2020 Election, Idaho Politics, Trump

They Knew…

They all knew. 

Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher. They all knew. 

They knew the Republican candidate for president in 2016 was a fraud, a con man, a grifter, a bully, unfit, a liar, incompetent, even dangerous. They knew it and said it at the time. Crapo said he couldn’t support the guy after the Access Hollywood tape became public. Now, he quietly and meekly stands by while the attacks continue on John McCain and Muslims, women and minorities. The politician who once celebrated the character of a Reagan or a Bush grovels before a gold-plated fabulist who refuses to condemn white supremacists

Idaho Republican Mike Crapo repudiated Trump as unfit, then he went all in

Risch supported Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz and then finally the guy who paid $750 in federal income taxes in both of his first two years in the White House. Actually, to be precise, Risch really didn’t support him, but because the senator is a profoundly partisan hack first and an American second, he’s embraced the con man

A year ago, Simpson said the whole Trump universe was a “distraction” that he refused to pay attention to, at least he did until he needed an endorsement for this re-election and then he went all in with the Grifter-in-Chief. The once principled congressman from Idaho’s second district is now all quiet. He’s all in on tax avoidance and almost surely tax fraud. Rampant foreign interference in American democracy, trying to cripple the post office and lying about mail ballots, but, well, character and honesty are vastly overrated.

Fulcher, a guy who’s never had an original thought in his political life, is a special case. He’s not just a partisan hack, but worse. The rookie congressman, with precisely zero to show for two years in Congress, is a museum exhibit for why Idaho’s first district has elected so many overstuffed sofas to Congress in the last 60 years. You need to steal from the late Molly Ivins to describe Fulcher-level vacuousness: “If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day.”

Ted Cruz knew. And Lindsey Graham. And Rand Paul. And, yes, Mitt Romney knew. They all knew. They called him a “bigot,” “utterly immoral,” the “Kim Kardashian of politics,” a “narcissist at a level that I don’t think this country has ever seen.” 

Governor Brad Little knew. Yet, he stood by while the president’s conspiracy theories and rank incompetence undermined his own faltering response to a deadly pandemic. While Idaho children contracted the virus and the White House pressured the Centers for Disease Control to soft pedal the risks of reopening schools, the governor was tweeting his praise for a Supreme Court nominee. Little is a smart guy, a decent guy, a Vandal. He knew it was all a disaster. 

They knew, especially Risch who had the access to the intelligence briefings and the best White House pass, that his response to the pandemic was going to unnecessarily kill thousands of Americans. They knew that not invoking the Defense Production Act to speed protective gear and testing kits to hospitals and schools was a disaster. They knew and they said nothing. It’s worse than merely being stupid, when you know, its malicious and deadly. 

They knew 200,000 dead Americans and 460 dead Idahoans was an historic fail, a tragedy. They knew. 

Idaho Republican Jim Risch hams it up with Ivanka Trump at the winter Olympics

They all knew when his first secretary of state called him a “moron,” when his second National Security Advisor called him “an idiot” and when his first defense secretary said he had the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” that he was taking the country to a dark and dangerous place. They saw it. They knew.

Now comes the cold reality that we all knew. He’s never been a successful businessman. He inherited $400 million and is now $400 million in debt. His casinos failed, his university failed, his airline and steaks and vodka failed. The failure of his presidency, we all knew, would follow. And it has. 

Much has been made of the report that he paid only $750 dollars in taxes during each of his first two years in the White House, while the average American household pays that much every month. While that does explain his panicked efforts to prevent his voters from knowing the extent of the scam, that isn’t the real story. The real story is that he’s a fraud, a fraud who almost certainly has committed fraud

They know, even as they act like it’s no big deal, that his huge personal debt and his desperation are a true national security threat. There are no coincidences in politics, so it is little wonder that he praises Putin, flatters Erdogan and cozies up to every flim-flam despot in the world. They know he needs these thugs – their money, their encouragement, their playbook.  

They knew that surrounding the presidency with enabling sycophants and grifting family members was a huge mistake, but they liked the judges and the tax cuts that flowed to their own bottom lines. And besides they knew that they had lost “the base” to the basest, most self-centered, incapable and destructive charlatan since Mussolini strutted in Rome. They knew. 

They know they once believed in character and integrity and “the rule of law.” They were the party of the Gipper and Ike; they still invoke Lincoln as if the icon of their party would recognize the current bumbling brutality. They know it was all a lie. And they know they enabled and then embraced the chaos and the crazy

They also know that in politics there is always, always a reckoning. You can fool some of the people always, but the rest eventually catch on. The reckoning is coming. They know. 

They hope, as they stare into the dysfunction, decay and disease of the country under their watch, that it was all an aberration, a spasm of crassness and craziness when America went temporarily off the rails before self-correcting. They hope, because they don’t really know. 

They hope the memories are short and the forgiveness is plentiful because they knew it was all going to be a disaster from the first day. They hope they can hang on to their seats, and this being Idaho, they probably will, but they must know they own all the mistakes, the carelessness, the lying, the death and damage to democracy. They know and they know it will haunt them all their days. 

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Additional Reading:

Some articles from the last few days that I found of interest. You may, too.

I Lived Through Collapse. America Is Already There.

Indi Samarajiva is a writer who lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka and experienced first-hand the collapse of his country’s civil society. 

This is the most chilling thing I’ve read in a while. 

“Perhaps you’re waiting for some moment when the adrenaline kicks in and you’re fighting the virus or fascism all the time, but it’s not like that. Life is not a movie, and if it were, you’re certainly not the star. You’re just an extra. If something good or bad happens to you it’ll be random and no one will care. If you’re unlucky you’re a statistic. If you’re lucky, no one notices you at all.

“Collapse is just a series of ordinary days in between extraordinary bullshit, most of it happening to someone else. That’s all it is.”

The full piece:


The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Changing Our Dreams

But you knew that, right? I don’t always remember the dreams, but the ones that do follow me into the day have been doozies. 

Tore Nielsen is a professor of psychiatry at the Université de Montréal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory there. She writes in Scientific American:

“Although widespread changes in dreaming had been reported in the U.S. following extraordinary events such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, a surge of this magnitude had never been documented. This upwelling of dreams is the first to occur globally and the first to happen in the era of social media, which makes dreams readily accessible for immediate study. As a dream ‘event,’ the pandemic is unprecedented.”

You’re not dreaming unless you’re dreaming weird stuff. The full article.


The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever

Before Bush v. Gore there was Hayes v. Tilden in 1876. 

Tilden won the popular vote, Hayes became president. It was 1876

“Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were deemed too close to call, and with those states still in question, Tilden remained one electoral vote short of the 185 required by the Constitution to win election. With 165 electoral votes tallied for Hayes, all he needed to do was capture the combined 20 electoral votes from those three contested states, and he’d win the presidency. The ensuing crisis took months to unfold, beginning with threats of another civil war and ending with an informal, behind-the-scenes deal—the Compromise of 1877—that gave Hayes the presidency in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.

Gilbert King in Smithsonian magazine has the history of the most contentious presidential election – until now, perhaps. 

Economy, Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

The Next Wave

“The Republican states are in strong shape,” Donald Trump said last month. “I don’t know — is that luck or is that talent?” 

The president made that comment when he was asked if state governments need a financial transfusion in order to staunch the flow of budgetary red ink in the wake of the double whammy of a pandemic and a massive economic decline. Republicans in Washington seem dead set against help for the states, apparently in part because Trump and his congressional boot polishers – read Mitch McConnell – don’t want to help Democratic states. McConnell has also suddenly discovered that the nation’s debt has exploded while a Republican has been in the White House. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Here’s the reality. Every state – every state – is going to be staggered to its knees by the double whammy. While Idaho Governor Brad Little has received generally good marks for competently relying on sound public health advice to manage the COVID-19 impact, the governor will find that his is merely transitioning from one hourly crisis to another. 

“Right now, state governments are facing several types of fiscal challenges,” Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler told me this week. She studies state governments and how they manage budgets. Budget cuts, as Idaho has already announced, including at minimum a 5% reduction in education funding, are a given, but Kettler says the vast uncertainty about how deep the economic downturn will be complicates the state’s response. 

“This is a challenging time when many citizens need more services or support from their state and local governments,” Kettler said, “which will make decision-making potentially quite difficult for state leaders on what to cut.” But knowing Idaho’s legislature, cutting will the first and last option. Expect 5% reductions to be more like 15% by Labor Day. 

Idaho’s revenue pipeline has already been plugged. April revenue declined by $470 million, a 60% reduction in what state economists had predicted before the virus came calling. Some of that downturn may be attributed to delayed tax payments since the income tax filing deadline has been pushed back, but it’s a safe bet that revenue will be significantly off – perhaps wildly off – for months if not longer. 

The happy talk emanating from the White House about the economic recovery being V-shaped – a steep downturn followed by a sharp rebound – is delusional

“The second quarter hole is so deep that it’s going to take several quarters to get back,” Robert Dye, the chief economist at Comerica Bank, told CNBC, “and that’s going to have an impact on state and local government budgets because that has a direct correlation to tax receipts. The economy is not going to get back to that level for two years or three years, and tax receipts are going to be weak for quite some time.”

The fiscal orthodoxy that has long governed Idaho’s approach to state spending, namely that tax cuts are always the answer to every problem and reducing spending, even if it means that teachers and state employees get laid off, is going to collide with a grim truth. If Idaho’s response to the worst economy since the Great Depression is to cut and then cut some more the state’s eventual economic recovery will take longer and be even more painful. 

“Large state budget shortfalls could prolong a recession by prompting a cascade of layoffs that ripple across the economy, Emily Cochrane noted recently in the New York Times. She was quoting economists who have said that in April alone, “state and local governments laid off one million people, a number that could continue to climb without additional assistance.” 

Idaho’s higher education system continues to be a key to a strong, more sustainable state economy, but higher education is certain to again be on the legislative chopping block. College and university presidents are trying out furloughs and other cost reduction strategies, but as Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News noted recently the cuts currently anticipated may need to be “much deeper if enrollment plunges in the fall.”

Idaho’s Republican Governor Brad Little in transition from a public health crisis to a budget crisis

So far, Idaho’s Trumpish congressional delegation has been silent about any federal help for Brad Little’s next wave of crisis, a particularly stunning silence when you consider that every one of the state’s federal officials once served in a legislature that must by law balance the budget. These Republicans seem content to follow McConnell’s advice that Republicans “tap the breaks” on additional aid, even as the Senate majority leader’s notion of letting states go bankrupt crashed like a lead Zeppelin. 

McConnell has tried to score political debating points by saying he has no interest in bailing out public pension plans in blue states, but with his home of state of Kentucky facing huge budget shortfalls much like Idaho’s you have to wonder how long this GOP’s fiscal nihilism will remain politically viable. And in Idaho the issue isn’t propping up the state pension fund but simply preventing state government from taking the state economy farther into the ditch. 

So far Little, with minimal help from fellow Republicans and second guessed by lots of stupidity from his own lieutenant governor, has navigated the public health crisis with a sure hand. He’ll need a more united and more creative party to manage the next crisis, a party willing to think big and beyond the orthodox. 

“The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent, significantly worse than any recession since World War II,” Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said this week, as he bluntly called for more, not less government intervention to prop up the economy. 

For Powell, who has spent most of his career as a deficit hawk, the warnings are chilling. In the worst case, and case that appears all too likely, the country – and Idaho – faces what the Fed chairman called “an extended period of low productivity growth and stagnant incomes … Additional fiscal support could be costly but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.” 

The soulful 19th century Stephen Foster tune – a ballad for our times just as it was prior to the Civil War – holds out hope that “hard times come again no more,” but the worst hard time is hardly behind us. In fact, it may just be beginning. 

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Additional Reading:

  • China’s Growing Ability to Challenge: Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reviews a new book Christian Brose, a former staffer to the Senate Armed Services Committee and a once top aide to the late Senator John McCain, who writes that China is now able to match – and even exceed – U.S. military capability. “The Pentagon wants to confront the Chinese challenge,” Ignatius writes, “but it insists on keeping the same vulnerable, wildly expensive platforms at the center of the United States’ military power. And Congress demands adherence to this status quo. When then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer tried to retire an aircraft carrier in 2019, Congress refused. Expensive fighter jets have a lobby, too. As Brose notes: ‘There is a reason why parts of the F-35 are built in every state in America. . . . It is political expediency.’”
  • Putin’s Goal: Now, to scare you completely – this from Franklin Foer in The Atlantic. “The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them… Even as to disinformation, the best-known and perhaps most overrated of their tactics, they have innovated, finding new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics. Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.” Oh, great…
  • Obamagate: Richard Wolff in The Guardian dissects what Donald Trump is doing by manufacturing a storyline about “Obamagate,” his latest conspiracy theory. “Trump has many good reasons to sail away to the land of smears. They’re called the polls, and they are – for the sociopath sitting in the White House – even worse reading than the pandemic death tolls or the latest unemployment claims. Trump is losing to Joe Biden by three points in Florida in the most recent Fox News poll, where he was supposed to have a lock on his re-election from his Mar-a-Lago mothership.”
  • Thanks for reading…be well.
Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

Know Nothings…

My political education began in the 1970s in South Dakota. An uncle served in the legislature as a Republican and later a top aide to a GOP governor. I remember sitting in the gallery watching him on the floor of the state senate. I started to pay attention and politics and government became real when as a senior in college I had a marvelous opportunity to cover the state legislature for radio stations all over South Dakota. 

In those days South Dakota, a state with a long history of Republican dominance, was nevertheless competitive for Democrats, rather like Idaho in that same period. There was a healthy two-party system, the occasional Democrat in the governor’s office and Democrats could and did win national office. A guy name McGovern represented South Dakota for 18 years in the Senate. 

But for the last 15 years or so, certainly since Tom Daschle lost a Senate seat in 2004, South Dakota has been, like Idaho, as red as red can be. My old state hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1978. Today the statehouse in Pierre (pronounced Peer, by the way) is the domain of a Sarah Palin-like Republican by the name of Kristi Noem. She may not be the worst governor in the country, but she is certainly in the running. 

South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has refused to issue a stay at home order, but she did go on Glenn Beck’s show this week to complain about a “fear culture” created by reporting about COVID-19

Noem has steadfastly refused to join 43 other governors and order a statewide stay at home order. Mayors in the state’s larger cities – a relative term in South Dakota – have taken their own faltering steps to control the COVID-19 pandemic, while front line health care workers have implored their conservative governor to take broader, more effective action beyond her proclamation of a statewide day of prayer. 

The governor’s most recent response was to announce that South Dakota would be a test case for the unproven hydroxychloroquine drug that the president has repeatedly cited, without a shred of scientific evidence, as a potential game changer. Noem said she had “an exciting day” after talking to Trump son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner about the drug. 

At the same time news broke that the massive Smithfield Foods pork processing plant near Sioux Falls had shut down indefinitely after more than 50 workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The area is now one of the major virus hotspots in the country. 

Of course, Donald Trump and the know nothing base of the Republican Party, supplemented by a few neo-John Birchers like the gun toting crank Ammon Bundy and anti-government, but well-funded libertarians like the Idaho Freedom Foundation, is where to look to understand the origins of nonsense from Republicans like the South Dakota governor. 

As the one-time Republican and 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin said this week: “We’re now witnessing just how devastatingly destructive it can be when even one of our two major parties turns its back on truth and expertise in favor of blind loyalty to one man,” which brings us to Idaho. 

I began wondering last week why Governor Brad Little was receiving so little support from fellow Republicans as he has struggled to respond to the pandemic. No senior Republican had taken to the airwaves or social media to lend him support or push back against the party’s primitive wing exemplified by Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin and Rep. Heather Scott who have actively resisted the governor’s leadership. 

Scott actually called the governor, a fellow Republican, a “little Hitler” and equated his stay at home order to the Holocaust. Such idiocy literally seeps out of the seams of these Republican know nothings.

Little’s actions, including a statewide stay at home order, too slowly implemented and lacking sufficient statewide coordination, have nonetheless certainly saved lives and slowed, but far from stopped the spread of the virus. Little’s decision this week to extend his order for another two weeks was prudent and almost certainly lifesaving. 

The answer to why he’s received so little support from fellow Republicans came earlier this week. Those leaders clearly stated their priority and it was not to follow the science and the common sense of how this pandemic is eventually brought to heel. 

“Somewhere between a blanket stay-at-home order and a complete disregard for the reality of this virus’s potential, there lies an acceptable level of risk,” House Speaker Scott Bedke wrote last weekend to the governor. “A statewide, one-size-fits-all approach,” Bedke blithely said, “is ill-advised.”

The Republican Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, Scott Bedke, has pressed his fellow Republican to ignore the science and effectively put lives at risk to benefit the economy.

Boise State public radio reporter James Dawson broke the story of Bedke’s letter, a stunning example of the kind of anti-science, anti-expertise thinking that dominates the party from bottom to top. 

Meanwhile, that reliable reactionary Raul Labrador, Little’s primary opponent in 2018 and now the GOP party chairman, weighed in with the very Trumpian “The cure cannot be worse than the disease!” Labrador’s statement – perhaps his first blast at a repeat run against Little – was headlined: Reopen Idaho. 

What Bedke, Labrador and the many they speak for in their party were really saying is damn the public health, what’s a few more deaths, many more sick people and an almost certain second wave of disease when the Idaho economy is at stake? 

Bedke and Labrador don’t say, of course, how many more deaths might be acceptable, but perhaps they should have consulted with the family of the woman in her 60s who died this week at a Boise nursing home where 14 care givers are believed to have the disease. Or maybe they could have spoken with doctors in Lewiston or Blaine County who continue to be frustrated by a lack of sufficient testing, which remains the key to slowly resuming a more normal life. The harsh reality remains that there will be nothing approaching “normal” until the disease is truly at bay and that is going to take time, perhaps a long time. 

But instead of the very real life and death implications of the need for more physical distancing, while more testing and contract tracing of those who have been exposed is put in place, Bedke threatened Little with retribution during the next legislative session for the governor’s handling of “legislative powers.” 

There once was a time when willful Republican ignorance about science and wholesale disregard for facts were abstract matters of theoretical concern. Now they have become minute-by-minute threats to life and health. 

As this is written U.S. deaths from the virus are headed for 30,000 and higher, the largest number in the world, and we should remember the immortal words of House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, the Hammett Republican who bizarrely sits on the board of her local health district. “This is not the plague. Stop treating it like it is,” Blanksma said a month ago. “Wash your hands and act like responsible humans.”

The key words there are “responsible humans,” a concept beyond many in today’s Republican Party.  

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Further reading:

  • Marie Helweg-Larsen is a Professor of Psychology at Dickinson College. She had a very interesting piece the other day about “optimism bias,” the notion that only bad things happen to others. She writes: “But in the case of a pandemic like the coronavirus, if you don’t think something bad is going to happen to you, you might not bother changing your behaviors. That’s exactly what a U.S. study on the coronavirus found.”
  • Montana Press Monthly is a great publication in the Big Sky state. I wrote a piece for the most recent issue called “The Montana Roots of The Plot Against America,” the current HBO series based on the Philip Roth novel. I think the real story is just as wild as Roth’s popular “historical” fiction. (Note: you’ll be able to see the entire contents of the Monthly and its worth the look, including great photos illustrating my article and a piece about the 1918 influenza pandemic in Montana.
  • Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a great example of really good, in-depth political reporting. It’s not a spoiler to observe that Mayer’s reporting confirms that McConnell is, as another political observer has noted, “the gravedigger of American democracy.”
  • After you read the McConnell piece. Do yourself a favor and read this – “The Tiger Kings of Basketball: Three stories about the NBA, billionaires, and the pandemic.” And, yes, the two stories are connected.
  • And…I don’t know about you but I’ve tried at least once a day during these crazy days to reach out to an old friend or acquaintance that I haven’t talked with for too long. In keeping with that idea Daphne Merkin has a lovely piece in the New York Review about using the phone to stay connected. What an old fashioned idea. She writes: “To think of Bell Telephone’s long-ago slogan ‘Reach out and touch someone you love’ is to be reminded anew of the primacy the phone once enjoyed.”
  • Stay in touch…

Idaho Politics, Pandemic, Trump

Too Big For One Man…

“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” then-President George W. Bush said in 2005. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

The forest fire analogy is something Idahoans should understand in the midst of a global pandemic. You act quickly, decisively in a coordinated fashion and you can often prevent a conflagration. By contrast the slow, stumbling, inconsistent, often fact-free response of the Trump Administration to the coronavirus will go down in history as a governmental and leadership failure on a vast scale. The damage in death and economic destruction will take months – perhaps years – to assess, but this much is clear from the vast public record: the COVID-19 pandemic has been more poorly handled in the United States than in any other developed country.

At least America is first at something. 

The Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic has been slow, uncoordinated and chaotic – CNBC photo

But, it’s not enough to put this failure exclusively at the door of the Oval Office, as appropriate as that seems. The governmental failure is broader and more systemic and elected officials, Idaho’s Senator James Risch for instance, should reckon with their own grossly inadequate leadership at a time of national and international crisis. 

Reviewing what is already on the public record is damning and in a just political world Risch should pay a steep price at the ballot box. That the junior senator rarely attempts to explain his actions – or lack thereof – and merely drafts in the wake of a failed president is a testament to how broken American and Idaho politics have become.

Here’s the record. 

On January 24, Risch issued his first statement about “a new strain of coronavirus” that had been detected in China. He said he had, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, “convened a briefing from the U.S. government’s leading global health experts tracking this novel coronavirus, now identified as 2019-nCoV.” 

We knew a lot about the virus, Risch assured us, and public health officials effectively had things well in hand. 

“The CDC has testing capabilities,” Risch said, and “is actively working to develop an effective vaccine, and screening has been introduced at five U.S. airports. While that screening will not be 100% effective in capturing every traveler who may be infected – especially if they are not sick upon arrival – we know that public awareness and diligence is key to infection control.” 

Very little of that statement has stood the test of time, let alone the test of two months.

Testing on a scale widespread enough to be really effective in halting the spread of the disease remains woefully inadequate. The Idaho Statesman reported on April 2 that the limited coronavirus tests that were being conducted in Idaho were still being sent out of state to regional labs, “leading to delays of 10 or more days.” The newspaper said there were reports “of people waiting more than 14 days for test results. The delay in testing is happening even to health care workers, which could lead to the spread of the disease even faster.” 

The vaccine Risch mentioned is likely more than a year away and screening at airports, as Science magazine has shown, “will likely do very little to slow the spread of the virus as it’s exceedingly rare for screeners to intercept infected travelers.” Even more to the point hundreds of thousands of travelers entered the country from China after the existence of the virus was widely known and screening was completely inadequate. “I was surprised at how lax the whole process was,” one traveler from Beijing who arrived on March 10 told the New York Times.

In a January 24 Twitter message about his private briefing Risch parroted Donald Trump who, it must be remembered, said back when he should have know better that it would just “go away.” “We learned that the risk of transmission within the U.S. is low at present,” Risch said. “I will continue to work closely with U.S. officials to ensure Americans are protected.”

Right. 

Actually, after that January statement Risch went quiet about the coronavirus even while alarms were raised inside the White House and while others with a less visible soapbox took action. 

On February 5, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a member of Risch’s Foreign Relations Committee, sounded genuine concern. Murphy said he had “just left the Administration briefing on Coronavirus. Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough. Notably, no request for ANY emergency funding, which is a big mistake. Local health systems need supplies, training, screening staff etc. And they need it now.” 

By contrast Risch made no public comment, but rather Tweeted on the same day Murphy was expressing concern about the administration’s lackluster response that, “Today, I will vote to acquit President Trump.”

That statement came a day after the senator praised Trump’s State of the Union speech as “an instant classic.” That wasn’t true, either. 

Since the beginning of the Trump Administration, Risch – who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, which we know from public records received coronavirus briefings from the CIA and others in January – has boasted of his access to the White House and his close working relationship with the president, but it appears he did nothing to sound the alarm about a deadly pandemic. 

Risch might have used his committee positions, particularly Foreign Relations, to publicly press for more information about how China – and Russia, too – was manipulating information about the virus, but he didn’t.

Risch did issue a statement with several other Republicans on March 18 demanding that China “work with, not against, the international community and international organizations to ensure we all have accurate information needed to better constrain this global threat.” But he dropped it. 

It’s worth noting that on January 24, when Risch made his initial statement about the virus, Trump was praising China lavishly. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” Trump said. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

It’s impossible to believe that Risch, privy to intelligence reports and briefings, didn’t know that Trump’s statement was fabulist nonsense. But he said nothing before his eventual pivot to redirect criticism from Trump to China. The Risch public pivot, by the way, came only two days after Trump’s own pivot – that was March 16 – when he begin to refer to the “China virus.”

New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen said recently that, “the battle to keep Americans from understanding what went on January to April is going to be one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in modern US history. Precisely because so much of it is public, confusion must be made massive.” 

That statement goes a long way toward describing Trump’s “light at the end of the tunnel” afternoon “briefings” on the crisis, sessions that typically amount to little more than a platform for the president to attack reporters, peddle disinformation and praise his own performance. 

Risch, too, is lending a hand with the spread of this propaganda. Refusing to question anything about Trump’s awful and deadly response, Risch suggested recently to Chuck Malloy, a friendly columnist for Idaho Politics Weekly, that complaints from Republican and Democratic governors, from public health officials and frontline health care workers were really nothing more than politics. 

“He’s going to be criticized by people who don’t like him or hate him,” Risch said of the president, “and complimented by people who think he’s doing a pretty decent job.” In other words, no introspection from the one guy in Idaho who had a front run seat to see all this play out from the beginning. No desire to hold anyone accountable, even after Trump used the cover of the pandemic to fire the inspector general of the intelligence agencies and then remove the IG designated to oversee how pandemic relief funds are spent. 

“It’s all useless,” Risch told Malloy of the criticism. “What’s going on is bigger than one man.” Well, he’s right about that. The challenge to honestly, effectively lead at such a time is way too big for Donald Trump. And clearly vastly beyond the senator’s capabilities, as well.

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Additional reading:

  • Fintan O’Toole, an Irishman and columnist for the Irish Times, writes as well about American politics as almost anyone. His piece in The New York Review of Books is entitled, appropriately enough, “Vector in Chief.
  • The Lawfare Blog at the Brookings Institution is an absolute go-to site for news and analysis on everything from the Supreme Court to COVID-19. The editor of the site, Benjamin Wittes, has an important piece on Trump’s firing of two inspector generals. Wittes says Trump has used the firings to distract from his own handling of the pandemic, but adds, “There’s another reason the serial dismissal of independent inspectors general causes only a ripple, not a political wave. And that is that we’ve gotten so used to this sort of thing that we don’t see it as all that scandalous any more. We see it just as Trump being Trump.” Just a reminder: this is not normal – or right.
  • Donald Trump has attacked the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, because she’s been critical of the national response to the pandemic. Michigan is now a critical state where the disease and death is on the rise. Meanwhile, Whitmer is being mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate for Joe Biden. Tim Alberta of Politico has a must-read profile of the governor.
  • And…the missing baseball season got sadder this week with the death of Detroit Tigers’ great Al Kaline. Number 6 played his entire career – 22 seasons – in the Motor City, but had he showcased his talents in New York or LA Kaline would be even more heralded as one of the games great talents. I have always been a fan. He was great.
Idaho Politics

Don’t Do It…

More than 80 years ago, spurred on by sportsmen worried about creeping politicizing of management of the state’s wildlife resources, Idahoans created an enduring and effective public policy. By initiative in 1938, the state’s voters mandated a nonpartisan — or perhaps more correctly a bipartisan — Fish and Game Commission.

Some in the Idaho Legislature are now determined to undo a tradition of partisan balance on the commission by eliminating the requirement that no more than four of the seven commissioners represent the same political party. The issue of partisan representation came into sharp focus recently when Senate Democratic leader Michelle Stennett pointed out that Lewiston Commissioner Brad Melton, before his appointment last year, had changed his political affiliation from Republican to non-affiliated in order to avoid violating the law. To his credit, Melton subsequently resigned and Gov. Brad Little has indicated he plans to appoint a Democrat to replace him on the commission.

Good for Little, but he should also be inking up his veto stamp because his fellow Republicans are up to mischief.

Endorsing the Fish and Game initiative back in July 1938, the Idaho Falls Post Register offered a justification for limiting partisanship in matters of wildlife management. The rationale remains as clear today as it was when Democrat Barzilla Clark was sitting in the governor’s office. “The fish and game commissioner,” the newspaper noted, “who is subject to the whims of a political boss whose primary interest lies in votes finds he cannot act according to his best judgment.”

The wildlife manager hampered by partisanship, the newspaper contended, was in danger of being “crippled by orders from political headquarters, by ‘suggestions’ from staunch party supporters and by a dozen other hindrances he would not face were he independent of politics.” Exactly.

Riggins Republican Rep. Paul Shepherd is sponsoring the measure to eliminate partisan balance on the Fish and Game Commission. “Membership (on the commission) shouldn’t be about politics, but what is best for fish and game,” Shepherd said when the bill was introduced. His justification is as phony as a fiberglass whitetail.

First, Shepherd’s bill clearly isn’t his handiwork. The legislation originated in the House Ways and Means Committee, a launching pad (or death chamber) for measures that House Republican leaders, who populate the committee, have particular interest in. So, rather than not being about politics, the Fish and Game legislation is all about politics. As legislative Republicans have proven with efforts to make the legislative redistricting process, now done by a bipartisan commission, tilt to the GOP, the state’s already hugely dominant political party will miss no opportunity to further consolidate its political power.

Republicans almost completely dominate Idaho politics, now some want to make certain they also dominate wildlife management

Having super majorities in the Legislature and holding every statewide and federal office apparently isn’t enough, but blatant politicizing of the Fish and Game Commission should be a political bridge too far.

Shepherd may simply be disingenuous about his motives, but he can’t be in the dark about the results of his blatantly partisan bill. Rather than removing politics, Shepherd would make sure every future governor could pack the Fish and Game Commission with seven card-carrying Republicans. And should his bill become law, does anyone really believe that wouldn’t happen?

Little certainly knows what’s at stake here. And it’s more than his reputation for fairness and honest dealing. The governor — or a future governor — may well want an independent commission, buffered from political conflict. What help would a purely politicized and Republican Fish and Game Commission provide when Idaho confronts the inevitable regional pressures to remove the fish-killing lower Snake River dams?

Or what happens when Idaho politicians finally have to admit that climate change is forcing changes in habitat and threatening species survival? Will a partisan commission have any credibility to explain these hard facts to Idahoans who fish and hunt?

Under the approach put in place in the 1930s, Little — or any future governor — has some insulation from day-to-day wildlife management decisions, and they should enjoy that buffer. When sportsmen vent, as they recently did in Twin Falls about a Fish and Game decision to kill more than 200 elk in an effort to reduce depredation, the commission took the heat. And commissioners should take that responsibility; it is what voters demanded years ago.

Does any governor really want the political heartburn of owning every single wildlife management decision and having every one of those decisions be seen as purely partisan?

The 1938 initiative enjoyed broad bipartisan support because making fish and game management nonpartisan, as Frank Griffin, one of the backers of the 1938 initiative and an assistant U.S. attorney at the time, contended “would give the assurance that plans, programs and policies when once adopted and found to be beneficial would be continued without interruption.”

Such a system, Griffin said, “would remove all inducement to grant favors to one section of the state not accorded to all other sections.”

That was true 80 years ago. It remains true today.

Shepherd’s bill — the Republican bill — is not about better fish and game management. It’s about Republican politics, which is why legislative Democrats have opposed it.

Democrats know what little representation they currently have on the state’s highest profile commission would disappear. Do hundreds of thousands of fish and game license holders really want partisanship to be the No. 1 consideration in every wildlife decision?

Little ought to make it clear he stands with sportsmen and sportswomen in keeping the Fish and Game Commission out of partisan politics. And the funny thing is, as Little will surely discover if he finds himself vetoing this bad idea, there is real political payoff in putting Idaho’s sportsmen and women ahead of partisan politicians.

—–0—–

Further reading:

  • Jonathan V. Last has a piece in The Bulwark that wonders if our current political moment is as good as it gets. Lord, I hope that is not the case.
  • I’ve been following Dan Kaufman since reading his excellent book The Fall of Wisconsin. (Highly recommended, by the way.) Kaufman has a great take in the current The New Yorker on the effort to recall the governor of Alaska.
  • And on the new movie watch is Greyhound with Tom Hanks starting as a naval officer in command of a convoy escort during the longest battle of World War II – the Battle of the Atlantic. Hanks also wrote the screen play.
2020 Election, Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Trump

The Senate on Trial…

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

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

“A flimsy accuse for a trial…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Simpson, Trump

The GOP Prairie Fire…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does it say about Mr. Simpson? 

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Idaho Politics, Impeachment, Trump

It Will Get Harder…

The Trump defending Idaho congressional delegation was reminded yet again this week of the dangers involved in shielding a president who can’t tell the truth and won’t let most of his subordinates even try. 

Spoiler alert: Defending the president is only going to get more difficult; more difficult by the minute. 

An unlikely villain with Pacific Northwest roots emerged fully this week to vastly complicate the calculus for Trump defenders and expand the abuse of power allegations that ensnarl the White House. A widening cast of characters ranging from the Secretary of State to Rudy Giuliani to Roger Stone, a guy who went on trial this week for lying the Congress about interactions with WikiLeaks and Russians in 2016, is now involved in scandal and cover-up. 

Gordon Sondland, the Northwestern at the center of the Ukraine extortion scheme

The old Sopranos television series offered a no less motley collection of mountebanks, grifters, crooks and sycophants. 

A star witness this week turned out to be a guy named Gordon Sondland, owner of a chain of boutique hotels in Portland and Seattle, who, clearly afraid that he was starring down a perjury charge, told House investigators that he had “refreshed my memory” since first testifying in the Trump impeachment inquiry in October. Sondland is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

As Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss wrote, Sondland’s “recollection needed help: The transcript of his initial, October 17 testimony shows Sondland used the phrase ‘I don’t remember’ 36 times and ‘I don’t recall’ another nine times.” 

On November 4 Sondland’s memory recovered and he produced revised testimony confirming there was a quid pro quo – better descriptions might include the word extortion – that connected Ukrainian aid to Donald Trump’s desire to see a political opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, investigated by a foreign government. What’s more Sondland admitted he personally delivered the extortion promise.

Ukraine: So much trouble for Trump, the GOP … and Ukraine.

Republicans will continue to use the “angels on the head of pin” approach to all this by saying Sondland did not specifically connect the quid pro quo to Trump personally. Stay tuned others will make the connection. And make no mistake this is the very definition of abuse of power.

It turns out Sondland is a classic character in Trump World, a transactional namedropper with a fondness for the gaudy and grandiose. Mostly a financial supporter of Republicans, Sondland has also made significant contributions to Democrats, including the Portland mayor who just decided to hand over the $16,000 Sondland gave him to non-profit groups, including ironically one pushing for impeachment.

Sondland originally supported Jeb Bush for president in 2016, but when Trump won the Republican nomination he scrambled to get on the right side. Sondland was scheduled to host a Trump fundraiser in Seattle during the campaign but abruptly pulled out when Trump trashed the family of a Muslim soldier who died in Iraq. It was a momentary speed bump in his plans. 

After Trump won Sondland donated a cool $1 million to the inaugural committee and angled for an ambassadorial job and finally landed the plush position at the European Union. The job comes with a nice house in Brussels that Sondland immediately began to redecorate using $1 million of U.S. taxpayer money. 

Sondland had, of course, no previous government or diplomatic experience and is demonstrably unqualified for the post he holds. Nevertheless, the Senate confirmed him on a voice vote after a pro forma hearing. It turns out $1 million buys a lot in politics, both prestige and, in Sondland’s case, big trouble. 

Since Ukraine is not part of the EU, Sondland’s involvement in the Ukraine affair is almost certainly due to his having expressed undying loyalty to Trump and a willingness to implement the president’s basest desires.

“His behavior in all this tracks perfectly with his personality,” an Oregonian who knows Sondland told me. “He wanted to be relevant to Trump so he made himself useful to Trump and Rudy. He is 100% transactional with no scruples. This all fits.”

Now that Sondland his rolled his quid pro quo hand grenade into the middle of the impeachment investigation, Politico reports that, “Republicans are starting to turn on him.” After speaking to a host of Republican lawmakers about Sondland, Politico said he was variously described as “a lackey, a chest-thumper and a rube. Of course, perhaps that’s because he turned on the president.” 

Of course none of this will move the most loyal of Trump defenders, the faction of the Republican Party that former Florida GOP congressman David Jolly calls “spineless politicians rotten to the core without virtue, without any level of human integrity, devoid of self respect … Without courage and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence.” 

Still the Sondland memory refresh this week vastly complicates the Republican defense of Trump. They’ve tried the argument that the process is unfair, they’ve tried smearing career foreign service officers and career military people, but to defend the president now they must admit that demanding a quid pro quo from a foreign leader in order to influence domestic politics does not constitute corruption and abuse of power. Trouble is it does.

It will get harder to defend Trump.

Some Republicans – I’m thinking of Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Russ Fulcher – will have little trouble justifying such presidential behavior, but what of Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson? Are they really willing to go there? Are they willing to sanction presidential behavior they would completely reject if the other party had done it? 

Crapo, after all, voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about consensual sex. Simpson is a pragmatic institutionalist who you know in your heart of hearts loathes Donald Trump for a host of reasons. Simpson serves in Congress because he wants to do important things not because he enjoys covering for a charlatan who looks more and more like a common crook. 

And there will be more, including public testimony soon from William Taylor, a career foreign service officer who has been the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and whose earlier testimony (under oath) confirmed the quid pro quo. 

The day is fast approaching when Idaho’s members of Congress will need to reflect profoundly on the oath they took, hand on the Bible. That oath was to protect and defend the Constitution, not to protect and defend Donald Trump. 

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Idaho Politics, Trump

Where Will They Find Their Souls

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

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

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

Trump and the president of Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, who voted to impeach Bill Clinton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign Finance, Idaho Politics

Sunshine…

The half-life of a failed political campaign is normally about 15 minutes. You lose and you’re forgotten pretty quickly even though the lessons of a losing campaign can sometimes be more enduring that what we learn from a winner. 

Last year’s losing Democratic campaign for governor of Idaho is such a case. Since political memories fade quickly – remember when Mexico was going to pay for the wall and a certain candidate was going to release his tax returns – let me offer a reminder. 

After a fairly brutal three-way Republican primary last year, Brad Little emerged from the GOP field to take on former state representative Paulette Jordan who had won a two-person Democratic primary. Little then cruised to a general election victory over Jordan, winning, to no great surprise, nearly 60% of the vote to Jordan’s 38%. Three other candidates divided the rest. 

Paulette Jordan and Brad Little debate during their 2018 campaign for Idaho governor.

Jordan began the post-primary campaign riding pretty high, stimulating a lot of national press interest in her personal story and seeming to have a chance to make it an interesting contest. Little, meanwhile, needed to re-unite a somewhat divided GOP. By the time summer rolled around Jordan’s campaign was floundering. The campaign manager quit, one of several staff departures, when it was revealed that Jordan had established a federal “super PAC,” a political action committee able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support or in opposition to candidates. And we then learned that the Jordan campaign had required Trumpian “non-disclosure” agreements with campaign staff.

Jordan’s campaign finance report covering the period from the primary to October 1 was unlike any I’ve seen in looking at those reports for nearly 40 years. She eventually raised and spent over $1.2 million on out-of-state consultants, lots of out-of-state travel and a variety of hard to understand shell corporations, including a one in Wyoming that drew particular attention. Almost nothing was spent on television. 

A lot of Jordan’s spending, as I and others wrote at the time, was just odd and seemed seriously disconnected from any real effort to convince 300,000 or so Idaho voters – the number Jordan needed to squeak to a win – to actually vote for her.

As the Associated Press wrote last October: “The company registered in Wyoming as Roughneck Steering Inc. drew attention among Jordan’s hundreds of expense entries because Wyoming’s laws don’t require the officers of a company to be made public with the initial filing. That made it impossible to know from the finance report who was behind the company and why Jordan sent it $20,000.”

Hiding details of a company registered in Wyoming is as easy as hiding the checkbook

Roughneck Steering registered with the Wyoming Secretary of State on July 26, 2018 as a for profit domestic corporation. Two $10,000 payments to the company from Jordan’s campaign followed, along with a confusing explanation from the campaign as to what was done for the money and who did it. The campaign said polling work was involved, undertaken apparently by Republicans who could not risk being exposed for helping a Democrat. Hence the shell company. 

Under the laws of the state of Wyoming, Roughneck Steering was required to file an annual report for the Wyoming Secretary of State on July 1, 2019. That first year report requires, unlike the initial corporate filing, more detail about officers of the company. Wyoming grants a 60-day grace period beyond the filing date so that a company has even more time to make its filing legal. 

On September 8, 2019, the Wyoming Secretary of State declared Roughneck Steering “inactive” and “administratively dissolved.” As a helpful employee in the office in Cheyenne told me this week the company has basically ceased to exist. 

Here’s why this ancient political history still matters. The purpose of Idaho’s campaign finance law is disclosure, real transparency. A run of the mill voter, a political rival, a supporter or opponent of a particular candidate is supposed to be able to look at a candidate’s reports and figure out where the campaign’s money came from and how and with whom it was spent. That’s why the reports are typically called “sunshine” reports. Sunshine is a disinfectant. 

If the Jordan campaign is able – and clearly they have been able to date – to get away with sending money to a shell corporation at a post office box in Wyoming in a way that intentionally hides the beneficiary of the payment and how the money was spent that’s not anyone’s definition of disclosure. 

Let’s assume for a moment the Jordan campaign really did pay some Idaho GOP operatives through this Wyoming shell company. We can assume it, because we’ll likely never know for sure. But where does such subterfuge stop? 

Imagine that some future campaign actually wanted to launder some campaign cash. Say a candidate collects a hundred grand from campaign contributors, but really wants to put that money in his or her own pocket. Just set up a shell corporation in Wyoming, a state notoriously sympathetic to corporate slight of hand, and report the $100,000 “expenditure” as “campaign consulting” or “research” or even “polling,” and then have your shell company hand the cash back to the money-laundering candidate. 

The Idaho Secretary of State is in charge of the state’s campaign finance law, but as a practical matter does little to see that the law is enforced

The state of Wyoming will be none the wiser. Idaho’s Secretary of State, even if there is suspicion of something untoward, has little ability to investigate. A loophole is created, or better yet has already been created. 

The remedy is simple: require under the Idaho campaign disclosure law not only identification of a company or individual that a campaign has spent money with, but also who owns the company and what specifically the company or individual did to warrant the expenditure. As with all campaign finance scandals from Nixon’s illegal contributions from the dairy industry in 1972 to Donald Trump’s apparent payments to silence various women prior to the 2016 election, when campaigns hide the source or destination of money it’s always because they can’t tolerate sunshine. 

By the way that super PAC Jordan established last year was also registered in Wyoming at the same address and under the same rules as Roughneck Steering. It, too, has been declared inactive and dissolved by the state of Wyoming. The PAC reported only one contribution to date – $25,000 from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe last year – and only one expenditure, $3,000 to an accountant in California. The Federal Election Commission’s records show no contribution from the PAC to any candidate.