U.S. Government & governance 2020

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U.S. Government & governance 2019
Our Caesar Can the country come back from Trump?
The Republic already looks like Rome in ruins
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(7 August 2019)

Why the Presidency Can’t Just Go Back to ‘Normal’ After Trump
The “norms and traditions” that Trump has incinerated aren’t timeless features of American democracy; they’re actually quite new—and brittle.
(Politico) Many of these “presidential norms and traditions” that Trump has left by the wayside aren’t timeless at all; they’re actually quite new. They grew up alongside and in reaction to the expansion of both the federal state and the presidency—a process that began in the early 20th century but gained steam from the 1930s onward. …three cherished institutions—White House news briefings, independent courts, nonpartisan law enforcement agencies and a nonpartisan civil service. Their foundations are more young and shaky than you might think, and once altered, they may not be easily restored. Future presidents may regard newer precedents as more binding. A once-sturdy nonpartisan civil service and equally assured nonpartisan courts may be too weakened to enforce a return to prior norms. A public once conditioned to expect certain things of its presidents may have lost a critical amount of muscle memory. In short, anyone who expects a restoration of the status quo circa 2017 may be in for a rude awakening.

Former Justice Dept. Lawyers Press for Barr to Step Down
More than 1,100 former prosecutors and officials who served in Republican and Democratic administrations signed an open letter condemning the president and the attorney general over the Stone case.
(NYT) They also urged current government employees to report any signs of unethical behavior at the Justice Department to the agency’s inspector general and to Congress.
“Each of us strongly condemns President Trump’s and Attorney General Barr’s interference in the fair administration of justice,” the former Justice Department lawyers, who came from across the political spectrum, wrote in an open letter on Sunday. Those actions, they said, “require Mr. Barr to resign.”
The sharp denunciation of Mr. Barr underlined the extent of the fallout over the case of Mr. Stone, capping a week that strained the attorney general’s relationship with his rank and file, and with the president himself.

14 February
‘Grim Reaper’ Mitch McConnell Admits There Are 395 House Bills Sitting in the Senate: ‘We’re Not Going to Pass Those’
(Newsweek) McConnell explained that the bills would not get passed, because the government is divided. He said that instead they “have to work on things we can agree,” listing government spending, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, an infrastructure bill, a parks bill and some environmental issues as examples of bills that they may be able to agree on.
When asked about a bipartisan infrastructure bill, McConnell said that it may not be a “big” bill, because it would “require dealing with the revenue sources that both sides are nervous about raising the gas tax, which is a regressive tax on low-income people.”
When asked about legislature regarding prescription drugs, McConnell said that while there are “differences on both sides,” there is a chance that the Senate will be able to legislate on the issue.
“It’s not that we’re not doing anything. It’s that we’re not doing what the House Democrats and these candidates for president on the Democratic ticket want to do,” he said.

12-13 February
Senate passes resolution to limit Trump’s power to order military action against Iran
The Senate passed a resolution Thursday to limit President Trump’s power to order military action against Iran without first seeking Congress’s permission, a bipartisan rebuke of his administration’s resistance to involving the legislative branch in decisions that some fear could lead to all-out war.
Eight Republicans joined all Democrats in voting 55 to 45 for the measure, despite sharp warnings from Trump that challenging his war powers would “show weakness” and “sends a very bad signal” to Tehran. Trump will almost certainly veto the measure once it passes the House, and neither chamber of Congress has the votes to override that veto, lawmakers say.
(WaPo) Trump has been raging at GOP senators, to frighten them away from taking new steps to rein in his authority to make war. This comes after the House passed a measure to compel Trump to seek congressional authorization for new hostilities against Iran.  Here’s why this matters: This is yet another area in which Trump is not just asserting unconstrained authority; he’s also openly and explicitly declaring that he feels zero obligation to offer any meaningful legal or substantive justification for acting on that authority.
The Power Trump Can Wield Like a Dictator
Congress must fix the law governing national emergencies before our democracy pays a hefty price.
By Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
(NYT) The law governing national emergencies is broken and must be fixed while there is a window of opportunity before the election —  and before our democracy pays a hefty price. The law in question is the National Emergencies Act. This statute authorizes the president to declare a national emergency, which in turn gives him access to special powers set forth in more than 100 other provisions. Some of these powers seem more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy, like the authority to shut down communications systems, freeze Americans’ bank accounts and lend armed forces to other nations.
The Justice Department’s reputation is on life support
(WaPo) The withdrawal of all four career prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone, in the wake of the Justice Department’s sentencing shift, underscores that Attorney General William P. Barr’s department has effectively gone rogue.
Prosecutors Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed and Michael Marando all sought permission Tuesday to leave the case. A fourth, Jonathan Kravis, has fully resigned his job as an assistant U.S. attorney. These actions threaten to throw the Justice Department into existential crisis.
None of the prosecutors gave a reason for their actions, but their exits followed the announcement Tuesday morning that the department would reduce its sentencing recommendation for Stone, a confidant of President Trump. That news itself came hours after Trump tweeted that Stone’s sentence was “horrible and very unfair.”

7 February
What Matters Most in the Battle Between Trump and Pelosi
The Speaker’s willingness to get in the President’s face has made many a meme, but their conflict has more to say about our constitutional checks and balances..

4 February
A Republic, If We Can Keep It
The government set up by James Madison and the other Founders requires a virtuous public and virtuous leaders—or the whole system will fail.
By Adam J. White, Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
(The Atlantic) In the days leading up to the Senate’s impeachment trial, some people hoped that Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, would use his position to send a strong message to the senators on what the Constitution requires of them. He had, in fact, already sent such a message, just weeks earlier, on what the Constitution requires of all Americans. On December 31, in a letter accompanying his annual report on the work of the federal courts, Roberts called on federal judges—and everyone else—to invest themselves in the preservation of constitutional democracy.
“Each generation,” he wrote, “has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.” For Roberts, this requires civic education—and something more fundamental than that, too.
“In our age,” Roberts wrote, “when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale,” there is even greater danger that political passions can turn us against one another, or against constitutional government itself. He emphasized judges’ particular role as “a key source of national unity and stability,” but his deeper point was that those values are needed among more than just judges.

State of the Union Updates: Trump Adds Reality Show Flourishes to Address
On the eve of the final Senate votes in the impeachment trial, President Trump traded snubs with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and promoted a ‘Great American Comeback,’ pausing to award Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fact-Checking Trump’s 2020 State of the Union Address and the Democratic Response

21 January
The Imperial Presidency Is Alive and Well

Don’t Mistake Impeachment for a Congressional Effort to Claw Back Power
(Foreign Affairs) … don’t be fooled by the sudden congressional focus on foreign policy. Congress remains in a weak position to restrain the president overseas. The Democrats believe that Trump’s efforts to withhold aid to Ukraine until its government agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden constituted an abuse of power and necessitated a vote to impeach the president. But the outcome of the Senate trial will reflect domestic politics, not senators’ views about legislative oversight of foreign affairs. Congress’s inability to pass a veto-proof bill to limit the president’s war powers in Iran, moreover, is one more sign that the balance of power on foreign policy isn’t shifting back toward the legislative branch.
… If the Cold War led to the rise of the imperial presidency, the end of the Cold War left the office virtually unconstrained overseas. Without great-power competition to focus the public’s attention, Congress turned inward. Constituents no longer seemed to value expertise on foreign affairs, so new members were less likely to develop proficiency. Leading committees such as Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services held fewer and fewer hearings, thus limiting direct legislative oversight of the executive branch.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks refocused attention on foreign policy, but they only accelerated the trend toward increasing presidential war power.
… Trump has demonstrated just how much power the executive has accrued. He unilaterally imposed tariffs on adversaries and allies alike, gave Turkey a green light to invade Syria, and authorized the assassination of Iran’s most important general. After the Soleimani strike, Trump sent out a tweet that he said served “as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back.” He added that “such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”

Crippling the capacity of the National Security Council
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas
(Brookings) The Trump administration’s first three years saw record-setting turnover at the most senior level of the White House staff and the Cabinet. There are also numerous vacancies in Senate-confirmed positions across the executive branch. As of September 22, 2019, the turnover rate among senior White House aides had reached 80 percent, a rate that exceeded President Trump’s five predecessors after their entire first terms in office. The frequent departure of senior staff has been one of the most noteworthy features of this administration.
Within my “A Team” sample, I tracked eight senior NSC positions. By fall of 2019, seven of those eight positions had turned over at least once.
The high-level departures continued through 2018 and 2019 with more senior members of the NSC departing and serial turnover across many of these positions: four National Security Advisers, six Deputy National Security Advisers, three Chiefs of Staff and Executive Secretaries, three senior Intelligence Directors….
On Friday, January 17, 2020, Andrew Peek was escorted from the White House grounds pending a security-related investigation. It may be that the NSC will soon be in search of a third Director of Europe and Russia in a single year and the fourth occupant overall.
This extraordinary rate of high-level turnover concomitantly causes a cascade of departures in less senior jobs, as incoming successors seek to staff their office with hand-picked associates.
The combination of high turnover, major staff cuts, and new leadership have truly crippled the role of the NSC. Just the past five months have witnessed the significant role of senior NSC staff in the Ukrainian aid scandal and subsequent impeachment process. In addition, the recent killing of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani and bungled explanation have drawn even more attention to the role of the NSC. The inability to coordinate a consistent message, let alone a single message, for why the U.S. ordered the death demonstrates the absence of staff influential enough to have prepared for the aftermath of such a momentous and consequential action. Working at such a disadvantage alongside an impulsive president who consistently shows disdain for expertise, collaboration and debate poses a risk to the country at large.

9 January
House approves measure limiting Trump’s authority to take further military action against Iran
The 224 to 194 vote fell largely along party lines, with only three Republicans and Republican-turned-independent Justin Amash (Mich.) voting for the resolution from Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). Eight Democrats opposed the measure, which instructs Trump “to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military” unless Congress has made a declaration of war or there is “an imminent armed attack upon the United States.”
The vote comes just a day after the administration’s top national security officials met with lawmakers behind closed doors to discuss the intelligence and decision-making that informed Trump’s order to kill top Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani. … Democrats and a handful of Republicans emerged from those briefings so frustrated by the administration’s refusal to fully engage Congress that it fueled new momentum behind efforts to restrain Trump’s actions as commander in chief when it comes to Iran.

6 January
Trump claims his ‘Media Posts’ on Twitter now count as official notification to Congress about any plans to attack Iran
(Business Insider) President Donald Trump claimed on Sunday that his tweets now count as official notification to Congress about the US military’s plans to attack Iran.
There is no basis for Trump’s claim, because tweets do not constitute official congressional notification.
while the president is not legally mandated to consult with Congress when a military action is deemed an emergency, only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war. Previous presidents have also almost always consulted with a tight group of congressional leaders known as the Gang of 8 on issues of national security.
The debate over executive authority vs. legislative power in wartime reignited on Friday. … Since then, Trump has thrown gasoline on the fire by threatening to attack Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates — a move that could constitute a war crime.
Who Is Jared Kushner?
The Kushner family history—from lying on immigration forms to becoming major Democratic donors—often seems at odds with the initiatives Jared supports in his father-in-law’s Administration.
By Andrea Bernstein

4 January
Congress, Stop President Trump’s Rush to War With Iran
Republican senators are the only people with the power to restrain the president.
(NYT Editorial board) Several lawmakers are working on a resolution barring the White House from escalating the conflict without Congressional blessing. While appropriate, such efforts to rein in executive war-making powers have proved insufficient since the 9/11 attacks. That’s why it is crucial that influential Republican senators like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell remind Mr. Trump of his promise to keep America out of foreign quagmires and keep Mr. Trump from stumbling further into war with Iran.
The President has listened to them in the past, and has reason — with his impeachment trial nearing in the Senate — to fear them as well.
American Foreign Policy Is Broken. Suleimani’s Killing Proves It.
A properly functioning National Security Council would never have let it happen, for good reason.
By By Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
(NYT) Mr. Trump did not bother to consult congressional leaders. As with his other displays of martial fiat, his immediate impulse was probably to shock the liberal domestic audience, vicariously make himself feel tough, and assert raw executive power by going around the normal channels of decision making.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had considered taking out General Suleimani but rejected it — not for lack of nerve, but for fear of undue escalation and an unnecessary war with Iran. The fundamental facts on the ground have not changed, and in the kind of robust interagency, national security decision-making process that the National Security Council staff is supposed to supervise, such concerns would have been systematically raised, dissected and discussed, and a consensus reached to inform presidential action. No such process seems to have occurred here. …
The National Security Council would have undoubtedly asked the intelligence community for a detailed assessment of Iran’s possible responses to the strike. Analysts would have underscored the inevitability of lethal attacks on Americans and American interests: terrorist attacks on embassies or other civilian or military facilities in the Middle East and farther afield, military escalation on the ground in Syria or Iraq, cyberattacks, the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, Hezbollah attacks on Israel, further operations targeting Gulf States’ oil infrastructure, and accelerating movement toward nuclear breakout. …
The killing of General Suleimani arose outside of any coherent policy context, and without adequate contemplation of near- or long-term strategic consequences. Mr. Trump’s move looks like either an impetuous act of self-indulgence or, somewhat more probable, a calculated attempt to bury his domestic political troubles. Whatever the precise reason, the act itself is irreversible, and will have serious consequences — precisely why it merited the systematic deliberation that it clearly did not receive.

In Era of Perpetual Conflict, a Volatile President Grabs Expanded Powers to Make War
(NYT) …it is just the latest example of the capricious way in which the president, as commander in chief, has chosen to flex his lethal powers. … There have been attempts by lawmakers in recent years to limit the president’s abilities to wage new or expanded wars based on the authorities Congress granted in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. But with little support from leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill, those efforts have generally gone nowhere.

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