Tag Archives: Trump administration

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.

The Brazen Cynicism of the Tax-Reform Vote


Without even the appearance of doing something good for the country, the Senate plunged ahead.


I admit it: Senate Republicans surprised me this week.

I know, it shouldn’t be shocking that Republicans would give a big windfall to corporations and the very rich. It’s what they do. Just last summer, they came within one vote of taking healthcare away from 20-some million Americans so that the wealthy could pay less tax.

Usually, though, they do a better job of giving themselves cover. The fringe of the party includes people like Susan Collins and John McCain, who try to retain at least the appearance of a conscience. It also includes clever apologists, whose arguments often obscure what’s really going on and make it possible to claim some noble purpose.

But by early Saturday morning, when the Senate passed its tax reform proposal on a nearly party-line vote, those justifications were all gone. This bill was about paying off the big donors and enriching the Trump family, and everybody knew it. Some senators continued mouthing words like growth and middle-class families, but they weren’t arguing any more, they were just lying. They weren’t fooling anybody, and they didn’t seem to care.

In the end, 51 Republicans voted for the bill, with only Bob Corker opposed. All 48 Democrats voted against it. (Remember that, the next time someone claims there’s no difference between the parties.) One by one, the last holdouts had tossed away their fig leaves and jumped into the mire.

  • John McCain, who gave such a moving speech about returning to regular order before he cast the deciding vote against ObamaCare repeal in July, was unperturbed by a very similar process this time, in which the 479-page bill was not available for inspection until a few hours before the vote.
  • Susan Collins, who in the summer seemed to worry deeply about people losing their health insurance, stopped worrying and accepted the Senate leadership’s promises about future legislation that I will be very surprised to see pass the House (unless it’s paired with a whole bunch of really bad things).
  • Jeff Flake, who (like just about all Republicans) seemed to believe during the Obama years that the deficit was a looming catastrophe, and who supposedly had achieved his independence by choosing not to run for re-election, decided that an extra trillion or two of debt really wasn’t worth getting excited about.

So this is where we are: A similar-but-not-identical bill passed the House in mid-November, so a conference committee will have to work out a compromise bill that both houses can pass. In other words, there is still room for something to go wrong, but some bill of this form is increasingly likely to become law by the end of the year.

The numbers. All along, independent analyses from the Tax Policy Center, the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, and even Congress’ own CBO had been telling a very consistent story: The bill would lead to major increases in the deficit with little-to-no long-term benefits for anybody but the wealthy.

This conclusion was supported by anecdotal evidence. The centerpiece of the bill — lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% — was supposed to generate massive new investments in production, creating so many jobs that workers would have bargaining power again, raising wages for everybody. But whenever actual corporate CEOs were consulted, they said they would pass the money on to shareholders through dividends or stock buy-backs rather than build new factories or pay workers more. Bloomberg reported:

That money is also unlikely to spur hiring because companies are already well-capitalized and can bring on as many employees as they need, said John Shin, a foreign-exchange strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Companies are sitting on large amounts of cash. They’re not really financially constrained,” Shin, who conducted a survey of more than 300 companies asking their plans for a tax overhaul, said in an interview. “They’re still working for their shareholders, primarily.”

Right up until Thursday, though, Republicans were hoping more favorable numbers would appear. Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation hadn’t weighed in yet, and they were known to use the dynamic-scoring model conservatives favor, the one that figures in the effects of tax-cut-induced growth. The Treasury Department supposedly had over 100 people churning out analyses; presumably Secretary Mnuchin had seen their preliminary results when he claimed that the proposal wouldn’t just be deficit neutral, it would “pay down debt” by generating more new revenue than the tax cuts gave up.

The JCT analysis came out Thursday, just hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote. Its most favorable dynamic scoring said that increased economic growth would restore about 1/3 of the revenue lost, so that the deficit would only increase by $1 trillion rather than the nominal $1.5 trillion. A third is better than nothing, but even if you allowed for growth, the deficit was going up.

Would this guy lie to you?

But what about Mnuchin and the Treasury? It turned out that they had no analysis, or at least none they were willing to make public.

Those inside Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy, which Mr. Mnuchin has credited with running the models, say they have been largely shut out of the process and are not working on the type of detailed analysis that he has mentioned. An economist at the Office of Tax Analysis, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his job, said Treasury had not released a “dynamic” analysis showing that the tax plan would be paid for with economic growth because one did not exist.

So Mnuchin’s many public statements about tax reform had been airy nonsense, grounded in nothing. Meanwhile, here’s what the JCT projected for American families:

(Here’s the same information as a series of charts.) In other words: More than 1/3 of U.S. households will never get anything out of this bill, not even in the first few years. That situation gets progressively worse until nearly all the individual cuts expire in 2027, at which point about 1 in 4 are paying higher taxes, while only 16% still see a tax cut of more than $100.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn dealt with this convergence of expert analysis by saying, “I think it’s pretty clear they’re wrong.” Just because.

Full speed ahead. The original plan had been for the Senate to vote on Thursday. But the surprising (to some) revelation that the JCT analysis agreed in principle with all the other analyses, that nothing to the contrary would being coming out of the Treasury, and so the claims they were making had literally no basis — it threw a wrench into the process.

Many options were possible at that point. The bill could have gone back to committee to be scaled down into a defensible form. Maybe 20% was a bridge too far, and corporations would have to be satisfied with a 25% tax rate. That would create some room to fulfill the original stated purpose of the bill: cutting middle-class taxes for real this time.

Maybe the deficit didn’t have to go up, either. Back in 2012, President Obama had proposed a 28% rate that he claimed would produce more revenue than the 35% rate, without any analytic sleight-of-hand. Both parties have acknowledged for years that our high-rates-with-many-loopholes corporate tax system is inefficient. With a little genuine give-and-take, leaders on both sides might assemble a bipartisan coalition of  60 votes or more, avoiding the reconciliation process entirely.

Or, Mitch McConnell could scrawl a few last-minute changes in the margins to assuage the doubts the last few Republican hold-outs, and the Senate could shamelessly go forward with a bill to borrow an extra trillion dollars or more so that the GOP could give a big Christmas present to the very rich. But if they were going to do it, they’d better do it fast, before the public was able to organize against this already very unpopular bill.

By now, you know which choice they made.

The people they betrayed. One way the Senate got its bill to fit onto the procrustean bed of the $1.5 trillion-over-ten-years price tag authorized by the FY2018 budget resolution was to make of a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t gimmick Paul Krugman refers to as Schroedinger’s tax hike. The budget numbers work because only the corporate tax cuts are permanent; the individual cuts mostly phase out, resulting in this graph from the JCT.

(These numbers refer to an earlier version of the bill, but I believe a similar graph could be drawn for the current version.)

Republicans are arguing that those tax breaks [for individuals] won’t actually be temporary, that future Congresses will extend them. But they also need to assume that those tax breaks really will expire in order to meet their budget numbers. So the temporary tax breaks need, for political purposes, to be both alive and dead.

So either individual taxes will turn sharply upwards in 2025, or the tax-reform bill costs a whole lot more than $1.5 trillion. It’s one or the other. Ezra Klein points out the “pure fraud” in the deficit arguments Republicans have been making for years.

The GOP spent the Obama years in a frenzy over debt and deficits. Now they are passing a tax bill that will add trillions to the national debt, complete with budget gimmicks that, if they play out the way Republicans are publicly hoping they will play out, will lead to an even higher price tag.

When a Democrat is in the White House, the national debt is an existential crisis that threatens to bring down the Republic. But that threat magically vanishes when a Republican takes office.

So if you believed what Republicans told you about the deficit then, they’ve betrayed you now. But they’ve also betrayed you if you believed the populist side of Trump’s 2016 message. Because here’s where we are, prior to this bill becoming law: The national debt is around $20 trillion, and is already projected to increase to $30 trillion over the next ten years. Rather than do anything about that, Congress is in the act of tossing another trillion or two on top it. (BTW: In the speech where he announced his candidacy, Trump said: “$24 trillion— we’re very close— that’s the point of no return. $24 trillion. We will be there soon. That’s when we become Greece. That’s when we become a country that’s unsalvageable. And we’re gonna be there very soon.”)

So what about that big infrastructure project Trump talked about? (“So we have to rebuild our infrastructure, our bridges, our roadways, our airports. You come into La Guardia Airport, it’s like we’re in a third world country.”) Where’s the money for that going to come from? How’s he going to keep his promise not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, once the trillion-a-year deficits start happening? (“Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.”)

He won’t keep that promise. He’s already breaking it.

If this passes, there will be no money left for populism, and no money left to save the programs the middle class depends on. They’ll have given it all to the rich.

They’re doing it as you read this, and they’re being totally brazen about it.

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

Taking Hostages

In one setting after another — DACA, Iran, ObamaCare — Trump has set a clock ticking towards disaster in hopes of getting concessions from Congress.


During the Obama years, I frequently found it necessary to explain the difference between negotiating and hostage-taking. If we’re negotiating, I push for what I want, you push for what you want, and we hope to meet somewhere in the middle. But if I demand that you give me what I want, under the threat that otherwise I’ll send us into a scenario that NO ONE wants, that’s hostage-taking. The defining mark of a hostage-taker is that the demand for cooperation unaccompanied by any positive offer: My proposed “compromise” isn’t that you’ll get some of what you want, but that I’ll remove a threat of my own making. “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”

The clearest examples of hostage-taking in recent American politics have been the debt-ceiling confrontations of 2011 and 2013, as well as the occasional posturing over the debt ceiling we still see from time to time. If Congress ever actually does refuse to raise the ceiling on the national debt, the country will be thrown into both a constitutional and an economic crisis that will benefit no one (possibly not even our enemies, who might get caught in the global economic downturn likely to follow the market’s loss of faith in U.S. bonds). In 2011 and 2013, Republicans wanted President Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and the end of ObamaCare. What they offered in exchange was nothing, beyond dropping their threat to set off a global crisis.

Recently, the Trump administration has brought us something I don’t think the U.S. has ever seen before: presidential hostage taking. American presidents usually assume that they’ll be blamed for whatever goes wrong, so they have nothing to gain from taking hostages; any catastrophe that spins out of the confrontation will ultimately be charged against them. But Trump has an unfortunate combination of character flaws that we’ve never seen in a president before:

  • He seems not to feel empathy for the people his policies might hurt.
  • He is convinced that no bad outcome can ever be his fault. If he sets up a confrontation that results in disaster, that just demonstrates that his enemies should have given in to him.

The failure of brute force. In the first half-year or so of his administration, Trump believed he didn’t need Democratic cooperation. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he thought he could ignore Democratic resistance and win by brute force. In his first confrontation, that strategy worked: Nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave Trump’s base what it wanted without offering Democrats any hint of compromise. A Democratic filibuster was defeated not by convincing any Democrats to support Gorsuch, but by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations. Take that, Democrats!

But from spring into summer, right up to the September 30 reconciliation deadline, repeated attempts to win a brute-force victory on healthcare failed. Offered nothing, Democrats stayed united. But Republicans didn’t, so the small Republican majorities in both houses weren’t enough to push a bill through.

Trump’s current policy push, a tax-reform package centered on a major cut in corporate taxes, seems headed for a similar outcome. A proposal that reduces government revenue mainly by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich contains no provisions that a Democrat can take to his or her voters and say, “We got what we could out of the deal.” So Democrats will stay united. Republicans — each of whom represents a somewhat different configuration of interests — probably won’t.

Each of those efforts assumed the once-a-year reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster in the Senate. Trump has urged the Senate to do away with the filibuster altogether, but there are enough traditionalists in the Republican Senate caucus to defeat that effort. For every other piece of legislation, Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate and only has 52 Republicans.

In short, Trump has already reached the limits of brute force in Congress. This is unlikely to change as the 2018 elections get closer, and if Republican majorities shrink (as seems likely, at least in the House), brute force is even less like to succeed in 2019 and beyond. So if Trump wants to get anything through Congress, he needs at least a small amount of Democratic cooperation. How to get it?

Start the time-bombs ticking. In the last couple of months we’ve seen a new tactic from Trump: Rather than propose even a framework of a policy and seek congressional approval, Trump unilaterally sets a clock ticking towards some outcome that hardly anybody wants. Congress is expected to do something to avert the looming disaster, though precisely what Trump wants it to do is usually unclear. This sets up the following possibilities.

  • If Congress does something popular, Trump can claim credit.
  • If Congress does something unpopular, Trump can save the country from it with a veto and/or a clock reset.
  • If Congress does nothing, he can denounce Congress for obstructing the “agenda” that he never actually proposed.

We’ve seen this set-up three times already in a fairly short time-period: DACA, ObamaCare, and Iran.

DACA. It’s not true that no one wants to deport the so-called Dreamers (the name derives from the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which Congress never passed; that’s what motivated Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — executive order), but they are the most popular of America’s undocumented immigrants. A poll in September found that 58% of Americans want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. Another 18% would let them be permanent residents without citizenship. Only 15% want them deported.

In the face of that public opinion, even Republicans say nice things about the Dreamers. Orrin Hatch, for example:

I’ve long advocated for tougher enforcement of our existing immigration laws. But we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here.

But on September 5, Trump started a clock running.

Under the plan, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration will stop considering new applications for legal status dated after Tuesday, but will allow any DACA recipients with a permit set to expire before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal if they apply by October 5.

So after March 5, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And they’ll be easy to find, because the DACA program required them to register with the government.

At first, Trump himself seemed to share the public’s sympathy for the Dreamers, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” His problem seemed to be mainly that DACA was established by executive order rather than by an act of Congress. Democrats briefly thought they had reached a deal with him to fix that. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement after a meeting with Trump:

We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.

At the time, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ version:

“DACA now, and the wall very soon,” Trump told reporters on the south lawn of the White House in mid-September. “But the wall will happen.”

But this week he disavowed any such deal, and issued his ransom note of 70 demands. Not only did it include funding for his border wall, but it also had one giant poison pill: It criminalizes millions of immigrants who (under current law) have only committed the civil infraction of overstaying their visas.

Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers [1] and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can’t be thrown in jail.

Many of them are eligible for a visa renewal or for refugee status, but haven’t been able to navigate our byzantine process. [2]

But Trump’s proposals (according to the Cato Institute)

would create a new misdemeanor offense for overstaying a visa. Immigration fraud is already a crime. This would criminalize the technical violation, regardless of the reason.

If, for example, your application gets lost in the mail, or vanishes into some bureaucrat’s files, you become a criminal. But there’s more:

It would also create new criminal penalties for filing “baseless” asylum applications and increase penalties for those who recross the border after a deportation.

So if you are in danger in your home country, be sure you thoroughly document your situation and bring the paperwork with you when you run for your life. Otherwise you may go to jail in the U.S. for filing a baseless asylum application.

In short, Trump’s price for giving the Dreamers legal status (he still hasn’t said what kind) isn’t just to build a wall, but to criminalize at least twice as many people as he legalizes. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asks. But he’ll start doing it on March 5 unless his demands are met.

ObamaCare. The Constitution says that a primary duty of the President is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. It doesn’t say “unless they were passed under your predecessor and you don’t like them”. But that’s the spin Trump has been putting on the Affordable Care Act since he took office.

The initial sabotage was low-level and seemed like the grousing of teen-agers who complain about going to school as they go to school. For example, HHS took some of the money appropriated to publicize the program and used it to create videos that criticized ObamaCare instead. Somewhat more seriously, the Trump administration has also made it harder to sign up by cutting the open enrollment period.

But this week he made two direct attempts at sabotage: He ordered HHS to expand the role of interstate association healthcare plans, which provides a way to siphon off healthier, younger people into cheaper plans, leaving older, sicker people behind in a more expensive risk pool that is in greater danger of collapsing. And he announced that he will cut off the cost-sharing-reduction payments that help people just above the poverty line cover their deductibles and make co-payments.

It’s important to realize that this is not the main ObamaCare subsidy, the one that helps people pay their premiums. (If people get the impression that all ObamaCare subsidies have been eliminated, that will sabotage sign-ups beyond what the actual situation implies.) Eliminating it will actually not help anybody.

If the payments are stopped, insurers would still be required to give low-income consumers plans with small deductibles and co-payments. But insurers would no longer be able to get financial help for the costs they are bearing.

Some insurance companies would likely decide that it was no longer worth selling health plans on the marketplaces. Others might conclude that they have to raise premiums across-the-board to cover the additional losses.

Insurance regulators predict that premiums nationwide will go up an average of 12% to 15% because of Trump’s decision. But the increase in some areas could be much larger.

Many of the people hurt worst will be Trump voters.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

It won’t even save the government money. Increasing premiums increases the primary ObamaCare subsidies, which will cost the government money.The point of all this, then, isn’t to improve anything for anybody. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump still hasn’t put forward any healthcare plan at all. The Republican plans Congress has rejected were all constructed in Congress. So far, there is no reason to believe that Trump has any ideas for improving healthcare.) It’s to fulfill his promise to “let ObamaCare implode” so that Democrats will have to give in to a repeal-and-replace plan that throws millions of people out of the health-insurance system.

In other words: Agree to hurt a bunch of people, or I’ll hurt even more people.

Iran. The people in the Trump administration who are supposed to understand such things tell us that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 deal that keeps them from pursuing nuclear weapons. But Friday, Trump “decertified” the agreement.

When you first hear that, it sounds like the deal is kaput. But actually decertification just starts another clock running. Presidential certification actually isn’t part of the international agreement, it’s just part of an American law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process.

The sanctions are part of the agreement, so if they go back into effect, we are in violation, even though Iran is not. So Congress has a special opportunity (again avoiding the Senate filibuster) to kill the deal.

Trump’s stated reasons for decertifying are that Iran continues to do bad things the deal doesn’t cover, like aiding Hezbollah and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. (Russia is also propping up the Assad regime, but Trump can’t criticize Russia.) Also, they are developing ballistic missiles (which the deal doesn’t cover). So they are violating “the spirit” of the agreement.

Trump wants Congress to do something (it’s not clear exactly what) that will re-open negotiations on the deal, not just with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany, who are also part of the agreement.  None of the other countries have expressed an interest in renegotiating, or in reimposing the sanctions that pushed Iran to make concessions. But

in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Several administration officials say we want to remain in the deal. Just blowing it up sets Iran back on the path to nuclear weapons and the United States on the path to war. No one benefits. But Trump says he’ll blow it up if his demands aren’t met.

So far, no one is giving in. There’s no indication that Democrats will pay ransom for DACA or ObamaCare, or that Iran and the other signers of the Iran nuclear deal will pay ransom to preserve the agreement. Like any terrorist, Trump will have to shoot some hostages before his enemies start taking his threats seriously. What remains to be seen is what Trump supporters, both in Congress and in the general public, will do once they understand that the hostages include people they care about.


[1] You’ll see a fairly wide range of estimates of the number of Dreamers, with this one on the high end. The number of people who have registered for DACA is usually estimated between 700K and 800K. I’m assuming that two million represents a guess at the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify in the vaguest sense: They came to this country as children and so could apply for DACA. An undocumented family might have any number of reasons not to call attention to itself by registering its DACA-eligible child.

[2] The goal of the sanctuary movement in liberal American churches isn’t to shelter forever people who can’t legally stay in this country, but to prevent the government from deporting people who would be eligible to stay if some neutral court could examine their cases. Such people are given temporary sanctuary so that the bureaucratic process has time to work.