“We were party to a very big lie…Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history. We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
“Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”
Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, from his new bookConscience of a Conservative.
Let us now praise Senator Jeff Flake.
Loyal readers know that I have been using this space for months to worry and wonder when an elected Republican would really speak candidly about the abomination occupying the White House and taken over the Republican Party.
Never Trumpers like Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt have had the president’s number for a long time, but the elected Republican willing to speak to “the base” about Donald J. Trump has been as scarce as tenure in the White House communications shop.
Now comes Flake with a new book (written quietly and without, he says, the knowledge of his political advisors) and a scathing piece in the most inside of inside D.C. tip sheets, Politico. Flake has taken the title of his book from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 tome – The Conscience of a Conservative.
The book should be widely read and vigorously debated. It may or may not mark a turning point in our long national nightmare, but it is siren call to real conservatives about what they and Donald Trump have done to their party and the country.
“Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process,” Flake writes. “With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.”
The senator’s musings amount to a profoundly damning indictment of the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. These Republicans, Flake says, have made “a Faustian bargain” with a man most of them secretly despise in order to try and gain some short-term policy and political advantage. “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty,” Flake says, “that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He mentions Republicans like Lugar, Baker and Dole, while condemning current leaders who lost their way “and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.”
In some ways Flake, a very conservative first termer from Snowflake, Arizona, is an unlikely Trump truth teller. He barely won election in 2012, has never been particularly popular at home and faces an almost certain primary challenge from an Arizona Republican who will claim Flake’s consistent criticism of Trump makes him a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. Flake also regularly votes the way the White House would have him vote, a fact that has led some to call him a hypocrite for not using his position to stop the Trump agenda. This is misplaced criticism and is precisely the kind of political nonsense Flake is condemning.
Flake’s easy path would be to do what the vast majority of elected Republicans are doing and go along with Trump in order to get along with his followers. The fact that he isn’t and won’t will likely earn him a place along side the one-time Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who had the courage in 1950 to call out her party over Joe McCarthy’s antics. Smith called her famous speech A Declaration of Conscience. Flake is hitting similar notes.
In reality Flake has basically been here for a while; at the head of the line, for example, working for bipartisan immigration reform, while Trump wants to build his silly wall. He says Trump is wrong about NAFTA and Flake has blasted “the Muslim ban.” When Trump took after Muslims on Twitter, Flake and his wife, who are Mormon, visited a mosque in Arizona and spoke about the importance of religious freedom.
Criticism of Flake from the left – and even more incoherent yelling from the right – miss what I think is Flake’s essential point. He is not arguing policy. He is saying the Trump lies, the demonization of opponents, the wholesale abandonment of conservative thought and democratic norms is the real issue and Republicans own the mess they have made.
In making his case Flake has done something that few other Republicans have had the guts to do – maybe Ohio Governor John Kasich is in the same company – namely call out the intellectual rot that has hollowed out the soul of the grand old party and paved the way for the grand old demagogue. And Flake’s stinging indictment bears all the more credibility simply because it comes at a time when it could and probably will cost him politically.
New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly says Flake knows the stakes of this moment in American history. “The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant,” Brooks wrote recently.
He quotes the Arizonan asking the correct questions about just some of the things Trump has said or done: “Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”
I’ve wondered for months if any Republican would really risk a political career by calling out the failings of the party and its hijacker. Jeff Flake may well lose his Senate seat because he has told the truth. Trump is already positioning to support a primary opponent. Yet, it seems Flake has decided this is a small price to pay for trying to save the country.
In an insightful piece recently in The Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins wondered if Flake was too nice for the Senate. He related a telling anecdote from a Flake town hall earlier this year. The senator was repeatedly and rudely booed and interrupted through the event, but he soldiered on unlike most of his colleagues who avoided town halls to avoid engaging with their constituents.
Finally, as Coppins wrote, “One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. ‘Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.’
“Flake nodded affably. ‘I appreciate that,’ he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”
It is not complicated really. This situation is easily explained. Donald Trump is jerk. A bully. A man sworn to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States who clearly has no regard for the role of the Department of Justice or the quaint (and nearly out of fashion) notion that the attorney general isn’t the president’s personal lawyer. Rule of law. What’s that?
Trump is belittling Jeff Sessions because, as the New York TimesMaggie Haberman put it recently, “he can.” Trump Tweeting and fuming about the man he picked to be attorney general is just Trump being Trump. This is who he is and what he does. We’ve all known this now for months.
Our president is a supremely unfit man in the most important position in the world. He’s also awful at the job and likely to face months and years of legal and political trial. His first six months have been a disaster of Franklin Pierce-like proportions. And like the textbook narcissistic sociopath he is, Trump never accept a thimble full of responsibility for his actions and failures. Hs is never going to get any better. Never.
Donald Trump turning on Jeff Sessions, the first member of the U.S. Senate to endorse him, is therefore textbook Trump. Trump demands complete loyalty and offers perverse Tweets in return. President Ingrate is a serial bully who has demeaned John McCain, the Khans, a Miss Universe contestant, Jeb Bush, Mika Brzezinski, Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz’s father, Ted Cruz’s wife, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, congressmen, senators, Rosie O’Donnell, oh hell, the list is too long to even remember all the garbage he has dished.
Trump being Trump…
No, the question isn’t why Trump is berating Jeff Sessions (and Reince Priebus). The question is why anyone, including the pixie from Selma, would put up with this nonsense?
The fact that Jeff Session, who is now reportedly not on speaking terms with the president – not a good situation when the next domestic terror crisis erupts – is willing to absorb daily public ridicule from a deeply disturbed man tells us as much about our politics as it tells us about the already cringe worthy Jeff Sessions.
Principle and honor have largely disappeared from our politics. We are now in an ethical free fall zone where clinging to power or lurking in the vicinity of power is all that matters. Donald Trump has brought us this low and we are surely going lower.
Asked about the free fire zone Sessions now occupies, the always accommodating House Speaker Paul Ryan basically said “so what.” Ryan, who has suffered his own humiliations at the small hands of the president said, “Look, the president gets to decide what his personnel is, you all know that. He’s the executive branch, we’re the legislative branch, he determines who gets hired and fired in the executive branch, that’s his prerogative.”
It is apparently of no consequence to the Speaker that Trump is miffed at his attorney general for following the law and properly recusing himself from the ongoing Russian investigation and for not engaging in what would be a real “witch hunt” of again litigating Hillary Clinton’s emails.
For more evidence of Trump’s malevolence consider the case of now fired White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a minor entity of even more minor integrity, who has reportedly whispered to the man-child in the Oval that he should be allowed to hover around the edges of power because he alone is able to shakedown big GOP donors for contributions to a White House legal defense fund. The little man from Kenosha makes John Ehrlichman – look him up – appear to have been a paragon of moral superiority.
With Trump’s blessing the new White House communication director Anthony Scaramucci – The Mooch – launched a public feud with Priebus, accusing the chief of staff of leaking state secrets and being something we won’t discuss with our families over dinner. Next to dysfunction in the dictionary you’ll find a group photo of this administration. All this drama was simply about humiliating the little man from Wisconsin before firing him on the airport tarmac.
Some Republican lawmakers have stirred themselves to come to Sessions’ defense, but few – or none – seem able, and then only obliquely, to actually take on the Abuser-in-Chief. Perhaps these spineless characters fear a Trumpian Twitter barrage of a type the president has rained down on his debased attorney general or maybe they fear the fickle rightwing media will train its fire on anyone who really pushes back on Trump.
Why Do They Put Up With It…
There is a remedy for the dysfunction, a remedy that should be more deeply rooted in American political principles than it has been since, well, William Jennings Bryan quit the State Department. But the remedy requires a backbone, a body part rarely seen any longer in Washington, D.C.
The remedy for a Session or a Priebus is simply to quit, resign as a matter of principle or as a point of honor. Don’t buy the garbage that Sessions needs to stay in order to head off the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller. If Trump ordered a Justice Department purge under a new attorney general there would be holy hell to pay. It would make Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like an office Christmas party.
With some degree of his integrity left, Sessions could resign on the basis that the president has made it impossible for him to do his job. That would be honest. It would be principled. He’s already given up a seat in the United States Senate to serve Trump, climbing down as attorney general can’t be a much bigger step. Sessions will go down in history either way. He might as well go down as a person with some tiny amount of principle, among the first to draw the line on what is unacceptable behavior by a president of the United States. I’m not holding my breath.
The irony in all of this is that the first Republican who really, really breaks with Trump will be widely proclaimed a person of real principle, putting country above partisanship and reason above politics. Certainly those who break with Trump – really break – will engender the hatred of the Trumpian hard core and may even risk political defeat or exile, but what kind of person tolerates degradation by a tinhorn autocrat?
Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter reports that from the beginning of his tenure Trump derisively referred to his chief of staff as “Reincey” or “my genius Reince.” The Washington Post says Trump once told his top staffer to fetch a fly swatter and dispatch a pesky insect that was buzzing the swamp around the president of the United States. He might have just told Reincey to check his manhood before entering White House grounds.
Even better given this environment, a few Congressional Republicans might find a backbone and say directly to the man-child: “The conduct of the president of the United States has made him unfit for public office. He should resign.”
Imagine the cascade of praise – and of course fury – that would come down on the first elected Republican to actually say it is beneath me to associate with such a tiny, ignorant, incapable man. Epic story. History books. Cable TV gigs. The Op-Ed opportunities abound.
Resigning on Principle: What a Concept…
In 1980, in the wake of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned after having failed to persuade President Jimmy Carter not to use military force in an attempt to end the hostage crisis. Vance feared the research mission would fail and diplomatic efforts to end the standoff would then suffer. He was right. The rescue effort degenerated into a mess – eight U.S. servicemen died – and Carter’s already troubled presidency was further burdened with the searing image of burning American aircraft in the Iranian desert.
Vance’s resignation, not surprisingly, was referenced in the first paragraph of his obituary where it was noted, correctly, that a principled man had resigned as a matter of principle. [William Jennings Bryan is the other American secretary of state to resign out of a matter or principle. He did so in 1915 when the president was Woodrow Wilson. And, yes, I wonder whether Trump would recognize either name.]
The tradition of the principled resignation is deeply embedded in the political culture of most every western democracy – except the United States. Here, unlike the U.K., Canada, France, Germany and many other countries, acquiring and maintaining political power supersedes all other considerations, particularly including honor and a sense of right and wrong.
That Cy Vance is remembered as the exception to this rule is worth contemplating as the swamp of Donald Trump’s government oozes and seethes with a level of vulgarity and impairment that makes a sub-Saharan dictatorship look pretty good by comparison. Vance resigned over a policy difference of great import. The Trumpians knowingly hunker down in service to an incompetent who can’t control his basest instincts. It is a case of dumbing stupidity down.
The real message here for Republicans with any sense of decency is actually pretty simple: distance yourself from this fiasco and establish yourself as a person of principle. Honor a long tradition of American political norms and decency and step away, not slowly but with a stutter step and a sprint to daylight.
The option is to stay and grovel and become, well, become Jeff Sessions and Reince Priebus. Everything this president touches will eventually turn to dust and dishonor. History, if we survive this mess, will judge harshly those who stayed. It will richly reward those who go. And if you think incoming chief of staff John Kelly can make this mess of a White House function with some degree of normalcy I’ve got a bridge you might buy in Brooklyn. Trump will never change and sooner or later Kelly will have his fly swatter moment.
My goodness, Sean Spicer of all people is suddenly looking like a genius. Despite all of his, well, shading of the truth and his White House briefing inspired spoofs on Saturday Night Live Spicer bucked himself up and quit rather than abide Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci in the office down the hall.
Now, in a development totally consistent with the ongoing White House circus, Spicer may end up as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. Talk about a way to save your reputation.
“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” the president of the United States said a while back. And he said that after promising during the last campaign that every American would have health care coverage and that the wallet impact of paying for health insurance will be a “lot less expensive” for everyone – taxpayers, consumers and providers. Who knew?
That the Republican health care plan is almost completely disconnected from reality should be no great surprise. Republicans have been making political hay out of trashing Barack Obama’s signature legislative initiative for eight years, while never proposing any rational plan to replace what they succeeded in convincing their political base was nothing short of a socialist plot. It was a ruse. A big con.
Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey provided a textbook example of a Washington political gaffe – defined as what happens when a politician stumbles and speaks the truth. “Look, I didn’t expect Donald Trump to win,” Toomey told voters this week. “I think most of my colleagues didn’t, so we didn’t expect to be in this situation.” In other words, demonizing the other party’s health care approach was really all about politics never about policy.
History will record, even if few Republicans acknowledge the fact, that the broad outlines of Obama’s Affordable Care Act were once the basis of conservative health care policy. I know its old news, but a guy named Mitt Romney implemented essentially the same policies as governor of Massachusetts and then spent the 2012 election trying to deny he had ever heard of the coverage mandate. But, admittedly that was way back when conservatives actually cared about policy. Or cared about something as basic as trying to get as many Americans as possible insured against the vagaries we all face regarding health and wellness.
Just a reminder: For health insurance to work, both in terms of actuarial soundness and individual affordability, you need to have the greatest possible number of people covered by an insurance plan. The whole idea of insurance is to spread the risk, flatten out the cost to everyone and control costs both for consumers and providers of care. This is why every state in the nation mandates that when you license your automobile you must provide proof of insurance. We don’t allow an individual motorist to avoid coverage that serves to protect their interest as well as the interests of the rest of us simply because some yahoo in a pick-up truck hates a “government mandate.” You either buy the auto insurance or you don’t drive, at least not legally.
Insurance isn’t about “freedom” to chose. It is about sharing risk and spreading cost. It is a responsible we are all in this together way to broadly address a greater public good, which is why the ACA mandated coverage and provided subsidies for the millions of Americans who would otherwise be priced out of the insurance market. At the same time, Obama’s health insurance plan expanded the existing government program called Medicaid in order to address the needs of millions of Americans – including many, many children – struggling to make ends meet on low incomes, living with disabilities or closing out their days in a nursing home.
The End of Medicaid as We Know It…
The legislation Republicans are attempting to advance in Washington, D.C. would end the individual mandate requirement and dramatically reduce the national commitment to Medicaid to the tune of $750 billion over the next decade.
As Thomas Edsall wrote recently in the New York Times, “Since its inception in 1965, Medicaid has become an integral and major part of the American safety net. Not only does it cover health care for the poor, it prevents millions of members of the working and middle classes from losing all their savings and falling into bankruptcy when they or their family members become too old, sick or disabled to work. Medicaid also provides essential help in family planning, preventing premature births and supporting infant and child health.”
Edsall correctly notes that a significant majority of Medicaid beneficiaries are the very people who elected Donald J. Trump last year and gave Republicans control of Congress. “In McConnell’s Kentucky,” Edsall wrote, a recent Georgetown University “study found that Medicaid has become a crucial source of coverage for adults. Before the passage of Obamacare in 2010, 13 percent of adult Kentuckians were covered; after passage, in 2013-14, the percentage more than doubled to 28 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of uninsured adults in Kentucky fell from 26 to 10 percent.”
The dog’s breakfast that is the GOP health insurance plan is in the sorry shape it’s in – polling indicates a tiny fraction of Americans support it – because Republicans have, despite what House Speaker Paul Ryan might contend, abandoned real policy for almost any mishmash of gobbledygook that seems to resemble a “fix” to Obamacare. So desperate are Republicans to have a political “win” that they willfully misrepresent what their proposals will accomplish, a strategy that increasingly appears to have caught up with them back home. With this approach – say pretty much anything and hope to get past the 2018 mid-terms – McConnell and Company have essentially embraced a Trump strategy – promise big change, fudge (or lie) about the details and hope against hope that the entire spectacle will make numb all but the most ardent and partisan believers.
It Will be Great, But If It Isn’t That’s OK…
One of the rich stories of the recent charade involved a made-for-television meeting at the White House where Trump invited all 52 Senate Republicans downtown for a chat about health care legislation. Trump, positioned with two of the most skeptical senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – on either side of him, promised that a great, great bill would emerge from McConnell’s log rolling. Then he stepped all over that message by suggesting that if it all fell apart, well, that would be all right, too.
As the Timesreported in a story that Trump immediately decried as “fake news,” one supportive senator “left the meeting at the White House with a sense that the president did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan—and seemed especially confused when a moderate Republican complained that opponents of the bill would cast it as a massive tax break for the wealthy.”
But, of course, the president displays next to no interest in the complicated, life-and-death details involved in these issues and is in fact almost certainly unable, thanks to intellect and disposition, to learn anything that might help fashion a path forward. He reportedly told lawmakers earlier this year that they should focus on the “big picture” and “forget about the little shit.” Essentially that is what Republicans have been doing for eight years.
Over the last eight years Democrats made a fundamental political mistake by never adequately and compellingly explaining what they were attempting to accomplish with the Affordable Care Act. There was no clear message from supporters of the Act beyond wanting to bring down the number of uninsured Americans. Little sustained effort was made to explain why more people being covered meant a better system and Democrats compounded their message mismanagement when they made Faustian bargains with drug and device manufacturers in order to pass legislation. Those bargains have clearly exacerbated the job of controlling costs.
The Republican message can be summed up succulently, if incorrectly: Democrats were putting us on the road to socialism. What American health care required, Republicans said again and again, was more competition. “We’ve got to do something to reinject free-market forces into this environment,” Utah Senator Mike Lee said recently on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can bring free-market forces to bear, we can bring down costs for middle Americans.”
That is, of course, another pipe dream and ignores the way the American system of health care actually works. Republicans seem to embrace, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, a health care economy that they wish existed rather than the one that actually does exist.
Vice President Mike Pence recently touted the “market based” system as the country’s only solution to a broken health care system, while in reality it is a major cause of the American health care mess. Pence and many embracing the market ignore all the vast data that proves the American system with its wacky incentives and general lack of accountability is wildly more expensive and delivers worse results than any county in the rest of the developed world.
Data compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example, shows that “the United States spends close to 20 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, nearly $10,000 per person [annually], roughly twice as much as countries like Britain, which has a nationalized health service. Americans, as a whole, pay more to get less.”
Costs More, Produces Less…
In an important new book on what’s wrong with American health care Elisabeth Rosenthal, the editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News made an observation that most of us can identify with.
“Who among us,” Rosenthal writes in An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, “hasn’t opened a medical bill or an explanation of benefits statement and stared in disbelief at terrifying numbers? Who hasn’t puzzled over an insurance policy’s rules of copayments, deductibles, ‘in-network’ and ‘out-of-network’ payments—only to surrender in frustration and write a check, perhaps under threat of collection?”
Rosenthal argues that the health care market simply doesn’t work the way Home Depot or Safeway works.
“More competitors vying for business doesn’t mean better prices; it can drive prices up, not down…. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more…. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.”
As the New York Review of Books noted in a recent review of the book: “Rosenthal’s indictment extends well beyond insurance companies. She looks carefully at hospitals, and the reader learns how they have been transformed by marketing consultants and administrators with business degrees to generate large profits, though many still enjoy a tax-exempt status as ‘nonprofit institutions’—meaning that they pay ‘almost no US property or payroll taxes.’ Instead of profit, tax-exempt hospitals call it ‘operating surplus.’ In 2011, the US government calculated that hospitals were getting an annual tax advantage of $24.6 billion. Steven Brill, who highlighted the predatory pricing that occurs in calculating costs of care in America’s Bitter Pill (2015), recently listed the yearly pay of the CEOs of large hospital systems, which often amounts to many millions of dollars. Rosenthal points out that ‘total cash compensation for hospital CEOs grew an average of 24 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone.’”
Both parties – but Republicans more than Democrats – have over promised and under delivered on the matter of health care insurance. But now the GOP faces the stark reality that the dozens of votes to “repeal” Obamacare were, as Senator Toomey has now admitted, just so much political rhetoric designed to gin up confused consumers and build a partisan advantage in Congress. Republicans have never had anything like a “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act and that policy failure is now wrapped around Mitch McConnell like one of those flimsy hospital gowns with the ties in the back. Anyone who has donned one of those garments knows it doesn’t cover much. Now the majority leader’s inadequacies are all too visible.
Fact Free, Hyper-Partisan…
The debate over health insurance policy has tripped into the same fact free zone of hyper-partisanship that dominates virtually every public policy discussion these days. Yet, the real news for millions of Americans is both obvious and frightening. Millions of Americans are still without health insurance and Republican plans will only make things worse, with many folks just a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.
The “system” is hugely inefficient and rewards many of the wrong things such as paying providers for performing procedures rather than improving health. Costs for everything from a hospital stay to a blood test are often widely out of whack with what the service actually costs. Primary care doctors are overworked and under loved, while the local orthopedic surgeon – you can look it up – is doing very, very well thank you.
I have long felt that the mess of policy known as Obamacare was ironically both a political loser for Democrats and a vehicle to move health care policy in a better direction. In a real working political system, unlike our broken system, lawmakers would keep the best features – an insurance mandate that provides basic coverage centered on preventive care, for example – and work to put in place real incentives that actually bend the cost curve and improve affordability. But such pragmatism is another pipe dream and in the current political environment nearly impossible to contemplate.
It has also been clear to me that the ultimate “fix” for American health care will eventually lead to what exists in most of the rest of the western world – a single payer system that some have started to call “Medicare for All.”
It is generally the American way of politics to gradually chip away at the margins of a problem hoping to slowly, incrementally change things for the better. This approach has given us Obamacare as well as Mitch McConnell’s approach and left us with the most expensive health care in the world and some very marginal outcomes. This truly is not sustainable.
Better to vastly simplify the system with a program that covers basic and preventive care, regulates expensive medical procedures and drug costs the way we regulate public utilities and let insurance companies figure out how to offer gold plated supplemental plans for those who can afford them. We certainly have enough money in our health care “system” to do these things. What we have is problem of how the money is allocated across the health care landscape and, of course, we have a surplus of partisan political posturing that makes real solutions nearly impossible to craft.
This much is true: whatever happens with Republican plans to “repeal and replace” what Barack Obama helped create, the GOP will own the fallout for what comes next. It is not a huge surprise, in fact it’s quite obvious, that both parties have an interest in fashioning health care policy that insures coverage for millions, reduces costs and improves outcomes. The problem is that not enough people in either party are willing to admit the obvious.
Jared Kushner [the president’s son-in-law] and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.
“I have a sense that Americans are only now beginning to realize what has happened. Even leading Republicans are demanding to know what is going on. But unless something even more extraordinary occurs in the next few weeks, Russia’s American coup has already succeeded. No matter what happens next, the United States, its institutions, its place in the world, all have been left dangerously weakened, fractured, diminished.
“European leaders are openly questioning America’s role in NATO. Beijing is flying nuclear bombers over the South China Sea. Russian and Syrian troops are retaking Aleppo from the rebels. That’s the sound of thunder in the distance; the world has changed.”
How do we explain the reality of the president of the United States?
At his core he is a reality television host with a string of real estate bankruptcies and a host of conflicts of interest. He’s had three wives. He settled hundreds of claims for operating a fraudulent “university.” His long, long record of mendacity about everything from the number of floors in his Manhattan high rise to the size of his inaugural crowds has now carried over to his presidency where he continues to change positions like the rest of us change socks. The man clearly suffers from a severe personality disorder that requires constant affirmation of all that he does, but simultaneously seems to prevent him from exhibiting even a sliver of empathy, self-reflection or sense of remorse.
That he is a deeply flawed individual is obvious even to many who voted for him and yet millions continue to pretend there is nothing to see here. On one level you can understand that Trump voters made a commitment last year and, unlike their hero, they find it difficult – even impossible – to shed a commitment.
Yet, how to explain the political loyalty on the part of elected Republicans to a man who hijacked their party and by all accounts has never exhibited any loyalty to anyone? Most elected Republicans came only reluctantly to Donald J. Trump after trying out other alternatives. Meanwhile Trump stormed his way through the GOP field with an outrageous helping of bombast, hyperbole and insult, while his chief competitors largely attacked one another hoping to be the last man standing against a huckster. The last campaign may go down in political history as the first where virtually everyone abandoned the classic strategy of attacking the front-runner, while the frontrunner attacked everyone. Republican failure to see Trump for what he is and campaign accordingly was a fatal mistake compounded by even more fatal mistakes from Democrats.
And, now again we confront an astoundingly chaotic and dispiriting few days that only accumulate the sins of the president against American democracy.
Bear with me while I recount and know that this accounting leaves for another day the president’s trip to the Middle East and Europe and the new revelations about his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Russians in the Oval…
The director of the FBI, leading a national security investigation into possible collusion between the president’s election campaign and the Russian government, was fired. The handling of the firing and its aftermath compromised the integrity of the deputy attorney general and many of the White House staff, not to mention the president himself.
Then the day after James Comey’s dismissal the president invited the Russian foreign minister – described by one foreign policy official as “a complete asshole” – into the Oval Office in the company of the Russian ambassador, a man implicated in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. The optics alone were awful, including the fact that U.S. journalists were barred from photographing the meeting, but Russian cameras recorded the event and the Russians released the pictures for the world to digest.
During the meeting the president shared some of the deepest secrets from within the United States government with Vladimir Putin’s principle deputy in his mission to discredit western style democracy and weaken the NATO alliance. No wonder the photos show a smiling Sergei Lavrov.
The president’s defense of the indefensible was simple and simply incredible: I can do it and I did, he said. It is true that a president can declassify information whenever he wants, but that crazy and ludicrous justification came only after the administration’s national security advisor attempted to mislead the country about the substance of what his boss had done.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general who you may remember authored a splendid book called Dereliction of Duty about why people who knew better failed stand up to another flawed president in an earlier generation. General McMaster is now an object lesson in what duty actually requires. Hint: duty is not covering for a nitwit.
It was also widely reported in the midst of all this chaos, and without contradiction, that the president of the United States leaned on the director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to support his contention that the Trump campaign has not colluded with Russia. Both men refused and apparently considered the request completely inappropriate.
Remember all of this happened in the space of a few days, hours really.
Next a senior American official shared with the New York Times the specific words Donald J. Trump shared with those crafty Russians. Trump said he fired the “nut job” FBI director in order to take the heat off the investigation into his own campaign’s conduct. Think about that for a moment.
A senior staffer to the president of the United States is sharing the most damning information possible about his boss with newspaper reporters. You have to wonder why. There is only one plausible explanation: some on the White House staff have concluded what the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have not tumbled to – the president is reckless and ignorant about national security matters or even more seriously a genuine danger to the country and the world.
Just for good measure add this context: amid the wringing of hands about what was said in the Oval Office and how damaging it might be, Vladimir Putin smilingly offered to provide a Russian account of the meeting. That could only have been a threat to expose what some on the White House staff immediately rushed to expose themselves. Slap your forehead in disbelief. This is not fake news. This is the Republic of Trump.
The many and constantly shifting explanations of why we have Donald J. Trump in the White House are mostly inadequate to explain why a manifestly unfit individual has his finger on the nuclear button. Disdain for “elites” doesn’t explain it, nor does the economic condition of too many white working class Americans. The strange attraction of Americans to the simple and often wrong answers of a “strong man” who acts “decisively” remains inadequate to explain this weird moment in our history. The only real explanation is the simple one on display daily in the Republican controlled Congress. Twenty-plus years of Republican intellectual rot and ultra-partisanship have combined to give us Donald Trump.
I’m a member of the old school. I learned my journalism and politics generations ago in the school of, if not perfect objectivity, then at least rigorous fairness. In those days there was a rough equivalence between the major political parties. No one group or faction had a lock on wisdom or truth. You could report the position of a Republican and a Democrat with a sense that each point of view had a large measure of value and intellectual honesty. But something changed.
The change in politics we are now living with came at first gradually. It was a trickle in the beginning, but then a dam gave way. And we all find ourselves engaged in a running and increasingly destructive national argument that is about little more than tribal partisanship where facts disappear and lying multiplies.
The explanation for “why Trump” is actually quite simple and political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have described it with great precision in their important book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. “However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge,” Mann and Ornstein note,“one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
That explanation was written in 2012, long before we could envision the Age of Trump.
Here is a more current assessment from Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s top strategist in 2008, who says the “rotten, fetid and corrupt culture that has metastasized around an intellectually bankrupt GOP” is horrible for the country and will take years to correct.
Or put yet another way: national Republicans have now for some years advanced an often internally incoherent and essentially dishonest set of policy ideas that have debased the intellectual rationale of a once genuine conservative – and responsible – party. Tax cuts trump deficit reduction under GOP presidents, but are ruining the country when the other party is in power. A “feckless” foreign policy is to be condemned under Barack Obama, but Trump trashing NATO, cooing with dictators and praising Putin is now somehow just fine under a Republican.
Republican leaders are now facing the consequence of such a craven and opportunistic approach to politics. The consequences of misleading, misinforming and misusing their followers now sits in the White House, which brings me to the junior Senator from Idaho, James E. Risch.
Idaho’s Dubious Claims to Political Fame…
Idaho, a state I called home for nearly 40 years and where I worked in and around the state’s politics for all of that period, has a decidedly mixed political history. The state has produced a small collection of truly impressive political leaders, including William E. Borah, an old-style progressive Republican, and Frank Church, an old-style western liberal. Borah chaired the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920s and was a major power in Washington. Church chaired the same committee in the 1970s and investigated the excesses of the nation’s intelligence agencies, probed foreign corruption by American businesses, passed important conservation legislation and stood up to a president of his own party on the issue of a disastrous war. Jim McClure, a Reagan conservative who served in both the House and Senate, could be a tough partisan, but was also known as a serious legislative workhorse. After those three Idahoans of national prominence the state’s Congressional gruel gets pretty thin.
Take George V. Hansen for example. A lumbering six foot, six inch 300 pound ultra-conservative, Hansen in a way symbolizes Idaho on the national stage. As a congressman Big George made a showboating trip to Iran in 1979 to negotiate the release of the American embassy hostages. The move failed, of course, but it generated a lot of news coverage that Hansen milked for all its worth. He was anti-IRS, anti-OSHA and anti-EPA. He voted against civil rights and never passed a piece of legislation even remotely important to his constituents. Twice convicted of various financial shenanigans, a judge actually said Hansen wasn’t really an evil man just a stupid one. Look it up.
The first line of Hansen’s 2014 New York Times obituary captured the essence of his wacky career. Hansen was, the Times noted, “a Republican politician whose open disdain for federal authority made him a popular figure in Idaho, where he was elected to Congress seven times, and who twice landed in federal prison.”
More recently one-time Senator Larry Craig became a laugh line for every late night comedian when his “wide stance” in a men’s restroom in the Minneapolis airport resulted in an arrest by an undercover cop who charged the senator with lewd conduct. Craig plead guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, quickly said he would resign from the Senate, then reneged and spent months fighting his own admission of wrongdoing using campaign funds to finance his legal action. The Federal Election Commission sued Craig for misusing campaign funds. He lost on appeal.
When a sex scandal involving House members and pages erupted in the early 1980s, Craig denied any involvement even though no one had accused him of wrongdoing. Many Idahoans just shrugged and elected Craig to the Senate where he warmed a seat and engineered earmarks from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. Beyond the sex scandals Larry Craig’s main claim to Senate fame was to champion a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that his own party never supported and to carry reservoirs of water for the National Rifle Association. Although he served in the Senate for 18 years and six years in the House you can search long and hard to find a significant legislative accomplishment with Craig’s name attached.
The Junior Senator from Idaho…
Although never touched by the kind of personal scandal that came to define the careers of Hansen and Craig, current Senator Risch, a wealthy trial lawyer who prides himself on being the most conservative senator, is every bit as much a non-entity. Risch, a senior member of both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, has been among the most outspoken defenders of Donald Trump. Risch wears his extreme partisanship and the GOP’s moral bankruptcy on his sleeve.
Without knowing the full extent of Trump’s remarkable sharing of super-sensitive intelligence with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, Risch hurriedly regurgitated White House talking points on three different news programs – CNN, Fox and the PBS NewsHour – declaring that the bumbling president did nothing wrong when he shared state secrets. The real offense, Risch insisted, came from “the weasels” within the White House and the administration that leaked the details of Trump’s crazy actions.
“The real story here is there’s a weasel here,” Risch told The NewsHours John Yang. “They betrayed their own country, they betrayed their families and their neighbors, and when you disclose classified information … it is an act of treason. It’s unfortunate we can’t get that person identified, but he or she should be identified and treated as any treasonous person would be.” In another interview Risch said it was time to question the Washington Post about the sources of the leaks.
As a senior member on the two most important committees assessing the extent of Russian interference in the last election, and with extensive access to information and sources in the intelligence community Risch might have chosen to play the role of truth seeker or even wise skeptic. Instead he’s gone full partisan calling Trump’s disclosure “a good act.” You can’t find a person in the intelligence community who agrees with such sophistry. No serious person thinks Trump acted out of anything other than ignorance or arrogance.
“It’s part of this anti-Trump fervor that the national media has to try to make him look bad every time he turns around. This was a good act that he did, not a bad act that he did,” Risch said on PBS.
Risch has found no words to express even mild concern that a president under investigation has fired his investigator. When asked a few months back about Russian interference in the election Risch brushed off any concern. “I don’t think they interfered. I think they attempted to interfere,” Risch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
The CNN host felt it necessary to remind Risch that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies came to a different conclusion.
These are simply astounding statements by a U.S. Senator with broad access to intelligence and foreign policy knowledge. So astounding in fact that former Idaho attorney general and state Supreme Court justice Jim Jones, a Republican who once harbored his own Senate aspirations, observed in a recent newspaper column that he was “having a hard time understanding the Republican Party that I joined back in the early 1960s.”
With Risch no doubt in mind, Jones, now retired, asked “Has the Republican Party turned into such a hyper-partisan entity that it is not willing to get to the bottom of this alarming mess? Seems so.”
The glaring reality of the “intellectually bankrupt GOP” is clearly on display with politicians like Jim Risch. His knee jerk defense of Trump stands in stark contrast to his knee jerk denunciations of the previous president. He excuses behavior today that he would have condemned as treasonous a year ago. It is the behavior of a political hack, not a serious senator.
Risch’s behavior and hyper-partisanship conjure up memories of another Idaho Republican senator from the 1950s. Herman Welker was another political non-entity with no legislative accomplishments who nonetheless drove fear of Communism into a single, forgettable Senate term. To the extent Welker is remembered at all today relates to his slavish devotion to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, an earlier demagogue not infrequently compared to our current American demagogue. Welker defended McCarthy to the bitter, bitter end, condemned McCarthy’s “unfair” treatment by the press, berated McCarthy’s critics and voted against McCarthy’s censure. History has treated Welker harshly – there are no monuments to the man in Idaho – and will, I suspect, treat Republicans like Risch just as roughly.
The party that once made it an article of faith to abhor almost any coziness with a dictator in the Kremlin now regularly apologizes for a president who acts more and more in the interest of Putin and at the expense of America’s standing around the world. It is simply a remarkable transformation and unlike anything we have witnessed in politics of our lifetimes.
Pause and review for a moment the developments of the last two weeks, including former CIA director John Brennan’s recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a portion of which is quoted above. Then ask yourself what being a United States senator really entails?
Is independence part of the job? Maybe embracing a penchant for facts over rank partisan obfuscation is what the founders had in mind when they gave the Senate power to check the excesses of a reckless chief executive. Maybe the guts to stand up to a clown is part of the job even if it puts a senator in the uncomfortable position of bucking the prevailing sentiment of his party. Perhaps country really should come before partisanship.
The unprecedented leaking from the White House and the intelligence community might well be a reason for concern if the president of the United States were even remotely capable of exercising his responsibilities. But that is not the state of play in American politics. Jim Risch would shut down the “weasels” that are helping all of us understand the dangers of a president both intellectually unprepared for the job and too ignorant to know what he doesn’t know.
At a moment when history demands political leaders who stand for something bigger than their own party and who believe in something more important than the next election, the junior senator from Idaho is playing a role that has become all too common. It may be politically safe, at least for a while longer, to cozy up to Trump, but excusing his behavior has absolutely nothing to do with duty, honor and country.
There will be a day of reckoning with all the nonsense and incompetence and possibly worse that Republicans have embraced in their subservience to Trump. Some in safe seats will survive the ultimate blowback, while others will be shown the door. All will live and die with the taint – or the stink – of a kind of immoral collaboration that already has them being labeled “Vichy Republicans.”
Meanwhile, looking at the conduct of craven politicians like Jim Risch I almost find myself longing for a politician who was just a stupid crook. Ol’ George Hansen suddenly doesn’t look so bad.
Karp, a historian at Princeton, has produced a truly fine book that not only manages to make interesting what might seem to be a dry subject in American history – pre-Civil War foreign policy – but he also illuminates why slaveholding southerners fought so hard to shape the country’s international posture. Spoiler alert: It was all about preserving slavery and its perceived economic benefits not only in the United States but also in much of the western hemisphere. Cuba and Brazil, for example, were slave nations and southerners reckoned that the U.S. could best preserve its “peculiar institution” by encouraging its survival, indeed expansion, in the hemisphere.
Southerners and others favorable to slavery dominated the American government and particularly our foreign and military policy, until 1860. Karp makes the observation that, “the antebellum president least sympathetic to slavery,” Zachery Taylor, “owned 300 slaves.” Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was therefore seen as a profound threat to the “peculiar institution” and by the time Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861 the path to disunion was well worn by the secession of seven southern states.
“The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the non-slaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States,” Karp writes. “Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.”
Donald J. Trump doesn’t operate at this level of historic detail or nuance and never will. His amazing comments a while back seeming to express surprise that Lincoln was a Republican should have had every GOP precinct worker in American scratching their heads in disbelief. And his remarkably incoherent recent ramblings about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War present in striking relief just the level of the man’s lack of awareness, or even more seriously, his lack of interest.
Why Was There a Civil War?
Trump’s ignorance of history, and I’m talking just basic eighth grade level stuff here, was fully on display recently when he told journalist Selena Zito, “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?”
The guy who likely couldn’t pass the civic and history test immigrants take to qualify for citizenship then opined that his new hero Andrew Jackson, dead 16 years before the Civil War began, was “really angry” about the whole business.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” the president said. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said “There’s no reason for this.’”
Actually there was a reason – a very good one – for the Civil War: slavery.
It should probably be no great surprise that a president who wants to end federal support for libraries – the arts, humanities and public broadcasting, too – has a more tenuous grasp on American history than anyone who has ever occupied the office.
Trump’s historical – and historic – ignorance is no small, laughing matter, but rather deeply dangerous, potentially catastrophically so. For as the esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner has said, “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a ‘usable past’: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”
Trump’s Drunk History…
Writing in the New Republic Jeet Heer compared Trump’s historical ignorance to the “inebriated ramblings found on Comedy Central’s Drunk History.” We have come to expect a basic level of intelligence from the chief magistrate about the nation’s history, but Trump could no more pass a basic history quiz – an AP history course would leave him muttering – than he can speak in complete sentences. It is profoundly obvious that this vacuum of basic knowledge impacts policy and priorities, sometimes dangerously so.
The president’s claim that it will be easy to bridge the Israeli-Palestine divide is the boast of someone who has never heard of the Balfour Declaration or has only a fragmentary understanding of the history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Trump’s essential arrogance is on display in all these areas and a dozen more and his grasp of how history relates to current issues is driven by the worst possible combination of ignorance and hubris.
One more example: Journalist Dave Owen is out with a new book on the Colorado River, the over appropriated liquid lifeline of the American Southwest. As part of his reporting on the challenges which confront the Colorado, Owen talked at some length to candidate Trump. Owen’s assessment of Trump’s knowledge of the issues is both brutal and a quite typical of nearly everyone who has studied the guy.
“He knows as little about water as he does about anything else,” Owen said of the president. “He said you could solve your problems out there with a big pipeline to bring the water in, or you could do that thing when you take the salt out of the ocean – desalination.
“He definitely thinks there’s an easy solution, and he’ll discover that it’s really complicated. Water is a lot bigger than he is, and it will defeat him. The relationships, the legal structures, the international agreements – it’s all beyond anything that he could possibly comprehend.”
Any westerner with even a passing understanding of water, its uses and the complicated and contentious history of the resource knows that the president’s policy prescription – a big pipeline – is not just ridiculously naïve, but completely unrealistic.
A growing group of American historians have joined the “resistance” to such fundamental ignorance. Penn State historian Amy Greenberg recently told The New Republic, “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before. I’m a historian.” But Trump’s broad misunderstandings and extraordinary lack of knowledge have her “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.”
“If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay,” Greenburg said of the president’s Civil War and Jackson comments, “that student would not pass that exam. That student would fail.”
A particularly pernicious aspect of Trump’s fumbling around with Civil War history is that it helps embolden the still very active “revisionist” view of what America’s great tragedy – the Civil War – and its enduring historical stain – human bondage – meant in the 19th Century and how those battles continue to play out.
As historian Manisha Sinha noted recently in the New York Daily News, “If nothing else, President Trump and the Republicans are making Civil War revisionism great again. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina GOP state Rep. Larry Pittman argued that Abraham Lincoln was ‘the same sort (of) tyrant’ as Adolf Hitler, and was ‘personally responsible’ for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an ‘unnecessary and unconstitutional’ war.”
The revisionist arguments go all the way back to the post-Civil War memoirs of various players in the great national conflict and was cemented on the silver screen with the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind, a classic film that is also a classic case of spinning the war and its aftermath into a glorious narrative of chivalry, state’s rights and an elegant way of life.
Look no further than the current turmoil in New Orleans where Mayor Mitch Landrieu has led the charge to remove various Confederate monuments that the mayor says don’t illuminate southern history, but rather distort it. Demonstrators waving Confederate flags have disrupted the removal and contractors doing the work have received death threats. The entire episode, as the New York Times notes, “demonstrates the Confederacy’s enduring power to divide Americans more than 150 years after the cause was lost.”
Having a historically ignorant president stoking the already hot embers of “why was there was a Civil War” is simply piling on the racial and other divisions Trump has ridden all the way to the White House. He may be ignorant of his country’s history, but the ignorance serves his own, but not the nation’s, political interest. A president who cannot differentiate between Chinese and Korean interests in the matter of nuclear weapons or who views Middle East peace as a simple deal to be hashed out on the golf course only serves the interest of confusion and chaos, a dangerous mixture in a hair trigger world.
Harold Evans, a distinguished British historian and journalist, has the perfect way of describing what Trump (and others) do when they distort or refuse to understand history. “Dishonest leaders,” Evans wrote recently, “have learned nothing and forgotten everything.”
The United States in 2017 – this is where we are. Hug a historian, or at least read one. You will be doing what our president can’t and won’t do.
“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Donald J. Trump, shortly after his election, dismissing concerns about conflicts of interest.
Prior to January 20, 2017 the United States had endured two periods of political malfeasance that have served to define presidential corruption. Donald J. Trump, in fewer than 100 days in office, has given us a third era of presidential sleaze. In fact, in terms of personal and administration corruption and conflict of interest Trump may well have entered a zone that Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding never came close to inhabiting. (The Washington Post’sJennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion columnist, made the same point recently.)
Grant and Harding have long been the presidential poster boys for corruption in high places. Grant’s two terms right after the Civil War were plagued with a cast of sleazy characters motivated by personal gain. Grant’s corrupt administration included his Secretary of War William Belknap who ran a scam that involved channeling huge kick backs to the secretary from a crook Belknap had appointed to operate a lucrative Indian trading post in Oklahoma. Belknap resigned hoping to avoid impeachment, but the Senate tried him anyway with a majority of members concluding he had accepted bribes.
Harding populated his administration in the early 1920s with a cast of his oddball political friends – the Ohio Gang – who fleeced government agencies, peddled influence and secretly sold federal oil concessions. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior went to jail. Harding famously remarked, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
While both president’s were politically naïve – some might say stupid – about the vast trouble some of their closest associates caused, neither was man was truly a grifter. Grant’s and Harding’s encounters with corruption were more like accidentally brushing against a patch of poison ivy and coming away with a rash. Neither man purposely decided to get naked and wallow around in the poison.
Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, has willfully waded into a swamp of poisonous corruption during his first three months in office. Among all the norms and traditions Trump has trashed, making corruption great again may be the most serious offense of his startlingly disastrous presidency.
The potential and actual conflicts in Trumpland are so vast as to defy list making, but let’s give it a try. A brief survey of recent news coverage reveals a long list and these are just the issues we know about:
China: Trump is being “informally” advised on economic policy by Steve Schwartzman, the CEO of the Blackstone Group, a giant private equity firm with extensive holdings in China.
China is no longer “a currency manipulator,” Trump says, after repeatedly making that claim during the campaign. What has changed? He’s now being coached by Schwartzman who stands, by his own admission, to win or lose big depending on what policies Trump applies to China.
“Even if Schwarzman was acting in the capacity of an economic expert, those policy changes directly help Schwarzman’s bottom line as CEO of Blackstone, the private equity giant,” Politico reports. “And Blackstone has gone so far as to warn its investors about the stakes of Trump’s China policy. In a recent regulatory filing, Blackstone explicitly warned its investors that Trump’s tough talk on China threatened to hurt Blackstone’s portfolio.”
Is Trump making economic policy for the American people or a billionaire buddy?
And there is this: Ivanka Trump, the president’s “unpaid” White House advisor, recently received lucrative Chinese trademark licenses valuable to her clothing line. The First Daughter received the Chinese approval the same day she and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the Chinese president at a dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Were Ivanka Trump’s extensive business interests in China “a factor leading Donald Trump to change his previously tough approach to Beijing,” asks columnist Walter Shapiro. Make an educated guess.
Speaking of Mar-a-Lago, every time the president visits his resort – and in the first 100 days Trump trips to Florida have been numerous – American taxpayers are in effect paying him for food and other services to support the White House entourage and foreign guests. Trump’s resort has charged the Secret Service thousands of dollars for the rental of golf carts apparently needed to protect the guy who owns the place and he pockets the rental fees. This arrangement is the very definition of a conflict.
Turkey: “Are President Trump’s business ties to Istanbul stopping him from reprimanding the Turkish president for his authoritarian power grab,” asks the right leaning website Conservative Review.
“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said last year. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” It is also a textbook example of a conflict of interest that apparently in his own less than self aware way even Trump recognizes.
Russia: Where to begin. The whole ball of wax is beginning to melt, but it will take time before the level of corruption by Trump associates, and likely the president himself, is fully exposed. I still think the corruption is mostly about money and one hopes the Republican controlled Congress is not slow rolling a serious investigation. But if the GOP stonewalls on a serious review of what has gone on and this house of cards begins to tumble, the post-Watergate era for the GOP will look like a mild setback in comparison.
The most recent Russian outrage involves, predictably, the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil Rex Tillerson, now serving as Secretary of Russian Oil Deals, but confirmed by a sleeping U.S. Senate as Secretary of State.
As the Wall Street Journal reported recently Exxon/Mobil has long sought U.S. permission to drill with the Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft, in areas banned by the sanctions imposed against Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime. The oil company, the Journal notes, “renewed a push for approval in March, shortly after its most recent chief executive, Rex Tillerson, became secretary of state.”
Approving the waiver – at least at the moment – was apparently too big a leap even for the Trumpers since the administration quickly declined the Exxon request. But stay tuned. It will be back.
Greasy palms: It has now been reported that Dow Chemical has been lobbying the Trump administration to discard pesticide rules the company doesn’t like. The big push to thwart the rules began after Dow’s CEO was installed as a top outside advisor to the president. Oh, yes, and after the company wrote a $1 million check to the Trump Inaugural committee.
Stories are only now emerging that detail the massive level of corporate giving to the Trump inaugural. The total haul, a record, is about $107 million – for an inaugural.
As the Washington Post reports, “In all, more than 45 individuals and companies donated at least $1 million each to the effort as Trump broke with the practice of most recent inaugural committees and placed no limits on corporate or individual donors.” The Trump inaugural committee has reported contributions, but not how the money was spent or whether, as had been promised, any money has gone to charity.
Trump Inauguration committee. This whole episode is vaguely reminiscent of the U.S. dairy industry illegally funneling Richard Nixon’s campaign $2 million in exchange for a pledge that the Nixon Administration would increase federal milk price supports. That scandal eventually resulted in several plea bargain agreements that were struck by the Watergate special prosecutor. History does have a way of rhyming.
Hiding in plain sight here is that unlimited contributions to the Trump festivities is really thinly disguised “pay-to-play” money that curries favor with the new administration – read “Dow Chemical” – while avoiding any level of accountability. It is essentially legalized bribery of a type that every new administration has engaged in, but now the Trump crowd has taken the practice to an entirely new level of sleaze. Even to the point of accepting money from foreign sources.
Foreign government money to the American president: As has been widely reported various lawsuits are moving forward based on the “emolument clause” of the U.S. Constitution that seems to provide – its never really been litigated – that the president cannot enrich himself through payments from foreign governments. But, of course, that is exactly what is happening when a foreign ambassador decamps to Trump’s Washington, DC hotel or one of Trump’s foreign properties benefits – and the president benefits, too – from an exchange of money. All of this could have been avoided had Trump done what every respected ethics expert says he must do and divested his foreign and domestic interests and created a true blind trust for his investments. His smoke and mirrors steps to date are woefully inadequate to the task of avoiding conflicts of interest.
A new USA Today investigation finds that Trump owns “at least $250 million of individual properties in the USA alone. Property records show Trump’s trust and his companies own at least 422 luxury condos and penthouses from New York City to Las Vegas, 12 mansion lots on bluffs overlooking his golf course on the Pacific Ocean and dozens more smaller pieces of real estate. The properties range in value from about $200,000 to $35 million each.
The USA Today report says since his election Trump has sold millions of dollars worth of real estate often to shell companies that make it impossible to track the real buyer. “Anyone seeking to influence the president could set up an anonymous company and purchase his property,” Heather Lowe, director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a D.C.-based group aimed at curbing illicit financial transactions told the newspaper. “It’s a big black box, and the system is failing as a check for conflicts of interest.”
And, of course, “Unlike developments where Trump licenses his name to a separate developer for a flat fee,” USA Today reports, “profits from selling individual properties directly owned by his companies ultimately enrich him personally.”
Trump Tax returns: Certainly the greatest potential conflicts lurk in thousands of pages of Trump’s tax returns, the returns he once blithely promised to release and now vows will never see the disinfecting power of sunlight. The conflicts here are both staggering and unprecedented. The president of the United States may soon be pushing a tax reform proposal that will personally enrich his bottom line. His coziness with Russia may be due to existing or previous business loans with Russian banks or the Putin aligned Russian billionaires who operate like a Mafia enterprise. The tax returns would explain much about Trump’s conflicts of interest which is precisely why he will never, short of legal or Congressional command, release them.
I’m certain I left out a few other examples of actual or perceived corruption or conflicts of interest off this list, but you get the drift. Trump has succeeded in record time in trashing the ethical norms of American political behavior across the board, but no where has it been more striking than in his wonton disregard for basic ethical standards.
It is striking how quickly and completely it has happened and how little push back has ensued from political people who once would have found any one of the examples I’ve listed as a scandal of significant consequence. Or as the Post’s Jennifer Rubin puts it, “What is striking is the degree to which the Trump clan publicly flaunts its ethical laxity and disinterest in complying with norms that every other president and his family have managed to follow.”
Die-hard Trumpanista’s will continue to ignore the ethical swamp that their man has expanded rather than drained, so it will be up to the courts and few bipartisan voices of reason to try to hold this willful man to something approaching normal standards. Technically and narrowly the conflict law is on Trump’s side since, unbelievably, Congress has never made a president subject to the ethics statutes that apply to everyone else in government from a clerk at the Interior Department to a cabinet secretary. Morality and decency, however, are not on his side and the flaunting of long established ethical norms only makes the egregious list of conflicts more disgusting. Trump and his cronies, way more than a Grant or a Harding or a Nixon, have taken political ethics into as a place that increasingly resembles a third world dictatorship, or a kleptocracy more in keeping with Putin’s Russia or the weird blend of Communism and billionaires that rule China. What Trumpism is not is anything resembling American democracy.
The evidence of corruption – personal, family and by associates – threatens to become so widespread and persistent as to be considered, well, normal. And it is not normal.
And it has all happened so quickly. The ethical norms of American government and politics have been trashed by a man who ironically accused his opponent of being crooked and then pledged to drain the sleaze from our politics. It took the Watergate scandal and the resignation of a president to establish the broadly bipartisan standards that have applied to every president since.
It is hard to believe a real sense of ethics at the highest levels of government can be restored as quickly as the conman-in-chief has torn it all apart. In fact with this president it is increasingly difficult to believe that ethics as we once defined the term can be restored at all.
“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?
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Congressional Republicans spent seven years – and 60-plus repeal votes in the House of Representatives – promising their most fervent supporters that if they ever got all the political power in Washington, D.C. they would wipe away the hated Obamacare on Day One.
On Day Sixty-four they ran head long into an old political reality – don’t believe your own press releases.
In the end, the collapse of the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment – the Affordable Care Act – was based on a huge miscalculation, a miscalculation that is now the signature reality of the Grand Old Party. The politics of opposition met the realism of substance. Given seven years to come up with a genuine alternative to what virtually everyone concedes is a flawed national health policy, Republicans, particularly the vacuous leader of their party, punted on substance.
Just consider what President-elect Trump told the Washington Post a week before taking office. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law, he said, “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
The Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein reported in that January interview that Trump – wait for it – declined to discuss specifics. Big surprise. There were no specifics short of a massive tax cut for the most well to do and a butchering of Medicaid.
The intellectual bankruptcy of Donald Trump’s GOP, the total triumph of puffy rhetoric over hard reality, was on full display during the Republican art of the fail. The empty suit in the Oval Office met the empty heads in Congress. Of course, Trump predictably blamed Democrats for failing to undo the legislation that they bled over and that cost the party many seats in Congress. It won’t wash. Democrats actually believe in what they have done, while Republicans now fully embrace the smoke and mirrors that surround Trump and the party he now owns, if cannot control. Not surprisingly the post mortem’s have been, and brutally so, all about Trump’s failure and that of the once and never again policy wonk Paul Ryan.
“It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the Day 64 defeat,” wrote Axios’ Mike Allen, a D.C. access journalist who rarely misses a chance to curry favor with the powerful. “President Trump, who made repeal-and-replace a central theme of his campaign, and House Republicans, who made it the central theme of every campaign since 2010, lost in a publicly humiliating way despite controlling every branch of government and enjoying margins in the House rarely seen in the past century.”
The Miami Herald – Trump won Florida just four months ago you may recall – was just as critical. Republicans “made a huge political miscalculation,” the Herald’s editorial said. “They were vociferous. They were resolute. Ultimately, they were clueless. Well, their constituents, many getting preventive care for the first time, or prenatal care, or cancer treatments clued them in: Obamacare, for all its faults, was working for them.
“Ryan finally — finally — stated the obvious: ‘Doing big things is hard.’ (We’re suppressing a ‘Duh!’) And it’s especially difficult when you leave out preparation and inclusiveness to meet a long-touted promise.
And it hasn’t just been the “opposition” press delivering harsh judgments about the Republican debacle. Right wing websites savaged Congressional Republicans with The Drudge Report featuring a photo of the German airship Hindenburg bursting into flames over the headline: Republican Catastrophe.
Politico’s Tim Alberta relayed this little bit of color from a critical meeting Trump had last Thursday with the self-righteous egotists of the hard right House Freedom Caucus. “Forget about the little shit,” Trump told those who taught the new president his painful lesson about the art of the Washington deal. “Let’s focus on the big picture here,” the Closer-in-Chief opined. Trump’s message, of course, was that substance doesn’t matter. Don’t sweat the details. The art of the flim-flam got him elected, after all. Who would have thought governing could be so hard?
Trump’s constant use of shape shifting lies notwithstanding, Republicans own this colossal mess and for one principle reason: they have abandoned governing, which is to say substance, in favor of once again trotting out the old hackneyed rightwing clichés and policy inconsistency. Trump’s promise of “health care for all” that would lower costs was always nonsense and internally inconsistent, about as intellectually honest as a sales pitch for Trump University.
This defeat was so big and so obvious that perhaps even Donald Trump can’t spin it away. And Congressional Republicans are going to have difficulty escaping the reality that they fumed against Obamacare for seven politically productive years, but when given a real chance to change the law – or repeal it outright – the GOP quarterbacks took a knee.
Stipulate the obvious: Obamacare has problems. Premiums are too high for many working poor, some states have opted out of the Medicaid portion of the program and the whole scheme remains complicated and confusing. Blame Democrats for some of the confusion. They have never been able to articulate a consistent message about the benefits and there have been real benefits, including insurance coverage for millions of Americans who had not been covered before. Also blame Republicans for the confusion because they have repeatedly misrepresented the negatives impacts of a program that impacts less than 10% of the entire health care marketplace.
Still, Obamacare needs work just like the defense budget or Trump’s golf game needs work, but the constant GOP mantra that the Affordable Care Act is imploding or cratering the economy is just as nonsensical as the tweets from the West Wing. But having ridden the “Obamacare is killing America” hobby horse to electoral success Republicans, as the New York Times pointed out, went searching for a solution to a problem they invented. The problem was invented, of course, because of a burning desire to continue to exploit the issue politically rather than actually work to improve health care. The approach clearly worked. What was missing, as the Times noted, was a “coherent idea or shared vision of what [Republicans] want to achieve and what problem they mean to solve.”
As one wag noted Republicans might have had a better chance to push their plan if they could have pointed to any place in the world were their ideas about enhancing “competition” in health care is working. Americans pay more, have worse outcomes and see more of their fellow citizen’s uninsured than any other major industrialized country. And no country does health care the way we do. The Republican approach wasn’t in any way a fix for a still fractured American approach to health care, but instead would have doubled down on the only strategy the GOP has known in the last two decades: cut taxes for the wealthiest and tell the poor to get a job.
Obama, in pushing the legislation in 2009, sought to reduce the number of uninsured and encourage more preventive care. He succeeded and would have succeeded even more broadly had Republicans not spent every day of both his terms attempting to delegitimize his presidency and with it his legislation. When Republicans got their chance to show the country what they value – should I mention they have more control over the government than they have enjoyed since the 1920s – they opted to advance a plan that would have ended coverage for 24 million Americans over the next decade and gutted the Medicaid safety net for many of the same working class Americans who, against their own best interests, put Donald Trump in the White House.
To the moral bankruptcy that has accompanied the Congressional Republican embrace of the very idea of Donald Trump as their leader, now you may add the intellectual bankruptcy of treating actual governance the way Trump treats the presidency – with contempt and arrogance.
The Atlantic’s Russell Berman had one of the best summaries of the Republican health care fiasco and one of the best quotes. “I’ve been in this job eight years,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida told Berman, “and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening. We need to start having victories as a party. And if we can’t, then it’s hard to justify why we should be back here.”
The Lewiston Tribunethis week published my remembrance of Mike Mitchell a long-time Idaho legislator and one-time chief of staff to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus. Here’s the piece, written with a smile and a heavy heart.
Generally speaking there are two kinds of people in politics: the show horses and the workhorses. The show horses are often in the game for the title, the attention and because its makes something of them. The workhorses are different. They don’t crowd to the front to take the bows. They go to the meetings, read the bills, master the budget and are in politics because they think they can do something, not just be something.
Long-time Lewiston state legislator Mike Mitchell, who died last week at 91, was a workhorse, or more correctly a draft horse. He pulled the heavy loads in state government and he did so for decades motivated by a fierce commitment to Nez Perce County, his state and to those people at the edges of our system who never seem to have a platform, but deserve an effective voice.
I first met Mike Mitchell in the late 1970s. I was a very junior statehouse reporter. Mitchell, already a legislative veteran, was a minority Democrat on the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the legislature’s budget committee. It didn’t take long for even a novice political reporter to appreciate his encyclopedic grasp of the state budget. He was approachable, authoritative and incapable of the kind of partisan animus many politicians can’t seem to avoid. He was funny, often at his own expense. My regard only grew as I came to know him better and better.
During his long years of public service Mitchell mastered the hard, essential, but not very unglamorous work of government. He forgot more about the state budget than most legislators ever learn. He was an expert on corrections and education and, of course, Lewis Clark State College. He knew more about roads and bridges than most Idaho Transportation Department district engineers. Mike was a student of government and his fingerprints are all over Idaho from social work licensing to services for troubled kids.
It is often said, incorrectly, that government must operate more like a business. Mitchell knew something about business – he was a successful businessman, too – but he also knew that government is different than the private sector. Operating successfully in the public arena, particularly as a Democrat in Republican Idaho, requires an appreciation for facts, a commitment to accommodation and a belief in the art of the possible. Success depends on build relationships and trust and credibility, all of which Mike did and that is why so many people who knew him and worked with him praise his ability to bridge the partisan divide. To know him was simply to like him and respect him.
Mike Mitchell wasn’t a big guy, but his heart was. It was made of gold and his backbone made of steel. Mike wasn’t one to shy away from a fight, but he was more comfortable making things work and he did make things work time and again.
I had the singular honor of my life to work with Mike Mitchell and for Cecil D. Andrus, the man Mike replaced in the state senate when Andrus was elected governor for the first time in 1970. Mike became a mentor, a friend, a golfing partner and one of the best joke tellers I’ve ever laughed with.
When he “retired” after Andrus’ 1990 re-election – that retirement didn’t stick and he had a whole second act in politics and public service – I followed him as chief of staff to the governor. I didn’t replace him, however. No one could. He was Mike Mitchell.
There was only one of his kind. He is missed already.
“I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
In February 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the U.S. government to forcibly remove the entire Japanese-American population of the west coast. Within months 110,000 men, women and children were moved to concentration camps in the interior of the country, including Idaho the state I called home for more than 40 years. History records this unconstitutional treatment of thousands of people, the vast majority of them American citizens, as one of the worst violations of civil liberties in our history.
Driven by fear, racial prejudice, national security hysteria and even economic considerations, then-Idaho Governor Chase Clark, a Democrat, and most every other political leader in the country willingly embraced the politically popular notion that citizens of Japanese ancestry represented a security threat. They “act like rats,” Clark said in a scathing indictment of all of Japanese ancestry. If they where to be brought to Idaho, Clark maintained, they must be kept under military guard in “concentration camps.” A better solution to the “Jap Problem” was to “send them all back to Japan, then sink the island.”
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act authorizing modest compensation for the Japanese-American citizens incarcerated by their own government a half-century earlier. Reagan remarked that the government’s “action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race.”
Now, history repeats with a new dark chapter.
Seventy-five year after Roosevelt’s grievous violation of civil liberties another American president is using an un-American standard – religion – to discriminate and persecute American citizens, foreign citizens legally in the United States and desperate refugees, primarily women and children, seeking to flee mayhem in Syria and elsewhere.
As with the events of 1942, Donald Trump’s recent sweeping Executive Order is driven by fear, misinformation about threats to national security and apparently by a misguided belief that all Muslims, even those who have put their own lives at risk to add American military efforts in the Middle East, present a danger.
So far the response of Idaho elected officials to the arguably unconstitutional Executive Order has been faint-hearted acquiesce. This capitulation to fear and bigotry, particularly given Idaho’s troubled history of racial and religious discrimination, including battles against the Aryan Nations and anti-Mormon bigotry, deserves the strongest possible condemnation. This is an Idaho fight.
Racial and religious intolerance has been stoked recently in south central Idaho by the alt-right website Breitbart, not coincidentally the same region where thousands of Japanese-Americans were incarcerated 75 years ago. Major political leaders have been silent, while Breitbart’s former CEO, Stephen Bannon, becomes the top political strategist to the president with a seat on the National Security Council. Breitbart’s immigration policy is now America’s.
As the late Dr. Bob Sims, a Boise State University historian of the Japanese-American internment, wrote of Governor Clark’s position in the 1940s, that it “may have seemed fearless and patriotic, but in retrospect it appears to have been nothing more, or less, than a combination of xenophobia and racism.” Sims acknowledged that Clark, who later become a respected federal judge, deserved to be remembered for the totality of his career, but also for “his shortcomings in World War II, for they were not his alone but America’s.”
In the life of every politician there comes a moment when moral reality presents a stark choice between principle and party, between what is momentarily popular and what is consistent with American values. This is such a moment and the timid, spineless response from Idaho leaders is truly reprehensible.
If you oppose the president’s action as an un-American, unconstitutional religious test targeting one vulnerable group then adopt the all-American response – oppose it, loudly and consistently.
And a footnote: Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 never mentioned Japanese-Americans, but the order was clearly directed at that population. The Trump Administration says its order is “not a Muslim ban.” History does repeat.