald Trump is in public, complained to an aide that Fulbright “is a cry baby — and I can’t continue to kiss him every morning before breakfast.” The public criticism by a Democratic senator of a Democratic president effectively ended Johnson’s relationship with Fulbright.

But, occasionally history has an interesting way of rewarding political dissent. Today Fulbright is remembered as among the earliest and most prescient voices in opposition to the American tragedy in Southeast Asia. Johnson’s presidency was destroyed over the war and the 58,000 Americans and the millions of Vietnamese who died will forever define his legacy.

The Johnson-Fulbright history is worth recalling in the context of how virtually every other senator who has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee in modern times viewed that role in relation to the White House. The words that define that relationship would be “independent” and “equal.”

By contrast, a year into his tenure as chairman of the committee, the approach of Idaho’s James Risch stands out like a skunk at a garden party. Risch contends his approach — maintaining access to Trump, but never publicly taking issue with anything — is working because as he put it during a recent interview with Boise’s KTVB, “I think it’s good for Idaho and it’s good for me.”

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is among the most consistent endorsers of Trump foreign policy

But the evidence in plain view tells an entirely different story. If Risch really enjoys the vaunted influence at the White House he claims — “I have some influence on what happens in the White House,” he told KTVB — it’s difficult to see how that influence is impacting American foreign policy in any positive manner.

Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a demonstrably evil influence in the Middle East, was immediately endorsed by Risch who parroted the shockingly thin administration assertions that Trump acted on information indicating the Iranians were planning imminent attacks on Americans.

“His death presents an opportunity for Iraq to determine its own future free from Iranian control,” Risch said just hours before the Iraqi parliament voiced support for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a decision, should it happen, that would turn Risch’s assertion on its head. Rather than diminish Iranian influence the administration has enhanced Iranian influence.

Meanwhile, while endorsing the “we must act” mantra of the administration, Risch has squandered a chance to help craft something approaching a coherent policy to replace Trump’s ignorant, impulsive and frightfully dangerous policy of threat by tweet. Additionally, Risch has yet to answer why the attack on Soleimani, an option open to previous presidents but rejected by them, happened when it did.

As Bloomberg News put it: “If Soleimani presented an imminent threat, why was Trump given several retaliatory options that didn’t include Soleimani? If there was an imminent threat, how would killing the top general end that threat? And if Team Trump has lied about everything, why wouldn’t they lie now?”

The administration’s justification for the attack has shifted with the news cycle and you can bet Risch will stay the course with Trump, no matter how scattered and incoherent the ration-ale becomes. Yet, the bigger question is simply: What now?

An independent chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would have moved immediately to conduct hearings, sought the advice of experts on the region and attempted to shape what happens next. But Risch knows that any real effort to grapple with the reality of what Trump hath wrought would involve stinging bipartisan criticism of Trump’s haphazard, dangerous “make it up as you go” foreign policy.

Trump, a thin-skinned, pseudo tough guy, would interpret any critique as disloyalty and almost certainly would lash back. So complete is the president’s hold on people like Risch that the senator dares not utter an even remotely critical comment, even when the stakes amount to war and peace.

The funeral of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Teheran

Risch admitted as much in the Boise interview. “Look, I don’t go out and criticize him publicly,” he said, claiming “spirited conversation” takes place in private, where he’s able to exercise influence. Yet, consider the facts behind Risch’s assertion.

On Risch’s watch, the efforts at detente with a North Korean dictator who sent Trump “beautiful letters” continues to unravel. Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw U.S forces from Syria has strengthened Russia in the region and enhanced Turkey’s reach. Both countries, by the way, are close to Iran. Iran has resumed its nuclear weapons program after Trump’s Risch-endorsed decision to abandon an international agreement to contain such an effort. NATO is weaker than it has been at almost any time in the post-World War II period. And the post-Soleimani turmoil seems almost certain to give ISIS a new lease on life.

If Risch truly has exercised positive influence behind the scenes, it’s far from evident. In fact, the opposite seems more probable in that whatever influence he has is lost on Trump, a reality Risch came near to admitting in that recent interview. “He is different,” Risch said of Trump, “his decision-making is different.”

No kidding, which is why a person holding the premier position in Congress related to foreign policy must be more than a partisan determined to hold his tongue to maintain dubious “influence.” Risch’s servility enables, even encourages the reckless Trump activities we’ve seen in the first days of 2020.

“What is the point of having a Congress if it has no say about a new American war?” The Atlantic’s George Packer asked recently. Good question. And why have a Foreign Relations Committee chairman if he’s not willing to publicly engage the president?

Risch actually had an answer for that during his KTVB interview. “When I’ve (privately) disagreed with (Trump) he has never, ever treated me with anything but the greatest respect. Now, I’m sure that would change dramatically if I went out on TV and tried to take it on like that. But, but, you have to deal with it as it is.”

By choosing to follow, not lead, the senator has made a historic, career-defining blunder. The mistake has never been more obvious than it was this week.

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2020 Election, Campaign Finance

The Scandal of Political Money…

(NOTE: This is the first of two parts on political spending by independent expenditure committees and how this practice has perverted American politics.)

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If you were looking to identify a single date in recent history where American democracy made a sharp swerve in the wrong direction, you could do worse than fingering Friday, Jan. 30, 1976. On that day, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned significant parts of the federal campaign finance law put in place in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

To the lasting detriment of rational politics in America, the court held that groups and individuals could raise and spend unlimited amounts on so-called “independent expenditure” campaigns so long as the “independent” groups did not coordinate with a candidate or another campaign.

Not many Americans knew at the time that the decision handed down on that long ago Friday would begin a tumbling of political dominos that would severely distort politics, vastly expand the role of money in politics, breed widespread voter cynicism and lead to a handful of other judicial decisions — the outrageous Citizens United, for instance — that have created a profoundly corrupt system.

If you have come to hate the barrage of “negative” political commercials, the slick mailers and the almost always distorted rhetoric of modern campaigns, you have Buckley v. Valeo to blame. The decision was the foundation stone of modern sleazy campaigns conducted by shadowy groups who employ every measure of deception to hide their donors and their motives.

A landmark 1976 decision

The plaintiffs in the Buckley case were an odd collection of interests, as diverse as the decision was consequential. The Buckley was James L. Buckley, brother of the conservative writer and magazine editor William F. Buckley. Jim Buckley, a Yale Law grad, was a genuine political fluke, elected to the U.S. Senate from New York on the Conservative Party ticket in 1970 with just 39 percent of the vote.

Buckley’s political fluke is owed to his defeat of a Senate incumbent, moderate Republican Charles Goodell, father of current National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell had been appointed to replace Robert Kennedy by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller following Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

Buckley was a one-term senator and later Reagan administration official and federal judge. His name remains, however, most firmly identified with the 1976 court decision.

James L. Buckley a plaintiff in a case challenging federal election law in 1976 that legalized the “independent expenditure” campaign

Two of Buckley’s fellow plaintiffs in suing the Federal Election Commission were liberal Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had made his reputation as the poetry-writing contrarian who helped force Lyndon Johnson out of the presidential race in 1968, and Stewart R. Mott, an eccentric multimillionaire who pumped thousands of dollars into McCarthy’s campaign and other liberal causes. Mott’s support for what a Richard Nixon aide called “radic-lib candidates” earned him a spot on Nixon’s “enemies list.”

McCarthy and Mott had nothing in common ideologically with Buckley, but they all shared an interest in spending lots of money on politics, preferably with as little regulation as possible. The Supreme Court largely sided with them in Buckley, a landmark that one legal analyst called “an exceptional case — a 143-page … behemoth with 178 footnotes, five separate opinions of the eight justices involved, writing eighty-three more pages, which with appendices yielded a 294-page reported decision.”

By the time the Supreme Court decided the subsequent Citizens United case in 2010 — that decision overturned 100 years of settled law by declaring that unlimited corporate and labor union political spending is protected as free speech — Buckley had been cited in more than 2,500 legal cases relating to campaign spending.

To read the decision or listen to the now available tapes of oral arguments is to realize how confused the justices were about the nexus between political money and political corruption. Justice Byron White did understand the linkage and argued that Congress had been correct in identifying a compelling need to limit political money.

Supreme Court Justice Byron White warned against “a mortal danger” involving politics and money

“The act of giving money to political candidates,” White wrote in a dissent, “may have illegal or other undesirable consequences: it may be used to secure the express or tacit understanding that the giver will enjoy political favor if the candidate is elected. Both Congress and this court’s cases have recognized this as a mortal danger against which effective preventive and curative steps must be taken.”

White’s argument did not prevail and, as the Congressional Research Service noted in a 1981 report (updated in 1984) about the subsequent rise of “independent” political action committees, “By lifting the limits on (independent) expenditures, while leaving intact those on direct contributions to candidates, the court’s ruling created a major avenue for individuals and groups seeking to influence elections beyond the level permitted under” federal law.

Before Buckley political action committees (PACs) played a minor role in American politics. Now they are American politics.

For example, one estimate holds that $55 million, much of it from out-of-state interests shielded from disclosure, will be spent on television advertising during the Maine U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger.

Maine Republican Susan Collins’ Senate re-election campaign will likely see more than $50 million in spending

Maine is, of course, a key battleground that will help determine which party controls the Senate after 2020. But even given that significance, the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy calls the $55 million “an astonishing amount for a state with three relatively inexpensive media markets.” Duffy notes that a year before the election, “Democrats have outspent Republicans almost two to one and nearly all that money has been on ads criticizing Collins.”

Outside money, much of it impossible to track, is flooding Iowa’s Senate race and the Republican incumbent, Joni Ernst, has been trying to swat away allegations that an “independent” group helping her and run by some of her former aides has violated the law prohibiting coordination between the candidate and an outside PAC.

Politico reported recently that President Donald Trump is being victimized by an array of groups raising money in his name, but doing with the money God knows what. In an 18 month period, “$46.7 million flowed into close to 20 Trump booster organizations, structured as PACs or political nonprofits and with names like Latinos for the President and MAGA Coalition.”

All this money, of course, is virtually impossible to trace or track, which is after all why we have disclosure. Voters are supposed to be able to see who is supporting a candidate and evaluate for themselves where the money is coming from. But the practical ability to do that is a rude fiction, as is the myth that “independent” committees don’t collude — often very openly — with candidates.

Every Senate race in the country this year will have similar stories to what we’ve already seen in Maine and Iowa because the political money system is broken, unaccountable and, yes, corrupt.

And sadly the corruption is coming to a city hall near you, which is a story for next week.
 

2020 Election, Russia, Trump

A Bad Time for Truth…

I came of age in politics when it was considered a sin – a near mortal sin – to be caught in a lie or to be deemed guilty of a flip-flop. Now shameless lying and blatant position shifting are at the center of American politics. 

It is a bad, awful, distressing time for facts. Everywhere you look politicians are shading and shifting or more often bald faced lying and changing positions for political advantage. 

America’s chief dissembler.

Nowhere is this denial of facts more obvious than Republican efforts to shuffle off the extent to which Russian influence has come to rest at the center of American politics. Republican senators and members of Congress regularly repeat Kremlin talking points on national television. The attorney general dismisses his own Justice Department inspector general’s report that concluded that the 2016 counter intelligence investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign was justified. And on the very day articles of impeachment are prepared against the president, Trump invites the Russian foreign minister to the Oval Office, a blatant display either of the president’s hubris or proof that he really is under Vladimir Putin’s thrall. 

It is worth remembering, which is difficult to do amid the chaos that has marked American politics for the last three years, that the trail that leads to Trump’s seemingly inevitable impeachment by the House of Representatives always arcs back to Moscow, and not the one on the Palouse. 

Trump will be impeached, of course, if not convicted for his efforts to bribe the president of Ukraine into announcing an investigation into a political rival. The operative word here is “announcing” since Trump could care less about political corruption in Ukraine. He merely wants a Twitter bat to swing repeatedly at Joe Biden, an outcome he has perhaps already succeeded in achieving. The mere announcement of investigations could be used, in the absence of real facts, to bludgeon a political opponent in the same way Hillary Clinton’s emails drove the narrative for Trump in 2016. 

But the real connecting tissue here is Russia. Let’s review.

In 2014, Russia “annexed” Crimea, a part of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Subsequently pro-Russian forces invaded eastern Ukraine. The Obama Administration led a unanimous Europe in condemning these actions, forced Russia out of the bloc of leading economic nations and imposed the first of a series of sanctions. Obama later sanctioned Russia for election interference.

Putin rebuilds the Russian Empire with an assist from the White House and Republicans

For Putin these moves against the old Ukrainian Soviet republic, as Konstantin Skorkin wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, “signaled Russia’s rebirth as a great power, ready to ignore world opinion in the pursuit of its national interests.” 

Enter the whole Trump-Russia thing, which is explicitly connected to Ukraine in a dozen very specific ways. 

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump told an interviewer in 2016 as he echoed Kremlin talking points. Earlier this year Trump bizarrely claimed Crimea “was sort of taken away from President Obama,” effectively absolving Putin of his obvious responsibility for an invasion and the resulting deaths of 10,000 Ukrainians. 

The Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election makes clear – you really should read it – that Russia broadly and blatantly interference with the election to assist Trump and that he encouraged and welcomed the helped. Putin has admitted he was happy to see Trump elected knowing he would be a soft touch for continued Russian interference in Ukraine and elsewhere.  

Former national security advisor Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying about contacts he had with the Russian ambassador in December 2016 aimed at signaling the incoming administration would work to ease Obama’s sanctions related to Ukraine. Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in jail for, among other things, money laundering related to work he did for pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, almost certainly at Putin’s behest. 

Trump yucks it up with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the day after he fired the FBI director as part of the “whole Trump-Russia thing”

When Trump first met with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office shortly after he had fired the FBI director, he boasted that James Comey’s dismissal took the heat off him. For good measure Trump then disclosed national security secrets to his Russian friends. That information was subsequently leaked to the Washington Post and Idaho’s Jim Risch – bizarrely is the word here too – blamed the leakers and said Trump was within his rights to cavalierly declassify secret information. Risch was correct that Trump has that right, but doing so doesn’t make it right. 

In the summer of 2018 Trump met face-to-face with Putin in Helsinki and when asked if he believed Russia had interfered in the election the American president sided with the former KGB operative over the unanimous opinion of U.S. intelligence officials. He then spun a word salad of misdirection and lies about the FBI, “the server” and Clinton’s emails, a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump eventually connected back to… Ukraine.   

This chain of events, a Manchurian Candidate-like screenplay, rolls off the backs of Putin Republicans like water off a duck. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor: Russian disinformation clings to these Trumpian disciples like breadcrumbs on Chicken Kiev. 

Now we daily confront the systemic lying by Republican elected officials who join Trump in advancing a totally fanciful narrative that Ukraine, the country Putin continues to war with, was really responsible for American election interference. Congressman Russ Fulcher has been sipping this crazy conspiracy Kool Aid lately, suggesting without a thimble of evidence, that former vice president Joe Biden is corrupt and that’s why Trump was justified in pressuring the Ukrainian government. 

Trump meets with Putin in Helsinki and sides with the Russian dictator rather than U.S. intelligence agencies

You’re left asking – and every member of Congress should be forced to answer – who really benefits from this embrace of Russian propaganda inserted into the American political bloodstream? Who benefits from advancing a false narrative about Ukraine and working to weaken a new pro-western government there? Who benefits from efforts to delegitimize career diplomatic officials, intelligence agencies and the press that has uncovered much of this sordid mess? Who benefits when Republicans like Fulcher side with Russia over the Constitution and labels an impeachment inquiry, one obstructed from the get go by the president, as a “shameful, sham of a coup.”

How did the Republican Party get from Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of “the evil empire” – the Soviet Union in the 1980s – to the embrace of a president who has courted, praised and enabled a Russian president who was once an intelligence agent of that evil empire and today seeks to rebuild it? 

The times are ripe with irony. The party that once prided itself on tough-minded reality in opposition to brutal authoritarians now celebrates a homegrown con man who embodies the kind of lawless thuggery Reagan once condemned. 

Congressman Mike Simpson, the last Republican I would expect to embrace Russian fables, lamented Trump’s looming impeachment by saying, “today is a dark day for our country.” Simpson is right, but for all the wrong reasons. 

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Impeachment, Trump, Watergate

Country or Party?

Two old-school Republicans from Washington state have been in the news recently. And the political careers of William Ruckelshaus and Slade Gorton offer a stark reminder of just how far the modern GOP has descended into a culture of lies, corruption, conspiracy theories and general incompetence.

Ruckelshaus, who died last week at age 87, is rightly remembered, as the Seattle Times said in an editorial, “as the upright Cabinet figure who served under two Republican presidents as an effective Environmental Protection Agency leader, and resigned when President Richard Nixon asked him to sign off on firings to block the Watergate investigation.”

William Ruckelshaus sworn in 1970 as Nixon’s EPA director. He later quit rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire the special counsel investigating the president.

As the current Congress grapples with the immensity of President Donald Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, it’s worth remembering that in another time with another corrupt Republican president, Ruckelshaus, a lifelong Republican, stood for principle and honor. He refused to be a part of Nixon’s efforts to cover up the Watergate affair and discredit those investigating the wrongdoing. Ruckelshaus quit rather than be an enabling toady. We know it today as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

It is little surprise that Ruckelshaus’s courage in 1973, when he defied a president of his own party, ended up being the first paragraph of his universally praiseworthy obituaries.

Ruckelshaus was also a Republican conservationist, a species now as rare as a Snake River salmon. His tenure as EPA director was marked by pragmatic, balanced approaches to protecting the environment. He was neither an apologist for industry nor the Sierra Club, but a professional who understood that you could protect the environment and still engage with care in the business of a modern economy.

Just days before Ruckelshaus’s death, the last Republican senator from Washington state, Slade Gorton, a very conservative guy, published an op-ed in the New York Times. In typical Gorton no-nonsense language, he wrote: “To my fellow Republicans, I give this grave and genuine warning: It’s not enough merely to dismiss the Ukraine investigation as a partisan witch hunt or to hide behind attacks against the ‘deep state,’ or to try to find some reason to denounce every witness who steps forward, from decorated veterans to Trump megadonors.

Former Republican Senator Slade Gorton: Impeachment is justified.

“History demands that we all wrestle with the facts at hand. They are unavoidable. Fifty years from now, history will not accept the position that impeachment was a referendum on the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. It must be a verdict reached on the facts.”

Gorton’s conclusion: “There are multiple actions on this president’s part that warrant a vote of impeachment.” He urged fellow Republicans to use the House process and a Senate trial to find and act on the facts. And as Ruckelshaus did nearly 50 years ago, Gorton said it was time for Republicans to “put country above party.”

Yet, instead we see a blizzard of obfuscation, a storm of conspiracy theory-spinning, a downpour of misinformation and a near total willingness on the part of Republicans to absolve Trump of the most impeachable conduct since Nixon ordered Ruckelshaus to fire a special prosecutor.

And Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation is quietly poised to go all the way with their corrupt leader. No amount of evidence and plainly observable conduct will deter the Idaho four from ignoring their oath of office in support of their personal political standing. Indeed, Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch along with Congressmen Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson have gone beyond merely ignoring presidential misconduct to actively abetting it.

Risch is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the committee that produced a bipartisan report identifying Russia operatives as the guilty parties exploiting state-level election systems and engaging in a vast disinformation campaign in 2016.

“Masquerading as Americans,” the committee’s report says, “these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election.”

And, of course, it was done at Vladimir Putin’s direction to assist Trump’s election. Based upon Trump’s public statements — “Russia, if you’re listening” — and the conduct of his son and chief advisers, Trump clearly welcomed the foreign interference.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in 2016. Republicans endorsed the finding and then ignored them.

Have you seen any member of the Idaho congressional delegation talking about this? Quite the contrary.

Risch said in February he wasn’t worried about Putin, calling Russia “the most overrated country on the face of the planet.” Meanwhile, Russia, with Trump’s assistance, has strengthened its position in the Middle East, meddled in the Brexit process in the United Kingdom, continued its war against Ukraine and furthered its ambition to weaken NATO.

Or has any Idaho member pushed back when House Republicans, and at least one GOP senator, invoked a debunked conspiracy theory promoted by the president and his most fevered supporters that Ukraine is actually the bad actor here?

Again, quite the contrary. Fulcher has been actively trafficking in the Ukraine smokescreen that Trump really cared about investigating corruption in Ukraine, even though the only “corruption” he’s ever concerned himself with involves Joe Biden and his son. Not a single piece of evidence has emerged regarding the Bidens, but that hasn’t stopped Fulcher from spinning the testimony of Ambassador Gordon Sondland to suggest it exonerated Trump when it did precisely the opposite.

“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ ” Sondland said before the House Intelligence Committee. “With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Fulcher, on his Twitter feed and echoing Trump, seized upon Sondland’s reported phone call with the president where, according to Sondland, Trump denied any quid pro quo in withholding aid to Ukraine in exchange for doing “a little favor” by announcing an investigation of a political rival. Fulcher is content to take the word of a fabulist president against a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and in fact new reporting indicates there is ample reason to believe that Sondland’s call with Trump never happened.

The Idaho four have really only two options: Conclude that all the evidence — the record of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, phone records, every single witness, the obstruction on testimony and documents and what there is to see with our own eyes — is incorrect, or they can conclude that the engineers of the Ukraine shakedown are lying.

Actually, there is a third option: Pull a Slade Gorton and a Bill Ruckelshaus and really search for the truth. But to do that you would have to put the country first.

Thanksgiving

My Aunt Vera…

My Aunt Vera was a genuinely nice person. She could have been the All-American model for a Norman Rockwell painting and she always looked, as my Dad might have said, “neat as a pin.” 

Aunt Vera favored tight little curls in her grey hair. Most would consider that an “old fashioned” look now days, but it seemed to fit her perfectly. And no pants or slacks for Vera, always a dress even when laboring in the kitchen as she did one memorable Thanksgiving more than a half century ago. That celebration with all its sounds and smells lives on in the half-light of memory of a November long ago.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" painting first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943.

Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943. It has come to symbolize the American holiday.

My Dad had two half brothers and while they had different last names, they were in every other respect as close as any three men – three brothers – could be. Growing up I lived near one of my Dad’s brothers and his wife, my Aunt Mae. They became second and very indulgent parents to me. What a blessing for any kid. 

We didn’t often see the other brother, my uncle, since Hisel and Aunt Vera lived some distance away. With a name like Hisel you can understand why everyone called my uncle by his nickname, Smut, which is another story for another Thanksgiving. But, I digress.

It was suggested during that long ago autumn that the family should establish a new tradition and annually rotate Thanksgiving dinner with first one brother (and wife) hosting and then another. The idea was immediately embraced as providing a happy excuse for a get together and a big, enjoyable dinner.

Everything went swimmingly when my mother hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner under this new arrangement. My mother was both a lovely person and a fine cook of the old school. She lavished attention on her gravy, her turkey was never overdone and her pumpkin pie was a thing of beauty. We didn’t see the good china very often at our house and the “real” silver was stored away for only the most special of occasions. That Thanksgiving Mom set the table as if John F. Kennedy were stopping by for lunch. Even I got a long stemmed goblet and a fancy white napkin.

Aunt Mae also knew her way around the kitchen and when she hosted the second Thanksgiving gathering the following year the food was good and the laughs even better. My Aunt Mae was a sassy, funny, outspoken woman. She was an outstanding amateur golfer in her younger days. She could smash a golf ball and as a kid she gifted me some old clubs and joyfully coached my swing. And she could cook, too. 

I still remember my father and his brothers telling stories on one another during these Thanksgiving gatherings, engaging in the good natured banter than passes for intimacy among a certain generation of men. The brothers loved each other dearly, but tended to express affection with what amounted to verbal towel snapping and warm handshakes. Hugs were for the women doing all the real work in the kitchen, while the men exchanged teasing jokes in the living room over a splash of Canadian Club and frequent glances at a football game. Naturally I hung with Dad and my uncles.

The Thanksgiving tradition seemed fully established until it was Aunt Vera’s turn to prepare the feast. For years afterward it was a guilty pleasure to watch my Mother and Dad challenge each other to say something positive about the food at that dinner. As they struggled to remember anything that went well, often while we enjoyed another of Mom’s outstanding meals, the table would be engulfed in laughter at the memory of the turkey that never quite got done and the side dishes that never quite worked. And, yes, there is a reason I never developed a taste for mince pie.

Happy Thanksgiving…

Finally Mom would say something generous about the rolls and butter or marvel at where Vera got those fresh flowers, but inevitably my Dad would smile and say that his brother obviously hadn’t married Aunt Vera because of her cooking.

Thanksgiving, the essential American holiday, is my favorite holiday, a time for family, food, football and fun. Hold the politics. Even in a world that at the moment seems seriously off the rails, Thanksgiving is a refuge, a place of memory and warmth, a place to reflect on life’s many, many wonders and blessings.

As I think, as I always do this time of year, of those long ago gatherings with parents, aunts and uncles, it is the laughter and the love that sits most lightly on my mind. I’ve tried to resist the urge this week to think too much about our controversial president, our polarized politics or a changing climate and instead let my mind drift back to the Nebraska of my youth where turkey and cranberry relish mix with the sweet memories of people I loved and still love.

“Society is consumed by negative partisanship,” Charles Lane wrote recently in the Washington Post. “Restoring the right balance is the key to stabilizing the republic.”

He’s right. And balance begins with giving thanks. This is a great – not perfect – but great country. Give thanks for that. We’re stronger and happier when we reflect on our shared good fortune and our shared values. We’ve been through a lot and somehow keep moving. Give thanks for that. When we focus on what each of us might do to make this fleeting and limited life as full and decent as it can be for family, friends, folks down the block and, yes, even those Americans who come from other places with other traditions we are truly living out our creed. Give thanks for that.   

Aunt Vera’s undercooked turkey wasn’t the point. The togetherness was the point and gratefulness was the side dish. We’ll not be happy without a sense of thanksgiving. It’s a path to a better life and a better world. 

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