Trump’s use of troops for political stunt comes under heavy fire

Obama in Florida.

Donald Trump’s decision to send military troops to the southern border is being increasingly criticized as a naked and cynical move to make political points with American troops. (See my October 30 article, Trump willingness to use the military for crassly political purposes sets off alarms.)

Former President Barack Obama on Friday combined mockery and outrage as he told the audience at a political rally in Florida about Trump’s move.

“They’re telling you the existential threat to America is a bunch of poor refugees 1,000 miles away,” he said. “They’re even taking our brave troops away from their families for a political stunt at the border. And the men and women of our military deserve better than that.”

Former Obama-era Secretary of Defense and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel told CNN  on Thursday that Trump’s move “is folly. This is political distraction of the highest magnitude.”

Trump is “using our military and our troops in a very political way that … really casts a lot questions about the competency of his leadership,” Hagel said

He continued: “I know the kinds of sacrifices these men and women are involved with every day, and their families. To use them as political pawns like this for a complete fabrication is really wrong.”

Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent that a Democratic House would hold hearings on the decision.

“We would ask the Pentagon to come in and explain to us in an open public hearing what they’re doing and why,” Smith told Sargent. “I don’t think we should let the president get away with this type of policy with no justification and no explanation for it.”

A letter from Smith, three other Democrats who would take over top House investigative committees, and 104 of their colleagues to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis demands an explanation, while asserting that “This effort is nothing short of a militarization of the southern border to score political points and stoke misleading fears among Americans regarding immigrants.”

Meanwhile, Newsweek reporters James Laporta, Nicole Goodkind and Chantal Da Silva found that “multiple Pentagon sources” say the move “took officials by surprise, with many senior-level Defense Department officers saying they believed the move was politically motivated and a waste of money.”

“There is no practical or tactical reason for this to happen,” one source told Newsweek.

The AP’s Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor point out how the move goes counter to Mattis’s core mission:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has left no doubt that his top priority as leader of the military is making it more “lethal” — better at war and more prepared for it — and yet nothing about the military’s new mission at the U.S.-Mexico border advances that goal. Some argue it detracts from it.

They also quote James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and former head of U.S. Southern Command, saying the troops should be preparing for combat and other missions, “not monitoring a peaceful border.”

Trump, meanwhile, backed off his ominous statement on Thursday, indicating that the active-duty troops might open fire on migrants at the border. (See my November 1 post: Trump mocks rule of law by saying active-duty troops might open fire on migrants.)

“I didn’t say shoot. I didn’t say shoot,” Trump said Friday.

“They won’t have to fire. What I don’t want is I don’t want these people throwing rocks,” he said. “But if they do that with us, they’re going to be arrested for a long time.”

Trump mocks rule of law by saying active-duty troops might open fire on migrants

On the migrant caravan. (Save the Children)

Donald Trump said Thursday that he is ordering the active-duty U.S. troops he is sending to the southern border to open fire on migrants if they throw rocks.

Trump is using the last days before the midterms to conjure up an “invasion” scenario to rile up his political base.

But in threatening to actually use the military against would-be asylum seekers, he’s also making a mockery of the rule of law, which specifically prohibits U.S. troops from engaging in domestic law enforcement. (His proposal to limit the ability of migrants to request asylum also appears to break U.S. and international law.)

Asked by a reporter if U.S. troops might fire on the migrant caravan full of women and children that is currently about 900 miles away, and moving very slowly, Trump said: “I hope not, I hope not — but it’s the military.”

Then he explained: “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. We’re gonna consider, and I told them consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say consider it a rifle.”

The scenario is absurd. When what’s left of the rag-tag caravan makes it to the U.S. border, their intent is to apply for asylum, not storm the barricades.

The Pentagon has insisted that the troops being sent to the border would operate purely in a supporting role, helping with logistics, transportation and engineering. That’s because the troops’ activities on domestic soil are strictly limited by the Posse Comitatus Act, which establishes the prohibition of military involvement in domestic law enforcement.

University of California at San Diego law professor Harry Litman does a particularly effective job of explaining the significance in a Washington Post op-ed today:

Its obscure name and rare deployment notwithstanding, the Posse Comitatus Act enshrines the bedrock democratic idea that civil society is separate from and superior to military force, and that regulation of citizens by military is antithetical to liberty.

Civil law enforcement is governed by constitutional protections and accountability to the court. Military force is governed by the law of war and the imperative of national defense against other militaries. They serve critically different functions, practically and morally; and they ought not overlap.

I wrote on Tuesday about the danger posed by Trump’s casual use of active-duty troops for nakedly political purposes.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy expressed outrage at Trump’s lates comments: “I didn’t think I’d live to see the day when an American president threatens lethal military force against individuals who are throwing rocks. The professionals in our military are among the best in the world, and have invested countless hours and tax dollars in training about the lawful use of force to accomplish their mission. The illegal and immoral practice the President endorsed is beneath their and our country’s dignity.”

Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s human rights projects, tweeted:

Also today, Deborah Pearlstein, a Cardozo law school professor, pointed out that the current deployment of about 2,000 National Guard troops is arguably a violation of the law.

The Guard deployment was authorized under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, which allows the Guard to be used for operational homeland defense activities. That means providing protection that is “critical to national security, from a threat or aggression against the United States.”

Pearlstein, in a conference call arranged by the American Constitution Society, said there is obviously no immediate threat to the homeland – nothing remotely like an “invasion” of the sort Trump warns about.

“I actually think it is a national security concern,” she said, but only “because it is a national security threat for the president to apply troops in this way.”

She continued: “The word ‘war’ and the words ‘national security’ get used all the time…. If you care about those kinds of threats out there, avoiding the temptation to let that language be overused and misused is very important.”

Clapper and Hayden liken radicalization of extremists by Trump to ISIS and al Qaeda

Clapper and Hayden at George Mason University. (C-SPAN)

In an extraordinary exchange on Wednesday first reported by Deep State website editor Jefferson Morley, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and former CIA head Michael Hayden directly likened the radicalization of domestic terrorists by Donald Trump to the radicalization of extremists by ISIS and al Qaeda.

Clapper, who was the intended recipient of one of the pipe bombs sent to prominent Trump critics last week, said Trump’s words were having a radicalizing effect “not unlike what I experienced with the likes of ISIS.”

“And as long as a ‘stable genius‘ creates an environment that can seemingly condone this sort of behavior, we’re going to have more of it, I’m convinced,” he said.

Hayden agreed. “I don’t want to oversimplify this and create an equivalency, but there are parallels.”

Clapper said there’s a new breed of “political dissidents” who “now have a set of grievances to which they can attach themselves that have been essentially articulated by the president of the United States of America.”

The two former intelligence heads were the keynote speakers at a discussion on threats to U.S. democratic institutions hosted by the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School on Wednesday.

You can watch the video of the discussion of radicalization here, on the C-SPAN website.

The event was moderated by Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, who asked the two men:

Do you think this is the end of it, or do you think we’re in the middle of a long process in which people are being radicalized and are going to try to carry out their anger violently?

Clapper replied:

Regrettably, yes, I think personally we’re probably in for more of this sort of thing….

This is how people get energized, radicalized. It’s not unlike what I experienced with the likes of ISIS, who was very successful at using social media only, to recruit and radicalize people. And it’s almost, to me, a very similar psychology at work here. And as long as a “stable genius” creates an environment that can seemingly condone this sort of behavior, we’re going to have more of it, I’m convinced.

Hayden followed Clapper’s statement with a long explanation of radicalization that I think is worth getting on the record:

I don’t want to oversimplify this and create an equivalency, but there are parallels. We were asked, looking at the radicalization of Islamist terrorists, alright? One of the questions, one of the arguments that we had, is, well, is this the ideology of al Qaeda or Isis, or is this really just unhappy young males who don’t have a good job. And the answer is yes, alright?

What’s the character in children’s fiction, the pushmi-pullyu? Remember that? This is a push-me-pull-you. So, societies create folks — more often than not young men — who are unattached, who are disappointed, who are fearful, who feel as if they have grievance, and they look for something larger than self – and something larger than self to which they can attach themselves.

Now in some cases it is a very positive step. They join the Army. They join the boys club. Alright? The way I used to phrase it back at CIA was this probably has more to do with the Crips and the Bloods than it does with the Holy Koran when it comes to radicalization. With the meaning being that the same dynamic that draws someone to join a gang is probably the same personal dynamic that makes someone attach that grievance to this larger cause. But then the point I make is: It matters what gang you join.

And so what you get are individuals who are unhappy – violence-prone on their own, with a great sense of grievance who now get legitimization and justification for their grievance by attaching it to something larger than themselves.

For an Islamist terrorist, it could be a particularly violent version of one of the world’s great monotheisms. For political dissidents, they now – and this is the newness part — they now have a set of grievances to which they can attach themselves that have been essentially articulated by the president of the United States of America.

And if you look at the bomber, I mean, it’s all about – [Goldberg interjects: “It’s all there on the van.”] It’s all there.

If you look at the incident in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, alright? There’s a latent anti-Semitism. But the proximate cause was his belief that international Jewry was sponsoring the invasion of America from that caravan, still a thousand miles from the Rio Grande — which has been a constant theme coming out of the White House.

So I guess to answer your question a little bit, I’m kinda with Jim, in the current atmosphere I don’t think we have any reason to believe that this is going to stop. It’s just hard to predict when that combination may happen again.

Morley has more, including the two men’s comments on how Trump’s behavior is damaging the country’s democratic institutions, perhaps irretrievably. “We have four years to stop him,” Morley quotes Hayden. “We don’t have eight.”

Jonathan Swan, whose ‘exclusive’ blew up in his face, is the poster child for getting played by Trump’s White House

Jonathan Swan, looking very pleased. (Screenshot)

Jonathan Swan, who covers the White House for Axios, is getting lots of well-deserved grief for his giddy and enabling exchange with Donald Trump over birthright citizenship, which led to an enormous and embarrassing media circus on Tuesday as news organizations chased Swan’s story, hyped it, then (in most cases) realized it was just that much more Trump bullshit aimed at riling up his base before the midterms.

Swan is the poster child for Axios, the noxious political website created by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei as proof that worming ones way into getting access to highly-placed sources is way more profitable than, say, actual journalism.

Swan is an Axios scoop machine. But consider what he’s scooping.

The folks who hand him “exclusives” are not brave whistleblowers doing a public service by exposing lies.

They’re people who know Swan will play his role in their game of attention-getting score-settling.

Swan knows exactly what the game is, and how little it has to do with actual journalistic values. I know he knows, because he wrote an article about it for Axios back in May. Why do you leak? He asked his White House sources.

“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”[…]

The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”[…]

A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.[…]

Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.

This actually leaves out what may be the most common form of Trump White House leak: The trial balloon. Trial balloons are planted leaks (or “pleaks“) to test public reaction to a policy proposal – with the added benefit that they reduce the shock element and make it feel like old news once the proposal is formally announced. It was a tried and true White House tactic long before Trump. But it’s never been used to float such abhorrent proposals.

I browsed through some of Swan’s biggest scoops, and found stories like like Exclusive: Trump vents in Oval Office, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” and Exclusive: A leaked Trump bill to blow up the WTO or Scoop: Leaked document reveals Navarro’s brashest tariffs yet, all of which seemed like pleaks, intended to test and soften the resistance to what was to come.

I found Scoop: Trump’s obsession with the “terrible” FBI building, in which Swan writes admiringly about Trump’s desire to micromanage the rebuilding of the downtown FBI headquarters – while missing the obvious story, which is that Trump blocked a plan to move the FBI elsewhere, which would have made room for a luxury hotel that would have competed with his own.

I also found a lot of gossipy clickbait like Scoop: Kelly says Trump probably contributing to staff chaos stories or Exclusive: Trump’s nightmare: “The snakes are everywhere”.

Swan also had a huge scoop in September, when he reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. “Rod Rosenstein has verbally resigned,” he initially reported, later changing that to “offered to resign.”

As for Swan’s big, credulous no-pushback birthright citizenship scoop, sharp-eyed reporters saw the problem right away. The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein was surely among the first:

There was much more to com.

At Splinter, Libby Watson wrote:

At best, Swan has his priorities extremely out of whack, positioning the value of his exciting scoop over the horrifying implications of this policy; at worst, he doesn’t care about what this change would mean at all, and had to be reminded to pretend that he might. (The Axios piece does not contain the word “racist” or “racism.”)

Matthew Ingram wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review that the whole incident

amplified the concern that some media outlets still don’t appear to have learned one of the central lessons of the Trump presidency: He will routinely say things that aren’t even close to being true, and if you credulously repeat them—even in tweets—without saying they are false, you are arguably part of the problem.

The Intercept’s Sam Biddle declared that “the new video clip debuted today by Axios may be the ne plus ultra of media toadying.”

But hey, some good may well come of all this.

Swan’s question was so clearly staged for PR purposes, Trump’s supposed plan was so implausible, his insistence that the U.S. is alone in its birthright policy was such an incontrovertible lie, and the whole thing was such an obvious attempt to get attention before the midterms, that this may prove to be a turning point in Trump coverage.

You could actually watch such a turn at the New York Times in real time on Tuesday. First came the breathless, credulous news story (in pink), which was eventually rendered accurate (see the edits in green). It was then joined by a properly contemptuous legal analysis by Adam Liptak (“The words of the 14th Amendment are plain”), which then made way for a Peter Baker front-pager worth celebrating, about how Trump “seems to be throwing almost anything he can think of against the wall to see what might stick, no matter how untethered from political or legal reality.”

Does that mean the Times won’t get fooled again, next time Trump plays the media for chumps? And that other major newsrooms have finally learned their lesson? I wouldn’t bet on it, but a guy can hope.

Stop letting Trump hog the spotlight

Bernie Sanders in 2016,

Major news organizations need to start paying less attention to Donald Trump, and more attention to the voices of the American majority who hold starkly different values.

Starting with Bernie Sanders.

Let me explain.

I spent a chunk of yesterday engaging in spirited social media discussions about who, what and where the voices of anti-Trumpism are, and why they aren’t a more significant part of the elite political discourse. I had written a post about core values I think most people share, that Trump does not.

Then, this morning I awoke to a classic example of how anything Trump says can immediately dominate the news cycle.

In an interview that was intended to generate ratings for Axios’s latest venture — and obviously granted by Trump as a favor to the publication in return for its slavish devotion to his every word — reporter Jonathan Swan joyfully goaded Trump into making the hyperbolic assertion that he would proceed to end birthright citizenship. He also didn’t counter Trump’s blatant lie about the U.S. being the only country with that policy (30 countries have it.)

Now, that’s something he can’t do and probably won’t even try to do, but it perfectly served Axios’s need for attention and Trump’s ongoing campaign to make the midterms a referendum on scary immigrants, rather than him.

Other news organization responded with speed and alarming credulity, some making it sound, at least initially, like a done deal — and failing to even hint to readers that this was not the least bit credible.

Let’s stipulate: The man gets way too much attention.

So back to yesterday’s discussion.

What I heard pretty consistently is that there is no one voice of anti-Trumpism, there are multitudes. That is in part because the nature of the beast.


And it’s true. The notion of putting all one’s faith in the Leader is High Trumpism. Progressives are more iconoclastic and diverse. Similarly:


To which Rebecca Solnit herself responded: “The opposite of charismatic authoritarian leaders is leadership in civil society: all of us.”

But on the other hand, I also heard a lot of this:

And this:


And this:


The runner-up was Beto.


But right behind were Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and some newer voices as well.

So why aren’t these people’s voices being heard every day – and not just as “critics” quoted in an article about Trump, but in articles of their own?

One explanation struck me as particularly convincing. For some reason it won’t embed, so I’ll just cut-and-paste. Lara A. Ballard wrote:

Well, a lot of them are women or minorities, so they get pilloried by white male leftists the minute they stick their neck out. So, for example, if I threw out the name “Kamala Harris,” the reaction on your FB feed would be like I was chumming the water for sharks.

I responded:

The political media and political establishment across the spectrum still tend to squelch women and minority voices relative to white men. I don’t think it’s fair to say that white male leftists inevitably pillory, but I think that if, as seems reasonable, the voices of anti-Trumpism are mostly women and minority, that would partly explain why it’s not being heard more loudly. Depressing. So how do we fix?

And Lara Ballard wrote back:

Good on ya for your response. If you want to know what it takes to fix this problem, it starts with white men like yourselves teaching yourselves not to holler like a hit dog at the mere mention of the topic. I got all sorts of white woman privilege myself. Restraining my own urge to holler takes training. We have to take a deep breath and say to ourselves, “I’m not always going to be in charge here, and that’s okay.” Like, maybe this isn’t even our problem to fix, and we should take the lead from some members of racial minorities who might already know how to fix it, if we would just listen to them and let them lead us.

Another possible explanation for the lack of coverage in the national press corps is that the action is local.


And finally, there was a fair amount of media bashing, some of it completely deserved:

Been down so long it’s looking up? Pro-democracy effort kicks off on Nov. 7

The good news when it comes to America’s ailing democracy is that there’s so much bad news that the moment is ripe for a comprehensive fix.

At least that’s the thinking that enlivens a new, broad-based campaign to expand voting rights, enforce ethics, and limit money in politics. The push for all three begins the day after so many others campaigns end: On November 7.

“Opportunities for major political reforms do not come along very often,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, one of 100 national groups cosigning the Declaration for American Democracy.

“We have today a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and a democracy under attack from within,” he said. “The stage is set for major reforms.”

The coalition is focusing on major structural issues. “Only by winning foundational reforms to our politics, can we hope to move forward the substantive policies,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. She led a conference call on Tuesday.

The group’s goals are “to rebalance our moneyed political system, empower everyday Americans, ensure equal justice for all, protect the public’s right to know, reduce barriers to participation in our elections, vigorously enforce voting laws, and fix our ethics laws.”

Wertheimer, the dean of campaign finance reform, said there’s never been as large a coalition taking such a holistic approach.

But how do you get heard over the din? With the news cycle being so fast, how to do you get people to focus on long-term structural issues?

“So many folks are recognizing that this is essential,” Gilbert said. “By joining together we will be infinitely louder and able to cut through.”

“There’s no question that the American people are basically disgusted with the way the system works,” Wertheimer said. “That doesn’t get you over the hump. But this coalition has the capacity for grass roots action, which is the key to winning these fights,” he said. “They will not be won in Washington.”

That said, coalition members realize their job will be easier if Democrats take at least one chamber on November 6.

Democrats have said that their top priority if they win the House will be passing a sweeping reform package and coalition members are working on it.

“We’ve had a lot of trouble getting Republicans to join in these reform efforts, so I don’t expect them to join at first,” Wertheimer said. “But over time, that will change.”

The coalition’s goals are not Trump-specific. But, as Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible put it, “A healthy body would have rejected Trump just like a healthy body rejects a virus.”