• Sexism is OK (As Long as it’s Aimed at Melania, Apparently)

    March 27, 2017 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Trump


    She doesn’t sleep with him. They have separate beds, according to one anonymous source. And him?



    He has had a lot of women, some public and much, much younger, some only rumored about (but we know.) One of the most talked-about involved him, an older, powerful man, bedding a younger woman infatuated with him, and likely controlled by him.

    And it’s apparently OK to talk about all this, and shame the dutiful wife, even by feminists. At least as long as it is about Melania Trump, and not, for heaven’s sake, about that other White House power “couple.”

    Christina Cauterucci, writing in left-of-center Slate, headlines the anonymous-sourced based news that Donald and Melania sleep in separate beds. See, that implies they don’t… you know… have sex.

    Now normally a) where people sleep is not news in any way; b) where people sleep is their private business and c) a woman in 2017 should not be shamed or commented on in the media for whatever choices she makes regarding her married life, and certainly not for her (implied and unconfirmed) choices regarding sex. What is it, 1950 at Slate?

    It apparently is 1950. Because writer Cauterucci says all that shaming is actually OK, because it’s Trump. She writes:

    …with this particular president, [it] does matter. Trump used a big-powerful-rich-daddy persona to win the presidency, and he painted that persona with the help of the ever-younger string of women he’s married and claimed to sleep with. All three of his marriages generated press “leaks” that suggested Trump was great at sex and had a lot of it with his respective wives, sometimes multiple times a day. The implication to anyone with eyes is that a past-his-prime man uses money and power to get sex and arm candy service from traditionally beautiful women. The report turns that implication on its head.

    Um, OK?

    But I really don’t get any of this. If one assumes all those pejorative statements about Trump are true, why does his sleeping arrangement with his spouse matter in any way? Is the writer, what, reverse slut-shaming Trump, maybe stud-shaming, mocking him for not be the swordsman she feels he’s claimed he is and that matters somehow? Is the point of mocking Trump and his wife to suggest he is not a stallion and, what next, should be impeached?

    No, no, here’s the point buried near the end of the piece:

    Trump’s marriage is not, like the Obamas’, a seeming match of life partners who fully respect one another’s intellects… Trump’s ignorance on policy and other issues of national importance is a point of pride for him, but when someone threatens his manly-man persona in public, it hurts.


    BONUS: The same article gets in a few sex digs on Pence, too. Here you go:

    An unofficial study of my personal opinions reveals that 100 percent of hetero couples who call one another “mother” and “father,” as Mike Pence and his wife do, sleep in separate twin beds with the sheets firmly tucked in on all sides, in formal pajamas and nightcaps, crucifix affixed on the wall where it can be seen from any potential sexual vantage point.

    Bada bing, Sexy time!




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  • Cornerstone of Afghan Reconstruction Effort — Roads — is Near-Total Failure

    March 24, 2017 // 40 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Military

    road

    One of the planned cornerstones of the 15+ year Afghan Reconstruction Effort was to be an extensive, nationwide network of roads.


    The United States’ concept was roads would allow the Afghan economy to flourish as trade could reach throughout the country, security would be enhanced by the ability to move security forces quickly to where they were needed, and that the presence of the roads would serve as a literal symbol of the central government’s ability to extend its presence into the countryside.

    The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its audit of the Department of Defense’s and USAID’s $2.8 billion investment in Afghanistan’s road infrastructure.


    The project has been a near-total failure. The audit notes:

    — An Afghan Ministry of Public Works’ (MOPW) official stated 20 percent of the roads have been destroyed and the remaining 80 percent continue to deteriorate.

    — USAID estimated that unless maintained, it would cost about $8.3 billion to replace Afghanistan’s road infrastructure, and estimated that 54 percent of Afghanistan’s road infrastructure suffered from poor maintenance and required rehabilitation beyond simple repairs.

    — SIGAR inspections of 20 road segments found that 19 had road damage ranging from deep surface cracks to roads and bridges destroyed by weather or insurgents. Some 17 segments were either poorly maintained or not maintained at all.

    — MOPW officials noted that Afghanistan’s road infrastructure plays an important role in the country’s development and governance, and if the Kabul to Kandahar highway were to become impassable, the central government would collapse.

    — MOPW officials stated it will cost $100 million annually to carry out the necessary maintenance on Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. However, between 2011 and 2016, MOPW received only an average of $21.3 million annually from its American patrons.

    — According to a former U.S. official, the Afghan government would always sign the required memorandum acknowledging it had the capability to sustain a project, despite not having the capability to do so. American advisors would always accept the memorandum despite knowing the Afghans did not have the capability to do so.


    BONUS: Who in America would not want to see $2.8 billion of American taxpayer money spent on roads here in the Homeland?



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  • Is Tillerson Skipping NATO for Russia a Crisis? (No.)

    March 23, 2017 // 41 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    Is Tillerson committing treason skipping a NATO meeting for Russia? A diplomatic crisis? The end of the alliance? A favor to Putin? No. It’s just a scheduling decision.

    Senior government leaders are often called on to be in more than one place at a time. They make choices. Not everyone agrees with those choices. Sometimes deputies go instead. This happens to every country; the more global a nation’s interests, the more it happens. None of this is new.

    Yet a decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting between President Trump (Tillerson’s boss) and Chinese President Xi rather than a NATO ministers gathering (i.e., Tillerson’s peers) in early April has been blown up into yet another end-of-the-world scenario. The fact that Tillerson will attend an event in Russia weeks later was somehow thrown into the mix and the resulting cake was pronounced proof that the U.S.-NATO relationship is in tatters.

    It is fully reasonable to debate which event, meeting with Xi or NATO, is the best use of Tillerson. It’s just not a hard debate to resolve.

    “Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security,” two former U.S. officials said.

    Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?

    Despite much rhetoric, NATO has been a stable, predictable relationship for the United States over decades. Tillerson, and the U.S., will be represented at the April event by the familiar (he’s worked for State since 1984) and competent Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. Tillerson may be skipping the event; the United States is not. And FYI, Colin Powell skipped the same meeting once as Secretary of State.

    Meanwhile, Trump is set to attend a NATO summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson met his NATO counterparts at an anti-ISIS conference on March 22. State is proposing other dates for NATO’s foreign ministers to gather. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner stated in the midst of all this “the United States remains 100 percent committed” to the alliance.

    NATO is covered.

    China meanwhile is dead center on action. China will play a significant role in anything to do with North Korea. China and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea face continued friction in the South China Sea, with the U.S. involved as well. China is one of America’s most significant trading partners, and holds considerable U.S. Treasury debt. Weigh all that against sending a signal to NATO about a problem in the alliance that sort of doesn’t even exist outside the self-created media spectacle.

    And the same people criticizing Tillerson for attending the meeting between Trump and Xi have only recently criticized Tillerson for not attending meetings between Trump and other world leaders.

    Problems with Tillerson’s plan to go to Russia weeks after the missed NATO meeting are just conflation. Tillerson will be doing all sorts of things following the NATO meeting and simply throwing Russia into this NATO story is pure sensationalism, a desperate attempt to get the news hook of the moment, Putin, into the headlines and imply more diplomatic naughtiness on the part of Trump.

    Much of the can’t-win-either-way positions taken on Tillerson flow from two interlocking issues.

    The first is the trope that basically anything the Trump administration does is wrong, dangerous, and reckless. Politico comes out with it, saying “Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping.” Suggest negotiations and you’re too soft. Rattle the saber and you’re tempting Armageddon.

    The second is Tillerson’s disdain for the media. The media as a rule is nothing but self-righteous and jealous, ready to wave the flag, wrap themselves in it, then throw themselves writhing to the ground claiming they alone stand between The People (who no longer trust them) and the abyss. Tillerson didn’t take a press pool with him to Asia, and this set of the latest round. Left out of course is that the press could and did travel commercially to Asia longside Tillerson and missed out only on the possibility of some back-of-the-official-plane leaking.

    This will become a self-licking ice cream cone, as 24/7 press criticism of Tillerson makes him even less likely to engage with a press that will seize on his comments to criticize him further.

    It is also deeply amusing to watch the press decry the lack of official State Department briefings that they for years criticized as being content free and little more than propaganda. It reminds of an old joke — Q: How was the food on your vacation? A: Terrible! And such small portions!

     

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  • Advice for Trump: It’s All About the Infrastructure

    March 21, 2017 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Economy



    Dear Donald:

    I didn’t vote for you and generally don’t support what you do, but hey, we both live in this country for now, and I don’t want to see you mess things up more than they are. So, as a public service, here’s some advice. I don’t see a lot of this in the media; mostly they just write articles mocking you. I’m pretty sure if you came out against poop the media would demand sh*t sandwiches for everyone in response.

    But we’re Americans, we look forward not behind where the poop comes out, so here goes.

    You need a grown up in the White House right away. Your team clearly hasn’t figured out how to work Washington when you need to do so. So go get yourself a James Baker. Baker was White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, and Chief of Staff under George H. W. Bush. He may still be alive (check Wikipedia) but if not, someone like him. Not an ideologue, but someone who prefers to work behind the scenes, trusted by most in Congress, calm and steady but still enough of a conservative that he’ll fit in at meetings. He’ll be, what can we call it, a kind of Chief of Staff-concierge combo. That will also be very reassuring to your own party members.

    Next up is a new Secretary of State, in a few months. I get that Tillerson is there to debone the Department of State, and it is good that he do so. Let him get that done, make all the enemies, do the heavy lifting, and then get someone new in there who can take over the hassles of day-to-day foreign policy. It’s clear, Donald (if I may) that you don’t like the photo-ops and glad-handing with foreigners. OK, we’re not all good at everything. So outsource that part of the job, same as you’ve done pretty successfully with James Mattis over at Defense (see how that no-drama appointment thing can work out?) Get a SecState who can play nice with allies and let you be you on other stuff. C’mon, you know how to do this. As a businessman you delegated tasks all the time.

    With that team in place, get your plate clear of the ideological things you owe your base. Pass your healthcare, throw a bone to immigration reform, whatever The Wall, stop messing around too much with arts funding, just get that stuff off the front pages except in areas of the country where it being on the front pages is to your benefit.

    Then move on to the big deal, the thing that should be the signature event of your term, rebuilding infrastructure. You promised jobs, America needs jobs, the Democrats can’t be against jobs (well, they can, but at that point they’ll join the Whigs in political party trivia answers.) Don’t spend a lot of time at first sorting things out, just get money into the economy. Cut Retire one aircraft carrier, something. Have states send in proposals, or just start. Build a bridge. Fix an airport. Put people to work in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, places that really have been hit hard.

    Make it fast, make it visible, show (pardon the pun) concrete results.

    ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW: “Forget your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap,” Kevin Williamson wrote of the white working class in National Review. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”

    Or from NY Magazine’s Frank Rich “Maybe they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. ”

    BONUS: For the Democrats, don’t chase away the man or woman who feels like a third party candidate. Don’t push a hack forward who you think you’ve dressed up to look like a third party candidate; it’ll just come off fake, like when Dad tries to look “cool” around the teenagers. Stop acting smug about how all those Trump voters won’t get the change they sought. You don’t have the best record there, either. Don’t tell people who have really been living with Obamacare in its imperfect form that it is not imperfect.

    Imagine yourselves taking control of the healthcare debate. Imagine saying “Obamacare has problems. We’re going to fix them, and yeah, it means working with the Republicans, but people before party.” Now there’s something to take into the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, especially if you do fix Obamacare.

    And for the love of Gawd, find something more to be in favor of. “We’re not Trump” and “Trump’s a stupid jerk” were the policy positions that cost you the election. Nobody besides your own paranoid base bought deeply into the Putin controls Trump line, and the longer you stick to that the more it will end up looking like the endless Benghazi hearings.

    See, people outside your base will see through your current war cry: July Comey bad, March Comey is good. July investigations mean nothing, March investigations are the end of democracy. Saudi money into the Clinton Foundation had no proof of quid pro quo, Some Trump guy appearing on RT.com is proof that the Kremlin controls Washington DC.

    Understand that you have to build your base out from the coasts; you will not lure middle-of-the-road voters back with #resistance. Resistance is just blunt opposition and you tried that and the result was President Trump. Don’t make it President Pence down the road.

     

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  • Book Giveaway For Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan

    March 20, 2017 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Hooper's War

    You can win an autographed, advanced reading copy of my next book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

    Here are the details:

    Goodreads Book Giveaway

    Hooper's War by Peter Van Buren

    Hooper's War

    by Peter Van Buren

    Giveaway ends March 26, 2017.

    See the giveaway details
    at Goodreads.

    Enter Giveaway



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  • You Can Be a Journalist, Too, Just Calling Names Like 7th Graders

    March 19, 2017 // 18 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Trump



    The New York Times employs a columnist named Charles Blow (above). Blow writes the same column twice a week, about 800 words of simple name calling directed at Trump. That’s what his job is. He gets paid a lot of money for something that must take him about 15 minutes to type up. It is an amazing world we’ve entered since November.


    Let’s have fun looking at the journalistic insights that are Charles Blow’s job. Everything that follows is a direct quote from one of his recent pieces:


    There is only the same old Trump: Dangerous and unpredictable, gauche and greedy, temperamentally unsuited and emotionally unsound.

    If you were trying to create in a lab a person with character traits more unbecoming in a president, it would be hard to outdo the one we have.

    He continues to have explosive Twitter episodes — presumably in response to some news he finds unflattering or some conspiracy floated by fringe outlets — that make him look not only foolish, but unhinged.

    Trump’s assaults on the truth are not benign. Presidential credibility is American credibility. There is no way to burn through one without burning through the other.

    And when he’s not making explosive charges, he’s taking destructive actions.

    Trumpcare would likely not only be more expensive and cover fewer people, but some people currently in need of care to extend their lives would no longer get it. Put quite simply: This plan is not only bad, it could be deadly.

    Add to these destructive policies the fact that this president and his family are burning through taxpayer funds like it’s Monopoly money.

    In February, numerous media outlets pointed out that Trump was spending on travel in a month nearly as much as what the Obamas spent in a year. This doesn’t even include the travel and security costs of Trump’s children or the cost of Trump’s wife and son remaining in Trump Tower in New York, at least for now, which is estimated to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousand of dollars a day.

    This was particularly jarring because Trump had been a chief critic of the amount of money the Obamas spent on vacations. Indeed, Trump tweeted in 2012: “President @BarackObama’s vacation is costing taxpayers millions of dollars — Unbelievable!”

    No, what is unbelievable is the staggering nature of the hypocrisy of Trump and his current spending and the near silence of Obama’s conservative critics.

    Trump appears to view the Treasury as a personal piggy bank and the presidency as a part-time job.

    This is a 70-year-old man who has lived his entire life as the vile, dishonest, incurious creature who got elected. That election validated his impulses rather than served as a curb on them.

    Trump will continue to debase and devalue the presidency with his lies.

    Trump will continue to leech as much personal financial advantage as he can from the flesh of the American public.

    America elected a parasite.


    BONUS: The temptation to mock Charles Blow because his last name is literally a slang term for a sex act is huge. I mean, think of the countless hours of humiliation that Blow suffered a a child that made him the mean, bitter man he is today. But it would be wrong to stoop to his level and just name call. Except for this: At the New York Times, do they call Charles’ role in the company The Blow Job?




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  • Crushing Free Speech (Oh, Let’s Save Democracy That Way!)

    March 15, 2017 // 45 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    I’m not advocating violence. I’m hoping to stop it.

    So this guy beat the crap out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the 1A only applies to the government, not private acts like his. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    After wiping hippie blood of his knuckles, this patriot took to a mainstream media outlet and wrote this:

    But this moment in American politics and American life proves that the victory of reason cannot always be assured. The purveyors of logic, of facts dutifully checked and delivered to the public, lost big league in November. The cost has been an erosion of our national character that we will be powerless to stop unless we fight prejudice wherever it lies. The critics of political correctness have argued that shutting down certain conversations may bear political costs and alienate potential allies. This is a certainty. Morality is alienating. But the costs of being moral have been borne successfully by innumerable movements for social change. This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing.



    You get it yet?


    The actions above, and the quote above, were written by an author for Slate, in justification for the students of Middlebury College, and “activists” elsewhere, using acts like violence and shouting down speakers to stop speech they personally judged as hate and/or offensive or dangerous.

    The latest specific case involved some guy named Charles Murray. I have no idea who he is, but a lot of people say he is a racist so let’s go with that. But I don’t care.

    I simply cannot believe that it is the left, or progressives, or whatever name is best, that are attacking people’s speech. I’ve written extensively about what I call “Post-Constitution America,” an era that started on 9/11 where the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights no longer applied. I never imagined it would play out this way.

    And I know that the 1A does not apply to non-government actions, no need to educate me. But I also cannot believe I have to tell people like the author of the article above that stopping people from saying things that offend them is exactly the tool real live fascists and anti-democratic people use. They send brownshirts to break up rallies, accuse activists of inciting riots, take away access to platforms like newspapers and media, by violence or any other means necessary.

    When you advocate for closing off speech, the bad guys have already won. If you’re too stupid to see that, please ask for a refund from wherever you got your reducation, because you learned nothing. In a free and open society you get some good and some bad and you are not allowed to define those words for others. You let the ideas exist so that each person can define them.


    And I sincerely hope when someone punches you, or shouts you down, or takes away your platform by hacking your website, you are equally tolerant of their goals and tactics. Idiots.




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  • State Department: Is America’s Oldest Cabinet Agency Trumped?

    March 14, 2017 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    What if it’s not incompetence? What if it is by design? What if President Donald Trump has decided American doesn’t really need a Department of State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable and defund it?

    The only problem is Trump will quickly find out he’ll have to reluctantly keep a few lights on at Foggy Bottom.

    Things do not look good for State. There were no press briefings between Trump taking office on January 20 and some irregular gatherings beginning in early March. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t seen at several White House meetings where foreign leaders were present, and has taken only two very short trips abroad. Of the 13 sets of official remarks he has given, 10 have been perfunctory messages to countries on their national days, with one speech to his own employees. Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or bureaucratically via tasking orders and demands for briefings.

    Meanwhile, President Trump has proposed a devastating 37% cut to State’s tiny budget, already only about one percent of Federal spending.

    And as if that isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration has left a large number of the 64 special representative and other “speciality” positions empty. Tillerson already laid off a number of his own staff. Add in a Federal-wide hiring ban, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.

    The original concerns around State that Trump’s transition was in chaos seem sadly mistaken; there are too many empty slots for this to be anything but purposeful. As for Tillerson himself “Either he’s weak or he’s complicit,” one State Department official said. Neither option bodes well.

    Alongside Trump himself, State is its own worst enemy. Team Trump no doubt took careful note of the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), and the organization’s flexibility in allowing aide Huma Abedin to simultaneously occupy jobs inside and outside of the Department, alongside alleged quid pro quo deals related to the Clinton Foundation. Senior State officials purged in late January were closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Happens when you back the wrong horse.

    The already open wound of Benghazi festered just a bit more when a post-election Freedom of Information Act release revealed State covered up the fact the assault on the Consulate was not “under cover of protest” as the Obama administration claimed but was, in fact, “a direct breaching attack.” Never mind the leaked dissent memo aimed at Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, and the leaked memo admonishing State staffers to stop leaking.

    And what has been one of State’s public actions this February? Dropping $71,000 on silverware to entertain foreign dignitaries. An organization that will be missed by the bulk of Trump supporters this is not.

    So is this it? The end of the United States Department of State, founded alongside the republic in 1789, with Thomas Jefferson himself as its first leader?

    Maybe not. Trump will quickly find that there are several State Departments, and he’ll need to hang on to a couple of them, even if he sidelines the others.

    Most of the actions described above refer to the political State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11 (maybe earlier) has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow presidents and other Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad. Throw in the growing role of the military, and you end up with far too many State staffers having a lot of time on their hands even before Trump came along. The Wikileaks cables, years of State Department reporting from the field, contained as much filler and gossip as they did cogent policy advice.

    Trump can make his deep cuts in that part of State’s work and few will even notice. In some ways, no one yet has; as far back as 2012, more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. The whole of the Foreign Service diplomatic corps is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier, and has been for some time.

    There’ll be a few functions that may need to be rolled into other parts of the government if most of State fades away: whatever refugee processing Trump allows to DHS, trade promotion to Commerce, foreign aid to perhaps DOD, all have ready homes waiting if necessary. Trump’ll need to have ambassadors abroad, not the least of which is because 30-50% of those positions are routinely handed out to rich campaign donors, banana-republic style.

    So what is left at State Trump will need to hold on to?

    Those 294 embassies and consulates abroad State operates serve a function as America’s concierge that cannot be easily replaced, and will have to be funded at some level whether Trump likes it or not.

    Dozens of other U.S. government agencies rely on State’s overseas real estate for office space and administrative support to keep their own costs down. American government VIPs traveling need someone to arrange their security, get their motorcades organized, and their hotels and receptions booked. Meetings with local officials still require on-the-ground American staff to set up. Supporting CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. While stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Important Somebody’s on shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling and VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over.

    Never mind the logistics for a full-on presidential visit to a foreign country. No, Trump will need this side of State to stay on the payroll.

    The last part of the State Department Trump will need around one way or another is the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Consular performs the traditional government functions of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with social security or a new passport.

    The big swinging bat, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers, and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in 2016 close to 11 million tourist, worker, and student visas were issued at an average fee collected of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs holds a budget surplus in reserve whose dollar amount is one of the most closely held non-national security secrets inside government.

    But in a Trumpian state of mind, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the Bush administration sought to consolidate the consular function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.

    State won the bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to effectively wipe away most of the State Department proper, it might need to do little more than kick out the strongest (and most profitable) leg holding up the whole edifice. Like a jenga tower, Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom. Watch for it; it’ll tell you how serious this fight really is.

     

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  • NYT Falsely Tries to Tie Afghan Visa Problem to Trump Travel Ban (Two Aren’t Related)

    March 12, 2017 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump




    Here’s a NYT article that goes out of its way trying to tie the lack of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs; for former U.S. military translators) to the Trump travel ban executive order.


    The two are not related, and it would have taken the New York Times exactly one Google worth of journalism, or even reading elsewhere on their own website, to understand that instead of publishing a misleading piece. For a newspaper claiming its work stands between us and fake news, this is just sad.


    The article includes these lines:

    — Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban.

    — It was unclear if the visa suspension was related to the president’s new ban.

    — Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project… said “Our worst fears are proving true.”

    — It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.

    — Afghanistan was not included in either of the president’s travel bans, but his decision to reduce the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States would affect Afghans as well.


    To be clear, the Trump travel ban and visas for Afghan translators have absolutely no connection. None.


    Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban at all. Afghans translators are not refugees under the law. Like its now-defunct sister program for Iraqi translators, the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set up to provide immigrant visas (Green Cards) to Afghans who helped U.S. forces. Congress, not the president, sets numerical limits on how many of these visas are to be made available each year. When the limit is reached, the program goes on hiatus until next year. Congress is free at any time to expand the number of these visas available. That’s it.


    Now, how could the Times have uncovered these facts? Journalism.

    The Times could have Googled Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. That would have shown them a State Department page explaining things.

    The Times could have contacted any number of advocacy groups that also have online explainers about all this. Most competent immigration lawyers would know, too.

    The Times could have looked at its own archives from 2011.

    Or, the Times reporters on this story could have read their own website. Because elsewhere in the Times was reprinted a Reuters story that pretty much accurately explains the problem.


    That’s it, that’s really all that was necessary to publish an accurate story. But that accurate story would not have included the attempts to link the Afghan problem to Trump, which is the takeaway rocketing around the web.

    And for the haters, my own article here is not “pro-Trump.” The reason? Because the Afghan story has nothing to do with Trump.




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  • Ten Things the Media Will Get Wrong About Trump’s New Executive Order on Immigration

    March 9, 2017 // 18 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    As Trump issues a revised Executive Order on immigration, the media is almost certain to get many things wrong in its reporting; they did with the earlier order in late January. After 24 years of doing visa and immigration work for the Department of State,

    Short version: most of what people will be very upset about this week has been U.S. policy for some time and is actually unrelated to the Trump Executive Order.

    1. The Executive Order (EO) is invalid because the United States cannot discriminate based on national origin.

    False. 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful only to ban immigrants (Legal Permanent Residents, green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however is silent on banning non-immigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for those same reasons. Including green card holders was one of the major errors committed by Trump in the January EO. The new EO excludes them.

    2. The six countries affected by the new EO are being unfairly singled out. There’s no evidence the nationals from those countries pose any threat.

    The countries affected by Trump’s executive order – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – have been singled out under American immigration law since the days following 9/11.

    For example, the six are included in a 2015 law signed by President Obama, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12). The list thus has nothing to do with any of Trump’s business interests. He did not create it, nor is he the first American president to omit Saudi Arabia from post-9/11 scrutiny. That 2015 list, part of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to foreigners who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, British citizens otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning and be individually approved for an actual printed visa in their passport at an American embassy or consulate abroad.

    The six countries are also included in a special vetting process in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Barack Obama, and still operating today. Simply called “administrative processing,” people from these nations and others go through an alternate visa procedure that delays their travel as they wait to be vetted by various intelligence agencies. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely as a way to say no without formally saying no in a way that invites challenge.

    Lastly, three of the six nations included under Trump’s EO — Iran, Sudan, and Syria — have been designated for years by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.

    As for the numbers, in FY2015, 27,751 tourist visas were issued to Iranians, Sudan 3,647, Syria 8,419, Libya 1,374, Somalia 185 and Yemen 3007. All of those people may still travel under the new EO, but the number are illustrative of the relatively small scale of the EO; in that same year, the United States issued almost 11 million visas worldwide.

    3. But some people with valid visas are being refused entry into the U.S.

    Yes, and they always have, long before Trump. Unlike many nations, the U.S. uses a two-tiered system for immigration. Visas are issued abroad by the Department of State, and represent only permission to apply to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. entry port for admission. A traveler can have a valid visa and for a variety of reasons still be denied entry into the U.S.

    4. Travelers have other rights that are being denied.

    Foreign persons outside the United States are not protected by the Constitution. U.S. courts have also ruled continuously over time that decisions to issue or refuse visas abroad are not subject to judicial review.

    Non-citizens without green cards generally do not have the right to an attorney at an airport, except if questions relate to something other than immigration status, such as certain types of criminal charges. Non-citizens can generally be temporarily detained without formal due process. In most cases the government maintains until admitted to the U.S. by CBP, a traveler is actually not “in” the U.S. with the full range of legal protections. Nothing new here specific to the Trump EO.

    5. They’re deporting foreigners without due process.

    Again, nothing new and unrelated to Trump’s EO. In most cases only an immigration judge can order a deportation. But if the foreign traveler waives their rights by signing something called a “Stipulated Removal Order,” or takes “voluntary departure,” agreeing to leave the country, they could be deported without a hearing. Some people choose to give up their green cards voluntarily at the airport for a variety of reasons by signing a form I-407. There are both good reasons and bad reasons for signing such documents.

    That said, most people who aren’t allowed into the U.S. at the airport are not actually deported. They are removed, or denied entry. The words have specific legal meanings and trigger different levels of rights. Standard denials of entry are considered administrative actions and do not typically allow for court appearances or lawyers.

    6. A traveler was denied boarding by the airline when they tried to leave a foreign country. Do the airlines enforce American law now?

    Sort of. Airlines are responsible for the passengers they board. If a passenger is denied entry into the U.S. for any reason, the airline typically faces the costs of returning the passenger to a country abroad. So if someone from Syria is boarded by Lufthansa in Frankfurt and refused entry to the U.S. in Boston, Lufthansa can be held financially responsible. So, it is in the airlines’ best interests to follow U.S. immigration law.

    This system is not new with Trump’s EO, though the EO does establish new criteria for the airlines to follow.

    7. CBP is denying American citizens entry into the U.S.

    Very, very unlikely. Absent some extremely rare and technical issues, or cases where a traveler is misidentified, American citizens are entitled to enter the United States. A person with a U.S. passport is an American citizen for the purposes of entry, even if they hold a passport from another country. Green card holders are not American citizens and remain citizens of their home country. American citizens have always been subject to questioning, temporary detention, and search when entering the U.S. CBP is authorized to conduct searches and detention in accordance with 8 U.S.C. § 1357 and 19 U.S.C. §§ 1499, 1581, 1582.

    8. CBP asked a traveler about their religion, or said they were detained because they were a Muslim, or…

    Anything is possible, but not everything is likely. Actions cannot be taken based on religion, though CBP has always had procedures that allow them to have a traveler remove their head covering. Most airport interactions are under surveillance. CBP officials wear badges with numbers. Asking about religion is potentially grounds for job dismissal, even a civil rights suit. Wrong things do happen, but one should be skeptical about how often it is claimed to have happened. Persons can be asked where they came from (i.e., Sudan.) Human error, or a bad CBP person of course exist, but are in isolation not signs that the “gloves have come off” or that their one-off actions are signs of impending fascism.

    9. I Googled this and…

    Stop. There’s a reason people go to law school. Legal practice at the border is complicated; immigration law is as complex as tax law, and based on a tangle of regulations, practices, court cases, administrative rulings, and the like. Even experienced immigration lawyers differ with one another on how some things work. Other parts of the process are subject to the judgment of CBP officials. Almost anything can be challenged in court, and courts overturn old laws from time to time. So be careful when pronouncing something “unconstitutional” based largely on a Google search, or quoting one lawyer with a client in trouble, or confusing the filing of a lawsuit, or even a temporary stay by a court, as proof of the point you’re trying to make.

    10. Trump can’t do this.

    The answer to this question will take a lot of legal testing to resolve. Generally, however, the Supreme Court acknowledges immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, leaving most discretionary decisions in the hands of the executive branch. Legal victories over the original Trump EO were only stays of actions inside American borders, and complied with by the Department of Homeland Security on an exceptional “national interest” basis, not a policy one.

    Yet while precedent seems to favor the administration, there are a lot of issues and a very complex body of law in play with this EO. In particular how/if the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion apply is in contention. Anyone who claims this is simple on any side of the argument is misinformed. However, what is simple is that this is not a constitutional crisis. Tension between the power of executive orders and the power of Congress/the courts is nothing new, and in fact is the cornerstone of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.

    The opinions here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of State. This is not legal advice. Consult an immigration lawyer before making any immigration, travel or legal decision.

     

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  • The U.S. Government Did Not Revoke Khizr Khan’s ‘Travel Privileges’

    March 8, 2017 // 19 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump



    Here’s the anatomy of a fully made-up “news” story, abetted by a media that could care less to check any fact as long as the story feeds the preconceived notions of its audience.

    You remember Khizr Khan (above), the guy who used his soldier son, killed in Iraq, as a prop at the Democratic National Convention to criticize Trump’s immigration policy and help elect Hillary Clinton? Well, like all good Americans, Khan exploited his exploitation into a minor media career. He was booked to talk in Canada by a speaker’s bureau called Ramsey Talks. A decent gig — tickets ran $89 a seat.

    Then Trump supposedly struck. Ramsey Talks released a statement on its Facebook page saying:

    Late Sunday evening Khizr Khan, an American citizen for over 30 years, was notified that his travel privileges are being reviewed. As a consequence, Mr. Khan will not be traveling to Toronto on March 7th to speak about tolerance, understanding, unity and the rule of law. Very regretfully, Ramsay Talks must cancel its luncheon with Mr. Khan. Guests will be given full refunds.

    Mr. Khan offered his sincere apologies to all those who made plans to attend on March 7th. He said: “This turn of events is not just of deep concern to me but to all my fellow Americans who cherish our freedom to travel abroad. I have not been given any reason as to why. I am grateful for your support and look forward to visiting Toronto in the near future.


    A major Canadian broadcast outfit (CTV) ran the story based solely, only, 100% on that single unverified and unsubstantiated Facebook posting, saying the Trump administration interfered with Khan’s “travel privileges” to prevent him from speaking, because of some sort of revenge for Khan’s statements this summer.

    The Internet then, as expected, lost its shit.

    Twitter boomed, and within an hour or two the story appeared in the New York Times, LA Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Maddow, and across the globe. Every one of those stories was based on nothing but that Facebook post. Reuters, the only outfit that apparently bothered to commit a minor act of journalism and reach out to Khan, was told by him no comment. All of the web’s many experts on stuff became experts on passport law, immigration, naturalization, and visa lore. Amazingly creative theories of “denaturalization of Muslims” were concocted out of thin air.

    The only problem is that none of this is true. It in fact could not be true.

    The U.S. has no law that deals with reviewing or rescinding “travel privileges.” No U.S. government agency calls people at home to tell them their travel privileges are under review. If, in very, very limited specific legal instances a court has ordered someone not to travel, their passport itself can be revoked in response to that court order. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection people, the State Department, and the government of Canada all eventually denied doing anything to Khan in any way or having anything to do with this story, so please stop calling them to ask.

    Khan, or Ramsey Talks, seems to have made this all up.

    Now, funny thing, this made-up story about Khan being denied travel hit just as Trump’s new Executive Order (“Muslin Ban 2.0”) was announced. Gee willikers Biff, you think this tale of a Muslim patriot denied travel was timed for that news cycle? Maybe so that when Khan’s speech is rescheduled tickets will be more expensive and sell out faster? Maybe so Khan and/or Ramsey Talks could get a zillion dollars of free publicity? Hah hah, coincidence, amiright?

    As I write this, not one of the media outlets that ran with the false story has published a correction, update or apology. The Washington Post has semi-backed away, but left itself plenty of wiggle room in not admitting it was wrong.

    The problem is if you Google Khan’s name, the story is still flowing around the web, and is now being cited in unrelated stories as “proof” of whatever else the writer believes is fascism and the end of freedom in America.


    BONUS: A source inside CBP tells me that what is most likely to have happened is that Khan’s membership in one of the expedited processing programs was set to expire. These are programs run by private companies that gather information and submit members’ names for background checks to allow them to use expedited processing lanes at the airport when re-entering the United States from a foreign country. Khan/Ramsey likely confused, by accident or on purpose, the expiration of that membership with some nefarious U.S. government action, and the media took it from there. Khan’s only privilege under fire was that of standing in a shorter line at the airport.



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  • The Four Stories You Can Write About Trump

    March 6, 2017 // 27 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    It is nearly-impossible to write anything that purports to be objective about Trump. No one wants to read it. Instead, there are only four basic stories you can do.


    The Apocalypse

    These stories tend to appear in both the mainstream press (New York Times, Washington Post, cable news) and on left-of-center smaller outlets featuring Michael Moore and Robert Reich. They have headlines and indeed whole paragraphs announcing the end of democracy, the fall of the republic, destruction of the press, and so forth.

    Many have references to Hitler, or, if the writer has checked online, the burning of the Reichstag and WWII Japanese internment camps. If the writer does more than a Google search, you’ll see references to Weimer. The stories need to be more hyperbolic than the last one, and are usually framed around one Trump event inflated into a “historians will someday note this as a turning point, assuming they will still be allowed to write freely.”

    So, CBP wrongly detains someone = brownshirts are on the march, today the airport, tomorrow maybe in our home? Fear the 2 am knock on the door.

    As a bonus, these articles will often use dramatic phrases like “a clear and present danger,” “be afraid. be very afraid,” and end with an out-of-context quote from a Founding Father such as “The tree of liberty without our vigilance will be upended by an orange man as darkness gathers.”


    Related: Trump is Stupid and Evil

    These stories are basically a personal variant on the The Apocalypse, and are a staple of NYT Op-Eds by guys like Charles Blow, everything on Rawstory and HuffPo, and late night comedy shows like Colbert.

    Trump has small hands, a joke about Cheeto Jesus, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance, a spell-checker typo blow up into proof of something sinister, that sort of thing. They’ll go as far as comedians calling Melania a whore and the Trump kid a ‘tard, followed by an apology if the Internet blows up. They also run as Tweets and Facebook memes that say Trump is mentally ill or has syphilis. Throw in a favorite failed-as-a-businessman tale.

    A lot of these stories are based around leaks from anonymous sources that are little more than gossip from interns, such as “Trump is said to chew on the ends of pencils, which many aides claim is embarrassing to the nation.” Look for headlines that have colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Report: and passive constructions such as “I’m told…”



    Trump is a Savior

    For anything positive about Trump, you have to look w-a-y right, often deep into the dank corners of the web where true racism and hate lie. The more centrist right media seems to spend most of its time debunking stories about The Apocalypse and Trump is Stupid and Evil, or arguing the meaning of fake news.

    Hillary Fan Fiction/Obama Revisionism

    These are really the sad stories. They will repeat that Hillary won the popular vote you guys, how she would have won except for Bernie, Jill, Stein, Comey and Putin, and/or focus on all the reasons Trump will be impeached (Emoluments Act, Russia, 25th Amendment, a military coup, Chinese buy-out, etc.) They are all textbook examples of denial, lead by once-sane academics like Lawrence Tribe.

    Right alongside Hillary fan fiction lurks Obama Revisionism. The last eight years were all unicorns and rainbows, with free healthcare falling from the sky while we all lived in racial harmony and celebrated each other’s’ diversity with vegan, gluten-free treats handed out to undocumented aliens at Whole Foods by smiling refugees.


    FYI: I have given up, and get the majority of my news now from watching old Spongebob episodes. Trump’ll get my NetFlix when he prys it from my cold dead hands.



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  • Dissent and the State Department: What Comes Next?

    March 2, 2017 // 59 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State



    Some 1000 employees at the Department of State are said to have signed a formal memo sent through the “Dissent Channel” in late January, opposing President Donald Trump’s Executive Order initially blocking all Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely, delaying other refugees 120 days, prohibiting for 90 days all other travelers (diplomats excluded) from seven Muslim-majority nations, and other immigration-related issues.


    What is the Dissent Channel those State employees used? What effect if any will the memo have on policy? What does the memo say to the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the organization he now heads, and what will he do about it?


    What the State Department calls the Dissent Channel is unique inside the American government. Created in 1971 during the Vietnam War, the system allows Foreign Service officers to express their disagreement with U.S. policy directly to senior leaders. The secretary of state is obliged to read and through his staff respond to all Dissent Channel messages, normally within 30-60 days. Persons using the Channel are fully protected against retaliation. Dissent messages are intended to foster internal dialogue within the State Department, and are never intended for the public.


    The issues surrounding the most recent dissent memo begin where that previous sentence ends.

    What was once understood to be a way to foster internal dialogue is in this case playing out more like an online petition. Multiple versions of the memo circulated within the State Department globally, with persons adding their signatures and making edits as they opened their email. Someone (no one seems to know exactly who) later allegedly melded the multiple versions into the one that was submitted, meaning some signers did not see the final text until it was leaked.

    That leak changed everything, making the exercise less an expression of policy dissent than an anonymous press release sent out from a bureaucratic safe place. The intent in going public seems to be a combination of whining about, provoking, and embarrassing the administration. It is unclear anyone could feel that going to the press would foster greater discussion; actually, the opposite – many diplomats hoping to open a channel for discussion were deeply dismayed the memo went public, followed by anonymous interviews.

    As one career ambassador stated regarding another dissent message quickly leaked to the media, State Department officers’ “oath of office is to protect and defend the Constitution, but they are not free to debate publicly with their president… If they want to go public they should resign.”

    And indeed that sentiment appeared to be contained, albeit indelicately, in the White House’s initial reaction to the memo. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of those diplomats who signed that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

    Spicer, and the ambassador above, touch on a more fundamental issue underlying the dissent memo.


    The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have not experienced a presidential transition. These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution – not to George W. Bush or Barack Obama or Donald Trump – tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States; it’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won may be learning they are in the wrong business.

    That sense of frustration as much with the man in the Oval Office as with his policy appears evident in the text of the dissent memo, which is long on emotional (core values, nation of immigrants, shame of Japanese-Internment camps, yada-yada), and short on concrete policy other than “we shouldn’t do what the Executive Order says” and suggestions for more vetting and social media monitoring. Potential lost revenue figures are mostly global, not limited to the seven countries, and presume none of the people denied entry will visit another time to spend their money.

    There is an extraordinary amount of high-caste rhetoric in the memo that appears to describe a situation that many Middle East travelers might not recognize: the welcoming atmosphere of the United States (as if long waits to pay $160 to apply for a visa, two year or more invasive vetting for refugees stuck abroad, and crude TSA treatment did not previously exist.) The memo speaks of souring relations with Middle Eastern nations, increased anti-American sentiment, and creating the impression of a war based on religion, while somehow overlooking that 15 years of the horrors of the War on Terror (torture, drone kills, wedding parties blown up, Guantanamo) have already accomplished those sordid tasks.

    The memo also somewhat dramatically raises the specter of humanitarian issues, a child denied medical care in the U.S. for example, when the Executive Order in Section 3(g) clearly allows for such exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis. The memo brushes that process off as unworkable, when in fact such exceptional processes exist throughout U.S. immigration law and work just fine – it has been the State Department who has in fact implemented them.


    Left unsaid is any commentary on pre-Trump U.S. refugee policy. Since 1980, the United States has accepted fewer than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were simply children accompanying their refugee parent(s). By contrast, though not limited to refugees, the Obama administration alone deported 2.5 million people. The FY2016 American quota for Syrian refugees was 10,000. In contrast, Canada in 2016 took in 25,000. Germany admitted 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.

    No dissent memos were publicly released about any of that; while the State Department drafters may not even have been aware of the crude reality of pre-Trump policy as they wrote of a welcoming America, one can bet persons in the Middle East affected by those policies are. Same for the Obama-era illegal and unconstitutional denial of passports to Yemenis. Those actions ended up crushed in Federal court, but received no public dissent from inside State.

    The memo concludes with an erroneous statement that Federal employees take an oath to whatever “core American and Constitutional values” are. Sources state the memo was drafted largely by persons new to the State Department, and that clearly shows.

    (Of ancillary interest, the memo, written by people who work with the nuts and bolts of visa and immigration law daily, makes no assertions that Trump’s executive order is illegal or unconstitutional, just bad policy.)

    So what happens next?


    Rex Tillerson’s staff owe the signatories a response. Past experience suggests, and the near-certainty that the response will be leaked within minutes assures, that the reply will be of the “we acknowledge your concerns,” content-free variety. It is possible the response could be delayed until near the actual end of the legal wrangling, long after the media have forgotten the dissent memo ever existed.

    In characterizing the dissent memo as unprecedented (it is in the number of signatories, claimed to be 1000, albeit out of a workforce of close to 19,000), many media outlets have raised the question of resignations. Will Tillerson one day find himself in a State Department without diplomats?

    Experience suggests no.


    There were no known State Department resignations of protest during the 15 years of atrocities known as the War of Terror (as well as no publicly released dissent memos.) At the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, and one other related to Afghanistan. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War, arguably a more significant foreign policy event than a temporary visa ban aimed at a handful of countries.

    That said, emotions are running high inside the State Department, and one should not be surprised by a handful of resignations (one employee announced his resignation was actually a protest 12 days after he handed in his papers and even though he will remain at work until March, saying without explanation that Trump is a “threat to the Constitution”), a few scheduled retirements mediagenically re-categorized as resignations of protest, and an overreaction to all of that. Just remember outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.




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  • Free Speech Fascists Like Me

    February 27, 2017 // 52 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    For espousing the same beliefs about the First Amendment I did on November 8 (everyone speaks always, unfettered), I am no longer a patriot.


    Many of the groups and people who supported me then, and once supported the First Amendment absolutely, now call me a nazi, fascist, enabler, racist and normalizer.

    Because we live in odd times, and because too many people only read a sentence or two before losing their sh*t, I feel the need for a disclaimer. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nazi, fascist, enabler, racist or a normalizer. I do not like people who are those things. I didn’t vote for Trump and I think he’s a lousy human. ‘Kay?

    But I very much am concerned about people in a nation whose core value should be free speech, people who claim they are resisting nazis, fascists, enablers, racists and normalizers, acting like them. Because anyone who uses violence to stop someone else’s speech is a fascist. Also, a bully. Have a look:




    So there’s the video. A guy is exercising his First Amendment right. He happens to be doing that by flying a Confederate flag, a symbol of hate. But what anyone is saying is irrelevant to how the concept of speech works. Indeed, the concept exists not to chat about the weather, but for the hard stuff, the offensive stuff. Including Confederate flags.

    If you take away the flag guy’s rights by violence you accomplish nothing but setting up the next retaliatory round where someone takes away your rights by violence. And if you can’t see where that leads, then you are far too stupid to be allowed outside on your own. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re on the barricades, or fighting Hitler, or #resisting something. You want your First Amendment rights, you accept others have them, too, and you are not the one to judge instead who is allowed to talk.

    Yet multiple media sources said things like “It is as good and as just to tear down Confederate flags as it is to punch Nazis.” The idea is if someone on the “right side” determines someone else’s speech is wrong, then it is “OK” to silence them with violence.

    You want to worry about authoritarianism? It always includes shutting up people you don’t want to listen to.

    I never, ever, in my life thought the right to free speech would be challenged so harshly from the Left. It makes me very sad, and very worried.


    BONUS: Inevitably some idiot who recently read something online will bring up “hate speech” as not being allowed under the First Amendment. Explained here. That link also covers the idea of speech that might incite a riot, another standard excuse for busting someone’s right to speech.

    Inevitably some idiot who recently read something online will argue the “OK to punch nazis” line. Explained here.

    And speaking of free speech and flag burning, here’s that explained, kids.

    For that guy who will inevitably write in, yes, of course I know the First Amendment applies to government, not officially/legally to some guy in the street who jumps yellow tape. But for America to stay away from fascism, we cannot dismiss the broader concept of unfettered speech and the exchange of ideas. We all know you would not be making the same back-of-the-classroom legal argument if the Confederate flag guy beat up a POC to silence him, admit it.

    The newest catch-phrase to use as an excuse to deny someone the chance to speak is “platform,” as in “The First Amendment doesn’t require us to give him a platform to speak at our school.” Well, sure, but of course if you only allow one line of thought to be spoken out loud, you are indeed denying speech. You just make it seem nicer to yourselves by using the word platform.

    Let them speak, all of them.



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  • The Responsibility to Leak, and Leaking Responsibly

    February 23, 2017 // 96 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump




    I know you’re out there, and this is for you. What you’re weighing, it’s not as easy as you think. But it can matter more than anything else you do with your professional life.


    Washington is awash with leaks; if they were real water we’d all drown. The American people feel they are seeing the inner most workings of government, and it is not pretty. Powerful people are falling. Our democracy may be at risk. President Trump and his team have no intention of watching from the sidelines. There is a struggle going on, and people are taking sides.

    So if you’re a government employee sitting in a cubicle in Washington DC, what are you thinking? To leak or not to leak? Will you blow the whistle?

    I know more than a little bit about your decision. With 21 years of service at the Department of State, I was assigned to wartime Iraq in 2009. For me, when the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the reconstruction program under Presidents Bush and Obama reached the limits of what in good conscience I could participate in, and after failing to see any change going through channels, I blew the whistle, via a book, We Meant Well. The State Department in response flirted with sending me to jail, tried to fire me in part for “lack of candor” in refusing to participate in their investigation, and in the end pursued me into an early retirement.

    I learned the decision to contact a reporter, or otherwise to blow the whistle, is a hard one. In the end you have to ask yourself one seemingly simple but actually complex question: is the juice worth the squeeze?

    As for that squeeze, an anonymous leaker must expect people to come looking; you’re taking on the President of the United States after all. If the past (including my case) is any guide, much of the action that follows a disclosure will be aimed at the leaker, not the information leaked. You will be scared going in, but the fear should make you cautious. You will need to learn what intelligence officers call tradecraft; you may end up trying to hide your actions from them. Whatever journey you embark on, fear will travel with you.

    There are real things to be afraid of. Following the example set by the Obama administration, someone exposing classified information may be subjected by the Trump administration to Espionage Act prosecution, with the near-certainty of Federal prison time if convicted.

    Think you’re too unimportant for an investigation? Safe because your leak was, as in my own instance, nothing remotely classified? Maybe. But the most effective way to silence the next person in your position is to have them afraid to even try. Your now-adversaries would love to get the high level leakers, but won’t care too much if the heads on display come from the lower ranks instead. Either way the point to those others out there still considering leaking is made.

    The administration will fight back in other ways, too. You are an anonymous source, an unnamed official, someone “with knowledge of the discussion.” It’s your word against that of a person who can appear on a major news program to offer up information (real or not) that discredits yours. Americans tend to assess truthfulness these days in line with preconceived beliefs, and that’s running about 50-50 on any given day in the Trump Era.

    That’s the squeeze for a leaker. Now the juice.

    You may not have the evidence of a still-smoking gun to “bring down” anyone. But you can contribute to a larger story, supply a missing puzzle piece, or nudge an investigative process forward. A big mosaic is made of little pictures. What you know likely does matter, and the people have a right to know what matters about their government. Who besides someone on the inside – you – can tell them?

    Things can change significantly if you decide to blow the whistle, as opposed to leaking. While there are legal definitions, the key difference is a whistleblower purposely gives up their anonymity; Edward Snowden is the best known example. The risks scale up geometrically after that – you are saying “here I am, come after me.” Legal protections exist, including the Whistleblower Protection Act, but they do not snap into place easily. You will need a good lawyer well before you blow any whistle.

    The returns for blowing the whistle can be significant, and it was this calculus (plus a dollop of ignorance I’m afraid) that lead me away from leaking into a full public disclosure. Standing up by name, you earn credibility against attacks ad hominen, and for the information you supply. Your presence encourages and empowers others. Your motivations are on display; you are more easily seen as a patriot than a partisan. And you aren’t just passing on information. You are bearing witness, at risk to yourself.


    As one who has been there, my counsel is to think practically, not emotionally. Think larger than yourself, and think larger than political gossip. If I had the chance, I would remind every potential leaker or whistleblower their oath of service was to the Constitution, not to any particular leader or party, neither the one in, nor out, of power. So act on principle, not ego or revenge or ambition; the power to disclose carries with it a responsibility to act ethically. Your conscience will then be bulletproof, something very important as you will spend a lot of time in there. No guarantees, but an ethical disclosure may be easier to defend as well.

    People of conscience, leakers and whistleblowers alike, we’re made. We’re made by what the government does and fails to do, and by what we witness. If government acted as the Founders expected it should, we would not be here, like mushrooms that didn’t pop up on a dry lawn.

    It’s what all of us share: a love of country, if not necessarily its politicians. It’s in your hands to be on the right side of this struggle. One courageous act of conscience can make a difference in an America gone astray. That will be your anchor on an unsettling and fearful journey. I made a choice to be a whistleblower. I’d do it again. To me, the juice was worth the squeeze. You?




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  • We Could Have Had Biden

    February 20, 2017 // 67 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump




    Joe Biden would have beaten him.


    Think about why Trump won. He was by sheer accident the more or less least worst choice. Despite his behavior, he kept failing upward, right into the White House.


    A large portion of this election was about income disparity, cultural and economic displacement, a sense that the country had abandoned too much of its center. I don’t know how many of those people voted for Trump per se, but some percentage voted against for Hillary Clinton (spare me the popular vote bit, we’re dealing with the reality of the system which was here in 2016 and will be here in 2020.)

    Biden has always been able to speak to many of those who voted for Trump. His roots are in Pennsylvania, his background blue collar. His son served in uniform. He has dealt with personal tragedy and understands it in others. He talks and displays real empathy in a way Hillary could never do, and embarrassed herself when she tried. Biden in the Midwest would have exposed Trump as a fake populist because Biden would have come across as a real one.

    A significant number of voters “like” or dislike a candidate; some of an election is a popularity contest, and everyone likes and trusts Biden. Clinton could never get past herself on that. She was the kid on the debate team; Joe was class clown.

    Think Comey hurt Hillary somehow? Think the Democratic National Committee emails showing Clinton’s dirty tricks against Bernie hurt her? Think the Clinton Foundation, quid pro quo, pay-to-play, the server and coverup, Bill’s sexcapades, Huma, Weiner, health questions, maybe even Benghazi, think any of that cost her votes (it did)? Well, none of that would have touched Biden. Most of America still wouldn’t know who Comey is. Putin could have leaked all the emails in the world and… nothing. Trump could not have played off hiding his tax returns with Clinton hiding her Goldman-Sachs speeches.

    Trump would have had to talk policy and issues. Nothing for Congress to investigate, no scandals. Nothing for the right wing media to feed on. Nothing for the left wing media to have to keep defending.

    Meanwhile, the strengths Clinton had — experience in government, claimed foreign policy skills, whatever good will could be inherited from Obama — would all be there for Biden. Without any baggage. Biden was in the room when bin Laden was killed, too, for whatever that is worth.

    It’s likely Biden would have run a more respectful campaign against Bernie than Clinton did, as he would have been driven, but without being obsessed by fear of failure. He might have run a positive general election campaign, not one that was a continuous flow of hit pieces on Trump that left voters unsure what Hillary had to offer herself.

    That might have brought more Bernie voters out who chose instead to stay home on election day. Biden would have been able to choose a vice president such as Elizabeth Warren that would not have been seen inside the party as a threat to Clinton. Biden, himself a once forever Senator, might even have chosen Bernie as his VP. Imagine a VP choice that inspired, instead of a cynical move like disposable drone Tim Kaine selected just to (barely) grab Virginia’s electoral votes.

    There was much talk abut why Biden didn’t run, centering around the death of his son Beau. It was a major factor. However, sources are clear that pressure was applied to Biden the old-time party man to stand aside, that this was Hillary’s turn, arrangements had been made, deals done. Biden could have whatever else he wanted (other than VP…), choice of cabinet jobs, an emeritus position as ambassador somewhere, appointment to a presidential commission created for him, just name it, Joe.

    Biden said post-election “The family was broken, and I was more broken than I thought I was. How broken? I don’t know what I’d do if I was in a debate and someone said, ‘You’re doing this because of your son,’ I might have walked over and kicked his ass.”

    And in that moment the election would have been over.

    Many Americans outside the coastal media were unconcerned about an old tape of Trump being crude, and did not see his statements as “sexual assault.” They were skeptical about decades old allegations of sexual harassment that seemed to appear on cue just before a debate. But you don’t mess with someone’s dead son, a veteran at that, and had Trump insulted Beau and Joe Biden slugged Trump live on TV, every American who supported Trump would have understood what a bully was and every one of them knows what to do about bullies.

    In the end, you win this way:

    — Pull votes away from the other guy (blue collar Biden)

    — Secure your base (experienced, Obama-Dem Biden) and

    — Don’t lose voters (baggage-free Biden.)

    Clinton failed on all three counts, and it is now President Trump.



    The point here is not just a thought experiment, a political argument to hash out over beers. There’ll be another election in 2020, and Trump will run against another Democrat. If the Democrats can’t understand what election they are running in, and can’t objectively weigh out their candidates’ strengths and weaknesses instead of assuming succession based on internal party logic, they will lose again to Trump.



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  • A Brief History of Hope (and How Trump Won)

    February 16, 2017 // 61 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Economy, Trump




    Nobody has a lot of hope left, so we got Trump.


    I’ve taken to doing this thing Kurt Vonnegut used to do, semi-randomly calling people I haven’t spoken to for awhile. No emails, a phone call, the numbers I can track down online. The phone rings on their end and announces I am demanding to talk with them. It’s selfish. I want to know what’s going on in America. I ask them that.



    The way things work, these people have dispersed themselves all over America. Most of the people I speak with are in their 50s, nobody younger than about 35. They are representative only of “people I still sort of know.” The whole thing is about as scientific as the smell off a pile of dog crap.

    I’ve found nobody with a lot of hope left. They seemed to have used it up.

    I haven’t run across anyone who voted for Trump who said “Well, that’s that, time to sit back and watch things get fixed.” A lot of these people voted for Obama, at least in 2008, and not because he was going to be America’s First Black President but because they really believed in his promise of Hope. The Bush years had worn out. We stayed scared enough, but then no post-9/11 attack came, the wars dragged on, and most of the stuff that was supposed to make us feel safe just ended up somewhere between inconvenient and bullying.

    People have no sense of being in control of their lives. They know they have a lot less money than they used to, they don’t see their kids doing better, but they see on TV that some few seem to have most of everything. They can figure if they have less and someone else has more where that more came from.


    “Hope” means different things but it one way or another meant change for the better and that didn’t happen. Depending on who you were and where you lived, things stayed about the same or they got worse. The news said another 20,000 jobs were created but they still worked at Target. The news said solar and coding and Internet of Things and self-driving cars and they still made $7.25 an hour when their grandfathers made $23.50 with benefits. In 2017 they could not afford health insurance, stuck between not having enough money to buy it and not having too little enough to get subsidized. And they know health insurance and healthcare are not the same thing, as in high deductibles and Bronze plans that never seemed to cover things, or cover them fully. They know that, and deeply resent anyone who tells them it’s not really that way and they are better off.

    You can’t tell a person soaked in water they aren’t wet.

    Having been fooled, prepped for years, they looked at the 2016 election and saw a choice between a guy who was so cynical about providing hope he didn’t even bother to offer anything beyond a vague exhortation to be great on a cap, and a women who didn’t even bother with that, just a selfish demand for affirmation, “I’m With Her!” going through the motions enroute to what she thought was hers already.

    They knew Trump was a bully, a cheat, someone mean, and did not need to be told. They resented being seen by Clinton as too dumb to get that on their own and needing a lecture. Same now for the endless late night mockery and Washington gossip by “sources” that passes for news. Nobody cares about Nordstrom’s or who the spokesperson is when they’re hungry, and they resent the people who do not get that.

    Economist Thomas Piketty found the share of U.S. national wealth claimed by the bottom 50% of the country dropped to 12% from 20% in 1978, along with a drop in income for the poorest half of America. That level of change will not go unreacted to.

    It wasn’t that most of them hated Blacks and gays and the people of so-called identity politics, it was just that they did not care all that much about them either way. People in smaller places all know about Mr. Saunders the “confirmed bachelor” and while he couldn’t hold hands with his “roommate” around town, really, otherwise, who cares, I’m down to canned tuna and cereal the last week of the month when my food aid money runs out waiting for the first of the next month. Sorry equal rights for everyone isn’t in place, but let’s fix some other things first. We’ve all taken a beating.

    You don’t have to like it, but that’s what a lot of people think. And unlike a fair number of other voting blocs who need to be made to show up on election day, these people turn out. They don’t need buses, they drive themselves.

    So to hell with it they said, I’ll vote for the guy, being fooled knowing I’m being fooled. It doesn’t matter if Trump pisses off the Prime Minister of wherever. My kid will fight that war, like he fought the last war, because he can’t find another job and joins the Army, and Cory Booker’s nephew or niece won’t and if they does somehow join the service they’ll be a pilot or work intel or some other clean hands job and won’t be up on the line. Can my other kid go to college? Maybe, but she’ll eat debt for 20 years for a throwaway degree that isn’t worth much. We want our daughters empowered because we know that offers them a good life, but we first want them fed and employed.

    We were promised that. Didn’t happen.

    None of those people are going to have their minds changed by pussy hat marches or Lady Gaga at the Superbowl which just brings an eye roll from the men and women at the bar, and they don’t appreciate being called racists, nazis and fascists by millennials who have never really met one and fling those words around to enrage each other into shaking their heads at each other. They are unaffected by protests not against some policy, but against the idea that the candidate they voted for won.

    Meanwhile, if someone who is a real nazi or fascist offers the people at the bar even a touch of hope they’ll put up with some of the rest even though they don’t care for it personally. Most people really don’t want to live like it’s the 1950s Deep South again, but they’ll take a cleaned up version of 1969’s economy.

    See, “resistance” is part of the long-failed stay negative Democratic policy, the same one that lost the 2016 election. Find something to be for, Dems, or you’ll lose in 2018 again.



    So if you want to really throw up a wall between America as we want it to be and the America you’re afraid it will become, shut the hell up and create some jobs. Just do that, dump some money out of the pot and build some bridges and highways. Start. People who wear black shoes and white socks don’t really care whether you fund the National Endowment for the Arts as long as you also fund a new water plant for every Flint, and there is or will be one in every state. That’s a big gulp of what stopped real fascism from catching hold in 1930s America.

    But right now people out there are heading toward accepting an awful lot of hateful things because they want to believe someone will help them.

    Every year we wait makes it harder and less likely we’ll get out from under this blue dusk. The party or candidate that can really do this — create some jobs, give people back their pride, allow them to take care of their families, throw out a little hope — will win every election they want to run in.

    We’re not headed into authoritarianism per se. We’re headed into giving up. That’s the demon that’ll destroy us. There’s the weight of emptiness out there and something’s gonna fill it up.



    I know I can’t keep “we,” “you “and “they” separate in the essay above and after spending a lot of time trying to fix that I realized it was meant to be that way.




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  • Let’s Play Journalism, and Make Fake News

    February 14, 2017 // 98 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump



    This journalism thingie has gotten so easy, anyone can do it. Let’s play make the fake news funtime!

    The elderly may remember the Old Journalism. Back in BT (Before Trump) journalists in mainstream outlets had to gather facts (i.e., true things) from sources (people with names who knew true things) that would withstand fact-checking (looking stuff up, or having a second source confirm stuff.) If you quoted something already established as a fact, you were obligated to link to it.

    There were notably exceptions. For example, in 2003, the New York Times simply “believed” everything it was told about Iraq having massive destructive weapons and typed it into the paper. FYI: The Times assisted in generating enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion, helping kill 5,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis! Media such as the National Enquirer and gossip blogs would just make things up, aliens and Bigfoot and all that, but it was with a wink and everyone knew it was fake and for fun.

    Then Shazaam! Every media in America miscalled the election for Clinton while Trump won. Media collectively got a sad. They did not know what to do. Certainly admitting they screwed up was not in the cards, nor was accepting that Trump won and moving on. So, they invented Newer Journalism.

    It works this way. A reporter, say from the Washington Post, calls up someone who works at say, the State Department, or is called by someone who wants to leak something. It is always bad news about Trump. The reporter types it up word-for-word, and then publishes it to the world as a true thing. In the story the source is anonymous, so no one knows if the reporter spoke to an intern on her third day, or just made it all up. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! All that matters is that it is bad news, the more bombastic the better.

    From there other media simply repeat the story. But it gets better, because the next media in line says “The Washington Post reports sources inside the Trump administration say…” allowing some crappy blog to inherit whatever credibility the WaPo still clings to. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! Because the article will be saying something readers want to believe (“White House policy making is in disarray, everyone will resign by Thursday.”)

    Now Thursday will roll around and everyone has not resigned, but, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! The media has moved on to the next story and who the hell goes back and reads last week’s Tweets anyway. Repeat.

    The way Trump is being covered reminds me of so-called reporting out of North Korea, or the Cold War Soviet Union. Reporters claimed they could not reveal their sources, and every tiny scrap of an event was inflated into Deep Meaning. Every story warned of catastrophic consequences to follow, that never did. But that’s what Americans wanted to believe about those two countries, and it sold (in those days) newspapers.



    So let’s try it. Keep in mind this is entirely made up, especially if you see it reprinted on Rawstory or HuffPo as fact.

    Sources inside the State Department who are otherwise not authorized to speak to the media report that rank-and-file diplomats remain dismayed at the treatment given them by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many are quietly talking about ways to resist, some even going as far as suggesting mass resignations may occur. Some liken it to a Constitutional crisis that could upset an already fragile democracy.

    The diplomats — many of whom signed the recent letter of dissent over Trump’s Muslim Ban — claim that Tillerson has not held a full staff meeting since taking office, preferring to work only with a tight circle of advisors from the campaign whom he has dubbed the “Trump Centaurians.” These Centurians have been described as politically motivated, watching Tweets out of the White House for policy guidance.

    “They have no idea what they are doing,” said one senior diplomat. “These are people with zero experience inside government talking down to experienced Russia hands in my office. One of these so-called Centaurians used to work for Ivanka’s clothing line. God help us, she’s now in charge of energy policy across the MidEast. It is chaos, pure chaos. Period. Full stop.”

    In response to Tillerson, State Department officials have begun to slow-walk requests from the Secretary’s office, with some going as far as withholding information for fear it might be shared with the Kremlin. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of people go critical and simply punch out one day,” stated another seasoned diplomat. “And I’m hearing the same thing from friends inside the NSC. I’ve never seen it this bad before, and it’ll get worse.”

    Tillerson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.


    See? That took me about ten minutes to crank out. Lunchtime.



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  • U.S. Customs to Solve Terrorism by Asking Tourists for Their Social Media Accounts

    February 12, 2017 // 23 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America

    NSA_User_Activity_Leads


    The United States government seems to have a real thing for social media and terrorism, stoutly believing if only they could “take out” Twitter the global jihadi movement would collapse. Or something like that. Maybe it’s Instagram?



    Social Media vs. Jihad

    But while Trump talks the talk, Obama walked the walk.

    You may not know it, but since December the United States quietly changed the standard online entry form (ESTA) used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a part of your neighborhood Department of Homeland Security.

    The question added is “Please enter information associated with your online presence — Provider/Platform — Social media identifier.” The question is for all foreign travelers’ who use the visa waiver (visa-free) system for admission into the U.S. The form is not used for American citizens.

    The form also asks for info on citizenship, passport data, and contact information in the U.S., along with hilarious questions inquiring if the traveler is coming to the U.S. to commit espionage, sabotage or terrorism (seriously; see here). Not so many people answer Yes.

    The entry process for all foreigners already includes fingerprinting, photographing, an in-person interview, and numerous database checks.


    The U.S. government had 77.5 million foreign visitors in 2015. Collecting social media accounts for all visitors is producing one of the largest government-controlled databases of its kind.

    And even though the social media question is voluntary, apparently most travelers have been filling in the blank out of fear of calling attention to themselves and prompting further attention at the border.

    As a reminder to all those who bark fascism at every turn: this change went into effect by order of the Obama administration, not Trump’s.

    And who is having their social media examined? Citizens from the visa-waiver countries. No, no, not those naughty people from the Seven Banned Muslims nations, but American allies like Japan, the UK, Germany and the like. And guess what? There’s not been a word of protest, not a single court challenge. It’s almost as if people paid no attention to any of this before Trump came long.

    Mohammed Atta on Twitter?

    According to the rules, the new info “will be an optional data field to request social media identifiers to be used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information. Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case.”

    So the concept is that Mohammed Atta (for example) rolls up to the Customs checkpoint at the airport, and jots down his Twitter handle as @terrorist911 and then enters the U.S. to resume his flight lessons. Someone from Customs later trolls Atta’s account to discover “Shout out to all the brothers, gonna lay down some whoop ass on Septemb–” Ah poo, only 140 characters, now we’ll never know.

    Image Courtesy of Edward Snowden



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  • Can’t Judge Fake News in the Dark

    February 10, 2017 // 76 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Trump



    This isn’t about Trump. It’s about judging the media, whoever and whatever they report on. It is about reading critically when so much out there is just simply inaccurate. Not maybe inaccurate, pure dead solid perfect stupid. So don’t call me a nazi.

    Step One is to note if the story you’re reading/seeing is all or mostly unsourced, or anonymously sourced. Red flag.

    Step Two is to see if the story is bombastic, dramatic, something that really makes you angry. Something that adds to or dovetails with something you already believe is true. If it sounds like gossip, that’s probably all it is. Red flag.

    Step Three is to check if the story is a negative one about a person or subject from a media outlet that celebrates its partisan position. Red flag.

    Congratulations! You’ve got a sample target, and are ready to apply a basic test.

    Ask who would know the information, why would they tell anyone, and apply a light sniff test: does it make any sense at all?


    Here’s one to practice on, courtesy of the New York Times. There are no sources at all for the most part, and the story is bombastic, suggesting the people in the White House are dumber than third graders. The Times has had trouble with objectivity concerning the administration. Much of the story sounds like mean gossip.

    We’ll zoom in on a couple of opening lines, keeping in mind this was presented on the front page as news:

    President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

    Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit.

    So the venerable New York Times reports Trump’s aides sit in the dark because they do not know how to operate light switches.

    Seriously? Light switches are rarely complex. Those aides have been on the job for about two weeks and have not figured out how to turn on the lights? And by the way, the White House is full of non-political, permanent staff, including servants, janitors, the Secret Service, secretaries. Hell, you can dial zero on the house phone and ask for maintenance. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true, and it would have had to have been reported by one of the aides themselves, because no one else was there, or could see what was happening in the dark.

    Next up: the line about visitors wandering the halls looking for an exit.

    Access to the White House is as controlled as anywhere in the United States. One does not simply walk around trying doors. Visitors are escorted, the Secret Service is stationed everywhere, and there are cameras and motion detectors. Being alone inside the White House is a privilege allotted to very, very, very few people ever. Visitors are badged and checked in and out. The building itself is not a suburban movie theatre, with lots of doors opening out into the parking lot. Visitors go in and out via a limited number of portals. It is simply impossible for the Times’ statement to be true.

    Later in the same story the Times reports:

    When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

    While the image of old man Trump wandering around the place in his robe and slippers, perhaps hair amuss, is amusing, the statement is ridiculous as news.

    If the White House is hyper-controlled space, the Residence, the second floor where the president actually lives, is doubly so. Access is strictly limited to those personally invited by the president, staff who have worked there decades, and a handful of Secret Service stationed outside key doors. The idea is to offer a respite, a personal space for the family.

    The White House staff and Secret Service have a long tradition of not leaking intimate details of the First Family. They would throw away a decades-long career if they did. Neither group has leaked salacious gossip over the years about presidential affairs, husband and wife fights, drunkenness and the like in real time. It is incredulous that the Times would have any idea what Trump does inside his own living room.

    Another caution would be reports that purport to know what a senior policy maker is “thinking,” the very ideas and feelings in his head. While anything is of course possible, how likely is it that someone in public life would voice those things to people junior enough to leak them (oh but you want to believe it, don’t you?) Here’s the Times again:

    Cloistered in the White House, he now has little access to his fans and supporters — an important source of feedback and validation — and feels increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job and the constant presence of protests.

    The first line is of course easily destroyable, as the president can invite anyone into the White House, and most anyone would be happy to rush in. And don’t his son-in-law and daughter Ivanka live just down the street in DC? In addition, should Trump want to talk with “fans and supporters,” there is that telephone thingie. Obama famously had a guarded private number for a handful of friends, and Bill Clinton, keeping with his times, used a personal FAX machine whose number was changed regularly and distributed to very few long-time associates.

    And by the way, how could the Times, or anyone really, know Trump is “increasingly pinched by the pressures of the job”? What does pinched even mean? Did someone deep inside Trump’s inner circle overhear him say “Dammit, I am feeling pinched as hell” and rush to whisper that in a reporter’s ear? Can someone be “increasingly” pinched after only some two weeks on the job?


    The piece goes on and on, claiming Trump obsessed over the drapes in the Oval Office, watches TV during lunch (!), somehow indicated to somebody that the Oval Office “is a totem of a victory that validates him as a serious person,” and startlingly, “ordered that four hardback chairs be placed in a semicircle around his desk” which seems to be important for some reason never really explained.




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  • Dark Threads of Immigration in America

    February 8, 2017 // 90 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump



    For those who say “This is not who we are,” well, look again. It all seems to be exactly who we are and have been.

    President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers, immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries is only the latest twist of dark threads that have always been present in America and its immigration policy. The executive order is not unprecedented. It is evolutionary, predictable, nearly an inevitable step.



    The Seven Targeted Countries

    Begin with the targeted countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. America has bombed or used drones and special forces in six of them, and attacked the seventh with cyberwar. The Muslims there have suffered far in excess of a travel ban at the hands of America. Indeed, many of the refugees leaving those nations became refugees as a result of American war-making, often under the guise (Libya, Iraq, Syria) of “protecting” those people from an evil dictator, some Sunday morning talk show version of genocide, or a red line few outside the White House could see.

    The countries in Trump’s executive order have long been singled out for special treatment under American immigration law.

    Though Trump in his crude style talks about “extreme vetting,” such a process has been in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Obama, and is operating today. It has a nicer, if somewhat Orwellian name, “administrative processing.” On the list of nation affected: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. People from these nations, and a few others, go through an alternate visa processing procedure that delays their travel. The process involves various intelligence agencies vetting the traveler. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely, a de facto travel ban.

    The seven nations also were a part of the Bush-era Muslim registry, known as NSEERS.

    Trump’s seven nations also appear on an Obama-era list. That list, the equally Orwellian-named Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to persons who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, a British citizen otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning at an American embassy abroad if she, for any reason, even as a journalist, stepped foot in Iran.

    That nations long-held to sponsor terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not on Trump’s list is not surprising. They haven’t appeared on most of Bush’s or Obama’s lists either.



    Refugees Not Welcome

    Following Trump’s directives aimed at refugees it quickly became almost mandatory for celebrities and pundits to come up with a personal story or two about their family’s immigrant ties, and preach a bit about the Statue of Liberty and freedom.

    Left unsaid was that the number of refugees admitted to the United States is small compared to many other nations.

    The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, some 38,901 of the nearly “>85,000 total refugees allowed into the U.S. Go back to 2006, and the total number of refugees admitted drops to under 50,000. Though there have been refugee “surges” into the United States such as Holocaust survivors following World War II (650,000 people) and the Vietnamese “boat people” (100,000) after the end of that war, Americans historically feared refugees, not welcomed them. Since 1980, the United States has accepted less than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were children accompanying their refugee parent(s). The U.S. sets an annual ceiling on refugees admitted, currently 85,000. Refugee number 85,001, no matter how desperate her case, must wait until the next year.

    In contrast, among Syrians alone, Canada in 2016 took in about twice as many refugees as the United States. Some 25 percent of the entire population of Lebanon are refugees. Germany expects to admit 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.



    Discrimination by Nationality

    Following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful to ban immigrants (i.e., Legal Permanent Residents, Green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however allows banning nonimmigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for almost any reason. Challenges to this are near-impossible. American courts have consistently upheld that they cannot exercise judicial reviewability over visa decisions made abroad in the specific, and more broadly, generally do not extend the protections of American law to foreigners outside the U.S. The Supreme Court has also long-acknowledged immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, which generally immunizes from judicial review the substantive immigration decisions of Congress and the executive branch.

    And even though legal immigrants are not banned by nationality or place of birth per se, restrictions on the number of legal immigrants from certain nations are limited to the point of near-virtual bans. For example, the restrictions are such that some Filipino and Mexican relatives of American citizens face a 24 year wait (another Orwellian term, “priority date”) for a Green card. It is not uncommon for applicants to pass away before their turn comes.



    Fear Itself

    However, the most evolutionary aspect of Trump’s executive action on immigration, and the inevitable hardening and expansion of such positions, is the underlying driver of it all: fear.

    The government of the United States, from September 12, 2001 through the present day, has constantly fanned the flames of fear of terrorism. Despite the well-known statistics of how an American here at home has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a terror act, that following 9/11 only a handful of Americans have fallen victim to acts of terror inside the United States, and despite the fact that few of any terror attacks inside the Homeland were committed by the poster child of fear, the foreign terrorist who infiltrates the U.S. specifically to do harm, Americans remain terrified.

    For over 15 years, three presidents have used fear (they called it security) as a justification for, well, nearly everything. And Americans bought the line nearly every time. Fear of the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud. Fear of terrorists slipping through the net justifying NSA spying on Americans. Fear of more terrorism justifying torture, drone attacks, leaving Guantanamo open, militarizing Africa, having us take our shoes off at the airport, not being able to bring a bottle of water on a plane, no longer being able to enter a growing range of buildings without some sort of security check and bag search, background checks, showing ID, and the No-Fly list. 30 American governors said they’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states if they could.

    Trump’s use of executive orders to accomplish his immigration goals is also nothing new. Both Bush and Obama did the same. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt used an executive order to establish the World War II Japanese internment camps.



    The Ugly Truth

    Of course nothing Trump has done or has proposed regarding immigration will realistically make America safer. That is true, and it is irrelevant. Like much of the security theatre that has become normalized post-9/11, safety is not the point. Keeping fear alive and maintaining the politically-driven myth that government is on the job protecting the Homeland is what matters. Trump knows this, as did Obama and Bush.

    The ugly truth is despite the airport protests, a large number of Americans remain afraid of foreigners and want what Trump did. The ugly truth is there is unfortunately nothing here unique to the Trump era.



    BONUS: Those who focused last weekend on the two Iraqis who translated for the American military in Iraq at great risk to their lives and were detained at a New York airport may wish to read about the decades-long struggle of translators from Iraq and Afghanistan to escape those nations for fear of their lives, and the poor treatment they have received at the hands of now three administrations.


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  • I’ll Be Speaking at Yale February 7; Free and Open to the Public

    February 4, 2017 // 77 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State




    Please come join me for a bit of speaking and discussion at Yale University on February 7. The event is free and open to the public.


    My speech is part of Yale’s Macmillan Center for Global Justice Program, and I’ll kick off this semester’s slate of speakers. The event will be held in the ground-floor seminar room at 230 Prospect Street beginning at 4:30 pm. No advance tickets or reservations needed.

    I’ll offer some thoughts on whistleblowing, my own case as well as those of Manning and Snowden, leading into wider reflections on Iraq, the First Amendment, and what options exist from inside government when one deeply disagrees with specific policies.

    Kinda timely stuff.

    There will be open discussion and plenty of time for questions. Those who oppose free speech are also welcome to come and punch me in the head.




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  • What Will Rex Tillerson Inherit at the State Department?

    February 2, 2017 // 39 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    As Secretary of State, what will Rex Tillerson inherit at the State Department?

    The media has been aflame recently trying to stretch the facts — personnel changes and some unhappy employees in the midst of a major governmental transition — to fit the narrative of a State Department on the verge of collapse. But while rumors of the State Department’s demise are largely exaggerated, the organization may yet find itself shunted aside into irrelevance.

    There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about Donald Trump and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and then suggested employees might resign en masse before he even was inaugerated. Another round of stories fanned panic that Trump had dumped his existing ambassadors, when in fact it was only the Obama-appointed ones who tendered resignations by tradition, as happens every four years.

    Then only last week the Washington Post published a bombastic story claiming the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned in protest. The real story, however, was that all/most of the six were de facto fired. Several were connected to the Clinton emails or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both. These were not protest resignations, they were housecleaning by the new boss in town.

    As for plunging the State Department into chaos, the loss of six employees is not going to bring on Armageddon. Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department directly tied to Obama-era policies likely to change under the new administration.

    In addition, all six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded. This is all part of the standard transition process. The same applies to embassies overseas that lost their Obama-appointed ambassadors.

    The latest Chicken Little reporting concerns “dissent” messages circulating within the State Department, aimed at Trump’s executive order on immigration; one media outlet characterized this as a “revolt” waiting for Tillerson on his Day One.

    Such bombastic language misses the mark completely. Though State’s internal process requires a response from senior leaders, they have 60 days to provide it, it is not public, and if experience serves will almost certainly be of the “we acknowledge your concerns” content-free variety.

    Others feel that while having no practical impact on policy, such dissent measures the state of employee thought, and there may be some truth to that. The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have seen only the current presidential transition.

    These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump, tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won are probably simply learning they are in the wrong business. Though indelicate in his phrasing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was actually only expressing a version of official policy when he said of those diplomats they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

    As a reality check, out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, one other related to Afghanistan. There were no publicly known resignations related to torture, Guantanamo, drone assassination or any of the other horrors of the War on Terror stretched across two administrations. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.

    So it is without much evidence that Rex Tillerson will walk into a State Department weakened by dissent. But what he may preside over is an institution largely devoid of relevance, and suffering budget and personnel cuts in line with that.

    The signature issues Secretaries Clinton and Kerry supported — women’s and LGBTQ rights, social media messaging, soft power, climate change — are unlikely to get much attention under the Trump administration. In addition, given State’s role in hiding Clinton’s email server for years, and then slow-walking the release of her emails until ordered by the courts to speed up, it is doubtful there is good will and trust accumulated from the campaign. Foreign policy has increasingly gravitated under Bush and Obama deeper into the military, National Security Council, and the Oval Office anyway. None of that is likely to change.

    Kerry’s original legacy issue, peace in Syria, is literally in flames. The United States was not even invited to the Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks, and there is little stomach anywhere for deposing Assad and generating more chaos. Kerry’s second shot at legacy, the Iran nuclear accords, seem destined to at best merely linger around if it does not just collapse. Iraq and Afghan policy, such as it is, appears mostly in the hands of the Pentagon, and Trump has chosen a powerful, experienced Secretary of Defense. No side sees the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues with China will fall into the lanes of trade and defense. It appears big-picture policy toward Russia, Mexico and elsewhere will be run directly out of the Oval Office.

    At the same time, Trump’s federal hiring freeze has already impacted State. Even before the freeze there were more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Yet Paul Teller, Trump’s liaison to the right wing of the House Republican Party, has already spoken of cutting back further on the number of America’s diplomats. If employees do leave on their own, or, more likely, stay at their desks in zombie state waiting out their pensions, that will only make State less useful to anyone in Washington.

    What’s really left for State to do?

    Tillerson will find himself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. He may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing his network of embassies serve as America’s concierge abroad, providing cover stories for the intelligence community, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations. State will still hold the monopoly inside government on things like Sports Diplomacy and paying for reality TV shows in Niger to influence those there with TVs.

    If that all doesn’t sound like a very attractive job, you’re right. It’s difficult to imagine Tillerson sticking around for four years. Who knows, the resignation out of the State Department that attracts the most attention of all might be his.




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  • The Emoluments Clause, Impeachment, and Trump: An Explainer

    January 30, 2017 // 42 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America, Trump


    Many of the Wikipedia-driven insta-experts on the Electoral College are now transforming into insta-experts on the Emoluments Clause, claiming the Clause can be used to impeach President Trump. But it is not that simple. What is the Clause, and in practical terms, how might it affect Trump?


    Save Us Please, Emoluments Clause!

    Deep inside Article I of the Constitution are a handful of lines called the Emoluments Clause, intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts (the full definition of emolument includes a salary, fee or profit from employment or office) from foreign sovereigns, including in the language of the 18th century, kings and princes. The Founders’ intent was to prevent foreign influence buying.

    Insta-experts seem to be circle-logicing themselves into believing Trump will be in violation of the Emoluments Clause literally as he takes the oath of office, and thus impeachment proceedings can follow, all because of his global business interests.

    But unlike most everything else in the Constitution, issues connected to the Clause have never gone before the Supreme Court, there is very little case law, and very little legal study. It has simply not come up in any significant way. Journalists have discovered the Clause, however, and now are promoting it as a way to defeat President Trump.

    The problem is that much of what is being written appears to come from Clinton supporters in denial. The election failed, the recounts failed, the move to sway faithless Electors failed, the sludge of Russian allegations failed, Meryl Streep failed, and Beyonce not pole dancing at the inauguration failed. All that stands between democracy and the abyss is the Emoluments Clause.

    Luckily, there are non-partisan sources out there, including the American Bar Association, and the National Constitution Center. Before wading through your next fake news article, let’s synthesize some of what has been said about the Emoluments Clause.


    The Emoluments Clause

    The Clause is aimed at governments, those kings and princes, seeking to influence the United States. It has nothing to say about 21st century life, such as Trump’s companies doing business with entities controlled in whole or part by foreign governments (state-owned businesses, such as the Bank of China, as is common in many parts of the world.)

    The Clause is also untested in regards to complex corporate ownership. It is common in the media to state matter-of-factly “Donald Trump owns a hotel in Dubai.” Yet most of Trump’s business, like most corporate business in general, is done through a web of companies that are legal entities of their own. Some involve stockholders, some in which Trump holds a minority position. Similar questions would likely have been asked about foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation had Hillary been elected president. None of this existed when the Clause was written, and all of this requires a 21st century judicial interpretation.

    Emoluments are more complex than simply doing business overseas. The Clause may allow for fair market price transactions, for example. So, if a piece of real estate is legitimately (and yes, we’ll argue over that word) valued at $100,000, it is not a bribe or a representation of influence to sell it for $100k. It would be more questionable to accept $150k. Some have claimed if a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump hotel, the standard room price paid would violate the Clause. That’s a question of legal exchange; if Trump accepts money from Iran to remove sanctions, that’s a bribe. If a Trump hotel collects money for a night in the bridal suite, that’s a simple exchange of goods and services. Does the Emoluments Clause apply?

    Some legal scholars argue the Emoluments Clause doesn’t apply to the president at all. A different clause of the Constitution makes bribery an impeachable offense. That clause specifically mentions the president by title, while the Emoluments Clause does not. In addition, other parts of the Constitution that specifically address the president typically include a separate delineation for “officials,” the wording used in the Emoluments Clause.

    That all suggests emoluments may exclude the president. However, precedent suggests the Clause does apply. George Washington was allowed to accept a foreign gift, Andrew Jackson was not, and Martin Van Buren had to agree to a 50-50 split with the State Department over gifts from the Imam of Muscat. And in 2009 the Office of Legal Counsel said President Obama could accept the Nobel Peace Prize money without violating the Clause. But all four men asked for an OK ahead of time. There was no actual challenge, and none of the cases involved doing business.

    Another issue is standing, who can sue over any of this to get it into the courts for a ruling. One legal professor feels no one seems to have such standing, and so states “if there are concerns about how President Trump handles his various investments, the only remedies will be political.” Meaning vote him out of office in the next election if you don’t like what he’s doing.

    There are also those who skip most of the legal arguments, and focus on the so-called larger picture; clearly the Founders did not want the president beholden to foreigners. So never mind the parsing of words, the Emoluments Clause was written precisely to stop a person like Trump.

    In terms of practical matters, the less Trump makes public about his business dealings, the less chance anyone has of looking into any of this. Congress can’t even think about impeachment unless there is a “high crime or misdemeanor” involved and a Trump business deal per se is far from definitive evidence of that. Impeachment involves a lot of people in Congress agreeing on moving forward, and Congress for at least the next two years is controlled by the Republicans.

    And should anyone find a way to pursue it, it would be easy for Trump’s side to drive the issue through the courts for some time, and, because it ultimately involves interpretation of the Constitution, to the Supreme Court.


    Bottom Line

    There are mostly questions and very few answers about the Emoluments Clause. There are also legitimate concerns over conflicts of interest during the Trump administration; no president in history has come into office with as vast and complex financial holdings. Modern presidents have bypassed all of this by using blind trusts, something Trump has said he will not do. This is clearly uncharted legal and political territory.

    That said, it appears use of the Emoluments Clause to impeach Trump is another Clinton martyrdom political fantasy. Any clarification will involve extensive travel through the court system, and given the initial question of who even has standing to pursue that, nothing can happen quickly, if at all.

    (Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” @WeMeantWell)



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  • Those ‘Resignations’: What Really Happened at the State Department

    January 26, 2017 // 99 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump




    Yesterday at the State Department five officials resigned or retired. Another one today.

    The media has gone near-insane, claiming State is crumbling in protest under the Trump administration. This is not true. What happened at State is very routine.

    Leaving the Department are head of the Management Bureau Pat Kennedy (above), Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, arms control official Tom Countryman, and Victoria Nuland.

    Here’s the story:

    — No one at the State Dept resigned in protest.

    — No one was formally fired.

    — Six people were transferred from or retired from political appointee positions. Technically those who did not retire can be considered to have “resigned,” but that is a routine HR/personnel term used, not some political statement. The six are career Foreign Service career personnel (FSOs) They previously left their FSO job to be appointed into political jobs and now have resigned those (or retired out of the State Department) to return to career FSO jobs. A circle. They are required to submit a letter of resignation as a matter of routine when a new president takes office.

    — As for perspective: only one Under Secretary of State (Alan Larson) stayed through the transition from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. It is routine for senior officials to leave or be reassigned.

    — Several of the six are connected to the Clinton emails and/or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both, as well as many other controversial issues during Clinton’s term. Sources tell me that although officially Kennedy “retired,” he was more or less required to do so by the Trump administration.

    — I have no information on the others, whether they were asked to retire, or just part of a reshuffling of positions and will routinely be reassigned. Most likely the latter, as such reshuffling is very common as administrations change. As everywhere in the government, the new administration fills its own political appointee slots.

    — Some of the six will hit mandatory retirement age on January 31 anyway.

    — Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department (Countryman and Nuland) and are more directly tied to policies likely to change under the new administration.

    — All six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded by any of these changes. Every office has a second, third, fourth, etc., person in charge who will step up pending formal replacements to be nominated and confirmed. This is all part of the standard transition process.

    — As an example, I worked in the Bureau of Consular Affairs for most of my 24 years at State, including working with/for Michele Bond, one of the resignees. I personally know the people in the next rank below her, and all have equal experience and tenure as Bond. There will be no gap in experience or knowledge as some press reports have fretted. There will be no “void.” A slightly more dire, but responsible take, here.

    — There will very likely be more, similar, “resignations” and reshuffling at State. New political appointees will bring in their own staff, for example. But unless and until an employee holds a press conference to announce s/he is resigning out of protest, the media should take care to calm down, verify facts, and report accurately.

    — The Washington Post stated these changes were part of an “ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” I am not aware of any other noteworthy departures (two lesser officials left earlier this month in circumstances not clearly connected to Trump) and as stated above, the six did not resign in protest. Regardless, eight people in any context do not constitute a mass exodus.

    — The Post article is, in my opinion, grossly alarming. It reflects a reporter apparently unfamiliar with transitions at State.




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  • I Don’t Think Everything is Different

    January 26, 2017 // 54 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump




    I am still not getting the “everything is different” argument. Everything seems sort of the same way it always has worked. Sure, the policies are different, but the process is working the same as always. The system is not breaking down.

    Trump was elected by the same electoral system in place for over 200 years. There have been four other elections where the winner of the popular vote lost the Electoral Vote. Sometimes elections are close. Close doesn’t count, popular vote doesn’t win. That’s just the way it is.

    Trump was elected by people who want him to make changes and he has and will continue to do so, like every other president (ex. Carter to Reagan, Bush to Obama.) About half the country, maybe more, will disagree, as usual. The president’s popularity will go up and down and everyone will argue about the statistical methods used. The same party currently controls the Congress and Executive. Nothing unique, happens often in history. The president will try and fill the courts with judges who agree with him. Political appointees will be seeded throughout government. Business as usual.

    Congress has steadfastly chosen not to pass a law that requires the president to release his taxes, and so Trump has not. So maybe somewhat unique, but seriously, you think you’ll find a 1099 form in there for “Misc Espionage Work, Russia?” A yellow sticky saying “Owe money to China, be nice to them?” The taxes have become a strawman argument, something opponents can throw up (likely forever) and then say “See, he won’t release them!” as proof that Trump has something to hide.

    The press can choose for itself what role to play (so far, it is largely that of Chicken Little.) People will protest, sometimes a lot of them at once. Some policies and decisions will work out better than others. Cabinet members will disagree with the president and either be pulled into line, kept as alternate opinions, or fired.

    Any panic that Trump will start a nuke war is based on nothing but fear based on fear; hell, if it makes you feel better, he won’t start a nuclear war because it’ll be bad for his business. On the other hand, the last two presidents started and/or continued plenty of wars. And hey, maybe some reassuring news, Trump has made his first drone strikes, on Yemen, continuing Obama’s policy. He plans to keep Gitmo open, just as Obama did for eight years. He wants to restart torture, like Bush did and Obama silently allowed to pass without prosecutions.

    The only significant thing that seems new is that yes, absolutely, Trump is crude in his manner and speech. We’ll agree is is a pretty lousy human. But he’s in the White House now and that reality has to be dealt with as a reality. If you feel better calling his wife a classless whore and his son autistic, sad for you, but whatever. People are welcome to hate Trump for the person he is, but that is not the same as being terrified of everything that might happen and concluding the Republic is finished. Most of the rest seems stuff people just don’t agree with and which would not have changed under Clinton and they can’t accept that.

    What does seem new is the scary willingness of people, in and out of the press, to make giant leaps of terrified pseudo logic. For example, the people who clapped for Trump at his CIA speech were White House staffers. not CIA –> the CIA hates Trump –> Trump will not accept information from the CIA and/or they won’t provide it –> another 9/11! Seriously?

    The one thing that does seem unique this election is the continuing efforts to believe somehow Trump can be made to “un-win.” So we had Jill Stein’s failed campaign to recount critical states, followed by Michael Moore’s, et al, failed campaign to sway so-called faithless electors to not vote Trump, followed by the IC’s failed campaign to scar Trump as a Russian super agent, followed by the lame hope Congress would not certify the election results, plus Meryl Streep and Madonna’s calls to Les Barricades. Now it is on to the Emoluments Clause with the idea that that will lead to Trump’s impeachment.

    Quick note: since the Republicans control the House for at least two more years, there’s not going to be any impeachment for at least that long.



    Disclaimer: It seems these days any article that does not simply insult and criticize Trump is deemed to be pro-Trump, and, often by extension, racist, sexist, etc. I do not like Trump, I disagree with most of his positions (I am no TPP fan, and I like the idea of disengaging with Syria and negotiating with Putin as needed) and certainly did not vote for him. Please touch in with reality and read critically if you can. Thanks!



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  • Punch Early, Punch Often – Smashing the Far Right

    January 25, 2017 // 30 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    NOTE: The following is a rebuttal to my own article explaining how stopping speech you disagree with via violence is wrong. I am reprinting the rebuttal in its entirety and with permission. I received a lot of comments on what I wrote, and this one below is pretty typical, albeit without as much profanity and personal threats/insults as the others.

    Jesus H. Jones,this infernal debate continues. Peter Van Buren, possessor of such a nice Aryan name and a defence so strident of Nazis right to free speech that he will probably not be in danger of imprisonment, execution or genocide if they win, has written a piece in The Nation as a riposte to Natasha Lennard’s article in the same publication.

    Van Buren’s argument comes from the standpoint of the first amendment to the constitution of the USA, the one that protects, on paper anyway, the right to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    Let’s stop here for a second and consider the words of that amendment. They look very nice, don’t they? But there’s a reason I said “on paper anyway”; Look closely and read between the lines. You’ve noticed haven’t you? First amendment rights have routinely been cast aside when they clash with the interests of the US American ruling class. People who agitated against the first world war were imprisoned for as little as printing pamphlets and newspapers or speaking in public, during the nineteen forties and fifties, people suspected of being communists were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and now Trump wants Muslims to have to sign a register. So much for rights.

    Poor people too have ‘first amendment rights’ but rarely get to use them in the way the Van Buren is advocating for Neo-Nazi mouthpieces. When was the last time you saw someone from the slums of Detroit being interviewed about their political views on national television or publishing pamphlets or writing newspaper opinion pieces? I am reminded of the words of Anatole France in Le Lys Rouge, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” The first amendment to the US constitution protects the right to free speech for rich and poor alike, but that means nothing to someone living in poverty, or someone being burned out of their home for being the wrong colour or for practicing the wrong religion.

    In the article, Van Buren says that if you condone the act of punching a Nazi then you must condone the act of ripping a hijab off a woman’s head. That he considers these two things equivalent speaks volumes of the ‘moderate’ tendency to empty acts, and indeed words, of their meaning. Ripping a hijab off a woman’s head is an act of oppression. It says that this woman, who has said or done nothing to threaten anyone is a legitimate target for hatred and violence. Punching a Nazi on the other hand, is an act of self defence. Nazi’s are not just using words to get their point across, they are organising physical violence against people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk and left wing radicals; They are actively threatening the lives of people who are different or who disagree with their world view. Their world view is to eradicate freedom in it’s entirety for the vast majority of human beings. That’s why they should be physically confronted, that’s why their movement must be smashed before it can wreak too much havoc.

    He also reduces the fight against the Nazis in WW2 to a “70 year old struggle between nation states.” No doubt, the entry of various states into war against the Nazis was prompted by threats to their Imperialist hegemony – in particular the USA entered the war because of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour, but people fought in their millions against fascism, from well before the war in Europe broke out, specifically because of what Nazism and Fascism represent – midnight for the human race, the victory of unreason over reason, racial nationalism, anti-communism, or as Orwell put it “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” (Orwell meant authoritarianism in general – both right and nominally left).

    If we don’t want to relive the horrors of Nazism, the racial laws, the genocide, the stamping out of all political freedoms, not to mention the war, that ravaged Europe in the mid 20th century, it is necessary to stamp it out in it’s infancy. It is a threat across the globe, here in Ireland the far right is small, but there is larger minority among us who will flock to them if they feel it is safe to do so. Until now they have feared to raise their heads above the parapet, and this is a good thing. When white nationalist movements have tried to go public, they have been physically beaten back. These actions protect the freedom of the vast majority of humanity. But now, in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s victory, the racists, the authoritarians everywhere are raising their voices. The comment threads in online publications are a cesspool of embryonic fascist thought. It only takes a small breakthrough for a far right organisation to rally these people behind its banner, and the likes of Peter Van Buren, and our own Irish liberal establishment, who enjoy debating fascists to prove their intellectual superiority, make those breakthroughs more likely.

    In Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Greece and the USA, the far right is a tangible threat to the freedom of the vast majority of humanity. Constitutional rights won’t stop them, only an organised anti-fascist movement that is well organised, prepared to take the fight to the fascists, to snuff out their ideas in their infancy and keep fighting until their movement is back in the dustbin of history where it belongs. We will be harshly judged by the future generations if we let them rise again.




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  • Should We Punch Nazis in the Head?

    January 23, 2017 // 76 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    No, we should not.


    Condoning, applauding or giggling over the idea of punching people in the head whose political positions, however abhorrent, we don’t agree with is so wrong I am not even sure why it is necessary to talk about it. However, given the events of this weekend, it seems we have to talk about it.

    “Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” is a question bouncing around the media and the Internet after an attack on Richard Spencer following the Trump inauguration. Spencer created the term alt-right. On video, he was explaining the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the racist, far-right fringe movement Spencer promotes as anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist.


    The punch was captured on video:



    There are over 4,500 comments on YouTube alone, and most condone the punch. The most popular format is to say “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment is to mention Hitler, WWII and the defeat of the Nazis, and somehow see the video as a part of that 70-year-old global struggle fought between nation states.

    The main thrust of commentary is that violence is now justified as a response to speech by the right some do not care for. More than a few people have suggested punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others mouth stuff along the lines of “the end justifies the means.”

    A popular meme is to put different songs, many calling for violence themselves, behind the punching video. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, tweeted “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”


    Where to begin?

    — If violence against those exercising their First Amendment rights (speech, religion, etc.) can ever be condoned, why wouldn’t that also condone tearing off a woman’s hijab, or lynching someone? See how the “violence is justified” argument can work?

    — There are no laws against hate speech. Details here.

    — Punching people is not a form of protected speech. Expressed legally in a number of ways, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes stated “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

    — Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. You can burn a flag, display a nude body, fill a fish tank with urine and call it art, put on a KKK uniform and march past a Black church, and say whatever Richard Spencer was saying. It means I can write this article.

    — The First Amendment and the broader traditions of free speech are there to protect the most challenging awful mean terrible hateful racist sexist anti-American garbage people can spew out. The protections are not there to cover the easy stuff most people agree with (though they do.) That is the whole point.

    — The ACLU has defended the right of both Nazis and the KKK to speak.


    It saddens me greatly to see even one person suggest violence as a proper response to the exercise of our precious right to free speech.

    It saddens me even more when everyone of us cannot see thinking you are opposing fascism by beating up those who ideas you disagree with.

    John Lewis, Barack Obama, hell, any Democratic politician, waiting on you to denounce this. Also, everyone on Twitter and elsewhere saying I personally support genocide, is it possible for you to understand I support the concept of free speech in its purest form, and none of that implies support for any specific position, from naked art photos to Holocaust deniers to the films of Jerry Lewis. I am simply astounded how many people are unable to distinguish between support for speech itself from support for what someone says. I expected this from the right someday, am gobsmacked that it hit me from the left. Sigh.






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  • We’re Still Here, 1/20/17, Consumed Most of All by Our Fears

    January 20, 2017 // 188 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump



    One of my favorite quotes includes the lines “I awoke this morning to find that it was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” I think that sums up a part of my thinking, but certainly not all.


    A nuclear reckoning, war with China, or anything else quite so violently apocalyptic is imminent, or even underway, as far too many of us think. I live in one of those bubbles, the sum of which make up America now. Many of the people I talk to, in person and here online, seem to believe, truly believe, the world is coming to something of an end. These are by and large educated, once-rational people, some of whom have been voices of reason in the past. They are not that way now.

    We are however falling, some important threads of our nation being teased apart, and our best days are behind us. But this did not start on November 8, 2016, or January 20, 2017, thoough historians will note those dates as significant milestones (same as September 11, 2001.) But not because of Donald Trump. Because his name just happened to be attached to what has been growing inside us since the end of WWII.

    The Russians did not elect Trump. They may or may not have tried to get involved in the election, but we did this to ourselves. As the historian you have probably not read but should read Morris Berman predicted years ago, we are eating each other.


    We are consumed most of all by our fears. Fear of what the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, would do after WWII. We created a nuclear arsenal measured in how many multiples of times it could destroy the world. We dragged our country through disasters like Vietnam, that murdered so many and cracked apart our nation. Our fear of race, our war on drugs, and then of course our fear of a world beyond our control after 9/11. Another quote that seems to fit is “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”

    The fears were encouraged at every opportunity by those who profited from them, either by rawly making money, or by acquiring power and control, or in most cases, both. We are unconcerned — it’s normal — that politicians routinely leave office wealthy despite modest salaries. We have so much, and share so little. We enthusiastically abandoned so many of the good things about America, such as our Bill of Rights. America’s pre-WWII Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern irony, hope.

    Of course none of that was close to perfect, but it was good and it is gone in some arenas and going away in most of the rest. We’ll still be allowed to rant on Twitter, a modern day bread and circus, but the real stuff of standing up and speaking back to government will happen only with handfuls of whistleblowers who will sacrifice their lives and freedom to say what they need to say.


    I thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead was proven to be a dupe. I thought he might turn it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. If there was no Obama there would be no Trump.

    A new generation, and me again, thought there was another chance with Bernie Sanders. We were stupid. He was a distraction, and showed his true colors throwing away everything he said previously to support a candidate of the same old old school we’ve been voting for since WWII.

    Trump is at best/worst a symbol of all this. How powerful people play us against each other and exploit our differences. How fear (currently fear of Trump filtered through fear of Putin) can be used to manipulate us. How the ideas of democracy can be so easily tossed aside so that our most progressive thinkers are convinced elections are illegitimate, and anything from silly name calling to demands for something akin to a coup are justified when the enemy is as perceived evil as Trump. Echoing the famous lines from Vietnam, it is in their minds necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.


    I’ve written here before open letters to my daughters, talking about the world they are maturing into. This is in that spirit. Somebody, maybe them, is one day going to stop and wonder how they got to where they ended up, an oligarchy that profits from mouthing the nice words of our Founders while ignoring them. Maybe they will find this essay, dated for convenience only, January 20, 2017.




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  • Velcome, Comrade Trump

    January 18, 2017 // 76 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Trump



    It is impressively sad how quickly this all happened.

    Their shock that Hillary could lose to… him… needed some sort of explanation, as it could not have anything to do with Clinton’s shortcomings. It was cheating (we’ll have recounts), it was the Electoral College (faithless electors, unite!), it was Comey, or the media, or… when all else fails, you go with what you know: the Russians.


    Putin is just a wonderful supervillain, and Trump such a stupid foil, that it was an easy sell. Dust off some old propaganda (the RT.com Red Scare part of the IC report was four years old itself, the material in it about 50 years old) and you are set. The American people are the most frightened puppies on earth and with terrorism just not scary as it once was, a new villian that plays to old fears appeared at the right place at the right time.

    The Chinese might have been a good group to blame, but they don’t seem to take the bait and plus they make all our stuff. Never mind that long string of evil dictators who attack their own people across the MidEast the U.S. has used for the last 15 years to keep the war machine chugging, we’re back to the Eagle versus Bear. We’ll probably give Putin back the Fulda Gap just so we can fight over it.


    After that, it is all just farce. Yes, yes, Trump is a secret agent, cleverly cultivated for years (how did the Russians know he’d be president, oh, yeah, they are all chess masters), blackmailed by Boris and Natasha with a (Hmmm, what should it be, how about) golden showers. People who appear on RT.com are puppets, anyone who traveled to Russia suspect, those who deny any of this simply useful idiots.

    If you’re a journalist, simply phone up your favorite CIA leaker for a quote, or hell, just make something up, throw in a few Googled-translated Russian words for stooge (марионетка) or compromise (компромат) to make seem authentic, slap on a closing line about our very democracy itself in danger, use a few Tom Clancy terms such as “clear and present danger,” and poof, you’ve made your deadline before lunch.

    It’s going to be four years, and it will get worse.


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