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The Lawless Administration

According to the Constitution, the duties of the President include “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.  But from the beginning of his administration, Donald Trump has taken the same attitude towards the law as president that he did when he was a New York real estate tycoon: Not “What does the law say I have to do?”, but “Who’s going to make me do it?”

No previous president or administration has had such a disregard for the law, and he seems to be getting more brazen about it. This week included so much lawlessness I need to list it before I go into detail on any of it.

  • Trump announced that there is nothing wrong with doing what he was accused of doing in 2016: accepting help from a foreign government during an election campaign. The law may say otherwise, but so what?
  • An official watchdog group (whose head Trump himself appointed) reported that Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly and brazenly violated the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from partisan political activity while performing their official duties. The report recommended that she be fired. The White House Counsel rejected the report, and Conway will continue in her job. She has neither apologized nor promised to obey the law in the future.
  • Scandals continued to pile up around Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose stock in a major road-paving company was long ago identified as a conflict of interest, who attempted to use her position to benefit her family’s company, and who maintains a special pipeline for transportation projects in the home state of her husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Friday night, MSNBC’s Ali Veshi (subbing for Rachel Maddow), examined Trump’s long history of telling people to break the law. He mentioned these incidents:

(Veshi might also have mentioned incidents during the campaign, when Trump urged his audiences to beat up protesters. Or his instructions that his administration should defy “all the subpoenas“, regardless of their lawful authority.) In each case, intermediate officials felt obligated to tell the same people to obey the law rather than do what the President just told them to do.


In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday, Trump said that he would “listen” to any foreign government that offered his campaign dirt on his opponent, and that “maybe” he would call the FBI. But then he elaborated in ways that made the call to the FBI seem unlikely:

I’ll tell you what, I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do. Oh, give me a break – life doesn’t work that way.

Both Attorney General Barr and FBI Director Wray have said that a campaign receiving offers of help from foreign governments should call the FBI, but Trump explicitly rejected that opinion. “The FBI director is wrong,” he said.

In essence, Trump has announced to foreign governments that he is open for business. If they have anything on his rivals, he wants to hear it. Will he ask questions about whether they broke any laws to get it, as Russia did when it hacked DNC computers? He didn’t say.

Democrats in the Senate offered a bill to require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance, but Republicans blocked it, as they have blocked every attempt to stop a repeat of Russia’s 2016 interference. It’s hard to come up with an explanation other than the harsh one: Republicans are counting on Russia to help them again in 2020.


When Elaine Chao took office as Transportation Secretary, she pledged to the Office of Government Ethics that she would sell her stock in Vulcan Materials, which the company’s web page describes like this:

Vulcan Materials Company is the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand and gravel—and a major producer of aggregates-based construction materials, including asphalt and ready-mixed concrete.

Given that the Transportation Department oversees the interstate highway system, the conflict of interest is obvious. She in fact didn’t sell the shares until two weeks ago, after the Wall Street Journal pointed out that she was still holding the shares — whose value had increased by $40,000 in the meantime.

Another obvious conflict is her family’s company, Foremost Group, which the NYT describes as “an American shipping company with deep ties to the economic and political elite in China, where most of the company’s business is centered”. The Times recently revealed that when Chao planned her first trip to China as a member of Trump’s cabinet, she asked for family members to be included in meetings with government officials.

David Rank, who had been deputy chief of mission for the State Department in Beijing, described the request as “alarmingly inappropriate”. The trip was cancelled after State Department officials raised ethical issues. Vanity Fair writes:

Though Chao has not worked for the company since the 1970s, it is the (ongoing) source of her wealth and the political wealth of her husband [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell]. In 2008 her father gave the couple a gift of as much as $25 million, while 13 members of the Chao family, including Foremost CEO Angela Chao, have given more than $1 million to McConnell’s campaigns and to PACs tied to him.

Angela Chao responded to the NYT article with a letter to the editor defending her sister, which in my opinion missed the point and denied charges that were never made.

Finally, there are the conflicts created by her marriage to Senator McConnell of Kentucky. Politico reports:

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.

Draining the swamp indeed.


The Office of the Special Counsel (not to be confused with Bob Mueller’s office; this one is run by Trump appointee Henry Kerner, formerly a Republican congressional staffer) issued a report recommending that Kellyanne Conway be fired for repeated violations of the Hatch Act. The NYT explains:

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. Named for former Senator Carl A. Hatch, Democrat of New Mexico, the law has been on the books for 80 years. The act dates to Depression-era reforms intended to prevent machine politics in which patronage jobs were handed out to people who then used their positions to help keep their patrons in power.

The OSC report lists several occasions in which Conway was speaking in her official capacity (for example, giving a press interview at the White House or tweeting on a Twitter account that she also uses for official purposes) and also attacking Democrats like Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Elizabeth Warren.

Conway has dismissed the whole issue, and all attempts by ethics officials to work through the White House Counsel’s office have by stymied. The report concludes:

Ms. Conway’s persistent, notorious, and deliberate Hatch Act violations have created an unprecedented challenge to this office’s ability to enforce the Act, as we are statutorily charged. She has willfully and openly disregarded the law in full public view. As recently as May 29, 2019, Ms. Conway defiantly rejected the Hatch Act’s application to her activities, dismissed OSC’s 2018 findings, and flippantly stated, “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” And she made it clear that she has no plans to cease abusing her official position to influence voters. Ms. Conway’s conduct undermines public confidence in the Executive branch and compromises the civil service system that the Hatch Act was intended to protect. Her knowing and blatant disregard for the law aggravates the severity of her numerous violations.

After the report came out, a Deadline reporter asked Conway for a reaction. She replied: “I have no reaction. Why would I give you a reaction?”

Trump has made it clear that Conway will not be fired or otherwise disciplined. The White House Counsel’s office issued a statement defending her actions, which a University of Texas Law School professor described as “fooling no one“.

In this White House, faithfully executing the laws is not seen as a priority, or even a duty. The law is something to be gotten around, not something to obey.

Socialism: What’s in a word?

The word socialism has become a little like the word God: something we can almost all believe in as long as we get to define it our own way. Depending on the speaker, socialism can mean Denmark or Venezuela or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even the National Socialism of Hitler’s Germany. In FDR’s day Social Security was denounced as “socialism” and in JFK’s day Medicare was. Now those programs enjoy almost universal popularity. So are we all socialists now?

If socialism means buying things collectively through the government, then your local fire department is socialist, and so are the national parks and the interstate highways. Who doesn’t like them? On the other hand, if socialism means buying everything collectively, so that we eat in big government cafeterias rather than in our own kitchens and dining rooms, that would be a lot less popular. So which is it?

And if we can’t decide which it is, why are we talking about it at all?

What Bernie said. Bernie Sanders wants to have that discussion, and I don’t think any of the other Democratic candidates do. Wednesday, he gave a major speech (video, transcript) embracing socialism and attempting to define it his own way.

We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.

He listed these economic rights:

  • The right to a decent job that pays a living wage
  • The right to quality health care
  • The right to a complete education
  • The right to affordable housing
  • The right to a clean environment
  • The right to a secure retirement

How others responded. Among this cycle’s Democratic candidates, none of those rights seems terribly radical. True, not every candidate would agree with all of them. The more moderate ones would see them as goals to work toward rather than rights that need to be delivered immediately. (Let’s extend quality health care to more people, even if we can’t get a universal program passed.) Each candidate would have a different interpretation of those rights (what jobs are “decent”? when is an education “complete”?), of the kinds of programs necessary to ensure them, and how to pay for those programs. But nothing on that list should inspire shocked pointing and cries of “infidel!”

All the same, nobody joined Bernie in endorsing socialism by name. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate whose policy proposals are probably closest to Sanders’, noncommittally said, “I’ll have to hear his speech.” But Warren has kept the word capitalism in her proposals (as in the Accountable Capitalism Act). She styles her program as a reform of capitalism, not a revolution that replaces it with socialism.

Other candidates were more critical.

Of the two dozen Democrats running for president, some are ready to sign on to ideas Sanders has pioneered, such as Medicare for All, but none agree with democratic socialism as a way to govern, or as a pitch that will defeat President Donald Trump. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was booed for condemning socialism two weeks ago in a speech before the California Democratic Party, laughed at the title of Sanders’s speech when I read it to him. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado let out an exasperated chuckle. “I don’t think the American people even know what that means,” he told me. “Nobody in my town halls talks about democratic socialism versus oligarchy and authoritarianism.” When I read the title of the speech [“How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism”] to Senator Kamala Harris of California on Monday after an event in Dubuque, she responded with a simple “Huh.”

Republicans, on the other hand, love to talk about socialism, and to label Democratic proposals “socialist”. One favorite technique is to dismiss a Democratic proposal as “socialist” without identifying any specific flaws, as if socialism were a plague that can only be fought by quarantine. Before he officially became a politician, Ronald Reagan attacked a proposal similar to Medicare like this:

I know how I’d feel, if you, my fellow citizens, decided that to be an actor, I had to become a government employee and work in a national theater. Take it into your own occupation or that of your husband. All of us can see what happens: Once you establish the precedent that the government can determine a man’s working place and his working methods, determine his employment, from here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism — to determining his pay, and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go, or what they will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.

So sure, the idea that Grandma can go to the hospital after she falls sounds good, but it’s socialism. Before long we’ll all be living in government dormitories.

My own view of capitalism and socialism in America. Debating socialism and capitalism, as if they were two distinct roads and we could only choose one, seems misguided to me.

When I look at America, I see capitalist and socialist economies existing side-by-side. We commonly go back and forth between them without thinking about it. Your driveway is part of the capitalist economy; the street is in the socialist realm. When your kids play in the front yard, they’re under the aegis of capitalism. If they go down to the park, they’ve crossed into socialism.

(In Debt: the first 5,000 years, David Graeber also posits an underlying communist system, which we instinctively revert to in emergencies. When the flood hits, you rescue your neighbors in your boat — without going through either a market or a government office — because you have a boat and they need rescuing. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.)

What we’re mainly arguing about when we talk about socialism is where the boundary between the two realms will be. Should our kids be educated in public schools (socialism) or private schools (capitalism)? If we raise taxes to improve the library (socialism), maybe I won’t be able to afford to buy as many books (capitalism).

In my view, the balance has shifted too far in the capitalist direction, and needs to shift back. Market forces are doing a really bad job of organizing our health care (as I see in my own life). Pro-capitalist Republicans deny climate change because capitalism has no answer for it.

So while I have no desire to destroy the capitalist system root and branch, I want to move the boundary to shrink the portion of the economy it commands. I don’t think we need public dormitories and cafeterias, but I also don’t think we want capitalists manipulating the insulin market.

What’s in a word? Whatever politicians say in their speeches, only a few libertarian radicals want to get rid of socialism entirely, and only a few communist radicals want to get rid of capitalism entirely. We’re going to continue living in a mixed economy and arguing about what activities belong in each realm. So the idea that we’re going to accept or reject socialism once and for all is unrelated to the world we actually live in.

But we keep trying to have that conversation, and it seems that every politician but Sanders (Republican and Democrat alike) has come to the same conclusion: Democrats are better off talking about their specific policies — universal health care, free college, sustainable energy, etc. — than having an abstract argument about capitalism vs. socialism.

So why does Bernie want to have that argument? I think the word socialism symbolizes a point he wants to make, something that’s key to his political identity. The argument about socialism has become a metaphor for a more nebulous question: How screwed up are things, what caused it, and how big a change is necessary to set the country on the right track again?

Joe Biden’s message is that Trump screwed things up. The country was more-or-less on the right track under Obama, and we just need to get back there. Trump’s extremism has shown Republicans what their flirting with white supremacy and subverting democratic norms leads to, and once he’s gone they’ll be more reasonable. So there’s no need to change America’s underlying system, we just need a new president — preferably one with a majority in both houses of Congress, like Obama had for his first two years.

Elizabeth Warren’s message is that the turn towards unfettered capitalism is the problem and it began around the time of the Reagan administration. She uses her personal story to say: We used to have opportunity. You could buy a house on one income. You could work your way through college and graduate without a mountain of debt. Now, irresponsible banks throw the world economy into a near-depression, and they get bailed out. CEO pay is out of control. More and more chunks of the economy are monopolies or oligopolies.

So Warren’s message is one of reform: We need to get capitalism back under control, so that it works for the many again instead of just the few.

But Sanders’ message is that America is screwed up at a much deeper level, and it was never really on the right track. In his speech, he points to FDR’s New Deal not as a time when things were going right, but as a time when people had a vision of a better system. In his speech he said:

Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made transformative progress in protecting the needs of working families. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.

This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.

Unlike Trump, Bernie doesn’t think America can be made great again, because it was never really great. For a while we had a vision of greatness, but we left it unfinished. We don’t need reform, or the mere updating of old values to new circumstances. We need transformation and even revolution.

And let me also be clear, the only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution – where millions of people get involved in the political process and reclaim our democracy by having the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.

And that, I think, is why Sanders embraces the label socialist, while other Democrats shrink away from it. To him, the word symbolizes a whole new system, a revolutionary transformation.

In short, Bernie is appealing to a level of discontent that no other candidate (except maybe Trump, who represents a vision of authoritarian revolution; I would compare him not so much with Hitler as with Franco) sees. Sanders sees a country, a political system, and an economic system that is too far gone to be reformed. Rather than build on what has come before, he prefers a blank-sheet-of-paper approach. Rather than make deals with some collection of the current power brokers, he wants a peaceful popular uprising to blow them away.

So the argument about socialism is really an argument about that extremity of discontent: How many people feel that way? Some, definitely. But are there enough of them to win a nomination and presidency?

Bernie thinks there are. Other candidates disagree — and I guess I do too. But that’s what campaigns are for: We’re going to find out.

We need hope, not optimism

As regular readers probably know, when I’m not writing this blog I’m writing for a religious magazine and giving talks at churches. When you have that much religious exposure, sooner or later you end up thinking about hope, because hope is religion’s central product.

Humanistic religions offer hope for human progress, while salvation-oriented religions offer hope for a better world to come, but pretty much every flavor of religion deals in some kind of hope: for miracles, for eternal life, for an escape from suffering, for strength to change, for the eventual triumph of the better angels of our nature, or some other desirable outcome.

Once you start thinking about hope, your reading will fairly quickly bring you to a useful distinction that (for reasons I don’t understand) never catches on with the general public: Hope is not optimism.

The two words often get used interchangeably in conversation, and you do often find them together in real life: Hopeful people tend to be optimistic, and vice versa. But once in a while the difference between them is important. I feel like that’s true now in American politics, so I’m pointing it out in this secular context.

  • Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
  • Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”

So an optimistic person plants a garden because the rains will come and the plants will grow and the harvest will be bountiful. But a hopeful person plants without knowing what will happen, because the possibility of a harvest is worth creating.

Since we seldom actually know what’s going to happen (even when we think we do), optimism is more brittle than hope. After a hot, dry week, favorable assumptions about the future can flip to unfavorable ones, and our optimism can crash: A drought has started, the crops are doomed, we’re all going to starve. The garden might go untended while the formerly optimistic person searches the horizon for signs of rain.

Meanwhile, the hopeful person just keeps gardening. The harvest was uncertain when everything looked fine, and it’s still uncertain now. It’s worthwhile to keep going.

I trust that the application to the current political situation is already clear to you: An enormous amount of political discussion these days is of the optimism-versus-pessimism variety: Will we manage to get rid of Trump, either by impeachment or election? Is democracy already so damaged that it won’t recover in our lifetimes? Assuming we have a next leader, will he or she be able to heal the partisan divisions, or will America keep spiraling towards division or civil war?

And what about climate change? Are we past the point of no return? Will we pass it soon? Is civilization as we have known it already fated for ruin?

Truthfully, I have no idea.

I know most of my readers don’t want to hear that. Every now and then I find myself conversing with someone who has cast me in a Guardian of Optimism role. I think they cast me that way because I keep paying attention to the news and writing this blog every week. Surely all that would be too depressing if I didn’t think everything was going to work out eventually.

So they want me to pass along my optimistic secret: “Tell me it’s going to be OK. Tell me we fix this.”

I can’t. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. To be either an optimist or a pessimist requires a level of hubris I don’t have. For good or ill, reality has a way of doing whatever it damn well pleases, no matter how tightly we think we have it tied down.

So my advice at this point in history is to get comfortable with not knowing and try to stay hopeful. Keep tending the garden and let the rain do whatever it does.

Which means: Try not to waste too much of your time and energy searching poll results for evidence that Trump will or won’t be re-elected. Don’t agonize over who the Democrats will nominate. Don’t watch panels where pundits argue over their predictions. Don’t try to pick the exact year when the climate catastrophe will hit.

Just do something. Campaign, demonstrate, give money, write letters, mobilize your friends. Whatever you can think of.

Will it work? Who knows? We don’t need to know. Someday, maybe, we’ll look back and see that whatever we did either worked or didn’t work. Between now and then, a lot of unforeseeable stuff is going to happen.

So don’t waste a lot of time trying to foresee it. The harvest — as rich or barren as it might eventually be — will get here soon enough. Until then, just keep working. It’s worthwhile to create possibilities.

What makes Donald Trump so smart?

Trump wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that he’s very intelligent.
But what kind of intelligence is he talking about?


When Donald Trump first described himself as an “very stable genius” — and was roundly ridiculed for doing so — I figured it was just one of those unfortunate phrases that sometimes slip out in the back-and-forth of social media. (I hate to think what a close inspection of my Facebook activity log would turn up.) But when he chose to repeat it just a week or so ago, it became clear that he really means it. Apparently “extremely stable genius” is part of the self-description that bounces around inside his head.

He also puts a lot of stock in the intelligence of others, or at least in its lack: Many of his insults directed at others target their intellect. Recently he tweeted that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had called Joe Biden a “low-IQ individual”, a comment that made him smile. (Kim’s assessment of Trump himself as a “dotard” is apparently long forgiven.) Politico notes:

In recent years, Trump has accused Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), actor Robert De Niro, Washington Post staffers, former President George W. Bush, comedian Jon Stewart, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, and Rick Perry, now his energy secretary, of having low IQs.

Back in 2013 he tweeted:

Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.

Apparently, though, not everyone does know it. (According to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Trump claiming that everyone agrees with him is a tell that he’s lying.) Rex Tillerson called him a “fucking moron” and Jim Mattis said he had the understanding of “a fifth or sixth-grader”. Numerous other high-ranking Trump appointees (John Kelly, Steve Mnuchin, Reince Preibus, H. R. McMaster) have referred to him as an “idiot”, with former economic advisor Gary Cohn adding that he is “dumb as shit”.

You might imagine that insults like this naturally fly back and forth in a high-pressure environment like the White House. But I haven’t come up with a comparable example from the previous administration, where someone who worked closely with President Obama claimed he had below-average intelligence. Maybe I’ve just forgotten.

How to prove you’re smart. Trump could of course settle all this by releasing an IQ test, the way that he has often demanded that others (Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren come to mind) release personal information to prove their claims. He could also support his “stable genius” claim by releasing stellar grades, or pointing to some singular academic honor (like Bill Clinton and Pete Buttigieg can point to their Rhodes scholarships, or Barack Obama his presidency of the Harvard Law Review).

Or he could demonstrate his intelligence to us directly, by speaking to the American people about difficult subjects and impressing us with the clarity of his thought. Barack Obama used to do that. I’ve often come away from an Obama speech feeling like I had learned something, and understood some topic in a way I never had before.

He could show an ability to think on his feet. He could submit to unscripted questions from voters or journalists. And rather than go off into a word salad of free association, he could answer those questions with facts (that are actually true) and insights the questioners hadn’t anticipated. I have attended a bunch of New Hampshire townhall meetings in the last few presidential cycles and watched politicians do this, some more skillfully than others. John McCain was brilliant at fielding whatever question anyone wanted to throw at him, even after he had been on his feet for hours. So was Chris Christie. I didn’t have to agree with their conclusions to appreciate their intelligence.

Obama could even face an audience of enemies and answer whatever questions they raised. He once went to  retreat of the House Republican caucus and owned the room. They couldn’t touch him. The best evidence that they knew they were beaten is that they never invited him back.

A different kind of smart. But maybe I look for that kind of evidence because I don’t define smart the same way Trump does. Maybe my notion of intelligence is self-serving: I was good at tests and classes, so that’s what I look for. I’m good with words and explaining things, so that’s how I want intelligence to be judged.

But maybe when Trump looks in the mirror, he sees a different kind of smart.


The best evidence that he does comes from a 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. Clinton suggested that Trump doesn’t release his tax returns because

maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

Trump didn’t dispute Clinton’s claims, but spun them in a positive direction: “That makes me smart.”

To me, that suggests a whole different vision of human intelligence and its uses. Maybe life is a game where we’re all trying to gain advantages over each other. And anybody can claim an advantage they deserve. Millions of Americans, for example, avoid paying taxes by being poor; that’s not very smart. But claiming an advantage you don’t deserve, like not paying taxes when you’re rich — you have to be pretty smart to do that.

As soon as I understood that simple notion, I began to appreciate Trump’s genius. Once you know what kind of intelligence you’re looking for, you can see it all through his life.

Avoiding military service is smart. Risking your life is not smart at all, especially if there are other people who can serve in your place.

Trump avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by getting a medical deferment based on having bone spurs on his feet. But are those bone spurs real? The daughters of the (now dead) podiatrist who signed off on the bone-spur claim believe their father made the diagnosis as a favor to Trump’s father. “Elysa Braunstein said the implication from her father was that Mr. Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment.”

Democratic candidates Pete Buttigieg and Seth Moulton are simpletons by comparison. They could have avoided risking their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq without faking anything; all they had to do was not volunteer. But like many people less smart than Trump, they try to make the issue about him rather than them. Buttigieg said:

If you’re a conscientious objector, I’d admire that. But this is somebody who, I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was the child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.

And Moulton put it like this:

I don’t think that lying to get out of serving your country is patriotic. It’s not like there was just some empty seat in Vietnam. Someone had to go in his place. I’d like to meet the American hero who went in Donald Trump’s place to Vietnam. I hope he’s still alive.

As with so many controversies, Trump could easily clear this up: He could release x-rays of his feet.

Stiffing your contractors is smart. In 2016, USA Today documented hundreds of examples of Trump refusing to pay for work he had hired individuals or contracted small businesses to do. (YouTube lets you watch several of his contractors tell how they were short-changed.)

Michael Cohen’s testimony backed up USA Today’s reporting:

Some of the things that I did was reach out to individuals, whether it’s law firms or small businesses, and renegotiate contracts after the job was already done, or basically tell them that we just weren’t paying at all, or make them offers of, say, 20 cents on the dollar.

Vox summarizes the tactic:

The basic Trump method, established as far back as his Atlantic City casino days, goes like this:

  • First, Trump contracts with someone to do some work for him.
  • Second, the work gets done.
  • Third, Trump does not pay for the work.
  • Fourth, the people Trump owes money threaten to sue him.
  • Fifth, Trump offers to pay a small fraction of the sum they originally agreed on.

The person Trump owes money to is now faced with an unattractive choice. He can accept 20 or 30 percent of what he is owed right now. Alternatively, he can hire a lawyer and fight out a lawsuit that might take months or years. Since Trump is rich and has lawyers on his staff, it’s nothing to [him] to fight an extended legal battle. And since Trump is the one not paying the bill, delay is inherently in his favor.

If you’ve ever had work done for you, you probably paid the money you agreed to. That’s because you’re not as smart as Donald Trump.

Choosing the right parents is smart. The reason Donald became rich isn’t that he’s a great businessman, it’s that his father Fred was a great businessman — and a brilliant tax evader. (That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.)

Last October, the New York Times published its research on how much Donald got from Fred: at least $413 million, “much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s”.

The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.

Dealing with Russian oligarchs is smart. According to Foreign Policy,

By the early 1990s [Trump] had burned through his portion of his father Fred’s fortune with a series of reckless business decisions. Two of his businesses had declared bankruptcy, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel in New York, and the money pit that was the Trump Shuttle went out of business in 1992. Trump companies would ultimately declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy two more times. When would-be borrowers repeatedly file for protection from their creditors, they become poison to most major lenders and, according to financial experts interviewed for this story, such was Trump’s reputation in the U.S. financial industry at that juncture.

The money for the Trump Organization’s comeback came mostly from overseas, and particularly from Russia, where the fall of the Soviet Union had created new billionaires who didn’t trust the Russian legal system and so wanted to get their money out of the country. The Center for American Progress investigated the many business ties between the Trump Organization and Russian oligarchs.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was vital to get the money out of Russia without a trace, stashing it away from the prying eyes of tax agencies or law enforcement. Clandestine transfer was particularly critical if that money represented proceeds of a crime. Foreign real estate soon emerged as a preferred safe harbor.78 And because the Trump Organization reportedly had a reputation for not asking too many questions, Russian money flowed into Trump’s properties. … In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. famously boasted of the Russian money “pouring in” and then observed that, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”84

CAP’s Moscow Project goes into more detail:

Some of the individual deals have attracted attention, most notably the Russian fertilizer magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev’s 2008 purchase of one of Trump’s mansions in Palm Beach. He paid a reported $95 million for it—$53 million more than Trump paid for it four years earlier. The transaction has received scrutiny from investigators, particularly because, though Trump justified the price increase by claiming he had “gutted the house” and spent $25 million on renovations, there were few apparent alterations. Such rapid and unexplained increases in price are frequently cited as red flags for money laundering through real estate.

It’s worth noting that the overall Florida real estate market had crashed between 2004 and 2008. Not many Florida property owners were smart enough to double their money during that period.

Trading in your wives is smart. Trump’s brilliance is not restricted to the business world. That whole “forsaking all others” and “till death do you part” thing is just another example of a contract that smart people can wriggle out of. Only suckers grow old with their first spouses, watching their bodies sag and wrinkle with age.

Ivana may have been a 28-year-old model when Trump married her in 1977, but by 1992 she was over 40 and had given birth to three Trump children. Her body was a depreciated asset by that point, so Trump moved on to Marla Maples, who he had met in 1989 when she was 25, and began a relationship with well before his divorce from Ivana. Trump and Maples then divorced in 1999, possibly because he had started dating 28-year-old Melania in 1998.

This short account leaves out his various affairs unrelated to marriage, like Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, as well as the women he has bragged about “grabbing by the pussy“.

At 72, is he done trading for newer models? Melania will turn 50 in 2020, a milestone no previous Trump wife has ever reached.

Employing undocumented immigrants is smart. American workers and green-card holders may have a lot of virtues, but they’re expensive and have a tendency to insist on their rights, all of which is very inconvenient for a business trying to make a profit.

Naturally, then, Trump’s clubs and golf courses have a long history of employing undocumented immigrants. It’s a win-win thing.

Angulo learned to drive backhoes and bulldozers, carving water hazards and tee boxes out of former horse pastures in Bedminster, N.J., where a famous New Yorker was building a world-class course. Angulo earned $8 an hour, a fraction of what a state-licensed heavy equipment operator would make, with no benefits or overtime pay. But he stayed seven years on the grounds crew, saving enough for a small piece of land and some cattle back home.

Now the 34-year-old lives with his wife and daughters in a sturdy house built by “Trump money,” as he put it, with a porch to watch the sun go down.

It’s a common story in this small town [in Costa Rica].

Other former employees of President Trump’s company live nearby: men who once raked the sand traps and pushed mowers through thick heat on Trump’s prized golf property — the “Summer White House,” as aides have called it — where his daughter Ivanka got married and where he wants to build a family cemetery.

“Many of us helped him get what he has today,” Angulo said. “This golf course was built by illegals.”

Cheating people who trust you is smart. The image Trump has consistently presented, particularly in The Art of the Deal, is of a brilliant businessman who received relatively little help from his father or Russian oligarchs, but made billions through his own remarkable abilities.

Who wouldn’t want to learn the secret tactics and techniques of such a successful money-maker? That was the premise of Trump University, a series of workshops and courses available to anybody who believed in the story Trump told about himself. The ads said:

He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.

It was a con, one aimed not at bankers or other real-estate moguls or the government, but at “Americans like you”.

Jason Nicholas, a sales executive at Trump University, recalled a deceptive pitch used to lure students — that Mr. Trump would be “actively involved” in their education. “This was not true,” Mr. Nicholas testified, saying Mr. Trump was hardly involved at all. Trump University, Mr. Nicholas concluded, was “a facade, a total lie.”

Retirees and other folks who couldn’t afford to lose the money were encouraged to max out their credit cards to pay Trump U’s fees. After all, one of Trump’s get-rich secrets was to use other people’s money.

If he hadn’t been elected president, Trump might have stalled the lawsuits from his marks students long enough to get them to settle for far less than the $5 million profit he’s estimated to have made off them. But after the election he decided he needed to make this potential scandal go away, so he settled for $25 million.

Sometimes it’s smart to let the smaller con go so you can pursue the bigger con.

Profiting from public office is smart. Previous presidents have either put their investments in a blind trust or moved them into non-conflicting vehicles like treasury bonds. No law forced them to do this, it was just a political norm that they assumed voters cared about.

It took someone as ingenious as Trump to realize that voters actually don’t care, or that they’ll get used to conflicts of interest that occur on a massive scale.

This effect is similar to the Big Lie technique developed in Germany before World War II: Ordinary people tell little lies, so they’re well practiced at spotting them. But a big lie requires the kind of audacity that ordinary people lack. Since they can’t conceive of telling such a lie, they assume there must be some truth behind it. As one German leader put it: “It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Same thing here: Ordinary people understand small-scale cheating, so they’ll get upset if a politician hires an illegal immigrant as a nanny, for example. But if a president spends over $100 million of public funds on golfing at his own properties — more or less just transferring money from the Treasury into his own pocket — it goes right past them. They’ll care if contributions to a Clinton charity might get you an appointment with the Secretary of State, but if $200,000 paid directly to the President gets you membership in a club he visits almost every weekend, and might result in an ambassadorship, or even put you in a position to run a major government agency, it is so bold that people assume it must be OK.

Ditto for the people who contribute to Trump’s campaign: A big chunk of their contribution goes straight into his pocket, because the campaign is run through Trump properties. Since he became the 2016 nominee, Republican Party events have also largely been moved to Trump properties, generating a considerable profit. It’s right out there in the open, so it can’t be corrupt, can it?

He also profits from foreign governments and US companies who want to get in good with him: They are major patrons of the Trump International Hotel and Trump World Tower. The favors they want come from Trump the President, but the payments go to Trump the businessman.

A related issue is corruption throughout the administration. If one cabinet secretary is corrupt, he or she will stand out and be a scandal. But if nearly all of them are, the story is too big for the public to comprehend.

Changing your beliefs is smart. When Trump was breaking into New York society as the son of a new-money upstart, it was a good idea to profess New York ideas. In 1999, for example, he told Meet the Press:

Well, I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debate the subject. But, you still, I just believe in choice.

In the past, he also has supported gay rights and even trans rights. Over time, though, all that has vanished as he has harmonized his views with the Evangelical Christians who form a large part of his base.

Picture it: If you had been a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, Bible-ignorant, twice-divorced libertine so comfortable in your debauched image that you can joke in public about incest with your daughter, would it have occurred to you that you could become the darling of the religious right? Could you have pulled that transition off?

That takes a kind of genius most of us can’t even imagine.

What about you? If you are a Trump supporter and look too closely at Trump’s ex-wives, Trump U students, or the pro-choice and LGBTQ people who trusted him, you might have a disturbing thought: At some point in the future, he might be able to gain some advantage from double-crossing you too.

Would he do that? Well, ask yourself this: Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do?

Two Paths to Impeachment

More and more, it looks like impeachment hearings are going to happen eventually. The main question is when, not whether.

The news media is presenting this as an internal struggle among Democrats, with Speaker Pelosi being against impeachment and an increasing portion of her caucus being for it. But I’m reading those tea leaves a little differently: I think Pelosi wants to get to impeachment by a less direct route — appearing less eager, but gathering evidence and building public support in hearings resembling more ordinary Congressional oversight. Her plan, if all goes well, is to arrive in the same place at more-or-less the same time.

Channeling the Speaker. I think her reasoning is correct as far as it goes: While the Democratic base is strongly in favor of impeachment, the party did not run on impeachment when it won its decisive victory in 2018. [1] Pelosi knows that her majority rests on swing districts where voters are not yet convinced that impeachment is necessary.

In Pelosi’s vision (as I channel it), the investigations currently underway in a variety of House committees will eventually produce stunning revelations from subpoenaed documents (like Trump’s tax returns) and riveting public testimony from witnesses (like Robert Mueller and Don McGahn). This will turn public opinion in favor of impeachment, and Democrats can then claim to be following the public rather than leading it somewhere it doesn’t want to go. Conversely, if the public sees the evidence and doesn’t care, a Democratic push to impeach could be a Charge of the Light Brigade — courageous, but ultimately suicidal. [2]

This week, though, Pelosi has barely managed to keep down a revolt in her ranks, from Democrats who want the Judiciary Committee to start impeachment hearings immediately. Their argument is also correct as far as it goes, and Pelosi does not really dispute it: The Mueller Report shows (but does not conclude) that Trump committed obstruction of justice on numerous occasions. [3]

Grounds. More than 900 former federal prosecutors (400 when the linked article was written) have signed a statement including the following:

Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.

The seven obstructions of justice are in addition to a number of other possible offenses, such as violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and the violations of campaign finance law involved in the payoff to Stormy Daniels. [4]

Abuse of power can also be impeachable, even if the laws have not been technically broken. [5] Now that Trump is making a regular practice out of abusing the national-emergency laws to usurp Congress’ constitutional powers, and denying that Congress has any role in overseeing the Executive Branch, impeachment may be the only way for Congress to defend its status as an equal branch of government. [6]

And in spite of the President’s “no collusion” mantra, the Mueller Report did not completely settle that issue either. At least one of Trump’s obstructions may have succeeded in preventing Mueller from getting to the bottom of things: We know that Paul Manafort gave campaign data to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Russian intelligence operative Konstantin Kilimnik, but we don’t know precisely what or why — possibly because Trump’s witness tampering kept Manafort from cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.

Why not now? The impeachment-now argument has two pieces:

  • Regardless of any political calculations, Congress has a constitutional duty to defend the Republic from presidential criminality. Doing nothing doesn’t just leave Trump in office until the voters (we hope) remove him in 2020; it changes the rules for all future presidents.
  • At crucial moments, Congress has a responsibility to lead the public rather than just follow it. So the Democratic House majority shouldn’t just sit tight and hope that the public catches on to the danger of leaving Trump in office. It needs to go to the public and make that case. By leaving open the possibility that it might not proceed to impeachment, the House is signalling to the American people that what Trump has done and continues to do is not that bad.

What has pushed Democrats towards revolt recently has been Trump’s brazen stonewalling of the various House investigations. More and more, he seems to be claiming an absolute supremacy for the presidency, without checks-and-balances from Congress or the courts. [7]

If his effort succeeds, Congress will not be an equal branch of government any more. Republicans who doubt this should try to imagine their own reaction if President Obama had simply denied that Benghazi was any of the Republican Congress’ concern, and refused to let any executive-branch officials testify to congressional committees.

Appeal to the courts. Trump’s resistance underlines a weakness in our constitutional system: Congress has a great deal of power on paper, but using it largely relies on the good faith of the executive branch. A bad-faith president has many ways to stymie Congress, which has no police force, army, or jail of its own.

And so the House committees have had to go to the third branch of government, the courts, in an effort to enforce their subpoenas. This is necessarily a slow process, and leaves open the possibility that Trump’s lawlessness may lead him to defy court orders the same way that he has been defying congressional subpoenas, moving us near the point of a coup. If it comes to that, the courts command no more guns than Congress does. [8]

The slowness of the legal process, and the possibility that neither Trump’s taxes nor Don McGahn’s testimony will ever become public, has caused Democrats’ frustration to boil over into impeachment talk, in spite of Pelosi.

But Pelosi’s allies raise this point: What problem does an impeachment inquiry solve? An impeachment subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee would subpoena the same documents and witnesses as the other committees have. Trump would likewise refuse to cooperate with those subpoenas, and the subcommittee would file the same lawsuits the other committees have already filed. So where’s the win?

An impeachment subcommittee would be on somewhat more solid legal ground, because it would be addressing an issue that the Constitution delegates to the House specifically. But so far, the House’s position has not lacked for legal strength.

This week, two judges rejected out of hand the Trump administration’s contention that Congress’ investigative power is tightly constrained. They did not suspend their rulings pending appeal, indicating their opinion that Trump’s arguments are baseless. Trump’s lawyers will undoubtedly appeal, but will be forced to appeal quickly before the documents are turned over, rather than using the legal process to stall.

Where the conflict goes. If you believe, as I do, that both paths ultimately go to the same place, ultimately this is all going to come down to three questions:

  • Is the Supreme Court (and its two Trump appointees) as partisan as it sometimes appears, or will it reject Trump’s baseless objections and enforce legal subpoenas?
  • If the Supreme Court rules against him, will Trump comply, or will he defy the united opinion of the legislative and judicial branches of government? This would amount to proclaiming the complete supremacy of the executive branch, and set the stage for dictatorship. [9]
  • If Trump’s disregard of constitutional government becomes that blatant, will Senate Republicans finally turn against him and vote to remove him from office?

I can only hope that by 2021 these scenarios will look hysterical. But given the once-unthinkable actions we’ve seen these last two years, they don’t seem hysterical to me now. I don’t expect events to go this way, but it seems likely enough that we need to be prepared.

If things do go that far, America will face a fourth question, one that comes up frequently in fragile democracies, but has never been raised in the 232 years since the ratification of the Constitution: If Trump would refuse to accept removal from office, what would the armed forces do? My firm belief is that they would back the law rather than the removed president. But let’s hope we never need to find out.


[1] It’s worth noting that, unlike President Trump, Speaker Pelosi represents a majority of the American people.

Democratic candidates for the House got nearly 10 million more votes in 2018 than Republican candidates, winning a 53%-45% popular vote victory. That victory was larger in both raw votes and percentage than the Republicans’ 2010 rout. However, gerrymandering held Pelosi’s majority down to 235-199, compared to the 2010 Republicans’ 242-193 margin.

[2] I often see reference to the public’s reaction against the Clinton impeachment. But Democrats’ shouldn’t read that as a rejection of impeachment in general. The public supported Clinton because they came to believe he was being impeached for what was essentially a private matter. Hillary should have been furious about Monica Lewinsky, but it really wasn’t Congress’ business.

The challenge for the Democrats is to make it clear that a Trump impeachment is about protecting democracy, not just partisan pique.

[3] I counted seven when I read the report. Many people say ten, but that’s not quite right. Mueller examined ten incidents that had some appearance of obstruction, but found all three elements of obstruction in only seven.

I don’t think that makes a significant difference. It’s not like the first seven obstructions of justice are free, but an eighth puts you over the limit.

[4] Michael Cohen has already gone to prison for this.

[5] We have this on the authority of no less an expert than Lindsey Graham.

The point I’m trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office.

[6] Defending the status of Congress was what pushed me over to the impeachment camp a week after writing that I didn’t think the Mueller Report justified it.

[7] I’ve tended to shy away from psychoanalyzing Trump, but here it seems relevant: Throughout his life, Trump has taken a sociopathic view of rules, in which they are simply obstacles to overcome on the way to getting what he wants. By contrast, a properly socialized person sees rules as defining a game we play together. We obey rules not just because we will be punished for breaking them, but because we want the game to continue. (Marriage — another institution whose rules Trump has repeatedly flouted — is a good example here. In a healthy marriage, neither spouse examines the wedding vows for loopholes. Instead, each asks what effect an action has on the relationship, rather than whether it is technically permissible.)

Trump’s attitude occasionally seemed abnormal even in the rough world of New York real estate, where he would honor only as much of a contract as the other party was willing and able to enforce in court. But no previous president — not even Nixon — has ever approached the presidency in such a way. In any conflict, Trump looks at a move and asks “Will it get me what I want?” without regard to whether he is breaking American democracy.

[8] As Stalin is supposed to have asked in regard to the moral force of the Catholic Church, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” John Roberts has the same number.

[9] If he got away with this, Trump might subsequently go along with the forms of democracy, in the same way that Caesar Augustus allowed the forms of the Roman Republic to continue. But like Augustus, he will have shown that no one can stop him from doing whatever he wants.

The Weakness of America First

If we’re just for ourselves, why should anyone else cooperate with us?


The news these last two weeks has been full of foreign policy. The trade war with China has heated up. Conflict with Iran seems closer than ever to a shooting war.

It’s easy to get lost in the details of either story and miss the larger picture: These are both countries that President Obama tried to deal with by forming a broad alliance based on principles. But Trump tore up those agreements and processes in favor of going it alone as part of his “America First” vision.

In both cases, Trump’s approach has put the United States in a far weaker position.

China. On trade, American policy for decades has revolved around establishing “rules of the road”: principles of fair trade that large coalitions of nations could agree to, establishing a club that rogue nations might want to join badly enough to change their behavior. You can argue with the content of any particular agreement — maybe you have a different vision of fair trade and want different rules — but the principle is sound.

Trump has taken a different approach: The United States is bigger than the other kids on the playground, so we’ll make them play a game that we win. Our size advantage is bigger when we deal with other nations one-by-one, so that’s how we’ll do it.

It hasn’t worked. Sovereign nations don’t like to be dictated to, and a foreign leader can gain political support by resisting our domination, even if there’s an economic price to pay.

We should have learned this lesson from Cuba. We are much, much bigger than Cuba, and we threw the biggest economic punch we have: a complete embargo. Cuba is probably considerably poorer than it would be if it had been trading with America these last 57 years. But that economic blow did not destabilize the Castro government or make it do what we wanted.

A more recent signal is that Friday the Trump administration punted on its tariffs on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum, getting little more than a return to the status quo ante. No major economy is more dependent on the American market than Canada is. If we can’t use that advantage to push Canada around, what countries can we expect to yield to this approach?

Not China, apparently. China’s economy will be equal to ours in a few years, if it isn’t already. (Roughly, China has four times as many people at a quarter our standard of living. Catching up is easier than leading, though, so their economy is growing much faster than ours. The question is when their economy will pass ours, not whether.) China’s economy is more dependent on exports than ours is, so a tariff war strikes harder there. But I suspect their government is less vulnerable to popular discontent than ours, which points the other way.

So Trump’s tariff threats have not brought the Chinese to their knees. And since that’s the only card he knows how to play, he has to keep raising the stakes, assessing larger and larger tariffs on more and more Chinese goods. Meanwhile, Chinese reprisals are hitting America farmers hard, and government bailouts are a poor substitute for a fair price on soybeans.

In addition to just wanting to export more and import less, the US has legitimate issues with China: protecting intellectual property, mainly, and perhaps also an artificially low valuation of China’s currency. But those are rules-of-the-road issues. Wouldn’t it make more sense to form a club that obeyed those rules, and make it so attractive that China would change its behavior in order to join?

That was the whole idea behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled the plug on. I know lots of people had lots of complaints with various features of the TPP, but the general strategy was correct: Don’t negotiate with China one-on-one, negotiate as part of a trade alliance that also includes Japan, Canada, Singapore, and a bunch of other nations.

Iran. The other big foreign-policy story of recent weeks has been the increased tensions with Iran, which led to this Trump tweet on Sunday:

If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!

This resembles his fire-and-fury threat against North Korea, which has led neither to fire and fury nor to any substantive concessions from the Kim regime. The Hill sums up recent escalations:

In recent weeks, the U.S. has deployed a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf in response to what national security adviser John Bolton said were aggressive moves by Iran in the region. On Wednesday, the State Department pulled all nonemergency personnel from Iraq, citing possible threats from sectarian militias with ties to Iran.

We’ve also made noises about sending 120,000 troops to the area, and have been ratcheting up pressure on Iran’s economy, trying to choke off its oil exports. (Iran’s biggest customer is China, by the way. What if China strikes back against Trump’s tariffs with something more than just reprisal tariffs?)

Many have compared this increasing pressure to the build-up to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002-2003, but one feature of President Bush’s strategy is missing: our allies. The British, for example, don’t seem to be on board.

The top British general in the US-led coalition against Isis has said there is no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria, directly contradicting US assertions used to justify a military buildup in the region.

Iran is roughly three times the size of Iraq, so a reasonable guess would be that war with Iran would be three times as nasty. Wouldn’t it be nice to confront Iran with a coalition of powerful nations rather than stand alone against them?

Guess what? Obama did precisely that, and Trump tore it up.

The Iran nuclear agreement included not just us and them, but also the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, and France, plus the EU. Those countries were all committed to re-establishing economic sanctions if Iran violated the terms of the agreement, which so far it seems not to have done. (Though it has announced that it may start enriching uranium again, given that it’s getting so little benefit out of the deal now that Trump has unilaterally imposed new sanctions.)

If that deal unravels, and if the other parties to the deal blame the US (as they clearly should), then we’ll be in a far worse position than we were before the deal was signed: Iran will be on course for a nuclear weapon again, and we’ll be on our own trying to stop them.

America First means America Alone. The United States is strongest when it stands for something more than just its own interests. If it stands for human rights, for mutual security, for a fair system of international trade, for nuclear non-proliferation, and for a multi-national approach to global challenges like climate change, then the US can lead a broad coalition and get things done.

What’s more, a principle-based approach is a bigger political threat to governments that oppose us. Imagine you’re a citizen of China or Iran. President Obama was asking your country to become a responsible member of the community of nations. But Trump just wants to push your country around and gain an advantage over you. When your own government starts asking you to make sacrifices, aren’t you more likely to make them willingly against Trump?

If we have no vision of a just world order, but are just out to win for ourselves, why should anyone cooperate with us? Why should traditional allies like Canada or the UK support us? Why should dissident elements in Iran or China put pressure on their leaders to make a deal with us?

America First means America Alone, facing rivals who are internally united against us. Far from being “great again”, Trump’s America is considerably weaker than America has been in our lifetimes.

What should “electable” mean?

I want to beat Trump as much as anybody does, but figuring out which candidate has the best chance isn’t as simple as many make it sound.


Democrats and other liberals may be splitting their loyalties among more than 20 candidates at the moment, but nearly all of us agree on one thing: It’s vital that we beat Donald Trump next year.

If Trump has four more years to assault the norms of democratic government, the rule of law, and the separation of powers, by 2024 the country will be virtually unrecognizable. For four more years, the US would be fighting for climate change rather than against it. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court would rise from 5-4 to 6-3 or 7-2 — locking in for decades the advantages corporations have over workers and consumers, upholding all the tools of minority rule, and constantly inventing new rights for conservative white Christians. Executive-branch corruption would become even more blatant, with Congress unable even to investigate it, much less do anything about it.

We can’t let that happen.

Searching for the anti-Trump. So there’s very good reason why a large chunk of the Democratic primary electorate lists “somebody who can beat Donald Trump” as their top criterion when looking for a candidate to support. Polls on this question are volatile and depend significantly on how the question is phrased, but all of them show electability as a huge factor. One poll in February found 56% of Democrats preferring “a Democrat you do NOT agree with on most issues, but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump” to “someone who agrees with you on most issues, but would have a hard time beating Donald Trump”. Only 33% made the opposite choice. A more recent poll phrased  the question differently [“What’s more important to you – that Democrats nominate the presidential candidate whose positions on the issues come closest to yours, or the candidate who seems most likely to defeat Donald Trump in November 2020?”] and showed smaller but still sizeable emphasis on winning [47% for “closer on the issues” vs. 40% for “more likely to win”].

Admittedly, it’s easy to overstate those results, because poll respondents undoubtedly assume that any Democrat will share certain core positions. Democratic candidates may, for example, disagree about whether universal health care is an immediate priority or a long-term goal, but none oppose it in principle. They may have more ambitious or less ambitious plans for dealing with climate change, but none argue — as Trump has — that Obama was already doing too much. Within these bounds, though, a large number of Democrats are willing to sacrifice ideological purity for someone they think will win.

But there’s a problem. Electability is not an objective quality. Without much argument, we can sort candidates into bins like male and female, white and non-white, gay and straight, young and old, and perhaps even progressive and moderate. But who is electable and who isn’t?

The economist John Maynard Keynes once compared investing in the stock market to gambling on a beauty pageant: You win not by betting on the most beautiful contestant, but by identifying the one that other people will find beautiful. That’s what we’re trying to do when we search for an electable candidate. It’s not enough to find the one who would be the best president by your own lights; you need to pick out the one that other people will vote for. The New Republic’s Alex Pareene doubts that anyone can do that:

While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for.

WaPo’s Dan Balz examines past failures to predict electability, starting with Donald Trump in 2016, and going back from there to Barack Obama in 2008, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976. All started their campaigns by outcompeting candidates that the consensus said were more electable, and then proved their own electability by getting elected.

I confess to feeling conflicted about all this. I recognize what critics are saying, but I really, really want to beat Trump in 2020. So I want electability to mean something. But how should I look for it?

False notions of electability. Polls only help up to a point. Several polls have Joe Biden beating Trump by the widest margin, while one recent poll had Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats’ best bet. But do polls now tell us much about who the voters will support 18 months from now, after a long (and presumably dirty) campaign? Biden’s candidacy already seems a bit dull; by Election Day will marginal voters be too bored with him to show up? Beto is more exciting, but also less well known. I expect the Trump campaign to have limitless resources to devote to smearing his opponent. Will the mud more easily slide off of a candidate we already know well? Or does a long career just provide more targets?

I had similar qualms in 2016. Leading up to the primaries, polls consistently showed both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton beating Trump, but Sanders by a wider margin. (Hillary ultimately did beat Trump by 3%, which wasn’t quite enough to counter his Electoral College advantage.) But Republicans had been smearing Hillary for decades, and had not yet begun to go after Bernie. So I tried to imagine how they would in a pre-New-Hampshire-primary post. How durable, I wondered, would Sanders’ poll lead over Trump be once he had his own invented scandal, like Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary’s role (whatever it was supposed to have been) in Benghazi? (This time around, Republicans are already working to create a scandal for Biden.)

Another thing electable shouldn’t mean is white straight Christian male. A black man and a white woman have won the popular vote in the last three presidential elections. Nancy Pelosi was supposed to doom Democrats’ chance of taking the House in 2018, but she didn’t. Women like Amy Klobuchar have won Senate seats by wide margins in the kinds of states Democrats need to win in 2020 (Minnesota). Kirsten Gillibrand’s first seat in Congress came from a red district in upstate New York. Pete Buttigieg may be the first major gay contender, but I want to see what actual voters have to say before I eliminate him.

I’m also suspicious of ideological definitions of electability. The centrist version says that Trump has abandoned the educated suburban Republicans, whose votes might be available to a Democrat moderate enough not to scare them away. 2018 seemed to bear this out; the gains that allowed Democrats to retake the House came mostly in suburban districts that had formerly elected Republicans. But the long-term record of this idea is poor; Republicans have been constantly shifting to the right since Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination from incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976, and yet somehow the abandoned center never provides enough votes to sweep Democrats into uncontested power. Instead, Democrats’ refusal to defend their left flank has pushed ambitious liberal ideas out of the national conversation entirely, and (until recently) has caused the center to move steadily to the right at the Republicans’ pace.

So electable can’t just mean moderate. It also can’t just mean progressive. The left-wing theory of electability is that in a polarized country, elections depend on turnout, so the candidate who best excites the base is most electable. Since turnout tends to be lowest among the poor, non-whites, and young people, candidates who appeal to these groups — generally more progressive candidates — should do better than moderates.

As sensible as that may sound in theory, evidence of it actually working is pretty thin. I’m still waiting for the progressive version of Marco Rubio: In 2010, he ran as a Tea Partier, won the Republican primary against an establishment candidate, and then went on to capture a Senate seat in a purple state. Stacey Abrams almost pulled off an even more impressive feat last year in the Georgia governor’s race, but fell short (with some voting irregularities that may have made the difference). So far, successful progressive stars have come areas that Democrats would hold in any case, like Vermont (Bernie Sanders), Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren), and Queens (AOC). They’re winning blue districts by matching the people who already vote, not by stimulating new turnout that flips red districts.

Both sides try to claim Barack Obama as an example of their theory working, because Obama’s 2008 landslide did everything right: He inspired new turnout and he held the center. In the most impressive Democratic victory of recent years — Doug Jones winning a Senate race in Alabama — Jones won as a moderate alternative to the far-right Roy Moore, not as a progressive. But he got a big turnout from black voters anyway.

How the 2020 campaign shapes up. Trump won in 2016 with only 46% of the vote, and many his voters did not have a particularly high opinion of him. (In an exit poll, only 41% of Trump voters said they strongly favored Trump, while 50% cited dislike of his opponent as their motivation.) According to 538’s weighted average of approval polls, he had a brief honeymoon period shortly after the inauguration, when his approval was higher than his disapproval, but still not over 50%. (Obama’s approval during his honeymoon period was in the high 60s.) More recently, he’s been stuck in a narrow 39%-43% approval range. No jobs report can bring that number up; no gaffe or evidence of corruption can bring it down.

In short, it is inconceivable that Trump will be re-elected because a majority of voters actually like him or want him to continue as president. The number of people who say they will definitely not vote for Trump in 2020 has been running in the 55%-58% range.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t win; just that he only has one route to victory: Some chunk of the electorate — just enough to let Trump sneak through the door — needs to conclude that the Democrat is even worse. So Trump needs to sow dissension among Democrats, as he (and the Russians) did in 2016.

To a certain extent he’ll run by raising support: He’ll take credit for the economy (assuming that it’s still good) and for a few other (mostly fake) accomplishments like the denuclearization of North Korea. He’ll remind Evangelicals how he came through for them with judicial appointments. He’ll tell nativists about the invasion of Hispanics he’s prevented. He’ll wink and nod at white supremacists, while distancing himself from the terrorists he clearly inspires. He’ll claim to have helped farmers, even though he hasn’t. He’ll conjure up another fantasy about the fantastic healthcare plan he’ll reveal someday, the one that covers everybody and costs less and doesn’t require any new taxes.

But a lot of the positive hopes he inspired in 2016 aren’t credible any more. We all know he isn’t going to fill his administration with “the best people” or make “great deals” to end the trade deficit. He’s not going to make other countries respect America. His tax cut isn’t going to pay for itself and isn’t going to provide any serious relief to working people. His infrastructure plan is always going to be vapor. He isn’t going to settle down and become more presidential someday.

In short, that 39%-43% isn’t going to grow, because he’s really not even talking to anyone else. His famous “What have you got to lose?” message to black voters in 2016 is paradigmatic: It wasn’t delivered to blacks at all. He was speaking about blacks in Detroit, but to whites in a suburb of Lansing. The point of that speech was to convince his base that he has a message for blacks. That’s all.

Without growing his base, how will he get up to the 46%-or-so that he needs to let the Electoral College work its dark magic? He’ll need to smear the Democratic candidate enough that dissident Republicans will get behind him and marginal Democrats will decide not to vote. That’s the only path to victory, so that’s what he’ll do.

How do we cope with that? The #1 thing Democrats need to avoid is framing the 2020 primary campaign as a death struggle between rival factions, one of which will lose and probably still feel disaffected in November. If Bernie-ites see beating Biden as revenge on the establishment for his loss to Hillary in 2016, or if centrists who are still angry with Bernie for pushing his 2016 campaign long past the point of hopelessness pull out all the stops to deny Bernie again, then we’re in trouble. There’s going to be conflict in the primaries, but it needs to be a fight between siblings, not enemies.

Each campaign talks about “vetting” its rivals, but there’s a difference between raising difficult issues and laying the groundwork for a Trump smear. So, for example, it’s fine to question Sanders or Warren about how they plan to pass and pay for their ambitious plans, but it’s out of bounds to make them answer for “socialism” in Venezuela. It’s fine to point out that Klobuchar and Booker are not supporters of Medicare for All, and that each has benefited from pharmaceutical-industry contributions in past campaigns. But it’s out of bounds to declare, as if it were a proven fact, that either is “bought and paid for”. And so on.

Admittedly, my Facebook news feed is probably not the most representative window into American opinion. But there’s one pattern among progressives that has me worried: a tendency to inflate Bernie’s support (the one recent poll that had him ahead of Biden got an amazing amount of attention on my feed, and the other recent poll that had him far behind got dissed on bogus grounds) combined with a persecution narrative about all the dark forces that are working behind the scenes to ruin his chances. (MSNBC is supposedly in the tank for Biden because it’s owned by Comcast, even though I’ve seen no evidence that Comcast is either rooting for Biden or interfering with MSNBC’s editorial decisions.) It’s obvious how that could play out disastrously: If Bernie’s support turns out to be less than his supporters have convinced themselves it is, the conspiracy-theory explanation of that shortfall will be ready, and Trump will be ready to exploit it to divide his opposition.

I think that all candidates currently in the race deserve a presumption of good will. No matter now much I may disagree with some position one of them takes, I’m going to listen to their justification and consider the possibility that they really believe it. I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that they must be either crazy or corrupt, as Trump is bound to claim.

Who is electable? When I judge electability, I’m not looking for a demographic profile or a particular set of policies. Instead, I’m looking for someone who will make a good spokesperson for Democratic values, who has the skills to perform well in a debate with Trump, who thinks well on his or her feet, and who demonstrates an ability to appeal to people of all races and classes and religions and genders. I’m looking for someone who can deliver an anti-Trump critique without sounding like the pot criticizing the kettle.

I’m looking for someone mud won’t stick to, who can deflect criticism with humor, and who can deliver a sting without sounding nasty. I want a candidate who can stand up to hostile questioning without getting flustered or testy or evasive. I want someone who can get specific on policy details, but never loses sight of the millions of Americans who aren’t political wonks.

Most of all, I’m looking for someone who uses the Light Side of the Political Force, someone who can raise enthusiasm without resorting to fear or anger. Fear and anger live on Trump’s home turf; going there plays into his hand, and will motivate his voters more than ours. But our candidate also can’t be dull. If none of the people who pay attention to politics this early can get excited about a candidate, how are we going to convince the apathetic to come out and vote?

As I hope you can tell, I haven’t determined yet who the most electable candidate is. I think establishing who does or doesn’t have these qualities is what this part of the campaign is for. At this point, I’m rooting for all 20+ of them. I hope one of them surprises me.

Impeachment: On second thought …

Just as I was turning against impeachment, Trump changed my mind.


Last week I re-examined my prior standards and determined that removing Trump from office was a job for the voters, not for the impeachment process. That judgment went against my inclinations, but my purpose in writing down general standards last summer (long before I knew what the Mueller investigation would find) had been precisely that: to keep me from warping my standards to match the facts available.

The logic behind my conclusion was that impeachment needs to be a forward-looking process, not a backward-looking one. (I hadn’t put it that concisely until just now, but that really is the gist of it.) When presidents have done bad things, most of the time the right solution is to wait for the term to expire and elect somebody else, then prosecute the ex-president for any crimes. Impeachment shouldn’t be a form of punishment, but rather a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. You impeach not because a president is guilty, but because leaving him or her in office is dangerous.

That’s why treason and bribery are the crimes explicitly mentioned in the Constitution: If the president is under the control of some foreign power or wealthy paymaster, that’s dangerous. The country can’t wait for the next election, not because of what the president has done, but because of what the president might do between now and then.

As you might imagine, my model didn’t look kindly on the Clinton impeachment. I understand why some people would be outraged or embarrassed by the sexual revelations in the Starr Report, and might have wanted to punish Clinton in some way. But by no stretch of the imagination was it dangerous to leave him in office, and in fact the country did just fine after the Senate failed to remove him.

From that point of view, Mueller’s failure to find evidence of Trump conspiring with Putin was the key point. Leaving in power a president who was beholden to a foreign dictator would be precisely the kind of situation that impeachment is meant for. Mueller did find considerable evidence of Trump obstructing justice, and I hope both that the voters will take that seriously and that he’ll be prosecuted for it after he leaves office. But it’s not the same kind of emergency.

That said, I don’t think the Mueller Report is the final word on Trump’s culpability. I think we still need to know whether he is being financially influenced by Moscow, Saudi Arabia, China, or private interests in the US. And with regard to the other scandals of the administration, from Stormy Daniels to the widespread corruption in the cabinet to Jared’s clearance, Congress should be acting to collect information for the 2020 voters, who, if they are doing their duty by our founding principles, will resounding kick Trump out of office. (If they don’t, we’ve got bigger problems that just a bad president.)

So it’s very disturbing that Trump is once again upping the stakes: The Washington Post’s Steve Vladeck summarizes:

Trump, characteristically, seems to be taking the sort of fight most of his predecessors have had with the legislative branch and making the stakes far greater — and the possible damage far worse — than ever before.

The administration’s emerging position appears to be that Congress does not really have the power to investigate the president, at least not when one chamber is controlled by his political adversaries, even if whatever information it seeks might eventually be used in an impeachment proceeding. That’s a deeply disturbing argument, and one that, if successful, would tilt the separation of powers, perhaps irrevocably, toward the executive branch.

And the NYT’s Charlie Savage went into detail:

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said a civil rights division official, John Gore, would defy a subpoena to testify on Thursday about its addition of a citizenship question to the census. This week, White House lawyers indicated that they would tell the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II and other former officials not to comply with subpoenas for their testimony, a person familiar with the legal strategy said.

Mr. Trump has also sued to block a congressional subpoena of his accounting firm, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin missed a deadline to turn over Mr. Trump’s tax returns to lawmakers and the former head of White House personnel security, Carl Kline, ignored a subpoena ordering him to appear for a deposition about overriding recommendations to deny security clearances.

Together, the events of the week made clear that Mr. Trump has adopted a strategy of unabashed resistance to oversight efforts by the House — reveling in abandoning even the pretense of trying to negotiate accommodations and compromise with the institution controlled by his political opponents.

“The president is attempting to repeal a congressional power of oversight that goes back to the administration of George Washington,” said Charles Tiefer, a former longtime House lawyer who is now a University of Baltimore law professor. He said “the comprehensiveness and intensity of this presidential stonewalling” exceeded anything he had seen in his 40-year career.

In other words, he wants to stop Congress from collecting information that would help the voters make their judgment about him and his administration, or that could reveal additional avenues for impeachment. And that changes the game: If the president interferes in this way, he’s preventing not just Congress from doing its job, but the voters as well. If that’s allowed, then the idea that removing Trump is the voters’ job falls apart — and once again, impeachment becomes necessary.

That thought sent me back to look at “What is impeachment for?” again. My fourth legitimate reason for impeachment is:

Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment. This is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution, but constitutional government doesn’t work otherwise. Congress necessarily relies on the executive branch to carry out the laws it passes. Presidents famously find loopholes that allow them to do things they want and avoid doing things they don’t want. But if a president ignores clear laws or disobeys direct court orders, Congress has to have some way to preserve the powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Waiting for the next election isn’t good enough, because (once the pattern is established) the next president might usurp power in the same way. Impeachment is the ultimate arrow in Congress’ quiver.

That’s the situation we seem to be in at this moment. If Trump won’t submit to the same level of congressional oversight that all previous administrations have allowed, that’s reason to impeach.

Charity Liberalism and Justice Liberalism

Should the point of liberal programs be to help the poor? Or to change the economy so that people don’t become poor?


In Thursday’s Washington Post, Catherine Rampell pointed out a subtle but important distinction that liberals should never lose sight of: Elizabeth Warren’s free-college and student-debt-relief plans, Rampell claimed, are “liberal but not progressive”, because “they give bigger benefits to higher-income families than to lower-income ones that actually need the help.” Rampell would rather see money targeted more directly at college-eligible low-income students.

This is a longstanding argument in liberal circles. On the one hand we have universal programs like Social Security, and on the other hand are targeted programs like food stamps. In an economic sense, targeted programs are more efficient at helping the poor — doing more with less. But that efficiency comes with some non-economic costs: increased red tape (you have to prove you qualify) and greater stigma for the recipients.

A universal entitlement is conceptually simpler: If you go to college, we’ll help you pay for it. But it costs more, because (as Rampell points out), we’ll be helping Bill Gates’ kids too. And since everything has to be paid for somehow, the universal program is more invasive to the pre-program economy. You have to tax more so that you can spend more.

A related (but not quite identical) distinction applies to our motives for having a program to begin with: Targeted programs have an air of charity about them. They don’t argue with the underlying structure of the economy, they just try to change the results. Do some people not make enough money to eat properly? Very well, then, we’ll give them food. We’ll leave alone whatever it is about the economy that creates unemployment or produces jobs that pay below-subsistence wages. We’ll just fix the food part.

Universal programs tend to be motivated more by notions of social justice: It isn’t just the outcome that’s wrong, it’s the fundamental structure of things. Yes, a targeted program would be a lighter-handed tweak of the underlying economy. But if the underlying economy is fundamentally unjust, why is a lighter hand good?

Rights. The reason it’s important to understand this distinction is that it’s easy for charitable and targeted-program attitudes to sneak their assumptions into a discussion. “Efficiency” always sounds good. But as soon as you start arguing about efficiency, you’ve bought the assumption that smaller changes are better. And often you’ve also bought an additional assumption about the program’s proper goal.

A universal program establishes a basic right, and re-defines the economy to fulfill it. Re-defining the economy is, in large part, the purpose of the program. The point of making public colleges free isn’t just to help the poor pay for education. The point is that public colleges ought to be free. A society in which public colleges are free is a more just society.

The same ideas apply across the board. One failing of our healthcare system is that too many people get priced out it, with corresponding effects on their ability to survive and thrive. ObamaCare targets people in danger of being priced out and subsidizes their health insurance, so it helps resolve that particular failing (or would if it were properly funded and overseen by an administration that believes in its purpose). But ObamaCare does not establish health care as a basic right.

The point of Medicare for All or some other universal-healthcare plan isn’t just to help the people who are being priced out of healthcare. The point is to make healthcare a basic right. That requires more government spending and taxing than even a fully funded ObamaCare. In that sense, it’s a “less efficient” use of the government’s fiscal powers, a heavy-handed reorganization rather than a light-handed tweak. If you believe that the current economy — where many people who work fulltime still can’t afford to take care of themselves or their children — is fundamentally just, then this heavy-handedness must seem outrageous.

But if you believe that the current economy is unjust, then changing it is a virtue, not a vice. There are efficiency/inefficiency arguments to be made at a number of levels, but the more important point is this: A society in which healthcare is a basic right is a more just society than the one we have now. The problem isn’t just that the current economy produces some downtrodden people who need charitable help from the rest of us, which we choose to channel through government. It’s that everyone should have a basic right to healthcare, and right now they don’t.

Vulnerability. Whether a plan gets framed as a basic right or as charity channeled through the government makes a huge difference in the politics. Most voters see charity-justified, means-tested programs as something the government does for “them”, not for “us”. Such generosity is fine as long as “we” are feeling prosperous and “they” seem deserving. But either of those factors can change, or can be changed through political rhetoric.

Means-tested programs are always open to forms of attack that universal programs are immune to: denigration and demonization of the beneficiaries. “Those people” don’t deserve our help because they are lazy or immoral or have made bad life choices. And usually, there’s no obvious place to draw the line: Are the best-off recipients truly in need, or are they just scamming us? Wherever the cut-off is, why shouldn’t it be lower?

If you think about it — and we seldom do — plenty of Social Security recipients fit the same profile as the demonized beneficiaries of means-tested programs: They’re healthy and could get jobs, but don’t want to. The reason conservative politicians don’t rail about their laziness and sense of entitlement is that Social Security is an “us”, not a “them”. They’d be demonizing their own voters, not some isolated scapegoat class.

But if Social Security ever became means-tested — as conservatives and a few efficiency-minded liberals often propose; I mean, what’s the point of sending government checks to Warren Buffett? — we’d soon see the same kinds of rhetoric and tactics: outrage at people who spend their benefits on luxuries, tightening requirements so that fewer and fewer people qualify (“I want to help the truly needy, but …”), and making the experience degrading and dis-spiriting with drug tests, long lines to file your annual re-applications, paternalistic restrictions on how you spend the money, and so on.

The rhetoric just writes itself: Picture all those lazy, able-bodied 60-somethings living on the beach in Florida, spending your tax dollars instead of working. They didn’t save when they were younger, and now they expect the government to make up the difference! Doesn’t that boil your blood?

Local services. You can see the same logic play out locally. In some cities everybody uses public transit. (I’ve taken the BART during rush hour in San Francisco. There were a lot of three-piece suits in the car.) Correspondingly, the service is good in those cities, because transit-riders are an “us”, not a “them”. But in cities (or even neighborhoods within cities) where only the poor use public transit, bus-riders are a “them” and you can forget about rail. In those places, buses are crowded and dirty; schedules are sparse and inconvenient.

Ditto for public schools. In towns where kids of all economic classes go to the same schools, standards are high and it’s not hard to pass a funding increase. But in towns where the public schools are for the poor, and the wealthy all send their kids to private schools, public education is a charity. What do “those people” expect the rest of “us” to provide for them?

Expect worse outcomes yet if Betsy DeVos ever gets her way and public schools are phased out entirely, in favor of private schools that accept government vouchers. The system will quickly devolve into two tiers: Schools that you can pay for solely with a voucher, and schools where the voucher only covers part of the cost. The voucher-only schools will be for the poor, and the vouchers will gradually shrink down to charity levels: Do “those kids” really need music or foreign languages? Are they capable of appreciating literature or higher mathematics? Why should we pay for more than just keeping them under control all day?

Of course, we’d never ask those questions about “our” kids. But “their” kids?

Back to Warren’s proposal. What Senator Warren proposed last week was a program to end tuition-and-fee costs for undergraduates at all public colleges and universities, and to cancel up to $50,000 of student debt. (There are a few means-tested pieces in her program, the biggest being that you’re only eligible for the full $50K if your annual family income is $100K or less, with the benefit phasing out by the time you hit $250K.)

It’s expensive. It costs $1.25 trillion over ten years. She plans to pay for it with an idea that will make plutocrats rage: a wealth tax on households with $50 million or more in assets.

So, no doubt about it, it’s a heavy-handed intervention in the economy. Rampell’s efficiency argument is correct: We could spend and tax a lot less if we carefully targeted the benefits on students who won’t be able to go to college otherwise, and calibrated the size of the benefit to correspond to their precise needs. That would achieve the effect of helping poor kids and working-class kids go to college with minimal changes to the rest of the economy. If you think the rest of the economy is just, that makes perfect sense.

But Warren’s plan does something that no efficiently targeted and calibrated plan can ever do: The option to go to college becomes a basic right. Whose kids are the beneficiaries? Everybody’s. It’s something that we are joining together to do for ourselves, not for some downtrodden “them”. The affected students are not recipients of our charity who constantly have to prove that they come from the deserving poor rather than the undeserving poor.

Socialism? South American Archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, hardly anybody is really a communist any more, if they ever were. Our era’s scare-word is socialism, but it means roughly what the archbishop was talking about: building a society where a certain level of dignity and opportunity is a basic right, and does not require that you meet the standards of some paternal benefactor, who can withdraw patronage if you begin to appear undeserving.

I don’t just want to maintain the well-behaved poor at some subsistence level, while the productive power of the Earth and of our complex society accumulates in a few hands. I want our collective inheritance — the planet and the productive legacy of past generations — to work for all of us. If that earns me the title of socialist, well then, so be it.

[If you want to hear more about this point of view, check out a sermon I’ve done at several churches “Who Owns the World?“]

Is Impeachment the Right Answer?

The downside of doing something to keep yourself honest is that it might force you to stay honest.

Last June, I anticipated that the Mueller Report would eventually come out, and that we might then have to decide whether to support an impeachment. I also anticipated that partisan pressures would be intense at that point, and that people on both sides would face a strong temptation to shape their ideas about impeachment around the particulars of the evidence Mueller had found: If you were pro-Trump, no amount of wrong-doing would justify impeachment, but if you were anti-Trump, whatever Mueller found would be enough.

Certainly, we have seen enormous flip-flops among politicians who have been around since the Clinton impeachment. (Lindsey Graham is the most egregious example.) But the partisan winds affect all of us, and so I decided I wanted to get my ideas about impeachment written down before I knew precisely what Mueller would find. So I thought things through in the more-or-less abstract and posted “What is impeachment for?” I was trying to come up with an answer that I could stand by whether the target of impeachment would be a Republican or a Democrat. It should be consistent with the Founders’ intentions as expressed in the Constitution, as well as with my intuition about the impeachments in my lifetime. (I thought the Nixon impeachment was justified but the Clinton impeachment wasn’t.)

My standards for impeachment. Here’s what I came up with:

The Founders believed that any legitimate sovereignty had to come from the People, but they understood that the People would make mistakes. It was inevitable that sooner or later the United States would elect a bad president — a demagogue who was unwise, uninformed, and temperamentally unfit for the job.

It’s clear what they saw as the primary remedy for a bad president: Wait for his term to end and elect somebody else. (In the meantime, the other branches of government should use their checks and balances to minimize the harm he could do.) … Impeachment is in the Constitution for those rare cases where the country just can’t wait. … A legitimate impeachment case needs to argue that the Republic is in danger. There must be some reason why waiting for the next election either won’t work or isn’t good enough.

That led me to four situations that merit impeachment:

  1. The president is not loyal to the People of the United States.
  2. The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process.
  3. The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).
  4. Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment.

So if Mueller had found that Trump was conspiring with Putin, that would be a slam-dunk example of (1). But that’s not what he found. Instead, he assembled evidence of obstruction of justice, which I find convincing. So I believe that the President of the United States is a criminal.

However, back in June I anticipated this situation too:

The offense Mueller is most likely to find is obstruction of justice. The question I would have at that point is whether the obstruction succeeded. (Firing Comey, for example, may have been intended to derail the Russia investigation, but it obviously didn’t.) If Mueller’s conclusion is that Trump’s obstruction prevents us from knowing whether he was part of a treasonous conspiracy, then I would want to impeach him for that. But if Mueller did in fact get to the bottom of the Russia affair, then the impeachment decision should be based on the answer to that question.

The only loophole I can picture in that is if you hold Trump responsible for Paul Manafort’s non-cooperation, and believe that a cooperating Manafort would have revealed a treasonous conspiracy. That’s not impossible, but it seems like a stretch at this point.

Is the Republic in danger, and if so, from what? I won’t pretend that I wasn’t frightened by what I read in Mueller’s report. In one example after another, Trump displayed an attitude of lawlessness; he wanted what he wanted, and if someone told him it was illegal, he’d ask someone else to do it. (We’re getting similar reports about his immigration policy. He is already ignoring our laws defining the asylum process, and his rhetoric is preparing his cult of followers for worse abuses — for example, when he refers to laws he doesn’t like as “Democrat laws“, as if that invalidates them.) I don’t think we’ve ever had a president with such a cavalier disregard of his prime constitutional duty: to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

The president’s refusal to be interviewed by Mueller, and the answers he did give to written questions (Appendix C of the report), also show a frightening level of disrespect. If Trump really has so little memory of what he has done and who he has talked to, then the Vice President should invoke the 25th Amendment on the grounds of senile dementia.  More likely, though, he just sees “I don’t remember” as a lie no one can catch you in.

In 2016, the 46% of the voters who voted for Trump, and so allowed the Electoral College to install him in office, clearly made precisely the kind of mistake that the Founders foresaw. Elections have consequences, and so our Republic is suffering for that lack of wisdom. We have already lost many of the norms that protect us from authoritarianism; for example: the independence of the Justice Department, the expectation that a president would be shamed if caught in a lie, and the expectation that a president would not profit from dealing from foreign countries (and would show us his finances so that we can check).

If the House doesn’t impeach Trump and the Senate remove him from office, what is the remedy?

In part, we’ve been living it for two years now: checks and balances need to limit the damage Trump does until the voters can repudiate him. Other government officials have repeatedly refused to carry out some of Trump’s illegal orders, and judges have stood in the way of others. Congress has refused to let him pay Putin back by relaxing sanctions. The voters elected a Democratic House that can block many of his worst ideas, and can expose wrongdoing to the public.

In some ways, though, the checks and balances are failing. It is within Congress’ power to enforce the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution more rigorously, but it hasn’t done so. Congress could have defended its own power by overriding Trump’s veto of the resolution rescinding his state of emergency, but it didn’t. But these are failures of the same people who would have to remove Trump from office in impeachment. If you can get two-thirds of the Senate to see the problem and take action, then arguably you don’t need to remove Trump from office.

But that points to the real problem: Congress doesn’t have a supermajority willing to defend the Republic against a bad president. And behind that is another problem: While polls consistently show that Trump is unpopular, the public has not decisively rejected him in the way that, say, they rejected Richard Nixon once the details of the Watergate scandal became clear.

That’s the real source of danger: About 40% of the public doesn’t believe in the American system of government any more. They are fine with a lawless, dishonest president, as long as they believe he’s on their side.

A thought experiment. How would you feel about impeachment if Trump were already a pariah, if Congress routinely overrode his vetoes, and if candidates were lining up to challenge him not just on the Democratic side, but on the Republican side also? If you were confident that he faced a landslide loss in 2020, and that Republicans might anticipate that and not renominate him — would you feel better about waiting for his term to end?

I would. In large part, my urge to impeach is driven by my fear that the electorate can’t be trusted to repudiate Trump.

But of course, as long as that’s true, the Senate will never remove him from office. If the voters won’t defend the Republic, nobody else will either.

Hazards of not impeaching. In large part, Democrats are facing now the kind of problem that Republicans faced during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal: What can we do with our moral outrage? Republicans read the Starr Report in 1998 (unlike Mueller, Starr timed his report for maximum political effect), were outraged at the thought of extra-marital oral sex in the Oval Office, and felt: “This can’t stand. We have to do something.” [1]

The danger of doing nothing is that it creates the impression that Trump did nothing wrong. “If this were serious,” his supporters will say, “you’d be trying to impeach him.” It also immunizes him against further revelations that may come out of the investigations that Mueller spun off. It encourages him to take even more lawless actions, and may convince his subordinates that it would be no big deal to go along with him.

The politics. Some leading Democrats are taking the position that impeachment should be off the table because it’s not the best political move: Making Trump the center of the 2020 campaign plays into his hand. Instead, 2020 should be about health care, climate change, income inequality, and voting rights.

That’s true up to a point. Many of the voters we need to turn out aren’t concerned about “process issues” like whether the president respects the law. They want to know what each party plans to do for them, and what the Democrats plan has far more appeal than what Trump plans. (Most of those voters don’t really care about stopping migrant caravans either.)

Democrats shouldn’t get so caught up in opposing Trump that they lose sight of all other values. But in addition to pocketbook issues, Democrats need to be the party of honesty and good government. The very idea that Trump is a threat to American democracy, but that we’ll ignore it because that issue isn’t polling well for us right now — it undermines everything else. Some things are too important to calculate over, and this is one of them. The world where principles are just for show, and really everybody does whatever works to their advantage — that’s Trump’s world. If we move there, we lose.

Keeping the pressure on. The trick will be to find a middle way: to continue calling Trump’s lawlessness to public attention, while arguing that political repudiation is the voters’ job, and that indictment after he leaves office is a sufficient legal response. The issues raised by the Mueller report need to stay in the spotlight. For now, congressional hearings should be able to serve that purpose: Mueller and Barr need to testify in public, certainly, and probably a number of the administration officials who were told to break the law, like Don McGahn.  Lawlessness in other areas, like border enforcement, needs to be pulled into the theme.

But there’s no reason why these sorts of hearings have to eclipse all other issues. The House has already passed a comprehensive voting-rights bill. It can pass bills to define the rest of a positive agenda.


[1] Our outrage, I think, is far more justified, for two reasons: The obstruction case against Trump is far stronger than the one against Clinton, and it involves misuse of his presidential powers rather than just personal vices.

When I listened to the Senate hearing of the Clinton impeachment, I was amazed by how weak the obstruction case was: Republican prosecutors told a plausible story of obstruction — Clinton induced Monica Lewinsky to lie in a civil deposition by convincing Vernon Jordan to get her a good job at Revlon — but beyond showing that all the people who needed to conspire had opportunity to communicate with each other, they had no evidence.  The conspiracy was denied by everyone supposedly involved, including people who had nothing to gain by lying, like Lewinsky (who had immunity) and the folks at Revlon.