Sunday, January 08, 2017

Political Witch Hunt

Remarkably, a Republican Party that for four years fixated unwaveringly on the third-rate Benghazi "scandal" now seems generally nonchalant about the intelligence community's high-confidence bombshell that Russia intervened mightily in the U.S. presidential election.

That's the same Russia that is actively opposing American and western interests around the world.

Some Trump supporters have even said that if Russian intervention was required to obtain the desired result, then it's a good thing it happened.

As many commentators have already opined, Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

Ronald who? The Republican Party has undergone a breathtaking transformation these past few years, one which has only accelerated this election season. As events over the past year have made starkly clear, this is no longer the party of Reagan.

A few notables such as George Will lament the change and have departed; many just shrug.

But whose party is it? Trump's? Too soon to tell. With past orthodoxy seemingly jettisoned, the only discernible operative "ideology" appears to be political power. We will have to wait to see if there's anything more to it than that, because core Republican principles are in tremendous flux. At present very little can be described as "core."

The upheaval has been going on for a while, even if Trump has elevated things to a striking new dimension. Benghazi, for example, was never a principle but a political cudgel, wielded hysterically and incessantly until it was no longer useful.

The only enduring lesson from Benghazi is that consulate security wasn't what it should have been in an undeniably dangerous part of the world. Congressional hearing after congressional hearing in Republican-controlled committees could ultimately reach no greater conclusion. Five separate Republican committee investigations over the years finally led to the formation of a "select committee" to investigate it all again, and to reach the same result.

All this churning to discover how it came to happen that four Americans (including two diplomats) died in the swirling chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya.

Will Republicans, who are soon to exercise almost total power, take the same trouble to understand the nature and extent of Russian interference in our democratic institutions? It's hard to discern any particular inclination to do so, except by a few forlorn souls such as John McCain, whose principles at least occasionally transcend politics.

Russia might be a pariah, but in this instance it's our pariah. Or Trump's, anyway.

Asked about the new U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia to punish its meddling, the president-elect opined that we should just "move on." All's well that ends well, right?

Whatever happened is in the past. Not, mind you, that we're acknowledging that it happened.

There's this from the New York Times on a Friday morning interview with Trump, shortly before his meeting with the nation's highest intelligence officials to discuss their report (the unclassified version is here) on Russian influence in the election:

Mr. Trump told The New York Times in an interview that the storm surrounding Russian hacking was nothing more than a “political witch hunt” carried out by his adversaries, who he said were embarrassed by their loss to him in the 2016 election. Speaking by telephone three hours before the intelligence briefing, Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized the intense focus on Russia.

No witches here, people. Move along.

As a thought experiment, ask yourself how this would all be different were it Clinton instead of Trump who had stood to benefit from Russia's interventions. Funny, right? Benghazi would be a smoldering ember compared to the high intensity conflagration of howling Republican outrage.

As I said, this is no longer Ronald Reagan's Republican Party. Whose party it is remains to be seen.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

The Politics of Power

If anything, the politics of power have gotten even more brutish as Republicans begin to exercise their newfound near-absolute control of government. Previous norms of conduct continue to fall. That's saying a lot, coming as it does after eight years of Republican scorched-earth obstruction culminatingit's still stunning to contemplate thisin the denial of a sitting president due consideration of his Supreme Court nominee.

Recent examples include the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) warning that several of Trump's cabinet nominees have not been properly vetted prior to beginning their confirmation hearingssomething that except for one relatively minor example is unprecedented in the four decades the office has existed. The OGE says the dearth of vetting of current nominees is a matter of "great concern."

There is an established ethics review process, including a requirement that nominees submit certain paperwork, that is supposed to be completed before hearings begin. Members of the relevant Senate committees can't perform proper due-diligence without those materials, but several of Trump's nominees haven't provided them, even as the process is allowed to move forward. The OGE director said that not only had a number of nominees not completed the ethics process, but the "OGE has not received even initial draft financial disclosure reports for some of the nominees scheduled for hearings."

This is highly irregular, to say the least.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan is to fast-track Trump's nominees by, as it were, "flooding the zone" with an onslaught of hearings, thereby having the effect of a bare minimum of Senate, press, and public consideration of any one of them due to sheer information overload.

Hearings for multiple high-profile nominees will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a cacophony of other concurrent events (such as Trump's first press conference in almost half a year) also competing for attention. You can only drink so much from a fire hose.

This is actually an improvement. Initially six hearings were scheduled for Wednesday alone.

Only two days of hearings have been allocated to Trump's controversial Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions. That's less review than Sessions received several decades ago when a Republican Senate rejected his nomination to the federal bench because of concerns of racism. Those concerns remain. Democrats are only being allowed four witnesses in the Sessions hearing.

While always important, vetting is especially crucial for this administration because so many of its highest profile nominees are relatively unknown to legislators, or are decidedly controversial. Some have expressed views that are openly hostile to the very missions of the departments they have been nominated to head.

The Trump transition seems to think the requirements for proper vetting consistent with constitutionally-mandated Senate consent are less a standard of good governance than a political nuisance. We should quit nit-picking and take it on the new administration's say-so that all its nominees are superb. How else to interpret this statement from the transition:

President-elect Trump is putting together the most qualified administration in history and the transition process is currently running smoothly. In the midst of a historic election where Americans voted to drain the swamp, it is disappointing some have chosen to politicize the process in order to distract from important issues facing our country. This is a disservice to the country and is exactly why voters chose Donald J. Trump as their next president.

Thus do those who insist on established norms of conduct "politicize the process."

And in an Orwellian turn, "drain the swamp" means less, not more transparency. Just trust us.

Brace yourself; we're just getting started.

Copyright (C) 2017 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved