The Trump Chronicles, Volume 108: Scott Pruitt, Swampmaster

President Trump famously ran on a belief that he would drain the swamp. And while I’ve written that draining swamps is a bad idea, it’s become a popular anthem.

There’s no standard definition of what “draining the swamp” means, I think we can all agree that the administration is going after those they believe aren’t serving us well. They come to Washington under the guise of serving us, but instead enrich themselves at our expense. They serve themselves instead of serving us.

Enter Scott Pruitt. President Trump nominated him to run the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency founded by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970. He came to Washington with the intent of undoing many of the regulations put in place by President Obama but that’s not what I choose to write about.

Instead, he clearly used his position to enrich himself. The EPA director makes $210,654 per year and there are a few perks. Previous EPA directors have had little or no protection, but Mr. Pruitt demanded a large detail. There’s an excellent article here. It describes how he pulled EPA employees away from their jobs to protect him even though they had no training in this.

But it goes further:

  • He attempted to leverage his position to give his wife a Chick Fil A franchise
  • He ordered the construction of a soundproof phone booth in his office and charged taxpayers $43,000 for it.
  • He insisted on flying first class in clear violation of government policy. He argued that this was done for security reasons and claimed it wasn’t his idea. It appears that some of his seatmates were mean to him.
  • While we expect our representatives in Congress to spend time in their districts, members of the executive branch are expected to live here. Instead of finding an apartment in Washington, he paid $50 per night for a room at the home of the wife of an energy lobbyist. By the way, he fell behind on those payments
  • Mr. Pruitt’s primary residence is in Oklahoma and everyone understands that he might want to go home from time to time. But instead of paying his own way back he found way to make taxpayers pay for it. He told his aide Kevin Chmielewski to “find me something to do” that would make these trips official business. When Mr. Chmeilewski objected, Mr. Pruitt fired him.
  • His travel at taxpayer expense took him to places other than Oklahoma. Last year he traveled to Morocco. The article shows that the trip was set up by a lobbyist for Morocco, and this lobbyist was later offered a job at EPA. He also went to Italy where he spent most of his time as a tourist

Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Trump, and much of the Republican Party argue that he was hounded from his job because he was too good at what he did. He lost his job because he used his position to enrich himself. This is one part of the swamp I don’t mind draining.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 107: That Pesky 14th Amemndment

A few days ago President Trump tweeted that those who enter the United States without documentation should be immediately deported without appearing before a judge. There’s only one problem with that: the Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. Here’s what it says:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Two years ago next month then candidate Trump was asked if he has read the Constitution by the father of slain soldier Captain Humayun Khan. Clearly he has not. So Mr. Trump, let me school you.

This first section of the amendment is often called the “Due Process Clause.” This amendment became part of the Constitution on July 28, 1868 in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery but that didn’t go far enough. The Fourteenth insured that the newly freed slaves were granted citizenship by virtue of being born in the United States, but the amendment went further. It states that “any person” in the United States is protected from having life, liberty or property taken without due process. Not just citizens. Not just those here with documentation. Not just people we like. Not just people who look like us. Any person means just that: any person.

The president wants us to believe that those who come to our country without documentation want to hurt or destroy us. He’s a liar. Those who show up at our border are fleeing violence in their home countries. They are fleeing abusive relationships, drug violence, or worse. They want nothing more than a chance to live in a nation that protects everyone, that allows them to work hard to give their children better than they have. They seek the very things we take for granted. You can read an excellent article here about those seeking asylum.

We are a generous nation who has welcomed the ancestors of nearly everyone who reads this blog. This nation accepted all my ancestors who came here from Canada and Ireland. I live the American dream because of them. I pray they are proud of what I’ve been able to do.

And I suspect the president’s ancestors are horrified by him.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 106: Going After Children? Really?

From the first day of his campaign President Trump has found traction in claiming that immigrants are ruining our country. From chanting the need to “build the wall” to claiming that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers he’s said these things not because they are remotely true, but because people cheer at his rallies. It’s become wearying for those of us who care about the truth.

But now we’re seeing this ratcheted up to a whole new level. People who are fleeing violence in their own countries risk life and limb to come to the United States in the hopes of applying for asylum. Historically we’ve mostly been a safe haven for people fleeing violence and oppression. Overwhelmingly these asylum seekers have become Americans and have enriched our nation (take the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s).

But nothing matters to this president more than the adulation of his base and in recent days he has demanded that families who arrive without documentation be separated from each other and children be removed from their parents’ arms.

To his credit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted that this policy intends to discourage families from coming here. In other words he wants our government to be a greater terrorist threat than Central American gangs.

But not President Trump. His ongoing insistence to claim credit for things he didn’t do and duck responsibility for things he did is back. When asked about his zero tolerance policy he attempted to blame the Democrats.

In other words, “Don’t blame me. I’m only enforcing the laws.” That’s nonsense. Law enforcement always allows discretion. A murderer pleas guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. A police officer lets a speeder go with a warning.

Let me quote this from the New York Times on June 16, 2018:

In fact, there is no law that requires families to be separated at the border. There is a law against “improper entry” at the border, as well as a consent decree known as the Flores settlement that limits to 20 days the amount of time that migrant children may be held in immigration detention, which a federal judge ruled in 2016 also applies to families. A 2008 anti-trafficking statute — signed into law by a Republican president, George W. Bush — also requires that certain unaccompanied alien minors be transferred out of immigration detention in 72 hours. None of those laws or precedents mean that children must be taken away from their parents.

The first rule of the bully’s playbook is this: only bully those who can’t fight back. It’s hard to imagine a group less likely to fight back than families and fleeing violence. Mr. President, I hope you’re proud of yourself.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 105: This Is Chamberlain and Hitler All Over Again

This past week we saw something most of us never expected: United States President Donald Trump met with Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. By any measure this meeting was important as North Korea (and its allies China and Russia) has been at war with South Korea (and its allies, including the United States) since 1950. In 1953 a cease fire was declared but there was never a peace treaty. US Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama have wanted to declare peace but it’s never happened. This conflict found new urgency when North Korea announced in 2003 that it had developed nuclear weapons. Since then American Presidents Bush and Obama have struggled to find a way to deal with a dictatorship that willingly starves its own people in its quest to bully the rest of the world.

In the transition between administrations President Obama told President elect Trump that North Korea’s nuclear threat would be the most urgent problem he’d face. President Trump looked on this as his biggest opportunity for greatness. And to be fair, even those of us who have never supported President Trump would celebrate if he could end this conflict and bring North Korea into the 21st Century. We don’t want his people to continue to starve and we don’t want them to be led by a leader who craves a place at the adult table more than anything else.

These two leaders met and both came away from the meeting declaring victory. But here’s the problem: President Trump announced that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat. But their signed agreement falls much shorter than the rhetoric. Both parties agreed to a remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula but it gives no timetable or ability to verify. Many of us find this problematic because North Korea has broken this promise before. Meanwhile, President Trump promised to cancel annual joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea in the event of North Korea aggression (even using the North Korean term “war games”).

So here’s the takeaway: Kim made a promise he’s broken several times while Trump made a promise that makes the rest of us less safe if North Korea follows its normal pattern.

As I’ve said, we’ve seen this before. In the 1930s much of the world looked to the rise of Adolf Hitler and recognized the possibility that Germany sought European domination. In 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Adolf Hitler in the hopes of averting the war Hitler was clearly planning.

Hitler was effusive in promising Chamberlain that after taking parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia (with high German populations) he would leave the rest of Europe alone. Chamberlain returned to England promising “peace in our time.” Chamberlain and Hitler famously signed a non aggression pact.

Hitler played Chamberlain. On his return to England, Chamberlain, said this: “Now I recommend you to go home and sleep quietly in your beds.” Less than a year later Germany invaded Poland and that caught nobody off guard except Chamberlain.

I can’t help but think that Kim is playing Trump the same way.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 104: America, We’re Being Gaslighted

The phrase “being gaslighted” comes from the movie Gaslight. In the movie a man manipulates his new wife by changing things and denying he was changing them, thereby making her think she was going crazy and her perceptions couldn’t be trusted. For example, he would change the intensity of a gaslight; when she noticed he denied it had been changed. Eventually she began to doubt her perceptions of reality and thought she was crazy, or at least that her beliefs cannot be trusted. She began to trust him, not because he was right, but because she doubted her reality.

I’m not sure that President Trump understands what “gaslighting” means, but I believe he’s using it to boost his popularity at the expense of the rest of us.

From the very beginning of his administration he’s denied that he or his campaign participated in Russia’s attempt to interfere with our democracy. He’s denied that, during the 2016 campaign, the Russians reached out to his people with the offer to gaslight the American people to vote for him, or at least against Secretary Hillary Clinton.

The facts prove otherwise and for the past year the administration has been under investigation by former FBI director (and Republican) Robert Mueller. President Trump and his minions spend phenomenal amounts of time claiming his investigation is a witch hunt and a waste of time.

But we’ve seen this thing before. In his 1974 State of the Union speech President Richard Nixon famously stated that “one year of Watergate is enough” to rousing applause from his party.

At the time President Nixon was being investigated for obstructing justice. He was accused of offering bribes to the men who were arrested on June 17, 1972 for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters to plant listening devices that would allow them to listen in on telephone conversations. Nobody thought President Nixon ordered the break in but it was thought that he wanted to make sure that those who did order it wouldn’t be caught. Simply put he obstructed justice by offering to buy their silence.

It didn’t work. Neither did his call that “one year of Watergate is enough.” Seven months later, on August 7, 1974, he resigned when he recognized that he was likely to be impeached and removed from office.

President Trump, 38 years later, is attempting the same tactic. President Nixon attempted to divert attention from his actions by saying that there is nothing to see and the investigation should end. Like President Nixon’s actions, there is something to see.

I believe that President Trump and his campaign broke the law by asking a foreign country (Russia) to work together to create false accusations against Secretary Clinton and gaslight American voters to either vote for President Trump or not vote for Secretary Clinton. When the President insists that there is no collusion. I agree. It’s not collusion, it’s conspiracy.

If the Mueller investigation, 13 months after its inception, had found nothing he would have a point. But the investigation has led to these guilty pleas:

In addition 13 Russian nationals and Paul Manafort have been indicted. As a matter of fact, we’ve learned in the last few days that the Mueller investigation wants Mr. Manafort’s bail revoked because they have evidence that he asked others to lie to the Mueller investigation.

Criminal investigations don’t end because they went on for a fixed period of time. They end when it’s clear that all the guilty parties have been investigation.

The End of An Era

A little over 12 years ago I bought a Toyota Prius. Since I drive for my job I needed a car with good gas mileage. By any measure I got that: it took me 270,000 miles (for a perspective it’s only 238,900 miles from the earth to the moon). A few weeks ago I learned that repairs on my car would cost $3,300 and it was only valued at $3,000. It’s time had come. Yesterday I picked up my new car: a Honda Clarity plug in hybrid. I hope I get as much satisfaction with this car as I did with my Prius.

Toronto In the Rear View Mirror

Each year my wife attends a medical conference and every year it’s in a different city. This year we had the pleasure of meeting in Toronto, Ontario. Like most years, it was a wonderful week.

While Nancy attends the conference I get to play. Most years I walk enough to nearly offset the calories I consume at various restaurants, and this year was no exception. Here’s what I want to share about this trip:

  • If you have a choice of airlines, don’t choose Air Canada Rouge. It isn’t Air Canada and it’s not even close. The crew is fantastic and food is passable, but “rouge” doesn’t mean “red” as much as it means “slave ship.” The seats were so close that none of us were able to move. On the way back we paid enormous bucks to upgrade to a seat next to an emergency exit. Those seats were good but expensive.
  • Toronto is a beautiful city. If you’re willing to walk there’s more to see than you can do in a week. While Nancy was in meetings I had the pleasure of exploring not only downtown but also Cabbagetown and its annual Forsythia Festival.
  • I belong to the community of people who photograph gravestones and it took a few hours but I found and photographed the grave of Fr. Joseph Basil Doyle CSP (1893-1969).
  • The people of Toronto are wonderful and welcoming. Without exception everyone I met went out of his way to make certain my visit was a good one. I only hope I present San Diego as well as they present Toronto.

Next year we meet in Baltimore and it’s likely Nancy will retire before her convention returns to Toronto. But if our wandering returns us to Toronto I’ll be happy.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 103: North Korea and Why I’m Worried

Shortly after President Trump’s election in 2016 the president elect met with President Obama. It’s a custom and part of our tradition of peaceful succession. In that meeting President Obama told Mr. Trump that North Korea would be the most urgent problem he’d face.

Last month we learned that North Korean President Kim Jong Un offered to meet with President Trump.

I generally feel that talking is better than not talking but here’s my concern: No American president has ever met with the North Korean president and there is a great deal riding on these meetings (if they happen). In 2000 then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Il, the current president’s father. In an excellent interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air the secretary spoke about how much they needed to learn and how much time it took to prepare for those meetings.

She (and I) raised the concern that Mr. Trump doesn’t feel any need to prepare. I’ve spoken about this a few times, most notably here that he doesn’t seem to value hard work. We know from his tweets that he spends much of the day watching TV.

But it gets worse. As I write this our Secretary of State has been on the job for several hours and we don’t have an ambassador to South Korea. Our previous secretary, Rex Tillerson famously decimated the State Department.

Simply put, when President Trump meets with Kim Jong Un it will take only a few minutes to recognize that our president is unprepared with no path toward being brought up to speed. Nobody on our side will know if the deal President Trump is negotiating will benefit us, or the world.

A few days ago Mr. Trump claimed that Kim Jung Un (Sorry, I don’t know if he’s Mr. Jung Un or Mr. Un) promised to dismantle his nuclear and missile program without condition. But there is reason to believe that North Korea looks on this as both North and South Korea eliminating nuclear weapons.

If Mr. Trump can misinterpret something like this, it’s not a stretch to think he can come out of negotiations with North Korea with a deal he thinks is good, but isn’t. He has famously bragged that he knows how to negotiate a deal. But he doesn’t seem to understand that negotiating a real estate deal isn’t nearly the same thing as negotiating world peace.

Say what you will about President Trump, but he has done wonders for my prayer life.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 102: What We Can Learn From Attorney/Client Privilege?

Last week we witnessed an extraordinary event: President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen had his homes and office raided by the FBI. They left with boxes of material. This rarely happens because communications between an attorney and client are protected and law enforcement normally can’t seize any communication between them.

This story grows each day, and I don’t doubt that by the time I publish this, it will be outdated. But I find myself fascinated by the discussion around the concept of attorney client privilege. Basically, it states that you can tell your lawyer (almost) anything and he (or she) cannot be compelled to share it, even in a court of law. We honor this privilege to allow a defendant to be candid and honest with his lawyer.

But like all rights, this privilege is not absolute. President Trump has complained (once again) that he is a victim when he clearly doesn’t understand the law. He famously announced that this was the end of attorney client privilege. He said this not because of any understanding of the law but because someone made a decision he didn’t like. There are exceptions to this privilege:

Attorney client privilege doesn’t apply if your attorney wasn’t acting as an attorney. Let me give an example: You’re hoping for a job but you know that a porn star (let’s call her Stormy Davis) might leak the fact that you had sex with her four months after your wife gave birth to your son, and your attorney paid for her silence. He wasn’t acting as your lawyer and that communication isn’t privileged.

Attorney client privilege doesn’t apply if the two of you were involved in a conspiracy to break the law. Let me give an example: If your client is running for office but knows that if the voters found out the truth about an affair he had with a porn star he likely wouldn’t get elected. You obstruct justice by paying off the porn star and compel her to sign an agreement that prohibits her from telling anyone the truth, thereby denying the voters a full understanding of your character.

Attorney client privilege doesn’t apply if the attorney knows in advance that his client will lie under oath (it’s called “suborning perjury”). Let me give an example: Your client tells you he intends to lie under oath by denying having an affair with a porn star when he previously told you he did.

Mr. Cohen’s homes and offices were served with search warrants and this happens only when law enforcement are able to convince a judge that attorney client privilege has been violated. We don’t know how it was violated, but stay tuned.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 101: This Is Exactly What I’d Feared

Virtually from the day Donald Trump was elected President I’ve worried that he was not up to the job. Not only did he come to the White House with absolutely no experience in public service, he made it clear days after his election that he had little interest in being briefed for his position. Simply put, he doesn’t read and doesn’t listen. He has no interest in learning how to do his job.

A year ago I wrote about the complexity of the war in Syria. At the time I worried that something would happen and the President simply wouldn’t be able to be brought up to speed fast enough to know what to do. Syria gives us a complex balancing act. In my article last year I explained that it’s really a three way but it’s even more complex than that. Our troops support rebels who wish to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator. By and large these rebels are Kurds.

The Kurds are an ethnic minority in the Middle East. After World War I the Kurds hoped to have their own nation, Kurdistan. It didn’t happen. Now they live as minorities in Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran. Syrian Kurds have suffered discrimination and that’s one of the reasons they’re rebelling. Problem is, Turkey (one of our allies) looks at Kurds with suspicion. They see the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, as a terrorist organization and are furious that we are supporting Kurds.

Still with me? Yesterday we learned about a chemical attack in Syria. Assad ordered an attack on the suburb of Douma. As I write this dozens of Syrian men, women, and children were killed or gravely injured and President Trump has promised to respond. We have to find a way of finding a response to this chemical attack while finding a way of placating our ally, Turkey.

This would be a tough job for even a smart President who works hard.

Meanwhile, President Trump learned that the offices of his attorney Michael Cohen were searched.

So instead of focusing on Syria, President Trump spent a good part of his day railing against this investigation.

I don’t know what he knows, but I’m fairly certain he knows little or nothing about the Kurds or the reason the Turks are angry. I’m fairly certain that whatever briefings have been attempted have fallen on deaf ears. And I’m fairly certain that the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation in the world will not make a decision about Syria after careful consideration but will instead make a knee jerk and possibly irresponsible decision that will make any resolution either harder or impossible.

He clearly cares little about his job and cares a great deal about himself. We want him to serve us, and he wants everyone around him to serve him. In 943 days we get to elect a new President. I hope the next 943 days won’t give President Trump an opportunity to do more damage than his successor can fix.