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Assassination–As American as Apple Pie?

Soleimani funeral

Mourners at funeral for Qasem Soleimani

Have we crossed a critical line with Trump’s implicit assertion that the US has the right to assassinate government officials of countries with which we are not at war?

Assassination of government officials has historically been used mostly by the weak against the strong–by individuals or groups struggling against governments perceived as possessing overwhelming repressive powers. In modern times, nation-states have rarely, if ever, claimed a right to kill leaders of adversary countries as a tool of statecraft. If they wanted to do that, they used proxies or clandestine operations that provided at least a fig leaf of deniability. Trump has now brazenly tossed the fig leaf aside.

While there is some international law dealing with assassination, the prohibition against one state using assassination against another state in a non-war situation is more customary than legal. The reason for that is quite simple:  If you have the right to kill an official of an adversary country, then they have a right to assassinate you. It then all comes down to power, motive, and opportunity–basically gang wars on a national scale. And assassination becomes a casus belli–a justification for war.

In the US, in 1975 the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations–generally known as the Church Committee after Senator Frank Church–recommended that a law be enacted “which would make it a criminal offense for persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States (1) to conspire, within or outside the United States, to assassinate a foreign official; (2) to attempt to assassinate a foreign official; or (3) to assassinate a foreign official.”

Two CIA directors in the 70s–Helms and Colby–issued internal agency directives to prohibit such assassinations, but the Committee found that legislation was needed because “administrations change, CIA directors change, and someday in the future what was tried in the past may once again be a temptation. . . . Laws express our nation’s values; they deter those who might be tempted to ignore those values and stiffen the will of those who want to resist.”

Indeed. Attempts to pass such a law failed in Congress in 1976, 1977, and 1980. In 1976, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 which stated that “no employee of the United States shall engage in, or conspire to engage in political assassination.” In 1978, President Carter strengthened the language in E.O. 12306 to read “no employee of the United States, or those acting on behalf of the United States, shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination.” In 1981, President Reagan issued a new version, E.O. 12333, which added a section that prohibits indirect assassination by members of the intelligence community.

The Church Committee was convened in large part because the CIA was perceived as out of control–fomenting coups and plotting assassinations in countries around the world. The Committee focused specifically on five cases of peacetime assassination of government leaders in which the US government was allegedly involved:

  1. Patrice Lumumba, President of the Congo, killed in 1961.
  2. Fidel Castro, President of Cuba, various unsuccessful assassination plots from 1960 to 1965.
  3. Rafael Trujillo, President of the Dominican Republic, killed in 1961.
  4. Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam and his brother Nhu, killed in 1963.
  5. General Rene Schneider of Chile, killed in 1970.

You can download the entire report here. The Committee found that:

  • In the Lumumba case, two CIA officials had been asked by their superiors to kill him and provided poisons to do so, but in the end they were not actually involved in his killing, which was carried out by Congolese rivals with help from Belgian officials.
  • With Castro, the CIA recruited mob figures and anti-Castro Cubans to carry various, often ludicrous, attempts on his life, but none were successful.
  • With Trujillo, the US government generally supported dissidents, knew of plots to kill him, and supplied them with a few guns. But US personnel were not involved in the actual killing.
  • Diem and his brother were killed during a military coup, which had US support, but their killing was not supposed to occur as part of the coup and the assassination was done without US knowledge or support.
  • Schneider, the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army, opposed a military coup which was actively supported by the US in order to prevent Salvador Allende from taking office as president. He was shot by the golpistas while trying to escape being kidnapped and died subsequently, but US personnel were not directly involved.

In each of these cases, the official US involvement was murky enough that there was some shred of plausible deniability, and no one was ever punished for their connections to these killings.

Outside of these cases, there was the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende who died in the Presidential Palace during a CIA-fomented 1973 coup. Most accounts conclude that he committed suicide during the military attack on the palace, but clearly his death would not have occurred then and there had not the coup taken place.

Then there was the 1986 US Air Force attack on three Libyan military sites in retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub. One of the sites was believed to be a residence of Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi. As it turned out, he was not present at the time, but his adopted daughter was killed and his wife and one son were injured. The Reagan Administration argued that Qadhafi was not the intended target and therefore the attack did not violate Reagan’s own executive order, but press reports revealed that US intelligence believed that Qadhafi might be there at the time of the raid, and killing Qadhafi would be been seen as a most positive outcome. This is perhaps the closest analogue to the assassination of Soleimani this week. But even in this case, the Reagan administration was not prepared to go the full Trump and openly proclaim that killing a foreign leader was the objective.

Let’s set aside any judgment on whether the targets of these assassinations had it coming and talk about blowback. The Congo has suffered through decades of dictatorship and civil wars. Certainly, not all of that can be blamed on Lumumba’s killing and he was already probably on the way out of power, but foreign manipulation on the part of the US and others certainly contributed to the chronic instability.

In the Dominican Republic, the leftist Juan Bosch won election as President in 1963, but was regarded with hostility by the US and deposed by a military coup in 1965 at which time Lyndon Johnson sent in the US military as a de facto occupying force. In 1966, Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo’s last puppet president, was elected and remained in office for twelve years marked by repression of human rights and political opposition.

In Chile, the US government worked to destabilize Allende’s government and to deny it foreign financing which exacerbated economic distress and fed the opposition. The 1973 military brought a brutal repression with thousands of extrajudicial killings and tens of thousands of Chileans arrested, tortured, or forced into exile. The military-led government became the poster child for  neoliberal/libertarian economists like James Buchanan, which brought in massive foreign investment that stabilized the economy–until it didn’t.

In Cuba, the attempts to kill Castro certainly solidified his belief that the US would do anything to destroy him and arguably made him more eager for Soviet protection–including accepting the missile sites that led to the October 1962 missile crisis that threatened a nuclear war.  Sixty years later, Fidel is dead, but the regime he created remains intact and under no threat of crumbling.

Then there’s Vietnam. In 1963, the US commitment to the Saigon government was still relatively modest. But US involvement in the coup in which Diem was killed served to cement ties with the military government that took over, leading to incrementally expanding military and economic support that ultimately intensified and prolonged a decade of disastrous civil war.  Vietnam is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century–for the US, certainly, but vastly more so for Vietnam itself.

Now here we are on the brink of a hot war with Iran as a result of an assassination justified on the basis of Iranian activities in the Middle East that, objectively, are not that different from those that the US has engaged in throughout the world since World War II.

Americans like to see themselves as the good guys, but increasingly that is not the way the rest of the world sees us. Trump has trampled on alliances built up over 75 years, and now we are often regarded a threat rather than a friend. The more we opt for brute power and intimidation as a means of asserting dominance in the world, the more isolated and insecure we become.

With his bellicose chest-beating over the Soleimani assassination, Trump has overturned decades of stated US policy on what is morally and pragmatically acceptable, thereby exacerbating a crisis of his own making. This is a Rubicon we should not have crossed, and I’m not hearing a lot of discussion about this fundamental issue. He is well on his way to making the US an international pariah, and karma can be a bitch.

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year and the End of a Decade

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They say people are supposed to get more conservative as they get older, but for me, the opposite has been true. Now, at 76, I find myself enraged at the reactionary racist movement that has seized control of this country and frustrated by the bone-deep fear and pessimism that prevents us from doing anything about the critical issues that we face.
Ten years ago, we were just beginning to emerge from a catastrophic recession, but I had a feeling of hope and optimism. There was still a lingering euphoria from that joyous mass celebration that was the Obama inauguration, when it seemed possible that America might finally overcome its shameful and crippling legacy of racism. Congress was on the verge of passing the Affordable Care Act, which would bring health coverage to millions of Americans who did not have it. Congress was also about to pass Dodd-Frank to reform the criminally risky practices of Big Banking and Wall Street that had brought on the Great Recession. America’s prestige and standing in the world was again on the rise.
How different things look today ten years later! The counter-reformation reaction was immediate and implacable. The lynchpin of the conservative backlash was the Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010 Citizens United decision which turned what was already a river of corporate and private money in politics into a tsunami. Corporate money funded the Tea Party movement which transformed the Republican party into an anarchic and nihilistic band of political vandals, in which establishment party leaders could survive only by going along with the radicals.
What the movement lacked was a charismatic and unscrupulous leader. Then along came Trump, who has turned the Tea Party movement and the Republican party into a cult of personality. And here we are.
I wonder where is the outrage at the corruption and defilement of the Presidency? We all knew what what going to happen. We began the Trump presidency with the Women’s March–the largest nationwide protest in American history. People joined Indivisible and showed up at congress members’ town halls. But that energy and anger seems to have seeped away in a daily onslaught of scandals so overwhelming that it began to seem normal. Democrats wrung their hands over whether to impeach Trump for his blatant offenses until a civil servant made it impossible to ignore. The national mood seems to be one of sullen resignation.
Our government is paralyzed and incapable of doing anything about urgent national problems. Where there is any action, it’s in the direction of making things worse, whether it’s regarding climate change, public health, education, poverty, racial equality, income equality, financial regulation, international relations, etc. The political battle is merely to preserve what remains against further erosion, not to seek bold solutions to our growing problems.
As cynical as I sometimes feel, I can’t help being an idealist. I believe that perhaps the first function of democratic government is to protect the weak and poor against the strong and rich and to strive to improve equality of opportunity. As a country, we have made some progress in that direction, but I sense that the tide is turning and something fundamental in the distribution of power has shifted–something our legal and political institutions are ill-equiped to deal with. The more wealth is concentrated in the hands of behemoth corporations and the wealthiest of individuals, the more government becomes their servant. Are we, as a nation, okay with that?
A decade ago, I had no grandchildren. Now I have four. I wonder what we will be leaving them. Americans are taught to believe in the inevitability of progress, but history tells us that rights gained can be lost and that economic and social progress can be reversed. I fear we are at one of those historic inflection points now. If we want to keep America a democracy, the year 2020 will be crucial. This is no time for apathy and despair, but a time for mobilization. Act like your future depends on this year’s election. Because it does!

Devin Nunes: I’ll Try the Chalupa

Nunes

“Of course there are no transcripts from crucial witnesses like Hunter Biden, who could testify about his well-paying job on the board of a corrupt Ukrainian company, or Alexandra Chalupa, who worked on an election meddling scheme with Ukrainian officials on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.” –Devin Nunes’s opening statement, afternoon HPSCI Impeachment Inquiry, 11/19/2019.

Unless you’re steeped in TrumpWorld conspiracy theories, “Chalupa” probably brings to mind a menu item at Chuy’s. But in right-wing fever dreams, Alexandra Chalupa is at the center of the real plot to steal the 2016 election which was carried out by Ukraine at the direction of Hillary Clinton. (Alas, it tragically seems to have failed.)

There really is an Alexandra Chalupa, who is a Ukrainian-American lawyer (though reportedly has never been to Ukraine) and formerly worked for the Democratic National Committee as a director of its “ethnic outreach” effort. According to an October 2016 Yahoo News story by Michael Isikoff, she became alarmed about connections between the Trump campaign and Paul Manafort, who was viewed as the key political operative behind the pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Yanukovych. She viewed Manafort as an agent of Putin in advancing Russian interests in Ukraine and was determined to expose his influence. She began to circulate memos and emails about Manafort’s connections and exchanged messages about him to investigative journalists in Kyiv. Those efforts redoubled after Manafort became Trump’s campaign manager in the summer of 2016.

The germ of the Republican accusations regarding Ukrainian meddling appears to be a long article in Politico published January 11, 2017, shortly before the inauguration. You can read it here.) According to the article, “a Ukrainian-American operative [Chalupa] who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee met with top officials in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.”

The article continues, however:

The Ukrainian efforts had an impact in the race, helping to force Manafort’s resignation and advancing the narrative that Trump’s campaign was deeply connected to Ukraine’s foe to the east, Russia. But they were far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia’s alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic emails…. There’s little evidence of such a top-down effort by Ukraine.

The basic problem with the Republican narrative is that most of those ties between Trump and Russia and Russia-connected Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs were subsequently corroborated by investigations by Robert Mueller and the US Intelligence Community. This partly explains the continuing efforts by Trump and his allies to discredit the origins of those investigations by trying to show that they were politically-motivated and therefore somehow illegitimate.

The Politico article notes that Ukrainians were alarmed by Trump’s obvious lean toward Moscow during the campaign.

The Ukrainian antipathy for Trump’s team — and alignment with Clinton’s — can be traced back to late 2013. That’s when the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, whom Manafort had been advising, abruptly backed out of a European Union pact linked to anti-corruption reforms. Instead, Yanukovych entered into a multibillion-dollar bailout agreement with Russia, sparking protests across Ukraine and prompting Yanukovych to flee the country to Russia under Putin’s protection. In the ensuing crisis, Russian troops moved into the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and Manafort dropped off the radar.

The article says that Chalupa, who in 2014 was doing pro bono work for another client in Ukraine, “began researching Manafort’s role in Yanukovych’s rise, as well as his ties to the pro-Russian oligarchs who funded Yanukovych’s political party.” She “occasionally shared her findings with officials from the DNC and Clinton’s campaign” and (shortly before Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 and became its manager in June) had a meeting with Ukrainian Ambassador Chaly and another top official of the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington.

Chalupa stopped working with the DNC after the July convention, but provided “off-the-record information and guidance to ‘a lot of journalists’ working on stories related to Manafort and Trump’s Russia connections, despite what she described as escalating harassment.”

Perhaps as a result of her efforts, Chalupa’s personal computer was attacked (not long before the DNC server itself was hacked by Russian operatives) and there were suspicious break-ins into her car and home as well as death threats.

Perhaps the most important item in TrumpWorld stories about Alexandra Chalupa is an alleged role in surfacing the so-called “black ledgers” of apparent pay-offs by Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party to various figures in Ukraine which included entries showing $12.7 million going to Manafort. After this news broke, Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign. Devin Nunes and other Trump defenders have claimed the “black ledgers” are fake and attempted to link the disclosure to the alleged Clinton/Ukraine meddling conspiracy.

It’s worth noting that the Politico investigation does NOT connect Chalupa with the “black ledger”, which was released by an independent Ukrainian government agency and publicized by Serhiy Leshchenko, an investigative journalist who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament.  (Leshchenko is referenced in the “whistleblower” complaint.) The agency that released the ledgers, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, was created in 2014 as a condition for Ukraine to receive aid from the U.S. and the European Union, and it signed an evidence-sharing agreement with the FBI in late June — less than a month and a half before it released the ledgers. Somewhat oddly, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry felt moved to chime in to defend Trump and Manafort, saying “Ukraine seriously complicated the work of Trump’s election campaign headquarters by planting information according to which Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, allegedly accepted money from Ukrainian oligarchs.”

During the campaign, a number of Ukrainian officials expressed concerns about Trump’s positions either in print or on social media. These included an op-ed in The Hill by Ambassador Chaly which criticized Trump statements that implied willingness to recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea as legitimate. While such statements might have pushed traditional diplomatic practices a bit, they were completely overt and would scarcely have been remarked upon had they been written by, say, Israeli officials.

Chaly reached out to Trump foreign policy advisors during the GOP convention in Cleveland (also conspicuously attended by the Russian ambassador), where a platform plank calling for the US to provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine was gutted–a move attributed by many to Manafort. In September, Chaly was snubbed by candidate Trump at the UN General Assembly, but got a meeting with Hillary Clinton.

There is little question that since the Maidan revolution in 2014, Ukrainians have regarded Trump’s attraction to Russia and Putin with something like existential dread. It is equally clear that Trump takes a very dim view of Ukraine, whose survival as a fully autonomous country probably depends on consistent US support. A very awkward situation indeed.

But Nunes’s indignant howls at being prevented from investigating his Ukraine conspiracy theories rest on the flimsiest of false equivalencies. It requires denying the reality of a well-proven state-sponsored campaign by Russia against Clinton and the entire US election system and substituting for it a fabricated conspiracy in which freelancing individuals concerned about verifiable ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin are the real enemy. If Nunes and his cronies had their way, we would know nothing about the relationships of Manafort and others because the investigations into their activities would never have happened.

Fiona Hill, John Bolton’s former deputy on Trump’s NSC told the impeachment inquiry committee that she and others have tried for years to disabuse Trump of the Ukraine fantasy. “The Ukrainian government did not interfere in the U.S. election. The Ukrainian government did not do that,” Hill said under questioning from Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.). “The Ukrainian Special Services also did not interfere in our election.”

Nunes says he wants to call Alexandra Chalupa as a witness. Well, she told Politico recently that she’s itching to testify. It’s probably not going to happen, but I almost wish it would. Devin, be careful what you wish for…

The Bureaucrat as Hero

civilservants

If impeachment ever does succeed in bringing down Donald Trump, the real hero will be that most maligned of all government figures–the career federal civil servant. The impeachment effort was going nowhere until the now-famous and still anonymous “whistleblower”, who is apparently a career CIA intelligence officer, decided to stand up for the law and the constitution.

Before the whistleblower memo forced it to act, the Democratic establishment was wringing its hands in fear of political blowback for proceeding with impeachment despite the ample justification already in plain view. That’s exactly where we would still be today had not a career civil servant thrust the stinking evidence under their collective noses.

Let’s also add Robert Mueller to the parade of the pusillanimous. Two years of work, and his investigation did little more than flesh out what had already been uncovered by investigative journalists even though he had subpoena power and they didn’t. Despite his vaunted–and as it turned out, overblown–reputation for relentless integrity, he never ventured into the heart of the matter, i.e., the counter-intelligence aspects of Trump and his campaign or the financial ties of TrumpWorld. He never put Trump or any of his family members under oath, or presented them with subpoenas for documents. He then presented his findings in a report couched in impenetrable language and failed to draw clear conclusions in terms the public could understand, allowing William Barr to present a false version which then stuck. When offered a chance to correct the record in a public Congressional hearing, Mueller again punted.

If the whistleblower had not come forward, we would still be hopelessly mired in a morass where Trump officials openly defy the law and thumb their noses at subpoenas to testify and provide documentation while they run out the electoral clock. Now at least there is a chance to get the American public to pay attention.

It was the whistleblower’s report that made possible a growing parade of courageous civil servants who have risked their careers to corroborate the allegations and to add detail and context. So let’s give a salute to career foreign service officers like Marie Yovanovich, Bill Taylor, Mike McKinley, and George Kent who ignored orders from the White House to shut them up. Let’s thank NSC professionals like Fiona Hill, and  Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman who was in on the infamous Trump call to Ukranian President Zelinskyy and has testified to omissions in the memorandum of the call. And let’s recognize the integrity of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson who followed the law and protected the whistleblower and thereby kept all of this from disappearing into the cesspool of the Trump White House. Let’s hope they keep coming.

And while we’re at it, let’s give some props to all the career civil servants across the federal government who are trying to do what they can to protect the mission of their agencies in the face of wanton destruction being carried out by Trump appointees. These are not the “deep state”. They are people who take their obligations to the law and to the American people seriously. And they are trying their best to hold things together until Trump is gone along with the legion of grifters he installed to eviscerate and corrupt the federal government.

Now we’ll have to see if the American people care about these things as well, or if we as a nation have become so manipulated by disinformation that we can’t distinguish between truth and lies and so cynical that we don’t even bother to try.

Defenders of the Faith: TrumpWorld at Prayer

Barr at NotreDame

If you’re a connoisseur of irony and hypocrisy, there is no juicier amuse-bouche than the sight of the lapdog Attorney General of our mendacious libertine president lamenting the “licentiousness” and absence of “moral discipline” of a secular society that has forsaken the bosom of Holy Mother Church. On October 11, William Barr took a break from trying to hustle up fabricated dirt on Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to preach to the Law School of Notre Dame University on how the attacks of “secularist forces” on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, and Roman Catholicism in special particular, are responsible for all of our society’s ills. (Yes, Notre Dame is a Catholic university, and no, there was no mention of the Church’s own little moral crisis. Presumably, the secularists are to blame for all that as well.)

[I was unable to find a full transcript of the speech online, but you can watch the entire spectacle here. The quoted language is my own transcript from the video.]

There’s more going on here than just spiritual uplift. Barr was making a statement about the priorities of the US Department of Justice, which clearly include aligning the federal government with the ongoing campaign to dismantle the barrier between church and state and establish the idea that America is a Christian nation.

This is serious business. If you are concerned about things like gay rights, keeping religion out of public education, abortion rights and the rights of women in general, or the rights of non-Christians, it behooves you to pay attention, because this Attorney General and this administration want to put severe limits on all of those things. The vehicle they are using to do that is “religious freedom.”

And it’s no coincidence that the administration is making a concerted effort to secure its base among religious conservatives at a moment when impeachment is underway. It wasn’t just Barr at the tent revival last week. Trump was delivering the same message at the Value Voters Summit, where he said, “On every front, the ultraleft is waging war on the values shared by everyone in this room…They are trying to silence and punish the speech of Christians and religious believers of all faiths. You know it better than anyone. They are trying to use the courts to rewrite the laws, undermine democracy and force through an agenda they can’t pass at the ballot box.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on similar lines at an evangelical event in Tennessee, and even dedicated the home page of the State Department’s home page to an explicitly Christian message.

Barr’s speech can be read as a manifesto for the quasi-establishment of the Christian religion and a Christian version of sharia. The world is full of religions of all kinds, but his only reference to a non-Christian religion is when he repeatedly evokes “Judeo-Christian” moral values or standards, which is an essentially meaningless phrase, perhaps thrown in to avoid offending Jews. His reasoning is tendentious nonsense and ridiculous to anyone with a passing knowledge of history. Reduced to its essence, his argument is:

  • Free government requires a population with “moral discipline”, and only religious (i.e., Christian) people are capable of living by moral values.
  • Religion (i.e., Christianity) in the US is besieged by unnamed “forces of secularism”, whose success is responsible for an array of social ills such as illegitimacy, depression, mental illness, “angry and alienated young men”, and “senseless violence”.
  • In response, the “secularists” have promoted the state as the “alleviator of bad consequences”, displacing Christianity with a pseudo-religion of secularism.
  • This, in turn, further empowers the breakdown of “traditional moral values”, while “militant secularists” use the law to impose secular values on people of faith and suppress their voice in public discourse.

What is most disturbing is that the country’s chief law enforcement officer doesn’t want to enforce the country’s laws, but rather is trying to nullify them in selected arenas. His Justice Department is not interested, for example, in voter suppression or manipulation which demonstrably is a serious problem, but it is extremely interested in an imaginary “war on religion”. Barr began his sermon by declaring that he has set up a task force within Justice to “keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith,” or cases where states impinge on “free exercise of religion”.

Barr invokes a mythical (and highly debatable***) origin story, claiming that the Founding Fathers believed “that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government,” and that “the founding generations were Christians and they believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system. corresponds to the true nature of man.” The challenge of our century, Barr asserts, is “precisely what the founding fathers foresaw would be the supreme test of a free society…The central question is whether we the people could handle freedom. The question is whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.”

Where does this “moral discipline and virtue” come from? According to Barr, it “must rest on authority independent of men’s will. It must flow from the transcendent supreme being.” Free government is “only suitable and sustainable for a religious people, a people that recognized that there was a transcendent moral order.” And not just any religion.

“In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man. Not in the bye and bye, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and the best operation of human society. By the same token, violations of these rules have bad real world consequences.”

According to Barr:

“The law is being used as a battering ram to break down traditional moral values and to establish moral relativism as the new orthodoxy…through legislation, or more frequently, through judicial interpretation. The forces of secularism are continually seeking to eliminate laws that reflect traditional moral norms. [Such as legalization of abortion and euthanasia.] More recently we have seen the law used aggressively to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith. The problem is not that religion is being forced on others. The problem is that irreligion, secular values, are being forced on people of faith…Militant secularists…are not content to leave religious people alone to practice their faith. Instead, they seem to take delight in telling people to violate their conscience.”

As evidence, he cites efforts by the Obama administration “to force religious employers including Catholic religious orders to violate their sincerely held religious views by funding contraceptives and abortifacient coverage in their health plans” and a California effort “to require prolife pregnancy centers to provide notices of abortion rights.”

For Barr, the schools are “ground zero for these attacks on religion,” and “for the government to interfere in [teaching religion to our children] is a monstrous invasion of religious freedom. Yet this is where the battle is being joined. And I see that it is being waged on three fronts.”

  • “The first front relates to the content of public school curriculums. Many states are adopting curriculums that are incompatible with traditional Judeo-Christian principles according to which parents are trying to raise their children. And they often do this without any opt-out provision for religious families. For example, New Jersey recently passed a law requiring public schools to adopt an LGBT curriculum that many feel is inconsistent with traditional Judeo-Christian teaching.”
  • “The second axis of attack in the realm of education are state policies designed to starve religious schools of generally available funds, encouraging students to choose secular options rather than religious schools.” [Barr cites a Montana ruling that bars state funds from being used for scholarships to religious schools and notes that the Justice Department is challenging the rule before the Supreme Court.]
  • “The third kind of assault on religious freedom in education is the recent effort to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy. For example, right here in Indiana a teacher sued the Catholic archbishop of Indianapolis for directing the Catholic schools within his diocese that they could not employ teachers in same-sex marriages because the example of those same-sex marriages would undermine the school’s teaching on the Catholic view of marriage and the complementarity [sic] of the sexes. This lawsuit clearly infringes on the first amendment rights of the archdiocese…The Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in the state court hearing these claims, and we hope that the state court will soon dismiss this case.”

Barr continues: “If these measure are successful, those with religious convictions will become still more marginalized…We cannot sit back and just hope that the pendulum is going to swing back towards sanity. As Catholics, we are committed to Judeo-Christian values that have made this country great.”

Barr concludes:

“We cannot have a moral renaissance unless we succeed in passing to the next generation our faith and values in full vigor. The times are hostile to this. Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized, and increasingly actively promoting moral relativism. If ever there was a need for a resurgence in Catholic education, and more generally in religiously-affiliated schools, it is today. I think we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels. Finally, as lawyers, we should be particularly active in the struggle that is being waged against religion in the legal plane. We must be vigilant to resist efforts by the forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the exercise of our faith. I can assure you that as long as I am Attorney General, the Department of Justice will be at the forefront of this effort, ready to fight for the most cherished of all our liberties, the freedom to live according to our faith.”

Barr is arguing here that government should intervene to preserve the dominance of a specific religion in the public life of this country. He isn’t arguing for the protection of religion in general, which would include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Wicca, Santeria, etc. No, he’s arguing for the primacy of Christianity, which is the very definition of the “establishment of religion” which the US constitution expressly forbids.

Consider his phrase “Public agencies, including public schools, are becoming secularized…” The implication here is that public agencies and schools should NOT be secular, but should be made to conform to one religious viewpoint. Under our constitution, public agencies are supposed to be secular precisely because they are public.

And here is the Attorney General of the United States, speaking in that capacity, saying that “we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels.” That, in itself, is outrageous.

Let’s be clear on what this is all about. Reactionary conservatives have found in “religious exceptions” a way to circumvent policies that they don’t like, such as women’s access to contraception and abortion, same-sex marriage and legal protections for LBGTQ people, prohibition of overtly religious content in public education, immigration of non-white and non-Christian people, etc. Private Catholic and evangelical religious schools want access to public tax dollars. Accordingly, they have weaponized religion as a political force, which overwhelmingly supports Republican candidates who extol a mythical American past where white Christians were in complete control. The same people who stoke fears of an Islamic sharia, are busy trying to erect a, perhaps milder, Christian version of that in America, where secular law would be subordinate to (Christian) religious doctrine.

Of course, the religious right is Trump’s most solid base, despite the obvious fact that Trump is certainly the most religiously-impious president of modern times. Even if Trump should be removed by impeachment or election, this battle will be with us for decades. The federal courts are being stacked with unremovable conservative judges sympathetic to the “religious exception” theory, and the Supreme Court now has four justices–Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh who seem willing and eager to poke holes in the “establishment clause”.

Freedom to worship as you please is very much alive and well in America, despite Barr’s laughable jeremiad. What is really threatened today, is the principle of separation of church and state.

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***“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding….” -Thomas Jefferson

“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”– John Adams

Were the Founding Fathers all observant Christians? Well, not exactly. Most of them were nominally adherents of some Protestant denomination, but their degree of Christian orthodoxy varied widely. A few like Samuel Adams, John Jay, and Patrick Henry were orthodox believers in their own particular Protestant churches. A substantial number of others were Deists, who argued that human experience and rationality—rather than religious dogma and mystery—determine the validity of human beliefs. These included George Washington (who refused to take communion during his adult life), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allan, and James Monroe. Thomas Paine was among the non-Christian Deists, and he refused to use Judeo-Christian terminology.

In any case, the question is irrelevant. There is no reference to “God” or “the Almighty” or any euphemism for a higher power or of Christianity in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers. Article VI of the Constitution states: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (See here.)

The Hunter Biden Issue–Not Exactly the One You Think

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I have no wish to lend any support or credence to the Trump-Barr-Giuliani effort to manufacture a scandal where none exists. (See here.) But there is something else in the Hunter Biden story that I find troubling. Here’s my question: How did a man with such apparently undistinguished talents and so many obvious personal problems wind up on all those corporate boards (like Burisma’s) at all?

Well, you might say, the answer is obvious–he is Joe Biden’s son. Indeed. But isn’t there something wrong with that? Isn’t this a form of corruption that has become so pervasive in America’s elite that we don’t even remark on it? We don’t really have a name for it, so let me propose one: nepotism-by-proxy. The quid for an unstated potential future quo.

This is much more subtle than ordinary nepotism, like installing Ivanka and Jared in senior White House jobs. It’s more like a influence savings account for a rainy day. Give the senator’s less-favored kid a nice job, and if you need a favor in the future you might not even have to mention it, because Dad will remember. It all seems nice and clean, because the senator never asked for it–it was just volunteered. That’s one way logrolling works in America’s upper class.

Let me stipulate right now that it’s probably very unfair to single out the Bidens when this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s just that we know quite a lot about this particular case, which–as it turns out–could have far-reaching consequences.

Let’s consider Hunter Biden’s career path. (Note: I’m relying here mainly on an extensive and largely sympathetic profile in The New Yorker by Adam Entous.)

  • 1992 Hunter graduates Georgetown University with a degree in history.
  • Starts a year of Catholic volunteer work in Portland, Oregon. Meets first wife Kathleen. She becomes pregnant, and they marry in July 1993.
  • Hunter applies to Yale Law School, but is not accepted. Starts Georgetown Law School instead. After a year, transfers to Yale Law School and graduates in 1996.
  • Takes job with MBNA America (a bank holding company based in Wilmington, Delaware and also one of Joe Biden’s largest campaign contributors) with a six-figure salary plus signing bonus.
  • By 1998, Hunter is an executive VP at MBNA, but doesn’t enjoy the corporate culture. Uses father’s campaign contact William Oldaker, a DC lawyer, to seek a job with the Clinton Administration through Commerce Secretary William Daley (who had worked on Biden’s 1987 presidential campaign). Offered a job as policy director for the “Internet economy.” Moves to DC.
  • In late 2000, leaves to join lobbying firm The National Group co-founded by Oldaker who had helped him get the Commerce Department job. Works on “earmarking”–lobbying members of congress to insert language into legislation directing funds to projects that benefit the lobbyist’s clients. One client, the president of St. Joseph’s University, told Entous that Hunter was “like his dad: great personally, very engaging, very curious about things and hardworking,..[with] a very strong last name that really paid off in terms of our lobbying efforts.” Reportedly, he didn’t work on anything that involved his father and they didn’t discuss Hunter’s lobbying with each other.
  • By this time, Hunter was showing problems with alcohol and drugs, which by 2003 were affecting his marital life.
  • In 2006, despite personal financial problems he buys a $1.6 million house in DC, taking out a mortgage for 110% [sic] of the purchase price with no down payment.
  • Also in 2006 Hunter and uncle Jimmy Biden enter into a $21 million deal to buy Paradigm, a hedge fund said to manage assets worth $1.5 billion. The deal falls apart and Hunter and Jimmy lose a reported $1.3 million. To pay legal bills, Hunter obtains a million dollar note against his house [presumably the same one he just took the mortgage on] from Washington First Bank, founded by Oldaker. Just before his father announces his run for president, Hunter and Jimmy are sued by another former partner in the deal.
  • In January 2007 Hunter goes to Iowa to help his father’s campaign, which doesn’t go well. Biden drops out of the race and later is chosen by Obama as his running mate.
  • Hunter winds down his lobbying business and resigns his seat on the Amtrak board, to which Senator Harry Reid had appointed him.
  • In September 2008, Hunter launches a “boutique” consulting firm Seneca Global Advisors, and after the election in June 2009 he co-founds another private equity company, Rosemont Seneca Partners, with Christopher Heinz (John Kerry’s stepson and heir to the Heinz food fortune) and Devon Archer (a former Abercrombie and Fitch model who had worked with Citibank in Asia and knew Heinz at Yale).
  • In 2012, Hunter and Archer discuss setting up a new equity fund with Jonathan Li, chief of a Chinese equity fund, Bohai Capital. In June 2013, Li, Archer and others sign an MOU establishing BHR Partners. Hunter becomes an unpaid board member, but delays becoming an equity partner until after Joe Biden leaves office. During a December 13 visit by Joe Biden to Beijing, Hunter arranges a public handshake encounter with Li. This later raises concerns in the Obama White House because of a possible appearance of impropriety.
  • Archer travels to Ukraine to pitch a real estate fund and meets Mykola Zlochevsky, co-founder of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma and former ecology minister under the deposed pro-Russian president Yanukovitch. The new government, with the encouragement of the Obama Administration, was investigating whether Zlochevsky had used his position to benefit Burisma. In early 2014, Zlochevsky begins setting up a new board to clean up Burisma’s image and recruits former Polish president Kwasniewski as a member, who then convinces Archer to join as well.
  • Hunter recommends to Archer the law firm Boies, Schiller, Flexner (where he is “of counsel”) to improve Burisma’s “corporate governance”. They bring the investigative firm Nardello & Co. to look into corruption at Burisma, and Hunter joins the Burisma board in April 2014. At this point, Joe Biden is a major player in US policy towards Ukraine. According to the New Yorker piece, Hunter says that his father “discussed Burisma with him just once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’ ””
  • Also during this period, Hunter continues to have relapses in his efforts to lay off alcohol and drugs and engages is a number of rehabilitation programs. In 2013 he fails a Navy reserve drug test, which results in his discharge in February 2014.

What follows is a sad tale of personal decline, family tragedy, and perhaps eventual redemption, which to me seems of no legitimate public concern.

There’s a lot here that smells, shall we say, a little fishy. I think it’s a fair judgement that Hunter was presented with things of value mostly or entirely because he was Joe Biden’s son: amazing mortgage loans, cushy jobs, partnerships in equity funds to which he brought neither experience or money, seats on corporate boards, and eventually business deals in places like China and Ukraine. Clearly, there were people in the Obama administration who were concerned about how all this looked. Joe Biden seemed to have a few qualms as well, but he apparently never raised any objections to any of it.

But is there a scandal here? I would have to say: No, not really.

Certainly not by the standards set by the Trump adminstration, where semi-overt corruption has become the norm. Trump never divested himself from his businesses, and his claim that he has no involvement because they are being run by Donaldito and Eric is laughable and transparently false. As the New York Times points out, the two sons continue to pursue business deals around the world which directly benefit them and Trump himself. Ivanka never divested her companies either, despite her official position in the White House, and she has gained business licenses in China, Japan, and other countries that seem, well, not unconnected to her position as First Daughter to the president. Never mind the numerous instances of foreign and domestic influence seekers spending money at Trump properties, sometimes for services not even used. Or Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, etc., etc.

The great difference is that TrumpWorld really doesn’t care about the optics. They just do it, take the money, and dare anyone to do anything about it. And so far the Trumps have gotten away with it scot-free.

By Washington bigwig standards, Joe Biden is not a particularly rich man, and the rise in his net worth since leaving office has come mostly from writing and speeches. (Elizabeth Warren and her husband reportedly have a higher net worth.) There has been no evidence whatever that Joe Biden benefited financially from Hunter’s business activities or that as Senator or Vice-President he delivered political favors to Hunter’s benefactors. He does seem to have kept himself at arms length from Hunter’s business. Indeed, his lack of curiosity about that might have contributed to the problem he now faces.

So maybe the nice breaks that fell Hunter’s way were just the way the world works: good things come to the rich and powerful and to their offspring. I don’t know how you would stop that, but maybe there is a way to address a part of this endemic corruption. A recent op-ed in the New York Times argues that we need to strengthen American disclosure rules:

Joe Biden and Elaine Chao have to report when someone sends them a $500 campaign donation, or when they make a $5,000 investment in a stock. But when their family members strike lucrative deals with a foreign government or oligarch, the reporting requirements are vague. The personal financial disclosure rules for American public officials should be expanded to include details concerning all their immediate family members (and not just their spouses, as the law currently states), and any dealings with foreign governments. To the public, closing a loophole this glaring seems anodyne, a no-brainer. But lawmakers set the system up this way for a reason; they will not stop the foreign cash influence game voluntarily. That’s why we need a Washington Corrupt Practices Act, one that clearly shuts down foreign influence and self-enrichment for some of America’s most powerful families on both sides of the aisle.

An Administration Openly Defying the Law It is Supposed to Enforce

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Today, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declared that five current or former State officials would not show up for scheduled depositions before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week. The depositions were part of the impeachment inquiry precipitated by Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, in which Trump–according to the official White House memcon–demanded as “a favor” that Ukraine provide material to discredit the origins of the Russian election meddling investigation and to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Yesterday, it was revealed that Pompeo, who previously had denied knowledge of the call, was actually present when the conversation took place.

This is just the latest in a series of outrageous refusals by the Trump White House to comply with lawful demands by House committees for testimony or documents that they are manifestly entitled to have. The administration instead has either flatly refused to turn over requested documents, or instructed current or former employees not to appear before the committees, or in the few instances when they did show up, as with Corey Lewandowski or Hope Hicks, instructed them to say nothing–which is exactly what they did. Perhaps the most egregious defiance was the refusal by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to deliver Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, as the law plainly requires him to do when requested.

Meanwhile, Trump has his personal lawyer (well maybe–the exact relationship isn’t totally clear) and, more ominously, his Attorney General scurrying around the world looking for something that would provide any shred of credibility for an alternative cover story that would delegitimize the Russia investigation, which Trump oddly insists totally exonerates him.  Meanwhile his actions continue to make him look like a passive patsy, if not a witting agent, of Vladimir Putin.

Trump has run the White House just as he did the Trump Organization, and indeed he has made the US government an extension of the latter. Just as he operated his businesses in closely held secrecy and skirted the edge of legality (often crossing that line), he has tried to run his presidency in the same way, hidden from public scrutiny. He staffed his government, as he did with his businesses, with people whose primary qualification was loyalty to him and made clear that he expected them to regard the agencies they were put in charge of as organizations to be gutted, looted, and turned to serving his and his supporters’ private agendas.

It is nothing short of amazing that to this day the American public knows next to nothing about the financial entanglements of Trump’s business enterprises (which he never divested) even though the press has turned up plenty of leads that point in the direction of suspicious sources of financing. Unlike previous presidents, we have no idea how rich he actually is, or where his money comes from, or who he owes money to, or whether he paid taxes and if he did, how much. The Mueller investigation inexplicably never went there. Now the House Ways and Means Committee has received “credible allegations” from a whistleblower (presumably at the IRS) of “‘evidence of possible misconduct’ — specifically, potential ‘inappropriate efforts to influence’ the mandatory audit program” with regard to Trump’s tax returns. Still nada from Treasury or the IRS.

Now Trump has gotten caught red-handed trying to extort a foreign government for his personal benefit. His response is to do what he has always done, which is to deny what is plainly in view, whine that he’s being persecuted for political reasons, make up counter-accusations, and assemble a platoon of expensive lawyers to intimidate his accusers and fight compliance with the judicial authorities, which in this case is the US Congress.

The difference is that this time, he sits in the White House, and his chief lawyer is the Attorney General of the United States, the man who heads law enforcement for the US Government. And the president is openly hinting at “civil war” if impeachment moves forward.

We, as a country, have no template for dealing with this situation. Watergate is the closest analogy, but this time the issues and what’s at stake are far more serious. (It’s worth observing that Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell, wound up going to prison.) The outcome ultimately depends on what Senate Republicans fear more: the wrath of Trump and his rabid rabble, or a majority of Americans who are simply fed up with this shit.