The low level of political discourse is a favorite topic for pundits who want to trash our political class. That is especially true on the left, which has often taken the position that conservatives and Tea Partiers are most to blame for coarsening political discussions and demonizing President Obama and liberals. But as anyone who regularly monitors the cable news channels knows, it’s easy to see that this assumption is largely a fiction. MSNBC, which has become the avowed home of leftism on television, has become notorious for having hosts like Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton who regularly plumb the depths with the sort of invective that would embarrass even most gutter politicians. But last Friday, Martin Bashir topped them with a scripted rant that was extreme even for him.
Reacting to a comment by Sarah Palin about the mounting national debt sentencing future American generations to the moral equivalent of “slavery,” Bashir went off the deep end. An argument can be made that slavery is, like the Holocaust, something that should not be treated as a political metaphor but rather a unique crime to which nothing—other than actual enslavement—should be compared. But Bashir wasn’t satisfied with merely reproving Palin or calling her a “dunce,” which he has done before. Instead, he dug up a historical text about the way slaves were treated in the 18th century and said Palin should be subjected to the same atrocity: to be defecated upon and to have someone urinate into her mouth.
Not surprisingly, Bashir’s crude threat did not set off much of a media firestorm. That is due, at least in part, to the low ratings of his show, but also to the notion that Palin is the sort of person about whom one can say virtually anything with impunity. But the protests that did come in forced Bashir to apologize yesterday on his program. As apologies go, it was quite satisfactory. Rather than the usual weasel words about being sorry that someone was offended, Bashir acknowledged not only that he was wrong but also that he was guilty of contributing to all that was wrong about our political system. Fair enough, but what we’re still waiting for is an apology from his network.
As both Mediate’s Joe Concha and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz have written, imagine what would ensue if either Neil Cavuto or Jake Tapper—Bashir’s time slot competition on Fox and CNN—had suggested that Hillary Clinton should be treated in this matter. It’s also hard to believe either would have kept their job or avoided a long suspension. Moreover, any other network would have thought they had no choice but to apologize abjectly regardless of the mea culpa offered by the person who said the words. This is not a minor point because Bashir’s attack on Palin was not an offhand remark but a prepared monologue read off a teleprompter that had to have been viewed by a producer.
So rather than merely a minor kerfuffle, Bashir’s offensive behavior illustrates that there is a double standard by which liberal pundits and networks believe they can be judged.
Oddly enough, as Kurtz pointed out, actor Alec Baldwin has been suspended by MSNBC for his latest public antics in which he uttered a gay slur at a reporter. But if you slime a conservative like Sarah Palin you don’t lose a day of work even if you use language that marks a historic low for political attacks. It should be remembered that not everyone who works at MSNBC is a guttersnipe like Sharpton, Matthews, or Bashir. No matter what their politics might be, those who still hold to some standard of integrity there must be wondering exactly what has happened to their profession? Although we would hope to never hear another MSNBC rant about conservatives’ lack of civility. But even after Bashir’s apology, you know we will.
Can MSNBC Clean Up Its Act?
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: How bad is it?
On the first of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald join me to sort through—and we do it systematically, which is a first for us—what is going on with the Russia investigation and how it divides into three categories. There’s the question of the probe itself, there’s the question of collusion, and there’s the question of obstruction of justice. It’s really good. I mean it. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Democracy dies while the president looks the other way.
Past U.S. presidents have used their bully pulpit to campaign for human-rights and democracy. By encouraging the unprecedented wave of democratization that has swept the world since 1945, their words and actions had consequences. That’s not something that Donald Trump does. Far from it; he positively praises dictators. His words have consequences, too, and they are not good.
After Trump praised Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which involves sending out death squads to kill thousands of people, the Philippine president was emboldened to impose martial law on Mindanao. After Trump visited Saudi Arabia and praised its rulers, they were emboldened to launch a counterproductive boycott of Qatar that is splintering the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. And after Trump visited Warsaw on July 6 and embraced the ruling Law and Justice Party, it was emboldened to push through parliament a law that would essentially destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary, the last major institution standing in the way of its authority.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that, in each case, local officials reacted to their own imperatives and that the words of Trump were not decisive. The president of the United States does exercise an outsized influence on allies, though; especially allies like Saudi Arabia and Poland, which rely on American protection for their very existence. Strong words of censure from Trump might not have dissuaded any of these rulers from the path they chose, but his words of support undoubtedly encouraged him to take actions that are antithetical to American values.
That’s particularly the case in Poland, which has long been held up as a shining star of the post-Communist world. Now its star is faded, its stature diminished because the populist Law and Justice Party appears intent on imposing quasi-authoritarian control over its unruly democracy. Party members have just pushed through parliament, without the benefit of hearings, a law that would remove all of the country’s supreme court judges and replace them with alternatives handpicked by the justice minister, who is a party member.
Under pressure from crowds of protesters and the European Union, President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed the supreme court bill, while signing other legislation that increases political control over the lower courts. The question now is whether Law and Justice will try again to politicize the judiciary as part of its larger assault on Polish democracy.
Already, Law and Justice has taken over the state-owned news media and turned it from the BBC model to the RT model, labeling political opponents as traitors to the Polish people. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “has accused the opposition of conspiring to kill his identical twin brother, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. ‘You murdered him, you scumbags,’ he said to the opposition during the parliamentary debate on the new law.”
There is not a shred of evidence to support this incendiary accusation; the plane crash was almost certainly an accident. Poland’s own investigation “blamed the disaster on a combination of factors, including bad weather and errors made by a pilot who was not adequately trained on the plane he was flying, a Tupolev-154. That probe also said Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots — but it stopped short of alleging intentional wrongdoing.”
In his disdain for political opposition and the media and his embrace of conspiracy theories, Kaczynski is reminiscent of Trump, except that he operates in a much more fragile political system without the protections enshrined in a centuries-old constitution.
During his ballyhooed speech in Warsaw, Trump defended “Western civilization,” but he had not one word of rebuke for his hosts in the Law and Justice Party over their efforts to undermine Polish democracy. The State Department, to be sure, is speaking up against the Law and Justice power grab. “The Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland,” it said in a statement. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”
Nice words, but they don’t carry much weight. The whole world knows that the State Department does not speak for the president. And, while Trump tweets about a plethora of other topics, he remains conspicuously silent about the sabotage of Polish democracy. Despite the veto of the supreme court bill, the future of Poland’s institutions remains very much an open question. It’s not too late, Mr. President, to speak up for the very principles of Western civilization that you praised in Warsaw when you said: “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”
Are the rewards worth the costs?
Universities may be non-profit, but they are big business. At the end of fiscal year 2015, for example, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton’s endowments were $38 billion, $26 billion, and $22 billion respectively. Those are correspondingly equivalent to the gross domestic products of Mongolia, Cyprus, and the West Bank and Gaza. University presidents make salaries on par with and often higher than corporate CEOs. Fundraising—traveling the world glad-handing alumni and lobbying—rather than academe has become the primary function of many university presidents.
To be fair, universities have become ever more expensive to run. Government regulations and mandates attached to the receipt of federal funds have burdened campuses with ever more administrators. So, too, has the culture of victimhood, which requires an ever-expanding support staff. Add into the mix the transformation of universities into country clubs competing to offer increasingly luxurious amenities, and management of a university requires ever more cash.
Universities pride themselves on diversity, which they too often define superficially in terms of skin color. Attracting international students to campus kills two birds with one stone: diversity plus full tuition since the foreign students accepted seldom qualify for financial aid from the university.
I am fortunate in my current job to be able to visit perhaps ten different colleges and university campuses each year, sometimes for stand-alone lectures but often for debates. During these visits, I am able to talk to students, professors, and administrators. In addition, many of my peers from graduate school are now tenured faculty, and rising through the ranks of their respective universities. Some of them have raised concern that certain dynamics surrounding ever increasing numbers of foreign students from certain countries have been counterproductive to universities’ educational mission.
The Peoples’ Republic of China sends several hundred thousand students to U.S. colleges, for example. Saudi Arabia sends 60,000. Many of these students fit in and receive a top notch education, but many also cheat on their applications. Academic corruption is fairly commonplace in both countries. In the most blatant cases, students pay others to take various exams required for college admissions, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Langue (TOEFL). Politically-connected students in each country can ensure that their transcripts and extracurricular portfolios highlight what American universities seek rather than what reality is.
Once admitted and on campus, it is clear that these students are not what they claimed to be. In some extreme cases, they cannot speak English well-enough to communicate and cannot understand what is said in class. This forces a choice upon the university: expel the sub-par students or expel them. The former maintains the school’s quality of education; the latter protects its bottom line. The unending quest to raise funds leads universities to choose the later. Some justify this practice because the tuition paid by the substandard students or their governments subsidizes the financial aid awarded to other students. Others recognize the problem but feel they have no recourse. Add into the mix the fact that some Chinese national students appear to be conducting surveillance on their peers, and the dynamics only get more complicated.
To be fair, fewer university administrations succumb to the quid pro quo of loosening standards than do those which rationalize limits to free speech and intellectual inquiry. The general pattern seems to be that middle-ranked undergraduate programs and masters programs at elite schools make the greatest compromises.
How to resolve the problem? Financial discipline among management would go a long way. So, too, would be a no-nonsense approach to standards. If necessary, universities should proctor their own exams overseas. After all, if dozens of mainland Chinese students can pay $50,000 per year to a university, that university should be able to find $5,000 to send a proctor to one or two cities in that country to oversee and mark exams and conduct in-person interviews.
American universities are facing multiple crises. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has documented threats to free speech on campus and, admirably, stands on objective principle; it does not pass its judgment through partisan litmus tests. Threats to free speech may get the headlines—and deservedly so—but as American universities increasingly become global campuses, willingness to bend standards after the fact when foreign nationals admitted do not match the abilities reflected on their applications can have a deeply corrosive effect on educational quality in America’s most elite colleges and universities.
So many foreigners—the sons and daughters of political and business elite—flock to American universities because they offer the best and broadest education. To destroy that reputation for short-term gain would be mismanagement in the extreme.
Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.