Political Animal

Trump’s Last Act: Risking National Security to Honor the Confederacy

It’s been 59 years since Congress failed to send an annual Defense Appropriations Bill to the president for signature. Still, that streak is now in danger in a dispute over the renaming of bases and ships that honor Confederate officers. Ironically, lawmakers in the House and Senate actually agree that the time has come to make the change, but they are facing a veto threat over the issue from President Trump. The question is how to respond.

The House adopted an amendment sponsored by Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland and Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska that compels the Pentagon to do away with Confederate names by the end of 2021, while the Senate Armed Services Committee’s language, which was sponsored by Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, would allow the changes to be phased in over three years. Neither version is acceptable to the president, who wants to preserve our country’s heritage of white supremacy.

Nonetheless, a lot of the negotiation between the House and Senate has involved the distinction between the phase-in times. The House Democrats eventually agreed to go along with the slower Senate version only to discover that the Mitch McConnell-run Senate won’t introduce a bill that Trump has promised to veto, “This is a simple provision that was in the Senate language,” [House Armed Services chairman Adam] Smith said Friday, “What we are insisting — this is the irony — the House is insisting that the conference report accept the Senate language.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma is seeking to strip the renaming language from the bill entirely, causing some internal division among House Democrats. If they stand firm, they’ll have to explain why our national security is threatened for lack of funds and weather a fight over who is to blame. This may not be advisable for a party that may have a House majority of just five seats after all the counting is done. On the other hand, the Republicans would have their own problems rationalizing their defense of a 19th-Century armed insurrection in defense of slavery.

For now, the Democrats who want to cave on the issue prefer to remain anonymous, especially because the Congressional Black Caucus remains adamant that the provision stay in the bill. Yet, they argue that President-elect Joe Biden can quickly rectify the situation by executive order. Therefore, it’s unnecessary to take political risks or put our defense funding in jeopardy. It’s a point echoed at the White House, where an unnamed source told NBC News, “Why put a large, important bill at risk for something that will come to pass anyway?”

On Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t back down, “It is imperative that the conference report include provisions that secure this essential priority. Our bases should reflect our highest ideals as Americans.” Yet, even though the House and Senate both passed their bills with veto-proof majorities, she can’t compel the Senate to bring a reconciled bill including the name changes up for a vote. The Military Times suggests that the two January 5th Senate runoff elections in Georgia are a factor, “Either way, the issue seems to be a loser for Georgia’s Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Breaking with Trump to override the veto could mean a loss in support among core GOP voters, while standing in favor of keeping the base names could drain support from independents.” For McConnell, the best option is to avoid a vote altogether and blame the Democrats for putting the country at risk.

The vote on the Defense Appropriations Authorization Act must occur in early December before the holiday recess if it’s going to be enacted by this Congress, but there is no clear way out of the impasse. The only hint at a compromise came from White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who reportedly floated the idea that Trump would relent on the Confederate issue if the Democrats agree to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This provision allows websites to post content from users without facing legal liability, and thankfully it’s not something the Democrats will trade away.

So far, the Biden transition hasn’t offered specific guidance, but Biden has been supportive of the renaming issue. There are many other important provisions in the bill, including a pay raise for our military, but it could be that Biden is happy to see the bill fail so that he can be at the center of crafting a replacement next year.

It would be a fitting end to the Trump presidency, with defense spending lapsing because Trump doesn’t want to insult fans of the Confederacy, and McConnell’s Republicans are unwilling to use a veto-proof majority to override him.

Pardon Me: Michael Flynn’s Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card Lands Face Up

“Lock her up! Lock her up!”

The crowd said their prayer, their mantra at the Republican National Convention in 2016, and Lt. General Michael Flynn (Ret.) went right along with them from the podium. Even Trump has never gone quite that far.

“Lock her up. That’s right… I have called on Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race,” Flynn told the crowd. “If I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.”

O Sweet Gods of Irony, thank you.

Flynn won’t be going to jail now that the president has pardoned him for lying to the FBI. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family. I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!”

The pardon marks the end of a three-year legal battle. In 2017, Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI. He’s been trying for the past year to withdraw his guilty plea in the case, which involved him giving false claims about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. during the Obama-Trump transition. Since then, Flynn has dug in his Army boots and insisted he’s innocent of the crime to which he admitted guilt. He’s tried to withdraw the plea. The Justice Department, in a widely condemned move, tried to get the guilty plea kicked out of court but met resistance from a still independent judiciary. Now, amidst the strangest transition ever, Flynn’s legal drama comes full circle. Trump adds another ally to his list of Friends with Pardons.

Amazingly, Flynn was briefly considered to be Trump”s running mate in 2016 but being pro-choice–a position he abandoned with gymnastic elasticity–made him unacceptable. He was a crank, a coot from the beginning. To his credit, Chris Christie, when he ran the transition, urged Trump not to hire Flynn. But, hey, Christie got dumped as head of the transition. Michael Flynn became national security adviser, the same job once held by Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy, and Brent Scowcroft. Flynn lasted 22 days before he was forced out after it emerged that he lied to Mike Pence and others about his call with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador, a call where he seemed to promise that all those bad Obama sanctions on Russia would go away.

Lying to the FBI made it a crime. And when the call, the lies, and the rest of it went public, Flynn was doomed. Remember this is what Sally Yates, the acting attorney general and maybe the next one, called Don McGahn about after the intel of the call was digested.

We still can’t be entirely sure why Flynn pled guilty and then changed his mind, fighting it out in court, waiting for DOJ intervention, and then getting a pardon in Trump’s final days. Why didn’t Trump go straight to the pardon? Why plead guilty in the first place? Why was Trump asking Comey to go easy on Flynn during their infamous White House dinner? And why didn’t Flynn, a veteran intel officer, assume the call was being recorded in the first place? Did he think the intel community would overlook it?

So many questions, then and now: Why is Flynn spouting QAnon nonsense? Is he all in or just seeking allies. Sidney Powell, the F. Lee Bailey of this cult, is Flynn’s lawyer.

The most fevered speculation about Flynn that he was a Russian asset was never proven. However, that RT dinner with Putin remains one of the weirdest images of the previous decade. But is it any weirder than being a consultant to Turkey during the entire campaign and into the transition in 2016, helping the Erdogan government try to extradite a dissident clergyman living in exile in Pennsylvania?

It’s hard to believe that Flynn was once a storied intelligence official who rose to become Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before his forced retirement in 2014, hence the Obama-Clinton hatred. I asked a senior Obama national security official during the transition in 2016: “Please tell me Flynn isn’t as bad as they say.”

“He’s worse,” the official told me.

Now he’s free, out of dough from legal expenses, but ready for his closeup on Trump TV.

 

Janet Yellen, Tony Blinken, Ron Klain and the End of Crazy Time

The announcement of cabinet members out of Biden transition headquarters should be as soothing as Trump’s post-election declarations are alarming. No one doubts that Jake Sullivan, the forthcoming national security adviser, or Tony Blinken, the soon to be secretary of state, are serious people. Lahnee Chen, Mitt Romney’s top policy advisor during the 2012 presidential race, described Sullivan, who he knows well, as a “top caliber” individual on MSNBC. You can disagree with the pro-multilateral views of the two, their take on the Iran arms deal, or their efforts to contain Vladimir Putin’s aggression against former Soviet republics. Still, you’re not going to see bonkers. Seb Gorka, the baritone giant with the memorable accent, famously said at the outset of the Trump administration, “The era of the pajama boys is over. The alpha males are back.” You might say “The era of the straightjacket crazy men is over. “There’s no more Mike Flynn, Richard Grenell, John Ratcliffe, or Steve Bannon who had a seat on the National Security Council for a time. Even Donald Trump’s accomplished and courtly first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who seems like Metternich compared to what followed, somehow managed to piss off the Hill, Foggy Bottom, and the White House–a rare hat trick–before getting shown the door. 

I know Blinken and like him and his wife, Evan Ryan, herself a much-admired veteran of the State Department and Office of the Vice President. We’ve got many friends in common. We’re both the same age and have been in D.C. for a long time. Stay in Washington long enough, and the people you knew as youngins become George Marshall and James Baker. As Barack Obama said this week, Blinken is consistently gracious and diplomatic, which will be a welcome change from Mike Pompeo. YouTube videos of Blinken speaking fluently on a Parisian talk show are making the rounds, as well as his Spotify recordings. It’s all very refreshing.

What I find interesting is that this is the first Secretary of State as staff. I don’t mean that pejoratively but John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Cy Vance, Ed Muskie were closer to presidential peers than top aides. Some of that is that age difference; Blinken is 20 years younger than Biden. I haven’t done the math, but just eyeballing it, I can’t imagine we’ve had a Secretary of State 20 years younger than the president in this century or ever. Still, at 58 Blinken is older than Condi Rice when she took the job at 55 or Henry Kissinger at 50.

This doesn’t mean Biden runs State or Blinken lacks his predecessors’ wide command to implement foreign policy. It does mean a healthy, close, and pre-existing relationship between president and secretary. It’s probably the closest of any since Rice and George W. Bush and before that James Baker and George H.W. Bush. If Biden and Blinken pursue bad policies, intimacy won’t save them, but it is likely to help with unforced errors. No one will doubt Blinken speaks for the president. And, hopefully, it does mean that historical tensions between State and Defense or State and the NSC advisor are likely to be quickly cooled if there are any at all. The other Biden picks all seem super solid, and choosing a Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who is strongest on the immigration side, was wise. Figuring out DACA, reuniting separated families, preparing for what surely be another wave of immigration from Central America makes more sense than someone whose bent is more like Marine John Kelly’s.

An interesting aside. I noted on Twitter that it was an exciting pick for the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jay Carney. He and Blinken are very close, and Blinken recruited him to be Joe Biden’s press secretary in 2009, a job Carney had before he was White House Press Secretary. Biden and Carney are very close. (Disclosure; I know and like Jay. We worked together as colleagues at Time and as competitors covering the White House and other beats before that.) Jay speaks fluent Russian and was a correspondent for Time in Moscow during the tumultuous Gorbachev-Yeltsin years. (His wife, Claire Shipman, the author, covered Moscow for CNN at the time.) Carney really could do the job. Having a Russian ambassador close to the secretary and president would be good. Would Carney want to give up what must be an insanely lucrative perch running public affairs for Amazon? Trading DC and Seattle and money for the gloomy autocracy of Putin may not be tempting. But if the shares have vested, it would be of service to the country. 

Janet Yellen is in a class by herself. She’s as ready to be Treasury Secretary as anyone and at 74 will be one of the oldest, older than Lloyd Bentsen (72) or Andrew Mellon (65). She’s universally liked and respected which is why even Trump almost kept her at the Fed. Steve Mnuchin has been among the least awful Trump cabinet members but this will feel like a big step up the first time you see her (yes, her!) signature on the currency

It’s a couple of days late, but I share in all of the accolades for Ron Klain. His Zelig-like ability to be everywhere is genuinely remarkable. Less remarked upon in his bio than, say, his tenure as Ebola czar is this: In 1993, Klain was asked by his old boss Justice Byron “Whizzer” White to inform the new Clinton White House of his retirement. Since then, he’s done everything, including two stints as chief of staff to the Vice President, once for Al Gore and once for Joe Biden. His toughest moment may have been having Kevin Spacey portray him in the HBO film about the Florida recount.

I’ve known Klain as a journalist, but 20 years ago, I negotiated with him. I had an idea when I was at Time that the magazine should join with its then corporate partner, CNN, to sponsor a Democratic Primary Debate at the Apollo Theatre, which was managed by AOL-Time-Warner. I sold the idea internally and took off my bureau and reporting duties to set it up. It meant a lot of time on the phone with the Bill Bradley and Al Gore camps. Everyone had the usual debate demands about time and podiums. But because this was in Harlem, the mecca for Black America, each campaign had all kinds of questions about seats, who would speak, offer benedictions, and whatnot. (Al Sharpton, on his way from provocateur to eminence grise, helped out informally.) Someone in Gore world had Klain, the Gore negotiator, insist that Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster, has some kind of role. CNN and Time had their journalists and weren’t going to budge. Klain knew that, I’m sure, but he used it as a tool to get other things and had game. 

Later that year, helping his O’Melveny mentor Warren Christopher lead the Gore fight in the Florida recount did not go his way.  But it was a reminder for Klain about how tough Republicans can be. He’d seen it on Capitol Hill, and as an aide to Janet Reno and in the White House, but it was a stark reminder that being a Wise Man in the age of the likes of Trump and Mitch McConnell requires being a brawler as well as a statesman. Biden has a weak hand: not enough congressional ballast and a pandemic to boot. In Klain, Blinken, and others, he has a very strong one.

Trump’s Enablers Are Sabotaging the Georgia Senate Runoff Election–and Helping Democrats

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Senate runoff elections in Georgia. The January 5 contests will determine which party has a bare majority in the body. If Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both win, the Senate will be tied at 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris being the tie breaker. If either Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue, holds on, Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader.

Does Donald Trump care which party controls the Senate? At this point, his narcissistic ego continues to be obsessed with conspiracy theories about a “rigged election” that he lost. If that’s the case, it’s easy to picture him not giving a damn about Loeffler (who he opposed), or Perdue, or anyone else.

As the president seeks to undermine confidence in the country’s entire election system with his lies, it is possible that, perhaps for the first time, his interests and those of the Republican Party are at odds. Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and strategist, addressed the conflict by saying that, “If [Trump] continues to disillusion voters … by saying that the elections were rigged and that your vote doesn’t matter, this could have severe consequences…in trying to keep those two seats Republican.”

On the social media platform Parler, Trump’s most avid supporters are already talking about boycotting the Georgia Senate election. Investigative reporter Marcus Baraum posed a question to Georgia’s voters: “If voting machines are rigged, how can you trust the runoff election?” Here are some of the responses:

YOU CAN’T! The only way to send a message is to BOYCOTT the vote. Make it HURT for them.

WE CAN’T!!!! WRITE IN TRUMP OR BOYCOTT.

Voting in an illegitimate election is tantamount to accepting deep state control. Your vote = the illusion of freedom. #boycottgeorgiarunoffs

STAY HOME. OSSOFF AND WARNOCK ARE A SMALL PRICE TO PAY.

DO NOT VOTE IN THE GEORGIA RUNOFFS, THE DEEP STATE WILL BE COLLECTING EVERYONE’S INFO. THIS IS A CHARADE, MEANT TO IDENTIFY PEOPLE WHO DON’T VOTE DEMOCRAT

It is unclear whether those comments represent a movement or simply a small subset of Georgia voters. But in a close race, it could only take a small number of disaffected Republicans to throw the race to the Democrats. 

Support for this effort isn’t limited to individual voters in Georgia. The Committee for American Sovereignty, a super PAC with ties to Roger Stone, unveiled a new web site, “Hack the Runoff,” calling on Georgians to write-in Trump’s name on their ballots.

With enough write-ins in the Georgia senate race, we can tilt the balance in Georgia in Trump’s favor! If we can do this, we have a real chance at getting these RINO senators to act on the illegitimate and corrupt election presided over by a Democrat party that is invested in the Communist takeover of Our Great Nation. We will not stop fighting for you, the American Patriot, against the evils of Socialism and inferior Religions. This is a Christian Nation and will be as long as we fight, together, for our sovereignty. 

Georgia’s most famous conservative, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, added fuel to the fire by suggesting that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are on the “other side,” inferring that they would help Democrats steal the election. Gingrich declared that “the anger over the secretary of state’s incompetence and the governor’s failure to lead could mean that Republicans just stay home.”

Joining the fray is L. Lin Wood, an Atlanta-based lawyer who is part of Trump’s legal team. Wood filed a suit in Georgia to have all mail-in ballots disqualified, but it was summarily dismissed by a Trump-appointed judge. Wood is now threatening to boycott the Senate races.

Demonstrating Wood’s following among Trump’s supporters, that statement was retweeted over 9,000 times.

Watching this unfold is a reminder that Donald Trump launched himself onto the national political scene via the birtherism conspiracy theory. Mitch McConnell didn’t mind that as long as it helped him maintain power. How ironic would it be if Trump’s conspiracy theorists wound up being the ones to sabotage the leader’s Senate majority?