Tag Archives: Trump administration

The drift towards autocracy continues

In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.


For a lot of reasons, it’s hard to make a victim out of John Brennan.

  • The ex-CIA chief is well known, outspoken, and has lots of influential friends.
  • Government service generally has a nice retirement program, and I suspect MSNBC pays its contributors decently, so he’s probably doing OK financially.
  • The privileges he lost when Trump took away his security clearance are ones that the rest of us get along fine without. Clearances typically lapse after people leave the jobs that require them, but high-ranking intelligence officers like Brennan are an exception to that general rule.
  • Losing his clearance probably does not even inconvenience him much. Brennan says that he’s not currently accessing any classified information. He has been available if the CIA wants to consult with him about anything, but he hasn’t sought briefings from them about current situations.
  • Far from being silenced by Trump’s action, Brennan’s point of view is getting a lot of attention these days. Rachel Maddow did an extended interview with Brennan Friday night, and he had a column in The New York Times on Thursday.

So you might be wondering why you should care about Brennan’s clearance, especially at a time when the Trump administration is carrying out much more egregious injustices. For example, hundreds of the children separated from their parents at the border are still in government custody, including 24 who are younger than 5. The children Trump is damaging and the parents who worry about them are much better targets for your sympathy than John Brennan. Why should you care about him?

Bipartisan protest. Let’s start by noting that a lot of people do care, including many who are not reflexively against everything Trump does. Retired Admiral William McRaven (who headed the Special Operations Command when it planned and carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and who has not taken any public political stands until now) published an open letter in The Washington Post, telling Trump that

I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.

Twelve other retired intelligence officials, including six CIA chiefs going back to William Webster from the Reagan administration, signed a statement of protest:

we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. … We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.

Three others (including Robert Gates, who was not only CIA Chief under Bush the First, but also Secretary of Defense under Bush the Second and Obama) added their names later. An additional 60 CIA officers issued their own statement:

Our signatures below do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them. What they do represent, however, is our firm belief that the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.

So is this really a big deal, or is the Deep State just closing ranks around one of its own?

Presidential power. It’s really a big deal, for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are specific to the intelligence community, but the more general issue is that Trump is redefining presidential power in a way that is moving us ever closer to a Putin-style autocracy. He has been pushing in that direction almost from the moment he took office, but this is a major new step.

During the last two years, a number of books have come out about how a republic can degrade into an autocracy. Studying the ominous examples of Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Poland, we see that none of them had a revolution or a coup, and all of them still have elections and parliaments and many other trappings of democracy. Nonetheless, in each of them the essence of republican government is either entirely gone or significantly diminished. How does that happen?

The answer is through the erosion of norms, those underlying principles so basic that constitutions don’t even mention them, or the common-sense practices that enforce those principles. Norms are not written laws and cannot be enforced by courts. They are largely unarticulated traditions that are enforced politically, through public outrage.

Since he took office, Donald Trump has broken a lot of norms. That’s a fancy way of saying that he doesn’t act the way we expect presidents to act. His insult-laden tweet storms, his intertwining of public and private business, his lack of financial transparency, his lack of shame when he denies some obvious fact or contradicts today what he said yesterday (or even a few minutes ago) — it’s all either brand new or on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

But how much of it matters? Breaking a norm might just be a change in personal style, or even a breath of fresh air. Or it might be dangerous. How do we tell the difference?

Here’s a norm that is key to separating a republic from an autocracy: In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.

Revoking John Brennan’s security clearance is the clearest example yet of Trump’s autocratic view of executive power. Presidents have power over security clearances because they are responsible for safeguarding the nation’s secrets. But Brennan, and the other government or ex-government officials whose clearances Trump threatens to revoke next, have not even been accused of endangering classified information. Trump is just taking a swing at people he sees as his enemies.

In other words, he’s treating his power over clearances as a personal prerogative, rather than as a public trust that must account for.

It’s not the only power he’s been using that way.

Pardons. The Constitution grants the president the pardon power (except in cases of treason) and says nothing about how to use it. But traditions going back to Federalist #74 explain its purpose: to correct injustice and show mercy.

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.

In other recent administrations, there has been a process that starts with the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. You apply, the Pardon Attorney studies your case, and recommendations wind their way up to the president, who makes the final decision.

Trump, by contrast, views pardons as Get Out of Jail Free cards that he carries in his pocket. There was nothing unjust or cruel in the criminal convictions of Joe Arpaio or Dinesh D’Souza. Arpaio willfully violated a court order, and D’Souza funneled campaign contributions through straw donors. Arpaio was facing at most six months in prison and D’Souza got no prison time at all.

Both were pardoned because they were political allies of the President. Arpaio appeared at Trump campaign rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and spoke at the Republican Convention. D’Souza is paying Trump back for his generosity with a new film that equates Trump with Lincoln and the Democrats with Nazis.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney seems to have played no role in either decision. Trump just wanted to pardon these guys, so he did. He routinely tosses around thoughts of pardoning other people (like Martha Stewart) with no process and for no particular reason. (Possibly Trump thinks pardoning Stewart would strike a blow against James Comey, who prosecuted her.)

Law enforcement. Trump has frequently put forward the point of view that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should be working for him rather than for the United States. Again and again Trump has faulted Sessions for failing to “protect” him from the Russia investigation. Again and again he has complained that the Justice Department should be investigating his enemies, not his friends. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told The New York Times.

The most obvious example of Trump doing “what I want” with the Justice Department was the firing of FBI Director James Comey. FBI Directors have 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from political interference. The only other time an FBI Director has been fired was when President Clinton fired William Sessions in 1993. That FBI director had “stubbornly refused to resign despite Justice Department ethics findings that he abused his office”.

The Justice Department report found, among other things, that [William] Sessions had engaged in a sham transaction to avoid paying taxes on his use of an FBI limousine to take him to and from work, that he had billed the government for a security fence around his home that provided no security and that he had arranged business trips to places where he could meet with relatives.

Comey had been accused of misjudgments, but no ethical lapses. He seems to have be fired for his role in the Russia investigation.

Tariffs and Immigration. During the Kennedy administration, the Trade Expansion Act granted the President power to impose tariffs on products “being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten or impair the national security”. Before Trump used it to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum, that power had been dormant since 1982. You could sort of imagine how it might apply to imports from rival powers like China or Russia: What if our ability to build fighter jets depended on getting aluminum from Russia? But Trump put tariffs on Canadian aluminum as well. Seriously? It threatens national security if we become dependent on Canadian aluminum?

Well, no, and Trump has admitted as much in a tweet: “Our Tariffs are in response to [Canada’s] of 270% on dairy!” The dairy industry, I will point out, does not have national-security significance. But the law has given Trump a power, so he uses it as he pleases.

The Muslim Ban is another example. During the campaign, Trump announced:

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

Imposing a religious test on people entering the country is completely unconstitutional, and the first two versions of his Muslim Ban were overturned by the courts. But the administration studied to determine how much of a Muslim Ban could be shoe-horned into presidential powers that existed for other reasons. The Supreme Court, to its shame, has let them get away with this. Lawfare’s Susan Hennessy comments:

The President of the United States expresses in his own words that he is motivated by racial and religious animus — so he says, “I am enacting this immigration policy because I want to prevent Muslims from entering the country”. He says that clear as day. He says it multiple times. And then, the Department of Justice offers a different reason for that. They say, “No. This is within the President’s appropriate authority regarding immigration. This has a real security rationale.” And then the President again and again, even after those filings, not only does not disavow his statements, but makes them again and reaffirms them.

[The issue is] whether or not the Court, which traditionally extends deference to the executive branch says, “Well, we’re going to believe what you say. We’re going to examine the facial representation that you’re making about why you’re doing this.”, whether or not they’re allowed to look beyond the pure formal actions, at what the President is saying. So what the Court decided was: No, they are going to continue to extend traditional national security deference to the Executive, even in the face of blatant, open contradiction by the Executive himself.

And so that case really is an example of elevating legal formalism above the plain facts. And that is something where Trump really has been able to quite strategically and shrewdly play institutional commitments to these deeper principles against the very institutions themselves. It’s allowed him to get away with things — and get away with things really brazenly and openly — that I think even three years ago we would have said was impossible.

Security clearances. The security clearance process exists for a reason: to determine who is or isn’t likely to protect classified information.

At various times in a previous career, I held Secret and Top Secret clearances (which have lapsed; I currently have no clearances and don’t need or want any). To get those clearances, I submitted ID information, told the government where I’d lived, listed references of people who knew me there, and gave dates and reasons for every time I’d left the United States. I answered questions about my finances and what drugs I’d used. The themes of the investigations were easy to trace: Am I who I claim to be? Am I generally a responsible person? Am I vulnerable to foreign influence or blackmail?

No one ever asked me who I voted for or whether I supported the current administration. (I got my first clearance during the Reagan administration, which I did not support.) Whether I believed in the American system of government was deemed important, but whether I agreed with the current president wasn’t.

That’s how we do things in America.

But that’s not how Trump does things. The president sits at the top of the executive branch, and consequently he is the ultimate arbiter of every executive process, including the clearance process. So he has the power to grant and revoke security clearances.

I know of no case where any previous president has gotten directly involved in these decisions, but I can imagine how it might become necessary. (In case of a military coup attempt, for example, the president might need to freeze the conspirators out of the government without taking the time to go through any formal process.)

None of the circumstances I can imagine, though, apply to the Brennan situation: No one questions his loyalty to the United States or his discretion in protecting classified information. He is not involved in any emergency that requires quick action, or in some unique circumstance that the ordinary clearance-reviewing processes can’t handle. He’s just somebody the President doesn’t like.

Trump himself explained removing Brennan’s clearance to the Wall Street Journal like this:

I call [the Trump/Russia investigation] the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham,” Mr. Trump said in an interview. “And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.

“These people” include everyone else involved in launching the investigation: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Susan Rice, and Sally Yates. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders read a presidential statement saying that their clearances are being reviewed as well.

Trump doesn’t like being investigated, and he has power over security clearances, so he’s using that power to strike back at the people he blames for the investigation. This is not some cynical interpretation of Trump’s actions; it’s what he and his people are openly saying. (If you want a cynical interpretation, Rachel Maddow has one: Trump’s targets aren’t just the people who started the investigation, they are also potential witnesses in an impeachment hearing. Without clearances, they will be unable to review their own files from the relevant period before testifying, and so will be less effective witnesses against Trump.)

George W. Bush’s CIA Director Michael Hayden, who also finds himself on Trump’s enemies list, draws an obvious conclusion:

The White House just messaged the entire American intelligence community if you stand up and say things that upset the president or with which he disagrees, he will punish you. And that is a horrible message to be sending to folks who are there to tell you objective truth.

Just as the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court averted their eyes from the improper history of the Muslim Ban, Republicans in Congress are finding excuses to support Trump now. Senator Orrin Hatch, for example, responded by saying “I’m surprised it took him so long. Brennan has not been a friend of the administration at all.” But Hatch knows that under no previous president has being “a friend of the administration” been a factor in whether or not you held a clearance. Until Trump, it would have been scandalous to suggest that it should be.

And Rep. Jim Jordan of the House Autocracy Freedom Caucus fully embraces Trump’s autocratic view of clearances:

I don’t even see frankly why there is a debate. If the commander in chief of the United States thinks these people should have their clearance revoked, I don’t see why they should have their clearance.

No process, no criteria — security clearances are just a matter of the president’s personal whim, and are not related to any presidential responsibility.

Where this goes. It’s easy to go wild on slippery-slope arguments. (That’s what the NRA does with gun control. Any restrictions on assault rifles will inevitably lead to complete public disarmament, leaving us all at the mercy of armed police and criminals.) At the same time, sometimes there are slippery slopes, and each concession you make puts you in a worse position to fight future concessions. Principles make good lines in the sand: Once you start accepting violations of the principles, you lose your most easily defended positions.

The abstract principle here is that presidential powers are not personal prerogatives, they are tied to presidential responsibilities. In this case, the president’s power over security clearances is tied to his responsibility for securing the governments’ secrets. Any security-clearance decision that can’t be justified in those terms is illegitimate, even if it is technically legal.

If we lose this principle, if Trump is allowed not just to occasionally rationalize his way around it, but to openly deny it and pay no price, then I honestly don’t know where this slide towards autocracy stops. Looking at the way Republicans like Hatch and Jordan are defending Trump, and the many other Republicans (like Paul Ryan) who are dodging the question of his autocratic inclinations, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s vision:

Make no mistake: if Republicans hold both houses of Congress this November, Trump will go full authoritarian, abusing institutions like the I.R.S., trying to jail opponents and journalists on, er, trumped-up charges, and more — and he’ll do it with full support from his party.

Some examples of Trump’s autocracy are complicated. This one isn’t. If Republicans won’t stand up to Trump here, where does it stop?

What changed in Helsinki

Questions that sounded paranoid a week ago now have to be taken seriously: Is the President betraying the country?


It’s a very odd experience to watch your worst-case scenario play out. It isn’t that you never imagined anything this bad. (Many of us did, that’s what a worst-case scenario is.) But imagining is not the same as expecting. You can still feel shocked and surprised, even as you tell yourself that you should have seen this coming.

What we saw last Monday in Helsinki was an American president completely in thrall to a Russian autocrat.

The Helsinki news conference. It was more than just one statement that might have been a slip of the tongue or a senior moment.

The single event that got the most attention was when Trump was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 election that made him president. He weighed the conclusions of the entire US intelligence establishment (singling out his own Director of National Intelligence by name) against the unsupported word of Vladimir Putin, and favored Putin.

My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. [1]

[All quotes are from the Washington Post transcript.]

But it isn’t just that Trump has a blind spot about the 2016 election or wants to squelch any suspicions about the legitimacy of his presidency. Putting election-meddling aside, John King listed all the other things Trump decided not to make a big deal out of: Putin’s proxy war against Ukraine (including the direct annexation of Crimea into Russia), the nerve-agent attacks in the United Kingdom, and shooting down the MH-17 airliner. Also, he allowed Putin to pose as a humanitarian interested in helping the Syrian people, when Russia’s ruthless intervention in Syria is a primary cause of their suffering.

He had plenty of opportunities to confront Putin. Asked whether he held Russia “at all accountable for anything in particular”, Trump identified nothing Putin has done wrong and blamed “both countries” for the difficult state of US/Russian relations.

I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame. [2]

He couldn’t tell us enough about how reasonable Putin was being. A Putin proposal that the Senate denounced 98-0 was “an incredible offer”. [3]

Trump keeps endorsing Putin’s worldview. Even after he left Putin’s charismatic presence, the effect continued. Julia Ioffe described it best in The Washington Post: “Vladimir Putin has his own version of reality. And President Trump believes it.”

For example, when Tucker Carlson asked Trump “Why should my son go to [NATO’s newest member] Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Trump replied with a mysterious view that he surely did not get from his own national security team:

I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. … They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III.

Seriously? The rest of the Balkan countries are trembling in fear over the aggression of Montenegro? And this strange notion is worth mentioning rather than Russia’s attempt to foment a coup. Everybody’s best guess is that Putin is the source of Trump’s view of Montenegro, which he repeats as fact. Ioffe explains where that kind of gullibility goes:

If America is at fault for everything that’s gone wrong in its relationship with Russia, as Trump seems to agree, then why do we impose sanctions on Russian officials and companies? This has been Russia’s position all along.

Secrets kept from us, not from Russia. And then we come to the strangest thing of all: The two hours Trump spent with Putin without any Americans present other than a translator. [4] Days later, DNI Coats told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he had no idea what was said. The rest of the government seems not to know either, though the Russians have been claiming that various agreements were made. [5]

For example, Putin claims he discussed with Trump a plan for a referendum to decide whether rebellious parts of eastern Ukraine will join Russia.

Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday.

Presumably, this would be similar to the referendum in Crimea, and once you accept the one you’d have no basis for refusing to accept the other, or for maintaining any sanctions that were imposed in response.

During Mitchell’s interview with Coats, the White House announced that Putin was being invited to the White House in the fall. Coats was clearly dumbfounded by this.

The White House then portrayed Coats as having “gone rogue“. But more and more it looks like Trump has gone rogue from the rest of the government, even the parts he appointed himself. [6]

The changing landscape. Here’s the main thing that has changed this week: Eight days ago, the view that Trump was actively working for Russia’s interests was a fringe position. Responsible journalists and pundits try not get ahead of the established facts and hate to be seen as alarmists, so they were actively minimizing the implications of what we’ve been seeing. Writing two weeks ago, Jonathan Chait expressed this view in an evocative metaphor:

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not much farther.

He went on to wonder “What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?” and to boldly outline what a worst-case scenario would look like: Trump visits Moscow in 1987, and from that point forward is drawn ever deeper into a Russian orbit, relying on Russian money to save his business empire in the 1990s, and taking a favorable view of Russia into his presidential campaign from the beginning.

Each of Trump’s apparent pro-Russia moves left room for some alternative explanation: He was just bragging when he revealed sensitive intelligence the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office. His ego won’t let him admit he needed illicit help to win the presidency. He admires “strong” autocrats and has a distaste for the compromises democratic leaders have to make. Hiring a Putin operative like Manafort to be his campaign chair was just a coincidence. And so on. But at some point, the individual sky-is-not-falling explanations collectively require more gullibility than the One Big Explanation.

Two weeks ago, that assertion was daring. It no longer is.


[1] More than a day later, after a firestorm of criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats — even Newt Gingrich and some Fox News hosts were unhappy — Trump tried to walk this back, saying that he meant to say “wouldn’t” instead of “would”.

As unlikely as this claim seems, give Trump the benefit of the doubt for a moment and edit the quote to match his after-the-fact intention: Does it make any significant difference? Now maybe you can interpret him as leaning towards US intelligence over Putin, but it’s still a he-said/she-said thing. US intelligence just “thinks” it’s Russia; it’s not like they know anything. The main thrust of Trump’s statement remains the same: There’s really no way to choose between them, so why make a big deal out of it?

And even as Trump was throwing a bone to Coats and the rest of his national-security team, allowing the possibility that collectively they might be somewhat more trustworthy than Putin, he also undercut that message by indicating that he still doesn’t believe what they’re telling him:

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that meddling took place,” Trump told reporters in brief remarks before a meeting with members of Congress. Yet he immediately contradicted both his own statement and that community’s findings, saying, “Could have been other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.”

The consensus of American intelligence agencies, Trump’s own top advisors, and the Republican-controlled House and Senate Intelligence Committees, is that it was Russia, not that it “could have been other people”. Trump still wouldn’t admit that.

By Sunday, he was back to full denial.

So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!

[2] This might be a good place to mention how much heat President Obama took for his so-called “apology tour”. The Heritage Foundation published a report on it.

The Obama Administration’s strategy of unconditional engagement with America’s enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure.

The “apologies” in question are statements like “We have not been perfect.” and “We went off course.” I’m not sure what less he could have said about the Bush administration’s policy of torturing people, but Heritage judged that such statements “humiliated a superpower”.

[3] Putin proposed to let Robert Mueller come to Russia to question the 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted for hacking Democrats’ computers, in exchange for his own people getting similar privileges with Americans named in some tax-evasion conspiracy theory centered on Bill Browder (the guy who spearheaded the fight for the Magnitsky Act).

When Russia sent the full list of people it wanted to interrogate, it included former US Ambassador Mike McFaul. The entire US foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, was horrified. Still, Trump considered this incredible offer for an entire day before saying no. Even in rejecting it, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the offer had been “made in sincerity by President Putin.”

[4] Democrats in Congress have proposed subpoenaing the translator to find out what was said, but Republicans have blocked them. My own feeling is that this is precisely the kind of thing that executive privilege ought to cover. I picture Obama, or some future president I like, trying to have a private conversation with a foreign leader without the suspicious circumstances of this meeting. Would I want the other party to be able to force the translator to testify? Worse, would I want our president to rely on the other country’s translator precisely to keep the conversation private?

Still, it should be up to the administration to claim executive privilege. Congress should go ahead with the subpoena.

[5] Susan Glasser wrote in The New Yorker:

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

This morning, finally, Trump tweeted.

I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries.

Trump blamed the “Corrupt Media” for spreading the idea that Putin got concessions from him. In fact, though, the media was just reporting what Putin and his government have been saying. Trump should blame Putin for the misunderstanding, if it was a misunderstanding. But that would mean contradicting Putin, which Trump can’t do.

[6] Trump’s chosen FBI director, Christopher Wray, told NBC’s Lester Holt:

I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt. I think it’s a professional investigation conducted by a man that I’ve known to be a straight shooter in all my interactions with him.

Undersecretary of Defense John Rood said “Russia is the larger near term threat” than even China. Saturday, the Associated Press gave us the inside scoop on Trump’s would/wouldn’t walkback.

Vice President Mike Pence, national security advisor John Bolton and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly stood united in the West Wing on Tuesday in their contention that Trump had some cleanup to do. They brought with them words of alarm from Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, as well as from a host of congressional leaders and supporters of the president for whom Trump’s public praise of Putin proved to be a bridge too far.

“America First!” means China wins

China either is already the world’s largest economy or soon will be. In order to compete for world leadership in the coming decades, the US will need to represent a community of like-minded nations, not go it alone.


America First. The foreign policy Donald Trump ran on came down to two words: “America First!”

He never spelled out exactly what policy agenda that slogan entailed — Trump 2016 was never the kind of campaign that constructed 12-point plans or posted white papers on its web site — but the attitude it expressed was clear: Both economically and militarily, the United States is the world’s 800-pound gorilla, and we need to start acting like it.

According to Trump’s populist critique, past administrations of both parties worried too much about principles like free trade and human rights, and invested too much of their hopes in multinational organizations like the UN, the WTO, and NATO. The Bushes and Clintons and Obama — and basically every president since Truman — tried to create a world of rules and mutual commitments, and failed to recognize something Trump finds obvious: Rules protect the weak. A world without rules is governed by the Law of the Jungle, and under that law the 800-pound gorilla always wins. That’s why he felt confident promising us “so much winning“.

To Trump and his followers, it makes no sense that the US has been trying to lead the world by setting a good example, rather than dominate it by telling other countries how things are going to work. It’s been crazy to keep our markets open when other countries close theirs, respect their intellectual property when they don’t respect ours, or extend our military shield over allies who don’t invest in their own armed forces the way we do. Our strength ought to get us a better deal, but it doesn’t because we keep volunteering to take a worse one.

So if it meant anything, “America First!” meant that it was high time we stopped volunteering to take the short end of the stick. Stop trying to create a world of rules that apply equally to everyone and stop averting our eyes when other countries cut corners. Instead, deal with every country one-on-one, a situation where our superior power will let us tell them what’s what. And what we will tell them is: “You need us more than we need you. So we win, you lose.”

During the campaign, examples of how Trump pictured this working would occasionally pop out: If we were going to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, we should have taken their oil to make it worth our while. If our military is going to keep defending Europe, they should pay us. Shortly after taking office he told the CIA the principle we ought to live by: “To the victor belong the spoils.

Short-term and long-term. A year and a half into the Trump administration, we’re still waiting for those white papers and 12-point plans. (An anonymous staffer recently summed up the Trump Doctrine by expanding “America First!” from a two-word to a three-word slogan: “We’re America, bitch!“) But the outlines of a Trump foreign policy are starting to become clear: no TPP; no Paris Climate Accord; no Iran denuclearization deal; no UN Human Rights Council. We move our embassy to Jerusalem because we’ve taken Israel’s side, and aren’t trying to broker peace any more. We don’t accept other countries’ refugees. We insult our allies and leave them in the dark about our intentions. We can act like that because we’re America, bitch.

Once the Trump administration gets outside the restrictions of multinational agreements and into bilateral negotiations, it makes big demands and waits for other nations to back down, threatening terrible consequences if they don’t. Strangely, these tactics have yet to work anywhere. Mexico still isn’t paying for the wall and just elected a government more resistant to American pressure than ever. No one — not China, not Canada, not the EU — is knuckling under to our trade demands. North Korea gave us some pretty words, but doesn’t seem inclined to abandon its nukes.

Those problems, the administration assures us, are just short-term. As soon as other countries understand that we’re serious, they’ll realize who has the upper hand. Thursday night, Trump told a rally in Montana: “We’re going to win [the trade war with China] because we have all the cards.”

So far, that hasn’t been true: We hit them, they hit back — as if we were equals or something. But who knows? Maybe in the medium term Trump’s strategy works out. Maybe over the next year or so Canada and Mexico will decide that they do need to renegotiate NAFTA so that it tilts more in our favor. Maybe China and the EU will drop their reprisal tariffs and be content to let us buy less from them. Maybe we’ll get a new Iran deal that restricts their nuclear program for longer than Obama’s deal did, or adds provisions about ballistic missiles or exporting terrorism. Maybe the North Korea denuclearization agreement will turn into more than a handshake and a photo op.

I’d be surprised, but what do I know? Stranger things have happened.

But now let’s expand our time horizon and recognize one obvious fact: In the long run, it’s China who will be the world’s 800-pound gorilla. If the world is running according to the Law of the Jungle in 2030 or 2050, they win, not us.

How the US and China stack up. At the moment, China has around 1.4 billion people, about 1/6th of the world’s population and four times America’s. Per capita, it’s still a much poorer country than we are, but the national totals are starting to even out.

Depending on how you measure, China either has already overtaken us as the world’s largest economy or soon will. [1] It’s more-or-less inevitable: As Japan and South Korea and Singapore have shown, it’s much easier to bring your people up to a standard that some other nation has already achieved than to create an entirely new standard of wealth. So China’s GDP grows over 6% in a bad year, while ours grows 3% in a good year. [2]Over time that adds up. If China ever manages to achieve a per capita income that is just half of ours, its total economy will be twice as large. That will give it a leading role on the world stage.

Already China is flexing its muscles in terms of soft power. Its Belt and Road Initiative is a multi-trillion-dollar plan to rebuild Eurasia’s infrastructure around China-centered trade routes and financial institutions.

Think about what this means diplomatically. China can approach Pakistan with its plan for a Pakistan-China Economic Corridor. What’s our vision for Pakistan? China foresees a high-speed-rail network that connects Shanghai to Singapore and Bangkok. What do we foresee?

It may not happen right away, but over time you have to expect China to exert the kind of world influence that comes with being the world’s largest economy. They will have the tax base to outstrip us in military spending eventually, if they choose to. Someday Shanghai or Hong Kong might replace New York as the world financial capital. Already, China can challenge us as a regional military power in Asia. Eventually it will have the resources, if it wants, to challenge us around world — at least if we are foolish enough to take them on by ourselves.

We need allies. We need institutions. In short, this is a uniquely bad time for the US to set up the world to be dominated by an 800-pound gorilla. Because before much longer, that gorilla won’t be us.

For the United States to continue to be the world’s most influential nation, we’re going to have to rely on two factors that Trump wants to turn his back on.

  • We represent values that the world admires, not just our own money and power.
  • We lead a community of nations who share those values.

If those two things are true, then America is the leading member of a coalition China won’t be able to bully for a very long time, or maybe ever: ourselves, the EU, Japan, the English-speaking parts of the British Commonwealth, South Korea, Taiwan, and maybe a few other countries. As India, Brazil, and other nations achieve relative economic equality with the countries in that coalition, there’s reason to hope that they will find it a club worth joining.

Whatever you may think of how the Trans-Pacific Partnership turned out in its final form, this was the geo-political vision that got it started: We would not negotiate trade with China by ourselves, but would get together with a large number of like-minded nations to write rules of the road. Long-term, we hoped that China might someday accept our rules in order to get the benefits of belonging to our club. There are many reasonable arguments against the TPP as it eventually was negotiated, but to scrap it and replace it with nothing will eventually prove to be a huge missed opportunity. (Pulling out of the WTO, which Trump is reported to be considering, would be even worse.)

Going forward, we want to live in a world of multinational institutions, because in a world of bilateral agreements, more and more it will be China who tells other nations how things are going to be.

The benefits of being a benign superpower. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the chief promoter and protector of the international financial system. Trump and his followers see only the costs of this role and ignore all the ways that it has enhanced American power.

In the world today, the dollar is the international currency. National banks of almost all countries hold large reserves of dollars, and international trade is denominated in dollars. Just about any international transfer of money at some point passes through the US banking system.

What this means is that the market for dollars goes well beyond the needs of the US economy. The Federal Reserve creates dollars at zero cost, by entering numbers into its database. Many of those dollars go overseas eventually, and we get real goods in return: cars, iPhones, oil, steel, and Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. This is the seldom-discussed flip side of our trade deficit: We get away with running that deficit — consuming more than we produce — because the international economy needs a currency, and the dollar plays that role. The dollar is our chief export.

Similarly, US Treasury bills are the world’s default investment. This has allowed us to finance our budget deficit year after year, without suffering any of the ill effects that budget hawks are constantly predicting: Our national debt hasn’t caused inflation. The dollar’s value hasn’t collapsed. We don’t have to offer higher and higher interest rates to get investors to loan us money.

Short of military attack, the most potent weapon we can aim at an adversary is to cut them off from the US banking system. When fully enforced, that sanction can reduce another nation’s international trade to barter, and induce it to invent elaborate and expensive money-laundering schemes. The sanction that hurts Putin’s oligarchs most is the Magnitsky Act, which prevents sanctioned individuals from using the US banking system. The Atlantic explains:

What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?

Once your wealth is expressed in dollars and recognized by the US banking system, you can take it anywhere and do anything you want with it. But otherwise, it’s barely money at all.

In a lot of ways, our banking power is better than military power. Unlike tanks or even nuclear missiles, our enemies have no answer for it. What are they going to threaten in return — to cut us off from the Russian or North Korean or Iranian banking system? Why would we care?

You might ask: How did we get power like this? Why do other nations let us keep it?

And the answer is that we have been entrusted with this kind of power because (for the most part) we have used it benignly. In theory, the other nations of the world could cut us out of the picture by deciding to use the yen or the Euro instead, or by getting together and creating a truly international currency and a truly international banking system to go with it. But the new currency would be like the Euro on a larger scale: negotiating and managing that new monetary system would be a huge headache, and who knows what holes and glitches it might develop? It’s just much more convenient for everybody to stick with the dollar and the US banking system, because our occasional abuses of that power have stayed within reasonable bounds.

In short, we have been fairly faithful stewards of other nations’ trust.

Or, translating the same idea into Trump-speak: We’ve been suckers. We haven’t put America first. We haven’t used every tool at our disposal to drive other nations to the wall and make them do what we want.

But that’s why other nations trusted us in the first place. And over time, we have benefited a great deal from that trust.

Bad timing. During this era, when we can see China gaining on us in the race for power (and in some areas already beginning to pass us), it’s tempting to try to squeeze all the juice we can out of our superpower status before we lose it. It’s also the worst strategic decision we could possibly make. At best, such a policy might produce a brief flare of American brilliance before our power winks out completely.

Now more than ever, the United States needs an international system based on principles and enforced by international institutions supported by multilateral agreements that all parties can live with and see benefit from. We need a system that isolates rogue nations and draws them into the rules-based community. We need to stand for universally attractive ideals like democracy, human rights, and opportunity for all. If China wants to compete with us for leadership, let it compete to lead the ideals-based coalition we have assembled. Let it compete to be a more admirable nation or a better steward of the world’s trust.

On the other hand, over the next five or ten years there might be some gains to cash in by becoming a rogue nation ourselves, flouting the principles we previously tried to establish, undercutting international cooperation on issues like global warming, and imposing win/lose agreements on weaker countries. The international institutions we helped design would likely wither, and to the extent they survived they would become alliances against our abuses of power. As we turned inward, other nations would as well, and the world as a whole would become a less prosperous place.

None of this would thwart China’s rise. And as the American Era ended, our legacy would not be an international system of mutually beneficial principles, rules, and institutions, but a Law-of-the-Jungle world, where the 800-pound gorilla always wins.

Unfortunately, that 800-pound gorilla would be China. China would owe us a great debt of gratitude for establishing a world system that allowed it to throw its weight around, dominating smaller nations (including us). However, I suspect China would never feel obligated to offer us anything to settle that debt. After all, gratitude is for suckers.


[1] If you google “countries ranked by GDP“, you’ll see lists from various international organizations that make it look like we still have a wide lead. For example: $19.4 trillion to $12.2 trillion in the World Bank list for 2017.

However lists like that are suspect for the following reason: They usually start by estimating a country’s annual GDP in the local currency, and then convert that estimate to dollars using the current exchange rates. But it’s widely suspected that China’s currency is undervalued; that’s what gives it such a big advantage in trade. Once you adjust for that undervaluation, you get very different numbers.

Economists argue about how to make that adjustment. One complex tool called “purchasing power index” says that the Chinese GDP really represents $21.4 trillion of purchasing power.

That’s calculation is hard for a non-economist to follow, but one quick-and-dirty (not to mention amusing) method for comparing the value of products across currencies is to use the Big Mac Index: Express all prices in units of locally produced Big Macs, which are assumed to be more-or-less identical around the world. (Example: If an iPhone 8 costs about $700 and a Big Mac sells for $3.50, an iPhone 8 costs 200 Big Macs.) At current exchange rates, you can buy 1.8 Chinese Big Macs for the price of 1 US Big Mac. So (adjusting everything by a factor of 1.8) annual Chinese GDP represents a number of Big Macs that would sell for around $22 trillion in the United States.

[2] In his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney made the wildly optimistic prediction that his economic policies would lead to 4% growth. If Chinese growth got down to 4%, it would be a national emergency.

What is impeachment for?

During Obama’s presidency, Republican standards for impeachment were low and Democratic standards high. Now it’s the reverse. We need American standards that don’t change with the political winds.


Someday — maybe sooner, maybe later — Bob Mueller is going to issue his report on the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, whether Trump has been attempting to obstruct justice, and possibly other Trump-related scandals. When that happens, Congress and the American people will have to look at what has been found and decide what to do about it. Is it enough for an impeachment or not?

At that moment, partisans on both sides will adjust their standards to get the conclusion they want. Trumpists will put forward impossibly high standards for impeachment, and anti-Trumpists will drop their standards to match the facts available. Not admiring either of these approaches, I want to set out my general ideas about impeachment now, before we know what the evidence will say.

Previous impeachments. As background, let me start by confessing that I’m old enough to have watched two presidential impeachment processes: Nixon’s and Clinton’s. The two could not have been more different.

At the time of the Nixon impeachment hearings, the United States hadn’t impeached a president in a century. Leaders of both parties in Congress appreciated that they were wielding a fearful and awesome power. They felt the Eye of History watching them. So, while Democrats were in general the prosecutors and Republicans the defenders, both approached their roles with extreme scrupulousness. Both sides were determined to get to the truth of the matter rather than just to win.

The iconic question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” was asked by Republican Senator Howard Baker. The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to subpoena Nixon’s tapes of Oval Office conversations was overwhelmingly bipartisan (33-3). Of the five articles of impeachment considered by the committee, three were supported by some Republicans and three were opposed by some Democrats. In the end, Nixon resigned after a delegation of Republican leaders went to the White House to tell the President that they could no longer defend him.

By contrast, the Clinton impeachment was an entirely partisan exercise from beginning to end. Nixon’s special prosecutor (Leon Jaworski) had been a fellow Republican. But for Clinton, the first Republican special prosecutor hadn’t been rabid enough, so he was replaced with a more partisan one. The focus of the investigation kept shifting, eventually settling on Clinton’s sexual escapades. Even the obstruction of justice charge postulated a private conspiracy (inducing Monica Lewinsky to give false testimony in a civil lawsuit) rather than a misuse of presidential power. None of the 45 Democratic senators voted to convict on any charge.

During the Obama administration, Republicans would occasionally raise the idea of impeachment, but it was clear that their standards had declined even further since the Clinton era. Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio told a town hall meeting of impeachment-happy partisans that impeaching Obama would be “a dream come true”, but there was one tiny hurdle he didn’t know how to jump yet: “You’ve got to have evidence.”

Now, of course, Republican standards for impeachment are high again and Democratic standards have lowered. But what we need are American standards that we’re willing to apply to presidents of either party.

The Constitution only helps us up to a point. It lays down the basic process, but (as it so often does) leaves the details to the interpretation of later generations. Perhaps that openness is why the document has lasted this long.

I first formulated my ideas about impeachment during the Clinton process, and I will attempt to apply those theories to Trump, even though Clinton is a Democrat and Trump a Republican.

The bad-president problem. 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.) We may not have the same appreciation for the elect-somebody-else solution as the Founders, but you have to bear in mind that they were comparing the presidency to the monarchy of England. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #69:

The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and HEREDITARY prince.

If England had a bad king, the solution was either to revolt or wait for him to die. But in the US, you could circle a date an a calendar and plan for the bad president to be gone. The Founders saw that as a big improvement.

So what is impeachment for? Impeachment is in the Constitution for those rare cases where the country just can’t wait. You can see that reflected in the clause that establishes it.

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

What makes treason and bribery so special that the Constitution names them? Each points to a problem more serious than mere incompetence or wrongheadedness or lax morals or bad temper. Both describe situations where the power of the presidency has been removed from the People and might possibly be used against them. A treasonous president is loyal to a foreign power; a bribed one is loyal to some private interest. The power of the presidency hasn’t just been used unwisely, it has been suborned or usurped. That’s a situation that can’t be allowed to continue.

Treason and bribery should be models for “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. That phrase, I think, is intentionally vague, to give Congress the leeway to do what it thinks it needs to do. But treason and bribery should set the bar: 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.

Reasons to impeach. If you buy that general framework, then legitimate reasons to impeach fall into four categories:

  1. The president is not loyal to the People of the United States. Basically, treason or bribery. A third offense, which in the Nixon impeachment was called “abuse of power”, is similar if a bit more vague: Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. The power of the presidency is being used not for the common good, but to enrich the president, to reward the president’s friends, or to punish his or her enemies.
  2. The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. One reason we might not be able to wait for the next election is that the next election has been compromised. This was the heart of the Nixon impeachment: If a president can harass and spy on political rivals with impunity, then the whole election process becomes untrustworthy. You can imagine extreme cases where the president is winning elections by stuffing the ballot box, as happens in many pseudo-democratic countries.
  3. The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2). Obstruction of justice can be an impeachable offense, but it should only be used if the underlying charge has some can’t-wait significance. Nixon’s attempt to obstruct the investigation of the Watergate burglary had clear implications for the integrity of the election process. But whether or not Clinton obstructed Paula Jones’ civil lawsuit was an issue that could have waited.
  4. 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. If the Iran-Contra scandal had led to impeaching President Reagan, this would have been the justification.

A fifth condition is urgent in a similar way, but has its own constitutional process: A president who is insane or demented can be removed via the 25th Amendment, if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet believe he or she is unfit.

Reasons that aren’t good enough. Impeachment shouldn’t be seen as a do-over for the voters’ mistakes. No matter how many people change their minds, or how low the president’s popularity sinks, that by itself is not a reason to impeach.

Policy disagreements between the president and Congress aren’t impeachable, as long as the President is respecting Congress’ legitimate powers. Attempts to stretch presidential power into debatable areas — like Obama’s executive orders on immigration — are not impeachable if the president backs down when Congress passes new laws or the courts overturn the orders.

The president becoming an embarrassment to the country is not enough. This, I think, was the mistake at the heart of the Clinton impeachment: Many Americans were embarrassed to hear news reports about oral sex in the Oval Office. That might be a good reason to call for a president’s resignation, but not to impeach.

Loss of faith in the president’s judgment isn’t enough, unless it rises to 25th-amendment levels. If, say, a president were ready to start nuclear war for no reason, the vice president and the cabinet should step in. But if the president just demonstrates bad judgment within the ordinary human range, replacing him or her would be another form of election do-over.

Standards of proof. During the Clinton impeachment, my representative (Charlie Bass) was one of many Republicans who pledged that they would only vote for impeachment if the evidence were beyond reasonable doubt. (He lied, and voted to impeach anyway. It was certainly reasonable to believe that Clinton perjured himself or conspired in Lewinsky’s perjury. Depending on your opinion of Clinton’s character, that may even have been the more likely possibility. But by no stretch of the imagination was the case against Clinton proved beyond reasonable doubt.) I think they made that pledge because they knew that the charges against Clinton were legalistic rather than based on the kind of emergency concerns the Founders envisioned.

But is the criminal-trial standard — beyond reasonable doubt — really the appropriate one? What if members of Congress are only 90% convinced that the president is a traitor? Should they wait for the next election?

Clearly not.

Criminal conviction can take away the freedom we all value and view as our right. But political office, especially a high political office like the presidency, is an honor and a privilege rather than a right. Taking it away just reduces a president to the same level as the rest of us. So the standards of proof required shouldn’t be as high as in a criminal trial. (After a president is removed from office, a criminal indictment might follow. At that trial, the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard would apply. So it would not be unreasonable to remove a president from office via impeachment, and then fail to convict in the subsequent criminal trial. Both outcomes might be appropriate responses to the evidence.)

The House and Senate play different roles in an impeachment, and they should apply different standards. The House is like a grand jury; essentially, it is voting to indict. The Senate is the trial jury; it is deciding whether to convict. I think the House should turn the reasonable-doubt standard upside-down. Voting to impeach should mean two things:

  • The charges are serious enough that they can’t wait until the end of the president’s term, and Congress has no less drastic way to deal with them. If they are true, the president needs to be removed as soon as possible.
  • The evidence could lead reasonable people to believe that the charges are true.

The Senate is making the more serious decision. If the House impeaches, the trial in the Senate will be stressful for the country, but by itself the trial does no real harm. (The country survived the Clinton trial with little damage. The situation when Clinton’s term expired — peace, a budget surplus, low unemployment, low inflation — was arguably better than at any time since.) Improperly removing a duly elected president, though, would be a serious blow to our constitutional system.

The Senate has to weigh the risks on each side: Voting to acquit leaves a possibly dangerous president in office until the end of the term, and tells future presidents that Congress will tolerate the impeached behavior. Voting to convict might damage the presidency and devalue future elections. Which path into the future is better for the country and our system of government?

Application to Trump. It’s possible that Mueller might find the exact wrong-doing that the Constitution specifies: If Trump conspired with the Russian government to gain an advantage in the 2016 election, and if his subsequent favoritism to Russian interests stems from his political debt to Putin, that’s treason. If he has been making foreign-policy decisions based on foreign-government actions that benefit him financially (like the Chinese investment in the MNC Lido City project), that’s bribery. Those would be the slam-dunk cases.

Abuse of power accusations (like his alleged pressure on the postmaster general to raise rates on Amazon to strike back at Jeff Bezos for The Washington Post’s hostile coverage) haven’t gotten as much attention, but would also be serious if they could be proved — not just the fact of pressure, but also the intent. But I would want to see a pattern of such reprisals — like Nixon’s enemies list — rather than just one example.

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.

One outcome, for example, could be that Trump played no part in the Russia conspiracy, but obstructed justice to cover up crimes committed by his sons or by son-in-law Jared Kushner. If that’s the case, I would indict those people immediately, and prosecute Trump for obstruction after his term ends. It’s a crime, but it’s over now, and waiting does not endanger the country.

I suspect there is considerable evidence that Trump is profiting off his presidency in ways that don’t quite rise to the level of bribery. For example, he could hardly be doing any more to promote Mar-a-Lago than he has been, including spending large quantities of public money there. (Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago have cost the taxpayers more than the entire Mueller investigation. “Probably several times over,” estimates the WaPo’s Philip Bump.) The Trump International Hotel in Washington profits extensively from foreigners attempting to curry the President’s favor. (The Trump Organization donated $151K in foreign-government profits to the Treasury, but has not explained how it came up with that number. I would be amazed if it were a fair accounting.) Michael Cohen has collected millions in what appear to be payments for access to the Trump administration, but we still don’t know if Trump conspired in that, or whether the payments bought any government favors.

However, Congress could crack down on Trump’s profiteering without resorting to impeachment. He (and future presidents) could be required to publish their tax returns. Congress could investigate the Trump Organization and do its own accounting of politically tainted profits, or insist that Trump divest (and let him decide whether he would rather resign). It could refuse to spend public funds on any businesses owned by the President. Conflict-of-interest rules that apply to every government official except the president could be extended.

Congress hasn’t done these things because Republicans don’t want to take any action against Trump. It’s crazy to imagine that impeachment is feasible as long as such common-sense moves haven’t been made. Impeachment is a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency last resort; if anything else could fix the problem, it should be tried first.

To be continued … Chances are, not all of the conclusions of the Mueller investigation will be clear-cut. There may be some evidence of collusion with Putin, but not definite proof. It may be impossible to establish whether Trump’s reluctance to sanction Russia was a quid-pro-quo or not. I’ve laid out my general principles on impeachment, but those kinds of judgment calls can’t be made without seeing the specific evidence.

When that evidence comes out, I can only hope that I and the Congress and Americans on both sides of the partisan divide will understand the gravity of the judgment to be made, and that we will all feel the Eye of History watching us.

“Make a Deal”: My Contribution to the Trump/Mueller Musical

If Michael Cohen really is the key to bringing down Trump, you have to figure that when the musical version gets made, Mueller’s pitch to flip Cohen will deserve its own song. Here’s my suggestion, which is sung to the tune of “Cabaret“.

What good is taking the rap for some clown?
You’re hooked and I hold the reel.
Life is the art of deals, my friend.
Come in and make a deal.

Forget about pardon, you know it won’t come.
His loyalty’s not real.
I’ve heard there’s an art of deals, you know.
Come in and make a deal.

Tell what you’ve seen.
Tell what you know.
Go wear a wire and get him talking.
Come tomorrow you’ll be walking.

What good is pining away in a cell
Waiting on your appeal?
Life can be one big deal, my friend.
Come in and make that deal.

I used to know a mobster, name of Gotti.
The Teflon Don, he could be rather naughty.
He wasn’t satisfied with vice and looting.
He took out the top bosses with a shooting.

He thought that he could never be convicted
With witnesses and jurors so conflicted.
But when we made his chief lieutenant sing
The case became a very lovely thing.

I think of Gotti to this very day.
That’s how you put the guy on top away.

I said, “Come on, Sammy, you’ve got one last chance.
“There’s no better time to squeal.”
Life is the art of deals, my friend.
He came in and made a deal.

And as for you,
And as for you,
You can help me bring down the hammer
Or spend your best years in the slammer.

You know that he never would go down for you.
He doesn’t care how you feel.
Life is the art of deals, he says.
He’s the Crown Prince of Deals, he says.
But I love to make a deal.

Trump’s long-term effect on American democracy: How worried should we be?

If you have been paying attention to the current administration with any sense of skepticism at all, you probably worry about whether President Trump is a threat to American democracy as we have known it. Briefly:

In January, as he marked the first complete year of the Trump administration, Benjamin Wittes characterized this as “banana-republic-type stuff” and commented

His aspirations are as profoundly undemocratic and hostile to the institutions of democratic governance as they have ever been. He announces as much in interview after interview, in tweet after tweet.

And yet, Wittes judged that during Trump’s first year, the response of the rest of the government was “ultimately encouraging”.

Trump simply cannot look back on the last year and be satisfied with the success of his war on the Deep State. His battle to remake it in his image has been largely unavailing—and has come at far greater cost to his presidency than to the institutions he is trying to undermine.

And that is very good news.

So how bad is it really? In other words, the rest of the government has largely remained true to American ideals, and has blocked Trump’s most authoritarian efforts. The courts remain independent, and have struck down several of his most egregious orders. The media has refused to be intimidated, and continues to hold him accountable. Law enforcement has largely — but not entirely — held steadfast against his encroachments on its integrity; so the Mueller investigation continues, and there have been no show trials of high-profile Trump enemies. The military has pushed back against his improper orders, and the intelligence services refuse to simply tell him what he wants to hear, help him subvert the justice system, or propagandize the American people. Even the Republican Congress, while often a lapdog, has occasionally growled: High-profile Republicans have protected Jeff Sessions, and threatened unspecified consequences if Robert Mueller is fired.

So how disturbed should we be? Is Trump simply a bad cold that American democracy will eventually throw off and return to good health? Or is his administration a cancer that our country might fight for a while, but will eventually succumb to? How do we even think rationally about such questions, rather than alternately give in to rosy denial or black despair as the mood strikes us?

Comparable challenges. If we were going to try to think about this like reasonable people, the first question to ask is: When have democracies faced challenges like this before? How did that go? How does our situation compare to theirs?

Trump, after all, is not the first demagogue with authoritarian tendencies to gain popularity in a democratic nation. Sometimes the fever passes, sometimes the nation falls into tyranny (Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey), and some cases look bad but might still be salvageable (Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland).

He’s not even the first American president to stress our democracy, or to be feared by the opposition as a rising dictator. Just about all our major wartime presidents fit that description: Much of what Lincoln did, including the Emancipation Proclamation, was constitutionally suspect, relying on implicit “war powers” that had never been precisely spelled out before. Wilson jailed Eugene Debs during the World War I, and approved the Palmer Raids against leftists in the postwar red scare. FDR broke the two-term tradition, tried to pack the Supreme Court with allies, and approved the Japanese internment.

We don’t usually think of those presidents as potential autocrats, because in each case subsequent administrations (sometimes under pressure from Congress) pulled back from autocracy, returning to what Wilson’s successor Harding called “normalcy“. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt all left American government changed, but in each case the expansion of executive power was eventually controlled, sometimes by codifying it in law and sometimes by setting new limits to keep it from happening again.

Nixon was another president who stretched and abused executive power. But he was forced to resign and voters gave the opposition party an overwhelming majority in Congress. Congress then passed the War Powers Act, wrote new campaign finance laws, and increased its oversight of the intelligence services. His presidency became a warning sign rather than a precedent; no subsequent president has justified his actions by claiming Nixon as his example.

So how does that all work? When does a democracy slide into dictatorship and when does it pull itself back from the brink? If that sounds like a major research project, you don’t have to take it on yourself: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt already did in the recent book How Democracies Die. (If Ziblatt’s name is familiar, that might be because in December I tried to infer the lessons How Democracies Die makes explicit from his previous book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.)

The importance of norms. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s first point is that the U. S. Constitution contains no magic formula that prevents democracy from failing here. Whatever “American exceptionalism” might mean, it doesn’t give us some kind of immunity from the diseases other democracies are prone to. Numerous countries have modeled their constitutions on ours, and seen democracy fail anyway.

Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.

(Longtime Sift readers will recognize this as a theme I’ve been harping on for years in posts like “Countdown to Augustus” and “Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues“.)

Much of our problem today predates the Trump administration, and stems from the fact that our norms have been sliding for decades. The Senate’s refusal to recognize President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, or to respond to it with hearings and a vote, for example, was not explicitly unconstitutional, but was unheard of in all previous American history. Ditto for brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, or the decades-long evolution of the filibuster from a rarely used break-glass-in-case-of-emergency practice to an automatic tactic of minority obstruction. The other branches of government have changed their own norms to deal with Congress’ dysfunction: Presidents issue more sweeping executive orders (like Obama’s DACA), and the Supreme Court reinterprets mis-stated laws (like the Affordable Care Act) that it would once have sent back to Congress for correction.

If you go back to the bulleted list at the top of this post, you’ll notice that hardly any of my complaints about Trump are explicitly constitutional. The Constitution never says that the President can’t order the FBI to investigate the candidate he just defeated, that he can’t tell big whopping lies on a regular basis, or that he has to give the public enough information to judge whether or not he is corrupt. Those aren’t rules, they’re just good practices. That’s how we do things here in America.

Or how we used to do them.

The root norms. It would be easy to fill pages with the norms that Trump is breaking. Our system, for example, has a tradition of decorum. (“Will the distinguished gentleman from Oklahoma yield the floor for a question?”) No previous president has publicly talked about political rivals in such consistently belittling terms as Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, or Pocahontas.

But rather than list hundreds of specific norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt boil democracy’s essential norms down to two:

  • mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals”
  • forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives”

All the others stem from these. American government works well when the parties regard each other as rivals rather than enemies, and exercise their powers according to the Constitution’s underlying spirit, rather than wringing every conceivable advantage out of its words. Democracy is in trouble whenever one party regards the other as fundamentally treasonous, and then uses that opinion to justify pushing the powers of whatever offices it holds to their constitutional limits.

Much of what I’ve been doing in my “Augustus” series is chronicling the tit-for-tat loss of restraint between the parties. Most Americans have no appreciation of how far this could go, so I’ll provide an example: The 12th Amendment specifies that the sealed votes of the Electoral College are sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives.” What if the President of the Senate, with the connivance of majorities in both houses, simply miscounted the votes and proclaimed someone else to be president?

There’s no provision for dealing with that scenario — and with innumerable similar situations — because the Founders never anticipated that our political leaders would go that far. And they wouldn’t. Or would they?

The 21st century road to dictatorship. The old model of democratic breakdown was the coup: Caesar illegally taking his army across the Rubicon, seizing Rome, and proclaiming himself Dictator for Life. That was the path of many 20th century dictators like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But 21st century autocrats have realized the usefulness of maintaining the trappings of democracy.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, still has elections, rival political parties, and dissident newspapers. Popular opposition leaders, however, have a way of finding themselves in prison or in exile or dead. Ditto for troublesome journalists. When the media empire of oligarch Boris Berezovsky became unreliable, he was forced to leave it behind him and flee the country. After a few years in exile, he was found hanged. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, began financing dissident politicians, he went to prison.

It was all legal, of course. (Well, not the assassinations, but no investigator would dare trace them back to Putin.) The men who went to jail were convicted of real crimes (and maybe even committed some of them; it’s hard to reach the top of a corrupt system without breaking a law sometime). Similar stories could be told about Turkey or Hungary or Venezuela. The system resembles the quip variously attributed to either Mark Twain or Emma Goldman: “If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt use a soccer analogy to map out the steps by which an elected president becomes an autocrat:

  • Capture the referees. In other words, get your people in charge of the judiciary, law enforcement, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Anyone who used to be a neutral arbiter must become your partisan. You can do this in the judiciary, for example, by expanding the size of the Supreme Court and appointing your people to the new positions (as Roosevelt tried to do), or by impeaching judges who rule against you (as the Republican-controlled legislature is trying to do in Pennsylvania). (In North Carolina, the gerrymandered Republican majority in the legislature has done court-packing in reverse: It shrunk the size of the State Court of Appeals to prevent the new Democratic governor from filling the open seats.)
  • Sideline star players on the other side. “Opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and … religious or other cultural figures” are “sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.” With the referees already in your pocket, the carrots of government contracts and positions, or the sticks of ruinous regulations, taxes, and prosecutions can hollow out the institutions that otherwise might channel public opinion against you.
  • Rewrite the rules in your favor. We were already seeing a lot of rule-rewriting on the state level prior to Trump: Gerrymandering and voter suppression have locked in large Republican majorities in states (like North Carolina) where the voters are more-or-less evenly split between the parties. In last November’s election in Virginia, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates won the popular vote 53%-44%, but Republicans maintained a 51-49 majority. Combining a biased legal system with a lifetime ban on felon voting (as in Florida, where the Sentencing Project estimates that 20% of adult blacks can’t vote) can sideline a large chunk of the opposition electorate. In countries like Russia, field-tilting rules make it difficult for new parties to form, for genuine opposition candidates to get on the ballot, or for opposition voices to get their message out.

Once the right measures are in place, an aspiring autocrat doesn’t need the traditional trappings of tyranny — gulags, thought crimes, children informing on their parents, secret police breaking down doors in the middle of the night — to act with impunity and stay secure in his job.

Resistance. Unlike a coup, though, the subversion of a once-democratic system takes time. While you are corrupting some of the referees, suborning some opposition leaders, and rewriting some rules, the still-intact parts of the system can rise against you — if enough people recognize what is going on and transcend their previous differences. Putin, you may remember, did not become a dictator overnight.

Also, if a country is lucky — and I think the U.S. might have gotten “lucky” in this way with Trump — the would-be autocrat may not be particularly adept. Margaret Drabble’s metaphor of babies eating their mothers’ manuscripts might apply: “The damage was not, in fact, as great as it appeared at first sight to be, for babies, though persistent, are not thorough.” Trump may be persistent in his aggressions against democracy, but he lacks the discipline to be as effective as he otherwise might.

The rosy path. It’s easy to imagine that someday Trump will leave office peacefully — by choice or otherwise — and afterwards there will be a bipartisan effort to shore up the norms he violated.

Such a thing has happened before. For example, after FDR violated the unwritten rule that presidents should retire after two terms, Congress codified that limit in the 22nd Amendment. As a result, FDR’s four terms didn’t lead to a series of presidents-for-life. As I mentioned before, Nixon’s excesses led to a large Democratic majority in Congress that passed a number of executive-restraining laws.

Something similar could happen after Trump: Congress could mandate good practices that previously were taken for granted, forcing presidents to release their tax returns or hold their assets in blind trusts. Laws could spell out in detail which payments are constitutionally-banned “emoluments”. The wall separating the presidency from the investigative branches of the Justice Department could be strengthened.

Other changes wouldn’t require new laws: Voters could begin insisting again on virtues that Trump lacks, like experience, expertise, and honesty. They could once again value respectful and respectable behavior. Congress could begin taking its oversight role more seriously, rather than abusing or neglecting it depending on whether or not the presidency and Congress are controlled by the same party.

If that’s what happens, then the Trump administration will be like that time you drove home after a few drinks and arrived safely without incident. Yeah, it wasn’t a good idea and you shouldn’t make a habit of it, but ultimately no harm was done.

The dystopian possibility. So far, democracy has been protected by two main forces: The so-called “Deep State” (i.e., career government officials who are more committed to the missions of their organizations than to the orders they receive from the White House) and Trump’s overall unpopularity.

So, for example, career prosecutors — even if they are Republicans — have not been willing to sacrifice their integrity by manufacturing a case against Hillary Clinton, or ignoring evidence against Trump himself, just because he tweets that they should. Career EPA officials are refusing to become pawns of the fossil fuel industry no matter how much Scott Pruitt wants them to. Career economists at the Treasury didn’t concoct a bogus tax-cuts-pay-themselves analysis just because Steve Mnunchin promised they would.

That’s the Deep State in action: It’s not a conspiracy masterminded by some shadowy cabal. It’s the professional integrity of people who believe that their jobs mean more than just a paycheck or their bosses’ approval. (That’s true even in some cases where I disagree with them. I think a lot of CIA and Pentagon people really believe in America’s imperial mission, and in the disasters that will happen if they let down their guard. In their own minds, they are patriots.)

That’s both its strength and its weakness. You can’t kill the Deep State just by finding its leader and bribing, threatening, or imprisoning him or her. But conversely, it has no sense of strategy. It is made up of individuals, and individuals can be worn down. The Deep State has held its own for a little over a year, but can it hold for four years or eight?

If, God forbid, Trump got to replace one or two of the liberals on the Supreme Court, the courts might suddenly become pliable.

Trump’s unpopularity has shored up many institutions of democracy. The media has remained critical, rather than giving in the way it did to George W. Bush after 9-11. Republicans in Congress haven’t expressed much criticism, but they also haven’t cooperated with Trump’s desire to rewrite the rules. (The Senate keeps ignoring his plea to abolish the filibuster, and the idea of changing civil service laws to enable an executive-branch purge, or libel laws to muzzle the press, are non-starters.) Congressional Democrats have stayed unified rather than finding excuses to strike individual compromises. Federal judges have not been afraid to stick their necks out.

All that might change if Trump’s approval rating hovered around 60% rather than 40%, or if it were Democrats who were worrying about losing their jobs this fall rather than Republicans.

Levitsky and Ziblatt review cases where democracy held for a while, and then started to crumble, like Fujimori‘s Peru. It’s not hard to imagine how that could happen here: The predicted Democratic wave fails to materialize in the fall. The economy stays strong, the country avoids any new shooting wars or trade wars, and Trump’s victims — immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. — remain isolated. Much of the country then starts to say, “What was all that alarmism about?” When Jim Comey or Andrew McCabe winds up in jail, it seems like a one-off case rather than an assault on law enforcement.

Conversely, suppose Democrats overcome gerrymandering and regain control of the House. (It will take at least an 8% margin in the popular vote to do so.) Then laws will not change in Trump’s favor, Congress will investigate and expose excesses, and if Bob Mueller turns up evidence of impeachable offenses, the impeachment process will begin. We’ll be on our way to getting rid of Trump in 2020 (if not sooner), and starting to rebuild what has been torn down.

The crucial year, and the long-term challenge. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t end with specific predictions, but my impression after reading their book is that 2018 is crucial. Neither complacency about American democracy’s resilience nor hopelessness about turning things around is warranted. The outcome is still undetermined.

In each party, there is a question: Will Democrats put aside their differences in the face of the larger threat, or will they let their factions be played off against each other? In the recent successful campaigns (Lamb in Pennsylvania, Jones in Alabama), they stayed united and won, but the divisions of 2016 are still not healed.

For Republicans, the question is whether their various factions will continue to let themselves be bought off — evangelicals by court appointments, business leaders by tax cuts and deregulation, and so on — or will enough of them come to understand what is really at stake? If they will not join the resistance, will they at least stay on the sidelines?

Long term, both parties need to figure out how to strengthen the norms of forbearance and tolerance, which were in trouble long before Trump arrived on the scene. Unless we can re-establish them, getting past Trump will not solve our problems. His failure, if it happens, might simply be a training example for new and better demagogues.

The Return of the Chicken Hawks

When Donald Trump started staffing his administration, many of us worried about the number of generals he put in high positions: Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Jim Mattis. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon had never made it to general, but his seven years as an officer in the Navy was a key part of his self-image. So many of the other members of the administration were lightweights who had little-to-no knowledge or experience relevant to their jobs: Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Jared Kushner, Ivanka, and Trump himself. It seemed obvious that in a crisis, everybody would be looking for the generals to tell them what to do.

In a country founded on civilian control of the military, pundits wondered, wasn’t that dangerous?

Subsequently, Flynn was fired and replaced by another general, H.R. McMaster. Bannon left. John Kelly moved up from Secretary of Homeland Security to Chief of Staff. When the press referred to “the grown-ups” in the Trump administration, they meant the generals, plus a few other people like Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn.

In the latest reshuffle, Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, another lightweight without any real credentials relevant to his job. (He played an economist on TV, but really isn’t one.) Tillerson is gone, replaced by Mike Pompeo. McMaster has been replaced by John Bolton. Kelly’s (always limited) ability to control Trump is fading, and his job either is or isn’t secure, depending on the hour and who you talk to.

In short, the Day of the General seems to be waning, and we are being reminded that there are people more dangerous than generals: chicken hawks.

What is a chicken hawk? A chicken hawk is somebody full of warlike rhetoric who somehow never gets around to experiencing war first-hand. [1] His (they’re not all men, but great majority are) lack of experience doesn’t make him cautious, it insulates his thinking against consequences. He sees the uses of war and dreams of being a Churchill who maneuvers forces on a global scale, but has never understood the real costs of war. He has never learned that a mistake that starts a war is the worst kind of mistake a statesman can make.

At The Week, Joel Mathis points out the danger of having a chicken-hawk president:

The problem with Trump’s pugnaciousness? He’s never had to face consequences for it. There have always been bone spurs, or security guys, or the fact that professional wrestling isn’t real. As far as we know, he’s never started a fight and gotten his nose bloodied for the trouble. Anybody who has experienced that lesson never forgets it. It’s best not learned on the international stage.

A general is a priest of War who has seen what can happen when he calls down the wrath of his god. A chicken hawk has heard glory-filled stories of that god, watched the priests with envy, and longs to unleash that kind of power.

Bush era chicken hawks. The George W. Bush administration was full of chicken hawks, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney, who engineered the Iraq War after artfully maneuvering to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era. (As he told a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”) Other notable Iraq War hawks — Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith — were also blissfully devoid of military experience. (As Colin Powell’s top assistant Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson put it: “None of these guys ever heard a bullet go by their ears in combat.“)

Some of the loudest Iraq War hawks outside the Bush administration were similarly uninterested in actual fighting, like Bill Kristol, and any number of gung-ho College Republicans who were of the right age to volunteer for the Iraq War, but chose to leave that honor to someone else. (It’s debatable whether Iraq-invasion-promoting columnist Thomas Friedman qualified as a chicken hawk. He never served in the military, but he probably did hear bullets whiz past his ear when he was reporting in Beirut.)

Bush himself avoided Vietnam by somehow getting a coveted spot in a National Guard unit that was never called up (and maybe, depending on who you believe, he just stopped showing up at some point). His military experience was zipping through the clear skies of Texas in a supersonic fighter jet, and he relived that excitement by landing on the USS Lincoln near San Diego so that he could give his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech declaring victory in Iraq.

By contrast, the top general in the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, while consistently loyal to administration policy, was not so eager to invade. He was the one who coined what he called the Pottery Barn Rule: “If you break it, you own it.” He also was subsequently more open than most Bush officials about what went wrong and what might be learned from it. Colonel Wilkerson became a critic of the war.

The once and future chicken hawk. Like George W. Bush, John Bolton used the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, a war he supported. Wikipedia fleshes out his subsequent account of his decision:

He wrote in his Yale 25th reunion book “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” In an interview, Bolton discussed his comment in the reunion book, explaining that he decided to avoid service in Vietnam because “by the time I was about to graduate in 1970, it was clear to me that opponents of the Vietnam War had made it certain we could not prevail, and that I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from.”

But his turning away from personally serving in Vietnam was not part of a more general turning away from war. Bolton was not just part of the crew that maneuvered the country into the Iraq War, he also worked to expand that war.  In “The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War with Iran“, The American Conservative charges:

Bolton’s high-profile advocacy of war with Iran is well known. What is not at all well known is that, when he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security, he executed a complex and devious strategy aimed at creating the justification for a U.S. attack on Iran. Bolton sought to convict the Islamic Republic in the court of international public opinion of having a covert nuclear weapons program using a combination of diplomatic pressure, crude propaganda, and fabricated evidence.

Despite the fact that Bolton was technically under the supervision of Secretary of State Colin Powell, his actual boss in devising and carrying out that strategy was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Most of the other Iraq War chicken hawks are in history’s trash can by now. Whether they learned anything from that blunder or not, no one is listening to them any more. But Bolton has now returned to influence, emphatically has not learned a lesson, and does not even admit that invading Iraq was a mistake.

Preventive War. The Iraq War was premised not just on manufactured reports about Saddam’s weaponry, but also on a doctrine of preventive war: If we think a country is developing a threat to us, we should attack it before that threat materializes. [2] Bolton still believes that doctrine. Here’s what he wrote in the WSJ at the end of February:

It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

In other words, North Korea is developing weapons that could strike us, so we should treat that as if it were a plan to strike us, and strike them first. Our strike could result in a retaliatory nuclear strike against Seoul or Tokyo, or just a devastating bombardment of Seoul (a city of 25 million) by conventional artillery. But hey, collateral damage. It’s better that cities of our Asian allies get destroyed than our own cities.

In 2015, he advocated a preventive strike against Iran, and scoffed at the possibility of resolving the nuclear issue peacefully.

The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.

When Obama got the deal Bolton said was impossible, Bolton denounced it, and has urged Trump to pull out of it. That, of course, takes us back to Square One with regard to Iran’s nuclear program: Either we accept the reality of Iran getting nuclear weapons (as President Bush did with North Korea) or we attack them.

In The Daily Beast, Mark Leon Goldberg characterizes Bolton’s tenure as UN Ambassador in 2005-2006:

The memoir he wrote of his experience at the UN was titled “Surrender is Not an Option.” But Bolton’s time at the UN suggests that, to him, the natural give and take of diplomacy is akin to “surrender” and must be avoided at all costs. Understanding how he performed his job at the UN gives us big clues as to how he might approach the job as National Security Advisor to which he has just been named.

At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations. Other countries’ gains — no matter how insignificant —  were ipso-facto America’s losses.

In other words, he will reinforce one of Trump’s greatest weaknesses: his inability to see the win/win nature of good diplomacy.

Leading the chorus for war with Iran. As National Security Advisor, Bolton will not have any planes or troops under his direct command. Nor will he have a staff capable of generating attack plans without cooperation from the Pentagon. He chairs the National Security Council; his job is to consolidate the advice of the military, foreign policy, and intelligence establishments and package it for the President. His power rests entirely in his ability to influence the President’s decisions.

That job is particularly important when the President has no expertise or experience of his own. (Dwight Eisenhower, who had already managed half of a global war before he became president, changed NSAs almost every year. It didn’t make a huge difference.) As a tough-talking chicken hawk himself, Trump needs to be surrounded by people who understand the reality of war. Initially, he was, but that is becoming less and less true.

With the possibility of a Trump/Kim summit meeting — I’m still not convinced that’s really going to happen — North Korea is the challenge most people are focused on right now. But another deadline on Iran is also looming: U.S. sanctions on Iran were not repealed after the 2015 agreement; instead (according to the Corker-Cardin law) the President must waive them every 90 days. The current waiver runs out on May 12. If the sanctions on Iran are resumed, the deal that stopped Iran’s march to nuclear weapons will start to unravel.

Trump didn’t want to issue the previous waivers, but he let Tillerson and McMaster push him into doing so. Back in January, he warned that he wanted major changes in the agreement, which during the campaign he had called “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I’ve ever seen“. So far, these demands have led to no additional concessions from the Iranians. [3]

This time around, Tillerson and McMaster are gone. Like Bolton, new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an Iran hawk. So is UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. [4] Along with Trump’s own inclinations, this chorus virtually guarantees that the next waiver will not be granted, sanctions will be reimposed, and Iran stop complying with the nuclear deal.

The next question is: What then? During the campaign, Trump’s “America First” slogan seemed to point away from foreign adventurism. [5] He was almost unique among Republican presidential candidates in clearly declaring the Iraq War a mistake. [6] But with no brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, and with Bolton leading the chorus of Pompeo and Haley, war with Iran will be a constantly available option, waiting for the moment when Trump is in a war-making mood.


[1] It’s worth pointing out that I also have never served in the military, observed combat, or even been shot at in civilian life. But I am also cautious about committing someone else to fight on my behalf. When military people tell me that war is hell, and that the outcome is never as predictable as you think, I believe them.

[2] There’s an important distinction between preventive war and preemptive war. Both are examples of striking first, but a preemptive war is much less controversial than a preventive one, because it makes fewer assumptions about an enemy’s intentions. A preemptive strike disrupts a specific imminent attack, while a preventive strike intends to eliminate the possibility that an enemy might eventually attack at some indefinite time and place.

An example helps here: If the U.S. had struck the Japanese fleet just as it got within range of Pearl Harbor, that would have been preemptive: A specific attack was in the works, and our attack would have disrupted theirs. But the Japanese attack itself was preventive. At the time the U.S. had no specific plan to attack Japan. But the Japanese anticipated that the U.S. would eventually go to war to stop Japanese expansion, so they crippled the fleet that would spearhead that war.

When you start a preventive war, you turn your back on the possibility that the attack you claim to be preventing could have been averted in some peaceful way. A key example there is the Cold War: Various American military figures in the 1950s and 60s advocated for a preventive nuclear strike against the USSR. But we didn’t strike that preventive blow, and the nuclear war those men were anticipating never happened anyway.

[3] That’s typical. Trump dislikes all our international agreements and believes he can negotiate better ones, but so far he has not produced any significant new deals. (Wait: Something with South Korea was announced this morning.)

[4] Experts seem to agree that Iran is fulfilling its end of the agreement, so Haley has been moving the goalposts.

The question of Iranian compliance is not as straightforward as many people believe. It’s not just about the technical terms of the nuclear agreement. It requires a much more thorough look.

[5] In an address to Congress a little over a year ago, he implicitly criticized the expense of the Iraq War: “America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.”

[6] He considered it such a mistake that he had to rewrite history to portray himself as a war critic from the beginning.

Who are those guys?

a guide to the new faces in the Trump administration


Watching the White House and the major executive departments of government may be making you feel like Dorothy in a perverse version of Oz: “People come and go so quickly here!”

To a certain extent, it’s been that way from the beginning. On the way to the White House, Trump went through three campaign chairmen (Cory Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon). Chris Christie was supposed to organize the transition, but Mike Pence replaced him only a week after the election. Mike Flynn was already out as National Security Adviser after 23 days.

From that unsettled opening, things never really calmed down. Who can forget, for example, the 10-day reign of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director last July? Rivalries that seemed likely to define the entire Trump administration (Steve Bannon vs. Reince Preibus) are already ancient history.

Recently, though, the churn seems to have speeded up, for a variety of reasons: Rob Porter and David Sorensen left in the middle of domestic abuse scandals. John McEntee was escorted out of the building due to “serious financial crimes” that seem to involve gambling. Nobody has a really good explanation of why Hope Hicks quit, though it’s an interesting coincidence that she refused to answer questions before the House Intelligence Committee the day before her resignation was announced.

We know why Gary Cohn left as Director of the National Economic Council: He had already gotten the tax cut he wanted, and he couldn’t defend Trump’s tariffs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter, for a variety of reasons that probably boiled down to being insufficiently deferential to the Moron in Chief. (Just before he was fired, Tillerson criticized Russia for the poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. It would be ironic if that were a cause, because Tillerson had been criticized for being too sympathetic to Russia, and is even rumored to have gotten his job because the Russians didn’t want Mitt Romney to have it.)

Beyond that, rumors abound: McMaster is about to go, or practically everybody in the cabinet. But one of the things you learn in Fire and Fury is that from Day 1 Trump has constantly talked about firing people, many of whom are still in their jobs (like Jeff Sessions). So a reporter might have numerous well-placed sources saying Trump is talking about firing McMaster, and it might or might not mean anything.

So anyway, who are the new people? And why do I believe they’ll be even worse than the people they replace?

Larry Kudlow, Chief Economic Adviser. This job usually goes to somebody with a Ph.D. in economics and a resume full of articles in econ journals. Kudlow has none of that: He’s predominantly a media personality. His selection follows a pattern of Trump hiring people he’s seen on TV, whether they have any qualifications or not. (It would barely surprise me to hear that Hugh Laurie was going to be Surgeon General.)

Kudow got a BA in history and studied economics and politics at Princeton without finishing his masters. He worked in politics in the 1970s (for Democrats, oddly enough), then found the supply-side economics religion and worked for the Fed and OMB during the Reagan administration. Bear Stearns hired him to be its chief economist in 1987 (so they must have thought he knew something).

He shifted to media in 2001, and by 2001 he was on CNBC (NBC’s business network), co-hosting with Jim Cramer. Cramer split off to start a stock-picking show Mad Money, and Kudlow and Cramer eventually morphed into The Kudlow Report, where he continued to pontificate until Trump tapped him. Ezra Klein comments:

Larry Kudlow, in other words, is a reasonable answer to the question, “How can Trump get more favorable coverage for his economic agenda on cable news?” And to Trump, that may indeed be the central question.

As for his economic philosophy, there are two thing to know about him: He’s for tax cuts in any and all situations, and (like Gary Cohn and unlike Trump) he’s a free-trader who opposed Trump’s tariffs, at least before he took a job at the White House.

The other thing to know is more epistemological: He doesn’t belong to reality-based community. Anything good that happens in the economy is due to tax cuts and free trade (even those actions happened years ago and have been reversed since), and anything bad that happens is due to tax increases and trade restrictions. Those conclusions are pre-ordained and impervious to evidence.

Like many TV pundits, he has made a career out of being very consistently wrong, something you can’t usually get away with on Wall Street. It’s almost impossible to assemble such a consisten record of bad predictions by chance. To be so reliably wrong, you need to base your predictions on a theory that is not just irrelevant to reality, but actively opposed to it, like supply-side economics.

Jonathan Chait’s sums up in “Trump’s New Economic Adviser Lawrence Kudlow Has Been Wrong About Everything for Decades“. The true highlight is from a column Kudlow wrote for National Review in December, 2007: “The Bush Boom Continues“.

There is no recession. Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S economy continues moving ahead, quarter after quarter, year after year, defying dire forecasts and delivering positive growth. … The Bush boom is alive and well. It’s finishing up its sixth consecutive year with more to come.

Mortgage refinancings were “soaring”, he reported, finding that to be “a very positive, very welcome development”. In fact, the housing bubble had already started to pop months before, and his old firm, Bear Stearns, was four months from bankruptcy. That September, the Lehmann Brothers bankruptcy cascaded through the banking system, triggering the biggest crisis since the Great Depression.

Kudlow is also implicated in the Brownback tax cuts in Kansas, which have devastated that state’s finances and resulted in major cutbacks in schools and roads.

Anyone who has watched Kudlow’s show knows that he talks down to people, and Trump can’t stand to be talked down to, no matter how ignorant he may be on a subject. So unless Kudlow has some one-on-one mode I haven’t seen on TV, I don’t expect him to last long.

Mike Pompeo, moving from CIA Director to Secretary of State. Pompeo isn’t really a new face, but he’s in a new role. He was a congressman from Kansas until Trump made him CIA Director. He served as an Army captain in the Gulf War before getting a law degree. He ran an aerospace company in Wichita, and was a business associate of the Koch brothers. He entered Congress as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave, again with major support from the Kochs.

His known positions relevant to foreign policy include being strongly anti-Muslim, opposing the Iran nuclear deal, supporting the prison at Guantanamo, and denying the scientific evidence on climate change. His position on Russia is a little harder to suss out, but it seems consistent with the House Intelligence Committee: Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, but he doesn’t connect that to Trump. The Russians have been trying to undermine our elections “for decades”, and don’t seem to stand out from other nations. He is concerned “about others’ efforts as well. We have many foes who want to undermine Western democracy.”

Given his ties to virulent Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, Pompeo will help Trump connect to parts of his base that are too extreme for even Trump to reach out to directly. But I wonder how the Saudis will react to him.

Gina Haspel, CIA Director. Haspel is a career CIA insider, which can be read as either good or bad news. She may be implicated in past CIA sins, and may even be a war criminal. On the other hand, as part of the so-called “Deep State”, she is unlikely to give in to White House pressure to use the CIA politically.

The big issue with Haspel is torture, though part of the initial concern about that seems to be overblown. Pro Publica withdrew some of the most damning claims made about her.

The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where [suspected Al Qaeda leader Abu] Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.

Still at issue is whether Haspel played a role in the decision to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding, which was illegal. Pro Publica stands by that part of its story.

ProPublica reiterated that after she rose to a new position in the CIA, Haspel urged the agency to destroy 92 videotapes that had documented Zubaydah’s treatment, including dozens of waterboardings and other techniques widely viewed as torture. Those tapes were eventually shredded.

But NPR quotes James Mitchell, who worked with Haspel, saying:

“Gina did not pressure Jose Rodriguez to destroy those tapes.” Mitchell says Rodriguez made that decision on his own, as the CIA’s director of clandestine operations. By that time, Haspel had risen to become his chief of staff.

However, she may have been involved in another torture case. The New York Times reports:

Ms. Haspel arrived to run the prison in late October 2002, after the harsh interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, a former senior C.I.A. official said. In mid-November, another Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri arrived. Mr. Nashiri, accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole, was the man who was waterboarded three times.

The real problem in all these cases is that we just don’t know what she did. Pro Publica quotes CIA spokesman Dean Boyd:

“It is important to note that she has spent nearly her entire CIA career undercover,” Boyd said. “Much of what is in the public domain about her is inaccurate.”

Some of that uncertainty may be resolved in public hearings the Senate will hold before voting on her nomination, but some it undoubtedly will remain classified: Senators will vote on her nomination and claim that they have good reasons for the position they take, but the public won’t be able to judge.

The Nunes Memo: It’s ridiculous and it damages the country, but it might work

It’s hard to parody the right-wing media’s hype of the memo written by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes, which was released Friday. Sean Hannity says it constitutes

irrefutable proof of a coordinated conspiracy to abuse power by weaponizing and politicizing the powerful tools of intelligence by top-ranking Obama officials against the Trump campaign, against the Constitution, and against your Fourth Amendment rights. … It proves that the entire basis for the Russia investigation was based on lies that were bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and her campaign. The Mueller investigation does need to be shut down and the people responsible, who we will name tonight, many need to go to jail.

If that’s what Trump and his defenders need this memo to be, they should never have released it, because as soon as people read it (at 1300 words, it’s about half the length of this article) they’ll see that it doesn’t do any of that. The idea of a shocking memo the Deep State won’t let you see is far more effective than the weak document they actually have.

Why the memo’s argument is weak. In brief, here are the problems with it:

  • The memo insinuates more than it actually says.
  • It is based on classified documents that can’t be checked by the press or the public.
  • A parallel memo written by Democrats who have seen the documents has not been released, and may never be.
  • The facts in the document have been cherry-picked from a larger collection of facts that may not support the memo’s claims.
  • Even if everything claimed in the memo is true, it’s not clear what difference it makes to the Mueller investigation. Nothing in the memo indicates that the Mueller investigation is fundamentally flawed or that its conclusions will not be valid, and certainly nothing justifies Hannity’s claim that “many need to go to jail”.

The fundamental argument of the memo — every point of which is suspect — is that in October, 2016, a FISA warrant to wiretap Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser who had already left the Trump campaign — was obtained under false pretenses. Here are the main points:

  • The Steele dossier, which was partially paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, “formed an essential part” of the FBI’s application to a FISA court. You’d have to see the (still classified) application to know whether this is true. Democrats who have seen the application say it isn’t. People with experience in the FISA system say it’s unlikely: FISA-warrant applications are seldom based on a single source, and standard procedure would be for the FBI to try to verify Steele’s claims themselves rather than simply accept his report. (A piece of the memo that appears to be damning actually is not: “Deputy Director McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.” If that information was independently verified by the FBI rather than simply trusted, the source is irrelevant. For example, police may not trust an anonymous tip, but if the details check out it may lead to action.) Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez raises an interesting point: Precisely the falseness of Nunes’ claim might make it hard to refute in public. The application itself might have to stay classified because the other sources might be spies or wiretaps that the Russians don’t know about yet.
  • Neither the original judge, nor any of the three judges who approved 90-day renewals of the warrant, was told who paid Steele. However, they (or s/he; we don’t know whether the renewals went back to the same judge) were told that somebody paid Steele. Given what’s in the dossier, I doubt the judge was shocked to discover later that the somebody was one of Trump’s political opponents. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “the FISA application disclosed that Steele was paid by a law firm working for a major political party.” According to Glenn Simpson’s testimony to two congressional committees, Steele himself might not have known who commissioned his work. He could probably guess, but if so, so could the judge.)  Also, FISA judges can ask questions; they don’t have to accept what is handed to them. So if a judge thought the identity of Steele’s ultimate client mattered, s/he could have asked.
  • Steele was a “less than reliable source”. Until he retired to form a private research firm, he headed the Russia desk at MI-6, the British equivalent of the CIA. Again, Steele’s reliability is only relevant if the FBI, and then the FISA court, simply took Steele’s word at face value, with no other probable cause to be suspicious of Page. We have no reason to believe that they did.
  • Steele was biased against Trump. The memo quotes (in bold type) a Justice Department official who talked to Steele weeks before the election, saying that Steele “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” The Republican narrative claims that this bias caused him to fabricate evidence that Trump had been compromised by the Russians. However, as a UK citizen, it’s not clear why Steele would start his investigation with a passionate partisan bias against any American politician. The story makes much more sense if the cause-and-effect runs the other way: Steele (whose MI-6 career had centered on battling Russian intelligence) was desperate that Trump not become president because he had seen evidence that Trump was compromised by the Russians.
  • The existence of a parallel investigation of another Trump campaign person, George Papadopoulos, was used to justify the warrant, even though the FBI had no evidence that Page and Papadopoulos were working together. They don’t have to have been working together to make Papadopoulos relevant, because the connection could be on the Russian side. (Josh Marshall: “This strikes me as really obvious.”) The fact that Russian operatives were in touch with one Trump campaign adviser makes it more credible that they’d be in touch with another.

Unsupported assumptions. Now let’s look at the gap between these claims and Hannity’s. The memo doesn’t even claim to prove anything,  it just “raises concerns”. (That’s a wiggle-phrase that will allow Nunes to back away later when this all amounts to nothing.) And to get from these “concerns” to an invalidation of the whole investigation, you have to make a further set of assumptions that the memo doesn’t support at all:

  • The Carter Page FISA warrant is at the root of the whole Mueller investigation. The Nunes memo itself says this isn’t true: “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016”. In other words, the FBI had already been investigating possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign for five months when it applied for the Page FISA warrant.
  • The information in the Steele dossier is false. The Nunes memo does not contain any evidence that undermines Steele’s claims. Much of what’s in the dossier remains unverified, but much of it has turned out to be true, and very little has been proven false.
  • If there is bias at the FBI then the Mueller investigation’s findings will be false. Ultimately, the output of the investigation will be a collection of evidence, expressed in indictments and/or a report to Congress. Whether the investigators were happy or sad as they found facts that were good or bad for Trump won’t matter. Referring to the Trump-criticizing texts that the FBI’s  Peter Strzok and Lisa Page sent back and forth during the course of their office affair (cited by Nunes as demonstrating “a clear bias against Trump and in favor of Clinton”), former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter commented: “I guess I’d ask how the existence or content of emails between two people at the FBI could possibly change any of the facts. What [former national security adviser Michael Flynn] said matters; the circumstances of his resignation matter; [attorney general Jeff] Sessions’ actions, the facts surrounding Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment; all those facts matter. What two people at the FBI not directly involved in any of these events said to each other does not matter.”

On that final point, flash back to the Starr investigation into President Clinton. Kenneth Starr was clearly a political enemy of Clinton; there was not even an appearance of impartiality. And yet, in the end the facts were the facts: The evidence showed that Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, and it didn’t show any wrongdoing regarding the original subject, the Whitewater deal.

The price of the memo. The Nunes memo gave Trump’s supporters a few days’ worth of talking points, but it damaged the long-term relationship between the intelligence services and Congress. To understand how, you need to appreciate a little history.

After Watergate, Congress began searching for ways to reassert its own power and limit the executive branch, which was seen to have been running out of control even before Nixon. One result was a report issued by the Church Committee into decades of CIA covert actions, which included coups and assassinations. The public outrage that followed led to an increased oversight process involving the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which get far more information from the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies than Congress previously had access to.

To make that system work, Congress had to overcome the deep skepticism that the intelligence services have about politicians, especially the belief that it is dangerous to share secrets with them, because they will leak those secrets for political advantage. So there are elaborate processes for protecting the secret information the intelligence committees receive.

As always in democratic governance, rules only work if they are surrounded by a penumbra of unwritten norms embodying the spirit behind the rules. In other words, there are things that “just aren’t done”, even if the rules would technically allow them.

The writing and release of the Nunes memo violated these norms. The technical rules were followed: The House Intelligence Committee voted (on party lines) to release the memo.

Under an obscure committee rule to make the classified memo public, which has never been invoked in the panel’s 40-plus-year history, the President now has five days following the vote to decide whether to allow the public release to move forward or object to it.

Trump then OK’d the release, ignoring the pleas of his own appointees, like FBI Director Christopher Wray and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd.

So the rules were followed. But the larger truth is that secrets shared with the House Intelligence Committee were revealed to the public in order for one party to gain a political advantage over the other. The FBI was made to look bad, and can’t defend itself without breaking the law and releasing even more classified information.

Not just the FBI but all the intelligence services saw this happen, and are drawing the appropriate lesson: The House Intelligence Committee is no longer trustworthy. If there’s some secret that really shouldn’t get out, it needs to be hidden from them.

The country will pay a price for this, maybe not this week or next, but down the road.

Will it work? The point of the memo wasn’t to convince reasonable people, because it clearly won’t do that. The memo is not intended to be read, it’s intended to exist, so that claims (like Hannity’s) can be made about it. Trump immediately asserted that the memo “vindicated” him and his often repeated contention that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt”. “The FBI,” he tweeted, “became a tool of anti-Trump political actors.” Don Jr. called it “sweet revenge”.

But that’s such obvious BS that even Rep. Trey Gowdy, who led the eighth investigation into Benghazi and so should know a witch hunt when he sees one, isn’t buying it.

There is a Russia investigation without a dossier. So to the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.

Another Republican, Senator John McCain issued this statement:

The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s. The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded. Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.

The point of the memo is that Trump supporters can say, “The Nunes memo proved …” If you’re not the kind of American who is willing or able to read the memo and assess its claims, that assertion is as convincing as anybody else’s assertion.

In the parallel political universe Dave Neiwert calls “alt America”, Trump is trying to take the government back for the American people, and so is being persecuted by the Deep State. The FBI, the Department of Justice, and even the people Trump himself has appointed to run those institutions, can’t be trusted. The Nunes memo fits right into that world, and will become one of the building blocks of its case.

Rosenstein. The Trump appointee the memo seems to be pointed at is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters having to do with Russia and the Trump campaign. Rosenstein is overseeing the Mueller investigation, and has whole-heartedly supported the integrity of the investigation in testimony to Congress. If Trump wants to fire Mueller, the order has to pass through Rosenstein.

The Nunes memo doesn’t really accuse Rosenstein of anything, but his name comes up twice: He signed off on one of the FISA warrant applications against Carter Page, and he is mentioned as having worked closely with Bruce Ohr, who was Steele’s contact in the Justice Department. That, apparently, is enough to make him part of the Deep State cabal that needs to be purged. Right-wing media is full of demands that Rosenstein be fired.

Firing Rosenstein, of course, would put Trump one step closer to firing Mueller, or possibly just reining in his investigation or hamstringing it. Three authors at Politico described this plan as “a Saturday Night Massacre in slow motion“. Firing Mueller at this point would invite a response: Republicans in Congress have said it would “be the end of the Trump presidency“, and legions of demonstrators are poised to take to the streets within hours of an announcement of Mueller’s firing.

But what about Rod Rosenstein? What if Rosenstein is replaced by someone who gradually turns the screws until a legitimate investigation is impossible? Where is the tripwire on that path?

If the Trump base is convinced that Rosenstein (in spite of being chosen by Trump) is part of the anti-Trump Deep State cabal, and if Trump can be seen to be giving into their demands by firing Rosenstein, maybe Republicans in Congress make tut-tutting noises, but do nothing. Maybe demonstrators will be harder to galvanize behind a Trump appointee like Rosenstein.

It is a situation that anyone who has studied fascist takeovers in other countries will recognize. Again and again, opponents of the regime are faced with the question: Is this the hill we have to defend? Is the Point of No Return here, or somewhere else?

Lies, Damned Lies, and Trump-Administration Terrorism Statistics

If you define your categories just right, you can create the illusion that Trump’s Muslim ban has something to do with terrorism, and justify an irrational fear of immigrants.


Last February, President Trump told a lie to a joint session of Congress:

According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.

He used this claim to justify his executive order to keep people from seven (later reduced to six) Muslim countries out the United States.

Tuesday, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice published a report to back up Trump’s lie. The Lawfare blog explains how you have to manipulate the data to support Trump’s claim and his executive order:

  • Substitute “international terrorism” for “terrorism”, so that you can ignore all the instances of domestic terrorism, where most of the perpetrators are native-born. When Wade Michael Page killed six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, for example, that would probably have been classified as domestic terrorism (if Page hadn’t short-circuited the legal process by killing himself). Dylann Roof’s shooting of nine at a black church in Charleston wasn’t classified as terrorism at all; it was a hate crime. Nobody knows what to call the Las Vegas shooting, but if shooter had been from Yemen it would of course count as “international terrorism”. The report considered only federal convictions, but according to another Lawfare analysis: “Other crimes that could easily fall under the domestic-terrorism umbrella are charged at the state level, making them even more difficult to track.”
  • Include nearly 100 foreign-born terrorists who didn’t come here, but were extradited here so that we could prosecute them. Imagine that we hadn’t killed Osama Bin Laden, but instead had brought him to New York and convicted him of conspiring in the 9-11 attacks. The HS/DoJ report would then count him as a foreign-born convicted terrorist. In addition to such foreign conspirators whose role in terrorism didn’t involve entering the U.S., our terrorism laws also cover attacks against American citizens on foreign soil, where American border security isn’t relevant in any way at all. So if Ahmed Abu Khattala is convicted of participating in the Benghazi attack, he will count as a foreign-born convicted terrorist also.
  • Fudge the difference between foreign countries in general and the ones mentioned in the travel ban. Even if you accept HS/DoJ’s skewed set of categories, the resulting analysis doesn’t support Trump’s executive order. Lawfare says: “The six listed countries are not among those with the greatest representation on the list of terrorism-related convictions from 2001 to 2015. Only one — Somalia — is even in the top five, and it ranks fifth.” For example, Saudi Arabia (not on Trump’s list) accounted for 15 of the 19 9-11 hijackers. None of the other four came from listed countries.

So what would happen if you did an honest analysis of the foreign-born role in American terrorism? Lawfare’s Nora Ellingsen and Lisa Daniels  found some of the flaws in the data too difficult to overcome (like the domestic terrorists charged under hate-crime and other non-terrorism laws), but ignoring those problems (which they admitted would still make their numbers too high), they made an attempt back in April.

So what would the numbers look like if we excluded extradited subjects while including all of these domestic terrorists—the approach that seems to us the unbiased way to express the real rate at which foreign-born, as opposed to domestic-born, people are committing terrorist or terrorism-related crimes?

If we clean up the data to account for the issues described above, instead of accounting for between 63 and 71 percent of terrorism convictions, foreign-born persons would likely account for only 18 to 21 percent of terrorism convictions.

Quartz pointed to another problem: Both the HS/DoJ report and its clean-up by Lawfare count not just acts of terrorist violence, but also “terrorism-related” crimes that could be just about anything.

[T]he vague term “terrorism-related charges” inflates numbers by including not just people who broke laws “directly related to international terrorism,” but others who were convicted of totally unrelated offenses, such as fraud or illegal immigration in the course of a terrorism-related investigation. … One example of how this can happen is the case of three Middle-Eastern grocers who were convicted for stealing boxes of Kellogg’s cereal in 2000 — but remained on the list of terrorism-related cases because the Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned them after a source inaccurately tipped agents that the three men had tried to buy a rocket-propelled grenade.

Another problem in the data: Maybe the Feds find so many “terrorism-related offenses” among people born in Muslim-majority countries because that’s where they’re looking. For example, the HS/DoJ report tells about Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani convicted of “providing material support to al Qaeda”. He was never connected to any actual act of terrorism, but was convicted of helping somebody whose hazy plans “to attack gasoline stations” never got specific enough to carry out. (The plot to bring him back into the U.S. failed, but exactly what he would have done if he got here is unclear.) The somebody “discussed” giving Paracha and his father $200K in exchange for their help, but the money never actually changed hands, and maybe never existed in the first place.

I have to wonder: If the Feds went after domestic terrorist groups with equal vigor, if they put all known white supremacists under constant surveillance and interpreted every big-talker’s violent fantasy as a “plot” that turned all his listeners into “conspirators”, how many additional terrorism-related convictions could they add to their total? (Dear FBI: In bars, I have materially aided plots against the Koch brothers by buying the next round. None of us had any weapons or knew exactly where the Kochs live, but if stuff like doesn’t matter, we’re guilty.)

In short, the numbers in the report really have nothing to do with the terrorist tendencies of immigrants or refugees, and say nothing about whether we need to change the way we let foreigners enter the United States. They’re just artifacts of the way the terms are defined. They do not at all support the White House’s subsequent claim that “Our current immigration system jeopardizes American security.”

And finally, the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh puts the whole foreign-born terrorism problem in context:

[Between 1975 and 2015], the chance of an American being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was 1 in 3,609,709 a year. The chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year. The annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.

So if the Trump travel ban isn’t about terrorism, what is it about? Nativism.

What picks those countries out is that their residents are largely non-white Muslims, and (unlike Saudi Arabia, which is a much larger source of both terrorists and material support for terrorism) the Trump Organization has no business interests there. If you think of America as a white Christian nation, and worry that it’s losing that identity, then you don’t want people coming here from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen.

If you’re also against letting in brown-skinned Spanish-speakers from Mexico or Central America, you’re happy to lump them in with the “foreign-born” as well. That’s all that’s going on here.