Saturday, August 29, 2020

Truth Is Casualty in Trump's Alternate Reality Show

          Political conventions inevitably rely on partisan propaganda and staged spectacle, but President Trump established an impossible-to-beat benchmark for toxic mendacity and egotistical showmanship by accepting the Republican nomination for president in a political rally held Thursday night [August 27] on the south lawn of the White House.
            Trump’s elaborately staged rally, in likely violation of the federal Hatch Act, capped a four-day virtual convention built around the two big lies that he is relying on to propel him toward re-election on Nov. 3. Trump claims to have been presiding over the nation’s strongest economy ever before the arrival of the novel coronavirus in February.
The real-life economic statistics show a different picture from Trump’s alternate reality. The economic growth rate spiked briefly near 4 percent in 2018, but has been below 3 percent ever since – an anemic growth rate compared to the boom years of the 1950s and roughly comparable to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
            Trump’s second big lie is his claim to have battled the coronavirus decisively from the earliest days of the pandemic and to have controlled its deadly spread. Again, the statistics show otherwise. With 180,000 American deaths from covid-19 so far, the United States leads the world in casualties from this disease.
            The virus may have come from “Communist China,” in the phrasing used by one of Trump’s apologists this week, but the deadly delay and negligence came straight out of the Oval Office.  Mainstream news organizations replayed news clips from those early days all week showing Trump’s confident claims to have the virus “under control” and his reassuring promise that it would simply “disappear” someday.
            The millions of Americans out of work in a still partly-shuttered economy and the millions of school children and college students learning remotely instead of in classrooms are proof certain that Trump’s assurances were empty and illusory. Mary Trump, his clinical psychologist niece, explains Trump’s foot-dragging in her penetrating account of Donald’s ill-formed psyche in her book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.
            “Donald didn’t drag his feet in December 2019, in January, in February, in March because of his narcissism,” Mary Trump writes. “[H]e did it because of his fear of appearing weak or failing to project the message that everything was ‘great,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘perfect.’ The irony is that his failure to face the truth inevitably led to massive failure anyway.”
            Any other public official, guilty of so many lies as Trump, would be pilloried in the press and politically damaged, just as Lyndon Johnson was for his infamous credibility gap. But not Donald Trump: his lies, after all, are not a bug, but a feature of his presidency--with more than 6,000 lies so far, according to fact-checkers at the Washington Post.
            Indeed, Mary Trump paints Donald’s “reckless hyperbole” as an ingrained habit, encouraged by his doting father and enabled in Donald’s early days by New York City media who failed to subject his rise to prominence to serious scrutiny. Donald was not the self-made millionaire nor the successful businessman with the golden touch that he portrayed himself to be or that his media enablers obligingly presented to gossip-loving readers and viewers.
            The Post’s fact-checkers counted more than 20 palpable falsehoods in their coverage of Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night. Among the biggest of the whoppers was Trump’s promise to protect health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions even as his administration is asking the Supreme Court to nullify the Affordable Care Act en toto along with the act’s protection for pre-existing conditions.
            Not content with his own puffery, Trump must also be presumed to have the behind-the-scenes stage manager for lesser instances of deception from other speakers. Thus, his daughter-in-law Lara Trump used her fifteen seconds of fame to congratulate her father-in-law for appointing an “unprecedented” number of women to positions in his administration. “That is not true,” the PBS NewsHour’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor commented in real time.
            In fact, the Post’s fact-checkers conclusively refuted the claim in coverage the next day. Tracking figures from the three preceding presidencies – Obama, Bush43, and Clinton – the Post showed that somewhere between 22 percent and 27 percent of his initial executive-level appointees were women, compared to 37 percent for Clinton, 26 percent for Bush, and 43 percent for Obama.
            Trump’s initial cabinet included two women, Chao at Transportation and DeVos at Education, plus two others with Cabinet rank, for a total of four. Bush had three women in his Cabinet plus one other with Cabinet rank, for a total of four. Obama had four women in his Cabinet plus four others with Cabinet rank, for a total of eight.
            The Post flatly concludes that the claim is phony. “Under no metric has Trump appointed more women than any previous president,” fact-checker-in-chief Glenn Kessler writes. “In fact, he currently lags behind Obama and Clinton and possibly George W. Bush in terms of the percentage of female appointments.”
            Truth, it has been said, is “the first casualty” in wartime. With Donald Trump in the White House, truth has never had a fighting chance, nor can American voters expect it to emerge unscathed in the brutal and dispiriting campaign now well under way.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Alarm Over Trump's Plan to Police Polling Places

           Amidst mounting fears of a post-election constitutional crisis, President Trump set off a new round of alarm bells last week [Aug. 20] by telling his Fox News enabler Sean Hannity that he plans to dispatch police to polling places on Nov. 3 to combat potential voter fraud.
            Trump called in to Hannity’s 9 PM program, seemingly prepared for Hannity’s opening question. “Are you going to have poll watchers?” Hannity asked, pointing to a dubious study of election fraud cases by the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Are you going to have an ability to monitor — to avoid fraud, and cross check whether or not these are registered voters, whether or not there’s bad identification, to know that it’s a real vote from a real American?”
            “We’re gonna have everything,” Trump replied enthusiastically, according to excerpts quoted in coverage by New York magazine. “We’re gonna have sheriffs, and we’re gonna have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys and we’re going to have everybody— and attorney generals.”
            It cannot be repeated often enough that Trump and his supporters have produced no evidence of widespread illegal voting in the three-and-a-half years since he blamed his popular vote loss in 2016 on illegal voting. Trump even appointed a commission to study the issue, but the commission storydisbanded without producing any evidence.
            Against that background, Trump’s purpose must be seen as attempting to discourage minority voters, a tactic that Republicans deployed in New Jersey so ostentatiously that a federal court prohibited the practice in a now-lapsed decree issued in 1982. A leading civil rights group was quick to condemn Trump’s plan as amounting to an illegal attempt to intimidate voters.
            Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, called Trump’s plan “an old and familiar tactic pulled right from the Jim Crow playbook.” She noted that the federal Voting Rights Act, in section 2(b), specifically prohibits conduct intimidation of voters: “No person [... ] shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.” 
            Hannity, who traffics in opinions instead of facts, put no questions to Trump about his authority to dispatch local law enforcement officers to voting places nor any questions about possible intimidation of minority voters. But he did preface his question by saying that he had the Heritage Foundation study right in front of him.
The study, according to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Philip Bump, falls far short of showing extensive illegal voting in the United States, with only 1,200 instances of “election fraud” dating from 1982. The list, according to Bump, includes “a wide range of offenses, from voting illegally to giving homeless people cigarettes to sign voter applications.” Even if all those instances had occurred in a single state in a single year, Bump concludes, “it would not have been enough to swing the result in the presidential contest.”
Republicans have been using so-called “ballot security” programs to discourage minority voters as far back as 1962. William Rehnquist, the future chief justice, got his start in Arizona politics in 1962 as a poll watcher for the state’s Republican Party. Four Arizonans testified in his confirmation hearing in 1962 that they saw Rehnquist challenge would-be minority voters at the polls. Rehnquist denied the accusations.
The evidence of voter intimidation in the New Jersey case was stark, according to the federal appeals court’s opinion in 2012 upholding the district court judge’s order prohibiting the Republican National Committee (RNC) from engaging in such practices nationwide. “The RNC also allegedly enlisted the help of off-duty sheriffs and police officers to intimidate voters by standing at polling places in minority precincts during voting with “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands,” the court stated in its opinion issued on March 8, 2012. “Some of the officers allegedly wore firearms in a visible manner.”
 A successor federal judge in the case, ruling on the RNC’s motion to vacate the decree, lifted the decree on January 9, 2018, by finding that the DNC had failed to show any violations in the intervening years. With Trump in office, the White House had no immediate comment at the time on whether the president would encourage the RNC to reinstitute ballot security practices in the next election.
The RNC appeared to distance itself somewhat from Trump’s current comments about enlisting local law enforcement to police polling places. Mike Reed, an RNC spokesman, told the Washington Post that law enforcement officers are not part of its new poll-watching program. “Our program consists of volunteers and attorneys,” Reed said.
Even before Trump’s latest comments, election law experts in both parties were bracing for what the New York Times described in a headline [Aug. 9] as “a long legal fight to follow the vote on Election Day.” The Times’s story noted the president’s limited authority in regard to state and local election procedures, but described Democratic officials as concerned that Trump’s views could prod sympathetic state and local officials to block votes and cast doubt on results going against the president.
The Times story suggested that the post-Nov. 3 legal fight could make the Bush v. Gore case after the 2000 election look like nothing more than a student council election. Backed by local law enforcement and perhaps the Justice Department itself, Trump will have the resources to fight not only in Florida but in any number of states. The resulting rancor and uncertainty may well produce the constitutional crisis that so many political experts are fearing.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Trump Defying Court on DACA, Title VII Rulings

           Presiding over the most lawless presidency in U.S. history, Donald Trump has been giving the finger over the past few weeks not only to Congress, but also to the Supreme Court. Trump’s defiance of Congress comes in the form of an attempt to use executive orders to enact tax policy, a power that the Constitution very explicitly gives to Congress and specifically to the popularly elected House of Representatives.
Trump’s defiance of the Supreme Court comes in the form of refusing after two months to comply with two of the Court’s high-profile rulings that went against the administration’s legal positions. The administration has done nothing as of yet to notify employers of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County [June 15] that the federal job discrimination law known as Title VII prohibits discrimination against LGBT employees.
The administration has engaged in more open defiance of its other high-profile defeat from mid-June: the Court’s 5-4 decision in DHS v. Regents [June 18] rejecting the administration’s protracted effort to rescind the policy known as DACA that protects young immigrants brought to the United States as children. Rather than doing nothing, the Department of Homeland Security has actively obstructed the Court’s ruling by refusing to accept new applicants for DACA status and by limiting renewals for DACA recipients from two years to one year.
The administration may get points from Trump’s political base for stiff-arming the
Supreme Court, but the policies are out of step with the American public. A poll conducted as recently as June found that 74 percent of Americans favor giving legal status to the so-called “Dreamers,” who have lived in the United States since childhood and know no other country than the United States. A Gallup poll conducted in June 2019 found that 53 percent of respondents favored new laws to protect LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace.
            Both of these decisions came as surprises to many Court watchers and, it would seem, to the administration as well. Solicitor General Noel Francisco had personally argued for the administration in both cases and, with two Trump appointees now on the Court, probably expected to win both. Instead, Chief Justice John Roberts joined liberal justices to help form a majority in both cases. Roberts wrote the DACA decision himself and assigned the Title VII case to the first of Trump’s appointees, Justice Neil Gorsuch.
            Trump reacted nonchalantly to the Title VII ruling on the day of the decision. “I’ve read the decision, and some people were surprised,” he told reporters when questioned, “but they’ve ruled and we live with their decision.” Three days later, however, Trump reacted more assertively against the Court’s ruling on DACA. “Now we have to start the process all over again,” he said.
            Officials at the Department of Homeland Security went further by declaring that the Court’s decision to block the department from rescinding DACA “has no basis in law.” The federal judge who ruled against DHS in one of the DACA cases took Attorney General William Barr for the department’s comment. “The attorney general should advise his client Mr. Wolf that it is not a benefit to anyone to have a federal agency take issue with a decision of the Supreme Court,” Judge Nicholas Garaufis said.
            In his opinion, Roberts found called the department’s move “arbitrary and capricious” in administrative law parlance because it was based solely on the never-adjudicated view that the Obama era policy was illegal from the outset. After the decision, the department’s memorandum announcing the new restrictions repeated the same doubts about DACA’s legality that the that the Court had found inadequate.
            The Trump Labor Department has been less open about defying the Supreme Court on the Title VII case. The Labor Department routinely advises other executive branch agencies about changes in the law and also enforces the requirement that employers post notices about Title VII’s provision at workplaces.
With no action from the Labor Department as of mid-July, fourteen legal advocacy groups joined in a letter dated July 16 addressed to Barr that said it was “imperative” for DOJ to “ensure that enforcement of this decision, as to the definition of sex discrimination through federal civil rights laws and regulations, is uniform across the federal government.” One week earlier, 100 Democratic members of the House or Senate joined in a letter calling on Trump to direct federal agencies to “review of all regulations, executive orders and agency policies that implicate legal protections for LGBTQ individuals under federal civil rights laws.” The letter cited 32 policies for the administration to rescind.
The online gay news site Gay City News tried in early August to find out what if anything was being done about the Court’s decision at any of the Cabinet-level agencies involved: Education, Justice, or Labor, and got no substantive response. Justice and Labor similarly gave no substantive response when queried by the national newspaper USA Today.
To its credit, the semi-independent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) did post a straightforward, informative notice about the decision on its website on June 30 under the heading, “What You Should Know: The EEOC and Protections for LGBT Workers.” The notice included instructions for private company employees and federal agency employees on how to file a complaint with the EEOC “if you think you have been discriminated against.” Compared to that simple step, the silence from Trump’s Cabinet-level departments is truly deafening.