It is a bad day when the television programs are interrupted for “Breaking News” for yet another mass shooting in our country. It is a horrible day when that shooting is in your home town.
The Annapolis Capital Gazette, known locally as The Capital (and to those of us in the crab capital of the world it is just as often called the “crab wrapper”) is a typical local paper that covers news in the state capital and surrounding Anne Arundel County. It fairly covers local politics, provides forums for opinions in letters to the editor (always entertaining), provides local civic information, follows events at the U.S. Naval Academy, and most importantly to some, has great local sports coverage on the high school and college level.
It is also a historic publication. Its roots date to the Maryland Gazette founded in 1727 in Annapolis and is one of the first regular newspapers in the country. Reportedly it was among the very first newspapers to publish the Declaration of Independence, but its heart has always been the local town and county news.
I did not personally know the five people murdered as they worked at their desks in an otherwise ordinary office building, but I felt like I did — especially two of them — because I read their columns and admired their style. As is usual in a small local paper, the staff had multiple assignments covering various elements of community life. Rob Hiaasen — the brother of famed author Carl Hiaasen known for his very funny books about life in Florida — among other things wrote a quirky and funny weekly column about various off the wall occurrences in and around the area. The other was Wendi Winters who wrote about almost anything one can think of but was best known for her coverage of our part of town and for the weekly “home of the week” feature. Her beat was all of the local girl scout fund-raisers, church bazaars, neighborhood parades, civic meetings and such taking place in our little piece of the world.
The other three innocent people murdered on a regular day at work were Gerald Fischman, an editor; John McNamara, a local sports reporter; and Rebecca Smith, a newly hired sales assistant. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, our neighbors, regular people that went to work like any other day and never came home.
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes @CNN @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” — Tweet from the president 17 Feb 2017
Just regular people doing the best they can. These people were not our enemies.
The perpetrator had a long-standing grudge against the paper and was known to the police. Several years ago The Capital reported on a story about a harasser and stalker convicted of those misdemeanors. He felt that the paper libeled him and went on a personal crusade to discredit the paper and to seek revenge. Most of it was via social media but on Thursday, for whatever reason, he decided to take a shotgun into the news room and kill innocent people. A nut case. There is no way, perhaps ever, that we will know why he decided to act in this way on this particular day. He thought that the paper was “unfair” and “biased” and not telling the truth about him.
“I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair “press,” now often referred to as Fake News Media. Phony and non-existent “sources” are being used more often than ever. Many stories & reports a pure fiction!” — Tweet from the president 30 Dec 2017
Before you set your hair on fire, I am not in any way shape or form holding the president directly accountable for Thursday’s murders. I do wonder, however, what it takes for someone to be pushed over the edge because of the constant bombardment of such statements that reinforce an already sick view of what journalism and reporting is all about. To be fair, in a statement about the attack on The Capital yesterday the president said in a prepared statement he read from a teleprompter,
”Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs. To the families of the victims there are no words to express our sorrow for your loss. Horrible, horrible event. Horrible thing happened.”
I have no doubt that the president does not want physical harm to come to journalists. I do have to wonder, however, whether he has any concern that what he considers rhetoric to fire up his base may have actual consequences.
But those are discussions for another day. For now, my community, my home town is in mourning and is still reeling from the shock of what way too many communities have experienced. Active shooter drills are now a regular part of school routines. How can we accept that? No one is safe in school, church, music concerts, movie theaters, news rooms, restaurants or pretty much anywhere. As a society we cannot accept this as normal. The level of discourse and civic involvement needs to move in a positive direction. Gun lover or gun hater we all agree that there is a sickness of some sort pervading our nation that makes it okay to act in a violent and destructive manner just because of a grudge. We are a country full of smart people. We need to figure this out.
For now, may their souls rest in peace.
Do not let Mr. Trump’s signing of an Executive Order on the spur of the moment on Wednesday lead you to believe that the problem of immigrant children being separated from their parents is solved. It is not. The soul of America continues to be at stake.
First, most legal scholars opine that an Executive Order was not necessary. No laws changed and no policy changed except that immigrant families would not automatically be separated. That could have been accomplished merely by a telephone call to the Secretary of Homeland Defense. The Order and signing ceremony was for show.
Second, the Order did not “fix” anything. There is a continuing Trump Administration created crisis on the border. As I stated in this space earlier this week, the crisis was created in order to force Congress to build Mr. Trump’s wall and as a hoped for deterrent to future immigrants. It back fired.
Third, a careful reading of the Order (found here) reveals that mostly all that changed is that now families will be detained together. The ramifications of that are complicated, as I will try to explain in a moment. It also gets the military involved in that it directs the Secretary of Defense “to provide to the Secretary, upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law.” One more mission for the military, which should not be in the business of taking care of immigrants, and by law (Posse Comitatus) cannot enforce the law.
(As an aside and a clue to how haphazard this process is in the White House, the title of the Order was “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Seperation.” Apparently no one owns spell checker in this Administration.)
Fourth, Mr. Trump continues to blame “the Democrats” for the state of affairs. Huh? The Republican party controls the White House, both Houses of Congress, and arguably, the Supreme Court. Yesterday, an immigration bill in the House of Representatives, that needed only Republican votes to pass, went down to defeat. A second bill addressing immigration was to be voted on yesterday but it has been deferred to next week — if it comes to a vote at all — because there were not enough Republican votes for it to pass.
The real heart of the matter however is this, roughly 2300 children are in the United States after being removed from their parents’ custody over the last six weeks and no one can confidently say that they know where they all are.
Republican and Democrat politicians, from Senators to Representatives to Governors to Mayors have tried to visit some of the known locations where the children are held in detention and they have not been allowed in. It is no surprise that the media has not been allowed to independently verify the condition of the facilities and the children. Our elected representatives are told by the federal government that they must put in a request to make any visits and that it will take about two weeks to process their applications to visit. A lot of cover up can take place in two weeks. What happened to oversight by our elected officials?
Where are the children?
As I write, they were moved to detention centers in fifteen states, in many cases thousands of miles from where the parents are held, including in my home county. One child in custody in our county is 18 months old. Others are not much older. Not understood by many people is that each of these children, with or without their parents, can be deported or ask for asylum. How does an 18 month old or even a six-year-old go find an attorney and go to court to ask for asylum?
Earlier the Trump Administration tried to use the young people here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA — or more familiarly the “Dreamers”) as a bargaining chip for the wall. The courts short-circuited that attempt. Then he tried using innocent children as a bargaining chip to get the wall. That was stopped — for now — by American citizens expressing their uneasiness with such an inhumane action. The next bargaining chip will be entire immigrant families held in detention camps.
If you have been paying close attention to this issue, you know that Mr. Trump made it very clear that his “zero tolerance” policy remains in effect. This creates a dilemma as most “family friendly” detention centers are full. That is why Mr. Trump included the Secretary of Defense in the Order. News reports indicate that the Defense Department was directed to provide tent cities on military bases in Texas and Arkansas to house 20,000 immigrants as families. This number seems to come from the estimate that should the separation policy have continued, by December of this year there would be about 19,000 children in custody and separated from their families.
The United States already lost its moral authority in the world. When pictures of vast tent cities holding families inside barbed wire fences on military bases, watched by armed guards, looking every bit like the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II, we will be shown to have lost our soul.
A complicating factor is that under a judicial ruling, children can only be held in detention for about twenty days, which is why they are moved to places such as “tender age shelters“. There is no clear path for this administration to deal with that requirement while maintaining their zero tolerance policy. In the Order, the president directs the Attorney General to go to court to modify the judge’s ruling (you may have heard of it called the “Flores Settlement”) “in a manner that would permit the Secretary, under present resource constraints, to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”
Since a “pendency” (settlement of a court case) can go for months and sometimes years when asking for asylum, we will have families being raised in captivity.
It gets worse.
There is a good chance that a fair number of the 2300 children already separated from their parents may never be reunited with them. Government officials, and loudly echoed by aid workers and attorneys trying to help these immigrants, concede that there is no clear process in place for matching parents and children after they are separated. Glaringly absent from the Order was any process to bring the various elements of the government together to try to figure out how to fix this problem. Not a word. Record keeping is a problem, language barriers are a problem, money is a problem. Immigrants arriving with only the clothes on their back don’t have the money to hire an attorney to unravel the bureaucracy or to go get their child who may be thousands of miles away, much less the same requirements for the children themselves to find their parents. The system is very haphazard. In my area alone, 300 of the children have been identified in various locations, and legal aids say that so far they have been able to find the parents of two of them.
The Trump Administration was either grossly unprepared for the practical aspects of their policy, or they just plain did not care. “(If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.)
Immigration is a difficult subject. It is complicated. Sometimes there are no good answers to intractable problems. There may even be more than one right answer to the issue. What we now know is that this Administration seems to pick the wrong answer and then make it worse.
Do not be fooled. This problem was not “fixed” by the president. It is just the beginning.
We are losing our heart and our soul as a nation. I hope that we can recover.
With the Trump Administration policy of “zero tolerance” we are experiencing the full depth of depravity that his leadership instills. And make no mistake about it, it is a policy, not a law.
Repeat after me: There is no law that requires separating children from their parents at the border.
There are so many lies surrounding the implementation of this policy and the explanations for its continuance that is hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the rationale for it.
Mr. Trump and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security state that it is simply the enforcement of the law. (All together now: There is no law!). However, the Attorney General and high ranking presidential advisers say that the policy is an attempt to deter further immigrants from coming to the border either illegally or for the purpose of claiming asylum – of which the Attorney General changed the criteria for what we will accept under that claim.
Other presidential advisers, including the president himself, basically argued that it was a political gambit to get the Congress to pass legislation to fund his “big beautiful border wall.” You know, the one he promised that Mexico would pay for.
Taking the second argument first, it is totally despicable and un-American to use children, including babies and toddlers, as political bargaining chips. The mere sight of these internment camps should be enough for Americans — regardless of one’s views on immigration — to say “not in my America!”
The argument that it is a deterrent is short-sighted and won’t work. Here is the fallacy in their reasoning. People that are fleeing unspeakable crimes, persecution and fear will risk whatever lies at the end of a very long road because it cannot be any worse than what they are experiencing and there is a chance that it could be better. Desperate people do desperate things. Think Sophie’s Choice (either the book or the movie with Meryl Streep.)
As many of you know I experienced this first hand in the early 1980’s off the coast of Viet Nam. On several Navy deployments we rescued refugees at sea fleeing the oppressive communist regime of the time. Note this — we were not there for that mission. No US Navy ships were there for that mission. We were merely transiting from one mission to another and happened to be there — far off the coast in regular shipping lanes. Unimaginably rickety wooden boats of 40 or 50 feet loaded with about 50 people of all ages — babies to grandmothers — on board would head to sea hoping that a US Navy ship would see them (not a sure thing — small boat, big ocean), stop, and pick them up to take them to a refugee camp. If they missed the US Navy, perhaps some friendly merchant ship would pick them up (some did, but not all). If they weren’t lucky, they were lost at sea. Unknown numbers were never rescued. I should point out that there was no specific government policy to pick them up. It was our duty as mariners to help those in peril on the sea and our duty as human beings not to let them perish.
Those experiences over about three years have made a lasting impression on me ever since. I could not and can not imagine what it would take to put my entire family at risk of perishing at sea in the hope — the hope — that there might be something better for us. And if there wasn’t, well maybe we would still be better off perishing together than losing family members to evil forces.
That is why those people come to our borders. They won’t stop until the conditions in their home countries change.
Additionally may I add that on numerous occasions over the decades, I have read about a senior military officer, politician, public servant, fireman, successful business person, and others that were among those rescued during that period. I have no idea whether any of them were among those on the boats that we saved. I do know that if we had not exercised our obligations as human beings we would have never known about them because they would never have lived to be the proud and productive Americans that they are today.
Some of those in the child internment camps will have similar stories in a few decades. If we let them.
As I write this, the president just announced that later today he will “sign something” to alleviate the situation at the border regarding the removal of children from their parents. I hope it is meaningful. The damage is already done, however, to our standing as a moral leader in the world and in our communal sense of what it means to be an American.
Mr. Trump is using the most vile, scare mongering rhetoric imaginable to demonize these potential contributors to the USA. It is on purpose. When he tweets that they “pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13” he brings out the very worst in our nature. Pour? Infest? What? Sound familiar?
“From the rostrum of the Reichstag, I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war’s proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe. That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the First World War, and now already hundreds and thousands more. Let nobody tell me that all the same we can’t park them in the marshy parts of Russia! Who’s worrying about our troops? It’s not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumor attributes to us a plan to exterminate the Jews. Terror is a salutary thing.” — Adolf Hitler October, 1941
“You see what happens with MS-13, where your sons and daughters are attacked violently. Kids that never even heard of such a thing are being attacked violently, not with guns, but with knives because it’s much more painful. Inconceivable — here we are talking about business — inconceivable that we even have to talk about MS-13 and other gangs. They attack violently, the most painful way possible. And a bullet is too quick. And we’re allowing these people into our country? Not with me. We’re taking them out by the thousands. We’re taking them out by the thousands.” Donald J. Trump, 19 June 2018
There are so many more references from Mr. Trump where he demonized those of color. There is a reason that to date, the only pictures, still or video, from inside the child internment camps are from the US government. What do they show? Only teenage boys of color shuffling along and kept in cages (or as one DHS official claimed that they aren’t cages, they are just walls made of chain link that go from floor to ceiling). As Mr. Trump rails against “MS-13” — is the president really saying that every man woman and child seeking entry from the south is a gang member — the video subtly reinforces his vitriol.
The president is trying to create a vision of a nation at war. That we are under attack from the south and the refugees at our borders are enemy combatants. With that psychology, of course we “capture” them and put them in POW camps. It is an artificial war and a created crisis. Created for political purposes. The president is trying to create an issue that he thinks he and the GOP can win on in November 2018. Truth is trampled in the process.
Look it up. The numbers apprehended at the border have plummeted between 2000 and now. For example in March, 2000 about 220,000 people crossed the border. In March of this year, when the “crisis” resulted in the zero tolerance policy, about 40,000 were apprehended trying to cross illegally. Looking at yearly totals since 1960, apprehensions increased steadily until peaking in the late 1990’s at roughly 1.6 million people. Since then the trend has been downward, hovering around 300,000 to 400,000 during President Obama’s second term and about 300,000 last year. Hardly “unheard of” or “the most in history” or “unprecedented”. By the way, part of the reason was that there were dramatic new hires in Border Patrol officers begun under President George W. Bush and expanded further under President Obama. As a side note, one should be aware that the historic rate of crimes for illegal immigrants is half of that of natural born citizens and the rate for legal immigrants is about a quarter of that for natural born Americans.
The current condition is a cruel manufactured crisis for crass political purposes. We are a nation of immigrants. We are better than this. Or at least I thought so.
Despite Mr. Trump’s fake claims that the Democrats want “open borders” to get more criminals, drug dealers and future voters into the country, the vast majority of Americans understand that immigration must be controlled and that laws must be the rule of the land. That said, it is possible to have and execute immigration laws with compassion.
Let’s hope that when Mr. Trump “signs something” today, he solves this problem. Whatever that something is, however, we have already seen clearly what is in his heart. What is now happening on the border is evil. It does not represent the values of the United States of America that I know.
In truth, I do not believe that Mr. Trump really cares one way or the other about immigration and the welfare of children on the border. It just makes a good wedge issue to enhance his own power. We have seen that Mr. Trump will stop at nothing to exploit fear and to promote his personal gain. Wake up America! This is what the future holds if we do not begin to demand more from our elected officials. Now.
“I thought I would take a little digression here to discuss some concerns raised by our church friends about separation of families… I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”
–Attorney General Jeff Sessions on why our country is adopting a new “zero tolerance” policy on immigration that includes separating all children — no matter their age — from their parents after crossing the border.
“This is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made. Whenever Romans 13 was used in the 18th and 19th century — and Sessions seems to be doing the same thing, so in this sense there is some continuity — it’s a way of manipulating the scriptures to justify your own political agenda.”
–Professor of American History John Fea.
I’m just sayin’….
In the wake of yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Donald J. Trump of the United States of America (USA) it is hard to assess the level of success, if any. It is likely that we may not know the impact of the meeting for months or even years down the road.
In the short-term it appears that tensions were defused on the Korean peninsula and the likelihood of war decreased. It is always better to be talking to our adversaries than to be fighting. As Winston Churchill said in 1954, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” Should yesterday’s meeting in Singapore lead to further dialogue, that in and of itself is not a bad thing. It may lead to larger achievements. Or, it may not.
Given the past history of negotiations with the North Koreans, yesterday’s agreement is less impressive than others under past administrations and therefore does not give anyone solace that the results will be any better. Here are the highlights of part of the history of past negotiations and agreements. Note the continuing pattern. The North Koreans express their willingness to end their nuclear and missile programs in exchange for normalized political and economic relations with the US and the rest of the world. Deja vu all over again?
- In December 1985, the DPRK agrees to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but does not complete the inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the international inspectors. The DPRK linked its approval for IAEA inspectors to the US withdrawing all of its nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
- In September 1991 President George H.W. Bush announces the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. In response, in November the South Korean president renounces the all elements of nuclear weapons including deployment from other nations and programs to develop their own.
- In January 1992 the two Koreas sign the South-North Declaration of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula prohibiting nuclear weapons and allowing for mutual inspection and verification. Later in the year, the DPRK came to allow IAEA inspectors into the country.
- In June 1994, former president Jimmy Carter negotiates a deal where the DPRK agrees to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for high level talks with the US.
- In October 1994 the US and DPRK adopt the Geneva “Agreed Framework” where the DPRK will freeze its nuclear program and work to dismantle what is in place in exchange for heating oil and other economic assistance and a call for the normalization of all relations between the US and DPRK.
- In the next few years, the US imposes ever harsher sanctions on the DPRK as they are found to be exporting missile and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
- Late in 1998 President Bill Clinton appoints former Secretary of Defense William Perry to coordinate the US response to North Korean missile and nuclear advances. The CIA assessed that the DPRK has the capability to reach Hawaii and Alaska with a ballistic missile.
- Negotiations continue throughout 1999 with an agreement for a reduction in sanctions in response to the renewed inspection of DPRK efforts to dismantle their programs in a “step by step reciprocal fashion.“
- In June 2000 North and South Korea announce an historic agreement to “resolve the question of reunification” of the Korean peninsula.
- Throughout 2000 envoys from the US and DPRK meet in various locations culminating in the unprecedented visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK capital in Pyongyang.
- In January 2002 President George W. Bush includes North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
- In April 2003 Trilateral Talks with the US, DPRK, and China get underway and the DPRK announces that they have nuclear weapons, the first time that they admitted having them. They tell the US that they would be willing to get rid of them in exchange for “something considerable in return.”
- Later in the month, Six Party talks are held and the DPRK proposes a step-by-step solution including a “non-aggression treaty,” normalized relations. and the US provides heating fuel and increased food aid, among other things. In return they will dismantle their nuclear facility and end missile testing and exports.
- In September 2005 the Six Party talks resume and the DPRK agrees to work to achieve a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.” It will be done in a phased manner in a step-by-step way.
- In July 2006 the DPRK launches seven missiles, six of which are assessed to be successful. The UN Security Council condemns the launches and demands that they cease. The DPRK refuses.
- And so on, and so on, and so on. The DPRK comes to the negotiating table, promises to end all of its programs and then proceeds to break all of its promises as the US, the UN Security Council and the world in general condemn them and institute sanctions.
Note how similar the language (in bold, just in case you missed it) is in all of these talks, agreements and protocols compared to Mr. Trump’s announcements as to his belief that Kim will abide by his word.
Kim came to the table because of the nuclear and ballistic missile capability that he now possesses. He came to display his power as a world player co-equal to the President of the United States thanks to his nuclear capability. He did not come to turn them over. The agreements above (and more!) were very, very specific, technical, and based on the complicated and meticulous analytical tools needed to inspect and verify that the North Koreans are complying.
Compare that level of detail with the “agreement” signed in Singapore. (The full text is here.) It is surprisingly short and devoid of specifics. The four main points in the document are (emphasis is mine):
- “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
- “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
- “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
- “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”
That’s it. The rest of the agreement talks (several times) about the “historic” nature of the meeting and other diplomatic language. No specifics. No timelines. No next meetings. Nothing. Arguably only the recovery of POW/MIA remains is concrete.
In addition, much to the surprise and consternation of our allies in South Korea and Japan, the president said that he verbally agreed to halt all US exercises on and around Korea — or as he calls them “war games.” Mr. Trump opined that “We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.” He also went on to say that he hopes to bring US troops home from the peninsula soon.
Provocative? Really? Maybe in Kim’s eyes but hardly in those of the South Koreans or Japanese. There is a reason that there has been no further large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula all of these decades. In large part it has to do with our presence and demonstrated capability and will to defend our allies as shown through those “provocative” military exercises.
And what did the US get in return? A promise to “work toward” denuclearization. Right in line with roughly three decades of such promises. There isn’t even a delineation of what, exactly, denuclearization means. In all previous instances it was clear that the US has a different idea of what that word means as compared to what the DPRK thinks it means. Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”
Mr. Trump got rolled by Kim.
It was a fantastic public relations coup for both Mr. Trump and Kim. It looked great, sounded good, and caught the world’s attention. There was very little to no substance, but hey, it was a PR success.
Surely we can all start over and forget all about the fact that Kim is one of history’s most ruthless dictators that brutally kills his own family members, has 100,000 or more of his citizens in gulags, and routinely starves the general population when funds are needed to pursue his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions. Water under the bridge. He took selfies! He has a nice smile! He seems like such a nice young man. Very “talented” and “honorable” according to Mr. Trump. Give a guy a chance to start over, okay?
But perhaps I’m too pessimistic. After all, I’m so twentieth century. Maybe this is a new era with new players and I just don’t see it.
Indeed, I hope that I am wrong. I truly hope that Mr. Trump’s assessment of Kim Jung Un is correct and that he really does want to do the right thing and leave behind everything that he, his father, and his grandfather worked for all of these many years.
I hope that the glass is half full and that this is the beginning a new, safer era. Unfortunately we were fooled and played by the North Koreans for so many years that I can only think that it happened again. The glass is half empty. With a hole in it.
Let me start by saying that I understand that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters give him their full-throated approval because they are angry. As the saying made famous in the movie Network goes, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
In recent years, perhaps even decades, “professional” politicians of both parties rarely, if ever delivered on their promises while average citizens fought in wars, including our nearly seventeen year conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to an older generation, in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; struggle financially especially during and after the Great Recession; and have the necessities of life fiddled with including such basics as health care.
There was a palpable desire for something new and different. Well, we got that, for sure. Some of you argue that Mr. Trump has not had enough time to really make his mark on the nation or to implement his key policy initiatives. Perhaps when it comes to policy, although I do not see any coherent or articulate policy concerning anything, except that if President Obama did it, it was bad and needs to be undone.
I would argue however that he has made his mark on the nation, and it isn’t for the better. Our social and community discourse has become demonstrably worse. When the president bullies people, calls them names and attacks the basic institutions of our nation, it has an impact. A negative one, but it does have an impact.
It does not have to be that way. It is possible to implement new, conservative (I would argue Mr. Trump is not a conservative, but that is a discussion for another day) policies without being vindictive and even vicious. To me, even if I agreed with his policy aims, which in large part I do not, the end does not justify the means. Civility is the currency of a functioning democracy and we are about to go bankrupt.
My biggest concern, one that I have expressed in this space before, is that Mr. Trump is working to undermine the basic checks and balances of our democracy to his benefit. While many modern presidents have stretched the bounds of Executive authority, Mr. Trump seems to think that there are no bounds. The only question is whether it is a deliberate action on his part, or done out of ignorance of the Constitution and the law, or whether he does it because it is all he knows — he wants to run the country like a family business. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The result is the same.
We are on a very slow, day-by-day, slide into autocracy unless all of us wake up and get the Congress to act as the co-equal branch of government that it is.
I see a very distinct pattern beginning to emerge. Mr. Trump is exploring the bounds of what he can do with an unfettered exercise of power. He is doing this in several ways.
The president’s Constitutional power to grant pardons for any reason is being used in ways that it has rarely, if ever, been used. He issues pardons, or promises to do so, to people that have been fully and fairly prosecuted under the law, whether or not they ask for them. The main point of issuing these pardons to off the wall supporters of his seems to be to send a message. He has picked pardons for crimes that reflect all of the things he or his aides have been accused of doing, thereby demonstrating that such crimes are meaningless because he says so.
My theory on why he does this lies partly in his life experience. Mr. Trump is a member of what my father used to call the “New York wise guys.” Mr. Trump’s view of life is that everyone — everyone! — lies, cheats and steals, but especially politicians. Those that don’t do so are losers and suckers. He believes it. So when someone is convicted of a crime along those lines, he deems it “unfair” because he believes it to be a subjective prosecution. They only prosecute people they don’t like or who don’t play the game the right way. In his view, everyone does it, many get away with it, so why can’t he? In his mind it is because they don’t like him. Now he has the power to “show them” who the real boss is in town.
Another way he is slipping Constitutional bounds is by vastly expanding the use of Executive powers in the name of “national security.” This is the reason given for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on some countries (mostly our friends and allies) while not on others (China). He is now considering a 25% tariff on vehicles in the name of national security. Since this impacts primarily Mexico and Canada, and to some extent our NATO allies, they are rightly insulted. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week called off a meeting in Washington due to the unseemly way he felt he and his nation were being treated. It goes even further in that there are a wide variety of new regulations and Executive Orders that are due to be implemented using the rubric of “national security.” One such example is the mandate that power companies buy a given percentage of electricity produced by coal power plants.
“National security” is being used in ways not imagined when the laws were written. They are interpreted in a way that allows the president to expand his powers into every area of the economy. Invoking national security was meant to be a very narrow, national emergency type of contingency but he is expanding its use far past what seems to be realistic.
Now for the topper, which may be one of the most egregious attempts to assert the primacy of the Executive in our history.
Last week a twenty page letter from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed the true extent of his power play. The letter was sent earlier this year, but was only just obtained by the The New York Times. (Read it for yourself here.)
Among other stretches of Constitutional law, Mr. Trump through his lawyers asserts that because he is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States he cannot illegally obstruct any investigation, including into his own actions. According to their reasoning, the Constitution gives him the authority to do pretty much anything he pleases due to his special status. Thus, it is impossible for him to obstruct justice by shutting down a case or firing a subordinate, no matter his motivation, because by extension he is responsible for all such investigations and cannot, therefore, investigate himself.
What this means in practical terms is that if, as they assert, the president can shut down any investigation for any reason, corrupt or not, he is above the law. This also infers that he can direct the start of any investigation into anyone for any reason, even if it is for his own corrupt purposes. The argument continues to say that the only recourse is impeachment, which only means removal from office.
Oh by the way, he can pardon anyone for any crime, including himself.
Theoretically — or practically if you believe their argument — under this interpretation a president could come into office, conduct any series of illegalities for any purpose — to enrich himself or his family or even to commit murder — and could not be held accountable if he pardons himself. Under their argument in the letter to Mr. Mueller, a sitting president could come into office with the intent of doing harm, do it, pardon himself, be impeached (or resign before being impeached) and then go on his merry way. No accountability, no punishment, no nothing. Clearly that is not what the Founding Fathers intended.
Indeed, the last time this came up was in 1776. In the Declaration of Independence, among the other reasons given for the rebellion against the king, was that (emphasis is mine) “he has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” including “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct objective establishment of any absolute tyranny over these states.” I did not know King George III, but I do know that Mr. Trump is no King George. Or at least he should not be.
In case you have any doubts as to what I am saying, here was what Mr. Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for the president, told the Huffington Post this past Sunday.
“In no case can he be subpoenaed or indicted. I don’t know how you can indict while he’s in office. No matter what it is.” He went on to say that “if he shot James Comey, he’d be impeached the next day, Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him.”
In other words, Mr Giuliani argued that impeachment was the punishment for presidential misbehavior, even if instead of firing the former FBI Director he shot him in order to bring the Russia investigation to an end.
Mr. Trump is on record as saying “I alone can fix it.” (at the Republican National Conference on 21 July 2016) He also said “I have the absolute power to pardon myself” (on Twitter on 4 June 2018.)
I have the absolute power. Wow.
Taking this picture, coupled with attacks on the rule of law (DOJ, FBI) and the intelligence communities, coupled with attacks on the free press, coupled with attacks on the judiciary coupled with the failure of Congress to call him to task on anything, we are on the downward slope.
He is testing the boundaries of what he can get away with and will continue to expand that effort and try to bend our form of government for his own purposes until he is stopped. Right now, I don’t see when that will happen.
It is basic to the autocratic play book. Layer on top of that the typical autocratic play of draping the leader in the flag and espousing faux patriotism by creating a wedge issue out of nothing and thereby weaponizing patriotism (see the NFL).
He also is trying to tell private companies who to fire and has on several occasions pushed the Post Master General to have the United States Postal Service charge Amazon more for delivering packages because he doesn’t like Mr. Jeff Bezos who also happens to own the Washington Post.
How do we stop this? Vote!
Put people into Congress during the mid-terms that will return to the normalcy of Congress being a co-equal branch of government to the executive. Republican or Democrat, vote for folks that are not afraid of being the brunt of Twitter bullying and who will actually do their job of checks and balances. It isn’t even a “conservative” or “liberal” thing — one can institute conservative policies without destroying the essence of our Constitution.
People who are mad as hell at the way they feel, as if they have been used for years, if not decades, are especially susceptible to autocrats that talk tough and claim to protect against the “others.” The total picture creates dangerous times for us and our future.
I have hope, although it is dwindling. Right now I have no sense that anyone will stand up and push back on Mr. Trump. In interview after interview I feel as though the Members of Congress have their collective heads in the sand. I continue to hear them say that “he wouldn’t do that” because of the political fallout and because it would be beyond the norm.
His entire campaign and administration has been a series of things that “no one else would do.” Time after time he has done and said things that were beyond the pale and each and every time he’s gotten away with all of it. No repercussions. Why would he stop now?
We as citizens are the answer. No one else will save us from ourselves.