What Is the Crisis? Two Conflicting Narratives

With his usual panache, Andrew Sullivan frames the current crisis by calling attention to two opposed narratives about what is going on, one framing it as crisis, the other as triumph:

These are, it seems to me, the two unstoppable narratives grinding our politics to a halt. The status quo in Washington — an unhinged, unfit, mentally disturbed narcissist as POTUS fast losing any faint credibility with even his own staffers — is utterly unsustainable. In a serious crisis, more than half the country won’t believe a word the president says. The White House is barely functioning; legislation is completely stalled; next week’s trip abroad will have everyone watching from behind a couch; the FBI and CIA are reeling; there’s almost no one in the State Department; no presidential due diligence is applied to military actions; the president only reads memos when his name is mentioned in them; a not-too-smart and apparently mute 35-year-old son-in-law is supposed to solve every problem in the country and world; and the press secretary is hiding in the bushes. No one has any confidence that the president couldn’t throw us into a war or a constitutional crisis at a moment’s notice. Nothing this scary has happened in my lifetime.

And yet around 35 percent of the country still somehow views every single catastrophe Trump perpetrates on America and the world as either a roaring triumph or a huge middle finger to the elites, and therefore fine. For them, everything is sustainable. When Republicans can shrug off giving top-secret Israeli intelligence to the Russians, there is nothing they cannot shrug off. We are not talking about support for various policies here. We are talking about the kind of following a cult leader has. In poll after poll, around 80 percent of Republicans still approve of the job Trump is doing. Still. That’s why the GOP leadership, even as their agenda evaporates, are leery of taking Trump on. His hold on their own voters is tighter than theirs is. It’s tighter than Nixon’s because Trump has built a reactionary movement from the ground up and taken over an entire party. He can communicate with them in ways no other Republican can. And there is no way on earth he is ever going to go quietly, if he agrees to go at all.

That’s why I have a hard time figuring out how this ends, even though it must end.

Of course I subscribe to one of those two views and am dumbfounded by the other.  But he’s right there is the other take, however jawdropping.  How to penetrate and disassemble that other narrative: there’s the problem.

The whole piece is worth reading.

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Fear and Loathing in Manchester

This morning I’m taking in the news from Manchester, U.K.

A day after Trump speaking in Sunni Saudi Arabia laid the responsibility for terror largely on Iran and Shia Islam, a bomb attack kills 22 and injures 59 — or at least that’s the toll being reported now.  And the perpetrators? ISIS has claimed responsibility, and thus this terror likely has radical Sunni culpability.  For a useful corrective on the Trump speech, I recommend Juan Cole (University of Michigan),  Trump on Islam: Neo-Orientalism and anti-Shi’ism.

We need to hit the reset button on our approach to this cycle of violence whose hub is in the terrain we call the Middle East.  Donald Trump has made it plain that he would have us see that we can separate the world into evil people and therefore also good people: this Manichaean framing can be trusted only to make matters worse.  Trump would have us pass over terror by those who identify as Sunnis, terror by those who identify as Christians, terror by Israel.  Blaming one side in the conflict will only stoke the fires.

So what can we do in the meanwhile? For one thing, we can press for continuing normalization of relations with Iran, especially in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s electoral victory.  For another we can oppose selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

We can also resist the temptation of fear.

I find myself thinking of the Bene Gesserit litany from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

The bombers in Manchester were looking to instill fear.  To the degree we react with fear, we give the bombers what they want.  Our media magnify this.  The coverage of events like the Manchester bombing can easily lead you to believe that terrorist acts are the most significant threat an ordinary person faces in the course of ordinary days.

‘Terrorism Is Aimed at the People Watching,’ writes Conor Friedersdorf today in The Atlantic.  As horrible as the harm to those killed and injured, we need to take care not to cause further damage by letting the violence spread through our own fear.  (“I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”)  Friedersdorf calls attention to the media exaggeration of terror deaths.  He particularly calls attention to analysis from Pricenomics about How Media Fuels Our Fear of Terrorism, which includes this striking graphic:  Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 9.34.45 AM

 

Mourn for the dead, pray for the wounded, but do not be consumed by fear.

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What Do Pence and Other Evangelicals See in Trump?

At Notre Dame University today, Vice President Mike Pence told graduates to be “men and women of integrity and values.”  The headlines around this commencement speech are all about the protest (150 students, parents and faculty members walked out), but I am more interested in understanding what Pence thinks — how he makes sense of the world, of the President with whom he serves, and of the values that guide his life.

The question is especially on my mind because this was Pence’s second commencement speech this weekend.  Yesterday he spoke at Grove City College where he told graduates that whatever their choice of vocation, “the same call of leadership falls on each of your shoulders.”  Then he lifted up Donald Trump as an exemplar.  So there is the puzzle.  If integrity matters, how can he serve and admire Trump (ahead of even Ronald Reagan in his admiration) when Trump frequently lies, cheats and demeans others?

Pence’s remarks at Grove City about leadership are worth quoting at length:

First, to be leaders you must inspire those around you by being salt and light in every walk of life. Remember now, people follow people they respect. So first and foremost you must aspire to be men and women of character.

Secondly, servant leadership, not selfish ambition must be the animating force of the career that lies before you. For it’s written, whoever would be first of all, must be servant of all. Your education these past four years has prepared you to lead. You hold within you all that you need to leave this place and succeed. All you need to add to it is courage.

C.S. Lewis said memorably that courage was not one of the virtues, it was actually a form of every virtue at the testing point. If you aspire to lead, you’ll need courage because leadership brings both honor and opposition.

Anyone who dreams big will encounter those who think small. Anyone who dares to step forward will find those who’d rather they stayed put. And anyone who thinks they can will always hear from those who are sure they can’t.

You know, you need look no further than a friend of mine as an example of leadership and perseverance: The 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.

Can Pence seriously mean this?

For argument’s sake I’ll grant Pence his claim that Trump has perseverance.  But “character?” “Servant leadership?” “Integrity?”  I just don’t see how that case can be made.  What value touted by evangelical Christians has Trump not mocked with his life? Truthfulness? Fidelity? Generosity? Trustworthiness? How can Trump be an exemplar, a leader to follow, for Pence or any evangelical?

Thinking about that question, I’m reminded of Emma Green’s recent piece in The Atlantic on Franklin Graham Is the Evangelical Id.  Graham, a prominent evangelical, is the son of Billy Graham and today leads both the evangelical organization his father founded and the international relief charity Samaritan’s Purse.  Green notes that Graham is both determined to be apolitical but also is frequently immersed in politics.  “Graham takes comfort in Trump’s election,” she says.  Here’s what Graham tells her about why:

“[Trump] did everything wrong, politically,” Graham told me. “He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody! And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that.” Now, he said, there’s “no question” that God is supporting Trump, Graham said. “No president in my lifetime—I’m 64 years old—can I remember … speaking about God as much as Donald Trump does.”

Is this the answer for Pence as well as for Graham?  That it doesn’t matter what Trump has done in the past or even how he lives his life today?  That he is God’s chosen person, and therefore he is the one we must follow and exhort others to follow?

Or is there some other possibility?

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What Is the Crisis? Next Steps and Acceptable Resolutions

Now that the Russian Connections investigation is in the hands of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, we should be thinking about where this might lead, and, insofar as there are choices, where we hope it leads.

As any number of commentators have noted, Mueller’s appointment means that we are unlikely to learn much of anything from the various governmental investigations for months, maybe even years.  (For example: Michelle Cottle in The Atlantic, and Andrew Kent in Lawfare.) On the one hand, Mueller will be circumspect about any release of information until his investigation comes to a conclusion, and on the other, Republican leaders controlling the House and Senate committee investigations will say the matter is now in the hands of the Special Counsel.

Mueller’s focus is likely to be on whether any laws were broken, but his actual scope of concern may, by virtue of Rosenstein’s letter appointing him, be broader than that. We just don’t know, and are unlikely to know for some time.  Nevertheless, there are things we can do and things we can think about.

Next steps.  While Mueller’s investigation is in progress, here are three next steps we should be taking.

  1. Because his focus may be on the narrow question of whether any laws were broken, we should continue to press the various Congressional committees to continue their work.  We need to know whether there was improper (whether legal or not) foreign/Russian involvement in this election, and whether anyone connected with the Trump campaign or the Republican Party encouraged or abetted that involvement.  These are proper, essential matters for the Congress to consider.
  2. We need to continue to press for the release of Trump’s tax returns.  The public has a right to know; they should have been released well before the election.  Mueller may seek them, but if he does, he may never release them.  This question needs to be pressed every day.
  3. So far, Mike Pence is getting a pass. He is out of focus, and in the bushes.  We need to press to know what Pence knew and what role he played in the election and the transition.  Is he implicated as well?  As CNN has pointedly asked, Did Pence know Flynn was under federal investigation two weeks before Flynn’s appointment as National Security Advisor? The New York Times has reported that Flynn told the transition team he was under investigation two weeks before the inauguration, and Pence led the transition team.  How could Pence not know?  All this puts a new color on the story that Flynn lied to Pence and that this was what triggered Flynn’s dismissal.

Good investigative journalism (independent, fair and factual) is going to continue to be essential.

Acceptable Resolutions.  (a) Trump toughs it out, (b) Trump resigns, (c) Trump is impeached. That is a short list of possible upshots of this crisis.  Which would we prefer?  A Quick End Would Be Better, writes E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post, but he goes on to discuss a paradox: Democrats want Trump out sooner, but would be better served if he hung around to embarrass the Republicans in 2018 and perhaps 2020; Republicans are not so eager to show him the door, but would be better served in the next elections by a quick exit.  Many who never wanted Trump in the first place are beginning to consider the difficulties of life under a President Pence, assuming he would survive a resignation or impeachment.  We’d likely see a reinvigorated hard right agenda shared between the President and the Republican majorities in the Congress.  So what do we want?  Today I believe we should work for one of two outcomes.

  1. Trump stays, but with a crippled agenda.  I believe Dionne is correct.  Even with the risks of a narcissistic impulsive President, we’d be better off with Trump than with Pence, though we would have to work to see that none of the Republican agenda moves forward: not on health care, not on taxes, not on the environment, not on education.  Were Trump to try to resolve such a stalemate through a resignation, we should continue to press to know what Pence knew and what he actions he took during the election and transition.
  2. If Trump is to be impeached, let Republicans take the lead.  Trump is a Republican-made crisis through and through.  Republican words and deeds during the Obama years paved the way for Trump, Trump prospered in the primaries against their ragtag band of candidates, their voters stuck by him in the election, and through the first three months Republican leaders in the Congress have stood steadfastly by Trump.  (Think what little we have heard from Ryan or McConnell about this crisis.)  If Republicans want him gone, let them do the heavy lifting.  Let them explain why he needs to be impeached.  Don’t ask the Democrats, with a few Republicans, to clean up this mess.

Trump needs to be hung around Republican necks while he is in office, through his departure, and during the clean-up.

While we press for the full truth on the Russia connection and for the release of Trump’s tax returns,

  • we need to continue to call attention to Trump’s lies, misdeeds and mistakes, and, at least as important,
  • we need to say more clearly what we stand for.  What agenda are we prepared to move once he is gone?
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What Is the Crisis? the Unitary Executive Heresy

In yesterday’s New York Times, John Yoo argued Forget Watergate; Think Iran-Contra.

In it, Yoo argues that “Unlike in the Watergate case, there is no evidence that the president ordered witnesses to lie, destroyed evidence or tried to block F.B.I. agents from doing their job. At least, no evidence yet.”  Thus, in his view, the President is unlikely to be found guilty of obstruction of justice,  and then he adds “… not just for lack of facts, but on constitutional grounds as well.”

It’s the constitutional grounds Yoo sketches that draw my attention here in part because — as even Yoo acknowledges — we don’t yet know the facts about whether there is a legal/criminal case to be made against Trump in the Comey matter.  But I think Yoo is wrong about the constitutional situation and he tries to slip by us a mistaken understanding of the Constitution.

First, let’s remember who John Yoo is.  The NYT op-ed identifies him thus: “John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general from 2001 to 2003, is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” His wikipedia biography adds this: “He is best known for his opinions concerning the Geneva Conventions that attempted to legitimize the War on Terror by the United States. He also authored the so-called Torture Memos, which concerned the use of what the Central Intelligence Agency called enhanced interrogation techniques including waterboarding.”

Although he is a very intelligent person, Yoo’s defense of torture makes me wary of anything he says.  He is also just one among many conservatives who assert the constitutional claim of the ‘unitary executive,’ and I believe it is important we not get suckered into accepting this view while we sort out the facts of the obstruction of justice matter.  Here’s what Yoo says:

Article II of the Constitution gives the president the duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” With this clause, the framers vested in the president the authority to oversee all federal law enforcement. As Alexander Hamilton observed in Federalist 70, “good government” requires “energy in the executive,” and a vigorous president must ensure “the steady administration of the laws.” According to this original constitutional design, President Trump may order the end of any investigation, even one into his own White House.

Whatever Trump may or may not have done, Yoo is saying, neither the FBI nor any other organization within the executive branch of the federal government can (should?) be used to build a case against him, because legally and properly (constitutionally) he can shut down such an investigation at will.  “Instead, Congress should turn to the powers designed by the framers for exactly such circumstances: the tools of funding, oversight and, as a last resort, impeachment.” It’s up to the Congress, not the FBI.

Put another way, Yoo is saying that the President in his activities as President is beyond the reach of law enforcement because he is the boss of everyone, no exceptions.  It isn’t really true, Yoo is saying, that “no president is beyond the reach of the law.”

Most of the argument about the unitary executive has played out over matters of the president’s power over foreign (especially) and domestic policy.  Here’s an overview of the issue from the Los Angeles Times in 2008.  Here’s another from The Atlantic in 2011. In 2007, Cass Sunstein wrote the following on the University of Chicago Law School Faculty blog:

Gerhard Casper, for example, has vigorously argued that the Constitution gives Congress broad authority to structure the executive branch, by insulating law implementation from complete presidential control. Others, including Steve Calabresi, have vigorously disagreed, contending that the document and its history clearly forbid Congress from intruding on the president’s authority to run the executive branch.

In essence, those who hold to this theory, hold that Congress cannot create in law any provision that gives true independence to any organization within the executive branch of the government.  Thus, no one in the Justice Department can appoint a special counsel who has the ability or independence to fully pursue the matter of the 2016 election Russian connection wherever it leads.

If you read Yoo’s op-ed, you’ll see he offers as support for the doctrine of the unitary executive only a single sentence from Article II of the Constitution and some snippets from Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist.  Hamilton was the member of the constitutional convention most supportive of a strong executive.  He left the proceedings for several weeks when he didn’t get his way, returning only to sign the finished document.  The use Yoo makes of Hamilton’s remarks are strongly antithetical to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, which everywhere seeks to divide and separate power to prevent tyrannical domination by any person or group.  The ‘unitary executive’ is a pernicious doctrine that seeks to make the Constitution say what Hamilton was unable to have it say in 1787.

I want to be clear: I do not think that obstruction of justice is at the heart of this crisis.  The crisis has much more to do with the general unfitness of Trump to be President, with a number of reckless, nation-threatening steps he has taken or tried to take, and with the continuing support of the man on the part of Republican party leaders in the face of this unfitness and various reckless actions.  I believe the proper remedies are more likely to be political than legal.

I agree with Yoo when he notes that impeachment does not require a showing of criminal behavior:

Contrary to common wisdom, impeachment does not require the president to commit a crime but instead refers to significant political mistakes or even incompetence. This was the framers’ intent — as Hamilton explained in Federalist 65, impeachment was to tackle “the misconduct of public men” or “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Such offenses, he wrote, “are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Nevertheless, with Thomas Friedman, I am inclined to think impeachment is unlikely given the Republican leadership’s perfidy in backing Trump.  “This G.O.P. is not going to impeach him; forget that fantasy. Either Democrats get a lever of power, or we’re stuck emailing each other “S.N.L.” skits.”  Rather, we have to look to the 2018 and 2020 elections, hoping no disaster befalls the republic before those elections.

Meanwhile let’s not swallow the unitary executive claim of Yoo, Calabresi and others that the president is, essentially, above the law.

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What Is the Crisis? Some Possibilities

Clearly we are in the midst of some kind of crisis in the United States, a political crisis, certainly, perhaps a legal crisis, likely a constitutional crisis, too. I want to think out loud, probably in more than one post, about the nature of that crisis. Much of the focus of what I’m reading seems to either focus on the wrong thing or construe the crisis too narrowly. So what is the crisis? I’ll be thinking out loud: here are a variety of framings.

(1) We have a crisis because the person who is serving as President of the United States has, allegedly, done some things that disqualify him from further service. Among the allegations are that he colluded with the Russians to have them help him win the election, and now that he has (again, allegedly) recklessly shared super-secret intelligence with the Russians, showing by this that he has no grasp of the importance of secret-keeping.

(2) We have a crisis because the person who is serving as President of the United States is manifestly unfit, by character and competence, to serve in the office. This was known well in advance of the election, but events since his inauguration have served to demonstrate this unfitness.

(3) We have a crisis because the Republican Party, despite knowing the manifest unfitness of its presidential candidate, has been standing by him since his nomination, enabling his reckless, perhaps illegal, actions. The crisis is not just a crisis involving the President and his chief advisors, it reaches to the cooperation offered by Republican Congressional leaders.

(4) We have a crisis because for some decades we have through a variety of steps by a variety of actors constructed a presidency that cannot be controlled or contained when the person holding the office does terrible things: torture, drone strikes, unauthorized use of military force abroad, obstruction of justice. Call this, on one view, an imperial presidency; call it, on another, a unitary executive.

I’m sure there are other ways of construing the crisis, but these are the alternatives that strike me at the moment. Of course there are blended versions of these four, and various blended versions are likely better than any of the four options taken by itself.

These various framings suggest quite different ways of addressing the crisis. If it is the first, the crisis might be addressed well by a special prosecutor such as now as been appointed to look into the Russian connection. The efforts of the special prosecutor might (though slowly) lead to a criminal prosecution or impeachment proceedings.

If it is the second, the crisis could be addressed more by impeachment proceedings than by legal investigations, except insofar as investigations might further convince the reluctant to see the unfitness of this president,

If it is the third, the crisis could only be addressed by political means. With both houses of Congress in Republican control, impeachment proceedings (or exercise of the 25th amendment) would be unlikely to serve. Only a reversal of Republican control in the House and Senate would serve.

If it is the fourth, we have a long road ahead of us including removal of the current president, defeat of the enabling Republican Party, broad renewal of political and civic leadership, and various legislative decisions and court judgments to restore a Constitutional presidency.

I’m much more drawn to the third and fourth understandings of the crisis. Of course this president has acted in reckless, disqualifying ways. Of course this president is, and was known to be, unfit to be President. But I don’t think seeing the crisis through either of these lenses is at all sufficient.  I do not expect the best efforts of a special prosecutor or the possibility of impeachment to be adequate the threat.

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Where To Focus: Day 115

We’re beyond the first 100 days. Time to remember that there are 1460 days between presidential elections (or between inaugurations) in the U.S. We have to endure 13 more stretches the length of this first one. Are we ready for that?

At my Quaker Meeting recently, I rose to speak about the difficulty I was feeling in staying alert and active in the midst of this Trump presidency. I said that most days I find myself reading, reading, reading the news, alert to every fresh nuance and turn in the drama. In the midst of that I notice two further things.

One is that taking in the news is making me feel passive. Whatever is happening now, I realize, will be subsumed by something else in a few hours. The pace of change in the stories is so rapid, the turns so unexpected, and the number of awful issues being addressed that I’m allowing myself to become a spectator. I have a hard time knowing when to act and what to do. (And no, I don’t find the urgings from the Democratic Party or from MoveOn, etc., to sign this or that petition and then “pitch in” a few bucks at all helpful.)

Even worse, I find myself amused and entertained by the spectacle. Who needs any other form of amusement in life when the Trump White House (or Ryan or McConnell) will hourly deliver up some fresh horrible idiocy for me to stare at in wonderment? Trump throwing Rosenstein under a bus!  Spicer in the bushes! It’s like watching gladiator fights each day. How can I watch such spectacles? But then again, how can I turn away? Pass the popcorn; I’m ashamed.

Back in late February (just 40 days in) I urged Strategy: Follow the Russia Connection. As I take a deep breath this morning, that still seems like the right focus. More particularly.

First, Keep the Focus on the Russia Connection. We need a full understanding of what the Russians did in the 2016 election and who in the United States may have assisted or encouraged them. That means we need the various investigations (FBI, House, Senate) to continue. Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum makes a persuasive case that A Special Prosecutor Is Not the Answer, even though twenty state Attorney Generals have called for this. Read it for yourself, but Frum argues that a special prosecutor would take the story off the front page for months or even likely years, and would focus solely on criminal behavior. Criminal behavior would be important if there was any, but the bad-acting may instead be just politically unacceptable behavior. We need to know the truth.

So beyond FBI, House and Senate we need the continuing excellent work of investigative journalists. Much of what we already know has come from fact-reporting journalists. I’m also drawn to Adam Jentleson’s urging about how Democratic Senators can keep the pressure on.

Second, insist on release of the tax returns. Likely Trump’s tax returns will tell us more than anything else. We need to continue to insist on their release, and insist that they be subpoenaed if not voluntarily released. The recently released Morgan Lewis Bockius letter on Trump’s taxes is only the most recent evasion. According to ABC News, “Jack Blum, a Washington tax lawyer who is an expert on white-collar financial crime and international tax evasion, called the [Morgan Lewis Bockius] letter ‘meaningless.’” We should see every President’s tax returns. Trump’s behavior has only shown us why we need to see the returns, in full, for ourselves.

Third, stay attentive to health care. Then Comey firing has taken the public focus away from the disastrously bad wealthcare bill passed by the House Republicans on May 4. Call your Senator, call your Senator, call your Senator.

Fourth (if we can keep four things in mind) is the assault on environmental protection. We need to talk to Congress about that, too.

I look back at my February 28 list of where we should be focusing and see that it holds up pretty well: 75 days later, keep the focus on Russia, the taxes, healthcare and the environment.

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