Thursday, May 11, 2017

Constitutional Crisis Redux

In 1973/74, America experienced its worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War. The Watergate affair that brought down Richard Nixon was the grand finale of a nation torn apart for 15 years by divisive issues of civil rights, the upset of the established social order, a generational revolution, nine years of a seemingly endless no-win war, and governing by political assassination. It was an ugly time that shaped a world and domestic view for generations.

Near the end of this historical arc, a band of Nixon campaign operatives hatched a plan to hack the Democratic National Committee. Given the technology of the day (pre-personal computers), it was intended to be a burglary of paper records. Unfortunately for the team, but fortunately for the country, they got caught in the act. What could have been a footnote in history instead became the baseline for measuring government cover-up and illegality at the highest levels.

A small crime story attracted the attention of a few investigative journalists, then gradually many. A judge looked at the simple burglary case and decided, “there is more here,” and proceeded to press out the larger facts. Thus began a journey down a path of cover-up, bribery, and lies that went well beyond the original story and cast of characters. Finally, a Special Prosecutor was appointed to pursue what was the role of high government officials in conducting illegal activities, and who were those individuals. Concurrently, a bipartisan Senate Committee was formed to conduct a similar inquiry, ultimately asking the question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

The Special Prosecutor did his work doggedly as he went after the full facts of the Watergate break-in. As did the Senate committee as it brilliantly personified our best bipartisanship. And then the day came when the Special Prosecutor pushed for access to the Nixon tapes of private White House conversations – tapes that ultimately held the “smoking gun” of Nixon’s collusion in the Watergate cover-up. As a last-ditch attempt to try to protect himself, the President fired the chief accuser, along with the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General who had refused to carry out Nixon’s termination order. “Time to move on” was the President’s mantra. In the end, the courts ruled Nixon had to turn over the tapes and obey the law. In the public reaction that followed, Nixon was done. To save himself from certain impeachment, Nixon resigned – the only President to do so. In the end, he was in fact a crook. A cadre of his associates went to prison; others had damaged reputations to rebuild. The cover-up far exceeded the original crime.

44 years later, a similar story is eerily recurring on our TV/computer screens. A group of “dirty tricksters” (i.e. Russians) is caught trying to unduly influence a presidential election by nefarious means. A top campaign aide – Michael Flynn, intended to become a top security aide – is caught lying about his conduct and relationship with that group; lies unwittingly repeated to the public by the Vice President. A career Department of Justice official and Acting Attorney General – Sally Yates – who brings knowledge of this deception to the White House Counsel is fired by the President shortly thereafter, ostensibly for another reason while her role with the Flynn issue goes publicly unacknowledged. The accusations against Flynn languished for nearly three weeks until the press digs out the story. Only then did Trump fire Flynn – not for his actions and connections, but for lying to the Vice President. Senate and House committee investigations pop up looking into the extent of Russian dirty tricks and various Trump-campaign and Russian connections. Only this time the Watergate bipartisanship and “pursuit of Truth” are not as evident. Once again, a President blames “the Media” for inflaming the story. He sends out a multitude of denials of any wrong-doing by anyone – all while continuing to sing the praises of Flynn. Then, following public testimony by FBI Director James Comey confirming criminal investigations of Trump associates, and the stunningly capable testimony of Sally Yates about the White House handling of the Flynn issue, Trump moves into action. He does his usual Twitter impugning of Yate’s character, which falls flat given the credibility and authenticity of her testimony. But more importantly, he fires Comey – the chief investigator. “Time to move on” was once again a President’s mantra. Journalists were sent scrambling to the newsreel vaults looking at the Nixon archives.

Ostensibly, Comey was fired for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email issue, conduct Trump had praised on the campaign trail. This is all very old news, and beyond credulity that Trump cares one twit about fairness to Hillary. Trump’s decision was also purported to be based upon advice from a newly installed Deputy Attorney General as a way to give the FBI “a fresh start.” Yet he was told to put that recommendation in writing by Trump who had already decided to fire Comey a week earlier. The recommendation was also endorsed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had supposedly recused himself from any involvement in the FBI’s Russian investigation – hence the made up “cover story” of the Clinton email handling. Once again, the man leading the investigation into the actions of the President and his aides was fired by that President. Once again a White House and his agency appointees have little remaining credibility regarding the investigations. But as of this time it is unclear whether there is a Congressional Committee, or court system, prepared to defend the rule of Law and pursuit of Truth.

We have watched this pattern from Trump for two years now. He is a man who lives in a protective bubble of a self-created image who will defend that bubble at all cost. He will exaggerate, lie, deny, or accuse his accusers however necessary, and without accountability, to protect that bubble. It is now clear that he will also simply disbelieve counsel from agency professionals, and will even fire anyone who comes bearing bad news or threatens to puncture Trump’s bubble. Since virtually none of the cover story is believable, we are left only with conjecture and speculation about what collusion and ill-doings have happened in this White House.

Clearly Mike Flynn is in a heap of trouble for his actions, non-declarations, and lies to cover them up. But one also to ask, what makes him seek immunity for “telling what else he knows?” And why does Trump continue to keep speaking so positively about him? Clearly other Trump campaign people are hiding something, and the FBI and Senate investigations are closing in on them. Else how could they have known in advance of the forthcoming DNC email leaks? And why would Trump have so forcefully announced during the campaign, “Russia, if you are listening – and I hope you are – I hope you find Hillary’s missing 40,000 emails,” unless he was aware of Russian hacking? Where else would such an off-the-wall statement come from?

This is not a witch hunt. This is not made up stuff. Supposed “fake news” media reporting has, over time, been consistently confirmed. There is substance of some kind here. But by following the Nixon playbook almost to the letter, Donald Trump invites speculation and encourages accusations. At no time has Trump cooperated or been forthcoming with any investigation. Instead, he has actively tried to block the investigations or create more phony side distractions. Firing from behind Presidential barricades of silence or unsupportable explanations never works out in the end. The bloodhounds and “Woodward & Bernstein wanna-bes” have been turned loose; things will begin to move more quickly, with tentacles reaching out many directions. Eliminating the investigators just confirms that something needs to be hidden. We have seen this movie before. We know how it ended. If the sequel insists on following the original script, we already know how this will also end. Firing those you legally can will not stop the investigations. It will actually encourage those you cannot fire. Trying to block a legal investigation did not work for Nixon, and it will not work for Trump. In the end, it will be every man and woman for themselves. At which time Trump’s defensive wall will come down, one brick at a time, opening a window into life behind the facade. The bubble will finally burst. Then what?

It is an important story of one shoe after another continuing to drop that we all need to follow closely. It matters.

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Friday, May 5, 2017

Give Him A Chance

It has been six months since one of the ugliest, divisive, most personal, non-issue based elections in American history. The popular vote results and the Electoral College outcome served as an appropriate statement of our ballot box indecisiveness. Two months later on Inauguration Day, Donald Trump started his presidency with the lowest approval rating on Day 1 of any modern-day president, a rating only gotten worse in the ensuing 100 days. Throughout this time, a steady call from some of his supporters has been, “give him a chance.” So 100 days in, what are we to conclude about Trump’s “Chance?”

Personally, few of my preconceptions about a Trump presidency have changed during these 100 days. As President, he is still acting as CEO of his family business. He assumes he is free to do whatever he chooses, accountable to no one, managing by direct orders to subservient underlings unwilling or unable to say No. His operating style reflects little knowledge of, or interest in, historical background, protocol, or precedent. It is all packaged in the personal aggrandizement of Trump the individual, with little awareness of fulfilling the larger presidential role.

There is certainly much talk coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump’s presidential decisions are seemingly made in the wee hours of the morning, thereafter communicated to the public almost off-handily in 140-character Tweets in lieu of hours of thoughtful internal discussions among staff, advisors, and department heads. Instead, these individuals spend their post-Tweet days (or weeks) explaining, correcting, interpreting or translating to a national / international audience left scratching their heads by the latest out-of-the-blue nonsensical, factually incorrect, or unintelligible Trump-Tweet.

The kindest thing one can say about the Trump White House team is that it is pure amateurism on very public display. It is about power positioning, infighting, jockeying for position, causng personnel to trip all over each other instead of advancing any agenda. This should be no surprise given that, except for VP Pence, hardly a single person surrounding Trump has any government experience – including “the Boss” himself.  It is all well and good to play the role of the “outsider” brought in to shake things up. But outsider is a short-lived job title; one has to reach inside pretty quickly to actually get things done. And that means surrounding yourself with good people who know how to pull the levers, press the pedals, integrate the governmental structures, and avoid unproductive fights with the Washington machinery. The hardest job in Washington used to be the President. Now it is the Press Secretary who every day has to try to rationally explain this irrationality to an increasingly skeptical public.

The glimmer of hope is the national defense team that Trump has managed to assemble which may be able to keep us on a rational path. Meanwhile, his domestic and economic teams have been virtually invisible, excepting Jeff Sessions at Justice clearly intent on rolling back civil and gender equality gains. Where these other cabinet officials will attempt to go remains to be seen, but corporate interests and making money at the expense of other quality-of-life goals is likely to be the governing compass.

The result of this chaos is that virtually nothing of substance has gotten done this far. The only Trump victory has been confirming a Supreme Court nominee. Trump has loved signing all of his Executive Orders – it brings out the CEO style in him. Many of his EOs mainly set a tone, point a direction, or initiate a review. Most of those that have actual impact have unsurprisingly centered on a full frontal assault on standing environmental protections in favor of corporate expansion and profits. (Few of these profits will actually move to the new jobs and wages Trump voters expect.) Other EOs have been blocked by the courts (the Muslim ban; withholding funding to “sanctuary cities”) due to the legal sloppiness of their preparation and attempted implementation. For a Party that regularly criticized Obama for being an “imperial President,” Republicans have been conspicuously silent about Trump’s greater number of EOs.

Beyond these “actions?” Nothing. Not a single piece of significant legislation passed in Trump’s 100 Days. Only one piece was even filed: the long-promised Republican repeal (and now “replace”) of Obamacare. Trapped in their own longstanding rhetoric, this bill went down in flames without even getting a vote as Republicans discovered that the public has long since moved on to acceptance regarding this law. Everything else on Trump’s agenda has yet to be seen. A laughable 1-page “Tax Reform Plan” consisted mainly of cuts for the wealthy with no details offered; even his economic team could barely present it with a straight face (“Details to come!”). A proposed 2018 budget of draconian cuts to every “social good” program in sight, cast amid stupid statements like, “Meals on Wheels has no hard data to prove that it is working,” and “Not every student needs a computer.” A proposed huge corporate tax cuts which will reward corporate officers and Wall Street, but which will never “trickle-down” to the average worker and never generate enough GDP growth to avoid huge new government deficits. (See history of Reagan’s trickle down/voodoo economics.) A unilateral ripping up of existing trade agreements because they are “unfair” to America, even as much of corporate America lies in wait to preserve those agreements. Trump continues to preach about a return of jobs to America – which is never going to happen (see coal miners) – so he claims credit for job expansions decided well before his election. And as previously noted, Trumpcare is in chaos as low-middle income and older Americans watch their Obamacare benefits evaporate. Meanwhile, not one fencepost has been driven into the ground for the Mexican Wall, and it has been conceded that American taxpayers will foot the bill, not Mexico.

Internationally, American leadership is fading because of our now unpredictable lurching from one supposed policy to the next. After a brief missile show, a Syrian airbase and air force was back in business bombing its citizens the next day. War with North Korea no longer seems to be a fictional novel. Trump’s administration is drowning in ever-widening investigations about Russia, Trump/Putin coziness, and Michael Flynn’s illegal deceptions, issues he tries to hides behind his stone wall of denials and false counteraccusations.

Donald Trump is quickly finding out the limits of his power as he learns that Congress and the Federal Courts are truly “equal branches of government.” Ditto internationally with the 200+ independent sovereign nations of the world. They are not underlings waiting and receptive to being told what to do. Actually, Trump’s biggest “success” is the one thing that successful politicians never want to achieve: mobilizing one’s opposition. He has awakened an opposition force that has been passive for a long time and all but ignored by its traditional Democratic Party home. Whether this energy will come to achieve anything tangible is as yet unknown.

Ultimately, after the inexhaustible list of shortcomings, misstatements, and failures is detailed, evaluating Donald Trump still comes down to the fundamental issue ever-present since he announced for the Presidency: Personal Character. The concern for Character arises over the ease with which he lies and exaggerates, and his willingness to say any outlandish thing for attention; his disregard for factual information (“fake news”); his approach to and basis for decision-making; his consuming need for continuous attention and praise; his refusal to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them; his inability to debate issues in favor of personal attacks against those with whom he disagrees; his profound ignorance of history and the course of human relationships; the phoniness in which he voices people’s concerns while having no true understanding of people’s lives outside the orbit of his own narrow experience. Donald Trump is simply not a person worth respecting nor one who has earned our trust. Water that flows from a clear well in good earth will nourish many good results. Nothing much good comes from the dark water of a poisoned well. Once poisoned, there is very little chance of a dark well ever running clear again. We take a Chance and drink from that well at our own risk.

©   2017   Randy Bell