A Shift in the Wind

Mondays are always difficult, and sometimes there’s a shift in the wind. There’s something in the air. Mondays can be like that. Something is going wrong. Donald Trump must have felt that:

The fight over President Trump’s systematic stonewalling of Congress escalated on two fronts on Monday, as a federal judge upheld a subpoena for his financial records even as the White House instructed its former top lawyer to defy a subpoena to testify before lawmakers.

In the first court test of Mr. Trump’s vow to resist “all” subpoenas by House Democrats, a judge ruled that his accounting firm, Mazars USA, must turn over his financial records to Congress – rejecting his lawyers’ argument that lawmakers had no legitimate power to demand the files.

Mr. Trump separately moved to block Congress from receiving testimony by the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II at a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, denying House Democrats one of the most important eyewitnesses to Mr. Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation. Mr. McGahn will not appear, his lawyer said later.

That’s the quick summary from the New York Times’ Charlie Savage and Nicholas Fandos who frame the underlying issue this way:

The fights raise separate but overlapping issues: how far Congress’s power to subpoena information extends, what Mr. Trump can apply executive privilege to in order to keep secret, and whether a president’s senior aides are “absolutely immune” from subpoenas, meaning they do not even have to show up when ordered to appear before lawmakers.

In short, can the president tell Congress to stuff it – they get nothing because they’re useless and don’t really matter – and are the president’s powers actually absolute, and always were, and everyone else should just shut up and go home? The nation is learning how Donald Trump thinks of the presidency. He runs things. To question him is unpatriotic. To investigate him is treason.

That is, broadly, his argument, but there was this:

Asked why he was telling Mr. McGahn to defy the subpoena, Mr. Trump suggested that his lawyers were just trying to protect the institution of the presidency.

“They’re doing that for the office of the presidency, for future presidents,” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. “I think it’s a very important precedent. And the attorneys say that they’re not doing that for me. They’re doing it for the office of the president. So we’re talking about the future.”

That was a compressed version of what Nixon said on national television about those tapes. He couldn’t hand them over. They contained honest discussion of big issues where all parties assumed the discussion was private, so they could be brutally honest, a necessary thing. If they knew others were listening, or would listen later, they couldn’t be honest, only careful, saying next to nothing, just to be safe – and then no one would know what anyone really thought and nothing would be decided by anyone. And no foreign leader would ever talk to any president ever again. Some things have to be confidential. Nixon would not hand over the tapes. He was protecting the institution of the presidency.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes. They might prove that a crime (or crimes) had been committed. No president can willfully conceal evidence of a crime, and especially evidence of what might be his own crimes. No president can rig the system.

That’s what worried the Democrats, but not enough, not yet:

Democrats were worried about precedent, as well, and as frustration mounted on Monday over Mr. McGahn’s absence, so did new tensions among Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team. Several members of the Judiciary Committee, led by Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, argued Monday night in a private leadership meeting that the time had come to open an impeachment inquiry to streamline Democrats’ investigations and try to strengthen their hand against the executive branch, according to three people in the room, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

That is, if the White House was going to continue to argue that the House had no right to ask for anything, because there was no “legislative purpose” to any of it at all – it was just harassment – then just go ahead and establish a clear legislative purpose. Open an impeachment inquiry. That’s a clear legislative purpose. Make it official. Take that argument away from the White House attorneys.

Or maybe not:

Ms. Pelosi, who had been venting frustration about Democrats’ policy work being overshadowed by the oversight wars, pushed back and questioned that approach, the people said. She urged colleagues to stay the course and, in another meeting with a broader group of lawmakers, referred to the court ruling to assure jittery Democrats that “we’re getting some results.”

“We have invested this much time,” she said, according to one of the people. “I don’t know why we would say McGahn, that’s it.”

And, in fact, they had won big:

In the financial records case, Mr. Trump’s legal team, led by William S. Consovoy, had argued that the subpoena by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform exceeded its constitutional authority because it had no legitimate legislative purpose in seeking Mr. Trump’s data. Lawmakers were just trying to dig up dirt – like finding out whether the president broke any laws – for political reasons, Mr. Trump’s lawyers argued.

But Democrats have said they need the records because they are examining whether ethics and disclosure laws need to be strengthened. In a 41-page ruling, Judge Amit P. Mehta of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, an appointee of President Barack Obama, said that justification was sufficient to make the subpoena valid.

“These are facially valid legislative purposes, and it is not for the court to question whether the committee’s actions are truly motivated by political considerations,” he wrote. “Accordingly, the court will enter judgment in favor of the Oversight Committee.”

The subpoena was lawful. So are, presumably, all other such the subpoenas. Team Trump was saying that might seem to be the case, but consider the “motivations” of those issuing the subpoenas. Their hearts aren’t pure! Sure, these subpoenas are legal, but SHOULD they be? These are such mean and nasty people, and Donald Trump is such a good man.

Judge Mehta told Team Trump to drop that talk about the psychodynamics at play here – the Constitution is clear – the law is clear. This is quite simple. Follow the law. Obey the law. And this is the law, which has nothing to do with who is naughty or nice. But of course that won’t do:

Mr. Consovoy did not respond to an email requesting a comment. But Mr. Trump denounced the ruling as “totally the wrong decision by obviously an Obama-appointed judge.” He also said it was “crazy because if you look at it, this never happened to any other president.”

There’s a reason for that:

Democrats say their attempts to obtain Mr. Trump’s financial records were driven by the fact that he, unlike all previous modern presidents, has refused to disclose his tax returns. He has also declined to divest from his extensive business dealings, including with foreigners abroad, or to place his assets into a blind trust. And Michael D. Cohen, his former lawyer, has testified that he fraudulently inflated or deflated the value of the same assets in transactions, depending on what was expedient.

Trump asked for it, and no one can hide:

Mr. McGahn’s lawyer, William A. Burck, said in a letter to the committee that he viewed the dispute as one between the White House and the committee, adding that he hoped the committee would decline to hold Mr. McGahn in contempt for obeying Mr. Trump and not showing up.

“It is our view that the committee’s dispute is not with Mr. McGahn but with the White House,” he wrote.

But on Monday night in an interview on CNN, Mr. Nadler said that “the first thing we are going to do, we’re going to have to hold McGahn in contempt.”

Mr. McGahn has already defied the committee’s subpoena once. The panel had also called for him to hand over documents that he shared with Mr. Mueller and that the committee said were relevant to its own inquiry into potential abuses of power. The White House similarly instructed Mr. McGahn not to comply.

That may not work much longer:

Senior House Republicans are breaking with Donald Trump over the president’s legal claims that Congress can’t investigate whether a commander in chief violated the law.

That view, advanced by Trump’s personal attorney and the White House counsel late last week, would upend long-held understandings about Congress’ ability to scrutinize presidential conduct – especially alleged criminal activity.

“I’m in Congress. I’m aligned with Congress. I’m not aligned with the executive branch. And I think we have oversight authority over the administration,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “And if the president has acted illegally, then I think we have oversight authority.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran lawmaker who first came to Capitol Hill in the early 1980s as a congressional staffer, said he didn’t agree with Trump’s legal theories.

“Obviously there is such a thing as congressional oversight,” Cole said.

Perhaps so, but there is confusion too:

Institutionalist-minded Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the far-reaching arguments Trump and his lawyers are using to make their case, amid fears the claims of near-immunity from congressional scrutiny would set dangerous precedents.

But these lawmakers are not preparing to act in any way that constrains Trump. They roundly support the president’s rejection of House Democrats’ investigations and subpoenas, arguing Democrats are taking their investigations of the president too far – particularly those targeting his business dealings and personal finances.

Okay, they hate what he’s doing, but they won’t do anything about it, but one of them will do something about it:

Trump and Attorney General William Barr’s handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions motivated one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, to call for the president’s impeachment over the weekend.

“We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees—on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice – depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump,” Amash tweeted on Saturday.

Amash argued that Mueller’s report proved Trump had obstructed justice and that he escaped indictment only because of Justice Department rules that prohibit the indictment of a sitting president.

And that was the big deal, as Jonathan Chait explains here:

Saturday, Representative Justin Amash became the first Republican in Congress to call for impeaching President Trump on the basis of the massive misconduct detailed by the Mueller report. It was a rare act of bravery, one likely to end his career in Congress. Amash’s fellow Republicans immediately set about proving how brave it was by excommunicating him from the party.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared on Fox News to unleash a wild flurry of lies. “You’ve got to understand Justin Amash. He’s been in Congress quite some time. I think he’s asked one question in all the committees that he’s been in,” he said. “He votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me. It’s a question whether he’s even in our Republican conference as a whole. What he wants is attention in this process. He’s not a criminal attorney. He’s never met Mueller. He’s never met Barr.” The California congressman added, “It’s very disturbing … He never supported the president, and I think he’s just looking for attention.”

That’s all nonsense that Chait dismantles point by point, like this:

“He votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me.” Amash is a right-wing libertarian with some gadfly tendencies, but his anti-government views place him clearly on the Republican side. Amash had an 88 percent score from the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent score from FreedomWorks, and has voted with Trump 92 percent of the time in this Congress (though only 54 previous in the previous Congress.)

“He’s not a criminal attorney.” Oh, McCarthy is interested in what criminal attorneys think of the Mueller report? Well, there’s a letter from more than 400 former federal prosecutors asserting “the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”

There’s much more of course:

McCarthy’s impulse is to cast Amash as an outsider, and thus to discredit his stance. This is the central theme of the messaging that took hold over the weekend. “The only people still fixated on the Russia collusion hoax,” asserts Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, “are political foes of President Trump hoping to defeat him in 2020 by any desperate means possible.”

That’s telling:

In one sense this is true. If you define anybody who objects to Trump’s conduct as a political foe, then only his foes object to his conduct. Trump has used this logical circle to discredit everybody who has challenged him. This Trumpian alchemy has transformed lifelong Republicans like Robert Mueller, James Comey, John McCain, John Kasich, and many others into hardened Democratic partisans. To be a loyal Republican now is to support all of Trump’s misconduct, therefore, anybody who objects to Trump’s conduct is a partisan Democrat.

The grain of truth in the accusations against Amash is that Amash is contemplating a presidential candidacy with the Libertarian Party. “I would never rule anything out,” he said in March.

And that means Trump should worry:

A real right-wing third-party challenge, by a Republican (who hails from a swing state) would be a nightmare for Trump’s reelection. And the more Republicans attack Amash, the more they close the door on any chance he can return to Congress, where he mostly votes with them, and push him instead to run against Trump. The short-term goal of discrediting Trump’s critics may bring with it a much larger long-term cost.

Trump was having a bad Monday, and Cristian Farias puts that in historical perspective:

More than a year before the House Judiciary Committee adopted articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, Representative Pete McCloskey, a California Republican, became the first member of Congress to call for a discussion about whether to begin an impeachment inquiry over Watergate.

Over the weekend, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan pulled a McCloskey of sorts. He became the first Republican in Congress to say that the report of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, showed that President Trump had committed impeachable offenses.

Then he doubled-down on Monday:

“Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment,” Mr. Amash wrote on Twitter.

“In fact,” he added in a 13-tweet explanation of his conclusions, “Mueller’s report identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.”

Mr. Trump responded on Sunday by calling Mr. Amash “a total lightweight” and “a loser.” And on Monday, Mr. Amash went at it again on social media, dispelling common misconceptions about the Mueller report and its findings.

He actual read the report, all of it, and while that may not matter to Trump and the Republicans, there is a secondary effect here:

Mr. Amash isn’t likely to be a bellwether for his party. He is a libertarian who has long staked out his own positions on issues such as gay marriage, government surveillance and Mr. Trump’s entry restrictions on Muslim travelers.

But what is remarkable about Mr. Amash’s stand is how much tougher it is than that of the House’s Democratic leaders to date. Wary of a move that has little public support, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and prominent committee leaders have avoided talk of impeachment and have focused on learning what Attorney General William Barr redacted from the report, as well as subpoenaing testimony and documents.

But this Republican heretic has now made it clear that the report itself is enough to get an impeachment going, which put Pelosi and the others in a bind:

It’s understandable that Democrats are concerned that an impeachment fight could distract from the issues at the heart of their campaign to unseat Mr. Trump and Republican members of Congress next year. The House needs to investigate aggressively the questionable conduct by this president and follow that inquiry where it leads.

But Democratic leaders also need to be stronger and clearer about what we know.

Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration, expressed it well in a Washington Post op-ed last week.

“How different would it have been,” he wrote, “if a unified chorus of Democratic leaders in Congress and on the campaign trail had promptly proclaimed the actual truth: This report makes the unquestionable case that the president regularly and audaciously violated his oath and committed the most serious high crimes and misdemeanors.”

And now a Republican has said that, so Farias says this:

That’s what Mr. Amash concluded. And like Mr. McCloskey did all those years ago, he concluded that Mr. Trump’s pattern of obstructive behavior was enough for the House to fulfill its constitutional duties.

So what’s the problem? It may be time to move on this. It was one of those Mondays when there was a shift in the wind. Something was up.

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Marching Into Darkness

If the Democrats in the House, where they have a clear majority, cannot do anything at all about anything a Republican president does, no matter how dangerous, or simply absurd, because the Senate is controlled by the Republicans who will not take up anything the Democrats in that other chamber even think of proposing, then the president is free to do anything that occurs to him at any given time – within limits. He cannot declare himself president for life and expel California and New York and Massachusetts from the Union and declare the Nineteenth Amendment null and void so women will never vote again. All of that would keep Republicans in power, but there are rules. The president’s powers are not absolute.

But one of his powers is absolute, and this president, Donald Trump, can exercise that power to sneer at his critics and prove he can do any damned thing he wants:

President Trump gave a full pardon to a longtime friend who last year wrote a glowing book about Trump’s successes.

Conrad Black was convicted in 2007 on fraud charges, including alleged embezzlement, and obstruction of justice. He served more than three years in prison and was deported to his native Canada after he was released in 2012. He was barred from returning to the United States for 30 years.

Of course no one cares about this disgraced onetime Canadian press baron, but Donald Trump does:

The White House said in a statement that Black was “entirely deserving” of the pardon. In listing Black’s accomplishments, it mentions biographies Black wrote about presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, but not his tome on Trump.

On the first page of that book, “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other,” Black writes: “Like the country he represents, Donald Trump possesses the optimism to persevere and succeed, the confidence to affront tradition and convention, a genius for spectacle, and a firm belief in common sense and the common man.”

Black, whose media company owned the Chicago Sun Times, at one time partnered with Trump to build Trump Tower in Chicago, but Trump later bought him out.

And now, with great fanfare, Donald Trump has granted this convicted felon full pardon for all his crimes. Yes, no one really cares about this guy. Few even know who he is. But that’s not the point. Trump was sending a message – See, look what I can do, and you losers can’t do a thing about it!

This is an in-your-face thing:

Trump also fully pardoned Patrick Nolan, a former Republican state legislative leader who pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in 1994 and served nearly three years in prison.

Yes, this guy didn’t even contest the charges. He admitted it all. Trump didn’t even claim there was any injustice here. He just pardoned the guy, because he could, and he wanted everyone to know he could. He can pardon any convicted and clearly guilty Republican he wants. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

This seems to make Donald Trump happy, or smug, or something else that Andrew Sullivan explores here:

When you observe Trump’s use of presidential pardons, you get a glimpse into what he’d do with absolute power. He’d abuse it, of course. It’s what he does. He has an unerring instinct for opportunities for total, independent authority – and he quickly saw how he could use pardons, and the promise of them. He could, for one thing, obstruct justice. The way he publicly toyed with pardoning Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen if they didn’t rat was instructive. Or he could simply reward loyalists and toadies: hence the latest pardon of Conrad Black, his criminal hagiographer, following the pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, a foul right-wing propagandist.

Perhaps that was to be expected. He was rich. He could buy what and who he wanted, and everyone would be in awe of him because of his vast wealth, or be in absolute fear of him. He seemed to be an awful person, but he was rich, and that was that. Now he has his pardon power. That’s now a second way to sneer at anyone who questions him about anything. Think of the Bible. Things went all wrong all the time for Job who complained to God that this just wasn’t fair. God’s reply was a sneer – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” People complain about Trump and sometimes to Trump, and the reply is similar – “Are you rich?” That ends the argument. And now he can pardon anyone he wants of any federal crime of any kind. “Can you do that?” If not, shut up.

Sullivan says this about that dynamic:

It’s the war criminals that really showcase Trump’s character. Trump loves any kind of brute power over someone else, which is why he is so attached to the idea of torturing the helpless. He preemptively pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio before his sentencing for criminal contempt – a man who broke federal law for refusing to halt racial profiling and who ran a “tent city” jail which amounted to a concentration camp. In March, Trump intervened in a war crimes trial scheduled for later this month by coming to the defense of the alleged criminal, Eddie Gallagher.

His tweet? “In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal #EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court. Process should move quickly!”

Gallagher had been turned in by his fellow Navy SEALs.

Mona Charen explains that:

The SEALs allege that Gallagher was an out-of-control killer who shot women and old men as well as combatants. In one case, he is accused of stabbing an already severely wounded 15-year-old to death. He texted photos of the kill and then reportedly held a re-enlistment ceremony with the corpse. In another incident, a sniper said he saw Gallagher shoot a 12-year-old girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with friends.


These are just two of the incidents involved. The file of his abuses is growing in number. This is someone whose past service his commander-in-chief honored.

But wait, there’s more:

In another, murkier case, in which Major Matt Golsteyn stands accused of murdering an alleged Taliban bomb-maker, burying him in a shallow grave then disinterring and burning his body, Trump jumped in to prejudge the case: “At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bombmaker while overseas.”

Then this week, Trump simply went ahead and pardoned former U.S. Army Lieutenant Michael Behenna. Behenna had lost two fellow soldiers in an IED attack in Iraq, and a suspected accomplice was captured and interrogated. With insufficient evidence to detain the suspect, Behenna was ordered to escort him home. Behenna instead took the opportunity on his journey to strip the prisoner naked, interrogate him personally, and then shoot him. He was convicted and served five years.

Sullivan is not impressed:

It may well have been a moment of complete breakdown. It may have been out of character. But it was a war crime. It was murder. Of all the countless cases of misbegotten justice, Trump chose this one out of ten pardons he has issued, and Fox News reported that he was “taking a broad look at veterans jailed for battlefield crimes and considering granting more of them similar relief.”

And one thing does lead to another:

The one thing we know for sure about crimes like this is that war drives people to unspeakable acts, and without very firm directions against abuse of innocents from the very top, atrocities will proliferate. We now have a commander-in-chief who has long rhapsodized about the torture of human beings and is now sending a signal that abuse under his watch is not that big a deal. I know this precedent was set by the last Republican president, as we saw in the war on terror. But Trump is building on and deepening a disregard for the military rules of combat that violates two centuries of American military decency and discipline. He loves the kind of soldiers good soldiers despise. And increasingly they know it.

But this is not new, as Mona Charen reminds us of the exchange between Trump and one debate moderator a few years ago:

During the March 3, 2016 Republican debate, Donald Trump proudly proclaimed something that he had only hinted at before: He endorsed war crimes. Bret Baier noted that “almost 100 foreign policy experts” had signed a statement saying that they could not support Trump because he had threatened to ask the military to target terrorists’ families and to employ torture techniques worse than waterboarding. Baier asked: “If you were president of United States, and the military declined to carry out an illegal order, what would you do?” In signature style, Trump doubled down:

“They won’t refuse. Believe me. When you look at the Middle East, they’re chopping off heads. They’re chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way and now they’re asking about waterboarding. I said it’s fine, and if they want to go stronger, I’d go stronger. Because that’s the way I feel. I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it.”

Charen notes that may have gone too far, but nothing was really settled:

Trump walked back his vow to order the U.S. military to violate the Geneva Conventions the next day, but then flipped toward barbarism again three months later in response to an attack at the Istanbul airport. “We have to be so strong. We have to fight so viciously and violently because we’re dealing with violent people viciously.”

Republicans who had worried about Trump’s commitment to the rule of law were reassured when Trump allowed that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had talked him out of his fondness for torture. Republicans relaxed.

But they could never really relax. Mattis wasn’t the president, and Max Boot takes it from there:

In 2016, President Trump ran on a war crimes platform. He vowed: “I would bring back waterboarding. And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” (Japanese soldiers were convicted after World War II in a war crimes tribunal for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners.) He also promised to “take out” the families of terrorists and approvingly recounted a false story about Gen. John J. Pershing executing 49 Muslim rebels in the Philippines, employing bullets dipped in pig fat.

These blood-curdling threats from an armchair general who skipped out on the Vietnam War were very much at odds with the ethos of Trump’s first secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who had exhorted his Marines at the start of the Iraq War: “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Carry out your mission and keep your honor clean.”

Mattis dissuaded Trump from issuing an unlawful order to torture terrorists, Trump said, by telling him: “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”

Cool. But Donald Trump is who he is:

This turned out to be only a temporary reprieve. Just as no amount of evidence can convince Trump that other countries don’t pay tariffs (American consumers do), so no amount of evidence can convince him that brutalizing prisoners and civilians is not a good idea. He said in 2017 that he was still “absolutely” an advocate of waterboarding but was deferring to Mattis.

Well, Mattis isn’t around anymore. He has been replaced by the ineffectual acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, who has no military experience and no standing to challenge Trump.

Shanahan had been a senior executive at Boeing. Shanahan knows all there is to know about the procurement of multibillion-dollar defense systems. Shanahan knows the politics of that. He really does know nothing else about the military, but Trump will nominate him to be the actual defense secretary, not just the placeholder.

But that’s not what bothers Boot, because this does:

Trump is back to praising war crimes.

He is not, to be sure, ordering the Defense Department to torture suspects or kill their families – any more than he is ordering the military to seize Iraq’s oil, another 2016 campaign brainstorm. Such an order would likely be refused, just as the Department of Homeland Security refused Trump’s instructions to deny refugees an opportunity to apply for asylum. But Trump appears intent on achieving a similar effect through the back door by pardoning soldiers who have been accused of war crimes.

That seems to be the plan:

In early May, Trump pardoned former Army First Lt. Michael Behenna, who was convicted of “unpremeditated murder in a war zone.” In 2008, U.S. troops captured an Iraqi man, Ali Mansur, who was suspected of planting a roadside bomb that had killed two of Behenna’s friends. But the military couldn’t find any conclusive evidence against Mansur, and Behenna was ordered to return him to his village. Instead, Behenna took Mansur to a secluded spot, stripped him naked, interrogated him and then shot him in the head and chest. The court-martial rejected Behenna’s claim of self-defense.

There wasn’t much question of guilt here, but Boot notes that Trump was just getting started:

The New York Times reports that the president may stage a grotesque commemoration of Memorial Day by pardoning a whole slate of accused war criminals…

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher: Fellow SEALs testified that in Iraq in 2017, Gallagher would routinely fire a heavy machine gun into civilian neighborhoods “with no discernible targets,” that he shot a girl in a flower-print hijab and an unarmed old man with his sniper’s rifle, and that he stabbed to death a captured, wounded Islamic State fighter who appeared to be about 15 years old.

Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn: He is accused of murder for killing an Afghan prisoner who was a suspected bomb maker. According to prosecutors, Golsteyn and two other soldiers then disposed of the body in a burn pit. Golsteyn admitted to the killing on television but claims it was justified.

Nicholas A. Slatten: He is an Army veteran who was found guilty of first-degree murder for his actions as a contractor in Iraq in 2007: He and other Blackwater contractors opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including 10 women and two children.

Four Marines who were found guilty of dereliction of duty after they were videotaped urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.

That’s the list so far, and Boot is forced to state the obvious:

What all these cases have in common is that the military chain of command thought it was imperative to bring charges to maintain good order and discipline, while right-wing commentators have rallied to the defense of the accused. Guess which side Trump is on.

And that angers Boot:

Having no honor of his own, Trump doesn’t understand the importance of Mattis’ injunction to keep one’s honor clean – to maintain the thin line that separates professional, disciplined soldiers from the Mongol hordes of the 13th century or the German SS. Trump is telling the troops: Don’t listen to your superiors. Ignore the rules of engagement. Feel free to commit atrocities in the expectation of a presidential pardon.

There is no more corrosive message a commander in chief could send, which is why so many veterans who served honorably are so appalled by what Trump is doing.

And here’s an idea:

If Congress had any honor of its own, Trump’s incitement of unlawful behavior by the troops under his command would be yet another count in the articles of impeachment against him.

That’ll never happen because the Senate will do nothing, ever, about their Republican president.

And then there’s this guy:

Waitman Wade Beorn, a combat veteran of Iraq, is a Holocaust and genocide studies historian, a lecturer at the University of Virginia, and the author of “Marching Into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus.” He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

He’s saying this:

Our commander in chief appears to have preferred to overlook serious war crimes in favor of a warped notion of patriotism and heroism. Trump subscribes to a “bad things happen in war” mentality – odd for a man who actively avoided military service.

This attitude is incredibly dangerous. It doesn’t just undermine the enforcement of military justice; it also sends a message to our armed forces about just what kind of conduct the United States takes seriously.

And he’s also saying this:

In my book Marching Into Darkness I wrote about the German army’s participation in the Holocaust at the small-unit level. One conclusion was that, even given the premeditated, racist and highly ideologized environment of the Wehrmacht, the culture of each unit and the institutional leadership most directly influenced whether war crimes were committed. Murderous leaders led murderous units, I found.

Fortunately, the U.S. military does not exist in this kind of ethical quagmire. Compared with our opponents in the modern age, we have taken much more care to prosecute warfare in accordance with the laws of war. We have systems of military education that highlight our values and the law of armed conflict. And we have a military justice system that, while not perfect, prosecutes and condemns those service members who commit atrocities.

In short, we have a foundation of military ethics that our combat leaders can stand on.

That may not be true much longer, because things are moving right along:

President Donald Trump has requested paperwork allowing him to move forward quickly with pardons for accused US war criminals, The New York Times reported Saturday.

The pardons from a President who on the campaign trail expressed support for “tougher” tactics than waterboarding and going after the families of terrorists could come “on or around Memorial Day,” two US officials told the Times.

One military official told the Times that the White House made its request to the Justice Department on Friday, and that while pardon files typically take months to assemble, the Justice Department had stressed the files needed to be completed before the coming Memorial Day weekend.

John Cole was once a Republican, a long time ago, and now he is a bit unhappy once more:

First things first, the fact that he is doing this on Memorial Day should be your first clue the giant orange talking anus has no idea what the fuck he is doing. Memorial Day is to honor our war dead, those who died in service to our nation. It’s also the day where our jingoistic citizenry run around telling everyone inappropriately “Thank you for your service” and we try to not look disgusted… Regardless, this would be inappropriate on Veteran’s Day, too, but less so than on Memorial Day.

Second, pardoning war criminals doesn’t honor our troops regardless what fucking day of the year it is done. It’s a spit in the face of every man and woman who served honorably in the military. It’s saying “Hey – you’re all murderers anyway.”

Third, those convicted of war crimes by the military are most assuredly guilty. It’s about as easy to convict soldiers of these things as it is to convict a cop of manslaughter. Those convicted are the most egregious cases imaginable. I mean Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ, in the My Lai massacre, 500 unarmed civilians were murdered, gang raped, and had their corpses mutilated, and approximately ONE person, Lt. Calley, a platoon leader which is the lowest unit level in existence, was convicted. And then he even had his sentence commuted.

And he has some words for Donald Trump:

You want to do something to honor soldiers on Memorial Day, Doll Hands? Just shut the fuck up and go away for the weekend.

The language is a little salty. But that may be appropriate. We are all marching into darkness now. And the man is rich. Are you? Who can argue with him? And the president’s pardon power is absolute – the Constitution says so. No one can argue otherwise. So get used to the darkness. America chose that.

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Erase the Past

A week is an age in the Age of Trump. One damned thing after another happens every day, or every hour. And no one can remember what happened a week ago. Last week “Chuck and Nancy” sat down with President Trump and all three of them agreed on a two trillion dollar infrastructure plan to rebuild roads and bridges and dams and ports and airports and all the rest, everywhere. Things had been falling apart for too long. This place was beginning to look like a third-world country. Bridges were falling down. And this isn’t Albania. So fix it all. It was a Kumbaya Moment – and then it was over. There was no plan. There was an announcement that there was a plan to have a plan. Someone would figure it out, later, where to find a spare two trillion dollars hanging around. Someone would prioritize the work to be done, later. But this was, at the time, a big deal. Cooperation in Washington! The world had changed.

And then it was over. Other things came up. No one mentioned it again. The world hadn’t changed. Dirt roads are fine.

But some things shouldn’t disappear. In July, 2018, Steve Benen was noting this:

About a month ago, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) complained that too much of today’s Republican Party has found itself in “a cult-like situation as it relates to a president.” Soon after, Donald Trump Jr. appeared on Fox News and was surprisingly reluctant to reject the criticism.

“You know what,” the president’s adult son said, “if it’s a cult, it’s because they like what my father is doing.”

That was a bit scary – think of Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid in Guyana – but Benen found what followed even scarier:

One of the problems with cults is that its leader tells its followers to ignore external sources of information – because in order for the scheme to work, the leaders must be seen as the sole authority for truth.

All of this came to mind watching Donald Trump Sr. in Kansas City yesterday, where the president addressed this year’s national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Officially, this was an official White House event, but practically, it wasn’t long before Trump turned the gathering into another partisan campaign rally, which included this unscripted declaration – “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

In his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

Seven decades later, the dynamic Orwell described seems eerily familiar. Americans may see and read about current events, but their president is asking us not to trust our lying eyes. Instead, to understand “what’s happening,” we must instead turn to Donald Trump and those who deliver the kinds of messages he approves of.

There was outrage on the left and shrugs on the right, and about a week of deep and meaningful discussion of the deep matters here – the nature of the truth and how one determines the truth and how political considerations can mess everything up – but then it was over. All that was left of any of it was what Benen noted at the time:

The White House hasn’t exactly been subtle about its vision: Don’t trust news organizations. Don’t trust the courts. Don’t trust pollsters. Don’t trust U.S. intelligence agencies. Don’t trust unemployment numbers. Don’t even trust election results.

The list, however, keeps growing. The FBI is suspect. So is the Justice Department. So are climate scientists. So are medical professionals who aren’t comfortable with regressive GOP healthcare plans.

The authority for truth will tell us what’s true. Others are not to be trusted…

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Science Committee, advised Americans last year “to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

Other than that, read your Bible? But it was over. The nation moved on. The president said those words, don’t believe what you hear or read or see. Believe him. Believe only him. Yeah, well, whatever. This guy says lots of wild stuff. He likes to be outrageous. There was no need to take him seriously here. Move on.

Moving on was a mistake. He was serious. What you see isn’t what you see. That’s the new administration motto:

In the first court hearing over President Trump’s border wall funding plan, administration lawyers on Friday vigorously pressed their controversial argument that Congress did not in fact deny him the money when lawmakers excluded it from the appropriations bill they enacted in February.

To bar spending, Deputy Assistant Attorney General James M. Burnham told a federal judge here, Congress would have had to explicitly say that “no money shall be obligated” in any form to construct a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. Having failed to do that, Burnham argued, the administration is free to tap funds never intended for border security.

So, Congress did not deny any funds. They just didn’t appropriate any funds. They didn’t say do NOT do this. So they must be fine with this. Got it?

Someone didn’t get it:

“That just cannot be right,” responded Douglas Letter, general counsel for the House of Representatives, which participated as amicus in the case brought by nearly two dozen states and the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group. They are challenging Trump’s national emergency declaration to redirect taxpayer money for the wall. The House has filed a separate suit in Washington, D.C. “No money may be spent unless Congress actually appropriates it,” he said.

Letter likened the situation to that of an underage teenager who requires his mother’s signature to join the Army – but she wants him to go to college instead. “He says, ‘Mom, you can just sign this form?’ And mom walks out of the room” instead of signing it.

“Nobody can say that’s not a denial,” Letter said. This is exactly what Congress did when it balked at Trump’s request for more than $4 billion for the border wall beyond the $1.375 billion it did appropriate, he added.

Oh yes they can:

Friday’s hearing in the Northern District of California, before Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr., came on a motion by two sets of challengers – the coalition of states led by California and the Sierra Club – seeking a preliminary injunction to halt all contracts and construction while Gilliam considers the cases’ merits.

The plaintiffs allege that Trump’s actions violated the constitutional requirement that no money may be spent without an appropriation from Congress, and breached restrictions in the laws that the administration is attempting to use to transfer money that had been set aside mostly for military projects and programs .

The counterargument was that although there’s a constitutional requirement that no money may be spent without an appropriation from Congress, Congress didn’t say “no” – not directly – so they must have meant “yes” – indirectly. Everyone thought they didn’t fund building the wall. But they didn’t “not” fund the wall. That’s the Trump position. What happened didn’t happen.

That’s the new rule. Aaron Rupar notes this:

President Donald Trump wants you to believe that he had no way of knowing about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s shady dealings with Russia before he made him his first national security adviser…

On Friday, Trump tweeted his lament that nobody warned him about Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who was dismissed from his job as director of national intelligence by then-President Barack Obama in 2014. After his dismissal, Flynn wasted little time cozying up to the Kremlin, and then spent 2016 as one of Trump’s key campaign surrogates.

“It now seems the General Flynn was under investigation long before was common knowledge,” Trump tweeted. “It would have been impossible for me to know this but, if that was the case, and with me being one of two people who would become president, why was I not told so that I could make a change?”

He was told:

News reports indicate otherwise. CNN, citing former Obama administration officials, reported on May 17, 2017, that during a White House meeting days after Trump’s election, Obama told him that “given the importance of the [national security adviser] job, the president through there were better people for it, and that Flynn wasn’t up for the job.” But Trump proceeded with hiring Flynn anyway.

Former New Jersey governor and longtime Trump confidant Chris Christie has also said he directly advised Trump against hiring Flynn.

“If I were president-elect of the United States, I wouldn’t let General Flynn into the White House, let alone give him a job,” Christie said in 2017.

Yeah, well, Christie headed Trump’s transition team until Trump fired him. Christie, when he was a federal prosecutor, sent Jared Kushner’s father to jail for a few years. Christie’s warning, and anything he said, was ignored. Jared sent him packing. But he and Obama had told Trump that Flynn was poison, which he was:

Flynn soon illustrated why Obama and Christie had concerns about him. During the presidential transition period, he had phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which he advised Kislyak not to respond to new sanctions the Obama administration placed on Russia for interfering (on Trump’s behalf) in the just-completed presidential election. Not only did Flynn undercut Obama’s foreign policy, but he then lied about it, telling FBI investigators during an interview conducted days after Trump’s inauguration that he and Kislyak did not in fact discuss sanctions.

That was a bad idea:

Flynn’s lying to the FBI prompted officials to warn Trump once again about Flynn. On January 26, 2017, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates personally informed the White House that Flynn lied to the FBI about his calls with Kislyak, and therefore was at risk of being blackmailed by Russia. But instead of immediately taking action against Flynn, the Trump administration fired Yates three days later, after she refused to implement Trump’s executive order barring people from a number of Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States.

Flynn was finally fired on February 13, after it emerged that he had also misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017, agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller, and is still awaiting sentencing.

But that May, Trump was saying all of this was Obama’s fault – “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration – but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that!”

The Obama Administration figured out Flynn and stripped him of his security clearances and fired him. Obama told Trump about that. And Flynn had been in the news all along:

US intelligence officials had serious concerns about Michael Flynn’s appointment as the White House national security adviser because of his history of contacts with Moscow and his encounter with a woman who had trusted access to Russian spy agency records, the Guardian has learned.

US and British intelligence officers discussed Flynn’s “worrisome” behaviour well before his appointment last year by Donald Trump, multiple sources have said.

They raised concerns about Flynn’s ties to Russia and his perceived obsession with Iran. They were also anxious about his capacity for “linear thought” and some actions that were regarded as highly unusual for a three-star general.

The word had been out there. The guy could no longer think straight. A little vetting might have helped. Have someone on staff read a newspaper or two. Don’t erase the past. That’s dangerous.

But that’s’ the order of the day, as Eugene Scott reports here:

The Supreme Court decision 65 years ago ruling that segregating schools by race was unconstitutional is widely viewed as settled to many Americans. But there is concern among some in the legal community that that might not exactly be the case.

More than two dozen of President Trump’s judicial nominees have declined to answer whether Brown v. Board of Education was properly decided, and legal experts said that that could have real implications on education and race in the United States.

This is also a matter of erasing the past:

The most recent example came when Wendy Vitter, who was confirmed Thursday as a federal district judge in Louisiana, declined to clearly affirm the decision. She said:

“I don’t mean to be coy, but I think I get into a difficult, difficult area when I start commenting on Supreme Court decisions – which are correctly decided and which I may disagree with. If I start commenting on, ‘I agree with this case,’ or ‘don’t agree with this case,’ I think we get into a slippery slope.”

She would rather not be pinned down on whether she thinks desegregating the nation’s public schools had been a bad idea, because she would not want to say THAT – so she’s saying nothing. And that’s saying something:

Responses like Vitter’s are why the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a letter this week urging U.S. senators to oppose all judicial nominees (Vitter included) who refuse to state clearly that the landmark Supreme Court ruling was correctly decided. For them, the Brown decision is about much more than education.

Kristine Lucius, the organization’s executive vice president for policy and governmental affairs, and a graduate of Georgetown Law who has worked on legal issues in Congress for more than a decade, told The Fix:

“Brown v. Board was about so much more than ending legal segregation in schools. It overturned laws that created a racial caste system to oppress and dehumanize African Americans. It opened the doors to allow for African Americans to integrate into all facets of American life. Judges who are unwilling to clearly affirm that Brown vs Board was correctly decided are putting all of this at stake: sending a dangerous signal to all Americans that Brown could someday be overturned and that our nation could return to the disgraceful days of racial segregation. All judicial nominees must endorse this essential principle of racial equality.”

Scott then states the obvious:

Casting doubt on this landmark ruling is like an earthquake under equal protection jurisprudence. Brown embodies the legal foundation on which all other desegregation decisions were based, and the principle on which our federal civil rights laws were premised.

Trump has nominated at least twenty-five judges who won’t say Brown, from 1954, was a good idea. Maybe the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a bad idea, and so was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 too. That’s not what most people have come to think, after all the years and all the people who died for such things. But what you’ve seen and what you’ve read was not what was happening. Remember that.

Those few words Trump spoke last summer were more than just a curious little news story, soon forgotten, because so much else was going on. He was talking about erasing the past. So here’s an idea. Forget nothing.

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

Rising to Total Incompetence

Richard Nixon was finally sworn in as president on January 20, 1969, the same year that Laurence J. Peter published his book on the Peter Principle – his insight into the nature of large organizations. In almost all organizational hierarchies, corporations or government bureaucracies or the military, every employee will rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level where they are quite incompetent. They could always do the next higher and more complex job, and the one after that, and the one after that one too – but at some point the next job was one they just couldn’t do – so they sit smug at the top, or near the top, clueless and useless. That’s how any promotion system works. Move folks up. Challenge them. Stretch hem. They grow. The organization grows. Keep doing that until they hit that wall – the job they just cannot do – and then leave them there and hope they don’t do too much damage. And that, Peter explained, is what is wrong with most corporations. Those at the top had settled there because there was nowhere else to put them. And they were useless.

That was management theory at the time, but Nixon wasn’t incompetent. He could do the “president job” quite well – the opening to China and all the rest. But he was also paranoid and angry and nasty and vengeful and utterly unethical. And then he was gone. He lost to Kennedy in 1960, and then he lost when he ran for governor out here in California, but did finally win the presidency. That was the final promotion, and he could do the job – but he really couldn’t. He was too mean and too nasty. He was promoted to a place where that mattered too. He had to leave. He blew it. He knew that.

What does Donald Trump know? He may have risen to his own personal level of incompetence. Things aren’t working. The Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus reviews his foreign policy:

As president he named himself negotiator-in-chief and tried to cajole North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to abandon nuclear weapons. He reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, betting he could force the ayatollahs to change their ways. He vowed to force China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union to give up what he called unfair trade practices.

He backed an uprising in Venezuela aimed at toppling its leftist president, Nicolas Maduro. He declared victory against Islamic State and ordered U.S. troops home from Syria. In his spare time, he asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to arrange peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

He has achieved none of those outcomes.

But it’s worse than that:

We’re in an escalating trade war with China, and with both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping slapping tariffs on imports, consumers and businesses in both countries are likely to get hurt. The nuclear negotiations with North Korea are stalled, and Kim not only is still producing nuclear weapons material but also has started firing short-range ballistic missiles to show his pique.

The sanctions on Iran haven’t made its government more pliable; Tehran has threatened to resume aspects of its still-halted nuclear program. U.S. troops are still in Syria. And Kushner has yet to unveil his Mideast peace plan.

Something is wrong. He finally moved up to that one job he couldn’t do:

“The problem with Trump is that he’s a weak president,” Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University and author of “The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth,” told me. “He doesn’t know how to make the government work. He isn’t interested in the details of policy. He doesn’t have a cohesive team of aides to help him.”

A second, related answer: Trump has strong opinions, but no coherent strategy.

“The president provides the hunches and instincts,” the State Department’s chief of policy planning, Kiron Skinner, said a bit undiplomatically at a conference last month. It’s the job of his staff to turn hunches into strategy, she said.

He cannot do the job:

Skinner and other Trump acolytes have labored for months to turn the president’s slogan of “America first” into a more elaborate “Trump Doctrine.”

Its basic tenets, which Trump has outlined in several speeches, boil down to this: Every nation should pursue its own interests. For strong nations like the United States, alliances and multinational organizations just get in the way.

And that’s a joke:

That’s the third reason Trump’s foreign policy isn’t working. It spurns the strong multilateral alliances that were a foundation of the U.S. strategy that grew out of World War II and won the Cold War.

“The world has changed, but allies are as important as ever,” Mandelbaum told me. “If you really want to get China to change its economic practices, you need to build a strong coalition to put pressure on them. It’s not clear that the United States can do it alone.”

Trump hasn’t thought this through, and Daniel Drezner does not expect that to happen:

When it comes to foreign affairs, President Trump is not cursed with the burden of knowledge. This was always pretty clear, but the point has come into sharper focus in the past week. As his trade war with China escalates, Trump continues to display a fundamental lack of comprehension about how the policies he’s put in place work. He has repeatedly insisted that China pays for U.S. tariffs, even though every economist – including his own adviser Larry Kudlow – acknowledges this to be false. According to Axios, Trump’s staffers are convinced he really believes it; one former staffer says it’s “like theology.”

A similar dynamic is playing out in the Middle East. In Iran, the Trump administration is increasing pressure; administration spokesmen and spokeswomen have brandished military threats and plans. Based on Trump’s own comments, however, it is not clear he is aware of the implications of his foreign policy. When news broke about a Defense Department plan to deploy 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran were to escalate existing tensions, Trump simultaneously denied it but also suggested that “if we did that, we would send a hell of a lot more troops.”

That seems like incompetence, so Drezner says that the president simply does not know what he is doing:

Iran and China are not easy portfolios for any commander in chief. Nonetheless, the standoffs with both countries – either of which can easily worsen – were entirely avoidable. Both situations show just how wrong things can go when the ultimate decision-maker for the government of the most powerful nation on Earth doesn’t understand that he’s boxed himself in.

Trump declared during the 2016 campaign that “I alone can fix” the problems facing the country. What we’re seeing now is the unfortunate counterpoint: He alone gets us into these new messes.

That’s incompetence, but predictable incompetence. He ascended into a job he could have never done in the first place:

Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump possessed zero experience in any branch or level of government when he arrived at the White House. His only previous contact with the legal system had been suing others and being sued, which did not prep him for the finer points of law. Trump has repeatedly commanded his staffers and Cabinet secretaries to do things that, as president, he has no legal authority to do. And in return, they have repeatedly mocked his knowledge deficits. Reince Priebus, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Steven Mnuchin and H. R. McMaster all reportedly called him some variation of “idiot” during their service in his administration. After leaving office, Tillerson explained: “What was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil corporation, to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.'”

But wait, there’s more:

If Trump is the president with the least experience in government in American history, he is also the one most hostile to expert advice. Like a small child who thinks that no one is wise to his bluff, Trump has consistently claimed expertise on subjects that he clearly knows nothing about. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that on foreign policy, “my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” Despite Trump’s rather limited tech savviness, he has claimed expertise about wind energy, the aeronautics of Boeing planes, and self-driving cars. He has repeatedly rejected the assessments provided to him from the U.S. intelligence community on security matters. He has spurned his economic advisers on foreign economic policy. The reason for the high turnover on his foreign policy team has been his refusal to listen to their counsel.

And that has been deadly:

Trump’s lack of knowledge erodes his ability to lead. Indeed, his ignorance enables his subordinates to pursue policies that might be at variance with Trump’s wishes. The president did not comprehend the veiled insults contained in outgoing defense secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation letter because he did not read it until it was covered in the news media. In just the past few weeks, Trump has publicly reversed his own administration’s actions on North Korea and the Special Olympics, unaware of policy initiatives until they were already in motion. As political scientist Elizabeth Saunders has demonstrated, inexperienced leaders are less able to constrain their subordinates from engaging in bureaucratic conflicts or pursuing risky actions. Their lack of experience and knowledge makes it more difficult for them to effectively monitor their subordinates, particularly when those subordinates have their own agenda. Saunders concludes that “a base of substantive, domain-specific knowledge is important, and is distinct from procedural experience and acumen (such as good organizational or bargaining skills).”

So this was one promotion too far and a situation where someone a bit better at the job will do that job:

On Iran and Venezuela, Trump appears to be at the mercy of his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who is running point on both policies. Bolton has made some extraordinary threats, including calling out individual allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro by name on Twitter. None of this has caused the Maduro regime to collapse, surprising Trump repeatedly. Bolton’s bellicosity on Iran is based on intelligence that has failed to persuade U.S. allies of any escalation in the Iranian threat.

This will not end well:

Unburdened by any knowledge of history, Trump can serenely gamble on economic and military brinkmanship, convinced that his escalation dominance on Twitter translates into success on the global stage. Those of us who have studied these matters, however, see too many brush fires that can escalate into an uncontrollable blaze.

Perhaps so – Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. Trump is not. Donald Trump is president. Drezner is not. That’s why this will not go well.

On the other hand, the New York Times reports this:

President Trump has sought to put the brakes on a brewing confrontation with Iran in recent days, telling the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, administration officials said, while his senior diplomats began searching for ways to defuse the tensions.

Mr. Trump’s statement, during a Wednesday morning meeting in the Situation Room, sent a message to his hawkish aides that he does not want the intensifying American pressure campaign against the Iranians to explode into open conflict.

For now, an administration that had appeared to be girding for conflict seems more determined to find a diplomatic off-ramp.

But that may be changing:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the leader of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, on Wednesday to confer about the threat posed by Iran, according to a statement. Long an intermediary between the West and Iran, Oman was a site of a secret channel in 2013 when the Obama administration was negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Mr. Pompeo also asked European officials for help in persuading Iran to “de-escalate” tensions, which rose after American intelligence indicated that Iran had placed missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf. The intelligence, which was based on photographs that have not been released but were described to The New York Times, prompted fears that Tehran may strike at United States troops and assets or those of its allies.

Asked on Thursday whether the United States was going to war with Iran, Mr. Trump replied, “I hope not.”

But that depends on who is in charge:

The developments cast into sharp relief a president who is instinctively wary of military adventures and a cadre of advisers – led by the national security adviser, John R. Bolton – who has taken an uncompromising line toward Iran. The internal tensions have prompted fears that the Trump administration is spoiling for a fight, even if the commander in chief may not be.

That is a worry, as Josh Marshall explains here:

Looking at the escalating (US-created) crisis with Iran, one thing I realize is that a lot of people do not quite know who John Bolton is. They assume – rightly – that anyone in the Trump orbit must be either a moral weakling, a crazy person or someone with one foot out the door. All true. But John Bolton is a unique and uniquely dangerous character.

The danger is that Bolton is quite competent:

During George W. Bush’s second term, Bush nominated Bolton to serve as UN Ambassador. That was in 2006 and with a GOP majority in the Senate. Bolton was seen as so manifestly ill-suited to the position that he couldn’t get confirmed. He had to settle for a pity recess appointment.

All respect to the UN and the UN Ambassadorship, but it is of course a vastly less consequential position than Defense Secretary or CIA Chief or National Security Advisor. Bolton couldn’t even get confirmed in a Republican Senate for the simple reason that he was just too big a warmonger to be a safe pick even for UN Ambassador.

And he’s not safe now either:

Bolton is a caricature of a militarist and warmonger. He is sometimes classed with the so-called “neo-conservatives” who played the central role getting the country into the Iraq War. This isn’t really correct, either in classification or historical terms. For all their shortcomings many of the leading neoconservative policy hands and intellectuals were big on democracy promotion – often in foolish ways, usually only when it was convenient and mainly in Europe. But this is at least part of the worldview.

Bolton doesn’t come from that worldview, as limited and as disastrous as it has proven. In really every context he is for hard US dominance, unilateralism and war as the preferred course of action. Again, he’s really the caricature of a militarist, the kind of one-dimensional, clownishly hawkish type who gets described in small circulation left-wing magazines but can’t possibly exist in real life, only he does exist and his name is John Bolton.

But that’s not what makes him dangerous:

He’s no fool. He’s a very bright guy. And – critically important -he’s a master of bureaucratic politics. The main failing of the top Trumpers is that they are mostly ill-prepared clowns. Ill-prepared clowns can do immense damage. But there have been numerous instances in the last couple years in which big Trump administration initiatives got derailed or delayed simply because of bad lawyering or bureaucratic ineptitude. There are lots of examples of that on the immigration front, for instance.

John Bolton is not the type to make those kinds of mistakes or allow his directives to get sidelined or forgotten in the federal bureaucracy. Being a smart bureaucratic player sounds like an insidery thing. But it’s immensely important in getting what you want out of the sprawling federal bureaucracy whether that’s on the immigration front or in national security and war-fighting.

Bolton knows his stuff. Trump may be outmatched here, but then again, the game may be over for Bolton too:

Trump has raised concern with the heightened rhetoric, believing a large-scale military intervention with Iran would be devastating to him politically, people familiar with the situation said. The President has told members of his team that starting a new conflict would amount to breaking his campaign promise to wind down foreign entanglements. And he’s chafed at suggestions his aides, led by national security adviser John Bolton, are somehow leading him to war.

As recently as last week, Trump was calling outside advisers to complain about Bolton, people familiar with the conversations said. Trump is frustrated that Bolton has allowed the Iran situation to reach a point where it seems like armed conflict is a real possibility, but his frustrations with his national security adviser actually began earlier this spring over Venezuela, when a similar dynamic — Bolton and other aides openly hinting at military options — caused Trump to warn his team to tamp down the rhetoric.

But even that might not help:

Trump denied on Wednesday there was any “infighting” over his Middle East policy. But he reiterated his desire to open talks with Iran, a wish he’s been advocating heavily in meetings over the past week.

“Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered,” he tweeted. “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

If so, he wants to make sure that’s possible:

Trump is taking more active steps to open diplomatic channels. On Thursday, Trump will meet with the president of the Swiss government in order to try to establish a channel with which he can speak to Iranians as tensions between the country and the US heighten, according to a person familiar with ongoing discussions inside the White House.

Trump will meet with Ueli Maurer, the Swiss government president, at the White House to discuss the nations’ relationship and “matters such as Switzerland’s role in facilitating diplomatic relations and other international issues,” the White House said in a statement.

The US and Iran do not have an official diplomatic relationship, but Switzerland serves as the protecting power for the US in the country. That means they represent US interests in Iran, performing services for US citizens in the country like visa processing.

So the Swiss might be helpful, and then it might not matter if they are:

The Iranians have thus far shown no public willingness to speak to Trump, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said this week that negotiations with the US would be akin to “poison.”

Trump has been advocating heavily for some type of diplomatic contact behind the scenes, even as his national security team scales up its rhetoric on Iran and weighs military options.

They don’t see a reason to trust this guy, which might have to do with his minimal management skills:

Within the US administration, officials describe an increasing level of concern in recent months among career staffers at the direction of the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Bolton and his coterie of Iran hawks at the NSC have been pushing for “action for action’s sake,” one administration official involved in the discussions said, without a clear strategy or set of goals. The concern is that there is simply a desire to scale up the pressure on Iran, escalating tensions with no clear off-ramp. Before re-entering government as Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton openly advocated for regime change in Iran.

Now, there is serious wariness emerging over Bolton among Trump’s circle of outside advisers, who enjoys open-door access to the President and spends hours with him each day.

Someone is whispering in Trump’s ear. Don’t trust this guy. No one does:

Pompeo and Bolton have a strained relationship, people familiar with it say, even though they are largely aligned on policy. Both are hawkish, but Pompeo believes he is more deft and diplomatic in his approach, according to the sources. The secretary of state often rolls his eyes when he is asked about Bolton.

Trump, meanwhile, has long chafed at any suggestion his decisions or actions are being manipulated or orchestrated by someone other than himself. Asked last week about Bolton in light of recent turmoil in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran – all places where the US has taken a strong stand without much progress – Trump said his national security adviser has “strong views” but that “I actually temper John.”

No. Everyone is ignoring Trump. Everyone understands the Peter Principle. There are some things that Donald Trump just cannot do. The nation promoted him to that final position where he just didn’t understand the job and thus couldn’t really do the job – and there he is. That’s the Peter Principle at work. But at least this is just a temp job. There’s an election coming.

Posted in Donald Trump, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transparently Nasty Now

Those of us who graduated from college in 1969, as the curtain came down on the cultural/political/sexual/musical revolution that changed America and the world forever – if it did – left the sixties behind long ago. Almost all of us moved on, led a full life, more or less, and retired from that final career in a series of careers that probably had little if anything to do with peace and love and flower-power and changing the world. That was a long time ago. That ended when everyone went home from Woodstock and took a long hot shower, to wash off the mud, and Richard Nixon settled down in the White House. Even the Vietnam War ended, eventually. Where have all the flowers gone? Disco and polyester leisure suits followed, and then grandchildren.

We let that “revolution” go, perhaps because we had won. No one now thinks that war in Vietnam was a fine idea. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 corrected a few racial problems, even if, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that significant parts of the Voting Rights Act were now invalid, because things had changed. They suggested a rewrite, as if Congress would ever do that. Republicans want us to go back to 1962 or so, because black folks and other minorities keep voting for the wrong people – not them. Now there are all the new state-level rules that will make it hard for those people to ever vote again – but not poll taxes and absurd literacy tests – that would be illegal. Making obtaining the necessary new voter-ID cards an expensive and time-consuming process isn’t illegal – lots of stuff is expensive and time-consuming. Restricting the hours available to vote and not replacing broken voting machines, in certain districts, isn’t illegal either. Times are tough. States don’t have a whole lot of money. This is a prudent use of limited state funds, so they can fix potholes and all the rest. The net effect of all this is to undo what was done in the sixties.

That is a setback, and being resisted now, but abortion is still legal – something won just after the sixties. And no one has a problem with “the pill” any longer – from the early sixties – except the Republicans. They do what they can to make it next to impossible to find a clinic that provides either abortions or access to birth control of any kind.

That will undo what was won in the sixties. Those folks really hated the sixties. The little woman hadn’t stayed home, and happily dusted the furniture and then made dinner for her man, since the days of June Cleaver, and that was the fifties. Where had all the “good girls” gone? Doris Day was still around, as wholesome as ever at ninety-seven. But then she died too. It was over.

It’s never over. Lili Loofbourow explains that:

Shouts broke out on the Alabama Senate floor last Thursday when Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth tried to rush through a motion without a roll-call vote. If that sentence bored you – even with the shouting – you’ve already grasped something basic: The dullness of these procedures is why most of us have trouble understanding them or paying attention, even when there’s cheating involved.

We should try. In this case, the motion would have removed an amendment – supported by some Republicans – to exclude cases of rape and incest from an abortion ban that had already passed the House. Ainsworth believes Americans impregnated by rapists should be made to give birth, so he tried to rush the motion through without a roll-call vote, bending the rules to get his way.

State Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton stalled the attempted circumvention through sheer force of will, shouting his objections until the vote was delayed. But this is not a happy story: The controversial bill ended up passing the Senate on Tuesday night – with no exceptions included – and will go to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk. Its intention is to strip Americans of a constitutional right, on the assumption that a friendly Supreme Court will soon declare that removal legal.

That is the plan:

It will take only one of these abortion bans to survive the ultimate judicial challenge for Americans with uteruses to be forced by the state to carry fetuses against their will. And If Alabama’s turns out to be the one, we’d do well to remember that one link in that chain of events was Republicans trying to proceed without a roll-call vote.

That’s a simple procedural violation, the sort one might hesitate to get too upset over. But those kinds of violations stack up. They stack up until they form a basis for disenfranchising half the country.

And that seems to be the idea:

Alabama isn’t alone. Just a few days ago, Georgia passed a law criminalizing abortions after six weeks, set to take effect in 2020, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it. It’s a total abortion ban… It’s the most extreme law ever passed, and it’s supposed to be: GOP members across several states have said they’re “excited” to pass illegal laws that defy a settled Supreme Court ruling so that the current court can overturn it. The Georgia bill redefines fetuses as legal persons with rights while, again, stripping the rights and bodily autonomy of citizens who actually exist. Though some activists on both sides want to believe this unlikely, the bill clearly allows for those who actively refuse to give birth to face lifelong imprisonment or the death penalty. Even those who leave the state to abort would be subject to punishment.

Then there’s the Ohio bill, similar in structure and passed in April, which will condemn an 11-year-old child who was raped to forced birth – which must be understood as rape in reverse. Kentucky and Mississippi passed similar bills this year (Kentucky’s was struck down, as was Iowa’s, passed last year).

These bills aren’t just astonishing and punitive and misnamed (the “heartbeat” is not a heart but a collection of cells in the fetal pole that may one day become one). They’re ignorant even of the actual reproductive biology they purport to regulate.

Several would criminalize miscarriages, and one invents a medical procedure whereby ectopic pregnancies – which tend to be fatal – could not be aborted but would be “reimplanted” in the uterus. That is not a medical procedure you can get; it’s a suggestion that doctors experiment on women whose lives are in danger.

It isn’t even that. It was just something to say. It can be ignored:

That is not, at least for the moment, the point. The rights of women and the marginalized seldom are. A law passed to invoke the high court can’t be dismissed as a “strategy” or a “tactic” – the law is exactly what it says. And it was passed to satisfy the beliefs of a minority.

Take Georgia: 70 percent of Georgian voters and 68 percent of American voters don’t believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t stopping Georgia’s government.

And that’s the problem:

We’re long past democracy working, even if many have yet to realize it, because so much of its dismantling has been invisible to the public thanks to dark money, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and maneuvers like Ainsworth’s, all of which we’ve been encouraged to consider merely improper.

A long campaign to hobble and constrain our representative government at every turn is now paying off dramatically. For decades, extremists have been seizing control through the kind of procedural malfeasance that gets continually mislabeled as assholery or poor etiquette.

Over and over, Americans have made the mistake of responding to Republican misbehavior by treating each case as an isolated insult to be transcended. The mature thing, we’ve been told, is to “rise above.”

But that’s a trap:

The court has grown even more conservative thanks to another “procedural” violation that was seen more as a rupture with norms than a soft takeover. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold a hearing for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Democrats objected strenuously at the time, but there was nothing much they could do: Thanks to the structure of the Senate, Republicans hold a dangerously durable majority. McConnell took pleasure in this: “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.’ “

And then it was all over:

My theory is that partly because McConnell took obvious pleasure in it, that loss is remembered more clearly as an asshole move than a government-changing upheaval that would cost many Americans their rights.

Republicans have encouraged this perspective: “Get over it” has become a kind of GOP mantra. The opposition is supposed to “get over” everything from Merrick Garland to Russian interference to child separations and plenty more.

That’s smart framing by the dominant party: It encourages a personal response to a public offense. You’re supposed to “get over” Republican overstepping rather than, say, retaliate.

That is clever. This is small stuff. But it adds up:

After decades of accruing small technical advantages, it’s not crazy to say that the modern GOP is on the precipice of achieving one of its highest aims – made possible thanks to some closed polling stations here, a gerrymandered district there, judges confirmed against tradition and precedent, a president who lost the popular vote. Some of these were obvious – and later camouflaged by suggestions that we “get over it” – but the bulk of those strategic advantages were secured more quietly, distributed across statehouses and carried out without arousing too much public alarm, because none of this is what the public wants. It doesn’t matter.

But it does matter:

As the net closes in, we must remember how it was made, strand by strand, by extremists wishing to impose their religious doctrine on a country founded on the separation of church and state. We can be grateful that these laws have so far been struck down in two states thanks to suits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. But there will be more. Stemming the tide would require an absolutely massive outpouring of voters to overcome a deck this stacked – and that alone will not be enough to reverse course. Redundancy is built into this strategy, and the judiciary is immune to those votes. More restrictions will pass. Some will fall. Appeals will be filed. And the Supreme Court, with its new, young, and life-tenured justices, will wait patiently for the chance to subordinate women to fetuses and bring the full power of the state against those who would refuse to comply.

And that is what is happening, except, as the Washington Post reports, that won’t be easy:

An Alabama bill intended to test whether President Trump’s Supreme Court appointees will allow for the banning of abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, threatened Wednesday to reshape the dynamics of the 2020 election.

Democrats erupted with loud and sustained outrage in an effort to reclaim the upper hand on a politically sensitive issue that has recently found them on the defensive after liberal states proposed extending protections for abortions late in pregnancy.

Republicans leaders, by contrast, spent much of the day avoiding questions about the Alabama law, wary of being dragged into a debate over whether to refuse rape and incest victims the option of abortion following forced pregnancies.

Those are the battle lines. Late-term abortions can be gruesome and raise real moral issues, but forcing rape and incest victims to give birth and then raise the child, perhaps giving the father full rights as the father too, seems a bit much – that, and years in jail for driving out of state for the procedure is way out there. Neither side is on the side of the angels here, if there are angels, so it was best to say nothing:

Trump left the topic of the Alabama law unaddressed on Twitter, the White House offered no comment about the measure, and several Republican senators such as Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.), who are facing tough reelection fights, avoided the issue as best they could.

Alabama got rid of the rape and incest exemption – the woman MUST carry the child to term. She has no choice. The government decides. And the deed is done:

Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday evening signed the abortion measure, which is the most restrictive abortion law in the nation. Approved by the state legislature Tuesday night, it provides criminal penalties for any doctor who performs an abortion, unless it is necessary to save the life of the mother. Doctors could be imprisoned for up to 99 years.

Her signature, which had been expected, came after a day in which several of those who have long opposed abortion rights made clear they considered the nature of the Alabama measure political dangerous for Republicans. In past years, even the strongest antiabortion measures had created loopholes for women and girls pregnant due to rape or incest.

That created a bit of a problem for God’s folks:

Pat Robertson, an antiabortion evangelical pastor who ran for president as a Republican in 1988, offered caution by calling the Alabama law “extreme” and saying that he thought it would lose if taken to the Supreme Court in an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

“If they can make our pro-life position about the Alabama bill, rather than our opposition to late-term abortion and infanticide, which they have been supporting, then we are going to be on the defense,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, who supports the Alabama bill.

They really don’t want to dismiss rape and incest as no more than small inconveniences that these women shouldn’t whine about all the time. “Just have the kid and shut up” is not a winning massage, however, and they don’t want to lose a key voting bloc:

Democratic strategists argue that the Alabama law will help put the threat to Roe v. Wade more squarely on the agenda in the 2020 election, as a possible rallying point for women and highly educated voters. Suburban women had been a particular target for Democrats even before the abortion measures surfaced.

Those voters may be gone now:

“The Alabama law, and others like it, clearly identify the Republicans as the extreme party on the issue of abortion, even as Republicans try to attack Democrats as being too far left on the issue,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said in an email. “Radical laws like the one in Alabama will keep Republicans on the defensive in terms of being outside the mainstream.”

Democratic presidential candidates echoed a similar refrain. “We will not stand for it,” thundered Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) during a New Hampshire rally. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) called the bill “exceptionally cruel,” while former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke called it “a radical attack on women,” and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called the measure “an abomination.”

Rape and incest are more than small inconveniences, so don’t talk about them, and keep ’em guessing:

During his short political career, Trump has been successful in using abortion to solidify his support among evangelical voters initially skeptical of him. Though he had described himself as an abortion rights advocate for much of his life, he was the first Republican nominee to openly promise to appoint antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court. He said during the 2016 campaign that his appointees would overturn Roe “automatically” if he were elected.

Since then, the connection between Trump and evangelicals has only deepened, according to polls. Evangelicals have been among the most loyal Trump supporters, and White House advisers have taken to praising him as the nation’s “most pro-life” president. As he has pursued reelection, Trump has made the topic part of his campaign pitch.

“Democrats are aggressively pushing late-term abortion, allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth,” Trump said last week during a rally in Florida. “To protect innocent life, I called on Congress to immediately pass legislation prohibiting extreme late-term abortion.”

But on Wednesday, Trump did not mention the new legislation in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio that would significantly restrict abortion access. The Trump reelection campaign referred questions about the Alabama bill to the White House, which declined to comment on the bills specifically, leaving little doubt about where they would prefer to fight over abortion in the coming months.

Talk about New York, not Alabama:

“Unlike radical Democrats who have cheered legislation allowing a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth, President Trump is protecting our most innocent and vulnerable,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

That’s safer than this:

The political impact of abortion tends to be most pronounced when the focus is on how to handle more extreme cases, as a majority of voters take a non-absolutist position on regulating it, supporting some limits but opposing outright bans.

Republicans lost two key Senate elections in 2012 after their candidates, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, made comments about pregnancies that resulted from rape. Akin said falsely that women’s bodies could shut down pregnancies that resulted from “legitimate rape,” and Mourdock said he believed “God intended” pregnancies that resulted from rape.

There’s a lesson there:

Twenty years earlier, Democrats also benefited when – after court decisions limiting abortion and the confirmation fight of Justice Clarence Thomas, accused of sexual harassment – a wave of women helped push their candidates to victory in 1992.

After that election, the antiabortion pollster Kellyanne Conway, who is now a top White House adviser to Trump, gave briefings to Republican lawmakers imploring them to treat “rape” as a “four-letter word” and stop talking about it in the context of the abortion debate.

But now that’s impossible. The new Alabama law is defiantly about making women accept rape and incest, and making them bear the child, and liking it, damn it! Otherwise, it’s all about gleefully murdering newborn babies. That will be the discussion for the next eighteen months:

“Both sides are playing to the narrow slice of voters who passionately agree with their extreme positions, and they hope that voters who are closer to the center on abortion will make their voting decision based on other issues,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It obviously heightens polarization and does nothing to help resolve the issue where most Americans are.”

Dahlia Lithwick puts that this way:

One could feel sorry for Chief Justice John Roberts. He is, after all, caught in an unsightly squeeze play between anti-abortion zealots in Alabama, and slightly less wild-eyed anti-abortion zealots in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and Indiana (the court seems unable to make a decision on whether to grant the Indiana petition it has been sitting on for months now). There’s finally a five-justice majority within striking distance of a decades-long dream to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the anti-choice activists are getting ahead of themselves like slurring drunks at a frat party and making everything more transparently nasty than it need be.

That ruins everything. Now no one knows where this is going. And where did that sixties “revolution” go, the one that we won? Where have all the flowers gone? Oh well, back to work.

Posted in Abortion Rights, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back to War Again

We’ve always had a problem with the French. The women are too thin and elegant and the men too self-contained and self-controlled – another form of elegance. This tends to make proudly loud and casual Americans feel inadequate, which makes those same proudly loud and casual Americans quite angry. The French have also mastered the art of deadly irony you might not get until it’s too late, and subtle ridicule that sounds like praise, until you think about what was just said. Then it’s too late. It’s an art form.

That hurts. That hurt in the Bush years. The suave Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin – who ran marathons and wrote literary criticism in his spare time – smiled and told us that our plan for immediate war with Iraq was ill-advised. It was as if he were explaining this to a petulant child he was nevertheless fond of. At the UN in early February, 2003, he almost laughed at Colin Powell when Powell asked for the UN to go to war with us, or at least to tell us our little (that is, specific and limited) war was fine with them. But he didn’t laugh. Dominique de Villepin, with that bemused smile of the loving adult for the confused child who needs a little help with his tantrum, said wait, let the inspectors finish – there may be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and even if by some odd chance there are, there are better ways to handle this. And of course the guy was right. It just took ten years for us to realize it.

Consider the details:

The most important French speech during the crisis was made by De Villepin at the Security Council on the 14 February 2003, after Hans Blix presented his detailed report. De Villepin detailed the three major risks of a “premature recourse to the military option”, especially the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He emphasized that “real progress is beginning to be apparent” through the inspections, and that, “given the present state of our research and intelligence, in liaison with our allies”, the alleged links between al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad explained by Colin Powell were not established.

He concluded by referring to the dramatic experience of “old Europe” during World War II. This “impassioned” speech “against war on Iraq, or immediate war on Iraq”, won “an unprecedented applause”, reported the BBC’s Sir David Frost.

That hurt. They made us look like fools, and then we made ourselves look like fools, munching on our Freedom Fries. The French had been right all along – bad enough – but they had also been elegantly right. That was even worse.

But maybe they know us all too well. Robin Wright points out that the United States has a long history of provoking, instigating, or launching wars based on dubious, flimsy, or manufactured threats:

In 1986, the Reagan Administration plotted to use U.S. military maneuvers off Libya’s coast to provoke Muammar Qaddafi into a showdown. The planning for Operation Prairie Fire, which deployed three aircraft carriers and thirty other warships, was months in the making. Before the Navy’s arrival, U.S. warplanes conducted missions skirting Libyan shore and air defenses – “poking them in the ribs” to “keep them on edge,” a U.S. military source told the Los Angeles Times that year. One official involved in the mission explained, “It was provocation, if you want to use that word. While everything we did was perfectly legitimate, we were not going to pass up the opportunity to strike.”

Qaddafi took the bait. Libya fired at least six surface-to-air missiles at U.S. planes. Citing the “aggressive and unlawful nature of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime,” the U.S. responded by opening fire at a Libyan patrol boat. “The ship is dead in the water, burning, and appears to be sinking. There are no official survivors,” the White House reported. In the course of two days, the U.S. destroyed two more naval vessels and a missile site in Sirte, Qaddafi’s home town. It also put Libya on general notice. “We now consider all approaching Libyan forces to have hostile intent,” the White House said.

George W. Bush thought about recycling that idea:

George Bush considered provoking a war with Saddam Hussein’s regime by flying a United States spy plane over Iraq bearing UN colors, enticing the Iraqis to take a shot at it, according to a leaked memo of a meeting between the US President and Tony Blair.

The two leaders were worried by the lack of hard evidence that Saddam Hussein had broken UN resolutions, though privately they were convinced that he had. According to the memorandum, Mr Bush said: “The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colors. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.”

But nothing came of that. The UN had and still has no U2 aircraft. There was no getting around that, but Robin Wright points out there have been successes at this sort of thing:

The beginning of the Vietnam War was authorized by two now disputed incidents involving U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, Congress authorized President Johnson, in 1964, to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The war dragged on for a decade, claiming the lives of fifty-seven thousand Americans and as many as a million Vietnamese fighters and civilians.

There had been no attacks on American ships in the Tonkin Gulf, but those who had wanted that war got that war, which happens quite often:

In 1898, the Spanish-American War was triggered by an explosion on the U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship docked in Havana Harbor. The Administration of President William McKinley blamed a Spanish mine or torpedo. Almost eight decades later, in 1976, the American admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the battleship was destroyed by the spontaneous combustion of coal in a bunker next to ammunition.

In 1846, President James Polk justified the Mexican-American War by claiming that Mexico had invaded U.S. territory, at a time when the border was not yet settled. Mexico claimed that the border was the Nueces River; the United States claimed it was the Rio Grande, about a hundred miles away. One of the few voices that challenged Polk’s casus belli was Abraham Lincoln, then serving in Congress. Around fifteen hundred Americans died of battle injuries, and another ten thousand from illness.

And here we go again:

Today, the question in Washington – and surely in Tehran, too – is whether President Trump is making moves that will provoke, instigate, or inadvertently drag the United States into a war with Iran. Trump’s threats began twelve days after he took office, in 2017, when his national-security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn, declared, in the White House press room, “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Flynn, a former three-star general, was fired several weeks later and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. The Administration’s campaign against Iran, though, has steadily escalated…

Wright, however, notes that nothing else has escalated:

There have been no major incidents in the Persian Gulf for almost two years, after a spate of provocative acts by Iran – thirty-six in 2016 and fourteen in 2017 – against U.S. warships, a Pentagon official told me. The last one was on August 14, 2017, when an Iranian drone approached the U.S.S. Nimitz as an F/A-18 was trying to land on the aircraft carrier. The drone, which was flying at night, did not have its lights on; repeated radio calls to its controlling station went unanswered. The Nimitz was in international waters, beyond the twelve-mile limit any nation can claim.

“We haven’t seen an unsafe interaction since then,” Captain Bill Urban, the spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told me. “It has been a long time, considering how many incidents we had in 2016 and 2017.”

The U.S. still has regular interactions with Iranian ships. “It’s not unusual to have several attack craft come out and approach our ships and take pictures. But now they routinely stop at a safe distance or approach in manner that is not escalatory,” he said. “We continue to remain vigilant.”

That’s appropriate, but the New York Times reports that’s not relevant now:

As the Trump administration draws up war plans against Iran over what it says are threats to American troops and interests, a senior British military official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he saw no increased risk from Iran or allied militias in Iraq or Syria.

A few hours later, the United States Central Command issued an unusual rebuke: The remarks from the British official – Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, who is also the deputy commander of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State – run “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”

The rare public dispute highlights a central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran.

It seems that the central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran are the facts on the ground:

Over the last year, Washington has said Iran is threatening United States interests in the Middle East, encouraging aggression by Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, shipping missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen and allowing its naval forces to behave belligerently in the Persian Gulf.

All are concerns that have been leveled against Iranian forces for years.

“We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” General Ghika said.

But he said, “No, there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”

In short, there’s nothing new here, but there is a threat:

Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington – where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner.

One American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential internal planning, said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Mr. Bolton. The official also said the ultimate goal of the yearlong economic sanctions campaign by the Trump administration was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the United States.

That seems to be the only reason we dropped out of that nuclear deal:

Since May 2018, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the major powers agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, reimposed punishing sanctions on Tehran, demanded that allies choose between Iranian oil and doing business in the American market, and declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization.

And on Tuesday, the State Department appeared on the verge of ordering a partial evacuation of the American Embassy in Baghdad as a heightened security measure, according to people familiar with the plans.

No one knows what this is about, but Bolton had worked for Bush as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, sworn into this position on May 11, 2001. So he’s been at this sort of thing for decades. He’s a known quantity and thus is too familiar to too many people:

The anti-Iran push has proved difficult even among the allies, which remember a similar campaign against Iraq that was led in part by Mr. Bolton and was fueled by false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts this week to recruit European countries to back the administration’s steely posture on Iran are being received coolly.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, called for “maximum restraint” after meeting on Monday in Brussels with Mr. Pompeo, a proponent of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Mogherini did not speak of the “premature recourse to the military option” and the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region” and didn’t say that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace” – but that should be implicit by now.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad:

Iraqi officials said they were skeptical of the American intelligence that Mr. Pompeo presented last week on a surprise trip to Baghdad. Mr. Pompeo said the threat was to American “facilities” and military personnel in Iraq.

In September, Trump administration officials blamed Shiite militias with ties to Iran for firing a few rockets into the area near the United States Embassy in Baghdad and the American Consulate in Basra. There were no injuries, but Mr. Pompeo ordered the Basra Consulate closed.

But the curious thing is that none of this seems to be Trump’s idea:

Privately, several European officials described Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo as pushing an unsuspecting Mr. Trump through a series of steps that could put the United States on a course to war before the president realizes it.

While Mr. Trump has made no secret of his reluctance to engage in another military conflict in the Middle East, and has ordered American troops home from Syria, his secretary of state and his national security adviser have pushed a maximalist hardline approach on Iran.

Officials said Mr. Trump was aware that Mr. Bolton’s instinctual approach to Iran could lead to war; aides suggested that the president’s own aversion to drawn-out overseas conflicts would be the best hope of putting the brakes on military escalation.

That’s a foolish notion:

The Trump administration is looking at plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump dismissed that as “fake news.”

“We have not planned for that,” he told reporters.

But he immediately added, “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

Trump may have an aversion to drawn-out overseas conflicts, but he will NEVER appear weak, and that leaves the realists with their facts on the ground:

Some of the president’s critics accept that Iran continues to engage in what United States officials call “malign behavior,” be it in Yemen, Syria or the Palestinian territories. But they blamed the administration for aggravating the standoff with Tehran.

“This is a crisis that has entirely been manufactured by the Trump administration,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

He pointed to Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, coupled with the administration’s failure to get any other nations to do so.

“None of the other signatories to the deal were persuaded by the case the U.S. was making,” Mr. Nasr said. “And that is because this administration’s policy on Iran, at a fundamental level, does not have credibility.”

And this really is dangerous stuff:

“Bolton did the same with President George W. Bush and Iraq,” Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and an Iraq war veteran, said in a statement last week. “As someone sent four times to that misguided war, I have seen the costs of Bolton’s disastrous foreign policy in a way he never will – firsthand, and at the loss of thousands of American lives.”

And this is not even sensible stuff:

One big worry is that the Trump administration has issued the most expansive type of warning to Iran, without drawing specific red lines. That has increased the chance of a military conflict over misinterpretations and miscalculations.

In a statement this month, Mr. Bolton outlined vague terms of what appeared to be conditions for military engagement, responding to what he said were “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”

He said “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” And he warned that the administration was “fully prepared to respond to any attack” by the Iranian military or a “proxy” – one of the Middle East’s many Shiite militias that are supported by Iran.

There’s only one problem with that:

Those militias often do not operate under direct command and control from Iran, and they have varying levels of allegiance to the Iran military. In Yemen’s civil war, the Houthis are Shiite rebels who oppose a government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni nations. The Houthis’ ties to Iran are murky. But the Trump administration labels the rebels as Iranian proxies, and Mr. Bolton’s statement left open the possibility that a Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia or the UAE – both United States allies – could set off an American military assault against Iran.

So, someone sneezes in Yemen and we invade Iran? No one believes anyone now:

That lack of trust has proved to be a major obstacle in convincing allies that Iranian behavior in the region warrants military action.

And it’s February 2003 at the UN again. Colin Powell is explaining just what warrants military action against Saddam Hussein. He points to a photograph. Look – a mobile chemical weapons lab – a Winnebago of Death! He holds up a little vial. Two drops of this could kill us all! And what about those aluminum tubes! Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin raises one eyebrow. He doesn’t have to speak.

Meanwhile, in the Tonkin Gulf:

Charges that four oil vessels were attacked at the mouth of the Persian Gulf over the weekend have amplified fears across the region about the escalating tensions between Iran and the West.

The unconfirmed reports come as the United States has tightened sanctions against Iran and mobilized an aircraft carrier, bombers and an antimissile battery to the gulf to deter what the Trump administration has said is a heightened risk of Iranian aggression.

Saudi Arabia said Monday that two of its oil tankers had been sabotaged, and a Norwegian company reported that one of its tankers was damaged in the same area, near the Strait of Hormuz. The fourth ship belonged to the United Arab Emirates, which, like Saudi Arabia, is an avowed enemy of Iran.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates assigned blame, made public any evidence of damage to their ships, or described the nature of the sabotage.

Okay, that’s the wrong gulf, but it’s the same thing, but this time with some people who know better:

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “I think what we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking.”

While American officials suspect that Iran was involved, several officials cautioned there is not yet any definitive evidence linking Iran or its proxies to the reported attacks.

There is, after all, the danger of premature recourse to the military option and the incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region – but when did that ever stop us? And the Saudis do want us to wipe out Iran for them. They’ll even help us do that. They just won’t explain what really happened – this time in the Persian Gulf.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. There will be war.

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Expect Disastrous Results

That was a hell of a thing. The week opened with the Dow dropping 719 points and then recovering, closing down “only” 617 points, one of the worst days Wall Street has seen in quite a while. And things had been going so well. Unemployment had never been this low. Corporations were making giant profits and now could pay next to no taxes, thanks to Trump’s targeted tax cuts. Even workers’ wages were edging up, slightly – not enough to outrage those corporations, of course, but just enough to allow this president to claim he had ended income inequality in America and everyone – every single American – was now rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And anyone who said differently was lying – that would be “fake news” – and that was that. Things were fine. No, things were far better than they ever had ever been at any time in this planet’s history.

Yeah, well, he talks like that, but things were going well. So he messed things up. He does that too, as the New York Times’ Matt Phillips reports here:

Investors are dealing with a painful new reality: The trade war between the United States and China could last indefinitely.

That anxiety spread across the stock markets on Monday, as investors around the world tried to divine the potential fallout to economic growth and corporate profits. Bonds and commodities, too, flashed warnings of a slowdown.

Hard times were coming, because Trump hadn’t been kidding:

For months, investors had assumed that the trade war, a major hazard for the global economy, would end soon. Just weeks ago, the S&P 500 reached a record high.

That illusion has been shattered, as concerns mount about slowing growth and rising costs. China said on Monday that it would increase tariffs on nearly $60 billion of goods, in response to a similar move last week by the Trump administration.

The S&P 500 fell 2.4 percent on Monday. It was the American stock benchmark’s worst day since early January. In all, the S&P 500 is down 4.6 percent in May.

The drop continued early Tuesday as the trading day began in Asia, with stocks opening mostly lower. But futures markets suggested Wall Street would open higher.

That’s not surprising. Wall Street calls that a Dead-Cat Bounce. When dropped from a sufficient height, even a dead cat will bounce. There are always bargain hunters the next morning, buying what they can from the wreckage, for pennies on the dollar. But the markets will be going lower:

Companies in trade-sensitive sectors like agriculture and semiconductor manufacturing were particularly hard hit. The tech-heavy NASDAQ composite index fell 3.4 percent, its worst decline in 2019.

The selling has come even as the American economy continues to show significant momentum. The economy expanded at a robust 3.2 percent annual rate in the first three months of the year. In April, unemployment fell to 3.6 percent, the lowest level since 1969.

But the declines in the financial markets raise the prospect of a negative feedback loop: As worries about the economy send stock prices lower, the weakness could prompt concern among the executives whose decisions drive economic growth.

That’s a death spiral, and that seems likely:

On April 9, the International Monetary Fund reduced its growth forecast for 2019 to 3.3 percent, which would make it among the slowest years of growth in the past decade.

In adjusting its forecast, the fund cited, in part, the tensions between China and the United States. It also said it expected about 70 percent of the global economy to slow this year.

Economists say further rounds of tariffs from both China and the United States will most likely slow the world’s economy even more. As both sides take new measures, it will be hard for businesses and consumers to avoid the fallout.

And there will be new measures:

Now that the Trump administration has raised tariffs on some $200 billion of Chinese goods to 25 percent, its next major escalation could cover nearly every product imported from China. The White House is weighing levies on another $300 billion of imports that includes a range of consumer products, from cellphones to computers and toys, that have so far been largely unscathed by the fight.

And no one wins here:

If consumers are forced to pay for those increases, they could be forced to cut back on spending. If the increases are absorbed by businesses, that could prove to be a drag on profit growth.

Or perhaps everyone wins here:

During an early afternoon appearance in the Oval Office with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, the president appeared unfazed by the market jitters.

He boasted incorrectly that the federal government is collecting “hundreds of billions of dollars” in tariff revenue and said he planned to use $15 billion of that amount to bail out farmers suffering from lost sales to China.

“Our farmers will be very happy. Our manufacturers will be very happy. Our government will be very happy,” Trump said. “It’s working out very well.”

His figures may be off. The amount collected so far has been minimal, but it is growing, and of course it has been collected from consumers, in higher prices for this and that from China, and from manufacturers, paying a whole lot more for parts they buy from China. They either have to eat the now much higher high cost of those parts, and thus book much lower profits, or they can pass those costs on, to consumers. What they make will cost more now. They do have to turn a profit, but higher prices mean fewer sales, and fewer sales mean no money coming in, so they’re stuck. President Trump keeps saying no, the Chinese government pays those tariffs. They write a check to the US Treasury.

That’s nonsense of course, but it’s all nonsense:

The sense of deepening confrontation between the world’s two largest economies represents a sharp contrast to last week’s expectations of an imminent deal. The president said Monday that the two sides had completed “95 percent” of an agreement before talks broke down.

After concluding that the Chinese were reneging on terms they had agreed to during earlier bargaining rounds, Trump last week opted to more than double tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports.

That might be seen as clever negotiating but the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson sees this:

The administration’s trade talks with China had reportedly been going well and were supposed to be nearing an end. Trump accused the Chinese of trying to renege on concessions at the last minute, but the president’s history suggests otherwise. Veterans of the high-stakes world of New York real estate have told me about what they described as Trump’s standard negotiating practice – pitching some kind of fit at the very last minute, when the other party thought things were settled, in hopes of bullying his way to a better deal.

That might work with a subcontractor who doesn’t have the power to say no, or even with a fellow developer who vows on the spot never to do business with Trump again. But would any skilled negotiator think such a stunt would work with China, the world’s second-greatest economic power? Wouldn’t the Chinese government have to react in kind, if only as a matter of sovereign pride? And wouldn’t startled investors conclude that their fear of a serious trade war – the kind with no winners, only losers – had been realized?

That is what the markets concluded. This is that unwinnable trade war, right here and right now, which Robinson sees with this twist:

I assume Trump realizes that China isn’t really “paying” the tariffs and that the cost is in fact borne by U.S. consumers, who will pay higher prices for made-in-China goods. Either the president constantly lies about this on his Twitter feed, hoping to fool the gullible, or he’s even more clueless about trade than I imagined.

No, he has a plan, which Greg Sargent explains here:

Trump’s trade war has put him in a jam. Revamping trade with China was a central campaign promise. But if Trump agrees to a deal that does not win real concessions, one that will reveal his agenda of “toughness” as hollow – particularly if those concessions do not appear worth the pain that the tariff wars have already imposed on farmers, in the very region that’s crucial to his reelection.

So the New York Times reports that Trump is now hoping to flip the political calculus: No deal, followed by still more tariffs, will allow Trump to proclaim he’s still being tough on China. Incredibly, the Times reports that Trump apparently believes this will be a political winner even if increased tariffs impose still more economic pain.

How is this possible? The new, convoluted story he’s telling is basically that the money we “take” from China in tariffs will be given to farmers in exchange for their products, which we will then export to other countries that need them.

Basically, the claim will be that continued tariffs are a good thing: Trump is in effect taking money from China and giving it to his voters.

Cool. But there is this:

That’s why it’s such a big deal that Fox News’s Chris Wallace debunked this falsehood by getting economic adviser Larry Kudlow to admit that China is not paying the tariffs. In fact, they amount to a tax on U.S. consumers.

Trump may have to fire Kudlow now, or shrug and say that sure, everyone says he’s wrong, and the markets say he’s wrong, and the facts say he’s wrong, but Donald Trump knows that he alone is right – and his base will be with him – and Sargent sees that this is just who Donald Trump is:

Some observers look at Trump’s trade wars and still manage to see hints of his supposed economic populism, in which Trump vowed to defy GOP economic orthodoxy. But, given that Trump has gone all in with GOP plutocracy on taxes and shredding the safety net while punting on infrastructure – three areas where he’d supposedly defy that orthodoxy – the real story is obvious. Trump’s “economic” populism remains operative only in areas that satisfy his xenophobic nationalist impulse to exaggeratedly attack other countries as enemies hell-bent on fleecing us – on immigration and trade.

Indeed, it’s no accident that Trump also vowed to make Mexico “pay” for his border wall, to punish Mexico for “sending” us their outcasts and pitting them against U.S. workers, similar to his claim about China.

Central to this whole tale has always been the idea that Trump will take back for U.S. workers what this alliance of elites and foreign workers is stealing from them – he will take back what is rightfully theirs.

So there you have it:

Given all this, failure on China could be catastrophic for Trump. So he’s just swapping in a new story: He’s making China pay restitution to Americans it has ripped off for so long by forcing it to “pay” us in tariffs.

That makes Trump the hero, and savior, because he is, by force of his will, making China pay millions to millions of wronged Americans… with their own money? What? Don’t ask.

But even if Americans lose their shirts, and farms, and small businesses, it’s just a trade war, as Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton said on national television:

That sacrifice is pretty minimal compared to the sacrifices that our soldiers make overseas that are fallen heroes who are laid to rest in Arlington make.

That’s it. This isn’t war. No one is going to die. There may be a deep recession. The economy may collapse. But no one is going to die.

That’s one way of looking at this. This isn’t the same as the coming war:

At a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.

The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.

We don’t have those troops, but Bolton is doing what he can, without Trump, so far:

The development reflects the influence of Mr. Bolton, one of the administration’s most virulent Iran hawks, whose push for confrontation with Tehran was ignored more than a decade ago by President George W. Bush.

It is highly uncertain whether Mr. Trump, who has sought to disentangle the United States from Afghanistan and Syria, ultimately would send so many American forces back to the Middle East.

It is also unclear whether the president has been briefed on the number of troops or other details in the plans. On Monday, asked about if he was seeking regime change in Iran, Mr. Trump said: “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.”

He punted there. He may have been out of the loop on this one, and Bolton is only one guy:

There are sharp divisions in the administration over how to respond to Iran at a time when tensions are rising about Iran’s nuclear policy and its intentions in the Middle East.

Some senior American officials said the plans, even at a very preliminary stage, show how dangerous the threat from Iran has become. Others, who are urging a diplomatic resolution to the current tensions, said it amounts to a scare tactic to warn Iran against new aggressions.

European allies who met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said that they worry that tensions between Washington and Tehran could boil over, possibly inadvertently.

But this is serious:

The size of the force involved has shocked some who have been briefed on them. The 120,000 troops would approach the size of the American force that invaded Iraq in 2003.

Deploying such a robust air, land and naval force would give Tehran more targets to strike, and potentially more reason to do so, risking entangling the United States in a drawn out conflict. It also would reverse years of retrenching by the American military in the Middle East that began with President Barack Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011.

But two of the American national security officials said Mr. Trump’s announced drawdown in December of American forces in Syria, and the diminished naval presence in the region, appear to have emboldened some leaders in Tehran and convinced the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that the United States has no appetite for a fight with Iran.

So it was time to compensate for Trump being a flake? Maybe it was just time for Bolton to take over:

The Iranian government has not threatened violence recently, but last week, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would walk away from parts of the 2015 nuclear deal it reached with world powers. Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement a year ago, but European nations have urged Iran to stick with the deal and ignore Mr. Trump’s provocations.

The high-level review of the Pentagon’s plans was presented during a meeting about broader Iran policy. It was held days after what the Trump administration described, without evidence, as new intelligence indicating that Iran was mobilizing proxy groups in Iraq and Syria to attack American forces.

As a precaution, the Pentagon has moved an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers, a Patriot missile interceptor battery and more naval firepower to the gulf region.

This sounds kind of “Gulf of Tonkin” familiar, but Nancy LeTourneau notes how this is different:

One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. He followed that up by ending this country’s participation in the Paris Climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. In the midst of all of that, Trump railed against our NATO allies while cozying up to Russia… He berated Mexico and Canada while attempting to re-negotiate NAFTA and has been both hot and cold in his dealings with China on trade. Is it any wonder that our traditional allies are reacting with a mixture of distrust and distance?

The president now faces what could develop into national security crises with Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. Having alienated our allies, all he has left is to go it alone. Nevertheless, the administration is referring to their strategy as the application of “maximum pressure.”

It’s simple. Shut them down. Cut them off. Sanction them all. But the Atlantic’s Ali Vaez says that’s not simple:

There can be little doubt that the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy is inflicting considerable economic harm on Iran.

To date, however, there is no sign that either Iran’s regional policies are shifting or its leaders are willing to come back to the negotiating table and submit to the Trump administration’s demands. Nor is there any hint that economic hardship has triggered popular unrest of a magnitude that would threaten the regime’s survival. In the absence of any visible shift in Tehran’s political calculus, Washington is presenting the sanctions’ impact by no metric other than their quantity and severity.

There appears to be a belief among U.S. policy makers – almost congealed into doctrine – that Iran will cave to nothing less than massive pressure, a point it clearly has not reached. With U.S. elections at the end of next year, the administration is therefore responding to Iran’s refusal to concede defeat by doubling down, and it’s going about it in a hurry. It has resorted to the unprecedented steps of designating a state entity, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a “foreign terrorist organization,” and of trying to push Iran’s oil exports to zero almost overnight.

LeTourneau explains that:

This is a perfect example of how, rather than breaking with Republican foreign policy failures of the past, Donald Trump merely represents their escalation. His modus operandi has always been to reject partnerships, preferring to go it alone and rely on transactional relationships. Those are most often focused on assuming that adversaries will be subservient in response to his bullying threats.

Vaez agrees:

The one thing Tehran would find more intolerable than the crushing impact of sanctions is raising the white flag because of them. Convinced that Trump’s national-security team is bent on toppling the Islamic Republic, the Iranian leadership views economic sanctions as just one in a range of measures designed to destabilize it. Its counterstrategy can be summed up in two words: Resist and survive. The mere act of survival would constitute victory, however pyrrhic.


Donald Trump assumes, just like his Republican predecessors, that applying maximum pressure on a foreign adversary will cause them to retreat and submit. Any fool that knew a bit of history should understand that an approach like that will fail.

The term “blowback” was first used by U.S. intelligence services as a way to describe the fact that the 1953 coup in Iran, which was backed by the CIA, eventually led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Contrary to resulting in submission, that approach to foreign policy leads to disastrous results.

The term “blowback” has become useful again. The suddenly escalating trade war with China may ruin the economy, and the world. And a new hot war in the Middle East might do the same. No one is going to be bullied into submission. No one ever has been bullied into submission, only into deep resentment – and more disastrous results. This won’t get better.

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