Trumping Democracy

Right now in Washington DC there is a battle in progress for the soul of American democracy. An increasingly embattled President Trump is making comments and exploring actions which, if followed through, would undermine one of the pillars of any democratic society, respect for the rule of law and the independent administration of justice.

The President gave an interview to The New York Times earlier this week in which he criticised the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both of whom he appointed, and threatened to sack Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is investigating the links between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

In relation to the Attorney General, his sin was that he recused himself from anything to do with the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia. As head of  the Department of Justice his recusal from anything to do with the investigation was inevitable given his previous role as a top advisor to Mr Trump’s campaign. Who could not understand this…? President Trump. He argued if Mr Sessions had told him he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation he would not have appointed him to the post of Attorney General.  The only inference you can draw from this is the President wanted someone as head of the Department of Justice who would do his bidding, thus transforming the rule of law into the rule of the Executive!

In normal circumstances the kind of comments made by the President would have led to the automatic resignation of the Attorney General. It is testament to how far we are from normal times that two days later and their has been no resignation. The President can, however, fire the Attorney General and he may do just that in order to clear the way for him to get at Robert Mueller who is appointed by and sackable by… the  head of the Department of Justice, or when he has recused himself from issues Russia, his Deputy Rod Rosenstein.

Mr Mueller’s sin is that he is investigating the links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s attack on the 2016 election focused on securing a Trump win. But worse than this it is thought he may have extended his investigation into the Trump family finances including those of the President. If this is the case is it this just a prurient desire on the part of Mr Mueller to know about the business dealings of a billionaire? Or is it perhaps, given the increasing evidence of Trump/Russia links, that it is a reasonable suspicion there may be some material business connection here which creates a security risk for the United States.

Will President Trump sack Attorney General Sessions? Who knows, but it is far from inconceivable, which is where it should be. Would he then go on and get a more compliant Attorney General to sack Robert Mueller? One suspects there is little point in taking all the heat that would arise from the former without going on and doing the latter.

The architecture of government established by the founding fathers with its separation of powers and the norms of democratic behaviour evolved over 200 years are currently wrestling with a President who is using all the power and authority accrued to his office over generations to destroy the very foundations upon which it stands. The bureaucrats in the front line of this battle should be recognised for the vital job they are doing.  There should be no misunderstanding  about the gravity of the situation. The fact Trump is a buffoon and a boor should not distract from his naked exploitation of power in office for personal interest.

President Trump and his family seem incapable of seeing any distinction between their interests and those of the office of President. What’s good for Trump is good for the USA might be their credo. It seems they are genuinely incapable of seeing the issues and conflicts their behaviour generates. The recent revelations about Trump Junior and his meeting with Russian lawyer Veselnitskaya is typical of what has happened throughout the past 6 months. A meeting initially described as with four or five people about the process of adoption becomes, over time, a meeting about Russian hacked data of Hilary Clinton’s, with 6 then 7 and now 8 people. One a “former” agent of Russian Military Intelligence.  Another suspected of having links with Russian intelligence and one with self confessed links to Yuri Chaika, the Supreme Russian Prosecuter.

Perhaps, if President Trump does start to scythe through the Justice department, the partisan anchors within the Republican party will start to be pulled up and the Legislative arm of the government would at last take action against what, it is increasingly clear, is a rogue President. If they do not then there is a genuine threat to democracy in the United States and that is a matter of global concern.

 

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How to become a millionaire and why that does not qualify you for public office.

Back in May I published a review of an excellent book by Jane Meyer on Dark Money, the vast amounts of private wealth deployed my multi-billionaires to promote a libertarian agenda in the United States. Central to the book are the Koch Brothers, owners of the second largest private company in the US, Koch Industries, which has made both of them multi billionaires. Generally they don’t come out of the book well but there is one story which does indicate at least a glimmer of self awareness.

It relates to a speech given in 2003 to alumni of the Deerfield Academy when David Koch was pledging $25m to the prep school he had attended. He asked himself the question he thought they would all be thinking: How did David Koch become so wealthy as to be able to donate $25m to his former school? He explained thus.

It all started when I was a little boy and one day my father gave me an apple. I soon sold the apple for $5. With the five dollars I bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then bought 4 apples and sold them for twenty. This went on day after day, month after month year after year until my father died and left me $300m!

This story displays a degree of humility which does not seem to have been evident at any other time in the life of either Koch brother. Unwittingly however, I believe it goes to a profound truth. Immense wealth is a matter of immense good luck. That good luck might be being heir of a man who built his fortune in the run up to world war two building the third largest oil refinery in the Third Reich; it might be being a KGB operative in the years of marketisation of the Russian economy acquiring state assets at knock down prices; it might be being part of a landed gentry that had the foresight to acquire large tracts of land which became central London; it might be coming up with an operating system which gets adopted as a key component in an industry just as it experiences exponential growth.

For those multi-millionaires whose fortunes are not wholly good luck, simply arriving with birth, their effort is at least matched by good luck. Being in the right place at the right time. When a significant fortune is acquired a series of reinforcing processes start to kick in.

As Mr Piketty points out “…once a fortune passes a certain threshold, size effects due to economies of scale in the management of the portfolio and opportunities for risk are reinforced by the fact that nearly all the income on this capital can be ploughed back into investment.” You can diversify your investments to reduce risk, you can employ some very clever people to help you, you can also employ some other very clever people to ensure that you do not pay the level of tax on your earnings that lesser mortals do.

So for example the fortune of Liliane Bettecourt, heir to the L’Orael cosmetic fortune saw her wealth increase without doing a days work in her life between 1990 and 2010 from $2bn to $25bn. Bill Gates, the epitome of en entrepreneur saw his fortune increase over the same period from $4bn to $50bn. This provided a real return on capital for both of them of around 10% per annum. Interestingly that rate of growth has continued since Mr Gates stopped working.

Now the question arises as to whether any of this matters. These fortunes are built on industries that employ thousands of people, contribute millions in taxes, is this not simply the politics of envy? If we did not allow this concentration of wealth would not entrepreneurialism collapse? Would we be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs? These are all legitimate issues and they need to be addressed but there is an underlying risk which is threatening the very foundation of wealth creation in the modern world. A legitimate and effective state.

If we put aside any moral question about how people can “earn” $100m or $10bn or $50bn there is a fundamental problem about the way in which wealth and power interact. In multiple and complex ways wealth enables people to exercise much more power within a state than less wealthy citizens, not just in areas  like the business they own and know, but across a much wider range of matters.

Obviously, wealth can be deployed in very direct ways to buy media to shape opinions, it can support election campaigns to ensure the right people get into public office. These and a host of other practical things can be facilitated by those that have lots of cash

There is another, more insidious exercise of power however which we all collude in to some degree. We still have a tendency to see wealth through a secular version of the Protestant work ethic as a sign of being one of the elect. Perhaps they have not been chosen by God but the talent for getting rich is seen as a sign of generic skill. The skills and temperament that enable you to become very rich should enable you to be good at other things indeed at anything. Your views should be listened to on whatever is the question of the day.

A variation of this is the view that the “business” of government would be better managed by people who are good at making money.  Who is going to make government work better, a lowly paid Building Inspector or a a multi-billionaire property developer?

Fortunately, Donald Trump is working hard to dispel this myth. We will take as fact that he has increased the fortune left to him and he is a canny property developer. I appreciate these are both moot points, but put that to one side.  If we look at his period in office, not just from the wishy washy, Guardian reading viewpoint of someone that thinks misogyny,  Islamaphobia, racism and generally being uncouth is bad, but just in Trumps own terms. His performance as President has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite controlling both houses of Congress he has not managed to secure one significant piece of legislation. He has made the United States and the Presidency objects of pity and derision respectively.

His incompetence goes to the people he has surrounded himself with. People who can not even collude with a foreign nation effectively. Donald Jnr and Jared Kushnar run off to a meeting to secure adverse information about Hilary Clinton from someone who is presented as an emissary of the Russian government. Kushnar then reveals the meeting. Donald Jnr thinks that is not incriminating enough so sends out an email trail that clarifies the offence. Perhaps worst of all, if they are to be believed, they didn’t even get any dirt on Hilary. Collusion a la Johnny English.

As the heat of the multiple investigations has grown President Trump has now appointed a team of lawyers to defend him. His incompetence seems to know no bounds, even when his personal liberty might be at risk he seems to appoint people he is comfortable with rather than people that might be competent. Leading the his legal team is Mark Kasowitz, a lawyer who has worked for Mr Trump for some time on property and matrimonial issues.

Mr Kasowitz shares President Trumps forthright way of expressing himself. He has just had to make a public apology to someone that emailed him suggesting he might not be the best person to represent President Trump. This triggered a series of email responses containing threats and profanities in equal part. You might think this is not the measured temperament you would prefer in what is likely to be a high stakes legal defence. I think you would be right.

The challenge to his professional strength on constitutional and political matters may be more or less correct however of much greater significance for President Trump Mr Kasowitz has not applied for security clearance and given revelations about his personal life this might be because he assumes he wont get it.

Why is this important? Because much of what Donald Trump might be in legal jeopardy about is classified. Not only would Mr Kasowitz not be able to see the information, no one could tell him what it was about!

Mr Kasowitz and the rest of the legal team defending President Trump will cost a lot of money. It is fortunate for President Trump that his talents for making money in the private sector mean he can afford to pay such fees in order to defend his lack of talents for leading in the public sector.

It seems increasingly likely that Mr Trump’s Presidency will not end well. Bizarrely he seems to be doing everything he can to ensure it does not end well for himself. It is vital however that his boorish incompetence is not allowed to further undermine faith in politics and the state. If the experience of the Trump presidency confirms being a millionaire is largely a matter of luck and more importantly no indication of a more general competence embracing public office then President Trump will have done at least one good thing in his hopefully brief term as leader of the free world.

 

 

A Spectacle of Public Degredation

It is ironic that on both sides of the Atlantic conservative governments are trapped with leaders they would change in the blink of an eye if they could. Here Theresa May is in office but not power and only remains so because the Conservatives cannot identify a leader who would not result in the party tearing itself apart. In the States however the position is much, much worse.

This is a holiday weekend in America and it was preceded by an unprecedented attack by President Trump on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The twitter attack has broadened into a general attack on “fake news” and the “biased media” but the initial tweets did not just challenge the views of the two people involved, they were personally offensive.

There is a risk that familiarity breads indifference. This must not be allowed to happen. Another MSNBC  presenter, Rachel Maddow made two very good points about the attack. The point Ms Maddow’s makes is that it gives some insight into the political method of this President and also the contempt in which he holds the office he holds and the Nation he leads.

In terms of political method it is suggested the twitter storm was consciously created to take the eyes of the American people away from two bad news stories. One is the assessment by the Congressional Budget Office of  the latest Senate proposals for the repeal of Obama Care. As may have been anticipated the cuts are even worse than the Congressional proposals. They have to be in order to fund the tax cuts for the wealthy that the neo-liberal right want to get through.

The second was a story about a Republican supporter called Peter W Smith. In 2016, after it was confirmed the Democratic Party had been hacked by the Russians, Mr Smith pulled together a group to try to make contact with those that had done the hacking with the aim of asking for any emails of Hilary Clinton’s which could be used to undermine her credibility in the election. This would have been collusion with a foreign power who it was known was trying to undermine the US election. More significantly Peter Smith implied he was working with Mike Flynn, President Trumps first National Security advisor who had to be sacked after it was discovered he had lied about contacts with the Russians during the campaign and transition.

There are a number of links in this chain which need to be tested. However, if the Trump campaign was working with Mr Smith and he was trying to get hacked material from a source he knew to be acting on behalf of a foreign government to attack Hilary Clinton then this looks like collusion to undermine the electoral process in the US.

It is clearly true these are two bad stories for the President and provide motive for deflecting the public’s attention away. However, I think Ms Madders overestimates the guile of the President. This man does not think he tweets. He tweets about whatever comes into his head that he gets exercised about with no consideration of the consequences. There is a trap lots have fallen into which is trying to make sense of what this man says. Myself, I think inside of his head ideas roll around with all the logic of fridge magnet letters that have been dropped.

There is however one thing I suspect does provide a thread of consistency through his thoughts and actions. Follow the money. His actions to date in terms of avoiding conflicts of interest by handing over control of his business interests to… his two sons should have been branded outrageous. It is difficult to understand how he has got away with it. Partly it confirms Shakespeare’s line, “If money go before, all ways do lie open”. He uses his wealth as a testament to his ability and his avoidance of  tax as evidence he is smart.

Where I believe Ms Maddow’s is bang on the money is in relation to his disdain for his office and for the consequences of his actions on the standing of the United States of America. There are a number of ultra rich, ultra libertarian individuals in the States who will be happy Trump is in power as it goes to their agenda of undermining popular support for democracy. They need to be careful what they wish for.

Since he was elected Trump has bee driven by his narcissistic personality to confirm he gained the majority of the popular vote despite all evidence to the contrary. He has talked a lot about voter fraud  and indeed has set up the Presidential Election Integrity Commission the vice Chair of which is a man called Chris Kobach. He wrote to all the States Attorney Generals asking for a list of all the voters registered in their State, their address, the party they vote for, their voting history, their date of birth, their social security number, any convictions they have had.

The separation of powers is a testament to the wisdom of the founding fathers and never has it been a more positive benefit. To date the response of all the states has been… NO! In fact the State of Mississippi in its official response to the request said that the Commission could “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico”. This push back is important.

Mike Rogers, Head of the National Security Agency has complained to lawmakers he is frustrated at his inability to get the President to accept Security Agency information about the the Russian attack on the election. At the same time budget proposals put forward by the President propose to withdraw funding ($4m) from the Election Assistance Commission who’s role it is to protect the American voting system that the Russians have just attacked.

President Trump is an uncultured and loutish boor who is undermining the office of the President. That would be bad enough and is a matter for the American people. To the extent that his actions have repercussions around the world and undermine the foundations of democracy it is a matter for all of us. His behaviour is a public spectacle of degradation, worse it is a degradation of his public office.