The Trump Chronicles, Volume 136: We Have Betrayed the Kurds Again

From the middle of the 20th Century we’ve seen conflict in the Middle East. As Americans we’ve often looked through the lens of Israel and their Arab neighbors. But the Middle East is more complex.

Eight years ago, in 2011, a civil war broke out in Syria. Any conflict in this part of the world complicates easy answers and I wrote about this conflict here.

I described the war as having three sides: President Assad, revolutionary Syrians, and Isis. The United States supported Syrians who wanted to overthrow Assad and we allied ourselves with the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East.

The end of World War I redrew the map of Eastern Europe and the Middle East and the Kurds hoped they would be recognized as the nation of Kurdistan. Unfortunately that didn’t happen (and if you want to read an excellent book on this I recommend Paris 1919). The Kurds found themselves living in parts of Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, and Western Iran, and Western Iraq.

In 1991 the United States invaded Iraq to counter Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Then President George H.W. Bush encouraged Iraq’s population to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Kurds in northern Iraq did just that. But once the United States forces liberated Kuwait we pulled out, and Saddam Huessin turned his guns on those who followed President Bush’s encouragement. Saddam Hussein used poison gas to slaughter the Kurds.

Fast forward to Syria. When the United States decided to support Syrians who wanted to overthrow Assad we also decided to support the Kurds who populated Northern Syria and opposed Assad. This troubled Turkey because the Kurdish population in Eastern Turkey have wanted independence since 1919. Some of the Kurds formed a terrorist group called the PKK in the 1970s. Since then Turkey has viewed all Kurds as possible members of the PKK.

So here’s the question: Is there overlap between the PKK and the Kurds in Syria who wish to overthrow Assad? Turkey is clear: these aren’t two groups, but one. Allow the Syrian Kurds any encouragement and they will use their power to fight against Turkey. Frankly, I haven’t found proof of this, and not for lack of trying.

And now enter President Trump. On October 7th he tweeted that we are pulling our troops out of Syria. I imagine he thought this would be seen as a good thing as he has often promised to keep out people safe.

It didn’t happen like he thought. The Kurds have (once again) been good allies. In addition to fighting against Assad’s troops they have also successfully rounded up and imprisoned members of Isis. But now the Kurds need to pull out of guarding the members of Isis and fight the Turks.

The freeing of Isis fighters makes us less secure, but it also reminds the Kurds that the United States is not trustworthy.

Going forward the Middle East will continue to be a volatile place. I don’t think it’s in our best interest to become an isolationist nation and pretend that what happens in other parts of the world don’t matter (and I hope that 9/11 makes my point). Our retreat from Syria does nothing more than make us less safe and tell the Kurds that only idiots believe promises made by the United States.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 135: Words Matter Mr. President. Your Words Matter

In a previous post I lamented the fact that President Trump shows little or no respect for his office, and does not see himself as a public servant but instead as the undisputed head of the United States

Time and again he has shown recklessness and a lack of sensitivity, but in the last few weeks he has reached a new level. We recently learned that in July the President spoke with the President of Ukraine and many of us heard that our President held up aid that Ukraine needs until they investigate charges of corruption by Joe and Hunter Biden.

As I said a last week this renewed calls for the President to be impeached and removed from office (you can read this here.

We’ve come to expect irresponsible rhetoric from him, as when he referred to the free press as the “Enemy of the People.”

But he called those who gave information to the whistleblower “almost a spy.” He demands to know the identity of this person for a confrontation. He has accused California Representative Adam Schiff of treason.

But a few days later the President ratcheted up to an even more dangerous level. Last weekend he read that evangelical pastor and Fox News contributor Robert Jeffress suggested that if the President were impeached and removed from office it would lead to “a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” It was irresponsible for the pastor, but much worse when the President retweeted it.

It’s well known that the President isn’t a student of history, but those of us who are find this chilling. At the end of the Civil War when the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox Court House there was talk that instead of laying down their guns, the Confederate Army should “head for the hills” and begin a guerilla war that would make Union occupation impossible. Confederate General Robert E. Lee stopped it. You can read an excellent article here.

Simply put, our President feels that anyone who opposes him is a traitor and those who support him should take up arms. Already this is being taken up by armed militias.

We are a nation that cares deeply for our future, being led by a man who cares only for himself.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 134: Props to the Whistleblower

It’s been quite a week and there’s lots to unpack. In my last post I suggested that we need to reconsider impeachment, even if probably won’t lead to the Senate removing the President from office.

None of this would have happened had not a civil servant (the whistleblower) read the transcript of a phone call. Our President, never one to care about anyone other than himself, has called this civil servant almost a spy and suggested he (or she) committed treason.

The Republican response is no more responsible. They claim that since the whistleblower was not on the call, anything he says is hersay and this needs some unpacking.

When someone testifies in a court of law, he (or she) can only testify to what he saw or heard. For example, if I witness a robbery I can testify to that. But I can’t testify that I overheard someone tell another person that he committed the robbery. That’s hearsay.

But here’s the problem: the whistleblower isn’t testifying: he’s reporting. His report doesn’t claim there was a crime or an impeachable offense, only that there might be something that bears a look.

Let me draw a parallel from my own life: because of my job as a hospice chaplain I’m known as a “mandated reporter” for elder abuse. If I see or suspect abuse I’m required by law to report it to the authorities. Nobody gets in trouble for what I report and all it means is that someone will investigate.

That’s what the whistleblower did. He reported his concerns to the Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General.

Stay tuned. More later.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 133: Reconsidering Impeachment

Six months ago I wrote that impeaching President Trump probably wasn’t a good idea. At the time (a month before the release of the Mueller Report) we suspected much but knew little.

The report’s release stopped short of accusing the President of a crime, but also didn’t exonerate him. The President, of course falsely claimed it did exonerate him and most Republicans sided with him. I still believed impeachment wasn’t a good idea.

But the events of this week have cause me (and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) to reconsider. In the last week we learned that someone in the intelligence community read a transcript of a phone conversation between the President and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, 2019. This person became so alarmed by what he read that he wrote a report to the Intelligence Community Inspector General raising the possibility that the President implied that he would sell anti tank missals to Ukraine in return for Ukraine investigating Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

These reports are often called “whistleblower” reports and this public servant has become known as the “whistleblower.” We don’t know who this person is.

The “transcript” he read isn’t a verbatim transcript but a report written by someone was listening to the call. You can find a link to the transcript from the White House page.

This is pretty common and most of these transcripts are classified. They aren’t normally shared with the public, but they are shared with members of Congress. But here the administration attempted to block it from Congress. It didn’t work and the White House eventually released it.

So where does this leave the question of impeachment? Good question. Democrats, and even a few Republicans, have reacted with alarm. Not surprisingly, the President insists this is just another witch hunt and most Republicans are ducking for cover or supporting the President. The idea that, if impeached, the Senate would vote to remove him is pretty remote. While the House can impeach with a simple majority, the Senate needs a 2/3 majority to remove him from office.

When President Bill Clinton was impeached, but not removed from office, in 1998 there was a backlash and his popularity increased. The President’s opponents have a well founded fear that this will aid his re-election next year.

But on the other hand, if we allow him to continue with this behavior, I believe we are tacitly complicit. The Republicans in Congress have shown a breathtaking amount of cowardice in the face of wrongdoing. If nothing else, impeachment and removal will force them out of the shadows and explain to their constituents and the American people why they support this President.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 132: Cokie Roberts is Praying For You (and I’m Trying)

Yesterday I posted about the death of Cokie Roberts (1943-2019). As you can imagine people from around the world have posted remembrances and condolences.

President Obama said this: “Michelle and I are sad to hear about the passing of Cokie Roberts. She was a trailblazing figure; a role model to young women at a time when the profession was still dominated by men; a constant over forty years of a shifting media landscape and changing world, informing voters about the issues of our time and mentoring young journalists every step of the way. She will be missed ― and we send our condolences to her family.”

President George W. Bush said this: “We are deeply saddened that Cokie Roberts is no longer with us. She covered us for decades as a talented, tough, and fair reporter. We respected her drive and appreciated her humor. She became a friend. We know Steve, their children, and grandchildren are heartbroken. They have our sincere sympathies.”

Meanwhile, our current President (who must not be named) said this: “I never met her. She never treated me nicely. But I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals. I respect you guys a lot, you people a lot. She was a real professional,”

Way to make it about you.

The Trump Chronicles Volume 131, The Money Chronicles Volume 18: More Tax Cuts?

A year and a half ago I argued against the Republican belief that cutting taxes will benefit the economy and pay for themselves. Granted, tax cuts can increase consumer spending in the short run and that’s good for the economy. But it also balloons the budget deficit and the national debt.

Now, in August of 2019, we see signs of an upcoming recession. This is nothing but bad news for President Trump as a recession would likely doom his reelection.

Hoping to stave this off, in the last few days he’s suggested another round of cuts to payroll taxes (in fairness, as I write this, he now claims he’s not considering it). Then again, since he reacts to the last thing he saw on Fox TV who can tell what will happen?

There are times when higher deficits make sense, and President Obama’s quick action to recover from the Great Recession added to both the deficit and the debt. Ironically, this led to a recovery that lasts to this day, and a recovery that President Trump claims credit for.

But our economy rises and lowers, booms and busts. Frankly we are overdue for a downturn. President Trump clearly hopes not so much to prevent the inevitable next recession as to delay it until after the election 15 months from now.

But here’s the problem: his proposed payroll tax cuts work like taking cash advances on your credit card. Responsible consumers sometimes use cash advances in a short term crisis. But responsible consumers know that they need to plan a path to their repayment. Maybe the need cash to relocate for a better job or make a necessary purchase. Irresponsible consumers, who don’t have a repayment plan, learn eventually that they’ve dug a hole they can never climb out of.

Unlike the United States, irresponsible consumers can declare bankruptcy. Our nation can’t.

And we are led by a President who has declared bankruptcy six times.

Can somebody tell him that the United States economy can’t?

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 130: You Should Read This Book

I just finished Daniel Okrent’s book The Guarded Gate. Here’s what I’ve learned:

This was not an easy book to read, particularly to those of us who follow the news. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species that found that plants and animals change and develop to adapt to a changing world. In the decades that followed, many people asked the question as to whether humans do the same.

It’s a decent question and we’ve found that skin color has changed incrementally over millennia based on our distance from the equator and sunlight. We all began in Africa with dark skin because of the sun: we needed dark skin to block skin cancer. But as a species we migrated to areas where the sun was not as intense, areas that we now know as Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Those migrants needed lighter skin because they needed the Vitamin D that the sun provided. And over thousands of years they developed exactly that. The different skin colors between Africans and Scandinavians had everything to do with the sun and nothing to do with anything else.

But in the decades after Darwin this debate took a horrifying turn: a number of Americans took Darwin’s theory to argue that people from certain countries were “good” and some were “bad” based on skin color and where they were born.

From the late 16th Century much of what we now call America saw a huge influx Western Europeans. In 1776 we declared ourselves independent from Europe (England) and opened our shores to all who wanted to come, not thinking much about skin color (except for the slaves we brought here in chains but that’s grist for another post). This lasted until 1882 when we decided that we didn’t want to include people from China.

Shortly after this descendants of Western European immigrants feared they would lose their wealth and their identity because of current Eastern and Southern European immigrants. With calls of “Keep America for the Americans” they decided that some immigrants were good and should be welcomed and some were bad and should be banned. They claimed science on their side and named their belief “eugenics.”

Daniel’s book documents this belief that Europeans could be divided into three groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans.” With no evidence they claimed a hierarchy: Nordics were good, Alpines were suspicious, and Mediterraneans were inferior. In no small part they recognized that Nordics had fair skin and fair hair while Mediterraneans had olive skin and dark hair.

In 1924 Congress passed (and President Coolidge signed) a law that placed horrific quotas on immigration from different nations of Europe. I encourage you to read the book but basically they wrote this law that set up immigration quotas from each nation. Those from Northern Europe and Scandinavians enjoyed generous quotas (including, by the way, President Trump’s mother who came from Scotland in 1930) while those from Italy, Austria, and the Balkans were essentially shut out.

The horror of this law wasn’t realized until the 1930s when Jews from Europe frantically attempted to flee Nazi Germany and were turned away from our shores because of their misfortune to come after their quota had already been met. Thousands were turned back where they perished in concentration camps. If you don’t think this has real consequences, read about the St. Louis.

Today, day after day, we see that men, women and children come to our borders. They are desperate to flee because of the same fear that Jews faced in the 1930s. They don’t face antisemitism but instead face death threats. Their fathers, brothers, sons, and grandsons face threats from local gangs who demand that these young men join their gang or face death.

They don’t want to join gangs and they began a long and dangerous journey in the hope of a place of safety: the United States. They want what our ancestors wanted. But when they arrive at our border they are seen as “invaders” who want to “take our stuff.”

In 2019 we cannot condemn xenophobia in the 1920s and defend xenophobia today.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 129: Thoughts on Gun Violence and Mental Illness

News reports about mass shootings have become part of our lives ever since Columbine in 1999.

And the reaction to these shootings has divided our nation. Many of us look to gun control. We believe that military weapons were designed to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time, and don’t they belong in the hands of civilians. Others claim that these weapons of max destruction aren’t the problem. Instead they suggest that these massacres are the result of bad people or bad circumstances, or…whatever. In the last several years they have settled on a scapegoat: people who struggle with mental illness.

One some level I understand their choice: while we’ve found success in treatments for our kidneys, hearts, and pancreases we had a much harder time with brain disease. Gun control opponents have seized on this opportunity to claim that we should continue to allow military grade rifles for all those except who are mentally ill. After the shootings the President said this: “[W]e must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence, and make sure those people not only get treatment, but when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”

So here’s the problem: nobody knows what level of mental illness should block someone from buying or owning a gun. Simply put, opponents of gun control point to a problem with no solution and celebrate the appearance of concern.

If we’re not good at treating mental illness, we’re even worse at diagnosing it. The idea that we can predict the next mass shooters while treating those who suffer but aren’t a threat is, frankly put, a myth. People who live with (among others) depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia normally do more damage to themselves or their immediate circle of family and friends than they do to large numbers of strangers.

Recent massacres in Gilroy, California, El Pao, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio have made my point. None of these shooters would have been classified as mentally ill.

And even if you don’t buy my argument that we can’t predict these mass shootings, I’ll also argue that this will make it harder to provide treatment to those who suffer from mental illness.

How do we classify mental illness? We already have a “cannot purchase” list, but these are primarily those who have felony convictions, are on terrorist watch lists, or have been convicted of domestic violence.

But the term “mental illness” is much more fluid. Do we include only those who have been involuntarily institutionalized? What about those who have been voluntarily institutionalized? What about those currently in the care of a psychiatrist? Or those formerly in the care of a psychiatrist? What about those currently in the care of a psychologist? Or those formerly in the care of a psychologist?

Do we include those who participated in a depression support group? How about those who participated in a grief support group?

Many who suffer refuse to ask for help because of a well founded belief that they will be unfairly labeled as weak or crazy and will put themselves at risk of discrimination. Now imagine a troubled teenager who comes from a family who hunts. He knows that if he asks for help he may well be put on a database that prevents him from purchasing a gun.

We already have reasons for people to fear mental health treatment, we don’t need to create another.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 128: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un

After World War II the Korean peninsula was divided into North Korea and South Korea. During the Cold War North Korea aligned with the Soviet Union and South Korea aligned with the United States. Five years after the end of World War II the Korean Peninsula became the first flashpoint of the Cold War when North Korea and its ally the People’s Republic of China invaded South Korea.

The United States and several other United Nations countries fought back. Nobody won the war and on July 27, 1953 both sides signed an agreement to stop fighting. Technically, the Korean War never ended.

Since 1953 North and South Korea have lived an uneasy peace. The border between their nations soon became the DMZ or “demilitarized zone.” The DMZ has famously become the most heavily armed border in the world. Both nations faced the fear of an invasion from the other side.

This uneasy balance was upset in 2005 when North Korea announced it had developed nuclear weapons. The United States developed the nuclear bomb during World War II and used it to force the Japanese to surrender in World War II. A few years later the Soviet Union developed similar nuclear capabilities. For the next three decades most of the world accepted the fact that these two superpowers had the capability to destroy the world and prayed they wouldn’t.

But other nations also worked to join the “nuclear club.” We’re not entirely certain who belongs to this club, but North Korea’s announcement ushered in a new concern. North Korea did well after the Korean War under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, but when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991 it was no longer able to support North Korea (or Cuba, or Poland, or, well, you get the idea).

Famously they suffered a famine in the 1990s caused by a combination of lack of Soviet support and unusually high rain levels in 1995 and 1996. North Korea also insisted they didn’t need help. There’s no way to know how many North Koreans starved but it’s agreed it was substantial.

By that time the first ruler of North Korea, Kim Il Sung (1912-1994) had died and he was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il (1941-2011) who oversaw the nuclear program while refusing international aid to feed his people.

This caused a great deal of concern with the rest of the world as North Korea was seen as both unstable and dangerous. Anyone who develops nuclear weaponry can use it. It was generally assumed that Kim Jong Il desperately wanted respect and “a seat at the nuclear table,” and it was not given. He was treated by most of the rest of the world not as an adult but as a nut case. We feared this unstable leader would use his nuclear power as a lethal temper tantrum.

But in 2011 Kim Jong Il died and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un (b.1983). He was incredibly young and inexperienced and we all held our breath. At the time the United States was led by President Barack Obama. Like his predecessors President Obama worked hard to encourage a stable North Korean government.

And it all changed on January 20, 2017. Donald Trump entered the White House and decided he was the man to “fix” North Korea. And that’s fine except instead of negotiating with Kim Jong Un, he craved North Korea’s approval. In fairness he did once refer to Kim as “Little Rocket Man” in 2017 (and leaving himself open to be called Honky Cat) but hasn’t done that since.

Instead he now speaks about how they “fell in love.” Last year I wrote about this and explained that Kim gave away nothing and Trump cancelled joint exercises with South Korea to prepare for a possible North Korean invasion.

This has to stop. Kim has figured out that he doesn’t need to give up his nuclear status while at the same time ensuring that the United States won’t confront him on anything substantial.

Meanwhile he has turned his back on our allies. A year ago he called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dishonest and weak. The next month he turned on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying Germany has made itself a captive to Russia. And most recently he called Britain’s Prime Minister Teresa May foolish.

Let’s face it: we have a president who craves the approval of dictators and turns his back on our allies. The 2020 election can’t happen soon enough.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 127: My Biggest Fear

I’ve written volumes on how I’m concerned that President Trump is causing real and lasting danger to our nation. Today I read an article on CNN that spells out my biggest fear: what happens if he is defeated in 2020 and refuses to leave the White House?

In a previous post I spoke of his belief that he won the popular vote and he was the victim of voter fraud. Nobody with any knowledge of the election believes it, but he’s been able to convince many of his supporters that he’s right.

So what happens if he loses the 2020 election and makes the same claim of voter fraud? What if he refuses to leave the White House and calls his supporters to come to Washington DC and set up a perimeter around the White House?

The mark of a true democracy turns not on the inauguration of its first president, but its second. It’s worth noting that our first president, George Washington (1732-1799) served two terms and declined to run for a third term. He passed the mantle of the presidency to John Adams (1736-1826).

President Adams served only one term, being defeated in 1800 by his vice president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). President Adams, though sorely disappointed, handed the keys to President Jefferson.

In the 219 years since that handoff we’ve seen it replayed countless times. In my lifetime I’ve observed Gerald Ford (1913- 2006) handing the keys to Jimmy Carter (b.1924), Jimmy Carter handing the keys to Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), and finally George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) welcoming Bill Clinton.

It’s never easy to pass these keys to someone who the voters chose over you, but all these men respected the will of the people and they acted with grace and a respect for the office.

I fear that the current occupant of the oval office will not act with either grace or respect. I fear we will find ourselves in a crisis that we used to believe belonged only to lesser nations. I fear that our current president will care nothing for our history, our democracy, and our tradition of peaceful transfer of power. I fear he will declare himself “president for life” that will lead us into chaos.

I pray I’m wrong.