Of Nightmares and Strategy (Part 2)

Clausewitz

Last week I described the nightmare that haunts many of us who oppose Trump:

The Democrats present their case for impeachment, well or badly (the nightmare is actually worse if it’s the former); Trump is acquitted because of the cowardice, venality, and utter lack of respect for the rule of law among the Republican majority in the Senate; he then falsely declares Mueller report-style “total and complete exoneration;” and subsequently coasts to electoral victory in November 2020, having once again cheated political death in one of the biggest scandals in American history. (He would actually hold both of the top two spots on that chart. Impressive.)

It’s a damned scary dream and all the scarier for being perfectly plausible. (Also, in the dream I’m naked in public, haven’t studied for the SATs, and all my teeth fall out.)

So how do we make sure it doesn’t happen?

As I teased last week, I think the answer is in the way impeachment is prosecuted. Not because I expect it to succeed and result in a conviction in the Senate (though hope springs eternal), but because the very process will have a decisive effect on the 2020 election, which remains the most likely method by which Trump will be removed from office (with a Secret Service agent pulling on each of his legs as he clings by his fingernails to the front door jamb of the White House). For at their core, impeachment and the election are one in the same, or at the very least, two mutually supporting campaigns with the same strategic objective.

Hence my decision to illustrate this week’s essay with a portrait of the famous 19th century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, who along with Sun Tzu—as every military professional knows—is probably the foremost strategic theorist in human history. (Duh.)

You probably have his masterpiece Vom Kriege on audiobook.

PROFILES IN COWARDICE

Both impeachment and the ballot box are primarily public relations campaigns. They differ only in the size and location of the audience.

The former is focused on a very small subset of that public, the 100 members of the US Senate, though broader public opinion undoubtedly bears on how those Senators think. Anticipating that things will break strictly along party lines, 45 Democrats and two independents are almost certain to vote to convict Trump, meaning 20 Republicans would have to break ranks to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to actually throw his fat ass out of office.

The conventional wisdom is that that will never happen, and it’s probably right.

How likely are defections? Former White House communications director (yes, eleven days count) Anthony Scaramucci predicts that if and when the polls hit 60% in favor of impeachment and removal the GOP will turn on Trump. I’ll leave it to you to decide how much faith you wanna put in the Mooch.

Maybe none of them cross the aisle. Maybe a few, er, mavericks defy the capo di tutti i capi and do so: Romney, Murkowski, Collins (cough cough), maybe Sasse, or Portman, or Gardner, and perhaps a couple others. But certainly not twenty.

But that’s from the perspective of November 11, 2019; how things will look a few weeks from now is anyone’s guess. It’s worth remembering that the whole Ukrainegate scandal only broke six weeks ago, and witness how fast it has moved, and public opinion with it. Every dawn brings appalling new revelations that are harder and harder for the White House and its myrmidons to defend (though they’re damn creative—and brazen—in trying). It’s hard to imagine what turns of events would finally cause Republicans to abandon their Dear Leader, considering all the horrors that thus far have not. But although conviction and removal remain a longshot, I would not bet the farm on where we’ll be by the time the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington.

Until this very week Republicans have been busy howling for transparency from their Democratic colleagues, even though plenty of Republicans have been present for all the proceedings (sorry, Matt Gaetz) and have had ample opportunity to grill the witnesses to their black hearts’ content. The Democrats have now called their bluff, formalizing the impeachment inquiry, releasing the first batch of transcripts, and preparing to begin public hearings.…..so the GOP should be happy, right?

Hardly. As I predicted last week—though it didn’t require the skills of a Nostradamus or even a Kreskin to do so—all that has done is confirm the worst possible news for the GOP. As David Graham writes in the Atlantic:

The Intelligence Committee has so far released four transcripts—interviews with Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former State Department Senior Adviser Michael McKinley, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, and Ambassador Kurt Volker…. (The transcripts have) both closely tracked the leaks that have already emerged and deepened the president’s jeopardy. Sondland’s testimony, including an addendum he submitted after being contradicted by later witnesses, confirms that he told Ukrainian officials that the U.S. would not provide military aid until Kiev published a public statement citing Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. That, along with other documents released yesterday, confirms that the president not only demanded a quid pro quo, but demanded a corrupt one.

In other words, as Graham put it, “The more we learn the worse it looks for Trump.” And things do not promise to get better when witnesses began appearing in public session next week, beginning with Ambassador Bill Taylor—playing Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, if Mr. Smith were a West Point grad and combat veteran of Vietnam with 30 years of noble service in the US diplomatic corps.

This then is a textbook case of “be careful what you wish for,” though of course the Republican demand for transparency was never genuine, only a stalling tactic and effort at misdirection. But its utility is at an end. (To that same point, the transcripts also revealed that the House Republicans have mostly used their own time with the witnesses on batshit conspiracy theories and other tangential antics, showing that the counterarguments they have made in private are no more solid than the ones they have made in public.)

Gordon Sondland’s reversal of his Congressional testimony in particular—“Oh, THAT quid pro quo”—obliterated the GOP denial that there was any extortion going on with Ukraine, even though (my record player is broken, Joe Biden!) the presence of a quid pro quo is irrelevant to the illegality and impeachability of what Trump did. Nevertheless, it’s another disingenuous GOP talking point blown to smithereens. That quid pro quo has also been confirmed by others, including Taylor, Vindman, Morrison, Mulvaney, and even Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis). Graham again:

(The White House statement distancing the president from the quid pro quo) is steeped in Orwellian irony. Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue these investigations in order to further his chances at reelection in 2020. The Ukrainian government was having its arm twisted into giving a statement swearing to stop interference in US elections—even as the statement was itself coerced interference in US elections.

By the by, I am cheered that many people are turning against the prissy Latin term altogether, which doesn’t fully capture the criminality in question, and begun calling this what it is: bribery, or, if you prefer, blackmail, which is nothing but bribery’s equally illegal inverse.

LENINGRAD LINDSEY

As the evidence continues to mount, Republicans will be put in an ever more precarious position, one that will test even their oft-demonstrated capacity for kowtowing to His Royal Highness, and nowhere is that dilemma is better exemplified in the man from South Carolina. (I’m using the term “man” loosely.)

Only a few weeks ago, when the scandal first broke, Lindsey Graham tried to dismiss its seriousness, but noted that if a quid pro quo were shown, that would be a different matter and he would support impeachment. Those exact conditions were confirmed last week by Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. And yet now from Lindsey, crickets.

The closest he came, echoing a Kellyanne Conway talking point, was the disingenuous claim that withholding US aid to Kiev didn’t matter because Ukraine eventually “got the money.” Which is like saying kidnapping isn’t a crime if you get your baby back after paying the ransom. As Salon reports, “(Senator Graham) did not mention that the aid was released after months of pressure from members of Trump’s own party and administration to release the aid, which was appropriated by Congress.” More to the point, at its core, it’s also a tacit admission that bribery was indeed in play, and that his self-stated criterion for impeachment has been met.

Thundering like an Old Testament prophet with a suspiciously Southern accent, Graham also was among those demanding the transcripts of House testimony. Now that the Democrats have released such transcripts, he has bluntly refused to read them. Most recently, he has argued that the Trump administration is simply too incompetent to have successfully blackmailed Ukraine.

Those goalposts are proving very mobile indeed.

As Lindsey demonstrates, the Republican defense of Trump grows ever more absurd. I would call it unsustainable, except that we have already seen that there appears to be no low to which the GOP will not sink in that regard. So I am not optimistic that 20 Republican Senators will suddenly grown spines, regardless of what further evidence emerges.

Former US Naval Academy professor Tom Nichols puts it well:

The House Republicans have clearly decided to throw themselves on the pyre of Donald Trump’s burning presidency. The last act of this tragedy—and impeachment, no matter how it turns out, is a national tragedy—will be when Senate Republicans meekly submit to the will of Donald Trump and acquit him, like terrified jurors under the glaring eye of a Mafia boss who knows their names.

Nichols is echoed by Tim Alberta , author of American Carnage, who recently wrote in a Politico cover story based on dozens of recent interviews with GOP lawmakers, congressional aides and White House staffers:

There is a sizable number of Republican senators and representatives who believe Trump’s actions are at least theoretically impeachable, who believe a thorough fact-finding mission is necessary, who believe his removal from office is not an altogether radical idea.

But it’s also evident that, barring a plain admission of guilt by the president himself—think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men—the Republican Party will not be forsaking Trump. He could lose a stray vote in the House, maybe even two, when articles of impeachment come to the floor. He could fare even worse in the Senate, knowing that more than a few of the 53 Republican jurors might be tempted etch their names in the history books at his expense. None of this will alter his standing atop the party; none of this will change the fact that he is president through January 2021 and perhaps beyond.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG “I” (REDUX)

So let’s set aside the unlikely possibility of conviction and operate under the probable assumption that Trump will be acquitted. Since we know that going in, the chief goal of impeachment then becomes to damage Trump enough politically to weaken him in the general election.

The two are connected, of course, in a symbiosis that flows both ways.

Just as public opinion about Trump’s unfitness for office weighs on the decision-making of the Senatorial jurors, the impeachment process itself—from the initial inquiry we are watching now, all the way through the trial in the Senate—will inevitably influence broader public opinion, which will make its voice known next November. The jury therefore is not really a hundred senators; it’s the 250 million Americans who are eligible to vote and who will watch the prosecution make its case, much of it live on national television.

In my nightmare scenario, Trump waves his acquittal in the Senate like a giant Confederate battle flag flying from the back of a Ford F-150 with a horn that plays “Dixie” and cruises to re-election like nothing ever happened. If anything, impeachment only strengthens his standing with the public. That is certainly the wishful thinking within the GOP, and what it tried desperately to scare Democrats with by way of forestalling impeachment over previous sins, before Ukrainegate made it inevitable.

Except I don’t think impeachment will strengthen Trump or his public standing. Very much the contrary.

Even absent an acquittal, Trump’s impeachment— if properly conducted—will in fact be a knife in the chunk of coal where his heart should be, leaving him fatally wounded going into the 2020 presidential campaign. I have said that over and over. It is not only a matter of principle for the House to impeach him in defense of the rule of law, and to avoid lowering the bar for abuse of power by future presidents (or dictators, or whatever we will have if Trump is not held to account), but a matter of practicality as well.

The events of the past six weeks have borne my argument out.

Since the impeachment inquiry was announced, support for Trump has suffered, with a majority of Americans now in favor not just of impeachment but of actual removal. That is an astonishing statistic. So it would seem that the dire Bre’r Rabbit-style warnings by the GOP that such an effort would backfire on Democrats—and the hand-wringing among many Democrats themselves on that front—were wildly wrong.

It’s true that the numbers are predictably polarized along party lines, and that his support within the Republican Party remains shockingly strong. But those hardcore Trump supporters are never going to be moved (more on that in a moment). The crucial metric is that the public at large is turning decisively against him, including that small sliver in the middle who can make all the difference in 2020. That trend looks to continue if impeachment is prosecuted in a careful, professional, and savvy manner, which is exactly Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff seem to be doing, despite the hyperventilating predictions of sky-falling and red-faced allusions to Stalinist Russia by the GOP (bad analogy, guys),

Last week’s elections further suggest that impeachment is not hurting the blue team one little bit—again, very much the contrary, with a stunning upset in the Kentucky governor’s race and Democrats taking control of both houses of the Virginia state legislature of the first time in a quarter century. EJ Dionne writing in the Washington Post:

Tuesday’s elections were terrible for Republicans. Their only major victory came in Mississippi, where they held onto the governorship in the face of a spirited Democratic challenge. But face it: The day Mississippi falls out of the Republican base is the moment when the party goes the way of the Whigs….

Trump’s failure to rally Republicans with his anti-impeachment message in Kentucky—a state the president carried by 30 points and that is home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), up for reelection next year—should give Republicans pause about a Trump-centric approach to their own political futures.

As Dionne suggests, there might even be signs that Trump’s senatorial firewall is not as secure as once thought. Alberta again:

Nobody on Capitol Hill believes the number of GOP mutineers could even remotely approach the 20 needed to convict Trump in a Senate trial. All the same, there is a recognition among the president’s allies that his reelection campaign, not to mention his place in history, could be crippled by even the smallest clique of Republicans banding together and issuing what would be an institution-defining rebuke.

Thus even acquittal in the Senate might hurt the GOP in the presidential race, if the case against Trump is made so well that votes to protect him are seen as brazen cowardice and power-grabbing by the Republican Party. Even if the White House manages to maintain total obedience and not lose a single GOP senator, perhaps through massive bribery (look for Mitt Romney to become Secretary of State), the sight of Senate Republicans voting en masse to make like the three monkeys and excuse massive, brazen, Constitution-shredding corruption is not a great look going into an election.

WHOA WHOA WHOA

Now wait a minute, I hear you saying. Isn’t this exactly the accusation that huffy Republicans are always slinging at the “resistance”—that we have been looking for a reason, any reason, to impeach their hero since the day he was elected?

In a way, yes. It’s just that we didn’t have to look very hard to find one.

I understand that framing impeachment and the election as part of the same effort to unseat Trump makes impeachment look partisan, rather than the proper application of Congressional oversight that it is. But I don’t accept that that overlap is necessarily damning, or renders the effort illegitimate.

Donald Trump is wantonly unfit to be a lunchroom monitor, much less have possession of the nuclear codes, so seeking his eviction from the White House is a reasonable and prudent goal for anyone conscious enough to recognize that. Whether that ejection comes through the ballot box or impeachment (or through the 25th Amendment, a very dark horse in this race) matters not. All are perfectly legal and reasonable mechanisms designed to end a failed or dangerous presidency, and his has earned both distinctions. As Salon’s Chauncey DeVega puts it: “In many ways, Donald Trump is the nightmare scenario that the Framers designed the Constitution to protect against.”

So try to wrap your collective heads around this Zen koan:

If Trump had not behaved in an impeachable manner, we would have opposed him on policy grounds, as we have done and continue to do. But it was quite obvious from even a cursory look at his entire miserable life that there was no way that he wasn’t going to do something egregiously worthy of getting himself chucked out of office. And he didn’t disappoint. So I don’t find the “poised to impeach” critique very convincing. It’s also rich coming from a party that was anxious to impeach Barack Obama from the moment he raised his right hand. Unfortunately for the GOP, he didn’t commit crimes as readily as he breathed, unlike his successor.

Partisanship ceases to be an issue—or, arguably, even exist at all in the ordinary sense of the word—when we are no longer talking about two reasonable political parties whose differences are still within the realm of normal political discourse. Segregation used to be a partisan issue, albeit one that crossed party lines. So was slavery. Trump is an abomination, as it the party that he leads, and in no way just another ordinary political entity operating under the usual rules of engagement.

In the words of the eloquent Mr. DeVega, “Like its leader, the present-day Republican Party represents an existential threat to American democracy.”

TRIBALISM UBER ALLES

In an interview last week, the recently resurfaced Never Trump pundit Steve Schmidt (welcome back Steve!), commented that the Democrats will indeed be haunted by what he calls “substantial evidence of political malice toward him that could be exploited during this process argument.” (A witchunt, some might say.) But he didn’t say it would doom them. Schmidt suggests that “Democrats are going to have to offset this with a truth-based, fact-based, reality-based approach.” I couldn’t agree more, although it goes without saying that an appeal to the facts has had exactly zero impact on many Republicans over the past four years.

But we are not concerned with those people, only those with functioning cerebral cortexes. The evidence against Trump is already mountainous and we’re just getting to see the real heart of it. If the argument is made properly, only the most brain dead MAGA zombies will be left defending him. Whether that is enough for him to win in November remains to be seen.

Which brings us to the role of sheer tribalism.

How drunk on Kool-Aid are Trump’s hardcore supporters? This drunk: according to a new Monmouth University poll, 62 percent of people who approve of Trump report that there is NOTHING he could do that would make them turn against him.

Let that sink in a moment. (And we’ll suspend Godwin’s Law temporarily while we absorb a new comprehension of how the train to Belsen came to be.)

Notwithstanding Russian mucking about, propaganda, ratfucking, and possibly even actual vote tampering, 62 million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016. That’s three million fewer than Hillary (I feel compelled to remind us all every time this comes up), but still an appallingly high number. Even now, after three years of this daily shitshow, a shockingly large segment of American voters still buy Trump brand snake oil, and turn a blind eye to Republican hypocrisy, lies, and criminality, finding ever new and groundbreaking ways to forgive and even applaud the most unconscionable behavior. (Betraying the Kurds, anyone? Opening the floodgates for corporate pollution of our air and water and land? Robbing the poor and giving to the rich? Kidnapping and caging children in concentration camps?)

We know that the theater of nationally televised hearings helped sway public opinion massively during Watergate. But that was in the era of the Big Three, plus PBS (and a random UHF channel in each market); we shall see what kind of impact they have now, in the age of the Internet, social media, and a bazillion cable channels. It has become a cliché to say that Nixon might have survived had he had a Fox News on his side, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The next few months will put that theory to the test.

I’ll go to DeVega again:

A healthy democracy requires a shared sense of empirical reality and a societal ability to discern truth from lies. Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party and the right-wing news media reject those basic principles. 

That sheer fact makes the blindly obedient Trumpist GOP both an especially challenging foe, and one whose defeat is all the more crucial and urgent for that very reason. So it is with fanatics.

Absent any credible defense, Trump and his supporters are reduced to denying demonstrable reality, engaging in shameless character assassination of witnesses against him, trafficking in lies, and generally screaming themselves red in the face that the impeachment is all a satanic plot by godless, chablis-sipping liberals who hate America.

But writing in the New Yorker, Susan Glasser seems to give serious consideration to the notion that these tactics will work, despite their blatant dishonesty and cynicism:

For Trump and his defenders, it is a coup, a show trial, a witch hunt. When that is the starting point, there is no place for the facts, no process that can satisfy, no way to split the difference.

(F)or his most fervent supporters (and that apparently includes virtually all of the Republican elected officials in both the House and the Senate)….(t)here is no evidence, no testimony, no revelatory text message, that can sway them. There is a justification for anything that has come out, and for anything that might still be revealed. Trump has framed the impeachment case, as with all the other challenges to his controversial actions over the past few years, as a purely partisan matter of loyalty and legitimacy.

 HE HAS MET THE ENEMY, AND IT ARE HIM

Of course, another wild card in the process is Trump himself and his toddler-like tendency to freak out and make things worse on himself. That variable has the power to change things dramatically, both in terms of the election, and of general outcry for impeachment that might sway otherwise sniveling Republican senators to support it.

Remember when people were saying, “Trump wants to be impeached—he’d love it!” Turn out, not so much. Again belying Republican Bre’r Rabbitism, Trump knows that impeachment will hurt him severely, even if he survives in the Senate. It’s the blackest mark possible on a presidency, and it will change minds heading into November, as the numbers are already showing.

The irony is that Trump is making it worse on himself with his erratic behavior, which only figures to get worse as the noose tightens. As Tim Alberta wrote further in Politico: “Trump cannot stand to be embarrassed—and there is no greater embarrassment to a president than being impeached, much less with the abetting of his own tribe.” An impeachment inquiry that might otherwise result in acquittal could turn into a conviction if Trump goes further into cornered rat mode and does something truly self-destructive.

Think he won’t? Here’s Peter Nicholas in The Atlantic:

Trump’s behavior in office was never all that even-keeled. But under the pressure of an impeachment inquiry, he appears more aggrieved, as I wrote last month. “He was never completely hinged,” another former White House official told me. “The trip from where he was to unhinged, as he is now—that was not a long trip.” 

For example, we learned last week that part of what Trump wanted from the Zelensky government was an announcement that it was looking into—no joke—Hillary Clinton. Somebody should tell Donald that the 2016 election is over and he won.

Wouldn’t it be sweet if Trump’s Ahab-like obsession with Hillary is part of what ultimately brings him down?

ON STRATEGERY (WITH APOLOGIES TO HARRY SUMMERS AND WILL FERRELL)

So, in my humble opinion, here are a few of the things we need to do in order to mount the most ironclad, convincing impeachment prosecution possible, and simultaneously the best presidential campaign we possibly can, and make them work in tandem.

In Congress, we have to make the case against Trump so powerfully that any Republican who still votes to acquit will do so under the crushing pressure of public embarrassment at their toadying partisanship, willful blindness to the evidence, and blatant violation of their oath office to defend the Constitution.

We have to make that case cogently and with a minimum of partisan rancor. (I know: physician, heal thyself.)

We have to present a positive alternative to Trump in the presidential campaign, led by a strong candidate with a serious plan to address the real issues that matter to our country and our countrymen. (Though to me, even a tree stump would be preferable to Donald.)

We need to worry less about antagonizing the other side (news flash: they’re already at max antagonism) and more about energizing our side. Will impeachment backfire with some members of the public, and actually draw them closer to Trump? Yes, but only with those who were a lost cause from the start.

As for trying to woo that tiny sliver of what Cambridge Analytics called “the persuadables,” we have to distinguish between those voters at whom we have a realistic shot, and those who are so low-information that it’s not worth the opportunity cost. (NB: How anyone can be “undecided” about Trump at this point is beyond me. So I admit that I’m likely part of the problem when it comes to reaching across the aisle.) To that end, we need to make an appeal to reason aimed at blue collar white women, who are among Trump’s staunchest defenders, with whom Democrats made inroads in the 2018 midterms, but appear to be slipping again. We need to mobilize the African-American vote, and the Latinx vote, and drive young people to the polls, beating back the apathy that Republicans do so much to seed and naturally benefit from.

Speaking of Cambridge Analytica, we need to fight the fake news with the truth, and keep the traditional media from repeating its mistakes of false equivalence in which it trafficked so grievously in 2016. Russian disinformation (and Chinese, and Iranian, and Saudi, to name just a few) is dangerous enough, to say nothing of the homegrown American variety. That tsunami of disinformation will be only one aspect of even more foreign attempts at meddling than last time, which the Republicans are happy to allow and abet, to include outright vote tampering. The plutocratic GOP also has a war chest that dwarfs that of the Democrats, and—I’m told—a far superior trove of data and a willingness to exploit it as black propaganda. (See The Great Hack.) It is also openly determined to suppress the vote through the lie of “voter fraud” functioning as a cover for Jim Crow-like disenfranchisement.

So our task is formidable.

We may fail and end up with four more years of this monster. If so, I shudder to think what the shredded corpse of American democracy will look like by the summer of 2023.

For the flip side of Trump’s impulsiveness and self-destructiveness is his astonishing capacity for Rasputin-like survival, even when besieged by calamities that would doom a less lucky motherfucker, or one with any kind of moral boundaries when it comes to a scorched earth effort at self-preservation. Writing in Salon, Heather Digby Parton addresses this phenomenon, echoing Glasser’s worry. I will quote her at length, because she says it so well, and so terrifyingly:

(F)or all of Trump’s many failings he does have one talent…..he is highly skilled at getting out of trouble. In this case, we can see how he thinks he’s going to do that, because he has already done it once during his presidency.

People underestimate how well the “No collusion, no obstruction” and “Witch hunt!” strategy worked with the Mueller investigation. When Robert Mueller took that job he was considered the single most honorable,  straight-arrow lawman in the nation, and was widely praised by prominent members of both parties. But through sheer repetition, echoed by his media minions, Trump managed to convince millions of people that Mueller, a lifelong Republican, and his team of prosecutors were a bunch of vengeful Democratic hacks out to take him down for partisan reasons. With the help of Attorney General William Barr, that narrative was reinforced upon the release of Mueller’s report, and it solidified the “witch hunt” meme that Trump and his supporters continue to push to this day.

Trump and his henchmen are running the same game with the impeachment inquiry into Ukraine ……The point is to rally their white working-class voters by stoking their rage and resentment, and trying to convince what remains of their white college-educated vote to stay the course. Imagine the feral, frothing-at-the-mouth Lindsey Graham of the Kavanaugh hearings leading the charge, with a smirking Mitch McConnell by his side. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Tom Cotton will give soaring speeches railing against the Democrats’ illegal crusade to depose the duly elected president, echoing the Trump’s robotic messages once again.

Will it work? Who knows?…..But it’s a mistake to assume that Trump and the Republicans are flailing around without any purpose, and attacking the process for lack of any other options. They’re doing this because it’s worked before, and they figure they might just get away with it again.

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM

The type and scope of Trump’s wrongdoing in Ukrainegate is so blatant, so easily understood, and so egregious—and the evidence so massive, multifaceted, and wide-ranging—that it truly seems like the end of the road. (Much more so than Russiagate and the Mueller probe. And yes, I know they are ultimately related.) That is because in the more or less functioning democracy to which we are all accustomed, it would be a presidency-ending scandal, full stop, period dot, end of sentence.

But we no longer live in that sort of democracy.

It is very possible to imagine that, as crippling and final as this all seems right now, Trump will survive it and even prevail next November. But we cannot give in to fatalism or pessimism. There ought to be enough of us who still have our wits about us and a grasp on civics to get out and overwhelm Trump’s loyalists, first in public opinion and then at the polls. If we can’t, our democracy will be undeniably broken….and if we can but simply won’t, we’ll deserve what we get and have no one to blame but ourselves.

So by way of closing, let’s return to the nightmare that kicked all this off: impeachment, acquittal, false claims of exoneration, followed by re-election. 

You know that thing where you say you worst fears out loud, operating under the superstitious belief that that means they won’t come true? (It’s the flip side of not saying your wildest dreams out loud for the same reason.) Well, I’m not a very superstitious person, but maybe by articulating my nightmare I’ve done that.

Or, more rationally, maybe by speaking aloud the dangers we face we can collectively raise awareness of them, formulate a counter-strategy, and take control of our own destiny and avert that fate. 

It’s only the republic at stake. Now it’s up to us.

 

Of Nightmares and Strategy

Sinking Statue of Liberty

Here’s my nightmare, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has it.

Congressional Democrats assemble an ironclad case against Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors related to his actions regarding Ukraine, the subsequent coverup, and his obstruction of the investigation into it.

The House votes to impeach, a trial is quickly held in the Senate, and all 45 Senate Democrats and two independents vote to convict. Up to twelve Republicans join them, making for a healthy majority, but short of the two-thirds threshold needed to remove Trump from office. He is therefore acquitted, according to the procedures laid out in the Constitution.

A beaming Trump proclaims “total and complete exoneration,” much as he did after the release (and his distortion) of the special counsel report last March. He then carries on with his re-election campaign unimpeded by the jeopardy of removal by other means. With its long sought dream of impeachment fizzled out, a deflated Democratic opposition is left without much of a game plan and Trump barrels on to re-election the following November.

Then I wake up in a cold sweat with my pulse going at the tempo of a Deadmau5 track.

I know a lot of people have this same nightmare, and rightly so, as it is a very plausible scenario.

Of course, I’ve skipped over a big chunk in between the hypothetical acquittal and re-election, and the assumptions I’ve made about what will happen during that period—principally, Democratic postpartum depression, and an emboldened Trump rather than a fatally wounded one—are by no means certain. The actual way that interval plays out will be driven largely by the impeachment process itself leading into it.

Accordingly, I want to stress that I am not wringing my hands and saying, ”Oh, alas and alack, impeachment is going to hurt us in November!” I have never been among those who felt that way, and I am now more sure in my conviction than ever, having watched the early stages of this process unfold. As I’ve written before, I believe that the impeachment of Donald Trump on principle is an absolute duty that is essential for the long term health of the country, the Constitution, and the rule of law. That was so even before the revelations of Ukrainegate and is doubly so now. (See Reading Mr. Mueller, May 2, 2019.) But I’ve also written that I believe it is a tactically smart move purely in terms of the 2020 election. (See Who’s Afraid of the Big “I”?, May 15, 2019.)

Right now it feels like momentum is on our side, as the avalanche of evidence implicating Trump in impeachable offenses is…..well, avalanche-like. The White House is in a panic unlike any we’ve seen over nearly three years in which it has seemed to be in a constant state of panic. The broader GOP has no counter to that evidence except appallingly dishonest theatrics, misdirection, disinformation, and above all, a shameful attempt to discredit the accusers and witnesses, which is a tall order because there are so many of them and they are of such uniformly high moral and professional caliber. Public sentiment is currently running at about 49% in favor of impeachment and removal—I say again, not just in favor of impeaching him and having a trial in the Senate, but of actual removal. That’s an astonishingly high percentage for this early in the process, dwarfing the numbers Nixon and Clinton faced at this stage in their respective ordeals.

Even so, I’m leery. I dread the thought of going to bed on the night of November 3, 2020 with the screaming CNN graphic TRUMP RE-ELECTED burned into my retinas. I dread looking back on this time as one of misplaced confidence and unfulfilled optimism, followed by crushing disappointment. I dread what America will look like after five more years of this.

Maybe, like many of us, I have PTSD from the infuriating experience of watching the Mueller report despicably spun by Team Trump (mascot: a weasel stuffing rubles into its pockets while sexually assaulting a beauty pageant contestant). When this is all over, will we look back on the special counsel probe and Ukrainegate as twinned events, and slap our collective foreheads over how we let this same bullshit get pulled on us again? As George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once….” (blank stare; moment of panic)….”Can’t get fooled again.” And if we do let that fate befall us, it will be from the perspective of a once-great country that slid into gangster plutocracy, led by a kleptocrat whom we saw fit to put in office not once but twice.

So let us now consider the current state of play and how to avoid that nightmare coming true.

PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

When it comes to Ukraine, every pundit on God’s green earth whose paychecks aren’t signed by Rupert Murdoch has already noted that the GOP cannot plausibly defend Trump’s actions on their merits, so it is reduced to arguing about “process,” which, famously, is what one does when one’s case is weak. The quote of the day, which is getting a workout lately, belongs to Carl Sandburg: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

That the rules in this process that Republicans are pig-squealing about are largely the same ones they themselves devised during the Clinton impeachment and Benghazi hearings should not surprise anyone.

The White House’s decision to add Trey Gowdy to its impeachment team highlighted this irony. Gowdy himself addressed it, taking the surprisingly non-hypocritical position that secrecy is warranted in the Ukraine case just as it was with Benghazi…..but then went on to accuse Adam Schiff of the opposite crime, that of being too public with his inquiry. Wow.

But this week Nancy “The Dominatrix” Pelosi called the GOP’s bluff and gave them what they’d been histrionically demanding: an up-or-down vote on moving forward with an impeachment inquiry (even though it is not legally required), as she and the rest of the House leadership laid down the rules by which its public phase will now begin. But of course that didn’t satisfy House Republicans—not that anyone but Candide thought it would. McCarthy, Scalise, Zeldin, Gaetz and the rest of the odious Capitol Hill Gang are now throwing up their hands and crying, “Oh, it’s too late—you can’t put the genie back in the bottle! The whole process is already tainted!” Which I notice was not something they were saying before, when howling for Pelosi to do what she just did. Must have slipped their mind.

So they haven’t just moved the goalposts: they’ve torn down the stadium, built a new one across the river in Jersey, and sold the naming rights to Rosneft.

Despite their best efforts, Republicans are now entering the land of “be careful what you wish for,” as the American people will hear the sordid details of Trump’s behavior, which is not likely to help him. (Not one revelation that has yet come out has.) But of course, the Republican demand for transparency was never genuine, merely a distraction and stalling tactic…..and a measure of the weakness of their case.

Presumably they will continue to make this kind of Kleenex-thin argument as we barrel inexorably toward actual articles of impeachment, but it will have diminishing impact with every passing day. The GOP has no strategy but grandstanding and lies, so get used to it. Eventually, when all the pertinent information has been made public and the American people can see it and judge for themselves, the Republicans’ specious arguments about process will rendered meaningless (members of Kool-Aid Drinkers Anonymous notwithstanding).

LOAN US A QUID

Notice, also, how you don’t hear Republicans arguing much anymore that there was no quid pro quo? That’s because it’s now apparent to everyone except Sean Hannity that there was a fucking quid pro quo, one the size of the Hoover Dam. Mick Mulvaney bragged about it at a press conference, as a matter of fact, apparently test driving the Nathan Jessup “Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!” approach, having failed to notice that at the end of that movie Jessup gets frogmarched out of court in handcuffs.

Accordingly, new reporting tells us that a number of GOP senators are now moving toward a defense that admits the quid pro quo—since it can’t believably be denied at this point—but argues that there wasn’t “corrupt intent.”

A few problems with that one, boys.

As we all know from dealing with this exact issue during two years of the Mueller probe, just soliciting foreign interference in a US election is illegal, and the presence or absence of a quid pro quo is irrelevant. (But I’ll be a broken record in repeating it, because the GOP is very keen to make us to forget it as it seeks to muddy the waters.)

The illegality of seeking foreign interference is the one thing we all agree on, Democrat and Republican alike, or at least I thought we did. In that earlier scandal, not even Trump—initially—claimed it was OK, only that he hadn’t done it. (“No collusion!”) But in Ukrainegate, he has openly admitted soliciting such help, even if he didn’t realize it, with the rough Zelensky readout, had his chief of staff brag about it on national TV, and then did it again in real time in front of a group of reporters right on the White House lawn.

As Scott Matthews says, after two years of the special counsel investigation, Trump has no grounds on which to claim that he didn’t know this is illegal behavior. It was pretty disingenuous the first time, of course, but there’s really no shrugging of the shoulders and claiming “rookie mistake” this time around. (As they say, ignorance is no excuse, but if it was Donald Trump might permanently excused from everything, in perpetuity.) On the contrary, in fact: it’s clear that the experience of Russiagate did nothing but embolden him, having seen what he could get away with. Please note once again that the crucial July 25 call with Zelensky happened on the day after Robert Mueller’s Congressional testimony that put a period at the end of the special counsel era.

So admitting the quid pro quo is utterly beside the point…..and the “no corrupt intent” defense is especially laughable because, of course, Trump’s intent could not possibly be any more corrupt.

As George Conway tweeted, “The defense that, yeah, there was a quid pro quo but it was innocent and not corrupt here is like saying, yeah, sure @realDonaldTrump robbed the bank, but he thought all the money in it belonged to him and that he was just making a withdrawal.”

(The openly deceitful Republican attempt to conflate impeachment with a criminal trial is another matter, but just for the record, Trump’s actions re Ukraine are not just an abuse of power that constitutes an impeachable high crime, but also a garden variety “crime crime” in the form of a felony campaign finance violation.)

The “corrupt intent” defense is especially hard to make because Trump himself refuses to cooperate with his own party in this ploy (or even in the fight over process, which, ironically, he mostly disdains). In fact, very much on the contrary, he continues to insist that blackmailing Kiev to smear Joe Biden was not illegal, not impeachable, and in fact right and proper conduct that he was duty-bound to carry out! He wasn’t soliciting foreign interference in an election: he was pursuing an honorable anti-corruption agenda against those crooked Delawareans! He was carrying out foreign policy in the standard way, using the power of the USA to compel foreign powers to do what is best for American interests!

“No corrupt intent” is itself a variation on Mulvaney’s Scaliaesque “Get over it” claim, which wants you to believe either that White House pressure on Kiev wasn’t in the service of Trump’s personal interests, or that it was, but that’s business as usual and we do it all the time. (Take your pick; Mick doesn’t really care.) Ultimately, all the GOP’s defenses circle back on one other as equally disingenuous repackagings of previous excuses, all of them non-starters.

It goes without saying that this argument that doesn’t fly, trying as it does to blithely pass off personal corruption as matters of state. We do not do this sort of thing all the time, and no credible foreign policy official thinks we do, not even Republican ones. What we do is leverage foreign powers for THE NATIONAL INTEREST….not for the president’s personal gain, not to smear his rivals in an election, not to soothe his ego and discredit the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia mucked about in the 2016 election. As former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt recently put it, “That’s as un-American an action and as contrary to the constitutional requirements of the office as have ever played out.”

Republicans love to bring up Obama’s hot mike moment with Medvedev in 2012. But they shouldn’t, as it is a perfect demonstration of the crucial difference in question. Notice that Obama was talking about achieving legitimate US foreign policy aims, not “Hey, get me some dirt on Tagg Romney if you want the US to play ball.” The idea that this is business as usual is so wrong-headed and cynically dishonest it’s hard to fathom….and we all know that the GOP would never tolerate it from a Democrat. It’s instructive to remember that in 2012, Republicans set their collective hair plugs on fire over Obama’s action. Yet now they want to shrug and defend Trump’s infinitely more extreme, wide-ranging, and criminally self-serving actions in a similar realm?

Of course they do.

Good luck with that: if it works, I presume the GOP will next be putting the Brooklyn Bridge on eBay.

Obviously, MAGA Nation will have no problem swallowing any horseshit Trump or his defenders put out, but—speaking of bridges—the “no corrupt intent” argument is likely to be a bridge too far for most sentient Americans. Can McConnell & Co. get Trump to abandon this farce and do a mea culpa for his own strategic good? Probably not. Can they still successfully make this argument even if Trump undermines them by continuing to pursue his trademark, Roy Cohn-style, Russiagate-tested strategy of denying what everyone can plainly see with their own eyes? Maybe. If the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that what in the old days would have seemed rational and reasonable to nearly all is no longer operative.

STILL A FEW BUGS IN THE SYSTEM

As many savvy political observers have already predicted, as more and more evidence comes out, the goalposts will move again and Republicans will eventually be left with only one argument: “Sure, Trump did it, and there was a quid pro quo, and it was with corrupt intent, but it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”

This is an understandable tactic for a bunch of guys without any better options, wanton disregard for the truth, the public good, and the health of the republic notwithstanding. In fact, that line of argument has already begun. But that’s gonna be a hard sell, too.

Firstly, such a claim flies in the face of a fundamental understanding of the US Constitution and a functional democracy. Abusing the power of the presidency for personal gain, not to mention compromising American sovereignty for the benefit of foreign powers in the process, is the very thing which the Founders most feared, and for which they created impeachment as a remedy. It is also absolutely antithetical to the hardline “national security” ethos on which Republicans have historically—if dishonestly —prided themselves. Senate Republicans can’t with a straight face say that’s OK, or naughty but not impeachable. They are already trying, but it’s risible.

At the risk of trafficking in what has become a tedious trope, imagine if Obama…..yada yada yada.

Secondly, the surreptitious nature of the entire attempt to extort Ukraine—from the use of a non-governmental emissary like Giuliani, to the circumventing of normal State Department channels, to the compartmentalization of incriminating documents on a secure server—betrays the White House’s own recognition that what Trump was doing was outrageous. (Paging John Eisenberg.) Not really the behavior of people who thought it was no big deal.

In short, everyone but Donald Trump himself knew this was totally illegal even as they were doing it.

Thirdly, regardless of the underlying high crime, there is also the question of obstruction, which is wanton, and will surely be one of the articles of impeachment. Constitutional law scholar and Harvard professor Laurence Tribe writes: “I know of no instance when a president subject to a serious impeachment effort, whether Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, has essentially tried to lower the curtain entirely—treating the whole impeachment process as illegitimate, deriding it as a ‘lynching’ and calling it a ‘kangaroo court.”

When it comes to claiming, “What he did wasn’t so bad,” Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, to name just two prominent Republican senators, are especially burdened with crippling evidence that will make it hard to say that. (Not that a little thing like “shameless hypocrisy” would stop either of these ass-clowns or any other Republican for a hot minute.)

In January 1999, on the floor of the Senate during the Clinton impeachment trial, a high-and-mighty Leningrad Lindsey famously said:

You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bunds in your role. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

(And it’s on video, if you wanna see him say it.)

Is he now really gonna argue that Trump’s actions don’t even rise to that level, that of dishonoring the integrity of the office? (Hell, if that’s the standard I’m not sure if there’s anything Trump has done since raising his hand on January 21, 2017 that didn’t disgrace the office.)

Moscow Mitch’s history is even more burdensome. In a closed door Senate hearing on February 12, 1999, McConnell held Bill Clinton to a pretty high standard in a speech that ran to more than 4000 words:

Time after time, the President came to a fork in the road. Time after time, he had the opportunity to choose the noble and honorable path. Time after time, he chose the path of lies and lawlessness—for the simple reason that he did not want to endanger his hold on public office.

The President would seek to win at any cost. If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his Cabinet. The name of the game was winning. Winning at any cost.

According to Newsweek, “In a ‘cold’ and ‘calculated’ decision, McConnell said Clinton had given up the chance to ‘tell the truth,’ choosing to ‘cling to public office and deny, delay and obstruct’ instead…… (McConnell repeatedly admonished) Clinton for having ‘looked 270 million Americans in the eye’ and having ‘lied—deliberately and methodically.’”

From his statement again:

He took an oath to faithfully execute the laws of this nation, and he violated that oath. He pledged to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and he violated that pledge. He took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and he willfully and repeatedly violated that oath.

I think that the United States Senate has a clear choice. Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority? For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.

Choke on it, Mitch.

It’s true that in 1999 Democrats made a similar argument, that what Clinton did was wrong but not impeachable. (That was the origin of MoveOn.org. “Censure and move on.”) But that is the very point: they were overruled. The GOP prevailed and impeached him, even if they didn’t win a conviction. (If anything, these days, in the #MeToo era, the case for impeaching Clinton would be even stronger.) So it’s hard now for Republicans to argue that Trump’s far worse actions don’t rise to that standard of seriousness, although they are damn sure trying.

Which brings us back to Donald himself.

A PERFECT TEN

If the GOP endgame will be to admit Trump’s crimes but argue that they don’t merit impeachment, their argument is already flimsy as a cardboard life raft. Even so, they might succeed in selling this to a gullible enough segment of the American people, but for one pesky detail:

Trump himself has not only shown no remorse or even acknowledgement that his behavior was wrong, per above, but has given every indication that he will do it again. Hell, he has done it again, on live on television on the White House lawn even as this story was first breaking. It is now clear that Trump’s Houdini-like escape from accountability for his actions regarding Russia led to Ukrainegate in the first place, and excusing his actions regarding Ukraine would only invite further abuses in the future, and worse.

In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait—among the most eloquent and insightful critics of Trump out there—argues that it’s very likely that, for all we know, Trump and his minions are STILL engaging in this kind of behavior, perhaps on an even greater and more dangerous scale, and with higher stakes, even as we speak:

(Trump) has openly asked China to investigate the Biden family, while members of his administration keep refusing to deny that they are, right at this moment, incorporating such requests into their negotiations with Beijing. Trump has made it perfectly clear that any foreign country that announces investigations into his domestic enemies will be rewarded with diplomatic favor. Trump’s extraordinary distortion of American foreign policy for political gain is not a one-time offense that he’s learned from and won’t repeat. It is a credo, and an ongoing method.

No doubt Trump’s behavior is deeply frustrating for sober Republican strategists who are well aware that he is his own worst enemy when it comes to public relations. On that count he is truly an astonishing figure.

On the one hand, he’s a jawdroppingly great salesman (or should I say con man) on the order of PT Barnum, given the shit-rotten bills of goods he has gotten away with peddling throughout his career, from real estate to casinos to the USFL to mail order steaks to vodka to Chinese-made neckties to “university” educations to the image of himself as a self-made tycoon on a reality TV show when he was really a debt-ridden, serial-welshing, silver spoon baby who torpedoed every venture he ever touched. As the capper, of course, he conned millions of Americans into voting for him, made them believe that he isn’t a stooge of the Kremlin (despite 448 pages of evidence), and even now manages to convince them that they ought to continue to support him even as he publicly wipes his big white ass with the Stars and Stripes.

But on the other hand, he is a terrible salesman, one who consistently shoots himself in the brogan. Witness his unsolicited admission to Lester Holt that he fired Jim Comey over the Russia probe (to say nothing of having fired Comey in the first place), his boast to George Stephanopoulos that he’d collude with foreign powers again, or his voluntary (eager, even) release of the rough readout of the “perfect” Zelensky call, which he inexplicably continues to wave as it if it’s an alibi instead of a smoking gun.

So I am shocked to see that on this point Trump and I agree: this isn’t really about process, and that isn’t the battleground on which we should be fighting. The grounds that Trump wants to fight on—and I do too—are his angry contention, per above: “I did nothing wrong!”

I am not among those who think this is twelve dimensional chess or some sort of genius form of political jiujutsu where Trump “says the quiet part loud” and boldly deflects allegations of wrongdoing by actually boasting about it. (“How could it be wrong if he admits it so proudly?”) I think he genuinely didn’t think it was wrong and still doesn’t. Which means he’s either a psychopath, otherwise mentally impaired, or just absolutely stupid when it comes understanding to the letter of the law. But either way he shouldn’t be president.

For Senate Republicans to make the “no big deal” argument they will have to ignore the unavoidable fact that Ukraine was not a one-off slip-up but the very core operating philosophy of the megalomaniacal 73 year-old meatsack that is unaccountably our fearless leader.

Essentially, Trump’s argument is, “I’m a king who can do whatever I want. The interests of the state and my interests are one in the same. Patriotism means the defeat of my enemies; those who oppose me are traitors who should be shot. L’etat c’est moi.” (My rhetorical Trump speaks French.) Needless to say, that is an indefensible position incompatible with democracy by any definition. But no matter how they try to cloak it, it is the position that the Grand Old Party is going to be forced to make.

********

Next week, in part two of this essay, we’ll examine how impeachment can work to keep the nightmare of Trump’s re-election from happening. Hint: Impeachment and the election are really one…..

Shallow State

Shallow State

I’ve written elsewhere about the unhealthy overvalorzation of the military in the United States. It’s a phenomenon that began in earnest with the 1991 Gulf War as a kind of belated, guilt-ridden collective penance for the unforgivable treatment of the Vietnam-era GI, and has since become a permanent part of American culture. In fact, it’s only gotten worse over the past 28 years, as the chasm has widened ever further between the tiny sliver of brave Americans who fight our (now endless) wars and the vast majority of the citizenry who benefit from that sacrifice while being asked to make little to none of their own.

The rough contours of what is unhealthy about this dynamic—both for the military and for the public—are easy to understand, even if its implications are far-reaching and complex. Way back in October 2017—four hundred years ago—no less an eminence than John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, put on a disgraceful master class in it when the White House trotted him out to defend the misbegotten combat patrol in Niger that killed Army Sergeant La David Johnson. (Kelly went full Nathan Jessup, sneering at the softness of the assembled civilians, and then restricted questions to those reporters who had a first person connection to a Gold Star family, with the press meekly going along. Kelly’s huffing outrage was highly ironic, given his boss’s appalling and repeated attacks on one such family, that of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.)

But as the old maxim goes, only those within a family are allowed to criticize it. So as someone with the profession of arms in my marrow, I’m here to tell you that just being a veteran does not make one honorable. In my time in and around the US military I’ve seen the very finest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and also some of the worst. No rank, no badge, no diploma, no unit affiliation, no type of service is in and of itself an automatic guarantor of quality or integrity. Shitbirds and cowards come in all ranks and from all branches, just as heroes do. And the past couple weeks have provided the starkest possible example in the form of two points on that spectrum: one represented by the shameful Mike Pompeo, and the other by the courageous Ambassador William Taylor and Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEO

Being a vet may not confer automatic valor, but here’s one thing that a military record does tell me. It tells me that the person in question has been thoroughly instructed in the rules of engagement. Whether that instruction stuck, I can’t say. But I know that that individual has no grounds on which to claim, “I don’t know the rules, or what constitutes my duty, or what I am sworn to defend.”

That is why Mike Pompeo nauseates me almost more than any other member of Donald Trump’s circle, even though there are far more despicable characters to be found there. (Barr, Giuliani, Ross, Miller, Mulvaney, McConnell, Cruz, McCarthy, DeVos, Kushner, Don Jr, Eric, Ivanka…..I could go on.)

But Pompeo offends me more because I know the culture from which he hails, and he knows better.

Mike Pompeo was first in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point. He was just one year group behind me (my own commission was via ROTC), and he and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in what was then West Germany at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry. Both of us spent about six years on active duty and left as captains in 1991. (Pompeo later went to Harvard Law School, another mucho credentialed institution, association with which is infamously not a guarantor of integrity either. See Alan Dershowitz.)

As I wrote in these pages less than a month ago: “None of those credentials inherently make Pompeo good or bad, but they do make him someone I can understand and relate to, and whose mindset I can understand much better than that of, say, Bill Barr or Rudy Giuliani, and of whom I therefore feel comfortable demanding a higher standard.”

Let’s be clear. I don’t much like Pompeo’s smarmy, evangelical right wing politics. In fact, I don’t like them at all. But that is a difference of policy, about which (once upon a time) reasonable people could disagree. What I am much more offended by, and what I am taking issue with here, is his integrity—or lack thereof—in pursuing those policies.

A shady businessman and venal striver who styles himself a paragon of Christian virtue, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is neck deep in the Trump administration’s corrupt attempt to extort the Ukrainian government into being an arm of the president’s re-election campaign. (Calling it a “shadow foreign policy” is absurdly generous. It’s more like a Mafia shakedown. “Nice country you got here. Shame if something happened to it.”)

It was disgusting to watch Pompeo engage in a lawyerly parsing of his words with Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week,” pretending he knew nothing of the July 25th phone call with Zelensky, only to be forced later to admit that he had himself been on the call. We now know not only that Pompeo listened in, but was an active part of the Giuliani-led team of goons that attempted to strongarm the Ukrainian government into smearing Joe Biden for Donald Trump’s personal political gain: the very definition of presidential abuse of power that the Founders feared and for which they created the mechanism of impeachment.

Since then we have watched Pompeo alternately defending those actions and contending that they didn’t happen (or at least that he didn’t know about them), refusing to comply with lawful Congressional subpoenas, stonewalling, and generally being a good capo in Trump’s Cosa Nostra.

Also from my piece of October 2nd:

When Martha Raddatz bluntly asked Pompeo if he thought it was appropriate for a President of the United States to ask a foreign ally to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Pompeo dodged the question with a classic piece of Trumpian misdirection, criticizing the previous administration (you know, the one led by that black guy) for not providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine…..this even as he knew that the current administration (you know, the one in which he is Secretary of State) had deliberately withheld precisely such aid and for the sole purpose of Trump’s personal gain.

That would all be bad enough in and of itself, but it comes atop a mountain of hypocrisy. As Lara Jakes and David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times:

As a member of Congress, Mike Pompeo drove the Republican inquiry into the killing of a United States ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, and made clear there was no place for politics in American diplomacy. Nor, he said, would he tolerate “dithering” by an Obama administration State Department that he called “deeply obstructive of getting the American people the facts that they needed.” Now, as secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo is facing a political crisis that directly challenges his leadership of the department he once excoriated. He is accused by House Democrats of blocking their impeachment inquiry by resisting the release of information to Congress that may shed light on the Trump administration’s shadow foreign policy with Ukraine.

Famously, the motto of the Military Academy is “duty, honor, country.” Guess Mike was AWOL that day.

A Rubio supporter and harsh critic of Trump during the 2016 primaries, then-Congressman Pompeo was one of those spineless GOP apparatchiks who quickly swallowed his principles and rushed to lick his master’s boots when high level federal office was dangled bait-like before him (first as CIA Director, then as Secretary of State when Rex Tillerson tired of working for a “fucking moron”). Susan Glasser, writing in the New Yorker:

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who keeps an open Bible on his desk, now says it’s possible that God raised up Trump as a modern Queen Esther, the Biblical figure who convinced the King of Persia to spare the Jewish people. He defines his own job as serving the President, whatever the President asks of him…

No matter what Trump has said or done, Pompeo has stood by him. (A former senior White House official told me) that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” Pompeo’s transformation reflects the larger story of how the Republican Party went from disdaining Trump to embracing him with barely a murmur of dissent.

We’re now told that Pompeo is eyeing a quick exit from the Cabinet—presumably to get out of the blast radius as the hand grenade that is Team Trump cooks off—and mounting a Senate run in his adopted home state of Kansas (which I also briefly called home, in my youth as an Army brat). While I’m not sure it will save him from legal jeopardy, I don’t doubt it’s possible that he will run, or that he might even win. What’s wrong with Kansas indeed.

But if the good people of the Jayhawk State do see fit to send him to the upper chamber of Congress, I hope they realize what kind of immoral criminal they’re getting—and rewarding.

TINKER TAYLOR SOLDIER HERO

You know who we don’t hear any about much any more, and with good reason? The whistleblower. Because he is now irrelevant. Because named officials have bravely come forward and confirmed everything the whistleblower alleged, and indeed far worse. (The only people still on about him are Republicans clutching at straws, or like Devin Nunes, trying to get him killed.)

So apropos of those brave individuals, let us now turn away from the US Secretary of State and toward the absolute other pole of moral fortitude among West Point grads, former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor.

William Taylor is a generation older than Mike Pompeo. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1969, during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, and spent six years as a US Army infantry officer, including tours with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne (with whom he served in combat as a rifle company commander), and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He subsequently spent three decades in civilian government service, principally as a diplomat, with assignments ranging from Brussels to Afghanistan to Iraq. Like Pompeo, he also earned a graduate degree from Harvard. Having been US Ambassador to Ukraine once already, from 2006 to 2009, Taylor reluctantly came out of retirement—out of a sheer sense of duty, he has said—and returned to Kiev to serve as chargé d’affaires ad interim after the White House abruptly removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was an obstacle to its illegal efforts to pressure Ukraine on Trump’s behalf. Yovanovitch too has now voluntarily come forward to testify about what she saw. (What is it they say about payback?)

The revelation of Taylor’s blunt text to Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland that it would be “crazy” to withhold Congressionally-allocated military aid to Ukraine for the personal partisan benefit of Donald Trump (and the strategic benefit of Vladimir Putin) gave voice to what everybody with half a brain already was thinking, and thoroughly discredited the “no quid pro quo” snake oil being peddled by Trump’s traveling medicine and salvation show of a presidency. (Mick “Get Over It” Mulvaney had already started that process. And as we all know, a quid pro quo is not even necessary for Trump’s shameless shakedown of Kiev to be both wrong and impeachable.)

Taylor’s subsequent testimony before Congress was a bangalore torpedo right up Trump’s fat ass, blasting a giant crater in his entire bullshit defense of his actions regarding Ukraine. Far from being a case of “Trump being Trump” and impulsively going off script to make a lone nutball suggestion to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—which, admittedly, was plausible—Taylor not only confirmed the skullduggery we had learned from the Zelensky readout and the whistleblower complaint, but painted a portrait at once granular and expansive of a lengthy, multi-pronged, massively corrupt backchannel campaign to extort Kiev, Mob-style, into torching Joe Biden—or else.

Bill Taylor’s willingness to man up, speak the truth, and face down this criminal White House exemplifies exactly the kind of honor and integrity that his education at West Point and service in the US Army are supposed to be about. We have yet to see the full picture of what he had to say, but we will, and even what we already know from his 15-page opening statement ought to be—in a sane world—the end of this presidency. (Let me know if and when anyone finds that sane world, last seen on a milk carton around Fall 2016.)

And that was before Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman appeared on the scene.

BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS

Alexander Vindman’s personal story beggars fiction. In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes:

Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were 3 years old when they fled Ukraine with their father and grandmother, Jewish refugees with only their suitcases and $750, hoping for a better life in the United States. In the 40 years since, he has become a scholar, diplomat, decorated lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council….

(A 2003 combat deployment to Iraq) left him wounded by a roadside bomb, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart. Since 2008, he has been an Army foreign area officer—an expert in political-military operations—specializing in Eurasia. Colonel Vindman has a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian Studies. He has served in the United States’ embassies in Kiev, Ukraine, and in Moscow, and was the officer specializing in Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018.

(More Harvard? What the hell is in the water up there in Cambridge?)

As it that ain’t enough, decades ago a photographer found the Vindman twins as boys in Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian émigré section of Brooklyn, near Coney Island; later they appeared in Ken Burns’s documentary The Statue of Liberty. (Fitting, no?)

Jump ahead thirty years: LTC Vindman’s twin Yevgeny is now also a US Army lieutenant colonel and staffer on the National Security Council, a JAG officer and ETHICS expert, whom his brother brought to a meeting with the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, when reporting his concern over Trump’s behavior on the July 25th phone call with Zelensky. Meaning Colonel Yevgeny Vindman— an ethics expert, it bears repeating—can corroborate that meeting and what was discussed in it.

This movie will write itself.

Alexander Vindman is the first impeachment witness who actually listened in on the Zelensky call. So much for the dishonest Republican mantra that “it’s all hearsay.” Like Ambassador Taylor, LTC Vindman’s testimony offered still more damning first person evidence of how the White House was engaged in wanton corruption to benefit Donald Trump at the expense of US national security and the rule of law. (Read his opening statement here.) Among the revelations, evidently, are a cinematic blowup at the White House on July 10, in which John Bolton was cast as the unlikely hero (!) objecting to the “drug deal” the administration was blatantly proposing to a visiting Ukrainian delegation. Apparently Colonel Vindman also exposed Gordon Sondland as having likely perjured himself in his own Congressional testimony when he claimed he knew of no quid pro quo with Kiev. And oh by the way: as many predicted, Colonel Vindman—who is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian—revealed that there were crucial omissions in the White House’s rough readout (apparently very rough indeed) of the “perfect” Zelensky call. Quelle surprise! Rose Mary Woods found!

If Ambassador Taylor breached the stonewall of Trump’s Fortress Obstruction, Colonel Vindman just stormed inside and shot its occupants in the head.

PAGING JOE WELCH

With its flimsy “hearsay” defense obliterated, the GOP now has no other option than to attack the honesty and credibility of Colonel Vindman and others who may follow him.

And attack they did.

Various right wingers, from the batshit Rudy Giuliani to torture enthusiast John Yoo to “MTV Real World” vet Sean P. Duffy (wait—I thought he went by Diddy now) questioned Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, given that he is a refugee from Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union when his family fled. One does not have to sniff very hard to detect the ancient stink of anti-Semitism. Don Jr. called him a “leftist.” Kevin McCarthy suggested he’s hard of hearing. The President himself lumped him in with the other “Never Trump” forces he has elsewhere described as spies, traitors, and “human scum.”

It was rich to watch these miserable chickenhawks try to malign the integrity of a valiant career soldier and decorated combat veteran like Colonel Vindman …..kind of like 2004, when a draft-dodging, Texas Air National Guard meeting-skipping George W. Bush wanted us to believe that former US Navy officer and Swift Boat skipper John Kerry and his Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart was the unpatriotic one. (Oh—and you know who else was a Deep State traitor to the flag? Former Marine officer and decorated combat vet turned lifelong public servant Robert S. Mueller III.)

The pre-emptive attacks on Colonel Vindman were among the most vile moments in a presidency rife with vile moments. But they were—and this is the truly pathetic part—not at all surprising.

John Yoo, one of the principal architects and legal defenders of the Bush administration’s torture policy, long ago lost any credibility he might have had. But even so, for him to recklessly use the word “espionage” about LTC Vindman’s motives—without even the tiniest shred of evidence—is an unconscionable offense. Here again, as with Pompeo, one’s background demands a higher standard of ethics. It’s one thing for an ignorant cretin like Trump to throw allegations like that around: he’s a D-list game show host-cum-con man who swims in that kind of sewer as readily as he breathes. But Yoo is a credentialed veteran of the national security apparatus at the highest level (even if it was mostly in the service of evil) and now, unaccountably, a law professor at UC Berkeley of all places. For him to do so is truly shameful.

It means little that there was quick pushback, even among some Republicans. Yoo scrambled to do damage control, but his walkback didn’t jibe with the verbatim comments he made on Fox, nor with their context. Duffy made a similar attempt at “clarification” of his statements to CNN. But the mere fact that Trump’s defenders reflexively sought to smear the messenger as their very first go-to move is a measure of how much Trump has debased our political dialogue and obliterated what little honor remained in the conservative movement. I suppose that’s what happens when you have nothing substantive on which to make your defense.

If Kellyanne Conway will forgive me for presuming to know the contents of another human heart, the attempt at walkback was surely motivated as much or more by the recognition of a grievous tactical error on the PR front as by any kind of principle or genuine regret over maligning a patriot. I also wonder how long this tenuous allegiance to some semblance of decency will hold as impeachment proceeds and Trump grows ever more like a cornered rat. In any case, the eagerness of the Republican Party and its media handmaidens to viciously attack this eminently honorable man may mark the lowest point yet in this Marianas Trench of a presidency.

Hey America, are we at our Joe Welch “At long last have you no sense of decency” moment yet?

We bloody well oughta be.

COWARDS BEND THE KNEE

Speaking of blasting through walls and shooting people in the head, it was ironic that LTC Vindman testified just days after we learned of the daring raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, conducted (we’re told) by the doorkickers of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, supported by a host of anonymous others. God bless them all.

So we saw two stellar examples of military courage and professionalism in the space of a week, one in Idlib Province, Syria, the other on Capitol Hill.

The juvenile bloodthirstiness and unearned braggadocio of Trump’s subsequent football-spiking has been widely reported and ridiculed, and rightly so. His is the sadism of the schoolyard bully who is actually a quivering coward—an armchair warrior unwilling to actually put his own life on the line (darned bone spurs!), or even to interrupt his well-feathered little life to serve his country, but who readily wants to piggyback on the bravery and valor of far better men and women than himself.

But every time you hear Trump brag about how “he” got al-Baghdadi—which is gonna be a lot over the coming year—you can skip right past the eyerolling absurdity of that, and his hypocrisy over Obama and the Bin Laden raid, and all the other attendant lies and ironies contained therein, and just focus on this:

The bold US military operation of last week was only possible because of crucial human intelligence (i.e., a spy deep inside al-Baghdadi’s inner circle) provided by the Kurdish intelligence service: the very people Trump just abandoned and betrayed.

I wouldn’t count on a lot of cooperation from them going forward.

Of course it is infuriating the Trump gets any credit at all for the al-Baghdadi mission, given that this carefully cultivated operation had to be rushed into action due to his precipitous and unconscionable withdrawal from northern Syria and the craven handing over of that region to the control of Kremlin, Ankara, and Damascus. (Not to mention resuscitating ISIS off life support, the removal of al-Baghdadi notwithstanding.) Speaking privately, Pentagon sources bluntly reported that the raid succeeded “despite Trump, not because of him.”

(Mic drop.)

But the American hero worship of the armed forces has gotten turbocharged in the Age of Trump, with its Pyongyang-style military parades on the mall and routine excusal of war crimes and textbook neo-fascist worship of those in uniform that leapfrogs right past overvalorization and approaches deification. As we know, Trump has surrounded himself with generals from the start, even if he doesn’t like to listen to them (seeing as he knows more than they do and all). For their part, the generals’ collective record has been mixed at best, from John Kelly, to the curiously quiet Jim Mattis, to Mike Flynn (whose illegal work as an unregistered agent for Turkey is now newly interesting), to Flynn’s successor as Trump’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, another USMA-bred Armor officer of my generation, one whom I greatly respected but whose reputation took a characteristic hit from that fraught service in the White House.

But of course, Trump’s alleged love and respect for the military hasn’t prevented him from attacking Gold Star families like the aforementioned Khans, heroic former POWs like John McCain, the “overrated” General Mattis or “Hillary Clinton backer” Admiral Bill McRaven (the SEAL commander of Neptune Spear, the Bin Laden mission), or telling grieving families that their fallen loved ones knew what they were getting into, or taking money from military dependent schools to build his idiotic beaded curtain at the border, not to mention all his shitty and self-destructive foreign policy decisions. The attacks on Colonel Vindman are just the latest in this piteous series. Not sure we ought to have expected better from a guy who claimed that chasing pussy at Studio 54 with Jeff Epstein was his “personal Vietnam.”

It astonishes me that any military professional or anyone else interested in national security could support this fake president and the wanton damage he continues to do to the same, despite the yogi-like contortions of his defenders to find a way. (Victor Davis Hanson, white courtesy phone.)

RANGERS LEAD THE WAY

Active duty military officers are required by law to stay out of politics, but they are also required by law to disobey unlawful orders, a mandate that also demands that they not remain silent when they see illegal acts committed by others, even those above them in the chain of command.

Given the not-so-friendly fire that it brought down on his head—as he surely knew it would, given Trump’s history—it was an act of tremendous bravery for LTC Vindman to do what he did. Yes, it was his duty, and he had been subpoenaed by Congress, but he could easily have dodged it, remained mum and anonymous, protected by the same stonewall that Team Trump has erected around many other administration officials. But it is clear that Alexander Vindman is made of sterner stuff.

Let’s go back to the West Point honor code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” (Emphasis mine.) That is the code of the Military Academy specifically, but the ethos pervades the entire Army at large. The real transgression would have been for LTC Vindman to have sat on his hands and looked at his low-quarters after being witness to Trump’s egregious abuse of power.

In addition to men like Taylor and Vindman who have testified before Congress in the impeachment inquiry, a number of distinguished retired military officers have bravely stood up and said that the emperor is butt naked (also: stark raving mad and covered in boils). Prominent among them are ADM (Ret.) McRaven, GEN (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, GEN (Ret.) Michael Hayden, GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, GEN (Ret.) Wesley Clark, and GEN (Ret.) Colin Powell (who is also a former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, of course), all of them with four stars on their shoulders. I am so proud to see these principled public servants—and for me, personally speaking, current and former US Army officers in particular—standing up for the rule of law and helping hold a lawless chief executive to account.

Men like Bill Taylor and Alexander Vindman make me proud to have worn the uniform, and everything it is supposed to stand for…..which is most welcome given how much the likes of Mike Pompeo have dishonored it.

********

Photo: Shutterstock

 

 

The Sheriff Is Near: White People, “Blazing Saddles,” and Barack Obama

Sheriff and Bart

This week let’s take a break from the ongoing implosion of the man from Queens, even as sixteen ton weights, anvils, and rockslides continue to fall on our Wile E. Coyote of a pretend president. (And a new shipment from the Acme Dynamite Co. was just delivered by an honorable lifelong public servant and former US Ambassador named Bill Taylor.)

Well, kind of a break. I want to examine a movie from almost a half century ago that has something profound to say about how we got to this pretty pass.

YEAH, BUT I SHOOT WITH THIS HAND

In 1974, Mel Brooks directed two feature films, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which have gone down as iconic American classics. Most comedy directors would give their right arms to make even one such movie in a lifetime. It’s astonishing to think Mel made two, and in the same year. (In fact, he made them simultaneously, shooting the former in the daytime and working with Gene Wilder on the script for the latter at night.)

Of the pair, Young Frankenstein is my favorite (in case you care) but Blazing Saddles may be the more important.

I saw it again not long ago at Radio City with my wife and filmmaking partner Ferne Pearlstein, with Mel Brooks interviewed onstage by Kevin Salter. (Sign of the technological times: they showed it on Blu-ray, in a venue the size of a space shuttle hangar. Still looked pretty good.) “Interviewed” is a bit generous: the format was mainly an excuse for Mel to ham it up before an adoring audience, which suited us all just fine, though I hope Salter got a flat rate and wasn’t paid by the word.

If you haven’t seen it in a while (or ever), let me be the first to inform you that this movie wouldn’t get made today even if Steven Spielberg wanted to do it with Beyonce and Lady Gaga playing the Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder roles.

It isn’t just the voluminous use of the n-word (you thought I was gonna say “liberal,” didn’t you?) among other period transgressions. Yes, the film is firmly of its less enlightened time, to include homophobic jokes, retrograde sex roles, gags about African-American penis size and sexual prowess, and Mel Brooks in redface as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chieftain, all of which would be streng verboten today, pardon the expression. (It also includes Count Basie, Klansmen, and Nazis of course, without whom no Mel Brooks movie is complete.)

But it’s more than that. The whole picture is so freewheeling, anarchic, and playful, ending with a fourth wall-breaking scene of joyous comedic chaos worthy of the Marx Brothers or Jacques Tati—meta before there was even a word for it. When Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-type tomes are written bemoaning the decline of the auteur-driven American independent cinema of the 1970s, Mel rarely comes in for the kind of acclaim lavished on Altman, Rafelson, Coppola, Ashby, Scorsese, et al. But Blazing Saddles is as rulebreaking as anything those dudes ever made.

(Traditionally, among sniffling cineastes, Mel doesn’t even fare well when measured against his former Sid Caesar writing comrade Woody Allen, with whom he is often unfairly contrasted. Though Mel may have gotten the last laugh there.)

To call Blazing Saddles undisciplined would be churlish and miss the whole goddam point. Its gleeful mischief-making makes for a delightful bookend with its more restrained sibling Young Frankenstein. Though the two are usually thought of in tandem as the archetypical Mel Brooks movies, the latter was actually Gene Wilder’s baby, for which he recruited a reluctant Mel as a director-for-hire. But the alchemy was magical, in a Lennon & McCartney way. Never has Mel Brooks been kept on such a tight leash, reflecting Wilder’s rigorous vision for that picture. At the same time, Mel’s five-year-old-loose-in-a-tea-party energy shines through, lending the film a silliness that sits in beautiful contrast to its loving tribute to James Whale.

Sadly but tellingly, the two men never worked together again.

EXCUSE ME WHILE I WHIP THIS OUT

Blazing Saddles is among the most anarchic of Mel Brooks’s comedies. Indeed, in style it is not far off from his late period disasters, such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), two in a series of bombs that almost marked a cringeworthy coda to his oeuvre, before he went back to a brilliant idea from the beginning of his career, that of staging The Producers as an actual Broadway musical, which was its original pre-cinematic ideation.

On Broadway, the kind of broad farce in which Brooks specialized—and that had fallen out of favor with movie audiences—found a deliriously enthusiastic fan base, resulting in one of the greatest ironies in modern showbiz. A movie telling the story of a deliberately offensive musical about Hitler that was intended to flop went on to become a genuine (but to some still offensive) musical about Hitler that turned into the biggest hit in the history of American theater (at least until a certain Nuyorican genius read Ron Chernow).

Ferne and I interviewed Mel Brooks for our 2016 documentary The Last Laugh, about humor and the Holocaust. (More recently, last May, we interviewed his biographer Patrick McGilligan, author of Funny Man: Mel Brooks, onstage at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, under the auspices of Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Executive Director of the Levy Center.) As Harry Shearer notes in our documentary, the 1968 film version of The Producers was a scandal because it was considered to be in “bad taste”; 33 years later, the idea had become anodyne enough to be a ginormous hit in the most mainstream entertainment venue this side of CBS-TV.

But it was not merely timing that made Blazing Saddles a lasting triumph and those others critical and commercial flops. Arguably, Mel was at the peak of his powers in 1974. His joke-a-minute, parody-heavy style was still fresh—prefiguring Airplane!—and he working with rock star collaborators like his co-writers Richard Pryor (who was also meant to star before the studio balked) and Andrew Bergman, and actors like Cleavon Little, Slim Pickens, and of course Gene Wilder himself (who on short notice replaced an ailing Gig Young—no joke—as the alcoholic gunslinger the Waco Kid).

Above all, the socio-political content of the movie elevated it above a mere yukfest, which is also not something you often hear said of Mel Brooks’s films (but is also true of The Producers). But watching it again, I was struck by a blindingly obvious epiphany, one not available to anyone in 1974:

Blazing Saddles is a prescient foretelling of the presidency of Barack Obama.

MONGO ONLY PAWN

Let me elaborate. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Blazing Saddles tells the story of the Old West town of Rock Ridge, whose redneck residents are scandalized by the arrival of a new sheriff, who is black.

The sheriff—named Black Bart, of course (this is a Mel Brooks movie, remember)—has been unwittingly dispatched to Rock Ridge by the buffoonish governor, played by Brooks himself, at the suggestion of his evil Attorney General, the mustache-twirling, Richelieu-like Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman. The idea is to drive the townspeople off their land in disgust so the railroad can come through, with kickbacks aplenty for the bad guys. (So not only did Mel Brooks foresee Barack Obama, he also foresaw Donald Trump and Bill Barr.)

In their outrage, the furious townspeople try everything they can to get rid of the new sheriff, from little old ladies slinging the vilest of racial epithets, to a brute force attack by former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras as the horse-punching Mongo, to the honeytrap ministrations of a German chanteuse with a Biggus Dickus-style labiodental approximant. (“Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben, baby.”)

The aforementioned Teutonic temptress, Lili von Shtupp (look it up, goyim), is played by the brilliant Madeline Kahn—in her day, maybe the greatest American comedienne this side of Carol Burnett, and after Lucille Ball. (All redheads, fwiw.) It’s a joy to see her play this Dietrichesque sex bomb, sandwiched between roles as a pair of uptight and shrewish fiancées: first in her feature debut, Peter Bogdonavich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a movie nearly as madcap in its way as anything Brooks ever did, and then again two years later opposite Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (although to be sure, she transforms from prim and proper by the end of that one). (NB for film nerds: Also check out her very first film appearance, in a short, the Oscar-nominated Bergman parody, De Düva, from 1968.)

But I digress.

Ultimately, of course, Black Bart triumphs, effortlessly outwitting the villains, Bugs Bunny style (literally, at one point). Cleavon Little brings a velveteen elan to the part (prefiguring a later euphemism, Wilder’s Waco Kid calls him a “a “dazzling urbanite”). But one wonders what the prodigiously gifted Richard Pryor would have done with the role, were the studio chiefs not too chickenshit to take a chance on such a revolutionary artist (and Pryor able to rein in his alarming cocaine habit). A hint is to be found in his subsequent collaborations with Wilder, such as Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980) and the lesser known See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991).

Even as it is, Pryor’s voice is all over the film, Brooks and the other writers having wisely realized early on that a bunch of middle-aged Jewish tummelers could not plausibly script the Black Bart character. According to McGilligan’s book, it was also Pryor who encouraged the rampant use of the n-word, arguing that it wasn’t believable that the rednecked characters in the film wouldn’t have used it.

As an indictment of racism, Blazing Saddles ain’t exactly Do the Right Thing, but it’s powerful in its own way. If nothing else, it’s notable for having a black hero with a white sidekick in a “major motion picture”—as they used to say—and from a giant studio to boot (Warner Bros.)….. and this in 1974. It also tackles the issue of race head on, in a way that few so-called “serious” films of the period did—or have since.

But above all, looking back on it now from a distance of almost a half-century, it’s hard not to see in Blazing Saddles, defiantly silly as it is, a harbinger of Barack Obama and the sputtering racist anger that greeted him in in January 2009 when he arrived in Washington DC as the new sheriff in town. (Full disclosure: I briefly overlapped with Obama in high school in Honolulu, for just one year. Shockingly omitted from all of Barack’s books.)

Obama was attacked almost from the moment he came to national prominence—with a powerhouse keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention—and that hostility only increased as he secured his party’s nomination in 2008 and eventually won the general election and ascended to the presidency.

Obama’s victory famously caused even some Republicans, by their own admission, to swell with pride (prematurely, it turned out) at how awesome we were for having elected a black head of state, and only 134 years after ending slavery! (Ahem). But the epidemic of dislocated shoulders from patting ourselves on the back soon stopped as it became clear that lots of our countrymen were not so thrilled.

The Secret Service reported a 400% increase in death threats on the POTUS. He was subjected to scrutiny—and just plain attack—that no previous president in modern times ever had to endure, proving once again in almost absurd fashion that a black man in America has to work twice as hard as a white one to get the same respect and acknowledgment. He was attacked for being black, of course, and simultaneously—dishonestly—for not “really” being black, but actually biracial—as if he had a choice to identify as white in our one-drop society. (Because a bunch of white Republicans are genuinely concerned about gradations of African-American identity and are the true arbiters thereof). Recently, the renowned civil rights activist Donald Trump Jr. has assailed Kamala Harris on the same grounds.

Which brings us back to Blazing Saddles (which, according to McGilligan’s biography, President Obama told Mel Brooks he loved).

The angry reaction to Obama’s ascent among a not insignificant number of white Americans was a perfect real world realization of the shocked cry of the people of Rock Ridge when they first saw Black Bart, their new lawman, ride into town:

“The sheriff is a n—-r!”

IS BISMARCK A HERRING?

To have ever thought we had entered a “post-racial” society now looks like willful naiveté in the extreme.

Many white people in the US could never accept the idea of an African-American president. Some deluded themselves into thinking it simply could not be: he must have somehow vaulted into the Oval Office illegally! Slightly more rational others were able to fathom it, but still saw it as a sign of the apocalypse.

I saw that mentality vividly even among otherwise intelligent, educated conservative friends who nevertheless bore a disproportionate animus toward Obama. When pressed, these folks always insisted it was about “policy,” never race, even though they could rarely cite which policies they objected to…..and when they did, the policies were often center-right ones that had originated with Republicans themselves (such as Romneycare, er, I mean Obamacare).

Often the critiques were abstract and coded, revolving around intangibles like “leadership.” Which was like talking about a black quarterback’s athleticism versus a white quarterback’s intelligence. And as I say, this was among so-called “reasonable” Republicans. The dislike—outright hatred even—among more virulently hostile right wingers was far worse, of course.

I used to say that being called “racist” is the worst insult one can level in contemporary American life—that even racists don’t like to be called racist. That’s still true for many, as evidenced by the sputtering fury of many Trump supporters when confronted with the blatantly race-oriented subtext of some of their beliefs.

But by the same token, since 2015 we’ve seen that there are plenty of racists in America who are openly proud of it.

Not at all coincidentally, the Tea Party movement began in January 2009, right after a black guy raised his right hand and was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Despite the pretense that the group’s formation was driven by an anti-tax stance—hence the name—its true genesis was self-evident and a lot more crude. A certain segment of the American public (hint: the ones who think Colin Kaepernick out to be deported, at best) never accepted the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency. The right wing fever dream that he would be proved to have been born in Kenya was the ultimate manifestation of that frustration: equal parts neo-Confederatism, back-to-Africa bullshit, wild-eyed John Bircher conspiracy theory, and clutching at straws for some quasi-credible reason to justify their frantic racist wish that he really could not be the goddam president, could he?

Ironically, it is Trump whose presidency is arguably illegitimate, given the degree of foreign involvement in bringing it into being. Of course, just saying that invites sneers and allegations of hypocrisy from MAGA Nation. It goes without saying that it’s a false equivalence: calling Trump illegitimate might be dismissed as just tit for tat, or payback, or a reversal of the tables that liberals won’t acknowledge, were it not for the Mt. Everest of proof to that end, proof that simply didn’t exist when that charge was leveled at Obama. Chicken Little saying the sky is falling is not the same thing as Londoners saying the same thing during the Blitz.

The right’s hysteria about Obama now confers on it the useful camouflage of saying reasonable outrage over Trump is the same thing.

Yeah, well, segregationists were mad over Brown v. Board of Education too—but it doesn’t put them on the same moral plane as Rosa Parks.

HOWARD JOHNSON IS RIGHT

Almost three years into the reign of Donald J. Trump it is now painfully clear that we vastly underestimated the hostility, both in amount and degree, toward Barack Obama in these United States.

I say that in full knowledge of the lynchings in effigy, the portrayals of the Obamas as monkeys, the poison of birtherism, and all the rest. Yeah, we knew there was a huge segment of racists and scumbags who hated this man for no other reason than the amount of melanin in his system. But few people imagined it was so pervasive that—in conjunction with an equally virulent strain of misogyny, the machinations of the plutocratic GOP, and the aid of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin—it would eventually lead to the installation (I am loath to say election) of a manifestly unfit, proudly ignorant, criminal con artist and pathological narcissist who wears his own racism like a badge of honor and blithely foments it in his obedient followers.

So let’s be blunt. The backlash over Obama—the sense among some white people that they were losing control of “their” country, the desperate hunt for a reason to annul his election and legitimize the racist fury toward him, the attacks on him for everything from putting his feet up on his desk to wearing a khaki-colored suit to putting Dijon mustard on a hamburger—led directly to the rise of Trump. Trump himself is famously obsessed with Obama, toward whom he has an obvious inferiority complex that he doesn’t even bother to hide. He is plainly hellbent on undoing everything Obama did in office, from the ACA to the JCPOA and all the alphabet soup in between, and matching him for honors, particularly the Nobel Peace Prize. (Good luck!) Privately, his advisors have said that the best way to get him to do anything is to goad him that Obama wouldn’t do it (like launch an ill-advised military raid in Yemen that wound up killing 10-30 civilians, including at least one child and a US Navy SEAL).

Since Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017—you remember, when 17 billion people flooded the National Mall—the rule of the Trump administration has further laid bare the vicious racism that still underlies everything in this country. Every-thing. Could it possibly be otherwise given the original sin of slavery with which we as a country were born? Per above, we once imagined so, flattering ourselves to think we had collectively moved beyond that. But clearly we have not.

Trump’s entire political career is grounded in racism (of which his rampant xenophobia is but a subset). He rose as a political figure by spreading the rancid lie of birtherism. He announced his candidacy for president with a speech slandering Mexicans as drug dealers as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. He trafficked in racist tropes throughout his run and into his administration, trading the traditional Republican dog whistle for a bullhorn, and found it worked even better. He collected fawning endorsements from the likes of the Klan and had to be strongarmed into a tepid disavowal.

In office he infamously tried to draw an equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protestors, claimed there “very fine people on both sides,” spoke of “shithole” African countries, and pursued violent and draconian anti-immigration policies whose racial component is unmistakable, to name just a few of his greatest hits. Even now, when in trouble (read: always), he reflexively defaults to racist appeals to his odious base, who always have his back and thrill to such hatemongering and bigotry. Witness yesterday’s self-pitying, beyond-tone-deaf reference to the right and proper Congressional inquiry into his demonstrable wrongdoing as a “lynching.”

Earlier I recoiled at saying Donald Trump had been “elected” president, citing Russian skullduggery and other extenuating circumstances. Those still hold. But they don’t negate the fact that almost 63 million Americans did vote for him. (About three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, I hasten to remind everyone, but for reasons too infuriating to review, that’s not how we choose our president.)

Please drink that in: 63 million Americans were insufficiently bothered by Trump’s wanton racism, among all his other ills, to think that the other candidate would be a better choice. I’m ashamed of that, and history is not likely to be more forgiving.

We are now a long way from a Mel Brooks comedy; what we’re in is more like a Michael Haneke nightmare. But the premise of Mel’s 45-year-old farce, with its blunt, clear-eyed treatment of the shameless racism in America’s collective DNA, is more instructive now than ever.

And there is a final irony. In the end, the racist local yokels in Blazing Saddles eventually see the error of their ways and rally to the defense of Sheriff Bart, whom they rightly recognize as their savior from the venal authorities who wish to destroy them.

Thus far, the American people have not on the whole proven as wise as the denizens of Rock Ridge.

Atrocity and Euphemism

Atrocity and Euphemism copy

Ukrainegate continues to consume the Trump administration like a California wildfire. With each passing day more evidence accumulates of our fake president’s criminal intent, the vastness of the wrongdoing by members of his administration at the highest levels (to include the Secretary of State and Attorney General), and the exposure of its shameful lies and alibis to try to cover it all up. Giuliani’s Ukrainian gangster pals got arrested and he may be next, an acting Cabinet officer resigned while others are being subpoenaed, and perhaps most notable of all, intrepid members of the Foreign Service continue to break ranks, defying the orders of their own State Department by testifying before Congress to provide still more eyepopping incrimination.

Impeachment is all but a certainty at this point; conviction in the Senate remains a longshot, but not nearly as long as it was a week ago, given the dyepacks that continue to explode almost daily, spraying blue paint on Donald Trump and his clown car of vile henchmen.

In addition to the self-inflicted wounds Trump continues to self-inflict over Ukraine specifically, our Dear Leader has of course added to his troubles with his unconscionable actions in Syria, alienating even his staunchest senatorial sycophants when he needs them most, an incredible accomplishment given their heretofore permanent positioning prostrate at his feet.

But needless to say, the impact of the US withdrawal from Syria on Trump’s political fortunes is far from its most significant consequence.

It’s hard to assess where Trump has done the most damage as president, since the slate of candidates is so vast and competitive. In the long run, climate change is probably the, er, winner, if we are judging by sheer destructiveness to the entire planet. Facilitating nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea is certainly in the running, as is undermining respect for the rule of law and a free press in the US, devastating the global standing of the United States as a democratic nation and credible ally, skewing an entire branch of government for decades to come by packing the federal judiciary with right wing ideologues all the way up to and including the Supreme Court, and generally dealing a savage blow to American representative democracy as a whole.

But if you want to talk about simple, straightforward violence to human beings, three related episodes stand out to me: Syria, the Saudis, and our southern border.

DIPLOMACY HAPPENS AT NIGHT

We all knew from the start that Donald Trump was a proudly uninformed ignoramus on the topic of foreign policy (also: all other topics), one who mulishly refuses to read the PDB or listen to the subject matter experts, who has a hopeless man-crush on various tyrants, and who acts impulsively and transactionally and mostly to line his own pockets.

But never has his shitshow of a non-skillset been on more blatant display than in the abandonment of our Kurdish allies, the attendant and lasting damage to US credibility, the unleashing of more than 10,000 previously incarcerated ISIS fighters back onto the global battlefield, and the gift that this whole fiasco has been to the unholy trinity of Assad, Erdogan, and Putin.

How bad was it? So bad that even some Republicans noticed.

The Trump administration is now a willing party to ethnic cleansing—genocide, they used to call it. It’s hard to say what aspect of it most sickening: the humanitarian crisis…….the reckless and unnecessary destabilization of this part of the Middle East, one of the few areas in that region where we’d had any real success…..the gobsmacking unforced error of reviving the Islamic State….. the anonymous agony of US Special Forces soldiers who expressed their shame at having been ordered to turn their backs on the brave Kurdish comrades beside whom they have fought…..the sight of Russian armored vehicles flying the tricolored flag as they rolled though northern Syria, of Russian soldiers wandering around a hastily evacuated US base, and of US Air Force F-15s bombing another of our own bases to keep it out of enemy hands. (Paging Milo Minderbinder.)

And all because inexplicably we saw fit to install a sociopathic D-list game show host and serial con man as the leader of the so-called Free World.

Truly a Russian asset could not have done a better job of mucking this up for the United States and handing an effortless victory to the Kremlin and its allies in Damascus and Tehran. (Hey, has anyone ever wondered if Trump is secretly working for Putin? Because it sure looks like it.)

From Helsinki to Brussels to the Oval Office, Trump has consistently served Putin’s interests over those of the United States he is sworn to protect and defend, but never has his blatant fealty to the Russian president been on more jawdropping display. At this point not even Trump’s most gymnastic apologists (looking at you, Victor Davis Hanson) can deny that he is openly advancing Russia’s interests over those of the US. But I am sure they will try.

Similarly, there has hardly ever been a more stark example of the wrongheadedness of isolationism—a mindset that has long been a staple of the American right wing, and long before Trump I hasten to note. But his ascent has provided a gutting demonstration of its criminal foolishness. One need not be a hawk to understand that, by sheer dint of our military and global influence, the US cannot just withdraw from its global commitments (least of all at the whim of a monstrous cretin who happens to have the nuclear codes). That is not an argument for imperialist adventurism, but merely a recognition of practical reality, and the interconnectedness of international security.

Disengaging from ill-advised Middle Eastern wars is an admirable objective, for sure. But claiming you’re doing that while ordering a disastrous, impulsive withdrawal that opens the door to a sectarian bloodbath that benefits our enemies, AND in the same week stepping up US involvement in a much more illegitimate war in Yemen kind of undermines your cred.

Ironically, federal law—both in the Constitution as originally conceived and in subsequent legislation such as the War Powers Act of 1973—is set up to inhibit the commander-in-chief from unilaterally deploying the nation’s armed forces into combat. It’s not set up to stop him or her from sparking horrific violence by withdrawing forces, as Trump did last week. It was the kind of abrupt bellum interruptus that Donald Trump would have been smart to have thrice executed when he was still married to Ivana and they were pumping out young’uns.

Posterity will look upon our actions with withering judgment. And I say “our” because the world does not look upon what is happening in Syria as the actions of Donald Trump, but collectively of the nation that unaccountably elected him and even now is moving painfully slowly to eject him from power.

DAMASCUS EXPERIENCE

I mentioned that last week some Republicans cautiously raised their heads out of their gopher holes to object to the withdrawal from Syria. Two cheers. Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times and Susan Glasser in the New Yorker both wrote about the hypocrisy of such GOP complaints while it nonchalantly shrugs over Ukraine, just as it shrugged over Russian interference in our election, to which the antics with Kiev are of course related.

The unavoidable bottom line is that Republicans simply do not care about things like the evisceration of the Constitution or the debasement of our democracy in the same way that they care about US power projection. (In fact, they cheer it, fans of the unitary executive that they are.) Then again, if it’s simply a matter of hawkishness, where was the outrage over North Korea, for example, arguably just as damaging as the abandonment of our Kurdish allies and the early Christmas gift we just gave to Putin and Assad? (The withdrawal from the JCPOA was another incredible idiocy, but at least that was in line with meatheaded Republican orthodoxy.) For that matter, Ukrainegate has a concrete foreign policy component of its own, in terms of the hostage-holding of US military aid to an ally in the midst of a shooting war with the Russian Federation.

I’ve written before about the bizarre willingness of the conservative community to abandon decades of bellicosity and holster its sabers in order to maintain obeisance to a guy who used to sell mail order steaks. (See Surrender of the Hawks, February 22, 2018). So why did they suddenly rediscover their collective testicles now, when they were so meek and mild over previous lunacies? I confess it surprised me: I firmly believed that they would find a way to excuse the betrayal of the Kurds, just as they turned a blind eye to the DPRK fiasco, the humiliation of Helsinki, the undermining of NATO, and—oh yeah—the general enabling of Russian power, to include giving them sway over US elections (though it’s fair to characterize Syria as a component of that).

Some pundits have suggested that the outcry over Syria, coming as it did hot on the heels of Ukrainegate, was a kind of sublimation. Unwilling to utter a discouraging word about Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional behavior in leveraging a vulnerable foreign ally to smear one of his domestic political foes, Republicans channeled their frustrations with Trump into the withdrawal from Syria, where the longstanding charade of GOP commitment to national security offered some cover. (To the extent that they really have frustrations with Trump in the first place, or really care about the Kurds or global security at all, beyond mere posturing.)

Maybe. In the end, it’s largely irrelevant and serves only to highlight their hypocrisy, except insofar as it may mark the beginning of a breach in the red wall around Trump heading into an impeachment fight.

I don’t know if this glimpse of nascent Republican courage (note: sliding scale) will develop into a substantive and lasting break with their tinhorn hero; I haven’t exactly been dazzled by their moral fiber thus far. However, I am confident that the debacle in Syria will do down as one of the most shameful chapters in recent American foreign policy, and maybe the dumbest, worst, and most unforgivable international relations decision of the modern era. The capper to the whole affair was Trump’s flip, valor-stealing comment that the Kurds weren’t with “us” on Normandy Beach. (NB: were any Trumps there, or were their bone spurs acting up?)

As the meme goes, the Saudis didn’t help us at Normandy either, but fifteen of them showed up for 9/11.

ARABIAN NIGHTS

Which brings us to the House of Saud.

Even as he crowed—dishonestly of course—that he was bringing US troops home (in truth they are just being re-deployed elsewhere, and it is now clear haven’t even left Syria), Trump turned around and sent another 1000 troops to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to serve the interests of his murderous business partners there. Talk about insult to injury.

The Saudi regime is firmly fixed as among the worst on the planet. In the first four months of this year alone it executed 105 people, most of them by beheading, including 37 decapitated in a single mass execution last April. It is a medieval theocracy, a plutocracy, and a hereditary kleptocracy, with an economy greased by the labor of indentured immigrant workers tantamount to slavery. It is misogynistic to an Atwoodian extreme, viciously intolerant of other religions, and a state sponsor of terrorism, including against the United States through its Islamist proxies. It exports a particularly hateful and violent form of religious extremism, and per above, was the source of the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers. If in response to September 11th the US was going to invade another country besides Afghanistan, it should have been Saudi Arabia, not Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump is cozy as cozy can be with this regime, whose autocratic values he shares, and which is a lucrative partner for his family and that of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But as with many of the horrors of modern Republicanism, Trump did not start this particular greasefire, though he certainly poured gasoline on it—a fitting metaphor even if I do say so myself. US-Saudi relations were born of a demon seed, with the foundation of the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in 1933, and reached a new level of odiousness with the oil industry connections between the Families Bush and Saud, which contributed to the deployment of half a million US troops to the region in the Gulf war. (I was one of them.) But Trump has taken things to a new extreme, the cherry atop the rancid cake being his excusal of the grisly murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, a legal permanent resident of the United States, and his refusal to hold Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman accountable. For those who have forgotten, Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Turkey by assassins acting on MbS’s orders, then brutally dismembered with a bonesaw, all surreptitiously captured on audiotape by the Turks. In the wake of that deliberately gruesomely assassination, it is no exaggeration to say that the Saudis might rightly be a pariah state were it not for the patronage and protection of the US, which is to say, of Donald Trump. L’etat c’est him in spades, in this case.

(And that too is connected to the current Syrian fiasco. David Frum, in his concise survey of the reasons Trump gave this gift to Erdogan, cited as one of them “Payoff to Turkey to cover up recording of Khashoggi murder by Trump allies.”)

The Saudi regime is currently prosecuting an especially ugly little regional war in Yemen, one that the US has no business abetting. One can make a utilitarian case for American military engagement in various Middle Eastern quagmires, nasty though they are, from northern Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan. There can be no such rationale for US involvement in Yemen, apart from our venal partnership with the despots of Riyadh. That we would in the same week abandon genuine allies like the Kurds while increasing military assistance to monsters like the rulers of Saudi Arabia is doubly stomach-turning.

But we did, the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi, and the ashes of 3000 Americans at Ground Zero, be damned.

Because of course.

LITTLE DARLING OF MINE

Let me now veer off on what may seem like a tangent. But it ain’t.

As an international atrocity, the unfolding massacre of the Kurdish people is twinned with an existing domestic one: the continuing state-sponsored kidnapping of children by the government of the United States and their incarceration in concentration camps along our own southern border.

The newest outrages in Ukraine and Syria threaten to eclipse the horrific theft of small children and (in many cases) permanent separation of them from their parents, to say nothing of their inhuman detention in filthy conditions in these camps. But even as international horrors pile up, we cannot forget what continues to go on in our name domestically, as it of a piece with the same criminal mentality that is now giving us those other atrocities as well.

We need not quibble over the term “concentration camp,” even though what we have meets the dictionary definition by any reasonable measure. As I’ve written before, if you’re having a national debate about whether or not you have concentration camps, you probably do. (That conservatives are more outraged about the use of the term than about the camps themselves speaks volumes.)

What the Trump administration is doing—taking babies and small children from their parents, ostensibly as a means to deter border crossing and asylum seeking—is beyond unconscionable. Indeed, the deterrence argument itself is specious: there is no pragmatic point to this policy, only cruelty for cruelty’s sake, to which MAGA Nation openly thrills. And while Donald Trump and his goons are the source of this sin, we as a people are complicit for not being out in the streets demanding a stop to it and consequences for those who perpetrate it.

I keep returning in these pages to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is rapidly displacing 1984 as the most pertinent and prescient vision of a dystopian future, which is to say the present. It is the book for our times, and not for nothing (as they say in Long Island) is the ripping of children from their mothers central to its premise—nor merely a matter of fiction. Masha Gessen, who brings the gravitas of someone raised in the Soviet system, has written about how the forced abduction of children from their parents is a time-honored technique of state terrorism:

Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror. Memoirs of Stalinist terror are full of stories of strong men and women disintegrating when their loved ones are threatened: this is the moment when a person will confess to anything. The single most searing literary document of Stalinist terror is “Requiem,” a cycle of poems written by Anna Akhmatova while her son, Lev Gumilev, was in prison. But, in the official Soviet imagination, it was the Nazis who tortured adults by torturing children. In “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” a fantastically popular miniseries about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany, a German officer carries a newborn out into the cold of winter in an effort to compel a confession out of his mother, who is forced to listen to her baby cry.

But speaking of Orwell, long after the obliteration of Marxism-Leninism as the central political threat to liberal democracy, the enduring genius of his signature novel remains his vision of the language as a weapon. And as a general rule, the worse the atrocity, the more urgent the resort to semantics.

In addition to the controversy over “concentration camp,” we spoke earlier about “ethnic cleansing”—another world class verbal dodge—and we see that craven dynamic in play again in the so-called “family separation policy.” Could there be a more clinical, bloodless, anodyne term for state-sponsored kidnapping? It would be like stabbing someone in the chest and calling it an “ad hoc torso perforation.”

Let us therefore banish “family separation” to the dustbin of history, to coin a phrase, and henceforth call it what it is. And what it is is a crime against humanity, committed in our name.

The Trump administration, led by immigration czar Stephen Miller—among the few figures who can give Trump himself a run for his money as one of the most loathsome people on earth—has simultaneously bragged about how tough it’s been with this sadistic policy, and pretended it isn’t doing it at all. Such is the gaslighting that is its stock in trade. The vile lie that the Obama administration did the same thing has already been thoroughly debunked and is not worth wasting a dollop of metaphorical ink here. In truth, the institutionalized kidnapping of children as a matter of federal policy in the United States is unprecedented, and the direct result of the deliberately sadistic philosophy of the Trump administration.

Sometimes they own it like barbarians, and sometimes they deny it like cowards—yet another marker of their absolute moral repugnance.

I have written at length about xenophobia (just a fancy word for racism) as the central animating impulse of Trumpism. John Oliver—himself an immigrant and naturalized American—recently ran a brilliant segment exposing the farce of this administration’s incessant claims that it supports “legal” immigration. In truth, Trump and his followers bear a white-hot animus toward immigration of all kinds, full stop, legal and otherwise, save for a paltry few Rinso white Scandinavians.

Confronted with the fact that, Native Americans excepted, we are all of us immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, anti-immigration fanatics often talk about how their own ancestors came to America “the right way.” But as Oliver points out, before 1870 there were no real restrictions on immigration to the US at all: all you had to do was show up, which is very much what today’s undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are still doing, even as Team Trump tries to demonize them for it.

Confronted with the blindingly obvious fact that white Europeans stole this land from its original inhabitants by means of murder, enslavement, and genocide in the first place, those same xenophobes have no real answer at all, except twisted pride. It is no wonder that such people have also convinced themselves that we are justified in punishing small children for the actions of their parents—what they self-righteously call “breaking the law.” (“Their parents should have brought them here!” is the standard response.) Those same people are remarkably silent when it comes to other lawbreaking, such as campaign finance laws, the emoluments clause, and conspiring with a foreign power to defraud the United States.

The sheer human cost of this vomit-inducing policy is apparent if you’ve seen any of the scenes of those weeping parents and children who have been fortunate enough to be reunited, holding on to each other for dear life, as if they aren’t sure when someone with a badge and a gun is going to try to tear them apart again.

Is it cheesy to go to Paul Simon here? Maybe, but if your heart doesn’t break when you hear legendary Jamaican drummer Winston Grennan’s drumroll at the top of “Mother and Child Reunion,” you might be dead:

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion a way

Therefore, as we move forward with the long overdue process of removing a criminally unfit president from office, and coping with the unfolding bloodbath overseas that he capriciously precipitated, let us not lose sight of this other, earlier atrocity that he perpetrated at home, one that carries on even now, and will surely be remembered as one of the darkest domestic chapters in modern American history, to go with the stain of that international one.

What is going on in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, and on our southern border are all interconnected atrocities, all reflective of what our country has devolved into. Let us redress their root cause, or share the everlasting guilt for failing to do so.

 *********

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images. A two-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is searched near the US/Mexico border.

 

Trump Shoots Man on Fifth Avenue

GQ-Trump-100319

It’s become very simple now.

We used to ask if Trump had conspired with a foreign power for his own gain—first as a candidate for president, then more recently, while in office—violating his oath, committing high crimes and misdemeanors, and betraying the national security of the country he is sworn to defend.

Then he voluntarily released a transcript of a phone call that made it clear that he did exactly that, while inexplicably believing it proved the opposite. (Or perhaps not so inexplicably; we’ll let the forensic psychiatrists deal with that.)

Then, while we were still grappling with that headspinning turn of events, Donald Trump stood on the south lawn of the White House in front of a dozen TV cameras and did it again, live, in front of the whole world, calling on both Ukraine and China to investigate the man he sees as his chief political rival, and alluding to the leverage he has incentivizing them to do so.

So that happened.

As Tim O’Brien writes in Bloomberg, “After the Mueller investigation, there’s no way Trump was unaware this violates the law.” Ignorance was never an excuse and is even less so now. But what that leaves us with is one of two equally appalling explanations:

1) Trump genuinely doesn’t understand the law, which means that he is mentally incompetent and the 25th Amendment ought to be invoked. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Or…

2) He simply believes he is above the law.

Either ought to be grounds for removal from office.

An insanity defense notwithstanding, at this point there is no longer any question about Trump’s guilt, or that the House of Representatives is going to impeach him for it. That debate is over. The only question is whether the Republican Party that has long since prostrated itself before this demagogue and human wrecking ball of all that we hold near and dear is going to do its duty, or act as his accomplice.

SHITBIRDS OF A FEATHER

At the same time that this scandal has become simpler, thanks to Trump’s own self-incrimination, it has also revealed itself to be far broader and more far reaching than almost anyone first realized—a neat trick.

Far from being just one phone call in which the notoriously impulsive Donald Trump characteristically went off script, we now understand that the Zelensky call was just one small episode in a wide and deep global campaign by Trump and his team—including the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Vice President, and various US ambassadors, among others—to enlist the aid of foreign powers to attempt to discredit the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election and smear his political opponents in 2020. As the always excellent David Graham writes: “This is no longer a controversy about a whistle-blower complaint, an American ally in eastern Europe, and the president. It is now an all-encompassing  scandal, involving many of the top officials in the Trump administration pressuring countries around the world, from Australia to Ukraine and China to Great Britain.”

But is anyone really surprised that Donald Trump would do this, or that the kind of people willing to work for Donald Trump would eagerly go along? The real shock is that it took this long for a scandal like this to come out.

We know that Trump believes he can do anything he wants, both by virtue of his office and simply because he’s a rich, white, obscenely entitled mofo who has gotten away with everything his entire life. (“When you’re a star they let you do it.”)

So far the Grand Old Party has agreed.

But now Trump’s sheer brazenness and world-beating narcissism have put Republicans in a tough spot, one that tests even their already well-established capacity for bootlicking, cowardice, and Orwellian disinformation.

Remember when rumors of the whistleblower allegations first broke and Republicans kept saying, “Whoa, whoa, you rabid Democrats! Let’s not rush to judgment. Let’s hear what Trump really did first, OK?” Well, now we’ve heard it, and what more, we’ve heard the President* himself cop to it multiple times—even brag about it. In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes:

Republicans had spent days denying what Trump had more or less just admitted to…..It was as though Richard Nixon in 1972 had gone out on the White House lawn and said, Yes, I authorized the Watergate break-in, and I’d do it again. It was as though Bill Clinton in 1998 had said, Yes, I lied under oath about my affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I’d do it again.

Even now, after it blew up in his face and prompted an impeachment inquiry, Trump still keeps pointing to the Zelensky readout as exoneration, which is truly disturbing regardless of whether you believe it’s deliberate disinformation or evidence of dementia. The live solicitation of interference from China was just another step down that road, albeit an unprecedented, jawdropping one.

So now the GOP is reduced to complaining about process…..a technique they excoriated in the Bush and Clinton years.

Or, alternatively, they can go todo loco.

Witness the epic “Meet the Press” meltdown of Senator Ron Johnson R-WI, who, like some of his colleagues, had initially expressed some tepid “discomfort” with Trump’s actions, only to face fury from the White House (we presume), driving him to go on national TV and behave like a rabid muskrat, spewing misdirection about Peter Strzok and conspiracy theories that came right out of Sean Hannity’s butthole, culminating in a furious, red-faced tirade that he doesn’t trust our own FBI and CIA. I suspect it will haunt Johnson forever.

It was one of the most incredible performances by a national politician that I can recall seeing, ending only when Chuck Todd motioned for Animal Control to come out and shoot the Senator with a tranquilizer dart.

This is what the Republican Party is reduced to in its desperate attempts to defend the indefensible.

GASLIGHTING FOR BEGINNERS

The standard GOP gaslighting on Ukrainegate is beautifully exemplified by the columnist Marc Thiessen, a regular contributor to the Washington Post and a living rebuttal to the canard that the media leans left. Thiessen writes: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking foreign heads of state or intelligence officials to cooperate with an official Justice Department investigation.”

True. If this were a legitimate investigation aimed at advancing US national interests, rather than an illegal personal crusade to benefit Donald J. Trump. The attempt to spin it as the former is at the heart of the Republican counter-strategy, but it doesn’t hold a thimbleful of water.

It’s hardly worth the figurative ink required to dismantle all the dishonesty in his statement, but just as an exercise:

The DOJ “investigation” that Bill Barr is heading—aimed at undermining the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russian aided Trump in the 2016 election—is itself a partisan sham and abuse of power. Citing it as justification for Trump strongarming Kiev is a circular argument and master class in graft. Team Trump’s contention that its interest in Ukraine was and is an altruistic campaign against generic “corruption” is laughable, especially coming from the most corrupt presidency in modern US history. The only “corruption” Trump referred to in the Zelensky call was the fairy tale of Biden’s wrongdoing. (Even if one believes Hunter Biden was unethically trading on his father’s position, Joe Biden was in no way complicit in that…..and by the by, that is the entire stock-in-trade of the Trump children.) Only the willfully blind could fail to recognize Trump’s true motive as regards Ukraine—damaging a political rival, and using the full might of the US presidency to do so, which is the very epitome of the corruption in its own right.

Of course, it has grown tedious to point out that if Barack Obama had phoned a foreign leader and demanded an investigation of Tagg Romney while holding US military aid for ransom, he would already be the GOP poster child for a new version of “Strange Fruit,” covered by Kid Rock and Ted Nugent.

But Thiessen’s disgraceful apologia represents mainstream conservative thought in the age of Donald, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Never, in fact.

To that end, I was admittedly shocked to see some Republicans, including those twin pillars of hypocrisy Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham (to the extent that a pillar can be spineless and flaccid) push back over Trump’s unconscionable betrayal of our Kurdish allies this week. Why the GOP is willing to risk incurring Trump’s wrath over that and not, say, over selling our country out to the highest bidder, remains a mystery. But no elected Republican, not even Mitt Romney, who is what passes for a GOP profile in courage these days (we’re grading on a sliding scale), has really stood up to the president in the way that his actions call for. And I am not confident that sufficient numbers will do so should it come down to an impeachment trial in the Senate.

(On the subject of Syria, and adding to the madness, at a time when Trump desperately needs the fealty of Senate Republicans, why did he choose this moment to piss off even Moscow Mitch and Leningrad Lindsey? More proof that he doesn’t think strategically at all, only impulsively, despite repeated efforts to credit him for such.)

But even this rare sighting of the elusive Republican vertebrate in the wild has a dark side, as noted by the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie in what may have been the most incisive observation of the week. In addressing this question of why Republicans stick with Trump so submissively, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a Faustian bargain. But Bouie argues convincingly that it’s really something much simpler and uglier: they agree with him.

Trump has taken an ax to domestic spending programs for the poor—his Agriculture Department just proposed new cuts to food stamps; he signed a tax cut that funnels trillions to the highest earners; and he stacked the federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a conservative politician.

Bouie points to the pushback on Syria as evidence that this narrative that the GOP fears the wrath of Trump and his base is wrong. They will in fact stand up to him when they wish….and not only on foreign policy but on tariffs and economic issues as well. So perhaps we should take those Republicans at their word when they say they don’t think blackmailing foreign powers for personal gain with US tax dollars is a problem.

As long as it’s a Republican who does it.

IN OTHER NEWS

There were so many other significant developments this week that if you went into a dentist appointment, five new scandals might have erupted while you were in the chair. (Now spit.)

  • More whistleblowers came forward, both from the Intelligence Community and—tantalizingly—the IRS.
  • Texts among US diplomats revealed the explicit quid pro quo the White House was seeking from Kiev, yet continues to deny. Trump’s assertions of innocence notwithstanding, he clearly knew—or at least his staff did—that what he was doing was not kosher. We know that not only because of the frantic reaction of his aides (who immediately hid the Zelensky transcript on a classified server) but also because of a text exchange made public week between career diplomat Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, and US Ambassador to the EU, a Trump political appointee (and million dollar donor) named Gordon Sondland. After an aghast Taylor expressed his strong opposition to the idea of withholding military aid for partisan political reasons, Sondland—during a Rose Mary Woods-like five-hour gap—conferred personally with Donald Trump and was directed to reply with a laughably legalistic text falsely denying that any such quid pro quo was in play. (Why the Ambassador to the EU was involved in this at all is a separate question. But notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was copied on this texts, according to the assessment of Joel Rubin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama administration, speaking on MSNBC.
  • As if on cue, this week Ukraine also helpfully provided more evidence of that quid pro quo by opening an “audit” of Hunter Biden’s business transactions—precisely the sort of cooperation Trump had asked for.
  • And then just today the White House prevented Gordon Sondland from testifying before three House committees, which was probably not because they were worried he was going to exonerate Trump so much that it would make him blush.

Sounds like the actions of a perfectly innocent White House to me.

Capping all that, the White House sent the Speaker of the House a peevish letter saying it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry at all, citing nothing to support that outlandish position (but with paragraphs about how great the economy is doing, which sounded suspiciously like they were dictated by a certain someone).

The chief takeaway from all this is that we should not wait for the White House to comply with subpoenas and requests for documents as a prerequisite for moving forward with impeachment. We all know that the administration will never cooperate with the House no matter what the Speaker does to appease it. It’s Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Luckily, Nancy Pelosi is a lot smarter than good ol’ Charlie. The administration has made it very clear that it intends to flout the law, and stall, and try to run out the proverbial clock in hopes that the American people will get bored and distracted by something shiny, and Trump can move on to his next atrocity.

Let’s not play their game.

We already have enough evidence to bring articles of impeachment against Donald Trump on multiple counts. By all means we ought to aggressively continue to gather more evidence, and make our case to the American people, and rightly depict Trump’s obstruction of justice as more proof of his guilt and unfitness to serve. But we do not need Donald Trump to give us permission to move forward and prosecute him. He already stood on the south lawn and pulled out the murder weapon and waved it around for all to see.

LIMBO LOWER NOW

Trump may yet survive this scandal as he has survived untold previous scandals that would have been presidency-ending in any sane era. Then again he may not. Having sufficiently covered my bases, let me just say that right now it ain’t looking good for him. In a tenure riven with non-stop greasefires, he has never looked this panicked or terrified or erratic, which is saying something. So much for the pre-Ukrainegate theory that he wanted to be impeached, for the alleged political advantage that would supposedly accrue to him.

Susan Glasser notes that the number and hysteria-level of our mad king’s tweets have recently risen, suggesting he knows he’s in what Bush 41 once called, “deep doo-doo.” Upping the ante on his claim of being an “extremely stable genius” (itself a self-promotion from the earlier “very stable genius”), he last week referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.” We have also seen an uptick in the frequency of random capitalization, schoolyard namecalling, frantic calls for senators to be impeached (NB: they can’t be), references to witchhunts, fake news, and the rest of his greatest hits. With her typically Antarctic élan, Nancy Pelosi quipped, “Sometimes I think he is having a limbo contest with himself, to see how low he can go in his rhetoric. I think he was surprised that this happened, because he thinks he can do whatever he wants.”

In that regard the Barr-led campaign to discredit the Russia narrative is another own goal, like the release of the rough Zelensky transcript: a self-inflicted wound caused by this administration’s unfailing impulse for skullduggery. Did they really need to discredit Russian interference? Miraculously, Trump had already managed to dodge justice once, in the special counsel investigation. But greedhead that he is, he couldn’t be content with that. He simply could not live with the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin had interfered, nor accept the taint on his electoral victory, even though MAGA Nation really didn’t care at all and still doesn’t. It was all about Trump’s ego, which in this case, has severely damaged his political position when it didn’t have to.

Glasser again, on the ways in which this latest scandal has its roots in Russiagate:

The Mueller investigation, and Trump’s festering grievance about it, appears to have shaped his public persona more than any other event of his tenure. Trump publicly proclaimed victory with the report’s release, portraying it as “complete and total exoneration.” “I won,” he said, but Trump did not take the win. Instead, he launched his Attorney General, William Barr, on what we know now was an international quest to investigate the origins of the Mueller investigation, pressuring U.S. allies from Britain to Italy to Australia, and also Ukraine, to unearth information that undermined the Mueller probe’s credibility. Who knows what will come out next. The impeachment investigation has just begun, and although it is starting out as tightly focused on Ukraine, we have no real idea where it might end up. What we do know about Trump, though, is unlikely to change: the restraints on him are gone, and they are not coming back.

(Jeffrey Toobin has also written eloquently on how the two scandals are really one.)

POLICE ON MY BACK

On that count, let me close by addressing the notion that Trump is playing some sort of twelve-dimensional chess here.

As noted last week, many have suggested that Trump is trying to slip out of this latest noose by attempting to normalize his behavior: brazenly bragging about his crime, Nathan Jessup-like, as a way of tricking into the public into thinking he did nothing wrong. If he had, would he openly admit it like that? That would be crazy!!!

The answer, I suppose, is that he has gotten away with everything else, so at this point, why even bother mounting a defense? But as Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still count.”

But behind the scenes, the administration and the GOP are certainly not behaving that way, but rather, pursuing the classic Nixonian strategy of stonewalling, defying subpoenas, ordering government officials not to testify before the House, making specious claims about executive privilege, propagating disinformation, bitch-squealing about Congressional bullying, and so forth. True commitment to Trump’s “say the quite part out loud” strategy would actually require the GOP to be even MORE brazen, which apparently it is reluctant to do. Because that is too batshit for everyone except Donald Trump.

Once again, I’m not saying Trump’s strategy won’t work. He may not be playing twelve-dimensional chess, or chess of any kind, or even Hungry Hungry Hippos; he seems to be simply reacting to questions shouted over the sound of Marine One in his usual manic, shoot-from-the-hip, transactional way. But the effect may be the same. If he does skate away yet again, it will be because his party has provided him cover and enabled that miscarriage of justice. In that case, as Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic: “Just like that, a democratic norm stretching back to the founding of the republic is collapsing before our eyes.”

In short, the President of the United States brazenly “colluded” with two foreign powers (to coin a term), publicly encouraging them to attack one of his domestic political opponents—the very thing the Founders most feared, and which they created the mechanism of impeachment to address. Yet the silence from the President’s party thus far has been deafening. Are we going to be a representative democracy ruled by law, or an autocracy led by a despot? Is the modern GOP really willing to burn the entire foundation of our republic to the ground in order to maintain its hold on power? (Rhetorical question. We know by now that they are.)

The modern Republican Party is about to decide just how savagely history will remember it. And if we as a nation allow them to get away with it, we deserve what we get.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump memorably bragged about the near-fanatic loyalty of his supporters, musing that could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes. Now we have a dead body on the corner of 5th Ave and 14th Street, and Trump standing over it with a smoking Smith & Wesson, bragging that he bagged the sonofabitch.

Anyone wanna call the cops?

*********

Photo: Getty Images

 

The Downside of Being a Sociopath

Screen Shot 2019-09-26 at 8.59.19 AM

Soon after last week’s edition of this blog went to press, Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives was opening an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump over the Ukraine affair. It was a moment many opponents of the Trump regime— myself included—had long been waiting for, and it came with shocking speed, over a scandal that had emerged seemingly out of nowhere almost overnight.

Since then we have watched events unfold at an even faster pace. Six House committees are moving with unusual (and appropriate) aggressiveness to fast track this investigation, inexorably heading for a full House vote on impeachment possibly as early as Thanksgiving. The (acting) Director of National Intelligence has already appeared before the House Intelligence Committee to try to explain his handling of the case; the US special envoy to Ukraine, who was named in the whistleblower complaint, resigned; depositions from numerous other implicated officials have been ordered; and the Secretary of State has tried to block those depositions with a pearl-clutching tweet about how the State Department Is being bullied by mean ol’ Congress. That Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has himself been subpoenaed, as he was revealed to have been on the Zelensky call despite pretending for all the world he wasn’t, part of what is emerging as much broader campaign of mafioso-like behavior by the White House to strongarm various foreign powers into helping Trump persecute his domestic political enemies.

Central to that effort, in addition to Pompeo, are two lawyers, both of whom Trump mentioned several times in his call to Zelensky, and both of whom were also named by the whistleblower. The first of course is professional loose cannon Rudy Giuliani, who is Trump’s actual personal lawyer, and who has now been subpoenaed to produce documents. The second is Attorney General Bill Barr, who is under the mistaken impression that he too is Trump’s personal lawyer, and is surely next to be served.

Barr has denied any involvement in the Ukraine mess, while Giuliani had bragged about it. (“When this is over, I will be the hero.”) But we have learned that Barr has been on a globetrotting world tour to seek foreign help for Trump, ostensibly as part of his risible attempt to disprove Russian interference in the 2016 election, but naturally with an eye to 2020. Indeed, even as this Pe’ahi-sized wave of scandal continued to break on top of him, Barr was in Rome for that purpose, in the company of Pompeo, Steve Bannon, Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev, and non-Dr. Sebastian v.R.J.Sp. Gorka (remember him, he of the Nazi medal, a la Charles Lindbergh?). Although the purpose of the Rome trip is, apparently, to gain Italian help in discrediting the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference four years ago, that hardly makes it better. Our tax dollars and the energy of the US Attorney General are being spent chasing the ghosts of elections past—still—all for the sake of Trump’s ego and to gain political advantage going forward. In that regard Barr’s efforts are very much of a piece with Ukrainegate, as Trump’s repeated references to him on the Zelensky call suggest.

We also learned that in addition to the high crime itself, the coverup of l’affair d’Ukraine was also pretty goddam bad. Apparently many people inside the White House (though, tellingly, not Trump himself) immediately knew that what had gone down with Zelensky constituted an epic fuckup and was likely impeachable, which is why they wasted no time in having the verbatim transcript improperly moved to a secure server intended for the most top secret “codeword” intelligence. It later emerged that similar steps had been taken with the transcripts of other phone calls between Trump and foreign leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

(And I know everyone says the White House as an institution is allergic to tape recording ever since Watergate, but are you seriously telling me that the NSA doesn’t have audio recordings of all those calls?)

We also learned that enough career officials privy to what happened were so alarmed that they spoke to the eventual whistleblower. But the DOJ shamelessly swept that whistleblower’s subsequent complaint under the rug after the DNI inexplicably went to the department headed by an official implicated in that complaint to ask whether it ought to be investigated. (Answer: “Nah. We cool, brah.”)

That official, of course, was Bill Barr.

Meanwhile, Trump and his defenders have been on a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth counterattack in the media (and if history is any guide, up to even more nefarious deeds behind closed doors). Some might say the low point was Trump’s winking implication—at the UN of all places—that the whistleblower ought to be shot as a spy, or his furious suggestion that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff ought to be arrested for treason, or his re-tweet from an evangelical pastor warning that Trump’s supporters would launch a civil war if were to be impeached. (For those wondering how far the Donald will go to defend himself, it didn’t take long for him to head there, did it?)

But to me the most head-spinning development on that front was the administration re-opening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, in keeping with its partisan weaponization of the armature of the state—an attempt at misdirection so clumsy, hamhanded, and shameless that it could only find purchase among the most Kool Aid-besotted of Trump’s followers. Which, of course, is at whom it’s aimed. I can tell you from the furious reaction to my blog post of last week that they are greedily lapping up Trump’s agitprop and eagerly repeating it, even when it makes no sense and has been thoroughly discredited. What else is new?

In any case, it will be highly ironic if the improper use of an email server is part of what ultimately brings Trump down.

In short, it is the understatement of the year to say that the scope of this Ukrainian debacle is proving to be massive. The disgraceful and Orwellian reaction of the administration and the broader GOP, the politics of how impeachment will play out, and other aspects of this rapidly unfolding scandal will require many more column inches than can be devoted here. Stay tuned, if you dare.

But today I’d like to concentrate on one small but telling aspect of Ukrainegate, which is Trump’s decision to release the crude readout of the Zelensky call, as that speaks volumes, and in multiple ways, about the shitshow in which we find ourselves and the man who precipitated it all.

CALL ME MAYBE

This scandal has been breaking so fast and furious (yswidt?) that last Wednesday seems like a lifetime ago. But that was the day that Donald Trump released a rough “readout” of his July 25th call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (as opposed to a proper verbatim transcript that we were told at the time didn’t exist). According to Trump, this readout was supposed to exonerate him of any wrongdoing in the matter.

Never mind that the call itself was not the only piece in the whistleblower’s allegation of a pattern of repeated and urgent wrongdoing. Burned once by Bill Barr’s four-page misrepresentation of the Mueller report, Democrats and other foes of this administration braced for more disinformation and misdirection: another document that Trump would wave like a flag, falsely claiming proof of innocence. Obviously, whatever he was going to release was something that would help his case…..why else would he release it?

Ahead of its publication, progressive pundits were pre-emptively dismissing the readout as partisan spin (and were criticized for doing that), overtly invoking Barr’s shameful summary,/non-summary and warning the public not to be fooled by an innocuous document that would not represent anything close to exoneration, despite White House claims.

And then we saw the thing.

In it, Donald Trump brazenly solicits the help of the Ukrainian government in digging up dirt on Joe Biden, whom he has long seen (rightly or wrongly) as his greatest rival in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Scratch that—“solicits” is too kind. He bluntly pressures Zelensky to provide that help, and implicitly dangles the delivery or cancellation of US military aid as both carrot and stick. As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, it requires willful blindness to miss the quid pro quo re the $400 million in US military assistance that Kiev desperately needed to fight their Russian attackers, and which Trump began holding hostage just weeks before the call. (On the phone, Zelensky says, I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump immediately replies, “I would like you to do us a favor though,” and then launches into his terms.)

The President of the United States then directs Zelensky to be in contact with Giuliani and Barr—by name—in that effort. He repeats the “request” a total of EIGHT TIMES.

This was all in a document that Donald Trump himself released: evidence of a “perfect call,” as he described it, whatever the hell that is. (The man’s torturing of the English language continues to be one of his many crimes against humanity.) More mindboggling still, we can only assume it was the best possible spin on the call, as he saw it.

Given that Trump thought that was exculpatory for him, it’s fair to wonder what the hell is in the full transcript that we were first told did not exist, but soon learned did, having been immediately sequestered in the aforementioned classified computer system. And, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it was moved there because White House aides—likely including Mike Pompeo, who had listened in on the call—instantly knew that they had just heard Trump blatantly abuse the power of his office for personal political gain. Those officials are now complicit in a coverup and can expect intense pressure from Congress (and the public) to testify to that effect, Pompeo included. (The House has now subpoenaed the State Department for that full transcript.)

The readout IN AND OF ITSELF was a proverbial smoking gun: damning, incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing rising to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor, right there in black and white, as delivered and affirmed by White House itself.

And here’s the thing:

Donald J. Trump thought that readout was proof that he had done nothing wrong.

That is because Donald J. Trump does not understand the first thing about how representative democracy is supposed to work, or what his job as President of the United States is, or what is and is not ethical behavior, or even, at the most basic, the difference between right and wrong.

It was as jawdropping a public display of pathology as I can remember seeing in my half century and counting on this planet.

In the same way that Trump cannot distinguish between the Department of Justice and his own private law firm, or the Attorney General and his own personal lawyer, he cannot understand that the President of the United States is not supposed to leverage foreign powers for his own personal gain….and he cannot understand that because he cannot distinguish between the interests of the United States and his own personal interests (l’etat c’est moi), or grasp that they are not one in the same.

Before releasing the transcript, Trump teased it with this tweet, which I quoted last week but feel compelled to quote again, because it’s such a classic: “Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”


Turns out, not only was he dumb enough to do that, he was also dumb enough to release a quasi-transcript of that call, and believe it somehow exonerated him.
This is the most stark evidence yet that Trump is not only a wanton criminal, but also a genuine sociopath.

Both good reasons he should not be in the Oval Office.

ASTRAL PROJECTION

As Elizabeth Spiers pointed out in the Washington Post, Trump habitually accuses his enemies of criminal behavior—typically, of bribery and graft and corruption—because he knows that that is what he would do in that same situation. (Of course, when they do it, it’s cause for outrage; when he does it, “that makes me smart.”) Spiers:

Wanton corruption and pursuit of personal enrichment at the expense of Americans appear to be the two dominant modes of operation for the Trump family, so this should come as no surprise. No first family in modern history has so gleefully flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution while cozying up to hostile foreign powers at the expense of American lives and for the benefit of their private businesses. It is easy to see why Trump thinks Biden must have been pulling a scam in Ukraine: It is exactly what Trump would have done.

So naturally, as a person who thinks that way, Trump saw nothing in the Zelensky call that was untoward. Hence his decision to release it (over, we are told, the objections of his saner advisers and terrified senior Republicans).

The Zelensky Transcript (which now joins the Steele Dossier and the Mueller Report as one of my favorite Robert Ludlum novels that weren’t) is reminiscent of May 2017, when Trump’s downfall really began, with his laughable justification for firing Jim Comey, to wit: that Comey had overstepped his remit as FBI director when he chose to excoriate Hillary Clinton in the course of announcing that the Bureau was declining to recommend prosecution for her use of a private email server. Trump seemed to genuinely believe that Democrats would cheer his move, and accept that fig leaf, and appeared shocked when they did not. It was absurd and everyone outside the Trump family knew it immediately. But Donald did not.

And once again with the Zelensky call, we see the pitfalls of being a pathological narcissist without a firm grasp on what everyone else implicitly understands as part of their shared, rational perspective on the world. True, 99 times out of 100 in Trump’s public life—and repeatedly throughout his brief political career—his sociopathic personality disorder has benefited him. But once in a while it works the other way around, and when that happens—as it did last week—it’s usually a doozy.

The irony is at a Shakespearean level. This sociopath is being undone by his own hubris and inability to see that what he thought was a lifeline was actually an anvil.

In short, the downside of being a sociopath is that you can’t tell when you’re fucking up.

PUCKER UP

It’s my uneducated guess that, in addition to his batshit belief that the call exonerated him, another reason Trump wanted the readout released was pure ego: because it was so full of obsequious praise from Zelensky, sounding like a man talking to kidnappers who were holding his child hostage. But as Lucian Truscott IV pointed out in Salon, that Kievan bootlicking bespeaks a far grimmer truth: it is evidence of how desperately Ukraine needs the military aid that Trump was withholding:

The tone of pleading and groveling by Zelensky in his conversation with Trump in July is palpable. Look at the position he is in…..A huge swath of Ukrainian territory along its eastern border is currently under occupation by Russian militias and Ukrainian sympathizers of Russia. More than 10,000 Ukrainian nationals have lost their lives in the fighting there since 2014. That is more than we have lost in 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than one million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war and are refugees within their own country….

There is a war going on between our ally Ukraine and our enemy Russia, and Donald Trump has taken Russia’s side. Way down in the whistleblower complaint you will find the answer to why Trump ordered the withholding of military aid to Ukraine. The whistleblower describes Trump engaging in some artful mob-boss hint dropping when he “told reporters ‘I think [Zelensky] is going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House, and we look forward to seeing him.’” Two weeks after his phone call with Zelensky, Trump was still waiting for the dirt on Biden he had asked for. Zelensky was still waiting for the military aid he had been promised, but which he knew had been withheld on Trump’s orders.    

Speaking of world class ass-kissing, Mike Pompeo has behaved as despicably in this scandal as the worst of Trump’s circle, including Barr and Giuliani. When the Ukraine story first broke, Pompeo hid the fact that he had listened in on the call with Zelensky, pretending otherwise until the facts were forced out. Even since then he has deployed the same smoke-and-mirrors as the rest of the administration and its surrogates in trying to contain the damage and deflect the truth. For example, when Martha Raddatz bluntly asked Pompeo on ABC’s “This Week” if he thought it was appropriate for a President of the United States to ask a foreign ally to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Pompeo dodged the question with a classic piece of Trumpian misdirection, criticizing the previous administration (you know, the one led by that black guy) for not providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine…..this even as he knew that the current administration (you know, the one in which he is Secretary of State) had deliberately withheld precisely such aid and for the sole purpose of Trump’s personal gain.

Why do I bother to single out Mike Pompeo when so many—indeed, nearly all—of Trump’s minions behave in such a loathsome manner? Personal reasons, I confess.

Pompeo is a 1986 graduate of West Point, putting him just one year group behind me. (My own commission was via an ROTC scholarship.) He and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in US Army Europe at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry—and both of us left active duty as captains in 1991. None of those credentials inherently make Pompeo good or bad, but they do make him someone I can understand and relate to, and whose mindset I can understand much better than that of, say, Bill Barr or Rudy Giuliani, and of whom I therefore feel comfortable demanding a higher standard. That is why his actions gall me more than those of the rest of Trump’s crew.

The motto of the US Military Academy is “Duty, honor, country.”

I guess Cadet Pompeo was on sick call the day they went over that.

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL

Susan Glasser summarized the effect of the Zelensky readout, and all of last week’s events, very nicely in the New Yorker:

As of Monday morning, the political world was pretty sure that Donald Trump would not be impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives, and that he would enter the 2020 campaign and race to win reëlection, before the economy betrayed him with a recession that forecasters increasingly see as inevitable. Instead, over a remarkable day and a half, a new reality emerged: Donald Trump appears to have got himself impeached. Trump now seems all but certain not only to face an impeachment investigation but an actual impeachment vote in the House. And, whenever it happens, and whatever the specifics of the indictment turn out to be, the impeachment vote will have been triggered by a new scandal very much of his own making.

The own goal of the Zelensky transcript is already being felt in the polls.

Two-thirds of Americans think the Ukraine scandal is a serious problem, and more than half (55% according to a CBS News poll) support an impeachment inquiry, an enormous jump from previous queries.

Even more tellingly, only 17% of Americans—both pro- and anti-Trump—reported being surprised at what he did regarding Ukraine, suggesting a rare point of unanimity in our otherwise divided nation:

We all understand what a shitbag Donald Trump is. We only disagree on how much it matters.

Thus far Republicans have focused on discrediting the charges. But as Trump has bluntly confessed to them, they will eventually be left with only one defense, which is to claim that it’s not wrong to do what he did. That will require a tectonic re-definition of the very basis of our republican form of government (as a monarchy, basically), but I don’t put that past them. Trump himself, per above, has claimed exactly that all along—that is the whole gobsmacking point of this blog post. But it will be a tough sell, given the lengths to which his own White House went to hide the evidence on a top secret/SCI server, before the big man himself saw fit to release it to the American people.

I eagerly await the angry Republican claim that the Democrats entrapped Trump into the Ukraine fiasco by letting him skate on Russiagate. (Only half-joking here.)

It’s true that he may survive this scandal nevertheless, as he survived grab-em-by-the-pussy, Stormygate, Russiagate, and everything else. Let us not underestimate the fanatical, cultlike loyalty of MAGA Nation, or the venality and cowardice of the so-called leaders of the Republican Party. But this one does feel different in so many ways, from the simplicity of the crime and the ease with which it can be understood, to Trump’s own clumsy confession, to the cracks in the red wall which we have never before seen in previous would-be presidency-ending scandals. Fingers crossed.

Similarly, Trump himself seems to be in a dead panic unlike anything we have seen previously. His calls for violence and other abuses of state power certainly ought to make any sane American sit up and take notice, if you haven’t already been prompted do so by the parade of other outrages over the proceeding three years. (Caged children anyone?) Are we really in a world in which an American president is calling for the arrest of his political enemies on charges of treason…. in which he nudges his followers toward armed insurrection in his defense…..in which he questions the patriotism of a whistleblower, demands to confront him, and suggests the person ought to be shot? Apparently we are, and yet quiet flows the Potomac.

Some constitutional scholars have pointed out that these provocations are themselves impeachable offenses; one can hardly imagine behavior more imperial and antithetical to the Founders’ intent. At a bare minimum they can be used to bolster the case that Trump is unfit for offense and a threat to the republic who must be removed for the common good. WaPo columnist Greg Sargent suggested that Trump’s statements could not only build public support for impeachment (and persuade some Republicans to jump off a rapidly sinking ship), but actually become part of the articles of impeachment against him.

Are we supposed to take him literally but not seriously, or seriously but not literally? I can never remember.

EL POLLO LOCO

At the top of this piece I mentioned the longstanding desire of many progressives like myself to see Donald Trump impeached. That longing is not, as MAGA Nation would have you believe, driven by a blind partisan hatred of the man. (“They’ve been trying to impeach him since Election Day!”) Rather, it emanates from a clear understanding of his many high crimes and misdemeanors, and his manifest unfitness for office, and from grief at the damage he is doing from the Oval Office, all aggravated by the galling injustice of his oleaginous ability to have dodged accountability thus far, and in fact only gotten worse and worse.

As Lucian Truscott and Masha Gessen have both pointed out, it’s almost arbitrary that this, of all Trump’s many impeachable offenses, is the one that appears to be sticking at last. Gessen’s theory is that it is cumulative, in a camel’s back sort of way.

(In any case, the right wing has got a lot of nerve alleging blind hatred toward anyone, given the racist and misogynistic bile directed at Barack and Hillary untethered from any policy disagreements.)

We all know that Trump may yet escape conviction in the Senate, thanks to the craven collaborationism of the Vichy Republicans. But impeachment itself, even without a conviction, will be a permanent black mark on his toxic legacy, and a well-deserved and long overdue rebuke of this cretinous pretender to the throne, one that—we can only hope—will also do him lethal damage come Election Day. In short, to one degree or another, Trump’s misdeeds are finally beginning to catch up with him.

That clucking sound you hear is the chickens coming home to roost at last.

 

 

 

Ukrainegate: A High Crime in Plain Sight

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 8.19.27 PM.png

I had a couple of things I intended to write about this week, but then—as has happened repeatedly during the End Times that are the Trump presidency—something absolutely mindboggling happened that blew it all away and could not be ignored.

BLAST FROM THE VERY RECENT PAST

This past June I published an essay here titled The End of Outrage in which I wrote the following:

Uh, didn’t we just spend two excruciating years trying to determine whether Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise, conspired with a foreign government to help vault him into the White House? And didn’t Donald Trump over the course of those two years swear up and down nearly every waking minute that he never did any such thing, that the mere allegation was a dirty lie by sore losers trying to delegitimize his presidency? And even now does he not continue to howl that there was “No collusion! no collusion! no collusion!”?

That happened, right? I didn’t dream it, did I?

All that only for Trump to go on national television with George Stephanopolous last week and volunteer that, sure, he’d do that, and what’s more, he didn’t see anything wrong with it.

It’s no wonder Emmet Flood wouldn’t let this guy sit down with Bob Mueller.

So to recap: after two years of work, Bob Mueller and the Angry Democrats (one of my favorite rockabilly bands) declined to indict Trump for conspiring with a foreign power, not because he didn’t or there was no evidence—he did and there was—but only because of legal technicalities and the special counsel’s meticulous and narrow interpretation of his remit. It all ended with a whimper not a bang.

Then Trump volunteered to ABC News that, irrespective of the outcome of the Russia investigation, he saw no problem with that sort of behavior. As I also wrote in June:

This of course is the classic evolution of a Trumpian self-defense:

1) I didn’t do it, and how dare you even ask!

2) Well, maybe I did do it, but I never said I didn’t, and anyway it’s not a crime,

And finally,

3) HELL YES, I ORDERED THE CODE RED!

And now, this past week, an even more explosive story broke exposing precisely that same behavior in plain sight.

If Mueller was looking for a smoking gun and failed to find it, Donald Trump just showed up holding a .38 special with a glowing orange muzzle spewing smoke like a Bob Marley joint.

ONE CHICKEN KIEV TO GO

The outlines of this new scandal are by now well known.

Let me be the millionth person to note that it would be hard to imagine a more outrageous abuse of presidential power than blackmailing an ally by withholding taxpayer dollars specifically allocated by Congress in an effort to force that ally to provide (or manufacture, if necessary) kompromat on a political opponent.

And it just got worse from there.

The administration inexplicably involved Attorney General Bill Barr and the Department Formerly Known as Justice, now more correctly described as Trump’s personal law firm and private police force. I say “inexplicably,” but the explanation was self-evident: with cover from the AG and the DFKNAJ, the acting DNI Joseph Maguire declined to obey the whistleblower law and forward the IG complaint to the House Intelligence Committee. At the time of this writing, the White House has yet to comply, or release tapes or transcripts of the phone call in question, thus openly flouting the law.

Which is weird, because they’re really not denying what happened.

Unlike Russiagate, there has been no need to dig for evidence in this case, because it’s all out there in the open. The White House has not denied the basic facts, only—incredibly—that they amount to any wrongdoing. In other words, they have leapfrogged forward to what, in the Russiagate scandal, proved to be a winning strategy: a Nixonian claim that, in effect, it’s not illegal when the president does it. No big whoop, nothing to see here folks, move along.

But Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, gave the lie to this shameless spin and summarized the situation very neatly:

If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning. Trump’s grubby commandeering of the presidency’s fearsome and nearly uncheckable powers in foreign policy for his own ends is a gross abuse of power and an affront both to our constitutional order and to the integrity of our elections.

There is no spin, no deflection, no alternative theory of the case that can get around the central fact that President Trump reportedly attempted to use his office for his own gain, and that he put the foreign policy and the national security of the United States at risk while doing so. He ignored his duty as the commander in chief by intentionally trying to place an American citizen in jeopardy with a foreign government. He abandoned his obligations to the Constitution by elevating his own interests over the national interest. By comparison, Watergate was a complicated judgment call.

So what we have witnessed over the past few days is the revelation of an absolutely astonishing abuse of power—an undeniably impeachable offense by any definition—all laid out for us on a silver platter. Wow.

The big question now is: will Congress do jackshit about it?

SEE NO EVIL

Let’s start with the Republican reaction.

For now, the GOP leadership is reflexively bleating, “Let’s see what was actually in the transcript of the phone call before we jump to any conclusions.” Fair enough—but also highly ironic, since it’s their leader blocking the release of those transcripts. (Trump himself said, he’d “love to” release them, which is a sure sign that he never will.)

More to the point, no matter what is revealed in those tapes or transcripts, the Republican Party will find a way to excuse it. For a preview, see the reaction of the GOP’s hardcore Kool-Aid brigade—Gaetz, Jordan, Hawley, et al—who are already blathering about a Deep State conspiracy, Democratic sour grapes over 2016, and how Trump was undoubtedly acting on behalf of national interests and not for his own personal gain (sorry—just threw up in my mouth a little). And the mainstream media, with predictable gullibility, is aiding them by treating the thoroughly discredited aspersions about Biden & Son with the same seriousness as Trump’s wrongdoing, presumably in the interest of some faux sense of objectivity, or just because they can’t resist gossip. They ought to be ashamed.

Meanwhile the DNI (sorry—acting DNI) made the absurd argument that the President of the United States is not subject to the whistleblower law because he is not part of the US Intelligence Community…..even though in May 2017, when Trump impulsively and unilaterally handed Top Secret/SCI intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, the White House claimed it was all fine because Trump was the head of that same Intelligence Community.

Then, of course, there is Rudy Giuliani, who has been scarce of late, but is always reliably trotted out when the White House needs someone to go on television and make the most insane argument humanly imaginable. They just send up the Batshit Signal and Rudy pulls on his cape and tights. So it was that America’s Erstwhile Mayor talked to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and in the space of fifteen seconds first denied talking to the Ukrainians about Biden, then bragged about it. This in an interview in which he also spread a crazy and long-ago-debunked conspiracy theory about Biden’s corruption involving the Ukraine, and denied that Trump had any knowledge of his communications with Kiev while simultaneously claiming the President was fully looped in. The only thing that didn’t come up were Godfather-based anti-Italian-American slurs.

This is not to say that the White House and its GOP amen corner are keen to have evidence of the Ukraine affair made public. The latter (at least) understands the scope of the transgression, and the stakes, even if they pretend otherwise. But it is much easier to carry on that charade in the absence of transcripts and tape recordings that make the wrongdoing crystal clear and truly undeniable.

The Republican leadership knows full well that Trump has—again—crossed the reddest of red lines, and would in any other era already be on his way out of the Oval Office. Their refusal to admit that and do the right thing bespeaks their shameful (and shameless) and by now well-established valuation of their own power over the principles they claim to hold dear, to say nothing of the well-being of the country. Of this Republican hypocrisy, Tom Nichols writes:

Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton had called his friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996, and asked him to investigate Bob Dole. Or if George W. Bush had called, say, President Vicente Fox of Mexico in 2004 and asked him—indeed, asked him eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal—to open a case against John Kerry……Is there any doubt that either man would have been put on trial in the Senate, and likely chased from office?

Or as anti-Trump conservative Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post:

I do not expect enough Republicans will vote to remove Trump under any circumstances. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and others have proved time and again that their fear of Trump and his base outweighs any assault on our democracy no matter how devastating. These are hollow little men who find it impossible to put country above partisan loyalty and ambition. They will come up with whatever justification is necessary to avoid crossing Trump, even at the expense of allowing the most egregious “High Crime and Misdemeanor” in our history to go unpunished.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO MOSCOW

Trump himself, of course, is not even that conniving, as he truly does not think there are any lines that he is rightfully bound by. In line with last week’s post, it’s important to remember that at its core this scandal was driven by Trump’s effort to win re-election, a perfect example of the out-of-bounds and even illegal measures I predicted that he would take to achieve that goal.

How brazen is our Insane Clown President? This brazen: even as he denied any wrongdoing, Trump took the occasion of that denial to publicly pressure Ukraine AGAIN, knowing the Kiev was listening as he told the US press, ““It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this—somebody ought to look into Joe Biden.”

This technique is known as “saying the quiet part out loud.” As the WaPo’s Ashley Parker writes, “The president wears shamelessness as a badge of protection, under the implicit theory that any alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view.” Not that MAGA Nation or the RNC needs much nudging to defend and excuse anything Trump does.

In fact, what Trump did in Ukrainegate is much much worse than what he did in Russiagate. In the latter case, Candidate Trump solicited and accepted illegal help from hostile foreign actors to help him win the White House, and failed to report offers of that help to the FBI and other authorities. (Oh, and also wantonly obstructed federal investigation into those matters.) In this one, President Trump actively extorted a foreign power to help him undermine a political opponent win an election….and used the massive power of the United States presidency to do so.

In the words of Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Never Trump conservative Max Boot, “It is hard to imagine a more glaring example of a “high crime and misdemeanor.”

Of course, the two scandals are really one. Ukraine is at the very center of Russiagate and many of the dirty little episodes associated with it, centering as it does on Putin’s goal of removing US sanctions imposed after his 2014 invasion of Crimea. That in turn was behind the change to the GOP platform regarding Ukraine during the 2016 Republican convention, Junior’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya et al at Trump Tower, Kushner’s proposal of a backchannel with Moscow, and Flynn’s Logan Act-violating phone call, not to mention Paul Manafort’s long entanglement in Ukrainian politics and service to its former strongman Viktor Yanukovich, whose ouster led to the Russian invasion of Crimea in the first place.

NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN PEOPLE

And what of the Democrats? In that same Atlantic piece, Nichols writes:

Until now, there was room for reasonable disagreement over impeachment as both a matter of politics and a matter of tactics. The Mueller report revealed despicably unpatriotic behavior by Trump and his minions, but it did not trigger a political judgment with a majority of Americans that it warranted impeachment. The Democrats, for their part, remained unwilling to risk their new majority in Congress on a move destined to fail in a Republican-controlled Senate.

Now, however, we face an entirely new situation….

The Democratic candidates should now unite around a call for an impeachment investigation, not for Biden’s sake, but to protect the sanctity of our elections from a predatory president who has made it clear he will stop at nothing to stay in the White House.

Apparently a groundswell for impeachment is building among Democratic lawmakers, including many who have heretofore been reluctant on the matter. Of equal if not more significance, Nancy Pelosi has now signaled that we have entered a new stage in which she is open to impeachment proceedings, after months of stalling, presumably for fear of jeopardizing her House majority in 2020.

Ironically, the sheer blatantness of this latest scandal may make it easier for Democrats to do what they should have done long ago. Rubin again:

A single article of impeachment based on an incontrovertible abuse of power would make Democrats’ job much easier. The difficultly that at-risk Republicans face in explaining to voters why they countenance such conduct begins to outweigh any downside for Democrats in pursuing impeachment, even if the eventual outcome is acquittal in the Senate.

That is the practical side; there is, of course, also an angle here that concerns pure on principle, as Elizabeth Warren summarized well in a tweet:

After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president.

Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida seconded the point:

There’s no equivocating on this, no electoral math to calculate. The President held back foreign aid to a nation he was pressing to investigate his political opponent. Do your job and impeach him, or get out of the way.

In a subsequent tweet, Jolly went on to say:

It’s clear that, for many, this isn’t the breaking point for trust in the President. That’s long broken or never was. This is the breaking point for trust in Congress. Legacies are being forged around this moment.

In other words, a show of Democratic backbone is more essential than ever, because it is very clear that Trump pulled this Ukrainian bullshit because was emboldened by having gotten away with a similar, previous crime, thanks largely to the timidity of House Democrats in pursuing impeachment over the Russia scandal, based on Mueller’s plenty damning report. It’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25 call to newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came exactly one day after Mueller’s anticlimactic Congressional testimony put a definitive end to the fantasy that the Special Counsel was going to bring Trump down all by himself.

Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, and Rachael Bade write in the Post:

Trump’s sense of himself as above the law has been reinforced throughout his time in office. As detailed in the Mueller report, he received help from a foreign adversary in 2016 without legal consequence. He sought to thwart the Russia investigation and possibly obstruct justice without consequence. Through the government, he has earned profits for his businesses without consequence. He has blocked Congress’s ability to conduct oversight without consequence. Now he is alleged to have leveraged taxpayer dollars and U.S. military might to extort a foreign government for opposition research on a political opponent, and it is unclear what consequences, if any, he may face.

Greg Sargent, also writing in the Post, puts an even finer point of the negative impact of that precedent:

President Trump and his minions went to great lengths in 2016 to coordinate with a foreign power’s interference in our election on his behalf. Then Trump engaged in extensive corruption and lawlessness to try to prevent it from coming to light…….he basically got away with all of it, thanks to Justice Department regulations that protect a president from indictment, and to extensive help from a handpicked attorney general who subscribes to a theory of presidential power that in effect places presidents above the law.

So why wouldn’t Trump try something very similar a second time around?

Similarly, Charlie Sykes writes in The Bulwark:

Trump thinks that he skated on the Mueller probe and he has watched the fecklessness of congressional Democrats who have repeatedly failed to hold him accountable for much of anything. He also has figured out that he never—as in never—has to worry about his own party showing anything resembling a conscience. He does not belong to the Republican party. The Republican party belongs to him.

So let that be a lesson to us. If we fail to hold Trump accountable this time, and instead let him get away with it yet again on this even more blatant violation of his oath of office, imagine how brazenly he will act going forward! Especially if he manages to win re-election—legally or otherwise—and what few guardrails still remain are then removed.

As William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution noted, “(Trump) appears to be daring the rest of the political system to stop him—and if it doesn’t, he’ll go further.”

INEVITABILITY

In a September 19th tweet, Trump reacted to the Ukraine allegations by asking, “is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”

Jesus, Don, if you’re gonna put a shotgun in our hands and stand us in front of a barrel of fish, you gotta expect that we’re gonna shoot.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it’s you whom we know are dumb enough to do exactly that, because you’ve done dumbass shit like that over and over again throughout your presidency. And gotten away with it. Which is precisely the problem.

Weirdly, since Special Counsel Mueller concluded his investigation and closed up shop, Trump has been more unhinged, inflicted more wounds on himself, and exposed himself to more existential jeopardy than ever. It’s almost as if the removal of that antagonist and the disappearance of the overarching threat of Russiagate has left him untethered. It will be very ironic if Trump is brought down by this scandal—not holding my breath, you understand—one in which he committed the exact crimes he miraculously dodged in the Mueller probe. Got a little greedy, I guess.

Way back in June 2017, in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I wrote about the “inevitability of Russiagate.” By that I meant that Donald Trump is such a pathological criminal, con man, and inveterate scumbag that it was inevitable he would eventually do something (or things) that would merit his removal from office. That partisan considerations have thus far precluded that removal does not change the veracity of the argument. And with the Ukraine fiasco, Trump has once again proved my point:

OF COURSE an administration as venal, immoral, self-aggrandizing, and contemptible as Trump’s would be involved in such crimes. It would be more surprising if they were not. This is an administration (and a campaign before that) whose stock-in-trade is lies, greed, xenophobia, racism, divisiveness, and wanton corruption on a scale never before seen in presidential politics, which is saying something. Are we surprised that such people might make secret deals with our enemies to gain power in exchange for favors and fealty to be named later?…..

Of course Trump would do such a shocking thing, and of course he would then try to squash the inquiry into it, and of course the venal and loathsome beast that is the modern Republican Party would stand by him and pretend it’s all OK. But the comeuppance that appears to be on the way (I’m not holding my breath) is, in the end, a matter of karma, if one believes in that sort of thing. Trump is a despicable, poisonous cretin with a long history of immoral, illegal, and unconscionable behavior in both his personal and professional lives. He is jawdroppingly unqualified for the presidency and should never have come within a mile of winning the Oval Office if there was anything resembling justice in this world. But he did. And as the cosmic scales now give signs of righting themselves, he may well get frogmarched out of that office in chains because of that very sort of behavior.

That said, I am not convinced that this scandal will be the one that finally brings Trump down, though of course it should. That would require a level of integrity, patriotism, and principle on the part of a critical mass of Republican politicians that they have consistently shown themselves incapable of mustering. On the contrary: I think the leadership of the contemporary GOP is so craven that it will once again close ranks and stand by Trump to the bitter end, no matter the gymnastics, yogi-like contortions, and general hypocrisy required to do so, to say nothing of disloyalty to the country they claim to serve.

Therefore I would argue that the real significance of this episode will be to take us into an even more fraught and dangerous new phase of our ongoing constitutional crisis, one in which blatant abuse of power and impeachable offenses have been committed in plain sight, abuses to which the White House cops (and even brags), and yet the president’s party refuses to do its duty and act in the national interest as the Constitution demands, and the opposition party refuses to stand up to it.

Max Boot again:

If there were any justice in the world, this would mark a turning point where Democrats find the courage to impeach and Republicans find the decency to stop defending the indefensible. Instead, so far we are getting a rerun of previous scandals characterized by Trump’s brazenness, Republicans’ servility and Democrats’ pusillanimity.

As long as Democrats do not proceed with impeachment—and perhaps even if they do—Trump has made clear that he will continue his all-out assault on the Constitution. And Republicans—who congratulate themselves on their alleged devotion to the Constitution—will not do anything about it except to cheer him on.

In short, we are at a severe crisis point for our republic—even more so than many of the numerous crisis points we have faced thus far. And it bears repeating yet again that, as absolutely stomach-turningly horrific as Donald John Trump is, the real villains here are his enablers and protectors in the Grand Old Party who are happy to simultaneously defend him and hide behind him, all in order to preserve their own anti-democratic chokehold on power.

Where is our Ellliot Richardson, our William Ruckelshaus, when we need them? Who is this new Deep Throat? Will he or she step forward and play the part of John Dean? And if not, what should we the people do about it?

Dithering over impeachment on the grounds of gamesmanship can no longer be condoned. We must demand that Congress acts, and if it does not, we must make our outrage deafening, even if it means getting out in the streets or launching a general strike that brings this country to a grinding halt. If we don’t, we will officially be an autocracy.

I return again to my June 2019 post, The End of Outrage:

I hesitate even to call (his comment to Stephanopolous) a gaffe, because he’s proud of it, but regardless of the uproar or lack thereof that Trump’s latest gaffe prompted, there is no reason to believe that it will deal him lethal political (or criminal) damage, or even mark a tipping point, death-of-a-thousand-cuts-style, that leads to his downfall. Which brings us to the crux of the issue, one that we have been continually returning to over and over in these pages:

A disturbingly large number of Americans—enough to put a chokehold on our representative democracy—simply do not care.

We know that MAGA Nation does not care, nor the GOP’s despicable leadership (if it can be called that). But for those of us who do care, now is the time to show it. The danger that we as a people have become numb to Trump’s daily assaults on the rule of law has never been greater than right now.

The sad reality is that, in the end, the checks and balances within our representative democracy only function properly when our elected officials act in good faith. When a sufficient number of well-placed people are acting in bad faith, the system breaks down. And right now it’s fucking broken.

I’ll give Professor Nichols the last word, because his words were very very good:

(I)f this kind of dangerous, unhinged hijacking of the powers of the presidency is not enough for either the citizens or their elected leaders to demand Trump’s removal, then we no longer have an accountable executive branch, and we might as well just admit that we have chosen to elect a monarch and be done with the illusion of constitutional order in the United States.

********

Photo: Ukrainian troops on parade, by Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Knives to a Gunfight

gunfight-at-the-corral-doing-the-walk1-640x335 copy

Two weeks ago in this blog I wrote about what surely must be the most obvious thing in the world to anyone paying even casual attention: that Donald Trump and the Republican Party intend to fight as dirty as dirty can be in the upcoming election, and use every means, legal and illegal, to win. (See The Fiasco to Come, September 4, 2019). Indeed, I stated bluntly that I do not believe they intend to surrender power in 2020 regardless of the outcome.

This week I’d like to explore that idea in more detail, as it increasingly strikes me as the most urgent danger presented by this toxic greasefire of a presidency.

O LOON OF ALABAMA

First a little context. Bear with me. If Rachel Maddow can spend twenty minutes winding up to her point every night, so can I, dammit.

Last week, in the midst of an epic hurricane threatening several southern states—but not Alabama—we saw Trump spend five days obsessively tweeting in an effort to defend his earlier off-the-cuff claim that it was. It was the worst case of the Streisand Effect I can think of.

The initial error was really no big deal. Once it became clear Alabama was not in the storm’s path, any rational person over the age of three would have known enough to say, “Oh. My bad,” and move on. Not Don. Instead, he characteristically made a circus out of what otherwise would have gone by in a blip.

We then saw the President of the United States take a black Sharpie and crudely, almost comically, alter an (outdated) National Weather Service map to include Alabama in the danger zone. The fact that he did that boggles the mind. The fact that he thought he could show that map to reporters on national television and no one would notice what he’d done is even more astonishing. That he would later respond to a reporter’s question about who wielded that Sharpie by putting on the most unconvincing pokerface ever and bleating “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” was the stuff of an SNL sketch. (For a guy who lies as readily as he breathes, he sure is bad at it.) It was later revealed that Trump had also ordered Mick Mulvaney (who ordered Wilbur Ross, who ordered the senior leadership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on penalty of being fired) to have NOAA defend his error, which it did—anonymously—even publicly rebuking its own scientists.

Though the episode itself was kind of trivial (unless you live in Alabama and were needlessly afraid for your life), Trump’s insane reaction to it was anything but. The Swiftian spectacle of our Dear Leader at war with the weather and demanding that federal officials bend objective reality to project his eggshell-like ego ought to have sent a chill down the spine of every sentient American.

Sharpiegate was so surreal that it obliterated the memory of the reigning bellylaugh-cum-freak show of the preceding week, which was a fuming Trump canceling a state visit to Denmark at the last minute because he was told he could not buy Greenland…..itself such an Onion-worthy moment that it took some time to fully grasp.

And of course, there were much greater horrors last week:

  • Trump torpedoing months of delicate diplomacy by clumsily inserting himself in the Afghan peace process, first by inviting the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, and then disinviting them and likely destroying our best chance for peace in the region…..all for the sake of his ego and a splashy Obama-beating moment in his quest for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • The revelation that, after Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak in May 2017, the CIA was so alarmed by his recklessness with classified material, and his possible larger compromise by the Kremlin, that it felt forced to extract from Russia the United States’ top spy inside Putin’s government, a grievous loss to US intelligence gathering capability there.
  • Trump unilaterally taking $3.6 billion from Pentagon construction projects and—in illegal defiance of Congressional authority—re-allocating to his idiotic border fence……and before you say that the Pentagon’s budget is bloated anyway, please note that among those were funds for the US Military Academy at West Point and the Department of Defense School Systems (the latter of which I am a proud graduate and my late mother a former teacher). Prominent among those DODDSS cuts was $62.2 million intended to build a badly needed middle school for children at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and 5th Special Forces Group, two of the key units in ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So just to be clear, Trump took a school away from the children of deployed American soldiers, consigning them to remain thirty to a classroom instead, in order to keep putting other even less fortunate children in concentration camps.

Why do I bother to recap all this? Because as terrible as those things were, the Alabama hurricane-that-wasn’t dwarfed them all. Sharpiegate captured the imagination of the American public precisely because it was so blatantly stupid and so perfectly highlights Trump’s lunacy and dangerousness. People could get their heads around it in a way they couldn’t with any of those more substantive outrages noted, or, say, laundering money for Russian oligarchs as part of a broader entanglement with the Kremlin that included complicity in stealing a presidential election. Go figure.

I also submit to you that we ought to recognize it as a terrifying harbinger of what awaits.

Sharpiegate is the ultimate example of Trump’s malignant and infantile stubbornness, his refusal to admit error or defeat, and willingness to go to absurd and terrifying normbreaking lengths (and possibly lawbreaking ones) to achieve his ends. If he went that far over a weather forecast, how far do you think he will go to remain President of the United States, and by extension, avoid the criminal prosecution that awaits him as soon as he is not?

POCKET LININGS PLAYBOOK

Here is my fear. My fear is that while we sit here discussing electability, and which states are red or blue or purple, and whether Biden’s ‘record player” comment will hurt him in Iowa, and generally treating this like a normal election—a high stakes one, for sure, but still within the bounds of what we have always thought of as an orthodox American presidential contest—Donald Trump and the Republican Party are not approaching it that way at all. They are approaching it like a gang of armed robbers walking into a bank.

They will suppress the vote where it doesn’t favor them. They will create obstacles to voting among demographics they think will go against them, like young people and minorities and immigrant communities. They will interfere with registration efforts, spread disinformation, close polling places and create confusion. (In 2016, Republican efforts to suppress the vote through insidious “voter ID” laws are believed to have cost the Democrats around 200,000 votes Wisconsin alone. Trump won that crucial state by a paltry 22,000.)

They have already tried to manipulate the census, likely knowing it would fail, but still succeeding both in intimidating even legal immigrants from voting and likely in skewing the drawing of congressional districts for the next decade.

They will flood the campaign with dark money, whip up hatred and division, scapegoat and demonize their foes and vulnerable populations, spread lies and “fake news” (while accusing the other side of doing so), and generally put on a master class in demagoguery. With Trump’s shockingly racist behavior of the past few months (shocking even by the already shocking standards of his own racist history), it ought to be clear just how ugly it’s gonna get.

They will cultivate and exploit and surreptitiously cooperate with foreign efforts to interfere in the election on their behalf. Interference by the Russians and other foreign actors has already begun; why shouldn’t it, given the greenlight that the Republican Party has overtly been flashing, through McConnell’s unconscionable blockage of attempts to harden our cyber defenses, and Trump’s public invitation for foreign help?

Once Election Day itself is upon us they will contest vote counts and sow chaos. They will attempt to rig the actual vote when they can. They will try to falsify the numbers so it appears that Trump won in places where he didn’t, and in places where it’s clear that he lost, they will dispute the results. (For a sneak preview, see how Don’s role model Mr. Putin and his United Russia party behaved in the Russian elections earlier this month.)

Trump himself will refuse to accept results that do not declare him the victor. He will call on his supporters to rise up in his defense and reject the legitimacy of a victory by his opponent. He will say the fix was in and that he really won despite what the numbers show, possibly even to the point of precipitating violent insurrection. Hell, if it looks like he’s going to lose he might even try to gin up a national emergency or foreign policy crisis to justify postponing or even suspending the election even before it takes place.

Think he won’t? Think that’s a line even he wouldn’t cross? You have obviously not been paying attention.

And as I wrote last week, if and when he does any or all of these things, I do not for a second believe that Mitch McConnell or any of the other leaders of the Republican Party, or the 5-4 right wing majority on the Supreme Court, will stand up and try to stop him.

Maybe I’m wrong. But can anyone cite an example of even one time in the last three years when those institutions stood up to Donald Trump?

WHEN SOMEONE SHOWS YOU WHO THEY ARE

It’s incredible that we are even contemplating this possibility, one that was utterly unthinkable just a few years ago, the stuff of bad counterfactual science fiction. But here we are.

I have pondered this before. (See Will Trump Leave Office Even If He Loses in 2020?, July 23, 2018.) As far back as the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that he might not accept the legitimacy of the vote if he were to lose. It was a unprecedented moment in modern US politics and one that ought to have rattled the American public to its core. Indeed, his constant ranting about the election being “rigged”—in pre-emptive anticipation of defeat—was a regular feature of his campaign until it proved unnecessary and he suddenly decided all was perfectly fair. Since then he has repeated the trope again and again. He has mused about running for a third term and “joked’ about being president-for-life like so many of the foreign despots he openly admires. He “joked” about it again just last week at a rally in Fayetteville, NC (a place where I spent many years both as a military dependent and a military officer). He even tweeted out a sign reading TRUMP 2024, again using the fig leaf of “humor” to camouflage an obvious test run of an idea he is clearly keen on.

Ha ha—so hilarious! Incipient authoritarianism and the installation of a hereditary kleptocratic dynasty. LOL!

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think Trump will declare a Khmer Rouge-style Year Zero. But I do think he will concoct an excuse that allows him to mount a formidable crusade to stay in office—one that feels more or less justifiable and all-American, if you kinda squint and make your eyes fuzzy and don’t think about it too hard. (And are a fascist.) And I think the GOP will back him up.

For the first two plus years of the raging shitstorm that is the Trump presidency, there was the fantasy that Robert Mueller—or someone or something else—was going to swoop in with such explosive evidence of Trump’s wanton criminality that it would cause a national outcry and force him from office. Arguably such evidence has in fact been presented, almost daily, if not in so dramatic a fashion as we wished. But all these moments have come and gone, with a steady parade of crimes and scandals and the revelation of past sins and the commission of new ones right before our eyes, and none of it has really changed a thing. Because we are dealing with an opposition that is more like a religious cult than a rational political movement.

But all along—and especially now that the delusion of Mueller ex machina has been obliterated—there was always the comforting thought that we live in a representative democracy (sort of), and that another election was coming, painfully slowly perhaps, but inexorably coming nonetheless. If all else failed, we would suffer through four years of this nightmare and then vote the motherfucker out.

I am very worried that that hope to which we have clung, and continue to cling, is going to prove a mirage: not because we will lose the election (though we might, and that will be a bitter pill all its own), but because the Republican Party is going to break every rule in order to win it, or at least successfully claim that it won.

To believe otherwise would be to argue that the GOP is a principled organization dedicated to the integrity of our democracy.

THE TALE OF THE CORNERED RAT

Trump of course has an additional motivator to win a second term besides mere ego and lust for power. As Edward Luce of the Financial Times recently noted, “No other US president has faced the prospect of being re-elected or going to jail.” That exponentially raises the probability of him upending two and a half centuries of peaceful transitions of presidential power and simply refusing to leave office.

In a piece for Slate titled “What Happens If Trump Won’t Step Down?” Dahlia Lithwick notes that folks as diverse as Michael Cohen, Nancy Pelosi and Politico have raised this same disturbing possibility:

(F)or Trump, losing the 2020 election is an existential threat, and he has openly invited foreign interference, while Mitch McConnell refuses to even consider legislation to secure the vote. And even if Trump is truly joking when he tweets that he deserves to be credited two extra years in his existing term, years he believes were lost to the Mueller probe, or riffs on staying on the job long after he’d been term-limited out, the tweets send a dangerous message to his loyalists.

Lithwick goes on to interview one of the most prominent voices warning of this danger: Georgetown law professor Josh Geltzer, formerly Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, deputy legal adviser to the NSC, and counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security. Geltzer dates his concern to a July 24, 2018 tweet in which Trump claimed to be “very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election,” opining that the Kremlin “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats.”

Geltzer suggests that Trump was auditioning a new lie—outrageous and absurd though it was—to see how it would fly, which is something he often seems to do:

“This notion that there might be foreign election interference in favor of the Democrats seemed to test Trump’s ability to call into question election results he didn’t like. So, if the Dems won big in a way that embarrassed Trump, he might say the results were inflated—and, at least conceivably, even contest them.”

I’ve heard some say that we have to beat Trump in a landslide to preclude him challenging the results. But does anyone really think that any margin of defeat will prevent him from doing that? He’s going to dig in his heels and cry “foul!” no matter what. Let’s get used to that fact and prepare for it now.

This is especially so with Trump incentivized to the absolute max because he needs to stay in office in order to stay out of prison…..for a second term, and a third, and even beyond, until the Big Macs and Diet Cokes finally kill him, or he can pass the presidency off to Ivanka who will pardon him and figure out a way to avoid state charges as well.

Lest we forget, in 2000 Gore won the nationwide popular vote, as did Hillary in 2016, and for that matter Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In fact, of the last five presidential elections, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote in only one, 2004, when Bush was the incumbent in the midst of a war (that he had started). Yet the Republican candidate took office in three of those five elections, thanks to the antiquated anti-democratic chokehold of the Electoral College. The New York Times recently published a terrifying article explaining that, statistically, Trump may have an even easier path to an Electoral College victory in 2020 than in 2016, while losing the popular vote by an even greater margin.

In that way, Trump promises to make the popular vote even more irrelevant, and maybe the EC too.

Eyeroll all you want about Trump Derangement Syndrome, right wingers, but what evidence is there that Donald Trump is too principled for such behavior, or that it would cause McConnell, Graham, McCarthy, and the rest of the GOP leadership to rebel and rein him in? Go on: I dare you.

THE TALE OF THE GULLIBLE DONKEY

I am very concerned that the Democratic Party is not at all prepared for this fight. Sorry for the firearms imagery of the title of this essay at a time when we continue to be terrorized by mass shootings, chiefly by lonely white nationalist males. (But by all means, let’s deal with the dangers of vaping first!)

But the metaphor is apt.

Imagine we wake up on November 4, 2020 to find Trump declaring victory regardless of the vote. On that day, it will be a bitter pill to look back on how we bickered over debate stage theatrics, and whether Kamala was black enough, and which Democratic candidate was best positioned to peel away disaffected Republican voters in the Midwest. Remember when our main concern was the obstructionism President Hillary Clinton was going to face from a Republican Congress after she won in 2016, and how tough it was going to be to get her legislative agenda enacted, and to get the Senate to confirm her nominees to the Supreme Court? Good times.

As I wrote in this blog two weeks ago, we cannot afford a repeat of the too-polite-by-half Democratic response to the toss-up election in Florida in 2000, in contrast to the bare knuckles tactics that the GOP deployed. The same inappropriately deferential dynamic was in play in our reaction to the disgraceful Republican obstruction of the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016. Knowing what we know now, the Obama administration should have raised holy hell and found a way to ram him through regardless, even if it meant precipitating a constitutional crisis—which, in retrospect, McConnell had already initiated. I do not mean to Monday morning quarterback. Back then, few people—myself very much included—understood the implications of what was going on. I certainly did not, and not just because we assumed Hillary would win and hardball was not necessary. But I damn sure do now, and we pretend otherwise at our own peril. A slow motion coup has been underway for some time now, and the old rules of decorum and even democracy itself are no longer be in effect.

(Note to Republican readers, if that is not an oxymoron: please don’t launch into your usual schoolyard retort the US is a republic, not a democracy. That tired Fox News talking point is the ultimate bad faith argument. We all understand that what we are discussing is a form of government that derives its mandate from the public, and—theoretically—elects leaders according to the will of the majority in one fashion or another. Everything else is semantics aimed purely at misdirection, distraction, and disinformation. Also, the dictionary definition of “republic” is a representative democracy, so piss off.)

In other words, if you thought 2016 was grim, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The sooner we come to terms with this reality and begin making serious preparations for it, the better the odds that we an survive it and prevail. As some dude once said, “Fool me once…..shame on….can’t get fooled again.”

Here’s an idea. Instead of hoping that Mitch McConnell will turn from a poisonous frog into a prince, let’s take the initiative ourselves and make it clear right now that we can see what’s coming and we will not stand for it. No more playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the other guys have gone full Gillooly.

If we do not take these possibilities seriously, we will live to regret it. I am certainly not reassured by Geltzer’s suggestion that the best defense against a Trumpian coup is the integrity of GOP leaders:

“We need political leaders—especially Republicans—to make clear, both publicly and privately, that for Trump to contest the valid results of an election would be a redline, and that he’d have zero support from them—indeed, impassioned opposition from them—should he cross it. We need it sooner rather than later, too.” 

Don’t hold your breath.

*********

Photo: L to R, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Martin Milner, and DeForest Kelley in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)

 

 

“The Real Heroes Are Dead”

04HEART1-jumbo

On this, the 18th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, I’m re-posting a blog entry from two years ago regarding Rick Rescorla, whom I was privileged to know. It was originally published in The King’s Necktie on September 7, 2017 under the title The Voice of the Prophet.

At a time when US policy regarding Afghanistan and global terrorism is in chaos, years of painstaking negations with the Taliban were blown to bits by the president’s ego, the US Air Force is being used to line his pockets, and his administration is trying to finance a “border wall” by taking appropriated funds from overcrowded schools serving children of US soldiers, I can’t think of anything new I can say that would commemorate today’s anniversary better than this.

*********

In November 1965, after what had thus far largely been a counterinsurgency against the guerrillas of the Viet Cong, US troops met North Vietnamese regulars in combat for the first time, amid the scrubby pines near a river in the Central Highlands of Pleiku Province. That place was the Ia Drang valley. In search of the enemy, an infantry battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) helicoptered into what turned out to be the basecamp of several regiments of the People’s Army of Vietnam, setting off a three day battle in which more than two hundred Americans and well over a thousand Vietnamese lost their lives. The high commands of both sides took away from this fight crucial lessons that guided their respective strategies for the remainder of the war. Sadly for the United States, Washington took away precisely the wrong lesson: that we could win a war of attrition. Ironically, Hanoi agreed and avoided exactly that kind of fight; recognizing that it could not go toe to toe with conventional US forces, for the remainder of the war they almost never did. Yet in April 1975 the North Vietnamese conquered Saigon.

None of which detracted from the bravery of the American soldiers who fought that battle (nor that of their PAVN foe, for that matter), as the valor of a fighting man is wholly distinct from the agenda of the politicians he serves.

WE WERE SOLDIERS

Twenty-seven years after the battle, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Harold Moore—who as a lieutenant colonel had been the American commander in the Ia Drang—and Joseph Galloway—who had been the only journalist present, celebrating his 24th birthday while on the battlefield—published We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, their meticulously researched, decades-in-the-making account of the fight. The book was released to great acclaim, including plaudits from the likes of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, David Hackworth, and Norman Schwarzkopf, and became an instant classic of American military history. The mesmerizing photo on the book jacket was of a rifle platoon leader taken on the second morning of the battle, leading his men through the ghostly trees of the river valley. This being so early in the war—1965—he looked more like a GI from World War II than what we would come to picture as Vietnam. Unshaven, haggard from combat, chinstrap dangling, bearing a rifle with bayonet affixed—he could easily have been a statue at front gates of Ft. Bragg, NC—Iron Mike—or the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, GA, embodying its motto, “Follow Me.”

That platoon leader was Lieutenant Rick Rescorla.

In 1998 I filmed interviews with Joe Galloway and Rick Rescorla for a documentary my collaborator Richard Berge and I intended to make about the battle. A true Renaissance man, Rick was a soldier, a lawyer, a security expert, a poet, playwright, wit, raconteur, and bon vivant. Born and raised in Cornwall, England, where he had been outstanding schoolboy rugby player, he joined the British Parachute Regiment at the age of 17 and soon found himself in Cyprus, fighting the separatist insurgency there. He eventually made his way into the colonial police in what was then Northern Rhodesia, then returned to Britain and joined Scotland Yard’s famed Flying Squad of detectives. Upon emigrating to the United States he enlisted in the US Army, where he was quickly chosen for Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning. After earning his commission he was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as an infantry platoon leader in B Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, which was attached to Hal Moore’s 1/7th Cav for the insertion into Landing Zone X-Ray during the Ia Drang operation. He was not yet a US citizen.

In the Ia Drang Rick’s rifle company bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the second night of the battle, turning the tide for the Americans. It was here that he demonstrated the courage and bravado that were to make him a battlefield legend, belting out Cornish songs in the midst of combat to keep up the morale of his men, and rallying them against odds that rightly terrified lesser mortals. General Moore subsequently called Rick the finest platoon leader he ever saw.

After leaving active duty in 1968 Rick continued to serve in the Army Reserve, eventually retiring as a full colonel. In his civilian life he earned a master’s degree in literature, a law degree, and became a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He authored a textbook on criminal justice as well as screenplays on subjects ranging from colonial warfare in Africa to the life of Audie Murphy. He later began working as a security expert, eventually signing on with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter as vice president for corporate security.

Some time in the early ‘90s I had heard Rescorla speak at a reunion of Ia Drang vets. (My father had been the commander of C Company, 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry during the fight.) Big and beefy now in contrast to the wiry lieutenant of 1965, he had the booming voice and charismatic manner of a natural orator and a warrior poet. It was easy to see why he had been such a well-respected troop leader. Contemplating a documentary about the battle, I mentally filed him away as a must-have interview subject. Around 1997 I contacted him and he agreed to be filmed. We arranged to shoot his interview in the MSDW offices in the World Trade Center.

THE LOOMING TOWER

Early on the morning of July 28, 1998, my team of Ferne Pearlstein, Justin Schein, and I pulled up to the WTC in a rented white van full of 16mm motion picture equipment. I was startled at how perfunctory the security was. In the underground garage beneath the towers, we were made to get out of the van and have our photographs taken for visitors’ badges, but that was about it. No one inspected our vehicle, which was packed to the gills with hard shipping crates. Those crates were full of camera gear, but might very well have been full of C4. If there were dogs or chemical sensors to detect explosives, I saw no evidence of them. Not five years before, the very building we were standing beneath had been bombed by terrorists. Yes, there was such a thing as closing the barn door after the cow had escaped….and then there was not even bothering to close the door at all.

We unloaded the van and hauled our gear up to the 44th floor of the South Tower, where Rick’s office was.

I knew that Rick would be a great interview and he did not disappoint. He discussed his background, his role in the Ia Drang, and his views on the nature of warfare in general. Speaking with the impeccable credentials of a bemedaled warrior whose patriotism was beyond reproach, he derided the 1991 Gulf war as an anomaly and a poor model for future conflicts, given the months we had to put forces in place, not to mention terrain tailor-made for big tank battles that played to American strengths. Turning to the broader geopolitical picture, he criticized the American reliance on high technology at the expense of old-fashioned infantry operations, and suggested that US foreign policy had been hampered by ill-considered actions by politicians with little understanding of military affairs or the limits of force as a tool of national interests. He also displayed a searing insight into how anti-American hatred incubates, and how the United States—with the chance to serve as a beacon of liberty and democracy for the rest of the world, or to squander the same—could pre-empt such opposition in the future. Of Vietnam, he said:

I don’t think we should have been deployed there. I don’t agree with the reason we were there, and if we went in, we probably should have gone in on Giap’s side. That’s the way I feel. That nation had no hope of being united under anybody but Vo Nguyen Giap. He was the man who lead the triumph over the French, he was the most honored man, and by us opposing him and thinking we could take puppet generals and back them up with our own American force was the utmost conceit, and it failed miserably. Although we won on the battlefield, (it) was not about the battlefield. It was about the national will. And Giap knew his national will, he was fighting for his homeland. We didn’t know our national will, and quite rightly, the American people—when they got to see for a long period of time that we weren’t going to win the war—said, “Get out.”

It was a remarkably critical, clear-eyed monologue bereft of even a trace of flag-waving. At the end of the interview Rick gave Ferne, our cinematographer, a framed black-and-white photo of the Twin Towers and autographed it on the back.

We packed up and I flew back home to California that same day. The night before, Ferne and I had had our first impromptu “date” and soon began a cross-country romance. A few months later I moved to New York and turned my attention to other projects. The Ia Drang documentary was never finished, as other outlets (including ABC’s “Day One” news magazine) told the story and beat me to the punch. The footage of Rick’s interview went on the shelf where it stayed for the next three years.

FALL IN NEW YORK

Ferne and I moved in together and got engaged, with the wedding set for the end of September 2001. Halfway across the world—in Hamburg and Riyadh—other people had other ideas.

On the morning of September 11th, Ferne and I sat in our Chinatown apartment, reeling at the collapse of the Twin Towers less than a mile away. Thinking of who we knew who might have been caught inside, our minds went to Rick. Over the next several days we learned what had happened, a tale which remains one of the most poignant stories in a day filled with them.

Morgan Stanley was the largest single tenant of the World Trade Center, with over 2700 employees on thirty floors of the South Tower and another thousand in an adjacent building across the plaza. Rick had been its head of security when Islamic militants bombed the WTC in 1993, and was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of employees that day by calmly leading them to safety. (Displaying the same unflappable cool as in Vietnam, he reportedly got the attention of the panicked crowd by jumping up on a desk and threatening to drop his pants.) Characteristically, he was the last man out of the building.

Afterward, he told his bosses that there would be similar attacks in the future, and insisted that the company institute an emergency plan. His superiors had reason to believe him: even before the 1993 bombing Rick had told them—and the Port Authority—that the Twin Towers were woefully lax in security and a ripe target for terrorist attack. He had even identified a truck bombing of the underground garage as the primary threat. So, with the blessing of the Morgan Stanley brass, for the next eight years Rick forced his co-workers to carry out regular evacuation drills. He even wrote to friends that he suspected that the next attack would be by air, probably a cargo plane loaded with chemical or biological weapons. Predictably, the brokers grumbled about their work being interrupted, about the money-making minutes lost, and about the indignity of being treated like schoolchildren. But on the morning of September 11th those drills arguably saved their lives.

Rick Rescorla was not even supposed to be at work that morning, but he had delayed a vacation in order to accommodate one of his deputies. That afternoon, in fact, he was scheduled to testify in a lawsuit that Morgan Stanley had filed against the Port Authority over inadequate security measures surrounding the ‘93 bombing. The following day he was supposed to fly to Italy for his stepdaughter’s wedding.

When the first plane hit the North Tower next door, Rick immediately began evacuating his company’s employees, exactly as they had practiced. He led by example, just as he had done in ’93, and in the Ia Drang valley before that, inspiring confidence with his booming voice and magnetic personality, singing Cornish folk songs to keep spirits up and distract his co-workers from the dangers at hand. When an announcement was made that their building was not at risk and that everyone should return to their offices, Rick prudently ignored the directive and insisted that they continue the evacuation. He then made his way as high as the 72nd floor, accosting dallying workers and other stragglers and hustling them out.

When the second plane hit the South Tower at approximately 9:07 am, most of Morgan Stanley’s employees were already on their way to safety thanks to Rick. He could easily have joined them, as his superiors at corporate headquarters pleaded. Instead he headed back into the building, believing that his job demanded that he continue to help rescue others. Realizing that this decision would likely cost him his life, he phoned his wife Susan to tell her that he loved her. He was last seen in a 10th floor stairwell, calmly but firmly directing the evacuation of those who remained. A photograph snapped by someone on the way out shows Rick wielding a bullhorn, exhorting the employees to keep moving toward the exits, assuring them that “Today is a day to be proud to be an American,” and “Tomorrow the whole world will be talking about you!” That photograph was the last picture of him ever taken, a bookend to the iconic photo of him in the Ia Drang.

It is impossible to know just how many survivors of the September 11th tragedy owe their survival to Rick’s selflessness, foresight, and leadership, but a simple statistic suffices. Of some 3700 Morgan Stanley employees who worked in the World Trade Center complex, all but six escaped the collapse of the buildings. Rick was one of those six. He and two of his deputies were still inside the building looking for stragglers when the tower collapsed. No remains of any of the three were ever located in the massive pulverization of casualties and debris that resulted.

CASSANDRA IN A BUSINESS SUIT

When we interviewed him three years earlier, we did not know that Rick had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had gone into remission following treatment. Indeed, he was due to retire just three months after September 11, and planned to devote himself to writing full time. But believing that he might not be long for this earth, he had begun making preparations for his death, a mindset that served him well on that terrible morning. It was a bitter irony that a man who had survived three wars, cancer, and the 1993 bombing should meet his end in this way, but no one who knew Rick was surprised by the heroic actions of the last hours of his life.

When we learned about Rick’s death, I dug out the 16mm rushes of his interview and watched them again. I was astonished. He is dressed in a business suit and sits in someone’s borrowed office on the 44th floor of the South Tower, the better to give us a good background for the shot, facing uptown. Through the large plate glass window behind him we can see the Manhattan skyline, and prominent within it, the city’s second tallest skyscraper, the Empire State Building. He speaks into the camera with confidence and passion. While the first part of the interview covered his personal history and his experience in Vietnam, I had largely forgotten his comments in the second half, which concerned the future of warfare. They now sounded eerily prescient:

When you’re talking about the future wars, we’re talking about engaging in Los Angeles. We’re talking about terrorist actions. Combat in cities, hunting down terrorists—this will be the nature of war in the future, not great battlefields, not great tanks rolling.

Now, they may well be Americans, as we saw in the Oklahoma City bombing. We’re talking about no specific groups, no specific religions. For example, people have blamed the Muslims. The Muslims are honorable people. It’s just small segments of fanatics and terrorists….They can hit us at our weakest point because they choose the time and the place. Terrorist forces can tie up conventional forces; they can bring them to their knees. A good example was in Beirut, the Beirut bombing, and the more recent Saudi bombings. One individual, one fanatic, one man willing to give his life for what he believes….

Watching this interview in mid September 2001, with the smoking hole of Ground Zero still spewing noxious ash into the air of my neighborhood, a chill ran down my spine. Rick even mentioned the possibility of anthrax attacks.

He went on to describe the context in which such terrorism would arise, recalling Eisenhower’s indictment of the military-industrial complex and criticizing American foreign policy for being more about economic self-interest than the values of freedom, democracy, and self-determination to which the United States was supposed to be devoted. Again he indicted the Gulf war for being all about oil, and condemned US involvement in Nicaragua and other places where we were “backing the wrong people” and propping up dictators for the benefit of corporate interests. He further argued that if the US did live up to its professed values, the rest of the world would applaud and follow suit, eliminating much of the anti-Americanism that motivated problematic US military interventions overseas in the first place—a perfect (and perfectly elegant) solution.

For a man with Rick’s history, from Cyprus to Rhodesia to Vietnam to Morgan Stanley, it was a remarkably left-of-center declaration, as well as a prophetic one.

He concluded with these words:

Finally I would say that the residue of hatred this is creating in these foreign countries where we’re doing these things and we don’t think there are any repercussions, those people should think about the World Trade Center bombing and things of this nature. Things will come home to roost—and they may be twenty years later—of cavalier actions that we’re taking now out there. And who is directing these cavalier actions? People in command and control who have never seen a shot fired in anger in their life.…

“THE REAL HEROES ARE DEAD”

As Rick’s story emerged over the days and weeks that followed, it became one of the most repeated tales of that tragic day. (Sometimes it was confused with the similar story of FBI agent John O’Neill, who also predicted a terrorist attack.) Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Stewart published a long profile of Rick in The New Yorker titled “The Real Heroes Are Dead,” taking its name from a remark Rick modestly made about his service in Vietnam. Stewart later expanded the article into a well-received full-length biography called Heart of a Soldier, which itself inspired an opera by the same name—a fittingly dramatic medium for a man whose life and death were so epic in scope. (Another detailed account of Rick’s actions on September 11th is to be found in Out of the Blue by Richard Bernstein of the New York Times.) Further tributes and honors were to follow over the  years, including a scholarship in Rick’s honor sponsored by Morgan Stanley, tributes in his Cornish homeland, and a full-length documentary on British television.

Not long after 9/11, I went to hear General Hal Moore honor Rick at a ceremony at an outdoor amphitheater in northern New Jersey. His speech was majestic, recounting Rick’s life, career, and his heroism in Vietnam as well as on 9/11. “Statues have been erected to lesser men,” Moore marveled, thundering like an Old Testament prophet himself.

From his mouth to God’s ears. Someone noticed that the iconic photograph of Rick on the cover of We Were Soldiers Once….and Young truly did look like a statue waiting to happen, and one modeled upon it was duly commissioned, and installed in front of the Office Candidate School at Ft. Benning, of which Rick now ranked among the foremost graduates.

My 1998 interview with Rick also became part of his legacy. The footage was so jaw-dropping that shortly after 9/11 I cut together an eight-minute short consisting simply of Rick addressing the camera, in jump cuts, with no B-roll or other footage and no editorial comment except a couple of simple cards at the beginning and end. The film, which I called The Voice of the Prophet, quickly found an audience and began a wide run on the film festival circuit, starting with Sundance, Toronto, DoubleTake, Human Rights Watch, and many others. It was shown at the Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of American History and excerpted on CNN, NBC, CBS, and international television around the world. In November 2001 Ferne and I went down to Virginia to attend another reunion of Ia Drang veterans, and showed The Voice of the Prophet at their annual dinner. For his fellow Skytroopers, many of whom hadn’t seen him in years, Rick’s image and voice must have been like a visitation from beyond the grave, to say nothing of his widow Susan, who was also in attendance, and whom we would get to know in the coming years.

Rick’s remarks were met with wide acclaim, although the comment about “things coming home to roost” raised a few hackles at the time. Of course, Rick had made those remarks three years before the attack; he might well have avoided such a loaded phrase in the immediate aftermath. I can safely say that he never would have blamed the United States for 9/11, any more than one would blame the US for Pearl Harbor, or Israel for the 1972 Munich massacre, or loyalist Spain for Guernica. In any case, Rick Rescorla’s patriotism could never ever be in question.

But his point remains valid. Almost two decades later, the “roosting” remark seems less inflammatory than undeniable. It is hardly “blaming the victim” to understand and acknowledge that misbegotten US foreign policy contributed in part to the rise of the violent anti-Americanism from which the 9/11 attackers sprung. That understanding in no way excuses or forgives or justifies their actions, nor eliminates other contributing factors. But it does help us understand those actions, which is crucial if we hope to prevent such enmity and such attacks in the future. To do otherwise is willful ignorance: stubborn, arrogant, head-in-the-sand self-destructiveness that is almost juvenile in nature. Sadly, it is that mentality, rather than Rick’s wiser one born of hard-earned first-person experience, that is currently ascendant. To me, the short film is at once a memorial to the man, a record of his startling foresight, and an eerie call to his countrymen from the beyond the grave, demanding sober self-examination and even-tempered statesmanship in place of arrogant chauvinism.

For those who seek a true understanding of September 11th in hopes of preventing such horrors in the future, few speak with the moral weight of a man whose ashes now lay at Ground Zero—an immigrant to this country, I hasten to note, who gave his very life for it. We throw the word “hero” around very loosely in our culture, but it does not rightly belong to professional athletes, entertainers, or hedge fund billionaires, let alone to draft dodging sociopathic reality TV con artists. It does belong to Rick Rescorla.

Hal Moore was right—statues have been erected to far lesser men.

And Rick was right too. The real heroes are dead.

*******

Photo: Peter Arnett

Rick Rescorla Memorial website: http://rickrescorla.com/