Our Caesar Can the country come back from Trump? The Republic already looks like Rome in ruins.

“in so many ways, ancient Rome is profoundly different from the modern U.S. It had no written constitution; it barely had a functioning state or a unified professional military insulated from politics. Many leaders were absent from Rome for long stretches of time as they waged military campaigns abroad. There was no established international order, no advanced technology, and only the barest of welfare safety nets.
But there is a reason the Founding Fathers thought it was worth deep study. They saw the destabilizing consequences of a slaveholding republic expanding its territory and becoming a vast, regional hegemon. And they were acutely aware of how, in its final century and a half, an astonishing republican success story unraveled into a profoundly polarized polity, increasingly beset by violence, shedding one established republican norm after another, its elites fighting among themselves in a zero-sum struggle for power. And they saw how the weakening of those norms and the inability to compromise and mounting inequalities slowly corroded republican institutions. And saw, too, with the benefit of hindsight, where that ultimately led: to strongman rule, a dictatorship.”

Trump’s purge of inspectors general, explained

“Linick isn’t the first inspector general Trump has lost confidence in recently. Since April, the president has fired two permanent IGs and replaced three acting inspectors general.
This has raised fears that the president — who has balked at pretty much any form of oversight during his tenure — is now targeting the watchdogs serving in his administration. Especially those who, in the course of doing their jobs, embarrass or implicate the president and his close associates in wrongdoing.

Trump does have the power to fire inspector generals, who, as executive branch appointees, serve at the pleasure of the president. But inspectors general are tasked with auditing and investigating that same executive branch — a job that could become increasingly challenging if these officials face retaliation for what they audit and investigate.

Congress and the American people rely on inspectors general, at least in part, to help the government run more efficiently and fairly. Inspectors general do not always succeed in this aim, but undermining the institution could be detrimental to oversight.”

“Congress purposely designed these roles to be slightly different from the average political appointee. “The original legislation built in a number of signals, if you will, that this person was supposed to be independent,” said Charles A. Johnson, professor emeritus of political science at Texas A&M University and co-author of US Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times.

Inspectors general, Congress said, should be selected “without regard to political affiliation” and “solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability” in fields like financial management, law, and public administration.

In 2008, Congress reformed the IG law, adding provisions that would, ideally, better protect the independence of inspectors general. The law formalized a Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an organization of all IGs that examines best practices and promotes professional development.

This reform law also included a provision that said a president must give Congress 30 days’ notice if he intended to dismiss an IG, and that the president must provide a reason to congressional leaders.”

“Trump has fired two confirmed inspectors general: Linick, as discussed above, and Michael Atkinson, who was the inspector general for the intelligence community. Trump has replaced or moved to replace three other acting inspectors general from their jobs; however, since they were serving in an acting capacity, the personnel shuffle could be done without notifying Congress.

Each of these dismissals — and particularly those of Linick and Atkinson — stunk of retaliation, as the IGs had recently taken actions or instigated investigations that embarrassed or had the potential to embarrass Trump or his political allies. That is, historically, precisely what Congress has wanted to avoid: the politicization of these watchdog roles.”

“Acting IGs often don’t have the authority or stature of Senate-confirmed officials, and that can diminish the credibility of IGs or their work, even though the acting IGs in question, like Fine, may have stellar credentials and deep experience working in the IG community.

So generally, relying on acting IGs isn’t ideal. But the problem with Trump’s reshuffle is that his comments and behavior don’t exactly indicate he’s eager for and interested in robust oversight. He’s accused long-serving IGs of being Obama administration holdovers, though they are career officials. (And, even during the Obama administration, their job was the same: to investigate.)

Trump has bristled at oversight throughout his presidency, seeing it not as an opportunity for reform but as a personal attack. And though Congress will ultimately vet his picks for the permanent roles, Trump has removed some of these qualified acting IGs and replaced them with hand-picked and unvetted successors in the interim.”

“Trump’s purge of inspectors general is dangerous because it threatens to undermine the independence of the office and politicize the institution.

That could have a chilling effect on the work of inspectors general. Inspectors general might become reluctant to initiate studies or audits, and agency heads may ignore findings of mismanagement or worse uncovered by IGs, Newcomer told me. “The agency head may feel like, ‘Oh, we don’t really need to worry about implementing these recommendations because, worse comes to worst, we’ll just have the IG fired,’” she said.”

“Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — who’s historically been a big advocate for IGs — wrote a letter to the White House asking for more information about why Atkinson and Linick were dismissed. The White House Counsel responded that, basically, Trump had lost confidence in the two officials and that it was his prerogative to fire them if he wished.

Grassley said Tuesday that the White House’s response was insufficient. “If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is,” Grassley said. “Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.”

Grassley also objected to the placement of political appointees in acting roles, which raises concerns about conflicts of interest.

But Grassley’s objections might not matter. Congress does have some tools here: They could investigate, they could hold hearings. Democrats are doing that, but they will probably have much more weight and meaning if they’re bipartisan affairs. And so far, Trump’s Republican allies in Congress have been reluctant to push the president too hard. Expressions of concern have rarely motivated the president to change course.”

The most chilling aspect of Trump’s Monday night crackdown on law-abiding protesters

“The officers began their assault just after 6:30 pm — less than half an hour before a 7 pm curfew that had already been ordered by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser was set to take effect. Legally speaking, the crowd should have dispersed then and there would have been no problem with the president strolling across the park to do his photo op at St John’s Church. Realistically, the odds are good that the crowd would not have dispersed. But starting at 7 pm, a group of officers forcibly expelling protesters from the park would have been enforcing the law.

Doing it at 6:36 pm or so served no real purpose except to make the law enforcement action flagrantly abusive. And that itself sends a powerful message.”

The White House’s explanation for a tear gas attack on peaceful protesters doesn’t add up

“Just minutes before President Donald Trump was scheduled to give a speech in the White House Rose Garden about the anti–police brutality protests, law enforcement officers outside the White House launched tear gas at hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in neighboring Lafayette Square.
It produced a shocking scene of federal officials shooting a weapon banned from warfare at Americans. The crowd scattered, allowing Secret Service, National Guard, and Park Police personnel to make a path for Trump and his team to visit a nearby church after his address.

That led to widespread speculation that Trump or someone else at the White House had ordered the tear gas attack solely to give Trump the photo op he wanted with his team at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a recent cause célèbre among the right after its basement was partially burned during the unrest on Sunday night.”

“I asked the White House, via email, a simple question: “Do [you] know who gave the order to clear the crowd in Lafayette Square with tear gas?”

Here’s the response from Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson: “The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7:00 pm curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the US Park Police.”

This explanation is suspect for several reasons — the most important being that, although DC Mayor Bowser had ordered a curfew for DC starting at 7 pm, video of the incident shows that law enforcement fired the tear gas well before then.

Second, the statement did not address the question of who gave the order.

And third, the statement explicitly mentions the church, which seems to signal that the goal of the whole ordeal was to get Trump to St. John’s no matter what.”

“Let’s be clear about what this means: The White House is explicitly not denying that Trump or another administration official greenlit the tear gas attack, and there’s no clear explanation why anyone thought using tear gas on peaceful protesters was warranted just so the president could have a photo op.

At a time when citizens across the country are taking to the streets by the thousands to demand accountability for unchecked police violence, the White House — perhaps even the president himself — seems to have made a conscious decision to respond to one of those (entirely peaceful) protests with more unchecked police violence.”

Trump’s push for “law and order” only led to more chaos in DC Monday night

““Just before [Trump] spoke, federal police violently broke up a peaceful protest just outside the White House, tear-gassing a group of about 1,000 demonstrators and then firing rubber bullets at them so Trump could have an uninterrupted photo op at a nearby church damaged in the weekend’s upheaval.””

“Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of that church — St. John’s — told CNN she was “outraged” by Trump having the protesters cleared simply so he could pose with a Bible in front of a boarded-up church, calling the message he sent “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.””

“The move outraged the district’s local policing partners as well. Arlington County, a suburban area abutting the city in Virginia, has a mutual aid agreement in place with Washington, DC, that allows police resources to be shared between the two. Some members of the Arlington County Police Department were among the force ordered to clear the area between the White House and St. John’s, and officials withdrew their police from the city, angered about the officers being used to suppress a protest.”

“DC is one city, but Tuesday night offered a preview of the president’s vision for policing these protests.”

Why Does Trump Want To Stop People From Voting by Mail?

“Since Trump himself voted by absentee ballot in Florida’s presidential primary two months ago, you might wonder why he wants to deny Michigan and Nevada voters the same opportunity, especially at a time when COVID-19 fears might make people reluctant to gather at polling places. And why those states specifically, when five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) conduct elections almost entirely by mail, while 28 others require no special justification for absentee voting? You also might wonder why Trump views voting by mail in those states as illegal, cheating, or a form of voter fraud. In any case, why does Trump think he has the authority to punish states for election procedures he does not like by withholding federal funding?”

“Are Democrats more likely to vote by mail than Republicans? Trump certainly seems to think so. In a March 30 interview on Fox News, he criticized COVID-19 legislation proposed by House Democrats that would have required states to allow “no excuse” absentee ballot applications and, if an election is held during a national emergency, to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot. “The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Notwithstanding that dire prediction, the evidence concerning the partisan impact of voting by mail is mixed. Pantheon Analytics found that switching to mail-in ballots in Colorado gave a slight advantage to Republican candidates in 2014, while that change in Utah gave a slight advantage to Democrats in 2016. In both cases, voting by mail increased participation in the election, as you would expect. But contrary to the fears often expressed by Republican politicians, that turnout boost does not seem to consistently favor Democrats. In 2016, for instance, 15.5 percent of registered Republicans who voted in North Carolina used mail-in ballots, compared to 8.8 percent of registered Democrats.”

“What about Trump’s claim that absentee ballots enable voter fraud? The issue is a personal obsession for Trump, who implausibly blamed massive fraud for costing him his rightful popular-vote victory in 2016. Even if we charitably treat that concern as distinct from the unsubstantiated fear that mail-in ballots favor Democrats, there is little evidence that voter fraud is a substantial problem, regardless of how people cast their ballots.

While it’s true that voting by mail is especially vulnerable to fraud, such incidents are still highly unusual. “Election fraud in the United States is very rare, but the most common type of such fraud in the United States involves absentee ballots,” Rick Hasen, an election expert at the University of California, Irvine, law school, told the Times in April. “Sensible rules for handling of absentee ballots make sense, not only to minimize the risk of ballot tampering but to ensure that voters cast valid ballots.” The five states where voting by mail is the norm “report very little fraud,” the Times notes.”

Trump Is Gutting the Inspector General System, and Most Republicans Don’t Care

“The Trump administration’s dismantling of independent federal watchdogs continued late last Friday, as Trump removed State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was reportedly conducting at least two misconduct probes into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Politico also reported today that Linick had recently finished an investigation into a Pompeo aide and concluded she had likely failed to report allegations of workplace violence.

On Friday night Trump also replaced the acting inspector general at the Department of Transportation, who was investigating Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao—the wife of Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.)—for alleged favoritism in awarding contracts.

Friday’s moves follow a string of dismissals that congressional Democrats and government accountability groups say is a purge of the inspectors general system by the Trump administration. The president has then filled those watchdog positions with political allies.”

“In April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. Atkinson’s referral of a whistleblower complaint to Congress launched the Ukraine investigation and eventual impeachment of Trump, and the firing was widely seen as retaliation.

Trump also replaced Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, who was supposed to oversee the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress.

Inspectors general are independent offices that investigate waste, fraud, and abuse at federal agencies. They regularly audit agencies’ compliance with mundane rules and record-keeping, as well as investigate whistleblower complaints about misconduct.

Their investigative powers give them access to records and officials that the public and reporters don’t have, and as such, they fill an important role as watchdogs within the federal government.”

“To do their job, inspectors general are supposed to be insulated from political pressure. They don’t report to agency heads, and although they’re appointed and can be fired by the president, the president must give Congress 30 days’ notice before any firing, along with reasons for the removal. (Trump subverted even this modest requirement in Atkinson’s case by placing him on immediate leave.)”

“But the Trump administration, despite the president’s pledge to “drain the swamp,” is hostile to any oversight and has no use for inspectors general except as toadies and rubber stamps. Trump said he fired Linick at the request of Pompeo, but so far the administration has not given any detailed explanation, except that the president “lost confidence” in him.

And congressional Republicans, once champions of oversight and accountability during President Barack Obama’s administration, have become mute or blasé on the subject.”

“If Congress wants to maintain any vestige of respectability—or even any indication that it’s still a functioning branch of government rather than the executive’s doormat—it needs to reassert its power to protect independent inspectors general, regardless of which political party holds the White House.”

South America Won the U.S.-China Trade War

“The easiest way to win a trade war? Don’t be one of the countries involved.

When the United States slapped tariffs on steel, aluminum, and billions of dollars of Chinese imports in the summer of 2018, China and other U.S. trading partners retaliated by targeting American agricultural exports. By the time a series of tit for tat increases in tariffs by the U.S. and China came to a halt with a December 2019 partial trade agreement—one that left most of the higher tariffs in place on both sides—the average foreign tariff for American farm goods had jumped from 8.3 to 26.8 percent

As a result, U.S. farm exports suffered. Carter and Steinbach calculate that U.S. farmers lost more than $15.6 billion in trade with countries that hiked tariffs in response to the Trump administration’s trade war. Soybeans, pork products, and grains were the products most affected.

Some of those losses were offset by trade with other nations—for example, when China stopped purchasing U.S.-grown soybeans, growers had to find other buyers for their products. That was the goal of a July 2018 deal struck by President Donald Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the White House touted as a vehicle for sending more American soybeans to Europe.

As Reason noted at the time, Europe’s annual consumption of soybeans was less than 25 percent of China’s (and it already had access to tariff-free imports of U.S. soybeans), so “unless Juncker and Trump plan to start jamming soybeans down European throats, foie gras-style, there’s simply no way that Europe can consume enough soybeans to make up for the loss of China as an American export market.”

“Nearly two years later, Carter and Steinbach calculate that so-called “deflected trade” in agricultural goods boosted U.S. exports by about $1.2 billion during the trade war—leaving American farms only $14 billion in the red.”

“countries that the two researchers identify as “non-retaliatory countries”—that is, places that did not hike tariffs in response to U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other goods—gained more than $13.5 billion by increasing trade to places, like China, that took steps to reduce imports of U.S. farm goods.”

“soybean farmers are worried about how the trade war might permanently reshape the global soybean trade, to the detriment of American growers.”

“In March 2018, after Trump announced his intention to hike tariffs on steel and aluminum, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s National Trade Council, was asked about the potential consequences of retaliation aimed at American farm exports.

“I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate,” he said. “They know they’re cheating us, and we’re just trying to stand up for ourselves.”

Navarro and Trump were wrong. American farmers have lost $14 billion because of their mistake.”

“Obamagate”: Trump’s latest conspiracy theory, explained

““Obamagate” is a convoluted mess of conspiracy theories untethered to reality. It is a deflection from the utter catastrophe unfolding daily because of the Trump administration’s disastrous coronavirus response.

That may not matter. Trump has used the “witch hunt” strategy since the start of his presidency, and, when it comes to his base and his allies in Congress and the administration, it works.”