Time for a national deep breath
I can’t believe I’m writing this after the administration has been in office for 26 days, but here goes. The idea that Donald Trump is now inexorably on a path to impeachment has taken almost gleeful hold in the wake of the Michael Flynn resignation among liberal elites and anti-Trumpers generally—and everybody better stop and take a deep breath and consider what might arise from this. This isn’t fire we’re playing with, it’s a nuclear war.
That Trump might somehow be deus-ex-machina-ed out of public life has been a consistent feature of the past 20 months. He won’t run gave way to He’s only in it for the publicity to He only wants to show Obama he’s not to be trifled with but he doesn’t want to be president so he’ll drop out to We’ll deny him a first-ballot victory at the convention and then the party pooh-bahs can take over and find a new candidate to His poll numbers are so bad he’ll quit and let Mike Pence run against Hillary to The Access Hollywood tape will finally do him in…and then he won. Now that he’s president, the question I’m asked constantly is “will he serve out his first term.” The wish is father to the hope here; only the vilest and most monstrous of crimes has led to a negative answer to that question (save in the case of the first President Harrison, who caught a cold from not wearing a coat on Inauguration Day in 1841 and died a month later). No one has ever willingly or voluntarily given up the presidency.
The dream of his self-willed departure is just that—a dream. Which then leads to the question of whether his behavior or choices or emoluments will lead to his impeachment and removal from office. Remember, impeachment is not removal. It is an indictment of the president, brought about by a vote of the House of Representatives, which then refers the case to the Senate. The Senate tries the case and can only remove the president from office with a two-thirds vote.
Presidents have twice been impeached (Johnson, Clinton) and neither was removed. Nixon resigned but that was to avoid his impeachment, which would surely have led to his removal.
Let’s play with this scenario for the moment. The only way Trump will be impeached—by a Republican House!—is if there is unshakable, inarguable, and (forgive me) unimpeachable evidence that he has committed a crime as president. The Constitution requires this, actually; he must be accused of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors. He has to have done something specific. He must, in effect, be charged. How on earth could this happen when Republicans hold a 50-seat majority in the House? Even if he mugs an old lady on Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s hard to see that happening sheerly as a matter of politics unless something catastrophic happens to his poll numbers. By which I mean, he needs to have become so overwhelmingly unpopular already that Republicans in the House who come from districts Trump won need to know that their constituents will not punish them for voting to impeach.
By catastrophic, I mean his numbers have to go lower than anyone’s have ever gone—lower than Bush’s in late 2008, lower than Carter’s in the summer of 1979, lower than Nixon’s in the summer of 1974.
And even so—even so—unless the evidence is beyond question and beyond all argument, this is an incredibly dangerous thing for people to be speculating about openly. Already pro-Trump voices on the right are calling the leaks that led to Michael Flynn’s firing evidence of an attempted coup d’etat. The fevered use of such terms is part and parcel of the way in which social media amplifies the melodrama of daily news stories.
I am myself unnerved by the evidence of high-level lawlessness in the Flynn matter, but a “coup d’etat” refers specifically to a military ouster of a leader, not a leak-driven campaign using the press to nail someone. This is sure to persist, though, if the Flynn-Russia matter accelerates—and if the reluctant House and Senate do begin investigating the matter in earnest. If the language surrounding the investigation remains florid and purple, if Democrats try to please their Trump-hating constituents by screaming impeachment and liberal media tries to garner audience by jumping openly and vociferously on the bandwagon, the Trumpians will respond in kind by stirring the pot through their media and their argumentation.
The result might well be violence. Not rhetorical violence. Actual violence. Actual political violence. Actual conflicts between anti-Trumpers and Trumpers. At demonstrations. In the streets. Of our cities. Political violence of a sort we haven’t seen in 50 years, and maybe haven’t really seen in this country in the modern era. Those who believe Trump is a unique menace whose threat to our democratic way of life will be met with those who believe the elites are using illicit means to oust the legitimately elected president of the United States.
This is not a fantasy. This is one possible future. And every rational person who cares about the future of the country should be mindful of it, and should work to forestall it.
Beware Triggering the Coup Theory
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Who saw this coming? We did.
Yes, we told you so, and we say it again and again on the second of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts. Noah Rothman, Abe Greenwald, and I attempt to examine the political menage-a-trois between Trump, Schumer, and Pelosi, whom it helps, whom it hurts, and the pain and agony of people who took Donald Trump at his word. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
A carney act.
We tried to warn you. We sifted through the rhetoric, dissected the policy pronouncements, and took Donald Trump far more seriously than he took himself. Especially when it came to then-candidate Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric in support of immigration restrictionism and border security, we said the Manhattanite who only recently converted to the GOP was simply playing a role. On Thursday morning, the president confirmed his critics’ assumptions.
At the risk of reveling in this reveal or offending those who subordinated their better judgment and common sense to a man who finally promised them their unrealizable ideal, we are obliged today to take an inventory of those warnings.
“The WALL,” Trump tweeted with cryptic urgency, “which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.”
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, serving in the military? Really!” the president added, addressing the children of illegal immigrants who benefit from Barack Obama’s deferred deportation program DACA. “They have been in our country for many years, through no fault of their own—brought in by parents at a young age. Plus BIG border security.”
To what was the president referring? On Wednesday night, Trump struck yet another “deal” with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, this time regarding immigration. “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly and to work out a package of border security excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides,” read a joint statement from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that was released following their “productive meeting” with the president on Wednesday night.
A White House official told New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman that, while the statement fudges the details, Trump did not want border-wall funding tethered to DACA. “Trump veered toward Democrats on DACA after receiving tough coverage for backtracking on pledge to preserve it,” she revealed.
Anyone who was not so besotted with Trump’s gall and his willingness to reinforce their own hardline delusions on immigration saw this coming.
As early as August of 2015—just a few weeks after Trump descended the escalator—reporters were poking holes in Trump’s allegedly uncompromising stance on immigration. “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami,” Trump told a group of young DREAMers during a Trump Tower meeting in 2013. “Can’t you just become a citizen if you want to?” he asked his petitioners repeatedly. When they said they could not, Trump confessed, “you’ve convinced me.”
That same month, the Trump campaign published a white paper outlining in broad strokes his immigration policy. It contained some laudable elements, like a nationwide E-Verify program, much of which had been boilerplate Republican immigration policy for years. But it also included nativist delights that were both irresponsible and unfeasible.
Trump’s plan would eliminate birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment and would enforce deportation mandates against all illegal immigrants, including the children of visa overstays and border crossers. “We have to keep the families together, but they have to go,” Trump told NBC News.
As former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin estimated, deporting the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America over the space of just two years would cost approximately $300 billion. Moreover, the removing of millions of productive Americans from the country would result in substantially reduced economic activity and create a recession. The red-hat crowd dismissed these warnings as the craven dissimulations of those who covertly support “amnesty” for all illegal immigrants.
This policy paper was Trump’s answer to what he derisively referred to as the “Schumer-Rubio” immigration reform bill of 2013, also known as the “Gang of Eight.” For Trump’s biggest fans, the obviously performative denunciation of this comprehensive effort was enough to earn their undying support even if they knew, deep down, he was only using them.
Of course, that white paper also indulged his supporters’ most vivid fantasy: The Wall. This was the most shameless of canards. Invoking a towering barrier of ever-increasing height, it soon evolved from a policy prescription into an applause line. Anyone who dared question the logistics or cost of such a barrier was accused of evincing a lack of zeal for the #MAGA cause. As Linda Chavez wrote for COMMENTARY in the spring of 2016, The Wall was pure fancy. She noted that the materials costs alone for such a projected would run in excess of $17 billion, to say nothing of the years it would take to survey the construction sites, perform environmental-impact studies, impound the land, reimburse the displaced, pay attorneys, and hire union labor to build the thing.
At best, Trump’s critics contended, the president would manage to reinforce existing border security measures, the strongest of which were included in the 2013 immigration reform bill the president so callously disparaged on the stump. All these warnings were disregarded.
By mid-2016, even Trump’s own campaign surrogates—stalwart supporters like New York Rep. Chris Collins and his eventual Energy Secretary, Rick Perry—were dismissive of the catechisms of The Wall. “I have called it a virtual wall,” Collins averred while also dismissing Trump’s “deportation force” as a “rhetorical” exercise. “Maybe we will be building a wall over some aspects of it; I don’t know.”
“It’s a wall, but it’s a technological wall, it’s a digital wall,” Perry said after conceding that Mexico would not be paying for or reimbursing America for the costs of any kind of construction on the border. “There are some that hear this is going to be 1,200 miles from Brownsville to El Paso, 30-foot high, and listen, I know you can’t do that.”
The Republican Party made a tradeoff when it nominated Donald Trump; a more liberal outlook on issues like health care and tax code reform for an unconventionally hawkish approach to immigration. Those of us who saw the real Trump, not the confection whipped up by his apologists and image-makers, knew that so much of his border hawkishness was an act. The dropping of that veil is a bittersweet moment; it is a reminder of the opportunities that were lost.
And what has it bought us?
Last Friday, September 8th, 2017, the national debt of the United States went over $20 trillion. This compares with an estimated GDP of $19.3 trillion. For the first time in 70 years, since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the national debt exceeds 100 percent of GDP.
In other words, in the last nine years, the federal government has borrowed more money than in the previous 219 years of the government’s existence. During those 219 years, we fought three wars of unprecedented size and ferocity, numerous small wars, and suffered through six deep and prolonged depressions, including the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the greatest economic catastrophe in American history.
In the Civil War, the national debt went from $60.8 million to $2.7 billion, but it saved the Union. In the 1930’s, the debt went from $16.1 billion to $42.9 billion, but it saved the American economy. In World War II, the debt went from $42.9 billion to $269.4 billion, but it saved western civilization.
But what have we gotten for this massive latter-day rise in public indebtedness?
Exactly nothing, unless vote-buying is a virtue. Since 1970—a near half century of no great wars, no deep and abiding depressions, and extended periods of great prosperity—the national debt has gone up by a factor of 54. GDP in that period rose by a factor of only 19.
Until the 1930’s deficit spending was regarded, by both parties, as an evil, if sometimes an unavoidable one. Once the cause of the deficit spending—wars and depressions—ended, the government paid down its debt as quickly as possible. It ran 28 successive annual budget surpluses after the Civil War, reducing the debt from $2.7 billion to $961 million, while the American economy soared. After World War I, we had 11 years of surpluses, reducing the total debt by nearly 40 percent.
After World War II, while we did not pay down the debt, its increase was sharply curtailed, rising from $269.4 billion in 1946 to $286 billion in 1960, an increase of only six percent. We even ran surpluses in 1951 and 1952, at the height of the Korean War. The American GDP in those years more than doubled. This reduced the debt as a percent of GDP (the important measure of the size of the debt) from 130 percent to 57.7 percent. The debt continued to decline as a percentage of GDP in the 1960’s to 37 percent.
But budgetary discipline vanished from Washington, D.C., with the so-called Budget Control Act of 1974. It effectively removed the president as a major player in making budget decisions. (He still submits a proposed budget every year, but Congress often declares it “dead on arrival.”) The budget was now in the hands of 535 members of Congress, not one of whom represented the national interest. Instead, they represented the parochial interests of 50 states and 435 districts. Those interests are served by ever-increasing flows of federal money. And politicians are always first, last, and always in the re-election business. Self-interest forces them to bring home the bacon.
Ending the seniority system, whereby the senior member of the majority party in each congressional committee was automatically chairman, greatly exacerbated the situation. The senior members were, almost by definition, in safe seats and so could exert spending discipline for the sake of the country as a whole. Elected chairmen had to promise goodies to get elected.
And so the United States went on a gigantic, four-decade-long spending spree, not to fight a great war or depression but largely to improve the re-election prospects of members of Congress. And they paid for it with our grandchildren’s money.
Are there solutions? Sure, and simple ones, too. But implementing them won’t be easy for they involve curbing the powers of politicians and political institutions. And as that great political scientist James Madison explained, “Men love power.” They don’t surrender it easily.
Power has a "problem from hell."
People who served in the Obama administration are raiding the repositories of Holocaust memory, seeking Syrian absolution.
Earlier this month came a Holocaust Museum computational “study” that purported to prove that it was “very difficult from the beginning for the U.S. government to take effective action to prevent atrocities in Syria, even compared with other challenging policy contexts.” The study concluded that a more forceful American intervention wouldn’t have improved the situation and might have made things worse.
The museum suspended the project and scrubbed the “findings” from its website following an exposé in Tablet. It wasn’t lost on anyone that this episode came after three Obama National Security Council alumni were appointed to the museum’s Memorial Council and two others joined its staff.
Now comes Samantha Power’s tribute to Elie Wiesel in the Forward. The essay is excerpted from the former U.N. envoy’s introduction to a new edition of Wiesel’s harrowing Holocaust memoir, Night. Hers is a far more sophisticated exercise in self-absolution than the Holocaust Museum’s algorithmic shenanigans. But it is self-absolution all the same. The giveaway is that Power makes no attempt at applying Wiesel’s lessons to recent events in Syria.
The theme of Power’s essay is moral witness. “It can be hard to imagine that there was a time when the prevailing wisdom was not to bear witness,” Power asserts. “But that is precisely what it was like when Elie was writing.” The word “witness” and the phrase “bearing witness” appear five times in Power’s brief piece. Wiesel spoke out, she writes, when others—publishers, journalists, even survivors—preferred to forget or remain silent.
This is an obvious, almost banal point. Of course Wiesel bore witness! But his witness to Nazi evil had a future-tense moral purpose: to help counter other mass murderers and totalitarians. Wiesel campaigned for refuseniks trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He implored Bill Clinton to act in Bosnia. And most recently, he compared the Syrian regime and its Iranian patrons with the Nazis, asking: “How is it that Assad is still in power?” Wiesel didn’t just remember historical crimes; he decried contemporary inaction.
Samantha Power, by contrast, legitimized inaction. Having built her journalistic reputation examining America’s failure to stop mass murder in the 20th century, Power ended up lending moral cover to the Obama administration’s bystander policy on Syria (“Bystanders to Genocide” was the title of Power’s career-making 2001 Atlantic magazine report on the Clinton administration’s response to Rwanda). At the U.N., Power denounced Bashar Assad and his backers in Moscow and Tehran. But she refused to do the one honorable thing that might have jolted the Obama administration out of its moral torpor: resign.
Now she writes of Wiesel’s witnessing, as if forgetting a crime after the fact is a greater moral evil than failing to stop it at the time. In a companion interview with the Forward’s Jane Eisner, Power did mention Syria, noting that “amid the challenges associated with whether and how to intervene in Syria, we, the United States, and the world didn’t find a way to respond” to reports of industrial-scale torture in Assad’s prisons. Don’t blame us, the people who ran the executive branch when Assad’s butchery took place. It was “the United States” and “the world” that let down the Syrians.
In the months and years ahead, we can expect more such efforts at altering the moral record on Syria, including by making use of the Holocaust and Jewish memory. Those who were alive between 2011 and 2016 shouldn’t let Obama alumni get away with it. We should bear witness.
The first shots of the Republican civil war.
Maybe it was because Steve Bannon was too close to the president. Maybe he just wasn’t viewed as a worthy adversary. Whatever the reason, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist has up to now mobilized insurgencies aimed at taking down Republican incumbents unscathed by return fire. Now, following his brief stint as the right hand of the president, Bannon’s latest effort to remake the GOP in his own image is finally meeting with some resistance.
“Steve Bannon is dead wrong,” read a statement released on Wednesday evening by Steven Law, president and CEO of the Mitch McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund. “Every fact that has come out about James Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation has affirmed the rightness of President Trump’s decision.”
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Ostensibly, Law’s statement is aimed at comments Bannon made about former FBI Director Comey in an interview with “60 Minutes.” But Law’s comment is a dishonest one. Bannon never said what is being implied here.
“It’s been reported in the media I was adamantly opposed to that,” Bannon confirmed when pressed by Charlie Rose as to whether he agreed with Trump’s decision to terminate Comey. “I am a big believer in this city that it’s a city of institutions, not individuals. . . The FBI is the institution.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel,” he added.
“Someone said to me that you described the firing of James Comey—you’re a student of history—as the biggest mistake in political history,” Rose concluded. “That’d probably be too bombastic even for me, but maybe modern political history,” Bannon concurred.
At no point did Bannon discuss the merits of the case against Comey; he talked only about its political implications. The former White House strategist suggested that it was dangerous to make an adversary out of an institution in Washington D.C.—particularly one as well-connected and influential as the FBI. He noted that it was a straight line from Comey’s dismissal to the establishment of a vexing and costly special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign. Finally, Bannon asserted that Comey’s removal was among the biggest explicitly political blunders a president has made in living memory. It’s hard to argue with any of that. The Senate Leadership Fund is flailing at straw men.
But why? Obviously, they see that Bannon is a threat today in a way he wasn’t yesterday, and now Bannon knows it. This broadside was fired following reports by Politico and others indicating that the former Trump aide is huddling with deep-pocketed, anti-establishmentarian donors in the effort to secure his place as kingmaker. Bannon hopes to field a slate of non-ideological Donald Trump cutouts to challenge sitting Republicans who don’t seem inclined to bend the knee before the president. Their willfulness must be punished.
That represents a direct assault on the Senate Leadership Fund, which has only one objective: to keep incumbent Republican senators, whatever they believe, in their seats. Outside of the White House but with his working links to the president reportedly intact, Bannon can’t be allowed to organize his mutineers unmolested.
In attacking Bannon, not on the merits of what he actually said but, rather, by echoing sentiments shared by much of the pro-Trump right, Law and his McConnell-backed institution are aiming at Bannon’s support among pro-Trump Republicans. Unfortunately for them, this shot across Bannon’s bow was wildly off the mark. Not only did they attack Bannon for saying something he didn’t say, they’re also going after him for believing something he likely doesn’t believe. That looks desperate, distressed, and disorganized, and it will only embolden the very people they hoped to intimidate.
The good news for the Senate Leadership Fund is that they will get many other opportunities to make up for this missed one. It is, to say the least, unlikely that Bannon has been deterred. Given his reported intention to target occasional Trump skeptics in the Senate, including Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Bannon’s forces will be coming up against McConnell’s in the near future. For their sake, here’s hoping that by then the Senate Leadership Fund comes up with a more subtle line of attack. Otherwise, the Republican civil war will be a short one.