Thursday, February 1, 2018

It's All Obama's Fault

  “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
When President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for "all offenses against the United States," he stated that it was out of concern for the "immediate future of this great country."  He should have considered the longer term.  We may have been spared short-term trauma, but Ford's pardon guaranteed that future high government officials would feel unconstrained by the checks and balances of the other branches of government.

This, of course, led to Iran-Contra.  A quick recap:  The Reagan Administration sold weapons to Iran, ostensibly to secure the release of hostages, and then used the money from the arm sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.  However, there was an embargo on arms sales to Iran and legal prohibition against funding the Contras. The ensuing scandal revealed evidence of money-laundering, arms smuggling and drug trafficking, and resulted in the the indictment of 14 participants, 11 of whom were convicted.  But Republicans stacked the joint legislative committee undertaking the investigation with the conservative wing of their party (e.g., then-Representative Cheney), while the Democrats relied mostly on moderates, and thus the committee members were skewed toward those who were disinclined to probe very vigorously.  By rashly granting immunity to key witnesses such as Ollie North, the committee undermined prosecutions by an independent counsel.  The Iran-Contra Affair culminated in the pardon by first President Bush of several participants who had been implicated.  The lesson learned was that a Republican President and his circle had nothing to fear from overriding the will of Congress and undermining the Constitution -- Republicans protect Republicans while Democrats stand idly by.

The failure of any real accounting for the abuses of power stemming from the Iran-Contra Scandal lead directly to the excesses of the George W. Bush Administration, which operated under the belief that the executive branch could run foreign policy as it saw fit regardless of  laws, treaties and the Constitution.  It would be up to the next president, Barack Obama, a Democrat who came into office backed by a Democratic majority in Congress, to ensure a true reckoning.

As we painfully know, this didn't happen.  Obama, owing to his bipartisan fetish, refused to seek any meaningful investigation of his predecessor's "War on Terror," despite substantial evidence --indeed, admissions -- that wiretapping laws were broken and torture was authorized at the highest levels.  Much like President Ford, Obama claimed that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”  And so, once again a clear signal was provided to future presidents and their enablers that there would be no consequences for gross abuse of power.

This has all laid the groundwork for the grossest, most unethical and corrupt presidency in modern history.  Trump is running his administration like a crime family, unconstrained by government norms, conventions or meaningful checks and balances.  The Republican-controlled Congress has ignored Trump's blatant conflicts of interest and unfettered self-enrichment.  They shrug at his appeals to white nationalism.  Worse, they are determined to protect Trump from an investigation into his administration's involvement with a foreign power's attempt to undermine our democracy.  The latest efforts involve drafting and releasing a memo summarizing classified information that is so skewed that Trump's hand-picked FBI Director felt compelled to warn against its release, stating the Bureau has "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

The end game appears to be to not only tar the Special Counsel's investigation as biased but to provide a justification for the removal of key personnel -- if not Special Counsel Mueller, then Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who is Mueller's superior.  We could be watching another Saturday Night Massacre in real time -- but one where the president actually gets away with it.

This could play out in a number of ways.  One is that Rosenstein is fired and replaced by a Trump apparatchik who either quashes the investigation or sits on Mueller's findings without referring them to Congress or releasing them to the public.  Even if Rosenstein remains, Mueller could file a report concluding that Trump and others engaged in criminal activity, Rosenstein could refer it to Congress and then Congress could do nothing with it, siding with Trump that the whole enterprise is a partisan witch hunt.  At that point, not to be too dramatic about it, we truly would be in banana republic territory.

The only recourse is to ensure that Democrats take back the House and, dare I say, the Senate, in 2018.  (As my old high school classmate Paul Rosenzweig persuasively points out here, the future has to lie with Congress because an indictment of a sitting president is not going to happen.)  And, critically, if and when the Democrats are back in control of at least some portion of the government, it must not pull an Obama and insist on looking forward instead of backward.  It is only through a true reckoning of the damage the Republican Party and their leader has done to our democratic institutions that we can actually move forward and put an end to what has been a national nightmare.

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