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Posts Tagged ‘impeachment

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

situation USA 2: reflections on the Mueller Report and more recent events

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I’m listening with moderate interest to Sam Harris’s recent interview with a legal journalist, Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare, about the Mueller Report. Harris and I share a total abhorrence of Trump, but Harris gives the appearance of being apologetic about it, presumably because he’s an American and a Big Name with a large following, a percentage of whom are Trumpets, who either follow Harris because of his castigations of the Left and identity politics, or just like trolling and giving him a hard time. So it’s no surprise that he’s been avoiding the Trump disaster over the last year or so, and focusing largely on more positive stuff.

However, with the Mueller Report all done, and Trump so far from done, he’s found an expert to dive into the report’s findings and implications. I’m not a lawyer of course, but I’ve read the report and, no doubt like many other such readers, I feel smugly annoyed at the way it has been misrepresented by both sides of politics.

I’m broadly in agreement with Wittes’s analysis of the report, even if I find the legalistic tone a little obfuscating at times, given the nature of the crisis created by Trump’s advent. One thing, though, I continue to be disappointed about – and this is common to most legal analyses I’ve heard, is a kind of dithering or a throwing up of the hands vis-a-vis ‘the indictment of a sitting President’.

Trump should now be in prison for the campaign finance violations he directed Michael Cohen to commit (and would be if he had lost the election). It seems to me grossly unjust that Cohen – though he did commit other crimes – should go to prison for two felonies related to payments Trump arranged to be made to women he had secret relations with, and one crime of lying to Congress about Trump’s financial dealings in Russia, without Trump also being charged and convicted. Cohen was sentenced to 3 years’ prison all up, and it appears impossible to separate the sentences for crimes directed by Trump from other sentences, but it’s certain that Trump, as the ‘Mr Big’ who hired Cohen, should receive longer sentences than Cohen for those particular offences. Presumably he will be charged and imprisoned when he leaves office – for these any many other crimes. If he isn’t, this will simply add to the USA’s well-deserved global disgrace. 

Anyway, the interview takes the Mueller Report’s findings in order, first its release and the behaviour of Barr, then volume one and collusion/conspiracy, and then volume two and obstruction. 

Wittes first defends Barr regarding the delayed, redacted release of the report. He describes the redaction process as ‘labour-intensive’ and time consuming, so that the near 4-week lag from the completion of the 400-plus page document to its release was justified. He also feels that the redactions themselves were by and large reasonable (something that can’t really be determined until we get to read the unredacted version). My essential quibble with this claim is that everything I’ve learned about Mueller, through reading the report itself and through listening to those who know him and have worked with him, is that he is meticulous and thorough in all legal matters. So it seems to me more or less certain that he would not have handed the report over in unredacted form. Of course Barr would’ve received the unredacted report as Mueller’s boss, but Mueller surely would’ve given detailed indications of what the redactions should be, and why those redactions should be made. Had Barr accepted those indications holus-bolus the report could’ve been handed over to Congress and the public almost immediately. There are two other reasons why Barr may have wanted to delay. First, to intrude further into the redaction process (in Trump’s favour), and second, to delay for the sake of delay, hoping that the commotion might die down, that ardour might cool even slightly, and even to delay the inevitable (as the Trump administration has been doing since). 

Wittes next talks about the letter Barr wrote soon after receiving the report, and its distortion of the report’s content. This of course relates to the delay in the release of the report, because Barr’s summary, which he later tried to argue wasn’t a summary, seemed to exonerate Trump of all crimes, allowing Trump and his administration to claim complete innocence. The duplicitous ‘summary’, which Mueller himself criticised severely in a letter to Barr, seems further evidence that Barr’s delayed release of the redacted report was strategic. The duplicity is revealed, as Wittes points out, in an analysis of Barr’s selective quotes from the report, published in the New York Times. Having just read the letter myself, I find this quote particularly disturbing: 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Having read volume two of the report, and listened to many legal analysts discussing it, I find this pretty astonishing. You’d have to wonder what could constitute obstruction, according to Barr (though the answer is pretty evident from his 19-page letter on the matter which got him appointed A-G in the first place). As to Rosenstein, his role in the administration is being reassessed in the light of this endorsement.

But now I need to interrupt this analysis in the light of a recent brief press conference held by Mueller. He has used this platform to stress the finding that, due to Department of Justice policy, charging the President with a crime was ‘not an option we could consider’ – that’s to say, it was never on the table from the start. This, presumably, regardless of the crime – murder, rape, grand larceny, treason, no crime is so heinous that it needs to be dealt with pronto. Instead, Mueller refers to his introduction to volume 2 of the report. Here is the essential message from Mueller’s presentation:

If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the President did commit a crime. The introduction to volume 2 of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing department policy a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and kept from public view, that too is prohibited. The Special Counsel’s office is under the Department of Justice and under the regulation it was bound by that department policy. Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider. The department’s written opinion explaining the policy makes several important points that further informed our handling of the obstruction investigation…. First the opinion explicitly permits the investigation of a sitting President because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available…. And second the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrong-doing.

The words in italics are, importantly, Mueller’s emphases. As just about every pundit agrees, Mueller has emphasised this part of the report very deliberately to indicate that, now, that other process should take over. That’s to say, congressional oversight or impeachment.

But what Mueller and almost everyone else in the USA doesn’t get, is that this other process is fundamentally flawed because it is a political process. It is simply wrong to shirk the legal responsibility of dealing with legal issues, for one person only – the POTUS. It is, in fact, corrupt, to a degree that is so screamingly obvious to an outsider like me, that I feel like committing the whole nation to an institution for the criminally insane. And if the US Constitution permits this, so much the worse for that constitution. I must admit to being sick to death of the US Constitution being referred to in reverential and worshipful tones by Americans. It seems to make critical analysis impossible, almost treasonous. In any case, the implication of not being able to charge the President with clear-cut criminal behaviour, is this – with great power comes great immunity.

By not dealing directly with Trump’s criminality, or Presidential criminality in general, for whatever lame historical reasons, the Department of Justice has handed this situation over to partisan players, most of whom are not qualified or educated in law. This is wrong. And I’ve not heard a single US ‘expert’ point this out. To describe this as extremely frustrating is a vast understatement. I note that Mueller uses the weasel term ‘wrong-doing’ instead of crimes, to try to get the DoJ off the hook. It won’t do. Trump has committed crimes. His ‘fixer’ is in jail for some of them, and most lawyers happily say that they would win convictions for others. This whole sorry situation will damage, deservedly, the USA’s reputation for a long time into the future. Permanently, in fact, until it gets it the criminal liability of its all-too powerful leaders sorted out. Currently their President is above the law, and that’s the example they’re setting for heads of state everywhere.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2019 at 8:38 am

the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

Trump: the slo-mo train wreck is far from over – it’s likely to get much worse

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some semi-reluctant future reading – or maybe I’ll just watch the video

This morning I heard an American pundit saying Trump has got to change his approach and become more co-operative with investigating authorities, because his strategy isn’t working. Everybody is offering Trump free advice but he’s unlikely to take it because he’s Trump. People don’t change very much, they certainly don’t become completely different people, certainly not after the age of seventy. Trump has spent his life among crooked rich people, he was brought up by crooked rich people, he only admires crooked rich people, and he will die as crooked as he has lived. That’s his fate.

What pundits should really be working on, IMHO, is limiting his power and curbing his destructive tendencies. Now that the cognoscenti are coming to realise that better vetting processes should have applied to candidates for the overly-powerful position of POTUS, they should be doing their utmost to put obstacles in the way of that power (followed by root and branch reform of the entire political system once Trump is dumped). For example, putting real pressure on White House staffers, many of whom should know by now that the writing’s on the wall, to resign en masse. Or even just to suggest that they do so? Rats tend to desert a sinking ship, but perhaps not if they don’t sense any land in the offing, a safe haven to run to. So maybe it would be the most ethical thing to do, now, to entice Trump’s enablers to abandon him, not entirely without penalty, but with less penalty than if they stick with him to the end. A bit like offering limited immunity. And in the same way, the media should be onto those in Congress who are enabling Trump, or are not being sufficiently vocal in their opposition, or their position in general, to speak their minds more clearly. It’s time for more media hounding, for the sake of the beleaguered nation. Two of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress are now being prosecuted as swamp creatures, not surprisingly. More needs to be made of this.

I’m not talking here about ‘weaponising’ the media, or being partisan. This is clearly about corruption and the law. My own early recognition of Trump as a boorish, tasteless, noisome, proudly ignorant, self-serving buffoon had little to do with politics. I’ve learned over this year that he was a ‘lifelong Democrat’ until a few years ago. I didn’t believe it any more than I believe he’s a Republican now. He knows as much about politics, history and international affairs as he does about science. But I’ve also learned more about his inherent dishonesty and crookedness. The responsible media generally recognise this, and they should play, more openly, a heroic role in bringing him down. It wouldn’t be a partisan role, it would be about nation-building, or nation-repairing.

It’s important here not to be partisan, and that’s why it’s essential to focus on the law rather than on politics. Certainly there needs to be a political backlash against Trump, and against his Republican enablers, but I’ve already expressed my skepticism of impeachment, a political process, as a means of dismissing political leaders. All citizens should be subject to the law, regardless of position or profession. This is not to say the mid-term elections aren’t important, as the country needs more liberals and democrats in positions of authority to counter Trump’s fascistic or mafioso-style approach to government. However, the mid-term elections are over two months away, plenty of time for more damage to be done to the country’s political institutions by an increasingly desperate ‘Commander-in Chief’.

The preposterous and disgustingly juvenile, and typically American, idea that their POTUS may be above prosecution simply because he’s too important and vital to the workings of the State, needs to be punctured beyond repair. This seems to me a high-priority issue. Of course, the fact that the USA has given its POTUS too much power will make things difficult in the immediate post-Trump period, but this is a tough lesson that needs to be learned. It seems a constitutional crisis may be just what’s needed to get the nation to wake from its jingoistic slumber and start working on a better, more collegial and distributed power system than the current hero-worshipping laughing-stock it has created for itself.

So let’s go to the issue of indictment, and later we’ll go to the aftermath, which will presumably be a Pence Presidency – not a pleasant prospect, from what I’ve heard.

Unfortunately the indictment of a sitting President is regarded as a constitutional matter – unlike the indictment of any other citizen, presumably. This is a situation that should be rectified. Section 3 of Article 1 of the US Constitution puts it thus:

“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust,or Profit under the United States; but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

Note the unclear wording here. It talks about impeachment first, which to my mind, is irrelevant. It’s the last part that is relevant, though it gets entangled with impeachment – ‘The party convicted shall nevertheless be liable to and subject to indictment’, etc. But impeachment is not about being convicted. The law convicts, surely. The Constitution was signed into law in 1787, and is a source of understandable pride to the American people, but it’s hardly to be expected that it would make everything clear and precise for the next two hundred-odd years. It looks as though indictment should follow impeachment, which is, it seems, misrepresented as ‘convicted’, but it cannot surely be the case that if the President commits what constitutes a ‘high crime or misdemeanour’ (and I really hope that term is clear in US law) he has to be impeached before being charged. That, to me, would be outrageous. It’s very obviously the wrong way round – though of course, you’d have to be sure that the Justice Department had a very sound case before proceeding – perhaps with a speaking indictment (I really like them things). And then, of course, if conviction occurs, impeachment wouldn’t be an issue. It would just be a matter of a change of residence.

It’s astounding, and frankly appalling, that some soi-disant constitutional lawyers really do argue for immunity (while in office) due to the heavy duties of the Presidency  (duties that Trump largely avoids), while other experts argue that Presidents really do have the power to pardon themselves. It’s yet another indication that Yanks, even high-powered legal eagle ones, are in thrall to the wankeries of their worst movies, featuring the vigilante superhero out to save the State from itself, with collateral damage just being part of the thrill.

Considering such jejune but baked-in attitudes about their ‘commander-in chief’, it’s unlikely that Americans will learn much from the current debacle. Still no proper vetting at the outset, still no reduction of pardoning and other powers, still no integration of the Presidency with Congress, still insufficient checks and balances, still the same childishly carnivalesque two-horse races every four years, still the same embarrassing, unreflective jingoism. And still, I find it all quite fascinating. I’m just glad I’m not actually there.

So what will happen by years’ end? Presumably impeachment proceedings, depending on the numbers in both houses – I haven’t yet read up on impeachment, what it requires and entails, and I’ll be doing that soon. But presumably impeachment isn’t easily enforceable, and Trump will ignore it and rely on his base to protect him. That’s when things will get really interesting.

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2018 at 1:04 pm

Posted in elections

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Relaxing time: let’s talk about Trump again

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Trump’s mental health usually only gets publicity when it’s questioned by political insiders – medical experts aren’t given enough credence

Jacinta: We like to explore the Trump debacle when we feel too lazy to focus on other subjects, which generally require research and diving into unfamiliar and taxing fields, such as palaeontology, microbiology, geology, astrophysics or remote historical epochs. So now, since we’re on holiday, let’s have fun fun fun.

Canto: So first, some comments on Sam Harris’ interview with Niall Ferguson, conducted some weeks ago. Ferguson is primarily a financial historian, though I know him through his book War of the World, which I found interesting but questionable at times – though of course I can’t remember my objections now. I think I basically disagreed with his thesis that the twentieth century was more hateful and violent than other periods – IMHO, it was just more effective at killing people, and of course there were more people to kill than in previous centuries. Anyway, on listening to Ferguson talk to Harris, I found myself disagreeing on more points than I can go into here, but I’ll restrict myself to his comments on Trump. He seemed overly complacent, to me, about Trump’s destructive capacities, describing him as a populist (a rather watered-down description) who would probably only serve one term, though maybe two. He also felt that, quite possibly, it would’ve been worse for the USA had Clinton won, as the Trump supporters would’ve felt cheated, while all the old elite cronies would’ve returned to office…

Jacinta: We’re not sufficiently au fait with Yank politics to ‘get’ that feeling, to feel it under the skin so to speak, though we understand in an abstract way that many sectors of US society feel left behind, and Ferguson seemed to be claiming, strangely, that it was better for the disadvantaged and under-educated that ‘their’ candidate, who of course hasn’t the slightest interest in the Presidency except to make money and be the centre of attention, won the election and immediately betrayed them, than that Clinton won and protected the Affordable Care Act, promoted education and science, and didn’t introduce massive tax cuts for super-rich corporations, while continuing to hob-nob with their own kind.

Canto: A couple of books we’ve read lately, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, and Chasing the scream, by Johann Hari, have provided glimpses into the struggles of blacks and immigrants in the US, but so many of we non-Americans smugly look askance at the inequalities and harsh divisions there, the hapless health system and the hideous gun culture. What I don’t get with Ferguson is how he can claim that someone like Trump, who only exacerbates these inequities, was perhaps preferable to Clinton – who, presumably, does have liberal values of the ‘nobody left behind’ type, which she would surely have tried to act on to some degree – simply because his betrayal would’ve shown to his supporters that he had feet of clay. It’s a bizarre and really quite cruel argument.

Jacinta: He also seemed not to give too much credence to the Mueller investigation. We’re both in agreement that Trump will be out of office by the end of the year, a prediction made last December. The Cohen raid and the charges they will inevitably lead to have boosted these chances, but I feel it was slam-dunk, as the Yanks have it, well before that. The only problem I see is getting Trump to accept the verdict.

Canto: There’s also the question of whether team Mueller will play the Trump card before the end of the year. He wants all the President’s men first. Ferguson considers impeachment, but argues there’s only a fifty-fifty chance that the Dems will be in control after the mid-terms, and that even then Trump could survive impeachment, as Clinton did. He didn’t consider the obvious fact that Trump will never have more than fifty percent approval (unlike Clinton), and I think he grossly underestimates the turn against him in the electorate. The way things are going now, the mid-terms will see a massive turn-around. I think the majority now not only want to see a Democratic congress, they want to see Trump impeached.

Jacinta: And yet we don’t want impeachment, right? We want Trump charged, convicted and imprisoned. We don’t want politics to play any role whatsoever.

Canto: Probably a forlorn hope but, yes, we’d like to get the Yanks to accept finally and forever that their head of state isn’t above the law. In this instantiation, he’s a criminal, pure and simple.

Jacinta: So let’s have a nice schadenfreudesque time contemplating how the crim and his henchmen – they’re all men naturally – will get their just desserts.

Canto: So many things. Three guilty pleas – I doubt if Papadopoulos has much to offer, but Flynn and Gates are major figures, co-operating with the enquiry. Campaign manager Manafort facing major charges and guilty as fuck. Cohen certain to be charged with bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations…

Jacinta: What is wire fraud?

Canto: That’s simple – it’s any kind of fraudulent activity involving, or by use of, telecommunications systems – computers, phones, TV, radio – it’s been on the books in the US since the nineteenth century. The Cohen situation is most obviously dire for Trump, from a public perspective, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the info team Mueller has garnered from Deutschebank is damning as fuck as well. And there are other matter that should be criminal too. There’s this thing in their constitution called the Emoluments Clause, which Trump has basically ripped to shreds and used as toilet paper, but I’m not sure if that’s the criminal act that it should be.

Jacinta: It’s interesting that the high-profile Stormy Daniels lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has recently predicted that Trump won’t finish his first term. Do you think he’s been reading our blog posts?

Canto: C’est evident. However, he’s predicting Trump will resign. We, on the other hand, feel that Trump isn’t the resigning type. Has he ever resigned in his life? He’s never been in a position to do so, never having been an employee.

Jacinta: Haha, when he was campaigning he talked about ‘we workers’. He really is a blow-harding genius. Yes, we’ve already said that Trump would rather lock himself in the White House toilet than go quietly…

Canto: That would certainly get him lots of publicity, and any publicity is better than none for Trump, according to Maggie Haberman, not to mention Oscar Wilde.

Jacinta: So assuming team Mueller has an embarrassment of riches to choose from – the DNC hack, the lies about meetings with Russians, financial crimes, conspiracy, obstruction of justice multipled by x – and that their findings, or some of their preliminary findings, are out by year’s end, and are comprehensively damning, how will Trump be ousted? Assuming that he says they’re all fake charges and refuses to resign?

Canto: I wish I could answer that. I do think, though, that both the Senate and the House will ‘flip’ as they love to say there, and the animus against Trump will harden. He’ll be impeached and it will be a popular move, but considering that may not happen until after the mid-terms, it leaves little time for our prediction to succeed.

Jacinta: Stop press – Trump has just gone on a massive rant at Fox News, in which he has incriminated himself more than once and proved how obsessed he is with his own petty affairs and how utterly indifferent he is to running the country. It was darkly hilarious, with the Fox anchors trying to shut him up and finally coming up with the ultimate bullshit line, ‘I know you must have a million things to do, Mr Prez’….

Canto: Yes he clearly does fuck all, not that anyone in their right mind would want him to do anything Presidential, much better if he devotes the rest of his life to golf.

Jacinta: The sport of bores, as James Watson would have it. So who is to blame for this monumental disaster? Where do we begin?

Canto: We begin with a lack of vetting for candidates to putatively the most powerful job on the planet. You can’t just let anyone become your President. You certainly can’t take breast-beating pride in a democracy that let’s any moronic thug have power over you. And that can be fixed. They have to change their laws, of necessity. And if this can’t be done without altering/amending the constitution, then do so, of necessity. Sure, okay the American Constitution was the greatest document ever written by any humans on the face of the earth for the past ten thousand years…

Jacinta: Get your facts straight and don’t be sacrilegious, it was written by angels not humans.

Canto: But if it was able to bring about this fiasco, it still has a few problems. Anyway, I think I’ve gone through most of the problems and their solutions before. Far stricter laws on making money from the office, scrapping pardon powers and veto powers, more straightforward and streamlined rules of succession, and of course making it clear that a president is as liable to prosecution while in office as any other law-breaker. And considering the power he wields in office there should be no statute of limitations for the prosecution of presidents. He should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one as is clearly the case now.

Jacinta: As for removing him, I think the best way is on medical grounds. He’s a sociopath, of the malignantly narcissistic kind. This is argued forcibly in an essay by Mitchell Anderson:

Sociopaths are neither crazy nor necessarily violent, as so often misrepresented by Hollywood scriptwriters. Likewise, they typically possess normal intelligence. The one superpower sociopaths do possess is an emotional deafness that allows them to act with a shark-like self-interest beyond the moral bounds of even the most hardened normal humans. People with this frightening condition can act without conscience, effortlessly lying to manipulate those around them.

Anderson refers to the book The dangerous case of Donald Trump, released last year, in which some two dozen medicos deliver their views on Trump’s sociopathic condition. For example, a long-standing professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School says this:

Donald Trump’s speech and behaviour show that he has severe sociopathic traits. The significance of this cannot be overstated. While there have surely been American presidents who could be said to be narcissistic, none have shown sociopathic qualities to the degree seen in Mr. Trump. Correspondingly, none have been so definitively and so obviously dangerous.

And there are other quotable quotes. So in this case there is a mechanism for removal – the 25th amendment to the constitution. Unfortunately, severe psychiatric conditions which yet allow people to function okay physically, are still not taken seriously enough by the general public to be called out. Mental health experts need to be listened to more on this one. Otherwise the USA’s current political nightmare will go on and on.

Written by stewart henderson

April 28, 2018 at 8:15 am

How bad is the American political system? Outsider talk

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fantasies notwithstanding…

Jacinta: As we await hopefully the downfall of Trump, we keep experiencing shocks as we listen to all the commentary and events…

Canto: I wouldn’t call it shocks, because I for one have followed US politics, albeit vaguely, for decades, but as some of the implications of their system have been brought into clearer focus, and their complacent and often jingoistic attitude to it, yes, it tends to make the jaw drop a little.

Jacinta: Presidential pardons and vetoes, actually serious discussions as to whether or not their head of state is above the law or indictable, and then much rabbiting on about how they’re the greatest democracy on earth, and how they have checks and balances like nowhere else, which is such arrant bullshit….

Canto: Well I agree that if your head of state is granted the right to pardon criminals, that’s a large stride towards dictatorship right there. And here’s an example of complacency: one commentator talked proudly of his country’s political system being largely a response to tyranny. He was explicitly referring to the monarchy of George III. Yet the power of Presidential pardon is taken directly from the British monarchy! And of course British monarchs virtually never use it – there would be a massive uproar if they did in that very politically literate nation.

Jacinta: Alan Turing was the last person to receive a royal pardon, in 2013, some fifty years after the poor bloke committed suicide. That would’ve been a very popular decision, and the Queen would surely not have been the one to make it, she just signed off on it. I’m sure it’s been a long long time since any British monarch made a personal decision to pardon a convicted individual.

Canto: So compare the latest US Presidential pardon, only days ago. Scooter Libby (such an American name) was convicted of lying to the FBI during the Bush administration, and I don’t know the details of all that, but no matter, more than one US pundit has argued, credibly enough, that for Trump, Scooter Libby is no more than a silly name. Now here’s what Wikipedia has to say about US Presidential pardons:

Almost all federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who grants or denies the request. In rare cases, the President will, of his own accord, issue a Pardon. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an official of the United States Department of Justice.[27] The percentage of pardons and reprieves granted varies from administration to administration; however, fewer pardons have been granted since World War II.

The pardon power has been controversial from the enactment of the United States Constitution.

Controversial indeed. And I’m willing to bet that this recent pardon was one of those ‘rare cases’, no doubt suggested to Trump by one of his Mar-a-lago mates. Under Trump, such pardon cases will become a lot less rare, if he can get away with it. It seems reasonably clear, as many pundits avow, that Trump is signalling to such mates as Flynn and Cohen that he can and will pardon them when the time comes.

Jacinta: And this is surely corruption writ large. But what astonishes me is the Americans never seem to be capable of considering changes to their beloved but obviously flawed constitution. Their second amendment pertaining to bearing arms is a piece of shite of course, and I’m not sure about their fifth, which seems to obstruct justice in a lot of cases, and this pardon power is expressed in the body of their constitution, in Article 2. To me it’s screamingly obvious that this pardon power should be thrown out. When will they ever effing learn?

we shall see

Canto: It seems they need outsiders to point out to them the massive flaws in their system. It’s way too ‘presidential’. You could also possibly argue that it’s too democratic. The fact is, although all westerners tend to extol democracy, there’s no purely democratic system, and that’s a good thing. If our understanding of the world, the universe – our science in other words – was decided by democracy, we’d still believe the earth was flat and we would never have invented a single tool.

Jacinta: Yes, and imagine if our judges and our laws were voted on by pure democracy – given current and past levels of education. It hardly bears thinking about.

Canto: And in the USA the President is directly voted on by the people in a two-horse race, unlike in the Westminster system where we vote on parties, or on local reps, and the winning party chooses its captain based on her proven abilities, be they populist or strategic or otherwise, and that party gets to dump its leader if she proves ineffective.

Jacinta: So such a system never places anyone above the law, and where there are pardon powers, they’re hedged about very heavily, though certainly the leader does have powers above others in choosing her cabinet and such.

Canto: A cabinet of members previously elected by constituents, not plucked possibly from obscurity by the whim of the Prez. But can you think of any advantages of this Presidential system over the Westminster system?

Jacinta: Well the Presidential system might be more streamlined, which can be positive or negative depending on the competence of the leader. Quick decision-making can be life-saving or totally disastrous. Personally, I wouldn’t take the risk. But certainly a system can have too many checks and balances.

Canto: But as you’ve said, the Americans seem incapable of considering reforms to their system, even in the light of the Trump disaster. And there are barriers to effecting constitutional change.

Jacinta: You need a two-third majority in both houses of congress to propose a constitutional amendment, and that might be possible after November, but unlikely. And it seems, from the current case involving Michael Cohen and his ties to Trump, that the laws regulating the President’s powers in all sorts of areas are a bit thin.

Canto: I suppose that would be Trump’s greatest legacy, exposing the dangers of an insufficiently regulated head of state.

Jacinta: Yeah but they’re unlikely to face up to those dangers, I suspect they’ll have to be hit on the head by more than one Trump-like figure before they do anything about it.

Canto: They’re very good at feverishly talking about all their woes…

Jacinta: We’re all good at that. But you’ll notice that they often mention a ‘constitutional crisis’. That’s a situation arising where’s little clear guidance from their constitution as to resolution. For example, the indictment of a sitting President. As you know, I’m not keen on the impeachment process, which doesn’t exist in Australia or within the Westminster system. I would want Trump to be dealt with by the law, for which he has such contempt. That would be poetic of course, but it would also be the right course, IMHO.

Canto: But there’s a problem with indictment of a sitting President. Of course in Australia we rarely use the term ‘indict’, we just use the term ‘charge’, as verb and noun. The problem with charging the Prez is that he will then have to go through a court process, which will significantly  affect his ability to discharge the duties of office. Of course, this isn’t such a problem under Westminster, the PM will simply step down, either permanently or temporarily until the case is completed. Under Westminster, change of leadership isn’t such a big deal, and it often happens within electoral cycles. Under the Presidential system, it may happen that a Prez is indicted but hearings are delayed until he leaves office…

Jacinta: But if the charges relate to his becoming President, or to his current handling of the role – e.g. collusion with a foreign power, or obstruction of justice, what then?

Canto: From what I’ve read, you can indict a sitting President, and publish the charges. If the charges relate to the President’s fitness for office – but who decides this? – then action should be taken to remove him – but what action? Other than impeachment, it’s not clear.

Jacinta: And impeachment isn’t in itself removal from office. And Trump won’t go quietly. It’s all a bit fuzzy. And as we get closer to the pointy end, it gets fuzzier, paradoxically speaking….

Canto: How to sack a President, that is the question. It appears he’s virtually unsackable, and that’s an offence.

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2018 at 7:34 am