Politics postsSunday May 27, 2018
America's Loss of Prestige in the Trump Era
Jon Lee Anderson has a piece in The New Yorker on John Feeley, the former ambassador to Panama, who quit his post earlier this year because of the moral failings of the Trump administration. It's about that, the diplomatic corps in general, and America's loss of prestige in the Trump era. Some excerpts:
- When Tillerson was fired, this March, eight of the ten most senior positions at State were unfilled, leaving no one in charge of arms control, human rights, trade policy, or the environment. For diplomats in the field, the consequences were clearly evident. In 2017, Dave Harden, a longtime Foreign Service officer, was assigned to provide relief to victims of the war in Yemen, one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. The entire diplomatic staff for the country was barely a dozen people. “We worked out of a three-bedroom house,” he said. “It felt like a startup.” There was no support from State, and no policy direction, he said: “The whole system was completely broken.” Harden resigned last month.
- Privately, [former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Roberta] Jacobson was more forthcoming. “The level of coöperation we‘ve gotten is something you don’t just build overnight,” she told me. “We are still the preferred commercial and economic partner, but we have to be trustworthy. The mere fact that in some sectors, especially in agriculture, Mexican buyers are beginning to look elsewhere should be a warning to us that we may be starting to lose a clear advantage. This could prove true in security or migration as well.”
- Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican Ambassador, told me that the loss of prestige was already evident. “In Latin America, the relationship with the U.S. has gone from aspirational to transactional,” he said. “In countries like Mexico, we used to say, when there was a case of corruption, ‘If this happened in the U.S.A. . . .’ But we don’t say that anymore. There used to be a kind of deference to the U.S. Not anymore. If something doesn’t benefit Mexico, we’ll walk away.” In the past, he said, Latin-American countries looking for business partners might select a U.S. company over one from another country, because America represented higher ethical standards. Since Trump’s election, he said, things had changed. “There’s this idea that the States is just like the rest of us. That’s the saddest thing to me.”
Richard Goodwin (1931-2018)
As I was leaving to get a coffee Sunday afternoon, for some reason I focused on the book “Remembering America” by Richard Goodwin on the bookshelf in the foyer. Just the title. It had meaning for Goodwin when it was published in 1988 amid the Reagan Revolution, which was undoing much of the good work he and Democrats had done throughout the century; and now, in the Trump era, it had even greater meaning. Was I thinking about reading it again? Or just getting it off the shelf? I did a day later when I heard Goodwin had died of cancer at the age of 88.
My copy wasn't even my copy—I'd forgotten that. It wasn't the copy I'd read and marked up in 1988. It was a replacement I bought in a used bookstore in Seattle. But I knew there was a quote in there that once had great meaning for me, and I was trying to find it. It was at the end of a chapter. An early chapter? Maybe even the one where he recounted his involvement in uncovering the game show scandal of the 1950s, which was made into the movie “Quiz Show,” where he was played by Rob Morrow? Or working the JFK election in ‘60 and then in the JFK administration? Or being LBJ’s favorite speechwriter and coining the phrase “The Great Society” and writing Johnson's “Voting Rights” speech? He split with Johnson on Vietnam. He abandoned LBJ for Bobby, then Bobby for Eugene, then Eugene for Bobby again. And on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles, it all crashed.
The quote I was looking for was at the end of the book, of course. Its last lines:
If this book has any purpose at all, it is not to impose a guide on that future, but to remind that men and women can live as if their world was malleable to their grasp; and that, true or false, to live in this belief is to be the most authentically alive.
That felt profound to me in 1988. I particularly liked the “true or false” line, the implication that it's not true, that the world isn't malleable to our grasp, but fuck it, do it anyway, since it's the best way to live. I repeated that line a lot back then. If it feels less profound to me now, maybe that's why. It's part of my make-up. It's obvious because he made it so.
Here's the Times obit.
Of the Trump, By the Trump, For the Trump
“Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance.”
Here's a Cliff Notes version of Evan Osnos' must-read New Yorker piece, “Only the Best People: Donald Trump's war on the ‘deep state,’” about how Trump is remaking the federal government with people whose main qualificaiton is loyalty to him. It's scary shit. Please read the whole thing:
- Every President expects devotion. ... But Trump has elevated loyalty to the primary consideration. Since he has no fixed ideology, the White House cannot screen for ideas, so it seeks a more personal form of devotion. ...
- To vet candidates, the Obama campaign had used a questionnaire with 63 queries about employment, finances, writings, and social-media posts. The Trump team cut the number of questions to 25, by dropping the requests for professional references and tax returns and removing items concerning loans, personal income, and real-estate holdings. The questionnaire was speckled with typos ...
- Republican think tanks and donors succeeded in installing preferred nominees. The earliest wave arrived from the Heritage Foundation; subsequent ones came from Charles and David Koch’s network of conservative advocacy groups and from the American Enterprise Institute. But the White House maintained a virtual blockade against Republicans who had signed letters opposing Trump’s candidacy. ...
- The White House brought in an array of outsiders, who, at times, ran into trouble. As an assistant to the Secretary of Energy, the Administration installed Sid Bowdidge, whose recent employment had included managing a Meineke Car Care branch in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Bowdidge departed after it emerged that he had called Muslims “maggots.” In December, Matthew Spencer Petersen, a nominee to the federal bench, became a brief online sensation when Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked him a series of basic law-school questions, which revealed that Petersen had never argued a motion, tried a case, or taken a deposition by himself. Embarrassing details came out about other judicial nominees: Brett Talley, who had never tried a case in federal court, wandered cemeteries hunting for ghosts; Jeff Mateer had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.” ...
- Trump sometimes tested ethical standards in the hiring process. In January, shortly before the Justice Department named Geoffrey Berman to be the interim U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York—a position with jurisdiction over the headquarters of Trump’s business empire—Trump personally interviewed Berman for the job. Criminal-justice experts were alarmed. “I am not aware of any President in recent history that personally conducted such interviews,” Marcos Daniel Jiménez, a former U.S. Attorney appointed by George W. Bush, told me. William Cummings, a U.S. Attorney appointed by Gerald Ford, said, “In the situation where the sitting President has publicly been noted to be the subject of an investigation by the F.B.I. or special counsel, I think it is unseemly.” ...
- Last fall, Trump appointees in the department became frustrated by bad press over efforts to expand mining and drilling, and by Freedom of Information Act requests that sought details of their contacts with powerful industries. [Communications Director Matthew] Allen received another order: send FOIA requests about political appointees to the subjects themselves before releasing the results to the public. He was taken aback. “It was just a blatant conflict of interest,” he said. “The person who may be under suspicion, that they’re requesting records on, is going to be an approval authority in the chain. That just doesn’t seem O.K.” ...
- In one agency after another, I encountered a pattern: on controversial issues, the Administration is often not writing down potentially damaging information. ... For many in government, Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance.
- The White House has politicized work that was once insulated from interference, Schwab said. “We see that in the F.B.I. very publicly, and then I saw that at ICE from the highest levels of the White House. Who knows where else it’s happening in the rest of the government.”
Is there a tipping point? That's a key question. At what point is our federal government made up of such idiot Trump loyalists that the entire aparatus, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, does Trump's bidding rather than the country's?
‘We Are Putting Our Country at Risk’
From Evan Osnos' must-read piece on the Trump administration's attack on the career civil servants that protect us:
Since taking office, Trump has attacked the integrity of multiple parts of his government, including the F.B.I. (“reputation is in tatters”) and the Department of Justice (“embarrassment to our country”). His relationship with the State Department is especially vexed. ... Sixty per cent of the highest-ranked diplomats have departed.
Veteran U.S. diplomats say that the State Department is in its most diminished condition since the nineteen-fifties, when McCarthy called it a hotbed of “Communists and queers” and vowed to root out the “prancing mimics of the Moscow party line.” McEldowney, the retired Ambassador, said, “I believe to the depth of my being that by undermining our diplomatic capability we are putting our country at risk. Something awful is inevitably going to happen, and people will ask, ‘Where are the diplomats?’ And the tragic answer will have to be ‘We got rid of them in a fire sale.’”
Exit Stage Right? Trump's ‘Rampant Criminality’
“I am unaware of anybody who has taken a serious look at Trump’s business who doesn’t believe that there is a high likelihood of rampant criminality. In Azerbaijan, he did business with a likely money launderer for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In the Republic of Georgia, he partnered with a group that was being investigated for a possible role in the largest known bank-fraud and money-laundering case in history. In Indonesia, his development partner is “knee-deep in dirty politics”; there are criminal investigations of his deals in Brazil; the F.B.I. is reportedly looking into his daughter Ivanka’s role in the Trump hotel in Vancouver, for which she worked with a Malaysian family that has admitted to financial fraud. Back home, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka were investigated for financial crimes associated with the Trump hotel in SoHo—an investigation that was halted suspiciously. His Taj Mahal casino received what was then the largest fine in history for money-laundering violations.”
Adam Davidson, The New Yorker, “Michael Cohen and the End Stage of the Trump Presidency.” He says that reporters on the ground knew Iraq was fucked in April 2003 before the rest of us. He says business reporters who were paying attention knew the world economy was fucked in Dec. 2007 before the rest of us. And he says people who are paying attention know that Trump is done. Collusion is still up in the air. But this stuff? This stuff will stick, he says.