Government by Absurdity Takes Many Forms
Watching tens of millions of Americans lose their healthcare in slow motion.
By Charles P. Pierce July 26, 2017
WASHINGTON—A corporal’s guard of protestors remained on the South Lawn of the Capitol late Tuesday night as the U.S. Senate finished its work for the day by voting down measures that would’ve replaced the Affordable Care Act with something far worse. Half-drunk frat boys heckled them, and they heckled back, and all went quiet at the end of an ugly day.
Inside, there was a curious vote on something called the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would cost 22 million Americans their health insurance. This contained an amendment from Tailgunner Ted Cruz that would allow the propagation of street-surance, cheap plans that cover nothing. It also contained an amendment from Rob Portman, Republican Senator from Ohio, that was aimed primarily at keeping Rob Portman the Republican Senator from Ohio. Because these elements of this jerry-rigged monstrosity had not been scored by the CBO, the measure needed 60 votes to pass, unless the Senate agreed to waive certain procedural requirements. The vote on the waiver failed, miserably, with nine Republicans joining a united Democratic minority to sink it, 57-43.
(Those people clinging to the notion that John McCain nobly came back to vote to begin debate in order ultimately to vote against the final passage of whatever Mitch McConnell cobbles together now have to reckon with the fact that McCain voted in favor of a bill he had said he opposed six hours earlier. Was the senator confused? He could’ve consulted his BFF Lindsey Graham, who was one of the nine Republicans who voted against it.)
After the vote, the Tailgunner gathered a brief gaggle outside the Senate chamber in which he expressed confidence that his effort to legitimize insurance fraud remained a viable option. “This is the first step in the process,” he said. “I believe it’s too soon to tell [when his amendment would re-emerge] when you’ve got unlimited amendments. I believe we will see the Consumer Freedom Amendment included in the legislation that is ultimately enacted. When in the process we will see that, the legislative path to get there, time will tell. But this is the way the legislative process works.”
Half-drunk frat boys heckled them, and they heckled back, and all went quiet at the end of an ugly day.
Clearly, what Cruz is hoping for is that something—probably the “skinny repeal,” which would eliminate only certain unpopular elements of the ACA—will come out of the Senate, whereupon the show will move into conference with the House of Representatives, where the wild things do run, and where the Freedom Caucus is running things. (At the moment, this cry of loons is trying to submarine the CBO.) The extreme and the crazy—and, it must be said, the vastly unpopular—likely will be injected there. Odds are pretty decent that the Tailgunner’s desire to free the American people from the shackles of health will be met through some bill of which very nearly 20 percent of the American people approve.
There’s more of this coming today; it’s likely that the Senate will get to roundly vote down an even less popular variation on Wednesday and then move along to something they can send into the crazy grinder at the other side of the Capitol. All this, of course, is to pass something almost universally unpopular to replace something that cracked 50 percent approval not so very long ago. Government by absurdity takes many forms.
Respond to this post on the Esquire Politics Facebook page.
The Price of John McCain’s Republican Loyalty
He has a terminal illness. He’s on government healthcare. But he’s a Republican.
By Charles P. Pierce July 25, 2017
WASHINGTON—It was an ugly day in the United States Senate on Tuesday, as ugly a day as has been seen in that chamber since the death of Strom Thurmond, who used to make a day ugly simply by showing up. The Senate took up the Motion To Proceed on whatever the hell hash Mitch McConnell wants to make out of the American healthcare system. (The decision now seems to be between whether we kick 30 million, 22 million, or 18 million of our fellow citizens to the curb.) There was a loud protest in the Senate gallery, and the Capitol police, who were everywhere, went out of their way to prevent any media coverage of the ensuing arrests. (In this, they were helped immeasurably by a bunch of little omadhauns from the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms, one of whom was so insufferable that he was even money to get thrown out a window.) That was really ugly.
The vote was 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie. Back when he was becoming the very unpopular governor of Indiana, Mike Pence grabbed the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion with both hands. Now, he was the deciding vote in the first real test of whether the Republican congressional majorities will eviscerate Medicaid entirely. That was really ugly, too.
But the ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure. He flew all the way across the country, leaving his high-end government healthcare behind in Arizona, in order to cast the deciding vote to allow debate on whatever ghastly critter emerges from what has been an utterly undemocratic process. He flew all the way across the country in order to facilitate the process of denying to millions of Americans the kind of medical treatment that is keeping him alive, and to do so at the behest of a president* who mocked McCain’s undeniable military heroism.
For longtime McCain watchers, and I count myself as one of them, this is something of a pattern. In 2000, George W. Bush’s campaign slandered him and his young daughter, and radical fundamentalist Christians joined in so eagerly that McCain delivered the best speech of his career, calling those people “agents of intolerance.” By 2006, he was on Meet The Press, which ultimately always was the constituency he cared most about, saying that the late Jerry Falwell was no longer an agent of intolerance. He was hugging Bush, and he was speaking at Liberty University. All of this seems to support the theory that the best way to win over John McCain is to treat him as badly as possible.
So he got a standing ovation when he walked into the chamber, and that was all right, and then he cast the vote to proceed. And then, having done so, he climbed onto his high horse and delivered an address every word of which was belied by the simple “yes” he had traveled so far to cast.
“Our deliberations today – not just our debates, but the exercise of all our responsibilities – authorizing government policies, appropriating the funds to implement them, exercising our advice and consent role – are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. And right now they aren’t producing much for the American people. “Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
His “yes” won the day for a secret process that produced a bill that nobody’s seen yet.
“Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That’s an approach that’s been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.”
He could have struck a blow for these noble sentiments—and, most notably, for “regular order”—by voting no. It would have been the most resounding vote of his long career. But he said, “yes.”
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered. I will not vote for the bill as it is today. It’s a shell of a bill right now. We all know that. I have changes urged by my state’s governor that will have to be included to earn my support for final passage of any bill. I know many of you will have to see the bill changed substantially for you to support it. We’ve tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them it’s better than nothing, asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don’t think that is going to work in the end. And it probably shouldn’t.”
God, this is gorge-inducing. Alone, he could’ve stopped the process he so dislikes in its tracks. He could’ve done it in a way that echoed through the ages. But he said, “yes.”
“The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare. And we shouldn’t do the same with ours.”
Alas, this is an absolute lie, and an embarrassing one, and the Straight Talk Express is in the ditch. The Affordable Care Act was the product of endless hearings and at least 100 amendments proposed by Republicans. It was scored by the CBO. The Senate debated it for almost a month, and the senators knew what was in it. Right now, the bill that John McCain facilitated likely will be one that isn’t scored by the CBO, and the Freedom Caucus crackpots in the House are trying to defund the CBO and hand the job of scoring legislation to the Heritage Foundation. I would bet a substantial number of buffalo nickels that John McCain votes for whatever bill finally comes before him, no matter how many people’s lives that bill makes miserable.
I wanted this to be different. In 2000, I thought McCain might be the person to lead his party back to marginal sanity at least. But he wanted to be president, so he became like all the rest of them. Yes, he scolded that person who said Barack Obama was a Muslim, but he chose as his running mate a nutty person who still may believe he is. Yes, he put his name on a campaign finance reform bill, but he also voted for every member of the Supreme Court who subsequently eviscerated that law, and others like it, and he’s been absent from that fight ever since. There have been very few senators as loyal to the party line as John McCain. He has been a great lost opportunity to the country. Now, he will end his career as the face of whatever wretchedness is brought on the country by whatever the bill finally is.
By the end of the afternoon, the Democrats had taken over one of the wide marble staircases outside the Capitol. They had walked across the piazza and onto the East Lawn of the Capitol to talk to some protesters, many of whom are struggling with diseases and disabilities that would be covered under the Affordable Care Act, and certainly under the Cadillac healthcare plan enjoyed by John McCain. It was a nice gesture, and they were warmly received, but there was something of the stunt to it.
The Republicans have the votes now. Dean Heller and Rob Portman and Shelley Moore Capito have lined up with their party once, and the likelihood is their respective prices will be met again because this is not a policy issue any more, it is pure politics now, a promise made by an extremist majority to its unthinking base. That’s what the end of this ugly day looked like, a day on which the final bloody death of Barack Obama’s legacy was placed on the fast track by people who know better, and on which Susan Collins of Maine was more of a maverick than John McCain ever was. It was an ugly day in the U.S. Senate, and there was nothing but ruin everywhere you looked.
Respond to this post on the Esquire Politics Facebook page.
John McCain had the chance to do the right thing on healthcare. He failed
Lucia Graves July 25, 2017
There are many reasons to respect the Arizona senator, but his remarkable stoicism and service can’t excuse his yes vote in the Senate
‘John McCain lost more than his good health – he’s lost his decency.’ Photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
John McCain often gets cast as a truth-teller to Donald Trump, but his voting record says otherwise. And nowhere was that more clear than on Tuesday when, despite his own ill health, when it came to the decision of whether to take other people’s healthcare away, he cast a decisive vote in the wrong direction.
Addressing his fellow lawmakers, McCain called passionately for a return to regular order, and for senators to work constructively across the aisle. “Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act,” he said in his Tuesday speech. “If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let’s return to regular order!”
Though he has often railed against Trump as if he can’t actually affect what he is complaining about, McCain isn’t a helpless observer – he’s an influential senator. And on Tuesday, as the country draws closer than ever before to the death of the Affordable Care Act, he was a pivotal one.
Had McCain simply voted no to the question of whether the Senate should begin debate on a repeal or replacement of Obamacare, which squeaked by in the Senate with a vote of 51-50, the chamber’s leader Mitch McConnell might well have been forced to do the very thing McCain claimed to want: restore the chamber to order.
Instead, McCain, who was recently and tragically diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, and who returned to DC explicitly to help save the GOP healthcare bill, voted yes.
To put it another way, faced with a rare opportunity to make a real tangible difference, he risked traveling amid failing health to make possible the very thing he decried.
More damningly, he voted yes to take away healthcare from millions of Americans – including an untold number of other cancer patients – even as he continues to access benefits of the quality care afforded him as a senator, care subsidized by American taxpayers.
Never mind that at this point in time Republicans have little idea what the bill they would replace Obamacare with will contain. Never mind that we have arrived at this point through a secretive process devoid of public hearings, or even that Republicans would have the healthcare of millions of American women dreamed up entirely by men.
Politics appears to have triumphed over logic. Sadly, the politics that won out today are is not even a sort personally dear to John McCain – that much was made clear in his floor speech. It’s not even his own electoral politics that won out, either; after a tough re-election battle, he won’t be up again until 2022, freeing him up as much as electorally possible to act solely with his moral compass as the guide.
Instead, McCain did the very thing he had just railed against, acting out of partisan loyalty.
There are many reasons to respect McCain, a former prisoner of war who endured torture in the five and a half years he spent captive in North Vietnam, and has campaigned against torture by the US. His 2008 campaign against Barack Obama now looks like the very model of civility in the wake of Trump.
But even his remarkable stoicism and service can’t excuse what he just did.
The grim reality is that health insurance is of the utmost importance when it comes to surviving cancer, the second leading killer in America after heart disease. Put simply, the uninsured are much more likely to die than those with insurance – and sooner.
A recent study in the journal Cancer found the uninsured were 88% more likely to die of testicular cancer than those with insurance. For patients with Medicaid, the number dropped to a 58% greater chance of dying than privately insured patients like McCain.
The study found the same trend held true for patients with glioblastoma, the malignant brain cancer McCain was recently diagnosed with. It’s a terribly disease with a median life expectancy with his type of just 15 months, and that’s as true for McCain as anyone, but the uninsured still die faster than anyone.
Voting to subject any one of millions of Americans to go to meet such a fate without even the benefit of the best tools medicine has to fight it is cruel, given McCain’s new-found appreciation of the benefit.
The estimated cost of McCain’s recent surgery to remove the cancer above his eye is a sum that would bankrupt many Americans, using the Medicare rates for which McCain qualifies.
There’s a way to fix the fact that many Americans under the age of 65 don’t have access to any such care: let everyone under it buy in, a scheme for which many on the left have argued. But on Tuesday, McCain helped move the country in precisely the opposite direction.
We still don’t know which of several bills Republicans will bring up for a vote, but all of them involve millions of Americans losing the very sort of health insurance upon which McCain depends.
The only question is whether it’s a matter of 22, 32 or “just” 15 million people who will lose access. What we can say with confidence is whatever version moves forward, McCain’s lost more than his good health – he’s lost his decency.
Since you’re here …
… we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organizations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.
I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information. Thomasine F-R.
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to support it, our future would be much more secure.
AEP to Spend $4.5 Billion on the Largest Wind Farm in the U.S.
By Chris Martin and Jim Polson July 26, 2017
- Project to include a new 350-mile, high-voltage power line
- Would become the largest single-site wind farm in the U.S.
U.S. utility giant American Electric Power Co. is looking to invest $4.5 billion in a massive wind farm spread across Oklahoma’s panhandle and a new transmission line that will carry the power to customers.
AEP will seek the necessary approvals from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas to buy the 2,000-megawatt Wind Catcher farm from developer Invenergy LLC, the Columbus, Ohio-based utility owner said in a statement Wednesday. The company is expected to file plans with state regulators on July 31.
The deal marks AEP’s largest renewable energy project ever and underscores a dramatic shift in America’s power resources. Once the largest consumer of coal in the U.S., AEP is now shuttering money-losing coal plants and diversifying its power mix along with the rest of the utility sector as renewable energy becomes cheaper and coal units more costly to maintain. Wind Catcher is set to become the largest wind farm in the nation and the second-biggest in the world, according to Invenergy.
AEP said it’ll need a 350-mile (563-kilometer), high-voltage transmission line to deliver the wind farm’s power to customers of its Southwestern Electric Power Co. and Public Service Co. of Oklahoma utilities. The company said it expects the low cost of the wind power will save their customers $7 billion over 25 years.
Southwestern Electric will own 70 percent of the project and power supplies, and Public Service of Oklahoma will get the rest.
Construction on the wind farm began in 2016, and the plant is scheduled to go into service in mid-2020, Invenergy said in an email. The company is contracted to run the farm, which is using General Electric Co. turbines, for the first five years.
AEP’s announcement comes less than a month after Oklahoma ended a tax credit for wind production, more than three years ahead of schedule. Governor Mary Fallin had said the industry no longer needed incentives.
With assistance by Mark Chediak
Washington Post-Opinion, Right Turn
Trump’s ‘best’ people aren’t even average
By Jennifer Rubin July 25, 2017
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow in April. (Sergei Chirikov/European Pressphoto Agency)
As much as his outrageous tweets and attacks on opponents, President Trump’s personnel picks define his presidency. And that’s bad news for him and the country.
CNN reports that Trump’s treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions provoked some soul-searching by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson:
For weeks, conversations with Tillerson friends outside of Washington have left the impression that he, despite his frustrations, was determined to stay on the job at least through the end of the year. That would allow time to continue efforts to reorganize the State Department and would mean he could claim to have put in a year as America’s top diplomat. But two sources who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity over the weekend said they would not be surprised if there was a “Rexit” from Foggy Bottom sooner than that.
Tillerson was never the right man for the job, despite the somewhat inexplicable recommendations he received from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of defense Robert Gates and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley. He had no diplomatic or government service, and no real feel for a very public job that requires interaction with the media. He never seemed to grasp the role of values in American foreign policy, nor demonstrate an appreciation for the role of Congress in oversight. Perhaps no one could have succeeded in the job, but it was apparent to many of us from the start that Tillerson was an ill-conceived choice.
Then there is Jared Kushner, the president’s unprepared and underwhelming son-in-law. Whether one believes him or not on the subject of cooperation with Russian officials, his written and verbal defense of his series of badly conceived meetings with Russian officials and failure to report them as required by his security clearance application reveal a callow young man, too arrogant to seek advice and too unsophisticated outside New York real estate circles to be entrusted with such daunting responsibilities. The notion that the president has entrusted him with Middle East peace, relations with Mexico, government innovation, China talks and criminal-justice reform was always silly; now it seems downright ludicrous that anyone (other than a relative) would find him seasoned enough for one, let alone all, of these jobs. Trump’s reliance on his family, again as many anticipated, has led to not only massive conflicts of interest but also a level of incompetence rarely seen at the highest level of government.
Moving along to Trump’s press operation, the president has gone from a language-challenged press secretary with no White House experience to a slick New York operator with no White House experience. The well-intentioned suggestion that Trump might find someone respected by the media and sophisticated in the ways of government now seems like a pipe dream. Trump wants yes-men and slick spinners like himself; expertise and credibility are not requirements but rather handicaps.
The hope that a business figure who reinvented presidential campaigning might have access to a talent pool filled with figures who could bring new expertise and insights to government was always fanciful. Trump defines success in terms of money and demands absolute loyalty. He lacks any interest in policy and therefore sees no need for policy experts. His narcissism prevents him from getting those more knowledgeable and sophisticated than he to serve. Those with high ethical standards were hard to lure into government.
So he surrounds himself with his pampered children, fellow billionaires and a hodgepodge of sycophants. And the replacements for these people will likely be worse than the originals now that we know what working in the Trump White House is all about (lawyering up, for one thing). Hence, we get the least competent administration in modern memory. When you have the worst president in history, naturally you get the worst administration in history.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
The ugly way Trump’s rise and Putin’s are connected
President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
By Anne Applebaum, Columnist July 25, 2017
There were at least eight people in the room on June 9, 2016, when two Trump family members and Donald Trump’s campaign manager met with a Russian lawyer and her extended team in Trump Tower. Focus your attention just briefly on one of them: Ike Kaveladze. Of course it will be important to learn, in due course, what he was really doing there. But in the meantime, we should spend a few minutes thinking about the peculiar financial culture — American as well as Russian — that he represents.
Though not exactly a celebrity, Kaveladze’s notoriety in certain circles stretches back more than two decades. Starting in the 1990s, his company, Euro-American Corporate Services Inc., set up more than 2,000 Delaware corporations on behalf of unknown, mostly Russian clients and used those companies to open bank accounts. According to a Government Accountability Office report on “Suspicious Banking Activities,” published in 2000, those bank accounts were then used to receive and send large amounts of money. The GAO found that two banks “facilitated the transfer of approximately $1 billion from Eastern Europe, through U.S. banks, and back to Eastern Europe by corporations formed for Russian brokers”; more than $800 million in total was deposited in 136 accounts that Euro-American Corporate Services and another Kaveladze company created at Citibank alone. Kaveladze has protested that what he had done was legal — and he was right. Delaware law really was so lax that it allowed unnamed Russians to send money in and out of the United States without much question.
Why did this matter? Because that kind of activity was a part of the business model that brought Vladimir Putin to power. As numerous books have documented — the best is “Putin’s Kleptocracy” by Karen Dawisha — Putin was one of a group of public officials, many affiliated with the old KGB, who systematically pillaged the Russian state. They drew money out of the state, often using commodities arbitrage or other methods, moved the money out of the country through shell companies, then brought it back to Russia and used it to buy companies and property. They became rich — many of them fabulously so. They then used that wealth to gain power.
Soviet-born businessmen such as Kaveladze, based in the United States and Europe, played significant roles in this system. But so did a range of U.S. and European bankers, accountants and lawyers. For two decades, Western real estate markets — New York, Miami, London — have also provided multiple safe places for Russian oligarchs (and many others) to spend money with complete anonymity. Last year, a Treasury Department investigation into shell companies that purchased luxury homes for cash in several U.S. metropolitan areas found that more than a quarter of such transactions in Manhattan and Miami actually involved someone engaged in “suspicious activity.”
The arrangement suited everybody: American real estate magnates, suddenly rich Russian oligarchs, the construction industry and many others. But underneath this boom there was a grim truth: An important chunk of the money that pumped up the New York luxury real estate market over the past two decades was money originally siphoned off from the Russian state. That was money that should have been used to build hospitals, schools and roads, but instead enriched officials such as Putin and the billionaires who surround him. In due course, Russian money also enriched Trump and his family: As Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
In that sense the rise of Trump and the rise of Putin are connected. No wonder Trump feels such an affinity for the Russian president; no wonder he seeks him out at international meetings. And no wonder special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation has reportedly decided to look closely at past Trump family real estate transactions.
I’m sure there will eventually be a lot more to say about the details of the Trump-Russia financial relationship. But this story should make us ponder some larger themes, too. After all, the double rise of Trump and Putin might have been halted if only Western governments and financial institutions had acted, over the past two decades, as if they truly believed that these kinds of dealings are wrong. Laws were not enforced — or did not exist. Blind eyes were turned.
Even now, we could be doing much, much more. We could stop the registration of all anonymous companies in states such as Wyoming, Delaware and Nevada. We could make all property owners put their real names on public registers. We could listen to Global Witness and other activist groups that constantly point out the links between financial deals in New York and human rights abuse and poverty in faraway countries. Some of these changes are happening in Britain and Europe. But in the United States, where the political consequences of this ugly international system are now so dramatic, we have scarcely begun.
Read more from Anne Applebaum’s archive. Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.
This is not okay
By Editorial Board July 25, 2017
WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a tweet Tuesday for not aggressively investigating Hillary Clinton, most attention focused, understandably, on the implications for Mr. Sessions. Yet even more alarming than the president’s assault on his own attorney general is Mr. Trump’s return to the “lock her up” theme of his 2016 campaign. We need to recall, once again, what it means to live under the rule of law. Since his inauguration six months ago, so many comparisons have been made to “banana republics” that it is almost unfair to bananas. But there is a serious point to be made about the difference between the United States of America and a state ruled by personal whim.
In a rule-of-law state, government’s awesome powers to police, prosecute and imprison are wielded impartially, with restraint and according to clearly defined rules. These rules apply equally to rich and poor, powerful and weak, ruling party and opposition. In such states, individuals advance on the basis of their talent and initiative, not whom they know. Companies invest where they think the returns will be highest, not to please those in power. The result is that, over time, rule-of-law states prosper. Banana republics do not.
No country ever has attained perfection in this regard, but the United States has been the envy of the world because certain norms have been accepted. After hard-fought elections, the losing side concedes and the winning side leaves the loser in peace to fight another day. Leaders are expected to speak truthfully to their citizens. They respect the essential nonpartisan nature of law enforcement and the military and key civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. They show respect, too, for the political opposition.
To list those basic expectations is to understand how low Mr. Trump is bringing his office. Just in the past few days, he urged Navy men and women to call Congress on behalf of his political goals and turned the National Scout Jamboree into an unseemly political rally, calling the nation’s politics a “cesspool” and a “sewer” and disparaging his predecessor and the media. Routinely he trades in untruths, even after they have been exposed and disproved. He has launched an unprecedented rhetorical assault on the independence of the Justice Department, the FBI and the special counsel’s office — and now he is again threatening his defeated 2016 opponent.
Members of Congress who are, properly, investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 race have not questioned Mr. Trump’s legitimacy. Ms. Clinton herself graciously conceded. The FBI thoroughly investigated her email practices and found no basis to prosecute. Yet Mr. Trump attacks Mr. Sessions for taking “a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” implying that a politically inspired re-investigation might help the attorney general keep his job. It is disgusting.
Timidly, belatedly, but encouragingly, members of Mr. Trump’s party are beginning to push back. Last week, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that there would be “a tremendous backlash” from Republicans as well as Democrats if Mr. Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russia’s behavior in 2016 and any possible Trump campaign involvement. On Monday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) also came to the counsel’s defense. “I don’t think many people are saying Bob Mueller is a person who is a biased partisan,” Mr. Ryan said. “He’s really sort of anything but.”
What’s at stake is much more than the careers of a particular attorney general or special counsel. The United States has been a role model for the world, and a source of pride for Americans, because it has striven to implement the law fairly. When he attacks that process and seeks revenge on his opponents, Mr. Trump betrays bedrock American values. It’s crucial that other political leaders say so.
Slate Jurisprudence-The law, lawyers and the Court
Trump is ordering service members to support the Republican agenda. That is terrifying.
By Phillip Carter July 24, 2017
President Donald Trump, with Navy Capt. Richard McCormack, commissions the USS Gerald R. Ford during a ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia on Saturday. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
In a serious breach of presidential norms, President Donald Trump urged sailors attending the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday to wade into the political fray and help lobby Congress on health care and other topics. “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” Trump said of his budget, highlighting the defense spending portion. This could have been interpreted as an order from the commander in chief to the service members in attendance to support the Republican Party agenda. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care,” he added.
That Trump would so command the troops—who he apparently sees as his troops—should come as no surprise. Time after time, he has breached long-standing norms of civil-military relations: from evading presidential responsibility, to appropriating service members’ valor for political purposes, to politicking before military audiences. Saturday’s breach stands apart because of its directness and its implications. Trump’s verbal command in Norfolk, Virginia, incites the assembled troops to discard centuries of U.S. military ethics and break long-standing military rules, too. This is what leaders do in banana republics: Instruct the people with guns to join the political fray.
The military tradition of avoiding domestic politics literally predates the country, going back to a dispute over veterans’ benefits between then-Gen. George Washington and his officers. The officers planned to confront Washington at Newburgh, New York, with a thinly veiled threat of military takeover if they didn’t get Washington’s support in a plea to Congress. Washington deftly defused the plot, telling his troops they would “sully the glory” they earned on the battlefield with their plans to lobby Congress.
In the two centuries since, the U.S. military has increasingly professionalized and bureaucratized itself. Today, the rules against troops’ political activity exist in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and several Pentagon regulations. Article 88 of the military justice code makes it a crime for an officer to use “contemptuous words” against the president, vice president, Congress, or certain other officials, whether for political purposes or not. Military Rule of Evidence 508 gives service members an absolute right “to refuse to disclose the tenor of the person’s vote at a political election conducted by secret ballot.”
In addition to these parts of the military’s criminal code, numerous Pentagon rules and regulations aim to keep service members out of politics. DoD Directive 1344.10 bars active and reserve service members from conducting political activity in uniform or in ways that suggest they carry the military’s imprimatur. Other DoD rules limit the way troops can wear their uniforms, use their titles, or express themselves on political issues too.
President Trump’s comments on Saturday inject legal risk and uncertainty into this system of rules. On the one hand he—as commander in chief of the armed forces—can be seen as effectively giving an order to the troops that they must obey. As a legal matter, the president’s authority trumps the Department of Defense’s rules on political activity, if not the UCMJ’s criminal provisions, although the latter can be read to allow what Trump wants. If the troops obey Trump in this instance, however, they must essentially disobey their own regulations, not to mention service norms and values.
There is real danger in the troops actually following Trump’s guidance. Lobbying Congress and entering the political fray can only be a distraction from defending the nation—a point subtly made by retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap in his brilliant essay “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012” nearly 25 years ago. Our military today enjoys the highest approval rating of any institution in society, but sullying itself with the mud of political debates can only harm that reputation.
More broadly, Trump’s commands inject uncertainty and doubt into the military, which depends on order and discipline for cohesion and effectiveness and combat. Which rules, exactly, are troops to follow when the president himself casts such doubt as he did in Norfolk? If the president believes the rules governing political activity don’t suit him, how broadly will that apply? Are they now allowed to fly “Make America Great Again” or “Trump for President” flags from their personal cars on base? From military vehicles? (This presumably would be a unilateral allowance, and expressing support for Democrats would still be verboten.)
If Trump someday wants to upend other inconvenient regulations, like the military’s rules on torture and interrogation, can he do so with a mere suggestion like this? Georgetown law professor and my colleague Rosa Brooks rightly pointed out how unlikely it was that the military would disobey a presidential order. The greatest danger of all posed by Trump’s disregard for military values is that he will someday go further than he did this weekend and undermine rules or norms with far graver consequences.
There is real danger in the troops actually following Trump’s guidance.
We often take civil-military relations for granted in this country because we have it so good. The greatest civil-military eruptions in recent history involve things like then-Gen. Eric Shinseki’s sobering 2003 testimony contradicting George W. Bush’s White House, saying that it would take “several hundred thousand” troops to pacify Iraq, or impolitic comments by Gen. Stan McChrystal’s staff in a 2010 Rolling Stone article. These skirmishes stand in stark contrast to the civil-military brawls in countries like North Korea—where the dear leader regularly executes top generals—or Pakistan, where the military dominates politics and has on occasion overthrown the government. American civil-military relations even look tame next to those in France, where newly elected President Emmanuel Macron just fired his top general, reminding his remaining brass that “I am your boss.”
Our civil-military relations are fragile and are already being strained by the Trump presidency. In just six months, he has given hyperpolitical speeches to military and intelligence audiences, used the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes to sign his controversial first travel ban, and whined about how tough he had it in his speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation. Trump’s top lieutenants have also aided this corruption of the civil-military ethic. Vice President Mike Pence misstated the rule on obeying orders in his graduation speech—omitting the important exception for unlawful orders. The national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has debased himself and the military ethic, too, by leaping to Trump’s political defense after Trump gave highly classified information to the Russians, and then did so again in a vapid Wall Street Journal op-ed defending Trump’s “America First” agenda.
If left unchecked, Trump and his team will likely continue to tear the fabric of American civil-military relations, leaving tattered shreds of the military’s ethics and values in their wake. That is, unless three groups step up to play their constitutional role in checking Trump.
First, Congress must police Trump’s excesses through aggressive oversight. In confirmation hearings, Senate committees should continue to demand that senior Pentagon civilian and military appointees testify candidly back to Congress when called upon to share their views. Congressional oversight committees should regularly call military witnesses to testify, and use their hearings to solicit views from America’s career military leadership about the wisdom and efficacy of the Trump administration’s military policies as has been historic practice.
Second, military leaders must assert their professional norms and ethics more forcefully. Such dissent should occur in private first to respect the chain of command. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a statutory duty to serve as “the principal military adviser to the President.” In that role, he must raise his voice in defense of long-standing military norms and ethics when they are threatened by the president in ways that ultimately threaten the country. Likewise, senior military leaders should candidly and publicly answer congressional inquiries about strategy, policy, and resources—even where doing so exposes rifts with the White House—to enable Congress to play its constitutional role in national security affairs.
Finally, Trump’s own inner circle must do more to restrain the rhetorical excesses and explosions that have so far defined this presidency. This includes the generals he has tapped to serve in his Cabinet—McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly—who must now teach their principal why these long-standing rules matter both for the country and Trump’s interests. Our country cannot take its healthy civil-military relations for granted nor expect these norms to survive too many more barrages from the current president. It remains to be seen whether Trump will accept such tutoring—or fire the teachers—but these active and retired generals owe it to the country to do their best to keep the president from running the ship of state aground.
One more thing
The Trump administration poses a unique threat to the rule of law. That’s why Slate has stepped up our legal coverage—watch-dogging Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, the Supreme Court, the crackdown on voting rights, and more.
Our work is reaching more readers than ever—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help.
If you think Slate’s journalism matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.
Phillip Carter is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. The views expressed are the author’s alone and not representative of his organization.