Nostalgia for Competence

Donald Trump made it official. The next phase of his life has begun. He began his campaign to be reelected. But as the New York Times reports it, there was nothing much new here – no real news – just a promise of more of the same for those who want more of the same:

President Trump delivered a fierce denunciation of his rivals, the news media and the political establishment on Tuesday as he rallied a huge crowd of raucous supporters in Florida to officially open his re-election campaign, evoking the dark messaging and personal grievances that animated his 2016 victory.

Almost four years to the day since he announced his first, improbable run for public office from the basement of Trump Tower in Manhattan, Mr. Trump mocked and disparaged Democrats, calling them the leaders of an “angry, left-wing mob” and declaring that the 2020 election will be a “verdict on the un-American conduct of those who tried to undermine our great democracy, undermine you.”

The message was clear. Those people hate you. Those people hate America. Those people commit actual treason every hour of every day. And the news media won’t report that. The press is the enemy of the people. And so on and so forth. But he was and had been wonderful:

He extolled his record as president – especially his tax cuts, deregulation and the growing economy – but did not offer any new policies or a cohesive new agenda for a second term that might expand his political appeal. As he formally declared his intention to run again, he told the audience that his new slogan would be “Keep America Great,” pledging to wage a relentless battle on behalf of his supporters.

“Our political opponents look down with hatred on our values and with utter disdain for the people whose lives they want to run,” Mr. Trump told a packed arena…

That was about it – remember, those people hate you and hate everything about you. That was the message. The rest of the rally was just shouting, filling in the details – playing his greatest hits for a crowd that wanted to rock to the oldies but goodies one more time. There were no surprises.

There should have been surprises. The Washington Post’s account adds context:

In the 24 hours before President Trump was slated to formally launch his reelection bid here in the nation’s largest swing state, he pledged to begin rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants, undercut his top officials by downplaying attacks on tankers in the Middle East and announced that his acting defense secretary would leave the job after family domestic violence allegations came to light.

A similar rush of headlines might have seemed extraordinary during previous administrations. For Trump, it was just another day.

It was just another day of actual news getting in the way of what was supposed to be the big news of the day, his rally, which the Post also saw as no real news:

Polls have consistently shown that more people disapprove of Trump’s handling of his job than approve, but the president has not calibrated, instead redoubling his focus on his most avid backers.

At the Amway Center here, Trump told the crowd that his election in 2016 was the result of a great political movement that has been under attack ever since, despite what he described as the great successes of his presidency.

“We accomplished more than any other president has in the first 2½ years of a presidency and under circumstances that no president has had to deal with before,” he said, using the hyperbole that has marked much of his career.

Consider that a verbal tic. Everybody loves him. Everyone says he’s the greatest president ever. He really has done more than any other president ever. He’s also the most popular man in the world, and every single foreign leader not only respects him but is in total awe of him. Einstein said he was a genius. The pope endorsed him. And he has better poll ratings than Abraham Lincoln, or that Abraham guy in the Old Testament. People cheer. Not because they believe this nonsense. They cheer because he says those things. That’s so cool. That drives the liberal snowflakes crazy.

And then it was more of the same:

Trump’s argument for a second term then quickly became a rehash of grievances and false claims from his first campaign, along with a hit parade of Trump rally applause lines. He veered off script to rail at length against the “witch hunt” special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and revisited complaints about the media, “Crooked Hillary” and her missing emails.

“They are really going after you,” Trump said of the list of enemies he laid out for the crowd. “They tried to erase your vote, erase the legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election probably in the history of the country.”

And he warned of the threats posed by immigrants, a focus of his presidency that has thrilled his most ardent supporters and caused his critics to accuse him of promoting racism.

He once again said that immigrants, at least those from anywhere south are rapists and drugs dealers and murderers – so once again tales of sweet young white woman murdered by sloppy fat Mexican men who had been deported many times but sneaked back in again and again, to murder sweet young white woman. This happens all the time. This happens every day. This happens every hour. This has to stop.

There really was nothing new here, except the new slogan – Keep America Great. He did that. He alone finally made America great. No one in American history had ever done that before. That means new hats.

That was the only news in all of this. There was real news elsewhere, with that matter with Iran in the background. Slate’s Elliot Hannon outlines the problem there:

The Trump administration announced Monday it is sending an additional 1,000 American troops to the Middle East after it accused Iran of orchestrating attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. The Defense Department said the troops would be deployed for “defensive purposes” and, NPR reports, would primarily consist of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, or ISR, as well as force protection and engineers. The increase in troop levels is part of a more general, though still modest buildup that began last month after another series of attacks on ships in the region that the U.S. similarly suspects is Iran’s doing.

The U.S., it is worth noting, is still without a confirmed Secretary of Defense as relations in the region are increasingly strained.

That is, no one is sure how these decisions are being made, in the oddest of contexts:

The move comes as Iran has threatened to disregard uranium restrictions outlined in the 2015 nuclear deal that aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief. After years of deriding the nuclear deal as “the worst deal in history,” President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from what’s formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reinstated sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration, already suffering from a serious credibility deficit with allies, is now in the awkward position of demanding that Tehran comply with an agreement the American president has not only derided but pulled out of!

That is a bit embarrassing:

“Administration officials found themselves Monday grappling with whether to press the remaining parties to the deal, including Britain, France and Germany, to demand that Iran stay in compliance,” the Associated Press reports. “They must also consider if such a stance would essentially concede that the restrictions imposed during the Obama administration, while short of ideal, are better than none.”

Hannon sees the irony:

It’s almost like the previous administration weighed the pros and cons and made a decision in the best strategic interest of the country. That feeling you have right now is nostalgia for competence.

There’s a lot of that going around these days, because even the marginally competent disappear:

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration to be confirmed to the job permanently, President Trump said Tuesday, plunging the Pentagon into leadership upheaval for the second time in six months.

In a message on Twitter, Trump said that Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who has led the Pentagon on an acting basis since early this year, had “decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family.”

Trump thanked Shanahan for his “outstanding service” and said that Mark T. Esper, who has served as Army secretary since 2017, would become his new acting Pentagon chief.

A former top lobbyist with Raytheon and a U.S. Military Academy classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Esper served 25 years in the Army and the Virginia National Guard and was a deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. He was also national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and legislative director to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb).

Esper will officially take over responsibilities on Monday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

But it was uncertain whether Trump intends to nominate Esper to be confirmed in the job.

The defense secretary is the civilian in charge of the nation’s entire military – all of it – and since General Mattis resigned, because he could not work for Trump, honorably, Trump hired a temp, and now it will be another one, but this had to be done:

Shanahan pulled himself out of the running Tuesday morning as media organizations including The Washington Post published reports shedding light for the first time on details of his contentious divorce, including an incident in which his son attacked his ex-wife with a baseball bat…

Shanahan said he had decided “after significant reflection” to remove himself from the confirmation process and resign. “I would welcome the opportunity to be secretary of defense, but not at the expense of being a good father,” he said.

There’s much more to this – severe domestic violence of all sorts – involving all parties – but now that this man has walked away for one of the few key roles in the nation’s government, that’s nobody else’s business. Try a bit of charity. Wish him well. There’s no need to shame him further. There’s a larger issue here:

Shanahan’s decision upends what had been expected to be an imminent confirmation process, injecting a new element of uncertainty into the Pentagon’s highest levels at a moment when officials are scrambling to retain a technological edge over China and respond to recent threats from Iran.

The turmoil atop the Pentagon comes amid a broader leadership vacuum across the Trump administration, where many of the political positions remain unfilled or occupied by people serving in an acting capacity.

In addition to the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Small Business Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Aviation Administration are also being run by individuals serving in acting capacities.

Several other positions, including White House chief of staff, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and United Nations ambassador, are filled by those functioning in an acting role.

It is quite appropriate to feel nostalgia for competence now, because the defense department is in trouble:

When Shanahan joined the Trump administration as deputy defense secretary in 2017, he was seen as an experienced businessman who could oversee a massive military budget and advance reforms in acquisition, technology and space issues.

When Trump tapped him in late 2018 to become acting secretary after his predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned over differences with the president, Shanahan remained a relatively unknown figure outside the Pentagon.

As Pentagon chief, he faced a Washington establishment skeptical that he had the chops to oversee the world’s most powerful military at a time of transformation. At times, he fueled those concerns by deferring to subordinates during congressional testimony or taking a back seat to other officials when publicly addressing international crises.

Critics faulted Shanahan for failing to stand up to the president on issues that many within the Pentagon view as overly political, including using the military budget to fund the president’s border wall.

Even as Shanahan traveled the world, authorized military operations and met with his counterparts, his six-month tenure remained clouded by uncertainty about his fate.

There may have been no point in dealing with him in the first place, but Fred Kaplan suggests he shouldn’t have been there in the first place:

Shanahan’s nomination had never been a sure thing. Early on in his tenure as acting secretary, which he assumed after James Mattis resigned in January, he was accused of making derogatory remarks about Lockheed for its mismanagement of the F-35 fighter jet. The remarks were on the mark, but since Shanahan had been a senior executive at Boeing, one of Lockheed’s main competitors, concerns arose about possible conflicts of interest. (An ethics panel cleared him of the charge in April.)

Around the same time, Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he probably wouldn’t vote to confirm Shanahan to the post, citing his lack of “humility”—a strange accusation, as it could be applied to the vast majority of defense secretaries since the job was created 72 years ago.

Finally, Trump himself didn’t seem enthusiastic about his choice. NBC News reported earlier this month that, during his recent trip to Europe, Trump asked several people what they thought of Shanahan and whether they had any alternative recommendations – often a prelude to subject’s departure.

As recently as June 14, in an interview with Fox News, he replied tepidly when asked about Shanahan’s prospects, evading the question the first two times it was posed, and then finally saying, “I haven’t put in the final recommendation.”

Trump seems as if he never really thought this was all that important a job, or else he had been pissed when James Mattis actually stood up to him:

Shanahan was moved up to the Pentagon’s top slot, though temporarily, after serving as deputy secretary of defense, which is mainly a managerial position. In public appearances, he seemed both tepid in demeanor – one can imagine Trump describing him as “low energy” – and obsequious in his views. The latter was, in some ways, the natural product of his status – in a constant state of auditioning for the job – and knowing, from watching the downfall of the more forceful and independent Mattis, that Trump doesn’t like dissenters.

Kaplan, however, fears that a “yes man” is what Trump really wants:

This is hardly the time for someone of little experience or clout to take charge as the military’s civilian leader (second only to the president). Civilian authority in the Pentagon has significantly eroded during Trump’s presidency, sparking an exodus of midlevel officials. Senior military officers have also lost influence, especially since December, when Trump announced – a year ahead of time – the replacement for the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. The chiefs, including Dunford, have opposed several of Trump’s actions – his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and his recent saber-rattling moves with Iran.

The vacuum in defense circles has been filled by national security adviser John Bolton, who has long pushed for regime change in Iran (and has done everything he can to block Trump’s dubious détente with North Korea), and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who basically says and does whatever he thinks Trump wants him to – an attitude that has aligned him with Bolton, especially on Iran.

And that makes things dangerous:

In recent weeks, Trump has expressed alarm at the momentum toward war with the Islamic Republic, putting out the word that he meant for his “maximum pressure” policy to coerce Iran to the bargaining tables, to negotiate a “better” nuclear deal – not to spark a war. He has said he wants Iran’s leaders to call him and even gave Swiss officials, who have served as intermediaries in past periods of U.S.-Iranian tensions, a phone number where he can be reached.

But that might not work, and Trump has only himself to blame for that:

There is no one around Trump right now who has the inclination, the power, or the ability to steer him down a more diplomatic path. And that’s his fault. He has said repeatedly, since before he took office, that he only hires the “best” people. As he has demonstrated over and over, he has never known – and still doesn’t know – what that means.

But there will be new hats. There is a new slogan – Keep America Great – which seems odd now. Most of us would just settle for competence. And that is nostalgia.

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See Trump Run

How do you top that? That’s the Hollywood question. The movie was so charming, or funny, or exciting, or inspiring – and thus so profitable – why not make another? But that seldom works out. It’s hard to top the first fresh movie. Sequels suck. “Jaws” (1975) was a nifty movie – but Jaws 2 (1978) and then Jaws 3-D (1983) and then Jaws: The Revenge (1987) were progressively less nifty. They were progressively more stupid. John Williams won an Oscar for his score for that first movie, with that iconic menacing two-note theme. Spielberg later said that without Williams’ score the film would have been nothing much, and Williams scored the second film – and then he bailed. Things were getting too stupid. Eventually, Universal Pictures had squeezed the last bit of money that could be squeezed out of that big mechanical shark. They decided to underwrite Avatar sequels instead – but Paramount keeps pumping out Star Trek sequels. That franchise has kept that studio afloat, and every year or two, more or less, everyone can return to Jurassic Park again. There’s more money to be squeezed out of Superman and Batman and Spiderman, and that Kung-Fu Panda too. Something worked really well once. Do it again. It may be crap this time. There will be diminishing returns on that subsequent investment. But there will be some returns on that investment. The trick is to figure out what worked the first time, and do it again, louder and faster. And then hope for the best.

That’s the political problem for Donald Trump. He has to run for the presidency once again, and that should be easier this time, since he won the office once – but it’s not easier. He can offer what he offered before, but ranting against Mexicans and Muslims and uppity black NFL players, and against Canada and NATO and the EU and all our allies that have been secretly laughing at our stupidity and gullibility all these years, might have grown tiresome. There’s nothing new there. And no one may care if anyone locks up Hillary Clinton now, and Obamacare is working well enough at the moment.

But something has to work again, although Team Trump has other worries now:

As President Trump prepares to formally launch his reelection bid Tuesday, his allies are trying to tamp down headlines that depict his campaign as trailing top Democrats, beset by withering leaks and unable to keep internal tensions from spilling into public view.

The 2020 drama intensified over the weekend, as Trump’s campaign abruptly fired three of its pollsters, including one polling firm formerly owned by Kellyanne Conway, the president’s adviser and former campaign manager.

Privately and publicly, campaign advisers fumed over the leak of internal polling data that showed Trump far behind former vice president Joe Biden.

That’s no way to kick off the new campaign:

The campaign’s first major public stumble – culminating in a personnel shake-up on the eve of Trump’s reelection rally in Orlando – served to undercut its well-laid efforts to portray the president’s 2020 bid as a well-oiled machine ready to carry him to a second term.

The president may seek to change the subject Tuesday at the rally, where he will address a crowd he has already described as record-size. He will be joined by first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and several members of his family and 2016 campaign staff.

Yes, change the subject, which is what those who attend this rally expect:

Trump’s advisers said the president’s supporters, who are expected to fill the 18,500-seat Amway Center, are not paying attention to internal machinations of the campaign and won’t be swayed by early signs of turbulence.

“Nothing will get in the way of the tremendous kickoff and the momentum the president will have and sustain through Election Day next year,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.

Trump will take the stage in Florida to make the case that the first 2½ years of his administration have been about “promises made” and “promises kept,” advisers said. He will point to the strong U.S. economy and a slew of actions he has taken on issues including taxes, military spending and judicial appointments.

That’s the plan. Say the economy is great. Say everyone got a big tax break. Say the military has so much money now they have no way to spend it all. And say the new judges will overturn Roe any day now, and then make any form of contraception as illegal as abortion. And there may be a way to reinterpret the Nineteenth Amendment. Should “all” women be allowed to vote? The judges are in place.

But of course Trump’s own trade wars have unsettled the economy, and very few ordinary people got a big tax break or any tax break at all, and massive military spending, when the nation’s roads and bridges are disintegrating, excites no one now, and Roe v Wade is still the law of the land. And the man in charge seems a bit strange:

Trump has publicly denied the existence of the internal polls showing him behind Biden, even as his campaign confirmed them. The coverage of the polling has infuriated Trump, who has repeatedly encouraged allies to downplay or deny the results. During a ride in his presidential motorcade last week in Iowa, when the subject of polling came up in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump asked to get his campaign manager on the phone, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

At that point, Trump asked to go off the record and spoke to Brad Parscale about the surveys. Parscale told Trump that the leaked polls represented the worst-case scenario under turnout models unfavorable to the president, the person said.

Parscale has since put out statements describing the data as outdated and not representative of today’s race.

And that keeps the boss happy, or at least non-volcanic, but the boss really is not paying attention at all:

Walmart, Target, and more than 600 other companies urged U.S. President Donald Trump in a letter on Thursday to resolve the trade dispute with China, saying tariffs hurt American businesses and consumers.

This letter is the latest of many sent to the Trump administration by Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, the national campaign against tariffs supported by more than 150 trade groups representing agriculture, manufacturing, retail and tech industries.

But it is significant as U.S.-China trade tensions escalate and comes before a possible meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the June 28-29 G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

That is a worry, given that this president isn’t particularly worried:

With less than three weeks to go before talks between Chinese and U.S. leaders, expectations for progress toward ending the trade war are low. Sources have told Reuters there has been little preparation for a meeting even as the health of the world economy is at stake.

“We remain concerned about the escalation of tit-for-tat tariffs,” the new letter sent on Thursday said. “Broadly applied tariffs are not an effective tool to change China’s unfair trade practices. Tariffs are taxes paid directly by U.S. companies… not China.”

Ah, but Trump will wing it and everything will be fine, although these business people doubt that:

Additional 25% tariffs on $300 billion in imports, on top of those already levied, would wipe out more than 2 million U.S. jobs, the letter said, citing estimates from international consultancy the Trade Partnership.

They would also add more than $2,000 in costs for the average American family of four and reduce the value of U.S. Gross Domestic Product by 1%, it said.

“An escalated trade war is not in the country’s best interest, and both sides will lose,” the letter said.

Trump will not speak to these people now. He knows better. He simply will not believe that what he is doing will cost two million jobs. That he just cannot believe, or that two thousand dollar cost to average American family of four, or that sudden drop in the GDP of all things. This just cannot be. So it isn’t so.

Not everyone thinks like that:

President Trump faces a number of major decisions on trade and the budget in the coming months just as the U.S. economy faces the biggest head winds of his tenure, forcing him to decide whether to recalibrate as recession fears mount for next year.

Trump has threatened to escalate trade conflicts with China, Mexico, the European Union and Japan, spooking business leaders and leading some to pull back investment. Similarly, budget and debt-ceiling talks with congressional leaders from both parties have sputtered, raising the possibility of another government shutdown in October.

The uncertainty – and a cooling global economy – led JPMorgan Chase on Monday to predict that there was a 45 percent chance the U.S. economy would enter a recession in the next year, up from 20 percent at the beginning of 2018.

Also Monday, a key gauge of New York’s manufacturing industry notched the biggest one-month drop ever recorded. It was the latest sign that after a relatively strong economy last year, political and economic forces appear to have combined this year in a way that has darkened the economic outlook.

This could be problematic for Trump, who has tried to tout the economy’s performance as key to his reelection.

That last sentence is a bit of an understatement. The economy is slipping away from Trump. He cannot run on the economy now, or on the tax breaks that made the struggling workers of America rich again, because the tax breaks didn’t do that. Obamacare is off the table – repeal failed two years ago when Republicans held both the House and Senate, and the White House too. They failed when they had it all, and now the House is gone. That’s over.

That leaves only one place to turn to win the key states that put him over the top last time. That would be Pennsylvania and Ohio and Wisconsin. There are few Hispanics there. Few have even seen a Hispanic, much less a Mexican. This is not the Southern border where everyone pretty much gets along. This is White Bread Country. They’ll see the menace no one else sees. They’ll see animals, not people. Trump can return to the main theme from four years ago. These people, if they are people, need to be taught a lesson. It’s time to hurt them, to really hurt them.

So this is how Trump actually began his 2020 campaign:

President Trump said in a tweet Monday night that U.S. immigration agents are planning to make mass arrests starting “next week,” an apparent reference to a plan in preparation for months that aims to round up thousands of migrant parents and children in a blitz operation across major U.S. cities.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump wrote, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

This is the Operation Boxcar everyone has talked about for years. Round up millions at a time. Put them in boxcars. All of them. Roll them away. They disappear. That’s the Final Solution:

Trump and his senior immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, have been prodding Homeland Security officials to arrest and remove thousands of family members whose deportation orders were expedited by the Justice Department this year as part of a plan known as the “rocket docket.”

In April, acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were ousted after they hesitated to go forward with the plan, expressing concerns about its preparation, effectiveness and the risk of public outrage from images of migrant children being taken into custody or separated from their families.

Vitiello was replaced at ICE by former FBI and Border Patrol official Mark Morgan, who had impressed the president with statements on cable television in favor of harsh immigration enforcement measures.

So bring on the pain:

In his first two weeks on the job at ICE, Morgan has said publicly that he plans to beef up interior enforcement and go after families with deportation orders, insisting that the rulings must be carried out to uphold the integrity of the country’s legal system.

“Our next challenge is going to be interior enforcement,” Morgan told reporters June 4 in Washington. “We will be going after individuals who have gone through due process and who have received final orders of deportation.”

“That will include families,” he said, adding that ICE agents will treat the parents and children they arrest “with compassion and humanity.”

They’ll all be shipped out, and children may be separated from their parents forever, but with compassion and humanity.

But what just happened? Donald Trump surprised everyone:

U.S. officials with knowledge of the preparations have said in recent days that the operation was not imminent, and ICE officials said late Monday night that they were not aware that the president planned to divulge their enforcement plans on Twitter.

But he did. It just occurred to him. The acting ICE director and the former Homeland Security Secretary found the whole notion appalling – mean and cruel and stupid – but Trump fired both of them. Still, it was stupid:

Executing a large-scale operation of the type under discussion requires hundreds – and perhaps thousands – of U.S. agents and supporting law enforcement personnel, as well as weeks of intelligence gathering and planning to verify addresses and locations of individuals targeted for arrest.

The president’s claim that ICE would be deporting “millions” also was at odds with the reality of the agency’s staffing and budgetary challenges. ICE arrests in the U.S. interior have been declining in recent months because so many agents are busy managing the record surge of migrant families across the southern border with Mexico.

Someone wasn’t thinking here:

The family arrest plan has been considered even more sensitive than a typical operation because children are involved and Homeland Security officials retain significant concerns that families will be inadvertently separated by the operation, especially because parents in some households have deportation orders but their children – some of whom are U.S. citizens – might not. Should adults be arrested without their children because they are at school, day care, summer camp or at a friend’s house, it is possible parents could be deported while their children are left behind.

Imagine the abandoned kid crying in the street and the ICE agents laughing and walking away. That image wins a whole lot of votes for Trump in his white rust-belt states seething with resentment and fear of those hypothetical Mexicans they’ve heard about.

But there is something odd about this:

Publicizing a future law enforcement operation is unheard of at ICE. Trump administration officials blasted Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf last year for warning immigrants about an impending raid, saying she endangered agents’ safety.

“The Oakland mayor’s decision to publicize her suspicions about ICE operations further increased that risk for my officers and alerted criminal aliens – making clear that this reckless decision was based on her political agenda with the very federal laws that ICE is sworn to uphold,” then -ICE deputy director Thomas D. Homan said at the time.

Homan later retired, but last week Trump said Homan would return to public service as his “border czar.” On Fox News, Homan later called that announcement “kind of premature” and said he had not decided whether to accept the job.

He may not want to have anything to do with any of this now, and then there’s that mayor:

Schaaf responded late Monday to the president’s tweet teasing the looming ICE roundups.

“If you continue to threaten, target and terrorize families in my community, and if we receive credible information, you already know what our values are in Oakland – and we will unapologetically stand up for those values,” she wrote.

Trump can deal with that. Make all of it about values. She has hers – family and community and compassion and respect. He has his. Hurt your enemy, as cruelly as possible. They’ll never mess with you again. USA! USA! USA!

He can win on that. Christian evangelicals love that sort of thing, or they do now. And that explains Trump’s second campaign gesture:

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on Monday cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, after Trump blasted the three countries because thousands of their citizens had sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Yes, as everyone knew he would, he decided to punish these people. Economic and social conditions are so bad there that these people stream north asking for asylum here. Trump hates that, so he’ll make things even worse there, which of course makes no sense:

Lawmakers who opposed the plan said it was cruel to cut off aid to countries grappling with hunger and crime and that the move would be counterproductive because it would more likely increase the number of migrants than decrease it.

“As feared, a presidential tantrum will limit our nation’s ability to actually help address the challenges forcing people to flee to the U.S.,” Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said on Twitter.

Trump sees it the opposite way:

No funds will be provided until the administration is satisfied the countries are reducing the number of migrants reaching the U.S. border, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters.

“This is consistent with the president’s direction and with the recognition that it is critical that there be sufficient political will in these countries to address the problem at its source,” she said.

In short, fix your own damned problems, and after you fixed them, and no one ever tries to come here, from there, ever again, we’ll send a few bucks your way, maybe. Some voters like that sort of sneering in a president. Trump might win this thing.

But he might not. Sequels generally suck.

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Just Ignore Him

Baby Boomers – America’s Old Farts – remember duck-and-cover in grade school and watched that Dr. Strangelove movie in high school (1964) and on Election Day that year watched as Lyndon Johnson buried Barry Goldwater. Madmen in power can and probably will end the world. Goldwater had said that “extremism in defense of liberty is no sin” and the nation disagreed with him. His extremism could get us all killed. Johnson’s Daisy Ad that aired only once sealed the deal – global thermonuclear war was a bad idea – or maybe the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis sealed the deal. Kennedy and Khrushchev worked things out. The Soviets pulled their nuclear missiles out of Cuba. We pulled our nuclear missiles out of Turkey. The world didn’t end.

That was because, after years of threats of massive retaliation by both sides, plausible threats as both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons by then, both sides informally adopted Mutually Assured Destruction as national security policy – build even more bombs and make even more threats, but in a balanced way, because no one would be foolish enough to use those new nuclear weapons. If they did, the world really would end. The problem was solved. What we developed, they matched. What they developed, we matched. And it was all so horrible neither side would dare use any of it.

No one did. So the world didn’t end. Only the Soviet Union ended, in economic collapse. It had all been too expensive for them. Vladimir Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy and brought deep shame on all Russians, and he would, somehow, bring back those glory days – but now Russia has an economy roughly the size of Italy’s and about as dysfunctional and corrupt. He’s not going to rebuild a nuclear arsenal of any kind, or the appropriate delivery systems – new massive submarines and new missiles and whatnot. He cannot afford that.

That doesn’t matter. He can afford a small army of computer wizards who can create ways to bring down America and the West. His small army of computer wizards hacked the Democrats and destroyed Hillary Clinton with what they released. The trolls and sly nuggets misinformation on Facebook and elsewhere did the rest. Putin destroyed Hillary Clinton, but that was a minor matter. The United States, with Israel, planted the logic bombs, the computer code that kind of exploded and slowed down and often stopped the centrifuges Iran was using in their nuclear program. Russia and China and North Korea have hacked the Pentagon and various America businesses – not very successfully, so far – or so the American public has been told.

Something is up. The nuclear arms race is over, or irrelevant. There’s no need for kids practice duck-and-cover anymore. This is a different arms race. But it’s still mutually assured destruction and now we’ve made that policy explicit. The New York Times was told all about it:

The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.

In interviews over the past three months, the officials described the previously unreported deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections.

Our guys did shut down Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units on Election Day – to show they could and as a warning that they’d better cut that out – but that’s small potatoes. This is the big stuff. Shut down the systems that keep daily life going here and we’ll do the same there:

Advocates of the more aggressive strategy said it was long overdue, after years of public warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI that Russia has inserted malware that could sabotage American power plants, oil and gas pipelines, or water supplies in any future conflict with the United States.

But it also carries significant risk of escalating the daily digital Cold War between Washington and Moscow.

Of course it does, but that’s the point, and that’s now on the record:

The administration declined to describe specific actions it was taking under the new authorities, which were granted separately by the White House and Congress last year to United States Cyber Command, the arm of the Pentagon that runs the military’s offensive and defensive operations in the online world.

But in a public appearance on Tuesday, President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said the United States was now taking a broader view of potential digital targets as part of an effort “to say to Russia, or anybody else that’s engaged in cyberoperations against us, ‘You will pay a price.'”

That’s as explicit as possible, as are the details:

Since at least 2012, current and former officials say, the United States has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid.

But now the American strategy has shifted more toward offense, officials say, with the placement of potentially crippling malware inside the Russian system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before. It is intended partly as a warning, and partly to be poised to conduct cyberstrikes if a major conflict broke out between Washington and Moscow.

The commander of United States Cyber Command, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, has been outspoken about the need to “defend forward” deep in an adversary’s networks to demonstrate that the United States will respond to the barrage of online attacks aimed at it.

And what he says goes:

Mr. Trump issued new authorities to Cyber Command last summer, in a still-classified document known as National Security Presidential Memoranda 13, giving General Nakasone far more leeway to conduct offensive online operations without receiving presidential approval.

But the action inside the Russian electric grid appears to have been conducted under little-noticed new legal authorities, slipped into the military authorization bill passed by Congress last summer. The measure approved the routine conduct of “clandestine military activity” in cyberspace, to “deter, safeguard or defend against attacks or malicious cyberactivities against the United States.”

Under the law, those actions can now be authorized by the defense secretary without special presidential approval.

And everyone is happy with that:

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” – software code that can be used for surveillance or attack – inside the Russian grid.

Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction – and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

That’s the odd part of this warning to Putin. Everyone kept Trump in the dark. They know he likes Putin, or at least he admires Putin, and Trump has, time and time again, said the he believes what Putin says, not what they say. They don’t want Trump to call this off, because this sort of thing is an insult to Putin, a good man. Nor do they want him to tell Putin all about what this is about, because Trump wants Putin to know he’s being treated unfairly. This is Bolton’s massage to Putin, not Trump’s.

But it’s still mutually assured destruction:

How Mr. Putin’s government is reacting to the more aggressive American posture described by Mr. Bolton is still unclear.

“It’s 21st-century gunboat diplomacy,” said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, who has written extensively about the shifting legal basis for digital operations. “We’re showing the adversary we can inflict serious costs without actually doing much. We used to park ships within sight of the shore. Now, perhaps, we get access to key systems like the electric grid.”

And that’s better than nuclear bombs – more damage, no fallout – but this puzzles Kevin Drum:

This was obviously an “official leak.” But why? To make sure that Russia knows how vulnerable they are? Or to send Russia into a tizzy looking for malware?

He’s not sure:

If the intelligence community is willing to talk to the Times, they obviously aren’t concerned about Trump’s blabbing. Nor are they concerned about the fact that he might cancel the operation if he learns about it, since he’ll obviously learn about it once Fox & Friends discusses the Times piece.

Drum senses something else is going on here:

This is really a way of making sure the American public knows about the cyberwar program. Trump could still stop it, but he now knows that his cancellation would be leaked and he’d look like a Putin stooge – not something he can afford more of right now. This is not a subtle form of bureaucratic battle. This is hardball of the most explicit kind. The intelligence community – including Trump’s own NSC – pretty obviously wants to make sure there’s no chance of Trump not getting the message.

Maybe he did get the message. He didn’t tweet out that this was so very unfair to Putin, a good man, and to Russia, our friends. He tweeted out that the New York Times had just committed treason:

President Donald Trump has lashed out at The New York Times, saying it engaged in a “virtual act of treason” for a story that said the U.S. was ramping up its cyber-intrusions into Russia’s power grid…

The Times, in its official public relations account, called Trump’s accusation “dangerous” and said it had told officials about the story before it was published and no security issues were raised.

In fact, John Bolton, his own national security advisor, had given them that quote about how this was a warning to the Russians. So Trump was changing the subject:

In a pair of tweets sent Saturday night, Trump asserted the story wasn’t true and denounced reporters as “cowards.”

“Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia? This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country,” he wrote…

In a second tweet, Trump added about the story: “ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today. They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”

No, that must be someone else:

The New York Times’ response also noted that the paper described the article to government officials before publication. “As our story notes, President Trump’s own national security officials said there were no concerns.”

It didn’t matter. There were other tweets:

A poll should be done on which is the more dishonest and deceitful newspaper, the Failing New York Times or the Amazon (lobbyist) Washington Post! They are both a disgrace to our Country, the Enemy of the People, but I just can’t seem to figure out which is worse? The good news is that at the end of 6 years, after America has been made GREAT again and I leave the beautiful White House (do you think the people would demand that I stay longer? KEEP AMERICA GREAT), both of these horrible papers will quickly go out of business & be forever gone!

Perhaps so – probably not – but the story here is that his own national security advisor and the intelligence community decided long ago that, as a matter of national security, don’t tell him what they’re doing to keep the nation safe – because he’ll just blab it all to Putin. They leaked a story to the New York Times to warn Putin that he’d better watch out – we could flip the switch and turn off his nation too – and to warn Trump that they were onto him. They’d stop Russia from messing us up, even if he wouldn’t. They’d just ignore him – for the good of the country.

Let him tweet:

Happy Father’s Day to all, including my worst and most vicious critics, of which there are fewer and fewer. This is a FANTASTIC time to be an American! KEEP AMERICA GREAT!

That’s harmless enough, but Axios has a list of the twenty-four times Trump has accused somebody of “treason” – so far. The companion piece is everything Trump says he knows “more about than anybody” – so far.

That’s a parallel problem. In those cases it’s also best to ignore him, but as Peter Baker’s New York Times team reports, that is never easy:

As President Trump prepares to kick off his bid for a second term this week, he is anxiously searching for a way to counter Democrats on health care, one of their central issues, even though many of his wary Republican allies would prefer he let it go for now.

Since he announced his previous run four years ago, Mr. Trump has promised to replace President Barack Obama’s health care law with “something terrific” that costs less and covers more without ever actually producing such a plan.

Now he is vowing to issue the plan within a month or two, reviving a campaign promise with broad consequences for next year’s contest. If he follows through, it could help shape a presidential race that Democrats would like to focus largely on health care.

While the president has acknowledged that no plan would be voted on in Congress until 2021, when he hopes to be in a second term with Republicans back in charge of the House, he is gambling that putting out a plan to be debated on the campaign trail will negate some of the advantage Democrats have on the issue.

And his own party is saying no, no, no, don’t go there:

Nervous Republicans worry that putting out a concrete plan, with no chance of passage, would only give the Democrats a target to pick apart over the next year. The hard economic reality of fashioning a plan that lives up to the promises Mr. Trump has made would invariably involve trade-offs unpopular with many voters.

So, don’t defend Putin, and don’t say you know more about health care than anybody else in the world, and don’t say that in a week or two you’ll have a plan that fixes everything, because that’s absurd, and so he did just that:

“Obamacare has been a disaster,” Mr. Trump told ABC News in an interview aired on Sunday evening. His own plan, he insisted, would lower costs. “You’ll see that in a month when we introduce it. We’re going to have a plan. That’s subject to winning the House, Senate and presidency, which hopefully we’ll win all three. We’ll have phenomenal health care.”

No, you’ve already lost that argument:

Democratic leaders have argued that they won control of the House in last year’s midterm elections in large part on the healthcare issue, and they have been pressing the point in recent weeks. Over the weekend, 140 House Democrats, more than half of the party’s caucus, held events or online town halls to talk about health care, their largest coordinated action in districts since winning the majority.

In particular, Democrats hammered the Trump administration for asking a court in March to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act, which among other things would eliminate protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he favors such protections but has not explained how he would achieve them if the Obama-era law were invalidated.

“The Trump administration is currently suing to eliminate the law that guarantees health care coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions,” said Representative Ted Lieu of California, a leader of the Democratic committee that organized the weekend activities. “That action speaks for itself. If Trump wants to be serious about health care, he needs to stop the lawsuit and his other actions that seek to sabotage the ACA.”

And there’s talk of Medicare for all now too. People like that idea. And it is an idea, not the promise of an idea later. It might be time to walk away from all that, but Trump won’t walk away:

Given the Democratic advantage, many Republicans say they should not focus their energy on health care but instead emphasize immigration and other issues where they are stronger. But the president and his team counter that even if they cannot win on health care, it would be ridiculous to simply cede the territory if they could at least narrow the gap.

The president feels compelled to have something specific to counter Medicare for all.

He feels compelled to defend Putin too, but it may be best to just ignore him:

Midway through his third year in office, many remain skeptical that Mr. Trump will produce the plan he is now promising to unveil in a month or two.

“He can’t deliver the impossible,” said Len M. Nichols, the director of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University, “so he avoids specifics and postpones actually reckoning with a serious legislative proposal of his own.”

He can’t even delver what’s necessary, as the Washington Post reports here:

Senate Republicans and the Trump administration are struggling to reach an agreement on a path forward on critical budget and spending issues, threatening not only another government shutdown and deep spending cuts but a federal default that could hit the economy hard.

GOP leaders have spent months cajoling President Trump in favor of a bipartisan budget deal that would fund the government and raise the limit on federal borrowing this fall, but their efforts have yet to produce a deal. And the uncertain path forward was underscored a few days ago at the Capitol, when a budget meeting between key Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and senior White House officials left out Democrats, whose votes will be imperative to avoid a shutdown and an economy-shaking breach of the federal debt limit.

It seems that on these matters the Republicans can’t get their own president to sit down and pay attention to things. They’ll worry about the Democrats later. They have a more immediate problem:

Trump and Congress face a trio of difficult budget issues. Congress must pass, and Trump must sign, funding legislation by Oct. 1 to avoid a new shutdown. They need to raise the federal debt limit around the same time, according to the latest estimates. Failure to do so would force the government to make difficult decisions about which obligations to pay, and could be considered a default by investors, shaking markets and an economy already showing some signs of alarm.

And by year’s end, they also need to agree on how to lift austere budget caps that will otherwise snap into place and slash $125 billion from domestic and military programs.

Senate Republicans and the administration thus far have not agreed on how to proceed on any of the issues, making it all but impossible for them to enter into substantive negotiations with Democrats.

They need to deal with the one guy messing everything up:

Tensions between key Senate Republicans and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney have been on display for months, and GOP lawmakers and aides partially blame that frayed relationship for the halting pace of talks. Mulvaney was a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus before he joined the administration, first as White House budget director before becoming acting chief of staff, and he has advocated dramatic spending cuts opposed by lawmakers of both parties.

Mulvaney has been slow to come around to the need for a bipartisan budget deal that would raise domestic and military spending caps, even after McConnell met privately with Trump last month and got the president’s blessing to proceed with such a deal, said a senior GOP Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

“The problem with Mulvaney is sometimes he forgets he’s a staffer now, so he’s looking to execute on his own vision instead of the president’s, and that slows down the process,” the aide said.

That might be fixed if the president had “a vision” in these matters, but Mick Mulvaney is just ignoring him, as is John Bolton on our cyber cold war with Russia, and everyone is trying to ignore him on health care.

Is anyone paying attention to him at all?

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

Not Quite How It’s Done

This had to happen. The Obama administration, along with Russia and China and the major European nations, had worked out that nuclear deal with Iran. For at least ten years, with a possible extension, Iran would stop their nuclear weapons work, and allow everyone in to see that they had. The joint agreement did not address Iran’s support of groups that have made no end of trouble for Israel and Saudi Arabia, or address anything that had to do with missile technology. It was a narrow agreement. No nukes – the rest can be worked out in other possible agreements. The nine nations slowly lifted sanctions on Iran and started doing business with them, and continue doing business there. The United States returned all the Iranian money we had seized over all the years and had been holding in escrow. And it worked. Iran stopped their nuclear weapons programs. All the independent inspectors verified that. Our state department certified that Iran was in compliance with the agreement.

And then Obama was gone. Donald Trump pulled the United States out that multinational agreement, because it was a terrible deal. Iran could still build missiles. Iran could still support all sorts of nasty groups in foreign lands. Iran still hated Israel and the Israelis. Iran still hated Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunnis. Obama’s stupid deal did not address any of that. Trump could do far better – so it was massive new sanctions on everything Iranian. We’d shut down all trade with them. We’d ruin them, and we’d ruin any other nations that were a part of this.

The new punishment would be gruesome. Their pain would be intense. Their pain would be so intense that they’d give in and agree to anything. Trump would show Obama how it’s done. Trump would show all those other nations what fools they had been to follow Obama’s lead on any of this. And the Israelis would love us, as would the Saudis. This would be Trump’s triumph.

And now this just isn’t working:

The Trump administration began an urgent debate on Friday over how to respond to what officials say has grown into a shadow war with Iran, after attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf that appeared meant to assert Iranian control over one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes at a time of heightened tension with the United States.

President Trump put Iran on notice that the United States would push back but offered no details and suggested that he was ready to engage with the Iranians, who denied responsibility for the attacks, whenever they are prepared to talk.

But tension remained high, with a senior official confirming that Iran had fired a surface-to-air missile on Thursday at an American drone flying over the Gulf of Oman, where the attacks on the tankers occurred. The episode took place early that morning, between the distress calls from the two ships crippled by explosions that day.

Officials at the Pentagon weighed tactical responses to the attacks, like beefing up the security around tankers, or more drastic moves, like deploying as many as 6,000 additional Navy, Air Force and Army personnel to the Persian Gulf.

Now we have to do something. It seems that Iran doesn’t want to be ruined, as this New York Times account tells the tale:

One of the two tankers hit by the explosions on Thursday, the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous, was being towed into a port in the United Arab Emirates for further inspection into how the attack was carried out and with what kind of weapon. The Navy dispatched a bomb squad team to investigate.

The other tanker, the Norwegian-owned Front Altair, remained adrift, on fire and abandoned by its crew after Iranian patrol boats chased off civilian tugs that had come to tow it to port.

Mr. Trump, citing a grainy, black-and-white American military video of a small boat filled with sailors at the side of one of the stricken tankers, declared that there was no doubt that Iran was behind the attacks. One of the mines, he said, had “Iran written all over it.”

Yeah, well, he says lots of things:

Germany’s foreign minister said the video was “not enough” to determine conclusively that Iran had carried out the attacks, a position echoed by Norway’s government, and the European Union cautioned against further escalation. The Japanese owner of the Courageous questioned accounts that the ship had been damaged by a mine or mines, saying it had been struck by a flying object.

This put Trump in an awkward spot:

Their skepticism reflected a deeper distrust of an American administration that has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, spurning its European allies and sowing suspicion that the United States is spoiling for a fight with Iran.

With the flurry of questions about Iran’s motives and the United States’ intelligence, even the president appeared to be treading carefully. While he said the United States would not allow Iran to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a key transit point for oil shipments, Mr. Trump insisted he was not looking for war. He even reopened the door to some kind of engagement with the Iranian leadership.

“I’m ready when they are,” Mr. Trump said in a telephone interview on Friday with “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning program.

He doesn’t want war. Talk is fine with him. Talk is fine except that he hired the wrong people last year:

Mr. Trump’s remarks were more cautious than those of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a day earlier, and they captured a tension in the administration. The president has signaled a desire to reduce American involvement in wars and engage in diplomacy even as he has taken aggressive positions in confronting rivals like Iran. His more hardline advisers, including Mr. Pompeo and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, are pushing for the United States to tighten the pressure.

Iran knows what is going on here:

Iran accused the United States and its allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, of seizing on the attacks to “sabotage diplomacy” as it waged economic warfare on the country. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, said on Friday on Twitter that the United States accused Iran without “a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.”

The United States needs none:

Mr. Pompeo said on Thursday that any perpetrator would have needed a high level of expertise to carry out the attacks. Yet the video depicts a curiously haphazard operation, with an ill-advised placement of the mine on the ship, careless safety procedures to remove it and little effort to hide the activity.

There is that, but our government senses a strategy here:

American intelligence agencies believe Iran wants to use covert attacks on shipping to drive up the price of oil. That is aimed at hurting Mr. Trump, who has tweeted about high oil prices. Iran’s own oil exports are under pressure by American sanctions, and Tehran is hoping to squeeze as much money out of the limited crude it can sell, a goal that would be advanced if oil prices are driven higher by uncertainty about shipments through the gulf.

Oil prices rose briefly after Thursday’s attacks, although trade tensions with China continue to pressure prices downward. Over time, analysts said, Iran may be trying to push up prices by raising insurance premiums on tankers in making their voyages more treacherous.

That’s one theory, but this is not 2003 in New York:

On Friday, Jonathan Cohen, the acting American ambassador to the United Nations, discussed the situation with Iran with members of the Security Council.

Diplomats said an international antipiracy mission off the coast of Somalia could be a model for the Persian Gulf and the Gulf or Oman, where the attacks occurred. Winning Chinese support for such an operation would be vital, according to some American diplomats. In the past, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has taken part in antipiracy operations, including off the coast of Somalia.

The United States, however, faces steep hurdles in persuading a skeptical international community. Some in Europe believe that the administration’s disavowal of the nuclear deal, brokered by President Barack Obama, is responsible for recent tension. They are also wary that any American accusation against Iran is meant to drive the West toward war.

Been there – done that – got the t-shirt – so same deal – no deal this time either.

Peter Baker explains why:

To President Trump, the question of culpability in the explosions that crippled two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman is no question at all…The question is whether the writing is clear to everyone else. For any president, accusing another country of an act of war presents an enormous challenge to overcome skepticism at home and abroad. But for a president known for falsehoods and crisis-churning bombast, the test of credibility appears far more daunting.

That may be an understatement:

For two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump has spun out so many misleading or untrue statements about himself, his enemies, his policies, his politics, his family, his personal story, his finances and his interactions with staff that even his own former communications director once said “he’s a liar” and many Americans long ago concluded that he cannot be trusted.

And that’s the problem now:

In no other circumstance is faith in a president’s word as vital as in matters of war and peace. The public grew cynical about presidents and intelligence after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on false accusations of weapons of mass destruction, and the doubt spilled over to Barack Obama when he accused Syria of gassing its own people. As Mr. Trump confronts Iran, he carries the burden of their history and his own.

“The problem is twofold for them,” said John E. McLaughlin, a deputy CIA director during the Iraq war. “One is people will always rightly question intelligence because it’s not an exact science. But the most important problem for them is their own credibility and contradictions.”

Now add this:

The task is all the more formidable for Mr. Trump, who himself has assailed the reliability of America’s intelligence agencies and even the intelligence chiefs he appointed, suggesting they could not be believed when their conclusions have not fit his worldview…

At one point shortly before taking the oath of office, he compared intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany and ever since has cast doubt on their findings about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. This year, he repudiated his intelligence chiefs for their assessments of issues like Iran, declaring that “they are wrong” and “should go back to school.” And just this week, he rebuked the CIA for using a brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un as an informant, saying, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices.”

He knows best. He always knows best. But everyone knows him now:

“Trump’s credibility is about as solid as a snake oil salesman,” said Jen Psaki, who was the White House communications director and top State Department spokeswoman under Mr. Obama. “That may work for selling his particular brand to his political base, but during serious times, it leaves him without a wealth of good will and trust from the public that what he is saying is true even on an issue as serious as Iran’s complicity in the tanker explosions.”

And the Washington Post reports that Congress may know him now too:

Fears that President Trump could be laying the groundwork for a war with Iran are fueling a wave of congressional initiatives to restrain him, but significant political hurdles could complicate lawmakers’ chances of success.

Most of the backlash has been driven by Democrats wary of Trump’s moves to spurn Tehran – such as ripping up a nuclear deal and labeling the country’s elite military unit as a terrorist group – while he declares an emergency to expedite arms sales to its regional nemesis Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its continued attacks on civilians in Yemen’s civil war.

A cadre of Republicans – including Sens. Todd C. Young (Ind.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a Trump ally – have joined the clamor to limit the president’s authority, inspired by what they see as end runs around Congress that could exacerbate regional instability, even if they otherwise support Trump’s stance against Iran.

And they have a plan:

As soon as Tuesday, senators could maneuver to block up to 22 arms deals, most of them benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that the administration last month invoked emergency authority to complete, over congressional objections. It is unlikely, however, that all 22 disapproval resolutions will receive a vote on the floor — not least because another potential vehicle for thwarting the move is due for consideration.

Senate leaders plan to tackle their chamber’s version of the annual defense bill before the end of June. The $750 billion authorization bill is one of the few must-pass measures Congress considers in a given year – and is prize territory for opponents of Trump’s arms sales and Iran policy to attach measures seeking to constrain him.

Democratic senators are planning amendments to limit the president’s emergency authority when it comes to concluding arms sales. In theory, the move has at least some Republican support – including from Graham. They also are pushing for an amendment prohibiting federal funds from being used for military operations against Iran unless the administration has first obtained express authorization from Congress to conduct such hostilities.

None of that may make it through congress, but this a start. The president is a problem, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan shows that:

If Iran did attack two tankers in the Gulf of Oman this week, as President Donald Trump claims, he’s doing a lousy job of making that case to the rest of the world.

The sad fact is he has to make a case because, in his 2½ years in office, he has told so many lies and alienated so many allies. If he decided to respond to the attacks with new economic pressure or military action, he would need the support of those allies, and to earn that support, he would need to present extraordinarily persuasive evidence of Iran’s culpability.

He has not yet produced that evidence.

He presented something else instead:

It was an egregious mistake to let Secretary of State Mike Pompeo make the initial accusation against Iran. First, Pompeo is on record as supporting regime change in Tehran; for him to come forth – instead of a more relevant figure, such as the secretary of defense or the director of national intelligence – infuses the charge with bias.

Second, the language Pompeo used was less than compelling. “It is the assessment by the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks,” he said on Thursday. “The assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the sources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.”

Really? Kaplan senses bullshit:

Among several things missing here is the level of confidence in the assessment. The omission is unusual and possibly, for that reason, telling. When US intelligence agencies first analyzed the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee in the spring of 2016, for example, they concluded with “high confidence” that Russia was the culprit. When chemical weapons were fired in Syria in April 2017, Trump’s secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, said U.S. intelligence had “a very high level of confidence” that the weapon used was sarin nerve gas and that the attack was ordered by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that he’d personally reviewed the intelligence and had “no doubt” that the Syrian regime was responsible.

On Friday, the Pentagon released fuzzy video footage of sailors on a small boat removing an object from the side of a ship. Officials said that the small boat belonged to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the object was an unexploded mine, and the ship was one of the two tankers that were attacked.

That was it? But then there was a bit more:

It is also, at the very least, strange that the attack on the Japanese tanker came as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Would Khamenei have met with Abe, in what was described as a peace-seeking session, knowing that one of his military units was about to attack a tanker flying a Japanese flag?

And then there’s the matter of mixed messages:

On Friday, in a statement about the tanker attacks, a spokesman for Central Command – which oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia – emphasized, “We have no interest in engaging in a new conflict in the Middle East. We will defend our interests, but a war with Iran is not in our strategic interest, nor in the best interest of the international community.”

The question is what Trump thinks and to what extent he’s prone to resist, or fall prey to, the pressures of escalation brought on by these attacks and the ensuing tensions.

That’s still an open question:

Trump has said he doesn’t want war with Iran. He recently told reporters he wanted the Iranian leaders to call him; he even gave his phone number to Swiss officials, who have served as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran in past eras of tension. When Abe saw Khamenei in Iran, he handed him a letter from Trump. (Khamenei told Abe he had no interest in any message from the current occupant of the White House.)

Who knows what will happen next? We don’t really know what happened this week. The people around Trump are pushing for punishment and retaliation. Such pressures can unleash the logic of escalation, unless someone steps in to stop it. This isn’t the most hopeful thing to say, but that someone probably has to be Trump.

Don’t expect that. Christopher Dickey explains why:

Does Trump want war with Iran? There’s no question Israel’s belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s blood-soaked Mohammed bin Salman, both of them Trump buddies, would like to see the U.S. beat the hell out of the mullahs. They’re ready to fight to the last American. And National Security Advisor John Bolton seems about as hysterically belligerent as Henry Hawk in the old Looney Toons cartoons. But he is also a skilled backroom warmonger, playing a game with sanctions and waivers on Iranian trade calculated to dispirit and infuriate the Tehran regime – perhaps provoking it to cross a fatal red line.

Trump, on the other hand, likes to talk tough but that doesn’t mean he wants to get into a shooting war of any kind. His entire focus is on the 2020 elections, and he knows his base likes the fiery rhetoric, as long as nobody is firing back at American soldiers on the ground.

Is there a way out of a wider confrontation and conflagration? For the moment, Trump is saying he wants to talk and Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is saying that’s not going to happen.

Trump was going to show Obama how it’s done. This will not end well.

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Trump’s Mean Girls

Things change when there’s no point in those things even existing anymore. Elevator operators disappeared. Anyone can push the button for their floor. There are no more switchboard operators. There are no more pay phones. None of that is necessary now. The world changed. And there may never be another White House press secretary again:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary who fiercely defended President Trump through one of the most tumultuous periods in American politics while presiding over the end of the iconic daily news briefing, will step down at the end of the month.

Mr. Trump announced her departure on Thursday on Twitter, the presidential tweet having supplanted the role that a White House press secretary played in previous administrations. He later praised her for her grit, her heart and her loyalty to him and his goals.

“We’ve been through a lot together. She’s tough and she’s good,” the president said as he brought Ms. Sanders onstage at an unrelated event in the East Room of the White House. “She’s a warrior,” he added, kissing her affectionately on the side of the head.

But she’s useless now. The Brits would say she’s been “made redundant” – her services are no longer needed. The president tweets. He needs no one else to explain himself. And he suggested she get a real job:

While Ms. Sanders said she planned to spend more time with her three children, Mr. Trump urged her to run for governor of Arkansas, an ambition she has quietly nurtured for some time. Her father, Mike Huckabee, served as governor from 1996 to 2007. The current governor, Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, was just re-elected last year but cannot run again in 2022 because of term limits.

Let her do that. She cannot come back. There’s no job now. No successor was announced because there will be no successor. Trump can tweet. And there will be no communications director. Hope Hicks left long ago and Fox News’ Bill Shine left in March. Trump is his own communications director.

Still, this woman had been useful:

At one point, she suspended the White House pass of a CNN reporter, Jim Acosta, who angered the president, only to have a judge order it reinstated. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, wrote in his report that Ms. Sanders had admitted it was untrue when she claimed the White House had heard from “countless” agents who complained about James B. Comey, FBI director fired by Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Trump admired her, concluding that she had the right disposition for the job, one senior administration official said on Thursday.

That is, she was willing to blithely tell outrageous and sometimes rather laughable lies, over and over, and then double-down on them, and then when caught she shrugged – and then she’d go on to lie about something else. She knew it. The press knew it. And that was that:

Breaking with decades of tradition, Ms. Sanders effectively killed the daily briefing from the White House lectern that had been one of the most visible symbols of the American presidency. It has been 94 days since she held a formal briefing. Instead, she left the daily feeding of the media to Mr. Trump, who prefers to speak for himself and takes questions from reporters on a far more regular basis than most of his recent predecessors.

She was unnecessary, but there has always been another way of looking at this:

Katie Hill, a former assistant press secretary for President Barack Obama and now his post-presidential spokeswoman, said the daily briefing was not just for the benefit of the press. She said it served as an “organizing mechanism” for the administration, from the Treasury Department to the National Security Council, to understand and carry out the president’s priorities.

“It was one of the most powerful tools that the White House had to signal to the rest of the world what its message was and what its beliefs were,” Ms. Hill said.

Press secretaries used to hold those daily briefings to make announcements – this is the day’s agenda, as it fits into the week’s agenda, as that fits into the week’s goals and the general point of it all. These were short and quite dull affairs. This is the plan for the day. Does anyone have any questions? No? Okay – see ya tomorrow.

She didn’t even do that. She was Trump’s mascot. And she was his lightening rod. She took the direct hits:

She became one of the most recognizable faces of the administration, a popular figure on the right who was cheered at Mr. Trump’s rallies. But she was vilified by the left, once asked to leave a restaurant and skewered by a comic at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner who mocked her “Smokey Eye” makeup and compared her to “an Uncle Tom” for “white women.”

Ms. Sanders never gave an inch, pushing back against her critics and the president’s while declining to repudiate Mr. Trump’s description of the news media as the “enemy of the people.”

And the boss loved that, not that this did her much good:

Viewing performances like these, Mr. Trump grew to trust Ms. Sanders, appreciating her public loyalty to him, even if legions of critics said it came at the cost of her credibility.

But in the past several months, as the press briefing atrophied and then disappeared, a Washington mystery emerged: What was the press secretary doing all day if she was not briefing the press?

Ah, that would be this:

During the president’s recent overseas trips, Ms. Sanders and other White House aides posted behind-the-scenes updates to Instagram.

In Tokyo, she took a sushi-making class. In London, she posted a Buckingham Palace selfie with Louise Linton, the actress who is married to the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. (In an undocumented interaction, she asked the Prince of Wales to sign her dinner menu. He did.) In Ireland, Ms. Sanders and her husband, Bryan, took a photo with a group of Trump loyalists at the president’s private golf club and visited a local pub.

“The best days for a press secretary are the days you don’t brief,” Ari Fleischer, who had the job during President George W. Bush’s administration, said in an interview before Ms. Sanders’s resignation was announced. “Sarah’s having a lot more best days than I ever had.”

And then she was gone, but then there’s her buddy, Trump’s other mean girl:

The Office of Special Counsel on Thursday recommended the removal of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway from federal office for violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity in the course of their work.

The report submitted to President Trump found that Conway violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.” The agency described her as a “repeat offender.”

Of course the origins of this go back a long way:

The Hatch Act, also known as the “Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities,” was signed into law in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then-Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.) introduced the bill amid allegations that Democratic politicians gained an unfair advantage in the 1938 midterms through employees at the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal employment agency.

So, here, FDR had to deal with the accusation all of those millions of WPA workers were, at times, not building roads and bridges and schools and the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge. They were, on the government’s dime, out campaigning for FDR and the Democrats. That wasn’t fair and the Hatch Act would fix that. They’d have to do politics on their own time and on their own dime. And that, in early 1939, would keep those damned Republicans quiet.

That’s the history and those are the rules, not that it matters much:

The decision about whether to remove Conway is up to Trump. A senior White House official said Thursday the president is unlikely to punish Conway and instead will defend her. The White House counsel immediately issued a letter calling for the agency to withdraw its recommendation that Conway be removed – a request the Office of Special Counsel declined.

So no one can DO anything, but they can trash-talk:

In an interview, Special Counsel Henry Kerner called his recommendation that a political appointee of Conway’s stature be fired “unprecedented.”

“You know what else is unprecedented?” said Kerner, a Trump appointee who has run the agency since December 2017. “Kellyanne Conway’s behavior!”

“In interview after interview, she uses her official capacity to disparage announced candidates, which is not allowed,” he said, adding: “What kind of example does that send to the federal workforce? If you’re high enough up in the White House, you can break the law, but if you’re a postal carrier or a regular federal worker, you lose your job?”

And on the other side:

The White House on Thursday said the agency’s assessment of Conway’s actions was “deeply flawed” and violated “her constitutional rights to free speech and due process.”

But wait! Shouldn’t she be doing that on her own time? Democrats pay her salary too. And there are the larger issues:

Legal experts said that if the president refuses to enforce Hatch Act violations, it will reduce the force of the law.

“He’s essentially writing the Hatch Act out of existence,” said Andrew Herman, an attorney in Washington who specializes in election law and congressional ethics and investigations. “He’s telling Congress, ‘I don’t care what you enact. I’m not going to faithfully meet my duties to make sure that the law is upheld.’ ”

Democratic lawmakers said the White House response sends the message that complying with the law is optional. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), chairman of the House Oversight committee, said he will hold a hearing this month with the Office of Special Counsel about its findings and seek Conway’s participation.

Fine, but complying with this particular law may actually be optional:

Trump can simply decide not to follow the agency’s recommendation, legal experts said.

“Because Kellyanne Conway is a presidential appointee, the Office of Special Counsel itself does not have authority to discipline her,” said Daniel Jacobson, who worked on ethics and compliance matters at the White House Counsel’s Office during the Obama administration. “They can only recommend disciplinary measures, and it is up to the president to take up the recommendation or not.”

Jacobson said he could not recall a previous episode in which the agency recommended such drastic action against a White House appointee.

Well, something odd is going on:

Since Trump took office, the Office of Special Counsel has fielded an unusually high number of queries from civil servants on both sides of the political divide about what is permissible for them to say in the workplace, agency officials said.

 As the 2020 race is getting underway, federal agencies have been reminding employees that politicking at work is not allowed.

In the heat of a political campaign, federal employees cannot “engage in communications that are directed at the success or failure” of Trump or any other candidate, according to OSC guidance.

Government workers do ask, and the rules are clear:

This week, acting defense secretary Pat Shanahan sent 750,000 Defense Department civilians two memos reminding them to limit “active partisan political activities or actions” on the job. The missives come in the wake of an episode in which the White House requested that the USS John S. McCain warship be kept out of sight during Trump’s visit to Japan.

They can donate to a political campaign on their time, but they cannot solicit money or bundle campaign contributions for a candidate. And they can’t do anything official at work, including tweeting, that appears to endorse the president for reelection or endorse a Democrat trying to unseat Trump.

That may apply to Kellyanne Conway or it may not, depending on who you ask, but Lloyd Grove reports that one of the other mean girls is having second thoughts:

It has been far too long since America has heard from Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Linton, you may recall, became instantly notorious in August 2017 as a modern-day Marie Antoinette when she bragged on Instagram about her super-rich lifestyle, and then mocked one of her online critics – a Portland, Oregon, mother of three -for not having as opulent a bank account or paying as much as Linton does in taxes, and also for being “adorably out of touch.”

Los Angeles Magazine editor Maer Roshan has remedied the problem of Linton-free public discourse with a glamorously illustrated cover story rife with movie-star poses, in which the 38-year-old aspiring actress dishes on how uncomfortable she’s being made to feel by President Donald Trump’s hard-right social policies, and her terrible ordeal of being married to a high-ranking public servant in Washington, D.C.

“It sucks being hated,” she confides to Roshan during the three interviews she granted in her “massive Bel Air mansion,” the last two for which she sent her publicist packing.

Louise is feeling oppressed:

Linton, an ardent animal-rights advocate, acknowledges the awkwardness when she is compelled to sit at a dinner table with, among other members of the Trump family, big game hunter Donald Trump Jr.

“Yes, I feel uncomfortable,” she says.

Junior does like to kill large endangered species, but there’s more to this:

She’s no fan of the Trump administration’s increasingly antagonistic stand toward LGBTQ Americans either.

“Look, all of my besties are gay,” Linton says. “I did the Pride Run last year and again this year. Either I can express my beliefs and be at odds with my husband and his boss and get in trouble that way, or I can decline to comment and be in hot water with everyone else. Sucks either way. I very much respect my husband and the president of the United States, but I am an individual with my own beliefs and views. You should measure me by my actions, the friends I keep and the charities I support, not by the politics of my husband. It’s like walking a tightrope of dental floss in high heels and trying not to fall left or right.”

Poor baby! Sarah and Kellyanne need to teach her how to be as mean as hell. She’s not one of Trump’s mean girls.

But there are other mean girls, and some on the other side:

The head of the Federal Election Commission released a statement on Thursday evening reiterating, emphatically, that foreign assistance is illegal in U.S. elections.

“Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” wrote Ellen Weintraub, chairwoman of the FEC. “This is not a novel concept.”

She also sent the statement via Twitter with the introductory line: “I would not have thought that I needed to say this.”

But she did need to say this:

Weintraub’s statement comes after President Donald Trump told ABC News that he would probably hear out opposition information offered by a foreign national if given the chance in 2020. He also said he might not tell the FBI about it, even though bureau Director Christopher Wray said such assistance would need to be reported…

“Anyone who solicits or accepts foreign assistance risks being on the wrong end of a federal investigation,” she said in her statement. “Any political campaign that receives an offer of a prohibited donation from a foreign source should report that offer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Trump says that’s not true. Trump has said Christopher Wray is wrong. Now he has to say Ellen Weintraub is wrong. Trump appointed Christopher Wray to head the FBI and George W. Bush appointed Ellen Weintraub to chair the FEC – so no Democrats are picking on Donald Trump this time. There’s just this one mean girl this time.

He’s not the only one with mean girls. He’d better watch out.

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Curious Arguments

At some point children grow up. They develop logic. They can reason things out no matter what they “feel” at the moment. They may not do that often, but they can do that, and then they discover that sort of thing is rather useful. Other children “discover” logic – they begin to realize there’s such a thing and it might be useful, if they can fake it. They’ll come up with “logical” explanations of why they didn’t clean their room, or later, why they came home at dawn from that study session with friends. They’ll explain to their teacher the logical reason they didn’t do their homework. Later they might find themselves explaining to a cop the quite logical reason they were doing ninety in a thirty-five-miles-per-hour school zone. They’ve heard about logic. How hard can it be?

It’s hard. And then they grow up, and become clever, and learn how to make tricky arguments that really make no sense, but seem to make sense, and will make sense long enough to bamboozle just the right people, for a short time, but long enough to win the day. They’ll be long gone before anyone realizes that they’ve been had. They become lawyers. Donald Trump hires them, as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explains here:

As House Democrats remain divided over the wisdom of impeachment, Donald Trump’s lawyers have seized on their inaction to fight a subpoena seeking the president’s financial records. Their latest brief argues that, until the House officially puts impeachment on the table, the House Oversight Committee has no authority to subpoena this information. Trump’s lawyers are, in effect, daring the House to launch an impeachment inquiry – and betting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will refuse to do it.

That is rather clever and this is the issue:

House Democrats have spent months asserting their authority to investigate the president, with relatively little to show for it. The House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena to Mazars USA, Trump’s former accounting firm, in April, requesting eight years of his financial records. Trump quickly intervened, asking U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta to invalidate the subpoena on the grounds that it falls outside Congress’ constitutional powers.

Mehta refused, citing a string of Supreme Court decisions that confirm the House’s authority to scrutinize the president. SCOTUS has long held that the “power to secure needed information” through subpoenas is “an attribute of the power to legislate.” Congress may also “inquire into and publicize corruption” and “maladministration” in government. Thus, courts cannot interfere with congressional subpoenas so long as they have some “legitimate legislative purpose.” Nor can courts demand that Congress provide some concrete link between a subpoena and future legislation, or search for a secret illicit motive among committee members. If the committee provides a legitimate reason for its subpoena, the courts must honor it.

And there is a legislative purpose here:

The House Oversight Committee declared that it sought Trump’s records to determine whether he “accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics” so it could decide “whether reforms are necessary to address deficiencies with current laws, rules, and regulations.” Because that goal clearly “falls within the legislative sphere,” Mehta ruled, he was obligated to treat the subpoena as valid. The committee also cited Congress’ duty to ensure that the president complies with the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, which Mehta found to be a legitimate reason for examining Trump’s finances.

But wait, there’s more:

The committee provided yet another justification for the Mazars subpoena, explaining that it wanted to learn “whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office.” This goal, too, Mehta wrote, is plainly legitimate, since the Constitution grants the House the sole power of impeachment. True, the House has not yet formally invoked this authority. But it “is simply not fathomable,” Mehta concluded, “that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct – past or present -even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”

Trump’s lawyers then offered their alternative logic:

Mehta “overstepped his institutional role by raising arguments the Committee never made.” And the committee never made this argument, Trump’s lawyers declared, because the House simply isn’t contemplating impeachment.

They offered this:

Speaker Pelosi has steadfastly denied that the House’s investigations are in any way related to impeachment. In March, she unequivocally told the Washington Post, “I’m not for impeachment.” In late May, the Speaker reiterated that “any suggestion that Democrats are planning to pursue impeachment ‘simply isn’t the truth.'” After she received the district court’s ruling in this case, the Speaker boasted that the Committee had prevailed despite “the fact the House Democratic caucus is not on a path to impeachment.” Just four days ago, the Speaker again told senior Democratic leaders that “she isn’t open to the idea” of impeachment, and Chairman Cummings “sided with Pelosi.”

Stern:

In other words, according to Trump’s lawyers, Pelosi’s refusal to launch an impeachment inquiry curbs the House’s ability to investigate the president. And until the House formally pursues impeachment, it will have no power to obtain Trump’s financial records.

Pelosi is being skittish, or careful. That was their opening. And this is their logic, and Cristina Cabrera reports this:

George Conway, the husband of senior White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on Wednesday calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Conway, an outspoken critic of Trump on Twitter, penned the op-ed with Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal in response to the President’s latest brief fighting the House Oversight Committee’s subpoenas. In the brief, Trump argues that Congress can’t investigate the President unless it’s for impeachment proceedings.

“It’s a spectacularly anti-constitutional brief, and anyone who harbors such attitudes toward our Constitution’s architecture is not fit for office,” Conway and Katyal write. “Trump’s brief is nothing if not an invitation to commencing impeachment proceedings that, for reasons set out in the Mueller report, should have already commenced.”

“Every principle behind the rule of law requires the commencement of a process now to make this president a former one,” Conway and Katyal write at the end of the column.

The op-ed is here and simply points out that these guys are saying that the Constitution is illogical, as they see it. Congress cannot simply look into things. They have to know exactly what those things are and what they might mean before they look into them, or something.

None of this makes much sense:

Kellyanne Conway has rarely commented on her husband’s comments on her boss except to say that she “disagrees” with him, when she once said Conway’s remarks were a “violation of basic decency, certainly, if not marital vows.”

Trump, on the other hand, has responded to Conway the way he usually reacts to criticism – repeated attacks consisting of “total loser!” and “husband from hell!”

But Trump is losing these battles:

The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday approved of a resolution recommending that Attorney General Bill Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross be held in contempt for not complying with subpoenas in the committee’s census citizenship question probe.

The 24-15 vote came some six hours after the meeting to consider that measure started. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) joined Democrats in voting in favor of the resolution.

As the committee meeting was getting underway, the Justice Department announced that President Trump had asserted executive privilege over the documents the committee was demanding.

And now that too will go to court. How does any of this fall under executive privilege? It’s a mystery:

Among the materials the committee had subpoenaed are key internal documents from the period when the Trump administration was working with the Justice Department to craft a formal request to add the question to the 2020 census. The justification put forward in the request – that it would enhance DOJ Voting Rights Act enforcement – has been called pretextual by three federal courts, and there is ample evidence the administration had partisan reasons for including the question on the census.

The question stands to diminish the political representation and government resources allotted to more diverse, urban regions of country by discouraging immigrant communities from participating on the census.

It is also almost guaranteed that some red states will try to use the data that the question produces to fundamentally change the redistricting process. Non-citizens would be excluded from the count used to determine how districts are drawn, shifting political power to whiter, more rural regions of the country.

That seems to be the plan. Team Trump is hiding any documents on any planning here. And then there’s this:

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks will testify next Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee as part of its investigation of the Mueller report’s findings.

As per a deal between Hicks and the committee, the White House Counsel’s Office will have an attorney present during her closed-door testimony, the Washington Post reported.

Hicks will be the first former White House aide to testify about the Russia probe before the committee, which under its chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is conducting a wide-ranging investigation of the Trump administration.

In a statement, Nadler said that the committee would release a transcript of the interview after it occurred.

“Ms. Hicks understands that the Committee will be free to pose questions as it sees fit, including about her time on the Trump Campaign and her time in the White House,” Nadler said. “Should there be a privilege or other objection regarding any question, we will attempt to resolve any disagreement while reserving our right to take any and all measures in response to unfounded privilege assertions.”

This is going to be tense. Hicks left the White House last year to become a Fox News communications strategist out here in Los Angeles. Before that she knew everything about Trump, and before that she was a stunning young fashion model for Ralph Lauren and then Ivanka Trump’s fashion empire. She’s still young and pretty. Trump trusted her. Perhaps that was a bad idea:

Hicks cooperated with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and previously testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

An attorney for Hicks, Robert Trout, did not immediately return a request for comment. In a June 4 letter to Nadler, Trout said that Hicks would only turn over documents from the Trump campaign that were already in her possession. The White House and Presidential Transition Team had both claimed that other documents were under their control, and not Hicks’s, Trout asserted, limiting the amount of information she could turn over.

But she can still talk, and Trump is unhappy:

President Trump lashed out Wednesday against a widening web of congressional probes that demonstrated the limits of his strategy to declare victory and try to move past the 22-month special counsel investigation into Russian interference that has consumed much of his presidency…

Trump was unable to mask his anger with the congressional investigations during a photo op ahead of a bilateral meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office.

“I don’t know if you have this, Mr. President, but we have people that are totally out of control,” Trump told Duda, referring to Democrats. As he has before, Trump accused his political rivals of trying to undermine his presidency to “win the election,” and he professed that “the American public is not going to stand for it.”

How does he know? No one knows that, and Pelosi is dangerous:

While President Trump has declared repeatedly that Mueller found “no obstruction, no collusion,” Democrats, citing 10 instances of possible obstruction laid out in Mueller’s report, have continued to ratchet up the pressure on the White House through subpoenas, hearings and lawsuits.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has met Trump’s accusations of Democratic overreach, which Trump has termed “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” on Twitter, by treading cautiously around the impeachment question but emphasizing, a senior Democratic aide said, that her caucus “will continue to legislate, investigate and litigate.”

“It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, partisanship or anything like that. It’s about patriotism,” Pelosi said in a closed-door meeting with fellow House Democrats, according to the aide. “We have to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And in order to do that we have to be ready. As ready as we can be.”

And the other party here is not ready:

Trump fought back by continuing to insist that Mueller’s report exonerated him and declaring that his administration had been “the most transparent presidency in history” – even though it has banned Trump’s former aides from responding to subpoenas and sought to prevent a private bank from turning over his financial records.

“There’s never been anybody so transparent,” Trump said, apparently referring to his team’s cooperation with Mueller’s investigation.

That doesn’t seem to be the case. The walls are closing in. The only thing left to do is to admit that it’s all true, the collusion and the obstruction, but if you look at things logically none of this was a big deal in the first place:

President Trump on Wednesday said he would consider accepting information on his political opponents from a foreign government, despite the concerns raised by the intelligence community and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In an Oval Office interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump also said he wouldn’t necessarily alert the FBI if a foreign country approached his campaign with “oppo research” about his Democratic challenger.

This was no big deal:

“I think you might want to listen; there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump said. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”

When Stephanopoulos asked the president whether he’d want that kind of “interference” in American politics, Trump pushed back on the word.

“It’s not an interference, they have information – I think I’d take it,” Trump said. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong.”

But of course there’d be nothing wrong, unless there was something wrong:

Although Mueller did not find enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy involving the Trump campaign in his probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, his report said that the Russian government interfered in the election in a “sweeping and systemic fashion” and that Trump’s campaign was open to assistance from Russian sources…

Trump’s remarks go further than those of his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who told Axios last week that he didn’t know whether he’d contact the FBI if Russians reached out again.

And they are likely to reignite a debate on the 2020 campaign trail and in Congress over what should be considered acceptable behavior by candidates – a debate that was unresolved by Mueller’s decision not to bring charges against any Americans related to Russia’s attack on the U.S. political system.

But this was no big deal:

Trump dismissed the idea that his son, Donald Trump Jr., should have told the FBI about his 2016 contacts with the Russians, including the Trump Tower meeting Trump Jr. hosted after he was promised damaging information about Democrat Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

“You’re a congressman, someone comes up and says, ‘I have information on your opponent,’ do you call the FBI?” Trump asked.

“If it’s coming from Russia, you do,” Stephanopoulos said, pointing out that Al Gore’s campaign contacted the FBI when it received a stolen briefing book in 2000 and that the FBI director said recently that the agency should have been notified when the Trump campaign received an offer of information on Clinton.

“The FBI director is wrong,” Trump said.

Not everyone would agree with that:

Trevor Potter, counsel to John McCain’s presidential campaigns, said that any candidate who takes intelligence from a foreign government would be compromised and left beholden to that country.

“The Founders feared exactly such foreign attempts to interfere in U.S. politics,” he said…

Democrats jumped on Trump’s remarks Wednesday and called for the passage of legislation to explicitly require candidates to disclose a foreign government’s help as it would campaign contributions.

“Does he not know the oath of office requires him to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic?” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Warner said that if the president “does not have enough of a moral compass” to understand this is wrong, “perhaps we need legislation saying that there is a duty to report such offers of assistance to law enforcement. I just can’t understand this. I think every past presidential campaign – Republican or Democrat – would have recognized that obligation.”

Maybe so but Rick Santorum, one of CNN’s resident Trump defenders – CNN tries to be fair and balanced – in a panel discussion hosted by Anderson Cooper, also didn’t see what the big deal was:

“Well, I mean, let’s be fair,” the former GOP presidential candidate said when asked to comment on the controversy. “The president said he would listen, but he would also send it to the FBI. He said he would do both. The question is whether he should do both or simply refuse to get the information. But he did say he would turn it over to the FBI.”

When Cooper noted the president had actually seemed to waver on the idea of contacting the FBI, even arguing Wray was “wrong” to call for such foreign overtures to be reported, Santorum suggested Trump had simply been misunderstood.

“He has, sort of – as we all do, filler words that don’t mean what they say, like, ‘I think,'” Santorum attempted to explain. “So I took the president for his word that he would do both, which I think, I don’t think that’s necessarily inappropriate as long as he refers it to the FBI. As far as looking at the information, maybe he should and maybe he shouldn’t and I don’t think it’s a crime in looking at the information as long as you refer it to the proper authorities.”

Those were filler words:

After CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said candidates can’t legally solicit this type of help from foreign governments, Santorum objected, claiming the president had been commenting on an entirely different scenario.

“The president wasn’t answering questions about soliciting information, Stephanopoulos said if someone came to you and said ‘Hey, I have some dirt,’ and he was talking more colloquially,” the former Pennsylvania senator argued. “And the president’s words are often imprecise, and not necessarily, uh – that’s why he didn’t want to be interviewed with Robert Mueller because he tends to sort of ramble and talk about things more loosely.”

Santorum went on to insist that he never called the FBI when he received information and opposition research in the past, prompting Cooper to ask if he had ever gotten it from “Russia or Norway,” or any other foreign country.

Santorum acknowledged he hadn’t, saying, “If I knew that that information was coming from a foreign service, sure I would call the FBI.”

That defense of Trump was a disaster and this was more common:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a 2020 candidate for president, tweeted: “It’s time for Congress to begin impeachment hearings.”

Joe Biden wrote, “President Trump is once again welcoming foreign interference in our elections. This isn’t about politics. It is a threat to our national security. An American President should not seek their aid and abet those who seek to undermine democracy.”

“This is just the latest example of what Vice President Biden meant when he said that Mr. Trump is an existential threat to our country,” anti-Trump former CIA Director John Brennan wrote on Twitter. “‘Unfit to be President’ is a gross understatement. @realDonaldTrump is undeserving of any public office, and all Americans should be outraged.”

Wrote Virginia Democrat Rep. Don Beyer: “Trump just blew way past ‘no collusion,’ he’s broadcasting his willingness to receive help from a hostile foreign power in 2020. He’s glad his son didn’t call the FBI about Russian help and says he wouldn’t call them in 2020. Yes, we absolutely need an impeachment inquiry.”

David Frum says that might be the idea:

The president is confessing in advance that he would accept stolen information from a hostile foreign intelligence agency if it helped his presidential campaign…

This confession carries heavy implications, starting with the question of whether Donald Trump Jr. lied to Congress when he denied telling his father in advance about the famous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, in which he believed a representative of the Russian government would be offering dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign.

The Mueller report found that the Trump campaign desperately wished to collude with Russian intelligence—but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone at the campaign actually had done so. But after three years and the special counsel’s investigation? Trump acknowledges that he would do it all again, if given a chance.

And that settles things:

Confessing a willingness to collaborate with foreign spies against his domestic political opponents is a hand-forcing move. The risks of proceeding with impeachment are still there. But the risks of not proceeding? Trump just forced us all to confront them in the most aggressively public possible way.

So, did Donald Trump at one point long ago “develop” logic – a way to think things through dispassionately and get things done – or did he “discover” logic – a useful trick to fool people and get what he wants. Apply logic. It’s the latter. Some kids don’t grow up.

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Early Storm Clouds

The next eighteen months are going to be unpleasant. There will be an election at the end. Donald Trump will stay, or Joe Biden, or some other Democrat, will be the next president – and then Donald Trump will stay. He’s already hinted that if he loses – unlikely but quite possible – it will be because the election was rigged, and then he won’t step down until someone proves, to him, that the election was NOT swung by massive numbers of fraudulent votes for the Democrat cast by illegal immigrants or convicted felons or Mexicans or gays or blacks or Asians or college students. Why should he leave office?

But that’s a long way off. This is just beginning, and it’s going to be nasty:

President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. repeatedly ripped into each other on Tuesday as unfit to lead the country as they both traveled to the battleground state of Iowa, giving voters a preview of what a general election matchup between the two men might look like.

In the most ferocious day of attacks in the six-month-old presidential campaign, Mr. Trump resorted to taunts and name-calling from morning to night, saying Mr. Biden was “a loser,” “a sleepy guy” and “the weakest mentally,” and claiming that “people don’t respect him.” Mr. Biden took a different tack, laying out ways Mr. Trump was “an existential threat” to the country, its international standing and its values.

And this had to come up:

Mr. Biden, who leads in early polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, also brought up subjects he had previously avoided with reporters, such as Mr. Trump siding with the North Korean state media’s insults on Mr. Biden’s I.Q.

“He embraces dictators like Kim Jong-un, who’s a damned murderer and a thug?” Mr. Biden said at his second event of the day, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. “The one thing they agree on: Joe Biden, he shouldn’t be president.”

That was odd, but Biden may have misjudged Trump’s base. Trump admires strong leaders – Putin and Kim and Duterte and al-Sissi in Egypt and Erdogan in Turkey. Trump despises weak leaders – Markle and Macron and Trudeau and that woman in New Zealand, and Trump never did condemn that Saudi prince for the torture and murder and dismemberment of that reporter. That Saudi prince is a strong leader. Kim had his half-brother publicly murdered in a quite public space, gruesomely. Kim is a strong leader. And many of Putin’s political enemies are shot dead in the streets of Moscow, or die mysteriously in the suburbs of London. So, when Biden taunts Trump for this business with Kim, Trump’s base loves it.

And this happens. Trump says Kim is wonderful. Kim must be wonderful. Kim says Biden is stupid and weak and old and whatnot. Biden must be all that. Biden says Kim is a real dictator here. Trump’s base agrees – yeah, but Kim is strong. Trust the strong man. Biden loses.

Or he doesn’t. He will fight back:

The sharpest part of Mr. Biden’s remarks in Davenport was his argument that, while the nation “can overcome four years of this presidency,” Mr. Trump would pose an existential threat to “the character of this nation” if he were re-elected and served another term. He portrayed Mr. Trump’s words and actions as antithetical to the nation’s “core values we stand for, who we are, what we believe in,” citing the president’s child separation policy at the southern border and referencing his remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va.

Mr. Biden also argued that Mr. Trump was a threat to “our standing in the world,” noting that the president has attacked NATO while embracing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and saying he had shown poor character by using “crude language” and “embarrassing behavior that is burrowing deep into our culture.” And he said Mr. Trump was undermining American democracy by criticizing law enforcement agencies, defying the authority of Congress and using phrases like “enemy of the people” to describe a free press.

And that must stop:

“In 2020, we not only have to repudiate Donald Trump’s policies and values – we have to clearly and fully reject, for our own safety’s sake, his view of the presidency,” Mr. Biden said. “Quote: ‘I have complete power.’ No you don’t, Donald Trump.”

“‘Only I can fix it.’ Fix yourself first,” Mr. Biden said as the crowd enthusiastically drowned him out.

This will be the next eighteen months, but there was this at another town in Iowa:

While many of the voters who filed into his Ottumwa event shared Mr. Biden’s near-single-minded focus on Mr. Trump, praising Mr. Biden as someone who could appeal to moderates and independents, Cheri Scherr, 63, said she had hoped to hear “more about his ideas.”

“I wish he would talk less about Trump,” said Ms. Scherr, of Pella, Iowa. “We’re Democrats. We know why we don’t like Trump.”

That may be because of things like what Josh Marshall flags here:

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam was a CIA source. This Kim was assassinated by poison in 2017 in Malaysia, by all accounts by the North Korean government. He had lived in exile for a number of years. Trump got asked about this and he responded by pledging to Kim Jong Un that he would not allow the CIA to spy in this way “under my auspices.”

In essence he was pledging not to spy on North Korea and arguably apologizing for whatever relationship the CIA had with Kim Jon Nam.

Yeah, well, he likes murderous dictators. He seems to be in awe of them. Perhaps he wants to be one of them, for Christmas. His base wants that too, don’t they?

This will not end well, as Brian Beutler notes here:

Ever since it became clear Joe Biden would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, politically active liberals have been engaged in internal dialogue over why he routinely asserts such a generous view of the very same Republicans who goosed birthers, sabotaged the Obama administration, abetted a foreign attack on the last presidential election, stole a Supreme Court seat, and have participated in a spree of political corruption, crime, institutional vandalism, and deceit over the last two and a half years.

“With President Trump gone you’re going to begin to see things change,” Biden reiterated Monday. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.”

No one knows better:

These kinds of remarks fuel a bewildering debate, because nobody on either side of it wonders, even in passing, whether Biden might be right. It pits those who believe Biden is hopelessly stuck in a lost time against those who think he’s playing naive on purpose – because he thinks the quiet, offline masses want to believe this is all a phase or a bad dream.

But this is not a bad dream. Biden really does imagine a Republican Party from long ago, but now gone. They don’t know better. They argue things like this:

Michael Bogren, a Trump judicial nominee, is withdrawing from consideration amid a Republican backlash, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

Bogren, who was nominated to the District Court for the Western District of Michigan, faced growing opposition from Republican senators. Three Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee – Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina – said they would oppose his nomination and more were expected to emerge. He also faced criticism from conservative advocacy groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, Heritage Action for America, and Conservative Action Project.

Bogren’s withdrawal is a rare and embarrassing setback for the White House, which has had little trouble getting the GOP-controlled Senate to confirm President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.

Bogren and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But this was not acceptable:

At issue was a brief Bogren signed off on while defending the city of East Lansing against a Catholic couple that opposed same-sex marriage. The couple was barred from East Lansing’s farmers market after they refused to a host a same-sex marriage on their farm citing religious beliefs. In response, the couple sued.

East Lansing’s brief defending its position used analogies involving the Knights of the White Camelia, KKK and imams who do not believe women should drive. Those analogies offended Senate Republicans – particularly Hawley, who grilled Bogren on his views at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.

So, this Republican Party is still arguing that religious freedom trumps all the laws on the books. No one has to sell goods and services to those they find morally (religiously) offensive. A doctor can refuse to treat anyone who hasn’t yet accepted Jesus as their personal savior – or refuse to treat gays or Guatemalans. This is just the latest skirmish in a long war that won’t end anytime soon.

Steven Waldman’s latest book is Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Fight for Religious Freedom and he reviews how this happened:

I wonder what Antonin Scalia would make of the Republican legislators in Maine who just voted to allow people to use religious exemptions to avoid vaccinations for their children. And how he would feel about Republican Senators who are now opposing a Trump judicial nominee because he ruled against a farmer who didn’t want to host a same-sex wedding?

This position – in favor of strong religious exemptions to secular laws- is increasingly becoming the conservative party line. It’s a test of whether you support “religious freedom.”

Yet it was Scalia, the conservative hero, who, in 1990, ruled against Native Americans who used a religious freedom claim to justify using peyote, even though doing so violated anti-drug laws. Going down this path of allowing too many religious exemptions would, Scalia wrote, “lead towards anarchy.” We’d end up with “religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”

That was the warning, the warning everyone forgot, for good reason:

Back then, the judicial fault line tended to focus on whether you saw matters through the eyes of a religious minority or the majority. Conservatives bristled at the idea that claims of small groups of religious minorities should erode the rule of law or the majority culture.

What changed? Conservative Christians went from thinking of themselves as a Moral Majority to a Persecuted Minority. And with that, the politics of religious freedom got turned on its head.

That might mean that the 2020 election could hinge on “religious freedom” – protecting the rights of the vastly outnumbered and threatened Christians, and maybe the white man too, but Waldman explains how innocent this was at first:

Let’s review the history of what are now called “accommodation” cases – the instances when society decides to exempt a religious person from a secular law because it inadvertently infringes on their faith practice.

This concept – that religious freedom requires us to bend over backward to respect the sensitivities of the religious – is a relatively recent development in American history. At the founding of the country, Quakers and other pacifists were able to avoid military service and abjure swearing an oath, which also violated their religion. But, mostly, the courts took a consistent position: if the law is secular in its nature, and neutral in its intent, then religious people have to abide by it, even if their ability to practice is constrained. For instance, in 1878, Mormons argued that anti-polygamy laws infringed on their religious freedom because “plural marriage” was an article of faith. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them, saying that the Constitution provided freedom of belief, not freedom of actions.

Everything changed in 1943. The school board in Charleston, West Virginia was requiring kids to salute the American flag. It was not a law that picked on any particular religion. It was an entirely secular, neutral law. But ten-year-old Marie and eight-year-old Gathie Barnett refused to salute – because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their religion taught that flag saluting was akin to idol worship. The Supreme Court agreed with the Witnesses. Justice Robert Jackson declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

From then on, even if a law wasn’t intended to hurt a religion, it might still be viewed as unconstitutional if the harm it inflicted was significant or if the law’s secular purpose wasn’t important enough. In his dissent, Justice Felix Frankfurter prophesied that this new world would be fraught with constitutional danger. Religious minorities could end up with too many “new privileges.” The First Amendment, he wrote, “gave religious equality, not civil immunity.”

But wait, there’s more:

In 1963, the Court went even further. In Sherbert v Verner, it ruled that a South Carolina law that in effect pressured Seventh Day Adventists to work on Saturdays was unconstitutional. The Court said that a law can infringe upon someone’s religious practice only if there is a “compelling state interest” and no other regulation could be conjured to achieve that same goal. Otherwise, the state must accommodate the person’s religious practice.

Until this moment, religious freedom had been defined primarily as an absence of persecution and the separation of church and state. Now there was another element: the state had to bend over backward to avoid making a religious person choose between the law and his or her faith.

And that could be exploited for political purposes, and it was. Jesus tells me I must not ever rent to black folks. Jesus tells me that what that woman over there might do is a terrible sin and I must stop her. And the government says that’s not my business? What about my religious freedom? What about Jesus! There are a lot of votes in screaming out those words in total outrage, but Scalia knew better:

In 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court decided to pull back on religious freedom rights. When a member of the Native American Church asked for exemption from an anti-drug law that banned the use of peyote even for a religious service, the Court said no. The lead voice in restricting religious freedom was Antonin Scalia.

Oh well:

Congress eventually overruled the court with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – opening the doors for religious groups to make all of the religious freedom claims we see these days. We’re seeing religious exemption claims now applied in a wide range of situations. The Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee claimed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment protected it from liability claims by the victims of pedophile priests. The recent outbreaks of measles are at least partly attributable to too many parents claiming religious exemptions to avoid having their children vaccinated.

Timothy Anderson in 2015 claimed that his arrest for selling heroin violated his religious freedom because he had distributed the drug to “the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf and dead members of God’s Kingdom.” The court rejected the claim on the grounds that the heroin recipients didn’t realize they were partaking because of their religion. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a group of nuns sued a federal agency attempting to put a natural gas pipeline through their property, arguing that the move violated their religious freedom because “God calls humans to treasure land as a gift of beauty and sustenance.”

And so on and so forth, but Waldman sees a way out of this mess:

I’m inclined to think we need to reserve religious exemptions for rare cases.

But these are hard dilemmas – which is the bigger point. We have come to think of these accommodation cases as the equivalent of earlier attacks on religious freedom — like the hanging of Quakers or the imprisonment of Baptists for practicing their faith. Far from it. These cases arise because society has decided to bend over backwards to be extra sensitive to the religious.

It’s a worthy effort – if we keep this in perspective.

And thus it might be wise to keep this in mind during the next eighteen months:

If the government sometimes decides not to provide special exemptions from religious law, that’s not an egregious attack on religious freedom. If we start thinking of religious freedom as a superpower that enables anyone to avoid a law they don’t like, then religious freedom itself will become a farce.

But we may have a farce anyway. Trump is calling Biden names and Biden is snorting that Trump should just grow up. This is just getting started, and no one has mentioned Jesus yet, but they will. Jesus is a Republican. No, that cannot be. But lots of things cannot be. And there’s a storm coming. This was just the first night of that storm.

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