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 Justice Chronicles, Volume 31: Fifty Years Ago A Shot Rang Out In The Memphis Sky

I suspect we all sometimes think about the first national event we remember. For me it was the assissination of Martin Luther King (1929-1968).

At the time I was living in Woodbridge, Virginia, about 20 miles south of Washington D.C. I remember April 4, 1968 because of the riots that burned parts of the city. It was a scary time.

Dr. King spent his short life battling against discrimination. He was in Memphis that day to support sanitation workers who were treated horribly. They were virtually all African Americans and they struck against the city of Memphis after the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. On February 1, 1968 they sat on the back of a sanitation truck to find shelter from the rain. The truck malfunctioned and they were crushed to death. Their coworkers decided that they’d had enough and went on strike. Dr. King traveled there to support them.

Meanwhile, James Earl Ray (1928-1998) saw an opportunity to become a hero in the White community. He learned that Dr. King was staying at the Lorraine Motel and rented a room that gave him a clear shot at Dr. King. At 6:01 PM Mr. Ray aimed a rifle at Dr. King and killed him.

I lived briefly in Memphis and walked to the Lorraine Motel several times. It’s now a museum that educates future generations on discrimination.

We may never eliminate discrimination in our nation but let us all take a moment to honor Dr. King.

How Low Will They Go? At This Point We Still Don’t Know

As I write this it’s been six weeks since fourteen children and three adults were murdered at Stoneman Douglas High School; you can see a list of them here.

This week is Holy Week in the Christian tradition and Spring Break for many students. This past weekend many survivors of the massacre traveled to Washington D.C. to call for an end to gun violence in schools (President Trump, meanwhile, spent the weekend at Mar a Lago).

I was proud of the job they did. Most teenagers fear public speaking but we heard voices that make us hopeful of the future. Well, not all of us.

Several “adults” in our nation used this event to bully these courageous Americans. Emma Gonzalez has come under particular criticism. For reasons she need not explain she wears her hair short. Two weeks ago she was called a skinhead lesbian by a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in Maine. In fairness, this candidate withdrew from the race.

During her speech on Saturday Emma ripped up a paper target. But a conservative website photoshopped it and replaced the target with a copy of the Constitution, implying that she was un-American.

Emma was born here but her father was born in Cuba and the jacket she wore had a Cuban flag sown on her shirt. Republican Steve King of Iowa said this: “This is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense.” Mr. King ignored her trauma, her determination, her travel, and her words. Instead he focused on a patch on her shirt that honored her ancestors.

For what it’s worth the Cuban flag was designed in 1848 or 1849 and adopted as the official flag in 1902. It bears no connection with Communism or Fidel Castro. Let me draw an analogy: My maternal grandfather was born in Boston, Massachusetts but his parents were born in Ireland. Like many Americans I’m proud of my heritage and while I don’t wear an Irish flag on my sleeve, I know I can. But if I did and someone saw my patch and accused me of supporting the Irish Republican Army I would not answer well. I’d accuse that person of caring not at all for me or those I love. I’d accuse that person of lying to silence me.

That’s what Emma’s bullies have done. While she speaks truth or power, they speak power to truth. They hope that their power will so intimidate her that she will cower into the shadows.

I haven’t met Emma, but I pray her truth will win out. I see her as a brave young woman who did not choose this path, but when confronted with her role, she grabbed it. I feel certain that while this weekend showed us our first glimpse of a young woman who makes us proud, it won’t be our last.

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.

Yosemite 2018

As readers of this blog know, Nancy and I travel to Yosemite National Park every winter.  We began this in 2000 when we stumbled on what was called then “Chef’s Holidays” but is now called Taste of Yosemite.

It’s a magical time as we avoid the gridlock that happens most of the year but it’s also terrific for Nancy who attends several cooking demonstrations (and Tom who gets to eat the recipes she brings home).

We also enjoy hiking the valley floor and taking pictures of what we see.  But several of the last few years we’ve been concerned over the effect of climate change and this year was no exception.

I recognize that many of you who read this blog live in areas that would love warmer temperatures in the winter but that misses the point.  Yosemite thrives on a weather pattern that is not affected by human interference.  This year we heard the sound of chainsaws and learned that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of trees were cut down as a result of drought and infestation of bark beetles.

Climate change harms all of us, but not right away and not all at once.  We who love Yosemite and other national parks fear that the things that make these places magical are in danger.  In addition to drought and beetle infestation, Yosemite has also endured fires that scar it for decades.

We pray that 2019 is more like 2017.