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 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.

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.