Skip to content

Dunkirk, Churchill and Trump

The British situation on June 4, 1940, was as bleak as it has ever been, before or since.

The year before, Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty, then invaded and divided up Poland. Soviet troops had occupied the Baltic republics. The Soviets had invaded Finland and forced territorial concessions amounting to more than 10 percent of Finnish land. Germany had invaded Denmark, which capitulated within hours, and Norway, which held out for two months, but which by June 4 was nearly overrun.

British discontent with the Norwegian campaign resulted in the replacement of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill on May 10, 1940. On that very day, German troops invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Luxembourg fell in a single day, and the Netherlands in four; Belgium surrendered on May 28.

Because the Allies believed France was protected by the dense Ardennes forest and east of that by the Maginot Line, they expected the main German attack to come through the Netherlands and Belgium. But in fact, the German invasion of the Low Countries was a feint; the Allies’ disastrous response was to send their best troops into Belgium, where they were isolated and cut off from supplies and reinforcements by the main German invasion, which actually came through the Ardennes, then northwest along the Somme River, reaching the English Channel on May 17.

By June 4, almost all British troops had been driven from France. The German army stood ready to turn south from the Somme, and the British government seriously doubted the French will and ability to continue the fight. Churchill correctly anticipated that the next battle after France would be for Britain itself.

Even in this dire situation, there was something to celebrate. On May 20, even before the Belgian surrender, the British began planning Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the isolated British Expeditionary Force, from northwestern France. Although the BEF numbered hundreds of thousands of troops, planners hoped to evacuate maybe 45,000 of them for deployment to the defense of England. In fact, by the end of the evacuation, some 800 British naval and civilian ships – from destroyers to luxury yachts to humble fishing boats – had pulled 338,000 men to England from the shores of Dunkirk: 215,000 British, 100,000 French, and the remainder Belgian.

The movie Dunkirk, which I saw this week, reviews this history reasonably accurately. Toward the end of the film when the main characters are back in Britain, the film refers a little obliquely to Prime Minister Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, which he gave in Parliament on the last day of the evacuation, June 4, 1940, less than one month into his tenure as prime minister.

Churchill began the speech with a review of the military course that led to the evacuation, including the Allied errors that allowed the Germans to separate off so many Allied troops from the bulk of the French forces south of the Somme. Churchill then devoted two uncharacteristically bitter paragraphs to Belgian King Leopold III’s surrender to the Germans: “without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.”

Churchill then recounted the fighting around Dunkirk, and the evacuation – which, he said, he had expected to rescue 20,000 or 30,000 men. Instead, he described “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.” Still, Churchill cautioned his listeners “not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” because “wars are not won by evacuations.” But he took the moment to dwell on the heroism of the Royal Air Force, which won against the German Air Force “a victory inside this deliverance.”

The British air victory served as Churchill’s rhetorical pivot from the military disaster that led to the miracle at Dunkirk to the battle that lay ahead, and he heaped praise on British pilots as perhaps only Churchill ever could have done:

When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen…. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen? There never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war, such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the Crusaders, all fall back into the past – not only distant but prosaic; these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and all that we stand for, holding in their hands these instruments of colossal and shattering power, of whom it may be said that “Every morn brought forth a noble chance and every chance brought forth a noble knight” [the quotation is from Tennyson’s poem “Morte D’Arthur”], deserve our gratitude, as do all the brave men who, in so many ways and on so many occasions, are ready, and continue ready to give life and all for their native land.

Churchill thus found in the Dunkirk evacuation not only a victory inside a military disaster, but also a source of hope for the coming Battle of Britain, a source of inspiration that the war would be ultimately and somehow be won, and a call of British youth to service in the long, glorious and deeply, deeply British tradition of the King Arthur’s knights.

Churchill reviewed preparations for the coming battle, and he warned the Germans with words supposedly used to dissuade Napoleon from his plan to invade England: “There are bitter weeds in England,” adding that there were “certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.” Churchill underscored this warning, and Napoleon’s heed of it, by conjuring the “many Continental tyrants” who had imagined that they could conquer England. Churchill saw the harm to come, as British cities, especially London, would shortly learn: “there has never been a period in all these long centuries of which we boast when an absolute guarantee against invasion, still less against serious raids, could have been given to our people.”

In the face of these risks, Churchill asserted his certainty that “we shall not flag or fail,” and he concluded the speech with its best remembered passage:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

The Churchill bar is a high one. I can’t think of any modern leader who has led a nation more capably than Winston Churchill led Britain during World War II. And Churchill’s rhetorical abilities were truly exceptional. Still, desperate times have inspired leaders of very much more modest capacities than Churchill’s to moments of exceptional leadership: Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, for instance, or Lyndon Johnson after the Kennedy assassination.

At the moment that the Dunkirk movie referred to Churchill’s speech, the thought came instantly to my mind: how would our leader speak on such a desperate day? How would Donald Trump find hope in horror? How would he lead and unify us at a terrible time? How would our president inspire us to rise from the lowest point in our national history?

The question is largely academic, but not entirely. It is not inconceivable, for instance, that North Korea will land a nuclear missile on Los Angeles before Trump leaves the White House. It is not inconceivable that a cyberattack from Russia, or ISIS, or somewhere else, will take down our electrical grid while Trump remains in office.

Try to imagine the speech that Donald Trump would deliver the evening after such an event. Try to imagine Donald Trump leading a dazed nation rocked by disaster and unconfident in its future. Try to imagine Donald Trump inspiring us to unity and service.



The Veselnitskaya Dangle

By May 2016, it was clear that Donald Trump would win the Republican presidential nomination. He formally clinched it on May 26, when two uncommitted North Dakota delegates told an Associated Press reporter that they would vote for Trump at the convention.

By that time, Russian hackers directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin had gained administrator-level access to the Democratic National Committee’s internal computer network. The data compromise was complete; hackers were able to read all e-mail and chat traffic on the network, as well as the complete DNC database of opposition research on Trump.

The DNC was aware of the scope and source of the data breach, having retained the data security firm CrowdStrike, which quickly determined that the attack was Russian. The FBI was aware that Russians had successfully spearfished the DNC as early as the summer of 2015.

But the public was not aware of the scope of the hack or its Russian source. Speaking at a cyber security event on May 18, 2016, James Clapper, then director of national intelligence, had referred to “indications” of attempted cyber attacks on presidential campaigns. But he gave no details, like “whether the attempted intrusions were successful or whether they were by foreign or domestic hackers,” and he did not say which presidential campaigns had been targeted. When reporters asked Clapper’s office for elaboration, they were told only that “we’re aware that campaigns and related organizations and individuals are targeted by actors with a variety of motivations – from philosophical differences to espionage – and capabilities – from defacements to intrusions.” A more unnotably mundane accusation of “espionage” is hard to imagine.

The public did not become aware of the details of the hack until June 14, 2016, when the Washington Post reported that “Russian government hackers” had “thoroughly compromised” the DNC’s computer network.

Meanwhile, on June 3, 2016, one Rob Goldstone e-mailed Donald Trump, Jr., with the message that a high level official of the Russian government was offering “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Goldstone asked Trump Jr. what he thought would be “the best way to handle this information.” Goldstone said that the offer was “part of Russia [sic] and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Trump Jr.’s reply, just minutes after he received Goldstone’s bombshell e-mail, revealed neither surprise nor dismay, but eagerness: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer” – referring, presumably, to a time after the nominating conventions, when the general election campaign would be heating up.

Following further e-mail discussion, Goldstone e-mailed Trump Jr. on June 7 to propose a meeting with a “Russian government attorney.” Trump Jr. quickly agreed, indicating that he would “probably” bring Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was serving as a campaign advisor, to the meeting.

The meeting was convened on June 9, 2016, on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan, just one floor below Trump’s own office. The “Russian government attorney” in question turned out to be Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has been active in opposing American anti-corruption sanctions embodied in a U.S. law known as the Magnitsky Act. Ms. Veselnitskaya brought along a translator, and, as promised, Trump Jr. brought along Messrs. Manafort and Kushner. Goldstone also attended.

The Times reported that it “reviewed” the e-mails, and included some quotations from them, but it did not publish either images of the e-mails or their full text – from which I infer that Times reporters were shown, but not given, copies of the e-mails. Still, the Times reporting on the meeting and the e-mail exchanges leading up to it are much more credible than the web of lies spun by the participants in the meeting – starting with their unanimous denials of campaign-related contacts with representatives of the Russian government, and continuing through Trump Jr.’s dissembling responses to the Times initial reports over the weekend.

If the Times accurately reported the e-mails, and if the e-mails are not forgeries, they irrefutably establish that Trump Jr. went into the June 9 meeting expecting to receive, or to discuss receiving, campaign-related information from a high level Russian government source.

Trump Jr. more or less admitted as much, although his admission took the form of an expression of disappointment that the information delivered at the meeting was “vague, ambiguous and made no sense.” (Given the Trump campaign’s demonstrated willingness to attack Hillary Clinton on the slimmest of bases, one can only wonder how “vague” Veselnitskaya’s information had to be to be considered useless by Trump Jr.)

This raises at least three legal questions. First, the Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits “foreign nationals” from donating to or spending on any American political campaign – and a non-monetary contribution is a donation. Handing over Russian government documents would therefore have been a prohibited campaign donation.

Just as FECA prohibits foreign nationals from donating to American political campaigns, it prohibits American nationals from “knowingly soliciting, accepting or receiving” such donations. Acceptance of such donations is “knowing” if the American knows for a fact that the donation is from a foreign national, has information “that would lead a reasonable person to believe” that the donation is “likely” from a foreign national, or has information that “would lead a reasonable person to inquire” whether the donation is from a foreign national.

The e-mail exchange between Goldstone and Trump Jr. shows that Trump Jr. went into the meeting with information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the Trump campaign had been offered a non-monetary donation by representatives of the Russian government. Yet Trump Jr. reported this information to no one – not to the Federal Election Commission, not to the FBI, not to the United States attorney whose jurisdiction covered Manhattan – who happened to be Preet Bharara, the same U.S. attorney who had successfully prosecuted Russian arms and drug dealers, was subsequently black-listed by Vladimir Putin in retaliation for the enactment of the Magnitsky Act, was initially asked to stay on under President Trump, but was fired in March 2017, abruptly and without meaningful explanation.

Not only did Trump Jr. not report the e-mail exchange or the meeting; he publicly denied having ever met with Russian nationals where “I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.”

The obligation to report the meeting is the second legal issue. Trump Jr. was probably under no legal obligation to report the meeting, assuming, as Trump Jr. maintains, that Veselnitskaya in fact delivered no information of any value to the Trump campaign. Similarly, Kushner and Manafort may not have been under any legal obligation to report at the time of the meeting. But since then, Kushner applied for a security clearance that required him to report dealings with foreign governments and their representatives, and Manafort has been called before Congressional committees, and quite possibly before the FBI as well. Neither Kushner nor Manafort initially reported the meeting – both reported it only after other meetings they had failed to report came to public light.

The obligation to fully and accurately complete an application for a security clearance is obviously a serious one, as is the obligation to fully and accurately respond to Congressional inquiries and FBI investigations. Kushner and Manafort appear to have failed to meet those obligations – during the campaign, and, in Kushner’s case, while holding a high level White House position.

The third legal issue also relates to the failure to report. Although it was not publicly known on June 9 that the Russian government had sponsored hacking attacks on the DNC, it became publicly known on June 14. Even if Trump Jr. – like his father – was inclined to dismiss the Washington Post report of Russian hacking as “fake news,” nonetheless the Post report aroused at least a healthy suspicion of Russian hacking in any loyal American. At that point, a loyal American – at least any loyal American not blinded by recklessly partisan ambition – would have known that a report to the FBI was called for.

As of June 14, Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort knew of at least a strong possibility that the Russian government had sponsored an attack on the DNC, and all three knew that an offer had been made to the Trump campaign of Russian government information that would damage the Clinton campaign as part of an effort to aid Trump’s campaign. Even without any evidence that the two were connected – that the information offered came from the DNC hacking – a loyal American concerned about the sovereignty of our country and the integrity of our democratic processes would have run straight to the FBI. As far as we know, Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort all sat silent.

*          *          *

President Trump denied knowing about the June 9 meeting, but there are reasons beyond his troubled relationship with facts to doubt his denial. Goldstone’s e-mail to Trump Jr. asserted that the Russian government was engaged in an effort to aid the Trump campaign. Trump Jr.’s reply showed no surprise about this, suggesting the possibility that it was not news to him. If it was not news to him, it’s unlikely that it would have been news to Trump himself – in which case our president was complicit in a foreign effort to influence an American presidential election.

It’s also possible that Trump Jr. simply didn’t believe the statement. Goldstone is in the music and entertainment field, and, although he’s a former British tabloid journalist, it’s not clear that he knows anything about politics or law or the Russian government. At one point, for instance, Goldstone referred to Russia’s chief prosecutor as “the Crown prosecutor,” a title that exists in Britain, which is a monarchy, but not in Russia, which hasn’t been a monarchy for a century.

Trump Jr.’s reply to Goldstone did show some skepticism: “if it’s what you say,” he began. Skepticism might have hardened to disbelief if Veselnistskaya brought only vague nonsense to the meeting. Still, there’s the Washington Post report on June 14, which certainly corroborated Goldstone’s assertion of a broad Russian government effort to help Trump beat Clinton.

Finally, there’s the possibility that Trump Jr. believed Goldstone’s claim that the Russian government wanted to help Trump. That must have been very good news to Trump Jr. If it was a big enough deal for him to impose on the time of Kushner and Manafort to attend the June 9 meeting, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t mention the meeting to his father – with whom, one presumes, Trump Jr. talked from time to time.

I haven’t been able to verify an assertion I saw on cable news yesterday that Trump was at Trump Tower on June 9, and that he had lunch with Paul Manafort. If the latter is true, that’s an additional reason to believe that Trump must have been told about the meeting. Even if only the former is true, it seems at least a little odd that Trump would not be aware of a meeting one floor below his office, attended by three of his closest advisors at the time: his son, his son-in-law, and his campaign chairman.

Legally and politically, this may be the most important question raised by the Times reports: what did the President know about the June 9 meeting, and when did he know it?

*          *          *

The Times first reported on the June 9 meeting last Saturday. Additional reports came each day on Sunday, yesterday, and today. The sourcing was anonymous, except for statements from or on behalf of Trump Jr., Goldstone, Kushner and Veselnitskaya. Sources for the initial story on Saturday were “confidential government records described to The New York Times,” and “interviews and the documents, which were outlined by people familiar with them.” The Saturday report does not say what those documents were, but the Sunday report suggests that they were Kushner’s revised disclosure form and Manafort’s revised statement to Congressional investigators.

Sunday’s report was attributed to “three advisers to the White House briefed on the [June 9] meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” Monday’s sources were “three people with knowledge of the [June 3] email.” And today’s sources were the e-mail exchanges themselves – the Times gives no indication who shared the e-mails with reporters.

The commentariat is all aflutter with speculation about the motives of the sources. Perhaps the most interesting are the “three advisers to the White House” who revealed that  Trump Jr. was promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton before agreeing to the June 9 meeting. Trump Jr. largely confirmed the revelation, and seemed not to realize how problematic the revelation was, both for him and for his father’s presidency.

White House advisers presumably do recognize the potential damage the revelation could do. Previous White House leaks have often been attributed to factional rivalries within Trump’s inner circle: the Steve Bannon nationalists versus the Jared Kushner-Ivanka Trump moderates and the Reince Priebus institutionalists. But Trump Jr. is not a White House official, and has no obvious loyalty to any of the factions; and in any event, an attack on the President’s eldest son and namesake does not seem to be a productive way to advance any White House faction’s favor with the President.

The next best guess is that the Sunday leaks were defensive – designed to minimize the damage that would inevitably follow from the Saturday report and follow-up reporting. The Times reporting indicated that the revised Kushner and Manafort disclosures revealed the occurrence of the June 9 meeting, but not its subject matter. The theory is that it was then a matter of time before Congressional investigators, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, or journalists learned the content of the meeting, and that the “White House advisers” thought that revealing the content on their own would mitigate the damage.

But the “advisers” didn’t arrange an open, public statement at a press conference – they did it by leaking to the “failing” New York Times. To me, this suggests that the “advisers” acted without presidential authority.

Furthermore, it’s not obvious that the leaks did mitigate the damage to Trump. The story has dominated the headlines and media commentary for four straight days, and counting. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees will certainly call new hearings – and witnesses will have a much harder time invoking executive privilege on this subject than at previous hearings, although Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort might invoke Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. (That itself would be quite damaging to the President.) We can be sure that Mueller’s investigative team read the Times reports closely, adding several lines to its to-do list.

Still, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the leakers kept at it because the Times hadn’t gotten the whole story yet. On Saturday, the Times reported the occurrence of the meeting, but nothing more. On Sunday, the Times added information about the subjects of discussion at the meeting. On Monday, the Times described initial Goldstone e-mail. And today, the Times quoted key parts of the more extensive pre-meeting e-mail exchange.

On the one hand, the sequential leaking has the feel of a Deep Throat-type of whistleblower. But on the other hand, at least one day’s leaks came directly from White House advisers, on whom at least arguably the whistle is being blown.

*          *          *

One of Trump Jr.’s statements emphasized that the promised information on Clinton proved to be useless. It’s not clear why Trump Jr. thought that was important, but the implication is that if there was no impact on the election, there was no wrongdoing. Commentators have used a variety of analogies to illustrate the flaw in that logic. One analogy was, if you ask a drug dealer to sell you some cocaine, but the dealer tells you he’s fresh out of cocaine so you walk away empty-handed, you’ve still committed the crime of attempting to buy illegal drugs.

What I think the discussion has missed so far is that, by taking the meeting, Trump Jr. signaled his willingness to accept campaign-related information from the Russian government, and his willingness to meet with Russian nationals offering it. Trump Jr.’s statement implied that he lost interest at the meeting when he realized that Veselnitskaya’s real purpose was to lobby for repeal of the Magnitsky Act. By all available accounts, the meeting was short, suggesting that the Veselnitskaya’s pitch didn’t generate a lot of interest. Veselnitskaya herself recalled that one of the invitees, either Kushner or Manafort, left the meeting after a few minutes.

If Veselnitskaya perceived a greater interest in negative information on Clinton than in the Magnitsky Act, she might have reported that back to the Kremlin – certainly if she was representing the Russian government, and maybe even if she wasn’t. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the initial Goldstone approach to Trump Jr. was a test – a “dangle,” in counterintelligence parlance – to see whether the Trump campaign would take an opportunity, even illicit, to advance their electoral prospects.

As we now know, the Trump campaign took the dangle. Three high level members of the Trump campaign came to the meeting on the proffered, even if pretextual, basis of receiving information damaging to Clinton. If the Trump campaign had not already been compromised by Russian intelligence, it was on June 9.

It’s not possible to know how much of what happened after June 9 would not have happened but for June 9.

On July 22, WikiLeaks published its first batch of hacked DNC e-mails.


Comedy Gets Serious

In 30 years hosting The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson proved to be an astute judge and able promoter of budding talent. Guest appearances on his show made many a career, especially among stand-up comics. A gig on The Tonight Show meant that a stand-up comic could stop worrying about where the next meal was coming from. Saturday Night Live has done much the same thing over its 42 seasons – not so much for guest hosts, who are already well known, but for SNL cast members, many of whom came to SNL from obscurity and left for successful performing careers.

It has only recently occurred to me that Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show from 1999 to 2015, also made a lot of comedy careers. The long list of stars who got big, early career boosts from Jon Stewart include Dave Attell, Steve Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Demetri Martin, Olivia Munn, Kristen Schaal and Jessica Williams.

Two alumni of The Daily Show who now have weekly comedy/news commentary shows are Samantha Bee, of Full Frontal, and John Oliver, of Last Week Tonight. Both shows started out with similar formats: Oliver sat at a desk and delivered a fast-paced commentary on the week’s news; Bee stood on a stage and delivered a fast-paced commentary on the week’s news. Both monologues were delivered with blistering outrage, rarely disproportionate to the events described.

Blistering outrage – even if proportionate – has a relatively short shelf life. Bee seems to have recognized that, and has begun introducing innovative segments on her show. The big breakthrough came on June 21, with a brilliantly bizarre segment called “Fantastic Words and Where not to Find Them.”

The  segment features what you might think of as a Greek chorus, if the Greek chorus were scripted by Samuel Becket and filmed by Fritz Lang in a Weimer-era cabaret. The chorus plays against Bee’s monologue, which is interspersed with illustrative video clips.

The subject of the segment is the Nineteen Eighty-Four-style corruption of language by Donald Trump and his administration. “Deep state” is not a synonym for “government”; “expertise” is not “dangerous elitism.” And by the way, Ivanka, “architect” is not a transitive verb. (Although “gaslight” is.)

The tone is set by a quotation of then-candidate Trump’s own words about words: “I know words. I have the best words.” A recurring motif of the segment is the juxtaposition of words as used by Trump and his advocates with words as defined in the dictionary.

Examples include “leaker,” which Trump uses to refer to James Comey talking about conversations they had, but actually means someone who illegally discloses classified information; “classified,” which Trump uses to refer to information he would prefer not be discussed in public, but actually means information that is subject to federal secrecy protections; and “complicit,” which Ivanka Trump defines as being “a force for good,” but which actually means “involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing.”

The segment includes an extended excerpt from the famous Fox News interview with Trump attorney Jay Sekulow. Sekulow explained that President Trump is not under investigation for obstruction of justice even though Trump had tweeted that he was under investigation; then twice accused the Department of Justice of investigating Trump for doing what the Department of Justice had recommended he do, that is, for firing Comey; then claimed that he had been “crystal clear” that President Trump is not under investigation and indignantly accused Chris Wallace of putting words in his mouth by pointing out that Sekulow had twice said that Trump was under investigation.

The segment reminds us that “fake news” is not a news report you disagree with, or one you think is unimportant, or one that embarrasses you, but false information disguised to look like news, disseminated by people whose intention is not to inform but to deceive. Media pundits who incorrectly predicted Donald Trump’s electoral loss in 2016 were not disseminating “fake news,” but “erroneous predictions,” which are different. Reporting on the cost to taxpayers of President Trump’s travel and living arrangements may not be of huge import, but it is not “fake news.”

The segment includes video clips of media and administration figures using no fewer than 15 different euphemisms for “lies,” my favorite being “misstatements of a factual nature,” from MSNBC’s Ari Melber.

For about half of the segment, a banner runs above the video, displaying transcribed excerpts of Trump’s rambling speeches, which would have made a satisfying comedy bit all by itself. You’ll need to watch the segment twice, because you won’t be able to do justice to both the banner above and the video below in one viewing.

At one point in the segment, a burst of misspelled words appears on the screen, including “covfefe,” all from various Trump tweets – which, depending on which Trump acolyte you listen to at what time, either do or don’t constitute official presidential policy statements.

Students of fascism know that corruption of language is an essential element of the corruption of the coercive power of the state. Newspeak and doublethink are prominent features of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the 1949 novel that seemed very futuristic when I first read it in the 1970s, but seems quite contemporary now and is enjoying a popular resurgence – especially after Kellyanne Conway’s irony-free advocacy for “alternative facts.”

The news media is too preoccupied with the “breaking news” of the moment to spend much time on the deeper meaning of current events. What time media commentators do spend consists of softball questions lobbed to panels of “experts,” largely consisting of other media commentators. Academics are able to devote serious resources to such matters, but the academic method requires slow, deliberate research, careful peer review, and extended publication schedules – so we’ll be reading papers on the early signs of Trump’s fascism any year now.

Meanwhile, it falls to comedy shows – who knew? – to do the serious thinking about what’s going on in our world. Bee’s “Fantastic Words” segment, and its accusation that “language is dead,” was an important contribution.

As the segment ended, right before the commercials, the Greek chorus intoned, “We will have been right back.”


Lies and Cuba

Implicit in American policy toward Cuba for at least the last 50 years is the proposition that the United States should foster Cuban democracy and the expansion of legal rights guaranteed to the Cuban people.

Donald Trump, announcing the re-imposition of some of the anti-Cuba measures that Barack Obama had relaxed, wholeheartedly endorsed that proposition. Curiously, Trump has explicitly rejected application of that proposition to American policy in the rest of the world.

In Saudi Arabia six weeks ago, President Trump proudly announced to authoritarian leaders assembled before him that the United States would not interfere in their domestic affairs:

“We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

Saudi Arabia itself is a brutally repressive regime. The country is run by a hereditary absolute monarchy; dissenters of any kind, including religious minorities, are not tolerated; political parties do not exist; free speech does not exist; criminal justice is medieval; and the female half of the citizenry is virtually enslaved to the male half.

Trump had no interest in punishing that repression, or even engaging the regime in dialog about it: “We are not here to tell other people how to live,” he said.

Trump has made clear his admiration for other authoritarian leaders: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Ergogan, for two examples – leaders of countries that rank 134th and 97th, respectively, out of 167 on the 2016 Democracy Index compiled by The Economist (the U.S. tied for 21st with Italy). Trump has shown no interest in democracy in those countries, or in the legal rights enjoyed by the people of those countries.

As a general matter, I agree that American policy should foster democracy in other countries, and should encourage expansion of individual rights in repressive countries, because I believe that spreading and strengthening liberal democracy around the world furthers American interests. So I certainly agree that American policy should foster Cuban democracy and should encourage the expansion of the rights of Cubans.

The much more difficult question is whether American sanctions foster Cuban democracy or expand Cubans’ individual rights. I see no evidence that sanctions have moved Cuba any closer to liberal democracy; the aging generation of 1950s revolutionaries remains firmly in charge. Economic sanctions have been in place for 57 years this month, so it’s a hard case to make that the American sanctions regime is well adapted to the goal of exporting liberal democracy to Cuba.

To me, the most aggravating part of Trump’s decision was his reversal of Obama’s decision to create a general license for Americans engaged in “people to people” travel to Cuba.

Federal law prohibits travel to Cuba generally, but states several exceptions. Before President Obama, an American who wanted to travel to Cuba under one of those exceptions had to apply for and obtain a federal license. Obama created a “general license” that applied to American travelers generally, without the need for each traveler to engage in the lengthy application process. Obama made clear that enforcement of the new rules would be light-handed.

Americans who visited Cuba under the relaxed Obama procedures only had to certify that they were traveling for educational purposes, specifically under the “people to people” exception to the travel sanctions. People to people travelers were required to engage in conversations with ordinary Cubans, and to keep records of those conversations for ten years. As promised, enforcement of those requirements was lax, and I would expect that compliance, at least with the record-keeping part, was also lax.

Announcing an end to the general license for people to people travel, President Trump asserted that American travel to Cuba benefits only the Cuban government. That was a lie.

In 2011, Cuban President Raul Castro legalized private enterprise for the first time since the revolution, and Cubans responded by starting small businesses everywhere. Cubans rent out private rooms, known as casas particulares. Private restaurants and souvenir shops have sprung up by the scores. Cigar vendors are ubiquitous. Artists sell their work from privately owned studios. Privately owned taxis – most famously those iconic 1950s American sedans – ply the streets.

I assume that the Cuban government taxes private income. But to claim that privately owned enterprise yields no benefit at all to the private owners is not just false, but illogical. If the Cuban government confiscated all private profits, there wouldn’t be any private enterprises in Cuba – yet there they are.

Private businesses support jobs for Cubans. The private restaurant owners no doubt keep a lot of the work in the family, but some must hire waiters and dishwashers. The bed and breakfast my spouse and I stayed in supported eight jobs – six full-time and two part-time.

Americans tend to be big tippers, and American credit cards are no good in Cuba, so American tips have been cash, mostly handed directly by the tipper to the tippee. In other words, even in government-owned hotels and restaurants, bars and clubs, taxis and tour guide services, American tourism benefits individual Cubans. I know American travelers who left gifts with their Cuban hosts – money as well as goods – and some sent additional gifts through other travelers who went later.

Ending what is by far the most popular means for American travel to Cuba, the general license for people to people travel, will end both the earned income and the largesse that American travelers have brought to Cuba under the Obama rules.

I’ve argued twice before that if we say we want democracy for Cuba, then we have to respect the wishes of Cubans – and Cubans are enthusiastic in their desire for expanded American travel to Cuba. And of course if we think Cubans are not fit judges of their own best interests, then advocating for Cuban democracy is a fool’s errand.

Fidel Castro is dead; Raul Castro is 86 and has said he will step down at the end of his term next year. First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is supposed to be the designated successor. There is always hope upon succession that some degree of change will come – as Raul Castro allowed private enterprise after succeeding his older brother. And Diaz-Canel, born in 1960, is not of the revolutionary generation. If no change comes from above, there is hope that the new government will lack the hold on Cuba that the Castros have had, so that change may come from below.

I am something of a long-view optimist in these matters. I believe that people want a say in their own affairs, preferring self-government to autocracy, and that people want to have legally guaranteed rights – not just as against other people, but as against the government.

So democracy will eventually come to Cuba. Economic sanctions are unlikely to hasten that day; therefore, the primary effect of Trump’s reversion to pre-Obama travel rules will be to decrease individual Cubans’ economic opportunities and well-being in the meantime.


Republicans Need to Break Baseball’s “Color Line”

Try to imagine the outrage that would follow a 2017 major league baseball team that included no African-American players on its roster.

After Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, major league baseball integrated at a pace slightly faster than one team per year. By the end of the 1958 season, the Boston Red Sox were the last holdout of what was then 16 major league teams. In 1959, a race discrimination lawsuit against the Red Sox and a scheduled public hearing of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination forced the issue, and the Sox signed second-baseman Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, who debuted as a pinch runner on July 21, 1959. He started at second base the next day, and the Sox signed African-American pitcher Earl Wilson a week later.

On June 15, 2017, Republican and Democratic congressional teams played their 79th annual charity benefit game. The 33-member Republican roster included no African-American players. Indeed, it is entirely possible that, in all of the years since that first game in 1909, the Republicans have never fielded an African-American player.

Of course, it’s hard for Congressional Republicans to field an African-American ballplayer as long as Congressional Republicans remain a nearly all-white club. There are today just three African-American Republicans in Congress – Representatives Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas, and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Three is a post-Reconstruction record for Republicans – a record Republicans topped only from 1871 to 1877, peaking at eight African-American Republicans representing former Confederate states in Congress, from March 1875 to April 1876.

Republicans might protest that it’s not fair to expect a fully integrated baseball team from a party delegation that consists of less than one percent African-Americans. But then whose fault is that?


Presidential Hopes

The most important thing to keep in mind in watching legislative hearings is that legislators’ questions are not primarily directed to getting at the truth. The primary purposes of legislators’ questions are scoring partisan points and gaining favorable public attention.

One of the first clues is the fact that legislators’ questioning is timed, and the time limits are very short – a limit of five minutes is not unusual. In no other context I know of is investigative questioning subject to that kind of time limit – generally, investigative questioning ends when the questioner has run out of questions, or maybe when the answerer has run out of answers. The tough time limits in legislative hearings arise from the fact that legislators have no more patience for the partisanship and grandstanding of other legislators than any other onlooker has. Legislators agree to shorten their own partisan grandstanding in order to shorten that of their colleagues.

During my career as a middle manager in New York City government, I testified at New York City Council committee hearings several times, and sat with my bosses as they testified any number of times. During all of those years, the City Council was dominated by Democrats, and during most of that time, the mayors were Republicans – Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Since mayors don’t testify at Council hearings, Council members ground their partisan axes on whichever poor schlub happened to be sitting in front of them at the moment.

Whenever I testified at Council hearings during the mayoralty of David Dinkins, a Democrat, my testimony was greeted warmly, and my agency was roundly praised. When I testified before the same Council members on behalf of the same agency during the Giuliani administration, I was treated with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, as if I was simultaneously a devious genius plotting to inflict cruelty on the citizenry and a managerial incompetent too stupid to tie my own shoes. Then Democrat Bill de Blasio became mayor, and my testimony was once again well received.

I learned not to take it personally. I also learned not to take it very seriously. I remember with special fondness testifying as general counsel of the City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission at a hearing held by the Council’s Transportation Committee, chaired by John Liu, whose tenure in the Council I have perhaps generously characterized as  “undistinguished.” Council members were doing their usual low-rent grandstanding act, gratuitously disparaging the management of my agency. At one point during the commotion, I looked down the line of committee members on the dais and realized that by myself, I had more management experience than the entire committee combined. Most of them had never managed anything in their lives, with the arguable exception of an election campaign.

I gave their critique the very fullest measure of consideration that it deserved.

Congressional hearings are different than New York City Council hearings, but not because the questioning is any more directed at getting at the truth. Congressional hearings are just as much about partisanship and personal attention-seeking as are City Council committee hearings. The main difference is that members of Congress are generally more experienced and more capable politicians, and they are generally aided by more experienced and more capable staff, than members of City Council – so their partisanship and grandstanding are better disguised, dressed up nice to look like patriotism.

During today’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Republican senators generally tried to get former FBI Director James Comey to say things that would help Donald Trump, and Democratic senators generally tried to get Comey to say things that would hurt him.

Comey holds an ambiguous position, from a partisan point of view. On the one hand, his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server makes him something of a hero to Republicans. On the other hand, his handling of the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election makes him something of a hero to Democrats.

Democratic senators mostly glossed over the Clinton investigation and spent their allotted time trying to get Comey to make accusations against Trump, and bolstering the credibility of those accusations. Republicans were less able to let go of the Clinton investigation. So we had the spectacle of some Republican senators focused on the Clinton investigation, asking questions designed to bolster Comey’s credibility, while other Republican senators focused on the Russia investigation, asking questions designed to undermine Comey’s credibility.

One of the comic highlights of the hearing was in the questioning by Idaho Republican Senator Jim Risch. Comey had testified that President Trump had told him that he “hoped” that Comey would let go of the portion of the Russia investigation that pertains to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. “I hope” you will drop the investigation, Senator Risch insisted, was not a “direction” to drop the investigation. Comey conceded only that it was not a “direction” in the literal meaning of the words, but he stuck to his position that it was meant as a direction.

It made me think of Lyndon Johnson, probably the most accomplished arm-twister ever to sit in the Oval Office. Telling someone what he “hoped” for is exactly the kind of verbal formulation that Johnson would have used, but no one on the receiving end of those hopes would ever have doubted that Johnson’s “hope” was a demand and an expectation.

The hearing ended sadly, with embarrassing questioning by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. He mangled almost every sentence he spoke, for instance twice referring to Comey as the president. The substance of his questioning was equally mangled.

McCain tried to create an equivalency between the Clinton e-mail investigation and the Russian investigation. He insisted that Comey had applied a “double standard” by announcing publicly that no charges would be brought against Clinton but refusing to state publicly that no charges would be brought against Trump. Comey responded, rather obviously, that the Clinton announcement was appropriate because it was made after the investigation had been concluded, whereas the Russia investigation has not been concluded so no such announcement would be appropriate.

McCain persisted, essentially accusing Comey of prematurely closing the Clinton investigation. If Russia interfered with the election, then both candidates should be under investigation, not just one of them. The fact that the Clinton investigation had to do with her tenure as secretary of state, which ended four years before the 2016 election, and the fact that the Clinton campaign was the victim of both known successful components of the Russian election interference – the e-mail hacking and the disinformation – were utterly lost on McCain.

McCain’s bizarre reasoning, combined with his uncharacteristically garbled articulation of his questions, made me wonder if he was having a stroke. His bewildered expression when the committee chair gently told him his time had expired – after McCain had ignored repeated gaveling by the chair – only reinforced the impression. The only thing that dissuaded me was that McCain wasn’t actually slurring his words. Still, it was clear that something is seriously wrong.

More than one senator has remained in office after his productive career was over, and it was sad to see this indication that John McCain may be joining that club.

I said that legislators’ questioning is not primarily directed to getting at the truth, but the hearing as a whole is. As a former litigator and sometime trial attorney, I find a close resemblance between trials and legislative hearings. Both are adversary proceedings, the prosecution and defense being the partisans of the courtroom; each side presents facts to support its case, and the jury (or the public) decides.

What impressed me most today about James Comey was how ordinary and familiar his situation seemed to me. Comey is a serious professional who was dealing with hard situations as best he could. He was open about his failures and imperfections; a stronger person, he acknowledged, might have told Trump sooner and more firmly that it was inappropriate for a president and an FBI director to discuss a pending investigation into the president’s campaign. Whatever Comey’s mistakes, they weren’t improperly motivated. Comey is not, despite the ravings of our Tweeter-in-Chief, a self-serving grandstander.

I disagreed with Comey’s decision last July to publicly explain the FBI’s recommendation against prosecution of former Secretary of State Clinton, and I still disagree with it. Once the decision had been made not to prosecute, no further public statement should have been made, and certainly not Comey’s deeply condemnatory accusations of non-criminal carelessness in the handling of e-mails.

Comey said today that the decision not to prosecute Clinton would not have been credible without a public explanation, given the famously boneheaded airport tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. But Lynch recused herself from the investigation after that meeting, and Comey was in a position to know that she had honored that recusal. Anti-Clinton partisans would have accused Comey of a whitewash with or without the tarry on the tarmac, and if that brought some heat onto the FBI and the Department of Justice, taking that heat is just part of the job.

But I have no doubt that Comey’s decision to talk about the Clinton investigation was a well-intentioned and well-considered decision made in good faith. In fact, I think pretty much everything Comey did over the entire course of the Clinton and Trump investigations has been the action of a serious professional trying his best to get things right.

It has been established fact that Donald Trump is a liar at least since Trump told a television interviewer that his supposed investigators were finding evidence in Hawaii that Barack Obama was not born there. Today we heard that fact stated under oath by a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who swore that the sitting president of the United States is a liar.


Extreme Vetting: Time’s Up

In December 2015, Republican primary candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” The statement roused support from many voters, but concern from others. As a general election candidate in August 2016, in what was seen as an attempt to alleviate the concern without softening the support, Trump promised to implement “extreme vetting” procedures to keep out radical Islamists and their sympathizers.

One week into his presidency, Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13769, his first attempt to implement the anti-Muslim measures he had promised as a candidate. The executive order imposed a 90-day suspension on entry into the United States by nationals of seven countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The order imposed a 120-day suspension on all refugee admissions. And the order imposed an open-ended suspension on admission of refugees from Syria.

By then Trump knew not to call his order a “Muslim ban,” but several federal trial courts saw through the ruse and barred enforcement of the executive order’s provisions that suspended entry into the United States. On February 9, 2017, a federal court of appeals rejected Trump’s request for an emergency ruling allowing the executive order to remain in effect. A week later, the Trump administration notified the court of appeals that it intended to replace Executive Order 13769 with a revised order.

The Trump administration gave a lot more deliberation to revising the original order than it had given to writing the first one, which had been drafted without meaningful interagency input and had been issued without meaningful notice to immigration officials. The replacement order was issued on March 6, 2017, and it reflected a much greater level of attention to the factual and legal complexities involved in immigration. And whereas the first executive order was effective upon its issuance, the new executive order, Executive Order 13780, was to be effective ten days after its issuance, on March 16, to give immigration officials time to prepare for implementation and enforcement. There were many changes from the first to the second executive order, perhaps the best known being the omission of Iraq from the list of suspended countries based on concerns about how the Iraq ban might impair relations with that such an important military ally.

But despite the revisions, the new executive order remained, in intent and in effect, delivery on Trump’s campaign promise to ban Muslim immigration. A federal trial court in Hawaii broadly enjoined the critical sections of the new order, and a federal trial court in Maryland issued a narrower injunction. Two federal courts of appeals will hear oral arguments on Trump administration appeals in the two cases on May 15 and May 8, respectively.

Litigation tends to move quite slowly – even what is considered “expedited” litigation, as in these cases, can take many months, if not years, to resolve. Remember that both executive orders imposed 90-day suspensions on non-refugee entries from the specified countries and a 120-day suspension on all refugee entries. The rationale of the suspensions was that the federal government needed that time to ensure that vetting procedures are sufficient to identify and exclude people whose entry would pose a safety risk to Americans – the “extreme vetting” that Candidate Trump promised. The suspensions were presented as an interim step toward the final product, which was to be a new and improved system of enhanced vetting of refugee and visa applicants.

In the first executive order, Trump ordered his Secretary of Homeland Security to “immediately” begin a review and determination of the information needed to effectuate the new “extreme vetting” regimen. The Secretary was to report back within 30 days with a list of countries for which adequate information is not available, and the Secretary of State was then to give those countries 60 days to establish procedures for providing information deemed adequate by the United States. When the 60 days was up, the idea was, nationals from countries that complied would come off the list of banned countries. All of that was to be done by today, April 27, 2017 – 90 days after issuance of the first executive order.

None of the court rulings on Executive Order 13769 enjoined or even questioned the portions of the executive order that called for review and toughening of admissions standards and procedures. Furthermore, since those portions of the executive order constituted nothing more than instructions to the President’s direct subordinates, there was no need for an executive order to carry out that review. Therefore the fact that the first executive order was revoked by the second executive order in no way impeded completion of the contemplated 90-day period for development of “extreme vetting.”

But so far as has been publicly revealed, no 30-day report was issued, no request was made to countries determined to be providing inadequate information, no “extreme vetting” has been implemented, and no country’s suspension has been lifted.

Somewhat incongruously, Executive Order 13780 re-set the clock on both the suspensions and the development of an “extreme vetting” program. Instead of revoking only the portions of Executive Order 13769 that had been enjoined, the new executive order revoked it in entirety. It is as if no progress had been made, no work had been done, to develop the “extreme vetting” process during the 20 days that those portions of Executive Order 13769 were in effect.

Under the new executive order, the new 90-day suspension of non-refugee admissions from the six named countries expires on June 14, 2017, and the 120-day suspension on refugee admissions from all countries expires on July 14, 2017. Again, so far as has been publicly revealed, none of the interim reports called for in the new executive order have been issued. There has been discussion – but so far only discussion – of requiring applicants for admission to turn over their social media accounts to immigration authorities as part of the vetting process. The problems with such a requirement would be numerous, starting with the fact that the clearest and most immediate impact of such a requirement would be the deletion of any radical-sounding content from any social media accounts that applicants might actually have. (Do we seriously imagine that the widowed Syrian mother applying for refugee status after the murder of her husband maintains an active Facebook presence? Do we imagine that, after filing her application, she posts radical propaganda on her Facebook page during the 18 months or so that the existing application system takes?)

What I’m leading up to is that I think the suspension periods were fake, and were intended to be fake. They were not intended as interim steps on the road to extreme vetting, but as an end state unto themselves.

If the Trump administration was going to take 90 days to develop and implement “extreme vetting” procedures for visa-based entry to the U.S., the new procedures would be in place by now. The premise of Trump’s executive orders was that existing entry application procedures are inadequate to protect the safety of Americans, and that the inadequacies were so great and the danger so serious that immediate action was needed to protect us during the short time it would take to develop longer term protections.

Whatever the dangers created by the status quo, those alleged dangers continue unaddressed due to the courts’ injunctions against Trump’s executive orders. Trump’s attempts to contain the imagined threat were enjoined, leaving the supposedly deficient system in place for the indefinite future. Under those circumstances, if the Trump administration truly believed that the existing immigration system posed a serious and imminent threat to American security, the administration would have increased the urgency of its development of new vetting procedures after the injunctions were issued; obviously, the administration did not do so.

If the suspension periods were intended to be suspensions pending development of “extreme vetting” and not more permanent prohibitions, there would have been no need to re-set the “extreme vetting” deadlines in the second executive order. It is as if the 90-day and 120-day suspensions were the lynchpins of the executive orders, not the enhanced vetting that was supposed to come after the suspensions were over. It is as if the intention never was to enhance the vetting, only to reduce Muslim immigration. But then that’s what the courts have said, isn’t it?

Both executive orders expressly contemplated requests that governments make additional information available to American immigration authorities who vet applicants for entry to the United States. There is no way to know what the additional information might be, since the Secretary of Homeland Security has apparently issued neither 30-day report required by either executive order.

The second executive order makes explicit that the information requirements may vary by country. There is every reason to expect that, for countries from which Trump would prefer to have little or no immigration, the information requirements are likely to be considerable, maybe even impossible to satisfy. There is every reason to believe that the requests for additional information would be formulated to ensure non-compliance – either because the host country could not provide the information or because the request for the information would be too insulting to the host country’s rulers or populations.

The object here is not and never was to enhance the safety vetting of our immigration system; vetting is already extreme. The object here is to impair Muslim immigration. So the good news is that the courts have so far stood up to Trump’s gestures toward a Muslim ban, but the bad news is that Trump’s casting of those bans as 90-day and 120-day suspensions pending review of entry procedures was a sham. There was never any intention to resume anything close to previous levels of Muslim immigration, regardless of the particulars of the vetting process. The intention was to foster, and pander to, the popular anti-Muslim impulse that contributed to Trump’s nomination and election. That impulse remains, and Trump will continue to foster and pander to it.

I think the legal odds are against Trump’s executive orders in the appellate arguments scheduled for May 8 and May 15. Regardless, at those arguments and thereafter, judges need to ask some new questions:

If you believe that America is under imminent threat of attack by inadequately vetted immigrants, and if the 90-day and 120-day suspensions were intended to allow time to develop and implement adequate vetting procedures, are those procedures ready?

If they are ready, why are you continuing to fight for the 90-day and 120-day suspensions?

If they are not ready, doesn’t your failure to produce those procedures disprove your claim to believe that inadequate procedures has placed America under imminent threat of attack by inadequately vetted immigrants?


%d bloggers like this: