CVIndependent

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Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Jeffrey C. Billman

In September 1918, hundreds of men stationed at an overcrowded U.S. Army base 30 miles west of Boston began showing up at the hospital. Their faces, the director of the surgeon general’s Office of Communicable Diseases would report, “wore a bluish cast; a cough brought up the bloodstained sputum.”

Experts recommended that no one from that base—Camp Devens—be transferred. Doing so, Army doctors warned, would lead to “thousands of cases of the disease, with many deaths.” They were overruled. The war was too important. On the trans-Atlantic voyage to the front, thousands got sick, and many died.

The so-called Spanish flu killed many more Americans than did World War I: 675,000 to 117,000. The disease infected up to 40 percent of the world’s population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people, about two-thirds of them in a 10-week span between September and December of 1918; the war itself killed about 20 million people.

Though its origin is unknown, the first reported case was in Kansas in March 1918. Other early cases surfaced in France and China. But the U.S., France and China were at war, and their governments restricted what newspapers could publish. Only when the king, prime minister and cabinet officials of the neutral Spain caught the virus did news of its spread get broadcast worldwide—hence, the misnomer “Spanish flu.”

The Woodrow Wilson administration urged Americans not to take it too seriously. In mid-October, the surgeon general finger-wagged: “The present generation has been spoiled by having had expert medical and nursing care readily available.”

Even as the body count rose to unfathomable levels—in New York City, the flu killed 20,000 in 10 weeks; in Philadelphia, priests drove carts through the streets asking people to bring out their dead—the government suppressed the scope of the crisis, fearing that panic would undermine the war effort. That led to still more deaths. For example, Philadelphia scheduled a march to promote war bonds for late September. Doctors warned the city to cancel. The city’s newspapers declined to publish the warnings. The march was a huge success.

Within four weeks, 47,000 Philadelphians came down with the flu; 12,000 of them died.

The coronavirus pandemic 102 years later doesn’t appear to be nearly as deadly. As I write this, the virus has infected 90,000 people, mostly in China, and has caused more than 3,000 deaths. While the rate of growth in China appears to be declining, it is spreading rapidly elsewhere, particularly in Europe and across Asia.

In the United Kingdom, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned that up to 80 percent of the UK’s population could become infected, and a half-million Britons could die. He hasn’t ruled out taking drastic measures, including locking down entire cities, to contain the virus.

But like Wilson, President Trump doesn’t want you to take it too seriously. A fearmongering backseat driver during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the world’s most famous germaphobe will face voters in the midst of his own public health crisis—and with little public credibility as currency to spend. Further complicating things, his go-to solution—travel bans from afflicted countries—won’t stave off the spread. Trump’s immediate concern is that the stock market had its worst week since the 2008 crash; some economists are starting to toss around the R-word, which could be fatal in November.

Trump’s priority is to calm markets by projecting control amid dysfunction. As always, there’s a lot of dysfunction.

Last month, the State Department overruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and brought back 14 infected cruise-ship passengers from Japan on the same plane as non-infected people. The CDC’s restrictive criteria for identifying potential coronavirus cases and faulty diagnostic tests have likely led to a deceptively low number of positive results. According to a Department of Health and Human Services whistleblower, a dozen DHHS employees were sent to meet the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, without protective gear or training. And over HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s objections, the administration asked Congress for a paltry $2.5 billion in emergency funds—it didn’t want to signal a real crisis.

The optics-focused Trump, meanwhile, was reportedly enraged that a CDC official—Rod Rosenstein’s sister, so cue the conspiracy theories—said the virus’s spread across the U.S. was inevitable.

At a press conference last week, Trump announced that he was appointing Vice President Mike Pence the head of his coronavirus task force—evidently because he feared that an outside czar might be disloyal. Pence, as governor of Indiana, badly botched his state’s handling of an AIDS flare-up. His first order of business was a mandate that that no one comment on the coronavirus without his office’s approval.

Minutes before that press conference, Trump learned that the CDC had uncovered the first U.S. case of coronavirus not tied to foreign travel, the sign of its impending spread. He didn’t mention that, though. Instead, he assured the American people that it would all be over soon and praised his administration’s response.

“And again, when you have 15 people—and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero—that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” he said.

The next night, he offered a self-contradictory take: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear. And from our shores, we—you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.” The night after that, in South Carolina, he told his supporters that Democrats had politicized the pandemic and that “this is their new hoax.”

The next day, the first American died from coronavirus. The day after that, the second one did. As of this morning (March 4), the U.S. had at least 129 known coronavirus cases.

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Second verse, same as the first

a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

I was 23 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—a just-out-of-college reporter for a local newspaper in Florida, part of a generation that had been shocked out of a brief era of unquestioned American hegemony by Sept. 11, 2001. We had just watched an entire country rally, drone-like, around a ground war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban had been routed, and the “peacekeeping” effort had taken its turn toward the generation-old morass we’ve come to know and love. The Bush administration then turned its eyes to a new target—a more dangerous target, we were told. One with Weapons of Mass Destruction. With Nuclear Ambitions. Run by a Madman. An Axis of Evil™. A country that, any day now, would attack the United States, so we had to act now or risk a “mushroom cloud,” as President George W. Bush ominously intoned.

I was skeptical of the Bush administration’s eagerness for war, of the constant drumbeat of stern men warning of immediate danger. But I was also young and naive, or perhaps not yet jaded enough to imagine that my government would wholesale manufacture a justification for war—that it would lie to the world and to the American people as a pretext for war. I distrusted Dubya and his cronies, but I figured there had to be some legitimate casus belli. Besides, for the most part, the national media wasn’t challenging the president’s claims, and neither were leading Democrats.

The Iraq War cured me of such naivete. My government lied to me, to the public, to the world. It did so brazenly and callously. It invented evidence to sell a war of choice—a war its chicken-hawk proponents had been itching to fight for a decade. (The fact that not a single one of the war’s architects is rotting in Leavenworth is a moral stain that won’t be easily erased.)

Although Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and the like had been fantasizing about toppling Saddam Hussein for years, and although these men had been in and around the highest levels of government for decades, no one apparently thought through what would happen afterward. Defeating Saddam—who had no weapons of mass destruction, let alone nuclear capabilities—was easy, but, as we soon learned, there was no plan for the vacuum of power.

Everything soon went to shit.

American soldiers ended up in a sectarian civil war. In time, the chaos gave rise to ISIS, which led to more fighting in Iraq and Syria, which had its own devastating civil war, which produced a refugee crisis in Europe, which prompted a surge of right-wing populism, which led, in part, to Brexit. Iraq’s collapse opened the door for its regional adversary Iran, which seeded Shia militias throughout the Middle East—including those in Iraq—and took steps toward its own nuclear program, and, more recently, engaged in a catastrophic proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

These are just some of the second- and third-order effects of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that reverberate 17 years later. For all of their foreign policy experience, his war planners never envisioned any of it—or anything like it. They thought it’d be simple; we’d be “greeted as liberators.” Instead, we got war without end.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Qassim Suleimani, the high-ranking Iranian official that the U.S. assassinated via drone strike in Baghdad early Friday. Like most Americans, I’d never heard his name before he was killed. A New Yorker profile from 2013 paints him as a powerful-yet-invisible behind-the-scenes operative in the Middle East, “assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.” He was also an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another blood-soaked human being who, in the convoluted politics of the Middle East, has been battling ISIS.

Suleimani had arrived in Iraq after Iranian-backed Iraqi militias marched on the U.S. embassy on Tuesday, imprisoning diplomats for 24 hours. (No one was harmed.) That was in response to the American bombing of three Kataib Hezbollah militia sites in western Iraq, and two more in Syria, which killed about two dozen people. That was in response to Kataib Hezbollah allegedly firing 31 missiles into an American base on Dec. 27, which killed an American contractor.

This strike goes well beyond what the military calls a “proportional response.” Though the American government considered him a terrorist, Presidents Bush and Obama had passed on opportunities to kill Suleimani, the ayatollah’s friend and the second-most-powerful person in Iran. (By longstanding executive order, the U.S. does not “engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination,” though “assassination” is never defined.)

President Trump’s move wasn’t just taking out a bad guy. It was an escalation, akin to Iran offing a secretary of defense or a four-star general. It was an act of war—conducted without congressional notification, much less approval.

The context shouldn’t be ignored: Trump is headed into a re-election year with lackluster approval numbers and facing an impeachment trial. The day he authorized the strike, evidence surfaced that he had personally directed the Office of Management and Budget to withhold Ukrainian aid while he was pressuring that country’s president to investigate his political rival, even as the Pentagon worried that doing so was both illegal and contrary to America’s interests. You’d be forgiven for suspecting the dog is being wagged.

But I’m not sure that’s the case, because I’m not sure that much thought went into it. Trump is nothing if not impulsive—and nothing if not driven by an atavistic impulse to prove himself tougher than his predecessor. Obama had negotiated with Iran; Trump was going to kill its No. 2. Iran jabbed; Trump pulled out the sledgehammer. To Trump, foreign policy is a dick-measuring contest; as long as he has to U.S. military to fight for him, he has no need for the soft power of diplomacy.

But there’s a reason Obama—who was never shy about hunting human beings with drones—declined to kill Suleimani. No one knows what happens now, only that it’s probably not good. In its statement, the Defense Department said it took out Suleimani to deter future violent acts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a video that showed what he said were Iraqis “dancing in the street.”

That seems unlikely to be the final word.

Iran’s supreme leader vowed “forceful revenge.” The State Department told Americans to leave Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister “strongly condemned the assassination,” called Suleimani a “martyr,” and labeled the strike a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, a blatant attack on the dignity of the country, and a dangerous escalation.” He also said it violated “the conditions for the presence of the American forces in Iraq and its role which is supposed to be limited to training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS.” Foreign-policy experts say a conflict with Iran won’t look like anything we’ve seen before: “It will be fought throughout the region with a wide range of tools versus a wide range of civilian, economic, and military targets.” Oil prices are already rising.

Say what you want about the Bush administration, but they were the A-team of the neoconservative movement. Yet they failed to see beyond the first move. Trump’s foreign policy crew, on the other hand, isn’t the A-team of anything. His National Security Council is a dysfunctional mess. He’s on his fourth national security adviser—the first a convicted felon, the second short-tenured, the third fired via Twitter. The president has sought to purge dissenters and surrounded himself with sycophants. He’s degraded intelligence officials while seeking guidance from talk-show hosts.

As important, Trump has strained the alliances he’d need to fight Iran. The Europeans have been trying to make Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran work despite Trump pulling out. Now that hope is gone. And it’s increasingly likely that Iraq will ask the U.S. to withdraw its 5,000 troops from the country, which might allow ISIS to again develop a foothold. For all of this, Trump’s never had a coherent strategy in Iran; he paints himself as a noninterventionist, yet everything his administration does points toward wanting to force regime change, and those two things usually don’t go together.

Donald Trump is about to face an honest-to-god foreign policy crisis—one that stands to get a lot of people killed. What are the chances that he’s thought through what happens after he waves his dick around?

As with Saddam Hussein 17 years ago, the question isn’t whether we could kill Suleimani. Nor is it whether he deserved to die. The question is whether assassinating him is worth the blood we’re about to spill—and whether we even paused to ask ourselves that.

Second verse, same as the first

a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

One of Donald Trump’s few substantive defenses against the allegations that brought about his impeachment last week is that he didn’t try to extort an investigation into Joe Biden and a crackpot DNC server conspiracy theory for his own political benefit—but rather, he sought “a favor” for the good of the country.

The evidence for this, the president and his defenders say, is in the not-quite-a-transcript that the White House released of the July 25 call between Trump and then-newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky thanks the U.S. for pressuring Russia through sanctions, then expresses interest in buying more missiles.

And Trump, of course, replies: “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. … There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people, and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Zelensky mentions that one of his assistants had spoken to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Trump says, “I will ask him to call you along with the attorney general.”

In Trump’s telling, the fact that he referenced Attorney General William Barr shows that he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine.

Put aside that this runs contrary to every known fact about Donald Trump. Instead, focus on how casually Trump lumps in the attorney general of the United States with his lawyer, who’d spent the better part of a year in Ukraine trying to manufacture a sham investigation into the Bidens—and who, incidentally, is reportedly under federal investigation.

In Trump’s mind, they’re the same They’re his guys. That should be a red flag.

The attorney general is not the president’s lawyer. The attorney general is—in theory—the lawyer for the American people, whose fidelity is to the country and the Constitution.

Trump doesn’t see it that way, however. So a year ago, Trump forced out his first AG, Jeff Sessions—the first U.S. senator to endorse his presidential campaign —because he deemed Sessions insufficiently loyal during Russiagate. For his second AG nominee, Trump wasn’t taking any chances.

Bill Barr believes in the unitary executive theory—put simply, the president is essentially above the law and has total control of the government’s law-enforcement system. Barr was also willing to play lackey.

So, for instance, when the Mueller report came in, Barr dashed off a letter to Congress saying—deceptively, it turned out—that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing, obscuring Mueller’s findings that the president had repeatedly obstructed justice and that he was only not charged with a crime because he Department of Justice policy forbade it.

And when, with Trump staring down impeachment, the DOJ’s inspector general released a long-awaited report demolishing Trump’s batshit claims about a Deep State vendetta against his presidential campaign, Barr sent out an unprecedented statement contradicting his department’s IG. If nothing else, he’s a company man.

More troubling was his speech to the Federalist Society in November, in which he leaned into his role as a partisan actor, accusing anyone to the left of Attila the Hun of “undermining (the) rule of law” and Congress of—as a “pursuit of choice”—“drown(ing) the Executive Branch with ‘oversight’ demands for testimony and documents.”

These are not co-equal branches, Barr believes. If the president finds congressional oversight annoying, he should ignore it.

Also, progressives—what with their “civil rights” and other such nonsense—are snowflakes, while conservatives are grounded in reason and as such at a political disadvantage.

“In any age,” Barr opined, “the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. … Conservatives, on the other hand, do not seek an earthly paradise.  … Conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means.”

Obviously, Bill Barr has never heard the name Mitch McConnell or watched C-SPAN in the last decade or so.

But gaslighting—or, more charitably, being obtuse—isn’t what bothers me most about Barr; that’s par for the course in the modern GOP. It’s this: Earlier this month, Barr told a roomful of cops that “the American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. … (If) communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

In other words, show your cops love—i.e., don’t protest if they beat up or shoot a person of color—or, well, you just never know, do you?

This is an attorney general, of course, who has criticized local district attorneys in Philadelphia and St. Louis for calling for police accountability, and has demanded zero tolerance for “resisting police.”

To recap: Trump should be able to do whatever he wants. Trump should have unchecked control over the law-enforcement apparatus. Law enforcement should be able to do whatever it wants. Resisters? Zero tolerance. Protesters? It’d be a shame if something happened to them.

All hail the police state.

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There’s this story I’ve been obsessing over lately. It’s equal parts hilarious, pathetic and infuriating. It’s an example of how indefensibly awful governmental decision-making can be—and more important, emblematic of how institutional white supremacy can be so pervasive.

This is happening in my backyard—North Carolina—so let me get you up to speed. There are two things you should know about my state: Like other Southern states, we have an odious legacy on race—slavery, secession, the Wilmington coup of 1898, segregation, “urban renewal,” Jesse Helms, the whole deal. Unlike other Southern states, however, we have a mostly progressive education legacy, centered on the oldest publicly chartered university in the country, the University of North Carolina.

Our story begins where these two threads converge. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated a monument to UNC. At its commemoration, Civil War veteran and local businessman Julian Carr—there’s a town named for him a few miles down the road—fondly recalled the time he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”

The statue, depicting a Confederate soldier, became known as Silent Sam and stood there for 105 years, until protesters toppled it in August 2018. In January, UNC-Chapel Hill’s outgoing chancellor—she’d given her notice that day—had its base removed. The monument was stashed away, and that was that.

Or so everyone thought. But let me back up.

Silent Sam had been the target of protests for decades, but things heated up a few years ago. After white-supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in South Carolina, and Southern states began reconsidering their Confederate symbolism, North Carolina’s right-wing General Assembly passed a law in 2015 barring the removal of Confederate monuments. Two years later, after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, protesters in Durham ripped one down anyway. That fueled the fire around Silent Sam.

For a year, the demonstrations became increasingly tense: There were protests and counter-protests, cops and tear gas, white supremacists and neo-Confederates. The statue turned into a PR nightmare for UNC. By the time it came down, almost everyone on campus was glad to see it go.

That wasn’t the case with UNC’s Board of Governors, however. The BOG, which manages the 17-campus UNC System, is appointed by the General Assembly. So when the General Assembly took a hard right turn in 2011, so did the BOG. And when UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor removed Silent Sam’s base in January, the BOG promptly removed her, months ahead of her scheduled departure. Several members insisted that Sam be returned to his former home—the hell with what students and faculty thought.

As it happens, neo-Confederates felt the same way. And here’s where things get weird.

Jump ahead to Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, when, out of the blue, UNC announced that it had reached a “settlement” with the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the disposition of Silent Sam. This was strange, considering no one could recall the SCV filing a lawsuit over the statue. Stranger still were the terms of the deal: Not only did the neo-Confederate group get custody of the monument; it was also going to receive $2.5 million to build a facility to house it.

Yes: a $2.5 million gift from the state to an organization that romanticizes and mythologizes the slave-holding South, with the money specifically going to further spread those racist myths. That seemed bad. It soon got worse.

By the weekend, we’d learned that the SCV’s lawsuit, UNC’s answer, and the consent decree—i.e., the settlement—had all been filed within minutes of each other. By Monday, we’d discovered that UNC’s interim president and the BOG chairman had signed the consent decree days before the lawsuit was filed. And that’s not the best part.

An area attorney and former BOG member published a leaked message from the SCV’s “commander” to members detailing the group’s secret negotiations with UNC. I’ll gloss over the details, but here’s the gist: The SCV had been looking for a way to sue over Silent Sam since it was toppled, but the group found that it didn’t have a case. It didn’t even have the legal standing to sue. Nonetheless, when the BOG learned about the possibility of a lawsuit, it pre-emptively approached the neo-Confederates about a settlement. So long as Silent Sam didn’t end up back on UNC’s campus—too dangerous—UNC was willing to give the SCV whatever it wanted to avert a lawsuit that UNC knew it had no chance of losing.

I’ll note that UNC didn’t admit black students until the 1950s, and by 1963, it only had 18 black freshmen. The money it paid the SCV could cover the average debt of about 120 UNC graduates. Instead, it’s going toward a shrine for a treasonous white-supremacist insurrection.

So far, no one at the BOG has tried to defend this shit sandwich, but as best anyone can tell, they simply wanted the Silent Sam migraine to end. If it took paying Confederate fetishists a few million bucks to make that happen, so be it.

This is how institutionalized white supremacy works.

First, there was the presumption that objects meant to honor—not remember, but honor, which is what monuments do—those who fought to preserve chattel slavery should be protected by the state, and with it came an implicit message that the descendants of the slaves are worth less than the descendants of the soldiers who fought to keep them in chains.

Second, there was the failure to think about the moral implications of giving neo-Confederates money that could have helped disadvantaged communities or pay for scholarships or go literally anywhere else, knowing the money will further racist lies about the Lost Cause.

These considerations, if they were ever considered at all, were dismissed as unimportant. Because, to the white people making these decisions, they were.

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In a mostly party-line vote last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution establishing the ground rules for the ongoing impeachment inquiry—allowing the release of deposition transcripts, providing opportunities for the president’s lawyers to present evidence, and setting up televised public hearings just in time for Thanksgiving.

This, of course, didn’t stop House Minority Whip Steve Scalise from complaining about “Soviet-style impeachment proceedings.” Other Republicans argued that Democrats were “abusing the process” or that, because no Republicans voted for the inquiry, it’s merely a partisan sideshow.

Even so, now that the impeachment inquiry is officially official, we should be getting a sense of how the White House and its allies plan to defend Donald Trump against mounting evidence that he withheld military aid as leverage to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rivals. What we’re actually seeing, however, is not one defense, but scattershot multiple defenses—some contradictory, some conspiratorial, and some that seem culled from a Reddit thread, all led by a president who refuses to admit the possibility that he did anything inappropriate, let alone illegal. As best I can tell, there are four at play:

1. No quid pro quo.

2. Sure, a quid pro quo, but it wasn’t illegal.

3. An attempted quid pro quo, but that doesn’t count.

4. Hell yeah, a quid pro quo, but it was a good thing, because The Truth Is Out There, man. 

The first defense belongs to Donald Trump, and increasingly to Donald Trump alone. In his mind, and on his Twitter feed, the July phone call with Ukraine’s president—in which, according to the White House’s edited account of the conversation, he conditioned aid on an investigation into a conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians framed Russia for the 2016 DNC hack and urged an investigation into the Bidens—was “perfect.” There was nothing inappropriate about it. No quid pro quo.

Since Trump did no wrong, everyone who says he did must be part of a conspiracy. The whistleblower, Trump tweeted, “must be brought forward to testify.” The top Ukrainian expert on the National Security Council—who testified that he was told Trump would only meet with Ukraine’s president if Ukraine opened the investigations Trump demanded—is a now “Never Trumper,” Trump has asserted, as if that has any bearing on the substance of his testimony.

The no-quid-pro-quo line has become a bridge too far for even some loyalists. After all, even the best news the White House got last week—that a Trump appointee to the NSC said he didn’t think there was anything illegal about the call with the Ukrainian president—also came with the confirmation that Trump froze military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate his enemies.

That brings us to defense No. 2: The quid pro quo happened, but it wasn’t criminal (or impeachable). The Washington Post reported that, during a private Senate GOP lunch last week, some senators pitched this line of attack—“the U.S. government often attaches conditions to foreign aid and that nothing was amiss in Trump’s doing so in the case of aid to Ukraine.” As Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, told the Post, “To me, this entire issue is gonna come down to: Why did the president ask for an investigation? To me, it all turns on intent, motive.”

This defense would work better if Trump didn’t stomp on it. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the story was “false.” Perhaps a quid pro quo wasn’t impeachable, he said, but it didn’t matter, because there wasn’t one.

Then there’s defense No. 3, that Trump’s conspiracy failed, so no harm, no foul. Per The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page: “Democrats want to impeach Mr. Trump for asking a foreign government to investigate his political rival for corruption, though the probe never happened, and for withholding aid to Ukraine that in the end wasn’t withheld.”

It’s true that Trump released the money just before the scandal broke, but the fact that he got caught before his extortion scheme bore fruit hardly speaks to a presidential temperament. Besides, his efforts to stoke an investigation in Ukraine continue. Just last week, NBC News reported, Rudy Giuliani was in Ukraine meeting with a former diplomat who alleges that Ukraine’s government conspired with the DNC to hurt Trump in 2016. At the same time, a group of Russia-friendly Ukrainian parliamentarians are seeking an investigation into whether their country set up Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, now a resident of a federal prison.

Giuliani tweeted last week that “frenzied” Democrats are “covering up, because it’s bigger than you think.”

And herein lies the last line of defense, that there is a grand conspiracy yet to be unraveled, connecting the Deep State and the Obama administration and Joe Biden and the DNC and Ukraine and Russia and George Soros and probably Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files.

Trump’s die-hards are pinning their hopes on John Durham, the prosecutor Attorney General William Barr tapped to investigate the investigators who first looked into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, an effort—like Giuliani in Ukraine—to discredit the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Over the weekend, The Independent reported that, based on Barr’s requests to British intelligence services, officials there believe “they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services.”

As incoherent as they seem, these defenses are all aimed at a singular audience. Over the weekend, NBC and Fox News released polls showing that 49 percent of voters believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office. But both polls also showed that about 90 percent of Republicans oppose impeachment. As long as that’s the case, the White House’s bet is that there’s no way the Republican-led Senate will convict Trump … so long as there’s a thin reed to grasp.

Anything will do, really.

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“There are three ways in which we may rule,” said Charles Aycock, then the soon-to-be governor of North Carolina, to his supporters in 1900. “By force, by fraud or by law. We have ruled by force; we can rule by fraud; but we want to rule by law.”

Aycock was rallying his fellow white supremacists not only for his own election, but also to pass a state constitutional amendment that would, in effect, disenfranchise most black voters. By modern standards, this was a startlingly revelatory admission: Whites were willing to govern under the rule of law, Aycock was saying, but only if they could dictate its terms. But they were also willing to use force or fraud to dictate those terms.

Indeed, white supremacists had used recently used force to accomplish that goal, during the November 1898 Wilmington coup, overthrowing a municipal government deemed too friendly to African Americans and murdering at least 60 black men. They used fraud, too: Aycock and the so-called Suffrage Amendment both prevailed that November by a roughly 60–40 spread—according to the unlikely tallies of Democratic clerks.

For the next 70 years, having cheated and bullied their way to absolutely power, white supremacists got to write the laws.

I thought of Aycock’s quote—captured in David Zucchino’s forthcoming book, Wilmington’s Lie—and the sense of entitlement behind it, when I read the letter the White House dispatched to the House of Representatives last week, calling the impeachment proceedings illegitimate and saying the administration wouldn’t participate.

“You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and Constitutionally mandated due process,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone told House leaders on Oct. 8. Since the White House judged the case against Trump “baseless,” the president “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.”

From a legal perspective, Cipollone’s letter is patently absurd. Impeachment is spelled out in the Constitution; it, by definition, cannot be unconstitutional. The administration can’t simply declare the president innocent and therefore ignore congressional subpoenas. As Gregg Nunziata, the former chief counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, put it, the letter was a “barely lawyered temper tantrum” and a “middle finger to Congress.”

It was the latest in a string of them.

That same day, Trump’s Department of Justice was in federal court arguing that the courts had erred four decades ago by allowing Congress to review transcripts of Watergate grand-jury proceedings. The House Judiciary Committee now wants to review Robert Mueller’s grand jury materials, and—for some unfathomable reason—the DOJ is desperate to stop that from happening.

Also that day, the State Department ordered Gordon Sondland—the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and now a key player in the Ukraine scandal, who also owns Provenance Hotels, which includes Palm Springs’ Villa Royale—not to appear for a scheduled congressional deposition. Text messages between Sondland and former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker released by Congress appear to show that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine unless the country indulged Trump’s conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and reopened an investigation into Joe Biden’s son—except for one, in September, in which Sondland assured the head of the embassy in Kiev that he was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions” and that there was “no quid pro quo.”

Sondland was awarded the ambassadorship after giving Trump’s inauguration committee $1 million; his appointment was championed by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to whom he gave $17,900, and his wife gave $57,900, according to Open Secrets.

In addition, Rudy Giuliani announced that he would disregard a House subpoena for documents and dared Congress told hold him in contempt.

It didn’t take long for dominoes to begin falling. Two of Giuliani’s henchmen were arrested boarding one-way flights out of the country, accused of routing hundreds of thousands of Russian dollars into Republican political campaigns in an effort to, among other things, oust the American ambassador to Ukraine—which Trump did. Giuliani himself is said to be under investigation.

Meanwhile, Sondland is testifying over the State Department’s objections, and The Washington Post reported that he plans to say that Trump dictated his “no quid pro quo” message to the Ukrainian embassy. And according to The Wall Street Journal, in August, Sondland had told U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that Ukrainian aid was directly tied to these investigations.

The White House knows the direction in which this is going. The only recourse is to paint the exercise as illegitimate—to assert, as Richard Nixon did, that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”—and to hope the president’s supporters, cheered on by the president’s propaganda machine, choose not to care.

Charles Aycock was a white supremacist, but that’s not the thing that most tightly binds him to Donald Trump. Instead, it’s the authoritarian sense that that the rule of law exists to further their interests and can be ignored when it restrains them.

By force, by fraud or by law.

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I suppose I can’t not write about Sharpie-gate, as much as I’d rather not. After all, of the myriad episodes that have defined the Trump administration’s idiocracy, few have reached this peak of stupidity.

On Saturday, Aug. 31, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the U.S., President Trump warned that it posed a serious risk to Alabama, though forecasters had days earlier said Alabama was out of danger. The next day, after receiving calls from worried residents, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

For reasons best left to a psychologist, Trump refused to let it go. He spent the next week obsessing over it, insisting that he was right and the NWS experts (and the media that covered them) were wrong and fake. By Wednesday, he was in the Oval Office with a hurricane forecast from Aug. 29, altered by a hand-drawn Sharpie to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path. By Friday night—after the storm had left the North Carolina coast, and we were still talking about this—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement “correcting” the NWS tweet from a week earlier and backing the president. (The justification: One model showed a tiny chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a sliver of Alabama.)

By Saturday, Sept. 7, The Washington Post had reported that, the day after Trump’s Alabama flub, the NOAA sent a directive to NWS meteorologists ordering them not to contradict the president, even though he was wrong, and they were right, and part of their job is to correct misinformation. NOAA sent a similar directive after the Sharpie display.

“I have never been so embarrassed,” the head of the NWS union tweeted Friday.

So say we all, pal.

Under different circumstances—say, if he were hosting a reality TV show—the president’s pathetically pathological need to be right and his lackeys’ compulsion to assuage his fragile ego might be amusing. But this is real life, where undermining the credibility of the government’s information during a disaster puts lives at risk.

This is part of a larger problem, of course. On Friday, Sept. 6, Business Insider reported that “aides and confidants are concerned about his mental state after days of erratic behavior and wild outbursts.” According to one former White House official: “His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know, his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he’s losing his shit.”

In the UK, when Trump-lite Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to go around Parliament to facilitate a disastrous no-deal Brexit, defections within his own party blocked him and then prevented him from calling snap elections. Country was more important than party. Here, administration officials have shown no such spine, even on matters as banal as Sharpie-gate. The higher the stakes—and the more unhinged Trump becomes—the more dangerous that gets.

Plenty of ink has been spilled explaining how we got here—how, since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party’s embrace of white racial grievance and the cultivation of authoritarianism in its pursuit of power have destroyed liberal democracy’s guardrails, allowing a pernicious oaf like Trump into the Oval Office. But we shouldn’t overlook the behind-the-scenes roles played by men like Thomas Hofeller, who made the radicalization of the GOP possible.

Hofeller, who died last year, was a Republican redistricting consultant, a number-cruncher who helped gerrymander congressional and legislative districts all over the country, most famously in North Carolina, where his work has been subject to numerous lawsuits. The districts he helped draw in 2011 were struck down as racial gerrymanders. The congressional districts he helped draw to replace them were then struck down as partisan gerrymanders, though earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional.

But last week, a state court struck down the redrawn legislative districts, ruling that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the state Constitution. This followed a lawsuit Common Cause filed in 2018, after North Carolina Democrats won more votes for state House and Senate, but Republicans emerged with strong majorities. Facing a Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers declined an appeal, meaning North Carolina could see its first fair election in a decade next year.

This is where it gets fun: Much to Republicans’ chagrin, Hofeller’s daughter had turned over thousands of his files to Common Cause. On Friday, Sept. 6, The New Yorker reported their contents. As you’d expect, they showed that Hofeller compiled “intensely detailed” data on race, as well as things like whether college students were likely to have the state-required ID to vote. 

He got particularly deep in the weeds at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, the nation’s largest historically black college. Hofeller used dorm-level data to draw congressional districts that literally bisected the campus, ensuring that Greensboro would have two Republican representatives. This, Republicans argued, was about partisan advantage, not race.

The files show that Hofeller was involved in Republican gerrymandering efforts in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas and Florida, and that “he was part of a Republican effort to add a citizenship question to the Census … which Hofeller believed would make it easier to pack Democrats and minorities into fewer districts, giving an advantage to Republicans.” Trump, you’ll recall, championed this cause—even after the Supreme Court turned rejected the question because the administration couldn’t be bothered to hide its political motives.

Hofeller and the Republicans who employed him contorted democracy to their own ends. But by creating ruby-red districts in which Republicans could only lose in primaries, they fostered an incentive structured that pulled the GOP further and further right, the kind of asymmetric polarization that, in short order, gave us a president who draws hurricane projections with a Sharpie and a party that whistles in democracy’s graveyard.

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The maxim that we’re not to speak ill of the dead is generally good advice, though it’s complicated by the death of men like David Koch, the oilman and right-wing financier who died on Aug. 23 at the age of 79.

There’s a ghoulish quality to gloating about the demise of one’s ideological adversaries before the bodies are in the ground—as HBO’s Bill Maher did on his show Friday night—especially at a time when politics has become a factionalized blood sport. And any polemic about David Koch’s decades of funding the far right is likely to draw a two-dimensional caricature of the man, eliding his truly remarkable philanthropy, as well as his forward thinking on immigration and criminal-justice reform—which, truth be told, was well ahead of many modern progressives. (In 1980, for instance, as a vice presidential candidate on the libertarian ticket, Koch supported open borders.)

But any fair analysis of the world David Koch leaves behind can’t help but speak ill of his legacy: Few Americans in the postwar era have been more destructive than David and his older brother, Charles Koch, who survives him. Through the untold millions they lavished on conservative political networks and organizations—founding the Cato Institute; bankrolling the Heritage Foundation; establishing the anti-regulation Mercatus Center at George Mason University and similar centers at Florida State University and Utah State University; creating the Americans for Prosperity Foundation; and funding all manner of anti-union efforts—the Kochs fundamentally reformed American conservatism and, in the process, American democracy.

The end result is the party we see now—beholden to the wealthy, with a theology that believes tax cuts are the panacea to whatever ails us, that is stalwart in its opposition to any and all environmental and labor regulations, and embarrassingly resistant to the climate science that the rest of the world long accepted.

In particular, Americans for Prosperity—David Koch’s baby—mobilized the tea party, an astroturf movement aroused in reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency.

As Sarah Jones wrote in New York this weekend: “The id they unleashed—the naked white nationalism, the anti–big government hysteria, all those conspiracy theories—helped seed the ground for Donald Trump.”

There’s some irony in that, considering that the Koch brothers were never enthusiastic about Trump, especially his trade wars and harsh immigration tactics. They never donated to him, and earlier this year, AFP indicated that it was open to supporting Democrats, so long as those Democrats were the kind that would keep the party from going in the direction of Elizabeth Warren and the Green New Deal. But in the pursuit of their own interests—in serving their own greed—they’d created a Frankenstein’s monster they couldn’t control.

They’d grown Koch Industries, a company they’d inherited from their father—an original member of the John Birch Society who admired Benito Mussolini and thought the civil rights movement was a communist plot—into the second-largest privately owned business in the country, with oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota, more than 4,000 miles of pipeline, and ownership of products ranging from Brawny paper towels to Stainmaster carpet, as The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer reported in her definitive 2010 profile. And they wanted the government out of their way. They’ve fought health-care reform, labor regulations, and anything else that got between them and a buck.

“The Kochs,” Meyer wrote, “are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”

The Kochs were one of the top air polluters in the country, according to a 2010 University of Massachusetts at Amherst study. More important, perhaps, they were the biggest funder of climate-change denial, surpassing even ExxonMobil.

For decades, Koch-funded groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have tried to pour cold water on the consensus that the world is dangerously warming, and humans are to blame. With the Kochs’ millions behind them, these organizations fostered skepticism about scientists involved in climate research, claimed that the science is inconclusive, and—as David Koch told Meyer in 2010—argued that even if the planet is getting hotter, it will ultimately be beneficial.

This was simple avarice dressed up as ideology, of course—regardless of whether David Koch ever admitted that to himself. Accepting the reality of anthropomorphic climate change and its destructive consequences would mean weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which would make the Kochs’ oil empire less profitable.  

The last full month David Koch lived to see, July 2019, was the hottest ever recorded on Earth. The day he died, the Amazon rainforest was burning at an unprecedented rate, as the right-wing Brazilian government allowed loggers, farmers and cattle interests to slash and burn a region that produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen and is vital to combating climate change. Three days after he died, the president he inadvertently helped install skipped a meeting of world leaders on climate change at the G7 summit in Paris. Three decades after he died, experts have warned, 55 percent of the global population could live in areas that experience more than 20 days of lethal heat a year; 1 billion people will have been displaced from their homes; 2 billion people will lack access to water; and droughts and severe flooding will have become the norm.

David Koch was worth $42.4 billion.

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The week after Donald Trump launched his racist attack on U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, which came on the heels of his racist attacks on four nonwhite Democratic members of Congress, my hometown paper gave its resident MAGA apologist, J. Peder Zane, ink to argue that the president and his Republican Party are not, in fact, racist, but rather the victims of a “false narrative” painted by Democrats, who are the real racists.

While Trump may have been “insensitive” in calling a mostly black congressional district with a median income above the national average “a disgusting rat- and rodent-infested mess,” Zane tells us, a “fair-minded person, while hoping that the president would be more precise, should see that he is not a racist.”

Four days later, a Trump-loving white-nationalist murdered 22 people in an El Paso Walmart after posting a manifesto explaining—in language that uncannily mirrored Trump’s immigration rhetoric—he was fighting an ”invasion.”

Funny how the racists think Trump is one of them.

Lots of papers have hacks like Zane, men (always men) who crib their sophomoric understanding of U.S. history from low-rent hucksters like Dinesh D’Souza and regurgitate the outrage du jour from the Fox News/talk-radio set. These columns tend to land somewhere between intellectually vapid and irresponsibly dishonest; papers publish them as a fig leaf to the MAGA crowd, an effort to assure them that they’re not part of the Liberal Media.

Like most, Zane is rarely worth rebutting. Here, however, he’s recycling an argument common among Trump acolytes, which in light of El Paso warrants scrutiny. His point is this: Republicans should ignore Democrats/liberals/the media when they say Trump is racist, because Democrats/liberals/the media always say Republicans are racist.

As Zane puts it: “Before Trump, Democrats leveled the same despicable smear against Mitt Romney—Vice President Joe Biden warned African-Americans that Romney ‘would put y’all back in chains!’” (Not to be pedantic, but Biden said Romney’s policies would allow big banks to do so.) Before that, Zane continues, they called John McCain racist, and George W. Bush racist, “and so it goes with most every Republican back to Richard Nixon.”

Quick history: Whatever Nixon’s personal feelings were (he really didn’t like Jews, FYI), beginning with his 1968 campaign, racial appeals became central to GOP politics. See, for instance, Republican operative Lee Atwater’s infamous quote: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.’”

Ronald Reagan denounced mythical welfare queens. George H.W. Bush ran the Willie Horton ad. George W. Bush’s campaign smeared John McCain with rumors about his adopted black child. McCain elevated Sarah Palin to the national stage, where she accused the first black major-party presidential nominee of “pallin’ around with terrorists.” Romney kissed Donald Trump’s ring while Trump was pushing the racist birther effort. Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and pledging to ban Muslims.

What Zane doesn’t consider is that GOP leaders have been accused of racism because they’ve employed racism to win votes. Trump has been accused of racism more frequently because he says and does overtly racist things more frequently.

Indeed, Trump’s entire political career has been built on racial demagoguery—and studies suggest that he owes his victory in 2016 in part to his voters’ racial attitudes. But for his supporters to admit that would mean admitting an uncomfortable truth about themselves. So instead, they define the R-word so narrowly as to render it meaningless.

Truth be told, however, I’m less interested in what the J. Peder Zanes of the world tell themselves about Donald Trump’s racism than in the effects their denial has on the rest of us. It’s no surprise, for instance, that Republicans don’t want to talk about guns after El Paso. More unnerving has been their widespread reluctance to acknowledge the crisis of the increasingly violent white-supremacist movement in the Trump era.

As a former FBI supervisor who oversaw terrorism cases told The Washington Post: “I think in many ways, the FBI is hamstrung in trying to investigate the white-supremacist movement like the old FBI would. There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base.”

If we can’t even address white terrorism with offending Trump’s supporters, how can we possibly begin to address complex, systemic issues of racial and social justice: wealth gaps, education gaps, opportunity gaps, affordability crises, etc.?

The thing about Trump is that he says the quiet parts loud—often through a megaphone. He’s fundamentally incapable of hiding who he is. And that makes the choice ahead of us crystal clear: Between now and Election Day, we as a country will have to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about who we are—and who we’re going to be.

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Editor’s Note: Informed Dissent is a column, by alternative newsmedia veteran Jeffrey C. Billman, that explores the age of Trump, mixing political and historical insights with biting, unapologetic commentary. It will appear a couple of times per month at CVIndependent.com.

By my count, Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees last Wednesday, July 24, produced six significant headlines.

He confirmed that he had not exonerated President Trump. He said that Trump asked his staff to falsify records. He suggested there were “currently” FBI investigations into whether people in Trump’s orbit were compromised. He agreed that Trump’s written answers to his questions were not “always truthful.” He admitted (more or less) that Trump had met the three elements of obstruction of justice. And, though he tried to walk it back, he let it slip that, had Department of Justice policy not prohibited him from doing so, he would have indicted Donald Trump.

But this being Washington, D.C., those six headlines were muddled in the kind of second-rate political theater only Congress can deliver: backbenchers desperate for a moment in the spotlight; Democrats eager for the kill; Republicans slobbering for the president’s affection; and, most significantly, a halting, underwhelming and reluctant star witness.

The Beltway media mainly judged it on those terms—the spectacle. For a prime example of the genre, see NBC’s Chuck Todd, who offered this trenchant analysis on Twitter: “On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the (DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel) guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster.”

It says a lot about this moment—about the failures of the media, about the perils of polarization, about the frailty of our democratic norms—that a special counsel could tell Congress under oath that the president had committed crimes, but, because of the 74-year-old’s lack of verve, this is considered a win for the president. But it also speaks to how thoroughly Democrats have botched this whole affair.

This spectacle, after all, was unnecessary. Mueller had already said what he needed to say. He’d laid out a report—448 pages—that all but begged Congress to do what he could not: Hold Donald Trump accountable.

After the Mueller report became public, House Democrats should have started impeachment hearings, even though there was no chance the Senate would convict Trump, and even though such a course could prove politically treacherous. It was their constitutional obligation.

They’ve obviously not done so. Speaker Nancy Pelosi—though she talks of “crimes that were committed against our Constitution” and Trump’s “existential threat to our democracy”—wants to go slow, waiting until they have the “strongest possible hand.” She’s deemed impeachment too risky, especially for her caucus’ freshmen, many of whom come from moderate suburban districts. She’s also worried that voters don’t understand how impeachment works, and that the base will ultimately be disappointed when the Senate shrugs aside the House’s indictment, and Trump declares vindication.

These aren’t unreasonable arguments. But they miss the point.

It’s the same point missed by those who caution against focusing on Trump’s racism. Talking about his attacks on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, or his border concentration camps, or his embrace of white nationalists, they say, could detract from “kitchen table” issues that matter to voters—health care, the environment, education, jobs.

To the degree it matters, Democrats should, of course, offer an agenda. But the dirty secret of American elections is that big policy proposals don’t matter all that much. In our polarized electorate, people are more motivated to vote against the other side than for their own. The 2018 blue wave, for instance, didn’t happen because suburbanites fell in love with Democrats’ plans; rather, they were fed up with Trump’s antics, pissed off that the GOP tried to gut the Affordable Care Act, and desiring some adult supervision in Washington.

Another thing: If you’re closely attuned to policy decisions, you probably see an administration that stumbles between dangerously inept and actively malevolent on most issues. If you’re not, however—and most people aren’t—you see an economy doing pretty well. And for any other president, absent a recession in the next year, that would probably be enough to win re-election.

But Donald Trump isn’t any other president. He’s not a normal president. And treating him like one could prove self-defeating.

Consider this: On the one hand, Democrats are telling Americans that Trump is, in Pelosi’s words, an “existential threat to our democracy”—a corrupt, racist liar who has obstructed justice, violated campaign finance laws and welcomed foreign interference into elections. He’s defying congressional subpoenas. And he might be a sexual predator.

On the other hand, they’re not going to do anything about it—at least not yet. Eventually, perhaps.

How does that not signal that this is all a game? This is the worst kind of mixed messaging, the kind that muddies any sense of moral clarity. And it’s the kind that could give Trump a second term.

Of course, Donald Trump shouldn’t be impeached because it’s good politics. Donald Trump should be impeached because he is uniquely unfit to be president; because he’s a criminal; because impeaching him is the right thing to do.

If Trump truly poses a threat to our democracy, should we be talking about anything else?

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