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 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.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 100: Mr. Trump, Have You No Shame?

In 1917 J. Edgar Hoover joined the Department of Justice and seven years later he was appointed the head of the “Bureau of Investigation” that we now know as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI. Since then Americans have seen the FBI in several lights. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s most Americans cheered its opposition to Communism. In the 1960s some of us found concern over Mr. Hoover’s opposition to the civil rights’ movement.

Fast forward to today. The FBI continues to investigate crimes against the American people, and many of us expressed concern over the 2016 election. Even before the election many of us feared that Russia saw Mr.Trump as an ally and used social media disinformation to ensure his election.

Mr. Trump has claimed all along that there was “no collusion” and any investigation was a witch hunt. After he took office he raged against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for justly recusing himself from the Russian collusion investigation. Despite the President’s objections, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Former FBI Director Robert Mueller to run the investigation.

In addition to Mr. Sessions, Mr. Rosenstein, and Mr. Mueller, President Trump has also personally attacked former FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

Mr. McCabe was close to retirement, and on January 29th he chose to retire this month. But within hours of his retirement Mr. McCabe was fired by Mr. Sessions. Among other things, it means this career public servant will lose his pension.

This is a little personal for me. My father was a career government employee for 35 years (and my sister is a current federal employee). He, like all federal employees accept the fact that they will be paid less than they’re worth because part of his pay was diverted into a pension fund that will care for him in retirement. And it has.

But because Mr. McCabe found himself in the crosshairs of a President whose capacity for rage cares nothing for the lives or institutions he damages, he loses that deferred pay.

President Trump, once again, took to Twitter to talk about how this was a good day for the “hard working men and women of the FBI.” It was actually a devastating day for FBI and other federal employees.

President Trump, you should be ashamed.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 99: One Month After Parkland, and Our High School Students Stepped Up

One month ago today most of us learned of Parkland, Florida and Stoneman Douglas High School, not for a good reason.

On February 14, 2018 a lone gunman opened fire on the school and killed 17 people:

  • Alyssa Alhdeff
  • Scott Beigel
  • Martin Duque
  • Nicholas Dworet
  • Aaron Feis
  • Jaime Guttenberg
  • Chris Hixton
  • Luke Hoyer
  • Cara Loughran
  • Gina Montalto
  • Joaquin Oliver
  • Alaina Petty
  • Meadow Pollack
  • Helena Ramsay
  • Alex Schacter
  • Carmen Schentrup
  • Peter Wang

Today, school students all over our nation walked out of their classrooms for seventeen minutes to honor those who died on Valentine’s Day (and Ash Wednesday).

I say bravo. I applaud the students who wearied of waiting for adults to keep them safe and took power into their own hands.

They will continue to make us proud as adults.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 98: Nobody Wins a Trade War

Last week President Trump surprised even his own aides by announcing that he will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum. In fairness he ran on a platform of protectionism, a belief that our economy suffers from cheap imports from other nations. Protectionism protects American jobs by demanding payments (or tariffs) for goods and services made outside the United States and imported here. President Trump believes that cheap steel and aluminum from other nations creates an unfair disadvantage to American workers and charging a tariff “levels the field” for American workers.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. When we impose tariffs on other nations, that’s not the end of the story. Other nations don’t like it when we impose tariffs and they generally respond by imposing tariffs on goods and services that we export to them. Oftentimes this leads to an escalation that we call a trade war. Perhaps it’s better called a de-escalation because it often causes a chain reaction of more tariffs (we react, and then they react, etc.).

We’ve already seen that nations in Europe are threatening to place tariffs on our exports of Harley Davidson motorcycles and bourbon. Since these motorcycles are made in Wisconsin (the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan) and bourbon is distilled in Kentucky (the home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) it’s not hard to understand why they chose these targets.

If history teaches us anything, tariffs are answered by more tariffs. But by calling this trade war it made it irresistible for President Trump to claim that we can win a trade war. But we can’t. Nobody wins a trade war.

Trade benefits both partners. I understand that Americans who depend on steel and aluminum are hurt by cheap imports from other nations. But the answer is not blocking imports. It may benefit American steelworkers in the short run, but when other nations raise tariffs on bourbon it hurts distillers in Kentucky.

We live in a dynamic world where job skills change quickly. Your dream job when you’re 20 may not exist when you’re 40. But when you’re 40 there will be jobs you never dreamed of, and you can have the opportunity to learn how to do them.

A hundred and fifty years ago you could make a good living making buggy whips for carriages. A hundred years ago “horseless carriages” (or “cars”) threatened your living. Today nobody makes them. Will all due empathy for those who made their living making buggy whips, they needed to find some other way to make a living.

So here’s my point: our standard of living grows when we increase our world and it shrinks when we decrease our world. Our President demands a future when that will make us smaller and poorer.

We need look no further than the Koreas. North Korea isolates itself and finds it hard to feed their people. South Korea participates in global trade and does well. The per capita GDP (that is, the wealth of the nation divided by its population) is $1,800 in North Korea and $33,200 in South Korea.

Our best future lies in the road that decreases, and even eliminates tariffs. President Trump, we ask that you care about our nation more than you care about yourself.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 97: Gun Control? Hey, Look Over There!

On February 14, 2018 (ironically both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday) we heard an all too familiar narrative: a young man walked into a school and opened fire.

We only had to fill in the blanks. This time the school was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This time the murderer (who I refuse to name) was 19. This time the assault rife was an AR 15. This time 14 students and 3 faculty members died. The rest is a macro.

We first learned about these mass school shootings on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. There two students brandished guns; before killing themselves they killed 13 and injured 20. Sue Kleebolt, the mother of one of the gunmen, wrote a heartbreakingly honest and powerful book that I will never forget reading.

Chapter 18 of the book is titled: The Wrong Question and I think she’s exactly right. She suggests that when we hear about any of these mass shootings we shouldn’t ask “why” but “how.”

If our first macro is “what happened,” our second macro is “why did this happen” and our politicians have a script. They rush to social media and promise their thoughts and prayers. Then they claim that we can’t have a discussion about guns because “it’s too soon.”

Sue Kleebolt argues forcefully that asking “why” makes it too easy to ignore what we know to be true. Other than the obvious “how can anyone know why this happened” it allows us to find scapegoats instead of solutions.

But is also allows us to divert attention (hey, look over there) by proposing false solutions.

The shooter in Florida legally purchased the assault rifle and committed no crimes until the first time he pulled the trigger. Solutions from our politicians may sound appealing, but they will not prevent the next massacre. Let me list them:

  • Background Checks. Clearly there are some people who shouldn’t have access to guns. We have a patchwork of laws we can read about, but in 1968 the federal government passed the 1968 Gun Control Act. In the last few days we’ve heard about the need to strengthen background checks. This is, at best, a hollow promise. Background checks depend on having a list of those who cannot purchase guns. For the most part convicted felons and those who have a history of domestic abuse are prohibited from purchase. How do we identify brooding, angry young men who collect small arsenals? But more to the point, background checks don’t prevent someone from opening fire as his first crime. While the Florida shooter may have scared some people with his writings, he didn’t do anything that would have flagged a background check. Better background checks would not have prevented this shooting.
  • Arming Teachers. President Trump, in the last few days, has advocating allowing teachers to pack heat and even suggesting them that schools should reward them with more pay. OK, think about your worst high school teacher. Do you really want that person to be armed? And think about how a teacher can conceal a gun. President Trump puts great weight on the idea that nobody will know which teachers are armed. Granted it’s been 40 years since my high school graduation, but back then the male teachers wore slacks, dress shirts, and ties. For the most part they didn’t wear suit jackets. Female teacher wore dresses or pantsuit with only a few wearing blazers. How do any of them conceal a weapon? Keeping a weapon in their desk won’t work as teachers almost never teach from behind their desk. An unlocked desk provides a target for a student and a locked desk makes the weapon virtually unavailable when needed. While some believe that this could have prevented this shooting, it’s likely it wouldn’t have helped and perhaps made it worse.
  • Banning bump stocks. Before the Las Vegas shooting in Las Vegas most of us had never heard of these accessories that convert a semi automatic weapon into a machine gun. If bump stocks were illegal fewer people would have died in Las Vegas. But the shooters in Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland didn’t use bump stocks. Banning them, though a good idea, is just window dressing. It gives the illusion of progress.
  • Raise from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase guns. At first blush this sounds like a good idea. Since the Parkland shooter was 19, if you had to be 21 to buy a gun he wouldn’t have been able to purchase the AR-15 he used to kill 17 people. Fair enough. But the assault gun at the center of the Columbine murders was purchased by a 22 year old friend of one of the shooters and the Sandy Hook shooter stole his mother’s gun (and killed her with it). The Parkland shooter could have found another way to obtain a gun, or just waited 2 years. Again, this gives the illusion of progress.
  • Keeping guns out the hands of the mentally ill. This connects to the argument on background checks. So here’s my question: how do we define mental illness? In a move that even my cynicism admires, the NRA came out and suggested that we ban gun sales to those who have been “judged mentally incompetent.” This sounds good, but it’s not. A person is “judged mentally incompetent” only when someone (normally a family member) sees someone who is so demented that he (or she) cannot competently make decisions on his (or her) own best interest. This normally happens when someone suffers from some sort of dementia and a conservator is appointed. It’s a high bar because the court is taking away the person’s constitutional rights. The NRA’s standard does not include someone who suffers from depression or isolation or anger. None of the shooters in Columbine, or Sandy Hook, or Las Vegas, or Parkland would have qualified as “mentally ill.” So if we expand the concept of mental illness, how do we do it? Do we include those who have been incarcerated in a mental institution against their will? Do we include everyone who takes anti-depressive medication? And how do we include those who suffer from mental illness but don’t seek help for fear that they will later be prohibited from purchasing a gun?

We clearly stand at a time when the NRA, the Republican Party, and our President want to appear to be concerned without actually making the changes that will protect our children. Despite their claims, those of us who wish to ban assault rifles don’t want to ban all guns. I support hunters who own rifles and people who keep handguns for personal protection. But assault rifles have one and only one purpose: killing large numbers of people and doing it quickly.

We can only protect our children from these assault rifles by banning them from civilian use. If you want to shoot an assault rifle, you should enlist in the army.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 96: Can Someone Explain To The President How Democracy Works?

Back in May 2016 I suggested that then candidate Donald Trump was not a Republican but was instead a Fascist. Sadly, his first year in office has shown us how right I was.

As I argued, the Republican party stands for smaller government. Government should do fewer things and do them better, and government should do only those things that only the government can do. Fascism is different: a fascist demands absolute power with the promise of protecting us from our enemies. From his entry into the 2016 Presidential campaign he identified his target: immigrants.

But what makes him particularly dangerous is that there is no such thing as a fascist democracy and it’s become clear that he has no interest in leading a democratic nation. Simply put, he has chosen ignorance of the democratic process. Let me give a couple of examples:

He doesn’t understand that government employees work for us, not him. Even before his election there was concern over possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. President Trump appointed Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General fully expecting him to end the Russia probe. When General Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, President Trump was livid because he felt Sessions should have had his back. In other words, he felt Jeff Sessions works for him, and not the American people.

He sees disagreement not as free speech, but as treason. Last month he gave the annual State of the Union Speech. Article 2, Section 3 of the US Constitution requires that the President “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” We all know that the State of the Union has become a political speech but it’s also a time where members of all three branches of government come together. And several times during the speech the President pauses for applause; some of those in attendance clap at his last line, and some don’t. It’s just how it happens. Good Presidents accept it. President Trump does not. Speaking a few days later he said this. He suggested that those who didn’t applaud him were un-American and even treasonous. He doesn’t seem to understand that we pledge allegiance to our nation and our Constitution but not our current President.

He’s demanded a parade to show the world that we are powerful. As Americans we all love parades as a way of celebrating what we value. But our parades celebrate our diversity (think of the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving or the Tournament of Roses on New Year’s Day) or our heroes (think of the recent parade to celebrate the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory). But President Trump wants a military parade that will show our strength. Frankly, I think that’s what Viagra is for.

Fascist leaders depend on isolationism from trade with other nations. This creates both poverty and a dependence on their leader. Candidate Trump spent much of his campaign criticizing the Trans Pacific Partnership and NAFTA. He does not believe international trade benefits us (it does) but instead believes it makes us weaker (it doesn’t). He claims our best future lies in self sufficiency when the rest of us know our future lies in free trade. Free trade results in the European Union while isolationism results in North Korea.

In fairness, we’ve been a democracy for nearly 218 years. It’s unlikely one person can destroy that. But history buffs like me fear that Trump supporters will eagerly trade their patriotism for the false promise that they will do better with a fascist leader. I’m more worried about the 46th President than the 45th. I pray the 46th will be more like the 44th than the 45th.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 95: Mr President, This Won’t Work

In this last week our nation has been saturated with news of a “secret memo” that really isn’t secret. It was written by Republican House member Devin Nunes of California; he’s the chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. His committee has been investigating possible Russian collusion in the 2016 Presidential election. Please note this is completely separate from the criminal investigation by Robert Mueller.

On April 6, 2017 Mr. Nunes recused himself from the Russian probe for ethics violations. It appears that hasn’t done much for his ethics.

Last month he released a memo that you can read it here. The memo alleges that the Department of Justice and the FBI sought permission to gain information on Mr. Trump’s campaign advisor Carter Page. The memo also claims that this permission depended on information from Christopher Steele.

During the 2016 Presidential campaign Mr. Steele was hired by Fusion GPS to investigate if Russia was attempting to influence the Presidential election. Fusion GPS does opposition research, or “oppo research.” If you’re a candidate for elected office you would hire a firm like Fusion GPS to find opposition research on your opponent. There’s an excellent book titled We’re With Nobody that describes this.

In September of 2015 Fusion GPS was hired by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative web page who raised concerns about Donald Trump winning the Republican primary. In April of 2016 the Free Beacon stopped the investigation, but the campaign of Hillary Clinton showed an interest and they hired Fusion GPS. Working for Fusion GPS, Mr. Steele began to look at Russia. Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign so alarmed Mr. Steele that he feared Mr. Trump was being blackmailed by Russia.

Still with me? Good. The Nunes memo claims the application to surveil Mr. Page relied almost entirely on Mr. Steele’s “dossier.” They claim that since Mr. Steele and Fusion GPS were clients of Mrs. Clinton, anything Mr. Steele wrote brought with it a bias against Mr. Trump.

So here’s their narrative: When the Department of Justice and the FBI sought information on Carter Page they relied on evidence against Mr. Trump that was biased and therefore suspect. This proves that any investigation of Mr. Trump or his campaign depends on government employees who don’t want to work for Mr. Trump (he calls them the Deep State) and this proves there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. Mr. Trump claims this the Nunes memo vindicates him.

Except it doesn’t. Here’s my list of what’s wrong with the Trump narrative:

  1. Mr Steele’s dossier does not prove an anti-Trump bias. If you’re a candidate who hires oppo research you need accurate information. If you give the candidate incorrect information you’ll never work again.
  2. The application to surveil Mr. Page is classified and we’ll likely never have access to it. But we do know from several sources that the application would never have been approved only on the Steele dossier. We also know that the warrant is only good for 90 days and it must be renewed. You can read about this here but this warrant is difficult to get, and can only be renewed if it’s shown that the surveillance is providing information. It can’t be renewed only for the reason to continue fishing.
  3. The Mueller investigation is a criminal investigation. The Nunes memo criticizes the FBI in Congress’ oversight powers over the Executive Branch of government. While Mr. Nunes and Mr. Trump hope that this memo will compromise Mr. Mueller’s investigation but it won’t. They depend the American people thinking that this is one investigation and is suspect. It isn’t

I believe that the American people are smarter than President Trump needs them to be.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 94: President Trump, We’re Not Fooled Why You Want To End the Mueller Investigation

I’ve spoken about this before but President Trump’s attempts to derail the Mueller investigation reminds me of President Nixon’s attempt to derail the Watergate investigation.

In 1972 President Nixon was running for re-election, and in the early hours of June 17, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters. Nobody believes President Nixon knew about the burglary in advance but within a few days he huddled with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman to plan to bribe these defendants to plead guilty and not implicate anyone else.

It didn’t work and in May of 1973 Archibald Cox was appointed special prosecutor. While President Nixon publicly supported Mr. Cox, he privately seethed as he believed Mr. Cox “had it out for him.” On October 23, 1973 President Nixon had enough had Mr. Cox fired. It’s generally assumed that this drove the final nail in the coffin of President Nixon’s Presidency and he resigned on August 7, 1974.

None of this would have happened had it not been found out that the Oval Office was equipped with a secret taping system; we all learned this on July 13, 1973 when Alexander Butterfield told us. President Nixon then attempted to prevent anyone from hearing these tapes. He claimed Executive Privilege.

But here’s the thing: President Nixon didn’t attempt to block release of the tapes out of respect for his office. He tried to block their release because he knew his own words would point to his guilt.

President Trump, I believe we’re revisiting history. Your claim of conflicts of interest with the Mueller investigation has nothing to do with conflict of interest. Instead it has everything to do with your fear that there is something here that will end your presidency. I believe that you told Russia that if they would disrupt the 2016 election and make you President you would end sanctions over their invasion of Ukraine.

President Nixon didn’t resign because he admitted his guilt. He resigned because he recognized that he would be impeached and removed from office. You can save all of us a great deal of time by resigning now and saving all of us the trouble.

Seriously, call me.