Revenge of Obama’s ‘Former Officials’

Obama officials are waging war on the Trump White House.

For a president who has a uniquely hostile relationship with the press, positive news cycles are both rare and fleeting. The Trump team displayed remarkable discipline by refusing to step on the president’s well-received address to a joint session of Congress. A lot of good discipline did them. Just 24 hours after Trump’s address, a series of troubling reports involving links among those in Trump’s orbit to Russian officials reset the national discourse. Those stories make for a trend, though, that has little to do with Trump and a lot to do with his predecessor. The Obama administration’s foreign-policy team seems to be campaigning to rehabilitate itself one leak at a time, and the press is helping.

The frenzy on Wednesday night began with a revelation in the New York Times that members of Barack Obama’s administration had left a trail of breadcrumbs for investigators who happen to be looking into the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russian government. The report revealed that intelligence officials intercepted communications between Russian officials and “Trump associates,” and that the administration worked frantically in the final days to ensure those revelations could not be buried and forgotten after they left office.

More than six “former officials” described efforts to reduce the classification on some reports relating to Trump associates’ contact with Russians so they would be widely distributed. They also revealed their efforts to raise the classification level of some information related to Russia that was so sensitive they feared the Trump administration might leak it to Moscow. Some officials apparently even touted their efforts to ask leading questions during intelligence briefings so their questions would be transcribed and archived, leaving clues for congressional investigators should they ever come looking for them.

The Times report revealed that a “former senior American official” disclosed that Jeff Sessions had met with “Russian officials.” The Washington Post confirmed that Sessions took a private meeting with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, appearing to contradict testimony Sessions provided to the Senate. The controversy whipped up around the discrepancy between Sessions’ confirmation-hearing testimony, and these reports have resulted in Democrats calling for his resignation and Republicans running for cover.

Though it received less attention amid the flurry of reports involving Team Trump’s connections to the Kremlin, the Washington Post published another story involving the decision-making process that led up to the Yemen raid. That raid, in which Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed, an Osprey helicopter was lost, and up to 31 Yemeni civilians died, cannot be said to have gone according to plan. This report alleges that the plan might have been the problem.

The report quoted former advisor to Vice President Joe Biden on national security, Colin Kahl, who averred that the raid was the result of an Obama administration-era initiative expediting the approval of partnered ground operations. Yet, this raid was greenlit as a result of “a more abbreviated White House process.” Kahl took particular issue with the revelation that a sub-Cabinet level meeting on the raid—a meeting scheduled after the raid had been approved by the president and following a variety of briefings on the mission—lasted less than an hour. “You can’t cover the complexity of a topic like that in 23 minutes,” he declared. Other “former officials” quoted in that piece criticized the raid for straining relations with the Yemeni government. In sum, the Obama administration deserves all the credit for what went right in Yemen and none of the blame for what went wrong.

At least a few of these “former officials” who so freely offer reporters at the Times and the Post intimate details about the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy are members of the infamous gang of nine. These officials within the Obama administration’s intelligence apparatus confirmed to the Post that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had misled Mike Pence when he said he did not discuss the Obama-era sanctions regime in his phone conversations with Kislyak. As the Times revealed last night, federal officials monitored those calls, transcribed the conversations, and related the substance to the press.

There is an assumption permeating these reports: that those unnamed Obama-era officials are selflessly sacrificing in the effort to prevent the Trump administration from undermining American national security. Some have even dedicated themselves to creating an elaborate Da Vinci Code for future scavenger hunters to decipher. More likely, the Obama administration’s foreign policy professionals are doing their best to retroactively vindicate themselves after leaving office under a cloud of mistrust. In their effort to self-aggrandize at the expense of the current administration, these rogue officials have found willing partners in the press.

The Obama administration was engaged in narrative manipulation surrounding Russia’s intervention into the election process even in its final hours. It was an effort to assuage the concerns of those on the left who were vocally critical of Barack Obama’s hands-off approach to Russian intervention in the political process. By December of 2016, sources within the foreign-policy establishment had begun anonymously indicting the Obama administration over its lethargy. Capitol Hill Democrats and Clinton campaign officials were second-guessing the White House. Obama’s deference was as much caution as it was a continuation of a longstanding effort to avoid antagonizing Russia to ensure their cooperation with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal—that administration’s signature foreign-policy achievement.

Media wants to draw blood from the White House. The Obama foreign-policy team wants vindication. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. “Former officials” have now put Jeff Sessions in the dock and threaten to engulf the president himself in a scandal over the death of a U.S. serviceman in a botched raid. All the while, they are presented as noble whistleblowers working toward the best interests of the American people.

None of this is to say that the information being provided to the press is inaccurate or that its release to the public isn’t of value, though criticizing the administration for not deliberating long enough on a subject that the president has already decided upon falls flat. This is not a “shadow government.” Yet, it is also clearly valuable for Obama administration officials to clear the cloud of suspicion that hangs over its final days, particularly among dispirited Democrats who regard its sluggishness with regard to Russia as a dereliction. The press, in its zeal to take the Trump administration down a peg, is the perfect venue through which to mount a rehabilitation campaign. There’s a lot of bait out there, and everyone seems to have bitten.

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Revenge of Obama’s ‘Former Officials’

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Avoiding Obama’s Mistakes in Syria

A doctrine is taking shape.

With all of Washington consumed by the effort to craft and pass health-care legislation, the Trump White House appeared to catch the country’s political establishment off guard when it announced that the crisis in Syria was again reaching a crescendo.

In a prepared statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revealed that the Bashar al-Assad regime was engaged in “potential preparations” to execute “another chemical attack” on civilians. “[If] Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” the statement read.

Hours later, the Pentagon expounded upon the nature of the threat. “We have seen activity at Shayrat Airfield,” said Captain Jeff Davis, “associated with chemical weapons.” The Shayrat Air Base outside the city of Homs is the same airfield that was targeted in April with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

For all the frustration over the Trump administration’s failure to craft a coherent strategy to guide American engagement in the Syrian theater, the White House has communicated to the Assad regime a set of clear parameters in which it is expected to operate. That is a marked improvement over the approach taken by Barack Obama’s administration.

When American forces in Syria or those under the American defense umbrella are threatened by the Assad regime or its proxies, American forces will take action. On several occasions, U.S. forces have made kinetic defensive strikes on pro-government militias, and that policy recently expanded to include Syrian regular forces. On June 18, a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber was destroyed when it struck American-backed fighters laying siege to the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.

The Trump administration has also telegraphed to Damascus the limited conditions that would lead to offensive operations against regime targets. At the risk of contradicting his campaign-trail promise to scale back American commitments abroad, President Trump was convinced at the urging of his closest advisors and family members following the April 4 chemical attacks to execute strikes on the Assad regime. His administration was quick to communicate that this was a one-time punitive measure, not a campaign. There would be no follow-on action.

That directive may no longer be operative. With the release of this latest statement warning Damascus against renewed chemical strikes on rebel targets, the triggers that led to strikes on regime targets in April are hardening into a doctrine. The United States will act aggressively to maintain a global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction.  There is enough consistency and clarity to Trump’s approach that it might amount to deterrence. Even if the Assad regime is not deterred, onlookers may yet be.

This is a doctrine that Barack Obama flirted with, but declined only at the last minute to adopt. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them,” Obama explained to the nation in a primetime address on September 10, 2013. “Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”

This was and remains a prophetic warning. ISIS militants have already deployed chemical munitions against Iraqi troops and their American and Australian advisors. An inauspicious future typified by despots unafraid to unleash indiscriminate and unconventional weapons on the battlefield would surely have come to fruition had the West not eventually made good on Obama’s threats.

Obama framed his about-face as an odd species of consistency. He deferred to Congress in a way he hadn’t before and wouldn’t after while simultaneously empowering Moscow to mediate the conflict. This laid the groundwork for Russian armed intervention in Syria just two years later. In contrast, Donald Trump eschewed the rote dance of coalition-building and public diplomacy. Instead, he ordered the unilateral, punitive strike on a rogue for behaving roguishly. And he’s willing to do it again if need be.

That approach will prove refreshing to America’s Sunni allies who, by the end of the last administration, were entirely disillusioned with the Obama presidency. Obama’s waltz back from his red line undermined the Gulf States and shattered hopes in Syria that the West was prepared to enforce the proscription on mass civilian slaughter. In the week of war drums leading up to the anti-climax of September 10, 2013, a wave of defections from the Syrian Army suggested that a post-Assad future was possible. Today, few think such a prospect is conceivable. And because the insurgency against Assad’s regime will not end with Assad in power, an equal number cannot foresee a stop to the Syrian civil war anytime soon.

These circumstances have led some to criticize the Trump administration. Perhaps the behaviors they’ve resolved to punish are too narrowly defined. Maybe the White House should rethink regime change? It is, after all, not so much a civil war anymore but a great power conflict. American troops—to say nothing of Russian, Turkish, British, French, and a host of others—are already on the ground in Syria in numbers and at cross purposes. Still others contend that even this level of engagement in the Levant is irresponsible. They argue the Syrian quagmire is to be avoided at all costs.

These are all legitimate criticisms, but only now can there be a rational debate over a concrete Syria policy.

For more than three years, Barack Obama tried to have his cake and eat it, too. He presented himself as sagaciously unmoved by the political pressuring of Washington’s pro-war establishment, which salivates over the prospect of lucrative strikes on an alien nation.  At the same time, the Obama White House cast itself as a reluctant defender of civilization in the Middle East and elsewhere—perhaps even too quick to deploy men and ordnance. This was only nonsense retrofitted onto Barack Obama’s  pursuit of a face-saving way to retreat from his self-set “red line.”

The Trump administration’s policy in Syria is an improvement over Obama’s if only because it deserves to be called a policy. Love it or don’t, at least Americans are no longer being gaslighted into debating the merits of phantasms invented by political strategists in Washington talk shops.

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Trump Is Losing the Benefit of the Doubt on Russia

This isn't about politics.

On June 23, the Washington Post ran a comprehensive article reviewing the Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, which involved stealing emails from Democratic Party accounts and releasing them via Wikileaks. The outstanding work of reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous shows that there was a bipartisan, cascading failure to respond adequately to this attack on our democracy. That attack began under President Obama and is continuing under President Trump.

The Post revealed that the CIA had “sourcing deep inside the Russian government” showing that Vladimir Putin had personally tasked his intelligence agencies with “audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”

Obama was informed of this while the election was underway, but he did little.

… the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could ‘crater’ the Russian economy.

But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.

The article went on to quote “a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia” who said: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked.”

In fairness to Obama, he tried to seek bipartisan support to expose Russia’s machinations and found no interest among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, who were plainly more worried about losing an election than about this Russian attack on our democracy. Obama knew that if he had spoken out more forcefully, Trump and his Republican supporters would have hammered him for allegedly trying to “rig” the election for “Crooked Hillary.”

That doesn’t excuse Obama’s failure of leadership. He was the commander-in-chief; it was his responsibility. It does make clear, however,  that he was worried not just about the possibility of worsening relations with Russia but also about being charged with a partisan interference in the election.

The failure to react more strongly to the Russian hack extends now into the Trump administration. Trump’s reaction to the Post story is indicative of his troubling mindset. The day before the Post story came out, Trump claimed on Twitter that reports of Russian interference—as unanimously attested to by his own intelligence agencies—are “all a big Dem HOAX!” Following the publication of the Post’s story, he tweeted: “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”

Given that the Obama administration had publicly called out Russian interference in October, it’s hard to imagine why this would be news to Trump now.

The benefit of the doubt ends there. Trump’s next reaction was purely cynical. “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!” So when Trump is accused of collusion with the Russians or other wrong-doing, he claims that the entire Russian operation is a “hoax.” But when he wants to accuse Obama of wrongdoing, then he stipulates that the hacking was real.

For Trump, this is a purely partisan issue. The Democrats are out to get to him, to de-legitimize his election victory, and he will say or do anything to stop them—even if that means denying the reality of the Russian operation one moment and admitting it the next. There is no indication that he has treated this attack with the gravity it deserves, which makes it more likely that the Russians will be up to their old tricks in future elections, just as they have been doing recently in Europe.

Trump is right to castigate Obama for not doing more, but the same criticism now applies to him.

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200 Years on the Erie Canal

How the West was dug.

Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the 242nd year of the independence of the United States, and the day will be justly celebrated with parades, picnics, and fireworks from Hawaii to Maine.

But next Tuesday will also mark another anniversary of surpassing historical importance to this country. For it was on July 4th, 1817, 200 years ago, that the first shovelful of dirt was dug and the construction of the Erie Canal began. Finished eight years later (ahead of schedule and under budget) it united the east coast with the fast-growing trans-Appalachian west.

It was a monumental undertaking. At 363 miles, the canal was more than twice as long as any earlier canal. (The Canal du Midi in southern France was 140 miles in length.) Thomas Jefferson thought the project “little short of madness.” But Governor Dewitt Clinton saw the possibilities and went ahead, artfully handling the very considerable political opposition and arranged the financing (much of the money was raised in London).

Clinton was quickly proved right and the Erie Canal can claim to be the most consequential public works project in American history. Before the canal, bulk goods such as grain could reach the east coast population centers only by going down the Mississippi River and out through the port of New Orleans. With the canal, it could travel via the Great Lakes and the canal to the port of New York. Before the canal, it had taken six weeks to move a barrel of flour from Buffalo to New York City, at the cost of $100. With the canal, it took six days and cost $6.00. The result was an economic revolution.

Within a few years, New York City had become, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the doctor and poet, not his son the Supreme Court justice), “that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent.” The city exploded in size, expanding northwards at the rate of about two blocks a year. That may not seem like much, but Manhattan is about two miles wide, and thus the city was adding about ten miles of street front every year, a pace that continued for decades.

The cost of the canal was paid off in only eight years and thereafter became a cash cow for the state. This allowed it to weather the crash of 1837 and the following depression, which bankrupted the state of Pennsylvania and crippled Philadelphia’s banks. New York quickly became the country’s undisputed financial center, which it has been ever since.

And while goods were moving eastwards, people were moving westward through the canal as farmers deserted the thin, stony soils of New England for the rich, deep loams of Ohio and Indiana. This “New England diaspora” moved the political center of the country westwards.

The canal era in this country was a brief one as railroads, beginning in the 1830’s, began to spread. But the Erie Canal continued to function as an artery of commerce until the 1970’s and is still used today for things that, usually for reasons of size, cannot be moved by highway or railroad. And it remains a popular avenue for recreational boating.

So Americans should remember Dewitt Clinton next week just as we remember Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. For New Yorkers, that goes double. For it was the Erie Canal that put the “empire” in the Empire State.

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David French: The Threat To Free Speech

From the July/August COMMENTARY symposium.

The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:

We’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.

The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.

The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.

But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.

The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.

The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.

Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.

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A Victory for Symbolism

The travel ban is saved, for now.

President Trump got a much-needed win today when the Supreme Court allowed part of his executive order on immigration to take effect, vacating stays issued by lower courts. The justices will decide the fate of the executive order in the fall. Judging by today’s ruling, it’s possible that Trump will triumph, at least in part, if only because the president has broad authority to restrict entry into the United States by anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident. But even if Trump’s executive order proves to be legal, that doesn’t mean that it’s wise or necessary from a security standpoint.

The Department of Homeland Security can now keep out nationals of six Muslim countries—Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen—as long as those nationals cannot “credibly claim a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” Prepare for more litigation to figure out what constitutes a “bona fide relationship,” a new, arbitrary standard invented by the justices to modify the arbitrary standard invented by President Trump. What does any of this have to do with the dictates of counter-terrorism—the ostensible justification for the travel ban? Not much.

There is no history in the United States of terrorist acts committed by nationals of the six countries in question. As a Cato analyst noted, back when the ban still applied to Iraq as well as the six other countries: “Nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015.”

In justifying the travel ban, Trump’s original executive order on January 27 made its main argument the 9/11 attacks, “when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 American.” But the 9/11 attacks were committed by 15 Saudis, 2 Emiratis, 1 Egyptian, and 1 Lebanese—none of whom would be covered under the Trump travel ban. That’s not an argument for enlarging the ban but merely a commentary on the fact that the executive order as crafted is utterly disconnected from any actual security threat.

This reality is further underlined by the fact that when the original executive order was issued on January 27, the Trump administration claimed that it had to suspend all entry for nationals of seven Muslim countries for 90 days—and of all refugees from all over the world for 120 days. The stated intent of that order was to “ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals.”

Well, it’s now been 150 days since that executive order was issued—and we have not experienced any attacks by the hordes of terrorists that Trump claimed were waiting to rush into the United States when his executive order was suspended. And yet the administration is now arguing that it needs at least 90 more days to come up with vetting procedures for the entry of nationals of the six Muslim countries in question. Why haven’t the previous 150 days sufficed to make entry requirements as stringent as they need to be? In reality, there is no evidence that Homeland Security has had to strengthen already rigorous admission standards significantly.

President Trump gave away his real motives for pursuing the travel ban, in spite of the original justification lapsing, when he tweeted in favor of it on June 3 just minutes after a terrorist attack in London. “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he wrote. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” When Trump sent that tweet, the nationality of the attackers was not known. (They would subsequently be identified as a British citizen born in Pakistan, an Italian citizen born in Morocco, and a Moroccan who had been granted residency in the European Union because of his marriage to an Irish woman.)

All that anyone knew at that point is that the attackers were Muslims. So Trump was clearly signaling that his real worry is not about the six countries in question—none of which had anything to do with the London attack—but with Muslims in general. In keeping with his campaign rhetoric, which catered to anti-Muslim bigotry, Trump evidently wants to keep as many Muslims out of the country as possible.

It will be up to the Supreme Court to rule on whether Trump can do so under the Constitution. From a security standpoint, this blanket animus against Muslims is highly counterproductive. It would make no sense, even if it were legally possible, to keep out all Muslims—including citizens of American allies from Britain to Saudi Arabia. It’s not even clear that this is possible to do: How would immigration agents know that someone is a Muslim or not? Passports don’t ordinarily list religion.

The U.S. needs the cooperation of moderate Muslims, both at home and abroad, to fight the scourge of terrorism, which has claimed far more Muslim lives than those of Christians or Jews. That means we shouldn’t alienate Muslims by trying to ban them from the United States. The U.S. should be trying to gather as much intelligence as possible on terrorist designs from within Muslim communities, both domestically and abroad, while at the same time carefully screening anyone, Muslim or not, who seeks entry to the United States.

But that’s not very sexy. It’s, in fact, the status quo. Trump seems intent on some big, showy, symbolic act, no matter how counterproductive, to demonstrate that he is doing more to combat terrorism than Obama. The Supreme Court may just let him get away with it.

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