Elections

Last Night’s Debate Was Full of Genuine Surprises

From left: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Beto O’Rourke at the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, U.S., October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Last night brought some genuine surprises. The first was which candidates brought their A-games when they needed them most; the second was an early endorsement by one of the Democrats’ biggest names; the third was that two candidates are running out of money. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke continues to say the quiet part out loud; and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces his intent to snub Vice President Mike Pence.

You Can’t Script October — in Either Baseball or Politics

Genuine surprise of last night, number one: Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, two candidates who were starting to slide into irrelevance, had their best nights yet. That may not be enough to get them into the first tier, but at a time when the Democratic primary is getting ready to weed out the riff-raff, both candidates made an unexpectedly strong case that they’ve got something useful to say.

(I write my debate assessments as the debates come to a close and try not to look at other people’s wrap-ups and declarations of the winners and losers before sending them off to be reviewed by the editors for typos. If I echo the conventional wisdom, fine; if I don’t, who cares, and perhaps being one of the first assessments posted online ends up shaping that post-debate conventional wisdom. But whatever happens, I don’t follow the crowd.)

Notice that Buttigieg is at 12 percent in Iowa in the RealClearPolitics average, and 8.7 percent in New Hampshire. That may not sound like much, but nobody else outside of the big three is anywhere near double digits anywhere. The South Bend mayor’s rise is Exhibit A of counterevidence when other candidates whine that the process is rigged in favor of well-known candidates who have been in politics forever.

Klobuchar had, until last night, been a strong contender for the biggest “why is she running?” status. She wasn’t the biggest centrist or the most progressive, she’s from a state that might, theoretically, be competitive this cycle but isn’t most cycles and up until last night, “Minnesota Nice” appeared to be a synonym for boring. What does Klobuchar do well? It turns out she can politely but firmly poke holes in Warren’s arguments, making the Massachusetts senator’s high-dudgeon “you’re attacking me because I’m the only one standing up for the people” schtick sound overwrought and ridiculous.

“At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up. And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”

“I appreciate Elizabeth’s work. But, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”

“I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth, because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires.”

What we saw last night — particularly in the one-on-one concern-off held by Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke on gun violence — is that progressive Democrats get really used to being able to play the “I care about people, and you don’t” card against their opponents, and they’re really shocked and indignant when their own style of criticism is turned against them. You get the feeling that Buttigieg really sees O’Rourke as a political dilettante, play-acting at leadership having never had that much executive responsibility in office.

O’ROURKE: Listening to my fellow Americans, to those moms who demand action, to those students who march for our lives, who, in fact, came up with this extraordinary bold peace plan that calls for mandatory buybacks, let’s follow their inspiration and lead and not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups. Let’s do what’s right.

BUTTIGIEG: The problem isn’t the polls. The problems is the policy. And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal. Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.

Genuine surprise of last night, number two: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are endorsing Bernie Sanders — Omar already has, AOC will do so in a big Sanders rally in the Bronx Saturday.

It’s not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez was inclined to prefer the field’s most outspoken socialist, but this is a little early, and a shot in the arm just when Sanders campaign needs it. Think about it, Sanders had a heart attack two weeks ago; for a lot of campaigns, that would wrap it up. The Vermont senator was as loud and lively and fired up as ever last night; no doubt he beat back that heart attack by yelling and berating it into submission. Sanders has the most cash on hand, and as I predicted before the heart attack, “Sanders will probably have enough financial resources to stay in the presidential race as long has he likes, all the way to the Democratic convention in Milwaukee if he wants.” In most polls, both national and state, he’s in a third place that is respectable but distant.

This is also really good news for Joe Biden, because the former vice president wants and perhaps needs at least two big progressive alternatives in the race competing for the same voters, and hopefully knocking each other around. The Sanders health scare looked like it was setting up an early Biden-Warren showdown.

Biden did not have a great night — he really hasn’t had any great debate nights this cycle — and those advantages of having the biggest name and most Democrats’ “default choice” are starting to fade. His fundraising is “meh” — $9 million cash on hand? For a former veep? — and the lingering odor from the Hunter Biden deals obviously doesn’t help him. (A more deft candidate would have used Trump’s attacks to make most Americans forget that the primary was still going on.) Biden needs the current status quo — still the national frontrunner, a close second in Iowa, a close second in New Hampshire, the leader in Nevada, the leader in South Carolina by a wide margin, and most progressives split between Warren and Sanders — to stay in place.

Genuine surprise of last night, number three: Are the two Texans in the Democratic presidential race about to depart because they’re running out of money? The latest fundraising reports, revealing the campaigns’ cash on hand as of September 30, suggest that another culling is coming soon. It’s mid-October. Longshot campaigns that looked like cute larks or boutique candidates in the spring have had their moment in the sun and are running on fumes. Julian Castro has less than $1 million in the bank. Beto O’Rourke’s down to $3.3 million. The candidates who didn’t qualify for the debate all have less than $2 million. You can’t run campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina with that kind of money.

Genuine surprise of last night, number four: The Washington Nationals swept the St. Louis Cardinals. I only casually follow baseball, but what’s noteworthy about this year’s Nationals is that they’ve finally made it to the championship after a lot of talent-laden Nationals teams in past years flopped in the playoffs. And it’s ironic that they make to the World Series after mega-slugger Bryce Harper departed the team in free agency. And it’s even more ironic that they’ve made it so far after looking miserable in spring; on May 23, the team had 19 wins and 31 losses.

Beto: Okay, Maybe the Cops Will Have to Confiscate Your AR-15

This morning, Beto O’Rourke told Joe Scarborough that if people refused to comply with his mandatory buyback of AR-15s, “in that case, I think there would be a visit by law enforcement to recover that firearm.” There are roughly 16 million AR-15s or similar models in private hands in the United States today.

Is it too late to get the Democrats to nominate this guy?

That’s It. No More Mr. Nice NATO Ally.

I mean it when I say it’s time to begin the process of expelling Turkey from NATO. Our so-called ally is apparently no longer willing to talk: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will refuse to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to travel to Turkey to argue for a ceasefire in the ongoing Syria conflict.”

Last night, in another one of those moments where you wonder how much Joe Biden understands what’s going on in the world, the vice president declared, “Erdogan understands that — you talk about should he stay in or out of NATO — he understands if he’s out of NATO, he’s in real trouble.”

Does he? Does he look, sound, or act like a man who prioritizes staying on good terms with his NATO allies?

I’ve been writing about Erdogan for a long, long, long, long time. He’s steadily accumulated more and more power to reach authoritarian status. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world. And now he’s invading a neighboring country, blowing up the forces of a U.S. ally, and in the process releasing Islamic State fighters from prison.

Just what does this guy have to do to get us to believe he’s no longer an ally to NATO or U.S. interests?

ADDENDUM: A Morning Jolt reader, perusing coverage of the NBA and China, reminds me of an old Charles Barkley quote: “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.”

At the time, we were all pretty sure he was joking.

White House

LeBron Turns His Back on Hong Kong

Miami Heat’s LeBron James pauses during a break in play against the Dallas Mavericks during Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Dallas, June 9, 2011. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters )

Making the click-through worthwhile: LeBron James chooses to stand with China; the U.S. examines its options for leverage with Turkey; and Hunter Biden admits something obvious about his past employers.

LeBron James and Donald Trump Finally Agree on Something: Abandoning Hong Kong

 “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.” — LeBron James.

LeBron James announced that, like everyone else in the NBA, he finds the imprisonment of one to two million Uighurs in concentration camps and increasingly violent crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong simply too complicated and nuanced to comment upon.

“I think when we talk about the political side, I think it’s a very delicate situation. A very sensitive situation. And I think for me personally, for any of you guys who know me or always cover me, you know that when I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about. Something that hits home for me. Something I’m very passionate about, and I felt like with this particular situation it was something that not only was I not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself of my teammates or the organization had enough information to talk about it at that point in time. And we still feel the same way.”

But the situation isn’t so complicated that James doesn’t feel comfortable criticizing the one guy who dared tweet, “Stand with Hong Kong.”

“I think that’s another situation that should stay behind closed doors. I think when we all sit back and learn from the situation that happened, understand that what you could tweet or could say . . . We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself. I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”

Lest you think this was an isolated slip of the tongue:

“That’s just my belief. I don’t know. That’s my belief. That’s all I can say. I believe he was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation. And if he was, then so be it, but I have no idea. That’s just my belief that when you say things or do things, and you know the people that can be affected by it, and the families an the individuals and everyone that can be affected by it, sometimes things can be changed. And also sometimes social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well. But that’s just my belief.”

See, if Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey just had a little more “education,” he would see the other side of the story about concentration camps and brutal police crackdowns. It’s complicated. On one side, you have the people who don’t want to be put in the concentration camps, and on the other side, you have the people running the concentration camps. On one side, you’ve got the cops in Hong Kong, and on the other side, you’ve got the people being beaten and shot. Who among us can say who’s right, you know?

James also tweeted, “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it . . . Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”

I don’t know about you, but my heart just breaks about all the difficulty that some of the world’s most highly paid and well-treated athletes on the Golden State Warriors and throughout the NBA have been through this week. I’m sure that James and his teammates have been through almost as rough a week as the Uighurs or Hong Kong protesters.

And no, our president is no better and is in fact even more shameful, considering the traditional role of the President of the United States in standing up for American values. No one’s asking the president to nuke Beijing or deploy troops to Hong Kong. Just stand up for what’s right and denounce the abuse of innocent people, instead of insisting that a new trade deal will resolve the situation.

In case you missed it, our president shrugged and declared, “I think great progress has been made by China in Hong Kong. I’ve been watching, and I actually told the vice premier, it really has toned down a lot from the initial days of a couple of months ago, when I saw a lot of people and I see far fewer now.” [Note: Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in central Hong Kong Monday night.] “We were discussing it, and I think that’s going to take care of itself. I think this [U.S.-China trade] deal is a great deal for the people of Hong Kong to see what happened. I think this is a very positive thing for Hong Kong. But it really has — the escalation, it really has de-escalated a lot, and we were discussing it.”

Lest you think that the situation is calming down, Chinese president Xi Jinping said Sunday in Nepal that any attempt “to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”

As Melissa Chan observes, “Between LeBron and Kerr you’ve got some pretty well-known social justice sports guys whose social justice begins in America but ends at Communist China’s doorstep. Or put another way — willing to give Americans a hard time but not any Chinese.”

Precisely. Both LeBron and Kerr specifically are outspoken about disrespecting the rights of minorities, about police abuses, and about a government abusing its power and authority here in the United States. But when faced with the same issues, in a conflict where one side is effectively paying the NBA enough, these guys suddenly go silent.

On paper, any entity in America that was wealthy enough could purchase the silence of NBA superstars. NBA revenue from China is estimated at $500 million annually, although it could be higher. If the National Organization of Police Organizations thinks NBA players have unfairly demonized cops in their discussions of police brutality, then start passing the hat. The United States has roughly 700,000 police officers; throw in non-uniformed personnel and federal agents and you get up to about 865,000. Surely, some civilians would generously contribute to the “Let’s Purchase the NBA’s Silence” fund.

If everyone in law enforcement kicked in $579 or so — less than $50 per month — they could outbid China and sign a deal with the NBA that pressured the players into not speaking about topics that could offend U.S. police organizations. Every time there was a controversial police shooting, LeBron would have to go out in front of the cameras and declare that the situation was “complicated,” and how he felt like he just didn’t know enough about the circumstances to comment, and that any of his colleagues who did comment were misinformed or not educated.

That’s how it works now, right?  Like the old joke goes, we’ve established what they are; now we’re just haggling over the price.

What Do We Do Next Regarding Turkey and the Kurds?

It would be good if tonight’s Democratic presidential debate asked the candidates about what to do next regarding Turkey, the Kurds, Syria, and the couple hundred escaping ISIS. Not just denouncing the president, which will be easy, but laying out what they would do differently starting from this moment if they were sworn in and working in the Oval Office starting tomorrow.

Yesterday morning, Trump speculated that the Kurds are deliberately releasing Islamic State fighters to get the United States involved militarily, but that they will be “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came.”

You may be encountering people online who deploy the same argument about this moment that the Obama administration deployed about the Iran deal: “Either you agree to the administration’s approach, or you want all-out war in the Middle East.”

As of this writing, the invitation to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit the White House next month has not been rescinded.

Keep in mind, Turkish forces deliberately fired at U.S. positions. You hear a lot from administration defenders these days that any effort to assist the Kurds as Turkey tries to destroy them would be “attacking an ally.” If they’re shooting at our troops, they’re no longer an ally. This should be a deal-breaker and a relationship-breaker. If the Turks want to argue that the United States has never prioritized fighting the PKK enough, they’re free to do that; it’s now abundantly clear that they don’t prioritize fighting ISIS enough for our security interests.

The announced sanctions are nice. But there are a lot more options.

  1. End all U.S. arms sales to Turkey.
  2. Remove all U.S. nuclear weapons from Injirlik Air Base, along with all U.S. forces.
  3. Begin sharing intelligence with the Kurds about what we know about Turkish offensives, if we haven’t already.
  4. Move to expel Turkey from NATO. We’ve been lamenting the increasingly awkward nature of this alliance for the past fifteen years. As the Turkish government has been warming up to Russia and China, and increasingly hostile to their European neighbors, it’s fair to ask whether this alliance still works for anyone involved. At the very least, we need to use this option as leverage.
  5. Temporarily suspend visa services at embassies, as both countries did to each other in 2017.
  6. Increase our warnings to U.S. citizens about traveling to Turkey.
  7. Stop opposing resolutions at the United Nations denouncing the Turkish incursion into Syrian territory.
  8. Recall our ambassador and or request the dismissal of theirs. (There is probably value in keeping the lines of communication open, even if it’s just to make clear how furious we are about this.)

The president periodically insists that ISIS is destroyed, and more or less ignoring the escaped ISIS prisoners in his speeches. Yesterday at the Values Voters Summit, he said, “So let’s see what happens. And it’s a long ways away. We killed ISIS. We defeated — we did our job.  We have to go home. We did our job.”

ADDENDA:  Hunter Biden gets the slowly-walking-through-a-garden interview treatment from ABC News.

“In retrospect, look, I think that it was poor judgment on my part. Is that I think that it was poor judgment because I don’t believe now, when I look back on it — I know that there was — did nothing wrong at all,” said Biden. However, was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is . . . a swamp in — in — in many ways? Yeah.”

“I gave a hook to some very unethical people to act in illegal ways to try to do some harm to my father. That’s where I made the mistake,” Hunter Biden told ABC News in an exclusive interview. “So I take full responsibility for that. Did I do anything improper? No, not in any way. Not in any way whatsoever.”

“If your last name wasn’t Biden,” Robach asked, “do you think you would’ve been asked to be on the board of Burisma?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Probably not, in retrospect,” he said. “But that’s — you know — I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden.”

Over on the homepage, a discussion of what NR is doing against “the circus of liars” that has come to town, and how you can help us.

National Security & Defense

We Betrayed the Kurds. Now Captured ISIS Fighters Are Escaping.

A Turkish military convoy is pictured in Kilis near the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, October 9, 2019. (Mehmet Ali Dag/ Ihlas News Agency/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The weekend brought an absolute disastrous reversal in the United States’ battle to ensure ISIS stays defeated; Joe Biden makes a campaign promise that includes an inherent admission; and Tulsi Gabbard decides not to stay home on debate night, surprising no one.

While Betraying the Kurds, America Gives Away a Hard-Won Victory over ISIS

As the situation on the border between Turkey and Syria gets worse, defenders of the president’s decision have shifted to hand-washing that would impress Lady Macbeth.

“This isn’t our fight!”

The battle against ISIS certainly is our fight, and any comprehension of the interests of the United States would require keeping captured ISIS prisoners behind bars. Whatever else you think of the Turkish government, Erdogan, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces or YPG (“People’s Protection Units,”), the primary objective of the U.S. presence in that region had to be to ensure that dangerous Islamic State fighters stayed behind bars and were not let loose to either reconstitute the Islamic State or restart the ISIS campaign of terror against everybody they deem an infidel or apostate.

The fallout from Trump’s decision to give Turkey the green light to attack across the border is a mass breakout of captured ISIS prisoners.

At this point, out of the 11,000 or so captured Islamic State fighters, the U.S. military can guarantee the continued detention of . . . two. Not even the 60 worst-of-the-worst that they had initially hoped to transfer to American custody.

Trump has said repeatedly that the United States has taken the worst ISIS detainees out of Syria to ensure they would not escape. But in fact the American military took custody of only two British detainees, half of a cell dubbed the Beatles that tortured and killed Western hostages, American officials said.

The Kurds refused, the American officials said, to let the American military take any more detainees from their ad hoc detention sites for captive ISIS fighters, which range from former schoolhouses to a former Syrian government prison. Together, these facilities hold about 11,000 men, about 9,000 of them Syrians or Iraqis. About 2,000 come from 50 other nations whose governments have refused to repatriate them.

The fighting has raised concerns that jihadists detained in the battle to defeat ISIS could escape, facilitating the reconstitution of the Islamic State. Five captives escaped during a Turkish bombardment on a Kurdish-run prison in Qamishli on Friday, Kurdish officials said.

After a Turkish airstrike, female detainees connected to the Islamic State rioted in a camp in Ain Issa, lighting their tents on fire and tearing down fences, according to a camp administrator, Jalal al-Iyaf.

In the mayhem, more than 500 of them escaped, Mr. al-Iyaf said.

Most of the camp’s other 13,000 residents are Syrian, but there are also refugees from Iraq who sought safety in Syria because of violence at home. By nightfall, some of those people had left the unguarded camp, too, fearing that it was no longer safe, Mr. al-Iyaf said.

Everybody’s loose. We had ISIS bottled up. We had victory. And then we gave it away.

The United States military might have been able to transfer more prisoners to more secure facilities if U.S. policy, set by the commander in chief, hadn’t abandoned the Kurds so suddenly and completely. “After the Kurds acquiesced to those two transfers, they stopped cooperating with the United States in anger at what they saw as Mr. Trump’s betrayal, according to American officials.”

And no, we’re probably not going to get another chance to transfer those prisoners. “The Pentagon’s decision on Sunday to pull American forces out of northern Syria means the opportunity to take custody of additional ISIS prisoners — even if the Kurds were to decide to start cooperating again — is rapidly evaporating, the officials said.”

Maybe you’re the kind of hardline nationalist who thinks that terrorist attacks in other countries are their problem, not ours — even if Americans are getting killed in those attacks. Maybe you have the ability to shrug at bombings, stabbings, and other attacks in Brussels metro stations, trains in France and Germany, the Jewish Museum in Belgium, the Canadian War Memorial in Ottawa, hostage-taking and stabbing during a mass in Normandy, France. Maybe you remember all of that and think it’s a problem for our allies to deal with, not us.

But surely you recall Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opening fire on people in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and injuring 24.

You remember Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando.

On November 28, 2016, Abdul Razak Ali Artan stabbed people and tried to run over them with his car on the campus of Ohio State University.

I do recall everybody on the right side of the aisle being justifiably furious when Obama went golfing right after the beheading of James Foley. I also remember a whole lot of us being furious when Obama declared that the Islamic State was “contained” several days before the dreadful ISIS attacks in Paris.

How many of the same people will reflexively defend President Trump’s decision now?

Franklin Graham — son of Billy Graham, one of the most influential voices in Evangelical Christian circles, and usually a staunch ally of President Trump — is calling for U.S. sanctions on Turkey. Last week he tweeted:

“The Kurds are the ones who have been leading the fight against ISIS in Syria. Also pray for the Christians who the Kurds have been protecting. They could be annihilated. Would you pray w/me that President Trump will reconsider? Thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Last week, Mike Huckabee tweeted:

“a HUGE mistake to abandon Kurds. They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them.”

We did.

Joe Biden: If Elected, I Will Not Continue That Arrangement That I Insist Was Ethical

Spot the inadvertent admission in the announcement from Joe Biden this past weekend:

Biden promised to bar his family members from occupying any office within the White House and said they won’t “sit in meetings as if they are a Cabinet member.” That was a jab at Trump, who taps daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as advisers. Biden did not say if his pledge meant that his wife, Jill Biden, would not get the office traditionally assigned to first ladies, should he win.

He further vowed that no one in his family will have “any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country.”

A few sentences earlier, Biden declared, “No one has asserted my son did a single thing wrong, except a lying president.”

Er, no, Mr. Vice President. It might be accurate to say, “no one has yet shown evidence that your son broke the law.” But going all the way back to MBNA hiring him right out of law school and him forming his own lobbying firm, wealthy people and institutions who needed government policy steered in a particular direction hired him. Other Obama administration officials were uncomfortable about the arraignment; at some point the administration would inevitably make some decision that benefited one of Hunter Biden’s clients, and critics of the administration could contend the decision was reached to benefit the client instead of whatever greater good it was supposed to serve.

If having a business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country is ethical, there’s no need for Joe Biden to make this pledge now. And if having a business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country is unethical . . . then the Bidens have to account for that now.

Tulsi Gabbard Ends Her Bluff

The least surprising announcement in a while: “Four days after announcing that she was considering boycotting the next debate, Tulsi Gabbard says she’s going to go.”

Gee, you mean she didn’t choose to give up a hard-earned moment in the national spotlight? Go figure! The “I may not participate in order to protest the DNC and corporate media” was always an implausible threat and something of a cheap gimmick.

ADDENDA: I don’t know about you, but a lot of my autumns are essentially: “I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH I HATE FOOTBALL WHY DO I WATCH OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING DID I JUST SEE THAT I CANNOT BELIEVE WE’RE WINNING YES YES YES I LOVE FOOTBALL I CAN’T WAIT UNTIL NEXT WEEK.”

National Security & Defense

Understanding the Situation between Turkey and the Kurds — and the U.S.

U.S. and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast, Syria, October 4, 2019. Picture taken October 4, 2019. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl/Handout via REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a deep dive on how the United States got into this mess with Turkey and the Kurds, and the limited options for trying to get to a better place than where we are; the NBA keeps digging in deeper, with a famous coach choosing to denounce only convenient targets and the league barring press access to the players entirely during their China trips.

How Do We Fix a Bad Decision on Turkey and the Kurds?

Reuters: “Turkish warplanes and artillery hit Kurdish militia targets in northeast Syria on the third day of an offensive that has killed hundreds of people, forced tens of thousands to flee and turned Washington’s establishment against President Donald Trump.”

(I can hear a lot of people asking, “what you mean, ‘turned’? Washington’s establishment was already against him!”)

Reuters continues, “Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobani, more than 400 km to the west. Turkish and SDF forces exchanged shelling in Qamishli among other places,  [Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Marvan] Qamishlo said. ‘The whole border was on fire,’ he said.”

Even before Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power in Ankara, Turkey was an odd and sometimes challenging ally. What attracted Turks to the NATO alliance was the relative closeness of the Soviet Union and the notion that NATO would help ensure a bulwark against Godless Communism. Back when I was living in Turkey — 2005 to 2007, so I try not to exaggerate the relevance or recency of my experience — a Turkish official who had visited the United States told me during his visit he was struck by how many churches there were in American communities, and how that reassured him as a Muslim. “Even though our religions are different, you guys recognize a power higher than the state.” Turkey is (was?) a secular country, but that didn’t mean that Islam wasn’t extremely important to many Turks.

With the end of the Cold War and the threat of the Soviets trying to take over and establish an atheist regime gone, perhaps Turkey was destined to have a little more friction in its relationship with the United States. Turkey lives in a dangerous neighborhood; the southern and western neighbors are Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Turkish government was usually a little warmer or open-minded towards the Assad regime, Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the Iranian mullahs than U.S. foreign policy preferred. Some of this was simple proximity, as they weren’t interested in stirring up a hornet’s nest with the brutal or fundamentalist regimes next door.

But the bigger issue for Turkish government was always how to deal with the cross-border population of Kurds. The Kurds are this giant ethnic community with their own language, culture, traditions. Draw a circle around the spots where the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet, and that’s pretty much “Kurdistan.” After World War I, the Kurds were supposed to get their own country, but . . . the treaties after the war left the Kurds out. Unsurprisingly, this set off a long and violent period of ethnic tensions in all of those countries.

The Turkish government does not deal with its Kurdish minority with a light touch. Following a 1980 military coup — Turkey has military coups roughly once a decade, as sort of a control-alt-delete of resetting the government when things go really wrong — the Turkish government banned the Kurdish language entirely. Since 1984, the Turks and Kurds have fought a low-level terror campaign/counterterror campaign, with roughly 40,000 dead, most of them civilians.

It is hard to overstate how much the Turkish government and the average Turk loathe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the main pro-Kurdish terrorist group that tries to blow people up around Turkey in the name of Kurdish independence. Turks over there kept insisting to me that the PKK were their al-Qaeda, and they hated the PKK the way Americans hated al-Qaeda for 9/11.

This is the backdrop between the current confrontation between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria. We, the United States, are in an awkward spot. The PKK are irredeemable terrorists, no two ways about it, and we can and should cooperate when possible with the Turkish government to put PKK terrorists behind bars. But the Kurdish forces in Syria are the ones who stepped up to fight ISIS. Our traditional but recently difficult ally is determined to smash our more recent and helpful ally.

A week ago, President Trump gave the Turks the green light to move into Syria and try to beat the hell out of Kurds who were, up until a week ago, key allies in ensuring the Islamic State stayed defeated. The editors of National Review denouncing the decision. My colleague Andy McCarthy dissented, and as we would expect from Andy, he makes a lot of fair, not easily dismissed points in his dissent.

But a lot of it amounts to, “we shouldn’t have made the decisions we made that brought us here.” Andy’s right; the entrance of U.S. military forces into Syria was half-hearted and sloppy, with contradictory goals. At heart, Obama didn’t want to do anything with Syria. The thinking of both the president and Ben Rhodes was so craven and reflexively attuned to seeing things through the lens of partisan advantage that they rarely saw the forest for the trees. In his memoir, Rhodes wrote that in August 2013, after Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, Obama was comfortable if Congress wouldn’t approve the use of force in response.  “The thing is,” he said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism — everyone will see they have no votes.” Of course, a lot of innocent Syrian civilian men, women, and children had to die painful deaths in order to prove that point against those oh-so-terrible neocons.

But we are where we are. The relevant question is not what we should have done back then; we can’t change the past. The question is what is the best course of action now?

Andy writes, “the American people’s representatives never endorsed combat operations in Syria, and the president is right that the public wants out.” But the American people did elect a president who throughout the campaign promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and “knock the hell out of ISIS” and various other four-letter variations. It is fair to say the president’s plans for ISIS were not particularly specific, and in fact the president insisted his plan had to remain secret: “We’re gonna beat ISIS very, very quickly, folks. It’s gonna be fast. I have a great plan. It’s going to be great. They ask, ‘What is it?’ Well, I’d rather not say.” The problem with a president who makes vague and often contradictory promises is that it’s difficult to argue that the American people rejected any particular course of action.

Andy argues that “our arming of the Kurds has already exposed our allies in Turkey to unacceptable risk.” Eh, let’s not overstate this. We supplied the the Kurdish forces with“mortar shells, nothing heavier. No missiles, no anti-aircraft weapons, no anti-tank.” We’ve sold the Turks all of their fighter planes, transport aircraft, most of their tanks and two-thirds of their armored personnel carriers.

Yesterday afternoon, Trump tweeted, “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” We’re obviously not pursuing option one. Option two would at least demonstrate our objection to Turkey’s action — whether or not Trump intended to give Erdogan the green light to invade, that certainly is how Erdogan interpreted it. While the odds are long on option three, it would be the best one for our interests. Maybe the U.S. could persuade Erdogan with the message: “You’ve proved your point, the Kurds know you can beat them on the battlefield, now head to the negotiating table and let’s hammer out a deal that ensures your country’s security for the long term.”

The NBA Just Keeps Digging in Deeper

Golden State Warrior coach Steve Kerr was in China and he said that during his visit to that country, no one had asked him about Chinese human rights abuses . . . nor “our record of human rights abuses”, either, referring to the United States.

“As far as North Korea, I don’t know much about North Korea. As far as the Ukraine situation, I don’t know much about the Ukraine situation. We could just go around the world and maybe I can pinpoint a couple others I’m comfortable about, but this whole thing is so ridiculous. Again, we’re fortunate in this country to have free speech. I exercise that. But part of having free speech is also electing not to speak if you don’t feel comfortable about something.”

“It has not come up in terms of people asking about it, people discussing it,” Kerr said. “Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either. Things that our country needs to look at and resolve. That hasn’t come up either. None of us are perfect. We all have different issues we have to get to. Saying that is my right as an American. It doesn’t mean that I hate my country. It means I want to address the issue. But people in China didn’t ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn’t asked that question.”

“Generally, my feeling is the things that I’m going to comment on are the things that I feel comfortable speaking about, things I feel well versed about,” he said. “I comment a lot about gun safety. It’s a cause that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s very crucial for our country for our future. We face mass shootings literally every day. So I’m involved with four or five different gun safety groups. It’s my pet cause. So I’m going to comment on it. It’s my right. That’s why I love being an American and love my country. I’m able to channel my energy and my resources to places where I want it to go. I feel really comfortable with that. There are places where I don’t feel as comfortable. This would be one of them.

It’s astoundingly convenient that Kerr feels comfortable denouncing American gun owners and American “human rights abuses” but he just doesn’t feel “comfortable” saying anything about the regime running concentration camps, with whom he and his league have arranged lucrative deals.

In other news, the NBA has canceled all media access for the remainder of its visit to China as it puts players in a ‘complicated’ and ‘unfair’ situation, it said. The NBA’s way of dealing with difficult questions is to bar the press entirely. Once again, we’re not exporting our values to them; we’re importing their values to us.

ADDENDA: Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve nagged anyone to buy Between Two Scorpions. Book Two is now written and it’s in that unnerving having-friends-read-it-to-give-initial-feedback stage. When writing a sequel, the challenge is to be similar enough to what people liked about the first one, but not so similar that it feels like a rehash or predictable. (Looking at you, Season Two of Stranger Things.) I’ve ripped plenty of bad sequels over the years; now I get to see if I can get the formula right.

The Amazon reviews continue to be great: “A fun read with great pop culture references that broke the tension. A very entertaining tale.” “Good tale, fast paced and lots of interesting references to current tensions.” “Fast moving, funny, suspenseful. It has it all.” “Clever page-turner that’s part post-9/11 terror thriller, part X-Files, and part screwball comedy. Geraghty handles his antic crew of leads, the Dangerous Clique of the subtitle, entertainingly, handling the married couple at its heart with particular deftness.” Columbus Day is coming, enjoy that three-day weekend (for some) with a book!

Sports

The NBA Has Already Chosen China

Outside the NBA Store in New York City (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: deeply ominous signs at home and abroad, as NBA teams start taking steps to stifle any expression of criticism against China by fans; and the American abandonment of the Kurds bears its first bitter fruit.

The NBA Starts Enforcing China’s Speech Restrictions on American Soil

You should see the “Google Uighurs” sign that arena security removed from Capitol One arena last night, as the Washington Wizards played a preseason game against the Guangzhou Long-Lions. It’s barely bigger than an 8×11 sheet of paper. The man holding it is not obstructing anyone’s view — it’s an NBA preseason game on a weeknight, there are tons of empty seats — and he’s not being profane, disruptive, or creating any problem for any other fans.

“No political signs,” the security guy says — and to the extent we can read his body language, at least initially he doesn’t appear eager to enforce this edict. But when asked if he knows what the Uighurs are, he responds, “I’m not interested in having a political conversation.”

I presume he has never, as the sign recommended, googled to learn more about the Uighurs. There are anywhere from one million to two million Uighurs in concentration camps in Western China. Human rights organizations have detailed that those camps are rife with torture, abuse, rapes, forced abortions, and sterilizations. The Chinese government is destroying traditional Uighur burial grounds and paving over their graveyards. The Chinese government is attempting to completely erase Uighur culture; what we are witnessing is a slow-motion state-sponsored genocide.

But arena staff, presumably taking their instructions from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and/or the NBA as a whole, believed “Google Uighurs” is too political a sign to have at the game. The Washington Wizards have welcomed and saluted Joe Biden at their games, but that wasn’t too political. Players wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts after Eric Garner’s death, but that wasn’t too political. (Apparently the NBA is fine with protesting American police brutality, but not Hong Kong police brutality.) The Miami Heat wore hoodies in warmups “in solidarity with Trayvon Martin” in 2012, and two years earlier, the Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest that controversial Arizona immigration law. So clearly some forms of political protest are not merely tolerated or accepted but endorsed by NBA teams.

But any protest relating to China is unacceptable.

Another pro-Hong Kong sign was taken away by security during the United States National Anthem. It was taken away before the singer got to the lyric “in the land of the free and home of the brave.” Please consult your doctor before consuming such painfully concentrated doses of irony.

Cesar Conda says he saw another fan kicked out for chanting, “free Hong Kong.” (As Conda notes, fans yell exceptionally rude things at the referees or opposing players and no one minds.) Candice Bucker has video footage of security confronting another pair of fans. Patrick Hedger says he got kicked out.

A spokesman for the Wizards contends no one was asked to leave the game. In other news, the Chinese government contends that “most people” have been released from the concentration camps. (Never mind that footage from drones posted last week shows hundreds of people bound and blindfolded being unloaded off a train into camps.)

Meanwhile, up in New York, building security told a man protesting outside NBA headquarters that he couldn’t stand too close to the building.

We are living through a clash of two systems — one free, and one unfree, and the battlefield is right here in our own country. It is not “a time for choosing,” as Ronald Reagan said in his famous speech; the choice has already been made. And many of the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful institutions in this country have made their choice: They support the unfree side and will voluntarily enforce its edicts.

If you’ve ever wondered what could unite Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ted Cruz, as well as . . . this is it. They, along with Senator Ben Sasse, Senator Tom Cotton, Senator Ron Wyden, Representative Mike Gallagher, and others have written to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and urged him to “suspend NBA activities in China until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities and the selective treatment of the Houston Rockets, and emphasize that the association will stand unified in the face of future efforts by Chinese government-controlled entities to single out individual teams, players, or associates for boycotts or selective treatment,” and “reevaluate the NBA’s training camp in Xinjiang, where up to a million Chinese citizens are held in concentration camps as part of a massive, government-run campaign of ethno-religious repression.”

Over in Slate, Tom Scocca points out the ugly truth that Silver and the rest of the NBA don’t want to confront: If the Chinese government had this kind of a furious and heavy-handed reaction to a tweet, they’re only going to get worse in the future.

China has already played its hand. If Hong Kong is non-negotiable, there’s nothing to discuss. The subject will become more sensitive, not less, if the Hong Kong police move from tear gas and rubber bullets to the routine use of live ammunition, or if the People’s Liberation Army moves in. Would the NBA muzzle its employees then? Would the players and staff of a globally prominent American company censor their own feelings to protect the Chinese market? Why not take the stand before it gets to that?

I am sure that the tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey deeply offended the Chinese government. You know what ought to offend all of us? Running concentration camps and brutal crackdowns and then expecting Americans to restrict the speech of other Americans on behalf of those running those concentration camps and brutal crackdowns.

We’re Abandoning the Kurds

Behold, the fruits of a sudden change in American policy in the Middle East: “Fighting lit up the sky early Thursday as Turkish troops pressed their air and ground offensive against United States-allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. At least 16 Kurds were reported to have been killed, one monitoring group said.”

To say the members of the U.S. military who worked with and fought alongside the Kurds against ISIS are distraught is an understatement. “I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” one told Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin. “We met every single security agreement. The Kurds met every single agreement. There was NO threat to the Turks – NONE – from this side of the border. This is insanity.”

Members of the military are not infallible, but when everyone at the Pentagon, everyone in the intelligence community, and all of our allies and every expert on the region thinks a decision is a bad move, it takes a remarkably obstinate man to insist that he’s right and everyone else who’s been studying this region from the beginning is wrong. There is a willful blindness to the consequences and a message sent to every country and population around the world. The Kurds did everything the United States could possibly want against a foe that stunned the world with its cruelty, brutality, barbarism, and bloodthirstiness. And once our commander in chief believed we didn’t need them anymore — which is different from actually not needing them anymore — our country chatted with Recep Erdogan and let the Turks tear them apart.

It’s fascinating to see the president’s defenders insisting that we have to acquiesce to this long-desired military aggression on the part of the Turks. Funny, Turkey’s been our NATO ally all along, and up until last week, we believed it was a priority to keep the Turks — our fair-weather allies against ISIS — and the Kurds, our all-weather allies against ISIS, from going at each other.

The departure of U.S. forces means we’re no longer around to help the Kurds imprison 11,000 captured ISIS fighters. We’re apparently taking up “about five dozen” of the worst of the worst with us. Great, that means there are only 10,940 or so ISIS fighters who could break out during the upcoming fighting.

But apparently we don’t have to worry about ISIS fighters escaping, because, President Trump declared, “they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.” I guess we’re just cool with thousands of ISIS fighters running around Europe now.

Gee, it’s a good thing no Americans live in Europe.

ADDENDA: On this week’s The Editors podcast, Rich, Charlie, the soon-to-be-much-missed David French, and I discuss impeachment, the NBA, and Syria.

White House

Our Constitution Is Clear on Powers, and We Really Should Read It

President Donald Trump speaks about the House impeachment investigation at the White House in Washington, D.C., October 7, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a full-throated defense of the powers and authorities of those in elected office, as set under the U.S. Constitution, and how that stance proved inconvenient to many in the political realm in recent years; ESPN suddenly loses its voice when it comes to covering the NBA’s dispute with China.

The Powers of an Office Don’t Change Depending on Whether You Like the Officeholder

The powers and authority of an elected office do not change depending upon whether you like or agree with the person in that office.

This means that when the House of Representatives or one of its committees requests documents or testimony or issues a subpoena, an administration can’t simply ignore the request — or send an eight-page letter from lawyers that amounts to a middle finger.

It doesn’t matter if the administration officials insist there’s nothing important in the requested documents, or if the administration says the demand for the documents is just a “blatant partisan maneuver to discredit the White House in an election year.”

In the coming days, you’re going to hear members of Congress outraged at the White House defiance of a coequal branch of government. They will argue that the refusal to comply with demands amounts to a coverup of a crime, a violation of the Constitution, and that resisting officials like the attorney general “knows the answers are there because he’s the one who has the documents that contain the answers we’re looking for. He’s the gatekeeper here, and if he won’t give us the information this institution needs to do our duty, our constitutional duty, then we will use every legal and constitutional tool that we have to get to it.”

You’re going to hear members of the president’s party declare that “this is a witch hunt, pure and simple, Mr. Speaker, and it has no place in this House.” They will howl that the fight “is about politics” and the opposition “doing whatever it takes to attack the administration, no matter the issue, no matter the cost.”

Members of the president’s party will contend that perhaps the fight is the point, that the outcome matters less to the House majority leaders than assuring their base that they’re fighting the president with everything they’ve got: “Under this majority, everything has to be a fight — everything. Everything has to be a confrontation. Everything has to be a showdown. And I get the politics. I understand this is an election year. But this goes way, way too far. It is just wrong.” The president and his allies will argue that the opposition party’s base voters never recognized the preceding election’s results, and furious grassroots activists believe that the president isn’t really legitimate, and that thus they cannot possibly honor a request driven by such unhinged and extreme motives.

And in the end, it will all result in the House finding Eric Holder in contempt.

Oh, I was talking about former attorney general Eric Holder’s refusal to turn over documents to Congress about Fast and Furious back in 2012; what did you think I was talking about?

The thing is, back then a lot of folks seemed to think Holder had the right to refuse to turn over those documents, and that the subpoenas were somehow illegitimate or unlawful because of what they claimed was blatant partisanship and bad faith demonstrated by the Congressional majority. (The fact that 17 House Democrats agreed with the GOP majority was conveniently ignored.)

The Atlantic’s David Graham declared, “There is a strong whiff of election-year fishing to this case.” The New York Times editorial board denounced the GOP for “shamelessly turning what should be a routine matter into a pointless constitutional confrontation.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson thundered the contempt vote against Holder was “a partisan witch hunt by House Republicans,” “without legitimate cause,” and that Darrell Issa was trying to “manufacture something that can be portrayed as a high-level Obama administration cover-up.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler didn’t vote on the contempt charge; he walked out during the vote, calling the effort “shameful” and “politically motivated.” More than 100 Democrats joined him in refusing to vote. Nancy Pelosi also called the contempt vote “shameful” and contended that it was really designed to suppress Democratic turnout in 2012: “These very same people who are holding him in contempt are part of a nationwide scheme to suppress the vote. They’re closely allied with those who are suffocating the system: unlimited special interest secret money.” To Pelosi, it was simply unthinkable that House Republicans could have wanted to see Department of Justice documents relating to Fast and Furious for any legitimate reason.

Just to be clear, back in 2012, a lot of people thought it was just fine if an administration and its officials refused to turn over documents because they thought the members of Congress investigating them were a bunch of partisan hacks.

When Holder defied Congress, a lot of people cheered. When Congress held him in contempt, a lot of people thought Holder should wear it as a badge of pride.

A Wired headline declared, “Holder Held in Contempt of Congress, Which Means Almost Nothing.” Admittedly, a big reason for the lack of consequence was the fact that the executive branch official in charge of enforcing contempt of Congress against Attorney General Eric Holder was . . . Attorney General Eric Holder. (“Officer! Arrest that man looking at you in mirror!”)

Back then, we could have had a broad bipartisan consensus that even the biggest, dumbest partisan hack is entitled to the full powers and authorities of the office. We could have all agreed that even if a committee chairman has a bigger axe to grind than Paul Bunyan, that didn’t make compliance with requests for documents, subpoenas, or testimony optional. We could have agreed that congressional oversight of the executive branch was an important tool against bad decisions, corruption, and coverups, and that because of its importance, oversight by a lawmaker we thought was too partisan was still better than brazen disregard and defiance of that oversight.

But congressional Democrats and their allies in the media didn’t make that choice. They established the argument that some defiance of Congressional subpoenas is okay, as long as the executive branch believes that the Congressional investigators are being unfair. And now, here we are.

No, the president of the United States and his administration should not refuse to cooperate with a House impeachment effort in any way, shape or form. But we didn’t get here overnight. The power and authority of an elected office do not change depending upon whether you like or agree with the person in that office — and that applies to the current president, too.

If you want an imperial presidency when your guy is in charge, you have to live with the consequences of an imperial presidency when the other guy is in charge. From the founding of the United States legal system to 1963, there were no judicially imposed nationwide injunctions against any federal policy. During the eight years of the Obama administration, judges imposed 20 national injunctions. In the less than three years from the start of Trump’s presidency to September 2019, judges have imposed 40 national injunctions, including ones blocking administration changes to the DACA program, the question about citizenship on the national census, and changes to the temporary protected status of immigrants.

The good news for the administration is that sometimes some superior court will look at the national injunction and rule it unjustified. As the Republican Policy Committee notes:

. . . on July 26 the Supreme Court stayed an injunction from a California federal district court that would have prevented the Trump administration from repurposing appropriated funds to build a border wall. Second, on September 11 the Supreme Court stayed a nationwide injunction against the Trump administration’s new rule requiring asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum in Mexico or another third country before applying in the United States. These decisions did not resolve the underlying lawsuits, but did allow the federal government to move forward with its policies. In addition, on June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court stayed a district court injunction against the Trump administration’s travel ban against people from several nations, which allowed that policy to continue.

There’s this really great document under glass at the National Archives that spells out what the powers of Congress and what the powers of the executive branch are. Some folks in Washington should check it out sometime, they would learn a lot.

ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Not Saying Anything That Could Offend the Chinese Government

Of course: “Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to shows mandating that any discussion of the [Houston Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues. The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.”

Someone asked whether my grumbling about ESPN’s reluctance to discuss the controversy that started China’s sudden fury at the NBA amounts to the position of, “Stick to sports, unless I deem your sports-related political stance worthy.”

Obviously, I’m never wrong. First, as the Deadspin article above makes clear, you end up with sports-focused talking heads referring to “the issue” or “the controversy” without ever saying what the issue or controversy is. Sure, most ESPN watchers probably have at least a vague sense that people in Hong Kong are protesting something, but this is just bad journalism, to deliberately speak around what set off the controversy. This turns the protests in Hong Kong into Voldemort, the conflict-which-must-not-be-named.

Secondly, is there a demographic of American sports-watchers or ESPN viewers who would be offended, bothered, or outraged by discussion of protests in Hong Kong, or concentration camps, or brutal crackdowns?

Because there are demographics of American sports-watchers and ESPN viewers who are offended, bothered, or outraged by discussion of Caitlyn Jenner being a new icon of womanhood and courage, or Bob Costas telling us we need stricter gun-control laws at halftime, or that Colin Kaepernick is the new Rosa Parks, or highly-charged political topics like that. Maybe those discussions are important enough to be worth offending some viewers. If they are, then the NBA’s relationship with a regime running concentration camps would certainly be an important enough topic.

There are demographics that are offended, bothered, or outraged by discussion of protests in Hong Kong, or concentration camps, or brutal crackdown, but those demographics are the Chinese government and the Disney executives who want to make billions of dollars in China but who need the continued approval of those Chinese government. Who is ESPN designed to serve? Its viewers, or the leagues that it covers?

In other words, there’s “sticking to sports” because your viewers want it, and don’t want to watch political debates that they can get on any news channel. And then there’s “sticking to sports” because your corporate parent company’s financial concerns.

ADDENDA: Yesterday I wrote that we were not exporting our values to China, but that instead we were importing their authoritarian values to the United States of America.

Last night, two fans with pro-Hong Kong signs were removed from a preseason NBA game and ejected from the arena.

In Philadelphia.

World

We’re Not Exporting Our Values to China — We’re Importing Theirs

President Donald Trump’s limousine, flying U.S. and China flags, waits for him to depart after a day of meetings and events with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China ,November 9, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

This morning, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a new statement about Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support for protesters in Hong Kong, and it is a somewhat better one, declaring, “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

In that statement, Silver sounds like a man who wants to do the right thing but realizes that doing so will cost his organization a fortune and perhaps even endanger people. Silver continued to try to talk a tightrope Tuesday at a news conference in Tokyo before a preseason game between the Rockets and NBA champion Toronto Raptors.

“Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees,” Silver said. “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”

“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” Silver said. “I regret — again, having communicated directly with many friends in China — that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans. At the end of the day, we come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes . . . that we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony, that’s something I regret.”

The cops are shooting people from point-blank range in Hong Kong. Disruption and disharmony are already here. The question is what the NBA’s players, coaches, managers, owners, and officials are willing to do in response to this disruption and disharmony. (A more serious comment from the President of the United States wouldn’t hurt, either.)

Back in May, I went back to the arguments American policymakers had with themselves in the 1990s as they contemplated extending “most-favored-nation” status to China, and then “permanent normal trade relations.” Something weird happened when chief executives of American companies discussed China back then. They kept describing a market of a billion new customers, as if the average Chinese citizen was awash in disposable income. They pictured a China full of people eating American soybeans, drinking Coke, wearing blue jeans made with American cotton, celebrating with American bourbon and riding on Boeing airplanes.

America’s policymakers, by and large, agreed. Here’s Bill Clinton describing America’s future relationship with China in 2000, after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Permanent Normal Trade Relations:

With more than a billion people, China is the largest new market in the world. Our administration has negotiated an agreement that will open China’s markets to American products made on American soil, everything from corn to chemicals to computers.

Bringing China into the WTO and normalizing trade will strengthen those who fight for the environment, for labor standards, for human rights, for the rule of law . . . At this stage in China’s development, we will have a more positive influence with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist.

Clinton hailed the deal as a step to “a China that is more open to our products and more respectful of the rule of law at home and abroad.” And from that year on, America’s trade relationship with China was “normal.”

Except . . . China wasn’t a “normal” country, and it never was one. Only a few decades earlier, the Chinese regime had perpetrated some of the greatest horrors of the century upon its people — the Great Chinese Famine — which killed tens of millions! — the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen Square massacre had just been a few years earlier. It still had political prisoners and a police state, it was slowly but steadily building up its military, it still harvested organs from prisoners in its jails. And yet most of America’s political and business leaders looked across the Pacific, averted their eyes from the draconian human rights abuses, focused relentlessly on that growing economy and potential billion customers and declared, “we can do business with these people.” And they told the rest of us to trust them. Oh, and Bill Clinton assured us that money donated by Chinese citizens in his reelection campaign had never influenced his thinking about China. Even though in 1992, he had campaigned as a tough critic of China and called George H. W. Bush as too soft on the regime.

Nothing could seem to dissuade America’s business leaders when it came to their vision of an endlessly mutually profitable relationship with the regime. We kept being told how absolutely ruthless and relentless the Chinese efforts at corporate espionage were, and how brazenly and defiantly they stole patents, blueprints, and intellectual property. I don’t know about you, but when somebody steals from me, I don’t want to keep doing business with them. Yet America’s business leaders never seemed to experience anything that made them conclude the regime is so bad that it’s not worth doing business with them. There was this consistently weird disconnect in the comments from American business leaders, as they kept saying their Chinese competitors were overtly or secretly state-subsided, or would complain about corruption . . . but no one wanted to stop putting more resources there.

But as companies became more economically entangled with China, they stopped having any interest in uttering a critical word about China. You stopped hearing about Tibet, or the Falun Gong. As the Chinese government started assembling a surveillance network that would make George Orwell gasp, American companies were happy to supply the tech. The employees and leaders of Google didn’t renew a deal with the U.S. Pentagon, contending the Pentagon’s use of their artificial intelligence tech violated their moral principles. But the company didn’t see working with the Chinese military as similarly problematic. (Back in the early days of the war on terror, some of us would scoff about self-proclaimed peace activists that they weren’t anti-war, they were just pro-the-other-side.)

Americans don’t like thinking about trade policy. It’s a topic so inherently boring that it can bog down the excitement of a Star Wars prequel. Americans would much rather think about fun topics, like basketball and movies.

But the business world’s rosy view of China started manifesting itself in strange new ways. The remake of Red Dawn at first imagined China invading was suddenly and hastily rewritten to depict tiny North Korea invading and attempting to conquer the United States. An Iron Man sequel featured this weird, tacked-on subplot about a Chinese surgeon saving his life, and the Chinese version of the film was even more disjointed and heavy-handed. A Transformers sequel replaced Michael Bay’s usual slow-motion tributes to American military hardware with weirdly discordant shots of Chinese officials pledging to protect Hong Kong from rampaging Decepticons. The one Chinese film star that most American audiences might recognize — Fin Bangbang, who played the voiceless mutant Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past, just disappeared for a few months; the Chinese government later announced she had been put under house arrest for alleged tax evasion. No one in Hollywood mentioned her in their awards speeches or organized any protests.

Hollywood stars never hesitated to denounce any Republican president in the harshest of terms, but the only big star still publicly critical of the Chinese government is Richard Gere. Financial incentives for big institutions like movie and television studios created incentives for self-censorship that are probably even more effective than a police state. Some people will defy a police state out of inherent rebelliousness or irritation with authority. But everybody hates to walk away from a potential fortune — and for every major player in Hollywood, China represents a potential fortune and investors in future films.

A proposed law that would allow Hong Kong cops to send arrested suspects to mainland China turned into a flashpoint, an increasingly violent conflict between the people of Hong Kong and the authoritarian rulers of China, who cannot accept any form of defiance of their power. One general manager of one National Basketball Association team put out one tweet, and since then, the NBA has worked overtime to demonstrate our new cultural power structure.

Criticism of the Chinese government is forbidden — I don’t mean in China, I mean de facto in the United States for anyone who is part of any institution that has any investment in China.  The sports league that prides itself on freedom of expression and social relevance  — one so politically correct that it banned the word “owner” because the term allegedly evokes slavery — has no one willing to say Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is right and that people around the world should, as he tweeted, “fight for Freedom” and “stand with Hong Kong.” As of this writing, not a single player, not a single coach, not a single owner has spoken out in support of Morey. You couldn’t get all those guys to agree on any topic in domestic American politics. But for the first forty-eight hours of this controversy, the opinion of everyone associated with the NBA was uniform. Our relationship with China has not made them more like us. It has made us more like them.

Think about it: we have no shortage of professional athletes who are willing to publicly denounce American cops who they deem abusive and brutal. But everybody’s looking at their shoes as the cops in Hong Kong beat the hell out of anybody in a mask and shoot people at point-blank range.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has plenty to say when the topic is mass shootings, Donald Trump, or Colin Kaepernick. But suddenly he finds the topic of Hong Kong just too complicated and “bizarre” for him to comment. “Actually I don’t,” Kerr said when asked if he has thoughts on the controversy. “It’s a really bizarre international story. A lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about like everybody is, but I’m not gonna comment further.”

It’s an authoritarian regime cracking down on protests and public expressions of dissent. Is that really . . . “bizarre”?

ADDENDA: In case you missed it yesterday, our foreign policy is muddled, because the public’s views are muddled, because our leaders are afraid to tell voters things they don’t want to hear; President Trump blindsides the Pentagon, which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and a cheap shot at Bernie Sanders on The Daily Show reveals the inherent danger of treating comedy shows as journalism.

White House

Trump Disregards Evidence from Allies over Russian Murder in U.K.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference following their summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Trump doubts our allies about a chemical weapon attack; the NBA pledges to obey the Chinese government; the long Joker review; and the United States formally abandons its Kurdish allies before a Turkish attack. Yeah, this is one heck of a Monday.

Why Does Trump Believe Putin’s Denials?

The Washington Post:

In a summer 2018 call with Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump harangued the British leader about her country’s contribution to NATO. He then disputed her intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin’s government had orchestrated the attempted murder and poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

“Trump was totally bought into the idea there was credible doubt about the poisoning,” said one person briefed on the call. “A solid 10 minutes of the conversation is spent with May saying it’s highly likely and him saying he’s not sure.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted an article about Trump’s doubts Sunday and added, “Best evidence that no evidence of Russian involvement exists.”

For those who forgot,  Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer recruited by British intelligence as a spy in the mid-1990s, was nearly killed by a nerve agent called Novichok — a chemical weapon designed by the old Soviet Union — just as two agents of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency just happened to be in his neighborhood. Skirpal’s daughter was also poisoned, and another British woman who was not a target was killed by the nerve agent.

In August 2018, secretary of state Mike Pompeo signed off on a determination that Russia violated international law by poisoning the former spy — meaning either Trump changed his mind (good) or Pompeo’s just issuing statements that the president disagrees with (bad).

You know, congressional Republicans, when remaining in the president’s good graces requires you to look at your shoes and be silent when the president believes Vladimir Putin’s denial that the Russian government tried to kill its own turncoat with a weapon in its own arsenal, when our closest ally, the British government, has a mountain of evidence . . . it’s time to ask just what the hell you’re getting out of the deal.

The Soul of the NBA, a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of the Chinese Government

The Chinese government says, “jump,” the National Basketball Association says, “how high?”

Every time an NBA official, team, or player tells us they’re socially aware, dedicated to improving their communities, throw this back in their faces. Between the democracy activists in Hong Kong and the authoritarians in Beijing, the league and the owners are choosing to stand with the authoritarians. One brief comment by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — a tweet declaring, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — caused the Chinese government and its various business allies to erupt and threaten the NBA’s operations in China. And just about everybody in the NBA’s upper ranks backed down quickly:

The NBA said Monday that it recognizes that Morey’s views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a statement, which was published on the Chinese social media website Weibo. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Morey on Monday said in a series of tweets that he was speaking on his own behalf. “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey said. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance the team from politics. The team is in Tokyo for a series of preseason games against the Toronto Raptors this week. Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,” Fertitta said Saturday on Twitter.

These men are cowards, driven by greed to stand with the oppressor instead of the oppressed.

One way or another, in the coming days, the superstars of the NBA will stand up for their values. The question is . . . what are their values?

Joker: Self-Actualization Through a Gun and a Camera

[LOTS OF SPOILERS FOR ‘JOKER’ AHEAD.]

To paraphrase the late former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, it was what I thought it was.

For what Joker is trying to be, it’s well done. I just don’t like what it’s trying to be. As many observed going back to the first trailer, Joker wants to be a Martin Scorsese-esque film about a mad loner wrestling with his demons and losing amidst the crumbling slums of what’s called Gotham City, but that looks just like late 1970s New York City, right down to the logos on the police cars, the Times Square porn theaters, and the tabloid newspaper headlines. This is a dark psychological drama that just happens to share a handful of character and location names with the comic book, and one wonders if this started out as a completely different idea for a film that was later attached to the comic character.

As for whether this movie asks the audience to sympathize with its protagonist . . . our Kyle Smith, a guy whose judgment and analysis about film is as good as anybody in the country, thinks that contention is preposterous. As much as I respect Kyle, I’m not so sure I agree. I’d argue that in its storytelling choices, Joker goes right up to the line of trying to get the audience to sympathize with its titular character.

In the first act, the movie uses every “pet the dog” trick in the book to get us to like Arthur Fleck, the man who will become the Joker. He takes care of his elderly mother. He performs at the children’s ward of the local hospital. He tries to entertain a little boy on the bus by making faces. His medication is threatened by the faceless menace of “budget cuts.”

Joker uses Arthur as an unreliable narrator, meaning that well into the film we learn that certain scenes did not happen the way we saw the first time. We get the sense that his first attempt at stand-up at a comedy club didn’t go that well, but the subsequent videotape makes it clear he bombed completely.

About two-thirds into the story, we learn Arthur has no relationship with the single mom played by Zazie Beetz, and that the burgeoning courtship we’ve seen is all in his head. (In all of the previous scenes before the revelation, I thought her amiable attraction to the perpetually weird and off-putting Arthur was wildly implausible.) When she finds him in her apartment — and we realize he imagined their relationship — the scene ends rather abruptly; perhaps he left quietly or perhaps he did something terrible. But if we the audience had watched him do something terrible to her, that would have made Arthur a monster a little too early in the story.

Because almost every scene follows Arthur, this narrative sleight-of-hand means we shouldn’t be sure that anything we’ve seen before is accurate, or whether it’s Arthur’s imagination or reinterpretation. At least three times, people are nasty or cruel to Arthur for seemingly no reason: the punks who steal his sign and beat him up in the alley, the mom who snaps at him on the bus, and the Wall Street-ish jerks who bully a woman and then attack him on the subway. (We might even throw in the social worker who doesn’t seem to listen all that closely.) Except . . . did they? The movie suggests that he’s the love child of Thomas Wayne and a family servant, then suggests that he isn’t, and then it leaves the window open again — we see his mother insisting that the story of his adoption is a fake to cover up the scandal of Wayne impregnating the staff. A bizarrely reckless co-worker gives the obviously twitchy and medicated Fleck a gun for protection . . . or did he?

In the climactic scene, Arthur gets interviewed on a Johnny Carson/David Letterman style late-night comedy talk show host. (I see you, Dr. Ruth stand-in and subtle shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns.) Arthur gets the chance to offer his self-justifying monologue, arguing that the world is mean and uncivil (it is) and that someone like Thomas Wayne has no idea what it’s like to live a life like his (he doesn’t). Then the argues that DeNiro’s talk show host is as mean as the rest, because he invited him on the show to make fun of him. (He did.)

This is a frustrating argument to put front and center before the climax, because the Joker is at least technically right about everything he says — or at least he seems right based upon what we’ve seen in the film so far. We haven’t seen him kill anyone who was the least bit likable; we learn that even his mother has done terrible things to him. For a maniac filled with rage, this Joker picks some frustratingly reasonable targets for his rage. Joker’s vengeance against the talk show host is swift and brutal, and hopefully everyone in the audience will recognize that however legitimate or accurate Joker’s gripes about society’s injustices are, his solution is abominable. An early fantasy scene suggests Fleck just wants the love of a father and to be treated with respect — or at least, that’s what Fleck imagines he wants. But from what we can see, what he really wants to do is kill people because he thinks it’s funny.

People will understandably freak out about this movie and the messages some people would take away from it. Mass murder as a form of protesting society is having a big moment right now: Shooting cops, shooting Latinos in Wal-Mart, shooting classmates, shooting family members. We are awash in angry people — mostly angry young men, but not exclusively — who insist that their family, classmates, parents, cops, and society at large treated them so badly that the only way they could even the score was by picking up a gun and trying to put bullets into other people’s bodies.

Every post-shooting manifesto is the same: I may look like a villain to you but I’m really the hero, because of how I suffered. They almost always insist that someone else who’s really to blame, and the murderers the true victims because of what has come before, wrongs that a callous society failed to address. I’ve written in the past about how criminologists and psychologists found many mass shooters to be “grievance collectors,” people who grow increasingly obsessed with the idea that they’ve been uniquely unjustly punished and that someone else has taken advantage of them; everyone else’s good fortune is a sign that they’ve been cheated somehow.

The film’s next-to-closing scene is Joker standing upon a police car, as a rampaging riot of thugs in clown masks, indistinguishable from Antifa or Occupy Wall Street, tear apart the city and revere him as a hero. Fleck smiles his first genuine smile of the movie; despite all of his failures, he’s found his purpose and people who appreciate him for what he is. He has power, he has fame, he’s stumbled into the role of a cult leader of sorts — all because he picked up a gun and started shooting the “right” people without warning, when the cameras were rolling to record it all.

Everyone involved in this film set out to make a gripping and unforgettable portrait of how a man turns into a monster, and they did that with style and panache. But along the way they’ve also made Fleck’s transformation into a monster appear liberating and empowering. Arthur Fleck is a sad sack, and life beats him up in every way imaginable. When he becomes the Joker, he doesn’t endure pain; he inflicts it, with euphoric glee.

Who knows how many frustrated, sad, angry young men watched the movie weekend and saw that scene and thought, “that could be me”?

This isn’t an argument for banning the film, or a suggestion that if someone in a clown mask chooses to do something terrible in the coming days, weeks or months, that the filmmakers are responsible. Criminals are responsible for their own actions. But Joker isn’t as profound as it thinks it is, or it wants to be. You could have made a similar film from the perspective of the Columbine shooters or the Sandy Hook shooter or Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atta. Every evil man believes he’s doing the right thing, that in the long run, his actions will be seen as justified and righteous.

A slew of creative people set out to make a film that would teach us how the world looks when seen through the eyes of a psychopath. Except we get those lessons outside the theater with disturbing regularity.

ADDENDUM: It’s amazing that anyone is ever this country’s ally: “The White House said Sunday that U.S. forces in northeast Syria will move aside and clear the way for an expected Turkish assault, essentially abandoning Kurdish fighters who fought alongside American forces in the years-long battle to defeat Islamic State militants.”

Elections

Trump Calling for China to Investigate Hunter Biden Doesn’t Appear to Make Sense

Hunter Biden (left) and then–Vice President Joe Biden walk down Pennsylvania Avenue following the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Trump talks about the Bidens and China, mangling what ought to be a clear and compelling argument; a diagnosis of the reporters covering the Democratic primary and which candidate reminds them the most of themselves; and David Brooks’s “Flyover Man” tells the New York Times readership things that they don’t want to hear.

Mr. President, Why Would China Want to Investigate Hunter Biden?

President Trump, speaking to reporters yesterday:

REPORTER: Mr. President, what exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call? Exactly.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would think that, if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens, because how does a company that’s newly formed — and all these companies, if you look at — And, by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with — with Ukraine

Later:

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think Biden is going down. And I think his whole situation — because now you may very well find that there are many other countries that they scammed, just like they scammed China and Ukraine. And basically, who are they really scamming? The USA. And it’s not good.

Q: He said he was carrying out the official policy —

THE PRESIDENT: And that’s probably why China, for so many years, has had a sweetheart deal where China rips off the USA — because they deal like people with Biden, where they give their son a billion and a half dollars. And that’s probably why China has such a sweetheart deal that, for so many years, they’ve been ripping off our country.

“What happened in China” was that Hunter Biden, after forming the investment consulting firm Rosemont Seneca, met with two top executives of China’s sovereign wealth fund, social security fund, and largest banks. It is not an exaggeration to say these were some of the biggest and most powerful investors in the world; in 2011, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund had more than $800 billion in assets. In 2012, the Chinese social security fund had $137.9 billion in assets.

Let’s be clear: top executives at institutions like that don’t meet with Americans unless the Chinese government is absolutely fine with that meeting. Biden then had meetings with Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund, Bohai Capital, and Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, whose company, CEFC China Energy, “aligned itself so closely with the Chinese government that it was often hard to distinguish between the two,” according to CNN Again, all of these figures are men who have risen to the top of the Communist-turned-authoritarian-capitalist system. They are not in the business of antagonizing the leadership in Beijing, other than making enough money to stir jealousy.

In other words, everything Hunter Biden was doing was hunky-dory with the Chinese government. Why on earth would the Chinese government want to investigate that?

Trump may come closest to alleging a crime when he contends “they scammed China and Ukraine,” because the Chinese investors may have felt that by investing with Hunter Biden, they were getting influence at the highest level of the Obama administration.

It’s fair to wonder just what Rosemont Seneca had to offer huge institutional investors beyond the stepson of a top Democratic senator-turned-Secretary of State (John Kerry) and the son of the vice president. It certainly wasn’t a big firm, one with an enormously experienced staff, or one with enormous financial resources, and it was new, it had almost no track record.

Trump and Giuliani keep insisting that the Chinese paid or gave Hunter Biden $1.5 billion, and that’s not quite accurate. Hunter Biden, Devon Archer, Jonathan Li, and some other business partners formed BHR Partners in June 2013. Under the terms of the deal, Hunter Biden was an unpaid member of BHR’s board and received his share of the money after his father leaves the White House. According to Hunter Biden’s lawyer, In October 2017, he bought 10 percent of the BHR; as of July, that was worth $430,000. Defenders of the Bidens and critics of Trump will focus on what’s false about the accusation to obscure what’s true about the accusation: institutions that were closely tied to the Chinese government were happy to set up an investment fund that everyone involved hoped would, at some point down the road, turn into a lucrative fortune for everyone — including Hunter Biden.

The argument from Trump and Giuliani would be stronger if they could point to a particular decision by Biden that steered Obama administration policy in a direction friendlier to Beijing’s priorities. There’s mixed evidence here. Some foreign policy analysts argue that when Obama left office, the “U.S.-Chinese security relationship and the Asia-Pacific region in general [were] far tenser than they were at the start of 2009.” From the perspective of the Chinese, Obama attempted to talk a lot, but they didn’t like his “pivot to Asia.” You could argue that the Obama administration was consistently slow, sluggish and nonconfrontational in response to Chinese aggression, but the administration had the same approach to the rise of ISIS, the Iranian regime, and North Korean saber-rattling. Yes, Joe Biden’s perspective about China has been characterized as naïve — “they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us” — but Biden had that perspective long before Hunter Biden started striking deals with Chinese investors.

Team Trump keeps insisting that the meeting with Zelensky didn’t include a specific quid pro quo. (That’s a bit of a stretch; right after Zelensky mentions the Javelin missiles, Trump says, “I want you to do me a favor.”) But we can turn around and apply the same standard to the Bidens: what was the quid pro quo in the deal with China? What did China specifically get from this arrangement that it would not have gotten anyway?

As I tried to lay out in the timeline, the problem with Hunter Biden wasn’t that what he was doing was illegal. The problem is that it was legal! The United States has no law that bars the family of members of Congress or the president or vice president from working as lobbyists, setting up hedge funds, setting up investment funds, or sitting on the boards of foreign entities. Maybe we ought to have some laws; maybe there’s just too much opportunity to “buy friendship” and create a backdoor way of making a payment to a politician’s closest relatives. If you want to have enormous power over shaping government policy, you and those close to you will have to sacrifice some financial opportunities.

Lots of powerful political figures have children that turn out… not so great. It’s tough living in the shadow of a powerful and beloved father. The Kennedys would be exhibit A. George W. Bush’s life until his late 30s would be exhibit B. Drinking, drug abuse, messy divorces, run-ins with the law . . . There’s a long bipartisan tradition of politicians getting their kids minimal-responsibility, well-compensated jobs on campaigns, in offices, with lobbying firms, consulting firms, companies run by big donors, appointed to boards and commissions and so on. What happened here was a gradual escalation of this common practice.

Warren Can Rally Her Base and Meet with Reporters at the Same Time!

Over in the Washington Post, David Byler offers a sharp assessment that will irritate two groups: members of the national media and fans of Elizabeth Warren. His contention is that they are one and the same, really.

Warren also matches an upscale cultural image of who the president should be. Many in the media followed a specific academic and professional path: We did our homework, took tough classes, competed on the high school speech and debate team, maybe went to an elite college, got a white-collar job and earned institutional validation all along the way. Warren and Buttigieg are the real-life images of that version of success, in which ambitious, academically accomplished, culturally refined people work extremely hard within institutions to achieve “meritocratic” recognition. Other Democrats fit the bill, too: Cory Booker was a Rhodes scholar, as well; Amy Klobuchar is a Yale- and University of Chicago-educated lawyer; and Julián Castro interned in the Clinton White House while at Stanford University. But they haven’t targeted the demographic many members of the media happen to fall into as clearly as Warren and Buttigieg have.

If you ask someone to describe the traits their ideal president would have, they will often describe someone like themselves, or at least someone with the traits they want to believe that they themselves have. (Whether people really see themselves clearly is debatable and a topic for another time.) Many outspoken people believe that being outspoken is a good trait to have and an advantage in life. Many highly educated people believe this is the single best measurement of a person’s ability to do a job well. People who are methodical and deliberate are usually wary about leaders who are impulsive and trust their guts. Veterans may often prefer a candidate who’s worn the uniform, gun owners would prefer a candidate who is one of them, and members of various faiths gravitate to candidates who share the same beliefs.

What do members of the media do well? Hopefully, write and speak clearly. (I know, I know, a lot of days the Three Martini Lunch and pop culture podcasts are festivals of “um” and “you know” and other verbal placeholders, and this newsletter has been mixing up “addenda” (plural) and “addendum” (singular) from the start.) Sure, members of the national political media will generally be left-of-center and prefer Democratic candidates. But they’ll really swoon over eloquent speeches and polished essays, op-eds, and occasionally the autobiographies and campaign books. (Those are usually ghostwritten anyway.)

‘Flyover Man’ Has a Point

Continuing the theme of columnists telling their colleagues and readers something they don’t want to hear, David Brooks channels “Flyover Man”, the Trump supporter who lives away from the coast: “The media fixates on scandals because they’re easier to talk about than complex issues like why urban and rural America are drifting further apart. You wasted billions of hours speculating about the Mueller report, and now news about Adam Schiff overshadows everything else while my world burns. Let’s face it: Bashing Trump is the media’s business model. That’s what drives eyeballs and profit.”

ADDENDA: Elsewhere in the New York Times, Spencer Bokat-Lindell reexamines whether Facebook should be broken up into smaller companies . . .

You can enjoy my late-afternoon chat with Ed Morrissey from yesterday.

White House

When the Story Is Written, the Whistleblower Will Just Be an Afterthought

President Donald Trump listens to reporters in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why the whistleblower will be only a minor player in the upcoming impeachment drama; the lower-tier Democratic presidential candidates start turning on each other; and the Joker movie is almost here.

How Much Does the Whistleblower Really Matter?

Here’s an assessment sure to be unpopular: When the story of the impeachment effort against President Trump is written, the whistleblower will be an afterthought or a minor player in the overall story at most. Either the whistleblower’s claims are accurate, or they aren’t. Impeachment will hinge upon whether President Trump’s actions strike lawmakers as an effort to effectively blackmail Ukraine into finding dirt on Joe Biden, or whether it’s just Trump being Trump, wanting the facts on Biden strong-arming a foreign government to fire a prosecutor who might have been investigating a company that employed his son. The vast majority of lawmakers’ conclusions on this will just happen to align with their partisan affiliations.

The whistleblower might be a really partisan individual, or the whistleblower might have no strong political views and simply saw the president as crossing an ethical line in a way too egregious to remain silent. The motive of the accuser doesn’t make the accusation any more or less true or false. The proper procedure for handling a complaint like this may have been followed, or it may not have; it certainly sounds like a labyrinth.

The whistleblower, employed by the CIA and who at one point worked at the White House, first offered an anonymous complaint to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Elwood. Elwood was obligated to check out the complaint and contacted John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and her counterpart at the National Security Council. Eisenberg and Elwood both spoke on Aug. 14 to John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division. Demers read the transcript of the call and went to deputy attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, and Brian Benczkowski, the head of the department’s criminal division. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General William Barr was briefed about the brewing issue. Meanwhile, that CIA officer then went separately to the House Intelligence Committee, and an intelligence panel staffer told the whistleblower to get a lawyer and go to the CIA Inspector General. That panel staffer at some point informed chairman Adam Schiff.

Adam Schiff’s spokesman, Patrick Boland, told the New York Times that the congressman “never saw any part of the complaint or knew precisely what the whistle-blower would deliver.” How much work is “precisely” doing in that sentence?

Our Mairead McArdle already noticed that on September 17, Schiff appeared on MSNBC and declared, “We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower. We would like to, but I’m sure the whistleblower has concerns that he has not been advised as the law requires by the inspector general or the director of national intelligence just as to how he is to communicate with Congress.” He didn’t speak directly with the whistleblower, but his committee staff did.

We now know Schiff’s statement on MSNBC wasn’t accurate; some people would call that a lie.  (If you’re House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you’ve probably noticed that is two unforced errors on the part of Schiff in this process already; first the ‘parody’ of Trump’s call readout, now this not-quite-true statement.)

You’re going to continue to hear a lot of claims that the whistleblower isn’t credible because of the information being secondhand. Once again, this is somewhat moot; either the president did what he’s accused of or not. Senator Chuck Grassley lays this out: “When it comes to whether someone qualifies as a whistleblower, the distinctions being drawn between first- and second-hand knowledge aren’t legal ones. It’s just not part of whistleblower protection law or any agency policy. Complaints based on second-hand information should not be rejected out of hand, but they do require additional leg work to get at the facts and evaluate the claim’s credibility.”

If the whistleblower had never written up the complaint, we may well have ended up in this same place anyway. Defense appropriators on Capitol Hill were inevitably going to notice that security assistance to Ukraine was getting delayed, and were already starting to complain in late August.

In fact, notice this August 21 report in the New York Times:

Over the last few weeks, Mr. Giuliani has spoken on the phone and held an in-person meeting, in Madrid, with a top representative of the new Ukrainian president, encouraging his government to ramp up investigations into two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.

One is whether Ukrainian officials took steps during the 2016 election to damage Mr. Trump’s campaign. The other is whether there was anything improper about the overlap between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s diplomatic efforts in Ukraine and his son’s role with a gas company there.

Mr. Giuliani’s efforts have inflamed the situation, said several government officials who handle foreign policy in the United States and Ukraine. Speaking anonymously to avoid running afoul of Mr. Trump or his allies, they blamed Mr. Giuliani for complicating efforts to arrange a visit by Mr. Zelensky to the White House, and for creating a perception that such a meeting would be contingent upon the new Ukrainian government demonstrating support for the investigations.

Meaning by mid-to-late August, some unnamed U.S. government officials were complaining to the New York Times about the “creation of a perception” that a quid pro quo was at work with the new Ukrainian leadership. Was the whistleblower one of their sources? Or were the efforts of the whistleblower redundant, considering the officials speaking to the Times?

One other wrinkle being widely overlooked: the investigation into Burisma had been reopened by a prosecutor appointed by Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro O. Poroshenko. The New York Times, May 1: “Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, a deputy for Mr. Lutsenko who was handling the cases before being reassigned last month, told The New York Times that he was scrutinizing millions of dollars of payments from Burisma to the firm that paid Hunter Biden.” So it’s not quite accurate to say Trump and Giuliani wanted the Ukrainians to investigate Hunter Biden; they wanted them to reopen the investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma.

For what it’s worth, John Solomon wrote back in April that Ukrainian prosecutors had “financial records showing a Ukrainian natural gas company routed more than $3 million to American accounts tied to Hunter Biden.” Was that just the routine payments for a board member? What was the crime being investigated? Was Hunter Biden simply guilty of being underqualified, overpaid, and a figurehead to create the impression that Burisma is better-connected than it really was? Or had some U.S. or Ukrainian law been broken by the company?

The Second- and Third-Tier Democrats Start Eating Their Own

Running for office is hard. Running for president is particularly hard. People who have run for lower office multiple times and won statewide suddenly find themselves flailing once they run for president. Lawmakers with sterling resumes, top-flight intellects, buckets of charisma, sharp wits, and amiable senses of humor can jump into a presidential race and suddenly find themselves stumbling and never really even getting competitive. The list, to quote Top Gun, is long and distinguished: Pete Wilson, Tommy Thompson, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, Mo Udall.

Losing stinks, and the closing days of a doomed presidential campaign must feel like a daily exercise in humiliation. You can’t get enough press attention, and when you do, it’s negative. If you spill something on your tie or shirt while trying some god-awful local delicacy, that’s the picture of you that will run on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Iowa or New Hampshire. Attendance at your town hall meetings is sparse, and every question amounts to, “so, what will you do for me?” Groups invite you to an ‘issues forum’ out of obligation, knowing if they were ever seriously considering endorsing you, that time passed a while ago. Some SUV splattered mud on your yard signs by the side of the road. Some strip club buys ad space right next to your billboard by the highway. Staffers quit or secretly send their resumes to your rivals.

Desperation kicks in, and it’s no wonder that some candidates get a little angrier and nastier as the heat is turned up. This year’s second and third tier of the Democratic field is starting to turn into a piranha tank.

Beto O’Rourke Saturday: “I mean, I could maybe do a Facebook livestream with a kitten and, say, you know, ‘Now, we don’t want anything to happen to the kitten . . . and so, you know, send your $5 or $10 or $15 in now. And, you know, Miss Whiskers is going to be fine.'”

O’Rourke, Wednesday: “I heard some of the comments made today on this stage,” O’Rourke said Wednesday at a “March for Our Lives” forum in Las Vegas. “Those who are worried about the polls and want to triangulate — I’m thinking about Mayor Pete on this one.”

Cory Booker, later that day, noted that O’Rourke “criticized me when I came out for” licensing, but noted that the Texas Democrat now supports the policy. And Cory Booker’s the nice guy in this race!

Julian Castro’s press secretary chose to hit Saturday Night Live for not including him in their Democratic debate sketch.

Do you smell that? Take a big whiff. That’s premium desperation right there!

ADDENDA: I did not expect to see the day I would be quoted in Hello, the international celebrity news magazine. One minor correction; I didn’t review Joker, I simply wrote about what seemed unnerving about the tone and message of the trailer. I have little doubt that at some point in the film — which our Kyle Smith called “mesmerizing” — the filmmakers will attempt to make clear that no matter how terribly society has treated Arthur Fleck, he’s not justified in becoming a homicidal maniac. The question is, does the audience understand that point? Kyle writes, “Set in a 1981 urban hell piled with garbage and overrun by rats, Joker channels the notorious misfits of the era, including fictional ones: Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Bernhard Goetz, Travis Bickle (whose actions inspired Hinckley, the failed assassin of President Reagan) and Rupert Pupkin (an entertainment-industry isotope of Bickle).” The thing is, a bunch of those real-life figures looked at violent cinema and believed it was telling them that their violent acts were okay. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine that some ticking time bomb out there will watch this story and perceive the same message . . .

Separately, I’m scheduled to appear on Ed Morrissey’s program today around 5 p.m. eastern.

Elections

How the Trump Campaign Is Preparing for 2020

(Jim Bourg/REUTERS)

Yesterday, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee announced they had raised a combined $125 million over the past three months and had $156 million in cash on hand — roughly twice as much as President Obama and the DNC had at this point in the 2012 cycle.

The good news for the Democrats in that is that more spending doesn’t always guarantee a win. Hillary Clinton and the DNC out-raised Trump and the RNC in 2016, and her allied SuperPACs outspent the Trump-aligned ones. The bad news is that the game plan for an incumbent president with a gargantuan campaign war chest is clear and relatively easy to execute, and when done correctly, can more or less “win” the presidential race before it even begins.

Why have four of the last five incumbent presidents won reelection? There are a lot of reasons, but a big one is that the structure of the primary calendar, the rules for campaign spending, and party unified behind the president give the party in power an enormous structural advantage. In 1996 and 2012, incumbent presidents had enormous resources to run ads in swing states defining the Republican nominee, when the GOP nominee had used all his money to win the primary and did not have any cash to return fire. The Clinton and Obama campaigns, along with help from their friends the media, defined the image of Bob Dole and Mitt Romney before the contest really started. In 2004, the Bush campaign ran similar advertising against John Kerry in swing states.

Trump won’t have the assistance from the media, but he will have a Democratic primary that will probably go deep into the spring and drain the resources of the eventual nominee and may well leave some bad blood among supporters of the final candidates. And like Bush’s campaign in 2004 and Obama’s campaign 2012, they’ll have the resources to experiment with all kinds of voter-targeting technology and get-out-the-vote apps and gadgets and doodads. Not all of them will work, but not all of them need to work. Well-funded campaigns have the freedom to try new ideas that aren’t guaranteed; they don’t have to put all their eggs in one basket. The last two Republican presidential victories were driven by Republicans turning out in rural and ex-urban precincts in numbers that the Democratic campaigns never imagined.

It’s easy to find compelling arguments about why Trump will have a tough time getting reelected. His approval rating is low in many important states and has been low for a while. His head-to-head polling against the top Democrats is not encouraging at all. The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated a whole bunch of suburban voters who were usually at least open to voting for the Republican Party had sharply turned against the Trumpified Republican Party. Trump is a very nontraditional president, which means he may not enjoy the traditional advantages of incumbency.

But marinating in the political coverage of the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, and the rest could give someone the impression that the dramatic portion of the 2020 election will effectively end when Democrats pick their nominee, and that Trump is toast. Democrats may well be underestimating the difficulty of beating Trump in November 2020.

Let’s get the polling argument out of the way. Nate Silver argued after the election that “Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.” (It’s really worth noting that some key states had very little polling in the final week, and a bunch of the polls that were released had been asking questions ‘out in the field’ for long stretches. The last YouGov poll in Wisconsin was collecting responses from October 4 to November 6. That’s not ideal for perceiving a late break in the direction of one candidate.)

It’s easy to believe that there is a group of voters who intend to vote for Trump but who don’t want to say so to anyone before Election Day. Voting for Trump gets labeled racist, xenophobic, fascist, hateful, sexist, and so on. It’s reasonable to argue that Trump will do better than his late polling numbers, but we don’t know if this “shy Trump voter” demographic is one percent of the voting electorate, two percent, five percent . . .

Trump’s lousy job approval numbers indicate a lot of Americans are getting tired of the daily drama and the constant circus. But the Democrats are not running on a return to normalcy. They’ve publicly and loudly embraced a whole bunch of ideas that don’t poll nearly as well as the candidates themselves do. Medicare for All polls well until people are asked if they’re willing to give up their current private health insurance for it. When told they would have to give it up, support drops from 70 percent to 41 percent.

Only 33 percent think it’s a good idea to create a national health insurance program for people who are in the country illegally, and only 27 percent support decriminalizing crossing the U.S. border without permission. Only 27 percent think reparations for slavery are a good idea. Only 32 percent of American adults think their state should make it easier for women to have an abortion. Only 4 percent of Americans think the taxes they pay are too low; 45 percent think the taxes they pay are too high. Only 35 percent want the death penalty abolished nationwide; only 31 percent think those currently in prison should be allowed to vote.

The 2020 election will see a deep urban vs. rural divide and the Democrats should have the upper hand in the suburbs. On paper, that should add up to a win for Democrats. But there’s a reason that previous generations of Democrats spent a lot of years courting the white working class, farmers, union members, etcetera. In that recent House special election in North Carolina, Democrat Dan McReady did even better than in 2018 in the most heavily suburban county. But he did worse in all of the more rural counties compared to last November, and Republican Dan Bishop won by 2 percentage points. If Democrats don’t pursue votes in these communities, they’re leaving a lot of votes on the table. Montana governor Steve Bullock’s whole presidential campaign is an attempt to pull the fire alarm about this for the rest of the party, and most Democrats are ignoring him.

Trump reelection campaign strategists like Bill Stepien say they’ve identified “2018 disengagers” — voters who enthusiastically turned out for Trump in 2016 but sat home during the mid-term elections in 2018. And there are a handful of states that Trump lost in 2016 that could be won just by getting the Trump vote a little higher. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by just 2,736 votes. Clinton and Trump split the congressional districts in Maine, winning one electoral vote each, and she won the statewide total (and the other two electoral votes) by a margin of 20,035 votes. Clinton’s margin in Nevada wasn’t that much bigger at 27,202 votes. And if the Trump team thinks it can outperform their 2016 totals by a five-figure sum in key states, two more states appear within reach. Clinton’s margin in Minnesota was just 44,593 votes; in New Mexico, 65,567 votes.

Thirty-two states and territories will have held their primaries by March 29, 2020; the Democratic nominee may be clear by then. The party nominee’s campaign doesn’t get to control and direct spending of the national party until they’re officially the nominee, which won’t happen until July 16, 2020. In April, May, June, and early July, the Trump campaign will have an enormous window of opportunity to define his opponent as extremist, out-of-touch, reckless, unethical, etcetera.

Oh, and if the Democrats nominate Elizabeth Warren, some big donors may sit out the cycle or switch sides, according to CNBC’s inquiries to Democrats working in the financial industry: “Democratic donors on Wall Street and in big business are preparing to sit out the presidential campaign fundraising cycle — or even back President Donald Trump — if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the party’s nomination.” So if Warren really is overtaking Trump, as her fans hope, Trump’s fundraising advantage may grow further.

Now put all of these pieces together: In spring 2020, as the Democratic nominee is becoming clearer, the Trump campaign and RNC take some of that $150 million or so and use it to run ads defining the Democratic nominee as extremist who wants to ban private health insurance, offer taxpayer-funded health care to illegal immigrants, decriminalize crossing the border illegally, raise taxes, make it easier to get an abortion, enact reparations for slavery, and ban the death penalty. They target cost-effective, not-so-big television markets like Green Bay, Madison, Wausau, Marquette, Eau Claire, Erie, Harrisburg Duluth, Cedar Rapids, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Wilkes-Barre, and Winston-Salem. Maybe if they’ve really got money lying around, they expand into Bangor, Fargo (it reaches into northwest Minnesota) Sioux Falls (southwest Minnesota) Albuquerque-Santa Fe, Mankato, and Rochester, Minn. Suddenly, after months of ads laying out the unpopular stances of the new Democratic nominee, that nominee isn’t polling so well in head-to-head matchups with Trump, and that vulnerable incumbent president doesn’t look so vulnerable anymore.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, the NRA finds a happy ending in San Francisco.

White House

The State of Impeachment

President Trump after his first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2017. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Democrats strategize how to proceed with impeachment, while Mickey and I record another wide-ranging episode of the pop-culture podcast — including a discussion on how to criticize a film without banning it.

The Inherent Tensions within the Effort to Impeach President Trump

Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Drew warns that Democrats are “risking making their target too narrow and moving too fast. In so doing they could end up implicitly bestowing approval on other presidential acts that amount to a long train of abuses of power. And going too quickly could shut off the oxygen that might fuel Republican acceptance that it’s time to break with Mr. Trump — perhaps enough of them to end his presidency.”

That’s the real trick, isn’t it? If impeachment takes a long while — the impeachment of Clinton took six months — the country will acclimate to and digest the latest charges and shrug that it’s just Trump being Trump. The White House can drag this out if it wants to, and it’s probably to the president’s advantage to make this process last as long as possible. And there will always be Democrats who contend they’ve discovered something new that needs to be added to the articles of impeachment.

Monday, lawyers for House Democrats contended that Trump lied to the Mueller investigation about his campaign’s contact with WikiLeaks, creating another reason to pursue impeachment. A Harvard law professor argued that Trump’s tweet about Pastor Robert Jeffress warning about the potential of another civil war is itself a separate justification for impeachment.

Democrats believe that Trump can and should be justified for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, for not reporting the payments to Stormy Daniels as a campaign expenditure, for firing James Comey (Rep. Al Green), for “creating chaos and division”, (Rep. Maxine Waters), for “being a clear and present danger” (Tom Steyer), for “undermining the federal judiciary” (Rep. Steve Cohen), for being “the most dangerous president in American history” (DNC Chair Tom Perez), for “betraying his oath of office” (Nancy Pelosi), for offering to host the next G7 summit at his own personal property (the House Judiciary Committee).

All told, Grabien has found 89 reasons Democrats have listed to justify impeaching the president.

The advantage of the Ukraine story is that it is simple and direct. A bunch of the reasons listed above are vague and matters of opinion. (Doesn’t any criticism of any judge or judicial decision “undermine the federal judiciary”? When President Obama mischaracterized the Citizens United decision and rebuked the Supreme Court to their faces during the State of the Union in 2010, that wasn’t undermining the federal judiciary?)

But if the Democrats pursue impeachment over the Ukraine policy, and then it fails in the Senate, they will look like a bunch of maniacs if they then turn around and say, “wait a minute, we forgot his violations of the emoluments clause. Clearly foreign governments buying rooms and booking events at Trump hotels is backdoor bribery, we’re going to start this whole process all over again on a different issue.”

Over at The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan argues that Democrats can’t leave other issues unmentioned in their impeachment effort:

For House Democrats to wait this long and then impeach a reckless, lawless, racist, tax-dodging president only over his interactions with the president of Ukraine would effectively give Trump a clean bill of health on everything else. Going into an election year, Democrats would be unilaterally disarming — unable to offer further substantive criticisms of Trump’s crimes and abuses of power across the board. “Why didn’t you impeach him for it?” Republicans will ask.

But the more counts of impeachment the House Democrats bring, the longer the process will drag on. Even if the Democrats choose to skip hearings — which is not going to reassure people that this is not a partisan vendetta — the Senate is going to have to debate and dissect the evidence on each one of these charges.

Then again, maybe Democrats believe the proper historical consequence for Trump is for him to be the first president impeached by the House multiple separate times. Drew asks, “if a president were to be impeached more than once, what is the meaning of impeachment?” (If you’re talking about going back again a second time, as Pelosi reportedly is, you’re pretty much admitting that you don’t expect to get the 67 votes needed to remove him from office.) This will change impeachment from a rarely used ultimate consequence for presidential lawbreaking — the atomic bomb of our separation of powers — to just another way for Congress to say, “we disapprove of you.” It will turn into a resolution of censure.

What We Won’t Be Talking About While We’re Talking About Impeachment

There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated by the state of American politics right now. Maybe you think the impeachment of President Trump is long overdue; maybe you think this is a de facto coup attempt against a legitimately elected president. Barring some dramatic turn of events, the next few months will be dominated by the impeachment process. The odds of other legislation getting passed were already bad, now there’s almost no chance.

Meanwhile, beyond Washington, life goes on.

But we’re not going to hear much about any of that while Washington is obsessed with an impeachment process that is almost certainly going to fall short of the 67 votes needed to remove the president.

ADDENDA: Mickey and I recorded another wide-ranging edition of the pop culture podcast that discusses the Vontaze Burfict suspension, Ziva returning to the unkillable NCIS, Prodigal Son and Hollywood’s now-almost-clichéd sophisticated, debonair serial killers; The Irishman and how I can prove the trailer makes it look like the most Martin Scorscese-ish Martin Scorscese movie of all time; Kanye West prepares to unveil a gospel album and whether he’s forming the “Branch Kanyedians,” whether Saturday Night Live has turned a corner and is funny again or whether they’re just making fun of Democrats for a change, and why this year’s Emmy awards were a snore.

We also touch on the Joker movie again. My friend Christian Toto, creator of the excellent Hollywood In Toto site, reports that Warner Brothers announced they will not allow reporters to ask questions of the cast, crew and creators at the premiere, a decision Toto calls cowardly. “Our Constitution protects our right to express ourselves. That could mean an offensive painting, a love sonnet or a major motion picture that could captivate the nation on opening day. Warner Bros. should stand aside and let their artists speak.”

As I’ve noted before, we need some sort of space for criticism of an artist or filmmaker’s decision that falls short of “ban it,” something that argues, “this film is arguing in favor of something that is wrong.” The 2002 Denzel Washington medical drama John Q. was meant to be an indictment of America’s health care system, but basically tries to argue that taking hostages and forcing doctors to perform a surgery at gunpoint is a morally justified act. We’re rooting for the protagonist because he’s trying to save his son, and he’s played by Denzel, but the movie’s inherent contention is that it’s morally justified, even heroic, to force people to do things through threats of violence if the stakes are high enough. If you make that movie from the surgeon’s perspective, it’s the story of a maniac with a gun who bursts into the hospital and threatens to kill you unless you save his son.

Christian’s raising money for a redesign of his site; you can help him out here.

White House

The Coming Battle of Exhausting Perpetual Outrages

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, September 9, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

One of the factors that may impede the Democrats’ efforts to impeach President Trump is outrage fatigue in the American public. Outrage fatigue is also probably going to be a factor that causes Americans to tune out President Trump’s own metronomic insistence that he’s always the victim of a vast confluence of sinister foes.

There are a couple of defenses you can make of the president’s behavior regarding Ukraine. (I have contended and still believe that attempting to restrict congressionally authorized and appropriated security aid to Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government investigates a potential rival of the president is a straight-up abuse of presidential power.)

You could argue, as Luke Thompson does, that President Trump did nothing wrong. Thompson is correct when he writes that the United States government has a compelling interest in knowing if its private citizens are involved in corruption abroad, either alone or in concert with current, former, or future public officials. The catch is that this is why we have institutions like the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The lead investigator of allegations of American citizens and officials participating in corruption abroad is not supposed to be the president’s personal attorney. If Trump had said something along the lines of, “if you encounter any evidence that any American committed a crime, be sure to reach out to our Department of Justice, and let me know if the State Department can help with any extradition issues,” this would not have provided much fodder for impeachment advocates, because Trump would be steering the investigation through proper channels.

Defenders of the president could more or less plead ignorance. You periodically hear variations of the argument, “look, Trump’s not a politician, he’s never worked in government before, he just doesn’t know what sort of thing is allowed and what isn’t.” Except that’s his job as president to know the laws that define and limit his authority and the Constitutional boundaries. That’s not a side issue or errata; it’s a prerequisite.

Defenders of the president could argue that Trump wasn’t specifically looking for dirt on Biden out of partisan and personal interests, and that this is just a reflection of a commitment to good and honest government. That argument would be stronger if we had ever heard Trump publicly going on at length about corruption in other countries. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good suspects: North Korea, Sudan, Cambodia, Haiti, Turkmenistan, Nicaragua, etcetera. Cisco, IBM, and SAP share source code with Russian authorities, including Russia’s Federal Security Service, more commonly known as the FSB. I’ve never heard Trump complain that American companies could be inadvertently facilitating Russian hackers, cyber-espionage, or cyber-attacks, or turning a blind eye to their corrupt partners.

Defenders of the president could argue that the security assistance to Ukraine was a bad idea in the first place. As I noted last week, there is a way for the president to attempt to stop the expenditure of congressionally authorized and appropriated funds. It’s called the Impoundment Control Act, and it’s like a veto, complete with Congress having the opportunity to override the veto. Trump didn’t bother.

You could argue that what the president did was wrong but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. As Andy McCarthy writes, “Trump should not use the powers of his office solely for the purpose of obtaining campaign ammunition to deploy against a potential foe. But all presidents who seek reelection wield their power in ways designed to improve their chances. If Trump went too far in that regard, we could look with disfavor on that while realizing that he would not be the first president to have done so.” Congress has options to rebuke or punish a president short of impeachment, but few Democrats are interested in those. After all, folks like Rashida Tlaib have impeachment merchandise to sell.

Defenders of the president are likely to deploy some variation of “turnabout is fair play.” There are undoubtedly some people asking how different Trump’s request to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is from all the favor-trading that went on at the Clinton Foundation in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

You may recall those “lock her up” chants. At any point, the new administration could have investigated the Clinton Global Initiative. It’s not like there was never any credible evidence of influence-peddling there. In a 2011 memo to Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, John Podesta, and other members of the foundation’s board, the ex-president’s longtime aide Doug Band laid out how his consulting firm simultaneously gave donations to both the Clinton Foundation and lucrative speaking and consulting gigs for the former president from the same companies and individuals. After the election, foreign governments suddenly announced they were no longer interested in donating to the Clinton Global Initiative, indicating that once Hillary Clinton was no longer likely to be in a position to influence American policy, they didn’t see a point to sending more money. Band also contended that Clinton Foundation funds had been used to pay for Chelesa Clinton’s wedding, although he showed no supporting evidence. Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, worked for a little under a year as a “special government employee” for the State Department, while simultaneously working as a consultant for Band’s firm called Teneo, giving private investors information about the government.

The Department of Justice could have investigated any or all of these claims and unusual arrangements. They didn’t.

In November 22, 2016, Trump said during an interview that he didn’t “want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”

On December 10, 2016, at a “thank you rally” in Michigan, after the “lock her up” chants began again, President-elect Trump said, “No, it’s okay. Forget it. That plays great before the election. Now, we don’t care, right?”

Why did the Clintons get away with it? Because no one chose to investigate further, probably taking their cues from the incoming commander in chief.

No, what we’re going to get for the next six months is just unending servings of the biggest level of outrage possible from all the major players.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing and chairman Adam Schiff attempted to, in his words, “parody” the president’s comments in the call during a hearing on the whistleblower’s complaint that helped bring Trump’s call with Zelensky. This was a bad decision for a lot of reasons. The readout had just come out earlier that morning; some people hearing Schiff’s words may have thought, at least initially, that he was quoting the real words from the president. While various lines hinted at the parodic nature — “I’m only going to say this seven times, so you listen good” — it wasn’t all that funny; it seemed to be some sort of Schiff fan-fiction of how he imagined Trump speaking to foreign leaders like Tony Soprano. Stephen Hayes, formerly of the Weekly Standard and light-years away from being a fan of Trump declared, “The Trump/Zelensky phone call readout is bad on its face. And yet, Adam Schiff, not satisfied with the facts as they are, offers a summary that is a distortion, designed to make it look worse.”

It was a dumb move, and if you’re Nancy Pelosi, you should be fuming that the guy who kept insisting that Russia-gate would lead to impeachment and who then started to complain that Robert Mueller wasn’t doing a thorough enough job kicked off this new stage of investigating the president with some comedy sketch writing.

How does Trump respond this morning? “Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”

“Arrest for treason.”

The outrage always has to be turned up to eleven, no matter the issue or circumstances.

ADDENDUM: If you haven’t already, go check out the 3,000-word timeline providing everything you ever wanted to know about Hunter Biden’s employment, work, and connections and deals going back to the early 2000s . . . or at least everything that can be known from public records, public statements, news accounts, and other documents. One aspect that is important is that while many of the particular actions of Hunter Biden — and Joe Biden’s blind eye or tacit approval — can be justified as demonstrations of bad judgment but not quite illegal, a clear pattern emerges when you look at all of them together. Hunter Biden’s clients and business associates always had business before the federal government; they always paid him a lot considering his meager experience; it was often difficult to determine what exactly Hunter Biden offered them beyond his famous surname and connections to power, and they often got arrested and indicted for fraud and bribery schemes, although ones not directly tied to Biden’s work. Collectively, this should probably nuke Biden’s campaign. Every father loves his son, but not every father either allows or assents to his son getting this deep into this many deals with this many shady characters. At some point, Joe Biden needed to say, “for the sake of the public duties I’ve been entrusted with, you can’t do this. The office of the vice presidency comes with a lot of perks, but it also comes with a lot of responsibilities, and one of my responsibilities is to avoid circumstances that create a conflict of interest or even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. I need you to do something with your talents and abilities that does not involve attempts to shape or profit from U.S. policy.” It would have been a difficult discussion, but it was a needed one.

It didn’t happen, and now we see the consequence.

Elections

Not All Trump Critics Are Sold on Impeachment

Signs at an anti-Trump protest in Vista, Calif., October 31, 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Raise your hand if you expected the argument against the impeachment of Trump to be led by . . . David Brooks in the New York Times.

This is completely elitist. We’re in the middle of an election campaign. If Democrats proceed with the impeachment process, it will happen amid candidate debates, primaries and caucuses. Elections give millions and millions of Americans a voice in selecting the president. This process gives 100 mostly millionaire senators a voice in selecting the president.

As these two processes unfold simultaneously, the contrast will be obvious. People will conclude that Democrats are going ahead with impeachment in an election year because they don’t trust the democratic process to yield the right outcome. Democratic elites to voters: We don’t trust you. Too many of you are racists!

Impeachment is no longer a rare and grave crisis in American life; it’s becoming a device parties use when the House and the presidency are in the hands of different parties. Democratic House members have already introduced impeachment articles against Trump on at least four occasions. It’s just another partisan thing.

Okay, that’s the . . . er, hard-right MAGA-head Trump loyalist David Brooks. Let’s see what a reasonable Republican like former Ohio governor John Kasich thinks.

[Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president] was completely inappropriate, it’s an outrageous thing . . . You just don’t say, ‘okay, I read a newspaper article, or I saw one transcript, and therefore, you throw the guy out of office. I think it is a long process, and there has to be more, in my opinion . . . I’m not going to support Trump, I didn’t support him the last time, I’m not going to support him again. I don’t think he’s conducted himself appropriately in that office — not just these things, but dividing our country. But that’s a long way from impeachment . . .

I think [Pelosi] moved forward too fast, myself. I think she should have waited until this testimony in the intelligence committee. But she felt a lot of pressure from her party. Her party’s saying, ‘we’re in power, it’s time for us to go and do something here.’ They’re all looking for a pound of flesh because they’re so angry at Donald Trump. You cannot proceed on the basis of emotion and anger. You have to proceed logically, carefully. This is really an important matter. This is not just about Donald Trump, this is about the precedents for the future as well.

Okay, fine, that’s Kasich. He’s always been squishy and looked for the middle ground. Let’s turn to our old friend Jonah Goldberg, who’s called it like he sees it every day of the Trump era:

Impeachment is ultimately a question of whether a president violated the public trust. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that says a president must be impeached for violating the public trust. I can list any number of occasions when presidents have done that and it never even occurred to anyone that they should be impeached for it . . .

Absent new facts, the GOP-controlled Senate will not remove Trump. The president would claim “exoneration,” and his behavior would become normalized for future presidents. So I’m not sure Democrats are right to pursue impeachment. I’m sure Republicans are wrong to pretend that what Trump did was totally fine.

If you’re a Democrat, the hesitation about impeachment from consistent Trump critics like Brooks, Kasich, and Goldberg probably ought to strike you as a red flag. Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t expect the party that’s increasingly openly embracing socialism to recognize a signal of “danger ahead” in a red flag.

For the past week, I’ve been pointing out the challenges of the timing for the Democrats, and how the clock is working against them. The closer the country gets to the general election, the sillier it looks to pursue an impeachment effort to remove a president, particularly when everyone knows impeachment proponents are extremely unlikely to persuade 20 Republican senators to vote to remove him from office.

Apparently the Democrats’ upcoming strategy to cope with this challenge is to focus on, as one Democratic aide put it to the Washington Post, “the need for speed.”: “‘Very few hearings, if any,’ said a senior Democratic aide, who said the coming investigative work will largely take place in closed-door interviews.”

Boy, that’s reassuring, huh? Back in 1998, the House Judiciary Committee held seven separate hearings, running from November 19 to December 12.

Have those senior Democratic aides noticed that the House is out of session for three of the next six weeks? We’re simultaneously being told that this is serious enough to remove a president from office, something this country has never done in its history, and that it’s so important it can’t be left to the voters to judge in the upcoming election, and that so far, it doesn’t require any changes to the schedule of the House of Representatives. Fellas, it doesn’t add up.

Here’s an argument in favor of impeachment: Since day one, progressive Democrats have believed that President Trump deserved to be impeached, and that an overwhelming majority of the American people agree with them, and that they would not suffer any backlash at the ballot box for attempting to remove the president from office. No amount of polling or expressions of nervousness and hesitation from freshman Democrats in swing districts can persuade them. The only way to prove to them that this is a bad idea is to let them go through with it and live with the consequences. Political parties crave power and have a difficult time prioritizing anything above the accumulation and preservation of power. The only thing that will prevent the increasingly common weaponization of impeachment against future presidents is the lesson that this approach costs the impeaching party power.

And if we’re honest, none of us can say with absolute certainty what the consequences of this impeachment effort are going to be. The poll numbers are moving a bit on impeachment, but it’s a familiar story: Democrats love it, Republicans hate it, and independents are marginally against it — 44 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove in the new NPR/PBS/Marist survey.

Maybe there won’t be a political backlash against impeachment in the next election. Democrats surely thought the unpopular impeachment that ended in 1999 would hurt the Republicans, but George W. Bush won the next presidential election and Republicans kept their majorities in the House and Senate. By the time November 2000 rolled around, impeachment was old news. (For what it was worth, Al Gore apparently blamed Clinton’s sex scandals and low personal-approval rating for his loss.)

There’s an old saying in politics that migrated to screenwriting and fiction writing: “Hang a lantern on your problem.” In the context of politics, it means instead of avoiding or downplaying your problem, discuss it openly and directly before anyone else can level an accusation against you. In the screenwriting and fiction writing, it means addressing your plot hole or implausible turn of events before the reader or audience can. “Boy, we’re really lucky that this old hidden passageway was back here! I thought we were trapped! No one ever mentioned it before, and it wasn’t on the map.” “Yeah, I read once that they used this place during Prohibition, it must have been installed by bootleggers!” etcetera.

Impeachment fundamentally is an action that undoes the results of an election, and it is inherently a divisive and angry process. Democrats can’t hide from it, so they might as well embrace it. Back in August, our Kevin Williamson appeared on Bill Maher’s program and made an argument that had not-friendly audience surprisingly nodding in agreement, that some principles of the United States were too important to be decided by popular will:

Like me, you don’t trust big masses of people because they tend to be stupid and easy to scare. All of the best things about our Constitution are the anti-democratic stuff like the Bill of Rights, which is America’s great big list of stuff you idiots don’t get to vote on. If we had put slavery up to a vote in 1860, it’d have won, it’d have won 70 to 30. If we put free speech up to a vote today, it’d probably lose.

By pursuing impeachment before the 2020 election, Democrats are declaring this is too important a matter to leave for Americans to vote on. Democrats might as well say, “Yes, we know about half of you love this man, and about half of you believe that whatever he did, it’s probably justified. We know that you may vote against us in the next election if we attempt to remove him from office. But an abuse of power is an abuse of power, whether it’s popular or unpopular. What the president did was wrong; strong-arming an ally for political dirt on a rival violates his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and no polling number can change that. Yes, this action will undo the choice of the electorate in 2016. We are indeed overruling the decision of the people, because the people selected someone who cannot perform his duties ethically. Our country is significantly weakened by a president who cannot distinguish between his own personal and political interests and the national interests. This mindset in governing endangers our allies, strengthens our enemies, and makes free and fair elections impossible. This is simply too important to leave in the voters’ hands in 2020.”

A lot of Americans would hate that argument, but few could argue Democrats were not being honest about how they saw the issue. Maybe that’s a bridge too far. But the alternative, as Judge Judy would put it, is to pee on the public’s leg and tell them it’s raining: “We’re not trying to overrule the 2016 election, we’re just trying to remove the president from office.”

I just wish leading Democrats such as Representative Adam Schiff would take the sage advice of this man:

Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy, not to be entertained lightly, and in the case of a president, would mean putting the country through a deeply wrenching process. It is instead a remedy that must be considered soberly, mindful of the fact that removing a president from office should be the recourse for only the most serious transgressions.

Should the facts warrant impeachment, that case will be made more difficult politically if part of the country feels that removing Mr. Trump is the result that some of their fellow Americans were wishing for all along.

That was written by . . . Adam Schiff, back on May 4, 2018.

ADDENDUM: The weeks ahead will inevitably bring a lot of scrutiny about Hunter Biden and his business partners and deals and anything that looks or sounds unsavory or creates the appearance of a conflict of interest for Joe Biden. Surely, no one in the Democratic party could want to fan the flames on that, right?

White House

The Impeachment Fervor Isn’t Going Anywhere

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads Democrats in introducing proposed “For the People” legislation on Capitol Hill, January 4, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why a Democratic attempt to impeach President Trump was destined from the beginning; why Democrats suddenly get awkward and tongue-tied when asked to bar children of high-ranking officials from serving on foreign corporate boards; and Alexander Hamilton’s warning about how impeachment efforts will always reflect partisan divisions.

A Democratic House Was Always Destined to Impeach President Trump

More than 218 of the 235 House Democrats are now unified in support of an impeachment “inquiry,” and when push comes to shove sometime in the coming months, the overwhelming majority of House Democrats will vote to impeach the president.

The previous resistance to impeachment from Nancy Pelosi was perhaps the right call in terms of long-term political advantage, but also was fundamentally phony. A significant chunk of the Democratic party has wanted to impeach Trump since early in his presidency, in some cases literally making the argument the day he took office. Liberal activist groups set up an online petition calling for Trump’s impeachment on Inauguration Day, declaring, “From the moment he assumed the office, President Donald Trump has been in direct violation of the US Constitution.”  On February 10, about three weeks into Trump’s presidency, the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling offered a survey finding that 46 percent of all respondents supported the impeachment of President Trump, and 80 percent of all self-identified Democrats did. Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) tweeted, “get ready for impeachment” on March 21, 2017. By April, localities such as Berkeley passed resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment

You may recall that for much of 2018, House Republicans campaigned on the message that Democrats would impeach Trump if they took control of the House. The assessment in many corners of the media was that this was a reflection of Republican paranoia, a desperate hyping of an implausible scenario designed to motivate the party’s base through fear.

In April 2018, representative Dina Titus of Nevada told the New York Times, “They’re trying to encourage us to be more out front on impeachment so then they can use that to rev up their base and say, ‘That’s all the Democrats care about.’”

In August, Perry Bacon Jr. wrote at FiveThirtyEight, “If the Democrats are planning to impeach Trump if they win control of the House, they are doing a really great job of hiding it. Congressional Democrats aren’t talking about impeachment.” That same month, New York magazine explained, “Republicans, not Democrats, want the midterms to be about impeachment.”

In September, CNN’s Rebecca Buck reported, “many Democrats [are] downplaying or rejecting the prospect of impeaching President Trump, while Republicans, including the President and his closest allies, insist his ouster is all but certain if their party loses power in Washington.”

Clearly, some of the newly elected Democrats didn’t get that memo; Representative Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), famously vowed on her first day in Congress to “impeach the mother****er.” By March, Tlaib claimed, “I think every single colleague of mine agrees there’s impeachable offenses. That’s one thing that we all agree on. We may disagree on the pace.”

Was Tlaib wrong? Did any House Democrat believe that Donald Trump had not committed any action that qualified as a high crime and misdemeanor, and that impeaching him was morally and legally wrong? Wasn’t it clear that for at least a large majority of Congressional Democrats, the only compelling argument against it was the likely political fallout?

And isn’t the heart of the current moment the Democrats’ belief that Trump’s comments and moves regarding Ukraine are so egregious that there will be no political fallout for pursuing an impeachment effort that is almost certain to fail in the Senate?

During her period of resistance to the #Resistance, Pelosi was forced to say things that we can reasonably conclude she does not truly believe. In March of this year, the newly restored House Speaker declared, “impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”

Much of Nancy Pelosi’s agenda is comparably “divisive to the country,” and she wants to go down those paths.

In May, Pelosi contended Trump was “almost self-impeaching,” which I guess meant the House of Representatives didn’t have to vote on it.

We should give those activists on the Left who called for impeachment on Inauguration a smidgen of credit for their honesty about their views, an honesty that few Democratic lawmakers dared to exhibit. Their contention, if never quite articulated explicitly, is that Constitutional eligibility for the presidency is not enough, and that the American president must meet some other unwritten criteria in order to be a “legitimate” president. In their eyes, Donald Trump was always ineligible for the presidency because of who he is and how he sees the world. In their worldview, he was not merely a mistaken, wrongheaded, or bad president, but one who could not be permitted to continue.

Of course, once a standard or tactic is adopted by one political side in our culture, it will quickly be adopted by the other political side. At some point in the future, there will be another Democratic president and another Republican House. And the forces of negative polarization will drive that House towards impeaching that president.

Warren: A Veep’s Kids Shouldn’t Serve on Foreign Company Boards. No, Wait, They Can.

Just how conditional is the outrage of Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to elected officials leveraging their position for personal gain? Really conditional.

Taking questions from reporters following a town hall event in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Democrat was asked if she would allow her vice president’s child to serve on the board of a foreign company if she were president. Warren quickly answered, “no.”

When asked why, she said, in a rare moment where she appeared flustered: “I don’t know. I have to go back and look at the details.”

The “details” to which Warren was referring are from the two ethics plans she’s unveiled to tackle corruption in government. Her campaign later clarified to the Washington Post that the plans wouldn’t prevent any child of a vice president from serving on such a board.

Elizabeth Warren is supposed to be like Xena the Warrior Princess when it comes to powerful business interests influencing government policy. So why was she so confused and contradictory on this question?

Because lots and lots of children of government officials in both parties benefit from lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker. Warren couldn’t propose a strict change like that without stepping on the toes of a lot of colleagues, including ones she probably counts as allies.

Your perspective on how harmful nepotism is probably relates a great deal to who your parents are and whether you harbor secret fears that you benefited from the practice. As I wrote way back in 2014, “nepotism isn’t the only way that America’s most wealthy and powerful ensure that their children will also be wealthy and powerful, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s a thumb-on-the-scale bit of legal cheating that everyone averts their eyes from because acknowledging it too openly would raise the question of how many of the folks in the highest positions of our country actually earned them.”

Democrats may not particularly like the idea of Hunter Biden, who had never worked in the natural gas industry before in his life, getting $50,000 per month to sit on the board of Bursima Holdings although Representative Ted Lieu argues that it’s normal. But most Democrats don’t want to make too big a stink about it, in part because they see it as a small drop in the bucket of inequality and partially because they can justify it to themselves as an inevitable part of the system, or even a justified perk of the office.

Democrats vs. the Clock

Imagine some future president governs relatively free of scandals for his first three and a half years, but then in the summer of his fourth term in office, all kinds of ugly information comes out. Would the Congress impeach him? Or would the general sense be that because the presidential election was so close, the wiser choice is to allow the American people to render their own verdict at the ballot box? Or what about for a president who’s on the tail end of his eighth year in office?

Suppose that a scandalous president was defeated in his bid for reelection. Would the House and Senate attempt to remove a president during the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day? Would some vice president end up with a presidency of William Henry Harrison-level brevity, operating as a caretaker for a short period between November and January 20?

Clearly at some point, removing a president from office so close to Election Day or the end of his term starts to look ridiculous, unless the argument in favor of impeachment looks so ironclad and broadly supported that it can be done quickly. (Impeachment in 1998-1999 took six months.) The White House can drag out this process a great deal. Democrats are likely to make the Senate consider the removal of Trump, about seven months or so before he’s up for reelection.

ADDENDA: Rob Port, a great North Dakota political blogger who I met way back in the day when bloggers had conventions, reminds us that Alexander Hamilton saw the inherent problems with impeachment coming, all the way back in Federalist No. 65:

A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

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