Politics & Policy

Why the Effort to Demonize Attorney General Barr?

Attorney General William Barr takes part in the “2019 Prison Reform Summit” at the White House, April 1, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The current progressive effort to demonize attorney general William Barr is creepy, but then again not so strange. He came into the office with singular experience and an excellent reputation from past service. As attorney general, he has followed the law to the letter in handling the release, redactions, and dissemination of the Mueller report. His summaries of the report proved factual. They were not contested by Robert Mueller or his team. His decision not to pursue “obstruction” was not just his own, but logically followed from the Mueller report that did not find enough evidence to make such a positive recommendation. His congressional testimony that there was “spying” during the 2016 campaign is, of course, factually undeniable, and Barr added the qualifier of being interested in finding whether such surveillance was warranted or not.

As for the charge that Barr, a former Bush appointee, is Trump’s “hand-picked” choice –how odd, given that all attorney generals are presidents’ hand-picked selections. How could they not be?

It is not as if Barr has referenced himself, in Eric Holder’s partisan fashion, as Trump’s “wing-man.” Nor has he ordered surveillance on, for example, a Fox News reporter, or had the communication records of 20 Associated Press journalists seized, as happened during the Obama administration in efforts to stop leaks of unwelcome news stories. Nor has he been held in contempt of Congress for failure to turn over subpoenaed documents under the cover of a presidential order of executive privilege. There is no suggestion that Barr has abused the perquisites of the office, for example, by using a government jet to go to the horse races with his family. He has avoided controversial value judgements about the nature of the American people and polarizing rhetoric.

So, more likely, the effort to delegitimize the professional Barr is the opening, preemptory salvo in the second and quite different round of investigations.

Soon Mr. Barr will be tasked with collating and adjudicating criminal referrals and arguments for indictments coming variously from Inspector General Michael Horowitz, possibly special counsel John Huber, Devin Nunes the ranking Republican and former chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and perhaps later even from Lindsey Graham, Chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, along with any conclusions arising from federal attorneys within the Justice Department itself.

In toto, these sources variously may present evidence to Barr on matters of lying to federal investigators, perjury, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and abuse of government surveillance — and the charges could, in ironic fashion, involve top-ranking former administrative state investigators during the Obama administration, who for the last two years have been quite prominent as cable news analysts and, in their memoirs at least, as self-described ethicists. Add that there will be a completely different sort of news cycle as it intensifies in approach of the 2020 election. In such investigations, no one has any idea what possible defendants may do or say to federal prosecutors in efforts to lessen their own criminal exposure.

In sum, the progressives’ preventative efforts to destroy Barr’s reputation take on a certain sort of sick partisan logic, especially as he is neither the sort to recuse himself during cycles of journalistic hysteria nor to appoint a special counsel, after the ill-starred odyssey of the Mueller all-stars and dream team. Given his age, past tenures, reputation, and professional demeanor, Barr does not seem to be much worried over transient unpopularity, partisan criticism, political pressure, or making tough decisions that might adversely affect his future career.

So the fear is not that Barr broke or will ever break the law, but rather just the opposite: He seems the sort who will follow the law wherever it leads him and without worry over the consequences — and that reality is now apparently seen by some as quite scary indeed.

PC Culture

‘Wokeness,’ You Say?

Justin Charity writes:

Now, Williamson will write entire columns in which he simply rants about “woke” people and “wokeness” in some form or another. So here we have a self-consciously ridiculous term that might have placed conservative intellectuals in conversation with black skeptics—a term that contains so many hints that progressive black thought, for instance, is more complicated than Kanye West suggests with all his talk about plantations.

I am sure someone will correct me if I am mistaken, but I can’t remember ever having written a column about “wokeness.” I have written a couple about “plantation” rhetoric. I suppose he could have got this even more wrong if he’d put some effort into it, but effort does not seem to be his thing.

 

Religion

Being the Good Thief

Worshippers carry a wooden cross during a Good Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 19, 2019. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

In the most famous perp walk ever, Jesus lumbers from Pilate’s court to Golgotha, carrying the cross on which he’s to be nailed and left to die hanging. A dark, sadistic twist to the capital punishment he has just been sentenced to is that he’s made to transport the instrument of his execution. Along the roads of Jerusalem, he drags the crushing weight of a large piece of timber. He suffers it literally, bearing it (that’s the “fer” part of the word) from under it (“sub”). It’s the equivalent of being told we’ve decided to kill you and here’s a spade — go dig your grave, while we watch and laugh.

Christians in this age of science are inclined to meditate on the physical pain Jesus must have felt. The art of crucifixion was developed to maximize it. Nails were hammered in at spots where certain nerves would be struck for maximum effect. It was, as we say, excruciating. The modern medical literature on the ancient practice of crucifixion is fairly extensive.

The gospel writers don’t go into so much detail about that. They do in their own way, however, share with the science-minded a commitment to empiricism — to the importance of reporting what can be observed through the senses and leaving it to us, for the most part, to imagine the corresponding subjective experience that Jesus must have had. The facts they lay out are more social than medical, although in their telling the two categories bleed into each other.

In the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest, Jesus sweats blood. We learn this from the Gospel of Luke, who was a medical doctor, according to tradition. The sweating of blood is a rare condition, hematridosis, that some physicians think can be induced by stress. Luke attributes the blood-sweat to Jesus’s “agony”: The phenomenon here, in other words, is psychosomatic, a physiological response to a psychological event, Jesus’s foreknowledge of his impending arrest, trials, torture, sentencing, and execution, to say nothing of his abandonment by most of his friends in this world and by his Father, God, who until then had been the wellspring of his strength and confidence.

Read the gospel accounts of Jesus’s passion and death slowly. Notice how many words are spent on descriptions of the social abuse, the mockery and public humiliation, and how the physical torments — the scourging, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion itself — are also (I would say primarily) expressions of the ferocious hatred and spitting contempt that the political and religious establishments as well as the mob have decided to focus on one man for the day. Never underestimate the human capacity for sadism and gloating. It predates Twitter and Lord of the Flies.

Spoiler alert: The abrupt collapse of Jesus’s reputation and of his spectacular brief career — his “public ministry,” in the conventional phrase — will have been reversed and then some before the weekend is over. “In this sign you will conquer,” the Emperor Constantine is said to have been advised in dreams and visions in the fourth century, the “sign” being the cross. So he did.

The temptation to pass over Good Friday is great now that Christ is risen and his mission has been accomplished, but it’s been accomplished only in the sense that, if we have faith, we know how human history ends. We continue to advance toward our collective Easter Sunday, the general resurrection, the gift of victory over death and of life everlasting in a glorified body. We’re not there yet.

On Easter Sunday, as on every day throughout the year, the central symbol in most churches where Christians worship is still the cross, our reminder that, in our various sorrows — in our ongoing personal Good Fridays — we’re neither alone nor without hope. When you’re misunderstood or unjustly accused, meditate on the injustices and indignities inflicted on Jesus in that concentrated period of less than 24 hours between his agony in Gethsemane on Thursday evening and his “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on Friday afternoon.

Jesus was blameless and we’re not, so he’s a difficult model for us to emulate. We may, like him, find ourselves punished for a wrong we didn’t commit, or we may find ourselves punished disproportionately, but if we’re honest we’ll admit all that we’ve gotten away with too. Tax evasion wasn’t the worst crime that Al Capone should have gone to jail for, but it was the crime the authorities could nail him on.

Original sin means never being able to say we’re innocent. “We receive the due rewards of our deeds,” the Good Thief tells the Impenitent Thief before turning to Jesus, who at this point is in his death throes on his cross between theirs. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Languishing on our own crosses, we can probably say and ask for that much honestly.

Young Adults Should Be Allowed to Smoke or Vape

In the last Senate, 12 Democrats sponsored legislation to raise the age for purchasing tobacco products, a legal category that includes e-cigarettes, to 21. Now two Republicans have joined the cause: Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Kent.) and Todd Young (Ind.). McConnell says the bill “will include an exemption for men and women who serve in uniform.”

I’m glad the exemption will be there, but it highlights the absurdity of the legislative idea. What McConnell is saying is that nineteen-year-olds are not competent to decide whether to smoke or vape, unless they have also decided to join the Armed Forces. That can’t be right.

Perhaps restrictions on young adults’ drinking alcohol can be justified on the ground of reducing drunk-driving fatalities and injuries to third parties. Restrictions on young adults’ use of tobacco cannot be justified in any similar way.

 

Politics & Policy

Trump Can’t Cry ‘No Fair’

(Leah Millis/Reuters)

If I may jump in, I take Charlie’s point and I think he’s largely correct. I also think David is correct. There’s not that much of a contradiction in that because I think to some extent they’re talking about different things. And this reflects a larger frustration I have with many of the Mueller/collusion arguments. Charlie is absolutely right that, in the wake of the dominant conversation over the last two years, this is a “win” for Donald Trump. He was accused of being a traitor nightly on MSNBC and CNN and almost daily on op-ed pages. I think some Trump defenders exaggerate the extent to which the news pages worked from the assumption that Trump was guilty, but one can certainly make the case that the thrust of the coverage at times worked from that angle. The Democrats obviously fueled all of that whenever possible. So in that context, Charlie is right.

But there’s another context that never dominated the national conversation, but could be found in places like National Review, The Editors podcast, and elsewhere. I don’t think anyone here bought into the “strong” version of the Russia-collusion theory. David and I probably came as close as anyone and we always stopped well short of anything like the “Trump’s a Putin puppet who stole the election” stuff one could find every night from Rachel Maddow. I’ll let David speak for himself, but my position was that it was A) worth investigating and B) not ludicrous to think the Trump campaign was willing to collude or that some members of the Trump team might have done so in the form of working with Wikileaks and the like. I thought the investigation was fundamentally warranted and that Trump’s response to it was bad on the merits and inadvisable for his political interest. As I read it, the Mueller report only supports that view.

But, yeah, when I hear conservative pundits and analysts hail this as a complete exoneration of Trump, I can simultaneously agree and disagree. In the legalistic context of impeachment and indictment talk, this is a win for Trump. In other words, if you work from a binary standard of “guilty” or “not guilty” of the most extreme accusations against Trump, the Mueller report lands resoundingly on the side of “win.”  

But two points need to be made. First, that was never my standard (or David’s). If you came out of a two-year coma and read the Mueller report, you’d be appalled by many of Trump’s actions. But many conservatives have internalized the left’s ridiculous standard as the only standard to judge Trump by. If he falls short of it, he’s a winner. As a partisan matter fair enough.

Second, we don’t judge politicians by such standards, nor should we. Charlie acknowledges this:

Nothing David writes in his post is untrue per se. Nor, in a broader sense, is it irrelevant; these details are crucial when evaluating Trump in general. But it is not even close to being the point here; the equivalent, perhaps, of saying “well, okay, but he was no angel” when a criminal case against a “gangster” falls apart. Trump was accused of something specific and heinous. He didn’t do it. Switching instantly to “but what about?” strikes me as an unfair thing to do.

He loses me at the unfair part. Imagine if Bill Clinton had never lied under oath about his affairs. He probably would not have been impeached and his supporters would have hailed the Starr Report as a “win” on much the same grounds Charlie does with Trump. But that wouldn’t have required everyone to ignore the affair itself — or how he handled the investigation (which was outrageous). And saying “but what about” wouldn’t be unfair. Rather, it would be fair game. Similarly, using Charlie’s analogy, I’d also have no problem condemning a gangster even if he managed to have a win in court. The country isn’t a court and doesn’t operate like one — nor should it. Hillary Clinton’s and the DNC’s emails were arguably exposed “unfairly.” Who on the right chose to exclude them as inadmissible in public debates?

President Trump ordered people to lie and did other things that I believe to be outrageous, even if they fall far short of impeachable or prosecutable treason. The fact that he had no follow-through is a defense of a sort and people are free to give it whatever weight they want. That’s how politics works. Fair’s got nothing to do with it. 

Culture

Miracle on Bleecker Street: All Our Children, Now and Then

Karl Kenzler and Tasha Lawrence in All Our Children (Maria Baranova)

I find Good Friday and Holy Saturday almost unbearable. The empty tabernacle. If you believe in the Real Presence, this is everything. And now there seems to be nothing. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to turn. Except then we receive Him from Thursday night’s altar of repose at Good Friday services, and there is the hope of life again.

I used to feel that same brutal pain every time I walked into The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. They had a chapel but the Blessed Sacrament wasn’t there. Now it is, and I feel a different kind of pain. The pain of the heart being stretched to love more completely, to be more radically giving. You see, on the other side of the walls of the Sheen Center, is Planned Parenthood. And so every time I’m there, I can’t help but feel the weight of what we’re not doing. What I’m not doing.

Father forgive us for what we do and what we fail to do.

New York State is like nails in the hands and feet of Christ and slashing His side all over again with its every attack on life. With all we are not doing to make abortion unthinkable for mothers in need. My baby step of the day is making a contribution to the Sisters of Life, our home team that is consoling the heart of Jesus by helping mothers and babies and families. What more can we do? So much more.

I wept Wednesday night at The Sheen Center watching the play All Our Children. It’s about another slaughter of innocents – children and teenagers with disabilities murdered in Nazi Germany. I found it impossible to watch and not think of next door.

It’s well done and powerful. And it may even be miraculous. Consider this:

This is a play about the care that people, and nations, owe to the weakest among them. It is, at its core, about the sanctity of life. And while that may sound rooted in religion, the idea is far more basic.

“This has nothing to do with being a Christian,” the bishop says. “It’s about being a human being.”

That appeared in the New York Times review of All Our Children this week. This is why it’s important for something like The Sheen Center to exist: To engage the culture. To highlight excellent art that will challenge us. We need the challenge and in the Empire State in a particular way.

Go see All Our Children, which is open for a few more weeks at Sheen on Bleecker Street, if you can. And pop into the chapel, too, with a word of thanks and prayers for conversions on that block and in the state, country, and world.

On Good Friday, we mark the greatest love of all, God conquering death with His life. We must do more. The least we can do is support good art that challenges us to be bold and courageous in the face of evil.

White House

Does the Obstruction Statute Apply?

That is a very important technical legal question. Mueller addresses it in a tacked-on legal brief at the end of the report. Our friend Josh Blackman has a good, skeptical rundown.

Politics & Policy

Should We Allow Children of Undocumented Immigrants into Our Universities?

That has been a policy dispute for many years, going back at least to 1980 as Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas reminds us in this Martin Center piece. In it, Rojas argues in favor of an open-doors policy, treating children of undocumented immigrants no differently than anyone else.

Rojas writes:

People should be judged on their behavior, not the behavior of others. To exclude students from colleges because of a legal violation by their parents directly contradicts this central idea. If a student attends school, participates, and masters the material, then they should be appropriately rewarded. If conservatives oppose affirmative action because it rewards applicants whose credentials fall below a school’s standards, they should also support undocumented students who meet and surpass the school’s criteria for admission and financial support. To do otherwise is a rejection of meritocratic norms.

Good point.

Rojas sums up his case:

We have a choice. We can go against important values, exclude undocumented persons from education, and thus create a student population segregated by national origin and legal status. Or we can allow them to participate in the American project. We can invite them to join our community, be educated in our schools, and renew our nation—as have generations of immigrants before them.

Religion

Fourteen Good Friday Things that Caught My Eye Today (April 19, 2019)

1. This was in the monthly Magnificat a number of years ago today from Saint Ephrem the Syrian:

Our Lord was trampled by death, and turned to tread a path beyond death. He is the one who submitted and endured death, as it willed, in order to overthrow death, contrary to (death’s) will. Our Lord carried his cross and set forth as death willed. But on the cross he called out and brought the dead out of Sheol, contrary to death’s will. With the very weapon that death had used to kill him, he gained the victory over death. Divinity disguised itself in humanity and approached death, which killed, then was killed: death killed natural life, but supernatural life killed death.

Since death was unable to devour him without a body, or Sheol to swallow him without flesh, he came to a Virgin to provide himself with a means to Sheol. They had brought him a donkey to ride when he entered Jerusalem to announce her destruction and the expulsion of her children. And with a body from a Virgin he entered Sheol, broke into its vaults, and carried off its treasures. Then he came to Eve, mother of all the living. She is the vine whose fence death broke down with her own hands in order to sample her fruit. And Eve, who had been mother of all the living, became a fountain of death for all the living. But Mary, the new shoot, sprouted from Eve, the old vine, and new life dwelt in her. When death came confidently, as usual, to feed on mortal fruit, life, the killer of death, was lying in wait, so that when death swallowed life with no apprehension, it would vomit it out, and many others with it.

So the Medicine of Life flew down from above and joined himself to that mortal fruit, the body. And when death came as usual to feed, life swallowed death instead. This is the food that hungered to eat the one who eats it. Therefore, death vomited up the many lives which it had greedily swallowed because of a single fruit which it had ravenously swallowed. The hunger that drove it after one was the undoing of the voraciousness that had driven it after many. Death succeeded in eating the one fruit, but it quickly vomited out the many. As the one fruit was dying on the cross, many of the buried came forth from Sheol at the sound of his voice…

This is the Son of the skillful carpenter who set up his cross over all-consuming Sheol and conducted humanity over to the place of life. Since humanity fell into Sheol because of a tree, it passed over to the place of life upon a tree. And so, on the tree where bitterness was tasted, sweetness has been tasted, so that we might learn who it is who has no rival among his creatures. Praise to you who suspended your cross over death so that souls could pass over on it from the place of the dead to the place of life.

2.

3. This is in the Liturgy of the Hours today, From the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom:

If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. Sacrifice a lamb without blemish, commanded Moses, and sprinkle its blood on your doors. If we were to ask him what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.

If you desire further proof of the power of this blood, remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side. The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

There flowed from his side water and blood. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

5. The late Fr. Benedict Groeschel

6. Through Him, with Him, in Him — a meditation by Msgr. John Esseff

7. Benedict XVI on the Way of the Cross

8. From Saint Thomas Aquinas:

We are advised to think diligently, that is, to think upon him over and over again. In all your ways, says Holy Scripture, think upon him (Prv 3:6). The reason for which is that no matter what anxiety may befall us, we have a remedy in the cross.

For there we find obedience to God. He humbled himself becoming obedient, says Saint Paul (Phil 2:8). Likewise, we find a loving forethought for those akin to him, shown in the care he had, when upon the very cross, for his Mother. We find, too, charity for his fellows, for on the cross he prayed for sinners, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Lk 23:34). He showed, also, patience in suffering: I was dumb and was humbled, and kept silence from good things, and my sorrow was renewed (Ps 38:3). Finally he showed, in all things, a perseverance to the end, for he persevered until death itself: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23:46).

So on the cross we find an example of all the virtues. As Saint Augustine says, the cross was not only the gallows where our Lord suffered in patience, it was a pulpit from which he taught mankind.

But what is it that we are to think, over and over again?

Three things:

–The kind of Passion it was. He endured opposition, that is, suffering from spoken words. For instance they said, You who would destroy the temple (Mt 27:40). It is said in the Psalms (Ps 17:44), You rescued me from the strife of peoples and it was foretold that our Lord should be a sign which shall be contradicted (Lk 2:34). Saint Paul, in the text, says such opposition, meaning so grievous and so humiliating an opposition. All you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering. (Lam 1:12).

–From whom he suffered the Passion. It was from sinners, from those for whom he was suffering. Christ died once for our sins, the just for the unjust (1 Pt 3:18).

–Who it was that suffered. Before the Passion, from the beginning of the world he had suffered in his members, but in the Passion he suffered in his own Person. When the words against himself. Who his own self, says Saint Peter (1 Pt 2:24), bore our sins in his body upon the tree.

To think diligently upon our Lord’s Passion is a very profitable employment, which is why Saint Paul adds that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. The Passion of Christ keeps us from fainting. Saint Gregory says, “If we recall the Passion of Christ, nothing seems so hard that it cannot be borne with equanimity.” You will not then fail, worn out in spirit, in loyalty to the true faith, nor in the prosecution of good works.

Saint Paul again gives a reason for our courageous perseverance when he says, in the following verse, You have not yet resisted unto blood (Heb 12:4). As though he said, “You must not faint at these anxieties your own troubles cause you. You have not yet borne as much as Christ. For he indeed shed his blood for us.”

9. The Wounds of Love of Good Friday

10. How the Weakness of the Cross Makes Us Strong

11. Fr. George Rutler

12. Peter Wehner in the New York Times today

13. Raïssa Maritain on Jesus on the Cross:

When Jesus felt himself abandoned by God on the cross, it was because the face of love was then hidden from him, and the whole of his humanity was subjected to the law, without any mitigation—something which no man except the Man-God would have been able to endure without dying.

Jesus on the cross, and very particularly at that moment of total dereliction, suffered the full rigor of the law of the transmutation of nature into another—as if he had not been God; it was his humanity as such, taken from the Virgin, which had to feel the full weight of this law. For the head must experience the law that he imposes on his members. Because, having assumed human nature, he had to experience this supreme law to which human nature, called to participate in the divine nature, is subject.

And if he had not suffered from the rigor of this law, it would not have been possible to say that the Word took a heart like our own in order to feel for our sufferings.

This law of the transformation of natures—which comprises in it all moral and divine laws—is something necessary, physical, ontological if you like—God himself cannot abolish it, just as he cannot produce the absurd.

But this law—the Law—is not he—he is love.

So when a soul suffers, and suffers from this inexorable Law of transmutation of a nature into a higher nature (and this is the meaning of all human history)—God is with this nature which he has made and which is suffering—he is not against it. If he could transform that nature into his own by abolishing the law of suffering and death, he would abolish it—because he takes no pleasure in the spectacle of pain and death. But he cannot abolish any law inscribed in being.

The face of the law and its rigor, the face of suffering and death is not the face of God; God is love.

14. (Hat tip: Mark Wright)

and Johnny Cash singing the same.

ALSO:

On the Holy Face

On the tomb of Christ

On Mary Magdalene

Politics & Policy

Evaluating the New NAFTA

Seated from left: Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, President Donald Trump, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the USMCA signing ceremony in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 30, 2018. (Andres Stapf/Reuters)

The International Trade Commission has released a report on the likely effects of replacing NAFTA with the modified version of it that the Trump administration has negotiated with Mexico and Canada. The ITC has made changes to its methods of evaluating these effects, changes that appear to work in favor of a positive assessment. The result is that the agreement would have a modestly beneficial effect, raising GDP by 0.35 percent.

Much of this benefit would come from greater certainty with respect to international data transfer, cross-border services, and investment: the sorts of provisions of the new NAFTA, called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, that were part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump scuttled at the start of the administration.

The part of the agreement that most bears the administration’s imprint, and which it has touted most, concerns the auto sector. The agreement would tighten rules of origin and wage regulations, the opposite of what most free traders would like to see. The ITC finds that these provisions would have a negative effect: raising car prices, cutting car sales, and reducing employment in auto assembly.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office has sought to paint a rosier picture of its handiwork, which has included spinning previously announced decisions by companies to invest in the U.S. as responses to the new agreement. One reason the auto industry is going along with this spin: It’s afraid that the alternative to congressional passage of the USMCA is that Trump will attempt to withdraw from NAFTA altogether.

Culture

Fashion World Celebrates Gay-Hating Dictator

So now the New York Times, along with many noted style figures, is celebrating Fidel Castro as a trend-setting fashion icon. Do you think all those fashionistas would be remembering Castro so fondly if they knew what a virulent homophobe he was? As usual, it’s “no enemies on the left” . . .

White House

Another Warning Sign

President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House, April 18, 2019 (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The Mueller report is of course about Russian interference in the 2016 election and about the White House’s interference in the resulting investigation. But I couldn’t help also reading the report as a window into the manner of administration that characterizes the Trump era, and therefore as another warning about how fundamentally unprepared our government is for a significant crisis or emergency.

This is a bell I’ve been ringing a lot around here for two years, I know (including just last week regarding the desolate wasteland that is the Department of Homeland Security). But it’s important, and elements of the report really brought it home. The most striking of these was this paragraph on page 158 of the second volume of the report:

The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so.

That paragraph summarizes a pattern of behavior evident throughout the evidence laid out in that second volume. Simply put, the people who work for the president use their judgment to decide when to do what he says and when to ignore him or flatly contradict his decisions.

This extraordinary pattern in the report brought to mind an incident from very early in the Trump era. On January 15 of 2017, a few days before Trump’s inauguration, the President-Elect was interviewed by the Washington Post, and when asked about health care he said his team would soon propose its own health-care reform—that it was worked out, and that it would not reduce coverage numbers but would cost less than Obamacare. The statement sent the little conservative health policy world into a frenzy: What was this plan? Who was working on it? What kinds of ideas was it based on? The barrage of group emails was soon ended, however, by a note from a member of Trump’s little policy circle, who would soon become a senior administration official. The message was simple: Trump had no idea what he was talking about, the proposal he mentioned was a figment of his imagination, and don’t worry about it—everything was under control.

This was simultaneously reassuring and alarming in the way that Mueller’s window into the administration is. It was evidence that there were people around the president who were doing the work required to govern and make decisions, but it was also evidence that the president was not at the center of that process, and that a significant amount of their work involved deciding when to ignore him. That pattern has of course repeated over and over in the two years that have followed.

As Mueller’s report demonstrates, the willingness of his subordinates to be insubordinate has generally served Trump well, because his own judgement is often so shockingly bad that almost anyone else’s judgment (including that of some very shady characters) would be better. That willingness to ignore or contradict the president seems to have averted some criminal acts that might have endangered his presidency. And it has likely saved us from other dark fates.

But this can only reassure us up to a point, for two major reasons. First, this kind of behavior is a deformation of the logic of our constitutional system. The first sentence of Article II of the Constitution (“The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”), combined with the responsibility given to the president in Article II, Section 4, to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and with the simple fact that only one person is elected by the voting public to exercise the power of the presidency mean that the president is responsible for the executive branch. The various people who populate executive positions are his agents. He has authority over them, and responsibility for their actions. We can’t take comfort from the existence of a body of appointed officials who will ignore the president’s orders when they see fit. Who are these people? Who gave them the power to do this? Why should we trust them? And what recourse do we have for holding them accountable?

And second, this approach to dealing with the president’s poor judgment would not work well in a crisis. Dealing with crises is one of the most important functions of the modern president. It is one important reason why we need a single official in charge of the executive power of the government, who can make the toughest decisions in moments of greatest pressure and stress. In such moments, it is important that everybody understand the chain of command, that people are willing to execute decisions they might not have made themselves, and that the people involved trust the process—which ultimately means they have to trust the decision maker. The window Mueller has given us into the workings of this administration offer us one more reason to think that our government is not ready for a serious crisis, and that its upper reaches might crumple in an emergency.

It is not hard to see why Trump’s senior staff treat him as they do. They understand better than any of us that his distinct disabilities as a decision maker have to be accommodated in some extraordinary ways to prevent them from exacting terrible costs. But these extraordinary accommodations are unlikely to be sustainable in truly extraordinary circumstances. We can hope that the country is lucky enough to avoid a serious crisis of some kind that requires a functional emergency-management response under time pressure. Maybe that will happen, we are a very lucky country, after all.

Or we can hope that Trump’s advisers, and especially his national-security and economic teams, have worked out some procedures for emergency decision-making that take account of the unusual problem they face. But it isn’t easy to see how this could be done in any way that could be both effective and legitimate.

In any case, all of that is a lot to hope for. The peculiar willingness of Trump’s people to ignore or disobey him is a blessing and a curse. But more than anything it is a warning sign that ought to be taken seriously by anyone in Congress or in the executive branch who is in any way in a position to help prepare our government to handle serious emergencies.

White House

Inquisitio Requiescat in Pace

Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill in 2012. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The variously dubbed dream team/all stars/hunter-killer/army of Mueller’s lawyers, after 22 months, $30 million, and 400 pages plus of legalese did not find “Russian collusion,” the original reason to be of their investigation. At what early point the team realized that fundamental truth is of importance, but will never be fully disclosed.

Nor did team Mueller find actionable “obstruction” efforts (promiscuous use of executive privilege, firings of Mueller team members, refusal to let high Trump staffers be questioned, etc.) to impede its investigation of a non-crime as lawyers went into every rumored Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump, Jr. etc. cul de sac. In exasperation Mueller leveraged almost anyone peripherally related to the Trump campaign either to indict him on mostly process crimes, or to air their incriminating “Trump said this” versions of private conversations.

And because Mueller felt it necessary to include in his report suggestions of Trump’s mercurial talk, obfuscations, and shenanigans that did not constitute actual crimes as opposed to thought crimes (those falsely accused of a felony have a tendency to become furious and sound off), the question arises that, if Mueller felt it so necessary to include in his report any material he swept up as he vacuumed around, why not at least suggest that the FBI Director and members of DOJ did not honestly inform a FISA court of the true nature of the evidence for their writ — given the centrality of surveilled conversations within the Mueller report?

Why not disclose whether former FBI director James Comey broke the law by leaking seven memos, four of them possibly classified, or whether the FBI with likely stealth aid of the CIA improperly and illegally used informants on little or no warranting evidence to spy on a political campaign in the middle of an election? Or why did Mueller initially hide from the media the true connections between, the written comments from, and the timing of the firings/reassignments of Lisa Page and Peter Strozk? And why did a dozen or so top DOJ and FBI officials abruptly retire, or were reassigned, or were fired during the course of the Mueller investigation, some of them now facing criminal referrals?

If Robert Mueller’s special counsel team, mutatis mutandis, had been tasked with investigating rampant but unfounded rumors of whether the Kennedy clan in 1960 illegally helped to warp voting in key precincts of Illinois to tilt the Electoral College to John F. Kennedy, they may or may not have found actionable “collusion” with Chicago mayor Richard Daley. But no doubt along the way they would have discovered after spending 1961-62 in exhaustive investigation of the Kennedy administration that JFK’s family helpers and  subordinates were often not very nice and stooped to tolerate or themselves promoted unmentionables like wiretapping Martin Luther King’s phone, covering up JFK’s dangerous liaison with a mobster’s moll, and conducting poolside orgies that violated every notion of moral behavior — in a way voters would otherwise have had no idea when they elected JFK in 1960 and likely would have done so again in 1964.

In the end we are left with the beginning: Mueller’s team started with the supposed guilty man and searched desperately but ultimately in vain to find the crime.

Sports

Screw York Yankees

During the national anthem at Yankee Stadium, April 10, 2019 (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports/File Photo/via Reuters)

You are dead to me. You are a collection of Fredos. The cock has crowed, you pathetic sniveling jerks.

The team I have rooted for since 1965, when I first visited the House that Ruth Built, where I hawked peanuts and ice cream a lifetime ago, watched countless games (Guidry striking out 18!), has gotten so woke and decided to abandon playing (during the Seventh-Inning-Stretch) Kate Smith’s iconic rendition of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

The 1938 radio premier of Smith singing the song can be heard here.

Why? Per the Daily Mail, the Yankees, “dropped the song after becoming aware of the late Smith’s racially insensitive songs, with names like ‘Pickaninny Heaven’ and ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born.’” Another charge: Smith (who died in 1986) endorsed a “mammy” doll in the late 1930s. An unnamed spokesman said “The Yankees take social, racial, and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”

No, it’s on the side of stupidity. As stupid: The Philadelphia Flyers, who initiated the custom of playing Smith’s tune during games, announced they too were kyboshing Kate.

What repulsive people, gnats compared to how truly great and American this lady was. Kate Smith was more than just a crooner — who now stands judged and convicted of living when she lived. From her New York Times obituary:

At the height of her career, during World War II, she repeatedly was named one of the three or four most popular women in America. No single show-business figure even approached her as a seller of War Bonds during World War II. In one 18-hour stint on the CBS radio network, Miss Smith sold $107 million worth of war bonds, which were issued by the United States Government to finance the war effort. Her total for a series of marathon broadcasts was over $600 million.

And when she wasn’t raising the dough to crush fascism, Smith was visiting the soldiers: “. . . she traveled nearly 520,000 miles to entertain American troops.” That’s the equivalent of 130 times around the globe. While the Yankees were playing baseball and getting loaded after the game.

In 1982 Ronald Reagan presented Kate Smith with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Watch the ceremony here.

She deserved it. What the Yankees deserve is a boycott. George Steinbrenner, your sons ain’t you.

Culture

The Feel-Good Paper-Bag Tax

A shopper holds her bags as she tries to hail a cab in New York City in 2011. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

New York City has enacted a five-cent tax on paper bags for most retail purchases, to go along with New York State’s total ban on plastic bags, both effective March 1, 2020. The idea is that without the nickel tax (pardon, I mean “fee”), consumers would just switch from plastic to paper, and they can’t be allowed to do that, at least not without punishment. I actually have a hard time getting too worked up about the paper-bag tax; it amounts to a modest increase in the sales tax, one that can be avoided if you really object to it. To be sure, it adds up; if you estimate one paper bag per resident per day, it works out to about $150 million a year. But if they didn’t charge us for paper bags, they would find something else to tax. And it’s a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing that a dozen or so generations in the future, the bag you carried your groceries home in will be very slowly beginning to crumble in a landfill instead of remaining intact, like plastic.

In fact, as this evenhanded–by–New York Times–standards article explains, disposable plastic bags are less destructive to the environment (“a plastic bag doesn’t cause too much harm sitting in a landfill”) than disposable paper, durable-plastic, or cotton bags. The main problem with plastic bags is aesthetic: they’re “a highly visible sign of waste,” not to mention that “just last week, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia with two dozen plastic bags in its gut, along with other trash.” It’s not clear how putting fewer plastic bags in landfills will save the whales, but never mind that, because these things aren’t supposed to make sense. The plastic-bag ban and the paper-bag tax, like most things in New York City politics, are ways to make people on the left feel virtuous, and never mind the expense or inconvenience for everyone else.

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