Oh, Yeah, There Was a Presidential Debate Last Week

Donald Trump’s hospitalization after testing positive for COVID-19 has dominated recent headlines, but we shouldn’t forget his disastrous debate performance against Joe Biden.(Photo Credit: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House/Public Domain)

By now, you’re aware that Donald Trump, Melania Trump, three Republican senators, and other members of Trump’s circle have tested positive for COVID-19.

The president was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and has since left. At this writing, though, he still seems to be pretty darn sick. It’s hard to know what to think when the White House is less than forthcoming on matters of his health and, you know, has a penchant for lying. Still, while the battle against COVID hasn’t been easy for Trump, it doesn’t appear that he will die from contracting the virus—much to the chagrin of liberals and other conscientious objectors to his presidency.

Noting how Trump and his enablers play fast and loose with the truth, some public figures, Michael Moore among the notables, suggested he could’ve been faking it, that this all could’ve been some sort of elaborate hoax. While I was not inclined to make that leap—mostly because I don’t think Trump et al. are competent enough to orchestrate something like that—I could pardon those dabbling in conspiracy theories, especially after the utter debacle that was the first (and hopefully last) presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

If you watched the debate, I’m sorry for your sake, though I suppose there’s some solidarity to be had in the shared pain we experienced. At only 90 minutes, it still felt too long, and watching with other leftists, we felt a communal longing for some sort of drug to make the proceedings more bearable.

If you skipped the debate to watch something with more redeeming value like, say, playoff baseball or paint drying, what was so bad about it? Well, dear reader, let’s delve into it, though I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The dashes on the transcript denote stops and starts

Before we even to get to the topics raised by moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News fame, let’s address the prevailing theme of the night: crosstalk. There was an untold number of interruptions during this debate, mostly on the part of Mr. Trump, and when he did insert himself in the conversation, it was usually for the purpose of digressing or redirecting the discussion in some disingenuous way.

Mr. Biden, though not rattled by Trump’s disregard for debate convention, was clearly irritated by it, referring to his opponent as a “clown” at one point and asking him point blank to “shut up, man.” If any children were watching, they certainly did not receive a lesson on how to interact with others in a respectful way.

Re the Notorious A.C.B. (yes, some people are trying to make that a thing)

With that behind us, let’s get to the, ahem, substance of the debate. Wallace’s first question got right to the topic on the minds of many: the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

Trump, speaking first, basically defended her nomination by saying that Republicans won and they had every right to fill that seat. He then stuck his tongue out and made antlers with his hands, waving his fingers in an instigative manner.

Biden, in his rebuttal, replied that the American people should have a say on how that vacant seat is filled by who they elect to be president and vice president. He didn’t really iterate why Coney Barrett’s nomination was wrong insomuch as he speculated what doom her confirmation might mean for the Affordable Care Act and the precedent set by Roe v. Wade (and deservedly so).

Trump and Biden then basically quibbled on how many millions of Americans would be disadvantaged by the other’s health plan until Wallace finally and mercifully moved onto the next topic.

Let’s talk about our crappy healthcare plans that aren’t Medicare for All

With the ACA already on the lips of the combatants, the moderator pivoted to their healthcare plans. Starting again with Trump, Wallace asked the Republican Party nominee, like, do you have a plan? Trump, taking umbrage was all, of course, I have a plan: lower drug prices. Apparently, that’s it. Cheaper drugs.

Biden wasn’t off the hook either. Wallace followed his pointed inquiry of Trump by asking the Democratic nominee why his public option wouldn’t destroy private insurance. Biden responded by saying that the public option would only be for those people who qualify for Medicaid. Trump tried to say that Biden was in cahoots with Bernie Sanders and his socialized (!) medicine, but Biden inferred that because he beat Bernie in the primary, he couldn’t be promoting such a plan. Because that’s how that works.

Trump replied by saying “Obamacare” is a disaster and that premiums are too high. Biden, in a nod to Wallace’s original question, pointed out that Trump still doesn’t have a healthcare plan. Trump countered by babbling on about the individual mandate and not wanting to be blamed for running a bad healthcare plan and wanting “to help people.” Evidently, that is why he killed the individual mandate and wants to tear the ACA down with nothing to replace it. Are you following? Good. Now please explain it to me.

On handling COVID-19, which totally has no relevance to Trump having to go to the hospital whatsoever

“Why should the American people trust you more than your opponent to deal with this public health crisis going forward?”

This was the question Chris Wallace posed to the debaters, and Joe Biden was up first. Biden, to his credit, gave a solid answer, though give Donald Trump an assist for, well, doing a terrible job. A key highlight was Biden’s attention to Trump’s admission that he knew how serious a threat COVID represented back in February, but that he downplayed the danger. Now, more than half a year later, his administration still doesn’t have a plan.

Trump, apparently of the opinion that more than 200,000 dead Americans is a great success, extolled his decision to close off travel from mainland China—a move that critics judged to be late in coming and haphazard at that. He went on to further toot his own horn, carrying on about how Dr. Anthony Fauci and various Democratic governors said he did a “phenomenal job.” I’m not sure who these governors are, but if they did feed Trump’s ego, they probably just said that so they would actually get the relief they requested.

From there, Wallace turned to talk of a COVID-19 vaccine and its potential availability. Faced with the insistence of CDC head Robert Redfield that a vaccine would not be widely available until summer of next year, Trump professed that, per companies like Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, a vaccine will be ready “very soon.” Biden was all, like, yeah, right, you dum-dum. And Trump was all, like, your college grades sucked. Really. He talked about Biden’s academic performance while in college. Because that’s relevant now.

Because this is 2020, the year without joy, even more about coronavirus

To reopen or not reopen? That is the question.

Trump said yes, citing hurting businesses, and expressed the belief that Democratic governors refusing to open their states back up are playing politics, intentionally hurting the economy to make him look bad. Biden, meanwhile, said no, not without a plan and without the money for PPE and sanitization measures.

Trump then said, well, Joe, why don’t you talk to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? And Biden said, shush (literally, he asked if Trump would “shush for a minute”), if you listened to them, you might actually know what you’re doing. Biden, as we all know, sternly opposed to malarkey over the course of the campaign, was having none of it.

Following the shushing, Wallace steered the conversation to the topic of masks and rallies. Trump was all, like, masks? Masks? I love masks! If I need to wear a mask, I do! Right now, I don’t need one. That guy over there, though? He’s kind of a mask freak, if you ask me. And Biden was all, like, masks and social distancing save lives.

Which is when Wallace interceded on the subject of campaign events, underscoring the different approaches these men have taken. And Trump was all, like, hey, man, my supporters are packed together, but I have my rallies outside. Ol’ Sleepy Joe doesn’t hold big rallies because he can’t get anyone to attend. And Biden was, like, nuh-uh. And Trump was, like, yuh-huh. If it seems like I’m being hyperbolic, I am exaggerating, of course, but only to an extent. Many of these exchanges were childish, especially on Donald “My Rallies Are Bigger Than Yours” Trump’s part.

The point at which Trump was probably very glad the debate shifted to the economy

“You gotta open the states up. It’s not fair. You’re talking about almost like being in prison.”

So said Mr. Trump, who, if he actually had to spend time in prison, might not be so apt to use that metaphor. The debate shifted toward talk of the economy, with Wallace asking each candidate to explain their concept of the recovery, whether as a V-shaped recovery (Trump) or a K-shaped recovery (Biden).

In Trump’s mind, he was instrumental in building the world’s greatest economy—and then came along the “China plague.” No, seriously, he called it that. Now Joe Biden wants to shut down the economy. And what will that do? Depression! Divorce! Alcoholism! Drugs! Look, I care about the people. Let’s open things back up.

Amtrak Joe from Scranton, PA, on the other hand, spoke to the existence of a K-shaped recovery in which millionaires and billionaires have made hundreds of billions since the start of the COVID crisis and small-town, working-class Americans have felt the pinch. Also, that guy only paid $750 in taxes. The nerve!

Trump, taken aback by such an accusation, insisted he paid millions of dollars in taxes in the first two years of his presidency. Biden responded by asking, well, can we see your tax returns? And Trump was all, like, welllllllll, these are very complicated returns. And then Wallace chimed in to the effect of come on, dude, tell us how much you paid in taxes in 2016 and 2017. And Trump was all, like, I just told you: millions. Besides, don’t blame me for the tax code. Blame Senator/VP Biden over there, he’s the worst.

Biden said, no, you’re the worst.

Chris Wallace then smacked his head repeatedly on the table, whereupon he blacked out briefly before regaining consciousness and continuing to moderate the debate.

More on taxes, because nothing gets Americans fired up like talk about the tax code

Wallace moved to asking Biden whether his proposed tax increases for high earners would hurt the economy. And Biden, seemingly waiting for the chance, started unveiling his economic plan. Whereupon Mr. Wallace sprayed Biden in the face with water, shouting, “Taxes, Mr. Vice President! Taxes!” Biden, newly reoriented, vowed to raise the corporate tax rate. Trump countered by professing that when he lowered taxes, the economy boomed. BOOMED!

That was when Wallace smugly drew from a freshly-lit cigarette, paused for a moment, smiled, turned to Trump, and said, “Actually, Mr. President—Obama’s economy was better.” And Trump was all, like, the f**k did you just say to me? And Biden, with a twinkle in his eye, was all, like, you heard the man! And Trump was all, like, let’s talk about Hunter and Burisma. And Biden was all, like, you’re full of beans! And then the moderator blew an air horn, signaling the end of the segment, while Biden got his brass knuckles ready, silently and unobtrusively.

The segment in which a bunch of old white guys talk about race

“Why should voters trust you, rather than your opponent, to deal with the race issues facing this country over the next four years?”

Such was the question posed to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Biden, answering first, spoke vaguely of equity, equality, and decency. (If you had “decency” on your presidential debate Bingo card, you can mark that space off now.) He, unlike his opponent, did not try to “both sides” the events at Charlottesville. He did not authorize the use of tear gas against peaceful protestors so he could have a photo op.

Trump responded by—look, I could tell you what he said, but it’s a bunch of nonsense. He’s supported by law enforcement (not helping your cause, bub). Biden’s a tool of the “radical left.” (Does anyone have a Bingo yet?) The people want law and order. Sleepy Joe’s afraid. Are you going to cry, Joe? Huh? Are you going to cry? Waaaaah!

Wallace then steered the discussion to the Breonna Taylor case and none of the officers involved being charged with homicide, asking Biden if there is a separate and unequal system of justice for blacks in America. And Biden was all, like, duh! Biden, to be clear, called for accountability for police who have done wrong but prefaced this by saying that there are “some bad apples” among the bunch. He conveniently ignores the idea that, as the saying goes, a few bad apples spoil the bunch, but we wouldn’t want to upset the men and women in blue, would we?

Trump fired back all, like, so you’re cool with looting and rioting and burning things down? And Wallace was all, not so fast, bruh. You directed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training. To which Trump replied, “Because bruh, that shit is racist!” And Wallace was all, like, WTF, mate? And Biden, unprompted, tearfully recalled the prejudice he felt as a young Irish Catholic boy in Scranton. Tired. Poor. Yearning to breathe free. Biden then lifted his lamp beside the golden door. America.

And then—sigh—this went on for another eight minutes. I’ll give you some quick notes. Wallace asked about the increase in homicides this summer, which Trump again tried to blame on Democratic leaders, except that it has happened in Republican-led jurisdictions too. Wallace asked about “reimaging policing” and Black Lives Matter, and Biden started talking about community policing, but that got sublimated into arguments about who was or wasn’t calling for defunding the police and who would or wouldn’t hold violent offenders accountable. Oh, and fun times, Trump refused to explicitly condemn the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group. Cool, cool.

Oh, wowthey’re actually talking about climate change

Yes—this happened! Wallace, recounting Trump’s greatest hits, so to speak, on the subject of the environment (arguing against the influence of climate change on the wildfires in the West, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations), asked the president what he believes on this subject matter. Trump answered with his usual word vomit, blaming California for not managing its forests better and not really addressing the issue at hand.

Wallace, it should be noted, pressed Trump on why, if he truly believes in the science on climate change, he would roll back standards published during Barack Obama’s tenure. Trump, saying the thinking part out loud, justified his actions with the lower upfront price tag associated with certain types of energy. Because who needs a planet to enjoy those savings, amirite?

Biden, when confronted with Trump’s insistence that ending the use of fossil fuels and reaching zero net emission of greenhouse gases would tank the economy, rejected his rival’s position, emphasizing how a commitment to renewable energy would create jobs, not cost them. It would also save money currently spent on disaster relief by mitigating the damage done by the effects of climate change. Alas, when Trump tried to pin the spooky, scary socialist Green New Deal on Biden, Biden flatly rejected any allegiance to that framework. But hey, this line of questioning was more than I could’ve hoped for from this debate before it began.

Trump doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “election integrity”

“How will you reassure the American people that the next President will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Oh, boy—that’s a doozy. Biden was up first and basically rambled his way to an exhortation of the public to vote. As for Trump, well, he—sigh. He said, in his rambling way, that there is going to be “a fraud like you’ve never seen” and that the election is “rigged.” You know, presumably, unless he wins.

After a brief interlude in which Biden waxed philosophical on potential involvement by the courts, expressing his concern that any court would be invoked at all, especially a Supreme Court with the likes of Amy Coney Barrett on it, Wallace dropped the question on the minds of many: “Will you pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified?” Trump did not. Biden did.


I referred to this debate earlier as a debacle. Other critics were even less charitable. Dana Bash of CNN notably referred to it as a “shit show”—on live TV, no less. Her colleague Jake Tapper called it “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” Man, these CNN personalities are so dang colorful with their metaphors!

As one might imagine, some critical responses would seem to carry more weight than others. Professional lunkhead Sean Hannity seemed to relish a format that was more pugilistic than political. Journalist/author Jill Filipovic, meanwhile, grew nostalgic for the days when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee, wishing she could’ve been the one to tell Donald Trump to shut up. #feminism

Regardless of who won—if you ask me, it was Biden in a landslide, carrying the day by not self-destructing—the whole affair was an ugly one. At one point, Chris Wallace had to reproach the Republican Party nominee for not adhering to the rules established for the debate. At another point, Trump went after Hunter Biden for personal issues he faced while Biden mourned the loss of his other son, Beau. If that’s not ghoulish behavior, I don’t know what is.

In all, the first presidential debate was widely panned, including its moderator’s performance. In deference to Mr. Wallace, however, I don’t know how much he could’ve done anyway. He didn’t have a gavel to bang or the ability to mute Trump’s microphone when he violated the rules. The man’s a reporter, not a miracle worker.

At the end of the day, President Trump’s health is still the biggest story of the past week and change. The disastrous parade of interruptions and digressions that was this debate, however, shouldn’t get buried, for it was an insult to the American people. We, the American people, deserve better, and sick or not, Trump deserves the lion’s share of blame for how it turned out.

On Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and Challenging Viewpoints

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” That’s Martin Luther King, Jr., folks. (Photo Credit: Rob Bulmahn/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Admittedly, I am sometimes reticent about opining on movements like Black Lives Matter and the types of protests set off by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of uniformed police. I feel that black activists should be in the lead on advancing the national conversation on issues relevant to BLM, and moreover, I realize I am not the most educated and certainly not the most qualified to speak on these matters, my experience grounded in middle-class, mostly white suburban life.

All these things considered, and under the premise that “silence is violence,” I feel as though I have to say something, to take a stand. Over the past two weeks, I have had numerous conversations with friends, family, and co-workers regarding the protests and riots that have swept America and have even manifested in other countries where disproportionate brutality against blacks is very real. Some of the responses were illuminating, to say the least, and suggest to me that we need to keep (or, in some cases, start) having uncomfortable conversations about race, class, politics, social issues, and every intersection therein.

The following are some thoughts on topics related to the wave of protests we’ve seen. These thoughts are mine, meaning I take full responsibility for them, though I acknowledge that people with more complete perspectives have helped influence my views as they currently stand.

George Floyd was murdered.

Not killed, murdered. Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, with Floyd indicating at various points that he couldn’t breathe and numerous observers noting that Floyd wasn’t resisting (a common defense of police officers in situations like these which clearly doesn’t apply). Chauvin should’ve gotten at least a second-degree murder charge and the officers accompanying him likewise deserved their aiding and abetting charges for doing nothing while Floyd was being effectively choked to death.

I don’t give a shit about Floyd’s medical or criminal history.

So what if Floyd had underlying health conditions that contributed to his death. So what if he had a criminal record, and no, I don’t know anything about whether he does or doesn’t have one. The man had someone kneeing on his neck for close to nine minutes. That’s why he died.

I also don’t care if he was apprehended for paying with a counterfeit $20 bill. If Dylann Roof can shoot up a church in a racially-motivated attack and walk away with his life, it’s ridiculous to invoke Floyd’s reason for apprehension. George Floyd shouldn’t have died as a result of that encounter, full stop.

There’s no way Amy Klobuchar should be considered as a vice presidential nominee.

I feel like this goes without saying now, and even before the revelation she failed to hold Chauvin accountable for his role in prior incidents as Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar was arguably a weak pick given her poor standing with voters of color and the idea that she wouldn’t have much to offer in the way of policy ideas to buttress a campaign in Joe Biden’s that has been largely devoid of specifics. With what we now know, picking Klobuchar for VP would feel downright suicidal.

Looting is not violence.

I get that people see looting and have strong opinions about it. I mean, who wants to have their things stolen or destroyed? Also, there’s the matter of not all businesses/structures being the same. If the target is, ahem, Target? I’m not very sympathetic. If people are looting a small business, especially a minority-owned business? That’s more deserving of sympathy.

To the extent that some individuals might be using these protests as an excuse to purely wreak havoc, I can’t say I support their actions. That said, looting is still a form of protest against an unjust system, one that has thus far resisted peaceful attempts to promote reform. Furthermore, property can be rebuilt or replaced. Human lives cannot. For this reason, equating looting with police brutality is a false equivalency and anyone wielding this argument in bad faith should be summarily dismissed.

Who has been responsible for most of the violence since these protests began? The police.

In video after video, the scene is set: Protests are peaceful until the cops come or decide to intervene. Whether it’s beating people with batons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, or simply going out of their way to push, kick, drag or otherwise physically abuse civilians, uniformed police have frequently been among the worst agitators and perpetrators of violence of anyone involved. Even when there has been provocation, such as throwing bottles or rocks, often there’s a clear disparity of power and resources at work. These officers will be equipped with riot gear and weapons against otherwise unarmed protesters. If it comes down to it, that’s not a fair fight, and it’s not even close.

In one particularly egregious example, Aaron Torgalski, a member of Buffalo’s police department, intentionally knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground, whereupon he hit his head and started bleeding profusely. Not only did most officers not immediately rush to help the man, however, but some officers either walked past him or seemed to barely notice him lying motionless on the ground. To make matters worse, Buffalo PD tried to claim the man tripped and fell, when video evidence clearly indicates otherwise.

At this writing, the victim (who was white, not that it should matter, but just in case you were thinking this was purely about race) is thankfully stable but in serious condition. Regardless, this kind of unprovoked attack is reprehensible. It should be noted too that protesters aren’t the only ones who have felt the wrath of police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Numerous journalists have been arrested, beaten, shot at, or otherwise intimidated by police despite clearly identifying themselves by their profession.

In one instance, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez was arrested on live television by Minnesota state police. Sure, there were apologies following this incident, but it’s absurd that it even happened in the first place, and journalists shouldn’t have to be afraid of doing their job. These examples of police violence against journalists are part of a disturbing global trend of increased violence against journalists. So much for the constitutional guarantee of a free press.

No, Senator Cotton, don’t send in the troops

That President Donald Trump would seek to invoke the Insurrection Act to send the military to states and quell protests unsolicited is enough to give one pause. That he would be echoed by sitting members of Congress, meanwhile, is unconscionable.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who indicated on Twitter earlier in the week that he would support offering “no quarter” to rioters (which, to be clear, is considered a war crime), penned an editorial titled “Send in the Troops,” which ran in The New York Times Opinion section on June 3. That the Times would even run this piece railing against antifa and “insurrectionists,” let alone have its inclusion later defended by editorial page editor James Bennet, has prompted a sizable backlash from the public and staff alike, notably for its potential to put black people in danger.

Cotton’s editorial, which the Times eventually said in a statement did not meet the publication’s standards for editorials, has been labeled as “fascist” by several critics. Whatever you call it, Cotton should never have written it and The New York Times should never have published it. Shameful.

Antifa is not a terrorist organization

It’s not even a real “organization,” lacking formal leadership. Either way, anti-fascists haven’t been responsible for any killings here in the United States. Police forces, on the other hand, obviously have.

The “outside agitator” narrative is BS

One last thing: Claims that “outside agitators” were responsible for destruction and looting in various cities have long been used to undermine protest movements and were cautioned against by Martin Luther King, Jr.

They discredit the ability of protesters to organize effectively, they distract from the central issue of police brutality, they downplay the spiritual connection of these protests, they are designed to make protesters’ cause look unsympathetic, and on top of all this, they can be used to justify violence against protesters because they communicate the sense that these are not our fellow constituents who are being beaten and harassed. You are advised to regard this narrative with skepticism, especially if the source appears suspect on this issue.


As always with mass protests like these, the question of what to do next is a pressing one. To act like we haven’t tried to formulate answers prior to George Floyd’s death, though, obscures the efforts of activists to design and implement interventions meant to reduce deadly police violence. As part of Campaign Zero, a campaign created in the wake of Ferguson protests after Michael Brown’s killing designed to end police violence, its organizers have outlined eight ways police forces can modify their use of force policies to produce better outcomes.

The Police Use of Force Project prescribes actions to be taken against these failings of forces around the country:

  1. Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations.
  2. Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians.
  3. Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force.
  4. Failing to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
  5. Failing to develop a Force Continuum (which limits the types of force and weapons that are used in situational responses).
  6. Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means (before deadly force).
  7. Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning (before firing).
  8. Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten the use of force (on civilians).

A review of 91 of the 100 largest cities in the United States revealed no police departments of those surveyed employing all eight interventions. Fewer than half required officers to de-escalate situations (#1), outlawed the use of chokeholds/strangleholds (#2), required officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force (#3), restricted officers from shooting at moving vehicles (#4), required exhaustion of means before deadly force (#6), or reported all uses of force including threatening a civilian with a firearm (#8). Minneapolis, in theory, requires officers to intervene in cases of excessive force. Until very recently, it did not ban choking or strangling civilians. Whatever the rules at the time, on both counts, the officers culpable in George Floyd’s death failed their duties, demonstrating the notion guidelines must not only be created, but enforced.

As noted, restricting the use of force is just one part of Campaign Zero’s agenda, which also involves ending “broken windows” policing, community oversight and representation, independent investigation/prosecution, expanded use of body cams, training, an end of for-profit policing, demilitarization of police forces, and fair police union contracts. Calls for de-funding, if not abolishing police forces, have been widespread. In light of the short shrift community social programs seem to suffer in so many cities at the expense of soaring police budgets, the former, at least, seems overdue.

These are common-sense reforms. As protests continue across America, what is vital in preserving momentum for enacting real change is having the uncomfortable conversations we need to have and should’ve been having with those around us who don’t approach these matters from a progressive bent and who conceivably might be allies in the struggle to recognize that black lives matter. We can’t keep refusing to talk about politics and social issues because it is awkward or upsetting. We have to rip off the proverbial bandages and examine the deep wounds in our society for what they are if we ever hope to heal as one people.

George Floyd’s killer and his accessories have been charged. The winds of social change are blowing. Long after these riots and protests subside, however, and outside the scope of ending police brutality, there is much more work to be done to address systemic racism in our world and widening income and wealth equality that threaten to swallow the lot of us whole. This includes stepping outside our bubbles and challenging the views of those not yet committed to a better future for all.

We all have a part to play in this. Whose side on are you on?

Subpoenas Aren’t Optional, and Other Impeachment Musings

Apparently, being Donald Trump’s personal lawyer means you forget how the law is supposed to work. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In May, when former White House Counsel Don McGahn was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee regarding information sought related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible conspiracy and obstruction charges for President Donald Trump and other members of his transition team, McGahn willingly defied the subpoena.

For a political figure like Trump and others around him, that McGahn would simply no-show members of Congress is, while almost unprecedented, not particularly surprising. We’ve thrown out the book on presidential behavior and politics as usual so often lately that the binding is cracked and our arms are worn out from the repetitive action.

Still, you would hope as a lawyer that McGahn would have some respect for the law and legal precepts. Besides, and at any rate, you’re, um, not supposed to be able to up and refuse a subpoena like that. As Committee chair Jerry Nadler put it, “Our subpoenas are not optional. We will not allow the president to stop this investigation.” He also warned that McGahn could face contempt charges for failing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

This was several months ago, when House Democrats were dancing around the very idea of impeachment and seeking an alternate route to accessing information about Trump’s potential impeachable offenses. It’s October now. Needless to say, the paradigm has shifted regarding the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry. With a majority of House Democrats and even members of the Senate/presidential candidates favoring impeachment, and with Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly indicating plans to move forward with impeachment proceedings, there is yet greater urgency to compel prospective witnesses to comply with congressional ultimatums.

Unfortunately, that urgency is lost on these witnesses themselves. Sure, the exact circumstances are different than they were a few months prior. Pelosi and Co’s. decision to finally go ahead with impeachment was brought about by a whistleblower complaint which has since come to light from an unnamed individual in U.S. intelligence made in August.

Among other things, the whistleblower alleges Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky multiple times to investigate Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, regarding his role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. Despite Trump’s assertions, there is no evidence either Biden did anything wrong within this sphere of influence. As with the focus on Hillary Clinton and her numerous supposed scandals prior to the 2016 election, however, the suggestion alone may be sufficient to sway the minds of voters. And to be clear, Biden, despite numerous bad policy positions (past and present) and the real possibility he is losing his mind, is still the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Please excuse me while I bang my head against a wall for a moment.

Seriously, though, this is serious business involving Trump. Asking for a foreign leader to investigate a political rival not as a matter of national security, but as a matter of personal political gain, may be a crime and is probably an impeachable offense. Either way, and getting to the central point about testifying before Congress, persons of interest within the context of an impeachment inquiry should not be treating subpoenas as if they’re tickets to some voluntary information session, some theoretical event. As Merriam-Webster defines subpoena, it is “a writ commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure.” It’s not a request.

Try telling that to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though, who has admitted he was on the call between Trump and Zelensky and has stated that he won’t comply with a House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoena, has vowed to fight the deposition of other State Department officials in the service of impeachment proceedings, and who has labeled the committee’s “request” (which, again, isn’t a request) as an attempt to “intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.” As Pompeo would have you believe, committee chair Eliot Engel will personally hold down each of these “distinguished professionals” and take their lunch money, whereupon they will be given wedgies and quite possibly will be forced into their own lockers.

Trump personal lawyer and morning talk show resident-crazy-person Rudy Giuliani also has commented about a subpoena in terms of something to which he may or may not accede. Evidently, Giuliani has received subpoenas from three different House committees, but claims that before a “proper” decision can be made, a number of issues have to be weighed, including attorney-client privilege, “substantial constitutional and legal issues,” and “other privileges.” What’s that, Mr. Giuliani? Adhering to the law might involve the Constitution and other legal principles? You don’t say! Never mind that attorney-client privilege might not actually apply in your case because you’re such a blabbermouth. But I digress.

For a House committee issuing a subpoena, when one of the objects of its investigatory powers fails to acquiesce to its summons, what recourse does it possess? Well, one option is to involve the courts. Regarding McGahn’s earlier refusal to appear before Congress and to try to nullify a larger strategy of the White House’s to shield presidential advisers from being held accountable, the House Judiciary Committee filed a lawsuit in August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force McGahn to testify. The White House has claimed McGahn has “absolute immunity” from being made to testify before the Committee, a concept which has been used by past administrations but hasn’t been fully tested by the courts.

The problem with this route? It, well, takes time. As stated in the New York Times article linked above, this case could take months or longer to resolve. With a presidential election little more than a year from now, this is obviously far from ideal. As Judd Legum, author of the political newsletter Popular Information, and others have pointed out, meanwhile, another possibility exists in invoking inherent contempt.

Congress hasn’t invoked inherent contempt in more than seven decades, but in this case and given the gravity of the Trump administration’s repeated attempted erosion of the Constitution and democracy overall, it seems well warranted. It certainly is a more direct path to try to get a particular target to comply. Upon the passing of a resolution to execute an arrest warrant, the desired party is taken into custody, tried for contempt, and if found guilty, can be detained or imprisoned “until the obstruction to the exercise of legislative power is removed.” The legislature can also fine the non-compliant party for failing to observe its authority, as Rep. Mike Quigley has publicly observed.

If House Democrats are truly forthright about wanting to carry out an impeachment inquiry with any due sense of efficiency, they shouldn’t hesitate to invoke contempt for those Trump administration officials and actual freaking lawyers who apparently don’t know what a subpoena is. Sure, it may feel like an extreme step to some, particularly among the president’s defenders. Then again, as Legum would insist, “these are extraordinary times.”


Despite the notion many of us looking on at this impeachment business from the cheap seats have been anticipating such action for a long time now, an unfortunate byproduct of this unfolding scandal is that we have even more coverage of Donald Trump now. Visit one of the major cable news sites and witness the litany of Trump-oriented stories available for your consumption. Trump lashes out. Trump attacks. Trump, at his worst. Trump this. Trump that. Even in potential infamy, Trump’s name is everywhere. He couldn’t have succeeded better on this front if he had tried.

What’s particularly bad about this state of affairs is it pushes news items important in their own right to the back pages. The United Kingdom is still in political turmoil, trying to come to grips with the results of a Brexit referendum vote that seemingly never had a chance of being implemented smoothly in the first place. Foreign interference in the 2020 election is probable if not certain, with Vladimir Putin among those laughing about the very suggestion. Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia have yet to face substantive consequences for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and war continues in Yemen, of which the Saudis, aided by American weapons and aircraft, are key players. U.S. manufacturing is on the decline. The border crisis is anything but resolved. Deforestation and fires continue in the Amazon, a direct result of an ill-advised policy shift by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In short, there’s a lot of bad shit happening right now, and the fevered news coverage surrounding Trump’s legal and political entanglements obscures these real problems.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t be paying attention to the events and players relevant to the impeachment process. Even with Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the rear view mirror, so to speak, what we’re witnessing with Trump is historic and its own animal.

All the same, we should be cognizant of what we’re missing by dwelling on this single controversy. Besides, even if Trump were to be impeached and removed by Congress, that wouldn’t be the end of Republican control of the White House and Senate, nor would it magically put a stop to a rise in hate crimes and overt right-wing extremism in the United States and elsewhere. It’s not like he’s the Night King. Removing him wouldn’t mean the end of ugly rhetoric here in the United States and it wouldn’t essentially spell doom for the Republican Party’s attempts to stack the federal judiciary, target entitlement programs for cuts, and do other harm to the social safety net and fairness in representative democracy.

Donald Trump, members of his administration, and enablers of his on the outside like Rudy Giuliani may not have much regard for the rule of law. That notwithstanding, we shouldn’t treat their flippant dismissal of congressional authority as something to be considered acceptable or normal. In theory, no one is above the law. The Democrats and American news media would be wise to reinforce this idea in both their speech and actions, especially if we are to have but the semblance of confidence in them as institutions going forward.

Re Kamala vs. Tulsi, Problems Abound

Tulsi Gabbard tore into Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor and attorney general of California during the second Democratic debate. Harris countered by pointing to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and questionable appraisals of world leaders like Bashar al-Assad. They’re both kind of right. (Photo Credit: AFGE/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The second round of Democratic Party presidential debates is behind us, and I think it is safe to say that many of our questions about the field have been answered and a clearer picture of the frontrunner’s identity is emerging.

Kidding! Nothing is certain, everything is chaos, and dark psychic forces threaten to take down the world as we know it. My joking allusion to Marianne Williamson aside (she’s a trip, ain’t she?), things are very much up in the air regarding the path to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

The first night seemed to be a productive one for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, widely acknowledged to be the progressive leaders of the field. On this note, I’m really wondering what the point of CNN trying to showcase the likes of John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Tim Ryan was. Were they trying to certify them as mere pretenders? Or was this an attempt to “balance” out the leftists and/or rein them in?

If so, it arguably didn’t work, with Warren and Sanders getting in some of the best lines of the night against their centrist objectors languishing in the lower-polling echelons of the 20+ vying for the party’s presidential nod. Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and even the aforementioned spiritual teacher had their moments. Steve Bullock and his centrist brethren seemingly would be well advised to consider exiting the race as Eric Swalwell has done, but don’t let me, you know, rain on their parades.

The second night I admittedly didn’t watch as closely, but evidently, it had its share of memorable moments, if not more so than the half preceding it. Joe Biden once again seemed underprepared for the event, trying to do a delicate dance with his relationship to Barack Obama’s policies amid attacks from other candidates and apparently short-circuiting when attempting to instruct people to text to a certain number to join his campaign. Cory Booker, in an exchange with Biden on his record as mayor of Newark, accused the elder statesman of “dipping into the Kool-Aid when you don’t even know the flavor.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, another fringe candidate, faced interruptions from protestors over the city’s handling of Eric Garner’s death, shouting “Fire Pantaleo!” in response to the NYPD’s refusal as of yet to meaningfully hold the officer implicated in that incident accountable for his actions.

Perhaps most notable, however, was Kamala Harris’s disappointing performance in the eyes of her supporters after a triumphant first debate. Much in the way Harris exposed Joe Biden in the first debate on elements of his record, especially his stance on busing, Tulsi Gabbard potentially revealed a crack in her opponent’s façade, assailing her record as a prosecutor and later attorney general of the state of California.

Among Gabbard’s criticisms—which she is not alone in raising, it should be underscored—are accusations that Harris defended the use of the death penalty and brushed off evidence of wrongful convictions, ignored claims from sexual abuse survivors, and laughed off putting people in jail for offenses related to marijuana and truancy in schools. For Harris, trying to paint herself as a progressive leader, the attacks from Gabbard, appeared to broadside her. Cue the umpteen headlines about how Tulsi DESTROYED Harris.

Harris, for her part, fired back at Gabbard following the debate, helping set off a conversation that has spilled over into the days and nights afterward. When prompted by Anderson Cooper about the Hawaiian representative’s withering rebukes, Harris remarked that she doesn’t take the opinions of an “Assad apologist” like Tulsi seriously and demeaned her low polling percentage. Her campaign also invoked the specter of Russian meddling in American elections, suggesting Gabbard’s discourse was emblematic of propaganda from the Putin regime. Gabbard has since derided those comments as “cheap smears” designed to deflect from the real issue at hand concerning the state of criminal justice across the nation today.

It’s easy to take sides and get caught up in the win-or-lose, black-or-white dynamism of today’s political climate; Lord knows plenty of Internet and TV commentators have already taken sides in the war of words between these two women. Not simply to avoid confrontation, however, but there is room to appreciate how we can simultaneously agree and disagree with both candidates.

On Harris’s prosecutorial record, when confronted about it by Gabbard on-stage, she mustered, “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of the state of 40 million people which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.”

When asked further about it by Cooper post-debate, meanwhile, she dodged, pivoting to Gabbard’s low polling numbers and record on foreign policy. It suggests Harris is not altogether proud of the work she did or doesn’t want to invite the criticism from progressives. Either way, and regardless of Gabbard’s place among the field, she should have been able to defend herself over the course of the debate rather than after the fact and without her congressional colleague present.

As for Gabbard’s foreign policy stances, it’s, well, complicated. Having served as a medical operations specialist and military police officer in Iraq after enlisting in the Hawaii Army National Guard, she is critical of the policy of American interventionism that has characterized our nation’s foreign policy throughout its history, particularly as it intersects with our involvement in the Middle East. To this effect, she condemns the U.S.’s penchant for insinuating itself in other countries’ affairs in service of regime change and installation of leaders willing to acquiesce to American interests. It’s a position that commentators on both sides of the aisle are wont to defend.

Less defensible, however, is her relationship with autocrats of the Eastern Hemisphere as well as the political right. Gabbard has been adamant about the value of being able to meet with authoritarians like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to further a dialog, and at times has been—how shall we say this?—less than forceful in labeling Assad, for one, a brutal dictator and war criminal. In her own post-debate CNN one-on-one, she had to be pressed by Anderson Cooper on admitting as much. Gabbard has also praised Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Indian People’s Party, a Hindu nationalist party (Gabbard is a practicing Hindu), who has seemingly not done enough to curb sectarian bigotry and violence against Muslims in his country. If we are judging her by the company she keeps/seemingly fails to adequately condemn, Gabbard isn’t above reproach.

On this note, among the Democrats in the field, Gabbard has been a favorite among conservatives ever since her criticism of President Barack Obama for refusing to call jihadists “radical Islamic terrorists,” regularly appearing on FOX News programs like Tucker Carlson’s to discuss her views. Her isolationist worldview and opposition to regime change in Syria appeal to anti-war libertarians and far-right leaders. In the past, she has also opposed civil unions and same-sex marriage, though she has since expressed support for the LGBT community, and voted with Republicans in 2015 to make it harder for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to immigrate to the United States. When you’re championed by figures like Richard Spencer and David Duke—yes, that David Duke—it raises one’s eyebrows.

One can’t be sure how personally Harris and Gabbard take these matters. At heart, both are still Democrats and after the election, they’ll need to be committed to fighting the GOP’s agenda, whether they serve in Congress or the White House. It’s their supporters and how their relationship is portrayed in the media, on the other hand, about which I tend to worry. It’s one thing for Kamala and her devotees to downplay Gabbard’s charges about her record because the latter is a relative unknown or a supposed stooge of the Kremlin. What if Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg were to offer the same criticisms, though? And what will happen if Harris ultimately wins the nomination? You can be sure Republicans will come at her with this and worse.

As for Gabbard, progressives, some of whom are Bernie supporters who have favorable opinions about her since she became the first congresswoman to support him in his 2016 bid for the presidency, might cheer the notion of Harris being taken down a peg. Even if Gabbard does hold numerous positions agreeable to progressives and regardless of the fact she was the most Googled candidate after either round of debates, the reluctance at points to come down harder on Assad and other despots is problematic. At best, it’s something of a blind spot. At worst, it’s something more sinister, though this is not to accuse her in such a regard or anything. It’s simply troubling.

You can agree with Tulsi Gabbard’s remarks about Kamala Harris while still demanding accountability for her past votes and interactions with various world leaders. You can support Harris and dismiss Gabbard’s claims about her pre-Senate career, but you can also recognize this is a vulnerability of hers. Preferring a candidate doesn’t mean you need to apologize for her or him, nor does it mean you have to feed the media narrative of a “blood feud” or “catfight” by arguing with the other candidate’s backers on Twitter. At a time when social media helps amplify acrimony in political discourse, there’s room for a lot of ugliness in its elaboration. Two debates in, potential bad omens loom in the distance.


For me, the nature of the ad hominem attacks levied by Kamala Harris at Tulsi Gabbard and echoed by supporters of these candidates and those of other political figures is deeply disconcerting. As you’ll recall, Harris’s campaign, in deflecting from the matter of her checkered record within the purview of the California justice system, invoked Russian interference in our elections as a potential reason for why Gabbard might attack her in this way. Even before this, meanwhile, corporate media were making the connection between Tulsi and Russia.

It should be no wonder, then, that accusations of Gabbard being an operative of the Kremlin or her defenders being Russian bots were flying around wildly after the debates. To be fair, Russian meddling is a real concern for our country. The U.S. intelligence community has made this abundantly clear. That said, suspicion of criticism levied at an establishment-backed candidate like Kamala, feeding itself like the ouroboros eating its own tail, verges on McCarthyite paranoia. What about Bernie? He went to Russia once. Is he a tool of the Kremlin? How do I know you’re not a Russian bot? Your papers, please!

Even when people aren’t claiming that Vladimir Putin and the Russians are loving the debates for the discord and confusion they’ve supposedly helped sow within the American electorate, Democratic supporters and news outlets are keen to advance the theory that all this in-fighting hurts the Democrats and will only lead to re-electing Donald Trump. By now, Republicans are well practiced at making assertions like “Democrats want open borders” and “they’re trying to turn America into a socialist country” in standing by their man.

Both rank-and-file members and party elites seem to forget, though, that primaries are designed to parse out the differences between candidates in search of a single nominee. This is to say that, for a “big-tent” association like the Democratic Party, disagreements are inevitable, and besides, there is yet ample time to come to a single choice. Moreover, on the subject of GOP talking points, even Pete Buttigieg, backed in part by wealthy donors and Wall Street money, recognizes that these attacks from Trump and Co. are liable to frame the Dems as “socialists” no matter who ultimately gets the party nod.

Such is the nature of the beast in modern politics. Heck, even moderate Democrats might levy the same charges against certain members of the field. When alignments with billion-dollar industries and prevailing opinions about the necessity of hewing toward the center to win elections are at stake, leftists may be assailed by anyone to their right, regardless of party affiliation. Talk about your knock-down, drag-out fights.

November 2020 is coming up soon enough. There are still several debates to be had, however, not to mention elections in 2019 that stand to yet more directly impact our lives. Relatedly, it’s one thing if we use these debates to have an honest conversation about the candidates, their policy positions, and the future of the Democratic Party. It’s quite another if we allow ourselves to be swept up by divisive narratives which border on conspiracy theories and use mudslinging and personal attacks to squelch the kind of open discussions we should be having. Under the latter set of circumstances, it may not matter how active Russian agents are in trying to promote chaos. Not when all we need is the slightest push.