Political Animal

Barr Is the Most Dangerous Figure in the Trump Administration

Over the last three years, Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have often been frustrated by the law. Here is just one example that was recently reported in the New York Times.

Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That’s not allowed either, they told him.

The article goes on to report that the staff who pointed to the illegality of the president’s demands have either been removed from their positions or left voluntarily. Every day there are fewer and fewer people in this administration to stop the president from engaging in illegal actions.

During a speech to the Federalist Society on Friday, Attorney General William Barr stated that he was not only proud to serve under Donald Trump, but argued that a president with those tendencies should be given unchecked executive power.

As most legal scholars sound the alarm about a growing unitary executive, Barr made the rather bizarre case for the opposite, demonstrating that there are conservatives who never got over the limits put in place following Nixon’s abuse of power.

I am concerned that the deck has become stacked against the Executive. Since the mid-60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the Executive branch’s authority, that accelerated after Watergate. More and more, the President’s ability to act in areas in which he has discretion has become smothered by the encroachments of the other branches.

It is clear that Barr held those extremist views about executive power before he occupied his current position as attorney general. But to understand why he maintains them in light of a president who is clearly unfit for office, we have to dig a little deeper. The explanation came later in Barr’s speech Friday night when he said this.

The fact of the matter is that, in waging a scorched earth, no-holds-barred war of “Resistance” against this Administration, it is the Left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law. This highlights a basic disadvantage that conservatives have always had in contesting the political issues of the day. It was adverted to by the old, curmudgeonly Federalist, Fisher Ames, in an essay during the early years of the Republic.

In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursing a deific end. They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications. They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides.

Conservatives, on the other hand, do not seek an earthly paradise. We are interested in preserving over the long run the proper balance of freedom and order necessary for healthy development of natural civil society and individual human flourishing. This means that we naturally test the propriety and wisdom of action under a “rule of law” standard. The essence of this standard is to ask what the overall impact on society over the long run if the action we are taking, or principle we are applying, in a given circumstance was universalized – that is, would it be good for society over the long haul if this was done in all like circumstances?

For these reasons, conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means. And this is as it should be, but there is no getting around the fact that this puts conservatives at a disadvantage when facing progressive holy war, especially when doing so under the weight of a hyper-partisan media.

There is no way to react to that argument other than to realize that William Barr drank the kool-aid a long time ago. The facts are that it is the current iteration of conservatives who have placed their political power over the interests of the country by obliterating norms. For example, did Mitch McConnell ask himself how his denial of hearings for a Supreme Court nominee from a Democratic president would impact society over the long run? Absolutely not. He simply did it and then shamelessly reversed himself when asked whether the same standard would apply to a Republican president.

By casting progressives as inherently malign in their agenda and lawless in their strategies, Barr’s position is that his political opponents lack legitimacy. It is impossible to overstate how dangerous it is for the top law enforcement officer in the country to weigh in so forcefully in demonizing one side of the political divide. In an administration consumed by incompetence and malfeasance, William Barr is second only to Trump in posing a threat to our democracy.

Keep in mind that this is an argument made by an attorney general who doesn’t seem to know the difference between justice and revenge. He is re-instituting the federal death penalty, while proudly serving under a president who pardons war criminals.

I would posit that Barr’s purpose in the speech to the Federalist Society, however, came at the end when he claimed that it is the judicial branch of the government that “has been the prime source of the erosion of separation-of-power principles generally, and Executive Branch authority specifically.”

The attorney general is aware of the fact that challenges to his extremist views on executive power are working their way through the courts and will shortly reach the Supreme Court. Those include everything from subpoenas issued during the impeachment inquiry to demands for the release of Trump’s tax returns. Barr goes to great lengths to argue that the judiciary is not authorized to be the arbiter of separation of powers disputes between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Other than claiming that his political opponents lack legitimacy, that might be the most bizarre and dangerous argument ever made by an attorney general. If the judiciary isn’t authorized to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches, then the former has free reign to do as they please until removed from office via an election, which is exactly Barr’s view of executive power.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of argument taken up by Supreme Court justices like Alito, Thomas, and Kavanaugh. It is very likely that Barr gave this speech precisely to lay it out for them and Trump’s supporters in the Federalist Society. But the emasculation of the judiciary might not sit very well with Gorsuch and Roberts. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote, here are the stakes for the Chief Justice, who actually has a history of supporting executive power.

[Roberts] will be forced to make hard decisions, not just about claims of an imperial presidency, but also about how much the Supreme Court wants to be seen carrying water for laughable legal arguments. For a chief justice who still maintains that there is no such thing as a Bush judge or an Obama judge, the stakes in terms of protecting his independent judiciary couldn’t be higher.

Barr just attempted to put an intellectual veneer on what amounts to a “laughable legal argument.” In the process, he engaged in the most partisan smear of his opponents that we’ve ever heard from an attorney general. If Roberts goes along with him, his court will justifiably live in infamy.

The New Defense is that Trump Did Nothing Wrong

As the New York Times reports, the Republicans spent the weekend backing away from their previous strategy of insisting that the Democrats have not provided any firsthand witnesses to the president’s instructions on Ukraine. That talking point will become less and less effective over time, starting with the testimony of E.U. ambassador Gordon Sondland this week. Should former national security advisor John Bolton ever testify, the “firsthand” argument will become completely inoperative.

So, instead, the president’s congressional and media defenders are shifting to a blanket defense that he did nothing wrong. This is typified by an argument Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio began making during former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony on Friday.

“The Ukrainians did nothing to — as far as investigations goes — to get the aid released,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of Mr. Trump’s chief defenders, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So there was never this quid pro quo that the Democrats all promise existed.”

This has a surface plausibility. Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to publicly announce that he was looking into the possibility that some of his countrymen had interfered in the 2016 campaign to help Hillary Clinton and perhaps had possession of one of the hacked DNC servers. Trump wanted Zelensky to go on CNN and state that he was investigating possible corruption on the part of Joe and Hunter Biden. But Zelensky never actually did either of those things.

On September 11, Trump released the aid to Ukraine, and he met with Zelensky at the United Nations in New York City on September 25. As has now been well-established, the president had refused to meet personally with Zelensky prior to September and put a hold on the military aid in an effort to pressure Zelensky into meeting his demands for “investigations.” But Zelensky eventually got the aid and a meeting despite never delivering on his end of the bargain.

However, these talking points are extraordinarily weak.

To demonstrate this, I need to put a few things in a timeline for you.

On July 18, the Office of Management and Budget announces to Pentagon and State Department officials that the aid packages to Ukraine are on hold.

On July 25, Trump has phone call with Ukrainian president Zelensky and demands investigations in return for javelin missiles.

On July 28, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announces his resignation, effective August 15.

On August 14, 2019, CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood and deputy White House counsel John A. Eisenberg call John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, and refer the whistleblower’s case for possible criminal investigation.

On August 15, 2019, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’s resignation becomes effective. Principal Deputy Director Sue Gordon also resigns after President Trump makes it clear that he doesn’t want her in the job.

On August 26, 2019, the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, forwards the whistleblower complaint to the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire.

On August 28, an article was published in Politico that publicly revealed a hold on Ukrainian military assistance initiated by the Office of Management and Budget back on July 18.

On September 9, after being briefed on the whistleblower report by Michael Atkinson, three Democrat-controlled House committees announced the launch of a “wide-ranging investigation” into whether military aid is being withheld in order “to pressure the government of Ukraine to assist the President’s reelection campaign.”

On September 10, national security adviser John Bolton was either fired or resigned, depending on who you ask. Prior to this, he quietly authorized the release of the State Department’s portion of Ukrainian aid.

…shortly before Sept. 9, Bolton had relayed a message to the State Department that the funding could go ahead. It’s not clear whether Bolton, who resigned from the job a week later, did so with Trump’s approval.

Bolton’s handling of the funding struck officials in the White House as violating protocol and caught [White House chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney by surprise, according to another person familiar with the matter.

On September 11, the State Department informs Congress that their aid package has been released, formalizing the decision Bolton had made before quitting/being fired.

On September 12, the formal announcement came that the Pentagon’s aid package had been released too.

As you can hopefully see, the White House did not release the aid until after it became publicly known that there was a hold. They didn’t release it until after congressional committees announced an investigation into a potential quid pro quo. The State Department portion was actually released by John Bolton on his own authority, and the Pentagon portion wasn’t rebased until after Bolton was gone.

The timing was unfortunate for Trump because it’s now well-established that Zelensky was preparing to meet the president’s demands and make an announcement about investigations during an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that Zelensky had planned to announce an investigation into Trump’s political rivals during a September interview on CNN, but those plans had been scrapped once Trump released promised security aid. Zakaria told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on Thursday that the interview had been months in the making, but it fell apart when the Ukraine scandal began to unfold…

So, Ukraine wasn’t freed from Trump’s pressure by a change of heart on Trump’s part. Bolton appears to have betrayed Trump as a kind of last act. The rest of the aid was released once the cat was already out of the bag.

As for the meeting with the president, Zelensky never received the White House meeting he desired. The meeting at the United Nations would have been a poor substitute in any circumstance, but was made infinitely more unsatisfactory when Trump decided to release the “transcript” of their July 25 call without giving Zelensky any prior notice.

The White House annoyed and embarrassed Ukraine’s president by releasing his comments in a private conversation with President Donald Trump — and may have violated the Ukrainian constitution.

The rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy released Wednesday shows that Trump pressed Ukraine to “look into” his Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The July 25 call is now at the center of a U.S. impeachment probe.

“I think such things, such conversations between heads of independent states, they shouldn’t be published,” Zelenskiy told reporters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

So, when Rep. Jim Jordan says that Ukraine could not have been pressured since they received the aid without Trump receiving the investigations, that’s inaccurate. The suggestion that they were not harmed is also ludicrous, since the whole world now knows that the president of the United States does not consider them an ally. This will hurt their efforts to negotiate a satisfactory peace with Russia.

Apparently, 70 percent of Americans disagree with Rep. Jordan’s assertion that Trump did nothing wrong, and a majority want him removed from office as punishment. This suggests to me that the new talking points aren’t going to be any more effective than the old ones.

How Trump Has Made Himself Vulnerable in Florida

He does business here. He wants to move his permanent residence here. He even tried to bring the G-7 heads of state here. But it is also here, in Florida, where President Trump’s re-election bid faces the greatest danger.

Democrats who want to win the 2020 election would do well to focus their foreign-policy positions both on attacking Trump’s Latin American failures and building their own plans for a prosperous, peaceful and democratic future in this hemisphere.

Ignoring southern and Caribbean basin nations is both bad policy and bad politics. A geopolitically sensitive understanding of Latin America’s importance and opportunities could be key not only to strengthening U.S. foreign-policy interests and extending our values, but to winning Florida’s electoral votes.

It’s long been conventional wisdom that the Sunshine State’s Cuban population has played a dominating role in America’s confrontational policy towards Havana. Presidential candidates would do well to recognize and answer the vocal population’s opposition to normalized relations with Cuba’s regime. But there is more to Florida’s foreign-policy interests than simply standing up to Cuba’s dictatorship.

Miami is effectively Latin America’s capital. What happens in South Beach reverberates in South America. Myriad businesses have been built by Spanish-speaking expats who brought their hopes and pinned their happiness on North American success. At the same time, they maintain their interests and relations with extended families living in Caracas, Santiago and Buenos Aires.

Nicaragua, Cuba, and most prominently, Venezuela are Trump’s outright political failures, with regimes that are growing stronger by the day thanks to a rhetorically rich, but inconsistent and incoherent U.S. policy. One day the Trump administration threatens military action, the next day it suggests change takes time and counsels patience. Managua, Havana and Caracas are foundering, but their leaders vilify Trump and blame American economic sanctions to justify heavy-handed political crackdowns. All the while, Russia and China are spending cash to prop-up regional caudillos, gaining favor, exploiting energy reserves, achieving alliances and building geopolitical advantage.

Up until now, Argentina was a win for stable, economically moderate democratic forces. Instead, its recent presidential campaign promised a return to Peronist principles. For a White House that seemingly models itself on Juan and Eva Peron’s cult-of-personality politics, this may be just fine. For anyone who cares about Latin America’s democratic maturation, this is greatly concerning.

Making Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Argentina’s new vice president is a devastating blow to the country’s hopes for expanding international markets. Tarred by corruption and dismissing previous allegations of blatant illegality, Kirchner rode a wave of populism back to power.

Chile is on fire as well, and prospects for pacification are remote. Hong Kong-scale street protests are ablaze in a country that has shown powerful economic growth but unacceptable economic inequality. Consequential conflicts have pushed things to the brink, and authorities cancelled the COP25 meeting where Trump and Xi Jinping were supposed to work out a trade and tariff deal.

Closer to home, Mexico is teetering, too. On the one hand, Trump’s tough-love “Remain in Mexico” program is in place. On the other hand, the recent slaughter of a dual-citizen Mormon family and the armed stand-off last month with drug lord El Chapo’s son is severely testing Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration.

Mexico’s institutional weaknesses are showing. Helping it requires less White House bashing and more sane and stable diplomacy. There is great need for more engagement and support for our most influential and, arguably, most important neighboring nation. Instead, a distracted and undisciplined Trump ignores an affirmative Mexico policy. The president seems to think a successful Latin policy means paying minimum wage salaries to Mar-a-Lago immigrant employees and celebrating Cinco de Mayo on Twitter.

Domestic policy plays into this failed and anti-Latin narrative, too. Two words: Puerto Rico. This U.S. territory’s economy continues to suffer from a massive debt crisis and insufficient federal aid in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Trump treats the island and its American residents as second-class citizens, articulating racial tropes he uses to denigrate other Spanish-speaking Latin Americans.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The region’s one hope is Bolivia following Evo Morales’s ouster—no thanks to the Trump administration. A wholly internal indigenous movement, people power pushed out a leader who lost sight of his nation’s needs.

Proposing a deeper engagement policy with Latin America will not replace the need to address other 2020 presidential campaign issues. Nevertheless, it is essential to regaining U.S. leadership in this hemisphere.

Trump’s Latin American failures could cause his beloved Florida to defect from the Republican presidential candidate. Democrats credibly addressing foreign-policy issues of concern to many of America’s 60 million Latinos, however, could help win Florida’s key electoral votes—and the White House.

The Ukraine Racket Involved Two Quid Pro Quos

Republicans have made a big deal out of the fact that a president has the right to fire an ambassador. During her testimony on Friday, Marie Yovanovitch agreed. She said,”I have always understood that I served at the pleasure of the President.” The issue under review is not the fact that Trump fired Yovanovitch. Rather, it is the reason he did so. As Yovanovitch’s testimony made clear, she became an obstacle to the president’s attempt to exploit corruption in Ukraine.

Here is how Yovanovitch described the situation in Ukraine.

It was— and remains—a top U.S. priority to help Ukraine fight corruption. Significant progress has been made since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Unfortunately, as the past couple of months have underlined, not all Ukrainians embraced our anti-corruption work. Thus, perhaps, it was not surprising, that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of a desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me. What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. Ambassador.

As George Kent said during Wednesday’s hearing, “You can’t promote principled anti-corruption action without pissing off corrupt people.” It’s clear that Ambassador Yovanovitch pissed off some corrupt people and they launched a smear campaign in order to get her fired.

We know that on the Ukrainian end, those people included two corrupt former prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko. It appears that the role of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman was to connect people like that to Rudy Giuliani, as well as reporters like John Solomon. That’s the nexus between Yovanovitch and Trump’s attempt to bribe the Ukrainian government in order to get dirt on his political opponent. There were actually three groups of actors in this drama.

  1. Trump wanted dirt on Joe Biden, as well as affirmation of his conspiracy theory about Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election to help Clinton.
  2. Zelensky wanted U.S. support, both in the form of a White House meeting and military aid.
  3. Corrupt Ukranians wanted to upend the anti-corruption efforts of career professionals like Yovanovitch.

The Ukrainians fed dirt on Yovanovitch to both Giuliani and Solomon, which eventually got her fired. At the same time, they dished out lies about the Bidens and the 2016 election, which Giuliani took back to Trump and Solomon published in his articles. Trump used those lies to pressure Zelensky into making a public statement about opening investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election—holding out a White House meeting and military aid as the payoff. Everyone was going to get what they wanted, until the whistleblower exposed the whole racket.

That is why I nearly jumped out of my seat on Wednesday when Representative Jim Himes said that “President Trump wasn’t trying to end corruption in Ukraine, I think he was trying to aim corruption in Ukraine at Vice-President Biden and at the 2020 election.” There were actually two quid pro quos that were part of this whole deal. In addition to the one Trump was using against Zelensky, the corrupt prosecutors were willing to dish up dirt on the president’s political opponents in exchange for an end to U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.

This is where Bill Taylor’s testimony about the two diplomatic channels that were at work in Ukraine—the regular and the irregular—comes into play. Amidst their efforts to get dirt on Trump’s political opponents, the irregular channel, led by Rudy Giuliani, was working to undermine the anti-corruption efforts of the regular channel. The smears against Yovanovich and her eventual firing were part of that effort.