Trump Consumes All the Oxygen in Washington

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Comey and Trump: Back in the news

W.J. Astore

Another day, another Trump scandal, this one stemming from a memo written by the former FBI director, James Comey, in the aftermath of a private conversation he had with the President.  According to the Comey memo, the president urged him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, using these words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Obstruction of justice?  Impeachable offense?  That’s debatable.  But the alleged conversation obviously takes on heightened meaning after Trump fired Comey, in part because of frustration with the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

It’s unclear if any crimes were committed here.  What is clear is that Trump is a poor manager of himself as well as his staff.  Flynn, with his dodgy record, should never have been hired.  Furthermore, the president should not have gone out on a limb to defend him, cajoling the FBI director, in so many words, to go easy on my guy.

Perhaps Trump’s biggest flaw is his combination of boastfulness, lack of judgment, and his ego-driven need to take charge.  He reminds me of an Air Force saying: “He’s all Mach and no compass heading.”  He’ll break the sound barrier while moving in the opposite direction to sound governance.

I wrote back in March of 2016 that candidate Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency by boasting about how America’s generals would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  My main point was that Trump had no understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities, nor did he seem to care much about learning them.  If Comey’s memo is accurate, I think it’s another instance of Trump either not knowing or not caring about propriety, about the rule of law.

Trump’s experience in life is as a CEO of a family business.  Everyone has always worked for him; in essence, he’s been King Trump.  Even though he’s now president, he still acts like a king, making up his own rules as he goes along, not knowing a rule book already exists.

Will Trump survive his first term?  As Yoda might say, Difficult to see — always in motion the future.  One thing is certain: Trump continues to consume all the oxygen in Washington, extinguishing any hope of real progress or effective governance at the federal level.

What Is True National Security?

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He promises safety and security.  You just have to kneel.

W.J. Astore

What is true national security?  Recent answers to this question focus on the U.S. military, Homeland Security, various intelligence agencies, and the like.  The “threat” is usually defined as foreign terrorists, primarily of the Islamist variety; marauding immigrants, mainly of the Mexican variety; and cyber hackers, often of the Russian variety.  To “secure” the homeland, to make us “safe,” the U.S. government spends in the neighborhood of $750 billion, each and every year, on the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA (and there are roughly 15 more agencies after those two goliaths).

But what makes people truly secure?  How about a living wage, decent health care, and quality education?  Affordable housing?  Some time off to decompress, to pursue one’s hobbies, to connect with family and friends, to continue to grow as a human being?  Water without lead, air without toxins, land without poisons?

These thoughts came to me as I read the usual anodyne statement put out by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, nominated as President Trump’s new National Security Adviser.  “The safety of the American people and the security of the American homeland are our top priorities,” McMaster said in his statement.

I agree that safety and security are important, but I wouldn’t place them as America’s top priorities, even in the realm of national defense.  Our top priority is supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution, including all those rights and freedoms that are often threatened in nervous and excitable times.  Institutions like the press, freedoms like the right to assemble and protest, the right to individual privacy, and the like.

When the powerful threaten those freedoms, as President Trump is doing by denouncing the press as the enemy of the people, that very act is a bigger threat to national security than ISIS or illegal immigrants or Russian hackers or what-have-you.

Security is not just about weapons and warriors and killing terrorists and other “bad hombres,” and safety is not just about guarding your money and property or even your person from physical harm.  Safety and security draw their strength from our Constitution, our communities, and our societal institutions, not only those that catch and punish criminals, but those that enlighten us, those that make us better, those that enrich our souls.

In the USA, we have a very narrow and negative definition of safety and security.  It’s a definition that’s been increasingly militarized, much like our government, over the last few decades.

We’d be wise to broaden and deepen our view of what security and safety really mean; we’d be especially wise not to allow leaders like Donald Trump to define them for us.  In their minds, security and safety mean doing what you’re told while shutting up and paying your taxes.

Kneeling before General Zod (to cite Superman for a moment) or indeed any other leader is not what I call safety and security.

Update: Just after I wrote this, I saw these two headlines from today: “Trump on deportations: ‘It’s a military operation,'” and “Trump adviser Bannon assails media at CPAC: Of media coverage of Trump, Steve Bannon said: ‘It’s not only not going to get better — it’s going to get worse every day… they’re corporatist, globalist media.'”

There you have it: militarization (at least of rhetoric) and scapegoating of the media before the fact.  Judge Trump, Bannon, and Co. by their deeds, but also by their words.

Update 2: Last night, a PBS report noted that the USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 80% of opioid prescriptions.  The overuse of powerful and addictive painkillers points to serious problems in national morale.  Even as many Americans have poor access to health care or overpay for it, America itself is awash in prescription drugs, many of them either highly expensive or highly addictive, or both. This reliance on prescription drugs is a sign of a complex communal malaise, yet the government seems most focused on policing the use of marijuana, which is now legal in many states.

Trump: A Worrisome Commander-in-Chief

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
He doesn’t speak softly, even as he now inherits a very big U.S. military stick. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

W.J. Astore

I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016.  This candidate literally gave me the creeps.  As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me.  The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency.  That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.

What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me?  He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.  After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”

“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”

“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”

Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March.  And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief.  What the hell?

Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back.  But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief.  Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.

Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals.  Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate.  Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.

Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula.  Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care.  (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.)  Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones.  He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind.  Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.

When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss.  Can Trump grow up?  Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.

Last Night, Donald Trump Disqualified Himself

Donald Trump
Hail the Leader (Trump at FreedomFest, July 11, 2015 (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

As a retired military officer, I watched last night’s Republican debate from Detroit (transcript here) with a special focus on which candidate is qualified to lead the military as commander-in-chief.  I knew, of course, that Donald Trump had promised in the past to use torture against America’s enemies (last night, he called them “animals”), that he would pursue and kill not only terrorists but their families (apparently because the families always know, according to Trump, what their father/brother/sister is up to, as if there are no secrets in families).  Trump, in short, is an Old Testament “eye for an eye” man: if they behead us, we’ll torture and kill them, end of story.

But Trump was put on the spot when he was asked what he would do if the U.S. military failed to carry out his unlawful orders.  Instead of saying he wouldn’t issue unlawful orders, that he would support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which as president would be his sworn duty to uphold, Trump boasted that the military would follow his orders no matter what.

America: those are the words of a dictator.

Here’s what was said:

BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.

So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they’re illegal.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, you look at the Middle East. They’re chopping off heads. They’re chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way. They’re drowning people in steel cages. And he — now we’re talking about waterboarding.

This really started with Ted, a question was asked of Ted last — two debates ago about waterboarding. And Ted was, you know, having a hard time with that question, to be totally honest with you. They then came to me, what do you think of waterboarding? I said it’s fine. And if we want to go stronger, I’d go stronger, too, because, frankly…

(APPLAUSE)

… that’s the way I feel. Can you imagine — can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding and we should go tougher than waterboarding. That’s my opinion.

BAIER: But targeting terrorists’ families?

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by “The Leader.” Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land.  We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.

Trump’s performance last night reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.

And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.