Email #334: “laughingstock”?

President Trump tweeted last Wednesday:

“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

But the President also said to reporters:

“Send him to Gitmo. I would certainly consider that.”

Although Press Secretary Sanders referred to Sayfullo Saipov as an “enemy combatant,” the legal term used to describe Guantanamo prisoners, the President tweeted on Thursday:

“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system . . . There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”

Ironically, defense lawyers may now be able to use the tweet to move the case to a different jurisdiction and to avoid the death penalty if jurors are prejudiced by the President’s widely publicized comments. Andrew McCarthy explained in the National Review on Saturday:

“The Justice Department has an exacting process before the death penalty may be charged. The process is meant to impress on the judiciary — much of which is philosophically predisposed against capital punishment — that the attorney general seeks the death sentence only after extremely careful deliberation, which includes hearing a presentation from the defense. Now, since the attorney general answers to the president, Saipov’s lawyers will argue that the DOJ process is, shall we say, a joke and a laughingstock, the president having already ordered his subordinate to seek the defendant’s execution.”

Although the Justice Department does not treat the President’s tweets as official statements, they appear to have affected prosecutors too. Government lawyers submitted a criminal complaint against Saipov on Wednesday after the Justice Department’s national security officials approved the complaint, but then those officials tried to rescind their approval but could not because the complaint had already been submitted to the court. As chair of the House Judiciary Committee whose primary responsibility is oversight of the Justice Department, will you be writing to Attorney General Sessions to request an explanation for the attempted change and the circumstances that caused it?

As McCarthy alluded, the President also said last Wednesday:

“We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now — because what we have right now is a joke, and it’s a laughingstock.”

Do you agree with that assessment? Press Secretary Sanders claimed afterwards:

“That’s not what he said. He said that process has people calling us a joke and a laughingstock.”

This is not true. Sanders altered the President’s statement. The only person calling us a joke and a laughingstock is the President himself.

This is also not the first time White House staff has altered the President’s words. On October 13, he said: “I went to Puerto Rico and I met with the President of the Virgin Islands… The Virgin Islands and the President of the Virgin Islands, these are people that are incredible people.” President Trump had met with Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp, and official White House transcripts changed the references to “the President of the Virgin Islands” to “the governor of the Virgin Islands.”

While I understand the wish to erase an embarrassing gaffe that makes the President look like a joke and a laughingstock, altering official statements is concerning. Although former Press Secretary Spicer said in June that the President’s tweets “are considered official statements by the President of the United States,” the Justice Department has argued in court that the President’s comments “may not accurately reflect the government’s position.” Based on revisions of the President’s words, it is unclear which of his statements even the White House accepts as official and reflecting government positions.

Since you oversee the Justice Department, could you please offer your own assessment of the U.S. justice system? Do you also consider it a “joke” and a “laughingstock”? If not, do you object to the President’s statement—or do you agree with his Press Secretary that he never said what he said? You wrote in August:

“Like the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984, when the government removes facts and history from the past, citizens of today and the future cannot learn the vital lessons they would have otherwise imparted.”

Do you still stand by those words, or will they be revised too?

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Email #319: “discourse degraded”?

Former President Bush said during a speech last Thursday:

“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

On the same day, President Trump tweeted about Rep. Wilson regarding their dispute over his comments to Myeisha Johnson, the widow of a soldier killed recently in Niger:

“The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

Rep. Wilson, who knows the Johnsons and was traveling in a car with Ms. Johnson on the way to receive her husband’s body at the airport when the President unexpectedly called, accused him of insensitivity. In Wilson’s summary, President Trump told Ms. Johnson that her husband “knew what he was getting into.” Wilson said Ms. Johnson “was crying for the whole time. And the worst part of it: when he hung up, you know what she turned to me and said? She said he didn’t even remember his name.”

President Trump responded by tweet:

“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”

He added to reporters:

“Didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all. She knows it, and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.”

But Sgt. Johnson’s aunt, who was also in the car at the time, confirmed Rep. Wilson’s account: “Yes, the statement is true. I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.” She said the President showed “disrespect” to the Johnson family.

Rather than providing “proof” of fabrication, White House chief of staff Kelly confirmed the President’s language by explaining that President Trump had asked him for advice on how to speak to the families of killed soldiers. Kelly recounted to the President what another general had said to Kelly after Kelly’s son was killed in Afghanistan: “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent.”

But instead of explaining that the President, despite being unable to deliver those same words effectively, intended them as condolence not disrespect, Kelly disparaged Rep. Wilson. He said Thursday morning that she had spoken insensitively during a speech before the family members of killed FBI agents:

“a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”

But video of Rep. Wilson’s speech released Friday contradicts General Kelly’s account. She made no claim about getting funding for the building, only for passing a bill to have it named after two killed FBI agents. She acknowledged the help of Republican Representatives, including Speaker Boehner, and she did not mention President Obama at all.

Rep. Wilson responded about Kelly on Friday:

“I feel very sorry for him because he feels such a need to lie on me and I’m not even his enemy. I just can’t even imagine why he would fabricate something like that. That is absolutely insane. I’m just flabbergasted because it’s very easy to trace.”

Despite proof of Kelly’s fabrication, White House press secretary Sanders reiterated Kelly’s claims:

“General Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain F.B.I. agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation. As General Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”

Rep. Wilson, who, like the Johnsons, is African American, responded: “The White House itself is full of white supremacists.”

I can imagine no better illustration of President Bush’s concerns than these exchanges taking place as he stated: “Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

In the President’s defense, I suspect his attempt at condolence was sincere but incompetent and that he did not intend the disrespect and upset that the family felt. In General Kelly’s defense, I suspect he did not intentionally fabricate his account of Rep. Wilson’s 2015 speech, but that emotion warped his recollection over time.

But responsibility for the false statements and the escalations fall on the President and the General, the two individuals most responsible for maintaining and modeling civil discourse. They are instead degrading it.

And while these events are disheartening to watch, they obscure greater concerns.

Sgt. Johnson, three other U.S. soldiers, and four Nigerian soldiers were killed by a group of fifty ISIS insurgents on October 4 along the Nigerian border of Mali. Despite over two weeks of investigating, the Pentagon still has not determined whether the battle was an ambush or if it occurred after the U.S. soldiers first pursued the insurgents in an unauthorized violation of their mission to “advise and assist” but not engage in “direct-action” with partner forces. Accounts of the event are so contradictory, it appears that some parties are lying.

When four Americans were killed in Benghazi in 2012, the GOP-led Congress launched multiple investigations, accusing the Obama administration of both incompetence and misconduct, as well as using those investigations as, to use your term, fishing expeditions that revealed an unrelated lack of security in Secretary Clinton’s emails, which then became the most influential issue in last year’s presidential race.

Since you were so vigilant regarding Benghazi and its aftermath, will you now call for similar congressional investigations into the four American deaths in Niger?

Or should the American public be content watching the reality show-like degradation of civil discourse in the White House and not be concerned with less entertaining matters?

Email #318: “Call to Action”?

When Republican Senator Corker announced his retirement last month, he said:

“As a member of the governing wing of the Republican Party, I’ve worked to instill stability, certainty and predictability in Washington. I’ve fought to fulfill the basic functions of government, like keeping the lights on and preventing default. Regrettably, that has not been easy given the disruptive outside influences that profit from increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos.”

President Bush echoed these themes in a speech this week in which he identified a need for “self-correction” and expressed a “Call to Action” for leaders “to consciously and urgently attend to the problem of declining trust”:

“when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy… Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication… We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism… To renew our country, we only need to remember our values… bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed… our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

Why do you think President Bush referred to bigotry three times and cruelty twice in a single speech? What conspiracy theories and fabrications do you think he means? What bullying?

Since President Bush is long out of office, and Senator Corker will be joining him soon, these problems are yours to solve. Are you responding “urgently” to them? Are you combating “dysfunction, disorder and chaos” in our political system? Are you working to reverse “increased polarization”?

Are you and others “charged with preserving and protecting democracy” putting that charge ahead of your personal political agendas? Or are you not prioritizing these concerns? Or are you discounting them entirely? Or, worse still, are you profiting from them?

Why do only retired or retiring Republicans express concerns for the most basic needs of our democratic system? What are you and the other members “of the governing wing of the Republican Party” finding so much more important than our values and ideals?

When you leave office, will you too transform your rhetoric and warn your former colleagues to address these same issues?

Will you look back and say that democracy failed, or that you failed democracy?

Email #271: “allegations from the President himself”?

On March 8th, you and the other Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to former FBI Director Comey regarding “allegations from the President himself that he and his associates were placed under surveillance during the 2016 campaign.” These so-called allegations had appeared in a set of early morning tweets just four days earlier:

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

“Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”

“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Though you have since expressed in private meetings with constituents that you wish the President would stop using his Twitter account, it was impressive how quickly you responded to the President’s tweets. You also reminded Director Comey that the Judiciary Committee is the primary House committee of jurisdiction over the Wiretap Act and so requested a briefing “on the very serious allegations that the President and/or his associates were or are under surveillance.”

You never reported whether that briefing occurred, but on Friday, roughly six months after you made your request, the Justice Department filed a court brief stating that both its National Security Division and the FBI “confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets.” When asked about this, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered: “This is not news.”

Since you said your request to Director Comey was evidence that you and your fellow Republican Judiciary Committee members “will not waver in our commitment to ensuring that our nation’s most powerful intelligence tools and agencies operate with the trust and confidence of the American people,” are you satisfied in the “not news” confirmation that the President’s “very serious allegations” were fabrications?

If your concern is the trust and confidence of the American People in our nation’s most powerful agencies, do you acknowledge that your quick and credulous response to the President’s baseless tweets undermines that very trust and confidence?

Since you emphasized to Director Comey the importance of your Constitutional role to engage in “oversight of the functions of the Executive Branch,” will you now investigate the President’s role in making and disseminating these false allegations?

You told Director Comey that “Our fellow citizens must have confidence in the thoroughness and evenhandedness of our investigatory and prosecutorial agencies.” Looking back at your March 8th letter now, do you believe that it promotes or undermines thorough evenhandedness?

After the next six months have passed, do you imagine your current behavior will be evaluated as unwaveringly evenhanded by impartial judges?

When the Trump administration is a brief but astonishing chapter in our grandchildren’s history books, what supporting role do you think you and your fellow GOP Representatives will play? Principled watchmen? Savvy party loyalists? Credulous victims? Or just comic relief jesters?

Email #260: “messed up”?

Speaker Ryan criticized President Trump during a town hall meeting this week: “I do believe that he messed up in his comments on Tuesday when it sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity. You’re not a good person if you’re there, it’s so very clear.”

Ryan repeated the criticism, but also indicated that he thought the President had already corrected his statements about Charlottesville: “It was not only morally ambiguous, it was equivocating. And that was wrong. That’s why I think it was very, very important that he has since then cleared that up. I think it was important that he did that tonight.” He repeated the claim when asked if he would ask the President to apologize: “I think just he needs to do better and I think he just did.”

I assume Speaker Ryan was referring to the address the President made about Afghanistan just prior to the town hall, but looking at the transcript I see nothing about Charlottesville or Neo-Nazis or the so-called alt-left. The only statement the President made that could be interpreted as addressing Charlottesville was at best indirect and generic: “Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.”

Ryan said before the President’s speech: “we all need to make clear there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis. We cannot allow the slightest ambiguity on such a fundamental question.” In what sense did the President’s ambiguous remark provide any new clarity?

Still, I applaud Speaker Ryan’s ability to at least acknowledge that President Trump“messed up”—though his phrase would suit something significantly less important than how Ryan himself described the magnitude of the issue. I also applaud him for holding a town hall. It is his first since October 2015. Of course it was a highly constrained one. It was hosted by CNN and held in a small venue with CNN selecting participants from Ryan’s district and screening questions. But that is a significant improvement over the even more controlled interactions that he has used for the past two years, which are usually private and allow Ryan’s staff to screen questions directly.

One of Ryan’s fellow Wisconsin Representatives, Democrat Mark Pocan, said afterwards: “Hopefully the media event that occurred tonight will convince Paul Ryan that talking to his constituents is a good idea. In the remaining weeks when Paul is home, he might want to schedule a real town hall or two and explain his health care bill that drops tens of millions of people’s coverage, as well as discuss his tax preferences that would give the top 1 percent more tax breaks while working Americans continue to struggle.”

You have not held a real town hall since August 2013, twice as long as Ryan. While a traditional format is preferable, would you be willing to meet with your constituents in a town hall of the kind hosted by CNN for the Speaker? It would be a small venue and include only 6th district residents with a third party selecting pre-submitted questions and hosting the interactions on stage with you. There would be no shouting, no signs, no protests of any kind, just you answering reasonable questions posed directly by people you represent. It worked for Speaker Ryan, and his was televised live nationally while yours would not be. The format is conducive to conversation and so answers your objection to traditional town halls that allow large, angry crowds.

If you reject even this format, could you please explain on what grounds you find it unacceptable? And is there any format of any kind that you would find acceptable? What will it take to get you in a room with more than a dozen polite constituents?

Email #257: “come together again”?

The President tweeted on Saturday: “Our great country has been divided for decade, but it will come together again.Sometimes protest is needed in order to heel,and heel we will!”

In Boston on the same day, 40,000 counter-protestors overwhelmed the few dozen members of an alt-right “free speech” rally. But in Berlin on Saturday, 500 neo-Nazis marched to commemorate the death of Hitler’s deputy Rudolph Hess. One of the members told reporters that he was watching the events in Charlottesville with “delight” because Nazis in the U.S. are “finally standing up.” A counter-protestor said she came because of President Trump’s disturbing remarks about Charlottesville: “Donald Trump brought me here today.”

Donald Trump also brought 359 of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Yale classmates together to write Mnunchin a letter on Friday: “President Trump has declared himself a sympathizer with groups whose values are antithetical to those values we consider fundamental to our sacred honor as Americans, as men and women of Yale, and as decent human beings. President Trump made those declarations loudly, clearly, and unequivocally, and he said them as you stood next to him… We believe it is your moral obligation to resign your post as Secretary of the Treasury, effective immediately.”

Though Mnunchin has not resigned, Carl Icahn, the President’s billionaire advisor on deregulation, did resign on Friday, reportedly because of a forthcoming New Yorker article detailing his conflicts of interests. This comes a day after the President fired his chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly for accidentally telling The American Prospect: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more. These guys are a collection of clowns.” Bannon is returning to the alt-right Brietbart website, where he says he will “go to war” on behalf of the Trump agenda. Despite firing him, the President tweeted: “Steve Bannon will be a tough and smart new voice at @BreitbartNews…maybe even better than ever before. Fake News needs the competition!”

Fox News is one of the few news sources the President doesn’t call “fake,” but James Murdoch, 21st Century Fox CEO and son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, still condemned the President in an email to friends: “what we watched this last week in Charlottesville and the reaction to it by the president of the United States concern all of us as Americans and free people… The presence of hate in our society was appallingly laid bare as we watched swastikas brandished on the streets of Charlottesville and acts of brutal terrorism and violence perpetrated by a racist mob. I can’t even believe I have to write this: Standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans and others must all agree on this, and it compromises nothing for them to do so.”

Equally conservative Liberty University alumni are returning their diplomas to protest their university’s president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of President Trump after his remarks about Charlottesville. Former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate Chris Gaumer said: “I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists.  And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit.”

Due to such protests, the President cancelled his scheduled attendance at the Kennedy Center Honors on Saturday: “The president and first lady have decided not to participate in this year’s activities to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.” Though this is only the fourth time in the event’s forty years that a president has not attended, the Center was thankful: “In choosing not to participate in this year’s Honors activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the Honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees.” The President also cancelled his reception afterwards, because at least one honoree, Carmen de Lavallade, was already boycotting it: “In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current leadership is choosing to engage in, and in keeping with the principles that I and so many others have fought for, I will be declining the invitation to attend the reception at the White House.”

Susan Bro, the mother of the Heather Heyer who was murdered in Charlottesville, is also refusing to meet with President Trump: “I’m not talking to the president now. I’m sorry. After what he said about my child, and – it’s not that I saw somebody else’s tweets about him, I saw an actual clip of him at a press conference equating the protesters like Ms. Heyer with the KKK and the white supremacists. You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying I’m sorry. I’m not forgiving for that.” The President attempted to phone Ms. Bro four days after the murder, but she refused to take the call. When a police officer was shot and killed in San Antonio in November, he called the next day.

Other conservative news sources continue to condemn the President. The Economist called him “politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for the office.” The UK’s conservative The Spectator said: “Yet again, Trump has demonstrated the extent to which he is unsuited to be president. But yet again we can also see the forces at work that led him to power.”

Those forces include you and other members of the Republican party who continue to support him despite his actions. Former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and Homeland Security secretary in the Bush administration Tom Ridge asked: “At what point does a principled party stand up for its principles? You can’t be afraid of losing an election because you stood up for what was right.”

Is your silence about the President based solely on your fear of losing reelection in 2018? I saw last week that you have a new Democratic challenger. Does them mean you will pander even more now to racist Trump supporters instead of standing up for American principles? President Trump is bringing the country together in moral opposition to him. How long will you remain on the wrong side?

Email #255: “his true intent”?

Condemnations of President Trump continue daily.

Five more charities cancelled fundraising events at the President’s Mar-a-Lago yesterday: Susan G. Komen, the International Red Cross, the Salvation Army; the Autism Association of Palm Beach County, and Big Dog Ranch Rescue. That brings the total to eight.

The President’s 16-member Committee on the Arts and Humanities all resigned on Friday too. They told the President: “Reproach and censure in the strongest possible terms are necessary following your support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville. The false equivalencies you push cannot stand… Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too.”

The President’s Joint Chiefs of Staff also responded to his Tuesday press conference by issuing statements on Twitter and Facebook that openly contradict their Commander-in-Chief.

Army Chief, General Mark Milley: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our Values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”

Air Force Chief, General David Goldfein: “I stand with my fellow service chiefs in saying we’re always stronger together-it’s who we are as Airmen.”

Naval Operations Chief, Admiral John Richardson: “The shameful events in Charlottesville are unacceptable and must not be tolerated… The Navy will forever stand against intolerance and hatred. For those on our team, we want our Navy to be the safest possible place–a team as strong and tough as we can be, saving violence only for our enemies.”

Marine Corps Commandant, General Robert Neller: “No place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act”

National Guard Chief, General Joseph Lengyel: “I stand with my fellow Joint Chiefs in condemning racism, extremism & hatred. Our diversity is our strength.”

Republican politicians continue to condemn the President too. Former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger said yesterday: “The only way to beat the loud, angry voice of hate is to meet them with louder, more reasonable voices. That includes you, President Trump. In fact, as president of this great country, you have a moral responsibility to send an unequivocal message that you won’t stand for hate and racism.”

Mitt Romney expanded his earlier criticism of the President yesterday too: “Whether he intended to or not, what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn… His apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard. But what we heard is now the reality, and unless it is addressed by the president as such, with unprecedented candor and strength, there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric… He should address the American people, acknowledge that he was wrong, apologize. State forcefully and unequivocally that racists are 100% to blame for the murder and violence in Charlottesville.”

In fact, Romney’s statement about Donald Trump from June 2016 now appears disturbingly prescient: “I think his comments time and again appeal to the racist tendency that exists in some people, and I think that’s very dangerous… I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation. And trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny — all of these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.”

Instead of responding to any of this criticism, the President is planning his own rally next week in Phoenix. Mayor Greg Stanton responded: “I am disappointed that President Trump has chosen to hold a campaign rally as our nation is still healing from the tragic events in Charlottesville. It is my hope that more sound judgment prevails and that he delays his visit…. If President Trump is coming to Phoenix to announce a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, then it will be clear that his true intent is to enflame emotions and further divide our nation.”

I think the entire country now fully understands the President’s “true intent.” I believe you do too.  I don’t know if your refusal to condemn him is based on political calculation or cowardice or both, but the longer you remain silent, the greater your culpability for the damage President Trump is causing our country.