Saturday, April 14, 2018

Trump Worse Than Nixon for Rule of Law?

      President Richard Nixon's decision to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox came like a bolt out of the blue on what was otherwise a slow-news, football weekend in October 1973. In the pre-cable news era, all three major television networks interrupted their programming to report that Cox had been fired by the previously unknown solicitor general, Robert Bork, after Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus had resigned rather than carry out Nixon's justice-obstructing order.
      Recalling the episode now 45 years later, Nick Ackerman, one of Cox's assistants, recalled on MSNBC that he left the office that night with several investigative files to safeguard them from possible disappearance or destruction. The precaution proved to be unnecessary. The reaction to the "Saturday Night Massacre" was so instantaneous and so intense that Nixon was forced to acquiesce in the appointment of a new Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.
      With rampant speculation that President Trump is now on the verge of removing special counsel Robert Mueller from the Russiagate investigation, Nixon is now being recalled, whatever his other faults, aa a believer of sorts in the rule of law. By comparison, Trump appears in this recollection to be a greater threat to the rule of law: a president who might pull out all stops — legal or not, constitutional or not — to thwart the investigation into the Trump campaign's interactions with election-meddling Russian agents.
      Nixon likely had legal authority to remove Cox, his independence at the time unprotected by statute or Justice Department regulation. Richardson and Ruckelshaus refused Nixon's order on the ground that each had promised the Senate in their confirmation hearings to safeguard Cox's position. Today, by contrast, Mueller is protected from removal by a Justice Department regulation that allows Mueller to be removed only "by the personal action of the Attorney General" for "misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause."
      With Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the Russia investigation, the removal power lies instead with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who has publicly defended Mueller's conduct in office up till now. Trump's supporters and surrogates envision indirect steps to oust Mueller — for example, by firing Rosenstein and relying on Solicitor General Noel Francisco to be as compliant to the president's wishes as Bork was 45 years ago. As another alternative, Trump could order Sessions or Rosenstein to rescind the regulation or perhaps use his supposed unitary executive power to nullify the regulation himself.
      The speculation about Mueller's possible removal intensified after the Mueller-approved FBI raid on the New York City offices of Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohenr, on Monday (Aprl 9), and intensified further after NBC News' report on Thursday (April 12) that Mueller's office was said to be ready to report four findings regarding Trump and obstruction of justice.
      Trump was widely reported to be beyond boiling-mad after news of the raid on Cohen's office broke on Monday morning. He interrupted a meeting of his national security advisors for an extended tirade against Mueller, for his "witch hunt," and Sessions for his "big mistake" to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. Trump said that FBI agents had "broken into" Cohen's office; that was his description of the lawful execution of a no-knock search warrant signed by a federal magistrate judge in New York.
      Trump surrogates later described the raid as "Gestapo-like," but Cohen himself said FBI agents acted professionally throughout. The raid, actually carried out by the U.S. attorney's office for the southern district of New York, apparently sought information about Cohen's possible involvement in paying "hush money" to porn star Stormy Daniels or other women to quash accusations of Trump's sexual infidelities in the run-up to the November election. Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican who was the first in Congress to endorse Trump, was among those who described the raid as going beyond Mueller's authority. In fact, the letter appointing Mueller gives  him authority to take on other matters discovered in the course of the Russia investigation.
      The week ended with NBC's potentially explosive report that Mueller was prepared to give Congress a bill of particulars about Trump's possible obstruction of justice. The report was described as including four findings regarding Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, his role in crafting the misleading June 2016 statement concerning the Trump Tower meeting with Russian reprsentatives; the White House's discussion of possibly pardoning witnesses in the Russiagate investigation, and his attempt to pressure Sessions into withdrawing his recusal from the case.
      With the accusatory report possibly imminent, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman imagined the hyper-mercurial Trump ready to do almost anything to raise the drawbridges around the White House. "What if Donald Trump tries to fire Robert Mueller — and fails?" Feldman asked in a column forBloomberg. The result, he went on to warn, "could be a constitutional crisis" with neither of them willing to back down and the courts unwilling to intervene for a definitive resolution..
      Nixon "allowed the Constitution to prevail," MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell recalled on his program last week. "Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon," he went on, in an oddly unfavorable comparison. The political landscape is also different from 1973: Nixon had few defenders on the Cox firing. But Trump's base, and his Fox News chorus, likely would cheer him on in his defiance. The rule of law could wind up lying seriously wounded at his feet.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Trump's Not-So-Great Retreats on Foreign Policy

      President Trump used his first overseas trip in May 2017 with its initial stop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to signal a sharp break from the Obama administration policies aimed at using U.S. influence to promote human rights in the Arab world. Trump evidently relished the lavish ceremony his Saudi hosts put on for him and reciprocated by sidestepping any mention of such issues as the kingdom's repressive policies on political dissent. "We are not here to lecture," Trump declared. "We are not here to tell people how to live . . . "
      Trump also gave a shoot-out to the other major U.S. ally in the region by predicting improved relations with Bahrain in place of the strains created by Obama-era criticisms of the Sunni government's repression of its Shiite majority population. Seemingly emboldened, the Bahraini government followed only two days later with a raid on the home of the leader of the Shiite opposition that left five protesters dead and more than 50 arrested..
      The sequence of events is emblematic of what a leading human rights advocate calls the "complete sidelining" of human rights in U.S. foreign policy under Trump. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, goes so far as to call the Trump administration —  "and the president himself" —  "one of the greatest threats to human rights in decades."
     Margon notes in the article that Trump has not only backed away from criticizing foreign governments with spotty records on human rights but has gone further by actively encouraging repressive policies. One month before the overseas trip, Trump congratulated Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning a disputed referendum that fortified his authoritarian rule. In the same month, he called Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to congratulate him on his "unbelievable job on the drug problem" — a brutal crackdown of extrajudicial killings that has cost more than 12,000 lives.
      With the United States withdrawing from the field, human rights leadership is now passing to other countries, according to Margon. She cites two encouraging events from recent meetings at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Netherlands helped win approval of an independent investigation of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen despite opposition not only from Saudi Arabia but also from the United States itself. Iceland took the lead in collecting support from 38 other countries for a joint statement condemning Duterte's war on drugs.
      Margon professes encouragement from the events. "We've seen some movement on issues without American leadership, which is important," she says. With Trump in power, "ad hoc coalitions of like-minded countries will need to become the norm," she writes in the article.
      Margon was one of two authors to appear at a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington last week [April 6] to launch the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, with its provocatively titled collection of articles, "Letting Go: Trump, America, and the World." Human rights is not the only and perhaps not even the most important area of retreat that Trump is leading on U.S. foreign policy.
      In his article, Jake Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, laments Trump's backing away from what he calls "the post-World War II system of norms, institutions, and partnership that has helped manage disputes, mobilize action, and govern international conduct." Sullivan, who worked in Hillary Clinton's campaign after having served previously in the State Department and in Vice President Joe Biden's office, says these multilateral arrangements have been more successful, even in recent years, than detractors acknowledge.
      As examples, Sullivan cites the mostly successful efforts to contain nuclear proliferation and to recover from the 2008 financial crisis and worldwide recession. He counts as well the Paris climate agreement despite Trump's withdrawal from the accord. "All of these problems require some mode of international cooperation," Sullivan remarked from the stage. The United States, he added, "has been" and "has to be" the catalyst.
      Sullivan recalled in his remarks that he came face to face with one of the detractors while out on the 2016 campaign trail in Ohio. Speaking in Clinton's behalf, Sullivan spoke warmly of her support for "the liberal international order." His remarks finished, one woman in the audience approached him to say: "I don't know what that is, but I don't like any of those three words."
      Like Trump, that Ohio voter apparently sees the post-World War II order that won the Cold War and embodied the American century as more burden than benefit for the American people. Sullivan aptly remarked, on the other hand, that these systems "have served to the United States' advantage."
      Trump is a threat, in large part because of his basic misunderstanding of foreign policy in all its particulars — from trade to security. The threatened pullout from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sullivan warned, would be "a huge self-inflicted wound." Even if some European countries have fallen short in their NATO obligations, several of them have provided critical support for U.S. policies not only in Europe, but also in, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq.
      In the end, Sullivan thinks the international order sufficiently resilient to withstand one four-year term for Trump, though not necessarily a second. Margon too expects human rights to remain on the international agenda even with Trump's retreat. At this point, one can say no more than this: Time will tell.