Trump willingness to use the military for crassly political purposes sets off alarms

Trump on USS Gerald Ford
Trump aboard the U.S.S. Gerald Ford in March 2017. At the commissioning ceremony, he encouraged servicemembers to lobby on his behalf.

By sending 5,200 active-duty troops to the southern border where there is no invasion and no war zone, Donald Trump is using the military for nakedly political purposes.

“This is using the troops as props,” Jason Dempsey, a former infantry officer now at the Center for a New American Security, told the New York Times.

And not just the troops. According to the Washington Post, Trump is also sending Black Hawk helicopters with “night-vision capabilities and sensors, carrying troops trained in the kind of aerial combat missions used by the military in active war zones.”

The deployment is being called “Operation Faithful Patriot.”

The major theme of Trump’s pitch in the run-up to the midterm elections next week is that this is a nation under siege. He has called particular attention to a ragtag caravan of migrants 900 miles away traveling on foot and hoping to be granted asylum. Sending troops is a way to keep that story in the news, and ratchet up the drama.

This use of troops is troubling not just because it’s a waste of resources, heightens tensions at the border, raises some potentially thorny legal issues, and is flatly embarrassing.

It’s also the first clear sign that Trump, who loves surrounding himself with military pomp and subservient generals, and who treats appearances before military audiences like campaign rallies, also has no compunction about asserting his commander-in-chief authority for overt personal and political gain.

And it could only get worse. Defense Secretary James Mattis is said to have kept some of Trump’s worst impulses in check, but he is widely seen as a dead man walking in Washington, soon to be replaced by someone whose qualifications will almost inevitably include loyalty to Trump.

The New York Times last month quoted “aides” who “said Mr. Trump was pondering whether he wanted someone running the Pentagon who would be more vocally supportive than Mr. Mattis, who is vehemently protective of the American military against perceptions it could be used for political purposes.”

A few weeks later, Trump described Mattis as “sort of a Democrat” in an interview on “60 Minutes” and said “it could be” that he’s going to be leaving soon.

Fundamentally, Trump seems to have no appreciation or even recognition of two of the most important safeguards of democracy: civilian control of the military; and the military’s detachment from politics.

He has put generals in top positions of power – including at the White House and the Pentagon. And he has delegated most – but not all – decisions to military leaders.

After a disastrous mission in Niger in October, Trump said “my generals and my military, they have decision-making ability” – while at the same time blaming them for the mission.

Less than three weeks into his presidency, Trump kicked off a speech at MacDill Air Force Base by celebrating his election victory and referencing polls that showed support from a large percentage of the military.

“We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he said. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”

In July 2017, at the commissioning of an aircraft carrier, Trump asked the largely uniformed audience to call their lawmakers to pass his budget.

A few months later, at the Coast Guard commencement, Trump complained bitterly about his treatment by the press and critics: “No politician in history – and  I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said. “The people understand what I’m doing – that’s the most important thing.”

In Thanksgiving addresses to troops last year, Trump praised himself: “We’re really winning. We know how to win. But we have to let you win,” he said. “They weren’t letting you win before.”

Will Trump’s next political use of the military be abroad? There have of course already been several questionable acts. Five days into office, he casually approved a raid in Yemen that killed women and children while failing to achieve any of its objectives — then lied about it and used a Navy SEAL’s widow to make him look presidential at his first congressional address. His continued support of the Saudi coalition bombing campaign ravaging Yemen defies any non-political explanation. His April 2018 strikes on Syria raised questions of whether he was “wagging the dog” to distract attention from the Robert Mueller probe.

Trump’s abuse of his commander-in-chief powers will become much more likely if he fires Mattis, replaces him with someone more amenable, and further succumbs to his ulra-hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who has previously called for military action against Iran.

Could Trump even turn to the military for support in a political crisis? And how would it respond?

Two data points from a recent Military Times poll offer some insight into the latter question. Trump’s “approval rating among active-duty military personnel has slipped over the last two years, leaving today’s troops evenly split over whether they’re happy with the commander in chief’s job performance,” the poll found. And officers have a “significantly lower” opinion of him than enlisted troops.

What, who or where are the voices of the anti-Trump majority?

Lafayette Square, June 30, 2018.
Lafayette Square, June 30, 2018.

Every day, we hear and read Donald Trump spew hate and lies and division.

Increasingly, we are seeing its effects.

But if – as I still firmly believe — that does not represent who we are as a people, and the majority of Americans reject Trump’s values, then why aren’t we hearing those voices more loudly?

To find the antithetical view to one political party, we generally turn to the opposition party. (And as I wrote on Friday, the midterm elections nest week present a hugely significant opportunity for the people to be heard.) But if the Democratic Party were a coherent, effective, consistent and sincere voice of anti-Trumpist values, I wouldn’t be asking this question in the first place.

Maybe it’s the media’s fault. Maybe those voices are out there – many of them women and minorities – but our elite journalistic organizations can’t hear them, or don’t want to, or don’t think what they have to say is news, certainly not day after day.

But for now, here’s a not-well-ordered first-draft list of some of the principles that I think most Americans share that I think get drowned out because Trump is so loud abut expressing his own:

  • We are not a white-nationalist nation, and we don’t want to be.
  • We are a pluralistic nation that values diversity.
  • We oppose divisive rhetoric.
  • We believe that empathy is essential to political leadership.
  • We oppose the politics of fear.
  • We respect leaders who constantly tell the truth, rather than those who constantly lie.
  • We don’t think that our society’s problems are simple and that the right Leader can fix them easily.
  • We think our society’s problems are complex, and the solutions are sometimes hard.
  • We support a free press, particularly when it holds the powerful accountable, and even when we disagree with it.
  • We strive for domestic tranquility, not a society with armed guards everywhere.
  • We oppose political violence and political terrorism.
  • We don’t blame others for our problems.
  • We think a president should abandon partisanship in moments of national crisis.
  • We listen to women, and oppose any force that systematically diminishes them or their contributions.
  • Same for people of color, immigrants — or anyone.
  • We believe the government has no say in people’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or what they do with their bodies.
  • We believe that the government has a responsibility to provide a robust social safety net.

I just don’t see these as particularly controversial. Do you? And do you feel like you hear them sufficiently voiced in the political discourse?

Surely there are much better versions of this list out there. Point me to them. Suggest changes.

Earlier today, I posted my question on Facebook:

And Twitter:

A fascinating and thoughtful discussion is currently ongoing. Come join in, either there or in comments. I’ll pull some of the most insightful observations together for a new blog post.

What’s at stake in the midterms? Who we are.

Your Vote CountsDo a majority of Americans still value pluralism, and facts, and empathy? Is that still who we are?

You wouldn’t know it from following the news, where it’s all Trump all the time. Sometimes Trump pushback. But still Trump.

I suspect that his brilliant showmanship is part of the reason why 42 percent of Americans (47 according to one particularly terrifying poll) say they approve of the job he’s doing.

He’s been the undeniable ringleader of the circus.

And there’s been no effective way for the people watching it all, in horror, to make themselves heard over the din.

Until now.

So we’ll get a better idea of who we are as a country on November 6. And if a Blue Wave comes, it will be the start of a counter-narrative.

Voting for Congress in 2018 is actually a lousy way for the public to express its core values. Democratic candidates are running eclectic campaigns, often choosing what they think is pragmatism over framing the election as a choice between fundamentally different values. Money and gerrymandering distort democracy. The Democratic Party is weak, fickle, and corrupted by money. The best expressions of American values arguably lie outside the current Democratic-Republican axis.

But in the absence of any other effective form of collective action, it’s all we’ve got.

If Democrats win even one chamber of Congress, there will be another center of power in Washington, another locus of news. There will be another story to tell.

There will be a news peg to broadcast the views of the (I think) majority of Americans who feel disgust at Trump, what he stands for, what he is doing, and how he has cultivated and aroused strains of anger, violence, and racism in this country that had seemed to be in remission.

And, to the extent that those Democrats take action based on fundamental values, there will be something to organize around. I’ve been stunned by how few options ordinary people who are outraged have had to effectively express the importance and urgency of taking back the country from a president they feel has hijacked it.

There was the Women’s March, then pretty much nothing. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court was such a concentrated expression of Trumpism that it prompted a ferocious grassroots response – so powerful that it did, in fact, establish a counter-narrative, for a while. But that, too, passed.

The next 11 days provide the best opportunity yet for people who are traumatized by Trumpism to show themselves – by voting, and by helping get out the vote.

After that, perhaps the American political narrative will shift. Trump’s latest odious lie will no longer lead the news. Instead, we’ll be watching smart, aggressive oversight of the executive branch. And we’ll be talking about legislation that serves as a blueprint for a post-Trump restoration.

Jerry Brown’s new job: Warning the world of the danger of Trump’s nuclear arms race

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock ticked 30 seconds closer to apocalypse earlier this year.

The recent abandonment of a significant nuclear arms treaty with Russia was the most concrete result yet of Donald Trump’s enthusiasm to start a global nuclear arms race.

Trump has been clear that he actually relishes the prospect of a major nuclear-arms buildup. Before he even took office, he tweeted:

On Monday, he had this rambling, repetitive and sometimes baffling exchange with reporters (what does he mean by “come to their sense” or “get smart”?):

Q Mr. President, are you prepared to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal? You said you’re going to pull out of the arms deal.

THE PRESIDENT: Until people come to their senses, we will build it up. Until people come to their senses. Russia has not adhered to the agreement. This should’ve been done years ago. Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up. Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop. And we’ll — and by the way, not only stop, we’ll reduce, which I would love to do. But right now, they have not adhered to the agreement.

Q Is that a threat to Vladimir Putin?

THE PRESIDENT: It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.

Q You want more nukes is what you’re saying? You’re building up the nuclear arsenal.

Q (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: Until people get smart. Until they get smart. They have not adhered to the spirit of that agreement, or to the agreement itself — Russia. China is not included in the agreement. They should be included in the agreement. Until they get smart, there will be nobody that’s going to be even close to us.

Even though it’s the only political issue that could kill us all any day now, nuclear weapons policy has gotten very little attention in Washington over the past several decades.

(Barack Obama, despite his soaring speech in Prague in 2009 extolling “a world without nuclear weapons,” quietly put in place a plan to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades on a whole new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.)

But the Los Angeles Times reports today that California soon-to-step-down Gov. Jerry Brown is coming to Washington to sound the alarm. “My fellow politicians are totally asleep here,” Brown told John Myers. “We’re in a real predicament.”

Myers writes:

Few topics produce more fiery rhetoric from Jerry Brown, delivered with equal doses of exhortation and exasperation, than the threat posed by nuclear weapons. And as he exits the state’s political stage, California’s governor will expand his role in the global debate over nuclear disarmament.

Brown accepted an invitation Thursday to become the executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Chicago-based organization best known for its Doomsday Clock that is reset periodically to measure the threat of global annihilation. He will join the group’s leaders at their next meeting in early November.

“There’s no doubt we’re at one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous point, since the atomic bomb was first dropped,” Brown said in an interview. “There’s great and mounting hostility.”

Brown identified Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, as a particular nemesis. “He is dedicated to tearing up all the nuclear agreements,” Brown told Myers. “Nuclear deterrence only works if there’s arms control.” (See this Politico story about how much Bolton loves tearing up treaties.)

Brown’s new organization ticked the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock up 30 second to two minutes from midnight earlier this year, presumably in part because of Trump’s boasting that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korea’s – and in part because of his overall flightiness.

The Bulletin also published a Q&A with its new leader. Brown said:

I think it’s crucial to wake people up to the dangers that still persist so many years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. The peril grows and in no way diminishes. I think it’s important that scientists, political leaders, and other people who have positions of responsibility take the time to understand and probe into the basic issues that, if not handled right, could eliminate the whole human race.

And he had an interesting observation about why the topic gets so little media attention:

Unfortunately, the news in the so-called democratic societies, particularly in America, is a function of conflict. It’s the conflict engendered by the president or against the president through tweets, through congressional battles. That dominates a lot of news, and the risk of the end of the world is not news. The risk of even great catastrophe is not news. Smaller issues are.

Incidentally, Foreign Affairs is just out with a new issue all about nuclear weapons. It asks, somewhat perplexingly: “Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?”

Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage

Don Lemon
CNN anchor Don Lemon is one of a very few journalists willing to show his disgust at Trump’s most outrageous conduct. (CNN)
It’s nice that the Washington Post and the New York Times the other day both ran articles pointing out that Donald Trump’s main strategy in the midterm elections is to traffic in fear and falsehoods.

It’s nice that PBS Newshour had the Toronto Star’s must-follow Trump-tracker Daniel Dale on the other night, patiently explaining to Judy “we call them false statements” Woodruff that “in our regular lives, I think the word we would use is lie. So, I think we as journalists should use it in our articles as well.”

All that fact-checking out there sure is fine, especially when it comes online while the lie is still young.

And the overall tone of Trump coverage from our top newsrooms has clearly become more skeptical over time.

But it’s all still a wildly understated reaction to a presidency that is an affront to so many core American – and journalistic – values.

Let’s be real: The vast majority of political journalists have been stifling their outrage ever since Donald Trump became a plausible candidate for president.

But by stifling that outrage, they have done a grave disservice to their audiences and to country.

By responding normally, they have unwittingly sent the message that what is going on is within the realm of the normal, when it is not.

They have let Trump widen the boundaries of socially acceptable discourse to include poisonous strains of overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny.

They have failed to defend against the erosion of democratic institutions.

Trump played the mainstream media for fools. He knew political journalists would be paralyzed into stenography by their phobia of appearing politically biased. He knew — he still knows — that every time he makes a preposterous statement, they’ll give him a megaphone, rather than a dunce cap.

Washington Post editor Marty Barron famously asserted that his organization isn’t covering Trump any differently than it would any other president. “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work,” he said.

But what is the work of a journalist? It starts with doing our best to deliver accurate information to the public — and then extends to advocacy for such core journalistic values as fair play, free speech, government transparency, a humane society, and holding the powerful accountable.

There’s a reason that not one of the top 50 American newspapers’ editorial boards endorsed Trump for president – even those that traditionally sided with Republicans. They recognized that Trump’s values are antithetical to journalism’s.

There’s a reason media outlets are having such a hard – and sometimes embarrassing – time finding Trump supporters to write op-eds or take part in panels. They don’t process facts or use language the way journalists do.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Vox’s Ezra Klein recently had a spirited conversation about journalism in the Trump era, exploring Klein’s hypothesis that political journalists haven’t just failed to make politics better, but are actually making it worse.

Rosen despaired that members of the political media never stop to take stock of things, and never seriously consider changing their ways.

There have certainly been several appropriate occasions to do so recently, including the failure to challenge the specious arguments for war in Iraq, and missing the financial implosion of 2008 until it was too late. Giving rise to Trump and then failing to explain him properly may be the worst yet.

“The erosion of democratic institutions — not just the press but all of them” is a key element of Trump’s political movement, Rosen said. “I don’t think our journalists have learned how to angle their work so they can defend democratic institutions, and they probably need to at this point because it’s getting so bad.”

The standard defense from our newsroom leaders is that the voting public is divided on what I am calling core American values.

But if Trump were denying gravity — it is just a theory after all — and a big chunk of Americans backed him up, we’d recognize two things quite clearly:

  1. We have not done our job very well, if people believe something so idiotic; and
  2. We have a responsibility to point out – consistently, aggressively, without any caveats — that he is wrong, and that things fall down.

Sometimes it feels to me like the most important requirement to work in a major newsroom these days is to be unflappable. Well, sometimes flapping is the appropriate response.

So how would justifiable outrage manifest itself? Every time Trump is being deceptive, the main thrust of the story should be the truth, not the lie. The story should vividly illustrate how wrong he is. It should point out how no president before has ever lied this much.

Journalists should not shy away from expressing their own informed conclusions about what is true and what is not. Many stories should include quotes from experts in their field — who are treated as trusted sources who know what they’re talking about, not marginalized as “critics.”

When Trump lies in a tweet about wanting to protect people with pre-existing conditions, that’s a great time to write about how the opposite is true. When he lies about wanting a middle class tax cut, that’s a great time to write about how he lied about last year’s massive tax cut for the rich.

Trump is hardly unique when it comes to violating core American and journalistic values. George W. Bush committed the ultimate presidential sin: lying us into war and then trying to cover it up. Barack Obama, despite his vaunted speech to Muslims calling for a new relationship, dropped 26,172 bombs in seven predominately Muslim countries in his last year in office alone. Despite his public commitment to transparency, he made up rules for drone and cyber warfare unilaterally and in secret.

But Trump’s affronts are across the board, and constant.

Back in July, I wrote at great length about how the rebirth of the deflated Los Angeles Times Washington bureau could become an occasion for the sort of journalistic revolution I’m looking for. California newspapers are the natural vanguard. As I wrote (initially on Medium):

A supermajority of Californians see Trump for what he is. California is future-focused — in distinct contrast to Trump’s fantastical visions of a mythological past that he wants to return to. California is leading the state-level resistance to Trump initiatives in areas such as environmental deregulation, health care, immigration and voting rights. Its people are multicultural and pluralistic. They take seriously their role as stewards of the earth.

So from California, the view is clear: Trump is a profoundly regressive force whose actions and statements are dangerous. And he’s being enabled. Congress has abdicated its role as a check to presidential power. The Supreme Court is no longer committed to protecting minority rights. The result: an irrational and unrestrained president threatens the future of our country as a pluralistic constitutional democracy.

A bureau that openly embraces this view as a baseline… would cover Trump very differently from more typical DC reporters, who censor themselves for fear of appearing to take sides.

But that never went anywhere.

I tweeted my intention to write about this topic earlier today, and got some valuable responses. (One of which is already reflected above.)

I like this idea very much:

My ideas tend to stem from my idealism about journalism. Constantly exposing Trump’s con game is a very practical antidote to Trumpism, and potentially highly effective at bringing people who have been deceived by Trump back to reality.

This tweet is a powerful argument against everything I’ve written above, and I partly agree:

And this tweet reflects the existential despair I felt the other day, seeing a (hopefully outlier) poll reporting that 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing.

Do half of Americans consciously and intentionally reject what I still think of as core American values? For now, I’m going to continue to hope that it’s an aberration — a fluke of history — that journalists can help reverse.

Mueller is waiting to make his report until after the midterms. That could be a huge mistake.

Mueller in 2012.
Mueller in 2012. White House photo)

Special counsel Robert Mueller is widely thought to be on the brink of issuing his findings — in the form of indictments, a report, or both — related to the most significant allegations against Donald Trump.

According to Bloomberg reporters Chris Strohm, Greg Farrell, and Shannon Pettypiece, “Mueller is close to rendering judgment” on whether there was collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign and whether Trump obstructed justice — but he’s planning to wait until after the midterms to act on his findings.

This is presumably at least in part due to Justice Department tradition (rather than a firm guideline) that prosecutors avoid dropping politically-sensitive bombs close to elections. The intent is to maintain the appearance that law enforcement is entirely free of political considerations. And while that may sound quaint in this day and age, it remains very much the case that for prosecutors to act with the intent of influencing an election would be a dangerous and deeply troubling abuse of power.

But if Mueller has collected overwhelming evidence that the Republican Party and/or its leader have been complicit in serious crimes, doesn’t the public deserve to know now, before the election?

So consider this possibility: Republicans retain the Senate in the midterms, giving them the power to confirm any Trump appointee they want, and when Mueller finally decides to share the information he has collected, it is so profoundly damning that it might indeed have tilted the election.

In that case, isn’t not acting actually the worse sin?

The specter of former FBI director James Comey is surely haunting Mueller and affecting his thinking. But there are actually two takeaways from Comey’s unprecedented, unilateral decision to share his take on the Hillary Clinton email case four months before the election – and then announce a new review with only 11 days to go.

One takeaway is what a catastrophic error it is to think you know better than everyone else. Comey’s self-appointment to the role of Only Trusted Man in Washington backfired spectacularly and caused enormous damage to the FBI’s reputation – and of course Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

But the other takeaway is that there is in fact a need for a “public interest exemption” of sorts, when law enforcement is keeping secret important information that the public deserves to know.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, wrote a letter to Comey after his initial announcement noting his view that “the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest” and asking him to extend this new standard to the criminal investigation of the 2008 financial crisis.

I would argue that a public interest exemption could be especially appropriate before a critical election.

In Mueller’s case, it wouldn’t even be a matter of releasing potentially inappropriate investigative material, it would just require him not to delay the exercise of his duties.

And most people don’t seem to recognize that Mueller’s big reveal is likely to be epic, because he’s not simply pursuing a criminal matter, he’s also running a counterintelligence investigation. (Read my article about that.)

Counterintelligence investigations are vastly more expansive –as are the reports on their findings. In a criminal investigation, the only goal is indictments. In a counterintelligence investigation, the goal is to tell the whole story of what happened, to prevent it from happening again.

Mueller’s decision reminds me of a spectacularly bad one by the editors of the New York Times, before the 2004 presidential election. They suppressed the story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposing George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program until well after the election. Imagine if they hadn’t.

And Mueller’s move could also prove particularly problematic given that Trump has his own midterm calculus. He’s telegraphed quite clearly that he is prepared to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the elections. And that alone could easily hamstring, derail, or end Mueller’s investigation.

Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation because he had an obvious conflict. But his replacement, once confirmed by the Senate, presumably would not have any such conflict — and would therefore take control of the Mueller investigation back from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

In Trump’s case, not pulling the trigger is the best of both worlds. He avoids a pre-midterm mobilization of a progressive base that is literally ready to take to the streets on a moment’s notice, should he overtly interfere with the Mueller investigation.

At the same time, he and Republican enablers like Sen. Lindsay Graham have done enough advance work that Trump’s firing of Sessions – at the very least – is considered a foregone conclusion by the political media.

The result is that when Trump does fire Sessions, it will be widely covered as an “I told you so” story more than a “this is outrageous” story – even if it puts Mueller’s investigation in great jeopardy.

Mueller’s decision to keep silent until after the election has elicited almost no criticism in the mainstream media, presumably because “serious people” consider it the “responsible” thing to do.

So thank goodness we have the Onion to put the move in its proper perspective, asking “regular Americans” what they think of it: