Some have dismissed my assertion that Donald Trump represents the No. 1 security threat to the United States today as “hyperbole.” It’s not. It’s simply reality — because Trump is the most radical and most ignorant major-party presidential candidate in our history. Examples of both characteristics were on ample display during his latest foreign policy interview with the New York Times.
All you have to know about Trump is that he proudly asserts that his foreign policy is “America First.” When Ted Cruz used the same description, one could imagine it was a dog whistle because this Princeton and Harvard Law graduate presumably knows that “America First” was the isolationist, Nazi-sympathizing movement led by Charles Lindbergh before World War II. In Trump’s case, it’s no doubt an accurate reflection of his quasi-isolationist philosophy and also of his almost limitless ignorance. He probably hasn’t heard of the original “America First,” and now seems eager to repeat all of its errors. For example, he called NATO — the most successful alliance in history and one that is still vital to America’s defense — “obsolete.” Spoken like a true, if unconscious, disciple of Lindbergh.
A few other reflections on Trump’s bewildering answers to the Times’ questions:
Trump is the most pessimistic candidate about the future of America that we have seen since Jimmy Carter. Carter was widely panned for an infamous speech he gave in 1979. In what was known as the “malaise” speech (although he didn’t use that word), he spoke of a “crisis of confidence” gripping America, and the president seemed to be one of those lacking confidence. The election of the sunny and successful Ronald Reagan was a rebuke to this gloomy thinking. But Trump trashes the country in a way that makes Carter seem Pollyannaish by comparison.
In the Times interview, Trump said, “We’re a country that doesn’t have money, “we’re not a rich country,” “we’re a debtor nation,” “we have a military that’s severely depleted,” “we’re becoming a third-world nation.” Strange assertions to make considering that the United States still has the largest economy in the world (GDP of $17.4 trillion in 2014), the fifth-highest highest per-capita income ($55,000, behind only tiny Luxembourg, Switzerland, Qatar and Norway), an innovative technology sector that leads the world, the best-funded and most capable military in the world, an abundance of natural resources including oil, and fewer demographic problems than confront our industrialized competitors. Trump complains that “we fund disproportionately” NATO, the UN and other international organizations; he doesn’t seem to realize that we are the largest donor because we are also the richest country.
Trump’s doom-and-gloom philosophy is all the more unconvincing given that he was saying pretty much the same thing during the 1980s when America was winning the Cold War and was at the pinnacle of its power. It is a mystery why so many Republican voters are drawn to a candidate who so consistently and so unfairly bad-mouths the country he hopes to lead without acknowledging any of its strengths.
Trump has no idea what’s in the federal budget. “One of the reasons we’re a debtor nation, we spend so much on the military, but the military isn’t for us. The military is to be policeman for other countries. And to watch over other countries,” he says, suggesting that the federal budget deficit is caused by excessive military spending to defend ungrateful allies. Reality check: The entire defense budget — of which only a small portion goes to troops stationed abroad — constitutes just 16% of the federal budget.
You would have to eliminate the entire defense budget to eliminate the deficit — and even then you wouldn’t make much of a dent in our $19 trillion debt. The real driver of the debt is entitlement spending, which makes it all the more curious that Trump has promised not to tamper with the programs that are actually bankrupting us.
Trump is not just ignorant, but aggressively so. Even when better-informed interlocutors (a category that includes just about anyone that Trump talks to) try to set him straight about his errors of fact, he refuses to admit he is wrong or correct himself. The Times interview provided two glaring examples.
First, Trump complained that after signing the nuclear deal Iran is “buying from everybody but the United States.” Times correspondent David Sanger interjected: “Our law prevents us from selling to them, sir.” Trump: “Uh, excuse me?” Sanger: “Our law prevents us from selling any planes or, we still have sanctions in the U.S. that would prevent the U.S. from being able to sell that equipment.” Trump: “So, how stupid is that? We give them the money, and we now say, “Go buy Airbus instead of Boeing,” right? So how stupid is that?” Actually, it’s not so stupid since we have sanctions in place on Iran because of its support of terrorism and illegal testing of ballistic missiles. Is Trump implying that he’d like to lift those sanctions? Or is he simply unaware that they exist?
Another example of Trump’s ignorance: He said not once, not twice, not three times, but four times that “Iran is the No. 1 trading partner of North Korea.” Finally, Sanger challenged him: “Mr. Trump with all due respect, I think it’s China that’s the No. 1 trading partner with North Korea.” Trump’s insouciant reply: “I’ve heard that certainly, but I’ve also heard from other sources that it’s Iran.” What sources does Trump have in mind? It would be great if he would cite them, since every source I have seen — e.g. the CIA Fact Book and CNN — asserts that some 70% of North Korean trade is conducted with China and 20% with South Korea and most of the rest with India and the EU. Iran barely registers beyond serving as a destination for some North Korean missile sales. Far from being North Korea’s top trading partner, Iran is probably one of the smallest.
Trump seems to think he is entitled not only to his own opinion but to his own facts. He not only doesn’t know much, but he also doesn’t know what he doesn’t know — and he’s made no effort to educate himself. That’s a dangerous combination in someone who aspires to the most powerful job in the world.
Trump is highly selective and even deceptive in his citation of history. This is especially a concern since history provides the storehouse of information and ideas upon which statesmen act.
Asked to cite a period of U.S. history that he would like to emulate, Trump said the post-World War II period: “I would say during the 1940s and the late ‘40s and ‘50s we started getting, we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do, yeah around that period.”
To anyone who is even superficially familiar with the history of the 1940s, this is a laughable description since during that period the U.S. went from defeat to defeat. Countries from Czechoslovakia to China fell to the Communists. The Soviet Union tested a nuclear weapon. North Korea invaded South Korea. Republicans accused Harry Truman of losing the nascent Cold War, even claiming that his administration was riddled with “Reds.” Only Trump could possibly think that this was a halcyon period for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. is in a far stronger position today than it was in the late 1940s. Perhaps Trump wouldn’t be so gloomy about the outlook for today if he knew a little more about the problems we faced in the past.
Trump rejects counter-proliferation — trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons — that has been a bedrock of U.S. policy since 1945. He is hostile to the continued U.S. troop presence in South Korea and Japan, which he views entirely as a favor to those countries — as if we didn’t have any interest in deterring North Korea and China and keeping the peace in Asia, the fastest-growing part of the world. Of course, if the U.S. abandons South Korea and Japan, both are likely to go nuclear, setting off a nuclear arms race with Beijing and Seoul.
Trump is fine with that — “You may very well be better off if that’s the case.” Clearly he has no awareness of the Cuban Missile Crisis and no qualms about risking a repeat in Asia. Yet he says that he “nuclear capability” is “the single biggest problem” in the world. This is yet another example of his incoherence: If he were truly concerned about “nuclear capability,” he would stick to the traditional U.S. policy of trying to limit the number of nuclear-weapons states instead of encouraging new ones.
Trump has added a new country to the list of allies he wants to jettison — Saudi Arabia. He wants the Saudis to “reimburse” the U.S. for the protection we provide and do more to fight ISIS; apparently he is unaware that the Saudis actually do want to be more, but can’t get any support from President Obama. If Saudi Arabia doesn’t do as Trump proposes, he suggests cutting off U.S. support. He knows this would result in a “catastrophic failure” in the Kingdom, but he doesn’t seem to care: “Without the cloak of American protection … I don’t think it would be around.” And what would replace the Saudi monarchy? The worst-case scenario would be the rise of an al-Qaeda or ISIS in Riyadh and an Iranian power grab in the eastern oil fields. That would be a strategic disaster for the U.S. and our allies, but Trump would rather risk that fiasco than continue to provide protection to the Kingdom — for which, by the way, it pays a hefty price tag in American weapons sales that create lots of defense-industry jobs.
Trump thinks that lack of predictability is a virtue while ignoring the need for predictability in international affairs. In the Times interview, asked for policy specifics regarding China policy, he said, “There’s such, total predictability of this country, and it’s one of the reasons we do so poorly. You know, I’d rather not say that. I would like to see what they’re doing.” One suspects that his praise of unpredictability is merely a tactic so that he doesn’t have to provide answers that he doesn’t have. But if he’s serious, he is trying to emulate Richard Nixon’s “madman” theory. Nixon thought that by suggesting he was capable of anything, even irrational acts, he would coerce North Vietnam into ending its aggression against South Vietnam. It didn’t work then, and won’t work now.
There is, of course, a case to be made for some imprecision in deterrence — to let the enemy wonder what exactly you would do in a crisis. But there is also a strong case to be made for general predictability so as to avoid a catastrophe that could have been averted if the adversary had a better read of your intentions. World War I started in large part because Wilhelmine Germany did not expect Great Britain to come to the defense of Belgium and France. The Korean War started in part because Dean Acheson said that South Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter, thereby inviting Kim Il-sung to invade. Trump seems to be unaware of these historical errors and appears bent on repeating them.
Trump can’t be trusted on Israel. He gave an OK speech to AIPAC — to be more exact, he read an OK ghost-written speech — but the Times interview showed his heart isn’t in it. At one point he refused to commit to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “I’m not saying anything. What I’m going to do is, you know, I specifically don’t want to address the issue because I would love to see if a deal could be made.” Trump doesn’t seem to realize that the alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution that would mean the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Presumably, someone clued him in between his first and second conversations with the Times, because the second time around he retreated to his AIPAC stance: “Basically I support a two-state solution on Israel. But the Palestinian Authority has to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Have to do that.”
What will he say tomorrow? Who knows? After all, he stresses his unpredictability, which would leave every American ally, including Israel, guessing as to whether he would stand with them in the clutch.
In sum, it is hard to come away from his Times interview — which comes just a week after his interview with the Washington Post editorial board, which was just as bizarre — without concluding that Trump is singularly unqualified to be commander-in-chief. Handing him the nuclear codes would be the riskiest and most irresponsible act imaginable. With Trump in command, our enemies would have a field day — Moscow and Beijing must be licking their chops at his desire to abandon U.S. allies in Europe and Asia — and our friends would face mortal threats. If that isn’t the single biggest threat to U.S. security, I don’t know what is.
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Why Trump is a Security Threat
Must-Reads from Magazine
The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Podcast: The claims, their legitimacy, and the potential precedent.
We devote the entire podcast today to the allegations of teenage assault issued against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Are we ready to surrender the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty, even in a non-legal proceeding? Give a listen.
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With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.