On important political events (Episode 55)

What does it mean to be aware of a political event? We all have so much to pay attention to in life so how then do we determine just how much attention to pay to politics? As I wrap my mind around this question it shapes my understanding of the aesthetics of the personal journal podcast genre, for what is an account of life without an awareness and understanding of and personal connection to consequential political happenings? In this context then, I examine the relationship between introspection and political awareness and how my interest in political awareness evolves from first hearing of President Clinton as a kid, through 9/11 as a teenager, and in the age of Trump as a man in his early 30’s. What are we, as Americans, beyond the punditry and commentaries, to make of today’s Mueller testimony to congress? 

***PUBLIC COMMENT is a personal journal podcast about a political and philosophical millennial in search of ever greater clarity and honesty who shares with you his contemplative thoughts as he tries to wrap his mind around the complexities of the human experience.****

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Speaker of the House & Senate Majority Leader Have Too Much Power

Observing a Democratic House of Representatives spar with the Republican Senate reveals how the leaderships within both parties– I’m talking about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi here– possess far too much power, stifling the democratic elements that are supposed to propel our legislative processes.  

Thus, our congress now operates in a fashion that seems entirely out of touch with a much wider, international populist revolution of sorts extending far beyond politics, challenging the mainstream media, academia, traditional 20th century corporate models– including even the way companies market with the goal of establishing genuine connection with those they serve– and even cultural ethical assumptions, in the wake, for example, of the #MeToo movement.

Politically speaking though, the most revealing aspect of this global populist revolution is not Trump winning the 2016 Presidential election, and is not the worldwide nationalism and protectionism, at least as I contemplate it. Rather, what strikes me most is how many Democrats are running in the 2020 Primary elections.

The plethora of candidates indicates to me an uptick in passion and earnestness to cast aside assumptions of electability, and “Establishment” choices of who the next president should be.

Put another way, “the people” are hammering a stake into the dying heart of conventional concentrations of power.

Not in congress however.

(And even less so with respect to the presidency. Read this excellent article by Foreign Affairs for more on that specifically)

Unfortunately, the extreme concentrations of power held by Pelosi and McConnell are stalling and weakening our country from any kind of truly political productivity.

Tell me (really, please do!): what is the last major congressional achievement you can think of (if you don’t count when the unanimously passed a resolution “to reject [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s proposal to interrogate US officials.”). Maybe repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” nearly a decade ago?  

To be clear, this is a problem which is exacerbated by both parties!

Consider just how it seems, at times, like Speaker Pelosi gets treated as if she were Queen of the Democrats.

The growing call among her fellow House Democrats for President Trump’s impeachment serves as an illustrative example.

As Politico reports,

[Rep.] Nadler [of NY} pressed Pelosi to allow his committee to launch an impeachment inquiry against Trump — the second such request he’s made in recent weeks only to be rebuffed by the California Democrat and other senior leaders

Why should any lawmaker– or any person for that matter!– enjoy the pedestal of such a high status that she or he gets to deny or “allow” significant legislative  “requests”–?

Please don’t get me wrong here. I get that leadership and management are paramount to making things happen and, theoretically, with efficiency, but “leadership” in a democracy should not be confused with exceptional powers such as has been granted to Nancy Pelosi.   

Maybe it doesn’t seem so awful to some of you when the one granted with so much power and status is part of your own political party, or your faction of your political party, but, if you’re a Democrat these days, how exactly do you feel about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s power to prevent the House’s legislative progress from moving any further?

How do you feel about the way he prevented a vote from taking place on the confirmation of Judge Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court?

Would you rather “bite the bullet” as they say, and chalk it up to a consequence of American politics when things of this sort occur, or are you inclined to think it would be better if McConnell never had that kind of power and that future Senate Majority leaders never do either?

As Salon’s Daley Gruen writes:

How is it possible that one man, for whom odds are neither you nor I voted, has absolute control over the ignition switch to our country, as well as the brakes, the gas, the wheels, the seats and the windows? After a bloody revolution to escape monarchical rule, our Congress was designed to be a conference of extraordinary citizens representing a polity of constituencies as equals, pushing and pulling our country towards the truest manifestation of the popular will. It’s why we call it the People’s House. But instead, “Mitch and Nancy” and their predecessors have enjoyed unchecked rule.

In a democracy, what comes to a vote should be determined by a process, a system, a democratic mechanism – not the whims of one person. If a bill fulfills some reasonable procedural trigger point, it should automatically go up for a vote by the entire body.

Gruen informs us further in the Salon piece that although it seems mostly like lip service, at least since the Democrats took back the House

any legislation that achieves 290 co-sponsors will automatically get a floor vote in the House. That threshold, however, is exceedingly high and not so different than the almost never used “Discharge Petition,” which already allows the House to force a vote if an absolute majority of 218 members sign a petition for it. [But] A democratic process should be regular order – not an act of defiance.

Indeed!

That’s why I believe Democratic Presidential primary candidates like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke (O’Rourke has been calling for impeachment just shy of a year now), along with other clear-headed legislators like Representative Al Green of Texas, and my own Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (though not for much longer as my wife and I are moving out of this congressional district) who don’t let Pelosi dictate their apparent convictions, are exceptional and worth our appreciation.

We should support more politicians like them.

Also, as suggested by Gruen, congress as a whole should vote on which bills go the floor for consideration. Why not a simple plurality?

The concentrations of power held by Pelosi and McConnell are unfair, undemocratic, and out of fashion. Giving the rest of Congress more say in things like its own legislative agenda would be a step in the right direction.

[Click here for an interesting read on the history of power growth within the position of the Speaker the Sen. Majority Leader]

THE FIRST AMENDMENT IS UNDER ATTACK; AN ATTEMPT TO STIFLE FREE SPEECH

Yesterday twelve former senior intelligence officials issued a joint statement saying that President Trump’s removal of former Director of the CIA John Brennan’s security clearances has “everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”

The officials added, “We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case.” They described the president’s actions as “inappropriate and deeply regrettable.”

What did the President say in his defense? 

In a statement released last Wednesday President Trump justified his actions by saying

any benefits that senior officials might glean from consultations with Mr. Brennan are now outweighed by the risks posed by his erratic conduct and behavior [which] has tested and far exceeded the limits of any professional courtesy that may have been due to him.

The president added that “Mr. Brennan has a history that calls into question his objectivity and credibility.” (Coming from a president who, according to the Washington Post, “has made 3,001 false or misleading claims” as of last May, it is quite ironic that he should question any one else’s “objectivity and credibility.”)

One example the president gives of Brennan’s questionable actions is the occasion when Brennan

denied to congress that CIA officials under his supervision had improperly accessed the computer files of congressional staffers [when in fact] The CIA’s Inspector General [IG], however, contradicted Mr. Brennan directly, concluding unequivocally that agency officials had indeed improperly accessed staffer’s files.

Trump’s claim however is misleading. A subsequent report by a CIA Accountability Review Board concluded that the CIA actions were not illegal and did not breech any agreement made between the Senate and the CIA. Is President Trump familiar with that report? Or is he true to form and simply lying?

[Read the Huffington Post analysis of the report]

It is also worth noting that Brennan apologized for his contribution to adding confusion over the matter. As McClatchy reported: “[Senator] Feinstein called Brennan’s apology and his decision to submit [to the IG] findings to the accountability board “positive first steps.”

In any event, if President Trump thought Brennan’s supposed shortcomings with respect to the C.I.A.’s access of Senate computer files merited removing Brennan’s security clearance one has to wonder why it is only in the midst of recent criticism from Brennan that Trump has suddenly expressed this judgement.

President Trump also said in his statement statement

Mr. Brennan told congress that the intelligence community did not make use of the so-called Steele Dossier in an assessment regarding the 2016 election, an assertion contradicted by at least two other senior officials in the intelligence community and all of the facts.

This is misleading at best. As the New York Times has said

The New York Times has reported — and Republicans who hold the majority vote on the House Intelligence Committee have concluded — that the [Russia] investigation began in July 2016 and was prompted by the actions of George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

Mr. Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that Russia had political ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate. Australian officials then alerted their American counterparts of the conversation with Mr. Papadopoulos.

The information provided by Mr. Steele did not reach F.B.I. officials who were investigating Mr. Trump’s campaign until mid-September of 2016, The Times reported in May. 

Next, President Trump claims:

Mr. Brennan has recently leveraged his status as a former high-ranking official with access to highly sensitive information to make a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations- wild outburst on the internet and television- about this Administration.

He has made no reference to which “highly sensitive information” Mr. Brennan revealed to the public.

President Trump’s statement furthermore describes Brennan’s public statements as  “increasingly frenzied commentary,” attacking Brennan’s state of mind.

What does appear indeed frenzied is the approach president Trump has taken to remove Brennan’s security clearance.

As the New York Times reported:

The standard revocation process includes memos that outline why a clearance is being withdrawn, and would allow the former official to offer a defense or a rebuttal. In Mr. Brennan’s case, the C.I.A. did no such review of his behavior or comments.

Not only is the president contradicting security clearance removal precedent, but he made it even more emphatic in a Wall Street Journal interview that he was essentially punishing Brennan for his involvement in the Russia investigation, implying that anyone having anything to do with the investigation could theoretically be victim of Trump’s vindictive actions. 

President Trump reflected on Brennan and the Russia investigation, saying to the Wall Street Journal, “I call it the rigged witch hunt, [it] is a sham. And these people led it! So I think it’s something that had to be done.”

According to the President then, because he thinks the Russia investigation is a “rigged witch hunt” and “a sham” that Brennan participated in, Brennan should have his security clearances removed. 

Considering only Brennan’s loss of security clearance, this might seem only to be an obstruction of justice and an abuse of power, but in light of there events of this week, it is clear that this is a piece of a broader attack on the first amendment- freedom of speech and of the press, specifically.

Recall the fact that Trump described Brennan’s public statements as “increasingly frenzied commentary”- referring most likely to Brennan’s claim that Trump’s deference to autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, and refusal to acknowledge the unanimous findings of the U.S. intelligence community, is treasonous.

Trump cited this as part of his rationale for stripping Brennan of his security clearance but Brennan is permitted by the First Amendment to say whatever he wants about the president (so long as he does not reveal confidential information).

The Chicago Tribune reported today that former Trump aid Omarosa Manigault Newman is being attacked for her criticism of the President. Omarosa has released tapes embarassing to the president, such as a conversation between Omarosa and Lara Trump where Trump tries to silence Omarosa with hush money upon being fired by President Trump’s chief of Staff, John Kelley. She’s also written a tell-all book “Unhinged” making claims that there is a tape of the President saying the N word, among other claims.

It has also just been reported by the Associated Press that

Omarosa Manigault Newman has a stash of video, emails, text messages and other documentation supporting the claims in her tell-all book about her time in the Trump White House, a person with direct knowledge of the records told The Associated Press Friday.

President Trump this week embarrassed himself and incited tremendous outcry when earlier this week he referred to Omarosa as a “dog,” giving the public one more example of how Trump deals not in reason or evidence based criticism of his own critics, but rather, resorts to dehumanizing insults.

The Chicago Tribune adds:

Trump campaign litigation counsel Charles Harder…sent a letter to Simon & Schuster executives threatening that the book’s publication would subject the company to liability for ‘substantial monetary damages and punitive damages.’

In the letter, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Harder said that excerpts of the book ‘contain confidential information and disparaging statements’ and that the Trump campaign’s potential claims against the publisher include tortious interference and inducement of Manigault Newman to breach her NDA [Nondisclosure agreement] with the campaign.

‘Now that you are aware of these contractual provisions, and Ms. Manigault-Newman’s breaches thereof, the Company will have claims against you, and all persons working in concert with you, should you proceed with publishing and selling the Book,’ Harder said, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The [Washington] Post.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Simon & Schuster outside counsel Elizabeth McNamara said Harder [the Trump campaign lawyer]

did not identify any particular excerpts as false, and the Trump campaign ‘does not have a viable legal claim merely because unspecified truthful statements in the Book may embarrass the President or his associates.’

In other words, Omarosa is being harassed- in fact, Trump reportedly wants Omarosa arrested – and he is attempting to prevent her from speaking, because her book makes the President look bad to the public.

While Simon & Schuster has said it will not stop publishing the book, the fact is the President of the United States swears an oath to uphold the constitution and by attempting to prevent Omarosa for exercising her first amendment right he is in direct violation of the constitution. He is not doing what he has sworn to do.

Washington Post Columnist Jennifer Rubin explains what she thinks ought to happen:

In a perfect world with lawmakers on both sides committed to upholding the Constitution, there would be bipartisan agreement on the need to begin impeachment hearings. there are more than enough grounds to commence hearings based on what we know to date and on Trump’s public conduct, including abuse of his authority over security clearances, his other assaults on the First Amendment, his blatant attempts to interfere with the Russia investigation….his drafting of a phony cover story for the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, his false public denial about payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels, etc.

It need not be “a perfect world” however, for Congress to do what it ought to do. It just needs to be a slightly more honest world- a world with a touch more integrity.

Further, perhaps if enough Americans make it blatantly clear to congress that they will not win re-election if they fail to impeach, congress will act. Trump’s base may be hard to crack but it’s not invincible and not immune to a tripping point that sways supporters from his hypnotic grasp.

People are speaking out in increasing numbers.

These recent first amendment attacks are happening the same week that hundreds of newspaper editorial boards condemn the president’s constant attack on the press,- calling the press “the enemy of the people” for example- after the Boston Globe suggested they all do so.

Showing how visceral the President’s attacks on the press are,  Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell reminds us:

When unhappy with Post coverage in particular, Trump has threatened government action against Amazon in an apparent attempt to financially punish its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who independently owns the paper.

Rampell adds:

Journalists and media owners are hardly the only ones whose job or financial security Trump has targeted from his bully pulpit. He called for the firing of National Football League players who kneel in protests during the national anthem. NFL owners, in a secretly recorded meeting in October, expressed concern about the president’s impact on their bottom line.

The president has been so reckless in his attacks that his removal of Brennan’s security clearances has awakened the anger of a retired Navy Admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden,  William H. McRaven. McRaven wrote: I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearances as well, so I can add my name to the men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.”

McRaven says of Trump: “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”

It is interesting that McRaven notes Trump’s “McCarthy-era tactics” because when McCarthy enraged people in the military during his “witch hunt” for attacking the first amendment it ended his political career and was met with a historical response. McCarthy was told: 

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

When will congress tell Trump “You have done enough” and impeach him? Or, are there too many among us willing to sacrifice our First Amendment rights?