The Ugly Facts

In the course of this crisis created by the coronavirus I have been pulling for the federal government to step up and fulfill its duty under the solid direction and knowledgeable leadership of the president.  I have given up hope that it will happen.  This leads me to wonder whether Donald J. Trump is the worst president in our life time or the worst president ever?  In my opinion, he is the worst ever.

Many historians compare Mr. Trump to President Herbert Hoover who is universally considered one of the worst.  He took no action to avert or to mitigate the Great Depression putting all of his faith in the capitalist system and the ethos of the survival of the fittest.  Indeed, he vetoed a 2.1 billion dollar relief bill (about 38 billion in today’s dollars) because it was full of “pork” and what he considered to be unproductive jobs such as federal works projects.

But Mr. Hoover is not considered the absolute worst.  That honor generally goes to President James Buchanan who favored the expansion of slavery and did nothing to stop southern states from seceding from the Union, resulting in the Civil War.  Mr. Buchanan, rest easy.  You are no longer the worst.

Where to begin to count the ways that Mr. Trump has earned this accolade?  To me there is one over-riding fact that cannot be ignored.  The greatest country on earth with the best health system in the world has the largest number of identified COVID-19 cases and the largest number of deaths.  In. The. World.  People are dying.  Over 32,000 Americans have lost their lives as I write this.  It isn’t theoretical anymore.  How can this be?  It is the result of the president’s dithering, lies, inaction, and a congenital need to be the center of everything but the leader of nothing that got us to this place. Precious time was wasted as the president told us it would magically go away.  Over the weekend, two newspapers laid out time lines of what the government knew and when they knew it.  As Mr. Trump told us it was all under control, dire warnings were relayed to him. People tried to take action and he stopped them.  He wants credit for stopping travelers from China from entering the U.S., a necessary but not sufficient action.  He fails to mention that after he declared the border shut, roughly 40,000 people entered the U.S. from China.  He then wasted nearly two months during which serious action could have been taken.  Thank you Mr. Trump.

Beware.  It will get worse in so many ways.  Two important areas of concern are his attempts to do away with all of the safeguards of our democracy and the other is his foolhardy need to “open up for business” in two weeks or less.  He cannot be trusted.  As one pundit put it, to Mr. Trump, truth is an adversary.

Some examples of his intolerance for criticism or oversight include the fact that there are 14 Inspector General (IG) positions vacant in the U.S. government.  Infamously, Mr. Trump fired the IG for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) because he did his job and followed the law in forwarding a whistle blower complaint to Congress.  In the short term, Mr. Trump demoted the IG in the Department of Defense who had been chosen by his fellow IGs in the government to oversee the recently passed stimulus package. Now there is no one. There are no Senate confirmed officials in the entire ODNI.  All have been fired or pushed out.  Mr. Trump likes “actings” as he calls them, because they do not have to answer to the Senate and he can make them do his bidding.

Yesterday he threatened to adjourn Congress by presidential decree so that he can appoint more “actings” without Senate approval and thus do away with all oversight from Congress.  This on top of his claim during his live melt-down on camera Monday that “when somebody is president of the United States your authority is total.”  Clearly he thinks he can run the entire United States like he ran the Trump Organization by just sitting in his office, talking on the phone and telling people what to do with little to no input.  Only, as he says, based on his “gut.”  Speaking of guts, where are the elected Republican members of Congress?  Why is there no rebuke to a president that wants to be an autocrat and is actively working in that direction?

More importantly to many Americans, is the question of how do we address this dual nightmare of a staggered economy and a virulent pandemic?  I do not trust the president to do the right thing.  I never thought I would write that.  I have disagreed with many past presidential policies over the years, but I always at my core thought that while I disagreed with them, they were doing what they fundamentally thought was good for our country.  Not so with Mr. Trump.  He does only what he thinks is good for him.

He is desperate to take credit for anything positive that takes place — such as putting his signature on relief checks to appear as if he, the benevolent monarch, is personally giving away money and not that it is tax payer money — while contorting himself into grotesque statements attempting to blame anyone or everyone for his massive failings.

Here is the ugly truth.  Many people, including the president, do not understand what flattening the curve of this pandemic actually means.  He misleads us on what mitigation means.  The steps that we have all taken to wear masks, practice social distancing and to stay home only buy time.  The coronavirus does not magically go away on 1 May or any time until there is a cure or a vaccine.  This idea that everything will be normal and no one else will die is the biggest lie of all.

Study the curves for yourself.  Most models do not go beyond sometime early this summer.  What do you think happens when the restrictions are lifted?  The number of sick and dying sky rocket.  Study the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920.  Even a cursory review reveals that many of the same mitigation efforts that we are using today were used then.  Cities like St. Louis and San Francisco had very strict regimes in place.  Cities like Philadelphia did not.  The differences in death totals is staggering between the two extremes.

How did it end?  When people built up a natural immunity or died.  There was no vaccine.  Just as we have no vaccine now.

Our current measures are designed to buy time.  Time to get sufficient treatment spaces and medical equipment in place to treat those infected.  Time to figure out the best way to treat the virus.  Time to develop a vaccine.  Time to build up our ability to test vast numbers of people.  Time to put a system in place to identify hot spots, isolate those specific people impacted and stop the virus from spreading.

So far we have none of those things and we won’t have them on 1 May.

A very difficult decision lies ahead.  It could be a year or more before all of those necessary conditions are in place.  Our economy cannot continue as it is for a year.  How many lives should be lost in exchange for restarting the economy?  I don’t know. There are those that argue that we should just let the virus run its course.  If hundreds of thousands die, so be it.  It is the natural resolution to the crisis. Just as with the Spanish flu pandemic, one builds up an immunity or you die.  Then it’s over.  Somehow I cannot bring myself to believe that we as a country want or accept that.

So what to do?  In the short term, the emphasis should be on saving lives.  As we try to restart the economy it should be in very small steps in a localized way.  As the saying goes, “build a little, test a little.”  Be prepared to try new ways of doing business.  In every step it will be necessary to be ready to acknowledge that it didn’t work, or that it was too much too soon, and adjust.  When it does work, build on those lessons learned.

I do not think that Mr. Trump is capable of that kind of leadership.  He has already earned his place in history as the worst president ever.  I fear that he will work hard in the coming weeks and months to cement his standing as the worst leader our country ever experienced.


Democracy Under Attack

Following his Impeachment Trial, Mr. Donald J. Trump became predictably vengeful and embarked on a revenge tour.  He is now systematically using the power of the presidency to invoke his personal wrath on anyone that did not faithfully and fully support him — personally — rather than doing their duty and supporting their oath to the Constitution.  The purge will only end when the Trump regime is fully stocked with Trump loyalists, regardless of their ability to handle the job, personal background, or knowledge of anything related to the job.  For the most part, expect it to be the “B Team” — or maybe more like “F Troop.”

Mr. Trump is taking another page out of the Autocracy 101 text book.  We should not be surprised.

Recently, I was referred to an article in the New York Review of Books by Masha Gessen.  Titled Autocracy: Rules for Survival it provides six rules based on living much of her life in autocracies and becoming an expert on Russia’s Vladimir Putin.  Ms. Gessen is much better at explaining herself than I could ever be — it is worth the time to read the original — and her November 2016 article is stunningly prescient in predicting Mr. Trump’s behavior in the years following his election.

In brief, these are the six rules.

  1. Believe the autocrat.  They always tell you exactly what they are going to do.  Mr. Trump exhibits this behavior.  What some consider to be exaggeration, hyperbole or “Trump being Trump” is actually him telling you what he is going to do.  Or at least what he wants to do if he can figure out a way to get away with it.  I first observed this trait in Gulf War I where I was involved in a group tasked with the formulation of a policy and a strategy to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and to restore a semblance of order in the Gulf region.  With study, it became obvious that he was telling the world exactly what he intended to do — or what he would try to do — but you had to peel away the bombastic language to fully understand what he was saying.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.  When things seem out of control, the smallest sense of normality tends to soothe people’s concerns.  We all need reassurances.  When things are at their worst, anything that makes it seem as if the situation is temporary and that it will all be okay in the end is a salve that may hide the wound rather than heal it.  What is happening today in our country is not normal.  No one-off State of the Union speech or any other glimmer of normal presidential behavior should mask the fact that 99% of the time our president is out of control.
  3. Institutions will not save you.  American values are based on ideas like a free press, an independent judiciary, Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch and leaders within the government protecting the Constitution for all Americans.  It takes about two seconds to recall that Mr. Trump fires anyone that stands up to him, constantly debases members of the media, attacks judges that do not do want he wants, and always succeeds in getting the formerly Republican members of Congress to acquiesce to his every whim.  Mr. Trump and his regime took a steam roller to the established norms of government and continue to test the limits of the law in every corner of government.  There are no longer any safety barriers keeping the regime within safe boundaries.
  4. Be outraged.  While many of us may no longer be surprised by statements and actions from Mr. Trump, one needs to continue to be shocked.  Do not normalize bad behavior especially when it threatens the fabric of our democracy.  Be prepared for ridicule when continuing to call out such awful behavior while others continue with their mantra that it is just Trump being Trump.  As he himself calls it when belittling those that critique him, be prepared for accusations of suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome.  Be prepared for unpleasant attacks from his most ardent supporters.  Do not back off.
  5. Don’t make compromises.  So many former Republicans, especially in the Senate, predicted that Mr. Trump as president would be the worst thing that ever happened to our country.  After three years of his presidency they are now his most loyal and fervent supporters.  Their support is not necessarily a re-evaluation of his competency or ability or vision, but rather it is a compromise of their own values in order to retain power.  Mr. Trump is no different than the person they ardently decried during the campaign.  Those around him have changed.
  6. Remember the future.  Mr. Trump, his regime, and Trumpism cannot last forever.  Look to reform our institutions in order to restore the foundations of our democracy.  Put into law what we as a country previously took to be accepted norms of behavior that our leaders would honor.  Work to project a new vision for our country that is inclusive and that addresses the problems that Mr. Trump was able to cynically manipulate for his own purposes.  Stay in the game.

In the every day course of our own lives it is possible to lose sight of the big picture attack on our democracy.  It’s hard.  Frankly, it’s exhausting.  It is easy to lose oneself in areas outside of politics because it is just so relentlessly Trump.  Every gosh darn day there is some new Tweet or speech or rally that saps all of the energy from one’s soul when it is clear that he has no idea what he is talking about.  Nearly 17,000 documented and provable lies during his presidency numbs the soul and becomes normalized.

And that is the plan.

Autocracy thrives on indifference or exhaustion or just turning it over to the regime and letting them take care of it all as long as my day-to-day life is not impacted.  Mr. Trump and his regime are interested only in themselves and in the amassing of personal power.  Period.  Anything else is a sales pitch presented in the moment to get a cheer or to attack an opponent or to appear to care.  Remember that fundamentally, they don’t care about you or me or the rule of law.  Only themselves.

It is up to us as citizens to stay vigilant and to call out the fouls when we see them.

 


No Pesos, Just A Hoax

Yesterday’s announcement by Mr. Donald J. Trump that he is declaring a national emergency on the southern border is just one more step towards creating the autocracy that he so desperately wants to have.  After two years of total Republican control, and no “big, beautiful wall,” and no money from Mexico, Mr. Trump puts our Constitution in danger in order to shore up his political standing with his base. An overblown statement on my part?  I think not.

As I have written in this space before, one may believe that we do or do not need a border wall, but the facts remain the same.  There is no crisis on the border and a wall is not going to stop the flow of people or drugs into this country.  You can look it up as I did in my previous piece using the statistics from Mr. Trump’s own administration.  Mr. Trump, as usual, makes up his own statistics in order to make a case that his own administration cannot make.  But the Constitutional issue is bigger than Mr. Trump’s usual panoply of lies.

The law that the president is using to justify his declaration is known as the National Emergencies Act (NEA) signed into law by President Gerald Ford in September 1976.  Ironically, it was intended to end the abuse of the presidential power to declare a national emergency for just any political purpose.  Enacted as a reaction to the Watergate scandal the intent was to eliminate the opportunity for presidential abuse of power to protect themselves from political scandal.  The law itself is quite complicated.  Its originators tried to tie together the elements of presidential prerogative to specific situations covered under existing laws.  Without going too far into the weeds, Mr. Trump is using Department of Defense funds for his wall because of an existing statute that allows for redistribution of funds for the protection of military personnel on assigned missions.  There are military personnel on the border — ordered there by Mr. Trump but in purely supportive positions — and thus he argues that the wall will protect those troops.  It is a complicated interpretation of the law, but as I am not a legislative assistant nor an attorney, I will leave it at that.  The point is that the president cannot just wake up one morning and declare an emergency for the fun of it — or at least until now it was thought that they could not — rather, the actions taken under a national emergency must be justified on the basis of existing law.

The DOD funds are primarily from military construction funds and intended for use in improving military support infrastructure, restoring hurricane damage to bases in North Carolina and Florida and other projects.  Ironically, some of the money will come from a fund used by DOD for counter-drug operations.  In all he is misappropriating over six billion dollars of DOD funds.

The act has been used 59 times over the years by various presidents.  Most instances were to impose sanctions on a bad actor overseas, such as to inhibit a dictator from killing his own people.  One was declared after Iraq invaded Kuwait and another after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  It was these types of acts that the legislation envisioned giving the president the ability to act quickly in a crisis.  Most importantly, none of those previous declarations directly or indirectly circumvented the intent of Congress. This one does.  The president is directly challenging the power of Congress to control funding for the first time under this provision.

That is why I believe his declaration to be a threat to the Constitution.  A bicameral and bipartisan committee came up with legislation to fund the government that included roughly 1.375 billion dollars for Mr. Trump’s wall.  The bill passed with veto proof margins in both houses of Congress.  That should be the end of the discussion for this year.  If Mr. Trump wanted more money in the future, he could work with Congress to add more money in those spending bills.  However, in a fit of pique that he got less money this year than he would have gotten if he had not shut down the government for 35 days — and way less than the 25 billion dollars that Congress was willing to give him a year ago in exchange for protecting the “Dreamers” — the “greatest deal maker in the world” declared a national emergency to build a monument to himself and to bolster his chances in the 2020 presidential election.  But don’t take my word for it, take his.  Besides having talked about a “national emergency” for months and trying to use it as a threat to get Congress to give him more money, yesterday in response to reporter’s questions about why he did not just continue to work with Congress under normal appropriation and authorization processes, he said, “I could do the wall over a longer period of time.  I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it much faster.”  Wow.  So the president himself admitted that there is no national emergency, merely that he got tired of working with Congress and making slow progress,  In other words he chose expediency over the national interest.  He then went on to say, “And I don’t have to do it for the election.  I’ve already done a lot of wall for the election.  2020.  And the only reason we’re up here talking about this is because of the election…”  Double wow.

So we have the President of the United States, invoking a national emergency, bypassing a bipartisan funding bill from the Congress, because he wants money to build a wall faster in order to appease his base for the 2020 election.  That is one thing about Mr. Trump.  He doesn’t hesitate to tell us when he is doing something shady.

In case you forgot, Article One, Section 9 of the Constitution says in part, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”  Article One enumerates the powers vested in Congress.  Section 9 is the “power of the purse” reference that is the strongest element of the power invested in the Congress.  Since the president cannot spend money except for specific purposes, the Congress can exert its power as a co-equal branch of government.  Without that power in Congress, the president and his Cabinet could spend money on any enterprise they see fit without over sight or other input from Congress.

Besides Mr. Trump’s Banana Republic shenanigans in creating a non-existent crisis to deploy troops and to build a wall to stop a non-existent “invasion” (Autocracy 101 Playbook), Constitutional experts consider his actions to be a direct threat to the Article One powers of the Congress.  He would set a precedent that any time a president has a pet project that the Congress will not fund, he or she could declare a national emergency and take money from one authorized project and use it on an unauthorized one.  It is an unabashed abuse of presidential power.

How to stop it?  The NEA of 1976 provides that opportunity.  A 1985 amendment allows for a joint resolution of Congress to end the emergency.  Again, without going into the weeds, it requires a simple majority in both Houses to overturn it.  Provisions require a speedy vote so that legislative legerdemain cannot bury the issue.  They must address it if a bill is brought forward.  The president may veto the resolution, in which case the Congress must over ride the veto with a two-thirds majority in both Houses to end the emergency.

It is widely expected that such a bill will come forward in the Democrat controlled House of Representatives where it is expected to pass.  The chances of the bill passing are less certain in the Republican controlled Senate.  Speculation is that it would pass on a majority, but that the Senate would not over ride a veto.  Keep in mind that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Trump-Ky) was against the president declaring an emergency before he was for it.  Just a few days ago he was against it.  Then on Thursday he took to the Senate floor to say that he supports it.  So much for his reputation as an ardent supporter of the Constitution and the self-appointed protector of the Senate and their legislative powers.  Perhaps he should re-label his position as the Senate Leading Enabler.

When the Congress fails to stop the madness, numerous court cases are likely to be filed.  The basis of those cases will range from Constitutional separation of powers issues to eminent domain cases (it seems that most land owners along the border are not willing to give up their land for a meaningless wall).  Whether or not the issue makes it to the Supreme Court is itself a question.  The Supreme Court may consider this to be an issue between the other two branches of government, and they are historically loathe to make a decision that favors one or the other when it comes to delineated powers.  They want them to solve it themselves, which seems logical since the Congress can pass laws to restrict or rescind the original Act, including the above voting procedure to end a national emergency.  What is certain is that it will be working through the courts for months, possibly years, to come.  The immediate question will be whether a court issues an injunction to stop any building of the wall using misappropriated funds while the court cases play out.  And you can expect every brief opposing the action to begin with Mr. Trump’s statement that he didn’t need to do it.

In some ways this is an esoteric issue.  In some ways it is a comedy of the absurd.  It is hard to follow the nuances of the law and the Constitution.  It gets complicated.  Mr. Trump has a knack for putting things into black and white to try to make his points, even if he lies to do so.  The country cannot afford to ignore him or to look away this time.  To cut through the legalese, I’ll put it this way.  The President of the United States is using a hoax to usurp the Constitution of the United States.  He is making a pure power play that if allowed to stand will set a precedent for him, and future presidents, to act without restraint to achieve their purposes whether legitimate or not.  It is the beginning of a president gaining unfettered power.  This is not hyperbole on my part or an over reaction from those that are anti-Trump.  Read up on your own, form your own opinion, but the consequences are not whether we build a wall.  The issue is whether a president can skirt the law and get away with it.  That should be of grave concern to anyone that believes that we should be a country of laws and that no one, not even the president, is above the Constitution.