What is Mr. Trump Accomplishing?

April 6, 2020

Trump insists on painting a rosy picture. He’s great. He’s solved every problem. We were the first to stop people coming from China. We have great tests. And medical professionals have all they need.  Things are so good that America will be going to church for Easter. And it would be a shame not to have sports to watch.

That’s a happy picture. The risk is that people will abandon fears and get together without worrying about social distance or washing their hands, avoiding groups or contact. Cabin fever isn’t fun. It takes character to stay at home and find ways of getting needed supplies without going into grocery and drug stores and other places that have what we might need.

When I have to leave my home in Albany, I see friends staying six feet apart, chatting, obviously enjoying each other, but without ever getting close. People give me a wide berth or I give them one. Yes, occasionally a friend or neighbor and I will talk across the lawn, hedge, or drive, but we stay much further apart than we ever would were it not for the virus. And by the way my neighbors are angels, offering to shop for us, given that the difference in our ages means they are probably less vulnerable to the virus than we are. For the most part, we’ve found ways of getting what we need without exposing ourselves to the virus. And I also want our neighbors to be able to do the same and avoid any place where they could pick it up.

We check with folks in New York City. They tell us that people there also give each other a wide berth when they need to leave the house. Some are lucky enough to have a yard, balcony or somewhere they and their families can get fresh air and stretch their legs without contact with others, risking their health or becoming carriers for anyone else. But otherwise, there too, they’re staying home. And yes, the kids can’t go to school and everyone’s working from home.

So thanks to Governor Cuomo for making clear what needs to happen and laying down rules to see that it does. We have our differences on some issues but he is doing his level best to take care of New Yorkers. It’s not about how great he is and how he’s thwarted the virus, but about what we all need to do.

Not Trump. At least until recently, he didn’t bother to keep a social distance in his daily prime-time campaign appearances. He boasted about his good health and how he didn’t need to follow the rules. And he doesn’t fret about the people who will follow his example.

So the question is whether it will make a difference? It could make a big one. His loyal followers could suffer the virus disproportionately. That will give the virus a second life wherever people ignored the rules, and then contact will bring it back all over the country. This time we won’t have the Chinese to blame. He’s turned the Governor down on respirators, refusing to accept the professionals’ understanding that the way to fight this disease is to kill it wherever it is, before it spreads and gets to the rest of us. Is he trying to play politics with who is vulnerable to the illness? Or is he leading his own supporters along with the rest of us into the hell of coronavirus pneumonia?

I realize that the president, and some representatives, do not want to recognize that where health is concerned, we are all in this together and no one is an island. But nature will make it clear. We have to help each other or perish together.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 7, 2020.


Paying for the Virus

March 31, 2020

In his discussion of the financial consequences of the pandemic to New York, Gov. Cuomo has not mentioned that New York isn’t permitted to borrow the money it needs. The reason is a New York State constitutional prohibition. Many states prohibit borrowing except for capital expenses. When states were permitted to borrow for current expenses, they ran up large debts and the practice needed to be stopped. So, many state constitutions barred the practice. New York requires a law to be submitted to the voters for specific purposes. The Governor does not have the time to satisfy New York’s constitutional rules. For the moment, he’s stuck.

The same prohibition does not apply to the federal government. Economists understand that fiscal stimulus is an important tool for dealing with economic downturns. But clearly the feds have misused it, giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest people and corporations, cuts not used in any way to stimulate the economy but that did significantly increase the national debt. That was the kind of misbehavior that led states to take the power away.

This, however, is an example of a time where deficit spending is completely appropriate. Dealing with the virus is expensive. The feds have provided some relief though politics has affected who got what. But there is an additional problem – with a large part of the workforce ordered to stay home and businesses shuttered, there is a very large downturn in tax payments flowing to government. The federal government can borrow to fill that gap and it can provide relief to the states. But most states can’t help themselves. The result, as usual, is that this becomes another way for Republicans to force everyone to cut what they spend on services – in this case, because the big budget item is education, the feds are forcing states like New York to cut funding on schools. Whoopie – isn’t that great planning for the future.

The Federal Reserve is trying to stimulate the economy but chairman Powell has been very clear that the Fed cannot solve our problems because the financial system is not the main problem, not even close. There are supply side, demand side and income problems. The Federal Reserve’s tools provide little help on the income side. It’s a little too simple to say that the Federal Reserve has no fiscal powers because it can lend to the federal government, but it can’t force the federal government to borrow, or to put that in its budget. So unless Congress and the Administration decide that there is a need to help the states meet the costs of running their school systems and other necessary services, the states are stuck doing what Republicans always want them to do – cut their services to the people. If they do that, then rich folk won’t have to bribe their kids ways into college because only the rich will have kids sufficiently educated to go to college, and all the disparities in America will get even bigger.

Grabbing all the goodies for fewer and fewer people seems to be the dream of those who finance Republican campaigns, but I can’t see why any of the rest of us would accept it – unless Trump pulls the wool so far over people’s eyes that the people don’t understand that he and his Republican friends are using the epidemic to make most of us even worse off than we were before.

This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 31, 2020.


Trump’s negligence in the coronavirus epidemic

March 10, 2020

Presidents are obligated to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” They are supposed to manage, administer and appoint people to carry out the tasks of government. Trump interprets that as his right to fire experts and replace them with yes-men devoted only to him. He’s reinstated the long disgraced spoils system in an era when everything is much more difficult and complex.

General and then President Ulysses Grant advocated and signed a merit system for federal employees when he was president in 1871. The federal Civil Service system was finally passed and reestablished under President Chester Arthur in 1883. It was designed to make sure that we have people competent to the tasks in front of them.

Trump is not a doctor or a scientific researcher. The medicine and science of protecting us from disease are the jobs of experts at the Center for Disease Control. As we would not ask our neighbor to diagnose and cure appendicitis or cancer, so we should have and listen to the experts at the CDC. But Trump muzzled and contradicted its experts, drastically cut CDC funding by three-quarters of a billion dollars, cut programs designed to prevent epidemics, and eliminated an office designed to deal with global pandemics, only to discover that we are in the middle of an emergency and try to restore some of the money when it’s already too late.

Unfortunately his handling of the coronavirus epidemic is evidence of Trump’s incompetence. It is also a disaster. Lots of people will die. Some people may think they are wealthy and immune and may survive. But as John Donne told us:

No man is an island entire of itself …

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Minimum wage workers with minimal or no health insurance won’t get adequate medical care in time to protect the community. But their illness diminishes all of us. They are our food service workers; staff our groceries and drug stores; care for our parents in nursing homes and take care of our children in schools and day care; and do many of the other chores we daily depend on. In an epidemic everyone matters but who will take care of them? It horrified many of us that Trump ignored the hurricane damage to Puerto Rico. But there aren’t 1,000 miles of water between people infected with corona virus and the rest of us.

Neither Trump nor anyone else should be allowed to cut the budgets and eliminate the people who protect our health, try to blame them and their departments for failing to protect us, and then try to show how devoted they are to us by rushing to add dollars back after trouble has already broken out. It’s too late, too foolish, too demoralizing and too sickening. The time, damage and lives lost to incompetence cannot be restored.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 10, 2020.


Kangaroo Court for Whitewash

January 27, 2020

Republicans charge Democrats with trying to impeach Trump since the day he took office, never mentioning that Trump announced his intention to violate the Constitution’s prohibition on foreign corrupt influence, the emoluments clause, from day one. Democrats were apparently supposed to do their patriotic duty by lying down and rolling over. Now we’re involved in a trial of exactly what the clause prohibited – foreign corrupt influence, that affected our handling of national defense, and may have affected much more. Foreign corrupt influence is serious.

Unfortunately, the impeachment process as now planned looks like a kangaroo court. No witnesses, no cross-examination, no documents, no evidence. Only McConnell could get away with allowing president Trump, the defendant, to decide how he’s to be tried and who can testify – not based on rules of evidence but whatever the defendant wants to happen. No one, of course, would ever be convicted of anything if defendants could control whether anyone can testify, and, if so, who.

Evidence is admissible if it’s relevant unless barred by the Constitution, law or statutorily authorized Supreme Court rules. Evidence is relevant if “it make[s] a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence” and “the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” The Chief Justice, presiding, could rule on admitting evidence according to law. The existing process makes him into window dressing. McConnell, who organized this process, gets my vote for kangaroo-in-chief.

Republicans, following Trump’s lead, claim everything they dislike is fake news. They’ve denied so much so often that one can’t tell when they’re crying wolf. But, if there is a wolf, his den is at Mar-o-Lago.

The believability of testimony is enhanced by statutes which make it a crime to lie to Congress. Absent that, why believe anything Trump’s lackeys say, especially those who can hide behind the congressional privilege not to be tried for anything they say in Congress?

What I’ve been hearing instead of any responsible defense are attacks on impeachment, attacks on Democrats for turning to impeachment, attacks on the use of circumstantial evidence and a cauldron of invectives that one can fearlessly sling around as opinion. Republicans claim everything Democrats say is political. That garbage is reversible. If we focus only on motive, then everyone is guilty and all we get is cynicism. But there are facts – testimony, documents, science, records. Republicans respond by attacking the evidence as circumstantial, though circumstantial evidence is often more reliable than words that can be continually refashioned. And Republicans attack the absence of magic words about quid pro quo from the president’s mouth because no one that the President or the Senate Republicans would allow to testify heard the president use the magic quid pro quo words, and they barred those who heard him from testifying because Republicans don’t want those words on the record.

But that makes a mockery of the Constitution and the several clauses relating to impeachment, clauses the Founding Fathers took so seriously that they wrote five different impeachment clauses into the Constitution. Responding to serious and substantial allegations that call into question the loyalty of the president by attacking the Constitution’s prohibitions and remedies makes a mockery of the obligations of every officer of the U.S. Government, from the President down. It makes crying wolf and lying to everyone, into constitutionally protected misconduct. Thanks for the civics lesson, Mr. McConnell.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 28, 2020, but since the impeachment proceedings have preempted air time, it’s not clear at this moment when it may have been aired.


Cry the Beloved Country

January 21, 2020

ALL our office-holders have sworn to protect and defend our country and our Constitution. Some of us fought and died for it. We’ve argued about the meaning of the Constitution because we cared what it meant for America. We’ve fought over amendments to the Constitution to make it better but also to preserve the strengths of our heritage.

Now we’re struggling over impeachment. When the House considered impeaching Nixon, I feared that impeachment should not be tried unless it would succeed because of the president’s many powers. Impeachment can unleash the worst of America.

We now have witness intimidation. Trump has fired people who were investigating possible wrongdoing. He threatened with jail the man whose investigation of Hillary put Trump in power, because Comey dared investigate Russia too. Trump demands exposure and prosecution of the whistle-blower whose report had already been corroborated. An American ambassador was recalled and told to board the first plane home because of fears that she would be assassinated in circumstances suggesting the threat was from the Administration. No “deep state” compares to him!

This man is dangerous – to critics, to justice and to America itself. That’s why our laws protect the anonymity of whistle-blowers. That’s why Trump can’t stand an anonymous whistle-blower who’s been corroborated. He can’t threaten him or her without identifying who it is. But he can threaten and scare everyone else – the first and indispensable step of dictators. This man is an imposter – he is not an American.

Republicans object that the people should determine Trump’s tenure as if impeachment were unconstitutional, though the Constitution provides for impeachment and the underlying issue is whether we can trust an election while Trump is in office blocking efforts to protect the security of our elections and cuddling up to Russians who want him in power for their, not our, purposes.

Yes, impeachment is about “high crimes and misdemeanors” but cheating the country is also a high crime and misdemeanor. I want to replace Trump with people who have actually spent their lives and careers figuring out who took the American dream out of so many households; people who are trying to put the dream back where it belongs, into the homes of all the good people of America, not into the bloated assets of the people who have the wealth and power to rip every last penny out of our lives and push so many of us onto the tightrope, so accurately described by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and over the edge into what we now describe as “deaths of despair”. Trump is devoted only to the rich, the only people who can be useful to him. He must have read the Dictator’s Handbook; he’s doing everything the authors identified to retain power. It won’t be part of the trial but that disloyalty to the people is a very high crime.

Alan Paton, a South African, published Cry the Beloved Country in 1948 at the height of the struggle over apartheid. Indeed, cry our beloved country and our beloved Constitution. I pray that Americans will come to appreciate how badly Trump is cheating them and how devoted to them are some of the people who are trying with all their might to get him out of office – before it’s too late.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 21, 2020.


What are Americans that God is mindful of us?

January 14, 2020

Lots of people believe their countries are best. We do too. Caring for one’s country is good. Economic objections to admitting refugees don’t justify brutality. Strategic disagreements about Iran’s objectives don’t require going to war. But demonizing people changes the stakes. Treating them as nothing but vandals and killers, unworthy of concern, drives the ugliest parts of both the refugee and Iran crises, and threatens everyone in a chorus of hate.

Trump’s African-American predecessor created a path to peace in the Middle East. Obama was hardly the first African-American with diplomatic skills. Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche negotiated the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Powell and Rice are more recent. But Trump can’t recognize Obama’s achievements. So he shredded the path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless for the US to stay in Iraq, and demonized Iranians and Mexicans, while too many of his supporters murder those they demonize.

Insistence that other peoples are unworthy of concern is like throwing a hand grenade at our common Biblical, Judeo-Christian and Muslim heritage, for the Bible, and the Abrahamic tradition it embodies, is the common heritage to which so many of us in America cling.

The Bible asks in the Book of Psalms: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

Must we, too, be mindful of others?

Or do we think that we’re only a little lower than the angels, entitled to rule over God’s other peoples, to disparage, demean and vilify refugees and entire countries?

America’s strength comes from protecting human rights and supporting international law. We, not just a statue in New York harbor, have been a torch of freedom throughout the world.

Our Declaration of Independence became a landmark in the development of universal human rights by showing “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” and proclaiming that all of us “are created equal … endowed by … [our] Creator with … unalienable Rights … [to] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our Constitution guarantees rights to all. The Bill of Rights speaks to “the people,” every “person,” and any “accused.”

The 14th Amendment defined citizenship so that it could not be denied to African-Americans or any other race – red, brown, yellow, whatever. These are among the commitments in that torch of freedom.

When we refuse visas or reentry to refugees, returning citizens, residents or visitors simply because of ancestry or faith, we not only violate the Constitution, we dim and tarnish our torch.

For centuries, we’ve been devoted to a world of rules and mutual obligations as the best path to peace. America wrote the rules of international order after World War II for a grateful world. No one forced NATO, the UN, regional and world financial organizations on us. When this country dishonors our obligations, to Iran, to NATO, the EU, or to refugees, who’ll trust us? If we’ve become a rogue state, whose interests align with ours?

God rescued the ancient Israelites from Egypt. But the Lord reminded them, in Amos 9-7, that God also rescued other very different peoples. If God pays attention to America, it’s not so we can celebrate or claim to be #1, the best or most powerful. It is because we have a job to do for all humankind.


Trump’s wrong approach to Iran

January 7, 2020

What’s wrong with Trump’s approach to Iran? Let me count the ways.

First, Trump’s claims about stopping Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s plans make little sense. What had been planned can take place with or without him. Iranian strikes are more, not less, likely now.  This is too similar to the prelude to the war in Iraq except that Trump isn’t taking the time to try to convince anyone. We just have unsubstantiable and probably false claims as a basis for very costly decisions.

Second, the timing is suspicious. War threats blew impeachment out of the news. In other words, everything is PR.

Third, Trump’s stated policy is tit for tat. But where does it end? If we need to have the last strike, why don’t they? Most important he has crushed any diplomatic path to peace as a way out.

Fourth, this was totally unnecessary. President Obama created a path to peace in the Middle East. Only Trump thought the Iranians weren’t obeying the nuclear agreement – those who actually went and looked agreed the deal was working.  But Trump shredded the existing path to peace, revived animosities that made it useless to stay in Iraq, provoked Iran by increasing sanctions after destroying the legal basis for sanctions and is now delivering the Middle East to other foreign powers like Russia and China. Iran has been measured and restrained by comparison.

Fifth, the military is not united on this. Trump has found people in the military who will work with him while other high-ranking and responsible brass react that his missions are not properly vetted and do more harm than good. Disagreement is fine but the possibility that Trump is reshaping the Army so that it can’t threaten a Trump takeover scares me most. Then we are all in the sewers, concentration camps or gas chambers. If you think that’s not possible, that’s exactly what does make it possible. We have to stop him, not ignore him.

Sixth, it is now much more likely that we are headed for war. Trump has managed to move the Iranian people from blaming their own government for their troubles to blaming the U.S. So the political pressures in Iran are now all on the side of action again the U.S.

Seventh, Iran does have the capability to react. They are well-organized for asymmetrical or unconventional warfare. American power is based on throw weight and mass destruction; Iranian power is based on secrecy and guerilla tactics. Military conflict with Iran will be very costly, a view strongly held within the military. Taking them on militarily makes little sense when there are better ways of managing conflict.

The real problem is to find someone who behaves like an adult in the White House. That makes the impeachment process more urgent and important. And by the way, the Constitution demands a trial. Trials in America are based on testimony under oath. Trial without witnesses is an oxymoron, another way Senate leaders insist on ignoring the Constitution – because they know testimony would be very damning to Trump.

For those interested, here is a link to expert commentators and the views of the organization of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Iran.


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