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.

 

 

The Rachel Maddow Show on msnbc – Latest News & Video

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Source: The Rachel Maddow Show on msnbc – Latest News & Video

I have no idea what the Rachel Maddow show reported prior to the advent of the Trump presidency but since his election, this highly respected show in the US has been devoted to nothing else. It is a testament to the incredible news machine Donald Trump has proved to be that they fill an  hour every weekday night from 9.00pm wholly focused on his Whitehouse.

If we take this past week. On Monday the Washington Post claims Trump revealed classified information to the Russian Foreign Secretary, Sergei Lavrov, in the Oval office.

On Tuesday the National Security Advisor HR McMasters desperately tried to limit the damage claiming the conversation had been “wholly appropriate”. His carefully worded rebuttal then undermined, in a way which is becoming quite familiar, by the President saying he had the “absolute right” to share information with the Russians.

Still on Tuesday, as this story is running, the New York Times reports about an alleged memo written by James Comey, Sacked head of the FBI about a meeting at which President Trump is claimed to have said “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go,” referring to the investigation in to Mike Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor, who was sacked purportedly for lying to the Vice President.

On Wednesday the Acting Attorney General, (Acting because his boss the Attorney General has had to recuse himself from all matters Trump and Russia because of a potential conflict of interest), appoints Robert Mueller as Special Prosecutor to take over the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. Shades of Archibald Cox, Special Prosecutor of the Watergate scandal. Whilst this is going on Vladimir Putin bizarrely offers to “help” the President by providing a transcript of his meeting with Lavrov.

These are only the headline stories. In parallel there are now a series of formal legal investigations into Mike Flynn and former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort about their long standing business and other connections with Russia.

For someone who professes to hate the media so much President Trump is proving to be a golden goose that can be relied on to lay an egg every day. Some have suggested his current trip out of the country, firstly to Saudi Arabia, will provide a period of respite and a chance for the White House to get onto the front foot. That is the triumph of hope over experience.

Sinclair Lewis’s book, It Can’t Happen Here, is about the election of a rogue populist president in the 1930’s who adopts increasingly authoritarian measures creating a totalitarian, fascist state. At the moment we have a frightening, fictional tragedy being echoed as a sadly, real farce which is making the US a global joke. If the Republicans do not wake up soon that farce may become a tragedy.

 

 

President as C E Ohhh!

Many of those that elected President Trump voted for him because he was a business man. They thought if he could run a successful business empire, 4 bankruptcies notwithstanding, he should have transferable skills to run the country efficiently. The case is often made that people successful in business will almost certainly be better at running government than career politicians and it is clear President Trump believes this also.

Whilst there may be superficial similarities and some overlapping skill sets, such as managing people and negotiating there are profound differences which in truth mean the two jobs are not just quantitively different they are qualitatively different as well.

Firstly, there is a level of accountability in government that is far in excess of that of both public and private companies. It is one thing to give a motivational speech at the staff conference to a group of people who’s careers depend in large part on your view of them. It is a wholly different issue to have your every utterance picked over by your peers who have a career interest in demonstrating that what you are doing is wrong.

The relative power and ability to challenge of, on the one hand, staff, customers and shareholders and on the other Congress, pressure groups and the media is immense. In the former case the executive has an information resource which translates into a real power advantage. In the latter it may often be the case that citizens, think tanks and pressure groups are much more informed about an issue than the President. Worse they can demonstrate in public his ignorance.

There is also an important difference in the relationship between means and ends. In most businesses there is a fairly well defined objective in terms of growth and profit. There may be debates about how this is achieved but those debates are largely within a relative well defined area. In politics the ends are often in question and the means so diverse and contested as to reignite challenge as to the nature of the ends.

Another huge difference lies in relation to the transparency of the processes of government and business. Even where there is not out and out secrecy there is much within business which remains behind the corporate veil. Intellectual property law, commercially sensitive data, compromise agreements for staff leaving organisations all provide more (or less) legitimate protections of corporate information. In liberal democratic governments the presumption is of the peoples’ right to know and only in clearly specified areas, such as national security, is there an ability for the state to limit transparency. Even then there is often oversight by independent individuals to ensure policies are not being breached.

Leading a country is about persuasion, consensus building and the ability to compromise. Running a private business you are the principal owner of is unlikely to be a good learning environment for those skills. Indeed it is very unlikely that direct challenge of any kind is going to flourish. From his behaviour in the course of the campaign and his month in office no one is going to describe President Trump’s management style as collegiate.

He clearly cannot tolerate anyone questioning his view of the world. His behaviour in the recent press conference confirmed this. He is hectoring and plain rude when he deals with people who do not simply say “Yes, Mr President”. His style betrays a lack of real confidence. He seems to need approbation and confirmation of his brilliance.

His continued attacks on Hilary Clinton are instructive, they are those of someone who, despite having won the election, is not convinced he has beaten her. At one point in the press conference he felt compelled to state. “I won the election.” Who was he trying to convince? Himself?

It looks very unlikely that President Trump will learn from his mistakes. Difficult when you do not think you have made any. He will plough on as he has started. As time goes by more and more people will say no to Mr Trump, eventually even those within his “team” will start to abandon him. He will become ever more beleaguered. The outcome is unlikely to be good. There is a chance he may resign in a fit of pique and speak to “his people” about how he has been undermined by the Washington establishment.

Alternatively he may start to manufacture reasons for dismantling the bulwarks of liberal democracy. He has already started undermining the legitimacy of the courts, the press and the opposition in Congress. With a divided America the opportunity for authoritarian action should not be underestimated. The idea that “it can’t happen here” was challenged by Sinclair Lewis in the 1930’s when populist right wing parties were growing across Europe. His warning has a new currency which should not be ignored.

Many see President Trump as an outrageous clown, a gift to the satire industry, a reason to open Twitter to see what latest irrational rant he has supplied for our entertainment. This is a mistake. President Trump is a dangerous liability.

He has identified a genuine and difficult problem. The existing political elite of Republicans and Democrats have failed to protect the interests of many millions of ordinary Americans. That issue will remain after President Trump has gone. Once he has gone if the narrative of “elite conspiracy” gets hold there are a lot of very angry and very well armed Americans who’s remaining faith in democratic change might be destroyed. If he does not go he may well become a genuine threat to American democracy.

 

 

 

Politics and Ethics

Politics and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows. Some think they have nothing to do with one another and that it is only a naive liberal who could think they have any connection with each other in the “real world”. Robin Cook, when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997, was ridiculed by some and patronised by others when he set out his Mission statement and talked about an ethical Foreign Policy. Over his period in that office this was often used as a stick to beat him with when some trade deal was done on weapons or some visit from the head of an unsavoury ally occurred.

Politics, it is argued, is about the art of the possible and should not be constrained by ethical considerations which get in the way of a “good deal”, more often than not a good trade deal, and quite often a good arms trade deal. There is rarely a shortage of highly respected politicians and business leaders willing to point out that in the real world we have to be pragmatic and often sup with the devil. That realists have to put aside their moral scruples on particular issues for a greater good.

That politics is a messy business is unarguable. Yalta was not a meeting of those with a common ethical view of the world looking forward to the defeat of fascism. Politics is always about compromise and deal making. In democracies compromise is at the heart of the process. Those that lose elections compromise their views to allow the winners to implement theirs for a period of time.

That politics requires a pragmatic approach to issues does not mean, however, that it is, or should be, an ethics free zone. There are times when the ethically right thing to do is also the politically correct thing to do.  Usually the ethically right thing to do is more difficult and the benefits less tangible but that does not always, of itself, change its political correctness.

Mrs May had a a difficult hand to play in her visit to the United States. President Trump is the democratically elected leader of the most powerful country in the world and maintaining a sensible relationship with him is in the interests of the UK. Given President Trumps behaviour to date, during the election, as President elect, and latterly as President, many would find it difficult to shake hands with the man, nay be in the same room as him.

Politicians earn their pay when they subordinate their feelings to the needs of their country and do things which may be personally distasteful to them. However, suppressing all ethical judgement is a mistake. When approaching the meeting with President Trump geo-political security, trade, the implications of Brexit were all matters where the UK has a vital interest in US attitudes and one cannot make progress by standing apart from someone in such a key position of power.

To be fair, Mrs May also addressed some of difficult areas of concern such as President Trumps views about NATO. However, her desire to secure a favourable response from President Trump was palpable and it was clear from her speech in Philadelphia she wanted to maintain the “special relationship” with the US. This relationship, first enunciated by Churchill in 1946, has always been one of a junior and senior partner and in the realpolitik of diplomacy has been of material benefit to the States occasionally (when they need support in the UN for a foreign adventure) and helped UK morale in its transition from “top Nation” to somewhere much further down the pecking order.

Going into this meeting Mrs May knew what President Trump is like. What you see is what you get and what you see is awful. She might have thought that some distance from this man might be sensible. Polite and respectful of someone who has been elected to such an important office, business like in areas of common concern but above all reserved.  The image of his holding her hand may well haunt her for years to come, however, what she could have done to prevent that is uncertain. Comments about the “stunning election victory” were a gratuitous hostage to fortune. His stunning victory is that of the “noisy minority”.

If the president represents the American people we do not want a “special relationship” with them. The reality is he does not. He does not represent the half of the electorate that voted against him, and it is my strong belief that in due course those that voted for him will come to the view that he does not represent them either.

There have been few reasons for optimism as the new year began. Two impressed me, both out of the United States. First Michelle Obama’s last speech which was a model of optimism and dignity, second the women marchers following the inauguration. Maintaining a special relationship with this face of America has to be the right thing to do. But to paraphrase, right now America is the worst of places and the best of places.

Ethically President Trump is repugnant. Despite the circumlocutions of some, the alternative facts of others and the wishful thinking of many he is also politically repugnant. I suspect Mrs May is going to regret bitterly the invitation to meet our head of state.You have to work with lots of people but you need to chose your friends carefully. You are often judged by their actions.

What looked like a competent managing of a difficult challenge on Friday has started to unravel as President Trump issued an odious and in truth incompetent Presidential edict on immigration. Mrs Mays’ initial response at the press conference in Turkey was 100% political and ethics free.  Basically, US immigration policy is the responsibility of the US.

Maintaining a pure ethical stance amongst the crooked timber of mankind is probably impossible. However, a good politician never loses site of what is right and wrong and makes difficult judgements about when a line is crossed. Often those judgments carry a political or a personal cost, or both. When they are not made however they can have awful long term consequences.

Robin Cook was presented as naive when he talked about an ethical Foreign Policy. No doubt there were some who thought his ethical stance, resigning from his position of Leader of the House of Commons in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, was naive also. Had there only been more such naive politicians with robust moral compasses’ at the time the world might have been a much better place.