Don’t Mess with Robert Mueller

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Robert Mueller could probably kill you. Even if he’s just prosecuting you, though, you should still be afraid. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

What did you wish for in advance of 2018? One thing I am hoping for—but not banking on happening by any meansis that Robert Mueller and his team will be allowed to conduct their investigation into possible collusion between members of Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials undisturbed. As time wears on, my concern and the worries of many stand to grow as more and more Republicans begin to voice their opposition to the Mueller probe. Devin Nunes’ apparent assault on the credibility and unbiased work of Mueller and Co. is particularly troublesome for many, as Karoun Demirjian writes for The Washington Post. As you might recall, Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, stepped away from his involvement in leading the Committee’s own investigation into matters of Russia after he was accused of improperly disclosing classified information; this information was related to his own accusation of impropriety on the part of the Obama administration in exposing the identities of individuals tied to Trump on surveillance reports. Since being cleared of wrongdoing, however, per Demirjian, Nunes has stepped up his attacks on Mueller’s team and federal law enforcement agencies working with the probe, and while some Republicans in the House close to Nunes have distanced themselves from his tactics, other GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee seem willing to challenge the Mueller investigation with allegations of corruption.

The basis for any insinuations of bias or improper procedure herein seem to exist with respect to the revelation that members of Robert Mueller’s investigative team—who have since been removed from their roles—exchanged anti-Trump texts. Putting aside what appears to be that minor issue as well as other dubious proof of anti-Trump prejudice such as past criticisms of Trump by an FBI official and donations to Democratic Party candidates, there are those who object to the Mueller probe on the basis that it involves the criminal justice system into the workings of the executive and legislative branches. On both counts, though, there is ample room to debate whether these elements/qualities of the investigation merit a curtailing of or ending to it. David E. Kendall, an attorney at Williams & Connolly LLP, recently authored an opinion piece outlining his case for why Robert Mueller should be left alone. While we’re considering possible prejudice in forming opinions or effecting courses of action, it should be noted that Kendall’s firm represents Bill and Hillary Clinton, and has even since the time of the Kenneth Starr investigation into Bill’s, ahem, affairs.

Nevertheless, I would submit Kendall makes a compelling set of arguments as to why Republican criticism of the Mueller probe is overblown. First of all, on the idea that any anti-Trump prejudice has tainted the investigation:

In his Dec. 24 Sunday Opinion commentary, former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr proposed a “reset” of the Russia investigation in which Congress “steps up” to establish a bipartisan investigative panel and the “executive branch’s approach” changes from criminal law enforcement to some kind of nebulous fact-finding. Despite its bland profession of respect for the probe, Starr’s column was really just a subtler version of suddenly pervasive efforts by Trump apologists to undermine the investigation into Russian tampering with the 2016 election.

The reasons given for Starr’s reset are wholly specious: There is ostensibly a “drumbeat of criticism” aimed at special counsel Robert S. Mueller III which “has become deafening,” including “cascading revelations of anti-Trump bias.” This is true only on Fox News, in President Trump’s tweets and in the shoe pounding of the Freedom Caucus at legislative hearings. The claims of bias amount to some private comments of an FBI official criticizing candidate Trump (and other candidates). Despite the fact that government employees are entitled to have political opinions (so long as they do not interfere with their work, and there was no evidence of this), Mueller promptly removed this official.

The key thought in this reasoning is that there is no proof that any criticisms of Donald Trump as candidate or POTUS have impaired the investigation or have prevented it from being able to fairly assess whether there is evidence of the Trump campaign trying to collude with Russia and sway the 2016 presidential election. The obvious retort is that there is no proof these remarks haven’t compromised Mueller’s probe, but then again, that’s not how the law works—or at least is not how it’s supposed to work. You are innocent until proven guilty, no? In referencing Starr’s column in this way, David Kendall also responds to possible conflicts of interest regarding senior aides to Robert Mueller donating in the past to Democrats’ campaigns—which likewise do not mean the investigation can’t be conducted in a professional manner, as was the case when Starr conducted his own investigation into Bill Clinton’s conduct while at the same time being a Republican donor—and the idea that the FBI deputy director’s wife once ran for a legislative seat with financial backing from a friend of the Clintons, which has little to no bearing on Trump’s matters considering that this relationship has long since been disclosed and cleared, and besides, this deputy director is not even a part of Mueller’s team.

As for the notion championed by Kenneth Starr and others that a bipartisan congressional investigation is preferable to this independent investigation on Robert Mueller’s part, there are any number of ways that Kendall, or you, or I could attack this reason for a “reset” of the Russia probe. Before I get rolling with my pontification, I’ll let Mr. Kendall have the floor first. From the op-ed:

Starr’s misleading call for a “Watergate model” ignores the work of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. It is true that the investigations of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 were generally bipartisan and produced valuable information. But equally important was the work of the Watergate special prosecutor, first Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski, who fairly and thoroughly investigated criminal wrongdoing by President Richard M. Nixon and many of his top officials. It was that office’s successful pursuit of the Nixon White House tape recordings all the way through the Supreme Court, and its successful prosecution of several Nixon officials, that finally revealed the facts about Watergate.

So while a thorough, public, fair and bipartisan congressional investigation of Russian tampering would be terrific, good luck with that. Benghazi hearings anyone? The House and Senate intelligence committees have for months been conducting hearings on these issues, but these have been, particularly in the House, partisan, meandering, contentious and closed-door. And calling for a vague “fundamental . . . reset within the halls of the executive branch” on the part of the Trump administration is also utterly unrealistic. Firing the special counsel and all his staff would be the most likely “reset” by this White House.

Especially with the likes of a Trump apologist like Devin Nunes lurking, it would indeed seem unlikely that a fair investigation into Trump and Russia is possible in the current political climate. Either way, though, Kenneth Starr’s deprecation of Mueller, described by David Kendall as “a decorated Marine combat veteran, a Republican and a highly esteemed, long-serving law-enforcement professional,” is curious. I mean, the man was only able to serve as director of the FB-freaking-I for 12 years, a tenure that spanned presidents of different parties. If Robert Mueller, as a Republican, could challenge the George W. Bush White House on the use of unconstitutional domestic wiretapping and could disagree with the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in questioning terrorists, it is reasonable to assert that the man would be able to put politics aside to assess whether or not Trump and Co. acted specifically to obstruct justice. If the results of the probe thus far are any indication, after all, Mueller’s work has been fruitful indeed. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign director from June to August 2016, and Rick Gates, Manafort’s business associate and deputy of the campaign while Manafort was in charge, have already been charged in connection with the Mueller investigation. And Michael Flynn, the short-tenured Trump National Security adviser, has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacting Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. This would not seem to be small potatoes.

The above doesn’t even include important considerations about those pointing the finger at Robert Mueller, nor does it mention another facet about findings from the American intelligence community that seemingly gets lost in the conversation about the viability of the investigation. With specific regard to Kenneth Starr, for instance, and as David Kendall alludes to, Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton was highly politicized, and as far as Congress goes, the trend seems to have continued into fairly recent times. See also the Benghazi probe. Different Clinton, same (largely speaking) waste of time and other resources. Even more importantly, though, if we believe the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community on Russian meddling in our elections, then there is a formal acknowledgment of a deliberate attempt by Russia to hurt the chances of Hillary Clinton in the election and to disparage her in favor of Donald Trump, as well as to undermine the confidence of the American people in the electoral process. One might well argue U.S. politics has already done its part to grease the proverbial slope of eroding confidence in this institution, so it’s doubtful that the Russians should receive too much credit simply for giving it a push, if you will, but at any rate, the desired effects were achieved. Even if such meddling did not yield the same impact, however, the level of concern about the integrity and security of our electoral process should be very high, for democracy’s sake.

This dovetails into my own common-sense reasoning on the matter of whether Donald Trump and those around him should be above the kind of scrutiny that Robert Mueller’s probe entails. Owing to how serious the issue of corruptibility of the American electoral process isand by this, I mean primarily from foreign sources, though there would certainly seem to be enough to go around on the domestic frontif Republicans and their ilk are truly serious about national security, and not just in the arena of border security and terrorism, they would welcome this investigation. After all, Pres. Trump is presumed innocent, right? Going back to the Karoun Demirjian article about Devin Nunes and characterizations of the House Intelligence Committee investigation, if Democrats’ depictions are true, then numerous flaws plague this look into any possible Trump-Russia connections, including denied requests for documents related to/interviews of key witnesses, as well as a haphazard schedule marked by overlapping interview times that is difficultif not impossibleto follow. As Demirjian characterizes this situation, per critics of the House probe, it all amounts to mere window-dressing to make the investigation seem respectable, but in the end, the key figures behind it already have their mind made up to absolve Trump and undercut Mueller’s examination of the evidence. Assuming the Mueller probe is not an abject waste of time, then, what do we presume is truly motivating resistance from the right to its very existence? Is it pure partisan politics? Or, and not merely to be a conspiracy theorist, do critics of the Mueller investigation fear that Donald Trump and those close to him are actually guilty?


The obvious and present concern with Robert Mueller’s investigation is how Donald Trump—the big fish at the heart of this episode of prosecutorial justice, as many see him—might try to screw with things on his end. It makes the obvious and present follow-up question to this concern, “Well, can Trump fire Mueller?” In a word, kinda? Laura Jarrett, reporting for CNN, explores this subject in a piece (very directly) titled, “Can Donald Trump fire Robert Mueller? And how would it work?” Under special prosecutorial regulations, the President can’t directly remove someone like Mueller—that function would go to the Attorney General. As you might recall, Jeff “Hmm, Maybe I Did Talk to a Russian Ambassador After All” Sessions has recused himself from investigative matters related to the 2016 election, meaning Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller in the first place, would be the one to fire him. Rosenstein, at least from public statements, has indicated that he sees no reason to get rid of Mueller. (For the record, Trump, too, said he has no plans to send Mueller packing, but then again, the man is a lying liar who lies, so take his words with many grains of salt.) So, what Trump could do is fire Sessions, fire Rosenstein, and then the next person up could fire Mueller. Or, getting yet more theoretical, Trump could order the special prosecutorial regulations repealed and then he could fire Mueller himself. I mean, Trump has already broken with any number of conventions—what’s a few more?

The follow-up question to the follow-up question to the aforementioned obvious and present concern, then, is, “Should Donald Trump fire Robert Mueller even if he can?” Jarrett also addresses this, saying that, much as the decision to fire James Comey for apparent political reasons brought Trump additional and unwanted scrutiny, removing Mueller from the investigation would further suggest our President has something to hide. Furthermore, there’s every likelihood that firing Mueller won’t even kill his probe, as FBI Director Christopher Wray would take the reins and would presumably forge ahead with the investigation. The caveat to all this is, constitutionally speaking, the President of the United States is the head of law enforcement as the top dog in the executive branch. Consequently, if Trump were to give absolutely zero f**ks and get rid of Mueller himself, it doesn’t seem like there would be much legal recourse to challenge him on this point. For all the reverence the Constitution inspires, this apparent flaw in its design is one that Trump’s flippant disregard for this cornerstone of American law tests in a major way. The resemblance to Watergate, of course, is readily apparent. With Nixon, though, the man was facing certain impeachment and removal for his misdeeds. With Trump, there’s no same guarantee congressional Republicans would want to see him oustedespecially not after seeing their garbage tax plan get signed into law. By and large, the GOP is getting what it wants from Trump. Should, say, Trump’s approval rating become toxically low, though, or should Republicans lose control of the House, the Senate, or both, maybe the situation changes. That so much control is currently in the hands of President Agent Orange, Devin Nunes, and other sympathetic Republicans, meanwhile, is less than inspiring.

At least in advance of the 2018 midterms, though, it might just behoove Nunes et al. not to mess with Robert Mueller. If the opinions of voters mean anything to them, especially as regards their esteem of Mueller, they could be putting their personal political prospects in danger.

President Obama, Stand Up for Standing Rock

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President Obama, you spared two turkeys for Thanksgiving. After a holiday in which many Americans looked past the brutal history which belies the narrative told by white America, don’t look past the people of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. (Image retrieved from stupiddope.com.)

As part of his presidential duties, Barack Obama pardoned, in time for Thanksgiving, the final turkeys of his tenure from the highest political office in the nation. As a lame duck president, if Obama wants more than the sparing of two birds to add to his legacy in his final days as POTUS, he should stand with the people of Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and their supporters—before it’s too late.

Let’s walk things back a bit, though. What exactly is President Obama’s legacy, and what do we make of all this business in Standing Rock? On the first count, well, it’s complicated. Ask five different people what they think about Barack Obama’s eight years in office, and you’ll likely get five different responses. According to the most recent Gallup polling, at any rate, on approval of the job President Obama is doing, from the period spanning November 14 to November 20, 2016, 56% give the man a thumbs-up. This figure is under the high watermark of 69%, the average set across the three-day period from January 22 to January 24, 2009, when Obama was just settling into his new role as leader of the free world, but significantly better than the 38% nadir he registered numerous times after that 69% zenith, most recently in September of 2014. To put this in historical perspective, Barack Obama’s 32nd-quarter rating is about four percentage points higher than that of U.S. presidents across history. It is roughly equivalent with the approval rating enjoyed by President Ronald Reagan at the same point in his presidency (57%), a few points behind that of Bill Clinton (63%), and, ahem, leaps and bounds ahead of George W. Bush (29%). So, per the vox populi, Pres. Barack Obama is in line with what we’d expect from a person of his stature, and even slightly better.

While public opinion can inform history’s larger judgment of a president’s impact on the country, perhaps it would prove more instructive to view Obama’s two terms through the lens of major events within them. Accordingly, let’s review his seven-plus years and change and see what stands out:

Stimulus package/Economic policy

Even the most hard-hearted Republican critics of Barack Obama as President of the United States would probably tend to acknowledge the guy was handed a pretty rough deal in light of economic happenings at the time. The country was reeling from the global financial crisis known here in the U.S. as the Great Recession, and in a move designed to prevent the American economy from complete collapse, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, which authorized $787 billion in spending to combat the negative effects of the recession. The Obama administration contended that the various measures enacted under ARRA were necessary to avoid an even worse fate for the nation. Of course, this argument seemed all but lost on GOP lawmakers; in an example of the kind of partisan conflict Barack Obama’s initiatives would experience throughout his time in office, ARRA would only make it to his desk to be signed on the strength of Democrats’ votes, with just three Republican senators voting yea as the bill worked its way through Congress. Emergency spending bills, threats of government shutdowns—Jesus, the GOP really likes to play chicken with the U.S. economy, don’t they?

The Obama administration lobbied for a second such “stimulus package” later in the year, but this would fail to pass. By this point, Republican assassination of the legacy of the ARRA was well under way, with the idea of a “stimulus” bill proving wildly unpopular with the public. Still, it is not as if President Obama’s policies didn’t make an impact even beyond the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Speaking of large cash infusions to institutions, Obama presided over a second auto bailout to the tune of $9.3 billion more. Pres. Obama also signed into law a federal minimum wage increase up to $7.25, which is great for the workers it affects but falls well short of the $12 minimum wage Barack Obama himself had sought and which Hillary Clinton had stressed as a part of her economic plan during her campaign.

As for post-recession trends during Obama’s two terms, median income has yet to rebound from its 2007 pre-recession rate, prompting fears those incomes will never return. GDP growth has been positive, but not overwhelming. Short-term interest rates only recently increased after staying near zero for most of the Obama presidency. Finally, unemployment has seen a decline from its 10% peak in 2009, and lately has been hovering around a rate of 5%, but this figure is somewhat misleading owing to things like comparisons between part-time and full-time workers as well as inability to account for those who have given up looking for work. Broadly speaking, one might judge Barack Obama’s presidency, in economic terms, as one which averted disaster, but otherwise has been uneven to minimal in the benefits it has promoted in these key areas.

Other economic policy stances

The political hot potato that it always seems to be, the national debt has also been a topic of considerable discussion during Obama’s tenure as POTUS. While other countries faced austerity measures related to the global financial crisis, U.S. government debt has grown under Barack Obama’s watch, paving the way for conflicts along politically ideological lines concerning whether or not spending should be slashed in key areas. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the Simpson-Bowles Commission, was commissioned in 2010 to address ways in which the United States might significantly lower its debt. Numerous individual measures were suggested as part of this report, though the analysis that resulted from the Commission was broadly encapsulated by calls for spending cuts (e.g. cutting into our bloated military spending) and tax increases. Of course, suggesting we spend less on the military and take more from wealthy Americans generally doesn’t sit well with the GOP, so perhaps unsurprisingly, these proposals never received a vote of approval in Congress. Oh, well. The academic exercise was fun, wasn’t it?

Even before Barack Obama took office in 2009, Republican lawmakers were primed to give him hell on matters of the nation’s debt ceiling. When the GOP, buoyed by surging popularity of Tea Party Republican politics, cleaned up in the 2010 mid-term elections, and their voice got that much louder in the House of Representatives, debates over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling and/or effect significant cuts in areas like entitlement programs and military spending grew that much more contentious. Obama, to his credit, tried to negotiate with John Boehner and the other House Republicans on these matters. Predictably, that didn’t work in terms of a “grand bargain.” Instead, we got the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the debt ceiling, kicking the proverbial can down the road as per the usual, as well as established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which also didn’t work, and provided for budget sequestration, which would automatically take effect in case Democrats and Republicans couldn’t reach an agreement through the Committee. Which, of course, it did.

Later on in Obama’s presidency, in October 2013, there was a fun little government shutdown, again resulting from an impasse on concerns of a budgetary nature—this time, over whether or not to defund ObamaCare. The end result of that political kerfuffle was a resolution to end the shutdown, fund an omnibus spending bill, and raise the debt ceiling—again. The above conflicts, viewed out of context, can be viewed as a hallmark of a presidency helmed by a divisive leader. In reality, though, it takes two to tango, and since achieving a majority in the House and the Senate, Republicans have been every bit the stubborn obstructionists we might expect from lawmakers deferring to party politics. In other words, for all the griping about Batack Obama’s failure to reach across the political aisle, GOP lawmakers were awfully quick to slap at his hand on the occasions he did eke it out.

Foreign policy

There’s so much material here it’s difficult to know where to begin. We might have to look at some of the highlights within the highlights, so to speak. Here are just some of the areas that helped define Barack Obama’s time as the so-called leader of the free world:

1) Afghanistan and Iraq

Much as President Obama inherited an economic shit-storm with the advent of the Great Recession, the man inherited a veritable quagmire in the Middle East after George W. Bush plunged us headlong into armed conflict in not one, but two, countries. Noting the challenges presented by America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama should be afforded some understanding with respect to the tough decisions he was forced to reckon with as Dubya’s successor. Of course, this is not to absolutely meant to exonerate him either. On one hand, Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the Iraq War during his initial campaign, was instrumental in the substantial drawing-down of troops stationed in Iraq, at least prior to the rise of ISIS.

On the other hand, as advised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Obama authorized the expansion of American servicemen and servicewomen to a high mark of 100,000 in Afghanistan before signing an agreement to leave major combat operations to Afghan forces. If there’s one major criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the ongoing situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from my perspective, it is that it has been too eager to spin a narrative of success and close the book on our efforts in these countries when the ever-present threat of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and, within the former, the Taliban, exists and causes unrest. By the same token, this is not to meant to overstate their danger, but only to consider that the way in which we fight wars is changing, and to put a timetable on completion when deep ideological divisions lie behind conflicts on international and national levels almost invites that schedule’s destruction.

2) China/East Asia

China has been a toughie for Barack Obama as President, no lie. While more recently, the emerging power has seen a slowing of its economy, its overall improvement in stature on the world’s stage has meant that President Xi Jinping and Co. have been eager to whip their dongs out and swing them around. In particular, the U.S. and China have shared a rather tentative relationship of late, with periodic spats over issues like arms sales to Taiwan, climate change, cyber-security, handling of North Korea, human rights, and territorial disputes. If nothing else, though, the apparent declining support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—an agreement meant, if nothing else, to assert American economic presence in Asia alongside the People’s Republic—seems to have saved Obama from a potential stain on his legacy.

Speaking of North Korea, by the way, um, it’s still there, and still working on nuclear weaponry. Sweet dreams.

3) Cuba

So, that whole thing about Cuba being on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is done with. Also, recently, diplomatic relationships have been restored between Cuba and the United States, and economic restrictions have been loosened. Shit, Obama even went to see a baseball game down there! Cuban-American relations, in short, seem to be on the upswing. Then again, if Fidel Castro’s parting words before his recent passing are any indication, the U.S. would be wise to proceed with caution, and perhaps vice-versa. Castro wrote caustically that Cuba does not need any gifts from “the Empire,” and furthermore, that Barack Obama has not tried to understand Cuban politics. While it may seem as if everything is hunky-dory now, seeds of resentment toward America may yet exist in Cuba and elsewhere in lands touched by communism.

4) Drone strikes

Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with Barack Obama’s foreign policy stances over his tenure was that his administration saw an expansion of the drone warfare program set upon by George W. Bush. The predominant criticism with this bit of policy shift is that for all the terrorist figureheads “neutralized” by strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, numerous civilian casualties have resulted, including those of American citizens. A drone strike was even used to intentionally take out Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen and Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaeda, controversial in its own right for essentially being an extrajudicial killing OK’d by the Commander-in-Chief.

It seems more than vaguely hypocritical for the United States to police the world and portray itself as a white knight of sorts when it goes around bombing other countries, killing innocent people, and apologizing with a note saying “Oops!” We may not be terrorists per se, but indiscriminately flexing our military muscles with little regard for collateral damage is a sin in its own right. And Obama is guilty in his own right, to be sure.

5) Gitmo

The obstruction of Republicans notwithstanding, that President Obama has been unable to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay as intended—a goal he has reaffirmed year after year, at that—has got to feel like a disappointment for both he and human rights advocates. Sure, strides have been made in reducing the number of captives at the naval base there, as well as ending the practices of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and referring to those being held in detention as “enemy combatants,” but that detainees can still be held indefinitely without being charged is gross overreach on the part of the United States government. From where I’m sitting, Gitmo’s legacy is a stain on our national character, and potentially giving Donald Trump and his appointees broad access is deeply troubling.

6) Iran

Republicans tend to get all worked up about where we are in our relationship with Iran, with two main triggers in this regard. The first is America’s resolution with Iran concerning the latter’s agreement to limits on its nuclear program and access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in return for reducing sanctions. To be fair, it doesn’t exactly warm the cockles of one’s heart to have to negotiate with a country that has more or less made “Death to America” a national slogan. Nonetheless, outside the realm of Congress and with no disrespect to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, it would seem as if there is high approval for such an accord, and I, for one, feel better about having some sort of understanding in place and approaching the situation with a greater sense of diplomacy than George W. Bush and his hawkish administration did.

The other issue that gets GOP politicians and conservative theorists alike all hot and bothered is a supposed $1.7 billion “ransom payment” (includes interest) to the Iranian government in return for the release of three American prisoners. The timing was suspicious, as I’m sure many on both the left and right can agree, but not merely to minimize this controversy, but I also don’t know what evidence there is that these monies were wired for the express purpose of hostage release. It’s bad optics, yes, but there is the possibility it is just that.

7) Libya

By now, most of America’s fixation on Libya seems to involve the events surrounding the attack on Benghazi. I remain critical of the Department of State’s handling of this situation, as I believe requests for more security and resources at the diplomatic mission were ignored by Hillary Clinton’s department, and suggesting she isn’t culpable because she wasn’t made aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya rings hollow when it can be argued that she should have been more aware, especially when she and others within the Obama administration were instrumental in pushing for Gaddafi’s deposition. While perhaps not the most egregious chapter in the book of Barack Obama’s presidency, America’s involvement in Libya during his two terms also doesn’t do much to allay concerns about our nation’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude when it comes to addressing international and national disputes.

8) Osama bin Laden

Oh, yeah. We killed that f**ker. Moving along.

9) Russia

Relations between the United States of America and the Russian Federation seemed to be moving in a positive direction, at least during Obama’s first term. Our president and their president signed a major nuclear arms control agreement. Russia joined the World Trade Organization, and the two countries were doing business again. The U.S. and Russia—Russia and the U.S.—we were like BFFs! And then Vladimir Putin took the reins again in Russia, and that got shot to shit. With actions such as the annexation of Crimea, repeated incursions into the Ukraine, and propping up the deadly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Putin’s militarism has put his country on a course directly at odds with the “reset” Barack Obama had envisioned for U.S.-Russia relations. Most recently, probable interference of the Russians in American electoral affairs—needless to say, so not cool. Obama has caught a lot of flak for not meeting Putin’s shows of force with the same contentious spirit, but I applaud his administration’s levelheadedness, as too much fuel on the fire could lead to an escalation of any conflict, armed or otherwise. Sometimes, restraint is the best policy. Looking at you, President-Elect Trump.

10) Syria

Speaking of Syria, it’s a mess. Assad, insurgent forces, ISIS, Russia, and the U.S. launching airstrikes—and the proud people of a country with a rich history caught in between. It’s a devastating situation, and no doubt you’ve seen some of the photos of the carnage. In November of last year, Barack Obama announced a plan to resettle some 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. If you ask me, the number should probably closer to 100,000—conservative Republican rhetoric be damned. Though the civil unrest is a conflict of a military nature, the suffering within Syria is a fundamentally human issue. Pres. Obama did not cause this war. He and Hillary Clinton did not give rise to ISIS. As such, he alone cannot solve the complex problems within the Syrian state. Alongside cooperation with neighboring countries, what we sorely need is compassion for the people affected by the fighting in Syria.

Social policy/domestic initiatives

Again, there’s a lot of ways we could go with topics under this heading, but seeing as we’ve already been through a lot of material, I’ll try to be briefer on this end. The domestic initiative most synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as ObamaCare. There are a lot of ObamaCare haters out there, and in light of this antipathy, even staunch Democrats have found themselves hard-pressed to defend the ACA. For my part, though the initial execution may have been flawed (recall all those early problems with Healthcare.gov), this initiative does put us closer to where we need to be in terms of universal healthcare—which is a right, mind you, or should be. The notion of any sort of mandate, be it required of employers or individuals, it would seem, really sticks in the craw of its detractors, but despite the hooting and hollering about government overreach from the right and railing about the burden on small businesses, having large numbers of uninsured Americans creates its own costs, and potentially larger ones at that down the road. ObamaCare is not perfect, but to label it an outright failure is more than a little misleading.

On other dimensions of domestic policy, Pres. Obama’s initiatives, if not particularly far-reaching, can be once more understood within the context of an obstructionist Congress. Barack Obama signed into law a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but only on the strength of support from Democratic lawmakers. Though the Obama administration saw a record number of deportations, Obama himself has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, and signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy into law—even though he has been fought tooth-and-nail on both issues. Attempts to pass sensible gun law reform have been, in a word, cock-blocked by Republicans’ subservience to the NRA. And anyone thinking Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency would magically fix what ails the nation in terms of racial prejudice has full permission to go screw. As recent political events have brought to the forefront, there is a lot of deep-seated racism present in the United States, the likes of which Jesus Himself couldn’t hope to overcome. To those who would brand Barack Obama as a divider and not a uniter, I must express my doubts about how seriously you were willing to be united in the first place—that is, on terms other than your own.


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Mr. President, you shed tears for the victims of gun violence. Will you do the same for the people of Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the planet? (Photo Credit: AFP)

Full disclosure: I used and thank Wikipedia’s page on Barack Obama’s presidency for serving as a template for my personal opinions on his administration’s policies in light of the challenges he has faced. If you do check that link, you’ll notice I omitted two sections. One is science, technology, and the environment, a lot of which I found to be dry and uninteresting, quite frankly, and since this post is long enough already, I opted to scrap it, though environmental concerns are related to the discussion soon to follow. The other section, meanwhile, is ethics, and it is at this point which I’ll strive to make the connection to Standing Rock. Overall, I feel Barack Obama, who easily outpaces George W. Bush in leadership skills and sound foreign policy navigation (not exactly the most difficult achievement), if I may say so myself, has done a fairly good job at steering the nation along a path of incremental progress, a job made that much more difficult by the obstinacy of the GOP.

This notion of the virtue of incremental progress, however, in itself a limiting factor, and thus, in general terms, is at the same time a major criticism of the Obama occupancy of the White House—that his policies haven’t gone far enough, even noting Republican resistance. Don’t get me wrong—I like Barack Obama. As a person, I think he’s got a great personality, not to mention a beautiful family and a wife and First Lady in Michelle who may be as capable a leader as he, if not more so. Nevertheless, there are points where I disagree with the President, a notion some Democratic Party loyalists treat as tantamount to disrespect or even heresy. On an economic front, as alluded to earlier, I disapprove of Obama’s stubborn adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a true Bernie Sanders devotee, I also find fault with his administration’s seeming unwillingness to go beyond the provisions of Dodd-Frank, as many would agree is necessary to keep Wall Street in check, including but not limited to reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, not to mention his extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Within the sphere of social policy, too, for all the reforms made in the intersection of the criminal justice system and drug laws, the war on drugs still rages on, and the DEA is still wont to equate marijuana with a drug like heroin, while substances like alcohol, opioids and tobacco are easily accessible.

Additionally, invoking again matters of ethics, for a president who vowed that lobbyists wouldn’t find a place in his White House and that his administration would be the most transparent in history, Barack Obama has waffled if not deliberately violated these precepts. If we add the revelation of the existence in 2013 by Edward Snowden of the PRISM mass electronic surveillance program as a function of the NSA, the willingness of the Obama administration to cross ethical lines, if not legal and constitutional lines, is all the more unsettling. If we bring contemplations of social and moral responsibility into the mix, meanwhile, while, again, Obama has fared significantly better than his predecessor, as regards the environment, it’s yet a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Pres. Obama has identified climate change as the biggest threat the nation and world faces, and has set forth legislation on numerous occasions designed to cap carbon emissions and overall reduce the United States’ emissions footprint. On the other hand, Obama has only nixed domestic offshore drilling and other projects like the Keystone XL extension because they weren’t economically viable, not for strict adherence to environmental principles. Do as I say, not as I’d do if the money were better.

Enter the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Some background information, first. Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 natural gas and propane firm, seeks to construct a pipeline that would run from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota to a point in southern Illinois, going underneath the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and part of Lake Oahe near Standing Rock in the process. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed pipeline would have little to no impact on the surrounding area. This assessment, however, has been judged by outside observers as being rather limited in scope, failing to analyze the situation in terms of a potential area-wide environmental impact, and since being asked to conduct a full-scale review by various related agencies, even the Corps has acknowledged it needs more time to make an adequate assessment on the impact the Dakota Access Pipeline could have.

That’s the good news, the delay. The bad news comes with how little attention the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the protests of its completion have received until recently, and just how severe the backlash has been against protestors from security guards contracted by those involved with the pipeline project as well as law enforcement siding with the corporate entity. There have been reports of guard dogs and pepper spray used on protestors, as well as concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in freezing conditions, not to mention the use of the criminal justice system to intimidate and silence journalists. Even if some protestors were being unruly, though, as North Dakota state police have alleged, this use of force appears disproportionate and harsh. What’s more, this treatment would seem to run at odds with how other superficially similar situations have unfolded. Making an allusion to the extended occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed militants, the coiner of the term Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza had this to say:

So let me get this correct. If you’re white, you can occupy federal property … and get found not guilty. No teargas, no tanks, no rubber bullets … If you’re indigenous and fighting to protect our earth, and the water we depend on to survive, you get tear gassed, media blackouts, tanks and all that.

The disparity seems pretty telling. In America, the sanctity of Indian lands and water sources evidently pales in comparison to the whims of the fossil fuel industry and white privilege. If you’re pumping vast sums of oil or you’re Caucasian and packing heat in vague protest of government overreach, you stand to fare better than a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor or, say, a black person stopped by the cops for a minor traffic violation.

Thankfully, in light of the apparent brutality shown toward these protestors, along with the sheer number of people who have stood with Standing Rock, not to mention several entertainers and other celebrities who have drawn attention to the plight of the reservation’s Sioux citizens and others who have suffered for the cause (for Christ’s sake, they arrested Shailene Woodley, of all people! Shailene Woodley!), average Joes like you and me are taking notice. One voice above all, though, would carry considerably more weight, and since I spent some 3,000 words talking about him just now, I think you know to whom I’m alluding. Barack Obama has been notably silent on matters of Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as were Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton once it became, for all intents and purposes, a heads-up contest for the presidency.

It’s not like his involvement hasn’t been sought, either. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader and voice for the Great Sioux Nation, has pleaded with Pres. Obama to keep his word with recognition of treaties with native peoples and to act when they are violated. Bernie Sanders has spoken at a protest in front of the White House and personally appealed to the President to act against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and other senators have urged him and his administration to do a more thorough environmental assessment of the project’s impact, as well as consider consulting more directly and openly with tribal representatives. Obama himself has even acknowledged Standing Rock Reservation and the associated protests by name on more than occasion.

Acknowledgment of the problem helps, and I encourage those of you who support resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline to use the hashtag #NoDAPL in your social media posts and dialogs. But we need action—not just from people like you and I—but from our leaders, those with the most direct path and power to affect change. And Barack Obama is at the top of the list. As noted, Obama and Co. has killed offshore drilling projects and the Keystone XL extension—though not necessarily for the purported altruistic reasons. Going back to his legacy, though, if ever there were a time to stand for something on principle, it would be now, and standing with the people of Standing Rock and the future of the planet over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fossil fuel industry. President Obama, if I may address you directly, sir—you are a lame duck president. Your political party just had its ass handed to it in the election, despite the results of the popular vote for the president, in part because people are fed up with politics as usual and the incremental progress paradigm of yesteryear. And while party loyalists and more moderate liberals may support you no matter what, those of us disenfranchised with the status quo are asking for more, and to boot, those on the extreme right are intent on destroying the best points of your legacy.

Which is why, Mr. President, now is the time to act. Stand with Standing Rock, because Donald Trump almost certainly won’t. Re-write the narrative. Leave one final meritorious page in the storybook of your presidency. I, concerned citizens around the world, and the planet itself will thank and remember you for it.

Hillary’s Benghazi Problem

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Fair or not, Benghazi is not going away, and Hillary and Co. will have to deal with the persistent notion she is untrustworthy leading up to the general election. (Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I keep reading that notions of Hillary Clinton being an unlikable and untrustworthy candidate are overblown. Poet Erica Jong not long ago wrote a piece in defense of Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness, though with all due respect to Jong’s artistry, her op-ed was almost sickeningly apologetic on her (Hillary’s) behalf. At one point, she even rationalized that Clinton would not go to war unnecessarily because she is a grandmother, and later, in closing, asked rhetorically, “Whom do you trust if you don’t trust your grandmother?” This line of reasoning is eerily and insultingly reminiscent of a post made on the Hillary Clinton campaign website, entitled “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela,” an instance of “Hispandering” so blatant that even I, a gringo, am embarrassed by it. Ms. Jong, Hillary is neither my grandmother nor my abuela, and frankly, you should be ashamed at the insinuation.

On Clinton’s likability factor, meanwhile, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee fares markedly better than Donald Trump, her likely opposition in the general election. This, however, is not exactly a crowning achievement. After all, in relative terms, Trump’s favorability is lower than that of Nickelback’s. Nickelback, for God’s sake! A Public Policy Polling survey found only 34% of respondents had a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. That’s lower than Nickelback, as well as the DMV, hipsters, jury duty, lice, and used car salesmen. And he didn’t exactly blow out cockroaches or hemorrhoids, either. You can point to gender-based double standards or an obsession with the Clintons on the part of right-wingers with an ax to grind, or any number of variables, but the numbers don’t lie.

So, yes, despite the insistence of scores of supporters that Hillary Clinton is likable and trustworthy (and don’t forget eminently qualified!), I, like many other prospective voters, have my doubts. For those in the #NeverHillary camp, there are any number of reasons why her objectors may disavow all current, future and potentially even former allegiances with the “Woman of 1,000 Pantsuits,” reasons which may be repeatedly pointed out by haters on both sides of the political aisle. She voted for the Iraq War, though to be fair, a lot of people did. As Secretary of State, she was instrumental in the authorization of military force in a number of situations that become that much more tumultuous and costly, namely in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria, and even Honduras, though that last one tends to fall by the wayside, despite the fact the U.S. government essentially aided and abetted a military coup. The Clinton Foundation has been dogged by allegations of conflicts of interest in accepting monies from foreign interests while Clinton was Secretary of State, as well as the notion it has been less than transparent in its dealings. What else is there? The E-mail controversy. The Goldman Sachs speeches. A supposed army of Democratic establishment cronies at her disposal. Questions about her ownership of a company incorporated in Delaware at a place known for being a haven for tax dodgers. And this is just the more recent stuff!

Perhaps no other Clinton controversy, however, makes the blood boil of the #HillNo crowd more so than Benghazi, a situation of such intrigue that it spawned a whole terrible Michael Bay movie about it (some might claim the phrase “terrible Michael Bay movie” is a redundancy, but I’m not here to argue the merits of movie directors). Not only have the events of Benghazi inspired films of questionable factual accuracy, but they have led to significant investments of time and money by representatives of the federal government trying to figure what the heck exactly happened over there.

Of course, that four men lost their lives following the attack at the compound in Benghazi is obviously galling to Hillary’s most vocal critics. Plus, it never helps when an armed conflict with foreign hostiles ensues on September 11, a date already of some import because of an attack on Americans, as you well know. That there seemed to be such confusion, though, or as others would have it, misdirection on the part of the Obama administration and Department of State after news of the violence broke has helped fuel the sense of distrust and suspicion that characterizes the response of many even today—three years, going on four—after the incident.

Why the patriots among us are so upset about the so-called “Battle of Benghazi” may largely be up in the air, and even those who possess a strong emotional regard for the government’s handling of the situation may not even be conscious of why they are so angry, or disgusted, or frankly scared. With all the subjectivity that affects our perception, let’s briefly review what we generally know to be true. An American presence in Libya began shortly after the onset of the Libyan Civil War in February 2011, with eastern Libya and Benghazi relied upon as important intelligence-gathering hubs. From this vantage point, the CIA looked to keep watch on Al-Qaeda and supporting Libyan militias, as well as assess where it might derive leadership and support among the rebel forces going forward. By 2012, signs of unrest possibly related to a growing threat from Al-Qaeda in the region started to surface. In particular, an assassination attempt on the British ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith, and an attack on the Tunisian consulate prompted fears that a similar threat awaited the U.S. diplomatic presence there. Despite two requests for additional security at the American mission in Benghazi, those requests were denied, nor was it decided the mission should close outright. The Americans stationed in Libya, in short, were at risk.

As noted, there were ultimately four American fatalities in the attack: Glen Doherty, a contractor with the State Department and former Navy SEAL; Sean Smith, an information management officer with the United States Foreign Service; J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya; and Tyrone Woods, who also contracted with the government in a defense role. In the wake of the Battle of Benghazi, the initial report from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was that the violence at the diplomatic mission was the product of spontaneous protests to The Innocence of Muslims, a blatantly anti-Muslim film made by a man previously convicted of bank fraud and intent to manufacture meth, and even more amateurish than Michael Bay’s Benghazi movie. Awful as the movie was, and as real as the sense of outrage was in Arab countries surrounding this poor excuse for a student film project, the idea that the sudden reaction to the film’s existence led to the assault on the mission continued to be pushed despite mounting evidence that the attack was a coordinated and planned assault. As Sen. John McCain and others saw it, that weeks after the incident at Benghazi, a clear picture of what transpired on September 11, 2012 hadn’t yet developed, this much suggested the Obama administration was trying to sell the idea that Al-Qaeda was “on the wane,” and furthermore, that it was “either willful ignorance or abysmal intelligence” to think what happened at the mission wasn’t a specifically directed terrorist attack.

OK, so now that we’ve got that short (kinda, sorta) background information behind us, let’s get up to speed on present doings a-transpirin’. The Select Committee on Benghazi just released a new proposed report regarding the attack on the American diplomatic post in Benghazi. The Committee, a bipartisan 12-member group within the House of Representatives but led spiritually, if you will, by Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, advertises this report with the tagline, “81 New Witnesses, 75,000 New Pages of Documents Reveal Significant New Information, Fundamentally Changes the Public’s Understanding of the 2012 Terrorist Attacks that Killed Four Americans.” Wow, look at all those capital letters! A word of warning should you choose to click on that link: the language on the page exhibits a bias the size of Saudi Arabia. “More than 10,000 Days of Delays,” it cries! A statement on Democrats’ “So-Called ‘Report’,” it offers! “#DishonestDems can’t keep their misleading claims straight,” it calls out to anyone who will listen!

Rather than sift through all that documentation, what are those familiar with the report saying of its essential findings? The general consensus seems to be that even with all this new testimony and ink-and-paper regarding what happened back in 2012, there is no “bombshell” or “smoking gun” pointing to Hillary Clinton specifically. Accordingly, Hillary supporters and high-ranking Democrats have characterized this latest fact-finding effort, which Republicans spearheaded, as little more than a farce, a sham, or a witch hunt. Whatever term one chooses, there is no doubt this action by the Select Committee was politically motivated, as was the timing of the report’s release. Paired with the exhaustive hearings on Benghazi in October 2015 which also failed to stick anything of major substance to Clinton, the $7 million spent to plumb the depths of the Benghazi story are accordingly being viewed by many as a shameful waste of taxpayer money.

Be all of this as it may, the report is not without its due criticisms of the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, and of the State Department’s use of intelligence. According to Stephen Collinson of CNN, who reported on the report (gee, that sounds weird), the Committee finds that Clinton and other administration officials did not adequately assess the risks with maintaining a functioning diplomatic mission while trying to find a suitable location for a permanent consulate, and that the failure to distinguish the compound at Benghazi as a “permanent consulate,” in light of the evident dangers, guaranteed it would be perilously short on key security resources. Hillary has stated “there was no actionable intelligence” indicating a planned attack, and that she neither approved nor denied a request for more security because it never got to her.

Either way, though, the applicable subtext does not inspire comfort. If Hillary Clinton was, in fact, aware of the risks, chose not to act on them, and is lying after the fact, this much is certainly egregious. On the other hand, assuming she is telling the truth—that she lacked sufficient knowledge of what was going on in Libya—it’s puzzling as to why, especially after a second request for more resources. Even without J. Christopher Stevens’s assessments of the deteriorating situation around the mission, one might argue that Clinton, as Secretary of State, should have been more proactive in determining whether or not American agents should have remained in a hostile environment. As Jim Jordan, Republican representative from Ohio and co-author of the latest GOP report on the matter reasons, “Why were we still in Benghazi when almost every other country had left?” Again, I have no doubt that there is a strong political motivation underlying the tenor of the Republican response to the Select Committee’s findings on Benghazi, but this question isn’t completely out of bounds.

Critics of GOP efforts on the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have suggested that the only point in ripping open old wounds, so to speak, is to damage Clinton’s credibility. To what it extent it might actually work or has already worked is unclear, though with Hillary and Donald Trump effectively deadlocked in the most recent Quinnipiac survey, there might be something to Democrats’ contention. Nevertheless, it is not as if Hillary Clinton herself is known for her clarity on any number of issues. Whether fair or unfair, her questionable sense of accountability for the deaths of four Americans—which may have been preventable—is just one instance in a string of examples where transparency has seemed to be lacking. The speeches. The donors. Her “legitimate company” based in Delaware. Etc., etc. Clinton backers get rather defensive about the attacks that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have made regarding her judgment, but when detractors from both sides of the political spectrum can make the same arguments, the collective reservations about Hillary’s character quickly add up, especially in the current climate of frustration with the political establishment.

Regardless of what I think, that so many voters—including, perhaps most significantly, independent voters—have a perception problem with Hillary Clinton is something with which she and the Democratic National Committee are going to have to battle leading up to November. To stress, it may not be completely fair, and her opponent has his own allegations of impropriety on any number of levels. Whereas Trump, however, can brush off questions about his leadership and fitness for public office aside as an extension of his “maverick” personality, it doesn’t appear Clinton is able to do the same, for better or for worse. The Democratic Party made its bed with Hillary way early in the 2016 campaign season, and whether this has to do with the connections she has forged within the party, with the “progressive” image it is trying to sell by pushing the first female major-party candidate in United States history, or both, it will have to live with the qualms that exist with respect to that candidate’s character. Hopefully, we won’t have to live with it, too, looking retrospectively from the perspective of a Donald Trump-led America.