The Deeply Disturbing Implications of the Washington Post Story of the Inadequate US Response to Russian Hacking, and a Long Term Proposal

It is almost impossible to force oneself to read the Washington Post’s brilliant reporting of the US failure to respond adequately to the Russian election-related hacking.

However, attention must be paid, and the implications go far further than judgements about the Obama administration, that I am sure will go well explored in classic blame the victim manner.

First,  I think we have to admit that the current situation of a largely unpunished and undeterred coup/attack on the US has to be broadly blamed on the entire political process in the US.  While the lack of response, either public or covert, is hard to defend either now, or then, it has to be seen as in part the product of the hyper-politicization of foreign policy.  The Obama administration was operating in a toxic environment in which any honest reporting or respect was, and would be thrown back in the face of the government and the electorate, without any concern for considerations other than short term victory.   The administration could not ignore the reality of that environment.

That must be recognized as a product of Trump active encouragement of hacking, of his trivialization of any reporting, and of his contempt for truth.  The enablers carry as much if not more of the blame.

Second, we must be honest about where we are.  We no longer can be confident that the American people control our own fates through the political process.  It was and has to be assumed to be about to be again, another Pearl Harbor.  (That the US has its own long bi-partisan history of interference in other counties electoral, and political processes, not to mention coups, does not make this any less serious, it only makes it harder to defeat.)  Given the massive reluctance of Trump to take this threat in any way seriously, or even to recognize the risks of the legitimacy this has already lost him, we can have no faith that the governmental system will protect us against more and worse future surrenders of control.  (If Trump is forced out, as I strongly believe he has to be, and will be, this last is no longer true, but issues of trust and legitimacy will long remain.)

Finally, we have to build a new layer of institutions that protect the integrity of our political system regardless of short term interest.  For a start, I can imagine a Commission led by prior presidents, with an independent staff, with direct access to the intelligent services.  The Commission would have a mandate to issue public reports, including on the credibility of challenges to our democratic electoral system, and to publicly and privately urge actions of all kinds, thereby making it easier for presidents to take needed actions without being effectively accused of putting partisan interests first.  While hacking will be one part of the charter of duties, all forms of foreign interference and collusion will need to be included.

The problem, as always, and as we learned in the cold war, is that is is almost impossible to give groups power that is not democratically constrained without then in fact surrendering democracy to those powers.  In the absence of the consensus of  the cold war years, the need is even greater than it was then, and the risks are far greater.

It is a measure of what Trump and his enablers have wrought, and what his opponents have failed to do, that we now face this choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Rants From The Madman”

Famously, when Jimmy Carter was president, the Boston Globe “accidentally” ran a headline over an editorial that read: “Mush From the Wimp.”  There was no Internet to make it go viral, but today surely it would.

Today, to label Trump’s tweets as “rants from the madman” seems almost an understatement, and there is already plenty of obvious commentary.  So here are some addition questions:

When will be start seeing resignations from the national security team?

Is the legal team now obliged to formally withdraw representations that they have made to the Fourth, and Ninth Circuits, and to the Supreme Court.  Remember, lawyers can not make affirmative mis-representations to a court.

Will we see resignations from the Solicitor General’s Office, or just an inability to find staff to do the work?

Is there any chance that the Supreme Court will now grant review in the “travel Ban case.”  The risk of them being dissed during the process, such as after hearing, or after decision, is great.  If I were Roberts, I would take no action till the Ninth Circuit agrees with the Fourth (as it surely will), and then see if I have seven or more votes to put the President firmly in his place.  If not, I would do nothing, at least till there is a split from another Circuit.  I do not see how the Court can afford to be seen to be baling Trump out after today.  And, a 5-4 either way would be an absolute institutional disaster for the Court (US v. Nixon was 9-0).

Does the almost systematic dissing of one cabinet member after another mean that a 25th Amendment majority is starting to build up?  What is Pence thinking tonight.

Many previously loyal Republican commentators seem numb tonight.  Republican politicians have fallen largely quiet.  When will they start raising issues of Presidential inability to do the job? 

Finally, whatever else you can say, you can not argue with the fact that each week, things move faster an faster.   Things that would, the prior week, have seemed crazy to suggest, actually happen.

Our brains are lagging indicators.  Like any tipping point, when it comes, it will come quicker than we can possibly expect.

 

What’s the “Humanity First” Response to a Likely Paris Agreement Withdrawal

The maybe unreliable chatter today is that Trump will, one way or another, pull the US out of the plant-saving Paris agreement.  This will surely be a tipping point in the world order, if not the future of the planet and humanity.  Certainly the most important decision the US has made in my adult lfetime.  It is as if the US had withdrawn from the League of Nations, rather than just failed to join it.

But the question then becomes what should everyone, and I mean everyone, do to put “humanity first.”  Some suggestions:

If you can, buy goods made in states that are making every effort to comply with Paris goals.  The less industrial activity in non-compliant states, the lower the emissions.

If you can not make a US “Humanity First” purchase, consider buying goods made in countries that are still committed to meeting the Paris goals.  (Yes, its hard to boycott your own country, and there will be political blow-back, but surely it is the logical thing to do.  After all, lessened industrial activity in the US will reduce emissions.

Make investment decisions based on companies, states’ and countries’ efforts to support the Paris goals.

Encourage organizations to make their decisions on the same criteria. 

Obviously, give to advocacy organizations, particularly international ones.

Accelerate your planting and environmental plans, personally and organizationally.

Remember this could be a tipping point for the planet.  Think of it as a slow moving Cuban Missile Crisis in which we can all influence the outcome.  (For those who remember, think Yenching Palace for all of us — talking of genuine back channels.)

 

 

Thoughts On Intent in Government Enactments

It seems to me that most f the discussion about the role of intent in analyzing the legality of government actions has been pretty fuzzy.  So let me offer some thoughts. Of course, this issue has come up most dramatically in the context of the appropriately nicknamed “Muslim Ban,” but obviously it is highly relevant to many actions in a time such as this in which every branch of government (except maybe the Supreme Court) is dominated by one party, in this case one with a long history of “dog whistling.”

One way of structuring the inquiry is to focus on where  and when the greatest dangers occur from refusing to look beyond the face of an enactment to find illegal intent.

Probably the greatest danger of completely hidden intent occurs when the action is taken by one person or entity.  Had the “Muslim Ban” been enacted through a legislative or even a regulatory process, then the evidence of intent would have come out in the back and forth.  While that evidence might have been rejected in a challenge, because the court would have relied on the supposed facial neutrality of the enactment, none the less the evidence would have been there for all to see.   So Executive Orders are an area of particular risk.

Different kinds of evidence of intent are not only of different probative value, but their being ignored can cause different kinds of harm.  Thus, ignoring statistical evidence of harm means that harmful enactments go into force, but do not necessarily represent a public endorsement of the illegal result.  On the other hand, ignoring the clear evidence of the statements of Trump and his “gang” of their goals, sends a strong public message that those goals are in fact allowed and not forbidden.  That is a terrible message.

Moreover, while the general discussion of this topic has suggested that campaign statements are less worthy of consideration in looking at intent, it may be that the harm in ignoring them is even greater than the harm in ignoring post election statements.  The reason is that ignoring such campaign statements of a winner tells the protected minority and politicians that it is acceptable to use discriminatory appeals to win elections is OK — and that those promises can be kept.  Is there anything worse in the entwining of race with elections and government?

So my general conclusion would be that clear evidence of illegal intent should always be relevant, but that the weight of the evidence should depend on a) the nexus between the person making the statement and their role in the enactment, and b)the extent to which the statement of intent increases the harm of legitimizing the illegality of the action.

 

 

 

 

 

If They Can not Control Trump While He is Cocooned, How Are The Intelligence Services Going to Keep The Secrets That Trump Knows Secure After He Leaves the White House — However and Whenever That May Turn Out to Be?

If I were a senior executive at Langley (CIA) or in the Hoover Building (FBI), I would not only be wondering how to keep the removal momentum going, but I would also be starting to think about how the endgame has to be structured to keep a “liberated” Trump from doing even worse damage after he is no longer in the White House.  Its going to be a problem however and whenever he finally leaves.

If we have seen anything in the last four months, it is that even a Trump with a rational national security staff around him all the time, and a secret service that can keep him away from most people, can do immense damage to our national security interests.  (“I never said Israel.”)

Take those, and the rest of the cocoon away, and literally anything can happen.  Here are three general possible approaches.

Approach One – Ongoing Cocooning:  Make sure that the end game plays out so that Trump remains under cocooned.  The only sure ways to do that are to imprison him, or put him in a mental institution.  There are likely already grounds for either.

Approach Two – Threatened Cocooning:  Create massive incentives to ongoing compliance.  I.e. have him so that he understands that approach one is triggered if he crosses certain lines.  I do not think that is likely to be reliable.

Approach Three – Information deprivation:  Make sure, starting now, that he really does not know anything that can do any harm.  For all we know, his briefings may well already be carefully structured with this in mind.  Indeed, after this trip, I am not sure it is not professional malpractice to tell him anything that is both true and secret.

The benefits of approach one (ongoing cocooning) accrue to many beyond the intelligence community, so that may well be the one chosen path, if only because it will be easier to build a behind the scenes consensus for the approach.

But following the approach of “stifle and isolate,” maybe it is safer to combine one (cocooning) and three (information deprivation).  The advantage of number three is that the public and the base need never learn of it.

These are such unusual times, that you do not have to be a rabid conspiracy theorist to be thinking along these lines.  I can imagine that many would see it as their duty.

This May All Be Over Much Quicker Than Anyone Expects

There are several reasons why the received wisdom about the speed of the Trump removal process may be completely wrong.  Not surprisingly, most of the reasons relate as much to the political as to the legal context.

One:  Perhaps most importantly, unlike in prior impeachment situations, even this early, almost everyone in Washington really wants Trump gone.  There are literally only about 50 people for whom this is not true.  The difference between the parties this year is that the Democrats are not upset when people figure it out, but the Republicans are terrified about their base doing so.  (When the Republicans say they want to get all the facts out about malfeasance on their side, you know the subject of the investigation is in deep trouble.)

Two:  A prima facie case of obstruction of justice by President Trump has already been made out, most of it from his own statements and admissions.  This comes from his firing of Comey, his statement that he performed the firing because of his feelings about the Russia investigation, his statement to the Russians that he (and they) have gained from what he believed to be the successful firing.  While that alone is probably enough, there will be plenty more.  This could go to a grand jury very quickly.

Three:  This time round, no one seems to be suggesting any barriers, such as Executive Privilege or National Security, to getting the information quickly.  This is in very marked contrast to 1972 – 1974, when it took well over a year to resolve the barriers.  I think the main reason is listed in number one  above, that no one wants to protect Trump, it is just that one party does not want that fact to be too obvious.  It is also partly that Trump has waived many of the legal issues by his tweeting and statements.  I think it is less the reason for the absence of such privilege claims that the legal issues have already been resolved — US v. Nixon gave Nixon no outs, but clever lawyers have since then, with a sympathetic audience been able to find new arguments — it’s just that there is no such sympathetic audience outside the immediate Trump family and their hangers on.

Four:  It really does not matter whether a President can be indicted or not.  You just charge a conspiracy to obstruct justice, name the President as an un-indicted co-conspirator, and get all the information to Congress.  This is what happened with Nixon, in that case with the permission of the judge overseeing the grand jury (the now largely forgotten hero John Sirica.)

Five:  In today’s digital environment, not only is there additional evidence everywhere, but the process of finding and putting it in the right order will move much quicker.  In the Watergate investigation it look months to get all the interlocking evidence hand typed onto sorted color-coded index cards.  The timeline can be ready for grand jury presentation soon.

Six:  If they can get rid of Trump, the Republicans want it done as fast as possible.  This is because the other prong of the investigation, the one dealing with the underlying Russia collusion, is going to take much longer, but if successful, it is potentially much much more damaging to the legitimacy of Republican power.  If by the time we get a new President it is clear that the Democrats should or might have won without the collusion, the pressure on Pence to offer the Vice Presidency to Tim Kaine will be immense, and we will be in a period of coalition government.  If the Republicans do not accept something like this, they will be killed at the next election, whether midterms or the presidential.  Even if they do accept it, much of their radical agenda is gone.

So, almost all the rational incentives align in the same direction.

The only questions are whether the Republicans can figure this out, and if the Democrats want and are able to, can figure out how to take advantage of the alignment.

Actually, the main reason I now think that impeachment is the more likely route is that Republicans do not have to be the ones obviously triggering the process, at least until very near the end of the game.  In contrast, if they used the 25th Amendment, it would basically Republicans starting and managing the process.

But, that choice of remedy analysis assumes that new bombshell inherently destructive of Trump’s relationship with his core base comes out — and that might happen tomorrow at 5 PM.  Tax returns, anyone.

 

 

 

What Does Trump’s Assetion That the Democrats Should Have Won the Election Mean?

Yesterday, in his astonishing interview with NBC News: (NYT link)

Mr. Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News. “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”

What on earth does that mean?

  • That the American people support Democratic policies,
  • That the Democratic demographic advantage is overwhelming,
  • That the Republicans do not have good candidates,
  • That he was an unappealing candidate?
  • That he did not expect to win,
  • That he knows he is unready to be President?

Or, I suppose, it could just be that he is getting inside their minds and saying that the Democrats think that they should have won.  Frankly, that’s a psychological distinction too far for me to attribute to Trump.

Anyway, as things spin more and more out of control, as I am sure they will, we will have many more opportunities to observe and analyze Trump’s mental functioning, perhaps as authorized under the 25th Amendment.