Because This Is America

This is America. This was the second week of the Trump impeachment hearings. Those were very American. In a parliamentary system there’d be a vote of “no confidence” and snap elections. That can happen at any time – this isn’t working, let’s try again. Americans, however, are stuck with the guy for four or eight years. He cannot be indicted for any crime of any kind while in office – not in the Constitution but a general agreement that has kept the nation from bitter chaos and far too risky loss of continuity since the late seventies. So if something is going wrong, all that’s available to fix the problem is impeachment. And that’s almost impossible. Strange people do stay in office forever. Our system is a bit odd.

And now this happened:

Two White House national security officials testified before the House’s impeachment inquiry on Tuesday that President Trump’s request to Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic rivals was inappropriate, and one of them said it validated his “worst fear” that American policy toward that country would veer off course.

Hours later, two more witnesses – another former White House national security official and a former top American diplomat – charted a more careful course but said under oath that the president’s requests on a July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine were not in line with American national security goals.

Mr. Morrison, the council’s former senior director for Russia and Europe, testified in a second session that went well into Tuesday evening alongside Kurt D. Volker, the former United States special envoy to Ukraine. Public testimony from both men had been requested by Republicans, but they also confirmed key details of the case Democrats are building against Mr. Trump.

The problem was that the second set of witnesses had been called by the Republicans, to testify that Trump did nothing wrong. That was what they had said in their closed-door testimony weeks earlier. But they had both changed their minds. They understood things now, embarrassing the Republicans who had insisted that they be heard, but that wasn’t the issue. The noble soldier was:

Taking their cues from the White House, Republicans moved aggressively to try to undercut the day’s lead witness, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert. They tried to raise questions about Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, and sought to portray the concerns expressed by Colonel Vindman and an aide to Vice President Mike Pence as merely the opinions of unelected, and even unreliable, bureaucrats second-guessing the president of the United States.

Colonel Vindman responded by invoking his sense of duty as an American and an officer to explain why he was so alarmed by Mr. Trump’s request that he reported his concerns to White House lawyers.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Colonel Vindman, an Iraq war combat veteran who testified in his deep-blue Army dress uniform covered with military ribbons. “It was probably an element of shock – that maybe, in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”

And the other witness felt the same way:

Sitting beside him during the morning’s hearing, Jennifer Williams, a diplomat serving on Vice President Pence’s national security staff, reiterated that she found Mr. Trump’s phone call with Mr. Zelensky “unusual and inappropriate.” She said she was struck that Mr. Trump was pressing a foreign leader about a personal domestic political issue, though she did not report any concerns at the time and spoke in more reserved terms.

On the call, Mr. Trump veered off talking points prepared by Colonel Vindman and pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden and a debunked theory that Democrats conspired with Ukraine to interfere in the 2016 election.

That was it. Something had gone terribly wrong here. Every witness of every kind had said so, but all eyes were on only one witness:

For Colonel Vindman in particular, the testimony amounted to an unusual act of public criticism of the president by a White House employee – and it came at an immediate cost.

The colonel, who came to the United States as a refugee at 3, referred to his family’s history in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, noting that in Russia, “offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.”

Addressing his father, who he credited with “the right decision” in leaving the Soviet Union to seek refuge in the United States 40 years ago, Colonel Vindman said, “Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

But as Colonel Vindman sat in the stately House Ways and Means Committee Room, the official, taxpayer-funded Twitter account of the White House posted a critical quote in which Tim Morrison, his former boss at the National Security Council, questioned Colonel Vindman’s “judgment.”

He seemed heroic. The president was sneering at him. Choose sides. Or get picky:

In another exchange that touched on Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, Steve Castor, the top Republican staff lawyer, asked him about three instances when Oleksandr Danylyuk, the director of Ukraine’s national security council, had approached him with offers to become the country’s defense minister.

Colonel Vindman confirmed the offers and testified that he repeatedly declined, dismissing the idea out of hand and reporting the approaches to his superiors and to counterintelligence officials.

“Every single time, I dismissed it,” he said, adding: “I’m an American. I came here when I was a toddler.”

Mr. Danylyuk himself said Tuesday that the offer was not a serious one.

In fact, the two of them had been joking around, so there was this:

Democrats fumed, accusing Republicans of sliming a patriot because he had a politically inconvenient story to tell.

And then the Army, sticking up for one of their own, pointedly made Trump and the Republicans look bad:

The Army has placed Alexander Vindman, an expert on Ukraine and a central figure in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, and his family under 24-hour security monitoring after Trump targeted Vindman in tweets accusing Vindman of being politically opposed to Trump…

U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal that the Army has in recent weeks conducted a security assessment of Vindman and his family’s home and internet presence, and said they are prepared to move the Vindman’s to a military base if there are any threats to their safety.

A few more Trump Tweets and someone is going to get a gun and “take care” of this irritating Army officer, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker has more:

As Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman sat in a stately chamber testifying on Tuesday, the White House posted on its official Twitter account a message denouncing his judgment. His fellow witness, Jennifer Williams, had barely left the room when the White House issued a statement challenging her credibility.

In President Trump’s Washington, where attacks on his enemies real or perceived have become so routine that they now often pass unnoticed, that might not seem all that remarkable – but for the fact that Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams both still work for the very same White House that was publicly assailing them.

With the president’s allies joining in, the two aides found themselves condemned as nobodies, as plotting bureaucrats, as traitors within and, in Colonel Vindman’s case, as an immigrant with dual loyalties. Even for a president who rarely spares the rhetorical howitzer, this represents a new level of bombardment.

In short, Vindman isn’t unique at all, just an extreme example of the usual stuff that Trump does to all his people:

Mr. Trump has publicly disparaged cabinet secretaries, former aides and career officials working elsewhere in the government, but now he is taking aim at people still working for him inside the White House complex by name.

“This White House appears to be cannibalizing itself,” said William C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush. “While many previous White House staffs have feuded with each other and leaked against each other, this is the first time in history I am aware of a White House openly attacking its own staff – especially for merely upholding their constitutional duties.”

And then there’s this:

This reflects the president’s longstanding distrust of the career professionals who populate his White House, just as they have every other. While such officials characterize their work as nonpartisan in service of presidents of either party, Mr. Trump has felt burned since the early days of his administration when internal documents were leaked, including transcripts of two of his phone calls with foreign leaders.

“Nothing is the same anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for Mr. Bush. “Clearly, when the staff leaks presidential phone calls with foreign leaders the first week of the president’s job, the staff is not what the staff used to be. It taints everyone, even good and loyal staffers.”

So, Trump lashes out. So, what else is new? But this guy has a uniform:

Even before raising his hand to take the oath on Tuesday, Colonel Vindman had come under particularly sharp fire. Mr. Trump’s allies on Fox News and elsewhere have questioned his patriotism by noting that he was born in Ukraine, a critique the naturalized citizen rebutted by showing up Tuesday in his Army dress uniform with Combat Infantry Badge and a Purple Heart from his service in Iraq.

And that really got to Trump:

Speaking with reporters, Mr. Trump seemed to scorn Colonel Vindman for appearing in uniform. “I never saw the man,” the president said. “I understand now he wears his uniform when goes in. No, I don’t know Vindman at all.”

And of course there’s a pattern here:

Charles A. Kupchan, who was President Barack Obama’s Europe adviser, said it should come as no surprise that Colonel Vindman and Ms. Williams would be targeted from within. “It is quite unusual for a White House to eat its young,” he said. “But Trump is a president who seems unable to tolerate dissent.”

And that’ll ruin everything:

Andrew Weiss, who was President Bill Clinton’s Russia adviser, said the attacks on Colonel Vindman “must be incredibly demoralizing for career people” still at the National Security Council. “During my time at the NSC there was a bright red line between national security and domestic politics,” he said. “Under Trump, that line has completely disappeared.”

Even some more supportive of Mr. Trump suggested on Tuesday that he stop going after witnesses. “The president should just ignore this whole thing,” Brian Kilmeade, a host on “Fox and Friends,” one of Mr. Trump’s favorite shows, said before the day’s hearings got underway. “Don’t tweet during it. Don’t get outraged over it. It ticks you off.”

Donald Trump wasn’t listening, and he got outplayed too. Mark Leibovich sees masterful stagecraft here:

The uniform made an entrance at the top of the morning.

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient and an Iraq war veteran, strode into the hearing room with chest and shoulders trimmed with his Combat Infantry Badge, his Ranger tab and other recognitions of military service.

He stood there fidgeting next to the witness table, forced to linger on his feet while he waited for the morning’s other witness, Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, to arrive. His hands came to rest at his belt and appeared to be shaking slightly.

But that didn’t matter, because what he wore was everything:

Colonel Vindman, who still works at the White House as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, testified in the House impeachment inquiry in his Army dress uniform, the ultimate witness power move. Oliver L. North, the lieutenant colonel at the center of the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal more than three decades ago, would have a varied and checkered career. Yet the most indelible image of him remains the Marine uniform he wore in his televised hearings.

Visuals matter and so do words:

“It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please,” Colonel Vindman said, correcting Representative Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, who at one point in the morning had addressed him as “Mr. Vindman.”

This was, depending on your point of view, either a deft pulling of rank or a petty show of arrogance. But there was no missing the subtext beneath so much of Colonel Vindman’s testimony: He was, he said, a patriot, loyal to no partisan interest and driven by no animus to the president.

He was not a “Never Trumper,” as President Trump himself had suggested, using what has become the president’s catchall dismissal in this zero-sum capital that he has loomed over for nearly three years. In today’s Washington, you’re either with the president, or your ability to serve the country may be suspect.

And if you’re a “Never Trumper” you’re “human scum” of course, but that’s nonsense:

“I’m not sure I know an official definition of a Never Trumper,” Ms. Williams said during what has become a recurring feature of these hearings, the part where a committee member – in this case Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut — is obliged to ask the witness to assess their level of Never Trumpiness.

“I’d call myself Never Partisan,” Colonel Vindman replied to Mr. Himes.

They were ready for that, but Vindman is more serious than that:

On a few occasions, Colonel Vindman conveyed thanks to his father for having the courage to immigrate to the United States as a refugee from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. To express concerns in the Soviet Union in public testimony “would surely cost me my life,” he said.

This was no small point to make, given that Colonel Vindman has faced threats since he came forward.

“Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected professionals, is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago,” Colonel Vindman said in his opening statement, addressing his father, who was not in the room. “Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”

There was no way for the Republicans to attack that, or this:

Late in the hearing, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, revisited that earlier statement. He asked whether Colonel Vindman’s father was concerned about his son coming forward and subjecting himself to this most severe spotlight.

Yes, his father was “deeply worried,” Colonel Vindman said. “Because in his context it was the ultimate risk.”

But this hearing room was a different context, or at least an ideal Colonel Vindman has spent his professional life fighting for. So no, he said, he was not worried about testifying.

“Because this is America,” he said, as a spontaneous burst of applause rose from the gallery.

Those four words did the trick. He really is going to be much harder to assassinate now. And Jesse Wegman adds this detail:

Republicans tried to dismiss Mr. Trump’s call for investigations of the Bidens as a harmless request. Colonel Vindman shot that down quickly. “The culture I come from, the military culture, when a senior asks you to do something, even if it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request, it’s to be taken as an order.”

Especially given the power disparity between the United States and Ukraine, Colonel Vindman said, it was clear that Mr. Zelensky wasn’t being given a choice. Slowly it dawned on the colonel that Mr. Trump’s true interest was not defending Ukraine against Russian aggression or helping it shake off its long history of official corruption – both longstanding and bipartisan American foreign policy goals.

“It was probably an element of shock that maybe in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security,” he said.

And then he went and did his job, no more, no less, and Max Boot adds this:

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is a decorated and wounded veteran of the Iraq War. He is no coward, and yet his hands were shaking and he was visibly nervous as he read his opening statement on Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee. This was a reminder of what a signal act of bravery it takes for a military officer – or a Foreign Service officer or an intelligence officer – to publicly reveal that the most powerful man in the world has committed impeachable and even criminal conduct.

And he had to face this:

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) stepped in Monday to supply speculation that Vindman “fits” the “profile” of anti-Trump bureaucrats who “try to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office.” His evidence? That Vindman told him in May “that it was the position of the NSC that our relationship with Ukraine should be kept separate from our geopolitical competition with Russia.” Johnson was rightly skeptical that this would be possible, but this is hardly evidence of anti-Trump animus. Presumably Vindman suggested keeping Ukraine separate from relations with Russia because Trump has an inexplicable soft spot for Russia.

It was all nonsense, but not this:

Vindman ended his opening statement with a stirring plea that had some spectators wiping away tears: “Dad, my sitting here today, in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Vindman’s reassurance to his father resonated with me – another Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union who came to the United States as a young boy in the 1970s. People raised in tyrannical regimes such as the Soviet Union grow up with a terror of doing anything that could result in a trip to the gulag. As Vindman said, “In Russia, my act of offering public testimony involving the president would surely cost me my life.”

That paralyzing fear is hard to shake even when you move to a free country. Even today, my 84-year-old, Russian-born stepfather, who has been living in Los Angeles for more than four decades, expresses concern that something terrible might happen to me because of my outspoken criticism of the president.

Perhaps it has come to that, but not quite yet:

Like Vindman, I assure my loved one that I will be fine – and I truly believe this because I am exercising my constitutionally protected free-speech rights. But then I am not an existential threat to Trump’s political survival.

Vindman is. Along with his fellow witnesses, he is presenting incontrovertible evidence that the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

No wonder Vindman is visibly nervous. In testifying anyway, he is vindicating the highest ideals of a country where no man, not even the president, is above the law.

Vindman was not born here, but he is a far better American than the Trump toadies who question his loyalty.

And that’s how the day went. Because this is America.

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The Buried Signal

The problem with transmissions from far away is the signal to noise ratio. The real information, the good stuff, the signal, is often overwhelmed by static, by noise, by nonsense. That has to be filtered out. Out here in Pasadena, the folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories have experts who remove the “noise” from digital images sent back from the edge of the solar system. Look, there’s Pluto! That can take weeks. But earthbound astronomers have the same problem with “light pollution” – there’s hardly a place left anywhere where it’s dark enough to see way out there at night, no place where that billion dollar telescope won’t be flooded by the white haze of the lights from the McDonalds down the street and all the suburbs around it. That’s too much noise.

And of course it’s the same in politics. Right now there’s too much impeachment news, or rumors that there will be news coming soon, or that there’s nothing to see here so move on, folks. That’s the noise. The real information, the good stuff, the signal, is often overwhelmed by static, by noise, by nonsense – some of which isn’t nonsense. But who can tell anymore? Sometimes it seems that it’s all noise.

It isn’t. There’s always a buried signal. The attorney general said everyone got the structure of the American government all wrong:

Attorney General William Barr trashed the so-called resistance movement and mocked Senate Democrats – as well as the Oscar-nominated movie “Vice” – in a marathon speech Friday evening that affirmed his credentials as a staunch defender of presidential power.

Barr was at his most animated in the speech before a friendly crowd. But the substance of his remarks touched on some of the most serious issues facing the country now – including Congress’ ongoing investigations into President Donald Trump, and Barr’s department’s attempts to protect the White House from subpoenas during impeachment and other inquiries.

Before a crowd of high-powered attorneys at the annual confab of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, the attorney general said the Democrats “have decided to drown the executive branch with oversight demands for testimony and documents.”

But he had a different message. Donald Trump has said that Article II of the Constitution gives him absolute power – he can do any damned thing he wants and no one can stop him – and Bill Barr agrees:

“I don’t deny that Congress has some implied authority, but the sheer volume of what we see today, the pursuit of scores of parallel investigations through an avalanche of subpoenas, is plainly designed to incapacitate the executive branch and indeed is touted as such,” Barr said.

Barr also invoked the movie “Vice” and a scene depicting a young Dick Cheney plotting a “new nefarious theory that will allow them to just take over the world”- by giving more power to the president. But Barr said the pushes by the president in recent administrations have attempted to keep the balance of powers in check.

So that young Dick Cheney was an amazing hero back then, restoring the presidency that had been almost destroyed by those who ask any questions, because they thought that they had a right to ask questions, but they were wrong. They didn’t – or something. Barr wasn’t that specific:

“One of the more amusing aspects of modern progressive polemic is their breathless attacks on the unitary executive theory. Blah!” Barr said, pausing with his arms out and eyes bugging, as if imitating a ghost.

“They portray this as some newfangled theory to justify executive power of sweeping and unfettered scope,” he continued.

But the theory is wrong. And that doesn’t matter. He was on a roll:

He also grew serious, describing the loosely organized movement of progressives known as the “resistance” as rhetorically akin to an insurgent group fighting against an “occupying military power,” implying that they believe the Trump administration wasn’t legitimate, which he called a “dangerous” and “indeed incendiary” vision.

“The fact of the matter is that, in waging a scorched earth, no-holds-barred war of ‘resistance’ against this administration, it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law,” Barr said.

It is? Who knew? And who knew that the judiciary was out to destroy the presidency:

Barr saved some of his harshest fire for federal judges – who have routinely shot down attempts by the President to flex executive power and protect his administration’s choices – no matter their political motivations. He discussed judicial rulings that put Trump’s travel ban on hold, for instance.

Barr accused judges of acting “like amateur psychiatrists attempting to discern an executive official’s real motive, often after ordering invasive discovery into the executive branch’s privileged decision-making process.”

In short, those assholes ask questions, and no one should:

Barr has long adhered to a school of legal thought that draws a vision of uncompromising presidential power from the Constitution. That ideology, in line with the unitary executive theory, has guided conservatives for decades, including many of the lawyers in the crowd that Barr addressed Friday evening.

Barr first entered the Justice Department under President George H. W. Bush. As the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, he worked closely with the White House and produced a ten-page memo outlining a broad vision of the executive branch’s power to rebuff Congress’ oversight attempts.

He was selected for the role, he has said, because of his views on strong executive authority, and in his 1989 confirmation hearing for the office, he made clear that he believed the Justice Department owed loyalty to the administration.

And maybe the judiciary is not a co-equal branch of government either. Like Congress, it’s a subsidiary branch of government:

On Friday night, Barr dug into history to make his point. Describing the writing of the founding governmental document at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Barr said, “the real miracle in Philadelphia that summer was the creation” of a strong independent executive.

Jed Shugerman, the Fordham Law professor, has a few things to say about that:

The notion that the American Revolution was against the tyranny of a monarch, Barr said, was a “grammar school civics class version” and “misguided.” Instead, he argued, the founders, having been both oppressed by British Parliament and hampered by their first, ineffectual government, built the Constitution around “the creation of a strong executive.”

But in the present day, Barr warned, a “wrong-headed and atavistic” focus on legislative and judicial oversight has “smothered” the president’s traditional and proper authority.

What? But he had a friendly audience:

The Federalist Society has enjoyed a direct pipeline to the federal bench under the Trump administration. On Friday, its gathering of conservative activists, lawyers, scholars, and judges gave Barr standing ovations before and after his remarks.

The legal community outside the room, meanwhile, spent the weekend expressing horror at the flagrantly partisan, error-filled, and hypocritical commentary coming from the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Barr accused Donald Trump’s political opponents of “sabotage”; simply by adopting the label “resistance,” he said, they “see themselves as engaged in a war to cripple, by any means necessary, a duly elected government.”

He was really getting into this, and Shugerman was not impressed:

Barr’s account of current-day political dynamics, with principled conservatives under attack by power-crazed nihilists on the left, was as unreal and indefensible as his version of American history. Taken together, they outlined the unprecedented and untenable position the attorney general occupies at this moment: When Barr argues for a maximalist, unaccountable unitary executive, he is not simply articulating a matter of theory or principle—he is defending himself from an investigation into his own work, especially his direct involvement in the Ukraine bribery-and-extortion plot.

In the July 25 call records with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump mentioned Barr five times, usually in tandem with Rudy Giuliani, as a key player in the president’s apparent bribery and extortion conspiracy. One particularly chilling passage: “Well, [Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch is] going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”

Barr’s own potential criminal jeopardy deepens with each day of new testimony. The criticisms of his handling of the Mueller report – that the attorney general was acting as the president’s personal lawyer – were prelude, and mild compared to the allegations now.

And something else is going on now:

His remarks are the defensive tactics of an unindicted co-conspirator desperate for attention and clinging to power. And so, as a politician in a political struggle, he sought to rally a gathering of his allies around their shared partisan mythology, or victimology. He is a criminal suspect, Trump’s fixer and enforcer, cloaking himself as both savior and martyr.

He is not only trying to distract. He is also setting a trap to shift the debate from his alleged criminal involvement to his culture war terms.

That’s why Barr said this:

In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the state. … Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursuing a deific end. They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications. They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not seek an earthly paradise.

Shugerman says this:

Yes, he really said that too. Vice President Mike Pence, any comment?

Shugerman notes that Barr had said this a month early in a speech at Notre Dame:

This is not decay. This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values. Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground. Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and the deadly drug epidemic.

Yeah, well, whatever, dude. But the issue now is history. Barr has that wrong:

His internally inconsistent story is that the British had “neutered” the monarchy in the 17th century, long before the American colonies cast off King George III. “Tea patriots well understood that their prime antagonist was an overweening Parliament,” Barr said.

In the same paragraph, after declaring that the revolutionaries knew legislative power to be the real enemy, he acknowledged that they had designed their first government, the Articles of Confederation, as a system of legislative supremacy with “no Executive separate from Congress.”

That’s odd, if liberation from legislative government had been their core goal.

But that was never the issue:

Historical research confirms the anti-royalism of the Revolution and of the Constitutional Convention itself. The grammar school version is taught in grammar school because it is basically correct: The Framers rejected king-like power and chose a middle ground, framed by “faithful execution” language for mid-level executive officers, a single executive in a system of checks and balances.

In fact, they did not seek liberation from the whole concept of legislative government, they created one, and so forth, but not now:

The details of this history are a debate for another day. More urgent here is that Barr relied on ahistorical unitary executive extremism to condemn the Democrats’ subpoenas – his speech avoided the word “Democrat” in favor of “opposition party” – as an abuse of Congress’ oversight role. Curiously, he did not include Congress’ abuse of subpoenas during the Obama administration. He seemed especially worried only about the recent wave of subpoenas. “The costs of this constant harassment are real,” he complained.

Indeed, the potential costs to Bill Barr are even more real. Barr has a conflict of interest as an alleged co-conspirator in a presidential extortion plot. The Department of Justice regulations require recusal when one has a “personal or political relationship with … any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; or any person or organization which he knows has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.”

And now he’s trapped:

Facing criminal scrutiny, Barr knew where to find his base, to find those who would embrace him despite his lawless abuse of power and likely crimes: the Federalist Society. I was once proud to support the Federalist Society from the left. But the ovations, before and after his speech, show that it is hard to distinguish it today from a far-right Trump MAGA rally. And it is hard to find much left from a once-proud society’s founding vision of the rule of law and limited government, nor a trace of its original originalist principles.

Barr, however, was not alone in saying the law is not what everyone thinks it is:

The Trump administration declared on Monday that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy and removing what has been an important barrier to annexation of Palestinian territory.

The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the latest political gift from the Trump administration to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed in two elections this year to push for the annexation of the West Bank.

And it was a big gift:

The United States has in the past described the settlements as illegitimate, and Palestinians have demanded the land for a future state, a goal that has been backed by the United Nations, European governments and American allies across the Middle East.

But President Trump has been persistent in changing United States policy on Israel and the Palestinian territories – moves aimed at bolstering political support for Mr. Netanyahu, who has failed to form a government after two rounds of elections with razor-thin outcomes.

In fact, this may help Netanyahu, but at a price:

Monday’s decision reversed a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department concluding that the settlements were inconsistent with international law. Mr. Pompeo said that ruling “hasn’t advanced the cause of peace.”

“We’ve recognized the reality on the ground,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.

So the law doesn’t really matter much now:

Mr. Netanyahu praised the decision and said it reflected “historical truth, that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” a term for the West Bank. He said Israeli courts were better suited to decide the legality of the settlements, “not biased international forums that pay no attention to history or facts.”

Now the United States agrees with him. The law doesn’t matter. And no other nation on Earth agrees with either of us, so there will be trouble:

Palestinian officials, by now used to unwelcome policy shifts from Mr. Trump, nonetheless summoned new outrage.

“We cannot express horror and shock because this is a pattern, but that doesn’t make it any less horrific,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestine Liberation Organization official. “It sends a clear signal that they have total disregard for international law, for what is right and just, and for the requirements of peace.”

And Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Trump administration’s decision was the latest of “unceasing attempts to replace international law with the ‘law of the jungle.'”

That’s harsh, but that is what the man is saying:

Mr. Pompeo said that the issue must be solved by the Israelis and the Palestinians. “And arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace,” he said.

That’s it! International law does NOT bring peace! Who knew? But this was obvious:

The timing of Mr. Pompeo’s announcement is almost certain to bolster Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes should Israel be headed to a third round of elections this year. He denied that the decision was tied to Israel’s political stalemate, saying, “We conducted our review, and this was the appropriate time to move forward.”

Oddly, some thought that other things mattered more:

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, criticized the American policy shift and maintained that the settlements were illegal and eroded the chances for peace. She called on Israel to “end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power.”

Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi of Jordan, which is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, said on Twitter that the settlements “kills the two-state solution” efforts.

But others were practical:

Oded Revivi, a spokesman for the Yesha Council, an umbrella group of West Bank settlements, said he believed the timing of the announcement sought to both help Mr. Netanyahu remain in power and also bolster Mr. Trump among evangelical and Jewish voters in the United States who support the current right-wing government in Israel. He said it also served as a reminder to right-wing Israelis to reap whatever more windfalls the Trump administration might supply.

Grab what you can before the United States elects a new president, a Democrat, one of those people who is more careful and doesn’t play with the rules, one who follows the law.

But this may all work out. Trump did find the one man who will finally bring peace to the region:

The Trump administration’s peace effort is run by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to deliver what the president has described as the “ultimate deal.”

No one has heard a word about that, but at least Trump didn’t suggest that this would be the “Final Solution” – but for the Palestinians this kinds of sounds like the start of that.

Ah, and for reference, Isabel Kershner offers this:

The United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice have all said that Israeli settlements on the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war and has occupied the territory ever since. The Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by 192 nations in the aftermath of World War II, says that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The statute that established the International Criminal Court in 1998 classifies such transfers as war crimes, as well as any destruction or appropriation of property not justified by military necessity.

Israel argues that a Jewish presence has existed on the West Bank for thousands of years and was recognized by the League of Nations in 1922. Jordan’s rule over the territory, from 1948 to 1967, was never recognized by most of the world, so Israel also argues there was no legal sovereign power in the area and therefore the prohibition on transferring people from one state to the occupied territory of another does not apply.

The International Court of Justice rejected that argument in an advisory opinion in 2004, ruling that the settlements violated international law.

That’s clear enough, except for this:

Under the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, both sides agreed that the status of Israeli settlements would be resolved by negotiation. However, negotiations have stalled and there have been no active peace talks since 2014.

And then it gets even more complicated:

More than 400,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank alongside more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

Some of the settlements are home to religious Zionists who believe that the West Bank, which Israel refers to by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, is their biblical birthright. Many secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews also moved there largely for cheaper housing.

Some settlements were strategically located in line with Israel’s security interests. Other, more isolated communities were established for ideological reasons, including an effort to prevent a contiguous Palestinian state.

The Trump administration’s declaration may be seen by supporters of the settlement enterprise as giving a green light to Israeli annexation plans.

But not so fast:

Israeli experts cautioned that might not be the case.

“It’s one thing saying the settlements are not in violation of international law and another to say whether they are good for peace or not,” said Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Trump administration neither rejected nor endorsed Mr. Netanyahu’s annexation proposal, he said, and it remains “an open question” how it would react if Israel unilaterally annexed West Bank territory.

Who knows? The attorney general says everyone has the Constitutional all wrong – the president has absolute authority and absolute power and no one else does. The secretary of state says international law only messes things up for everyone. This is what Trump has been saying all along. All the impeachment stuff is just noise. This is the buried signal.

Posted in Donald Trump, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

As California Goes

Don’t you want the smartest and the best person for the job? Of course the nation tried that with Obama – smart as a whip, a guy who knew lots about everything, gracious and careful and polite – and the backlash was Trump – who was none of those things. And those of us who ended up out here in California have those conservative Facebook “friends” – the folks from high school who stayed in Pittsburgh or Cleveland and never set foot anywhere else – who scream that Obama was arrogant and despised them, so they hate him, and they hate folks with fancy degrees, or any degrees, or who know another language, or who like sushi, and so on. And of course they hate California. They ask those of us who ended up here how we can stand to live here. They ask how anyone can stand to live here, what with the earthquakes and the massive fires and all those “illegal” people from “down there” who speak another language, telling each other secrets behind our backs, laughing at us all, and who want to kill us all.

Fox News says it’s like that. Stephen Miller, the man who shapes Trump’s immigration policy and makes all the specific policy decisions in these matters for the president, graduated from Santa Monica High School and says it’s like that. But it isn’t. The weather is good. The food is wonderful – the place is a melting pot where hundreds of different languages fill the street every day and every ethnic subgroup of a subgroup has opened a cool little restaurant. And all the kids play together. They’re just kids. Yes, there are gangs, and the homeless everywhere, but that’s just like Chicago or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or any major city in this nation set up to work well for the very few and for no one else at all.

And this is the future. The future was born twenty-five years ago:

Eagle Rock attorney Don Justin Jones walked around Los Angeles State Historical Park on Saturday morning wearing a T-shirt with a crossed-out photo of former California Gov. Pete Wilson and an umbrella that stated “Chale Trump” (“No Way Trump”).

“I’m here to remember what we started,” he said, as people streamed into a tent-ringed field to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the campaign against Proposition 187. The 1994 California ballot initiative sought to deny illegal immigrants social services but instead set off a political earthquake that helped to turn California deep blue.

Not many people showed up for this but this was more about the future anyway:

We are California: 25 Years Beyond 187, the coalition behind the rally, expected far more than the several hundred revelers who showed up Saturday. But the event nevertheless energized attendees, nearly all who said they were there because the United States is now going through the same xenophobia that California weathered a quarter-century ago…

“Trump is worse than Pete Wilson,” said 26-year-old Vicky Ramos of Lynwood, who was too young to remember Proposition 187 when it happened but learned about it at Cal State Los Angeles. “So we gotta show people that, like Californians beat back 187’s racism, we can do the same in 2020.”

“This is about 187, but not that it happened 25 years ago. It’s today,” said Maria Elena Durazo, who was a labor organizer in 1994 and is now a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. “We got to be just as organized now as we were then because of Trump, if not more.”

And they were serious:

Everyone was so engaged in politics that a stellar musical lineup that included Latin jazz legend Pete Escovedo and R&B singer Aloe Blacc came off as almost an afterthought. Instead, rally-goers cheered on a parade of political dignitaries, who spoke between acts to share their stories from 25 years ago and urged everyone to participate in the 2020 elections and beyond.

But wait. What happened twenty-five years ago? The Los Angeles Times’ George Skelton explains that:

The lofty position held by California Republicans 25 years ago when Proposition 187 passed seems unimaginable today. It was a high-water mark for the party that wouldn’t last long. The California GOP has been sinking into oblivion ever since…

Proposition 187 was the ballot initiative pushed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson that would have denied schooling, nonemergency healthcare and other public services to immigrants living here illegally. It also would have turned teachers into federal immigration snitches, requiring them to report to authorities any kids they suspected of being in the country illegally. A heartless task.

The measure passed in a near landslide 25 years ago last week, 59% to 41%. But the next day a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order and the act never took effect. A year later, another federal judge permanently tossed out Proposition 187. And in 1999, new Democratic Gov. Gray Davis dropped the state’s appeal.

Turn out the lights, the party’s over:

The California GOP had a glorious night on Nov. 8, 1994. Wilson defeated Democratic state Treasurer Kathleen Brown – the daughter and sister of two governors – by a whopping 14.6% margin. Republicans won five of seven statewide offices, including the two biggies: governor and attorney general.

They haven’t won a single statewide office since 2006. Republicans won a slim majority of seats in the state Assembly for the first time in 26 years. That lasted just one term. Today, Democrats hold a supermajority in each legislative house and Republicans are essentially irrelevant.

But wait, there’s more:

Of the 52 U.S. House seats up for election in 1994, Democrats and Republicans split them evenly, 26 to 26. In last year’s election, Republicans were tossed out of seven seats and wound up holding only seven against the Democrats’ 46.

Twenty-five years ago, Republicans made up 37% of registered voters, Democrats 49% and independents 10%. By last November’s election, Republicans had declined to 24% and were embarrassingly exceeded by independents who were at nearly 28%. Democrats were about 44%.

So since 187, the California GOP has been in free fall, and it still is…

The campaign for 187 frightened and angered many Latinos just as their population was rising rapidly. And the harsh rhetoric put them hopelessly out of reach for the Republican Party in future elections.

In March, 2016, Kyle Cheney reported on that happening again:

Reeling from a second straight loss to Barack Obama, a flailing Republican Party in 2013 found its culprit: Mitt Romney’s callous tone toward minorities. Instead of being doomed to irrelevance in a changing America, the party would rebrand as a kinder, more inclusive GOP. They called their findings an “autopsy,” and party leaders from Paul Ryan to Newt Gingrich welcomed it with fanfare.

But even then, Donald Trump was lurking.

“New @RNC report calls for embracing ‘comprehensive immigration reform,'” he wrote in a little-noticed tweet, nestled alongside digs at Mark Cuban and Anthony Weiner on the day of the report’s release. “Does the @RNC have a death wish?”

Pundits laughed it off as the buffoonish ramble of a fringe New York billionaire on that March 2013 day, but what Trump didn’t say – and what the party establishment couldn’t have imagined – is that, three years later, he would be the one on the verge of making that death wish come true. The billionaire has not only ignored the report’s conclusions, he has run a campaign that moved the party in the exact opposite direction.

And he has, since then, continued that effort. He will do for America what Pete Wilson did for California. He will make a major political party, his party, irrelevant.

But it’s not quite that simple. Out here there were other factors at play, as George Skelton dutifully notes:

Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who has been highly critical of the GOP for several years, notes that when the Cold War ended, the aerospace industry collapsed in California. The manufacturing base also deteriorated. That sent Republican middle-class engineers and blue-collar workers fleeing to other states looking for jobs.

Meanwhile, he says, the burgeoning tech industry attracted many left-leaning “progressives” into California.

“All three of them” – 187, loss of middle-class jobs and the tech explosion – “happened at the same time,” Madrid says. “Any one of them would have upset the Republican Party.”

And there’s a way to sum that up:

Dan Schnur, who was Wilson’s spokesman in 1994 and is now a political communications professor at USC and UC Berkeley, says: “What killed the Republican Party in California wasn’t Prop 187. It was their refusal to adjust. California changed. And California Republicans refused to change with it.”

And that’s happening again, as David Nakamura reports:

When Kentucky’s Republican governor lost his bid for reelection two weeks ago despite President Trump’s active endorsement, the president and his allies brushed it off by declaring that Trump had nearly dragged an unpopular incumbent across the finish line.

On Sunday, a day after another Trump-backed GOP gubernatorial candidate fell in Louisiana, the president and his surrogates barely mounted a defense.

In a barrage of 40 tweets and retweets by Sunday evening, Trump didn’t mention Eddie Rispone’s loss to incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), even though the president had held two campaign rallies in the state in the 10 days before the election aimed at boosting his chances.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel – who had publicly praised Trump after the Kentucky elections in which the GOP won five other statewide races – also was mum on Louisiana.

The only response was this:

On Fox News Sunday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) couldn’t avoid weighing in after host Chris Wallace asked him whether the loss made Trump look bad.

“What he said was he’d be made to look bad whether he came in the state or not,” Scalise responded, before crediting Trump with helping Rispone, a businessman, force a runoff election with Edwards after holding a rally in the state on the eve of the bipartisan primary last month.

In short, Trump did what he could and none of this is Trump’s fault, unless Trump has just pulled a Pete Wilson:

For Trump the back-to-back losses of GOP gubernatorial candidates in red Southern states is more than just a bad look. It’s a warning sign that the president’s strategy of focusing strictly on maintaining the strong support of his conservative base might not be enough to help fellow Republicans or even himself in 2020 amid the House Democrats’ impeachment probe that has imperiled his presidency.

And the reason for that is obvious:

“What Trump did in Louisiana was increase voter participation. While he increased the pro-Trump turnout, he also increased the anti-Trump turnout. That’s kind of the lesson here,” said Ron Faucheux, a nonpartisan political polling analyst based in New Orleans.

Faucheux acknowledged that Trump helped Rispone in the primary, but he emphasized that the candidate who had tightly embraced the president ultimately had little else to sell to voters than that relationship – a similar dynamic faced by Bevin.

“Donald Trump likes me!” That’s it? That wasn’t enough:

In Louisiana, state GOP leaders had pleaded with the president to personally get involved in the race, and Trump held a rally with Rispone in Bossier City on Thursday during which the president cast the contest in personal terms. Referring to Bevin’s loss in Kentucky, Trump complained that the media pinned the defeat on him.

“So you’ve got to give me a big win, please,” he told the crowd.

Why? No one likes a whiner. And the writing is on the wall now:

The losses from last year have continued in some crucial elections this month, including in Virginia where Democrats gained control of the state legislature for the first time in a generation.

On top of those defeats, Republicans are facing a wave of retirements in Congress, as once-safe incumbents see a shaky political landscape in 2020 that will be a referendum on the president. Polls have shown that a majority of the public supports the House Democrats’ impeachment probe, though a smaller percentage backs a measure to formally recommend removing Trump from office.

Maybe it is time for Republicans to walk away from this man and the political party he has made irrelevant everywhere but Tupelo:

Despite the losses in Kentucky and Louisiana, Trump remains popular in the South, and he has taken credit for helping in the Mississippi governor’s race where Lt. Gov. Tate Reed (R), with whom Trump appeared at a campaign rally, defeated state Attorney General Jim Hood this month.

But still, there are questions:

“The gubernatorial results in 2019 in Kentucky and Louisiana are in no way a referendum on President Trump or a foreshadowing of the 2020 presidential election,” RNC spokesman Steve Guest said on Sunday. “The Democrats who ran for governor in those red states aren’t anything like the far left candidates running against President Trump.”

“It’s one thing to endorse somebody and to help give them your support base,” Faucheux said. “It’s something different to hover over and take over the whole campaign. When that happens, voters begin to ask, ‘Who is this guy Rispone and why can’t he stand on his own two feet?'”

Nothing was going as planned. Even the base was not buying what Trump was selling. But the problem might have been the product offered for sale. Trump was selling a chance for voters to keep Donald Trump from being embarrassed. Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman put that this way:

When President Trump showed up in Louisiana for the third time in just over a month to try to help Republicans win the governor’s race, he veered off script and got to the heart of why he was staging such an unusual political intervention. His attempt to lift Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky to victory this month had failed, Mr. Trump explained, and it would look bad for him to lose another race in a heavily Republican state.

But no one cared about that:

Not only did Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, win re-election by more than 40,000 votes, he did so with the same coalition that propelled Governor-elect Andy Beshear to victory in Kentucky and that could put the president’s re-election chances in grave jeopardy next year. Like Mr. Beshear, Mr. Edwards energized a combination of African-Americans and moderate whites in and around the urban centers of his state, building decisive margins in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.

Out here, the Republican Party was destroyed by similar forces – traditional jobs disappeared and the techies and young urban hipsters moved in, the suburbs grew too, as did the number and range of minority voters. The world changed. And it keeps changing. And there are those damned suburban voters:

The results in Kentucky and Louisiana are particularly ominous for the president, in part because they indicate that his suburban problem extends to traditionally conservative Southern states and may prove even more perilous in the moderate Midwest next year.

They also reveal political weakness for the president at a moment he is embroiled in a deepening impeachment inquiry and desperately needs to project strength with his own party. And as he enters what will likely be a difficult re-election campaign, the two states emphatically demonstrated that he has become just as much of a turnout lever for the opposition as with his own supporters.

“If you had any doubt that Trump was a human repellent spray for suburban voters who have a conservative disposition, Republicans getting wiped out in the suburbs of New Orleans, Louisville and Lexington should remove it,” said Tim Miller, a Republican strategist and outspoken critic of the president.

But there has to be an explanation for this, and someone to blame too:

The Louisiana results are a stinging rebuke for the president, because he spent so much time there and because Trump allies couldn’t chalk it up entirely to local factors as they did for Kentucky, where Mr. Bevin was deeply unpopular. And even before the Louisiana race was called on Saturday night, finger-pointing from the Capitol to the White House to Mr. Trump’s campaign broke out about why he spent so much political capital on the race in the first place.

In fact, no one knew what he had been thinking:

Mr. Trump carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016, so the outcome of the governor’s race carries no implications for his own re-election, the balance of power in Congress or the president’s policy agenda. And the moderate Mr. Edwards has relentlessly cultivated Mr. Trump, showing up at the White House every chance he gets – so it was not even an opportunity to defeat a critic.

Some of the president’s advisers were mystified, therefore, that the White House would repeatedly send him to a state irrelevant to his re-election for a candidate he scarcely knows, Eddie Rispone, after they had just been scalded in their attempt to rescue Mr. Bevin in another safely red state.

In Congress, Louisiana lawmakers and their aides grumbled that Mr. Trump was not being shown quality polling indicating how formidable Mr. Edwards was with Republican-leaning voters.

“There were people who are normally part of the Republican base who voted for the governor,” said Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, noting that the portrayal of Mr. Edwards as a liberal extremist was ineffective given his views on cultural issues and credentials as a West Pointer turned Army Ranger. “He’s a very likable man and a man of character.”

But none of this mattered, because this president is a man with a fragile ego:

The main instigator for the president’s involvement in the races, many Republicans said, was Mr. Trump himself, who simply craves the adulation of his supporters and is singularly focused on notching victories, no matter the details. He is even more eager to flex his political muscle in the face of impeachment, and has surrounded himself with several aides who either defer to his whims regardless of the neon-flashing signs of risk before them, or know little about politics.

People close to Mr. Trump – who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive matters – said he viewed the campaigns he had weighed in on mostly as opportunities for gratification. And with few seasoned political advisers in his inner circle – his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has control over the president’s campaign, has never worked on another race – there was nobody to tell him that attacking an anti-abortion rights, pro-gun Democrat like Mr. Edwards as a radical would be folly.

No one warned Pete Wilson that demonizing Hispanics, in California, was folly, all those years ago. But the man is insecure:

Mr. Trump, of course, is not the first president to be faulted for his party’s losses. But few have so openly invited the risk of being blamed for them.

“Donald Trump just happens to relish this centrality more than most,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, “and has a tendency to say the quiet part loud, sometimes to his detriment.”

And this is how the Republican Party dies. Pete Wilson showed the way. And yes, as California goes, so goes the nation, sooner or later. This may be sooner.

Posted in End of the Republican Party, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Someone Normal

The public phase of the Trump impeachment inquiry finally began, and quickly became theater, or at last theatrical. This was about outrage, outrage at Trump trashing whatever was good about how America had gone about being America, or outrage that the snotty and snitty Democrats were trying to overthrow the landslide election of Donald Trump – the man who would make America great again, at which point those who had been left behind by the modern world – the urban world – the world of college degrees and artisanal bespoke lettuce – would rule the world once again, as it had been in 1953 or so, with the right sort of people in charge – straight evangelical Christian white male gun owners.

But it isn’t that simple. There’s Donald Trump. He’s hard to defend, and that led to all sorts of strangeness. Frank Bruni notes that that led to this:

I came to your house with a gun. At least imagine I did. I tied you to a chair, took a step back and repeatedly fired. But my arm twitched; every bullet missed. Meanwhile, you slipped your knots and fled.

By the reasoning of Representative Jim Jordan, I did absolutely nothing wrong.

You’re alive! Not a drop of blood on you! An unconsummated crime is no crime at all, or so Jordan, one of the Republican Party’s more rococo philosophers, argued on Wednesday in defense of President Trump. Ukraine got its military aid; Trump did not get his investigation of the Bidens. To Jordan, that’s proof of innocence.

To a normal person, that’s proof of incompetence.

That should reassure his critics:

Trump’s an autocrat all right, but the silver lining is that he’s an inept one. All strongmen should be this weak…

Bruni sees the bind in which the Republicans find themselves:

They’re dismissing Wednesday’s and Friday’s hearings, held in public, as pure theater. But they complained about the closed-door testimony beforehand. They’re shrugging off the accounts of William Taylor, George Kent and others as hearsay. But the White House has decreed that such firsthand witnesses as Mick Mulvaney not cooperate.

One moment, Mulvaney publicly acknowledges the shakedown of Ukraine’s president, insists that is how foreign policy is done and tells the media to “get over it.” The next, he tells the media that they’re reprehensible fabulists for reporting exactly what he said. One moment, Republicans completely ignore Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call and claim that there’s no direct evidence of his bullying and – yes, Nancy Pelosi is right – his bribery. The next, they acknowledge the call, sigh over Trump’s behavior but say that it’s hardly impeachable.

They don’t have much here. Trump’s an autocrat but he’s an inept one, so everyone should calm down and move on. That won’t happen. Inept won’t do. Someone should know what they’re doing. That’s what the Democrats have been arguing. A functioning government isn’t a threat to anyone’s freedom, but that augment needed a visible symbol, or a champion, or something. They needed someone normal.

They found someone. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser explains how that normal person shook up everything:

For a few hours this Friday, an unassuming career diplomat named Marie (Masha) Yovanovitch did something that I thought had become impossible in Trump’s Washington: she managed to hold on to her amazement and outrage at the President’s amazing and outrageous actions. In this hyper-partisan, hyper-political time, she was neither.

Nearly three years into this Presidency, that is no given. A state of weary cynicism has taken hold regarding Trump, among his supporters and also his critics. He is what he is. What can we do about it? Even impeachment has quickly come to be seen through this lens. Members of Congress are all too likely to vote the party line. Does any of it matter?

That woman made it matter:

In hours of spellbinding testimony, on the second day of the House’s public impeachment hearings, Yovanovitch offered a decisive rebuttal to that way of thinking. She said that she had been surprised and appalled when Trump succumbed to a foreign disinformation campaign and fired her as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine based on false allegations trafficked by his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. She had taken on corrupt interests inside Ukraine, and those parties had, in turn, targeted her – and, unbelievably, it had worked. The President, the most powerful man in the world, had gone along with it. “It was terrible,” she said.

Yovanovitch said that she was shocked when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to issue a statement in her defense, although she had spent thirty-three years in the Foreign Service. She said that she was intimidated and incredulous when the President attacked her in a phone call with a foreign leader. She said that she felt threatened.

These are simple truths, which is why they were so powerful. So was the question she posed to the members of the House Intelligence Committee arrayed on the dais in front of her: “How could our system fail like this?”

That, of course, is a question for which Americans as yet have no real answer.

But put that aside. How this happened can wait. The “now” is what matters:

As with most truly memorable public moments, there was something raw and unexpected about Yovanovitch’s appearance on Friday; it cut through the rote posturing and partisanship to get at an essential fact. Yovanovitch reminded us that all of this is, in fact, amazing and shocking and outrageous. It is not normal.

That’s because this president isn’t normal:

Trump is not on the brink of impeachment because of some arcane dispute over differing philosophies about anti-corruption policies in Ukraine. Yovanovitch, who spent her career fighting corruption in the former Soviet Union, was dumped because the President had allied himself with Ukrainians who wanted to stop America’s anti-corruption efforts. He personally ordered her fired. He spoke threateningly of her during a phone call with Ukraine’s new President and did it again, on Twitter, while she was testifying on Capitol Hill. No previous President – of either party – has ever acted in this way.

That is why Yovanovitch’s appearance was ultimately about what the hell the country is supposed to do with a President who is so manifestly unpresidential.

It was time for that:

Friday offered a chance to reflect on Trump’s conduct, to consider the extent of his boorishness, his poor judgment, his ignorance, his recklessness, and his callous disregard for anything other than his own personal interests. There will be many days and weeks to come in which to hash out what, if anything, in all this saga involving Ukraine, should be considered impeachable by Congress. But that is not the real import of Friday’s hearing, which was a rare opportunity for America to stop and take stock of Trump and what he has wrought. This was a day to contemplate the excesses of Donald John Trump.

And of course Yovanovitch could help with that:

From the moment Yovanovitch began to speak, it was clear that this hearing was going to be different from the one that preceded it. She spoke of her parents, who fled Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. “My first tour was Mogadishu, Somalia,” she said, signaling that she was no simpering élite, holding court at fancy dinner parties, but a badass woman of the world, who chose to serve her country in the more remote and dangerous corners of the planet.

Before the hearing, Yovanovitch had been cast as an archetype of a woman wronged, but she refused to play the part of the marginalized victim on Friday. She was calm and measured, firm but not angry, as she delivered her devastating account.

This was apparently what set off Trump, who was watching in the White House, although his staff claimed that he was not. Trump knows when he’s being trolled. He can smell an insult from a million miles away.

And he can’t stand a badass woman of the world:

For those who wondered about what an impeachment in the Twitter era would look like, the answer came hurtling from Trump’s phone at 10:01 a.m. The President of the United States was hate-tweeting a witness in real time, while she was testifying. In the tweet, he appeared to blame Yovanovitch for all the troubles of the countries to which she had been assigned in the course of her career. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he tweeted. Her service in war-torn Somalia had clearly stung the Vietnam draft dodger in the Oval Office, and he wrote, “She started off in Somalia. How did that go?” He finished off with a reminder of his “absolute right” to hire and fire Ambassadors.

This was embarrassing, and this was used against Trump on the spot:

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, read the tweet out loud to Yovanovitch, to get her reaction, and called it “witness intimidation.”

It was breathtaking enough to cause even many Trump supporters to balk. On Fox News, the former independent counsel Ken Starr, whose investigation led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, said that Trump’s tweet had showed “extraordinarily poor judgement” and was “quite injurious” to the President’s defense.

The Fox News anchor Bret Baier said that Trump was “adding, essentially, an article of impeachment real time.”

Liz Cheney, the only woman in the House Republican leadership, said bluntly that Trump’s tweet was “wrong.” Will it change Cheney’s vote on impeachment? Doubtful. But Yovanovitch’s testimony was a reminder that what Trump did was manifestly wrong, regardless of the vote count, regardless of what Congress ultimately decides to do about it.

All of this was devastating in its way, but there was something else going on. The woman could tell a story:

Yovanovitch’s account of the moment when she was unceremoniously fired by Trump was gripping. It was a spring night, and she was hosting an event to celebrate a “woman of courage” award being given by the U.S. Embassy to one of Ukraine’s fearless anti-corruption crusaders, who had been gruesomely murdered in an acid attack. After the gathering, at 1 a.m., Yovanovitch received a phone call ordering her back to D.C. on the next flight. When she arrived, she was told by State Department officials that she had been fired on personal order of the President. By then, she knew about Giuliani’s campaign against her; she knew that two businessmen with ties in Kiev, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had gained his ear. She knew that even Donald Trump, Jr., was part of the campaign, tweeting that she should be ousted. What she did not know until that day was that the President himself was going along with it, and she pronounced herself amazed at the implications.

“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American Ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said.

And, implicitly, she was saying that any halfway smart guys can manipulate this particular president. But then, the guy is not normal, and Glasser adds this:

Yovanovitch’s firing has always struck me as problematic for Trump. Republican committee members did not attempt to defend it, and instead simply fell back on Trump’s right to fire her. Yovanovitch skewered that excuse after her GOP questioners reminded her one too many times that Trump held this right.

“The President has the right to withdraw an Ambassador at any time, for any reason,” Yovanovitch said, “but what I do wonder is, why was it necessary to smear my reputation?”

Paul Waldman has an answer to that:

Yovanovitch, a respected diplomat with decades of service to the United States, came to Ukraine determined to help the country fight corruption, as was U.S. policy through successive administrations. This garnered her enemies among people who were profiting from that corruption, including two of the country’s chief prosecutors, Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko, and Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch with reported connections to Russian organized crime.

The story of the smear campaign against Yovanovitch is complex, but it involves Shokin and Lutsenko feeding bogus information about her to Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and his recently arrested colleagues Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (who are linked to Firtash), as well as to American right-wing media.

And then it became a matter of playing Trump:

People who knew Trump understood what would turn him against Yovanovitch: The allegation that she was insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump.

Which is why Joe diGenova – a Trump ally who is the lawyer for both Rudy’s goons Parnas and Fruman and for Firtash, the oligarch – went on Fox News in March and said that Yovanovitch “is known and reported by people there to have bad-mouthed the President” and “to have told Ukrainians not to listen to him or obey his policy, because he was going to be impeached.” He repeated this to Sean Hannity, and then the allegation quickly spread through conservative media.

DiGenova has never said where he learned Yovanovitch was supposedly “bad-mouthing” Trump. In her testimony, Yovanovitch was emphatic that it never happened. But Parnas worked the same angle; he recounts that at a gathering, he told Trump that Yovanovitch didn’t support him, and Trump reacted by saying she should be fired.

So what we see is that the people who understand Trump knew exactly how to manipulate him. Knowing that he values personal loyalty far more than competence or the interests of the United States, all they had to do was keep telling him that Yovanovitch wasn’t loyal to him, and she’d be gone.

So that’s that:

“How could our system fail like this?” Yovanovitch asked in her opening statement Friday. “How is it that foreign corrupt-interests could manipulate our government?”

Thought she didn’t say it herself, the answer is two words: Donald Trump.

That man does make things worse, and he makes the people around him worse too:

A veteran prosecutor who served in various capacities in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “coward” Friday for not sticking up for U.S. diplomats abroad.

The criticism from Chuck Rosenberg, who served as acting DEA administrator during the first eight months of Trump’s tenure, came during a break in the testimony of ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

Rosenberg was reacting to Yovanovitch’s description of a July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump attacked Yovanovitch and said “she’s going to go through some things.” Yovanovitch said she felt threatened upon learning about Trump’s remarks, which were released by the White House in September.

Multiple impeachment inquiry witnesses have testified that they unsuccessfully lobbied Pompeo to release a statement supporting Yovanovitch after the White House released the memorandum of the call showing Trump’s attacks.

“His silence is deafening, it is an act of abject cowardice,” Rosenberg said of Pompeo. “I’m astonished that somebody who went to West Point and was an Army officer does not have the spine to stand up for the people in his organization who are being denigrated by this President.”

Rosenberg called Pompeo’s silence a “complete failure of leadership,” and “disgusting,” and said if Pompeo were watching, “I would tell him he’s a coward.”

He probably would, but then things got even worse for Trump:

Roger Stone has been found guilty on all of the counts against him, including obstruction, five counts of false statements, and witness tampering. The trial lasted a little over a week and the jury spent less than two days deliberating.

He had been a bad boy:

Stone was indicted in January by the Washington, D.C. grand jury that special counsel Robert Mueller empaneled for his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and related matters.

Prosecutors put forward emails and texts that they argued show Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee about having WikiLeaks-related communications that he didn’t turn over to Congress.

They also put on the stand two former top officials from the Trump campaign – Rick Gates and Steve Bannon – who testified that Stone was perceived in the campaign as having a backchannel to WikiLeaks.

Among the contacts prosecutors highlighted was Stone’s messages with Bannon about WikiLeaks’ plans. Lying to the House about WikiLeaks-related communications with the Trump campaign was one of the counts Stone was convicted of Friday.

And there was witness tampering too:

Randy Credico, whom Stone falsely claimed was his intermediary to WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016, was another major witness for prosecutors.

The jury found Stone guilty of witness tampering for the threatening texts Stone sent Credico demanding that Credico plead the 5th in the House investigation so he would not blow up Stone’s story about who was his intermediary.

This was a mess, but it sure looks like Team Trump was coordinating with WikiLeaks and the Russians so Trump tweeted:

So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie? A double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country?

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent say no:

It’s important to appreciate how deeply dangerous this sentiment really is. The difference between Stone and those figures mentioned by Trump is that Stone committed crimes and has been convicted for them, while those others have not.

And that’s not normal:

Trump’s constant use of disinformation-warfare and his serial attacks on the justice system are all about trying to erode people’s ability to make this basic distinction, that is, to erode their faith that the justice system can actually parcel out real justice.

Trump has long sought to turn law enforcement loose against his political enemies, especially those listed in his tweet. Simply through force of propaganda and serial lying, Trump hopes to make the legitimate conviction of Stone, and the legitimate investigations into his own corruption, into the exact equivalent of what he would like to see the machinery of justice illegitimately do to his enemies.

That’s certainly not normal, but that badass woman of the world, Marie Yovanovitch, is. She’s decent and honest and unpretentious and she knows her stuff, and she tries to do the right thing at all times. That’s normal too. The nation needed a reminder.

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This Difficult Man

Intermission – stretch your legs – relax – this is the break in the high drama. Catch your breath before the real action begins again, with even more intensity. The first day of the Trump impeachment hearings – the inquiry – was over. And everyone was angry. But the second day was yet to come. That left a quiet Thursday with nothing happening that would upset anyone.

But these are the Trump years, and he is a difficult man, and there are no days off. He has to shake things up. That’s his reason for being, and during the intermission he did it again:

President Trump is expected to intervene in three military justice cases involving service members charged with war crimes any day, issuing pardons or otherwise clearing them of wrongdoing and preventing the U.S. military from bringing the same charges again, three U.S. officials said Thursday.

White House and Pentagon officials have been working out the details for days, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The details were not all clear but are expected to involve executive clemency, in which Trump can pardon someone or shorten a prison sentence through commutation.

The actions have been anticipated by U.S. officials and advocates for the service members for weeks, and decried by some military justice experts for what they see as a subversion of the legal process. But those experts also acknowledge that, as commander in chief, Trump has broad authority in the cases to act as he sees fit.

Everyone has seen the old war movies. The Nazis committed war crimes. We tried the top-level Nazis at Nuremberg. We hung a lot of them, and in the Pacific, the Japanese were particularly brutal. We executed a few of these people for waterboarding our people, and for waterboarding in general. Then we did the same thing at Guantanamo and it was fine. The Geneva Conventions were “quaint” – but the new president, Obama, let it go. We wouldn’t do that anymore. What had been done had been done and revisiting that would tear the country apart – but Donald Trump was different. He said, if elected, he would waterboard everyone and anyone – and he would do far worse. He said he had been told that torture doesn’t work. Torture produced no useful information. He said he didn’t care. Maybe torture didn’t work, but he’d torture his prisoners anyway – because they deserved it.

The crowds roared, and he rode that roar to the White House, so now it’s this:

The cases include that of Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, a former Special Forces officer who faces a murder trial in the 2010 death of a suspected Taliban bombmaker; former Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who recently was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with an Islamic State corpse; and former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 and is serving a 19-year prison sentence for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three men in Afghanistan…

In October, Trump tweeted that the case of Golsteyn was “under review” at the White House. Golsteyn, who earned a Silver Star for valor in Afghanistan that was later revoked by the Army, is “a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker,” Trump said.

“We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he tweeted.

Yeah, they kill unnamed prisoners, and random civilians, but their officers are too hard on them. They’re killing machines, and no one would punish a machine, particularly an excellent machine:

The action follows Trump pardoning another veteran, former 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, in May in the 2008 murder of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.

Behenna was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years after stripping a detainee naked, interrogating him without authorization and shooting him twice. Behenna said he was acting in self-defense…

So, trust the guy and screw the whole military command structure. Our guys mow down fifty schoolgirls? Trump will pardon them. He’s no snowflake like the commanders in the field and the generals in the Pentagon. We kill. Deal with it. And now we’re the bad guys in the old war movies.

The generals in the Pentagon are not happy about this, and more, and the New York Times reports on how they have decided to deal with this difficult man:

Days after President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw 1,000 American troops from Syria, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw a way to turn it around.

The businessman in Mr. Trump had focused on the Syrian oil fields that, if left unprotected, could fall into the hands of the Islamic State – or Russia or Iran. So General Milley proposed to a receptive Mr. Trump that American commandos, along with allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, guard the oil.

Today, 800 American troops remain in Syria.

“We’re keeping the oil,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Wednesday before his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “We left troops behind, only for the oil.”

Forget the Kurds and all they had done with us and for us, forget all alliances, and shrug at commitment or any promises. This isn’t about honor. This is about oil. Talk that up and Trump will send in all the troops anyone wants. In short, trick him:

Nearly three years into the Trump presidency, the Pentagon is learning how to manage a capricious president whose orders can whipsaw by the hour. Top Defense Department officials have acquired their education the hard way, through Mr. Trump’s Twitter bullying of Iran and North Korea, letdown of allies in Syria, harsh attacks on the Atlantic alliance and public support for commandos the military has charged with war crimes. Mr. Trump, top Pentagon officials say, is unpredictable, frustrating and overly focused on spectacles like military parades.

But talk about money and he’s just fine, but there are limits to this:

In many ways, the American military remains the part of the government most responsive to the president across a large and fractious administration, because civilian control of the armed forces is embedded in the Constitution and the psyche of every soldier. But for Mr. Trump, the other side of that coin is that the military respects the coequal branches of government, as Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman demonstrated in recent days when, against the wishes of the president, he testified in the House impeachment proceeding.

The American military understands the structure of the government, which is a problem for them, but there are other problems:

Once Mr. Trump took office, he gave the Pentagon and military commanders more running room. He allowed the Pentagon to speed up decision-making so the military could move faster on raids, airstrikes, bombing missions and arming allies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Pentagon, after eight years of chafing at what many generals viewed as the slow decision-making and second-guessing by the Obama White House, at first embraced the new commander in chief.

But with the new freedom came repercussions. Mr. Trump deflected blame onto the Pentagon if things went wrong. After a botched raid in Yemen in January 2017, which led to the death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens, a member of the Navy SEALs known as Ryan, Mr. Trump appeared to blame the military – a stunning departure from previous presidents, who as commanders in chief have traditionally accepted responsibility for military operations that they ordered.

“They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected,” Mr. Trump told Fox News after the raid. “And they lost Ryan.”

That was their problem, not his. They’re losers. He’s not. And war crimes come up again:

On another issue important to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, have reached out quietly to Mr. Trump in recent days to ask that he not interfere in several war crimes cases. Defense Department officials are concerned that presidential pardons could undermine discipline across the ranks.

Ah, but this president seems to think that discipline in the ranks is for sissies, but it’s best to keep quiet about all this:

Commanders have also learned to carefully parse their comments, wary of having their words construed as subtle criticism of the president.

During a news conference, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the United States Central Command, declined to repeat Mr. Trump’s assertion that the Islamic State leader was “whimpering” before he detonated his suicide vest after American troops raided his compound.

But General McKenzie backed up Mr. Trump’s characterization of Mr. al-Baghdadi as a coward. “He crawled into a hole with two small children, blew himself up,” the general said. “So, you can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity.”

That’s it. Humor the old man. In fact, only use words he knows already:

Defense Department officials also make sure to speak more frequently about how important it is to get North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in Europe to “pay their fair share,” echoing Mr. Trump’s more transactional view of how that alliance should proceed. By emphasizing payment, rather than simply saying that the Pentagon wants European governments to bolster their own internal military budgets – a more accurate description of NATO policy – American officials couch something they wanted anyway in language that will appeal to the president.

They owe us money! Lots of money!

No, they don’t. They know it. We know it. Trump doesn’t know it. Humor him. And keep things stable:

Senior military and Defense Department officials say that in some cases, it is simply a matter of talking in a way that will appeal to Mr. Trump, while prosecuting a similar national security policy as they did under President Barack Obama.

But that’s difficult:

On the Korean Peninsula, the United States and South Korea have continued to conduct joint military exercises despite Mr. Trump’s announcement that such “war games” be suspended pending nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Stopping the exercises completely, Defense Department officials say, would hurt military readiness in the event the United States does end up at war with the North. The military now conducts them at a smaller scale level and no longer makes them public.

Maybe the boss won’t notice, but don’t count on it, because he is full of surprises:

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper landed in South Korea on Thursday to navigate renewed threats from an “enraged” North Korea and newly heightened strain in the alliance with Seoul that congressional aides, lawmakers and Korea experts say has been caused by President Donald Trump.

Trump is demanding that South Korea pay roughly 500% more in 2020 to cover the cost of keeping US troops on the peninsula, a congressional aide and an administration official confirmed to CNN.

What? Secretary of Defense Esper had been blindsided. Everyone had been blindsided:

The price hike has frustrated Pentagon officials and deeply concerned Republican and Democratic lawmakers, according to military officials and congressional aides. It has angered and unnerved Seoul, where leaders are questioning US commitment to their alliance and wondering whether Trump will pull US forces if they don’t pay up.

“Nothing says I love you like a shakedown,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT who follows the Korean peninsula, summarizing South Korean uncertainty about the US.

But maybe this wasn’t organized well enough to be a shakedown:

In the US, congressional aides and Korea experts familiar with the talks say the President’s $4.7 billion demand came out of thin air, sending State and Defense Department officials scrambling to justify the number with a slew of new charges that may include Seoul paying some costs for US personnel present on the peninsula and for troops and equipment that rotate through.

This calls for some creative accounting, but no amount of creative accounting will fix this:

Negotiations are underway as North Korea threatens to step up its weapons development, deepening Seoul’s anxiety. On Thursday, Pyongyang condemned US-South Korean joint military exercises, saying it was “enraged” and threatening to respond with “force in kind.”

North Korea has already launched 24 missiles this year, each a violation of UN resolutions, to match the country’s previous annual record for firing off projectiles that threaten South Korea and Japan, according to Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Klingner is one of several Korea experts who suggest that Trump pulled the figure out of thin air. Officials at the relevant agencies and aides in Congress who follow Asia are similarly perplexed. “I have no idea where the President pulled this number from,” said the congressional aide.

But that may not matter now:

Germany, France and the United Kingdom recently condemned Pyongyang for the launches, saying they undermined regional security and stability. Meanwhile, South Korean leaders are acutely aware that Trump has downplayed the launches, saying he is “not at all” troubled by them.

“There are a lot of hard feelings,” Klingner said of South Korean views of the US right now, adding that “people are questioning the viability of the US as an ally.”

They should:

Scott Snyder, director of the US-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the extreme nature of the price hike is creating “worry that Trump is doing this as a pretext for withdrawal” of US troops.

“The main side effect that I see is that it raises questions about the credibility of the United States as a protector, as an alliance partner,” Snyder said. “And that’s not good for the relationship.”

But it may be good for Trump, because his base will love this, his lonely base now:

Military officials have told CNN they are distressed about the request and that they have been concerned the President’s foreign policy decision making could increasingly be shaped by his concerns about the 2020 election campaign or impeachment pressure.

The congressional aide said Pentagon officials are expressing their discomfort on Capitol Hill as well. “The career professionals and career military: they’re beside themselves,” the aide said, “but Trump is the commander in chief, so they’re in a box.”

“The Koreans are outraged,” the aide continued, particularly because elections are coming in April and they don’t think the cost increase is defensible in their National Assembly.

Once again, Trump has outraged everyone. His work here is done:

Sen. Edward Markey, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia said that he was “troubled by President Trump’s demand… If South Korea decides that it is better off without the United States, President Trump will have undermined an over 60-year shared commitment to peace, stability, and rule of law. The region is less safe when countries lose confidence in America’s ability to lead.”

And all the Republicans hid:

Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Neither did the second ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, or the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. James Risch of Idaho.

But not everyone was hiding. Tobias Hoonhout at the National Review reports this:

Turkish president Recip Erdogan attempted to justify his aggression towards the Syrian Kurds during a Wednesday meeting with five Republican senators by showing the room a Turkish video depicting the Kurds as terrorists, according to multiple reports.

After the video, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) – an outspoken defender of the Kurds – reportedly asked Erdogan, “Well, do you want me to go get the Kurds to make one about what you’ve done?”

This was nasty:

In an interview with Axios, Graham confirmed that he had clashed with Erdogan over Turkey’s military offensive in Northern Syria. Erdogan reportedly took issue with Graham’s use of the word “invasion,” while Graham challenged Erdogan for claiming to have assisted in the fight against ISIS.

“The Turkish narrative that they have done more to destroy ISIS, I rejected forcefully, and I let Turkey know that 10,000 SDF fighters, mostly Kurds, suffered, died or injured, in the fight against ISIS, and America will not forget that and will not abandon them,” Graham said Wednesday night.

Trump must have been a bit uncomfortable. He had said that the Kurds were no angels, that they were terrorists too, perhaps worse than ISIS, and greedy freeloaders on our charity. Erdogan had said so. He likes Erdogan, but he was trying to prove he was being tough on Erdogan in the wrong setting:

A senior White House official said that President Trump, who has been criticized for his Syrian withdrawal, brought the senators to show “Erdogan that they’re serious about sanctions, and Trump doesn’t have to be the bad guy.”

Earlier this week, NSC Adviser Robert O’Brien said that the U.S. could impose new sanctions on Turkey for its strategic partnerships with Russia, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the U.S. relationship with the Syrian Kurds “great.”

But there was Erdogan, poised to take out the Kurds, every man and woman and child, an honored guest that the White House – and Trump said he was a big fan of this guy.

This was a mess, and Politico reported this:

At one point during his extraordinary joint press conference with President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention to the U.S. Senate.

The chamber, he contended, would stop the “vicious cycle” started by the House, which had passed biting sanctions on his country. But senators have a clear response to Erdogan that’s at odds with Trump’s friendly rhetoric toward the strongman leader: Don’t count on it.

It seems that Trump cannot sell this guy to America:

Many in the GOP are now pressing to not only enforce existing sanctions on Turkey, but to pile on new ones as soon as they can – which would be a rebuke not just of Erdogan but of Trump and his policies…

Given the appetite in the Senate to push back against Turkey’s attack on U.S. allies, it may be difficult to bottle up sanctions, particularly since the House overwhelmingly passed a bill targeting Turkey’s economy. Senators hit pause as the Trump administration raced to negotiate a temporary peace deal after the U.S. withdrawal, but they are itching to condemn Turkey’s president.

Oh yeah? The feeling is mutual:

Turkish media are seizing on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s comments that President Trump had “no reaction” to his returning the American leader’s notorious letter to him, saying it shows a clear victory over Trump.

A headline in Sabah Daily, a pro-government media outlet, said that international media were reporting that Erdoğan returned the “scandalous” letter to Trump and the American president was “silent.”

The Turkish president was careful not push his criticism of Trump too far during a briefing with reporters following the two leaders’ summit, but he did use his platform to attack his detractors in the U.S. Congress.

One headline in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily quoted the Turkish leader talking about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): “I told him what he needed, he learned his lesson.”

The message was clear. Your leader is a fool and you Republicans in Congress need to be put in your place – as nothings who don’t matter – and Trump’s letter said it all:

Erdoğan, speaking in Turkish at a press conference with Trump on Wednesday, made a point of highlighting the letter. He said he had brought Trump’s Oct. 9 letter from Trump back to the White House to return it.

Trump’s letter, written in a decidedly non-presidential tone, warned Erdoğan he’d be remembered as a devil if he didn’t back off his planned offensive in Syria to clear out Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later,” stated the letter, which was widely mocked at the time as offensive and undiplomatic.

And he threw it in Trump’s face, and Trump took it. And then he laid into our Congress:

Erdoğan also accused U.S. lawmakers in the House and Senate as a unified force working to harm relations between him and Trump, in part by passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and a bill calling for sanctions on Turkey over its Syria offensive.

Turkish media reported that Congress’s support of the Kurds is supporting terrorism.

That’s what Erdogan said in the White House in front of our president and key Republican senators – and Trump says he’s a big fan.

Donald Trump is a difficult man. And now back to those impeachment hearings. Intermission is over. But maybe, this time, intermission is the real show.

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Stories Being Told

The impeachment hearings began. And they might not mean much. No one in America changes his or her mind about anything anymore. That’s a sign of weakness. That would be a moral failing too – much worse than mere weakness. So there is no one to convince that Trump is a disaster, or that he is Jesus returned to walk among us, or was sent here by Jesus, who might have been busy elsewhere. Everyone has dug in, and that makes this theater now. Who gives the most dramatic performance? Who gives the most dramatic performance before everyone goes home, and goes about the business of their smaller specific lives?

But the first day was good theater. The New York Times tells the tale well enough:

The House of Representatives opened historic impeachment hearings on Wednesday and took startling new testimony from a senior American diplomat that further implicated President Trump in a campaign to pressure Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

In a nationally televised hearing from a stately committee room across from the Capitol, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, brought to life Democrats’ allegations that Mr. Trump had abused his office by trying to enlist a foreign power to help him in an election.

Mr. Taylor testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he learned only recently of a July telephone call overheard by one of his aides in which the president was preoccupied with Ukraine’s willingness to say it would look into Mr. Biden and work by his son Hunter Biden for a Ukrainian energy firm. Immediately afterward, Mr. Taylor said, the aide had been informed that Mr. Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden” than he did about Ukraine.

Ah ha! They got him:

Forceful, detailed and unflappable in the face of Republican taunts, the veteran diplomat delivered a remarkable rebuke of the actions taken by the president and his allies inside and outside of the government who placed Mr. Trump’s political objectives at the center of American policy toward Ukraine.

“Security was so important for Ukraine, as well as our own national interests,” Mr. Taylor testified, describing his growing sense of alarm at learning that $391 million in vital military aid for the former Soviet republic had been held up. “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense. It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

And the tales were engrossing:

In the first impeachment hearing in more than two decades, Mr. Taylor and another seasoned diplomat, George P. Kent, sketched out in testimony by turns cinematic and dry a tale of foreign policymaking distorted by a president’s political vendettas with a small country facing Russian aggression caught in the middle.

Heroes and villains! That’s the way to tell the tale:

Democrats toiled to make their case to a deeply divided nation that Mr. Trump had put the integrity of the 2020 election at risk by withholding the security assistance for Ukraine’s war with Russia to try to extract a political advantage for his re-election campaign.

“If this is not impeachable conduct,” demanded Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the committee, “what is?”

But there was another story to be told:

Showing no sign of doubts, Mr. Trump’s Republican defenders raged against a process they called unfair and illegitimate. They dismissed Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kent – who between them have 70 years of experience as public servants under presidents of both parties – as part of a “politicized bureaucracy” who were offering nothing more than hearsay and supposition, rather than evidence of impeachable conduct.

“The American people see through all this,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. “They understand the facts support the president. They understand this process is unfair. And they see through the whole darn sham.”

Deep expertise and massive experience mean nothing. These two made all this up. And that was the official line:

At the White House on Wednesday, Mr. Trump sought to project an air of confidence in the face of an existential threat to his presidency. Before a working meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Mr. Trump told reporters of the hearing: “It’s a hoax. I’m too busy to watch it.”

But even so, Mr. Trump was busy all day retweeting allies defending him. His re-election campaign blasted out a fund-raising solicitation accusing Democrats of “playing a sick game.” And the Republican National Committee circulated memes making fun of the witnesses as gossips who lacked firsthand information.

Asked for his reaction after the hearing ended, Mr. Trump said he had heard “it is a joke” and insisted that he had not watched it “for one minute.” He called the impeachment effort a sham and said, “It shouldn’t be allowed.”

Should the president be granted the power to shut down any impeachment inquiry, to say this is not allowed, this time, and forever too? But the two witnesses messed up that notion:

Both witnesses forcefully rejected attempts by Republicans and Democrats to draw them into a partisan drama over the impeachment inquiry, declaring they are not “Never Trumpers.” Responding to Mr. Jordan’s assertion that he was the star witness for the Democrats, Mr. Taylor insisted that he was not a political pawn of either party.

“I don’t consider myself a star witness for anything,” he said. “I think I was clear I’m not here to take one side or the other.”

And Mr. Taylor refused to take a position on whether Mr. Trump’s actions were impeachable, telling Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas: “That is not what either of us is here for. This is your job.”

They wouldn’t play along, and Greg Jaffe saw this:

To the Democrats in the impeachment hearing room, President Trump was a corrupt leader who had manipulated American foreign policy to undercut a political rival and serve his personal ends.

To the Republicans in the room, Trump was an unconventional leader taking on unelected bureaucrats who dismissed his legitimate grievances and sought to undermine his foreign policy aims.

The historic impeachment hearings that opened Wednesday were ostensibly about the facts of the now infamous 30-minute call on July 25 in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations that would damage former vice president Joe Biden and benefit Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

But the hearing Wednesday bore the unmistakable echo of fights that have divided the country since the day Trump delivered his “American carnage” inauguration speech from the steps of the Capitol and opened the doors of the Trump International Hotel to foreign leaders and lobbyists seeking favors from Washington.

So this was an argument about a larger issue:

In the first weeks of the Ukraine scandal, Republicans largely fell into line with Trump’s view that his call with Zelensky had been “perfect,” before edging away, amid hours of damaging testimony, and arguing that the call was problematic but far from impeachable.

On Wednesday, the country’s political leaders returned to the spot where they always seem to go. Once again, lawmakers were trying to untangle Trump’s self-interest from the broader national interest of the country he was elected to serve. At issue was the fundamental question of Trump’s presidency: Was his norm-breaking a betrayal of his oath of office or his right as the commander in chief?

That may have been the only question here:

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) described an “odious” scheme hatched by Trump and his allies to use desperately needed U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine’s new president to dig up dirt on Trump’s political rival. “Is that what Americans should now expect from their president?” Schiff asked. “If that is not impeachable conduct, what is?”

His Republican counterpart and fellow Californian, Devin Nunes, insisted that the real wrongs were committed by an “outraged bureaucracy” that resented Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, his loathing of foreign aid and his dismissal this spring of one of their own, a career Foreign Service officer who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine…

In a notable break with tradition, Nunes didn’t thank the two witnesses for their decades of service to the nation, but rather sought to condemn them for it. By his reckoning, bureaucrats in the FBI, CIA and the State Department had manufactured the Russia collusion scandal and accusations of obstruction of justice that marred the first half of Trump’s presidency. Now the same “politicized bureaucracy” was at it again.

That clarifies things. Decades of service to the nation are a problem. That ruins you, no one can now trust you about anything, or with anything, but these two didn’t see it that way:

For the two witnesses and the Democrats in the hearing room, that policy agenda, executed on a bipartisan basis, was nothing short of sacrosanct. It involved repelling Russian aggression, safeguarding borders and supporting Ukraine in its “fight for the cause of freedom,” Kent said

“How does this affect our national security,” Schiff asked.

“It affects the world we live in, that our children and grandchildren will grow up in,” Taylor replied. “This affects the kind of world we want to see [and] our national interests very directly. Ukraine is on the front line of that conflict.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, sought to defend a president’s prerogative to define the nation’s interests as he or she sees fit. By this measure, the president’s actions were far less important than the motives of his accusers.

And that led to all the questions about what was really going on here, as Isaac Stanley-Becker explains here:

The question seemed to surprise William B. Taylor Jr., a Vietnam veteran with decades of diplomatic experience.

Couldn’t he “appreciate that President Trump was very concerned,” asked the Republican counsel, that the Ukrainians were “out to get him?”

The lawyer was referring to a conspiracy theory, popular in parts of the political right, that while Democrats have focused on Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the 2016 election, it was actually Ukraine that interfered during that campaign to help Trump’s Democratic opponent.

Taylor paused, casting his eyes down as his lips curled into a grin. He declined to give credence to the claim. “I don’t know the exact nature of President Trump’s concerns,” the witness answered.

That was diplomatic, but there are two stories being told:

One story line rests on a whistleblower complaint – corroborated by a string of named diplomats as well as the White House’s own reconstructed transcript of a July phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart – about a shadow foreign policy to undermine conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election and damage one of Trump’s 2020 rivals, former vice president Joe Biden.

The other, which has played out in conservative media and on Trump’s own Twitter feed, relies largely on conspiracy theories and cover stories – some of which have taken root in the farthest reaches of the Internet before percolating up to the Oval Office – about Ukraine’s influence in the 2016 election and Biden’s reasons for going after a Ukrainian prosecutor, who was widely viewed by Western powers as corrupt.

And that made for a bit of a mess:

The competing information streams are epitomized by MSNBC and CNN, which have reported heavily on the impeachment inquiry, and Fox News, Trump’s favorite network. But those outlets and others trained their attention on the same scene on Wednesday – giving viewers from each world a rare glimpse into the other.

“The viewer encounters two competing sets of factual claims,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. “I imagine it’s quite bewildering,”

But that helps the Republicans:

The malleability of facts emerged as a broader GOP talking point. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump ally, affirmed as much to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. “I think what happens is, when we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is,” he said.

And that makes all of this meaningless:

Many of the president’s most ardent supporters declined altogether to view the hearings as a legitimate source for facts. In some of the largest pro-Trump groups on Facebook, memes circulated exhorting users to boycott the hearing.

These seemed to take their cues from the White House and members of the president’s family. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, tweeted that the hearing was “boring.” Eric Trump, the president’s younger son, labeled the proceedings “horribly boring.”

Mike Rothschild, a researcher and author who specializes in debunking conspiracy theories, said coaxing the public not to watch would be effective for the people already prepared to line up behind the president. “But it seems a bit desperate,” he added, born of an inability to “refute anything that the witnesses are claiming.”

Does that really matter anymore? This is about scoring points, not changing minds. That’s sport. Or that’s theater. That’s what Lili Loofbourow argues here:

Watch enough hearings and you’ll inevitably find yourself analyzing the performance. Politics are theater at a basic and obvious level, but theater criticism substituting for serious political inquiry is, unfortunately, everywhere now.

But something was different this time:

What America saw today was a shocking demonstration of what it looks like when actual experts testify to things they know about. Taylor and Kent were composed and matter-of-fact, like many witnesses we’ve watched during this presidency. But their testimony accomplished something the Robert Mueller hearing never could: It made the stakes clear. The “national security” mentioned during the Mueller hearings often felt too abstract for the average person to care about, especially given how much remained classified, how hard to follow much of it was. The story of what has happened in Ukraine is not simple. But through their testimony, Taylor and Kent made the country spring to life as an actual place with actual people whose concerns deserve consideration and whose urgent circumstances they can very capably communicate.

In short, this was damned good theater:

Taylor made the case for urgency by saying obvious but true things: This is a country that was and is being attacked, literally, right now, by Russia. People died while aid was delayed for no apparent reason.

He implicitly shamed everyone who’d been treating a country as a pawn in a game of chess for or against Trump, and morally annihilated those still clinging – bizarrely – to the conspiracy theory that Russia has been framed for its destructive policies in Ukraine and its intervention in U.S. elections. He explained why the White House visit mattered to Zelensky (negotiation leverage) and why he advised against Zelensky saying what Trump wanted him to in that CNN interview (bipartisan support is crucial for Ukraine to keep, and involvement in U.S. domestic politics would annihilate that). In so doing, he might have gotten at least a few Americans thinking about the fact that Ukraine has extremely delicate political considerations all its own that are worth at least remembering every time some Republican suggests that Zelensky felt no pressure from Trump.

And there was that other guy too:

Kent functioned as a kind of Wikipedia wizard, offering context and history for every Ukrainian business, politician, and entrepreneur mentioned in the course of the proceedings. Just as crucially, he clarified how American foreign policy ordinarily works, and who belongs where and why. He sketched out what an actual anti-corruption effort looks like and why Trump’s wasn’t one; he explained why neither he nor Taylor was involved in the notorious call.

In sum, he served an amazingly useful function: At every step, he was the guy in the room with enough expertise to say this is what normal looks like and this is why this was not normal.

And that left the Republicans in a bind:

The GOP members did what they could to stop it. The ways they fell short are instructive.

Against that wealth of information from seasoned experts, they spun the usual bubbles, but their imagined reality could not upset the clear picture the witnesses had drawn. It was interesting, though, to watch their strategies of stagecraft age.

For three years now, Republicans have taken Newt Gingrich’s directive to treat feelings as fact – and consider facts irrelevant – to heart. They’ve aimed a Gingrichian firehose at every proceeding. In hearings, in short, they rage, they bluster, they propagate conspiracy theories. They whine and interrupt.

They are always apparently aggrieved and furious. The effect is less a defense than a bilious Gish gallop whose main objectives – deflect and disorient – have worked well enough. Trump, who switches subjects in midsentence but channels feeling quite well, has relieved the party of the need to make sense, and the congressmen have followed his example, often with terrific, base-rallying results.

The trouble is that any tactic suffers from too much exposure and overuse.

And then they hit the wall:

Neither Bill Taylor nor George Kent seemed even slightly discomfited by Jim Jordan’s very fast reading of questions, for example. Perhaps this is because they are so well versed in their subject that speed talking doesn’t disrupt. Or perhaps they just realized such childish displays were coming. Either way, none of it seemed very effective. The witnesses seemed considerably less agonized over their participation than the Mueller witnesses, who hedged, sometimes to the point of absurdity. They also both seemed, as witnesses, completely committed to the idea that they were there to inform, not to convince, and their reliance on objectivity in this way actually freed them from having to engage in a good deal of Republican drama.

And that is all that the Republicans had:

To the extent that Republicans have a case, it seems to be that a) there isn’t enough firsthand information (they always fail to mention that the White House has specifically forbidden witnesses with firsthand information from testifying); b) Trump didn’t actually succeed at extorting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky because others interfered, so therefore it doesn’t count and, trust them, he won’t try again; or c) Trump was sincerely concerned about Ukrainian corruption and was merely attempting to root it out, even though he didn’t mention it once in the infamous phone call (and also, since when does Trump care about corruption?).

I guess I should append the other two defenses that cropped up: d) A foreign president won’t publicly admit that he felt any pressure to follow Trump’s requests (it would be politically devastating for him to do so), and e) it is wrong for someone who hasn’t talked directly to Trump to be a witness in a hearing, period.

Needless to say, this is sad, weak stuff.

And that was made worse because they did face experts:

It’s a truism of the past several years that American faith in expertise suffered a serious blow. This sentiment crystallized after the 2016 election, when the United States had to face a president who knew nothing about government and grapple with how he got there.

Analyses of electoral defeats almost always end up endorsing weird and unsupported ideas about what the results really meant. One underappreciated side effect of Hillary Clinton’s defeat – which was frequently framed as the wonk trumped by the “outsider” – was that experience and knowledge got treated, suddenly, as a political liability. The polls were wrong, and expertise worthless.

“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically might be right, but it’s not where human beings are,” Gingrich said two weeks before the election, and a lot of people took the results as confirmation of this foundational Republican un-wisdom. Actual knowledge has since been treated as suspect, and insisting on it is characterized in some GOP quarters as borderline treason, particularly if it conflicts with the president’s understanding. Trump surrounds himself with people who know how to flatter him; that seems to be the only expertise the party as presently constituted respects.

But something may have changed just now:

Kent and Taylor appeared as nonpartisan career officials and occupied that increasingly embattled space with unusual ease… Kent and Taylor rejected any representative or tactical characterization with remarkable, blunt ease. Every time a Republican tried to call Taylor the Democrats’ “star witness,” he repeated that he was simply there to offer what facts he had.

They presented themselves as exactly what they were: experts on one very specific topic. What remains to be seen is if America has the capacity to listen.

America may not have the capacity to listen. Americans just like a good show. Perhaps they just got a good show. But it was only a show. There were no minds to change. And nothing changes.

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The Choice to Destroy Lives

The impeachment hearings were about to begin. Somehow, now, everything has to do with Ukraine, so far away, but Putin wants the place and President Trump despises the place. Those people framed the Russians, they framed Putin, who did nothing at all to help Trump win in 2016 – those people tried to make it look like Trump, with the help of Russia, just cheated. They hacked Hilary Clinton’s server, not the Russians, and they have that very server over there in Ukraine right now, with all of those missing emails. They’re still protecting Hillary! Well, they stop that, and claim Joe Biden is an evil man behind everything, or Trump will give Ukraine to Putin. And the impeachment hearings will prove… well, not that. This is about the president withholding military (and domestic) aid to those people until they agreed to claim, very publicly, that they had proof that Hillary and Joe had been doing very bad things. Congress appropriated the funds to help Ukraine defend itself from Putin. Trump stopped that. Those folks would help him destroy Hillary and Joe or the Russians would roll in right now. Trump might even send in a division or two of our guys to help out. There would be no funds unless they did what he said. Who the hell cares what Congress does or does not say or do or fund? Trump decides these things.

Or he doesn’t. An impeachment will settle that matter, but the hearings had not yet begun, and the immediate issue was here at home. Certain people should be hurt. That was the whole point of the Trump presidency. His base was angry at being disrespected by all the “cool” people. Someone would pay for that, Trump would hurt just the right people, and he’s hurt them bad. So forget the impeachment for a day. Trump was in court about to get approval to hurt a whole lot of people, to really hurt them, to destroy them. And he’d be the hero again.

The New York Times’ Adam Liptak tells the tale:

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared ready on Tuesday to side with the Trump administration in its efforts to shut down a program protecting about 700,000 young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

The court’s liberal justices probed the administration’s justifications for ending the program, expressing skepticism about its rationales for doing so. But other justices, including President Trump’s two appointees, indicated that they would not second-guess the administration’s reasoning and, in any event, considered its explanations sufficient.

Those two saw no reason to question the president, to look into what he was claiming:

“I assume that was a very considered decision,” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said of a second set of justifications offered by the administration in a memorandum last year after its decision to end the program was challenged in court.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said he saw little point in requiring the administration to come forward with better or more elaborate reasons. “What good would another five years of litigation over the adequacy of that explanation serve?” he asked.

Their position was clear. One either trusts the president or one does not. And they trust this president, although no one seemed gleeful about inflicting maximum pain here:

The justices agreed that the young people who signed up for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, were sympathetic and that they and their families, schools and employers had relied on it in good faith. “I hear a lot of facts, sympathetic facts, that you’ve put out there, and they speak to all of us,” Justice Gorsuch said.

And while Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. indicated that the administration was on solid legal footing in saying the program was unlawful, he said the Supreme Court could rule in a humane way, minimizing the hardships people participating in the program would face if it were ended.

But he didn’t say how he’d do that. Trust him. And there was this:

Chief Justice Roberts added that both the Obama and Trump administrations have said they would not deport people eligible for the program, meaning that the main practical questions if the program is ended would be their ability to work legally, obtain driver’s licenses and the like.

“The whole thing was about work authorization and these other benefits,” the chief justice said. “Both administrations have said they’re not going to deport the people.”

See, that’s not so bad. They’d be forbidden to work or drive or enter into contracts and all the rest, but no one would deport them, at least not right away, but Trump doesn’t like these people:

The program, announced by President Barack Obama in 2012, allows young people brought to the United States as children to apply for a temporary status that shields them from deportation and allows them to work. The status lasts for two years and is renewable, but it does not provide a path to citizenship.

In the past, Mr. Trump has praised the program’s goals and suggested he wanted to preserve it. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asked in a 2017 Twitter post.

But as the court took up its future on Tuesday, Mr. Trump struck a different tone. “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels,'” he wrote on Twitter. “Some are very tough, hardened criminals.”

Ah, well, no:

In fact, the program has strict requirements. To be eligible, applicants had to show that they had committed no serious crimes, had arrived in the United States before they turned 16 and were no older than 30, had lived in the United States for at least the previous five years, and were in school, had graduated from high school or received a GED certificate, or were an honorably discharged veteran.

And he did trick them once before:

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the DACA recipients were justified in relying on Mr. Trump’s earlier statements. Mr. Trump, she said, had been “telling DACA-eligible people that they were safe under him and that he would find a way to keep them here.”

But that only meant they were fools:

Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco, representing the administration, said the program was by its nature an interim step.

“DACA was always meant to be a temporary stopgap measure that could be rescinded at any time, which is why it was only granted in two-year increments,” he said. “So I don’t think anybody could have reasonably assumed that DACA was going to remain in effect in perpetuity.”

But they were not assuming that:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that many people and groups had indeed relied on the program to continue indefinitely, judging by the supporting briefs filed in the three cases before the court, including the Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, No. 18-587.

“There are 66 health care organizations,” he said. “There are three labor unions. There are 210 educational associations. There are six military organizations. There are three home builders, five states plus those involved, 108, I think, municipalities and cities, 129 religious organizations and 145 businesses.”

In short, they’re part of things now, and the rest was arguments over what Trump could or could not do:

After contentious debates among his aides, Mr. Trump announced in September 2017 that he would wind down the program. He gave only a single reason for doing so, saying that creating or maintaining the program was beyond the legal power of any president.

“I do not favor punishing children,” Mr. Trump said in his formal announcement of the termination. But, he added, “The program is unlawful and unconstitutional and cannot be successfully defended in court.”

That decision was reflected in a bare-bones memo from Elaine C. Duke, then the acting secretary of homeland security. She offered no policy reasons for the move, just that DACA was unlawful.

Mr. Francisco disagreed. “We own this,” he said.

Mr. Francisco pointed to a second memo, issued last year by Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary at the time. It mostly relied on the earlier rationales in Ms. Duke’s memo, but added one more, about the importance of projecting a message “that leaves no doubt regarding the clear, consistent and transparent enforcement of the immigration laws against all classes and categories of aliens.”

That policy justification, Mr. Francisco said, was sufficient even if the administration was mistaken in its legal rationale.

Who needs a reason for anything now? So it came down to this:

The Trump administration’s argument that the program was unlawful was based on a 2015 ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans. But that decision concerned a different, much larger program. Lower courts have ruled that the two programs differed in important ways, undermining the administration’s legal analysis.

On Tuesday, Justice Sotomayor appeared to agree, saying that said she had not seen an adequate explanation for the termination. “This is not about the law,” she said. “This is about our choice to destroy lives.”

Of course it is. Trump was elected to destroy specific lives, which Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explains this way:

Hardline conservatives in the Trump administration decide they want to alter an executive policy from the Obama era. They gather together to discuss their plan and realize that it is politically unpalatable: The real reasons for their decision are deeply infected with xenophobia and racism. So, instead, they craft an alternative explanation, one ostensibly rooted in fidelity to the law. When the new policy gets challenged in court, the administration’s lawyers rely upon this substitute rationale. The Supreme Court must then decide whether to accept this pretext or force the government to try again, this time with candor.

This scenario is precisely what happened in the census citizenship case, which culminated in the court – or, more precisely, Chief Justice John Roberts – refusing to play along with the administration’s pretext. And it is also exactly what happened when Trump attempted to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that lets many undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children live and work here legally.

Yet the DACA case is heading toward a very different outcome.

In short, the court will accept bullshit now:

Although he said he’d kill DACA in office, President Donald Trump was obviously ambivalent about the program at the start of his presidency. It has always been popular with the public, and Trump promised to treat Dreamers “with heart.” But as the months passed by, Trump’s subordinates took matters into their own hands.

As Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear report in their new book Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, three men – Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House adviser Stephen Miller, and Department of Homeland Security official Gene Hamilton – hatched a plot. They asked a group of Republican state attorneys general to write to the Justice Department, threatening to sue unless Trump repealed DACA.

After the attorneys general sent their demand, the trio ambushed acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, ordering her to go along with the scheme. Sessions then sent Duke a one-page letter telling her to end DACA because it is “unconstitutional” and lacks “proper statutory authority.” Duke complied, issuing a memorandum winding down DACA that included a single sentence of legal analysis essentially copied from Sessions’ letter.

So it comes down to this:

Everyone agrees that Trump has the authority to abolish DACA. The only question is whether the administration did so legally. Presidents have broad leeway to scrap their predecessors’ programs. But they must “provide a reasoned explanation for the change,” and their actions cannot be “arbitrary and capricious.”

So that led to this:

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Solicitor General Noel Francisco a question that cut to the heart of the dispute. No court had found DACA to be illegal when Trump tried to rescind it. Yet the administration’s entire rationale rested on its purported illegality. How, she wondered, is that a “reasoned explanation”?

That must have produced an awkward silence. But she’s Hispanic. She would ask such a thing, but then Stern notes something else was happening elsewhere:

Shortly before the justices heard arguments on Tuesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a horrific exposé of Stephen Miller’s deep ties to the white nationalist movement. The article detailed Miller’s affinity for outwardly racist websites, literature, and conspiracy theories, as well as immigrant laws rooted in eugenics.

So of course Stern connects the dots:

This animus, not some deep concern for “the rule of law,” is what lies behind the Trump administration’s push to end DACA. It was racism, too, that motivated the administration’s quest to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census – racism papered over with lies so brazen that Roberts could not accept them. This time around, however, the chief justice seems unwilling to peer beyond the government’s pretext. And so his court could soon condemn 700,000 Dreamers to fear deportation from the only home they’ve ever known.

And of course this made Miller the topic of the day. Yes, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch released excerpts from a trove of emails Miller sent to Breitbart News prior to the 2016 election, and Ryan Bort offers the highlights:

Miller recommended white nationalist literature and websites. When Kate McHugh, the former Breitbart reporter who leaked the emails, asked Miller if Hurricane Patricia could drive refugees into the U.S. from Mexico, Miller said “100 percent” before lamenting that they could get temporary protected status. He stressed that this needed to be a “big” story before linking to VDARE, a white nationalist website that, as Hatewatch notes, “Traffics in the ‘white genocide’ or ‘great replacement’ myth.”

On multiple occasions, Miller recommends the French book The Camp of the Saints, an alarmingly racist novel about a group of Indians, led by a character named “Turd Eater,” that invades France. The book became a central text of the white nationalist community. Weeks after mentioning it on September 6th, 2015, Breitbart editor Julia Hahn published an article titled “‘Camp of the Saints’ Seen Mirrored in Pope’s Message.” As Hatewatch notes, Hahn now works in the White House.

And there was this:

Miller complained that some retailers removed Confederate flags after the massacre in Charleston: Miller fumed to McHugh about how retailers like Amazon ceased selling Confederate flag merchandise following the 2015 massacre that left nine African Americans dead in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. “‘22.6 percent of Southern men who were between the ages of 20 and 24 in 1860 lost their lives because of the war,'” Miller wrote, linking to a History.com article. He and McHugh later bandied about the hypocrisy of Amazon for pulling down Confederate merchandise while continuing to sell “Commie flags.”

Miller also railed at length against the vandalization of Confederate statues… Trump echoed Miller’s beliefs after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, reignited a national backlash against Confederate monuments. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” the president tweeted.

And there’s this curious tidbit:

Miller praised President Calvin Coolidge, whose policies were touted by Hitler: Miller repeatedly praised President Calvin Coolidge and complained that history has not given him his due. As Hatewatch notes, Coolidge is a white nationalist icon who condemned race mixing. His Immigration Act of 1924, which all but eliminated immigration from certain parts of the world, was described by Hitler in Mein Kampf as a model for Nazi Germany.

And this:

In September of 2015, Miller complained that Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham were being soft on refugees in an email with the subject line, “Tucker asks McCain, Graham how refugees are good for Americans.”

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson should have known that was a stupid question, and McCain and Graham were stupid for being tricked into answering that question. Refugees always ruin everything. So that leaves this:

As the email excerpts make clear, Breitbart’s coverage was largely and often directly informed by Miller’s views. After Trump took office, these views similarly informed U.S. immigration policy. “What Stephen Miller sent to me in those emails has become policy at the Trump administration,” McHugh told Hatewatch.

The Supreme Court, now, will decide if that policy becomes the law of the land.

And at the reliably conservative Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe blames all of this on Stephen Miller:

Less than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans came within inches of achieving their immigration dreams with a deal that would build a border wall and more detention facilities while curbing legal immigration and enacting E-Verify.

The only concession they had to make was to permanently and constitutionally protect 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, Americanized immigrants brought here illegally as children through no fault of their own.

The political cost for the GOP was almost nonexistent. Two-thirds of Republicans already supported a path to citizenship for DACA recipients at the time. But the single most prominent obstacle to this deal proved to be Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller.

Miller’s intransigence cost Trump what leverage he had from DACA, and Trump got no deal.

Less than a year later, Trump tried the same gambit but with less leverage and even more desperation as Republicans were about to lose control of the House. Once again, Miller’s insistence on slashing protections for DACA recipients killed negotiations, forcing Trump to re-open the government after its longest shutdown in history with his tail between his legs and not one cent allocated for the wall, let alone any legislative achievements.

But it looks like Stephen Miller will win this one in the Supreme Court. Lives will be destroyed, but Kevin Drum wonders about this:

Every year America gets less white. The Republican Party is keenly aware of this, and keenly aware that their natural base of support is shrinking with every election cycle. But they have no solution to this problem. If they genuinely try to make their party friendlier to voters of color, they’ll lose support from their white base and start losing elections immediately. If they don’t make their party friendlier to voters of color, they’ll start losing elections in the near future thanks to sheer demographic pressure. They have a tiger by the ears, and they can neither hold on nor let go.

And he cites Yoni Appelbaum with this:

The history of the United States is rich with examples of once-dominant groups adjusting to the rise of formerly marginalized populations – sometimes gracefully, more often bitterly, and occasionally violently… But sometimes, that process of realignment breaks down. Instead of reaching out and inviting new allies into its coalition, the political right hardens, turning against the democratic processes it fears will subsume it.

And that is the situation now:

Trump has led his party to this dead end, and it may well cost him his chance for reelection, presuming he is not removed through impeachment. But the president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them.

That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has – whatever the cost.

Drum agrees:

I think this is pretty much true, and that it explains the seeming terror that has taken hold of so many conservatives. It explains why Mitch McConnell doesn’t care much about legislation of any kind but grimly continues to confirm federal judges: it’s his only bulwark against a future in which Republicans lose power completely for a decade or two. It explains why a formerly mainstream party not only voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, but voted overwhelmingly for him even though they had a perfectly normal field of competitors to choose from. It explains a multi-decade effort at voter suppression that has consumed the party even though it’s unlikely to put off the inevitable by more than a year or three.

In 2012 I thought that the Republican Party had gone as far as it could to get votes from the white working class. There was just no more blood to be squeezed from that particular turnip. But I was wrong—barely. In 2016 they did what no one could have predicted by nominating a guy who was an all but open racist. And it worked, buying them just a few more votes than it lost them. Once again, they gained a few years.

But it can’t last forever. The Republican Party has already gone much further down the road of lashing itself to the cause of white racial resentment than I would have guessed possible. How much longer can it last?

This week may decide that. Expect the DACA ruling in six or seven months. For now, it’s all Ukraine, all the time, and Stephen Miller doesn’t matter at the moment, nor do all the white supremacists now in positions of real power. The impeachment hearings begin in the morning. The man elected to destroy as many lives as possible may be gone soon.

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