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.

 

If Pre-President Trump Does Not Know the Limits, What Will Post-President Trump do?

So, Trump (or at least his most trusted advisor) felt it OK to act as a President, and go around his own intelligence agencies to create a secret channel to an adversary, what will he do after being President?

Set up his own private channel?

Continue to leak secrets from our allies (no, post presidents do not have the declassification power.)

Alienate allies regardless of cost?

Use his reputation to increase the value of licensing his name?

“Take this plane to Moscow?”

Have taxpayers continue to finance his buildings, his travel, and his security?

Undercut his successor has he has tried to do his predecessor?

Bottom line.  There has to be a strategy to keep him under tight control.

 

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.

 

 

 

There is a Remedy For Gross Errors in Presidential Judgment that are Not Explicitly Forbidden By Law. Do Not Let the Republicans Off that Hook

Trump’s recent behavior, in which he engages in acts that show an absolute absence of appropriate presidential judgment might well not constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors,” for which impeachment is the remedy.

It is largely ignored right now, because of Republic cowardice, but there is a component in the constitutional scheme that does plug that gap, and it is the 25th amendment, triggered by a determination that:

“the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office

Now, triggering that process does require the certification of the Vice President and the majority of the cabinet, so its a stretch right now, but at some point so much damage will become clear that the president is “unable.”

Perhaps most importantly, a failure by Pence and others to make use of their power might ultimately become an additional major political liability, as the obvious costs of the US and the world increase.  So it important to keep drawing attention to it.

The Republicans are in a narrower and narrower vice.  Lets make sure they are held to it.

 

 

 

 

An Additional Example of The Breakdown of Nation State Autonomy– White House staff and Trudeau

At one level, this is astonishing. From The Hill.

White House officials enlisted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help convince President Trump not to unilaterally withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), according to a Monday report.

The unique and potentially embarrassing approach, which was first reported by Canada’s National Post, apparently worked. Following phone calls with Trudeau and Mexican President Peña Nieto, Trump backed off of reported plans to pull out of NAFTA last month.

Instead, Trump announced that he would renegotiate the 23-year-old deal agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

I am sure this will draw attention mainly as yet another example of the dysfunction of the White House and its nominal occupant.

But the idea that the staff of a nation’s chief executive would find it appropriate to bring in as an ally the chief executive of another country to change their own bosses mind is in fact merely symptomatic of the fact that today the real disputes are between loose alliances of elites whose loyalties and communications now cross national boundaries.

It is related to the interest of foreign countries in state by state politics in the US, is reflected in part by Flynn, and whoever else is ultimately implicated in “Russiagate,” (what did the President know, and when did he know it?) not thinking through what they did.  It is surely also reflected in the myriad state department staff who have tried to reassure elites among our allies that we are not yet as unpredictable as monitoring twitter might suggest.  Think about the conversations between Brussels officials and the British Civil Service right now.  Or between Bannon and LePenn.

At least arguably, the problem for Flynn, and whoever, is not that they had conversations, but that they made no distinctions between our friends and our allies, or rather that their actions reflected a lack of understanding that there is a distinction.

The fact is that as national interests become more and more interconnected, this is an almost inevitable process.  The questions are how to manage it so that the interests of the excluded are not even more abandoned, and how to see this as part of the process of creating trans-national institutions and governments.  Would the United States ever have been established if the leaders of the thirteen states had not already somewhat  known each other, and known whom they could trust.

We need very new ways of thinking about this.