Herd immunity will thin the herd

The COVID-19 virus has already infected over 7 million residents in the US and has killed over 204,000, a death rate of 2.9%. The Trump administration response to the pandemic has been characterized by the same pettiness, infighting, bigotry, lying, false hopes, grifting, science denial, and punitive treatment that has characterized the administration in its every action. The President was clearly aware of the seriousness of the pandemic by the time he did his infamous interview with Bob Woodward on February 7, 2020. However, we know he was aware of it earlier than that because Peter Navarro, Trump economic advisor, prepared memos that were circulated throughout the administration warning of the pandemic in January, 2020.

Nevertheless, Trump has steadfastly refused to organize a coherent national response to the pandemic, instead putting that responsibility on the states. As a result, different states have taken radically different approaches to outbreak, ranging from consistent management of the problem (Vermont and Maine), to initial high infection rates and death tolls followed by successful management (New York and New Jersey), to initial low infection rates followed by massive outbreaks (Florida, Texas, and Arizona), to complete unwillingness to address the issue (Iowa and South Dakota). With the coming of cold weather, people will return indoors, and it is highly likely we will have a second wave (we’re still in the first wave due to his inaction) in the next few months.

Among the most egregious aspects of the nonresponse was the failure to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the early part of the pandemic, resulting in massive shortages of PPE in regions that were most affected. I live in one of the regions, and in late March/early April, it was difficult to find masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and paper towels, not to mention the nationwide shortage in toilet paper. At that time, the outbreak was raging in New York, but in an extraordinary act of cynicism and cruelty, task-force leader Jared Kushner advised Trump to back off an aggressive testing plan in blue states to cause greater suffering in those states. As a result, we New Yorkers were treated to traumatic and never-ending ambulance sirens, each one representing a severely ill victim being brought to a hospital.

Throughout the spring, Trump, by his own admission, played down the severity of the pandemic in order to “avoid panic” (or more likely because he did not care or froze). There were ludicrous statements that the virus would disappear during the warm weather and that it was like the flu. The latter was directly contradicted by his later remarks to Bob Woodward. He also has consistently refused to wear masks in public except on very rare occasions and has repeatedly mocked those who do.

Then there was the patent medicine phase of the response. In this phase, Trump latched on to small clinical trials suggesting that hydroxychloroquine + zinc would “solve” the pandemic. His administration got emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Agency (FDA). During one of his press conferences, he beseeched people to try it (“what do you have to lose?”). Twenty-nine million dosages were rushed into production. Almost as soon as this ramp-up occurred, larger studies came out showing lack of efficacy, and even some harmful effects. It also turned out that Trump had a small stake in the company that manufactured Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine. Trump and Fox news continued to trumpet it as a miracle cure for several weeks after the negative studies came out.

This phase largely ended with the disastrous April 23 press conference at which Trump appeared to advocate injection of light or disinfectant into the body to treat COVID-19. This was widely ridiculed, but nevertheless, the makers of disinfectants such as Lysol had to quickly issue statements that their products were not to be taken internally. Nevertheless, several gullible people were sickened by ingestion of disinfectant. The saving grace was that it marked the end of the press conferences.

Starting in early May, a number of states started opening up. Even this was turned into a political football. States that failed to open fast enough were derided in Trump tweets, and governors who favored slower approaches were assailed by pro-Trump protestors who often showed up with weapons. One such heavily armed group invaded the Michigan Capitol, and a few among their number advocated the beheading of Michigan’s governor.

The ending of the press conferences also marked a phase in which Trump appeared to lose interest in fighting the pandemic. By June, he abortively started to hold indoor campaign rallies, but at his failed Tulsa rally, he said that he had asked his “them to slow the testing down.” The rally was mask-optional (very few wore them), and Trump staff removed stickers on seats advising people to social distance. The rally also had Herman Cain in attendance, who had shortly before the rally derided mask wearing in a tweet. Cain soon developed COVID-19 symptoms and died in late July.

There are many other cases of poor or mendacious policy-making, but one of the most dangerous in the long-term has been the consistent undermining of science. From the statements that COVID was just like the flu, to undermining of mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines, to the alteration of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance regarding a meat plant in Greeley, CO, to the promotion of inadequate quick-fixes, to the criticism and sidelining of experts in virology and infectious disease, the Trump administration has waged an unending campaign aimed at undermining scientific understanding and treatment of the virus.

During the summer, the Trump administration stance started moving in a very troubling direction. They started making noises about dealing with the pandemic through herd immunity. This approach posits that spread of disease can be avoided by having a large enough portion of the population showing pre-existing immunity by virtue of being vaccinated or having been infected. In order to achieve herd immunity, it typically requires between 83-94% of the public to be vaccinated (in cases when vaccines are available). Despite the dubious likelihood of having a widely disseminated vaccine any time soon, the push for heard immunity has grown. This leaves massive level of infection as the only way to achieve herd immunity.

Recently, Trump has installed radiologist and frequent Fox News guest Scott Atlas as head of the pandemic task force. He has pushed hard to promote herd immunity. He utterly lacks the requisite expertise to be in that role. The herd immunity approach is highly appealing to Trump, who clearly wants to just wish the pandemic away with minimal effort.

At present, there are several serious problems with the herd immunity approach. First, as already noted, there is no vaccine. Second, it is not clear that once people are infected, their immunity is permanent. There are cases of people who show a second phase of the virus. It is not clear that these cases are ones in which the virus had not been entirely eradicated and re-grew, or if they represent novel second infections. If the latter, herd immunity will not work via prior infection. Third, there appear to be numerous long term consequences to COVID infection. These range form rashes to respiratory difficulties, to cardiovascular problems, to inflammatory symptoms.

The biggest problem, absent a vaccine, is the number of deaths such an approach would entail. As noted above, herd immunity typically requires vaccination or prior infection of at least 83% of the population. Assuming a more lenient 80% infection rate, this would mean, in a country of 330 million, 264 million cases. At the current death rate of 2.9%, that would mean 7.6 million deaths. This is a horrific death toll. And again, that does not take into account the healthcare costs of the sequelae of those infections. With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) likely to be struck down in a new Supreme Court, it is unclear how these costs will be paid. In short, herd immunity is, for now, a recipe for a massive death toll and soaring healthcare costs. This will represent a humanitarian crisis. And it will cement Trump’s pandemic response as what Bob Woodward called a “monumental, catastrophic leadership failure.”

There is a darker aspect to this approach that I referenced in my last post (The return of eugenics?). Trump has had a long-standing fascination with eugenics. A mere two days after I published that blog post, in a rally in Minnesota, he told his audience that they had “good genes,” the etymological origin of the word eugenics. The herd immunity fits right into that mindset. Only those with good genes will survive. This may not lead to herd immunity, but it will lead to thinning of our herd.

The return of eugenics?

Eugenics, literally “good genes,” is a science that is aimed at improving society by selective parenting of those with “desirable” genetic characteristics. In practice, this science has not so much promoted those characteristics as prevented those with “undesirable” characteristics from reproducing. In particular, forced sterilization has been a primary manner by which eugenics has been implemented.

Although it is most closely associated with mass sterilization (and murder) efforts in Nazi Germany directed at Jews and Roma/Sinti peoples, the US has a long history of such efforts. The first proposed law in the United States dates back to 1849, although no law was passed until 1907, when Indiana passed one legislating mandatory sterilization of the “feebleminded.” Laws were passed in a number of other states, and in 1927, these statutes were upheld by the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell. In the 8-1 majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Nazi Germany used the US eugenics laws to justify their own laws. But with the revelation of Nazi atrocities after World War II, these laws understandably fell into disfavor, and most of the laws were repealed. The last known forced sterilization in the US occurred in 1981 in Oregon.

Or did it? This weekend, a whistleblower nurse within the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made an extremely disturbing report of numerous hysterectomies conducted on immigrants housed at a privately-run Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia. The cases reported by the whistleblower indicated such infractions as removing the wrong ovary only to remove the remaining ovary. Acts such as these resulted in a situation that left the nurse unable to explain to the patients why their uteruses were removed. One of the patients said of the doctor in the case, “is he the uterus collector?” Another asked why her uterus was removed. These cases suggest that the hysterectomies were not consensual, or at best, the reason for the procedure was not adequately described.

In the US, unethical research was conducted that involved exposing participants to unsafe pathogens, radiation, or other dangerous procedures without informing them of the risks. In response to this situation, Institutional Review Board (IRB) were impaneled starting in the 1970s to review research to ensure that it is conducted in an ethical and safe manner, such that the risks of such research is commensurate its potential benefits. The foundation of ethical research is the 1974 Belmont Report, which delineates three central principles: justice, beneficence, and respect for persons. The way in which these principles are instantiated for the research participant is the informed consent process. This process ensures that the participant is aware of the purpose, procedures, risks, benefits, and privacy protections involved in the study. Although informed consent was primarily developed in the research context, it has become a standard of care in medical facilities (i.e., people complete an informed consent procedure prior to any substantive and invasive medical procedure).

In the research setting, it is far harder to get consent from prisoners than from people who are free. This is because, by virtue of their incarceration, almost their entire existence is controlled by other people. Thus, their ability to make uncoerced decisions is substantially reduced. IRBs that review such research must have a prisoner advocate to provide additional protection of prisoner rights. Clearly, immigrants in an ICE detention center would fit that description.

If the story from Georgia turns out to be true, it is deeply disturbing for obvious reasons. First, the detainees are not taking part in an informed consent process. Second, they are detainees, who, as noted, must pass a higher bar to provide informed consent. Third, the procedures are occurring in a population that is detained because of a personal characteristic (namely, they are individuals whose immigration status is in question). This has all the hallmarks of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and/or race. The treatment of these detainees violates all three prongs of the Belmont test. Does it show justice? No, these individuals are incarcerated solely because of their racial/ethnic demography. Does it show beneficence? No, how could one possibly argue that unnecessary and nonconsensual surgery benefits anyone. Does it show respect for persons? No, these surgeries represent the exact opposite of respect for persons.

But there is an even darker reason that this report is disturbing. The DHS has been charged with detaining undocumented immigrants under a zero-tolerance program put in place by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This highly controversial program has led to the separation of children (even infants) and parents. Although a large number of these people have been deported, record keeping was haphazard, leading to situations in which family members may not know of each others’ whereabouts. Whether they will ultimately be reunited is unknown, but in many cases, the odds are vanishingly small. The psychological harm to the detainees that will occur in the wake of these separations is incalculable. However, a number of these people have been long languishing in ICE detention centers throughout the US, and it is the people in the Georgia detention center that are bearing the burden of the set of alleged atrocities reported by the whistleblower.

It is hard to see this and not think of eugenics. Dating back to the announcement of his candidacy on June 15, 2015, Trump has scapegoated undocumented immigrants (especially those from central America) for a wide variety of the nation’s ills. He has consistently denigrated their rights and even their humanity. It is, after all, far easier to mistreat people who you don’t consider fully human.

This bigoted attitude alone is bad enough, but it is important to understand Trump’s own fascination with eugenics. He believes that he has “superior genes.” By implication, others have inferior genes, which need to be suppressed according to the eugenic doctrine. From there, it is a short step to mistreat those who you have dehumanized. This situation is particularly dangerous when the person holding these beliefs is the most powerful man in the free world. The worst part is that the legislative branch refuses to live up to its responsibility to hold Trump responsible, and Trump has kneecapped multiple attempts to limit or review his authority within the executive branch. It is unclear who will win in the next election, but it is clear that these policies cannot be continued in any kind of civil society. The curse “may you live in interesting times” appears particularly apt.

The failure of federalism

Federalism is a form of government in which a national government shares power with individual regional governments. The United States is the prime example of such a federation, as established by the Constitution. The form of government has lasted us for 233 years, and despite many problems, it has yielded a country has more or less functioned. Indeed, starting in 1945, the United States had a unique position of power in the world.

This form of government is bound to be plagued by tensions between national and state power. This balance waxes and wanes over time. Over the past 75 years, there have been strong assertions of state power and strong ones by the federal government. In 1948, several southern Democrats bolted and formed the State’s Rights party in protest to the national party supporting a racial equality plank authored by Hubert Humphrey. In the 60s, the Civil Rights movement highlighted this tension in the requirements that schools integrate and that minorities be granted the right to vote, often in contravention of the wishes of the affected governors. In the 90s, the militia movement sprung up in response to perceived government overreach by Bill Clinton. And in 2009-10, the tea party movement arose to challenge perceived government overreach and economic stimulus by Barack Obama. Read between the lines and you’ll know where I stand on state’s rights overreach.

However, the system generally worked, after a fashion, because either the balance of power was not too extreme, or both political parties had some basic standards of decency. That is not where we are now, with the COVID-19 pandemic. In past crises, Presidents have attempted to emphasize the need for national unity. At minimum, they have provided a coordinated strategy to address the crisis. Thus, resources have been directed where they need to be needed (not always fairly, but at least directed).

In the current crisis, we’ve had a series of catastrophic failures by a President who was singularly unfit to handle the situation. For several months, he failed to acknowledge the scope of the problem. Then he minimized it and set artificial deadlines by which the problem would disappear. Then he said it would disappear magically. By the time he started to respond, he dithered needlessly, refused to admit he was wrong, insulted anyone who questioned his choices, raged against state governors who failed to kowtow to him, and accused those governors of hoarding or even stealing the supplies they requested. The “nice” governors get all they need and more. The situation has gotten so bad that Dr. Anthony Fauci has had to seek special protection because of rabid Trumpers who are furious with him for telling the truth.

Now, some three months since the first death due to coronavirus, we are left with a completely inadequate response. States are being told to solve insurmountable problems by themselves. Trump has repeatedly said “we’re a backup.” This divided and divisive strategy is resulting in the ludicrous situation that 50 states are bidding wars for personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. This is made even worse by the fact that the federal government is often outbidding the governors and is further compounded by the inexplicable decision to send this equipment to other countries. States cannot handle crises at this level. This is federalism on a grand and pathological scale.

The problem with this scenario is all too obvious. As a result, over 100 million Americans are living under close to house arrest, afraid to leave the house. New Yorkers are treated to constant sirens of ambulances that carry new coronavirus victims to hospital ICUs. We are facing a best case scenario of 100,000 – 240,000 deaths, and a worst case scenario of over 2 million deaths. To add insult to injury, Trump is claiming this lower range as a victory, in something out of a scene from Dr. Strangelove. I assure you, the families of these victims will not feel that way. This will not end well. Federalism might work, but it requires honest and fair brokers at all levels.

The Truth is Fragile When People Who Know Better Don’t Stick to It.

  • “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” – George Orwell, 1984
  • “Just remember what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what is happening.” — Donald Trump
  • “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” — George Orwell

In a sublime episode of the Twilight Zone entitled “The Masks,” Robert Keith (father of Brian Keith) plays Jason Foster, an elderly man who summons his unpleasant family to visit him as he dies. He has generously provided for them in his will, but with the proviso that they have to wear grotesque masks until midnight that evening. After much grumbling, they agree. The clock strikes midnight and Foster dies. Gleefully, his family removes their masks only to learn that, as Orwell suggested, their faces had grown into them. So it shall be with today’s Republican leadership and Cabinet with the mask provided by Donald Trump. It is the face of a profoundly dishonest and fearful man.

On Monday, December 9, the independent DOJ Inspector General released his report that demolished the right-wing canard and Russian talking point that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election. Apart from the patent absurdity that such a powerless country could have implemented such a plan, the evidence for such a plot had been widely and universally debunked.

Nevertheless, within minutes of the release of the report, US Attorney General Bill Barr contested it. Within minutes of that, US Attorney John Durham, Barr’s handpicked inspector of all things Ukrainian, echoed Barr’s concerns, stating that he was likely to reach different conclusions.

These statements are unprecedented. It is particularly troubling that Durham, who had enjoyed a nonpartisan reputation, has chosen to comment on the IG investigation before his own is complete. The statements clearly were designed to fit to the will of Donald Trump, and although their attempt to destroy the truth may succeed, their faces are being transmuted (Barr’s transformation was already well underway). Today, Barr gave a wide-ranging interview in which he claimed he did not know whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. At every opportunity, he gave life to conspiracy theories, including the ridiculous DNC server story. This is despite the fact that as leader of the Justice Department, he had access to the same information as the Inspector General and the FBI. Looks like Trump got his Roy Cohn.

This follows a two week period in which two US Senators, John Kennedy and Ted Cruz, appeared on Meet the Press to promote Putin’s Ukraine propaganda. Chuck Todd, who is not known for challenging his guests, appeared aghast and pushed back on both occasions. The lies continued during the House impeachment hearings, promoted among others by Devin Nunes, who later turned out to have communicated frequently with both Lev Parnas and Rudy Giuliani. This trio, along with Trump, appear to have formed a nexus to promote Ukraine conspiracy theories to a gullible Republican base. It is critical that these operatives please Trump, because if they tell the truth, he will suffer a narcissistic injury and will — horror of horrors — tweet at them.

The Republicans in the body politic who do have the guts to stand up for the truth have been few and far between. Mitt Romney is one of them. He’s old enough, has enough credibility, and as a first year senator has sufficiently low electoral risk to do so safely. Another is FBI Director Chris Wray, who immediately drew criticism for his effrontery in the form of a Trump tweet.

It is not clear what will happen to Wray. It would probably be unwise for Trump to fire him, given the response the Comey firing drew. But that was in 2017. In the 2019 environment, the masks have been on for 2 additional years and the faces of those wearing them have changed a great deal. Precedent has become a word without much meaning in the Trump era.

The behavior of Congressional Republicans since the 2018 midterms has been a profile in cowardice. With the possible exception of Romney, they been in sycophantic lock-step with their dear leader. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the impeachment hearings. Here we were treated to the spectacle of unending motions and parliamentary inquiries with the sole purpose of interfering with the hearings. They would not stop talking when these were shot down, and they would attempt to shout over the Chairs. They also issued blistering jeremiads against the unfairness of the process, despite the fact that they had helped set the rules being used for the hearings when they were in power. And worst of all, they continually raised conspiracy theories and disregarded proven facts. Among the most vitriolic were those who had best grown into the Trump mask: Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz, and Louie Gohmert.

At the same time, Rudy Giuliani, who is under multiple investigations, has thumbed his nose at those and his clear implication in the Ukraine scandal. He has made outrageous statements and charges. Let it not be forgotten that shortly before the 2016 election, he gleefully stated that there were tricks up the Trump’s team sleeve. Three days later, the Comey memo dropped. The timing couldn’t have been better for Trump, who was facing his own problems in light of the Access Hollywood Tape. Rudy IS the mask.

And, of course, there’s Fox News. It’s almost not worth going into their complicity and duplicity, but it’s unending. However, Tucker Carlson deserves a special mention for his stated desire to see Russia triumph and his preference for Russia even over the “far-left Democrats.” As to Laura Ingraham, Jeanine Pirro, and Sean Hannity, the less said the better.

The election remains inadequately protected. Mitch McConnell, another mask bearer, has steadfastly refused to allow the consideration of election protection bills passed by the House (in addition to the 250+ bills he has locked up in his legislative graveyard). It is hard to have much faith in the process, especially given the massive voter suppression efforts in place in some of the states.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for any sort of freedom to survive in a system in which truth is not respected. In the absence of shared reality, there is no reference point other than those who are in power. This is particularly problematic when the leaders are authoritarians. Yet the assault on the truth is happening among elected Republicans, those in the White House, and Fox News. The liars have been given their masks and their faces are growing into them. And it shows who they are.

The sun sets on the West, or Molotov-Ribbentrop II

In August, 1939, with World War II looming, Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop reached a nonaggression pact to partition Poland into two parts. One week later, Germany invaded Poland with their blitzkrieg and conquered the country in 19 days. Over the next 20 months, this pact resulted in massive land gains by both countries. Finally, in June, 1941, the Germans attacked Russia, ending the pact. After years of appeasement by Neville Chamberlain, Poland constituted the red line for the British, and when Germany rolled into Poland, World War II started.

Over the past several years, and particularly the past 3 years, we have seen a rise in illiberal populist government unseen since the 1930s. Autocratic leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Andrej Duda, Kim Jong Un, Mohammed bin Salman, and Viktor Orban have emerged over the last 20 years who favor strong and repressive central governments. In France, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, and Germany. the far right has been on the rise, as well. Fortunately, in those countries, cooler heads have prevailed — so far.

One of the worst consequences of the election of Donald Trump is the rise of the “alt-right” in the US. Extremists who had been staying under their rocks have crawled out since the launch of his campaign in June, 2015. Trump has no experience in foreign policy and is singularly unwilling to take any kind of advice. Worse yet, his authoritarian personality seeks kinship with autocrats around the world, egged on by the alt-right at home.

Starting with the overly comfortable relationship between Trump and Putin, Trump has increasingly reached out to leaders such as Duda, Orban, Kim, and Erdogan. The result has been the retreat of American leadership around the world. Nature loves a vacuum, and in many of these cases, strongmen such as Putin and Erdogan have rushed in.

Although in many cases our involvement was ill-advised, Trump lacks the intelligence, attention, and patience to lead a disciplined withdrawal, and his impulsive style has repeatedly compromised our interests. There is overwhelming evidence that the intentions of these other strongmen are not good.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Syria. The bloody and grisly rise of ISIS was stanched, albeit belatedly, by the Obama administration’s alliance between the US and the Kurds. The result was that a fomenting bloodbath by ISIS was brought to heel. The situation was relatively stable, but at a cost of 11,000 Kurdish lives and 6 US lives. But earlier this month, in a monumentally stupid move, Donald Trump agreed (without consultation of any military or diplomatic personnel) to withdraw US troops from northern Syria. Immediately thereafter the Turks invaded the Kurdish part of Syria, allegedly committing atrocities along the way.

A feckless 5-day pause engineered by the Trump administration was instituted after a week of this chaos, with the understanding that Turkey would be able to resume their aggression when it expired. The pause ended today, coincident with a trip by Erdogan to meet with Putin. What has emerged from that trip is a latter-day Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, wherein Erdogan and Putin partitioned the part of Syria occupied by Kurds. The betrayal of the Kurds is complete.

The consequences of Trump’s tragedy of errors are not immediately clear, but several seem likely. First, is the immediate threat against the Kurds. 180,000 of them have already fled deeper into Syria, but in the fog of the pause, many remained. Turkey plans to repopulate their 20 mile “safe zone” with Arab refugees. Given Turkey’s prior behavior toward the Kurds, it is scary to anticipate consider what they might do now.

Second, the move harms US prestige. The Kurds suffered large losses in prior fighting and now the US has abandoned them. Worse yet, Trump has leveled unremitting criticism toward them. Apart from the moral depravity of such a move, how can any other country fight beside us and trust us? With a President who is completely transactional, and seemingly devoid of character, it seems hard to imagine anyone will be rushing to sign on with us. Moreover, we have now been shut out of Syria, and given the lack of human rights concerns from both Moscow and Ankara, our role in protecting the Kurds has been neutered.

Third, the move harms NATO. Turkey is a NATO ally. If they are attacked, would other NATO countries fight alongside them? It is hard to see why, given their new alliance with Putin. Trump has lied repeatedly about NATO since taking office, and it is hard to see how the Turkey move can do anything other than damage to the organization that has provided stability over the past 70 years.

Fourth, and relatedly, the move strengthens Putin, Erdogan, and ISIS for the reasons stated above. But more than that, Putin emerges as a leader in the middle East, with the accompanying reduction of US influence. The US role under Obama was uneven, but in the end, at least they had pushed back on ISIS, and in fairness, until earlier this month, the Trump administration had maintained the Obama policy. But never one to let things rest, particularly where Putin’s interests are concerned, Trump started making noise about withdrawing our 2000 troops. James Mattis, one of the few grownups in the administration, resigned in protest. In the ensuing months, Trump continued to talk about leaving, and when he and Erdogan spoke on the phone, he took his opportunity.

Finally, it throws the entire region into chaos. The order in Syria is completely unclear. There is great uncertainty as to why Trump made the move when he did, but it is another in a long line of moves helping anti-democratic interests. What did Putin and Erdogan say to him to get him to make such a destabilizing move? The next few months will tell, but the path we’re on is not reassuring.

Cowardly Lions of the Senate (and House)

The continuance of our form of government is dependent on the ability of the 3 co-equal branches of government to provide oversight for each other. This ability is enhanced by the presence of oversight bodies within each branch. But in the past 3 years, this system has been attacked by the Executive Branch, We are now at the point where the status quo is not sustainable. To paraphrase the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, we cannot sit here and be idle spectators to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Donald Trump clearly is doing each of these. He has spent his entire Presidency aiming to profit from his Office and to destroy any vestiges of oversight. At long last, the Democrats have launched an Impeachment Inquiry. Today, the President reiterated his request that the Ukraine investigate his opponent and his opponent’s family, and then he did the same with China (while casually mentioning the pending trade deal with that country). In so doing, he has provided everything necessary to lead to his conviction in the Senate.

Make no mistake, these requests are criminal and impeachable as Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, no liberal he, pointed that out just today. Yet the GOP leadership of both the House and Senate continue to defend this rogue President, along with his co-conspirators, Mike Pence, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, and Rudy Giuliani, to name just a few. Most of the leadership are attorneys and understand the consequence of the failure of the rule of law for the future of the US. And yet they put their fear of a stupid and incompetent President along with their own personal corruption or compromise ahead of the needs of a country that is lurching toward authoritarianism.

Let’s look at these cowardly lions, shall we?

First there was the rank Ranking Member of the House Intelligence committee, Devin Nunes. After trying to intimidate the first Inquiry witness, Joseph McGuire, he launched into an attack on the “fake” Impeachment Inquiry. It was surreal to watch.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy showed up on 60 Minutes last Sunday and revealed that he couldn’t be bothered to read the brief memo (not a transcript) of the infamous July 25 call by Trump to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. He suggested that a word had been added to the noxious quote: “I want you to do me a favor though . . ” Although the pushback was a modest, McCarthy was shamed to the extent that is possible and was publicly humiliated. This morning, he asked Speaker Pelosi to end the Impeachment Inquiry. Fortunately, she was able to respond appropriately, stating ” I received your letter this morning shortly after the world witnessed President Trump on national television asking yet another foreign power to interfere in the upcoming 2020 elections.” Nancy doesn’t mess around. And Kevin is not smart.

Then there was Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, Lindsey Graham. This rabid attack animal was unable to do anything other than deny any wrongdoing by Trump and then to endorse the dirt-finding Eurotour being conducted by Barr, Pompeo, Giuliani, and Gorka. Whatever Trump or Putin has on him must be explosive.

Majority Leader Moscow Mitch McConnell has steadfastly kept his mouth shut. The only concession he made to the new reality is to acknowledge that he had to allow a trial to proceed if the House approved articles of impeachment.

None of these “leaders” have exactly been profiles in courage. But each of them, and the rest of the GOP Congressfolk, took oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . .” Trump and company have proved to be domestic enemies, and a number of the countries he is seeking help from to undermine the 2020 election do not have the US’s best interests at heart.

Sadly, the GOP leaders lack the fortitude to stand up to this kakistocratic Executive Branch (indeed, some of them are proving to be part of the kakistocracy). Surely, they realize that Trump would throw any of them under the bus to satisfy any of his many ill-considered whims. Certainly, they must be aware that there is life after Trump, and some day, the cast of characters in charge of the country will change. Is Trump et al.’s authoritarian vision the country they want to wake up to on that day? Will their moral bankruptcy, political ambitions, and greed win out? Or will they live up to their sacred duty to protect the Constitution. Time will tell, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

As bad as Trump is, Mitch McConnell may be worse.

Any reader of this blog realizes how little affection I have for Donald Trump. He’s a racist, a grifter, incompetent, insecure, narcissistic, and a pathological liar. I strongly suspect he is suffering significant cognitive decline. He governs almost entirely by creating division. He has even welcomed interference by Russia in our elections. But as corrupt and disloyal as Trump has been, he could not possibly operate without the complicity of the Republican leadership, who unquestionably know better.

Yes, we have had electoral travesties. These include the corrupt bargain of 1876, which installed Rutherford B. Hayes as President in exchange for the end of Reconstruction (ushering in the Jim Crow era), the election of 2000, where the US Supreme Court decided to halt a recount when there was widespread evidence of voting irregularities and ballot problems, and of course, the election of 2016, the consequences of which we are feeling now. But at least until 2016, most people probably agreed that at the federal level, our leaders supported protection of our elections from foreign interference.

Since January of 2015, Mitch McConnell has been Senate Majority Leader. During that time, he has proven to be both politically skilled and incredibly cynical and ruthless. Starting with the denial of even a vote for Merrick Garland’s appointment to replace Antonin Scalia, he has overseen the growth of an unrelentingly partisan stance among Republicans in the Senate. He has changed rules to install far right-wing judges, many of whom were rated as “unqualified” by the ABA. He has blocked even the consideration of rafts of legislation passed by the House. And he has chosen to remain silent as Trump takes unilateral steps to either make end-runs around laws or to withdraw us from treaties and agreements into which the US has entered. He also has benefited greatly from his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who channeled massive amounts of federal money and contracts to Kentucky to benefit McConnell during his re-election campaign. The result has been a judiciary that is far more conservative than the American public (and willing to rule according to political considerations), a legislative log jam, a wink and a nod to corruption, a breakdown in the rule of law, and erosion of foreign confidence in American willingness to honor its commitments.

But worse than this is McConnell’s unwillingness to allow votes to protect our electoral system to come to the Senate floor. Nor is this new. In 2016, President Obama attempted to warn the country of the information the intelligence community had uncovered about Russian attempts to influence the elections. Obama felt it critical to make a bipartisan statement against this interference, but McConnell blocked that, and threatened to accuse Obama of using this accusation to meddle in the election. As a result, Obama backed down and no warning was issued. It later turned out that McConnell had received millions of dollars in contributions from Russian oligarchs. More recently, in an apparent quid pro quo for McConnell’s role in lifting the Magnitsky sanctions on oligarch Oleg Deripaska, the latter chose to invest in aluminum plant in McConnell’s home state.

Since 2016, Russian (and other) efforts to interfere in our elections has continued unabated. Nevertheless, McConnell has not a let a single election security vote to come to the Senate floor. This is in spite of dire warnings just last month from Robert Mueller about the seriousness of this problem. In fact, since the Mueller hearing, 4 election protection bills have come to the Senate, and none have been considered, much less allowed to come to a vote.

McConnell is fabulously wealthy and has a record of success as Senate leader. Nonetheless, his unwillingness to defend the US electoral system against interference by foreign states is most likely what he will be remembered for. This behavior strongly suggests two things: 1) he is compromised by Russia, and/or 2) he realizes that Republican victories often necessitate such interference. Neither of these positions are acceptable in a Senate leader, and his unwillingness to defend American interests against hostile countries borders on treason.

It is very clear that the American system of governance cannot survive this situation. The Democrats must make it a prime goal to defeat Mitch McConnell and to take back the Senate. Others have suggested, and I am increasingly inclined to agree, that this may be even more important than defeating Trump.

But it will be hard to do that if we cannot even get a vote on election security. It is not enough to do this at the state level, because it will be impossible for individual states to stand up to hacking/interference by entire foreign countries. Democrats have to act now to find ways around McConnell’s ironclad grip on the Senate.

Much as the Republicans have tried to make “the Squad” the face of the Democratic party (despite their fairly limited influence), the Democrats have to make McConnell the face of the Republican party. There is a fair amount of dirt on McConnell out there, not least of which include his connections with Russian oligarchs. He has enjoyed a singular lack of accountability in his career. That has to end. It’s time to fight fire with fire.

The President Who Lied Wolf

This week, a Japanese ship was attacked in the Strait of Hormuz. Although there is a claim from our DoD and State Department that the attack came from Iran, the source of the attack is not clear, and the Japanese owner of the ship disputed Trump administration claims that it was an Iranian landmine that caused the fire on the ship.

The neocons in the administration, Bolton and Pompeo, as well as their Saudi allies, have been beating the drum to start a war with Iran, which would make the Iraq war look like a picnic. Iran is much bigger, and much more technically advanced than Iraq was in 2003, and they would probably take a much more aggressive stance than Iraq did. The American people are, understandably, hesitant to follow our leaders into a war, having been lied to by the Bush Administration about WMD in Iraq.

The larger problem for Trump is that, regardless of the source of the attack (which COULD be Iran), he and his administration are having a great deal of difficulty selling this war to our allies, largely because he is not seen as credible, and also because he has not proven to be a reliable partner. Trump has now told, since taking office, almost 11,000 verifiable lies. He lies the way most of us draw breath. This is nothing new; he has always been a liar. He also has never shown loyalty to anyone. If you doubt that, ask Mike Pence, who after being the most sycophantic of sycophants for the last 22 months, can still not count on an endorsement from Trump in 2024.

This President also has a startling tendency to blab intelligence secrets to perceived friends (witness his May, 2017, meeting with Former Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, in which he revealed top secret intelligence information gathered by Israel to Kislyak). It is certain that even the Russian leadership would use a trust-but-verify approach to anything Trump tells them. As if to highlight the seriousness of this issue, the New York Times just published an article in which, buried well down the column (I believe it was paragraph 21 or so), the DoD and State Department revealed that they do not provide Trump with unvarnished information for fear he’d reveal it. He is, in Ralph Kramden’s words, “a blabbermouth.” We can afford one of those as a mother-in-law, but not as a President.

This creates a very serious problem for US foreign policy going forward (to say nothing of domestic policy). If our leaders cannot be trusted, there is little point in believing them. This threatens our place in the world, and thereby, the stability of our alliances. Thus, the utter failure of the GOP in Congress, the State Department, the DOJ, and the DoD to adequately rein in Trump has caused huge problems for us, well beyond any benefit to them of protecting the man’s fragile ego. He is certainly not a man who can be trusted at any level.

I have already stated how harmful a President like this is domestically and with regard to human rights, but this is a new wrinkle that must be appreciated. Trump is not only a clear and present danger domestically, but also one internationally. He must be removed from office.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” — Robert S. Mueller, III, 5/29/2019

Well, that’s quite a vote of confidence, now, isn’t it Donnie?

Robert Mueller finally spoke on the occasion of resigning from the DOJ. It is now up to Congress what to do next. They can either pursue impeachment proceedings or they can allow an increasingly emboldened and lawless President to continue down his path toward autocracy. Trump’s actions seem driven primarily by his monumental dishonesty, his attempt to cover-up the truth and obstruct justice, and his insecurity at his profound lack of ability to handle the office he now holds. Doing nothing does not seem to be an option.

It is clear that any impeachment proceeding must be undertaken with care. The Senate is already making rumblings about quashing any such proceedings should they make it through the House. Trump and the Republicans will almost certainly launch a vicious attack against such proceedings. Moreover, impeachment proceedings could affect the Democrat’s attempt to provide a positive agenda for 2020.

However, by defining the investigations House Democrats are conducting as an impeachment proceeding — not an impeachment trial — the subpoenas that have been defied by the Administration become turbocharged and subject to faster judicial review. Second, impeachment hearings would provide an important instructive function. When impeachment proceedings began against Nixon in late 1973, only 19% of Americans supported his removal. By the time he resigned, that number was up to 57%. Finally, and most importantly, it is necessary to take a stand to preserve our form of government and to defend ourselves from foreign interference in our elections.

It will take tremendous political skill to manage any impeachment inquiry. Trump is clearly goading the Democrats to move forward. His calculation is that it will blow up in the face of Democrats, and it may. However, Trump will be in attack mode regardless of their actions. This is man who lives for chaos and conflict. Nonetheless, it is instructive to note that Justin Amash, who is the only Republican to support impeachment proceedings, received a standing ovation at his town hall yesterday in ruby-red Grand Rapids, MI. Thus, his courageous stand appears to be noticed by his constituents. There may be a lot more quiet support for impeachment than most politicians realize, and the cost of taking strong action against this administration may well be lower than the cost of failing to do so

It’s time to begin impeachment proceedings

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” – Presidential Oath of Office

“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” — Article II, Section 4, US Constitution

The US Constitution provides only two remedies to Presidents who are in violation of their oath of office. The first, impeachment, is outlined above. The second is the 25th Amendment, Section 4 of which reads in part:

“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”

The likelihood that Mike Pence and any Cabinet member, much less a majority, would take this step is vanishingly small. Their servility has been seen repeatedly in periodically televised Cabinet meetings in which each of the Department heads thank Trump for providing them the opportunity to destroy the country they control.

Removal by impeachment is probably equally unlikely, at least now. Even if articles of impeachment passed the house (which requires a simple majority), it is unlikely in the extreme that 2/3 of the Senate would vote for it. I initially opposed impeachment, but it is very clear that the Trump administration is pursuing a strategy of utter lawlessness by denying any and all requests for documents or even subpoenas. For this reason, I now support an inquiry as to whether impeachment is appropriate.

Subpoena literally means “under penalty.” There is no legal justification for Trump’s strategy of defying subpoenas, as was stated today in regard to his attempt to hide his taxes. No one is above the law, and the President’s duty (Article II, Section 3) is that “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Executed here does not mean “kill off.” It means “carry out.” This is not a negotiable point.

Regardless of findings about obstruction of justice, Trump is currently obstructing Congress. This is invalid for at least 3 reasons.

First, an unbiased reading of the Mueller report makes it clear that Trump is not cleared of obstruction of justice. Quite the contrary. Mueller outlined 11 cases of possible obstruction, a number of which meet all three of his criteria for obstruction. What is clear is that Mueller deferred to the Office of Legal Counsel position that a sitting President cannot be indicted. However, this does not rule out additional investigation, as Mueller himself points out. In volume II, page 8, he states “[t]he conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.” The Mueller report clearly and repeatedly states “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

It is irrelevant whether Bill Barr, who misrepresented the Mueller report in his March letter to Congress, thinks he can decide what happened in each of the 11 cases Mueller raises. Barr is clearly exceeding his authority to protect his boss.

Second, Trump is attempting to prevent even former and personal employees from testifying. As an example, today, he directed Don McGahn to refuse to appear before Congress. But Mr. McGahn is no longer in the White House and cannot be so directed. Sadly, McGahn appears to be following Trump’s orders. This attempt is obstruction on its face, and does not fall within executive branch powers. However, based on the Mueller report, it clear that McGahn is an important witness, and Trump wants to prevent Congress, and thus, the American people, to find out what he has to say.

Third, Trump is trying to argue that the subpoenas amount to a “do over.” Aside from the pure childishness of this claim, it is irrelevant. Prior to January 20, 2017, Republican congress carried out 10 separate hearings on the Benghazi affair without a single indictment, not that that stops Sen. Graham from demanding an 11th. Thus, there is precedent to do further investigations.

I initially agreed with Nancy Pelosi that impeachment would not be productive. However, I have changed my mind. The President cannot be allowed to operate outside the law. The Republicans have shown an utter cowardice in responsibility to provide oversight on this President. It is interesting that they were more than willing to provide oversight over prior Democratic Presidents. Thus, they are being disingenuous in defending Trump from checks on his irrational behaviors and policies.

The responsibility for holding Trump accountable, then, falls to the Democrats. First, even if Trump is not removed, impeachment proceedings provide an extra level of power to subpoenas that are issued. This will provide a far firmer basis for Congress’ jurisdiction. Second, the proceedings, especially if televised, would provide an important educational function in showing how illegal Trump’s behavior has been. Finally, there is an ethical consideration, If an attempt is not made to hold a lawless President accountable, what is the purpose of the Constitution.

The President is neither preserving, nor protecting, nor defending the Constitution. At the bare minimum, Congress must make an inquiry as to whether impeachment hearings should be held.