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Coup, Consolidation or Incompetence – Trump’s April Shakeup

     Will April 8, 2019, be the day we look back on and say that was the beginning of the death of our democracy?  Sounds admittedly melodramatic and I strive to avoid speaking in such terms.  However, those who feared President Trump’s inexplicable affection and respect for authoritarian leaders around the world was a window into his domestic plans now have a stronger case to argue.  On April 7, Trump called Secretary of Homeland Security Kirsten Nielsen to the White House and told her he wanted her out because she was too weak on immigration.  He announced the move on April 8 along with news that he was dismissing Nielson’s Deputy Secretary and dismissing Secret Service Director Randolph Alles.  Trump also withdrew his nomination for the new Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), deeming that he was also too weak on immigration.  There is a dangerous vacuum of leadership in the DHS umbrella of agencies.  No less than fifteen crucial senior administration positions are now being filled by “acting” directors.  Add this to the number of open positions throughout the administration and federal agencies which Trump has not filled. 

     The Trump Administration has seen a record number of cabinet level and senior advisers fired or forced to resign, significantly higher than any prior administration.  In just over two years, Trump is on his third Chief of Staff, third Secretary of Homeland Security, and third National Security Advisor, all critical positions.  He has lost his Secretaries of Defense and State as well as Ambassador to the UN.  Many cabinet secretaries were forced to leave due to rampant corruption, ethics violations, or conflicts of interest.  The Administrations is packed with incompetence and filled with corruption at unprecedented levels, certainly in the modern era.  The campaign slogan of “drain the swamp” was a bold lie with no intent whatsoever to uphold.  Rather, Trump has generated an epic swamp that has led to more credible allegations of corruption, improper spending, conflicts of interest.  Some of the worst offenders remain, such as Betsy DeVos. 

     There are serious questions about Trump’s recent picks for the Federal Reserve.  If ever an institution requires true independence and competence it is the Fed.  The country relies on the Fed as the entity that genuinely manages the economy with any errant moves holding potential calamity.  Presidents may appoint individuals to this critical duty based on likeminded economic philosophy, but they have unfailingly appointed individuals with the requisite experience and judgment.  Enter Donald Trump, who has recently nominated Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to the Fed.  These nominations were not based on ability or experience, but rather opens the perilous door of placing underqualified sycophants on the Fed whose mission will be to push Trump’s agenda even when contrary to the interests of the nation and economy.  The Fed must remain immune to this influence.         

     An unfortunate reality of our modern government is the increasingly abusive and partisan application of the confirmation process mandated by the Constitution as part of the checks and balances to affirm the co-equal status of each branch of government.  Over the years, most Presidential appointees were credible, competent, capable individuals who did not have significant questions about their integrity.  Generally, and to a disturbing level, Trump’s appointees lacked experience and integrity and did not merit conformation.  They were appointed because Trump demanded 100% loyal sycophants, not competence.  Remember the extremely uncomfortable, bizarre early cabinet meetings that began with each member extoling Trump’s praise.  Similarly, it is readily apparent that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who have absolutely no skills or experience warranting White House jobs, have brought plenty of ethics while delivering few notable accomplishments. 

     Key leaders have been fired or forced to resign because they tell President Trump the truth and give him accurate advice on law and policy.  Most have sacrificed their integrity and reputations for him by repeating his lies no matter how ridiculous or disproven and by supporting his extremist policies and rhetoric.  They have reached a personal breaking point, where they feel compelled to push back on the President, render their best advice, and withdraw from campaign of lies and deceit.  Enter Secretary of Homeland Security Kirsten Nielsen and her sudden termination.  Before her went Chief of Staff Kelly, AG Sessions, Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, National Security Advisor McMasters and others forced out for giving honest advice and refusing to cross a line. 

     Nielsen had earned a strong reputation in the George W. Bush Administration and was an excellent choice to serve in this one.  Arguably she stayed too long, completely sacrificing her integrity and losing the reputation she had built to the point she may never fully regain it.  Nielsen became the face of Trump’s immigration policy.  She tried to downplay the impact of family separation to the point of outright lying for the President.  Her explanations of separating young children, the steel cages, and mischaracterization of the migrants coming to the border were outrageous.  When Trump recently determined to ramp up his family separation policy against her advice, Nielsen finally had enough and pushed back.  She was willing to execute the policy, but she was not willing to violate the law as he was demanding she do.  That was where she finally drew the line.  Trump fired her because she would not violate the law for him, not because she was weak on immigration.   

     Donald Trump has never wanted individuals to give him the type of advice he, and any President, desperately needs to understand the myriad complex issues, policies, and functioning of government.  He is instantly hostile to anyone who dares to say no or who pushes back on him.  Remember the bizarre cabinet meetings that began with everyone taking a turn to extol Trump and thank him for allowing them to serve him.  He surrounds himself with sycophants and those who will show him devout personal loyalty at all costs, even against the greater interests of the country or the honesty of our government.  He demands loyalty to him over and above the rule of law or any other authority or obligation.  They will support even his extremist policies and rhetoric despite their being contrary to our national interests.  That is antithetical to our democracy, our values, and good governance, but it is very much in line with his authoritarian traits. 

     Trump himself stated that he prefers having acting directors because he can avoid Senate confirmation (keep in mind he has enjoyed a Republican majority in the Senate that has quickly and quietly confirmed all of his nominees, even those lacking in qualification, experience, or those having serious ethics conflicts).  Trump does not want his nominees vetted by the Senate and certainly not by the public or the media.  He believes he can appoint anyone he wants, and nobody has the right to question, challenge, or stop him.  He also believes he can more easily manipulate acting officials to do his bidding and push the limits, even violate the law on his behalf.  Good strong leaders want a team around them not afraid to speak up, to disagree or offer alternatives, or to provide their honest and best advice.  Trump can’t handle the slightest disagreement.    

     Senior Trump Advisor Stephen Miller has been with him since the beginning and remains in his trusted inner circle.  Miller, a despicable, evil individual, disowned by his family for his extremism, is now Trump’s point person for immigration.  They will work this issue alone from the White House, not from DHS and all the agencies therein charged with this responsibility and with the necessary experience, understanding, and capability. 

     Months ago, Trump informed Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he wanted to prioritize the confirmation of the new IRS General Counsel, even ahead of critical vacancies including the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.  Many were confounded by the lack of apparent logic to this request.  His nominee assured him he would protect Trump’s tax returns no matter what and Trump knew that day was coming.  He needed a loyal supporter in the IRS ASAP to prevent disclosure.  This is a clear case of corruption in plain sight and McConnell was all too happy to oblige the President even with the delay in confirming key national security positions.   

     The firings, clearing house in DHS, and open positions are no accident.  Trump has always wanted to have total control of government within his office and inner circle.  It matters not that he appoints the leadership of the agencies, he must be in total control without exception.  This is how he ran the Trump Organization for years.  Unfortunately, leading the U.S. is far more complex than running his tiny fake family business and it takes a significant team of competent, capable, dedicated professionals in the White House and the federal agencies.  But that is not Trump.  After two years, Trump is finally getting what he has wanted, to consolidate power in his inner circle of the White House and away from the federal agencies.  Who will he blame now… 

     Attorney General Barr had a decent reputation when he joined the Bush Administration in its waning years.  He auditioned for Trump by sending an unsolicited memo to the administration with his views of presidential power.  Opponents were rightfully concerned that he would serve as Trump’s personal lawyer, protecting him and doing his bidding rather than perform his official duties on behalf of the country.  Unfortunately, Barr has proven his critics correct.  He is helping Trump secret away the Mueller Report and any meaningful review by Congress.  Barr is supporting the worst abuse of power with offering baseless speculation that there was some improper spying on the Trump campaign. 

     If Barr was referring to the FBI investigation, that began as an authorized, legitimate, and necessary counter intelligence investigation.  FISA Warrants were approved by highly regarded and specially appointed (by Republican Presidents) senior judges based on evidence of meetings between Russians and members of the Trump Campaign.  Whenever the Russia Caucus attempted to raise false rumors of improper activity, Republican Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr debunked these myths, stating that there was ample evidence in support of the investigation. 

     Nevertheless, Trump loves to spread this false conspiracy that he was a victim.  Barr claims there is cause for concern, but if so, then he failed in his duty to brief the “Gang of Eight” leaders in the House and Senate who are required to be informed of such things.  Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein was fully versed in this investigation, and all others, and would have briefed Barr on all such activity.  Thus, Barr knows the truth and he knows this is actually “fake news.”  He is playing politics, not pursuing a legitimate issue.  His entire leadership of the agency is now forever tainted.  Barr is not Trump’s Roy Cohn, as the President desperately wanted, but more like Trump’s Devin Nunes – a complete and total stooge with no integrity or credibility.  If anything, there should be a criminal investigation into Devin Nunes and the Russia Caucus members for their efforts to obstruct the investigation and cover up Russian interference in the election.    

     For his entire Presidency, Trump has seriously and shamefully denigrated the FBI and DoJ.  His intent is to so demoralize and weaken them that they cannot investigate or hinder his activities even where clearly unlawful.  Trump wants the public to be so doubtful and leery of them that when they do present findings of wrongdoing, the public will be skeptical.  He also wants to co-opt the FBI and DoJ so as to enable him to coerce them into prosecuting his enemies, even on baseless charges.  This is a clear abuse of power and should frighten every person in this country.  Members of Congress ought to take special note.  It is not partisan rhetoric, but rather an awful truth – Trump considers himself above the law as President and believes he has the right to act with legal impunity.  He does not believe judges should rule against his actions and policies under any circumstances and often disparages the judiciary.  It is not enough to disagree with his opponents, Trump must make them into enemies that he must destroy.  This is entirely undemocratic, unamerican, and threatening to our democracy.       

     These policy and personnel moves indicate Trump’s strategy for 2020.  He initially reinvigorated the Health Care debate, an issue that does not work well for Republicans, but then moved quickly back to immigration to rile up his rabid base.  This is his comfort zone, and where he will go repeatedly in campaign rallies around the country.  Trump will appeal to his base that enthusiastically supports his more extreme policies, not try and rally a broader spectrum of the country.  He believes this will be enough to win again.  The question is, what will finally be enough for the Republican Party and when will they stop moving the line each time Trump jumps across it?  Will they take their party back or insist that Trump, and future candidates, act Presidential, espouse policies consistent with Republican values, and display professional leadership of the nation?

     Will Presidential behavior and character have any impact in 2020?  The issue is not simply the use of Twitter for apparently official business, but the endless Tweets displaying temper tantrums, unhinged behavior, childish name-calling, and conduct that demeans the office of President.  Most politicians lie.  They exaggerate, bend the truth, try to improve upon their record, etc.  None have engaged in such an endless campaign of dishonesty and deceit to include many important issues.  He told over 8,150 verified lies in his first two years and the count rises at a steady pace.  Although voters knew this prior to electing him, it remains relevant that he has a disturbing proud history of sexually assaulting and harassing women, of dishonesty, and pathological character and personality flaws.  People cannot trust him, period.  How can they vote for him? 

     For any other candidate, the campaign of deceit and the revelations of the Access Hollywood tape containing multiple admissions by Trump of incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault would have been costly.  He stated he always kept Tic Tacs in his pocket because when he saw an attractive woman, he felt compelled to try and kiss her.  He has engaged in many affairs over the years despite his marriages.  He directed payments to porn star Stormy Daniels during the campaign to conceal the affair he had with her while his wife Melania was pregnant.  He also paid former Playboy model Karen McDougal to conceal his affair with her.  “Me too” means something entirely different to Trump.     

     President Trump claims to champion Christianity and has enjoyed fervent support of evangelical voters.  Interesting how he cannot quote bible verses and rarely attends church services.  Vice President Mike Pence, himself an evangelical who professes to live a strictly Christian life, constantly backs up Trump no matter what his transgression.  He has lied for him multiple times and attempted to write off Trump’s numerous incidents of disgraceful personal conduct, character failure, and sin.  It might be one thing if Trump took responsibility and sought forgiveness or redemption, but he lives in his pathological world of denial and defiance and just keeps going. 

     Evangelicals cannot support Trump without sacrificing the values they claim to so strongly hold and without gross hypocrisy.  They widely claim it is because of his judicial picks.  Trump is not only appointing judges who hold conservative legal philosophies, but who also actively demonstrate strong right-wing political proclivities, even from the bench.  Trump’s plan is to carefully select individuals who privately vow not to interfere with his policies.  Evangelical supporters believe his packing the courts for them is more than a fair trade for tolerating the personal conduct and corruption they would otherwise oppose.  Apparently, their brand of judicial activism is worth the price of sacrificing their values.  Take note America.                

     On a related note, there are Trump’s frequent vacations to his Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster resorts in Florida and New Jersey respectively.  Each of these trips cost taxpayers millions of dollars and wreak havoc on the local communities between law enforcement costs, road and business closures, etc.  Despite the financial and logistical impact, Trump vacations more in a year than other Presidents do in their entire term.  He leaves Washington almost every weekend.  His trips, especially to Mar-a-Lago, create significant national security risks due to his refusal to follow security protocol with communications and his insistence on discussing official business in open areas of the club, even with random club members.  Trump pockets millions of dollars from these trips due to the costs borne by the large Presidential traveling party (security, staff, et al) and his ability to significantly raise club membership dues because of his status as President and his de facto selling access to himself to members.  

     If the Republicans truly cared about the future of the party as well as the future of this country, there would be a primary challenge to Donald Trump.  Perhaps there may be, but it appears at this point in time that Republicans prefer to continue their practice of appeasement.  Republican leaders, especially those in the Senate, cower in fear rather than disagree with Trump.  Here are some of the examples of Republican appeasement and Trump fundamentally transforming their party: 

     1. Russia.  The party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would never become a pro-Russia party favoring Vladimir Putin and excusing his invasions of multiple neighboring countries, interfering in our elections, and trying to destabilize NATO.  Trump repeatedly acceded to Putin and accepted his denials against the collective findings of our entire intelligence community.  The Helsinki meeting was an unmitigated disaster, contrary to our national interests. 

     2. Russia Caucus Cover-up.  The so-called Freedom Caucus has transformed into the Russia Caucus led by Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, Devin Nunes, Louis Gohmert, et al.  They no longer focus on legislation but rather on blindly supporting President Trump and Russia, covering up any Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the complete denigration of our own intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  Not only did they block any effort by Congress to perform its oversight, they obstructed the investigation by constant interference with the FBI and DoJ.  Devin Nunes ran to the White House to hand over sensitive information that should have been protected.  It is not much of a surprise really, as they have a key thing in common with Donald Trump – they all lack any integrity or commitment to the best interests of this nation. 

     3. National Debt.  Republicans have long since claimed to be the party of spending cuts and against deficits.  That all changed under George W. Bush where Republican spending led to huge deficits and a dramatic increase in the national debt.  Trump, who claimed he could end the deficit in his first year, actually set record deficits in each of his first two years and is expected to do the same in his third.  He added trillions of dollars to the national debt, setting a dubious new record debt of over 24 trillion dollars.  He was quoted as saying he doesn’t care because he will not be around to see the consequences.  Dire consequences loom and our country will very soon suffer the crippling effects.  Congressional Republicans, who used to threaten to shut down the government instead of raising the national debt authorization, now accept it without issue. 

     4. Trade.  Republicans have traditionally been a free trade party, recognizing that we benefit from trade relationships around the world that help promote stability.  Trump claims he loves tariffs and often threatens to close off trade with various countries.  Despite the tough talk, the annual trade deficit set new record highs during his administration.  Trade was an area where people had high hopes and expectations for Trump, but he has let them down. 

     5. NATO.  Republicans and Democrats have been steadfastly united in support of NATO, having kept the peace for over 70 years while promoting democracy.  Trump questioned the utility of NATO during the campaign and has continued to weaken the alliance and invalidate its importance.  He has shown uncanny affection for the world’s worst and most brutal dictators while mercilessly criticizing and denigrating our historic allies, significantly alienating them. 

     6. Syria.  Trump recently announced the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria (done at the behest of Turkey), which led to the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in protest.  This action, if taken, would have ceded all of Syria to Putin and given Turkey a green light to murder the Kurds.  More importantly, it would have allowed ISIS to regroup and repurpose its over 35,000 remaining fighters.  Republicans would never quit in the middle of an anti-terrorism mission or cede a country to Russia.  They soundly criticized the Obama Syria policy for not being strong enough.

     7. North Korea.  Trump told us he fell in love with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, arguably the world’s most oppressive ruler, who murders his own people.  At the summit, Trump gave away major concessions and got nothing in return.  No other President has ever given a victory to North Korea, but Trump has done so in complete opposition to our allies South Korea and Japan.  Republicans sit idly by and watch.    

     8. Tax Returns.  Trump was the first candidate in 50 years to refuse to provide his tax returns and he continues to do so.  Even Congressional candidates and candidates for state offices disclose their tax returns.  It is an important part of the transparency and vetting process in our elections.  Trump has lied about being under audit, which does not even prevent disclosure in the first place.  He is clearly afraid that the returns will show he is not nearly as rich as he likes to falsely portray and not at all charitable.  The returns will likely show questionable financial entanglements, such as with Russian oligarchs.  Republicans have been assisting him in concealing this important information from the American people in a gross departure of standards over 50 years old.   

     9. Immigration.  Our country has needed comprehensive immigration reform for decades, including long overdue protection for the “Dreamers.”  Beginning with the campaign, Trump chooses to foment hate, fear, and mistrust.  He spreads lies about caravans of dangerous marauders.  His first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced a family separation policy designed to deter and punish those who sought to seek asylum here.  Thousands of children have been ripped away from their families for no reason other than the families sought asylum.  Republicans never would have supported such a cruel and inhuman policy, but for Trump they remain silent and even supportive.                   

     10. Mitch McConnell has sunk to new lows in his not so subtle efforts to completely support Trump no matter what.  McConnell has represented Kentucky for decades and as Majority Leader he is extremely powerful.  Yet he fears Trump.  McConnell will not allow legislation to come to a vote, no matter how popular, if Trump does not support it.  There are popular, bipartisan bills concerning healthcare, immigration, and other important issues that would pass both houses by large margins, but McConnell refuses to allow them to go to the floor.  He has subjugated the Senate to Trump instead of running it as the co-equal branch of government it is.  With rule changes and taking advantage of his majority, McConnell is quickly and quietly confirming all of Trump’s nominees, especially judicial nominees that are not being properly vetted for their jurisprudence in an effort to pack the courts with political activities.    

     11. Lindsay Graham is the biggest coward of all.  He has completely transformed his role from somewhat of a maverick who tries to build bridges and exercise independent judgment into blind solid support of Trump against everything he used to stand for.  Recent polls had Graham with a surprisingly low 51% approval rating in South Carolina.  He lives in terror of Trump supporting a primary opponent.  Defeating a Senate incumbent has proven to be extremely difficult, but perhaps even Senate Republicans are afraid of the Trump cult.  It seems unlikely anyone could truly defeat Graham, a favorite son of South Carolina.  Is it really worth your soul, Lindsay?                   

     12. Personal conduct.  Trump regularly demeans himself and the office of President by crude, childish, unprofessional behavior.  Nobody will forget the open mocking of a handicapped reporter.  The press is not perfect, but they serve a critical role in free society.  They are not the enemy if the people and it is inexcusable for any leader to characterize them as such.  There are fights to be had but seeking the complete vilification and destruction of opponents is not a tenet of freedom and democracy.  Republicans seem no longer to care. 

     During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump quickly proved himself to be the unorthodox candidate most assumed he would be.  Then he continued to sink to new lows.  Supporters said not to worry, once he took office, he would become presidential and display at least the minimum dignity and professionalism required to lead our great nation.  Instead, we have seen a constant degradation in standards of decency, personal conduct, policy initiatives, and administration corruption.  Every time Trump displays inappropriate Presidential behavior, Republicans move the line further and simply acquiesce.  Let Trump be Trump…  Every time he crosses a line in the sand, breaks the final straw or defies an inviolable standard, he does so like a bull in Pamplona with Republicans scattering for their lives.  They have continually moved the line further no matter how low the President’s conduct sinks.  Where will it end?  We must go back to country first, party second. 

     Every individual must stand up to Trump’s abuse of our democracy and institutions.  These latest moves to consolidate power in the White House and surround himself with nothing but political lackeys, not competent advisors and leaders should frighten everyone.  Whether it means a move towards authoritarianism and further away from democratic institutions or whether it displays further lack of knowledge, understanding, and ability to run the country makes little difference.  Both options are perilous for the nation at a time where we can ill afford it.  There are real crises at home and abroad that threaten our future.  We need leaders ready, willing, and able to meet them head on or we risk losing the country. 

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