hardline political news and analysis

Month: June, 2018

Trump’s Katrina?

Sitting at my vintage roll-top desk in Santa Fe, NM, looking out over the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, I admit I might be losing some perspective about the political mood in Washington (or elsewhere, for that matter), but it is beginning to feel like things are changing, maybe even significantly.

It’s a recent sensation, maybe fueled by the calm and progressivism of the high desert. Certainly the four day drive here is not responsible: barreling through southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle … well, let’s just say there weren’t a lot of “I’m Still With Her” or “I Miss Barack Obama” bumper stickers to be seen.

But over the last few days, one gets the decided impression that the wheels are coming off the Trump limousine, that the chaotic, volcanic, mean-spiritedness of this accidental president and his crazed band of acolytes is taking too costly a toll on the nation’s patience and conscience. The issue isn’t so much liberal versus conservative or Democrats versus Republicans, but rather a growing realization that an unhinged and dangerous autocrat is putting our political and moral traditions and institutions at risk, and that even if one shares some of his policy objectives (which morph from hour to hour, tweet to tweet), the price of vesting power in so unpredictable and venal a narcissist is beyond responsibility.

The chaos over the forced separation of families and the incarceration of thousands of children, many under one year of age, has altered the perception of Trump’s competence as a president and decency as a human being. People are enraged and moved to action. One on-line effort to raise $1,500 to support legal assistance for separated families has raised $15,000,000 at last count.

When the histories of this bizarre chapter of our national story are written, the Trump presidency will likely stand out as a moment of madness fueled by mass (and largely racist and nativist fueled) resentment. Beyond the incarceration policy itself; beyond the brazen lying about whether it was mandated or even allowed by earlier law; beyond even Melania’s incomprehensible decision to select, from her gargantuan wardrobe, a jacket emblazoned with “I really don’t care. Do U?,” while visiting jailed toddlers, one feels a growing national perception that something malicious and dangerous is afoot.

Any hopefulness is tempered by two interesting news stories that provide conflicting signs of where public opinion rests, giving pause to any sense of our having turned a corner towards a brighter, more compassionate post-November world.

On the one hand, a Gallup poll published on June 21 (which in so many ways wasthe longest day of 2018), reports that 75% of Americans, a record high, believe that immigration is a good thing for the U.S., up from 71% last year. The high support is registered across all party groups. If asked about “legal” immigration, the number rises to 84%. What seems notable is the high level of support for immigration without qualification.

Indeed, just 19% of those polled are negative about immigration, and just 29% — a record low — think rates of immigration should be decreased, a 6 point drop from 2017 despite Trump’s incessant vilification of immigrants. In fact, 28% think levels should be increased.

Before Trump critics and especially Democratic political operatives get too optimistic about the political calculus of these findings, it needs to be noted that some recent polls give Trump his highest approval rating since becoming president, pretty close to the 45.9% of the popular vote he received in 2016. That fact alone is remarkable. Any other president, presiding over a growing economy, would have registered gains in popularity during the first one and a half years in office. But the steady support, not to mention the obsequious and slavish succumbing to Trump by congressional Republicans, reflects the power of his continued strength among base GOP voters who may well be highly motivated to get to the voting booths this fall. The key variable for the Fall congressional elections, in addition to the get-out-the-vote performance of Democratic voters like minorities and youth, will be the voting decisions of more moderate Republicans. Especially critical votes will come from suburban women and independents who might be prepared to vote Democratic to check Trump, if not embrace the Democratic agenda.

Still, one had to be mystified that despite the daily tirades, tweets, meltdowns, mis-steps and malevolent, punitive policies, Trump retains the support of 45% of voters. What signal does that enduring support send to an egomaniac who wrings signs of devoted approval out of the faintest glimmer of approval?

I really don’t get it. Do you?


Trump’s State Sponsored Child Abuse

Having been the main congressional staff person behind the drafting and passage of a major federal child welfare law in 1980, I would have to say that Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the Jordanian diplomat who serves as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has got it about right. Donald Trump’s policy of wrenching children from their parents and incarcerating (there isn’t really a better or more accurate term) them in caged institutions is about as close to “government sanctioned child abuse.” Al-Hussein is borrowing the terminology from the American Association of Pediatrics. As child psychologist researchers have documented, the developmental impacts of such early trauma can be devastating.

It is difficult to describe how many ways the Trump policy violates federal law, international standards, professional ethics and basic human decency. If Trump or Congress, or both, fail to swiftly bring this Dickensian policy to a close, as many as 30,000 children could be separated from their parents and guardians by the end of the summer, according to one California congressman.

Trump’s blatant and brazen lies about the origins of the policy creating family separation would, in any other administration, be sufficient for people to question the president’s competence, let alone morality. “They could be murderers and thieves and so much else,” Trump warns about undocumented entrants. Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he ridiculously charges, want “open borders,” oppose tightening entry procedures, and “came out in favor of MS-13,” the murderous gang. Why Pelosi would go into a room with this maniac is almost impossible to imagine.

There is no law mandating that children be separated from their families. That didn’t stop Trump’s prevaricating press secretarySarah Huckabee Sanderswho fatuously declared last week, “It’s the law, and that’s what the law states.”Sanders is not alone among White House lackeys willing to castigate refugees and asylum seekers. “Parents who entered illegally are by definition criminals,” said Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, who is doubtless anxious to prove her toughness and so avoid another humiliating drubbing by Trump in front of the rest of the Cabinet. “By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.” Thanks to Trump’s policies, that observation is indubitable. Indeed, Trump’s entire style of governing (pardon the use of the word), whether with respect to immigration, health care, North Korea or deficit creation, seems to be the purposeful creation of crises he then calls upon others to solve.

Sanders is simply re-enforcing the hysteria of the President who irrationally blames Democrats for refusing to change a policy they had no role whatsoever in creating. Indeed, Democrats passed a 2008 law, signed by George W. Bush, thatlimits the time certain unaccompanied minors can be held in detention to 72 hours, a restriction flagrantly  violated by the Trump detention order. Under federal foster care law, children must be strictly monitored with periodic updates of their placements, which must be in the least restrictive setting available. By contrast, according to McClatchy reporters, “U.S. officials have lost track of nearly 6,000 unaccompanied minor kids.” Emphasis added, as if it needs to be.

Trump and his enablers are using the children as hostages, hoping to force Senate Democrats (they don’t need any in the House) to sign off on a punitive and costly border enforcement policy that includes a multi-billion dollar wall that Trump had promised taxpayers would be fully funded by Mexico. Similarly, Trump needlessly but intentionally created a DACA crisis in hopes of provoking Congress to pass an ill-conceived immigration-border enforcement statute. Actually, as he proved in Tuesday’s meeting with congressional Republicans, Trump doesn’t care what proposal is actually approved; he simply wants a bill passed that he can sign with that outsized, ego-fueled Sharpie signature, and he is willing to rip kids away from their parents, put them in cages, and lock them up to achieve that goal.

Last week, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon took himself down to one of the detention camps and demanded entry. The press-savvy thugs who ran the facility cleverly decided to bar him from inspecting facilities paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Inexplicably, Merkley left, but this week, he and other Democratic legislators wisely returned to the detention camps this week to demand the release of the children. Meanwhile, back in Washington, some Republicans are squirming over the horrifying news coverage and are urging the president to alter his course, less because of concern about the zero-tolerance policy than its impact on their elections and potential control of the House.

Although the scenes of terrified children hugging their parents’ legs and crying uncontrollably, and pictures of the huge cages holding children’s beds, have shocked the world, Democrats should not assume this issue is certain to win them broad voter support. This is precisely the kind of volatile issue that Trump has shown a talent for exploiting by wrapping himself in the flag (he actually hugged one this week) and casting himself as defender of the border. Democrats need to be careful not to be pigeonholed as soft on unauthorized entries, while unqualifiedly voicing their outrage at the Trump policy. Assuming the votes of middle of the road voters will be decided on the child detention policy may well prove illusory.

Let’s be clear: the responsibility here rests with congressional Republicans. All the sympathetic statements emanating from their hypocritical mouths don’t mean a thing if they can’t find the courage to stand up to Trump, end the child separation policy and make DACA a permanent policy. Pretending that these self-created crises can only be resolved by folding them into controversial immigration policy that cannot receive 60 votes is just playing games. The children in the detention centers should be the ones playing games, not spineless legislators.

Back in 1980, when we passed the Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act, we called the policy of losing children in indeterminate foster placements “state sponsored child abuse.” Here we are, four decades later, and the President of the United States smugly touts a   policy he fashioned as essential to our national security. Al-Hussein has it right – this is government sanctioned child abuse — but Trump couldn’t care less about children or human rights. Just to make the point perfectly clear, on Tuesday, Trump quit the UN Human Rights Council.

Begging Trump’s Pardon

I suppose somewhere there still is an incredibly naïve person who thinks that Republicans believe in what they purport to be their most sacred principles. Reducing deficits, free trade, reforming entitlements, controlling spending, demonstrating compassion for DACA residents – where does the list end? They have abandoned every one. No less an authority than former Republican Speaker John Boehner recently said there is no longer a Republican Party; it has been replaced by the Trump Party.  Still, let’s give them one more opportunity to pay fealty to supposedly deeply-held beliefs. Case in point: investigating the abuse of the presidential pardon authority.

When Bill Clinton unwisely end-ran the formal pardon review process as he was departing the White House, Republicans in Congress quickly expressed outrage. “When a pardon appears questionable on the merits,” declared then-Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, “the American people have a right to know why the president made his decision so that the constitutional power to grant pardons will not be abused in the future.” A spokesperson for the committee added, “the American people deserve an explanation.” So, once again, are the Republicans going to live up to their principles or, as they have for two years, simply slavishly succumb to Donald Trump’ egotistical and autocratic whims?

Over the past few months, President Trump has been on a frolic of executive authority. Once again on Thursday, he dug into his executive toolbag to flex another Article II power, the pardon. Trump issued his latest pardon to a conservative author and felonious fundraising criminal, Dinesh D’Souza. It wasn’t the first Trump pardon to raise eyebrows: he pardoned Dick Cheney’s convicted chief of staff, Scooter Libby, racist Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, as well as boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was truly abused by the legal system and is long dead. There is every indication Trump is just warming up to his use of his pardon authority: other names being floated include Martha Stewart, who lied to federal investigators, and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich who, well, was just behaving like most Illinois governors.

Moreover, Trump has a rich stable of candidates for potential pardons down the road should they learn from his pardons of unapologetic felons and keep their mouths shut when prosecutors come nosing around: Paul Manafort, looking at decades in the slammer; Michael Cohen (who knows how many centuries they could put him away for?); even Don, Jr., for colluding with the Russians. It would be surprising if all of them weren’t longingly gazing at Trump’s pardon pen; the poor guy could get a powerful case of writer’s cramp just signing the formal documents!

The nice thing about the pardon is that the President doesn’t need to ask Congress to approve it, and Congress can’t undo it either; nor can the courts review it, as they can executive orders. This power is pretty much absolute and unreviewable; you could say it’s on the (White) House.

Except it isn’t supposed to be that simple. For while the pardon power clearly belongs to the president, there is a bit more to the pardon process than is being reported in press accounts of the D’Souza pardon. I know, because I actually spent months in 1998-2000 working through the complexities of the pardon process on behalf of a truly deserving, very elderly Navy veteran who had been railroaded into prison during World War II on a fallacious charge of mutiny.

Unlike the Trump pardon frenzy, Congressman George Miller followed  the pardon process as established in the Department of Justice and the White House. We spoke with the Pardon Attorney, we talked with the White House Counsel, we helped engage a pro bono attorney to work with the gentleman, Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, to thoroughly research the background of the case, the trial and appeal (in which Meeks was represented by NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Thurgood Marshall, among others). Meeks’ life during the half century since his release from prison was carefully scrutinized (standard practice  in regular pardon cases) to ensure he had lived honorably and within the law. And only then, after months of careful review, was a pardon granted.

Now not all pardons go through that formal procedure; indeed, not even all pardons by Bill Clinton endured the detailed scrutiny of the Pardon Attorney, sd in the scandalous pardon of international financier and fugitive Marc Rich, which Rep. Burton insisted that Congress investigate. But Trump, by forgiving the utterly unrepentant, without any deference to the vetting process, has reduced the pardon procedure to a mockery, the same effect he seems to have on everything, and everyone, he touches.