2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump, Uncategorized

Unrelenting Logic…

There is an unrelenting mathematical logic to the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus. Denial of the logic is like playing Russian Roulette, the odds are unpredictable and choosing incorrectly is deadly. 

January 22, 2020Donald Trump: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

As brutal as the math will become – a couple hundred thousand cases become a million cases, a few thousand deaths become 100,000 deaths – the logic cannot be denied, unless you reside in a partisan political fantasy land. 

February 25, 2020Rush Limbaugh: “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” 

And it’s not like we haven’t been through something like this before – it happened in 1918 – it’s just that we don’t remember the history, or we chose to ignore evidence in plain sight. The logic remains. 

The Idaho Statesman, October 15, 1918

October 10, 1918 – The Wallace Miner: “We are confronted by an epidemic of influenza which will affect more than half of our population in probability. There is a shortage of physicians, nurses and hospital accommodations.” 

March 20, 2020 – The New York Times: “Even in the best case situation, with a shortage of skilled doctors and nurses, caring for Covid-19 patients with life-threatening respiratory distress will be like using a Band-Aid to stop a carotid artery bleed,” Pauline M. Chen, MD

News briefs from the Kendrick, Idaho Gazette, October 1918

October 11, 1918 – The Kendrick Gazette: “The quarantine has been placed in Idaho. All public gatherings, excepting schools, both public and private, are forbidden by an order issued Wednesday by the state board of health.”

October 15, 1918 – The Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “In its fight to stop the spread of Spanish influenza, the public health service is investigating the causes of the disease, the conditions which promote its spread and the part played by carriers in epidemics of the malady.”

March 20, 2020 – The Hill: “The intelligence community was warning of the danger posed by the novel coronavirus throughout January and February as the White House downplayed the threat and was slow to roll out nationwide measures, reports show.”

October 17, 1918 – Twin Falls Weekly News: “To her credit be it said, Twin Falls has not hesitated to comply fully with the terms of the latest closing order to emanate from Boise…if it is necessary to close up every industry and every institution in the city in order to prevent an outbreak of Spanish influenza, Twin Falls will cheerfully do just that.” 

October 21, 1918 – The Spokesman-Review: “Three more deaths have occurred (in Nez Perce, Idaho) from influenza…(including) Carl Price, proprietor of the local garage…he leaves his widow and four small children.” 

October 22, 1918 – The American Falls Press: “Dr. Noth, who has been confined to his home for the past several days with influenza, suffered a relapse yesterday. Miss Virginia Nunnelly, who had been visiting in Salt Lake City for several weeks, has been summoned to help care for him.” 

October 23, 1918 – Spokane Chronicle: “Four deaths yesterday and three last night from pneumonia, following Spanish influenza, have resulted in closing the state college in all departments.” 

March 29, 2020 – Politico: “Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. [Jerry] Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.”

October 25, 1918 – Rathdrum Tribune: “The alarming spread of influenza throughout Idaho, caused the state board of health to order all public and private schools in the state to close indefinitely.” 

November 5, 1918 – Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “The Bradford family is still seriously ill with influenza…Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Tanner are the proud parents of a baby son, born Monday morning. Both the parents are ill with influenza…Miss Hazel Quigley has been dangerously ill with the influenza, but is slightly improved at the present.” 

November 15, 1918 – Burley, Idaho Herald-Bulletin: “[With] the death of Ralph Jamison Gochnour from influenza Sunday night the University of Idaho lost one of its most prominent students…Mr. Gochnour was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity. He was a young man of pleasing personality, a student of keen and inquiring mind.” 

Item from the Blackfoot, Idaho Republican, October 1918

November 22, 1918 – Kendrick Gazette: “There will be no church services in Kendrick Sunday. Both churches agreed to postpone church meetings for at least another week.” 

March 30, 2020 – Associated Press: “A northern Idaho lawmaker led a church service on Sunday despite a statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Brad Little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Republican Rep. Tim Remington, the pastor of The Altar Church in Coeur d’Alene, held the service, but it’s not clear how many attended…On Sunday, he told worshipers that the stay-at-home order violated their rights.” 

December 19, 1918 – Grangeville Globe: “Undertaker A.J. Maugg returned last Friday evening from Riggins where he was called the day before to direct the funeral of Mrs. Cleveland Hollenbeak of that placed who had passed away Thursday from influenza. Mrs. Hollenbeak was 28 years old and is survived by her husband and two small children.” 

December 27, 1918 – Salmon, Idaho Recorder: “The epidemic appeared last week in the stoutly quarantined community of Challis, where it is said more than a score of cases in pronounced form were reported. It was said the disease was conveyed to the town by an enterprising traveler who forded the river in order to get by the quarantine guards.” 

John Barry, author of the definitive study of the 1918 influenza pandemic: “Of all the lessons from 1918, the clearest is that truth matters…You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth. . . Those in authority must retain the public trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.” 

March 27, 2020Charlie Sykes, conservative columnist: “[This crisis has] its own peculiar awfulness: the overlay of bad faith, cynical spin, and serial deception. Who do we believe? What do we believe? Who is telling us the truth and who is shoveling fabulist bullshit? 

“But what did we expect? We had taken a long vacation from truth because we could afford to, right?” 

“You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus, you know you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is,” Donald Trump

March 30, 2020 – The New Yorker: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. Trump said repeatedly that he wanted the country to reopen by Easter, April 12th, contradicting the advice of most health officials. (On Sunday, he backed down and extended federal social-distancing guidelines for at least another month.)”

March 31, 2020Donald Trump: “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks. When you look and see at night the kind of death that’s been caused by this invisible enemy, it’s incredible.”

March 6, 1919 – Salmon Recorder: “With but 18 new cases of influenza reported yesterday to the city health office the crest of the third revival of the epidemic is believed to have passed.” 

The logic is unrelenting. 

—–0—–


Additional reading:

  • In lieu of Opening Day, a wonderful essay on baseball by Adam Garfinkle.
  • NeverTrump conservative William Kristol – I’ll remind you he was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle – on how Trump has broken the Republican Party and conservatism for good. Kristol says: “We have now reached the terminus of craven loyalty and pathetic apologetics. I don’t see how either the political institution of the Republican party or the intellectual movement of conservatism recovers from what we have seen over the last three years—but especially the last three months.”
  • I won’t be reading Woody Allen’s new book, but you should read this review by Dwight Garner in the Times. Here’s a preview: “Volunteering to review [the book], in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team. I told my wife and daughter my plan, and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard.”
  • And finally, video conference is bigger than ever in the age of physical separation. Here’s a thoughtful piece on how to make the most of it and also understand the limitations. And remember: failure to mute is the new “reply all.”
  • Stay safe.
2020 Election, GOP, Pandemic, Trump

War on Government…

As a world-wide pandemic silently sulks its way across the globe pulling the international economy into recession or worse, it has become increasingly clear that Americans are facing a political, societal and economic crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. 

It looks kind of interesting. It’s not

And for better or worse, it’s going to be up to individuals, a few insightful business leaders and a relative handful of courageous political leaders to chart the course forward. Our politics is broken, perhaps fatally. Half of the political leadership class is captive to willful misinformation, conspiracy theories, disdain for science and expertise of every kind and devoted to the kind of government that shutdown the White House office responsible for coordinating the response to what we now call COVID-19.

The Republican Party has been fighting a “war on government” since Ronald Reagan infamously labeled government the cause of our problems, not the answer. Whether he intended to or not, and Reagan was less ideological than almost anyone in the GOP today, at his 1981 inaugural the heir of Barry Goldwater heralded the establishment of a new Republican philosophy that continues. There are essentially two Republican policies: tax cuts for the wealthy and unlimited spending on the military. Everything else, perfectly highlighted by Donald Trump’s incomprehensible inability to anticipate and counter a killer pandemic, is expendable, or unnecessary. 

When in 2018 our blustering incompetent president shuttered the National Security Council office devoted to preparing for the next pandemic there was nary a ripple of concern. Trump has been lying this week, as every week, saying he had nothing to do with the decision, but videotape has now surfaced where he brags about this epic leadership failure. 

“Some of the people we’ve cut they haven’t been used for many, many years and if we ever need them we can get them very quickly and rather than spending the money,” Trump said at the time. How has that been working out? 

Some times a picture really is worth a thousand words

Some astute observers of American politics can remember all the way back to the early days of the Trump regime when Steve Bannon, Trump’s government hating senior strategist, boasted that his job was the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning, as Fortune magazine pointed out, “weakening regulatory agencies and other bureaucratic entities.” Bannon’s bombast and stupidity doesn’t look so good these days. 

Indeed, as Beth Cameron, a leader in the White House pandemic office that is no more, wrote recently “it is clear that eliminating the office has contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response. What’s especially concerning about the absence of this office today is that it was originally set up because a previous epidemic made the need for it quite clear.”

Put another way, Barack Obama created the office in 2014 to combat Ebola and did so effectively, so Trump did away with it four years later because he could. 

This utter disdain for expertise and common sense has become the defining feature of the Republican Party and you can see it from Washington, DC to Boise. Congressman Russ Fulcher defaulted to the GOP playbook that tax cuts will cure a pandemic when he was one of 40 House Republicans who voted against emergency legislation to address sick leave for the millions of Americans who are without it, a move considered by health experts as a key strategy to contain the spread of the virus. 

“First of all, government shouldn’t be mandating to businesses how they pay their employees, in my view,” Fulcher said in explaining his inexplicable vote. “And secondly, that’s going to put some small businesses out of business.” 

Fulcher advocated tax incentives, not “hard mandates” from the government. The rookie congressman will soon enough discover that “hard mandates” are precisely what is required along with massive government spending that preserves jobs and enhances the ability of health care providers to meet the crisis. 

Fulcher is the perfect embodiment of a head in the sand political Neanderthal, a dim partisan functionary tethered to right wing ideology rather than real world realities. The same can be said of the Republican dominated Idaho Legislature that is stumbling to adjournment worried not about strategies to protect the sick and those who will be, but devoting its closing hours to passing legislation to prevent transgender females from participating in athletics, making sure Idaho can outlaw abortion when the Supreme Court makes that possible and twice defeating an already inadequate higher education budget.

Legislators debated how many ideologues fit on the head of a pin. Local school boards and mayors got to work.  

As the Washington Post noted earlier this week: “For weeks, many on the right, including Trump, minimized the virus, if they considered it at all. Even in recent days, as much of the world shuts down to try to stop its spread, some Republicans mocked what they saw as a media-generated frenzy.

“Their reaction reflected how the American right has evolved under Trump, moving from a bloc of small-government advocates to a grievance coalition highly skeptical of government, science, the news and federal warnings.”

It is so transparently telling that Trump’s Oval Office speech last week where he made his first faltering effort to get in front of the danger the pandemic represents to all Americans was written by two incompetent ideologues – Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller – guys with no experience whatsoever in the subject at hand. Trump and his speechwriters were practicing public relations, and badly to boot, not engaging in crisis management or presidential leadership. 

Kushner, Miller and Bannon: the Three Stooges of the modern Republican PartyLA Times photo

There are so many mileposts over the last three years that might have flattened his unique curve of presidential malfeasance – the GOP dismissal of Russian election interference and the investigation that exposed it, Trump’s gross mismanagement of foreign policy and ignorant, heartless approach to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, the kids in cages on the southern border, the hate filled tweets and ugly insults, the Senate Republican willingness to ignore the president’s clear efforts at Ukrainian blackmail – but all now fade into our collective rearview mirror. 

We are left staring straight ahead at what will likely prove to be the worst American crisis since World War II, coupled with the worst economy since the Great Depression all presided over by a man no serious Republican would hire to manage a car wash. 

Trump and Republicans didn’t create the pandemic and the economic meltdown. They merely furthered a notion of government and political irresponsibility that made such a nightmare possible and they labeled it all “American exceptionalism.” But, of course, the only thing exceptional is the ignorance and selfishness. As the writer Howard Bryant says, “We replace destruction with exceptionalism: it could never happen here.” Yet, it has. 

There are tough days ahead. We’re in unchartered seas. Personal and mostly non-governmental institutional initiative coupled with charity, decency and honesty will be essential. When we emerge on the other side America will be a different place. 

We’ll be either a stronger, better, more decent people without Trump and a lot of his enabling Republicans, or we won’t. America will begin to get well, or our sickness will deepen. No one will save us but us. 

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Additional Reading:

  • I found this piece by Adam Garfinkle in The American Interest fascinating and I hasten to add I don’t agree with everything he says, yet he carefully and persuasively makes the case that the handling of the Trump impeachment was an American disaster. Read the whole thing.
  • American and world airlines are in a deep dive. (And I complained to Alaska Airlines this week about the carriers flight change policy in this time of turmoil, so I am hardly an uninvolved bystander.) And we should all brace ourselves for the big – BIG – cost of propping the air carriers up. Here’s why it matters and why the government should extract some concessions.
  • There are a number of viral – pardon me – videos making the rounds recounting the president’s earlier discounting of the cornoavirus. This one about Fox News is, well, stunning.
  • And…a serious and seriously funny guy, Dave Pell, has re-written a few lines of famous poetry for the Age of the Virus.
  • Thanks for reading…and sharing. Wash your hands.
2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump

Trump Face Palm…

The greatest vulnerability for most politicians is not the unwise vote they cast a dozen years ago, or the youthful but still stupid favorable comment made about a bearded Latin American dictator. No, the real vulnerability comes when an elected official’s political position intersects with a requirement for competence.

Gaffes can be managed; being awful at your job in public can be fatal. Think about some of the great political leaders of the not too distant past, and then if you dare, think about leadership today. 

Franklin Roosevelt was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and earned an Ivy League law degree, but still had few demonstrable skills beyond a sunny personality when he won the presidency. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said FDR possessed “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” And the great political analyst of his day, Walter Lippmann, dismissed Roosevelt as a “pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” 

FDR, a born leader at his best in crisis

But Roosevelt was a born leader – decisive, informed, careful, yet willing to take a calculated risk. He surrounded himself with serious, smart, intelligent people who he empowered and for the most part listened to. Roosevelt’s leadership during World War II is reason enough to rank him among our greatest presidents. 

For sure FDR made mistakes with personnel, but he was smart enough to put General George Marshall in charge of the war effort and dispatch his most trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, to deal directly with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. Roosevelt was not a manager or meddler, but a grand strategist and his principle skill was as a communicator. 

Churchill, most historians agree, was a meddler, but also a brilliant synthesizer, a leader constantly prodding and pushing his subordinates to do more and do it better. And Churchill accepted advice. As his most recent great biographer Andrew Roberts recounts, not once during the entirety of World War II did Churchill go against the unanimous advice of his top military advisers, a remarkable fact given that Churchill trained as a soldier and fought battles on three continents by the time he became prime minister. 

Churchill, a great leader in a crisis, with General Dwight Eisenhower

No one in their right mind would suggest that the two great wartime leaders were anything but competent at their jobs. Tragically, and one hopes not fatally, we can’t say the same

Three events – at least three that we know of – converged in short order to highlight the abject incompetence of the current American commander-in-chief. Dealing with a raging pandemic, a fragile economy shaken by the COVID-19 virus and the 20-year military quagmire in Afghanistan has laid bare Donald Trump’s true skill, which is to say he has no true skill useful to the current perilous moment. 

The Republican politicians – think the Idaho delegation – who have belted their own reputations to the incompetence of a guy none of them would trust to manage a Dairy Queen (and I mean no respect to soft serve ice cream) deserve everything they will endure in the weeks and months to come. They have wrapped themselves in ineptitude hoping that partisanship would mask their own and the president’s failures.

Since most politicians default to thinking that their position will always prevail, they’ve been hoping – praying more likely – that what has happened over the last few days would somehow not be visited on Trump and his cabinet of bozos. Now it has and they own it. 

Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Cole, hardly a Trump basher, nevertheless put a fine point on Trump’s ineptitude this week when he chastised the administration for its persistent and cavalier dismissal of the threat of a serious health emergency. 

Cole was warning back in 2017 that Trump Administration inattention to budgets and personnel at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health would likely bite Trump where he sits. That prediction has now clearly come to pass. During a hearing this week Cole said the coronavirus outbreak and the abject failure of the administration to aggressively meet the crisis was a “sort of vindication of the bipartisan judgment over the last several years that this was really an area we needed to make investments.”

The Trump Administration has proposed steep cuts to these agencies in each of its four budgets, leaving Congress to devise, largely without the help of the agency experts its own funding and staffing priorities. 

Trump actually said when it still must have seemed to him that he could employ ignorance to bluff his way through a pandemic that “some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years. And if we have a need, we can get them very quickly.” Right. 

Stock futures began to fall Wednesday even as Trump delivered what was billed as a calming speech. One Wall Street analyst called it “the most expensive speech in history.”

The bumbler-in-chief when on: “And rather than spending the money — and I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

Tell that to the hospital workers who will likely be overwhelmed soon with patients who need services which in many areas just may not be available. 

As world markets tumbled from unrealistic and unsustainable heights, Trump went before the camera to peddle his unique brand of nonsense. No Churchillian honesty and candor for the guy who bankrupted a casino, rather we get bombast and misinformation. The number of coronavirus cases in the country stood at 15 at the time with every credible expert predicting a serious increase almost immediately. “Within a couple of days,” Trump said, it “is going to be down to close to zero.” We are now well over 1,000 cases. 

Asked a few days later if he’d been briefed that as many as 100 million Americans could be exposed to the virus Trump didn’t exactly channel FDR in a fireside chat. “I’ve been briefed on every contingency you could possibly imagine. Many contingencies. A lot of positive. Different numbers, all different numbers, very large numbers, and some small numbers too … Be calm. It’s really working out. And a lot of good things are going to happen.”

Amid all the other chaos this week we haven’t heard much about Afghanistan. We will. It, too, will be a disaster. 

We are all advised not to touch our faces these days, but in moments like we’ve been experiencing a face palm every few hours seems entirely reasonable. 

—–0—–

Further reading:

  • A serious recession is looming. “The US economy could shrink by 2% in the first quarter and 3% in the second, JPMorgan projected, while the eurozone economy could contract by 1.8% and 3.3% in the same periods.”
  • The Atlantic’s James Fallows on why Trump’s Oval Office speech was such a flop. “Until Trump,” Fallows writes, “other presidents have applied the ‘show, don’t tell’ policy when it comes to their own competence. They want to show they are acting the way the country would hope, so they don’t have to say it.” Trump can’t do it.
  • Since most of us are spending a lot of time at home these days…what to watch on Netflix. I recommend The Irishman.
  • Thanks for reading…and please pass along to anyone who might be interested.

2020 Election, Russia, Trump

And Putin Smiles…

Everyone who has studied the facts – a notable exception being the president of the United States – knows that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin directed specific measures to help elect Donald Trump in 2016. 

All the nation’s intelligence agencies, the relevant Congressional committees, numerous independent analysts, volumes of reporting and a special counsel confirm what the Russians did. That elements of one political party and its leader dismiss the Russian malevolence simply cannot change the facts. 

Vladimir Putin, the man along with Donald Trump, who has remade the Republican Party

It doesn’t help the Republican argument for dismissing the facts that some members of the party appear to be deeply compromised by connections to shadowy foreign actors. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, for example, has been the recipient of campaign contributions from now indicted operatives tied to Ukrainian oligarchs who are in turn connected to Moscow. Congressman Devin Nunes has similar connections. A former Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, has admitted his contacts with the email leaker Julian Assange whose activities demonstrably helped Trump in the last election. McCarthy once reportedly said he was convinced that both Trump and Rohrabacher were essentially paid Russian agents

Nor does it help GOP credibility that some like Idaho Senator Jim Risch cheerfully dismisses the seriousness of the Russian effort by saying Russians have been doing this kind of thing for a long time. Almost identical words come out of the mouth of Trump’s new hyper-partisan and demonstrably unqualified director of national intelligence. 

The “this is nothing new” rationalization is, of course, preposterous. Only recently have American political campaigns involved massive use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and only a sophisticated former KGB operative like Putin could elevate international mischief to a foreign policy, which is precisely what the Russians have accomplished. 

Amid the Trumpian chaos it’s easy to forget that the president’s former campaign manager is in jail for hiding his financial involvement with Russian-connected Ukrainian oligarchs and his former national security advisor and oldest political advisor are headed to jail for lying about various aspect of their own involvement with Russia. 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with then Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959. Republican skepticism of Russia goes way back, but has effectively ended with Trump

It must be particulary gratifying for Putin that he has helped install a Republican president and assisted in the profound corruption of a political party that in no small sense owes its modern existence to decades of hostility to Russia. From Warren Harding to Ronald Reagan, the GOP warned of the evil intentions of an evil empire. Republicans, led by Joe McCarthy and a generation of Cold War hawks, both politicized and profited by their anti-communism.

American foreign policy from 1945 to the 21st Century was defined by a contest between the Kremlin and American leadership of a western alliance determined to check Russian advancement. While much of the blustering was overblown, not all was mere partisan hyperbole. Stalin and a successor of Russian dictators did foment revolution, did vie for global dominance and did threaten American interests. Putin is cut from the same cloth.

Yet, now a Republican president and much of the party’s rank and file dismiss Russia as Risch does as “overrated” and Putin and his henchmen as, “These guys, they are all bluster.” 

Now comes the realization that the leading candidate of the other major political party is also becoming a channel for Russian involvement in American politics

“I suspect that, for our people [at the top], [Bernie] Sanders looks like the mad professor from ‘Back to the Future,’” Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told Julia Ioffe, the Russian-born American journalist who provides some of the most searching current insight into Putin’s motives. 

Bernie Sanders, the would-be Democratic front runner, is a convenient vehicle for sowing discord in American politics. Putin knows it if many of us don’t

In essence the old lefty Bernie, always willing to put the best gloss on Castro or the Sandinistas, is a great vehicle for Putin, “very convenient for starting a pan-American brawl,” in the words of the Russian political scientist. Sanders is, of course, less dangerous than Trump, but such an easy mark for Trump’s demagoguery, and Putin’s. The Russian manipulator loves it, Schulmann said recently, when Americans “fight each other while we lay another gas pipeline somewhere!” 

Amid the clear evidence of Russian support for Trump is the equally obvious fact, as American intelligence agencies have reportedly confirmed, that Putin will advance Sanders’ candidacy because he knows it will both help his favorite Republican and sow discourse in the American body politics. Again, the Russian political scientist, Schulmann, puts a fine point on the Kremlin strategy: “Our candidate is chaos,” she says. 

Putin has a plan and it is succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. He elevates his own economically challenged and ethically bereft country by diminishing western democracy. To disadvantaged Russians, plagued by a police state mentality, bombarded with official propaganda and held in check by a collection of corrupt oligarchs who loot the nation’s resources, Putin’s rule doesn’t look so bad particularly compared to an American democracy divided by race and class and ruled by a narcissistic authoritarian who constantly attacks the courts, the press and his opponents. Our chaos is Putin’s catharsis. 

A divided Europe works to Vlad’s advantage, so he generously encourages Brexit and cheerleads to weaken NATO. Putin longs to control and plunder Ukraine, as Stalin once did, and Donald Trump is his useful idiot in helping with that strategy. Since the time of the czars Russia has lusted after a starring role in the Middle East. Trump has obliged. 

If there is any doubt that the modern Republican Party – what’s left of it – is playing out its role in this brutal strategy you need look no farther than Trump’s recent dismissal of Joseph McGuire, the former Navy Seal admiral cashiered as director of national intelligence. McGuire was fired for doing his job, especially warning about Russian methods and intentions. The silence over the firing and the subsequent promotion of a Trump loyalist to the critical role garnered nary a word of pushback from GOP politicians. Risch, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was silent, signaling his acceptance. 

It was left to retired Admiral William McRaven, the guy who led the effort to find and kill Osama bin Laden, to speak the truth about Trump and the GOP. “As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation,” McRaven wrote in the Washington Post. “When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.” 

We should be frightened. The courage is running out of American democracy. It’s happening right in front of our eyes. 

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Further reading:

2020 Election, Economy, Trump

Corruption and Incompetence…

Two dominant themes prevail in the current presidential administration: corruption and incompetence. They work together well, one complimenting the other and advancing the steady slide toward a new age of American authoritarianism.

A corrupt administration needs incompetence (and of course acquiesce) in order to continue its corruption. You can’t have independent and effective watchdogs and get away indefinitely with systematic corruption. The authoritarian needs to assert power and perhaps the most effective way to do so is to purge career public servants and replace them with incompetents willing to follow orders no matter what. 

Corruption and incompetence: hallmarks of the Republican administration under Donald Trump

At the same time an incompetent administration reinforces with citizens the idea that a strong, decisive leader, even a corrupt one, is required to make sense of the chaos all around. Donald Trump has mastered the corruption and incompetence approach to modern politics and his handy enablers in the Republican Party seem just fine with how he has warped and corroded public affairs. 

The president used his inherent constitutional power this week in a nevertheless corrupt and unlawful way. Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 11 white collar criminals, a who’s who of grifters, crooks and low life’s, as the New York Times noted “who were convicted on charges involving fraud, corruption and lies.”

Leading the list of recipients of Trump favors to the criminal class was former Illinois Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, a thuggish character who would not be out of place in the cast of a Scorsese film about the mob. It’s worth remembering what Blago, who was impeached and removed from office by his state’s legislature and then convicted of assorted crimes, did to get 14 years in prison. It’s a tidy list: racketeering, bribery, wire fraud, and attempted extortion. The former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the former governor called what Blagojevich did “a political corruption crime spree.” 

In a state steeped in political corruption, Rod Blagojevich established a new standard for sleaze. Of course, Trump commuted his 14-year sentence

Just for good measure Blago tried to extort an executive of a children’s hospital – a children’s hospital – “in in exchange for a Medicaid rate increase for pediatric specialists” and he shook down a racetrack owner in exchange for approving favorable legislation.

In a state known historically for its political corruption Blagojevich’s crimes were in a new class of rancid. Trump, however, called Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence – he served 8 years – a “tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion.” And we know his judgment is, like his Ukraine phone call, “perfect.” 

Never mind that the Illinois legislature, the U.S. Justice Department, a jury of his peers and a federal judge dealt in a systematic and through manner with Blagojevich’s crimes, and the same can be said for the other reprobates Trump lavished with his favors. Corruption in the time of Trump comes in many forms, not least in the doing of favors for the well-placed and wealthy. It’s additionally been widely noted that the crimes the president is excusing, and effectively sanctioning, are much the same as what he will likely face once out of office.  

Which brings us back to the incompetent and the central role an Idahoan is playing in helping Trump carry out additional degradation of the federal government. 

Senator Mike Crapo presided over a lengthy confirmation hearing recently for a Trump nominee to the board of the Federal Reserve. To watch the hearing, as I did, was to witness an eyewatering display of Trump sycophancy, even by Crapo standards. 

The nominee being considered by the Crapo-chaired Banking Committee is Judy Shelton, an economic theorist, one-time champion of a return to the gold standard and Trump acolyte, who is so far out of the economic mainstream that several of Crapo’s Republican colleagues bombarded her with critical questions. Shelton squirmed and prevaricated under the interrogation of Alabama Republican Richard Shelby who pressed her about past statements and positions that she has now dramatically jettisoned.  

Trump’s Federal Reserve nominee Judy Shelton has shifted and shaped her views to please the president who demands loyalty not competence

Shelton’s economic views have flopped around like the gyrations of a junk bond. She was critical of low interest rates during the Obama Administration. Now she’s for them. She was once part of an advocacy group favoring the gold standard and wrote extensively about it. Now she says never mind. Shelton has said she had no particular regard for the historic political independence of the Fed, clearly a qualification for a president would regularly bullies the central bank’s chairman. Under questioning she twisted unconvincingly away from many past positions. If you have a checking account you might wonder why the Federal Reserve would have a director who opposes federal deposit insurance, a fixture of American financial life since the Great Depression. Shelton has advocated that position, too. 

Asked to rate Shelton’s performance before Crapo’s committee, Shelby, the committee’s chair before Crapo, said dismissively: “She performed.” Shelby then added, “I have a lot of concerns, especially even after the hearing. I’m thinking about it, talking to some of my colleagues.” 

Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania John Kennedy of Louisiana, normally down-the-line Trump supporters, made similar comments. Crapo did not. He was too busy carrying Trump water to stir himself in the face of such economic incompetence and intellectual dishonesty. 

Trump wants, of course, a Federal Reserve composed of mindless flunkies who place their loyalty to him above all else, even if that means repudiating every position they’ve ever held. For his part, Crapo praised Shelton as “very solid” and echoed Trump in complaining about an “orchestrated, calculated effort” to defeat her nomination. 

One voice questioning Shelton’s intellectual honesty is the conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of National Review, not exactly a squishy liberal. The criticism that Crapo chalks up to a hit job is more correctly, as Ponnuru wrote recently, a legitimate concern that Shelton “is unlikely to exercise the steady and independent judgment that one would like to see from a central bank. They are, however, criticisms that can be defeated if she has a solid explanation for how her views have changed.” One doubts even Crapo can explain why Shelton’s views have so obviously changed. 

As is often the case the simplest answer is the correct one. Shelton wanted to be nominated and she bent her views to please a president who cares not a whit about competence. 

(Since this column was submitted for publication Trump named another incompetent loyalist, Richard Grenell, as Director of National Intelligence. Grenell, before becoming a divisive ambassador to Germany, was a frequent Fox News talking head. He was designated “acting director,” which allows the president – and fellow Republicans – to avoid Senate confirmation, a battle that would fully expose the fact that Grenell has zero experience related to the sensitive and critical job he now holds. More proof of Trump’s demands for loyalty over competence._

As the Senate decides what to do with Shelton’s appointment, Crapo may yet show some rare independence and join the chorus of critics who don’t want to see the Federal Reserve become just one more incompetent branch of the Trump White House, a neutered, subservient vehicle to carry out the president’s economic whims.

But don’t count on it. 

As conservative columnist Michael Gerson recently noted, “A nation in need of Republican leaders has found flunkies instead.” And the flunkies have bequeathed us the now central tenants of Republican government: corruption and incompetence, the hallmarks of an authoritarian administration. 

—–0—–

Further reading:

  • Maine Republican Susan Collins, once the most independent of senators, has now tied her electoral fortunes to Donald Trump is now the most unpopular incumbent senator in the country. Rebecca Traister explains why in a profile that is an example of great political reporting.
  • Benjamin Moffit writes in The Guardian about why rightwing “populists” are winning political battles around the world.
  • Michael Malloy has an outstanding piece here on the decades long effort to clean up the massive Superfund site in Montana – the Berkeley Pit.
  • And…if you are a baseball fan – or even not – do yourself a favor and read this New Yorker piece on the great Roger Angell, 99 years young.
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. 

—–0—–

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. 

—–0—–

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.
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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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.)

———-

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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