Events unfolding around the country are the previews for coming attractions, and it won’t be fun. To look at what is happening in Portland Oregon one might see a trial run for more such activity — currently announced for, or underway in, Kansas City, Chicago and Albuquerque.
Going forward, remember that this is all right from the autocracy 101 hand book. I will explain my thinking in this piece, but two major things are happening. One is that Mr. Donald J. Trump is trying to get video to support his campaign claim that the cities are out of control and that “only I can fix it.” Second, and far more ominously, he is laying the ground work for declaring martial law leading into the election. Mr. Trump and his campaign know that he cannot win solely through the support of his base. He needs to keep people from voting for his opponent — voter suppression — and one way to do that is to intimidate the electorate and to make it too hard to vote. It is an election strategy that comes at the expense of American cities and their citizens. It threatens the very foundation of our democracy.
As a reminder, federal law enforcement units in full combat gear have been on the streets in Portland for about ten days. Theoretically, they are there to protect the federal court house from protesters. In fact, they have been patrolling the streets of the city picking up people that look like they might be willing to foment trouble. Let’s dive into this further.
The federal government has a duty and a right to protect federal property from destruction. In cases such as the court house in Portland, this would normally entail coordinating with the local city and state authorities for a cohesive plan and would amount to a defensive — rather than offensive — effort to keep trouble makers away. None of this is happening. There is no apparent coordination with local authorities — indeed the mayor and governor have explicitly asked those forces to leave — and they are definitely using offensive tactics with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and other agents against the crowd. To be sure, there are trouble makers in the ranks of the protesters. However, the vast majority are peaceful. Additionally, with proper techniques and coordination, peaceful protesters are likely to cooperate in identifying the bad apples in the crowd as it is in the best interests of the other protesters to keep it peaceful and to not provoke an over reaction by law enforcement. By all credible accounts, after weeks of protests, the demonstrations in Portland had settled into a peaceful occasion and were slowly dwindling in size. That is until the federal authorities arrived and began using their storm trooper tactics. In military combat gear, the federal authorities wear no name tags or unit identification badges, only a small generic “police” tag on their camos. Reportedly, they are from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One might ask who is guarding our borders from the supposed hoards coming across from Mexico if they are in Portland? One might also ask what training these particular agencies give to their agents regarding community policing?
If you think it is an exaggeration, look at this video of a Navy veteran trying to talk to some of the agents and getting beaten and pepper sprayed while not even raising his arms or making any threatening movements.
All of this on its own is bad. Very bad. But it portends worse things to come. Remember Mr. Trump’s words earlier this week.
“I’m going to do something, that I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. Look at what’s going on — all run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”
So, first of all, only Democrat mayors are “bad.” Secondly, there are currently no violent demonstrations in Philadelphia, Detroit or Baltimore or other cities he is going to “dominate.” This is pure, unabashed partisan politics using federal law enforcement agencies for his personal gain.
Additionally, the hypocrisy is all too familiar. The rationale behind the Portland deployment is to protect against citizens expressing their First Amendment rights on federal property. In 2018 Mr. Trump gave full pardons to two Oregonians — father and son — that set fire in 2016 to 139 acres of federal land during Red Flag Warning conditions, endangering firefighters working on another fire nearby. It resulted in a 40 day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by protesters supporting their cause. He considered these men to be patriots. Peaceful protesters in cities are considered to be criminals.
As I have written in this space before, I was very involved in figuring out Saddam Hussein’s next moves during Gulf War I. We figured out after awhile that he pretty much always announced what he intended to do. He couldn’t always carry it out, but he was pretty straightforward in his pronouncements. Mr. Trump is the same way. He announces exactly what he plans to do.
Here is the diabolical back drop to his strategy. In my 8 May piece “American Carnage” I wondered aloud about how Mr. Trump could have so badly botched the national response to the pandemic and opined that perhaps it was deliberate. I am now sure of it. He did not create the pandemic, but he is going to use it to his advantage. Similarly, he will use the Black Lives Matter movement to declare that they are terrorists working to destroy America. He already barely hides his racism in this regard. Yesterday in a speech he blamed Mexico (again) and the BLM protests for the spread of the Coronavirus in the South and Southwest. He repeatedly declares that if the Democrats win the election, they will “destroy the suburbs,” a not-so-subtle racist canard.
Many pundits and political experts, as well as average citizens, have wondered for weeks and months why Mr. Trump refuses to put forward a national effort to halt the pandemic and to address racial injustice. It dawned on me yesterday that as former Maryland Lt. Governor and National Republican Chairman Michael Steele explained on TV yesterday — this is his plan. In other words, he will use the chaos currently engulfing our country to his advantage. He will trot out again his beliefs that the the Constitution gives him “absolute power” and that “I alone can fix it.” These will form the basis for action on his part to interfere in an election that he is already claiming — nearly daily — is rigged. He is against mail-in ballots (even though he, his family, many of his aides and many service members vote by mail) and has installed a long-time ally as Postmaster General. Mail bags mysteriously disappearing? Mail trucks mysteriously bursting into flames? The imagination can run wild.
The point is that we will not succumb to an outright coup on his part. It will be gradual with incremental decisions and policies that set the stage for him to declare the election invalid and that he must stay on to save the country. He is on record multiple times, most recently in his Fox News interview with Mike Wallace, that he will not accept the outcome of the election if he thinks it’s rigged. Asked directly if he would accept the results he said,
“I have to see. Look — I have to see. No, I’m not just going to say yes. I’m not going to say no.”
Since many of the states will use mail-in ballots, it could be days or weeks before the official results are in. If the election is close as the polls close on Election Night, and the results change dramatically against Mr. Trump when the absentee, provisional and other ballots are counted, he could well declare the entire election a fraud and cancel it. He is on record with the 2018 Florida election — which was very close and looked as if it would go against his preferred candidates — as saying that only ballots counted on Election Day should be valid. He tweeted without offering a single piece of evidence,
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night.”
Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis both won their races.
We already know that Mr. Trump will do anything that benefits him. There is no ethical, moral or legal bottom for him. He now has an Attorney General that acts as his personal attorney and shares Mr. Trump’s belief in an Imperial Presidency.
The U.S. military put Mr. Trump on notice after they were used in a political stunt at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. for his bible thumping campaign photo op that they would not be used for political purposes. Thus, Mr. Trump went to his flunkies in DHS (the top position and most of the sub-agencies are headed by “acting” leaders that do not have Senate approval) in order to create his own personal police force to pursue his personal goals.
Some may think that this is a “Chicken Little” scenario. Alarmist. Couldn’t happen here. That’s not America. Stop hyperventilating. No way. I hope that you are correct. Personally, I am watching out for our “Reichstag Fire” moment.
…Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…
—– Joni Mitchell from the song Big Yellow Taxi
From time to time I try to do a self-evaluation as to my perspective on current events under this president’s administration. In a nod to Chicken Little, I wonder if things are really as bad as they seem or whether I am falling prey to the hype. Am I running around yelling that the sky is falling for no reason? In my view, there is less hype and more to be genuinely concerned about with this president as time goes by. I worry that the incremental destruction of our political norms and traditions is passing the notice of many of our fellow citizens and that one day we will wake up and realize that what we all assumed was right in these United States is now gone.
Consider the following:
- The president gutted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We now have an Acting Secretary of Homeland Security and key department heads are missing or also have “acting” leaders including the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, the Undersecretary for Management, the Director of the Secret Service and the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Any day, the Director of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will be empty as he becomes the Acting Secretary. Additionally in the DHS the FAA and FEMA are headed by acting directors. There are other key offices empty.
- When the president was asked who is in charge at DHS given all the vacancies, he replied, “Frankly there’s only one person that’s running it. You know who that is? It’s me.”
- There are 716 positions in the government that require Senate confirmation. Of those there are 140 with no nominee. Only six are awaiting confirmation. Positions without permanent leadership include the Secretary of Defense, the president’s Chief of Staff, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The other positions are generally department heads or at the Deputy and Assistant Secretary level across the government, in other words, the people that actually get things done.
- The president is trying to interfere with the work of the Federal Reserve, an institution previously thought for decades to be above political interference which is critical to its credibility and role in shaping the U.S. and world economy.
- The Attorney General of the United States is refusing to release the entire Mueller Report to the Congress. He alone (or will it be with help from the White House?) will determine what will be released. While it may be reasonable to withhold some of the report’s information from the general public, refusing to release it to Congress, who is authorized to deal with classified information and grand jury proceedings, makes it impossible to know whether the true story of the investigation will be known. Additionally this week, Attorney General Barr asserted that the government was spying on the Trump campaign. As he said, “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. I think spying did occur.” When asked to provide proof, he said he could not. How convenient. The man who controls what parts of the impartial investigation may be released can assert whatever he cares to and then not have to provide evidence.
- The Attorney General got his job by currying favor with Mr. Trump. His hiring is paying off for the president as Mr. Barr repeats many of the president’s talking points and provides further fodder for his assertions that he was “exonerated” (he wasn’t), that it was all a “hoax” (the entire intelligence community says it was not), and that it was an “attempted coup” (forgetting that the Special Counsel, Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, FBI Director, etc., etc., etc.) were all this president’s appointees. The president procured a personal attorney in Mr. Barr, and the United States lost an Attorney General. (One might ask Mr. Trump and his supporters how a corrupt, phony, political vendetta prone organization could “exonerate” him. A seemingly direct contradiction.)
- Additionally, the Attorney General refuses to support the law of the land — the Affordable Care Act twice upheld in the Supreme Court — primarily because that’s the president’s position. It’s kind of scary if a president can seek to overturn laws he doesn’t agree with by directing the Department of Justice to work to overturn it, even though it was twice deemed Constitutional.
- Speaking of not following the law, it appears that Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin will direct the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) not to turn over Mr. Trump’s tax returns. This in spite of the fact that under the law the Secretary is not to interfere in decisions made by the IRS and the fact that a law is on the books that says the IRS “shall” turn them over to Congress upon request (not “may”, “could”, “might” or any other modifier). The law is a 1924 statute enacted to uncover fraud within the Executive Branch following the Teapot Dome scandal.
- After declaring a National Emergency and sending additional troops to the border, there is no Senate confirmed Secretary of Defense and no Secretary of Homeland Security. Not even nominees. Where is the oversight? Mr. Trump professes that “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility.” In other words, he likes people to be unsure in their jobs because it gives him more control over them. Additionally, he does not have to worry about too many tough questions coming during Senate confirmation hearings.
- Frustrated by the asylum laws governing immigrants, the president wants to undo them all and in fact argues that we eliminate judges that adjudicate the laws about asylum. As he said this week, “And we have to do something about asylum. And to be honest with you, you have to get rid of the judges.”
- Among other measures being considered (again!) in the White House is an Executive Order ending birthright citizenship (anyone born on U.S. soil is considered a citizen). So apparently the president and his advisers think that the president can unilaterally overturn the Constitution. In this case, the 14th Amendment.
I could go on and on. I find it very troubling that the assaults on the rule of law continue unabated and indeed, seem to be increasingly frequent and harsh. On the other hand, the president is a known blowhard who continually speaks outrageously and without knowledge of nearly any subject. Should we worry about his pronouncements or is it just more sound and fury rather than substance? If during his presidency he has already told over 9,000 provable lies should we just dismiss most of his statements as more lies? Or is there something there?
I think that there is something there. The president does not seem constrained by any law from taking action, even though many of his most controversial policies have been consistently overruled in the courts. He and his administration willfully ignore attempts at oversight from the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Republicans in the Senate are too afraid of being “primaried” (when did that become a word?) to stand up to him. Where are the limits to his power as he continues to push the boundaries and in many cases break them? Or are these concerns of mine just a gut level reaction to his abominable personality and persistent bullying and belittling?
In my heart I know that Mr. Trump cares nothing about the people of the United States. He cares only of himself and arguably his family. Whatever helps him personally and allows for his family to continue to make money off of the presidency is all that keeps him focused.
My concern is that having rid himself of nearly everyone in his Cabinet and close advisers that stood up to him to point out that his actions were unlawful, immoral or unethical (and in some cases all three) is gone. Now he is surrounded by enablers. I fear that as time goes by he will become ever more autocratic in outlook and action. Reportedly, Mr. Trump models himself after President Andrew Jackson. Remember what President Jackson is said to have remarked about a decision made by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall, “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!” (President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v Georgia. The case involved the sovereignty of Native American tribal lands.)
Mr. Trump is headed in the same direction as Mr. Jackson. He sees no limits on his power and believes that he can ignore the law where it suits him. And why not? Throughout his entire life he has never been held accountable for his actions in any meaningful way. With A.G. Barr’s unilateral assertion that the president is exonerated under the Mueller investigation, what is to make him think that anything or anyone will get in his way?
Sometimes I do think that I am Chicken Little. Maybe I worry about the course of our nation a little too much. Unfortunately, I am also a student of history and current events. There are just too many examples throughout time where revolutions and the loss of freedoms did not happen overnight, but rather incrementally and slowly. Most people’s lives were not immediately or directly impacted and so they didn’t pay close attention or fret over it. And then one day, it was too late. They didn’t know what they had until it was gone.
One at a time Mr. Trump’s actions may be more annoying than substantive. Put them all together and it paints the picture of a man who knows no boundaries. A president who is slowly eliminating his opposition and consolidating power in his own hands.
An old U.S. Navy saying goes “Eternal vigilance is the price of safety.” We should all remain vigilant to the actions of our president.