Our Colonial Empire

It may seem anachronistic, and it should be a source of some embarrassment, but the United States is one of the few remaining colonial powers. We have colonies, which we euphemise as territories, in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Actually there are sixteen territories in total but these five are the only ones permanently inhabited. Those born in these territories, with the exception of American Samoa, are automatically American citizens, though they have very limited voting rights. For reasons I haven’t bothered to research, American Samoans are citizens of the U.S. only if one of their parents is a citizen, and even then they are accorded similarly restricted voting rights.

By and large these colonies are treated kindly, have substantial local rule and have warm relationships with us. Nevertheless, from time to time, there are efforts to alter their status, one way or another. Today marks one such effort.

For the fifth time our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico are voting on a status change. The options as usual are no change, independence or statehood. Any change requires Congressional approval. The odds this time, and for the first time ever, are that statehood will prevail because the opposition is mostly boycotting the plebiscite.

I don’t think its current status makes sense, is fair or is sustainable in the long-term. It was imposed by force. The residents are pseudo-citizens, i.e. they don’t participate in the election of our President and they pay no federal income taxes. The island’s economy is moribund. And from our viewpoint, we don’t get much out of this arrangement.

I would argue for independence, with a significant transition period to work out the details. Everyone benefits, but only after a fairly tricky adjustment period. Puerto Ricans now living in the U.S. have all the privileges and responsibilities of any citizen. Thus any change in status shouldn’t affect them, though I suppose they might be accorded the option of which country to join.

The problem is that there is no way Congress would approve either change of status for Puerto Rico. It isn’t clear why independence seems to be off the table, but statehood would be anathema for Republicans. That is because the residents are deemed “people of color”, which most Republicans view as synonymous with Democrat. Two new Democratic Senators? Not a chance! Polls have shown that mainland citizens favor statehood for Puerto Rico over statehood for the District of Columbia, which tells you a lot about both of their prospects.

When this issue does get serious consideration, and I believe that is inevitable, the status of the other territories should also be regularized. There is a precedent for independence. The Philippines were acquired as a territory in the same way that Puerto Rico was, as the spoils of the Spanish-American War, and they now flourish as an independent country. If statehood becomes feasible, one option that has been suggested is for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to combine as a Caribbean state. And it has already been proposed that the Pacific territories become a part of Hawaii. Larger states are more economically viable although geographical separation presents unique problems.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” said Alice

During the widely viewed Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Thursday, James Comey made what appeared at the time to be an off-hand remark. Amid the various blockbusters, it received little attention at first. But now, some commentators are beginning to rethink their evaluation.

Before discussing this remark, a little background is needed. It is now fairly well established that Russian hackers attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, mostly in a fairly effective effort to derail Hillary Clinton’s campaign. There remains dispute about whether Putin’s fingerprints are on these intrusions, although glimmers of fire among all the smoke are evident. He certainly has the motivation, given his known fury at Hillary for what he saw as interference in his last election. Moreover there is a well-documented history of similar activities by the Russian intelligence services groups known as APT 28 and APT 29. Hopefully the investigations by newly appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller will uncover the truth one way or the other.

Putin has been characteristically enigmatic when questioned about this matter. He has alternatively denied it outright, suggested that patriotic private Russian citizens might be involved, and most recently alluded to possible involvement of U.S. hackers. His implication was that poor old innocent Vladimir is being framed! All of this smacks of typical Russian disinformation, though it shouldn’t be construed as a confession.

And now to Comey’s remark. He said that it was vital for Robert Mueller to look into possible U.S. involvement in the Russian interference, but he added that he couldn’t say more in an unclassified setting. Most listeners took that to be a reference to members of the Trump campaign team, but perhaps it also included possible collusion by U.S. hackers too. What motivation they might have to assist Putin is unclear, other than just generally spreading havoc.

When Lewis Carroll’s Alice exclaimed “Curiouser and Curiouser!”, she was remarking upon her strange changes in height. I think the slowly unfolding circumstances around the last election has some similar aspects. Now if we can only find the cookies and, more importantly, who brought them to the party.

Limitations of Presidential Power

Yesterday, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz appeared in a panel on CNN arguing a point that caused other participants to turn red with anger. I think I saw smoke coming out of their ears. His argument was that no President can be legally accused of obstructing justice as long as he is exercising his constitutional authority. And remember, the breadth of that authority is immense. But pay attention to the modifier “legally”. There is a big difference between what is legal and defensible in a court of law and what is morally right and defensible in the court of public opinion.

 

According to Prof. Dershowitz, Trump can summarily fire anyone in the executive branch, except the Vice President and employees protected by civil service regulations. He can do this for any reason or indeed for no particular reason. He can order the Justice Department or the FBI to terminate any investigation, criminal or not, regardless of who is the subject. The so-called independence of the Justice Department is custom, not law. He can pardon anyone, before or after their conviction. He can even pardon himself, though not where an impeachment is involved. No one can gainsay any of these decisions. They are not reviewable by any court or by Congress. Moreover, the President is totally immune from civil liability for any of his official acts, though impeachment can remove this protection.

This pokes a gaping hole in most of the overheated rhetoric by his Democratic opponents. There is nothing currently in the public domain that would indicate legal jeopardy for President Trump. But these are early days and the establishment of a special counsel is ominous. And of course there are limits to Presidential immunity. The President cannot commit criminal acts, destroy evidence in a case under investigation, lie under oath or suborn perjury. He must submit materials demanded under subpoena by a legal authority. But he can quite legally halt any federal case in its tracks and raise his middle finger to his opponents.

This may appear to transform the President into a virtual dictator, but there are two resources available to restrain him. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution provides for involuntary removal by impeachment. The legal basis for impeachment is whatever Congress says it is. So it can consist of ordinary criminal activity or such indefinable offenses as “failure to execute authority” or “unbecoming conduct.” Essentially Congress can simply use this authority to say, “Begone, scoundrel! We have no further use for you.” This isn’t easy, requiring a two-thirds super-majority of the Senate. There have been four serious attempts to remove a President in this manner and all failed, though Nixon did leave voluntarily when the outcome was inevitable.

The second resource arises from the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The President can exercise rights under this amendment to relinquish his office voluntarily whenever he feels unable to fulfill his responsibilities. This is a temporary measure until such time as he issues a revocation. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush employed this mechanism when they required temporary hospitalization. No President under assault by political opponents would be likely to use it. But there is another part of this amendment that permits either a majority of his cabinet or even some ad hoc group established by Congress to force a President to give up his powers, presumably though not necessarily due to disability. This might be called the Fruitcake Provision, and it seems germane to at least some of Trump’s more imaginative opponents. It has never been tried and it is unclear whether any such attempt would survive judicial review.

This is our system, as explained by one of the country’s foremost constitutional scholars. So, TV commentators, self-appointed legal experts and the like can fuss and fume but that changes reality not one whit. I don’t much like this aspect myself but I can’t conceive an alternative that wouldn’t be subject to its own serious drawbacks.

Trump and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Donald Trump is driving almost everyone crazy, even some of his supporters. The media are rife with pop psychology purporting to explain his odd behavior, outrageous tweets, and conflicting statements. It varies from deep conspiracy theories to pure psychobabble, even by observers who one might expect to know better.

But now I believe that some academics have hit on the real answer. Trump’s actions and thoughts are clearly a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This describes a syndrome in which people who are the least competent at a task rate their skills as exceptionally high because they are too ignorant to know what it means to have the skill.

Not only do sufferers of this disability fail, they don’t even learn from their mistakes. Their misplaced confidence causes them to attribute all failures to others. It is always either incompetent associates or a vast array of enemies who are responsible. Think about it. Listen to Trump the next time he stumbles or misjudges the problems every President faces.

Conservative columnist George Will expressed it succinctly and devastatingly. He wrote that Trump suffers a dangerous disorder not only because he is ignorant and is unaware of his ignorance, but also because “he doesn’t even know what it means to know something.

Trump has very little understanding of the real job of President of the United States, and he is blissfully unaware of this deficiency. He thinks that this is a management position where someone leads the country toward greater prosperity and happiness. This isn’t wrong but it is startlingly superficial. In truth, this is a highly complex job requiring specialized knowledge and skills, in many respects like the job of a physician.

Like a doctor, a President must accurately diagnose problems and prescribe cures. He must recognize when an issue exceeds his expertise and training, seeking appropriate experts to bring about a resolution. He must establish rapport to guide those he serves toward accepting and implementing his remedies. Often he must work effectively as a team member. Most importantly, he must study intensively to acquire constantly evolving knowledge.

Does any of this make you think of Donald Trump and his approach to the crucial office he holds? Face it, Trump is not a real President. As the saying goes, “He just plays one on TV.

“I thought it would be easier!”

Last Thursday, Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview, “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.

Easier? Is it really surprising that being President of the preeminent world power, with the lives of millions or billions at stake, is a bit harder than being the host of “The Apprentice”? True, he is evidently a successful businessman by the usual standard of amassing wealth, but what exactly has this to do with making hard political decisions? So far the connection seems tenuous. In terms of results, the first hundred days of his Presidency are hardly promising. And listening to him bloviate, cast aspersions hither and yon, and invent facts that align with his untutored understanding is beginning to get old.

His supporters seem to be holding fast to their man, but I can’t help thinking that this is due in part to the fact the confessing their mistake would be just too embarrassing. No one likes to be seen as a dupe. One fallback for some is that it was better than the alternative. And I confess a little sympathy for this excuse. I didn’t vote for this fool, but I also couldn’t stomach “crooked Hillary”. And having voted for neither – a first in my entire life – I grant that I have weak grounds to complain one way or the other.

President Trump – can this actually be true? – is a shallow man. By his own statement, he rarely reads books, and it is evident that the few he manages don’t include American history. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but this only confirms what my fellow students at a real Ivy League school on the Charles River suspected about Ben Franklin’s academic offspring.

We will survive all this. Hard as it may be to believe, we have had Presidents before who were even worse, though none as ill-prepared by my calculation. One glimmer of hope is that he sometimes seems to learn from mistakes, and a few in his political entourage are adults.

This is really all I have to say at this point. I am just venting.

Trump’s Term of Office

I have long believed that there is a real possibility that President Trump won’t complete his current term of office. My thought is that he will leave of his own accord, although there are clearly wild-card events that might cause this to happen involuntarily. Regardless of these hypotheticals, he almost certainly won’t run again in 2020.

The President just gave some very revealing interviews as part of his 100-day status review. In particular he told two separate interviewers that he really misses his old life, that he loved it and that it was far easier than his current job. Possibly other Presidents had similar thoughts from time to time, but few had such a different life to recall. For most of them, unlike Trump, being President was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort. Only Eisenhower comes to mind for whom this clearly wasn’t so, although a few Vice-Presidents who assumed office unexpectedly also were ambivalent about their new circumstances. Andrew Johnson and Harry Truman are good examples.

Trump is clearly not an introspective person but it will slowly seep in that this might be how he spends the rest of his life. And increasingly, he won’t like that prospect. He appears to be vigorous and active but he will shortly be 71 years old, an age when most of us look toward a life of more leisure than hard work. That is not how anyone would describe the Presidency even in the best of times.

His problem will be how to extricate himself without dishonor. Reportedly, the consequential pain and dismay of associates who have tied their future to his would not be much of a deterrent. On occasion, he has been ruthless in severing professional relationships that no longer serve his purpose. Governor Christie is a prime example. Moreover his family would no doubt be delighted, assuming that he doesn’t come across as weak or cowardly on leaving office voluntarily. The trick will be to find a plausible excuse. A medical reason would be the obvious one, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards unless a pure subterfuge is undertaken.

Of course I am not alone in this speculation about the President’s future. Odds makers in the United Kingdom have long had a betting proposition on this topic that has attracted many punters. Actually their hard-headed assessment of the likelihood of Trump completing his current term has slightly improved in recent weeks, but the odds are still only a bit over 50%. And the improvement relates mostly to receding chances of impeachment rather than other personal or programmatic factors.

The Senatorial Comedy Show

Today the Senate is considering the nomination of Rod Rosenstein for Deputy Attorney General of the United States. Ordinarily this would be a low-key process. However, due to Attorney General Sessions’ recusal, Rosenstein will be in charge of the investigation of Russian election tampering. So the gloves are off. Democrats smell blood. Here is a brief snippet from the Judiciary Committee meeting. It isn’t verbatim but it’s close.

Sen. Feinstein: “Do you agree that this issue is important enough to require a Special Counsel?

Rosenstein: “All I know about this matter is what I read in the newspapers, but if I am confirmed I will give the matter an independent review.

Sen. Feinstein (obviously annoyed): “Well this is important. I want you to review the relevant transcripts so that you can answer this question.

Rosenstein (after awkward pause): “Senator, I am presently the U.S. District Attorney for Maryland. I don’t have access to these materials, nor do I have the necessary security clearances to read them.

Sen. Feinstein: “Oops.

And it went downhill from there.