Several events last week disturbed me to my core as I realized the depths that Mr. Donald J. Trump and his administration will go to protect him from the rule of law and any sort of accountability. One of the prominent warning signals came in the form of Attorney General William Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In case you missed the live broadcast of his appearance, I will point out that it was not just what he said in response to questions but also how he said it. He was clearly annoyed that any Senator would question his decisions or his power as the head of law enforcement in the United States. Perhaps more chilling was his unadulterated and unabashed pro-Trump posture. He is no longer the Attorney General of the United States, or even the attorney charged with protecting the presidency as an institution. He clearly and forcefully defended Mr. Trump, the man, and not the president, the office.
Among many startling elements of A.G. Barr’s comments regarding the Mueller Report are what I see as the three most egregious points:
- The most troubling and news worthy defense of Mr. Trump by A.G. Barr was his insistence that the president is above the law. You read that correctly. In response to a question on obstruction of justice — and the fact that if Mr. Trump was successful in carrying out the obstruction, then that could be the reason that no conspiracy to work with the Russians was proved — Mr. Barr stated that under the Constitution the president has the authority to oversee investigations (including those involving the president) and therefore has the authority to shut them down. Thus, there can be no obstruction even if the president stops an investigation into himself because it is within his power. He further argued that this is especially true if the president thought the investigation “was not well founded” or “groundless.” The president has the ability to declare it so. “The president does not have to sit there, constitutionally, and allow it to run its course.” And there you have it. All the president has to do is say that there is no reason to investigate him and then no one can investigate him. (I assume a “hoax” is “not well founded.”) The Attorney General believes the president is above the law. (For info, Article I for the proposed impeachment of Richard Nixon was obstruction of justice.)
- The second most troubling aspect of A.G. Barr’s testimony is that he waffled mightily in response to a question as to whether the president or any one else at the White House asked him to investigate others. The context was a section of the Mueller Report that indicated Mr. Trump pressured the Department of Justice (DOJ) to re-open an investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton and others of Mr. Trump’s political opponents after the election. He finally answered “I don’t know.” Right. (As Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) pointed out, that’s not something one might forget.) It used to be a bipartisan agreement that a president using his office to investigate a political opponent on purely political grounds was an abuse of power (Article II of those brought against Mr. Nixon).
- The third most troubling comment was the confirmation by A.G. Barr that Special Counsel Mueller objected to the characterization of his report put forward by Mr. Barr on 24 March. In his statement summarizing the results of the Report he claimed that Mr. Mueller found no criminal evidence of conspiracy or obstruction. When the report was finally released, we found that was not true. Mr. Mueller wrote to Mr. Barr three days after his March summary to object to the characterization of his work. “The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” Some Senators think that Mr. Barr lied in his previous testimony when he said that he had not heard any objections from Mr. Mueller when in fact he had already received and read the letter.
There were more, but then you can read it for yourself.
Let’s put a few more developments from recent days out there to paint a picture. Consider the following:
- In an on-air discussion with Sean Hannity of Fox News Mr. Trump said of the Mueller Investigation, “This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.” Incredibly — although I don’t know why I continue to be surprised — Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader, used the same word in response to a reporter’s question.
- The Trump Administration asserted that it will fight or ignore any House subpoena. They are also going to court to stop subpoenas of other entities where Congress is seeking information about the president and possible financial ties to other governments or foreign entities. “We’re fighting all the subpoenas.” (Contempt of Congress — refusing subpoenas — was Article III of those against Mr. Nixon.)
- Mr. Trump still does not acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the Mueller Report there were 251 contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian-connected operatives including 37 meetings in person or via Skype. At least thirty-three campaign officials and advisers held the meetings or were aware of such meetings. Recall that the Mueller Report concluded that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin held a nearly ninety minute phone call. Mr. Trump did not confront Mr. Putin about the attacks. President Obama may have been asleep at the switch and not done all that he could as his administration learned the breadth and depth of Russian intrusion, but he did talk directly to Mr. Putin to warn him against further meddling. He also imposed sanctions against Russia (which are the ones that presidential adviser Michael Flynn got into trouble over for calling the Russian Ambassador and saying that Mr. Trump would lift them). President Obama also expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US and shut down two of their facilities in the US. Yet in his ninety minute conversation with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump did not even bring up the Russian actions except to say that he and Mr. Putin did not collude and Mr. Putin should know because he was the one who was supposed to have done it. They then agreed that it was a hoax. You can’t make this stuff up.
So what does all of this mean?
When taken in their totality it means that we have a president with no boundaries, no oversight, and no sense of what is right. Mr. Trump still has not been held accountable for any of his outrageous actions and must surely think that the preponderance of evidence indicates that he never will be. Most certainly not by the Republicans in the Senate and not by the Attorney General. In fact, should someone, somehow initiate proceedings against the president, we already know that his A.G. says he can shut it down because, well, just because he can if he wants to.
It is also clear that Mr. Trump will not take Executive Action to stop Russian interference in the 2020 election. Although various agencies are working to shore up our defenses, there is no national level coordination and planning under way to prevent further meddling. Indeed, Mr. Trump and others in his administration implied that he would take their help again in 2020.(Russia if you’re listening…)
I think that the evidence above also indicates the Mr. Trump believes that the purpose of the federal government is to do his bidding and therefore he will not hesitate to use the full power and strength of the U.S. government to take down his political opponents. Apparently he will do so with the willing acquiescence of the A.G. and Republicans in the House and Senate.
Talk of coups really scares me. Do the president and the leader of the Republican Party in the House really think that the Mueller Investigation was an attempted coup? Stop and think about that for a moment. Anyone that threatens this president’s sense of well-being is a direct threat to him. Really? A coup? If they actually believe that then there is nothing he will stop at to prevent losing his power. And who will stop him? The House is being ignored (A.G. Barr won’t even show up to testify about the Mueller Report and his role in its release). No oversight there. The Senate trembles in its boots that one of their Republican colleagues will be the subject of a nasty Tweet. No oversight there. The Attorney General is now the personal defense attorney for Mr. Trump. No oversight there. The fix is in.
How far will he go? Declare martial law for some other self-created crisis? Nullify a close election he loses? Suspend the election because he Tweets out that the Democrats are attempting a coup? I am not sure what he is capable of doing.
Do I sound like a wing nut conspiracy dealer with too much time on his hands? I hope so.
And yet, the things I’ve mentioned above happened in only a matter of days. In other administrations, Republican or Democrat, there would be a major reaction to such a clear threat to our norms and national well-being. Sadly, most people just dismiss it as business as usual.
One theory floating around is that Mr. Trump and his advisers and supporters in Congress are pushing the Democrats in the House as hard as they can so that they are left with little recourse except for impeachment. Improbably, the Republicans think that an impeachment proceeding against Mr. Trump will help his approval ratings and “guarantee” his re-election in 2020. To them there is no down side as they know that the Senate would never convict him of the Articles of Impeachment. If that is the plan, how much further will the administration overflow the banks of good government to create a flood of institutional indignities to force the issue?
I worry that we are in the midst of the creeping destruction of our Republic. It is taking place in slow motion and in public so that most people who are rightly concerned with the day-to-day effort of just going to work, to school and of trying to keep food on the table don’t see it. Like everything associated with this president, it is hiding in plain sight.
With apologies to the old 1960’s era television show — the precursor to shows on now such as the Daily Show — That Was The Week That Was, or as it was commonly known TWTWTW, or TW3, we just experienced among the craziest weeks in recent history. Like the Daily Show, TW3 took actual news events and gave them a “can you believe it” comical twist. Unfortunately, there was nothing comical about this past week. If you were busy shopping or attending holiday parties, here are the highlights of what you missed over the past seven days. In some semblance of chronological order, of which very little exists today in this administration, they include:
- Late last Friday night a federal judge declared the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional. The judge said that since Congress lowered the tax for the Individual Mandate to zero, they essentially repealed the tax. In two Supreme Court decisions the ACA was ruled constitutional because of the tax — which is a right held by Congress. Since there is now no tax, the whole law was deemed unconstitutional, ignoring the long-standing legal precedent of “severability” which means that just because one part of a contract or law is deemed to be wrong, the whole contract or law is not voided. More on this in a future post.
- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned from the Cabinet to avoid investigation of his actions while in office. This now means that since the mid-term election in November, Mr. Trump has fired or accepted the “resignations” of the Attorney General, his Chief of Staff, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the Secretary of Defense. There are still countless White House staff positions, Assistant Secretaries, and Ambassador positions yet to be filled two years into this administration.
- It was revealed that there are currently at least 17 investigations of Mr. Trump, his organizations, and associates by at least seven different jurisdictions. (The Special Counsel, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Attorneys General from New York City, New York State and other states, and a “mystery” investigation that is under court seal.)
- Two independent studies reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians’ involvement in social media and efforts to help Mr. Trump and to hurt Secretary Clinton were more widespread than previously understood. It continued well after the election and shifted focus to undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation of Mr. Trump. In particular, the Russians took actions to suppress the minority vote. Since Mr. Trump won the Electoral College by a total of approximately 80,000 votes spread across the three states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan it is probable, but not provable, that their actions changed the election.
- General Michael Flynn arrived for sentencing thinking that he would get probation. Judge Emmet Sullivan disabused him of that perception and threatened to lock him up. “I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense,” said the judge. Keep in mind that the judge has seen the redacted parts of the case that detail the full extent of the former National Security Adviser’s role in the campaign, transition and administration. The sentencing was postponed for 90 days to give General Flynn another chance to cooperate with the investigation. (Hint. Hint.)
- In an ongoing civil suit in New York State, the Attorney General of New York attained a court order for the Trump Foundation to shut down. The Foundation will distribute its remaining funds under court supervision. The suit continues. The N.Y Attorney General argued that the Foundation was little more than a slush fund for Mr. Trump, the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign. All illegal activities.
- Acting Attorney General Whitaker refuses to recuse himself. The senior career ethics professional in the Department of Justice told the Acting A.G. that he should recuse himself from the Mueller Investigation. Mr. Whitaker decided not to do so. Remember that A.G. Sessions forever will feel the wrath of Mr. Trump for having rightly recused himself last year following the appointment of the Special Counsel.
- The president unilaterally announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria within 30 days. On Twitter. He further ordered that plans be drawn up to withdraw most if not all of our forces from Afghanistan. This decision was met with great joy and celebration in Russia, Iran, and by Syria’s despotic ruler. It takes the U.S. out of any significant role in the future of the Middle East and sends a message to our friends and allies that we cannot be trusted. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are the Kurds. Through U.S. training, equipping and our Special Forces fighting alongside, they have become the most effective fighting force in Syria and were our partners in driving ISIS out of the cities. We are now throwing them under the bus. The Turkish government (along with Iran) does not want the Kurds to be a strong entity in the region and indeed the Turks are planning to attack them as soon as we leave. Likewise negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan are now in jeopardy because the president wants us to leave. All of our opponents now know to just wait us out. We have lost all credibility in much of the world, but especially in Asia. We also undermine Israel with this decision as the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah and others can now consolidate their power, gain new territory and not worry about a U.S. presence in the area. This is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
- The president agreed to a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until 8 February, the Senate unanimously voted to approve it and then he changed his mind and refused to go along unless he got at least $5 billion for a border wall. Ironically the approximately 800,00 federal personnel that will be impacted are significantly represented by TSA agents, Border Patrol agents, Coast Guardsmen (the Coast Guard is not part of the Defense Department but falls under the Department of Home Land Security) and others charged with keeping our borders safe. They will keep working but not get paid until the budget bill passes. For those that have mortgages, Christmas presents to buy, groceries to feed their family and other obligations, getting paid sometime in the future is not helpful to their current situations. Mr. Trump promises a “very long shutdown” if he doesn’t get his way. Remarkably, Representative Mark Meadows (Trump-NC) said that federal employees knew what they were getting into. “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position.” (Someone should tell Mr. Meadows that a well-run government does not shut down. Furthermore, the Republicans have controlled the House, Senate and White House for two years. Apparently that isn’t enough time to, you know, do your job and pass a budget.)
- Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned. Take a look at his resignation letter here. Those familiar with the way such things normally work, Secretary Mattis’ letter is a direct rebuke of Mr. Trump and his policies and his leadership. Through the eloquent and gentlemanly language, the Secretary basically tells Mr. Trump that he is full of it and an anathema to all that the United States stood for, for over seventy years. This is unprecedented in modern times.
- The stock market is on track to have the worst December on record since 1931 and the Great Depression. The reasons are varied but include the uncertainty created by Mr. Trump and his impulsive policy decisions, especially regarding trade and tariffs.
These are only the quick highlights. And only one week’s worth of news is listed here. In “normal” times this much activity in a month would be noteworthy.
Much of this will play out over the next few weeks and months. I am sure we will all have plenty to say about it as events unfold. Right now I want to emphasize what much of this means to us with respect to national security and foreign affairs.
Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” agenda. Nice slogan. As has been pointed out by many, this was also the slogan of the fascist leaning, isolationist wing of American politicians in the 1930s that refused to oppose the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. I am not hinting that Mr. Trump is a fascist sympathizer, I am merely pointing out that there are historical roots to the thoughts, and policies he espouses.
Given Mr. Trump’s use of hyperbole in everything that he does, many thought that “America First” was just a catchy phrase that he liked. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the words are more than a slogan. He believes them in the sense that it governs his views on trade, national security, military action and our role in the world. It is reflected in his decisions (against nearly unanimous caution not to do so) to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, his decisions to impose tariffs, and his desire to build a wall on the southern border. It is an entirely isolationist, transactional way of thinking. In this way of thinking we do not help or stand by allies unless there is something tangible in it for us — in Mr. Trump’s view, money.
This way of thinking is dangerous — to the interests of the United States and to peace and stability in the world. It cedes the playing field to Russia and China who are more than happy to fill the void.
Re-read Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter. He resigned because of those “America First” policies. This is what he is not so subtly saying. Mr. Trump is a danger to all that we as a country have held dear for over 70 years and a danger to the influence and power for good that the world used to count upon from the good old U.S. of A. Not anymore.
Expect it to get worse as Mr. Trump has systematically removed all of those in his administration that were not afraid to tell him “no” and stood against his misguided plans. The president acts impulsively and erratically and it seems that with two years of data, we now know that his instincts are either no good, or his knowledge of the world is sorely inadequate.
We are fast approaching a time where the United States government is run like the Trump Organization. It will be in the hands of Mr. Trump, his daughter and son-in-law. Period.
Likewise, the world — our friends and allies as well as our enemies — now know that the president is weak and ill-informed. The decision to leave Syria proves it to them. The icing on the cake was his decision to cave to the whining from hard-core right-wing pundits on television calling him out on not shutting down the government over his wall. It makes Mr. Trump look scared of losing his base and gives power to the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh. Along with Sean Hannity, those apparently are his real cabinet.
On the other hand, this is a season of great joy! Celebrate with friends and family. Remember that we are all God’s children and enjoy the gift of life. For a few days, we can put aside the worries of the secular world and revel in the power of the spiritual world.
Best wishes to all.