2020:   A Republic If You Can Keep It – Part 1

Steve Bannon once held forth that the agenda of the Trump Administration is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In its place he envisioned a no-holds-barred nationalistic capitalism, grounded in a medieval Christianity – waging war against secularism and Islam.

As time goes on, however, it has become clear that President Trump has something else in mind, which is more of a subordination of the administrative state, to impose an authoritarian regime in thrall to Dear Leader Donald Trump. Trump has made no bones about his admiration for autocrats and dictators, and his contempt for the limitations imposed by the rule of law. With William Barr running interference at the DOJ, Trump has aggressively embraced the notion of the unitary executive, declaring the Constitution gives him the “right to do whatever I want,” and insisting that he has “absolute immunity” from any constraints or oversight by Congress.

For an in-depth review of the systematic campaign to corrupt and subjugate our government to the personal whims of Dear Leader Trump, read George Packer’s brilliant article “The President is Winning His War on American Institutions.” The bottom line: Trump’s campaign to impose autocracy is producing a steady elimination of expertise across government, and the rise of incompetence.

The administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been instructive. After having previously decimated the government’s pandemic response team, the administration’s response to the outbreak has been to first (and continuously) downplay the threat, then claim it’s a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats to “take down” the President, threaten anyone who differs from this messaging, pressure the Fed for a rate cut (a rate cut!!), demand that health experts get approval from the White House for any public statements, and warn military commanders not to “surprise” Trump with virus guidance to the troops.

This fiasco has rendered the established pandemic containment protocol useless, with the inevitable result that the spread will be far worse than it could have been. At press time, 2 months after the first documented U.S. case, testing, essential to controlling the outbreak, is still not generally available.

To date, the damage done by Trump’s campaign for autocracy has been extensive, both to our democratic traditions and institutions, and to America’s reputation and standing in the world. Domestic matters might be repairable at this point, if Trump is held to one term. But if Trump is re-elected, I think the Republic is finished.

America’s place in the world, however, will never be the same. That is not entirely a bad thing. The end of Pax Americana was coming anyway, but it could have unfolded with some semblance of honor and respect for, and from, our allies.

The last Risk & Opportunity newsletter – Donald Trump: The Chaos President – has proven to be remarkably prescient, and is worth reviewing. As noted in that letter, Yale historian Timothy Snyder predicted that Trump would attempt a coup, and he appears to be doing just that.

The “Russia Thing”

From the first days of the Trump administration, and the revelation that Russia had been involved in efforts to help elect Donald Trump, the “Russia thing” has been the elephant in the room, hanging like an ominous cloud over Trump and his administration.

Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, explicitly over “this Russia thing,” resulted in the appointment of Robert Mueller as a Special Counsel to investigate the matter.
Trump then spent the next two years making sure nobody forgot about it, daily attacking Mueller, the “deep state,” the FBI, and anyone involved with the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, insisting that they are “traitors” and “scum,” involved in an attempted “coup.” Update: The DOJ Inspector General has formally put a stake in the heart of all this nonsense.

Then there was the notorious Helsinki press conference where Trump emerged from a 2 hour one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin, from which he reportedly confiscated and destroyed his translator’s notes, and proceeded to take Putin’s side against U.S. intelligence agencies regarding Russia’s meddling in the election.

Trump’s actions, tweets and comments have continuously kept the issue lively, and have done nothing to allay suspicion that there is something more than fishy about his relationship with Vladimir Putin.

The unresolved question was, and remains: was Trump “colluding” with Russia in its efforts to help him get elected President?

The Mueller Report

Robert Mueller’s heart was clearly not in his task. You can’t really blame him. After all, what patriotic American wants to be the person trying to prove that the President of the United States is essentially a traitor?

For 2 years, Mueller conducted the investigation in near total secrecy, with only court filings for the press to divine what he was up to. Other than the report itself, there were no leaks, no press releases and no public statements whatsoever until the end, when he sent a letter to William Barr to take issue with Barr’s misrepresentation of The Report.

In the end, the Mueller Report threaded the needle, documenting all manner of unsavory and illegal activities by the Trump Campaign and the President himself, while refusing to pass judgment, thus giving the President the opportunity to put the “Russia thing” behind him.

Volume I of the Report focused on the question of “collusion,” or more precisely, “conspiracy” of the Campaign with the Russian government, documenting “numerous links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” and the mutual appreciation of each camp for the activities of the other.

The Introduction states: “[While] the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities…A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts,” noting that inability to secure evidence and gain testimony from certain individuals, including the President, contributed to the final assessment.

Mueller allowed Trump to stiff-arm him on the request for testimony, deciding that it would be too much trouble and time consuming to try to force him to testify, ultimately accepting Trump’s rather laughable written answers to a negotiated set of questions. Trump responded “I do not remember” 3o times in his answers, with no follow up.

The investigation also “applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion,’” and gave Donald Jr. a pass on that basis for organizing the notorious Trump Tower meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. They decided Junior probably didn’t realize he was breaking the law (too dumb to prosecute?), and therefore they couldn’t prove “intent,” a central element of conspiracy.

So, off the hook on “collusion,” but not exactly a vindication either.

Volume II, which focused on obstruction of justice, reads like an indictment on 10 separate instances of obstruction, without actually making the charge. Handling the matter delicately, the Introduction states:

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgement…Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The Mueller “witch hunt,” as the president calls it, filed 34 indictments and has so far secured seven convictions of Team Trumpers, including Trump’s Campaign Manager, Deputy Campaign Manager, National Security Advisor, and personal attorney; but Mueller refused to drive the case home, accepting the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel opinion that he was not allowed to indict a sitting president, and left it to Congress to pick up the case, which it has been unwilling to do.

Predictably, Trump claimed total vindication. “No collusion; no obstruction.” A total lie (just one of literally thousands). But again, Mueller refused to push back.

But the unfinished business of the Russia investigation, and the inability of the president to leave it alone, eventually brought us full circle to…

The “Russia Thing” Part II – Impeachment

On December 18, 2019 the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress. It will be useful to set this historic event in context.

Republicans have complained that impeachment was a continuation of the Russia investigation. They are not wrong about that. The “high crimes and misdemeanors” that brought about the impeachment of the president were a direct continuation of his efforts to discredit the perception that he was the beneficiary of Russian efforts during the 2016 election. This Washington Post article summarizes how the Russia investigation led to the Ukraine pressure campaign, and impeachment.

Trump’s insistence on trying to spin Russian efforts on his behalf in 2016 into something other than what it was, led him to send Rudy Giuliani and his band of misfits off to Ukraine to promote a Russian propaganda campaign that it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 election, not Russia, and to pressure the Ukrainian president to announce an investigation targeting Joe Biden and his son Hunter, using $400 million in military aid as leverage until the investigation was announced. Russia experts in the State Department have made it clear that the notion that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in our election is straight up Russian propaganda.

House Democrats, who had been reluctant to impeach Trump based on the abuses documented in the Mueller Report, were shocked by this blatant abuse of power and took up the cause. So Donald Trump, caught in the act of a shakedown by virtue of an alarmed whistleblower, became the third American president to be impeached.

One would think that status would be somewhat chastening, but one would be wrong. Since the Senate voted to acquit him, Trump has been on a tear, rage tweeting about the “Russia hoax” and the “deep state,” purging administration employees suspected of insufficient loyalty to the president and taking vengeance on those who testified in the impeachment hearings, issuing pardons to a who’s who of corrupt businessmen and politicians, and attacking DOJ prosecutors, the judge and even the jury foreman in the trial of his friend Roger Stone for obstruction of justice and witness tampering related to the Mueller investigation.

Is the President a Russian asset? Sadly, it’s a fair question. The NY Times published a piece titled, “With Trump, All Roads Lead to Moscow.” In an October, 2019 White House meeting, Nancy Pelosi famously pointed her finger at Trump, stating “All roads with you lead to Putin.” Rick Wilson, Republican strategist and author of “Running Against the Devil: The Plot to Save America From Trump – and Democrats From Themselves” believes that when all the facts come out, as they inevitably will, Donald Trump will replace Benedict Arnold as the greatest traitor in American history.

As if to make clear his fealty to Putin and drive the point home, in the midst of impeachment proceedings, Trump invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the Oval Office for an unprecedented photo-op in the Oval Office. Russia TV covered the meeting with a segment entitled “Puppet Master and ‘Agent’—How to Understand Lavrov’s Meeting With Trump,” featuring a photo of Trump sitting at the Resolute desk, with Lavrov at his right, as the “power behind the throne.” Among other disparaging comments, they joked about offering Trump asylum when Democrats come back to power.

It should be noted that Russian media would never publish such a provocative segment without Kremlin approval. Putin seems to take delight in periodically humiliating Trump. And yet the ever caustic tweeter-in-chief who so loves to “punch back” whenever he is challenged or criticized, has never uttered a negative word about Putin. One has to wonder, what compromat does Putin have on Trump that Trump allows Putin to humiliate him like this?

If you want to understand the phenomenon of compromat, read Bill Browder’s “Red Notice,” a well told true story of corruption and murder in Putin’s Russia.

Increasingly, loyalty is also a fair question regarding the Republican party. Their willingness during impeachment proceedings to knowingly promote Russian propaganda in support of the president is disturbing. See “The Russification of the Republican Party.” Subsequently, at the same time the president has launched an assault on the intelligence community over reports that Russia is again meddling in the 2020 election, Senate Republicans have blocked three election security bills.

Without Honor

Given Trump’s character and history, it’s not really a big surprise that he would put his own interests ahead of those of the country. It would have been more surprising if he didn’t. What has really been the big surprise, and disappointment, is how completely the Republican Party has fallen in behind Trump – an authoritarian demagogue who is the antithesis of traditional Republican values. And for what? Tax cuts and conservative judges? Really? Any Republican president with a Republican congress would have delivered those things.

Upon further reflection, however, especially in light of Republican efforts to suppress the vote during the 2018 election (e.g. Kansas & Georgia), and to nullify election losses in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina, it becomes clear that this subordination to Trump is of a piece with the trend of Republican behavior over the last 30 years, which has been increasingly anti-democratic, post-truth, and dedicated to maintaining power at any price. This Vice piece by Harry Cheadle sums it up.

If Obama had done any one of 100s of egregious things that Trump has done, Republicans would have been leading a civil insurrection. The hypocrisy has risen to a level where the term doesn’t do justice. Maybe betrayal is the right word.

As Max Boot put it, “I, too, am soul-weary and incredulous that so many Republicans who are “in many ways good people” could become imitators and enablers of the most dishonest and corrupt president in U.S. history.”

Many Republicans have just decided to retire rather than surrender to the cult of Trump. Charlie Dent stated the matter plainly upon his retirement from Congress in 2018: “The litmus test for being a Republican these days is not about any given set of ideals or principles; it’s about loyalty to the man, and I think that’s challenging.”

Jeff Flake gave an eloquent speech upon announcing his retirement, appealing to traditional Republican values, and lamenting the current state of the party. It’s a shame he couldn’t find it in himself to stand more firmly for those principles while in office. Here is a letter from a grieving Republican, and same from Time magazine.

Adam Schiff’s closing statement at the impeachment trial, and Mitt Romney’s statement explaining his vote to convict Trump of abuse of power, are eloquent expressions of the noble ideals of self-governance and public service that have guided America from the founding.

Contrast these high-minded appeals and lamentations with the utter nonsense on display from House Republicans in the impeachment hearings – shameful and embarrassing conflations of conspiracy theories and Russian propaganda, deliberate distractions which completely avoided the actual substance of the charges, followed by personal attacks on honorable, non-partisan public servants. They seemed to think that disrupting the proceedings by shouting and displaying contempt made their nonsense more relevant.

As for the substance of the charges against the president, take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president, a political novice elected in a landslide to take on corruption and Russian influence. Imagine his disbelief and distress when his most important benefactor – the United States, the “essential nation,” the “shining city on a hill,” the inspiration and hope of oppressed people everywhere – demanded his complicity in a Russian disinformation campaign to support a corrupt American President in order to get promised and desperately needed military aid.

Read Franklin Foer’s Atlantic piece, “The Betrayal of Volodymyr Zelensky”: “Before Trump, oligarchs felt relatively defenseless in the face of American efforts to strip corruption from the Ukrainian judicial system…The new U.S. president presented the possibility of salvation for the corrupt. Here was an American leader who operated in the style of an oligarch, who wanted to use the legal system to wound his political rivals.”

Summing up, Ross Douthat – the conservative NY Time columnist – brings the issue into focus:

Fiona Hill…warned members of the House Intelligence Committee that they ran the risk of themselves falling victims to “politically driven falsehoods,” regarding a bogus theory about Ukrainian political interference, “that so clearly advance Russian interests.”

Yet the person who is both the principal consumer and purveyor of those falsehoods is the president of the United States, just as he has been a purveyor of so many other conspiracy theories.

Even now, this should astound us. It doesn’t, because we’ve been living in a country undergoing its own dismal process of Ukrainianization: of treating fictions as facts; and propaganda as journalism; and political opponents as criminals; and political offices as business ventures; and personal relatives as diplomatic representatives; and legal fixers as shadow cabinet members; and extortion as foreign policy; and toadyism as patriotism; and fellow citizens as “human scum”; and mortal enemies as long-lost friends — and then acting as if all this is perfectly normal. This is more than a high crime. It’s a clear and present danger to our security, institutions, and moral hygiene.

It’s to the immense credit of ordinary Ukrainians that, in fighting Russian aggression in the field and fighting for better governance in Kyiv, they have shown themselves worthy of the world’s support. And it’s to the enduring shame of the Republican Party that they have been willing to debase our political standards to the old Ukrainian level just when Ukrainians are trying to rise to our former level.

Republicans, having given Trump their full-throated approval for his abuses, are now all-in with him as he tramples on our values and traditions, and attempts to impose banana Republican autocratic rule.

I recently watched the History channel special “Washington – Father of His Country.” It was rather shocking to be confronted with the contrast with our current president, who is the polar opposite of George Washington in every way. Our heritage is at stake in this election.