The 21st Century Dilemma

A friend sends me this column by Niall Ferguson:

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I don’t see myself naturally aligned with Ferguson on much, but I found this analysis interesting.

That said, I think he glosses over the fact that China represents a wholly different political system with regard to human rights and freedoms than the US and Europe do. That same cultural perspective should be unifying us, and instead, Trump attacks our democratic allies and warms up to dictators.

That’s emerging as the central danger to our republic from Trump. He’s a wannabe autocrat. And while we might constrain him at home (if Republicans ever grow a spine), there’s a very real danger that he will have permanently damaged our relationships with our fellow democracies. And once that happens, autocracy will rule the global political day (which, in fact, is just a reversion to the human norm of millennia).

I envision a global democratic alliance that also includes India. Sure, India often gets laughed at for having so much democracy that it can’t develop – or function. But I’d rather throw humanity’s lot in with that problem than autocracy.

The Trump-Kim Summit

The Trump-Kim summit is tomorrow (Singapore time), and I guess I’ll weigh in on it – mostly just because they’re both staying about a five-minute walk away on either side of me.

Everyone has to wish that this meeting works out. Even if this could mean an easier path to a second term for Trump, everyone has to wish for this to succeed.

But what’s success? I think the only measure that there can be is that there is a concrete step toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

But what are the chances that that’s going to happen? Virtually zero.

In my reading of the situation, above all else Kim wants security. He wants to know that he and his regime can stay in power. In a world where the US names countries to an “Axis of Evil” and overthrows nations with every new presidency, the only reasonable and solid guarantee he could create for himself was a nuclear deterrent. Now he has it, and he’s not going to give it up.

So, based on that reality, this whole thing is for show. Kim gets what he wants in international recognition and stature. Trump gets what he wants in basically the same terms, except he’d love a shot at getting the Nobel Peace Prize.

But if this fails, neither one of them loses anything. We just return to the status quo, and they can each leave, blaming the other for why it didn’t work out. Just see their Twitter feeds for how they’ll go about that. There simply is no downside to this meeting for them. It’s only upside.

Meanwhile, according to Singapore’s prime minister, the country is shelling out SG$20 million (about US$15 million) for this event (although who knows who might cover all the costs in the end, really), and I can’t get deliveries to my condo since I’m in one of the secure zones. (Well, okay, that last part is a bit petty.)

Again, let’s hope for success. But that’s not where I’d put my money.

P.S. I am not a fan of Trump, but that doesn’t mean I disagree with everything he does. I actually see this as a welcome shake-up of the dynamic with North Korea. But there’s been so little planning – it’s so much off the cuff – that it seems unlikely that this will go anywhere.

The Comey Interview

I didn’t find the ABC interview with former FBI director James Comey to be that interesting in the end. There wasn’t a lot of new information or insight. In fact, David Graham of the Atlantic had a good summary:

The interview also captured the sense of surrealism that has pervaded much of American political life for the last two years. Comey was at the heart of many of the major events in that span, including the Clinton email investigation, the Russian election-interference investigation, and of course his own firing, yet his reaction to these events is as dumbfounded as people who watched from afar. The view from the inside is uncannily like the view from the outside.

Americans’ opinions and political affiliations are unlikely to change after this interview, especially given the pushback from Republicans and Democrats ambivalence toward Comey. As for the most serious allegations against Trump and company, we’ll all just have to wait for the Mueller investigation to reach a conclusion – if it is allowed to finish, of course.

All of that said, here are three observations prompted by the interview.

1. Let’s spread the morality around

A lot is being made of Comey’s remark that Trump is morally unfit to be president.

While I happen to agree, this was quite obvious during the campaign, and many people – not the least evangelicals – still voted for and support him. To this day, I’m not sure what to do with that fact.

Either way, I want to highlight one assumption Comey makes, that I think many Americans share:

There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.

You know what, Congress needs to embody those values, too. We invest too much of our national vision and power in the presidency and the president. We need to demand more all around.

2. In tribal times, conservatives would never have accepted Clinton

When it came to the Clinton and Trump investigations during the campaign, I do think Comey was in a hard place. But looking back now, it’s clear he should have stuck with established protocol and not said much, if anything. Instead, he famously issued updates on the Clinton investigation, and it appears he had political calculations in the back of his mind all along:

Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That– that she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.

Whether he should have been factoring politics in or not, he sure got his understanding of current American politics wrong here. Clinton would have been seen as illegitimate by the entirety of the conservative political and media class no matter what. Trump was already claiming the election was rigged and raising doubt as to whether he’d accept the results. As a polity, we constantly underestimate the ruthlessness of the modern conservative movement.

As an aside, while some Democrats and analysts and Hillary Clinton herself claim that Comey was the decisive factor in the election, I’m less convinced. In a long, complex campaign, there are many causes. For example, there were tactical errors in the Great Lakes states, and the Democrats have yet to reckon with how unpopular of a person Hillary Clinton was and is. Also, Trump weathered what should have been far worse setbacks, and yet came out on top – just barely, of course, and only with the aid of Russian hacking and through the unfair and antiquated quirks of the Electoral College.

3. In Washington, there is no stain that can’t be washed out

Comey also remarks in the interview that anyone who associates with Trump, in the end, will be permanently marked:

(T)he challenge of this president is that he will stain everyone around him. And the question is, how much stain is too much stain and how much stain eventually makes you unable to accomplish your goal of protecting the country and serving the country?

Okay, he’s totally wrong here. In Washington, the stains almost always wash out, no matter how heinous they might be.

The George W. Bush administration was a disaster – a misguided war of choice in Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars; the turning the United States into a nation of torturers; the biggest financial and economic collapse since the Great Depression – yet many major players went on with their public or political careers or have landed in prestigious think tank or media roles. Among the promoters of the Iraq War, David Frum is at the Atlantic, and Michael Gerson is at the Washington Post. Among the torturers, Trump has nominated Gina Haspel – a CIA official who operated one of the notorious black sites – to be CIA director, and incredibly, Comey himself worked to justify torture policies. As for the architects of the policy scheme that led to the Great Recession, I’m not aware of one who is in the poor house. George W. Bush himself even got some love recently when he subtly criticized Trump. Even from the Trump administration, Sean Spicer received a warm welcome initially – at the Emmys and Harvard of all places – despite obvious lying to the American public. There is no stain stain-y enough. Returning to the Comey interview, even from the Obama administration, former CIA director David Petraeus has landed comfortably, despite deliberately spreading classified information.

Washington just can’t quit its own inside players.

Bottom line, Comey is part of a long and growing list of public figures – including Hillary Clinton and Trump himself – that I wish would just pass from the political scene.

Curbing my enthusiasm: Misgivings about the Cohen raids and prosecutorial sprawl

As someone who finds Pres. Trump to be an awful person and disagrees with many (but not all) of his policies, I’m supposed to be delighted with the raids on Pres. Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen. After all, this could be a big step toward finding out whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 election, and of course, it’s entertaining to watch such delightful people struggle to cover up an alleged affair between Pres. Trump and a porn star.

But, these raids also make me uneasy. This is one of those difficult moments when my fairness gene gets the better of me. In this investigation into Cohen, there might be a crime. On that we’ll have to wait and see. But I can’t help asking how this relates back to investigating the connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It could. But on the face of it, it does not. And that has me thinking that this is starting to feel like the Whitewater investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in which independent counsel Kenneth Starr wandered far and wide.

Let’s recall that, in the end, the investigation into Whitewater yielded nothing, but Starr did end up catching Clinton in a perjurious lie over the completely unrelated matter of having sexual relations with an intern in the White House. Now, I’m no fan of the Clintons. I don’t think much of them on policy grounds. But they were absolutely, positively railroaded by an empowered, aggressive, and ruthless independent counsel.  The residual political damage from those events has lasted well past the 90s. Certainly it was there in the background – and often in the foreground – for many voters of a certain age during Hillary Clinton’s run in 2016. I think you could argue that the out-of-control Starr investigation and the precedents it set of hyper-partisan, never-ending, deeply unfair investigations was a big factor in bringing us the Trump presidency. For what it’s worth, even Starr has come around to the idea that he went too far and has sought to reach out to the people he hounded.

Now, let me be clear about one aspect of the Cohen raids: I am not arguing that this was illegal or against procedure. I understand that there is a process and multiple safeguards and officials involved. Instead, I am making an argument about how the institution of the special counsel should be empowered in our legal system. I am expressing alarm at how special counsel investigations can sprawl out to areas beyond their original mandate. This sort of legal sprawl is exactly why the Starr investigation became such a circus. It spun out in every direction until it hit something. If you’re fine with sprawling investigations, okay. But by my thinking, that gives a lot of aid and comfort to the people who drove the investigations into the Clintons. Special counsels end up having a vast amount of power. That is not a legal matter. That is a policy choice and a political decision. It’s a choice of institutional design. And I’m not sure it’s good for our system.

Let me say all of this in a slightly different way to anyone who’s inclined toward hyper-partisanship: If you’re a Democrat and saw the Whitewater investigation as overreach, then I ask you to be concerned that the Mueller investigation is starting to have some features of overreach, as well. If you’re a Republican, and you think Whitewater was great, then I guess you just have to accept that the Mueller could go everywhere and anywhere. Again, I don’t think this approach is good for the law or for the country. But if you take the perspective of a hyper-partisan, then all is well.

By the way, I want the Mueller investigation to continue. I believe Trump should be impeached if he fires Mueller. And to be fair (there it is, again), Trump brought this special counselor on himself by firing Comey.  But I’m concerned that we’re not addressing the real, long-term issue: After all of this with the Mueller investigation, are our US electoral systems any less vulnerable to manipulation? THAT is what we should have daily stories on. And Pres. Trump is very much at the center of that growing scandal. He has not made securing our electoral process a priority. Security officials have testified to that. Holding him accountable for that might lead us straight back to all things Russia, anyway. So, I say rake him over the coals, but let’s keep our eyes on the right prize of the raking.

P.S. I was asked by a friend to be more specific about how I would have wanted the investigation to go.  If I had to draw a line, maybe it would be this: Mueller could have left the entire Stormy Daniels investigation to some other institution. He has ended up doing that, but only after taking deliberate steps to prompt action by the other agency. Now, under his charge, why would he do this? Well, to shake loose Russia investigation information – not really to address the Stormy Daniels affair itself. The Story Daniels affair was a pretext to yield the other information, from a Mueller perspective. Now, you could argue that they’re all just one big, happy federal investigating and prosecuting family. Why draw artificial lines? Okay, fair enough. But that is a decision about institutional design. And the way these investigations tend to metastasize, as history shows, I get concerned about sprawling power.

P.P.S. By the way, on the specific allegation of “collusion” (not officially a crime, by the way), Trump absolutely, positively wanted collusion.  He looked right at the TV camera and asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. He’s “guilty” of attempting to collude already. But people voted for him anyway. Hyper-partisan Republicans, in this case, are highly selective in their indignation. And the other evidence that we know publicly is pretty damning – with the the Trump Jr. meeting and the timing of the Wikileaks release. But I’ll wait for the results of the entire Mueller investigation – and frankly, maintain a healthy skepticism of the intelligence analysis abilities of the our intelligence agencies.

Don’t be too comfortable with every part of the Russia investigation

While I want the Mueller investigation to continue – and I sure want to know if the Trump campaign directly colluded with the Russian government to hack the DNC and Podesta – I’m not comfortable with every aspect of it.

First off, the recent subpoena against Sam Nunberg seemed awfully broad – both in terms of the time period covered and the number of people involved – especially for someone who left the campaign pretty early on.

Secondly, from this Washington Post article outlining the possible state of the investigation, there are a couple of facets from the possible legal case that should be unsettling. Apparently, there could be charges of “conspiracy to defraud the United States”. Which can be interpreted this way:

In the 1910 case Haas v. Henkel, the Supreme Court interpreted the provision broadly to include ‘any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful function of any department of government.’ Notably, there is no requirement that the government be cheated out of money or property.

Wow. Interpreted broadly, almost any form of direct protest against a federal agency becomes a crime.

Also, there’s the crime, which some Trump associates have already pleaded guilty to, of lying to federal officials. Perjury is a crime, of course. And that’s sensible. A duly constituted court of law can’t function without some incentive to make people tell the truth. But federal law enforcement officers are not the court. People might have all sort of reasons they don’t want their personal lives picked over by federal officials. It’s on the federal officials to find a way to build a case without being overly invasive.

Again, I’m no fan of Trump, and I want the investigation to continue. But we should be cautious about overly empowering federal law enforcement. You would think this would have been a lesson Democrats would have learned during the Clinton administration.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, there’s no evidence yet that anything Mueller comes up with will be persuasive politically to Republicans or Trump’s supporters. And that is key to this whole effort to understand what happened in 2016. If we can’t agree on a shared set of facts and a set of values for what’s acceptable in our republic, we have years of political poison ahead of us.

Trump and stability

While Trump has always been erratic – adjusting his message to suit his audience and mood and reflecting the last person he talked to – I’ve begun to worry about his stability more and more.

With Hicks leaving, Kushner on the ropes, Mueller progressing, and ongoing tension with his staff and cabinet secretaries, he will feel isolated. Reportedly he is planning to replace his National Security Advisor. Among the choices – again, reportedly – is Josh Bolton, who has advocated for nuclear war with North Korea. We can’t count on him to keep his own counsel. We are in dangerous times.

By the way, this danger is partly a consequence of Congress allowing an imperial presidency to grow. The office has become vested with far too much authority and power. It might have to step up. But for that to happen, the Republicans in Congress would have to choose country over party, and that is cold comfort.

Only half-jokingly, I wonder if Fox & Friends could calm him down…

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Pocket change

I’m taking some time today to try to wrap my mind around the financial connections between Trump world – Jared Kushner, etc. – and Russian financiers. The stories are convoluted and detailed, with a fair amount of guesswork as to what the actual connections are. (Let’s see what Mueller puts together. Another indictment Friday coming up?)

But here’s one takeaway: Reading these stories, you realize that the savings you’ve worked your entire life to build up is at best a rounding error to these people – if not just a cute, insignificant bit of pocket change. (And I say that as someone who is doing well by US standards and spectacularly by global standards.)

How do we fool ourselves into thinking these people can relate to us or represent us?

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Many Americans voted to make an admitted sexual harasser president. Just sayin’.

If you are critical of Harvey Weinstein and you voted for Trump, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution to sexual harassment.

On a related topic, this is a key reason I came to dislike Bill Clinton and be suspicious of the Democratic Party. Had he been a Republican, they never would have defended him like they did. None of us can avoid bias in our politics, but party politics seems to make us especially stupid.

Oh, and if you’re one of these people that wants to bring Hillary Clinton into this for some reason, I can only remind you that she’s not the president.

K.T. McFarland could learn a lot in Singapore – or not

So, it appears that Singapore is being considered as the next stop for K.T. McFarland. She could take over the job of ambassador here. McFarland is currently a deputy national security adviser within the Trump administration, but her continuing in that role has been in doubt since Michael Flynn was fired as national security adviser.

From what I know of her public statements, she could face some challenges here. Or alternatively, she might have an enlightening time. Let me explain.

One of her public themes appears to be that “radical Islamic terrorism” represents an existential threat to Western civilization. I assume this played a prominent role in her getting a job in Trump administration security circles because of Pres. Trump’s frequent criticism that Pres. Obama failed to recognize such a threat and do enough about it.

For my part, I don’t have a problem with labeling radical Islamic terrorism as *a* threat. Obviously, it is. And it could be quite horrible in its most extreme scenarios, like a dirty bomb. But I think it’s ridiculous to label it as an *existential* threat to the West. I really don’t see Islamic armies conquering and taking over the U.S. or any European countries any time soon. (No, that’s what we do in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.) And despite fear-mongering on the right, I really don’t see a wholesale conversion to Shariah law, either.

However, countries with significant or majority Muslim populations do face challenges of this sort. In addition to terrorist attacks, if radical ideologies gain wide support, they can fundamentally change the character of the nation and threaten the existing less religious – or even secular – governments.

That’s why – and this might come as a shock to some American conservatives – you routinely see governments in southeast Asia taking steps to contain Islamic extremism. In Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country on the planet, you see arrests and prosecutions of extremists and the president calling on citizens to resist radicalization. In Malaysia, which is a majority Muslim country, you see arrests of suspected ISIS supporters and convictions of others, as well as other steps. And in Singapore, which is almost 15% percent Muslim, an imam that made what was considered radical statements was forced to apologize and to pay a fine, while at the same time the country’s leaders express their firm commitment to a multi-religious society.

So, should Mrs. McFarland come to Singapore, I’ll be curious to find out what she’ll learn as she lives here. Maybe she’ll stick to her strong condemnations of Islamic radicalism (which has the possibility of backfiring and breeding anti-Western sentiments). Or maybe she’ll start to see that some Islamic countries are often just as committed to stopping radicalism as the West. (It is, after all, largely a recent import from the Middle East.) If she learns a little and moderates her views, she might become an effective representative of the U.S. in Singapore and beyond.

The Republican Difficulty with Reality

Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer has, rightfully, been criticized for a briefing he provided on Saturday in which he made a number of false claims regarding the attendance at Pres. Trump’s inauguration. On Monday, at a regular press conference, he tried to spin some of these claims – for example, arguing that he was really talking about total viewing audience. But what has ultimately gotten the most attention was not Spicer’s performance, but how it was later defended. On Sunday on Meet the Press, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s argued that Spicer was simply laying “alternative facts” than what were being reported by the press.

Alternative facts. Let me be charitable for just a moment. Sometimes there genuinely is a different set of facts that make better sense of a situation than others. That’s just part of debate. In that context, various facts should be heard.

But that’s not what was going on here. Spicer made some demonstrably false claims (and possibly lied, depending on whether he knew they were false) which were easily disproven by photographic and other evidence, and rather than accept that evidence, there was an attempt instead to create an alternate reality. All of this was done apparently at the direct order of Pres. Trump (perhaps as a test of his loyalty).

For Pres. Trump himself, falsehoods and lies are nothing new. He only gained traction as a politician by pushing birther conspiracies regarding Pres. Obama’s qualifications to be president, even after compelling evidence had been released proving him wrong. Over the course of the campaign, he lied routinely. He continues to push self-serving claims with no evidence. For example, he told congressional leaders that illegal immigrants are the reason he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes.

But for as bad as Pres. Trump was on the campaign trail, this latest episode is significant because, one, it happened during his actual administration, and two, it’s the latest example of how the Republican Party has come to have a difficult relationship with truth and reality – of Republicans simply believing and saying whatever they want, regardless of the evidence.

Essentially, we’re revisiting through the bad old days of the George W. Bush administration. In 2004, Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times what was to become a famous article about how the administration led the nation into the Iraq War. One passage stood out:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“Reality-based community”. This phrase struck a nerve among many people, some of whom made it a point of pride to call themselves a member. And why not? Seriously, who in their right mind would not want to be reality-based?

Apparently some in the Bush administration did not. Instead, they were obsessed with action, impact, acts of will – even if these had to be realized by ignoring facts, denying reality, and stifling debate. In that sort of world, the Enlightenment is dead; principle is thrown out the window; and only raw power remains.

This sort of mindset still seems to have a home in the Republican Party almost 15 years later.

One obvious example is the continuing denial of the seriousness of climate change, including by the soon to be head of the EPA. Other examples are more subtle. For example, there is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pressing Democrats to allow the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to go forward after blocking Pres. Obama from doing so many months before the election. Another is expecting respect for Pres. Trump – it can be so demoralizing – even though disrespect for Pres. Obama was fierce during his tenure – even disturbing (to say the least). It can even be absurd, with Pres. Trump even claiming that it wasn’t raining during his speech, which objectively, it was. (Rain truthers?)

Look, all of us are subject to fudging the truth to fit our preconceived ideas. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s just part of human nature. Partisan politics is especially subject to this. Positions seem to be changing faster than ever, given the needs of the party line. For example, thanks to this election, some Democrats and some on the left now think intelligence agencies are great and to be trusted. But again, I think most of the action is among the Republicans and on the right: Julian Assange and Wikileaks are now great; it appears infrastructure spending – which is a form of stimulus – is great; Russia is just fine, even if there is some evidence of interfering with our election; and bullying private companies to keep jobs in the United States is okay. The Affordable Care Act has been demonized, of course, even though it started life as a conservative idea and was first enacted by a Republican governor. Even fake news producers, who have money on the line, banked more on Republicans than Democrats. Love of party makes everybody stupid. But it makes some stupider than others.

Even though this tradition of reality denial by Republicans has been with us for a while, there is a new twist – and it’s a dangerous one. It could be argued that all of the deeply cynical positions and behaviors I describe above were all for the greater causes Republicans and conservatives say they support, like freedom and markets and so forth. I don’t believe that’s true, but I’ll grant it for a moment. This is not what appears to be happening in the Trump era. Instead, truth will be twisted simply in the service of his unrelenting egomania. In the end, we won’t even have the pretense of reality-denying having some larger national purpose. Instead, it will all be to protect and aggrandize our supreme leader. And that is a very dangerous development for the republic.

On a more hopeful note, there is a way out. It involves getting out of your own head. It requires listening to people who disagree with you. It implies that you cultivate the virtue of compromise. You have to be willing to admit your are wrong and change your mind. But all of this simultaneously implies vulnerability and that you practice the virtue of humility – something that I surely don’t see in Pres. Trump, and see less and less in his party.