Eyeing the Uncertainty Ahead

On the weekend of February 9-10, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal devoted her column to whether President Trump and his team will be ready for their first crisis. She indicated that it was “almost a miracle” that no crisis had occurred during Mr. Trump’s first two years, and added, “He’ll face one eventually, and there’s good reason to worry the administration will be unprepared.” She listed as possibilities Russian aggression against Europe, Chinese aggression against Taiwan, a coordinated cyber attack on the U.S. power grid, a bombing of Iran missile sites, or “an accidental launch somewhere.”

I generally think highly of Ms. Noonan. After considering her comments, I constructed a post in which I agreed that it was highly likely that the Trump Administration will face a crisis during the next two years, and that one could have little confidence that the Administration will be ready when it occurs. At that point, however, I indicated that I had somewhat less concern than she did about the possibility of a crisis being provoked by Russia or China. I contended that although these adversaries almost certainly initially relished the American domestic instability wrought by Mr. Trump, they themselves might now have concerns about the President’s erratic behavior as he is increasingly besieged at home – and how he might lash out if confronted. I suggested that both nations might well be warily eyeing the President as one would a capricious 8-year-old holding a loaded gun.

I thought it was sound. I liked it. I’m glad I didn’t publish it. I’ve realized that unfortunately, what I had been planning to submit was very possibly wrong with regard to Russia, and perhaps with regard to China as well.

Although in the last two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has psychologically cemented his Crimean annexation, made Russia a Middle East military power broker through relations with Iran and Syria, reestablished ties with China, established significant relationships with purported U. S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and watched as Mr. Trump has sown shards of doubt within the NATO alliance, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out that Mr. Putin has a track record of pushing ahead where he sees opportunity. Dr. Haass pointed not only to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 — at a time that President Obama’s influence was waning — but also Russia’s aggressive actions vis a vis NATO partner Georgia in August 2008 to “protect” two separatist Georgian regions – a point at which President G.W. Bush lacked the practical ability to intercede. Since almost any future President of either party will take a firmer stand against Russian aggression than Mr. Putin can reasonably expect from Mr. Trump, the risk to even those NATO nations within what Russia perceives as its region of influence, such as Estonia and Latvia, may increase significantly if Mr. Putin perceives that Mr. Trump is likely to be removed from office or lose his reelection bid.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his intent to fulfill the “China Dream” – to make China the world’s preeminent power. He is seeking to make China the world’s largest economy, improve its military might, and have it ingratiate itself across the globe through infrastructure projects and benign (from a power politics perspective) alliances such as Climate Change. However, China’s economy has faltered during the last two years, it faces dangerous credit and demographic crises, and Mr. Xi is facing some party disgruntlement. China still needs a significant U.S. interaction to foster its own economic growth. Although its interests over the next two years seemingly lie in catering to Mr. Trump rather than antagonizing him … Taiwan has got to look mighty tempting. American commitment to Taiwan is the only thing standing between the island and a mainland takeover. Its independence is the pebble in Mr. Xi’s shoe. Henry Kissinger wrote in World Order that a senior Chinese diplomat once told him that the Korean War was the only strategic mistake Mao Zedong ever made, because the resulting American commitment to Taiwan “delayed Chinese unification by a century.” (Seventy years have now passed since the Communist takeover in China.) The Washington Post reported this week that Mr. Xi “is growing impatient with Taiwan.” It is not inconceivable that Mr. Xi might conclude that President Trump’s clear distaste for international entanglements combined with Mr. Trump’s domestic difficulties provides Mr. Xi the best opportunity to “unify” China as Mr. Xi will have during his presidency.

We are entering what are arguably the most perilous times our nation has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hopefully, we will not necessarily become so preoccupied with maintaining the foundations of our system during the remainder of the Trump presidency that our capability to safeguard world order is materially compromised; there’s no other nation on earth with the means or the will to do it. Whether alt-conservatives or avid progressives realize it (and at times, I doubt that either group does), Americans have as much to lose as the rest of humankind if we abandon our global guardianship role to any greater extent than we have already.

On the Foxconn Unraveling and Related Reflections

This supplements earlier references in these pages to Wisconsin’s relationship with Foxconn: a transaction that is now becoming almost undisputedly recognized as a fiasco. Despite Foxconn’s recent declaration – after jawboning by President Trump – that the facility will include manufacturing capability, upon hearing of the Foxconn statement, I had the same thought as set forth by Charlie Sykes in The Bulwark article linked below:

“[The Foxconn statement about maintaining manufacturing at the Wisconsin facility] seemed driven more by a desire to kiss the president’s ring than by business realities. So what will Foxconn do? Short term, they are likely to maintain a sort of Trumpian Potemkin village in Wisconsin to keep up the appearance that the company is doing Trump’s bidding. [My emphasis].”

https://thebulwark.com/the-foxconn-boondoggle-was-even-worse-than-we-thought/

Mr. Sykes clearly implies that he believes that Foxconn simply intends to wait out Mr. Trump. If the President’s political fortunes continue to slide, it would seem likely that Foxconn will ultimately quietly scuttle its Racine manufacturing plans with no real fear of U. S. reprisal … but with possibly significant consequences for Mr. Trump’s potentially-pivotal 2020 Wisconsin electoral prospects.

Mr. Sykes’ comment reminded me of a reference in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about current U.S. – E.U. trade negotiations, which suggested that in the face of aggressive U.S. demands, one of the E.U.’s strategies may be simply … to wait out the Trump Administration.  As recently as last Friday, the Journal similarly reported that in current U.S.-China trade negotiations, “…Chinese officials seem confident of a deal because they believe Mr. Trump needs the political boost … The Chinese team came [to the negotiating table the week of January 28] with very few new proposals … Instead, the officials largely reiterated [past Chinese] pledges ….”

If the President’s political standing doesn’t improve, Mr. Trump and his team may find that over the next two years, delay and retrenchment become favored tactics across a wide spectrum of those from whom the Administration is seeking concessions.

On American Kindness

Over the weekend, we were in Milwaukee for a family gathering, and our fairly new Prius was struck, opening a gash on the left rear side that we were pretty sure when we discovered it was at an angle such that wind shear would cause some of the rear fender to rip off if we tried to drive back to Madison without having it attended to. (No note was left.) From an engine standpoint, the car was completely drivable. We were able to make an appointment at a nearby service center (more on the shop below), and at a few minutes past 5 on a Friday night, set off to drive about 4 miles in significant winds and bitter, bitter cold with the dark coming on.

We didn’t make it. About half way to the shop, we heard a bang and realized that part of the fender had flipped back due to the wind. We pulled over in the now almost-dark to retrieve what had come loose, cars moving around us, fairly concerned about what we were going to do.

A van slowly pulled up behind us and stopped. Its motor kept running, its headlights stayed on, and its emergency flashers came on. An African-American gentleman, in his mid-50’s – warm, friendly, reassuring — got out of the van, came up, and — with cars continuously going by us and in temperatures and wind cold enough to numb your bare hands in a couple of minutes — helped us put the pieces temporarily back in place, and with duct tape he provided, we got the fender patched sufficiently so we could finish the drive. Then we exchanged names, we thanked him – I don’t think it was possible for us to thank him profusely enough – shook hands, and … he bid us good night, and went on his way.

Got to the service center. The shop is for engine repair, not body work, but the rep and a couple of the technicians came over and when they heard that our goal was simply to make the car secure enough to get back to Madison, they said they thought they could attach a couple of fasteners that would hold the left rear together, and told us to go to dinner (we had family with us in another car) and come back in about an hour.

When we got back, the car looked like it had a few stitches, and was clearly sturdy enough for us to get it home. We asked what we owed; we heard: One of the guys had some time.  No charge. Glad we could help.

For those of us that tend to focus on the seemingly paralyzing political acrimony we have at home and the serious issues we face here and internationally, it’s good to recall: There exists, as there always has, a good will, a kindness, a generosity of deed and spirit in America.

On William Barr’s Nomination for Attorney General: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there ;).

I understand that William Barr’s nomination for Attorney General will be reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee today. While I appreciate the unease that Democrats feel regarding the prospect of Mr. Barr’s directing the Special Counsel inquiry, I would suggest that their concerns are insufficient to reject his nomination. I would vote to confirm Mr. Barr as Attorney General.

As noted in Part I of this post, no one questions Mr. Barr’s objective qualifications to serve as U.S. Attorney General. The majority of Democrats’ concerns center on the memo he provided to the Justice Department (and President Trump’s legal team) in June of this year. While it strains credulity to discount the notion that Mr. Barr intended this memo as an application for the A.G. position, surprisingly little of the commentary I have heard has remarked upon what I consider a pertinent fact: that Mr. Barr’s apparent defense of the President was limited to what he considered, on public policy grounds, as an inappropriate expansion of the applicability of the federal obstruction of justice statute to acts of Executive discretion. Interestingly, he was making the case against such expansion at a time when conventional wisdom held (and apparently the President and his advisors believed) that Mr. Trump’s legal transgression, if any, had more or less arisen from an inadvertent obstruction of justice borne of his New York real estate instincts.

Beginning with Donald Trump, Jr.’s 2017 admission that the 2016 Trump Tower meeting involved a discussion of how Russian representatives could provide the Trump Campaign information damaging to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign, a string of ever-more-damning revelations seems to be casting aside the previously prevailing impression that in their dealings with the Russians, members of the Trump campaign were shady dupes rather than active conspirators. Now, we have seen serious indications that (1) agents of the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee’s email server; (2) the Russian agents delivered the hacked emails to Wikileaks; and (3) Wikileaks was in communication with Mr. Trump’s longtime confidant, Roger Stone. Subject to correction by the learned eyes that read these pages, I understand that if Mr. Mueller is able to establish that Wikileaks affirmatively coordinated with the Trump Campaign, through Mr. Stone or otherwise, to “drop” electronically stolen DNC emails damaging to Ms. Clinton at times opportune to the Trump Campaign … that’s a criminal conspiracy.

It should seemingly be noted that Mr. Barr said little in his memo regarding the ramifications that would ensue if the Special Counsel presented solid evidence showing that the Trump Campaign had criminally conspired with the Russian Government against Sec. Clinton – and that what he did say, in light of current circumstances, may provide scant comfort to the President: “If [the President and his campaign engaged in illegal collusion], then the issue of ‘obstruction’ is a sideshow … Mueller should get on with the task at hand and reach a conclusion on collusion.

Partisans on both sides are currently all too-ready to impute ulterior motives to those with whom they disagree. If solid evidence that senior members of the Trump Campaign illegally colluded with Russia is presented to Mr. Barr by a universally-respected investigator, I suggest that one need assume either that he will bring the information to the Congress, or that he is a partisan – indeed, traitorous – blackguard. I am willing to believe, unless and until I have evidence to the contrary, that Mr. Barr will do what is necessary to protect the United States while conducting his duty. While he clearly auditioned for the position he will now hold, it should not be forgotten: that his opinions regarding the President’s constitutional prerogatives and the limitations of the federal obstruction of justice statute are legally defensible; that he is not a longtime confidant of President Trump, having risen in the G.H.W. Bush administration; that he has testified that he has respect for the Special Counsel, and does not believe that Mr. Mueller would engage in a “Witch Hunt”; and that he has indicated that he will release as much of the Mueller Report to the public as he can in accordance with DOJ guidelines. I judge his qualified responses regarding release of the Mueller report and any conflict of issues he might have to comport with what one would expect from an able, savvy public servant intent on keeping his options open. Even if he doesn’t release Mr. Mueller’s full report to the public (which could be for completely justifiable grounds such as protection of CIA and FBI sources and methods), it doesn’t mean that he won’t make the entire report available in closed session to appropriate members of Congress if there is evidence of behavior threatening to the Republic. I suspect that he will ultimately opt to release the full report, for two reasons: his failure to do so will raise doubts about his role in the process, and … it will inevitably get out anyway.

There is reportedly some Democratic concern that Mr. Barr might redact parts of the Mueller Report dealing with President Trump’s behavior because there can be no recourse against Mr. Trump arising out of the Special Counsel’s investigation; a sitting President cannot be indicted under DOJ guidelines. Even if such would be the case, I would offer that Democrats’ concerns are misplaced. I don’t believe that there is a DOJ policy against indicting a President’s relatives. If the Mueller team has uncovered solid evidence of collusion between senior Trump Campaign officials and Russian operatives, it will almost certainly implicate Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner; if indictments of those worthies are handed down, the media focus on their criminal proceedings will not only be tantamount to indicting the President, it will emasculate what remains of his presidency. We could ironically end up with a situation in which Republicans want the President removed from office, so they can begin a political recovery under then-President Pence, while Democrats are content to have Mr. Trump swing in the political winds.

On William Barr’s Nomination for Attorney General: Part I

It is being reported that the confirmation vote on President Trump’s nomination of William Barr to become Attorney General will be brought to the Senate floor in coming days. A delay in the process has been caused by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats’ concerns regarding Mr. Barr’s broad view of presidential power and how those views might affect his reasoning as to what parts of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report will be made public. It has also been reported that Mr. Barr’s nomination is expected to be confirmed by the Senate when brought to a vote.

As I’ve indicated in several past notes addressing other Presidential nominations, I follow an admittedly simple two-factor analysis in deciding whether I think the nominee should be confirmed:   Is the nominee objectively qualified for the position? If so, is there any other objective factor that should nonetheless disqualify him/her from the position for which s/he has been nominated (e.g., prior criminal conviction, demonstrated drug abuse problem, etc.)? Since the Constitution provides our President the power to nominate whom s/he considers appropriate, I don’t believe that a nominee’s subjective leanings or policy positions (if within the bounds of law) should be part of the equation.

No one questions Mr. Barr’s objective qualifications to serve as U.S. Attorney General; indeed, he has already satisfactorily filled the post under President G.H.W. Bush. Democrats’ concerns focus on ancillary (albeit noteworthy) factors:

(1) That Mr. Barr seemingly auditioned for the job by sending Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Steve Engel a memo (which Mr. Barr apparently also supplied to the President’s personal lawyers) disputing the legal premise, which Mr. Barr attributed to Mr. Mueller, that a President of the United States could be found guilty of obstruction of justice for performing what the nominee called “facially-lawful” acts due to an allegedly “improper motive.”

(2) That during his confirmation hearing, Mr. Barr refused to state that he will release the Special Counsel’s full report to the public.

(3) That Mr. Barr also testified that he will make his own judgement regarding whether to recuse himself from direction of Mr. Mueller’s investigation due to any perceived conflict of interest, even if such issues are raised by DOJ authorities.

It should be noted that Mr. Barr also testified that he would resign rather than discharge Mr. Mueller without good cause, that he has great respect for Mr. Mueller, and that he does not believe that Mr. Mueller would engage in a “Witch Hunt.”

The link to Mr. Barr’s memorandum is provided below. It is a dense document that only a lawyer would savor reviewing.  Although the nominee labored at length, his legal premise is narrowly focused on the applicability of the federal obstruction of justice statute to a President’s behavior; in his note, he asserted that particularly in what has become a hyper-partisan environment, we cannot risk hamstringing the Executive’s ability to perform a Constitutionally-authorized function by enabling opponents of the action to mount obstruction of justice hurdles to its execution based entirely on allegations that the Executive is acting due to an improper motive.

While I confess that I have not digested all of Mr. Barr’s memo, I did attempt to discern its gist, and note the following passages:

Page 1: “Obviously, the President … can commit obstruction [by] sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function….[I]f a President knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury, or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or the availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction [citing behavior by Presidents Nixon and Clinton].”

Page 3: “[I]f a DOJ investigation is going to take down a democratically-elected President, it is imperative to the health of our system and to our national cohesion that any claim of wrongdoing is solidly based on evidence of a real crime – not a debatable one. [Emphasis in Original].”

Page 3: “Fourth, even if one were to indulge in Mueller’s obstruction theory … the President’s motive of removing Comey and commenting on Flynn could not have been ‘corrupt’ unless the President and his campaign were actually guilty of illegal collusion. [Underscore Mr. Barr’s emphasis; italics mine].”

Page 10: “The Constitution itself places no limit on the President’s authority to act on matters which concern him or his own conduct.”

Finally:

Pages 12 – 13: “Under the particular circumstances here, the issue of obstruction only becomes ripe after the alleged collusion by the President or his campaign is established first [sic] …. Until Mueller can show that there was unlawful collusion, he cannot show that the President had an improper ‘cover up’ motive….Either the President and his campaign engaged in illegal collusion or they did not. If they did, then the issue of ‘obstruction’ is a sideshow … Mueller should get on with the task at hand and reach a conclusion on collusion. [My Emphasis].”

https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5638848/June-2018-Barr-Memo-to-DOJ-Muellers-Obstruction.pdf

Are the Democrats’ concerns about Mr. Barr’s legal opinions and restricted responses regarding conflict of interest and publication of the Mueller Report sufficient that his confirmation should be denied? I submit that they are not … but also that Mr. Barr’s positions may ultimately provide less comfort to the President than Mr. Trump thinks. To finish in Part II.

Making Federal Election Day a National Holiday

I assume that most are now aware that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sharply criticized House Democrats’ Bill HR-1, which includes, among other electoral reform changes, a provision designating federal election days as paid holidays for federal workers. (There are many parts of the bill that seem, at least as reported, sensible to me, but I haven’t read the bill and a reaction to its overall effect is beyond the scope of this note and at least as of today, my ken.) No end of pundits have hooted at Sen. McConnell’s comments, noting that they constitute a tacit admission of what voting statistics have consistently shown for quite a while: at least in politically purple areas of the country, the more people that vote, the better the Democrats fare.

While I deplore Mr. McConnell’s obvious sentiment – as dewy-eyed as I know it sounds, every American should hope that every American that is legally eligible to vote does so – I concur with the premise that we do not need additional federal cost without productivity at a time of spiraling deficits. I would suggest that Democrats call Mr. McConnell’s bid, and raise: offer a separate bill that makes federal election days national holidays (a counter that would cover all of our nation’s workers, not just federal employees) while providing that Presidents’ Day (which is apparently technically still called, “Washington’s Birthday”) shall only be observed as a national holiday in years in which federal elections are not held. (I originally considered the notion that Election Day replace Columbus Day, which is closer on the calendar to federal election days, but I understand that not all states heed Columbus Day.) It does not seem Noise to suggest that the Father of our Nation might consider a change to federal law that made it easier for more Americans to vote a greater testament to his legacy than remembering his birthday; I know I would.

Such a modification to the Democrats’ current measure would facilitate voting by our citizens while not increasing federal costs. [Somehow, I still don’t think Sen. McConnell will go for it ;)].

First Warmups: 2020 Democratic Presidential Sweepstakes

Last week’s Presidential Sweepstakes news might be considered a bit disheartening for those whose primary objective for the 2020 Presidential Election is defeating President Trump (although I would venture that the President’s supporters probably didn’t consider the rest of week’s news particularly heartening). As the Special Prosecutor’s investigation and report remain in process:

  1. My initial reaction to Sen. Kamala Harris (CA), now that I’ve heard parts of her speech themes and researched a bit further into her background and positions, is that she’d be an ideal Democratic opponent from Mr. Trump’s point of view: an underqualified (I would submit that being a prosecutor and two-year Senator do not constitute sufficient presidential qualifications), avid progressive who will be certain to win California and New York … and against whom, as things stand today, the President would arguably have a realistic hope of holding Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and Georgia while making the Democrats work to hold Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Attached is a December, 2018, link to an article setting forth what various professional political operatives see as the 2020 Presidential swing states.

 

https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/election/campaigns/article222917745.html

 

  1. If former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz decides to run as an independent, Mr. Trump’s chances to be re-elected are significantly enhanced. I have always felt — long before I was aware that the Bush family felt the same – that Ross Perot siphoned enough votes away from President G.H.W. Bush in a sufficient number of states to tip the race to then-Candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

 

  1. Former Vice President Joe Biden is waiting too long to declare his intentions. While all understood that he had no heart for a 2016 due to the loss of his son, saying that he’s got “family concerns” holding up his decision at this point is simply dithering. By this time, he should either have made peace with his family concerns … or realized that he can’t, and said so.  In the first full week of January of this year, he should have come to the podium and either declared for the presidency — thereby freezing out some centrists who probably won’t run if he does — or indicated that he wasn’t going to run, enabling those centrists to get in and counteract the early momentum of the avid progressives who, I would suggest, will make easier matchup opponents for the President.  Mr. Biden needs to get in … or get out.

 

  1. Finally, a run that will most probably be merely a footnote to the 2020 race that nonetheless gives me hope for the future: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Buttigieg is one of the announced hopefuls that I had never heard of before he declared. The Mayor, 37, an Afghanistan veteran and the first openly gay candidate to seek the presidency, is impressive, and provides what I find a powerful nonpartisan cross-generational message regarding our need to prepare for the changes to our people’s lives and occupations being and to be caused by automation. (Attached is a link to his video.) I believe that we could be very well served by electing Mr. Buttigieg president … some day. The mayoralty of a small Midwestern city does not provide sufficient grounding for the presidency; he needs some seasoning as Indiana’s Governor or U.S. Senator.

 

 

https://nowthisnews.com/videos/politics/automation-is-coming-for-american-workers-says-mayor-pete-buttigieg

 

Much more to come.