Friday, February 28, 2020

Khruschev Was Right

My next column in The Everett Herald:
Notwithstanding Truthless Trump’s hypo-inspiring, politicized news conference, which left investors unconvinced, the fawning of HHS Secretary Azar, and Trump's previous firing of President Obama's pandemic response team, COVID-19 is less worrisome long-term (so far) than firing his Director of National Intelligence. So let’s talk about that, instead.  
In perhaps the most prescient prediction from any world leader, ever, Nikita Khrushchev famously said: “We do not have to invade the United States, we will destroy you from within.” If details were scant, Vladimir Putin has filled in the blanks, and it’s working beyond his most vodka-suffused dreams. That firing is the latest proof. 
Theories abound as to how he glommed onto Trump, whether he turned him or saw him as the proverbial useful idiot. Doesn’t really matter. Putin understands American politics better than most Americans. Trump, he realized, was Khrushchev’s perfect pathogen.  
Completing much of President Putin’s agenda, Trump removed sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama, has weakened NATO and the EU, handed the Middle East to him, gotten Japan and South Korea at each other’s throats, got rolled by Putin’s protégé Kim Jong Un. Climate change denial, too: oil is Russia’s main export, and Putin runs the company. 
But that’s just frosting on the borscht. Putin’s overarching intent is helping the US descend into political chaos, to distrust its own institutions, to see fellow citizens as enemies. To self-destruct. In Trump, he saw the means. Throughout his career, Donald has all but announced it; whether he’s consciously in on it is immaterial. 
A former KGB interrogator and, one assumes, a bolshoi judge of character, Comrade Putin recognized Trump’s weaknesses; narcissism, looseness with the truth, uninformed and incurious, his history so littered with illegal, incompetent, and mob-like behavior that Putin knew exactly what he’d get if he managed to help Trump through the door. Which, denials notwithstanding, he did. Three years into a “presidency,” he’s gotten his rubles’ worth.  
Trump hates the public knowing what President Putin was up to. Which is why he fired acting DNI Maguire for telling the truth about Russia’s help; truth being an unwelcome commodity in Trump’s reign. His replacement is someone wholly inexperienced in intelligence matters, but whose loyalty to Trump was confirmed by his prior nasty online presence, shady associations (which ought to disqualify him from security clearance), and pro-Trump trolling. 
The message is unmistakable: intelligence agencies work only for Trump. Those who disagree, who believe in protecting America and not just Trump are “deep state traitors.” (By contrast, when told of Russian intentions to push his candidacy – no mystery why -- Bernie Sanders denounced Putin, not the messenger.)  
We needn’t translate Cyrillic to know what’s in President Putin’s playbook: hoped-for Trump activities, beside which are checked boxes; in addition to the aforementioned, there’s attacking journalists as “enemies of the people,” saying Democrats “want to destroy you,” (he blamed Monday’s market crash on Tuesday’s Democratic debate), calling honorable public servants “scum,” undermining fair elections and, by appointing unqualified ideologues and attacking decent judges and jurors, destroying faith in our courts. 
As Trump’s supporters venerate his demagoguery and shout down anyone who disagrees, President Putin, grinning in the Kremlin, toasts his way through another round of blini and beluga.  
We’ve been this divided before. Back then, though, there were huge issues separating us: slavery, Vietnam. Now, it’s one person acting deliberately, fear-mongering, prevaricating, fomenting hate of “the other” and distrust in institutions, in order to use his office for vendettas and personal enrichment. 
We’ve never had a “president” who systematically attacked every governing principle that could protect us from him gaining unlimited power. We’ve never seen people working to protect democracy dismissed as unjustified haters. We’ve never had a “president” who so perfectly fulfills the wishes of enemies who seek our failure, and who squelches Americans pushing back and exposing it.  
Trump denies and hides Russia’s manipulations of our self-destruction. Trumpists do, too, obediently, despite the unanimity of our and international intelligence services, and digital footprints online and in voting machines. And now, aided by Mrs. Justice Thomas, Trump is undertaking a Soviet-style purge of people throughout our government deemed “disloyal,” by which is meant anyone who has or might speak up against him.  
If foreign interference in our elections is insignificant and hasn’t helped Trump and Republicans, why has that party become a serial killer of Democratic bills aimed at preventing it? And why is Trump firing those who are conscientiously warning us about it? Isn’t it obvious?    
[Image source]

Friday, February 21, 2020

Barr The Door

My next column in The Everett Herald:
When President Barack Obama addressed his US Attorneys, he told them, I appointed you but you don’t serve me. You serve the American people. And I expect you to act with independence and integrity.” When Trump took office, he fired them all. “Independence and integrity” are anathema to the presidency he envisioned and which he’s so easily spawned. 
He misjudged his first Attorney General. There was reason to believe Jeff Sessions would kow to his tow; and, mostly, he did. But he retained enough of something approximating integrity to recuse himself from overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation. Naturally, this angered Trump. 
Enter William Barr, who hung what had passed for integrity on the White House pegboard as he entered, where it dangles still, alongside many others’. A career-long advocate for the unbound “unitary executive,” he’s been an eager doer of Trump’s bidding ever since.  
History won’t forget Barr’s opening gambit: distortion and outright lying about the Mueller Report, pleasing the “president” and his media, rightly figuring his dissembling would Velcro to Trumpists’ prickly minds. It has. Subsequently, Mr. Barr has made clear his full-time, exclusive commitment to carrying water for Trump. 
Under Trump and Barr, independence of our Department of Justice, indispensable to a functioning democratic republic, suffered a painful but quick death. Barr’s interventions in cases about which Trump has expressed displeasure is exactly what Attorneys General should not be doing, for reasons so obvious they require no mention. 
Seeing nothing wrong with a “president” interfering, even when prosecutors followed DOJ sentencing guidelines, Trump’s defenders were quick to approve. Claiming it’s his right to do whatever he wants, they ardently defend using the DOJ as his personal vendetta and self-serving machinery, expecting “his” A.G. to follow orders in all matters. Nothing wrong with that, they argued, to Fox viewers. Take directions from Trump to investigate the investigators. Let the “president” decide who gets prosecuted and who doesn’t. 
Attacking judges and jurors is his prerogative, too; totally harmless to our system of justice.  
In fact, this is unrestrained autarchy, which shouldn’t be hard, even for Trumpists, to understand. Why don’t they care, and why have they renounced American jurisprudence?  
In response to Trump’s despotism by tweet, Barr spoke out: “It’s time to stop tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” he said. Trump’s tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job ...” Oh, look, enthused the media: Barr is calling out Trump in public! It’s a new beginning!! 
Bullwaste. The “job” to which he referred is defending Trump no matter the cost to our nation. What he meant was, “Cool it, Donald. You’re making it hard to hide the cahooting.” Playing along, rightwing media feigned outrage at Barr’s pushback, helpfully pretending there was space between the two. Lou Dobbs, who cheerleads when Trump claims a constitutional right to absolute power, called it “A damn shame." Unfazed and uncaring, Trump escalated his “impossible” tweets. If Barr meant what he said, he’d have resigned.  
It’s not only Trump’s vendettas against “enemies” and helping friends that Barr is facilitating. At Trump’s behest, he tried to help Recep Erdogan stop American prosecution of a Turkish bank. Yet another abuse to benefit Trump, whose business failures have left him in hock to foreign banks. 
We’ve come to expect unqualified defense, by today’s Republicans, of whatever dictatorial move Trump makes. But to defend presidential manipulations of the Department of Justice is monumental hypocrisy. Those defenders would be shattering eardrums with their screams for impeachment if a Democrat did what Trump is demanding and what Barr is doing. 
If defending and obeying our laws and prosecuting those who break them is subject to presidential whim, especially this vindictive, prevaricating, uninformed, strongman-emulating one, laws are meaningless. Yet Congressional Republicans applaud it. Which illustrates the obvious: if it benefits the right people, corruption is fine with them. 
King Donald’s pardons of corrupt Mar-al-Lago pals, and current and future big-dollar donors should outrage everyone. That it doesn’t confirms Trump’s normalization of lawlessness and fraud, and the moral collapse of today’s Republican leaders. 
Speaking of which, the steel contract for Trump’s saw-soft, easily-climbable, wind-blown-over wall went to a group whose ownership gave $1.75 million to a Trump super-PAC. And Trump just waived federal contracting rules, so there’ll be more. It’s the story of Trump: the con and the conned.  
Trump hasn’t yet killed President Obama’s economic recovery. For Republicans, evidently, that’s all it takes to justify abandoning integrity. 
[Image source]

Friday, February 14, 2020

Paving The Road

My next column in The Everett Herald:
Bosses fire employees. Therefore, Trump removing Alex Vindman and million-dollar-donating Ambassador Sundland for complying with legal subpoenas and responding truthfully is no big deal. Same with firing Elaine McCusker at DOD who warned withholding military aid from Ukraine was illegal. Fox “news,” rightwing radio, and Trumpists demand the head of Mitt Romney, who finally manifested integrity born of faith and respect for his oath. His “physical safety” would be at risk, says CPAC, were he to attend. It’s all good. 
When William Barr took control of all future investigations of political candidates, Trumpists smelled no rats. Same with his announcement of an “intake process” for Rudy Giuliani to send him dirt on the Bidens. With the mass resignations of attorneys prosecuting Roger Stone, after Barr’s takeover of the case, there’s no reason for concern that the DOJ is now, officially and solely, an instrument of presidential power. As in Putin’s Russia. When Trump attacked the federal judge in charge, Republicans remained silent, comfy in their reconstituting Reichstag. No worries.  
No klaxons were sounded when Trump’s Treasury Department handed private-citizen Hunter Biden’s financial information to Senate Republicans, having refused when House Democrats requested Trump’s. Unconcerned about current costs of Tribe Trump’s protected travels, they’ll investigate how much Biden cost taxpayers for security on business trips. 
Outrage over young Biden’s income from Burisma dissipates with JaVanka making over eighty-three-million while in the White House; and with Trump’s who-knows-how-much from foreign and domestic swamp-dwellers renting his properties. The hundred-million-plus his “I’ll-be-too-busy-to-play-golf” golf trips have cost us? It’s fine: he’s ours.  
Those who don’t find this frightening are those who don’t recognize America’s accelerating descent into authoritarianism; or who do, and welcome it. Those unfazed when information critical to Congressional oversight is withheld by a “president” and by agencies whose mission is to protect the nation, not Trump. Those unconcerned when Secretary of State Pompeo bans reporters who ask hard questions. It’s fine. He’s Trump’s. 
If Trump has the right to fire those who revealed his intended extortion, what of his and his adulators’ demand to expose the whistleblower, whose claims proved accurate? Rand Paul, libertarian, did it. Illegally. Why would a distruster of government do so, other than to silence other potential revealers of government criminality? And why do no Constitution-loving, government-distrusting Republicans seem to care? 
It’s not hard to understand. Purely out of selfishness, and personally safe, or so they imagine, from the depredations of the more powerful, such people ignore intimidation and muzzling of people willing to speak out against crimes committed by their protectors. 
We’ve seen it before: they’re sure it won’t happen to them, and don’t care when it happens to others. It’s Trumpism unchained. It’s the “lesson” Trump learned, dear Susan, from people like you. And your party.  
Laws created to guard against Trump’s authoritarian abuses aren’t enough, especially when our chief law-enforcer is a sycophantic tool. Free societies depend on the willingness of citizens to respect the law, the absence of which among his followers Trump has always exploited; and on others feeling safe in speaking up when they see leaders who aren’t. It’s why, until Trump, whistleblowers were shielded. 
Following the totalitarian playbook, Trump is purging those who have or might yet sound alarms, across all departments, including Justice, State, and Treasury, Secretaries of which are bending abjectly to Trump’s will, abdicating independence and their duty to us. Now he wants “his” military to punish Vindman. So it’s DOD, too.  
This is precisely the unrestrained despotism against which our founders created checks on executive power. Abetted by cowed Congressional Republicans and supporters who rationalize his worst, Trump is destroying those checks. His message to future truth-tellers: DON’T. 
Recalled by Trump for her incorruptibility, Ambassador Yovanovich knows of what she speaks: "I have seen dictatorships, where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened with punishment or death. We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act." 
We’re there. Even in America, whose democratic institutions are more deeply embedded than, say, Turkey or Poland, where they’re collapsing rapidly, or Russia, where Trump’s role model Putin was able to end its march toward democracy in a couple of years, institutions are only as strong as people’s willingness to defend them. Trump won’t. Barr and Pompeo won’t. Trumpists sure as hell won’t. Are there no actual conservatives left who will? Time is running out.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Acquitting Themselves Poorly

My next column in The Everett Herald:
Trump’s impeachment will be remembered for establishing that two-hundred-fifty years of Constitutional governance can be erased in three. That the party which elected Abraham Lincoln can choose and excuse a despot wannabe. And that when he behaves predictably -- raging, lying, ignoring the law, encouraging anger and fear and victimization like every successful dictator in history -- that party, when it still had a chance, will look away, cowering.  
Impeachment and Trump have shown that the world’s longest-standing democracy is capable of capitulating to an authoritarian bully. If there’s still time for responsible, forward-looking citizens to take America back from the mob-king, they won’t come from today’s Republican Party. 
Several Republican senators agreed what Trump did was bad. Rubio even admitted it was impeachable. Yet, except for Mitt Romney, they abdicated their responsibility to our nation. Why? Reflected power. Cash. But, mostly, fear. For their careers, of course; and, because Trump is Trump, Trumpists are Trumpists, and Fox is Fox, fearing threats to themselves and their families.  
That’s how dictators gain and maintain power. We saw it, bright as gunfire, dark as blood, during the Senate puppet show, as, out of cameras’ view, Republicans absented themselves from the chamber, leaving their integrity behind.  
Congressional Republicans fear Trump more than the seventy-five-percent of Americans who wanted witnesses and documents brought forth. That’s the power of tyrants to bend people to their will, and it’s how democracies end. Sherrod Brown wrote that many of his Republican colleagues privately admit their fear. As RFK said, “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle.” 
History teaches that, facing autocratic amorality like Trump’s, even democracies may lack the means to stem the tide. Always, though, there are plenty who march to a despot’s rage and vindictiveness; who think they’ll never be its victims, but relish picturing those who will. 
With Mitchly reptilian grins, those recreant Republicans say we should leave it to voters, as if the founders hadn’t created impeachment precisely because they rejected that specious argument. Behind those smirks lie their aces in the hole: voter suppression, voter-roll purges, gerrymandering. Denying funds to protect against helpful foreign interference. Rejecting measures to safeguard voting machines, hacking of which we know Russians have done, and which has been shown to be child’s-play. Literally 
The case was made beyond denial: Trump tried to extort a vulnerable foreign government into helping him with his reelection. Caught in flagrante delicto, he stonewalled and lied to cover it up. Shutting down further testimony and documents, Senate Republicans made it clear: Trump’s demagoguery works. 
Meanwhile, as his feared “enemies of the people” do their job, more of Trump’s illegality is seeping out. It’s certain there’s plenty more, for it’s always been who Trump is. Republicans still won’t care.  
“Trumpism is a cult,” people say. It’s worse. When cultists drink their leaders’ Kool-Aid, they destroy only themselves. Trumpism is destroying America. If we’re not a nation of laws; if we’ve stopped believing in limited executive power, we’re no longer America. If we accept a “president” who lies wantonly, uses division as a weapon, who convinces his minions they’re the abused ones, whose thirst for vengeance will now be unchecked, we’re approaching the end. 
If enough Americans continue to countenance a man who systematically tears down institutions designed by the framers to preserve freedom from monarchy, whose followers flash weapons as threats, even claim a constitutional right to “kill socialists,” it’s over.  
Senatorial capitulator-in-chief, Susan Collins said he’d “learned from this.” “It was a perfect call,” Trump responded. Proving the point, his State of the Union speech, the opposite of inclusive, was replete with the expected exaggerations, calculated divisiveness, slandering the opposition, claiming undue credit, omissions (Deficits? Climate change? Who cares?), and unregenerate lies. Lindsey Graham’s promise to investigate the Bidens post-acquittal was even more craven. And Rush “Barack the Magic Negro” Limbaugh? Wow.  
To recapture our democratic republic, massive voter turnout -- enough to overwhelm Republican-created obstacles and cowardice -- is the last hope. Liberals must vote for the Democratic nominee even if it’s not their favorite. Remaining conservatives, if any there be, must recognize they can survive Democrats in charge for a while, a more equitable and capitalism-enabling economy, better healthcare, less pollution, lower deficits; even background checks. 
But not the end of Constitutional democracy. They’ll need to outvote those rejoicing in it, to reclaim a fearful, Constitution-abandoning political party. The odds aren’t good. 
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