Afghanistan, Foreign Policy, U.S. Senate

Afghanistan as Metaphor

The 20 years of American misadventure in Afghanistan, and the deadly, messy departure from that misadventure, is an apt metaphor for our broken, unserious politics.

The congressional hearings this week about the American withdrawal offer a window into the barren soul of not just American foreign policy, but those who pretend to make and influence it. We seemed to have learned almost nothing from two decades of death, destruction, delusion and debt, but assigning blame, as was the purpose of congressional hearings this week, sure makes for a great video clip.

In the period between when a Republican president warned that putting troops and treasure into Afghanistan would mean a long slog to when another Republican president made an ill-considered deal with the Taliban to withdraw, congressional Republicans rarely said a peep about our policy or priorities.

The former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, never once conducted a hearing on the Afghan withdrawal when he chaired the committee. This week he assigned all the blame to a Democratic administration that has been in office for less than a year, because, well, American foreign policy has become all about assigning blame.

Congressional Democrats have an only marginally better record since all but one Democrat who is still in Congress voted to launch the Afghan/Iraq misadventure in the first place.

“We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target,” California congresswoman Barbara Lee said in 2001 when the House voted to give George W. Bush his blank check for war. “There must be some of us who say: Let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today. I do not want to see this spiral out of control.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee

The gentlewoman from California had it right. And she knew her history, equating the open-ended authorization to allow every subsequent president to wage war wherever they wanted to Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 that paved the path to the American misadventure in South Vietnam.

Afghanistan was and is a manifest, bipartisan failure: a failure of congressional acquiescence to presidential power; a failure to recognize America’s catastrophic inability to shape cultures we don’t understand into western style democracies; a failure that imagines the country’s bloated military establishment, propping up a bloated military-industrial complex, can exercise its will at will; and ultimately a failure of American voters to take any of this even remotely seriously.

One of the few bright spots in this week’s performative soundbite trolling on Capitol Hill was the evidence that the current president actually had the backbone to override the advice of his military advisers, who apparently to a man argued to keep American forces in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Republicans, who once won elections on the question of who most supported the military, attacked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs – by one account “assassinated his character and impugned his patriotism” – for his failure to resign when his advice was rejected. General Mark Milley then schooled the odious senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, about the critical importance of civilian control of the military. The general might have reminded the senator that American presidents are often at their best when they reject the conventional wisdom of men in uniform, but that may be expecting too much from a military that still cannot imagine its limitations.

Lincoln replaced generals repeatedly, even popular ones. Harry Truman rejected Douglas MacArthur’s advice to bomb China during the Korean War and then sacked the strutting mandarin for insubordination. John Kennedy rejected the advice of his military advisers when they wanted to invade Cuba in 1962. Barack Obama fired another egocentric general for popping off to a journalist. You might argue that civilian deference to gold braid has been out of balance since Vietnam, but to examine that thought you would need a level of discernment and self-awareness impossible for most politicians today.

Afghanistan, with all its mistakes, missteps and misfortunate, cries out for the kind of sober and reasoned debate and review that we seem incapable of mustering.

It is not just Afghanistan, of course, but the failure of our too partisan, too trivial, too odious political class to deal with almost everything. Pick your issue: immigration, infrastructure, income inequality, domestic terrorism, climate, debt, health care – we’re treading water at best, floundering at worst.

And it really is our fault – individually and collectively. We send small people, with small minds and outsized opinions of themselves to do adult work.

“The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves…”

History often celebrates, too late, the naysayers who are prophets, the Barbara Lee’s and the Wayne Morse’s.

Morse, an Oregon senator, was an irascible, pedantic gadfly – a “sanctimonious bore” by one account – and also the kind of politician indispensable in a democracy. Morse early on saw where American involvement in southeast Asia would lead. He was one of two votes in the Senate against LBJ’s Tonkin Gulf resolution, and he also correctly diagnosed where American politics were headed.

“Having abandoned its responsibilities for the big things,” Morse said in 1964, “Congress falls back on making the most of the small things. Frustrated members who fear to question the Pentagon brass, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency, concentrate on the full exercise of more petty powers … having swallowed the camel, Congress strains at the gnats.”

American democracy is imperiled. We know it. Some of us welcome the chaos believing it benefits our tribe. But the fix, if there is one, is not more chaos, not more simple-minded, small-bore politicians focused on today’s soundbite rather than tomorrow’s substance. The fix is to commit to greater seriousness, more personal involvement in a civil and civic life, more engagement with the common good.

Wishing for it isn’t going to work. Electing better people might work, but time is short.

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Additional Reading:

Somethings you might find of interest…

The Constitutional Crisis is Here

The historian Robert Kagan authored the most talked about political essay of the season recently, arguing in the Washington Post that a second Donald Trump presidential candidacy is a near certainty, and also a huge threat to American democracy. It is sobering stuff.

Robert Kagan says we’re not done with him

“The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, Trump is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.

“But this time, Trump would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the Trump movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant.”

I’ve taken to thinking of myself as (I hope) informed, but a pessimist. This piece made me really nervous.


Why I’m A Single Issue Voter

I’ve long considered Mona Charen among the most orthodox of conservatives – a columnist of the Reagan/Bush ilk. In a recent piece she argued that she’s voting for the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia next month, because the only issue that matters right now is, well, truth.

“The Republican party, in Washington and nationally, has become a conspiracy of liars. As such, it threatens the stability of the republic. Even a seemingly inoffensive candidate like Glenn Youngkin has given aid and comfort to this sinister agenda by stressing ‘election integrity’ in his campaign. It doesn’t change a thing to reflect that he’s almost certainly insincere. He stopped talking about it after winning the primary, suggesting that all the “integrity” talk was just a sop to MAGA voters. Still, a victory for him will send a message that the Republican party is normal again, a party that good people can support.”

Charen’s tour of the current GOP is also pretty chilling.


Pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun Opposed Infrastructure Spending for a Reason.

A really interesting piece here from a historian of the Civil War era on slavery and infrastructure. Seriously.

Calhoun: He was for infrastructure before he was against it

“Calhoun is rarely thought of as a monetary theorist, but his comments on monetary architecture and government spending are surprisingly relevant. Though nearly two centuries old, they hold a lesson about the politics of austerity today, as Republicans oppose needed federal investment in green technology and infrastructure, climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, affordable housing, equitable broadband access, and low-cost, high-quality education from pre-K to college. To realize these goals, which are both popular and urgently necessary, federal, state, and local governments will have to deploy the full scope of their fiscal and monetary capacities. We who support those goals can expect Republicans (and corporate Democrats) to blow a lot of smoke in our eyes, generating word cloud after word cloud dominated by ‘deficits,’ ‘inflation,’ and ‘pay-fors.’ Calhoun can help clear the air. His ideas expose the conservative, hierarchical commitments that have always worked to thwart the promise of democratic governance.”

Worth your time.


Daniel Craig Will Now Take Your Questions

Sean Connery is still my ideal James Bond, but you have to admit Daniel Craig has filled the role of the Brit spy like few others. Something a bit lighter here, and pretty funny.

“At 53, Craig is cheerful and clever and friendly. He has bright blue eyes in a tanned and tired face. It is day five of six at the junket which may or may not decide the future of cinema, and he is about 36 hours off quitting Bond for ever. After 2015’s Spectre (most of which he filmed with a broken leg), Craig notoriously claimed he would rather slit his wrists than return to the role.”

From The Guardian, and some of the questions are great.


Biden, U.S. Senate

Rock on the “No” Button…

The easiest vote to cast in politics is a NO vote. It absolves responsibility. If something later goes wrong, and in politics things often go a little bit wrong, the no voter is off the hook, and can fall back on the oldest line in politics: “I told you so.” 

Voting no often means a politician doesn’t even need to explain the rationale for the negative. The political focus is typically on those who want to make something happen, who are willing to take a stand in favor of something. 

“If a legislator votes ‘yes,’ he or she is responsible for the entire bill and all the consequences of the legislation, good or bad, intended or unintended,” long-time congressional watcher Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently.

Every congressional Republican justified a no vote on the recent COVID and economic recovery legislation on the grounds that it was too big, too much of a driver of deficit spending or not targeted enough. That’s a convenient if disingenuous argument, as Rothenberg noted because “even the GOP — once, but no longer, the party of fiscal responsibility — didn’t much care about the deficit and the debt when President Donald Trump and his merry little band of tax-cutting ideologues cut taxes during a period of solid economic growth — almost always a bad idea. You won’t hear Republicans accepting some of the blame for the deficit and debt.”

Every Senate Republican opposed the recent COVID and economic recovery legislation

And besides who remembers a no vote? That’s why voting no is almost always the easiest thing to do. 

Senate Republicans have perfected the no vote strategy, particularly with regard to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet appointees. Voting no on a Treasury secretary or the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, even when the nominees are demonstrably capable, not only serves to register disapproval of the new president, but it’s safe. Voting no appeals to the most rabid, partisans in the party. Some Senate Republicans – Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz come to mind – have voted against virtually every Biden nominee. These guys want to be president someday – fearless prediction, they won’t be – so they are performing the ritual of negativity as political necessity. 

Idaho’s Jim Risch, a practiced no voter, has supported a few Biden nominees, but opposed more, nine as of this writing. Risch is the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee but he voted against the confirmation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Risch is a top Republican on the Intelligence Committee but was one of ten votes against the confirmation of Avril Haines, the first woman to ever hold the position as director of National Intelligence. 

“She is a really smart person, a person with serious horsepower and a nice person,” said Carol Rollie Flynn, a three-decade CIA veteran, said of Haines. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of drama out of her. Just a serious professional.” A Risch spokesman said he was thumbs down on Haines because he wasn’t confident she wouldn’t politicize intelligence. Risch, it should be noted, had no problem with the appointment of former Republican congressman John Ratcliffe, arguably the most partisan person to head the intelligence community in the history of the intelligence community. Risch better hope Blinken and Haines aren’t as vindictive as he is. 

Idaho’s Mike Crapo has supported a few more Biden appointees, and unlike Risch he supported Janet Yellen’s confirmation as Treasury secretary. Yellen is the first woman in that job and was the first women Federal Reserve Board chair, the job she previously held. Both Idaho senators opposed Yellen for that position, so Risch obviously doesn’t like her. Yet I find no record of any public statement justifying Risch’s opposition to the eminently qualified, PhD economist who continues to receive bipartisan praise for her work during the 2008 financial crisis. 

Both of Idaho’s Republican Senators – both lawyers – voted against the man who is now attorney general

Crapo and Risch opposed Judge Merrick Garland to be attorney general. Garland is the guy who was denied consideration as a Supreme Court nominee in 2016 despite his exemplary record as a federal judge and as the prosecutor who handled the investigation into the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Neither senator offered a comment on why Garland isn’t suitable to run the justice department, but both supported the guys the previous administration put in place, even when the former president demanded blind partisan loyalty from each of his attorneys general.

Risch and Crapo both voted no on nominees to be secretaries of the Interior and Housing and Urban Development and head of the Small Business Administration. It’s probably just a coincidence that all three are women of color who are broadly seen as historic pathbreakers, but also demonstrably qualified. No explanation from the senators.

Notably, both senators supported former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s pick to head the Department of Energy (DOE). Granholm is arguably among the most partisan of Biden’s picks – she’s been a TV talking head often critical of GOP positions – and some Republicans criticized her support for abandoning the Keystone XL pipeline. She would have been a natural to oppose, but perhaps this was a rare case of political pragmatism by the Idahoans. After all, they need a working relationship with the secretary who oversees the Idaho National Laboratory, the huge DOE complex in eastern Idaho that requires pledges of unquestioned political fealty from the state’s Republicans. Maybe all politics is local after all. 

An old rule once held that barring some ethical lapse or scandal a president – any president – was entitled to pick the people for his administration. Biden will almost certainly end up getting all but one of his top people confirmed, creating the most diverse cabinet in history. The one nominee that withdrew did so because some senators found her past Twitter feed too mean. Irony had a good run.

Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz notes that the median margin of confirmation for the 18 Cabinet level appointees considered so far is 64 votes. So, Chafetz says there hasn’t been wholesale party line voting against Biden nominees who he notes are broadly liked, as well as competent. Still, Crapo and Risch have been among the most consistent Republican senators in opposing Biden’s picks – women, men, African American, Native American, Hispanic – and they offer almost no explanation as to why.

Like most everything they do in the Senate, the Idaho duo nearly always takes the predictable and most partisan path. At some point voting no when a Democrat is in the White House is just an act of reflective partisan performance. Maybe putting a rock on the no button just feels good even if you can’t be bothered to explain the reasoning. 

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Additional Reading:

A few things I came across this week that I recommend…

The John Birch Society Never Left

Rick Pearlstein and Edward H. Miller on the deep roots of rightwing conspiracy dating to the Birch Society in the 1950’s.

“Such was the complex dance that has always been at the heart of Republican politics in the conservative era. The extremist vanguard shops fantastical horror stories about liberal elites in the hopes that one might break into the mainstream, such as the “Clinton Chronicles” VHS tape distributed by Jerry Falwell in the early 1990s. The stories included the Clintons covering up the murder of Vince Foster, murdering witnesses to their drug smuggling operation, and participating in a crooked land deal at a development called ‘Whitewater.’ (The New York Times bit hard on the latter claim, setting in motion a chain of events that led to President Clinton’s impeachment over lying in a deposition about a sexual affair.)”

In The New Republic:

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How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire

Our democratic habits have been killed off by an internet kleptocracy that profits from disinformation, polarization, and rage. Here’s how to fix that.

“With the wholesale transfer of so much entertainment, social interaction, education, commerce, and politics from the real world to the virtual world—a process recently accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic—many Americans have come to live in a nightmarish inversion of the Tocquevillian dream, a new sort of wilderness. Many modern Americans now seek camaraderie online, in a world defined not by friendship but by anomie and alienation. Instead of participating in civic organizations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus-building, Americans join internet mobs, in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, clicking Like or Share and then moving on. Instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them.”

Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantev in The Atlantic:

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Why Kim Novak Had To Leave Hollywood to Find Herself 

Kim Novak in perhaps her most memorable role – Vertigo

Readers of, well, a certain age will remember Kim Novak. The ’50s icon is perhaps best known for Vertigo – remember the green 1957 Jaguar – reveals what healed her after years of studio-system abuse, and sets the record straight about her rumored romance with Sammy Davis Jr.

“These days, Novak feels much more comfortable on the sprawling ranch in Oregon where she has lived for decades, surrounded by the art and animals that have sustained her through tough times — from losing prior homes to a fire and mudslide to, most devastatingly, losing her husband of 45 years, equine veterinarian Robert Malloy, last year. ‘I’m surviving,’ she says, tearing up and noting that she recently painted a portrait of him.”

Read in The Hollywood Reporter


Thanks for reading…be safe out there.

Impeachment, Trump, U.S. Senate

What Are They Afraid Of…

The irascible, irreverent Perry Swisher – once an editor at the Lewiston, Idaho paper that publishes my regular column – was a 20th Century Renaissance Man: legislator (he served as both a Republican and Democrat), an independent candidate for governor, a writer, activist, deflater of egos and caustic truth teller, particularly about frauds, phonies and attorneys. 

One Idaho governor threatened the judicial council with a Swisher appointment to the Supreme Court – Perry wasn’t a lawyer – if the council didn’t start recommending better candidates for the court. Another governor put Swisher on the Public Utilities Commission and he proceeded for several years to scare the crap out of Idaho Power Company. 

Swisher once quipped that the Founders had made one fundamental mistake: they turned over an entire branch of government to lawyers. One can only imagine what the old curmudgeon would have made of the “trial” of America’s first insurrectionist president; where at least 18 of the Senate Republicans jurors who voted to acquit Donald Trump – including the two timid sheep from Idaho – are card carrying members of the bar. 

Senators being sworn in for the second Trump impeachment trial

Of course, none of these Perry Mason’s actually attempted to defend Trump’s behavior leading up to and including January 6, 2021 when a crazed mob of the then-president’s followers stormed the U.S. Capitol, killed a police officer, precipitated the deaths of two others and injured dozens more. 

This brainwashed gang of cranks, misfits, losers, white supremacists and MAGA true believers were, as Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney succinctly put it, summoned by Trump, assembled by the president who then “lit the flame” of the attack. There has never been such a blatant frontal assault on our democracy.

Everything that followed, Cheney said, “was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not.” 

That’s it. That was sum of the indictment that 43 Senate Republicans would not, could not defend, but were craven enough to dismiss on specious process grounds. 

The “trial was unconstitutional,” Harvard Law grad Mike Crapo said. “The House’s impeachment proceeding blatantly violated established guarantees of due process.” 

Jim Risch soiled the reputation of the University of Idaho’s law school where he surely learned more than he is now able to admit. “The United States Senate has no jurisdiction over a private citizen,” the former law and order prosecutor intoned incorrectly, “and thus impeachment was and is impossible.” 

Both men conveniently ignored that the Senate has, in fact, conducted trials of impeached officials who are out office and that the Senate in which they sit actually voted on the constitutionality question and a majority of senators deemed the proceedings proper. They weren’t defending the Constitution, they were engaging in jury nullification

The Trump “base” of the GOP, and those like the coward caucus in the Senate who refuse to confront it, are, in the words of media analyst Margaret Sullivan, “so disconnected from reality that when reality manages to intrude – in the form of undeniable facts, timelines, videos and presidential tweets – there’s nothing to do but deny it as outrageous and either look for an escape hatch or go on the attack.” 

Attorneys for former President Donald Trump William J. Brennan, left, and Michael van der Veen fist bump each other on the Senate subway after former President Doanld Trump was acquitted during the impeachment trial in the Senate on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

And it’s not as though these senatorial profiles in gutlessness don’t know any better. Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, Texan Ted Cruz and the insurrectionist from Missouri Josh Hawley are, like Crapo, Harvard men, recipients of the best, most exclusive legal education America can offer. Cruz clerked for a chief justice of the Supreme Court. Utah’s Mike Lee was an assistant U.S. attorney and clerked for federal judges before jumping through the escape hatch rather than act to uphold an oath of office. 

Constitutional law scholar John E. Finn of Wesleyan University is just one of dozens of experts who utterly reject the rationalization of unconstitutionality that allowed Trump to skate. Instead Finn calls what Crapo, Risch and 41 other Senate Republicans did “constitutional rot,” a condition “in which we appear to be formally governed by constitutional rules and the rule of law, but the reality is quite different. When rot sets in, public officials and the public routinely ignore or subvert those rules while sanctimoniously professing fidelity to them.” 

The historian T.J. Stiles, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography, knows his American scoundrels. He says of our current one: “Donald Trump is precisely the sort of person for whom the Framers wrote the impeachment provision into the Constitution.” Unfortunately, while Madison and Hamilton and the rest did envision the need to disqualify a despot their imagination failed them when it comes to someone as ethically vacuous as a Cruz or a Crapo. 

This is the point at which history reminds his constituents that Crapo – Juris Doctorate cum laud, Harvard Law School in 1977 – has the rare distinction of voting to both impeach and then convict Bill Clinton for lying about consensual sex. Yet rather than confront the guy who summoned the mob, incited it, lit the flame and then watched the fire burn, Crapo employed the solemn sanctimony of the partisan escape hatch to acquit a man he must know in his heart of hearts is guilty as sin. 

The debasement of basic decency, truth and accountability are now widely accepted as a fundamental condition for good standing in a political party that once plausibly, but no longer, claimed Lincoln as its founding father. 

“The Republicans who voted to acquit Trump acted with selfishness, cynicism and even malice,” says the conservative scholar Tom Nichols. “They have smeared their betrayal of the Constitution all over their careers the same way the January insurrectionists smeared excrement on the walls of the Congress itself. At least human waste can be washed away. What the Republicans did on Feb. 13, 2021, will never be expunged from the history of the United States.”

History will remember, however, the few Republicans – Washington’s Jamie Herrera Beutler is one – who stood against the lies, rejected fears of mob censure and refused to quake at the prospect of facing the dreaded primary challenge. 

“I’m not afraid of losing my job,” Herrera Beutler said after voting to impeach Trump, “but I am afraid that my country will fail. I’m afraid that patriots of this country have died in vain. I’m afraid that my children won’t grow up in a free country. I’m afraid injustice will prevail.” 

What are Crapo and Risch and the Senate’s 41 other cowards afraid of? They should be frightened of the verdict rendered by the French philosopher Voltaire: “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

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Additional Reading:

Some other items worth your time…

Pure, liquid hope:  What the vaccine means to me as a GP

Gavin Francis is a general practice physician in inner city Edinburgh, Scotland and he writes about the challenges for The Guardian.

“Before the pandemic, about a third of my consultations were about mental health; now it’s between half and two thirds, and the list of patients I check in with weekly or fortnightly about their mood is lengthening. People are unable, for now, to share those aspects of our humanity that help us, and come most naturally – touch, speech, sharing space. I hope the vaccine programme will prove an effective antidote to the sense of hopelessness that, for the past few months, has been spreading and deepening among many of my patients.”

The big costs of a pandemic. Read the whole thing


Embedded within a mass delusion: The challenge of reporting on QAnon

Angela Fu writes for the Poynter Institute about the challenges for journalist trying to cover the center of the conspiracy theory universe – QAnon.   

The Q symbol outside the Capitol on January 6

“The conspiracy theory originated in 2017 when someone calling themselves Q posted a Trump quote about the ‘calm before the storm’ on 4chan, a notorious online message board. Since then, QAnon has rapidly evolved as new followers join and more niche theories develop. Followers have taken their beliefs into the real world, sometimes in violent ways. Most recently, some QAnon believers took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“A growing number of journalists are tracking QAnon, reporting on everything from the way social media algorithms help spread conspiracy theories to the people who lose loved ones to the movement. With each story, they debate whether their reporting will contribute helpful information or simply amplify the movement. Their goal is to make readers — lawmakers, tech companies, the general public — understand the gravity of the problems QAnon poses.”

Full story here


“I Don’t Trust the People Above Me”: Riot Squad Cops Open Up About Disastrous Response to Capitol Insurrection

A stunning piece of journalism from ProPublica on the insurrection on January 6, 2021 and the cops who fought off the mob: 

“One officer in the middle of the scrum, a combat veteran, thought the rioters were so vicious, so relentless, that they seemed fueled by methamphetamine. To his left, he watched a chunk of steel strike a fellow officer above the eye, setting off a geyser of blood. A pepper ball tore through the air over his shoulder and exploded against the jaw of a man in front of him. The round, filled with chemical irritant, ripped the rioter’s face open. His teeth were now visible through a hole in his cheek. Blood poured out, puddling on the pavement surrounding the building. But the man kept coming.

“The combat veteran was hit with bear spray eight times. His experience overseas ‘was nothing like this,’ he said. ‘Nothing at all.’”

A true first draft of history.


Thanks for reading…

Foley, Gingrich, Idaho Politics, U.S. Senate

The Unbearable Lightness of Mediocrity…

Thomas S. Foley, the former Democratic congressman and one-time speaker of the House from Spokane, often said that if he didn’t take at least one vote every year or so that was unpopular with his generally conservative constituents he figured he probably wasn’t doing his job.

“The most important thing,” Foley said, about votes taken and the positions espoused in politics, “is when you consider them at election time you’re able to say with some satisfaction that you can still vote for yourself.”

Making a tough vote, Foley said, merely meant you needed to try and explain yourself to voters who might disagree. Level with them. Tell them the truth.

Spokane’s Tom Foley, likely the first and last speaker of the House from eastern Washington

When Foley lost re-election in 1994 in the Republican wave that made Newt Gingrich speaker of the House, as much as any event in the last 25 years a catalyst for the pollution of American politics, he was philosophical. “It’s not a disgrace to lose,” Foley said, “it’s part of the process.”  

Eastern Washington voters finally decided Foley’s work on behalf of farmers and free trade and his position atop the House was less important that his opponent’s characterization that the erudite, Jesuit-educated lawyer was “a liberal” who had grown too big for his Spokane britches. 

I’ve been thinking about Foley’s rule – a vote every once in a while that cuts against the grain of what most voters think they believe – because such votes have never been scarcer than they are right now. Fifty Republican members of the United States Senate, including the two passionately obtuse backbenchers from Idaho, will confront such a vote in the next few days. Most of them, and certainly Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, are going to take the gentle path of least resistance

They’ll vote to acquit Donald Trump on charges that he incited the insurrectionist mob attack on Congress on January 6, even though both senators were targets of and witnesses to the attack. They’ll twist themselves once again into a position of pro-Trump denial, a helix of political contortion more dexterous than you’d normally think possible for two guys aged 69 and 77. 

Both senators voted this week to not even proceed with a Senate trial of Trump on grounds, not supported by most legal experts by the way, that it is somehow unconstitutional to consider punishing a former president for conduct that was clearly designed to disrupt the work of Congress and ended with the Capitol damaged, scores injured and five dead. 

House impeachment managers cross the Capitol, the scene of a Trump-inspired riot three weeks ago, to deliver to the Senate the charges against the former president

Other Republicans – the slippery Marco Rubio for one – have said a Trump trial is “stupid” since it would further divide the country, a division that Trump, of course, set out to accomplish. The illogic is numbing since Rubio’s rationale, as the conservative columnist Charlie Sykes noted, “insists that holding Trump accountable is more polarizing than Trump’s actual behavior.”

This GOP line of resistance will almost certainly prevail, and Trump will survive impeachment for a second time even as by the hour evidence grows that Trump summoned the mob, used his campaign funds to organize it and then set them off to sack the Capitol. Even the chants of “hang Mike Pence” aren’t enough to convince a Crapo or a Risch that the person they fear most should be held to account for the most serious assault on our government ever incited by an American president. 

Crapo, who must be the least known and most minimally accomplished senior member of the Senate of his generation, worries that should he suddenly discover a backbone the same kind of mob Trump incited earlier this month will come for him during his re-election next year. Crapo voted to both impeach and then remove Bill Clinton for lying about a consensual sex act, but now the oath he swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” doesn’t extend to sanctioning presidentially inspired insurrection. 

Even Kentucky’s senior political weathervane, Mitch McConnell, who a week ago was saying “the mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” voted at first opportunity to let Trump skate. 

In the more than three weeks since the mob came after Congress, neither of Idaho’s senators has uttered a syllable of concern about Trump’s election lies or his incendiary rhetoric on the day the Capitol was stormed. Not one word. No statement. No interview. No tweet. Nothing. 

Each did praise Capitol police officers who risked lives to protect them so they could live to exonerate the guilty. They gladly celebrated the hundreds of Idaho National Guard troops dispatched to Washington to ensure “the peaceful transfer of power,” but neither Crapo or Risch bothered to connect the presence of the troops or the attacks on the cops to the president who cause it to happen. 

Jim Risch has praised National Guard members from his state deployed to Washington but hasn’t said a word about why they had to deploy

The see no evil twins of Idaho’s Senate delegation watched quietly while the arsonist Donald Trump laid the fire, said nothing while he spread the gasoline and went silent when the blaze ignited. Then, as if by magic, they watched the criminal responsible slink off to Palm Beach while celebrating the fire fighters standing around in the cold outside the Capitol.  

The belief that a true conservative party, one not dominated by Proud Boys, white supremacists, QAnon conspiracists and guys perpetually decked out in animal skins and Hawaiian shirts, would ever reckon with the disaster that is Trump is as dead as Ronald Reagan. What’s left is a bunch of cowering non-entities like Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, complicit in supporting a level of criminal conduct that will forever be at the center of their mediocre careers. 

At the end of the day, you have to wonder what these guys are afraid of? Are these comfortable, secure Republicans afraid that Trump will sic the racist mob on them? Are they betting that the country is ready to move on from a president they lock step condoned even as he tried to steal an election and when that failed tried to prevent Congress from certifying the real winner? Are they simply betting on national amnesia about the first attack on the Capitol since 1814? 

Crapo and Risch will never make the kind of tough vote a Tom Foley envisioned as being more important than sacrificing your integrity in order to win an election. But then again, it’s not possible to sacrifice something you’ve never had. 

—-0—–

Additional Reading:

Some other reading for your consideration…

The Education of Josh Hawley

A terrific, enlightening and ultimately frightening Politico profile of the controversial senator from Missouri: “The subversive senator’s college peers and professors don’t recognize the affable intellectual they once knew. But they do recognize his ambition.” 

Josh Hawley of Missouri, a leader of the GOP sedition caucus

The profile features comments from people who knew Hawley well from his days at Stanford, including the Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Kennedy

“I absolutely could not have predicted that the bright, idealistic, clear-thinking young student that I knew would follow this path,” says Kennedy. “What Hawley and company were doing was kind of the gentlemanly version of the pointless disruption that happened when the mob invaded the Capitol.”

Read the whole thing to better understand a guy emerging as a key figure in the Republican Party.


The Constitution According To Birch Bayh

A central character in my new book on how the election of 1980 helps explain our current politics is a remarkable United States senator from Indiana.

Birch Bayh is responsible for more of the Constitution than anyone not of the founding generation. 

Senators Ted Kennedy and Birch Bayh

Author of two amendments, including one much in the news at the end of the Trump presidency, Bayh came near passing a third as Susan Salaz recounted recently in Indianapolis Monthly magazine

“Even more relevant than the 25th Amendment’s ‘nuclear option’ for presidential removal was the next goal to which Bayh turned his attention — abolishing the Electoral College. By 1969, the senator gained strong support in the Senate, and even from President Nixon. In 1970, ratification of the amendment that would establish a national popular vote seemed within reach.”

Worth your time:


The Guy Who Made the Bernie Mitten Photo 

You’ve seen the photo that inspired a million memes so you should know the photographer’s name – Brendan Smialowski.

An mage of our times

“It’s hard to say why something becomes a meme — there’s no logic to it,” Smialowski said. “When you look at them in hindsight they sort of make sense.”

Here’s the link:


Thanks for reading. Be safe out there.

Pandemic, U.S. Senate

Crapo’s Hot Seat…

Over the last six weeks Congress has appropriated $3 trillion to ease the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is by far the largest financial effort to prop up a faltering economy in American history. More spending is sure to come as the economic crisis worsens. 

With millions losing jobs, widespread numbers of businesses small and large in danger of complete collapse and growing worry about the ripple effects on state and local governments, the historian Jill Lepore says there is typically some historic precedent we can relate to for moments of such enormous upheaval. But in the current moment Lepore says “there is no precedent for this.” 

Who will get all that money? Will we even know who receives and who needs this kind of assistance? Will the watchdogs call out the abusers, and it’s inconceivable there will not be massive abuse? Who will provide accountability to an administration that has time and again proven its fundamental inability to handle the most basic tasks of running the government?

Already the relief effort has floundered in major potholes, with critical money to small business and many workers held up or disappeared. “The initial program,” as Bloomberg reported, “which launched April 3, was marred by delays and glitches after guidance on how to process loans wasn’t released until the night before, and many big banks weren’t ready to participate or held back until rules became clearer. Advocates complained that many small mom-and-pop shops were shut out as outrage built over larger, public companies and big chains getting funded” The follow up program was just as incompetently rolled out this week

At the same time, well-connected political operators like big Trump donor Monty Bennett, a hotel operator, had no trouble navigating a process that left many small businesses frozen out. Bennett scored over $96 million in Paycheck Protection “loans,” even as his companies reported revenue last year of $2.2 billion and while Bennett pulled in compensation of $5.6 million, including a $2.3 million bonus.

In March, as the website Popular Information revealed, as the pandemic spun out of control Bennett’s companies were flush enough to pay $10 million in dividends to certain shareholders, including Bennett’s father. 

Forbes reported that more than 70 publicly traded companies, including some outside of the U.S., received cash that it appears Congress intended to go to small businesses. Some like the deep pocketed owners of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team have returned relief money after taking a public relations beating, but many others continue to hold the cash. 

It is a massively complicated, hastily thrown together effort involving a half dozen federal agencies dispersing money, which after all – even if it is borrowed money or created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve – belongs to taxpayers. So who is watching over all this?  

The answer, at least in part, is Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and the man designated by the Senate majority as the point man to provide oversight of pandemic relief. It could be a career defining assignment for Crapo who is in his 22nd year in the Senate, operating mostly as a little noticed backbencher with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and a polished ability to stockpile campaign cash from the financial services sector.

Senate Banking Committee chair Mike Crapo (left) talks with the committee’s ranking Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

While Crapo will manage the Senate oversight other panels will oversee additional aspects of the relief efforts. But the Idahoan has a big stage if he cares to use it. Crapo’s committee, for example, will apparently hold hearings next week on Brian Miller, appointed by Donald Trump as the special Treasury Department inspector general. Miller got the call after the president said he would not be bound by a legal requirement that the new IG report directly to Congress if he is “unreasonably” blocked in seeking information. 

Crapo has an opportunity to put a stamp of independence on oversight that is not only required by law, but necessary to see that these vast sums of money get where they are most needed. His initial response has been very Crapo-like, which is to say he has offered almost no signal as to how he will proceed. He might have said he will be a determined watchdog, exposing the truth and providing accountability wherever it leads, but he hasn’t. He might have insisted on the independence of the inspectors general. He won’t. He might have laid down a marker with the White House insisting that he will demand transparency. He hasn’t. 

“Required information and reports will be posted on the Banking Committee’s website,” Crapo staffer Amanda Crutchfield told me in an email this week. “Senator Crapo will be holding hearings and requesting information as required by law, and as needed,” she added.

Crutchfield said Crapo declined comment about Miller’s nomination and had nothing to say about Trump dismissing another IG who was apparently seen by the White House as too independent. When I asked if Crapo had any view on whether the inspector general was “accountable to the executive branch or to Congress,” I received no reply.  

An emergency like the one shaking the foundation of American society and the economy, “offers unparalleled opportunities for the coordinated looting of public coffers,” says Sarah Chayes, who has written extensively about how widespread corruption thrives when oversight and accountability lags or lapses under regimes that use turmoil to consolidate power and resist accountability. 

“In the scramble, tested procedures are ignored and structures are disorganized,” Chayes says, and “exhausted decision makers, pressured to ‘do something,’ miss crucial details, even as quantities of cash are injected into the chaos.”

There is a historical parallel that Crapo could reference regarding his new responsibilities should he choose, uncharacteristically for him, independence over fealty to the Trump White House. 

Senator Harry Truman (second from right) presides over what became known as “the Truman Committee,” while investigating corruption in the defense industry during World War II

Harry Truman, then a backbencher in the Senate, made his career by heading a committee that rooted out waste and profiteering in the defense industry during World War II. Senior military officials implored President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 to oppose the congressional oversight Truman envisioned, figuring it would be trouble. It was. Truman exposed vast corruption with military housing contracts, uncovered contractors who were paid despite shoddy performance and he exposed the much hyped corporate “dollar a year men,” who volunteered to help the war effort, as mostly being useless. 

Truman was a Democrat investigating a Democratic administration. He’s remembered today as a feisty fighter with a reputation for candor and independence. It’s a good model.

We’ll see soon enough how the senior senator from Idaho wants to be remembered. 

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Additional Readings:

  • If you read nothing else – read this. New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi (a great writer, by the way) went to a Donald Trump COVID-19 briefing at the White House and came away convinced that continued live TV coverage of the “5 o’clock follies” is essential. Many observers, of course, say the lie filled rants and wholesale misinformation is dangerous, but as she writes: “What a lot of Trump critics miss is that the biggest threat to his presidency isn’t the pandemic and the collapse of the global economy. It’s Trump. The more we see him — rambling, ranting, casually spitballing about bleach and sunlight — the clearer that becomes. But that’s not the media’s problem, and taking the spotlight off of him as he displays the full extent of his inadequacies would only serve to help him and to make the public less informed about what the federal government is doing — or not doing.” The whole piece is here and it’s very interesting.
  • George Packer had another must read piece in The Atlantic. He argues that the United States is experiencing its third major crisis of the 21st Century and each has exposed the fact that we live in a failed state. The first crisis was 9-11, the second the Great Recession and now a pandemic. Each crisis tore at the credibility of our political system and here we are: “Both parties were slow to grasp how much credibility they’d lost,” Packer writes. “The coming politics was populist. Its harbinger wasn’t Barack Obama but Sarah Palin, the absurdly unready vice-presidential candidate who scorned expertise and reveled in celebrity. She was Donald Trump’s John the Baptist.”
  • I originally missed Susan Glasser’s New Yorker article on Sarah Longwell, the NeverTrump conservative who is part of the Lincoln Project, a group working to defeat the president in November. It’s worth your time.
  • And finally, since there is more to life than politics and pandemics here’s a review of the latest from Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light – the third in her amazing series on Thomas Cromwell and lots of others.

Middle East, Russia, Trump, U.S. Senate

Blood on the Floor…

On April 6, 2017 President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on airfields in Syria in response to Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Idaho Senator Jim Risch immediately praised Trump’s action as “a game changer” that signaled a new American approach to the entire Middle East and would impress the international community. 

“The airstrikes of April 6 were a good first step,” Risch wrote the next day in piece in TIME, “but the United States must go further to push back against Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. This will require a more comprehensive strategy toward Syria.” 

A buffer zone has been put in place in the wake of President Trump’s appeasement of Turkey’s invasion of Syria

Risch went on: “We also need to build and support a coalition that can effectively ensure the safety of Syrians at home and ensure neither Assad nor the Islamic State can destabilize the country. This would include working with our Turkish allies and Syrian opposition, and supporting Kurdish forces fighting on the ground against both the Islamic State and Assad’s forces.” 

The senator, now the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, assured us that the “Trump Administration has proven to the people of Syria, and the world, that the United States is once again willing to confront growing instability and inhumanity.” 

Of course, Risch could not have been more wrong as events of the last week gruesomely prove. In fact Risch has displayed a stunning combination of ignorance and arrogance over the last two and half years in his unconditional support for the administration’s persistently failing foreign policy. 

Not only has Risch been wrong about Syria, but also about Iran, North Korea, China and a dozen other places where the chaotic and feckless Trump foreign policy has produced one disaster after another, fracturing what is left of U.S. global leadership, strengthening Russia, creating the opening for a revived ISSI, weakening NATO and leaving America increasingly without dependable friends in the world. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee

Perhaps never before in Idaho political history has one member of the state’s congressional delegation been in such a position of potential power and influence at such a perilous time and squandered it all in subservience to a failed president. It is simply a shocking display of political and moral misconduct.  

Risch has made much of his access to the president, regularly bragging about his phone calls, briefings and ability to influence Trump. As Risch told the Idaho Press’s Betsy Russell recently he intends to maintain influence with Trump by never uttering a public criticism. Well, if Risch’s logic is correct and he is only able to exert influence over U.S. foreign policy by not exercising independent leadership then he also owns the outcome of Trump’s disastrous policy. 

We should assume that Risch is in the group that David Sanger, the New York Times national security correspondent, wrote about this week. “Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America’s longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave.”

Among the many Trumpian disasters arising from the precipitous decision to cut a run on the Kurds in Syria is the opportunity it affords Vladimir Putin to obtain what every Russian leader since Stalin has desired – a lead role in the Middle East

“Putin continues to get whatever he wants and generally doesn’t even have to do much,” said a NATO official quoted by the Washington Post. “He got to sit back and watch the Turks and the Americans unravel five years of success and not only did it not cost him anything, he didn’t even have to try to make it happen. Small wonder he’d interfere on Trump’s side in an election.”

And here is Martin Indyk, a two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel, writing this week in Foreign Policy: “The Trump administration likes to see itself as clear-eyed and tough-minded, a confronter of the hard truths others refuse to acknowledge. In fact, it understands so little about how the Middle East actually works that its bungling efforts have been a failure across the board. As so often in the past, the cynical locals are manipulating a clueless outsider, advancing their personal agendas at the naive Americans’ expense.” 

“So, Turkey and the Kurds have been fighting for hundreds of years,” Trump said this week. “We are out of there.” That may well turn out to be “the Trump Doctrine.” 

For days the junior senator from Idaho said exactly nothing beyond an innocuous, boilerplate statement of “serious concern” about Turkey’s invasion of Syria in the wake of U.S. troop departures. By week’s end he was promising to introduce “soon” legislation to sanction Turkey, but without acknowledgment that the president himself had made such legislation necessary. 

BBC image of Kurdish position being shelled by Turkey’s forces in Syria

Meanwhile, daily revelations about Ukraine continue, a scandal that one commentator reduced to its essence: “The president’s personal lawyer was paid by crooked businessmen from a foreign country, and then the president gave him authority over American policy toward that country. This is precisely what the founders meant by ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” Risch has not answered a demand from Democratic members of his committee that he hold hearings on this debacle and he dodges questions about his views.

When Boise State Public Radio reporter Heath Druzin attempted last week to ask Risch about the appropriateness of an American president asking a foreign leader to gin up dirt on a political opponent, Risch refused to engage. “I’m not going there,” he said before walking away and then adding “Don’t do that again.” 

In a subsequent interview with KBOI Radio’s Nate Shelman, a venue where conservatives comfortably expect to be offered up softballs, Risch fell back on the oldest and most discredited line in American politics. Shelman asked Risch if pulling U.S. troops and green lighting Turkish attacks on the Kurds was correct. “I’m not in the position right now to criticize,” Risch said, “what I want to do is get behind our troops and get behind our commander, and where we are right now and get us to a better place.”

Trump has facilitated a wholesale disaster in Syria that will ripple and roll across the region for years. American credibility has never been lower or our security so abruptly and catastrophically threatened. 

But politically Jim Risch relies up on the same thing Donald Trump counts on – the credulity and partisanship of supporters, each man hoping they can get away with fomenting a catastrophe because, well, in the name of Trump they can do anything. 

Little wonder Risch wants to avoid answering legitimate questions about the president. He’s like a guy caught at the scene of a crime that wants you to believe he’s had nothing to do with all the blood on the floor.

—–0—–

(Note: Since this piece was written a “cease fire” was agreed to by the Turkish government. Senator Risch applauded that move – without referring to the president – and said the situation remains “very fluid.” But as Eric Schmidt and David Sanger wrote in the Times: “The cease-fire agreement reached with Turkey by Vice President Mike Pence amounts to a near-total victory for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gains territory, pays little in penalties and appears to have outmaneuvered President Trump.”)

Foreign Policy, U.S. Senate

The Surest Senator of All…

When he speaks about big issues Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, likes to invoke his experience, the dozens of times he’s been on the ballot, his leadership of the Idaho State Senate and his early years as the Ada County prosecutor. One of Risch’s go-to lines is “I’ve been at this a long time.” 

In the increasingly rare interviews Risch grants or when he, also rarely, entertains questions from voters his setup often goes something like this: “I’ve been at this [politics] a long time, I’ve been through 34 elections, I was a prosecutor and [in the context of the Russia investigation] I know what evidence looks like.” 

Idaho Senator James E. Risch

All politicians display a certain level of confidence. It goes with the territory these days. The humble, self-effacing public servant is a relic of American political history, if indeed it has ever existed. But Risch has raised self-assurance to a new level, unlike anything Idaho has seen, well, ever and it’s gotten him into trouble. 

Risch’s first real controversy as chairman came over his initial handling of the Senate’s demand for information from the Trump Administration on the murder of Washington Postcolumnist Jamil Khashoggi. When senator’s demanded that the administration follow the law and report on who had ordered Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Risch calls him a close friend – essentially said: “Mind your own business.” 

Risch’s initial response was to fully back the Trump line. “We asked for the information. They sent it. And I put out a press release,” Risch told reporters. Then the proverbial organic matter hit the fan. Senate Republicans on Risch’s own committee demanded more and he did schedule a closed hearing earlier this week, but not before apparently misleading fellow Republicans on just how forthcoming the administration had been. All in all it was a stumbling, incoherent performance by a guy who has “been at this a long time.” 

You have to wonder why? 

Why has Risch worked so hard to shield the president from confronting the murder of a journalist, a murder the nation’s intelligence agencies have placed squarely at the feet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Why are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley and Mitt Romney confronting the administration over reprehensible Saudi behavior, while Risch has been carrying Trump’s water on both shoulders? 

Remember that Trump has said of the Crown Prince, a pal of his son-in-law, that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” order the journalist’s murder.

During a contentious recent television interview, recorded while Risch was attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, the senator invoked his “I’ve been at this a long time” certainty with another wrinkle he likes to use – “I know more than you, but because it’s classified I couldn’t possibly comment.” 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as the man responsible for ordering the death of Washington Post columnist Jamil Khashoggi

Asked by veteran journalist Tim Sebastian whether he agreed with Graham’s characterization that there “was zero chance” that bin Salam had not ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Risch spun into a linguistic tap dance, first refusing to answer whether he agreed with the South Carolina senator and then invoking secrecy.

“I’m on the Intelligence Committee,” Risch said, “Lindsey isn’t. I’ve looked at every scrap of evidence there is on [Khashoggi’s murder] and unfortunately because of my position on the Intelligence Committee I can’t sit here and reiterate that for you, and in that regard I can’t comment on that.” Risch then said he could comment on the 17 Saudi nationals sanctioned by the U.S. government, but apparently his opinion about the Crown Prince is classified. 

Again the question is why? Does Risch so value his access to the White House that he won’t summon moral outrage at the murder of a journalist whose body was dismembered with a bone saw and has still not been found? Why was he willing to launch his chairmanship by alienating fellow Republicans who must increasingly see him as an apologist for the heinous? Is Risch so concerned about a primary challenge from the far right that there is no “red line” of support for Trump that he will not cross? 

In the same period that the senator was covering for the president and the Saudi Crown Prince he was effectively dismissing concerns about Trump campaign involvement with Russia. “It is simply not there,” the former prosecutor explained of his reading of Trump-Russia collusion. That certainty comes even as we now know that Paul Manafort, the convicted former Trump campaign chairman, was meeting with Russian operatives and sharing polling information literally while Trump was securing the GOP nomination in 2016.

In the face of mounting evidence of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere with American elections Risch told the Boise Chamber of Commerce recently “Russia is the most overrated country on the face of the planet. They get so much ink here. They get so much attention here, simply because of Trump, of course. These guys are incredibly inept. They are a nuclear power, there is no question about it. They certainly have some juice, there is no question about it. These guys, they are all bluster.”

Put that comment in context and again ask yourself why? 

On July 27, 2016, then-candidate Trump looked straight into television cameras in Florida and said, “Russia, if you’re listening. I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — messages Hillary Clinton was said to have deleted from a private email server.

“Actually, Russia was doing more than listening,” as the Associated Press reported last week. “It had been trying to help Republican Trump for months. That very day, hackers working with Russia’s military intelligence tried to break into email accounts associated with Clinton’s personal office. It was just one small part of a sophisticated election interference operation carried out by the Kremlin — and meticulously chronicled by special counsel Robert Mueller.” 

And ask yourself why wouldn’t the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to get to the bottom of that and so much more?  

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Borah, Church, Foreign Policy, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Risch Doctrine…

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch became chairman of the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee last week and as nearly his first act he bashed the two Idahoans who held that position in the past, William Borah and Frank Church.

In an interview with Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, Risch also said his “repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

UNITED STATES – APRIL 8: Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, questions Secretary of State John Kerry, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In one interview, the new chairman offered a remarkable display of historical ignorance, senatorial obsequiousness, hubris and blind partisanship. Call it “the Risch Doctrine.”

Let’s take them one by one.

“William Borah was around at the time when it was very fashionable, and indeed you could get away with non-involvement in a great matter of international affairs,” Risch told Russell.

The senator is correct that Borah, who represented Idaho in the Senate for 33 years, was, to say the least, skeptical about an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. More correctly, Borah was a non-interventionist, an anti-imperialist and a politician who believed passionately that the Senate must exercise a significant role in developing the country’s foreign policy. He would have been the last to say he would avoid “sparring publicly” with a president. He did so repeatedly, including with presidents of his own Republican Party.

Borah’s determined opposition to the peace treaty after World War I was based in large part on Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance in insisting that the Senate rubber stamp his handy work, accepting his terms or no terms.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Risch says he has his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but you’d be hard to pressed to find even one, while his record is ripe with acquiescence to an administration whose foreign policy from Syria to North Korea and from NATO to Saudi Arabia feels more unhinged, more chaotic by the day.

While Borah elevated the Foreign Relations Committee to something approaching equal standing with Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Risch is first and last a partisan, even to the point of going down the line with Trump, while many other Senate Republicans broke with him this week over sanctioning a Russian oligarch. With a Democrat in the White House, Risch was never reluctant to bash a foreign policy decision. His “sparring” was always in plain sight. Now, it’s all quiet on the Risch front.

Risch also could not refrain from repeating an old smear against Sen. Frank Church, effectively accusing Church of weakening the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“In my judgment,” Risch said, Church “did some things regarding our intelligence-gathering abilities and operations that would not serve us very well today. We need a robust intelligence operation.”

We have a robust intelligence operation, one that has frequently made serious mistakes that require constant vigilance from U.S. senators.

Risch should know this. He’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he has repeatedly excused Trump’s own disregard, indeed contempt, for intelligence agencies, including dismissal of an FBI director who was just a bit too independent for Trump’s taste. You have to wonder if the new chairman has read even a summary of Church’s still very relevant work.

What Church’s landmark investigation really did in the 1970s was to explain to the American people, as UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted told me this week, “what the CIA and FBI and other agencies had been doing in their name during the height of the Cold War.” As professor Olmsted, a scholar of American intelligence and its oversight noted, Church’s investigation “revealed many abuses and some crimes that had been committed, for example, by the CIA.”

One of those crimes was spying on American citizens. The National Security Agency actually conducted mail and phone surveillance on Church and Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

“Thanks to the Church Committee,” Olmsted wrote, “we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a U.S.-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Church didn’t weaken the intelligence community — he held it accountable. His work created the modern framework for congressional oversight, that is if Congress would use the power of oversight, and Church’s investigation led to the protections of the so-called FISA court that requires a judge to sign off on surveillance of a kind that the intelligence agencies once initiated on their own.

“This is a great time to be a Republican,” Risch told a partisan crowd at a Lincoln Day dinner in Shoshone last week. “You will not hear about this in the national media, but we have done a great job running this country.” Quite a line to utter while a quarter of the federal government remains shut down and while the president is operating with an “acting” chief of staff, Interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, attorney general, Defense secretary and has yet to even nominate ambassadors to a couple dozen countries.

Jim Risch, the committed partisan, has always been the kind of politician focused on his next election. He’s up in 2020 in what should be one of the safest seats in the country and he’s put all his chips on Trump.

But what if things are different in a few months or in a year? What if Robert Mueller’s investigation unspools a web of corruption that makes President Richard Nixon and Watergate look like a third-rate burglary? What if Risch has bet on the wrong guy?

He’s standing on the rolling deck of the USS Trump right now, raising nary a question about a president implicated in scandal from porno payoffs to Russian collusion. The super-partisan will never change, but his hubris may yet — and again — get the best of him.

—–0—–

Borah, Idaho, Supreme Court, U.S. Senate

Kabuki Theater Confirmation…

        Note: I’m pleased to be writing a new weekly piece for the Friday editorial page of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune. I’m looking forward to writing mostly about the state’s politics and history based on 40-plus years of being in and around campaigns, politicos, reporters and issues.

         The regular blog will appear here as well from time-to-time.

         I’ve long admired the Trib’s editorial page, an institution in Idaho that most of the state’s political junkies consider a “must read.” The page has long been the home of great editors and writers, including Bill Hall, Ladd Hamilton, Jim Fisher and Marty Trillhaase. I’ll hope to do my small bit to uphold that reputation.

        Thanks…here is the first piece. 

————

Idaho’s two Republican U.S. senators will vote soon to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court helping secure a very conservative court for a generation or more. That Mike Crapo and Jim Risch would support a Republican president’s judicial nominee is no surprise. They have eagerly participated in efforts to turn judicial confirmations into just one more hyper-partisan exercise.

Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh

Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court likely means the court will become as conservative as any since the 1930s and despite claims that a partisan like Kavanaugh will respect precedent, his appointment could well usher in a raucous period where much long settled law – Roe v. Wade and campaign finance limits, for example – will be up for reconsideration. Where a consensus selection might have reversed the partisan taint now infesting the court a polarizing choice will only make the court more political.

Meanwhile, the notion of “advice and consent” has given way to debate over process and documents. Any pretense that the Senate might actually conduct a bipartisan review of a nominee’s fitness and beliefs now seems as quaint as the concept of judges being above politics.

Both Crapo and Risch expressed support for Kavanagh well in advance of any hearings. Crapo, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee that will assess Kavanaugh’s fitness, needed just one meeting to pronounce Donald Trump’s nominee a jurist of “fairness, judgment, and temperament.” Risch was at the White House for the announcement of Kavanaugh’s appointment and immediately said, presumably with a straight face, that the selection reflects “President Trump’s deep commitment to upholding our U.S. Constitution.”

Kavanaugh with Senator Mike Crapo

Other Republican senators, including members of the Judiciary Committee, have actually participated in mock hearings preparing Kavanaugh for his moment under the television lights. Confirmation of this type is a flagrant abandonment of the notion that a co-equal branch of government should actually conduct the type of inquiry required by our Constitution.

While it is true that high stakes judicial nominations have always involved political and partisan considerations – Democrats play the game, as well – Idaho senators in the past often exercised real independence, occasionally even against the wishes of presidents of their own party.

Idaho’s William Borah, never a get-along-go-along Republican, was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee in 1932 when he lobbied Republican President Herbert Hoover to appoint New Yorker Benjamin Cardozo to replace the distinguished jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hoover was reluctant, perhaps because Cardozo, like Holmes, had a reputation for judicial independence. Hoover also hesitated because New York was already represented on the high court. Borah rejected the geographic argument saying Cardozo was a respected national figure as important to Idaho as anywhere else. Borah also wasn’t pushing for a partisan, but for a deeply respected non-political judge. He may also have impressed upon Hoover that he would use all his substantial influence in the Senate to thwart any other nominee. Borah’s independence prevailed and scholars of the court now consider Cardozo one of the greatest justices.

Nevada Senator Pat McCarran and Idaho’s William Borah, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1930s.

There is actually a bit of a tradition of Idaho Republicans pushing back against Republican presidents and their court appointments and at times real bipartisanship has prevailed.

Borah, a remarkably independent senator, defied Hoover in 1930 and cast the deciding bipartisan vote against a Supreme Court nominee considered outside the mainstream.

Idaho Republican Senator Herman Welker bucked fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 when he voted against the nomination of John M. Harlan. Welker was locked in a bitter fight with the administration at the time and may have employed his vote to express irritation with Eisenhower, but by today’s standards Welker’s move was a striking example of senatorial independence.

And in 1969 Republican Senator Len Jordan, a pretty conservative guy, joined Democrat Church to oppose Nixon’s nomination of Clement F. Haynesworth. Haynesworth was denied confirmation on a bipartisan basis when evidence surfaced of the judge’s conflicts of interest.

When the Senate confirmed Eisenhower nominee Potter Stewart in 1959 on a broadly bipartisan vote Idaho’s bipartisan delegation – Democrat Church and Republican Henry Dworshak – voted for Stewart.

Nixon nominees – Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell – received overwhelming bi-partisan support, including from Jordan and Church. Gerald Ford nominated only one Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens in 1975, and Church and Republican Jim McClure where part of a unanimous Senate. In the early 1990s Republicans Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne supported Bill Clinton nominees Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, but since then partisanship has reigned supreme and consensus candidates have disappeared.

Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee in 2016, who didn’t even get a meeting let alone a hearing.

Crapo and Risch opposed Barack Obama’s nominations of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010 and both supported the unprecedented decision by the GOP controlled Senate in 2016 to not even hold hearings on Barack Obama’s nomination of a well-regarded moderate, Merrick Garland. Neither senator deigned to even meet with Garland. And after eliminating the filibuster on judicial nominees last year Crapo and Risch were part of the Republican majority powering through Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Sadly confirmation hearings have become a kind of ritualized kabuki theater where all participants play a pre-determined role and where everyone knows the outcome before the opening gavel drops. That is not what the Founders envisioned. The current approach – obsequious deference by Republicans to any Republican nominee and an overwhelming emphasis on partisan consideration – debases the idea of “advice and consent” and will only further erode the independence of the Senate and the Court.

 

Mansfield, Supreme Court, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Decline of National Governance…

     “We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster.” 

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


One wonders what some of the great figures in U.S. Senate history would make of the events of the last several days. And what would they make of the hypocrisy?

Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio.

Think about Robert A. Taft, a Republican conservative of the old school, shaking his head in disbelief at senators in both parties again ignoring their political and moral responsibilities, while genuflecting in praise of Donald Trump’s arguably unconstitutional missile strike on a Syrian airbase. This is the same Senate that refused to authorize military action in 2013 after Barack Obama insisted that Congress debate and vote on launching a strike against yet another Middle Eastern nation.

Oh, the Hypocrisy…

To read the justifications for stiffing the president in 2013 and to compare those words to the cheerleading for Trump’s action now is to see (again) in the starkest terms the intellectual bankruptcy – not to mention the hypocrisy – of the modern Republican Party. And now they have pulled the United States Senate down to a new low.

Republican after Republican has rushed in front of the cameras to praise a president who could scarcely find Syria on a map last year and who most serious people know will be unable to fashion a coherent strategy in the wake of his hair trigger launch order. But, no matter. Donald Trump may be a fool, but he’s a Republican fool and we support our president – at least while he remains popular with the Tea Party base.

The ugly little truth is that Congress has systematically frittered away, at least since the early 1950s, its solemn responsibility to provide checks on a president in matters of foreign policy, especially a president’s power to launch a war. This has happened as

White House released photo of Syrian airbase hit by U.S. missiles

Republicans regularly pledge fidelity to a Constitution they simply ignore when it proves politically convenient to do so. Never mind that only Congress can declare war. Forget the hypocrisy of dismissing his predecessor as “feckless,” while offering a blank check to a guy who had to fire his National Security Advisor less than a month into office, who has dismissed the intelligence committee as “Nazi-like, and who can’t get organized enough to appoint key deputies all across the national security apparatus.

Never has the abdication of Congressional responsibility in the area of foreign affairs seemed more serious than now. Never have checks on a dangerous president been more in the national interest.

In a nutshell senators, and I don’t confine this critique exclusively to Republicans, want to praise a one-off missile strike as amounting to tough action, but still provide themselves, for purely political reasons, plausible deniability that they had anything to do with the decision. Make no mistake we have opened a new war in Syria and not a war directed at the stated enemy – ISIS. The target of the missile strike was the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. We didn’t destroy ISIS aircraft with 59 missiles. It was the Syrian air force we were after and perhaps for very sound reasons. If so, Congress must get involved.

If, and almost certainly when, things take a turn for the worse with increasing American involvement in Syria the sunshine patriots in Congress won’t have to justify a difficult vote. That is their real aim. Their hands will be clean if not their conscience. It is a shameless posture and it is not what the Constitution demands, but it works – at least for the moment – to tighten the grip on power of the Senate majority leader and the man in the White House that he further enables.

Mitch McConnell is the perfect leader for the modern Senate. In the same week he is able to protect his caucus from having to make a tough vote on Syria and he manages the Senate rules to placate the 40 percent of Americans who want the Supreme Court to revisit everything from the New Deal to Roe v. Wade.

The Senate Changes…Forever

Imagine the reaction of Mike Mansfield of Montana, perhaps the greatest majority leader in Senate history, to the Senate changing its rules merely to put a very, very conservative judge on the Supreme Court. And the majority set about changing the rules after refusing for nearly a year to even consider the nomination of a moderate jurist, a judge appointed by a president of the opposing party.

The Senate as a political institution, while never close to perfect, has frequently in our history transcended the petty partisanship of the moment in order to provide genuine leadership that reflected the broad public interest. Not any more.

One day historians will look back on this period and find fault, I suspect, with small-minded leadership in both political parties, but they will reserve their greatest contempt for the Senator from Kentucky.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows, hardly a blind partisan, but a long-term and nuanced observer of American politics, recently did his own Twitter summation of what I’ll call the Reign of the Partisan. Fallows said we would look back on the current time and mark the “decline in national governance” to Mitch McConnell’s actions beginning in 2006.

While in the minority then McConnell “routinized the filibuster in [an] unprecedented way.” It is a modern myth that the filibuster, the need for a super majority of 60 senators to cut off debate and bring an issue to a vote, has always and routinely been invoked in the Senate. It hasn’t. McConnell made the filibuster routine.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Now in one of the rawest displays of partisan political power in the history of the Senate McConnell engineered a change of the filibuster rules in order to push through Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick. And, of course, the action was taken in the wake of McConnell unilaterally refusing to consider any Court nominee from Obama.

I know, I know, Democrats earlier changed filibuster rules for other judicial positions and a guy named Chuck Schumer has used the filibuster on judicial nominees for purely partisan reasons. As lamentable as that action was when Democrats did it McConnell’s action now is of an entirely different degree of seriousness and partisanship. Invoking the so called “nuclear option” will change the Senate permanently and for the worse – and yes it can get worse – will deepen tribal partisanship and has finally settled the question of whether the Supreme Court has become just another partisan branch of the government. It has.

U.S. Senate chamber

Yet changing the Senate rules is hardly all that McConnell hath wrought. After Obama’s election in 2008 McConnell said his own “measure of success,” as Jim Fallows says, “would be denying [Obama] a second term.” From day one he was all about obstruction by any means in order to thwart the Obama presidency. The idea of compromise, any notion of working together on national priorities was cast to the winds in favor of raw partisanship and a GOP majority.

[McConnell, we now know, was also the main hold out in Congress that prevented an earlier and stronger pre-election response to Russian interference in the presidential election. You have to ask why he was reluctant to send a strong signal about all that, but I think you know the answer.]

I listened closely to the arguments advanced by both sides in the run up to the change in Senate rules that paved the way for Judge Neil Gorsuch to slip comfortably into Antonin Scalia’s old seat on the high court. I came away stunned by the shallowness of the logic on both sides. What neither side could say, but what is demonstrably true is that there is simply no middle ground left in American – or Senate – politics. Partisanship rules on absolutely everything. If our guy does it that’s fine. If the other guy does it, well that’s an outrage.

The filibuster, or more correctly the idea of “unlimited debate,” exists for two basic reasons: to protect the rights of the minority and to force compromise and political accommodation on contentious issues. Was the practice abused before McConnell weaponized it? Of course it was, but until relatively recently the idea of seeking some degree of political consensus on something as serious as going to war or giving lifetime tenure to a Supreme Court judge wasn’t as unthinkable as it has now become. If you are looking for someone to blame for this disgusting toxicity you can start with Mitch McConnell.

As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it: “By rights, McConnell’s tombstone should say that he presided over the end of the Senate. And I’d add a second line: ‘He broke America.’ No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power.”

Trump and McConnell: The Clueless and the Cynical

The cynicism of McConnell and his commitment to raw power is actually most clearly on display in his response to Donald Trump as president. McConnell is not stupid and he is certainly smarter than the current occupant of the White House. McConnell knows Trump is an arrogant fool, not a conservative and clueless on anything like real policy. But Trump is also, to use the old Communist putdown, “a useful idiot,” a means to an end for the Senate leader.

McConnell enables and encourages a man he knows to be unfit because Trump means power, particularly to remake the Court. And, of course, McConnell’s wife is in the Cabinet in a useful position at the Transportation Department where, should there be a big infrastructure bill in the future, the money will flow. McConnell is deeply cynical, but he knows an opportunity when he sees it. He’s going to make the most the Trump presidency for as long as it lasts.

Ironically, McConnell’s final wrecking of the Senate as a functioning institution fits perfectly with the near complete destruction of the old conservative Republican Party that Trump has engineered. This point was well made by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in a recent piece in Rolling Stone. That article dissected Trump’s obvious and extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder, but also touched on the political crisis that McConnell and Trump have created and now preside over.

“It’s a sign, actually, of how severely we need functioning parties,” Wilentz said. “Because when they work, they are in fact a check on the emergence of this kind of character [Trump]. You can’t get where Trump is now in a functioning party system. It took this particular political crisis, which was a political crisis, to produce a president who has this trait. Normally, we can weed them out.”

Mitch McConnell has consistently played to the worst instincts of the Republican base. He’s never missed a chance to deepen the partisan divide. His strategy is all about the next election, never about the next generation. McConnell – and Trump for that matter – are the perfect characters to stand at center stage while national governance disappears faster than factory jobs in the Rust Belt.

Bob Taft and Mike Mansfield would not recognize the place we inhabit or the Senate Mitch McConnell has made. In fact one suspects they would be appalled. But no matter. McConnell is winning even if the country isn’t.