Trump’s Simplistic Strategy on Jihadism

May 23, 2017

Trump’s Simplistic Strategy on Jihadism

by Robin Wright

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Trying to appease Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World and isolate Iran

Six days after the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, President George W. Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington to dampen fears of a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam,” he said. “Islam is peace.” Three days later, at a joint session of Congress, Bush defined the challenge from Al Qaeda in political rather than religious or cultural terms. “This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom,” he told Congress. “This will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world.” A central theme of Bush’s Presidency was fostering democracy through nation-building.

President Barack Obama’s main speech to the Islamic world, in 2009, called for a “new beginning” between Muslim and Western nations, noting “civilization’s debt to Islam.” Declaring to Cairo University students that “we also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems,” he, too, envisioned political and economic solutions to countering extremism.

“All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose,” Obama said. “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” He also outlined plans to spend billions in U.S. aid to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and to help those displaced by conflicts in the Islamic world.

Donald Trump took a starkly different tack during the campaign. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump told Anderson Cooper, on CNN, fourteen months ago. He told both MSNBC and Fox News that he’d be willing to close mosques in the United States.  At the Presidential debate last October, in Las Vegas, he was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia. “These are people that push gays off buildings,” he said. “These are people that kill women and treat women horribly, and yet you take their money.” He continued the theme in his first days in office, with an executive order that banned travel from seven countries (later downgraded to six) with predominantly Muslim populations. It was ruled unlawful by U.S. courts, but the Trump Administration is still appealing the decision.

On Sunday(May 21), on his first trip abroad as President, Trump tried to hit the reset button in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. He heralded Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths,” and his visit as the beginning of “a new chapter” between the United States and the Islamic world. In a palace of dazzling opulence, he spoke to dozens of leaders assembled by the Saudis from the Arab and Muslim world. In turn, the oil-rich kingdom, which is weathering its own political and military turmoil, treated him like royalty, with billboards across the Saudi capital covered with Trump’s face.

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Trump does not the know the difference between Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabish and Iran’s Shiaism

Trump’s main message was  that Muslims must do more—much more—to fight militants who have proliferated from North Africa to South Asia since 9/11. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” he said. Reading slowly off a teleprompter, Trump urged, even demanded, “Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship! Drive them out of your communities! Drive them out of your holy land! And drive them out of this earth!”

Some of Trump’s language about Islam was right out of the Bush-Obama playbook. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion.” He declared it “a battle between good and evil.”

Trump notably did not use one of his favorite terms—“radical Islamic terrorism.” His national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has tried to get the President to avoid using the term, at least in public. During the campaign, Trump railed against Obama for not using it—and even charged that “anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country.” In Riyadh, Trump’s original speech called for him, instead, to talk about “Islamist extremism.” He veered off script, however, and talked about “confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.” Many Muslims are sensitive to the implication that Islam and extremism are synonymous.

Trump’s strategy differed most strikingly from Bush’s and Obama’s in its largely military approach to extremism. One of the top objectives of his maiden foreign tour is to create a coalition of Arab and Muslim countries to tackle extremism, confront Iran, and foster peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The coalition has been informally dubbed an “Arab NATO“.

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First Lady Melania Trump watches as President Donald Trump poses for photographs with leaders at Arab Islamic American Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The President seems to have largely abandoned notions of promoting political openings or addressing economic grievances that have fuelled so much of the dissent and militancy, especially among Arab youth. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia has high youth unemployment, estimated to exceed thirty per cent. The kingdom has produced thousands of jihadis who have joined both ISIS and Al Qaeda.

“We are not here to lecture,” Trump told the Muslim leaders, who were seated on throne-like leather chairs under enormous crystal chandeliers. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”

Trump framed his counterterrorism policy in Let’s-Make-a-Deal terms: Washington will sell weaponry to the Arabs, which will in turn create defense-industry jobs in the United States. In his speech, the President digressed from the main theme to claim that his Administration has created almost a million new jobs—adding that the kingdom’s pledge to invest billions more in the United States would create thousands more new jobs.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly complained that the United States got very little from its relationship with the kingdom. “Tell Saudi Arabia and others that we want (demand!) free oil for the next ten years or we will not protect their private Boeing 747s. Pay up!” Trump tweeted, in 2014.

That year, he also tweeted, “I just want to know how much is Saudi Arabia and others who we are helping willing to pay for our saving from total extinction. Pay up now!” In 2015, he tweeted that Saudi Arabia “must pay dearly! NO FREEBIES.”

In Riyadh, however, he bragged about the low prices his Administration was offering the Saudis. “We will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies.” His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly intervened personally with Lockheed to negotiate a better deal for the Saudis.

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Nepotism in 1600 Penn. Avenue, Washington DC

In one of his more astonishing comments, the President expressed optimism about the future of the Middle East, despite wars in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria that have killed hundreds of thousands; the greatest humanitarian and refugee crises since the Second World War; and the return of authoritarian rule—disasters which have dashed the hopes sparked by the Arab Spring.

“The potential of this region has never been greater,” Trump told the Muslim leaders assembled in Riyadh. Maybe it was the brilliant glare of the chandeliers that blinded his vision.

Robin Wright is a contributing writer for, and has written for the magazine since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”

Trying to Remember J.F.K.

May 22, 2017

Trying to Remember J.F.K.

On the centenary of his birth, seeking the man behind the myth.

By Thomas Mallon

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On November 8, 1960, I voted for Richard Nixon. I had turned nine the week before. According to my fourth-grade report card, from that September, I stood four feet one and a quarter inches tall and weighed fifty-five pounds: small enough to be permitted entry into the curtained voting booth in the Stewart Manor School, on Long Island, where my father let me pull the lever for Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. It was a reach: during Nelson Rockefeller’s long Albany reign, the Republican ticket occupied the top row on New York State’s mechanical ballot.

John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism cut little ice with many of the Irish ex-New Dealers who lived on our street. Their liking of Ike proved to be more than a fling, and by 1960 they were beginning to feel permanently at home in the Republican Party. Affection for my wry, sweet-tempered father, meanwhile, left me immune to much of J.F.K.’s chivalric glamour. My father always called him Ke-NAH-dy, a pronunciation meant to sound haut Wasp, which from his point of view this rich, educated New Englander might as well have been. But he also viewed Kennedy with an easygoing detachment, rather as Kennedy tended to view himself; he laughed along with the affectionate Vaughn Meader impersonations and the Mad magazine spoofs of J.F.K. that I added to his reading of the New York World-Telegram, a middlebrow broadsheet unaware that, along with men’s hats and women’s cotton gloves, it was on the brink of death.

I recall how Phyllis Mindell, the twenty-three-year-old teacher who had notated my height and weight, assigned our class to watch the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. As Kennedy’s inaugural arrived, Mrs. Mindell gave us a letter-writing exercise: we could send our congratulations to the incoming President, or offer the outgoing one our thanks. I loyally chose Eisenhower, and duly received an acknowledgment postmarked February 6, 1961, from Washington. The card inside was headed “Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.” Eisenhower’s bold printed signature (not dissimilar to John F. Kennedy’s) sat where a stamp should have been—my introduction to the franking privilege—and as I look at the envelope more than five decades on I’m arrested by its little bits of archaism. There is no Zip Code, and the addressee, “Master Thomas Mallon,” might as well be Penrod Schofield.

The following June, in her last set of report-card comments, Mrs. Mindell observed that “Tommy has expressed great interest in being a politician someday.” The excitement of the election had clearly lingered.

Kennedy would have been a hundred years old on May 29th. His centenary brings with it new books, the most notable of which is probably “The Road to Camelot” (Simon & Schuster), a wearyingly titled but provocative reconstruction of his “five-year campaign” for the White House. The authors, Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie, both veterans of the Boston Globe, locate the effort’s origin in a “cardiac double-header” from the summer of 1955, when President Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, suffered serious heart attacks. Joseph P. Kennedy, confident of Johnson’s recovery but not of Ike’s, suggested to L.B.J. that he consider a race for President in ’56, with Kennedy’s son, the junior senator from Massachusetts, as a running mate.

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Johnson wasn’t amenable to the idea, but J.F.K.’s Vice-Presidential prospects were nearly fulfilled when Adlai Stevenson, trying to jump-start his second doomed campaign against Eisenhower, told delegates at the Democratic Convention to make their own choice for the bottom of the ticket. Out in Chicago, Jack Kennedy made a fast, strenuous grab at the nomination, and posted a respectable loss to the Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. Months before, Kennedy’s young aide Theodore Sorensen had run an extensive set of numbers showing how a Catholic on the Democratic ticket could stem recent defections to the Republican Party by groups like those newly suburbanized Irish Catholics on Dover Parkway in Stewart Manor. Sorensen’s report held that Al Smith’s crushing defeat in 1928 had resulted from his stance against Prohibition, not his religion; Smith would have done worse still had he not been Catholic.

Kennedy spent the fall of ’56 campaigning for Stevenson but picked his own venues, ones that could redound to his benefit four years later. A decision to try for the Presidency in 1960 was made weeks after Stevenson’s defeat, at Thanksgiving dinner in Hyannis Port. Joe Kennedy had already pledged “whatever it takes” from his own fortune. Oliphant and Wilkie suggest that the actual rationale for Kennedy’s candidacy lay in his understanding of “celebrity,” as well as a confession he made to a group at Washington’s Metropolitan Club: “It’s not that I have some burning thing to take to the nation. It’s just, ‘Why not me?’ ”

This is the Kennedy now frozen in Isabel McIlvain’s statue outside the Massachusetts State House: a youthful figure, regal and a little aloof, whose high, straight-ahead gaze isn’t so much visionary as unapproachable. According to “The Road to Camelot,” Kennedy was regarded by some Senate colleagues as “an indifferent Democrat with occasionally independent tendencies,” and he needed to do more than the usual amount of broken-field running to please the Democratic Party’s sturdy but mad coalition of segregation and social justice. Between 1956 and 1958, looking southward, he hinted at disagreement with Eisenhower’s decision to send troops to Little Rock; offered campaign help to George C. Wallace, a candidate for the Alabama governorship; and put a Confederate legislator into “Profiles in Courage.”

Still, he had more work to do with the Party’s left than with its right. Kennedy took a forthright stance against French colonialism in Algeria, previewing his Peace Corps-style competition with the Soviets in the newly independent Third World. The columnist Joseph Alsop thought that Kennedy had potential to become “a Stevenson with balls,” though the Senator’s principal intraparty antagonist, Eleanor Roosevelt, still longed for Stevenson himself. Unforgiving of Kennedy’s softness toward Senator Joseph McCarthy, Mrs. Roosevelt is believed to have been the first to recommend that J.F.K. show “less profile and more courage.” The former First Lady was “brutally brusque” to him during the ’56 Convention. When she finally endorsed him, well into the 1960 campaign, she conceded in conversation that Stevenson might not have made such a good President after all. “I almost peed in my pants,” Kennedy told a crony who had heard the admission.

Oliphant and Wilkie occasionally get tough with their young subject—the coverup of his health problems, his “feckless” behavior with his wife—though they exhibit a lingering Boston tendency to sentimentalize the Kennedys. “Profiles in Courage” is described as a “genuine collaboration” between Kennedy and Sorensen, an odd description for a book officially attributed to the single author who took a Pulitzer Prize for it. Political dirty tricks that would be otherwise deemed reprehensible are just colorful displays of feistiness when executed on Jack’s behalf. Of one Kennedy operative, who, in “an attempt at reverse psychology,” likely mailed thousands of crude anti-Catholic pamphlets to Catholic voters, we’re given the amused judgment of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.: “He took cheerful delight in causing trouble and in reorganizing the truth.”

“The Road to Camelot” is replete with antique names and strategies, and not all readers will want to follow it into the weeds of bygone political science. Nonetheless, the best and most robust part of the book is an early chapter that has Kennedy, at a brawl of a meeting in Boston’s Hotel Bradford, establishing dominance over the Massachusetts Democratic Party by ousting the state chairman and putting in his own man. Jack was willing to countenance and supply whatever it took: trickery, muscle, even the shaking of hands.

Both my grandfathers had died long before I was born, a reason perhaps, those mailed good wishes notwithstanding, for my never feeling anything personal toward Eisenhower. With Kennedy, politics aside, everything was intimate, aspirant, literally seen from below. From the inaugural ceremony (I was home from school for a snow day) to the assassination (I was absent, with a cold, playing chess with my uncle), I experienced most of the thirty-fifth Presidency lying on our braided living-room rug, head tilted upward to the television.

Rhetorically, the Administration was an aural experience, heard through the radio-style mesh of the TV speaker. Some of its less remembered lines fastened themselves to me more lastingly than the ghostwritten flourishes that have entered historical memory. “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” On October 22, 1962, the syllogistic nature of this sentence seemed to impress me as much as the possibility it discussed. These were the words I reported to my father when he came through the door, arriving home from work past the middle of the speech.

A year later, when Kennedy made his civil-rights address, it was a rhetorical question, one that followed a list of indignities suffered by American Negroes, that registered with me: “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” This exercise in empathy had guaranteed appeal for an imagination susceptible to the weekly premises of “The Twilight Zone.” I could try to do this in the same way I had tried to see myself as Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character who breaks his glasses just after realizing he has a lifetime of peaceful post-nuclear-apocalypse reading ahead of him.

My paternally inspired devotion to Nixon remained weirdly keen, but Kennedy was now my leader, and I was ready to put my undersized shoulder to the wheel. Project Mercury (an Eisenhower program, I feel conservatively compelled even now to point out) had found in the new President a leader who looked as if he could himself be one of the seven astronauts in whose progress I took an obsessive interest. I was most comfortable surrendering to Kennedy when he was in the company of those pilots, making postflight calls, pinning on medals, or just being at Cape Canaveral with them, wearing his Ray-Bans. The incipient sexual dimension of all this is obvious to me now. Why should I have been less vulnerable than anyone else to the projection of desire onto Jack and Jackie? Even eleven-year-olds may have realized that this President, his hand always furtively in and out of his jacket pocket, had his own barely kept secrets.

The Administration was a family story, part drama—the loss of two-day-old Patrick Kennedy during its last summer—and part raucous sitcom: the pool parties at the home of J.F.K.’s kid brother Bobby, the high-strung Beaver to his Wally. The patriarch interested my own father, who always called him Papa Joe and admired him, however grudgingly, as a roguish son of a bitch whose interest in his children was evident and intense. Oliphant and Wilkie insist that Jack Kennedy was more, and earlier, independent of the old man than is generally believed. The ambitions fuelled by Papa Joe’s dubiously made money were J.F.K.’s own.

After December, 1961, Joseph Kennedy, mostly mute and occasionally moaning, sat trapped inside the effects of a stroke—another sort of “Twilight Zone” scenario that I began to ponder with phobic regularity. The most emotionally striking, and uncharacteristic, photographs of the President show him kissing his helpless father on the top of his head, pictures I may have contemplated with some premonition of the illness that would one day cross our cheerful family doorstep and prematurely ravage my own father.

We are now as far from John Kennedy’s time as his was from Theodore Roosevelt’s. Available living memories are growing scarce. Here in Washington, the Kennedy Center, visible from my study window, feels as much an established marble fact as the Lincoln Memorial, a few blocks away. Only one of Kennedy’s eight siblings survives, his eighty-nine-year-old sister, Jean, who visits a son in the Watergate, more or less next door to the Kennedy Center. As I write, a single buckeye sits on my desk, a souvenir from John Glenn’s Ohio funeral, brought to me by the daughter of his successor in orbit, Scott Carpenter, the subject of an early novel of mine. He, too, is gone, like the rest of the Original Seven.

It is all by now a story whose retellings are remembered more than the story itself. But those reiterations continue to be made, in peculiar and unstable forms. Pablo Larraín’s recent film “Jackie” presents a surprisingly heartless version of the First Lady in the week following the assassination. She plans a funeral for her husband that is based on Lincoln’s, and stage-manages the famous “Camelot” interview with Life. Woe betide anyone who won’t march to her exact tune behind the casket. The film’s smallest pieces of set decoration and costuming are slavishly accurate, while bigger things are off. Peter Sarsgaard is a strangely irresolute Bobby, with no suggestion of a Boston accent. The production ends up being more historical porn than historical fiction, with its version of the fatal Frame 313 of the Zapruder film being held off until late in the picture: the money shot.

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Jacqueline Kennedy is also the central figure in Michael J. Hogan’s new study, “The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy” (Cambridge). She co-stars in an Administration that Hogan views as a thirty-four-month-long “performance.” Mrs. Kennedy, from the Lincolnesque funeral onward, remained in charge of her husband’s image for the next thirty years, operating sometimes with taste and sometimes with grandiosity, occasionally deploying the vindictive manipulations that “Jackie” regards as her essence. She drove hard bargains with Roger Stevens, the first head of the Kennedy Center, threatening to take her husband’s name off the building if she didn’t have a voice on the board; “blasted” even Schlesinger, the President’s most enduring apologist, when he wouldn’t further perfume his J.F.K. history, “A Thousand Days”; and helped drive an exhausted William Manchester, the family-appointed chronicler of the assassination, into a hospital.

Hogan’s thoroughly researched book is aware of the bullying that accompanied the family’s memorialization of the President (“a relentless war against countermemories or alternative narratives”), but he tends to beat a guilty retreat from any barrage of irony or skepticism as soon as he’s launched it. The spell that Mrs. Kennedy casts at the funeral (“the very personification of strength and grace under pressure, of dignity, nobility, and majesty, of gallantry and composure, of duty and self-sacrifice”) never breaks for long, and no threnody goes unsounded: “In Bolivia, people everywhere wept openly.”

John F. Kennedy with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

John F. Kennedy with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

The most useful portion of this “Afterlife” is Hogan’s sine-curving of three historical waves that have carried Kennedy’s memory through the past fifty-four years. Jackie-sanctioned reverence remained “largely intact for most of the decade” after Dallas, giving rise to everything from Schlesinger’s and Sorensen’s reverent reconstructions to “Clare Barnes’s lovely book on Kennedy’s scrimshaw collection.” Then came the revisionists, with pertinent questions about Kennedy’s foreign-policy failures, domestic hesitations, and private morals. Hogan doesn’t deny the legitimacy of their work but does cluck over the way they “seemed to sprout like mushrooms from the dank soil of American politics.” (From what ground did the hagiographic lilies spring?)

If revisionism had, by 1990, “nearly shattered the idealized image” of Kennedy, both it and a third wave of “post-revisionism” ended up being, to a great extent, beside the point. As polls made clear, public opinion “remained largely indifferent to what scholars and pundits had to say.” Even revelations of the President’s Olympian infidelities were assimilated into the legend, infusing it with a priapic, pop-cultural vigor.

Among the ideological waverings of Kennedy’s reputation, one finds a conservative regard first being test-driven in speeches by Ronald Reagan, who focussed on J.F.K.’s Cold Warring, while Reaganite supply-siders viewed Kennedy as a tax-cutting confrère. Ted Cruz, as Hogan points out, got on board this train of thought in 2013. I suspect that my father would have remained cheerfully impervious to it, whereas I find myself making use of the argument from time to time, not just to win a political point but to feel further ensnared by those seductions of Camelot that a half century before I covertly craved and loyally resisted.

To reconnect with Kennedy at this long temporal remove, one still needs to go to Boston, from which his image was first projected, and where, even now, it receives its most active and serious freshenings. The chief monument to J.F.K., more important than all those built or renamed in the first decade of family-directed fealty—the myriad schools, the space center, the airport, the performing-arts center—is his Presidential Library and Museum. After a period of surprising resistance by the residents of already overbuilt Cambridge, the library eventually opened in Columbia Point, in the Dorchester section of Boston, in 1979. The I. M. Pei design, jutting toward the ocean, dominates the coastline, and even in sunny weather winds tear across a plaza near the visitors’ entrance. On the April morning I visited, the entire place was lashed with rain.

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Inside, Stacey Bredhoff, the museum’s curator, led me into a room where some of the one hundred objects for a centenary exhibition were being prepared. It seemed a sort of Pointillist, inductive assemblage, some of the items political and others personal, including an assortment of J.F.K.’s neckties and pieces of the scrimshaw that brought forth a whole book. If the gathering conveys a different impression of Kennedy from the one made by the museum’s permanent display, it’s perhaps, Bredhoff said, “a sense of his ambition.” The leather, unwheeled suitcase he used on his pre-Presidential travels lay on a table next to a flag from PT-109. A spokesperson for the Kennedy Library Foundation, in the room with me and Bredhoff, said that knowledge of the President among the museum’s youngest visitors sometimes consists of little more than “that he was young and that he died young.”

I had come to the library to reconnect with a small piece of personal history, the missing half of an epistolary exchange. At home, for fifty-five years, I’ve kept a letter sent to me, in the summer of 1962, with a four-cent Project Mercury stamp, by the Kennedy White House. It was signed by Special Assistant to the President Ralph A. Dungan, the man, in Hogan’s “Afterlife,” whose White House office became the spot from which Kennedy’s family and aides worked “red-eyed through the nights in order to plan all aspects of the president’s funeral.” On July 20, 1962, Dungan assured me that Kennedy was “always appreciative of the interest of those boys and girls who write to him,” and enclosed a partial transcript of the President’s recent press conference, to “clarify [my] understanding of the President’s position.”

I had evidently complained about Kennedy’s urging Americans to “support the Supreme Court decisions even when we might not agree with them.” The decision in question was Engel v. Vitale. On June 25th, the Court had ruled the New York State Regents’ prayer—which public-school students recited “voluntarily,” generally after the Pledge of Allegiance—to be an impermissible intrusion of church upon state. At his press conference, the President dodged the issue of constitutional amendments that might overturn the Court’s ruling, but suggested that Americans pray more at home and in church: “That power is very much open to us.”

The library has an Engel v. Vitale subject file of citizen mail whose contents generally range from the icy (“I hate to think that you are acting like Pontuis Pilot”) to the venomous: “Your support of the Supreme Court in putting God out of our public Schools, and putting the Niger in our schools, is truly the most disgusting thing I have heard yet.” My own handwritten letter has survived, improbably enough, in Box 1709 of an alphabetical Name File, inside a folder marked “MALLO,” where far-flung Mallons variously praise the President on Cuba, urge the impeachment of Earl Warren, and excoriate the proposed wheat sale to the Soviet Union: “Our mortal enemy is in dire trouble so we prop him up. How idiotic!” Only the context they provide makes me look less belligerent:

111 Dover Parkway

Stewart Manor, L.I.

June 28, 1962

President Kennedy

White House

Washington D.C.

Mr. President:

I was very disappointed when at your news conference (June 27) you talked in favor of abolishing the prayer we say in our fifth grade class every morning.

I feel that the Supreme Court made a very grave mistake abolishing this prayer and that you made a very bad error supporting them.

If the country can’t pray in public how come In God We Trust is written on our money which circulates openly, and daily.

This is your administration’s most terrible mistake.

Yours truly,

Tom Mallon

Not even “Dear” Mr. President! The dudgeon and scolding are such that, had my pen not reached the bottom-right corner of the page, I no doubt would have added “yet” after “most terrible mistake.” The Glenn and Carpenter space flights, epochal events for me, had both occurred in the past few months, but I was cutting Kennedy no slack on their account. The whole little screed, based on a misapprehension (Kennedy was not supporting the Court’s decision per se), shows a stiff anger.

Did the nuns—the ones who gave public-school pupils like me “religious instruction” each Wednesday afternoon—put us up to this protest? I doubt it. They would not have felt much fervor for the anodyne haste of the Regents’ prayer. (Here it is, in its entirety: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”) For another thing, the letter’s date, June 28th, indicates that we were already free of the nuns: Kennedy’s televised press conference occurred during the first week of my summer vacation. I had nothing but rug-rat leisure to watch the afternoon broadcast all on my own.

The author’s 1962 letter to President Kennedy regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale.

The author’s 1962 letter to President Kennedy regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale. Photograph courtesy White House Public Opinion Mail / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Even the local aspect of Engel v. Vitale—the plaintiffs and the defendant were from New Hyde Park, right on the other side of Stewart Manor’s main street—seems unlikely to have impelled my letter. What I hear in it, actually, is my father’s extollings of Barry Goldwater, who by that point had (temporarily) replaced Nixon in his political affections. “The Conscience of a Conservative” was on a shelf in our house, perhaps even next to “John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Youngest President,” which I had bought at the school book fair, its title no doubt appealing to my nascent political careerism. I don’t think my father had much interest in the Regents’ prayer, but I was already accustomed to his inveighings against the Supreme Court, absorbing them in the course of our sunny and secure filial romance.

I do, however, have to reckon with my use of “Yours truly,” a closing that, I remember being taught, was less formal and businesslike than “Sincerely.” And while I didn’t go so far as to call myself “Tommy,” I didn’t use “Thomas,” either. As if employing a secret double password, I believe I was signalling to the President that, despite my indignation—and even at the risk of betraying my father—we were friends. Underneath all that fustian, I can in fact find something attributable to John F. Kennedy, to a climactic line of his Convention acceptance speech: “I am saying to you that my decisions on every public policy will be my own, as an American, as a Democrat, and as a free man.”

I recall the words as a thrilling rhetorical experience of parallelism, triad, and crescendo, no matter that I didn’t yet know those terms. A latter-day parse leaves the sentence looking slightly off—surely, to preserve the ascent in importance, “Democrat” should precede “American”—but it lives in my memory as the single most resonant piece of Kennedy oratory, beyond the syllogism of the missile-crisis speech or the empathetic exercise proposed in the civil-rights address. Here I am, lambasting the President as a fifth grader, an unregistered Republican, and a free man, a sense of myself that even now, after decades of identity politics and bitter political disappointment, feels ineradicable. And I know that it came, in some measure, from the Boston-accented voice my father used to mock.

Before the nine-thirty school bell rang on April 12, 1961, Phyllis Mindell called me up to her desk to ask if I knew “what happened today.” I said that Franklin Roosevelt had died sixteen years ago. That this was the fact I answered with—rather than the hundredth anniversary of the firing upon Fort Sumter, then being commemorated in newspapers and magazines—indicates to me that she was right about my political ambitions: Presidents were more important than events.

“No,” Mrs. Mindell replied, with excitement. “I mean what happened today—this morning. The Soviet Union put a man into space.”

The World-Telegram was an evening paper, and I hadn’t heard the news about Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight. “Oh?” was, I believe, all I said. Could she really be seeing this as good news? To me, the space race was more about the Cold War than about wonder, and I was immeasurably distressed by what I took to be a definitive American defeat. I walked back to my desk as if I were having one of my Khrushchev dreams; he sometimes made personal appearances, angry and accusatory, during my slumbers.

On April 12th of this year—a week after my trip to Boston and fifty-six years to the day after she gave me the news about the Soviets’ leap into orbit—I have lunch with Phyllis Mindell, now eighty, an active and accomplished widow with thick, stylish white hair, if no longer the Jackie Kennedy clothes she jokes about once having favored. We talk about the vagaries of memory and wonder if she did not, after all, assign her students to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates, since she and her husband did not own a television, a decision whose cultural pretentiousness she now laughs at.

We also talk about a letter that she wrote, in 1963, to John F. Kennedy, one that I was able to find through an archivist’s search of the Name File at the J.F.K. library. In it, she thanks the President for being “a sane man,” before noting that “the yet unborn children of the world will remember you as one who helped to eliminate the evil of the atomic bomb.” She does not remember writing the letter—is astonished that it’s turned up—but the circumstances of its composition remain vivid. It was occasioned by Kennedy’s having reached an agreement on the limited nuclear-test-ban treaty with the Soviets, on July 25th.

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At the time, Phyllis was twenty-six and had been married to Marvin Mindell, an engineer, for almost five years. She had once miscarried, and the couple were reluctant to bring children into a world that seemed on the brink of nuclear extinction. But the late summer of ’63 appeared to be the beginning of a more promising time, with the test-ban treaty and the March on Washington. They made a small contribution to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that season, and Phyllis now tends to think of the whole period as being more the “King era.” But her memories of Kennedy remain warm, if unblinkered. “You can be a sane man and have feet of clay,” she says. In the end, “that’s our problem, and we have to figure out how to sort that out.”

Newly hopeful, Phyllis again became pregnant late in October, 1963, on a trip that she and Marvin took to Rome. Back on Long Island, she miscarried the baby on the morning of November 22nd. She learned of Kennedy’s assassination later that day, from the weeping woman who had come to take care of her and had heard the news on the radio.

By 1966, Phyllis had given birth to two sons. One of them, David Mindell, an M.I.T. professor, is an important theorist of space exploration and a leading scholar of the Apollo lunar-landing program. The political victory that that effort provided will eventually be a paltry thing compared with the actual human transcendence that it initiated, however fitfully so far. Project Apollo seems to me, even at this remove—and surely in the fullness of time—what mattered most about John F. Kennedy’s life. It was he who committed us to it, six weeks after Professor Mindell’s mother made me look to the sky with a stiff upper lip. ♦

Thomas Mallon, a novelist, an essayist, and a critic, is the author of, most recently, “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years.”

This article appears in other versions of the May 22, 2017, issue, with the headline “Jack Be Nimble.”

A Bit of History: What Kind of Loyalty Does a President Need?

May 20, 2017

A Bit of History: What Kind of Loyalty Does a President Need?

U.S. Presidents throughout history have long defined loyalty differently. Lyndon B. Johnson’s definition was extreme; Trump’s definition has so far proved disastrous.

U.S. Presidents throughout history have long defined loyalty differently. Lyndon B. Johnson’s definition was extreme; Trump’s definition has so far proved disastrous.PHOTOGRAPH BY WALLY MCNAMEE / CORBIS / GETTY

On April, 1965, the leaders of India and Pakistan, nations then on the brink of war, cancelled meetings with President Lyndon Johnson, and L.B.J. thought he knew why. While flying to Texas aboard Air Force One, he huddled with his speechwriter, Dick Goodwin. “Do you know there are some disloyal Kennedy people over at the State Department who are trying to get me; that’s why they stirred things up?” Johnson asked. “I didn’t know that,” Goodwin replied. “Well, there are,” Johnson said, “They didn’t get me this time, but they’ll keep trying.” Johnson’s obsession with his political rival, Robert Kennedy, had, by that time, become so overpowering—and his insistence on “all-out loyalty” so pronounced—that it was bogging down the Presidential-appointments process and driving good men out of government. “We cannot afford to lose them,” Harry McPherson, the White House counsel, warned Johnson in a bravely blunt memo. “Neither, in my opinion, can we afford to give them a polygraph-loyalty test. . . . If the word gets around that one has to put on horse-blinders to work for you, you will probably come out with a bunch of clipped yes-men who are afraid of their own shadows and terrified of yours.”

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Jared Kushner–35-year Old Advisor to President Donald Trump

That advice would apply in today’s White House, too, though it’s unlikely that President Trump would welcome it any more than L.B.J. did. (He nearly fired McPherson.) Trump’s chief complaint about his own yes-men seems to be that they don’t say yes energetically enough. The people who serve at the pleasure of the current President are, according to numerous sources, causing him displeasure. Trump, in fact, is said to be enraged by the lot of them—even his adviser-in-law, Jared Kushner—for their “incompetence,” and for “tooting their own horns.” Reports say that Trump is considering a big shakeup. He has already, of course, shaken up the F.B.I., firing its director, James Comey, last Tuesday, for a multitude of asserted sins—disloyalty not least among them. A detailed account in the Times described a one-on-one dinner at the White House in January, shortly after the Inauguration, in which Trump, three times, asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him. Comey, according to the Times, dodged, and offered the President his honesty instead. (In light of the F.B.I.’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, honesty must be what Trump didn’t want from Comey.) In recent days, Trump and his staff have been insisting that if the subject of loyalty came up at that dinner—and, mind you, they’re not saying it did—it would only have concerned Comey’s loyalty to the U.S.A. “I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States, is important,” Trump said on Saturday, in an interview with Fox News. “You know, I mean, it depends on how you define loyalty.”

Putting aside (if one can) Trump and his purposes, every President needs his staff, his Cabinet, and—to a reasonable extent—his party to stand by and stick with him, for an obvious reason: without loyalty to the President and his agenda, an Administration lacks a center of gravity. But loyalty, as Trump suggests, means many things. How a President defines loyalty says a good deal about how he leads and who he is.

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Bobby Kennedy and JFK

John F. Kennedy, for example, selected his unquestionably loyal brother, Robert, as Attorney General and installed members of the so-called Irish Mafia across the government. But as he filled out the rest of his Administration he showed little interest in whether someone had voted for him. He wanted to build, he said, “a ministry of talent”; also, given the narrowness of his victory over Richard Nixon, in 1960, he wanted a few Republicans on his team. This caused Bobby Kennedy some distress, especially when J.F.K. looked to appoint Douglas Dillon—who had served in the Eisenhower Administration—as his Secretary of the Treasury. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recalled in “A Thousand Days,” his account of those times, R.F.K. “kept asking what would happen if Dillon resigned in a few months with a blast against the administration’s financial policies. He warned his brother that they were putting themselves in the hands of a Republican who had no reason for loyalty to them and might well betray them.” The President-elect shrugged. “Oh, I don’t care about those things,” he said. “All I want to know is: is he able? and will he go along with the program?” In the end, he allowed Bobby to extract from Dillon a pledge (unnecessary, it turned out) that if Dillon ever felt compelled to resign, he would go quietly. But J.F.K.’s nonchalance was not a pose. He expected (and for the most part received) the devotion of his Cabinet and staff. But he knew that he needed, above all, their candor; he needed them to tell him the truth, to give dispassionate and sometimes divergent advice, and then, of course, to back his decisions. Honest debate, in Kennedy’s view, was an act of loyalty; mindless affirmation was not

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Nixon and Kissinger

Both L.B.J. and Nixon, by contrast, were obsessed with loyalty. They brooded about it, demanded it, doubted it, and never seemed to find enough of it. After Kennedy’s assassination, in November, 1963, L.B.J. tried hard to retain the Kennedy men, even though many had treated him cruelly when he was Vice-President. Swallowing his pride, Johnson told them, “I need you more than President Kennedy needed you.” Nearly all agreed to stay on, for a while; some came to respect Johnson’s boundless energy and his success in breathing new life into Kennedy’s legislative program, which had been stalled on Capitol Hill. But he did not win their loyalty. This accrued—without reservation—to Bobby Kennedy. Insecure and increasingly bitter, L.B.J. saw sedition everywhere; aides like Goodwin and Bill Moyers began to wonder whether he was clinically paranoid. Johnson’s definition of loyalty grew extreme, absolute: “I don’t want loyalty,” he told an adviser about a potential appointee. “I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket.” Nixon, for his part, was so suspicious of his own aides—who were, he believed, hurting his reputation, undercutting his aims, and, in the case of Henry Kissinger, taking credit for his best ideas—that he installed a taping system in the White House so that he could, someday, hold them to account. Nixon wrote in his memoirs that the tapes “were my best insurance against the unforeseeable future. I was prepared to believe that others, even people close to me, would turn against me.” After his reëlection, Nixon told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to clean house and hire some new aides—they didn’t have to be brilliant or even all that competent, Nixon said, just loyal.

Donald Trump is, “like, this great loyalty freak,” by his own telling. “I put the people who are loyal to me on a high pedestal and take care of them very well,” he wrote in “Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life,” a sort of self-help book for budding blowhards that Trump produced with a co-author, Bill Zanker, in 2007. He has long identified loyalty as the paramount quality he looks for in employees. An article in Politico last July, examining Trump’s approach to management, found that he earned the allegiance of some employees through a combination of “praise, pay, and fear,” and by promoting “trusted loyalists” who often lacked “obvious qualifications.”

But this model, which may or may not have worked as advertised in Trump’s businesses, has proved a disaster in the Presidency. Across the executive branch, a truly staggering number of offices—at Homeland Security, at the Treasury, at the State Department—remain unoccupied, in part because Trump’s team cannot find enough “reliable” loyalists to fill the positions. Trump and his team have also pushed people out of jobs when their loyalty has come into question: in February, Shermichael Singleton, a senior aide to Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was fired and marched out of the building after a Trump adviser uncovered an op-ed, critical of Trump, that Singleton had written during the campaign. Aides who do pass the loyalty test know that their hold on Trump’s allegiance is and will remain tenuous. David Rennie of The Economist was one of four reporters who met with the President in the Oval Office on May 4th; the following week, Rennie described the atmosphere as “kind of like being in a royal palace several hundred years ago, with people coming in and out, trying to catch the ear of the king. . . . The role of some pretty senior figures, including Cabinet secretaries, was to chime in and agree with whatever the president had just said, rather than offering candid advice.”

On the continuum between with-the-program loyalty and pecker-in-my-pocket loyalty, Trump clearly wants the latter. The Comey dinner—a botched ring-kissing ceremony—is wholly consistent with Trump’s understanding of loyalty. Where it is not forthcoming, it must be coerced. What Trump demands is not, in fact, loyalty; it is fealty, servility, sycophancy. And he feels that this is owed him not only by his staff or Cabinet but by the director of the F.B.I., by Congress, by judges, even by journalists: in an interview with the Associated Press in April, Trump observed, “When I won, I said, ‘Well, the one thing good is now I’ll get good press.’ ” All are expected to fall into line. So far, the President’s aides are sticking with him—there have been no high-level defections from the Administration. Michael Flynn, who was dismissed from his job as national-security adviser earlier this year, is even defying a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has demanded documents concerning his interactions with Russian officials. Trump has encouraged him to “stand strong,” Flynn told a group of friends in April. But, with Republicans on the Hill growing restive in the face of every new day’s dramatic revelations, and with the Russia investigation now in the experienced hands of Robert Mueller, a former F.B.I. director, Trump may be about to find out how loyal his people are willing to be.

Donald Trump and The Art of Deceit

May 18, 2017

Donald Trump and The Art of Deceit

by David

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The Master of Deceit

Donald Trump, who may well have attempted to obstruct justice within just a few weeks of taking his oath of office, came to the Presidency with a wealth of experience in the art of deceit. He may know little of domestic or foreign policy, he may be accustomed to running an office of satraps and cronies, and he may be unable to harness an institution as complex as the executive branch, but experience told him early on that he could dodge any accusation and deny any aggression against the truth

As Trump’s biographers Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish tell the story, Roy Cohn, who lived for decades under various indictments for bribery, extortion, and other sins, and yet always managed to escape conviction, first instructed Trump more than forty years ago in the dark arts of counterattack and an over-all “go to hell” philosophy. Cohn, as a devious young lawyer, had been the protégé of Joe McCarthy, during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the fifties. He met Trump at a club called—seriously—Le Club, and began to tutor this eager young scion of an outer-borough real-estate family in the art of what’s what. Nothing delighted Trump more than to learn that prosecution did not necessarily follow from wrongdoing.

“When Cohn boasted that he had spent much of his life under indictment, Trump asked whether Cohn had really done what was alleged,” Fisher and Kranish write. “ ‘What the hell do you think?’ Cohn responded with a smile. Trump said he ‘never really knew’ what that meant, but he liked Cohn’s toughness and loyalty.”

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Trump knew very well what Cohn was telling him, and he lived by that lesson. As a businessman, he distinguished himself as a disreputable con; he was spurned by the New York business community less for his cartoonish flamboyance than for his essential dishonesty, his meanness of character. He routinely stiffed contractors and workers. He screwed creditors. He violated casino regulations. He bragged of charitable contributions that he never made. He promoted scams such as Trump University. In the nineties, as his bankruptcies mounted, he lost the ability to obtain credit from the largest and most reputable American banks. In foreign deals, brandishing an inexplicably attractive marketing name, he ignored his legal obligations to carry out due diligence and did deals with flagrantly corrupt business partners. In Azerbaijan, he was party to a deal whose only real enterprise might have been the laundering of money. And yet he always avoided serious legal peril, not least because he played by the lessons imbibed from Roy Cohn. And all the while he lived it up, acquiring the life-style decorations of a third-world dictator or a second-world oligarch. His excess was his brand

As a politician, Trump has had little reason to discover the qualities of modesty, scrupulousness, or seriousness. Throughout the primary and Presidential campaigns, he succeeded in no small measure because of his defiance of convention. Emboldened by his astonishing early exposure on cable television and his first wins in the primaries, he came to see himself as invulnerable.

Nothing could hurt Trump. Even he seemed stunned by this stubborn fact. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said, while campaigning in early 2016. And he was, for a long time, right

Until now. In the past two weeks, a Presidency of ideological meanness and unsurpassing incompetence has moved into another, more recognizable realm. The usual comparison is with the Watergate era.

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I actually think the comparisons at this point obscure more than they reveal. Nixon was just so shrewd, so strategic: it’s simply inconceivable he would get caught with his pants down implicating himself on the record, like Trump now does almost daily,” Rick Perlstein, the author of “Nixonland,” told me. “My favorite Nixon maxim was ‘Never get mad unless it’s on purpose.’ But the words ‘on purpose’ and ‘Donald Trump’ now feel like matter and antimatter; with him, it’s all impulse. Nixon was so obsessed with preparation he used to memorize answers to likely press conference questions, questions he’d delegate to staffers like Pat Buchanan to dream up. Can you imagine!? And, look, when Nixon fired Archibald Cox, he was truly backed into a corner, his king in check: that was the only move he had before the world discovered, via the tapes, that everything he’d been saying about the scandal since June, 1972, was a lie. But, even then, he managed to keep moving pieces around the board for ten more months!

“Both, of course, were authors of their own predicaments,” Perlstein went on. “But Nixon was so much the smoother criminal: everything was buffered through intermediaries and cutouts. An example that comes to mind: on the famous meeting with John Dean of March 21, 1973, Nixon, realizing he’d said too much, maneuvering Dean near the microphones to say something along the lines of ‘. . . But that would be wrong.’ Can you imagine Trump with that kind of situational awareness?”

Despite the shrewdness gap, Nixon once paid Trump an encouraging compliment. In 1987, when Trump was thinking about politics for the first time, the disgraced ex-President heard from his wife, Pat, that Trump had put in an entertaining performance on “The Phil Donahue Show.” Nixon wrote to Trump, “Dear Donald, I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great. As you can imagine, she is an expert on politics and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office, you will be a winner!”

Nixon himself was never a political mentor to Trump, but one of his aides, the original dirty trickster Roger Stone, was. Stone was as instrumental in creating Trump’s political career as Roy Cohn had been in forming Trump’s moral behavior in business. (Watch the new documentary “Get Me Roger Stone,” starring my colleagues Jeffrey Toobin and Jane Mayer, and you will understand the current craziness more deeply.) It was Roy Cohn who introduced Stone to Trump, and Stone was instantly enamored.

“I was like a jockey looking for a horse,” Stone says in the film. “And he’s a prime piece of political horse flesh in my view.”

Stone helped Trump see the political advantage in many sleazy tactics and alliances. He pushed him on birtherism (which was for Trump what the Southern strategy was for Nixon); he led him toward conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones and Infowars, and operatives like Paul Manafort, who led the campaign for a while and is now a source of intense investigation for his associations in Russia and Ukraine.

Over the years, Trump has been the focus of investigations on housing discrimination, bribery, corruption, dealings with the mob, misleading earnings reports, fraud, and improper campaign contributions. (Of his behavior with women we shall not speak.) But that was nothing compared to the hard light that is on him now from the F.B.I., Congress, the press, the public, and various other realms of civil society. Discussion of Trump’s Presidency ending before his four-year term is up is no longer an oppositional fantasy. The events of these recent days­­—the Comey firing; the opera-buffa intel giveaway with the Russian delegation to the Oval Office; and now the news of the Comey memos—just may be the point of no return for a Presidency that has been a kind of emergency of chaos, incompetence, injustice, and deception from its first days.

But it will be a complicated road, legally and politically. To prove obstruction of justice, the subject must know that there is an investigation against him and take an action to obstruct that investigation with corrupt purpose. The next step, clearly, will be for Congress to inspect James Comey’s memos regarding his meetings and conversations with the President, which were written about Tuesday in the Times. Jason Chaffetz, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, has said that he is prepared to subpoena those memos if they exist.

We are likely to learn a great deal more about Trump’s behavior from those documents. Comey might have been grotesquely mistaken in his judgment regarding the Hillary Clinton e-mail case, but he has a reputation for righteousness and honesty. In Comey’s account, as relayed in the Times, the President, over dinner, demanded an oath of loyalty; Comey promised only his honesty. At the Valentine’s Day meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told the Vice-President and the Attorney General to leave the room before asking Comey to end the investigation into Mike Flynn’s relations with the Russian government. Trump even suggested to Comey that he consider prosecuting and jailing journalists for publishing classified material.

Is it conceivable that Trump made these requests with innocent purpose? Or was he attempting to obstruct justice? The same questions apply to the President’s insistence on firing Comey. First, he asked Comey to shut down the investigation, and, when he refused, the President fired him. Can one contrive an innocent motive in that? And if there are, indeed, tapes of White House conversations, what are the odds that Trump’s version is closer to the truth than Comey’s?

The point is that Trump has a long record of lying, shady business practices, public deception, and crossing legal lines. His instructors in this include Roy Cohn and Roger Stone and other base figures. Comey’s memos are far more likely to bury Trump than to exonerate him.

As Evan Osnos has pointed out, Trump will survive until he loses the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are not likely to act out of an attack of moral conscience. But at some point, and it may come soon, they will begin to feel political pressure—pressure from Republican constituents in swing states and districts; pressure on their own reputations—and their patience with Trump will run out.

The Criminal 45th POTUS?

May 17, 2017

The Criminal 45th POTUS?

After the revelations of the past 24 hours, it appears that President Trump’s conduct in and around the firing of the F.B.I. Director, James Comey, may have crossed the line into criminality. The combination of what is known and what is credibly alleged would, if fully substantiated, constitute obstruction of justice. It is time for Congress and a special counsel in the executive branch to conduct objective, bipartisan inquiries into these allegations, together with the underlying matters involving Michael Flynn and Russia that gave rise to them.

First, the facts. On January 26, Sally Yates, then the acting Attorney General, informed the White House that Mr. Flynn had apparently lied about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador. The next day, President Trump hosted Mr. Comey for a private dinner, during which he allegedly asked Mr. Comey repeatedly whether he would pledge his “loyalty” to him, which Mr. Comey declined to do.

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Sally Yates–Acting Attorney-General

On February 14, the day after Mr. Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor, President Trump allegedly held Mr. Comey back after a meeting to say that Mr. Flynn had done nothing wrong and that, “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Mr. Comey declined to drop the investigation, going on in March to confirm before Congress that it was ongoing, and later requesting greater resources from the Department of Justice to pursue it.

Finally, on May 9, President Trump fired Mr. Comey. We were first told he did so because Mr. Comey bungled the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email. Two days later, President Trump changed his story: “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’” The day after that, President Trump threatened Mr. Comey on Twitter, warning him against leaking to the press.

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Any one of these facts or allegations, by itself, likely would not constitute obstruction of justice. After all, as the F.B.I. Director himself stated, the President has the undisputed power under the Constitution to hire and fire members of his administration in the normal course of government business.

But what he cannot do is exercise that power corruptly, to spare himself or those associated with him, like Mr. Flynn, from scrutiny and possible criminal liability. To do so would run afoul of a series of federal statutes that define the crime of obstruction of justice. They are variations on the theme that anyone who “corruptly” or by “any threatening letter or communication” tries “to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice” will be subject to criminal penalties.

The operative word here is “corruptly.” It means “an improper purpose,” or one that is “evil” or “wicked.” There is no precise formula for defining it; those involved in the administration of justice must continually wrestle with its interpretation.

Here, the evidence strongly suggests that the president acted corruptly. That starts with the demand for loyalty from Mr. Comey, the account of which the White House disputes. That demand can reasonably be understood to mean that Mr. Comey should protect Trump and follow his bidding, rather than honoring his oath to follow the evidence. It is also an implicit threat: Be loyal, or you will be fired.

When Mr. Comey did not seem to take the hint, Mr. Trump made his meaning crystal-clear on February 14: Let the investigation go, and let Mr. Flynn go, too. The president denies this as well, of course, as he has denied so much else that has proven to be true. Who are we to believe: Mr. Comey, who would have no reason to accuse the President of obstruction of justice, and who has apparently preserved meticulous notes of his conversations? Or the President, who fact-checkers have demonstrated has told more lies in less time than any other modern occupant of the Oval Office?

While Mr. Trump might have been within his rights to fire Mr. Comey, this pattern of demands to protect himself and Mr. Flynn, followed by retaliation when the demands were not met, if proven, is a textbook case of wrongful conduct. Add to this the fact that Mr. Flynn was already offering testimony about the Russia connection in exchange for immunity from prosecution, and Mr. Trump’s clumsy attempt to dissemble the cause of the firing, and it is clear that a cover-up was afoot.

Finally, Mr. Trump topped things off with his tweeted threat to Mr. Comey; witness intimidation is both obstruction of justice in itself, and a free-standing statutory offense.

Taken together, this evidence is already more than sufficient to make out a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — and there are likely many more shoes to drop. Mr. Comey reportedly took notes on all of his encounters with the president. If what has emerged so far is any indication, this is unlikely to offer much comfort to Mr. Trump.

And there remains the core question of the President’s motives. Is he withholding his taxes because they show evidence of “a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” as his son once stated, or do they show no such thing, as his lawyers claim? Why is Mr. Trump so fervently protecting Mr. Flynn: out of loyalty to a friend, or because Mr. Trump fears what that friend would say if he received immunity?

We have previously called for Congress to set up an independent 9/11-style commission on the Russia and Flynn investigations, and for the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor. This appointment is necessary because Congress can’t actually prosecute anyone who may have committed crimes, including obstruction of justice, in connection with the Trump-Russia matter. This week’s revelations about the president, the most powerful man in the country, emphasize the need for these independent structures to be erected and to encompass these new allegations.

At least for now, we need not address the question, fully briefed to the Supreme Court during Watergate, but never resolved, of whether a special prosecutor could indict the President; as with Nixon, the question may again be obviated by other events, like the House initiating impeachment proceedings and the President resigning.

In the meantime, the House and Senate must continue their existing investigations and expand them, with the Judiciary Committees of both bodies immediately beginning hearings into the president’s abuse of power. Congress must be prepared to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.

Richard W. Painter, a Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, is the Vice Chairman and Norman L. Eisen is the Chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. They were chief White House ethics lawyers for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.

Fareed Zakaria: GOP is a banana republic ‘platform to support the ego, appetites of one man and his family’

May 17, 2017

Fareed Zakaria: GOP is a banana republic ‘platform to support the ego, appetites of one man and his family’

by David Edwards

CNN host Fareed Zakaria lamented on Sunday that the U.S. Congress could no longer be considered a check on the power of President Donald Trump because the controlling party had become a platform that caters to the whims of the President and his family.

“Donald Trump in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions poses a danger to American democracy,” Zakaria explained. “American democracy has a series of checks intended to prevent the accumulation and abuse of power by any one person or group.”

“But there is one gaping hole in the system: the President,” he continued. “The President in effect sits about the law. The Justice Department works for him.”

According to the CNN host, Congress’ power of impeachment is the only “real check” on the president.

“Since Trump’s own party controls both chambers of Congress, there has been little resistance to him there,” he noted. “It appears the Republican Party is losing any resemblance to a traditional western political party. Instead, turning into something more commonly found in the developing world: a platform to support the ego, appetites and interests of one man and his family.”

Zakaria pointed out that the courts and the media provide limited limited checks on the Presidency, but Trump “has relentlessly attacked both.”

“The media must cover the administration’s policies fairly but it also must never let the public forget that many of the attitudes and actions of this president are gross violations of the customs and practices of the modern American system,” Zakaria insisted. “They are aberrations and they cannot become the new norms. That way, after Trump, the country will not start the next presidency with tattered standards and sunken expectations.”

Watch the video below from CNN.

I have tried to evaluate Donald Trump’s Presidency fairly. I’ve praised him when he has appointed competent people to high office and expressed support for his policies when they seemed serious and sensible (even though this has drawn criticism from some quarters). But there has always been another aspect to this Presidency lurking beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into full view as it did this week. President Trump, in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions, poses a danger to American democracy.

The United States has the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, one that has survived the test of time and given birth to perhaps the most successful society in human history. What sets the nation apart is not how democratic it is, but rather the opposite. U.S. democracy has a series of checks intended to prevent the accumulation and abuse of power by any one person or group. But there is one gaping hole in the system: the President.

During his famous interviews with David Frost in 1977, Richard Nixon made a statement regarding Watergate that has been mockingly quoted ever since. “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal,” he said to Frost. Nixon was a smart lawyer and a close student of the Constitution. He was basically right. The president, in effect, sits above the law. The Justice Department, after all, works for him. Refusing to follow certain ethical guidelines in separating himself from his business empire, Trump told the New York Times, “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Most lawyers say he is right. The rules don’t really apply to the President.

There is just one real check on the President — impeachment — and it is political, not legal. Since Trump’s own party controls both chambers of Congress, there has been little resistance to him there. One might have hoped for more, and perhaps we will see it. So far, it appears that the Republican Party is losing any resemblance to a traditional Western political party, instead simply turning into something more commonly found in the developing world: a platform to support the ego, appetites and interests of one man and his family.

There are other, less potent checks on the power of the president. Some are structural, others simply a matter of morality or precedent. Trump has sought to weaken many of these, both before the election and now in the White House.

Trump said that he would like to change laws to make it easier to sue journalists. He announced that he hoped to jail his opponent. He spoke approvingly of the mass deportation of Mexicans in the 1950s. He proposed a travel ban on an entire religion, to bar all Muslims from entering the United States. He advocated that the U.S. military torture prisoners. And he called into question the integrity of a judge because of his Mexican heritage.

Image result for James Comey

Director James B.Comey–The Man who dared to stand up to the 45th POTUS defend the FBI

Once in power, Trump has continued in this vein, taking actions that weaken all sources of resistance. He summarily dismissed FBI Director James B. Comey, reportedly over his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. If true, the firing would be a shattering blow. The nonpartisan agencies of the executive branch are jewels of the modern U.S. system. They were not always impartial, and they are certainly not perfect, but in recent decades they have acquired a deserved reputation. When I travel from Eastern Europe to China to Latin America, democratic reformers tell me that they look to these agencies as models when trying to strengthen the rule of law in their own countries.

There are only two forces left that can place some constraints on Trump — the courts and the media — and he has relentlessly attacked both. Every time a court has ruled against one of his executive orders, the president has ridiculed the decision or demeaned the judges involved. To their enormous credit, the courts have not been deterred from standing up to the President.

That leaves the media. Trump has gone at them (us) like no President before, smearing news organizations, attacking individual journalists and threatening to strip legal protections guaranteed to a free press. We will survive, but we must recognize the stakes.

The media should cover the administration’s policies fairly. But they must also never let the public forget that many of the attitudes and actions of this president are gross violations of the customs and practices of the modern American system — that they are aberrations and cannot become the new norms. That way, after Trump, the country will not start the next presidency with tattered standards and sunken expectations. The task is quite simply to keep alive the spirit of American democracy.

Image result for fareed zakariaThe Handsome and Urbane Fareed Zakaria– Host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN
Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.