Sunday, May 21, 2017

Republicans and the problem of moral relativism

During the presidential campaign, a major theme of Donald Trump’s campaign was the corruption and bad judgment of Hillary Clinton. Trump frequently referred to “Crooked Hillary” and promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, D.C. Trump’s supporters were enraged by the lies and crony capitalism emanating from Foggy Bottom and thrilled to the promises of reform.

Then came the last two weeks.

The president summarily fired the director of the FBI, admitted on national television that the firing was at least partly due to the Russia investigation, and then was alleged to have told visiting Russian diplomats that Director Comey was a “nut job” and that getting rid of him relieved “great pressure.” On top of that, government sources charged that President Trump relayed classified information on an “ad hoc” basis.

Suddenly everything seemed to change with even casual supporters of the president. The battle cry changed from “drain the swamp” to “Hillary was worse.” In other words, the pro-Trump argument has shifted from the claim that he is a reformer who can clean up Washington to the claim that his actions are not any worse than the actions of the woman he called “Crooked Hillary” or President Obama. Talk about lowering the bar.

The pro-Trump right isn’t the only faction that has shifted. The anti-Trump left has also flip-flopped on a number of issues from resetting relations with Russia to whether James Comey should be fired. In fact, it has been both amusing and disheartening to watch my pro-Trump friends and liberal friends shift 180 degrees in their political views.

This really isn’t new. Liberal dogma often shifts with the changing winds of who is in office. As a case in point, consider their support for Bill Clinton’s war against the Serbs and attacks against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Democrat Party became anti-war after many of its members voted to authorize George W. Bush to use military force and against Saddam and then became pro-war again when President Obama decided to hesitantly intervene in Libya.

It isn’t new for Trump Republicans either. It was only under Donald Trump that Republicans came to support tariffs over free trade, increased infrastructure spending, a childcare entitlement, universal healthcare, and higher taxes. The party of the Trump Republicans supports Donald Trump when he calls for the US to end nation building and put America first, but also applauds when he launches a symbolic, ineffective, one off strike on Syria and then moves on to other issues. The double standard of Trump supporters, especially those who professed to be Christian, was readily apparent in the campaign as well.

When Democrats shift with the prevailing winds on issues, conservatives like to call them “hypocrites.” When the shifting party is one that claims to be Christian and moral, another phrase applies as well: “moral relativism.”

Moral relativism is essentially situational ethics. Rather than believing that something is objectively right or wrong, regardless of the circumstances, moral relativists believe that an act, such as firing a subordinate who is doggedly pursuing an investigation, for example, can be right or wrong depending on the circumstances. Or depending on does it.

At one point, President Trump himself openly took this line of defense, exclaiming on Twitter, “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” As a parent, I hear this tweet in my children’s voices as they whine, “He/she didn’t get in trouble when she did it!”

Does anybody really think that Republicans would not throw a screaming hissy fit if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had fired James Comey as he was investigating Hillary’s private server? If a Democrat had referenced “the email thing” in the firing, most conservatives would be calling for his or her impeachment… if not their heads. There are a myriad of other instances, such as considering halting press briefings or jailing reporters that Trump supporters either justify or dismiss out of hand.

How about if a Democrat president had revealed classified information to the Russians? Before you answer, think back to how some conservatives accused Hillary of treason for discussing nuclear response times in one of the presidential debates.

A pro-Trump friend recently posted the video of President Obama telling Putin lackey Dmitry Medvedev, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” The same friend is totally unconcerned about the myriad of links to Russia and Putin surrounding the Trump campaign.

The Trump supporters seem to discount anything negative about the president as “fake news” even when the Trump Administration openly acknowledges the truthfulness of the information. Michael Flynn admitted to lying about communicating with the Russians and was fired for it. President Trump acknowledged in tweets that he gave information to the Russians. Sean Spicer did not dispute New York Times claims that Trump told the Russians that Comey was a “nut job” whose investigation put “great pressure” on him. The fake news label used by the president gives his supporters the excuse they need to rationalize or deny his bizarre behavior.

In moral terms, it is like the excuse that you gave your parents that [insert forbidden behavior here] is okay because “everyone else is doing it.” Your mother probably answered that with the quip, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”

If Hillary and Obama are corrupt, does that mean it’s okay if Trump is corrupt too? Do we want a corrupt Republican or do we want something better? If you’re a Republican who excuses Trump and argues against holding him accountable, then you don’t want to drain the swamp. You just want to fill it with snakes of a different stripe.

In Christian terms, right and wrong are objective, not subjective. That applies to politics as well. If it is wrong for Barack Obama to fire the FBI director to impede an investigation (and it is, just so there is no question), then it is equally wrong for President Trump to do so. If national security is harmed by Hillary Clinton leaking classified information to the Russians, then the same standard applies to Donald Trump. If it is wrong for Hillary and Obama to insult their political opponents, then ditto for President Trump.

When the Republican defense of Donald Trump is “Hillary did it too,” they have already lost the argument for reform. At this point, the argument is merely a partisan squabble over whose corrupt politician should be at the national helm.

At some point, many Republicans will realize that Trump’s behavior is too outlandish, too corrupt for them to support. Meanwhile, a majority of conservative activists, many of them professing Christians, who spent the last eight years talking about the need to stand up for principles, are now twisting themselves into knots trying to justify the words and actions of a man whose words and actions are totally inconsistent. The Trump partisans seem to be standing up for a person, rather than principle.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Trump called Comey a 'Nut Job'

It wouldn’t be Friday afternoon without a new bombshell from the Trump Administration. The latest installment in the continuing saga of President Trump is that he allegedly told the Russian delegation in the White House last week that former FBI Director James Comey was a “nut job” and that his firing had relieved the “great” pressure from the Russia investigation.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump reportedly told the Russians per the New York Times, adding, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Trump also reportedly told the visiting Russians, “I’m not under investigation.”

The comments were attributed them to a “White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments [and] was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting.” The story adds that “one [American] official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion.”

The Times story reports that Press Secretary Sean Spicer did not dispute the account. “By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said in a written statement. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

The meeting with the Russians occurred the day after the firing of Comey was announced. It is the same meeting in which Trump reportedly gave the visiting Russians classified information. It is not clear whether the comments were made before or after the president discussed the classified material.

An additional US official cited in the article described Trump’s comments as a negotiating tactic. According to the Times, “The idea… was to create a sense of obligation with Russian officials and to coax concessions out of [Russian Foreign Minister] Mr. Lavrov — on Syria, Ukraine and other issues — by saying that Russian meddling in last year’s election had created enormous political problems for Mr. Trump.”

The Trump Administration has not been consistent about the rationale for Comey’s firing. At various times, the president has suggested that Comey was fired based on the recommendation of Justice Department officials and that Mr. Trump made the decision and had asked for the recommendations himself. At one point, Trump cited the “Russia thing” to NBC News as part of his justification for the firing.

In related news, the Twitter forecast is for an impending tweetstorm tomorrow morning.  

Originally published on The Resurgent

What (Or Who) Is Bugging House Republicans?

President Trump has hinted that there are “tapes” of his conversations with James Comey, but the Oval Office apparently isn’t the only place in Washington that is bugged. Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an account of a June 2016 meeting of the House Republican leadership in which Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Cal.) joked about Donald Trump being on the Russian payroll. Now House leaders are concerned that there might be more revelations from past closed door sessions.

Axios reports that Republicans are scrambling to determine the source of the leak even as they wait for the next shoe to drop. “The unknown is frustrating,” said one GOP aide.

The Post story notes that the conversation occurred on the day after news broke that Russians were responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The conversation reportedly took place shortly after McCarthy and Speaker Ryan had met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, who had discussed Putin’s tactic of “financing people in our governments to undo our governments” and using “very sophisticated” propaganda throughout Europe.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher (R-Cal.) and Trump,” McCarthy joked. “Swear to God.” McCarthy also speculated that the hack of the DNC was to steal Democrat opposition research on Donald Trump.

The Post reports that the remark drew laughs before Speaker Paul Ryan interjected, “This is off the record,” and admonished those present, “No leaks…. This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

Rohrabacher, like Trump, has a reputation as a defender of the President Vladimir Putin and the current Russian regime. In November 2016, Politico profiled Rohrabacher as “Putin’s favorite congressman.”

Adam Entous, the author of the Post story, says that the article was based on both a written transcript and “a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post.” If Entous’s claims of a recording are accurate, it is possible that either someone at the meeting was recording the conversation or that a bug had been planted in the room.

There are two prime suspects for the source of the recording. One is that a bug was planted by a member of the Ukrainian delegation. The “Kiev, Ukraine” dateline of the Post story lends some credence to this possibility, but the Axios sources within the GOP say that it is unlikely since security teams regularly sweep the capitol for bugs and, to their knowledge, none has been found.

A more likely possibility, the sources say, is that the meeting was recorded by Evan McMullin, a leadership aide last June who became an independent presidential candidate. Jonathan Swan, author of the Axios story, says that his sources say that the Post denied that McMullin was the leaker and that there is no evidence that he was responsible. If McMullin was the leaker, it is unclear why he would wait to use the tapes now rather than during his presidential campaign.

Regardless of where the recording originated, Republican leaders are concerned about what leaks may come next. If the leaker was McMullin, he attended many private meetings and would have had the opportunity to record reams of sensitive information. If the bug is still active, it could be used to undermine GOP legislative strategies.

Leaks have become commonplace in Washington over the past few years. From the Russian leaks of Democratic emails to disaffected staffers leaking embarrassing information about Donald Trump to the president’s own leak of classified information to the Russians, it seems that no one in Washington can be counted on to keep a secret. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

Friday, May 19, 2017

Trump Administration to propose balancing budget

The complete proposed budget for Donald Trump’s first fiscal year will not be released until next week, but advance word is that the president will propose a plan to balance the federal budget within 10 years. The budget will reportedly ask for cuts in federal entitlement programs in conjunction with an overhaul of the tax and regulatory system.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the plan will not include cuts to the two largest drivers of future spending, Medicare and Social Security, but will ask for trillions of dollars in cuts to discretionary spending such as education, housing, environment programs and foreign aid as well as nondiscretionary spending in programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and federal employee-benefit programs.

The budget will also include budget increases that were announced in the budget blueprint released in March. One of the largest increases in funding would go to the military, which was slated for an additional $54 billion to be split between the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. There is also likely to be additional infrastructure spending, a new entitlement for paid parental leave and border security measures.

The Journal notes that the budget does not include the details of the tax reform, but is likely to estimate the Republican tax reform as revenue neutral. Rate cuts would be offset by the elimination of tax breaks so that a Congressional Budget Office estimate would show no loss of revenue.

Balancing the budget will require growth as well as spending cuts. “The way we balanced the budget in the 1990s is we had spending restraint and GDP growth caught up—government revenues caught up, as the GDP growth came in,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said. “That’s what we’re trying to get back to.”

White House estimates of growth are much more optimistic than CBO estimates. The White House estimates three percent growth by 2021 while the CBO forecasts a 1.9 percent growth rate. Economists polled by the Journal estimate growth at 2.3 percent if Mr. Trump’s policies are enacted.

Conflicts over the growth rate may make it hard for the Trump Administration to find support among budget hawks for its spending increases. “I am extremely pessimistic that you can show a balanced budget unless you’re going to make the mother of all ‘rosy scenario’ type assumptions,” said William Hoagland, a former Republican budget aide who is now senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The spending cuts are also certain to draw fire from Democrats. Expect much weeping, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the proposed slashing of funds for safety net programs. Some moderate Republicans are also likely to object, making it extremely unlikely that the full measure of the cuts will become law.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said as much on Thursday, claiming, “It is an ideological document, not a document that will ever be utilized.”

The budget is slated to be released next Tuesday, while President Trump is touring Europe and the Middle East. Given Mr. Trump’s problems over the past two weeks, that may increase Republican chances of getting the budget passed. 

Originally published on The Resurgent

House may have to vote on health care bill again

If you are wondering why the Senate hasn’t started working on the American Health Care Act two weeks after the House passed the bill, you aren’t alone. Bloomberg reports that the measure is stalled with the House leadership after being approved by a four-vote margin earlier this month.

According to Bloomberg, the holdup is a series of last minute amendments that were made before the vote in order to garner more support. The late changes have not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office and Republican leaders are waiting for the CBO numbers before sending the bill to the Senate.

If the CBO numbers don’t show at least $2 billion reduction in the deficit, it would doom the bill in the Senate because it would not qualify for the budget reconciliation process that avoids a Democrat filibuster. The GOP would be forced to start the process again with a new budget resolution in the House. Before the changes, the bill was projected to save about $150 billion over 10 years.

“We’ve got to wait for the CBO score to prove that you meet the reconciliation test,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oreg.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A Republican aide told Business Insider that Republicans expected positive results from the CBO, but were waiting for the report to be sure. “Based on the previous two scores, we believe we'll hit our target deficit reduction number but we're holding out of an abundance of caution,” the aide said.

If the House has to vote on the bill again, passage would not be a slam dunk. In the first vote, 20 Republicans joined every House Democrat in voting against the bill. The current version of the bill was specifically crafted to gain enough support from disparate Republican factions to pass. If the bill has to be changed to satisfy budget reconciliation requirements, the fragile balancing act may be upset and changes may cost too many Republican votes to pass the bill a second time.

The CBO report is expected next week. 

No, Comey didn't contradict Trump memo in congressional testimony

A popular quote going around the internet these days shows then-FBI Director James Comey testifying before Congress on May 3. During the testimony, Comey stated, “It’s not happened in my experience” as part of his answer to a question about political pressure on the FBI. Pro-Trump circles have taken this statement to mean that the as-yet-unseen Comey memo, in which Comey allegedly claims that the president asked him to halt the investigation of Michael Flynn, is fraudulent.

Not so fast.

It seems to have been blogger Sooper Mexican who first noted that the quote was taken out of context. The explanation of why the answer to a question by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) does not contradict the content of the memo is a simple one when the entire exchange is read.

HIRONO: So, if the Attorney General or senior officials at the Department of Justice opposes a specific investigation, can they halt that FBI investigation?

COMEY: In theory, yes.

HIRONO: Has it happened?

COMEY: Not in my experience. Because it would be a big deal to tell the FBI to stop doing something that — without an appropriate purpose. I mean where oftentimes they give us opinions that we don’t see a case there and so you ought to stop investing resources in it. But I’m talking about a situation where we were told to stop something for a political reason, that would be a very big deal. It’s not happened in my experience.

Comey’s answer referred to a question about the attorney general and officials at the Department of Justice, not the president. Comey seems to have simply answered the question as asked and not volunteered information. This seems to show a measure of loyalty to the president.

Comey’s statement that political interference would be a “big deal” provides justification for writing a memo about Trump’s alleged request. The president’s request would have been a big deal and Comey would have felt the need to document it, whether for his own protection or as evidence in a possible future investigation.

When Comey testifies before Congress, as he undoubtedly will, about the memo and his conversation with President Trump, Republicans will have a chance to ask him directly whether the president tried to interfere with the Russia investigation. Until then, his previous testimony does not contradict his statements in the memo. For now at least, the myth that Comey is talking out of both sides of his mouth is busted.

Come on, guys and gals of the internet! Taking quotes out of context to make someone look bad is a tactic that conservatives would typically expect of the leftist media. Check your facts and context before making claims about what someone said.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Can the GOP save itself?

In retrospect, the GOP was in trouble as soon as Donald Trump became the frontrunner in the Republican primary. The outsider with no government experience knocked the party on its ear, dispatching with relative ease 16 experienced, longtime party members who many Trump supporters denounced as “RINOs.”

In fact, it was Trump who was the RINO. Trump was a Republican in name only who had frequently changed parties and who didn’t share many of the Republican Party’s core tenets such as free trade, a commitment to cut government spending and to shrink government. Trump ran a nationalist, anti-establishment campaign that focused on immigration, a hot button issue that had historically split the GOP down the middle. Nevertheless, as Trump became the inevitable nominee, Republicans mostly embraced him as “better than Hillary.”

From the moment that Trump won the nomination, the party was in trouble. Even though a large minority argued that Trump was both unelectable and unfit, after he won the primary there was no real chance to find a better candidate. Never Trumpers were proven wrong on the charge of electability, but Trump is proving them right about his fitness to govern.

Once Trump won the nomination, denying it to him would have split the party between the Trump base, many of whom may not have been Republicans before 2016, and, for lack of a better term, the party establishment. Hillary would have cruised to the White House, a price that was too much to pay for many Republicans.

Four months into the Trump Administration, the new president has been rocked by one scandal after another, many of his own making. Trump’s positive, lasting accomplishments, excluding Executive Orders, so far number about one: Neil Gorsuch.

As the scandals get more serious, such as possible obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation and jeopardizing national security by haphazardly sharing classified information, more Republicans will soon be looking to extricate themselves from their marriage of convenience to Donald Trump. The question is whether they can do so without destroying their party.

The choice that Republicans now face is similar to the one that they faced at the Republican convention. If they reject Trump’s antics and try to rein him in, which will possibly lead to pressuring him to resign or impeachment, then Trump’s loyal base will declare war on the party. With the country almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, the loss of a significant number of Republicans would mean that Democrats would cruise to easy victories. On the other hand, if Republicans continue to back an increasingly outlandish Donald Trump, then they will alienate themselves from traditional Republican voters as well as a large part of the country.

At this point, either option splits the GOP and leaves the country in control of the Democrats. The big question is for how long. If Republicans choose to be “dead enders” and stick with Trump to the bitter end, they may find support from the Trumpian right, but probably not far beyond that. The longer Republicans persist in attempting to defend the indefensible, the more ludicrous they will look and the more trust they will lose from the voting public.

On the other hand, a quicker return to the traditional conservative principles of the Republican Party may help to salvage the reputation of the party and its elected officials. This does not mean that Republicans need to be anti-Trump, but they do need to hold him accountable to the same standards that they would hold a Democrat.

The GOP would not have turned a blind eye to the firing of the FBI director by Hillary to stop the email investigation. It wouldn’t have ignored Barack Obama revealing classified information to the Russians. Barrages of insults and attacking the press as the “enemy of the people” are not traditional Republican principles. For that matter, neither is threatening trade wars, building expensive and ineffective walls or lavishing praise on dictators

It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Trump can change enough to salvage his presidency. The Trump coalition that eked out a victory by 77,000 votes in three swing states is almost certainly history. With Trump’s razor thin margin of victory concentrated in normally blue states, it would not take much to make his election a feat that could not be repeated. Trump’s erratic behavior and the continuing dribble of stories about links with Russia ensure that the scandals will not go away.

Republicans should cut their losses. Trump’s plummeting approval ratings and increasing number of scandals threatens not only the legislative agenda for the current Congress, but Republican majorities in the 2018 elections and beyond. As Trump’s negatives, which were always high, continue to mount, the best strategy might be for Republicans to distance themselves from the president. While most Republicans in Washington have more-or-less stood by the commander-in-chief so far, the dam may be about to burst.

At this point, it isn’t so much a question of if Trump will be brought down, but who he will take with him. Republicans in Congress should consider whether their allegiance is to an outsider who became president or the values of the voters who sent them to Washington. Are you Trumpians or Republicans?

The Democrats may have gotten a break in losing the election. The two candidates were the most unpopular and unqualified ever presented by the parties to the nation. Republicans “won” and now have to live with the consequences of their victory… and the compromise of party principles that it required.

Can the Republican Party be saved? That is uncertain, but conservatives are not going away. If the Republican Party folds, then conservatives will reorganize under another banner to fight another day. And hopefully they will learn from the folly of electing Donald Trump.

Originally published on The Resurgent