Nixon, Trump, Watergate

Tricky Dick and Dissembling Donald

In his masterful biography of Richard Nixon the journalist John A. Farrell recounts the last days – it was the summer of 1974 – of Nixon’s presidency with a variety of anecdotes that are chilling in their relevance to the drama currently unfolding in Washington, D.C. 

Richard Nixon in 1968

Most who remember their history will recall that it fell to two Arizona Republicans, Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes, and Senate minority leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania to troop to the White House in early August and tell Nixon that his support on Capitol Hill had evaporated. He was sure to be impeached and convicted. 

It’s not precisely true as political legend has it that the GOP heavyweights told Nixon to resign. They didn’t need to. The master politician who based his entire career, as Garry Wills once wrote, on “mobilizing resentment against those in power” got the message. The power was against him. Nixon immediately told his family “we’re going back to California.” 

Proof, contained on an Oval Office tape recording, of Nixon ordering the cover-up of the Watergate burglary had sealed his fate. “This is it,” Rhodes said at the time. “It’s all over. There was the smokin’ gun. He had it in his hand.” 

Nixon had refused to turn over the tapes, of course, and only did so when compelled by a unanimous order from the Supreme Court

In his book Farrell recounts one phenomenal earlier conversation – it occurred in July 1974 – involving former chief justice Earl Warren, like Nixon a Californian and a Republican, and two sitting justices of the high court, William O. Douglas and William Brennan. Douglas and Brennan visited Warren in the hospital where he was recovering from a heart attack and before it was certain that the Court would force release of Nixon’s smokin’ gun. 

From his hospital bed former Chief Justice Earl Warren knew that the president could not be above the law

Warren, however, was certain of what must happen. “If Nixon is not forced to turn over tapes of his conversations,” the former chief justice said, “with the ring of men who were conversing on their violations of the law, then liberty will soon be dead in this nation.” 

* * *

A famous line is attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” So it is with Tricky Dick and Dissembling Donald. As it was in 1974, so it is in 2019. 

I got to wondering what the political mood was in Idaho when Nixon’s crimes were the dominate theme in the country, when Democrats in Congress struggled mightily to investigate a stonewalling White House and when another president attempted to obstruct justice by among other acts firing the special counsel investigating the Watergate affairs. 

Idaho Republicans almost to a person supported Nixon until the absolute end. The precise dynamic is playing out now with GOP support for Trump.

Idaho Republican Senator James A. McClure, a Nixon supporter to the very end

In May 1973, after Nixon’s two top White House aides had resigned and after White House counsel John Dean had been fired, then-Idaho Republican Senator James A. McClure gave what Associated Press reporter David Espo called a “tough and disturbing” speech in Twin Falls. In the speech to a Republican audience, McClure lashed out at journalists for what he termed “stealing records of grand juries” – syndicated columnist Jack Anderson had reported on leaked grand jury testimony pertaining to Watergate – and blasted federal judges acting out of what McClure called “rather self-righteous motives.” That was a clear reference to Judge John Sirica, who by that point had sentenced two of the Watergate burglars to stiff prison sentences. 

Espo wrote that McClure specifically exonerated Nixon for not taking the Watergate burglary more seriously since the senator contended Nixon was preoccupied with his re-election and affairs of state. 

In October 1973, a few days after Nixon fired special counsel Archibald Cox – the infamous Saturday Night MassacreDon Todd, then the executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, defended Nixon and sounded eerily like Trump defenders today. 

House and Senate members who talk of impeachment, Todd said, would “disgrace themselves” with their overreaching. There was nothing wrong with Nixon’s handling of the Oval Office tapes, Todd contended, and said the president was justified in firing the special counsel. 

John Farrell wrote that Nixon’s decision to fire Cox was the real beginning of the end for the president. The Washington establishment, he recounts, had reached a consensus – Nixon was trying to put himself above the law, but the Idaho delegation with the exception of Democrat Frank Church continued to passionately defend Nixon.

After Cox was fired McClure said the former solicitor general was a ”stubborn, willful man” and that it was inevitable that Nixon would sack him. And sounding like a Trump defender today, McClure discounted Cox as nothing more than a liberal Democrat who made no secret of “his partisan views.” For his part, First District Congressman Steve Symms said Nixon had every right to fire anyone in the executive branch “from the secretary of defense to a janitor at HEW.” But, Symms did allow that it was a legitimate question as to whether Nixon should have fired the man investigating his actions. 

Elliot L. Richardson resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire special counsel Archibald Cox, right.

As the long course of the events that we now collectively call Watergate, from the arrest of the men who broke into Democratic Party headquarters in June 1972 to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Idaho Republicans stood by Richard Nixon.  

McClure never admitted that Nixon’s actions related to Watergate constituted grounds for impeachment, but did tell his biographer that had he still been in the Senate he would have voted to convict Bill Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his relationship with a White House intern. No one is above the law, McClure said, obviously missing the hypocrisy. 

When Nixon did resign, McClure said there were “literally no words to express the compassion” he felt for Nixon. And as for any punishment for the former president, McClure declared, “enough is enough … you don’t kick a man when he’s down.”  

Orval Hansen, the Republican congressman from Idaho’s Second District, was more measured. Nixon had done the right thing by resigning, Hansen said, since his ability to continue in office had been destroyed by the revelation that he had ordered a cover-up and lied about it. Ironically, Hansen lost in a primary in 1974 in part, many Idaho observers concluded, because Nixon’s taint rubbed off on him. 

The rhyming will continue. 

—–0—–

Idaho Politics, Trump

Where Will They Find Their Souls

Idaho has had its share of political scandals and usually they involve money or sex — or, not infrequently, stupidity. The state’s politicians have gone to jail for various money capers related to wrongly reported campaign finances, kiting checks or misusing public funds. Others have been publicly shamed for activities in airport bathrooms and various bedrooms. But those scandals have generally been personal, related to an individual failing or a purely human transgression.

Now we have entered a land where a new type of scandal will test the American system, a challenge to moral, ethical and political decency that confronts the four men who represent Idaho in Congress with decisions that few of the state’s politicians have ever handled before.

The initial signs of how the leaders will respond are not gratifying, but hope for political redemption springs eternal, particularly as the impeachable behavior of the man in the White House finally becomes obvious to most Americans.

Trump and the president of Ukraine

In a little more than a week, we have learned that the president of the United States pressured a foreign leader to manufacture dirt on his principal political opponent and then took extraordinary steps to conceal his conversation from others in the government. When a government whistleblower revealed the unprecedented action, the president attacked the whistleblower and said a member of Congress should be locked up for treason for investigating the matter.

We subsequently learned that the secretary of state and attorney general were involved in various ways in soliciting foreign political help from Italy, Austria, Great Britain and Australia; that the president’s personal lawyer has been subpoenaed to produce documents related to his unprecedented role in fanning conspiracy theories and operating a one-man State Department and that other whistleblowers — one relating to the president’s tax returns — are bubbling to the surface.

The essential charge against the president is pretty simple: He pressured a foreign leader from a country known both for its corruption and for needing U.S. military assistance to help him win reelection. If irony were not dead, we might marvel that the Ukrainian telephone call in question was placed by Donald Trump exactly one day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The president’s defense in the face of this avalanche of malfeasance has been to take to Twitter to attack members of Congress and news organizations, while spinning a steadily more bizarre collection of conspiracy theories, personal grievances and genuine craziness. If a president using the awesome power of his office to advance his own political fortunes at the expense of American foreign policy isn’t impeachment worthy, nothing is.

The entire Republican Party, morally and ethically rotten as a result of the Trump takeover, is poised to tumble. The only question for members of Idaho’s Republican congressional delegation is whether they will muster the courage and integrity to separate themselves from the cancer that grows on this presidency. So far they have chosen to blindly follow a mendacious, incompetent, self-possessed, ethically devoid character whose capture of their party was broadly, if ineffectively resisted. Now they are left clinging to the wreckage as the price of avoiding a primary.

Take it to the bank — all this will get worse.

The most interesting response so far to the president’s behavior has come from Sen. Mike Crapo, a veteran of the Clinton impeachment in 1999 who perhaps understands the current stakes. Crapo, of course, voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about sex with a White House intern. Now he has adopted the most measured approach of anyone in the Idaho delegation; in essence saying, wait and see what the evidence produces.

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, who voted to impeach Bill Clinton

It’s illustrative to review what Crapo said about Clinton two decades ago. “Our entire legal system is dependent on our ability to find the truth,” Crapo said. “That is why perjury and obstruction of justice are crimes. The offenses are even worse when committed against the poor or powerless by the wealthy and the powerful.”

“Perjury and obstruction of justice are public crimes that strike at the heart of the rule of law — and therefore our freedom — in America,” Crapo said. “I concluded that these acts do constitute high crimes and misdemeanors under the impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution.”

The special counsel, of course, found substantial evidence that Trump had obstructed justice during the Russian investigation, but was precluded by Justice Department regulations from charging him.

But so far, Crapo has been alone in assuming a measured tone in light of the daily — even hourly — revelations of presidential misconduct. Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Russ Fulcher reacted with tried and true White House talking points, blaming “liberal” Democrats and a hostile news media rather than focusing on the substance of Trump’s trolling for a political lifeline from Ukraine. From them, you heard not a word of concern about the loose cannon Rudy Giuliani or the secretary of state stonewalling a legitimate congressional investigation.

And Congressman Mike Simpson, usually the sane and sober member of the delegation, actually sent out a Trumpian fundraising appeal seeking cash for himself, while blasting “leftist Democrats in Congress” for engaging in “a witch hunt against the President.” He knows better and he knows that he knows better.

The urgent business of the Congress of the United States is simply to get to the bottom of what the president has done and the damage it has caused to the country. Risch, Fulcher, Crapo and Simpson have a simple choice: They can conduct themselves as patriots and affirm the strength of American democracy or they can remain fractured, frightened, fevered partisans. Either way history will judge them and the judgment will, pardon the expression, trump everything else they have ever done.

“Tampering with the truth-seeking functions of the law undermines our justice system and the foundations on which our freedoms lie,” Crapo said in 1999 when a Democratic president was in the dock answering serious charges that nonetheless pale in comparison to the transgressions of Trump.

As former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake wrote to fellow Republicans this week in the Washington Post: “Trust me when I say that you can go elsewhere for a job. But you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.”

These are surely times that try men’s souls. We’ll find out soon enough who among the state’s congressional delegation is willing to go all the way with this president — all the way over the cliff.

2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics, Trump

Leadership Failure

The shambolic, incoherent, incompetent, lie-infested and often just plain crazy foreign policy of Donald Trump was on full display in recent days, while what passes for the TOP (Trump Old Party) foreign policy establishment, including Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was on August vacation.

In the space of a few days: 

Trump threw a hissy fit when the Danish prime minister rebuffed his scheme to “buy” Greenland and Trump responded by cancelling a state visit. 

Trump wanted to buy Greenland, the Danish prime minister said that was “absurd” and he got mad.

The chaos of the president’s Iranian policy was on full view at the G-7 summit in France where Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement to control Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with no realistic alternative in place, has become a signature foreign policy failure.  

Trump claimed, with no evidence that talks with China to end an escalating trade war were back on. They were not. Nor had the U.S. made a trade deal with Japan, as Trump claimed. 

And, of course, Vladimir Putin’s best friend, the president of the United States, was doing PR work for the Russian thug with our G-7 allies, while dishonoring years of bipartisan and international condemnation of the former KGB officer. 

Oh, yes, after three Trump photo ops with Kim Jong Un, events that gave the North Korea dictator precisely the legitimacy he craves, that murderous thug is still firing off missiles in violation of United Nation’s sanctions. 

A president who disses our allies and coddles the world’s dictators

“The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters at the G-7. 

But as journalist Robin Wright pointed out, “Melania Trump has never met Kim.” The White House later issued a “clarification.” Stephanie Grisham, the latest dissembler in the White House press office, said that Trump “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too” Right. 

It’s difficult to pick the most serious of Trump’s fables from among his smorgasbord of foreign policy lies, half-truths and bouts of wishful thinking, but the continuing championing of Putin has to be among the most worrisome. 

In arguing to readmit Russia to the group of seven, which include the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Trump offered a twisted rationale that was head spinning in its nonsense. Remember that Russia was expelled from the group after Putin’s unlawful and forced “annexation” of Crimea in March 2014. That move marked the first time since the end of World War II that national boundaries in Europe were altered by force. It was, and remains, a very big deal. 

Yet, Trump said, “[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.” 

No, Putin did not “outsmart” Obama. Putin invaded a territory that was once part of the old Soviet Union because he wants to put the old union back together. It’s why he’s constantly meddling in Ukraine. His action was a blatant, aggressive violation of international law and the world’s major democracies sanctioned him and kicked him out of the G-7. 

“Trump is the one working to undo those punishments,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.” 

And this from conservative writer Andrew Egger: “The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.”

Which brings us to Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced his re-election campaign and promptly received Trump’s full-throated endorsement “Senator Jim Risch of the Great State of Idaho has been an incredible supporter of our Agenda!,” Trump Tweeted. It was pay back for Risch’s blind adherence to a foreign policy, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently that “puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

Jim Risch of Idaho, the completely self-assured and totally ineffectual chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the state’s history only a handful of Idahoans have been given – or earned – a place of national leadership. I think of Republican Sen. James A. McClure, who led the Senate Energy Committee in the early 1980s with considerable distinction, while also serving in a Senate leadership position. Cecil Andrus’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior ranks among the very best in history. William Borah and Frank Church both chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and distinguished themselves by, among other acts, calling various presidents over foreign policy blunders. 

Risch has now reached the pinnacle of a lifetime in public office – he’s a case study of a career politician – but he’s apparently willing to squander any influence he might have over foreign policy to remain “an incredible supporter” of Trump’s agenda. 

Does that mean Risch endorses Putin’s return to the G-7? Does he really believe the efforts to control Iran or North Korean nuclear weapons are in good hands with this president? Does he think it appropriate that the next G-7 summit should be held at Trump’s struggling Florida golf resort, a multi-million dollar scheme to put money in the president’s own pocket? 

We don’t know the answer to these and a dozen other questions because the senator rarely – if ever – comments on anything having to do with Trump’s foreign policy. No statements. No hearings. No leadership. And there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Risch’s strategy of whispering in Trump’s ear, as he claims to do on a regular basis, has had any effect on either his behavior or his policy. 

It’s not his job, Risch infamously said, the call out the president’s lies.

Risch has arrived at his moment of power and prestige, but he’s opted for partisan politics – and his own re-election – over the national interest. If there were any justice in politics it should cost him his job. 

2020 Election, Politics, Trump

Have We No Decency…

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the United States has reached an inflection point: mass shootings now a regular, sickening occurrence, the FBI identifying “fringe conspiracy theories as a factor in domestic terrorism” and a level of racial unrest unlike anything since George Wallace campaigned in Michigan in 1968. 

An inflection point. (REUTERS/Joe Penney)

Uruguay, a country known more for soccer than diplomatic leadership, has warned its citizens traveling to the United States to “take extreme precautions in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which killed more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year.” New Zealand, Canada, Germany and other allies have said much the same. 

And, of course, there is a president unable and unwilling to provide the moral leadership the country so desperately needs; unable because of who he is, unwilling because stoking division is his political strategy. 

But, at the most fundamental level we have reached this inflection point not because of the profoundly flawed man occupying the Oval Office, but because of a widespread abdication of principled, pragmatic leadership in response to this man. 

It is difficult to tell what is more discouraging, or reprehensible: the wild, constant scrambling to justify and defend the president’s actions and lies from the political enablers around him like White House advisor Kellyanne Conway or the silence and acceptance from people like Idahoans Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, otherwise decent people who are no longer just ignoring the indecency, but clearly accepting it. 

Institutions have failed us. Political leadership, mostly Republican, but also Democratic, have retreated from, or in a wholesale fashion abandoned, a sense of fair play, and honest and legitimate compromise. ‘Whataboutism’ dominates every political debate. Ethical transgressions that Republicans would have condemned in a New York minute in a previous administration are ignored, accepted and normalized. 

The most serious presidential misconduct in our history, carefully documented in a textbook example of prosecutorial diligence, is intentionally ignored as if facts about malfeasance at the highest level of the Republic are, what, suddenly OK because our side won? 

A litany of high crimes and misdemeanors

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

The words in the previous paragraph come from the leadership of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. who published an urgent statement entitled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”

Most of us understand – if we look deep into our hearts and the American doctrine – what has happening to our politics. Many Americans have become blind, heedless partisans, members of a tribe that subscribes to only one overriding rule: win at all cost. The details don’t matter and facts are inconvenient so it’s acceptable to ignore them.

Democrats, of course, shoulder some level of political blame for this awful place, this inflection point. But this is not an either/or moment. Only one man is in the White House and fundamentally only one party can check his abuse. Few are willing. Very few. 

Nebraska Republican state Senator John McCollister is the latest to raise his head and his voice and suffer the consequences. “The Republican Party is enabling white supremacy in our country,” McCollister recently said on Twitter. “As a lifelong Republican, it pains me to say this, but it’s the truth.”

The chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party demanded immediately that McCollister re-register as a Democrat. No discussion of the substance of his comments. No debate about the details or the facts, just a demand that he adhere to the party line or hit the road. 

Politico reporter Tim Alberta has written a profoundly unsettling new book – American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War– that is really a history of the GOP over the last decade. As one reviewer noted, the books abiding theme “is that almost every influential figure in the Party has come to accept or submit to the President.” And this is the unsettling part: not because they admire or even believe much of what he has done, but because they have found it easier politically and personally to just go along. 

A history of the GOP over the last decade: internal strife, power politics and willingness to accept Donald Trump

A central figure in the book is former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who candidly spoke with Alberta about his own willingness to go along with morally outrageous behavior and presidential ignorance. (Former Congressman Raul Labrador is also prominent in the book and comes across as more committed to remaking the GOP into the Tea Party than restraining a morally, ethically and incompetent leader.) 

In his surrender to expediency, Ryan, for example, says Trump “didn’t know anything about government” and didn’t try to learn. But Ryan went along. In essence swapping his profound misgivings, even dread, for a corporate tax cut. The former speaker confessed to feeling physically ill when he realized Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination and now that he is out of office and off the hook comes clean about the mess that has been made. 

This is the modern GOP. Aware, as I am confident people like Crapo and Simpson must be, that they have surrendered their party to not only an ignorant con man, but given his white nationalist tendencies, by their silence, they continue to embolden him to ever more outrageous and dangerous actions. 

At some point, we can continue to hope, good, caring, decent people will put their country and its future above their party. We can hope, because a Mike Crapo and a Mike Simpson have to grapple with the question leaders of the National Cathedral asked us all recently

“When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.” 

2020 Election, Higher Education, Idaho Politics, Trump

It’s the Racism, Stupid…

(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)

It is hardly news that in the space of less than a week 28 hard right Republican members of the Idaho House of Representatives publicly went after diversity programs at the state’s largest university, while their moral and spiritual leader once again confirmed his racism in all its shameful detail. 

This is the modern Republican Party: embracing white supremacy, attacking any notion that diversity in a nation of immigrants is to be celebrated and trotting out once again the age-old chestnut that Americans outside the dominant white culture really aren’t Americans. 

Chants of “send her back” erupted at the president’s rally in North Carolina where he continued his attacks on four women members of Congress.
(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump doesn’t bother with dog whistles or code words; he’s an open and unapologetic hater. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump said of four Democratic members of Congress, all women of color, all American citizens.

“In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery,” said Douglas A. Blackmon, whose book on the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. “The president has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago — clichés like black neighborhoods ‘on fire’ — and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked ‘not white’ could be labeled as unwelcome in America.”

The wing nut caucus of the Idaho House at least tried to dandy up the language of its racism, even if the intent shines like a beacon. “This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture [at Boise State University] becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students,” the legislators said in a letter to new BSU president Marlene Tromp.

The Republicans, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls and including many members of the Education Committee (a misnomer if ever there was one) and Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Eagle, have some how concluded that creating a welcoming, inclusive campus is driving tuition increases. Someone needs to tell these experts in higher education that puny state financial support for colleges and universities is what is driving tuition increases. 

Boise State’s efforts, it’s worth noting, have the laudable objective of trying to expand the diversity of both students and faculty, a goal that ought to be embraced not condemned. The university remains overwhelmingly white, with Hispanic students making up about 13% of the student body. Every major employer in Idaho, including Micron, Hewlett-Packard, the state’s largest hospitals, the Idaho National Laboratory and on and on will tell you of the vital importance to attracting and retaining a diverse work force. These businesses can’t have that work force unless the state’s universities are working to attract diverse students. 

Yet, if your idea of politics and public policy is to always find new ways to divide and incite anger, while scratching the old itch of resentment against “others,” you can willingly ignore the real world, as Trump and his Idaho acolytes do. After all, racial resentment is valuable red meat for “the base.”  

Some political analysts have suggested there is a cunning re-election strategy behind Trump’s latest racist comments. By playing on white nationalist themes, fear of immigrants and resentment against women of color, so the theory goes, he stokes the fever swamp of the Republican base, the only possible path Trump has to re-election. It’s a good theory and if it is true that Trump is both a racist and a cynic then what he is doing is even more reprehensible. The arrogant white privilege exhibited by the gang of 28 Idaho Republicans is no better. 

Diversity and social justice: Not GOP values in Idaho.

Was the letter to the new BSU president really intended for her or was the real audience the alt right fringe that increasingly defines the Idaho Republican Party? It’s hardly a coincidence that the mendacious Idaho Freedom Foundation, a “dark money” funded collection of anti-government cranks with a remarkable record of losing lawsuits, has been peddling the same anti-diversity story. The Freedom Foundation’s president, Wayne Hoffman, wrote recently that he found Marlene Tromp’s commitment to “social justice” alarming. Only in Trump’s America would a commitment to social justice be anything other than normal. 

“The agenda of Republicans has always favored white people,” says Kurt Bardella, a former top aide to California Republican Darrell Issa, “and now for the first time in contemporary times they have a leader who is willing to ascribe words to that agenda.” 

Trump’s Republican Party, and that of his Idaho followers, is increasingly not really conservative, but reactionary in the same way that Barry Goldwater and his followers in the 1960s wanted to turn back the clock. It’s a new “America, love it or leave it” moment. And for good measure Trump and his reactionary enablers salt in a bit of Joe McCarthy nostalgia, invoking a fear of “socialists” and “communists” and equating dissent with a lack of patriotism.

The casual Idaho Republican embrace of racism and nativism embodied in the BSU affair amounts, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says, “to collaboration — perhaps ‘collusion’ is a better word — with the president’s assault on diversity and pluralism.” And, of course, the Idaho congressional delegation fully accepts the collusion, a particularly shameful display of gutlessness given the state’s long struggles with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“Go back where you came from” is among the oldest and worst racist tropes, a leap beyond questioning a president’s birth certificate or condemning a Mexican-American judge because of his ethnicity. Almost as old is the trick of condemning your opponents as un-American. Dividing Americans by their skin color, their heritage, their religion, and their beliefs is from the playbook of a demagogue. Trump owns that playbook now and Republicans have handed their party to a hateful, petty, racist leader who they follow blindly and meekly. 

Trump was asked this week if he was concerned that he was using the language of white supremacy. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said. The president doesn’t say much that is true, but he’s correct about that. Unfortunately a bunch of those people serve in the legislature and represent Idaho in Congress. 

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Foreign Policy, Trump

New World Order…

This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

———–

Sometimes, what appears to be a minor change in political direction turns out to be a historic turning point.

Did most Americans in 1933 realize that the slew of legislation that flew through Congress in the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency would shape the American political environment for decades? The New Deal was a marketing slogan, but the legislation behind the words continues to define the Democratic Party. 

Did most Americans know that an obscure Supreme Court decision in January 1976 involving little understood aspects of campaign finance law – Buckley v. Valeo– would become the triggering event that transformed American politics, leading eventually to “dark money” and vast amounts of unregulated cash perverting democracy? 

Political change rarely comes quickly or decisively, but most often plays out over time in fits and starts. The Age of Trump may be an exception to that rule. 

Will historians look back on Trump’s tenure as a blip or a head spinning turning point? In one area – foreign policy – I’d bet on chaotic turning point. And Idahoans have, if they choose to pay attention, a front row seat to this turning point with their junior senator now chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet, Jim Risch seems wholly content to get along and go along with the chaos in American foreign policy rather than make even a feeble effort to shape the direction. 

Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall challenging the Soviet leadership

As proof that we have arrived at a historic point rather than a one-off deviation from norm, consider the fact that the party of “tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, has transformed itself into a party that not only tolerates, but meekly acquiesces to the former KGB operative who seeks to re-establish the Russian empire. And a Republican president willingly helps him. 

Beyond the stunning and unequivocal conclusions of the Mueller report regarding Russian election interference, including the widespread distribution of disinformation designed to sow discord and help elect Trump, there is other growing evidence of Vladimir Putin’s “grand strategy” to reassert Russian influence in a host of ways. 

A new analysis prepared for the U.S. military reads like something Reagan would have reacted to: “Contrary to conventional analysis, after two decades under Vladimir Putin, Russia represents an ideological challenge to the West, not just a political and military rivalry. Although NATO continues to possess impressive overmatch against Moscow, that edge is dwindling, and Western vulnerabilities in certain military areas are alarming. Moreover, the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological — as well as political and military — aspects of our rivalry with Putinism means that the threat of significant armed conflict is rising.”

The key phrase there is “the unwillingness . . . to confront.”

Donald Trump this week verbally assaulted the British prime minister and the UK’s ambassador to Washington for the handling of Brexit, the still pending UK withdrawal from the European Union, and for a leaked series of British assessments of Trump and his administration, but there has never been even a mild rebuke from the president for Russian actions. Instead, Trump recently joked with Putin about not again interfering in an American election and, of course, Putin favors anything weakening European unity.

As for the Brit ambassador who reported to London that stories of chaos in the Trump White House were mostly true and that Washington has become an unreliable ally, the president Tweeted: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.” 

Two pals in Helsinki…

After Trump repeatedly praised Putin before his election as “a strong leader” and someone he could make great deals with, Trump dismissed all the U.S. intelligence agency’s belief that Russia interfered in his election. “I have President Putin here,” Trump said in that surreal moment in Helsinki in July 2018, “he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be …” 

Trump recently questioned the long-standing U.S.-Japan mutual defense agreement and he has repeatedly diminished the NATO alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 75 years. He has shredded relations with France, Canada and even Australia. Yet after North Korea’s murdering dictator called Trump mentally deranged, a dotard, a gangster and a frightened dog, the president chose to coo over the “love letters” between the two, while angling for yet another face-to-face meeting. 

In almost all of the post-war period the Republican Party has claimed the mantle of being strong on national security and the GOP language about protecting American interests often put Democrats on the defensive. Republicans routinely assaulted their opponents for opposing expensive weapons systems. Steve Symms made hay with such issues when he defeated Frank Church in 1980 in the most celebrated Idaho Senate race ever. 

Yet, the challenge presented by Putin and his fellow autocrats must be countered with more than military might, as the new Pentagon report makes profoundly clear. “Political objectives matter to the Kremlin in a zero-sum worldview,” the report asserts. “For Russia to win, the U.S. has to lose.”

Or as the commentator Philip Rotner wrote recently: “Trump’s retreat from the values that defined the post-World War II era of American exceptionalism has immediate negative consequences, above and beyond the long-term damage it does to America’s unique place in the world (as if that weren’t enough).

“It’s a gift to the tyrants of the world. It gives them the one thing they most covet: Impunity.” 

So where is Idaho’s Risch during this historic transformation of U.S. foreign policy? I’ll remind you again that he said recently that, “Russia is the most overrated country in the world.” Putin must live to hear a conservative Republican in the foreign policy establishment say such things because the Russian knows where he wants to go even if the senator does not. 

Risch has explicitly rejected the kind of activist role in shaping foreign policy that marked Church’s long career, as well as that of Idaho’s William Borah in the interwar period. He has the title of chairman, but he is clearly a figurehead, content to win re-election next year by embracing all things Trumpian.

History will not treat either of them well.  

American Presidents, Politics, Trump

One Speaks Up…

One of the great ironies of modern American conservatism is that the party that claims to champion “limited government” is really in a constant push to expand the scope and power of the executive branch. 

It amounts to the political equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


F. Scott Fitzgerald, holding two opposing ideas in mind…
(From the “Sight Unseen” exhibit at the George Latimer Library in downtown St. Paul)

The concept – expanding the power of the presidency, while seeking to limit power everywhere else in government – may not equate to “first-rate intelligence,” but it certainly has become the mantra of a host of Republicans dating back to at least the presidency of Richard Nixon. 

Nixon, of course, made the laughable claim that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” The same logic was applied when then-Vice President Dick Cheney adamantly refused to disclose whom he was consulting with in crafting an energy policy during the George W. Bush administration. Even more importantly Cheney invoked the concept of an ever-expanding power of the executive when he aggressively defended a president’s power to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant. 

Remembering what he saw as a diminishment of presidential power during the post-Watergate period and during his time as chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Cheney questioned whether Congress had erred in creating the War Powers Act, a 1973 response to presidential overreach in Southeast Asia. The law was “an infringement upon the authority of the president.” Cheney said, and may be “unconstitutional.” Never mind that the Constitution grants the exclusive power to declare war to Congress. 

The effort to expand and then defend executive power has found a new conservative champion in Attorney General Bill Barr. “I don’t know anyone that has a more robust view of inherent presidential authority than Bill Barr,” says Walter Dellinger, who, like Barr, once ran the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. “There is nobody who is to his right on this issue.”

The president’s chief defender Attorney General Bill Barr

After 40 years of diligent work in and out of government by conservatives like Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and one-time Solicitor General Robert Bork, among others, Barr’s views of presidential power are widely shared by most on the political right.

Yet, these are many of the same people who decried Barack Obama’s widespread and often questionable use of “executive authority” on all manner of policy where he could not convince Congress to act. Conservatives still bemoan, and correctly so, the expansion of presidential power when Franklin Roosevelt pioneered the “imperial presidency” in order to respond to the Great Depression. Yet, most conservatives acquiesced – the entire Idaho delegation included – with hardly a whimper when Donald Trump declared a “national emergency” and unconstitutionally appropriated money to build his border wall. 

Which brings us to the news of the week. A Republican congressman from Michigan, once a Tea Party darling, defied his party and came to the conclusion that anyone who has dispassionately read the Mueller report would reach. In fact, more than 800 former U.S. Justice Department officials have come to the same conclusion. The president did attempt to obstruct justice to derail the investigation into Russian election meddling and was clearly open to “collusion” even as the special counsel determined the threshold of proving a conspiracy was difficult to meet. Crossing the threshold, of course, was made more difficult, even impossible, by Trump’s own refusal to be interviewed and his active efforts to prevent others from talking or telling the truth. 

“They say there were no underlying crimes,” Republican Congressman Justin Amash said in a Tweet that will surely find its way into the history books. “In fact, there were many crimes revealed by the investigation, some of which were charged, and some of which were not but are nonetheless described in Mueller’s report.”

Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash
(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Amash, it must be remembered, was described in March of this year, as “probably one of the most, if not the most consistent and honorable members of Congress that I met in the eight years I was there. He always outlined what he believes in, why he believes in the things that he does and why he makes the decisions that he makes.”

The former Republican congressman who said that was Raul Labrador.

The president of course immediately denounced Amash, the House Freedom Caucus rumbled about how misguided he is and the minority leader made noises about his party loyalty. 

Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled this week that the chief magistrate is not above the law   even as he continues to “fight all the subpoenas,” refused to allow even former White House staffers to testify before Congress and, predictably, fights a legitimate request by a congressional committee to review his tax returns, which he promised repeatedly before the election to release. A man not hiding something doesn’t work so hard to hide something. 

The attorney general, now largely serving as the president’s personal lawyer rather than the nation’s top law enforcement official, seeks to limit the legitimate investigation of a president plausibly implicated in real crimes. But the argument is a chimera, a constitutional illusion that actually amounts to yet more obstruction of justice. 

If you’re a Trump partisan try to put those sentiments aside for a moment and pull out your copy of the Constitution. Ask yourself just two questions. If the name attached to the facts so obvious to Rep. Amash were Obama or Clinton would you see all of this differently? Would the assertions of presidential authority, the idea that the president isn’t answerable to Congress or really to anyone, would this wholesale resistance to transparency be as palatable then? 

James Madison, that fussy old Founder, wrote about this in Federalist 51: “If [people] were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern [people], neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The Constitution wasn’t written for angels. It was written to constrain the ugly impulses of men and presidents.

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(This piece originally appeared in the May 24, 2019 edition of the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)

History, Politics, Trump

Too Smart to be President…

I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”

“Dollar Bill” Bradley, too smart to be president

My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.

I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.

Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.

But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.

The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.

The President of the United States at Mount Vernon…giving “branding” advice

During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.

One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.

We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.

And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?

Award-winning Princeton historian Kevin Kruse provides an answer.

“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”

We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.

If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.

Economy, Politics, Trump

Just Say No…

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is about to get his moment in the wacky spotlight of U.S. Senate confirmation politics.

Barring some last-minute change of heart, something never to be dismissed in Trump World, the president of the United States will nominate to the Federal Reserve Board a guy whose ethical and financial baggage would have immediately disqualified him during any other time in modern history. In the past, would-be cabinet secretaries or senior administration appointees have seen their appointments collapse for lesser transgressions than those hovering around Trump’s latest ethical outrage.

Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C.

It seems almost quaintly secondary that Stephen Moore, a frequent Fox News gabber and Trump idolater, is also demonstrably unqualified for the job of overseeing the U.S. banking system and assuring the economy remains sound.

If Trump goes through with Moore’s appointment, Crapo will preside over his confirmation before the Senate Banking Committee and we’ll see how the mild-mannered Idahoan straddles the stupidity of the president’s nominees and the senator’s fealty to the big banks and financial interests, whose water he carries and whose campaign cash he hordes.

Will Crapo go with Trump and the Tea Party wing of the GOP or will he stand with the sane, sober financial realists who openly scoff at Moore’s lack of qualifications to serve on the Fed, not to mention his long record of incompetence?

Let’s review the “accomplishments” of the man who could be a heartbeat away from chairing the Federal Reserve by acknowledging that Moore is no Alan Greenspan, no Paul Volcker, no Ben Bernanke and certainly no Marriner Eccles, the Utahan who presided over the central bank during the Great Depression.

Stephen Moore, Donald Trump’s candidate for a seat on the Fed

Rather, Moore owes $75,000 in back federal taxes and was held in contempt for failing to pay $330,000 in spousal support to his ex-wife. As the New York Times noted, “In 2013, (a Virginia) court ordered him to sell his home to raise money to pay the debt and forced him to set up an automatic bank transfer each month. After Mr. Moore paid $217,000 toward the debt, Ms. Moore asked the court to revoke the order to sell his home, which it did.” Moore calls his dispute with the IRS “a misunderstanding.”

So much for ethics. How about competence? Economics columnist Catherine Rampell assembled a “greatest hits” list of Moore’s crazy theories and predictions, including the old favorite that big tax cuts pay for themselves. The Congressional Budget Office said recently that the Trump tax cut, supported enthusiastically by Crapo, would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit during the next decade.

During the Great Recession, Moore predicted runaway hyperinflation like that visited on Weimar Germany in the 1920s, with people needing “wheelbarrows full” of cash to visit Albertsons. Moore was a principal architect of the disastrous tax policy implemented in Kansas in 2013, a policy he promised would miraculously lift that state’s economy, but instead slowed economic growth and crashed the state budget. As Rampell has suggested, Moore has been wrong so often — he’s not an economist by the way, but merely plays one on Fox — that he obviously doesn’t know how to use Google to check basic facts.

Moore was so often wrong in his pronouncements about the Kansas economy that he was banned from the editorial pages of the state’s largest newspaper. His lack of political independence was on full display when he said Trump deserved the Nobel Prize in economics. You can’t make this up.

Moore’s appointment comes, of course, in the wake of Trump’s continuing assaults on Fed Chairman Jerome “Jay” Powell, a respected conservative who seems determined to continue the Federal Reserve’s long struggle to remain independent of the kind of partisan meddling the president has raised to an art form. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Trump, who has publicly contemplated firing Powell — he legally can’t fire Powell who serves a fixed term — criticized the chairman on three different occasions recently before mumbling to Powell in a phone call, “I guess I’m stuck with you.”

Outside of the Fox News echo chamber, few people who know anything about the Fed and the economy think having Moore on the job makes any sense.

“Steve is a perfectly amiable guy,” says Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, “but he does not have the intellectual gravitas for this important job.” Before Trumpers dismiss Mankiw as just another pointy-headed Ivy League academic, we should note he is a conservative Republican who worked for both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

But back to Crapo’s dilemma. In a normal political world, a senator in Crapo’s position — the conservative Republican chairman of the Banking Committee, a favorite of Wall Street and big banks, the 15th most senior member of the Senate — would have everything to say about this kind of appointment. A genuinely powerful chairman might even be expected to have his own candidate for the Fed, perhaps a trusted conservative economist with a track record of real accomplishment. There must be a few hundred of them available.

Banking Committee chairman Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican

A real power in the Senate would have quietly signaled the White House that spouting sound bites on television just wasn’t adequate preparation for such an important job. A senator with a shred of independence would have never allowed a Stephen Moore to get in front of his committee.

All Crapo has said is that it’s a priority to fill vacancies on the Federal Reserve and he would not prejudge Moore’s nomination, while giving “it prompt attention.”

Maybe Crapo will yet head off this economic train wreck, potentially one of the most consequential, indeed disastrous of all Trump appointments. Or maybe he’ll do what Idahoans have come to expect of him and he’ll go along to get along and, in the process, further concede senatorial power and prerogatives to a man Crapo once said was so abundantly unfit for the office that he couldn’t support him for president.

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(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on April 5, 2019)

Russia, Trump

The American Penchant for Secrecy…

So, the Mueller report is released, but not really released. We have a four-page summary written by a guy who owes his job to the guy who the four-page letter exonerates. And the guy who wrote the four-page letter went into his job having established that the guy who appointed him couldn’t be guilty of obstruction of justice

We’re told we may eventually see some of the real Mueller report, a document assembled over a two-year period during an investigation that established beyond a reasonable doubt that Russia interfered in an unprecedented way in the 2016 election. That investigation resulted in the indictment or guilty plea from 34 individuals and three companies. Not exactly a run of the mill definition of a “witch hunt,” but we must be very careful says the attorney general (seconded by the Senate Majority Leader) not to tell the public too much about such sensitive matters.  

Attorney General Bill Barr. ( Javier Zarracina/Vox)

In the last few days we’ve witnessed merely the latest example of the American penchant for secrecy. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch quickly embraced the attorney general’s four-page summary as the definite word on all things Trump and Russia. “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report,” Risch said in the statement, passing judgment without having seen the actual Mueller report. 

“We have reviewed thousands of documents including dozens of witness statements throughout the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, and I reached the same conclusion as Mueller,” Risch says with absolute certainty. “President Trump did not collude with the Russians.” Fair enough, but what about the rest of the report, a document the Justice Department has described as “comprehensive?” The Clift Notes are good for cramming for a test, but real understanding means reading the actual text. 

By the way, a poll from Quinnipiac University found that 84% of voters they surveyed think Mueller’s report should be made public, while only 9% disagree.

Despite public support for much greater transparency across the board, Congress routinely joins the Executive branch and defaults to secrecy. Many if not most congressional hearings dealing with Russian involvement in the 2016 election – we are told that Putin-inspired activity remains ongoing – have been conducted behind closed doors. If Attorney General Robert Barr ever manages to get to Capitol Hill to answer questions from our representatives it’s a even bet the questions will be asked in secret and we’ll depend on second, third or fourth hand spinning of the answers from sources granted anonymity in order to, as the saying goes, “discuss sensitive matters.”

This kind of secrecy rarely happened in the past. The Teapot Dome scandal and the Watergate hearings were held in full public view. The penchant for congressional secrecy has increased in parallel to the penchant for extreme partisanship. 

Senate Watergate Hearings 1973: Investigation in the open

And Laura Rosenberger, who heads the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says transparency might force a bipartisan response that would address the next Russian influence operation. “Addressing Russia’s interference is a matter of national security,” Rosenberger told New York Magazine, “and will require partisanship to be put aside to take real steps to harden our defenses, deter Russia and other countries that might seek to follow suit, and build societal resilience.”

More secrecy, she says, “would play directly into Putin’s hands.”

The intelligence agencies are among the worst at overdoing secrecy and the congressional committees overseeing the agencies now routinely aid and abet the lack of transparency. We are assured that every thing is under control, while a senator bent on secrecy in service to partisanship can conveniently say – Risch does this all the time – that he has secret information that proves his partisan position. 

The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the worst of the secret keepers, was, as Conor Friedersdorf has written, “maximally secretive from the start: President Truman created the NSA with the stroke of a pen at the bottom of a classified 7-page memorandum. Even the name was initially classified. Decades later, the memorandum that acted as the agency’s charter remained secret. Reflect on that for a moment. In a representative democracy, the executive branch secretly created a new federal agency and vested it with extraordinary powers. Even the document setting forth those powers was suppressed.”

Some things are so secret we can’t even admit they exist. NSA, it’s often been said, really stands for “No Such Agency.” 

The Idaho Legislature is hardly immune from this epidemic of government by secrecy. Lawmakers have been debating legislation that would essentially do away with the ability of citizens to place an issue on the ballot and the origins of the awful idea to gut the initiative process has in no way seen the light of day. Increasingly what happens in public view during the lawmaking process is pro forma, developed and rehearsed in a back room and sanctified in public procedures that appear to include citizens, but really only involves the public as a prop in the process. 

How else to explain the legislature’s headlong rush to destroy the initiative in the face of overwhelming public opposition? This whole smarmy mess was birthed in secret, hatched by lobbyists over lunch. It brings to mind Art Buchwald’s observation about where real political power resides. “Lunch is the power meal in Washington, D.C.,” Buchwald wrote, “it’s over lunch that the taxpayer gets screwed.” 

Government secrecy is endemic, but even more it’s dangerous. As Frederick A.O. Schwartz has written – he was the chief counsel for the Senate Committee that investigated the intelligence agencies, the Church Committee – we need to understand the cost of all this secrecy. 

“Too much is kept secret,” Schwartz wrote in his book Democracy in the Dark, “not to protect America but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans.” 

And while we’re thinking about secrecy, ask yourself what the last two years might have been had a certain political figure accepted the tradition that has existed since Richard Nixon, a tradition now shattered, of a president being transparent about his tax returns? 

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(This piece originally appeared on March 29, 2019 in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune.)