The Trump Chronicles, Volume 119: Mr. Trump, It’s Time To Give Up On the Wall

Dear President Trump:

I’m writing to you today to encourage you to give up on the idea of a border wall and reopen government. Two weeks ago government funding stopped for several departments out of dispute over funding your promise to build a wall along our southern border.

All presidential candidates make promises that, once they are elected, recognize they can’t keep. Famously President Obama promised to close the detention center at Guantanamo.

And let’s face it: you have your own broken promises. Eleven times on the campaign trail you promised to jail Hilary Clinton. You also criticized President Obama for playing golf while on the job and promised not to do the same.

I could go on, but that’s not the point. Now that you’re President you need to recognize that building the wall will not stop illegal immigration. It will cost a great deal of money and won’t do what it’s supposed to do.

Simply put, Mr. Trump, we all recognize that this is one campaign promise your base cares about. But your base has never been the majority of Americans and most of us oppose the wall.

You need to stop worrying about losing your base and start leading our nation. And you need to stop making federal employees hostages of your fear. Employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, and the United States Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (among others) are currently working without pay. They are praying that they won’t lose their homes, that their credit ratings won’t suffer, and that their children won’t lose necessary services.

Mr. Trump I understand that your corporations have declared bankruptcy at least four times. But all of these bankruptcies were corporate and did not cost you anything personally. No matter what happened to your employees your home in Trump Tower remained safe.

This won’t be true for federal employees who suffer from your fear of losing your base. I pray none of them will need to declare bankruptcy but if they do, you will not pay any price for their pain or their future.

I have no confidence that you will suddenly develop a moral compass but I will never stop praying for the people you are hurting.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 118: If You Think It’s OK to Ask About Citizenship Status in the 2020 Census, Ask an Elderly Japanese American

The United States Constitution instructs that a census of all persons in the United States be conducted every 10 years. The first census was 1790, the latest in 2010. We conduct a census every 10 years to ensure that every member of the House of Representatives represents the same number of people. Every 10 years states take this information and draw congressional districts.

But the census has become much more. The Census Bureau has also asked questions about age, place of birth, marital status, education, etc. And we update these questions with each census. Historically this gives us a “snapshot” of our nation. For those of us who choose to climb our family tree, this information gives us an incredibly amount of information.

The Census Bureau comes under the Department of Commerce and two years ago President Trump nominated Wilber Ross. Not long after Mr. Ross assumed his office he began to advocate that the 2020 census ask each person in America about their citizenship status.

At face value that sounds benign but it’s not. From the first day of his campaign President Trump has proclaimed that they (noncitizens) are out to destroy our (citizens) way of life. It is their hope that families with undocumented residents will lie and exclude those household members from the census. Those uncounted people will not factor into the congressional district. Or perhaps they will answer truthfully and undocumented residents will in danger of being discovered and deported.

Those who favor this question respond by saying (rightly) that individual census information doesn’t become public information until 73 years after the census. Anyone can access information on the census from 1790 to 1940; in 2023 the 1950 census will be released.

Except. Except that in the 1940s, during World War II, the United States decided to inter Japanese Americans. They used several tools to determine who were Japanese, and one of them was data from the 1940 census. They broke the law. Don’t believe me? OK, at least read this article.

So in 2020 people with family members who are undocumented have to face a terrible dilemma: should they lie and give up some representation or should they tell the truth and fear a knock at midnight?

And, by the way, if you think the census should only count people with legal status, you need to amend the Constitution. The census counts all persons, not just persons the President likes.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 117: Is This the Beginning of the End?

Things are not looking good for President Trump these days, and virtually all of his wounds are self inflicted.

Last week his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned and wrote a scathing resignation letter. Secretary Mattis, in a break from most resignations, stated clearly that he holds a different world view than the President. He offered to stay until the end of February, but when Mr. Trump saw the reaction his letter was getting, he ordered him to leave by next week. When Mr. Trump was inaugurated nearly two years ago he appointed a group of retired service members he called “my generals.” They included Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor; H.R. McMaster as Mr. Flynn’s successor; and John Kelly, first as Secretary of Homeland Security, then as Chief of Staff. Now they are all gone, and Mr. Trump can’t avoid the view that he does not want advice, he wants yes men.

Mr. Trump moved into the White House during a bull market (ie, the stock market is going up) and has claimed credit for its ongoing rise. As I write this the Dow Jones Industrial average is 23,138. At the beginning of the year it was 24,824. The last week or so has been particularly volatile but we’re probably due to experience a recession in 2019. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 didn’t become another Great Depression in large part because President Obama slammed the brakes on it by working with the Federal Reserve and pouring money into the economy. President Trump lacks even a basic understanding of how the Fed works and if we do slip into another recession I fear he won’t know what to do.

Finally, we are on day 6 of a partial government shutdown over his promise to build a wall along the entire US/Mexico border. He’s broken several promises before (e.g. promising to jail Hillary Clinton) and his supporters haven’t seemed to mind. It’s often said that they take him seriously but not literally. The border wall appears to be different. Last week he appeared to be willing to defer funding for the wall to avoid a government shutdown. But he turned on Fox and Friends and saw that he was being criticized for backing down. He’s not a man who does well with criticism, but it goes deeper. I think he recognizes that if he doesn’t build the wall he will lose support from his base. The partial shutdown can’t go on forever, but he’s really trapped. Next week the Democrats take control of the House and there is no way he will get wall funding once that happens.

Unfortunately he is no longer hosting a reality TV show. His missteps have real consequences, for him and for us.

A Hundred Years Ago We Thought We Had Seen the End of War

On the morning of November 11, 1918 (11/11/18) at 11AM something happened that was supposed to change world history: Germany surrendered and World War I ended. Ever since, we’ve celebrated this day, first as Armistice Day, and now as Veteran’s Day.

Libraries have been written about the events of this war and I have no desire to rewrite a library. But I think it’s good to look at the events that led to its outbreak and what happened after.

And frankly, it all began with an event few people paid attention to. On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) and his wife Sophie (1868-1914) were shot to death by Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) in Sarajevo. The Archduke was the nephew of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary Franz Joseph I (1830-1916).

Unfortunately several nations had secret treaties with each other and favors were called in. Austria-Hungary rightly believed that Princip belonged to a a terrorist network called The Black Hand who was based in one of their territories, Serbia. Serbia wanted independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austria-Hungary, clearly on the decline, declared war on Serbia. Serbia then demanded their ally, Russia, join them and declare war on Austria-Hungary.

They did. But Austria-Hungary had a treaty with Germany and Germany declared war on Russia. France and England had a treaty with Russia and they declared war on Germany. In 1917 the United States declared war on Germany.

By the time the war ended in 1918 four empires laid in ruins: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. We can’t be sure, but we estimate that 16 million people (military and civilian) died.

The carnage from World War I led many to hope that it would make war so horrible that nobody would dare take up arms again. Alas, it didn’t. Twenty one years after the end of World War I Germany invaded Poland and began World War II.

The history of the 20th Century cannot be told without talking about World War I.

Someday there will be a war that ends wars.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 116: Kristallnacht Happened 80 Years Ago Tonight, But We Need To Pay Attention Today

Many of you reading this may not have heard of the term “Kristallnacht” but it’s important that we learn from it.

By 1938 it became clear that Adolph Hitler, who led Germany, wanted to eliminate all Jews from German soil, and many were already being deported to Poland. In Paris, a 17 year old Jew named Hershel Grynszpan learned that his family was among those deported. He decided to take matters into his own hands and went to the German Embassy in Paris and demanded to see the ambassador. This obviously didn’t happen, but a low level diplomat named Ernst Vom Rath did meet with him. Mr. Grynszpan then shot him to death.

And even though this was a simple murder in Paris, the Nazi’s reacted with rage. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered Nazi Storm Troopers to respond with “spontaneous demonstrations” against Jewish buildings and businesses. On the night of November 9th, they did just that. Kristallnacht translates to “The Night of the Broken Glass” and on that night over 7500 businesses and synagogues were damaged or destroyed. Additionally about 100 Jews were killed.

This night chills us not only because of the damage (and German police and fire were instructed not to interfere) but also the aftermath. Germany demanded that Jews pay them the equivalent of $400 million for the murder of Mr. Vom Rath; they also confiscated their businesses and collected the insurance money. Simply put, this was the exact definition blaming the victim. Because Mr. Vom Rath was murdered by a Jew, all Jews were at fault and any revenge was justified.

Why does this matter 80 years later? I’m not claiming that we are in danger of experiencing this again, but I do think our current President leverages a deep seeded fear of immigrants to his own advantage and uses some of the same tools. Famously, when he announced his candidacy in 2015 he told us that Mexico is sending us drug dealers, criminals and rapists.

I’ll be the first to recognize that not everybody to comes to our nation (legally or otherwise) respects our laws. But just as Hershel Grynszan didn’t act on behalf of all Jews, a single Mexican criminal doesn’t mean all Mexicans are criminals.

I’ve written about this previously, but in the days leading up to recent elections, our President sent 5200 active duty military and 2100 reservists to the Mexican border to combat a caravan of men, women, and children who are walking here to escape violence in their own countries.

The President portrays them as invaders. But this caravan is thousands of miles away and already outnumbered by the troops at the border (who are not allowed to interact with them.

Yes, he’s blaming the victims. Let’s look 80 years back and tell him that we won’t fall for it again.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 115: The Man’s Ignorance Takes My Breath Away

I’ve written several times before that President Trump lacks even a basic understanding of how our nation works. This week he has proven me right beyond anything I could have imagined.

In the last few weeks we’ve learned that men, women, and children from Central America have begun a migrant caravan through Mexico in the hopes of reaching the United States. They are fleeing poverty and gang violence and chose a dangerous and exhausting journey out of desperation.

But our President refuses to see this. He repeatedly refers to this pilgrimage as an invasion.

His two responses shows us again how little he knows about his job:

  • He has misused his power as Commander in Chief to move troops to the border. When he learned about the caravan he ordered state National Guard troops and active duty soldiers to the border to “protect us.” So here’s the problem: they can’t do any law enforcement. They can’t detain or arrest anyone who crosses the border illegally. In 1878 Congress passed a law called Posse Comitatus. It stated that our military protects us from those who endanger us from outside our nation and they cannot perform law enforcement duties. So if these troops are called to the Mexican border, what can they do? Good question. They can support law enforcement. In other words they can make repairs and transport law enforcement. Yes, they will can be uber for border patrol. As for me, I think that’s a terrific reason to pull our military from their jobs and families.
  • His lack of understanding of our Constitution continues to stun me. In the last few days President Trump has challenged our belief that anyone born here is, by right, a citizen. Actually, it’s not a belief: it’s embedded in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment was passed after the Civil War to ensure that newly freed slaves were guaranteed citizenship. Mr. Trump believes that he can end or change a Constitutional Amendment by executive order. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan recognizes this isn’t true. So does the Supreme Court. In 1898 the Supreme Court in United States vs. Wong Kim Ark ruled that anyone born in the US is automatically a citizen. Mr. Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873 to Chinese parents. In 1895 he visited China, but on his return to the United States he was refused entry because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that denied entry of nearly anyone who was Chinese. Mr. Ark claimed that he was a citizen by virtue of being born in the US. In 1898 the Court ruled that if someone is born in the United States, that person is a citizen and nothing else matters. You can read more about this in a previous post.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 114: Thoughts On the Saturday Night Massacre

Only true history nerds will recognize that on this day in 1973 President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) set in place the events we now call the Saturday Night Massacre.

In 1972, during President Nixon’s reelection campaign, five men were arrested for breaking into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington DC. They were attempting to bug the phones and gain intelligence on the campaign of the President’s opponent, Senator George McGovern (1922-2010).

And while President Nixon was reelected in 1972, the investigation of the break in grew in the minds of many Americans. By May of 1973 Congress began holding hearings and President Nixon (under pressure) appointed Archibald Cox (1912-2004) to investigate what we all began to call “Watergate.”

But Mr. Cox soon began to investigate whether or not President Nixon drove a coverup by bribing the original defendants to quietly plead guilty in return for cash and not implicating anyone else. President Nixon spent the summer of 1973 growing angrier and angrier over the investigation. On Saturday, October 20, 1973 he directed his Attorney General Elliot Richardson (1920-1999) to fire Mr. Cox. General Richardson refused to do so and resigned. President Nixon then ordered General Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus (b.1932) to fire Mr. Cox. Mr. Ruckelshaus also resigned. Finally Solicitor General Robert Bork (1927-2012) fired Mr. Cox.

Instead of ending the scandal it intensified it. Pressure grew on President Nixon, and on August 8, 1974 he resigned.

I write this not out of nostalgia for events 45 years ago, but because we’re seeing frightening parallels today. President Nixon ordered a coverup of events intended to ensure his reelection. Many of us believe that in 2016 then candidate Donald Trump conspired with Russia to provide false information to convince American voters to vote for him.

President Nixon spent the rest of his life convinced that he did nothing wrong and his enemies were out to get him.

As I said, the parallels are frightening.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 113: Thoughts On the Swamp and the Value of Public Service

Since the formation of our nation we’ve depended on good men and women who worked to make certain our government functioned and provided the service we depend on.  From the earliest days of the Post Office to the modern protection offered by the Department of Homeland Security we the people have been served well.  They’ve protected us from danger here at home and abroad.  They’ve insured that we have what we need in retirement. They’ve provided health care for the poor and food for hungry students.

But alongside this it’s been fashionable to see government employees as stupid and lazy. Full disclosure: my father worked for the government from 1950 to 1988 and my sister has worked for the government since 1984. These irresponsible charges have always annoyed me, but the administration of President Trump has dramatically increased this nonsense. I’ve spoken about his promise to drain the swamp and his belief that career government employees make up a deep state intent on frustrating his agenda. He doesn’t recognize the damage he is causing.

I was thinking about his I was listening to an interview of Michael Lewis. He is publicizing his new book The Fifth Risk. He argues that the Trump administration has no idea how to govern.

In the course of the interview he was asked this question: “So has your understanding of our bureaucracy changed through writing these stories? You can read the transcript of the entire interview here.

The transcript is verbatim and I’ve cleaned it up for this, but here is what he says:

Oh, my God. I didn’t know what I was going to find when I started knocking on the door of the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or the Commerce Department. And I turned out having exactly the same experience that political people have when they’re appointed to these jobs running these places and have these – some preconception but vague preconception of what the bureaucrats are like.

This happens over and over again. A new administration comes in. They have kind of a vague contempt for the people who are there. And four years later, they walk out and say those are the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. I expected to be briefed and informed by these people. I did not expect to be inspired by them. The kind of person who is still working in our government despite all the abuse the government takes is a mission-driven person. They’re not paid well. They’re there because they’re interested in the task. The people in the National Weather Service are people who have had a passion for the weather since they were little kids.

The people in the Department of Energy are scientists who’ve had a passion for their particular science since they were little kids. Essentially they are firefighters in spirit. And there’s something really moving about groups of people who are doing what they’re doing not for money but for mission. They have a purpose in life. And it just jumps off the page. I mean it jumped into my mind dealing with them. And so I came away from it thinking, wow, I can’t believe we as a society have treated this slice of our society – these kinds of people, who are really the best among us, as badly as we have.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 112: Thoughts on Justice Brett Kavanaugh

The resignation of US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy paved the way for President Trump to nominate someone who would advance his agenda. He did.

At first blush the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh appears to fit the bill. He’s young (53) and conservative and many on the right held out hope that he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that banned state laws that prohibited abortion.

Since the Senate needs to confirm any Supreme Court nomination by a simple majority and the Republicans have a majority over the Democrats, it appeared that Judge Kavanaugh should walk through the nomination and take his place on the bench.

But wait: It’s never that simple. Judge Kavanaugh attended high school and college in the 1980s, long before the #metoo movement. A few women accused him of sexual impropriety and he has denied these charges.

Unfortunately we’ve been this way before. In 1991, during the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, we heard from Anita Hill who accused Mr. Thomas of sexual harassment when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Many of us looked on the treatment of Ms. Hill with horror. At the time she was described as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” and her courage was in vain. Mr. Thomas won confirmation and has served on the Court for the last 27 years.

Shortly after Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination we heard from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist who now lives in California. When she was 15 years old and in high school she claims she was at a party with 17 year old Brett Kavanaugh where he sexually attacked her. She testified that he drew her into an upstairs bedroom where he assaulted her. When she attempted to cry for help he covered her mouth to prevent her from screaming and she feared he would accidentally suffocate her. At the time she did not tell anyone for a well reasoned fear that her behavior would be called into question (“What where you wearing?” “Did you do anything that gave him the impression that you wanted it?” “Did you find him attractive?”).

Defenders of Mr. Kavanaugh claim that she remained silent until now as a conspiracy to prevent his nomination. This isn’t true. Dr. Ford’s testimony describes her speaking with her husband in 2012. When she and her husband renovated their home she demanded a second front door. This didn’t make any sense to her husband until she confessed to him and a marriage counselor that she wouldn’t feel safe without an alternative opportunity to flee the house and this traced back to her assault by Brett Kavanaugh. Yes, she identified him by name.

Dr. Ford hoped this incident would remain private but this summer she learned, to her horror, that Mr. Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. She could have easily hid and pretended nothing happened, but she chose courage over comfort, patriotism over safety.

She had information about Mr. Kavanaugh that we didn’t and she felt she needed to share her story because it matters who sits on the highest court in the land. Like Anita Hill she had nothing to gain and everything to lose and yet she chose to describe her encounter with Mr. Kavanaugh.

And so she stepped forward. Along with many Americans, I found her credible.

Justice Kavanaugh responded as nearly everyone expected. He denied the assault and also denied he he has ever drank to the point where he doesn’t remember his behavior.

Others have testified that his consumption of alcohol during this time made his testimony false.

If Judge Kavanaugh had testified that his alcohol consumption in high school and college caused him to make poor decisions and sometimes not remember what happened that he now regrets, I could have supported him. If he had said that he doesn’t remember the incident but that he sometimes drank to the point of blacking out and he deeply regrets any pain he may have caused, I could have supported him. Had he said that he doesn’t remember assaulting someone but can’t claim it didn’t happen, I could have supported him.

But he didn’t. Instead chose the path of claiming to be a victim. He accused the Clintons of conspiring block his nomination.

Nominees for government office sometimes need to defend themselves and we all can remember times when we’ve all needed to fight for our reputation. But Judge Kavanaugh chose a low, low road. He didn’t just claim the charges were false, he claimed that those who believed Dr. Ford wished him evil. Clearly he was pandering to President Trump.

This should scare all of us. He may well serve on the Supreme Court for 30 or 40 years and he has shown us that his ambition outstretches his desire to serve the American people.

I’m Catholic. Now What Do I Do?

It’s been 16 years since the Boston Globe wrote about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. I think many of us Catholics hoped this event, painful as it was, would force us to confront this horrible reality and allow us to move forward. Unfortunately even today we continue to uncover this terrible cancer and recognize that we haven’t fully exposed the extent of the sin and the pain of the victims.

I’m Catholic and call it survivor’s guilt but the priests I knew as a child were good priests. I was an altar boy and that allowed me a “peek behind the curtain” to learn about the lives of these celibate men. Most Catholics looked at priests and nuns with a reverence that elevated them above the rest of us, and much of this rested on the belief that priests, brothers, and nuns were celibate. The idea that this group chose celibacy over marriage made them more pure and gave us the belief that they were “above sexuality.” Virtually all Catholics mistakenly believed that priests and nuns didn’t have sexual feelings.

As a former seminarian and a former priest I can tell you that how this belief isn’t true. I’m an ex priest who left active ministry to get married.

When the Boston Globe and other outlets began to publish the now famous Spotlight articles I wasn’t surprised but I was deeply saddened. Much has been written about pedophile priests and the bishops who protected them and I have no need to rehash all of it here. Suffice it to say that on those occasions when someone reported a priest to the bishop, they were mostly ignored. When confronted the bishops would claim ignorance of the problem.

So what went wrong? Well, almost everything went wrong, but I’m going to write about these specific things:

  • Bishops Saw Pedophilia As a Sin, Not a Crime: When confronted by a priest who was abusing children they saw these as problems to be solved, not crimes to be reported. I knew of one priest who, after several parish transfers, was finally sent for treatment. When he told the psychologist about the abuse, the psychologist told him he was required to report this to the police. Baffled, the priest said that he came seeking help, not arrest. But the psychologist told him that he broke the law and someone had to protect the children he abused.
  • Pedophile Priests Saw Themselves As Above the Law: When asked why they didn’t come forward, many of the abused children told authorities the pedophile priest warned them against speaking out and even threatened them. These children were told that nobody would believe them and some were even told that speaking out would be a sin. Those priests who were confronted claimed to be offended and outraged. Partly they denied the charges, but there was also an undercurrent of “how dare you accuse me. Don’t you know who I am?”
  • The Church Dramatically Underestimated the Long Term Damage the Priests Caused to Children: I remember hearing that the way forward was to pay off the families and keep this secret “for the protection of the child.” They refused to believe that the abuse led directly to years of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. While the Church was able to pretend this didn’t happen, the children didn’t.
  • The Process Where Priests Were Selected and Trained Was Flawed: When a man contacts a diocese or religious order to inquire about becoming a priest, it’s a long process. Until the 1970s it was not uncommon for a boy to enter the seminary in high school. Many of those who sought the priesthood were good men, but some never appeared to socialize well with their peer group. They were often aloof, quiet, and detached. Today many of us would see them as creepy but at the time they were thought to be pious. Once ordained, they often gravitated toward activities that allowed them access to children. Time and again we’ve heard stories of a priest who showered attention on a boy whose father was absent. Today we look to men who are mature, transparent, and serious about the work of ministry.

So where do we go from here? Because of the bravery of journalists and (more importantly) the bravery of those who were abused by priests, we have reason to hope. Important changes have been made.

We no longer allow priests unfettered access to our children. We would never imagine allowing a child to spend time alone in the home of a bachelor neighbor but in generations past we thought nothing of a child being alone with a priest. In large part this results from what we’ve learned.

The formation of priests has changed dramatically. When someone applies to seminary he undergoes a battery of psychological tests and I hope these tests can weed out potential pedophiles. In addition to that, those who were previously thought to be “pious” because of their inability to relate to other adults are now seen as red flags. I had a conversation with a vocation director who refused to recommend someone who wanted to be a priest. This candidate felt he was called by God to be a priest but showed virtually no proof of this. He had no spiritual director, the priests in his church didn’t know him, he participated in no ministries (e.g. he wasn’t a lector or a CCD teacher; he wasn’t a Eucharistic Minister or belonged to any organization in the church. In other words, nobody could vouch for him). His only response was that he felt God called him to be a priest. I think this vocation director served us well by not allowing him to apply to seminary. I’m not claiming this man was a pedophile but we can all agree that he would not have made a good priest.

I began this essay by talking about being Catholic and asking the question, “Now what do I do?” Let’s face it: it’s not easy being Catholic. And it’s even harder when we learn about institutional evil. But at the end of the day the Catholic Church that gave us pedophile priests also gave us St. Paul, St. Francis, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and my grandparents.

We are living in a dark chapter in the Church’s history, but not its last. At the end of the day I’m still Catholic because, despite all that’s happened, we are stronger than pedophile priests and the bishops who covered for them. I’m still Catholic because I believe that God’s love and God’s willingness to forgive dwarfs our ability to sin.