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Yes, Prosecute Bannon

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 18, 2021

Why is there even a question about prosecuting Stephen K. Bannon – and other advisors to Donald Trump — for snubbing a congressional subpoena?  Since when is a formal summons optional?

For that matter, why are Republican members of Congress, including House Minority Speaker Kevin McCarthy, ducking responsibilities to testify to the Jan. 6 select committee about what they did or did not do on that insurrection day?

Bannon informed the panel last week that he would defy a subpoena, in accordance with a directive from Trump. No court has definitively said whether conversations with private citizens are covered by executive privilege, quite separate from whether the conversations were about things that are outside the scope of the job, to say nothing of illegal.

Why, in the end, isn’t Donald Trump himself, for whom a subpoena now seems an inevitability, not standing up before the committee, as he does regularly now before his public rallies, and answering proudly that yes, of course he organized and enjoyed watching a mob attack the U.S. Capitol in pursuit of resolving the massive election fraud he blames for having stolen the presidency from him?

Bannon has no “executive privilege”; he wasn’t even a White House employee at the time. Yes, the House should lower a contempt of Congress ruling on Bannon, and yes, he should be prosecuted for refusing a subpoena. Otherwise, take the subpoena power away from a body that cannot enforce it.

Where Is Trump?

Quite apart from whatever the 1/6 committee collects as a definitive accounting of who participated in the planning and organizing of that day’s rioting, whatever it learns about the plotting that went on in the Oval Office and the delays in stopping it, to me one central mystery about all this is why Trump doesn’t take credit for his work?

Does Trump think something went wrong on Jan. 6 or not? Does Trump need to protect himself from lying under oath about election fraud, or about launching a seas of illegalities in pursuit of his White Whale?

If Trump believes in the truth of his cause, why in the world is he using convoluted arguments to fight subpoenas to testify about the thing he wants to talk about every day?

Sometime this week, perhaps tomorrow, the committee, with the public blessings of Joe Biden to pursue those resisting subpoenas, will vote to recommend just that. Bannon face criminal contempt charges for refusing to cooperate with its investigation. It will be seen as an escalated legal battle over access to witnesses and documents that explain the thinking behind the Jan. 6 attack. If referred for prosecution, the Justice Department would decide whether to accept it and pursue a criminal case.

On the one hand, we have been led to expect full arguments to protect any conversations involving Trump’s last month in the White House—a claim certainly discounted for anyone not part of the administration.  On the other is the degree to which a president is allowed to pursue unlawful, even treasonous acts to bring down his own government.

The White House counsel’s letter by Dana Remus on this topic: “Congress is examining an assault on our Constitution and democratic institutions provoked and fanned by those sworn to protect them and the conduct under investigation extends far beyond typical deliberations concerning the proper discharge of the President’s constitutional responsibilities.”

The difference in interpretation will be exactly the number of Democrats and Republicans in the House, because, as with the impeachments Trump faced, this is about partisan politics, not justice. It’s about preserving the Cult of Trump, spilling out, as we have seen this week, into intratribal warfare among Republicans who fully embrace Trump as savior and those who do not.

No Executive Privilege

For his part, Joe Biden has told his administration to decline any claims of executive privilege to shield White House deliberations or documents in an insurrection attempt.

It’s easy to become lost in the whorl of legalisms, protocols and even the politics. Actually executive privilege is just that, a protocol, not a law. As The Times and others have explained, Congress is a legislative body, not a law enforcement entity, and its ability to compel cooperation and punish wrongdoing on its own is limited. Its investigative tools are only as powerful as the courts decide, and the process of waging legal fights to secure crucial information and witnesses is likely to be a prolonged one.

My question is simpler: If the campaign we know as the Big Lie or Steal the Election is not only true, but a just attempt to right Trump’s claims of election wrongdoings, why doesn’t Team Trump want a public rumble under oath?

Why are Trump forces resisting the chance to make their ultimate case here rather than hiding behind would-be technicalities?

Of course, any answer that includes recognition that there were legal, moral, political, constitutional wrongdoings and actual crimes committed on Jan. 6 suggests that Trump cannot ever be allowed to serve as president again.

And any answer that includes arguments that there was no riot, that it was a peaceful gathering of patriots, that no one was stabbed, stomped or injured by Trump supporters brandishing flagpoles as weapons, that does not acknowledge calling for the public hanging of then-Vice President Mike Pence simply does not square with what we all saw with our own eyes.

The now-daily drip of memos, recollected conversations from around Trump, associated criminal cases that touch on roles during the Jan. 6 riot all point in a single direction: Trump was at the center of his own plotting that led, inexorably through thickets of individual attempts to pressure state election officials and governors to rewrite election results in Trump’s favor, directly to the Jan. 6 riot.

If Trump talks the talk, he should walk the walk whether in person, deposition, statement, video. Knock off the privilege and own what you did and continue to do to undermine democracy in these United States.

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Is Biden in Trouble?

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 17, 2021

News reports over the last several days have underscored the unpleasant phenomenon that the media travels in packs. Once a report or interpretation surfaces, too often it gets repeated endlessly, often with lots more brevity than nuance or context might support.

The targeted point of groupthink in this case are the discord among Democrats in Washington and the confluence of events that are prompting a general downward dip in Joe Biden’s polling numbers.

Even discounting for the usual evident partisanship among various news outlets, the narrative emerging over continued, but slow negotiation over big spending bills in Congress, over the messy Afghan withdrawal, over unnecessary detours to deal with threats of a debt ceiling crisis, the continuing battles over mandates for covid vaccines and masks and a resulting too-slow economic recovery all are contributing to a general decline in Biden’s approval ratings.

“As Democrats dither, Biden is bleeding out,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank this week. “His support has dropped into the low 40s.”

It’s a theme repeated in one fashion or another through both mainstream media outlets and cable television and ballyhooed by right-leaning publications as evidence to bolster Republican hopes to return to power. As always, we are left with the question of whether the media are following the news, the news is repeating the themes of the press, or whether the press is following its own nose for conflict as the basis of what passes as news.

CNN’s Stephen Collinson put it this way: “Presidents get into trouble when they are seen as controlled by events rather than the other way around. This is the situation now facing Joe Biden. The President is confronted by a slew of intractable domestic and global crises he has no power to quickly fix, a bunch of political crunches caused and exacerbated by his own choices and a deepening sense of a White House under siege.”

A Lot of Agreement

There have been some journalistic efforts to call for a moment’s more thought.

Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post noted that the groupthink is too narrow. Take the Democrats-are-doomed narrative with a grain of salt, he wrote, adding that while there is some truth in the current narrative, it lacks context.

Democrats, who are debating just how big a Big Spending bill should be, agree that some form of transformative legislation will get signed – despite the abdication of Republican lawmakers from the discussion.

In Talking Points Memo, Peter Dreier argues that the press, in its zeal for conflict and quick resolution, is missing the idea that 96% of Democrats agree on approving the biggest spending numbers that Biden has proposed, with opposition only from two senators whose votes turn out to be critical to maintaining a Democrat-only victory. Just a few members out of the hundreds of Democrats elected to the House and Senate are stalling the Biden’s agenda, he says.

Milbank says the ultimate details of these bills are less important than passing them. That would allow Democrats to offer a waiting – and apparently approving American majority – to go into election mode by offering specifics about help on childcare and health benefits rather than endless culture war debates.

“But until Biden can pin down Manchin, the bleeding will continue,” he said. Okay, that’s a bit more nuanced.

In the meantime, of course, Biden is being forced to take a huge paring knife to his bills, particularly for climate proposals, all to keep Manchin’s vote.

Challenges by the Bushel

There is no doubt that Biden has had more than his share of early challenges from ending the war in Afghanistan to covid to immigration to the refusal of Republicans and even his most “moderate” colleagues to move in tandem to face real problems.

That doesn’t make Biden or his team wrong-headed or incompetent.  Except for immigration, each individual policy question being constantly polled score high for his proposals, even among some of the most controversial questions.

But we can all acknowledge that Biden would have a stronger political hand at getting his policies adopted even in a split Congress if events would allow some traction.

Americans who follow politics are notoriously impatient for answers to even the most complicated questions. Biden is willing, too willing some might say, to let the most stubborn and entrenched points of view within his party to bring things to a very slow crawl.

Rising gasoline prices and inflation, a global supply chain backup and the pandemic won’t go away with a snap of presidential fingers. Covid alone has ripples that have made people slow to return to restaurant and hospitality jobs, and the frustrations over mask and vaccine rules are frustrating enough to emerge in physical fistfights at school board meetings.

We can all agree as well that Biden faces a political imperative to address the most immediate of issues if for no other reason than to forestall a Republican rout in the next elections. The answers here to approvals, image and polling seem to lie, as always, in Getting Something Done.

Someone needs to remind Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

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A Messy Energy Story

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 16, 2021

This week has brought a remarkable juxtaposition of energy-related headlines, with the usual over-simplifications belying the complicated conflicts that underlie our current situation.

Naturally, the big focus is on immediacy, so headlines underscoring rising gas and oil prices, the prospects of higher heating oil prices this winter and more-than-immediate inflation scares taking up more than its share of attention.

The mostly unchallenged narrative of the week centers on rising prices leading to economic slowdown – and inevitably, to blame for Joe Biden and his Democratic administration, for gridlock, for bad weather or just a worsening season of slow recovery because of covid. 

But, as it turns out, there were several news articles highlighting confusing developments, policies, and investments that either start with concerns about climate over that immediate demand or that remind us that the ever-present greed for profit will push all other concerns to the side. We even made a big deal about William Shatner spending four minutes in weightless space thanks to Jeff Bezos, but talking much longer about the need for climate controls before turning back to gas prices.

What made this week stand out, however, was to see all of it happening at once – both in the United States and around the world.

The News

Here were a few examples:

  • Rising prices for gas and oil, blamed on everything from supply line slowdowns to international competition for profit, suggest that U.S. households will be paying more at the pump and to heat homes this winter. A report released Wednesday by the Energy Information Administration predicts increased home heating costs will go up because fuel prices are rising, demand as businesses and offices return from last year, and some supply losses from oil  pipeline spills and hurricanes. Obviously, almost nothing answers U.S. consumers faster than paying more for fuel.
  • The Biden administration announced it is opening the entire U.S. coastline to wind farms by 2025. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said her agency is beginning the formal process to identify and lease demarked areas as part of long-term strategy to produce electricity from offshore turbines. Months ago, the government okayed the first major commercial offshore wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. It’s a major push to move away from fossil fuels.
  • At the same time, The New York Times reports that private equity funds are doubling-down on oil, pouring a ton of new investment into oil and gas, whether American-produced or not. Even as the oil and gas industry itself diversifies into renewable energies, “private equity firms — a class of investors with a hyper focus on maximizing profits — have stepped into the fray. Since 2010, the private equity industry has invested at least $1.1 trillion into the energy sector — double the combined market value of three of the world’s largest energy companies, Exxon, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, according a new analysis by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a nonprofit that pushes for more disclosure about private equity deals. Only 12% of their investment went into renewable power, like solar or wind, since 2010, though those investments have grown at a faster rate, according to Pitchbook data. Ah, profit.
  • China, the world’s biggest polluter, promised it was pulling back from coal to produce electricity, but then this week announced a national rush to mine and burn more coal to help its suddenly lagging manufacturers. The New York Times reported that mines that were closed without authorization have been ordered to reopen, as well as coal-fired power plants. Financial incentives suddenly abound for coal, and local governments have been warned to be more cautious about limits on energy use that had been imposed partly in response to climate change concerns. In other words, someone should cut coal, but not us.
  • In the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, government-owned energy companies are increasing oil and natural gas production as U.S. and European companies pare supply because of climate concerns. To make up for oil cutbacks by Western companies, state-owned oil companies elsewhere are increasing production – and cost.

The Lessons: Complicated

By the time these stories – each of which is somewhat layered and worth more than a passing thought – get to television, they turn into one-liners. It’s wrong to understand them as pro- or anti-climate, as pro- or anti-business or any political interpretation that commentators cannot help themselves from pushing.

Rather, we might see them as the difficulties in helping to direct the massive shift in energy policies and environment, or even in reversing our decade-long trends of addiction to oil and gas.

It is easy to let slide that the United States has become a net exporter of oil, gasoline, natural gas, and other petroleum products as well as the principal leader of any international efforts on climate.

The next international climate summit is just ahead in Glasgow, coming as the U.S. Congress, because of two recalcitrant Democratic senators and resistance from the entire Republican caucus, refuse to look seriously at passage of a major spending bill to advance non-fossil fuel-based energy alternatives.

It remains relatively amazing that, as a country, we can neither find consensus to heat our homes or fuel our cars at lower prices or commit to an energy policy based on quickly building up solar, wind and other alternatives.

The headlines tell us that despite our best thinking, profit, short-term individual interest, and immediacy remain our biggest national values.

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Critical Racism, Not Theory

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 15, 2021

Amid the hullabaloo over “critical race theory” somehow staining our national image by acknowledging slavery and its continuing effects, our day-to-day lives are reflecting exactly the ugliness of calling out The Other.

We’re seeing a critical racism pandemic, not some debate about educational theory. It is a broad brush of denial that also strikes women, gays, trans people, and those of non-dominant religious and ethnic groups.

It’s not as though we must look very far to find public examples of people, prominent or not, calling out neighbors for Living While Black or running afoul of a Right-leaning view of acceptable gender, religious or moral identification. The source might be a teacher, a school parent, a movie star or, as it turns out, a football coach.

The forced resignation this week of Josh Gruden, the Las Vegas Raiders coach and former ESPN commentator, for repeated rude remarks over a decade about gays and Blacks should tell us something about the spread of shame.  Now there is interest in those with whom Gruden was communicating and over the rude team culture that gave rise to the original investigation.

The public attack by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, Republican, that homosexuality and “transgenderism” are “filth” is a wake-up call that homophobia is alive and well, drawing the defense of influential evangelical leader Franklin Graham who praised the foul-mouthed politician for “having the guts to stand up and tell the truth.”

Even as the rest of the country was acknowledging that Christopher Columbus had a dark side abusing and killing Native Americans, here was Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis rising on his hind feet to bay out tribute to Columbus for “courage, risk-taking, and heroism.” DeSantis said that those who wish to erase the day on the calendar “do so as part of a mission to portray the United States and Western history in a negative light as they seek to blame our country and its values for all that is evil in the world.”

Why?

Just where in this political movement that finds a need to defy history and demographic change towards preservation of a world of White privilege is it necessary to demean those who differ by skin color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation?

Why is posturing for more White voting districts and against affirmative action in hiring and promotion or acknowledging that there is more than one way to find a mate just so difficult? Why does the answer to a more productive White, straight life require a rotten shake for anyone non-white, non-Christian, non-straight? Why do we see that people nameless here find personal affirmation only by running down others for their identity?

Are we just to accept the idea that people need to express their anger and frustration by scapegoating others? Why do we as Americans preach human rights and then show that living by such principles is, well, optional at best?

We have serious, built-in, institutional racism and Otherism in this country, but these recent examples are all right out there on the surface. We hate our neighbors and seem only to want to pull up individual drawbridges around our home castles.  How does demeaning the hiring of a female football referee or a gay athlete help Gruden prove himself to be a better professional football coach? For that matter, does Gruden feel that football is only to be enjoyed by straight White men? Actually, these emails and their crude messages emerged in an investigation of an offensive work culture at the Washington football club, for which there has not been a full airing of other such behaviors.

Or is that lieutenant governor a better leader for publicly abasing homosexuals and trans people? “There is no reason anybody, anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality or any of that filth,” Robinson told a church congregation as the congregation applauded. “And yes, I called it filth. And if you don’t like it that I called it filth, come see me about it.

According to NBC News, A Southlake, Tex. school administrator told teachers that they need to “balance” use a book in the school library about the Holocaust if it is used in class, presumably with something that denies that the Holocaust took place or that preserves the Nazi culture. In what universe is this a reflection of appropriate “critical” thinking or preservation of American greatness?

Attacking The Other

Obviously, castigating The Other is not an American experience, but a human one. I exist at all because my mom’s family was forced to flee Hitler’s extermination campaign aimed at German Jews, and, as a family, we’ve seen plenty of anti-Semitism even in this country.

We see examples of people victimized over race, sexual orientation, religion or ableness all the time.

Serbs fight Croats, Hutus and Tutsis clash, Bangladesh is putting Rohingya people on an island, Indian Hindus are killing Indian Muslims.

To Live While Black in America is too often a prompt to call police or for vigilante attacks for walking in the wrong neighborhood, for purchasing a home, for integrating a school class. To request a bathroom that matches gender fluidity choices or to marry in a same-sex ceremony can still trigger public anger or dismissal. The list goes on and on.

Those who worry that teaching our kids a curriculum that encourages critical thought about what we do to one another daily should care a whole lot more about what we are saying about each other.

The important part of Critical Race Theory is the “critical” part. We need to re-learn how to think, and to think before we open our mouths.

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Tuning in Texas’ Abbott

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 14, 2021

Apparently, the Republican argument suggests, we should just forget about coronavirus and ignore a disease that has killed 700,000 Americans, variously overrun our hospitals, interrupted jobs, businesses, and lives, and has spurred a strong political resistance movement.

Even as some courts have already endorsed the idea of government mandates for masks and protections against contagion, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is challenging the right of President Joe Biden to act for public health as ““yet another instance of federal overreach.”

It’s apparently okay for Abbott to mandate against mandates not only for the state’s employees but for its private businesses as well. But, by contrast, it’s not okay for the federal government to tell Texas, Florida, or any state what to do about a pandemic that knows no bounds, or for companies with more than 100 employees.

That Texas is only now beginning to emerge from two months or more of spiraling covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths is not the focus of this dust-up over the rules. Rather, it’s a bald political showdown.

Frankly, it’s disgusting, no matter what one’s politics are. No, this drawdown borders on insanity. Why do we have time, energy, and money available for endless court battles over who’s really in charge?

Has Abbott not heard of the telephone, to simply call Biden and engage in some debate if they disagree?

In any event, airlines based in Texas are moving ahead with mandates anyway, guaranteeing more tumult, not less.

Why It is Strange

It is such a strange battlefield that we need to look at it for what underscores this continuing Texas rebellion, especially since it spreads so quickly to other Republican-led states. Several things that question our general understanding are coming to the surface simultaneously.

Discussion about countering a pandemic seems futile. Whenever one side of our cultural divide talks about medicine, the other is talking about rights, including the right to be as sick as one chooses and the right to infect others. We’ve passed the time of legitimate discussion about immediate health effects of vaccines; that is not even on the table in these moves by Abbott, who has been vaccinated and who has undergone a mild form of covid. The anti-vax position has become nearly fully a political one. By all medical standards, having had covid is no guarantee about carrying the contagion further or even to protection beyond some undetermined but finite time.

Blame for covid under anti-vax is limited now only to the also endless debate over its origin from nature or from a man-made process in a China laboratory, either as the result or by-product of some National Health Institute grant over a study of interspecies transmission. There is no acknowledgment that efforts to keep more than 30 percent of adult Americans unvaccinated is a problem that manifests as a continuing public petri dish of mutation. Meanwhile, The Right is actively blaming Biden for high gas taxes, for a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, clogged supply lines and sagging international dominance – because they all are happening on Biden’s watch.

Spending zillions of dollars on treatments for those who already have covid may blunt hospitalizations but does nothing to halt spread of an airborne contagion. Yet, we’re seeing tons of support across the political spectrum to spend $2,000 a dose for antibody treatments now emerging even in pill form rather than a $20 vaccine. For those who also argue against Biden’s big spending proposals as wasteful, this position seems, well, incongruous.

The legal arguments here are arcane, as well as, frankly, ludicrous to you and me and our jobs. Is this more about state power versus federal power in a constitutional republic than about a chance to jack up Biden and ignore a public health menace? The force of law seems to favor the federal government acting in an emergency. The practical concerns for businesses like American Airlines based in Dallas pulled among conflicting mandates from the feds, the state and demands of consumers are simply not as important to this governor as a political principle.  

By all accounts from all political viewpoints, telling businesses what they cannot do is seen as antithetical to a “conservative” view that wants government restraint.

If It Quacks. . .

It is much more understandable to see the Texas challenge over covid mandates right alongside the Texas challenge over abortion, over voting rights, over environment and even over issues of immigration.

That is, Texas politics demand that Abbott, running at least for reelection if not for president, must protect himself from absolutists even more right-wing than he himself believes. This week, we saw hardliner Republican candidate Allen West continuing to tweet from his covid hospital bed against vaccine mandates and for expensive alternative treatments. Don Huffines, a former Texas state senator who is challenging Abbott, tweeted that “Greg Abbott is a political windsock and today proves it, He knows conservative Republican voters are tired of the vaccine mandates and tired of him being a failed leader.”  Apparently in response to a Huffines criticism that a state website to help teen suicide might be fostering trans discussions, Abbott had the site pulled.

About 15 million Texans have been fully vaccinated, or just over half, lagging the national average.

Why kowtowing to a minority of voters in hopes of reelection is a bit of a mystery to me. But the reason for anyone to run for governor or president should be to solve problems.

It’s hard to see what problem this governor is solving other than his own political dreams.

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